Monday, July 30, 2007

Amazing Launch Photography

Ben Cooper is a young but very experienced and accomplished space launch photographer. He's done photography for various web sites and magazines including Aviation Week and Discover. I found his web site while searching for shuttle launch viewing tips (I'm worried about what happens if the launch is scrubbed next Tuesday - I will stick around the area a few days but I'm not sure the VIP launch site at KSC will be open to conference attendees after Tuesday, so I'm checking on alternate viewing locations).

In addition to many great launch and pre-launch photos, Ben has some launch viewing tips on his web site. STS-117 is pictured (assuming the link to his site stays valid).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Universe for Cheap

The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe by Mark A. Garlick is another bargain book I found at Borders, just US$9.99 for a very large paperback, though I should have perhaps sprung for the $20 to get the hard cover (but I have so many other astronomy references, I was really just getting this to check out for recommendation purposes). The verdict: great illustrations, great information, nice book design, up to date (2006, many recent spacecraft images), the star charts are clear and readable, really a very nice book. It's reasonably big in format and page count (around 300 pages) but not overwhelming. I like it better than some of the more expensive books like DK's Universe.

If you are looking for a small gift for someone (yourself for that matter) who thinks they may be interested in astronomy (or is even sure they are interested), you couldn't go far wrong with this book. The book is Australian in origin and seems to have arrived in the U.S. specifically for the bargain book trade. But it's up to date and nicely produced - so it truly is a bargain.

Gone Pro on Flickr

STS-118 Orbiter Specular Ripple (Hi-res)
I finally decided to "go pro" on Flickr. A free account is hard to beat as a way to keep 200 images on line for use in blog entries, and I have used it mostly for Orbiter screen shots to illustrate my posts. But the other limitations of free accounts make it hard to organize the images, especially the fact that you can define only three themed "sets" (I defined Moon, Mars, and Outer Planets some time ago).

Now for $24.95 a year, I can have unlimited pictures on line (I have 291 at the moment - they don't delete your pictures on a free account when you exceed 200, they only hide them), and I can have unlimited sets and collections. This will allow me to add photos from museum visits and other real-life events without fear of bumping off an Orbiter image that I'm using in some blog post. If I keep my sets and collections up to date, I can add as many Orbiter images and real photos as I like and still make it easy for visitors to find what interests them. They also allow you to keep full-resolution images on line (they are limited to something like 1280x1024 on free accounts, and scaled if they exceed this).

If this reasoning seems less than compelling to you, consider that it also has given me an excuse for procrastinating on paying bills and finishing my overdue expense and trip reports. The picture shows the Endeavour in Orbiter separating from its External Tank with Cape Cod in the background. Note the "specular ripples" on the Atlantic Ocean - this is a 2006 Orbiter feature that I just discovered.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Shuttle Fleet Exercises

STS-118 Orbiter SRB Sep

AutoFCS start screen (Orbiter)

While there is no training required to attend a shuttle launch, I figure it doesn't hurt to be prepared. Prepared for what, you might ask? Prepared to discuss and perhaps even demonstrate Orbiter to some of the other educators and NASA folks who will attend the NASA STS-118 Education Conference in Orlando next weekend (I'll be there). And what better example to show than a simulation of STS-118 itself?

Thanks to the incredibly timely work of "David413" and a few of his Orbiter add-on development helpers, I can actually do this! The latest version of the "Shuttle Fleet" add-on (v3.9.4, July 27, available at Orbit Hangar) includes not only all the current and historical shuttles and scenarios for many recent and historical missions for each of them, but the accompanying "expansion pack" includes preliminary mission scenarios for STS-118, based on Endeavour's currently planned launch on August 7 at 7:02 pm EDT. Note that you must also download and install the latest "ISS Fleet" (v1.1.2) which contains models of the ISS in various stages of construction for use with the Shuttle Fleet scenarios.

This add-on has been under development for years, with new versions often released around the time of a shuttle mission. It is amazing in so many ways. From the automated launch (using item 777 in the "OPS 1" ascent mode in the included GPCMFD, which simulates several of the programs used on the real shuttle) to docking with the ISS, from simulated payload SRMS and SSRMS operations and EVA' to automated re-entry (with the included AutoFCS autopilot), it's a virtual playground for shuttle fans. You can even practice abort scenarios. For the TAL case (Transoceanic Abort Landing after loss of a single main engine), there is even a tutorial and an accompanying flight recording to watch and learn from.

I've been reading about shuttle operations for years (I just dug out my copy of the 1982 Space Shuttle Operator's Manual, bought in 1982), but the shuttle fleet in Orbiter is more than a detailed refresher course. Simulating different phases of a shuttle mission gives you a feel for the pace and complexity of a real mission, even if you don't have to memorize hundreds of switches and procedures (it's not quite that detailed). The screen shots from Orbiter show Endeavor two minutes after launch (SRB sep), and the AutoFCS setup dialog configured for an automated reentry and landing at KSC. More pix on Flickr.

Note: The Shuttle Fleet add-on defines an alternate solar system configuration file (Sol_Alt.cfg in which the only moon defined is the Earth's Moon) and Earth configuration file (Earth_Alt.cfg, which defines surface bases used for shuttle aborts, as well as a number of predefined observation points). The supplied scenarios all use these alternate versions, in case you are wondering what happened to Jupiter's moons).

Friday, July 27, 2007

NASA's Woes in Perspective

It's unfortunate but perhaps inevitable that you get more attention when things go wrong than when things go right. So it was with me and my late father when I was growing up, and so it is with NASA, which is having a bad couple of days. The sabotage of an ISS-bound computer by subcontractor's employee and the embezzlement of $150,000 by a former NASA employee can't be seen as a reflection on NASA's "character" or even on its management - some people do crazy and irresponsible things, and no organization is immune to such incidents. It's lucky that the sabotage was discovered by the contractor and did not result in any serious problems (it was said that it would have been discovered in safety checks before launch even if the contractor had missed it, and it was not mission critical hardware).

The two reported drinking incidents are a different story and certainly reflect poorly on the the judgment of the individual astronauts involved and on any fellow astronauts or managers who allowed an impaired astronaut to operate or fly anything. This is obviously a safety issue and the incidents and individuals involved should be investigated and disciplined as appropriate based on the findings, and if such behavior is more than just a couple of isolated incidents, this should obviously be corrected.

But it's unfair to assume that it's widespread or that it's a "NASA problem" or to chalk it up to shoddy management or even to "macho test pilot attitudes" of the astronaut corps until more facts are available. NASA employs some 18,000 people in addition to many contractors who work indirectly for the space agency. It manages some 70 different space programs along with the countless other activities required of a government agency with widespread and wide ranging responsibilities. That's a lot of people and a lot of activity.

I'm not saying that NASA is perfect - what organization is? They employ people, and people sometimes make mistakes and bad decisions. But from everything I've ever heard and read, and from the NASA people I have interacted with over the years, I believe that the vast majority of NASA's employees are dedicated and professional, and they certainly accomplish a lot of amazing and important work. I think we should try to keep a little perspective on these stories, though I suppose that's a lot to expect in a time when the antics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are staples of "news" coverage.

Carnival of Space #13

The thirteenth Carnival of Space is on display at the Liftport Staff Blog. Space history, space business, space science, space art, and more - check it out.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Searching for Life, Mars and Beyond

JPL has posted a short video called "Looking for Life in All the Right Places." It talks about the soon-to-launch Phoenix mission as well as the next rover mission, the 2010 Mars Science Laboratory. These landers will have more sophisticated chemical analysis instruments that will allow them to look more deeply for water, organics, and life-suggestive minerals. The last section of the video discusses possibilities for life in other places, beyond the Earth and Mars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Truer Bluer Planet

Sometimes a simple add-on can make a big difference in Orbiter. Case in point: "More Realistic Earth Atmosphere" by "Axel" (available at Orbit Hangar). By experimenting with different settings in Orbiter's Earth.cfg file (the file that defines most of Earth's physical properties) and comparing the results to astronaut photos of the Earth, he found atmosphere settings that make a subtle but real-seeming improvement in the look of the Earth from orbit. Others have done similar things, sometimes even providing a new texture rendering file for the horizon of planets with atmospheres, but this could sometimes give Venus, Mars, or Titan an unexpected bluish glow (they apparently all use the same horizon texture). This one keeps it simple but it looks great.

You do need to use a text editor to modify the contents of Earth.cfg, which is found in the /Config folder of your Orbiter installation directory. You simply copy two labeled blocks of text found in the file "earth-atmo-dates.txt" (inside the add-on zip file) and paste them over the corresponding text blocks in the original Earth.cfg file (save a backup copy first if you like). The top picture is the enhanced, the lower picture the default.

Tip: It's possible to have more than one config file for Earth - some add-ons define their own. For example, the shuttle fleet installs Earth_Alt.cfg and Sol_Alt.cfg which define a modified Earth and solar system which are referenced in shuttle scenarios. I missed this at first, ran a shuttle scenario, and could not see any change in the Earth since I changed only the default Earth.cfg file.

Universe and Earth Perspectives

I'm a sucker for bargain books. A trip to Borders to get the final Harry Potter book for my daughter found me in the bargain section looking at (big shocker) space books. I found recent large-format paperback editions of two British titles by Nicolas Cheetham (the links below refer to British editions on Universe: A Journey from Earth to the Edge of the Cosmos is a series of large, high quality images of astronomical objects arranged by distance from Earth in light seconds, light minutes, or light years, from the Moon (1.3 light seconds) to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field galaxies (13 billion light years). A simple but effective unfolding of the cosmos. There isn't much detail on the objects' designations or locations, but you can find this in other books or on the web easily enough if you know the popular names. Pretty nice for only $5.99.

Cheetham's other book is called Earth: A New Perspective and it is similar in format to the Universe book, but with a wide range of satellite and astronaut Earth images, arranged in thematic sections labeled earth, water, air, and fire. Also $5.99 and great for browsing, even if you do have Google Earth and Orbiter to look at.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Endeavor Rendezvous Planning

You might thing the title refers to planning for the STS-118 rendezvous of the shuttle Endeavor and the ISS, and it could indeed refer to that. I think I finally need to do a complete Orbiter shuttle fleet launch-to-ISS-rendezvous-and-dock mission to get in the right state of mind for the launch on August 7 (I've done all the parts, but never a complete launch-to-dock mission).

But no time for that just yet. The first rendezvous I need to arrange is for myself and Orlando on Saturday, August 4, to attend the NASA Education Conference Sunday and Monday and the launch on Tuesday evening. Regular old airline flight planning, made easier by the internet, of course. I found some cheap internet-only fares on Southwest, nonstop PVD-MCO (Providence-Orlando). Cool. But how long should I stay? If the shuttle doesn't launch on the 7th due to weather or something, what are the other launch windows?

Google STS-118 launch window and you find (among other things) this CBS News page with the essential info - early evening launch windows on the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th of August (that's as long as I can consider staying). I decided to give myself two additional chances to see the launch - fly back Friday so I can be home for a few days before another trip!

That CBS page is one of many pages related to shuttle operations, all apparently based on SpaceCalc, a detailed Microsoft Excel worksheet you can download here. The main mission status page lets you access a variety of SpaceCalc-derived web pages with timelines, flight plans, crew info, etc. There also the Boeing Reporter's Space Flight Notepad, a 3 MB PDF with extensive background information on shuttle operations and missions (it's updated for each mission, the STS-117 edition is up now).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Flying Inspiration

Flying a single-engine plane solo around the world has certainly been done before, but it's still an impressive accomplishment. Barrington Irving was born in Jamaica and grew up in inner-city Miami. You can read his web site to learn about how he became a pilot and obtained an airplane for his recently completed around-the-world flight, which started in Miami on March 23, 2007, and ended successfully there on June 27 (video here). It was quite an adventure. At 23 years old, he is (unofficially) the youngest person to have flown such a solo circumnavigation, and the first black person to have done so. He hopes that his story and accomplishment will demonstrate the power of dreams, and provide inspiration to others, especially to inner city youth.

I'm also a private pilot (sadly inactive) and have the same surname and initials as Mr. Irving (though we are not related as far as I know). I've even flown around the world one time (Boston, Seoul, Frankfurt, Boston in 2002), but the United and Lufthansa crews wouldn't let me near the controls, alas. This of course has nothing to do with Barrington Irving and his accomplishments, but I couldn't resist mentioning these things, and couldn't manage to find a better way to merge them into this post, let alone fly solo around the world. I would like to fly solo across the United States, and someday maybe I will. First I'd need to get an updated medical and a BFR (biennial flight review) to get current, which would probably require a few refresher lessons. An instrument rating would probably be a good idea too, for safety's sake. So much to do, but now I'm tired, and it's time for bed.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Code Monkey" Anime

I wrote about Jonathan Coulton's music back in May. He's a really cool and funny independent singer/songwriter/recording artist/blogger. Someone just told me about a recent blog post of his which links to a video for one of his funniest songs, "Code Monkey." It's based on a Japanese animé and it illustrates perfectly the plight of the cubicle-bound and frustrated "code monkey" of the title. Very funny!

When the Eagle Landed

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. That was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was already a space, science, and computer nerd. I was lucky to be attending an NSF-sponsored Student Science Training Program (SSTP) at Ohio University that summer, so I watched the Apollo 11 TV coverage that day in the lounge of my dorm with a group of other high school science nerds from all over the country. Future scientists and engineers, we were all excited and inspired.

It was a great six weeks, even though I felt greatly outclassed by fellow students who attended the Bronx High School of Science and other specialized science and math programs. How I got there was sort of a fluke. Although I attended a tiny school (only 30 students in my class!), I was really interested in computers as well as in space, flying, French, math, and all sorts of other stuff. At that time, General Electric was in the mainframe computer business with some of the earliest time sharing systems. They had a program for area schools in upstate New York - if a school would get a computer terminal (really a teletype), GE would provide some free computer time for students to learn programming. Fortunately I had a math teacher who was interested in computers too, and he got the school to rent a teletype (it just occurred to me that he may have paid for this himself - my tiny, rural K-12 school was pretty poor at the time - in any case, thanks Mr. Call, you really made a difference for me!).

So my teacher and I stayed after school many afternoons learning to program in BASIC and FORTRAN, and this gave me the edge I needed to be accepted for the SSTP despite my otherwise limited math and science background. I worked that summer on FORTRAN programs for calculating molecular orbitals, which involves quantum mechanics about which I knew nearly nothing. In fact I mostly made data runs under the direction of a physical chemistry professor, investigating bond lengths and angles and such. But it was still a bit of college level science and computer work, and as it turns out, I've worked with (and played with) simulation software of various types ever since. So it was really a great opportunity for me.

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is a great Apollo 11 image. The one above is a still from the 16 mm movie camera on the LM.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

OK, I'm really psyched!

Thanks to the JPL Solar System Ambassadors program, I'll be in Florida for the STS-118 launch on August 7! I was just invited to a NASA STS-118 Pre-Launch Education Conference to be held in Orlando August 5-7. The conference itself looks quite interesting, but it also includes a tour and reception at Kennedy Space Center, as well as a chance to view the launch from the VIP site! I've never experienced a launch in person, so I really am psyched! I will allow a couple of extra days, but I really hope they launch as planned that Tuesday evening.

I hasten to add that the travel will be at my own expense, not NASA's - the Ambassador program is for volunteer educators who like to do presentations on space exploration and astronomy at schools, museums, libraries, etc. JPL provides some nice training opportunities (web and phone conferences) and some presentation materials, and in this case, some invitations to fill some open slots at this conference. Cool enough!

Carnival of Space #12: Galactic Extra!

Welcome to the dozenth edition of the Carnival of Space. As usual the space and astronomy blogging community is all over the cosmos, but some of us have been thinking even Bigger Thoughts than usual, looking at and thinking about galaxies. And as Carl Sagan didn’t exactly say, there are billions and billions of them out there – galaxies, not blog posts, though there are plenty of those this week too.

Much of the galactic excitement is coming from the Galaxy Zoo, a marvelous use of the distributed intelligence of people on the web. This newly launched online science project is asking internet users to help classify a million galaxies imaged in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). This might seem at first glance an esoteric activity, but the Galaxy Zoo project has quickly become a worldwide phenomena. As one of its organizers at Oxford, Chris Lintott has written several posts about the project, including a nice summary of a week inside the Galactic Zoo (Chris also suggested the image of the mysterious "green galaxy" above, though it's actually a supernova remnant). That’s just the first week, mind you, and I read elsewhere that some 30,000 visitors classified some 650,000 galaxies in that whirlwind first week. Wow!

But is the Galaxy Zoo too much of a good thing? Stuart Atkinson, who signed up on the Zoo's opening day, takes a look at why the site is so addictive, and describes what it's like to become trapped in the Galaxy Zoo. And as he has often done when inspired by things astronomical, he has also added a new poem to The 'Verse.

Astropixie resorts to astronomical jargon to describe the Galaxy Zoo as “so super cool” and recalls her earlier experience with SDSS, when she had undergraduate summer jobs working with thousands of spectra collected by the survey. Other bloggers commenting on the Galaxy Zoo include the Bad Astronomy Blog and many, many more (10,221 hits on a Google Blog search for “galaxy zoo”).

While you could sign up for the Zoo and look at hundreds of galaxies on your coffee break, you could easily dwell for quite some time on a single one of those distant jewels. Annas Rahman has done this with M51, and he concludes that it’s the subject of the Best Space Image Out There. Of course the Galaxy Zoo contains maybe 999,999 other contenders.

My own galactic connection this week is also a historic connection – a pilgrimage (of sorts) to the 100 inch telescope at Mount Wilson, California, where Edwin Hubble figured out that galaxies are galaxies, that the Universe is really, really big, and that it’s expanding. Telescopes in 1917 were built to last, and the Hooker Telescope looks like it's part of a battleship.

Closer to Home

Not all the wonders in the universe are galaxies, of course. Astroprof has been writing a cool series of posts about the Seven Wonders of Space Exploration, which he argues are at least as wondrous as the original or new ground-based “seven wonders.” Robot Guy points us to some historic video from one of those wonderful space wonders.

Brian Wang of Advanced Nanotechnology is thinking about future wonders of space exploration, namely nuclear rockets. He says they can have 2 to 200 times the performance of chemical rockets, that the science is solid and straightforward, and that we just have to have the courage to become a truly interplanetary civilization. I say go for it! Centauri Dreams goes farther out on the wonder scale, writing that nanotechnology may one day allow us to build huge structures in space - vast colony worlds of the sort envisioned by Gerard O'Neill may even become practical. Will one or more of these eventually become "worldships," leaving the Solar System behind to travel to the stars? And if there are worldships, could there perhaps be pirates? Surfin' English looks into the possibilities in the latest entry in his obstacles to space exploration series.

The solar system was not neglected this week. A Babe in the Universe writes of the Icy River Styx, reporting that astronomers using the Gemini North Telescope atop Mauna Kea have announced evidence of liquid water on Pluto's moon Charon! Liquid water on a world so distant from the Sun indicates an internal source of heat. It could also make Charon and many other Kuiper Belt objects potential homes for extraterrestrial life. And closer to home, Astroblog writes about the phases of Venus and presents a rather nifty animation of the phases, made with simple amateur equipment. Space Watch Michigan writes about Venus and Jupiter and how the brightness of astronomical objects can affect your eyes’ perception of their size. And if you can't get to space, why not bring space here, with a space simulator? Spacefiles has some cool pictures (these are gigantic space environment simulators, not to be confused with space flight simulators like Orbiter). Even closer to home (over at MIT), Brian Dunbar at Space For Commerce turns to spacesuits for a little comic relief in pass on the dessert, but thanks (L. Riofrio provides a bit of background here).

But wait, there's more! Mars is my favorite planet (after Earth, usually), and I'm happy to say that two Mars related posts arrived just as I was about to click "publish post." The Planetary Society Weblog raises the rap-worthy question, will Phoenix' thrust raise too much dust? Emily Lakdawalla notes that when Phoenix lands near Mars' north pole with Viking-style retrorockets, it will be blasting the ground with nitrogen-rich hydrazine. The Phoenix team is still trying to figure out what that will do to their landing site, which they plan to sample so carefully. And after that near-term Mars environment question, Colony Worlds asks the more provocative long-term question, Mars: Future Slum World, Or An Industrial Paradise? There is great promise but also financial peril lurking in those red sands (and whatever else might be there).

Finally, how about a little romance? Kevin of From Inner Mind to Outer Space (cool blog name) writes about some great feedback he received from a friend who is “in love with our night sky,” in part as a result of his outreach efforts. That’s the kind of thing we space and astronomy enthusiasts really like to hear.

Whew! That certainly was a galactic-scale carnival, but I hope you enjoyed the tour. Next week the carnival will be hosted by LiftPort Blog. Here's how to participate.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Great Canary Telescopes, Batman!

Just when I finally get a look at the world's largest telescope of 1948, and make plans to visit its successor (the 200 inch Palomar telescope near San Diego) in late August, I read about the first light celebration for the new GTC (Gran Telescopio Canarias) in the Canary Islands. Compared to the Mount Wilson scope's puny 100 inch (2.54 meter) primary mirror, the GTC has a 10.4 meter primary (that's 409.4 inches). Of course it's not a single piece of glass like the big ones of old. It will be made up of 36 independent hexagonal mirrors. I say will be because at first light, only 12 of the mirrors were installed. The optics are pretty cool - this diagram is from GTC web site.

This thing will be gathering a lot of light, and with frequently excellent seeing conditions at this site, it should produce some amazing images and scientific results over the next few years. It's just incredible the numbers and sizes of optical telescopes that are popping up around the globe (here's a list - Keck in Hawaii is still the biggest fully operational one at 10.0 meters). I think there really is something to this whole optics thing. Makes me proud to call myself an optical engineer, though none of my designs has ever made it out of the simulation software and into glass and metal.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Somebody STOP Me!

I had rationalized myself out of jumping to buy the new Apple iPhone for a number of practical reasons (need to change cell phone carrier, costs, fear of any 1.0 software product, etc.). This was working fine until last night when I happened upon an Apple Store, spent 15 minutes playing with the iPhone, and had a new attack of technolust. I tried all the cool interface features I had read about and seen in demo videos, and even called and left myself a message on my voice mail. The Safari browser is awesome. It's really as cool as they say, and the size is quite reasonable. I want one again!

Not every buyer is thrilled, as this post suggests, though if you read the replies, you find that a lot of buyers are indeed thrilled and find the problems to be minor. I think I can wait until the end of the year to see what happens with the various issues. Meanwhile I remain painfully iPod-less. OK, it's not that painful.

Mount Wilson Pilgrimage

High above Pasadena, California, Mount Wilson is more or less the Mount Olympus of astronomy. It's where Edwin Hubble discovered that spiral nebulae are actually distant galaxies that lie outside our own Galaxy, demonstrating that the Universe is much bigger than was commonly estimated. From further observations of variable stars in these galaxies, and the red shifts of their spectra, he determined that the Universe is expanding (first published in a 1929 paper) and thus provided the basis for modern cosmology, leading to the now widely accepted Big Bang theory. Not bad for a night's work (it actually took a few nights).

Hubble based his work on photographic plates taken with the 100 inch Hooker Telescope (named for its financial backer), which was the biggest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1948. Today I got to see this amazing instrument on a tour of the Mount Wilson observatories. It was a beautiful day, and we had spectacular views of Los Angeles and the surrounding mountains.

There are a number of other instruments on the mountain, many of them quite old (the 150 foot solar tower was built in 1910) and most of them still in use. But it's not all historical instruments: the 6-telescope CHARA (not to be confused with Charo) array entered service in 2005. Using interferometer techniques, these six widely separated telescopes give the array the resolving power of a 250 meter aperture (though not the light gathering power, since each telescope has a 1 meter aperture, 2 of their silver domes shown here). In May, CHARA was used to make an image of the surface of the star Altair (distance: 16.7 light years) whose rapid rotation causes it to expand at its equator and shrink at its poles. Here's a diagram including an analogy that shows just how good CHARA's resolution is. Cuchi-Cuchi!

You can take a virtual tour of Mount Wilson here.

Carnival of Space #11

Check out "a cacophony of eclectic posts" at the eleventh Carnival of Space over at Space for Commerce (July 11 post). The range of topics is even more diverse than usual. And it's usually pretty diverse.

Next week I will take another turn hosting the Wide World of Space (Blogs), so write something spacey and send it in. Here's how.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Last Mimzy

It's a busy week for work and travel, but tomorrow I should have some pretty cool astronomical stuff to blog about. In the meantime...

I don't usually watch movies on airline flights, but this morning I happened to watch one I hadn't even heard of and was pleasantly surprised. The Last Mimzy is a family-friendly SF/fantasy movie about a brother and sister who find a box of mysterious objects on the beach one day. These "toys" can do some pretty wild things, and before long, so can Emma and Noah. And of course there's a special explanation for how and why the toys have shown up. Although the plot has a lot of elements borrowed from E.T. and invokes a bunch of paranormal "stuff" that I usually wouldn't buy, for me it all worked, and I really enjoyed the movie. It's just out on DVD.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

(Book) Space Race

This is really a TIME and SPACE race - my usual big dilemma on a business trip, what book(s) to take for in-flight reading. This is only a quick trip to LA in the middle of a very jam-packed business week, not an endless Asia flight with 24+ hours to play with. But still, the book decision weighs on my mind and computer bag. Space AND time are limited, and there's always the risk of serendipity at the airport bookshop (though not as likely with a 6:45 am flight). So here are the candidates. Only one will fit in the PC bag, with probably one backup book in the small suitcase. The candidates are
  • The Cobra Event by Richard Preston - a bioterror novel by the author of the scary but excellent non-fiction book The Hot Zone
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson - an old SF friend (this would be read #3 for this one)
  • The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson - #2 of the Three California's Trilogy of alternate future SF
  • Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban - read it many years ago, a post-apocalypse tale written in an invented future English variant; meaning to re-read for years
  • Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson - a 2000 page slippery slope, 900 in this first of three volumes of the Baroque Cycle of hard-to-say-what-kind-of verbose fiction by a favorite author, a big book to carry even in paperback
  • Astroturf by M.G. Lord - a memoir by a daughter of the golden age of space, a small hardcover I've been browsing in (serendipity on another Pasadena trip), connected to JPL and quite cool.
Decisions, decisions. I want to go with Quicksilver, but it scares me. At least the sequels are done if I do get hooked.

P.S. I re-read Riddley Walker on the trip - it was just OK this time. Maybe I'm not as post-apocalyptic as I once was. Maybe I'm post-post-apocalyptic (1981 NYT review here for a more positive view). It wuz vere clevver tho. We hav boats in the ayr & masheans uv Warr but Im glad we dint have the Berstin Fyr (the 1 Big 1, or nuclear war).

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Phoenix in Orbiter

The Dawn launch has been postponed until September, because the available launch windows in July are limited after this weekend, and they did not want to run the risk of delaying the planned August launch of the Phoenix Mars mission.

Speaking of which, there's a great Orbiter add-on for the Phoenix Mars mission too, courtesy of (you guessed it) Brian Jones (search for at I tried it out the other night, with the dramatic night launch scenario as well as the Mars arrival scenario (I skipped the admittedly vital interplanetary navigation bit for now, though Brian provides helpful notes on using IMFD to navigate to Mars and set up an approach for the planned latitude and longitude).

Starting from the supplied Mars approach scenario (one hour before landing), with basically no user inputs, the spacecraft successfully enters the Mars atmosphere and performs an automated landing, with aeroshields, chutes deployed, landing rockets, the whole nine yards (the whole 8.2296 meters for you metric folks). You can then deploy the solar panels and camera mast and operate the robot arm. Unfortunately you can't drive it around - Phoenix is not a rover. But it's got a long robot arm and it can dig some pretty deep trenches (up to half a meter). There are on-board chemical analysis and atmospheric measurement instruments (and cameras), so hopefully it will dig up something interesting in the arctic regolith.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

New HST in Orbiter

There's a great new model of the Hubble Space Telescope available for Orbiter over at Orbit Hangar (listed as v1.3 with several modifications over the last week or so, 6.5 MB zip file). The basic Orbiter installation includes a model of the HST, but it doesn't have a lot of detail and texturing. This model by "marg777" is made up of parts from two earlier modelers who are credited in the Orbit Hangar description. It's quite a nice "mash up."

The telescope doesn't actually work in this model (not that you would expect it to!), but there's a workaround of sorts, the new Telescope MFD (version 0.1) by Artlav which allows you to pick a target like Jupiter and then zoom in on it from where you are. Cool! You sometimes have to use the F1 key twice (toggle to external then back to internal view) to refresh Orbiter's display so it will load the right level image for the FOV you have selected (field of view or zoom level, smaller FOV, higher magnification).

Carnival of Space #10

The tenth Carnival of Space is up, hosted this week by Why Homeschool. Henry Cate has gathered an unusually diverse collection of posts this week, ranging from science to technology to art. Interesting reading!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dawn in Orbiter

Dawn/Delta Launch Plume

Dawn at Ceres - Ion Engine Firing

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres can now be flown in Orbiter, thanks to an excellent new free add-on package by Brian Jones (available at, registration required). This mission presents some challenges due to the ion engines, which have small thrust but are fired continuously over a long period of time. Most rockets and spacecraft use chemical rockets with relatively large thrust but short burn times. For maneuver calculations, such engines can be considered to produce an impulsive (nearly instantaneous) thrust which quickly changes the spacecraft's velocity and position, allowing the trajectories to be approximated as a series of simple curves (circles, ellipses, hyperbolas, parabolas). Engines are then turned off during the "cruise phase" of the flight. Calculations and guidance to reach other planets are relatively simple in this case (and supported by various Orbiter instruments or MFD's).

Ion engines make it harder. Since the spacecraft is under small but constant acceleration, its path is more of a spiral than a simple conic section. Orbiter doesn't have any good navigation tools for such constant thrust cases (like the Transfer MFD or IMFD which allow you to plan engine burns to get to a certain place at a certain time), but Brian has supplied a few new "autopilot" modes to at least help keep the spacecraft thrusting in a useful direction (e.g., prograde or retrograde). He also has some nice animations as well as solar panels that automatically track the sun.

This is a cool add-on, but for maximum value, you should also download Brian's Delta II Missions v.2 (so you can run the Dawn launch mission, maybe even launch this Saturday at the same time as the real launch) and Nighthawk's Asteroid Pack 1.00 (on Orbithangar) in which you can find Ceres, Vesta, and a few other major asteroids to carefully add to sol.cfg (solar system configuration file) in Orbiter. There are a few other requirements, so read the readme files and forum carefully on this one. More pix at Flickr.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Mars Standard Time

I just received an update from the Mars Society on the progress of the Mars analog simulation they are running at FMARS, their Mars surface simulation site on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. Four months is substantially longer than previous Mars analog missions, and they have reached the mid-point. The seven member crew has been staying "in sim" and conducting geological and biological field research, following procedures similar to what would be required on Mars, although of course life support requirements are considerably easier on Earth than on Mars, even in the high Arctic.

They have just started something new: operating on Mars time! A Martian "sol" is 39 minutes longer than an Earth day, and since the lighting doesn't change much through the day at their latitude (75° N) at this time of the year, they can operate on Mars time without being bothered much by changes in day and night lighting. This means they will fall out of sync with Earth time by 39 minutes a day, returning to Earth time in 36 days. Pretty wild, though it's not completely unprecedented for Earthlings to operate on Mars time. MER operations team members at JPL did this for a time in early 2004, just after the landings, in order to stay in sync with the rovers on Mars. They found it pretty exhausting and disorienting, like working nights, but worse, and as the rovers continued to operate well past their 90 sol "warranties," the MER teams went back to normal Earth time, scheduling operations and shift changes as needed to provide needed staff coverage. Of course the FMARS crew won't be surrounded by other people operating on normal time, so maybe it will work better.

You have to do something special for time keeping with a 24 hour 39 minute sol. The update says, "To simulate the longer Martian daily cycle, the crew will move its own clock backward 39 minutes per day, black out the hab windows between their clock's 6 PM and 6 AM to simulate night, and schedule meals, sleep cycles, and outdoor work accordingly." Sounds familiar, and not only from daylight savings time changes. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, there is the idea of the Martian time slip, a 39.5 minute period between midnight and 12:01 that "stops the clock" each night to allow practical use of an Earth-like 24 hour clock despite Mars' slightly longer rotational period. It sounds like this is what they are doing at FMARS, more or less.

There's a lot of information around on Mars analog missions, including Robert Zubrin's 2003 book Mars on Earth. I also really like Anthony Kendall's FMARS journal of his two months on Devon Island in the summer of 2005.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Waiting for Dawn

This weekend I spent a bit of time watching the actual sky, especially the horizon-hugging and seemingly huge full Moon (with Jupiter and Antares nearby), and in the early evenings, looking west, Venus and Saturn appearing very close together (but getting too low to see for long before the sky got completely dark). At our Saturday astronomy club meeting, we set up three telescopes, but fast-moving clouds spoiled the view, except for a very brief glimpse of Jupiter with the four Galilean moons sharply visible.

At the meeting we also watched a NASA video on the upcoming Dawn mission to main belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres (Ceres is currently considered a dwarf planet - at 933 km in diameter, it's about 41% the size of Pluto, 27% the size of our Moon). This excellent 13 minute video is narrated by Leonard Nimoy and does great job of explaining the mission with animations, diagrams, and interview clips. Dawn is scheduled to launch on July 7, and is a very ambitious mission. With huge solar panels to generate the needed electrical power, Dawn will use a low-thrust but long-burning ion engine (shown in a still from the video - there are actually three, though they are used one at a time) to make its way to Vesta (September 2011, after a 2009 gravitational assist from Mars), where it will orbit for 7 months before making a second long journey to Ceres (arriving February 2015).

The mission is called Dawn because its investigations of these two proto-planets are expected to shed new light on conditions in the earliest history of the solar system. The mission will also add to our experience in working with smaller bodies in the solar system, which is a key development in our ability to eventually harvest the resources of the solar system for many purposes (though near-Earth asteroids will probably be used before those in the main belt). As usual there is a very helpful PDF press kit (2 MB, 26 pages) available for the launch.