Posts Tagged aviation

Stellar border patrol

Space FenceThose who want to build a border fence to keep out illegal immigrants will be happy to know that America already has a space fence.

It’s not for keeping out Klingons, though. Officially known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, it’s used for keeping track of objects in or near Earth’s orbit.

Three transmitting stations in Alabama, Arizona, and Texas emit radio waves into space, which bounce off objects and are received by six stations in Arkansas, California, Georgia (two stations), Mississippi, and New Mexico.

The Space Fence network extends east to west across the 33rd parallel, detecting any object that passes over. The receiving stations are reportedly sensitive enough to track an object the size of a basketball orbiting 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Those objects include satellites and space junk. More than 10,500 individual objects are tracked.

Having massive radio arrays spread out across the United States, and calling that series a contraptions a Space Fence, seems ripe for conspiracy theory. While the Fence doesn’t track border-jumping aliens, it does do important work.

Objects in space move very fast (about 17,000 mph in Earth orbit), which makes them dangerous. The Fence can warn the International Space Station if a piece of debris gets too close, or help track a deda satellite as it falls out of orbit, plotting where it will crash.

There’s also an intelligence component to the mission: the Space Fence can detect when a spy satellite passes over the U.S., and it can calculate an object’s country of origin from its launch trajectory. Just think of what the NSA could do with it.

The Space Fence was originally run by the Navy, but it’s now administered by the Air Force’s 20th Space Control Squadron (yes, there really is such a thing). The squadron is at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, while the data from the Fence is analyzed at the Alternate Space Control Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.

So in a time when it seems like the government can’t do anything right, the Air Force’s space traffic controllers are monitoring thousands of objects zipping around thousands of miles above our heads.

At least for now they are. The Air Force is planning to shut down the Space Fence,which will reportedly save $14 million a year. The Air Force hopes to replace it with a more accurate system.

Hopefully the INS will be able to keep border-hopping aliens out of the country in the meantime.

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Printed narratives

Cube Colors 034What do this month’s issues of Car & Driver and Popular Science have in common? 3D printing.

There’s something about the summer that causes magazine editors to compile lists of future technologies that are poised to change… something. The Car & Driver cover story  for August features “The Tech 50” for cars, while Popular Science is probing the future of flight in their July issue (both are on newsstands now).

Both the automotive and aviation industries, it seems, could benefit from 3D printing. “Printed Cars” was number six on C&D’s list of paradigm-shifting tech.

Jim Kor, leader of the Urbee printed car project, told the magazine that 3D printing is a superior manufacturing process because it requires less energy, produces less waste, and doesn’t require time-consuming retooling when changes to the design have to be made.

Popular Science was also impressed by a 3D printer’s lack of tooling, noting that aircraft manufacturers already use it to rapidly produce prototype parts.

It seems that 3D printing’s time has come, at least in the media. While there aren’t any cars in production with printed parts, and only a few small items on the spanking-new Boeing 787, the technology seems to have a bright future.

There have been glorious predictions of 3D printers for the price of a cheap ink jet in the tech press for awhile, but now journalists from other beats are developing applications for it. Time to take notice.

Maybe it’s my cynical 21st century media consumer nature taking over, but it seems like every time someone wants to write about the “future” of an industry, they are obligated to mention the hottest new piece of tech.

Whether its phone connectivity or data management, the technologies of centuries past are increasingly expected to absorb new “tech” to stay relevant.

There’s nothing insidious about this, and I have to say I really do like 3D printing. It’s got a whiff of Marxism to it, giving individuals a small chunk of the means of production. It’s theoretical march from startup office to heavy industry is very predictable, though.

Like other aspects of the tech-o-sphere, 3D printing is a very cool, genuinely new technology that hasn’t really found a purpose yet. Hence the endless possibilities being suggested.

If I were allowed to make a prediction of my own, I’d say that these magazine articles will become self-fulfilling prophecies. People will eventually find an ideal use for 3D printing, just as they did for the Internet, and the rest of the world will be subtly warped to maximize that use.

Technologies can become widespread not just because they are useful, but because people want to find uses for them. Will 3D printing follow that trend?

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Five things that probably shouldn’t be nuclear powered

Once upon a time, people thought the atom was the key to the future. It may have just been the ultimate threat to human existence at the time, but Cold War engineers thought nuclear power had plenty of utility as well.

Using a small chunk of metal to power a city for decades seems like a good deal, as long as you don’t consider radiation and the occasional bout of China Syndrome. Before people started thinking about those little foibles, they came up with some pretty creative uses for nuclear power.

Ford NucleonCars

A functioning nuclear-powered car was never actually built, but Ford toyed with the idea. The company’s 1958 Nucleon concept was a 3/8 scale model intended to show what a production atomic car could look like.

The Nucleon had the cab-forward look of the Dodge Deora (of Hot Wheels fame), but instead of a pickup bed for storing surfboards, it had a rear-mounted nuclear reactor. While it would have made an interesting rival for the Porsche 911, it’s probably best that the Nucleon never made it to production.

Convair NB-36HAirplanes

During the 1950s, ships took their place in the triad of strategic defense thanks to nuclear power, so it’s not surprising that the American and Soviet air forces wanted to extend that success to their strategic bombers.

Strategic bombers patrolled enemy airspace in anticipation of a nuclear strike, a la Dr. Strangelove. A bomber with the unlimited range of a nuclear submarine would definitely have been an asset.

While a nuclear reactor never powered a plane, both Cold War rivals sent them aloft in conventional aircraft to see if they and their heavy shielding could be lifted. The Americans built the Convair NB-36H, a variant of the B-36 Peacemaker, and the Soviets converted a TU-95 into the TU-95LAL.

General Electric also built a prototype reactor in Idaho for the follow-up to the NB-36H, the X-6, but thankfully it proved unnecessary. Advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) eventually negated the need for a long range nuclear-powered bomber.

Atomic airship illustrationAirships

If a nuclear wing aircraft couldn’t work, what about one with the Hindenburg’s propensity for spontaneous combustion? The airship was out of vogue by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons from proposing an atomic version as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

The Navy reasoned that an airship’s low power requirements would allow it to use a lighter reactor, and that it serve as a “flying aircraft carrier,” defending itself with its own fighter planes.

An even more ambitious proposal appeared in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated article. Author Frank Tinsley envisioned an airship 1,000 feet in length (nearly twice the length of the Hindenburg) that could be used to publicize the Atoms for Peace program.

Ike ended up building the nuclear cargo ship Savannah instead, and that’s probably for the better. Given large airships’ inability to stay aloft (the entire U.S. airship fleet of the 1930s was lost in crashes), it’s probably best that one didn’t take to the skies with a nuclear reactor on board.

Russian nuclear lighthouseLighthouses

Before GPS, lighthouses were all that kept mariners from crashing into rocky shorelines and underwater obstacles. To keep the lights on, keepers needed to make sure there was plenty of fuel or electricity at the lighthouses’ remote locations.

That must have seemed like too much of a hassle to the Russians, who built a few lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the same type of generator that powers the Curiosity Mars rover.

Unlike nuclear reactors, RTGs rely solely on the energetic decay of a piece of radioactive material. As the material decays, it emits energy that is converted into electricity.

A box of plutonium might generate plenty of power for an otherwise inaccessible structure, but is it really a good idea to leave said plutonium unsupervised?

Project Pluto SLAMDrones

If you think the all-seeing Predator drone is scary, wait ‘til you meet “Project Pluto.” An atomic nightmare, it was a pilotless nuclear powered cruise missile that could launch its own nuclear weapons.

Known as a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), Project Pluto’s mission profile exemplifies Cold War desperation. The reactor powered a ramjet, heating air fed into the craft as it moved and expanding it to produce thrust. this would have allowed a Pluto missile to travel at speeds up to Mach 3 and stay airborne for months at a time, allowing it to deliver a payload of hydrogen bombs to multiple targets.

It gets better though: Pluto’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spread radiation as it traveled along, making it pretty dangerous to the country that launched it. Developers believed low altitude supersonic shockwaves could also be dangerous to bystanders, but that didn’t stop them from testing a prototype nuclear ramjet engine in 1961.

In his memoir, Silent War, Navy special projects director John Craven recalls hoping that a defect would be found in the engine, shelving Project Pluto. To his (and my) relief, the military eventually gave up on its atomic death machine.

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History, uranium particles and all

Manhattan Project Trinity testAccording to a recent NPR piece, certain parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory are on their way to becoming a National Park. In case you slept through high school history, Los Alamos was the key site of the Manhattan Project; the park would include the building where the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was assembled.

Obviously, Manhattan Project National Park could generate controversy, and where there’s controversy, there’s Congress. The bill to create the park was shot down in the House of Representatives in September.

“We’re talking about the devastation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — hundreds of thousands killed, $10 trillion Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which today threaten the existence of the world — and this is something we should celebrate?” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said at the time.

Kucinich may have (gloriously) tried to impeach President George W. Bush, but this time he’s not seeing the big picture. Aside from the obvious logistical issues inherent in opening a former nuclear test, and current weapons lab, to the public, Los Alamos would be an incredibly valuable educational tool.

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II were the most destructive weapons ever unleashed by humankind, and constant recognition of that fact is what has kept the United States and other countries from using them again.

Seventy-one years after Pearl Harbor, Americans still remember World War II with reverence and respect for the people who fought and died. Ignoring how it ended because it might not make the country look good would be a bit silly.

The bombs may have killed thousands of people and started the Cold War, but they are still a part of our history. So while we shouldn’t celebrate the deaths of our former enemies, we should acknowledge them.

If it is true to the story of the Manhattan Project, this park should do just that. It won’t depict mad scientists gleefully working on a weapon of mass destruction, but the most brilliant minds of a generation trying to end a war while expanding humanity’s scientific knowledge, and knowing exactly what they were doing.

This is the kind of thing that sounds like a political or moral issue only if you don’t think about it. American national parks commemorate the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and expose the exploitation of slaves and sweatshop workers.

In fact, there are already publicly-funded museums that already discuss the atomic bomb. The United States Miliatry Academy’s museum includes a replica “Fat Man” bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki. Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is one display at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

History isn’t pretty, and sanitizing it won’t change that. Atomic weapons killed many people, but they were the weapons that ended the Second World War. Trying to teach people about those events has nothing to do with glorifying them, it’s just an acknowledgment of the truth.

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