Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Not Missing the Boat (to Space)

Anthony Kendall is one of my favorite bloggers, though he seems to be busy with other things these days and posts only occasionally. He wrote an interesting post a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the role of the boat in the expansion of human civilization throughout the world is a better analogy for private space development than the often used analogy of aviation development in the early 20th century.

The solar system is the new ocean, and while we are still splashing around in the shallows of low Earth orbit (a few Moon walkers and robot surrogates notwithstanding), we will build bigger and better boats to explore and eventually live on the more distant shores. Note that this corny paraphrasing of the analogy is mine, not Anthony's!

The picture is just one that I happen to like from my France trip - but it has a few boats in it.

Galileo Astronomy Stores - Formidable!

On my just completed trip to Munich, Germany and the south coast of France, I had a chance to visit GALILEO, a cool astronomy store in Hyères (Provence), one of a chain of stores in several cities in France, Switzerland, and Belgium. If you live in Europe and are interested in astronomy, it’s well worth a visit to one of these stores. They have a wide range of telescopes and astronomical accessories, including some large and high-end telescopes and domes. Their store web sites have a lot of useful information (in French or German, or English if you choose the Brussels store).

They also have an interesting product for day time astronomy, the SolarScope. With the help of clear and cloud-free skies, I got to try out the larger version of this safe and easy to use device for viewing the Sun. It projected a large and clear image of the Sun (only a single small sunspot happened to be visible at the time). It’s available in Europe and the U.S. through the SolarScope web site (there are several models differing in size and materials). I ordered one of the larger educational versions to use for day-time astronomy demos and to be ready for the next solar eclipse.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Saturn Show

Just back from two weeks in Europe and there's a lot to catch up on at the office and at home. I have some interesting things to blog about once I can find some time - maybe this weekend. In the meantime, let me point you to a really nice JPL slide show marking Cassini's three years at Saturn. The picture here compares the size of a radar-imaged lake on Titan (most likely liquid ethane and methane) with our own Lake Superior. That's a lot of rocket fuel!

Cassini happens to be making another planned low pass over Titan today. I grabbed today's orbital state vectors from the JPL Horizons system yesterday and used them in Orbiter to simulate the low pass at an outreach event at my local library last night. I started about 138,000 km out and used a view option (target-to) to keep the camera pointed at Titan through the pass, getting as low as 2000 km above the clouds. Time acceleration makes this pretty dramatic to watch - it looks like a crash is inevitable, but of course that's just the design of the orbit.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Super Sized Mars Rover

The Planetary Society's weblog has a great report by Emily Lakdawalla on her visit a few days ago to JPL's newly expanded "Mars yard" and the unveiling and demonstration of the mobility model (no instruments or "brains" so naturally called the scarecrow) of the Mars Science Laboratory. This is one super-sized rover as shown in her photos and video clips. MSL is under development for a 2009 launch. It will not use solar panels for power (radioisotope thermal generators instead), so it won't be dependent on serendipitous Martian dust devils and wind gusts to blow away dust to keep power levels high as are its smaller cousins Spirit and Opportunity.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mars Human Factors

Mandya Arti Furnished Base
Astroprof wrote an interesting post the other day called "Mars Mission: The Human Factor." I started to respond on his blog, but I realized that my comments were getting pretty long, so I decided to turn it into a blog post here. Please read Astroprof's post first for context. I have a few related comments, noting that none of this refutes the basically correct notion that many human factors as well as technical issues could be show stoppers on a multi-year Mars mission.

1. Analogs? I agree that Earth based analog missions do have a lot to teach us, and longer duration ones need to be done (with or without alcohol). There are also a lot of people thinking about the problems of long duration missions and human factors - for example, there were many papers related to this that I unfortunately could not attend at ISDC in Dallas. Of course thinking and planning and even simulation don't replace real experience, and the convenience and safety of staying on Earth for the tests makes them less authentic - life support system failure most likely won't kill the crew at an analog site in Russia.

2. SF Writers - SF doesn't replace experience either, but there have been a lot of good ideas explored in Mars novels, such as Benford's The Martian Race (based on Mars Direct) and Robinson's Red Mars (though it starts with the second generation colony ship for the "first 100" settlers, and that thing is huge). Another one that gets very detailed in the systems area of a Mars Direct style mission is Shadows of Medusa by Brian Enke, which offers an interesting solution to crew relationship problems.

3. Inflatable crew space? NASA signed the inflatable trans-hab over to Bigelow for space station development, but this could be licensed back if it works out - this still would not be a Battlestar Galactica-size spacecraft, but it could give a substantial increase in volume for living space for relatively small mass and launch size penalties.

4. Orbital assembly? Zubrin doesn't like orbital assembly very much, but some have proposed variations on Mars Direct using medium launch vehicles (like Ariane-5, Delta IV Heavy, possibly others) and orbital assembly. I worked on an Orbiter simulation of this with Andy McSorley, Mark Paton, and Grant Bonin in a version called Mars for Less (MFL), first designed and published by Grant. I gave the paper at Mars Society in DC August 2006 (see this page for more details and my various MFL blog posts). Our HAB and ERV were smaller than Zubrin's (so they would be even MORE cramped), but this was just a concept thing, and using the transhab idea or linking together additional hab and boost modules could help (orbital assembly should be more scaleable, especially if the modules are designed to assemble by docking with minimal astronaut EVA's needed).

5. Reliability? Long term reliability of critical systems is a big, big question. One of the NASA astronauts who spoke at ISDC talked about the importance and fragility of the toilet system on the ISS. It would often have problems requiring service, and this would become job #1 until it was fixed. Toilets and other parts of life support have to work better than what we have now for 2+ year Mars missions with limited spare parts and backups, and with the life support system being closed (full recycling or very close to it, which has not really been achieved). ISS experience is a valuable start, but if things get too crappy up there (sorry), they can escape in a waiting Soyuz spacecraft on fairly short notice. This is clearly not an option for a Mars-bound crew.

6. Pseudo G by Spinning? Then there's pseudo-G (spin the spacecraft on a tether) which someone should really test out in Earth orbit sometime. Six or more months in zero G could be depressing.

If getting humans on Mars becomes a top priority for the world (or just for a group with enough money and resources), these problems could certainly be worked out, though if I were on the mission, I'd want to know that the critical life support systems had been tested under realistic space conditions for at least two years if that would be the needed lifetime for mission success (pre-landed backups should be available once you reach Mars). It would take time and effort but I believe it still could happen in 15 or so years, though it is unlikely to be the US government's top priority for a while, so it might have to be some other group of countries and/or commercial entities.

Exploration de la Planète

Not much time for blogging - I'm actively involved in planetary exploration for a few days, in an area called the Côte d'Azur on a planet called la Terre. Pretty sweet little planet. That's Monaco in the picture.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Carnival of Space #8

Just a quick "neuer post" to say that the latest Carnival of Space is up, this week at Universe Today (Blogger's "dashboard" always changes languages to remind me what country I'm in).

The Longest Day

Today is the summer solstice, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day has a cool composite picture with the atmosphere "turned off" so that the Sun and the stars are visible, showing the Sun surrounded by stars of the constellations Gemini and Taurus.

In the northern hemisphere, summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the Sun is farthest north. You can use Stellarium to make a similar picture, turning off the atmosphere for a dark sky in daylight hours, and turning off the ground so you can see the entire sky (even the part blocked by the Earth). In this picture (click for a bigger view), I set the time to 14:06 EDT and turned on the ecliptic line (Sun's orbital path, in red) and the projection of the Earth's equator (blue line). I've zoomed out so you can see where these lines cross, and see that the Sun is indeed at its highest point relative to the equator. I've also turned on constellation lines and labels so you can see the Sun's position against the stars, surrounded by Gemini, Auriga, Taurus, and Orion.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Encyclopedia Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institute has a number of great museums in the Washington, DC area including the Air and Space Museum. It also has a wide range of materials on line. One way to access the material is through the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, an alphabetical listing of major topics, e.g., space history. If you drill down in any topic, you will find links to a variety of on line exhibits, including the Apollo Program, from which I grabbed this picture of a gritty-looking Dr. Harrison Schmitt in the Apollo 17 Lunar Module following the third EVA on that very last (so far) Moon landing mission. of course there are more comprehensive collections of Apollo information and imagery on line, but this exhibit is "just enough" for many purposes and collects most of the best-known images from the missions.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Shuttle Fleet in Orbiter

The STS-117 mission is continuing on overtime, although they are winding down and have been pronounced ready for reentry and landing following the repair of the thermal blankets on the OMS engine pod. A fourth EVA was also done today, to complete ISS work that was started Friday. I’ve been traveling and didn’t get to see much of the mission, but they seem to have done a great job overcoming various problems.

An interesting thing happens during shuttle missions down here in the Orbiter simulator world. Actually it doesn’t just happen – it requires a lot of work by Dave Hopkins (one of the main developers of the amazing “Shuttle Fleet” add-on series for Orbiter, Dave413 on Orbiter Forums and at Orbithangar). Dave puts together updated shuttle and ISS add-ons, scenarios, instructions, etc. to allow Orbiter users to re-create key events of the actual shuttle missions, sometimes even in real time (he often updates scenarios to use actual times and orbital elements from the real mission as it progresses).

As an example, on June 14th he posted a scenario for the OMS thermal blanket repair which took place on the June 15. This did not include the actual thermal blanket defect and repair (it’s not quite that detailed), but it does show how astronaut Danny Olivas was positioned on the robot arm for the repair, giving insight into the geometry (it’s also cool to view the entire ISS complex in 3D,with the Atlantis docked there). Other scenarios include various pre-docking states and robot arm (RMS) checkout (the SRMS system is more detailed in the shuttle fleet than in the default Atlantis and includes a sequence editor and an arm camera view, shown in the yellow outlined inset here - this inset view was done graphically, not in Orbiter).

Thanks to Dave for putting together these great add-ons as well as the data, instructions, and scenarios needed to make use of them for particular missions as they occur. Note that you need to follow instructions carefully as to which add-ons to install. The STS-117 scenarios require the patched 3.9.3 shuttle fleet, the expansion pack, the 1.0 version of the ISS (not the same as the default ISS in Orbiter), the STS-117 scenarios pack, and the new OMS repair scenario. These are all available for free download on Orbithangar. For best results, read the excellent included documentation for these detailed add-ons.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reflections from Earth Orbit

The STS-117 and ISS crews got some important things squared away today - EVA astronaut Danny Olivas repaired a gap in a thermal blanket with the help of a medical stapler, while cosmonauts were able to get the troublesome Russian ISS control computers back up and running. Let's hear it for Yankee and Russian ingenuity! Plus a few engineers on the ground working overtime I'm sure. This picture is not from today's spacewalk - it's just one I found in the day 4 gallery and especially liked.

I also liked the book Reflections from Earth Orbit by Winston Scott. Scott, whom I met briefly last weekend at Space Expo 2007, has written a truly down-to-Earth astronaut memoir. It's relatively brief (128 pages) and includes anecdotes about growing up in Miami in the 1950's (attending segregated schools until tenth grade), his experience as a young and talented trumpet player, and his transition from a Florida State music graduate to a US Navy pilot (starting in helicopters and ending up in the F-14 Tomcat!). Of course he also describes many details of his two space shuttle flights (STS-72 in 1996 and STS-87 in 1997).

Scott relates it all with modesty and with respect for the non-technical reader who is simply curious about what space is like. I really enjoyed this little book - it might be just the thing to inspire a young reader or engage a person without a huge interest in "space stuff." It has a lot of old-fashioned human interest and the feel of a conversation with a friendly guy who just happens to have been a fighter pilot and an astronaut, and who can also blow a mean trumpet. Scott also reveals what he believes to be the true soundtrack of outer space: In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. I'll have to check it out.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Optimization Game

50 mpg! Do I hear 51? 52? I have a new mini-obsession, training myself to drive my new Prius to optimize its gas mileage. It has a real-time display of current gas mileage as well as a histogram of the last 30 minutes of mileage on its very space-age multi-function display. Also steering-wheel-mounted controls for audio and climate (HOTAS!) and an MP3-CD player! And a HUD! And hover engines! And it runs on sugar water! Well it has most of that anyway. It's all very 21st century to me (my last car was a 1998 Camry).

The optimization bit is really working. I haven't kept a daily record, but on my 20 mile, 25 minute drive to work, I started out a week ago (new) getting 48 mpg and now I routinely get 50 and sometimes 51. It's mostly being smoother on the gas and brakes, not getting faster than I need to get, taking advantage of terrain (coasting whenever possible), stuff like that. Sometimes traffic hurts me, as does the A/C if I have to run it (not much recently - it's been cool for June). The savings in doing 51 vs. 48 mpg on a 20 mile trip is not significant - but I still like this optimization game, as well as whatever small contribution the Prius makes to the environment by burning less fuel.

Oh yeah, the picture. My other car is an F-4 Phantom. With an A-10 Warthog nose sticking out of it. Covered with tarps. At an air museum.

Carnival of Space #7 Is Up

Check out Carnival of Space #7 over at Star Stryder. There are some really interesting posts including a Space Cynics item in favor of something, and a blog with a series of planetary cartoons (would that be a clog?). One of mine is in there somewhere too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Virtual LM

I'm crazy busy at work and have not been closely following let alone writing about the STS-117 flight - that's OK, there's plenty of coverage by other blogs and web sites, starting with NASA's own. It will be interesting to hear about how the "sewing kit" repair of the thermal blanket gap will be done later in the extended mission. Learning to live and work in space means fixing stuff when it breaks, and fortunately the shuttle crews and their ground support teams are prepared to do this when it's needed.

I did spend a little time this evening browsing through a book I bought at ISDC, Virtual LM by Scott P. Sullivan (subtitle: A Pictorial Essay of the Engineering and Construction of the Apollo Lunar Module). What an amazing vehicle, and the book is quite amazing too. It's essentially 250 pages of detailed and annotated color-shaded 3D CAD drawings of all the systems and sub-systems of the Apollo Lunar Module. Of course there was no CAD in 1962-1969 when the LM was designed and built by "Grumman Iron Works," but using CAD to peel away the many layers of complexity is a brilliant approach. Perhaps a book only a space geek or a mechanical engineer could love, but if you're a space geek, you will really love it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

New Stellarium 0.9.0

There's a new version (6/6/07) of the freeware planetarium program Stellarium, version 0.9.0. It has some interesting new features, including the ability to fly directly to a selected planet or moon (though you won't see the object you flew to - best to jump to Phobos if you want to see Mars up close). There's also the ability to use a much larger star catalog, which you must locate and download separately (hint: go to the downloads page on Sourceforge, cancel the download if necessary, and select "Browse all files" on the download tab).

It looks a bit better than the 0.8 version, though it seems to me the planets are now oversized - maybe this is a scale setting somewhere that I haven't found yet. There are more settings not in the GUI, many with single key commands you will find in the manual. But those are little things. As with previous versions, it's a fantastic planetarium program with an easy zoom and pan interface and atmospheric effects that make the sky look very much like what you see outside. And it's free!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Space Island Group

One of the sponsors and exhibitors at yesterday's Space Expo 2007 in Connecticut was Space Island Group, a commercial company "dedicated to the development of commerce, research, manufacturing, and tourism in space." Sounds good to me - I was surprised I hadn't heard of them before, and that they were not (as far as I could tell) present at ISDC 2007, where there was a special forum on the financing of space ventures as well as a lot of private space activity.

Space Island Group is talking about building solar power satellites in the near future, and they say they have some things going with China and India to pursue this. I heard the figure $2 billion bandied about. Their promotional handout talks about "20,000 jobs in Earth orbit by 2020." They are also big on using to-be-developed shuttle ET- and SSME-derived heavy lift launch vehicles (different from NASA's Ares V and the DIRECT proposal, as far as I can tell), and on using the empty external tanks to build various structures in Earth orbit.

I'd like to find out more about Space Island Group (the president and CEO, Gene Meyers, was at Space Expo, and I met him very briefly just as I was leaving - I was quite busy with Orbiter "flight instruction" and didn't have much time for the other exhibits, alas). It would be great if solar power satellites could be developed and commercialized over the next 15 years. Does anyone know anything about their plans and partners?

The picture here (space station built from shuttle external tanks) is from an Orbiter add-on, not one of the many cool graphics on Space Island Group's web site.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Orbiter for Educators: Next Frontier?

Is this the launch pad for the future of space flight? A bare table with a couple of PC's, a joystick, a projector, and a bunch of wires, in front of a WWII era F4U Corsair? Actually it's just my Orbiter table at today's Space Expo 2007 at the New England Air Museum, but there a couple of dozen young people got to watch a simulated shuttle launch, experience docking with the ISS and landing the space shuttle, and learn a bit about forces and motion in the process. I also introduced Orbiter to a few educators and fellow space enthusiasts (most of whom declined a test flight).

There were some 400 attendees all together, with around sixteen exhibits, plus retired NASA astronaut Winston Scott, who was probably the biggest draw. I spoke briefly with him and invited him to check out Orbiter (I told him I had even installed an add-on F-14 in his honor, since he flew Tomcats in the Navy), and while he expressed interest, he just didn't have the time. He's an excellent speaker and a very modest and down-to-Earth guy. I would have liked to talk with him more, but there were a lot of people, so I'll just have to learn more from his book, Reflections from Earth Orbit, which I bought today.

Orbiter "test flights" were pretty popular with kids and their parents, most of whom had the usual reaction ("it's free?"). I had a single page information sheet to give to visitors to help them find Orbiter on line and get started with it. I also had two printed copies of Go Play In Space to show (one of which disappeared from the table). A few observations:

The joystick is a draw, and is pretty essential for landing the shuttle (for which I used a playback until short final when the visitor would take the stick). It's not really that great for docking, but it's more fun than the key pad. I made up large labeled diagrams for RCS control with the stick (I programmed buttons for translation and hover engine controls).

Working with one kid at a time like a coach or flight instructor worked quite well with about 10-20 minutes spent with each one. I also had the notebook running with the projector, usually an Orbiter flight recorder playback of the STS-115 shuttle launch and climb to orbit.

I need to carry a small model of the shuttle or even an aircraft to use when explaining rotation vs. translation. It was pretty silly doing this with a water bottle or piece of paper.

All in all, an interesting and enjoyable space event for the general public.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Nominal = Awesome

I hate it when I'm so busy with simulated space stuff that I miss a real launch. I watched some STS-117 replays a few minutes after the fact, and it was a really nice launch. It was pretty much "nominal" all the way (NASA for "awesome"), judging from the fact that several questions at the post-launch press briefing on NASA TV related to "so what do think about when you don't have problems to worry about?"

Meanwhile I have some really cool scenarios set up for kids of all ages to play with at Space Expo 2007 at NEAM tomorrow. Only 14 test-flight slots (20 minutes each), so if you come to the event, be sure to sign up early.

Universe Awareness (UNAWE)

I learned about this in the June Physics Today. UNAWE is an international astronomy outreach program aimed at inspiring young and disadvantaged children around the world. I need to learn more about this. It's hard to disagree with the basic goals as described in the PT article:
Teach tolerance. Inspire awe. Instill self-confidence.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Atlantis, Real and Simulated

First of all, welcome to any first time visitors who arrived here for the Carnival of Space or from various sites that linked to it. There's a lot of space-related educational material here (among other things), so I hope you will take a look around and tell me what you think.

This week I've been practicing docking the shuttle Atlantis with the International Space Station (ISS) - simulated in Orbiter, of course. This is preparation for Saturday's Space Expo 2007 at the New England Air Museum at Bradley Airport, near Hartford, CT. I've got a scenario set up to allow visitors to dock either Atlantis (docking port is "up") or the fictional Deltaglider (docking port is in the nose, easier to do) from 10 meters out using a joystick (not really needed, but more fun than the numeric keypad). If this is too easy for some people, I can make it harder pretty quickly even from 10 meters out.

This will be especially cool for two reasons. If all goes well and the launch takes place Friday evening as planned, the real Atlantis (STS-117) will be in orbit (though not docking until flight day 3). Plus astronaut Winson Scott will be at the Space Expo in person, talking about his real shuttle flight experience (and giving Orbiter a try, I hope).

P.S. If you want a lot of information on STS-117 or other shuttle misisons or ISS expeditions at your fingertips, check out and download a PDF press kit. The STS-117 press kit PDF is 5.8 megabytes.

The Carnival of Space #6 - ISDC Edition

This may be a space blog carnival, but the recent International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2007) in Dallas was a veritable space circus, with at least eleven rings and various side shows. Truly a feast of a space conference (if I may mash up a few metaphors). So the main dish of this week’s Carnival of Space is ISDC, with a generous serving of non-ISDC posts for your reading pleasure.

After co-chairing this year’s ISDC, Ken Murphy decided to find out what really went on at his conference. What he discovered on the web was a blogsplosion of stories about the staggering potential of space and about how much fun everyone had at ISDC, the largest citizen space conference in the country (and maybe the world). Ken also picked up a lot of great conference freebies to add to the Lunar Library. The Exploring Meteorite Mysteries teacher guide from NASA has proven to be a very popular addition.

With Ken’s comprehensive listing as a framework, we can start to drill down and extract core samples from selected ISDC presentations and events. My own ISDC Wrap-up concentrated on a few of ISDC’s “greatest hits,” including Buzz Aldrin, Dr. Steve Squyres, a SpaceShipTwo preview from Virgin Galactic’s Alex Tai, and more. Private space was big in Dallas, as MSNBC’s Allen Boyle discussed in his Cosmic Log post Coming Attractions in Space. A Babe in the Universe sat next to Buzz in one session and reported on a private Moon flight scoop from Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson’s lunchtime speech at ISDC. I was there too, but she managed to pick up on a few details that I missed.

I met a few fellow space bloggers in non-cyberspace at the ISDC space blogger “summit,” which is cool, since blogging is normally a rather solitary activity. Megablogger Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. Instapundit, was there, amazingly enough, and wrote about it here (so now I’m blogging about talking about blogging about space blogging, more or less).

I've enjoyed Astroprof's ISDC posts (and many others), and I actually got to talk with him there. His Astroprof’s Page discussion of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s “going straight to Mars” presentation is a nice summary. I also liked his blogging about space blogging” post in which he asked readers why they read his blog, and they told him! I spoke briefly with Jeff Foust, who organized the space blogging events and claims to not actually have a million blogs. Among other things, he reported on SpaceDev’s revised Dreamchaser spacecraft design in Personal Spaceflight.

One of the many afternoon presentations I attended at ISDC was one by Jerome Pearson, who discussed the use of orbiting reflectors and similar sun-shading ideas to reduce global warming. But Universe Today points out that such geoengineering comes with huge risks. Policy makers hoping that a technological silver bullet will hold off rising temperatures from global warming need to consider those risks. While this was not an ISDC post, it was closely related to Pearson's presentation - I raised a question along these lines after his talk, but he was out of time.

Those are just a few of the many posts and articles that came out of ISDC. It really was a great event, but it’s not the only thing in the universe worth talking (or blogging) about. I mentioned that Buzz Aldrin was at ISDC, and of course he flew on both Gemini and Apollo missions. But Halfway There reminds us in Hurrah for Schirra that the late Wally Schirra was the only NASA astronaut to fly aboard all three of the Moon project's spacecraft: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He epitomized the astronaut spirit and was one of NASA's key players in the success of the manned space program.

There were quite a few NASA people and presentations at ISDC (NASA was also the main sponsor), and many speakers and attendees could be heard wondering aloud about NASA’s future and about the Vision for Space Exploration. The conversation continues in the blogosphere with OK, smart guy, so how SHOULD the VSE be done? in which Robot Guy asks,
what should NASA be doing, beyond just developing enabling technologies? If they are going to go about doing the Vision for Space Exploration, then what is the better way to do it? He says the solution is to decouple the mission from the implementation.

Meanwhile the Space Cynics wonder, So What IS Their Mission? They point out that in Mike Griffin's recent interview in Space Daily, he essentially dismissed any more detailed action studying global warming because it wasn't in the NASA Authorization. The question that comes to mind is, what other activities are not in the Authorization, and will he be doing some trimming of NASA based on this criteria... or was it just a cop out?

It turns out that ISDC was not the only cool conference taking place in the last couple of weeks. Fellow JPL Solar System Ambassador Steve Hammond attended Where 2.0 2007 in San Jose and reports in Ridiculous Thoughts that it was about much more than location, location, location on Earth. He even discovered several astronomical applications of Google Earth. And while there is no Google Venus (yet?), in A Watery Venus, Chris Lintott of Chris Lintott’s Universe (none of this dodgy FlyingSinger/Astroprof/Robot Guy stuff for Chris) talks about an interview that got him thinking about how what we know about Earth tells us about Venus and vice versa.

I can also recommend two fine tributes: one to a late and sorely missed astronomer, author, and science educator, the other dedicated to an up-and-coming outer solar system body. To retain her spare e e cummingsesque typography i will quote astropixie directly on her slightly older but well worth remembering remembrance:

pale blue dot
this one comes from last december for the 10th anniversary of carl sagan's death. i talk about his contributions to astronomy, space exploration, skepticism and science public outreach. i tell the story of how i decided to go into astronomy.

And last but not least, Stuart Atkinson of Cumbrian Skies explains why a pale-orange-dot in the vicinity of a ringed giant has been rising on his personal solar system hit parade in Titan - the new New World. But not content to honor smoggy Titan in prose alone, Stuart also wrote a rather nice poem about her (him? it?) entitled TITAN. This is one of many astronomical subjects that Stuart explores poetically in The 'Verse.

I hope you have enjoyed this ISDC (and other) edition of the Carnival of Space. If you wish to submit posts for future carnivals, the guidelines are here. Next week's carnival will be hosted at Dr. Pamela Gay's Star Stryder blog. Until then, Clear skies! Ad astra! On to Mars! And as Homer Simpson says, "Mmmmm... forbidden donut" (scroll to the bottom of that page for more).

Monday, June 04, 2007

SF by Wernher Von Braun

Apogee Space Books had a booth at ISDC, and of course I couldn't resist buying a few space books, especially from the $10 bargain rack, including NASA mission reports on Apollo 11 (2 volumes) and Deep Space (outer solar system probes from Pioneer 10 to Cassini), plus a volume on women astronauts for my outreach collection.

But the most surprising find was a new book by Wernher Von Braun, Project Mars: A Technical Tale. Not exactly new, but a never-before-published SF novel about a voyage to Mars, written in 1949. I've just started reading it, and while the prose is a bit old fashioned, and the technical details figure very prominently, it looks like a pretty decent story of a huge Mars expedition.

The story takes place in the 1980's (30+ years in the future from 1949, following several more world wars and the establishment of an effective world government). The book includes a technical appendix which shows the calculations and diagrams that Von Braun used to make sure that the story was technically accurate, to the level of knowledge of Mars and space technology in 1949. It's surprisingly modern in many respects. The book includes a nice selection of color plates of Mars expedition paintings by Chesley Bonestell.There's a description of the book by Von Braun himself here.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mars Science Lab Landing Animation

This is a really cool animation of JPL's Mars Science Laboratory (next generation rover launching in 2009) landing on Mars. Thanks to Greg Burch for the tip. Videos for download - possibly the same and maybe others, I haven't looked - are available here.

Space Expo 2007 at NEAM

Next Saturday (June 9) I will participate in Space Expo 2007 at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut (by Bradley Airport). The 10-5 event (PDF flyer here) will feature NASA astronaut Winston Scott, mini-robots to drive, a chance to try on a space suit, and more. There will also be three JPL Solar System Ambassadors on hand to talk about space stuff, including yours truly. I will give a presentation and then set up a table with one or two PC's running Orbiter, giving attendees a chance to try their hand at ISS docking or flying around on the Moon. The museum also has a great collection of aircraft. If you live in New England, come check it out.

I Feel the Earth Move

One of the blogs I discovered through recent space carnivals is Astropixie, which I really like. Her recent post on heliocentrism referred to a blog where the idea is seriously considered that the Earth is the fixed center of the universe, around which everything else revolves. It’s essentially Ptolemy’s ancient Greek “music of the spheres,” although I’m sure its proponents don’t especially like Ptolemy because he wasn’t a Christian (he couldn’t help it, he was born too soon).

The “proof” of this fixed Earth theory seems to consist of three things: (1) I don’t FEEL the Earth moving, (2) the sun, stars, and planets APPEAR to move around us, and the clincher, (3) the Bible says the Earth is fixed. As with people who believe in Creationism, Intelligent Design, Intelligent Falling, or that humans are a plague on the Earth and should become extinct, this got me thinking: what is up with that?

I never learned to build or fix a car or airplane engine, and I know only broadly how they operate, but I can still drive a car and fly a small airplane. I know that engines work on physical principles that are well understood by many people, and that specialized engineers and technicians understand these principles (and a lot of practical details) especially well and can design, build, and fix engines so I can safely drive or fly. If I believed instead that Carburetor Fairies, the Magneto Demon, the Spaghetti Monster, or the Hand of God caused the engine to produce power, I could still drive or fly. The existence of such beliefs doesn’t especially hurt anything as long as there are people who can actually build and fix engines so they work. And of course there are many people (perhaps most) who have no special beliefs about how their car engine works and don’t especially care as long as it runs, and when it doesn’t, they take it to a mechanic.

The fixed Earth people might be similar to this – on the basis of their direct senses and their belief in the Bible, they maintain that the Earth is obviously fixed, and that everything rotates around us. As long as these people don’t try to launch satellites or space probes, or make their opinions about this subject the law of the land, no great harm done. Just as quantum mechanics is implicitly proved every time you turn on a device with transistors or lasers in it, a rotating Earth is required (along with the rest of the well understood and well demonstrated heliocentric system) every time a satellite is launched in an eastward direction to take advantage of the velocity boost provided by the spinning Earth. If you make use of satellite based weather reports, satellite TV, or GPS, you are benefiting from the knowledge and work of people who understand these principles and how to apply them. You don’t have to know or care how these things work (or even that they exist at all) unless you want to.

The funny part is when someone with such a belief tries to straddle the fence, accepting and applying certain parts of physics and rejecting others to try to build a case for their alternate view – “teach the controversy,” as it were, though the controversy here is comparable to the question of who is the stronger god, Zeus or Thor? (obviously Thor, duh).

An example is this page on a fixed Earth web site “falsifying the geosynchronous satellite concept.” Assuming these people are serious (they seem to be), they go to some pains to explain that GEO orbits are based on various unproved assumptions. Although you can’t see GEO satellites with the naked eye, they do accept as directly observable that there are satellites which remain fixed at a distance of 22,236 miles above certain points on the equator, but since they deny that the Earth rotates and that the satellites are in circular orbits with periods set to match the Earth’s rotation rate, they need a way to explain why these satellites don’t simply fall straight down.

Their answer: electromagnetism (they show a small metallic globe that is suspended magnetically to illustrate this idea). They don’t say how these powerful “beams of magnetism” are generated, and of course no one has ever observed or measured the alleged tubes of localized electromagnetic forces that keep these satellites suspended over the supposedly fixed Earth. But it works for a 3 inch model Earth, so why not for a 22,236 mile high tube of magnetic force?

Of course if any of this were true, rocket launches and satellites (not to mention the Moon) would have to operate quite differently from what physicists, astronomers, and engineers have been telling us since Newton in 1687. This would involve a vast and intricate conspiracy of government, private industry, scientists, engineers, and many others all around the world. Why wasn’t I asked to join when I got my physics degree? It is not clear whether this is a conspiracy to launch spacecraft that operate differently from what we have learned in school, or whether the conspiracy has simply faked every space flight since 1957 (with great special effects, I especially like that GPS trick). None of this is very clear actually.

I suppose I’ve spent more time on this than it’s really worth and I should simply accept that whatever it is, there is probably someone somewhere who believes it. It’s just really astounding to me. There’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that is debatable, and probably a lot that is valuable. But as an orbital mechanics resource, it’s just plain wrong. I don’t expect to convince anyone who accepts the Bible as fact to change their opinion based on my remarks here. But considering the political source of Astropixie’s original link to this fixed Earth stuff, I wanted to also point out that depending on how things go in November 2008, science may not quite be out of the woods when Bush finally leaves office.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Stellar & Galactic Bling

Here's a nice little slide show of colorful stellar and galactic images from Hubble, Spitzer, and other spacecraft sources, courtesy of JPL.