Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Druyan, Breitbart, and the Persistence of Climate Change Misinformation

Last night, while I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher, I was pleased to see his round table included Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and collaborator on several of his projects.  She and Sagan were responsible for the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft, carrying the sounds of the Earth beyond our Solar System.  She also co-wrote two books with Sagan -- Comet and Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors -- and contributed to parts of a third, The Demon-Haunted World.  Druyan worked with her husband on the monumental PBS series Cosmos, and these days she is president of the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The other participants in the round table discussion were Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, conservative radio host Amy Holmes, and the nearly-intolerable Andrew Breitbart.

As the conversation came around to climate change, Breitbart let loose with the now-debunked criticism of the scientists at the University of East Anglia, site of the so-called "Climategate" scandal.  Unfortunately, it seemed like Ann Druyan was not quite prepared to start barking at Breitbart to refute his claims, so the dogmatic right-winger got away mostly unscathed.  She is, of course, eminently capable of having the argument, but it's not so easy fighting an attack dog on national television... especially on a comedy show.  Perhaps she might have said something like this, had she ample breathing room to get it out of her mouth:

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Private Sector in Space

Check out this rundown of the burgeoning companies who want to get in on the private space industry, courtesy of NBC.  

President Obama's plan for the future of NASA has been controversial, to say the least.  Amazingly, his plan has received considerable attention in the media, and it seems like just about everyone -- informed and uninformed alike -- has weighed in.  I say 'amazingly' because by and the large the American public, or at least the powers that be, really haven't seemed to care much about our manned spaceflight since 1972, except when there has been a tragedy.  True, we like seeing our astronauts wave hello to the Colbert Nation, or wave hello to a classroom of school kids, or wave hello to Wolf Blitzer.  But the enthusiasm and can-do optimism that carried men to the Moon largely evaporated in the wake of the Moon race, and has never really come back. 

It may have been inevitable.  The public interest waned, Mars was considerably more difficult to reach, and maintaining expenditures at the level of the 1960s was impossible to justify.  There was really no need to keep pushing a manned project of that magnitude, anyway, now that we had beaten the Russians to the Moon.  But we knew the Soviets were working on space stations for the purpose of spying on the United States, so yet again our space ambitions were tempered, or driven, by our national security interests.  We put up Skylab with the leftover parts from the Apollo program, and Nixon authorized construction of the Space Shuttle.  And now, almost forty years later, we're still hanging out exclusively in Earth's orbital parking lot.  It's funny how time flies.

Manned spaceflight today, shuttling to and from low-Earth orbit, is not exactly routine.  But it is in the minds of most Americans.  Which is why I was somewhat puzzled by all the negative reactions to President Obama's plan.  (Curiously, the critics of the President's plan have not advocated a dramatic increase in NASA's budget, which might preclude the need for a shuffling of priorities).  

There are several facets to the plan, of course.  Part of it calls for more money to go to unmanned science missions... the kinds of missions that have shown us some of the most dazzling sights of our solar system, and revealed all kinds of wonders in the depths of interstellar and intergalactic space.  Part of it calls for building a spacecraft that can take us much deeper into space, to land astronauts on an asteroid (an unimaginable journey!), and then on to Mars.  But the part that has been most controversial is the plan to farm out these "routine" orbital missions to private companies.

The apprehension is understandable, but it's not necessarily warranted.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racing for the Supersonic Space Jump

Be sure to check out this fantastic piece from The Guardian which is, I think, the best profile I've read on the Red Bull Stratos project.  As we've discussed a few times before, the Stratos project aims to make skydiver Felix Baumgartner the first man to break the sound barrier as he falls from the edge of space, at a height of 120,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.  A jump of this type has not been successful since Joseph Kittinger made his historic and daring jump from 102,800 feet in 1960.  But Baumgartner, jumping from 17,200 feet higher, will be the first man to break the sound barrier in this way.

Or will he?  The Guardian tells us about another daredevil devoted to the task.  He is Michel Fournier, a 66 year old former paratrooper from France, and since the 1980s he's had his sights on breaking the sound barrier with a space jump of his own.  Unlike Baumgartner, there is no corporate sponsorship for Fournier, so he has invested millions of dollars on the project, all from private donations and his own pockets.  Several previous attempts have been thwarted by technical difficulties, but he plans to make another attempt in the next couple of months... around the same time that Baumgartner is expected to make his jump.

I don't know him personally of course, but Felix Baumgartner seems like a pretty awesome dude, with a cool name to boot.  I've followed this story for months, and I've been eagerly anticipating his jump.  Even so, I wouldn't mind seeing Fournier beat him to the punch.  It's sort of a David versus Goliath story... or Little Mac versus Mike Tyson, or Little Jerry versus Marcelino's bird, or Bill Paxton versus Cary Elwes (use whichever reference you like best).  Except, of course, that Baumgartner is not so much an enemy as simply a better-funded competitor.  And for his part, Fournier is gracious about Baumgartner's chances of beating him to the supersonic skydive: "I'll congratulate him. But you can bet that I'll do it second."

Let's just hope he can do it safely.  Fournier hasn't exactly been on a shoestring budget, but he does lack the team of experts, training facilities and spare-no-expense equipment of his competition.  The jump itself is extraordinarily hazardous, and no one knows for sure what will happen when a human being breaks the sound barrier with his body.  But if he succeeds, even in second place, Fournier's accomplishment will be equally astounding, perhaps more so.  And now we have two space jumps to anticipate!

New Record in Ornithopter Flight!

Well, here's something you don't see everyday.  Back in August, grad student Todd Reichert from The University of Toronto set a new record for the longest flight of an ornithopter powered by a human being.  The aircraft weighs just 94 pounds and has a 32 meter wingspan!

HPO The Snowbird from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

As its name suggests, the ornithopter is an aircraft that flaps its wings like a bird, and as you can see in the video, it needed a little help from a car towing it to get it going.  But once in the air, the flapping wings took over, and the craft flew for a record 19.3 seconds.

Something tells me we won't see commercial ornithopter flights anytime soon.  But it certainly is a graceful aircraft, don't you think?   And in seeing how difficult it is for us humans to achieve flight in this way -- you need extremely light-weight materials, an enormous wing to payload ratio, and a tow to get it aloft -- we can appreciate the exquisite gift of flight enjoyed by our cousins, the birds... a gift bestowed on them by evolution.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ARTEMIS goes to the Moon, Meets Lagrangian Points

I love Lagrangian points!

NASA has achieved another first for spaceflight... the first orbit around a Lagrangian point, or libration point. Unlike all other satellites, the ARTEMIS spacecraft is actually orbiting an area of empty space! These orbits aren't entirely stable, so they'll require a little maintenance.  Still, this is a cool thing.  Check out the unusual, kidney-like shape of the orbit.

Lagrangian points are a neat little trick of gravity.  There are five points in a two-body system (like the Sun-Earth system, or the Earth-Moon system) where you can place a third body of negligible mass and it can remain stationary relative to the other two.  The second Lagrangian point of the Sun-Earth system (not to be confused with the Earth-Moon system's L2, pictured above) is about 1.5 million kilometers away, and is the future home of the much anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2014.  And the fourth and fifth Lagrangian points on either side of Jupiter are home to a special class of asteroids known as Trojans.

Nice work, JPL.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Look Around You - Maths

If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed a decline in the number of posts recently.  Well, it's the start of the semester, so it's a very busy time at my real job.  But don't worry, I expect to be back to business as usual in a week or so.  In the meantime, please enjoy this splendid parody from Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz: