Sunita Williams was in charge of the International Space Station for six months. On her last day in space, she made this 25-minute video — a much more in-depth tour of the ISS than I've personally ever seen before. This is the first time I've actually been able to get a sense of the whole interior layout of the ISS, rather than just seeing one place and then another with no understanding of how they connect. What's more, you really get a sense of the unearthly weirdness of moving through this space where walls are never just walls and "up" and "down" are essentially meaningless.
The video includes a detailed (but safe for work) demonstration of how to use the ISS bathroom; a behind-the-scenes peek of the pantry (with separate pantries for Russian and Japanese food); a visit to the Soyuz craft waiting to take Williams home; and the vertigo-inducing horror pod where all the really great pictures of Earth get taken.
Money quote: "I haven't sat down for 6 months now."
Also, for some reason, it bothers me that she refers to the "left" and "right" side of the Space Station, instead of port and starboard.
I've carried a Fisher Space Pen Bullet on and off since I was a kid. ("Write underwater and upside down!") I usually lose them in a matter of weeks, but while I can manage to hold on to one I do appreciate its minimalist design, small size, and great "fiddleability." Of course, the Space Pen is surrounded by some epic marketing and myth. Did NASA really invest millions to develop a perfect pen for astronauts? No, apparently, Fisher had developed the pen technology and later brought it to NASA. Following two years of testing, the space agency bought 400 of the pens at a 40 percent discount. And on October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 astronauts carried Fisher Space Pens, model AG7, into orbit.
Fisher Space Pen AG7 (Amazon)
Fermi's Paradox speculates that the fact that our civilization has not yet encountered evidence of alien civilization implies that such life must not exist. In "Tapeworm Logic," Charlie Stross brilliantly skewers this by looking at the version of Fermi's Paradox that a tapeworm-philosopher might arrive at:
Our tapeworm-philosopher gets its teeth into the subject. Given that the human is so clearly designed to be hospitable to tapeworm-kind, then it follows that if there are more humans, other humans out there beyond the anus, then they, too, must be hospitable to tapeworm-kind. Tapeworm-kind has become aware of itself existing in the human; it is logical to assume that if other humans exist then there must be other tapeworms, and if travel between humans is possible—and we infer that it might be, from the disappearance of our egg sacs through the anus of the human—then sooner or later humans interacting in the broader universe might exchange eggs from these hypothetical alien tapeworms, in which case, visitors! Because the human was already here before we became self-aware, it clearly existed for a long time before us. So if there are many humans, there has been a lot of time for the alien tapeworm-visitors to reach us. So where are they?
Welcome to the Fermi paradox, mired in shit. Shall we itemize the errors that the tapeworm is making in its analysis?
From NASA's Image of the Day blog: "This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. NGC 1097 is a Seyfert galaxy. Lurking at the very center of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in."
The happy mutants at MonkeyBrains, the San Francisco hacker-friendly ISP, have launched a $350,000,000 IndieGoGo campaign to buy their own satellite ("North Korea just launched a satellite; we want to as well"). Some fun facts about MonkeyBrains: it was founded by Rudy Rucker, Jr (son of the archduke of mutantcy, cyberpunk writer Rudy Rucker [Sr]); it is the basis for the fictional ISP pigspleen.net in my novel Little Brother; and they want $350,000,000. Also: if the satellite thing doesn't work out, they want to use the money to fill San Francisco with high-speed fiber optics that aren't run by crappy telcos.
A quick internet search reveals that this is the cost for getting a satellite into orbit:
* Satellite manufacture: $150M
* Satellite launch: $120M
* Launch insurance: $20M
* In-orbit insurance: $20M
* Satellite operations (15 years): $15M
Our initial research seems to indicate having a satellite in orbit may not speed up your internet at all. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_Internet_access#Geostationary_unsuitable_for_low-latency_applications]. However, if more research doesn't bode well for a geostationary satellite, we will take all of the $325M to fund either:
* Fiber to the home.
* A balloon tethered to the Farallon islands.
* a hovering drone over the Bay.
If Sotirios Papadopoulos's "Full Moon" credenza is half as cool in real life as it is in this rendering, well, it'll be pretty cool. This'd be a fun remake/refurb project for junk-shop furniture:
A striking credenza, with a photo-realistic, luminous image of the moon printed on its surface.
Coated with ELI (Eco Light Inside), an eco-friendly material developed by the designer, which creates a realistic, glowing effect when the lights go out.
Possibly, according to some scientists who are trying to understand the early days of Sol and friends.
One way that researchers study events like the creation of the solar system is to model what might have happened using computer software. The basic idea works like this: We know a decent amount about the physical laws (like gravity) that govern the creation of planets and the formation of a solar system. So scientists can take those laws, and program them into a virtual universe that also includes other real-world data ... like what we know about the make-up of the Sun and the planets orbiting it. Then, they recreate history. Then they do it again. Over and over and over, thousands of times, the scientists witness the creation of our solar system.
It doesn't happen the same way each time. Just like you can get a very different loaf of bread out of multiple attempts and baking the same general recipe. But those recreations start to give us an idea of which scenarios were more likely to have happened, and why. If our solar system tends to form in one way and resist forming in another, we have a stronger basis for assuming that the former way was more likely to be what really happened.
That's what you're seeing in this study, which Charles Q. Choi writes about for Scientific American.
Computer models showing how our solar system formed suggested the planets once gravitationally slung one another across space, only settling into their current orbits over the course of billions of years. During more than 6,000 simulations of this planetary scattering phase, planetary scientist David Nesvorny at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., found that a solar system that began with four giant planets [as ours currently has] only had a 2.5 percent chance of leading to the orbits presently seen now. These systems would be too violent in their youth to end up resembling ours, most likely resulting in systems that have less than four giants over time, Nesvorny found.
Instead, a model about 10 times more likely at matching our current solar system began with five giants, including a now lost world comparable in mass to Uranus and Neptune. This extra planet may have been an "ice giant" rich in icy matter just like Uranus and Neptune, Nesvorny explained.
An announcement of note this morning about The Golden Spike Company, a new private space travel venture, backed by private investors. Their tag line? "Extend Your Reach." Snip from today's press release:
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last human exploration of the Moon, Former Apollo Flight Director and NASA Johnson Space Center Director, Gerry Griffin, and planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, Dr. Alan Stern, today unveiled “The Golden Spike Company” – the first company planning to offer routine exploration expeditions to the surface of the Moon. At the National Press Club announcement this afternoon, Dr. Stern, Golden Spike’s President and CEO, and Mr. Griffin, chairman of Golden Spike’s board of directors, introduced other members of Golden Spike’s leadership team and detailed the company’s intentions to make complete lunar surface expeditions available by the end of the decade.
Their board of directors (PDF) is an interesting hodgepodge, and includes Newt Gingrich, Esther Dyson, and the set designer for the movie Star Trek.
The company says it plans to "maximize use of existing rockets" and market the resulting system to "nations, individuals, and corporations with lunar exploration objectives and ambitions," promising "prices that are a fraction of any lunar program ever conceived until now." A tall order, to be certain. Those I've spoken to in the space biz are skeptical, but of the mind that the more entrepreneurial efforts and private sector innovation we see in the Space space, the better.
The company is registered as a business in Colorado, where marijuana was just made legal. COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT.
Here's more from today's press release from Golden Spike:
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Last week, an American and a Russian — Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko — were selected to spend a year living continuously in space, aboard the International Space Station. Only four other people have done this before. All them were Russian, so Scott Kelly is going to break the American record for time spent in space.
The mission won't start until 2015, and it's part of a much longer term goal — sending people to Mars. We know that spending time in space does take a toll on the human body. For instance, hanging out without gravity means you aren't using your muscles, even the ones that you'd use to support your own weight on Earth. Without use, muscles deteriorate over time. Bone density also drops. Basically, after a few months in space, astronauts return to Earth as weak as little kittens. Which is, to say the least, a less than ideal situation for any future Mars explorers.
Having Kelly and Kornienko stay up for a year will give scientists more data on what happens to the human body in space, give them a chance to test out preventative treatments that could keep astronauts stronger, and allows them to see how the amount of time spent in space affects the amount of time it takes to physically recover from the trip. As an extra research bonus, Kelly is the identical twin brother of Mark Kelly, the astronaut married to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Which means that there will be a built-in control to compare Kelly to when he comes back from his mission.
In honor of that upcoming experiment, here's an old video that will give you an idea of what we knew (and didn't know) back at the dawn of the space age. Science in Action was a TV show produced by the California Academy of Sciences. In this 1956 episode, they explore the then-still-theoretical physiology of space travel ... with a special guest appearance by Chuck Yeager!
Seen above is the Fallen Astronaut, a tiny aluminum figurine that on August 1, 1971 the Apollo 15 crew placed on the Moon's surface with a plaque listing the names of 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who had died. Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck created the figure and later took a ton of shit from NASA for making replicas that he intended to sell. The space agency felt the commercialization went against their original understanding with Van Hoeydonck. "Fallen Astronaut" (Wikipedia, via Weird Universe)
Researchers from the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University have built a 3D printer that can use sorted (simulated) Lunar regolith (moon dust) to print out "crude" objects. This is the premise of a novella I'm working on, so it's pretty exciting to see:
Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, using simulated lunar regolith that are analogies to moon rocks, have used 3D printing to create a number of crude objects. The simulated regolith, found on Earth and supplied by NASA, contains silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides but behaves like silica when melted by a laser. Once the regolith is melted, a 3D printer creates objects out of it layer by layer.
Using moon rocks shaped by 3D printers as building material or simple spare parts and tools would vastly decrease the expense of building and maintaining a lunar settlement. 3D printing also has considerable promise for Earth bound construction.
At his Psychology Today blog, Michael Chorost delves into a question about exoplanets that I've not really thought much about before — how easy they would be to leave.
Many of the potentially habitable exoplanets that we've found — the ones we call "Earth-like" — are actually a lot bigger than Earth. That fact has an effect — both on how actually habitable those planets would be for us humans and how easily any native civilizations that developed could slip the surly bonds of gravity and make it to outer space.
The good news, says Chorost is that the change in surface gravity wouldn't be as large as you might guess, even for planets much bigger than Earth. The bad news: Even a relatively small increase in surface gravity can mean a big increase in how fast a rocket would have to be going in order to leave the planet. It starts with one equation — SG=M/R^2.
Let’s try it with [exoplanet] HD 40307g, using data from the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog. Mass, 8.2 Earths. Radius, 2.4 times that of Earth. That gets you a surface gravity of 1.42 times Earth.
... it’s amazingly easy to imagine a super-Earth with a comfortable gravity. If a planet had eight Earth masses and 2.83 times the radius, its surface gravity would be exactly 1g. This is the “Fictional Planet” at the bottom of the table. Fictional Planet would be huge by Earth standards, with a circumference of 70,400 miles and an area eight times larger.
Does that mean we could land and take off with exactly the same technology we use here, assuming the atmosphere is similar? Actually, no. Another blogger, who who goes by the moniker SpaceColonizer, pointed out that Fictional Planet has a higher escape velocity than Earth. Put simply, escape velocity is how fast you have to go away from a planet to ensure that gravity can never bring you back. For Earth, escape velocity is about 25,000 miles per hour. Fictional Planet has an escape velocity 68% higher. That’s 42,000 miles per hour.
Thanks to Apollo 18, who also helped with the math for Chorost's post.
Just a few minutes ago, researchers with NASA's MESSENGER mission announced the publication of data that strongly suggests the poles of Mercury contain significant quantities of frozen water.
On the one hand, this is not exactly new news. The possibility of water on Mercury has been a topic of research for something like 20 years. And scientific discoveries tend to move in little mincing steps, not giant leaps, so there have been lots of previous announcements about evidence supporting the hypothesis of water of Mercury — including very similar announcements from the MESSENGER team in December 2011 and March 2012. Your life will not change in any significant way because there is frozen water on Mercury. You probably won't even make a note to tell your children where you were the day NASA announced that ice most likely existed there.
But that doesn't mean this news isn't damned exciting. And it doesn't mean that the scientists involved shouldn't be giddy about it. We are, after all, talking about a mission that sent a spacecraft into orbit around another planet and has quite likely found frozen water sitting on a landscape that is hot enough to melt lead. What's more, they think that ice is covered in places by a thin layer of some coal or tar-like organic material. That is huge news. It's going to change textbooks. And because the scientists think both the ice and the organic material got to Mercury via collisions with asteroids and comets, it's going to be an important part of our ongoing efforts to understand how life begins on planets like Earth.
All of this makes for a really nice, topical lead-in to an essay Robert Gonzalez published on iO9 today. It's totally reasonable to be frustrated by the recent whiplash of hearing that Curiosity discovered something "Earth-shattering" on Mars, only to have that announcement quickly revised to something "interesting" and/or "not insignificant". But, Gonzalez argues, it's also reasonable for scientists to look at something that is merely not insignificant from the public perspective and see it, from their own perspective, as groundbreaking. In fact, he says, we want more scientists who get excited about their work, not fewer.
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