Weekly News Highlights
This was a rich news week and I plan to cover 1) the winter storms that brutalized many parts of the US, 2) The successful landing of Perseverance on Mars, and 3) how the space program is progressing under the new administration.
Winter Storms 2021
The last two weeks we have had severe winter weather over large parts of the continental US.
A big Polar Vortex came down when the jet stream shifted, and we got ice and snow over parts of the US that don’t regularly get lots of ice and sub-zero temperatures. Interestingly enough we have friends in Alaska who haven’t seen snow yet this year. This caused all kinds of damage over a wide area, but the media has focused on the long-term lack of power and water in Texas.
This situation was bad, and dozens of people died. Now the media is looking for someone to throw under the bus. What does the data say? Figure 1 below is a plot of the hourly ERCOT power generation share over the last month. ERCOT is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and manages the electric utilities. As you can see Wind and Solar power virtually disappeared during the cold snap and natural gas plants tried mightily to make up the difference.
Figure 1 – Power Source Generation over the last 30 days in Texas
Unfortunately, ERCOT was not prepared for sub-zero weather and failures occurred across the board. Solar failed when snow and ice covered the solar panels. The wind-turbines iced up and quit turning. A key nuclear power-plant on the gulf had frozen water pipes and had to shut down, and the natural gas usage increased so much the pipeline pressure fell low enough in some areas that the natural gas turbines had to shut down. The powers that be are trying to blame this on global warming but is really caused by lack of preparedness. We got a once in a hundred-year pandemic followed by a one in a hundred-year polar vortex. Water lines froze all over Texas and in many areas, no power, no water. Next time maybe we can be prepared. Already plans are being formulated to store more natural gas at key sites and add emergency heaters to key components. Next time we’ll do better, I promise.
Perseverance Lands on Mars
As a card-carrying Space Cadet, I watched the JPL control room on NASA TV during the landing. It is hard for them to act cool when they know it either crashed or landed successfully 18 minutes ago and you are waiting to find out. I thought the heartbeat tone was a cool way to lessen the tension. The best picture so far shows the lander still suspended below the rocket carrier several hundred feet in the air and is included as figure 2 below.
Figure 2 – Perseverance Lander above Mars Surface
The rover has a full mission kit including seven primary payload instruments, 19 cameras, and two microphones. The rover is carrying the mini helicopter Ingenuity, which is a clever battery-operated, special-purpose helicopter designed for autonomous operation on another planet. It must autonomously identify its next safe landing zone within its flight radius as it moves out with its parent rover. As an old aircraft designer, I really look forward to these helicopter operations.
The Perseverance rover has four science objectives that support the Mars Exploration Program’s science goals:[
1. Looking for habitability: identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
2. Seeking biosignatures: seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in specific rock types known to preserve signs over time.
3. Caching samples: collect core rock and regolith (soil") samples and store them in specially designed containers on the Martian Surface.
4. Preparing for humans: test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.
I look forward to many future announcements and film clips from the Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity mini helicopter.
Bidens Space Program
I remain pleasantly surprised as President Biden displays a moon rock in the Oval Office and appears to be supporting the Artemis Program to land the first woman on the moon. That is not a popular position with many progressives in his party, especially in light of the current pandemic and the future threat of Global Warming. My position on these issues is that the pandemic will be largely behind us by May (in the US, given the current vaccination rates, we will be at herd immunity conditions) and that Global Warming is a long-term problem and solutions can only proceed at the pace in which we replace worn out vehicles and powerplants. Hence, there are reasons to support the space program and encourage STEM education in the short term.
I believe we are approaching a national consensus to return to the moon and on to Mars, but the current funding won’t support a lunar landing in 2024. I see a potential joint NASA/international/private contractor funded effort collimating with a lunar landing in 2028-29 and a Mars landing about ten years later.
Thanks for reading.