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.

Mapping the World

The Ortelius Theatrum

And lawn care.

The world map from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

These days you don't see atlases very often. Google Maps are just much more prevalent and often more useful. Atlases are unquestionably a direct ancestor of Google Maps, however. The oldest ever atlas? The Theatrum Orbis Terrarumor “Theatre of the World.” (Sorry, no Greek mythology jokes for you today.)

Originally published in May 1570, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, was written by the mapmaker Abraham Ortelius (my favorite Brabantian). It contained a total of 53 maps, all bound together. Despite being a skilled mapmaker himself, all the maps included were from other mapmakers. (Though he frequently tidied them up a bit.)

Unusually for the time, Ortelius actually credited all 33 mapmakers in the bibliography. He also included a list of other quality mapmakers he knew in the back, which grew longer with every edition published during his lifetime.

Ortelius published 25 editions in his lifetime, the last of which contained 167 maps and was published in seven different languages. Naturally, I hold much admiration for someone who devoted such time and painstaking care to improve on such a singular undertaking. I’d like to think that Maggie thinks of my work on, say, the lawn, with such approval. Though Maggie might say otherwise.

(Confirming: Maggie just said otherwise.)

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was hugely significant. Not only was it vital in pushing forward the navigational feats of the Age of Exploration, it also is considered to be the starting point for the Dutch Golden Age of Cartography, which lasted a solid century.

The maps included in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum were remarkably accurate for their time. Possibly even more importantly, it made geography accessible to the growing middle classes at the time, who hadn't been able to easily afford maps before this.

It massively improved the state of public education at the time, and made the world a more understandable and less mysterious place. That’s a good thing, right?

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Angling Ramps Into Warehouses

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy follows the flow of warehouse scenarios and eloquently shows that many of those streams run through yard ramps.

Check out his great piece HERE.

A Really Old Wooden Ship

Or: IKEA is So Fourth Dynasty


Pick, Pack, and . . . Ship?

The world's oldest intact ship is, unsurprisingly, Egyptian. Specifically, it's the funeral barge for Khufu, also known as King Cheops, a pharaoh from the Fourth Dynasty of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. (You might know him as the guy who commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Khufu's ship was discovered in 1954 by archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh, who found the disassembled ship sealed into a pit in the bedrock near Giza. Aside from being disassembled, he found the ship in almost perfect condition, thanks to the ancient Egyptians having sealed it away in the desert bedrock.

The ship itself is built of Lebanon cedar, a material historically highly prized in shipbuilding, among other uses. It's mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Lebanon cedar is so embedded in the history of the region that it's the national emblem of Lebanon, and we see it on the national flag.

The cedar planks (before the ship was disassembled for storage) were held together with mortise and tenon joints, lashed together with cords of halfah grass fiber. (Only millennia later did we start using nails for shipbuilding.)

The ship was probably intended to serve as the pharaoh’s “solar barge,” a vessel to carry Khufu across the heavens with the sun god Ra. Interestingly, though watertight and seaworthy, there wasn't any rigging for sails or room for actual paddling. There was, however, evidence that it had been in the water at some point.

Remember I mentioned that it was found disassembled, and yet is considered the world's oldest intact ship? Despite being stored disassembled, it was painstakingly rebuilt by Ahmed Youssef Moustafa, an antiquities restorer. Took him years to learn the methods of ancient Egyptian boat construction, examining carved reliefs of boat construction in Egyptian tombs, other preserved boats, and the methods of modern Egyptian shipwrights. Moustafa’s reconstruction of the boat took 14 years in all.

The most important aspect of the reconstruction process? The parts of the ship were all laid out in a logical order when disassembled, and markings were put on each of the planks to show where they lined up.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The ancient Egyptians basically gave the pharaoh an IKEA boat for the afterlife.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: The Future of Industry

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy takes a Ramp Rules-worthy look at this whole Industry 4.0 business and decides, to my relief, that humans remain important.

Check out his great insight HERE.

About Those Sickness Behaviors

Or: Get Better Soon

Best Wishes, McCoy Fields

Feel Better

Quick question for you: Why does being sick give us unpleasant symptoms? Believe it or not, usually it's not the specific illness causing all those symptoms (though they certainly cause some.) 

Fever would be the classic example here. Infections don't actually cause fevers. Instead, fevers are a defensive mechanism used by the body—most pathogens can only survive in fairly specific temperature ranges. Raising body temperatures is a good way to kill them off.

There's a more interesting series of reactions to infectious illness, however, known as “sickness behavior.” Fatigue, aches, chills, depression, irritability, nausea, and disinterest in socializing, among other symptoms, are all counted as sickness behavior. These symptoms show up again and again across countless diseases, and they're very seldom caused by the disease itself. (And they're not just in your head. The symptoms are physiologically very real.)

It turns out that there might actually be an evolutionary advantage to these symptoms. While they don't help kill invading pathogens directly, they do serve a specific purpose: they keep you away from other people.

If you're not interested in being around other people, you're less likely to spread illnesses to others, including those in your family group. Early humans or human ancestor species who lacked sickness behavior symptoms likely would have just wandered around and hung out with other, non-sick people, infecting them more frequently. Even if those individuals who lacked sickness behavior symptoms were better able to survive disease themselves (which there is no indication that they would’ve been), they'd still be less likely to pass on their genes.

This relates back to an idea known as evolutionary altruism—namely, that evolutionary survival and adaptation doesn't just happen on a personal level but also on a community level. Many behaviors that don't advantage the individual, or often even their family at all, end up being incredibly evolutionarily advantageous for the species. So, in the case of getting sick, the extra suffering is there to help others.

Moral of the story? Anyone who tries to claim that survival of the fittest means they don't have to be charitable and help others is full of it. Also, they don't understand natural selection. Survival of the fittest is actually a misinterpretation of Darwin's theory, but that's a story for another day.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Yard Ramps & Structural Integrity

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy defines "integrity" and combines it with international shipping routes in a way that pleases my roundabout sensibilities.

Check out his mighty fine blog HERE.