Friday, November 18, 2011

Mars Science Lab 'Curiosity' Will Search for Signs of Life

'Curiosity' Rover will Search for Signs of Life
NASA is preparing to launch another rover mission to Mars on November 25, 2011. The goal of this mission will be to search for signs of past life on the Red Planet.

According to NASA's website,
"...Curiosity has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars had environments favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life."
Dubbed 'Curiosity', this seven foot tall rover is twice as big as previous mars' rovers and weighs over a ton. It carries more than ten times the mass of scientific equipment than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched in 2004.

Spectacular Mars sunset
Propelled by an Atlas V rocket, the ambitious mission will last two years and focus on the Gale crater. Also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, this rover will carry more scientific equipment than has ever been sent to another planet.

Curiosity will attempt a first ever, multi-stage precision landing. It will use a combination of a supersonic parachute deployed at approximately 10 km (6.2 miles) to slow decent of the spacecraft, eight directional rocket thrusters which will allow controllers to adapt to the environment and steer the craft towards the landing area. Finally, a 'sky crane' will gently lower the rover to the planet surface.

Mars Gale Crater
Gale crater is believed to be about three and a half billion years old and 154 km (more than 95 miles) in diameter. This location was chosen for the rich combination of morphologic and mineralogical evidence of water in Mars' past. It contains minerals that are conducive to fossil preservation and the crater provides a surface that Curiosity can navigate safely. The choice was designed to "...identify a particular geologic environment, or set of environments, that would support microbial life."

This mission comes on the heels of an attempt by Russian scientists to land a probe on one of Mars' moons, Phobos, and return samples to Earth. The spacecraft is currently trapped in low Earth orbit and scientists are struggling to restart booster engines before it falls back to Earth containing tons of unspent rocket fuel.

Watch the launch live plus other special events, documentaries, news conferences and much more at NASA TV.

images: NASA / JPL-Caltech
gale crater:
Martian sunset:

First published as Mars Science Lab 'Curiosity' Will Search for Signs of Life

Google Defies RIAA Over Download App

Google defies RIAA
A battle of behemoths is brewing as Google goes toe to toe with the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) over the availability of the app "MP3 Music Download Pro" in the Android Market which could be used to download copyrighted music.

Google contends that the app can also be used to download legal files and has so far refused to remove it from the Android Market.

The RIAA sent a takedown notice to Google in August over the app, which the RIAA said, " clearly being used for illegal purposes, and Google responded that they were declining to remove it from the Android Market."

Downloader App Screenshot
Google has removed apps from the market in the past that could be used for obtaining copyrighted music but an RIAA spokesperson complained that often the same or similar apps re-appear a few days later and, "...too many apps created to harvest links to unauthorized files remain available and popular on the Android marketplace, resulting in widespread infringement of copyrighted works."

In May, 2011, Google's Chairman Eric Schmidt called a proposed law, the  'Protect IP Act', "A disastrous precedent for Free Speech". This legislation, designed to combat offshore servers and endorsed by the RIAA, requires Search Engines and DNS servers to remove links and make targeted websites 'disappear' from the Internet.

Rumors persist that Google is working on agreements with the major record labels and plans to offer music purchases through the Google Music Store, similar to the successful Apple iTunes Music Store.
Downloader Pro Barcode

Google is building anticipation for a November 16, 2011 event "These Go To Eleven", an homage to the old 'This Is Spinal Tap' flick. There is speculation the announcement will include music purchases through the new music store and sharing services through Google+.

The RIAA has declined to say if they plan on filing suit against Google for facilitating copyright infringement. If they choose to take Google to court, the RIAA may find Google to be a tougher opponent than the thousands of private citizens the RIAA has been suing for several years.

First published as Google Defies RIAA Over Download App

Monday, November 14, 2011

Crippled Russian Spacecraft Carries Toxic Payload

Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt
Russian scientists are struggling to restart engines in the Phobos-Ground Probe  which failed to leave orbit following launch on November 8, 2011. The ship, containing tons of dangerous rocket fuel, could drop out of orbit and fall to earth as soon as a few days from now or could linger in decaying orbit until around Christmas next month.

Tons of unspent rocket fuel and an uncontrolled re-entry could create a very dangerous combination depending on where the craft comes down and the state of the fuel.

If the fuel does not freeze, but remains liquid, it should burn up harmlessly before it reaches the ground. But if the toxic mixture freezes, it could survive re-entry and strike the Earth intact. According to James Oberg, formally with NASA and now a space consultant,
“About seven tons (6.4 tonnes) of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever”
Signs of trouble began when Russian scientists lost contact with the probe and requested amateur astronomers worldwide to report any sightings. The craft was spotted by South American astronomers trapped in a low orbit, trailed by its' failed booster engines.

Software engineers have attempted upgrades, bug fixes and reboots of the system, but according to this report, they have so far been unable to communicate with the craft and hope is fading that a solution will be found before the batteries fail.
Mars Moon Phobos
 Engineers are hoping that if the spacecraft falls back to Earth, it will land in the ocean. Compared to the six ton UARS Satellite, which dropped out of orbit in September, 2011, this failed spacecraft and booster engines weighs over fourteen tons, most of which is unspent fuel.

The ship was headed for Mars moon Phobos on an ambitious mission  to return to Earth next year with about seven ounces of soil samples from the Martian moon. Instead, this is the just latest and most dangerous, in a very long string of failed missions to Mars by the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Article first published as Crippled Russian Spacecraft Carries Toxic Payload on Technorati.

phobos ground probe:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Adobe Quits Mobile Flash Development

Adobe will no longer support mobile Flash
Adobe has announced they are dropping development of the popular Flash plug-in for mobile browsers. They will continue to provide security updates and critical bug fixes for existing hardware and software configurations including Android and Blackberry Playbook.

Adobe is expected to axe 750 jobs as it shifts focus from mobile Flash development to aiding designers and developers of mobile Flash apps to migrate to open HTML5 using Adobe Air runtime which supports a wide variety of plug-ins and platforms.  Adobe stock dropped 10% by 9:30 am following the announcement.

Flash was developed over a decade ago and designed with the desktop PC in mind. The shift to smaller, mobile devices has highlighted some fundamental problems with Flash: Notoriously high cpu usage which drains batteries and causes problems with overheating. There are also problems with apps designed for a pointy-clicky mouse verses the modern touchscreen interface.

HTML5 provides audio, video and other feature rich browser components with lower cpu usage and supports the capacitive touch-sensitive screens used in these smaller, low power devices such as phones and tablets.

According to the Adobe Blog,
"We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations (chipset, browser, OS version, etc.) following the upcoming release of Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry PlayBook. We will of course continue to provide critical bug fixes and security updates for existing device configurations."
Flash is pervasive on the web, to both the delight and frustration of mobile phone and tablet users. The move to HTML5 is better suited for this new generation of small, low powered devices. With more than a third of the worlds top 100 websites already implementing HTML5, this paradigm shift has already begun.

Creative Commons images:
flash on droid:

Article first published as Adobe Quits Mobile Flash Development on Technorati.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Flurry of Earthquake 'Anomolies' Caused by Fracking?

Update: March 9, 2012:
A series of Ohio earthquakes were caused by fracking according to State officials. Tough new laws will regulate drilling and disposal of waste.*

The 5.6 earthquake which struck Oklahoma in late 2011 was the latest in a string of 'rare' earthquakes shaking the normally geologically quiet interior or North America.

These previously unusual events are raising fresh concerns that the use of fracking and the disposal of fracking fluids may be causing the quakes.

Fracking is the fracturing of layers of rock with high pressure fluids to release pockets of trapped gas and oil. Increases in energy prices and Bush era deregulation has led to a wide use of this technique with thousands of new wells brought on line in the past few years.

This proliferation in fracking has coincided with numerous earthquakes in unusual locations. Recent studies indicate that culprit may actually be the disposal wells. Fracking produces lots of waste fluid which is collected and injected at high pressures into disposal wells.

Earthquakes caused by this type of wells is not the paranoid imaginings of environmental zealots. In this recent report, the Oklahoma Geological Survey studied a swarm of earthquakes in Garvin County, OK in January of this year, which began within hours of a new and deep hydro-fracturing project nearby.
The Geological Survey stopped short of definitively blaming the earthquakes on the fracking operation, but noted
"...The strong correlation in time and space as well as a reasonable fit to a physical model suggest that there is a possibility these earthquakes were induced by hydraulic-fracturing."
Typically, the report concludes that it is impossible to say definitely if the quakes were caused by fracking, but other locations hit by anomalous quakes are satisfied they have enough proof.

In June of this year, Cuadrilla Resources was forced to suspend its' fracking operation after it admitted it caused a swarm of earthquakes in normally seismically peaceful northwest England.

February, 2011: Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission issued an emergency moratorium on new injection wells due to a 4.7 magnitude quake as part of a suspicious swarm of earthquakes in the area.

In August of 2009, Chesapeake, one of the largest oil and gas exploration companies in the area, was forced to shut down two wells in the Dallas/Fort Worth area after they were linked to a swarm of earthquakes.

In other events, fracking was suspected, but no action taken:

Drilling Rig
In October 2011, a rare 4.8 magnitude quake hit in near San Antonio, Texas. This occurred in an area which has been heavily drilled and fracked.

In August of 2011, a rare 5.8 quake hits Virginia and is felt all over the east coast. Speculation ensues that dramatically increased fracking in the area may have triggered this rare event.

The same day, a southern Colorado 5.3 earthquake occurred in the same area as a swarm of possible fracking induced quakes investigated in 2001 by the USGS. Three months before the August 2011 quake, the EPA announced plans to study the impacts of fracking on drinking water in that area.

No one knows the impact of the large-scale fracturing of the earth's crust or the ramifications of high pressure injection of waste fluids deep underground. The evidence is mounting of a direct connection between these practices and unusual earthquake activity, but it may be impossible to scientifically prove.

These strange quakes have caused quite a bit of damage but no deaths so far. Energy companies continue to deny any connection between earthquakes and fracking or disposal of fracking fluids. The evidence, however, continues to pile up.

How many 'rare' earthquakes does it take before we acknowledge a pattern? And what price are we willing to pay, in lives and property, for the promise of 'cheap' energy?

*Update: March 09, 2012:
A series of Ohio earthquakes were caused by fracking according to State officials. Tough new laws will regulate drilling and disposal of waste.

In this report, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said:
"After investigating all available geological formation and well activity data, ODNR regulators and geologists found a number of co-occurring circumstances strongly indicating the Youngstown area earthquakes were induced," state officials stated. "Specifically, evidence gathered by state officials suggests fluid from the Northstar 1 disposal well intersected an unmapped fault in a near-failure state of stress causing movement along that fault."

Article first published as Flurry of Earthquake 'Anomolies' Caused by Fracking? on Technorati.

drill rig:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Debian Beckons Ubuntu Refugees to Come Home

Debian Live desktop
Dissatisfaction continues over Ubuntu's choice of the Unity Interface as default and, in the most recent release, no obvious way to return to the old Gnome desktop.

Long time Ubuntu users have been complaining loudly about Unity's lack of stability, limited options and an overall unfinished feel.

Distros that have watched Ubuntu gobbling up the Linux mind-share are suddenly getting a second look by unhappy Ubuntu users seeking alternatives to Unity.

Ubuntu started life as a simplified Debian with an emphasis on desktop usability. Recent Ubuntu releases seem focused on blazing their own trail toward a touchscreen, cloud enabled, widget driven environment. This may prove to be a very forward thinking plan, but it leaves traditional Gnome users hungering for their familiar desktop environment.

I decided to take another look at Ubuntu's parent, Debian. They offer live cd/dvds so I downloaded the i386 dvd .iso of the current stable release 6.0, aka 'Squeeze'. (All the Debian releases are named after characters from the 'Toy Story' movies.)

As a test machine, I scrounged up an ancient Dell Inspirion 1150. This dinosaur sports a 30 GB harddrive, 2.6 GHz processor, Wifi and 512  MB of RAM. Although I love my bling, I did not test compiz on this box due to the low specs.

Debian calls itself "The Universal Operating System" and nothing beats its support for a wide variety of hardware and architectures. Sound, video and ethernet were configured and worked automagically from the live cd.

Clicking the Install icon opens a graphical installer which walks the user through the usual steps: language, location, keyboard and timezone. Enter user and administrator passwords, computer and host names.

The partitioner offers a simple, guided install for a range of configurations. More advanced setup options are available by selecting 'Manual' install. The installation is essentially the same as most gnome-gui based installers and virtually painless.

The desktop is plain, vanilla Gnome 2 with a cartoonish space wallpaper (see above). There are many more wallpapers included by default and Ubuntu users will recognize many beautiful favorites, including 'Cosmos' the space slide show.

Live Earth Wallpaper on Debian/Gnome2
I replaced the default background with a Live Earth wallpaper that updates hourly throughout the day. You can find installation instructions here.
Neither ethernet or wifi would work after install. A quick google search found this documented bug and fix. Apparently, networking auto-configure is disabled by default.

I edited (as root) /etc/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.conf to show managed=true and following a restart of network manager, ethernet finally connected.

This Dell machine uses an old Broadcom wireless chipset, notoriously difficult to get working due to the closed nature of their firmware. Thankfully, in September of 2010, Broadcom finally began offering fully open Linux drivers for their chipsets.

Per instructions here, I entered in a terminal: sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-installer .Following a reboot, my wireless network was located and after entering my password, I was online in seconds.

I updated my repositories to include non-free software packages  Replace 'Squeeze' with 'Testing' for more current software updates, but slightly more breakage. Upgrades are incremental or 'rolling.' No need to reinstall every six months.

Debian uses apt for package management, with Synaptic as the familiar front end. Update manager notifies you of available updates and the Software Center makes adding and removing applications easy.

Debian came with gnash, the open implementation of Adobe Flash, installed by default. If you prefer Adobe's version, it is available in the repositories.

User friendly distros like Ubuntu and Mepis were built on Debian's stability, massive software repositories and superior apt package management system. Debian may lack the polish of these derivatives, but it is also a blank canvas, ready to take on your own look and feel. Experiment with new themes, icon sets, wallpapers and more at

I was pleasantly surprised at the improvements in usability and ease of installation in Debian. Gnome2 seems as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of slippers. I think I will give Debian another try as a Desktop OS and it feels surprisingly good to come home.

A full review of Debian Squeeze can be found here.

Article first published as Debian Beckons Ubuntu Refugees to Come Home on Technorati.

What Went Wrong at Fukishima? 24 Hours to Meltdown

Reactor 3 Explodes at Fukishima
A report by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) takes a close look at what went wrong at the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
With billions of dollars in research and technology invested in nuclear energy, the report identified six common-sense and seemly obvious lessons which could have minimized or prevented the impending meltdown.

A massive 9.0 quake struck at 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011 off the east coast of Japan. At the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), Unit numbers 1,2 and 3 of the six reactors were operating. #4, 5 and 6 were down for scheduled maintenance. The quake caused the plant to perform a routine auto-shutdown without incident.

Power outages caused by quake were widespread. Within 10 seconds, twelve diesel generators activated to power water pumps for cooling to the fuel rods. So far, all emergency procedures are working as planned.

At 2:52 pm Unit 1 using a non-electrical isolation condenser (IC) backup cooling system was cooling the reactor too quickly and a plant supervisor shut it down, per normal procedure.

Tsunami alerts predicted a 3 meter (9.8ft) high wave would strike the Fukushima prefecture. The Dai-ichi Plant is 10 meters above sea level (33 ft). For safety, non-essential personnel began evacuating plant.

The first wave struck at 3:27. With a second set of much bigger waves arriving at 3:35 pm. It has been approximately fifty minutes since the quake.

The second huge wave topped seawalls and surged through plant. It destroyed heat removal seawater pumps and inundated the control rooms controlling valves, pumps and other crucial equipment. Later, TEPCO employees would estimate the killer wave at 14 meters high (46 ft) from water stains on the walls.

Six generators located in basements were drowned and five more shut down when control rooms were flooded. Only one generator serving reactors 5 and 6, not located in a basement, continued operating. This lone functioning generator helped units 5 and 6 survive the disaster while the other reactors spiraled out of control.

Lessons from Fukishima
Even back up batteries failed and Reactor 1 suffered a complete power failure. The control room went dark and instrument panels stopped functioning. Cooling system pumps failed and the water which was supposed to be cooling radioactive fuel rods began to boil. Steam built inside the reactor building. Without working gauges and instruments, operators were not sure of how much water was left to cool the rods.

The non-electrical IC cooling system serving Reactor 1 had been shut down early in the crisis, due to it working too well. Now, without power,  plant operators were unable to reopen the valves, even manually.

Operators struggled to regain power at the plant.  They scavenged batteries out of cars in the parking lot and called out a small fleet of power-generating trucks. However,  the earthquake and tsunami ruined roads and mass evacuations clogged highways and these trucks promptly became stuck in traffic.

At 4:36 TEPCO finally officially alerted the Japanese government of the problem at Reactor 1.

Around 9 pm and working by flashlight, operators ingeniously powered up a few important instrument panels using the scavenged car batteries and were relieved to see that the water cooling the fuel rods in Reactor 1 seemed to holding up so far. Water levels were down, but the rods were not exposed.

Later, company analysis showed the instruments were incorrect. The water level had dropped so low the rods were completely exposed. Temperatures had topped 1300 °C (2372 °F) and the meltdown had already begun.

Around midnight, more instruments were brought online and showed that dangerous pressure inside the containment vessel had already exceeded its' maximum design and an explosion was a serious risk.

Teams struggled through the night and next day to vent the explosive pressure in the containment vessel and cool the rods. Power trucks finally arrived and prepared to restart pumps cooling the crippled reactor.

Fire hoses poured on fresh water until tanks were empty, then in desperation started using highly corrosive sea water. This was an tacit admission that saving the plant was no longer an option and now the focus was on preventing a massive nuclear disaster.

Unknown to operators, the meltdown was proceeding. Superheated fuel rods had begun to melt through the steel floor of the pressure vessel. Pressure built inside the reactor as residents within a 10 km area around the plant (6.2 miles) were evacuated.

Attempts to release the pressure from hydrogen gas inside the reactor continued but were not enough to prevent a catastrophic explosion almost exactly 24 hours after the tsunami hit the plant.

The explosion cut off power from the trucks and severed the fire hoses. The flow of cooling water ceased as radiation levels climbed and plant operators scrambled for safety.

The disaster continued to spiral out of control. The plant was now a radioactive hot spot and choked with debris from the tsunami and explosion of reactor 1. Workers struggled to cool Reactors 2 and 3, but without power or pumps, Reactor 3 exploded on March 14, followed by a possible explosion inside number two later that day. Later, another explosion tore the roof off building four.

As this slow-motion catastrophe unfolded, workers fought gallantly to contain it but efforts were continually hampered by the lack of power which caused pumps to fail and rendered safety controls useless. Japanese officials later admitted that three reactors suffered full meltdowns.

Certainly, lessons will be learned from this disaster. Nuclear Power Plant designers worldwide will be studying Fukishima for years to come and will develop better system designs and disaster plans.

But looking at how events unfolded, it was mainly a lack of planning in the common-sense, low tech processes which brought Fukishima to its' knees.

Article first published as What Went Wrong at Fukishima? 24 Hours to Meltdown on Technorati. 

Reactor 3 image:

Lessons background image: