Thursday, August 9, 2012

Get it right on gas

This link is a couple of days old now - but that's OK, because this came out the same day that Curiosity landed on Mars.  So it was a bit overshadowed, you might say.

Friedman wrote an op-ed in the NY Times about the importance of the natural gas boom, and the need to get it right.  In it he argues points that I've put forward before, that is that a natural gas boom, as is currently happening in the U.S., is good for the economy and the environment - but only if done right.

Good for the economy because this is "home grown" energy, mined from U.S. lands, and it will create jobs in the gas industry as well as other industries that could make the switch from coal or oil, such as the automotive industry.  Switching away from oil is also beneficial for our national security, since many of the nations that benefit from huge oil prices are also ones that don't care for the U.S. very much.

Good for the environment is a bit of a harder sell, because natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and therefore CO2 is released as a product of combustion.  CO2 being the leading cause of climate change, the continued release of CO2 is still problematic.  However, natural gas releases much less CO2 than coal, and so therefore represents a reduction in the amount of CO2 we emit.  Combining that reduction with other reductions, such as increased energy efficiency and more reliance on non-fossil fuel energy sources, really gets us headed in the right direction of emitting less CO2.  One problem is that methane itself, the principal constituent of natural gas, is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.  Leaky gas pipes, therefore, could potentially offset the gain by reduce CO2.  Therefore we need to continue to build a culture of good stewardship of our natural resources, and reduce waste by fixing things like leaky pipes.  It isn't just regulations and laws and infrastructure that we need to change; we need to continue to change hearts & minds as well toward stewardship of our planet.  Again, however, the point that Friedman makes is that the gas boom is a good thing if we do it right.  If we don't, then problems like leaky gas pipes could possibly offset the gains.
Another perspective on the environment is the amount of other toxic materials often released with the burning of coal.  Toxic metals such as mercury are released when coal is burned, but they are not found in natural gas.  Switching from coal to natural gas therefore reduces the amount of these pollutants.  It also reduces the mining of coal, which is the cause of mountain top removal in my beloved Appalachia.
Another con argument for the natural gas boom is the process of fracking - again, the point being made by Friedman that this gas boom is only beneficial if we do it right.  We need proper procedures, good engineering practices, sound regulations, and proper enforcement.  These are all problems of political will and of engineering, and they are not at all problems that we should not be able to overcome.  After all, we just dropped a mini-cooper sized mobile chemistry laboratory on Mars - this problem should be relatively easy in comparison!
Lastly, I want to again stress that natural gas should be seen as a transition fuel from the dirtier fossil fuels toward cleaner sources of energy, eventually eliminating our use of them in favor of fully renewable sources.  But that process is going to take a long time.  In the mean time, we can make some positive gains.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Stuck the Landing!

After posting the Curiosity Round-Up last night, it was amazing to watch the events of the landing unfold.  We landed a mini-cooper sized robot on Mars by lowering it down by a rocket-propelled Sky Crane, and then it started sending back images!  It was an amazing feat.

Someone posted this today on about a billion websites:
'Merica FTW

I enjoyed watching the Virtual Landing Party, a Hangout on Air, hosted by Fraser Cain of Universe Today, which featured a number of astronomers discussing the events.

This stunning image is IMO the best so far returned from Curiosity, as it shows 2 of the rover's wheels, its shadow, and Mt. Sharp, Curiosity's target area, in the background.

One of my favorites, however, is this one sent back by the Mars Reconassaince Orbiter, which has been in orbit around Mars for the past 6 years, taking images of the Martian surface.  Here it captured Curiosity on the way down with the parachute deployed, as well as Curiosity's heat shield, still in descent, after it was shed from the space craft.

And finally, can't miss today's xkcd:

Way to stick the landing, NASA!  There ought to be a dozen gold medals for this one.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Round-Up

Tonight, we humans are attempting to land the biggest & most amazing space robot ever on Mars.  If landing goes well, this will be a tremendous achievement.

For starters, Curiosity is GIANT compared to previous Mars rovers.

It was 15 years ago that the first rover, Sojourner, landed, and 8 years ago that Spirit and Opportunity landed.  Opportunity has just finished up another Martian winter and is revving up for another great season of discovery.  Curiosity will have more tools, cooler tech, & bigger guns.  Spirit & Oppy were like geologists with hammers & hand lenses.  Curiosity is more like a geochemist, a mobile analytical laboratory.  More on the 3 generations of Mars rovers here.

The descent down to the surface is the part where problems might occur, which is why so many are talking about it and paying attention tonight.  It should land within the next half an hour!  If you haven't seen it yet, watch this NASA JPL video to see what it takes to land a robot the size of a dune buggy on another planet.

Today, CNN ran a story on Scott Maxwell, a guy who drives these rovers around.  What a cool job!

Even a couple of celebrities from Star Trek fame have gotten in on the fun.  Watch William Shatner & Wil Wheaton welcome Curiosity to the surface of Mars.

Finally, get your own Curiosity at 1:64 scale.

We're about 15 minutes to touchdown, so I'd better post this and get to watching the show!