Posts Tagged ‘space’

SpaceShip 2 Flies Over San Francisco

April 7th, 2011 2 comments

Associated Press photo from the Daily Mail.

In San Francisco, I’m afraid we’ve got a touch of the Space Madness.

What else is new, you ask? Okay, I’ll admit that Buh-buh-buh-Baghdad By the Bay has been high on the venom of the Moon Maidens since that fateful day in five-five when the G-man funked with the bongos. Allen sauced us with a does of that juicy contagion, cool cats, and we’ve been, like, cuh-raaayzee, man, ever, like, since.

But this week’s different. Y’see, it’s just been announced that the new Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), opening on April 14, will be the nesting point not just of Virgin America, but Virgin Galactic, the outfit planning to operate SpaceShip 2 SpaceShip Enterprise, the first commercial passenger spaceship.

As the Daily Mail reported (with some stunning photos, of which the above is but a thumb-tasting), the first two planes to arrive at the terminal yesterday were the new Virgin American Airbus 320 arrived in San Francisco yesterday (April 6) and its bestest bud, Virgin Galactic’s Scaled Composites-built White Knight 2 VMS Eve, named after Richard Branson’s mother. VMS Eve had the SpaceShip 2 Enterprise tucked under its wing.

The jet-powered mothership ferries Enterprise for Earthbound flights, and also serves as its launch platform. Rather than blasting off from the ground like the Space Shuttle, Enterprise launches from a carrier vessel, like the X-15 used to launch from the B-52.

There’s also video here, which I got from a Wired Story about it, which says in part:

“For the first time we’ve brought the spaceship and WhiteKnight to a commercial airport…. It’s just a fantastic, exciting day,” says an obviously amped-up Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Before he was the company’s CEO, Whitesides was one of the first people to sign up for a $200,000 ticket to ride on the space plane.

Commercial flights will begin in a year or two, Whitesides added.

The spaceship/mothership combination landed at SFO in formation with a more typical Virgin vehicle, an Airbus A320, which carried celebrity passengers such as Virgin founder Richard Branson (seen peering out the window in the video above) and pioneering astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

A handful of lucky schoolchildren who are part of a Virgin-backed nonprofit foundation’s effort to get students interested in science, math and entrepreneurship, also got to ride, plus a passel of journalists….It’s just one of the public relations benefits Virgin enjoys as a result of operating both a domestic air carrier and a suborbital spaceflight operation.



Aldrin, of course, is no ordinary astronaut. His mention in project is accompanied around Techyum Towers by the same giddy Hamster Dance that accompanies a Bigfoot sighting or a political endorsement from Chuck Yeager. Aldrin is one of the biggest personalities in modern weirdness, though all told most of the weirdness seems to swirl around him; I get the sense he’s actually fairly normal.

The second man on the moon and the first one to hold a religious ceremony there, Aldrin is the astronaut probably most beloved by wingnuts, for his account of a UFO spotted during the Apollo 11 mission.

But he’s also, reputedly, a thirty-third degree Scottish Rite Mason. His name springs first to the lips of conspiracy wonks as proof that the Apollo program was a hotbed of spooky-ookie X-ness. Much has been made of his reported mischief of taking a Masonic flag to the moon and returning it to the shady secret society to, I don’t know, hang it up somewhere or something.

Though unattributed misinformation often identifies Aldrin as a right-winger, he’s actually been friendly with Democrats for years and is an adviser to the Obama Administration on space matters. Last year he went toe-to-toe against his former moonmate Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell (yeah, Tom Hanks played him in the movie) and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernak, in supporting Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s planned return to the moon with the Constellation mission. The astro-trio thought the cancellation was guaranteed to torpedo America’s race to conquer the stars, while Aldrin says that specific program ran counter to what he felt should be U.S. space aims, which he felt should be (among other things) establishing a permanent colony on Mars. Armstrong, Lovell and Cernak disagreed strenuously. Astronaut fight in the Cream-of-Wheat pit!!!

Speaking of which, Aldrin once punched a guy in the teeth for claiming the Moon landing was faked. Aldrin believes the key to establishing U.S. hegemony in space is permanent, sustainable colonies on other planets. To that end, he went on Dancing With the Stars and recorded a rap song with Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones.

Worldwide Rash of UFO Sightings

March 2nd, 2011 No comments

Still from "Battle: Los Angeles" from / Trailers Without Pity.

…And I, for one, welcome our new bug-eyed overlords. Late 2010 and early 2011 have seen an escalating rash of UFO sightings — and you don’t need a UFO detector to find them; a few choice keywords on YouTube will do just fine.

In the wake of January-February sightings in Utah and Chicago, reports are surfacing of UFOs in Göteborg, Sweden (February 12), Johannesburg, South Africa (February 14), Boston, Massachusetts (February 21),  Dallas, Texas and Chicago again (both on February 28). Sadly, none of it features space pirates with peg-legs and ray guns.

Some of these are almost certainly hoaxes. The big news in late 2010 was the Jerusalem sighting, which Discovery News says was “almost certainly” a hoax; there’s a series of good arguments for that, but it’s not exactly conclusive. Sculptor Andrew Smith claimed to be the hoaxster behind the January UFO sightings near Lehi, Utah, but a few haters said his claiming responsibility might be a hoax to promote his sculpture — especially since Smith refused to provide any details about how the hoax was achieved, other than “helium and LED lights.” ParaNikki at Paranormal Utopia calls bullshit on people who claim to “I hoaxed something but I won’t tell you how” — and so do I. Tracy Parece at the Examiner thinks the Dallas footage looks sort of like a set of Chinese lanterns, which is what some people said about the UtahFO’s.

Others are surely just misidentifications or overreactions; it’s pretty damn hard to get a sense of space and context from an online video. The truly bizarre New Year’s Eve footage from Boston is some of the most unconvincing UFO evidence I’ve ever seen — I can’t tell WTF I’m seeing, though I guess that does qualify it as “unidentified.” However, whatever it is, it seems entirely different to me than the Chicago, Utah and Johannesbug UFOs. The February 21 Boston footage is even weirder — it looks, to me, like nothing at all. So do the February 19 and March 1 sightings over Portland.

All of these look, to me, like either optical artifacts (effects created by reflections or refractions in the camera) or misidentified airplanes or satellites. None of it — including the Utah footage — really looks like it would have to be hoaxed to explain it.

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Plans for a Nuclear-Powered Mars Hopper

February 24th, 2011 No comments

Image from the INL.

An article in R&D Magazine today, reprinted from the Center for Space Nuclear Research, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, describes one of the CSNR’s design projects — for a fleet of nuclear-powered “Mars Hoppers” that could map the whole Martian surface in a matter of a few years, much faster than ground-based rovers could.

The hoppers would be about as big as an adult Emperor Penguin and would use Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) run through a Sterling Engine to power the onboard instruments. The RTG/Sterling outfit would also run a device that draws in the thin Martian atmosphere and compresses it to create tanks of propellant, eliminating the need for the hopper to carry its own. Heat is then stored in a beryllium core, which the hopper uses to activate the rockets when it’s time to move. The system would allow the thing, when it finishes mapping a site, to “hop” about half a mile in the air and travel up to 9 miles away to map the next site. This process would be much more efficient than using a rover design, which moves at a crawl:

The twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have outlasted their planned three-month lifetime and given us our closest look yet at the Martian surface. But the solar-powered rovers have covered only 21 miles of Martian terrain in their combined 11 years of operation, leaving most of the surface unexplored…


A single rocket launch from Earth could deploy several hoppers at once. A few dozen hoppers could map the entire Martian surface in a few years, Howe says. Hoppers could also serve as a network of weather stations monitoring the Martian climate and could collect a trove of air, rock and soil samples to send back to Earth.


I’m far from convinced on that last point — getting something back to Earth from Mars is a much taller order than bouncing around the low-gravity, low-atmosphere surface where you don’t have to worry about radioactive contamination. Going to Mars and back, even with a robot, is way more than twice the trouble of just going to Mars.

But what I really love is the idea of having a bunch of universities contribute:

The scientific community will ultimately decide what the hoppers will carry, says [CSNR director Steven Howe.] While the Mars rovers employ an armada of tools such as cameras, drills and spectrometers that allow them to photograph, sample and analyze the Martian environment, small hoppers might only carry one or a few tools apiece.

Howe envisions having different universities around the world competing to design their own hopper payloads and experiments. “You can have 10 to 20 universities from around the world, hopping around Mars,” he says.


Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators are the same technology used in the Cassini-Huygens Probe, which freaked people out when it hurtled past Earth a few years ago on its gravity-assisted way to the outer solar system. RTGs provide power through the thermal energy released in radioactive decay. They are used in space probes because they’re one of a very, very few viable choices:

Unlike solar panels, radioisotopes produce steady power even at night or when obscured by Martian dust storms. And unlike chemical fuel, which can burn only once, the same block of radioisotope fuel could be used to launch a hopper over and over again and run its scientific instruments for a decade or more.

In deep-space probes, RTGs are used because probes like Cassini travel so far from the sun that solar power isn’t an option past a certain point.

The Soviet Union used RTGs for lighthouses throughout the Arctic and in its Siberian territories — more than 1,000 of them — which were designed for a 10-year life (and many of them are out in the field after 30+ years). (In 2001, some Georgian woodsmen found one and slept near it as a heat source. This was not a good idea.) The US Air Force still uses RTGs at “sensing stations” in Alaska.

The Soviet lighthouses and USAF RTGs use Strontium-90; Cassini used plutonium. Polonium, americium, curium, prometheum and cobalt isotopes have also been studied.

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Have Space Suit, Will Urinate

January 20th, 2011 No comments

SPD-143 space suit from the Apollo mission. Screencap from the NYT gallery, photo by Mark Avino, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Science fiction writer Walter Jon Williams, one of the O.C.’s (Original Cyberpunks) has a post on his blog tipping me off to this great article in the New York Times about the 300-item storage room at the Smithsonian that holds almost the museum’s entire collection of space suits.

The accompanying slide show features 18 images of suits throughout the American space program. These are the very suits that made history. Or, as Williams puts it, “Check out the very suit that Alan Shepherd pissed in!”

Williams’s reference, of course, is to the fact that first-American-in-space Alan B. Shepard, before his Freedom 7 launch, got delayed on the launch pad. He found he had to pee — but had no facilities to do so. The result was dramatized with LOLZ in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, based on a book by Tom Wolfe. He whizzed in his suit, which worked out just fine.

But as to the other awesome Shepard moment during Freedom 7 in The Right Stuff, it didn’t happen. At least, not precisely. Wikipedia, citing NASA flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris in Apollo 13, don’chaknow) never really said, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.” In his book Failure Is Not an Option, Kranz claims Shepard said, “Don’t fuck up, Shepard…” — which Shepard confirmed. The words are known at NASA as “Shepard’s Prayer,” but I’ve been saying the incorrect version for years.

Anyway, the NYT article says photos and X-rays in the Smithsonian collection will be part of a traveling exhibition next spring — by which I assume they mean 2012. The suits are too fragile to travel.

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NASA Evidence: Thunderstorms Shoot Antimatter Into Space

January 16th, 2011 No comments

NASA’s space-based Fermi Gama Ray Telescope has provided evidence that thunderstorms on Earth generate antimatter streams. The team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville reported the results this past Monday during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

Antimatter can be created in particle accelerators and occurs naturally in places like the Van Allen Belts around the Earth, and the similar belts around other planets like Jupiter, as well as being generated by radioactive beta-decay — all in extremely small quantities. This is the first time there’s been evidence that terrestrial lightning generates antimatter.

According to a story on

Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.


The way it works is this:

Fermi is designed to monitor gamma rays, and orbits along the Earth’s magnetic field.

High-altitude lightning in thunderstorms drive electrons upwards at almost the speed of light.

Sometimes these electrons collide with atoms, which then emit high-energy photons.

Rarely, these photons then strike a second atom that emits two particles — an electron and its antimatter counterpart, the positron.

Because both of these particles are charged, they are drawn along the magnetic field, which in this case led them straight into the maw of the Fermi telescope even though they’re not at all what Fermi was looking for.

In this case, the positrons then encountered electrons — that is to say, “normal matter” — within the Fermi telescope itself.

When antimatter particles hit their normal-matter counterparts, the particles annihilate each other, emitting gamma rays, and that’s what Fermi detected.

Or, as the sort of mind-bending video accompanying the NASA story puts it, “For an instant Fermi became a gamma ray source and set off its own detectors.”

Said video is short and well worth watching, as it makes the events clearer than I ever could. Plus there’s cool spaceship animations and stuffs.

Check it:

The incident described in the video occurred in December, 2009 when Fermi was over Egypt, but the storm producing the positrons was over Zambia, and thus over the horizon. Though lightning strikes can produce gamma rays, they travel line-of-sight. Therefore, the great distance between Fermi and the storm means that the detected gamma rays couldn’t have come directly from the storm

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Moon Porn Up for Auction

January 15th, 2011 No comments

Image from

Want a piece of classy retro porn that’s been around the moon? How does an exceedingly well-traveled image of DeDe Lind, Playboy’s Miss August 1967, sound? How about we add in a few Space LOLZ for good measure?

A short piece on alerts me to the auction of memorabilia from the US Space Program, closing January 20 at

The saucy piece of va-va-va-voom at right was stashed in the Apollo 12 command module the Yankee Clipper, unbeknownst to the crew. It stowed away all the way through the module’s moon orbit in November, 1969. The “Dick” in question reportedly added the saucy inscription; that’d be Richard F. Godon, command module pilot, who relaxed with Ms. Lind’s fetching visage while Pete Conrad and Alan Bean descended to the surface in the lunar module, Intrepid.

The complete image comes from the Zug article; the auction site has even more thoroughly censored it. The latter describes it thus:

Measuring approximately 4.5 x 6.5, the topless image is an original taken from one of the 1969 calendars published by Playboy and features the month and year of the Apollo 12 mission—November 1969. Prior to the mission, it was affixed to a cardboard cue card and, unbeknownst to the crew, secreted onboard their spacecraft. Normal wear as one would expect from an object that made the approximately 475,000 mile round-trip journey to the moon and back, this flown iconic piece of 1960s pop culture still retains its Velcro strips which were used to affix it inside the spacecraft.


At press time, the bidding for the piece was up to $13,155.

Ms. Lind’s image wasn’t the only stowaway on Apollo 12; apparently the back-up crew had also reproduced Playmate images in the crew’s checklists with jokey sayings to provide their stressed-out compatriots with a few Space LOLZ.’s earlier article the top 3 NASA pranks actually mentions not only moon porn, but their April 1 proof of water on Mars. Laughing my space-ass off here, guys.

[Link to article.]

[Link to Boston Herald article on the auction.]

[Link to the auction, running through Jan. 20, 2011.]

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Heads for Heaven With Dragon Capsule Mockup

December 8th, 2010 No comments

An earlier test of the Falcon Rocket.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral this morning, bearing unmanned mockup of the Dragon Capsule intended to ferry cargo and personnel to the International Space Station, successfully separated from the Falcon launch rocket.

The NASA site is vague on details as of this writing, but CNN has the locker-room talk.

The Dragon differs from SpaceShip One, the first commercial space vehicle everyone got so worked up about a few years back. SpaceShip one looked ultra-cool, and was was built on an innovative model that essentially grew from the Space Shuttle. It brought plenty innovation, but it was basically a spaceplane like the Shuttle.

The Dragon, on the other hand, is retro-fabulous. It’s a capsule model — more like the orbital and re-entry craft the Mercury and Gemini astronauts rode in.

The big dif is, of course, that the Dragon is designed to be reusable, which is important if SpaceX wants to deliver crew and cargo to the ISS on a budget. The innovation nowadays is not on a strict cool-design model; pushing the envelope on thrifty economics is the most critical innovation necessary now, as NASA moves into its next era.

Artist's conception of the Dragon docking with the ISS. From Wikipedia.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are the two companies contracted by NASA to develop manned space vehicles to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. When the Space Shuttle program ends next year, the US will otherwise be renting space on Russian Soyuz missions in a gas, grass, or ass arrangement. NASA’s grass is indeed green, but you don’t smoke it; it costs NASA $20 mil to send each US-funded astronaut.

Several other private companies are developing options in the hopes of getting future NASA contracts, but at the moment NASA’s eggs are in two baskets, plus rented space on the Russian program.

Scheduled for a 9am launch, the Falcon launch was delayed until 11:43 Eastern Time (it had until 12:22pm ET to hit its launch window).

SpaceX’s CEO is Elon Musk, who founded PayPal. He told CNN his company could be sending cargo to the ISS next year, and take astronauts in 3 years. He means SpaceX, not PayPal, natch.

When it comes to this particular launch, I found NASA’s site about as helpful as one of my fellow San Franciscans giving a tourist directions to Coit Tower.

Mighta been a local outage, but as far as I could tell, the promised video coverage live on NASA-TV was actually a blurry image of Curly Joe from the Three Stooges re-enacting a brief scene from the movie Contact, sans audio.

The YouTubes have some hilarious footage of cameras shaking, but nothing of today’s launch. Hopefully later in the day, the virus will take hold and there’ll be footage of the launch itself.

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Carbon Nanotubes Are the New Blacker Than Black

December 6th, 2010 No comments

The third-best thing about NASA’s announcement that it’s created carbon nanotubes one-nanometer diameter to make a paint blacker than black?

The time-dilating musical soundtrack of its video on the topic. It progresses from crunky ’90s electroclash, through ’80s-era dance and then, briefly, into Eddie Grant territory; it’s like a musical approximation of NASA/Doctor Who slash in my ears.

The second-best thing about the announcement? My friend Mistress Corruptia DePayne is just a hair closer to having an even blacker catsuit to match the sullen expression she wears to Abrasion Play Wednesdays at the old steel mill.

And the best thing about NASA’s announcement is, naturally: OMGALIENS!!1!!!

See, it goes like this: For space-based scientific equipment that looks for distant planets and stars, scientists and engineers need a paint that reflects as little light as possible. Any photons reflected of the surfaces of instruments may throw of observations. Says a NASA release, “help suppress errant light that has a funny way of ricocheting off instrument components and contaminating measurements.” That’s why they’re creating a paint out of carbon nanotubes one nanometer in diameter. “We can only use a scanning electron microscope to be able to see them,” says scientist Stephanie Getty.

Using a process called “catalyst-assisted chemical vapor deposition,” they grow nanotubes out of pure carbon on a substrate to build a material that absorbs 99.5% of the photos that smack into it. These puppies are one-nanometer across. The substance, says NASA, will “help scientists gather hard-to-obtain scientific measurements or observe currently unseen astronomical objects, like Earth-sized planets in orbit around other stars.”

Though the NASA team found out after starting work that scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had developed a similar material in 2008:

“Our material isn’t quite as dark as theirs,” said John Hagopian, the principal investigator leading the development team. “But what we’re developing is 10 times blacker than current NASA paints that suppress system stray light. Furthermore, it will be robust for space applications,” he said.

That is an important distinction, said Carl Stahle, assistant chief of technology for Goddard’s Instrument Systems and Technology Division. Not all technology can be used in space because of the harsh environmental conditions encountered there. “That’s the real strength of this effort,” Stahle said. “The group is finding ways to apply new technology and fly it on our instruments.”

The technology may also have applications for Earth observation. The NASA article quotes engineer Leroy Sparr, “who is assessing its effectiveness on the Ocean Radiometer for Carbon Assessment (ORCA), a next-generation instrument that is designed to measure marine photosynthesis.”

[Link to the NASA article, via NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Twitter account, via author Caitlin R. Kiernan's Twitter account].

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December 2nd, 2010 1 comment

NASA image of the newly described organism, GFAJ-1, grown on arsenic. From

…hold the Old Lace. I think journalists call this “Breaking News.”

Early this morning, rumors circulated that NASA would be announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Hell, I’ll admit, I myself was caught up in the hysteria; between the 8:07 rumor and the 8:40 debunking, I went out and bought four hundred cases of Spaghetti-O’s, a thousand liters of Evian, about 5,000 rounds of thirty-ought-six ammo and a T-shirt that says “Give Us Your Wisdom…OR ELSE.”

But that was probably unnecessary. We’re not being invaded…YET. NASA-funded research has “merely” discovered some weird-ass completely new forms of life in California’s Mono Lake — and no, they’re not referring to the clientele at nearby Grumpy’s Sports Restaurant. Those guys are essentially carbon-based, when it comes right down to it. Read more…

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NASA Discovers Life

December 2nd, 2010 No comments

Public domain NASA Landsat image of Mono Lake.

Cool your jets, Sparky Spaceman. NASA did not discover life in outer space, though for about a half-hour, that looked like a possibility to those of us mopes on the outside. In fact, at 8:07 Pacific Time this morning (December 2), Gizmodo reported on Jason Kottke’s speculation that NASA’s big press conference scheduled for today meant that they’d discovered life on one of Saturn’s moons.

Sadly, NASA did not discover extraterrestrial life. However, what they did discover, according to a Gizmodo post 10 minutes ago, at 8:40, is still pretty cool. You can watch the press conference live at NASA TV, but in the meantime, feast your wow on what Gizmodo says: Read more…

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