Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sneeking in on Cat's Feet

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

-- Carl Sandburg, 1916

This story sort of snuck into the media and disappeared almost as soon as it arrived. Not what you'd call too exciting, unless you're a Star Trek fan, but in my opinion, one of the greatest breakthoughs of the last 100 years, if the story is to be believed. Basically it's the validation of impulse drive -- a thruster that doesn't consume mass. (It consumes plenty of energy, but no mass) The mechanism has been observed for awhile. Essentially based on an asymmetric microwave resonant cavity. Microwave energy is pumped into the cavity, and a small amount of thrust is created due to the asymmetrical shape of the cavity. The microwaves are completely contained within the cavity, so the thrust isn't caused by microwave leakage. Instead the mechanism appears to be related to the variation of wave velocity within the cavity related to the cavity's width or diameter. NASA's thruster used low power and produced about 30 to 50 micro-newtons of thrust. Not very much, but measurable none the less. You can read about it here. To me there are two interesting aspects to this story. (1) A federal science agency just published data on a scientifically implausible device, and they don't exactly know why it works, but they know it works. and (2) a device has been demonstrated that most scientists would claim is impossible, but works just the same, which means that we are on the verge of a fundamental breakthrough in physics (or at least mechanics). This is how science works. A scientist runs an experiment and gets results that conflict with his theory. It's in that conflict that new theories arise.

Rosetta Craft Contacts Churyumov–Gerasimenko Comet

On August 6th, the ESA's Rosetta spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with the Churyumov–Gerasimenko Comet. Nice going ESA! The comet's furthest point from the sun is somewhere out between Mars and Jupiter, which is where it is now. It's closest approach to the sun will find it between Earth and Mars, so it isn't exactly next door. Quite the accomplishment. In the next few months Rosetta will send a lander down to the surface. Right now ESA is trying to figure out which landing area on the comet would be best.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Opfer Müssen Gebracht Werden!* -or- Excrement Occurs

(*Sacrifices must be made!)

Before the Wright brothers were much more than a gleam in their father's eye, Otto Lilienthal was experimenting with heavier than air flight using gliders of his own design. He became known as "the Glider King" during his career and served as an inspiration to the public and to scientists working on flying machines, including the aforementioned Wright brothers. He is also famous for the quote (his last words), "Opfer müssen gebracht werden!", the English translation roughly being "Sacrifices must be made." These were the last words he told to his brother while laying on his deathbed a day after he had crashed one of his gliders and sustained serious life-ending injuries. Otto understood, as I am sure the folks at SpaceX understand, that the road to successful flight will have bumps and the odd pothole which in the case of aviation often takes on the form of spectacular accidents involving falling from great heights, crushing metal, and lots of fire. Accidents are not show stoppers, but rather the price that one is sometimes obliged to pay to discover greater understanding and ultimately more safe flight.
I'm sorry it happened, but I wish them greater success in the years ahead.

The above explosion was brought to you by SpaceX -- no small animals nor government funding was harmed in this event.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Happy 45th Anniversary Apollo 11! (a day late)

Yeah, I know this is coming a day late, but here it is anyway. Forty-Five years ago yesterday, Neil Armstrong became the first earthling to step down upon the surface of another heavenly body other than the Earth. It was that famous, "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" moment most people now remember from their classes in school. For many of us who were alive and old enough to remember back then, it was one of those extremely rare, shared moments in our lives when one's sense of self and sense of humanity radically changes. After the moon landing, traveling out into space was no longer confined to the world of science fiction and fantasy. We could, if we were so inclined, settle space. And suddenly the idea that we could become a multi-planetary species wasn't so far-fetched. For me, the next similar sized impact we might experience would be a human landing on Mars, or more so for me at least, the establishment of a permanent human habitation off-planet. I think the first baby born off-planet will clinch our status as a space traveling species. For me that will be the next big earth-shattering human accomplishment. Neil and Buzz Aldrin only spent a few hours on the lunar surface, then headed back into orbit to meet up with Michael Collins in the command module and then returned to Earth. The other Apollo moon landings would stay longer, would include golf and driving on the lunar surface, and discovery of many mineral specimens that would fundamentally alter our view of the Earth and Moon's place in the solar system. Strangely, for all of the radical thought-shifting the moon landing accomplished, something odd happened afterwards. Almost the day after Apollo 11's return, space travel became "old hat". Interest in the moon landings slacked off pretty quickly. By the time Apollo 17 was leaving the moon, the TV stations had moved on to other programming. What many thought of as the greatest accomplishment of mankind became eclipsed by the War in Vietnam, the equal rights movement, and other Earth-based concerns (All worthy concerns, mind you). The space program, without the clear goal of beating the Russians to the moon, became unfocused and altered into a huge ungainly bureaucracy. I suppose it has something to do with human nature or the American culture, that we lose interest in great moments once they have passed, but I hope that someday we will again find our adventurous spirit and head back out into space in earnest. Until that time, I will write posts on the anniversary of events like this to remind readers (and myself) of our potential for greatness.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Yet Another Post of Various Notes

First off, Space-X concluded it's successful third Cargo Resupply Mission (CRS-3) on May 20th. The mission went without a hitch, although there was some strange water accumulation detected in the capsule during it's recovery. No news yet on what was the source of the water. Details to follow in some later post.

Shortly after the completion of CRS-3, Space-X unveiled the Dragon 2 spacecraft. You can watch the unveiling video here. The Dragon 2 is designed for rocket assisted landing on hard surfaces (land) rather than splashing down in the ocean (sea). The capsule has updated thrusters to accomplish this and small landing legs which pop out of the heat shield. The reasoning for this was to facility rapid turn-around and re-flight of the Dragon spacecraft after a mission.

According to a paper published in Science Magazine, researchers have found remanents of the planet Theia, a former planet believed responsible for the formation of the moon when it slammed into Earth some 4.5 billion years ago. If true, this new evidence lends credence to the Giant Impact Hypothesis of lunar formation. One thing that bugs me though is why is the Earth's orbit almost perfectly circular? One would think the chances that the planetary impact that formed the moon would result in a circular orbit would be slim to none. Of course, it's also hard to imagine that the moon just came along on its own and somehow dropped into Earth orbit.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

ISS Gets a Web-cam! ...and other news

There has been quite a lot going on in the Space News these days. SpaceX's Third ISS Resupply Mission (CRS-3) is well underway. SpaceX has tested their first stage landing capability, both during the CRS-3 Launch and again at their McGregor, TX test facility (See: 1000m test flight) (In case you're wondering, Grasshopper was a mocked-up Falcon-9 first stage, while the new test is being done with an actual Falcon-9 first stage. If you look closely, you can see that the landing legs are different, otherwise you might not notice). The tensions in Ukraine and Crimea are bleeding over into the space exploration realm as the US and others discover what happens when one of your international partners does something "naughty". I'm not sure I agree with Elon Musk's ploy to get the Air Force to open up their contract bidding process, but I do agree that such contracts need to be open. All these stories are very interesting, impressive, important, and big, but to me there's a still bigger story to discuss.

ISS has got a webcam! A little over 4 years ago I wrote a blog entry titled "Is a Webcam Really Too Much to Ask??". I have had this notion since the days of Dan Goldin that a web-cam on the side of the ISS would give earthlings the chance to experience the joy of spaceflight without the added expense of flying up to the ISS. It would be inspirational! Students would be transfixed! Poets would dream! World leaders would sue for peace! Congressmen would fund NASA! Great stuff! I assailed Mr. Goldin with emails, but to no avail (Although I may have earned myself a reputation as a stalker there). I could just imagine what the Earth would look like from space from the comfort of my own PC. Earth from a live video feed. I imagined it would be amazing! I could feel the awe and serenity I would experience viewing such a web-cam. I almost feel goosebumps writing about it. But why imagine when you can see the real thing right now!

Go there (or here) and check it out. You can read more about it here. Fantastic, I tell you. All the things (almost) I could've wanted (I had a notion of five cameras being integrated into a spherical view to allow the viewers to virtually "move the camera around" rather than have set directional views, but at this point I'll take what I can get).

The view at the head of this article was from what I'm calling the ISS front porch (leading edge). This next image is from the ISS back porch (trailing edge). There is also a straight-down shot. Enjoy the site while it's up and running.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Agglomeration of More Astro-based Announcements

The first official Cygnus delivery to the International Space Station launched on January 9, 2014. This follows on the heals of Space-X's successful Thaicom 6 launch on January 6th -- an auspicious beginning to 2014 for the Commercial Space industry.

It's somewhat interesting to note that the Thaicom 6 satellite was made by Orbital Sciences, the company responsible for the Cygnus spacecraft. The aerospace industry is interesting that way. Rivals are often as not collaborators in one way or another. The Cygnus spacecraft was docked with the International Space Station on January 12th. So far so good.

Lastly, in another bit of encouraging news, the Obama Administration has extended funding for the International Space Station until at least 2024. This means that commercial space carriers will have at least one destination to which to travel for the next decade or so. This was announced in conjunction with a series of summits put on by the International Academy of Astronautics on January 9th and 10th of this year.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Today I received a notice (actually 4) on Facebook from Robert Zubrin indicating that his book "Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism" has come out in paperback. Every time Mr. Zubrin posts on Facebook, he posts his stuff in at least four groups that I am also a part of, consequently I have no choice but to read at least one of the multitude of his posts. Sadly, I read the blurb that was attached and became incensed for the morning.

After spending an inordinate amount of time doing research, I concluded that his book is terribly flawed and full of flights of fancy. Basically Mr Zubrin attempts to go on an everything you know is wrong tirade about Malthus, other population growth scientists, Al Gore, and others, claiming that they are all "antihumanist" and clearly evil and clearly unqualified "pseudoscientists". He assumes that population growth isn't really a problem and that the technology will develop to allow us to grow our population up to 1000 times larger than our current 6 billion level.

Maybe I'm just one of those "weak minds" Einstein was referring to in the quote "Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds," but it seems to me that Mr Zubrin is an idiot, or perhaps a madman. And while it might be said that history often proves idiots and madmen right in the end, it must be remembered that history doesn't even bother recording the ravings of the much larger numbers of madmen who were completely wrong. The picture at the head of the entry provides an example of one of these unsung madmen. A full review of Zubrin's book can be found here.