Atom Wave: May 2007

Atom Wave

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Political Wheel of Fire

In another testament to the fact that there is no realm free from the pervasive elements of politics, some conservatives are now moving to argue that the tenants of Darwin evolution support the ideology of their philosophy. With the Republican Party now even more eager to demonstrate to the public that they are a “big tent” party following their defeat last year and the upcoming presidential election, they can’t afford to swagger about out of touch. After all, not everyone subscribes to the notion that God created the world in seven days and that Jesus died for our sins. On the flip side, some conservatives would steam at the ethically neutral materialistic world of science where the philosophy with stem cell research is the more the merrier. Leading the charge is Larry Arnhart whom is a political science professor at the Northern Illinois University of DeKalb. His argument is that the flawed imperfect world of Darwin’s humanity explains traditional family values and the rest of their stuff.
One thing about this argument is that you can’t have it just one way. If evolution supports conservatism, than why not liberalism? Why stop there, libertarianism could also be argued on that premise. If you truly buy the argument, than we might as well live in communist Russia.
One constant about politics is that it is a corrupting influence. Once you start cherry picking evidence for your cause, the evidence can no longer be trusted. It is better to argue your cause on its own merits or not at all.

2007 A Space Travesty

One of the epic travesties of science is that swell projects are sometimes tossed long before they ever get the chance to shine. A few years ago NASA ended the X-33 program before the prototype was even complete. In the spirit of that tradition, the administration recently announced its intention to cancel the Shuttle flight for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer project due to lack of funding. They are short by about a modest three hundred and eighty million dollars. Already built at a cost exceeding one billion, the massive liquid-helium cooled superconducting magnetic device is designed to detect cosmic rays from the International Space Station. Originally proposed by Samuel Ting in 1995, it is intended to study such phenomenon as dark matter and pulsars if it ever gets to orbit.
The ride may already be in NASA’s pocket, in the form of a commercial program that one of their contractors is developing for access to the space station. Admittedly, the vehicle has a colorful history, literally. It makes up for its failures in affordability. I am speaking of the notorious Falcon 1 rocket. While clearly unsuitable for launching the AMS, SpaceX is also developing another heavy lifter the Falcon 9. It gets better; NASA already has them developing the commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) system to deliver cargo to the station. It would still cost a modest seventy eight million for the ticket and the courage to risk the payload on the flight.
One way or another it will be necessary to launch the AMS or allow it to become dead to science.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Missile Myth

The myth of the invincible missile has long been a staple of television and movies, such as Top Gun. The pilot squeezes the trigger and the missile blazes off its rail, only to strike its target in a satisfying fireball a few seconds later. This myth isn’t only limited to Hollywood, Pentagon planners have also succumbed to the delusion.
Guided missiles are like their creators, imperfect machines. They can be defeated if the opponent understands its weaknesses, or its user forgets them.
One of the most obvious limitations to any missile is its propulsion, which unlike combat aircraft is severely limited by the amount of rocket fuel on board. Typical missiles (Sidewinder, Sparrow, AMRAAM) use a solid dual-thrust engine. It begins at high-thrust and than falls back to a lower sustained thrust until burnout. Like all rocket engines, they produce smoke that is a liability to concealing the launch. Missiles are also limited in performance by their launching altitude, a real pain at sea level and 20,000 feet.
Another annoying liability of missiles is their warhead. They are available in a wide range of yields and configurations, but are still subject to the same limitations. They are nearly always triggered by a radar or laser proximity fuse, which will detonate the weapon anytime something enters its volume. That includes obstacles on the ground in low-altitude combat.
Of course, all of this is for NOT if the weapon has a feeble guidance system. Typical missiles use either a radar or infrared seeker, each subject to their own limitations. Infrared seekers like the ones used on the Sidewinder can and will be saturated if the target breaks into the sun or dives into hot terrain. Likewise, the clutter of the Earth below can defeat radar seekers.
In the end, success in combat will always be critically dependent upon the skill of the defender and opponent. The continuing struggle in Iraq is testament to the fact that the best technology and firepower cannot defeat a determined opponent or insurgent. It is also a reminder that success in any strife is subject to one’s ability to emphasize with your enemy. You must know what motivates them if you ever hope to defeat them.

This is a video documenting F-15 Eagles in live fire training against F-4 Phantom drones. Be aware that while the explosions are real, a F-4 Phantom drone will never replace a real fighter with a skilled pilot.

Evading The Guided Missile