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[ 20050126 ]

Asteroid 2001 DA42

No, it's not going to hit us, or even come close. So DON'T PANIC.

I'm posting about it because it's just been named for Douglas Adams.

Jay Manifold [7:03 PM]

[ 20050123 ]

ASKC to Purchase Dark-Sky Site

The membership voted 101-5 in favor at the January general meeting, which was last night at UMKC. Semi-accurate details of its location -- it's actually ~61 miles due south of downtown KC, MO -- as well as discussion of the selection process and risk management therein, are in New ASKC Dark-Sky Site, a post from last October.

We're putting $10,000 down out of a total $46,000 purchase price and paying $280/month for 20 years. No taxes -- the ASKC is a non-profit organization. Liability insurance is a whopping $58/year.

On this map, the site is tucked neatly into the northward-pointing blue protrusion below and just to the right of the crosshairs at the center, which indicate the position of Powell Observatory.

Congratulations are in order to all who worked so hard to find the site and provide the money (nearly half the purchase price -- more than twice the amount of the down payment -- has already been collected). Use of the dark-sky site will be free to ASKC members.

Jay Manifold [9:55 AM]

[ 20050117 ]

Titan's Surface: "crème brulee"

That simile is among the tidbits in this Sam Jaffee article in The Scientist, which I encourage you to read in full (~520 words) -- it comes with lots of links. And don't miss "the biggest astrobiological question of all."

Jay Manifold [3:56 PM]

Something More Uplifting

-- I hope, anyway: my annual meditation on King Day.

Jay Manifold [11:08 AM]

Another Archetypal Channel

(This is a follow-up to the long-ago Introducing the Archetypal Cable/Satellite Package and More Archetypal Channels.)

Via The Smoking Room, which I wandered into from InstaPundit, read Martyrs' Wire Service. Looks like a new addition to the line-up to me:

  1. Title: The Terror Channel

  2. Themes: slaughter of "collaborators," "Crusaders," etc

  3. Killer App: I suppose Beslan, for now

  4. Typical Sponsors: Al-Jazeera; the Iranian regime

  5. Competition: NBC Nightly News, apparently

Jay Manifold [11:07 AM]

[ 20050116 ]

Aurora Tonight?

For locals ... ASKC member Vic Winter subscribes to the Middle Latitude Auroral Activity Watch, and passed along this tidbit from the latest update (not visible to non-subscribers):

keep watch tomorrow night and monday... best chances we have had in months... They RARELY say to watch below southern nebraska... and this time its a state lower!



Latest KC weather forecast is for sunny skies today, especially this afternoon, and "cloudy intervals" tonight. Could be interesting ...

Jay Manifold [7:57 AM]

Titan Weather Forecast

From "Patty in OK," via Jim Stephens of the ASKC (with hyperlinks inserted by me):

Even as an "old space hand," sometimes I am struck again with awe. Here is the link to the ESA Huygens/Cassini page.

And for a bit of fun, Brit-style, click on ESOC Spacecraft Operations on the far-right side, under the little spacecraft and the headline "Related Links."

The link will take you here, and on this page, in the center of the page, under "More News," Click on "Tomorrow's Weather on Titan: A Touch Chilly."

Do NOT read the copy first; it will take some of the fun out of it! Instead, on the upper right side, click on Saturn Broadcasting Corp. Weather Report.

It will automatically open your Windows Media Player (or your player of choice that you have set as your default) and you may listen to the broadcast from one of Titan's radio stations! (Please note that the URL notes "fictional.") It's a real hoot!

Then wander around the site, return to the first link, and look at Huygens' first images from Titan. And rejoice--what a marvel! :)

Jay Manifold [7:37 AM]

Here Comes the Sun

-- what there is of it: via conversation with David Young of the ASKC: there's a particularly huge sunspot near the center of the solar disk at the moment; see The Sun in Visible Light for a current pic.

Meanwhile, via The Long View (link will eventually be here), a world map showing current sunlight and cloud cover.

Jay Manifold [7:30 AM]

[ 20050115 ]


Also Sprach Huygens, says Alan Henderson, and over on Alphecca, Jeff Soyer wants more:

Folks, without a dream that there is more to life and being than the squalor of our present condition, we cease being the pinacle of life. Of late, cats show more curiosity than we do. The quest for knowledge is worth every cent of what we spend. We need to keep the thing that makes us truly human, our intelligent need for answers, alive.

I'll post a decent follow-up eventually, as I'm a bit busy today. But it feels wonderful to read things like Mark Carreau's piece in the Houston Chronicle:

Friday's first snapshots amounted to a sneak preview. The black and white images suggested a lunar surface with bright elevated land masses, grooved by sloping drainage channels and seemingly surrounded by dark, still pools of oily liquid.

Scientists speculated that torrents of grimy methane or ethane rain shoved the boulders down to the spacecraft's equatorial landing site.

We have some very, very enjoyable reading and viewing ahead of us.

Jay Manifold [1:10 PM]

[ 20050114 ]



Jay Manifold [3:44 PM]

Soft Landing, and Plenty of Data Coming Soon!

Via the KCStar, the AP says:

Mission controllers know the Huygens probe made a soft landing by parachute because it is still transmitting steadily long after it was to have landed, said David Southwood, the European Space Agency's science director.

Officials were optimistic because Huygens was designed to transmit for at least three minutes after landing before its batteries died - a total of less than three hours. But the signal had kept coming for more than five hours.

"It's lasted much longer than we ever dreamed," Southwood said.

This also tells us that the probe remained upright, suggesting that it is either floating in a relatively placid body of liquid (methane or ethane) or on level ground.

According to the timeline, first data are to arrive at Earth at 16:14 CET = 17:14 UT = 11:14 AM CST, about 25 minutes from when I'm posting this.

UPDATE: Whoa, dumb mistake! That's 15:14 UT and 10:14 AM CST, which means some of it's already in ...

Jay Manifold [10:50 AM]

[ 20050113 ]

The Hour Approacheth

But since it's in the middle of the night in the central US, and I do work for a living (diurnally), I will pass it in unconsciousness. Fortunately, "DarkSyde" of Unscrewing the Inscrutable will be liveblogging the Titan landing. Get thee hence. At the appointed hour, that is. I know what my first stop's going to be when I get up tomorrow.

While you're at it, read Under The Moon:

... Titan is the only clouded, gas-enshrouded solid world in our solar system we have not yet visited. So tomorrow's probe entry is the last time we will first burst through the clouds of an unknown planet, parachute to the ground and see, during the descent, the approach and - if we're lucky - after the landing, the secret vistas of another alien place.

"My hero is Man the Discoverer." -- Daniel Boorstin

UPDATE (6:56 AM CDT Fri 14 Jan): DarkSyde e-mails, "Earth-bound observatories reporting solid two hours worth of signal received from Huygens to Cassini!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" We're there, dudes!

Jay Manifold [7:55 PM]

Respect This Syzygy

Jonathan Gewirtz of Chicago Boyz e-mailed me a story about the kind of planetary influences you should believe in, under the subject line "Syzygy, I Fear" (ref this earlier post).

Jay Manifold [7:49 PM]

Special Announcement from JPL

Via Dan Johnson of the ASKC Yahoo! Group, who in turn got it from Obsession Telescope's e-group ...


Saturn reaches opposition on the night of January 13-14, 2005, which is close to the time when the Cassini spacecraft's Huygens probe should touch down on Titan. At every opposition the Sun, Earth, and Saturn are nearly aligned in space, but this opposition is special. An observer at Saturn would literally see Earth transit the disk of the Sun -- something that has not happened since 1990 and won't take place again until 2020.

While no one can be there to see the transit directly (and the Sun is too bright for Cassini to image), the near-perfect alignment gives Earth-based astronomers their only chance in many years to truly measure the "opposition effect" -- a dramatic brightening expected to occur in the Saturnian system as the solar phase angle approaches zero. Measurements should reveal important clues to the surface composition of such moons as Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Iapetus. (Mimas and Enceladus are probably too close to the rings to be considered reasonable targets.)

Anne Verbiscer (Department of Astronomy, University of Virginia) and Richard G. French (Department of Astronomy, Wellesley College) are coordinating a NASA-funded, worldwide campaign to measure the brightness of these moons as close as possible to the time of the alignment. Ten ground-based observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope are involved already, and they are seeking even wider participation.

"We ask advanced amateurs with CCD-equipped telescopes to observe this event," Verbiscer writes, "not only on the critical night of January 13, 2005, but for two nights on either side of opposition, weather permitting.

"I am most interested in obtaining visible-light (UBVRI) CCD images whose exposure times are long enough to get usable photometry of the brighter moons. With these long exposures Saturn and its rings will be saturated, so we are not looking for 'pretty' CCD images of the planet and rings. Almost any size telescope will be sufficient, but the image scale should be such that a point source is recorded across several pixels for adequate sampling. Scattered light from Saturn and its rings will be the most significant complication, so a telescope with clean optics, few elements, and minimal diffraction will produce the best results.

"Since good photometry is our goal, multiple exposure times are needed to make sure that each satellite, in turn, is not saturated and not underexposed. At each exposure time several images should be taken, both to improve statistics and to protect against contamination from cosmic rays. Observations should alternate between the Saturn system and a nearby calibration field defined by our project."

Those wishing to participate can find detailed instructions here.

Please send any questions about observing Saturn at Opposition 2005 to verbiscer@v....

Jane Houston Jones
Senior Outreach Specialist, Cassini Program
JPL - 4800 Oak Grove Drive, MS 230-205
Pasadena, CA 91109
Phone - 818-393-6435
Fax - 818-393-4495

Jay Manifold [9:20 AM]

[ 20050112 ]

Treason and Titan

Recently tied for #21 on Blogdex, Intellectual Treason, which at 3,400 words may exceed the attention span of many blog readers. It shouldn't. India is a de facto if not always comfortable ally (though less uncomfortable than Russia) in the war with Islamist extremism, which is what its flag is doing at the top of this page. Were it to fall into the hands of obscurantists, that alliance would become very uncomfortable indeed, if not hopelessly untenable -- as a Tolkien fan, I think of Saruman.

I would not equate the BJP with the GOP, though I agree with the effectiveness of the comparison in drawing in the likely audience of Meera Nanda's piece. In the event, the "extraordinary coalition that is undermining science" turns out to involve "the postmodernist, anti–Enlightenment turn taken by intellectuals, most radically in American universities," a phenomenon associated with the Left.

For now, let us take heart: they did not prevent this. The worst elements of the Left tried to stop Cassini over bogus environmental concerns about radio-thermal generators, and the worst elements of the Right may still scoff at the notion that studying Titan may reveal much about the development of life, but they did not prevail. A world is about to be revealed.

(For principled left-wing opposition to "fashionable nonsense," see Butterflies and Wheels, and for something analogous on the right, see, for example, this -- which Glenn Reynolds pointed to yesterday, which means you've probably already been there, so see follow-ups here and here, plus this.)

Jay Manifold [4:49 PM]

Just In Case You Don't Have Enough To Worry About

Tsunami raises bird flu concern, writes Katherine M Schlatter in The Scientist:

Scott Dowell, an epidemiologist from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .... warns that another impending danger is not receiving much attention these days. He told The Scientist that right now there's a greater risk that a bird flu outbreak in humans could go unnoticed.

"The tsunami not only captured the attention of the press, but it's captured the attention of the public health systems in these countries," Dowell said.

Art Pesigan, a Manila-based coordinator for WHO's relief effort to tsunami victims .... told The Scientist that WHO is very concerned about the risk of avian flu and has added the illness to a list of diseases that ad hoc surveillance systems in disaster zones are charting.

Dowell also worries that the media is less likely to report on human bird flu cases in the tsunami's aftermath.

In other news, the H5N1 virus that causes the flu may be spread by migratory birds. Looks like cats might be another vector. Meanwhile, the mutations continue.

Jay Manifold [3:25 PM]

Direct Imaging of Extrasolar Planet!

Currently tied for #15 on Blogdex, this astonishing report in New Scientist of the first direct observation of an extrasolar planet. Like nearly all the 130-odd planets of other stars so far discovered, it does not closely resemble any planet orbiting the Sun -- it's five times the mass of Jupiter, which comprises 70% of the planetary mass of the Solar System; nor does its primary, which is a brown dwarf, resemble the Sun.

The planet is 50 AU from the star it orbits every 2500 years; since (applying Kepler's Third Law) a planet at this distance from the Sun would have an orbital period of about 350 years, the implication is that the overall mass of the system is less than one-seventh that of the Sun.

The technical abstract has the system mass rather lower (30 MJ for the primary plus "several Jupiter masses" for the planet; one solar mass is ~1,000 MJ), and states that the brown dwarf is around 70 parsecs (230 light-years) away and is "a likely member of the ... TW Hya [Hydrae] association." This source puts the association's "centre of mass ... at 73 pc from us in the direction close to the position of the prototype star TW Hya." Hydra is in the morning sky at the moment, but will be an easy early-evening constellation in the (northern hemisphere) Spring.

Jay Manifold [1:52 PM]

Another Monty Python Sketch Brought to Life

Again via Blogdex, The Classics in the Slums. Excerpts:

In the mining towns of South Wales, colliers had pennies deducted from their wages to support their own libraries, more than 100 of them by 1934. The miners themselves determined which books to buy. One such library, the Tredegar Workmen's Institute, devoted 20 percent of its acquisitions budget to philosophy. Another spent 45 pounds on the Oxford English Dictionary. (In the best of times, a miner could not earn much more than a pound a day.) There were sophisticated literary debates down in the pits, where one collier heard high praise for George Meredith. That evening, he tried to borrow Meredith's Love in the Valley from the local miners' library, only to find 12 names on the waiting list for a single copy.

While studying Greek philosophy at night, Joseph Keating performed one of the toughest and worst-paid jobs in the mine: shoveling out tons of refuse. One day, he was stunned to hear a co-worker sigh, "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate." "You are quoting Pope," Keating exclaimed. "Ayh," replied his companion, "me and Pope do agree very well." Keating had himself been reading Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Goldsmith, and Richardson in poorly printed paperbacks. Later he acquired a violin for 18 shillings, took lessons, and formed a chamber-music quartet, playing Mozart, Corelli, Beethoven, and Schubert—not an uncommon hobby in the coalfields.

The Python version:

Second Miner: Well ... he said the bloody Treaty of Utrecht was 1713.

First Miner: So it bloody is.

Second Miner: No it bloody isn't. It wasn't ratified 'til February 1714.

First Miner: He's bluffing. You're mind's gone, Jenkins. You're rubbish.

Foreman: He's right, Jenkins. It was ratified September 1713. The whole bloody pit knows that. Look in Trevelyan, page 468.

Third Miner: He's thinking of the Treaty of bloody Westphalia.

Second Miner: Are you saying I don't know the difference between the War of the bloody Spanish Succession and the Thirty bloody Years War?

Third Miner: You don't know the difference between the Battle of Borodino and a tiger's bum.

They start to fight.

Foreman: Break it up, break it up. (he hits them with his pickaxe) I'm sick of all this bloody fighting. If it's not the bloody Treaty of Utrecht it's the bloody binomial theorem. This isn't the senior common room at All Souls, it's the bloody coal face.

A fourth miner runs up.

Fourth Miner (Ian Davidson): Hey, gaffer, can you settle something? Morgan here says you find the abacus between the triglyphs in the frieze section of the entablature of classical Greek Doric temples.

Foreman: You bloody fool, Morgan, that's the metope. The abacus is between the architrave and the aechinus in the capital.

Jay Manifold [1:14 PM]

[ 20050108 ]

Laser Attacks? (V)

Rick Fienberg, laser pointer user and editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope, weighs in with Some Pointers on the Use of Laser Pointers. RTWT.

Jay Manifold [6:28 PM]

[ 20050107 ]

2004 MN4 -- How Good A Show?

(Ref this earlier post.) Via Instapundit, aerospace engineer Tom Hill, writing in The Space Review, points us to the updated plot of possible positions, and notes:

The current plot for 2004 MN4’s close approach to Earth on April 13th, 2029 makes it a potentially awesome show in the night sky somewhere on the globe. It may be worth traveling to see ...

The median closest approach, as depicted, appears to be approximately 66,000 km from Earth, or 60,000 km from the closest point on Earth's surface. It will be about 110° east of the Sun, and closest approach will occur around 4:30 in the afternoon, Central Daylight Time, at which time the Sun will be directly over longitude 135°W. Subtracting 110° from that puts us at 25°W, suggesting that -- all other things being equal -- Cape Verde would be a nice spot.

So what would it look like? Its absolute magnitude of +19.4 would have to be adjusted by a factor of (150,000,000 km/66,000 km)² = 5,300,000 or thereabouts, which would make it 17 magnitudes brighter. Magnitude +2.4 is the brightness of, for example, the two brightest stars in the Big Dipper. Angular motion at this distance (roughly five Earth diameters) would be about three-fifths of a degree per minute, greater than the apparent diameter of the Moon, and probably noticeable with the unaided eye.

Its angular diameter would be only 1.4 arc-seconds, though -- less than that of Neptune as seen from Earth -- so it would require serious magnification (200x or more) to clearly show a disk. In turn, it would be moving at nearly 40" per second; turning to this handy field-of-view calculator and entering values for the telescope I presently use (1250 mm focal length) and a suitable eyepiece (6.3 mm Plössl), I find a true field of view of 0.26°, which 2004 MN4 would cross in just over half a minute.

Jay Manifold [3:40 PM]

[ 20050105 ]

Laser Attacks? (IV)

Selected postings from the ASKC Yahoo! Group:

From: "Dick Harshaw"
Date: Tue Jan 4, 2005 11:22 pm
Subject: RE: [ASKC] lasers & pilots

I'll add my 1.5 cents worth here.

First, the green lasers we use don't bloom much (the term for how much a laser beam spreads out as it travels). I"ve noticed at Powell that I can produce a green dot roughly six inches in diameter on the row of trees about 1/4 or 1/2 mile south of the observatory, so at a mile, the bloom would probably not exceed a foot or so. This would make the beam bright, but not blinding. Dazzling, but not fatal to the retina.

The pilot descriptions I've seen speak of the cabin being "flooded" with green light. This implies a fairly large bloom or a badly collimated laser. Also, to hit a cockpit of a jet moving at about 200 miles per hour takes some pretty good aim. I doubt if a hand-held unit could do this sort of "blinding" unless it was mounted on some type of aiming telescope, like a rifle sight.

From: "sc285"
Date: Wed Jan 5, 2005 1:50 am
Subject: Re: lasers & pilots

--- In ASKC@yahoogroups.com, "Randy" wrote:
> I have serious doubts that the handheld green lasers that we commonly
> use are causing problems with commercial airline pilots when they are over a
> mile high.

Checking the specs on one's like we use, shows that the typical range is approximately 9,000 ft (2600 m) in darkness. That's close to 2 miles (10,560 ft).

From: DembinskiD@n...
Date: Wed Jan 5, 2005 7:57 am
Subject: RE: [ASKC] lasers?

Any bets on how long it will take for the FEDS to confiscate our toys and green lasers get banned under the Patriot Act?

Remember, unlike firearms, the right to bear green lasers is not protected by the constitution.

Anyone for the phrase "when they pry it from my cold dead fingers!"?

From: "Joe Wright"
Date: Wed Jan 5, 2005 9:07 am
Subject: 13mW

The company that produced my 13mW laser is no longer making them. Not at the request of the government. I seriously doubt that mine reaches the 32,000ft range as advertised. It does reach from the dome to the bridge over 69 at 263rd. They do have more powerful lasers that use C cell batteries or a converter. I think all the way up to 100mW or beyond. They are expensive.

Get your laser registration cards ready. There will be a 5 day waiting period before purchase.

I just ordered a couple more.

From: "Randy"
Date: Wed Jan 5, 2005 11:07 am
Subject: Re: [ASKC] lasers?

First they would "Register" all lasers. Then after a few months they would "BAN" all lasers and make it a Federal Crime to have a laser in your possession unless it is in a laser "SAFE" at a specified laser range with the batteries removed and stored away from the reach of children. You would have to apply for a permit to take your laser out of the "SAFE" at least nine months before you wanted to use it and pay for a Federal Oversite Officer to Watch you use said laser. If you should come within 90 degrees of any person on the ground or in the air it would be a 10 yr. Federal Crime, sentence to be served at a Federal Facility. Should a second offence occur, the Death Penalty would be considered if the Oversite Officer noted any malice during your use of the laser. Bumper stickers would be displayed that read, "Lasers don't PAINT, People Do."

Amusing speculation aside, I am seriously considering ordering one now before they become unduly difficult to obtain.

Jay Manifold [1:25 PM]

Comet Maccholz Update

(Ref this earlier post.) It's getting really easy to find -- though not from around here, thanks to this -- and the latest finderchart shows it approaching the Pleiades, then passing only about 1.5° from Algol during the early evening (CST) of Sunday the 16th. Go get it!

Jay Manifold [1:15 PM]

[ 20050104 ]

Laser Attacks? (III)

Previously known but remarkably thoughtful reader Edward Hahn wrote to thank me, lest I burn out and quit like Steven den Beste -- unlikely, since I don't mind being corrected and receive, for whatever reason, little if any hate mail -- and to pass along

Thoughts about the aircraft laser incidents

As I understand it there have been six or seven lasing incidents in the last few weeks. One incident now looks likely to have been of an innocent nature - a family man with a neat tech toy who didn't think things through.

A question would be: is the number and timing of the other incidents well out of the ordinary? I would expect that there is a certain frequency of lasing incidents reported by pilots normally. All other things being equal, statistically there is a certain chance of "clustering" to be expected in events with a random probability of occurrence. The cluster(s) would decrease in number as the number of individual events required for a given "cluster" increase, i.e. two-event clusters are more likely that three-event clusters which in turn are more likely that four-event clusters, and so on.

Naturally the definition of a "cluster" will have a strong effect on the calculation. It might be interesting to know what the definition technically is, and I wonder what the FAA historical records (raw data) show?

And of course a well publicized "first" incident would increase the probability of subsequent reports, thus affecting the "other things being equal" caveat above.

And certainly even a rare cluster can happen at any time - just because the probability of an event is, say, 1/1,000,000,000, doesn't mean that it can't happen tomorrow, and that it isn't random.

[Indeed -- JDM]

Non-math thoughts:

There are also other attributes to each incident that can be examined - time of day, duration of event, was it on approach, was it on takeoff, type of laser (red, green, IR) and so on.

The size of the laser "dot" would be suggestive, a smaller dot meaning either a nearby source or a distant source with optical assist.

Summing up and extending [the thoughts at Instapundit, Sgt Stryker, and Arcturus] a little bit we can get a list with the following:

  1. Range Finding and aircraft approach info.

  2. Innocent (ignorant) civilian use.

  3. Not-so-innocent civilian use.

  4. Attempt by law enforcement agencies to increase scope of authority, hype.

  5. Attempt by media outlets to get market share, hype.

  6. Criminal, Likely Terrorist (CLT) motive: scare tactics, resource expenditure.

  7. CLT motive: dazzler practice attempts.

  8. CLT motive: dazzler attempts.

  9. CLT motive: laser downing (practice) attempt.

  10. CLT motive: laser downing attempt.

  11. CLT motive: laser targeting (practice) attempt.

  12. CLT motive: laser targeting attempt.

Option (1) seems unlikely. Airport and airspace approach paths, tracks, and so on are easily obtainable. Aircraft speeds and behaviors on takeoff, cruise, and landing are also easily available. Sorry, "Phantom," it seems unlikely.

Option (2) is probably true in at least one case.

Option (3) is possible. Someone might get their kicks by tracking an aircraft, or by causing a scare. The emotional equivalent to calling in a false report to the police, or to leaving a fake bomb in a bus terminal.

Option (4) is hard to evaluate - all law enforcement agencies and bureaucracies have their own purposes and agendas, so it's a bit of a judgment call. A careful scrutiny of the back trail of the lasing reports might expose an agency or person in authority with an agenda.

Option (5) is hard to evaluate - like (4) it is sort of a judgment call and would be evaluated in the same way. And there can certainly be a symbiotic relationship between (4) and (5).

Option (6) would be a simple, effective opposing force (CLT) tactic to force the US to expend resources against a threat that only CLT knows won't occur. (The classic cold war analogy to this might be the XB-70 Valkyrie: the US built two aircraft prototypes and the Soviets in response apparently designed and built an entire radar net against the possibility.) One valuable resource that might be expended is the 'belief in warnings' of the public and law enforcement agencies. By forcing the shepherd to 'cry wolf' repeatedly CLT has reduced the value of such alarms and increased the chances of success in any future attack. And, should the US not respond, then a quite specific hole in the defenses is known and can be exploited later. (Defense is a mugs game, but sometimes there aren't many options.)

Option (7) seems possible. Though giving away your hand in advance with practice attempts seems foolish. Practice attempts somewhere besides major cities and commercial airlines would seem best to me. Private aircraft and remote desert strips capable of replicating an airliner on takeoff/landing would be a better idea. Though the reported events would make sense if we are in an "end game" scenario and such practice has already been completed - what we are seeing would be some final familiarization trials.

(More thoughts on 7: The type of aircraft might be a clue here - passenger craft with their multiple windows and observers would be more likely to spot a laser than a cargo aircraft with only a few windows and observers. A "practice" attempt would be better made against UPS cargo jets, for example, than a Southwest commuter. If the aircraft was immediately behind or before a scheduled UPS plane it could be that CLT inadvertently targeted the wrong plane during practice. Have there been hundreds of practice attempts of which we have only seen a few percent?)

Option (8) seems unlikely. The brightness and duration needed for a successful dazzle was apparently not present. The naval aviator and shuttle crew dazzling incidents, not to mention pilots who inadvertently flew into the Las Vegas "Luxor" lasers gives a fairly good idea of what dazzler requirements are. Not to mention assorted medical/military info available on the web.

Options (9) and (10) are unlikely (though most likely to seem credible to the public at large) - it takes a very powerful (large and heavy) laser to physically damage an aircraft.

Option (11) shares a lot with (7). Smart weapons systems have given the US military a huge edge over opponents, eventually they will catch up. Sooner or later someone is going to try it.

Option (12) seems unlikely, there are no reports of missiles or RPG's.

The question of visible laser use is interesting. If it is an CLT attempt and not indeed innocent then one can list possibilities as:

[While I think it most likely that we'll find these incidents to consist of stupidity and pranks, I thank Edward for his detailed elucidation of the possibilities -- JDM]

Jay Manifold [7:56 PM]

A Break

-- from the all-lasers-all-the-time format: previously unknown Googlewhacker (not necessarily the best kind, but sounds like a good guy anyway) Ross Kelly writes (slightly edited):

Was just doin' a spot of Googlewhacking and thought that you'd like to know that your page for June '02 is the only page on Google with the two words "gluttonous interferometers" in it, therefore making you a Googlewhack.

Good day, good sir.

A good day to us all ... especially out here in God's country, where we may be about to experience a repeat of this. I responded, however, with something a bit more relevant, namely: "In addition, I believe you will find that the phrase 'intrastate insolation,' which appears in this post, is unique."

Jay Manifold [7:16 PM]

[ 20050103 ]

Laser Attacks? (II)

Yes, this is a long post, but there's lots of juicy info, all of it via my fellow amateur astronomers in the KC area (ref this earlier post). From the ASKC Yahoo! Group, a message from ASKC webmaster Rob Robinson, which I reproduce here unedited:

From: "sc285"
Date: Thu Dec 30, 2004 4:42 pm
Subject: Green Lasers

With the popularity of the new green type laser, like most of us have been buying, there have been more and more reports of aircraft being targeted by the beams. Whether intentional or not, the FAA is concerned.

I seriously doubt whether amateur astronomers are intentionally misusing these items. I do believe we should be aware of were we point these things, and to make sure no aircraft are in the vacinity of where we are pointing out things in the night sky.

Ted Nichols, of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg PA, recently sent out an article in one of the maillists I belong to concerning recent newspaper reportings of these incidents. Specifically:

Lasers illuminate airline cockpits on approach

U.S. warns of terrorist lasers

Today, he sent out another article concerning responses to his email. Here is his follow up from yesterday's email:

Please see the below responses I've received from others, including a response from a member of the Ilda (International Laser Display Association.)

I believe some people took or may take my "I'm glad I don't own a green laser" comment out of context in a way meaning I didn't find them valuable to "astronomy education."

While I don't own one, I used to, and I do see their value in astronomy education and public outreach. I do commonly use another's responsibly but felt no need to own one of my own anymore. Maybe I felt it was only a matter of time till I would be "limited" in my use of them. I also feel they're great for public outreach in this day and age, it allows you to really point out something to people, but I will point out plenty of people learned the constellations before the advent of green lasers.

I've seen too many people hit in the eye with one of these and with the price coming down saw that irresponsible use of these would soon be commonplace. The "red" laser pointer was a great thing until it got a bad rap from kids taking them to school or public places and "accidentally" shooting others in the eye with them. I remember countless lawsuits in this area from red laser incidents.

I also heard someone respond to my e-mail pretty peeved saying that every astronomer who owns one uses them responsibly. I think that's a questionable claim. No matter how responsibly someone tries to use them, accidents happen, and blatant misuse is bound to occur. I've seen some of the most "responsible" people accidentally beam something they hadn't intended too or out of curiosity point it at objects other than in the sky.

And yes, I will say that I saw people at a Star Party when these things first became popular trying to light up the belly of airplanes and cautioned those I saw doing it against that.

Here are some other interesting responses that have came out on other groups I belong too:

Two more high visibility reports came out today. One from Yahoo news and another in Denver. They stated "green lasers" in them.

FBI Probes Laser Beam Directed at Cockpit

Laser at planes spurs probe

And here's a interesting response from Rob a member of the ILDA:

"Hi Ted and Everyone,

I feel I should pipe in here. I spent some years working with lasers within the entertainment industry. And I'm still a member of Ilda (International Laser Display Association, which is based in the US). While it is true in the US you need whats called a "Variance Permit" for each and every laser system you own and use publicly over 5mw, And if you get caught using one without a permit. You will be fined, and have your laser confiscated by the CDRH officers who are the people who police those laws within the US. The FAA got involved due too the incidents involving an aircraft.

We in the laser community have been following this story since it broke,mAlthough the CDRH andmFAA are not pointing the finger at our industry, they have asked for our help within the US. Infact I would be interested to hear from anyone with information regarding following incidences.

On 11/21/04 at 1925 PST, 3 miles north of San Diego, the Sanyo Blimp (N15AB) was illuminated by a green laser reported to San Diego Tower, no injury.

On 12/6/04 at 2026 PST, 5 miles southwest of San Jose at 6000 feet, Southwest 2659 (B737) reported a green laser illuminated the cockpit, no injury. The co-pilot did complain of eye irritation.

However I would like to say a 5mw laser IS NOT a high powered laser, these devices are commonly found in laser pointers, scanning devices in your local supermarket and the like. Actually 5mw would be the biggest of these devices they are usually around the .25mw range. It is never advisable to point such a devices into the eyes of anyone's, even at these lower powers. The is allot to consider and there has been great discussion within the laser community. Regarding the ability to bring down an aircraft with a laser by blinding the pilots. And I could sit here and type out all the variables, beam convergence, power drop off, and not to mention the ability to be able to accurately track an aircrafts cockpit window 6000 feet in the air traveling at xxxkph, just to name just a few. Even if you use a 20-40watt laser, now these systems can do real damage. You can swing you hand past the nose of a 20watt laser turned up to full power and receive a 3rd degree burn across your hand, 20-30 meters down the track you will still be able to light a cigarette off the beam, but a 6000 feet the beam will have blown out to several feet in diameter losing allot of it power, I also might add that 20watt laser can fire a beam some 50kms depending on atmospheric conditions.

Although it has never occurred to me that an amateur astronomer maybe either by accident or on purpose be involved in these incidences. It is something that Ilda will now consider.

So if anyone knows of anyone playing with these devices in such a way. I would really like to hear about it. As it is these types of incidents that can bring down the laser industry within the US.

We in the laser community feel that the media is blowing this out of proportion (through not being educated about lasers, and also paranoia from the current administration. I guess the US needs to look at all the possibilities."

Anyways, this is a very interesting issue and I'm enjoying reading the responses I'm hearing. Happy New Years to Everyone!

Ted A. Nichols II
President - ASH

A crucial clarifying point, from ASKC member (who in spite of his local membership is a resident of Fresno, CA -- gotta ask Peter Sean Bradley to corroborate this report) Johnny Allen:

From: johnny allen
Date: Sat Jan 1, 2005 2:53 am
Subject: Re: [ASKC] Green Lasers

I saw a news report here in Fresno that showed the type of greeen lasers that they think have been used in these aircraft incidents. Believe me, thay are not using what we have or anything like it. These are lasers that look more like a small telescope and when they beam into the cockpits of aircraft they report that it sets the entire cabin aglow. They said that these were not the kind of lasers that could be bought over the counter, but have a much higher, military grade output.

Johnny Allen

Some great technical details from ASKC member Dick Trentman:

From: "D. Trentman"
Date: Sat Jan 1, 2005 12:14 pm
Subject: RE: [ASKC] Green Lasers

Here is a source that has these (class 3B)* green lasers with very high outputs and prices to match. They claim powers as high as 50-60mw and a beam output 20+ miles and can burn holes in black trash bags. If this is true, they could easily produce the results that we have heard about and will fit in the shirt pocket like a pen. These could easily light up the flight deck of an aircraft with startling results to the crew. This laser looks almost exactly like ours, but this company has them in different colors. The case appears the same and the appearance of the laser is the same so I believe it is the same Chinese manufacturer.

Please note that at least one of the sites I found last year was a site that imported the same laser and then modified it to the higher powers. I have no idea of the ramifications of such a result and I would not want to resell them.

For what is it worth, I believe this site may be offering the modified versions.

* Class 3A lasers are 5mw maximum. Safe for general use by the FDA. Class 3B lasers appear to be for professional use only, whatever that means with the potential risk of injury to the eye if improperly used. Many additional warnings are issued along with the use of these powerful lasers.

Dick T

From: "D. Trentman"
Date: Sat Jan 1, 2005 12:46 pm
Subject: RE: [ASKC] Green Lasers- Dissection

Dissection of Green Laser Pointer

Here is the complete sequence of photos of the dissection of a 532 nm green laser pointer. Since no green direct injection laser diodes are currently available, these pointers are based on the use of Diode Pumped Solid State Frequency Doubled (DPSSFD) laser technology. A high power IR laser diode at 808 nm pumps a tiny block of Nd:YVO4 generating light at 1,064 nm which feeds a KTP intracavity frequency doubler crystal to produce the green beam at 532 nm.


Jay Manifold [8:42 PM]

[ 20050102 ]

Frank Kelly Freas, RIP

The Laughing Wolf just e-mailed me (and a bunch of smart people, besides) this announcement:

Award-winning artist Frank Kelly Freas passed away this morning, with family around him. Best known for his science fiction art, his work encompassed a wide range of styles and media. Services will be at Oakwood Memorial Park in/near Los Angeles at a time to be determined.

You may view samples of his work and read a short biography here. Requiescat in pace.

UPDATE: For Southern California readers -- Karl Lembke, Chair of LASFS BOD, informs me that "Frank Kelly Freas' funeral is scheduled for [today], January 3, 2005 at 1 PM. The location is Kingsley and Gates Mortuary, 6909 Canoga Ave. Services will be followed by a procession to Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth. A memorial will be held in the near future at the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society."

Jay Manifold [2:56 PM]

Laser Attacks?

Glenn fortuitously passes along a link from his reader Rich Willis, which does indeed offer the likely explanation -- part of it, that is. The question is, what would anybody be doing out at night with one of these things?

Well, here's what: green lasers are for pointing out things in the night sky. The human eye is tens of times as sensitive to green light as it is to red light under "scotopic" (nighttime) illumination. These lasers are thus extremely effective even in relatively transparent conditions, like shortly after a rainfall (followed by clearing, of course), and have become very popular among amateur astronomers in the past year or two. Powell Observatory keeps two of them on site, and many ASKC members own one; in fact, the ASKC sells them.

As Glenn points out, keeping one trained on the cockpit of an aircraft by hand would be, to put it mildly, challenging. Suppose the beam divergence is 1 milliradian. At a distance of a thousand meters, the beam will be one meter across, wider than a cockpit window. To have any chance of affecting a pilot's vision, a would-be terrorist would have to be capable of keeping the beam pointed to an accuracy of 3 minutes of arc, one-tenth the diameter of a Full Moon. And a commercial jet landing at 100 mph would cover that thousand meters in 22 seconds, and the attacker would have to be right next to, if not inside, the boundary of the airport.

My own experience of using these pointers is that they work extremely well for short periods but often need to be "rested." Also that they really wow the audience. And above all, that they make things much, much easier by eliminating the need to get everybody's attention and walk them through a four- or five-step algorithm for finding, say, M31; you can just point the thing at it and say "it's that fuzzy spot right there." But keeping the beam inside a circle one-tenth the size of the Moon in the sky? Forget it.

This is a manufactured crisis, one which may lead to the gratuitous banning of a useful device.

UPDATE: Good analysis by Alan Sullivan over at Fresh Bilge.

Jay Manifold [9:48 AM]

[ 20050101 ]

“Never in my entire life have I been so glad to be wrong”

From Alan E. Brain, this astonishing follow-up on the Indian Ocean tsunami, about the disaster that didn't happen.

Meanwhile, previously unknown reader (the best kind) Jim Bennett (not the "Anglosphere" one, it turns out, but a resident of Rhode Island who is associated with Malone and Hutch), points me to this issue of Science of Tsunami Hazards (warning: 1.2 MB *.pdf), specifically to the second paper therein, Evaluation of the Threat, etc. From the abstract:

Incorrect input parameters and treatment of wave energy propagation and dispersion, have led to overestimates of tsunami far field effects. Inappropriate media attention and publicity to such probabilistic results have created unnecessary anxiety that mega tsunamis may be imminent and may devastate densely populated coastlines at locations distant from the source - in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

I note that the use of "local" in "catastrophic local tsunamis" includes events like the one we have just witnessed, with a six-figure death toll including large numbers of casualties well over a thousand kilometers from the epicenter. What "local" does not include are events spanning an entire ocean; La Palma is sixty degrees of longitude from Florida, around 6,000 km.

For a diagnosis of "inappropriate media attention," see Andrew Cline's invaluable guide to structural biases in the media, especially #4, "bad news bias." There can be no question, however, that concentrated reporting of actual, as opposed to prosepective, calamitous events helps direct attention and relief to those suffering from such events.

Jay Manifold [9:02 AM]