Well, at the start of the week we attended what may have been one of the last physics colloquia for us in quite some time now as we transition to social distancing to mitigate COVID 19 pandemic!
Professor Nathaniel Gabor, UC Riverside, made colloquium presentation on the physics of heat engines and the similarities with photosynthesis. He told of how plants and most photosynthetic single cell organisms use two photoreceptive molecules to absorb sunlight and use it to make organic molecules that capture the solar energy. His modeling studies have shown how the use of two photoactive molecules, each with slightly different absorption wavelengths are able to provide self regulation functionality for varying sunlight conditions. When the two wavelengths are selected to be near the inflection point of the solar spectrum then varying solar conditions can be optimized so that the variation or noise as seen by the organism is greatly reduced. Also this regulation method, which just switched back and forth between the two slightly different wavelengths need not be active feedback control, but can instead just be randomly selected and yet the regulation variation is much reduced. So, the evolutionary selection of two photoactive molecules seems to be present all across the biological domain and has more fitness than would just using one photoactive molecule. Thanks for filling in the details, Professor Gabor! (No relation to Zsa Zsa, if you were wondering!)
|Professor Nathaniel Gabor, UCR, speaks at CSULB on heat engines and photosynthesis (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Along with the suspension or cancelling of other local seminars and colloquia, the cancellation of the 51st Lunar and Planetary Society meeting, meant that we would not be spending a week in Houston as we had previously planned. Nonetheless, we elected to go through with the first leg of our flight patch and visit the SpaceX fabrication launch facilities in Boca Chica near Brownsville, TX. The flight change fees were almost as much as the original ticket cost, but we went anyway just to reconnoiter the area for possible future short term notice visits to view a Starship test hope or launch.
You can see in the map below how the launch facility is located with clear a view out into the Gulf of Mexico. The site is the most southern launch facility in the US. Brownsville is at latitude 25.9 degrees north and places like Key West and Key Largo, Florida are actually islands, but are still a little bit further south at 24.5 and 25 degrees north latitude, respectively.
|Relative location of SpaceX South Texas Launch Site (Source: Palmia Observatory)
So, we had flights from OC to Houston and then on to Brownsville, TX. You can get a sense of the area around Brownsville as seen in these photos below taken out of the airplane window as we began the descent. It is a windy location right on the coast as evidenced by the many wind turbines.
|SpaceX Launch Site is short 30 minute drive from Brownsville, TX (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Ok, so this photo seems to be well represented in all of the Twitter feeds. You can see a rather beat up version of the Starship on the right and a very smooth polished version, which I assume is SN2, at the left. You can see a lot of the tent like structures that are very low cost building used in manufacturing and assembly. Contractor vehicles are parked all around, but none of the expected shipping containers to block the view.
Some readers have suggested that you could just walk past the traffic cones and take a closer look! But, I am reminded of a refrigerator magnet that I picked up on many years ago on one of my previous trips to Texas for various meetings over the years and everytime I think of this symbol, I decide to stay on my own side of the fence! Don't mess with Texas!
|One of many refrigerator magnets from previous trips and meetings (Source: Palmia Observatory)
This next photo shows some more assembly buildings with one very tall high bay type of building. I wonder what is inside? Could this be where the Starship is placed for final assembly?
So, we drove past the launch area and down the Texas Highway 4 just about a mile before it dead ends in the ocean. We wanted to see if there was any better available parking so that when the Starships actually begin real flight testing, we wanted to know where we can park and observe the launch. My guess is that the whole beach will be cordoned off during any actual flight test. But it was nice to see the ocean. It was not possible to go any further and because of the high sand, which was deeply rutted, you would probably need a four wheel drive to make it through. There was only two small groups of people on the beach.
|Texas Highway 4 just past SpaceX facility ends in Boca Chica beach (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Looking back from where we parked the car on the side of Highway 4, you can see the launch site on the left hand side of the highway and on the right you can see two large radio dish antennas, with the SpaceX assembly area then just a couple of blocks further up the road on the right. Not much parking on the side of the road and we were a bit worried about either getting hit or stuck in the sand. Luckily there was hardly any traffic on the highway this Saturday, even though there were many contractor and other workers' vehicles parked off the road in a makeshift parking area.
The launch site seems to be a pretty bare bones type of operation. Elon seems to put just enough resources into it to get the job done. We have already heard about when test operations go on at the launch site, the whole road gets closed down. Here we see Resident Astronomer Peggy coming back from walking up the road getting a closer look at the launch site.
Beach, just down the highway about a mile away. This reminds me that if you want to find out many of the details about ongoing operations, you might not see many official notifications from SpaceX, but the Twitter community is alive and well with dozens of folks reporting on what they hear or find out. @BocaChicaGal is a pretty good source of the latest news.
So, initially we had planned to spend a day and a half there looking through the fence, but because of flight traffic delays we had to spend one of our nights in Houston rather than in Brownsville and had other parts of the area we wanted to see. One of the areas we wanted to see was the resort and party location on South Padre Island. It is about an hour drive from the SpaceX site even though as the crow flies it is only a couple of miles or so away.
On the way way, you drive through a heave marine and offshore support area with many industries and shops busy fabricating and servicing offshore oil platforms and work boats.
|After visiting SpaceX we drove up to Blackbeard's Restaurant for lunch (Source: Palmia Observatory)
South Padre Island, which is a long narrow island, has become a popular spring break resort town and is reached by a bridge to the mainland. There is one main street along the length of island and the street is lined by resort hotels, restaurants,bars and rental location renting thousands of golf carts to the visiting revelers. When we were there it seemed a little subdued because of the COVID 19 situation. It is not clear if more students will be arriving or not.
|Portion of the bridge to South Padre Island (Source: Palmia Observatory)
So, for us, it was fun visiting the island and having lunch. We could have had lunch in Brownsville, but really wanted to see the resort area of South Padre Island. So we stopped at Blackbeards' and had some delicious seafood and mango daiquiris. Sadly, but I guess more importantly, we all will probably make the best of this bad situation by hunkering down and self isolating in order to prevent the spread of COVID 19, as this could be the last party scene that we make it to for a while. We are more than prepared to help support all the waiters, servers and bar personnel, but it seems the best accepted approach is to stay away or maybe buy gift certificates for use later. We will see! Anyway it is time to fly back to OC before we actually catch something and get quarantined far from home!
|Our lunch at Blackbeard's was still a party spot on South Padre Island (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Until next time,