In: dark energy. Out: cosmic rays.

Yesterday Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on “Exploration and the Future of U.S. Leadership in Space.” What seems to have attracted the most attention, and perhaps some confusion, are some comments she made in her speech about the role the ISS could play regarding energy production. Here is what she said on the topic:

We had a great hearing in our committee where Dr. Sam Ting, who is a Nobel laureate at MIT, he talked about the importance of the basic science that can be done on the space station and especially in light of our energy crisis in this country. He said that what they’re trying to do is go to the dark side, the dark energy that is in the universe, the energy that scientists believe is propelling the galaxies and the expanding universe. We believe, and Dr. Ting believes, that if we could improve the understanding of that dark energy, that matter, that that would help us find a new source of power, perhaps, if we could harness that energy, maybe a new source of energy that we could use on Earth. That is one of the things that he wants to do if we could get the space station finished with the equipment that he needs. Well, at a time when we’re desperate for new sources of energy, while China and India are exploding as industrialized nations and we see the price of energy going up all over the world, this is something that we should explore. That is something that the 16 nations who are part of the space station could do together, because all of us have a common goal of needing more efficient energy in all of our countries.

Now, that does sound an awful lot like trying to harness dark energy for power production, something that I imagine that most (if not virtually all) scientists would find a bit ludicrious, if for nothing else that there’s no consensus regarding just what dark energy is.

If her statements sound vaguely familiar, there’s a good reason: at an STA breakfast in early March, Sen. Hutchison said, “We had a great Commerce Committee hearing with Dr. Samuel Ting, the Nobel laureate at MIT, who talked about cosmic rays being the most important energy source in space that we can start probing to see how we can harness that to provide energy, energy in space, but maybe we can bring it back here too.” That’s very similar to yesterday’s comments; only that cosmic rays have since been replaced by dark energy, it seems.

So what exactly is she talking about? Several weeks back a staffer sent me a document describing the potential benefits of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the instrument being developed by an international team led by Dr. Ting that is intended to fly on the ISS. And, indeed, one of the first benefits listed by Dr. Ting is “enhanced energy production”. However, he’s referring to enhanced terrestrial energy production, by spinning off the superconducting magnet technology being developed for the instrument:

Both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have recognized the importance of using superconducting magnets to enhance energy production by harnessing nuclear energy directly. Both countries have invested substantially in the development of many such devices to convert nuclear power directly to electricity without the necessity of traditional heavy turbines using a system called Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). Since an MHD generator can directly convert nuclear energy to electricity without degrading its high quality, as is common in conventional turbine-generators, the power conversion efficiency is significantly higher than conventional nuclear reactor power plants.

Nowhere does the document mention using the AMS, or technologies derived from it, to try and harness cosmic rays or dark energy for energy production. So the AMS may be used to study cosmic rays or dark energy (or, more likely, dark matter, which is something completely different from dark energy), and AMS-derived spinoff technologies may enhance energy production on Earth. Unfortunately, Sen. Hutchison has appeared to short-circuit the two ideas by combining them into an unlikely amalgam.

12 comments to In: dark energy. Out: cosmic rays.

  • It’s not entirely unreasonable to hope that dark matter or dark energy could be harnessed for practical application in the future (for example, discovery of massive stable negatively charged particles could lead to catalytic nuclear fusion, although the bounds on existence of such particles from previous searches are severe), but it should be viewed as one of those vague, unquantifiable things that motivates pure research.

  • Matthew Corey Brown

    You’ve got to study something before you have a chance to harness it.

    And there is some debate about dark energy being different then dark matter. I’m not saying one way or another, as I’m silently in the middle of that debate. And i may remain silent if i can’t get this math to work out. As i’m an untrained in physics, not gonna poke my head up unless I can get all my ducks in a row. But none the less there is a debate on the equivelence of dark matter and dark energy. Granted they don’t even have a standard jargon to describe it. So expecting a Senator to get it right is asking for a little much.

  • Superconducters. High temperature superconductivity.

    Hmmm … One would think the ISS could handle that enabling technology. It must be a very dark place where Griffin has his head crammed into right now.

  • Jeff

    Paul Dietz’ comment is exactly right on….there IS a debate….there is not a consensus….therefore there is the need for more research, to parahphrase what I see his meaning to be. Tell me Jeff, do YOU know exactly what will be discovered with the AMS experiment? Do YOU claim to know all there is to know about dark matter or dark energy? I may be wrong, but I think we do research to try to find those kinds of answers…if we knew the answers it wouldn’t be research. Ever since the STA speech you have been hung up on Senator Hutchison’s comments about something that MIGHT…just MIGHT provide an important clue to the physics of our universe that we simply don’t understand and that COULD, just MAYBE (the same words she used in your quote) provide clues to new energy sources. If you know something that no one else does about the absolute futility of even undertaking the experiment, for this purpose or for any other puropose, please let us all know, and we won’t have to try to find a way to launch it to the ISS.

  • Jeff

    Sorry…attributed Matthew Brown’s Post about the debate to Paul…but both are right on, as well as Thomas Elifritz. Looks like I’m agreeing with everyone but Jeff so far, hehe.

  • Jeff Foust

    Jeff: I’m not opposed to flying the AMS, and I would be the last person to claim that we know all that there is to know about cosmic rays, dark energy, dark matter, or other astronomical phenomena. What I am concerned about are statements like the Senator’s that, even when couched in plenty of “perhaps” and “maybes”, could be setting unrealistic expectations for the research that the instrument in question would perform. (As I noted in the post, the energy production benefits of the AMS, as touted by Dr. Ting, are focused on technology spinoffs of the superconducting magnets for the instrument that could be used for nuclear power plants on Earth—not on production of energy from dark energy or the like.) What happens if AMS were to make it to the ISS, perform great science, but not make any contributions to energy production on Earth? I’d hardly consider that a failure, but one can imagine how some would try to spin it that way. AMS should stand (or fall) based not on hypothetical possible contributions to energy production on Earth, but on the quality of the basic science it would perform.

  • Jeff

    I think that’s a valid concern, Jeff, and it applies to virtually every scientific experiment planned for ISS. The electrophoresis experiments flown aboard the shuttle and the bioreactor are two experiments that come to mind as having been touted as having great potential, the first for potential improvemets in pharmaceutial production and advancing treatments for diabetes, and the second for the growth of human tissue that could lead to advancements in organ growth, prosthetic enhancements, etc. There were critics and skeptics of both and neither one ended up–so far, at least–measuring up to advertised expectations. But that outcome has not diminished the potential scientific value of the space station as a research platform. ISS is being built as a unique laboratory with unique capabilities that cannot be replicated on Earth. It’s success or failure as a laboratory is not dependent on the “success” or “failure” of any given experiment conducted there, any more than any other laboratory. The vast majority of experiments done in any lab probably “fail” by one definition of that term or another. But even if they end up disproving a hypothesis upon which they were based, they have contributed to “scientific knowledge” by helping narrow the fous for subsequent research. Maybe the problem with ISS, AMS, etc., is that the expenditure of public money has to be justified, and the “system”–maybe even the “society”–tends to want to know in advance what the results will be, or at least what the range of possibilities are. I don’t know how easily that kind of expectation could be replaced by the notion of embracing basic science as something inherently valuable regardless of outcomes. It’s a conundrum, and this whole dialogue reflects why it’s a difficult one.

  • But that outcome has not diminished the potential scientific value of the space station as a research platform.

    The critics would agree with this statement, but not for a reason you’d like. ;)

  • Jeff Foust: When Senator Hutchison attaches the word “harness” to any and every reference to “energy” in space station research, she doesn’t really create any unrealistic expectations. Instead, she sounds like a crackpot. The real fear is not that she might raise expectations, but that she might lower them, to zero, on the grounds that losers dictate the mandate for human spaceflight.

  • Jeff

    Greg: I would have thought a mathematics professor at a major university would be above such sweeping–not to mention insulting–generalizations as “crackpot” or “loser.” When did you conduct the comprehensive–and undoubtedly mathematically precise–study of the Senator’s “any and every reference” to energy in space station research? Sounds like you may have taken a “quantum leap” in the logic.

  • Chris Mann

    Reduced to ad hominem in record time jeff. Well done.

  • Jeff B

    Chris: Point well made and taken….fuse has gotten way too short, though not without “some” provocation.