Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Carbon Bathtub

I saw a cool little article and graphic in National Geographic that's very helpful in understanding the dynamic nature of the level of CO2 in our atmosphere. In the analogy of filling a bathtub which has a slow drain, it is very easy to see that even if you turn down the faucet (i.e., reduce the production of CO2), the level in the atmosphere can continue to rise (as long as the in-flow rate exceeds the out-flow rate).

Cool Hubble Stuff Online

Last month on PBS there was a Nova special on the final Hubble service mission that I didn't want to miss - but unfortunately I missed it anyway. Tonight I finally got to watch "Hubble's Amazing Rescue" online, and it's truly an amazing documentary. Nova's team closely followed the mission through two years of training and preparation and on the May 2009 mission itself, and they also interviewed the astronauts after the mission. It's great to meet some of the spacewalk trainers and to see the minute detail that went into the preparation for this mission. When you see the number of things that could have gone wrong, the success of the mission is even more impressive.

I also found this post about the instruments removed from Hubble and brought back to Earth. The WFPC-2 camera and the COSTAR corrective optics are now on display at the Air & Space Museum in Washington.

Update: Dwayne Day visited the Hubble artifacts in the Air & Space Museum and wrote a nice article on them ("Instruments of God's Creation") for this week's Space Review.  

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

GigBaby! Recording App

I'm still trying to get caught up with various stuff since my Japan trip and also trying to get in the right creative frame of mind to finish my album project. Not much progress on that this weekend, but at least I played some guitar (and listened to a lot of music, some of it classical as I ripped a bunch of my classical CD's now that I have a 32 GB iPod Touch with room for lots more music - I forgot how much I like some of Haydn's late symphonies).

I also fooled around with some test recordings - on the iPod Touch! I knew there were some multi-track recording apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but I never looked into it. This weekend I stumbled on something called GigBaby! which is a 4-track recording app for just 99 cents (there's a free version too - I tried it for a few minutes before making the big spending decision). It's rather bare-bones compared to Sonar on the PC (of course!), but it's pretty cool. It has a bunch of pre-defined rhythm tracks you can choose in various styles (though none of them has much of a groove going one). It lets you set the tempo and then record up to four overdubbed audio tracks via an external microphone (the iPhone can also use the built-in mic). The sound quality is reasonably good, and there is a WiFi sharing capability that lets you move tracks between iPhones/iPods and back them up onto a PC or Mac. No stereo panning, no reverb or other effects, but for getting down a simple song, harmony, or instrumental idea, it's quite good. And it's all happening on a device I have in my pocket anyway. Nice!

Their web site doesn't look like much, but they have a decent little PDF manual. This Apple pocket computer never ceases to amaze me.

Back to the (USSR) Future

I found a small booklet nestled between a couple of volumes of my old Berkeley Physics Series texts in my office. I didn't remember it at first, and the title puzzled me - "The USSR in Outer Space: The Year 2005." Wasn't the USSR long gone in 2005?  The booklet has a Boston Museum of Science price sticker on it ($3.95), and that triggered a vague memory of a special exhibit on the Soviet space program - but when was that? A few Google searches revealed the answer: summer 1990 (I must have pictures somewhere). And the USSR officially ended December 25, 1991. But what's with the 2005?

Turns out the booklet is an optimistic look ahead at where the Soviets planned to be in space in 2005, apparently written in 1988 (it talks about a number of near future plans for 1989 and 1991-92, and mentions the "new" Mir space station, whose first module had launched in early 1986 and which had been occupied at least part-time since 1987 - it would be expanded in fall 1989 and continuously occupied until 2001).

There were big plans beyond space stations. The book describes a wide range of planetary probes, Earth orbiting resource monitoring satellites, as well as communication and navigation satellites. Orbital fabrication research too. There are some photos of the the shuttle lookalike Buran vehicle (landing after an unmanned test flight).

Some of this has come to pass, eventually including the International Space Station. But the estimate of a manned landing on Mars around 2005-2010 was unfortunately a bit too optimistic.  

Monday, November 16, 2009

Carnival of Space #129

This week's Carnival of Space is hosted by Tiny Mantras. Tiny Mantras is not your typical space blog since the space content is largely driven by the interests of the blogger's four year old son. But you gotta love a site that features Jupiter face painting as well as a nicely equipped Cosmic Jukebox.

Japan Reloaded

Back in the 1980's and 1990's, I used to spend about two weeks a year in Japan, and although that isn't a lot of time, it was enough to keep me somewhat engaged with Japanese language study, and I found my skills gradually improving with every trip. In recent years, things have changed. I need to spend more time in other countries and not so much in Japan. I kind of miss it.

So I was really happy to spend last week in Japan, the first extended trip in about four years (I spent a couple of days there in 2007). I was visiting customers, mostly in and around Tokyo, though we did spend one day in Nagoya. I had spent a little time reviewing Japanese and exercising the new iPod app Kotoba!, an amazing electronic Japanese dictionary that I've written about before. My Japanese worked well enough with taxi drivers, restaurants, asking directions, etc. though I was frustrated at how much I had forgotten. I guess it can't be helped (shikata ga nai) - use it or lose it.

Aside from trains, restaurants, and customer sites, I spent most of the time at the New Otani Hotel in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. This is a pretty nice hotel, with a great view of the nearby State Guest House, formerly known as the Akasaka Palace. The Google Maps view at left shows how close this building was. Saturday morning I was eating breakfast on the 40th floor of the Garden Tower, thinking about the fact that President Obama was also in Tokyo at the moment, and wondering if he was staying at the State Guest House next door. A number of visiting presidents had stayed there, but I couldn't find any information on where Obama was staying on his current visit (not surprising I guess). It didn't look very busy from 40 floors up, so I decided to take a walk in the rain and check it out.

But first I took a detour through the New Otani's best feature, its beautiful Japanese garden, complete with red bridges, koi ponds, a waterfall, a tea ceremony house, and a Christian chapel. Passing the chapel, I noticed an unusual book mixed with the usual propaganda. It was called Manga Messiah and it was rather unusual propaganda, the New Testament in Japanese comic book format (subtitle: "Has he come to save the world... or destroy it?"). Not my usual cup of ocha, but I had to check it out. This required a brief chat with a very nice Japanese-speaking American former missionary who was staffing the chapel that morning. Seeing that the book included full furigana (pronunciation hints for the kanji), I really wanted it in spite of the subject matter. We talked about Japanese study and other safely non-religious stuff, and as I started to put the book back in the rack, she said I could keep it! Cool. Maybe it's a stealth conversion thing. I'll be careful.

After the garden walk, I found my way to the wall surrounding the nearby State Guest House and walked a kilometer or so past the front gate of the palace grounds. With a total of maybe ten police officers on the whole perimeter that I walked, I was quite sure that the Obama party was staying elsewhere this trip! Then I went back to my room to finish packing and check out for the flight home Saturday evening.

Earlier in the week, I did manage to grab a couple of hours one afternoon to check out a bookstore in Akihabara. It wasn't the best bookstore I've seen in Tokyo, but it was handy and fairly big, and I mainly wanted to refresh my supply of small Japanese notebooks. For years I've used these small notebooks for language notes, travel notes, flight lesson notes, etc. Of course now I do most of that on the PC and/or iPod and/or blog, but I still like these little notebooks, especially the ones with wacky quasi-English cover art. I didn't find anything as wacky as the one pictured here, my all-time favorite from the "Frisky Naughty Penguin Series" (1986), but I got a couple of cute ones. I also bought a great 2010 calendar with scenes of Mount Fuji. I probably could have bought that somewhere closer to home, but it was just the right size for my office so I went for it.

After that I searched the children's book section for anything worth buying to help me build vocabulary (and keep some interest in Japanese going once I got home, always a problem). I found a cool little book for only ¥960, Chikyuu-Uchuu, (Earth-Space). This is a small, colorful paperback with descriptions of basic geology, meteorology, astronomy, and a smattering of space flight stuff. Lots of color photos and diagrams. It's probably middle-school level or below, but it's perfect for me because all of the kanji characters have furigana for pronunciation, just like Manga Messiah! Except that the vocabulary and world view are just a bit different, I'm guessing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carnival of Space #128

The carnival of space hails this week from Melbourne, Australia (a nice place, I was there in 2006), even though the picture above shows scenes from Sydney (I liked it there too). AARTScope Blog presents a wide range of space and astronomy topics including a couple of cool videos.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Carl Sagan and the Big Picture on Mars

I'm having a crazy week and shouldn't even be thinking about blogging. But here are two cool things courtesy of other bloggers.  Astropixie has a great quote from the late Carl Sagan in honor of his birthday on November 9 (he would have been 75). Carl Sagan was one of my favorite people, and while I hesitate to put myself in any category with him, his ability to make science accessible to everyone certainly inspired me in my attempts to do educational outreach using space and astronomy themes.

And here's another space-related post from The Big Picture - Mars from MRO. Incredible images. Carl liked to talk about how Mars and the other planets are places, and I'm sure he would be pleased with how intimately we've gotten to know the place called Mars over the last few years, thanks to the Mars Rovers, MRO, and other robotic explorers. Thanks to Bad Astronomy for the tip.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Journey to Palomar

Busy week, but I had a little time to kill with my iPod handy, and I finally watched Journey to Palomar, a PBS science special that I bought back in September (from the iTunes store for $1.99). This is an excellent documentary about George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) and his lifelong quest to build the biggest telescopes in the world while also managing to find time to do groundbreaking work in solar astronomy and especially spectroscopy.

In persuading financial backers and managing some of the biggest scientific projects of his time, he was directly responsible for the existence of the Yerkes telescope in Wisconsin (102 cm/40 inch refractor), two telescopes at Mount Wilson, CA (the 1.5 meter/60 inch Hale Telescope and the 2.5 meter/100 inch Hooker Telescope), and the 5.08 meter/200 inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain, California (completed 10 years after his death - the project was put on hold during WWII). He also helped to establish Caltech in Pasadena. He accomplished all this and more while overcoming a lifelong struggle with mental illness. I knew very little of this amazing man, and I highly recommend this 90 minute documentary. In addition to the biographical aspects, there is great information (including amazing film clips) on the design and construction of the telescopes.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Here's a small step for space elevatordom and a giant leap for laser power beaming optics (or something like that). At the Space Elevator Games 2009 in California, the LaserMotive team qualified today for a $900,000 prize. They did it with a small laser-powered machine that pulled itself almost one kilometer up a helicopter-suspended cable. The laser was on the ground and had to track the climber to lock the beam onto the bottom-facing solar panels to keep it powered and climbing at an average speed of 3.72 m/sec (5 m/sec would qualify for the $1.1 million prize).Congratulations to the LaserMotive team! Two other teams will be climbing tomorrow. This is the first time that anyone has qualified for a prize in the Space Elevator Games (last time the goal was 100 meters - a big jump to 900 meters this year). Check out this cool video to see what's involved with this technology challenge (prizes funded by NASA).

This is not quite a space elevator, but remember, a geosynchronous journey of 35,790 kilometers begins with the first half-mile or so.

Galactic Suite 2012 - Really?

I guess I'm really slipping when it comes to keeping up with private space. Before seeing this Reuters item the other day, I had never heard of the Galactic Suite Space Resort project. Based in Spain, this company says they are on track to welcome their first orbital guests in 2012, by which time they will have apparently built a a tropical island training center and launch site, a modular space station, and an orbital rocket plane to carry four pax and two crew from the island to the resort. By 2012? It's not even clear that Virgin Galactic will be flying suborbital passengers by 2012, and they've been working on it for a while. Dudes, it's almost 2010!

Maybe they are actually in league with Bigelow Aerospace (which also mentioned 2012 for a space station, back in 2007).  Their announced price of $4.5 million for three days at the orbital resort compares very well with ~$30 million for a Soyuz ride to the ISS, but wait a minute.  I just watched a video that said they will use Russian flights until their space plane is ready, though Soyuz can only carry one passenger now, maybe two on an upgraded single-pilot version. Doesn't really add up, does it?  I'm very skeptical, even though Galactic Suite claims to have an ace in the hole in the form of an anonymous billionaire space enthusiast who has granted $3 billion to finance the project. I wonder if his name is Dr. Evil?

They have a few cool graphics on their web site, but not a whole lot of information. That pretty much seems to sum it up.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Carnival of Space #127

The latest Carnival of Space is number 127, hosted this week by Next Big Future. NASA's recent launch of the Ares I-X is one of the popular topics of discussion this week.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Screen Capture for iPhone and iPod Touch

I should have looked this up ages ago. Whenever I've written about an app on the iPod Touch, I've usually grabbed screen shots from the developer's web site because I didn't know how to capture my own. Turns out it's really easy. You go to the screen you want, briefly hold the power button (on top edge), then press the Home button (bottom of screen). The screen will flash and you'll hear a shutter release sound. The 320x480 bitmap image shows up in your Saved Photos folder, from which you can email it to yourself or (if you really want something confusing), set it as your wallpaper.

The four shots above are (clockwise from top left) my home page of app icons (first of four), a search page from the Kotoba! Japanese dictionary app, a night sky view with Mars selected in Starmap, and my Main Morning App, the New York Times.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

How to Fly a Plane

This was another distraction, but a nice one. I saw the original British edition of Nick Barnard's book How to Fly a Plane in an airline lounge on my whirlwind Europe tour last month (I think it was the S.A.S. lounge in Oslo). I took a quick look and noted the title for later research. I found a cheap used copy on Amazon so I ordered it. I finally read it tonight over dinner.

It's pretty cool and something of a nostalgia trip for me since I've flown very little since getting my license in 2001, sad but true. I keep thinking I'll get back to it but the time and expense make it tough to do it regularly enough to be safe. This book is not intended as a flight instruction aid, but more as a fairly detailed account of what's involved in flying, and what the various experiences feel like. The basic stuff is pretty accurate as far as it goes, and it's interesting in that they use a very modern, glass cockpit Diamond Star TA40 TDI as the basic training aircraft (a far cry from the tired old Cessna 152's I trained in).

But I especially liked the "first flights" section which describe what it's like to fly a modern high-performance glider (I've done a bit of that), a classic open-cockpit German biplane (a Jungmann, similar to the Boeing Stearman which I've flown a couple of times), a Sukhoi 29 aerobatic trainer (I wish!), a P-51 (I wish more!), and a British Hawk jet trainer (sigh).  So it's a combination of nostalgia and envy when you come right down to it. Of course I have "flown" aircraft like these in various flight sims over the years, but Barnard focuses more on the sights, sounds, and physical actions in the cockpit, for which sims are not very good (you can't simulate the classic smell of hot engine oil in the cockpit of a Piper Cub on a summer day when you're flying with the door open). He's an aerobatic pilot (in Britain) and it sounds like he's really flown most of these aircraft (though I'm not too sure about the Airbus A380).