Category Archives: Science

Comet ISON Passage

Solar activity spikes as Comet ISON approaches perihelion and continues as the comet’s remnant exits the NASA/ESA SOHO LASCO C3 viewing area. Solar volatility included some robust X-ray flares and coronal mass ejections, all of which serve to distinguish the comet’s perihelion window from the much calmer period that immediately precedes it.

 
 
 
 

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The Great Galactic Grind

in black holes
to neutrons bare
are atoms stripped;
ejected not 15 minutes
and already protons,
and soon… 
upon any encounter,
hydrogen again

 

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Stratfor: The Geopolitics of Shale

By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Stratfor Global Intelligence

According to the elite newspapers and journals of opinion, the future of foreign affairs mainly rests on ideas: the moral impetus for humanitarian intervention, the various theories governing exchange rates and debt rebalancing necessary to fix Europe, the rise of cosmopolitanism alongside the stubborn vibrancy of nationalism in East Asia and so on. In other words, the world of the future can be engineered and defined based on doctoral theses. And to a certain extent this may be true. As the 20th century showed us, ideologies — whether communism, fascism or humanism — matter and matter greatly.

But there is another truth: The reality of large, impersonal forces like geography and the environment that also help to determine the future of human events. Africa has historically been poor largely because of few good natural harbors and few navigable rivers from the interior to the coast. Russia is paranoid because its land mass is exposed to invasion with few natural barriers. The Persian Gulf sheikhdoms are fabulously wealthy not because of ideas but because of large energy deposits underground. You get the point. Intellectuals concentrate on what they can change, but we are helpless to change much of what happens.

Enter shale, a sedimentary rock within which natural gas can be trapped. Shale gas constitutes a new source of extractable energy for the post-industrial world. Countries that have considerable shale deposits will be better placed in the 21st century competition between states, and those without such deposits will be worse off. Ideas will matter little in this regard.

Stratfor, as it happens, has studied the issue in depth. Herein is my own analysis, influenced in part by Stratfor’s research.

So let’s look at who has shale and how that may change geopolitics. For the future will be heavily influenced by what lies underground.

The United States, it turns out, has vast deposits of shale gas: in Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and elsewhere. America, regardless of many of the political choices it makes, is poised to be an energy giant of the 21st century. In particular, the Gulf Coast, centered on Texas and Louisiana, has embarked upon a shale gas and tight oil boom. That development will make the Caribbean an economic focal point of the Western Hemisphere, encouraged further by the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal. At the same time, cooperation between Texas and adjacent Mexico will intensify, as Mexico increasingly becomes a market for shale gas, with its own exploited shale basins near its northern border.

This is, in part, troubling news for Russia. Russia is currently the energy giant of Europe, exporting natural gas westward in great quantities, providing Moscow with political leverage all over Central and particularly Eastern Europe. However, Russia’s reserves are often in parts of Siberia that are hard and expensive to exploit — though Russia’s extraction technology, once old, has been considerably modernized. And Russia for the moment may face relatively little competition in Europe. But what if in the future the United States were able to export shale gas to Europe at a competitive price?

The United States still has few capabilities to export shale gas to Europe. It would have to build new liquefaction facilities to do that; in other words, it would have to erect plants on the Gulf of Mexico that convert the gas into liquid so that it could be transported by ship across the Atlantic, where more liquefaction facilities there would reconvert it back into gas. This is doable with capital investment, expertise and favorable legislation. Countries that build such facilities will have more energy options, to export or import, whatever the case may be. So imagine a future in which the United States exports liquefied shale gas to Europe, reducing the dependence that European countries have on Russian energy. The geopolitics of Europe could shift somewhat. Natural gas might become less of a political tool for Russia and more of a purely economic one (though even such a not-so-subtle shift would require significant exports of shale gas from North America to Europe).

Less dependence on Russia would allow the vision of a truly independent, culturally vibrant Central and Eastern Europe to fully prosper — an ideal of the region’s intellectuals for centuries, even as ideas in this case would have little to do with it.

This might especially be relevant to Poland. For Poland may have significant deposits of shale gas. Were Polish shale deposits to prove the largest in Europe (a very big “if”), Poland could become more of an energy producer in its own right, turning this flat country with no natural defenses to the east and west — annihilated by both Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century — into a pivot state or midlevel power in the 21st. The United States, in turn, somewhat liberated from Middle East oil because of its own energy sources (including natural gas finds), could focus on building up Poland as a friendly power, even as it loses substantial interest in Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the immense deposits of oil and natural gas in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Iran will keep the Middle East a major energy exporter for decades. But the shale gas revolution will complicate the world’s hydrocarbon supply and allocation, so that the Middle East may lose some of its primacy.

It turns out that Australia also has large new natural gas deposits that, with liquefaction facilities, could turn it into a principal energy exporter to East Asia, assuming Australia significantly lowers its cost of production (which may prove very hard to do). Because Australia is already starting to emerge as the most dependable military ally of the United States in the Anglosphere, the alliance of these two great energy producers of the future could further cement Western influence in Asia. The United States and Australia would divide up the world: after a fashion, of course. Indeed, if unconventional natural gas exploitation has anything to do with it, the so-called post-American world would be anything but.

The geopolitical emergence of Canada — again, the result of natural gas and oil — could amplify this trend. Canada has immense natural gas deposits in Alberta, which could possibly be transported by future pipelines to British Columbia, where, with liquefaction facilities, it could then be exported to East Asia. Meanwhile, eastern Canada could be the beneficiary of new shale gas deposits that reach across the border into the northeastern United States. Thus, new energy discoveries would bind the two North American countries closer, even as North America and Australia become more powerful on the world scene.

China also has significant deposits of shale gas in its interior provinces. Because Beijing is burdened by relatively few regulations, the regime could acquire the land and build the infrastructure necessary for its exploitation. This would ease somewhat China’s energy crunch and aid Beijing’s strategy to compensate for the decline of its coastal-oriented economic model by spurring development inland.

The countries that might conceivably suffer on account of a shale gas revolution would be landlocked, politically unstable oil producers such as Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, whose hydrocarbons could become relatively less valuable as these other energy sources come online. China, especially, might in the future lose interest in the energy deposits in such low-end, high-risk countries if shale gas became plentiful in its own interior.

In general, the coming of shale gas will magnify the importance of geography. Which countries have shale underground and which don’t will help determine power relationships. And because shale gas can be transported across oceans in liquid form, states with coastlines will have the advantage. The world will be smaller because of unconventional gas extraction technology, but that only increases the preciousness of geography, rather than decreases it.
 
The Geopolitics of Shale is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Newton Spins in Grave

Newton taught us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This “third law” of the universe was obviously intended to be applied in the physical sciences. Newton had no idea that the concept would attain such prominence in the informal (pop) social sciences hundreds of years later, nor that it might even be cited as pseudo-scientific justification for blind moral relativism that prejudicially confers equality upon competing narratives while disregarding obvious disparities in their provenance.

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Mex-US-Can Initiative to Convert Mexican Reactor to LEU

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

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For Immediate Release
March 26, 2012
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Trilateral Announcement Between Mexico, the United States, and Canada on Nuclear Security

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At the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, the Governments of Mexico, the United States, and Canada announced the completion of an important joint nuclear security project to convert the fuel in Mexico’s research reactor from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU).  The project was initiated at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in April 2010, and was carried out by the three countries, working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The full conversion of the reactor from the use of HEU to LEU fuel supports the goal of minimizing the use of HEU for civilian purposes. By converting its research nuclear reactor, Mexico contributes to non-proliferation.

President Calderón stated, “With this decision, Mexico reaffirms its commitment to building a world free of the nuclear threat. Each country must do its share to reach a safer North America and a safer planet. This is a clear example of the significant work we can do together in the North American region.”

This effort, which was conducted and completed under the auspices of the IAEA, benefited from the hard work and dedication of hundreds of individuals from all three countries and the IAEA, and it further strengthens nuclear security in North America.

President Obama stated, “I would like to thank Mexico, Canada and the IAEA for their support of our joint nuclear security efforts.  Our strong trilateral partnership, supported by the IAEA, has made our people safer and advanced our international nuclear security effort leading into the Seoul Summit.”

Prime Minister Harper added that “The successful completion of this project demonstrates the concrete steps countries can collectively take in the context of the Nuclear Security Summit. We will continue to work with the United States and Mexico to enhance nuclear security in our region and worldwide.”

The conversion will not only extend the length of time the Mexican reactor can operate with LEU fuel, it also makes the reactor eligible for further program engagement under the IAEA.  With the provided fuel, Mexico’s National Institute for Nuclear Research (ININ) also has the potential to increase the reactor power output, which would greatly improve its capabilities for medical and industrial isotope production, silicon doping, neutron radiography, and nuclear physics research such as neutron activation analysis.

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solar max

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The Seven Year Twitch


Strongest solar surge in seven years

The Sun’s recent eruption of activity was crowned yesterday by a robust M-class solar flare that could trigger a significant auroral response in regions north of Earth’s 40th parallel before sunrise

Solar activity is definitely on the upswing after a sustained lull that had some experts wondering whether there would be an appreciable maximum to the current solar cycle. Activity is now expected to intensify over the next six to nine months before dropping off through 2013.

X-Ray output from the Sun’s latest flare:

The sunspot that gave birth to the M-9 flare is now rotating into a position more directly facing our planet, so any pronounced outbursts that occur over the next few days will carry increased potential for radio disruptions and even possible electrical overloads on Earth.

On the plus side, Northern Lights (aurora borealis) could be quite impressive given clear skies at northerly latitudes. The risk of serious consequences from this M-9 flare (such as power outages, damage to satellites or even to ground-based electrical equipment, etc.) is low because the Sun’s most active zone is a good distance from its equator. Still, any time that energetic sunspots rotate into view (especially ones with severely twisted magnetic fields) a reasonable degree of caution is warranted.

The great solar storm of March 1989 knocked out most of Québec’s power grid — and a second round of massive explosions on the surface of the Sun in August of that year brought down various electrical systems in Ontario.

In 1859, the then-recently completed US telegraph network was severely damaged by a solar storm, the intensity of which can only be estimated today. Aurorae were so vivid that people in northern regions were fooled into thinking that morning had arrived. It’s impossible to say precisely how strong a flare it was, but it’s assumed that the disruption to our ionosphere was so profound because the sunspot cluster that spawned the event was directly facing us, casting a massive amount of ionised coronal material from the surface of the Sun squarely in our direction.

Of course, yesterday’s almost-X-class flare could be described as mild when compared with this doozy (below) from November 4, 2003. That flare occurred during a series of eruptions from the Sun that week, some of which are still the strongest solar flares ever recorded with modern instruments. In fact, the week-long storm was so powerful that a new section had to be added to the top of the graph in order to accommodate it. Luckily, much of the output from the storm was not Earth-directed. Had it been, it might have rivaled or surpassed the one that occurred in 1859 — and would surely have had a much more serious impact today due to our reliance on electronic gadgets and upon electricity in general.


The energy of the flare in the chart above appears to be no more than X-20, but it’s widely agreed that the source data from the GOES satellites were clipped at the top end; the interim consensus rendered a verdict of X-28 with some maintaining that it may have been as high as X-32. Later analysis of the series of explosions led NASA to judge the strength of a flare from October 28th as a whopping X-45. It should be pointed out that, until then, NASA scientists thought that they’d probably never see an X-10. For more on the violent spasm of 2003, see the Smithsonian’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory newsletter, March 2004.

There’s increasing speculation about whether we will see anything close to the magnitude of the November 2003 flares (or the 1859 aurorae) during the next year, but only the Sun can say for sure. And Sol just ain’t talkin’.

Making these sorts of predictions is notoriously… well, unpredictable. The 2003 x-28 mega-flare came at a point in the solar cycle when activity should have been quite low — coming, as it did, more than two years after the solar peak of 2001. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Best guess? We’ll probably be discussing this again. Maybe soon…

Follow SPACE.com’s coverage

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UPDATE

JANUARY 24, 2012 · 11:30 PM

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The Earth’s ionosphere is still highly energised from a hit that it received courtesy of an earlier, weaker, flare that triggered our January 23rd geomagnetic storm. Technically, that storm is still continuing. It was the product of a more direct encounter with a solar coronal mass ejection (CME).

It’s actually fortunate that the stronger of the two flares did not occur first; the Earth’s pre-energised ionosphere was thereby strengthened against the effects of the subsequent event. It’s also lucky that the main body of the mass jettisoned by the second flare appears to have missed our planet by about 60 million miles.
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Note: These charts are also available with a black background.

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Brilliant displays were sporadically visible in North America’s western arctic region, as well as in eastern Siberia, during the early morning hours Tuesday.

But the real show occurred over northeastern Canada, the northern UK and especially Norway (right) on Tuesday night.

Video of the grand display

Some amazing stills, too!

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