Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Carnival of Space #316

The 316th Blog Carnival of Space is running now at Next Big Future. I especially liked the one about colonizing Venus with balloon-like floating cities some 50 kilometers above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure is roughly the same as Earth at sea level (though the atmosphere itself is not exactly breather-friendly). This idea was floated some years ago, but it was fun to hear about it again.

The picture here is not exactly a floating city, but it is the only graphic I could quickly locate purporting to show something navigating the clouds of Venus. Simulated clouds of Venus with an Orbiter add-on "space yacht" based on the cover art for a 1970's album by Yes called Yessongs. Google any of that that doesn't make sense to you.

P.S. There are many strange and marvelous add-ons available for the Orbiter space flight simulator. I have pictures of many of them on my Flickr site.

Starmap Media: Personal Trainer

Starmap was the first astronomy app I bought when I got my first iPod Touch in 2008. Although I had used astronomy software like Stellarium on PC, I was amazed at the possibility of having a planetarium in my pocket. Something I could take outside with me and hold up to the sky to help identify objects, or search to find the expected positions of stars and planets based on current position and time. All with a simple touch, drag, and pinch-zoom interface. Over time, other astronomy apps emerged, I got an iPhone which included GPS and compass, and Starmap added even more features. Life is good for fans of iOS devices and night skies.

Now Starmap has been expanded to improve its usefulness as an astronomy learning tool. Starmap Media was recently released as both an add-in to Starmap and as a free standalone app. As with many iOS apps, "free" isn't the whole story. There are in-app purchases to provide most of the content, so at the first level,  Starmap Media functions as a specialized audio book reader for a series of "astronomy lessons" or stories.

But what's really cool is that the "lessons" are integrated with planetarium software that knows the time and location and what is visible in the sky at any given time (apart from such spoilers as clouds). So if you go outside on a clear night this week and fire up "Wandering the Summer Sky," the app will point you to the various objects of interest while the narrator tells you what to look for and why. It's like having an astronomer as your personal night-sky tour guide. It doesn't answer questions (yet), but it's still pretty amazing.

While there are a few free stories or "star tours"  supplied with the app, most are in-app purchases that cost 99 cents each to download (once downloaded, Internet access is not needed to use the stories). There are stories for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced topics. The writing, production, and narration are smooth and professional, with many multimedia features built in. These include animated overlays that explain the shapes and positions of objects and patterns in the sky, diagrams and pictures of nebulae, galaxies, etc., as well as historic and mythological background.

I tried out a few of the stories at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels (full disclosure: I was given  free reviewer access to a number of stories). For example, "Stellar Smoke Rings" is a 12 minute story labeled intermediate. It points you to and explains several well-known planetary nebulae including the Ring Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. It was easy to follow the instructions to find the correct area of the sky. The narration waits for you to get there and touch an OK button. You can press pause at any time and an interactive contents list pops up, allowing you to jump backwards or forwards as needed.

Another intermediate story, "More Than Meets the Eye," points you to a couple of seemingly minor constellations as background for a nice explanation of stellar magnitudes and measures of sky viewing quality. The advanced story "The Arcturus Stream" talks about the behavior and properties of the easy-to-find star Arcturus, and about some aspects of star formation that can be inferred from the amounts of heavy elements such as metals that are present or absent in a star's spectrum (the "rainbow" of light from the star that astronomers use to determine what elements are in a star, using a telescope instrument called a spectroscope).

Any problems? For one thing, even the "advanced" stories I've seen so far don't seem very advanced for someone with a serious interest in astronomy who has done much reading. I have studied a lot of astronomy over the years, but I don't mind a review of a familiar topic presented in a fresh way. And the star tours include topics from recent research, such as the idea that the stars in the relatively fast-moving Arcturus stream may have originated in a small satellite galaxy that was gravitationally captured by our Galaxy. It's also nice to have a professional narrator presenting the material "in context" as you look at the star or constellation in question. It's like having a "personal trainer" for star gazing!

What about the cost? I think of it like a subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine. The sky is big, with many things to see and learn, and it changes through the year. This is why astronomy magazines sell, even though there are many astronomy books out there - they keep you up to date, show you things you may have missed, present information and recent research in new ways, and tie stories to current events such as spacecraft launches and encounters. Starmap Media stories are like astronomy magazine articles read by a professional narrator and keyed to what you can see in the sky right now (there is also a "couch mode" for exploring when skies are cloudy or the objects are out of view). You only buy the ones you want (you can download a brief free preview of any paid story to see if it interests you). Once downloaded, the stories are yours to enjoy whenever you like.

If you have an iPad, a bonus is that the free Starmap Media app is a universal app that works well on either iPhone/iPod Touch screens or larger iPad screens. The Starmap app itself comes in two versions, one for small screens and a more expensive HD version for iPads. You may want the HD or iPhone "pro" version for other features (such as expanded catalogs and telescope control), but it's nice that the Starmap Media star tours and sky displays work well on any iOS display (you can use the iPhone version of Starmap on an iPad, using the 2x button to fill the screen, but the fonts etc. don't look as nice when you view a scaled version of an iPhone app on an iPad).

Starmap Media is a really cool way to add to your enjoyment and learning while exploring the stars and planets. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, try it out the next time you are out looking at the marvelous night sky.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Space Settlements

A few weeks ago I saw the movie Elysium, mainly because I was intrigued by trailers showing a huge Earth-orbiting space settlement, very much like those proposed in the 1976 book The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neil. I had that book back in the day (actually I may still have it). Back then they were called space colonies or habitats. The movie was both entertaining and irritating. The imagined technologies and the visuals were very cool, including Elysium itselfa rotating torus-type space habitat that is supposed to be large enough to house 500,000 of the super-rich in 2154 (the much-less-than-one-percent), when the Earth's surface has become just too ugly to stand (or something). There's a lot of shooting and other typical action movie stuff, and a plot based on the huge disparity between the haves (living in luxury in space) and the have-nots (living in squalor in Los Angeles, apparently). Matt Damon is the sort-of hero in a wildly implausible story. I wanted to see more of the Elysium habitat, but that was not the point of this movie. I'm not really sure what was, other than that grossly unequal wealth distribution might have unintended consequences. True, but hard to believe this could be the result.

I hope that someday we do develop space settlements that are not gated communities for the super rich. Who will they be for, and why will we need them? I pretty much agree with the National Space Society (NSS) that humanity should strive to have places to live beyond the Earth for a variety of reasons. To provide a backup in case of extreme disaster on this planet, a way to preserve human and other life. To give access to additional resources. For economic growth that could arise from new frontiers and technologies. Because we can do it. And because it's really cool! I'm also a member of the Mars Society, and I think that eventually we will be able to colonize Mars (starting as early as 2023 if the Mars One project succeeds). But Mars is very far away, and if we can learn to capture near-Earth objects and use their materials to robotically build things in space, large space settlements might be practical, and they can be built in near-Earth orbit (like Elysium), or at other places in the Earth-Moon system, and eventually in other places in the solar system. 

So I would say, plan for all possibilities. There's an essay by Rick Tumlinson in the current issue of the NSS magazine ad Astra called "All of the Above." In it he says, "the opening of space to human development is the most important activity of the human species" (in the long run, this is certainly true). He suggests that there is no "one true path" to achieve this, but that there are three key components:
  1. Regular, reliable, and low-cost access to and from space.
  2. Utilization of the resources of space, wherever they are, for whatever purpose we need (i.e., "live off the land")
  3. Governments that understand and support the idea of an open and expanding frontier in space, by, of, and for the people.
I agree with these points, though I'm sure not all the governments who will be active in space in the coming decades will sign up for #3. 

The same issue of Ad Astra has a space habitat on the cover. It's not Elysium, but the movie may have affected the timing since the article discussed was written in 2007. "Kalpana One" is not a torus, but a cylinder, and it's much smaller than Elysium, in consideration of the amount of mass needed to construct it, as well as radiation shielding and various safety factors. It is sized such that a 2 rpm rotation rate produces one G of rotational pseudo-gravity (low radiation and Earth equivalent G are essential, especially for growth and development of children). It might house 3000 people. It's really cool that so much analysis has gone into this. You can read the article here.

I've read a lot of science fiction on subjects like this. In terms of what things could be like if we open up and settle the solar system, I especially like Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312. Is the NSS agenda really just unlabeled science fiction? I don't think so. I think that technology is accelerating at such a rate that we really need to be planning for things like space settlements and Mars colonies. They aren't going to happen next year. But with the usual caveats (e.g., assuming we don't plunge ourselves into nuclear war or world-wide depression), some of these things could happen in the lifetime of my children. Or at least my grandchildren. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The 100*Pi Carnival of Space!

Well, 314 is approximately 100*(pi), right? Anyway, the 314th weekly blog carnival of space is live at the Dear Astronomer blog. Like the summer, it's short but sweet (and hey Curiosity, congrats on your first Earth year on Mars!).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Kerbal Space Program?!?

I read something about KSP (Kerbal Space Program) a couple of years ago but I didn't do anything about it. Then the other day I saw this comic on xkcd, referencing KSP. If you hover your mouse over the comic, the comment says "Ahem. We are STRICTLY an Orbiter shop." Me too! But I was curious about what had happened to KSP since it was last (vaguely) on my radar.

Quite a bit, it turns out. It's still in an extended alpha development phase, but it's already got some interesting capabilities for people who like to "play in space" (something I once wrote a book about). After looking at a few web sites and videos, I decided to download and try KSP for myself (current version is 0.21.1, and it costs $23, including future updates). So what is KSP? From the web site:
KSP is a game where the players create and manage their own space program. Build spacecraft, fly them, and try to help the Kerbals to fulfill their ultimate mission of conquering space.
Essentially it's a space flight simulator with reasonably accurate physics, wrapped in a game-like interface with pretty decent graphics and some quirky alien-like astronaut characters (KSP's developers also seem to have a quirky sense of humor). It is just now starting to emerge from its "sandbox" phase (with the ability to build and fly your own spacecraft, but without any specific game-like goals). At this point, it's something like 3D simulated model rocketry, but with the ability to launch the rockets you design into space (orbital mechanics is involved, but the math is hidden behind clever controls and displays). You can dock with space stations, travel to and land on other planets, and try to navigate your spacecraft back to Kerbin for a safe landing.

Yes, Kerbin, not Earth. This fictional solar system has real physics (orbital mechanics and atmospheric flight) but it doesn't use the names and specific physical properties of our own solar system. Kerbin is an Earth-like "exoplanet" with two moons (Mun and Minmus - you can fly to and land on them).

So far I've only scratched the surface of KSP, and I don't know how much time I will spend with it. It depends in part on whether I start to do some space-related educational outreach again. I haven't done any for quite a while. When I have done school presentations, I have generally used Orbiter to dynamically demonstrate certain aspects of space flight and the solar system. That's cool for demos, and it beats simply using PowerPoint, but Orbiter's learning curve is quite steep, and it's hard for me to recommend to any students younger than maybe 11 or 12. KSP is definitely more kid-friendly. The rocket building section (see picture at top of this post) is simple yet powerful (though there is no guarantee that what you build will fly well or at all - the physics is pretty realistic, so you have to worry about mass, thrust, stability, etc.). As the Minecraft craze shows, kids (and adults) love to build stuff inside virtual worlds (and real ones). While building your own spacecraft for Orbiter is certainly possible, it's a separate "add on" development process, not integrated with the simulation itself.

KSP also integrates the instruments and controls needed to change orbits directly within the 3D views (spacecraft and map), making it easier and less abstract to see the effects of firing your rockets at certain times, locations, and directions. The screenshot above is from the integrated Orbiting 101 tutorial, and it shows the "maneuver node system" being used to predict the effect of a pro-grade burn at the low point of the orbit (periapsis). Dragging the pro-grade symbol changes the delta-V (speed change) value, and the dotted orbital path shows the predicted effect in real time (your path doesn't actually change unless you make that proposed burn at the proper time and with the correct ship orientation). Orbiter has similar capabilities (and much more) with its various "MFD" instruments, but these work like display screens in the cockpit, not directly in the 3D view. More realistic but also harder to visualize and understand.

KSP allows you to build and fly some pretty cool and complex space vehicles such as multi-stage rockets with strap-on boosters, and even Apollo LM-like landers such as the one shown above (docked with an Apollo-like command module housing three Kerbals who are about to land on the Mun - this is a supplied sample scenario). Although it's easy to build monster rockets with many engines, you do need to pay attention to structural integrity, symmetry, and stability or your giant booster may tumble out of control, crash, and burn. Unlike in Orbiter, things can and do blow up in KSP, though at the moment the hardy Kerbal astronauts are immune to G-forces, allowing you to perform high-G atmospheric entries and the like with impunity (this will undoubtedly change in future versions).

Future versions will also include a flight sim-like "career mode" with awards for completing certain missions or milestones like docking or landing on the Mun). I suppose that training options will also expand, although there is already some basic training in the game, and a variety of user-created tutorial videos and PDF's available on the web. Note that since changes between versions can be pretty extreme, there is no guarantee of backwards compatibility for previously built things when you upgrade.

I think KSP is already a great educational tool, because it is sufficiently "toy like" to be fun and non-threatening (think building robots with Lego MindStorms, but much cheaper), but powerful enough to allow really interesting and challenging activities. I really like the emphasis on what is essentially engineering - designing, building, testing, and thinking about why things work or don't work so the next iteration can be better. And remember, to engineer is human (and sometimes fun too).

Monday, August 05, 2013

The First Moon Families

Today would have been Neil Armstrong's 83rd birthday, and I happened to see this LIFE Magazine web feature somewhere. It includes photos of Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins before their Moon mission in 1969, "away from the office," with their wives and kids. I especially like the photo I've posted here.