Thursday, December 22, 2011

Russia's troubled Phobos-Grunt probe, stuck in the wrong orbit for more than a month, appears to be headed for a fiery and uncontrolled fall back to Earth early next month. Tracking experts are predicting that Phobos-Grunt will re-enter Earth's atmosphere on Jan. 9, 2012, but at present, the forecast includes an uncertainty of plus or minus 5 1/2 days. Some analysts are even suggesting that the spacecraft could see its demise as early as Jan. 1 or 2.
Meanwhile, the uncontrolled tumble of Phobos-Grunt into Earth's atmosphere is being eyed as a possible way to sharpen computer tools to more accurately calculate re-entry predictions. Since 1998, the IADC has performed re-entry prediction tests. Data-sharing between countries has helped hone skills to more precisely calculate the re-entries of spacecraft, rocket stages and even discarded hardware from the International Space Station. If Phobos-Grunt is a new target, it will be the third tracking campaign in 12 months — a record for the IADC. This year the agency monitored the uncontrolled re-entry of NASA’s defunct Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite on Sept. 24, followed by the downfall of Germany’s dead Roentgen Satellite (ROSAT) on Oct. 23. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft tips the scale at nearly 14 tons. The probe is full of several tons of propellant — a hefty load of toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel. This propellant, which would have sent Phobos-Grunt toward Mars, was left unused after a malfunction with the probe's engines stranded it in Earth orbit instead. Debris analysts in the U.S. point to Russian statements that the propellant tanks onboard Phobos-Grunt are made of aluminum, not heat-resistant titanium. As such, any propellant — frozen or unfrozen — should "burn up" or dissipate during the re-entry process. But components of the spacecraft are expected to reach the Earth’s surface — including the probe’s sample-return capsule. The nose cone-shaped hardware was designed to transport specimens of Phobos to Earth, and it was built to speed through Earth’s atmosphere and make a crash- landing at a recovery site, without a parachute.
Still to be seen is how Russian space officials plan to advise the public regarding the death throes of Phobos-Grunt and what leftovers might reach Earth’s surface. "After ROSAT came down over the Indian Ocean … there was widespread relief." ROSAT carried an X-ray telescope with heat-resistant components. This encouraged the view that larger parts could survive re-entry, and might pose a risk to people and objects on the ground. "It seems unlikely that Phobos-Grunt will somehow be rescued at this point. The last efforts were tied to a period where the orbit [of Phobos-Grunt] would have the spacecraft in sunlight throughout its orbit, raising hopes that it might have the power necessary to establish communications. But given the large dishes they've used in this effort and the lack of communications, we're left to await yet another re-entry. I hate to say it, but we're already working the 'death' watch here. The bottom line is that there is very little chance of anything reaching the ground and even if it did, it would likely do so over some ocean."
So, with the prospect of a third large spacecraft falling to Earth within the span of about four months, should the public be concerned? "People should not panic. Space debris is re-entering all the time, including fairly large rocket bodies. However, the public should not be completely dismissive of the threat that space debris poses, either." ROSAT, for example, fell just short of the Asian continent and landed in the Bay of Bengal. An incident in 1978 involving the former Soviet Union's nuclear-energized Cosmos 954 hurtled into a wilderness area of Canada. The clean-up operation from that fall was a coordinated event between the United States and Canada, with an estimated recovery of about 0.1 percent of Cosmos 954's power source. "If that spacecraft had completed just a couple of more orbits it may have landed in the continental United States. There was also the incident with [NASA’s] Skylab where debris from the falling space station fell onto the Australian town of Esperance."
"One of the uncertainties surrounding Phobos-Grunt is the lack of hard technical information about the spacecraft. If Roscosmos provided hard data about the construction of the spacecraft, including the construction of the propellant tanks, it might allay concerns about the danger the spacecraft poses." There is some question about the Chinese orbiter Yinghou 1 — a hitchhiking payload attached to Phobos-Grunt. There is little, if any, technical data about its construction and composition, including any potentially hazardous materials that might survive re-entry. "There is a lot of talk about international cooperation, and, in fact, the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center is providing Roscosmos with orbital information via a transparency and confidence-building measure signed by the United States and the Russian federation specifically for the purpose of providing such information for space situational awareness." The signed measure was a result of discussions that arose following the collision of a U.S. satellite and Russian satellite in February 2009.

**I love those who can smile in trouble,
who can gather strength from distress,
and grow brave by reflection.
'Tis the business of little minds to shrink,
but they whose heart is firm,
and whose conscience approves their conduct,
will pursue their principles unto death.**
Leonardo da Vinci

This morning -
None 5.0 or higher.

Yesterday -
12/21/11 -


First debris from Japanese earthquake/tsunami reaches Olympic Peninsula in Washington - The first piece of debris that could be identified as washing up on the West Coast from the March 11 tsunami in Japan — a large black float — was found on a Neah Bay beach two weeks ago. Since then, the two researchers, known as DriftBusters Inc. — who have used flotsam to track wind and water currents in the Pacific since 1970 — have learned that the black, 55-gallon drum-sized floats also have been found on Vancouver Island.
Tons of debris washed out to sea when a tsunami struck northern Japan after the massive magnitude-9.0 earthquake March 11. About a quarter of the 100 million tons of debris from Japan is expected to make landfall on beaches from southern Alaska to California, possibly in volumes large enough to clog ports. Debris will be snagged by currents leading into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and that a large portion of it will end up on beaches from the mouth of the Elwha River to Port Townsend. Many ocean models have shown that the massive congregation of flotsam that washed away from devastated Japanese coastal cities is in the middle of the Pacific and won’t make landfall in the U.S. for another year or two. Most of it is exactly where those models predicted, but those models don’t take into account wind and flotsam with large areas exposed to the wind.
Flotsam in a current travels an average of seven miles per hour, but it can move as much as 20 mph if it has a large area exposed to the wind.
The black floats are seen in the middle of the Pacific by the hundreds, and are not something that has been seen on Eastern Pacific beaches before. The floats are included in masses of black blobs supporting huge rafts of debris that include fishing boats, houses and possibly human bodies. Many of those bodies and parts of bodies will likely begin washing up in about a year, some simply as feet in athletic shoes, similar to those found in Puget Sound over the last decade. Athletic shoes make the perfect floats to preserve parts of bodies, and there are still thousands of people missing from tsunami-stricken areas of Japan. If the debris has any kind of identifiable marking, such as numbers or Japanese writing, it may be traceable. “All debris should be treated with a great reverence and respect." Families in Japan are waiting to hear of any items that may have been associated with their loved ones and may travel to the U.S. to meet those who found these mementos. Items that wash up may include portions of houses, boats, ships, furniture, portions of cars and just about anything else that floats. The rafts of debris include whole houses which may still contain many personal items, and the Japanese are known for storing important personal mementos in walls. Even the smallest of traceable items may be the only thing associated with one of those people who were lost during the disaster.
Some shipping lanes have already been rerouted to avoid the worst of the debris. People should also be aware of the possibility of radiation contamination. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant leaked a large amount of radiation into the water in the wake of the tsunami, and no one knows what levels of contamination there are in the currents, and the items being carried in those currents. The event was unprecedented, and no one knows yet what levels of radiation, if any, items have picked up.

No current tropical storms.

Two cyclones expected to form off Australia this week - Two tropical lows off northern Australia could develop into cyclones in coming days, but pose no immediate threat to mining and crop regions devastated by cyclones and flooding in early 2011. The two lows off the coast of Queensland state and the Northern Territory were travelling east and north respectively and were not forecast to touch land, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned on Wednesday. The low in the Coral Sea, about 1,100 kms (680 miles)off north Queensland, was expected to develop into a cyclone in the next 12 to 18 hours. "At this stage we do not expect to have any direct impact on the Queensland coast." Far north Queensland is home to some of the world's biggest deposits of bauxite, as well as alumina, aluminium, copper and nickel making facilities. If the storm maintained its predicted course southeast of Australia it could potentially pose a threat to the French territory of New Caledonia later in the week. In the sparsely-populated Northern Territory, a monsoon trough 250 kms (155 miles) off the coast of Darwin will develop into a tropical low, and there is a 50 to 100 percent chance of a cyclone developing by Friday.
Australia is bracing for a higher than normal number of cyclones over its November-April tropical storm season due to the presence of a La Nina weather pattern. The first cyclone of the season, named Alenga, developed earlier this month in the Indian Ocean off the west coast but dissipated before nearing land. A barrage of cyclones and tropical storms during the last storm season flooded collieries and halted iron ore mining while ripping apart sugar and wheat crops, driving up commodities prices around the world.


U.S. - A family has been rescued from a car that had been buried in a snowdrift for almost two days on a rural highway in the US state of New Mexico. Rescuers had to dig through 1.2 metres of ice and snow to free the family, whose four-wheel drive got stuck on a highway when a blizzard moved through the area on Tuesday. The parents and their five-year-old daughter were clinging to each other and lethargic when they were found at 2.45am local time Wednesday. State police say they got a distress call and launched a search for the family yesterday. They were among 32 vehicles state police and guardsmen rescued from the storm, but they were the only ones who police say needed medical attention. The family, from Texas, was recovering in hospital today.


AUSTRALIA - HOTTEST DECEMBER DAY ON RECORD. Pilbara residents in Western Australia are bracing for another searing day after Roebourne Airport recorded a sizzling 49C - the hottest December day on record in WA. Mardie shared the scorching 49C top with Roebourne Airport, with the overnight temperature dipping to just 28.4C at 5.37am in Mardie. The temperature dropped to just 27.4C at Roebourne Airport at 5.32am. Pilbara residents can expect another scorcher today after sweltering through yesterday's stifling near 50C heat. By 10am, at least two centres, Mardie and Onslow Airport, had topped 46C. A Severe fire danger warning has been issued for the Gascoyne and coastal parts of the Pilbara, with extreme temperatures and hot dry winds forecast. By 8am today, temperatures had already soared towards 40C across much of the region, with Mardie recording a staggering 42.6C at 8.03am. By 9am it was 44C. Onslow was also baking with the temperature hitting 45.2C just after 9.30am at the airport, a few kilometres inland from the town. Marble Bar, Australia's hottest town, officially recorded a high of 48.4C yesterday and can expect 47C today. After an overnight minimum of 30.5C at 4.20am, the temperature had risen to 39.8C at 10.25am. Roebourne is tipped to get another scorcher today of 45C.