Archive for August, 2008

This Broadcast Brought to You By….

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

This is prime time for political junkies. In less than two weeks, the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Denver; one week later, the Republicans hold their party convention in Minneapolis.


But convention broadcasting isn’t what it used to be. Times were, you could watch nearly every night on the Big Three networks; it was a late-summer ritual in presidential election years.

That’s no longer the case, which is why this political junkie is thankful for satellite television.

The Democrats have announced this week that you can find them on the Dish Network

Dish Network will bring live satellite video feeds into the convention hall from off-site locations across the country. The satellite provider will also offer uninterrupted, unedited live satellite convention coverage to its 13.8 million subscribers across country, available on Channel 211.

In addition, Dish Network’s video feed will be broadcast in HD on television monitors throughout convention venues and will be made available via satellite to television stations for downlink across the country and around the world.

“When we set out to make this convention more inclusive and accessible than ever before, we wanted to do more than get our message out—we wanted to bring the voices of American people into the process, and Dish Network will help us to do just that,” said Brook Colangelo, Director of Technology for the Democratic National Convention Committee, in a prepared statement. “Whether from inside the Convention hall, at watch parties in communities across the country, or from the comfort of their living room, Dish Network’s  technology and services will enhance the Convention experience for everyone who’s tuning in.”

What about the Republicans?


Thus far, they’ve only announced that Google will be their "Official Innovation Provider." We’re not sure what that means, exactly, but we’ve got high hopes that a satellite broadcast provider will be announced for the GOP in the coming weeks. 

Tasting The Ice Plumes of Enceladus

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008


Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco is very happy this week, judging from her blog post on recent Cassini-Huygens images:

Well, folks, the images are down … at last!! …  and I can’t print here what I first said upon seeing them.  What a dazzling success!  There doesn’t even appear to be any smear.   Paul Helfenstein (imaging team associate who planned the images), you genius … here’s one big hug from me, man!  We here at CICLOPS are all giddy, even moved to tears.


The ice plumes of the Saturn moon were first seen last October. Here’s an animated rendering:


This week’s mission is noteworthy, as they’ve practically brushed by the surface:

During closest approach, Cassini successfully passed only 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the surface of the tiny moon.

Cassini’s signal was picked up by the Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia, and relayed to the Cassini mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"We are happy to report that Cassini’s begun sending data home," said Julie Webster, Cassini team chief at JPL. "The downlink will continue through the night and into tomorrow morning."

Closest approach occurred at approximately 3:21 p.m. PDT, while Cassini was traveling at a swift 17.7 kilometers per second (40,000 miles per hour) relative to Enceladus.
During the flyby, Cassini focused its cameras and other remote sensing instruments on Enceladus with an emphasis on the moon’s south pole where parallel stripes or fissures dubbed "tiger stripes" line the region. That area is of particular interest because geysers of water-ice and vapor jet out of the fissures and supply material to Saturn’s E-ring. Scientists hope to learn more about the fissures and whether liquid water is indeed the engine powering the geysers.  

You’ll enjoy this video:


AMC-21 Launch Updates

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

This Thursday, August 14, 2008, an Ariane 5 rocket is scheduled to lift the SES Americom AMC-21 communications satellite into orbit from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The satellite will operate from the 125 degrees West orbital position after it is launched by Arianespace.

From the press release

Thales Alenia Space served as the prime contractor and communications payload supplier of the Star-2 spacecraft that was designed, built, integrated and tested by Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB). 

AMC-21 was designed and built for advanced telecommunications, mobile applications and TV broadcasting with coverage of the 50 U.S. states, as well as Southern Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.  Featuring 24 active 36 MHz transponders, the 2500 kg spacecraft has a 15-year design life.

The launch window for AMC-21 is from 5:44 p.m. to 6:35 p.m., local time in Kourou, French Guiana (4:44 p.m. to 5:35 p.m. in New York; or 8:44 p.m. to 9:35 p.m. GMT; or 10:44 p.m. to 11:35 p.m. in Paris; or 5:44 a.m. to 6:35 a.m. in Tokyo, etc.). You’ll also be able to watch the launch on the web here

Going along for the ride with AMC-21 will be the Superbird-7 satellite for Space Communications Corporation of Japan. 

Thursday’s launch is just one of many for the satcom industry over the coming months, though the Orbital spacecraft set to launch on August 21st has been delayed, as Measat-3 is being sent back to the United States for repairs, which is a true bummer for the 25 kids who were getting set to watch the launch.

We’ll bring you updates on the launches as they happen. 

Olympics Pirates

Monday, August 11th, 2008

On Friday, after hearing about the awesome opening ceremony for the Olympics, I immediately went to in search of the video. No dice. They weren’t airing it on TV until later that night, so they hadn’t posted it online yet.

Naturally, I turned to YouTube. Jackpot. 5 stars. Posted 8 minutes before. But wait! It was already taken down.

This is the scenario that NBC is hoping will play out throughout the Olympics, but will they succeed in pulling all the pirated content off the web? They’re certainly trying:

The piracy measures NBC is taking include digital watermarking to “tag” the coverage. An NBC spokesman said the network and its broadcast partners are tagging all the video that NBC originates from the Olympics.

That can help track offenders, said Russell Zack, VP of product management at Anystream, one of the vendors handling online and television technology for NBC’s Olympics effort.

“That acts as a forensic stamp you can track back to the last place it came from and it’ll give you hints as to what system it came from,” he said…NBC also has charged a handful of employees with scouring the Web every day to look for pirated videos from the Olympics. When those videos are found, the network will send a take-down notice to the site, NBC said.

They’re hoping they can channel online Olympics enthusiasts to their own impressive range of on-demand coverage. They’ve paired up with Anystream to deliver content across platforms, and their 3,600 hours of coverage over the course of the games will surpass the combined total of every other summer Olympics ever televised in the United States. We’ve blogged about NBC’s coverage before.

And it’s not just the American’s who are fighting pirated content. Chinese websites are also joining the fight.

DIY Friday: Make Your Own Video Game

Friday, August 8th, 2008

I’m starting to get a bit bored with the range of games available for Wii. So, I figured I’d take my entertainment into my own hands. It is DIY Friday, after all.

This kit gives you pretty much everything you need to start programming. This one is kind of a DIY for Dummies. You don’t need to know any code to get started, and they have tons of tutorials to help you out.

If old-school arcades are more your style, you can buy all the parts you need here.

Hanny’s Voorwerp

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

This is a great story.

Imagine you’re spending some time on the Galaxy Zoo website —  "the project that harnesses the power of the internet and your brain," as the slogan goes "to classify a million galaxies" — and in the image of a remote galaxy that literally no one has ever looked at you find something: different. Something that doesn’t match the classification guidelines given to volunteers on the website.


What would you do?

You’d probably put up a post in the Galaxy Zoo forums asking other users for help identifying the object, correct? And maybe email the webmaster?

That’s exactly what Dutch schoolteacher Hanny Van Arkel did when she discovered a green blob in an image that she was classifying on the Galaxy Zoo website. What happened next is incredible.

The BBC explains

A new class of cosmic object has been found by a Dutch schoolteacher, through a project which allows the public to take part in astronomy research online.

Hanny Van Arkel, 25, came across the strange gaseous blob while using the Galaxy Zoo website to help classify galaxies in telescope images.

Astronomers subsequently confirmed that the object was one-of-a-kind.

The work has been submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The object quickly became known as "Hanny’s Voorwerp" – Voorwerp being the Dutch word for "object".

Researchers think this green blob got its energy from light emitted by a quasar (a powerful radiation source powered by a supermassive black hole) that has since gone dim.

They think the quasar was hosted in a nearby spiral galaxy called IC 2497. It was so bright that, if the quasar was still active, it would be visible from Earth with binoculars.

However, because of the distance between the galaxy and the Voorwerp, light from the quasar would have taken tens of thousands of years to reach the gaseous blob…

Dr Lintott said the object was the only one of its type known to astronomers, though other Voorwerpen could still be awaiting identification.

He added that the object had been catalogued before, but its significance had only been recognised when it was brought to the attention of Galaxy Zoo team members by Ms Van Arkel.

During the last year, 50 million classifications of galaxies have been submitted on one million objects at by more than 150,000 amateur astronomers from all over the world.

The next stage of the project will ask volunteers for more detailed classifications, making it easier to identify more unusual objects such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, according to the BBC report.

Merger Time for Satellite TV

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008




Now that we have the two satellite radio companies combined, are we that far off from the two major satellite TV companies trying to merge again? Good question.

Considering DISH Network’s recent subscriber loss, Robert Holmes at are asking just that:

Dish-DirecTV Deal Won’t Fool Feds

Prompted by the first subscriber losses at a major U.S. satellite-TV provider, Dish NetworkDISH could revive a merger attempt with rival DirecTVDTV, but industry observers say a potential deal will once again be found to be anticompetitive.

Six years removed from failing at a $16 billion tie-up, Dish Network Chairman and CEO Charles Ergen has said market conditions are more welcoming to a deal, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Ergen has reportedly calculated the potential savings of a merger at up to $2 billion a year, and he also harbors hopes of a potent broadband offering from a combined satellite company — something neither has been done individually.

However, a renewed bid to combine Dish and DirecTV would revisit the same problems that plagued the 2002 attempt — and would once again fail to pass muster with the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, the government bodies that would again examine the merger.

In its October 2002 decision, the FCC said a combination of Dish Network, then under the umbrella of parent EchoStarSATS, and DirecTV, which was then owned by Hughes Electronics, would likely harm consumers by eliminating a viable competitor in every market, creating the potential for higher prices and lower service quality, and hurting future innovation.

Three weeks later, the Justice Department agreed that a merger would reduce competition in markets served by cable, and eliminate it in areas served only by direct broadcast satellite.

"That merger was the first in recent memory that the FCC turned down," says Adam Candeub, an associate assistant professor of law at Michigan State University College of Law, who was an attorney-adviser for the FCC and worked on the 2002 deal between Dish and DirecTV. "That’s something [Dish and DirecTV] would like to correct and would give it another go-round."

The recently approved deal between Sirius Satellite RadioSIRI and XM Satellite Radio has given Dish’s Ergen hope, though, that consolidation among satellite companies would be better received by government officials, especially if both Dish and DirecTV can argue they compete not only against each other but cable and telecom companies, such as ComcastCMCSA, AT&TT and VerizonVZ, which have started bundling television, Internet, and phone services.

However, when going strictly by FCC and Justice comments about both Dish and DirecTV – and about XM and Sirius — Candeub argues that the government bodies would not likely bend to concessions, even if Ergen wants to use the XM-Sirius deal as a blueprint.

"From a market-definition perspective, it’s not clear that the satellite radio market has much to do with the video market," Candeub says. "They’re very different. There are so many various ways to get audio, like AppleAAPL iPods. Arguably, one analysis would not work for the other."

The Journal reported that Ergen, attempting to assuage fears over what a Dish-DirecTV merger would do to the competitive landscape, is willing to peg monthly charges to the lowest fees paid by subscribers in rural regions, where satellite antennas are currently the only way for customers to receive pay-TV options. A cap on prices would be similar to Sirius and XM’s pledge to hold off on price increases for three years after their merger was completed.

Craig Moffett, senior analyst for U.S. cable and satellite broadcasting with Sanford Bernstein, says that a commitment to national pricing is one way to ameliorate the potential for monopoly pricing power in rural markets, although such a move would still not prevent a deal from being labeled anticompetitive.

"These kinds of concessions are commonplace in the FCC … but the test in the [Justice Department] is an objective ‘rule of law’ test," he writes in a research note. "Voluntary a priori commitments such as national pricing plans are therefore generally not considered as relevant when considering whether a merger does or doesn’t meet the letter of the law."

Moffett adds that under the precedent set by Sirius and XM, the two satellite-TV providers would have to prove there was an alternative distribution model for television in rural areas, one that would be a suitable substitute for Dish and DirecTV’s service. One approach would be to wait until TV-over-the-Internet connections are more available to rural customers, although Moffett finds that to be a Catch-22.

"This itself is problematic, inasmuch as TV-over-the-Internet requires a high quality broadband connection, which generally means either cable modem or telco fiber," Moffett says. "The very definition of ‘rural’ to be applied by the [Justice Department] in 2002 presumes that connections of this kind are not available."

Of course, a few variables have changed that arguably could make a deal more palatable for regulators. "When the Dish/DirecTV merger was out there in 2002, there was a Republican majority in the Senate," Candeub says. "Many of those Senate seats were held by Republicans who represent people from big rural states who rely on satellite and who would see higher rates."

In the last six years, though, there has been a shift of political power. While then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, argued that a Dish and DirecTV combination would replace competition with "a regulated monopoly," a Democratic majority in Washington might be more open to regulation of satellite television.

Despite this shift, though, analysts say those pesky laws cannot simply be circumnavigated. "In rural America, a merger would still be two [companies in the field]-to-one. Two-to-one mergers are unlawful under U.S. antitrust law," Moffett asserts. "Nothing in six years has changed."

The New York Times posted a story last night on this topic, based on a WSJ piece:

As Dish Network copes with the first quarterly subscriber losses reported by a major U.S. satellite-TV provider, the company is considering another attempt to merge with DirecTV Group, The Wall Street Journal reported citing unnamed sources.

Dish Network’s chairman and chief executive, Charles Ergen, is considering the first run at a satellite-TV merger since 2001. That attempt was shut down by opposition from federal and state regulators, but Mr. Ergen has been emboldened by the drawn-out but successful union of satellite radio companies Sirius and XM Satellite, the Journal said.

Efforts to reach another deal, such as a sale to AT&T, may be hamstrung by Dish Network’s loss of 25,000 subscribers in the past quarter. Concerns about that shrinking customer base offset news about Dish Network’s 50 percent increase in net income, to $335.9 million, or 73 cents a share.

Hey, you never know.

Let the Games Begin!

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

No, not those games, though we do confess to being fascinated by China’s attempts to mitigate — or at least conceal — its pollution problem as the opening days of the Beijing Olympics approach.

The games we’re talking about are the Commando Olympics in Afghanistan. Defense Industry Daily has a good roundup of the competition that sends our little rocket scientist hearts a-thumping with excitement: the competition between micro portable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

Getting the gold is the U.S. military’s RQ-11 Raven


The Raven is a 4.2-pound, backpackable, hand-launched sensor platform that provides day and night, real-time video imagery for “over the hill” and “around the corner” reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Each Raven system typically consists of 3 aircraft, a ground control station, system spares, and related services.

As a measure of its success, The 3,000th RQ-11A Raven vehicle rolled of the production line back in March 2006. U.S. armed forces use Ravens extensively for missions such as base security, route reconnaissance, mission planning and force protection. According to the U.S. Army, Ravens were flown for approximately 150,000 combat hours in 2007.

DID notes that th e Raven is "ideal for quick peeks to see what’s on the other side of obstructed terrain – like a city block in Iraq, or Afghanistan’s hills and mountains." It’s small and unobtrusive —  weighing just over 4 pounds, and with a wingspan of just over 4 feet — and has a low noise signature, making it ideal for use by small special forces teams.
Furthermore, the Raven is "so simple to operate that one of the best pilots in the Iraqi theater was a cook."

But the Raven is not the only mini-UAV in use by special forces around the world: the British have the hand-launched BUSTER (Backpack Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Enhanced Reconnaissance), the Australians have the Elbit Skylark,  and the French have the EADS DRAC Tracker.

The Russians are also investing strongly in mini-UAV development:

 Russian aviation firms are taking advantage of cheaper and more reliable new technology to create mini-UAVs for their police and special operations (commando) forces. One such device was recently demonstrated. It was a miniature helicopter, weighing less than 30 pounds, and capable of staying aloft for two hours at a time. Day and night video cameras were carried, and zoom capability was demonstrated. The Unmanned Systems UAV used a laptop based controller. The mini-chopper had a cruising speed of 50 kilometers an hour and a max altitude of 2,000 meters (out of range of most rifles and machine-guns). The helicopter can operate up to 40 kilometers from its base station.

How far can these little birds fly? Last November, a hydrogen fuel-cell powered micro UAV,  the Pterosoar, set a new distance record for craft of its type while only using a quarter of its available fuel.

The Pterosoar flew 78 miles, beating the previous record of 50 miles set in Estonia last year. Since it – consumed only 16 of the 64 grams grams of Hydrogen stored on board in a pressurized hydrogen tank, the aircraft has a potential flight range of 310 miles.

Scotty’s Ashes Lost!

Monday, August 4th, 2008

On Saturday, StarTrek’s James Doohan – “Scotty” – made his last space mission. The actor’s ashes went up in Space X’s Falcon 1 rocket, never to return. He was joined by the remains of real-life astronaut Gordon Cooper.

But wait, this isn’t the first post-mortem space mission that the two have made together. Last year, James Doohan and Gordon Cooper’s ashes made a similar journey.

This lost rocket is the third unsuccessful attempt by Space X, which is owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk. Musk is one of many entrepreneurs trying to build a private space industry. This latest failure is a setback, to be sure. But don’t count Musk out:

The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six…There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.



DIY Friday: Typewriter Keyboard

Friday, August 1st, 2008

I’m moving soon, and as I’m sorting through my old junk, there are still some things I can’t part with. One of them is an old typewriter that I got from my uncle. It doesn’t work anymore, but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away.

And now, my years of pack-rat behavior may have paid off, because I just found a way to rig up that old typewriter as a new computer keyboard.

You can also check out this page for instructions.

And if you’re looking for some real inspiration, take a look at this sweet custom brass version.

If you don’t already have an old Underwood sitting in your closet, there’s no shortage of manual typewriters on eBay.