Archive for September 2006

New Horizons News

September 30, 2006

It’s not a secret that until recently, I was working with the New Horizons team at the JHU Applied Physics Lab. on the mission to Pluto. It was a great experience. And on top of the news from the International Planetary Society that New Horizons may not be going to a planet after all, it’s been much in the news of late.

In Feb. 2007, just a little more than one year after its launch, New Horizons will be flying past Jupiter. Not only will the flyby enable the team to fully shake-down the on-board instruments and practice for the Pluto encounter in July of 2015, scientist will use the Jupiter pass to get back a good portion of the data that they could not get from the Galileo mission, which was hampered by a main antenna that was not fully deployed.

And just a little side note: the fact Galileo’s unfolding main antenna did not fully deploy drove one of the earliest design decisions of the New Horizons spacecraft. It’s antenna is solid, and in fact, is not steerable. New Horizons must orient itself to point to the earth. When necessary, like when it’s oriented to point cameras at Pluto, the observations will be recorded and sent to earth through the main antenna later.

New Horizons had its first scare about two weeks ago. After a calibration exercise, the spacecraft was ordered to rotate itself, slew, to point in a specific direction. The motion of the craft, however, caused the Lorri camera to be pointed at the sun for a faction of a second while its door was opened. Well, that’s potentially catastrophic to high-powered cameras like that – that’s how pixels get burned out, permanently. Fortunately, after two weeks of subsequent testing, its been proven that no damage was done (a combination of high slew-rate and good luck that only a very tiny bit of the sun’s disk was within the camera’s view for a very short period of time). There was no detectable damage to the sensors, and even the no-light background rate was unaffected. Yes, there was a big sigh of relief heard coming from APL, and I can guarantee that that particular error won’t happen again.

Anyway, I point your attention to Alan Stern’s (he’s the principle investigator) column P.I. Perspective and Valerie Mallder’s bumper sticker. But that’s only because I’m name-dropping. I worked all last year with Val on the mission test team, and yes, she’s one of the many reasons I had such a great experience there.

The Long Struggle

September 25, 2006

No, not what President Bush talked about – the long struggle against terrorism. Some struggles go on longer than the mere wars between nations, and some longer than nations themselves. My instinct tells me that Pope Benedict XVI knows this, and Ed Morrissey agrees.

[T]hose outraged Muslim leaders should perhaps stop worrying about 600-year-old dialogues and tend to their own failings. Pope Benedict has remained steadfast on this point, and he should press the point by talking about the oppression of Christians in these countries more openly.

Somewhere, many years ago, I heard a quote that went something like “Freud said that sex drove the direction of mankind, Marx said it was economics that served as the engine of men’s actions. Nitchze said that it was religion. Of the three, Nitchze was the most correct.” We live in an era that seems destined to prove the point.

Still Buying Into the Myths?

September 23, 2006

I’m convinced that the single most evangelical religious group around belong to the ecology movement. One of their central tenants has just been exploded. Again.

A Step Closer to 2001

September 23, 2006

We could see a hotel in space by 2010.

What makes Bigelow credible is the involvement of Lockheed Martin. The launch and successful deployment of the Genesis-1 module in July adds to the projects credibility.

Why is this important? Kubrick’s 1968 vision of 2001 is, in some respects surprisingly accurate, in some respects understandably incorrect (I’m thinking about the physical size of HAL-9000) and is some respects dead wrong. He clearly missed the 25 year long stall that NASA manned flight embodies. But mankind will not move in a big way into space until private enterprise gets involved. That’s starting now.

Colin Powell for President?

September 23, 2006

No, he’s not running, and I suspect that he never will. There was a time when I would have voted enthusiastically for the man, but the former head of the State Department is in the news for the second time in two weeks. And it didn’t take too much reading between the lines to get me to raise an eyebrow.

Here’s the run down. Richard Armitage was revealed to be at the center of the so-called Plame scandal, and Colin Powell was his boss in the State Dept. at the time. The only important question left about the scandal is why Powell kept quiet about it for so long, because he certainly knew about the leak (and where it came from), and the unresolved story only hurt the administration.

Now, this week, the lead story of many media outlets was about Pakistani President Musharraf’s statement that he was told by officials in the State Dept. the US would bomb his country back into the stonage if his country did not help (after 9/11/01).

This stuff is known as “closely held information”, and Musharraf would not have said it unless he was given the ok by the administration. According to A.J. Astrata:

Richard Armitage and Colin Powell are reaping some just desserts from their three year silence on the Plame affair. It seems Pakistani President Musharraf was given the green light to express some closely held information he had on the strong arm threats by the State Department after 9-11. Contrary to popular opinion, it seems it was the State Department under Powell and Armitage that was rattling the sabers and threatening countries with annihilation – if the story Musharraf is now expressing is true. Were Powell and Armitage running amok at State?

The Anchoress asks some interesting questions.

How come no one ever asks Colin Powell about any of this? Shouldn’t we? Given these issues, shouldn’t there maybe even be an investigation into how State was run during his tenure?

As Instapundit would say, read the entire thing.

Five Years On

September 10, 2006

Today in church, we sang a song at the end of mass in memory of what happened five years ago tomorrow, on a bright, sunny day in September. I saw two men (besides myself) wipe tears from their eyes. We still grieve for those we lost and for the pain and anguish of the survivors, and for tremendous waste caused by hatred.

Today there are scars left from the event, but almost all are on our souls. You can barely tell that anything at all happened at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and every day we leave bigger scars on the land then we see in Pennsylvania, and we leave them intentionally, and only for a time, so that our work may progress more efficiently. There is still a hole at the site in New York City where there World Trade Centers once stood, but that’s only because we bicker with ourselves about how best to fill it. Lately, we know that those holes could have been filled with even larger skyscrapers five times over, if we so wanted (the Empire State Building was build in just over one year March 1930 to May 1931, using the technology of the 1920s, after all).

Do you understand how little effect, then, the events of September 11, 2001 had? There are holes. We bicker, not so much about the need to defeat terrorist, but about where to fight them. We argue about timetables and personnel, not about the goals and certainly not about the desired outcome. The economy noticed the loss of $40,000,000,000 in assets, but only the way a body notices a sneeze. The wind (compounded with human incompetence and corruption) caused far more damage.

Yet today, when I saw those men remembering their pain, I realized how different the results could have been. We, America, could have vaporized the cities of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and any other ‘nation’ in the world that did not instantly support us. Hell – we could have vaporized the very mountains in which the evil hid. We can build enough 20 megaton bombs to do that. If we had ever wanted to just take the resources of a country, we could land a cruise missle under the bed of anyone who opposed, and take his silverware in the morning.

We could, if we didn’t care. We could, if we did not believe, however imperfectly, in a Christian tradition.
America did not destroy Afghanistan, but freed it from the oppression of the Mullahs. We did not vaporize Baghdad, but fight the brutality of the terrorist thugs. America does that not because it is small and weak, but because it is great.

That is what we remember.

I Seen the Future, ‘n It Is Us!

September 9, 2006

I thought I knew what the future of astronomy would be like. I thought that it would be possible to build a business around the idea of selling virtual telescope time. The idea was to set up enough moderately large telescopes to guarantee that at least some would have clear weather, and provide internet access to the sights. For free, you get to watch. For a fee, you get to steer for a time.

Forget it – as a business model, it won’t work.

And there are several reasons, one of which is the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which already provides access for free to observations from several major observatories (just not in ‘real time’). Another is that it’s just too damn much fun to look through your own telescope, no matter how small, to see something you found yourself.

Now I’ve been shown how wrong my initial concept (simply providing internet access to observations) truly was. Rather than networking the people, network their telescopes. This way you get to have fun and do real science too. Imagine an army of 100, 1000 or 10,000 telescope, none more expensive than most amatuers already afford, working in parallel (or in sequence, if that’s what it takes) to make the kind of observations that are even beyond the reach of the Keck 10m scopes, or the Hubble (which cost the US taxpayer in excess or $2,000,000,000 USD, btw).

Ok, so there are some observations that can only be made, or confirmed, by the Keck or the Hubble, or at Cerro Tololo. There’s a whole class of observations, like hunting for planets (much to my surprise), that succumb quite easily to an army of small telescopes (to steal a phrase).