Friday, March 30, 2007

Slippers. Food. Beer. Reverb.

There are some parts of the Asian business trip experience that just can't be matched elsewhere. Customer visits wearing a business suit and the lovely plastic slippers they give you. Foods with startling English descriptions. And karaoke, which I sometimes actually enjoy, though enjoyment requires achieving just the right mix of beer and reverb. Without this, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" must remain banned under the torture provisions of the Geneva Convention. Farewell Taiwan, until next time.

P.S. In case you can't read the text in the photo of the sausages on a stick, they are "The rice intestines charter sausages: Roast strong-smelling preserved bean curd of carbon." Yummers!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

SpaceX: Truth in Rocketry

The latest update from Elon Musk of SpaceX is a quite detailed review and discussion of the recent Demo-2 launch of the Falcon 1 and why this was a successful test flight. Full and honest discussion with no B.S. - how refreshing. When Elon says his rockets and spacecraft are ready to fly people, sign me up (as soon as it gets cheap enough!). Launch photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Charlie at the (On-line) Smithsonian

I submitted some World War II era photos taken by the late Charles Cook to the new Reader Scrapbook feature of Air & Space Magazine's web site, and I noticed today that they posted one of them (the B-17 formation shot shown here), along with my explanatory text. This is pretty cool since this is the magazine and web site of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the leading repository of American aviation history. I'm sure Charlie would be pleased with this modest memorial.

P.S. I just received my copy of the May 2007 issue of Air & Space Magazine, and this photo appears on page 78, along with a brief comment about Charlie and my photo submission. Cool!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Orbiter for Educators: Using JPL Horizons

JPL's Horizons system is a public-access database with current orbital data on many, many objects in the Solar System (both natural objects and spacecraft). Orbiter is a space flight simulator which includes a "scenario editor" that lets you interactively change the orbital data for any spacecraft in the scenario you are currently running. I was going to write an entry on how to use the web interface for Horizons to get information on (say) the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft and then transfer it to Orbiter using the Orbiter Scenario Editor. But before I could write this up, I found a better way, thanks to Tony Dunn, author of Gravity Simulator 2.0 (and also an Orbiter user).

First some general information. I won't attempt to explain Horizons itself - the FAQ and web access tutorial can do that. There are two basic types of data you can get, orbital ELEMENTS, and VECTORS (called "state vectors" in Orbiter), which we will use here. These are basically the (x,y,z) position and (Vx,Vy,Vz) velocity of the object relative to some reference body (e.g., Sun, Earth, Saturn, etc.), at a specific date and time. The date and time are encoded as a number called the "Julian Date" (JD), though Orbiter uses a modified version called (logically enough) "Modified Julian Date" (MJD). The idea is to get accurate information on an object of interest from Horizons, convert it if necessary, and enter it into Orbiter, so you can answer a question like "what does Saturn look like from Cassini right now?"

Conceptually this is quite easy (grab the date and vectors and pop them into the scenario editor), but there are a few things to learn, including the right questions to ask Horizons, and how to get the resulting data into Orbiter. Units, dates, coordinates, and reference bodies require a bit of explaining and possibly some conversions (m vs. km etc.). Nothing terrible, mind you, just a few details to keep straight.

Tony Dunn provides an easier way with his simple little utility program cfgData.exe (120 KB .exe file download) and the Horizons "batch" email interface. Download the program to any convenient directory (no installation needed) and run it. You can then enter the desired date/time and choose the object (e.g., Cassini Spacecraft, object -82 for JPL) and "center body" (e.g., Saturn barycenter, object 6 for JPL) from drop down lists of available JPL objects. Choose VECTORS, click [Create E-mail], and copy the resulting block of text to the clipboard with the button that appears. Go to your email program and create a new message. Paste the text into the body of a new email window, enter job as the subject, email to, and wait for the reply (usually very quick).

Select ALL the text of the reply and copy to the clipboard (check for error messages first - I just requested Cassini data for March 2009 and it's not available). Back in the cfgData window, click the [next > ] button (a new window appears), paste the return text into the new window, and click the [Create Data] button...

This is where it gets slightly tricky. The MJD and state vector data has to be copied and pasted into the right spot in an Orbiter scenario (.scn) file using a text editor like Notepad. It's easiest if you already have a scenario that is generally doing the right thing (like orbiting Saturn), so you only have to paste in the new MJD, RPOS, and RVEL data over the prior data, save it, then launch Orbiter and run your new scenario.

How do you get that starting scenario? If you've installed the Cassini add-on (shown above on 3-27-07) you will have a scenario (in the Grand Explorations folder) called Cassini Phoebe Flyby.scn which will have Cassini with STATUS Orbiting Saturn. Just copy the new date (MJD) and replace it in this file, copy the RPOS and RVEL lines in place of the old ones, Save As with a new name, and you're ready to run. Or take any Earth-orbiting scenario with a spacecraft (Deltaglider or whatever) with STATUS Orbiting Earth and change Earth to Saturn, paste MJD, RPOS, RVEL data, save, and run.

Note: You can also get orbital elements from Horizons for natural bodies such as asteroids and use this data in configuration files to add these objects to your Orbiter solar system. This has more steps, and you might consider using this utility to easily define minor planets in Orbiter.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


This sort of thing isn't my personal cup of tea (I've watched my daughter play Sims 2 enough to know this), but SpaceStationSim looks pretty cool, and for someone who likes a Sims-like game (with goals and points and character building and all) and also has an interest in space (building and operating the ISS in this case), this could be just the thing.

Of course I can't personally comment on how good it actually is, but this gaming blog review is pretty detailed and concludes that it's a good simulation-type game. The vendor site has links to other reviews, screen shots, demo download, etc.

Gravity Simulator: Funky Music of the Spheres

Gravity is strange stuff, and you don't even need General Relativity to see it do weird things. The book Fly Me to the Moon got me curious about low energy transfer orbits to the Moon that take advantage of "chaotic" behavior, and I'm now experimenting with Tony Dunn's freeware program Gravity Simulator 2.0, though I haven't gotten too far with it yet. I've created some simple models from scratch and played around with some of the scenarios supplied with the program and downloadable from his web site, especially some Earth-crossing asteroid cases (picture shows A2004 MN4, otherwise known as Apophis, one that will pass very close to us in the 2029-2036 time frame). It's pretty cool.

Using Gravity Simulator's ability to reference your view to any object, and to establish reference frames that rotate with particular objects, you can start to see "hidden" behaviors and patterns such as resonances with planets that can lead to surprising (chaotic?) changes in an asteroid's orbit (see Toutatis, for example - scroll down to the animated GIF - Cruithne is pretty weird too). User note: the scroll bar on the right controls the angle of your view of the orbits you create, and when you change the view or the scale, any object tracks that have been drawn are erased, which seems odd at first (you have to wait for them to re-draw, running time backwards if necessary to get back to an earlier point so you can redraw an interesting part of your path, like that asteroid buzzing the Earth).

I've found some web references with orbital data for low-energy Earth-Moon transfers, but so far I haven't been able to generate any of the odd looping orbits that are shown in this huge (4 MB PDF) "atlas" article covering some 280 families of these orbits. At least I'm getting a handle on it. GS is a much better tool than Orbiter for experiments like this that focus mainly on gravity and orbital mechanics and don't need the 3D views and other goodies that Orbiter provides.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dixie Chicks: Stand Up and Sing!

I have a whole list of things to blog about and not much time - I've had to prepare for an all-day seminar here in Taiwan, not to mention adjust to the 12 hour time change and deal with the fact that Blogger thinks I want a Chinese interface (based on my IP address) and I don't know how to change it.

So just a quick note on the Dixie Chicks, prompted by seeing their documentary "Shut Up and Sing" on the flight over. I've liked their music for years, and I was annoyed by the whole deal of country music radio and fans boycotting them and even threatening them over a comment they made in 2003 against President Bush and the then-impending Iraq War. As the tag line for the movie says, "Freedom of speech is fine as long as you don't do it in public." The Chicks basically said "screw that," and the movie tells the whole story, including behind the scenes footage from the making of their comeback album "Taking the Long Way." Great stuff.

Of course they ended up winning five Grammy Awards back in February for music from that album, and their live version of the song "Not Ready To Make Nice" is wonderful, so I decided to post the video here. The original video is also quite moving.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Scanning the Historic Sky

In astronomy, time and distance are closely related. When you look at an object that is (say) 50 light-years away, you of course recognize that you are seeing the light that actually left that object 50 years ago. But there's also historical time - what did that object look like 100 years ago in Earth time? Wouldn't it be great if astronomers could could look back in time that way too?

They can do this if someone 100 years ago took a photograph of that area of the sky, if the photographic plate still exists, and if they can get access to it. The Harvard College Observatory (shown above circa 1900) has collected more than 500,000 astronomical images from around the world, taken from the early 1880's to the late 1980's. This is an amazing "database" but because it is in analog form (large glass plates), it has not been very accessible.

The obvious solution is to scan all those plates into digital form, but to do so requires a scanning method that is fast and accurate. Now there is an instrument and a project to do just that, a project called DASCH (Digital Access to a Sky Century from Harvard), and it's pretty impressive from both an optical engineering and astronomy point of view. There are also some major mechanical, data transfer, and data storage challenges.

This SPIE news article is a good overview of the project, including some photos of the scanner. This 2005 presentation (850 KB PDF) and this 2006 technical paper (659 KB PDF) describe the background and the engineering details. The development, construction, and trial use have been funded by NSF grants, but they are still seeking support to fund the scanning of the complete collection, which is estimated will take five years. I hope they can get the required funding!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

WOWIO ZOWIO: Free Books?

I discovered something called WOWIO when I learned today that K. Eric Drexler had published an updated 2006 version of his 1986 nanotechnology classic Engines of Creation. It's available as a free ebook, but only at WOWIO. WOWIO?

is web site that offers free downloadable e-books (PDF only) to registered users (currently only U.S. users). Registration is the key - they ask you questions to be certain you are a real person, and to get some idea of your interests and tastes (yup, marketing). They say they share this information with their publisher sponsors "only in aggregate," and it is this sponsorship that allows them to offer the books for free.

Some of these works are long out of copyright and available other places for free (e.g., Frankenstein, The Art of War), but others are quite recent and interesting (to me anyway!). For example, in addition to Engines of Creation 2.0, I downloaded The Ascent of Science by Brian Silver, a history of science that I own in paperback. I've been reading sections of it but it's too big to carry on trips. Now I have an electronic copy on my notebook. I also downloaded Stephen Hawking's The Theory of Everything and Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. They even have comics and graphic novels.

I don't really need more books, but this is mainly about portability. We'll see how it works and if I actually read ebooks on my screen. I have had various ebooks on my PC for years and frankly have read very few of them, usually only short SF stories.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Live Blogging! SpaceX Falcon 1

I've been following the progress of SpaceX on and off for the last year or so, and tonight I may have some lucky timing. Their Falcon1's several-times-delayed "Demo flight 2" from Kwajelein Atoll is in its final countdown at about T-5 minutes and counting. Let's see if they go... and if I can get this post up before they do.

Why does the webcast image keep going to inverted mirror image and now black with audio only?!? OK it's back... 2 minutes...

YESSS! Successful launch (9:10 pm EDT), but there was no video of the liftoff itself - the engine exhaust wiped out the ground camera, but they switched immediately to an on-board camera looking down from the second stage interface point. Not much of a view until staging, which was very cool. Then at about T+5 minutes, I lost the webcast feed - Media Player says it "can't find this file." Frustrating - hope everything's OK with the bird and it's just an internet glitch or server overload or something. Everything was nominal up until my LOWS (loss of web signal!).

I guess it wasn't just the webcast - Spaceflight Now reports they lost all telemetry from the second stage shortly after separation. Have to wait and see what happened, but they made it to space if not to orbit (last reported altitude was 161 km at T+4:20, and my last screen capture was T+4:49, though second stage was supposed to burn for about 5 minutes beyond that time - the engine bell was rocking visibly in the last few seconds of video) . That's why they call it a test flight - but it's real progress in any case.

Spaceflight Now (a blog reporting on a blog!) reports that Elon Musk just announced that there was a "roll-control anomaly" and an early second stage shutdown, and that the rocket may have re-entered the atmosphere before reaching orbit. But he still believes it was a very good day for SpaceX - certainly real progress on the road to lower cost access to space.

P.S. Elon Musk posted a summary of the flight here. Suborbital altitude achieved was said to be 200 miles (320 km).

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Short and Long of Human Survival

Although it's not exactly a new idea, discussions of space settlements as a way to "back up civilization" seem to be popping up all over. NYU chemistry professor Robert Shapiro summarizes the argument briefly and eloquently in his essay "Why the Moon? Human survival!" in today's Space Review. He poses it as fairly simple risk management - if you spend a small percentage of your home's value each year to insure it, you are taking a precaution against the statistically unlikely event that it will be destroyed by fire or other causes. It's not a large risk for any one house, but houses do burn down, and when they do, it's a large loss. Wouldn't it make similar sense to back up civilization's knowledge (and some of its citizens!) somewhere other than here? I think so.

Verner Vinge originated the idea (or at least the terminology) of the "technological singularity," but in an article on, he asks "what if the singularity doesn't happen?" He then envisions several alternate scenarios. Interesting stuff, and while of course he doesn't know how things will really turn out (he leans toward the Singularity, naturally enough), he suggests that "Self-sufficient, off-Earth settlements [offer] humanity's best hope for long-term survival."

Another view of possible alternate futures is found in David Brin's article "Singularities and Nightmares" which is found on the Lifeboat Foundation's web site. Of course the Lifeboat Foundation is dedicated to helping humanity survive existential risks, of which there are all too many. LF's multi-layered protection programs extend from the very small (NanoShield) to Space Habitats and AsteroidShield. Good to know someone is working on the backup plan, but if you're an existential risk hypochondriac, you might want to steer clear of the LF web site. It will definitely give you ideas.

For the full treatment of the role that space can play in Earth's survival, it's hard to beat William Burrows' 2006 book The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth. He describes past disasters and outlines the prospects for future disasters of many kinds, and suggests as other writers have that the role of NASA and Earth's other space organizations should be clear: to learn to prevent what disasters we can (such as deflecting certain asteroids), and to prepare the way for space settlements where human knowledge and life may survive whatever disasters (natural or self inflicted) may befall us.

Whether the chances of humanity's survival in the next hundred years are 50% at best (as Sir Martin Rees suggests in his 2004 book Our Final Hour) or somewhat better than that, we clearly face a lot of risks. We should continue to work for world peace, environmental protection, and sustainability (this is still the best planet we've got, after all), but it's clear that all of our eggs are in one basket right now, and that basket doesn't seem as big as it once did. I think we better go for the Moon, learn to round up some asteroids, and build a nice little summer place on Mars before it's too late.


This is just so cool, the Beatles perform "Things We Said Today" live in 1964, with excellent audio quality.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Surfing the Gravitational Field

I just read a brief but excellent 2007 book called Fly Me to the Moon (subtitled "an insider's guide to the new science of space travel") by Edward Belruno. Here's a review I just posted to Amazon:

Mathematics, orbital mechanics, chaos theory - is this the stuff of a good read for anyone other than a physicist, astronomer, or JPL engineer? Surprisingly enough, yes. This small book tells the story of how an interesting but subtle and specialized idea was developed and ultimately applied to real space missions. The idea is to make use of the interactions of the gravitational fields of (say) the Earth and the Moon to determine high-efficiency trajectories, e.g., to design a trajectory from the Earth to the Moon that uses very little fuel compared to normal methods (e.g., Hohmann transfer orbits).

When the author first started experimenting with these trajectories, he met with skepticism from space flight experts at JPL, where he was working at the time. Part of this skepticism came from the verbal implications of "chaos theory," which implies unpredictability or randomness, something you don't want in a space probe's trajectory! But in this context, chaos theory really just means that certain paths are very sensitive to small changes, meaning that small forces can cause big changes in the path. Although there are not exact equations for these multi-body gravity problems, they can be accurately simulated on computers. When the method was successfully applied to helping a Japanese space probe (Hiten) get to the Moon in 1991 using very little fuel (ironically just as the author was leaving JPL), it started to get serious attention, and has since been used for several successful missions. The efficiency of these trajectories will be useful in future missions to the Moon and planets, and the method could also help us to predict the trajectories of asteroids and comets that may threaten Earth.

This review is probably more technical than the book! Despite the specialized subject matter, the author uses clear, simple descriptions and analogies along with hand-drawn sketches of the various paths as he unfolds the implications and applications of the method. It's one of those books like Longitude (Sobel) or Roving Mars (Squyres) that puts you inside the head of someone who is very passionate about their work, allowing you to look over their shoulder, as it were, and understand why someone would be fascinated by this stuff, as well as what it all means.

I am a dabbler in simulated space flight using the free program Orbiter, and I know a bit about orbital mechanics and how hard it can be to explain something so seemingly obscure to non-specialists, as I often do in presentations as a volunteer educator in JPL's Solar System Ambassador program. So I really appreciate the excellent way the author presents this subject, and I will recommend the book to anyone with curiosity about space or astronomy.

If you are interested in playing around with orbits yourself, without using mathematics, Orbiter is one good possibility, but a better bet might be Gravity Simulator 2.0, which is also free. Orbiter is focused on navigating and flying the spacecraft, while Gravity Simulator shows you animated orbit diagrams. Although I don't see any examples of Dr. Belbruno's work in the supplied samples, this program can simulate very complex orbits and I believe it would be possible to simulate some of the cases described in the book.

Awesome SpaceShipOne Documentary!

NASM #1 Apollo 11 et al
Black Sky: The Race for Space (The Race for Space and Winning the X-Prize) is a two-DVD set from the Discovery Channel. I bought it on sale a couple of months ago but just watched it tonight, and it is a wonderful documentary that takes you behind the scenes in the development and testing of SpaceShipOne by Burt Rutan and his small Scaled Composites team. These are real people - they certainly are brilliant and brave, but they also work hard, support each other, make mistakes, do things by trial and error, have some real close calls, and ultimately triumph. The Right Stuff is alive and well in the Mojave Desert, and in this documentary, you get to witness the birth of the private space industry.

While the nuts and bolts engineering/troubleshooting and the flight video are amazingly engaging, there's also a lot of great emotional stuff here, especially with the pilots and their wives. I also like the fact that the X-Prize winning test pilots are as down to Earth as anyone, let alone a commercial astronaut, could possibly be, and members of my generation to boot (Mike Melvill, born 1941, and Brian Binney, born 1953, the same year as me). You can tell by the sometimes harrowing cockpit video that this is real flying, with a great deal of pilot skill and guts required in spite of Rutan's simple, clever, and effective designs.

This is the kind of engaging story telling that space needs and deserves - you don't have to be a space geek to identify with the characters and enjoy this story. I also understand better now why SpaceShipOne deserves to be hanging in the Smithsonian near the X-1, X-15, and the Spirit of Saint Louis (with Apollo 11 Command Module in my Flickr photo above).

Saturday, March 17, 2007

50th Anniversary of the Space Age

Sputnik 1 in Orbit Sep 10-4-57
Sputnik 1 was launched into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957, marking the start of the Space Age. This week I received an announcement forwarded by the JPL Solar System Ambassador program about World Space Week, designated as October 4-10 annually. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Space Age, the World Space Week Association is encouraging educators, the news media, and individuals to give special attention to space exploration this year, especially during World Space Week. Sounds like a good idea, and their web site even has activity guides and other educational resources to help. The picture is an Orbiter screen shot of Sputnik 1 just separated from its final stage.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Space Futures 2: I Still Like Mike

I've said it before, but I like Mike Griffin. Government could certainly use more people like him. In his role as NASA Administrator, he knows what his job is, he has a grip on the practicalities and the constraints, and he has a vision of where this whole space thing is headed.

This week he published a long essay called Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years. Without claiming to have any sort of crystal ball, and while giving extensive credit to the potential contributions of commercial space and international players (partners and/or competitors), he first reviews the past 50 years and then lays out some logical ideas about how the next 50 years will play out, based on some reasonable assumptions. These include that the U.S. government will continue to be the single biggest player in space, that NASA funding will remain roughly level (adjusted for inflation), and that NASA and the industry will try to achieve some sort of stability. By this he means several things - stability in purpose, strategy, requirements, and funding. He points out that Apollo funding was "unstable in both directions" - huge growth followed by rapid and destructive reductions once the main goals were reached. This led to virtual abandonment of both the hardware and the team that were so expensively built. Kind of like going in with all guns blazing in a blitzkrieg war, "winning" as expected, and then having no plan for what to do after the war (that's just a hypothetical analogy, of course).

This actually gave me pause. When I think, "the Moon by 2022, Mars maybe by 2037, why is NASA so slow?" I now have to ask myself, slow compared to what? Apollo? Apollo was war! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and once we win, melt it all down and discharge the troops. Griffin advocates more of an aviation model for the next generation. Airplanes serve for decades. If an astronaut returns from a Mars mission in 2042 and gets into a 30 year old Orion capsule to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, so what? B-52's have flown for 50 years, and the basic Soyuz spacecraft design dates back to the sixties. You should design your hardware, your systems, and your programs for the long haul, not for 16 missions. Refine and upgrade, sure, but don't throw it all away and start from scratch if you don't have to. Of course this assumes that you've got a solid design that's worth keeping around for a while (DC-3, B-52, C-130, Soyuz, etc.).

That's only one of many points that Griffin makes in this excellent essay. I like the way he leaves it open for private space and international partners to play a major role, but doesn't assume that they will. That's not in his control, but the resources of NASA currently are, and while there's a lot of less glamorous "stuff" to do for the short run , in the big picture, Griffin sees a slow and steady progression to a sustainable presence in the solar system as a spacefaring civilization. And if the hare should pass Mike's tortoise (apologies for the primitive photo editing!) in a Dragon or some other private spacecraft, I think he will be cheering him on. Let the private guys win whatever races they choose to run. There's plenty of other good stuff to do with NASA's future budgets. Whatever your feelings on NASA's strengths, weaknesses, and direction, this essay is worth reading for a variety of useful perspectives.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

If Rovers Could Fly

NASA has released video "flyovers" of the current Spirit and Opportunity rover work areas on Mars. These 3D flyovers (Quicktime only) were created from high-resolution imagery from MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and they are really spectacular "you are there" stuff. The picture is a still frame from the Opportunity area at "Victoria Crater."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

North Sea Oil and Space

When you talk about investing in space, with public funds or private, you really have to take the long view. It's true that there is no market for lunar helium-3 now - in fact there's no proof that there will ever be a way to mine it and return it to Earth economically, and there's no fusion reactor that can use it as fuel anyway. All of that may change, or it may not. I find it hard to believe that in 200 years (assuming we survive) that we will not be exploiting the resources of much of the solar system for the benefit of humanity. But what will the curve of space progress look like over that time? Maybe we'll do nothing but make PowerPoints and send a few rich people to space for 150 years, then master it all in the last 50 years with AI engineers who can lay it all out in an hour or two. But I think the slope is already greater than zero.

Here's an analogy or thought experiment that was written by "Weightless" in a post in the Orbiter Forum on January 7. Of course this doesn't prove anything either, any more than the 1903 Wright Flyer proved that 747's would be carrying hundreds of people from New York to Tokyo seventy-some years later. But I found it thought provoking and wanted to share it (this is just the first part of his full comment - he goes on to relate this to the possible benefits to humanity of investing in space development):
Imagine that you could go back in time to the year 1930. World economies were starting to depend on oil, but oil was scarce (the great Saudi fields would not be found for another 20 years). So imagine that you went back in time and you told someone that they should research ways to drill for oil in the North Atlantic.

Undoubtedly, they would laugh at you. I mean, just think about it. The North Atlantic, one of the roughest seas in the world, full of icebergs in the winter months, not to mention the fact that it's deep. From their perspective, it would be impossible to actually drill for oil out there. It would be the stuff of science fiction.

So, if you went back in time and suggested it, the objection you would get would be this: "even if it was technically possible to drill for oil in the North Atlantic, it will never be economically viable - you will spend more energy (and money) getting the oil than what the oil could possibly be worth."

Space and the Uncertain Future

I've just finished reading Candle, the one novel of John Barnes' Century Next Door or "Meme Wars" series that I had somehow missed up to now. I really love Barnes' SF writing. Although there are many things that are hard to believe in these books, within the world of the books, they make perfect sense. He sounds like he's simply telling you what's going on. The Sky So Big and Black is still my favorite, followed by Orbital Resonance, Candle, and the weird and disturbing Kaleidoscope Century, the book pictured here because its title captures the scarily plausible alternate recent history and near future that these books describe.

Although filled with engaging characters, amazing ideas, and plenty of action, these are not light or cheery books by any means. There are human and non-human monsters, depressing dystopias, and all sorts of wars in them, as well as hopeful social experiments involving space colonization. The future is not a simple time in Barnes' books, and although space plays a big role (Sky So Black takes place on Mars, Orbital Resonance in a hollow-asteroid colony/shuttle space ship whose orbit "resonates" between Earth and Mars), and space colonies provide a lifeboat for small fraction of the population of a fast-sinking Earth, space is not the main point. Space is also not a utopia - people are still people, good, bad, or indifferent, wherever they may be and whatever technology (good, bad, or indifferent) they may possess.

These books connect in my mind to a lot of things, including a sobering article in this week's Space Review called "Space and the End of the Future." I guess the future did fail to arrive as sketched by Walt Disney, and I guess there was never any golden age of space where more than a tiny fraction of the world was engaged beyond an "oh wow" at the idea of some guys walking on the Moon, and then yawn, turn back to the game. The connection is this: things are complicated now, and the future won't get any simpler. Things will get even messier. We will break more stuff on Earth before we fix much of it, drown all the polar bears, and even a space elevator won't get enough of us off the planet to make much of a difference here. That's if we make it through the next 50 years or so at all. Lots of short-term risks that could shut down the whole game.

But space (private, public, whatever) could be part of a solution, could be a tool or a lifeboat or even a source of major help for this troubled Earth. Someday we may need every kind of tool we can get, and when we do, we will be glad for whatever preparation we have made in learning to live somewhere other than here. I don't expect everyone to get inspired by it - my most hopeful scenario for educational outreach is that a handful of kids get excited about learning something, get themselves educated, and start to tie a few knots for the flimsy rope bridge we are building toward the future, even while some other kids are playing with matches, trying to light the ropes on fire. And maybe some of the ropes are actually carbon nanotubes stretching thousands of kilometers into the sky.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Really Grand Tour

I spent some time tonight reading sections of The Grand Tour: A Traveler's Guide to the Solar System by William K. Hartmann and Ron Miller. Of course the paintings are amazing, but the text and the overall organization are also excellent. They cover all the planets and nearly all the moons plus various asteroids, from largest to smallest. Many of the paintings depict situations that have not yet been seen, like the reddish light of a full solar eclipse on the Moon. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why Go Back?

Last Saturday at an astronomy club meeting where we did not get to see the lunar eclipse (due to snow and clouds), a member I had not met before asked me a question: why go back to the Moon? Well, I said, there's a lot of useful science to be done there, related to the origins of the solar system for starters. And if we are ever to become a spacefaring civilization and learn to live beyond Earth, the Moon is a convenient place to practice those special skills and technologies. And then there's the Helium-3, a potential solution to our energy woes, though we don't yet have a fusion reactor that can use it as fuel. We could learn to mine the Moon's surface, and maybe that would help us learn to mine metal-rich asteroids too. Someday we may even need to defend Earth from a rogue asteroid or comet - we better have some experience living and working up there if we're going to pull that off.

That's pretty much what I said, and I think I deliberately avoided statements such "because it's there" or "man must explore" because I was trying to be practical, even though this guy is a member of our astronomy club and is perhaps sympathetic to exploration for its own sake. But in fact I think that exploration, migration, and general restlessness are important parts of our nature. I think space exploration, including human space exploration, is important now and will be even more important in the future, though I can't prove it, and I can't even say that many of the things we'll need or want to do will be best done with human missions - robots are getting more capable all the time. But humans are still smarter and more flexible. And we still want to go! Some will say, fine, if you want to go, then pay your own way, and of course people are working on that approach too. I'm a big proponent of private space, but I also think the government should help build the infrastructure to support private space efforts. The interstate highway system of the future, but not all the trucks and cars.

That's not very coherent, is it? I guess I better work on my "elevator pitch" for "why the Moon?" In the meantime, here's a more elegantly stated view on why the Moon by conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. I like the title he picked (Music of the Spheres!), and the subtitle too (Why a Moon Mission Is Worth the Money). Thanks to Colony Worlds for the tip.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Son of Jet Man

No jets on this Frenchman with a need for speed, he's a man-size version of Rocky the Gliding Squirrel. The timing on his flare is pretty critical as he pulls out of his 100 mph descending glide just fifteen feet above the snow-covered ridge. Crazy Europeans. Thanks to Jim for the tip on this one.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Billionaires: Protect Your Investments!

Here are two unrelated stories.

According to AP (via Yahoo), NASA will announce later this week that it will not have the funds needed to find at least 90 percent of the estimated 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets by 2020. Congress requested in 2005 that NASA come up with a plan to do this. The cost would be about $1 billion, and I guess NASA is a little short.

Fox reported yesterday that the number of billionaires in the world rose by 102 to a record 793 over the past year, with combined wealth of $2.6 trillion.

So here's an idea: Why don't one or two of you 793 billionaires step up to the plate and get this little asteroid hunting program going? Just as a way to protect your Earth-based investments.

Burt Rutan: Tough and Inspiring

I saw a news note about the TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design), which is an amazing multidisciplinary event (I've read about past TED's in Wired magazine and elsewhere - TED2007 takes place this week in Monterey, California). Scanning through the impressive list of videos of past speakers (TEDTalks), there are many I'd like to view, but only one that I took time to watch over lunch: Burt Rutan (October 25, 2006, about 20 minutes). I hope he speaks at ISDC 2007!

Burt is an innovator and a strong believer in progress, which he points out is something NASA has not provided much of in the human spaceflight arena since Apollo. Listening to Burt, it's easy to believe that it doesn't matter so much what NASA does with its likely-to-shrink budgets and its efforts to keep its various constituencies (shuttle contractors, President, scientists, international partners, etc.) happy, because private space is going to take the lead soon anyway! I hope that's true. One interesting point he makes is that while the old NACA supplied wind tunnel services and airfoil designs, and provided various other support to the developing aviation and air transport industries, they never built commercial airplanes or tried to run an airline. They left that to private industry. Maybe that's finally happening with space.

Rutan is an inspiring speaker who makes a lot of sense. Watch the video!

N.B. Or read this brief article by Rutan ("Why Space Needs You") that summarizes the key points made in his talk. Making the point that safe and affordable access to space (starting small with suborbital "joy rides") will lead to other profitable space-based industries and eventually to the settlement of the solar system, he finally says
In 300 years, people who go to other planets will not return. They will stay, raise their families, and provide insurance for the survival of our species.

Humans have done this ever since we left that hot, humid valley of Africa. We are naturally selected for courage and strength, since the timid never leave and the weak die on the way. Our instinct to explore hostile places is what has distinguished us from Earth's other animals, and this trait is not likely to fail us at the top of our atmosphere.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Moonships Past and Future

Mooncraft past and future 1

I'm setting up some Moon landing scenarios in Orbiter for a demo at an educational event next weekend, so I've got both historic Apollo and proposed Constellation (CEV) spacecraft add-ons installed in Orbiter. This prompted a quick "photo shoot" of some combinations you will never see in real life. Note the relative sizes of these old and new Moon craft. More pix on Flickr.

Stellar Listening Opportunities

After talking about a $135 book on Mars, what about something a bit cheaper? How about free? That's pretty much the going rate for podcasts that you can download and listen to on your computer or portable listening device (i.e., iPod). Of course there are podcasts on almost anything you can imagine, and they range in length from a minute or two to multi-hour full radio shows.

There is a growing number of science podcasts, including a great astronomy one I just discovered through iTunes, Astronomy Cast (also available through their own web site). The conversational style and depth of information seem just right - not too technical, but not dumbed-down. I listened to a recent 27 minute podcast on variable stars (#22, February 5, 2007), learned some interesting things, and discovered even more by following the links on their show notes.

Other podcasts: NASA offers a number of "NASAcasts" of various lengths, both audio and video. This Week In Science is an upbeat weekly science review. I just noticed that Phil Plait (The Bad Astromomer) now has a video podcast called Q &BA and I'm downloading the first 30 MB now (need to upgrade my home wireless for faster video!). It's OK - mostly Phil talking to his webcam, but he does add a few visuals in this talk about galaxies. All of these podcasts are available through iTunes, which is pretty much one-stop (free) shopping for podcasts. iTunes itself is free as well and works with your own MP3's, even if you don't have an iPod (you do need to set up an account to download from the iTunes Store, even if you only download free stuff like podcasts). Most podcasts can also be downloaded as MP3 files from their hosting web sites (iTunes is not essential, only convenient).

The only drawback I see to all this is the usual one: time. Time to download the bigger files, and time to listen to them. I guess I can put them on my iPod and go take a walk, but when I do that, I usually prefer music. So I'll probably continue to get most of my space, astronomy, and other science information from reading, but it's cool that the material is out there in audio and video form for those who prefer it that way. There is one podcast that solves the time problem in a sense, 60 Second Science from Scientific American. I suppose science McNuggets are better than no science at all!

Mike Carr's Mars, 2007 edition

The Surface of Mars by Michael Carr was originally published in 1984, based largely on data and imagery from the Viking orbiters and landers. In Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton talks about this book and its author in a chapter called "Mike Carr's Mars," noting that the book was still considered the best single-author scientific work on the subject even into the late 1990's, and that it was a major inspiration for Kim Stanley Robinson's classic SF Mars Trilogy.

I read a recent article about Mike Carr today at the Air & Space Magazine web site and learned that there is a brand-new 2007 edition of The Surface of Mars. At $135, I will hold off on getting it until I'm planning a trip (I can get by with A Traveler's Guide To Mars for a while longer), but the preview pages show that Carr has made great use of the recent flood of Mars imagery from various orbiters and from the Mars rovers.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Space Cowboys?

There was a good overview article on private space flight developments recently in Time magazine (March 5 issue), and it's available on-line now. Of course it begins with the best-known space entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, though it also discusses a number of private space ventures other than his Virgin Galactic. The on-line article refers you to the hard copy magazine for a detailed diagram of the flight profile for the proposed SpaceShipTwo, but there's a good substitute here (click the image at the very bottom of the gallery page, JOURNEY). There are some other good photos and diagrams on that page as well. OK, I've said it before: I want to go!

Lord of the Rings

Saturn Full Ring View from Cassini 1-19-07

Saturn in Orbiter - Outer Planets L7

Cliché title, but what else can you say? Cassini's latest views of Saturn are just gorgeous. I was forced to change my Windows wallpaper from galactic back to planetary!

I set the date in Orbiter to January 19, 2007, but my picture still looks a bit different. One reason is probably camera position, angle, and "lens" field of view, since I don't know the exact time and position for Cassini at the time of the real image (or images, since there are 12 sets of R, G, and B images in the Cassini mosaic, taken over 2.5 hours). Coloration and exposure are also different - the Cassini pix are the real deal, although all of these multi-filter planetary pix involve a certain amount of image processing and human judgment on color and lighting. The Orbiter textures shown here are the level 7 textures from the Outer Planets add-on by VF2_Rolf (Rolf Keibel) et al, available at

Cassini's pictures are better, of course, but having control of the camera and the time acceleration in the 3D solar system of Orbiter can teach you a lot about how these things work.