Sunday, 27 December 2009

NASA TV is Boring

David Ferrell has written an article for the LA Times criticizing NASA TV for being too boring. It's an interesting criticism and one that I have often thought about making in this blog. Although I've previously gushed about how NASA TV can be reality TV at its best, it's true that it can also be as watchable as a monochrome test pattern.

There are several problems.

  • People are used to high-voltage reality TV with pacey action. Extended shots of mission controllers monitoring their stations doesn't cut it.
  • The reality of space exploration isn't like science fiction. It does involves lots of nothing.
  • NASA TV's annual budget of around $1.5 million just isn't enough to create compelling TV 24/7.

There's inevitably some debate over whether the solution is to lift the excitement factor or to encourage viewers to appreciate space exploration for what it really is. I think a compromise is required. I'd hate to see NASA TV become a clone of mainstream programming but I'm also a pragmatist. The only time I can convince anyone to watch NASA TV is when there's a launch or EVA (spacewalk). Even then I have to provide my own commentary to counter the terminally dull science-speak interspersed with looong segments of silence.

I often daydream about what I'd do with NASA TV if I was in charge. Given a budget I'd start by sorting out a lot of simple technical issues, for example, making sure that Q&A sessions included audio of both the question and the answer(!). There are plenty of improvements that could be made easily but I'm sure the whole situation is more difficult than it seems. I don't envy them having to work with such high expectations and such a limited budget.

For now another option is to look at various re-broadcasts. Like most NASA media, NASA TV is copyright-free and able to be re-packaged by other content providers. SpaceflightNow.com has a channel on Youtube and a live stream on LiveStream.com. I encourage users to check these out and Google for other channels. I also encourage content providers to look seriously at using NASA material for programming. It's cheap to acquire and with a little work it can satisfy the huge demand for exciting live TV.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Moon Hoax Theory put to rest?

One of our national news websites today rather optimistcally reported:

NASA has put to bed conspiracy theories that humans never landed on the moon with the release of the first high resolution images of the lunar surface showing the lander and flags left by astronauts in the 1970s.

The images (below) are great and they are indeed solid evidence that the Moon landings happened. However this isn't new - various images have previously provided similar evidence, and of course NASA has a large body of other convincing evidence that can only be explained by real live Moon landings. The sad fact is that none of this will ever put the hoax theory "to bed". People who promote the theory are too heavily invested in it, and followers suffer from True Believer Syndrome which prevents them from ever accepting any proof.

By tomorrow hoax believers will be claiming the latest photos are all part of the conspiracy.

Eventually humans will land back on the Moon, and eventually the original landing sites will be revisted and preserved as historical sites. Hoax believers will continue to say it's all a cover-up.

This is an argument that will never end.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Rocket Lab NZ

Congratulations to Rocket Lab for launching New Zealand's first locally-designed space rocket. I hope it's the start of great things.

My single criticism would be to pay more attention to your Twitter feed. It's not a good look to promise live updates and then leave all your subscribers wondering what happened.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Horava Theory

Those of you with any interest in astrophysics will be acquainted with the quantum mechanics/general relativity problem. It basically means that Einstein's theories and quantum mechanics don't fit with each other. In other words, while both sets of theories seem to make sense on their own, when you put them together there's a problem. This is sometimes referred to as the search for the "Theory of Everything", i.e. the theory that ties all the other theories together. Personally I hate the term "Theory of Everything" but that's another story.

Petr Hořava, a physicist at the University of California, thinks he may have the answer. Of course so do lots of physicists and even more armchair scientists, but sadly few of their theories have any merit. That's why the scientific community is wary of radical new theories. It's also why I took a bit more notice of Hořava - he announced his theory back in January (2009) and instead of being steadily debunked like most of them, his theory seems to be gaining traction. That's rare.

In essence he's proposing that at very high energies, time and space become separate instead of being part of the same fabric (as stated by Einstein). The details can be found at scientificamerican.com.

But perhaps my favourite part of the theory is that is offers alternate explanations for dark energy and dark matter. I've never liked them and I feel they stink of the fudge-factor. I know that actual scientists (as opposed to the amateur armchair variety such as myself) feel quite comfortable with dark energy and matter, but I want to go on record now as predicting their demise. In my opinion some other explanation will emerge that removes any need for these fudges. Maybe it will be Hořava's, maybe not, but whatever it is I look forward to it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Galileo's Finger

I'm afraid this is something that I wouldn't want in my collection despite its value and historical significance. Two fingers and a tooth that were removed from Galileo's body nearly 300 years ago and went missing about 100 years ago have recently resurfaced. They were purchased at auction by an astute buyer who recognized them and brought them to the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

Removing body parts from saints and other revered people was common practice in Europe hundreds of years ago. These items were thought to have special significance and sacred power. It's ironic that Galileo should be treated this way, given his history with the Catholic Church who declared him a heretic and sentenced him to life-long house arrest.

In this day and age I think it's time to put an end to displaying body parts like this. Although I'm a rationalist I find it unsettling and somewhat disrespectful. I like to think that Galileo is giving us one last gesture telling us what he thinks of it too...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Meteor Over Utah

Some great footage of a meteor lighting up the night sky over western states of the USA: www.fox13now.com/...meteor

Monday, 14 September 2009

Tinkle Tinkle Little Star

Stargazers in the USA have been wondering about a mysterious sparkling light seen overhead last Wednesday. A number of people who follow the Space Shuttle correctly surmised that it was something being dumped overboard.

The messy truth is that it was an unusually large urine dump - about 68kg. Since the installation of the Kibo module on the ISS, the Space Shuttle hasn't been able to dump liquid waste while docked. This means that 10 days worth of waste has to be stored and dumped at once after undocking.

According to astronauts, space ablution is one of the most commonly-requested topics of discussion. I have a display in my own collection entitled "How do you go to the toilet in space?" and it gets more comments than anything else. A friend of mine, upon learning that shooting stars are sometimes human waste, said "You've ruined the romance".

So this one's for you Colin. Just in case your imagination isn't enough, a photo courtesy of spaceweather.com to seal the deal. The lower streak is the Space Shuttle, the comet-like object is 68kg of romance-killing pee.

Urine Dump

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

NASA Budget ≠ NASA Ambitions

It's the worst-kept secret in space: NASA doesn't have enough money to do what it's doing. A much-anticipated report from the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, given to the White House today, begins ominously:

"The US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. [NASA] is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources."

Where this all ends up is anyone's guess. NASA has already spent nearly $8 billion (of a planned $40 billion) to return to the Moon. The Constellation project seems to be going reasonably well despite strong criticism, but where exactly is it going?

I'm finding my hopes are resting more and more in private space enterprise, where decision-makers are personally accountable and the goalposts aren't shifted every time there's a new administration.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Would you book a one-way ticket to Mars?

As the practical and financial problems associated with NASA's proposed manned Mars mission become ever clearer, one scientist has made an interesting suggestion: Remove the return trip. According to Lawrence M. Krauss of Arizona State University, plenty of astronauts would be willing to live out their remaining years doing work on the red planet.

I concur - I don't think there would be any problem finding volunteers. If it wasn't for the fact that I have a family on Earth who is less enthusiastic about the idea than I am, I'd be a starter myself. What a way to go down in history!

Krauss points out some historical precedents, saying "Colonists and pilgrims seldom set off for the New World with the expectation of a return trip, usually because the places they were leaving were pretty intolerable anyway. Give us a century or two and we may turn the whole planet into a place from which many people might be happy to depart."

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Planetary Collision Detected

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has uncovered evidence of two planets (or similar-sized celestial bodies) colliding in the recent past, i.e. within the last few thousand years. Spitzer sees infrared light and so was able to detect the signatures of molten rock and debris from the collision. The two planets appear to be smaller than Earth, about the size of our moon and Mercury. I'm a big fan of CGI animations showing physically accurate mayhem in space so I quite like this video that depicts the collision. The animation is somewhat slower than real-time but probably not a great deal - it's pretty close to how you'd see it from a spaceship. Notice how the outer layer of the larger planet is blasted away and the smaller body merges with the larger one, creating a new hot planet.

It's thought that at least two similar collisions happened in the early days of our solar system. One collision stripped Mercury of its mantle, and another collision created a ring of debris around the Earth which eventually became our Moon.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Send a Message to ET

From today until August 24th 2009, you can send a message (up to 160 characters) to the nearest known Earth-like planet outside our own solar system. Gliese 581 d is a potentially habitable planet in the "goldilocks zone" (not too hot, not too cold) about 20 light years from Earth. Naturally this means that any reply will be at least 40 years away but that's a very short time compared to most interstellar conversations. To participate visit www.hellofromearth.net.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Space Underpants

The list of commercial spin-offs from spaceflight is set to include a new development in advanced underpants. As reported by various media over the past few months, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata has been trying out new space-undies that kill bacteria, eliminate odour, absorb water, insulate the body and dry quickly. Like any good action undergarment they are anti-static and flame-resistant, but now you can enjoy these safety benefits for a full week without the inconvenience of changing underwear. Best of all they won't freak out your girlfriend - according to the pics they're stylish enough for the most sophisticated space cadet.

It's interesting which space news items get picked up by mainstream media. Missions come and go with barely a mention, but if you invent some futuristic underpants you'll make the front page. Although I find this a little frustrating at times, I don't mind too much because it does generate interest and provides some much-needed lightheartedness in space-related news. And I suppose the ever-worrying issue of smelly undies is something the public can relate to.

Anyway I'm still wondering... assuming these things do make it to shop shelves, who exactly will be the target market?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mothership Eve

Lots of mainstream news websites are covering the public unveiling of Virgin Galactic's new WhiteKnightTwo mothership, known as "Eve". I've chosen to feature this video by ITN News because you can play a game as you watch: "Spot three errors in 90 seconds". I'll post my answers (yours may vary) in the comments tomorrow.

Monday, 27 July 2009

New Space Video Section

Here's the latest development in my quest to find the best way to present space videos - I'm trying out a hybrid system of embedded Youtube clips and my own uploaded videos. You can find it at the Space Museum Media Library.

A good video to catch is the latest Constellation Quarterly Report (July 2009). Amongst other things, this video talks about the new Ares Launch Abort System (emergency escape in the event of an aborted launch). The first test is scheduled for late October - it should be very interesting in light of a report by Patrick Air Force Base, which concluded that the Launch Abort System has a 100% chance of killing the entire crew.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Jupiter Impact

A week ago Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley took some photos of an impact event on Jupiter. Apparently a comet or asteroid has struck the planet. The team at Hubble decided the event was significant enough to interrupt the telescope's checkout and calibration (following the recent refurbishment) and get some snaps themselves.

Observing this sort of event is relatively rare. The last one was Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Happy Birthday Apollo

Not much to say really, just marking the exact anniversary. I'm watching NASA TV at the moment, enjoying the EVA (spacewalk). Later they're going to replay the mission control audio from that great day in 1969 - if you read this today you might like to tune in.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Photos of Apollo Landing Sites

After yesterday's bombshell admission about the wiped video tapes, NASA could use a come-back against the conspiracy theorists. Hi-res photos of the Apollo landing sites should help so it's very timely that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter delivers. See the photos here.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Restored Apollo 11 Footage

It seems there was one small incorrect detail in my last blog entry. Reports that the original Apollo slow-scan video tapes have been found and restored turn out to be wrong. Instead, the restored footage is the same broadcast material we've already seen. The results are nice enough and previews can be found in HD at nasa.gov.

Here's the kicker though: The original slow-scan master tapes were apparently deliberately erased by NASA to save money. I'm not joking. The best record of one of the defining moments of our species was purposely destroyed by the very organisation that made it happen. I'm still reeling from this news. It's a disgrace that beggars belief.

Human history includes numerous instances of historical records and monuments being deliberately destroyed. Most of these instances have rightly been accompanied by public condemnation. Where is the outcry over this NASA debacle? Who is being held to account? Why did I see this story in the New Zealand media while cnn.com, nasa.gov and other American sources conveniently bury or gloss over it?

The conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one (happy birthday Richard Hoagland). Can you blame them? The decision to erase the tapes is so inexplicable that it's very tempting to wonder if there really was some ulterior motive.

Oh well, I guess I'll try my best to enjoy the new footage. Hard to see it as anything other than a bitter disappointment though.

Monday, 13 July 2009

NASA Finds Lost Apollo Footage

For almost 40 years space enthusiasts have wondered how NASA managed to misplace the original video tapes of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The footage we've all seen is a lower-quality copy made for television broadcast, while the higher-quality tapes were stored.... somewhere.

NASA and its subcontractors have maintained that the tapes were never "lost", they were just stored safely. No-one remembered exactly where, but they were sure the tapes were safe. Of course the public didn't buy this and neither did the conspiracy theorists who argued that the lost tapes were evidence backing the moon hoax theory.

Eventually NASA gave this issue the attention it deserved and set out to find the tapes. Now, at long last, it's official: The tapes have been found and partially restored. At a media briefing on July 16th 2009 NASA will release the new footage. I hope the long years in a vault haven't degraded the tapes too much - I'll post again when I've seen the results.