Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Excuses Excuses

Excuses Excuses

On this post, an anonymous commenter asked me "why do you not post daily?" Well, that's a good question and it deserves an answer. There are a number of reasons excuses as to why I don't post every day.

Some days, after having spent quite a bit of time reading through all the space blogs, I find that all those other space geeks have already said what I wanted to say. It's a little disheartening to come up with a great topic and then find that 20 other people who share my same reader market have already written what I wanted to say, but did it better.

Sometimes, rather than blogging myself, I will just leave comments on a whole bunch of other blogs. By the time I've left a comment on Bad Astronomy and Comics Curmudgeon and Transterrestrial Musings and Cosmic Conservative and Selenian Boondocks and small dead animals and Angry in the Great White North and Betsy's Page and Lone Pony and Classical Values and Posthuman Blues and on and on and on and on... well, by the time I've written comments on all those blogs, I've said pretty much everything I've wanted to say for the day, and writing a blog post on top of that would be redundant all over again a second time.

Some days, real life interferes and I just don't get a chance to even get on the computer, much less write a blog post. I might be on the road, or just really busy at work.

And some days, I get really lazy and would just much rather play video games. Generally if I have spent all day working on programming or on the lathe or mill, I just don't feel like writing anything on the blog, so I start up Mechwarrior or Age of Empires and just lose myself.

How about the rest of you? For those of you who have blogs, but don't blog every day, what excuses do you use to explain that? Leave them in the comments.

Update: When I wrote this earlier, I forgot one major reason why I don't write every day. Sometimes, I have a Big Idea pending, and I take several days to collect my thoughts on the idea. The gaps over the last couple of weeks are mainly due to precisely this reason. I have what looks like it is going to be a series of three and perhaps four blog posts - about environmentalism, conservationism, and space - pending, and I want to get all my ideas in order before I put them out there for the world to see.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007



The Write Stuff and The Flame Trench are reporting that the space shuttle Atlantis, currently sitting on the launchpad in preparation for a planned March 15th launch, suffered 700 - 1000 hits from a violent hailstorm (hailstones 1/4 inch to 2 inches in diameter were found around the launch pad).

Hail has previously pushed back the launch of the shuttle, when 650 hits were recorded in a 1999 launch. NASA has also had a woodpecker problem on the foam insulation on the external tank in the past. So, the shuttle might have to be rolled back into the vehicle assembly building for repairs.

Delays like this cost millions of dollars. The shuttle needs to be sitting out on the launch pad for weeks prior to a launch to get it ready, and with Florida weather NASA knows for a fact that there will be occasional violent storms. And yet, they leave shuttles sitting out there basically naked, awaiting whatever nature can throw at them. For a brittle system like the shuttle this is flabbergasting.

Common sense would dictate that if one has a two billion dollar asset that has to be sitting out in the weather for weeks at a time prior to use, that one should do at least the bare minimum required to protect it from the elements. Sometimes I feel like figuratively rapping my knuckles on NASA's head, saying "hello, McFly, anyone in there? Use a tent, stupid."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Top Gear Rock(et)s

Top Gear Rock(et)s

What do you get when you cross a bunch of crazy British guys, a whole bunch of money, and pyrotechnics? This:

Well, at least the SRB separation went perfectly...

Monday, February 19, 2007



I've been interviewed by Kilimanjaro magazine. I know, I'm as shocked as all the rest of you are.
Previous issues of the publication have featured the likes of photographer David Bailey, fashion design Paul Smith and Alexander McQueen as a well as GQ Magazine Editor Dylan Jones. In this issue we also intend to feature Brian Eno and writer Will Self, alongside a number of writers and artists.
They had some really good questions for me, so I figured I'd share my interview here with my (*ahem* select few) readers. Perhaps some of the issues raised, and my answers to them, might generate some discussion in the comments. Here goes:

Some say astronomy is a science fuelled by (science) fiction…How accurate is that…?

Well, my interest in astronomy and rocketry was certainly fuelled by the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was a particular favourite of mine.

Also, a number of astronomers over the years have also been science fiction authors. Johannes Kepler wrote some of the first space fiction after he figured out elliptical orbits.

Astronomy seems like an extremely isolated pursuit. How much has the Internet affected the way the community functions and impacts on the rest of the world?

The Internet connects us all. Sites such as Astronomy Picture of the Day show us some beautiful astronomy images. There are a number of mail list groups on Google and Yahoo, among other websites, which connect the astronomy community. Sites like YouTube and Google Video have tons of videos of shuttle launches, documentaries from the early days of space travel, and videos of the tests being conducted by some of the new space companies. I have made it something of a hobby to collect space-, astronomy-, and rocketry-related blogs into one Space Blogroll, and there are more than 150 blogs on there right now. And, through the magic of RSS Feeds, the latest blog posts from over 100 space blogs and news stories from over 30 space news sites are available on my Space Feeds aggregator. Space news travels much faster now than it did even a few years ago, and is disseminated more widely, thanks to the Internet.

Most sciences claim to be for the benefit of mankind – can astronomy claim the same thing and prove it by past ‘successes’. Or are the real benefits firmly fixed in the future?

Astronomy’s benefits are so far-reaching that they tend to become a part of the fabric of our culture, so intertwined with it that it is not obvious that benefits are directly due to astronomy. For instance, the knowledge that our planet orbits the sun might seem trivial today, but it is that knowledge, derived from astronomy, that released the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had on the lives of people everywhere.

Observations of the other planets in our solar system show us just how special of a place is the Earth: there are no canals on Mars, no jungles on Venus, no other place in our solar system where human beings can live relatively unprotected from the elements. These observations show us that we must be stewards of our planet, for there is really no other planet close by suited to our needs.

Having said that, I think that the golden age of astronomy is ahead of us. We have already begun to assess the value of some of the near-earth asteroids, which could be sources of raw materials in the future that would be rich beyond imagination. For instance, the asteroid 3554 Amun is estimated to contain thirty trillion dollars worth of metals. That is only one asteroid out of an estimated quadrillion (a one followed by fifteen zeros) in our solar system. There’s Gold in them thar hills.

What makes a good day, or night in astronomy terms?

The best nights for observations are those with clear skies, a new moon, and no city lights. That’s why most observatories are located at very high altitudes far from cities.

How much of the current interest in astronomy is due to the state of this planets environment and how much is due to the advances in space technology?

I think that much of the interest is being driven by technology, and in particular the technology being developed by private space companies. Scaled Composites probably did more to ignite interest in space by winning the X-Prize with SpaceShipOne than anybody else recently.

And, of course the Hubble Space Telescope provides us with some really spectacular images. I’d say that the Hubble telescope is probably the only worthwhile thing NASA has done in the last thirty years, and it is chiefly responsible for much of the public’s perceptions of astronomy.

Is it possible to simulate inhabitable earth-like conditions on other planets – over a sustained period of time?

In some ways, it is theoretically possible. However, by and large the answer to this question is no. It may be possible to set up small scale bases on the Moon or Mars, but both of those bodies have low gravity compared to the Earth – the moon’s surface gravity is about 1/6 of Earth’s, and Mars’ surface gravity is about 38% of Earth’s. It would be very difficult to simulate a full gee on either body, except on a small scale in a centrifuge.

I could see people building enclosed habitats on the Moon and Mars, and setting up a mini-ecosystem like Biosphere II inside. However, even after more than 40 years of manned space flight, we don’t know the long-term effects of reduced gravity on human beings. We do know that at zero gee people encounter some health problems, which can be overcome to some extent through vigorous daily exercise. We know nothing at all about long term effects of any gravity field between zero and one gee. We also know nothing about whether a human fetus can develop normally in anything less than one gee.

How important a role do you think private business and non-governmental individuals play in the current space culture? Think here of independent astronomers, colleges, and the likes of Google, Richard Branson and The owner of Amazon?

The influence of private individuals and private space companies is growing in importance every day. The number of private companies involved in space keeps growing as well – at my last count there were over 70 private space companies, many of which are building actual flight hardware right now.

The primary market that is emerging today and over the next few years is suborbital space flight, with companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin (Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s space company), Armadillo Aerospace (run by John Carmack, the programmer of Doom and Quake), Starchaser Industries, Masten Space Systems, and others leading the way. Looking beyond suborbital tourism, companies like SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler are aiming at sending people to orbit. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace (and Budget Suites of America) already has an inflatable habitat in orbit, as a test bed in preparation for eventual hotels in orbit.

The reason these private companies are important is sustainability. Places like NASA and the European Space Agency require massive influxes of cash from taxpayers in order to keep going, but these private companies will only remain in operation if they turn a profit over the long term. As with any industry, most of the startup companies are going to fail – but the ones that succeed will make money, and that will go back into research and development of better and better technology. These private companies can therefore sustain themselves over the long term, something that NASA and ESA simply cannot do.

What do scientists currently consider to be the most likely planet for human habitation?

Earth. The answer might seem flippant, but so far the Earth is the only place that human beings can live without protection. As I said above, Mars and the Moon could have enclosed outposts, but we don’t know if it is possible for children to grow up healthy in those low gravities. Venus has a similar gravity to the earth, but it is way too hot and the atmosphere is basically battery acid. None of the other planets in the solar system are suitable for human life, nor are any of the 200+ planets that have been discovered orbiting other stars (although our detection methods only allow us to observe the Jupiter-sized planets around other stars – there might be Earth-like planets around other stars, but we haven’t detected them yet).

I think that the most likely place other than the Earth for human habitation is not on a planet at all. Back in 1969, Gerard K. O’Neill asked his students the question "Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" After studying the problem, the answer they came back with was, surprisingly, “no”. If we’re a space-faring civilization, then the bottom of a gravity well is exactly the wrong place to be. Why would we expend all that effort to get from the Earth into space, only to go back down to the bottom of another gravity well on the Moon or Mars?

Instead, the best place for human habitation in the future is on manmade orbiting space colonies. The sizes of these colonies range from a ten thousand person Bernal Sphere to a 100 thousand person wheel-shaped space station called the Stanford Torus (similar in design to the wheel-shaped station shown in 2001: a Space Odyssey, and to the design that Werner von Braun came up with for his 1950’s Colliers articles) to a million-person O’Neill cylinder (a pair of counter-rotating cylinders each two miles in radius and twenty miles long, with hemispherical end caps).

These structures would be large enough that they would have their own weather inside, and would be spun to provide artificial gravity of one full gee. They would also be exposed to sunlight 100% of the time, and so would have a cheap source of power. Finally, since they would be in orbit (at the top of the gravity well), it would be much easier to travel from one of these colonies to somewhere else in the solar system than it is to travel there from the Earth. Robert A. Heinlein once said that once you get to orbit, you're "halfway to anywhere" in terms of energetics. So, these colonies would already be halfway to anywhere.

Now, these structures are all enormous, and as we have seen over the last several decades, it is very expensive and energy-intensive to launch a lot of mass from the Earth into orbit. Obviously we are not going to build them down here and launch them into orbit, not even piecemeal like the International Space Station. Instead, we would have to mine asteroids and comets for the necessary material. Al Globus of NASA estimated that by mining the asteroid Ceres completely, there would be enough material to build space colonies that the combined liveable surface area inside the colonies would equal 300 to 500 times the surface area of the Earth. So just by mining that one asteroid and turning it into space colonies, there would be enough room to comfortably sustain a population of over one trillion people in this solar system.

Ceres is the largest asteroid, and its mass totals about one quarter of the mass in the asteroid belt. However, the main belt isn’t all there is, there are more asteroids trapped in the libration orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, and lots more out beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Some people have suggested "terraforming", modifying other planets to make them more Earth-like. While that is theoretically possible, consider that the sum total of tens of thousands of years of all human activity combined has had very little effect on the climate of the Earth, the contrary protestations of the proponents of Anthropogenic Global Warming notwithstanding.

Having said all that, I think that the first place that people will attempt to colonize off the Earth would be the moon, particularly near the lunar South Pole. There is one spot between the Shackleton and de Gerlache craters that forms a peak, which is sunlit around 90% of the time, called the Peak of Eternal Light. Right next to that peak, in the two above-mentioned craters, are areas that never receive sunlight. These cold traps are areas where it is likely that we could find water ice or other volatiles.

'Our standard measurements of light, sound speed, time; gravity and energy become redundant when applied to space. Other planets function on completely different 'scale' to this one'. Is in not possible that extra-terrestrial beings exist on other planets but in ways which are beyond human perception and measurement?

The laws of physics are the same everywhere. If there are extraterrestrial beings that we cannot perceive, then the situation is functionally equivalent to them not existing at all.

What human skill or quality to you hope will be non-transferable to the next inhabited planet?

I think that every human skill will be required as human beings move out into space permanently. There will always be a need for teachers and nurses and mechanics and barbers and sanitation workers and firemen and entertainers and a host of other vocations.

I do hope that the thirst for knowledge, the desire to know what is over the next hill, survives our exodus into space. And love is good, too, let's keep that.

What are the 5 most important things you’d personally bring if you were to move to another planet? Please say why.
1) For entertainment
2) For moral erudition and growth
3) Nostalgic reasons
4) Intellectual advancement
5) Luxury

First, I'll change that question to read "a space colony" rather than "another planet". For entertainment and intellectual advancement I'd bring a computer, and I'd have to expand the Internet from being worldwide to being solar-system-wide. For moral erudition and growth, and for nostalgic reasons, I'd bring a bible. For luxury, I'd bring my girlfriend. ;)

In the new planets history books, what do you imagine they will say was the biggest single mistake made by humans on planet earth?

Probably the biggest mistake that we have made is socialism.

In the West, the exploration of space seems a very open and transparent arena…Is that a na├»ve reading of things.

It seems to be that way, yes, because the private space companies and NASA get lots of publicity. However, the United States Air Force has launched more rockets than NASA, and you never hear about the USAF satellites. We have one Hubble telescope scanning the heavens – but something like two dozen equivalent satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office pointing back down at the earth.

What do you consider to be the short term and also the long-term implications the recent activities of China space program?

Last month China launched a satellite-killer and destroyed one of their own defunct weather satellites. In the short term, there will be a debris field that will persist in that orbit for a number of years. In the long term, I fully expect there to one day be a war in space. After all, it was Sun Tzu who said, "With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up. If the enemy has occupied them before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away." Soon after the Chinese conducted their satellite-killer test, they sought to reopen the UN treaty banning space weapons – and I think they are trying to "entice the enemy away" from the ultimate high ground.

Real astronomers don’t entertain conspiracy theories. True or False – please tell us why and if there are any conspiracy theories you wouldn’t totally rule out…

Astronomers are a group of people like any other group – there are no hard and fast rules that apply to all of them. So, some probably do entertain conspiracy theories. I think that, being scientists, they would likely only entertain such theories for which there is actual evidence.

If there were one questions you would like to be answered about the universe what would it be and why?

I'd like to find out if we are alone, if we are the only form of intelligent life out there in the universe. Considering the size of the universe, our uniqueness is highly unlikely, but we haven't yet found definitive proof of another technological species. If they're out there, I want to know about it.

If there was one planet you’d like to visit, which one would it be and why. What would hope to find there?

Well, it isn't a planet. I'd like to visit the moon. In fact, I'd like to open the first pizza place on the moon. I already have a name for it: "Moon Pies". Catchy, isn't it?

What is someone likely to find when reading your blog? What do you hope they come away with?

My main blog – Robot Guy – is about space exploration, astronomy, general science, robots, cool videos, the occasional libertarian rant and political commentary. My other blog, Space Feeds, is "everything space, all in one place". I keep adding links to Space Feeds all the time, so if there is something that one wants to know about space, chances are they can find it on Space Feeds.



I have just joined BlogBurst, a syndication service that will spread content from this blog to websites such as Reuters. Mwahahaha, I'm spreading like a virus.

I am including this post to verify my account with BlogBurst; they asked that I either include the button above in a blog post or in the blog template. I have had a bit of a problem changing the blog template ever since I switched over to the new version of Blogger, hence this post.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

yay for comics

yay for comics

I love comics. I have had comics on this blog since day one, and even went so far as to make my own comics page, just so I could read the daily funnies.

Well, now I have found something even better. It is called the Darkgate Comic Slurper. There one will find a list of hundreds of comic strips, both webcomics and regular syndicated strips; just click on the red button next to any comic you'd like to see, and it will be added to your personal list. Thereafter, every time you visit the comic slurper, your chosen comics will appear. One can also suggest comics to be added to the list, so the comic slurper list will continue to grow over time.

I knew this day would come

I knew this day would come

For the last couple of months, I have resisted switching over to the new version of Blogger. I have seen the major problems encountered by everyone who switched, and cringed at the excruciatingly long time it takes to bring up the comments page on all blogs that have made the switch (sometimes in excess of ten minutes, and who has that kind of time when surfing the web?).

So, I put off switching, and put it off, and put it off. And with every blog that made the switch, my decision not to do so just looked smarter and smarter.

Well, no more. Today when I tried to sign in, Blogger gave me no option. As soon as I signed into the old Blogger, it forced me to make the switch to new Blogger. After some wailing and gnashing of teeth, I went ahead and did it. It was either that, or have no access to my blog.

I sure hope that Blogger has worked out all the (many many many) bugs in their new software. Oh well, I guess I got what I paid for it. At least there is one silver lining, as I can now try out Blogger's new labelling function.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Live Aid

Live Aid

Do you remember where you were on July 13, 1985?

I just found a whole bunch of videos of the enormous Live Aid concert on YouTube. Here is a sampling:

Bob Geldof


The Who


Duran Duran


Phil Collins

Dire Straits

Eric Clapton

Neil Young

The Pretenders

Pink Floyd


Update: Temujin pointed out that the clip of Pink Floyd was from Live 8 rather than Live Aid. Well, I'm going to leave it in there anyhow, those guys rock.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Fighting Robots

Fighting Robots

Over the years the robot sumo competitors have become more and more humanoid. This, however, is just downright eerie:

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

closer... closer...

closer... closer...

A friend sent me this incredible series of images. I bet this pilot clangs when he walks.

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