Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bubba & Me (JPL Open House this Saturday)

As I mentioned a few weeks back, this Saturday I'll be one of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors volunteering at the annual JPL Open House in Pasadena. It turns out that I'll be helping out in the outdoor Mars exhibit area in the afternoon from 1:00 to 5:00 pm.

My role will be to "interact with public" at the "Moving MER" exhibit under an outdoor tent, where an engineering rover named "Bubba" will demonstrate how the rocker-bogie wheel/suspension system enables the real Mars Rovers to roll over fairly large rocks while keeping the main body of the rover pretty level. JPL sent me some Mars Program "talking points," but fortunately I know a fair amount about Mars and the MER program, so I think I will do OK talking with members of the public. Guess this means I don't get to drive Bubba (I think that's Bubba in the picture, but I'm not 100% sure).

UPDATE: Nope, that wasn't "Bubba," it was probably "Rocky 8" - this picture from today shows (L to R) Dr. Fuk Li (Manager, NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Program), Bubba (MER Full-Scale Mobility Test Vehicle), and me. More JPL Open House pictures and info to follow soon...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PTTU: Be Careful!

I need to be extra careful around my computer now that I have a Portal to the Universe on my toolbar, though I don't think there's much chance I'll fall through it and end up in the Crab Nebula. It is a really cool new way to keep up with all sorts of astronomy and space-related developments. I guess it's a Web 2.0 kind of "aggregator" that collects and displays news items, blog posts, podcasts, and such in one convenient place. I even found my most recent blog post on the pull down list on my toolbar. Cool!

Carnival of Space Turns 100!

This week's Carnival of Space is hosted by One-Minute Astronomer, and it's a big one, number one-hundred! It's also a really cool one, with quite a lot of new information for me, starting with One-Minute Astronomer itself. It's an excellent observation-oriented and educational astronomy site.

Other special points of interest for me:

Mang's Bat Page has an introduction to interactive orbit simulators available through JPL's Small-Body Database Browser (I searched for Eros) and other online resources.

Beyond Apollo has a great post on Wernher von Braun's 1969 proposal for a nuclear-rocket Mars mission. Of course this never happened, but this post shows well how it might have been done.

And most amazing of all (partly because I knew nothing of the 2008 Orbiter add-on that is featured) is a post and video on The Discovery Enterprise blog of another Apollo-based Mars mission that never was, this one based on Stephen Baxter's alternate history SF novel Voyage. I loved that book, and I knew there had been an Orbiter add-on based on the book, but it was for an early version of Orbiter. This new add-on is called Baxter's Voyage Beta and was uploaded by "belisarius" in May 2008. The video by "rseferino" is really cool. He has some other Orbiter-based videos that also look interesting including one based on the amazing 2001: A Space Odyssey add-on (Floyd's Journey).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Appreciation of Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope is one the most amazing things humans have ever done with space flight. Of course everyone says things like this, and many things about space flight are amazing. But HST still blows my mind. Start with the plans for a bus-size telescope that would fill up the shuttle's payload bay, with incredible optics and instruments, and equally incredible pointing and stability systems. The instruments were planned from the start to be replaced as technology advanced. It would be an advanced robotic telescope that relied on human spaceflight to get to orbit in the first place, and that would be upgraded in the future by spacewalking astronauts.

Of course there was that unfortunate business with the wrong shaped primary mirror. I had nothing to do with that, but as an optical engineer, I was still embarrassed. HST made optical design and optical engineering temporarily famous (or infamous). But optical engineers (including some from my company), NASA, and the astronauts came through with the fixes, and HST went on to have a fabulous career as one of humanity's best windows on the universe. Additional upgrades gave rise to ever more amazing discoveries over the last 19 years.

Coming up soon will be the final Hubble service mission, STS-125 (planned for May 12 launch but it now might go a day early). It's a challenging mission including on-orbit "microsurgery" for some things that were never meant to be worked on up there, but if all goes as planned, we'll end up with the greatest Hubble ever.

As he most often does, Dave Hopkins is coming through with updates and scenarios for the Shuttle Fleet add-on to allow Orbiter users to simulate the mission, even before it happens (thanks Dave). He has released the first version of an STS-125 expansion pack on Orbit Hangar. Make sure you've downloaded and installed previous updates in the correct order before trying out the STS-125 (read the notes!).

There are just a few scenarios so far - launch STS-125, then scenarios to practice final rendezvous, robotic arm grappling, and berthing the HST in Atlantis' cargo bay. A bit tricky! The included HST model gives you what you need, but doesn't look very realistic, so for my "photo session" I installed a different HST model by marg777. Then I did some scenario file text editing to replace the standard HST model in Dave's HST grapple scenario with "HST1" as shown in the screen shot above. I think it looks pretty good (there are a few things wrong with my pictures - any guesses?).

I'm looking forward to following STS-125 in mid-May and to the next generation of fabulous images and astronomical discoveries from HST after its final upgrades.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Great Cassini Photo Collection

The Boston Globe has a great photo journalism series called The Big Picture which covers a wide range of newsworthy and photo-worthy subjects. Most recently: Cassini's Continued Mission with 24 awesome images of Saturn and its rings and moons. It's "continued" because Cassini's original four-year mission ended in June 2008, but the spacecraft remains in great health and the funding was made available. The extended "Cassini Equinox" mission will run through September 2010, with further extensions possible after that. NASA/JPL image.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Whole Guitarist

My friend Peter Inglis is a talented guy. We "met" online about 10 years ago when I discovered MiGMan's Flight Simulation Museum. I was really into flight sims at the time, and his online flight sim museum was (and still is) an amazing labor of love. A bit later I learned that Pete was also an incredible classical and jazz guitarist. So we also had music in common (although I've never played a place quite as nice as the Sydney Opera House), and it was great when we could finally meet in person in 2006 when my wife and I took a vacation in Australia. Pete showed us around Sydney, and we attended one of his gigs. It was cool. Dude can play!

Pete is also a guitar teacher and the author of a wonderful book, Guitar Playing and How It Works. He's got an updated electronic edition that you can buy and download from his newly redesigned Whole Guitarist web site. His systematic and "wholistic" approach emphasizes the role of your whole body in developing proper technique. Key points:
  • Anybody can play music
  • There are hierarchies of skill required
  • Performance is a wholistic activity
  • Not all fingerings work well in performance
  • Independence of the fingers is required
  • Loops are the most efficient way to develop technique
  • Calibration is essential to reliable performance
  • Intentional control of mental states
  • A wholistic approach brings everything together in performance
  • A reductionist approach helps isolate areas for improvement
  • Coordination essential for technique
  • Rhythm in music arises from bodily movement
  • Balance timbre and volume to project
  • Articulation adds clarity
  • Left hand - expansion and embrace contains the strings
  • Scales on one string develop melody playing
  • Practice musical combinations based on repertoire
You don't have to aspire to be a classical or jazz guitarist to benefit from this book - acoustic and even rock players will learn useful techniques too. Whether you're a beginner or have been playing for years, this book can help you play better. I think it's a great bargain too, at AUD 19.99 (only about US $12).

Peter also has a YouTube channel where you can see and hear examples of his solo and ensemble playing.

99 Carnivals and Counting...

The Carnival of Space is being hosted this week by Alice's Astro Info. It's space carnival number 99 and the first one to be presented in the form of a recipe for home made bread.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

STS-400 LON (Launch On Need)

STS-125 with STS-400 Rescue v1b
There are two shuttles on two pads at KSC now. Atlantis is in preparation to launch on the final Hubble service mission on May 12 (STS-125), and Endeavour has been rolled out to serve as the rescue shuttle in the unlikely event that Atlantis is unable to return from orbit (due to heavy thermal tile damage or some other major problem). This would be STS-400 LON "launch on need," and it's needed because if Atlantis has such a bad problem, it would be unable to reach the ISS as a "safe haven." All other recent shuttle missions have been space station missions, allowing the visiting shuttle crew to take refuge in the ISS for up to three months should a severe shuttle problem prevent reentry. Universe Today yesterday published a good, brief explanation of how this rescue mission would work.

I actually played around with simulating this in Orbiter last summer (picture above, more here) when STS-125 was still planned for a fall 2008 launch. I just installed and tested the latest Shuttle Fleet add-on package (4.1.5) along with the necessary expansion and payload packs and a small service pack that was released today on Orbit Hangar, bringing it up to v4.1.9. There are no STS-125 or STS-400 scenarios yet, but the launch autopilot now allows targeting an apogee of around 600 km, the altitude necessary to reach the Hubble's orbit.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Solar Sailing Article

Solar Sail in Orbiter
The May issue the The Atlantic has an interesting article on the solar sail test project sponsored by The Planetary Society (the article is already available online). Cosmos 1 was the first attempt to launch and deploy a spacecraft with a solar sail, and the first space mission by a privately-funded space interest group, but unfortunately the Russian launch vehicle failed shortly after launch on June 21, 2005, and Cosmos 1 never reached orbit.

The Planetary Society is still working to keep the project alive and raise the money needed to launch Cosmos 2 (estimated at $4-5 million). I'm a member of TPS and I've occasionally donated money for various projects in addition to the normal membership fees. I'm headed over to the solar sail donation page right now. If any of my Gentle Readers happen to be space-minded millionaires, your help would be especially appreciated, but any donation will help. Solar sails are probably the best bet for a technology that could eventually get us to the stars. That's certainly a long way off, but we have to start somewhere.

The picture above is a solar sail add-on model in Orbiter.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

LibraryThing Redux

I wrote about LibraryThing in 2005 when I first discovered it. I was excited because it seemed like an easy way to create a catalog of my books, something I had dabbled with in various ways in the past (using paper notebooks, HyperCard on the Mac, even Excel). It was always too much work to enter the data after just a handful of books, but LibraryThing gave you lots of ways to do that, like copying the book info from the database of Amazon or the Library of Congress or of a LibraryThing user with similar interests (it also has a bit of bookish social networking flavor).

Alas, even that apparently became too hard (can I really be that lazy?), or more likely, I moved on to another obsession or three after a few weeks. Tonight I spent a little time adding some books that I had reviewed in my blog (I even pasted in the URL of the review for some of them), but I still have only 483 books in my LibraryThing catalog, and I must own at least 3,000 books (probably more, many have been in boxes for years).

This renewed interest was actually inspired by a LibraryThing email newsletter that came today. It mentioned a new LibraryThing "widget" which is installed in the column to the right, below my Flickr "mini slide show" widget. For now at least. I like the animated book cover display but I worry that it will remind me of a book I will feel compelled to finally read (or reread). I'm also worried that this is something I'm worried about. There must be something much more important that I should be worrying about.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mars 500

While I was in the UK last week, I picked up a copy of BBC FOCUS, which is a great monthly science/technology magazine. The main cover story was on bioterrorism, but I was most interested in "Astro Big Brother" which described an interesting joint Russian/European project, a simulated 520-day human Mars mission.

The Mars 500 mission will be totally Earth-bound at a facility in Moscow, where 6 volunteers (4 Russian, 2 European) will stay for over 500 days in a small, multi-room isolation chamber meant to simulate a Mars- bound spacecraft. Although it will be at one-gee and will not have a self-contained life-support system, the crew will otherwise be physically isolated. They will have a stored food supply to last the duration of the mission (and also the ability to grow some of their own food). They will have communication with mission control, although communication time delays will be simulated based on their calculated distance from Earth. There will also be a Mars surface operations phase during which part of the crew will enter a smaller "landing vehicle" and spend time on a simulated Mars surface.

What's the point? Psychological and other "human factors," pretty much. The crew will have assignments for scientific experiments, system maintenence, etc., but they will mainly have a lot of time with a small group of people in a confined space (the interior looks something like a very low tech house trailer). Of course crews have spent time in confined and isolated spaces before (submarines, Antarctic bases), but probably not for anything like 520 days (17 months, almost a year and a half).

I don't think I'd want to do that unless I was really going somewhere cool. But it makes sense to check this out, even though we're still quite a few years from actually stuffing people into a Mars-bound spacecraft (and some Mars mission profiles are more like two years end to end).

The full mission is supposed to start in October 2009. The main site for the project is here (Russia based, but in English). It doesn't have too many bells and whistles (the ESA pages are better). The BBC FOCUS article is not online, but might be next month when the new issue comes out.

UPDATE: Thanks to a tip from Suzy McHale, I can point to a better set of photographs at the Russian-only "Marc-500" site. I found I could still read enough Russian to find the photograph section and figure out some of the captions. There is currently a 105-day test mission underway with a six-man crew (4 Russians, 2 Europeans). The photo below is from one of the gallery sections with photos from April 12, Yuri's Day, a big day in Russian (and Earth) space history.

Cool "Fate"

I love this record! OK, it's not a "record," it was an MP3 download, and an easy impulse buy even though I never heard of Dr. Dog since it was an Amazon MP3 Daily Deal for only $1.99.

Fate has been on constant play on my iPod the last couple of days. The songs are good but the arrangements and background vocals are amazing. They don't really sound like the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but there is something about the arrangements and background vocals that often evokes Beatles or Beach Boys memories (Aimee Mann is another artist who does this for me, Beatles-wise). At other times they have a looseness that reminds me of early Neil Young with Crazy Horse or The Band. Lots of small surprises in the arrangements. Somebody's weird quilting project for the cover, but OK.

Cool stuff. Recommended!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Podcast: Exploring Space with Your Computer

My podcast for the IYA 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast series is up today. It's called "Exploring Space with Your Computer" and it introduces the free Orbiter space flight simulator and Stellarium, a free planetarium simulation program. It also briefly mentions several other free programs that are available for exploring space on your computer, including Celestia and WorldWide Telescope. I've documented the simulated flights in the podcast with a bunch of screenshots and I've placed those images in a Flickr set "IYA Podcast 4/14/09" for easy viewing.

In the podcast, I mention that further information will be available on this blog, and that is true - since 2005, I have written extensively here about Orbiter, and occasionally about Stellarium and other free programs and web sites for space exploration and astronomy.

In addition, I have a downloadable PowerPoint presentation called "Robots, Astronauts, and You: Exploring Space with a Computer." This 51-slide presentation covers a lot of the same material as the podcast but with more depth (and pictures). This is a version of a presentation I often use in my talks as a JPL Solar System Ambassador.

If you heard the podcast and have any questions about Orbiter or the other things I discuss, feel free to post them as comments here and I will try to answer.

And as I say in the podcast, you don't need a telescope or a spaceship to go play in space.

Web Links
I just saw the script for my podcast on the 365 Days of Astronomy web site, and unfortunately the links I added at the end of the script are not included (they also didn't mention the podcast background music, which I composed and performed). Here are the links:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Carnival of Space #98

Universe Today has posted the latest edition of the Carnival of Space, a twenty-one post salute to the good, the bad, and the creepy in space (like the picture above, pointed out by Dave Mosher of Space Disco).

Europa-Callisto Joyride

Podcast - Europa-Callisto6
In preparation for my April 14 IYA podcast, I wanted to add some graphics to my Flickr site to further illustrate the simulated Europa to Callisto journey that I "dramatize" in the podcast. The basic tools for this are Orbiter, IMFD v4.2 (not the latest version), and Andy McSorley's excellent Europa to Callisto IMFD tutorial. These are all free downloads.

IMFD is an amazing interplanetary navigation tool by Jarmo Nikkanen. Andy's tutorial was inspired in part by an earlier IMFD tutorial by Robert Denny, which also exists in video form. I prefer Andy's tutorial because it explains more about the various specialized terminology used in IMFD. I've been away from IMFD for a long time, so I had to read through Andy's tutorial completely before successfully flying from Europa to Callisto yesterday morning. This is also an excellent illustration of the "forgetting curve" since I was the proofreader and tester for that tutorial while Andy was developing it. Of course that was a couple of years ago and I can barely remember what happened last week (I think I was in Europe, not Europa).

It was not completely successful trip (I mean the Callisto one - the Europe trip went rather well). Rather than starting with Andy's tutorial starting point scenario, I took a different starting scenario and changed the date to March 14, 2084. This gave me some nice views of Io but it was not the best starting date for a time- and fuel-efficient transfer. Fortunately the Delta Glider carries a lot of fuel for its nuclear fusion (or whatever) rocket engines. The other thing was that I missed a step and ended up with a retrograde orbit (orbiting opposite the direction of rotation of Callisto, orbital inclination of 163.76 degrees in my case). This doesn't matter much when you're on a simulated joyride but IMFD allows you to precisely determine your arriving orbit if you use it properly, and I just sort of said "whatever." The picture above shows the final Callisto orbit.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trailer for "Moon" Movie

I wrote about "Moon" in January. Now the official trailer is out for a June 12 release (at least in New York and Los Angeles). It looks really cool.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Podcast Preview

Podcast - Jupiter & Io Setting Over Europa
My podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy series will appear on Tuesday, April 14. It's called "Exploring Space with Your Computer" and it focuses mainly on Orbiter and Stellarium. At the end of the podcast, I say that additional information on the stuff I discuss can be found on my blog. That's pretty much true in general, but to prepare for some more specific follow-up posts, I've added a bunch of new screen shots on my Flickr site. I also created a new Flickr set called IYA Podcast 4/14/09 which includes the new pictures plus a bunch of related older ones. You can view this as a slide show if you like.

I created a new Orbiter scenario with better views for the "orbiting Europa" scene in the podcast. I set it in 2084 instead of 2001, and by luck, Io was positioned nicely in front of Jupiter for some of the screen shots, including the one shown here. There are also some Apollo 11/AMSO screen shots and a few Stellarium screens (one shown in my earlier post today).

Stars Over the Pacific

Scorpio 10 km Over Pacific, Const. Lines
En route to San Francisco from Tokyo on March 27, I woke up in the middle of the night and opened the shade. It was amazing! The sky was inky black, with thousands of stars visible, as well as part of the Milky Way. But what was that bright reddish star? The constellation looked familiar but with so many stars visible, I couldn't be sure what I was seeing. I had to figure out where I was and which direction I was looking, and also estimate the local time.

I used United's flight map to find that I was looking south over Pacific (on right side of the plane heading roughly east), at around the latitude of Oregon (maybe 43 degrees north) and west of Anchorage (about 155 degrees west longitude). It was around 10 am east coast time so maybe around 5 am local where I was, with altitude around 35,000 feet. My PC wasn't handy and I was hoping to go back to sleep (Stellarium would have been helpful), but I did have Starmap on the iPod Touch in my pocket, and that would do the trick.

The constellation was Scorpius, and the bright red star Antares. Flying east at high speed, the onrushing sunrise soon wiped out all the sky objects I could see from my window. It was really cool.

The picture here is from Stellarium, set up for that date, time, and approximate position and altitude.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Enigmatic Anathem

After some 16,000 iPod Touch page-flicks, I have finished reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem (using Amazon's Kindle for iPhone application). While I bogged down in a few sections that seemed closer to Gödel, Escher, and Bach than to any "science fiction" novel I ever read, Anathem is an impressive feat of imaginative world-building. In spite of the length (960 paper pages), a lot of invented vocabulary, relatively weak character development, and the sometimes heavy philosophical side trips, it held my interest quite well.

If you decide to read Anathem, don't be discouraged by the first 100 pages or so which focus on the arcane concerns and ceremonies of the "Avout," people who live a monk-like existence in walled, isolated "concents" where they are allowed very limited contact with people and things of the "outside world." The Avout are generally not religious - they are devoted to mathematics, philosophy, and science (but they are not allowed access to most technology - long story). Their institutions have survived for thousands of years while governments and cities of the "saecular" world have come and gone.

I'm tired (it's after midnight in London, flying home Friday) so I won't say much more about Anathem except that it is as much an adventure-packed SF novel as it is a novel of philosophy and an exploration of the need for a "long now" perspective. There's a lot of strange and thought-provoking stuff too (even some orbital mechanics).

Monday, April 06, 2009

Robot Arm Play (SRMS Simulation)

After meeting astronaut Cady Coleman last weekend at Space Expo 2009, I looked up some information on her background (I wished I had done that before I met her, but things have been busy). One interesting fact I learned was that she has been chief of robotic arm operations and training for all shuttle and ISS missions. This prompted me to do a little SRMS (Shuttle Remote Manipulator System) experimentation myself using the Shuttle Fleet add-on in Orbiter.

When I do Orbiter demos, I will often deploy the SRMS manually just to show that it works in the sim. This time I actually reviewed the Shuttle Fleet PDF manual and especially the SRMS Checkout Tutorial that Dave Hopkins has thoughtfully provided with the Fleet documentation. Although I don't know how accurately the SRMS model in the Shuttle Fleet reflects the detailed operations of the real thing, it certainly has the same degrees of freedom (joints that can be set to specific angles and moved in specific sequences), so I think it does give a pretty good idea of the challenges of operating the system with precision. And you can actually grab and deploy things with it.

I didn't have too much time, but I managed to get the hang of it and take some pictures of the first deployed inspection position, looking with the end effector camera at the port side of Atlantis's nose (screen shots above). I followed the tutorial to go to the initial operating position, saved that sequence for later recall, entered and applied the angles and moves for the inspection position, stored that sequence, then used the stored sequences to do the whole thing again (much quicker). The Orbiter version of the SRMS has multiple speeds in case you get impatient operating in real time (the real arm moves quite slowly for obvious reasons).

This is something I didn't know much about, and it's really pretty cool. Note that this is just one of many features in the Shuttle Fleet add-on, which in turn is only one of hundreds of available add-ons for Orbiter (though certainly one of the very best). My next test: grabbing the Hubble from orbit like the STS-125 astronauts will do next month. That's a challenge for rendezvous as well as SRMS operations.

Update: In terms of how accurately the Shuttle Fleet SRMS model reflects operations of the real thing, one interesting point is that you can use tables (see below) from actual NASA Flight Data File procedures ("PDRS OPS C/L") to determine the inputs in Orbiter, so at a system level, the fidelity is quite good, though of course the "user interface" in the actual shuttle is not duplicated. Instead you are entering keyboard commands and/or filling in dialog boxes.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

JPL Open House 2009

On Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3, the 2009 JPL Open House will take place in Pasadena, California, and I'm happy to say that this year, I'll be there. Although I lived in the Pasadena area from 1980 to 1988, and I've visited JPL several times on business, I've never been to an open house. Strange but true. So I'm pretty excited. I found this video which gives a pretty good idea of what goes on at a JPL Open House.

JPL Solar System Ambassadors are offered the chance to help out at the open house for a few hours on one of the two weekend days if they can make it to the Lab at their own expense. So I signed up for Saturday morning. I don't know what I'll be helping with yet, but if you go to JPL that morning, I'll be the one wearing... nothing related to space! That's one of the ground rules. Ambassadors are "civilian" volunteers, not employees of NASA, JPL, or Caltech, and they want to make this clear for any Ambassadors who are helping out at one of the mission booths. So we aren't allowed to wear anything with a NASA or mission logo or even anything space-related that is non-NASA. I assume I will be allowed to wear my 2009 Solar System Ambassador badge.

I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of cool space stuff and to meeting some of the JPL staff for the various missions, and maybe even a few of my fellow Ambassadors. If you're in the Los Angeles area that weekend and you're into space, the JPL Open House is a great opportunity.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Yuri's Night

Yuri's Night is April 12. It's a celebration of humanity's achievements in space, with parties planned around the world from April 4 through 12. I'll be in Europe most of that time so I'll try to catch a party in Munich or Amsterdam (probably no time). I'll actually be back on the eleventh (probably too tired).

The goal of Yuri's Night is to increase public interest in space exploration and to inspire a new generation of explorers. There's a cool theme song for Yuri's night this year, "Fueling Dreams that We Are Not Alone" by singer/songwriter Jay Garrigan, performed by his band Poprocket. I don't know how to embed an MP3 player in my blog, but you can play or download the MP3 here, and read about it on Jay's blog.

It's a Bionic Eye!

Actually it's an implantable telescope for people whose vision is severely degraded by macular degeneration. But damn, that sure looks like the Six Million Dollar Man's bionic eye! No zoom though. I want zoom in mine.

Thanks to MIT's Technology Review for helping me keep up with the future. I also discovered that they have a mobile version of their web site that looks great on the iPod Touch.