More on Science
7 months ago
Can space-based solar power solve Earth's energy problems?
Better technology and lower launch costs revive science-fiction tech.
Airbus engineers showed off sustainable energy's future in Munich last month. They captured sunlight with solar panels, turned it into microwaves, and beamed it into an airplane hangar, where it lighted a city model. The test delivered 2 kW across 36 meters, but it posed a serious question: Should we send enormous satellites to capture solar energy in space? In orbit, free of clouds and nighttime, they could create power 24/7 and send it to Earth.
Airbus engineer Jean-Dominique Coste calls it an engineering problem. “But it’s never been done at [large] scale.”
Proponents of space solar power say the demand for green energy, cheaper space access, and improved technology might change that. Once someone invests commercially, it will grow. Former NASA researcher John Mankins says it might be a trillion-dollar industry.
Myriad uncertainties remain, including whether beaming gigawatts of power to Earth can be done efficiently and without burning birds or people. Concept papers are being replaced with ground and space testing. The European Space Agency (ESA), which supported the Munich demo, will propose ground tests to member nations next month. The U.K. government offered £6 million to evaluate innovations this year. Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. agencies are working. NASA policy analyst Nikolai Joseph, author of an upcoming assessment, thinks the conversation's tone has altered. What formerly appeared unattainable may now be a matter of "bringing it all together"
NASA studied space solar power during the mid-1970s fuel crunch. A projected space demonstration trip using 1970s technology would have cost $1 trillion. According to Mankins, the idea is taboo in the agency.
Space and solar power technology have evolved. Photovoltaic (PV) solar cell efficiency has increased 25% over the past decade, Jones claims. Telecoms use microwave transmitters and receivers. Robots designed to repair and refuel spacecraft might create solar panels.
Falling launch costs have boosted the idea. A solar power satellite large enough to replace a nuclear or coal plant would require hundreds of launches. ESA scientist Sanjay Vijendran: "It would require a massive construction complex in orbit."
SpaceX has made the idea more plausible. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs $2600 per kilogram, less than 5% of what the Space Shuttle did, and the company promised $10 per kilogram for its giant Starship, slated to launch this year. Jones: "It changes the equation." "Economics rules"
Mass production reduces space hardware costs. Satellites are one-offs made with pricey space-rated parts. Mars rover Perseverance cost $2 million per kilogram. SpaceX's Starlink satellites cost less than $1000 per kilogram. This strategy may work for massive space buildings consisting of many identical low-cost components, Mankins has long contended. Low-cost launches and "hypermodularity" make space solar power economical, he claims.
Better engineering can improve economics. Coste says Airbus's Munich trial was 5% efficient, comparing solar input to electricity production. When the Sun shines, ground-based solar arrays perform better. Studies show space solar might compete with existing energy sources on price if it reaches 20% efficiency.
Lighter parts reduce costs. "Sandwich panels" with PV cells on one side, electronics in the middle, and a microwave transmitter on the other could help. Thousands of them build a solar satellite without heavy wiring to move power. In 2020, a team from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) flew on the Air Force's X-37B space plane.
NRL project head Paul Jaffe said the satellite is still providing data. The panel converts solar power into microwaves at 8% efficiency, but not to Earth. The Air Force expects to test a beaming sandwich panel next year. MIT will launch its prototype panel with SpaceX in December.
As a satellite orbits, the PV side of sandwich panels sometimes faces away from the Sun since the microwave side must always face Earth. To maintain 24-hour power, a satellite needs mirrors to keep that side illuminated and focus light on the PV. In a 2012 NASA study by Mankins, a bowl-shaped device with thousands of thin-film mirrors focuses light onto the PV array.
International Electric Company's Ian Cash has a new strategy. His proposed satellite uses enormous, fixed mirrors to redirect light onto a PV and microwave array while the structure spins (see graphic, above). 1 billion minuscule perpendicular antennas act as a "phased array" to electronically guide the beam toward Earth, regardless of the satellite's orientation. This design, argues Cash, is "the most competitive economically"
If a space-based power plant ever flies, its power must be delivered securely and efficiently. Jaffe's team at NRL just beamed 1.6 kW over 1 km, and teams in Japan, China, and South Korea have comparable attempts. Transmitters and receivers lose half their input power. Vijendran says space solar beaming needs 75% efficiency, "preferably 90%."
Beaming gigawatts through the atmosphere demands testing. Most designs aim to produce a beam kilometers wide so every ship, plane, human, or bird that strays into it only receives a tiny—hopefully harmless—portion of the 2-gigawatt transmission. Receiving antennas are cheap to build but require a lot of land, adds Jones. You could grow crops under them or place them offshore.
Europe's public agencies currently prioritize space solar power. Jones: "There's a devotion you don't see in the U.S." ESA commissioned two solar cost/benefit studies last year. Vijendran claims it might match ground-based renewables' cost. Even at a higher price, equivalent to nuclear, its 24/7 availability would make it competitive.
ESA will urge member states in November to fund a technical assessment. If the news is good, the agency will plan for 2025. With €15 billion to €20 billion, ESA may launch a megawatt-scale demonstration facility by 2030 and a gigawatt-scale facility by 2040. "Moonshot"
1 year ago
The InSight lander from NASA has recorded the greatest tremor ever felt on Mars.
The magnitude 5 earthquake was responsible for the discharge of energy that was 10 times greater than the previous record holder.
Any Martians who happen to be reading this should quickly learn how to duck and cover.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, reported that on May 4, the planet Mars was shaken by an earthquake of around magnitude 5, making it the greatest Marsquake ever detected to this point. The shaking persisted for more than six hours and unleashed more than ten times as much energy as the earthquake that had previously held the record for strongest.
The event was captured on record by the InSight lander, which is operated by the United States Space Agency and has been researching the innards of Mars ever since it touched down on the planet in 2018 (SN: 11/26/18). The epicenter of the earthquake was probably located in the vicinity of Cerberus Fossae, which is located more than 1,000 kilometers away from the lander.
The surface of Cerberus Fossae is notorious for being broken up and experiencing periodic rockfalls. According to geophysicist Philippe Lognonné, who is the lead investigator of the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, the seismometer that is onboard the InSight lander, it is reasonable to assume that the ground is moving in that area. "This is an old crater from a volcanic eruption."
Marsquakes, which are similar to earthquakes in that they give information about the interior structure of our planet, can be utilized to investigate what lies beneath the surface of Mars (SN: 7/22/21). And according to Lognonné, who works at the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from analyzing this massive earthquake. Because the quality of the signal is so high, we will be able to focus on the specifics.
10 months ago
Humanity is not even a Type 1 civilization. What might a Type 3 be capable of?
The Kardashev scale grades civilizations from Type 1 to Type 3 based on energy harvesting.
How do technologically proficient civilizations emerge across timescales measuring in the tens of thousands or even millions of years? This is a question that worries me as a researcher in the search for “technosignatures” from other civilizations on other worlds. Since it is already established that longer-lived civilizations are the ones we are most likely to detect, knowing something about their prospective evolutionary trajectories could be translated into improved search tactics. But even more than knowing what to seek for, what I really want to know is what happens to a society after so long time. What are they capable of? What do they become?
This was the question Russian SETI pioneer Nikolai Kardashev asked himself back in 1964. His answer was the now-famous “Kardashev Scale.” Kardashev was the first, although not the last, scientist to try and define the processes (or stages) of the evolution of civilizations. Today, I want to launch a series on this question. It is crucial to technosignature studies (of which our NASA team is hard at work), and it is also important for comprehending what might lay ahead for mankind if we manage to get through the bottlenecks we have now.
The Kardashev scale
Kardashev’s question can be expressed another way. What milestones in a civilization’s advancement up the ladder of technical complexity will be universal? The main notion here is that all (or at least most) civilizations will pass through some kind of definable stages as they progress, and some of these steps might be mirrored in how we could identify them. But, while Kardashev’s major focus was identifying signals from exo-civilizations, his scale gave us a clear way to think about their evolution.
The classification scheme Kardashev employed was not based on social systems of ethics because they are something that we can probably never predict about alien cultures. Instead, it was built on energy, which is something near and dear to the heart of everybody trained in physics. Energy use might offer the basis for universal stages of civilisation progression because you cannot do the work of establishing a civilization without consuming energy. So, Kardashev looked at what energy sources were accessible to civilizations as they evolved technologically and used those to build his scale.
From Kardashev’s perspective, there are three primary levels or “types” of advancement in terms of harvesting energy through which a civilization should progress.
Type 1: Civilizations that can capture all the energy resources of their native planet constitute the first stage. This would imply capturing all the light energy that falls on a world from its host star. This makes it reasonable, given solar energy will be the largest source available on most planets where life could form. For example, Earth absorbs hundreds of atomic bombs’ worth of energy from the Sun every second. That is a rather formidable energy source, and a Type 1 race would have all this power at their disposal for civilization construction.
Type 2: These civilizations can extract the whole energy resources of their home star. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Freeman Dyson famously anticipated Kardashev’s thinking on this when he imagined an advanced civilization erecting a large sphere around its star. This “Dyson Sphere” would be a machine the size of the complete solar system for gathering stellar photons and their energy.
Type 3: These super-civilizations could use all the energy produced by all the stars in their home galaxy. A normal galaxy has a few hundred billion stars, so that is a whole lot of energy. One way this may be done is if the civilization covered every star in their galaxy with Dyson spheres, but there could also be more inventive approaches.
Implications of the Kardashev scale
Climbing from Type 1 upward, we travel from the imaginable to the god-like. For example, it is not hard to envisage utilizing lots of big satellites in space to gather solar energy and then beaming that energy down to Earth via microwaves. That would get us to a Type 1 civilization. But creating a Dyson sphere would require chewing up whole planets. How long until we obtain that level of power? How would we have to change to get there? And once we get to Type 3 civilizations, we are virtually thinking about gods with the potential to engineer the entire cosmos.
For me, this is part of the point of the Kardashev scale. Its application for thinking about identifying technosignatures is crucial, but even more strong is its capacity to help us shape our imaginations. The mind might become blank staring across hundreds or thousands of millennia, and so we need tools and guides to focus our attention. That may be the only way to see what life might become — what we might become — once it arises to start out beyond the boundaries of space and time and potential.
This is a summary. Read the full article here.
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8 months ago
12 mental models that I use frequently
I keep returning to the same mental models and tricks after writing and reading about a wide range of topics.
Top 12 mental models
Survival bias - We perceive the surviving population as remarkable, yet they may have gotten there through sheer grit.
Survivorship bias affects us in many situations. Our retirement fund; the unicorn business; the winning team. We often study and imitate the last one standing. This can lead to genuine insights and performance improvements, but it can also lead us astray because the leader may just be lucky.
The Helsinki Bus Theory - How to persevere Buss up!
Always display new work, and always be compared to others. Why? Easy. Keep riding. Stay on the fucking bus.
Until it sticks… Turning up every day… — Artists teach engineers plenty. Quality work over a career comes from showing up every day and starting.
WRAP decision making process (Heath Brothers)
Decision-making WRAP Model:
W — Widen your Options
R — Reality test your assumptions
A — Attain Distance
P — Prepare to be wrong or Right
Systems for knowledge worker excellence - Todd Henry and Cal Newport write about techniques knowledge workers can employ to build a creative rhythm and do better work.
Todd Henry's FRESH framework:
Focus: Keep the start in mind as you wrap up.
Relationships: close a loop that's open.
Pruning is an energy.
Set aside time to be inspired by stimuli.
Hours: Spend time thinking.
BBT is learning from mistakes. Science has transformed the world because it constantly updates its theories in light of failures. Complexity guarantees failure. Do we learn or self-justify?
The OODA Loop - Competitive advantage
O: Observe: collect the data. Figure out exactly where you are, what’s happening.
O: Orient: analyze/synthesize the data to form an accurate picture.
D: Decide: select an action from possible options
A: Action: execute the action, and return to step (1)
Boyd's approach indicates that speed and agility are about information processing, not physical reactions. They form feedback loops. More OODA loops improve speed.
Leaders who try to impose order in a complex situation fail; those who set the stage, step back, and allow patterns to develop win.
Information Gap - The discrepancy between what we know and what we would like to know
Gap in Alignment - What individuals actually do as opposed to what we wish them to do
Effects Gap - the discrepancy between our expectations and the results of our actions
Theory of Constraints — The Goal - To maximize system production, maximize bottleneck throughput.
Goldratt creates a five-step procedure:
Determine the restriction
Improve the restriction.
Everything else should be based on the limitation.
Increase the restriction
Go back to step 1 Avoid letting inertia become a limitation.
Any non-constraint improvement is an illusion.
Serendipity and the Adjacent Possible - Why do several amazing ideas emerge at once? How can you foster serendipity in your work?
You need specialized abilities to reach to the edge of possibilities, where you can pursue exciting tasks that will change the world. Few people do it since it takes a lot of hard work. You'll stand out if you do.
Most people simply lack the comfort with discomfort required to tackle really hard things. At some point, in other words, there’s no way getting around the necessity to clear your calendar, shut down your phone, and spend several hard days trying to make sense of the damn proof.
Boundaries of failure - Rasmussen's accident model.
Rasmussen modeled this. It has economic, workload, and performance boundaries.
The economic boundary is a company's profit zone. If the lights are on, you're within the economic boundaries, but there's pressure to cut costs and do more.
Performance limit reflects system capacity. Taking shortcuts is a human desire to minimize work. This is often necessary to survive because there's always more labor.
Both push operating points toward acceptable performance. Personal or process safety, or equipment performance.
If you exceed acceptable performance, you'll push back, typically forcefully.
9 months ago
Flywheels and Funnels
Traditional sales organizations used the concept of a sales “funnel” to describe the process through which potential customers move, ending up with sales at the end. Winners today have abandoned that way of thinking in favor of building flywheels — business models in which every element reinforces every other.
Ah, the marketing funnel…
Prospective clients go through a predictable set of experiences, students learn in business school marketing classes. It looks like this:
Understanding the funnel helps evaluate sales success indicators. Gail Goodwin, former CEO of small business direct mail provider Constant Contact, said managing the pipeline was key to escaping the sluggish SaaS ramp of death.
Like the funnel concept. To predict how well your business will do, measure how many potential clients are aware of it (awareness) and how many take the next step. If 1,000 people heard about your offering and 10% showed interest, you'd have 100 at that point. If 50% of these people made buyer-like noises, you'd know how many were, etc. It helped model buying trends.
TV, magazine, and radio advertising are pricey for B2C enterprises. Traditional B2B marketing involved armies of sales reps, which was expensive and a barrier to entry.
Cracks in the funnel model
Digital has exposed the funnel's limitations. Hubspot was born at a time when buyers and sellers had huge knowledge asymmetries, according to co-founder Brian Halligan. Those selling a product could use the buyer's lack of information to become a trusted partner.
As the world went digital, getting information and comparing offerings became faster, easier, and cheaper. Buyers didn't need a seller to move through a funnel. Interactions replaced transactions, and the relationship didn't end with a sale.
Instead, buyers and sellers interacted in a constant flow. In many modern models, the sale is midway through the process (particularly true with subscription and software-as-a-service models). Example:
You're creating a winding journey with many touch points, not a funnel (and lots of opportunities for customers to get lost).
From winding journey to flywheel
Beyond this revised view of an interactive customer journey, a company can create what Jim Collins famously called a flywheel. Imagine rolling a heavy disc on its axis. The first few times you roll it, you put in a lot of effort for a small response. The same effort yields faster turns as it gains speed. Over time, the flywheel gains momentum and turns without your help.
Modern digital organizations have created flywheel business models, in which any additional force multiplies throughout the business. The flywheel becomes a force multiplier, according to Collins.
Amazon is a famous flywheel example. Collins explained the concept to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a corporate retreat in 2001. In The Everything Store, Brad Stone describes in his book The Everything Store how he immediately understood Amazon's levers.
The result (drawn on a napkin):
Low prices and a large selection of products attracted customers, while a focus on customer service kept them coming back, increasing traffic. Third-party sellers then increased selection. Low-cost structure supports low-price commitment. It's brilliant! Every wheel turn creates acceleration.
Where from here?
Flywheel over sales funnel! Consider these business terms.
2 months ago
My financial life was changed by a single, straightforward mental model.
Prioritize big-ticket purchases
I've made several spending blunders. I get sick thinking about how much money I spent.
My financial mental model was poor back then.
Stoicism and mindfulness keep me from attaching to those feelings. It still hurts.
Until four or five years ago, I bought a new winter jacket every year.
Ten years ago, I spent twice as much. Now that I have a fantastic, warm winter parka, I don't even consider acquiring another one. No more spending. I'm not looking for jackets either.
Saving time and money by spending well is my thinking paradigm.
The philosophy is expressed in most languages. Cheap is expensive in the Netherlands. This applies beyond shopping.
In this essay, I will offer three examples of how this mental paradigm transformed my financial life.
In 2015, I presented and positioned my first book poorly.
I called the book Huge Life Success and made a funny Canva cover in 30 minutes. This:
That looks nothing like my present books. No logo or style. The book felt amateurish.
The book started bothering me a few weeks after publication. The advice was good, but it didn't appear professional. I studied the book business extensively.
I created a style for all my designs. Branding. Win Your Inner Wars was reissued a year later.
Title, cover, and description changed. Rearranging the chapters improved readability.
Seven years later, the book sells hundreds of copies a month. That taught me a lot.
Rushing to finish a project is enticing. Send it and move forward.
Avoid rushing everything. Relax. Develop your projects. Perform well. Perform the job well.
My first novel was underfunded and underworked. A bad book arrived. I then invested time and money in writing the greatest book I could.
That book still sells.
I hate travel. Airports, flights, trains, and lines irritate me.
But, I enjoy traveling to beautiful areas.
I do it strangely. I make up travel rules. I never go to airports in summer. I hate being near airports on holidays. Unworthy.
No vacation packages for me. Those airline packages with a flight, shuttle, and hotel. I've had enough.
I try to avoid crowds and popular spots. July Paris? Nuts and bolts, please. Christmas in NYC? No, please keep me sane.
I fly business class behind. I accept upgrades upon check-in. I prefer driving. I drove from the Netherlands to southern Spain.
Thankfully, no lines. What if travel costs more? Thus? I enjoy it from the start. I start traveling then.
I rarely travel since I'm so difficult. One great excursion beats several average ones.
New apps, tools, and strategies intrigue most productivity professionals.
I researched years ago. I spent years investigating productivity in university.
I bought books, courses, applications, and tools. It was expensive and time-consuming.
Im finished. Productivity no longer costs me time or money. OK. I worked on it once and now follow my strategy.
I avoid new programs and systems. My stuff works. Why change winners?
Spending wisely saves time and money.
Spending wisely means spending once. Many people ignore productivity. It's understudied. No classes.
Some assume reading a few articles or a book is enough. Productivity is personal. You need a personal system.
Time invested is one-time. You can trust your system for life once you find it.
Concentrate on the expensive choices.
Life's short. Saving money quickly is enticing.
Spend less on groceries today. True. That won't fix your finances.
Adopt a lifestyle that makes you affluent over time. Consider major choices.
Are they causing long-term poverty? Are you richer?
Leasing cars comes to mind. The automobile costs a fortune today. The premium could accomplish a million nice things.
Focusing on important decisions makes life easier. Consider your future. You want to improve next year.