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If you're dumb....

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. –  A 16-year-old girl has been gored by a bison in Yellowstone National Park while posing for a picture near the animal.


The Park Service says she and others were between 3 and 6 feet from the bison when she turned her back to the bison to have her picture taken. The bison took a couple steps and gored her.

You have to be nuts to get within a half-dozen feet of an animal of that size and then turn your back to it.

But heh, vanity wins over common sense, right?  Oh look, an extra hole in you!

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2015-05-18 06:37 by Karl Denninger
in Musings , 125 references


With the rising interest in space (once again), particularly given the multiple private-sector attempts to launch people into space, especially to Mars, I thought I'd post some things to contemplate with regard to what we haven't addressed when it comes to space travel and our rather-unique environment on this little rock called "Earth."

Everyone knows that our planet is a bit "special"; it has an atmosphere and liquid water, and most people assume that this is (mostly) a function of being the right distance from the Sun so that it is neither too hot or cold.

That's part of it, but there's another factor that most people don't understand -- but it is in fact critical to life: Earth has a magnetosphere that shields the planet from solar wind -- a force that would otherwise have long ago stripped our atmosphere.

That is, our planet has a molten iron-bearing core, and this in turn leads it to be effectively a dynamo, generating a strong magnetic field.  This is why a compass works on Earth but in addition it is responsible for a strong magnetic shield that acts much like a Starship Enterprise deflector, keeping very high-energy emissions from the Sun away from the atmosphere and surface of the planet.

Mars lacks this protective shield.

The problems don't end there; a typical satellite in an elliptic orbit takes ~2,500 rem a year in radiation simply by passing through the Van Allen radiation belts formed by our magnetosphere.  For comparison the annual "safe dosage" for workers in the United States is considered to be 5 rem.

So would you die trying to go to Mars?  Not right away, and maybe not at all, but it's by no means nearly as safe as some people have made it out to be.  Just getting there, assuming nothing goes wrong (like a severe solar storm, which we cannot predict) you will take roughly 15 times the annual exposure limit for a person working in a nuclear power plant.

The "easy" answer people like to tout is "take some shielding"; the problem is lifting that mass out of the Earth's gravity well. For "routine" radiation that is always there you get some protection from the structure of the spacecraft, but there's a serious divergence operating here: You want the spacecraft light because every pound is one you must lift out of the Earth's gravity well, yet you want effective shielding and that has mass.  It appears that some of the proponents of these trips intend to make the voyage's water tanks one of the "safe refuges" in the event of a serious space weather event; that might work.

Also of concern is that space weather radiation isn't all of the sort that we think of in the common terms, where the big risk is cancer rate increases.  No, the big risk here that has been widely ignored up until now when it comes to cosmic radiation is cognitive impairment.

The bad news is that this risk doesn't end when you land; due to the lack of the magnetosphere that Earth enjoys (a fact that is the reason Mars failed to retain a permanent atmosphere of substance) there is little or no protection from what is referred to as space weather; primarily solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) along with ever-present cosmic radiation.  You'll get a decent reduction in cosmic radiation simply because you're only exposed from one side when on the surface (the planet blocks the other direction) but anything coming from the Sun is another matter entirely.

The Carrington Event took place in 1859, a time when we had telegraphs but no modern electronics nor the sort of electrical grid that today spans our nations.  It began as the ejection of plasma from the Sun, an event that happens fairly frequently.  When those charged particles interacted with our magnetosphere it induced enormous currents in the then-primitive telegraph wires, causing sparks to come from the equipment, shocking operators and setting a few fires.

The actual solar ejection, however, didn't kill people because of the Earth's magnetic shield.  Were you to be on Mars, for example, and hit with such an event your only refuge would be underground; if caught on the surface you'd be in serious trouble.

Less-virulent solar weather occurs all the time and it's all a risk.  The only good news is that the worst of "solar" space weather does give you some warning, enabling you to head for (underground, one hopes!) shelter.

The "Mars One" folks are claiming that they've modeled this and that you can stay "60 years" before you exceed the ECE lifetime limits for space travelers.  Well, maybe -- provided you don't get caught out when an "event" comes your way and they haven't understated the risks from cosmic radiation.  When it comes to space weather there are those events you can mitigate and then there are those you can't; the former require Mars-based space weather sensors as those threats come from the Sun, and the worst of them do give you some warning, typically more than enough to get underground (which is quite effective in providing shielding) before the worst of the effects get to you.  So exactly when and how do the "Mars One" folks intend to install (and maintain!) such warning systems, given that Earth-orbiting ones will be quite useless for this purpose?

The bad news is that the risks you get no warning on come from space itself, both in the form of diffuse (that is, constant) exposure and the occasional outrageously large exposure.  There are occasional large bursts of cosmic radiation that appear, as far as we can tell, to be "lensed" by some natural effect (that is, they're not a spherical emission) and are utterly enormous in their energy content.  These were discovered quite by accident when early nuclear-warning satellites "alerted" on transient readings that turned out to be "just passing by" events of this nature.  We don't know how they happen or why, and a sufficiently-strong instance would even bypass our magnetosphere and could kill everything on Earth -- but those are risks with a once-in-a-few-billion years profile and there's nothing we can do about them.  The more mundane (much lower-energy) instances, however, are blocked here -- but wouldn't be on Mars.

These events travel at the speed of light and as such there is no warning of an impending impact possible; the only mitigation is to be on a planet with a magnetosphere and thus a natural shield against such events, or be underground when by chance one happens your way.  In a multi-decade stay such as is being contemplated for these missions such risks are very real; not certainties by any means, but also not of the "struck by lightning" form that many are trying to claim.

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