Showing posts with label space. Show all posts
Showing posts with label space. Show all posts

Thursday, December 31, 2009

From Nothingness to Everythingness

Can a decade really be nothing? One can always find bright spots, diamonds in the rough, hope for the future, right? After all, it could've never been if those Millennium Bug doom sayers we're right 10 years ago (just imagine my disappointment, waking up with a massive hangover on a beach on the equator in Ecuador, learning that the civilized world hadn't crashed down). While we may have misunderestimated the truthiness of so much we were led to believe, pwned by the meme that bling would bring us happiness, making us look like n00bs I feel some kind of recognition of the success of just having the decade is in order. Therefore today we'll look at the flip-side of nothingness, the top ten everythingnesses of the decade.

10. We haven't blown ourselves up yet, or otherwise completed self-annihilated. It's true, Kim Jong Il blew up a couple little firecrackers, but with over 20,000 warheads in their combined arsenals, Russia and the US could have caused a lot more damage. Negotiations are ongoing to replace the START treaty, which expired earlier this month, with a sitting US president who has stated his desire to see "a world without nuclear weapons". As was the case on July 31, 1991 when the original treaty was signed, the timing of a new agreement could help make the world a safer place. The original treaty was signed during the break up of the USSR and was instrumental in ensuring the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were completely disarmed. Today, in order to have any leverage in negotiations with Iran and North Korea or any other nation, sharp reductions in the numbers of warheads in the world are necessary.

At the same time pressure must be brought to bear upon the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Article 6 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states that each nation already possessing nuclear weapons "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control". A strong commitment to reduce current warheads coupled with internationally agreed bans on nuclear tests and on the production of weapons-grade fissile material are desperately needed to avoid seeing the number of nuclear-armed states double in the next decade.

9. We not only speak in terms of trillions for dollars of taxpayer money given to banks but also volts thanks to those folks at CERN. A project that became more famous for it's end of the world potential and chronic problems seems to have finally hit its stride. They've spent the better part of the last 15 years and $10 billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest atom-smasher, a 27-kilometre long tunnel straddling the Franco-Swiss border. The goal of the project is no less than learning what the universe was like at the time of the Big-Bang and discovering what has become known as the God Particle, or the Higgs Boson, theoretically the provider of 70% of the mass of the universe. While no big discoveries have been made yet, they did manage to become the world's most powerful particle accelerator by accelerating its twin proton beams to 1.18 TeV (or 1.18 trillion electron volts).

It's been a strange ride for those wacky scientists over at CERN. The LHC's official start up a little over a year ago was accompanied by as many stories about the end of the universe as the beginning. Some went so far as to try to block it's start-up in court. But something funny happened on the road to discovery. Something kept going wrong. Ever since the British physicist Peter Higgs first postulated the existence of the particle in 1964, attempts to capture it have failed, and often for unexpected, seemingly inexplicable reasons. In 1993, the multibillion-dollar United States Superconducting Supercollider, which was designed to search for the Higgs, was abruptly canceled by Congress. In 2000, scientists at a previous CERN accelerator, LEP, said they were on the verge of discovering the particle when, again, funding dried up. And now there's the LHC. Originally scheduled to start operating in 2006, it has been hit with a series of delays and setbacks, including a sudden explosion between two magnets nine days after the accelerator was first turned on, the arrest of one of its contributing physicists on suspicion of terrorist activity and, most recently, the aerial bread bombardment from a bird.

All this got some deep thinkers deep thinking. In the same way that a coin couldn't keep coming up heads forever, it would be impossible for the LHC to keep breaking down for more and more absurd reasons unless something else was at work. In a twist on the Quantum suicide experiment, the theory is that the particle they are trying to create can travel back through time and undo the universe in such a way that the particle cannot be created. Or put another way, the fact that we exist now meant that the machine wouldn't work. So each time they tried to start it up something would happen to stop them. First a busted magnet then a stray bird, next a lightning strike or falling airplane waste; each time its stopped the series of events that stopped it would become more and more improbable. Alas, with the LHC now showing signs of fulfilling its destiny, perhaps it will disprove time travel at the same time it offers a glimpse of the beginnings of the universe.

8. Of course the LHC wouldn't have been as securely financed if the European Union experiment hadn't similarly moved forward a couple of unsteady steps, now featuring a boatload of new countries and a shiny new currency to boot. Up to 27 countries now and it's starting to look like it won't be one of the new countries this decade, 12 in all, that'll bring it down. Unknown to those member who joined this decade, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta in 2004 and lastly Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the Trojan Horse had already been deposited.

Instead of trying to enter Troy with a huge wooden horse, the Greeks have built a mountain of debt that threatens to collapse the grand experiment. Of course it might not be the Greeks that bring about the unions demise, but being a Eurozone country, (as in using the Euro as currency, the new ones aren't, except for Cyprus, Slovenia and Slovakia, and of course neither is Great Britain, at least 'til the pound completely tanks) their imminent bond default is sure to cause some kind of domino effect. The biggest obstacle to a solution, besides the idiots being too in debt, is that EU members can't give bailouts to each other, only banks. Well, I guess they could bail out non-EU countries, doubt that's covered in the constitution. Added to the financial woes (Ireland, Italy and even Spain aren't all that secure at the moment either) is the specter of religious infighting, from abortion fights in the European court of human rights to crucifixes in school classrooms and of course the whole Turkey question. Oh yeah, the non-democratic constitution forced on us is rather off-putting as well. How did the EU get on this list again?

7. I'm not in Yemen anymore. Having spent part of the last decade there I think I got out while the getting was good. Hey it's my blog, so seeing as I chose to wind up in Poland, perhaps the only EU member to have avoided recession heading into the next decade, that's at least something, if not everything. Seems like the Yemeni government is in a world of hurt in both the north, going so far as to spill into the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and south, where only a couple decades back they were independent of Sana'a. To make matters worse, America seems to have been reminded that Yemen is the home of al-Queda. Things have gotten worse by the day, to the point where some are calling it a third front of the 'war on terror'. Let's see, we've got a slow-motion oil spill, another slow-motion build-up to war, the slow-motion takeover of the world economy by the banksters, the slow-motion demise of the dollar, the slow-motion loss of national powers to the EU. Today I'll add one more - the slow-motion slide to a failed state. Yep, seems like the world may be left without a country beginning with 'Y' if things continue down this path in Yemen.

For years it has been seen as a safe haven for terrorists as most Americans would remember Yemen as the site of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. Travellers know it as a place to avoid in case of kidnapping. Saudi's have known it as a place to steal land from to gain access to black gold. Somali's as a safe haven from complete lawlessness. Yemen, in it's current form hasn't even been around for 2 decades, having seen the North and formerly communist South, centred in Aden, unite May 22, 1990. Twenty unsteady years later and it appears to be coming apart from top to bottom. Up north, fighting has even spilled into, heaven forbid, the Kingdom of oil, the Bush's buddies, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi's were forced to retaliate after incursions by Houthi rebels, named after their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, into their territory. Many fear they are being supported by the Iranians in an attempt to set up a Shi'ite state or perhaps just a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, a permanent thorn in the side of the oily kingdom. 

The US got nervous enough for Obama to order some of those pinpoint accurate cruise missile strikes earlier this month, you know, the kind that only kill around 100 innocent civilians. The situation has led to yet another international refugee crisis that few seem to care about, except for getting the last remaining Jews out of the area. Oh yeah, plus the country is sure to run out of water soon as it currently diverts more than half of this scarce resource to the raising of the national addiction even during drought. Yep, gotta keep the populace and soldiers high on qat all day, otherwise President Ali Abdullah Saleh might have a real uprising on his hands. Now the drumbeat of the war on terror is emanating from the US as it seems Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian suspect who tried to ignite explosive chemicals with a syringe sewn into his underwear aboard a US flight, may have been equipped and trained by an al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, AQAP. The US was already hunting Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical Yemeni American cleric linked to the gunman charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., Nov. 5. Welcome to drone attack mayhem Yemen.

6. We've set the table for the world's next superpower. Ha! I can just see you rolling your eyes saying, "just what I need to read right now, another bit about China displacing the USA". Well, ha, ha, again. It's not China, in fact it's not even a country yet. "Whaaaaa? Shane's on the crazy juice again it seems." Nope, wrong again. Well, no more than usual at least. OK, here it is. Greenland. Yep, you heard me right, put all your chips on green for the next spin of the economic roulette wheel because folks, they've struck it rich in rare earth metals.

Oh boy, where to start. The misnomer 'Greenland'? How is it that Greenland is an island while Australia is a continent? What on earth is a rare earth metal? Shouldn't 'earth' be capitalized'? How can it be a superpower if it's not even a country? Questions, questions. First, yeah, it's a bit weird naming it green when 85% is covered in ice, apparently it was the first swampland in Florida type of real estate ploy, pulled off by Erik the Red back in 986. Second, here. Third, and finally we get to the gist of the story. Rare earth metals are:

A collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanoids. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earths since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanoids and exhibit similar chemical properties.
Fourth, no. And fifth, well, in case you missed it, Greenland is on the fast track to full-fledged nation status.

Fortunately, only questions two and five need to be examined closer today, and aren't we lucky, China will play an important part to the story. You see, while rare earth metals aren't really in fact so rare (another misnomer, great), about 93% of the world's supply is currently mined in China. Why do we care? For the simple reason that they are becoming more and more useful in today's technologies. They are essential in the production of smartphones, hybrid cars (the electric motor in a Prius requires 2 to 4 pounds of neodymium), precision weapons, catalytic converters, superconductors and low-energy light bulbs. China mines 99% of the output of the two most needed elements for these applications, dysprosium and terbium. The timing of the recent Greenland find couldn't have been more important as only a couple months ago China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a report which called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. The report, titled "Rare Earths Industry Development Plan, 2009-2015" also said other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs. Even crazier, Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, gave us all fair warning as far back as 1992 saying, "There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China".

Denmark has ruled Greenland since 1776, only conceding limited home rule in 1979. It's been a long road towards independence and I'm sure that the irony of the fact that the melting ice has made the latest steps possible isn't lost on many. Remember, we're talking about the biggest island in the world here, so there's lots of good stuff being revealed by the retreating ice. Gold has been discovered and is already being mined, although so far at a loss, and there are deposits of other minerals such as zinc that could be exploited, and don't forget about the discovery of a 2.4-carat diamond at Garnet lake in west Greenland. Oil giants are negotiating licences to explore blocks of the coastline covering thousands of square miles. Although there are no proven sources, the US Geological Survey estimates there are 31.4 billion barrels of oil off the northeast coast alone. Greenland’s west coast may hold more oil than the North Sea, but harsh conditions could push the cost of extraction as high as $50 a barrel. Oh yeah, melting ice means water and therefore hydro-electricity. The vast lakes and melting ice cap provide enormous potential for electricity free from fossil fuel; in total Greenland holds 10% of the world's freshwater reserves. And now the discovery of rare earth metals.

All this has made independence a near reality as of June 22 of this year, when fireworks and celebrations in the capital, Nuuk, marked the latest step. Six months after 75% of voters (from a total population of 56,000 scattered over an area almost the size of Europe) said 'yes' to claiming control over all areas but defence and foreign policy. Under the self-rule agreement, Greenlanders will be recognized as a distinct people with the right to self-determination and Greenlandic will become the territory's official language. That means they now have full control of their natural resources which will be key to weening the country off the DKr3.4 billion ($590m) annual grant from Denmark which pays for public services like education and health care. Copenhagen and Nuuk have agreed to split profits earned from natural resources. For every two Danish crowns that Greenland earns, Copenhagen will reduce its subsidies by one crown. Greenland additionally will have control over its own justice and police affairs starting next June. As part of the new home-rule agreement, Copenhagen will also consult Nuuk when making foreign affairs and security decisions concerning the island. It may take a bit of time to rise to superpower status, but it's definitely no longer an option to buy Greenland outright, as America tried to do shortly after World War II. In any case, the going rate would be much higher than the $100 million the US offered the Danish government 60 years ago.

5. Americans, as individuals, are actually saving money as a country right now. Yep, maybe the crisis has taught the majority something as the rate, which subtracts what we collectively spend from what we make and then expresses the result in percentage terms, turned positive this year and was 4.4 percent in October. In 2009, it has ranged from a low of 3.4 percent in February to a high of 6.4 percent in May, which was the highest figure since 1993. Quite a turnaround from 2005 when the rate actually fell below zero! Alas, I fear it may be too little too late, like a heroine addict who just can't help himself, the country has dug a hole that may be impossible to get out of. Just last week the US Congress voted to temporarily raise the government debt ceiling to $12.4 trillion, but will need to do it again by February. Now, the US faces a trifecta of headaches: a mountain of new debt, a balloon of short-term borrowings that come due in the months ahead, and interest rates that are sure to climb back to normal. Like the smack addict, they've painted themselves into a corner by shortening the due date on the bills to lower the rate and will now have over $2 trillion in debt coming due in the coming months in addition to the estimated $1.5 trillion in additional debt financing they will need this year. It's no longer just the harbingers of doom prophecising the demise of the dollar, it's Greenspan himself, or at least Greenspan-Guidotti. Remember what happened to the economy when confidence was lost in the banks, try not to imagine what'll happen this year when the same thing happens to governments. How is this good again? Oh yeah, if you bought gold when it was only $1000/oz.

4. Panem et Circenses. Yeah, I know we have to put up with reality TV, but the oh-ohs (2000's, get it? mine, called it) also gave us tons of entertainment. From sports to film, books to music and some video games in between, we've been given some tasty pablum to trigger enough endorphins to keep us docile. Authors such as Orphan Pamuk, Zadie Smith and Khaled Hosseini have woven magical yarns. The Lord of the Rings trilogy wowed even the non Frodofiles on the big screen and we were treated to some bonus Bill Murray's genius and Amelie, even if it was impossible to get that soundtrack out of our head. The cure would've been Coldplay for many, but we also got some cool tunes outta OutKast, Daft Punk and Radiohead. Beyonce was pretty good to look at too. Throw in a Led Zeppelin reunion and the death of the King of Pop and music was covered. Sports team of the decade? The French national football team and Zinedine Zidane went from Euro and World Cup champions to headbutters and handballers, while Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan battled for club supremacy over here and probably those pesky Patriots of New England across the pond. Though I'm sure Red Sox fans would say otherwise having broken the 'Curse of the Bambino'.


3. Science is still pretty cool (and weird). Fifteen years after its discovery, Ardipithecus ramidus or Ardi, the oldest known skeleton of a putative human ancestor, was finally unveiled in 11 papers in print and online in October. The discoverers of the 4.4-million-year-old fossil proposed that she was a new kind of hominin, the family that includes humans and our ancestors but not the ancestors of other living apes. Another step towards the missing link, I know there isn't one, humans did not evolve from chimpanzees but rather through a series of progenitors starting from a distant common ancestor that once occupied the ancient forests of the African Micoene, but it's closer than Ida. This past decade also brought the mapping of us, the Human Genome Project, water missions on Mars and less spectacularly, our own moon, stem cells, commercial space flights, an explosion of planets, of the exo kind outside our galaxy and a new dwarf of our own, poor Pluto. While NASA's space faring potential is set to expire and then hopefully be replaced by Ares, interest in space has slowly been shifting to the private sphere as we saw the first space tourists while Virgin Galactic has inched closer to reality.

2. People Power. Yep, I'll throw the social media thing into this witches brew of good and evil, after all this is supposed to be about everythingness, and if it's anything, social media is everything these days. After all we started the last decade with a dot-com bubble and we ended it with the word 'unfriend' being the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year. Twitter brought us the Green Revolution in Iran, Facebook connected us with our ninth-grade girlfriend, Wikipedia told us everything else, Google not only became a verb it has also become as powerful as Goldman Sachs, and of course blogs and the rest of the internet has empowered us to such an extent that we, an all-knowing populace will be able to make informed decisions about our future.

Huh? What's that you say? People seem to be more interested in retweeting what music their friends are listening to and besides, it doesn't seem like the Green Revolution has brought the Iranian Revolution to an end, I guess it's tough when a mere 0.027% of the population use Twitter; Earth to Gordon Brown, Twitter cannot prevent another Rwanda. Your Facebook wall has become more important than your bedroom wall in expressing who your identity, becoming a black hole for your time, mind and ego. Wikipedia and Google are conspiring to make us stupid. Blogs have provided a forum for the semi-literate to spew their hate while the internet has heralded the demise of journalism. Instead of increasing the spectrum of ideas that users are exposed to, most choose to instead limit their sources of information to a narrow group of like-minded writers. With the huge problems the world is facing right now, progressives should be in position to move society forward, yet we still find ourselves in dangerous times as the bill for cleaning up the mess is still coming in. It may be forgotten that most of the problems of today, ranging from income inequality and lack of mobility, excessive debt, chronic underemployment to inaction on global warming and involvement in intractable wars are all problems to be laid on the doormat of the right-wing nutters. The disinformation experts are still spreading lies attempting to obfuscate the matter of who's to blame and seldom suggesting sane solutions; witness the rise of the warbloggers beating the drums of war, birthers trying to discredit a new president, death panel fear mongers, GW/CC deniers and their ilk.

Yet, it seems that all is not lost. We're still in early days, but there are some positive signs with former apostates of evil getting the message. Reagonomics architect Bruce Bartlett derides the Republicans one note cry of tax cuts. David Frum, who co-wrote with Richard Perle the standard neocon foreign-policy text, An End to Evil, wrote "I cannot be blind to the evidence that we have seen free markets produce some damaging and dangerous results in recent years. Or that the foreign policy I supported has not yielded the success I would have wished to see. Or that traditions must evolve if they are to endure". David Brooks has disowned Sarah Palin. Ronald Bailey saw the light on global warming. With the coming challenges to be faced by the world on climate and globalization and to the US specifically, spiralling debt, an aging population, intractable conflicts, the old answers will no longer solve the problems. No, the internet didn't cause stupidity, it just facilitates its dissemination. Imagine if the status quo had these intertubes back in the day to spread the gossip of the evil that introducing child labour laws, enfranchising women, creating social security and introducing clean-air regulation would bring about the end of the world.

1. Hope. Not the kind served up by the Barack Obama show, but the real kind, the one America voted into the White House. Sure, Time magazine has called the last 10 years the decade from hell, after all it led off with a stolen election in the home of modern democracy, saw a dot-com bust, wound through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq only to be topped off with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. While this may look bad from an American perspective, it could be good for the rest of the world. Maybe it's a good thing that the last decade was so bad, coming just in time to save us from our own hubris. Perhaps we'll learn to look to ourselves instead of the stars and stripes as it becomes more and more apparent that its empire is in the stage of decline. At the very least, we should start to get the idea that we've going about things the wrong way for awhile now. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil”, it seems the soil of our beliefs needs to be changed.

We began the decade believing we, by that I mean the west, by that I mean America, were on the verge of truly becoming Masters of the Universe. Never ending economic growth, unchallengeable peace, limitless progress in all fields were within our grasp. Instead, the Dow opened the decade around 11,600 and will close around 10,500. Meanwhile, the BRIC nations and other emerging markets zoomed ahead. Cave-dwelling clerics now seem to pull the strings in a global game of whack-a-mole, a war on terror that has us in Iraq and Afghanistan with new fronts constantly threatening to open. While the US and to a lesser extent NATO fights, the Chinese are doing business, investing more in oil extraction in Iraq than the US while also becoming the highest source of tax revenue for the Afghan government. Maybe it's a good thing we've learned that our heroes, from Barry Bonds to Tiger Woods, weren't the ideals we should all aspire to be; that the market isn't infallible, sometimes we do need to be saved from ourselves, or at least Bernie Madoff; or that Elliot Spitzer - even Barack Obama - aren't going to be the ones to do it. Most articles looking back at the past decade either do so scornfully or confusedly, lamenting that we don't even have consensus on a name yet.

Once again, I say the oh-ohs, for while the past decade sucked, at least we recognize it, which is really the first step to fixing it. We've spent the last 10 years caught up in reality TV while being blissfully unaware of the illusions marketed to us from Iraq to the balloon boy. The fact is, from genetics to the environment, we are on the cusp of having the power to control or destroy our world in many novel ways, so it's a damn good thing we've been given a slap in the face that may finally wake us from our slumber. After all, the decade will end on a full moon and being the second one of the month, it's a blue moon, seems stranger things have happened?



Saturday, September 27, 2008

Space Race 2: Electric Boogaloo

Well, still feeling ranty, so let's stay on the China vs. USA theme for another post, shall we? Let's go back to space, where Chinese astronauts are currently orbiting Earth aboard the Shenzhou VII after blasting off from a remote desert site on Thursday. The most important part of the mission was accomplished today when Zhai Zhigang made the first Chinese "footprint in space" slipping out of the orbital module for a spacewalk or extravehicular activity (EVA). Following my last post about growing Chinese power, this is an important step in the development of the Chinese space program as they hope it will help them master the technology for docking two orbiters to create China’s first space station in the next few years, as well as to put a man on the moon in 10-12 years. As if to magnify the glaring difference in the trajectories of the two powers, the same day of the Chinese blast off saw law makers in the US take an important step to ensure any kind of American presence in space beyond 2010.

US lawmakers in the House of Representative passed a funding bill in which was buried an extension of NASA's exemption from the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA. The extension of the waiver is necessary for the US to continue to purchase flights from Russia aboard their Soyuz capsules, important as they will be the only vehicles capable of visiting the space station once the life of the shuttle fleet is reached in two years time. The three year lead time before 2011 is necessary as that is how much time it takes the Russians to build the crafts. The Senate still needs to pass the bill before it goes before the president to be signed. Of course the bill has become much more contentious in light of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict and reassertment of Russian power in other areas. Worry over the 'flight gap', the time between shuttle retirement and the Orion capsule replacement begins operational flight in 2015, has also caused NASA to consider pushing back shuttle retirement plans. However, this option brings with it 1-in-8 odds of losing a shuttle and crew if it adds 10 flights after 2010 (2/year until 2015) according to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

The only other option is to hope for a private-sector company to come up with a third alternative. Heck, innovation and a thriving capitalist system used to go hand in hand. Even if capitalism is in it's death throws, maybe some of that innovation remains. NASA allocated almost $500 million between now and 2010 to support California-based SpaceX and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler, winners of the first round of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, as they develop new spacecraft that could bring supplies and crews to the space station. Unfortunately, SpaceX has taken three swings at launching into space and seem to have struck out, with their last test failure coming August 2nd with a payload that included a couple NASA satellites and one for the Department of Defense. Did I mention it was also carrying the ashes of James Doohan, Scotty from Star Trek? Rocketplane Kistler, besides having a silly name, didn't even get to the launch phase, as they missed deadlines and had the funding pulled in October 2007. Two other companies, Virginia-based Transformational Space and the Canadian-American Planetspace venture, are getting free advice from NASA on their own spaceship development efforts. Don't forget about Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic either.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are moving steadily forward. After their first manned space flight in 2003, they sent up another crew in 2005, both missions were successful. Perhaps the success has become a little too expected as the only glitch of this third mission came via the Xinhua News Agency who posted an article on its Web site describing a successful launch hours before the rocket even left the ground. The Chinese space progress has been described as a sustained, methodical effort, which seems to be the trademark of much of the rest of China's progress over the past decade. Like clockwork, they've begun, made inroads, then eventually passed the US in most every field from the Olympics to pollution. Their target date for reaching the moon roughly coincides with the plans for NASA's objective of returning in 2020 as part of the Constellation program. The stars seem to be aligning for a new space race a la the 1960's USA vs. USSR that many of us have only read about. Perhaps it'll be enough to light a fire under the American spirit of competition, otherwise China will soon have the lead in space too.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Attack from Above

The picture is absorbing. The fear is real. An attack from above from what must seem to them as an attack from space would feel for us. The Mars lander searches for signs of life on the red planet while a small plane flies over the tree canopy of the Brazilian Amazon jungle. The plane had made a pass above the village near the Brazilian/Peruvian border earlier in the day and the tribesman had obviously been put on war footing, dressed in warpaint and armed with bows and arrows. Although Peruvian president Alan Garcia, in his race for oil and logging, has openly questioned the possibility of such uncontacted tribes, it is estimated that about 100 such tribes do exist. Their fear of the unknown is apparent. Like a scene out of The Gods Must be Crazy they had no idea what this mechanical bird was or anything of it's intentions. Bodies painted, weapons at the ready, as if they knew that encounters such as this with the outside world almost always proved fatal to tribes like theirs.

The modern world's equivalent to these planes looking down on hidden tribes in the amazon are the thousands of satellites circling the globe doing everything from taking pictures to providing communication to searching for hidden oil. So what would happen if these satellites suddenly became offensive weapons with the ability to shoot down others or rain down destruction on Earth? This is part of a scenario described a few years back by a commission lead by none other than Donald Rumsfeld in what he called a “space Pearl Harbor”. When Rumsfeld was nominated to defence secretary, retired general David Jeremiah took over the commission chairmanship and said "Increasingly, people like Osama bin Laden may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites" and will be able to threaten US ground stations. Take note that this was just a few months before 9/11.


The subject has regained relevancy recently due to a couple of different factors. Firstly, the current Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by most countries including the US, China and the former Soviet Union, came into existence in 1967 and prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in space but is vague when it comes to other weapons such as lasers or the shooting down of satellites. Which brings us to January of 2007. China became the third nation, after the US and Russia, and the first in 20 years to successfully shoot down an orbiting satellite. It was an obvious effort the force the Americans into dialogue over the militarisation of space, to stop an arms race in space, to which the US has consistently maintained that no such race exists. Of course they don't mention the fact that the national space policy of the US strongly asserts the American right to defend itself in space against any actions it considers hostile. Therefore the predictable response by the US to the Chinese action was to shoot down a "toxic" satellite themselves.


Control of space represents the ultimate military control of the high ground so it's not hard to see why this is such a touchy subject. What is difficult to figure out is why the American government seems so adamant in their refusal to enter into serious discussions to disarm this growing crisis. How does the old expression go...people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, yeah that's it. As usual though, the Bush administration has plenty of rocks that they're not afraid to throw. There isn't any military more technologically advanced than that of the USA, yet at the same time they are completely dependent on the information provided to them by the satellite system zipping around the globe. Knock a few of them out and before you know it they're fighting blind. So one would believe that they would jump at the chance to enter into a treaty guaranteeing their primacy in orbit.


How many American know that the nation refusing to discuss a treaty aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space is their own? The Russians want nothing more than to maintain a balance of power and China is definitely on board, both have made proposals. Dennis Kucinich has attempted to introduce legislation into congress. Even the Canadians have tried to bring it up. Instead the American are opting for the arms build up, a new space race as evidenced by their RAIDR project or space based kinetic missile interceptors. This is a game that China has demonstrated it is willing to play, and I'm sure the Russians will come along for the ride as well. There could be only one reason. Could it be that there is a fortune to be made in developing the technology to fight in space?