NASA’s Continuing Foray Into Pop Culture

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)

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Oh what havoc faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert wrought on NASA and the ISS! To think that a little publicity stunt would actually put the U.S. space agency in a jam and incite grudging grumbles from Firefly fans who were sure that Node 3 would be called Serenity. Even a few Congressmen who found time away from dealing with a painful and deep recession that’s put the entire economy in turmoil, are now involved in sorting out this little mess.

But there’s actually an interesting question in this seeming non-story. Should NASA embrace the will of the masses and give nods to pop culture in how it officially names its spacecraft? There are stories of informal call signs for capsules and modules taken from the Peanuts comic strip, but there’s never been an official designation that reflects what’s popular here on Earth at the time of the mission. What would benefit NASA more? Giving in to the power of the fad or staying resolute with timeless names?

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NASA May Be Prosecuted for Death of Brian the Bat

Multi-million dollar anti-bat mesh to be built around Ares rocket before launch.

Artist impression of the multi-million dollar anti-bat mesh to be added to the Constellation launch tower to prevent another Brian the Bat tragedy (NASA)
Artist impression of the multi-million dollar anti-bat mesh to be added to the Constellation launch tower to prevent another Brian the Bat tragedy (NASA)

NOTE: The message that follows was part of the Universe Today’s April Fools. I hope you had a giggle. However, the Brian Bat Foundation is real, and the little animal will be forever remembered

Well, I didn’t see this coming. On setting up the Brian Bat Foundation, I was sure NASA was not to blame for Brian’s sad demise. However, a Florida state official has started legal proceedings against the space agency.

According to Florida transport law, if a truck hits an endangered animal on state highways, the company is liable. As NASA is the state’s (actually, the world’s) largest “logistics company”, it too falls under the umbrella of this little known animal protection technicality.

NASA enjoys total freedom of the airspace above the state, however the agency must still abide by the laws of the state, no matter how insignificant the rules may appear when compared with the endeavors of US activities in space.” — Statement by the District Attorney’s Office, Florida

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)
Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

In response to the surprise legal action, NASA has already put together a solution that will rid the future Constellation launchpad of any more roosting bats like Brian. There are also plans in place to hinder access to the pad by smaller mammals and reptiles. According to a Cape Canaveral launch safety officer, a lot of time is spent on the gruesome task of removing the carcasses of rats, mice, gophers and rabbits. “If you thought roadkill was bad, imagine it roasted,” the officer added. The proposed Ares anti-bat mesh suddenly seems like a step in the right direction (pictured top).

So, it would appear Brian was only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the well publicised death of the little guy wont be in vain after all…

For more details on this breaking news story, check out “NASA Could be ‘Criminally Negligent’ Over Brian the Bat Death,” at the Universe Today.

No Bucks for NASA Without Buck Rogers

Guest article by Nina Lincoff

An interview with Jeff Foust, Kathryn Thornton and Ian O’Neill.

SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)
SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)

On Feb. 24, 2009, a quarter of a billion dollars fell into the Antarctic Ocean.

NASA’s recently completed Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), failed 12 and a half minutes into flight when its upper rocket stage didn’t separate.

The $270 million satellite never made it into space. It did make quite a splash though, filmed for the world to see.

In today’s economic climate, NASA does not need failures like OCO. On Feb. 26, the Obama administration allocated $18.7 billion to NASA in the 2010 budget. “Although that is only half a percent of the total U.S. budget,” says aerospace analyst and founder of the blog spacepolitics.com Dr. Jeff Foust, “to a person like you or me, it’s a lot of money to spend on an agency with problems.”
Continue reading “No Bucks for NASA Without Buck Rogers”

Reality, Virtual

Computer technology is reaching new levels of sophistication, limited only by our imagination (and that pesky Moore’s Law). As we develop faster and more powerful processors, an exponential increase in the number of calculations can be done per second, providing advanced software with the capability to deliver complex applications to the user. In fact, some computer operations are becoming hard to distinguish from basic human interactions (neural networks hold particular promise).

Naturally, this continuing advance in technology has stimulated the Internet, allowing users worldwide to interact at great speed, where virtual worlds have been created, and people can project themselves as an avatar (a virtual ambassador for their real-world personalities). These virtual worlds have become so immense that millions of users can interact, and the boundary of the universe is only limited by how many networked computers you have running the show. These virtual universes are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and NASA hopes to release their universe (Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond) some time next year.

User interfaces are advancing too. Gone are the days of simple gaming feedback features (such as a rumbling joypad when your 3D animated cartoon character suffers a blow on your 2D TV screen), virtual reality is starting to live up to its name, where the virtual world is overlapping with our real world. Now a 5-sense virtual reality system is undergoing tests, and its implications for NASA’s MMORPG and future space exploration could be huge…

When does virtual reality become… reality?

Imagine: You’ve just completed your expedition inside the Hellas impact basin on the surface of Mars. You can smell the new plastic inside your spacesuit and hear the hiss of your air supply in the back of your bulbous helmet. Looking out over the crater bottom, the 9 km high wall of Martian rock restricts your view of the planet; there’s a feeling that you are closed into a huge hole dug out by an unimaginably large shovel. Looking down, you survey the scattered rocks and rusty regolith. Although your suit isn’t as bulky as what is needed on the Moon or during an EVA, it still restricts your movement as you bend over to collect more fist-sized rocks for your research. Surprisingly, the ground is very frosted and you spot small collections of water ice. It hasn’t sublimed into the air.

As you are so deep, the air pressure is nearly twice as high as the atmospheric average. According to orbital measurements, it may even get warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface. This is why you’re here, to seek out signs of seasonal weathering on the samples, and to look for signs of large quantities of water to be used in your habitat. Looking around, this isn’t just a gentle winter frosting, water is here, and there’s lots of it…

As we may not be sending man to Mars for a long time yet, the above scenario could be just as well played out in virtual reality as in real life. As there is little political incentive for a NASA-led manned mission to the Red Planet any time soon (and no, an Apollo 2.0 to Mars to save the ailing US economy isn’t the incentive we are looking for), could a virtual Mars be constructed for training and exploration purposes?

As it turns out, NASA is currently working with a group of software companies to release “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond” (reminds me of the awesome 1999 “X: Beyond the Frontier” first-person space adventure game). The scheduled rollout date is sometime in 2010, but it looks like the MMORPG is already a long way down the road of development. This new NASA universe will be based in a near-future reality where online subscribers can play the role of explorer, doing “mundane” astronaut tasks in low-Earth orbit, to setting up colonies on the Moon and Mars. Although I doubt the NASA universe will be able to compete with online fantasies such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, it may invigorate space science outreach to the largest audience available. A worthy project in my view, Astroengine will be watching developments very closely.

Then, yesterday, GearCrave posted an article about the development of a “5-sense virtual reality system”. We all remember those cumbersome head boxes that promised to be the “dawn of a new age” in computer visualization back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Unfortunately, little had changed as the hardware simply wasn’t there to display anything close to a “virtual reality” (giving the user a bout of nausea and unrealistic graphics). Also, the user feedback was very one-dimensional. However, as time has moved on, and the gaming industry has driven graphic hardware into a new era, we suddenly have a suite of user feedback systems (such as a rumbling joypad or the sense of touch through a special glove). Now there is the desire to move from the 2D TV screen, immersing the user inside a more realistic “virtual reality”. In fact, this new development provides user feedback via several senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and feelings.

Researchers from York and Warwick universities are developing the ultimate virtual reality headset, that won’t directly manipulate the brain (via electrode-induced agony) but manipulate the senses to induce an emotional response. This will be achieved through the use of hi-tech smell and taste sprayers. Also, the visual element will be stunning. The screen will naturally be in high definition, with far greater light and dark limits. To say the view will be crisp is an understatement.

So, we now have the ability to create our own virtual universes. We are fast approaching the point where fully-immersive virtual reality may be a possibility (although the brain can be tough to trick at times, the VR would have to be VERY good to fool us wily humans). Computer systems are becoming so advanced that “graphics” may be a bad description of the world you are participating in looks like you are in a real world. Also, the spin-off technology from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could effectively make the Internet transparent (the only limit on speed would be the speed of light when uploading/downloading files, imagine that).

Personally, I cannot imagine a future where mankind is stuck on Earth, just sending probes to do the exploration of space for us, but say if these robotic missions could do something a little more than basic reconnaissance missions? What if the unmanned rovers, landers and satellites become so advanced that they can collect all the data we’ll ever need from the planets in the Solar System? This data could be used in a sufficiently advanced distributed network on Earth, allowing Internet users to collaborate (in the spirit of existing online projects such as Galaxy Zoo, but powered by a fully immersive MMORPG system), exploring a virtual reality universe based primarily on real data, but with intelligent algorithms that fill in the details and known physical/biological processes. However, in this virtual reality, users will be able to see, smell, hear, taste and feel, with physical feedback mechanisms.

This kind of project would have a vast array of practical applications; from doing science with real data, to training astronauts/settlers ahead of a real mission to Mars. However, there are two mind-bending philosophical questions that are attached to this eventuality:

 

 

One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)
When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision
Continue reading “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite”

Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly, in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)
The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

In the early hours of this morning at 1:55am PST, a carbon dioxide monitoring mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was being carried into a 700 km polar orbit by a Taurus XL rocket. Unfortunately, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, the rocket upper stage suffered an anomaly, and the fairing failed to separate. Although it appears the rocket attained the desired altitude The vehicle did not attain the desired altitude and the $270 million satellite was doomed, trapped inside the the nose cone. The upper stage fairing was protecting the OCO as it ascended through the atmosphere; once in space it should have separated, peeled off and dropped away. That didn’t happen.
Continue reading “Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)”

Liquid Water on Mars?

Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix's leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)
Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix’s leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)

NASA scientists are currently trying to understand a set of images taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander shortly after it landed on the Red Planet in May 2008. The images in question show one of the robot’s legs covered in what appears to be droplets of liquid water. The droplets remain on the lander for some time, appearing to get larger and changing shape.

By now, we know that liquid water (apparently) hasn’t existed on the Martian surface for hundreds of millions of years; the atmosphere is currently too thin and too cold to support liquid water. However, the confirmed presence of perchlorate in the regolith may provide an important clue as to what might be going on…
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Satellite View of UK Snow Storms

Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th (Terra MODIS/NASA)
Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th. Left: A visible light view. Right: Visible/infrared wavelengths, the snow cover is in red (Terra MODIS/NASA)

UPDATE: This post is from the snowstorm in February 2009, for the satellite view of the UK in the grips of record low temperatures in January 2010 go to “UK Snow: Where Did My Hometown Go?

In case you were wondering what the recent snow storms in the UK looked like from space, NASA has released imagery from their Terra satellite for our viewing pleasure. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument captured images down to a resolution of 250 metres/pixel, showing the detail in the snow cover and urban areas.

The MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this view of snow in England on February 4, 2009. The snow stretches from the English Channel north under a bank of clouds near the Scottish border. The winter storm that brought the snow in the first days of February blanketed southeast England with the heaviest snow the region had seen in 18 years, said BBC News. As much as 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow fell on London. The poor weather closed transportation, schools, and businesses throughout southeastern England, reported BBC News.MODIS website

I know for a fact this huge amount of snow caused all sorts of inconvenience for the entire country, but I would have liked to have been in my hometown of Bristol (in the south-west–bottom-left–of the image above, under all that cloud cover) to experience a good old fashioned British winter. According to my mum, her street wasn’t lined in snow men, it was filled with snow giants, an entire town of them! Oh well, I’ll just have to admire the scene from space…

Source: MODIS/NASA

Chile Chaitén Volcano Still Erupting, Town Empty

The continuing activity at the Chaiten volcano, Chile (NASA)
The continuing activity at the Chaiten volcano, Chile (NASA)

In May 2008, a dormant volcano in Chile awoke from its 9,000 year sleep. The Chaitén volcano blasted smoke and ash high into the atmosphere, causing the local population to flee from the nearby town, under the ominous clouds of lightning-inducing hot ash and steam. Eight months after the eruption shook the region, the small town in the southwest remains deserted and polluted.

Using the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite, a new view above the volcano have become available, showing the destruction in the wake of this regional natural disaster…
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Twitter Journalism: Methane on Mars, The Signature of Life?

The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)
The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)

Today, NASA held a press conference detailing some significant discoveries from observations made of the Martian atmosphere. Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck Telescope, scientists from the University of Hawaii and NASA were able to deduce the spectroscopic fingerprint of methane. Although scientists have known for a long time that methane exists in the Martian atmosphere, the big news is that there is lots of it, it appears to be constantly replenished and it is a huge indicator of biological processes under the surface.

Fortunately, I was able to watch the NASA TV broadcast of the press conference at 11am (PST), so I thought I’d try, for the first time, to do some live microblogging of the announcements using Twitter. So, rather than going into vast detail about today’s methane news (as the web has exploded with articles on the subject anyway), I thought I’d publish my Twitter feed during the conference
Continue reading “Twitter Journalism: Methane on Mars, The Signature of Life?”