December 19, 2022

FTV: Who Knew?


     There are so many things to learn.  As a retired teacher, I still marvel at the volume of knowledge waiting out there to be absorbed.  As I frequently told my students, “The key to life is to learn something new every day.”  Many times, when some new piece of information comes my way, my reaction is, “That is interesting.  Who knew?”  The header on a letter (yes, an actual letter) that landed in my mailbox got me mulling over some of these little mysteries of life that were not common knowledge for me.  Ralph’s letter began, “Just a short informal notice:  For some reason my normal e-mail provider has gone.”  At first I couldn’t make out if he meant ‘gone’ like ‘poof, it disappeared’ or ‘gone’ as in ‘bankrupt’.  Here is the rest of the story as Ralph relayed it to the correspondents on his e-mail (but now snail-mail) list:

     “This (the disappearing e-mail account) occurred several weeks ago and I attempted to remedy the situation by making contact with the people in charge of that service, a process that involved wait times close to two hours, and which resulted in being told that process had changed – they used to provide a one-time password verbally which would let me change my regular password.  I had become quite familiar with this procedure as it occurred every three weeks – and had since late April of this year.  However, this time they said they no longer do it that way – it would be mailed to me.  This was followed by the statement that they had just done that. 

     When I inquired as to where it was sent I was informed they emailed it to my e-mail address.  When I informed them ‘that is why I called in the first place as I could not access emails’ I was passed along to a supervisor who in turn informed me it will be sent via regular postal mail and would take 3 to 4 days to arrive.  A week later, I placed a second call and with the usual hour plus wait went through the same procedure – only this time was told it would be 7 to 10 business days.  It’s been three weeks since that experience and no mail has come in.  SO, I have switched to the following address . . .”  Apparently, fixing an e-mail issue via snail mail takes longer now than it would have using Pony Express.  Who knew?  

     Last spring, our church in Mass City again took part in the annual Adopt-A-Highway program.  This Michigan Department of Transportation sponsored program added a little twist in the spring of 2022 when it sent participants a packet of milkweed seeds to be spread along the side of roadways being cleaned up by groups across the state.  A member of the genus Asclepias, milkweed is a herbaceous, perennial, flowering plant whose name comes from the latex, or milky substance, that bleeds from it when the stems are damaged.  This latex contains cardiac glycosides (known as cardenolides) that are toxic to humans and many other species.  So why did MDOT asked A-A-H volunteers to spread the seeds of a potentially toxic plant along Michigan’s highways and byways? 

     Milkweed leaves and nectar are fed upon by several different species, among them are monarch butterflies..  Certain milkweeds serve as host plants for their larvae which appear as green and black striped caterpillars prior to emerging as butterflies.  By spreading milkweed seeds along public roadways, MDOT hopes to create ‘migration corridors’ to help increase monarch numbers which have been in decline.  Why?  Because monarchs are also pollinators and as any good farm hand can tell you, pollinators are crucial to producing the world’s food supplies.  There are currently over 200 species of milkweed spread across Africa, North America, and South America.  The plant was first formally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753.  He took the genus name after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.  This was not a ‘who knew?’ moment for me as we had looked up this information when we first spotted milkweed plants being munched on by monarch larva in our yard.

     When I wrote up a short article for the paper about the seed project being added to the long standing MDOT project, I dug a little further into the topic.  It turns out that milkweed have a long history of being used by humans.  Native peoples, including the Menomin from Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, used the common variety (A. syriaca) for medicinal purposes.  California’s Miwok people dried the stems of heart-leaf milkweed (A cordifolia) for cords, strings, and ropes once they had been dried.  

     The milkweed filaments found in the pods that appear near the end of the growing season (also known as ‘floss’) are hollow and coated with a waxy substance.  This material can be used for both thermal and acoustic insulation and as an oil absorbent.  The floss was also gathered and used as filler in lifevests during World War II to replace the kapok fibers that were originally used for that purpose.  Kapok fibers were imported from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South American before the war.  Milkweed floss is also grown commercially to use as a hypoallergenic filling in pillows and as insulation for winter coats.  

Who knew a simple weed could have so many uses?  We used to just enjoy watching the seeds take flight when we busted up the pods.

     Watching the Village of Ontonagon Water Department crew flush the fire hydrants always made me wonder why the water was not put down the nearest manhole instead of being sent running into the ditch.  Mind you, I am no hydrologic engineer, so I sent the Village office an email asking that very question.  It turns out, there are many very good reasons why this water is not sent careening into the sanitary sewer system.  Who knew?  As it was explained to me, the water velocity created at the pressure found in the fire hydrant is not compatible with the sewer lines.  Sewer systems are not designed for that much water and that much pressure entering the system that fast.  My thought was perhaps it would help flush debris from the sewer lines but it would not.  

     The biggest danger here comes from the materials people add to the sewers that should not be there.  The higher pressure water would have the effect of compacting this debris and cause blockages in the lines.  If enough material is pushed along and develops into a sufficiently dense plug, nothing good would come out of this scenario.  High pressure water encountering said blockages would do serious damage to the sewer lines, not clean them out like some high pressure plunger.  Hydrant flushing and sewer inspections are vastly different actions.

     When the DPW crew follows up on a sewer problem reported by a resident (gurgling drains, slow flow rates), they will pop open the nearest manhole cover, check the levels, and see if material is flowing properly.  If not, they employ a newer piece of equipment called a vactor (yes, a truck size vacuum for lack of a better description) and suction out and flush the problem areas.  This awesome machine works well and has been used to remove an amazing amount of non-decomposing material form the sewers (not limited to but including plastic containers, adult and infant diapers, metal, wood, bed sheets, and those ‘flushable wipes’ which are NOT flushable no matter what the packaging says!).  In one instance, they found a ten foot board.  How does one even flush a ten foot board into the sewer?  I am glad I asked because, who knew people would try to turn the sanitary sewers into some sort of giant garbage disposal?

     When the last street repaving project was planned for our neighborhood, the engineering firm and village manager came to us to explain the whole project.  There were several problems dovetailed into the need for our streets to be repaved.  First, the entire 40 acre plat (picture a square one quarter of a mile on a side) is extremely flat.  There is only about a foot and a half in elevation change from one side to the other.  The geography of the entire neighborhood makes it difficult to get the snowmelt and rain water to move.  The second problem came from people filling in the ditches in their front yards.  With no place to drain, the water would pool on the streets and seasonal frost heave destroyed the pavement much quicker than it should have.

     The engineer went through the entire rebuild as we sat in lawn chairs in the middle of the neighborhood to make it easy for us to visualize the entire problem and solution.  Extensive surveying outlined the direction they wanted to make the water move and the need to re-establish the ditches that had been filled in since the streets were originally laid out in the 1970s.  It was a big project that also involved digging the roadbed completely out and rebuilding it from the original base up.  When work was suspended for the winter, the neighbors all commented that the gravel surface was still smoother than the broken pavement we had been driving on for the past ten years.  Once all of the paving and ditch reseeding was completed, everyone kind of held their breath to see what would happen the first time it rained.

     True to form, the first big rain was what they call a ‘goose drowner’ (purportedly, a rain so hard it would kill a goose who looked upward with an open beak) and the new ditches rapidly filled to nearly the height of the roadbed.  Mercifully, within a half hour of the storm passing, the water drained to the west as they had planned and we marveled how well sculpted the whole system must be to make it move so well with only a foot and a half grade from one end to the other.  Who knew proper ditches could make that big of a difference?  The Village made a mistake in the past by letting homeowners fill the ditches in to begin with (if indeed they were asked).  They made it right and everything is still operating as it had been laid out before one shovel full of dirt was moved.

     Remember Bruce Willis and his drilling crew landing on an asteroid to plant a nuclear bomb to save the Earth in the 1998 Sci-Fi / Action thriller Armageddon?  The visuals and mission were pretty much a special effects designer’s fantasy (sorry, the old science teacher in me had to say that), but the idea of deflecting an object threatening the Earth is not so far-fetched.  On September 26, 2022, NASA did their first experiment to assess the feasibility of such a maneuver on a double asteroid seven million miles from Earth.  They had an idea of what they were dealing with because this was not their first close encounter with an asteroid.

     Since 2003, NASA and JAXA (the Japanese space agency) have flown missions to collect and return samples from asteroids.  The JAXA missions Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 to Asteroid 25143 Itokawa and Asteroid Ryugu (launched in 2003 and 2014, respectively) had mixed results.  Several practice runs and some mechanical glitches resulted in Hayabusa returning only 1500 dust particles that were stirred up when the probe made a touch and go collection attempt.  Hayabusa2 managed to land two small rovers on its target asteroid before attempting two touch and go sampling runs.  Upon return of the mission samples in December of 2020, ten percent of the total sample returned (23 millimeter-sized grains and four containers of finer material) from Ryugu were given to NASA to examine .  The Hayabusa2 craft continued past Earth to explore other targets through 2031.

     Like the Hayabusa missions before it, NASA’s 2016 OSIRIS-REx spent a long period of time orbiting its target asteroid (Bennu) before attempting a sampling pass.  Using a ten foot long probe arm, OSIRIS-REx contacted the surface and fired a pulse of nitrogen gas to stir up the subsurface material.  These particles were then forced into a collection area.  Surface contact pads also picked up samples from the Bennu.  Data collected by a host of other instruments on board is still being analyzed.  We won’t know exactly how much was collected from Bennu until the return capsule arrives back on Earth in September of 2023, but this sample mission still provided some surprises.  Unlike the solid rock asteroid depicted in Armageddon, Bennu was less consolidated.  Had the probe not fired its thrusters after the sample run, it may well have sunk into the surface of the asteroid.  

     With th3 more recent DART mission (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), they kind of had an idea that the target object (a small moonlet called Dimorphos orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos) would not be one solid object.  As the probe got closer to Dimorphos, the rubble covered surface confirmed what the Bennu encounter had shown them.  The aim of DART (pun intended) was to hit Dimorphos head on at 14,000 MPH with the vending machine sized probe to see if they could alter its orbit abound Didymos.  If successful, Earth based telescopes would be able to detect Dimorphos’s orbit slowing by about ten minutes per revolution.  The Earth based telescopes were able to record the moment of impact when the smaller asteroid brightened as a large plume of material was ejected into space by the encounter.  

     Note, neither of these objects pose any threat to the Earth.  The $325 million mission was designed to see whether ‘nudging’ an asteroid can alter its trajectory.  Think of it as a real world test of future planetary defense technologies that may be deployed to protect us from a life altering encounter with another Near Earth Object, or NEO.  The remoteness of this test was lost in translation for a lot of people.  Even Stephen Colbert joked that, “Assuming the DART impact didn’t put the asteroid on a collision with Earth, we should still be here tomorrow.”  The expected change in Dimorphos’s orbit would not be enough to redirect the larger Dydimos into an Earth intersecting path, but obviously, over-explaining the science part would have ruined his punch line.

     Who knew playing planetary billiards with an object seven million miles away from the Earth could be the first step in avoiding a possible extinction event?  The one that started the dinosaurs on their downward spiral was a long time ago and as they say, the farther in time we are from the last major impact, the closer we are to the next one.  In this case, I will go with the folks at NASA – one does not spend hundreds of millions of dollars just to set up a comedian’s punch line!  In the end, observations confirmed almost the exact deviation predicted for the smaller objects orbit, and that is no punch line – that is good news.  Think of it as a dose of preventative medicine designed to keep the Earth livable.    

     On a happy New Year note, our weather station is finally back on line on the station website.  In the two years that it would not communicate with our server, the anemometer gave up the will to live, so until winter is over, we can only offer temps and barometric pressures!  It is a start.

Top Piece Video:  There is no real connection to this article – I just like Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, so let us just offer this as a joyous tune to end one year and begin the next!  Happy New Year and Welcome 2023 – let us make it a better year for all!