Thursday, January 27, 2011

South Africa's Rocket Man Elon Musk Prepares Top Send Astronauts Into Space

SpaceX aims for next milestone: carrying astronauts

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne has given NASA a proposal to be the first commercial firm to take people into outer space.

After becoming the first private company ever to blast a spacecraft into Earth orbit and have it return intact last month, Hawthorne rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is pushing toward its next big step.
The company known as SpaceX wants to be the first commercial firm to launch astronauts into outer space and has submitted a proposal to NASA.
SpaceX wants in on the potentially multibillion-dollar job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired this year. The company is already building rockets and capsules to deliver cargo to the station.
NASA's Commercial Crew Development program hopes to award about $200 million in seed money in March to companies to develop rockets and spacecraft for the next step in manned spaceflight after the shuttle. Several aerospace companies, including SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing Co., have submitted proposals.

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SpaceX's Dec. 8 launch of its Dragon spacecraft was a technological and financial feat, the likes of which had previously been accomplished by only the wealthiest of nations.
Although the Dragon was unmanned, it was designed to carry seven astronauts. On the day of the launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said: "If there had been people sitting in Dragon today, they would've had a nice ride."
But the 9,260-pound spacecraft still needs upgrades before an astronaut can strap in, Musk said last week.
"Upgrading Dragon capsules to carry astronauts won't be too difficult," he said. "The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying crew with only three key modifications: a launch abort system, environmental controls and seats."
More than 1,000 engineers and technicians are employed at the company's sprawling production facility in Hawthorne — a former Boeing 747 assembly plant — where it builds rockets to launch satellites for telecommunications companies and foreign governments.
Musk, a 39-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, started SpaceX with the vision of developing and launching rockets and lifting payloads into space at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft.
When the shuttle program is mothballed and before new space vehicles are astronaut-ready, the U.S. will have no way to travel to the International Space Station other than on a Russian Soyuz rocket. SpaceX hopes to win the right to develop those new space vehicles, Musk said. "SpaceX is prepared to meet this need."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Terrorism Forecast 2011

Forecast for 2011

While it has been apparent for some time now that the al Qaeda core has been eclipsed on the physical battlefield by the franchise groups, over the past year we’ve seen indications that it is also beginning to play a secondary role in the ideological realm. Some posts on jihadist message boards criticize bin Laden and the al Qaeda core for their lack of operational activity. Some have even called them cowards for hiding in Pakistan for so long and consider their rhetoric “tired and old.” At the same time, AQAP has received a great deal of attention in the international media (and in the jihadist realm) due to operations like the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed, the Fort Hood shootings, the Christmas Day underwear-bombing attempt and, most recently, the printer bomb plot. This publicity has given AQAP a great deal of credibility among radical Islamists. The result is that AQAP has moved to the forefront of international jihadism. This means that people have begun to listen to what AQAP says while they have begun to ignore the messages of the al Qaeda core.
AQAP was well-positioned to take advantage of the bully pulpit afforded by its media-stimulating attacks. In addition to AQAP’s popular Arabic-language online magazine Sada al-Malahim, the emergence of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine and the increased profile and popularity of American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki have also helped propel AQAP to the forefront of jihadist tactical and ideological discussions.
In a March 2010 video titled “A Call to Arms,” American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn openly advocated a tactical approach to terrorist attacks — conducting simple attacks utilizing readily available weapons — that was first publicly advocated by AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi in Sada al-Malahim and expanded upon in each issue of Inspire. Ordinarily, it is the al Qaeda core that sets the agenda in the jihadist realm, but the success of AQAP in inspiring grassroots operatives has apparently caused the core group to jump on the AQAP bandwagon and endorse al-Wahayshi’s approach. We believe it is highly likely that we will see more examples of deference to AQAP from the al Qaeda core in the coming year. Overall, we believe that the al Qaeda core will remain marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 while struggling to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield.

Regional Forecasts

·                       U.S. and Europe: Tactically, we anticipate that the core and franchise groups will continue to have difficulty attacking the United States and Europe directly and will continue to reach out to grassroots operatives who have the ability to travel to the West. This means we will likely see more plots involving poorly trained operatives like Zazi and Shahzad. While such individuals do have the capacity to kill people, they lack the capacity to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks like 9/11. This trend also means that travel to places such as Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or contact with jihadist planners there, will continue to be an operational weakness that can be exploited by Western intelligence agencies.
While al-Wahayshi’s appeal for aspiring jihadist militants to avoid contacting franchise groups and travel overseas in search of jihadist training makes a great deal of sense tactically, it has proved very difficult to achieve. This is evidenced by the fact that we have seen very few plots or attacks in which the planners were true lone wolves who had absolutely no contact with outside jihadists — or with government agents they believed to be jihadists. So while the leaderless resistance model can be quite difficult for law enforcement to guard against, its downside for the jihadists is that it takes a unique type of individual to be a true and effective lone wolf.
Since we believe most plots in the United States and Europe will again involve grassroots jihadists in 2011, we also believe that soft targets such as public gatherings and mass transportation will continue to be the most popular target set. We can also anticipate that franchises will continue to seek ways to attack aircraft. Certainly, AQAP has a history of such attacks, and perhaps even groups like al Shabaab or TTP could attempt to hit this long-popular jihadist target set. In places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, we believe that hotels and housing compounds could serve as attractive and softer alternative targets to more difficult targets such as U.S. embassies or consulates. As we have recently noted, we also see no end to the targeting of people and institutions involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy.
We also believe it is likely in the coming year that more grassroots militants in the United States will heed al-Wahayahi’s advice and begin to conduct simple attacks using firearms rather than attempting more difficult and elaborate attacks using explosives.
·                       Pakistan: The number of jihadist bombing attacks in Pakistan is trending down, as is the size of the devices involved. This means that the Pakistani government seems to have reduced the capabilities of the TTP to conduct attacks. It may be no coincidence that such attacks have trended down at the same time that U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes along the border have been picking up. That said, the Pakistani tribal areas are teeming with weapons and ordnance and there is a wide array of jihadist elements that could employ them in an attack, from the TTP to al Qaeda to al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. This means that Pakistan will face the threat of attack for the foreseeable future. The area along the border with Afghanistan is rugged and has proved hard to pacify for hundreds of years. We do not think the Pakistanis will be able to bring the area under control this year.
·                       Afghanistan: In the coming year, as the spring thaw sets in, we will be watching closely for a Taliban resurgence and a more concerted attempt to reverse gains made by the International Security Assistance force in 2010. Our 2011 forecast for this conflict can be found here.
·                       Yemen: We will continue to monitor Yemen closely. As mentioned above, so far the large influx of U.S. intelligence and military assets has not seemed to have helped the Yemeni government to seriously weaken AQAP, which is the strongest of the jihadist franchises outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, region and the one with the longest transnational reach. Interestingly, the group has not had a very good track record of hitting international targets inside Yemen, aside from occasional attacks against unarmed tourists. This might cause AQAP to divert from harder targets like embassies and motorcades of armored vehicles toward softer targets like individual foreigners and foreign housing compounds. In December, a Jordanian jihadist conducted a poorly executed attack against U.S. Embassy personnel who had stopped at a pizzeria. This could have been a one-off attack, but it could also have been the start of a change in AQAP targeting in Yemen.
·                       Indonesia: The Indonesian government has continued to hit Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad very hard, and it is unlikely that the group will be able to regroup and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks in 2011.
·                       North Africa: In the north of Algeria, AQIM has continued to shy away from the al Qaeda core’s targeting philosophy and concentrated on attacking government and security targets — essentially functioning as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat with a different name. The Algerian government has hit AQIM very hard in its traditional mountain strongholds east of Algiers, and the ideological rift over whether to follow al Qaeda’s dictates has also hurt the group. An increase in the abduction of Westerners and clashes with security forces in the Sahara-Sahel is not a convincing indication of AQIM’s expanding reach. Nor are incompetent attacks like the Jan. 5 attack against the French Embassy in Bamako, Mali. Much of this expanded activity in the south is the result of rivalries between sub-commanders and efforts to raise money via kidnapping and banditry in order to survive. This is a sign of weakness and lack of cohesion, not strength.
AQIM is a shell of what it was four years ago. It will continue to kidnap victims in the Sahel — or acquire kidnapped foreigners from ethnic Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger — and the occasional small attack, but it is not at this time a unified militant organization that poses a regional, much less transnational, threat.
·                       Somalia: Al Shabaab went transnational with the Kampala attacks and has also been able to consolidate its grip over the jihadist landscape in Somalia this year by absorbing main rival Hizbul Islam. However, al Shabaab itself is not a monolithic entity. It is comprised of different factions, with the main subsets being led by al Shabaab chief Ahmad Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr) and one of his top commanders, Muktar Robow (aka Abu Mansur). Abu Zubayr leads the more transnational or jihadist element of the organization, while Abu Mansur and his faction are more nationalist in their philosophy and military operations. This factionalism within al Shabaab and the general unpopularity of jihadism among large portions the Somali population should help prevent al Shabaab from conquering Somalia (as will an increase in the number of African Union peacekeeping troops and the operations of other anti-al Shabaab forces like the Ethiopian-backed militia Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah).
However, Abu Zubayr maintains close contact with people in the Somali diaspora in East Africa, South Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States. These contacts provide funding and fighters that will help sustain the insurgency in Somalia, but they could also be used to conduct transnational attacks outside of Somalia.
·                       India: India continues to face a very real threat from transnational jihadist groups such as the LeT and HUJI, which will continue to plan attacks in India and against Indian interests in places like Afghanistan. India also faces a persistent, though lesser, threat from domestic jihadist groups like Indian Mujahideen (IM).
·                       Egypt: The Jan. 1, 2011, bombing at a church in Alexandria raised the possibility that transnational jihadists were once again becoming more involved in Egypt — especially in light of threats by the Islamic State in Iraq to attack Egyptian Christians in Iraq in early November 2010. However, it now appears that initial reports that the Alexandria attack was a suicide operation may have been incorrect, and Egyptian authorities are reporting that the device was similar in construction to devices used in two 2009 attacks, indicating that the bombmaker in the Alexandria attack was not likely a recent import from Iraq. The Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyahpublicly joined forces with al Qaeda in August 2006, but little has come from the union. It will be important to watch and see if the Alexandria attack was an anomaly or the beginning of a new pattern of attacks in Egypt.
·                       Caucasus: The rise of the Caucasus Emirate in 2009-2010 brought with it an increase in operational tempo and resulted in the March 29, 2010, suicide attacks against the Moscow Metro. The group also attempted to provide a unified umbrella for a number of disparate militant groups operating in the region — an umbrella that had more of a jihadist than the traditional nationalistic bent seen in militant groups operating in the region. However, a power struggle within the group, combined with a Russian counteroffensive, has resulted in the group being unable to provide the unified leadership it envisioned. There are still militant groups active in the Caucasus, and while they can kill people, they do not possess the cohesion or capability to pose a true strategic threat to Russia. It appears that in the coming year the Russian authorities will launch an operation in Dagestan that will utilize the tactics they have used in Chechnya. Such an operation could produce a significant backlash.
·                       Iraq: The year 2010 was highly successful for U.S. and Iraqi troops in the fight against the Iraqi jihadist franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Combined U.S.-Iraqi efforts, with local assistance, have severely damaged the group’s finances, leadership and ability to recruit. It is unlikely that the ISI’s propensity for violent attacks will wane, but the group’s diminished leadership, operational capacity and logistics infrastructure make its future seem bleak. At the beginning of 2010, the trend was for ISI to conduct an attack every six to 10 weeks against government ministries, but by the end of the year major attacks were occurring less frequently and against softer, less strategic targets, like churches.
While the al Qaeda core has been marginalized, the ideology of jihadism continues to survive and win new converts. As long as this ideology is able to spread, the war its adherents are waging to subjugate the rest of the world will continue. While jihadists do not pose a strategic geopolitical threat on a global

Saturday, January 22, 2011

South Africa's Rocket Man Elon Musk Does It Again!!!!

Taking the Next Step | Commercial Crew Development Round 2
December 8th 2010 marked an incredible accomplishment for SpaceX.  As most of you know, we became the first commercial company to successfully recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit.  This is a feat previously only accomplished by six other nations/government agencies, and was made possible only through our ongoing partnership with NASA. 
While the flight was a significant technical achievement for SpaceX as a company, it was probably most significant for the American taxpayer.  The United States has an urgent, critical need for commercial human spaceflight.  After the Space Shuttle retires next year, NASA will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for a price of over $50 million per seat. 
The December 8 COTS Demo 1 flight demonstrated SpaceX is prepared to meet this need--and at less than half the cost. 
We believe the now flight-proven Falcon 9 and Dragon architecture is the safest path to crew transportation capability.  Both vehicles were designed from the beginning to transport astronauts.  The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying crew with only three key modifications:  a launch abort system, environmental controls and seats.
In addition to last month’s successful demonstration, SpaceX recently took another critical next step towards the development of an American alternative to the Russian Soyuz.  On December 13th, we submitted our proposal to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2) to begin work on preparing Dragon to carry astronauts.  The primary focus of our CCDev2 proposal is the launch abort system.  Using our experience with NASA’s COTS office as a guide, we have proposed implementing the crew-related elements of Dragon’s design with specific hardware milestones, which will provide NASA with regular, demonstrated progress including:
  • initial design of abort engine and crew accommodations;
  • static fire testing of the launch abort system engines; and
  • prototype evaluations by NASA crew for seats, control panels and cabin
SpaceX has proposed an integrated launch abort system design, which has several advantages over the tractor tower approaches used by all prior vehicles:
  • Provides escape capability all the way to orbit versus a tractor system , which is so heavy it must be dumped about four minutes after liftoff.  
  • Improves crew safety, as it does not require a separation event, whereas any non-integral system (tractor or pusher), must be dumped on every mission for the astronauts to survive.
  • Reduces cost since the escape system returns with the spacecraft.
  • Enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power.  (An emergency chute will always be retained as a backup system for maximum safety.)
While the maximum reliability is designed into our vehicles, there is no substitute for recent, relevant flight experience when it comes to demonstrating flight safety.  The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to fly at least 11 more times and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is scheduled to fly 17 times before the first Dragon crew flight.  Given the extensive manifest of Falcon 9 and Dragon, the SpaceX system will mature before most other systems will be developed.
The inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft confirmed what we have always believed—the responsiveness and ingenuity of the private sector, combined with the guidance, support and insight of the US government, can deliver an American spaceflight program that is achievable, sustainable and affordable.  The SpaceX team is excited about the new opportunities and challenges the New Year will bring.   Thank you for your ongoing support and we look forward to helping build America’s future space program.

Caption: Illustration of Dragon spacecraft in orbit.

Caption: Photo of actual Dragon spacecraft after its first successful orbital flight. Credit: Mike Altenhofen / SpaceX

Central African Republic: Pre-election report

Central African Republic: Pre-election report

Sunday, January 16, 2011

South Africa's Rocket Man Elon Musk Gets Massive New NASA Funding

SpaceX getting millions from NASA as it hits milestones

Hawthorne-based SpaceX has received $25 million from NASA since successfully launching its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule last month.

SpaceX’s rocket and Dragon capsule rise from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Hawthorne firm’s spacecraft has room for seven astronauts. (Bruce Weaver, AFP/Getty Images / January 13, 2011)
Hawthorne-based rocket venture Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has received $25 million from NASAsince successfully launching its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule from Cape Canaveral last month.
The company, better known as SpaceX, has developed the Dragon capsule under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The spacecraft, which can carry as many as seven astronauts, is considered a contender for the multibillion-dollar job of ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired this year.
SpaceX already has a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to have the Dragon capsule transport cargo to the space station, a job that could start this year.
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the NASA program, confirmed in an interview that the space agency has paid the company for reaching a series of important milestones.

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"The company is making great progress," Lindenmoyer said, adding that SpaceX earned $5 million in a test launch Dec. 8 when it blasted the Dragon into orbit atop its massive Falcon 9 rocket.
After the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, it marked the first time that a private company had developed a rocket and capsule capable of circling the globe and returning intact — a technological and financial feat reserved for the wealthiest of nations in half a century of spaceflight.
In addition to the flight, SpaceX achieved four ground-based milestones worth $5 million each, Lindenmoyer said.
The company successfully tested the effect of vibrations on cargo in the Dragon and demonstrated that it could carry out the test at its sprawling facility in Hawthorne, which once housed part of the production for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. The company also tested the capsule's sensors and solar panels, which are key to docking with the space station.
SpaceX, started by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, employs more than 1,100 people, mostly in California.

A $100 Million Dollar Gamble To Find Oil Off The Coast Of Angola

The Will to Drill

Mark Peterson for The New York Times
Jim Farnsworth of Cobalt International Energy, which may have found a large oil reserve off the coast of Angola.
Oilmen are optimists, by creed if not always by nature, and early last spring things looked, as those in the industry like to say, prospective. The deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were steadily drilling, with no suggestion of any impending calamity, and oil was flowing from the vast finds in offshore Brazil. Circumstances looked particularly prospective to a geophysicist named Jim Farnsworth, who works for Cobalt International Energy, a company that held a group of leases 50 miles from the mouth of Angola’s Cuanza River basin. It was at that site, he had come to believe, that an enormous basin of oil lay, beneath an obscuring layer of salt, in rocks deep below the bottom of the sea. The industry had been over this territory a decade earlier; a few scattered wells were drilled into the Cuanza basin, and then, having found little oil, the companies plugged them. In seismic images, you could still see the pipes, running through the sediment of the ocean floor.
Elliot Lim/Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center
THE AGE OF THE OCEAN FLOOR Until about 200 million years ago, Africa and South America were part of one supercontinent. Here is the age progression of the sea fl oor during the formation of modern continents — red areas are the newest, violet the oldest.
WesternGeco and Sonangol
COBALT’S TREASURE MAP A 3-D rendering, compiled from seismic data, showing four of Cobalt’s deepwater drilling sites (including Bicuar, formerly known as Gold Dust) off the coast of Angola. The oil is thought to be two miles beneath the ocean fl oor, below a layer of salt.
Farnsworth said he thought those wells hadn’t gone nearly deep enough. He had his eyes on a buried ridge that lay some three miles below the ocean surface. His team of geologists thought a multibillion-barrel oil field was running along the crest of the ridge. They had worked over the seismic images, processing and reprocessing them until the feature came looming into view. “In all my years as an explorer, you don’t see structures that big very often,” Farnsworth told me. No one knew if it actually held oil. But Cobalt acquired the leases and named the prospect Gold Dust.
I first met Farnsworth in August, at Cobalt’s Houston offices, as his team was preparing to travel to Luanda, to make its final presentation to the Angolan government before it drilled. As best as Cobalt’s scientists could figure, Gold Dust displayed near-perfect conditions for gathering oil. The shape of the basin suggested a lake, dried and pinned against the slope of the ridge. In the images were a set of features that looked like branches on a tree; they could have once been the fingers of a delta that fed carbon-rich sediment down into the lake some 150 million years ago. If that was the case, all of that prehistoric carbon would have spent millennia transforming into oil. An outside team had come to examine the data Cobalt assembled for Gold Dust; if the ridge held oil, the scientists concluded, it would likely hold between three billion and six billion barrels of it.
Oil exploration has an unexpected quality of whimsy. The artistry lies in acts of narrative imagination, the ability to take disparate wisps of data and insist that oil must exist in a particular spot and then to entice a company with your enthusiasm. The independent assessor’s figures put the chance of a strike at 1 in 3, and Cobalt estimated that drilling a single exploratory well in that region would cost $100 million. Those are strong odds in the industry, 1 in 3, because the success rate for exploratory wells is generally between 10 and 30 percent. But still, the well would most likely fail. “I think it’s a great story,” Farnsworth said, but “you can get caught up in the enthusiasm.” Yet if no one ever got caught up in the enthusiasm, nothing would ever be drilled.
Oil reserves have been declining for a decade, and it is an article of faith among petroleum geologists that the easy oil — easier to find, less complicated to drill — has all been extracted and that the explorers are now into the hard oil. When the Deepwater Horizon rig, drilling an exploratory well deep into rock through a mile of water and three miles into the ocean floor off the Louisiana coast, struck a highly pressurized pocket of oil and gas, causing an explosion, it was in some ways a consequence of this iterative, competitive game, each generation of discoveries pushing further into the unknown.
A few years ago, the industry norm was to drill at depths of 15,000 or 20,000 feet. Now the frontier is 35,000 feet, where engineers find higher temperatures and pressures. “The scarcity of new reserves has been driving companies into plays that have previously been seen as extremely high risk and high cost,” said Brian Maxted, the chief executive officer of Kosmos Energy, a deepwater-exploration company in Dallas. “The trend recently has been in going toward ever-deeper waters and ever-more challenging environments.”
These circumstances have also subtly redefined what it means to be a wildcatter and changed too the oilman’s relationship with risk. There are still a few relics in the industry who fit the old image — flamboyant, big-talking backslappers — but Farnsworth, who was lured to Cobalt from a job running worldwide exploration for BP, is pretty much the opposite of all that. He is neat, controlled and a bit of a worrier; his mind is filled with probability ratios. “Everything we do is managing risk,” he told me. It’s also about managing his disappointments. “Frankly, what I remember are the stupid dry holes I drilled,” he said. Part of this is perhaps inherited; three generations of Farnsworths before him worked in steel, and they may have bequeathed a sensitivity to the ways in which majestic industries decline and their certainties fade. But it has made him well suited for this moment, when the finds have become harder and exploration is stalked by doubt.
What concerned Cobalt executives about Gold Dust was that the rock at these depths might have been too compressed — by the pressure of the overlying sediment — to make it a good reservoir for oil. Oil needs to find light, porous reservoir rock so that it has a place to collect. Currently, there is no way to examine the deep Angolan geology directly, but a former Cobalt geologist named Mike Lentini believed he had found a convincing analogy. Geologists know that the rocks on the Brazilian coast are close relatives to the deep Angolan rocks — these rocks were formed eons ago at the same time and in the same place. In 2002, Lentini was on the Brazilian coast, and he saw rock that was strikingly light and porous — the perfect reservoir for oil. If the relationship between the geologic history of Brazil and Angola was as precise as Lentini thought it was, then the Angolan rock that Cobalt hoped to drill into might still hold oil. It was a conditional, hopeful insight. But it was enough to get Cobalt into this region of Angola a little bit early and win the pick of prospects. Knowing the details of Brazil’s geology, Lentini told me, “was like having the Rosetta Stone.” It gave the industry license to dream; analysts soon speculated that the finds off Angola might compare with the giant ones off Brazil.
The possibility of a boom commands particular attention now, because the industry’s faith in a limitless future has begun to diminish. The International Energy Agency — which had until recently been optimistic about oil — concluded last fall that the world has very likely already passed its peak oil production.
“The deepwater was one of the last big exploration plays on the planet,” says Gerald Kepes, a partner and head of upstream and gas at PFC Energy, a consulting firm. “We’re now looking at the second half of the global deepwater play. You can see the end of it, maybe 25 years from now.”
This is not the only way of looking at the data; other analysts, recalling the technological advances and the unforeseen finds that have marked exploration’s history, are more positive. But that optimism also depends, in some part, on whether the mass of subsalt off Angola’s coast approaches the size of that off Brazil’s. And the first clues to answer that question will be revealed, in part, by what Cobalt finds at Gold Dust.
Each exploration geologist has his own imagined map laid on top of the real one, pinpointing where he believes the globe’s undiscovered hydrocarbons — its oil and its gas — must lie. The maps concentrate on the earth’s tectonic margins and — in the deep water — on those areas downslope of the deltas that empty the earth’s largest rivers. “Big rivers” — the drainage basins for the continents — “are usually where you begin,” says Dan Worrall, who was a top exploration geologist at Shell.
Oil is generated deep in the earth, from the crushed remains of the continent’s rotting organic matter — phytoplankton, plants, algae. Over millions of years, given the presence of precisely the right time, temperature and pressure, this material can cook into oil. The hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico were bequeathed by the Mississippi River and the ancient rivers that preceded it; those lying off Angola’s shore were deposited by the Congo River and its forerunners, as well as older lakes; and those off Nigeria, by the Niger River. Oil is a product of ancient life.
But these conditions are rarely found in neat balance. Oil requires three elements: the charge (the oil itself), a reservoir (a layer of rock as porous as patio flagstone, into which oil can flow) and a trap (most often a subterranean fault, which physically keeps the oil from leaking). If a river has dumped too much sediment on top of the remains of ancient algae, it will overcook the matter and turn oil first into natural gas and then into unusable material. Too little sediment means no oil at all. These are rare and precise conditions, and there are only a few rivers big enough to produce what explorers call the elephants, the finds large enough to justify the enormous costs of deepwater drilling. And so the elephant hunt takes place on a concentrated, focused map, and any suggestion of a new basin brings great attention.
For most of the last two decades, offshore Ghana was written off. Even the crudest measures were able to detect seeps of oil, emerging from cracks in the earth. Yet there was no obvious geologic feature that might trap the oil, and the area was thick with dry holes — what had been there, geologists were convinced, had long ago leached away into the ocean or remained trapped in accumulations too small to be economically recoverable. But Maxted and the other scientists at Kosmos, one of Cobalt’s competitors, saw something in the plate tectonics and geology that looked promising: a “pinchout” of rock along the continental shelf, where Maxted thought the rock character may have shifted, trapping oil inside. There were none of the more obvious geologic lures — faults, young rock — which is why most companies had passed Ghana by. They named the prospect Jubilee; it is one of the most significant finds of the last few years. “We blew Ghana off; the industry blew it off,” Scott Sumner, a former Cobalt geologist, told me. “We forgot Jed Clampett, ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ geology: If you see an oil seep, drill.”
But strikes of this magnitude are comparatively rare. According toUnited States Geological Survey data, the earth, as it was before oil companies started drilling, held between five trillion and six trillion barrels of oil, most of which has been discovered or remains inaccessible. In 2000, the U.S.G.S. estimated that there were around 650 billion barrels on the planet yet to be found, and most analysts say that the estimate is a pretty good one. “We may still see some new basins on the scale of offshore Ghana,” Kepes, of PFC Energy, says. “But there aren’t going to be new Gulfs of Mexico or Nigerias that we haven’t yet discovered.”
These legendary basins have sustained careers for the life of the industry. The seduction of the Gulf of Mexico has always been its complexity — the physics of continental shift compressed into a small, enclosed basin. The gulf has been the laboratory in which explorers experimented with the deep — they call it the GOM, as if it were a discarded character from Tolkien. The first deepwater play came in minibasins on the slope that had caught young sands as they tumbled out of the ancient Mississippi; now there are the Perdido folds, in very deep water, that bunched up like a rug on a slick floor, trapping oil underneath. This play depends upon a compacted sheet of sandstone and shale deposited here approximately 50 million years ago by the uplift that produced the Rocky Mountains and, almost as an afterthought, sent an anaconda of sediment sliding down toward Texas and out into the sea. The depths here are so extreme that Shell, which operates the enormous Perdido field, has moved more equipment to the sea floor. The wells extend out — each one long and flexible, like the legs of a mantis — over an area as large as metro New Orleans.
“We’ve got four, five, six years left in the Gulf of Mexico,” James Painter, who leads Cobalt’s team there, told me. He could imagine a couple of possibilities beyond that, but neither was perfect — there were very likely to be gas fields deep underneath the continental shelf, where high pressures make drilling very complicated, and there might be a Cretaceous play left in the gulf, though that was iffy. “In my mind, we’ve got one more shot,” he said.
Last February, Richard Sears, a geophysicist who was vice president for exploration and deepwater technical evaluation at Shell and is now senior science adviser to the National Oil Spill Commission, appeared at the TED ideas conference in Long Beach, Calif., to give a talk about the future of energy. Sears says that there are between 30 and 50 years left before a broad gap opens between worldwide oil supply and demand. It is hard, he says, to describe a situation that is either a lot more optimistic or pessimistic than that. At TED, Sears held up a pincushion of the globe, with red thumbtacks stuck in. Each thumbtack represented an oil basin. “This is it,” he said. “This is the oil in the world. Geologists have a pretty good idea of where it is.”
These last 650 billion barrels are the hardest. “There are still some areas — Iran or Iraq or Russia — where you can literally fly over in a plane and see big structures lying right out there, and they are undrilled,” Farnsworth told me. But much of that territory has been reserved for national oil companies, and so in the last decade 43 percent of the industry’s new reserves have come from the deep water. “It’s gotten harder all along. And the structures, generally, have gotten smaller.”
But as the map has compressed, and the possibility of finding new basins has dwindled, explorers have returned their attention to the regions where vast deposits of oil have already been found, in the belief that new technologies might allow them to drill deeper. These aspirations drove new finds earlier this decade in offshore Brazil, and the continued work in the Gulf of Mexico. They also compelled the industry toward Angola, where Western oil companies have sustained production onshore and in shallow water for decades, even through a long civil war. There had been some deepwater exploration and production, but few had looked beneath the broad layers of salt.
Salt, in the deep water, is the hydrocarbons’ shroud, the mask that obscures the prize. Geologists use seismic instruments to map the earth’s layers — shooting pulses of compressed air down into the subsurface and measuring the time it takes for the sound to travel back to the surface. But salt — the evaporates of ancient oceans, trapped deep in the rock — scatters the signal. And so for years the zones that interested oil companies looked like blurred daubs underneath the thick aprons of salt — it was difficult to distinguish sedimentary layers or to scout for traps. Companies left those areas alone and explored where they could see. By the middle of the decade, though, seismic techniques were finally becoming refined enough to permit companies to make out the details of subsalt geology. “In the Gulf of Mexico, deepwater is more or less a subsalt business right now,” Keith Jantz, a geophysicist at Cobalt, says.
In 2006, geologists working underneath salt layers in Brazil’s Santos basin discovered the Tupi Field — so vast that it prompted Brazil’s president at the time, Luiz InĂ¡cio da Silva, to compare it to a “second independence.” If finds of this size could now be detected below the Brazilian salt, then perhaps they could be found in Angola too.
But pinpointing an exact location is painstaking work. For the better part of a year and a half, Jantz and a few other geologists had been staring at the seismic images of a prospect off Brazil called Aegean, for which Cobalt holds a lease and is planning to drill. Like Gold Dust, Aegean lies underneath a layer of salt. To detect features underneath the salt, a seismic boat is sent out, towing an array of receivers along several five-mile-long cables. The crew shoots compressed air into the subsurface at intervals of 123 feet and measures the reflection’s velocity. The resulting picture looks like static on an old television. But now, after a year of processing, the image looked more like a fingerprint, with ridges and valleys, and you could make out what was attractive about the prospect in the first place: a series of features 30,000 feet below the sea. The fault, Jantz hoped, formed a trap for oil.
In the area where Cobalt planned to drill, there was a deposit that Jantz thought might be shale. While they’re drilling, if the engineers expect to encounter one substance and suddenly hit another, it could cause problems. Another geophysicist, Roland Chen, mentioned a recent such surprise that took millions of dollars’ worth of drilling muds in order to unstick the pipe. Jantz, it turned out, worked on that project.
“I heard they should have known from the seismic,” Chen said.
“They should have known,” Jantz said.
What troubled Chen and Jantz about the Aegean prospect was the difficulty they were having resolving the boundary line that separated what they thought was good reservoir rock, rich in oil, from what they thought was salt. On the image, the boundary looked nearly vertical. “Industry experience is that seismic images below salt have trouble with angles over 50 degrees,” Jantz pointed out; he was worried that, in the real world, the delineation between salt and sediment interference might be very steep. The scientists worked over the image — examining it from different angles, separating out data to make a partial image. For long periods of time they stared silently at the projection, in a dark conference room, willing the earth to reveal itself. It didn’t.
This kind of uncertainty clouds most new projects. One geologist told me he would show me the tools he used to find oil when all else failed; he then produced a divining rod and a crystal ball. It was a joke, but one made frequently enough that he had a divining rod and a crystal ball lying around. The essential mystery of exploration — that it is impossible to know precisely what exists below until you begin to drill — and the push into more complicated depths and environments mean that an engineer often has only a dim read on what he is drilling into: unexpected pressures, slopes and formations. The enduring oddity of the Deepwater Horizon spill was that it took place in a prospect where major problems seemed unlikely — comparatively shallow, very well mapped, mature.
“It’s frustrating to me,” Farnsworth told me. “It’s never going to change, but the general public always thinks, I should be able to get a gallon of gasoline, and it should be damn cheap, and whether I choose to drive a 10-mile-per-gallon car or a 40-mile-per-gallon car should have no impact on that price. We know how hard it is to explore for oil, and we know how hard it is to get it out of the deep water. And there’s been this incredible disconnect, which might have been lessened by the spill, between what people think it takes to get gasoline in their car and what we do.”
There is an element of uncertainty in every complicated engineering endeavor. “In July 2003, in the Pacific, a Japanese fishing boat was sunk by a flying cow,” Robert Bea told me. Bea is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading scholar of risk; he also spent many years working in research and management at Shell. The cow, it turned out, was part of an illegal cattle shipment bound from Anchorage to Russia; as the plane approached its destination the smugglers became nervous about their cargo and began shoving it out of the plane. “No risk analysis can ever be complete. No one can predict a flying cow.”
Drilling engineers suffer from the tyrannies of darkness and depth, and these conditions limit what they can do when these systems do fail. “The real problem with going so deep is not that the possibility of failure is greater,” Bea said. “But if something does fail, the consequences are so much greater. In shallow water, you can physically contain a spill. But at this kind of depth that becomes dramatically more difficult.”
I visited Houston late last summer, and though the hole in BP’s well had been filled, the industry’s executives still seemed wary and grim. The rigs that could move had largely gone overseas, and those that couldn’t were sitting motionless in the gulf. The fallout from the spill “will change how we explore,” says Joseph Bryant, chairman and C.E.O. of Cobalt. Stricter regulations mean that “it will take much longer to do the same things.” Large companies have the resources to wait, but wildcatting independents don’t. “To play the game now, you’ll need a deep portfolio of opportunity spread out over years,” he says. “If you want to be an explorer in the gulf, you can’t just drill one well anymore.”
Bryant shattered his knee a few days earlier, when the horse he was leading across a Wyoming stream got spooked and jumped into him, smashing the executive against a rock. “This is an insensitive thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway,” Bryant said. “When all the dust has settled on [Deepwater Horizon] — and believe me, no one’s felt the pain more than I have — people will start remembering all those ghastly images of the oil coming out of that well and start thinking that’s 10 million dollars a day flying out the end of that pipe. That’s a lot of money.”
One of the oddities of oil exploration is that its climactic event — the moment when an exploratory well is sunk into the earth and the drill bit comes into contact with oil — happens in extreme sequestration, and the geologists who have spent years preparing the prospect, obsessing over it, are reduced to watching online, from halfway around the globe. The industry practice is to attach instruments to the drill bit as it burrows through the rock, and so the geologists watch the data stream in real time, hoping to see signs of a strike but often seeing nothing at all. The interim is just a long hesitation, in which they find themselves obsessing over stray bits of information.
The geologists at Cobalt had been trying to figure out, in the analog way of exploration, how anomalous Gold Dust was. In Brazil and elsewhere in Angola, they found that companies’ probing underneath the salt had detected similar carbonate mounds, formed from the collections of aquatic life that collected in ancient lakes buried deep in the rock. The details of the shapes he thought he could see on seismic images of Gold Dust corresponded nicely with mounds that produced oil elsewhere. But still, the percentages hadn’t changed. The likelihood of a strike was still 30 percent.
Throughout the summer and fall, with their drilling operations in the gulf suspended, the companies worked on their portfolios, processing and refining their seismic images, reranking their prospects. By the late fall, the remote Cuanza basin had become the site of a rush. Three months earlier, Cobalt was just about the only company in. Now the Angolan government is putting up more territory for lease, and analysts at Morgan-Stanley expect bids approaching $1 billion. But Cobalt had seen Gold Dust early, and it has already leased a rig to drill the prospect — which the Angolan government has since renamed Bicuar, after a national park — this spring. The moratorium in the gulf helped to concentrate the industry’s attention on Angola, and the Cobalt prospects, Bank of America’s oil industry analysts concluded, became pivotal — the “key to determine the validity of Angolan pre-salt.”
Farnsworth wasn’t convinced that Cobalt would strike at Gold Dust, but he was convinced that there was oil somewhere beneath the Angolan salt layer. This well, the first drilled into the play, functions in some ways as a $100 million probe into the geology. His team had been working the prospect for years, and a certain obsessive antsiness had set in. Throughout the fall, Cobalt’s scientists studied previous wells drilled into carbonate mounds — in West Texas, in Brazil — to learn what tools were needed to test how good the reservoir rock was, how perfectly the prospect sealed. They had for months continued to fret over where, precisely, to locate the well. “In my view, and I’ve heard this from a lot of people,” Farnsworth said, “these will be the most closely watched wells drilled this year.”
Luanda, Angola’s capital, has become a testament to what oil can bring. A few years ago the city was just emerging from decades of civil war. Now the streets are filled with cars, and for ex-pats, rents can be more expensive than in London. On a long spit of land called Ilha de Luanda, the beach is lined with cafes, and it is possible for the oil workers who congregate there in the evenings to imagine that they are on the opposite side of the Atlantic, in Rio de Janeiro — where they would find a comfortingly similar geology.
The oil industry has always fit perfectly in the American Southwest. It has inherited the region’s frontier ethos — blunt, optimistic and aggressive — and turned it into something associated not with cultural relics but with technology and success. Oilmen of Farnsworth’s generation have spent their careers spreading this ethic to boomtowns around the world, along with the hopeful feeling of infinite possibility. “I think a lot of that optimism is ingrained in us,” Farnsworth said. “We don’t always think about the macro effect of the deepwater exploration tailing off in the next 30 years. We think about how can we make new discoveries and how can we do it better than the other guy.”
I asked Farnsworth what he thought would happen to exploration. One possibility, he said, was that explorers would wind up in the more mundane parts of the business, refining the placement of wells and helping to guide the drill bit. “You can see some of that onshore, where explorers are shifting to almost a mechanical approach,” he said. But beyond the gulf, he said, there were maybe one or two more generations of real exploration work to be done — of new basins, of opening plays. It was possible to be an optimist for just a little longer. “There’s a whole rest of the world out there.”
Photograph By Mark Peterson Jim Farnsworth of Cobalt International Energy, which may have found a large oil reserve off the coast of Angola.
Until about 200 million years ago, Africa and South America were part of onesupercontinent. Here is the age progression of the sea floor during the formation of modern continents — red areas are the newest, violet the oldest.
A 3-D rendering, compiled from seismic data, showing four of Cobalt’sdeepwater drilling sites (including Bicuar, formerly known as Gold Dust) off the coast of Angola.The oil is thought to be two miles beneath the ocean floor, below a layer of salt.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing writer for the magazine and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. His last article for the magazine was about the legal scholar Cass Sunstein.