Archive for September, 2006

DIY Friday: Dude, Where’s My Droid?

Friday, September 29th, 2006

If you’re like some of us here at Really Rocket Science, you look back upon 1977 as a watershed year — a year when, for the first time, you realized what you wanted more than anything else in the world.

And what you wanted, of course, was to be Luke Skywalker. Or maybe Han Solo. At the very least, you wanted to have your own droid — a faithful mechanical friend like R2-D2.

Fast forward nearly thirty years. Dude, where’s my droid? Technology and industry haven’t exactly delivered the type of personal-pal robot that we saw in Star Wars.

But there’s no need to wait any longer. Want a droid? Do it yourself at

Astromech has a complete tutorial page that will help you build your droid — with instructions and real-world experiences on every part, from the dome to the feet to the lights and and cute little R2-D2-like sounds. 

For inspiration, be sure to check out the photogalleries of droids built by other fans. There’s even a video section showing close-ups of completed droids beeping and blinking in action, and (as an added bonus) this video of droid bloopers taken from the original filming of Star Wars.

The articles section of the Astromech site is a fine place to idle a few hours away before you get to work on your droid (you are going to get to work, aren’t you?);  we recommend taking a quick gander at this review of the original R2-D2 robot from the December, 1977 Electronics Today.

Farm Aid 2006 on Satellite

Friday, September 29th, 2006

 FARM AID® 2006 takes place on Saturday, September 30 at the Tweeter Center at the Waterfront in Camden, New Jersey. The entire event will be broadcast live on XM Satellite Radio starting at 3:30 p.m., EDT (on X Country, XM Channel 12).

The event will feature president and founder Willie Nelson, board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis with Roy Head, Los Lonely Boys, Arlo Guthrie, Gov’t Mule, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Steel Pulse, Shelby Lynne, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jimmy Sturr & his Orchestra, Pauline Reese and Danielle Evin.

Of course, there’s also a webcast. I like their blog, too. Philly’s Bling blog will be covering it as well.

What’s espcially interesting is how the environmental impact of this year’s concert is being worked. Purchasing Green Tags from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation is offsetting all of the electricity used at the concert, replacing it with sustainable wind energy. Title sponsor Silk Soymilk has also purchased additional Green Tags to offset the energy used for an estimated 25,000 attendees to drive to the venue. Last I checked, tickets were still available.

Their local promotion, Fresh from the Family Farm, a restaurant promotion to benefit Farm Aid, is well worth it (if you live, work or plan to visit the area this weekend).

Inside SpaceShipTwo

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Virgin Galactic has unveiled a concept interior for its (not-too-distant) future spaceliner SpaceShipTwo — and they’ve also released a great computer animated video showing what it will be like for passengers to travel into space on their flagship. has more: 

NEW YORK – Future passengers aboard Virgin Galactic spaceliners can look forward to cushioned reclining seats and lots of windows during suborbital flights aboard SpaceShipTwo, a concept interior of which was unveiled by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson Thursday….

“It won’t be much different than this,” Branson told reporters here at Wired Magazine’s NextFest forum. “It’s strange to think that in 12 months we’ll be unveiling the actual plane, and then test flights will commence right after that.”

Virgin Galactic’s spaceliners will be specially-outfitted SpaceShipTwo vehicles built by Mojave, California-based Scaled Composites and veteran aerospace designer Burt Rutan. The new spacecraft, designed specifically for space tourism, will be three times the size of Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for privately-developed piloted spacecraft capable of reaching suborbital space twice in two weeks.

The air-launched SpaceShipTwo is designed to seat eight people – six passengers and two pilots – and be hauled into launch position by WhiteKnightTwo, a massive carrier craft currently under construction by Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said.

For an initial ticket price of $200,000, Virgin Galactic passengers will buy a 2.5-hour flight aboard SpaceShipTwo and launch from an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,288 meters), while buckled safely in seats that recline flat after reaching suborbital space. A flight animation depicted passengers clad in their own personal spacesuits as they reached a maximum altitude of at least 68 miles (110 kilometers).

While the spacesuit designs are not yet final, they will likely be equipped with personal data and image recorders to add to SpaceShipTwo’s in-cabin cameras, Whitehorn said….

Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceliners are slated to roll out and begin test flights by early 2008 in Mojave, California, with future operational spaceflights to be staged from New Mexico’s Spaceport America beginning in 2009.

“Pale Blue Dot”

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day was particularly beautiful:


From the NASA website:

Explanation: What’s that pale blue dot in this image taken from Saturn? Earth. The robotic Cassini spacecraft looked back toward its old home world earlier this month as it orbited Saturn. Using Saturn itself to block the bright Sun, Cassini imaged a faint dot on the right of the above photograph. That dot is expanded on the image inset, where a slight elongation in the direction of Earth’s Moon is visible. Vast water oceans make Earth’s reflection of sunlight somewhat blue. Earth is home to over six billion humans and over one octillion Prochlorococcus.

Throw Out Them Bunny Ears

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

We’ve written before about how dramatically the intersection of television and computers — particularly through IPTV and satcom– will transform the media marketplace and the media consumption habits of ordinary people.

That transformation is several steps closer to reality, if news of new gadgets today is any indication.

First up is the DirecTV Plus HD DVR — the result of a partnership between DirecTV and Intel:

[I]n other news to come out of the Intel Developers Forum, DirecTV and Intel are joining forces to produce the DirecTV Plus HD DVR — which we first heard about all the way back at CES — allowing viewers to check out content via the interweb when connected to a Viiv PC. In addition, there will be a new software update for DirecTV subscribers by the end of the year that turns subscribers’ set-top-boxes into digital media adapters, the companies said in a press release earlier today. The new DVR, to be released later this fall, will capture 200 hours of standard definition programming or 50 hours of HD, or whatever combination of the two your little heart desires.

CNET also reports that Apple’s iTV wireless router — connecting TV to PC or Mac — will be coming out soon:

 Apple Computer’s take on the living room became a little clearer… with its preview of a new networking product….

CEO Steve Jobs announced that Apple is working on a product code-named iTV that will allow both Mac and PC users to watch movies or television shows purchased from the iTunes store in their living rooms….

The iTV box won’t be available until the first quarter of 2007, but Jobs said it will cost $299 and walked attendees at Apple’s press event in San Francisco through a brief demonstration of its capabilities.

The iTV unit is basically a wireless router with ports for video connections to televisions, including an HDMI port for high-definition digital televisions. The idea is to hook it up to a television or set-top box as another video input device, and access video content stored on a Mac or PC through a special Apple remote control, Jobs said.

And if neither Apple nor DirecTV whet your whistle in anticipation of the coming transformation in consumer media choice, AT&T’s U-Verse fiber-based television service is set to offer some cool options, according to Engadget

 U-verse users, meet HDTV. We just got word that AT&T’s IPTV service is going to be blessed with numerous upgrades within the next few weeks that will include HDTV support, more channels, more VOD, games, personal photos and other unannounced features. This rollout seems to be within the same speculated time frame of October 25th to coincide with the launch of those brand spanking new Motorola DVR’s; whenever it does happen, though, these features will be implemented during the slow viewing times between 11 PM and 5 AM with the hope of minimizing service interruption. On a similar note, AT&T is upgrading DVRs to prep for this rollout, with customers seeing all previously recorded programs erased and all scheduled recordings canceled after October 5th. But keep in mind this is for high-def along with more content, so hopefully the ends will justify the means — you can deal with a few Adult Swim-free nights for the greater good, right?

 The times, they certainly are a-changin’.


Japanese Launch Sun Microscope

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

On Saturday, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched  the M-V Launch Vehicle No. 7 (M-V-7) at 6:36 a.m. Japan Standard Time from the Uchinoura Space Center.

Within an hour, JAXA started receiving signals from the rocket’s satellite payload —  the SOLAR-B, a sun observation "microscrope" nicknamed "Hinode" ("sunrise") by JAXA engineers.

The BBC has more
on the SOLAR-B and its mission of studying solar flares, which "release the equivalent of tens of millions of hydrogen bombs in just a few minutes:"

 The probe will attempt to find out more about the magnetic fields thought to power solar flares, and try to identify the trigger that sets them off.

The ultimate goal for scientists is to use the new insights to make better forecasts of the Sun’s behaviour.

Flares can hurl radiation and super-fast particles in the direction of the Earth, disrupting radio signals, frying satellite electronics, and damaging the health of astronauts….

Solar-B is expected to transform our understanding [of solar flares].

It carries three instruments: a Solar Optical Telescope (SOT), an X-ray Telescope and an Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer.

They will make continuous, simultaneous observations of specific solar features, to observe how changes in the magnetic field at the Sun’s surface can spread through the layers of the solar atmosphere to produce, ultimately, a flare.

"Solar-B acts essentially like a microscope, probing the fine details of what the magnetic field is doing as it builds up to a flare," said mission scientist Professor Louise Harra, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL, UK.

"What we don’t know is what triggers a flare; we don’t understand the physics of that phase at all. Solar-B will show us how tangled the field is, and how the field lines collide to produce all that energy."

In October, NASA will contribute to the growing understanding of solar flares when it launches its Stereo mission – twin spacecraft that will make 3D observations of the sun.

Better understanding of solar flares is critical, as John Davis, Solar-B project scientist at Nasa’s Marshall Center, told the BBC.

"The information that Solar-B will provide is significant for understanding and forecasting of solar disturbances, which can interfere with satellite communications, electric power transmission grids, and threaten the safety of astronauts travelling beyond the safety of the Earth’s magnetic field," he said.

(Video of the M-V-7 launch can be found here (in the right hand column).) 

Launch Day Monday — Delta II: Good; SpaceLoft XL1: Almost.

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006
Watched the Delta II launch a GPS payload yesterday, live on HD-Net. Gorgeous launch on a beautiful day at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Seeing it in HDTV does make a difference.

Boeing’s workhouse did its job:

The Delta II rocket carrying the GPS IIR-15 (M) spacecraft lifted off from Space Launch Complex 17A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 2:50 p.m. EDT, Sept. 24. Following a nominal 68-minute flight, the rocket deployed the satellite to a transfer orbit.

The Boeing Delta II 7925-9.5 configuration vehicle used for today’s mission featured a Boeing first stage booster powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RS-27A main engine and nine Alliant Techsystems (ATK) solid rocket boosters. An Aerojet AJ10-118K engine powered the storable propellant restartable second stage. A Thiokol Star-48B solid rocket motor propelled the third stage prior to spacecraft deployment. The rocket also flew with a nine-and-a-half-foot-diameter Boeing payload fairing.

Monday’s other launch event, at Spaceport America in New Mexico, did not do as well. The SpaceLoft XL1 rocket failed at around 40,000 feet, eliciting this gem of a quote from launch logistical coordinator Tracey Larson:

"If it was easy, everyone would be doing it."

Optus Satellite Fueled for Launch in October

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Seems the next Ariane 5 launch is now scheduled for 12 October 2006.

Here’s one of the rocket’s "passengers" being fueled. Evidently, rocket science is still a dangerous business…

TV on Wheels

Monday, September 25th, 2006

We’ve written recently about DIY techniques for getting satellite reception on your RV. But doing it yourself, we readily admit, requires actually doing something yourself, which can be a drag (especially on Mondays!) .

Sometimes, after all, you just want to lean back and have the sort of unbridled fun that the guys in the photo to the right are clearly having.

Luckily for the want-it-now crowd, there are several consumer options already on the market that will bring you (or, more precisely and safely, your passengers) satellite television reception in your minivan or SUV while you barrel down the interstate.

One such system is RaySat’s T5 low-profile in-motion satellite antenna,  which "can work across multiple Ku-Band frequencies (factory option) in either linear or circular polarization (field option) and operate over many geographical regions, multiple satellites and any DTH (dedicated) infrastructure." Another system — the TracVision A7 mobile satellite system — is now being offered by DIRECTV, which also offers a mobile programming option:

Recognizing the growing interest among American motorists who want the same DIRECTV entertainment experience in their cars that they have in their homes, DIRECTV is now delivering to car video screens live local news, weather, traffic, sports and other local entertainment programming.

Local broadcast channels via DIRECTV are now available to mobile customers on the open road within the continental United States to vehicles that have been equipped with a TracVision A7 mobile satellite TV system, launched today by KVH Industries, Inc. DIRECTV will provide mobile customers their local broadcast channels within the designated market areas where it already offers them to home viewers. Local channels availability may vary by market. DIRECTV delivers local programming in 142 markets, representing 94 percent of U.S. television households.

DIRECTV’s TOTAL CHOICE(R) Mobile with local channels package, created exclusively for mobile customers with a low-profile automotive TracVision system, is available for $44.99, and offers more than 185 channels. To receive local channels in their car, DIRECTV customers must purchase a new TracVision A7 satellite TV system, which includes an integrated GPS unit and new 12-volt receiver jointly developed by DIRECTV and KVH.

The mobile local channels offering is part of a larger strategy by DIRECTV to target the more than 20 million U.S. vehicles expected to have in-vehicle passenger video systems by 2011, according to the leading analyst firm Frost & Sullivan.

Delivering uninterrupted satellite reception while an antenna moves at nearly 70 miles per hour is no simple engineering feat, which helps explain why the KVH system is loaded with patents.

It also helps explain why the system will currently set you back about 3,000 clams. (To keep a low wind profile, it looks like a clam, too.)

Just remember, though, that 20 million vehicles are expected to have such a system in place by 2011. So keep your eyes on the road.

DIY Friday: Build a Backyard Observatory on the Cheap

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Ever wanted to have your own Observatory? Stargazing enthusiast Thomas Campbell did, so he created one and put it up in his own backyard, as seen below. Sure, it looks like a simple 2-3 man dome tent, but it’s actually has all of the features amateur astronomer might want and for under $40.


Backyard Observatory



Campbell reports that two main reasons prompted him to build his observatory:

"Several years ago, I (not knowing any better) purchased a 60mm refractor (a Kmart Focus model) at a yard sale. The main tube has pretty good optics and the 20mm eyepiece (35x magnification) isn’t too bad, but the other eyepieces are only fair at best, and the wooden mount is pretty wobbly in even the slightest of breezes.

The most important reason, however, was light pollution in my backyard. I live in a small town, but live on a highway (with a lot of streetlights) and across the street from a county hospital (lots of light pollution there!). Even so, by cupping my hands around my eyes, on good nights of seeing, I can still make out the Milky Way, so the skies are still fairly dark.

I had found an article on the internet about how to make a light blocker out of PVC pipe and heavy-ply trash bags, but with the light coming from all around me, I would need about a dozen of them, and the amount of time needed putting all of those up would seriously cut into my observing time."

Not surprisingly, considering the tents ability to block light and wind, the $40 observatory seems to be working out for Campbell pretty well, saying it has,

"…allowed me to view things with my scope that I didn’t think was possible before. For instance, on nights of good seeing, I can now make out all four of the main stars of the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula. Before, I was only able to make out the three brightest stars at best. Overall, I believe I can now see objects about a half-magnitude fainter than I was able to before using the observatory."

Not bad for $30! Check out Campbell’s DIY observatory site for more information and maybe even check out some of the other projects he’s done ranging from building an astronomical red-dot finder out of a BB-gun site to constructing a ply-wood tripod & mount. Awesome stuff!