Thursday, April 29, 2010

Orbiter On My Mind

I haven't been doing too much with Orbiter the last year or so, but I've recently been in touch with a couple of Orbiter friends and have started thinking about it again. One thing that's cool is the possible translation of my Orbiter tutorial book Go Play In Space into Russian. I heard about this from Andy McSorley, my co-author on the second edition, and I got in touch with "Kulch" through the Orbiter Forum (Kulch is the creator of many great Orbiter add-ons including the cool TX Winged Space Launcher shown above). He confirmed that he and some other Russian Orbiter users had started the translation project, and I offered to help out by sending my original Word and graphics files. I studied Russian for two years in college, but that was a long time ago and I've forgotten almost everything but the alphabet and a few words and phrases. But it would still be great to have a Russian version of my book, and more importantly, for prospective Russian "Orbinauts" to be able to use my tutorial more easily. Oчень хорошо!

Speaking of using my tutorial, I haven't been on the Orbiter-Forum much recently, so I spent some time looking around and catching up. While there hasn't been a new Orbiter release since 2006 (there are rumors of a 2010 version coming soon), there is still plenty of activity with add-ons, challenges, videos, technology discussions, etc., and with new people joining the forum and asking questions about how to dock with the ISS, get to the moon, navigate to Mars, etc. It's cool to see that people are recommending Go Play In Space as the basic tutorial for Orbiter, and that new users are still finding it useful. I originally wrote it to help myself learn Orbiter, but I'm glad that it's helping other people to climb that fairly steep learning curve (into orbit!) and enjoy this challenging, fun, and still free space flight simulator.

A Word from the WISE (Mission)

I've been meaning to write something about NASA's WISE mission (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), but I noticed today that two of my colleagues have beaten me to the punch, so I will steer you their way. On Kevin Thompson's Idle Diffractions blog, Mark Kahan recently wrote a guest post about WISE. In his post, Mark discusses the WISE first light image (the false color rendering shown above of the area around the star V482 Car, with blue, green, and red representing 3.4, 4.6, and 12 micron bands, respectively). He compares it to results for that patch of sky from earlier IR sky surveys with much lower resolution. WISE will be surveying the entire infrared sky at such resolution over the next few months (until its cryogenic hydrogen supply runs out, probably around October 2010). It will spot asteroids, brown dwarfs, distant galaxies, and much more.

If you're not that familiar with infrared radiation and how it works, the WISE web site has a great interactive feature explaining the basics of infrared and of the WISE mission itself. The narrator is Dr. Amy Mainzer (not Mila Kunis), the deputy project scientist for the WISE program. In the picture above I grabbed two frames from the segment in which she explains how IR is used to tell the temperature of things like stars, or in this case, tea cups. It's easy to tell what's hot and what's not.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Goddard and Google Patents Online

I happened to be on Clark University's web site last night and decided to check on what they had online related to their favorite son, "father of rocketry" Robert H. Goddard. Turns out it's quite a lot - many of Goddard's diaries, notebooks, and papers have been digitized and are available for search and even as PDF's for download and printing. Pretty cool.

Goddard grew up in Worcester, MA and attended WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) for his undergraduate work in physics, graduating in 1908 (he was 26 - his education had been delayed by several periods of illness). He entered Clark (also in Worcester) in 1909 where he received his Ph.D. in 1911. He designed, built, and launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926, but he was thinking about ways to get off the planet long before that. In 1907, when he was still at WPI, he wrote an essay called "On the Possibility of Navigating Interplanetary Space" (search the online document database for "interplanetary" and look in the document "1898-1914 - Speculation and Preparation"). He submitted this article to "Scientific American" but it was rejected, "chiefly on account of length," according to the letter they sent him. It was certainly an interesting article, though his concerns were a bit odd in retrospect. For example, he was especially worried about meteor swarms. He was also worried about propulsion, but he didn't really have the ideas of rocketry in mind at this point. He considered that raising a mass to a great height would require a lot of energy, and first discussed solar energy which he dismissed as too diffuse (he may have been thinking about the photoelectric effect which had been explained by Einstein in 1905, but he doesn't mention this). He spends most of the rest of the paper talking about the energy released by radioactive decay in radium, which had also been explained by Einstein in 1905 (E = m c squared), but he doesn't mention that equation or Einstein's name. He concludes that the rate of energy release is too small to be useful for propulsion but speculates that someday a way could be found to release this energy more quickly (he was right, of course, but that involved nuclear reactions that were unknown at the time, not electron transitions as he speculated following J.J. Thomson).

His speculations may have been off the mark here, but he was certainly a curious and clever fellow and not much later he started to think about rocketry. His first rocketry patent from 1914 is shown above, courtesy of Google Patents (beta), which by the way, is amazing. Similar to Google Books, Google has digitized and placed on line in easily searchable and downloadable form millions of US patents from 1790 up to a few months ago. While we are used to the idea that "everything is on the web," this was new to me, even though there have been other ways to get patent information online for years (usually requiring a paid subscription). The internet (and Google!) never ceases to amaze.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

You'd Think It Would Be Easy...

Easy to let go of books and magazines, that is, now that I typically have immediate access to the internet as well as extensive local information (and many e-books) on my iPod Touch, Blackberry Storm 2, and a notebook PC. I can look up pretty much anything in a minute or so. But books have sentimental value (collectively and individually for some books). Even reference books are hard. We've been packing most of our books and other things into boxes for a house project that requires shifting most of the furniture around. I've tried to get rid of dead wood (so to speak) whenever possible, and today I did manage to dump a 1997 "Video Hound" movie reference book and a New York Public Library Desk Reference book (also 90's era). This sort of thing is now much easier and better on the web.

But I was also looking at some of my many Japanese dictionaries. I'm not actively studying Japanese now (and I have Kotoba! on my iPod Touch), so that would seem to be an easy category to toss. But those books are so amazingly intricate (this one is great, sample page at left), and they have so many memories of trips to Japan and to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles... I can't part with them.

The same for Billboard's Book of Top 40 Hits. Of course all that song information is on on the web somewhere - but the compilation, the cross-comparisons, and especially the "ooh, I remember that song" serendipity... the web doesn't quite replace that. So I'm keeping that book (it's pretty old, around 1990 - I may update to the 9th edition when it comes out this fall).

Belated Birthday Greetings to Hubble

Yesterday was 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope on board the Discovery (STS-31). Pretty amazing - makes me proud to be an optical engineer. And of course after last year's final service mission, HST is better than ever. It continues to produce great science and beautiful imagery like this portrait of a stellar nursery in the Carina Nebula which has been dubbed "Mystic Mountain." For a quick review of Hubble's history and "greatest hits," check out this cool NASA Flash feature.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beautiful New Album by Aqualung

Amazon's free MP3 earlier today was a song called "Magnetic North" by Aqualung, which is the recording name of singer-songwriter Matt Hale (it's still free on this page). I downloaded it this morning and immediately loved this song. I listened to it maybe three times before sampling the other tracks on the new album it comes from (it's the title track). They sounded great too, so I bought the album. I've been listening in the car and at home today, and it is just such a beautiful collection of music. Amazing melodies, excellent singing, lovely arrangements. One of those albums I wish I'd written and recorded myself. It's making me want to write some songs on piano - I haven't done that for a while.

I realize now that I have a couple of Aqualung songs in my MP3 collection (from Paste and other samplers I think). I liked those songs but never looked further - there's just so much music, it's hard to keep track of even the good stuff! Now I'll have to check out his earlier albums sometime. Serendipity strikes again (actually marketing - I'm a sucker for free samples).

My South Park Space Avatar

I rediscovered a cool Flash-based web site for creating avatars based on the drawing style of "South Park," So I made myself into an astronaut character (can't you tell that's me in there?). I also created a more realistic self-portrait in my natural environment.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am easily amused.

SDO: Amazing Sun Images

These will be all over the web but I simply have to point out the amazing first-light images and videos from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). You can probably find some video clips on YouTube, but it's worthwhile to download the 29 MB QuickTime to see all the detail in the March 30 prominence that is shown in still frame here. You can find more first light images in this gallery.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Moon and Back. Twice.

Of course I didn't actually go to the moon and back twice (except in Orbiter - I've done it virtually a few times, with the benefit of time acceleration). But I've now flown the equivalent miles on United Airlines. I just got back from a week in Taiwan, and on my return flight from Tokyo to San Francisco, I passed the million mile mark. Unfortunately SFO was not the final destination - Boston was, and door-to-door, this was the usual 29 hour Taiwan trip (Taipei, Tokyo, San Francisco, Boston). So I now have 1,006,462 miles on United, which is supposed to give me Premier Executive status for life. This is the level I usually get from travel anyway, but it's nice that I'll keep it even if have a light travel year.

Taiwan was nice. I was mostly in Taipei but also spent some time in Hsinchu and Taichung. Busy schedule visiting customers with our Taiwan distributor. A lot of driving and a few trains. Nice people, good food, including some excellent Italian and Thai food (not to mention various Chinese). That's the Taipei 101 building - a quick snapshot with my phone while driving by in the rain. It's no longer the world's tallest building (it lost the title just this year), but it's still pretty freaking tall (509 meters, 1,671 feet, 101 floors). I've been to the top a couple of times, but not on this trip. One time I saw the gigantic 730 ton tuned mass damper that was lifted to the top floor by floor during construction. There's a cool video here of the ball in motion during a 2008 earthquake in China (it helps to damp out the swaying of the building due to wind as well as earthquakes - physics in action, explained here).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Asteroids & Mars on the Agenda

Orion CEV with Asteroid #2
After President Obama's speech at Kennedy Space Center, I think I'm pretty much with him and Buzz Aldrin on the new direction for NASA. I can understand the view of Neil Armstrong and others who feel that by not defining a specific near-term goal for NASA to accomplish (namely to return to the moon in a government spacecraft by some target date), Obama seems to be pulling the plug on human spaceflight for the USA. But the operative word there is seems - because a specific goal without the funding to achieve it is really not a goal at all, and certainly not a near-term one. It's more like a wish, accompanied in the case of the Constellation program by the hope of keeping many of the employees and contractors who now work on the shuttle employed for the many years it would take to get Ares I and Orion off the ground, at least until some cash-strapped future president finally cancels these programs. There was no serious plan or funding for the moon lander. But maybe if enough people believed in Constellation (like Tinkerbell the fairy), it wouldn't die.

I don't know. I love the Apollo program and all it accomplished, but it really doesn't seem like a sustainable approach absent a Cold War imperative and the willingness to pump a lot more money into NASA than anyone has done since probably 1967. And as Elon Musk of SpaceX said in this statement, "The President quite reasonably concluded that spending $50 billion to develop a vehicle that would cost 50% more to operate, but carry 50% less payload was perhaps not the best possible use of funds."

So what do we have now? A couple of specific human spaceflight goals for "the next decade" (visit an asteroid as shown above, and orbit Mars) that are quite far off (2025+) and not too detailed. A reinstated and scaled-back Orion capsule which will serve as a development platform for future human spacecraft and provide a government-built option for emergency escape from the ISS, which will be extended by five years to 2020. And a plan to develop the Ares V, a heavy lift vehicle that could support a variety of programs in future years. Plus more funding to encourage privately developed spacecraft and launch vehicles - call it the "private option" (you would think Republicans would be all over this - except that it conflicts with their Prime Directive, to oppose Obama on everything). And more funding for NASA to develop advanced propulsion systems and other technologies that will be needed for future missions but are too risky for companies to handle as "product development." Note that they are actually increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years to help support these plans.

So all things considered, I think it's a pretty good plan, and President Obama summed it up pretty well in his speech:
Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity's reach in space -- we will strengthen America's leadership here on Earth.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

TLAM’s, Torpedoes, and All That

I’m a peace loving old guy who enjoys a good war simulation once in a while. There, I said it. In the mid- to late nineties I was obsessed with military flight sims like Falcon 3.0, Jane's F-15, Jane's F/A-18, Total Air War, and Falcon 4.0 (with the occasional WWII air combat sim thrown in for good measure – European Air War and Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 2 were my faves). I also dabbled in civilian flight sims (Microsoft Flight Simulator and a few others), but I never really got into those weaponless sims until I started taking real flying lessons and could use MFS to practice navigation and other skills I needed in the real airplane. I always preferred the more realistic "study sims," and while I enjoyed the technical and procedural complexity, I have to admit I also enjoyed blowing stuff up. What can I say?  I wasn’t exactly a skilled virtual fighter pilot, but I didn't mind a long learning curve and I could handle the acronym-rich environment (BVR, HOTAS, AMRAAM, BFM, SAM, HUD, TFR, SA, MFD, etc.). Once I got my private pilot license in 2001, I pretty much lost interest in flight sims until 2005 when I discovered the Orbiter space flight simulator (we’ll call this a flight sim too).

The only other “video game” category I ever spent time with was naval warfare simulations – first Harpoon (a naval war game) and later a few different submarine sims, especially Jane's 688(i) Hunter/Killer. Unlike air combat, submarine warfare is a game of stealth, evasion, and patience where in real life an engagement can extend over days or even longer. Sub sims shorten this with time acceleration and other compromises while retaining a certain degree of realism in sensors, ocean acoustics, weapons, etc., but sub sim sessions can still last for hours. Save your game!

Now for a limited time (until I lose interest and/or patience), sub sims are back with an impulse buy of Sonalyst’sDangerous Waters.” This 2005 game comes from the team that developed Jane’s 688(i) but it’s more advanced in various ways, and allows you to control additional “platforms” for ASW (antisubmarine warfare), a surface ship and two aircraft (a helicopter and a fixed-wing patrol plane). You can also control some Russian subs. It’s an awful lot to learn and relearn, so I’m concentrating on the somewhat familiar 688(i) Los Angeles class of submarine

I’ve gotten my feet wet (so to speak) with a couple of training missions from the web. There’s a lot to worry about so I’m relying on a number of automated assistants to help me with sonar and weapons. I’ve been working with the different sonar modes, learning again to hide under “the layer” to avoid detection, launching a few TLAM’s (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile), and waiting for the inevitable “torpedo in the water” messages from my “crew.” So far I haven’t done too well even with all this help, but it’s fun. I’m not really sure why studying a complex piece of software that simulates underwater warfare is “fun,” but somehow it is.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How to Travel to Space

Happy Birthday ISS (10 years)
I was looking through some of my Flickr pictures the other day when I noticed a comment from six months ago. I have a lot of screen captures from Orbiter, and one of them was used in an article in an online travel magazine called Matador. It's the one shown here, with the shuttle docked at the ISS with Cape Cod below.

The article is "How to Travel to Outer Space," and it discusses most of the ways civilians have and might be able to get to space, orbital and suborbital - although the Russian Soyuz option to the ISS is probably not going to be available for a while even if you have the $30 million (or whatever the actual fare is). So it's talking about real travel, not virtual stuff like Orbiter. But they liked my picture, which is cool, and they even gave me credit. The Matador site is cool too - most of the trips are down to Earth, but they go to a lot of exotic places.

Update: Speaking of Flickr, NASA has a great Flickr site, NASA: 2Explore. It's not the only place to get NASA images, but it's got a nice selection in multiple sizes and includes current shuttle and ISS missions.

Ah, Paris

Paris is great - I know this will come as a great surprise, but it really is. I'm lucky to have spent quite a bit of time there over the years. Recently I've mostly visited for just a day or so at a time as part of a whirlwind tour of European customer sites (a country a day is pretty much the norm). But it's still great, even if I only stay one night, have a meal or two, and just catch a glimpse of Notre Dame or Sacré Coeur.

You can catch a zoomable, pannable glimpse of most of Paris captured in great detail from a single high vantage point at this web site: Paris 26 Gigapixels. Be sure to maximize it.

Monday, April 05, 2010

STS-131 Launch

Unfortunately I missed the launch of STS-131 early this morning, but I really love the view in this NASA photo. It's hard to believe there are only a few more launches left in the shuttle program.

The Elements for iPad

Is there an iPad in my future? Possibly, but not just yet. As a user of the iPod Touch and a heavy e-book reader, I'm certainly well within Apple's target demographic, but I'm taking a wait-and-see approach for now. I have pretty much constant access to a Windows notebook and a BlackBerry Storm 2 in addition to the iPod Touch, and I do most of my e-book reading with the Kindle and Barnes & Noble apps on the Touch and the Storm 2 (though I also have their reader applications installed on my notebook). So I have plenty of back lit screens on which to read books - do I really need a bigger screen than the iPod Touch? The key advantage of the Touch and Blackberry is the fact that I always have these devices handy - they are easy to get out, use, and put away. Do I need another device to carry around and keep charged? Not just yet. Right now it really does seem to be just a jumbo version of the Touch. But if the right killer app comes along, who knows?

I don't think it's a killer app, but the iPad version of the book The Elements looks pretty cool based on this review (with video) on Boing Boing. The comments are interesting - some people are saying, "big deal, it's a flashy web site" while others compare it to early CD-ROM "multimedia" books (I had a few of those back in the 90's, like Microsoft's Multimedia Mozart). But a few are saying "it's the first iPad-specific multimedia book, and it's fairly impressive, but give developers a few months to see what they can do with this thing." I think that's about right. The iPad reminds me a little of the "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" in Neal Stephenson's book The Diamond Age. Of course that singing, talking, listening, 3D-displaying, fully adaptive "book" was created with futuristic nanotechnology and could do a lot more than the iPad will do any time soon. But I could imagine the iPad becoming a device more like that in future versions.

As a bonus in The Elements is a dynamically illustrated version of Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements." The Boing Boing review includes a video of it which is embedded here. Music by Arthur Sullivan (from "The Pirates of Penzance"), lyrics from the periodic table.