Friday, August 31, 2007

Carnival of Space #18

To paraphrase some old Monty Python bit, check out the monumentally hugely gigantic hugeness of the typically unusually wide ranging super over-abundance of ridiculously extensively diverse space related blog topics in this week's eighteenth Carnival of Space, presented by Ken Murphy over at Out of the Cradle. Yes, it's big.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rocket Racer Over San Diego

I don't think this guy should have been flying this low over downtown San Diego with his rocket engine blazing like this, but I'm glad that I happened to be on the balcony with my camera so I could get the shot. I can tell that this Rocket Racing League stuff is going to be really exciting. Thanks to for one of the cooler booth giveaways.

A Gigapixel Camera for NEO's

Although booth duty at SPIE hasn't allowed me to attend many papers, I'm learning some cool astronomy stuff from some of my fellow exhibitors. One booth is dedicated to promoting optically related industry and research in Hawaii, where of course there are a number of world-class telescopes and related projects.

One of the projects I learned about today is the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System), which is a wide-field imaging system that will use small telescopes and large digital cameras to provide rapid, frequent, and detailed surveys of the sky. Among other things, this will allow it to spot and monitor many NEO's (near Earth objects such as asteroids and comets). A single 1.8 m telescope PS1 prototype system is already installed on Haleakala, Maui, and their first 1.4 gigapixel camera is nearly complete (it may already be installed in the PS1, scheduled for August according to the web site). The operational Pan-STARRS system will use four telescopes and four of these huge gigapixel cameras, producing terabytes of sky data every night as it surveys the 70% of the sky visible from Hawaii. Processing and storage of this huge stream of imagery is an enormous software and data storage challenge that will also have to be solved over the next few years.

What's the payoff? An eye on the sky that will give us a better chance of detecting a killer asteroid with Earth's name on it. This is certainly an important project for the Earth's long term safety. It will also produce sky surveys that will have great scientific value for detection and monitoring of galaxies, quasars, and stars to very faint magnitudes. According to the data sheet I picked up, Pan-STARRS will reach 24th magnitude in a 30 second exposure, allowing it to detect asteroids 300 meters in diameter at a distance of 1 AU (the average Sun-Earth distance, about 149 million kilometers).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Burnt Orange Moon

I got up to see the lunar eclipse early this morning, and it was impressive in spite of some thin scattered clouds that partially obscured it for much of the time. I know it would have been more impressive to watch the whole transition to and from totality, but I couldn't really afford to be up that long and still expect to function today. I took a few pictures with my tiny Canon digital, but they don't show much. Astroprof also faced some cloud problems in Texas but he still got some reasonable pictures (including the one I linked to above, thanks Astroprof!) as he shows and reports here. After I returned to my room and went back to bed, I wondered if it might have been visible from my balcony after all - so I went out, leaned over the railing, and looked west, and got to see it through a hole in the clouds, brightening up and looking sort of blotchy (maybe 30 minutes past totality).

I also saw Mars. It was pretty bright and orangy-red but a lot smaller than the Moon (duh). I hope some of the Moon/Mars hoax people got up and looked too, but probably not. No need to risk getting confused by reality!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Losing Sleep, Gaining Totality

Although I haven't written about it, I've been reading and thinking about tomorrow morning's total lunar eclipse (but thanks for the reminder, Eric). The good news is that since I'm on the west coast this week, the eclipse will be visible for its full duration under dark skies. The bad news is that totality will occur between 2:52 am and 4:22 am PDT, and hey, I have to work tomorrow! But if skies are clear, it should be pretty spectacular, so I suppose I'll put myself temporarily back onto east coast time, go to bed early, and set my alarm for around 3:20 to have a look (the Stellarium screen shot is from 4:00 am PDT).

Stellarium also tells me that Mars will also be pretty high in the east at this time, near Aldebaran and above Betelgeuse. With a magnitude of +0.4 (according to Stellarium), Mars should be bright enough to see even above San Diego. Last night from the harbor, I could see Arcturus and Vega (both +0.3 magnitude) pretty clearly even before 9 pm, and even with everything in the vicinity of the harbor illuminated. Of course when Mars reaches opposition on December 24, it will be a lot closer and a lot brighter (-1.64 magnitude), but this is still worth looking for. And of course it won't ever be as bright as the full Moon, as the resilient Moon/Mars hoax emails (dating back to the very close opposition of 2003) are again claiming.

San Diego Again

My fourteenth floor hotel room in San Diego looks out over the bright blue harbor and across to the US Navy base on North Island, where the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) lies at anchor. I can also see the San Diego airport and the tall buildings of downtown San Diego (it's a corner room with a balcony - pretty sweet view). There's a passenger train down there too, I just heard its whistle and watched it roll in. They've got all modes of transportation converging here!

Last night my company sponsored a sunset sailing cruise around the harbor for a few customers, and we got a closer look at the Reagan and at the USS Midway (CV 41), a historic WWII era carrier that is now a museum. We also got to watch the sun set over the historic Hotel Del Coronado, and saw a dramatic nearly-full Moon rise above the scattered clouds. I'd like to tour the Midway but I'm not sure I'll have time this week with booth duty and papers to attend at the conference.

Update: Somehow I missed this - there are now two more aircraft carriers docked across the bay that were not there last night on our cruise! One is the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), and I can't see the number on the other one. I could swear it was only the Reagan there earlier this morning when I looked. It's pretty strange when the equivalent of two good sized towns can show up outside your window while your not looking. CORRECTION: It's only the Stennis! In the morning light it looked like two CV's parked side by side, but I should have realized that wasn't likely!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Space Travel Books

I have another early morning flight to LAX tomorrow, then a drive down to San Diego for an optics conference this coming week. I was hoping to visit the Palomar Observatory on the way down, but now I have a late afternoon business commitment, so I'll have to explore Palomar another time. It's already been a pretty good summer for astronomy and space "adventure" travel, visiting Mount Wilson and Kennedy Space Center, and attending a shuttle launch.

The top two books on my stack are both hardcovers, while I prefer paperbacks for travel, but I guess I'll manage. One is Tom Jones' astronaut memoir Sky Walking (I see that Amazon now has it as a $5.99 bargain hardcover, so I ordered an extra copy to donate to my local library, where I've been helping to upgrade their astronomy and space collection). The other is Michael Belfiore's brand-new Rocketeers, subtitled "How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space." Should be worth a little more weight in my carry on bag.

Barenaked in the Bathroom

I've always liked the Barenaked Ladies (BNL) - they're not my favorite band, but they're pretty funny, and they have a lot of cool songs. I've seen them a couple of times with my daughters, and they're great live too. So I was pleased when I stumbled on one of a series of "Bathroom Sessions" videos on someone's blog, with Ed Robertson singing and playing acoustic guitar in yes, a bathroom, joined by Steven Page on some songs. The simplest music videos ever, but really personal and cool. I don't perform any BNL songs in my half-vast repertoire of half-remembered cover songs, but watching Ed playing them now, I can see that he uses the same 8 or 10 chords I use in my songs, so maybe I'll try to learn the rest of the tongue-twisting lyrics of One Week and do it at the next family party. Who Needs Sleep is also one my favorites, especially the "hala-hala-hala" part.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Carnival of Space #17

Check out the seventeenth Carnival of Space over at the Planetary Society Weblog. It's briefer than some (um, I know I forgot to submit a post), but there are some sweet articles. I especially liked one on a novel use of JPL's on-line Horizons program, which I have often used in my Orbiter adventures.

Moon Oil or Moonshine?

There's an article called Mining the Moon in today's email update from MIT's Technology Review. It discusses lab experiments on helium-3 fusion, several containment options, the potential for mining helium-3 on the Moon, and the fact that multiple countries (China, India, Japan, others) seem to be interested in this possibility, notwithstanding the fact that no "break even" demonstration of He3-He3 fusion (or any other kind for that matter) has yet been done. Some nuclear physicists maintain that while helium-3 fusion offers many potential advantages (especially the possibility that most of the reaction products can be charged particles rather than neutrons, allowing for control of the particles with electromagnetic fields, requiring much less shielding and producing much less nuclear waste), it's not the easiest fusion reaction to start and maintain. For background, helium-3 is an isotope of helium that has two protons and one neutron (common helium is helium-4 with two protons, two neutrons). Helium-3 is very rare on Earth but seems to be relatively common on the Moon, having been "planted" in the lunar regolith (soil) by billions of years of unprotected bombardment by high energy particles from the Sun (the Earth is protected from most of these particles by our magnetic field).

I'm still glad I chose in 1977 to get a graduate degree in optics rather than nuclear engineering, but this helium-3 fusion stuff is certainly intriguing. If we can get it to work, and develop Moon bases that can cost-effectively mine huge volumes of regolith, extract the helium-3, and ship it back to Earth (relatively small masses would provide a lot of electical power here on Earth), it could be a clean and abundant energy source for many years to come. Of course that's a lot of "ifs," and there's a lot of R&D to be done. Could the Moon be the Persian Gulf of the next century (in the "abundant source of energy" sense, not in the eternal conflict sense, I hope)? Or is it all a lot of moonshine, as at least one critic has said? It's certainly seems promising enough to invest a few billions of government and private sector R&D money every year in both the fusion and space development technologies, though I would also want to see more work on solar power satellites as another option (both might contribute to future energy supplies, and the powersats might even be built from lunar materials). Ground based solar too!

For a more detailed analysis (nearly a business plan) of the prospects for lunar helium-3 as a future energy source, Harrison Schmitt's Return to the Moon is a good place to start. It's not exactly an easy read (I read most of it last month), but it really works through the background and the problems and gets started on possible solutions. It also has tons of references.

Another good resource is this 2006 paper (The Advent of Clean Nuclear Fusion: Superperformance Space Power and Propulsion, 1 MB PDF) by Robert Bussard. This paper is actually not about He3-He3 fusion, but about an alternate neutron-free reaction based on fusion of protons (H+, hydrogen nuclei) and boron-11 to produce three alpha particles (helium-4 nuclei) which are charged particles that can be confined "electrodynamically." The paper summarizes years of research on small-scale prototypes for this approach, and it also sounds promising if it is truly as scalable as the author suggests. One of Bussard's interests in this is approach is as a high-efficiency space propulsion system (more info here). Bussard is also known for the Bussard ramjet space propulsion concept, which also uses fusion, but "scoops up" its hydrogen fuel from the interstellar medium, potentially solving the fuel mass problem for interstellar journeys.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Google Does Astronomy

It goes without saying that Google organizes the universe. But in this case, Google is actually organizing the Universe in the latest version of Google Earth, which includes a feature called (duh) Google Sky. It's making quite a splash with reports all over the internet and even on ABC and BBC television news.

What is it? It's basically a planetarium program (requires download and installation) that integrates and displays terabytes of on-line astronomical imagery from various sources including (of course) the Hubble Space Telescope. As for Google Earth's access to features on the Earth, the interface is simple and pretty seamless. Go to a location in Google Earth and click the Sky icon, and the view switches to the view of the sky above that point at this time. You can pan the view with the mouse and zoom with the mouse wheel or other controls... and zoom, and zoom, and zoom. If you select "ultra deep field" in the search field, you can zoom for maybe 12 billion light years worth into this very tiny patch of the deep sky imaged over a million seconds by HST.

It's pretty cool, and if you just want to find and see astronomical objects, it's a great "sky browser." But I do have some complaints. While there is an optional coordinate grid (Control-L), there is no scale indication on the Sky window, and no indication of the horizon, the part of the sky blocked by the Earth, or the ecliptic plane. There's no time of day indication, no time acceleration, and no day light (atmosphere) modeling. It's hard to get a sense of where (and when) you are, and of how much of the sky you are seeing right now (a hemisphere or a tiny patch?). Some features adapted from Google Earth's globe-based model don't work as well in the sky (e.g., zooming to a feature uses a weird dog-leg path). Most of these things are done much better in the freeware Stellarium program, but of course the standalone Stellarium is not linked to anywhere near the amount of imagery that Google Sky can access.

Google Sky inherits many things from Google Earth, including support for layers, favorites, bookmarks, search, etc. The Space Telescope Science Institute for one has made good use of this. You can download STScI's Best of Hubble (watch the video there) and get a tour of some of the greatest HST images and where they are in the sky. I'm sure there will be more add-ons like this from various sources, and that Google Sky will be improved as has Google Earth. Overall it's a fun and educational way to experience the endless beauty of the Universe. And did I mention the price? It's free!

N.B. There are already more tours and overlays available in the Google Earth Gallery. The ability to control the transparency of a selected overlay with the slider control is especially nice for things like the Microwave Sky. This is really a great tool!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another great landing!

I took some time on my lunch break to follow the reentry and landing of Endeavour, which seemed to go quite smoothly. For a while I attempted to follow along with Orbiter in a window, and with careful use of time acceleration and deceleration I managed to get the reentry scenario nearly in sync with the real-world reentry (judging from the orbital maps and time announcements from mission control). But continual switching between applications caused Orbiter to lose its keyboard focus, so I could not switch views. When I restarted from the same point, I forgot to re-start the autopilot (or something), and my simulated shuttle missed a roll reversal and ended up low and fast over Cuba, unable to make it to KSC (with impressive warning sounds I had never heard before!). Fortunately the real thing worked as advertised and landed on the planned runway 15 at 12:32 pm EDT. Now maybe I can get over this shuttle obsession and get back to my regular obsessions!

Endeavour Coming Home

STS-118 KSC Approach

If its deorbit burn is done on the first KSC opportunity (starting over Indonesia on orbit 201), Endeavour will pass over southern Australia, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Cuba, and most of the length of Florida before performing its final "energy management" maneuvers for landing on runway 15 at KSC. I watched this happen earlier this morning in simulation, using the AutoFCS entry/landing autopilot for Orbiter that I've written about earlier. It's pretty amazing. Despite extensive use of 10x time acceleration to limit the real time, the "shuttle fleet" simulated Endeavour made a perfect landing quite close to the projected real landing time (projected for 12:32 pm EDT today, simulated wheel stop at 12:34 pm EDT). More pix on Flickr.

Monday, August 20, 2007

NASA Quest Activities

One of the many cool things that NASA has on the web is NASA Quest, which offers K-12 classrooms (and others) a variety of mission-based interactions and activities for learning and exploration. A cool upcoming activity is the HiRISE Image Targeting Challenge, which gives participants a chance to help choose targets for the high-resolution imaging system on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This one will run from September through December 2007 for grades 5-14.

As an example of something that's already available on line, I tried one of the Personal Satellite Assistant (PSA) activities (separate from the challenges), which demonstrates forces and motion in a 2-D microgravity environment using thrusts applied in up/down and left/right directions to maneuver the tiny spacecraft. This is good basic training for understanding thrusters in Orbiter (not to mention physics, and real space flight). There are many other activities to check out at the NASA Quest web site, and they include materials for teachers wishing to use these activities in their classrooms.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Riding Rockets

I just finished Riding Rockets, a memoir by shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane. Subtitled "The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut," it does indeed contain some outrageous tales, and at first I was put off by what seemed to be an overly macho attitude and a lot of low brow humor. Mullane entered the astronaut class of 1978 to be trained as a mission specialist. He had flown as a "back seater" in USAF F-4 Phantoms, including service in Vietnam, and his military background colored his humor and his attitudes, especially on the subject of civilians and especially women in the cockpit. But as he describes his experiences in astronaut training and on the three missions he flew between 1984 and 1990, he also describes how he came to admire and respect his fellow astronauts regardless of their backgrounds. With all their shared experiences, they also became more and more like family, a fact that made the loss of the Challenger crew in 1986 especially hard on him and his own family.

Mullane's descriptions of his personal relationships with his parents, wife, and fellow astronauts are honest, open, and sometimes very moving. Space flight is a tough business at many levels, and not only for the astronauts themselves, though this doesn't seem to cause any shortage of volunteers to do it! His descriptions of the process of training to become an astronaut, of the political machinations within NASA, and of flying in space are colorful and detailed. I learned a lot and really enjoyed the book. It was a great addition to my personal "shuttle immersion month" which started when I learned I would be attending the launch of Endeavour in Florida. Of course I've written plenty about that! Mullane is now a professional speaker and author (

I'm thinking my final shuttle immersion for now will be another astronaut memoir I bought, Sky Walking by Tom Jones. The reviews suggest that it's a more detailed and serious book by a class of 1990 astronaut who flew four missions, continuing the story up to the ISS era.

Shuttle/ISS Sighting Tonight?

Endeavour has undocked from the ISS a day early in preparation for an early landing on Tuesday, as NASA takes precautions for the possibility of Hurricane Dean disrupting operations in Houston later this week. This means that tonight is probably my best chance to see the separated Endeavour and the ISS passing over New England.

ISS Sighting 19 Aug
I used NASA's Skywatch utility to find the next sighting possibilities for the ISS and shuttle, which will be orbiting pretty close together over the day or so. It turns out that there's a really good opportunity for New England tonight between 9:08 and 9:10 pm EDT, when the two spacecraft will reach an elevation of around 53 degrees in the southwestern sky at 9:09 pm, assuming the clouds and sun cooperate. Sunset is 7:42 pm, but "astronomical twilight" isn't until 9:27 pm. I think it should be dark enough with enough illumination up at 354 km to make the two spacecraft visible if the sky is clear in that direction. Too bad the forecast is mostly cloudy.

ISS New England Pass 19 Aug 2007
I used David413's latest STS-118 real-time scenario for Orbiter to try to simulate tonight's pass, and it came out pretty well. I first did a little customization of the Earth_alt.cfg file to add a base at Worcester Regional Airport (KORH), so I could see a label there from orbit and possibly to see the labeled spacecraft in the sky from a camera there, simulating what I might see tonight (I could have just used nearby Otis ANG which is defined as a base for landing, at least in the shuttle fleet's alternate Earth definition). This part didn't work out - Orbiter probably thinks they are too far to see from here, which is true unless the illumination angles work out to get visible reflections. But the orbital views of the spacecraft and ground show the situation pretty well, including a very close pass at 9:09 pm EDT (0109 UT as used in Orbiter). More pix on Flickr.

Now I wonder if I could land the shuttle in Worcester (in Orbiter, of course). Hmmm...

UPDATE 9:15 pm: We saw them! We had a great field of view centered on Arcturus in the west, but there were a lot of clouds. Fortunately 3 or 4 big holes opened up in the clouds and we saw both the shuttle and ISS for a couple of seconds in each hole, both very bright. Cool!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

New Aldrich Web Site

I'm a member of the Aldrich Astronomical Society, an astronomy club in central Massachusetts which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Today the Aldrich web site was relaunched following an extensive redesign by coordinator/webmaster Eric Goldberg. I think he did a great job!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Seeing in the Dark

I heard about PBS's upcoming special "Seeing the Dark: A Film by Timothy Ferris" a few months back, and tonight I got email about some upcoming events related to the film. I went to the pre-release (mainly for press) web site where I downloaded and viewed the video trailer. It looks like it will be a great film. I read and discussed Ferris' 2002 book Seeing in the Dark early this year. It's basically a book about the joys of amateur astronomy combined with profiles of talented amateurs and the amazing things they are doing these days. I really enjoyed it. The film looks like it's much the same, but with amazing visuals. The YouTube video clip shown here is quick, but download the Quicktime file from the show's web site for a clearer preview of this high-def film. The official web site will be hosted by PBS and will feature star charts, internet telescope access, and more. It will launch on September 5.

Lighten Up for Optics Education

Although space and astronomy are the main topics that I have been using for educational outreach, these aren't the only technical fields I find interesting. My education (B.S. physics, M.S. optics from the University of Rochester) and career have actually revolved around optics and optical engineering, and one of the first educational outreach things I did years ago was a web site called Optics for Kids. So I was really pleased to learn of a new free publication (PDF) from Girl Scouts USA and the OSA Foundation called Lighten Up! Discovering the Science of Light. It is an activity-based resource guide for girls 11-15 which also talks about careers and introduces several women who work in different areas of optics, including Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who holds several optics related patents. Dr. Ochoa is also a NASA mission specialist who has flown on four shuttle flights. Lighten Up! is nicely written and designed, and the activities are a bit different from the usual basic optics demonstrations. Recommended!

Carnival of Space Turns 16

I just checked out this week's Carnival of Space over at Advanced Nanotechnology. It features some clever and informative posts, and even a few pictures, from gouges in the space shuttle to gouges in the Earth.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

HST Upgrade Preview

HST on STS-125 August 2008 (1)

Something made me think about the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) tonight, and I found that the final servicing mission (SM4, STS-125) has recently been rescheduled for launch on August 7, 2008, in just about a year (another launch trip maybe?). Using the excellent HST v2.0 add-on by "marg777" along with the Shuttle Fleet I set up an Orbiter scenario to take a couple of telephoto screen shots of the shuttle approaching the HST. I'm sure this is not a very accurate approach for capturing the HST, and I also used Discovery instead of the planned Atlantis - but you get the idea. To rendezvous with the HST in Orbiter and grab it with the robotic arm is a very cool thing to do in Orbiter.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tiling By Your Toes

STS-118 TPS Repair Sim #1
STS-118 TPS Repair Sim #2
I missed the live broadcast of educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan's 20 minute "lesson from space," but watched a brief excerpt via this MSNBC article. From what I saw it was a pretty typical astronaut Q&A on "what's it like in space?" for three other astronauts in addition to Morgan, but I guess the fact that it finally happened is more important than what sort of lesson it was. I'm sure the kids in Idaho got a kick out of it.

Meanwhile in the virtual shuttle world of Orbiter, David413 released an updated set of STS-118 scenarios including one that simulates the configuration that could be used to place an astronaut under Endeavour's belly to allow access to the damaged tiles. The screen shots show how the spot can be reached with careful maneuvering of the SRMS (robot arm) with its 50 foot OBSS (Orbiter Boom Sensor System). The EVA astronaut looks to be hanging from his toes, but of course there's no practical up or down to worry about - though there are a lot of shuttle parts they will be careful to avoid hitting with the OBSS or any of the tools they will carry for the repair if they actually go this route.

UPDATE 8/20/07: These are perhaps the only images you will see of this tile repair EVA, since NASA decided several days ago that the repair was not needed for a safe reentry. Endeavour is now due to reenter and land on Tuesday, August 21.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

AMSO - Apollo Beckons

Apollo 11 on the Pad
Following some discussions on the Orbiter web forum, I downloaded and looked briefly at a few missions in AMSO 1.13 (Apollo Mission Sim for Orbiter) by Alain Capt (ACSoft) with help from Luis Teixeira and various others. It's a huge project, encompassing all of the main vehicles and sites of the Apollo missions from 1968 to 1972. I've only run a few things to get an idea what it looks like, and I have to say, it is visually stunning, and the autopilots I tried (Saturn V launch and Apollo 11 PDI/landing) worked perfectly.

AMSO Neil's Dilemma #1
This is something that will take time to explore, so probably not this week (too busy with work). The "Neil's Dilemma" picture shows the final seconds before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, when Neil Armstrong took manual control to avoid a large crater and a boulder field. The Saturn V picture above shows some of the detail in the rocket and in the service tower. The 3D models and textures are really great. To be continued...

N.B. It blows my mind that Apollo 9 was the first test of the LM in Earth orbit (March 3-13, 1969), then Apollo 10 flew to the Moon to test the lunar orbit procedures, but didn't land (May 18-26, 1969), and then Apollo 11 flew for the first landing (July 16-24, 1969). All of this happened in FIVE MONTHS! Of course JFK's end of the decade deadline was fast approaching (and they managed to squeeze in Apollo 12, November 14-24, 1969 for good measure).

Deep Gouge Blues

NASA isn't really singing the blues or even announcing a repair EVA just yet, though the damage revealed by closer inspection of the TPS tiles struck by ET-shed foam looks pretty nasty to me. Of course I don't have the models, test results, simulations, video, etc. that the NASA engineers have, nor do I know what the risks are of working on this area for repairs. It's certainly not like they will take lightly any TPS damage that could cause harm to the astronauts or the Endeavour. That lesson was painfully taught by Columbia in 2003.

STS-118 Tile Inspection #2
The Orbiter shot shows a simulation of the inspection, though I'm not looking at quite the right tile area (which is near the right main landing gear door - my shot shows inspection closer to the left one). I also have not learned to use programmed sequences on the RMS - I just use the manual controls and "cheat" by looking at external views. I have to figure out how to use the RMS cameras too.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Shuttle Deja Vu

I watched the ISS docking video last night - nice and smooth. The pictures show a video screen capture of the final couple of meters from NASA TV (via YouTube, lower) compared to a similar view simulated in Orbiter (upper). But this isn't the deja vu I'm referring to in the title of this post.

There was also the news last night that the inspection of the shuttle's underside thermal tiles had revealed a "three inch gash" that engineers believe may have been caused by a chunk of ice coming off the external tank about a minute after launch. Bad news, but of course the good news is that they now check carefully for this type of damage, they carry materials for several repair options that can be performed with a space walk if necessary, and they have a relatively "safe refuge" at the ISS in case the diagnosis and repair (if necessary) require extra time in orbit.

I happened to be reading chapter 34 of Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets this morning, where he is describing his second shuttle flight in December 1988, STS-27, a classified DoD mission on Atlantis. This was the second mission to fly after the loss of Challenger in 1986. During launch, something was observed to break off the nose of the right-side SRB and strike the orbiter. Mission control (MCC) told the crew to use the robot arm to inspect the portion of the orbiter that it could reach (Mullane was the RMS operator on this mission). It revealed that there was indeed damage to the thermal protection system (TPS) tiles on the lower right side of the vehicle, with one tile missing completely. The video system in use at the time was not of the quality used today, and it was difficult to assess the damage, which the crew thought to be quite severe. MCC engineers reviewed the video and pronounced it to be OK.

Of course there was really nothing that could be done regardless of the extent of the damage - there was no ISS for safe refuge, and no materials or procedures for tile repair. Atlantis reentered and landed safely at Edwards AFB, but the problem was indeed extensive, with 298 damage sites greater than 1 inch in area, and 707 damaged tiles on the lower part of the vehicle, including long narrow streaks with deep gouges. It was the greatest TPS damage observed on any flight to that date, and it was in a relatively "lucky" place (e.g., the missing tile was near an L-band antenna site where the aluminum skin was thicker than normal).

In hindsight, you would think that damage this severe would have led to contingency plans for better in-flight inspection and possible EVA repairs, but this didn't happen until after the loss of Columbia in 2003. STS-27 was flying with SRB's whose nose cones had been slightly redesigned, and I guess that problem was fixed. There were still always pieces of ET insulation and ice that were hitting the orbiter after launch since the earliest days of shuttle program. This was something that was inherent in "side-mounting" the orbiter on the ET with its externally applied foam insulation, which in turn was a result of cost-driven design compromises.

The changes since Columbia have certainly helped, and we have seen in-flight repairs on several missions. I'm sure that NASA will be able to determine what is needed and that the crew will be able to make any needed repairs. But there's still that sense of deja vu and a history of a lot of close calls in addition to the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia. And being an astronaut still requires a lot of courage.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Carnival of Space #15

Of course there's more to space than STS-118 and Orbiter, as you will clearly see if you check out the latest edition of the Carnival of Space, now playing at Dr. Pamela Gay's Star Stryder blog.

Orbiter for Educators: Getting Started

As I try to extend the shuttle launch experience with occasional NASA TV breaks and by reading the no-holds-barred Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane (a mission specialist who flew three shuttle flights between 1984 and 1990), I'm also thinking about the teachers and informal educators I met at the NASA STS-118 educational conference on Sunday and Monday. It was great to hear about how these dedicated educators are using space flight themes to help engage students of all ages.

I gave cards and single-page Orbiter information handouts to many of the people I spoke with at the conference, so if you are a fellow STS-118 conference attendee, welcome! I hope Orbiter is useful to you, or to some of your colleagues or students, but I want to warn you not to get discouraged if your first impression is that it's pretty complex. It can be complex, since it's based on real orbital mechanics. But if you do a little preparation, you'll find you can do simple but interesting things pretty quickly. After that, it's up to you - and the sky is obviously not the limit!

A few tips. Download my Go Play in Space and read the introduction and the first two chapters, then install the program and go through the steps in chapter 2. This will teach you a lot about operating a spacecraft in Orbiter. Do this even if you're itching to download the Shuttle Fleet add-on and recreate STS-118. If this is exactly what you want to do, then go ahead (download and install all the required zip files - there are three, the shuttle fleet, the ISS fleet, and the expansion pack, plus the updated STS-118 scenarios), but I suggest that you also download and read this nice Shuttle Fleet launch tutorial by José Pablo Luna Sánchez ("ar81" on the Orbiter Forums). If you don't get what he describes when you start the scenario (e.g., shuttle launch instruments), quit (Control-Q) and go to the Modules tab on the Orbiter "launchpad" dialog box. Make sure that GPCMFD is in the active (left side) list, along with Orbiter Sound. Note that even with the autopilots and Pablo's tutorial, the Shuttle Fleet is probably not the very first thing you should do in Orbiter - it requires a little experience, attention to detail, and a bit of persistence, though not quite at the Barb Morgan level!

You may also want to check out my earlier Orbiter for Educators blog posts for some tips on using Orbiter in the classroom. Also feel free to post questions at the Orbiter Forum (there's even an Orbiter in Education section). Now go play in space!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Perfectly Awesome Launch!

It was really a thrill to witness the perfectly awesome launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on STS-118 earlier this evening from the Banana Creek Viewing Area at KSC. The countdown proceeded with barely a hitch, and the launch was at the planned time (6:36 pm EDT). This was my first in-person launch, and although I know a lot about these things, it was still quite amazing and even surprising in some respects.

One impressive thing is of course the sound, though it wasn't quite as gut-shaking as I had expected - the roar of the engines reminded me of an F-14 low-altitude afterburner flyby at an air show, which I've heard a few times. The F-14 engines aren't as powerful as the shuttle's, but it flies a lot closer than 4 miles. The SRB's also burn incredibly bright - you never quite see that in video or photos, it's almost like a welding arc (or an afterburner). Finally there's the impression of enormous mass being slowly lifted with tremendous effort, which of course it is - but even from miles across the water (and looking very small with the naked eye), it really looked like heavy lifting - something I had not felt from videos or simulations. Of course it didn't stay slow for long.

I took a few pictures using the large display of my camera so I could look directly at the shuttle and just snap away while roughly pointing at it. These aren't the best pictures you'll find of the launch, but I'm still glad I took a few of my own. I soon switched to binoculars, and the sky was so clear that I was able to watch the SRB's separate and drop away from the orbiter. Really cool!

Of course the SRB's separate at about 2 minutes into the flight, so this whole launch thing is a very brief but exciting burst of energy - physical and psychological. Everyone was clapping and cheering, but it was soon it out of sight, and we all made for the buses. It's sort of like a rock concert with one really, really great two-minute song, and then it takes you three hours to get home (or back to Orlando in this case, normally a one hour ride).

I want to see it again! Do that again! I guess I'll have to come back.

STS-118 Payload

Pink Endeavour in Orbit
On my simulated STS-118 mission in Orbiter, I opened the payload bay doors over the North Atlantic. The pinkish glow is from the low setting sun as Endeavour heads into darkness (Orbiter 2006 has some nice lighting effects). With typical attention to detail, Dave Hopkins has made sure that the Shuttle Fleet STS-118 scenarios contain the same payload elements as the real shuttle (and you can actually transfer the ISS parts to the ISS, once you learn to operate the robot arms on the shuttle and ISS). On Flickr, I labeled the payload bay contents in the picture shown here. OK, I'm a little distracted! And obsessed.

Launch Day!

STS118 Simulated Liftoff2

Everything is looking good for the STS-118 launch of Endeavour this evening at about 6:36 pm EDT. The NASA buses will be here at 1:30 to take the education conference attendees over to the KSC Banana Creek launch viewing site, right next to the Saturn V Center where the reception was held the other night. I'm really excited!

Although I didn't really need to do anything to get in the mood for the launch, I did a simulated launch in Orbiter anyway and captured a few views that won't be available at the launch site tonight. More pix at Flickr.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

PhotoSynthetic Shuttle

Here's a cool way to get a much closer look at the Endeavour on pad 39A, among other NASA-related image collections. PhotoSynth from Microsoft Live Labs is a new way to link, navigate through, and display the information in visual images. With a mediocre hotel web connection, this "technology preview" is intriguing though not totally compelling, but if you really want to see the potential of this technology, take a look at this TED Conference video from March 2007, featuring one of its architects. The examples he demonstrates are not space related (any collection of images of some subject can be linked and explored in PhotoSynth), but they are really impressive, especially the depiction of Notre Dame in Paris from a whole bunch of Flickr photos with the subject "Notre Dame". He clearly has a better web connection than I do (more likely all his images are stored locally).

More important than the slick interface is the ability of the software to analyze the images themselves to find similarities and to use these to assign the images to their proper place in the world to define the collection that depicts the subject. The ability to quickly and smoothly zoom in to see tiny details in the high resolution images is also important for the "you are there" experience. For a more in depth discussion of PhotoSynth, see yesterday's Cosmic Log. Alan Boyle mentions that NASA engineers are interested in using this technology to stitch together the many digital photos that are taken for shuttle in-flight safety inspection, among other things.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Why America Needs to Explore Space

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a clear-thinking and clear-writing science educator. He published a great article in this past Sunday's Parade magazine on "Why America Needs to Explore Space." I don't think you can make it any clearer. This is a nice complement to a statement made in an introductory talk at the STS-118 conference today by NASA Chief of Strategic Communications Robert Hopkins. He said, "Inspiration + Innovation + Discovery = The Future."

STS-118 and Education

The countdown for the shuttle launch is "nominal" and the weather looks good for the planned Wednesday launch - I'm psyched! Meanwhile the STS-118 Prelaunch Education Conference wrapped up today, and it was an excellent meeting. It was great to meet so many NASA people and educators, including teachers, administrators, science museum staff, informal educators, and others. We are all trying to find ways to make use of kids' interest in space flight to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Of course one of the basic problems is that this STEM stuff (science, technology, engineering, and math) is not easy - it can certainly lead to rewarding educational and career experiences, but it's something you really have to work at, and that takes perspiration as well as inspiration (to paraphrase Edison). I managed to hand out around 60 single-page flyers that I printed up on Orbiter and to talk with many people about using it as an excellent interactive (and free) educational resource. I hope some of them find it useful.

For STS-118 itself, with the theme "Igniting the Flame of Knowledge," NASA has planned some inflight education events, as well as follow-up activities and challenges including an engineering design challenge for K-12 and an astronaut-inspired physical fitness challenge for grades 3-5.

P.S. This page confirms that STS-118 Commander Scott Kelly and Pilot Charlie Hobaugh have in fact been practicing landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft in spite of quarantine, so that may have been their Gulfstream that we saw taking off yesterday afternoon!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Corner of Kennedy & Astronaut

The NASA reception at the Saturn V Center at KSC tonight was cool, with lots of appetizers, a cash bar, and oh yes, a real Saturn V rocket over our heads (a real Lunar Module too). There are lots of interesting people at this STS-118 pre-launch educational conference, with a good opening session this morning, though the afternoon and evening were devoted to a pretty detailed tour of Kennedy Space Center, including the new Shuttle Adventure "experience" (not a ride!) at the visitor complex. It is certainly an exciting way to demonstrate the main features of a shuttle launch (tipping back nearly vertical, lots of shaking, very loud sounds), but not quite as awesome as I expected (maybe I know too much!).

Then we boarded buses for a tour of KSC itself, driving past the VAB, seeing the huge crawler/transporter, driving close to pad 39A (where Endeavour was mostly hidden by the RSS), driving even closer to pad 39B (no shuttle there so the complex structure was quite evident), and finally to the SLF (shuttle landing facility), a very long runway where we watched a NASA Gulfstream take off. This could have been a Shuttle Training Aircraft (our guide wasn't sure). We also saw T-38's and other Gulfstreams on the flightline.

Finally we made our way to the Saturn V Center where there were a lot of things to see, do, eat, and drink, and people to schmooze with. We also saw the bleachers from which we will view the launch on Wednesday if all continues to go well. This VIP viewing area has a clear view of the pad over maybe 4 miles of water. Go Endeavour! More and bigger pix on Flickr, and more to come but I'm too tired now! The conference continues at 8 am tomorrow.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

World Reality Clock

Several people have sent me a link to this cool Flash-based World Clock. It displays not only the time and date but also the numbers and estimated changes for the chosen period for population, births, deaths, barrels of oil produced, forest area lost, prison population, and others. It's an interesting and sobering view of this world of 6,612,349,742 people... now 6,612,349,803... now 6,612,349,915. You get the idea. Set it to "Now" and see how things change in the time it takes you to have breakfast.

Of course the changes are based on estimates that are probably pretty accurate over a year, though there is certainly modeling involved in some of these numbers. And from the author's choice of this particular set of items to monitor, you could infer one or more political agendas. I think it's reasonably balanced (US illegal immigration, abortions, average Earth temperature, oil production, species extinct, etc.). Your mileage may vary.

Phoenix Rising

I didn't wake up early enough to watch it live, but the Mars Phoenix Lander successfully launched at 5:26 am EDT this morning. NASA reported that Phoenix separated from the Delta II launch vehicle and that the spacecraft is healthy. Cool! Launch video here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Shuttles & Blimps

I'm flying to Orlando Saturday (not in this blimp!) for the NASA STS-118 educational conference, and hoping to also view the shuttle launch, which is part of the agenda for the conference, but of course beyond the control of conference organizers. Visiting KSC for some activities and a reception will be cool in itself, and if the launch happens on Tuesday (or Wednesday or Thursday), I'll be there. This CNN report from yesterday says that the cabin pressure-relief valve problem would be fixed by last night, but I haven't heard yet if it was successful. There are also timing issues related to the Phoenix launch now planned for Saturday - they need two days between launches, and the Mars transfer orbit window is only three weeks. The STS-118 launch could be delayed with less than the 26 month impact of missing the Mars window.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I heard a cool story on NPR about a guy in South Amherst, MA who has invented a new kind of hot-air blimp. It's got seats from a Camry and is designed to be maneuverable at low speeds. I'd love to fly in it someday, but it's experimental right now and the prospects for commercial operations are unknown.

Quest for MPG

My obsession with gas mileage on the Prius has lessened, but I continue to try to optimize the drive to work as a sort of benchmark, seeking the elusive goal of 60 mpg on my 20 mile mixed expressway/local road commute to work. I'm normally doing about 54 mpg, but yesterday was a personal best, 58 mpg. This was helped by a traffic jam near the office that slowed traffic to around 20 mph for a while. I briefly saw an average of 60.6 mpg just a few miles from the office and hoped I might finally break 60. But "heartbreak hill" (on the local road into the office park) pulled me back down to 58 mpg, which is still not too shabby. I still really like the Prius.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Space Carny #14

The latest Carnival of Space is up and running over at Universe Today. There are a lot of cool posts this week, some of them with tips you can use now (astrophotography with a cell phone camera?!?) or later (e.g., to plan for the end of matter in 10^30 years).

Stand Still and Look Pretty (Deep)

The Mars Phoenix Lander is expected to launch on Saturday. There's a nice article in today's MIT Technology Review update on the technology and scientific instrumentation that Phoenix is packing. It may lack wheels and have mostly been built out of spare parts from earlier Mars missions (one crashed, one canceled), but its ability to dig deep (up to half a meter) into Mars' soil and to analyze what it finds there is really unprecedented. I knew about the "oven" that will carefully heat samples to record and analyze the gases that are released, but I didn't realize that it also carries both an optical microscope and an atomic force microscope (AFM) for very close examination of soil samples.

A simulated Phoenix is shown just before landing (using an add-on in Orbiter).

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


STARFEST 2007 is the big annual event for the Aldrich Astronomical Society, and it will take place this Saturday, August 4, from 7 to 10 pm at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts, not far from Worcester. There was a big article on Aldrich, amateur astronomy, and STARFEST in yesterday's Telegram & Gazette, so we're expecting an especially good crowd. There will be a number of telescopes set up for sky viewing as well as various indoor activities (and prizes).

I feel bad that I won't be there to present the "shuttle simulation" (a chance for people to try out docking with the ISS in Orbiter), because I'll be flying down to Orlando that evening for the NASA educational conference that starts Sunday morning (and the shuttle launch on Tuesday). But I'm sure my fellow Aldrich members will put on a great event as usual.