Monday, August 18, 2008

“Pit Stop”: a new way to return from space

Genesis crash
The crash landing of NASA’s Genesis capsule in 2004 points out some of the problems of active descent and landing systems. (credit: NASA)

This article proposes an unusual way to land objects from orbit and probes returning from deep space. I won’t dwell on details best left for future study, but will suggest enough possibilities to encourage more study of the concept. The use of airbags to help spacecraft land on Mars is a recent example of just how important it is to consider unconventional recovery options like the one described here.

The goal is to reduce or eliminate the usual weight penalty and reliability issues associated with parachutes, touchdown cushioning rockets, water flotation devices, and other complex paraphernalia normally required to softly land a space vehicle on the Earth. New concepts deserve a memorable name, so I call this recovery system “Pit Stop” for reasons that will soon be obvious.

In this scenario, reentry of the spacecraft would be conventional until it slows and descends in the atmosphere to an altitude of perhaps 15,000 meters. At that height the landing capsule might separate from the disposable heat shield, which then drops away. The heat shield could remain attached, but it might present extra thermal problems for the recovery facility on the ground. Aerodynamic control surfaces would then pitch the vehicle over into a vertical dive where it would reach a terminal velocity of perhaps 100 meters per second.

The goal is to reduce or eliminate the usual weight penalty and reliability issues associated with parachutes, touchdown cushioning rockets, water flotation devices, and other complex paraphernalia normally required to softly land a space vehicle on the Earth.

Signals from stationary Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitters on the ground near the landing site, in conjunction with the Orbital GPS system, would help direct the capsule’s final decent. Like a “smart bomb” the vehicle would aim for an exact spot on the earth’s surface. Ground-based vertical wind profilers would provide real-time meteorological updates for the guidance and control system. Other terminal guidance aids, for example LIDAR (light detection and ranging) or active laser tracking might also be used to achieve great accuracy.

In this “Pit Stop” concept, the landing capsule, carefully steered in its plunge to earth, would aim for the opening of a deep vertical shaft set into the ground. The capsule would dive into this hole while still falling at terminal velocity.

The recovery shaft would extend straight down into the earth for hundreds of meters and be closed off and pressure tight at its base. Detailed shaft shape and depth would affect the desired deceleration rate. For recovery of an object that could withstand high G-loads, the shaft might be only a few hundred meters deep. For a low G-load recovery, a shaft over a thousand meters deep would probably be required.

The landing capsule would fit loosely in the entrance of the pit, but clearance would tighten with depth. As the capsule descends, air would flow around the vehicle through the narrowing gap between it and the shaft wall. Appropriate vehicle shaping might encourage it to seek a stable position in the center of the shaft, but it’s also possible it might be pulled toward a wall by aerodynamic effects. Since scraping against the shaft wall is possible, abrasion could be addressed by coating the shaft with a film of water or other material. As the capsule descends, it would act as a piston, compressing the air in front of its direction of travel. It would slow down rapidly because the compressed air would behave like a soft, pneumatic spring.

Eventually the spacecraft would stop. In one scenario, as air escapes around its body, the vehicle would slowly sink down to the bottom of the pit and finally be stopped by a cushioning system. Airlocks at the bottom would open and a human recovery crew would gain access.

As the capsule speeds down the shaft, there is some possibility that the air compressed below might not escape fast enough to give the desired deceleration profile. If so the vehicle could stop and then bounce back upward, propelled by the compressed air, then halt, then descend again to a stop, then rise, then descend, etc., in a sequence of elevator –like up and down moves that slowly dampen out. One way to prevent rebound would be to contour the sides of the spacecraft so that air can vent by (or maybe even through) its body. Another way to avoid a pogo stick affect might be to arrange the primary shaft to nestle concentrically inside a larger outer tube. Vent holes or slots between the two shafts would release air from under the capsule at a controlled rate.

The best site for “Pit Stop” ground stations would be a place with no wind, but light or steady local winds could be compensated for by the vehicle’s terminal guidance. Daily upper atmospheric variables such as density, high altitude winds and irregular de-orbit burn characteristics all introduce uncertainty in the final reentry path. These unknowns could be addressed by installing several “Pit Stop” capture facilities spaced kilometers apart along the reentry ground track in the general landing area. The final choice of which receiving pit to use would be made when the capsule begins its atmospheric dive toward the ground.

The “Pit Stop” recovery scheme should work with a wide range of vehicles. When the system is proven to be reliable, it may be especially attractive for use with manned vehicles that pay a big weight penalty to achieve soft-landing capability. Shaft recovery provides pneumatic cushioning that’s inherently automatic and reliable. The vehicle guidance and control system must be absolutely trustworthy, but the directional precision needed for such control is demonstrated regularly in existing military applications.

When the system is proven to be reliable, it may be especially attractive for use with manned vehicles that pay a big weight penalty to achieve soft-landing capability.

Back in 2004 the parachute system failed on a Chinese reentry vehicle, yet the capsule remained basically intact after smashing through the roof of a house. In the same year, when the chutes on NASA’s Genesis capsule malfunctioned, that deep space probe hit the Utah desert traveling at almost 100 meters per second. Relatively soft soil kept the capsule from disintegrating and much of the payload was recovered. These two rare accidents show that it is possible for a spacecraft to survive after falling through the lower atmosphere with no retarding devices and striking the ground.

Thus, a totally successful soft landing is mostly a matter of controlling the final deceleration. It makes perfect sense to put equipment on the ground to do this rather than to carry heavy landing devices on the vehicle. An underground recovery system based on this “Pit Stop” concept could become routine when it’s appreciated that such a scheme would be simple, safe, and economical.

James C. McLane III worked as an engineer for over 20 years in NASA’s manned space program. An Associate Fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a licensed Professional Engineer in the State of Texas, his current job in the oil and gas industry allows him to view human space activities from a fresh perspective.

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Dark Matter is Missing From Cosmic Voids

Written by Nancy Atkinson

Cosmic voids really are devoid of matter. Astronomers have found that even the pervasive 'dark matter' which accounts for about 80% of the mass of the universe is not present in these voids, which are areas of vast emptiness in space that can be tens of millions of light-years across. "Astronomers have wondered for a quarter-century whether these voids were 'too big' or 'too empty' to be explained by gravity alone," said University of Chicago researcher Jeremy Tinker, who led the new study using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey II (SDSS-II). "Our analysis shows that the voids in these surveys are exactly as big and as empty as predicted by the 'standard' theory of the universe."

The largest 3-dimensional maps of the universe show that galaxies lie in filamentary superclusters interlaced by cosmic voids that contain few or no bright galaxies. Researchers using SDSS-II and the
Two-Degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey (2dFGRS) have concluded that these voids are also missing the "halos" of invisible dark matter that bright galaxies reside in.

A central element of the standard cosmological theory is cold dark matter, which exerts gravity but does not emit light. Dark matter is smoothly distributed in the early universe, but over time gravity pulls it into filaments and clumps and empties out the spaces between them. Galaxies form when hydrogen and helium gas falls into collapsed dark matter clumps, referred to as "halos," where it can form luminous stars.

But astronomers were not sure if the areas that are devoid of galaxies were also devoid of dark matter, or if the dark matter was there, but for some reason stars just didn't form in these voids.
The research team used bright galaxies to trace the structure of dark matter and compared it with computer simulations to predict the number and sizes of voids.
Princeton University graduate student Charlie Conroy measured the sizes of voids in the SDSS-II maps. "When we used galaxies brighter than the Milky Way to trace structure, the biggest empty voids we found were about 75 million light years across," said Conroy. "And the predictions from the simulations were bang-on."

The sizes of voids are ultimately set, Conroy explained, by the small variations in the primordial distribution of dark matter, and by the amount of time that gravity has had to grow these small variationsinto large structures.

The agreement between the simulations and the measurements holds for both red (old) and blue (new) galaxies, said Tinker. "Halos of a given mass seem to form similar galaxies, both in numbers of stars and in the ages of those stars, regardless of where the halos live."

Tinker presented his findings today at an international symposium in Chicago, titled "The Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Asteroids to Cosmology." A paper detailing the analysis will appear in the September 1 edition of The Astrophysical Journal, with the title "Void Statistics in Large Galaxy Redshift Surveys: Does Halo Occupation of Field Galaxies Depend on Environment?"

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10 Best Science Fiction Planets


Most planets featured in science fiction tend to be rather generic. These planets are usually convenient celestial bodies upon which to pitch a narrative tent for a few scenes before the plot moves on. Generic planets also tend to be one-note, reflecting some particular environment on Earth. You have your ice-worlds, desert worlds, lava worlds, jungle worlds, water worlds, city worlds, forest worlds (in particular, forests that look like those near the city of Vancouver), earthquake worlds, and so on.

But sometimes an author will create a world whose presence has a weight and ring of truth, a world that feels like it could happily go on existing on its own terms, with or without a protagonist or antagonist strolling around on its surface. Setting aside obviously artificial habitats like ring words or hollowed out asteroids, here are my top ten best science fiction planets, in chronological order:

  1. Solaris (1961): You may or may not have liked the films, but Stanislaw Lem’s conception of a world so utterly alien that it defies any genuine human comprehension still resonates.
  2. Dune (1965): Best Planet Ever. At first glance, it’s just one of those one-note desert worlds. But Frank Herbert created a complete ecosytem, deep geological history, and a complex native society to go with his sand-covered planet. Dune is no mere backdrop, it drives the plot of Herbert’s complex saga as inexorably as the law of gravity.
  3. Annares (1974): Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed featured two worlds, a more-or-less straightforward analog for cold-war era Earth, and the far more interesting Annares, where settlers established an anarcho-syndicate-based society in a bid to be free from authoritarian government. LeGuin created a believable society for Annares—including the unpleasant side effects (such as intellectual conservatism) of trying to create a human utopia.
  4. Mote Prime (1974): In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, this is the homeworld of the Moties, a species that, due to cosmic happenstance, has been bottled up in its solar system ever since it evolved. Mote Prime is planet which has become a palimpsest, mutely testifying to the endless cycles of technological development and collapse experienced by the trapped Moties.
  5. LV-426 (1979): The dread planet that featured briefly in Alien, and was the location for 1986’s Aliens. In both movies, LV-426 is perfectly portrayed as part of a cosmos utterly indifferent to human concerns, such as staying alive.
  6. Dagobah (1980): The Star Wars franchise is a planet-producing machine: Tatooine, Yavin IV, Alderan, Hoth, Endor, Coruscant, Naboo, etc, etc. But Dagobah sticks out for its organic messiness and claustrophobic atmosphere that stands in contrast to the typical open spaces that provide the large stages for the movies’ space opera.
  7. Lusitania (1986): The setting of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Lusitania is the exception that proves the rule—it is fascinating not because it is a rich world, but because its ecosystem has so little diversity, and the implications that has for the book’s characters.
  8. Red, Green and Blue Mars (1993-1996): Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy has become the standard against which all hard science fiction books about Mars are weighed. Beginning in the near future, with the founding of the first permanent outpost on the red planet, and continuing for two centuries as Mars is terraformed, Robinson’s Mars is a meticulously researched and believable fictional version of our solar system neighbor.
  9. P2 (2004): P2 is a world orbiting the nearby Barnard’s star, and it is settled by fantastically advanced exiles from the solar system in Wil McCarthy’s Lost in Transmission. Unfortunately, all their technology can’t make up for some basic deficiencies in the carrying capacity of the Barnard system, and what happens to P2 is reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but on a planetary scale.
  10. Nasqueron (2004): A gas giant, home of the maddeningly unconcerned Dwellers, and location of much of Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist. Nasqueron becomes not just the huge canvas the Banks requires for his sprawling tales, but also becomes an integral element in the plot, as the protagonist struggles to understand the Dwellers.
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NASA Has Its Closest Look at Geysers on Saturn Moon



An image of fissures along the surface of Enceladus, a frozen moon of Saturn, taken on Monday by the Cassini spacecraft. More Photos »

Exquisite close-ups of fissures on a tiny frozen moon of Saturn will provide the latest clues in solving the riddle of how a 310-mile-wide ice ball could possibly be shooting geysers of vapor and icy particles.

Since the discovery of the jets in 2005, the moon, Enceladus, has jumped to near the top of the list of potential places for life in the solar system. A warm spot near Enceladus’s south pole powers the jets and may also melt below-surface ice into water, a necessity for living organisms.

On Monday, the NASA spacecraft Cassini made its latest flyby of Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus), passing 30 miles above the moon’s surface at 64,000 miles per hour.

Despite the high speed, Cassini was able to take razor-sharp images that, at seven meters per pixel, offer a resolution 10 times greater than earlier views. Scientists can now clearly see the V-shaped walls of the fractures, which are nearly 1,000 feet deep. Team members likened the accomplishment to taking a photo of a roadside billboard using a telephoto lens held out the window of a speeding car.

“If there is one set of images from this mission that illustrates how skilled we have become as planetary explorers, this is it,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini’s imaging team. “They are the most astounding images of any planetary surface that our cameras have so far taken.”

The observations should help scientists understand how geological processes can persist on such a small body, which is being heated by tidal distortions induced by Saturn.

A series of long fissures known as tiger stripes scars Enceladus’s south polar region, and earlier observations allowed the Cassini scientists to triangulate the origin of the jets within the fissures and show that the warm spots coincide with them.

In a flyby in March, Cassini flew through the plume and detected organic molecules, the carbon-based molecules that could provide the building blocks for life. Cassini also detected water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The composition was surprisingly similar to that of a comet, scientists said.

At first glance, nothing in the landscape differentiates the active jet areas from other parts of the fissures. “We have a lot of interpretation to do,” Dr. Porco said. “The effects appear to be subtle.”

Comparison with other data taken during the flyby — like temperatures — should provide more clues.

The researchers see smooth areas on Enceladus that appear to be piles of ice particles that have fallen back to the surface. “Like snow,” Dr. Porco said. “We’re pretty sure we’re seeing that in these pictures.”

Paul Helfenstein, the team member who developed the technique for taking the high-speed, up-close pictures, said: “We can actually count boulders on the surface. We can look at details and distinguish fresh deposits.”

In the fall, Cassini is to make an even closer near-miss of Enceladus, passing within 15 miles of the moon’s surface.

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Phoenix Camera Snaps Frost on Mars

Written by Nancy Atkinson

It's getting a little nippy at night on Mars. The Phoenix lander's Surface Stereo Imager took this image at 6 a.m. on Sol 79 (August 14, 2008 here on Earth), and a thin layer of water frost is visible on the ground around the landing area. From subsequent images, the frost begins to disappear shortly after this image was taken as the sun rises on the Phoenix landing site.

The sun was about 22 degrees above the horizon when the image was taken, enhancing the detail of the polygons, troughs and rocks around the landing site.

This view is looking east southeast with the lander's eastern solar panel visible in the bottom lefthand corner of the image. The rock in the foreground is informally named "Quadlings" and the rock near center is informally called "Winkies."

This false color image has been enhanced to show color variations.

Earlier images taken in June, and put together here in sequence to form a movie, appears to show frost forming on Phoenix's own legs.

frost on Mars in a photograph taken by the Viking 2 lander on May 18, 1979. NASA/JPL

In other news, the Phoenix lander also announced on Twitter that it has opened another TEGA oven door in preparation for receiving another sample of Martian soil to "bake and sniff."

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Bad hair days may soon be over, say scientists

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

The first detailed analysis of what happens to individual hair fibres as they rub past each other when tresses are tossed has been conducted down to a billionth of a metre, showing how to make hair smooth to the touch.

Donald Trump experiencing a bad hair day
It is unclear whether the new analysis will also work on wigs

This nanoscale analysis is seen as the key to the next generation of shampoos, conditioners, and other products for repairing damaged, dry and lifeless hair.

The advanced presented today to one of the biggest gatherings of scientists on the planet, the American Chemical Society's national meeting in Philadelphia, could end frizzy perms, over-bleached waves and other mishaps that affect a global industry now worth some $60 billion annually.

"Given all the new hair treatments out there, there's a growing need to make hair feel more natural," says study co-author Eva Max, a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. She and her colleagues have found a new way to measure the silkiness and softness of individual hairs.

"For the first time, we present an experimental setup that allows measuring the subtle forces, both physical and chemical, that arise when single hairs slide past each other or are pressed against each other," Max says.

The German team has used one of the most sensitive microscopes on the planet, an atomic force microscope that traces out individual atoms with an ultrafine tip.

Max has found how to mount individual hairs on the tip of an atomic force microscope and measure their interactions as they touch each other.

Max points out that this will be a major advance over conventional methods for testing hair care products which involve measuring the force required to comb hair under standardized laboratory conditions, and subjective measurements of hair feel.

The nanoanalysis with what they call "single hair force spectroscopy" reveals that hair feels rough and difficult to comb for two main reasons: mechanical damage to a hair's surface, or cuticle, creates scaly projections that jut out.

When hair fibres slide past each other, these scales create more friction than smooth hairs, causing a rough feel and making hair more difficult to comb.

To soften hair, conditioners must contain active agents to smooth-out these scales so that they produce less friction, the researchers say.

The second key mechanism sees negative charges build up on the surface of hair that causes repulsion between single hairs.

Bad hair days may be over, say scientists
A human hair under a microscope

This repulsion causes friction and makes hair rough and difficult to comb.

To solve the problem, positively-charged chain line molecules (polymers) that neutralize the negatively charged surfaces are included in conditioner formula to provide a silky feel to hair.

But finding the right formula for repairing damaged hair is no easy task, notes Dr Claudia Wood, , a senior scientist at the chemical company BASF in Bayreuth, Germany, which funded the work.

In addition to hair interactions, many other factors, such as humidity, water content of hair, and hair stickiness, all affect silkiness, Dr Wood says.

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Mummified Remains from 1948 Plane Crash Identified

By Mary Pemberton, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Nine years of sleuthing, advanced DNA science and cutting-edge forensic techniques have finally put a name to a mummified hand and arm found in an Alaska glacier.

The remains belong to Francis Joseph Van Zandt, a 36-year-old merchant marine from Roanoke, Va., who was on a plane rumored to contain a cargo of gold when it smashed into the side of a mountain 60 years ago. Thirty people died in the crash.

"This is the oldest identification of fingerprints by post-mortem remains," said latent fingerprint expert Mike Grimm Sr., during a teleconference Friday, during which the two pilots who found the remains, genetic scientists and genealogists talked about the discovery.

Twenty-four merchant marines and six crewmen were flying from China to New York City on March 12, 1948, when the DC-4 slammed into Mount Sanford, perhaps because the pilots were blinded by an unusually intense aurora borealis that night. The wreckage disappeared into the glacier within a few days.

The DC-4 was thought to be carrying gold because the merchant marines had just delivered an oil tanker to Shanghai. Though no gold was found, the two commercial airline pilots who discovered the wreckage found themselves on a scientific adventure filled with high-tech sleuthing.

The pilots, Kevin McGregor and Marc Millican, discovered the mummified remains in 1999 while recovering artifacts to identify the wreckage they had found two years earlier.

An Alaska State Trooper flew to the glacier to take possession of the remains, which were flown to Anchorage where the state medical examiner tried to obtain fingerprints. The remains then were embalmed.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety attempted to match the fingerprints to numerous databases but came up empty because the details of the fingerprints were unclear.

A few pieces of the arm were sent to a commercial DNA laboratory. However, no data could be obtained because the remains, having been in a frozen and dehydrated state for decades, were too degraded.

In 2002, the arm and hand were sent to a DNA expert in Canada. Dr. Ryan Parr at Genesis Genomics in Thunder Bay was able to extract some DNA. However, it was still necessary to locate family members related to the victim for a mitochondrial DNA match. Mitochondrial DNA is DNA passed down by females.

In 2006, Dr. Odile Loreille at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., was asked to help. Her expertise is extracting DNA from the embalmed remains of unidentified soldiers from the Korean War.

Loreille developed new methods that allowed her to read the hand and arm's mitochondrial DNA.

"I managed to get a mitochondrial sequence," she said. "Now I just needed some relatives to compare."

That's when forensic genealogist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick got involved in the frustrating search for living relatives of the victims. She and her assistants found family members of 16 of the victims, but no DNA matches.

In the meantime, Grimm Sr., and his son, Mike Grimm Jr., began work with Edward Robinson, a professor of forensic science at George Washington University. Robinson made several attempts to rehydrate the fingers to raise the fingerprint swirls, but by this time only the layer of skin below the outer epidermal layer remained.

Robinson tried again with a newly-developed rehydrating solution. The fingers were soaked in the fluid and examined hourly. Special imaging techniques then were used to produce a complete set of fully legible fingerprints.

On Sept. 6, 2007, the prints were compared with some kept at the National Marine Center in Arlington, Va., and a match was found.

In the meantime, Loreille confirmed the finding with nuclear DNA from a nephew of Van Zandt's. A genealogist also located a relative whose mitochondrial DNA matched the remains.

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Algae Gets Another Endorsement As Biofuel Of The Future

In the world of alternative fuels, there may be nothing greener than pond scum.

Algae are tiny biological factories that use photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently that they can double their weight several times a day, producing oil in the process — 30 times more oil per acre than soybeans, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Like soybean oil, the algae oil can be burned directly in diesel engines or further refined into biodiesel.

University of Virginia researchers have a plan to greatly increase algae oil yields by feeding the algae extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) and organic material like sewage, meaning the algae could simultaneously produce biofuel and clean up environmental problems.

"We have to prove these two things to show that we really are getting a free lunch," said Lisa Colosi, a U.Va. professor of civil and environmental engineering who is part of the interdisciplinary research team.

Most previous and current research on algae biofuel, explained Colosi, has used the algae in a manner similar to its natural state — essentially letting it grow in water with just the naturally occurring inputs of atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight. This approach results in a rather low yield of oil — about 1 percent by weight of the algae.

The U.Va. team hypothesizes that feeding the algae more carbon dioxide and organic material could boost the oil yield to as much as 40 percent by weight, Colosi said.

Proving that the algae can thrive with increased inputs of either carbon dioxide or untreated sewage solids will confirm its industrial ecology possibilities — to help with wastewater treatment, where dealing with solids is one of the most expensive challenges, or to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, such as coal power-plant flue gas, which contains about 10 to 30 times as much carbon dioxide as normal air.

Research partner Mark White, a U.Va. finance professor, will be quantifying the big-picture environmental and economic benefits of algae biofuel compared to soy-based biodiesel under several hypothetical scenarios. For instance, if the nation instituted a carbon cap-and-trade system, that would increase the monetary value of algae's ability to dispose of carbon dioxide. Increased nitrogen regulations would also bump up the appeal of algae, since it can also remove nitrogen from air or water.

"The main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value," Colosi said.

This research will quantify just how much "free lunch" algae biofuel promises.

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The Real Price of Oil: Dollars, Gold, and the Price of Tea in China

Oil, it’s the lifeblood of our society. It’s given us the freedom and wealth we have today. It’s given us automobiles and machinery and greased the wheels of the industrial revolution. It made old Jed a millionaire. But oil’s in trouble, the price is up and everyone thinks they understand it. But what if the price of oil wasn’t really up? What if it were just an illusion?

“The price of oil is skyrocketing, and that means gas prices are up…”
That’s about the limit of what most Americans know and understand about the whole oil situation. But there are more complex issues at work, and they involve more than just Middle East politics and China.

The American Geological Institute (AGI) recently released a report looking at the price of crude oil in relation to the U.S. dollar and the price per ounce of gold. It highlights a fact that probably makes some folks at the Federal Reserve very nervous.

This graph makes it easier to understand:

The bottom purple line is the price of a barrel of crude oil per ounce of gold (if you wanted to use gold to pay for a barrel of oil). As you can see, that line is stable, and has been for the entirety of the graph, which is about 7 years.
The top two lines are the price of oil in relation to currency (blue is the Dollar and the red is the Euro). Those lines show that the cost of oil has been going up in relation to currency only. What this chart makes obvious is that the value of oil has not been increasing in real terms, currency has just been decreasing in value.

To put it another way, if the US Dollar were still based on gold (as it was until Nixon eliminated the Bretton Woods system in 1971), then the price of oil would be just as stable as that purple line in the chart is.

So oil is worth the same, and the US dollar is just worth less. Maybe we need to shift our focus away from war and drilling; and towards a better economic policy at home.

Here is the AGI data report

And here’s the summary from the AGI report:

The steep increase in the price of crude oil in the United States remains a headline issue, along with the falling US dollar. The drop in the dollar has caused concern in oil-producing countries which use it as the economic basis for the commodity, and often their currency. The chart below shows the spot market price of crude oil per barrel (BBL) in US dollars and in euros from 2001 to today. The price of oil has grown faster relative to the dollar than to the euro. Yet, a portion of the rise in oil prices is due to the fall of the value of the dollar. The graph also shows the number of barrels of crude oil per cost of an ounce of gold, demonstrating the parallel growth in commodity pricing.
If the US dollar had remained strong in the global economy, oil might, in theory, be around $65 per barrel. However, oil is priced in dollars, and oil prices continue to rise. The impact of increased oil prices can not be ignored in the US economy, and, in turn, can further weaken the dollar. Resource economics is a complex feedback loop where today’s resource boom is driven by many external factors. This complex system bears watching by all geoscientists.

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Solar Efficiency Record Broken

Written by Hank Green

When it comes to eeking another fraction of a percentage point of power out of a solar panel, we're pretty good at not paying attention. I mean, what's the difference between 40.7% and 40.8% anyway?

Generally these efficiency gains aren't all that important to the future of the solar economy. Yes, it's a new world record, but the photovoltaic modules that are most economical are only like 20% efficient. They're better because they're cheaper...and these record-breaking panels are NEVER cheap.

But this one is worth talking about.

Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado eeked that extra fraction of a percent out using a few very interesting techniques. Highly efficient solar cells have to split light into segments and then capture each hunk of wavelengths separately. This lets the panel be efficient across a wide spectrum.

This new chip uses an entirely different system to split the wavelengths (gallium indium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide...if you're curious.) The result is a much thinner and lighter solar cell that could even possibly be flexible.

The chips is also optimally efficient under concentrated sunlight. Concentrated sunlight is preferable because large areas of light can be concentrated on small areas of photovoltaic material. And since the PV material (especially this ultra-efficient stuff) is extremely expensive, using less per unit of sunlight captured is way better.

In short, this isn't just another tiny bump in efficiency, it's an entirely new solar cell, and one that could be very useful not just for satellites, but also for utility scale solar. Though, to be fair, the path to the commercial market is always pretty arduous for these new solar technologies.

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Save the planet? Buy it

Parque Tantauco, which Piñera created in 2005, is on one of South America's largest islands, Chiloé, off the coast of Patagonia.

Sebastián Piñera and construction work in Parque Tantauco
Sebastián Piñera and construction work in Parque Tantauco

Piñera bought the land and immediately set about protecting the offshore habitat of blue whales and the inland virgin forests.

Pulling out a map of the park, Piñera explains his plan, tracing his finger over a trekking route that will be connected by rustic cabins.

'We have been buying all the land around us. We started with 110,000 acres and now we have 150,000,' he says. 'I want my children and grandchildren to remember me for making one more million? No! So I now have many projects like this.'

While yachts and jets marked the status of last century's super rich, today the stylish accessory for millionaires is their very own ecosystem.

From Patagonia to Montana, hundreds of thousands of acres are being bought by wealthy businessmen and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a gift.

Johan Eliasch, chairman of Head, the ski and sporting goods manufacturer, and the grandson of a Swedish property developer, has taken his business skills and invested them in a new industry - Amazon Forest conservation.

Eliasch, who has a personal fortune estimated at £360m, has bought 400,000 acres in the Brazilian Amazon, near the river town of Manicore.

Deforestation, argues Eliasch, causes more carbon emissions annually than transportation, yet is often overlooked.

In his parcel of land, Eliasch estimates that some 80m tons of carbon are trapped in the forest - about the same amount the entire Swedish population will produce over the next 15 years at current rates (53m tons per year).

'The key to saving the Amazon and the rest of the world's great rainforests is actually very simple: just put a fair price on the role they play in providing a quarter of the world's oxygen, a fifth of fresh water and 60 per cent of its species,' declares Eliasch.

'I truly believe that with their values as a carbon store at last being recognised, we will see mass deforestation halted in five years.'

Eliasch's interest in the Amazon came about from a concern that one of the effects of global warming was its destruction of the European ski season due to the lack of a critical component - snow.

'The Swedish winters and summers hold the most enduring memories for me. Now when I am back in Stockholm in November, it is difficult to imagine being able to ski to school. I think that is a tragedy,' he remarked.

The efforts by Eliasch to protect the rainforest have hit a nerve among some people in Brazil who are suspicious of foreigners coming in with plans to invest in the Amazon.

Eliasch, who admits that shutting down sawmills and putting hundreds of workers out of a job is controversial, insists that hacking down the rainforest is a wildly inefficient use of natural resources.

'Once timber is cut, there is little that can be done with the land that is is sustainable,' argues Eliasch. 'Timber extraction provides big profits at the expense of local communities.'

'Providing communities with unfettered access to harvest a forest that is protected in perpetuity provides better and more reliable incomes.'

Still, some people remain unconvinced, and it might be years before Eliasch is able to fully utilise his business acumen within the complex world of conservation.

'There are pitfalls everywhere,' says Evan Bowen-Jones of the conservation body Fauna & Flora International. 'In some countries it is possible to buy large chunks of lands and preserve it, and in other areas it is impossible.'

Bowen-Jones cautions that entering the world of large-scale conservation requires patience, and he strongly suggests consulting experienced individuals who have already been through the process.

Working with local groups or, better yet, being invited by local environmental groups is another key to success, he says.

'With the current pace of biodiversity loss posed by climate change, we are going to have to stretch the methods available to us and that is going to bring in the wealthy individuals,' says Bowen-Jones.

'If they [wealthy donors] bring the right attitude to the table, then there is a good chance for success.'

Douglas Tompkins and his Parque Pumalin, in Chile
Douglas Tompkins and his Parque Pumalin, in Chile

'It is pretty hard for a country to turn down a gift of 300,000 hectares [740,000 acres],' says Douglas Tompkins, 65, the American-born founder of Esprit and The North Face.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Tompkins amassed a multi-million dollar fortune. He lived in a huge estate in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighbourhood and had a world-renowned art collection.

Then he read a book on deep ecology, the philosophy pioneered by Norwegian Arne Naess, who calls for a radical re-evaluation of man's relationship with the planet.

Tompkins was an instant convert. He sold his estate, the art and everything else, then moved to the remote wilds of Patagonia.

Since 1992, Tompkins has spent nearly £110m buying or organising the purchase of around 25 properties covering 2.2m acres in Chile and Argentina.

Once purchased, the land is placed under strict environmental protection by its new owner. Tompkins has even coined a phrase for this movement - wildlands philanthropy.

When Tompkins met someone with the same philosophy and her own pile of money - Kristi McDivitt, the former CEO of the Patagonia Clothing company - they began to focus their business acumen on building coalitions of funders, environmentalists and governments to create national parks.

'Spend your money on land conservation,' says McDivitt. 'To restore a creek is patriotic in my mind. Restoring the land in any form is a patriotic act.'

This eco-power couple have now created two national parks - Parque Nacional Corcovado in Chile and Parque Nacional Monte León in Argentina.

Another two are being finalised, with a total area of close to two million acres. At the centre of Tompkins' conservation efforts is Chile's Parque Pumalin, a pristine wooded ecosystem that includes volcanoes, old growth forests and hidden hot springs. The park's 740,000 acres are off limits to all development except small-scale enterprises.

'I fundamentally believe in national parks,' Tompkins said. 'I don't believe in private parks. I believe that nations do best and have done best when they really value their parklands and areas that are off limits to development.'

Hansjörg Wyss, one of Europe's richest men, agrees. After amassing a fortune estimated at £4,200m from his position of CEO of Synthes - a company that produces artificial spinal discs and nails for repairing broken bones - Wyss has tackled a far larger reconstruction project: the wild areas of the American West.

Through The Wyss Foundation, he has donated millions of dollars to preserve wild lands in Utah and Montana.

As chairman of the board at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots conservation group in the American southwest, Wyss has instituted a corporate structure that includes a £3.5m cash surplus, investments in stocks and mutual funds and an £800,000 office building in Salt Lake City.

In order to save thousands of acres in the Rocky Mountains of Montana from development, Wyss bankrolled a simple solution; he offered to buy up the mineral rights from the mining companies.

Thanks to Wyss's understanding of corporate America, the Foundation had discovered a strategy for effectively paying the oil and gas companies to leave the area.

In that Montana battle, The Wyss Foundation was an early funder and longtime proponent of the 'buy 'em out' strategy.

The Goldman Sachs ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego
The Goldman Sachs ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego

Even investment bankers Goldman Sachs have caught the bug. In 2003, Goldman Sachs received 670,000 acres of forests in southern Chile and Argentina as the result of a bankruptcy settlement.

'It was part of a large package of distressed debt. We started asking, what do we do with a million acres of forest at the end of the earth? We had to get out an atlas,' laughs Lawrence Linden, an advisory director to Goldman Sachs.

He continues: 'As an investment bank, we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego? So we called in The Nature Conservancy to study the land and they came back with the conclusion that it was actually a very valuable piece of land from an environmental point of view.'

Today the Goldman Sachs land is a vast tract of wilderness and is home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal that roams the forests. It also has an endowment of around £9m.

"We didn't want to be a burden for taxpayers. This is not just a question of preserving a pristine wilderness,' says Pete Rose, a Goldman Sachs spokesman. 'This is about using 21st-century science to preserve a pristine wilderness.'

Across Europe, eco-barons have also invested heavily in land conservation.

Dutch businessman Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who died in 2006, was a leading figure in the movement. From his 82,000-acre estate in Scotland - which he proudly advertised as public lands - van Vlissingen managed supermarket chains, energy companies and investment trusts. His passion was Africa's beleaguered national parks.

In barely two years, Vlissingen poured millions of dollars into the then incomplete Marakele National Park in South Africa, a job that would have taken at least 10 years without his funding. Today Marakele is part of a far bigger park system and is a healthy home to African wildlife, including elephant, white and black rhinoceros, buffalo, hyena, cheetah, wild dog, giraffe and eland.

To consolidate his philosophy, Vlissingen helped create the African Parks Foundation, an NGO that continues to reinforce the infrastructure and funding for national parks in Africa.

Before his death, van Vlissingen was widely considered the richest man in Scotland, and with tens of thousands of acres, the country's biggest landowner.

But van Vlissingen refused that title, 'You can't own a place like this. It belongs to the planet,' he once said. 'I'm only the guardian.'

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Ocean 'dead zones' expanding worldwide: study

A view of the area that surrounds hito uno (landmark one) which divides the Chilean and Peruvian territories in January 2008. Oceanic dead zones where marine life cannot survive have been steadily increasing over the past five decades and now encompa ...
A view of the area that surrounds "hito uno" (landmark one), which divides the Chilean and Peruvian territories in January 2008. Oceanic "dead zones" where marine life cannot survive have been steadily increasing over the past five decades and now encompass 400 coastal areas of the world, a US-Swedish study said Friday.

Oceanic "dead zones" where marine life cannot survive have been steadily increasing over the past five decades and now encompass 400 coastal areas of the world, a US-Swedish study said Friday.

Dead zones now comprise around 245,000 square kilometers (95,000 square miles), according to researchers Robert Diaz of the Marine Sciences Institute at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and Rutger Rosenberg, a marine scientist at Gothenburg University in Sweden.

"The formation of dead zones has been exacerbated by the increase in (pollution) ... fueled by riverine runoff of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels," the study said.

The phenomenon, called eutrophication, is caused by industrial pollution as well as runoff of water containing phosphates and nitrates into the oceans.

Oceans react to the boost in pollution by growing more algae and vegetation in coastal areas.

When the algae dies and sinks to the bottom, it decreases the amount of oxygen available in the bottom waters, a process called hypoxia, eventually wiping out fish and crustaceans that live there, as well as the foods they eat.

Dead zones tend to creep up in calm waters that see lower water exchange, but have more recently been affecting major fishery areas in the Baltic, Kattegat, and Black Seas as well as the Gulf of Mexico and East China Sea, the study said.

The researchers said the expansion of dead zones in these areas threatens commercial fishing and shrimping near the coastlines.

The phenomenon was first noted along the Adriatic Coast in the 1950s.

Seasonal dead zones affect the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Scandinavian waters.

It can take years to treat severe hypoxia in a coastal region, and only four percent of treated areas have shown any signs of improvement, though the trend is reversible, the study said.

"From 1970 to 1990, the hypoxic zone on the northwestern continental shelf of the Black Sea has expanded to 40,000 square kilometers (15,500 square miles)," the study noted.

"However, since 1989, the loss of fertilizer subsidies from the former Soviet Union reduced nutrient loading by a factor of two to four, with the result that by 1995 the hypoxic zone had gone."

The study authors said the global warming trend alone was likely to increase oceanic dead zones by increasing temperature, causing changes in rainfall patterns and changing discharges of fresh water and agricultural nutrients into the oceans.

"Climate change also has the potential to expand naturally occurring OMZs (oxygen minimum zones) into shallower coastal waters, damaging fisheries and affecting energy flows in the same way that eutrophication-driven hypoxia does," the authors wrote.

The researchers noted that any return to preindustrial levels of nutrient input into global waters would be "unrealistic."

However, they said "an appropriate management goal would be to reduce nutrient inputs to levels that occurred in the middle of the past century, before eutrophication began to spread dead zones globally."

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