Sunday, September 30, 2007

Space Age Developments

Only 4 days until the 50th anniversary of the space age, and here I am, barely blogging. Business trips are strange - I sometimes have more time for blogging during a trip than I do at home (assuming I have regular internet access, which I didn't on the recent UK trip). Then I have the problem of catching up, damage control, post-trip reporting, etc. when I return to home and office. Not to mention family events and occasional bouts of sleep. But enough excuses!

I have just finished Rocketeers (subtitled "How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space," 2007) by Michael Belfiore, and it provides fascinating closeup views of several of the key organizations and individuals in private space, especially Scaled Composites (Burt Rutan), SpaceX (Elon Musk), and Bigelow Aerospace (Robert Bigelow). A lot of the visits and interviews took place in 2005 and 2006, and while Belfiore has brought things as up to date as possible, this is a fast changing business for a book. I was especially wondering about SpaceX, and I found that this past week, Elon Musk gave a brief interview at that provides a pretty good update. Things seem to be going well though not quite as fast as I thought. The next Falcon 1 launch should be in January/February 2008, first Falcon 9 launch "late 2008 at the earliest," though test stand engine tests of the 9-engine first stage are starting soon (starting with one engine and building up to 9 by spring of 2008). The Dragon spacecraft could start to fly people in 2011.

Speaking of rocketeers, the latest issue of Air & Space Magazine has a great cover story ("The Real X-Men") on the amazing X-15 rocketplane which was flying suborbital flights to the edge of space from the late 1950's until 1968. Those guys really had the right stuff.

And for the future of space exploration from NASA's point of view, the current Scientific American has a good article on the Orion spacecraft ("To the Moon and Beyond"), as well as an article on five essential things to do in space as we enter the second half of our first century of space exploration. Let's remember to take the long view even if some of us may not be around for all of the second half.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Harvest Moon Shorts

The full Moon tonight is the Harvest Moon, the full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox. I'm still too busy to read much or blog but I'll try to be uncharacteristically brief and mention a few things of interest.

If all goes well, Dawn will finally launch tomorrow morning on its mission to the asteroid belt and the early history of the solar system. Good materials on that mission home page.

There's a nice interactive timeline on the history of the Space Age at the New York Times. It features links to PDF's of original articles from the Times.

Amazon has launched its MP3 download service this week, with non-protected 256K MP3 files for some 2 million songs, though only two major labels are initially offering their music this way. It works very well and many songs and albums are a bit cheaper than iTunes. These files will work on nearly any MP3 player including my new third-generation iPod Nano with video, which is awesome. The tiny color display is one of the sharpest I have ever seen (205 dots per inch). It has prompted me to buy a couple of movies to try out the video - probably just a novelty since I can watch DVD's on my notebook in most situations, but it definitely makes it feasible to watch a movie on a plane, even in an economy seat. Very cool.

AND ALSO VERY COOL is this brief interview with former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz on the upcoming ground test of an advanced space propulsion system called VASIMIR. He is very optimistic about the future of humans in space (and private space) if we can create better and faster propulsion and power systems.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Moonshadow Men

I'm too busy to blog! I'm back from England with just too much to do, but Sunday afternoon I took some time and drove to one of the few Boston area theaters showing the new documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. It was fantastic! It's basically the story of the Apollo Moon program told in the words of 9 or 10 of the 21 men who went to the Moon between 1969 and 1972 (12 Moon walkers, the rest Moon orbiters - it would have been 24 except for the fact that three astronauts went twice, and there would have been 14 Moon walkers except that Apollo 13 didn't land - Apollos 8 and 10 were intentional Moon-orbit-only missions).

The film is based mostly on footage shot by the astronauts themselves (no special effects), combined with recent interviews (no narrator). I especially liked the comments of Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Alan Bean (Apollo 12) - they seemed the most willing to say it how they really felt it, though I suppose you have to give Buzz Aldrin special credit for saying that he stopped on the last step of the ladder of the LM to urinate just before he hopped down to the lunar surface to become the second human to walk on the Moon!

Although it's "presented by" (not directed by) Ron Howard, it's still a documentary, so it's in limited theatrical release. If you have an interest in space or in history, you should see this film. I think even non-space-buffs will be interested and even moved by the deeds and the words of these amazing men.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Space Age Top 10

I picked up the October 2007 issue of Sky at Night, the BBC’s astronomy magazine. I like this magazine, and it’s a bit cheaper here (£4.25 or about $8.50) than in the US where I have bought it occasionally anyway for the articles and the included CD (this one features a video of a brief 1970 interview with Neil Armstrong on BBC television, among other videos and other content). This issue celebrates 50 years of the Space Age, and one of the features is a list of the 50 “pivotal moments” of the space age, manned and unmanned, good news and bad. In case you're curious, here’s their top 10:

1. First satellite, Sputnik 1 (4 October 1957)
2. First human in orbit, Yuri Gagarin (12 April 1961)
3. First humans on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin (20 July 1969)
4. First humans to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8 (24 December 1968)
5. Loss of the shuttle Challenger (28 January 1986)
6. Launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (24 April 1990)
7. First US satellite, Explorer 1 (31 January 1958)
8. First rover on Mars, Pathfinder/Sojourner (4 July 1997)
9. First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (16 June 1963)
10. Launch of Voyager 2 for the outer planets (20 August 1977)

While such lists are always somewhat subjective, this top 10 seems pretty reasonable to me, except perhaps for putting Pathfinder before Viking 1 landing on Mars (#23, 20 July 1976), based on the public response to the 1997 mission, which was the first to make images immediately available through the web. It's sad that the destruction of the Challenger makes the top 10 while the first shuttle launch is down at #26 (12 April 1981), but the Challenger loss was certainly a more "pivotal" moment in space age history.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Oxford, Einstein, Alice, Harry, and Me

I spent a very enjoyable day in Oxford today, starting with a bus tour to get myself oriented in this historic but quite compact city. I then explored some of the beautiful old college buildings, had lunch in a pub, and climbed a couple of towers for the view. I also spent some time browsing in the enormous and wonderful Blackwell book shop.

Oxford has various museums, but the only one I visited was the Museum of the History of Science, which has an amazing collection of optical and astronomical instruments, among other things. Its most famous artifact is a small blackboard that was used by Albert Einstein when he gave a visiting lecture series at Oxford in 1931. It was left with a few equations that he had written to explain in a fairly simple way (for him!) the then recently discovered red shift in the spectra of distant galaxies, and how this relates through his General Theory of Relativity to the apparent expansion of the universe. I also saw parts of a Charles Babbage Difference Engine, a mechanical computing device from 1830! I took some pictures of this as well as other museum objects (and scenes around Oxford) which I may eventually add to my Flickr site.

I had forgotten that Oxford was also the home of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson. He was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church college in Oxford, where he had also been an undergraduate. I visited the grounds of Christ Church as well as the modern (tourist) version of the shop where young Alice Liddell had once bought her "barley sugar sweets," she of course being the inspiration for and original recipient of the famous Alice stories.

Christ Church also has a Harry Potter connection. Although I'm not a big Harry Potter fan myself, my daughter is, and I have at least seen the films. It turns out that the dining hall used in those films is actually the Dining Hall at Christ Church. I was hoping to see it for myself but it was closed due to a conference. Drat! Yes, I am a creature of pop culture, I must admit. And a science nerd. What an unbeatable combination.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Cosmos for Beginners

In a bookstore in London, I just happened to notice and buy this brand new book, The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide. For educational outreach purposes, I'm always looking for new material and books to recommend. Although it's written to accompany a new BBC series which I haven't seen, the book stands on its own as a brief, highly readable, nicely illustrated introduction to the universe as we now know it today. I like the way it integrates space exploration and astronomy and includes some of the latest information on the search for "exoplanets" (planets outside our solar system) and on the latest ground based as well as space based astronomy instruments. It's very up to date with references and pictures from early 2007. The book also does a nice job of connecting other science fields (e.g., particle accelerators and "extremophiles," bacteria and other life forms found in extreme environments on Earth) with space and astronomy, as in the quest to understand the universe just after the big bang, and the search for life beyond Earth.

I have many space and astronomy books, but this is one of the few that I have read from cover to cover (many in this genre are closer to reference books). I believe adults as well as older children (say 12 and up) will enjoy this book. It's written in a lighthearted style with excellent explanations and analogies to help readers understand the complexities of astronomical discoveries. I believe the book will be available in the US soon. There's a companion web site for the TV series, but I haven't had time to look at it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Solar System Ambassadors: Apply Now

I should have mentioned this earlier - fortunately this Space Review article by Tom Hill reminded me. If you are a person in the US who is interested in doing space-related educational outreach, you may want to consider applying to the JPL Solar System Ambassadors program. Rather than repeat what Tom has said in his article, I suggest you read that, and also read the information on the JPL pages about the program.

If it sounds like something you'd like to do, then please apply - but do it quickly as they accept applications during the month of September only (no exceptions, as I discovered late fall 2005 when I first learned of the program - I had to wait until September 2006 to apply). Like Tom, I am in my first year as an ambassador, and I've really enjoyed the events I've presented and participated in with fellow ambassadors, and have found the materials and briefings provided by JPL to be very interesting and helpful.

Where East Meets West

I spent most of Sunday at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, a place that is rich with astronomical history. Greenwich is essentially the reference site for both time and space on the surface of the Earth. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, also called UT for Universal Time) has been the international standard for defining time, used in aviation, astronomy, and many other applications (it's actually a bit different now). And Greenwich is also where the Prime Meridian is defined, the zero-line that divides east longitude and west longitude (of course this meridian passes through an infinite number of other places since it's an imaginary line running from the north pole to the south pole).

Speaking of longitude, Greenwich also figures heavily in the history of navigation and timekeeping. The Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 with the mission of compiling a star atlas that could be used for celestial navigation by ships at sea (it took over 100 years to compile). Although latitude (north/south position from the equator) could be determined pretty easily from the Sun or the North Star, longitude was a much more difficult problem, requiring either multiple observations of the stars and Moon, coupled with a detailed almanac, or an accurate way of keeping time at sea, allowing navigators to compare their local noon (Sun at zenith) with the time at a reference location (Greenwich, which is zero longitude) and from that determine their east-west position.

The solution of this problem by carpenter-turned-master-clockmaker John Harrison is told in the wonderful little book Longitude by Dava Sobel, and if you visit the Royal Observatory, you can see the four amazing timepieces (called H1 through H4) that he designed and built over many years to solve this problem, overcome the interference of various rivals, and finally win the government prize of £20,000 that had been established for solving the longitude problem. Harrison was 80 when he finally got the money! I was shocked by how small H4 is - more or less an overgrown pocket watch (you can see pictures and read about the solution of the problem here).

There are many other instruments on display (including the 28 inch refractor shown above), and of course the chance to stand on the meridian line and thus be in both the eastern and western hemispheres simultaneously (a required photo op). There is also a newly revamped astronomy museum with interactive displays and a planetarium, the only part that isn't free (the show about how stars evolve and work was pretty good). I also visited the nearby National Maritime Museum and enjoyed the views of London from the high hill in Greewich Park on which the observatory is located.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lovely London

I just arrived in London for a week of business, with this weekend added for a little socializing and sightseeing. The weather is beautiful so it looks like I've lucked out on that for today anyway. It's been a couple of years since I visited the UK - it's great to be back. And you gotta love a country that puts Charles Darwin on its currency - well, I do anyway!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Our Big-eyed Planet

Telescopes in space are wonderful things, but telescopes on the ground can be a lot bigger and cheaper, and with the availability of adaptive optics to partially compensate for the jiggly atmosphere, they can produce image quality that can sometimes even exceed that of the Hubble Space Telescope, at least for some wavelengths.

There's a good article on the state of our planet's biggest eyes in this month's OPN (Optics & Photonics News from OSA), and this article happens to be one that is unlocked for web access by anyone in the online version of this monthly print publication for OSA members. It points out that there are currently twelve 8-meter class optical and infrared telescopes in the world, four of them on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, including the enormous Keck I and Keck II telescopes with their multi-segment 10-meter primary mirrors. And more are on the way. It's a big sky, so we need a lot of big eyes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Google To The Moon, Alice!

Now there's an era-spanning headline! Allow me to be among the first million people on the web to talk about the latest space-related challenge from the X Prize Foundation, sponsored to the tune of $30 million by our friends at Google. I don't know about you, but I like people (and companies) with deep pockets who do cool things with their money. In this case the prize is for the first private company that can land a robotic rover on the moon and transmit a gigabyte of images and video back to Earth (plus a few other requirements). That's the Google Lunar X Prize, a.k.a. Moon 2.0. Check out the rollout video.

That will probably cost a lot more than $20 million to pull off (the winner gets $20 million, with $5 million for second place and $5 million for above-and-beyond bonuses). But as with the original $10 million Ansari X Prize won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne, it's a cool and highly visible challenge that is bound to attract some serious contenders, notwithstanding the fact that it's a robotic challenge.

Of course first you have to design the the lander and the rover. Hey, I just took four days of SolidWorks 3D CAD training - I bet I can whip off a Moon rover in a couple of weeks! Then you just need to build it, develop the software for it, launch it, stuff like that. Time to clean out the garage. Maybe start with an add-on for Orbiter and simulate the mission first. Think small, think light, think smart...

Step Right Up! Carnival of Space #20

Welcome to the Carnival of Space, where every week a few intrepid bloggers virtually gather to Think Big Thoughts of Spacefaring Civilizations, tinker with humanity’s backup plan, wish they were astronauts (or rationalize why they’re happy not to be astronauts), marvel at the Universe and at the fact that we manage to figure out some of it sometimes, or make fun of NASA. We boldly blog where many of us have blogged before. OK, I’ll just get on with number 20.

On September 10, Cassini passed through the closest encounter it will ever have with Iapetus, Saturn's "Yin-Yang" moon. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society Blog assembled a bunch of the images into a crescent view of Iapetus from the approach phase of the flyby. Be sure to check out the rest of the blog for more Iapetus encounter images, including a really stunning one of Saturn, its rings, and almost all its moons, and this cool animation. (The new Iapetus image above is courtesy JPL.)

A Babe in the Universe also has news from the Ringed Planet, and says, “we had a new calculation of Saturn's day with yet another spectacular Cassini photo. The estimate of Saturn's day affects calculation of wind speed and whether those winds are travelling East or West.”

Astropixie reflects on how various human cultures through the ages have recognized and created unique stories for the same patterns of stars in the sky (known as asterisms, which are not necessarily the “classical” constellations, though some are). She gives examples of a few that are up in the northern skies right now!

Inquiring minds want to know: how did supermassive black holes form? Most astronomers think they began as very large stars that collapsed into black holes and started growing from there. Universe Today reports on a theory that they collapsed directly into black holes - and never were stars.

Speaking of stars, everyone knows that stars twinkle, and they probably know that this has something to do with the atmosphere. This week, Astroprof offers a fine explanation of what it actually means to “twinkle” (if you’re a star of the astrophysical variety) and why it happens.

And how will we get to the stars? No one really knows yet, but Centauri Dreams has looked at many ideas on this, including solar sails. Recent Progress on Solar Sails discusses an article that the team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center put together on what is happening there. Paul reports that despite all the funding cuts, solar sail work continues, and issues that will define future missions are being worked out.

Before we get to the stars, we will probably get to some “local” planets and moons (at least I hope so!). This week Colony Worlds discusses some reasons for holding off for a while on urban planning for a number of bodies in our Sun’s neighborhood in Which Worlds Should Humanity Skip?

As “Educator Astronaut” Barbara Morgan begins touring the US to talk to children and their teachers about her recent experiences in space, Stuart Atkinson wonders what challenges and problems will face the teachers of the future, especially those given the responsibility for teaching young Martians about a bizarre, impossibly alien world called Earth...

And speaking of Mars and education, Catalogablog reports on a cool NASA-supported workshop called “Mars Inside and Out.” If you happen to be in Oklahoma City November 8 & 9, check it out! I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it.

Space For Commerce talks about efforts to find a new slogan for NASA, and as much as I respect the people and the accomplishments of NASA, I couldn’t help laughing at some of the examples he reports (“NASA: Keeping the Moon free of pesky humanity since 1972”). Digging deeper and more cynically into the subject (as usual), the Space Cynics blog draws some conclusions about why it’s easier to find a funny slogan than one that really fits the agency’s multiple personalities.

I’ve been focused on many Earthly concerns this week, but earlier this month I capped off a space-shuttle-and-ISS-obsessed summer with a discussion of my efforts to understand the construction of the orbiting Wonder of the Off-World that is the International Space Station. It really is amazing and there are some great resources on the web to help you understand it better.

In the private space sector, RLV and Space Transport News provided an early report on NASA terminating its COTS contract with Rocketplane Kistler. There are several follow-up articles in the last couple of days as well.

Finally, while it’s not the kind of “space blog” I usually read, the closest most people probably come to thinking about space is if they’re deciding what to do about satellite TV. Here’s help from the Satellite TV Guru.

I hope you enjoyed this week's festivities, and thanks to all the space cadets (and cadettes?) who contributed. Next week the carnival will be hosted by its founding father, Henry Cate at Why Homeschool.

But wait... this just in... Henry also submitted this cool late-breaking-entry on Hobbit galaxies and dark matter just as I was about to post-date my entry, click Publish Post, and try to finish the real work I was supposed to do while I was in a SolidWorks class all day!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Google Takes Flight

I only had 5 minutes to play, and I'd need to get a joy stick plugged in to really try it, but I just learned that Google Earth 4.2 has a built-in flight simulator of sorts. It certainly makes sense with all that fast-loading terrain data - it gives you another way to explore it. I was all over the sky trying to use the keyboard controls, but it seems to have some sort of flight model, and two aircraft to fly (F-16 jet and Cirrus SR22). It's no threat to Flight Simulator X (though it's probably crazy to say the words "no threat" and "Google" in the same sentence!), but it's pretty cool. Fire it up for the first time with Control+Alt+A (upper case) - keyboard commands are here, and more info here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Apple Makes It Easier and Harder

I've really been missing my iPod which was stolen back in May. I had decided to wait a while to replace it, see what would happen with the iPhone I was lusting after, and just listen to other music sources of which I have quite a few. But two weeks ago I broke down and ordered a 4 GB iPod Nano (just like the stolen one) for $199 from Amazon. I took it on a couple of morning walks last week, and life was good.

Then last week Apple announced a $200 price cut on the iPhone, along with a new line of cheaper and better iPods, including a new video-capable Nano that's $199 for the 8 GB model (room enough for 1000 songs and a movie, hmmm). So I sent my brand new old Nano back to Amazon. Now I'm back in the whole iPhone/iPod dilemma again. I had been thinking of waiting until March 2008 when my current cell phone contract runs out to maybe switch plans and get an iPhone (which by then might be a 1.1 or 2.0 version and maybe AT&T service would be better). I suppose there will always be a daughter or two who will accept a slightly used video Nano next spring if I get one now and do the iPhone thing next year. Sorry, I don't usually think out loud in my blog, but I guess I just decided! Apple sure makes cool stuff - all problems should be this easy to figure out.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Carnival of Space #19

Sorry I'm a bit late in noting that the nineteenth Carnival of Space is up over at Universe Today.

I will be hosting #20 next week, so please send in your space-blogging submissions as soon as you can, and I will nano-assemble them into an intricate crystalline structure suitable for nano-framing. If that doesn't work out, I'll put them in a blog post.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Orbiter vs. Reality

STS-118 Endeavour Docking Video Frame
Endeavour STS-118 dock in Orbiter

I was just looking at my Flickr pages and I happened to notice a pair of images I posted early in the STS-118 shuttle mission in August. I had captured a frame from NASA TV of an ISS camera view of the shuttle about to dock. I later ran a Shuttle Fleet docking scenario in Orbiter and tried to capture a similar screen shot, and both are shown here. I have to say it's a pretty good simulation - at small size, the images are strikingly similar. At larger sizes you notice differences in lighting and reflections, but it's still amazing to me what add-on developers and Orbiter's developer (Dr. Martin Schweiger) are able to achieve with this free software!

(I realize now I posted this pair of pictures before, but I'm still amazed, so I'm posting them again!)

Video of (Simulated) Apollo Launch

There have been more updates to the cool AMSO Apollo/Saturn add-on for Orbiter that I wrote about recently (latest patch is 1.15). This is a very extensive and accurate simulation of nearly all phases of the Apollo missions in Orbiter, with excellent graphics quality. I downloaded the latest patch but have not had time install and play with it yet. But I learned about an excellent AMSO-based video that was made by "BigDAS". In spite of YouTube's small video size, I think you can get an idea of the quality of this add-on from this video. Nice work (on the video and especially on AMSO).

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

30 Years of Voyaging

Voyager Saturn Labeled Moons
Thirty years ago today, Voyager 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral on a journey to Jupiter and Saturn. It is now more than 14 light-hours away from Earth (nearly 10 billion miles). The early part of its journey was of course a remarkable success, and with its sister spacecraft Voyager 2 which also flew by Uranus and Neptune, it delivered much of what we know today about the outer solar system, though we later received more details on Jupiter from the Galileo orbiter and on Saturn from the still active Cassini spacecraft.

What's even more remarkable is that both Voyager spacecraft continue to "phone home" as they make their way out of the solar system and into interstellar space. Timothy Ferris has an interesting essay in today's New York Times ("The Mix Tape of the Gods"), remembering Voyager and the gold-plated "interstellar record" of human images, sounds, and music that it carried (I wrote about it last December). Although it's remembered as Carl Sagan's special project, Ferris himself produced the recording that was turned into a literal gold record that could last for billion years.

The picture of Voyager 1 at Saturn is from an Orbiter simulation.

Monday, September 03, 2007

10 New Ways to Fly

The September issue of the Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine is a really good one - I read it cover to cover and learned a lot of fascinating stuff. The cover shows an artist's concept of a "hypersonic wave rider" under the headline "10 New Ways to Fly." Of course hypersonic flight is one of the ten, but it will be a few years before that really happens, though there are experts quoted in the article who believe we are close to a breakthrough in this long-promised technology (which will probably be applied to high-speed cruise missiles before we see any sort of space plane for people). Here are the ten articles on these amazing flight technologies:
  1. X-racers (Rocket Racing League)
  2. Boeing Dreamliner (innovative cabin design and lighting)
  3. Spy Blimps and Heavy Lifters
  4. Fly Green (on biofuels)
  5. Tilters (V-22 Osprey is operational)
  6. Orion's Brain (flight control software and displays for NASA's CEV)
  7. 20 Hours to Solo (sport pilot license and aircraft)
  8. Lunar clipper (Moon tourism with Russian hardware)
  9. Son of a Buzz Bomb (PDE - pulse detonation engines)
  10. Mach 20 or Bust (hypersonic flight)
All of these articles are available on line (at least for now).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

ISS for Dummies (Me)

I'm really enjoying Tom Jones' astronaut memoir Sky Walking, though it's taking me a while to finish due to various interruptions. I'm now reading the part in which Jones is preparing for his fourth mission, STS-98 on Atlantis in February 2001. This ISS assembly mission (5A, the US Destiny Laboratory Module) was delayed from spring 2000 due to other delays, mainly that of the essential Russian "service module" (Zvezda) which was planned for 1999 but didn't actually launch until July 2000 (this article on the ISS assembly sequence is very handy). With all the problems in Russia at the time, it's a wonder the ISS project ever got started.

The delays gave Jones and the other early ISS assembly astronauts a lot of time to train (often under water) for the complex EVA's and robot arm procedures that would be needed to assemble the ISS in orbit. Of course there have now been many of these assembly missions, and while they are still not easy missions to plan and execute, there is a lot of experience to build on. In 1999-2001, there was not much experience in orbital assembly, despite such impressive EVA accomplishments as the Hubble service missions in 1993, 1997, and 1999. Jones was also the deputy chief of the Space Station Operations Branch for several years before his mission, so he was really immersed (literally and figuratively) in space station issues for a long time. It was a complex and often frustrating situation on many levels.

All of this discussion (and trying to visualize some of the assembly problems he discusses) made me realize that I don't really know that much about the ISS. I'm familiar with the overall structure and have a vague idea of the various modules. I've seen pictures and even some Orbiter models of past and future stages of the ISS. So I took a quick look to see what sorts of "ISS for dummies" material might be around.

The diagram above is from NASA, but I couldn't find this August 2007 (post-STS-118) version except in Wikipedia. The color-coded exploded view gives a pretty good idea of what's what. For a better idea of how everything goes together, this animation from Tietronix (sample frame at left, made for NASA but I couldn't find it on any NASA sites) is the best demonstration of the assembly sequence that I've seen. For ISS operations and a virtual tour, this Interactive Space Station Reference Guide is pretty good. Of course the main NASA ISS page has a link to this and many other ISS related articles and features. I'm sure there are many other good resources, but these can give you a good start in better understanding the ISS.

Now that I think about it, one of the best things I've found for space flight background and ISS information is a book I wrote about in fall 2006, Space Station Science by Marianne Dyson (second edition, 2004). Although aimed nominally at ages 9-12, it's really good for anyone with an interest in the ISS. It may be time for me to read it again.

P.S. Another great resource is NASA's Reference Guide to the International Space Station. Dated August 2006, it's divided into 10 PDF files, several of them quite huge due to the large number of detailed color graphics. The total download is about 76 MB.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Energizer Bunny Rovers

They keep going, and going, and going. This was reported last week but I've been busy and just noticed that Spirit and Opportunity have resumed driving on Mars. JPL operators had the rovers "laying low" to preserve their limited power reserves while long-lasting Martian dust storms darkened the skies and greatly reduced the output of the solar panels. Those panels and other parts of the rovers are still pretty dirty with built up dust, but power levels have reached high enough levels to start driving. These things are amazing!