Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sally Ride Science

I just visited the web site for Sally Ride Science, an excellent resource for science education. Sally Ride is a Ph.D. physicist and of course also a former NASA astronaut who was the first American woman in space. Since leaving NASA, she has been a strong advocate for improvements in science education, and has written several children's books on space exploration in addition to starting her company (Sally Ride Science), which develops programs, publishes books, and sponsors science festivals and science camps for girls.

There is of course a need to encourage all young people to have an interest in science and math, but it is especially important for girls, who often succumb to stereotypes and shy away from technical subjects and careers once they reach adolescence. Sally Ride Science has an excellent PDF booklet for parents on encouraging your daughter's interests in math, science, and technology. This free 22 page booklet is a quick read with a lot of good ideas.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Amelia the Pigeon and Remote Sensing

The amount and quality of educational resources from many suppliers on the web is astounding. One example I stumbled on recently is NASA's The Adventures of Amelia the Pigeon. This is a Flash-based interactive web adventure for Earth sciences. It introduces the basic ideas of remote sensing to children in grades K-4. Rather than starting out with satellites in space, it uses the device of a young girl who explores her city with a small aerial camera carried by a homing pigeon. With the availability of Earth imaging products such as Google Earth and NASA's own WorldWind, there are plenty of opportunities available to explore the Earth from high above without ever leaving your computer. Amelia is a great way to introduce kids to how things look from above, and to how we interpret what we see in aerial and space based images. This is part of program called IMAGERS (Interactive Multimedia Education for Grade School Education Using Remote Sensing).

Friday, November 24, 2006

Orbiter Web: ar81 and Creative Orbitology

There are a number of creative and generous artists, software developers, teachers, and others who have contributed add-ons, scenarios, tutorials, and other things to the world-wide Orbiter community. One of the most creative and prolific is José Pablo Luna Sánchez, known as "ar81" on the Orbiter forums (3089 posts?!) and at Orbit Hangar. Pablo is a teacher who believes that young kids are smarter than you think, and he has taught many of his students to fly the Delta Glider in Orbiter (he even wrote a tutorial for this, to help others who wish to teach young kids). When he learned how to create and modify objects to improve and create planetary bases in Orbiter, he created some, and also created tutorials on how to do your own base modifications. His tutorials are always carefully organized and well written (he sometimes worries about English since it is not his first language, but his writing is excellent).

Pablo later expanded into modifying and creating add-ons, again contributing useful tutorials on such topics as using Vinka's spacecraft.dll modules. Moving beyond this, he developed something called Space Orbinomics, a space commerce game that is somehow linked to Orbiter (it looks cool but I've never tried it myself). Recently he created Mesh Wizard, a utility to help other add-on developers to visualize and work more easily with 3D "mesh" files. He has developed other utilities such as the Shuttle Fleet Launch Scenario Generator, and probably others as well. Most recently he posted an excellent tutorial (picture above) on using the free 3D modeling/animation tool Anim8or, the most common tool used by Orbiter add-on builders. He also contributed a cool "proof of concept" graphic novel using Orbiter graphics to illustate a brief adventure story.

You can find all (most?) of his Orbiter-related creations by searching for author ar81 at Orbit Hangar. Thanks to Pablo for all his contributions to the Orbiter community.

P.S. Unrelated except for the fact that I'm writing this while drinking a cappuccino at a Panera bakery/cafe in upstate New York, but Panera has free Wi-Fi at many of its US locations. Fast too.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I recently discovered an excellent on-line resource for astronomy and planetary sciences, Astronomy Notes by Nick Strobel. Although it covers the same ground as many astronomy education books and web sites (at the level of an introductory college astronomy course), I'm especially impressed with the way Strobel "unfolds" the complex subject matter, and with the clarity of his explanations and many diagrams. The diagrams are not especially artistic, but they cut to the heart of what is being explained better than many I have seen.

It's also nice that he often gives and shows examples - examples of calculations when equations are presented, as well as pictorial examples. In the section "Evidence of Warped Spacetime" (part of the discussion of special and general relativity), I like that there are both simple diagrams of gravitational lensing, and on the same page, Hubble images that show this effect.

Note that is the original version of Strobel's notes, parts of which have often been duplicated elsewhere, generally without the author's permission. It's a great resource, so use and give credit to the original. Strobel seems to be continuing to update it (I saw revision dates as recent as September 2006).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CameraMFD - Too Cool!

CameraMFD View of Shuttle Bay
I've just tried out an extremely clever new add-on for Orbiter, the CameraMFD by Mike Richer ("Vanguard"). The second public beta (v0.11) is available on Orbit Hangar, and it seems to work well, especially considering that the conventional wisdom was that you couldn't do such a thing in Orbiter! He's essentially rendering a second, independently controllable 3D view inside an MFD screen.

There are some limitations, e.g., you have to be in virtual cockpit mode to see the ship you're in (which means the ship must have a VC, and many don't). In 2D mode, Orbiter doesn't render the ship you are in, so all you can see is an external view in the MFD (including other ships such as the ISS if you are trying to dock with it). This is still cool because you can control the direction, field of view, view angle, target tracking, and even "night vision" mode for those really really dark times on the dark side of whatever you are orbiting.

So far I've only tried it in the default shuttle Atlantis and in the Delta Glider. Mike apparently plans to add support for an attachment point on the shuttle's RMS (robot arm), which means you will be able to get camera views from there as they do in the real shuttle. Very nice job. I'm sure there will be some clever applications for this thing from the Orbiter community. One person mentioned using it to track a shuttle launch from a remote aircraft.

Monday, November 20, 2006

4Frontiers Takes Off

I just received an email from 4Frontiers Corporation indicating that their new web site is up, and it's pretty impressive, with improved design and organization, new content, and even a "just for kids" area called - cool!

There's also an extensive report on the launch meeting for their Generation II Mars Settlement Study that I mentioned in a recent post. I wondered then why there wasn't more information about Gen II on line, but they were just about to launch the new site, and now here it is, along with tonnes of other Mars information: previous studies, educational materials, comics, even some music. Material like this makes the idea of Mars settlements more tangible even though there is still so much to be done. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the settlement study as it develops in the coming months.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Excellent Shuttle Tutorial!

I haven't had much time for Orbiter these days, but I noticed a recent tutorial flight recording uploaded by Russ "Reverend" Purinton on Orbit Hangar that looked interesting, and I tried it out tonight. It uses the standard space shuttle Atlantis (not the Shuttle Fleet add-ons) and covers launch to orbit (necessarily manual with the Atlantis since it lacks a launch autopilot), various orbit adjustments, and rendezvous and dock with the ISS. With included time acceleration segments, it takes about 45 minutes to play back (almost four hours real time), and it includes extensive instructional on-screen text to explain everything that was done.

This tutorial is very well done and makes good use of the new Atlantis virtual cockpit that allows 7 or more MFD's to be displayed at once, so all the MFD's needed for orbit adjustments, plane alignment, orbit synchronization, and docking are all available by panning and zooming the virtual cockpit view. You can still switch to external and other internal views as desired. Very cool.

Note: As pointed out in the playback notes, you can use Control-F5 to bring up the time acceleration panel and uncheck "play at recording speed" if you want to override the recorded time acceleration (100x used mainly on long orbital segments between maneuvers). Also for some reason the playback does not open the payload bay doors (although it was done in the original flight), but you can open them manually as soon as you reach orbit, even in replay mode, using Control-Spacebar to access the payload bay control panel. This is critical in real life shuttle operations (for thermal control), but is only really necessary in the simulation when you reach the ISS, since the docking port is inside the payload bay.


Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but what is faith? Well, essentially, faith is the voice in the back of your head that tells you to listen to the voice in the back of your head.
-Dennis Miller, I Rant Therefore I Am (page 82)

Dennis Miller is a mixed bag for me - equal parts funny and annoying (or maybe 40/60). But I happened to stumble on that quote, and I love it. And for once, I won't get off on a rant here.

P.S. OK, I lied about getting off on a rant, but I found that if I'm really 50/50 or even 40/60 on finding Miller funny, that I'm way above the norm. In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa reads a "joke" t-shirt that says "C:\DOS\RUN" and we then hear:
Lisa: C:, C:\Dos, C:\Dos\Run. Ha! Only one person in a million would find that funny.
Frink: Yes, we call that the Dennis Miller Ratio.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

National Geographic, Saturn, Life

Every year I wonder if I should renew my subscription to National Geographic magazine. It certainly is a beautiful and often interesting magazine, but with so much else to do and read, and so much information and imagery available on the web...

Then something like the December issue arrives with a special article on Saturn. I've seen many of the Cassini images of Saturn on the web, but there's something about NG's sharp, glossy color printing (and large format fold-out pages) that makes a big difference. And in this case there's also a special map/poster insert - I always love NG's maps and posters, and this one is a map of the solar system and its eight planets (sorry Pluto, but you and Eris still show up as dwarf planets). OK, so I renew once more.

Geographic also has good material on line, and in this case, there's a "zoomified" version of the solar system map (see graphic) that you can find here. The current issue also has an article on the early Earth, illustrated with photos by Frans Lanting of current Earth features such as volcanoes and geysers that resemble aspects of the early Earth. This article links to a special non-NG web site for a project of Lanting's, "LIFE - a Journey Through Time" which traces the nearly 4 billion year history of the life on Earth through a series of wonderful photographs and an amazing Flash-driven time line that uses the photos, captions, and music to bring the history to life.

That Piper Cub Feeling

I really like Piper Cubs and I should get off my butt and go finish learning to land one! The amazing just-about-to-land picture here really illustrates the fun of flying those little tail draggers, but it's not my picture (it was taken by holding the camera out the open door). It was one I saw in the new December issue of AOPA Pilot magazine, first place winner in the Pilots category of AOPA's 2006 General Aviation Photography Contest (it was taken by Arlo Reeves - I would like to provide a link to this and the other winning pictures, but they seem to only be available in the members area).

The other picture is one of mine, taken in late summer 2004 over Spencer, Massachusetts, looking north at Mount Wachusett from probably 2500 feet or so. Yeah, we don't have very big mountains in Massachusetts.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Another (Simulated) Way to Mars

Although we are still tweaking, testing, and documenting the Mars for Less add-on for Orbiter, Andy McSorley is also making great progress on an Orbiter add-on version of another Mars mission model. His new project is based on a variation of NASA's "DRM3," a "hybrid" design reference mission that originated in 1998 and is described in detail here (5 MB PDF).

DRM3 assumes the development of a LANTR engine (LOX augmented nuclear thermal rocket) to provide a high specific impulse (Isp ~850-1000 s) propulsion solution for the trans-Mars injection stage of the MTV (Mars Transfer Vehicle, shown above). Andy's model also includes an inflatable "TransHab" module to expand the habitable crew volume, and a number of other cool components and features. You can see some of the detailed work he is doing (including cutaway and translucent views of the TransHab) on Andy's Flickr site.

In what sense is DRM3 a "hybrid" mission? By this I mean that it combines attributes of previous NASA DRM's with some ideas made popular by Dr. Robert Zubrin in his Mars Direct approach to human Mars missions, in particular the idea of sending one of the spacecraft used in the mission to Mars in advance of the crew (typically called the ERV or Earth Return Vehicle, though it would not return to Earth in the DRM3 case). Once on the surface, robotic systems are used to manufacture propellant (methane and LOX) for later use (in situ resource utilization, ISRU, see this site for an excellent discussion of ISRU and many other aspects of human missions to the Moon and Mars). This reduces the total mass that must be carried to Mars.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mars Settlement Study

One of my favorite blogs is Anthonares, a beautifully written blog that covers a diverse range of subjects, often but not always with a scientific slant. Anthony Kendall is a Ph.D. student in hydrogeology at the University of Michigan, and one of his not-so-secret passions is the planet Mars. He spent a month in the summer at 2005 at the Mars Society's FMARS Mars analog research facility on Devon Island in far northern Canada, and he later reported on his simulated Mars mission experiences in a long, detailed blog entry. Very cool indeed.

Recently Anthony has been busy with other things and not blogging as much as he did early in the year (I know the feeling). But a few days ago he posted an entry on an exciting new project he has joined, working with 4Frontiers Corporation on an eight month "Generation II" Mars settlement study. As the Mars hydrogeologist on the 35-person study team, Anthony will be working on water issues using hypothetical Martian aquifier software models and ground-penetrating radar data from ESA and NASA spacecraft. Grant Bonin, one of my co-authors on the paper (300K PDF) I presented at the Mars Society Conference this past summer, is also on the Generation II study, working on mission planning and analysis. Great stuff, guys! I look forward to hearing more about this exciting project that aims to pin down many of the details and realities of future human settlements on Mars.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tree of Life Project

I'm continuing to slowly browse my way through Richard Dawkins' book The Ancestor's Tale, which as I mentioned in an earlier post is a journey backwards in time through the many generations of humanity's evolutionary ancestors, all the way back to the dawn of life. In one of the tales, a footnote referred to the Tree of Life web project, so I took a look. This is an amazing use of the web - a team of biologists and other contributors are building a huge on-line database of all of life on Earth, based on an evolutionary tree structure. The level of completion varies a great deal (there are some 4000 web pages so far, but there are a lot of life forms to document), but there is already a lot of information there, and various tools and suggestions for exploring and learning from it. This page explains the structure of the Tree of Life (the basic navigation graphic is shown above).

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Blogs on a Plane

Here's a first for me: blogging from the air. I'm on a Lufthansa 747 somewhere over the North Atlantic, flying from Frankfurt to Boston, the final leg of the long trip home from New Delhi (which started at 3 am India time Sunday morning). Lufthansa has WiFi (a Boeing service) on many of its international flights, but for various reasons (including exhaustion and no room to work in most coach seats), I've never used it before. This time I have a bulkhead seat and my jet lag plan has gone out the window thanks to the 3 am departure and the stop in Frankfurt, so I'm pretty alert now, but will proably pay for this later.

India was interesting, a very useful business trip, and I did get to visit the beautiful Taj Mahal yesterday (which involved many hours of driving, always an experience in India - fortunately the driver had lightning reflexes, a basic requirement to survive on the chaotic India roads). It was only about 8 days but it feels like I've been gone forever. I finished several books on the trip, Baxter's Evolution (wonderful, mind-blowing book), Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open (on my list for a long time, also great), and a surprise re-read of Carl Sagan's Cosmos (I found a cheap used copy of the paperback in a hotel gift shop). Cosmos is a little dated in terms of astronomical discoveries made since the early eighties (many of the things that Sagan mentions will be possible in decades to come have come to pass, including the Hubble, discovery of many extra-solar planets, and Mars rovers), but it is still an excellent read. Sagan's sanity and clear writing are always refreshing.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Peaceful Sights

India sure has its share of fantastic sights (and sites). Tomorrow I will get to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, but this morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that the park behind my hotel is an amazing site in itself, the Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. I took a 30 minute walk through this beautiful park that contains a tomb, a mosque, and several domes dating from the 16th century. Really amazing.


Moving from Bangalore to New Delhi, I was caught in a 48 hour internet and news blackout (and minor hotel nightmare, now corrected). With both CNN and web access in the new hotel, I learned tonight that the Democrats have won both the House and the Senate, that Democrat Deval Patrick is the new Governor of Massachusetts, and that Donald Rumsfeld has resigned! That last one was an unexpected and welcome bonus.

So I will break my personal rule of "no politics" in this blog to say "yessss!" And also "woo-hoo!" And so on. In recent years I have often been traveling overseas on election day, so I usually vote by absentee ballot and hear the results through the web, CNN, or newspapers. But in November 2000, I was visiting a customer in Heerbrugg, Switzerland when one of the engineers told me the good news that my new president would be Al Gore. When I woke up in Munich the next morning, I learned that the news was a bit more complicated and much worse than that. I like tonight's news a lot better.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

HST Goes Deeper

Optics and space, always a good combination for me. There's a good overview of the improvements that will be made on the Hubble Space Telescope by the now planned servicing mission in 2008, including a third-generation Wide Field Camera (WFC3) and the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph that will greatly improve Hubble's ability to detect ultraviolet light.

The current WFC was used to make the famous Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) image that went "back in time" further than ever before to reveal galaxies in the earliest stages of formation. I found a great "zoomified" version of HUDF (screen shot pictured). WFC3 will be almost an order of magnitude more sensitive than WFC2 - could Hubble go deeper yet?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Pale Blue Dot

This is a few days old (I've been busy traveling to India and stuff), but it's really cool, so I just have to mention it. Earth is seen from the Cassini spacecraft in approximate true color, framed by Saturn's rings and looking very much like the proverbial Pale Blue Dot (or pale blue orb, as JPL calls it). The inset shows a magnified monochrome view in which the Moon can just be made out as a slight bulge.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Booking My Flight

I'm heading for India today, flying to Bangalore via Frankfurt, around 33 hours of travel, give or take. I'm all packed and ready except for "booking my flight," which is to say making my final choice of reading materials to carry, always a difficult decision. Traveling in coach (alas) doesn't provide much space or an external power supply for extended computer use, so I tend to mostly sleep when I'm supposed to (on destination time to counter jet lag), and to otherwise read. I read fast so I need to carry several books, which means mass-market paperbacks for the most part.

Fortunately I have a lot of books around the house, many of which I bought some time ago and didn't read for some reason at the time, so I often find some unread "surprises." Two for the computer bag on this trip are Steven Baxter's Evolution and Dava Sobel's Longitude. Evolution is a sort of fictionalized counterpoint to Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, which is a huge trade paperback and will thus stay home (I'm about 135 million years back in that book, still a ways to go). Evolution is a long science-based narrative journey through pre-human, human, and post-human evolution which gets mixed reviews on Amazon, but those who like it seem to really like it. I think I will too - I've read and enjoyed several of Baxter's other "hard SF" novels. But I've got some backups in the checked luggage just in case.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Go Hubble!

It was expected but still very good news indeed that NASA will send a shuttle in 2008 to perform a fifth servicing mission (called SM4) on the Hubble Space Telescope. I heard from a NASA contact that 65 astronauts had signed a petition to go service Hubble. Seems it's a very popular spacecraft with astronauts as well as with the general public. It's also good that NASA will address the safety concerns by having a second shuttle ready to launch in case the first one runs into trouble, since Hubble provides no safe refuge as does the ISS on space station missions.