SpaceX crew capsule ends test flight with ocean splashdown
By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer
Saturday, March 9
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX’s swanky new crew capsule returned from the International Space Station to an old-fashioned splashdown in the Atlantic on Friday, successfully ending a test flight that could lead to astronaut rides later this year.
The Dragon capsule undocked from the orbiting lab early Friday. Six hours later, the capsule carrying a test dummy parachuted into the ocean, a couple hundred miles off the Florida coast.
It was the final hurdle for the six-day demo, a critical prelude to SpaceX’s first flight with astronauts as early as summer. While improvements still need to be made, the company aims to fly NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on the next test flight.
Astronauts have not launched from Florida for eight years, and NASA is eager to end the drought and reduce its costly dependence on Russia for space station trips.
SpaceX employees cheered and applauded at company headquarters near Los Angeles when the Dragon’s red and white parachutes popped open. NASA televised the descent live, the dramatic views coming from a plane. The crowd went wild once the capsule splashed down and was seen floating upright.
“Just amazing. I can’t believe how well the whole mission has gone” with all major milestones met, said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management.
It was the first time in 50 years that a capsule designed for astronauts returned from space by plopping into the Atlantic. Apollo 9 — which orbited Earth in preparation for the moon landings — splashed down near the Bahamas on March 13, 1969.
Space station astronauts have been stuck riding Russian rockets since NASA’s shuttles retired in 2011. NASA is counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start launching astronauts this year. SpaceX — which has been delivering station cargo for years — is shooting for summer.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was ecstatic following splashdown. All this is “leading to a day where we are launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” he said.
A pair of recovery ships was stationed in the Atlantic well before splashdown and quickly moved in, lifting the capsule from the water within an hour. The capsule is expected at Port Canaveral on Saturday night. Splashdown will occur much closer to shore once astronauts start flying.
Astronaut Shane Kimbrough, part of the recovery team, said it was incredible watching the splashdown up close. The capsule had brown scorch marks from top to bottom, but otherwise looked fine.
Canadian space station astronaut David Saint-Jacques was the first to enter the Dragon capsule and the last to leave this week. He found it “very slick” and called it business class.
Next up is Boeing.
Boeing plans to launch its Starliner capsule without a crew as early as next month and with astronauts possibly in August. The Starliner is designed to land on land — in the U.S. Southwest.
NASA awarded the first contracts in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing, now totaling about $8 billion. This first SpaceX test flight opens a new era, Bridenstine said, with new technology and new business approaches.
SpaceX acknowledges some capsule systems need more work before Behnken and Hurley climb aboard for liftoff, as early as July. Vibration, acoustic and other measurements were taken throughout the recently completed flight, not only of the capsule but also the mannequin — named Ripley after the lead character in the “Alien” films — which was strapped into one of the four seats.
Hurley tweeted: “It’s been a joy to watch the teams in action and I can’t wait to climb on board the next one!”
A small blue and green plush toy shaped like Earth — which SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk termed a zero-gravity indicator — was left behind on the space station. Behnken and Hurley will bring it back on their flight.
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Underwater mudslides are the biggest threat to offshore drilling, and energy companies aren’t ready for them
March 11, 2019
Author: Ian MacDonald, Professor of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, Florida State University
Disclosure statement: Ian MacDonald receives funding from NOAA, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the ECOGIG-2 Consortium He was an expert witness in a lawsuit against the operators of the leaking Taylor Energy well, and has consulted for government agencies on the spill and produced past estimates of the oil discharge rate at the site. He serves as faculty adviser for Florida State University’s Surfrider Club.
Partners: Florida State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Like generals planning for the last war, oil company managers and government inspectors tend to believe that because they survived the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they are ready for all contingencies. Today they are expanding drilling into deeper and deeper waters, and the Trump administration is opening more offshore areas to production.
In fact, however, the worst-case scenario for an oil spill catastrophe is not losing control of a single well, as occurred in the BP disaster. Much more damage would be done if one or more of the thousand or so production platforms that now blanket the Gulf of Mexico were destroyed without warning by a deep-sea mudslide.
Instead of one damaged wellhead, a mudslide would leave a tangled mess of pipes buried under a giant mass of sediments. It would be impossible to stop the discharge with caps or plugs, and there would be little hope of completing dozens of relief wells to stop discharge from damaged wells. Oil might flow for decades.
This scenario has already occurred, and we are seeing the results at a well off Louisiana, owned by Taylor Energy, that has been leaking oil since 2004. Based on this disaster and my 30 years of experience studying deep-sea oil and gas seeps, I believe that regulators and energy companies should be doing much more to prevent such catastrophes at other sites.
The mudslide that caused the Taylor Energy leak was not an isolated event. Many major features of the Gulf of Mexico’s continental slope – where the sea bottom descends from the continent’s outer edge down to the deep ocean floor – were formed when that slope failed. Their bathymetric contours show unmistakable signs of massive mudslides in the past.
Despite generations of oil production, the sedimentary strata of the northern Gulf of Mexico still harbor billions of barrels of oil. The modern, loose material that lies atop these rock layers is also susceptible to failure, which generates a phenomenon known as turbidity currents. These are massive avalanches of sliding material partly suspended in water, which can travel for miles with astonishing speed.
One of the most famous turbidity currents occurred in 1929 following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake centered near Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. The resulting slide displaced over 40 cubic miles of material, traveling at 50 miles per hour for up to 300 miles.
Drilling on shaky ground
In 2004, storm surge and monster waves from Hurricane Ivan initiated the huge mudslide that destroyed the Taylor Energy platform, an aging facility called MC20A, located about 12 miles off the Mississippi River’s Birdfoot Delta. Company engineers claim it had only three flowing wells before it was toppled. Its wells were equipped with subsurface safety valves that were reportedly closed off when the platform was evacuated ahead of the storm.
These valves apparently failed, because miles-long oil slicks have been seen on the waters above ever since the 2004 mudslide. Despite years of effort and expenditure of more than US $230 million, oil is still flowing from beneath the legs of the downed platform at a magnitude I estimate to be at least 100 barrels per day. This event is the longest oil spill in U.S. history.
In deeper waters, modern platforms are specifically designed to resist hurricanes. However, earthquakes also occur in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The National Earthquake Information Center had recorded eight earthquakes in the region prior to 2009, with magnitudes ranging from 3.2 to 5.9. On May 6, 2018 a magnitude 4.6 event occurred at a depth of 6,500 feet.
Newer versions of subsurface safety valves on these platforms are intended to protect automatically against storms or ship collisions. Mudslides generated by earthquakes represent forces on an entirely different scale. Once a flow starts, it could travel for tens of miles, producing an unstoppable wave that would destroy whatever platforms and pipelines that lay in its path.
Modern deepwater oil and gas platforms dwarf Taylor Energy’s MC20A platform in every respect. They are located 100 miles or more from land in water 10 or 20 times deeper. Typically, platforms service a hub of pipelines and robotically controlled structures connecting scores of wells from other oilfields that can be 25 miles or more distant. They are designed for peak production rates of 100,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil per day.
Using platforms to monitor risk
How should planners prepare for this hazard? A 2007 Interior Department study analyzed the danger and proposed guidelines for assessing risks to platforms and pipelines, starting with studies to identify areas of steep or unstable bottom. The agency recently released a digital map of the northern Gulf of Mexico’s deeper waters that shows evidence of past mudslides with graphic realism. Slope failure and turbidity currents are truly part of the gulf’s nature.
Ironically, however, the map doesn’t cover areas closer to shore. Our most comprehensive survey of mud deposits offshore from the Mississippi Delta dates to the 1980s, but over the last 40 years development and dredging have accelerated sediment loss from the Mississippi Delta. This near-shore sediment load represents a looming risk, much like snowpack in avalanche country.
The Mississippi Delta region of the Gulf of Mexico is crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of oil pipelines and dozens of still-producing oil platforms. As the 2007 Interior Department study showed, these structures are at risk for hurricane-generated mudslides. Obtaining updated survey information using modern methods should be a top priority.
There are ways to assess risks in deeper areas as well, including zones such as the Atlantic coast where the Trump administration wants to expand offshore exploration and eventual oil production. This coast is also characterized by submarine canyons formed by turbidity currents.
Oil companies spend billions of dollars to install and operate offshore platforms, but typically resist requests to use their infrastructure for monitoring the marine environment. If they could be induced to cooperate, one option would be to install networks of ocean bottom seismometers to listen for earth movements that might signal risky instability. These systems could transmit data back to land over the platforms’ high-speed communication systems. Platforms could also be used to monitor the heat content of Gulf of Mexico waters, surveying for conditions that promote the rapid intensification of hurricanes.
In my view, U.S. regulators and energy companies have not paid enough attention to hidden vulnerabilities and long-term risks across our fossil fuel economy. But addressing this issue could produce real benefits. Conducting studies to identify unstable slopes will improve our understanding of the seabed. Monitoring for critical warning signs of storms will help coastal communities prepare. Better technology can make offshore infrastructure more durable, and informed regulation can make the offshore industry more vigilant. This would be the best-case scenario.
Jon Richfield, logged in via Facebook: This certainly is a hair-raising topic, and, speaking as a layman I never had thought of it or even been aware of the scope of offshore drilling.
But you speak of prevention without, as far as I can see, suggesting options for prevention.
I seem to see two classes of option: internal and external. Internal would be some sort of dead-man’s switch down each hole, that shuts an internal valve passively as soon as no power is applied. That shouldn’t be too expensive, and could be made legally mandatory.
More interesting is the fact that, as I understand it, such slides are serious tsunami threats in their own right. It seems to me that there should be scope for surveying all threatening slopes for their threat status, and tickling them cautiously to make them slide gently a bit at a time, but cumulatively defusing the gross threats.
Like playing footsie with avalanches, a bushel at a time.
Expensive? Not compared to the gross threat, which both nationally and internationally would be about as disastrous as it would be for the companies affected.
Dangerous? Compared to what? Waiting for the Big One?
And that is not even compared to waiting for the Big One in offshore California, where a real quake could set off a lot of slides!
Jamaica leads in Richard Branson-backed plan for a Caribbean climate revolution
March 15, 2019
Masaō Ashtine, Lecturer in Alternative Energy, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus
Tom Rogers, Senior lecturer, Coventry University
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Coventry University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK. AUF (Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie) provides funding as a member of The Conversation FR.
After hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean in 2017, devastating dozens of islands – including billionaire Richard Branson’s private isle, Necker Island – Branson called for a “Caribbean Marshall Plan.”
He wanted world powers and global financial institutions to unite to protect the Caribbean against the effects of climate change.
That hasn’t happened. So Branson and his government partners from 27 Caribbean countries hope that his celebrity, connections and billions will prod local politicians and the financial community to act.
In August 2018, at a star-studded event at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, Branson helped to launch the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator, a US$1 billion effort to kickstart a green energy revolution in the region.
Its aims include convincing global financial institutions to fund ambitious climate mitigation efforts in the Caribbean, upgrading critical infrastructure across this vulnerable region.
Well before Branson’s arrival, however, some Caribbean countries were already working to break their dependence on fossil fuels.
Jamaica’s modern energy grid
Even prior to the debilitating 2017 hurricane season, polling showed that a strong majority of people in the Caribbean see climate change as a very serious threat.
The region – where we study renewable energy and climate change – is home to 16 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.
That’s because the stronger and more frequent storms, extreme droughts and coastal flooding that result from rising global temperatures hit rural island nations hard.
Before Branson took up the cause, several Caribbean nations were upgrading their electric grids to improve energy independence and better prepare islands for the impacts of storms that knock out power.
Jamaica opened the largest wind farm in the English-speaking Caribbean in 2004. The Wigton Wind Farm now helps power over 55,000 surrounding homes, households that would formerly have used some 60,000 barrels of oil annually.
As part of its national goal to generate 50 percent of all its power using renewable sources, Jamaica now hopes to build offshore wind farms.
It has also enhanced the stability of its grid with a hybrid energy storage system that uses a flywheel and a battery to store solar and wind energy for use as needed, including after storms.
From 0 to 100
Dominica is another Caribbean pioneer in climate mitigation.
This tiny island already generates 28 percent of its electricity from wind, hydropower and other renewable sources. In contrast, 0.3 percent of electricity in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean’s main oil exporter, is renewable.
In an effort to diversify its energy sources away from diesel, Dominica’s government has secured $30 million from the international Climate Investment Fund and $90 million from the United Kingdom to invest in geothermal energy.
The country is on track to reach 100 percent renewable energy by the end of this year. If it succeeds, it will join Iceland in entirely forgoing dirty oil, coal and gas energy.
Dominica may soon have some more local competition.
Barbados, in the eastern Caribbean, hopes to use 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2030 using a mix of wind, solar and biofuels derived from food waste and grass, which could benefit the island’s ailing agricultural sector.
Caribbean academics take the lead
Such policies are what Branson and others call “climate-smart.” While preparing countries for extreme weather, they create jobs and boost key industries. The result is an economy custom-built for the future.
This is already happening, albeit slowly, in many countries worldwide.
In the U.S., wind and solar are already financially competitive with traditional coal power in many places, particularly for new power generators. So, over time, as older facilities age out across the globe, these technologies are being replaced with modern energy systems.
As in other places, the process of moving more Caribbean countries off fossil fuels requires mustering the political will and financial means needed to transform a nation’s entire grid.
For over a century, governments have created regulatory systems and policies designed around imported fossil fuels. Replacing the archaic tax incentives and regulations that discourage renewable energy development takes time, effort and money.
Doing so requires a detailed analysis of a country’s relationship with energy. How are homes, businesses, tourism, farms and transportation networks powered? Which energy alternative is best suited for each use? What resources are available?
In our observation, local academics played a strong role in getting policymakers in Jamaica, Barbados and Dominica to undertake these kinds of assessments.
University of the West Indies professor Michael Taylor founded the Climate Studies Group to help the region adapt to life with climate change.
Failure to prepare for future storms would mean “the destruction of ‘island life’ as we know it,” Taylor said.
It was an academic, too, who in 2014 first pushed Barbados to commit to shifting entirely over to clean energy.
Professor Olav Hohmeyer of Germany’s Flensburg University – who was then teaching at the University of the West Indies – told the recently formed Barbados Renewable Energy Association that the island had the natural resources necessary to become 100 percent renewable within 10 years.
The university and the energy association worked to convince Barbados’ electric utility, central bank, farmers and local policymakers that an island-wide energy transition was feasible – and strategic.
They also engaged the International Development Bank, which in 2016 published a detailed and generally positive assessment on renewable energy development in Barbados.
Barbados’ clean revolution
Politicians in Barbados were slower to come around, weighing the cost of green energy against other national development priorities.
Then came the 2017 hurricane season.
In May 2018, Mia Mottley of the leftist Labour Party was elected prime minister of Barbados with a bold sustainability pledge.
At the United Nations General Assembly later that year, Mottley declared that her country would be 100 percent renewable by 2030. And she insisted that the world must help Barbados and other island nations in their climate change fight.
Her Labour Party even envisages electrifying Barbados’ busy Bridgetown port, allowing the 500 cruise ships that dock each year to plug into battery-run power sources rather than operating on-board generators.
Three Caribbean countries are well on their way to becoming “climate smart.” With international support, the other 23 may get there, too.
Peter Carson (aka pjcarson2015): Mother Nature is way ahead when it comes to minimising the effect of very variable carbon dioxide levels on climate changes, coral bleaching and ocean acidification. She’s built in a big buffer.
The buffer for climate is the huge pool of water vapour in the atmosphere – 2% vs 0.04% carbon dioxide. This existence of this pool is studiously averted by AGW proponents. However, even using AGW’s own faulty infrared explanation of Greenhouse gases, changes to such a tiny amount of CO2 has negligible effect on temperatures; an improbable doubling from 0.04% to 0.08% leads to only a very maximum 0.6 C rise – quite a bit less than the scary AGW predictions of 2 C to 5 C, depending upon which faulty model is used.
[The effect is even tinier when the correct version of Greenhouse gases is used, ie ALL gases absorb heat one way or another.]
The buffer for corals and shells dissolution is the vast super-saturation of the oceans with calcium ion (Ca2+). A difficult to achieve doubling carbon dioxide levels lowers pH by 0.28 (8.12 to 7.84), and causing the concentration of calcium ion to increase, from the reaction of calcium carbonate with carbon dioxide, by 0.00156 to 0.00275, compared to the current super-saturated level in the oceans of 0.013 mol/kg, ie negligible.
The buffer for ocean acidification is bicarbonate. Doubling CO2 decreases pH from 8.12 to 7.84, less than the current ocean pH spread of 0.3.
This pH range is equivalent to a huge atmospheric CO2 range of 0•032% to 0•0697%, whereas it is usually accepted that it is virtually homogeneous. It is beyond belief for this open ocean pH range to be due to CO2.
Therefore, it must be due to something else. One needs to peer well below the waves but that something else is on display with the recent Caribbean hurricanes. The preceding tropical storms gathered strength on passing over ocean heated by lava exuded seismically – as measured – from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There are similar explanations for cyclones and typhoons.
duncan hackett, logged in via Google: This just reeks of something, I’m not sure what. It’s funny how we allow people to become billionaires, giving them subsidies, tax concessions, favourable labour laws, and a free pass to pollute the atmosphere, in the hope they might give something back voluntarily to help fix the mess they caused. Quite an amazing system. Branson owns a Caribbean island, along with so many of his rich mates, and now commands government money to help protect it. Has anyone suggested the Caribbean islands are major polluters? No. Does anyone ask Virgin Airlines to reduce its carbon emissions or at least pay for them? No. Amazing.