Monday, October 31, 2005
I uploaded a bunch of my Orbiter screen caps to the new Flickr site. Just a convenient and free way to store a bunch of higher resolution pix (up to 1280 x 1024) on-line. The example above is one of my favorite "places" in Orbiter, the Stanford Torus Space Colony. If you want to see a wide range of Orbiter's graphics, browse through my Flickr pages - 46 "photos" so far. Gas giants, green Mars, space elevators, Moon landers, Mars Direct, even the Death Star, but without its (add Dr. Evil finger quotes) "Giant Lay-zer."
This may be my last post of the month. It looks like I've really gotten into this, and it is more or less the kind of thing I used to write in my flight lesson and flight sim journals for my own amusement - which is pretty much what this is too!
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Compare this to the similar HUD and two MFD's configuration of Orbiter's Delta Glider (shown in its virtual cockpit view).
This is my first post using pictures from Flickr, an on-line picture storage and display system offered by Yahoo. It's free and it seems pretty cool - by posting the picture there and using the HTML code they supply to reference it here, I can insert the picture where I want it in the blog entry, and if you click on it, it takes you to the Flickr page where you can see the picture in other sizes, and also easily find other related pix I may post there.
Biconic refers to a special crew capsule shape that would provide some controllable lift on reentry without the weight penalty of wings. Francis Drake developed an add-on for Orbiter using this shape, and it's really cool. I played with it a bit, and the picture shows it docked at the ISS (unusual through-the-heatshield docking port). I haven't yet installed the files to mate this to Simcosmos' prototype SRB-derived booster.
NASA's programs may be delayed by funding problems - but not in Orbiter!
Saturday, October 29, 2005
- Mars has been looking really bright the last few nights. Tomorrow night it will be only 69 million kilometers away. I wanna go!
- Aside from the short-sightedness of cutting spending on space programs (in terms of long-run benefits and loss of valuable people and capabilities, among other things), there are also aspects of scale and context to consider. A number like $104 billion (estimated 13 year cost for NASA's plans to return to the Moon and go to Mars) sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but do critics consider the time period? And how does it compare to other government expenditures? A letter in the new Scientific American points out that the individual cost to the average American of the whole NASA annual budget is something like the cost of a magazine subscription. NASA is fortunately not the only path to future space ventures, but it still has a role, and I hate to see its budget treated like its programs have no value.
One thing the guide will have is some suggested lessons and demos, and one could explore the basic question "how do orbits work?" A classic explanation was first used by Sir Isaac Newton in his Principia, "Newton's mountain" (here is a cool interactive Java applet version). The thought experiment starts with a very tall mountain, tall enough to be above most of the Earth's atmosphere. A very powerful cannon fires cannonballs horizontally, adding powder each time to make the ball go faster. Slower balls hit the Earth, but at a certain speed, the curving slope of the Earth's surface "out-races" the cannonball's curved path, and the ball is in orbit.
In Orbiter, this experiment can be done on the Moon (Newton also worked out the orbital motion of the Moon in his Principia - it was the only Earth satellite around at the time). I use the Delta Glider (DG), which features separate main and hover engines. I first decide on an orbital height, say 20 km (low but OK, the Moon has no air to worry about) . I then calculate the circular orbital speed for this height (which is equivalent to R=1758 km from the Moon's center). The formula is Sqrt(G*M/R), where G is the universal gravitational constant (not the Moon's g), M is the mass of the Moon, and R is the distance from the Moon's center (Sqrt means square root). This works out to 1671 meters/second.
To get around the problem of gradual acceleration (Newton's imaginary cannon effectively has infinite acceleration, but Orbiter's spacecraft do not), I decided to have the the spacecraft accelerate up to a reference point (Orbiter's standard Moon base, Brighton Beach), using automatic hover to hold the 20 km altitude, and cutting the main and hover engines just over the base. I give the spacecraft unlimited fuel so its mass will not change as it accelerates, and I test and find that its main engine gives acceleration a=12.3 m/s^2. So to reach 1671 m/s, I need to accelerate for t = v/a = 1671/12.3 or 135.85 seconds.
But how far away should I start? There's another high school physics formula for this, for acceleration a, time t, distance d, d = (1/2)*a*t^2 (time squared). This works out to 113.5 km, so I open a Brighton Beach scenario and fly a DG 113.5 km west and hover there at 20 km altitude. Point toward the base, full thrust, watch the distance in the Map MFD, and when I get close, I slow down to 1/10 of real time so I can kill the engines right over the base.
Sure enough I get a pretty nice orbit. Two other DG's will be added at closer distances - they will not build up enough speed to orbit and will hit the Moon. So I will have the student launch each of the three and keep track of how far and how long each flies, and if orbit is achieved.
Long post! This is the sort of thing I think about in the car sometimes these days. It used to be song lyrics, now it's gravitational thought experiments on the Moon! Well I was a physics major as well as a space freak. What can I say?
Thursday, October 27, 2005
The Project Gemini add-on for Orbiter is just beautiful. Although most of the changes in the latest (4.5) version are internal (it now has a virtual cockpit), I had never tried the earlier versions. Rob Conley and his "Meadville Space Center" partners have done a great job on this. Project Gemini was where the vital techniques of rendezvous and docking were actually demonstrated - the ability to do this maneuver with precision would be a key requirement for the planned two-spacecraft (Command Module and Lunar Module) Apollo Moon missions.
The first Orbiter screen shot depicts Gemini about to dock with the Agena booster above Hawaii. The second shot simulates the dual-spacecraft rendezvous missions flown in 1965 with a view of Gemini 6 from the commander's window of Gemini 7. These Orbiter views really bring back memories of those mid-sixties missions, and especially of the color photos in LIFE Magazine. Now I finally get to fly the Gemini.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
- Space and other flight (as a kid)
- Model building (airplanes and spacecraft, as a kid)
- Flying (Civil Air Patrol, as a kid)
- Basketball (briefly, in high school)
- Music (guitar, songwriting, recording, in college)
- Languages (French, Russian, Japanese)
- Optics (a good one, pays the bills!)
- Flight simulators
- Flying (flight lessons, private pilot)
- Music again (songwriting, recording, my first CD)
- Space again (Orbiter simulator)
And I forgot what has to be the biggest obsession of all -- books! Every other obsession was accompanied by a steady stream of them -- shelves and boxes are still crammed with books on Japanese, flying, space, flight sims, songwriting, SF, WWII history, Mozart, and whatever else. A few die-cast model airplanes too (nostalgia for the models but no time to build). And if anything, the web has fed the book addiction. I am an Amazonaholic...
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Since this center is already using space themes for science education, I thought they might be interested in Orbiter. I contacted them, and they invited me to give a presentation and demo on Orbiter to some of their staff involved with science/technology and curriculum development. It went well, and they will be looking into the possibility of using Orbiter in some of their programs. I offered to help.
Christa McAuliffe, who tragically died along with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, was chosen as NASA's first "teacher in space." Her mission continues today in the programs of the Christa McAuliffe Center and the Challenger Learning Centers.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Although I'm a space enthusiast, I don't closely follow the space press or even all the issues. I'm more of a grazer -- exploring various paths through the web, reading the occasional Discover Magazine or Scientific American, playing with and promoting Orbiter, buying and sometimes even reading books on space subjects. Even this relatively casual look at space news and issues reveals an amazing level and diversity of space-related activity in the world today.
Consider just the last few weeks. NASA announced its Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), followed by a lot of debate. China launched two "taikonauts" on its second piloted orbital mission. I read articles about private space ventures by SpaceX (developing low cost launch vehicles) and LiftPort (developing space elevator technology). This morning I saw an article about the NASA-sponsored Space Elevator Games. I also read about European plans for Mars in a Discover Magazine article. And the MarsDrive Consortium launched its web site, working to unite people and organizations that support their "aim to send human missions to Mars and establish a permanent base there within the next 2 decades." I hope to be involved with their educational task force - perhaps a petal on one of those thousand blooms.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Intrigued by the film's oddball space freighter "Serenity,", I checked the Orbiter Forum and found that there's already an add-on model for Orbiter! Jon Marcure created this animated gem from the short-lived "Firefly" TV series that the film is based upon. Orbiter has realistic orbital mechanics and can re-create real spacecraft and missions, but there are tons of fun fictional spacecraft for it as well. The screen-shot shows the Serenity firing all engines in low Earth orbit.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
I'm also trying to watch From the Earth to the Moon, the Tom Hanks/HBO mini-series I recently bought on DVD. It's really great, but with all the other things going on, I've only watched 3 episodes so far. One was about Apollo IX which was the first mission to test the LM. Although it was "only" an Earth orbit mission, it was complex and difficult, and the episode also showed a lot of the complex engineering work that Grumman had to pull off to to get "Spider" to fly at all. Great stuff.
Friday, October 21, 2005
For me personally, the question of "why space?" is buried deep in my childhood, when I watched Mercury and Gemini launches on TV and saw the amazing pictures in LIFE magazine. I decided that flying was the coolest thing you could possibly do, and flying in space, even cooler. Long story how I ended up an optical engineer instead of an astronautical engineer, but I never lost the interest in flying and space stuff, and I'm thrilled to see that space is on the national and world agenda more today than in many years.
But I recognize that "normal" people may desire more of an explanation than "it's really cool," and of course it is much more than that. You can list many direct and spin-off benefits of past space programs, and people will accept that weather satellites and velcro are good things. We have those, and we can launch more satellites as we need them, but why do we need more piloted space flights? To go back to the Moon? To Mars? Why spend all that money in space?
First of all, we never actually spend money in space -- there are no boxes full of $100 bills ejected from the Shuttle's payload bay. The money is spent here -- on paychecks, materials, manufacturing, business services, research contracts, graduate student funding, lots of things. It helps people on Earth, generates technology for future products, and stimulates interest in science and technology.
That's my big thing, the kids and the needs of the future -- I'm sure we will always have more than enough rock stars and lawyers, but can we inspire enough kids to be interested in science and technology to meet future needs? Not just for space, for all fields. Anything that can help this is worth it in my opinion. Space should be an international effort, but I would like to keep some of those future jobs in North America, if possible (there's plenty of room for all in the vastness of space, but note that China and India both have very active space programs and apparently associate this with future growth and leadership).
There's much more to say, but I will stop and recommend a web site called The Space Review (see for example this article). Lots of thoughtful articles there, largely by people who favor space exploration, but who are also very critical of what we do and why. There are choices to be made, but taking any of NASA's 1% of the Federal budget and applying it to "more pressing current problems" is not the answer. We should actually invest more money in space now if we hope to continue to get benefits in the future.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
The Mars Direct Project for Orbiter (MDPO) is an ambitious team project which intends to model a Mars Direct mission from start to finish in Orbiter. Some parts of this add-on are already modeled in near-final detail, such as the "HAB" (habitation module which will carry the crew from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and provide the primary living space) and the Ares booster and upper stage. Other parts are in less complete form, including the essential Earth Return Vehicle (ERV).
To give an idea of what this could look like, I've put together a "teaser" picture with elements from several sources. The HAB is a MDPO beta version beautifully modeled by Ken Bolli. The terrain is a recent 3D surface base for the rugged Vallis Dao region of Mars, by "jtiberius." The "Mars Rovers" are actually Moon rovers created by Andy McSorley for his Prometheus Project. And in the background, the ERV from an earlier Mars Direct add-on for Orbiter, published by Zachary Grillo. I mashed these together for my "photo shoot" - they're not distributed in this form, but I wanted to give an idea of what a Mars Direct base scene could look like in Orbiter. I've flown most of the phases of a Mars Direct mission, but I'm looking forward to eventually simulating the whole thing, except for the six-month trip (fortunately Orbiter supports high levels of time acceleration!).
But you can also use Orbiter to just fly around the solar system and appreciate how beautiful it is. With the help of an indispensible add-on called Orbiter Sound, Orbiter is also an MP3 player for your PC! So you can listen to music while peacefully orbiting the Earth or any other body in the Solar System. Very relaxing. The screen shot shows Jupiter rising over the sulfurous surface of Io, Jupiter's highly volcanic moon. A futuristic "Delta Glider" space plane is firing its main engines to leave orbit.
I posted the Green Mars space elevator picture from Orbiter yesterday, and I was pleased to get my first non-spam comment for my two-day-old blog from someone who is actually working to create a real space elevator on Earth - in 15 years! This was from Blogspot blogger Brian Dunbar.
The LiftPort Group is doing research, development, and fund raising to make his happen, and it's really cool. From their FAQ and research pages, I learned that the concept of a space elevator as a massive, rigid pole (as depicted in the Orbiter add-on and in "Red Mars" and other SF
descriptions) is basically wrong -- it will really be more like a super-strong and thin ribbon, with self-propelled "climbers" that pull themselves up the cable with power beamed up by lasers. It's nice that there's also some optics in this, as that's my professional field - this will certainly require adaptive optics to maintain the beam quality through that long stack of turbulent atmosphere.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
I'm going to press my luck and include both a web link AND a picture in this post (I've had some trouble getting this blog going). The picture is from Orbiter and shows a space elevator rising from the equator of a future terraformed "green Mars." Yes , space elevators will be possible, thanks to carbon nanotubes (they can be simulated now in Orbiter), and yes, terraforming Mars is probably possible, but it will take a long time. "Green Mars" is the next book in Robinson's trilogy, probably to be read on my next long airplane flight somewhere.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Maybe I do. Things change. I have a personal journal that I mostly use on business trips, and I kept journals in my college years and in my heavy flight sim period, and in my flight lesson days. This won't be a personal journal - just a place to share some thoughts on whatever happens to be the obsession of the month. Maybe I mostly share these thoughts with myself (have we reached the point of one blog for every person on the planet yet?)
The last few months the obsession has been space flight, courtesy of a wonderful freeware space flight simulator called Orbiter. Big time obsession. I even wrote a book about it, an introduction to space flight called Go Play In Space. That's 136 pages and 8 MB of obsession. That's a small picture from Orbiter, the Mars Direct HAB (habitation module) approaching Mars. I'll probably write more about Orbiter and Mars in days to come.
This blog will NOT be about politics (OK, I think Bush sucks, but I don't want to discuss it), families, travel (well maybe sometimes), TV, or dogs.
I guess blog entries are often brief, and I'm often not, though I aspire to be. To be continued I guess.