Remember that very cool, but highly pixelated postage stamp sized video of the heat shield separating from our latest Mars lander? It didn’t look so crappy because NASA couldn’t afford good cameras. Rather, they didn’t have the bandwidth to send all those frames on the first day. Several dozen MRO, Mars Express, and Odyssey pass bys later, we have a spectacular HD video.
Make sure you maximize this video before watching it. Better yet, port it to your television. It’s THAT awesome.
Those of you who are attending this year’s Worldcon in Chicago probably already know about the opening night event at the Adler Planetarium. If you don’t, then maybe this news will be enough to entice you to come join us. If you do attend, please come visit us at the fan tables section! In the meantime, enjoy this little video I found about the attraction. Although the Adler is stuffed with state-of-the-art shows and interactive exhibits, the main attraction to me is the history of the building itself. It is the oldest planetarium in North America, and has an impressive collection of antique observational equipment. Steampunk fans, rejoice!
From the Chicon 7 web site:
Chicago, Illinois, USA – Chicon 7, the 70th World Science Fiction Convention (“Worldcon”), will offer its members a spectacular opening night event at the Adler Planetarium.
On Thursday, August 30, Chicon 7 will be taking over the Adler Planetarium for an evening reception for convention members. This exclusive event will run from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., during which time the museum will be closed to the general public.
During the reception, Chicon members can view the museum exhibits. In addition, the Grainger Sky Theater will be running the show “The Searcher” every 30 minutes. This show was written by Nick Sagan (son of astronomer Carl Sagan) and follows the story of a visitor from another galaxy as he searches for his lost civilization. It features stunning visualizations of the formation of our universe, the collision of galaxies, a spectacular supernova explosion, and a supermassive black hole. (Seating in the theater is limited, so there will be a $5 charge for admission to this performance.) Weather permitting, the museum will also host a sky-viewing session on its exterior deck, with telescopes and docents provided to members so they can see the wonders waiting in the night sky.
Museum campus parking will be available, and shuttle buses will run between the Adler Planetarium and the Hyatt Regency throughout the evening.
About the Adler Planetarium:
The Adler Planetarium was the first modern planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and first opened to the public on May 12, 1930. The museum houses extensive exhibits on space science including one of the world’s most important antique astronomical instrument collections. The Adler is also a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young minds to pursue careers in science. The museum sits on the extreme edge of Chicago’s “museum campus” and is located on an artificial island.
If, like us, you plan to stay up bleary-eyed, watching Curiosity land and deploy on the surface of Mars, you may want to catch up on what it is you’ll be watching for.
We’ve all probably read about the seven minutes of terror, during which the rover will be perilously hurtling toward the planet surface, hopefully decelerating to a gentle landing. When those seven minutes are over, we should be getting information from several sources. MSNBC describes the three different ways Curiosity will communicate with Earth:
Controllers on Earth will have three ways of hailing Curiosity as it trundles around Gale Crater. Two are direct links through NASA’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide collection of antennas. It provides both a fixed low-gain antenna, best for basic commands and emergencies, and a pointable high-gain antenna for complex commands.
Curiosity also has a higher-speed ultra-high frequency (UHF) communications system that can send signals to spacecraft orbiting Mars, which in turn would relay them to Earth.
To send back imagery, Curiosity must stay in touch with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey spacecraft, two probes orbiting Mars that each can talk to the rover twice a day. (Odyssey is currently recovering from the loss of one of its three reaction wheels.)
Business Insider scored a geektastic inventory of Curiosity’s space-age toolset:
For two of these special instruments, NASA turned to Honeybee Robotics, a development firm headquartered in Manhattan. Building on previous work for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Honeybee developed the Sample Manipulation System (SMS) and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT). These tools are critical to investigating Mars’ ability to sustain life — in the past and present.
Natalie Wolchover, of the The Christian Science Monitor, wonders whether we might be visiting distant relatives:
If life exists on Mars, then we might be ethnic Martians ourselves, scientists told Life’s Little Mysteries. They explained that the small coincidence of having two life-bearing planets right next door to one another gets cleared up if one of the planets actually seeded life on the other — a concept called “panspermia.” According to Pavlov, hundreds of thousands of Martian meteorites are strewn across Earth. These were hurled into space during past planetary collisions (such as the bash that left Mars with a crater covering nearly half its surface). One of these chunks of Mars could feasibly have contained spores that lay dormant during the interplanetary commute to Earth, and then blossomed upon arrival, some 3.8 billion years ago.
The main event should happen around 12:31 p.m. Central Standard Time. The NASA webcast starts at 8:30 p.m. PDT on NASA TV. If you want to be twitter friends with the rover (who wouldn’t!) follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter (while there, follow us, @WWEnd).
Remember learning in school about how the Middle Ages were a time without intelligence, technology or a sense of humor? Consider the curious case of Juanelo Turriano’s (AD 1500-1585) mechanical monk, described here by Elizabeth King:
Slowly the monk comes to life. He turns his head to single out one among the company. Left foot stepping forth from under the cassock hem, then right foot, the monk advances in the direction of his gaze, raising the crucifix and rosary before him as he walks. His eyes move: turning his head, he looks to the raised cross and back to his subject. His mouth opens, then closes, affording a glimpse of teeth and interior. He bends his right arm and with the gathered fingers of his hand he strikes his breast. The small blow is audible. And now he is lowering and turning his head as he walks: the elbow and shoulder in synchronized motion he brings the cross higher, up to his lips, and kisses it. Thirty seconds into the act, he’s taken eight steps, beat his chest three times, kissed the cross, and traveled a distance of twenty inches. At what seems like the last moment—for doubtless the subject of his attention has backed away from the table’s edge—he looks away, arms still aloft, executes a turn to his right, and makes a new appointment. He will make seven such turns and advances in his campaign if the mainspring has been fully wound. The uninterrupted repetition corresponds exactly to a trance-like performance of prayer, incantation.
Found at The Lion and the Cardinal.
I recently read an article about a joint NASA/DARPA project called the "Hundred-Year Starship". Basically, it’s a year-long study to determine the feasibility of constructing a generation ship for the purpose of colonizing a suitable planet outside our solar system. According to Paul Eremenko, project coordinator at DARPA:
"The 100 Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology. We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations across a myriad of disciplines to advance the goal of long-distance space travel, but also to benefit mankind."
Could NASA pull off anything as awesome as all that? Even with DARPA’s help? Well, let’s just say I’m with Capt. Xerox on this one. He sums it up nicely for me:
"I wouldn’t go betting any money on this program actually happening. NASA hasn’t been back to the moon in a generation, never mind heading beyond the solar system…"
Bottom line? Not bloody likely. So says my rational mind anyway.
My geeky SF brain, however, refuses to let go of the notion. I’ve been reading about generation ships and extra-solar colonization forever. The technological wonder of a massive starship with a complete enclosed ecosystem hurtling through space for a hundred years, taking its precious cargo of humanity across the void in search of another Eden? Entire generations of inhabitants living aboard a ship that is the only home they’ve ever known? Never to see the Earth again? That’s the stuff of dreams.
And of course astronomers have been finding new planets at an astonishing pace. How long before they find one worth visiting? Will we be ready to go when they do? How far out would we have to start planning something like that to ever make it a reality? I’d say pretty damn far. So far, in fact, that it sounds like science fiction. Kind of like now. I can’t tell you how excited I am just knowing that there are real scientists out there actually considering this idea; especially at a time when it seems that we’re moving further and further away from the promise of manned space flight.
I say keep on dreaming big, NASA! It has to start somewhere, sometime. And even though it likely won’t happen in our lifetimes there are plenty of us out here who will go right along dreaming with you.
Would you like to know more?
- NASA Ames’ Worden reveals DARPA-funded ‘Hundred Year Starship’ program
- 100 Year Starship: Nasa’s plan to colonise galaxy
- ‘Hundred-Year Starship’ Would Send Space Explorers on One-Way Mission to Mars
- NASA and DARPA Plan ‘Hundred-Year Starship’ To Bring Humans to Other Worlds and Leave Them There Forever
Generation Ship Novels
Until there’s a real ship to take us "where no man has gone before" we’ll have to make do with some great science fictional accounts of what it might be like:
What other great generation ship novels can you think of?
Space.com is reporting that the 500th alien planet could be discovered this month. There are currently 494 confirmed extrasolar planets on the books and, at the rate they’re being discovered, it is expected that number will top 500 by the close of October.
What’s more, with new technologies like NASA’s Kepler spacecraft the rate of discovery is only going to go up. Kepler has already found 7 new planets and has identified over 700 candidate stars that may have planets.
"Researchers are following up on these promising leads, trying to rule out any false alarms. They’re checking out the candidates with ground-based instruments as well as orbiting assets like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.
When such work is done, the number of known alien worlds could increase by several hundred — and it could happen soon."
Worlds Without End, indeed!
In so many ways, classic science fiction authors predicted technologies that are in everyday use now. Think Star Trek communicators and everyday cellular flip phones.
The most recent example of sci-fi becoming sci-fa(ct) is already out. In Vernor Vinge’s latest, Rainbows End, children are depicted playing their videogames not in their living rooms in front of the television, but outside. I work for a co-op dedicated to getting people (especially children) outside, so you can imagine how delighted I was at the prospect of technology that actually takes you outdoors. The technology in this book, however, might leave a parent wistful for the antiquated yet charming x-box days.
The tech works like this: Everyone (well, not everyone, but everyone who is anyone) in Vinge’s world views their surroundings with enhanced vision. A virtual layer is superimposed on the world with a contact lens display screen. Forget CRTs being replaced by LCD. There is no need for a computer screen because displays now live under your eyelid. Sound far fetched? It’s being done.
The contact lens, however, is just another interface. As amazing as this technology seems to us, it will be taken for granted in short order. The real technology power will be in the hands of programmers. Vinge predicts whole virtual worlds that will be experienced not in dimly lit apartments (a la Nueromancer), but in the light of day. The students of fictional Fairmont High (at least the ones who actually show up to class rather than attend virtually, which they can do) run outside to recess and play games outside and layer virtual worlds over real objects to create adventure. Would you like to do that now?
You can. The guys at Groundspeak have been developing an interactive gaming system called WhereIGo with a functionality that harkens back to Zork. Garmin’s latest handheld GPS, the Colorado, is the first GPS device capable of running this program, although can also use a GPS enabled palm unit. So, think back to when you played Zork in 1980. For those of you who weren’t around (or perhaps were around but weren’t quite the geek I was) in 1980, Zork was text based game. You start out in a room with several doors. You navigate the game by inputting simple commands like “exit left doorway” or “open treasure chest”. Even later games like Doom or Quake were merely graphically enhanced versions of Zork. WhereIGo makes the great outdoors your virtual world by using a GPS interface like the Colorado. Instead of inputting those kludgy sentences (like Zork) or using a joystick (like today’s games), you input your virtual actions by actually moving around in the world. I am currently working on adapting these games for REI. Soon, you will be able to play these games at local stores (you already can at the Seattle and Portland locations). Here’s what a WhereIGo enable Colorado looks like:
So, here’s an example. A programmer goes to a local park and starts to input data. The big oak tree in the middle of the park can be anything in the game. When you go to that tree, something will happen in the game. Perhaps there is a street sign that can provide a clue that you might need in the game. The only way to continue playing would be to go get that clue. Since the Colorado is a GPS, the game knows where in the game you are.
Games like WhereIGo are in their primitive stage, at the moment, but give the programmers some time, and they will create a rich world that can easily be ported through something like those contact lens displays.
That virtual world is coming fast.