Archive for the ‘space’ Category
Much as I enjoy and appreciate Anousheh Ansari’s groundbreaking (?) blog from the International Space Station the title of one entry distracted a little from the contents: Thank God for Velcro. Velcro®, after all is purely man-made, with nothing religious about it. Sure, it was inspired by nature, but nature is hardly a spiritual place, except when viewed from perspectives particular to some members of the human race. Of course I know what she meant, but it’s a little odd.
It’s only a tiny distraction; Ms. Ansari’s writing gives me that “wish you were here” feeling, and I really wish I was, despite some of the privations she describes. I would be tempted to spend hours staring out the window at the Earth turning beneath me. I had imagined it would be “all go” up there, with the cosmonauts taking as little sleep as they could get away with, but that’s not sustainable over an extended stay up there, so it makes sense for them to pace themselves.
Sadly, my eyesight alone will ensure that I never see space in this lifetime. Even if I have laser surgery to correct my vision, the shape of my eyes means that I will remain vulnerable to a detached retina if I am ever subjected to high G-forces. Never mind: I can live vicariously through blogs such as Ms. Ansari’s.
Since it is usually too loud, I must be getting old. My tolerance for self-abuse is waning, actually. Last night I got fairly sloshed on an absurdly small quantity of beer, by the standards I think I remember. It seems to me that the length of the session is as much a factor as the rate of consumption; after the first pint, I rarely beat a pint per hour these days.
Not that I’m complaining, mind – it saves money – but I still had a mild hangover at work today. On top of which my desk neighbour was on the phone to various Austrian cellphones all morning, which made it difficult to concentrate on my own work. I can’t complain there, either, especially since he gave me an Easter Egg this morning, as a thank you for something I helped him with this week. I’m at work both today and Monday: Easter means nothing to me at all, except in the way the roads and trains are clogged, or closed down for maintenance, and as a member of Chocoholics Anonymous.
Religion left me behind a long time ago, or did I leave it behind? Probably the latter, because I can move quicker since I dropped the burdens of Sin, Guilt and Obligation that the Catholic Church uses to control its subjects. Am I supposed to be upset that the Pope Idol is still ill, yet still alive? Maybe he’ll be winched into his bulletproof Popemobile (now that’s “faith in action”) for a sortie around the Vatican. They could replace him with a robot for all the interaction he has with the people. (“Now with new improved blessing action! Kiss the ring today!”)
Oh, and if I haven’t mentioned Orbiter before… the 2005 edition is even better, and its all free. Just be prepared to read the documents and use your head. It’s not a game, but you aren’t left calculating orbital vectors on your own – you do have computer assistance, but you still have to know the terminology and what questions to ask. Aligning to the orbit normal doesn’t mean your orbit is normal, for example; it means pointing your craft at a right angle to the plane of your orbit, an attitude used in aligning your orbit with that of another ship.
A great day in space exploration: today the Huygens probe successfully landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and has already sent back pictures during the descent.
After the Beagle 2 debacle a year ago, it’s good to see how well the Cassini-Huygens project has been carried through. The Cassini probe will continue orbiting Saturn, after releasing Huygens three weeks ago, to fall to the Titan surface today. The way they’re talking, the probe was not expected to survive the impact with the surface, but seems to have done so, and kept broadcasting for another half-hour at least, before going over the radio horizon, never to be heard from again.
The European Space Agency has masses of data to sort through, years of work ahead, but the scientists seem to be having fun. After looking at impact force measurements, one has just described the Titan hydrocarbon surface’s consistency as like crème brûlée. – gooey, but with a brittle crust. How poetic.
Excellent: a weekend, a 2-day working week, then ten days off. If anyone is reading this, and is going to any of the Rush concerts in UK from next week, drop me a line. It will take a major disaster to stop me going to all of them, a trip I’ve already paid for in advance, so it had better be good.
I’m completely unmotivated this afternoon, though I did spend a couple of hours this morning playing with Orbiter: today I actually managed to line up orbits and approach the International Space Station fairly accurately. It’s a very realistic spacecraft simulation, though we do enjoy some luxuries not currently provided to real astronauts, such as a HUD with useful data such as actual velocity vectors, a “stop rotation” button and some useful autopilot features, and “time zoom” (so you don’t have to wait 90 minutes per orbit). The latter makes this simulation bearable, since much of the activity associated with setting up and matching orbits involves short bursts of rocket at precise orbital positions, one dimension at a time. The Space Shuttle astronauts do have computer support of this type, with critically precise orbit information and specific modes to solve the mathematical problems involved.
Just for fun, this evening, I’m taking part in a BBC “Test The Nation” quiz test, which was quite tough, with too many questions about UK chart positions, which I had no chance on. In the studio, the teams scored 40 – 50%, while the national scores, from people taking part online or by phone, was 40-42%. I’m a music geek, according to the overall statistics, scoring 73%. Which shows how reliable these statistics are, I suppose.
Back at work. I still have the dedication line on the front page to the Columbia astronauts, and it will stay there until there is some resolution to this situation.
We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
This is the epitaph on the memorial plaque to John and Phoebe Brashear, pioneering Pittsburgh astronomers, but the line originates in the following poem:
The Old Astronomer to His Pupil
Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.
Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, ’tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.
But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men’s fellowship and smiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles?
You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
— Sarah Williams, “Best Loved Poems of the American People”, Hazel Felleman, ed.
Garden City Publishing Co., Garden City NY: 1936, pp. 613-614
The old cliché, about knowledge as a light that cuts through darkness, does not seem like such a cliché after all.
More details today: investigations are focusing on the left rear wheel well of the Columbia, where the undercarriage is stored. It’s a weak spot in the otherwise unbroken wing surface, and NASA suspect that this area was damaged by ice or foam falling from the external fuel tank during takeoff. A break here would catch the wind and channel white-hot air inside, and temperature readings from the inner wing and side of the shuttle appear to confirm this. There are even photos of wing damage, published by NASA yesterday, though they show the upper wing, which doesn’t tell us much.
There are also reports that NASA knew that the damage would make re-entry hazardous, but did not tell the crew, allegedly because “there was nothing anyone could have done”. We can be certain that these allegations will be highly damaging, whether true or not. NASA, for better or for worse, is a political organization; George Bush has paid it almost no attention, never visiting the Johnson Space Centre in Houston during his eight years as Governor of Texas or his two years as President. They definitely have his attention now, and they might not like what happens next.
Investigations into the Columbia disaster are focusing on the left wing – apparently, there is telemetry indicating a serious temperature increase there, enough to raise serious concerns. A normal plane could survive the kind of minor damage that is being discussed, but the re-entry phase is so critical that any major deviation from the correct attitude can be fatal, and there is essentially nothing that anybody can do to correct it. The loss of a few tiles, even from a wingtip, would (I think) lead to the loss of the wing pretty much immediately, with a complete loss of control.