Archive for February, 2006

Scenes from a Universe

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

Gamma Ray BurstUniverse Today has a couple of posts up featuring some fascinting satellite imagery, and even a link to some pretty cool imagination. One features some images of Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus from NASA Astrobiology, while the other concerns a cosmic explosion seen by NASA’s Swift satellite

The Swift satellite, whose mission control center is in State College, has detected a cosmic explosion that has sent scientists around the world scrambling to telescopes to document this startling event. Gamma-ray radiation from the source, detected on 18 February and lasting about half an hour, appears to be a precursor to a supernova, which is the death throes of a star much more massive than the Sun. "The observations indicate that this is an incredibly rare glimpse of an initial gamma-ray burst at the beginning of a supernova," said Peter Brown, a Penn State graduate student and a member of the Swift science team.

The Penn State release also links to a pretty cool collapsing star animation, collapsing stars being one of the "leading contenders" for causing gamma ray bursts like the one Swift detected. Also check out the link to NASA’s Goddard Space Center for multimedia from Goddard TV

Mars Orbiter Ready for Penetration

Monday, February 27th, 2006

NASA engineers are preparing for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to make its risky approach to the planet on March 10. The agency has a 65 per cent success rate at getting probes to orbit Mars, compared to 80 per cent for successful landings on its surface.

As it approaches the planet, controllers on Earth anticipate there will be a signal from the spacecraft indicating that a 27-minute engine burn will slow it down and let martian gravity capture it.h

Why Not a Satellite Watch?

Monday, February 27th, 2006

Radio WatchMy watch died this weekend. So I ended up shopping for one this weekend, because I have to have watch. It’s not that I’m terribly punctual or anything. I basically need a watch to tell me how long I can procrastinate, down to the second, before I have to get moving towards where ever I’m supposed to go or get started on whatever I’m supposed to do. Maybe I’m a bit behind on watchmaking technology, but I was surprised to find the watch of my dreams, and to find myself dreaming of one even better.

I was standing in front of the plexi-glass display case perusing the digital models, because an analog watch makes means I have to figure out the time whereas a digital watch just tells me the time. This is important because my watches tend to run up to 15 minutes fast or slow, which means I still have to figure out the time, but a digital display makes it easier to do the math. It was then that I saw a wonder I didn’t know existed: a self-setting watch

Once I got it home and unfolded the instructions, I learned that my "radio controlled" watch is works on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Every day at around 1:00 am, it tunes in to a radio signal from Fort Collins, CO, synchronizes and then converts UTC into local time.

So, now I’m thinking that it would be even better if there was a watch that changed time zones when I travel. Like I said before, I usually forget how to set my watch, so changing time zones can be a pain. So, why not a satellite watch that functioned the same way as the radio watch, but that also synched itself whenever I entered a new time zone? Has this been done?  Can this be done?  If so, it would certain make my life easier.

Looking For Work?

Friday, February 24th, 2006’s Leonard David is reporting this afternoon that Scaled Composites is hiring people from “various backgrounds” to come help build spaceships. Yes, that Scaled Composites headed by Burt Rutan that won the Ansari X Prize.

It seems work has started on SpaceShipTwo, and they are looking for help.

You can read Leonard’s article at and you can submit your resume at

Rocket Racing League

Friday, February 24th, 2006

For fans of the X Prize, the Red Bull (ne Reno) Air Races, and rocketry and aviation in general, the future is bright (with a 20 foot flame behind it) and approaching fast.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and race car capitalist Granger Whitelaw launched the Rocket Racing League last October, and the first Rocket Racing Team was announced last month.

The Rocket Racing League [will] organize competitions around the United States, with the finals taking place at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico.

"It’s bringing 21st-century racing into people’s personal living rooms. … It’s really the mix of NASCAR excitement and spaceflight," Diamandis told journalists Monday….

"For me, it’s sort of a remembrance of ‘Star Wars’ pod racing," Diamandis said….

"Courses are expected to be approximately two miles long, one mile wide, and about 5,000 feet high, running perpendicularly to spectators," the league said. "The rocket planes, called X-Racers, will take off from a runway both in a staggered fashion and side-by side and fly a course based on the design of a Grand Prix competition, with long straightaways, vertical ascents, and deep banks. Each pilot will follow his or her own virtual ‘tunnel’ or ‘track’ of space through which to fly, safely separated from their competitors by a few hundred feet."

The League also announced a contest allowing fans to name the first X-Racer Rocket Plane. Meanwhile, Sebadoh is accepting donations to pay for travel to the debut of the first X-Racer, this October in Las Cruces. Pony up, Rocco.

Bring a Little Stardust Home

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

It hasn’t been long since NASA’s “Stardust”  returned to earth, but scientists are already slicing and dicing microscopic specks of comet dust collected by the space probe. We’re talking “dust” that’s as old as the solar system, verified comet matter, seen for the first time by NASA scientists. Interesting stuff. Fortunately, NASA scientists are letting the public in on the fun. 

Stardust@Home  appears to be modeled after SETI@Home, in the sense that you can volunteer your computer’s unused resources to help with the project by performing mathematical calculations, etc. There’s just one significant difference. They don’t just want your computer’s resources. They want your brainpower too.

First, you will go through a web-based training session. This is not for everyone: you must pass a test to qualify to register to participate. After passing the test and registering, you will be able to download a virtual microscope (VM). The VM will automatically connect to our server and download so-called “focus movies” — stacks of images that we will collect from the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector using an automated microscope at the Cosmic Dust Lab at Johnson Space Center. The VM will work on your computer, under your control. You will search each field for interstellar dust impacts by focusing up and down with a focus control.

If that sounds exciting to you, and you think you can pass the test, go pre-register to help them out! 

Cognitive Radio

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

The March issue of Scientific American provides an excellent overview of a new technology and its potential. Cognitive Radio: Smart radios and other new wireless devices will avoid transmission bottlenecks by switching instantly to nearby frequencies that they sense are clear.

Will the Rocket Car Blast Your Commute?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

If you’re one of many commuters who spend countless hours in the car between work and home, you’ve probably seen more than your share of gridlock. Chances are at least once or twice you’ve closed your eyes and dreamed of your car sprouting rockets and wings to lift you far above the parking lot that used to be a freeway. Well, don’t go trading your drivers’ license for a pilot’s license just yet, but some of MIT’s "Aeronautics and Astronautics" students are working on making your rocket car dreams come true

Rocket Car

This summer, graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will try to get an idea aloft that has intrigued people for decades: the flying car.

Terrafugia, a start-up created by Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Carl Dietrich and colleagues at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is aiming to show off what it calls the Transition "personal air vehicle," an SUV with retractable wings, to the EAA AirVenture Conference in Oshkosh, Wis., at the end of July.

The Transition is designed for 100- to 500-mile jumps. It will carry two people and luggage on a single tank of premium unleaded gas. It will also come with an electric calculator (to help fine-tune weight distribution), airbags, aerodynamic bumpers and of course a GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation unit.

Right now, there’s no prototype (I told you not to get your hopes up yet) and according to the article the company doesn’t plan to have one of these in the air before 2009 or 2010. Meanwhile, you can start saving up for one, and check out the pictures of their (one-fifth scale) wind tunnel model. While you’re at it, why not print out a copy and attach it to your sun visor just to have something concrete to dream about while you wait for the traffic to inch forward again?

EchoStar X is Up

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

After two delays, the EchoStar X satellite was launched yesterday when "a Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket lifted off from the Odyssey Launch Platform at 3:35pm PST:"

ll phases of the flight profile performed as expected. The mission ended with spacecraft separation from the Block DM upper stage, placing the EchoStar X communications satellite into a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. A ground station in Uralla, Australia acquired the spacecraft signal. All systems are operating nominally.

You can watch an archived webcast of the launch here. also has a report on the launch.

Space Archaeology?

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Who knew that NASA did archaeology? Unless someone’s sifting through the sands of some distant planet for signs of ancient intelligent life, I’ve always thought of archeology as the earthbound realm of the Discovery Channel and maybe Indiana Jones. That is, at least until I read that NASA helped uncover lost Maya ruins in the Central American jungle. 

Remains of the ancient Maya culture, mysteriously destroyed at the height of its reign in the ninth century, have been hidden in the rainforests of Central America for more than 1,000 years. Now, NASA and University of New Hampshire scientists are using space- and aircraft-based “remote-sensing” technology to uncover those ruins, using the chemical signature of the civilization’s ancient building materials.

NASA archaeologist Tom Sever and scientist Dan Irwin, both from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are teaming with William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire, to locate the ruins of the ancient culture. Saturno discovered the oldest known intact Maya mural at the site in 2001.

… Sever has explored the capacity of remote sensing technology and the science of collecting information about the Earth’s surface using aerial or space-based photography to serve archeology. He and Irwin provided Saturno with high-resolution commercial satellite images of the rainforest, and collected data from NASA’s Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, an instrument flown aboard a high-altitude weather plane, capable of penetrating clouds, snow and forest canopies.

These resulting Earth observations have helped the team survey an uncharted region around San Bartolo, Guatemala. They discovered a correlation between the color and reflectivity of the vegetation seen in the images – their “signature,” which is captured by instruments measuring light in the visible and near-infrared spectrums – and the location of known archaeological sites.

My first thought was that if it’s possible to be an archaeologist without having to tromp around deserts and rain forests, I might start considering a new line of work. (Those mummy-related specials on Discovery and TLC inspire me.) I did a little searching online and found a bit more information about the research team and their research in Petén, Guatemala. Turns out, it’s still archaeology, so they still had to hack through the jungle — using satellite images to guide them — to “ground test” the data. They uncovered a series of ancient sites, right where the data and images predicted they’d be. 

So much for doing archaeology from a nice, air conditioned, indoor space — which I’m guessing were the conditions at the National Space Science and Technology Center, where Sever and Irwin conducted their space-based research before heading out into the field. Sever and Irwin can use satellites to lead them to ancient ruins, and I’ll wait for the same to beam their findings down to my living room.