Browse Category


Is light pollution harming the space program?

I know, a pretty ridiculous claim. Perhaps.

But I as I sit here in Central Hong Kong, looking up at the night sky (on those days when you can actually see through the air pollution in Hong Kong) isn’t quite the same experience I had as a boy growing up in rural Illinois.  Now that my own children are starting to take an interest in outer space, the wonders of looking up at the night sky and point out objects is something lost for them due to the abundance of light radiating upwards from Hong Kong Island.  The incredibly cool iPhone app “SkyView – Explore the Universe” which is an augmented reality astronomy program, doesn’t quite work that well when I have to point out “you see the blinking light on the Bank of China? Behind that is Venus”.

What happens when the power goes out.


Follow this line to outer space.

A classic scene from the must see movie October Sky comes at the beginning when the townspeople of tiny Coalwood, West Virginia step outside on the night Sputnik is flying by, looking up on the dark sky until they can see the fast moving speck of light heading across the night sky.  With this observation (and hundreds if not thousands of others around the country) the space program was launched.  I myself remember seeing the moon during the days of the Apollo program and saying to myself “Mission Control is in the moon”, my five-year-old self not knowing any better (and my older self much more disappointed to discover we did not already occupy the Moon).  Does a child who has never seen the moon wonder similar thoughts?  I wonder if the lack of seeing the stars will keep my sons from dreaming of visiting them one day.  I wonder if the lack of stars present to most Americans as we see the new urbanization and suburbanization off the farms has started to diminish our support for sending people up into space.  How do you drum up support to send probes or people to someplace most people cannot even see?

Beyond the technical implications of sending rockets into space, the other importance of a clear night sky is that there is something about the unpolluted night sky that actually helps ground a person a bit better.  While I’ve spoken of looking up and dreaming of the stars and places yet unseen, there is also a sort of a epiphany others reach when seeing the vastness of the universe.  That is that you, as an individual, really are not that important. Your life, your entire being, in a universe made up of billions and billions of stars and planets, well, quite frankly, is a bit unimpressive.  This also means, however, that the problems and troubles that you face are also equally unimportant.   Trouble at work, disagreements with friends, etc. — it’s of little importance overall, really.  While the initial shock of your worthlessness might be rough to take, the resulting freedom from worrying about the other stuff is actually pretty liberating.

Those who have never really seen the stars have never really come to this realization.  Some are actually frightened when they do see the sky for the first time.  It’s a oft-quoted remark that during the Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles a decade ago a number of 911 emergency calls were made regarding “strange clouds of light up in the sky”. People were seeing the Milky Way for the first time and actually a bit concerned.   That the ordinary person is now shocked to find out we live in a vast universe is distressing.  I’ve yet to hear anyone on reality TV shows speak the wisdom of one who has seen the other spiral arm of the Milky Way.

Astronauts too have spoke of similar realizations when seeing the stars and the heavens.  Here is a great interview from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his return from the moon and many other Apollo astronauts have reached similar realizations.

We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.

— Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

— Neil Armstrong

If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.

— Alan Shepard

But for now, without the stars to gaze upon I’ll just have to make due with an iPhone app and a few glow in the dark stick on stars.  I’ve heard that on some of the outer islands of Hong Kong you can get a pretty decent view of the stars if you get far enough away from the people. I gather the MTR doesn’t stop at those places though.





Virgin Galactic buzzing San Francisco

Ok, so this was last week. I’ve been busy and just didn’t get time to upload it. But the Virgin Galactic website released some really cool pics of their recent fly-by of San Francisco (and the opening of their new terminal at SFO–no more International Terminal squatting).

So here are a few pics from this event. Wish I could have seen this.

Relearning some old skills for NASA space capsule recovery

I was watching Apollo 13 the other day and the emotional peak is basically over when the nitty-gritty business of actually getting the astronauts out of the capsule begins. In the launches we saw as kids, the space capsule would come back to earth to a splashdown in the ocean, met rather quickly by a fleet of helicopters and rescue swimmers diving into the water to secure the space craft and crew.

But with decades of Space Shuttle landings under NASA’s belt, the practice of actually recovering a crew from the ocean has become a lost art. So the Air Force and NASA conducted some tests of recovery skills for the (now cancelled) Orion missions. Guess they’ll have to just take some good notes and figure out how to do it all over again whenever we decide to have a real space program again.

Here is an older video of how it was done:

Skinning my iPad 2

While the iPad 2’s new cover is really quite a sexy thing, magnets and all, it does leave you feeling a bit naked on the back of your iPad as it offers no protection to the metal back. To rectify this, I’ve just ordered a new ‘skin’ for my iPad 2 back from the Canadian company called Gelaskins. Gelaskins is a company making covers for iPhones, Androids, laptops, just about any electronic device.

The only problem was what to put on the Gelaskin. I’ve already got the kids pictures as the wallpaper, and honestly I’m not really comfortable blasting their photo out to every person who happens to see the back of my iPad while I’m carrying it on the subway. So I started to look for some cool pictures from around the net.

First choice, and one I almost went with, was a photo of the Space Shuttle and an F-15 on combat air patrol. This one was pretty interesting because the exhaust plume of the Space Shuttle shot directly into the camera lens on the back of the iPad.

Then I thought to look at some other NASA stuff from my youth. I found a neat photo of a Saturn V being moved out to the launch pad from the VAB. It fit the iPad pretty well and offered quite a few colors.

But in the end I decided to go old school. This NASA photo graced my father’s office for many years and the stark black / white colors would just sort of fit with the grey and black iPad. In the end I picked this one which is wining it’s way over from the Great White North to Hong Kong sometime this week.

Attaching the Space Shuttle to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

As the Discovery rockets toward space today (on it’s final orbital mission before heading off to a museum) I was doing a bit of research on the space shuttle online. Came across some information on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the big 747 you’ve seen on everything from CNN to James Bond’s Moonraker. But if you look very very closely at the connecting point, you’ll find some instructions for the guys who attach the Shuttle to the 747.

Spy satellite NROL-32 logo and purpose

The US launched NROL-32the largest satellite” in the world the other day but won’t tell you what it is going to be used for. However, if you are curious, you can find the logo / patch online.

In case you are wondering, Annuit Coeptis (I can’t type the exact characters) is roughly translated as “Providence favors our undertakings” or “Providence has favored our undertakings.” Just to give a little Masonic twist onto the NRO’s satellite mission (yes, these are the same words that are over the pyramid on the US dollar bill).

So what does NROL-32 do? Probably electronic eavesdropping. The size is mammoth, rivaling the ISS Space Station so amateur satellite trackers will likely be able to see it:

“I believe the payload is the fifth in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion, which gather signals intelligence from inclined geosynchronous orbits. They are among the largest satellites ever deployed,” said Ted Molczan, a respected sky-watcher who keeps tabs on orbiting spacecraft.

Destined for geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the planet, this new spacecraft supposedly will unfurl an extremely lightweight but gigantically huge umbrella-like antenna to overhear enemy communications and aid U.S. intelligence.

Keep watching the Skies!

Combat Air Patrol at a Space Shuttle Launch

From the US Air Force photo archives.

4th FW Strike Eagles assist shuttle launch

Lt. Col. Gabriel Green and Capt. Zachary Bartoe patrol the airspace in an F-15E Strike Eagle as the Space Shuttle Atlantis launches May 14, 2010, at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Colonel Green is the 333rd Fighter Squadron commander and Captain Bartoe is a 333rd FS weapons system officer. Both aircrew members are assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

A visual sonic boom – Atlas V launch

An Atlas V rocket passes through a layer of ice crystals just as it goes supersonic, with the sonic boom creating an amazing visual that could be seen from the ground.

At minute 1:50 or so…

How satellites are being retasked to help the Haiti rescue mission.


Red areas are the worst hit, and where the aid is going first.


I’ve taken a bit of a break from digital media blogging this week.  The jetlag from Vegas/CES and the fact the Haiti story is just so much more important than new TVs has led to me blogging about that disaster instead.

One of the interesting things I’ve been reading about is the actual process by which satellites are being pulled into service (retasked) to assist in the rescue effort.  The BBC’s Space Reporter has an excellent piece about the efforts underway by the EU and other nations who are pulling in space resources to assist in the disaster.

Many space agencies have signed up to something called the International Charter [on] Space and Major Disasters.

It was initiated back in 2000 by Esa, and the French (Cnes) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies; but then quickly acquired other signatories including important US bodies like Noaa and the US Geological Survey.

The UK, too, is involved. It has a very particular contribution to make through the Guildford-based Disaster Monitoring Constellation company, which manages a six-strong fleet of optical and near-infrared imaging satellites that can – as a team – picture the entire Earth’s surface in one day.

When the Charter is activated, the signatories re-task their satellites to get the data most urgently needed in a devastated region.

The Charter was activated this week – of course it was.


Be sure to take a look at all the pictures that have been not only generated, but also modified to show specific damage in neighborhoods, etc.  

Geoeye, which works with Google, has also done some interesting ‘before and after’ type photos, matching up specific coordinates so people can see what things looked like before the earthquake and after.  By far the best use of this data is in today’s New York Times, which utilizes Flash to allow the user a house-by-house comparison of the two photos.

MSNBC’s Cosmic blogger is also doing an interesting piece on satellites being retasked.  His story remarks about the worldwide collaboration that is going on:

GeoEye is by no means the only satellite operator on the case. A whole fleet of eyes in the sky are focusing on Haiti: DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 andQuickBird. France’s Spot-5, Japan’s ALOS, the European Space Agency’s ERS-2 and Envisat, and Canada’s RadarSat-2.

The MSNBC piece also talks about some of the volunteer efforts underway to establish communications systems in Haiti.  One such agency is TSF–Telecom San Frontiers  who deployed a recovery team to Haiti already.

Looking over the devastation I’m reminded of my own seawall.  It’s 100 feet long and surrounded by large boulders.  Every year I say I’m going to pull back the boulders closer to the seawall (the curl of the wave pulls them toward the sea) and every year I end up not doing it.  It’s just too massive of an effort to accomplish on my own.

And now I look at what is going on in Haiti.  This is going to be more massive than we can even comprehend at this point.  The fleet that we have sent is nowhere large enough, and the plane bridge will not be able to keep up with the demand.  This is going to get much much worse in the next weeks and months before it gets better.

Launch on Need Shuttle in position for STS-125

The Space Shuttle is going up today, but because it is heading to the Hubble Space Telescope and not toward the International Space Station, some special ‘rescue’ preparations are being made at the Cape.  The Endeavour has been readied and rolled out to launch pad 39b just in case the Atlantis, launching from 39a runs into difficulty.  Because the ISS and Hubble are on vastly different orbits, should a problem arise with Atlantis there is no docking at the Space Station.  Once this mission is completed, and no rescue needed, Endeavour will move to 39a for its mission in November and 39b will begin a rebuilding for the Constellation missions.

Neat pic of both shuttles.


Gene Kranz on the ‘Kranz Dictum’

Everyone talks the talk about accountability.  I’m looking today at some guy stepping down because Air Force One freaked out a bunch of New Yorkers.  But Gene Kranz is a guy who has walked the walk.  I was doing a bit of Googling tonight came across this quote following the disaster of Apollo 1.  Just a little something while I await the launch of TACSAT 3 over on the other side of the Bay.

genekranz1Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

Russia’s Georgia adventure threatens Space Station

Yea, a bit of a stretch, but due to an odd convergence of facts there is trouble with the International Space Station due to Russia’s recent foray into Georgia.

The US Space Shuttle is due to be retired in 2010, with manned flights to the space station being handed over to Russian Soyuz rockets. But the only way that can function is an exemption to the Iranian non-proliferation act (normally Russia would be guilty of violating that but the US grants an exemption for space operations). The current exemption expires in 2011 and chances of it being renewed are ‘dead on arrival’ according to senior aides on Capitol Hill. As our only way on board is the Russian ships until the Shuttle’s replacement is online, we’re looking at a period of limited access to the station until this gets sorted out.

So Senator Bill Nelson is starting to ask some questions–what are we going to do next? Nelson was in Afghanistan last week when the fighting broke out and his flight home had to be re-routed after Russia denied diplomatic overflight rights to his aircraft.

White House briefed: Something more important than water found on Mars–NASA

Well this is an interesting development.

It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more “provocative” than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface…. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface, new data appears to indicate the “potential for life” more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge

So what could it be? More chemical elements, or maybe the fossilized remains of a Martian. God hope it isn’t as Transformers said and a giant man-killing robot.

Expect more though August and September as this comes to light. Apparently NASA is holding it close to the vest for awhile.

  • 1
  • 2