Category: Travel

Planetary Defense



Like many people, I have an interest in the idea that the Earth has been the victim of a multitude of asteroid impacts, over the Eons, and might become targeted again.  Unlike many people, I have looked up the orbital parameters and mass for some near-Earth asteroids and applied Kepler’s Laws to estimate what effort might be necessary to change the path of a potential Earth-impacting planetoid. 


Figure 1:  There was a movie about this

 What I found was that it would be extremely expensive, but within the realm of possibility. Well, damn the expense!  If it can be done, we would do it or suffer the consequences.  I used the Cassini Saturn-orbiting probe as my example of “current technology”, which tells other Space Nerds how long ago that activity occurred.

 The scenario was that we should launch a mass the size of Cassini with that probe’s velocity to collide with the asteroid – not to blast it into pieces, because that would not be nearly enough.  Rather it would be to change the orbit – to delay (or advance, works either way) the arrival by one Earth radius.  The idea being that when the threatening asteroid got to its intercepting point, the Earth would not yet (or no longer) be there.


Figure 2:  Cassini:  Now, I don’t mean to ram billion-dollar space probes into asteroids.  I just used this as an example of what mass has been launched before – at what velocity.

The truth is that I don’t remember* how many “Cassini masses” would be required, but I seem to remember that it was at least 20, so we will go with that.   After all (and as I pointed out at the time) Boeing would be happy to launch 20 measly rockets, just to have the “Boeing Saves the World” press coverage.  That choice of Boeing* is another indicator of the age of this calculation.  Today, I reckon SpaceX would be the contractor of choice.  Tell me Elon Musk wouldn’t be happy to get that media coverage! 

 There are a lot of details that make this far more complicated than I might have led you to believe.  For example, Cassini only got out to Saturn by making “slingshot” passes of Venus (twice), the Earth and Jupiter.  It is actually the velocity that is the critical element and a very great deal of that was gained by those encounters.  I have assumed that we learn of impending doom long before the pending event, since Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. 

It also took a long time to engineer the craft and develop the mission but, we imagine that development of a simple impactor would be vigorously expedited, given the circumstances.  It might be better to just send a big bag of sand.  And one might entertain the idea of releasing the sand from the bag just before impact to spread it out some.  See, you don’t want to make a lot of fragments, since those will undoubtedly have a variety of orbits, some of which might still intersect the Earth.

 One complicating problem about all this was pointed out by Carl Sagan.  If I change the orbit of the asteroid and don’t do the job in “one fell swoop”, the effect is to move the location of impact, not into space, but to another location on Earth.  Sagan compared this to “walking” a very large Nuclear bomb across whatever countries are between the initial impact zone and the “edge of the planet”.  Carl had in mind some kind of rocket placed on the asteroid that would gradually move the impact zone.  I checked that idea and it requires a lot rocketry and so lots of logistics and assembly and fueling.  My simple-minded “throwing rocks” (or sandbags) scenario was a lot less complicated but still not in the “one fell swoop” category.

Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this:

I am currently attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.  This is the 50th such conference and it is no coincidence that the moon landing was also 50 years ago.  The Conference “proper” has yet to start.  I have just finished the second of two sessions of  what is called the Microsymposium 60 – a “preliminary” event, like the no-name band that opens for Pink Floyd*.   

 *Shall I just put an asterisk on these “tells” for how old I am? LPSC

Figure 3:  Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

 Microsymposium 60 (Spellcheck fails miserably when they make up words like that, so I copy-and-paste these things) was all about how there is now a “Moon Rush” of private contractors and government effort to return to the moon.  That sort of news is usually hyperbole*, but this time it might be different.  Government will probably not come through anytime soon, but there is a moon lander by a private company that – if all goes well – will land on April 11…this year!  I just learned that in Microsymposium 60.


Figure 4:  Space IL Beresheet probe. This was a Lunar X-Prize entry, but the X-prize expired un-won.  They went on anyway.

Other private companies have been making moon landers, too.  They are ready to go and showing their wares (along with Instrument Makers) to eager planetary scientists today and throughout the Conference.  In case you think these are lightweights, among the presenters were Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. Some of the lesser known companies have made equipment and whole probes before.  A company called Masten has made over 600 flights, (many with landings) to date.


Figure 5:  Masten

Microsymposium 60 will be the subject of yet another post (or magazine article).  This post is to reveal where I am about to go listen to technical presentations for three hours this afternoon.  Notice (below) that this is for “the media”.  Yup, I am “credentialed” Working Press (it says so, right here on my plastic badge) for the entire Convention.

Workshop for the Media on Planetary Defense
at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about near-Earth objects and planetary defense: a workshop for journalists and science writers. (that’s  me! – Steve)

Sunday, March 17, 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. EDT, GMT -5)
The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center
Indian Springs

The workshop is free but places are limited, so registration is required.

In this three-hour workshop, experts will report on the methods and status of finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs) and planning for planetary defense. Plenty of time will be provided for questions and discussion.


Journalists and science writers will have an opportunity to learn about such developments as:

  • Progress in ground-based optical and radar observations of near-Earth asteroids and comets.
  • Advances in modeling and understanding atmospheric, land, and water impacts of NEOs.
  • Current understanding of NEO characteristics.
  • NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test, the first mission that will demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique (the kinetic impactor).
  • Functions of the Minor Planet Center, the International Asteroid Warning System, and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group.
  • The first test of the global asteroid-impact warning system and plans for a second test.
  • Interagency and international cooperation on planning for planetary defense.
  • The status of planning for a dedicated, space-based asteroid detection telescope.

Experts on hand will include:

  • NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson
  • NASA NEO Observations Program Manager Kelly Fast
  • NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office Program Executive Rob Landis
  • NASA NEO Observations Program Scientist Michael Kelley
  • University of Arizona Associate Professor, Small Bodies, Situational Awareness, Vishnu Reddy
  • Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCAM) Principal Investigator Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Hasta Luego,



Once More to The Vestibule of Hell

stevetrucker2This is yet another post that was languishing over at the WordPress site.

September 27, 2016

“Stay away from Dallas”. 

This sage advice is from me to myself.  I am in Denton, Texas, “sitting in a door” awaiting the unloading of produce from California.  A “preplan” has just come across the satellite link that tells me my next load will be picking up at the Coca Cola Syrup Plant in Dallas.  The destination is Denver for 840 miles – a two day trip that will undoubtedly be stretched into four days, as we discussed in earlier Chapters.  But, I accept the load because I really have no choice.

Now for the Rest of the Story:  A note from someone named Billy  says I should bring my load to the Yard.  So, you see the lesson is clear:  Stay away from Dallas.

I called my Driver Manager to Confirm this – since I have no idea who “Billy” is – and, yes I have to make an appearance in Purgatory (not the ski resort (NTSR)).  One reason is a physical exam , after the third such in the last nine months.  I passed them all, by the way.  The first and third exams  had a one year renewal.  But, since my livelihood is apparently a low priority, I have to go in for a forth.  Today is Friday.  Since it its nearly 4 PM and the light is still red – meaning I cannot yet leave the door – there is no way I can get there during “office hours” – and I suspect the Doctors do not work on Weekends.  So, unless I miss my guess, this will be three or possibly four more days of  ungainful unemployment.

The unloaded message from Target has come.  The light is still red but when it changes I can go to Coca Cola and then to Purgatory (NTSR).  Meanwhile, my clock has run out completely and utterly.  The Coca Cola Plant policy is – as I many times said as a bartender – “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”.  I had told the shipping clerk that if I could not be loaded in two hours, I would come back in the morning.  That particular clerk was not among the Polite and Helpful Shipping Personnel of whom I have written before. He ignored my advice completely.

While the clock was ticking down, – in anticipation of what finally did occur – I had called “Night Safety” and asked for advice.  Their sage counsel was basically this: “Call me when you actually fall off the cliff.”

One thing I have learned in this occupation (maybe I should start a list) is:  When you have an insoluble problem, ask the people in the plant because they have seen this a hundred times before,”  The first choice is the Yard Tractor Guy,  If he is unavailable (being very busy), ask the man who brings you your paperwork.  That helpful and cheerful individual clued me in to some big parking lots to be found about a half mile away.  I chose a Lowes lot, because, on the way in I had stopped there to confirm directions.  There was an old trailer parked there that I could hide behind to avoid any questions from the Local Constabulary.

I was officially “off duty” and I creeping the truck at 10 MPH – flashers going – I manage to stay that way to find the Lowes.  I also find another truck who has taken my hiding place behind the abandoned trailer.  One look by the loading docks finds tow-away warnings with certain words in bold font.  There was, however a string of about 10 conventional parking spots – off the side of the building, but in full view of the street.

Calling Night Safety is no longer useful since they may  well tell me to move.  And I have no confidence in their advice now anyway.  So, I mentally prepare my defense for the sin of parking.

  1. That sign that says no parking anytime (with emphasis) cannot possibly apply to me here because: What are these spaces between the eight lines that I am parked over?  That’s right – “Parking Spaces!”
  2. Yes, I have taken nine of them, but I can point to hundreds of empty spaces out in front of the store.
  3. I have every right to park here, because I am a customer. I need to buy a screwdriver.  I find that the store is closed now, but I don’t mind waiting.
  4. I will be leaving at 4:30 AM. Please tell me if the other spaces fill up before then.

September 27, 2016 Pilot truck Stop outside Amarillo, Texas

Back in Purgatory

The “Yard” is a singularly depressing place.  Every driver there is earning nothing. When I arrive, I am handed a list of tasks I must accomplish in order to escape Purgatory (NTSR).  I find that I will be here at least three days between safety lectures and the physical exam.  A few of the safety items are accomplished before the office staff goes home at noon, Saturday.  The remainder must wait until Monday.  With few exceptions, every driver here is trapped without transportation.  You don’t just drive these trucks when you think you want to go somewhere – you must be “dispatched” and you won’t be, until your list is complete and signed off.  There are two “loaner” cars for the untold hundreds of drivers.  The waiting list is three hours long and the car must be returned within one hour. The entirety of Saturday afternoon was consumed with one trip to Walmart.  This was urgent, since the truck’s food supply has dwindled to “Spam Rations”.

Sunday was shaping up to be especially dismal, having literally nothing to advance the cause of getting out of Purgatory (NTSR).  I thought of my son Benjamin now attending college classes about 50 miles from Purgatory.  I would like to visit him, but that would be a trip out of the one-hour-loaner-car range.  A taxi is financially counter-indicated in my current circumstances.  Fortunately, Dallas has an extensive mass-transit rail system that nobody seems to know about. I hatched a plot to make a Great Railway Journey to The University of Texas at Dallas (which is really in Richardson, Texas).  Some research came up with this route:

Take the 597 bus that stops right in front of Purgatory (NTSR).  That takes me to Lawn View train station.  From there I take the Green line downtown and transfer to the Red Line which takes me almost to Plano.  I get off at City Line/Bush station and take the 883 UTD shuttle.  About two hours and fifteen minutes each way.  Since the alternative was to cool my heals in Purgatory, I decided to make the journey.  The price was right, being a five-dollar day pass.  I noticed that it was good until Three AM the next day.  I am quite sure this is because bars close at Two.


Above:  The trip plan to UT Dallas.  The Astute Reader will notice that this is actually a picture of the return route.

img_1885Above: The Green Line station at Lawn View

img_1893Above: Benjamin’s Dormitory Building.  His window is third from the left on the second floor. Like almost every building on Campus, it is very new.

img_1894Above:  The lobby at Benjamins Dorm.

img_1895Above:  Benjamin

So, instead of a depressing and lonely vigil of hopelessness, Sunday had become an interesting trip to spend some time with my beloved son.  There is, after all a reason not to avoid Dallas.  For this much-needed relief I was truly thankful.

Benjamin took me to lunch and then we went shopping at Walmart.  That was yet another bus ride.  The stop outside Walmart was littered with abandoned shopping carts. I, your humble narrator, pointed out (ostensibly to Benjamin, but meant to be overheard by the mass of scholars there assembled) that the arriving student-shoppers could choose a cart from this stash and take it in with them.  I set them an example, but none of the “Future of America” saw fit to join me.  They did select carts at the door, however.  And no doubt they added to the collection at the bus stop on the way out.

img_1896Above:  The bus stop at Walmart

img_1903Above:  City Line / Bush Station, on the way back to Purgatory.  The emergency equipment was  there when I arrived for some poor commuter who somehow fell and was trapped between the bench and the partition that you see under the awning at left.  I didn’t rush over and photograph him, since I am sure he was dying of embarrassment, in addition to the nasty bruises I noticed as they put him in the ambulance.

There is some good that comes of this unwilling visit to Purgatory.  Mechanics replaced the duct taped improvised oil filler cap that I made from a fish oil pill bottle with a real oil cap and replaced the lost oil – five gallons of same. They also repaired the tractor suspension airbag that was leaking.  While I was in safety class and getting my blood pressure checked, they replaced my cracked windshield.  They transferred the EZ pass for tolls and the Prepass indicator for weigh stations to the new windshield.  One particular windshield-mounted item did not make the transition and I won’t miss it one bit.     (Update:  Since I am no longer employed by Stevens Transport I can tell you that the item in question was the “1984 – Big Brother Camera” (84BBC) that watched over me for those months before the windshield was replaced.  I did not mention it before because, in my Paranoia, I imagined that Stevens might read my blog and call me again to Purgatory for a replacement of the 84BBC.)

There was also a problem with the air-suspension seats, which tend to leak down while the engine is off and leave the driver looking eye-level at the steering wheel.  They did not get to that problem of the leaking seats but I can live with those.  When the engine is running the seats rise to comfortable height.  It would have taken longer and I needed to get on the road to actually earn a living.

On Monday, after all my assigned tasks were complete, I received a load assignment to take bottled soft drinks to Denver.

Over The Road,


The Leonids? Are They in Town Again?

trimmed_beard_stevecu(I was rummaging around on some thumb drives and found this from 2001.  The Alert Reader will point out that USB drives were not around then.  True.  This was in a folder called “Floppy_Recovery”.  I actually bought a 3 ½ inch floppy disk drive and copied a pile of floppies into this particular USB some years back.  I added some “file photos” that would never have fit on a floppy, anyway).                Homepage


The Leonids are neither a sixties group, nor a box of stronger breath mints, nor followers of a religion devoted to a deity named Leon ,  as you may have thought by the name but rather an event that takes place once a year around November 18th, when meteors rain down from the general direction of a point in the sky near the constellation Leo.  Well, perhaps “rain” is a misleading choice of words since the normal Leonid meteor “shower” consists of one meteor every few minutes and I personally have sat out in the November damp chill and not seen a meteor for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.  Only the most demented Astronomy Nerds (A.N.’s) would put up with the amount of inconvenience involved to see what, for the non-Astronomy Nerd is less interesting than counting the number of cars with one headlight at four in the morning on a dark stretch of country road.

It is especially taxing for the urban A.N. because it involves a trip out of town of at least an hour to an isolated dark spot.  You might think that there are plenty of dark spots out there, but I dare you to find one!  About anywhere you can drive to in an hour around here (here is Houston) is lit either by passing cars or billboard lights or gleaming florescent signs.  In Texas, more than a few of the people who like to hang out in the country also like to mount a half dozen searchlights on their vehicles.   The one hope is to find a State Park and even then the non-Astronomy Nerds will wander around all night with flashlights that could illuminate the Grand Canyon.   They mean no harm, you understand, but these folks have never heard of the concept of night vision and routinely put their beam of light directly on your face as a sort of a greeting. and say “Hi! Whacha’ doin’?”

There is one exception, a state park that actually has made an effort to keep illumination off the sky and provided areas down twisting footpaths away from the roads where one can find uninterrupted darkness.  It’s Brazos Bend State Park and there is a nice dark place get a wide angle view of the sky or to set up telescopes. If you go there, please keep the flashlight use to a minimum and never illuminate anyone’s face. I didn’t manage to reserve a campsite early enough because all the other Astronomy Nerds thought four months ahead as opposed to my three.   I did find a spot in Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park.  It’s located near San Felipe which was the capital of newly declared independent Texas before it was burned to prevent it from falling to the advancing Mexican Army, who wanted Texas to be dependent again.  There are some reconstructed buildings (one’s a museum), statues and historical markers near the park entrance.  (Trivia question:  What does the F. in Stephen F. Austin stand for?)



Those unfamiliar with astronomical events always assume that you will be looking at a meteor shower with a telescope.  As an exercise to prove how silly that is, extend your arm at the sky with your thumb up.  That tiny piece of sky covered by your thumb is many times the field of view of an average telescope.   You could see more of the sky by looking through a two-foot-long pipe than through a telescope!  Meteors happen all over the sky, during a shower or otherwise.  Why on earth would you limit your view to a tiny patch of sky?

It is obvious that hardly anyone bothers to look at the sky anymore.  I’ve had people swear to me that they’ve seen the space station hovering overhead (turned out to be Jupiter).   Others expect to see Venus always near the moon.  A few are not even aware that the moon can be seen in the daytime. But, shoot, is there any real reason for your average person to look at the sky these days?  Especially urban dwellers for whom the night sky is a brown haze, illuminated from below, at the best of times?

Stephen F. Austin

I go out to see these things because I find it fascinating but I am aware that some do not share my enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, I dragged my wife and children along on this last expedition.  When I make the journey with other A.N.’s   we throw lawn chairs in the trunk and leave at midnight.  Provisions such as beef jerky and Shiner Bock beer (with appropriate designated driver, of course) are to be found in fueling depots along the way.  Stay up most of the night, doze off in the chairs and drive back with stiff necks in the morning.  This will not do for a family outing, however.  Especially with small children…who will only stay awake at night when you desperately want them to sleep.

It becomes a regular camping trip, then, complete with tent, sleeping bags, flashlights, blankets, pillow, portable propane stove and an ice chest with the entire contents of the kitchen refrigerator (as opposed to the garage refrigerator).  Might as well take along the telescope (for looking at planets and stars, not meteors, you understand) and the bicycles because we’ll have some daylight hours to kill.  Appropriate stuffed animals and annoying hand held electronic games to keep the offspring occupied.   The target for leaving had been ten o’clock.  It was eleven thirty when we left.

SFA_Park              The first thing we found out at the campsite is that we have forgotten what to do on camp-outs.  We rode bicycles, walked around for a while and played twenty questions.  It was still only four o’clock in the afternoon and we were sitting around looking at each other. So we did what any bored campers would do, we went into town.  Not really into town, but that peninsula of fast-food and big-box retail that grew up around the interstate.  There we bought charcoal, which we’d forgotten.  I’m not sure how we were planning to cook the hotdogs for dinner unless we boiled them on the propane stove…in a pot, which we also forgot.  And while it might be possible to roast marshmallows over a propane flame, I doubt it would be much fun.  Of course, any cooking would require matches, which we had also forgotten.

“So,” you are perhaps thinking, “Just when is he going to get to the part about the meteor shower?”

Meteor showers are best after midnight ’cause that’s when the Earth (the part of Earth where it’s after midnight, that is) is plowing “head-on” into this cloud of dust that makes meteors.  The cloud itself has been spewed out along the orbit of a comet that crosses the Earth’s orbit.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  It’s the same question reporters ask astronomers (in an urgent voice) every time the subject of comets and or near Earth asteroids comes up.

You’re thinking “Crosses the Earth’s orbit!  But what if it hit the Earth?”

Relax, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning, hit by a bus and bitten by a shark, all simultaneously.  The orbits don’t actually cross but just come close enough to where the Earth will run into that scattered dust cloud.  And, even if they did cross exactly, then a collision would require that they both arrive at the same point in their orbits at the same time, which almost never happens neither.

So, there are times when there is a particularly thick cloud of dust that we happen upon.   Not really thick, but just relatively thick, it’s still a dead ringer for absolute emptiness.   That’s what’s called a meteor storm.  Or the shower is said “to storm”.

Like this:  “I understand that some predictions say the Leonids are going to storm this year”

This is a particularly cool thing to say around Astronomy Nerds because somebody is always predicting a “storm” and so you would sound like you actually know what you’re talking about.  Of course you would be saying this to impress a bunch of people who hang out in the dark all night, staring up at the sky, so I’m not sure how useful this advice is.

The Leonids were supposed to storm last year, too – and the year before.  I made the trip back then with the largest of my two sons and we saw a few good meteors.  I always thought it would be cool if I could call them “My Three Sons” like the early sixties sitcom but I only have the two.  I suppose I could say “three” if I count the cat who is indeed a male albeit a “repaired” one. (Fixed?  Heck, I didn’t even know he was broken!) .

Yes, I know, you’d like to hear about the meteor shower.  Well, I arose after a fitful few hours of sleep to look at the sky and was extremely disappointed to see a complete cloud cover. I wasn’t surprised because this sort of thing happens all the time with meteor showers ’round here.  I sat down in my lawn chair to be miserable about it for a while.

While we are sitting here being miserable, let us discuss the difference between meteors, meteorites and meteoroids.  Way out in space is the particle of dust or bit of rock or chunk of stone that is cruising along, unaware that it is about to run into a planet.  That is a meteoroid.  Anything that ends with “oid” is out in space and usually relatively small.  I say relatively because a “planetoid” or “asteroid” can be the size of, say, North Dakota and still be small when compared to a planet or an asteroid like Ceres, which is bigger than Texas.  When this unsuspecting meteoroid actually passes through the atmosphere it makes a streak of light that can be seen by all the Astronomy Nerds and anyone else foolish enough to be out in the cold, damp night, assuming its not completely clouded over like now.  That is a meteor.  Most of these streak-makers – the vast majority – burn up completely, but a meteorite is a chunk of rock that you can pick up off the ground that once was a meteoroid and made a meteoric flash of light before its arrival.

Meteorite                                                   Meteoroid                                      Meteor

I used to say wait till it cools off before you pick it up, but a meteorite, (I find out) by the time it hits the ground, has slowed to mere “falling rock” speed and has cooled off considerably.  I suppose it might still be warm, but it won’t be red hot.  Small comfort to anyone who happens to be in its path.  Relax!  As far as I know, there is only one documented case of a meteorite hitting a person.  Those who minds retain such useless information (yo!) remember seeing a black and white picture of a huge ugly bruise on the unfortunate lady’s abdomen.  She recovered.  These days meteors bring in big bucks from collectors so it might be worth the pain if it did happen.  But it’s actually far more likely that you’ll win the state lottery so hope for that instead.

I sat there for a while thinking what a bummer it was that I had planned this for months and here I was going to miss the whole thing.  I could have driven out to West Texas, maybe, where the climate tends to be drier.  I noticed a small hole in the clouds with a few stars visible and decided that maybe a few meteors would pass across it.  This is what is metaphorically called “grasping at straws”.

Over the next hour, to my great astonishment, the sky cleared off completely.  I saw a meteor, then another, then more.  It was about two A.M. with a peak expected around four.  I’d seen enough to wake up the family.  You have to be careful about waking up your family at two A.M. It is absolutely essential that you have something impressive to show them or the next time you try this silliness you’ll be out there alone.   Nobody was disappointed.   This was a major meteor storm to be sure.  At first I’d counted for a minute and found about six firm meteors.  That is to say, I’m sure they weren’t fireflies. That’s an hourly count of 360 – impressive enough.   I don’t want you to think that I did this in any scientific way.  In fact, I didn’t have my watch on.  I counted, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.    And since I can’t walk and chew gum, I kept a tally of meteors on my fingers.  I belong to that group that prefers the one-thousand-one method to the more popular one-mississippi method.


Around three or three thirty or so (I didn’t have my watch, remember?) I counted 12 in a minute.  Then, sometime after four there were 22 in a minute.  I had my shoes off, you see, to count toes and used eyelids and was lucky that there weren’t more than 22, or I’d never have seen ’em.

(Since then, I have learned a new method of finger-counting, which I described in “On Zeno’s Swim Team”.  It’s good up to 99. )

I didn’t have a clear view of the whole sky by any means and there was a bit of haze, but it was still an experience of a lifetime.  A published “official” count in the newspaper the next day was 1250 for the peak.  These are from people who count for an entire hour with stopwatches and click-counters.  My 22 in a minute calculates out to 1320 per hour.  Not bad for fingers and toes and “one-thousand-one”!

I kind of hated to call my friend who is a fellow Astronomy Nerd who was unable to make the trip and tell him what he missed.  I already have a cousin who’s mad at me since I described the experience.  She knew about the shower but didn’t go see it because I didn’t call up and tell her how good it would be.  Truth is, I didn’t know how good it would be either.

Trivia answer:  Stephen Fuller Austin

Hasta Luego,


Cartoon Physics Required for the Green New Deal

SteveTrucker2 Ten years?  Balderdash – three centuries would not be enough!

By Steve Campbell    February 24, 2019

The details of the term “Green New Deal” change every time the proponents of the GND are pinned down on the definition.

However, the New York Times said this much on February 2, 2019:

“It includes a 10-year commitment to convert “100 percent of the power demand in the United States” to “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources, to upgrade “all existing buildings” to meet energy efficiency requirements and to expand high-speed rail so broadly that most air travel would be rendered obsolete.”

The fact that anyone could list these three concepts as actual goals speaks volumes about how little is understood about energy use in the US.

Allow me to explain.

Please note that in the paragraphs to come, energy industries are referred to by capitalized names (Wind, Solar, Coal, etc).

 Energy Consumption in the United States

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories – among many other activities — does an energy audit of the United States every year.  In 2017 (the latest complete year available), the United States used 97.7 Quadrillion British Thermal Units – mercifully referred to simply as “Quads”.  Please see the 2017 flow chart below.


Figure 1:  LLNL flow chart for US energy use in 2017

One Quad is equal to about 170 million barrels of oil.  But, do not be distracted by the units.  The important concept here is what sources provide what fractions of the total energy budget.  Luckily, the amount of energy in quads is almost the same number as the percentage.  That information has been collected by your humble narrator and is displayed as a table and pie chart, below.


Figure 2:  Comparison of energy sources by percentage.  Table and graph by author.

The earlier energy flow charts from LLNL show that “Renewable” sources in the mix have quickly increased by the equivalent of 48 million barrels of oil per year (0.285 Quads) in the last 5 years, thanks largely to generous subsidies, that caused Warren Buffet to observe that:  (Quoting “The True Cost of Wind Electricity”)

“….we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit. ”

Doing the Math

This “Green New Deal” only needs multiply Renewable capacity by a factor of nine to replace Oil, Natural Gas, Coal  and Nuclear.  At the current — heavily subsidized — rate of increase, one might think that only 311 years (88.7 quads to be replaced, divided by 0.285 quads/year growth rate) would be required.

That simple-minded, optimistic estimate would be the case only if green power plants last forever – they don’t.  Wind and Solar plants are lucky to last 30 years.  Strike out that 311 years and change the date of completion to “never”.

Another problem is that Wind and Solar are intermittent and require 100% backup – by real energy like Natural Gas or Coal.  So, Wind and Solar won’t actually “replace” anything.  The dirty little secret is that they never have done so.

And as far as Biomass is concerned, it should be mentioned that right now the corn used to make ethanol (in the U.S. alone) could otherwise feed about One Billion People. Do we really want to multiply that number by nine as well?

Hydroelectric dams could actually contribute significant additional energy.  But those are no longer considered “Green” and Environmentalists are advocating for their removal. Hydro has decreased in the last 5 years.

Geothermal — with a great deal of expense — could realistically be increased by a factor of 9.  At that level, it would not even replace the disappearing Hydroelectric industry.

The idea of replacing airplanes with trains has good news and bad news.  The good news is that trains really are electrically driven.  The bad news is that their electricity comes from burning diesel fuel in locomotives or (only in big cities) from overhead powerlines, which also need a source of energy.  Stringing powerlines almost everywhere on the national railroad grid cannot be done in ten years, either.  Like-wise not appearing out of thin air is the enormous amount of additional electricity required to replace the diesel fuel.


The idea that this could be done in ten years is completely, utterly, stupidly absurd – to say nothing of the hideous expense.  Yet, people are actually supporting this idiocy with straight faces.

This whole “Green New Deal” relies on “Cartoon Physics”.  You know the drill — where Wylie Cayote saws off the tree branch, which stays in place (supporting the Roadrunner) as the tree trunk and Wylie drop away.   Or, he hangs in the air until he looks down to see that he has run off the cliff.  Then he survives the thousand-foot fall and returns to the cave to hatch a new plan.

Life is not a cartoon.  Three centuries of crippling expense, poverty-inducing regulations and forced re-industrialization would not be nearly enough to complete the “Green New Deal”.  Even if it were possible, it would have no effect on the alleged Climate Change, whatsoever.  Not least because no other nation on Earth would be so irresponsible to its own citizens as to join this complete idiocy.

The Green New Deal is simply a method to multiply taxes and introduce an all-powerful dictatorship of regulations that will make Nicolas Maduro look like a Libertarian.

Read More:

Whence Electricity         An Ill Wind     One Climate Fact

A Most Excellent Day in Denver

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November 6, 2016      (Transferred from the WordPress site)

Pilot Truck Stop # 316, I-70 exit 276A, Denver, Colorado

All my plotting for a “day tour” in Chicago had been blasted to tiny bits by events as they materialized from the continuum.  Happenstance had its way with my plans which now lay in ruins.  Well, to paraphrase a nameless stereotypical Mexican Bandit in the Movie “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Plans? We don’ need no estinking plans!”.

This current location has a train station less than a mile away.  Yesterday, I found out the hard way that it might as well be on the moon if walking there is contemplated.  A stroll yesterday revealed that there is a big ugly gash in the Earth and an excessively large grain elevator that separates the station from the truck stop and the rest of the world.  I could see busses and trains in the distance, but the route to  get there was not forthcoming.  I figured out that it might be possible to walk down the elevated freeway to get there.  I am not so inclined.

aerialphotoanoteAbove:  This view from Google Maps (obviously an older photo) shows the area where the new station was built in red.  The Gash is pointed out by the blue arrow, the Elevator by the Yellow and the location of the truck stop is off stage to the left.

There is a bus stop diagonally across the street from the truck stop.  It is the number 44 bus that takes me around the gash and the elevator to the shiny new station.  The bus stop ain’t much to look at (below).

busstopaintmuchtolookatAbove: The bus stop in question.

StationElevatorMountainsDay.jpgAbove: The station’s newness is obvious.  The grain elevator is seen.  The Rocky Mountains loom in the distance.

The train took me to Union Station in Downtown Denver.  From there we find free shuttles down Broadway that end at the Capitol.

coloradostatecapitalAbove:  The Capitol Building of the State of Colorado.  It is currently under construction.  The cost and delays are a subject of local dispute.

capitoldomeAbove: The Capitol Dome from within.


Rest Area at I70 exit 224, Kansas.

A new load assignment came in to interrupt the story.  Deadhead to Dodge City Kansas for a load of beef to bring to Omnivores in Maryland.

Denver also has a nice big city park where the Zoo and Museum of Nature and Science are found.  Both are worthy of a visit, if I had the time  – even at the steep prices of admission.  As it was, I wandered around and got some good photos.  Remember, this is about the journey, not the destination.  The park is reached by a bus near the Capitol to Colorado Avenue.

WolfStatues.jpgAbove: Wolf statues in front of the Museum.  These are obviously not “hands-off” art since there is a sign warning that the brass wolves may be really hot. 😉

mastadonstatueAbove:  A Mastadon statue based on some remains found at a construction site.  Truly a  Magnificent Work, in my humble opinion.  The scale is not obvious and I had no one to put in the picture for reference.  I estimate the tip of the animal’s trunk to be 18 feet off the ground.

lakeandskylineAbove: A view of the park’s lake and the Denver skyline with the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

About this time I got nervous about leaving the truck, so I went back to check on it.  A bus takes me North to that same rail station and I go back to the truck stop on that same #44 route.  As I arrived, there was a moment when I did not see the truck.  It was hiding behind a new arrival.  See it there behind the Square-nose Peterbilt?

trucklurkingbehingkenworthAbove:  My truck is there, hiding behind the Peterbilt, just to scare me. By coincidence there is a Freightliner in the foreground and a Volvo past my Kenworth.  Those four represent maybe 90% of the trucks on the road in the US. 

I ventured out in the afternoon to see the airport.  I could have  cut the $9 day pass to $4.50 without the airport, but that particular Denver facility has a storied history of cost overruns  and a baggage system that would make a Rube Goldberg machine look like the picture of efficiency.  It was so horrifically bad that the airport sat idle for 16 months after its completion and scholarly studies and analyses by consulting firms were done analyzing this massive failure.  The airport and baggage system costs ballooned from$700 Million to something like FIVE BILLION DOLLARS.

All this, with pictures after the next leg of the Kansas to Maryland Beef Transit.  I have to sleep now.  Life is keeping me busy, and unexpectedly happy.

Flying J Truck Stop, I-70 near Effingham, Illinois  

That same bus gets me back to the train station and I am whisked off in the out -of-town direction.  Before long, the cityscape disappears and the countryside ensues.

AirportNeighborhoodBlank.jpgAbove:  On the train to DIA.  East of Denver, the landscape is not what comes to mind when “Colorado” is uttered.

AirportTelephonePoleMystery.jpgAbove:  This construction of telephone poles on stilts greets new arrivals at the airport.  There is mirror image of this on the other side.  Their artistic significance was not immediately obvious.

airportarchitecture1Above: The Westin Hotel, left makes a bold architectural statement.

AirportArchitecture2.jpgAbove: Across from the Hotel the airport terminal is another statement that clashes dramatically with the Westin.

Note the aluminum “grassland” in the foreground.

WindSculptureReveal.jpgAbove: The Aluminum Alfalfa Field (I made that name  up) is a wind-driven mobile sculpture.  Its charm was mostly lost on this windless day.  While I can imagine that interesting waves and ripples would be generated,  I am an old techno-nerd.  I suspect that the people – especially young folks – now are so jaded by Computer Generated Images that they are not impressed by such things.

TelephonePoleSculptureReveal.jpgAbove:  The telephone poles viewed from the upper level, outside the hotel

I had plans to see other lines on the transit system, but it was getting late in the day and I would need to roll to Kansas at 5:00 AM.  I will no doubt be back this way and there is a line to Golden that might be interesting.

The weather was perfect for an entertaining and interesting day.  Even though I am marooned again for a day and a half, instead of boredom and depression I find contentment and purpose in a different sort of journey.

I said at the beginning of this Walkabout that did not know what I would learn.

Here is the first conclusive lesson.  It requires some explanation:

I have traveled a great deal in my life and I have always found it compelling and satisfying.  Looking back – I had not always sought out occupations that involved travel, but they seemed to have found me nonetheless.  When I found myself trapped in an office job in a windowless gang-office in Houston, I found a way to transfer to a part of the same company that works in the field (jungle, desert, mountains) in South America. There was no “transfer policy” in said company, as they did not expect people to want to move to the field.  It seems that “normal people” wanted to come in from the field and work in an office.  If you have not discovered this independently by reading my posts, let me just admit right now that I am not “normal”.

There were many reasons for my intention to go and work abroad, none of which had anything to do with travelling.  The most important result of that decision is my wife, who I met in Caracas, Venezuela (she is from Peru) and the family we have raised.  Beyond that, I found that travelling back and forth to the field was the most pleasant and interesting time, despite the sadness of leaving the family and the joy of returning.

Having said that, this latest change in my life has made clear what I knew only vaguely before.  That is: I am most content and my soul most at ease when traveling. With the exception of my family, the destination is just the excuse for the journey.


Update:  I-70 Tollway Travel Plaza @ Mile marker 112 in Pensylvainia.

My journey  from Denver to Maryland has thus far passed through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  I noticed Trump signs early on and kept a rough count.  There were about twenty seven (27), some in every state.  The largest was a billboard about 20 feet across.  The smallest was a custom made sign in West Virginia that said “Trump Digs Coal”.

As you may know, West Virginia coal miners have been begarded into poverty by a cruel and hateful Obama who is running coal companies out of business for no good reason*.  Hillary promises to do the same.

There were no Hillary signs to be seen – anywhere..

*Don’t argue with me, I know what I am talking about. 🙂

Thirty Four Hours in Ripon

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September 16, 2016,  2 PM Loves Truck Stop in Ripon, CA

I was on my way to Walmart in Ceres, CA in the last post.  Jill had the address for Walmart, so I wasted no time getting there.  Only I somehow missed the whole Walmart.  Turns out it was on the corner, facing the cross street, so I turned (as directed) and drove off into oblivion.  I always get a sinking feeling when that happens because I could go for many miles before I find a place to turn around.  But, I found a big, empty parking lot in just half a mile.  I pressed Jill’s “re-route” button and she sends me back the way I came.  My speed is too low because I am scanning for that blue sign, when a Walmart truck passes me.  Now I can follow him home.

I came in the wrong driveway and, even using all the pavement, I still had to hop the curb with the trailer tires.  This might not have been the first time,  because there were yellow posts just back from the curb.  The critical problem is so far away that I can’t tell if a collision is near.  Also, I am seeing it in the fish-eye mirror that makes it look even further away.  Pivoting the big rectangular mirror out lets me see enough to ease the wheels up on the curb just inches from the posts and get through.  My mouth gets very dry when I am doing things like this.

While I am shopping, the parking lot began to fill.  A few items were forgotten, but best to exit before I get trapped by cars parking around the truck.  Sometimes it seems that people think the drivers can call up Scotty and have their trucks beamed out to the highway  Believe me, I have wished that many times myself.

The next stop is 18 miles away in Ripon.  There is a Flying J (FJ) Truck stop and a Loves at the exit and following Jill’s directions puts me in a lot where I can see both signs.  Of course, these signs are on sixty foot poles and can be seen from miles away.  It is not until I have committed an hour and a half to the 34 that will reset me that I notice I am in the Loves lot, not FJ.  I could “creep” the truck over without losing that break time, if I keep the speed low.  But  after the last software update,  Jill has been saying things like “Warning! If you  keep driving it may invalidate your break, which is not finished” when I move the truck while on break.

No worries, I can walk across the street to use the shower, and I did.  The truck is in the backlot and the FJ storefront is almost the same distance away as the Loves.  I should explain that flying J was bought out by Pilot – or the other way around. In any case, my Pilot shower credits are good there, as well.    A short walk before a nap reveals that there is a supermarket just ten minutes away, past a corner of an orchard –  almond trees, it turns out.  In the morning I might make a nice stroll to buy those items I forgot at Walmart.  This is not an activity for the afternoon, since the temperature is 101° F now that we have descended into the Central Valley of California.  It was 48° in the morning in  Arizona, but that was high up in a mountain pass.

I made the shower run and after a nap, I did my laundry, also at the FJ. There was time to sweep out the cab – a never ending task since the first time I step back in from the oily, greasy and litter strewn truck lot I negate any previous cleaning.  Morning was a good time for a walk (58°F) and I made it to the Supermarket for “remainder” shopping.  I found the bakery French loaf that Walmart did not have, milk and cookies and took pictures of the almond orchard.

almondorchardandinsetAbove:  Almond trees ain’t much to look at.  These are a frequent road-side sight along this stretch of CA 99. The almonds are seeds of a fruit that you see here (inset) dried and split open.  The light brown kernel is what you see if you ever buy almonds “in the shell”.


Later, I swept out the trailer, since I may get a produce load and they are nitpicky about cleanliness.  Some even insist on a washout, so my work might have been unnecessary.  However, while normally trailers come and go, this particular trailer (15820T) has been with me for nearly two weeks now. It was there for the Great Massachusetts Beef Journey, the Frozen Catfish Sojourn, the Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas and the Twenty Mules Frozen Chicken dash to California.  It was there at the Ad Hoc Truck Stop and the Tire Shop at Santa Rosa. It seems like part of the family now, so I reckon it should be clean.

To be available at Two AM tomorrow when my 34 is over, I need to sleep now.  I have partaken of the previously mentioned milk and cookies as I was writing this part and they are as effective a sleep aid as any I have purchased over-the-counter at a pharmacy.

Good Night.

I was just awakening from an afternoon nap when a pre-plan came over the satellite link.  I will be taking on a produce load in Salinas and delivering it to Denton, Texas.  The pick up date is the 19th, so I sent my acceptance with a comment that I will be fully rested and ready with 11 hours of drive time and 70 hours of eight day duty at 2 AM on the 18th.  It may be that I can get an early start on this load, but I have no idea if that will be possible.  Of course, it is Saturday evening and I reckon there won’t be anyone available to ask.

This is as good a place as any to end this post and pick up with the new load later.

Over The Road,


Scenic Views in the Solar System

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This was posted before, over at the old WordPress site.  I have since updated the pictures with the latest images of Pluto and Charon.  Also, comparison to the view of the moon from Earth is included in each picture and a lot of reference lines were deleted.  January 25, 2019

Steve Campbell     December 2015


The full moon, especially when it is near the horizon has always been a most impressive sight and there are few that compare…at least on Earth. The truth is that your index finger at arm’s length can cover the moon. You will need to close one eye for this trick, though. If you saw Tom Hanks in Apollo13, you know the drill. The full moon covers less than one half of one degree of arc. By the way, the idea that the moon is somehow magnified by being near the horizon is just an illusion.  If you measured the angle it “subtends”, you will come up with the same number when it is overhead or low in the sky. Call it a Jedi mind trick, if you like. Figure A is a simulation of the Moon, as seen from the Earth. So that we can make a fair comparison, the field of view here is 10 degrees across. I will keep that constant as we move around. The lines are just the plotted orbits of the moon and other planets in the background.


Figure A: A simulation of the Moon as seen from Earth. The field of view is 10 degrees wide. That scale will be continued in the following images – until it doesn’t work.  I’ll include the moon in those images as a reference.

In the neighborhood

Impressive as our full moon view may be there are other, more breath-taking vistas to be had, with a small matter of transportation to be solved. There is one that has actually been experienced by Apollo astronauts on eight missions – each with a crew of three – that reached the moon. So, that is exactly 24 people, right? Wrong, twenty one. John Young and Eugene Cernan both went to the moon twice and landed once. Jim Lovell went twice and alas, did not land either time. But all these guys saw the Earth from the moon, even if only 12 saw it from the surface. That sight is even more striking. Figure B is a simulation of the Earth as seen from the moon.


Figure B: Simulation of the Earth as seen from the moon. Same scale

As awe-inspiring as this view may be, you can still hide this behind a single digit, but you will need to use your thumb. The Earth’s atmosphere is not depicted here. That would make it more interesting, especially during a lunar eclipse. At that time, the Earth would be illuminated only by artificial lights and the occasional burst of lightening. If it were a total lunar eclipse, the rim of Earth’s atmosphere would be aglow with the red hues of every sunset and every sunrise in the world. The lunar landscape would be bathed in a soft red glow. Not bad, eh?

The Outer Limits

Until recently it was assumed that the Earth-moon system was the closest to a double planet, but that ended in 1978 when Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered. Compared to the Earth/Moon system, Pluto and Charon are much closer to the same size and much closer together. So, you would think –and be correct – that Charon would appear much larger from Pluto than the Moon from Earth. Figure C is a simulation (same scale) of Charon as seen from Pluto.


Figure C: Charon as seen from Pluto. Note that this is an actual image of Charon, from the New Horizon’s flyby.

As you can see clearly, Charon is a much more imposing figure than the Earth from our moon. To continue our arm’s-length-finger imagery: I am quoting a New Horizons researcher whose name escapes me when I say “It would take three fat fingers to cover up Charon.”

However, I would point out a few drawbacks to this one. First, the lack of color (as compared to Earth, at least) should subtract a few points. Second, Charon will not be seen as “full” except for twice in a Pluto year, when the plane of the Pluto/Charon orbit is aligned with the Sun/Pluto orbit. A Pluto year is about 248 Earth years. Third, the Sun is very dim out there by Pluto and the whole scene will be very obscure. Fourth, Charon is tidally locked, always turning the same face toward Pluto and Pluto does likewise to Charon. This means that Charon always appears in the same spot in the sky, unless you are in the other hemisphere, then you never see it anyway. And, finally that eclipse scenario we talked about with the Moon and Earth only happens around those times of “full Charon” (every ~124 years) and it has no atmosphere to make it more interesting.  The alert reader (that guy, again) will point out that Pluto must be much larger as seen from Charon than the other way around. Correct. Figure D is just that scenarion.


Figure D: A simulation of Pluto as seen from Charon. Again, the surface features are guesswork and not updated by the recent New Horizon probe’s imagery.  

You see that, in our 10 degree wide view, Pluto has filled it, at least vertically. Clearly, this is the most stunning view, yet. One full hand, at arm’s length might not even cover this up. As I note in the caption, this is not the real image of Pluto, which, as it turns out is much more interesting. However, most of the objections of the view of Charon apply here. It is very dark. Pluto will always be in the same spot in the sky, if it is in the sky, at all. Pluto will only be “full” once in 224 years and the eclipses will be about that rare as well. There will be a “rim of light” during a full eclipse, but it will be pale blue.

Now is where the real estate people would put the “hook” that draws you in to the thing they are really selling. As it turns out, there are much more amazing views available, much closer to home, far more dynamic, interesting and much better illuminated than those “outer limits” properties that you have been seeing!   Let’s talk about the Jupiter neighborhood.

There is this moon called Io (pronounce by purists with a short “I” and by everybody else, with a long “I”). It is the closest of the four main “Galilean” satellites of Jupiter. Io is a small moon of Jupiter that is still 37% larger than Earth’s moon.

It has a view of Jupiter that is un-paralleled by any other self-respecting Jovian moon (i.e., with a significant surface gravity). I have summoned up another simulation at our same scale of 10 degrees across., in Figure E.


Figure E: Simulation of Jupiter seen from Io. Clearly a change of scale is in order!

This is an order of magnitude greater than what we have looked at previously. We need to back off of this 10 degree wide view. Figure F is a view with 45 degrees as the width of field. To show how much we have “zoomed out” please see the inset at lower left that shows the moon as seen from Earth at the same scale.


Figure F: Jupiter (in a section of sky that is 25 degrees across) as seen from its closest large moon, Io.   Note the comparable view of the Earth’s moon – from Earth.

This is clearly the most spectacular view we have yet imagined. The arm’s-length comparison:  Tom Hanks would have to hold up a pizza pan that is 13* inches across to cover this sight. And here, we will have a view of Jupiter that goes from “full” as you see it here, through a half-phase to a crescent, to “new” and back in less than two days.  Add to that the fact that Jupiter rotates in about nine hours and the clouds are in constant motion and changing. And also, the colors (in comparison to our own moon) are vivid and diverse. When Io is eclipsed, passing behind Jupiter, there will also be lightening and auroras that should surpass anything seen on Earth from orbit.

*Ironic, that!  😉


I think that when it comes to spectacular scenic outlooks in the Solar System, we have found the ideal spot – Io. Remember to move to the side facing Jupiter and the view is always available.  But, before you decide you would like to live there, I should say that I failed to mention that it is a very active place, geologically speaking – far more so than Earth. Io is prone to sudden outbreaks of hot molten Sulfur volcanoes. It also orbits in a radiation belt around Jupiter. And to quote (7): “The radiation in Jupiter’s belts is a million times more intense than in Earth’s belts.”.

So, you see that there is this great view at Io, but there are a few details that complicate things.

Hasta Luego,



  1. Solar System Simulations:
  2. Apollo Astronauts:
  3. Charon:
  4. Planetary Statistics:
  5. Moon comparisons:
  6. More on Jovian moons:
  7. Jupiter Radiation Belts:

Neptune – The Farthest Giant



Steve Campbell      March 2016

I managed to destroy this post unintentionally.  I fixed it and threw in a new Triton movie YouTube link. “Sail past Triton  “


Neptune was the first planet to be discovered by mathematical means.  After the discovery of Uranus and subsequent observations of the Seventh Planet, it was observed that its orbit was not meeting expectations of Kepler’s Laws.  It was determined that there must be another planet -farther away – that was influencing the orbit.  That planet was later discovered and quickly thereafter found to have a large satellite. (1)

Neptune is the farthest Giant Planet from the Sun and not surprisingly the last to be visited by a spacecraft.  In the old days, when your author was young, they called Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune “Gas Giants”.  Now they reserve that title only for Jupiter and Saturn and call Uranus and Neptune “Ice Giants”.  As you may know the now call Pluto and Eris “Dwarf” Planets (I can’t agree with that).  As of today, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are still “Terrestrial Planets”.  But soon, it seems to me, each planetary body will have its own unique category.

Quoting from my two-part series:

“One thing that might puzzle the average student might be why we had images of all the Outer planets by the 1970s and 80s and nothing but a dot or smudge for Pluto.  That all relates to what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”.  As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory.”

Again from Sneaking Up on Pluto:

“The Voyager probes (one of which actually made the complete “Grand Tour”) each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth.  This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing, that moved independently of the antenna.  That configuration had proven troublesome on one of the Voyager probes at Saturn and data were lost.  That is because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (2).  That’s what I said – “Stone Knives and Bear Skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.”  Voyager was – despite my demeaning reference – quite advanced at the time and some of its imagery is still quite impressive.

 The image below depicts the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Spacecraft. (4) The dish antenna is 3.7 meters in diameter (12 feet, 2 inches) across.  The arm extending to the right contains the main experiments and the imaging “scan platform”.  The left arm holds the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators that power the probe.  The gold disk on the “body” is the famous CD with messages and images of Earth for anyone “out there”.  This CD was a pet project of Carl Sagan.  Carl has been inserted into the picture at the proper size to give it a sense of scale. 

This photo is from his brief and little-known “Fonzarelli” period.  Raise your thumbs, Carl!

voyager_nasawebcarlFigure A: The Voyager Spacecraft        NASA/NASA website


About time we got around to the planet, I hear you thinking.  I have a table of planetary statistics (3) that serves as a good introduction for any planet.  You may expect to see this table in future posts.  Please see Figure B, below.

Figure B: Table of Planetary Statistics        NASA

You will notice that Neptune has 17 times the mass of the Earth and about 3.9 times the diameter.  That only works out that way because the mean density of Neptune is 30% that of Earth.  If it were as dense as the Earth, Neptune (of the same diameter) would have 60 times the Earth’s mass.   All four Giant Planets are low-density like that, but Neptune is the densest of them.  Likewise, all Giant Planets are fast spinning and Neptune is slower than most, rotating in 16 hours.  The Navy has adopted a 16 hour rotation of duties and sleep aboard out nuclear subs, so submariners would be right at home on Neptune.  Just a small tangent, I’ll get back on track, now.

Figure C: Neptune as seen by Voyager 2         NASA/JPL

The clouds were somewhat of a surprise after the Voyager’s views of Uranus – which was almost featureless.  The big dark spot (named rather predictably, the “Great Dark Spot”) was another surprise as were the winds (1500 mph) stirring these features around.  These are the fastest winds in the all the Planets (5) and unexpected out in the cold dark zones of the outer Solar System.

Neptune takes 164 years to orbit the Sun.  It’s a long wait for Summer, eh?  Neptune, like all Giant Planets (plus Mercury and Earth) does have a magnetic field and in fact, it is much stronger than the Earth’s.  That would seem to indicate that it has an iron inner core.  But it cannot be very large, or the overall density would be larger.  It is in fact estimated that the core part of Neptune at its center is about Earth-sized.  Most of what is above is water, ammonia and methane (CH4) ice (estimates vary for thickness).  That is considered to be its “mantle”. 

The atmosphere above that is hydrogen, helium and methane.  The white clouds you see vary in composition depending on pressure.  The higher clouds where pressures are about Earth-like (1 bar) are probably methane vapor.  Lower down and at higher pressures are clouds of ammonia, hydrogen sulfate and even water vapor, like the clouds on Earth.

How thick each of these layers might be is still open to interpretation and you can find many differing diagrams, most with no dimensions mentioned.  So, having looked at those, I will guess that the core is 4000 miles in Radius (about the same radius as Earth).

Later photos of Neptune by the Hubble Space Telescope have shown considerable changes in Neptune’s atmosphere, since Voyager.


Triton. The terrain is similar to what we now know Pluto to be like. The colors are not the same, however. That may be due to a difference in instrumentation between Voyager 2 and the New Horizon probe that looked the ninth Planet.

See this YouTube video for a “Sail past Triton  “

Triton is the largest moon of Neptune and by no coincidence, the first discovered (17 days after the discovery of Neptune, itself).  It is unique in several respects.  It is the only “large” satellite to orbit in a “retrograde” sense.  By large, I mean to say that it is near to the size of our own Moon.  By retrograde, I mean that it orbits in a direction opposite to the rotation of its planet.  That and the high inclination of Triton’s orbit seem to indicate that it was captured.  For reasons we won’t go into, it is easier for a moon to be captured in a retrograde orbit than otherwise.  Jupiter and Saturn have lots of former asteroids as moons, but they tend to be small and far away.  Triton is so close that it is being slowly pulled closer to Neptune and in several billion years will be shattered into a ring like Saturn’s.  You might expect a captured moon to be in an eccentric orbit that varies in distance from its planet, but Triton’s orbit is so close to exactly circular that the difference is not worth mentioning.  It stays at about 220,483 miles from Neptune which, coincidentally is about the same distance from the Earth to our own moon.  It orbits Neptune in 5.8 days and rotates in the same time.  That is to say, it keeps the same side toward Neptune, just as our Moon does to Earth.  Now, some of my readers are sharp enough to notice that our moon takes 28 days to orbit.  Why so different if the distances are near the same?  The difference, of course is that Neptune is 17 times as massive as the Earth, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.  This will be on the test! 😉   Figure D, below is a Voyager 2 image of Triton

Figure D: Triton         NASA/JPL

            All other large satellites orbit the same way and are therefore by definition, prograde.  Triton also looks quite distinctively different from most other planetary satellites, which tend to be rather uniform and crater covered (admittedly with many exceptions).  It has an atmosphere that, while very thin, has detectable clouds.  It shares the much modified and differentiated characteristics that we now know of on Pluto.  That tends to confirm the “capture” hypothesis.

            You may ask, “Just how does a passing object become “captured”? “.    There are several ways.  One would be for Triton to have collided with a smaller moon, as it passed near Neptune.  That might slow it just enough to wind up in an orbit.  As it would have collided with a prograde moon, that would be especially effective since that would almost double the velocity difference between the two and quadruple the energy delivered to the passing Triton.  That should have left a mighty crater on Triton.  While nonesuch was seen by Voyager, such a crater could have since been covered by the glacier-like deposits of Nitrogen ice (the part that looks like cantaloupe peel) that are visible in Figure D.  Likewise, that crater might have been in the darkened part of Triton, that was not visible when the Voyager went zooming by at the greatest velocity ever given to a man-made object (at the time)

A second possibility would be “gas drag” as Triton passed through the upper atmosphere.  That would seem unlikely, unless Neptune had a more extensive atmosphere at the time.  Since it may have been captured billions of years ago, that is entirely possible, but still just speculation.

            Another possibility was detailed in a paper by Craig Agnor (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Douglas Hamilton (university of Maryland) in 2006. (6)  First, I should explain that Pluto and all the other Smaller Planets out past Neptune have been designated as Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).  If Triton had been one of a co-orbiting binary pair of KBOs, it is possible that a pass near Neptune would have captured it, while at the same time, ejecting its companion to a more distant orbit of the Sun.  It all has to do with relative motion of the three bodies. This hypothesis has the virtue of not relying on chance collisions or hypothesized “greater atmospheres”.  This idea was made more believable by the discovery that many KBOs are indeed, binary.  Not the least of these is Pluto, who’s biggest satellite (Charon) is about one half its own size.  It has been estimated that 15% of KBOs may be binary in nature.  That a KBO could have come near to Neptune is not unlikely since Pluto itself comes nearer the Sun than Neptune as it was during the late years, last Century.  Having said that, I must also remark that Pluto is now in a resonance with Neptune that keeps the two safely apart.  I mean to say, that when Pluto comes nearer to the Sun, it is still very far from Neptune and always will be.

But, all in all, I think these guys are very near the mark with their hypothesis.


Neptune is another fascinating member of the Solar System and I learned a lot by researching to write this article.  I hope you find it interesting as well.  You may wonder why I do this.  Well, those of you who know me know that I suddenly have time on my hands.  It is a blessing…and a curse. ;-).  Also, I have always had a fascination with the Solar System that goes back to my days in Elementary School. 

You and I are truly fortunate to live in a time when these mysterious dots of light in the sky that were the Planets are now becoming known as Great Worlds, many that dwarf the Earth in size and complexity and others that are revealing the secrets of Nature that have been heretofore unknowable.


  1. Discovery:
  1. Voyager Data Rate:
  1. Table of Planetary Statistics:
  1. Voyager details:
  1. Winds:
  1. Triton Capture:

Somewhere in Oklahoma

stevesafetyglassesJanuary 11, 2019      homepage

Many of my readers will be happy to know that I have again found employment in the Seismic Industry – as much out of friendship as of appreciation that I will not be complaining about being unemployed.  I will be somewhere in Oklahoma for a few weeks  A project in Texas is penciled in for later.  The client has rules about posting photos and project information, so I am intentionally vague.  If you are also in Seismic, you can guess who the client is.  The company may have such rules and so they will be referred to as “the Company”.  The photo below is not related to the project or the Company.  (As far as I know, the project does not extend to the sky).  This is an example of  “Sundogs” which is a pair of bright spots of refracted sunlight that illuminate a cloud layer.  This is fairly rare and I have seen it maybe 5 times in as many decades.


A rainbow, by comparison, is both reflected and refracted and appears in the sky opposite of the sun.

Below (left) in my Personal Protective equipment.  (Yes, I will trim the beard soon) hardhatsteve

My job is driving the fuel truck. Fortunately for me, haz-mat drivers are in demand just now.    I don’t have a lot of spare time, so stay tuned!

Hasta Luego,





August 7, 2016


[pur-guh-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee]

  1. any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.

    I am now “on the Yard” at company headquarters.  I have dropped my trailer and been assigned another truck.  This one is a real mystery.  A Kenworth T680 built in November, 2013.  It looks almost new, drives and shifts smoothly and is “clean as a whistle”.  The odometer reads 35,000 miles.  And that would seem impossible.

This truck has been “on the fleet” for two and a half years and should have at least five or six times that mileage.  The Peterbilt is just about that old and it has 385,000 miles. While I am lucky to have such a low mileage vehicle, I can’t help but wonder what the story is behind this machine.  One thing that is completely out of place in this story is the condition of the forward drive axle.  Its tires are nearly at the legal minimum for tread  depth, while its brother’s tires to the rear are almost new.  I have requested that these tires (the baldies, that is) be replaced.

I pull up the Kenworth “across the bow” of the Peterbilt to transfer the refrigerator first and then all my other possessions.  It can’t stay there long, but I don’t need long.  Next I swap the Peterbilt out of the “good” parking spot and put the Kenworth into same.   I drove the Peterbilt over by the garage where I would turn in the keys in the morning.  Then, I collapsed in the Kenworth because what I just described was a lot of work.  Fortunately, the Kenworth has a working Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) that keeps the cabin habitable through the hot Dallas evening.


Above: 2014 model Kenworth T680 – 12946.  Note the windshield shade with cool-looking beach scene.  It reflects the heat ,  yes.  But more importantly, it marks my truck so I can find it later.  Please see “Tractor Row” below for explanation.

TractorRowDay.jpgAbove:  “Tractor Row” The one with the cool-looking beach scene in the windshield is mine.

CaptainsDesk12946Above:  The Kenworth has a desk that does not look like a piece of plywood.

PurgatoryAbove:  Purgatory’s Backside.  The small building in the foreground has the driver’s lounge where trucker stereotypes are preserved by drivers leaving their empty soda bottles and pizza cartons strewn across the tables and floors while the trash cans in the room remain empty.

In the morning, I have lots to do before I am allowed to leave the Yard.  These activities include safety lectures and dealing with “compliance” (recordkeeping to comply with federal regulations on driving time – it’s complicated).  Then I need my Driver Manager’s approval and that of “Central Clearance” – they check all my registrations and paperwork. I cannot get my truck out the gate without all these items ticked off the list.  And those tires I requested apparently are still being manufactured and will be shipped out by mule train sometime next week.

Fact is, I don’t have a load, yet anyway, so there is nowhere to go.  And, it does not matter anyway because all the people who can provide “approval” for my departure have gone home at noon, today, Saturday.  They will not return until Monday when dozens of other drivers – trapped in Purgatory with me – will compete to get their clearance.  So, another two days (minimum) of no income. This has become a recurring theme in the “high-paying-job-as-a-professional-truck-driver”.