Archive for January, 2007


Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Friends, Earthlings, ETs — lend me your sensory organs!

I send you greetings and good wishes at the beginning of another year. I’ll be celebrating (?) my 90th birthday in December – a few weeks after the Space Age completes its first half century.

When the late and unlamented Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957, it took only about five minutes for the world to realise what had happened. And although I had been writing and speaking about space travel for years, the moment is still frozen in my own memory: I was in Barcelona attending the 8th International Astronautical Congress. We had retired to our hotel rooms after a busy day of presentations when the news broke — I was awakened by reporters seeking comments on the Soviet feat. Our theories and speculations had become reality!

Notwithstanding the remarkable accomplishments during the past 50 years, I believe that the Golden Age of space travel is still ahead of us. Before the current decade is out, fee-paying passengers will be experiencing sub-orbital flights aboard privately funded passenger vehicles, built by a new generation of engineer-entrepreneurs with an unstoppable passion for space (I’m hoping I could still make such a journey myself). And over the next 50 years, thousands of people will gain access to the orbital realm – and then, to the Moon and beyond.

During 2006, I followed with interest the emergence of this new breed of ‘Citizen Astronauts’ and private space enterprise. I am very encouraged by the wide-spread acceptance of the Space Elevator, which can make space transport cheap and affordable to ordinary people. This daring engineering concept, which I popularised in The Fountains of Paradise (1978), is now taken very seriously, with space agencies and entrepreneurs investing money and effort in developing prototypes. A dozen of these parties competed for the NASA-sponsored, US$ 150,000 X Prize Cup which took place in October 2006 at the Las Cruces International Airport, New Mexico.

The Arthur Clarke Foundation continues to recognise and cheer-lead men and women who blaze new trails to space. A few days before the X Prize Cup competition, my old friend Walter Cronkite received the Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I have known Walter for over half a century, and my commentary with him during the heady days of the Apollo Moon landings now belong to another era. A space ‘pathfinder’ of the Twenty First Century, Bob Bigelow, was presented the Arthur C. Clarke Innovator Award for his work in the development of space habitats. With the successful launch of Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis 1, Bob is leading the way for private individuals willing to advance space exploration with minimum reliance on government programmes.

Meanwhile, planning and fund raising work continued for the Arthur C. Clarke Center "to Investigate the Reach and Impact of Human
Imagination", to be set up in partnership with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Objective: to identify young people with robust imagination, to help their parents and teachers make the most of that talent, and to accord imagination as much regard as high academic grades in the classroom – anywhere in the world.  The Board members of the Clarke Foundation, led by its indefatigable Chairman Tedson Meyers, have taken on the challenge of raising US$ 70 million for this project. I’m hopeful that the billion dollar communications satellite industry I founded 60 years ago with my Wireless World  paper (October 1945), for which I received the astronomical sum of £15, will be partners in this endeavour.

I’ve only been able to make a few encouraging noises from the sidelines for these and other worthy projects as I’m now very limited in time and energy owing to Post Polio. But I’m happy to report that my health remains stable, and I’m in no discomfort or pain. Being completely wheel-chaired helps to concentrate on my reading and writing – which I can once again engage in, with the second cataract operation restoring my eyesight.

During the year, I wrote a number of short articles, book reviews and commentaries for a variety of print and online outlets. I also did a few carefully chosen media interviews, and filmed several video greetings to important scientific or literary gatherings in different parts of the world.

I was particularly glad to find a co-author to complete my last novel, The Last Theorem, which remained half-written for a couple of years. I had mapped out the entire story, but then found I didn’t have the energy to work on the balance text. Accomplished American writer Frederik Pohl has now taken up the challenge. Meanwhile, co-author Stephen Baxter has completed First-born, the third novel in our collaborative Time Odyssey series, to be published in 2007.

Members of my adopted family — Hector, Valerie, Cherene, Tamara and Melinda Ekanayake — are keeping well. Hector has been looking after me since 1956, and with his wife Valerie, has made a home for me at 25, Barnes Place, Colombo. Hector continued to rebuild the diving operation that was wiped out by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004. Sri Lanka’s tourist sector, still recovering from the mega-disaster, weathered a further crisis as the long-drawn civil conflict ignited again after more than three years of relative peace and quiet. I remain hopeful that a lasting solution would be worked out by the various national and international players engaged in the peace process.

I’m still missing and mourning my beloved Chihuahua Pepsi, who left us more than a year ago. I’ve just heard that dogs aren’t allowed in Heaven, so I’m not going there.

Brother Fred, Chris Howse, Angie Edwards and Navam Tambayah look after my affairs in England. My agents David Higham Associates and Scovil, Chichak & Galen Literary Agency deal with rapacious editors and media executives. They both follow my general directive: No reasonable offer will even be considered.

I am well supported by my staff and take this opportunity to thank them all:
Executive Officer: Nalaka Gunawardene
Personal Assistant: Rohan De Silva
Secretary: Dottie Weerasooriya
Valets: Titus, Saman, Chandra, Sunil
Drivers: Lalith & Anthony
Domestic Staff: Kesavan, Jayasiri & Mallika
Gardener: Jagath

Let me end with an extract from my tribute to Star Trek on its 40th anniversary – this message is more relevant today than when the series first aired in the heady days of Apollo: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”

Colombo, Sri Lanka
28 January 2007


Rats Jam XM Radio

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

The warm weather on the East Coast has kept rodents outdoors, but now that colder temperatures have arrived, they’re in where it’s warmer. Maybe in your house. This author recently trapped 3 mice within 24 hours of deploying a few Victors

Well, rodents don’t discriminate between commercial and residential properties. Today’s Washington Post has the full story:

Rats! XM Radio Scurries to Address Rodent Infestation

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts

If you hear some scratching noises on XM radio, it’s probably not static — but it might be rats. The satellite radio’s District headquarters is so infested with the furry little critters that the company has gone to the rat-eradication equivalent of DefCon 1.

"Those of you familiar with DC rodents know that we’re looking at the size of small house cats," writes XM senior veep Dan Turner in an internal memo sent to employees on Friday.

Turner goes on to describe the gnawing dread: "Currently we have lost the functionality of Production Room 8 as the rodents have discovered that the cover on our fiber optics cables makes good nesting material. A couple of weeks ago it was one of the multi-function studios that was taken out of commission. Tomorrow it could be a cable to a satellite uplink. It is that serious."

The Beltway, rat-wise, appears to be on the second floor of the XM building, a beautifully restored former printing factory on New York Avenue NE, reports our colleague Paul Farhi. The crawl space under the raised floors "represents an eight-lane superhighway to anywhere the rats want to go," writes Turner.

The broadcaster has summoned Orkin, according to spokesman Chance Patterson, and has enlisted the building’s 600 employees in "immediate and very aggressive eradication measures" — that means no food and drink in the studios (not even coffee? Eeeekk!) and all those magazines, posters and other junk must be tossed because rats like to use them to build nests.

No shock and awe here — Turner’s ready for a long siege. "Eventually, they’ll get the building back," he concludes his memo, "but we ain’t done with it yet."


If you can’t afford a house call from The Orkin Man, you can consult the National Park Service’s "Integrated Pest Management Manual."



Canada Invests in Space Technologies

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

The Canadian government recently announced a major investment of $10.3 million in R&D contracts to Canadian firms for the design of new space technologies and applications:

"The investments announced are crucial for supporting Canada’s leadership position in niche markets such as robotics, remote sensing, satellite communication components, and radar, and for making groundbreaking technologies market-ready. These are technologies that respond to Canadian needs and those of our international partners," said Minister [of Industry Maxime] Bernier.

Nearly $1.9 million of those grants went to the Ottawa area. But what exactly is being funded?

A list of projects is available on the Canadian Space Agency website; they include "guidance, navigation and control software to improve the autonomy, safety and reliability of space systems; improvements on a new satellite design that can be used for studying the environment and monitoring natural resources; a feasibility study on an instrument which measures water content of soil without touching it; and near-instantaneous distress alert technology."

The end result of such investments reach far beyond Canada. In November of last year, the CSA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Egyptian government to explore uses of space technology in Egypt:

The main focus of the agreement is currently Earth observation to promote sustainable growth; in past years Canada has worked extensively with various satellite applications to connect its far-flung population of 32 million people spread out over 10 million square kilometers. As the MOU is an open agreement, however, there are virtually no limits on the possibilities.

The Egyptian project is aimed at promoting sustainable development, and may help deliver high-tech telemedicine services to the region.

Which, we must admit, seems to be a better use of money than this widely-publicized bit of Canadian research

Jamming Your Satellite

Monday, January 29th, 2007

While the idea of satellite jamming might conjure up some old lines from Spaceballs you thought you forgot years ago, it is serious business in the world of future satellite development. According to a report in the NewScientist, Parisian satellite company Eutelsat blamed "unidentified signal interference" for a service interruption last Tuesday that kept several European, Middle Eastern, and northeast African television and radio stations off the air until their transmissions could be transferred to another satellite.

"Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information think-tank in Washington DC, US, says there have been cases of deliberate satellite jamming in the past, but it is hard to see what motivation there would be in this instance.

"It’s really puzzling to me," she told New Scientist. "If it was accidental, why would they be so secretive about saying what the source was and if it’s deliberate, you’ve got to wonder why – it just seems to me to be an odd target, unless someone’s ticked off at the French," she says.

While no one appears to know whose responsible for the blockage quite yet, last week’s jamming seems eerily similar to those China experienced not too long ago and is now working to prevent (although the project is currently stalled).

Those interested in how this jamming works should check-out the great report did about the technology and the process back in October.

Grand Prize: A Trip in Space

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

From USA Today, a great piece on space tourism being used as prizes:

There are no free rides to outer space

Brian Emmett’s childhood fantasy came true when he won a free trip to outer space. He was crushed when he had to cancel his reservation because of Uncle Sam.

Emmett won his ticket to the heavens in a 2005 sweepstakes by Oracle Corp., in which he answered a series of online questions on Java computer code. He became an instant celebrity, giving media interviews and appearing on stage at Oracle’s trade show.

For the self-described space buff who has attended space camp and watched shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center, it seemed like a chance to become an astronaut on a dime.

Then reality struck. After some number-crunching, Emmett realized he would have to report the $138,000 galactic joy ride as income and owe $25,000 in taxes. Unwilling to sink into debt, the 31-year-old software consultant from the San Francisco Bay area gave up his seat.

"There was definitely a period of mourning. I was totally crestfallen," Emmett said. "Everything you had hoped for as a kid sort of evaporates in front of you."

With commercial spaceships still under development, it’s uncertain when the infant space tourism industry will actually get off the ground. Still, ultra-rich thrill-seekers are already plunking down big — though refundable — deposits to experience a few minutes of weightlessness 60 miles above Earth.

And in recent years, space tourism companies have teamed with major corporations to stage contests with future suborbital spaceflights as the grand prize.

The partnerships have interstellar hype — but as Emmett found out, they can get mired in that most earthbound hassle: taxes.

"From a consumer perspective … I’d be wary," said Kathleen Allen, director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization. "I’d check to see the fine print."

Since the Internal Revenue Service requires winnings from lottery drawings, TV game shows and other contests to be reported as taxable income, tax experts contend there’s no such thing as a free spaceflight. Some contest sponsors provide a check to cover taxes, but that income is also taxable.

"I don’t see how an average person can swing that kind of tax payment. It’s a big, big bite," said tax attorney Donna LeValley, contributing editor for J.K. Lasser’s annual tax guide.

To reduce the financial burden, winners can argue that they don’t owe any taxes until their flight lifts off. Another option is working out an installment plan to pay taxes over time, said Greg Jenner of the American Bar Association.

The IRS declined to comment, saying it does not talk about individual matters.

Despite Emmett’s cancellation, Oracle said its contest was a success. The software giant is in the process of naming his replacement and still has two other winners on board from Asia and Europe.

That spaceflight will be provided by Space Adventures Ltd., the same company that brokers deals for trips on Russian rockets to the orbiting international space station for a reported $20 million per customer.

Eric Anderson, the company’s chief executive, insists that contests are the best way for most people to get into space. He said Space Adventures has given away about 20 reservations through competitions, and the majority of winners are satisfied.

Space contest rules vary widely but generally require winners to undergo astronaut training before the trip and sign a waiver freeing the sponsors from any liability if there’s an accident.

Microsoft Corp. is the latest company to dangle a free space ride. This month it launched an elaborate online puzzle game as part of its promotional campaign for its new Vista PC operating system. The grand prize winner — to be named this week — gets a seat with Rocketplane Ltd., which is building a souped-up Lear jet it hopes will ferry passengers to space in late 2009.

The $50,000 check that comes with the prize, which is valued at $253,500, should cover the winner’s taxes, said Brian Marr, group marketing manager for Vista.

It’s common for contest winners to have to play a waiting game.

Virgin Galactic customer Doug Ramsburg won his ticket in a Volvo sweepstakes during the 2005 Super Bowl. His family and friends often hound him about when he’ll reach the cosmos. After all, Virgin Galactic doesn’t have any spacecraft yet.

Even without an itinerary, Ramsburg says he’s not worried. He said he’s confident in the man tasked to build Virgin’s commercial spacecraft — aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne became the first privately manned rocket to reach space in 2004.

Ramsburg considers the prize a "blessing" but declined to talk about the financial arrangements, except to say the $100,000 check that came with the prize should make him the first free Virgin Galactic passenger.

"You don’t have to be a superhero in order to go to space," said Ramsburg, 43, who works in the admissions office of the University of Colorado at Denver.

Back on Earth, Emmett said he has no regrets about turning down his trip and doesn’t blame anyone.

"I was, however briefly, a potential astronaut," he wrote last fall in a blog entry titled "Clipped Wings."

DIY Friday: Removing Snow from Your Satellite Dish

Friday, January 26th, 2007
With flurries beginning to frequent the Washington (finally!), I felt like it might be a good idea to figure out how to get that snow off my satellite dish. Sure, I could just wait for it to melt (let’s call that Spektor method of choice numero uno), but there seem to be enough DIY (and commercial) options that I shouldn’t have to worry about getting snow on my screen when it snows outside. Overall, there appear to be three main methods for ensuring picture quality on even the snowiest nights: spray it, block it, or zap it.


Spray it. Spraying some Pam cooking spray on your dish at the start of winter is usually the traditional way of avoiding signal-destroying, satellite dish snow build-up. While this tends to work OK, if you’re dish is inconveniently located (on your roof, let’s say) it can get a little treacherous to reapply it if you’re having a particularly snowy winter. Alternatively, you could always pick up the commercial WX2100 super hydrophobic dish & radome coating, which promises to do the same thing but, you know, way better and stuff.


Block it. While some friends of mine have tried the old stand-by – the black plastic bag – to keep the picture free of fuzzies in the rain and the snow, most have had bad luck with signal loss for one reason or another (your milage may, of course, vary). The commercial option here, the WedgieCover, promises to do the same as a black plastic bag in the snow and the rain (not to mention "protect your privacy" although I’m not sure how) without the signal loss and comparatively easy installation… which means no twistee-ties. Score!


Zap it. The bad-ass, Tim Allen approach, however requires "more power," creating the option to melt it off. Particularly good for very cold climates who have to worry about long-term ice formation, the Ice Zapper seems to be the industry standard for metal dishes, although Montana Satellite has a few other options as well. DIY options for satellite heaters? While I’m sure its possible, I’d probably recommend finding a commercial option and staying away from any modifications unless you really are a regular Tim "The Toolman" Taylor. And, even if you are, we all know how well that tended to work out.



NSS-8 Satellite Launch Updates

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

The NSS-8 satellite is set to launch from a converted oil platform anchored on the equator in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,500 miles south of Hawaii. The launch video will be streamed live via the Sea Launch Web site.

The satellite itself is impressive:

The high-power, state-of-the-art NSS-8 satellite is a Boeing 702 spacecraft that carries 56 C-band and 36 Ku-band transponders designed to replace the existing NSS-703 satellite as the centerpiece of NEW SKIES’ strategic Indian Ocean contribution to SES’ global communications network. The successful launch of NSS-8 will subsequently also allow for NSS-703 to be re-deployed to the Atlantic Ocean region at 340° East, further boosting the global coverage and connectivity provided by the 40 plus strong fleet of satellites in the SES Group. NSS-8 will support a wide range of functions, including corporate communications, government and military operations, Broadband Internet services and broadcast applications.

The satellite will provide coverage to two-thirds of the world’s population, serving countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Asia. Designed for a 15-year lifespan, NSS-8 will have 18 kilowatts of total power at the beginning of life on orbit.

NSS-8 Satellite to Launch on Saturday

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

The NSS-8 satellite is set to launch from a converted oil platform anchored on the equator in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,500 miles south of Hawaii. The launch video will be streamed live via the Sea Launch Web site. Here’s an image from the launch platform’s live webcam (remember to refresh often for changes):

The satellite itself is impressive:

The high-power, state-of-the-art NSS-8 satellite is a Boeing 702 spacecraft that carries 56 C-band and 36 Ku-band transponders designed to replace the existing NSS-703 satellite as the centerpiece of NEW SKIES’ strategic Indian Ocean contribution to SES’ global communications network. The successful launch of NSS-8 will subsequently also allow for NSS-703 to be re-deployed to the Atlantic Ocean region at 340° East, further boosting the global coverage and connectivity provided by the 40 plus strong fleet of satellites in the SES Group. NSS-8 will support a wide range of functions, including corporate communications, government and military operations, Broadband Internet services and broadcast applications.

The satellite will provide coverage to two-thirds of the world’s population, serving countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Asia. Designed for a 15-year lifespan, NSS-8 will have 18 kilowatts of total power at the beginning of life on orbit.

The Death of Driveway Moments?

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

"Driveway moments," for those who don’t know, is a term used by NPR and other radio stations to describe those radio stories (or songs) that are so rivetting that you sit in the driveway listening to it after you’ve arrived home.

A variation that I’m familiar with is provincially known as "parking lot eternity" — when you sit and scream at the DJ for not telling you the name of the artist who did that awesome song two or three segments earlier.

Such experiences would come to an end, we’ve known, if and when Tivo for Radio ever showed up in our vehicles.

In Europe, that moment may soon arrive:

The luxuries of owning a PVR for watching TV shows may soon show up in automobiles. The European Space Agency, or ESA. is working on a new satellite radio system that requires little changes to automobiles but will allow listeners to perform the same PVR functions, but to their favorite radio stations. Pausing, rewinding and time shifting will all become usable features for in-car radio.

The ESA’s system employs what it calls "cache" memory for radio — essentially either a hard drive storage medium or some form of solid state memory such as flash memory. When released, the ESA’s system will more than likely employ solid state flash memory for storing audio data, which will better withstand bumps and jolts while driving around.

While satellite radio already exists from Sirius and XM, ESA’s system’s claim to fame is its cost which, according to the ESA, will be a lot cheaper to implement. Because the new system does not require the use of local transmission towers for assistance — like Sirius and XM — there are costs associated with setting up a local ground infrastructure. The ESA’s system will also use existing communications satellites that are already in place. This will require flat satellite dishes to be installed on automobiles, but the ESA claims that the system is small enough to be integrated well.

 ITWire has more.

India Recovers Space Capsule

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007


The Hindustan Times reports…

India has for the first time successfully brought a space capsule back to earth. Until now, only the United States, Russia and China had similar expertise in re entry technology. The success also takes the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) a step closer to its goal of putting an Indian in space some years from now.

On Monday, ISRO officials said the 550-kg recoverable space capsule — called Space capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1) — that was launched on January 10 had returned to the earth’s atmosphere, splashing down in the Bay of Bengal, about 140 km east of the Sriharikota coast at 9.46 am, exactly as planned.

It demonstrated ISRO’s ability to build a capsule that could endure temperatures of more than 1,200 degrees Celsius while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after a space expedition.

Retrieved by a Coast Guard team, SRE-1 will be taken to the Sriharikota Range by road on Tuesday for ISRO scientists to take a close look at the heat-resistant tiles that protected it during the re-entry phase.

ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair said, “SRE-I is an important beginning for providing a low-cost platform for micro-gravity experiments in space science and technology and the return of specimen from space.” Dr SC Chakravarthy, programme director (space science), ISRO, who monitored the touchdown from ISTRAC (ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking & Command Network) station on the outskirts of Bangalore, said, “We are very happy with the outcome of this experiment because it will lead to new things — certainly to a manned mission into space.”