Archive for May, 2007

Dense, Dark and Hot

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Spitzer has done something amazing.

No, not the Governor of New York, although that Spitzer did recently nominate a new Executive Director of the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Rather, we’re talking about the first map of an extrasolar planet, HD 189733b, a "hot Jupiter" planet — and the hottest planet yet observed in the universe — which is located approximately 60 light-years from Earth.

The planet is so hot that astronomers believe it’s absorbing almost all of the heat from its star, and reflecting almost no light and thus making its appearance black, as this artist’s rendition of the planet illustrates:


(Live animations of the picture above can be found here.)

NASA explains the mapping project and the resulting discoveries: 

 Roughly 50 of the more than 200 known planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, are hot Jupiters. Visible-light telescopes can detect these strange worlds and determine certain characteristics, such as their sizes and orbits, but not much is known about their atmospheres or what they look like.

Since 2005, Spitzer has been revolutionizing the study of exoplanets’ atmospheres by examining their infrared light, or heat. In one of the new studies, Spitzer set its infrared eyes on HD 189733b, located 60 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. HD 189733b is the closest known transiting planet, which means that it crosses in front and behind its star when viewed from Earth. It races around its star every 2.2 days.

Spitzer measured the infrared light coming from the planet as it circled around its star, revealing its different faces. These infrared measurements, comprising about a quarter of a million data points, were then assembled into pole-to-pole strips, and, ultimately, used to map the temperature of the entire surface of the cloudy, giant planet.

The observations reveal that temperatures on this balmy world are fairly even, ranging from 650 degrees Celsius (1,200 Fahrenheit) on the dark side to 930 degrees Celsius (1,700 Fahrenheit) on the sunlit side. HD 189733b, and all other hot Jupiters, are believed to be tidally locked like our moon, so one side of the planet always faces the star. Since the planet’s overall temperature variation is mild, scientists believe winds must be spreading the heat from its permanently sunlit side around to its dark side. Such winds might rage across the surface at up to 9600 kilometers per hour (6,000 miles per hour). The jet streams on Earth travel at 322 kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour).

"These hot Jupiter exoplanets are blasted by 20,000 times more energy per second than Jupiter," said co-author David Charbonneau, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Now we can see how these planets deal with all that energy." 

As Wired points out,  Spitzer’s technology could be used to map Earth-like planets — like the recently-discovered Gliese 581c, which we wrote about here.

For more on the Spitzer Space telescope, check out this great video found in the motherlode of online video, aka YouTube:

Your Majesty, It Really Is Rocket Science

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007


Queen Elizabeth II, in a speech at the White House Arrival Ceremony, was anticipating a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

This visit also gives us a window on the future – both the future of the United States and the future cooperation between our countries.  I particularly look forward in the next two days to seeing at first hand something of how the cutting edge of science and technology can take us to the next phases of discovery and exploration in human endeavour.

NASA TV carried the visit live. You can watch the canned highlights any time you like. The tour occurred near the end of the queen’s visit to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.

TV at 65 Miles Per Hour

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

The backseat of the Chevy is now more entertaining than ever.

Echostar Communications Corporation and the DISH Network last week announced the launch of their MobileDISH Programming Packages.


Dallas Daily Business News reports:

[T]he MobileDISH™ in-car satellite service [is] a programming package that combines cutting-edge antenna technology from RaySat™. The MobileDISH™ technology, which was showcased at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, allows DISH Network customers to watch live satellite television from their vehicles, even while in motion.

“We’re excited to partner with RaySat because we know people today are always on the move and have a need for TV even while on the road,” said Mark Jackson, President of EchoStar Technologies. “The MobileDISH technology is just another example of how we’re providing our extensive line of cutting-edge technology and exceptional programming packages to reach our more than 13 million subscribers everywhere.”

The mobile satellite antenna, designed by RaySat™, mounts to a vehicle’s roof rack and provides hundreds of channels of all-digital DISH Network satellite TV with programming for everyone in the family. The MobileDISH technology is perfect for occupying the kids, monitoring weather and road conditions, keeping up on breaking news and watching movies on long road trips.

We first wrote about the RaySat antenna system (pictured above) in September.

For sports fans, the MobileDISH service is particularly attractive: just yesterday, it was reported that DISH had added two new HD regional sports networks to its list of channels, and was looking at several more — which could bring a whole new level of connectivity to your local tailgate party.

But how much will it set you back?

New and existing DISH Network customers can choose from a variety of programming packages that start at $29.99/month for the MobileDISH 100 package, and $42.99/month for the MobileDISH 200 package. The Starz Movie Pak can be added to the MobileDISH packages for $12.99/month, and the Encore Movie Pak may also be added to a MobileDISH package for $4.99/month.

Not bad for those who’ve always wanted to watch the game while on the road or in the driveway. 

Plop-plop, Fizz-fizz in Zero-G

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

You Can Always Go Home Again (Unfortunately)

Monday, May 7th, 2007

An interesting article over on ABC News website, explains that most cosmonauts love their job so much they actually don’t look forward to coming back to earth.


"’The hardest thing is coming back to Earth,’ [Cosmonaut Vladimir Dezhurov] said. The problem is not so much the mundanity of earthly existence — bills to pay, food to buy, chores to complete.

‘The muscle fabric degrades very much. It’s hard to walk. You have to learn how to walk again, like a small child.’

Astronauts train daily aboard the orbiting space station to prevent the atrophy of their legs and feet which are under-used in weightlessness. It takes several weeks under medical supervision to recover from a long stay in space.’"


But then again, any real space geek probably already knew that…

What might be interesting for those of us who know a little more is the information the article provides about Star City, Moscow’s tightly secured 1960s area Cosmonaut space center and the surrounding community, as seen above.

While supposedly time has kind of stopped in area, most cosmonauts never really feeling the full-effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union, what has changed is who is doing a lot of the blasting off in the environs… most notably in the increased presence of tourists.

While we all saw Stephen Hawking have a zero-g experience last week, in Star City, Russia the zero-g experience has you (and for just $3400-4000).

ASTRA 1L Launch Video

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

DIY Friday: HDTV Free-to-Air Box

Friday, May 4th, 2007

So you’ve finished your Quantum Eraser Experiment from last week, and are ready to spend the weekend kicking back and watching a little TV.

But there’s nothing on the cable, and what you really want is to watch your favorite show from overseas.

Enter today’s DIY project — an HDTV Free-to-Air satellite receiver.

Back in September, we wrote about the Lyngbox Free to Air receiver, which promised up to 50,000 storable channels and global functionality:

Most “satellite people” are very familiar with the Lyngsat Web site. It could very well be the world’s most complete database of accurate satellite ladder charts. Pick a satellite and you can view all the channels available for viewing. For example, the AMC-4 satellite carries a number faith-based and international channels in North America. On another site, LyngSat Address, select a country and you can find out which satellites their channels are using for broadcasting – in their home market and internationally. TV Prima Romania, for instance, is using several satellites over Europe, Asia and the Atlantic.

At the time, the Lyngbox seemed imminent, but then we began to hear that they were looking for additional start-up funding and, whatever the case, the Lyngbox has yet to come to market.

Beating them to the punch, however, is the Fortec Star Passion HD Satellite Receiver. And doing-it-yourself (ie, hooking it up) promises to be quite easy: 

 The PASSION HD satellite receiver can connect to your HD-ready television using the HDMI output connection. The component (YPbPr) output can also be used. For analogue connectivity, SCART jacks, composite and S-Video outputs are provided. In addition to the analogue audio RCA jacks, PASSION also provides for digital audio output. For software loading, the USB port can be used. It is conveniently located behind the front panel door next to the two common interface slots.

And this puppy is loaded:

 # MPEG-2, MPEG-4 H.264 HD/SD Digital Video Decoding
# DVB-S2 and DVB-S compatible
# PCMCIA interface (2slots) according to DVB Common Interface standard
# DiSEqC 1.0, 1.2 and USALS (1.3) compatible
# HDMI, Component, Composite, S-Video, Digital Audio (SP/DIF) and SCART outputs
# Multiple output resolution modes: 1080i, 720p, 576p
# 16 bit True color On-Screen Display (OSD)
# Variable Aspect Ratio (4:3, 16:9)
# Multilingual Audio and Menu Text support
# Saves 10,000 channels (TV: 7000 CH, RADIO: 3,000 CH)
# VFD Display (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) for Channel Number, Name and Time
# Full Picture-In-Graphic (PIG) support
# SCPC/MCPC channel receivable from C/Ku band satellites
# Simple Operation through On-Screen Display
# Electronic Program Guide (EPG) for on-screen service information

Fortec is ready to ship, and their website includes a great set of instructional videos, including this explanation of free-to-air channels that is a must-see for anyone who doesn’t understand what it is we’re talking about. (Though we suggest turning down your volume before watching the video, as the music is terrible.)

So what are you waiting for? With cold air in the West, thunderstorms in the MidWest and rain throughout much of the East, this is a fine weekend to stay indoors and watch your favorite TV shows from around the world.


Go Sat, Go!

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

From the man who created CHiPS, an idea we blogged in January is finally here: Sat-Go:

  • Integrated 17-inch LCD monitor and satellite receiver with two speakers
  • Compact and portable flat antenna and satellite receiver
  • DIRECTV® programming accessed through a platform based on DIRECTV’s D11 set top box
  • Small profile IR remote
  • Component and composite A/V inputs
  • Composite A/V out
  • Satellite in connection
  • Phone Jack
  • USB connection
  • AC and DC capable (cigarette lighter adapter included)
  • Rechargeable, replaceable, laptop-style battery

All this for US$1,500. Today’s press release:

Just in time for the summer travel season, DIRECTV, Inc., the nation’s leading satellite television service provider, is launching DIRECTV(R) Sat-Go ("Satellite-to-Go"), the world’s first portable satellite TV system.

Beginning today, the DIRECTV(R) Sat-Go unit, created by DIRECTV and TV producer/writer, Rick Rosner, is available to DIRECTV customers for $1,499. DIRECTV customers who are interested in purchasing a DIRECTV Sat-Go unit can call 1-800-DIRECTV. The DIRECTV Sat-Go will be available at participating retail locations across the country soon.

"DIRECTV’s digital satellite technology enables us to do what no cable service can, offer consumers TV programming that they can watch wherever they are," said Eric Shanks, executive vice president, DIRECTV Entertainment. "DIRECTV Sat-Go is the perfect companion for a summer road trip and the ultimate tailgating accessory for any sporting event. Since we unveiled a prototype of the unit in January, the DIRECTV Sat-Go has created an exciting buzz in the marketplace and we are thrilled to make it available now to DIRECTV customers across the country."

The DIRECTV(R) Sat-Go is specifically designed to be compact and highly portable. The unit comes in an easy-to-carry, briefcase-like design that includes a 17-inch LCD monitor with integrated DIRECTV Receiver, flat antenna and replaceable/rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The unit also includes AC/DC adaptors for home and car.

Once the DIRECTV Sat-Go unit is opened, there is no installation necessary. It’s quick and simple setup makes it easy for customers to find line-of-sight with DIRECTV satellites and receive DIRECTV(R) programming within minutes (provided the user is within range of the DIRECTV signal).

When not being used as a portable/ travel unit, the DIRECTV Sat-Go can also be utilized as an additional in-home DIRECTV Receiver and television. The LCD TV screen has a built-in DIRECTV Receiver, which can be separated from the DIRECTV Sat-Go antenna casing and connected to a customer’s existing DIRECTV Satellite Dish.

GSA Awards $750m in Satcom II Contracts to 24 Companies

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

The General Services Administration (GSA) yesterday inked deals with 24 satellite communications companies to deliver the next-generation satellite solutions for government agencies, known as Satcom II.

The Satcom II program is meant "to provide an expanded range of end-to-end satellite solutions for government agencies and serves as the primary replacement vehicle for the highly successful Satellite Services contracts."

Among the service providers are nine small business contractors, according to Washington Technology:

The large contractors are Americom Government Services Inc.; Arrowhead Global Solutions Inc.; Artel, Inc.; AT&T Corp.; DRS Technical Services; EDS Corp.; Global Communications Solutions Inc.; Hughes Network Systems LLC; Intelsat General Corp.; Mackay Communications Inc.; Segovia Inc.; Stratos Mobile Network Inc.; Telecommunications Systems Inc.; Telenor Satellite Services and ViaSat Inc. The small business awardees are CVG Inc.; DasNet Corp.; E&E Enterprises Global; Knight Sky Consulting and Associates LLC; New Orleans Teleport Inc.; Psi Systems Inc.; RiteNet Corp.; Satellite Communication Systems Inc. and Skjei Telecom Inc.

The same story provides details on the Satcom II system:

The Satcom II system will allow federal workers to use hand-held receivers similar to cell phones, as well as access full broadband computer networks, anywhere in the world. It is designed for use in areas where no phone or cable lines exist and to help federal workers fight wilderness wildfires, patrol remote borders and rescue the trapped and injured from hurricanes or tornadoes.

The system also makes possible broadcast services in distance learning for federal customers throughout the world…

The GSA press release notes that the "SATCOM-II program has an estimated value of $750 million over the life of the five-year, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts, and… offers competitive pricing throughout the life of the contract, as well as flexible ordering and billing."

Computerworld also files a report on the contracts, which, while certainly important to the businesses that inked them, essentially provide basic satcom services. The really cool technological breakthroughs (such as the next-stage C4ISR bandwidth, advanced extremely high frequency satellites and Wideband Global Satcom program) tend to come through military contracts.

Enter The HDTV Challenge

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007


I’ve heard people argue that standard-definition reception from an old backyard C-band dish is still better than today’s highly-compressed HD available from direct-to-home services in the U.S.

Now comes this via Television Week:

Comcast Enters HD Quality Dispute
This week Comcast launched a major ad campaign that opened a new battlefront in the HD service provider war: comparative picture quality.
Touting a study by Frank N. Magid Associates, Comcast took out full-page newspaper ads in 15 markets claiming its HD picture quality is superior to satellite competitors DirecTV and Dish.

"We always knew we offered more HD choices, and we always thought we had more convenient HD service and better HD picture quality, but now we can prove it by a fairly overwhelming margin," said Page Thompson, senior VP and general manager of video services at Comcast.

Though Comcast said the study has been long planned, the ads could be seen as a response to DirecTV’s ongoing television campaign featuring celebrities touting the satellite provider’s HD service as better than cable. Cable operator Time Warner has filed lawsuits over the DirecTV ads, claiming they’re false advertising.

"They’re talking about service they’ll have in the future because the product they have today doesn’t compare," Mr. Thompson said.

When DirecTV’s campaign started late last year, the satellite provider initially claimed to have a superior HD picture quality. But a New York federal judge upheld Time Warner’s objection to the seemingly unverifiable claim in February and the ad was changed. Current DirecTV ads claim the satcaster will "soon" have more HD channels than cable, a boast that has withstood a legal challenge.

But while Time Warner was busy filing lawsuits, Comcast commissioned a study to try to prove, once and for all, who has the best picture.

The study was conducted in March, with 309 subjects showed side-by-side images from DirecTV, Dish and Comcast on identical TV sets. To eliminate set bias, the HD signals were rotated among the sets. Subjects were shown various genres of programming from different networks.

To help protect the study from legal challenges, Comcast tapped Magid to conduct the test; Accenture, a technology consulting company, to oversee the technical aspects; and Loeb & Loeb, a national law firm, for legal guidance on the survey process.

The result: 66 percent preferred Comcast to DirecTV, and 70 percent preferred Comcast to Dish.

A DirecTV spokesman questioned the validity of the results, noting there are several ways picture quality could be skewed: the equipment used, instructions given to subjects, the content chosen and whether the Comcast signal at the test location was representative of the cable operator’s markets as whole.

"There’s not much substance here," spokesman Robert Mercer said. "While they’re making claims about their signal clarity, the methodology of the survey seems questionable at best."

Mr. Mercer added that an independent company surveyed home theater installers last year, who said, by a 4-to-1 margin, that DirecTV had the best signal quality.

As for whether DirecTV will take the Time Warner route and file a lawsuit to halt the picture-quality claim, Mr. Mercer said, "We’re evaluating our options."

A Dish Network representative had no comment.

In addition to the newspaper ads, Comcast plans a radio and online ad campaign to tout the results of its study.

The Comcast ads were greeted with cheers from HD online fan communities-even from satellite subscribers-who are pleased that top-notch HD picture quality is becoming a point of contention among service providers.

For years HD fans have debated the picture quality of HD providers. As bandwidth-strapped providers have added more HD networks to remain competitive, some sharp-eyed viewers claim signal compression is causing visible quality degradation.

Though fans definitely want more HD channels, some say they do not want content at the expense of what made them fall in love with HD in the first place: its startling, lifelike images. Dismissive statements by service providers that all HD is the same, or that, as one DirecTV executive once put it, "Viewers don’t watch the back of their TVs," have further frustrated fans.

With Comcast, the country’s largest cable operator, making picture quality a battleground issue, fans hope its competitors will soon follow suit.

"I think it’s outstanding Comcast did this," said one poster on AVS Forum.

"As a DirecTV customer, this makes me very happy," enthused another.

Comcast still must contend with DirecTV’s planned barrage of 100 HD channels by the end of the year, though Mr. Thompson reiterated that quality matters more than quantity.

"Our plan is to launch every HD channel that really matters to our customers," he said. "To put out an arbitrary number of HD channels without regard for the quality of the channels seems like a strange strategy.

"In addition to the channels, we have 100 HD video-on-demand hours. We’ll double that by the end of the year and double again by the end of next year."