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  Hello, Mercury!Mar 31, 2011 9:35 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Kind of awash in a sea of gray here, ah well.
 
Hey speaking of seas of gray, the MESSENGER spacecraft now orbiting Mercury has started sending back its first photos of the planet from orbit, and they are pretty neat. Here's the very first, in black and white and then in color:
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
Those are taken by the craft's WAC ("Wide Angle Camera"--the other camera it has is the NAC, "Narrow Angle Camera"), and the color it is capable of is pretty interesting: according to the caption here, the WAC can image in 11 colors, taking one at a time by selectively sampling from a specific wavelength of light with a special filter--for instance, they assign red, green, and blue to wavelengths of 1000 nm, 750 nm, and 430 nm, respectively. Then they combine them together for a full color image, although they "only" use eight of the eleven wavelengths normally.
 
The crater there is named Debussy, which according to Wikipedia is 85 km in diameter (NASA says it is 80). This AP article about the first photos says that the scientists have been surprised by how many secondary craters are visible on the surface--those are craters not from an initial hit by an asteroid, but by the fragments that initial hit produces--and how big they are: up to 15 miles across, which is "much bigger" than secondary craters on the Moon; one surmise is that this is due to objects moving faster when they hit Mercury, because they're deeper in the Sun's gravitational field--ie, they're falling faster toward the Sun than they are when they're out by us.
 
Debussy is near Mercury's south polar region, that darker area near the bottom of the photos. Here's a closer shot of Debussy:
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
(The above three are larger on their source pages; also, kudos to NASA for uploading them as lossless (presumably!) PNG files rather than jpgs. :)
 
Here's what they call a nice fresh crater, since the rim is still sharp, with little erosion, and it has retained a nice bowl shape, unlike larger craters whose rims tend to collapse under their own weight:
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
And here are various types of terrain in an area of Mercury's north polar region that hadn't been seen before (neither by Earth-based telescope, nor by Mariner 10 in the 70's):
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
One of MESSENGER's primary missions will be to look for and study any ices that may survive in the shadowy basins of those polar craters.
 

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Closer to home, my dad has scored me a second art show, this one at the Rosebud Restaurant & Bar in Seattle's ultra-hip Capital Hill district. Neat. We're trucking a bunch of framed and signed prints (of stuff from A*, and my other comics) over there tomorrow for them to hang up, and hopefully I'll be able to get a bit more info on how soon they'll be up (sounded like very soon) and for how long (at least a month). They're the same images we showed at the last show, in Ballard in November-December--minus a few we sold, of course :D--so if you saw them there, you're all caught up already. ;)
 
 
 
 
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  Ep. 13 due to start next ThursdayMar 30, 2011 9:40 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:I have two more pages to draw for this episode, which I will hopefully doing today--it will go up to page 67, so let's see...that will take us through next Wednesday. And then if I manage to finish scripting and storyboarding episode 13 in the meanwhile, 13 will start next Thursday--and back to my usual rate of about two pages per day, huzzah!
 
For now if you need more comics to read, you could check out this past Sunday's page of my weekly fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant--just click this handy link banner preview thingy to get there:
 
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  A Martian sunset for Spirit?Mar 29, 2011 10:14 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Potentially bad news for the Spirit rover on Mars, which I wrote about a little while back: according to this new AP article, the rover, which got stuck in a Martian sand trap a few years ago, and had to power down as the onset of the Martian winter cut the power its solar panels could generate to a minimal level, has not woken up with the Martian summer solstice this month as controllers had hoped, which may mean it has a more serious problem. In any case, it's very likely that the little rover's Martian journey will be over after 4.8 miles of roaming around, poor thing. Fortunately, it's twin, the Opportunity rover, is still going strong, with 16.6 miles of Martian rock and soil under its treads so far.
 
Well, to commemorate Spirit, here's a nice panoramic shot it took in its travels on Mars:
 
Image
image by NASA (source (larger))
 
That panorama generated a lot of hubbub, apparently, once some eagle-eyed viewer noticed what could generously be interpreted as a "little green man" in one of the rock formations:
 
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image by NASA (source (inset))
 
Tee-hee! There do seem to be some nifty rock formations on Mars, though, like this one called "Home Plate," whose intricate swept shape you can see see in this animation of two Spirit photos:
 
Image
images by NASA (source and larger)
 
Ooh, also check out the video it took of a Martian dust devil!
 
Spirit and Opportunity have had problems with Martian dust storms blocking their solar panels before--in fact, it is thought that it was brushes with a few friendly dust devils right around the time Spirit took that above-linked video, in March 2005, that cleaned off its panels enough to get it back to a decent power level. And in February and April 2009, winds helped clean dust off the panels and restore power. Judging from those prior incidents, I wonder if it's possible that Spirit's solar panels were buried pretty thoroughly over the last winter, to the point where they can't get any sunlight now in the summer. If that's the cause of the problem, maybe another few dust devils or benevolent wind storms could clear them off.
 
But it could also be another problem (rover-napped by little green men, for instance!). So, it may be a real Martian sunset for Spirit, like this one it once photographed
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
--but then again, maybe not! In any case, thanks for the fun, Spirit!
 
 
 
 
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  Fixin' art and maybe other stuff tooMar 28, 2011 9:06 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:I gotta thank Metruis, author of Between Places, yet again for some wonderful art feedback; among the less fundamental but more immediate results, it led me to fix the wacky sinking chair on page 56. Also, while I posted the storyboard sketch and one of the discarded drawings of Selenis for page 46 in an earlier news post, I put the whole screwy drawing process for that page together for the discussion I was having with Metruis; here it is:
 
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(Notice I drew Selenis like five or six times there. Guh. :"P)
 
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Also, been tinkering around some more with the cache control settings for the site, since Firefox 4 seems to be pickier about them than Firefox 3 was; I think it might have been working okay for A* (which is to say, when you visited, it gave you the latest version of the page, not the one your browser had cached when you visited previously), but it was (is?) off for my other comics. And I messed around with the 404 error handling for those comics, which should be more robust now. Whee.
 
 
 
 
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  Robonaut 2 to the rescueMar 26, 2011 1:29 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:I have to thank Metruis, author of the Between Places webcomic, for pointing out to me that a common link banner size is 200x40, and I didn't have any that size for A*. Well, I do now:
 
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Others banners and icons, in somewhat less convenient sizes, can be found on the icons page. Thanks for the tip, Metruis!
 
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And thanks to my brother for tipping me off to the existence of Robonaut, a NASA/GM project working on a robotic assistant that can be used by astronauts to do things like perform exterior repairs when nobody feels like getting up and putting on a space suit. Most pertinently, the project's second unit, Robotnaut 2 (the "R2 unit," in case there was any doubt that there are some Star Wars fans at NASA), shown here with "his" blinged-out rover mounting, "Centaur 2"
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
has just been taken up to the International Space Station, where astronauts unpacked him and, well, posed with him for some eye-catching publicity / space hair photos:
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
Watch out, Cady! He's practicing fisticuffs! Well seriously though, here is the video of them unpacking him up there on the edge of space:
 

view on YouTube
 
They haven't actually switched him on and had him doing stuff, so to see him in action, you'd have to catch his older test videos, for instance where the legless robot is swinging his arms around or--are you ready for this??--pushing buttons. Robonaut (2)! He's so hip, he even has his own YouTube channel, and I'm sure he Tweets like nothing else or whatever.
 
Apparently they're boxing him back up for a while until they actually figure out what to do with him, but at any rate he is meant to stay on the ISS and maybe eventually go on remote-controlled (?) spacewalks or something. Although of course what we really want to know is a) how good is his chess game and b) how long before he turns evil and starts crushing people's skulls? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS PEOPLE.
 
Seriously though he is kind of neat. He even has video-out and USB ports--daaaang--and what looks like it might be a camera in his mouth grill...the better to see people with when he's crushing and eating them, no doubt.
 
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This new fancy Firefox 4 browser I've been so excited about seems less tolerant of the ancient cache control hacks I was using to make sure your browser always loads up the latest and greatest version of the A* news and comic when you come to the site, so I've added in what seems to be the proper way to do such things (ie the 'Cache-Control: "must-revalidate"' HTTP header in an .htaccess file on the server), which will hopefully do the trick. Uh but I guess I won't really know for reasonably sure until I do a few more updates. Next week! And don't forget to check out the update to my fairy tale Princess and the Giant comic on Sunday! Okay!
 
 
 
 
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  Hopefully you can see this in IE 9Mar 24, 2011 10:30 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Hey, my Sunday fairy tale comic, "The Princess and the Giant," updated this past weekend. Have you seen the latest page yet? :D
 
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The newest major version of the Firefox browser, Firefox 4, came out today, and it seems pretty neat. Normally I wouldn't bother writing about a browser release, but Firefox 4 is tremendously faster than 3, which was already pretty darn fast, and although I'd heard and wasn't particularly excited about its new major feature, grouping browser tabs, I soon realized that I can now throw all my "for future A* news post" tabs that accumulate into their own group, so they're out of the way and aren't filling up my tab bar the rest of the time. Neat! Also it didn't break my web site, which is nice. :)
 
And I was gonna update to the brand new version of Internet Explorer as well, but then I found that it doesn't support Windows XP. Wha. Oh well, I guess IE is less relevant to me than ever now. :P I do like having the latest version for compatibility testing when I make layout changes to the web site, but I guess now I'll just have to rely more on browsershots.org for that as far as new versions of IE are concerned. Wait, they don't have IE 9 there (yet?). Huhhh. Well, if you're using IE 9, and you ever see anything on the site break, send me a forum PM or tweet or something and lemme know. :o
 
I *do* seem to be having a problem with the new Firefox where it won't show me newly updated versions of my webcomic sites, so I have to press F5 after updating to see the new comic--that's a little worrying. I never had that problem in previous versions of Firefox (or IE or Chrome).
 
Also, FF4 removes the RSS feed indicator that FF3 had in the address bar, which I liked (they've made it an optional menu bar button or something, although when I tried placing it, it vanished :o), but fortunately there's already an add-on that puts it back there.
 
EDIT: Hm, this news post came up for me just fine on the front page--didn't have to reload manually. So maybe it was some kind of transition problem where the new version of Firefox wasn't detecting pages cached under the previous as having changed? I guess I'll find out when I post another page tomorrow!
 
 
 
 
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  Probing AntimatterMar 23, 2011 10:37 PM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:One up side of working ahead and posting just one page a day to cover me for the upcoming transition to episode 13 is that I at least get the page posted a bit earlier in the day. =P
 
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I saw an article recently saying that the University of California, San Diego is working on building the world's largest antimatter trap; I've talked a few times about the ALPHA antimatter-trapping experiment at CERN, and this article I linked about it before doesn't say how many antiparticles it holds, exactly, but various particle or proton figures given there relative to the trap are in the 30 million to 1 billion range. The UCSD trap, on the other hand, "will be able to store more than a trillion antimatter particles at once"; one difference in its design is that it will be a "multicell" trap, with multiple magnetic "bottle" fields, each holding "ten of billions" of antiparticles. So if it comes off, it *sounds* like it could greatly accelerate (little joke there :p) antimatter research by making more of the stuff available for observation and testing.
 
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NASA's MESSENGER craft that I mentioned recently as approaching Mercury is now in orbit around our solar system's innermost planet--the first craft to accomplish that feat. The article says it will start sending pictures back in April, which should be neat. It also mentions that MESSENGER and Voyager 2--NASA's 1977 probe, now winging outward at the far edge of the solar system--"exchanged tweets," which is, uh, well...weird. :P
 
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Speaking of NASA probes going out, NASA's Stardust probe, which I have also mentioned before, having visited an asteroid and not just one but TWO comets, will conduct one final test: according to this NASA news article, it will fire its engines until its fuel is depleted. That will help NASA check how close their fuel use estimates have been to how much the craft--which has fired its rockets 2 million times, and covered over 5.5 billion space kilometers (3.5 billion miles)--has actually used, since apparently "no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft." Huh! This final burn will leave Stardust drifting somewhere between Earth and Mars; once it runs out of fuel, it won't be able to maneuver to keep its solar panels pointed at the sun, and will consequently run out of power within hours. So farewell, Stardust! You've been one of the most successful space probes in history, and I'll miss writing about your adventures around the solar system.
 
 
 
 
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  A brief briefingMar 23, 2011 1:30 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Still gotta draw Tomorrow's Page--Today! so I'm gonna make this a brief news blurb: I ran across the webcomic Cura Te Ipsum this past week, and it has some really nice black and white art, and even some silly sci-fi stuff like trans-dimensional portals or something. It might be worth checking out!
 
 
 
 
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  Lightening layers and prep for Ep. 13Mar 22, 2011 6:13 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:Since we came into this space station I've been using grays over skin to get some additional shading and--most importantly--highlights, which I hadn't really been able to do before when I was leaving skin mostly white. But back on page 44 I started realizing that the gray skin starts to look flat in close-ups, so for the next one, on page 46, I rolled in some areas of slightly lightening (layers of white set to 20% opacity) to make the cheeks stand up a bit and so forth. That worked pretty well!
 
Then I kind of forgot about it, but on Friday I was struggling with another close-up, and thinking boy, why isn't it popping like good ol' page 46 did, and I realized part of the problem was the lack of those lightened skin areas. So I added them and changed the weight of the shadows around a bit; if you saw the page in the first hour or so after I uploaded it, you saw the pre-lightened version on the left; on the right is the final version, with additional lightening layers:
 
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That seemed to help give the hand a sense of receding around her head, and got rid of the flat pancake face effect the single gray was creating; although, I think I still have some practice to do with these to get to the point where they're enhancing the effect of depth without reducing the sensation of contrast in the image. But you'll probably see me using this technique fairly regularly now.
 
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Remember how I said episode 12 was a shorty? Well, we're at hm maybe ten or a dozen pages left to go in it--see? short!--which means that soon I'll have to storyboard and script episode 13, which means that I need to build myself up a buffer of pages to give you guys while I'm doing all that writing and storyboard doodling; so the short of it is, starting tomorrow, I'll only be able to give you one page a day. :P Holding back pages always irritates the heck out of me, but I haven't found a better way to handle the extra work I have to do between episodes. Hopefully (fingers crossed) it will take me less than the five full days of buffer I'm building up with that schedule, and I'll be able to get back to some multi-page days near the end of episode 12--but I think 13's gonna be kind of a long one, so it's fairly likely I'll need all those days to drive myself crazy with drawing hundreds of storyboards. =p
 
 
 
 
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  Leapin' LasersMar 19, 2011 8:24 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Well we've reached the end of the week safely, without even having any nuclear reactors melt down, so how about that. If you're feeling happy to be alive, you could use some of that vibrant energy to visit the latest page of my Sunday fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant, by clicking this here banner/link thing:
 
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And finally, to show that life after the big meltdown to end all meltdowns might not be so bad, I leave you with this music video (coincidentally enough by the band I'd never heard of whose "Supermassive Black Hole" song in the soundtrack of the first Twilight movie got me a whole lot of confused Facebook young followers =p), which has pretty much everything sci-fi should have, like cowboys, laser guns, kung fu, and a unicorn (oh and an actress who could probably do a pretty mean Selenis, provided she learned how to shoot like she means it):
 
Well dang it doesn't allow embedding so you'll just have to go watch it on YouTube: Muse - Knights of Cydonia
 
 
 
 
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  Less comics, more news? BoooooooMar 18, 2011 5:44 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Looks like I've only managed to fit in one page today after staying up a bit too late writing that massive Chernobyl post yesterday. Time management skills, will I ever get you? Hm I wonder if this extra gray I've been doing lately is slowing things up a bit, too. I kinda like the look of it, though. Ooh wait I know, it's because I've been having to draw two detailed characters per page for this huge brawl. Darn these crowds!
 
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An interesting factoid I happened upon about the recent earthquake in Japan came from this Reuters photo caption, which mentions that the quake moved Japan's main island 2.4 meters (8 feet), and shifted the Earth 10 centimeters (four inches) on its axis. Dang! Ah and I see the Wikipedia page on the earthquake has that information as well...hm and it mentions that JAXA (Japan's space agency) evacuated their Tsukuba Space Center in response to the earthquake; Tsukuba is their main control center, and controls part of the International Space Station.
 
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I linked Wikipedia's Criticality accident page yesterday, and one interesting entry on it that I hadn't gone through before is The Lady Godiva device, a test reactor used at Los Alamos in the '50's; you can see that it had a rather nifty design:
 
Image
Image by USDOE (source)
 
Those dark hemispheres with a hole through their middle are uranium-235; when clamped together in the middle there, they would be just below critical mass; then, a rod of fissile material (maybe also uranium, I dunno) would be dropped through the middle, and in the split-second where it was falling through the uranium sphere, critical mass was reached, giving off a pulse of energy, and then the rod fell through, and critical mass was lost, so you avoided a chance of a larger radiation release.
 
That was the theory, at least. In practice, there were two criticality accidents with the device: the first in 1954, which did this to it:
 
Image
Image by USDOE (source)
 
and the second, damage from which forced the device's retirement, in 1957 (although it was followed up by Godiva II, which as far as Wikipedia knows is still present at the Nevada Test Site, America's primary nuclear test site (the site of 928 announced nuclear tests from 1951 to 1992 (none since then--one planned one was canceled after state Congresses objected), only 828 of which were above ground--so most of those old ground-level desert nuclear tests you see footage of now and then with army guys just standing around watching nuclear explosions as in '55's Operation Teapot
 
Image
image by the US Government (source)
 
(ooh, pretty!), or where whole ghost towns were constructed, then nuked like this ('53's oddly named Operation Upshot-Knothole)
 
Image
image by the US Government (source)
 
took place there--only 126 American nuclear tests have taken place anywhere other than the Nevada site).
 
Godiva's self-canceling design was inspired by a 1952 incident with its predecessor, Jemima, in which that device accidentally brought together too many of the uranium-235 disks used by it to achieve critical mass.
 
Interesting note for Wikipedia editors (I know you guys all read this ... :P): Wikipedia's article on the Godiva device conflates it with a 1944 test in which Otto Frisch--who named the Godiva device--caused a test device utilizing blocks of uranium to go critical when he leaned too close to it: his own body reflected additional neutrons back to the uranium stack, causing it to go critical; fortunately, Frisch saw the criticality indicator lights go solid red, and, thinking quickly, he moved away, and scattered some of the blocks; Frisch survived and lived to the ripe age of 75. Anyway, the Godiva article says it was Godiva that Frisch leaned against in '44, but it sounds like Godiva wasn't around until '52, and anyway didn't use manually stacked uranium blocks; the Otto Frisch article has a much better account of Frisch's '44 experiment (not mentioning the term "Godiva" at all): Frisch was stacking 3 cm bars of uranium hydride together, one by one, and measuring rising neutron activity as the mass approached criticality; fellow nuclear researcher Richard Feynman called this "tickling a sleeping dragon's tail," since one block too many (or, in Frisch's case, one body too many) could lead to a runaway nuclear reaction that would release enough neutrons to kill everyone in the vicinity...just like a suddenly awoken ticklish dragon would. ...
 
Man, they sure were nonchalant around radiation back in them days; of course, they had more immediately deadly things to worry about, like the millions of conventional bombs of WWII, which could kill you just fine right away, rather than months or years or decades later. Also, they didn't really know how nasty radiation could be to the human body. Frisch had given the Godiva device its name as a bit of a joke on this carefree attitude, since, in folklore, the medieval Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva is said to have ridden through the streets of Coventry, England, in the nude (to get her husband to stop his excessive taxes; the story goes that she'd been asking him on behalf of the people to repeal them, and he got testy and said he would if she rode through town naked--so she did; the question is, did he really want to a) repeal the taxes, or b) have his wife parade around in the buff? Weird guy :p), and, as Frisch put it, the device, like Lady Godiva, also was "naked and unshielded"; it didn't repeal taxes, though.
 
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Whoa okay, I have to backtrack and go on more about Operation Upshot-Knothole, whose eleven nuclear test shots in Nevada in '53 had quite a few knotty down-shots in them. For one thing, the shots of the first two tested uranium hydride bombs--in which deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen: it's a proton (hydrogen) plus a neutron) is used as a moderator to slow emitted neutrons, converting them to thermal neutrons, which are good for sustained nuclear reactions--fizzled, managing yields of only 0.2 kilotons each, which, in the first one's case, didn't even destroy the little tower on which the bomb was mounted:
 
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image by the US Government (source)
 
That kind of result sure wasn't gonna keep us safe from the reds!
 
The other, much worse failing in Upshot-Knothole was the Harry test, in which a 26-kiloton air-dropped bomb detonated at 2,400 feet above the test range. The explosion released much more fallout than anticipated, and winds carried the radioactive cloud 135 miles to St. George, Utah, "where residents reported 'an oddly metallic sort of taste in the air'" (there's that qualitative phrase I borrowed for A* again!); apparently, this sort of thing happened repeatedly to St. George. Jeez. Due to the accident, the press dubbed the bomb "Dirty Harry"--that's gotta be where the character "Dirty" Harry Callahan's nickname came from, right?
 
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Sheesh, I gotta cut down on these huge news posts. :P But at least I cut my news backlog down by a net of one browser tab. :pp And I learned stuff, darn it.
 
 
 
 
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  Chernobyl not CherenkovMar 17, 2011 7:16 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:I have to thank A* readers Drew and smartwombat for--after three days of me thrashing around in trying to decipher media reports of the situation at the tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan--taking pity on me and giving me links to alternative sources of information--sources based rather more on fact and science than hearsay and sensationalism. It's nice! Of these, the BraveNewClimate blog was recommended by both, and smartwombat tipped me off to the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub, where students in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering are keeping a blog of situation updates and analyses. And as usual I was rambling around Wikipedia, and found Wikipedia's Fukushima nuclear accidents page, which isn't quite as chronologically organized and condensed, but has a heck of a lot of information.
 
And anyway fortunately for me and the media, there doesn't seem to have been much to report from Fukushima today, aside from them starting to use helicopters to drop more sea water on the overheated reactors in their continuing effort to cool them down. Of course the horrible irony of the whole situation is that it's been prolonged by a lack of power at the power plant: the electrical generators needed to power the plant's automatic cooling system were put out of commission by the tsunami. If they could just get those powered up, cooling the reactors down to normal temperatures might be a relatively simple matter; I did see a rumor of an effort to bring an external power line in to do just that, but it wasn't a definite report.
 
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And thanks to whoever made an A* entry on TV Tropes' "Narm" webcomics page; "narm" seems to be their term indicating a serious situation in a drama that is (supposedly unintentionally) made humorous by something ridiculous, and of course that most-discussed aspect of A*, Solvan Mar's nose, rose to the occasion; episode 11, page 72 is the page used as an example. Huzzah for the nose and the person who immortalized it there! It got me a bunch of visitors today. :) And while I'm on the topic, I may as well mention that A* does have a tiny entry in TV Tropes' "notable webcomics" section, made by me and my low-skill Trope editing some time ago; if any TV Trope editing wizzes out there would like to take a crack at fleshing it out a bit, that would be fabulous. :)
 
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And I'm sending out yet MORE thanks today, namely to the author of the brand new webcomic And To Be Loved, who let me know that their eye was caught by one of the postcard-sized flyers I left on the tiny freebie table at the recent Emerald City Comic Con here in Seattle. Huzzah! I hadn't had any feedback on them, so it was nice to hear that they did succeed in catching at least one con-goer's eye. Also I kinda like the bravely mustard-colored background on that site, which somehow complements the finely drawn black and white of the comic.
 
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Oh yeah, I also have to thank smartwombat for pointing out that it was inaccurate for me to say the quake in Japan was 9.0 on "the Richter scale," since that was superseded eh decades ago by the "moment magnitude" scale, which uses a similar range of numbers, but is much more accurate for medium and large-sized quakes, and also distant quakes, where the seismographs used for Richter measurements simply can't get accurate readings. More on the two scales can be found here; Richter is still used for small local quakes, but those don't really make the news, so it looks like I'll have to bid a fond farewell to the term, which I still like better than its rather bland-sounding replacement. Alas, dear Richter!
 
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I shouldn't try to squeeze this much into a single news update, I suppose, but who knows what could happen with Fukushima tomorrow that might completely distract me, so in this relatively quiet day, I'm goin' for it!
 
Since I was looking up stuff about Chernobyl for my article yesterday, as usual I got to clicking around on ol' Wikipedia and came across some neat stuff I hadn't known before. Also I seem to be kind of obsessed with Chernobyl. >_> But really it *is* the best source for real examples of what radiation does in the environment, which is very important for my writing in A*, since there is a whole lot of radiation in space, and particularly near the center of the galaxy, where A* takes place. For instance, Vero seeing flashes of light and having a metallic taste in his mouth as he went through Lode's high radiation magnetic field at the end of episode 8 was based on accounts by people who suffered radiation exposure at Chernobyl, and in other criticality accidents, most of them fairly small scale incidents back in the young days of the nuclear industry, the 40's and 50's, when the threat of radiation wasn't well understood.
 
Also, Chernobyl is a source of many--often heartbreaking--highly dramatic human stories of survival in a high radiation environment. Wikipedia's page of Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster has concise accounts of individual heroism, scapegoating, and trauma surrounding the accident, and it was from a curious mention on that page that I wound up at an article called Chernobyl 20 Years On, written by Adam Higginbotham for The Observer in 2006. The article is written rather dramatically, and doesn't try to take a really close look at hard-to-establish figures such as the mentioned "hundreds of thousands" of liquidators--people sent into the radioactive zone around Chernobyl after the accident to remove leaves from trees, bury whole towns, and otherwise try to remove all trace of the mess, which the USSR did its best to cover up, thus making many definite facts hard to come by--but Higginbotham does get some fascinating interviews with people directly involved in the disaster. I'm going to mention just a couple things that struck me, so I really encourage you to read the whole article, because there's a lot of other very interesting stuff in it; his description of pre-accident Chernobyl, for instance, has an eerie ring: as one of the largest power stations in the world, it was a coveted scientific posting, the little idyllic town of Pripyat built nearby to house the staff in comfort--and Pripyat is now perhaps the most famous radioactive (ghost) town on Earth.
 
The two accounts I'm going to mention from the article struck me again because they are unique accounts of a high radiation environment that include qualitative observations found almost nowhere else in human history--the kind of hard detail that can make a story...well yeah, that can make a story. The first is in the account of Alexander Yuvchenko, who was in his office between Chernobyl reactors 3 and 4 when 4 exploded. You should read the rest of it, since it contains things like the three guys assigned to check on the manual rig for operating the reactor's control rods: Yuvchenko held the door to the blasted reactor hall for them, and they crept up to a ledge, and peeked out...directly into the melting reactor core, a sight never before seen, and a horrible one: all three received fatal radiation doses in seconds, and were dead from acute radiation poisoning a month later.
 
Anyway the detail that struck me was Yuvchenko's first observation of the ruined reactor as he rushed outside from his office following the explosion: as Higginbotham puts it rather dressily, "an unearthly, delicate, blue-white light shot upwards into the night - a shaft of ionising radiation from the exposed core. 'I remember thinking how beautiful it was,' Yuvchenko says."
 
The other observation that struck me also had to do with color, and sounds perhaps slightly less reliable: firefighters were sent up to the roof of the reactor buildings to put out fires, receiving lethal doses of radiation in the process; some were even spraying water directly down into the ruined core. Those firefighters died within two weeks, and surviving Chernobyl fireman Anatoli Zakharov recounts to Higginbotham something he heard about one of them, Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik: that Pravik had taken so much radiation that it turned his eyes from brown to blue. That does sound a bit urban-legendy, but dang if it isn't interesting. Their bodies were so radioactive that they were sealed in lead coffins.
 
I did notice, though, what I think (hopefully one of my more scientifically trained readers can check this for me :) is at least one error in the article: Higginbotham calls the blue-white light Yuvchenko saw above the reactor core "Cherenkov's Light," but according to what I can understand from Wikipedia, it almost certainly was *not* Cherenkov radiation, but rather an entirely different phenomenon.
 
Cherenkov radiation is often seen as a bluish glow in water-filled nuclear reactor cores:
 
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image by USDOE (source)
 
It occurs when "a charged particle (such as an electron) passes through a dielectric medium at a speed greater than the phase velocity of light in that medium." That sounds nutty, since nothing's supposed to move faster than light, but in water, for instance, light moves at just 75% of its speed in a vacuum, so it is possible for a particle in that pool to get excited by the nuclear reaction to a speed faster than light (ie faster than 75% of light's speed in a vacuum). The particle passes through the water, polarizing nearby atoms; after it has passed, they emit photons to restore their equilibrium, and these photons, moving slower than the charged particle, trail behind it, building up in a sort of "shock front": it is these photons that are seen as the blue glow--blue because "higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) are more intense in Cherenkov radiation," and blue is higher frequency than red and green.
 
Now, the glow Yuvchenko saw was in air, not in water--and in air, light travels at about 99.97% of its speed in a vacuum, which means that in order to produce Cherenkov radiation there, the ruined #4 reactor would, according to this article, have had to have been emitting charged particles traveling faster than 99.97c, which would have required them to have more energy than what you can really get from nuclear decay--so basically, Cherenkov radiation would not be present in visible amounts in air, even above the ruined Chernobyl reactor.
 
What Yuvchenko was probably seeing was a phenomenon known by the rather less poetic name (I'm getting Richter flashbacks here...) of ionized air glow: excited nitrogen molecules in the air get themselves back to equilibrium by emitting a photon; nitrogen's emission spectrum tends toward the blue range when the nitrogen is ionized, so the resulting light is bluish, as seen here in an ion beam emitted by a 60-inch Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory cyclotron around 1939:
 
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image by the US Government (source)
 
I wonder how many fictional death ray beams that photo inspired. Other excited elements in the mix can alter the color: hydrogen undergoing the same process emits violet light; that might be what's causing the more purpley color in this photo, where air has been excited by the nearby Tesla coil:
 
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image by Ian Tresman (source)
 
So it sounds like that was the kind of thing creating the shaft of light Yuvchenko saw shooting up out of Chernobyl #4's core.
 
Ah, one other thing I want to relate from the Higginbotham article is just an interesting part of the deadly drama that I hadn't heard much about before:
 
By the beginning of May, two weeks after the explosion, nearly 4.5 tons of sand had been dumped by helicopter into the reactor in an attempt to smother fires, cool the core, and absorb radiation, but then it in fact turned out that core temperatures were rising rather than dropping; it was thought that the sand was actually making things worse, and now the uranium in the core could reach its 2900 degrees C melting temperature, which might result in a molten ball of uranium burning down through the earth to the water table below Chernobyl, and the steam explosion from that meeting could have blown the entire plant to bits, spreading radioactive material from all four of the plant's reactors over the entire Soviet Union.
 
To prevent that doomsday scenario, a massive plan was hatched to dig tunnels below reactor 4's foundation, freeze the surrounding earth with liquid nitrogen, and build a heat exchanger below the core to prevent meltdown. Higginbotham, getting details of the plan from Veniamin Prianichnikov, nuclear physicist and director of the plant's training programs, relates that miners were made to dig by hand in the highly radioactive area below the reactor due to fear of causing further disturbance to the reactor's foundations, and that "all the liquid nitrogen in the western Soviet Union was sent to Chernobyl" (that's another dramatic statement that probably can't be fact-checked) and when it didn't arrive quickly enough, the director in charge of the operation was told by the government minister to get it, or he (the director) would be shot.
 
The core, however, cooled by more than several thousand degrees in a few weeks, and so the freezing plan was no longer needed--small consolation to the miners who had been exposed to sometimes fatal doses of radiation while digging the now-useless tunnels beneath the reactor.
 
 
 
 
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  Fukushima and "The Chernobyl Option"Mar 16, 2011 5:56 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Went to a friend's poetry reading today, so I've only managed the one page. :P
 
Well if you're like me you're still obsessed with the situation at the tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, so I'm going to keep rattling on about it and related issues! Things are not looking particularly good there: there was another fire today, and radiation levels got so bad that emergency workers had to be sent away, although apparently they're getting ready to go back--and hopefully it isn't a case of them sacrificing themselves to terminal radiation poisoning, as it was with hundreds of workers and emergency personnel in the Chernobyl disaster.
 
The Wikipedia page on the Fukushima plant is a good place for a concise summary of known facts. Reactors 1-3 of the plant's six reactors were online at the time of the earthquake, and there's been an explosion of superheated hydrogen gas at each of them; today's fire was at reactor 4. Reactors 1 and 2 have probably suffered damage to their fuel rods. Since the cooling systems were put out of commission by the tsunami, they've been trying to cool the overheated reactors with sea water; it's hard to tell how it's going, but it doesn't sound like it's going well (if you listen to news reports :p). And temperatures have even been rising in reactors 5 and 6.
 
Construction of the Fukushima plant began in 1967, so, like many nuclear plants around the world, the reactors are not of the most modern type available; reactors 1-5 have the earliest, Mark I type of containment system, and reactor 6 has a slightly more up-to-date Mark II. Still, together they can generate about 4.7 gigawatts, which puts Fukushima in the top 25 of world nuclear plants (and could power nearly five A* ship lasers! :P) in terms of power output. The reactors are "boiling water reactors"--generating power by converting water into steam, whose force is captured by turbines and converted into electricity--which are known to have a number of disadvantages; at Fukushima, these have been a) a weakness in the Mark I containment that can allow the escape of some radioactive gas in case of a coolant failure and resulting gas explosion, and b) the relatively slow cooling of water (it can take years to cool fuel rods down completely), plus the danger of boiled-off coolant water separating into hydrogen and oxygen, which are explosive in such a superheated environment.
 
So that's bad. None of the experts I've seen in articles or on TV appear to know just how likely a total failure and meltdown at any of the reactors is at this point, although I've seen at least some broaching the topic of "the Chernobyl option," ie entombing the damaged reactors in thousands of tons of sand, metal, and concrete...basically forever.
 
As it happens, we're just one month away from the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, where reactor number 4 at that nuclear plant in what is now the Ukraine overheated during a risky systems test, and several more mistakes and miscalculations probably helped lead to a power spike, overheating, and an explosion in the reactor that damaged the control rods, enabling a huge thermal increase estimated at 30 gigawatts (10 times the plant's normal output) that quickly caused a massive steam explosion that lifted the reactor's 2000 ton covering plate, followed just a few seconds later by a much more powerful nuclear explosion of the reactor core itself; those last two explosions blew the roof off the reactor building and sent radioactive fallout over a vast area. That degree of disaster is not expected in the case of Fukushima, since Fukushima's reactors do have containment vessels--albeit old ones--while at Chernobyl there was no containment vessel at all. Still, it doesn't appear that the possibility of a massive explosion that wipes out the containment at one of the Fukushima reactors can be ruled out completely if the reactors continue heating up, and in that case you would have a large-scale release of radiation into the environment, as there was at Chernobyl (also, check out the table of radiation levels in that last Chernobyl Wikipedia link: up to 300 Sv per hour in the vicinity of the reactor, which would transmit a fatal dose within seconds; the area around unit 4 was at 10-15 Sv/hour; by contrast, the worst leak of radiation at Fukushima so far, as I mentioned in yesterday's news article--and apparently it's thanks to the failure of an upgrade to the Mark I containment, that was supposed to prevent just this thing from occurring, as the flaw in that containment type has been known for decades--was about 40 cSv (0.4 Sv) per hour: about 30 times less intense than post-explosion Chernobyl, and of a much shorter duration).
 
So when reactors start heading toward meltdown, you have to start thinking very seriously about encasing the damaged reactors, as was done at Chernobyl--although there it was only done after massive explosions that destroyed the reactor and reactor building completely, leaving a large pile of radioactive wreckage. I've posted some photos of the radioactive slag present at Chernobyl before; this time, I've got a sequence of the building of the wrecked Chernobyl #4 reactor's "sarcophagus" from the same US government source:
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
^ That's the completed Chernobyl sarcophagus back in the day, and here it is in 1995:
 
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image from DOE (source)
 
It was constructed in emergency conditions, and relies on parts of the wrecked reactor building for support--so it is thought to be somewhat unstable. It is due to be covered over in 2013 by the New Safe Containment, a massive arched structure that will be the largest mobile structure in the world, which will encase the existing containment unit, at which point cranes and other equipment mounted on the inside of the NSC will deconstruct the unstable parts of the sarcophagus, to prevent it, hopefully, from collapsing and causing a fresh release of radioactive material from the wrecked plant. The article says the NSC is meant to contain Chernobyl for the next 100 years, at which point...I guess you make a fresh containment system and roll that into place.
 
Could this type of massive containment structure be the future of Fukushima?
 
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Update: Thanks for forum poster Drew for linking me to this entry on the bravenewclimate.com blog which has a much more fact-based summary of the Fukushima situation than I was able to extract from news reports. And the facts seem to paint a much more positive and less catastrophic picture of the situation there, ie that it is stabilizing.
 
 
 
 
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  Japan earthquake falloutMar 15, 2011 5:36 AM PDT | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:I suppose pretty much everyone is following the situation with the overheating nuclear power plant in Japan, damaged in Friday's earthquake. Since I mentioned it early Saturday, they've had two more explosions, and now a fire, which has apparently led to higher radiation levels and even radioactivity "being released directly into the atmosphere." After the fire, radioactivity in the area was measured "up to 100 times the normal levels," which might be about .1 cSv per day: not a situation you want to have for very long. You'd have to get about 2000 times worse than that before it started making people seriously physically ill in the short term, but (still according to that Wikipedia article I linked on Friday) just 19 days of that, for instance, might increase your chance of getting cancer over your lifetime by 2%.
 
These are a couple days old now but still good, I think: this article has some solid information about the situation in a reactor of the type in question, mentioning for instance that this reactor's are old (they were near retirement), which means they take longer to cool down, prolonging high temperatures and thus meltdown risk; and this article mentioned that the earthquake (which has since been upgraded from 8.9 to a full 9.0 on the Richter scale, meaning it was about 1.4 times as powerful as initial measurements had indicated) sped up the Earth's rotation by 1.6 microseconds (millionths of a second)--that tends to happen with big earthquakes: the 2004 Sumatra quake, for instance, advanced the planet's rotation a comparatively whopping 8.6 microseconds.
 
UPDATE: Ah, that first article has been updated with more specific information: the radiation spiked at "a radioactive dose in one hour at the site 400 times the amount a person normally receives in a year" for six hours. If they're basing that on 0.36 cSv per year, then that would have been 864 cSv (144/hour), which would have been a fatal amount (500 cSv is considered the point at which a 50% fatality rate is incurred)...but then they quote a guy as saying "a person would have to be exposed to that dose for 10 hours for it to be fatal," so maybe they were using something more like the low end estimate for yearly gamma ray exposure, 0.1 cSv, which would come out to 240 cSv (40/hour). Even that's quite a bit, and hopefully nobody took that much (presumably you would have had to have been at the plant itself to get that exposure), or they'll be very, very sick right now.
 
UPDATE again: The article above was an Associated Press article; now I see there's a Reuters article that says the high point of the radiation leak was "400 millisieverts per hour"; a millisievert is 0.001 Sv, or .1 cSv, so 400 of those would come to the 40 cSv/hour exposure I'd guessed above, which means they were using 0.1 cSv as the normal annual exposure figure. Radiation levels ten times normal were measured in Tokyo (which is a little under 250 km, or about 150 miles, from Fukushima--where the plant is said to be located--if my eyeball of Google maps is correct). Both articles have quoted people in Japan as mentioning that what really makes the radiation threat worrying is that you can't see it. On the positive side, the AP article says that a Chernobyl-like scenario where gas from the reactor core explodes directly into the environment is very unlikely, since the reactors at this plant are inside radiation containment structures that did not exist at Chernobyl. Back on the freaking-us-out side, the Reuters article quotes someone as saying the water in the reactor would take 7-10 days (starting from early Saturday, presumably) to boil away, exposing the fuel rods and making a leak possible.
 
 
 
 
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  Quakes and nuclear power team up for dangerMar 12, 2011 7:18 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Boy, I think I'm getting slower and slower at drawing here in my dotage. Well, hopefully next week I can get a good chunk of this promising little encounter drawn up for you.
 
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Once again I've neglected to nudge my lovely A* readers into checking out the latest page of my Sunday fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant. I don't have a fancy link banner for you to click this week (you'll see why when you see the comic, if you've been paying attention to what's usually in the banners... :o), but clicking that link right there in the previous sentence will do the trick. A new page of that will go up Sunday...if I can survive the cursed annual "Fall Back" part of that obsolete, wasteful ritual known as Daylight Savings that shorts this poor Sunday by an hour. ;P
 
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I have to thank the proprietor of Jeff's Online Comics for adding A* to his link list--thanks, Jeff! He's got an interesting thing going on there that I haven't seen done for link lists before, where two layers of framed menus at the top let you browse his categorized comic listings, then load the comic you select in the window below the menus, so the menus are still available for checking the other comics. I'm not the world's hugest fan of frames, but that seems like a pretty good way to put them to work.
 
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Lots of awful stuff happened in the past day in Japan, including a huge 8.9 offshore quake, followed by a 7-meter tsunami--the tsunami causing most of the ensuing death and destruction there, since Japan's one of the most earthquake-prepared countries in terms of having buildings able to withstand them. EXCEPT, as it turns out, for one very vital type of aging building: nuclear power plants. Japan has a lot of them (Japan has 53 nuclear reactors, which makes it the third-largest nuclear power-using nation in the world: 34.5% of Japan's electricity comes from nuclear power (compare that with the largest nuclear power user, the United States, whose nuclear power still only accounts for about 20% of electricity use)), and apparently they aren't all great at withstanding earthquakes, because five reactors at two plants declared states of emergency after the quake after their ability to cool their nuclear cores was impaired due to earthquake damage. At one reactor, radiation levels inside increased 1,000-fold, and 8-fold outside--although that's still well within what's considered safe levels.
 
Still, residents for miles around the plants were evacuated, which turned out to be a very good idea, because a building housing a nuclear reactor at one of those Japanese plants just exploded--the one that was on an emergency backup cooling system (hm I see that article says Japan has 55 reactors producing 24 percent of the nation's electricity--hopefully the Associated Press and Wikipedia will sort this numerical discrepancy out :P). Apparently the explosion hasn't led to an increased release of radiation into the environment, which is a very good thing--although the article also mentions that at one point before the explosion, radiation outside had been so high that you'd absorb a year's worth of normal radiation (from the Sun mostly) in just an hour, which is not so good.
 
I think I got these stats from this Wikipedia article, but anyway according to some of my old A* research notes, a year's worth of radiation for your average person in the States is supposed to be 0.36 cSv ("centisieverts"). 200 cSv is the point at which nausea, hair loss, and chance of death are supposed to start kicking in, and at the 500 cSv range, human fatality rate is about 50%. Fortunately the radiation levels mentioned in the article are well below that, but still, 365 times the normal Earthly radiation level is not something you want to have going on on a regular basis, so hopefully they get that patched up--and hopefully this is a wakeup call to any other nuclear facilities in the world that might have similar critical structural failures in a large earthquake...but I'm sure humanity hasn't seen the last of this type of problem by a long shot.
 
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Oh yeah, before I scurry off for the weekend, I have some art related to today's sole page, so it won't be so lonely by itself. First, here's the original storyboard sketch for it:
 
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If you compare that with the finished page, you'll notice that I stuck very closely to the position of the door and the lunging knifey fellow, which came out pretty well by my standards in the storyboard sketch, but I felt that the demure Selenis way down at the bottom on the right side wasn't cutting it, so I decided to change what I was doing with her. And naturally that meant I had to waste some time trying to get a working pose; I drew a rather nice one right off the bat, but then decided it wasn't right for the page. Still it came out okay so I might as well post it for you; I've added placed it at double normal size in the episode 12 gallery; you can also get to it by clicking this small preview version:
 
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And of course I have to mention that the galleries are always available from the "episodes" page accessible from the site's top menu, since that isn't really obvious. Okay bye! :D
 
 
 
 
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  SplashdownMar 11, 2011 3:34 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:Gosh, I guess it took me a long time to draw this one. Hmph. I got to be my own forearm model! *Possibly* exaggerating the size of the muscles and veins just a *little*. *cough*
 
Well since I've only got one page to show for my work today, I'd better roll in some science. Ah! Okay, remember how last week I was talking about the Glory satellite and its rocket falling back to Earth? Well, conveniently enough, just about a week ago, NASA posted a video showing footage of a Shuttle rocket booster falling back to Earth, from Discovery's February 24th launch:
 

 
You can go along from multiple cameras, from launch to splashdown--it's quite a ride: the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters help take it up to about 46 km in about two minutes (you can see them blow off here 126 seconds into launch), and are then jettisoned, still firing, and take about three and a half minutes to fall that 46 km back down into the ocean. I suppose you might not want to watch this if you're afraid of heights--or if you get dizzy easily, because they're spinning around until they deploy their parachute: looks to me like that happens with the first one after about 336 seconds or so (110 seconds of falling), since that's when it suddenly stabilizes and falls straight down for the remaining minute or so (394 seconds after launch). You can see part of the parachute in the water with the rocket at 420 seconds.
 
There's puff of smoke at 380 seconds, and a splash at 386 seconds, right before the booster itself lands. This is something being ejected from the booster--not sure what.
 
The middle, "Intertank" camera has sound--lots of whooshing the crackling! At about 15:16, it gets a great view of one of the boosters flying off after ejection. At about 16:11 (180 seconds after launch) it goes into a great spinning view of Earth, eerily quiet except for some slight rhythmic hissing of gas. You can see what I think is the other booster falling, too: at around 17:00 on the video (230 seconds after launch), at 17:46 (275 seconds after launch), and again at 18:43, 333 seconds after launch. Hm actually you see something with a distinctly different trail--straight, not curled--at 18:01 (290), so...heck, I wonder what one of those is; maybe some connecting piece that blew off separately. The intertank camera also gets a great view of the Sun over the ocean at 19:00 (350 seconds after launch), right before it blacks out, and--oh! You can see its chutes deploying at 364 seconds (19:15 into the video), and they seem to unfurl completely about twenty seconds later, just a bit before splashdown.
 
The videos from the right booster start at 20:33, with another great separation shot at 22:58, and a nice sweep across Earth's horizon starting at about 23:10 (just 12 seconds after separation, so that's still probably above 40 km up), including what must be a trailing view of the Shuttle still jetting upward at 23:11, a flashing bright star. And then that long long fall again, this time with smoke from the sputtering booster jet puffing across the view. The right tank lands a bit later than the left did, 402 seconds after launch (25:17 in the video), and again right before landing you can see smoke from something ejecting from the bottom (25:00), falling as a ring-shaped object (~25:05), and then splashing down (25:09) right before the booster itself; I wonder if that's the thruster skirt, ejected because it would probably break off anyway and possibly damage the booster if it was still attached on splashdown?
 
The next camera view has separation at about 28:06 (no launch timer on this one), before which you can see some really neat flickering of the thrusters playing over the bottom of the Shuttle's wing; and this separation has a great angle showing the Shuttle soaring up above the separated boosters, engines blazing at full throttle, with the main fuel tank still attached. Man that's cool! And there's lens flare from the engine glare--the director of that last Star Trek movie would be proud (although the glare is yellow rather than blue). Sound kicks in from the last camera a little while later.
 
The right booster's "Intertank" camera starts at 28:38, cutting right to the view of the booster's just-deployed parachutes. It's got a nice view of the chutes falling into the water, and you can hear all these echoey clanks from the hollow booster. These boosters are rescued and re-used, but I guess with the shuttle program shutting down soon (and Discovery making its final landing yesterday, after a 26-year flying career that saw it clock 365 days in space total, the most of any ship (that's from Wikipedia, and they specify "spaceship" because obviously they aren't counting space stations and so forth)).
 
Anyway, as you can tell I had fun watching the video again. :) And speaking of space stations, check out the first comment someone left on the video: "please can u tell me how to contact the ISS can anyone help" (no final punctuation). :o
 
 
 
 
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  Linkin' and Blinkin'Mar 10, 2011 1:48 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:I have to thank Richard Bush for adding A* to his site's Comics Page. Thanks, Richard! :) He's got a bunch of other comics there, too, so if you wanna see what other comics an A* reader reads, check 'em out.
 
And while I'm speaking of other people and their comics, I came across a webcomic called Newton's Law today, with mighty fine grayscale artwork in a sort of watercolor style. It looks nice! Even if it is a bit tough to go through thanks to Webcomics Nation's wack navigation scheme. :P
 
 
 
 
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  Emerald City Comic Con pics and typings!Mar 09, 2011 3:19 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:So I visited Emerald City Comic Con this past Saturday for the first time ever. There are a whole lot of comic people and comics (actually there were way more comic shops there than I'd thought there would be, that was cool) and people in comic-related costumes. My dad was in the little posse I went down with, and he had a whole lot of fun taking photos of all the people in costumes; here are a few photos he passed along:
 
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Cutest couple ever! Man that long-haired Chewie could almost load her on his crossbow (whoa I typoed that as "crowboss" :p). There was also a diminutive powder-blue Batboy riding on a Bat-dad's shoulders--the masked avenger looked to be in need of a nap back at the ol' cave.
 
And then a pretty fierce Catwoman:
 
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Powerful shoulders, dark eyes, good glare: she'd probably make a pretty decent Selenis, you know. And she'd be much more comfortable in any of Selenis' costumes than in that trashy "Derelicte"-style modern Catwoman monstrosity, poor thing.
 
But there was more than just oodles of people-watching! Or...well there was specific-people-watching! For instance I saw Sergio Aragones (my brother used to collect his "Groo the Wanderer" comic), Geof Darrow (I think we had a nifty graphic novel or two by him back in the day), Phil and Kaja Foglio of Girl Genius (and many other fine comics), Danielle Corsetto of Girls With Slingshots, Jeph Jacques of that famous webcomic everyone knows about already, the Halfpixel guys who were stuck facing the second block of Jeph's line all day, W.P. Morse of Rhapsodies, who I went to say "hi" to since he came to my art show opening back in November, yay!, the affable Larry Lewis of Blender who was at the same booth as Morse, and charming Disney artist Brittney Lee, from whom I got a sweet Wild Things postcard.
 
I also got to have a lengthy brain-picking chat with the rather famous and quite personable man with an extra capital letter, Doug TenNapel, currently of Ratfist. I got to ask him all about the cheap Japanese brushes with which he inks so thickly, the tantalizing possibility of getting sued by Disney if he snuck a Mickey Mouse costume into Ratfist, and many other important topics, including which of his books I should get, since EggEmbry told me on my forum a while back that my style has similarities to TenNapel's work, and I should get one of his books. TenNapel promptly pointed out which ones he felt had the best art, writing, story, and so forth, which worked well because the "best art" one was the Western-themed one I'd been fingering most avidly anyway; it is called Iron West, and I promptly purchased it in cash from the proud (and did I mention personable?) papa (of the comic-producing persuasion) who penned it.
 
So, good show! The one slight complaint I am going to go ahead and make is that their freebie table scene--by which I mean the tables on which people can plunk down fliers, business cards, brochures, free mini-comics, and other things they might want visitors to snag for free, a fairly standard feature at cons--was nearly non-existent, consisting of just one table hiding off in a corner; the much smaller Jet City Comic Show the same people behind Emerald City ran this past summer had at least twice the freebie table space, and in a prime position right inside the entrances to the main room. So Emerald City could use a boost in that respect! Otherwise it was pretty neat.
 
 
 
 
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  Ah. Yeahhh...Mar 08, 2011 4:16 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:Jeez I gotta watch how many of these tricky perspective shots I make myself do. Back when I was a little more loosey-goosey about the artwork, they were pretty fun, but now that I'm trying to be a bit more accurate, they're darn tough to pull off as precisely as I'd like! Well, I think I got reasonably close on this one on eh I think that was my fourth try. :P
 
I still gotta recap my first-ever visit to the Emerald City Comic Con this past weekend, but that's gonna take a while and it's already late, so I'll save that for tomorrow and show you this costume study I did for Selenis over the weekend; it started as a sort of art challenge by WendyW of Gilbert and the Grim Rabbit, and I was just gonna do a "quick sketch," which I did, only "quick" turned out to mean "about eight hours-ish." :P Anyway I think this was handy...for the future! And in a way I guess this is the most outlandish outfit you've seen Selenis in--outlandish for her, at least, since her norm is everyone else's outlandish, rather than business casual.
 
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Does that say "Get me those TPS reports," or what? You can always come visit it here among the other stuff in the episode 12 gallery (galleries being accessible via the "episodes" link in this site's top menu).
 
 
 
 
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  Launch failure dooms NASA's Glory satelliteMar 05, 2011 1:18 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 1 new A* page:(Near-)Space Disaster! But first, I gotta do my weekly pimping of my weekly fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant! You can get to the latest page by clicking this tempting banner (come on, you know you wanna know what's going on there =P):
 
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NASA lost a satellite last night: the Glory satellite (NASA's mission page for it is here) did not reach orbit after launch, apparently because the nose cone fairing of the Taurus rocket carrying it did not open, meaning that the satellite most likely stayed stuck inside the exhausted rocket booster, falling back down to Earth and landing "in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere," according to launch director Omar Baez in the Glory contingency media briefing (and in that somewhat slow video you can see him and other guys in charge, like Ron Grabe, General Manager of the Launch Systems Group at Orbital Sciences Corporation, the company who builds the Taurus rocket, sounding pretty depressed about the whole thing).
 
Here's an earlier, much more concise and less depressing recap by launch commentator George Diller:
 

(on YouTube)
 
Fingers seem to be pointing firmly at the Taurus rocket, particularly because a very similar Taurus launch failure caused the loss of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory two years ago; there was another launch failure with a Taurus rocket in 2001, so 3 of the last 4 Taurus launches have failed--3 of 9 in all, which isn't a great record by modern NASA standards. And they'd thought they'd fixed the fairing problem over the past two years, but there seems to be something that's been missed.
 
Here's the ill-fated Glory in its Taurus rocket on the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, one week ago, awaiting clearance for launch after its initial launch was delayed due to a technical issue:
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
Now, Glory was going to study aerosols, radiance, and other stuff related to global warming, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory was also going to study global-warming-related stuff--man it's almost like there's a conspiracy to prevent study of global warming! :o But I suppose it's much more likely just some undiagnosed problem with the rocket.
 
(It was kind of interesting to follow this last night; when I first came across the Associated Press article on the launch, it had been up for 46 minutes, and was a very short four paragraph thing saying NASA launched a satellite, here's what it's going to do, etc; that was long after the satellite had already been lost. Now it's been updated to a big long thing about the launch failure. Well heck, we do love our spectacular failures; I might not even have bothered writing this news post about it if I hadn't decided to look it up a bit more and then came across NASA's freshly-posted news/tweets/videos (they got those up so fast they still had typos in the titles!) about the launch failure.)
 
 
 
 
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  Welcome to Makeover CityMar 04, 2011 2:47 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:Och, 'tis late. Setting the new scene with lots of background detail today! And a new outfit and 'do, how fun! :D (I was going to keep her hair long, but a chance flick of the wrist while laying out the character in page 37 chopped it short, and having thought about it, I think that'll actually work much better for the upcoming action. Not that that's a spoiler in any way. :p) (Also it looks pretty darn chic this way, don't you think??)
 
I put an enlarged detail of Selenis from episode 12, page 32 in the episode 12 gallery, and here it is:
 
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Onward to tomorrow!
 
 
 
 
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  "Star Wars," Round Deux?Mar 02, 2011 11:33 PM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:There was an interesting article a week or so ago about the U.S. military's new space strategy; it seems that the military is deciding to take space seriously as part of the field of conflict, designating it a "domain" along with the traditional land, sea, and air. The article quotes deputy defense secretary William Lynn as saying "We need to ensure that we can continue to utilize space to navigate with accuracy, to communicate with certainty, to strike with precision and to see the battlefield with clarity," along with similar quotes from a general or two.
 
They're also calling for better coordination and cooperation in space with allied countries; for instance, there's currently no protocol for what to do if two satellites from allied nations somehow end up on a collision course. And that could start to happen with some frequency if steps aren't taken, since (according to the article) there are 22,000 man-made objects in orbit, including about 1,100 "active" satellites.
 
It also talks briefly about the history of space-born conflict, noting that China's destruction of a defunct weather satellite in 2007 was the first strike by ground-based missile in space, and something of a wake-up call for other nations, although the US had destroyed a satellite with an air-based missile, and Russia with a "hunter satellite." Wikipedia's anti-satellite weapon page has more on this, noting for instance that the US's use of the air-based missile was in 1985, and that in 2008 it destroyed a satellite with a ship-based missile (claiming this was necessary as the US spy satellite had failed and was out of control).
 
Anti-satellite work has in fact gone on since the late '50's in the US; in 1959, they achieved what they called a "success," getting a test missile within about four miles of the satellite Explorer 6; they also tried shooting one at Explorer 5, which had suffered a collision with its booster during launch and was off course, but they lost tracking on the missile.
 
Four miles was considered close enough, because if the missile carried a nuclear warhead, the electromagnetic pulse from the detonation would have neutralized the satellite. This sounds kind of crazy to us these days, but back then they were detonating plenty of test nukes in the atmosphere! 1958's Starfish Prime detonation 1,445 km away from Hawaii, for instance, generated a stronger-than-anticipated EMP that knocked out about 300 streetlights on the island, although I guess maybe they were different ones than the ones in this photo of the detonation from Honolulu:
 
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image by the US government (source)
 
^ That glow in the sky is all from the detonation (this was 11:00 pm, Honolulu time)--yikes!
 
So I guess at the time they felt they had the anti-satellite angle covered. As atmospheric nuclear tests started going out of style, though, that attitude might have started to change, and in the late '60's there was some work done on alternate methods, such as an anti-satellite "X-ray laser" (which was cancelled, but then revived for the whole SDI ("Star Wars") thing in the '80's).
 
The Soviet Union also had some anti-satellite programs going in the '60's and early '70's, but what I found interesting was that they restarted testing in 1976, using the American development of the Space Shuttle as an excuse ('cause it could potentially drop bombs from space).
 
 
 
 
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  MESSENGER approaches MercuryMar 02, 2011 1:24 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:The 18th of this month will be a relatively exciting day in space exploration, as that's the day on which the MESSENGER spacecraft ("MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging" -- man, those NASA people have gotten pretty good with acronyms) will go into its orbit of the planet Mercury. NASA's MESSENGER page has a countdown clock for those who like to be exactly on the button on these things.
 
MESSENGER is only the second craft to visit the innermost planet, the other being Mariner 10 in the mid-70's; MESSENGER will actually orbit the planet, unlike Mariner 10, which could only do three fly-bys. MESSENGER, which left Earth in 2004, has already completed three flybys of the planet, the first about three years ago; it's also made an Earth and two Venus flybys in its long fall toward the Sun:
 
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image by NASA (source)
 
("DSM" there stands for "Deep-space maneuver.") Because of the Sun's gravitational pull, and Mercury's high speed (49 km/s vs Earth's 30), it's pretty tricky to get into orbit around the planet! Its been using these flybys to help slow it down for the upcoming orbital insertion. It's also been using them to do some scientific studies, and snap some nice pictures. Here's its flyby of Earth in 2005; in the 24-hour period shown here, it went from 66,000 km away from Earth to about 436,000 km away:
 

(on YouTube)
 
Man, I love that video. Other cool images taken by MESSENGER include:
 
Lava-flooded craters and smooth volcanic plains visible in this mosaic image show that volcanism played an important role in Mercury's history:
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image by NASA (source)
 
This shot from the second Mercury flyby revealed huge impact rays from a previously un-named crater (not sure if it has a name yet):
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image by NASA (source)
 
Approach in the third Mercury flyby, the last (false-)color image it will take before orbit:
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image by NASA (source)
 
In that third flyby on September 29, 2009, somewhere near its closest approach of ~200 km to the planet, MESSENGER unexpected went into "safe mode" for seven hours. :o
 
A view of the Earth and Moon (lower left) from 183 million km away:
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image by NASA (source)
 
That last shot was part of MESSENGER's unsuccessful scan for vulcanoids: asteroids hypothesized to exist in the gravitationally stable area inside Mercury's orbit; asteroids have been found in every gravitationally stable area of the solar system *except* that one, so it's possible that something else cleared them out during the formation of the solar system.
 
There's also this mosiac it took in November of last year, which caught all of our solar system's planets except for Uranus and Neptune--and if you look closely at the photos on the lower right side, you can see the telltale stamp of the gas and dust clouds between us and A*!
 
So MESSENGER's already done some pretty cool stuff; we'll have to see what it comes up with once it enters the first-ever orbit of Mercury in two and a half weeks!
 
 
 
 
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  Who's going to Emerald City Comic Con? Me!Mar 01, 2011 12:58 AM PST | url | discuss | + share
 
Added 2 new A* pages:I kinda let it sneak up on me, but Emerald City Comic Con is this coming weekend here in Seattle. I've never been, and I figure now's the time to go check it out, just as a visitor. Also I'm gonna be dropping some A* postcards on their freebie table(s?); the cards look something like this:
 
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Yay! So if you happen by there on Saturday afternoon, you'll probably be able to snag one.
 
I'm also hoping to bump into William Shatner "accidentally." >_>
 
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And the Toyah fan site Dreamscape | Toyah.Net noticed my little Toyah news rambling last week and posted a link about it. Thanks Toyah.Net! :D
 
 
 
 
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