Grab Your Mai Tai and Helmet, We’re Flying into Space… from Hawaii!

Coming to a tropical island near you (NASA, edited by Ian O'Neill)
Coming to a tropical island near you (NASA, edited by Ian O'Neill)

Hawaii state officials are seriously considering applying to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a spaceport licence. According to local media, Hawaii has been approached by four space tourism companies wanting to launch their spaceplanes from the Pacific islands. I’m assuming that includes Rocketship Global (as their promo video was being used in the report), XCOR (as their Lynx would be more than capable of using existing runways) and possibly Virgin Galactic? Richard Branson is making moves to launch passengers through the Aurora Borealis from the Swedish town of Kiruna, why not launch passengers from a tropical location too? Makes perfect sense.

At first, I was a little sceptical about this possibility, after all who really wants spaceplanes blasting into suborbital space from one of the most beautiful locations on the planet? I’ve visited Maui and Oahu, and I would hate to see any (more) damage done to the place. However, these commercial spaceplanes aren’t exactly huge polluters (no more than your average airliner that lands at Honolulu International in any case) and the launches would be a great source of revenue for the islands in the form of taxes (as will be the case in New Mexico) and tourism. And then there’s the possibility of accessing Hawaii via suborbital flightpaths from California and Japan. Flight-time from Hawaii to mainland US will be slashed from five hours to 90 minutes. If that means I can leave my house and be on Waikiki in about two hours… who am I to stand in the way of progress?

Unfortunately a lot of misplaced hope and optimism is placed on commercial spaceflight, so we’ll have to see how the Hawaii Spaceport idea develops before we go getting too excited…

For more, check out Space Tourist Suborbital Flight from Hawaii?

Morse Code Messaging with the Stars

Sirius morse code, but what does it say? (©Jimmy Westlake)
Sirius Morse code, but what does it say? (©Jimmy Westlake)

It’s another one of those “I wish I’d thought of that” moments. Well, at least it would have been if I knew Morse code. And if I was an astrophotographer. I have a camera, and some patience, and have worked out how to capture the Moon with my ancient SLR, so perhaps there’s some hope yet? Nah, I’ll give up on this one.

Jimmy Westlake from Colorado took this shot of star trails, with the brightest star being Sirius. Usually, star trails are continuous arcs of light after keeping the shutter of the camera open for minutes-hours at a time. You’ll notice that this picture is different, the star trails are broken. It turns out that Westlake wanted to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy 2009 in his own way:

This is actually a series of 28 separate exposures on one piece of film. The ‘dots’ are 30-second exposures; the ‘dashes’ are 3-minute exposures. The ‘shutter’ creating the gaps was my shivering, gloved hand held over the lens in the 0ºF Colorado air. The entire message required just under two hours to record. Every few minutes, I had to turn on a blow dryer to keep the frost from forming on the lens–and me!

I’ll let you try to decipher the code if you can read Morse code, otherwise read on for the answer…
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Peter Higgs Discovers Higgs Boson… in the Mail!

Dr Peter Higgs holds his very own Higgs boson (©Particle Zoo/Peter Higgs)
Peter Higgs holds his very own Higgs boson (©Particle Zoo/Peter Higgs)

In October, something very special happened to me. There, on the doorstep, a Higgs boson sat, waiting to be picked up and unwrapped from his packaging (and yes, I can confirm, he is a he).

Of course, he wasn’t the same Higgs boson physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were looking for, he was a Higgs boson plushie from Julie Peason’s Particle Zoo.

Since that day, Higgsy (as I affectionately call him) has been sitting on my desk, watching me write, whilst holding down a stack of papers when I have my office window open.

Yesterday, I received some more good news via email from my friend Julie, the Particle Zookeeper. The particle physicist whom the Higgs boson is named after has also discovered his very own Higgs boson… at his home in Scotland!
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Is the Universe a Holographic Projection?

Luke and Obi-Wan look at a 3D hologram of Leia projected by R2D2 (Star Wars)
Luke and Obi-Wan look at a 3D hologram of Leia projected by R2D2 (Star Wars)

Could our cosmos be a projection from the edge of the observable Universe?

Sounds like a silly question, but scientists are seriously taking on this idea. As it happens, a gravitational wave detector in Germany is turning up null results on the gravitational wave detection front (no surprises there), but it may have discovered something even more fundamental than a ripple in space-time. The spurious noise being detected at the GEO600 experiment has foxed physicists for some time. However, a particle physicist from the accelerator facility Fermilab has stepped in with his suspicion that the GEO600 “noise” may not be just annoying static, it might be the quantum structure of space-time itself
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Astroengine Social Media: Facebook Connect

Facebook Connect, a new era for social media...
Facebook Connect, a new era for social media...

Facebook recently officially announced the release of Facebook Connect. At first, I was a little dubious as to what it would do; after all who needs to sign in to their Facebook account when surfing other websites, right?

Actually, Facebook Connect is a little deeper than that. Until now, Facebook has remained on Facebook.com, there was no way to transplant any of the social media applications to your own website (apart from a few developers). Applications for Facebook have been around since the dawn of the site, allowing users to develop and launch their own “useful” tools to connect, play, message and inform friends. Some have argued that the site was becoming cumbersome, with a vast number of user applications ballooning the platform out of all proportions. Many userpages were cluttered and overcrowded (including mine). So only a few weeks ago, Facebook underwent a huge face-lift, appearing to cut most of the chaff from userpages.

So far, so good.

But then the growing company announces it was developing its flexible platform to branch out. It would appear Facebook.com was just the beginning, over the coming months we’ll see Facebook applications appearing on other websites, expanding the scope of this social networking tool across the Internet…
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Who Said Star Wars Was Dead? Introducing the Airborne Laser

A plane... with a frickin' laser attached to its head! Sorry, couldn't resist... The 747 plus ABL (USAF)
A plane... with a frickin' laser attached to its head! Sorry, couldn't resist... The 747 plus ABL (USAF)

The US Air Force and a number of military contractors have successfully test-fired the first aircraft-based military laser system called the “Airborne Laser” (or ABL). Airborne Laser? Looking at the laser-touting Boeing 747 above, you’d think the USAF would have come up with a more imaginative name… Like, “Project Lightning Strike“, “Winged Overlord” or “Delta Echo Alpha Tango Hotel (DEATH)“. There’s probably some military call-sign, but on reading about the ABL, I found myself a little bored of the concept until I saw the finished product…
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Introducing the Multiple Kill Vehicle (a.k.a. The Scariest Thing I’ve Seen All Day)

The MKV in an unnervingly steady hover (MDA)
The MKV in an unnervingly steady hover (MDA)

The ominously named Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) is the next advanced robotic weapon that could be deployed in space to defend against multiple incoming missiles. Designed and built by the US Missile Defence Agency, this little hovering craft will carry multiple anti-missile warheads to see off several threats.

To be honest, I didn’t write this post for the sake of showing off this robotic military tool, I actually think this is an interesting development for small, autonomous spacecraft. Also, when I watched the video of the test flight of the MKV, I had a wave of fear come over me. It may be small, but I sure wouldn’t like to bump into it during a dark orbit
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Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO

It would appear that yet another extrasolar planet has been directly observed!

Only last week, the Hubble Space Telescope released news that it had spotted an exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut. This is the first ever direct observation of an exoplanet in optical wavelengths. On the same day, joint observations by the ground-based (adaptive optics-powered) Keck II and Gemini infrared telescopes discovered a collection of three large alien worlds orbiting a star catalogued as HR 8799.

Today, a completely different observatory appears to have discovered yet another exoplanet orbiting the hot star Beta Pictoris (in the constellation of Pictor). European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers have directly imaged β Pictoris b, an alien planet orbiting 8 AU from its host star.

A phenomenal achievement considering β Pictoris is over 63 light years away…
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Meteor Explodes Over Canada

Only a month ago, a series of all-sky cameras in the Canadian region of southern Ontario captured a long-lasting meteorite fireball as it streaked across the skies. Last night it was the turn of the central province of Saskatchewan to see the spectacular fireball of a meteroid dropping through the atmosphere. According to eye witnesses, the intense light lit up the dark skies and a series of thunderous booms shook the ground.

Another day living in the interplanetary shooting gallery I suppose
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Sci-Fi Space Robots: Top Five

Update (Nov 18th): OK, it looks like this article just hit the front page of Digg. Whilst cool, I’ve made a very quick deduction that people from Digg must not read the text of an article before commenting. Please read the opening paragraph before shouting “OMFG! This guy should really understand what sci-fi means!.” Perhaps the title could be improved (read: “Top 5 Space Robots that Look Like Science Fiction“), but I think all this can be remedied by simply reading the text and not just looking at the pictures. Thanks!

I love science fiction, I always have. In fact, it was the main motivational factor for me to begin to study science in the early 90’s. Although sci-fi is outlandish, futuristic and seemingly impossible, there is actually a high degree of science fact behind the TV shows, movies and video games. So when I was young, sci-fi fuelled my enthusiasm for physics; more specifically, astrophysics.

Many years after these first forays into trying to understand how the Universe really worked, I now find myself drawn to real space missions doing real science only to find the divide between sci-fi and sci-fact is getting smaller and smaller. However, to ignite the imagination and build an enthusiasm for the “futuristic” science being carried out right now, it helps if the robotic embodiment of the satellite, rover, probe or lander looks futuristic itself (possibly even a bit “sci-fi”). This way we not only do great science, but we ignite the imaginations of men, women and children who would have otherwise ignored the science behind space exploration.

So, here are my top five missions to ignite the imagination, past and future…
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