Monday, November 30, 2009

Phoebe ring, part 2

Second image in a set of illustrations I'm working on to make astronomy interesting to middle school students (and their parents), while connecting it to broader concepts (e.g., the rf spectrum and visible light's place within). (Part 1 illustrates the size and shape of the phoebe ring.)

I have two print references on the RF spectrum. One shows shorter wavelengths to the left; the other, to the right. I suspect Gamma-left/radio-right is the standard, but am curious to know if there is a standard.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Liberty Quarry and Lighting

Granite Construction is trying to win approval to operate a rock quarry next to Temecula, CA, and within 18 miles of Palomar Observatory. I suspect the need for construction material is genuine, but so is the opposition by a broad coalition residents, businesses, and organizations of Temecula. The deadline for commenting on the project's Environmental Impact Report was yesterday, and I submitted comments on lighting with only hours to spare.

As much as a detest when commercial operations use names like "Liberty", "Freedom", or "True believers in God" quarry, the English language is public domain and the project applicants have a right to manipulate perception through their choice of name. Flipping the coin, citizens have the right to consider any impact on the region's hydrology, waterways, nightsky, scenery, and thin blanket of biology as an impact on the public domain. This right is protected in state (CEQA) and federal (NEPA) law. Anyone may comment on a project subject to these laws and will be treated as a stakeholder. Receiving a letter from the approving agency that begins "Dear Stakeholder" is to me one of our greatest freedoms and liberties.

I've reviewed Granite Construction's lighting plan. It is good in regard to protecting Palomar Observatory and the night sky -- almost too good. Therefore my comments, though awknowledging the virtues of the plan, focussed on the failure of the EIR to address reasonable circumstances that would encourage a mining operation to deviate from the plan. Essentially, if shopping malls and restaurants have trouble following the lighting regulation, why should I expect the same of an industrial operation using explosives and earth moving equipment?

My submitted comments are shown below, and as with all posts here, I welcome comments and criticism.

As an amateur astronomer, I promote astronomy-related activities in schools throughout the Temecula Valley. I'm trying to make our communities more aware of lighting and reawaken an interest in preserving our night sky both for our enjoyment and for the protection of research opportunities at Palomar Observatory.

I have been lobbying Riverside County to update their lighting ordinance (655) to
  • address changes in population density,
  • address advances in lighting technology,
  • fix weaknesses in the ordinance.
I’ve also tested the County’s lighting code enforcement and have some observations that are relevant to the proposed Liberty Quarry.

General CommentThough the Liberty Quarry Lighting plan (Aug 2007) is excellent in regard to minimizing light pollution, there are some inconsistencies that combined with weaknesses in enforcement of County Ordinance 655, could lead to Liberty Quarry’s using significant quantities of white light should safety, trespass, or liability concerns emerge during and after the lifetime of the quarry.

My comments are based on my reading of these documents:

  • Lighting Plan for the Proposed Liberty Quarry Project, Rainbow, California (Aug 2007), referred to here as Lighting Plan and in the Liberty Quarry EIR as Appendix M.
  • Analysis of Potential Light Impacts for the Proposed Liberty Quarry Project, Rainbow, California (Aug 2007), referred to here as Lighting Analysis and in the Liberty Quarry EIR as Appendix M-1.
Specific Comments
Excellent qualities of Liberty Quarry’s lighting plan
The lighting plan describes only fullcutoff Low Pressure Sodium (LPS) and High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights for Liberty Quarry. LPS is transparent to research at Palomar Observatory (see Figure 1). HPS does pollute some of the wavelengths that Palomar conducts research in, but it is a reasonable alternative to white light, especially when used within full cutoff fixtures.
Figure 1: The above diagram compares broad spectrum white light to a picket fence that can obscure the wavelengths of light being observed. By ignoring data from wavelengths corresponding to narrow band of Low Pressure Sodium light, the observatory effectively ignores light pollution in these wavelengths

Can Liberty Quarry conduct night-time operations safely with the lighting they’ve described?In the case of any contractor providing a generously low bid, it is fair to ask whether Granite Construction can conduct mining operations with only the minimal lighting they propose. This is not an accusation of misrepresentation, but there may be extenuating circumstances that would understandably divert an operations manager from protecting the night sky to minimizing legal liabilities.

For example, how will Granite Construction respond to any of the following circumstances?
  • evidence of trespass, such as beer bottles in the quarry, suggesting that juveniles have hopped the fence and are climbing on the excavation walls at night
  • a worker blaming an accident (or his or her own negligence) on the lighting
  • workers hear the rumble of rock fall from the mostly unlit portions of the quarry
    Figure 2 shows the portion of the quarry that will have the steepest walls after final excavation.

Figure 2: Contour maps from the Lighting Plan show a step dropoff 50 feet from the quarry boundary line. The red triangles are the only quarry workface lighting described in the Lighting Plan.

With the creation of walls this steep, it is reasonable that safety issues will arise. I believe that the EIR is deficient in not addressing the extenuating circumstances I’ve cited.

In addition to the extenuating circumstances, there are some inconsistencies and ambiguities in the lighting documents:

Page 5 of the Lighting Analysis says

The proposed project is a Class I use for which color rendition is important due to the task work required in a quarry…

Yet there is no mention of white light in the Lighting Analysis, nor in the Lighting Plan. This suggests three possibilities:
  • White light is really not needed for the work. Therefore, this is an editorial error and the proponent’s environmental impact report should specify that the quarry is not to be considered a Class I use.
  • The proponents intend to modify their activity so as to not need white light. If so, the modified procedures should be clarified in the environmental impact statement.
  • The proponents intend to supplement their lighting with sources that are not regulated under Ordinance 655, such as floodlights on mining equipment or temporary lighting typical of that used in construction sites.

Note that the Lighting Analysis on page 12 says:

portable lighting will be used to illuminate the approximately 100 to 150-foot wide segment of quarry face that will be worked at any one time.

Figure 3 shows a hillside comparable to the walls of the quarry being lit by portable lighting.

Figure 3: Portable lighting offers an easy means of blanketing high walls with light.

Presumably, the lighting for the quarry face would be the LPS and HPS lights cited in the Lighting Plan, but considering the mention of portable lighting for this white-light application, it would be more comforting to have a lighting limit described in the Lighting Plan. Instead, the quarry lighting described in the Lighting Analysis appears to be a baseline:

The most likely scenario for the excavation lighting using this light fixture setup is to have
the light source approximately 15 ft. to 25 ft. away from the face of excavation requiring
lighting and to have these sources spaced approximately 100 ft. apart if additional light
sources are required.

County Ordinance 655 may not offer sufficient protection from light pollution
In 2007, I submitted the observation below to Riverside County Code Enforcement:

The code enforcement officer acknowledged that the observation appears to be a clear violation and also admitted that he had no experience in enforcing the ordinance. The code violation has not been corrected.

It is my fear that excess lighting from the quarry will be equally difficult to control for the following reasons:
  • Enforcement is complaint driven, meaning a citizen needs to visit the quarry at night to document the lighting violation.
  • Ordinance 655 regulates lighting fixtures and lacks a scientific standard of sky quality and therefore it cannot cap lighting pollution
  • Enforcement is done under a building construction code violation, which is not a strong way of addressing temporary lights likely to be used at a quarry site

The Lighting Analysis relies on compliance with the county ordinance and relative comparison to other light sources as proof that their operations do not affect the night sky; this is not a correct assumption. Ordinance 655 is a regulation not a scientific determination, and all light contributes to light pollution, including their HPS lights.

Monday, November 16, 2009

An Illustration of Saturn's largest ring

This illustration is based on information given to me by Dr. Anne Verbiscer answering my question about the orientation of Saturn's newly discovered ring (Dr. Versbiscer is the lead author in the 22 Oct 09 Nature paper reporting the discovery). I'm working an animated sequence of illustrations on this topic to add to presentations I give on astronomy to local schools. Click the picture to enlarge.
(See also part 2, which illustrates the infrared wavelength measured to observe the ring)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saving the Planet, One Buoy at a Time, part 2 of 4 or 5

(This is the second in my four or five part series explaining how a common person, with little scientific training but a lot of science enthusiasm, can confidently assess the scientific literature on climate change;  Part 1: My climate change; Part 3: JG calls representative, part 4, part 5)

Approximately 18 years ago, and I’m guessing at the time, I was fortunate enough to help with the calibration of NASA’s TOPEX satellite used to measure sea level. This is possibly my only contribution to science. I was invited to help launch a buoy 10 miles off of the San Diego coast. My qualifications? I knew a member of the team and they needed an extra hand as menial labor. Something about helping them hoist a 400-lb buoy into and then later out of the water, and that they’d have me back by morning.

This was a two night project in which the team had to get a buoy into the scanning footprint of TOPEX as it passed over. Jim, the GPS specialist (and my contact), was to ensure the buoy was in the right place. Chris was the lead scientist. I recall at least one other person because he made himself memorable as the driver, and it’s likely there was another, because I think it took more than four people to get the buoy launched. All of us were young, 20s or 30s. It was a time when an offer to be on a boat all night was worth a little disruption to my schedule.

The buoy was 40 feet of 8-inch PVC pipe filled with foam for floatation. The bottom end was ringed with a three- or four-hundred pound stack of weights and on top sat a three-foot wide half-dome of transparent plastic covering some type of radio signaling device. With the buoy mounted on the ship’s starboard rail, the ship looked like it was carrying a battering ram. When launched, the buoy would float with its top 6 feet out of the water. With the other 32 feet below holding the ballast, the buoy would float motionless against the waves. Onboard GPS would tell us where we were. Radio triangulation from two places ashore would identify sea-level as reported by the buoy. As TOPOX passed over, it would measure sea level around the buoy and then the scientists could calibrate the satellite by comparing the ground-based measurements to those of the satellite.

I recall that we went to a restaurant before setting sail. During dinner, Jim spoke of the purpose of the mission, “to study climate change” with some emphasis on “change”. He was checking if I used the same terms as he: “climate change” instead of “global warming”, for at this time careful scientists used climate change to acknowledge that increased warming from greenhouse gases could change climate in ways that may not be a global warming. I say this because I’ve heard propagandists and their faithful accuse scientist who say “climate change” of back peddling on global warming. “Climate change” has always been in use. I used it for a very long time till one of my friends assured me I can say “global warming” around him. After the confirmation that our sense of the science was mutual, much of our conversation turned more outward, to the tables around. This was our time to announce to any women within earshot that we were “saving the planet.”

After dinner, the driver became memorable. We were running behind and therefore in a hurry to get to the boat when the driver of the van backed out and hit a parked car. I assured him none of us would think less of him for taking the time to leave his contact information (which he did; thus risking being late). I say this because we often think of the person who smashes our taillight as that careless jerk, but sometimes it’s the young scientist, who drives a computer not a truck, rushing to launch a buoy, that will help calibrate the satellite, that will measure global sea-rise, and thus help us save the planet.

The captain hired to take us out was a perhaps your typical sea-salt mariner. He had been running his boat for many years and told us everything we needed to know about pirates, weather, and even how to be sea sick. He made it very clear that we were to hang over the front or side of the boat and get sick there. It will be worse if we went below (for whom I wondered). We left near sunset on a very calm evening, and it was dark by the time we reached the launch point.

Lowering the buoy was work but when smoothly with the numbers on hand. Once the buoy was floating motionlessly, I was invited to help record dry and wet bulb air temperatures and sea surface temperature. The buoy drifted away, becoming fainter, but in truth it was the boat moving, and sporadically, the captain would fire up the engine and edge closer so that we were never more than 50 yards away.

I don’t recall being the first to make this observation, but Jim later insisted I was the first. As I watched the faint buoy in the dark I thought it was getting lower. Finally, I got the nerve to ask if it could be sinking. I remember incredulous protests that it can’t be sinking. But these were scientists, and soon all of them were standing by me watching as I was, trying to tease out any indication that the buoy was getting lower in the water. Finally, Chris declared “It’s sinking!” The captain fired up the motor and by the time we reached it, the rate of sinking had increased. We pulled up beside it while the electronics were still a couple feet above the water, removed the radio dome, and secured the rest of the bulk to be hoisted back on board.

TOPEX hadn’t passed over yet, so the group improvised a work-a-round. We put the dome onto an inner tube the captain had on board and floated it tethered behind the boat. It was assumed that the experiment that night was a failure but it was still worth trying. In other words, they weren’t going to assume that the data would be worthless and therefore collected what they could. Later, after the satellite passed over, I sketched the apparatus, showing the dimensions and distance between the transponder and water line on the inner tube should this be helpful in interpreting the data.

The following night went better for the experiment, though not for me.

The buoy was sealed in every possible leak point when I arrived the following afternoon. They were ready, and good thing too, as this night was different. There was a good wind and the waves were easily two feet high between peak and trough. (At the time I thought the waves were three feet high, but in hindsight I have trouble believing that.)

When launched, the buoy was motionless against the waves lapping by it. It was almost like watching a pendulum: the waves swung high and low, but the buoy continued its stance like a dock pole. I, however, soon succumbed to the relentless up and down motion of the boat. Though this was the night of success, and I helped launch and retrieve, and I believe recorded temperatures at intervals, I remember only the sickness during the endless return to shore. Simply put, following the captain’s orders, I hung on the side rail. I tried port and starboard. I hung over the front letting the waves splash me. Eventually, I knew I had nothing left to share with the ocean, and I went below and collapsed. I woke maybe an hour later to the gentle hum of a motor on calm water, and physically I was restored. If not for the clothes I had been wearing, one would never know that anything had been wrong.

Jim reports that a paper was published on this experiment and offered to dig it up. So, I have a feeler out for more information and will correct anything I’ve recalled incorrectly.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

La Cresta Grill calling batman

La Cresta Mexican Grill, in Wildomar, has a new bat signal:

Wildomar is within the 45-mile radius defined under Riverside County Ordinance 655 as Zone B, where light pollution is regulated for the protection of Palomar Observatory (and I must add, for our own enjoyment of the night sky). The ordinance has been adopted by The City of Wildomar as ordinance 8.80. Section 8.80.080 Prohibitions, 4E says "Operation of searchlights for advertising purposes is prohibited in Zones A and B.

As with all critiques I make of business's lighting, I am implying no judgment toward the products and services nor of the patrons. In fact, I would prefer that patrons attend the restaurant and ask its management to comply with local codes and ordinances and protect science being conducted locally. I would like the see the restaurant successful and secure so that it doesn't have to use advertising like this.