Archive for March, 2008

“How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time”

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Typically well done obituary in Wednesday’s New York Times:

Arthur C. Clarke, Premier Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 90


Published: March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.

Rohan de Silva, an aide, confirmed the death and said Mr. Clarke had been experiencing breathing problems, The Associated Press reported. He had suffered from post-polio syndrome for the last two decades.

The author of almost 100 books, Mr. Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. It was a vision served most vividly by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the classic 1968 science-fiction film he created with the director Stanley Kubrick and the novel of the same title that he wrote as part of the project.

His work was also prophetic: his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight.

Other early advocates of a space program argued that it would pay for itself by jump-starting new technology. Mr. Clarke set his sights higher. Borrowing a phrase from William James, he suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent of war,” giving an outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust.

Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.

In his later years, after settling in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mr. Clarke continued to bask in worldwide acclaim as both a scientific sage and the pre-eminent science fiction writer of the 20th century. In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Clarke played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network of communications satellites. “No one can predict the future,” he always maintained. But as a science fiction writer he couldn’t resist drawing up timelines for what he called “possible futures.” Far from displaying uncanny prescience, these conjectures mainly demonstrated his lifelong, and often disappointed, optimism about the peaceful uses of technology — from his calculation in 1945 that atomic-fueled rockets could be no more than 20 years away to his conviction in 1999 that “clean, safe power” from “cold fusion” would be commercially available in the first years of the new millennium.

Popularizer of Science

Mr. Clarke was well aware of the importance of his role as science spokesman to the general population: “Most technological achievements were preceded by people writing and imagining them,” he noted. “I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon,” he added, if it had not been for H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. “I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.”

Arthur Charles Clarke was born on Dec. 16, 1917, in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England. His father was a farmer; his mother a post office telegrapher. The eldest of four children, he was educated as a scholarship student at a secondary school in the nearby town of Taunton. He remembered a number of incidents in early childhood that awakened his scientific imagination: exploratory rambles along the Somerset shoreline, with its “wonderland of rock pools”; a card from a pack of cigarettes that his father showed him, with a picture of a dinosaur; the gift of a Meccano set, a British construction toy similar to American Erector Sets.

He also spent time, he said, “mapping the moon” through a telescope he constructed himself out of “a cardboard tube and a couple of lenses.” But the formative event of his childhood was his discovery, at age 13 — the year his father died — of a copy of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, then the leading American science fiction magazine. He found its mix of boyish adventure and far-out (sometimes bogus) science intoxicating.

While still in school, he joined the newly formed British Interplanetary Society, a small band of sci-fi enthusiasts who held the controversial view that space travel was not only possible but could be achieved in the not-so-distant future. In 1937, a year after he moved to London to take a civil service job, he began writing his first science fiction novel, a story of the far, far future that was later published as “Against the Fall of Night” (1953).

Mr. Clarke spent World War II as an officer in the Royal Air Force. In 1943 he was assigned to work with a team of American scientist-engineers who had developed the first radar-controlled system for landing airplanes in bad weather. That experience led to Mr. Clarke’s only non-science fiction novel, “Glide Path” (1963). More important, it led in 1945 to a technical paper, published in the British journal Wireless World, establishing the feasibility of artificial satellites as relay stations for Earth-based communications.

The meat of the paper was a series of diagrams and equations showing that “space stations” parked in a circular orbit roughly 22,240 miles above the equator would exactly match the Earth’s rotation period of 24 hours. In such an orbit, a satellite would remain above the same spot on the ground, providing a “stationary” target for transmitted signals, which could then be retransmitted to wide swaths of territory below. This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.

Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his Wireless World paper “the most important thing I ever wrote.” In a wry piece entitled, “A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time,” he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

But Mr. Clarke also acknowledged that nothing in his paper — from the notion of artificial satellites to the mathematics of the geostationary orbit — was new. His chief contribution was to clarify and publicize an idea whose time had almost come: it was a feat of consciousness-raising of the kind he would continue to excel at throughout his career.

A Fiction Career Is Born

The year 1945 also saw the start of Mr. Clarke’s career as a fiction writer. He sold a short story called “Rescue Party” to the same magazine — now re-titled Astounding Science Fiction — that had captured his imagination 15 years earlier.

For the next two years Mr. Clarke attended King’s College, London, on the British equivalent of a G.I. Bill scholarship, graduating in 1948 with first-class honors in physics and mathematics. But he continued to write and sell stories, and after a stint as assistant editor at the scientific journal Physics Abstracts, he decided he could support himself as a free-lance writer. Success came quickly. His primer on space flight, “The Exploration of Space,” became an American Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Over the next two decades he wrote a series of nonfiction bestsellers as well as his best-known novels, including “Childhood’s End” (1953) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). For a scientifically trained writer whose optimism about technology seemed boundless, Mr. Clarke delighted in confronting his characters with obstacles they could not overcome without help from forces beyond their comprehension.

In “Childhood’s End,” a race of aliens who happen to look like devils imposes peace on an Earth torn by Cold War tensions. But the aliens’ real mission is to prepare humanity for the next stage of evolution. In an ending that is both heartbreakingly poignant and literally earth-shattering, Mr. Clarke suggests that mankind can escape its suicidal tendencies only by ceasing to be human.

“There was nothing left of Earth,” he wrote. “It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.”

The Cold War also forms the backdrop for “2001.” Its genesis was a short story called “The Sentinel,” first published in a science fiction magazine in 1951. It tells of an alien artifact found on the Moon, a little crystalline pyramid that explorers from Earth destroy while trying to open. One explorer realizes that the artifact was a kind of fail-safe beacon; in silencing it, human beings have signaled their existence to its far-off creators.

Enter Stanley Kubrick

In the spring of 1964, Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his triumph with “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” met Mr. Clarke in New York, and the two agreed to make the “proverbial really good science fiction movie” based on “The Sentinel.” This led to a four-year collaboration; Mr. Clarke wrote the novel and Mr. Kubrick produced and directed the film; they are jointly credited with the screenplay.

Many reviewers were puzzled by the film, especially the final scene in which an astronaut who has been transformed by aliens returns to orbit the Earth as a “Star-Child.” In the book he demonstrates his new-found powers by detonating from space the entire arsenal of Soviet and United States nuclear weapons. Like much of the plot, this denouement is not clear in the film, from which Mr. Kubrick cut most of the expository material.

As a fiction writer, Mr. Clarke was often criticized for failing to create fully realized characters. HAL, the mutinous computer in “2001,” is probably his most “human” creation: a self-satisfied know-it-all with a touching but misguided faith in his own infallibility.

If Mr. Clarke’s heroes are less than memorable, it’s also true that there are no out-and-out villains in his work; his characters are generally too busy struggling to make sense of an implacable universe to engage in petty schemes of dominance or revenge.

Mr. Clarke’s own relationship with machines was somewhat ambivalent. Although he held a driver’s license as a young man, he never drove a car. Yet he stayed in touch with the rest of the world from his home in Sri Lanka through an ever-expanding collection of up-to-date computers and communications accessories. And until his health declined, he was an expert scuba diver in the waters around Sri Lanka.

He first became interested in diving in the early 1950s, when he realized that he could find underwater, he said, something very close to the weightlessness of outer space. He settled permanently in Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon, in 1956. With a partner, he established a guided diving service for tourists and wrote vividly about his diving experiences in a number of books, beginning with “The Coast of Coral” (1956).

Of his scores of books, some like “Childhood’s End,” have been in print continuously. His works have been translated into some 40 languages, and worldwide sales have been estimated at more than $25 million.

In 1962 he suffered a severe attack of polio. His apparently complete recovery was marked by a return to top form at his favorite sport, table tennis. But in 1984 he developed post-polio syndrome, a progressive condition characterized by muscle weakness and extreme fatigue. He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair.

Clarke’s Three Laws

Among his legacies are Clarke’s Three Laws, provocative observations on science, science fiction and society that were published in his “Profiles of the Future” (1962):

¶“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

¶“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

¶“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Along with Verne and Wells, Mr. Clarke said his greatest influences as a writer were Lord Dunsany, a British fantasist noted for his lyrical, if sometimes overblown, prose; Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher who wrote vast speculative narratives that projected human evolution to the farthest reaches of space and time; and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

While sharing his passions for space and the sea with a worldwide readership, Mr. Clarke kept his emotional life private. He was briefly married in 1953 to an American diving enthusiast named Marilyn Mayfield; they separated after a few months and were divorced in 1964, having had no children.

One of his closest relationships was with Leslie Ekanayake, a fellow diver in Sri Lanka, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1977. Mr. Clarke shared his home in Colombo with his friend’s brother, Hector, his partner in the diving business; Hector’s wife, Valerie; and their three daughters.

Mr. Clarke reveled in his fame. One whole room in his house — which he referred to as the Ego Chamber — was filled with photos and other memorabilia of his career, including pictures of him with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Mr. Clarke’s reputation as a prophet of the space age rests on more than a few accurate predictions. His visions helped bring about the future he longed to see. His contributions to the space program were lauded by Charles Kohlhase, who planned NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and who said of Mr. Clarke, “When you dream what is possible, and add a knowledge of physics, you make it happen.”

At the time of his death he was working on another novel, “The Last Theorem,” Agence France-Presse reported. “ The Last Theorem’ has taken a lot longer than I expected,” the agency quoted him as saying. “That could well be my last novel, but then I’ve said that before.” 


On to the next dimension, Sir Arthur.


Good-bye, Sir Arthur

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008


Via Skyreport "breaking news" e-mail:

Arthur C. Clarke Passes Away

According to press reports, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. He was 90.

Clarke was the author of more than 100 books, including "2001: A Space Odyssey." Clarke was well-known in satellite circles, receiving credit for developing the concept of geostationary satellites for communications. He proposed the idea in a paper titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" published in Wireless World in October 1945. In fact, geostationary orbit is sometimes referred to as the Clarke Belt in his honor.

Clarke, who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, was also a British citizen who received a knighthood in 2000.


 Sir Arthur’s last post was in December.

We enjoyed his imagination and annual "Egogram." 

Weightless Markets

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Unemployment up. Stock market down. Recession looming. For financial security, maybe you should enter the space plane business. EADS thinks the market will boom:

Aerospace giant EADS says it will need a production line of rocket planes to satisfy the space tourism market.

The European company’s Astrium division, makers of the Ariane rocket, has plans for a commercial vehicle to take ticketed passengers above 100km.

Its market assessment suggests there would be 15,000 people a year prepared to part with some 200,000 euros (£160,000) for the ride of a lifetime.

Astrium anticipates it be will be producing about 10 planes a year.

“To satisfy the market you will need more planes than you think, because once there is regular operation, the price will decrease which means there will be more customers,” Robert Laine, chief technical officer (CTO) of the pan-European company, told BBC News.

For more info on the EADS’ take on space tourism, watch Robert Laine, EADS’ CTO’s speech to the Institution of Engineering and Technology last week.

While Astrium proceeds according to plan, Virgin Galactic and its partner, Scaled Composites, appear to be in the space tourism race lead. And it looks like they are confirming Laine’s prediction for increased production:

Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space travel venture, plans to order five more spaceships and aims to turn a profit in five years from its commercial launch in 2010, an official told Reuters on Thursday.

Prospective space travelers have so far placed deposits totaling more than $31 million for tickets that cost $200,000 each and would give them five minutes in space, said Alex Tai, the firm’s group director.

“In the short term, we have firm orders for five spaceships and options for seven … We believe there is a very strong market,” Tai said in an interview at the Singapore Airshow.

If you want the weightless experience but can’t pony-up 200k, drop 4k and hop on a 727 parabolic flight – G-Force One:

Zero Gravity Corporation ( is a privately held space entertainment and tourism company whose mission is to make the excitement and adventure of space accessible to the public. ZERO-G is based in Las Vegas and Florida and is the first and only FAA-approved provider of commercial weightless flight to the general public, as well as the entertainment and film industries, corporate and incentive market, non-profit research and education sectors, and government. The experience offered by ZERO-G is the only commercial opportunity on Earth for individuals to experience true “weightlessness” without going to space. This is the identical weightless flight experience used by NASA to train its astronauts and used by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to film Apollo-13. The ZERO-G Experience consists of a brief training session for passengers followed by a 90-minute flight aboard G-Force-One, during which parabolic maneuvers are performed. The controlled ascent and descent of the plane allows Flyers to experience Martian gravity (1/3-gravity), Lunar gravity (1/6-gravity), and zero gravity. The ZERO-G Experience provides its Flyers with twice the amount of weightless time achieved in a typical sub-orbital flight into space. ZERO-G operates under the highest safety standards as set by the FAA (Part-121) with its partner Amerijet International of Ft. Lauderdale Florida. Aircraft operations take place under the same regulations set for large commercial passenger airliners.

SXSWi Roundup

Monday, March 17th, 2008



DirecTV last week "gave viewers a front row seat to the legendary South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival with DIRECTV SXSW Live, a live broadcast concert series featuring 24 performances broadcast in HD and 5.1 surround sound direct from Austin, Texas."

Along with Miller Lite, DirecTV was also one of the festival’s sponsors. But the festival wasn’t all just punk rock and debauchery (well, depending on where you went); there was a strong element of green responsibility to be seen and heard among all the live acts. The Festival purchased Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from the City of Austin to negate its carbon footprint of 263 tons generated during the planning and delivery of its 2007 event. For 2008, plans included:

…offering all delegates 24/7 access to biofuel made from cotton seed waste for their vehicles; eliminating all bottled water for staff and volunteers and using municipal water fountains instead; featuring environmental issues in the conference programs and offering tips to delegates on how to have a greener SXSW.

Of course, bands and music performance all around Austin is cool, and indie films are always interesting. But the Interactive Awards presented are what really strike our Really Rocket Science imagination. 

The list of finalists alone is worth a good day of web-browsing. From the intriguing World Without Oil to the useful Wikinvest, a person could kill a large part of a Monday (ahem) just perusing the creative websites.

Also noteworthy are the winners and honorees of the Dewey Winburne Community Service Award, honoring the memory of one of the key co-founders of the SXSW Interactive festival.

Finally, we’ve long been fans of the XO Laptop, better known as the $100 (now $200) laptop. In Dallas, the XO users group had their 4th meeting to coincide with the SXSW festival, while at the festival itself, David Seah used his OLPC as a conversation starter to meet new people. (Meanwhile, the city of Birmingham recently inked a $3 million deal to provide XOs to every child in grades 1 through 8.)

So if you missed the festival — get browsing


DIY Friday: Build Your Own Satellite Truck

Friday, March 14th, 2008

Ever want to combine the life of the open road with your interest in satcom? Then checking out this blog on the life of a satellite truck operator is a must-do.

Of course, if you really want to turn the dream into reality, you’ll need a truck. And that can cost some serious dough.

This customized truck used by NBC news to cover the invasion of Iraq cost $500,000:


Frontline Communications builds and sells a variety of satellite trucks — but again, it costs a pretty penny. 

The low(er) cost solution to living the dream, of course, is to Do It Yourself. Several years ago the Daily Wireless blog did a post on how to build your own satellite truck. Unfortunately, most of the links there are now dead.

But to stay in budget, you just have to make some serious decisions about what kind of equipment you want in your custom rig. Typically satcom trucks are pretty decked out — but how much do you really need? 

For CNN’s Election Coverage, they decided they needed quite a bit — building their own Election Express vehicle complete with a portable HD studio:

Frontline Communications was the systems integrator and overall project manager for the vehicle. The two-year effort also included another Clearwater, Fla., company, Parliament Coach, a specialist in high-end vehicles….

The bus uses a satellite pool from iDirect Technology, a Herndon, Va.-based developer of satellite broadband systems. The system provides reliable bandwidth for the four video feeds as well as ordinary Internet, telephones and the intercom system.

With their Atlanta area codes, the onboard phones behave just like landlines, said Bohrman.

And the 64×64 RTS Cronus intercom system can connect over iDirect to Atlanta or anywhere else, according to Frontline Project Manager Jeff Steele.

Massive patch panels are on both port and starboard (so the bus can still operate with one side blocked). Two 25 kW diesel generators rumble in the stern—one for the lighting and normal front-end bus operations and one for the racks and racks of TV-related systems in the rear. And if one fails, the other can take over.

A video of the CNN rig can be seen here. Here’s a photo of the interior:


Daily Wireless has additional details, as does the Washington Times:

WiFi connectivity and a phased array Intelsat BGAN terminal allow the bus to transmit video while in motion. Two Clearwater, Fla., companies — Frontline Communications and Parliament Coach — spent two years merging the demands of a live satellite truck with a tour bus for the press, making the 45 foot Prevost H-45 bus into a traveling press room, capable of going live virtually anywhere.


However you decide to pimp your satcom ride, don’t forget to get Leslie Nielsen to promote your new rig, as this Sacramento station did back in 1986.


Happy DIY Friday!

AMC-14 to Lift Off on Friday Night

Thursday, March 13th, 2008




SES-AMERICOM’s AMC-14 launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Proton M rocket on Friday night.

Local time for the launch is 5:18 a.m. on Saturday 15 March 2008 — or 23:18 GMT on Friday the 14th of March.

What that means is you can watch the launch live in the United States — but if you’re on the East Coast, you may wish to start feeding the kids at 6 o’clock.

The live webstream will be available here, or watch on on C-band: AMC-1, transponder C17, 4040 Horiz., NTSC, analog, in the clear or on DISH channel 101.

The last update from the launch blog (on March 11) tells us:

The roll-out of the fully assembled Proton Breeze M launcher, carrying the AMC -14 spacecraft, to Launch Pad 39 commenced early in this morning (at 6:30 a.m. Baikonur time). By 10 a.m. the rocket was erected in vertical position. Once installed onto the pad, the Proton was enclosed inside a mobile service tower.




AMC-14 was originally part of a grand plan for direct-to-home services. 8.2 KW of power, the spacecraft has an active phased array (APA) payload consisting of a receive mode APA antenna, and the highest levels of redundancy on core components such as amplifiers, receivers, commanding beam and computer control systems. This means coverage can be reshaped while in orbit.

Developed primarily by Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, the APA will be a key satellite technology for future missions.

From the get-go, AMC-14 will provide AMERICOM2Home® services in the United States for EchoStar Communications’ DISH Network.


Teaming Up WiMAX and Satcom

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

You’d be excused for believing that WiMAX and satcom don’t play well together.

After all, studies (as well as anecdotes) have shown that WiMAX technology interferes with the reception of satellite transmissions in C-Band: 

The trade group says that the results of the testing showed that the WiMAX transmit signal could cause significant problems to a satellite digital signal well in excess of 12 km distance. At the extreme measurement distance, the video program was fully operational with the WiMAX carrier centered on the video carrier. However, the data BER was degraded from a nominal 10-8 to a BER of 10-4. This is an unacceptable quality of service in the digital telecommunications industry….

"The C-band is in many ways the lifeline of the satellite industry and protecting that spectrum from the threat of interference posed by sharing it with Broadband Wireless Access services is of paramount importance," said Robert Ames, SUIRG President. "The tremendous support of the SUIRG member companies and the industry as a whole in making this test a viable platform to aid decision makers at WRC-07 was extremely gratifying. The results of the test are a firm testament to the need for clearly defined spectrum allocation."

That interference has caught the attention of federal officials in the U.S., who worry that WiMAX deployment could interfere with crucial C-Band signals used daily by the Department of Defense and civilian agencies. 

Yet in the developing world, WiMAX and Satcom can play nicely together and provide leap-frog technology solutions for bringing the Internet to remote areas.

As we blogged last year, HughesNet in Brazil is combining the long-range wireless solution of WiMAX with Internet Protocol over Satellite (IPoS) to reach the most remote areas of the Amazon basin.

But new solutions bring new competition, and one can get around the C-band interference simply by using the Ku-Band, which Gilat uses extensively. 

Those two reasons explain why Gilat recently inked a deal with Airspan Networks, Inc., a major provider of WiMAX broadband wireless access networks:

Broadening its product offering to include WiMAX-based solutions, Gilat will distribute Airspan’s WiMAX solutions globally to its large base of existing customers as well as new customers, leveraging its core competencies including strong global sales, turnkey project delivery and local support capabilities. The new agreement will enable Gilat’s customers to address their broadband wireless access and satellite communications needs through a well integrated ‘one-stop-shop’ solutions provider.

"We are excited to enter into this partnership with Gilat, who has a global reach into the world’s high growth markets and which will allow us to further expand our distribution channels. It’s a win-win situation for both companies and highlights the synergies to be realized between shared customers and similar types of applications. Airspan continues to gain momentum and recognition as a leader in WiMAX in a very competitive market environment," commented Eric Stonestrom, Airspan’s President and CEO.

Not incidentally, Gilat also recently signed Petrobras in Brazil.

Spitzer’s New Look

Monday, March 10th, 2008

This is not about my governor.

We’re talking about one of our favorite space instruments, the Spitzer Space Telescope. They’ve got a new feature on their site, one where you can zoom in and pan on some very cool space images.



Be sure the check out some of the animations. I like "Spitzer’s Delicate Ring Flower:"

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope finds a delicate flower in the Ring Nebula, as shown in this animation. The outer shell of this planetary nebula looks surprisingly similar to the delicate petals of a camellia blossom. A planetary nebula is a shell of material ejected from a dying star. Located about 2,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Lyra, the Ring Nebula is also known as Messier Object 57 and NGC 6720. It is one of the best examples of a planetary nebula and a favorite target of amateur astronomers.

The "ring" is a thick cylinder of glowing gas and dust around the doomed star. As the star begins to run out of fuel, its core becomes smaller and hotter, boiling off its outer layers.

Spitzer’s infrared array camera detected this material expelled from the withering star. Previous images of the Ring Nebula taken by visible-light telescopes usually showed just the inner glowing loop of gas around the star. The outer regions are especially prominent in this new image because Spitzer sees the infrared light from hydrogen molecules. The molecules emit infrared light because they have absorbed ultraviolet radiation from the star or have been heated by the wind from the star.

NASA called it a celestial valentine.

The candles are lit, the champagne is on ice. All you need now are flowers and a ring. This Valentine’s Day, NASA’s Spitzer and Cassini spacecraft provide you with both, in two engaging new images.

NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission and Spitzer Space Telescope have captured images of Saturn’s rings and the Ring Nebula, respectively, to bring home spectacular views of two of the most looked-at objects in the sky. The Cassini image shows a detailed color mosaic of Saturn’s shimmering rings. Spitzer imaged the outer shell of the Ring Nebula, which looks surprisingly similar to the delicate petals of a camellia blossom. 


Dextre Heads to Space Tomorrow

Monday, March 10th, 2008

The space shuttle Endeavour is set to liftoff tomorrow at 2:28 a.m. EDT on the STS-123 mission, which will deliver a key component of the Dextre (short for Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator) robotic arm as well as the first section of the Japanese-built Kibo laboratory.

CTV has more on the Candian-built Dextre: 

A team of space-walking astronauts will assemble Dextre, which weighs about 1,560 kilograms, and attach it to the outside of the space station.

Dextre — 3.7 metres high and 2.4 metres wide — has two multi-jointed arms attached to its torso, a tool holder and a camera/light unit.

"Each arm has seven joints," Swanson said, adding the body can rotate. "It is a complicated arm to operate, but of course it gives you the ability to do all sorts of things with it."

Assembling Dextre will take three space walks of the five scheduled for the 16-day mission, but Swanson said it will take another two months of testing to make the robot fully operational.

Dextre is "is the third and final component of the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) developed by Canada for the International Space Station," the Canadian Space Agency writes on its website.

The Canadian Space Agency explains that:

[W]ith its two arms, Dextre will load and unload objects, use robotic tools, attach and detach covers and install various units of the Space Station. It will either be attached to the end of Canadarm2 or ride independently on the Mobile Base System and have Canadarm2 deliver equipment to it for servicing. It also has four cameras that will provide the crew inside the Station with additional views of the work areas.

Dextre is a huge accomplishment for the Canadian space industry, which has recently been embroiled in controversy over business-related changes to their prime space contractor. called the plans by U.S. firm Alliant Techsystems to purchase MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates’ space and military assets for $1.325 billion "an affront," while the Ottawa Citizen and others have claimed it is vital to Canadian defence that the country maintain its own ability to launch and control its own satellites. (We’ve blogged about similar concerns about Canadian telecommunications and satellite independence.)

The Endeavour flight is commanded by Dominic Gorie, with Gregory H. Johnson serving as Pilot. The crew also includes Mission Specialists Rick Linnehan, Robert L. Behnken, Mike Foreman, Garrett Reisman and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi.

Doi is aboard to help with the Kibo Japanese experiment module — and word has it that he will be comfortably dressed

 [A] team from Japan Women’s University has developed "everyday spacewear," to make things more comfortable for astronaut Takao Doi during his stay on the station…

The team… has spent three years developing practical spacewear suited to a weightless environment.

They developed eight items, including long- and short-sleeved polo shirts, shorts, trousers, socks, underwear and a tracksuit top and bottoms….

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a lot of dirt on the space station, which means clothes get grubby easily.

The group created a polyester fiber-cotton blend fabric that allows sweat to be quickly absorbed and dried, which prevents dirt sticking to the garments.

The team also came up with ways to prevent the clothes interfering with electronic instruments onboard, such as interweaving them with a metallic fiber to prevent the buildup of static electricity.

Many of the everyday clothes worn by astronauts staying on the International Space Station are personal items bought from normal stores. But in a weightless environment, the hems and cuffs rise making them uncomfortable to wear–another problem overcome by the new items.

Kibo (meaning "hope" in Japanese) is the first manned facility made by Japan to be added to the ISS. The Pressurized Module of Kibo will be primarily used for experiments in a microgravity environment. 


As always, the launch will be webcast on NASA TV — with an additional live stream provided from Japan.

DIY Friday: Component Cable

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Have an amplifier and speakers and just need some speaker wire to start the party? Instead of dropping $50-$100 bucks on Monster Cable, you might just want to bend a couple coat hangers into place:

Not only does it work, but there doesn’t seem to be an audio quality drop-off:

I’m so sorry, but I do not buy into 90% of the hype brought to us audiophiles by the commercial sector of our hobby and the home entertainment industry at large. My brother, an audio engineering whiz kid has proven to me what is real and what is not. Let me rehearse with you an example of how he does this.

We gathered up a 5 of our audio buddies. We took my “old” Martin Logan SL-3 (not a bad speaker for accurate noise making) and hooked them up with Monster 1000 speaker cables [ed. Monster Ultra Series THX 1000 Audio Interconnects] (decent cables according to the audio press). We also rigged up 14 gauge, oxygen free Belden stranded copper wire with a simple PVC jacket. Both were 2 meters long. They were connected to an ABX switch box allowing blind fold testing. Volume levels were set at 75 Db at 1000K Hz. A high quality recording of smooth, trio, easy listening jazz was played (Piano, drums, bass). None of us had heard this group or CD before, therefore eliminating biases. The music was played. Of the 5 blind folded, only 2 guessed correctly which was the monster cable. (I was not one of them). This was done 7 times in a row! Keeping us blind folded, my brother switched out the Belden wire (are you ready for this) with simple coat hanger wire! Unknown to me and our 12 audiophile buddies, prior to the ABX blind test, he took apart four coat hangers, reconnected them and twisted them into a pair of speaker cables. Connections were soldered. He stashed them in a closet within the testing room so we were not privy to what he was up to. This made for a pair of 2 meter cables, the exact length of the other wires. The test was conducted. After 5 tests, none could determine which was the Monster 1000 cable or the coat hanger wire. Further, when music was played through the coat hanger wire, we were asked if what we heard sounded good to us. All agreed that what was heard sounded excellent, however, when A-B tests occurred, it was impossible to determine which sounded best the majority of the time and which wire was in use. Needless to say, after the blind folds came off and we saw what my brother did, we learned he was right…most of what manufactures have to say about their products is pure hype. It seems the more they charge, the more hyped it is.

But some alert audophiles make a good point in this blog’s comments sections: if you are using cheap speakers and a cheap amplifier, high-quality speaker wire will have little effect. The audio snob mantra goes, “the sound quality of your system will never be stronger than its weakest link.”

If you join the monster-cables-are-a-rip-off crowd but aren’t ready to start bending your coathangers, try building your own component cables. Directions are here or just watch the guys at Systm tackle the project: