Sunday, September 28, 2008

SpaceX Did It!

SpaceX has achieved orbit! On the fourth test launch of the Falcon 1 rocket this afternoon, they achieved orbit of a dummy payload on a "completely nominal" flight. I somehow didn't receive any SpaceX emails the last few days (overactive spam filters maybe), so I missed the live coverage. The 10 minute video here tells the story, complete with cheers from SpaceX employees in California. There's also a brief report from Wired magazine here. Congratulations to SpaceX on this historic milestone for private space.

Sudden Sea

I've just finished an excellent book about the Great Hurricane of 1938, which pounded Long Island and New England 70 years ago (September 21, 1938), resulting in 682 deaths, 1,754 serious injuries, and the loss of many thousands of homes, businesses, fishing boats, farm animals, and vehicles of all kinds. It was the first major hurricane to hit New England since 1869, and it was a monster. Sudden Sea was published in 2003 by R.A. Scotti, a mystery writer and former journalist, and it is a gripping read.

As we know well from Katrina and from other hurricanes and tropical storms in recent times, even with satellite imagery, other modern forecasting techniques, and mass communication, major storms can still cause great damage and loss of life. But in 1938, forecasting methods and resources were very limited. The 1938 storm was tracked by the Weather Bureau, and based on its initial track, Atlantic coastal Florida was warned and some areas were even evacuated. But the storm changed course away from Florida and was predicted to move northeast to the North Atlantic. Instead it moved rapidly along the US East Coast, and hit Long Island and south coastal New England as a category 3 hurricane, completely without warning. People were walking on beaches or sitting in homes near the coast when a wall of water three stories high just showed up. Some towns were literally wiped clean of homes and other structures. Rhode Island was especially hard hit. The water was 17 feet (5 meters) deep in downtown Providence.

Reading this book right now is interesting timing as Hurricane Kyle is moving through our region today. It has apparently bypassed most of New England, although northern Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia are on a rare hurricane watch. It's expected to hit near St. John, NB late today at sub-hurricane strength, although they will get a lot of rain and high winds, so there could be some damage and power outages.

I hope for their sake (and mine) that any damage is not too bad, since as it happens, I'll be driving through Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia later this week , staying one night in St. John and then on the NS coast for a few days at a conference. Maybe when Kyle passes it will clear up and we'll even get to see something of the scenic beauty of that area (first time for me).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

China Walks the Walk

There is news beyond the the US financial crisis and presidential race. China's third manned spaceflight is underway with three "taikonauts" in Earth orbit since Thursday. The main goal of the Shenzhou 7 mission was a space walk, and that happened today when mission commander Zhai Zhigang spent 15 minutes outside the cabin, waving a Chinese flag.

I read a BBC news item that said this was the first EVA by someone other than an American or Russian, but I know that's not right. I'm sure that several European (ESA) astronauts flying on US shuttle/ISS missions have conducted EVA's. Perhaps they meant under the control of a nation other than the US or Russia. In any case, it's a pretty important step in the development of the Chinese space program.

Friday, September 26, 2008


The iPod Touch continues to amaze - it is just the coolest thing ever. I really enjoy the wide range of apps that are available for it, from simple things I use frequently like the NYTimes Reader and eReader apps to goofy things like a Star Wars light saber emulator (the accelerometer gets all sorts of odd uses). And did you know the iPod can play music too?

Most of these apps are free or very cheap, but one of the best ones so far costs $12 and is easily worth more. Starmap is a pocket planetarium similar in many ways to Stellarium for Windows and Macs. It creates real-time star maps including planetary positions and much more. It makes wonderful use of the touch interface for zooming and panning, and can even use the accelerometer to rotate and scroll the screen as you move the iPod to align the display with the stars you can see. Graphical rendering and scrolling speed have apparently been greatly improved from earlier versions (it's quite smooth). There's a huge database of astronomical objects, all stored locally (no internet connection is needed).

Starmap is developed by Frédéric Descamps, a French astrophysicist. It's great. I can't wait for a night clear enough to really try it out (it's supposed to rain all weekend here in New England). His web site has Flash-based demos, FAQ, and some tutorials.

Carnival of Space #72

Our economic meltdown continues, and the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout plan is mired in controversy, political finger-pointing, and electoral maneuvering... but space goes on! And to prove this, we have the Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Jennifer Ouellette of Twisted Physics. This is one of the Discovery Channel blogs, and in honor of this, I have included their cool "I Love the World" commercial, though it has nothing to do with this week's carnival.

There are many good non-political posts this week, so you can click to escape the political fog if you wish. Learn about Martian volcanoes. Be inspired by never-say-die Opportunity. Hoist a solar-electric sail. And astropixie has a great video.

But I was drawn to this hybrid space/political post at another Discovery Blog, Free Space. There's a lot of justified exasperation in this post, but a good laugh at the end.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More "Mars for Less" (Video)

I really like this video. It's a 7 minute condensation of a complete human Mars mission in 2033, as simulated in Orbiter with the Mars for Less add-on. This complex add-on was developed in 2006 by Andy McSorley and Mark Paton, with some help from a few other Orbiter add-on developers (including me). I've written in this blog about the Mars for Less (MFL) mission concept (developed by Grant Bonin and others) and also about the development and eventual release of this add-on (in February 2008). Andy has a nice MFL page here.

After reading a paper by Grant in 2006, I had the idea to develop a MFL add-on for Orbiter. The goal was to show that Orbiter could be a useful platform for virtual prototyping of human Mars missions, and to write a paper about this for the 2006 Mars Society Conference. Since my add-on modeling skills are minimal, I was lucky that Andy and Mark agreed to join me in this project, and they did a great job, even with complex stuff like Mars atmospheric reentry and precision landing. The paper was written and presented in Washington in August 2006, and it went well (you can download a PDF here). My MFL photo set on Flickr is here.

YouTube user "Belisariusorb" apparently flew the whole MFL mission in Orbiter (with various embellishments such as a European Crew Transfer Vehicle, an expanded Mars base, and robotic resupply missions) and created a 7 minute video showing the highlights of the 2+ year mission. Nice job!

N.B. The 24 MB Orbiter add-on is available here, and there is also a "Mars for Less Extra" developed by Mark Paton which improves the aerodynamic performance and realism of the Earth-return vehicle (ERV) for Earth reentry, along with a few other developments.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This IS Important

Anna Quindlen's "Last Word" essay in the current Newsweek is great. The title is "This Is Important," and it is. An eloquent appeal that we take this election seriously. Here's the closing paragraph:
At a moment like this, to discuss who is the pig and who the lipstick in a shopworn simile is a sign that you've gone down a dark road and wound up in a cul-de-sac. Who cares if you like Sarah Palin, if your kid plays hockey and so do hers? Here is the only thing about anyone's kids that matters now: every time you vote you make your kids a promise. It's a promise that you will look past cheap slogans and lazy alliances to try to find a way to make America worthy of a new generation. And if we keep that promise in November, we not only keep faith with our children, we keep faith with the country.

Interactive Astronomy Applets

The Nebraska Astronomy Applet Project site provides high quality interactive simulators dealing with important astronomical and astrophysical phenomena. They plan to have 19 modules, with the current ones covering solar system models, the (apparently) rotating sky, motions of the sun, planetary motion, lunar phases, blackbody curves, Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (shown here), eclipsing binary stars, extrasolar planet detection, and variable star photometry (including a simulated blink comparator). They also have background materials to help you understand and use the simulators, and instructor materials to help teachers.

These things are so cool! They can really help you to visualize astronomical phenomena better than static diagrams. Thanks to Jacek Kupras of U Kuprasów for the tip! This is a great blog that covers many of the same topics I do, only in Polish. I occasionally use Google Translate to read some of the posts there when the pictures look interesting. Years ago I studied (and mostly forgot) Russian, so some of the Polish words are familiar when I sound them out (common Slavic roots), but not enough to really understand without Google's help.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

1 State, 2 State, Red State, Blue State

In historical presidential results, many of states that went Republican ("red states") are physically large, but in most cases, their populations are relatively small. So when presidential election results are color-coded on a map of the US, it looks like red states dominate, as in this map of 2004 presidential results by state:
Even though our crazy electoral college system is "winner takes all" by state (except for Maine and Nebraska), you can get a more accurate view of how voters are distributed if you code the map by county and use red, blue, and purple colors to indicate percentages of voters:
That still looks pretty red. But if you also systematically distort the map so the drawn size of each state is proportional to its population, you get a more balanced view:
These maps are from an article by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan. Read the article for other map variations and better explanations.

Monday, September 22, 2008

LB's Flying Fingers

I have followed and enjoyed Lindsey Buckingham's music since the early seventies when I somehow discovered Buckingham-Nicks, the record he made with Stevie Nicks before they joined Fleetwood Mac. He's a fast and quirky guitar player, and his lyrics, rhythms, and production ideas can be pretty quirky too.

His new album is called Gift of Screws and I really like it, even though Lindsey himself doesn't appear too happy in the cover photo. It rocks more than his 2006 album Under the Skin. His flying fingers are in fine form and the lyrics and production are clever and off-beat. Listening to it this morning, I was reminded of his Fleetwood Mac song Tusk, which I experienced in an unusual way in 1980.

When we first moved to Pasadena, California in late 1979, we went to a few television show tapings, until the novelty of this free entertainment wore off. One of them was a pop music show called Solid Gold, and on the show we attended, Tusk was performed. Fleetwood Mac was unfortunately not there, so they played the recording, but there was another major performer on that record, the University of Southern California Marching Band, and they were on hand to perform live in the studio. It was pretty strange, but cool. Loud too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Canvassing Concord

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
-Margaret Mead

I was reminded of this well-known quote this morning as I listened with about a dozen other volunteers (mostly from Massachusetts) to a pep talk on canvassing  at the Barack Obama campaign office in Concord, New Hampshire. Although I had canvassed last Saturday in Keene, NH, I arrived there late and didn't get much of a briefing. I was assigned to work with an experienced local volunteer that time, so learning "on the job" worked out fine. But some of the tips in the briefing today were useful, especially the info about voter registration rules in NH (you can pre-register up to 10 days before the election, but you can also register at the polls on Election Day).

Canvassing is not rocket science - you get a list of voters and a neighborhood map, you drive to the neighborhood, walk around and knock on doors, introduce yourself, and have a conversation about the election. The key points are "who will you vote for?" and if you are an Obama suporter, will you consider volunteering yourself? It's actually pretty good fun in the few cases where the voter is actually home, especially supporters and undecided voters who are willing to talk with you. Usually I just encourage these voters to check on a few things on the web, especially the facts about who would benefit from the Obama and McCain tax plans (by income level), and about McCain's health insurance plan (employer-provided insurance benefits would be taxed as income in McCain's plan, among other strange and problematic features - check this analysis of the McCain plan).  This was only my second day canvassing for Obama, and it went pretty well. I also spent an hour back at the office calling voters, which went better than my calls from home have gone this past week (perhaps calling from a NH area code is part of the reason).

Being part of this small group of thoughtful, committed citizens today was a good feeling. The local campaign staffers told us that with so many volunteers coming into New Hampshire to help the local volunteers, they are reaching many thousands of voters in person and on the phone, identifying supporters, adding more volunteers, and preparing for the big get-out-the-vote push on Election Day. 

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Time for Science and Reason

A great message from some smart and caring people. Learn more at CFI.
The methods and values of scientific thinking have expanded our knowledge about life and our place in the universe. This modern knowledge—based on experience and evidence—has brought enormous benefit to humanity, yet many people still choose to rely on ancient texts and beliefs to guide their lives and their nations.

The Center for Inquiry exists to change this situation. We are here to promote the scientific outlook, to expand the methods and values of science into all areas of human endeavor.

Carnival of Space #71

The Carnival of Space has a slightly unusual but timely host this week - the web site of the .astronomy conference that will be held in Cardiff, Wales next week (September 22-24).

.Astronomy is described as a "Conference on Networked Astronomy and the New Media," and presentations will discuss changes in how astronomy is done in an era of massive data from sky surveys, robotic telescopes and virtual observatories, blogging, social networking, and software tools such as Google Sky and Microsoft's World Wide Telescope, all linked together by the internet.

As usual, the carnival will steer you to recent posts from a number of interesting blogs. The picture above shows the star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 which is 500 light years away. Of interest is the object in the upper left which may be a massive planet orbiting this star. If confirmed, this would be the first direct image of a planet orbiting a sun-like star. Babe in the Universe explains more here. This was also the Astronomy Picture of the Day today.

Drill, Drill, Drill?

Please read this powerful and moving essay about what is at stake in this fall's election. It was written by Eve Ensler, the American playwright, performer, feminist and activist best known for "The Vagina Monologues."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I'm In Love

No, it's not Obama! Well, not in the same way. I'm actually in love with my new 16 GB Apple iPod Touch. I came very close to buying one of the first generation models when they came out (a year ago?). But I decided the lack of a hardware volume control was a deal breaker for using it in the car (turns out it probably would have been OK). I also thought the price vs. memory value wasn't that good with the first models. This one was $299 for 16 GB which seems like a good balance.

The WiFi web and email, the decent size screen for movies, the maps, YouTube, the whole touch-based interface - and of course the music - these are all very cool. And they work really well - I haven't read a word of documentation. But the apps that came over from the iPhone clinched the deal, especially the multi-touch Pocket Guitar. Not really that useful as a musical tool, and pretty awkward to play, but it's still the coolest 99 cent instrument ever.

Whatever Apple's and Steve Jobs' faults, they create products that truly are a pleasure to use. I owned and enjoyed a Mac from 1984 to 1994 when practical considerations pushed me to PC's and Windows, and with rare exceptions, computers have just been tools for me since then. The iPod Touch reminds me of what it's like to experience geek love for a really well designed product, a pocket computer orders of magnitude more powerful than my original 1984 Mac.

Obama's Plan for Change

In this two minute ad, Barack Obama talks simply and directly about our troubled economy and about his plan for change. You can see a quick summary of the plan here, and of course there is in-depth information on this and many other issues available at

Totally Free Astronomy Intro

I just learned about this from a member of my astronomy club. Michigan Tech University is offering an introductory astronomy class this semester (PH1600), taught by Professor Robert-J.-Nemiroff. The lecture videos are available through iTunes U and as direct downloads from

I downloaded the lectures available so far and previewed parts of the first one, and it seems like a solid, college-level introductory astronomy class. One unusual thing about it is that there is no textbook, or rather that they are using Wikipedia as the text book! As the professor explains in the first lecture, the on-line resources for introductory astronomy are quite strong and are typically more up-to-date than any paper textbook. Required reading includes the Wikipedia articles on Universe, Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Light Year. They will also use NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day as a continuously updating resource on astronomy developments.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Obama: On Being Helpful and Hopeful

Although it's very narrow indeed, Obama has opened up a slight lead over McCain in the latest CBS/NY Times and Reuters/Zogby polls. This suggests that the GOP convention/Palin "bounce" has been damped out, and that the disasters on Wall Street are reminding voters that the economy matters more to them than lipstick and moose (mousse?). McCain is trying to distance himself from the Bush administration on the economy, but it doesn't seem to be working very well. I'm sure they're cooking up some fresh lies and dramas for the coming weeks to try to distract voters from the issues as Palin has done for a couple of weeks now.

Meanwhile Obama remains cool and unflappable, good qualities in a president I think, though some supporters think he needs to act more passionate. I think he and his team are just running with their game plan, efficiently doing what it takes, and since I've been watching the update videos from campaign manager David Plouffe, I've been impressed with how focused and methodical they are in covering all the bases. They are doing well with money, but they still need more to cover all the battleground states. I've given a few $25 "matching fund" donations to encourage first-time contributors this week - it's nice to receive their personal notes.

I too am trying to stay focused, even in the face of phone call frustration. It seems New Hampshire voters are wise to this political calling thing, and most seem to use their answering machines to screen their calls. I have gotten through to some undecided voters, providing some information that could possibly affect their decisions, and working to get someone in the NH campaign to help an elderly lady I spoke with to vote by absentee ballot (she wants to vote for Obama but didn't think she'd be able to get to the polls). I even had a few enjoyable discussions with Obama supporters - very energizing. This weekend I'll be back in New Hampshire to canvass some more. It's pretty small stuff, but if thousands and thousands of people do this sort of small stuff (and they are), it could add up to something big. I'm nowhere near complacent about this - I'm guessing it will be a very close election and we will need to push all the way - but I am feeling somewhat helpful, and somewhat hopeful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Speaking of Space Settlements

In my last post, I referenced the NSS space settlement art contest and calendar, and this reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about for some time - the Lifeboat Foundation "Ark I" space settlement concept. The Lifeboat Foundation is a private foundation that is studying ways to protect humanity from various "existential risks" - things that might wipe us out, ranging from runaway biotechnology or nanotechnology to various terrorist actions (biological, nuclear, etc.) to asteroid strikes and more. They have many interesting people studying a lot of cool defensive ideas, but if the worst happens, they are also looking into space settlements, self-sustaining space colonies that could allow at least some human beings to survive to preserve our legacy and perhaps rebuild our civilization.

Of course this sounds like science fiction, and it is nowhere near practical implementation, but you have to start with ideas and designs. Ark I is essentially a large space station or space colony in low Earth orbit, built to house about 1000 people. A structure this large would clearly require advanced and lower-cost space transportation than we have now, and this too is part of their planning. If humans are to live for a really long time in space, solutions to problems such as artificial gravity, radiation shielding, food production, and extreme recycling of everything (the "self sustaining" bit) need to be developed.

When you think about it, the International Space Station is a pretty good testbed for this whole "living in space" thing. Many people have said this and it only seems "out there" because people see no immediate need for anyone to live in space when we have a perfectly good planet down here. Or shall I say as long as we have a perfectly good planet down here. But this might not always be the case.

Of course if things get really nasty down here (my favorite Tom Lehrer line, "when the air becomes uraneous, we will all go simultaneous"), being in LEO may not be the best spot either. But it's a good place to practice and relatively easy to get to compared to, say, the Moon (and protected by the Earth's magnetic field). You could easily imagine (as many SF writers have) that materials from the Moon or near-Earth objects might eventually be used to build these space habitats rather than lifting everything out of Earth's gravity well.

The picture above is an artist's impression from the Lifeboat site, not an Orbiter shot. It would be cool to have Ark I and the waverider space planes in Orbiter - I'll ask around and see if any add-on developers are interested in modeling these for Orbiter. There is one historic space settlement concept that was developed as a nice add-on for Orbiter, the Stanford Torus, shown at left. This design was the result of a 1975 space habitat workshop that was inspired by the early space colony ideas of the late Gerard K. O'Neill. The white disk is a reflector used to direct and control sunlight for the living areas on the inside surface of the toroid. More Stanford Torus pix from Orbiter here.

P.S. Lifeboat Foundation has a cool 3 minute video of the Ark I and the Waverider spacecraft (21 MB streaming WMV here, 800x600). It is reminiscent of the scene of the Pan Am spaceliner docking with the big wheel space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's as silent as space itself - add your own Strauss.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Views of Space Settlement

From recent posts, you might think the theme of this blog has morphed from space/education/science/astronomy/etc. into politics, but that is definitely not my long term plan. I normally maintain a Newsweek-level interest in politics, keeping up with important developments, but not getting too distracted by them. This fall's presidential election is a major exception, and I have gotten more involved with it than I expected, with fund raising and even canvassing and making phone calls for the Obama campaign, in addition to writing about it. I believe it's really important, and I can't help it - I want my country back. But I haven't given up on the "space stuff" by any means.

I just received the fall issue of Ad Astra from NSS (National Space Society). It's a pretty good issue with an article about the new NSS Space Ambassadors educational program (I've already applied), reports on ISDC 2008 in Washington, as well as articles on the ISS, Mars Phoenix, COTS, and more. There is also an article about the winners of this year's space settlement art contest, with some really cool examples. I can produce some pretty cool space images using Orbiter, but a talented artist can really transport you to that futuristic space environment. NSS puts out a calendar based on the space settlement art entries, and I just ordered the 2009 edition.

Bonus: I just noticed a link on the Ad Astra page for a free PDF (1.5 MB) of an excellent multi-article report on space based solar power from the spring 2008 issue.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Obama: Politics Is Personal

I had a great day in New Hampshire yesterday. First I joined a large and enthusiastic crowd in Manchester to hear Barack Obama speak. While he covered most of the same points made in his acceptance speech in Denver, he updated many of the comparisons between his plans and those of John McCain, with a lot of emphasis on how the economy is impacting so many Americans, and how McCain doesn’t seem to really understand this or have any plans that will help.

Obama talked about some of the lies that the Republicans are perpetuating in their ads and speeches, especially the idea that Obama will raise everyone’s taxes. According to this analysis from the Tax Policy Center, Obama’s plan will actually lower taxes for at least 95% of taxpayers, with larger percentage cuts for the bottom 60% who are hit hardest by rising energy and food costs, increasing taxes only for those making over $600,000 per year (McCain’s plans will lower taxes for everyone, but by less than 1% for the bottom 60% of taxpayers, and by 4.4% for people making $2.9 million or more – a typical Republican view of “tax relief”).

Obama mainly stuck to the issues and did not make any personal attacks on McCain or on Sarah Palin, whose name was mentioned only once (as McCain’s running mate). Palin is still getting a lot of attention in the press, and the more I learn, the scarier she is. But Obama and Biden should not get involved with this Republican side show, which is aimed at distracting voters from the fact that McCain is out of touch and is not prepared to deal realistically with the challenges of a global economy.

The “personal” part took place in the afternoon, which I spent canvassing for the Obama campaign in a small town near Keene, NH. Accompanied by an experienced local volunteer and with a big assist from my GPS, I visited around 25 homes in this rural area and spoke to a number of voters, including a good number of Obama supporters and a few undecided voters. Naturally some people were not interested in any political callers, and a few others were solidly for McCain. Usually we just thanked them for their time and moved on, but in a few homes where the person seemed open to discussion, I asked why they liked McCain over Obama. In a couple of cases, their response was clearly based on misconceptions (e.g., Obama will raise my taxes), and I was able to plant some seeds of doubt. Maybe some will change their minds, or at least dig a little bit for the facts. You never know.

Canvassing is a pretty inefficient process, but there really is no substitute for face to face contact, and I found it invigorating to be directly involved in this small way. I was one of many out of state volunteers who had come to the Keene office on this kickoff weekend, and I spoke with a few of the others. One Connecticut man had worked for the John Kerry campaign in 2004, but the rest were like me, doing this for the first time in their lives (I discount my brief college experience working for McGovern in 1972). I plan to go back several more weekends this fall to help wherever I can.

It may sound like political rhetoric when Obama says that this election is not about him, or John McCain, or Joe Biden, or Sarah Palin – “it’s about you.” But I’ve read about and now have seen firsthand how regular people who never got directly involved in politics before have been inspired by these times and especially by this candidate. It is about you – about us – and about taking back this country from special interests and putting it on the road to a better future. And yes, it’s about “change we need.” And it’s about time.

If you have the time – I know, you probably don’t – but if you can make the time to volunteer for the Obama campaign, I urge you to do so. If you can’t, but you support Obama, talk about his ideas with others, and make sure everyone you know is registered to vote.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Have GPS, Will Travel

Tomorrow I will take another leap from my personal comfort zone and drive up to New Hampshire to canvass for Barack Obama. While Massachusetts should be pretty "safe" for Obama, New Hampshire is a battleground state that has been decided by fewer than 10,000 votes in the last two presidential elections (went for Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004). So I will join a lot of other Obama supporters in trying to convince undecided New Hampshire voters to vote for Obama-Biden. I've also signed up to do this on a few more weekends this fall. I don't have any idea how it will go (I haven't done this since 1972 when I campaigned in college for George McGovern!), but I can talk with people about the issues, and I won't take it personally if a few of them slam the door in my face.

But first I will get to see and hear Senators Obama and Biden at a morning rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. That should be pretty cool.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Carnival of Space #70

The Carnival of Space is back with a lot of cool posts to explore, hosted this week by Orbital Hub. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cool (Earth) Solar

Now this is some cool solar technology. How do you make concentrating solar collectors cheap? Make them out of plastic sheeting and blow them up to the right shape like balloons! That's the basic idea from CoolEarth Solar. The inflatable collectors can be cheap enough to replace every two years, and they are so light, that the structure for mounting them and tracking the sun can also be light and fairly simple. As they say in this PDF presentation, "solar farming" should be taken more literally - make the individual parts cheap and scalable, like growing wheat in a big field, as opposed to growing it in a greenhouse.

Concentrating sunlight onto photovoltaic cells means you need a lot fewer cells. This approach combines clever use of optics and mechanics, with cheap, ubiquitous materials (plastic sheeting, air, a tiny amount of aluminum to coat the reflecting surface). Here's the basic environmental impact (from the notes in the PDF presentation, slide 4):
Our approach is to suspend concentrators on support and control cables stretched between poles. The ground under the concentrators is shaded only by about 10% and remains free for other uses like farming or ranching. Suspending the concentrators also preserves habitat. It is also inexpensive: telephone companies, ranchers, and farmers have already figured out how to set posts cheaply across vast spaces.
Cool indeed.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Космонавтка: Russian Space Heaven

Thanks to a post on, I just discovered a really cool web site on all things related to the Russian manned space program. Космонавтка (Kosmonavtka, "female cosmonaut") is the work of Suzy McHale, who hails from Melbourne, Australia (a lovely city I got a chance to visit two summers ago). It covers everything from the cosmonaut roster to the Soyuz spacecraft to personal hygiene kits (and much more).

I like the fact that she includes the Russian for many objects, names, and acronyms (there are brief Russian-English and English-Russian glossaries too). Why? Because reading words in the Cyrillic alphabet is about all that's left of the four semesters of Russian I took in college back in the seventies. I've kept my French and Japanese at a semi-useful level, but I barely used Russian after school and alas, it faded, except for the odd phrase like Где мой брат? and Я не знаю, я турист. Not very useful, I'm afraid, unless my brother happens to be kidnapped while we're on a visit to Moscow.

I really don't know as much about the Russian space program as I would like, so thanks to Suzy McHale for creating this very cool site. Спасибо большое!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Great New England Air Show 2008

I went to the Great New England Air Show at Westover ARB in Chicopee, Massachusetts today. It was cool. The weather was terrible yesterday, so I and basically everyone in New England went today, leading to enormous traffic delays getting in and out. But it had been about three years since my last air show, and it was worth a little traffic frustration.

Eating junky air show food on the sunny tarmac, inspecting and photographing planes I've seen dozens of times, watching amazing aerobatic and parachuting performers - I've been doing this since I was ten years old, and it's still fun. I just love stuff that flies!

The USAF Thunderbirds were the featured act and I was happy to find that Thunderbird #5 (lead solo) was flown by a woman, Major Samantha Weeks. Major Weeks is not the first woman to fly the F-16 with the Thunderbirds (that was Major Nicole Malachowski in 2006), but she was the first I had seen perform. Of course she was amazing, as you would expect from a member of this elite precision flying team.

I saw some other interesting airplanes, including a ski-equipped LC-130, and I talked with the weapons officer of a B-52. I was sitting in traffic when the USMC AV-8 Harriers flew, which was a disappointment. I've seen Harriers in static displays at several shows but never saw a flight performance by this V/STOL aircraft (the one flown by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie "True Lies" - a very cool albeit highly implausible scene). I have a few more pictures on Flickr.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Obama and Science

Science and technology are vitally important to the future of this country and indeed the world. Voters should know the positions of the candidates on these vital issues. Science Debate 2008 is a grassroots initiative to encourage the presidential candidates to debate the most important questions in science. This initiative is supported by leading scientific and engineering organizations, universities, and many individuals including Nobel Prize winners. They have received over 3,400 questions from 38,000 individual signers, and they have distilled these down to the 14 most important questions, stated to encourage discussion and embellishment in a debate setting.

While I have not seen any sign that there will be a direct presidential debate on science, Barack Obama's campaign has submitted his answers to the 14 questions (McCain's campaign has indicated that he too will provide answers). Obama's answers are thoughtful and include specific policy proposals to deal with these issues. It is encouraging to see that unlike the Bush administration, Obama takes seriously the issues of global climate change, pandemics, stem cell research, energy, science education, scientific integrity, and yes, space (his answer to the space question is brief but consistent with the longer space policy document I referenced in an earlier post).

Looking beyond the media circus surrounding McCain's vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, I am more concerned that in addition to opposing government funding of sex education and wanting to deny the right to an abortion under nearly any circumstances, she openly supports the teaching of creationism in public schools. She is just scary. I was somewhat heartened to read this MSNBC Cosmic Log report on political prediction markets that don't seem to be too impressed with the convention hoopla (Dem or GOP) or with McCain's new "pit bull with lipstick." I hope they are right! Of course hope is not a strategy, so I'm also glad to learn that the Democratic drive to register voters in key states is going well. Maybe we will manage to avoid a Bush third term after all.

Carnival of Space #69: From A to Zed

Free Space gives us an alphabetical tour of twenty-six space and astronomy blog posts at this week's Carnival of Space. Check it out.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Solar Sails in Orbiter

I’m heading home Friday after a busy week in Glasgow, and with this very flaky hotel internet connection, I haven’t had much of a chance for blog reading or writing. But I did manage to read a great post on solar sails tonight at Centauri Dreams. Paul Gilster reviews an interesting new book, Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel.

This prompted me to see what Orbiter add-on makers have to offer in the solar sail department, and was happy to find that a 2002 add-on by “ObiWan” (Felipe Comparini) had been updated in 2007 for the current Orbiter version. I had to play around with installation folders to get it to work, but once I did, it worked well (I moved some .cfg and .ini files to the main /config folder - note that the orbiter.log file can be very informative when Orbiter crashes due to missing or misplaced files).

The solar sail configuration file says its area is 2800 (presumably square meters, about 53 meters square). This looks about right compared to the shuttle I inserted in the second picture for scale (shuttle length is about 37 meters). So this is not an interstellar sail, but it lets you play around to see how these things work. The included scenario starts you in a near-circular Earth orbit at about 1220 km altitude where you can separate from an upper stage (J), wait a few minutes for clearance, and deploy the sail (D). The animation is pretty cool.

This new version includes an autopilot which takes care of orienting the sail so the solar flux raises your apogee over a series of many orbits (turning edge-on to the sun on the “upper” part of each orbit). Normal and transverse forces are reported at the bottom of the screen, along with the sail angle (maximum normal force is about 0.35 Newtons or about 0.078 pounds-force). I used up to 1000x time acceleration and got the apogee up to about 7000 km before saving my scenario and quitting to write this.

ObiWan includes very brief instructions and the solar radiation pressure equations he used to implement this add-on. It always impresses me that Orbiter’s open architecture allows things like space elevators, rail guns, and solar sails in addition to any kind of rocket-like vehicle, and that add-on developers use these features in their add-ons – all for free.

P.S. The force values reported by this add-on seem substantially too high. The solar radiation pressure at 1 AU is about 4.5x10-6 N/m^2 so for a perfectly reflecting surface at normal incidence, the force would be 2*(4.5x10-6 N/m^2)*(2800 m^2) or about 0.025 newton. To get 0.35 N would take almost 40,000 square meters.

Monday, September 01, 2008


So far Glasgow seems like a pretty nice city. I’ve only explored the area around Glasgow Caledonian University which is hosting the conference I’m attending this week. I arrived this morning in heavy rain, but by early afternoon it had gotten sunny and I spent some time walking around after lunch. I wish I had some pictures of my own to show, but the digital camera I bought at the last minute (long story) doesn’t work. I bought a couple of cheapo disposable film cameras and but I won’t know the results for a while, a rather retro experience in the digital gratification era.

I always explore bookstores, even in Germany, Taiwan, and Japan, but the nice thing about UK bookshops is I can actually read the books and magazines. I spent some time in Borders (I know, that’s American, but the books are different) and in Waterstones, a UK stalwart. I like the fact that there’s a magazine here called Spaceflight, and I bought the September issue. Serendipity struck in the science section with the late Ernst Mayr’s 2001 book What Evolution Is. This has put Tom Kelly’s LM book on temporary hold, and three chapters in, I really like it. More later, probably. Most of those three chapters were read this evening over a couple of pints of Guinness in a nearby Irish pub, so I’m ready to call it a long jet-lagged day.