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How will the super-duper Tesla battery work? And more on the price of electricity

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Image: Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

I received an email the other day from the Australia Insitute. I don’t know how that happened, I’ve never heard of the organisation. Apparently it’s Australia’s most influential progressive think-tank (self-described) and apparently I subscribed to it recently while in a barely conscious state. All good.

Anyway the topic was timely: ‘Rising Energy Bills: Blame Gas’.

In a very recent post I quoted from a few apparently reliable sources on the reason for South Australia’s very high electricity prices. Unfortunately there wasn’t too much agreement among them, though at least none of them blamed renewable energy. But neither did any of them blame gas, though one did point a finger at wholesale pricing. The Australia Institute’s email put it thus:

Yesterday, we released the latest Electricity Update of the National Energy Emissions Audit for July 2017. The report revealed a stunning correlation between domestic electricity prices and gas prices — particularly in South Australia — despite gas making up only 10 percent of electricity generation.

So this is a subject I need to return to – in my next post. This post will focus on batteries and storage.

Neoen, a French renewable energy company, is building a 315MW, 99 turbine wind farm near Jamestown in South Australia. Connected to this project will be an array of Tesla’s lithium ion Powerpack batteries. According to this ABC News article:

The array will be capable of an output of 100 megawatts (MW) of power at a time and the huge battery will be able to store 129 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy so, if used at full capacity, it would be able to provide its maximum output for more than an hour.

It will be a modular network, with each Powerpack about the size of a large fridge at 2.1 metres tall, 1.3m long and 0.8m wide. They weigh in at 1,200 kilograms each.

It will have just slightly more storage than the next biggest lithium battery, built by AES this year in southern California.

But Tesla’s 100 MW output would be more than three times larger than the AES battery and five times larger than anything Tesla has built previously.

I’m no electrochemist, but a nice scrutiny of these sentences identifies a clear distinction between output and storage. And the output of this planned battery is the pioneering aspect.

So here’s a very basic summary of how a rechargeable lithium ion battery works. Each battery (and they vary hugely in size) is made up of a number of cells, each a battery in itself. On opposite sides of the cell are conductive surfaces, aka current collectors, one of aluminium and the other of copper. Inside and joined to these surfaces are electrodes, the positive cathode and the negative anode. The cathode is made from a lithium metal oxide such as lithium cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate, which needs to have the purest, most uniform composition for maximum performance and longevity. The negative anode is made from graphite, a layered form of carbon. The layered structure allows the lithium ions (Li+) created by the current to be easily stored at and removed from the carbon surface. Between these electrodes, filling the cell, is an electrolyte fluid through which lithium ions flow from one electrode to the other, which charges and discharges the cell. Again the purity of this fluid is a vital factor (research is being done to come up with a form of solid electrolyte). Between the two electrodes is an insulating plastic separator, essential to keep the electrodes separate and prevent short-circuiting. This plastic membrane allows the lithium ions to pass through it. The battery is charged when the lithium ions have passed through the separator and become attached to and stored in the layered graphite of the anode. The battery is discharged by reversing the flow.

Lithium ion batteries are found not only in Tesla Powerpacks but generally in electric car batteries and many other devices such as my own iPhone and iPad. They’re lighter and have much less energy density than lead-acid batteries. The technology of lithium ion batteries is described in a number of useful online videos, of which the most comprehensive, I think, is a webinar from the American Chemistry Society (ACS), essentially an interview with Dee Strand, a lithium ion battery specialist and expert. Her talk also provides interesting ideas on how these types of batteries can be improved.

So a fully-charged cell has stored energy, and a discharging cell is producing output. There are variations in lithium ion battery technology, for example variations in the electrode materials, the electrolyte composition and the like, so we don’t know precisely what Tesla will be using for the South Australian battery system, but we have a fair idea.

In any case, there seems no obvious reason why this proven technology can’t be scaled up to meet the sort of need that was identified after last September’s state blackout. Now we just have to wait and see whether Musk will lose his bet regarding completion time come December.

Refs and info

Just type in ‘lithium ion battery’ in youtube



Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2017 at 1:00 pm

a bit more on cell cultures, cell mortality and patients’ rights

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Human connective tissue in culture, 500x. Image courtesy of Dr. Cecil Fox (photographer)/National Cancer Institute.

Canto: Well, we’ve followed up Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race with Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which intersects with Wadman’s book in describing cell cultures and their value in modern medicine and genetics. So are ready to talk about all this again?

Jacinta: Yes, this book tells a compelling history of the Lacks family as well as a story of the ethics around human cell cultures, based on the HeLa cell line taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, shortly before she died of cervical cancer.

Canto: A very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix, to be precise, though the tumour was misdiagnosed at the time.

Jacinta: Yes, her bodily state and her sufferings make for grim reading. And the cells were taken sans permission, in a pioneering era of almost no regulation and a great deal of dubious practice.

Canto: The wild west of cell and tissue culturology.

Jacinta: George Gey, the guy who ordered these cells to be taken, was a great pioneer in cancer and cell culture research, but he and others found it very difficult to keep human cells alive in vitro, so he was much surprised and delighted at his success with Henrietta’s tumour cells.

Canto: They were the first ever cells to live beyond the Hayflick limit, though that limit wasn’t spelt out by Hayflick until 1961.

Jacinta: And wasn’t accepted for decades after that. And the reason for their apparent immortality, a rare thing in untreated cells, was their cancerous nature. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme known as telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Normally these telomeres, often described as like the protective caps at the ends of shoelaces, shorten and so become less protective with each cell division.

Canto: So if we could stop cancer cells from producing telomerase, you’d stop all that metastasising…

Jacinta: Sounds easy-peasy. And if we could introduce telomerase into non-cancerous cells we could all live forever.

Canto: Bet they haven’t thought of that one. So if this cell line was cancerous, how could they be of so much value? How could they be of any use at all, since the aim, I thought, was to produce ‘clean’ cells, like the WI-38 cells Hayflick produced ten years later? Remember how they had so many problems with monkey cells, which were full of viruses?

Jacinta: Well, forget viruses for the moment, the exciting thing about the HeLa cells was that they stayed alive and multiplied, which was rare, and so they could be experimented on in a variety of ways.

Canto: But did they use the cells for vaccines? The 1954 Salk polio vaccine was tested using these cells. How can you do this with cancerous cells?

Jacinta: Well it was the suitability of these cells for mass-production that made them ideal for test-driving the Salk vaccine, and of course their prolific nature was tied to their cancerous nature – Henrietta’s cancer seemed to be horribly fast-spreading, it was just about everywhere inside her at her death. Her cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and I’ve read that this may have had something to do with their prolific nature. She also had syphillis, likely contracted from her philandering husband, and this suppresses the immune system, allowing the cancer cells to multiply more rapidly. But even though they were cancer cells they shared many of the properties of normal cells, including the production of proteins and susceptibility to bacterial and especially viral infections. Of course you would never inject HeLa cells into humans, but their malignancy is an advantage in that you get the results of say, viral infection of cells as they reproduce, much more quickly than with normal cells, because of their reproductive rate. It seems old George Gey hit the jackpot with them, though he never made any more money out of them than the Lackses did.

Canto: They initially used rhesus monkey cells to test their antibody levels in response to Salk’s killed polio virus, but they were too hard to get and too expensive, and the HeLa cells were an excellent alternative because they were easily infected by the virus… and they reproduced with unprecedented alacrity.

The malignancy of immortality (or vice versa). A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes. Courtesy Paul D. Andrews)

Jacinta: Yes, that’s to say, they readily produced antibodies, and so could be experimented on to produce the level of antibodies to create immunity. But growing cell cultures in vitro and maintaining them in a viable state, that’s been a decades-long learning process. Tissue culture these days is big business, which has led to the murky ethical questions about tissue ownership that Skloot refers to at the end of her book.

Canto: Yes but I for one am quite clear about that issue. I’m more than happy for researchers to use any tissue that comes from, say, a biopsy done on me. Is that tissue mine, when it’s removed from my body?

Jacinta: Well, is it? Think of locks of hair kept from a loved one – something that happens a few times in Skloot’s book. Wouldn’t you be moved by a lock of hair that you knew came from someone you loved but who was no longer around? Wouldn’t you feel you had hold of a part of her? Not just a memory of her?

Canto: Interesting. I think I’d be in two minds about it. I’d think, yes, this is her hair, a small part of her, and that would bring all the emotion of identity with it. But then, what I know about science and cells tells me this is just hair, it’s not what makes her her. It’s nowhere near it. Our hair is discarded all the time.

Jacinta: If you had some of her brain cells? Or heart tissue haha?

Canto: Nothing but ultra-ultra minuscule parts of the whole. And essentially meaningless when disconnected from that whole. But this misses the point that the value of this tissue for research outweighs by far, to me at any rate, the sentimental value that you’re talking about.

Jacinta: But for some people, and some cultures, the intactness of the human entity, after death say, is of deep-rooted significance. Are you not prepared to respect that?

Canto: But we slough off our trillions of cells all the time. Even as a kid I was told we replace our cells every seven years. Of course it’s much more varied and complicated than that, but the general point of constant renewal is true.

Jacinta: Yes but they’re your cells, with your DNA in them, nobody else’s.

Canto: Well people are prepared to be operated on, which inevitably kills or removes cells, and in doing so they give themselves up to experts in healing their bodies and often saving their lives, so it would seem to me pretty mean-spirited not to allow those experts to make use of what’s removed, which is of no obvious use to them.

Jacinta: I think you have a good argument there, but what if these mad scientists use your cells for some nefarious purpose?

Canto: Well, call me a trusting soul, but why would they do that? And what nefarious purpose could they use them for?

Jacinta: Well it mightn’t even be nefarious. With the modern commercialisation of cell and gene technology, they might find your tissue perfect for developing something patentable, out of which they make shitloads of money while preventing independent research on the tissue, so using your cells in a way that you might strongly disapprove of. But you wouldn’t have the slightest say, as things stand today. Rebecca Skloot describes examples of this kind in the Afterword to her book. There’s been a raging debate about commercialisation and gene patents and patients’ rights for some time now in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, with scientists and other stakeholders ranged along the spectrum. In fact, these are the last words of Skloot’s book, published in 2010:

2009: More than 150,000 scientists join the American Civil Liberties Union and breast cancer patients in suing Myriad Genetics over its breast-cancer gene patents. The suit claims that the practice of gene patenting violates patent law and has inhibited scientific research.

Canto: Right. As her investigations reveal, it’s not just about patients wanting a share of the loot from research on their cells, and so using the courts to bog everything down and hinder that research, it’s often about researchers themselves wanting to cash in, and patients joining with other researchers to try to free up the system for the common good. So how’s the Myriad Genetics case going, and how’s the situation regarding patient rights in this field, several years on?References

Jacinta: Well in the case of Myriad, it was all highly complex and litigious, with suits and countersuits, which the company mostly lost, in particular in a landmark (and unanimous) Supreme Court decision of 2013, in which they found that ‘merely isolating genes that are found in nature [in this case the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes] does not make them patentable’. But of course this wasn’t so much about patients’ rights in the material that was once part of their bodies. It’s not all about money – though much of it is, and if you don’t want the money landing in lawyers’ pockets, the best thing is to have clear guidelines, disclosure, and fully developed and complex consent procedures. My impression from doing a fairly shallow dive on the issues is that we’re a long way from sorting this out, in an increasingly complex and lucrative field. Our own federal government’s NHMRC has a booklet out, available on PDF, called ‘Ethics and the exchange and commercialisation of products derived from human tissue: background and issues’, which is already six years old, but I don’t see anything in the legislative pipeline.

Canto: Looks like an issue to be followed up, if we have the stomach for it.

Jacinta: It pays to be informed, that’s one obvious take-away from all this.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
Meredith Wadman, The vaccine race, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part three, Apollo

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In 2009, a poll held by the United Kingdom’s Engineering & Technology magazine found that 25% of those surveyed did not believe that men landed on the Moon. Another poll gives that 25% of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed were unsure that the landings happened. There are subcultures worldwide which advocate the belief that the Moon landings were faked. By 1977 the Hare Krishna magazine Back to Godhead called the landings a hoax, claiming that, since the Sun is 93,000,000 miles away, and “according to Hindu mythology the Moon is 800,000 miles farther away than that”, the Moon would be nearly 94,000,000 miles away; to travel that span in 91 hours would require a speed of more than a million miles per hour, “a patently impossible feat even by the scientists’ calculations.”

From ‘Moon landing conspiracy theories’ , Wikipedia

Time magazine cover, December 1968

Haha just for the record the Sun is nearly 400 times further from us than the Moon, but who’s counting? So now to the Apollo moon missions, and because I don’t want this exploration to extend to a fourth part, I’ll be necessarily but reluctantly brief. They began in 1961 and ended in 1975, and they included manned and unmanned space flights (none of them were womanned).

But… just one more general point. While we may treat it as inevitable that many people prefer to believe in hoaxes and gazillion-dollar deceptions, rather than accept facts that are as soundly evidence-based as their own odd existences, it seems to me a horrible offence in this case (as in many others), both to human ingenuity and to the enormous cost in terms, not only of labour spent but of lives lost. So we need to fight this offensive behaviour, and point people to the evidence, and not let them get away with their ignorance.

The Apollo program was conceived in 1960 during Eisenhower’s Presidency, well before Kennedy’s famous mission statement. It was given impetus by Soviet successes in space. It involved the largest commitment of financial and other resources in peacetime history. The first years of research, development and testing involved a number of launch vehicles, command modules and lunar modules, as well as four possible ‘mission modes’. The first of these modes was ‘direct ascent’, in which the spacecraft would be launched and operated as a single unit. Finally, after much analysis, debate and lobbying, the mode known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was adopted. The early phases of the program were dogged by technical problems, developmental delays, personal clashes and political issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy’s principal science advisor, Jerome Weisner, was solidly opposed to manned missions.

I can’t give a simple one-by-one account of the missions, as the early unmanned missions weren’t simply named Apollo 1, 2 etc. They were associated strongly with the Saturn launch vehicles, and the Apollo numbering system we now recognise was only established in April 1967. The Apollo 4 mission, for example, is also known as AS-501, and was the first unmanned test flight of the Saturn 5 launcher (later used for the Apollo 11 launch). Three Apollo/Saturn unmanned missions took place in 1966 using the Saturn 1B launch vehicle.

The manned missions had the most tragic of beginnings, as is well known. On January 27 1967 the three designated astronauts for the AS-204 spaceflight, which they themselves had renamed Apollo 1 to commemorate the first manned flight of the program, were asphyxiated when a fire broke out during a rehearsal test. No further attempt at a manned mission was made until October of 1968. In fact, the whole program was grounded after the accident for ‘review and redesign’ with an overall tightening of hazardous procedures. In early 1968, the Lunar Module was given its first unmanned flight (Apollo 5). The flight was delayed a number of times due to problems and inexperience in constructing such a module. The test run wasn’t entirely successful, but successful enough to clear the module for future manned flights. The following, final unmanned mission, Apollo 6, suffered numerous failures, but went largely unnoticed due to the assassination of Martin Luther King on the day of the launch. However, its problems helped NASA to apply fixes which improved the safety of all subsequent missions.

And so we get to the first successful manned mission, Apollo 7. Its aim was to test the Apollo CSM (Command & Service Module) in low Earth orbit, and it put American astronauts in space for the first time in almost two years. It was also the first of the three-man missions and the first to be broadcasted from within the spaceship. Things went very well in technical terms, a relief to the crew, who were only given this opportunity due to the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. There were some minor tensions between the astronauts and ground staff, due to illness and some of the onboard conditions. They spent 11 days in orbit and space food, though on the improve, was far from ideal.

Apollo 8, launched only two months later in December, was a real breakthrough, a truly bold venture, as described in Earthrise, an excellent documentary of the mission made in 2005 (the astronauts were the first to witness Earthrise from the Moon). The aim, clearly, was to create a high-profile event designed to capture the world’s attention, and to eclipse the Soviets. As the documentary points out, the Soviets had stolen the limelight in the space race – ‘the first satellite, the first man in orbit, the first long duration flight, the first dual capsule flights, the first woman in space, the first space walk’. Not to mention the first landing of a human-built craft on the Moon itself.

One of the world’s most famous photos, Earthrise, taken by astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968

The original aim of the mission was to test the complete spacecraft, including the lunar module, in Earth orbit, but when the lunar module was declared unready, a radical change of plan was devised, involving an orbit of the Moon without the lunar module. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times at close quarters (110 kms above the surface) over a period of 20 hours. During the orbit they made a Christmas Eve telecast, the most watched program ever, up to that time. Do yourself a favour and watch the doco. The commentary of the astronaut’s wives are memorable, and put the moon hoaxers’ offensiveness in sharp relief.
By comparison to Apollo 8 the Apollo 9 mission (March ’69) was a modest affair, if that’s not too insulting. This time the complete spacecraft for a Moon landing was tested in low Earth orbit, and everything went off well, though space walking proved problematic, as it often had before for both American and Soviet astronauts, due to space sickness and other problems. With Apollo 10 (May ’69) the mission returned to the Moon in a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 11 landing. The mission created some interesting records, including the fastest speed ever reached by a manned vehicle (39,900 kms/hour during the return flight from the Moon) and the greatest distance from home ever travelled by humans (due to the Moon’s elliptical orbit, and the fact that the USA was on the ‘far side of the Earth’ when the astronauts were on the far side of the Moon).

I’ll pass by the celebrated Apollo 11 mission, which I can hardly add anything to, and turn to the missions I know less – that’s to say almost nothing – about.

Apollo 12, launched in November 1969, was a highly successful mission, in spite of some hairy moments due to lightning strikes at launch. It was, inter alia, a successful exercise in precision targeting, as it landed a brief walk away from the Surveyor 3 probe, sent to the Moon two and a half years earlier. Parts of the probe were taken back to Earth.

The Apollo 13 mission has, for better or worse, come to be the second most famous of all the Apollo missions. It was the only aborted mission of those intended to land on the Moon. An oxygen tank exploded just over two days after launch in April 1970, and just before entry into the Moon’s gravitational sphere. This directly affected the Service Module, and it was decided to abort the landing. There were some well-documented hairy moments and heroics, but the crew managed to return safely. Mea culpa, I’ve not yet seen the movie!

Apollo 14, launched at the end of January 1971, also had its glitches but landed successfully. The astronauts collected quite a horde of moon rocks and did the longest moonwalk ever recorded. Alan Shepard, the mission commander, added his Moon visit to the accolade of being the first American in space ten years earlier. At 47, he’s the oldest man to have stepped on the Moon. The Apollo 15 mission was the first of the three ‘J missions’, involving a longer stay on the Moon. With each mission there were improvements in instrumentation and capability. The most well-known of these was the Lunar Roving Vehicle, first used on Apollo 15, but that mission also deployed a gamma-ray spectrometer, a mass spectrometer and a laser altimeter to study the Moon’s surface in detail from the command module. Apollo 16 was another successful mission, in which the geology of the Moon’s surface was the major focus. Almost 100kgs of rock were collected, and it was the first mission to visit the ‘lunar highlands’. The final mission, Apollo 17, was also the longest Moon stay, longest moonwalks in total, largest samples, and longest lunar orbit. And so the adventure ended, with high hopes for the future.

I’ve given an incredibly skimpy account, and I’ve mentioned very few names, but there’s a ton of material out there, particularly on the NASA site of course, and documentaries aplenty, many of them a powerful and stirring reminder of those heady days. Some 400,000 technicians, engineers, administrators and other service personnel worked on the Apollo missions, many of them working long hours, experiencing many frustrations, anxieties, and of course thrills. I have to say, as an internationalist by conviction, I’m happy to see that space exploration has become more of a collaborative affair in recent decades, and may that collaboration continue, defying the insularity and mindless nationalism we’ve been experiencing recently.

a beautiful image of the International Space Station, my favourite symbol of global cooperation

Finally, to the moon hoaxers and ‘skeptics’. What I noticed on researching this – I mean it really was obvious – was that in the comments to the various docos I watched on youtube, they had nothing to say about the science and seemed totally lacking in curiosity. It was all just parroted, and ‘arrogant’ denialism. The science buffs, on the other hand, were full of dizzy geekspeak on technical fixes, data analysis and potential for other missions, e.g. to Mars. In any case I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this little trip into the Apollo missions and the space race, in which I’ve learned a lot more than I’ve presented here.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ part two

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  • That such a huge number of people could seriously believe that the Moon landings were faked by a NASA conspiracy raises interesting questions – maybe more about how people think than anything about the Moon landings themselves. But still, the most obvious question is the matter of evidence. 

Philip Plait,  from ‘Appalled at Apollo’, Chapter 17 of Bad Astronomy

the shadows of astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on the Moon during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission - with thanks to NASA, which recently made thousands of Apollo photos available to the public through Flickr

the shadows of astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on the Moon during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission – with thanks to NASA, which recently made thousands of Apollo photos available to the public through Flickr

So as I wrote in part one of this article, I remember well the day of the first Moon landing. I had just turned 13, and our school, presumably along with most others, was given a half-day off to watch it. At the time I was even more amazed that I was watching the event as it happened on TV, so I’m going to start this post by exploring how this was achieved, though I’m not sure that this was part of the conspiracy theorists’ ‘issues’ about the missions. There’s a good explanation of the 1969 telecast here, but I’ll try to put it in my own words, to get my own head around it.

I also remember being confused at the time, as I watched Armstrong making his painfully slow descent down the small ladder from the lunar module, that he was being recorded doing so, sort of side-on (don’t trust my memory!), as if someone was already there on the Moon’s surface waiting for him. I knew of course that Aldrin was accompanying him, but if Aldrin had descended first, why all this drama about ‘one small step…’? – it seemed a bit anti-climactic. What I didn’t know was that the whole thing had been painstakingly planned, and that the camera recording Armstrong was lowered mechanically, operated by Armstrong himself. Wade Schmaltz gives the low-down on Quora:

The TV camera recording Neil’s first small step was mounted in the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module, aka Lunar Module]. Neil released it from its cocoon by pulling a cable to open a trap door prior to exiting the LEM that first time down the ladder.

Neil Armstrong, touching down on the Moon -an image I'll never forget

Neil Armstrong, touching down on the Moon – an image I’ll never forget


the camera used to capture Neil Armstrong's descent

the camera used to capture Neil Armstrong’s descent

As for the telecast, Australia played a large role. Here my information comes from Space Exploration Stack Exchange, a Q and A site for specialists as well as amateur space flight enthusiasts.

Australia was one of three continents involved in the transmissions, but it was the most essential. Australia had two tracking stations, one near Canberra and the other at the Parkes Radio Observatory west of Sydney. The others were in the Mojave Desert, California, and in Madrid, Spain. The tracking stations in Australia had a direct line on Apollo’s signal. My source quotes directly from NASA:

The 200-foot-diameter radio dish at the Parkes facility managed to withstand freak 70 mph gusts of wind and successfully captured the footage, which was converted and relayed to Houston.


Needless to say, the depictions of Canberra and Sydney aren’t geographically accurate here!

And it really was pretty much ‘as it happened’, the delay being less than a minute. The Moon is only about a light-second away, but there were other small delays in relaying the signal to TV networks for us all to see.

So now to the missions and the hoax conspiracy. But really, I won’t be dealing with the hoax stuff directly, because frankly it’s boring. I want to write about the good stuff. Most of the following comes from the ever-more reliable Wikipedia – available to all!

The ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and the USA can be dated quite precisely. It began in July 1956, when the USA announced plans to launch a satellite – a craft that would orbit the Earth. Two days later, the Soviet Union announced identical plans, and was able to carry them out a little over a year later. The world was stunned when Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4 1957. Only a month later, Laika the Muscovite street-dog was sent into orbit in Sputnik 2 – a certain-death mission. The USA got its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit at the end of January 1958, and later that year the National Aeronautics and Space Administraion (NASA) was established under Eisenhower to encourage peaceful civilian developments in space science and technology. However the Soviet Union retained the initiative, launching its Luna program in late 1958, with the specific purpose of studying the Moon. The whole program, which lasted until 1976, cost some $4.5 billion and its many failures were, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. The first three Luna rockets, intended to land, or crash, on the Moon’s surface, failed on launch, and the fourth, later known as Luna 1, was given the wrong trajectory and sailed past the Moon, becoming the first human-made satellite to take up an independent heliocentric orbit. That was in early January 1959 – so the space race, with its focus on the Moon, began much earlier than many people realise, and though so much of it was about macho one-upmanship, important technological developments resulted, and vital observations were made, including measurements of energetic particles in the outer Van Allen belt. Luna 1 was the first spaceship to achieve escape velocity, the principle barrier to landing a vessel on the Moon.

After another launch failure in June 1959, the Soviets successfully launched the rocket later known as Luna 2 in September that year. Its crash landing on the Moon was a great success, which the ‘communist’ leader Khrushchev was quick to ‘capitalise’ on during his only visit to the USA immediately after the mission. He handed Eisenhower replicas of the pennants left on the Moon by Luna 2. And there’s no doubt this was an important event, the first planned impact of a human-built craft on an extra-terrestrial object, almost 10 years before the Apollo 11 landing.

The Luna 2 success was immediately followed only a month later by the tiny probe Luna 3‘s flyby of the far side of the Moon, which provided the first-ever pictures of its more mountainous terrain. However, these two missions formed the apex of the Luna enterprise, which experienced a number of years of failure until the mid-sixties. International espionage perhaps? I note that James Bond began his activities around this time.

the Luna 3 space probe (or is it H G Wells' time machine?)

the Luna 3 space probe (or is it H G Wells’ time machine?)

The Luna Program wasn’t the only only one being financed by the Soviets at the time, and the Americans were also developing programs. Six months after Laika’s flight, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik 3, the fourth successful satellite after Sputnik 1 & 2 and Explorer 1. The important point to be made here is that the space race, with all its ingenious technical developments, began years before the famous Vostok 1 flight that carried a human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space for the first time, so the idea that the technology wasn’t sufficiently advanced for a moon landing many years later becomes increasingly doubtful.

Of course the successful Vostok flight in April 1961 was another public relations coup for the Soviets, and it doubtless prompted Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress a month later, in which he proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

So from here on in I’ll focus solely on the USA’s moon exploration program. It really began with the Ranger missions, which were conceived (well before Kennedy’s speech and Gagarin’s flight) in three phases or ‘blocks’, each with different objectives and with increasingly sophisticated system design. However, as with the Luna missions, these met with many failures and setbacks. Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 failed on launch in the second half of 1961, and Ranger 3, the first ‘block 2 rocket’, launched in late January 1962, missed the Moon due to various malfunctions, and became the second human craft to take up a heliocentric orbit. The plan had been to ‘rough-land’ on the Moon, emulating Luna 2 but with a more sophisticated system of retrorockets to cushion the landing somewhat. The Wikipedia article on this and other missions provides far more detail than I can provide here, but the intensive development of new flight design features, as well as the use of solar cell technology, advanced telemetry and communications systems and the like really makes clear to me that both competitors in the space race were well on their way to having the right stuff for a manned moon landing.

I haven’t even started on the Apollo missions, and I try to give myself a 1500-word or so limit on posts, so I’ll have to write a part 3! Comment excitant!

The Ranger 4 spacecraft was more or less identical in design to Ranger 3, with the same impact-limiter – made of balsa wood! – atop the lunar capsule. Ranger 4 went through preliminary testing with flying colours, the first of the Rangers to do so. However the mission itself was a disaster, as the on-board computer failed, and no useful data was returned and none of the preprogrammed actions, such as solar power deployment and high-gain antenna utilisation, took place. Ranger 4 finally impacted the far side of the Moon on 26 April 1962, becoming the first US craft to land on another celestial body. Ranger 5 was launched in October 1962 at a time when NASA was under pressure due to the many failures and technical problems, not only with the Ranger missions, but with the Mariner missions, Mariner 1 (designed for a flyby mission to Venus) having been a conspicuous disaster. Unfortunately Ranger 5 didn’t improve matters, with a series of on-board and on-ground malfunctions. The craft missed the Moon by a mere 700 kilometres. Ranger 6, launched well over a year later, was another conspicuous failure, as its sole mission was to send high-quality photos of the Moon’s surface before impact. Impact occurred, and overall the flight was the smoothest one yet, but the camera system failed completely.

There were three more Ranger missions. Ranger 7, launched in July 1964, was the first completely successful mission of the series. Its mission was the same as that of Ranger 6, but this time over 4,300 photos were transmitted during the final 17 minutes of flight. These photos were subjected to much scrutiny and discussion, in terms of the feasibility of a soft landing, and the general consensus was that some areas looked suitable, though the actual hardness of the surface couldn’t be determined for sure. Miraculously enough, Ranger 8, launched in February 1965, was also completely successful. Again its sole mission was to photograph the Moon’s surface, as NASA was beginning to ready itself for the Apollo missions. Over 7,000 good quality photos were transmitted in the final 23 minutes of flight. The overall performance of the spacecraft was hailed as ‘excellent’, and its impact crater was photographed two years later by Lunar Orbiter 4. And finally Ranger 9 made it three successes in a row, and this time the camera’s 6,000 images were broadcast live to viewers across the United States. The date was March 24, 1965. The next step would be that giant one.

A Ranger 9 image showing rilles - long narrow depressions - on the Moon's surface

A Ranger 9 image showing rilles – long narrow depressions – on the Moon’s surface

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part one

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my copy - a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, come moi

my copy – a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, comme moi

I’ve just had my first ever conversation with someone who at least appears to be sceptical of the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 – and, I can only suppose, the five subsequent successful moon landings. Altogether, twelve men walked on the moon between 20 July 1969 and December 10 1972, when the crew members of Apollo 17 left the moon’s surface. Or so the story goes.

This conversation began when I said that perhaps the most exciting world event I’ve experienced was that first moon landing, watching Neil Armstrong possibly muffing the lines about one small step for a man, and marvelling that it could be televised. I was asked how I knew that it really happened. How could I be so sure?

Of course I had no immediate answer. Like any normal person, I have no immediate, or easy, answer to a billion questions that might be put to me. We take most things on trust, otherwise it would be a very very painstaking existence. I didn’t mention that, only a few months before, I’d read Phil Plait’s excellent book Bad Astronomy, subtitled Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing ‘hoax’. Plait is a professional astronomer who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog and he’s much better equipped to handle issues astronomical than I am, but I suppose I could’ve made a fair fist of countering this person’s doubts if I hadn’t been so flabbergasted. As I said, I’d never actually met someone who doubted these events before. In any case I don’t think the person was in any mood to listen to me.

Only one reason for these doubts was offered. How could the lunar module have taken off from the moon’s surface? Of course I couldn’t answer, never having been an aeronautical engineer employed by NASA, or even a lay person nerdy enough to be up on such matters, but I did say that the moon’s minimal gravity would presumably make a take-off less problematic than, say, a rocket launch from Mother Earth, and this was readily agreed to. I should also add that the difficulties, whatever they might be, of relaunching the relatively lightweight lunar modules – don’t forget there were six of them – didn’t feature in Plait’s list of problems identified by moon landing skeptics which lead them to believe that the whole Apollo adventure was a grand hoax.

So, no further evidence was proffered in support of the hoax thesis. And let’s be quite clear, the claim, or suggestion, that the six moon landings didn’t occur, must of necessity be a suggestion that there was a grand hoax, a conspiracy to defraud the general public, one involving tens of thousands of individuals, all of whom have apparently maintained this fraud over the past 50 years. A fraud perpetrated by whom, exactly?

My conversation with my adversary was cut short by a third person, thankfully, but after the third person’s departure I was asked this question, or something like it: Are you prepared to be open-minded enough to entertain the possibility that the moon landing didn’t happen, or are you completely closed-minded on the issue?

Another way of putting this would be: Why aren’t you as open-minded as I am?

So it’s this question that I need to reflect on.

I’ve been reading science magazines on an almost daily basis for the past thirty-five years. Why?

But it didn’t start with science. When I was kid, I loved to read my parents’ encyclopaedias. I would mostly read history, learning all about the English kings and queens and the battles and intrigues, etc, but basically I would stop at any article that took my fancy – Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton as well as Hitler, Ivan the Terrible and Cardinal Richelieu. Again, why? I suppose it was curiosity. I wanted to know about stuff. And I don’t think it was a desire to show off my knowledge, or not entirely. I didn’t have anyone to show off to – though I’m sure I wished that I had. In any case, this hunger to find things out, to learn about my world – it can hardly be associated with closed-mindedness.

The point is, it’s not science that’s interesting, it’s the world. And the big questions. The question – How did I come to be who and where I am?  – quickly becomes – How did life itself come to be? – and that extends out to – How did matter come to be? The big bang doesn’t seem to explain it adequately, but that doesn’t lead me to imagine that scientists are trying to trick us. I understand, from a lifetime of reading, that the big bang theory is mathematically sound and rigorous, and I also know that I’m far from alone in doubting that the big bang explains life, the universe and everything. Astrophysicists, like other scientists, are a curious and sceptical lot and no ‘ultimate explanation’ is likely to satisfy them. The excitement of science is that it always raises more questions than answers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we have human ingenuity to thank for that, as we’re the creators of science, the most amazing tool we’ve ever developed.

But let me return to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness. During the conversation described above, it was suggested that the USA simply didn’t have the technology to land people on the moon in the sixties. So, ok, I forgot this one: two reasons put forward – 1, the USA didn’t have the technological nous; 2, the modules couldn’t take off from the moon (later acknowledged to be not so much of an issue). I pretty well knew this first reason to be false. Of course I’ve read, over the years, about the Apollo missions, the rivalry with the USSR, the hero-worship of Yuri Gagarin and so forth. I’ve also absorbed, in my reading, much about spaceflight and scientific and technological development over the years. Of course, I’ve forgotten most of it, and that’s normal, because that’s how our brains work – something I’ve also read a lot about! Even the most brilliant scientists are unlikely to be knowledgeable outside their own often narrow fields, because neurons that fire together wire together, and it’s really hands-on work that gets those neurons firing.

But here’s an interesting point. I have in front of me the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, issue 75. I haven’t read it yet, but I will do. On my shelves are the previous 74 issues, each of which I’ve read, from cover to cover. I’ve also read more than a hundred issues of the excellent British mag, New Scientist. The first science mag I ever read was the monthly Scientific American, which I consumed with great eagerness for several years in the eighties, and I still buy their special issues sometimes. Again, the details of most of this reading are long forgotten, though of course I learned a great deal about scientific methods and the scientific mind-set. The interesting point, though, is this. In none of these magazines, and in none of the books, blogs and podcasts I’ve consumed in about forty years of interest in matters scientific, have I ever read the claim, put forward seriously, that the moon landings were faked. Never. I’m not counting of course, books like Bad Astronomy and podcasts like the magnificent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, in which such claims are comprehensively debunked.

The SGU podcast - a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

The SGU podcast – a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

Scientists are a skeptical and largely independent lot, no doubt about it, and I’ve stated many times that scepticism and curiosity are the twin pillars of all scientific enquiry. So the idea that scientists could be persuaded, or cowed into participating in a conspiracy (at whose instigation?) to hoodwink the public about these landings is – well let’s just call it mildly implausible.

But of course, it could explain the US government’s massive deficit. That’s it! All those billions spent on hush money to astronauts, engineers, technicians (or were they all just actors?), not to mention nosey reporters, science writers and assorted geeks – thank god fatty Frump is here to make America great again and lift the lid on this sordid scenario, like the great crusader against fake news that he is.

But for now let’s leave the conspiracy aspect of this matter aside, and return to the question of whether these moon landings could ever have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. I have to say, when it was put to me, during this conversation, that the technology of the time wasn’t up to putting people on the moon, my immediate mental response was to turn this statement into a question. Was the technology of the time up to it? And this question then turns into a research project. In other words, let’s find out, let’s do the research. Yay! That way, we’ll learn lots of interesting things about aeronautics and rocket fuel and gravitational constraints and astronaut training etc, etc – only to forget most of it after a few years. Yet, with all due respect, I’m quite sure my ‘adversary’ in this matter would never consider engaging in such a research project. She would prefer to remain ‘open-minded’. And if you believe that the whole Apollo project was faked, why not believe that all that’s been written about it before and since has been faked too? Why believe that the Russians managed to get an astronaut into orbit in the early sixties? Why believe that the whole Sputnik enterprise was anything but complete fakery? Why believe anything that any scientist ever says? Such radical ‘skepticism’ eliminates the need to do any research on anything.

But I’m not so open-minded as that, so in my dogmatic and doctrinaire fashion I will do some – very limited – research on that very exciting early period in the history of space exploration. I’ll report on it next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 25, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Our recent power outage – how to prevent a recurrence. part 1 – preliminary remarks

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Canto: So we’re tasked with solving the problem or problems in SA’s energy system.

Jacinta: We are? What problem? Or should I say crisis, what crisis?

Canto: That’s a good question Jass, because as you know the first step in finding a solution is to define the problem.

Jacinta: Yes I knew that. So we’re talking about how all the power died for a period of – what, 24 hours or so, statewide here in South Africa.

Canto: South Australia, don’t confuse our international readers. So I’ve heard the crisis framed in a number of different ways. First, in terms of the SA government’s irresponsible, unrealistic go-it-alone pursuit of risky renewable energy. Second, in the more or less opposite terms of other states’ and especially the federal govt’s foot-dragging and negative approach to said energy, leaving SA unsupported. Third, in terms of privatisation – a number of electrical pylons fell down like ninepins in the outback, because, it’s claimed, the private owners are pursuing profits over infrastructure maintenance. And a fourth and most comprehensive framing invokes climate change itself – SA was subjected to an unprecedented weather event likely caused by the emissions our gallant state government is trying to reduce..

Jacinta: And our little Torrens River has been torrenting like the mighty Amazon.

Canto: Yeah right. So with all these and more framings of the problem, it looks like we’ll have to spend a few posts on this issue.

Jacinta: Or a lifetime. But yes let’s try to be thorough. And positive. I thought we might start with the 9-point plan for solutions to complex problems which we found in the enlightening book The origin of feces by Stuart Waltner-Toews, and which was presented in simplified form on the Solutions OK blog.

1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?

2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?

3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?

4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?

5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?

6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?

7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?

8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?

9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.

Canto: Yeah, that’s pretty comprehensive all right, maybe too comprehensive.

Jacinta: No I think it’s a good basis. Take point 1. What’s the problem? That’s easy. The problem is that SA had all its power cut for the best part of a day, and although many are saying this was a one-off, freak event, many others are saying it could happen again and that SA’s the most vulnerable state, it wouldn’t have happened to any other state.

Canto: Though I think our Premier said the exact opposite, it could’ve happened anywhere. Lots of conflicting narratives and opinions. So let’s get started.

Jacinta: Well let me first say that, whatever the cause, we are experiencing extreme weather here for October – rainy and stormy conditions which have certainly never been experienced here in a good long lifetime. And right now we’re got rain and strong wind conditions. There’s been little let-up for some time.

Canto: Interesting – we’re only a few days into October, but the average rainfall for September in Adelaide, since records have been kept, is about 58 millimetres. This year it was over 130 millimetres. October, though, might be the most interesting month for records. Certainly I can’t recall anything like this, and we have flooding in many parts of the state.

Jacinta: So we have extreme weather conditions, and the direct cause of the outage, according to our Premier, was freak weather conditions north of Adelaide, including two tornados which knocked over transmission towers near Melrose. More than 20 transmission lines were damaged. The question being asked, of course, is how could these storms knock out the power for a whole vast state for a long period? What were the back-up arrangements?

Canto: Well the back-up apparently relies on two interconnectors to the east coast. Presumably there must be some arrangement so that when local power isn’t forthcoming, the interconnectors receive a signal to transmit. However, only one was operational at the time of the outage. Now I don’t really understand this interconnector thing and how they work. I’m not clear on why one interconnector was shut down and why the other one didn’t just do the job. Is it just a matter of ‘firing up’ an interconnector and a whole state’s lights come back on? How simple or complex is it?

Jacinta: And what, if anything, has this got to do with renewable energy and the shutting down of the coal power station in Port Augusta?

Canto: We might get to that later. I haven’t been able to find exactly how interconnectors work, and nothing much at all on interconnectors in Australia, but currently in the UK there are four interconnectors, linked to France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of which the France one is largest, with 2GW capacity. It would be interesting to know the capacity of the two interconnectors linking us to the east, and whether that has any relevance. Anyway, these interconnectors are spruiked as providers of energy security and flexibility, so the more interconnectors the better. Maybe there’s a case for having a third interconnector, so that we’re never, or rarely reduced to having just one to rely on.

Jacinta: So why did we have no power? Why didn’t the interconnector provide it for so long? Or was it the interconnector that provided it, or was it the local system?

Canto: Well there was certainly local work going on from the start, as soon as conditions allowed, to fix local faults, but I can’t find too much info on the role of the interconnector. However, word has just come out that there’ll be a state inquiry into South Australia’s unique situation, so maybe there’s no point in us continuing this conversation.

Jacinta: Wait up, I think it might be fun speculating on and researching the matter, and then comparing our findings with the inquiry.

Canto: Which’ll come out in, what, five years?

Jacinta: An unnecessarily jaded remark. So let’s get stuck into some research, and look for solutions, always keeping in mind that 9-point plan.


Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

More impressions of Budapest, mainly

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Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with 'Saint Stephen', Hungary's first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic

Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with ‘Saint Stephen’, Hungary’s first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic – sort of steampunk sans irony

Once we’d checked in, we didn’t much want to leave the air-conditioned comfort for the cold and damp, so we settled in at the hotel bar for a bit. I’d decided to over-dress to cheer myself up – fancy tie and colourful waistcoat, etc – so this elicited discomforting looks from the definitely not over-dressed bar people, and even smirks and laughter from passers-by when we decided to brave the weather and try out an ATM down the road. When a particularly attractive damosel made some obviously mocking remark about me to her beau I was stung into trying out a charming French greeting, but she ignored me. Our ATM venture was also unsuccesful, it would only spit out Magyar currency, aka forints. Still I was beginning to warm to the city, as I noticed a lot of attractive, interesting-looking young people on the streets, all dressed mostly in black. This was probably because, as I discovered next day, the city’s principal university was very close by.

The next day was slightly warmer and drier, and we went for a walk to the nearby museum, an absolutely massive building which was closed, and only open a few days a week – a bad sign I thought. The university precinct, though, gave me the sense of lively Enlightenment that all such areas do. We took some lunch in a pub across from the hotel, after which I took a stroll down to the nearby Danube, where I discovered a lively cafe hub, just one street back from the river, jammed between the usual tall, tightly-packed examples of Euro-impressive architecture. By which time I’d decided I really liked Budapest, but I’m probably more easily pleased than most.

There were a few touristy/traveller problems though. The flight had affected my normally regular sleep pattern, and two weeks into the holiday I still haven’t regained any sleep normalcy (I’m writing this at 3am in Amsterdam), and my cash-flow concerns weren’t alleviated by another ATM failure. This time I’d pre-located nearby a so-called ‘Euro-ATM’ via GPS on my phone but when I got there I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of its instructions, and I ended up withdrawing a massive number of forints – something like 400,000 of the buggers – thinking I’d receive euros. This is no doubt the closest I’ve come to being a demi-millionaire in my life, but I felt more like a bloody idiot, with a pocket stuffed with a wad of currency that would be practically useless to me within 24 hours. My stress about this caused my first contretemps with my TC, who decided to shop for something warm to wear, in consideration of the somewhat unexpected chilliness, and so left me waiting longtemps outside stanping my feet and sensing the beginnings of a cough and a ‘bubbly dose’, when all I wanted to do was get to a bank that would turn my unearned forints into a maximum of euros. So after an all-too-familiar nasty spit-spat I stamped off to a bank. I’d been warned off having dealings with money exchangers, whose shingles were all over the place, because they apparently charge extortionate commissions, but in the bank I was advised by a friendly young teller in perfect English to use a money-changer down the road who charged no commission and whose rates were much better than the bank’s. This sounded all very helpful and civilised and I followed the young man’s directions precisely and with alacrity until I came to a kind of hole-in-the-wall booth advertising no commission and told my tale to a solemn-looking university type who very carefully counted out my great bundle of forints, typed a formula into a calculator and asked me silently to approve the result, some 800-odd euros, which I could only pretend to know was correct. But I really did feel enormous gratitude that these people seemed to be on my side, if that’s not too self-indulgent a term. Shortly after leaving the hole-in-the-wall with great relief, I stopped as my heart skipped a beat – should I have ‘tipped’ the fellow for his good sevices? I must say I can’t stand the stress and strain that tipping and haggling and such things causes. I’m no good at either, and I’m sure it’s not just a matter of inexperience. It’s just not a fair system – I would rather that people charged plainly and were paid appropriately, so I don’t have to fret about it…

Anyhow, I was happily cashed-up and ready to start the cruise….

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2016 at 11:55 am