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Planet 9, Wherefore Art Thou?

Posted September 07, 2018 12:00 PM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: astronomy Planet 9 solar system
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Especially over the past year, it has been easy to get lost in all the buzzwords and publicity regarding outer space and astronomy. Zuma satellite failure! Missions to the moon, then Mars? SpaceX puts a Tesla in orbit! Illegal pirate satellites? Space Force! Russian military satellites? Hall thrusters!

Yet one of the most intriguing space stories has largely flown under the radar.

Pop quiz: How many major planets in the solar system?

  • If you said 8, congrats. You are technically correct (and on CR4 the best kind of correct).
  • If you said 9, let’s talk.

Remember Pluto was kicked from our solar systems models in 2006 after it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. (My childhood nostalgia still smarts from that.) Dwarf planets and minor planets “don’t count” for solar system purposes.

That said, there is growing evidence that there is another, dark planet on the outer reaches of the solar system. The planet has yet to be observed after two years of searching. This planet would have up to 10 times the mass of Earth, and could have a diameter four times as large.

The hypothesis for Planet 9 developed in 2014 and comes from astronomers Scott Shepard and Chad Trujillo. The orbits of the eight planets of the solar system are coplanar – each revolves around the sun along the same relative plane as a result of planet accretion from the swirling mass that begat our solar system. However, Shepard and Trujillo sought to explain why 90377 Sedna – a minor planet beyond Neptune – and several other bodies have an extremely eccentric orbit. Sedna lives beyond Pluto, and has longer oval-shaped orbit compared to the major planets. During their study, they determined that Neptunian gravitation pull could not be responsible for 12 trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) with such eccentric orbits, with orbits roughly perpendicular to the orbital plane of the other planets.

A second peer study, conducted by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown from Caltech, eliminated some of the TNOs that they felt were influenced by Neptune. Of the remaining six objects, they also concluded that an unseen gravitational force was responsible for the unusual orbits. Since 2016, ten more TNOs have been discovered that add credence to the theory of Planet 9.

A Planet would also help explain some other system anomalies such as why TNO orbits are also roughly coplanar, or it could explain why the sun’s axis is tilted 6° when compared to the orbital plane of the eight known planets.

This all sounds easy enough, yet the planet hasn’t been observed via telescope. It only exists in mathematical models and computer simulations, likely in the direction of the constellations Cetus or Orion. The planet is unlikely to be seen even with the most power visible telescopes, although telescopes that measure radiation, such as ALMA, could perceive it. Even so, image recognition algorithms have been constructed to help comb data that has already be collected from the region where the planet is proposed to exist, and open-source projects for DIY astronomers invite users to look for it at home.

None of this enlightens on where Planet 9 came from or its unusual orbit. Explanations range from a planet that was ejected from the solar system proper due to a near-miss with a gas giant, capture of the planet from another solar system or as a free floating planet, or the possibility it coalesced on its own.

Supportive astronomers expect the planet to be found within the next few years. Whether or not it is actually out, this mystery is still unravelling. It has turned into a cosmic game of Where’s Waldo/Wally.

22 comments; last comment on 09/11/2018
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First Consumer Drone Assassination Attempt

Posted August 14, 2018 1:39 PM by HUSH

Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was a participant in a world-first—no, not the world’s first government-by-mango (profanity warning). Instead, he was the target of the first attempted drone assassination. While giving a speech in honor of the country’s national guard, a drone exploded over the crowd, interrupting his speech and causing those same soldiers to flee.

It has since been determined that two DJI consumer-type drones were laden with explosives and destined to kill the embattled politician. Reports have varied as to whether the charges were gaseous or plastic explosive in nature. Maduro officials pinned the attempt on two political opponents, which really isn’t that surprising considering the country has been in a dire tailspin since 2012. Declining oil prices and massive social debts, coupled with epic mismanagement, has turned Venezuela into a Mad Max-esque world where people are beaten or killed for increasingly scarce food, fuel or medicine.

The attempt on Maduro was foiled thanks to jamming technology, which interferes with the signal between operator and device. Ulrike E. Franke, policy fellow with European Council of Foreign Relations, was surprised that Venezuelan security was even prepared for such an attack. (Doesn’t seem suspicious at all!)

This is actually just the most current zenith of consumer drones being retrofitted for more nefarious purposes. The Atlantic points out some other instances: drones being used to send drugs across borders; a drone that delivered hand grenades to a Mexican police chief as an act of intimidation; ISIS soldiers flying explosive drones at enemy troops; and thermite grenades delivered via drone that have caused billions of dollars in damage in Ukraine.

Drones are becoming cheaper and more available, so it is unlikely this is the only official assassination attempt that occurs. But how will engineers work to prevent this in the future? As with most of engineering, there are several solutions, each with an important trade-off.

Jammers are effective, but will block cellular and other types of radio communications. There are a variety of net guns and tethered bullets, but they are typical single shot or can be as dangerous as regular bullets. Counter-drones armed with nets or aerial weapons can cost $15,000 and require a skilled pilot. Directed energy weapons are still in development, and might not be practical in cites or crowds. Birds of prey are the coolest option, no doubt, and are effective, but are expensive to train, house, feed and care for, in addition to a bird handler. Geofencing might be the best option, but is only as good as the systems and software enforcing it.

Consider that there are millions of soft targets that may not be Dictator President Maduro, but could be even more disruptive. A man in California knocked out power for 1,600 residents and caused some facilities to evacuate after accidentally knocking out a high-voltage power line.

Drone attacks have been rare, but are likely to increase as the technology becomes more accessible. FAA regulations will likely have little effect on potential attacks. If there is a silver lining, it is that drone attacks are coming to light and public awareness is key to prevention, since drone attacks are limited in scale.

14 comments; last comment on 08/23/2018
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Future of the 'Doomsday Planes'

Posted January 04, 2018 11:29 AM by HUSH

The E-4 aircraft is one of the most unique airplanes in the world. It serves in the U.S. Air Force's National Emergency Airborne Command Post, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Translated from military jargon to English, that means the plane's primary role is to serve as the decision nerve center in the event ground stations are compromised following a nuclear attack.

These four planes are Boeing 747-200 models that were initially manufactured in the 1970s, in a program dubbed Nightwatch. Eventual technology improvements led to the E-4B. The E-4B is a dedicated, advanced airborne communications platform and is also hardened against the potential effects of an electromagnetic pulse that accompanies a nuclear blast. All aircraft wiring and electronics are radiation shielded, as is the aircraft's cabin and cockpit. The film shield that is typically found on the inside of a microwave door is outfitted on the cockpit windows and analog controls are favored over electronic, as they are less likely to be corrupted by an EMP. The plane also features direct fire countermeasures, likely some combination of thermal anti-missile flares, chaff and infrared missile jammers.

Since this plane can survive a nearby nuclear blast and then organize a retaliatory strike, the plane is simply massive and extremely well-engineered. The plane is divided into three levels, with the top level dedicated to the cockpit and rest areas for the flight crew. The middle level contains all the primary business: a conference room, briefing room, work stations for 29 staffers, communications center and staff R&R areas. Meanwhile the lowest level features the executive lounge, galley, extra accommodations and gear storage. If fuel is resupplied mid-flight, the E-4 can fly for over a week without touching down. The plane can accommodate over 110 people if needed and has the largest minimum crew in the USAF fleet at 48.

In a true nuclear attack, the U.S President would use this plane as an airborne command center along with senior military officials. The plane can connect with virtually every communication system worldwide and even has a 5-mile-long trailing wire antenna to communicate with ballistic missile submarines. During the Cold War, it was standard practice to have one E-4 on alert at all times and located at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, spitting distance from Washington D.C.

(Click here or the illustration at right for an enlargeable version.)

The E-4 also serves in auxiliary missions. For every overseas trip the President makes on Air Force One, an E-4 accompanies but lands at a different airport. In case of emergency or if Air Force One is grounded, the E-4 can then serve as Air Force One. Other military officials, such as the Secretary of Defense, use the E-4 as their primary international travel method. The aircraft has also served as mobile command posts for FEMA personnel after natural disasters.

In June 2017 a tornado at Offutt AFB damaged two of the planes, rendering them unusable until repaired. Prior to this, there had already been considerable discussion regarding the future of the E-4, with the fleet originally set for retirement in 2009. Military officials felt many of the executive and communications roles carried out by the E-4s, the Air Force One models (Boeing VC-25s) and the E-8 surveillance planes could be consolidated into one new, cheaper aircraft. Eventually these plans were scrapped.

Last month the Air Force announced it would exercise an $80 million contract option for additional upkeep and upgrades to the E-4 fleet, presumably to fix the damaged planes and keep them in service for the foreseeable future. However, aircraft frame fatigue is expected to occur around 2039, and considering the long development cycles of military hardware, officials and aerospace engineers need to presently start scratching their heads on the E-4's replacement. According to The War Zone blog, there are plans to make the successor aircraft to the E-4, the C-32 (the model of plane for Air Force Two) and the E-6 (a plane with a similar but more marginalized role as the E-4) of the same platform.

The threat of all-out nuclear war has subsided since the E-4 was introduced, but there remain nuclear threats in the world today, meaning the 'doomsday planes' still have an important role to fill.

59 comments; last comment on 01/15/2018
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Recently Discovered Photo Shows Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Plane Crash

Posted July 06, 2017 8:44 AM by lmno24

A recently discovered photo shows that aviator Amelia Earhart may have survived a crash landing in the Marshall Islands.

The photo, found in a long-lost file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence," that airs this Sunday.

Credit: National Archives

Analysts told the History Channel that the photo appears legitimate. The man pictured has Noonan’s distinct hairline, while the woman has Earhart’s short hairstyle.

She was last heard from on July 2, 1937, during her quest to become the first woman to circumnavigate the Earth. She was declared dead two years later and her remains were never found. It was concluded that she crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

This image suggests they did in fact survive the flight, and were potentially taken captive by the Japanese.

This photo would back the theory that the two survived a crash-landing in the Marshall Islands and were held prisoner by the Japanese military on the island of Saipan until their deaths.

For years, locals claimed to have seen the plane crash. But some native schoolchildren in the area said they saw the pair being taken into captivity.

What do you think?

31 comments; last comment on 07/15/2017
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Get Yourself a Job at NASA

Posted June 19, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Working for this top federal government agency isn't just for astronauts. There are many jobs out there for many different education levels and skill sets. See what's out there, both on land and in outer space.


Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

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