Whipple Shielding

Preventing Satellite Debris

Space Junk

In 2013, director Alfonso Cuarón came out with Gravity, a movie about junk. Specifically, it's a movie about space junk.

In the film, a missile strike on a satellite results in a runaway chain reaction of collisions between space junk and satellites. This brings down space stations, satellites, and spacecraft left and right, rendering Earth's orbit useless to manned travel. 

Gravity is an excellent movie, and we’ll forgive a few scientific inaccuracies, since they're all in service of the plot. (Neil Degrasse Tyson, despite his multiple criticisms of the science, is a fan of the film.)

The threat in Gravity is a very real one. It's a scenario known as Kessler Syndrome, where space debris collides with space debris, generating more space debris, which collides with yet more space debris, until that specific orbit around Earth is so filled with debris that it is rendered nearly useless for human purposes. (Low Earth orbit is the most likely orbit to be lost to this process, though geosynchronous orbit is another possible victim.)

It's not astonishing that this is a serious concern for NASA and other space scientists. There are more than 2,000 satellites in orbit, about 1,500 of which are operational, along with nearly 18,000 trackable artificial objects.

Smaller objects are even more common—at least 29,000 chunks of debris in orbit that are more than 10cm in size, nearly 700,000 between 1-10cm in size, and 170 million chunks of debris below 1 cm in size.

Even with how spacious Earth's orbit is, there's a very high chance of impact, and at least one satellite is destroyed by debris every year. Space junk is a serious threat even if it doesn't trigger Kessler Syndrome.

Steps are being taken to combat the risk. We're tracking debris much more carefully than ever right now. The International Space Station and other spacecraft have special protective layers known as Whipple shield: instead of building hulls out of thicker material, engineers add an extra thin layer some distance over the regular hull. The layer isn't meant to stop the debris but to break it into smaller chunks. In essence, Whipple shield turns debris from a bullet into birdshot. It even makes the needed thickness for the inner hull much smaller, so overall spacecraft mass is actually reduced.

And this: we’re developing a technology known as a laser broom. Targeting a laser on debris will heat up one side of the debris. The resulting heat emissions will then alter and destabilize the debris' orbit, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere.

Like me, trying to make pizza.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Appreciating U.S. Industry

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes some select industries through a prism of how his yard ramps contribute:

Discover it HERE.

Lemmings Making Lemonade

About that r/K Selection

Lemming Culture

Not Really a Cliff-Diver

When you describe people as “behaving like lemmings,” most of us know what you mean (unless they're one of my grandchildren, who thought the word was “lemons”).

You're saying that the people are getting overwhelmed by mob mentality and preparing to launch themselves off a (let’s hope metaphorical) cliff because the rest of the crowd is doing likewise. Lemmings regularly commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs, so it's a good metaphor, right?

Well, that's not exactly what lemmings do.

There are two main reproductive strategies among sexually reproductive organisms—the r-selection and the K-selection. Roughly speaking, a K-selection is one that favors fewer offspring, with more care dedicated to each one. Whales and eagles are classic examples of K-selection. They tend to have longer lifespans, and occur in crowded ecosystems where more competition for resources is necessary.

On the other hand, r-selection centers around producing extremely high numbers of offspring, with less care invested in each. They tend to have shorter lifespans and tend to dominate unstable environments.

Lemmings are extreme r-selection strategists. Every few years, they tend to have truly massive population booms, which result in mass overpopulation. The lemmings react to this by undertaking mass migrations, which often compel them to swim across water, seeking new habitats. They sometimes...well, misjudge the size of the body of water in question, and try to swim across the Atlantic, or something of the sort, but they're definitely not committing mass suicide on purpose. That's something of an urban legend, in great part driven by a 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, in which lemming mass suicide was staged for the cameras.

So, we most definitely have a lot of room to develop good analogies about lemmings. Dire warnings about the dangers of overpopulation, perhaps, or warnings about the ease with which we transmit urban legends?

The way we’ve been using the term, however, is, um…rather lemming-like.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Ramping Up the Wheelhouse

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells the story of a transaction that involves an interaction between people and not an invoice, and it perfectly describes why we admire him so much.

Check out his great essay HERE.

The Bone Wars

Marsh and Cope Have a Falling Out

The Marsh-Cope Feud

Beware of Humans

There's one field of geology notably unrepresented at the United States Geological Survey: paleontology. This seems like a fairly major omission, and it's all thanks to a series of events known as the Bone Wars.

During the Gilded Age (the last thirty years or so of the 1800s in America), paleontology was an incredibly competitive field. At the time, we collected dinosaur fossils more rapidly than ever before. Two figures stood out above all the rest—Edward Drinker Cope, of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and Othniel Charles Marsh.

Marsh and Cope began as friends when they first met in Berlin (Germany has always been a paleontological treasure trove), but their relationship began to sour quickly. By the early 1870s, things heated up to an absurd degree. A series of mishaps, oddities, and minor snubs, along with the fundamentally incompatible personalities of the two men, irrevocably ruined things between them.

In 1873, the Bone Wars began in earnest. The first shots fired were academic ones: renaming and reclassifying species to mess with the other, publicly pointing out one another's errors, and the like.

If things had stayed like that, it wouldn't have made history the way it did; academic rivalries are, as they say, a dime a dozen. However, the confrontation escalated rapidly from there.

Marsh and Cope began hiring employees away from one another, bribing officials to advantage themselves and hurt the other, stealing fossils from one another's sites, and so on and so forth. They actively tried to destroy one another's reputations, and even turned to destroying fossils rather than letting the other get his hands on them. Financially and professionally, the rivalry eventually ruined both of them, and they never abandoned it.

The two scientists discovered 136 new species during the Bone Wars, including Triceratops and Stegosaurus. (Before then, we had only nine named species of dinosaur in North America.)

Unfortunately, the Bone Wars also did much to damage the reputation of American paleontology. It resulted in the loss of numerous fossils, the USGS losing its paleontology division, and a severe, decades-long blow to the reputation of American paleontology.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Location, Location, Location

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells us all about placement and location, location, location. And he uses a novel way of website strategy to reflect on the right yard ramps themselves.

Check out his new blog HERE.

What Happened to Everyone?

Why Cahokia Went Down

The Fall of the Americas

Civilization & Its Discontent

One thing that happens to me—often—as I get older:

Learning that something I was taught in school was completely wrong. As you get older, it’ll also probably happen to you more and more, as well. We have more scientists and other researchers than ever before (in fact, 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today). So, human knowledge is advancing faster than ever.

Plate tectonics was only discovered in the 60s. There are tons of people alive today who were taught nothing about it; they often learned those older, incorrect models of geology.

The most recent thing I learned that I'd been taught wrongly? America before Columbus.

When I was a kid, we were taught that America was a wild, largely empty place, with just a few Native Americans wandering around—like a small group of people alone in a stadium. As it turns out, though, that stadium was pretty packed.

Charles C. Mann's excellent book 1491 is an exploration of recent historical and archaeological study into the pre-Columbian Americas. It turns out that massive, densely populated civilizations abounded in the Americas. The city of Cahokia was the size of London around the time Columbus showed up, and it was located near modern-day St. Louis.

The Aztec and Incan Empires both had populations comparable to many European nations at the time. Countless souls lived in massive cities in the Amazon rainforest. These last are the most mysterious of the lot, since it's such poor territory to preserve archaeological remnants. As we find more and more information on them, it becomes more and more apparent how impressive they must have been.

So, what happened to everyone? Well, in a single word: disease. Apocalyptic outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, malaria, and more, all brought by Europeans, raced across the Americas, wiping out an absolutely terrifying 90% of the population of the Americas. The Native American populations Europeans encountered? In a very real sense, they were survivors of an apocalypse.

1491 is far from the most cheerful book I've ever read, but it's an incredibly informative one. It should be required reading for anyone interested in American history.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Smart Equipment Financing

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy sees mostly positive growth in his industry sectors. Companies are investing fairly strongly in equipment, with or without the prospect of another recession.

Check out his insightful post HERE.

Underground Sleeping Situation

Bunking in Bunkers

Going Underground

Gentrification . . . of a Sort

In the 1960s and 70s, Maoist China constructed a massive series of fallout shelters underneath their cities for fear of nuclear war. Beijing had 10,000 such bunkers, with many more constructed across the nation. Now, however, that the Cold War has ended and fear of nuclear war has receded, those bunkers are seeing new life.

Every night, more than a million inhabitants of Beijing bed down inside these underground bunkers. They're largely migrant workers and poor rural students, and the conditions they live in are often quite harsh. The bunkers have been subdivided into countless micro-apartments, and people are crammed into these spaces like stacked logs.

While laws dictate a minimum size for the micro-apartments, they're often ignored. It's not uncommon to find an entire family living in a room only large enough for a bed. Mold is common, and the lack of sunlight and ventilation certainly isn't healthy.

Despite government efforts to clean up the bunkers, there isn't anywhere else for these people to go. Housing and rental prices in Beijing have skyrocketed to utterly unsupportable levels.

This isn't even remotely an uncommon phenomenon, either: across the globe, cities have rampant housing crises as the global population increasingly urbanizes. It's happening here in America, as well. New York, for instance, is famous for having the highest density of poor artists per apartment of any major developed city. (If there's not at least two musicians and a cartoonist in your closet, you're not using your space correctly.)

Unfortunately, we don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. In New York much of the problem comes from issues like the ultra-wealthy buying multiple luxury residences and leaving them unoccupied. The problem is completely different in China, where rural populations are abandoning their traditional ways of life en masse.

Cities and governments across the world are facing this problem, and how they respond is absolutely critical.

Me? I fantasize about finding a cabin out in the country with no neighbors for miles. People are too much trouble most of the time.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: GeoBusiness Plate Tectonics

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy explores geopolitics plate tectonics and its effect on steel. He calls it GeoBusiness plate tectonics, and I'm always up for a new meme.

Check out his terrific post HERE.