Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL-E: The Trash Route to Space Colonies

On Sunday my daughter and I saw the new Pixar/Disney movie WALL-E. It's hard not to like the Pixar films, no matter how silly they may be, and WALL-E is no exception. It's funny, sweet, and artistically and technologically amazing. How do you relate to a robotic trash collector that can basically say only its name? It's easy! How do you create a personality with only video camera "eyes" and robotic claws to work with? The Pixar people know how. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief when the robot star is obsessed with an ancient (VHS!) video of Hello Dolly, has a cockroach for a best friend, and falls in love with an exploration robot named EVE. But no more than to accept the sharks who swear off eating fish in Finding Nemo (what do they eat then, fish sticks?). The Pixar movies are just so well crafted that your suspension of disbelief is amply rewarded, and you end up wanting to see the movie again. It's something like "emotional engineering." Skillfully done. And fun.

SPOILER ALERT: WALL-E is also about the environmental destruction of the Earth, and about space colonization (sort of). It seems that by 2100, Earth had become so polluted and so clogged with trash (space junk too) that it was no longer fit for humans. So the company that had apparently come to run everything launched a huge, robotically operated colony space ship (private space!) to take everybody (I guess) off-world for five years while other robots remained behind to clean up the Earth, and probe robots (like EVE) would visit occasionally to see if it was safe to return. WALL-E (the movie) takes place in 2700, in which year WALL-E (the robot) is the only remaining clean-up robot, still dutifully gathering trash, compacting it, and piling it into huge towers (he charges his batteries with solar power, and repairs himself when needed from his collection of spare parts). Something apparently went wrong with the five-year plan. I'll let you see the movie to learn more.

You shouldn't expect a big, sophisticated message from an animated film in which the good guy is a trash compactor robot who accidentally wakes humanity out of a sort of technological and consumerist coma and ultimately reboots civilization (and also gets the girl!). But WALL-E does carry some messages. As far as I can tell, we are too obsessed with consumerism, we are destroying our environment, we are too dependent on technology (especially robots and computerized entertainment), and all of this could result in our becoming helpless consumer zombies. It combines a large dose of fear of science and technology with an almost complete dependence on science and technology. In other words, it's a lot like real life!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't Blame Canada...

...if an asteroid sneaks up on us and hits the Earth. At least they are trying to keep an eye on the neighborhood with a new microsatellite that's in development for launch in 2010.

The 65 kg NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite) will have a telescope with a very small (15 cm) primary mirror, but because it will be above the atmosphere, this small mirror will collect enough light to detect and track small NEO's and satellites. And as explained in the mission background notes, its design will allow it to orient itself very quickly and precisely and to take very quick exposures, using technology originally deployed to measure microvariability and oscillation of stars. A sunshade will allow it to look to within 45 degrees of the sun, a region that's almost impossible to observe from Earth's surface. Pretty amazing for a $12 million mission.

Thanks Canada! And thanks to Centauri Dreams for the tip.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mental Tipping Points

Occasionally I take special notice my own mental processes, especially those that involve "tipping points." It sometimes feels as if there are multiple parties in there (something like the "agents" of Minsky's "society of mind" theory), discussing things "behind my back," and when a consensus is reached, I then become aware of it. For most things the whole process is literally subconscious and not especially noteworthy - I decide to pick up milk on the way home and change my route to do this. Why did I remember we need milk just then? I don't know - some part of my brain is keeping track of these things I suppose.

But I actually noticed the process in two recent cases. I got the new Paste Magazine CD, and among many tracks was one called "Hologram" by Katie Herzig (you can hear it here). I noticed this "optical" title and listened to the song, which seemed just OK. But the next time it came up in shuffle on my iPod (listening to a recent songs folder), I noticed the line "I'm in the habit of having what I don't want," and for some reason, I really liked that line. So I listened a few more times, and now I really like this song a lot. It may be simple infatuation but it was clear that noticing that line was a tipping point that pushed it into the "cool song" category. Katie Herzig is new to me, BTW, and she seems to be a very interesting singer/songwriter. I just bought one of her earlier songs, "Fools Gold."

Today I got an email from Amazon, announcing that they have dropped the price of their Kindle ebook reader from $399 to $359. I read a lot of books and other materials and I read and wrote about this new "eyePod" last November when it first came out. The reviews are quite strong (4 star average, many 5 star "I love my Kindle" reviews), but there are also some who say "it's good but not great, wait for the 2.0 version," and that's what I was doing. I've seen this happen with the iPod, and I waited for the third generation to buy one.

Is a $50 drop enough to buy my love? It came very close but fell short of the tipping point today - I'm guessing there will be a Kindle 2.0 this fall. So I will wait. Unless there is a rogue agent in there who will steer my hand to the "buy with one click" button later today.

Friday, June 27, 2008

CoS #60: Some Really Good Schist

The fifth-dozen Carnival of Space is hosted this week by Slacker Astronomy. There is the usual wide variety of space and astronomy topics, and honestly, where else can you find someone wishing you a happy Mars solstice?

Carnivals often introduce blogs that are new to me, and one that I really like is GoodSchist - who knew geology could be funny (and geologists so charismatic)? I also like Orbiting Frog's graphic design (shown here) with the names of solar system bodies in fonts sized to their diameters. This could finally be a space t-shirt that I would buy and that my daughters would let me wear (or maybe not, except maybe to an astronomy club meeting).

Personal Best: 63 mpg

Driving the Prius to work this morning, I was not paying too much attention to optimizing the mileage, but everything seemed to work out, and on my 20 mile (32 km) drive, I got 63 mpg (3.7 liters per 100 km for those of you in the metric world, i.e., every country but the US!). My previous best was about 58 mpg. This little trip cost me about $1.30 for 0.32 gallons of gas (at $4.09 a gallon).

When I first got the car in June 2007, I was getting around 45 mpg on my benchmark route, but over time it has tended to be 48-52 mpg depending on conditions. It's a mix of suburban streets, secondary roads, highways, and interstates, and on the interstates, I tend to drive around 73 mph which is not ideal for the Prius hybrid system. Today the traffic was flowing a bit slower on the I290 and I495, around 65-69 mph, and with cruise control (and no A/C) this really helped to ration the gas.

I really do like the Prius!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mars Chem Lab: First Report

The Mars Phoenix lander has finished its first "wet chemistry" experiment and has turned in part one of its "lab report." It seems that the pH level and mineral content of this regolith sample are similar to some soils found on Earth - not extreme in any way. Probably compatible with life, though that is not to say that there is or has been life, just that Earth soil with these chemical properties would be able to sustain a lot of living things - from bacteria to certain vegetables.

There is also water there (sublimating ice crystals have been seen in the trenches dug by the Phoenix robot arm), so you can imagine future Mars explorers growing their asparagus in greenhouses using Mars "soil" and Mars water! The image shows a greenhouse on Mars sometime in the future (courtesy NASA).

As usual, Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Weblog has all the dirt on the Martian dirt. Check out her extensive sol 30 update here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A 30 Year Energy Snooze

Back in 1978, I worked for a while as an optical analyst at Itek Optical Systems. Most of Itek's business involved military reconnaissance optics - top secret stuff (they started out working on the optics for the Corona program, the original US spy satellite). But I was working on less-secret optical analysis software and simulations.

One interesting project was for NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory). It was a solar concentrator project, simulating and analyzing large solar concentrators made from meter-size low-precision fiberglass panels (think boat hull fabrication). A bunch of these reflective panels would be mounted on an umbrella-like frame to approximate a parabolic reflector. I was studying how bad you could make and mount these things and still get useful solar concentration. It turned out they could be pretty bad. But so was Itek's business, so I changed jobs and moved to Pasadena, California (to work with other optical software).

This was a small part of the burst of enthusiasm for alternative energy back then, triggered by the 1973 "oil shock" (I had no car until 1977, so I never had to wait in gas lines). Jimmy Carter even put solar panels on the White House, but Ronald Reagan quickly took them off, and most of the alternative energy money dried up. We basically hit the energy snooze button for about 30 years...

Now $4 gas has set off the alarm clock again, and there's a lot of interest in alternative energy. While it's bad news for business as usual and for lots of people who have to figure out how to put gas in their SUV's and still pay the rest of their bills, the good news is there are lots of ideas being explored, and there is energy all around us if we can just figure out how to harness it effectively. We have solar, wind, tides, geothermal, algae, and many more possibilities. I picked up the July issue of Popular Science which has the theme "the future of the environment." It features an article on a possible future "eco-tropilis" (a green city that even has its own vertical farms) as well as "audacious ideas to save the planet" (from solar power satellites to turning pig pee into plastic). Of course it's not all smooth sailing - they talk about the pitfalls and perils too. It's quite a thought-provoking issue.

If you don't want to buy the magazine (save a tree?), PopSci.com has most of this material on line, some of it in Flash-driven interactive form. There's even a game. Cool stuff.

Don't Miss the Deadline!

The July 1 deadline to apply for the 2009 NASA Astronaut Candidate Class is fast approaching - get more information here. I was thinking I have a pretty good background - optical engineer, private pilot, space freak, informal educator - though I assumed I would be too old. But amazingly enough, according to this FAQ, there are no age restrictions! I suppose the physical could be a little tough to pass (I've read enough astronaut memoirs to know this is a major understatement!).

So I don't think it's the right time for a career change for me. But you, gentle reader, what about you? You love space, you've got a technical degree, you've seen The Right Stuff. You could do it! Sure it's competitive, but give it a shot. You'd probably have to wait a few years for Orion, but they will be flying NASA astronauts to the ISS on Russian Soyuz and maybe even SpaceX Dragon spacecraft before then. And then there's the Moon...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NASA and Climate Change

Dr. James Hansen is well known as the NASA scientist who told Congress in 1988 that global warming was already here. This is often considered to be the point at which "global warming" started to receive more attention in the press and to become better known to the public. This week Dr. Hansen was back in Washington, telling Congress 20 years later that the Earth has "long passed" the dangerous level of greenhouse gases and that we need to take drastic action to lower these levels and avoid more serious consequences (still possible, he believes, if we act quickly).

There are still some climate change skeptics, but in the past 20 years, we have collected a lot more data and have seen a growing number of problems that can be linked to climate change. Much of the data on the changes the Earth is experiencing have come from satellites operated by NASA and other space agencies, and these satellites are continuing to add to our knowledge and to allow us to see the "big picture" as polar ice caps, clouds, the level of the sea, and other things are changing. You can explore the evidence on a new NASA/JPL web site, Global Climate Change. It's a nicely designed site with excellent graphics and a wide range of interactive features.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Saved by the Sun

Saved by the Sun is about the possibilities of solar power. This episode of Nova aired on PBS at least a few weeks ago (actually first aired in October 2007!), but I didn't get a chance to see it on TV. Fortunately PBS has it available in six on-line episodes streaming in several formats here. I especially liked the segment on what is happening in Germany, where photovoltaics are heavily subsidized, with the price for electricity sold back to the grid guaranteed for 20 years. We could move more quickly on alternative energy sources like solar in the US if we had more sensible energy policies that were not dedicated to maintaining our destructive addition to oil.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Telescopes In Detail

Another site I discovered while searching for TMA (three mirror anastigmat) examples is Amateur Telescope Optics. Don't be thrown off by the word "amateur"- this is a very professional site with a tremendous amount of information, mainly about telescope optics: basic principles, design forms, aberrations, effects of aberrations, eyepieces, and even the human eye.

This site is not about how to buy a telescope. It's about how telescopes work at the optical level, how they are designed, and what the differences are between different design types. It has a lot of algebra-level math and many excellent diagrams and explanations. There's even an appendix with design prescription data for examples of the many design forms.

If you want a survey of telescope history and types with lots of pictures and diagrams (and no math), see Jim Burge's PDF/PPT (5 MB PDF).

GeoEye-1 and TMA Notes

The other day I read a Technology Review article on GeoEye-1, a commercial Earth-imaging satellite that will be launched into a 684 km sun-synchronous polar orbit August 22 from Vandenberg AFB, California. This satellite will provide the highest ground resolution color imagery to date of any commercial satellite - able to distinguish objects as small as 0.17 square meters (about 0.41 m x 0.41 m, beach ball size) and to locate this imagery within 3 meters of "ground truth." This is made possible by GPS and by the use of star trackers, auxiliary optical systems which allow the spacecraft to determine its position and alignment from guide stars. This technology has been used extensively in NASA and military systems, but not in commercial Earth-imagery satellites. There's another good Geo-Eye article here.

As an optical engineering sort of guy, I wondered who made the optical systems and what the specs were. Turns out it was ITT Space Systems in Rochester, NY, which for many years was part of Kodak (in the 1970's, Kodak made a backup primary mirror for Hubble that was not used, which was too bad because unlike the mirror made and tested at Perkin-Elmer, its prescription was the correct one!). I found a data sheet (PDF) which says that the telescope is a TMA design (three mirror anastigmat) with a 1.1 meter primary mirror with a focal length of 13.3 meters. It also includes two fold mirrors, presumably for more compact packaging.

When I read this, I first assumed that it was an off-axis TMA, a design form that has no central obscuration but which can be difficult (expensive) to fabricate and align. But looking at a graphic of the spacecraft (above), I saw that there is a fairly large central obscuration - a three-leg "spider" for the center-mounted secondary mirror. So I looked up axial TMA designs and found this paper (PDF). I set up the second of two lens data prescriptions in my optical design software, and although the design shown here is not necessarily the one ITT used for GeoEye-1, it has two folds and a pretty compact form. So it's probably something like this. JWST is also a TMA design.

I also noted that it doesn't use a "staring" sensor (2D array like a digital camera, where X and Y directions are read all at once), but rather a "line scan imaging system with time delay integration." This means that there is a single row of detectors to cover (say) the X coordinate (with 4 color bands, blue, green, red, and near IR) and some means to scan this in the perpendicular (Y) direction to capture the full frame line by line. This scanning can be done with something like a rotating polygon mirror, or it could possibly use the satellite's own north-south motion (not too sure about this!).

While searching I also found a great PowerPoint presentation on telescope history and optics by Jim Burge at the University of Arizona (5 MB PDF, 62 slides).

P.S. Just to add a bit more optics, how might you estimate the ground resolution of such an orbiting telescope? You could do it roughly with a simple formula (explained here) for angular resolution in radians, which is 1.22*(wavelength)/(Lens Diameter). This shows that resolution gets better (smaller) for smaller wavelengths and bigger mirrors. GeoSat-1's primary mirror is 1.1 meters in diameter, and you can use a wavelength of 500 nanometers (10^-9 meters) for the approximate center of of the visible spectrum. The angular resolution works out to about 0.55 microradians (0.55E-06). If you multiply this tiny angle by the satellite's typical altitude of 684 kilometers to turn this into a linear number (the short side of a very long, skinny triangle), you get 0.38 meters, pretty close to the stated 0.41 meters (square root of 0.17 square meters). This ignores things like the central obscuration, atmospheric effects, and satellite motion, but it's a pretty darn good estimate.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Carnival of Space #59

Finally done with the Optatec trade show in Frankfurt - time to enjoy a couple more glasses of hefeweizen before flying home tomorrow. And also time to catch up on my blog reading, helped this week by Carnival of Space #59 over at Green Gabbro.

The sturdy and vaguely rocket-like building pictured is the Frankfurt Messeturm, which I passed every day walking to and from the "fair" (messe).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Shuttle Launch from Space?

Sometimes I feel compelled to do silly things when I should be sleeping or something (I'm still in Europe and it's well past midnight here). Case in point: tonight I saw this "shuttle launch from space" post on astropixie's blog. Really cool pictures of a shuttle launch from some high altitude location (possibly the ISS, probably a NASA observation plane). The silly part was deciding to try to simulate it in Orbiter.

My observation plane was an Orbiter-standard "Deltaglider" (the real chase plane probably wasn't red and nuclear rocket powered). I ended up flying at 16,000 meters (about 52,000 feet), some 148 km southeast of the launch complex when I took my simulated pictures of the simulated launch of STS-115 on September 6, 2006 at 15:14:55 UTC.

The geometry looks plausible to me, and I think the real photos are probably from an observation or weather plane, not from the ISS. I don't have the orbital position data for the ISS at the time of launch, though I suppose this would be fairly easy to find on the web (Orbiter has the ISS but its orbit data doesn't closely match the often-adjusted real ISS orbit unless you put in recent state vector data from NASA). But I really need to get some sleep.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ISS: Parting Shot

Discovery landed safely yesterday, ending a very successful mission. The picture above was taken by the STS-124 crew after undocking. You can clearly see their handiwork, the new Japanese Kibo module, at the upper right of the central section. While some of this stuff may seem routine, sometimes you just have to think about this. The ISS has gotten huge, and this huge thing is a continuously crewed orbital space station and international scientific laboratory. People live and work up there. That used to be science fiction.

Frankfurt Reading

I'm in Frankfurt this week for a trade show, and as usual I have some books along. I'm planning to re-read The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, a favorite SF novel set in a medium-future age where nanotechnology has become pervasive, though the novel is not "about" nanotechnology - as with all of Stephenson's books, it's about a lot of interesting things that you probably wouldn't imagine finding in the same book.

But first I am reading Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. I decided I should know a bit more about him. Obama certainly writes well and the story so far (up to high school in Hawaii) is engaging and insightful.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Podcast: Zebrowski Interview

Last fall, the Aldrich Astronomical Society (AAS) was honored to receive the $2500 Out-of-this-World Award for 2007 from Astronomy Magazine, in recognition of its many educational and public outreach activities (I'm pleased to be an Aldrich member and to contribute to some of those events). This week, AAS president Jim Zebrowski was interviewed for the magazine's podcast (mp3), talking about Aldrich and about what it takes to be recognized for astronomy outreach (short answer: active membership, and working to make a difference for the community). The Astronomy Magazine podcasts are listed here.

Armchair Scientists, Start Your Computers

I missed this Planetary Society Weblog post a couple of weeks back (thanks to U Kuprasów for the tip). In her blog posts, Emily Lakdawalla sometimes features and discusses planetary images processed by people other than official mission staff (often by Emily herself). At the recent American Astronomical Society meeting, she gave a couple of presentations related to this (you can download them from her blog post).

Thanks to the internet, raw images from space missions are quickly available to anyone. Image processing software tools are widely available, and thanks to digital cameras, many people have skills with this type of software. This creates the opportunity to do things with the same imagery and data that the professionals use, to create interesting and beautiful images, and sometimes even scientifically useful images. She encourages "armchair scientists" to do this, and she encourages professional scientists and mission support people to provide them with the data to do it well, with benefits for all.

This is really a computer-based extension of observational astronomy, one of the few areas of modern science where amateurs can sometimes make real scientific contributions with their own observations. Thanks to the bigger telescopes and CCD cameras used by many amateurs, there are a lot more knowledgeable eyes on the skies (and screens) these days.

Carnival of Space #58

The latest blog Carnival of Space has arrived at its "home port," Universe Today. I was especially interested in the top ten near-term developments for improved capabilities in space at Next Big Future. Check out the new carnival.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I Want That Window

Actually not so much the window, just the view. The shuttle Discovery undocked from the ISS yesterday, but before they departed, the crew had some free time to take advantage of the spacious new Kibo module and its windows on the world. Astronaut Karen Nyberg seems to be enjoying the view.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reasons for Optimism

With another Europe trip coming up on Saturday, I haven't had much time for blogging or even for reading, except for a few articles here and there. Despite $4 gas and the various negative themes in the news, I found three articles in the last day or so that give me some reasons for optimism.

The term "maverick biologist" sounds like a character in a Michael Crichton novel, but Craig Venter really is one. He has generated his share of controversy with his methods and statements, but he has done amazing things and is not afraid to take on big problems. This interview in Newsweek describes his current project which involves genetically engineering bacteria to "eat CO2" and make fuels we can use in our cars. If this works out, it could obviously be world changing. He is talking about useful results in years, not decades.

When I do educational outreach events and talk about space, astronomy, science, and engineering, young girls will be as interested in this stuff as young boys - but older girls, not quite so much. While it's really true that girls can do anything, they often don't consider science and technology to be socially acceptable options. This is related to various stereotypes and probably peer group pressure, but it might be changing. Revenge of the Nerdette is another current Newsweek article with this description: "As geeks become chic in all levels of society, an unlikely subset is starting to roar. Meet the Nerd Girls: they're smart, they're techie and they're hot."

And finally a rare (for this blog) political note. A few weeks ago I read an article talking about Barack Obama and the Muslim world. It is no secret that Obama is a Christian, but that his father was a Muslim. The point of the article was that in Islamic tradition, the religion of the father is passed to the child (unlike in Judaism, where it is considered to go with the mother). So rather than embracing Obama as a Christian with a Muslim heritage, this article suggested that many Muslims would consider Obama to be an apostate, one who has given up Islam for another religion, and this is a very bad thing in Islam.

But today in the New York Times, I read this essay by Thomas Friedman, reporting from Egypt. The many Egyptians he has spoken with are amazed and pleased that Obama is the Democratic nominee, and they see this as a positive thing for America and for the world, even if they know that Obama himself is not a Muslim. Friedman writes, "It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad — an image dented by the Iraq war, President Bush’s invocation of a post-9/11 “crusade,” Abu Ghraib, Guant√°namo Bay and the xenophobic opposition to Dubai Ports World managing U.S. harbors — than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years."

Of course things are complicated and I imagine that the radical elements in Islam would not see a President Obama in such a positive light. But to me, Obama's candidacy is another reason for optimism, and I hope he is elected president this fall (I plan to contribute my vote and a few dollars to support this hope). We need to rejoin the world.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Cycling to Mars

I've read a few articles about Earth-Mars Cyclers, an idea that is perhaps most associated with Dr. Buzz Aldrin, although he was not the first to come up with the general concept. The idea is to discover or design special orbits around the sun that intercept both the Earth and Mars on a regular schedule. A large space-station like spacecraft placed on such an orbit could provide regular "shuttle service" between the vicinity of Earth and the vicinity of Mars at very low continuing cost (of course the cost of building the cyclers and establishing them in their orbits would not be low - it's a long-term-presence approach to Mars access).

It turns out there are many such orbits, and there are various problems and trade-offs associated with their periods, the energy needed for "taxi" spacecraft to rendezvous with them as they pass by Earth or Mars, and other factors. In order to have a reasonable transit time in both directions, you would need to have two or more cyclers in similar but complementary orbits.

Damn Interesting did a nice story on Mars cyclers, and this 2005 article by Buzz himself is a very good intro. This is a fascinating concept for building some key infrastructure for a spacefaring civilization that extends beyond the "local neighborhood" of the Earth and Moon. I would like to experiment with these orbits in Orbiter if I could find the time.

Religulous (Trailer)


Funny and scary. The Bush clip is classic. There's a link to a related web site that reminds me in the Verse of the Moment (Exodus 35:2) that it's really risky to be blogging on Sunday. Coming to theaters in October.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Cure for Boredom

I like the quote, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." This has been attributed to Dorothy Parker, and it makes perfect sense to me. Humans are not the only animals with curiosity, but we've certainly pursued it further than any of our fellow creatures, especially in the last few hundred years.

You could say that science and technology are the main fruits of all that curiosity, especially if you take a realistically broad historical view of what technology is. I've been reminded of that recently as I have re-read selected chapters of James Burke's books Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. Great books.

I remember watching the original "Connections" show on PBS and reading the companion book back in the early 1980's. As with biological evolution, it's amazing how ad hoc and non-directional that process has been, "solving" various problems in strange and unexpected ways. There are and have been in recent history research labs that set out to develop specific technologies for specific applications and markets (e.g., the iPhone was probably no accident). But many scientific and technological discoveries and inventions have been the result of people looking to do something else entirely. As Burke writes in Connections, "The reason why each event took place where and when it did is a fascinating mixture of accident, climatic change, genius, craftsmanship, careful observation, ambition, greed, war, religious belief, deceit, and a hundred other factors." I think curiosity is one of the more basic factors.

A basic premise of The Day the Universe Changed is that what we "know" is greatly affected by the world view provided by (and often enforced by) our society or culture. This isn't to say all knowledge is relative, but just to point out how difficult it can be to change the universe! When people "knew" that the Earth was flat, or that it was the center of the universe with everything revolving around it on crystal spheres, that made it tough to be a Copernicus or a Galileo or a Darwin (it's still tough to be a Darwin, at least in the USA). Curiosity and persistence (and often some genius) ultimately won the day and "changed reality" in myriad ways. This in turn opened the way for other curious people to try and figure out what to do with this newly acceptable knowledge, and to open yet more doors, often not the ones they intended.

I am personally curious about a wide range of things, though not about everything (e.g., I greatly prefer books, travel, and the web to almost anything that involves television, other than a DVD movie now and then). This curiosity is one of the things I like about myself, and I feel lucky to be living in an age and in circumstances that allow me to indulge my curiosity in various ways. Boredom was cured before it had a chance to develop.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Amazing Animation

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

This video is amazing. It was apparently made by painting, recording a frame on video, erasing, and then painting the next frame, and repeating - all on walls and buildings around Buenos Aires! It must have taken weeks to create this 7 minute video. Wow. Thanks to Bors Blog for the tip (Matt Bors is an artist and a refreshingly irreverent political cartoonist, one of my faves).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Carnival of Space #57

The Carnival of Space is up to #57, hosted this week by Ken Murphy at Out of the Cradle. Ken includes links to blog posts from the recent ISDC 2008 conference in Washington, DC as well as a variety of recent non-ISDC posts from many space bloggers. Check it out.

The Infrared Milky Way

I saw this in a JPL press release the other day, and now it's featured in the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day. Some 850,000 infrared (IR) images from the Spitzer Space Telescope have been assembled into a huge mosaic of the Milky Way Galaxy. APOD only shows a small central section, and the full stills show it as a set of narrow strips. But I think the best effect is obtained in the video you can view here which pans through many interesting areas of the full mosaic. The IR imagery highlights star-forming regions and other features that are obscured by dust in visible images.

P.S. The next-day APOD is a nice artist's rendering of a TOP view of the barred-spiral Milky Way as inferred from the Spitzer data. It includes a mouse-over layer that labels the features and distances in our Galaxy, including the position of our own local star.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Funny Phoenix Video


Despite a few glitches here and there (the latest just today, caused by a command relay problem with the Mars Odyssey orbiter that has delayed getting some dig instructions to the lander), the Phoenix Mars mission has been amazing, and it's just getting started. This Dutch commercial is a brief recap of the "seven minutes of terror" that resulted in a successful landing, but here the ending is just a little different, so stay tuned to the end. I thank tobedetermined for the tip on this one.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tunguska Possibilities

I read a cool article in the June issue of Scientific American on the "Tunguska Mystery" (this is currently only a preview of the full article, but this is also a good source). The Tunguska Event was a massive explosion that flattened trees in a remote area of Siberia in June 1908. It has been assumed that a massive meteorite or possibly a comet was the cause of this event, and the "mystery" is that no material from the object itself has been found. The few eyewitness reports described a huge fire in the sky, and subsequent research and simulations have suggested an air burst perhaps 5-10 kilometers above the surface that completely consumed the object while causing high enough dynamic pressures and temperatures on the surface to flatten and burn trees, but no impact crater or surviving pieces of the projectile.

The SciAm article is by a member of an Italian team that visited the site and identified a small nearby lake as a possible impact crater caused by a piece of the original object that remained intact to the surface. They did various tests and imagery which seem to show the buried remains of trees, with signs of a dense, solid, meter-size object that could be a fragment of the Tunguska body. They are returning to the site this year to drill into the sediment at the bottom of the lake to try to reach this dense object. If they recover a piece of the original object, it might finally provide an answer to the Tunguska mystery.

In addition to its active geology that tends to erode or destroy signs of impact craters over time, the Earth of course also has a dense atmosphere which causes smaller space debris to burn up before reaching the surface. As discussed here, a stony "space rock" (as opposed to a metallic one) would have to be about 220 meters in diameter to reach the surface - pretty big! But space objects of intermediate size and energy need not reach the surface to cause major destruction. Check out this Sandia Lab page for some cool simulation results (including videos) from December 2007. The momentum (not just the mass) of the object is clearly important!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Nice Docking


Multitasking with a NASA TV window and a bunch of email windows, I followed the textbook-perfect docking of Discovery with the ISS on STS-124. Really cool. Here are a few screen shots from NASA TV.

Watching the video just now of the ISS astronauts preparing to open the hatch to Discovery, I watched Garrett Reisman literally flying at high speed through the Destiny module toward the hatch. Free-fall! Flying through 3D space! Those guys get to have all the fun.

Busy Weekend!

It was a busy weekend for me, with my younger daughter's high school graduation and lots of related family stuff. So I barely had time to follow the big space news - likely ice on Mars, and the launch of Discovery on STS-124. A big patch of smooth, light colored material was seen directly beneath the Phoenix spacecraft in early images from its Robotic Arm Camera. "Holy Cow" has not yet been confirmed to be ice, but that's the leading theory, and it's what the Phoenix mission was expected to find. Now that the robotic arm has started digging, I'm sure we will learn more soon.

I only saw the replay, but Discovery's Saturday launch looked beautiful, and they will rendezvous with the ISS this afternoon. Their huge payload is the main "pressurized module" of the Japanese Experiment Module known as Kibo. The JAXA image here shows the configuration of the ISS after the PM is installed this week.