HAMNET Report 10 December 2017

Thousands of KwaZulu-Natal residents, armed with sieves, have united in a bid to rid its coastline of a toxic threat that has contaminated its water and endangered its beaches and marine life.

People have volunteered their time to collect billions of little white plastic pellets called nurdles, which have infested beaches from Richards Bay on the North Coast right through to the South Coast. So widespread is the problem, that it has even hit Port St John’s in Eastern Cape. The total quantity of nurdles is estimated to weigh 49 tons.

The nurdles have the ability to absorb pollutants that are harmful to both marine life and humans if consumed.

“Nurdles never disappear, but merely break down into smaller and smaller fragments. Both the nurdles and the toxins they have absorbed can enter the food chain, as they are eaten by fish and other marine animals,” according to the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (Saambr).

The disaster started when a container containing a cargo of nurdles was swept off a ship in Durban Harbour during devastating storms in October.

According to The Independent, Di Jones from the Dolphin Coast Conservancy warned that the pollution was “comparable to an oil spill. There is a disaster in the making”.

So far, less than 5% of the nurdles that were swept into the sea have been recovered, according to East Coast Radio. Nurdle Clean-up’s Caroline Reid told the station this week that it was “scary” that they had collected such a small fraction.

“We’re mobilising more people. Local and government bodies have been great in mobilising crews,” she said.

The environmental affairs department, while acknowledging and praising clean-up efforts to date, has urged coastal communities to continue pitching in to clean the affected beaches.

“The department therefore would like to commend all persons involved in the response to the incident to date. Members of the public are encouraged to join in and to contribute toward the protection of the coast,” said environmental affairs minister Dr Edna Molewa.

As a follow-up to the insert of a few weeks ago, referring to the levels of radioactive Ruthenium-106, nearly 1000 times higher than normal, I can confirm that  scientists using sophisticated climate modelling technology, pinpointed the site where the radiation originated. These experts pointed directly to a site in the South Ural mountains in Russia as the probable location.

The site of the radiation spike is conveniently located at what The Guardian calls a “secretive Russian nuclear facility” named Mayak, which was the home of the top secret Russian nuclear bomb program in the late 1940’s.

On November 21, Russia acknowledged the radiation spike was true, and admitted they’d also detected a 986 times increase in the radioactive isotope near the suspected leak site. It remains to be seen what effect the radiation has on biology.

And, on a related subject, Rodina Energy Group and Enerparc Ag will be working on a $1.2 million project that places one megawatt worth of solar panels in close proximity to the deactivated Chernobyl reactor. Both companies are capitalizing on the Ukrainian government redeveloping and offering around 1,000 square miles of the land for cheap. While the area isn’t safe for farming, it creates an ideal situation for renewable energy, as power lines are still connected in the evacuated zone.

“Bit by bit we want to optimize the Chernobyl zone,” Evgeny Variagin, CEO of Rodina Energy, told Bloomberg. “It shouldn’t be a black hole in the middle of Ukraine. Our project is over 300 feet from the reactor.” Rodina has installed 150 megawatts worth of solar panels in their portfolio.

Both Rodina and Enerparc could develop up to 100 megawatts at Chernobyl. The Ukrainian firms aren’t the only energy companies that are developing in the area. According to Bloomberg, companies from France and China are interested in building solar farms on the redeveloped land. In particular, Engie SA in France is “conducting a pre-feasibility test with a gigawatt-sized project in mind.” It’s been a study since last July to see if the project could work.

Now, let me tell you about the Rooster, which is a new robot from Israeli start-up RoboTiCan that can help reach injured victims of natural disasters where it’s not safe to send a human rescue worker.

Rooster got its name from the fowl’s preference for walking but being able to fly when necessary, Ofir Bustan, RoboTiCan’s COO, told ISRAEL21c. “Most of the time it walks, but when it runs into an obstacle, it can hover and fly.”

That makes Rooster different from most other search-and-rescue robots, which can either walk or fly but not both – meaning they can get stuck or are too high above the ground to search effectively for survivors.

RoboTiCan’s highly manoeuvrable Rooster is one tough bird. The 30-by-40-centimeter robot rolls inside a metal “cage,” which allows it “to take some pretty hard hits,” Bustan says. “It can crash from six meters high and keep on working.”

It’s the robot’s communications that really sets it apart, Bustan explains. A team of Roosters, which can be deployed simultaneously by a single operator, set up their own independent “wireless mesh network” so they can talk to each other and the operator over a distance of hundreds of meters. No need for a cellular connection, which may be offline anyway in a disaster situation.

The operator can also send out a single Rooster and, when it reaches as far into the disaster zone as its communications will carry, send a second Rooster out. The signals will be relayed back to the operator piggyback style. Clever indeed!

HAMNET Western Cape’s end-of-year function was enjoyed by a group of regulars who gathered at the Observatory in Cape Town for a bring and braai on Wednesday evening, at which Grant Southey ZS1GS, Western Cape Regional Director, presented certificates of appreciation to the members, and acknowledged their contributions to the comms needed during the year. Your writer joins him in congratulating these members of HAMNET Western Cape.

Finally, a thought for the day: 100 years ago everyone owned a horse and only the rich had cars. Today everyone has cars and only the rich own horses!

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.

HAMNET Report 3 December 2017

Keith Lowes, ZS5WFD, HAMNET”s KZN Provincial Director, has reported the sudden and unexpected  passing of Des Mullen ZS5DDM. Des was a Fireman by profession, but also an active HAMNET member and committee member of the Midlands Amateur Radio Club. We extend HAMNET’s deepest sympathies to his family and friends on their sad loss.

What do selfies from the South Pole have to do with deep space missions? Quite a lot, actually. David Szondy, reporting in New Atlas on Wednesday reported that, on Monday November 20, NASA used a selfie taken outside Antarctica’s McMurdo Station at the bottom of the world and sent to the International Space Station to show off a new technology called Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN). This communication technology will allow spacecraft far from Earth to communicate with mission control using an interplanetary version of the internet.

The internet is an excellent way of moving data from one part of the world to another, but it does have its limitations. One of these is that it’s designed with the assumption that it’s connections from point A to point B can be kept uninterrupted or, if it is broken and can’t be established by another route, it’s possible to restart sending the data packets.

That’s fine on Earth where there are trillions of potential connections across the information superhighway, but deep space missions usually rely on one data link that can be interrupted by distance, the Sun getting in the way, or plain bad luck. If that one link is broken, important mission telemetry and other data can be lost forever. So, though internet technology is very useful for space communications, it does need some important tweaking.

This is where McMurdo and DTN come in. With its remoteness, high latitudes, stormy weather, and scant infrastructure, Antarctic data transmission suffers from demand exceeding capacity and the constant threat of information being lost due to outages. It’s a pain, but it also makes places like the South Pole a perfect analogue for trying to stay in touch with a Mars rover or a Jupiter orbiter.

DTN sends information much the same way as the conventional internet does. Information is encoded and broken into packets, which are bundled and sent through the system to its destination. But, unlike the internet, if a connection isn’t available, DTN stores the bundle until communications are re-established. The bundles can then be sent and the file reconstructed at the destination.

For the demonstration, the selfie was taken with a smartphone camera and the DTN software sent the image file from the McMurdo ground station to NASA’s White Sands Complex using the repurposed Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). When the transmission reached North America, a series of DTN nodes routed the data bundles to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, from which it was transmitted to the ISS using another TDRS link. On the space station, the bundles were collected by the TeleScience Resource Kit demonstration payload and a final DTN node reconstructed the image.

According to NASA, the open-source DTN technology can not only ensure secure communication links with spacecraft, but can also find applications on Earth – in Antarctica, but also in disaster areas and other places that suffer from disrupted communications.

“We’re cutting our teeth on this software, in real field conditions,” says Patrick Smith, technology development manager for polar research support with the US Antarctic Program. “The simplicity of transmitting from a smart-phone could have significant implications for increasing and diversifying the science we support in the polar regions. This represents a vision of how our remote autonomous field research instrumentation might operate one day.”

This could be used by HAMNET too.

HAMNET Western Cape will be holding its end of year function this Wednesday evening the 6th of December at the South African Astronomical Observatory, with fires lit at 17h30, and the members hopefully presenting themselves there at about 18h00 or so. There will be no business discussed, except for the report by the Regional Director Grant Southey ZS1GS, and the meeting will take the form of a bring-and-braai. We look forward to seeing all Western Cape’s HAMNET members there!

With schools breaking up this week, families who have early leave will be travelling to start their holidays from the end of this week. If you’re one of the holiday makers, please drive carefully, and, if you’re staying at home, please leave your radios on and tuned to your local emergency VHF or HF frequency, to be available if anyone needs help .

This is Dave Reece  ZS1DFR  reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.