Wednesday, February 28, 2007

CEV Orion and the Moon

The European Pégase CTV I mentioned the other day is (strictly speaking) an invention of its Orbiter add-on developers, although it has some plausible roots and does have the virtue that it assumes a launch vehicle that has actually flown (the Ariane 5). On the other hand, the Orion CEV is real, at least in the sense that some contracts have been issued as part of NASA's Project Constellation (although its assumed launch vehicle does not yet exist). When Orion will fly and in exactly what form remain to be seen, but if all goes well, there will be a NASA crew vehicle to service the ISS and perform other Earth-orbital duties starting around 2014. There may also be some private competition for the same basic job (if all goes well for some of the private companies).

As uncertain as all that sounds, when it comes to the Moon, things are even less certain, with dates like 2020 being kicked around (at least one and a half presidential administrations after this one). There have been graphical renderings of the LSAM (Lunar Surface Access Module, for which NASA is rumored to to be considering the name Artemis). Francis Drake's Orbiter add-on based on the NASA renderings has been around since December 2005, but I have recently revisited it in combination with his newer Orion CEV model (distinguished by the circular solar panels as shown in the most recent NASA and Lockheed renderings). I reinstalled the Taurus-Littrow terrain by jtibirius (, undocked the LSAM from Orion in Moon orbit, and used the amazing Land MFD to take the LSAM down to the dramatic Apollo 17 landing site.

P.S. Here's a cool NASA QuickTime animation that shows the landing I've been playing with. When the astronaut climbs down the ladder, you can really get a feel for how big the LSAM will be compared to the Apollo LM.

Monday, February 26, 2007

EuroMoon? Pégase CTV in Orbiter

Est-ce que la lune est (Euro-)bleue? Peut-être! You can at least experiment with the idea of a European Moon flight with Pégase CTV, a beautiful new Orbiter add-on by Well and No Matter, introduced in this post on Orbiter forum. CTV stands for Crew Transfer Vehicle, and it is somewhat of an extropolation of the in-development European ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle), converted to a crew-carrying capsule with additional modules to support a number of possible missions, including ISS transfers and even orbiting the Moon (I didn't see any sign of a lunar lander in the pictures or in this very cool Flash-based slide show of a CTV Moon mission). Judging from the pictures, they did a great job with the modeling, textures, and even the interior of the crew capsule. Formidable!

Although I have launched a few Ariane 5's in my time, I confess that I have not installed this add-on as yet, and there is a big warning in the manual (English and French versions) that you must have the runtime libraries for Visual C++ 2005 installed on your PC to run it (links are provided). Read the quite complete documentation and you will be fine, I'm sure.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Rosetta Mars Fly-by

Rosetta images Mars (ESA CIVA_Mars_30_H)

Rosetta Near Mars Feb 2007

ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has just made a close fly-by of Mars (~1000 km) and sent back the interesting image above (courtesy ESA). It was taken by the Philae lander camera, with the spacecraft's solar panels visible in the foreground. I tried to set up the same shot in Orbiter, but I couldn't quite manage it, so I settled for an external shot to complement the ESA image. Rosetta's orbit-shaping journey around the solar system will bring it close to Earth in November 2007 and November 2009 en-route to its 2014 rendezvous and landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Friday, February 23, 2007

ISDC 2007

I've decided to attend ISDC 2007 in Dallas, May 23-28. This is the 26th International Space Development Conference, and the theme this year is "From Old Frontiers to New: Celebrating 50 Years of Spaceflight." The preliminary speaker list is amazing, starting with Buzz Aldrin, Steve Squyres, Rusty Schweickart, Robert Bigelow, Hugh Downs, Robert Zubrin, and many others (I've seen other names including Burt Rutan, Anousheh Ansari, and Kim Stanley Robinson, though perhaps these are not yet confirmed).

There are many presentation tracks and I've already submitted an abstract for the space education track with the title "Playing in Space: Interactive education with the Orbiter space flight simulator." I'm really looking forward to this conference - there's going to be a lot to learn, and a lot of people to meet, including many who are interested as I am in using space to help encourage young people to pursue careers in science and technology.

For an idea of the kind of people who attend ISDC and the kinds of things they are passionate about, check out this cool 40 minute video from ISDC 2005. It includes interviews with a number of attendees and some great clips from a speech by Burt Rutan, as well as excerpts from animations of future space systems by NASA and others.

Finally Time to Switch Phones?

I had read some things about Apple's iPhone when it was announced, but my daughter just told me about this CBS video clip from January, featuring a four minute demo. While I'm sure there will be drawbacks (including having to switch from Verizon to Cingular, which I guess is now merged into AT&T), this thing has the slickest interface and most amazing bundle of features I have ever seen in a computer or communication device. I'm not a phone freak (I've had a new LG camera phone that we got as a free upgrade sitting on my desk for a year, but have not switched because it's just not worth the trouble), but this iPhone thing is not a phone - it's more like a palm-size Mac that's also a phone and an iPod (I was an early Mac adopter in 1984 but switched to PC's in 1994 for work reasons). I want one! It's supposed to ship in June. Should I wait for the 1.1 version? Usually I would but in this case...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Required Non-Required Reading

This week I've been visiting colleges with my younger daughter, a high school junior (yes, that does make me feel old - oldish anyway). We visited three schools in Connecticut and NYU in New York City. We lucked out and had a sunny and relatively warm late-winter day in Manhattan yesterday. It was fun walking around the city, eating at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, and then attending an afternoon information session and a walking tour of NYU's city-integrated non-campus. We liked it a lot, though naturally there are pros and cons (including private school sticker shock: an estimated annual cost of $45,000).

Of course we visited the main bookstore, which was nice but not quite as big as I expected. Serendipity struck and I bought a book I hadn't seen before, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006, edited by Dave Eggers, with an introduction by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. What a great find! It's a collection of short stories, nonfiction pieces, unusual comics (including one called "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" - yes, travel comics), blog excerpts, and even some lists. These include "Best American Fake Headlines" from The Onion, of which my favorites are "Evangelical scientists refute gravity with new 'Intelligent Falling' Theory" and "Philandering String Theorist Can Explain Everything"). A lot of it is very funny and irreverent, but some of the stories and nonfiction pieces as well as the excerpts from the blog A Soldier's Thoughts are very serious indeed. I've bought some other titles in the "Best American" series over the years, but I had never seen this one, which started in 2002. Now required!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Heart of the Sunrise

When I started college in (ahem) September 1970, one of the bands I really liked was Yes. Their music was somehow complex and soothing at the same time, and they held my interest through Close to the Edge, which was perhaps my favorite of theirs (Topographic Oceans was just too much and I never liked much of their later stuff).

So imagine my surprise to find a connection between Yes and Orbiter! I searched for "Brian Jones" over at to see what other add-ons he had done (I knew one of them was MRO). But one I hadn't seen was "Yessongs," inspired by the album artwork of Roger Dean (see here, for example). The fish-like space yacht "Schindleria" is really a beauty, especially in the two Venus scenarios, including "Heart of the Sunrise," one of my favorite songs by Yes. And I hope that pointy asteroid never hits the Earth. Nice work, Brian!

Asteroids in the News

The weekly Kurzweil Accelerating-Intelligence News brings its usual roundup of sometimes strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes scary bulletins from the cutting edge, with brief summaries that point you to the original articles. Retinal implants, self-assembling batteries, quantum computing, interstellar arks, and more. This New Scientist Space article on the threat of near-Earth asteroids is especially interesting.

Although the current estimate (1 in 45,000) for the probability of the 250 meter asteroid Apophis hitting Earth in 2036 may seem small, it is only one of many such asteroids, many of them still unknown (this cool JPL site lets you easily view animated orbital diagrams of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, or NEO's - see Apophis here, the top picture above). It's not exactly that the sky is falling, but the threat is real, and asteroid impact is one of the few natural disasters that we might have a chance to do something about, if we continue to expand our tracking programs and if we develop the necessary technology.

The necessary technology doesn't require training Bruce Willis for a suicide mission (as in the rather silly Armegeddon) - it could be as (relatively) simple as parking a fairly massive unmanned spacecraft near the asteroid and allowing its tiny but long-acting gravitational pull on the asteroid to slowly "tug" it away from its collision course path. Of course this would have to be started while the asteroid is still quite far from Earth.

There are a few Orbiter add-ons that allow you to install and play around with some asteroids and the spacecraft that have visited or will visit them. One of them is the pictured ESA Rosetta spacecraft add-on by Brian Jones (search for at Here I have used the scenario editor to place it uncomfortably close to asteroid 2867 Steins (Java applet), which is also included in the add-on. Note that the gravitational effect of a spacecraft on a "body" (planet, moon, asteroid) is most likely not modeled in Orbiter, so you won't be able to try out the gravitational tractor idea yourself (at least not until some Orbiter add-on builder figures out a way).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Belgian Beer & Bargain Books

I love L.A. Well mostly Pasadena, and nearby places like Sierra Madre, tucked up close to the lovely San Gabriel Mountains that you now can actually see in the winter and sometimes even in other seasons. I lived in and around Pasadena from late 1979 to 1987 when the smog was so bad, the nearby San Gabriels were usually hidden by an acidic white haze. California has done a pretty good job of limiting the growth of air pollution by cars and factories since then, even as the human and car population has mushroomed. Today it was so clear and warm as we walked a few blocks to eat sushi for lunch, I wondered why I ever left. Massachusetts has its charms too, I suppose. But in winter, not so much.

In Sierra Madre, a small bar had a Belgian beer festival tonight, and with a group of friends from work, I enjoyed some glasses of an exuberantly flavorful and sweet beer called Delirium Tremens. Upon regaining my senses enough to safely drive my rental car toward the hotel, I came upon a favorite bookstore, Vroman's (I notice that Vroman's now proclaims that it has a MySpace page, making me wonder if the cool phase of MySpace might have passed me by - not that Vroman's isn't cool, but who wants to be friends with a bookstore?).

One thing you can count on with Vroman's: bargain books that they don't usually have at Borders or B&N. And tonight serendipity hit me hard, even though I have to pack all the silly things in my poor suitcase for the flight to Boston in about eleven hours. But I'm still happy with my haul of $4 and $5 specials. The Action Hero's Handbook. Introducing Einstein (a cartoon version). The Naked Cartoonist. Pioneers of Flight (a paper airplane book). Einstein's Unfinished Symphony (about gravity waves). 50 Facts That Should Change The World (they really should). Life: The Odds (873:1 they won't). And Astro Turf, a personal memoir that also tells the story of JPL.

Now I must pack, sleep, and dream of a free first-class LAX-BOS upgrade (which thanks to the wonders of the web and 24 hour planning, I've already confirmed, and even printed my own boarding pass). Sometimes things just work out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bookwashed and Other Confessions

Although Coyote often challenged my ability to suspend disbelief, it not only held my interest in the end, but even set me up to want to read the sequel, Coyote Rising. Bookwashed again - mission accomplished, Mr. Steele!

Since I have a free evening in Old Town Pasadena, good food and a large bookstore are close at hand. I finished Coyote over a pad Thai pizza at Thaitalian (interesting blend) then made my way to the nearby Barnes & Noble to buy Coyote Rising (mission accomplished), but of course also found some targets of opportunity and bought one guilty pleasure by an old favorite, Larry Bond. This was a bargain-table hardcover of his 2005 submarine novel, Dangerous Ground. Confession: I used to be a huge fan of Tom Clancy novels and an even huger fan of Larry Bond's military and techno-thrillers (not to mention the computer game version of his naval strategy game Harpoon).

Another confession: I've always liked submarines and sub stories, in part because my brother served on ballistic missile subs (SSBN's or "boomers" back in the 80's), and in addition to Harpoon and many military flight simulators, I used to play several PC submarine simulations such as Jane's 688i Hunter/Killer (a great game, but wish I had this detailed walkthrough when I was playing it). The highlight of one San Diego business trip in the mid-nineties was a tour of a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine, the USS Louisville (SSN 724), and I somehow got a tour of the USS Kittyhawk (CV 63) on that same trip (I like aircraft carriers too). So how did I miss that Larry Bond wrote a sub novel in 2005? I guess I was too busy with space stuff to notice!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Giraffe Height and Higher

Today I visited the San Diego Wild Animal Park with our group of international visitors, and it was a great experience, especially the "Photo Caravan" truck tour on which we got to feed the giraffes. Another highlight was a 15 minute tethered helium balloon ride to 400 feet - great views and my first experience flying in a balloon of any kind. Since it's tethered, you might think it's "just a ride," but I spoke to the young pilot, and it still requires a commercial lighter-than-air pilot rating from the FAA to operate. Makes sense when you consider that there are takeoffs and landings involved, and that these require some special handling especially when there's appreciable wind as there was today (note the tether in the picture above - it seemed to reach an angle of maybe 25 degrees from vertical at times).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

That's Not Saturn Either

San Diego was done up in shades of gray this morning, with overcast and light rain - not as lovely as it usually is, but every city is entitled to a little weather, even in southern California. I walked around the marina and along the bay shore near my hotel and watched a huge "Dole Costa Rica" cargo ship glide toward the mouth of the harbor, pushed by a couple of tug boats.

Yesterday I drove down here from Los Angeles, and since I had just finished reading Robinson's The Wild Shore on the plane, when I saw an exit for San Onofre State Beach, I had to make a quick stop, since San Onofre is the area where the book takes place. I took a few pictures, though it was getting cloudy and they don't look like much (these aerial photos are better). It was cool to see the beach, cliffs, and hills that are such an important part of the book.

The Wild Shore is a wonderfully realized book, with characters and environments that seem so perfectly integrated, it's hard to believe that they are "just made up." Everything works as an organic whole. This is in contrast to the patched-together feeling of the 2002 book I'm now reading, Coyote by Allen Steele. Subtitled "a novel of interstellar exploration," it sounded promising, and it is interesting in a number of ways. The first quarter of the book is a political back story that seems so clumsy and contrived that I nearly gave up on the book. Amazon reviews helped me to hold on until the part where the starship Alabama reaches "Coyote," an Earth-like moon orbiting a Saturn-like planet of the star 47 Ursae Majoris, 46 light years from Earth. The 100 or so colonists launch in 2070 and reach Coyote after a journey of some 230 years (traveling at 20% the speed of light), during which they have been kept in "biostasis" (so they don't age) while robotic systems run the ship.

From there it does get pretty good, though still contrived and anachronistic in many ways (e.g., technology is advanced enough for robotic AI systems to operate and navigate the ship, but most other computer systems seem to be what we have now, if that). It turns out that Coyote is literally patched together, built around at least three previously published SF stories that are now chapters. So it is what it is, and I'll give it a chance and finish reading it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Uranus and the Fast Food Connection

Voyager Uranus
Last night I helped out with a middle school astronomy event presented by the Aldrich Astronomical Society - there were several indoor presentations as well as a few telescopes set up outside on a very clear (but unfortunately also very cold) night. My 30 minute presentation (given four times) was called "Exploring Space with Your Computer" and it featured various web sites, the free Stellarium planetarium program, and of course some live Orbiter demos. In addition to my traditional simulated shuttle launch and some quick orbital operations, I also set up a "name that planet" scenario as a way to get the kids more involved in my 3D tour of the planets. Some of the middle school kids were quite good at this, even identifying Uranus in a picture where its rings are quite prominent as shown here with Voyager 2 (most kids quickly shouted out "Saturn" despite the blue color).

I also figured out a possible connection between my seemingly unrelated special interests: fast food. I seldom eat fast food, but last night I was running late for the school event and stopped at McDonald's for "dinner" to go (which I know is not especially healthy but which I otherwise don't mind eating now and then). That's when it hit me what my hobbies have in common. Songwriting meeting? Recording session? McDonald's. Flying lesson? McDonald's (sometimes pizza). Astronomy school event? McDonald's. Tired of Israeli food on a business trip to Tel Aviv? McDonald's. That's really international food fatigue, a bit different.

Maybe these so-called special interests are really a subconscious way to satisfy a secret craving for fast food. Maybe I need help. Or an order of fries.

Friday, February 09, 2007

John Mayer Rocks

Whether John Mayer is cool or not doesn't bother me the way it seems to bother some music critics - I guess he's too popular to be really cool or something. Although he's had some pop-sounding radio hits and has received multiple Grammy Awards (and is nominated for more this year), what impresses me most (as a songwriter and as a listener) is the strength of his songwriting. His writing was already strong on his early albums, and it just keeps getting better, as do his arrangements. His guitar playing is also quite amazing, both acoustic and electric lead. He's a great live performer too (I've seen him in concert twice with my daughters).

This unsolicited endorsement was prompted by hearing Mayer's most recent album Continuum on my iPod while driving to work this morning. I hadn't heard most of it in a couple of months, and as with so much of Mayer's work, it sounds fresh every time I hear it. Popular music that's also really good is not that common these days, so I thought it was worth mentioning. John is also a blogger.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

More Manned Mars Mania (for Orbiter)

While I continue to be distracted from Orbiter by things like work, others are continuing to work on getting virtual astronauts to Mars in a variety of ways. I wrote about my friend Andy's implementation of a NASA design reference mission (DRM3) back in November, and since then he has greatly expanded this project, with some help on the Mars-landing side of things from another excellent Orbiter add-on builder, "Francis Drake," who is also updating his earlier model of NASA's Orion CEV.

This forum thread discusses the recent Mars/CaTV/lander/etc. developments, including pictures and links to add-on locations. There are several Mars landing options, and the building blocks that Andy and Franz are supplying should allow experimentation with mission architecture variations. Andy has some cool pictures on his web site, and even more on his Flickr site (also some interesting works in progress there). Nice work - now if I can only free up some time to play with this stuff!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Wild Shore of San Diego

I've been too busy to blog or do much of anything else this week, with final preparations for the week-long meeting that I organize and host every February for my company's international distributors, taking place next week. The meeting itself will be in Pasadena, California (home office), but the last few years we have started the week with some socializing and entertainment at another location, such as Las Vegas or San Francisco, and this year it will kick off in San Diego.

San Diego also figures in a book I've been reading, The Wild Shore, the 1984 first novel by Kim Stanley Robinson (best known for his later Mars Trilogy). It is the first of his "Three Californias" series of alternate future SF, this one a post-nuclear apocalypse novel. It's a strongly written, moving, and thought provoking novel, but I don't have time to discuss it much now except to say that it takes place in an area north of San Diego that I will be visiting this weekend, something of an odd coincidence. Here's a good review of the book if you're curious.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Monty Python's Astronomy Lesson

I've always liked Monty Python, but it's been a while since I saw The Meaning of Life (1983!), and I had forgotten that it includes an astronomy lesson. It's called The Galaxy Song (lyrics and MP3 can be found at that link), and it's a rather nice 2'37" musical rendition of our place in the universe. Astronomy author Phil Harrington has created an excellent animated PowerPoint called The Illustrated Galaxy Song. The link is to to a 4 megabyte PPS file which will launch directly as a slide show if you have PowerPoint installed and download and double-click it. The ever helpful Wikipedia even includes an article that discusses the astronomical accuracy of the song (generally pretty good).

N.B. Thanks to a helpful comment by Ed, I've now linked to a YouTube video of this song with amazing visuals from the movie Contact, and a nice vocal (with an Americanized final line) by Clint Black - thanks Ed!

Friday, February 02, 2007

WikiMapia, Labeling the World

What do you get when you cross Wikipedia with Google Maps? You get, where anyone can add labels to whatever little parts of the world they know and care about, with descriptive text, search tags, web links, etc. Although you can search for places with the basic Google Maps, this application adds context, connectivity, and individual views on what's what and where. Of course it is also selective and subjective, and like Wikipedia, subject to silliness (and peer review). But it's pretty cool.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


It will be interesting to see how expanded cooperation with Google will affect access to NASA's wide-ranging collection of on-line educational and technical information. With so much information spread across so many sites, it can be hard to get a handle on what's out there, though if you are looking for something specific enough, the simple Google trick of adding to your search string will at least keep you in NASA's domain and avoid the need to search multiple NASA sites with their own search tools. Maybe Google will make the overall organization and access more obvious.

In the meantime, the abundance of riches means that you can look for one thing and often find something else that's even cooler. Case in point: PlanetQuest, a JPL-hosted site devoted to various current efforts and future NASA missions for finding planets around other stars. This site has some wonderful multimedia content, including a narrated Flash overview, and a recently added interactive tour of Saturn's moon Titan (access from the main page). There is also a gallery of all the multimedia content (games, simulations, movies). One nice one is the "3D New Worlds Atlas" shown here, which includes a narrated guided tour.