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Posts from the ‘Space’ Category

Lunar Mission: The First Step in Putting the Past Behind Us

Wonderful news today coming out of NASA today:

NASA took the first concrete step toward returning human beings to the moon Thursday, successfully launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on a mission to find the best place to build Earth’s first off-world colony.

The 19-story-high, two-stage rocket and spacecraft launched at 2:32 p.m. PDT. As the huge first-stage Atlas V rocket roared to life at Cape Canaveral in central Florida, NASA spokesman George Diller called it “America’s first step in a lasting return to the moon.”

The $500 million orbiter will spend the next year cruising just 31 miles above the lunar surface, employing a suite of seven instruments to identify landing hazards such as rocks and craters. It will be paying particular attention to the largely unknown lunar poles, where previous missions have picked up hints that water ice may exist in some permanently shadowed craters.

Thousands of sky watchers are expected to turn their telescopes to the moon on the morning of Oct. 9, when the water-seeking satellite steers the fuel-depleted second stage Centaur rocket into a crater at 5,600 mph. For those in the western U.S., where the moon will still be up, the plume should be clearly visible with a moderately sized backyard telescope, NASA said.

Time to start putting forty years of the unprecedented embarrassment of the US space program since the late 1970s.  I’m not sure that any other country has so thoroughly trashed such a magnificent technological edge in a crucial field before, unilaterally.

The space shuttle.  The international space station.   Ugh. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Ironically, we may look back and give the Bush Administration surprising credit for finally tilting US space exploration back in the right direction.  (Don’t worry, I’m under no delusion that people will say anything nice about Bush 43 for a while…)

There are tremendous technical and commercial advantages to establishing the first, ongoing presence on the Moon.  It’s a little know fact, but as an independent side project at Harvard, I built out an initial business model and operating plan for financing a private moon base.  It’s hard to think back, but at the time (2000), companies were raising $10B-$15B in private capital markets to fund the build-out of fiber-optic networks across the world.

It wasn’t such a stretch to imagine raising $60B in sequential rounds to fund a moon base, particularly when the economics of a moon base are so strong.

You see, the moon is such a hostile environment, that once you have a self-sustaining and expandable eco-system set up, it’s a natural monopoly.  For quite some time, it will always be significantly cheaper to add on to an existing base, rather than build a new one from scratch.

That difference in cost, which is measured in billions, is an incredibly revenue opportunity, assuming there is demand to establish presence on the moon.

It was 2000, but I believe I laid out at least 10 potential revenue lines for the moon base, to help it become cash flow positive, even across that type of capital raise.

(Yes, I was assuming the US would never ratify the Moon Treaty from the insane 1970s.  Beyond ridiculous.)

In any case, very exciting to see us finally moving down the correct path.  My only regret is that if we had moved down this path in the late 1970s, we’d all be jostling for positions on a fully operational moon base by now.

I’m still optimistic that I will be able to travel to the moon in my lifetime.  The only question now is whether it will be a US or Chinese built lunar city.

A Moment of Silence for the F-22 Raptor

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended ending the the long-standing drama surrounding the F-22 (nee, the F-22A) supersonic fighter, capping the program with a purchase of four more planes in 2009, bringing the total number to 183.

F-22

A pair of F-22 Raptors during an Air Force training flight.
(Thomas Meneguin — U.s. Air Force Via Associated Press)

A bit of a sad day for me, really.

There is a nice column in the Washington Post today from the Air Force explaining why they support the decision to end the program, 60 planes shy of the 243 total they had originally estimated to be needed in a post-cold war world, and almost 600 shy of the pre-1989 estimate.

We are often asked: How many F-22s does the Air Force need? The answer, of course, depends on what we are being asked to do. When the program began, late in the Cold War, it was estimated that 740 would be needed. Since then, the Defense Department has constantly reassessed how many major combat operations we might be challenged to conduct, where such conflicts might arise, whether or how much they might overlap, what are the strategies and capabilities of potential opponents, and U.S. objectives.

These assessments have concluded that, over time, a progressively more sophisticated mix of aircraft, weapons and networking capabilities will enable us to produce needed combat power with fewer platforms. As requirements for fighter inventories have declined and F-22 program costs have risen, the department imposed a funding cap and in December 2004 approved a program of 183 aircraft.

Much has been made of the cost over-runs in the F-22 program, and there is some truth to those complaints.  Of course, they have been exaggerated in recent years since manufacturing planes is a volume business, and the average cost per plane drops significantly as you increase volume and speed delivery.

It may seem strange to wax nostalgic for a super-sonic aircraft, but I remember the F-22 fondly.  When I was in high school, I read Aviation Weekly regularly as one of the requirements for my high school debate research (the topic for the year was space exploration).  I remember at the time the race between the F-21 and F-22: competing prototypes for a new air superiority fighter that would line up against the latest generation MiG fighters from the USSR, and which would be able to deliver Mach 2.0+ speeds without afterburners and with low radar reflection.

It was post-1987, so already the era of disillusionment with the ridiculous mediocrity of the US space program had set in.  But warplanes were still an area of rapid technological advancement, and raw engineering wonder.  It was pre-1991, so the cold war was still there to propel investment in military technology.

The F-22 won the contest, of course.  As fate would have it, about the same time, the USSR lost the contest.  Almost immediately, the plane and the program were caught in an ongoing battle for existence – a battle that lasted almost twenty years.

There are good arguments by better informed people on the merits and liabilities of the F-22 program.  Right now, I’m not really interested in discussing them.

Instead, I want to take a moment to contemplate the wonder and excitement that aerospace used to hold for me and a generation of kids.  A time when the space program was filled with the best and the brightest, and when the best engineers devoted themselves to conquering air and space.

In truth, that time pre-dated me.  But I still felt the echoes of it in the late 1980s.  I was an intern at NASA Ames in 1990-1.  I dreamed of a robust space program, and limitless advancement in aerospace.

The F-22 was my desktop picture for the better part of the 1990s for goodness sake.

Of course, the much less impressive F-35 joint strike fighter program will continue.  And spurred by Space-X and the private sector, there may even be some signs of life in the US Space Program, particularly once we get rid of the generational vacuum that was the Space Shuttle.  The Orion may yet fly, and we may yet have a base on the moon, and land men on Mars.  Twenty years later than I had hoped, but better late than never, I suppose.

A moment of silence tonight, however, for the F-22.  A truly beautiful aircraft.

The Self Organizing Quantum Universe

I’m a big fan of distributed systems – complex networks of an extremely large number of independent entities governed by simple and transparent rules.  Not surprising, really, that I work professionally on next-generation products and services based on the Internet, one of the most successful man-made distributed systems in existence.

As a result, it’s not surprising that I found this article in the latest issue of Scientific American compelling:

Scientific American: Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime
A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together
By Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn

Here is a quick synopsis:

  • Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.
  • A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.
  • This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

I’ve been following modern cosmology theory fairly closely for the past 15 years, and I found this approach compelling and refreshing in a number of ways.  It may not be an effective path towards resolving theories around quantum gravity, but there are clear reasons to give it due consideration:

  • The modeling techniques will be extremely familiar to anyone with an advanced background in modern computer graphics approaches and theory.
  • The idea that a few simple assumptions will self-aggregate into the universe that we see around us avoids the never-satisfying anthropic principle fallback.  (The anthropic principle is effectively a circular argument that says, “Well, the universe is this way because if it wasn’t this way, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.”   It’s about as intellectually satisfying as the movie 10,000 BC.
  • The simplicity of the model scores favorably with Occam’s Razor vs. other competing theories of quantum gravity and string theory.
  • The model is based on the insight that causality (related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics) is a fundamental principle of our universe.

That last bullet was particularly compelling for me, since the idea that time is a dimension with equal fluidity to the spacial dimensions has always conflicted philisophically with the concept that entropy must always increase.  It’s the reason why almost every form of time travel breaks the accounting for mass/energy.

Anyway, read it and let me know what you think.  I had someone at work tease me just last month about reading Scientific American, comparing it to Popular Science.  Personally, I find that articles like this continue to justify my subscription dollars.

Ice on Mars, Found on Twitter?

Very, very strange to see breaking news come through Twitter.

But the Mars Phoenix mission actually has its own twitter feed:

MarsPhoenix

And as the LAist reported just a few hours ago, there was an exciting tweet just 3 hours ago:

Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!

I am, in fact, ready to party over this news. Check out more info at the official NASA website.

I feel like I need to have separate aggregations in Twitter now – the streams from friends, the streams from columnists/bloggers, and news/event streams.  I have a hard time seeing a solution other than multiple aggregated lists… How can I see a tweet from a friend, a tweet from Barrack Obama, and a tweet from the Mars Phoenix team and expect anything but a jumble?

Pluto is a Planet, Redux

Looking at my first blog posts has a certain charm to it.  One of the first posts on this blog that ever drove a significant amount of traffic was a post about the decision to demote Pluto as a planet at the IAU conference in 2006.

Pluto is a Planet

Scientific American has a nice article out on revisiting that debate, and the options that will be present at a conference on the topic this summer.  An except:

Pluto lovers, don’t despair: Researchers have not given up the fight for the former ninth planet. Many of them put up a fuss two years ago when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to the status of mere dwarf planet. Now they plan to revive the debate, this time under the banner of public understanding of science.

Researchers on both sides of the issue are set to gather in August at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for what’s being called “The Great Planet Debate: Science as Process.” The goal, says the conference’s co-organizer Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., is to teach the public that science is a process of constant revision and refinement. “People should be exposed to that process,” he says. “The IAU process gave the impression that science is done by a bunch of scientists voting behind closed doors.”

In my original coverage, I posted this simple snippet on the Pluto Vote Revolt.   It received thousands of page views in a matter of days:

Pluto Vote Revolt!

In the end, I still agree largely with the comments from the NASA lead on the New Horizons project:

Dr Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and did not vote in Prague, told BBC News: “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review – for two reasons.

Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh pictured in 1980 (AP)

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh

“Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets. It’s as if we declared people not people for some arbitrary reason, like ‘they tend to live in groups’.

“Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it’s inconsistent.”

One of the three criteria for planethood states that a planet must have “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”. The largest objects in the Solar System will either collect together material in their path or fling it out of the way with a gravitational swipe.

Pluto was disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune.

But Dr Stern pointed out that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

These rocks are all essentially chunks of rubble left over from the formation of the Solar System more than four billion years ago.

“If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn’t be there,” he added.

Stern said like-minded astronomers had begun a petition to get Pluto reinstated. Car bumper stickers compelling motorists to “Honk if Pluto is still a planet” have gone on sale over the internet and e-mails circulating about the decision have been describing the IAU as the “Irrelevant Astronomical Union”.

Let’s hope that saner minds prevail, and that the fact that Pluto was “temporarily” demoted from planetary status becomes a piece of arcane trivial from the early 21st century.

Iraqi TV Debate: Is the Earth Flat or Round?

You be the judge.  Many thanks to Boing Boing and Haha.nu for this one.

Here’s a snippet:

Statement by a round-earther physicist: When you watch a ship sailing towards the shore, all you see at first is the mast. Then you see the bow, and eventually the entire ship.

Fadhel Al-Said: When you stand on the beach and look into the distance, everything you see is in the visible distance. In the blurred distance, you cannot see a thing. Later on as the ship gets closer to the shore or the harbor, you see the upper part. How do you see it? The eye, as I have said, no doctor has succeeded in understanding how the eye works.

Can you find the flaws in the flat earth “astronomy researcher”?  My favorite part is where he explains that since the moon covered the sun partially in 1999, he has been able to conclude that the moon is 1/2 the size of the sun.  :)

Just a little fun on a Friday.

Did You Miss the Lunar Eclipse? Gorgeous Photos from Eric.

I was feeling really bad on Tuesday.

A gorgeous lunar eclipse took place that was visible from most of Asia-Pacific, and even stretched to full visibility over California.  But with peak viewing at just past 3:30am, I just couldn’t make it.  One of the liabilities of having two kids under 3 and a full-time gig at a start-up, I guess.  :)

Fortunately, Eric did stay up, and since he is an incredible photographer, I’m feeling better about it.  Tell me that these aren’t gorgeous shots:

Eric’s full post on how he took them is here.  His web gallery, where you can buy his more famous prints, is here.  Full data from NASA on the eclipse is here.

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