What happens when a Coronal Mass Ejection hits the Earth?

At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.

Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.

Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!

A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire.

Read the rest

Energy policy is leaving the middle class behind

If you've paid much attention to policy in general, you won't be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you about energy policy. Many of our well-meaning public programs use tax dollars for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy—the group of people who need those shared funds the least.

Today I spoke at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?", a conference about the short-term future of energy in the United States. At the conference, I met Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli has spent the last year researching the effects of high gasoline prices on middle class and working class families. (I'll be posting some more about that project later.) Along the way, she noticed some serious problems with the way we're currently trying to change energy systems in the U.S.—problems that actually endanger our ability to make real, long-term change.

The green policies put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations are not only not aimed at the middle class; they’re benefitting the wealthy at precisely the moment that high gas prices have slammed the lower middle class.

Consider the flashiest green support for consumers at the moment: tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and solar panels. Buy an electric car (more than $40,000) or a solar array (more than $20,000) and get a tax credit. But most American families making the median income (about $50,000) spend more per year on their old used cars and fuel ($7,900) than they do on taxes ($6,000).

Read the rest

3 things you need to know about biofuels

Why care about liquid fuel?

There’s a reason we use different forms of energy to do different jobs, and it’s not because we’re all just that fickle. Instead, we’ve made these decisions based on some combination of what has (historically, anyway) given us the best results, what is safest, what is most efficient, and what costs us the least money.

In a nutshell, that’s why liquid fuel is so valuable. So far, it’s the clear winner when we need energy for transportation—especially air transportation and heavy, long-distance shipping—because it allows you to stuff a lot of energy into relatively small amount of storage space, and easily refill on the go. There are other options, of course, like electricity. And that can work quite well, depending on what you’re trying to do. Eventually, we may find ourselves in a world where liquid fuel is no longer the best option. But we aren’t there yet. And for those forms of transport that take us into the air or move our belongings very long distances, we aren't likely to get there for a good long time.

That's why I care about liquid fuel, and why I'm interested in the future of biofuels. Yes, biofuels do have a future. But what that future will be depends on whether we can control for some very messy variables. Here, in three points, are the big things you need to know about biofuel.

1. Corn ethanol really is flawed. But maybe not as much as you think.

Biofuel is a nice, round word encompassing a lot of tricky, little, oddly shaped dots. Read the rest

What's it take to get off nuclear power?

To get off nuclear power, Germany plans to make its electricity system 80% renewable by 2050. That's not going to be easy. Just to reach the first milestone of that goal—35% renewable capacity by 2020—the country will have to build 2,800 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines. Although, one significant thing missing from this story: How many miles of transmission lines Germany would have normally built during that time. Even so, watch this space for financing debates, NIMBY wars, and what promises to be some really fascinating problem solving. (Via Michael Noble and thanks to Chris Baker!) Read the rest

Atlas rockets could carry astronauts to space again

It looks like Boeing will be the main competitor for Space X in the race to see what U.S. company will provide the commercial space flight services that NASA eventually plans to rely on.

Space X has its Dragon capsule, and Boeing is developing a new capsule system, called the CST-100. That capsule would ride into space under the power of an Atlas V rocket, an engineering descendant of the Atlas rockets that carried the first four American astronauts to space half a century ago. Read the rest

Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon

“It’s still flying?” This is a question I and many of my fellow space enthusiasts have been hearing a lot lately. As the space shuttle program comes to an end, public excitement around space travel seems to be rekindled. Attention sparked up again as people heard that Space Shuttle Atlantis was preparing to launch for the last time, marking the end of the space shuttle program. But for one young person, that interest had never faded, and witnessing the shuttle's final flight became an imperative, a very personal hope and dream. That person was me.

Airbus imagines transparent airplane

Airbus' airplane of 2050 is translucent, has "experience zones" instead of old-fashioned classes, and is filled with biomorphic seats that suck the energy from your body and adapt to the shape of your buttocks. [Video Link: Daily Telegraph. Thanks, Jess!] Read the rest

FaceTime 1910 A.D.

Spiegel.de has some more futuristic gems from the legendary Hildebrandt chocolates collection previously blogged by Cory. Pictured here are some videophones and a flying car. Technikträume um 1900 [Spiegel. Thanks, Mike!] Read the rest

Protecting Earth and space from people

Don't muck around in the affairs of planets that are less technologically advanced than yours. Despite how often it gets ignored, Star Trek's Prime Directive is a pretty nice attempt to take a universe brimming with life and figure out how to interact with it in an ethical way.

Unfortunately, the Prime Directive isn't terribly nuanced.

How do we relate to alien life that's as, or more, advanced than us? What if alien life is bacteria—do we still have to leave its home planet alone? How do we explore the galaxy without spreading—or picking up—any deadly diseases? The Prime Directive can't really help you here. That's why scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute are boldly going where no bureaucracies (real or fictional) have gone before—drawing up the safety protocols we Earthlings will use as we explore new worlds, and the social and ethical guidelines we'll turn to if we ever do find life on other planets. Read the rest