Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cité de l’Espace (Space City)

The other Toulouse attraction I visited last week was Cité de l’Espace, "Space City," an indoor/outdoor space museum (or perhaps theme park). Its trademark exhibit is a full-size mock-up of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. It is 53 meters tall and I first spotted it from several miles out on approach to the Toulouse airport from the southeast when I was flying in from Frankfurt. It's shown above with another major outdoor exhibit, a full-size, walk-through mock-up of Russia's late, great Mir space station. I knew that Mir was big, but I was surprised at just how big it really was. It's set up with walkways around and through its several modules so you can really get an idea of what it was like inside.

Other outdoor exhibits included a full-size Soyuz spacecraft, a full-size mock-up of the ESA XMM-Newton x-ray telescope (launched in 1999, still operational, shown at left), the large scale solar system model I blogged about the other day, a "galaxy maze," the "avenue of the infinite" (a powers-of-ten demonstration of the scale of things in the universe), and more (including some play areas specifically for smaller kids). 

The main building houses a large number of interesting exhibits arranged by themes such as observing the earth, living in space, exploring the universe, weather, communications, etc. All the exhibits are well done and some of them are interactive in various ways. Another large building houses a planetarium and an IMAX theater where I was happy to be able to see the very recent "HUBBLE (3D)" (this and the planetarium were included in the admission, though I didn't have time for a planetarium show). I had paid an extra fee for a location-aware translation system with headphones which worked well for the exhibits. I was able to read the French descriptions just fine so I didn't really need it for those, but I figured it would allow me to hear the original narration for the Hubble film. Unfortunately this didn't work for me, but the French narration and dubbed voices for the astronauts were quite clear and easy to understand.

I didn't have much time, but I managed to see most of the exhibits and even grab a quick lunch at the Astronaut Cafe and a few small souvenirs at the well-stocked gift shop. Aside from the space exhibit area at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, this is probably the best space-themed museum I have ever visited. If you're ever in the area, it's definitely worth a visit. I have a few additional pictures on my Flickr site and may post some more in the next few days.

Megaplanes: Airbus A380 and Beluga

Last week I was in Toulouse for a conference, but I fortunately had some time in the schedule for a little aerospace sight seeing as well. Toulouse is the center of the French aerospace industry, home of CNES (the French NASA), EADS Astrium, EADS Airbus, and other aerospace companies. There is also an excellent space museum which I will write about separately.

As you might expect, Airbus production facilities are located next to the Toulouse airport. I realized when I landed that there might be tours available, and since I had a morning free the next day, I hoped I might be able to join one. I got lucky and there was a tour available the next morning. It was only in French that day, but my French is good enough that this wasn't a problem. The "Airbus Visit" tour is run by a separate company and it focuses on the giant A380.The visitor center includes a simulated "telemetry room" where you get a briefing about EADS Airbus and the A380 project, including a narrated replay of the A380's first flight in 2005. The monitors in the room show various videos (from cameras mounted on the test aircraft as well as chase aircraft and helicopters) and graphical displays of some of the 260,000 flight test parameters. This was pretty cool.

Then we boarded a bus to drive over to one of the final assembly buildings where three A380's were nearing completion. They reminded me more of green submarines than aircraft - incredibly huge airplanes. From the very high observation gallery, we could see the tiny members of assembly teams at work below us (no photos allowed on the tour, alas, but this 2009 article has some). From the outside gallery, we could see several other A380's in the nearby electronic testing area. No photos there either, but on my departure from TLS, I was able to take a couple of decent shots of those planes from the air. The picture above shows four A380's under test (one Qantas, one Lufthansa, two others unknown). You can see tour buses parked in front of the blue building in the background, which was the one with the observation gallery we visited. It looks like the adjacent buildings could accommodate up to eight aircraft for final assembly.The next part of the tour brought us back to the visitor's center to go inside a full-size mockup of the A380 fuselage. The two levels were configured with different seating and amenities for use in marketing to airlines. A very roomy airplane. I passed on the final part of the tour which was a visit to the very first Concorde SST because I was out of time (I went inside a Concorde in Seattle last August - nice, but really not such a roomy airplane).

Back at TLS for the flight home, I could see many other Airbus aircraft at the facility across from the passenger terminal, including three of the five "Airbus Belugas," modified Airbus A300 aircraft that are used to transport large aircraft sections from various other Airbus sites in Europe to Toulouse for final assembly. The Belugas are also chartered for various other bulky freight transport chores as described in this Wikipedia article. On the flight from TLS to Munich, we passed over Switzerland and I took a few photos of the Alps. Window glare, clouds, and haze made it tough but a couple of pictures were OK. I've just spent 30 minutes with Google Earth trying to figure out what lake is in the picture below. I think it's near Mont Blanc (possibly Lac L'Emosson), but I'm really not sure. It sure is nice to have a window seat when flying over the Alps even when the pictures don't come out so great. I also need a new digital camera.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Space Is Not Easy

I’m attending a small technical conference on “stray light” in Toulouse, France this week.  It’s sponsored by CNES (the French space agency) and by several European aerospace companies. It’s basically an optical engineering conference on a very specialized area of optics called “stray light.” As you can imagine, this means light that you don’t want showing up on the detectors of your optical system. A familiar example is a “ghost image” that you might see on a photo that you shoot towards the sun. You might see rings or hexagonal shapes or patches in your picture, obscuring part of the actual picture. These are internal reflections from the lenses or apertures that normally would be too faint to see unless the source is very bright (like when the sun is partly or fully in the frame).

In spacecraft optical systems (telescopes or imaging systems for Earth or other planets), this is a big problem. The sensors for these systems are very sensitive, and there are many ways for photons you don’t want to bounce around and find their way to your sensors, even if you are careful and don’t point directly at the sun, moon, or Earth (the brightest sources for most spacecraft). Preventing or reducing stray light is an important part of design and fabrication of such optical systems and can even determine the success or failure of a mission.

A case in point from a paper presented by Mr. Thierry Viard of Thales Alenia Space in sunny Cannes, France. The COROT spacecraft was launched in December 2006 to search for exoplanets with short orbital periods, especially large terrestrial (Earth-like) planets. COROT is a relatively small and low-cost spacecraft, so launching it to a dark, distant Lagrange point (e.g., L2) was not possible. An 800 km polar orbit would have to do, which meant that the very bright Earth would always be nearby (in addition to the sun and moon, though the sun would always be kept “behind” the spacecraft by pointing to a different area of the sky depending on the season).

The “transit” method of detecting exoplanets depends on recording very slight changes in the brightness of rather dim stars as a small planet passes in front of the star as viewed from our direction. The telescope had to be designed with a form that would minimize the chances of light from “off-axis” objects (those outside of the desired pointing area) getting to the detectors. Several optical criteria used in the chosen design form helped with this, in addition to extensive “baffles” (black metal rings that only allow light from certain directions to get in).

But this was not enough for COROT to succeed. The engineers also determined that cleanliness would make or break this mission. The slightest dust in the spacecraft could also scatter light to the detector, and such scattering had to kept to about 10 photons per pixel per second from the nearby Earth (which is putting out about 10^20 photons per second per pixel, a huge, huge number). This required keeping particle contamination (dust) to something under 200 parts/million, which is very clean even for a clean room used to building delicate spacecraft.   And there was no way to even test this without risking even more contamination, so it had to be based entirely on simulations. Pretty scary!

But guess what? The COROT optics team succeeded. When they first imaged the starry sky, it was pitch black except for the bright, distinct stars. Just as designed. They detected their first exoplanet  in May 2007, and the first Earth-like exoplanet , COROT-7b (1.7 times Earth’s radius) in 2009. 

Of course there is much more to this or to any spacecraft than the optical systems. This is just an example of the clever engineering, hard work, extreme attention to detail, and ultra-high quality needed for any successful space mission. Space is not easy.

Images courtesy CNES

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not In My Back Yard...

...but I wish it was! What a great educational aid it would be to have a scale model solar system with Earth the size of maybe a basketball (roughly 56 million to one). The orbits are in order but of course not to scale for orbital distance - that would require a lot of land. This could be my next landscape architecture project (though my wife probably has other ideas).

Update: the sun doesn't appear to be in scale, but it's rather foreshortened in this view so you can't tell that it's really just a small chord of the sun's circular disk and it could easily be 9.7 Jupiter radii if you extended it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

JT & CK: Great Concert

I don't go to many concerts these days, especially when it requires driving in and out of Boston. But last night's James Taylor and Carole King "Troubadour Reunion" concert at the TD Garden was worth the effort. My wife and I drove in early, parked under the Garden, and had dinner at a nearby Irish pub before the concert, so we were pretty relaxed by the time it started. JT and Carole were in excellent form, doing mostly their best-known songs from the early 70's. I've been to a few JT concerts over the years (he's one of my idols and almost certainly the reason I tried to be a singer-songwriter myself), but this was the first time I've heard Carole King live. "Tapestry" is one of my favorite albums, and I have to admit it gave me chills to hear her perform "It's Too Late," "So Far Away," "Natural Woman," and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"  The band was great too, including three core members they both performed and recorded with way back in 1970. Great stuff.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shuttle Launch Prep in 3' 52"

This is so cool. It's a time-lapse video that shows the full six-week preparation sequence of the shuttle Discovery for STS-131 condensed into three minutes, 52 seconds. It's from Air & Space Magazine (one of my favorite magazines). Thanks to astropixie for the tip.

I'm going to miss the space shuttle.

Update: I removed the embedded video - it's too annoying that it plays automatically (with the commercial) every time the page loads. Watch here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

American Aerospace: Cool Blog

I haven't been reading and writing much space and aviation stuff recently. Aside from work, I've had a few distractions such as working with my brother to build a new enclosed porch on my house, finishing my second album, and most exciting of all, seeing my daughter get married this past Sunday. But with a new version of Orbiter to play with, I'm sure space will be back in the mix over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, let me steer you to a cool blog from Seattle, American Aerospace. It features a series of nicely written descriptions of various American space and aviation milestones, including this piece (May 31) on one of my favorites, Robert Goddard, "the original rocket man."

You might also check out the latest Carnival of Space (#158) hosted this week by the Aartscope Blog.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Orbiter 2010 has "Shipped"

Great news for space flight fans - Orbiter 2010 has been released and is available for free download. This is the first new version of Orbiter since fall of 2006. There's also a nice update to the main Orbiter web site. Things are continuing to be crazy busy for me, so I've just managed to download the new version and haven't even installed it yet. But I plan to delve into it over the next couple of months. My first priority will be to test all the scenarios and tutorial steps in my Go Play In Space book to make sure they still work well with the new Orbiter version. I'm also considering doing an update to Go Play In Space specifically for the 2010 version (as I did when I created the second edition for the 2006 release of Orbiter).

This version of Orbiter has some cool new features, but the majority of Martin Schweiger's development efforts were devoted to internal and architectural changes which separated the "orbital mechanics engine" from the graphics and user interface components, to allow other developers to create "front ends" that take advantage of new developments in graphics software and hardware without requiring Martin to do all of that himself. This was major surgery for a program of Orbiter's complexity, but it will offer benefits in the long run. This press release (PDF) summarizes the other changes, which are substantial (including support for much higher quality planetary surface textures, more accurate atmospheric models, and a powerful built-in scripting language).

Note that Orbiter itself still does not include sound, so be sure to download and install Dansteph's Orbiter Sound 3.5 which works with Orbiter 2006 and 2010. Note also that while Orbiter includes a number of built-in spacecraft and many scenarios, there are hundreds of free add-ons that expand upon its standard features, most of them available from Orbit Hangar. Also be sure to check the Orbiter Forum to keep in touch with the world-wide Orbiter community.

Message from Tomorrow has "Shipped"

My new album "Message from Tomorrow" has finally "shipped" (well I did ship a few CD's to CD Baby for sale, and a few to out of town friends). The 14 original songs are available for download on iTunes,, and on itself. I've been a little surprised by comments I've received on what people like, but I guess that really just shows my own biases. The favorite song so far seems to be "Out of Nowhere" (written with my friend Rob Simbeck), followed by "Autumn Song" and "Message from Tomorrow."

Lyrics for the album are available as a PDF on the download page of my music web site, which I hope to update to something a little more modern and interesting in the next couple of months. I also hope to get back to doing some gigs now that I have some new material. This will probably start with some open mic events since it's been a few years since I performed at anything other than a family or office get-together. 

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Mine, unfortunately. Oh well, it's just another day.