Forget Trump – What About Fukushima?

(Originally posted on Read With The Gringa 7/27/2017)

While the world has been distracted with all things Trump, everyone seems to have forgotten that the world’s worst industrial disaster is still unfolding. Yeah, remember Fukushima? That nuclear reactor that had 3 cores melt down after a 9.0 earthquake triggered a 15-meter tsunami that devastated Japan? Would you, dear reader, like the gringa, like to know what the heck is still going on? Well, Ima gonna tell ya. First, the basics on the history:

March 11, 2011: After said earthquake and tsunami, 3 of the 4 cores of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors melted down over the course of three days. 

The World Nuclear Organization (WNO) rated the disaster a 7 on the INES scale. What the heck is that, the dear reader asks? And what the heck does it mean? 

The INES is an international standard used to measure the significance of a nuclear event primarily determined by the amount of radiation ionization exposure. There is no higher rating than a 7. That being said, the gringa would like to know is Fukushima a true 7 or is it listed as a 7 simply because there is no higher rating to assign? I mean, would an INES rating of 9 or 15 or 28 be a  more honest reflection of what happened? But I digress. Back to what a 7 actually means as we know it.

Fukushima was given a 7 because during days #4 through #6 a total of 940 PBq (1-131 eq) was released of radioactive material.  But what does that mean? 

PBq does not stand for “Please Be Quiet” with regard to Fukushima. It refers to the metric measurement of radioactivity. It is shorthand for Petabecquerel. It’s root word, becquerel, is defined as:

“… the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.”

When the prefix “peta” is attached it becomes a measurement equal to 10 to the fifteenth power becquerels. In other words, one-thousand-billion. Crazy number, huh? So Fukushima released 940 thousand billion radioactive nuclei into the sea and atmosphere. Sounds pretty awful, right? So why is the world’s media and national leaders seemingly unconcerned? Are they correct in their “no big deal” assessment? Should we just move on and continue letting the Trump circus and side-show dominate our attention?

Fukushima’s atmospheric radioactive releases had 2 primary contaminants: volatile iodine-131 and caesium-137. The iodine has a half-life of 8 days. No big deal there. The caesium, on the other hand, is a really big deal. It is easily carried throughout the atmosphere, has a 30-year half-life, so wherever it finally lands it’s going to be there for a very long time, a silent and invisible invader. But is it deadly?

Caesium is soluble. That means the human body can absorb it. The good news is that it does not concentrate within internal organs. After about 70 days the body is rid of the substance. 

The most highly concentrated atmospheric releases were detected around the end of March 2011. The good news is that in mid-March Japan had already anticipated this problem and taken preventative measures. 

A dust-suppressing polymer resin had been applied around the nuclear plant to suppress fallout, preventing the iodine and caesium from becoming mobile through wind and rain. By 2012, effective permanent covers were in place to contain fallout from atmospheric releases. Nearby crops of rice have been tested and reveal that caesium levels are one-quarter of the allowable limit. That means there is Fukushima rice for sale. Yum.

The worst news from Fukushima is that run-off of contaminated water into the sea was profuse and well above allowable levels of radionuclides. Although storage tanks for contaminated water were eventually erected, they began leaking in 2013. In addition to this is the more than 10,000 cubic meters of “slightly” contaminated water purposely released into the sea by Japan. This was a deal with the devil. They had to release less-contaminated water in order to make room for storing highly-contaminated water.

All sorts of new technology has been quickly developed by innovators eager to help Japan clean-up radioactive water quicker and more effectively. The gringa finds it sad how catastrophe inspires innovation. But I won’t knock it. Better to be desperate and have options than to be desperate and hopeless.

Concrete panels were constructed to prevent further leakage of contaminated water into the harbor surrounding Fukushima. These were later reinforced with steel shielding that extends one kilometer through rock strata. Testing of harbor waters in 2013 indicate that contamination levels are below acceptable standards. But is this good news? Who decides what is safe when it comes to contamination?

When it comes to interpreting contamination results for the harbor, Japan refers to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard for drinking water. The harbor surrounding Fukushima tests consistently lower for caesium contamination that the WHO requires for safe drinking water. Sounds pretty safe to me. But what about the fish and stuff? Can you eat what you catch?

The gringa thinks so. You see, prior to 2012 the Japanese national standard was for food sources not to exceed 500 Bq/kg of caesium contamination. After the disaster, this standard was dropped to 100 Bq/kg. What this means is that although they dropped the measurement standard they raised the standard for expectations. In order for fish caught off of Japan’s shores to be eligible for sale and dining pleasure, they have to test for less caesium now than before the disaster. And what do the fish say?

Within the months immediately after the disaster, more than 50% were too contaminated to eat. By the summer of 2014 things had changed dramatically. In about 3 years 99.4% of fish caught in the harbor surrounding Fukushima were safe to eat. Not bad, Japan, not bad.

But what about the doom and gloom reports about a wave of sea-borne Fukushima radiation that is finally reaching the shores of other nations? Well, first keep in mind that there are pre-existing levels of caesium radiation in the earth’s oceans. That would be the caesium-137 isotope contamination caused by nuclear weapons testing decades ago. Thanks, United States. 

But there is another caesium isotope, #134, floating around the Pacific. It can only have originated from Fukushima. The good news is that instead of having a half-life of 30 years, like #137, it only sticks around for about 2 years. But here it is 2017, 5 years after the disaster. Why is it still floating around in the Pacific? Well, to understand that you have to understand what half-life means. 

Having a 2-year half-life doesn’t mean that #134 will disappear or become non-radioactive in 2 years. It means that it takes 2 years for it to lose half of its radioactive value. So, let’s do the math:

  • 5 years ago # 134 is full strength
  • 3 years ago #134 is half strength
  • 1 year ago up to present #134 is one-quarter strength

But is the Pacific Ocean deadly? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regularly tested and monitored west coast waters, fully aware of the potential for deadly radioactivity due to Fukushima. The results of Fukushima radiation off the coast of California average to about 2 Becquerels per cubic meter. 

Since 7400 becquerels per cubic meter are the standard for safe drinking water, it seems California beach bums are safe. Even if a beach bum stays in the water non-stop for an entire year, their radiation exposure would be about the same as sitting for an x-ray at the dentist. So surf at your pleasure, beach bums.

So what does all of this mean? The worst man-made/natural combo disaster a human could imagine occurred 5 years ago. Amazingly enough, human ingenuity was up to the task. Fukushima is not going to kill the planet. And according to the latest findings recovered by robotic explorers, Fukushima will most likely be officially de-commissioned. Now who is inspired to become a scientist?


World Nuclear Organization

International Atomic Energy Agency

IFL Science

Image Credit: Suffolk University Blogs

Video Credit: New Scientist

Evolution & Climate Change

(Originally posted 3/9/17 on Read With The Gringa)

Climate change, now, more than ever, is quite a hot topic, pardon the pun, if you will. Some people think we shouldn’t be so grave and serious about the contributions mankind’s industrialization makes to the Earth’s carbon budget. Climate change naysayers say concerned scientists are simply trying to rally support to fund their research with fear-mongering tactics. They claim that well-meaning citizens are responding with emotions rather than really examining the facts. They claim that the Earth goes through climate change cycles on a regular basis. They say this is just the normal way of nature. They also claim that pollution is really not that big of a deal because the Earth, like any living organism, is capable of adaptation as a survival instinct. This would mean that the Earth would simply “clean herself up”. 

Is such a perspective true? To find out let’s take a look at one of the all-time worst environmental disasters, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. It’s been 30 years since a Ukrainian nuclear plant melted down and contaminated a 1,000 square mile area in Eastern Europe with high levels of deadly radiation. Medical experts and scientists expect it will be close to 20,000 years before humans can safely inhabit the area. Journalists and researchers can only visit for very brief periods or else risk exposure to a lethal dose of radiation. Yet, still, hundreds of people, mostly old folks who are unable or unwilling to relocate, survive in nearby villages, although there are very high rates of deadly forms of cancer. 

But what about the local flora and fauna? How well has the Earth done at surviving and cleaning itself up? How is nature faring in that neck of the polluted woods? Is it a wasteland of scorched earth and fried animal remains? Are there glowing rabbits and three-headed wolverines? Have talking plants begun to grow?

Well, within the most immediate radius of the nuclear plant’s site, about 10-15 miles out, it is considered by scientists to be a “clean zone”. No, that doesn’t mean it’s clean of pollution or ill effects. It means clean of practically all life as we know it. But go a bit further and you find a radioactive region teeming with wildlife who is enjoying life unmolested in an area uninhabited by man. 

You may have always wondered if the joke about cockroaches being the only thing to survive a nuclear holocaust is true. It is. In fact, insects seem to have superpowers when it comes to radioactive disasters. And because the bugs survive and thrive, the birds do as well! And so on, and so on down the wildlife food chain. Mankind may one day disappear, leaving behind the bugs and birds and mammals to rule the world.

However, judging from the spider-webs, it seems that bugs may suffer cognitively. Webs of affected spiders show erratic patterns that deviate significantly from their uncontaminated counterparts. So, a post-climate change world bereft of man, may be overrun by insane insects, mutant birds and an abundance of fat mammals.

Wolves have always been synonymous with Eastern Europe. That is probably why they were selected to be studied by biologists to see what their radioactive survival story is. What has been discovered is that wolves are thriving. That can only mean there are plenty of other large and medium sized mammals for them to prey upon. Wild Przewalski’s horses are recovering even though they are considered a rare and endangered species. Beavers are happily gnawing away at the wild forest growth. Bears forage happily and wolves are always looking on for an opportunity at a good meal.

Researchers are recording things like high rates of cataracts, higher occurrences of albinism, and curious physical mutations. However, despite these ill effects, the overall report from scientists and researchers is that, considering the devastation of a nuclear disaster, the wildlife actually seems to be rebounding and doing well. So well, in fact, that around Chernobyl a greater concentration of wolves can be found as compared to Yellowstone National Park!

What does that mean? Should we stop fussing about climate change? The gringa supposes we could if we don’t mind the humans of tomorrow looking very different than the humans of today. Here are some of the theorized adaptations that might happen to humans who evolve in order to survive the rising temperatures of climate change and effects of more solar radiation trapped within our atmosphere:

  • We get shorter and skinnier. Decreasing mass while maximizing surface area makes us more efficient at venting heat.
  • Our eyes grow larger because we become nocturnal, active during the cooler period when the sun is down.
  • Babies have lower birth weight because we engage in less exercise thus require fewer calories.

If the world is over-radiated, humans will need to avoid contamination. They have to avoid more than just exposure to invisible radiation in the air. Radiation is also passed through the food chain. That means more than just avoiding eating vegetables that have grown in over-radiated soil. It also means not eating any meat from an animal that may have fed upon animals or plants that were contaminated somewhere along their own natural food chain. This limitation on the human diet would contract our dietary options which would also result in a “skinnification” of mankind.

Funny thing is the gringa is already pretty skinny and does have rather large eyes. Maybe it’s already happening and the gringa is well on her way to transforming into a new human species! Our generation could be what scientists call, thousands of years from now, the “missing link” or a “bridge species” between the humans of yesterday and the humans of tomorrow!

Sources & Video Credit: 

National Geographic

New York Times

The Atlantic

Mental Floss

Documentary/Documentaries HD

Image Credit: NBC News

Wearable A/C

The gringa considers nudity to be part of the climate change solution. It could solve lots of problems:

  • Conserve water.
  • Reduce emissions with less marketable goods requiring shipping.
  • Reduce energy usage to cool homes in warm climates.

However, some innovators in the fashion industry may have come up with a cool, pardon the pun, solution that will allow everyone to keep themselves covered and still be comfortable despite the heat.

With the invention of plastic based textiles, cooling is all part of the design of a new, innovative fabric that engineers have developed at Stanford University. Combining the disciplines of chemistry, nanotechnology and photonics with an old-fashioned cotton fabric, sweat and body heat pass right through.

Believe it or not, current “breathable” fabrics are simply not breathable at all. People get hot wearing clothes because invisible waves of infrared radiation produced by our bodies are trapped under the clothes we wear. In research studies comparing standard cotton with the new fabric, scientists discovered that good, ol’ “breathable” cotton raised the temperature of skin surface by nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius). For the gringa, that would make all the difference in the world. I could keep my A/C off and my family clothed in cooling fabrics.

The gringa only sees one problem, the plastic connection. Plastic is, of course, a petroleum based product. Isn’t dependence on petroleum the bane of human existence? Isn’t it at the heart of climate change? Is it not the object of war for profit? So has the science community really come up with a practical solution to help contribute one tiny bit to the climate change solution or has it simply opened a Pandora’s Box for the future of petroleum wars? Will nations continue to slaughter one another in order to control oil fields that will be necessary to keep people clothed in fabrics that will help them survive the catastrophic heatwaves of the future?



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NASA, Please Explain

Why hasn’t mankind been back to the Moon? Why do humans only travel as far as the International Space Station (ISS) and no further if Russia and the United States have already had successful Moon landing missions? These questions fuel the conspiracy fires that claim the Apollo Moon landing was a staged scene and never really happened. Regardless of a person’s position on this, what of Russia? If they made it to the Moon, why haven’t they been back either?

During the years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it was always a game of one-upmanship. Rather than flinging bombs at one another it was a bit of “Whatever you can do I can do better.” The space race was no exception.

In 1961 the Soviet Union took the lead in the space race when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth and returned home, all in one piece. In response, U.S. President John F. Kennedy did not say, “Well done.” No, instead he threw down the gauntlet and swore that the U.S. would out-do the Soviet’s achievement. He declared that within a decade Americans would have a man on the Moon and back home safe and sound. Eight years later people around the world watched televised broadcasts of Neil Armstrong planting a U.S. flag on the surface of the Moon. Or did he?

What we know now compared to what we knew then may cast great doubt on the legitimacy of the Apollo mission. Accusations that film director Stanley Kubrick prepared a fake production staged with the latest technologies of 70s era filmdon may actually have credibility. Consider the most common criticisms that point to the film being a fake:

  • Wind mysteriously blowing a flag that should be in the vacuum of space.
  • Anomalous shadows cast in different directions which would indicate multiple sources of light.
  • No disturbance of lunar dust or the Moon’s surface from the landing of the space module.
  • What are the strange objects that are reflected at different times in the visors of the astronaut’s space helmet?
  • Where are all the stars that should be in the background?

Skeptics of conspiracy theories can argue away these questions. For years the gringa has been inclined to believe in the Moon landing as an event that really did happen. My reason being that, for one thing, think about how many people would have to be in on such a crazy secret for all of these decades. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but the gringa’s pretty certain that somewhere along the way, throughout all of these years, surely someone would have cracked.

Despite my confidence in NASA, however, the gringa must admit that by becoming informed about the Van Allen radiation belts, I may have to change my position. This may be the smoking gun that exposes how the entire world has been duped. The U.S., desperate to remain relevant and seen as the most powerful nation, outperforming its most aggressive global competitor, may have gone so far as to stage the most incredible hoax of all time.

You see, the Van Allen radiation belts surround the Earth. Consider these belts to be an enormous layered donut and the Earth the donut hole. They radiate outward as far as 36,000 miles depending on whether they are expanding or contracting. The innermost ring generally spans from 400-6,000 miles above the surface of the Earth. The outer belt stretches generally from about 8,400-36,000 miles above Earth. The ISS is safely tucked into orbit at a mere 230 miles from the Earth’s surface in what is called a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Orbiting between the two belts is a GPS satellite set 12,500 miles away, just inside the innermost rim of the outermost belt, where radiation levels fluctuate according to waxing and waning cycles. Just within the outermost layer of the outermost belt is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in geosynchronous orbit at 22,000 miles away studying the mess solar radiation makes from time to time.

In addition to the Van Allen radiation belts is the problem of a cloud of cool, charged particles which envelopes most of Earth’s outer atmosphere. Its nearest edge is about 600 miles from the surface of the Earth and extends outward and stops just inside the outermost edge of the furthest Van Allen belt. Scientists call this cloud the plasmasphere. It seems to cause particles in the outer belt to scatter. As the electrons scatter they create a loop which becomes a well defined belt. The plasmasphere is responsible for creating and maintaining the belts. When a powerful solar event occurs, such as a solar flare, some of the belts’ electrons can be forced by these extreme conditions into the space void between the belt layers, thus creating the waxing and waning effect of the belts.

The craziness of this relationship boggles the gringa’s mind. Think about it. The electrons are prevented by Earth’s magnetic field from penetrating all the way to Earth and frying all of us Earthlings. However, they also do not have enough energy to escape and dissipate into outer space. Thus they are trapped in this belt system which results in a protective barrier that traps dangerous radioactive solar radiation so that we don’t all get fried. Without the belts we fry. Without the plasmosphere we fry. Without the magnetosphere we fry. And if we hang out in any of these Earth preserving regions for any length of time we fry. Is that not the most amazing irony? That which preserves us can also kill us.

Considering that the Moon is 238,900 miles from the Earth, these dangerous, radioactive belts must have been navigated safely with the technology available in 1969. The only other option would have been to “thread the needle”, so to speak, by using a trajectory that would have allowed astronauts to travel through a narrow window of space that would have avoided the highest concentrations of radiation within the belts.

If this path had been successfully traveled in 1969, and adequate shielding technology existed, why is the danger posed by the Van Allen belts considered to be the main obstacle and unsolved problem preventing a consecutive Moon landing today? The gringa suspects the answer may lie in the fact that there really was no successful 1969 Moon landing to begin with.

Here are the words and quotes NASA uses to describe the Van Allen belts today:

  • 2 donuts of seething radiation.
  • Impenetrable barrier.
  • Wax and wane.
  • Expose satellites in low-Earth orbit to damaging radiation.

So what did NASA do to deal with the dangers of the Van Allen belts? Did they come up with a competent strategy and deliver the real deal with a man on the Moon or did they scam the entire world?

Newly discovered in 1958 by scientist James Van Allen, not much was known about them two years later when the first solution was offered up. In 1960 Robert O. Piland and Stanley C. White told NASA that hoping to shield astronauts effectively from the radiation was impractical. They did believe they could provide moderate protection and a safe enough route that would enable astronauts to not fry as they passed through the outer belt.

NASA got to work with a Group On Trajectory Analysis. Van Allen, himself, suggested that by detonating a nuclear warhead the crew could clear a path of travel. The gringa can only say, “Thank goodness NASA didn’t do that!” However, the defense industry in the US really mucked things up by nuclear testing which only increased the intensity of the radiation levels in the belts.

In 1964 NASA officials were confident that with the right skin on the spacecraft, a layer of protection provided by instrumentation, and the right trajectory, the risk was nominal to the crew. Equipped with dosimeters to record radiation exposure, the gringa is puzzled over the final results as reported by NASA. The agency reports that over the course of all the Lunar missions, astronauts were only exposed to radiation levels that were actually lower than the 5 rem a person working in a nuclear power plant would be exposed to annually. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims that the average American is exposed to a radiation dose of about 0.62 rem annually. A full body CAT scan delivers a radiation dose of 1 rem. So any human going through some rather routine medical procedures can easily reach the same radiation exposure levels as what NASA reported in the Apollo Moon landing crew.

ISS astronauts deal with radiation issues daily. It took the gringa quite a bit of head scratching and calculating to discover how ISS astronaut radiation levels compare to the astronauts of the Apollo Moon missions. They use a different measurement, the SI system. Maybe, if there is a conspiracy, this is by design to confuse amateur sleuths like myself. Anyway, I digress.

Basically one mSv is the equivalent dose of radiation an average person would be exposed to on Earth in one year’s time. Astronauts on the ISS are exposed to 1 mSv daily! This exposure takes place well outside the Van Allen belts in a space station constructed with the latest technology in radiation shielding and manned by personnel equipped with the safest space suit equipment available. How, then, could minimally protected astronauts pass through highly radioactive belts not just once, but twice, and not be ravaged with radiation? If ISS astronauts report a daily radiation exposure equivalent to a year’s worth of radiation back home and are not in the belts themselves, how in the world is the public supposed to believe that the Apollo astronauts were only exposed to the amount of radiation a person would absorb if they had 4-5 full-body CAT scans?

The  gringa has become incredibly skeptical. The gringa is going to be hopping mad if she discovers hard evidence that proves we have all been had. NASA, please explain.


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Salute Our Space Heroes

Traveling in outer space sounds fun. Being an astronaut seems to be an exciting career. Until the gringa is reminded about space radiation. Those heavy duty marshmallow looking suits astronauts wear are not just to keep them warm, properly pressurized and surrounded by oxygen. They also protect against dangerous space radiation. But is it enough? Are spacecrafts and the International Space Station adequately protected or are our astronauts slowly being radiated to death?

Radiation is an invisible energy form of high-speed particles and electromagnetics. It surrounds humans in everyday artificial light, sunlight, and electronics that produce radio-, television-, and micro- waves. Radiation comes in two forms:

  • Ionized: This is the worst in the form of gamma rays, protons and neutrons. Exposure to ionized radiation results in exposed atoms becoming unstable by an energy powerful enough to remove electrons from their orbit around the atom’s nucleus.
  • Non-ionized: Not powerful enough to destabilize atoms, this is the kind of common radiation produced by microwaves, radio waves and light.

The radiation in space is, unfortunately, comprised of ionized radiation. There are three things that typically create dangerous space radiation:

  • Trapped radiation: The Earth’s core creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet up to several thousand kilometers from our planet’s surface. Solar wind carries charged particles that slam into our magnetic shield. Some particles manage to pass through. Those that don’t create a shockwave that deflects from Earth’s magnetic field. This creates layers of cavities called the “magnetosphere” that act as shock absorbers to protect Earth further from charged particle bombardment. But some particles get trapped in these cavities and they become radioactive belts surrounding Earth. Astronauts have to pass through these dangerous belts before they reach deeper space.
  • Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR): Outside our solar system ionized atoms traveling at almost light speed pass through space matter, including humans and man-made objects unless they are properly shielded.
  • Solar Particle Events (SPE): Sometimes the Sun flares and ejects copious amounts of highly charged radioactive particles into space. These particles travel so fast they are capable of reaching Earth within ten minutes of a solar or coronal flare event. These are dramatic happenings that temporarily drastically increase radiation exposure.

Astronauts traveling through space radiation or living in the ISS have to be protected from space radiation. Radiation exposure causes damage to human cells. There is a scientific formula used to calculate how much radiation exposure an astronaut can expect when working on the ISS. It’s a bit too complicated for the gringa to understand. These calculations are the reason ISS missions have a maximum six month cycle and spacewalks are limited. Exposure is increased during a spacewalk to perform repairs and maintenance.

Shielding is preferred to be constructed of materials like polyethylene because it has a high hydrogen content. This kind of material is more effective than metals at reducing the ability of particles to pass through and enter the modules. Astronauts also wear monitors called “dosimeters” that constantly measure the level of radiation damage to the chromosomes in their blood cells.

Every single astronaut is a hero. No matter what the duration of their mission. No matter what the nature of their mission. No matter what it is they did, whether it seemed glamorous or insignificant, these men and women are heroes of science. They are risking their lives every moment they are off the surface of the Earth. Even if they return safely, they have still sacrificed much. From musculo-skeletal issues to organ damage and higher cancer risks, every single astronaut will experience the effects of radiation exposure for a lifetime despite the measures taken to protect them. If you ever meet an astronaut thank them for their invaluable sacrifice and service performing critical scientific endeavors that are helping us understand our origins, learn about climate change conditions and create solutions to save our homeworld.


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Lost, Squished or Spaghettified By A Black Hole

Imagine you are zipping through the Milky Way in your spaceship, minding your own business, studying the stars, negotiating interplanetary alliances with interesting alien species, when all of a sudden alarms start sounding all over the ship. The helmsman is shouting, “Black hole dead ahead!” Everyone freezes in their tracks as a sense of doom overwhelms even the strongest survival instinct. After all, it’s a black hole, it’s a death sentence. Momentarily the ship will be caught in the great space suck, swirling down a cosmic drain to be crushed into stardust. Or not.

A proximity alert sounding through a spaceship is not the death knell as an iceberg was for the Titanic. New research gives space explorers some hope against the fated doom of a galactic squish. Rather than flat as a pancake, hapless star travelers would become space spaghetti, sucked into the black hole’s infinitely dense center and shredded. So, no, not the doom of a great space suck ultimately ending in pulverization, but a ghastly doom nevertheless. How in the world do scientists consider this good news?

The greatest physicist of all time, Stephen Hawking, has been telling everyone they were all wrong about what would happen if a person got sucked inside a black hole. The gringa is certain he must feel very satisfied to know that the rest of the scientific community has finally caught up with his genius.

And, although spaghettification sounds like a miserable end, scientists say that the good news lies in the fact that little bits of a person may be able to escape a black hole. But, again, this good news really isn’t good news at all. The only way a bit of a human might escape the black hole is if that particular bit of human spaghetti is converted into radiation.

But there’s one more kicker and opportunity for some actual good news. There are two types of black holes, one is stationary and the other spins like a top. In a spaceship trapped by a black hole scenario, hope for the spinning one. You may just be able to survive without becoming a glow-in-the-dark noodle.

If caught in a spinning black hole, also called a Kerr black hole, objects don’t necessarily get smashed to smithereens by gravitational increases. What experts expect happens is that the black hole’s gravity increases to the point of infinity. This happens so fast that the object passing through the black hole’s center remains intact.

So, this is great news. A crew and their ship could just zip right through a Kerr black hole unscathed, perhaps a little dizzy but not smashed or shredded. Then there’s the but. It’s very possible they could come out the other end in another universe altogether, once again doomed to an agonizing slow death of privation.

The gringa can only say, “Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! Please stop getting my hopes up then spaghettifying them with these darn good news/bad news scenarios. Just quit saying ‘good news’ altogether!” Because, guess what? The black hole business only gets scarier!

Scientists don’t know how they form. They are a mystery and can just, POOF, appear. So, even if humans do get some Galaxy class ships airborne, we better make darn sure we have some serious back up supplies on board because they could all get sucked to infinity and beyond no matter how clever we map their routes throughout the cosmos.


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Who’s In For A 2-Month Long, Melanoma-Free Day?

As researchers plot their space plans to discover where possibilities lie for a home planet like Earth, that might even be supporting our ancestors, where are they looking? MIT astronomers comprising an international team in Belgium are plotting for a search about 40 light years away. That means if we don’t want a spaceship to arrive with astronauts dead of old age or perhaps affected by age-related dementia, we have to send astronauts in the age group of 20s-40s to manage the forty year flight mission. It may take another decade or two for space agencies to have the ability to travel that far so elementary and middle school children of today are the astronauts of tomorrow that may be slated for just such a mission.

Beyond our solar system is the best bet for finding life like our own, or at least a few planets like ours. An MIT team has discovered three planets that orbit a dwarf star about 40 light years away. Their sizes are about the same as Earth or Venus. The telescope the astronomy used to locate them is the TRAPPIST telescope located in Chile. This telescope is designed to specifically focus on a cluster of dwarf stars, 60 in number.  Belgian scientists created TRAPPIST to study the infrared wavelengths of dwarf stars and the planets surrounding them.

The scientist’s favorite dwarf star is an ultracool (as in thermally ultracool, not socially hip) star about the size of Jupiter and much cooler than our own sun. Beginning a period of observation in September, 2015, the astronomy team observed regular intervals of fading in the infrared signature of the star. They theorized that planets were passing in front of the star causing this to occur.

The team turned their attention to the time to expect a light fade event and discovered that there were, indeed, planets orbiting the star. The two nearest planets were similar in size to our own Earth and Venus. The closest planet that has everyone’s attention is named 2MASS J23062928-0502285, commonly called TRAPPIST-1. The two planets have orbit cycles, respectively, of 1.5 of our own days and 2.4 days. The amount of radiation they absorb from their star is significantly more than what we deal with. The closest one receives about four times the radiation we get and the next one about two times the amount. So, if there is any life there it would have to have evolved with natural radiation tolerance.

The third planet in distance from the star has an unknown orbit cycle. The scientists’ best guess so far is that it could be anywhere from four to 73 days but would receive significantly less radiation. I guess that’s good news. If we need to relocate I suppose we could deal with a four-day long day or even a two-month long day and not have to worry about skin cancer.

When the team analyzes the size of the planets in relation to the star, and take into account their proximity to their sun, they believe that life could be sustainable. They calculate that there could be areas with a temperature range less than 400 kelvins. That converts to about 260 degrees Fahrenheit or 127 degrees Celsius. Not exactly a tropical paradise but conditions where liquid water and organic life could survive.

The next step is to study the atmospheric conditions of the planets to see what their atmospheres are composed of. What kind of gases? Is there breathable oxygen? And they believe that within their own working career’s lifetime they will be able to determine if these planets are inhabited with life of some kind, say the next ten years or so.

This is a breakthrough in science. Traditionally scientists have studied bright solar stars like our own. By taking a risk and searching for a cool dwarf star, this MIT group has hit paydirt with the find of a lifetime. To accomplish their task they had to design a whole new set of instruments specialized to detect the radiation emitted by cold dwarf stars and only visible through an infrared telescope. The whole field of detecting other worlds changed simply by changing the wavelength humans were viewing the galaxy with. Perspective is everything.


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3D Expandables Student Challenge for NASA’s BEAM Project

If you are the parent of a creative child or if you are a teacher with a classroom of clever, aspiring young scientists, listen up! NASA is looking for future engineers and participation in any of their challenges is one way for aspiring engineers, scientists and designers to get their attention. Coming up in July is the opening date of a great opportunity for anyone who can “think outside the box”, because that is EXACTLY what NASA is asking everyone who participates to do.

So, dear reader, now that the gringa has sufficiently gotten hold of your interest, I’m sure you want to know what the heck this is all about. Well, the challenge centers around BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module). This new space program is developing and testing the next phase of the International Space Station. Space agencies will begin integrating habitat technology that is expandable as they test the technology for possible use in deeper space missions. This will enable crews to have an immediate habitat available for use when they arrive somewhere in the galaxy after a long duration flight, somewhere like Mars. After a space flight that has lasted months, crews will not have the strength or time to build a traditional life supporting structure. They need a “pop-up” version.

BEAM arrived on ISS April 10 of this year and was installed successfully on its Tranquility node. In another few weeks it will be inflated and the real tests will begin. Astronauts will determine if the technology meets the demand of the needed readiness level, if it will provide sufficient protection for the crew against radiation in space, evaluate the performance of an inflatable structure and see if it can be safely deployed and utilized by a crew in space.

So what is NASA challenging students from Kindergarten to Seniors to do? NASA needs some 3D printing designs. They need designs of objects that will be useful to astronauts in outer space. We’re not talking about backscratchers and toothbrushes. No, NASA wants kids to think BIG, like expandable BIG, stuff that GROWS! Astronauts need all kinds of expandable stuff like:

  • Hinges
  • Accordion connectors
  • Telescopes

And what does a prize winning student or class have to look forward to?

  • Grand Prize – VIP visit to Bigelow Aerospace, the manufacturers of BEAM
  • Finalist – An inflatable tent by Heimplanet
  • Semifinalist – Gift Code to Shapeways valued at $50

So, get ready to sign up July 16. For more information or to sign-up, log on to And, GOOD LUCK! Drop the gringa a note and let me know all about your experience!


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A New Moon For A New Age

Most people think Earth’s moon is old news. However, what the public may not realize is that NASA has a rover active on the Moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LRO). The gringa will call the rover “Elroy” for your reading pleasure.

Elroy has a new exhibit on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. that reveals that our Moon is anything but boring. What with Mars and black holes and parallel universes getting so much attention, it’s easy for our little ol’ Moon to get lost in the mix. The gringa wants to give it some glory that is long overdue.

One thing that is interesting about the Moon is that it undergoes such frequent change. It seems to get blasted all the time by meteors and such. The images on display in the exhibit show the formation of new impact craters (kind of scary when the gringa considers its proximity to home! The Moon may very well be our shield!). Recent volcanic activity has also been detected. And, most curious of all, is evidence that the Moon’s core may be cooling which has caused it to shrink and crack the crust of the Moon’s surface.

Elroy is a busy little rover. So busy, in fact, that there are too many images for this single exhibit. So, in addition to the favorites that were selected for display, there is a large screen which projects lunar images that are updated daily.

Since 2009, in addition to a fabulous photography collection, Elroy has also collected environmental and geological data with the seven other instruments he is equipped with. Elroy’s mission is to map the entire surface of the Moon. Even the legendary “dark side” of the Moon.

You see, one reason the Moon remains so mysterious is because it has a “backside”. Yes, we never get to see the Moon’s rear-end. We always see only one physical side of the Moon. Now, this is not because the Moon hangs suspended in space and never rotates. It’s just that it has a rather peculiar rotation cycle.

Millions of years ago the Moon spun around much faster. The pull of Earth’s gravity has caused it to slow down. So much so that its rotation cycle now matches its orbit cycle.  These cycles take 27.3 Earth days. However, observed from Earth it takes 29.5 days. (Don’t expect the gringa to get into that mystery here! You can research it yourself by clicking on… Understanding the moon phases). So, since the orbit and rotation cycles are exactly matched, as the Moon travels about the Earth, at night, when we see it, the same side is always presented to Earth.

However, for serious stargazers with top-notch telescopes, you can get a peek at a sliver of the hidden aspects of the Moon. Since the Moon is not “round and flat” like a coin but is actually elliptical, like a ball, at just the right time there is a speed differential when the Moon is farthest from Earth, thereby its rotation speeds up a bit because of a little less gravity drag. This causes what scientists call a “rocking” motion and an extra nine percent of the Moon’s surface is visible. But now, thanks to Elroy, all Earthlings can see just exactly what is on the Moon’s backside which is not “dark” after all, except during the cycle of a full moon when the Earth is blocking all sunlight.

Only two years into its mission NASA declared Elroy a complete success. Over four billion measurements were used by Elroy to complete a topographical map of the entire Moon. Elroy’s instruments determined that the coldest spot in our entire solar system is right smack on the Moon. It is found inside the shadows of Hermite crater which is located near the north pole. It is a bitter minus 415 degrees Fahrenheit. The gringa hopes Elroy was wearing his mittens.

Elroy is not just taking photos and temperature readings. The rover is also looking for water deposits, such as ice, and searching for fuel resources such as hydrogen. In preparation for future manned Moon missions, environmental radiation levels are also recorded.

So, the next time you gaze up at the Moon, give Elroy a salute. He is still on the job!




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Space For Europe IS the ESA

With ESA Astronaut Tim Peake performing a spacewalk this week on the International Space Station, the gringa thinks it’s only fitting to turn the limelight toward Europe’s space agency and their long history of achievement. The European Space Agency (ESA) is to Europe what NASA is to the United States, JAXA is to Japan and Rocosmos is to Russia. ESA is comprised of 22 member states who collaborate with their financial resources and intellectual talents to provide a gateway to the stars for all of Europe. Members are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Canada, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia all make their own contributions as well through contractual agreements of cooperation.

The goals of the ESA are to discover more about Earth and its surrounding Solar System, as well as the entire Universe. These goals are met while at the same time promoting development of European technologies and sharing these with the world’s other space agencies.

Paris is the location of ESA headquarters. Germany is where ESA’s Astronaut Centre and Space Operations Centre are located. Astronomy Centres are found in Canada and Spain with the Earth Observation centre in Italy. The UK houses the centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications and launch bases are scattered throughout Belgium, the U.S.A., Russia and French Guiana. It can be rather dizzying with all of these operational centres spread all over the world. So, to keep things simple, because the gringa likes simple, for more information about ESA, simply go to their website,, or drop them a line or pick up the phone:

Communication Department
European Space Agency
8-10 rue Mario Nikis
75738 Paris
Cedex 15

Tel: + 33 1 5369 7155
Fax: + 33 1 5369 7690

ESA desires to explore space for peaceful purposes. While doing this it wants Europeans to benefit economic growth from the support services required to travel to the stars. Since its conception over thirty years ago, ESA has focused on long-term goals that are adaptable to a world that changes rapidly. The gringa wishes to highlight just a smattering of successful ESA missions:

  • ESRO-4, 1972: The ESRO-4 (European Space Research Organisation) satellite carried five experiments concentrating on Earth’s ionosphere, atmosphere, radiation belts and penetration of solar particle radiation into the magnetosphere. It was launched on 22 November 1972, on a NASA Scout rocket from the Western Test Range in California, and reentered Earth’s atmosphere after a successful mission on 15 April 1974.
  • 1977-2002 Mission Meteosat: launched multiple weather satellites
  • 1979 Mission Ariane: first launch of commercial launcher to secure Europe’s independent space access
  • 1983 Mission Spacelab: launched laboratory module for NASA’s Space Shuttle
  • 1985 Mission Giotto: intercept of Halley’s Comet and Comet Grigg-Skjellerup
  • 1990 Mission Hubble Space Telescope: ESA contribution of solar arrays and Faint Object Camera for Hubble Space Telescope
  • 1998 Mission ARD: launch of first European experimental re-entry vehicle
  • 2003 Mission Mars Express: launch of Europe’s first Red Planet orbiter
  • 2005 Mission Venus Express: launch of Europe’s first Venus orbiter
  • 2008-2012 Mission ATV: launch space truck for ISS re-supply
  • 2015 Mission Lisa Pathfinder: launch of technology to detect gravitational waves

Which brings the gringa to the current ESA Mission, “Principia”.  This six month mission is named after Isaac Newton’s book on physics, “Naturalis Principia Mathematica”. Peake’s mission objectives are to maintain the weightless research laboratory, conduct over thirty scientific experiments, and perform a spacewalk with fellow crewman Astronaut Tim Kopra, working together to replace a Solar Shunt Unit.

Preparing for the spacewalk involves breathing pure oxygen for two hours (to purge nitrogen) before embarking. Once spacesuits are donned, the astronauts enter an airlock where air pressure is gradually reduced until they can safely exit the ISS.

Upon successful completion of Mission Principia, ESA will then turn its attention and efforts to the next scheduled mission, Mission Exomars. Later on this year ESA will launch a Mars orbiter, rover and surface platform to the Red Planet. The gringa is so excited! To Mars! To Mars!


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