Space Organizations Join the Hunt for Malaysian Jet

malaysia_missingplaneThe disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, now into its eighth day, remains a mystery to investigators and the families of those who traveling aboard her. Since March 7th when it was first declared missing, the search for wreckage or any trace of what might have happened has produced little in the way of results or explanations, prompting numerous governments and private organizations to commit more in the way of technology and resources.

According to a report from the BBC, these have included the use of 42 sophisticated ships and 39 high-tech aircraft combing the waters according to the BBC. For example, listening devices are being lowered into the water to pick up the “ping” of the black box, and sophisticated MH60 Seahawk helicopters from the United States are employing Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) cameras that arm the searchers with night vision.

malaysia_plane_searchThis past Monday,  a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, along with parent company DigitalGlobe, launched a campaign to enlist the help of citizens to scour satellite images to search for the plane. On the following day, China followed that up by activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The goal of this charter is to enlist space data from 15 member organizations to provide assistance in the case of a “natural or technological disaster.”

The charter describes such a disaster as:

a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances.

malaysia_satimageNow that the charter has been activated, space scientists around the planet will enlist all available satellites to gather images from the suspected area in which flight MH370 disappeared. Upon activation, data normally starts coming in within 24 hours. The hope is that one of those images will pick up something that can direct search and recovery efforts, either by showing a crash sight or showing some trace of wreckage.

The charter has been activated 400 times in its history, but Tuesday represents the first time it was called into service to look for a missing aircraft. The only other transportation-related event for which it’s been used was to assist in gathering data after a train full of dynamite exploded in North Korea on April 23, 2004. It was most recently activated on February 13 to help with monitoring the Mount Kelud volcano explosion on the Indonesian island of Java.

malaysia_plane_seaPrior to all that, the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was used exclusively to monitor flooding, forest fires, snowfalls, cyclones, oil spills and other damaging events around the world. It was also used to assist in recovery efforts from earthquakes, including the one that rocked Japan in March 2011 and caused a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.

The charter, which began after Vienna’s Unispace III conference in 1999 with three agencies, has grown to its current membership of 15 organizations, with the Russian Federal Space Agency being the most recent to join in 2013. Other member organizations include the European Space Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and China’s National Space Administration. The US member organizations include the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With this latest commitment of resources, technology and personnel, perhaps the world may finally know what took place aboard Malaysian flight MH370, and the families of those aboard her can finally get some peace of mind.

Sources: news.cnet.com, bbc.com, theguardian.com

 

Towards a Cleaner Future: The Molten Salt Reactor

nuclear-power

What if you heard that there was such a thing as a 500 Megawatt reactor that was clean, safe, cheap, and made to order? Well, considering that 500 MWs is the close to the annual output of a dirty coal power station, you might think it sounded too good to be true. But that’s the nature of technological innovations and revolutions, which the nuclear industry has been in dire need of in recent years.

While it is true that the widespread use of nuclear energy could see to humanity’s needs through to the indefinite future, the cost of assembling and maintaining so many facilities is highly prohibitive. What’s more, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has suffered a severe image problem, spurred on by lobbyists from other industries who insist that their products are safer and cheaper to maintain, and not prone to meltdowns!

Nuclear MOX plant : recycling nuclear waste : Submerged Spent Fuel Elements with Blue Glow

As a result of all this, the stage now seems set for a major breakthrough, and researchers at MIT and Transatomic’s own Russ Wilcox seems to be stepping up to provide it. Last year, Wilcox said in an interview with Forbes that it was “a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move”. Sounded like a bold statement at the time, but recently, Transatomic went a step further and claimed it was mobilizing its capital to make the leap happen.

Basically, the plan calls for the creation of a new breed of nuclear reactor, one which is miniaturized and still produces a significant amount of mega-wattage. Such efforts have been mounted in the past, mainly in response to the fact that scaling reactors upwards has never resulted in increased production. In each case, however, the resulting output was quite small, usually on the order of 200 MW.

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Enter into this the Transatomic’s Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), a design that is capable of producing half the power of a large-scale reactor, but in a much smaller package. In addition, MSRs possess a number of advantages, not the least of which are safety and cost. For starters, they rely on coolants like flouride or chloride salts instead of light or heavy water, which negates the need to pressurize the system and instantly reduces the dangers associated with super-heated, pressurized liquids.

What’s more, having the fuel-coolant mixture at a reasonable pressure also allows the mixture to expand, which ensures that if overheating does take place, the medium will simply expand to the point that the fuel atoms too far apart to continue a nuclear reaction. This is what is called a “passive safety system”, one that kicks in automatically and does not require a full-scale shutdown in the event that something goes wrong.

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Last, but not least, is the addition of the so-called freeze plug – an actively cooled barrier that melts in the event of a power failure, leading all nuclear material to automatically drain into a reinforced holding tank. These reactors are “walk away safe,” meaning that in the event of a power failure, accident, or general strike, the worst that could happen is a loss of service. In a post-Fukushima industry such disaster-proof measures simply must be the future of nuclear power.

Then, there is the costs factor. Transatomic claims their reactor will be capable of pumping out 500 megawatts for a total initial cost of about $1.7 billion, compared to 1000 megawatts for an estimated $7 billion. That’s about half the cost per megawatt, and the new reactor would also be small enough to be built in a central factory and then shipped to its destination, rather than requiring a multi-year construction project to build the plant and reactor on site.

The project has raised $1 million dollars of investment so far, and Transatomic appears to be putting all their eggs in this one basket. Their researchers also claim their design is production-ready and they are just waiting for orders to come in. And given the current energy crisis, it’s not likely to be long before government and industry comes knocking!

Source: Extremetech.com