What happens in the Hall of Drunkenness, stays in the Hall of Drunkenness ... or does it?
Archaeologist Betsy Bryan and her team of students and researchers from Johns Hopkins University are back at the Temple of Mut, within Egypt's Luxor dig, to delve more deeply into the sex and booze of ancient times - and you can follow their exploits over the Web.
Jay VanRensselaer / JHU
|Egyptologist Betsy Bryan. left, talks
with a conservator among column
sections from the Temple of Mut's
Hall of Drunkenness.
Over the past six years, Bryan's online expeditions have documented 3,400-year-old rites at the temple that were conducted to appease the gods and give vent to some of the age-old animal impulses in the process. The highlights apparently involved getting drunk on barley beer, then "traveling through the marshes" (a euphemism for having sex), then passing out, then waking up the next morning for religious services.
Bryan was last at the temple site in January, and now she and her team have returned to continue their excavations of the Hall of Drunkenness, which served as party central for the annual festival during the reign of the pharaonic queen Hatshepsut. The dispatches from Luxor have just resumed, and the team is already hard at work conserving the hall's toppled columns.
This season's crew includes a stone mason, two artists who will train the three undergraduates who are participating, a conservator, volunteers and local workers. The artists and students are copying inscriptions found on the columns, and there are intriguing traces of wall paintings that are in the process of being cleaned up.
Will there be anything to equal last year's discovery of the monumental statue of Queen Tiy, who was King Tut's grandmother? Keep checking Johns Hopkins' Web site for the latest - and if you're hankering for more virtual excavations, click on over to Archaeology magazine's "Interactive Digs." Who knows? They just might whet your appetite to take on a real-life archaeological fieldwork opportunity.
Space activist Rick Tumlinson's latest venture aims to blend the thrills of spaceflight with the chills of skydiving, to come up with what he sees as the ultimate extreme sport: space diving. But as he revealed more details about his latest fiendish plan today, the conversation focused on the safety of it all as well as the thrill of it all.
Is it really possible to blend safety and danger, particularly when you're talking about a scheme that calls for jumping off a rocket ship with a parachute at an altitude of more than 120,000 feet? "The parachute is both a safety system and a sporting device," Tumlinson said. And besides, it'll make for a great TV stunt.
That's the strange brew of Hollywood hype and higher purpose behind Space Diving, a project that goes hand in hand with Tumlinson's other business venture, Orbital Outfitters. Tumlinson said that the space diving idea actually came to him first, but that he realized he'd have to create another venture to make the pressure suits for the dives.
Thus, Orbital Outfitters was born first, and the company is aiming to deliver its first prototype spacesuits to California-based XCOR Aerospace later this year.
As for Space Diving, Tumlinson freely admits that venture isn't quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, news about the venture has been leaking out over the past few months, and Tumlinson talked about it openly at the International Space Development Conference in Dallas last month.
Now the concept is featured in July's issue of Popular Science magazine, and Tumlinson is showing even more of his hand. Here are the some of the cards he's revealing:
One of Tumlinson's goals is to present a jump that would break the 102,800-foot skydiving record set by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger back in 1960. "We want to clearly break the current record, but that's the only record. ... After that, we're not worried about records any more," Tumlinson said.
"We're not doing this for personal grandeur, not doing it for glory so much as we are doing it to open space and carry on where Colonel Kittinger left off," he continued. "Kittinger did this in the name of saving lives, and that's what we're doing. Our goal is to touch our toe to the water at lower altitudes, and work our way higher and higher. The eventual goal is to bring people safely back from orbit."
From orbit? From, say, 220 miles up?
Eventually, Tumlinson foresees a day when private-sector space fliers can go "orbital surfing," or when astronauts can ride inflatable, aerodynamic pods back down to Earth in the event of an orbital emergency. That's where the safety angle comes to the fore.
"The team that we're putting together with Space Diving is as safety-conscious as you can get," Tumlinson said. "Jon Clark's wife died in the Columbia tragedy. This is a man who lives and breathes safety. This is not a fly-by-night operation by any means. ... We are going to leave a legacy of safety behind that is just going to be amazing."
If Tumlinson and his partners build such a system - or, for that matter, a space-diving platform that would shoot 120,000 feet up - would skydivers in search of the ultimate thrill take that ride? Mike Truffer, publisher of Skydiving magazine, is doubtful.
"There are significant technological and physiological challenges - not to be a wet blanket," Truffer told me today.
He pointed out that two accomplished parachutists, Michel ("Super-Jump") Fournier and Cheryl ("StratoQuest") Stearns, have been trying to break Kittinger's record for years. "It's not so much the technology to get that high, because we have done that with helium balloons pretty routinely," Truffer said, "But how does a person maintain control in that environment, and what type of equipment would he need to sustain his life?"
That's not to say the feat is impossible.
"It's doable, if you have several million dollars to make it happen. ... But I don't think that's within the grasp of the typical weekend jumper," said Truffer, who calculates that he has made 7,826 jumps to date.
Tumlinson said he's confident his team can put together the life support system, the launch system and the training system that can get the job done. Not just once, but over and over again. Will it be the ultimate leap, or the ultimate leap of faith? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Oklahoma-based TGV Rockets announced a milestone in its rocket development program today, saying that it "has successfully completed critical test firings of a technologically advanced throttleable rocket engine that the company believes will one day be able to facilitate the shuttling of equipment and sensor payloads on quick turnaround suborbital missions for the military and to help dramatically reduce the cost of geospatial imagery."
TGV's chief executive officer, Pat Bahn, said in a news release that the rocket tests, conducted over the past couple of months at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, bring the company closer to its goal of replacing a "multibillion-dollar imaging satellite with a $10 million-class rocket ship."
The testing reportedly focused on basic ignition and verification issues for a 30,000-pound throttleable long-life rocket engine using military jet fuel. "The tests demonstrated consistent ignition at power levels of less than 20 percent and stable combustion throughout the operating range," TGV said.
Further testing is under way, under the aegis of a larger space vehicle development program funded through the Naval Research Laboratory, TGV said.
Andre Kurs' credit cards still work. So do the gizmos that he carries around with him. And the last time he checked, his head hasn't exploded.
That answers some of the questions that have popped up in the wake of this week's revelations from Kurs and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about a new scheme for transferring electric power without wires. But there are plenty more questions yet to be answered: Is the method now known as "WiTricity" really, truly safe over the long term? Can it compete with other strategies to generate, transmit and store electrical power? How long until I never have to plug in my laptop again?
Right now, none of those questions is easy to answer. Kurs, a physicist at MIT, said the research group has patents pending on the technology and is just beginning to look into how it might be commercialized.
In one sense, the researchers are going where many scientists have gone before: Most famously, Nikola Tesla tried to set up a power-beaming tower a century ago, but was never able to get it up and running. One company, Splashpower, already offers a wireless recharging system, although you have to set your specially equipped gizmos right on a pad to fill them up with juice.
In another sense, the MIT technology - which depends on coupled magnetic resonators to send power more efficiently than can be done through inductance alone - pushes the envelope beyond what Tesla had in mind.
This week's reports indicated that the WiTricity transmission system had a power efficiency of about 40 percent over a distance of 7.5 feet. Kurs pointed out, however, that the efficiency rose past 50 percent if the distance was reduced to just below 7 feet - and that at closer distances, efficiencies of up to 70 percent were achieved. "That's competitive with rechargeable batteries," Kurs said.
The health issue will take a longer time to resolve. "Without a proper study, which includes effects of long-term exposures, it is inappropriate to make claims of safety for this," Frank Shellock, an expert on the issues surrounding magnetic resonance imaging, told me in an e-mail.
In response, Kurs told me that "the fields involved are much weaker than the fields that are involved in MRI." He pointed out that the emissions were well within IEEE's internationally accepted standards.
That's not to say that Kurs and his colleagues take the health questions lightly.
"We're not experts in physiology," Kurs said. "We agree that this is something that needs to be examined carefully. But even if it turns out that 1 mHz or 10 mHz is dangerous for infants, we can still tailor the system to work around that."
Over the past few days, Kurs has truly had to deal with questions about whether getting too close to the electromagnetic coils would make your head explode, or whether they could erase the data on a credit card's magnetic strip. He said his head and his credit cards were all safe, even though he was nearly touching the coils during the MIT experiments.
"There were no effects," Kurs told me. "Nothing funny happened, my hair didn't stand up. ... I had my credit cards. They were in my front pocket, which is a few inches away from the equipment."
For another perspective, I turned to Kelly Classic, media relations liaison for the Health Physics Society and a medical health physicist at the Mayo Clinic. Here's her e-mailed response:
"This idea is very interesting and fun. I know that I personally would like to have this available, especially for my laptop.
"I reviewed the materials and also sent them to one of our non-ionizing radiation specialists (his name is Ken Foster, but he preferred that conversations be between you and me) and here are some of our general thoughts (Ken also just wrote a paper on WiFi hazards, and his information sheet on this is on our Web site.)
"First, when we're talking about health effects, it boils down to how much of the energy is absorbed in our tissue and is it enough to cause damage (by heating or another mechanism). So, most times when we're talking about radiofrequency radiation (electric and magnetic fields), we talk in terms of a Specific Absorption or Specific Absorption Rate (SA or SAR). It's a bit like ionizing radiation when we say you can be exposed to X rays, but how much was absorbed? It is the amount that is absorbed that is of interest for biological effects.
"From what we know, It doesn't appear that human health effects would be an issue from the low-frequency field (10 MHz or 1 MHz) being discussed. These fields do not interact strongly with the human body and, according to their measurements, all of the fields (electric, magnetic, etc.) produced are below international safety limits for that type of field.
"They mention that in one of their experiments there was no interference with other devices (like a cell phone). This might need to be investigated a bit more, especially with respect to use in a medical setting. We'd want to know whether the field could cause an erratic response in some medical devices (i.e. pacemakers, EEG units). More recent reports about cell phones and Wi-Fi in medical settings indicate that they are not an issue in a medical setting, but this is a different frequency and it would be prudent to do some checking before its widespread use.
"The authors have a statement - 'The experimental setup radiates roughly 5 watts when transmitting 60 watts over a distance of more than seven feet ... this is equivalent to the power radiated by a few cell phones' - that is quite misleading, though we understand they are trying to relate this to a device with which we are familiar. But the application they are discussing, WiTricity, is a 'near-field' application, and talking about radiated power is meaningless in this context. These coils are not 'radiating' fields to the extent that someone standing at a larger distance is affected, and the number has no connection with the energy transfer. The comparison with cell phones is also misleading. The potential for biological effects is not even thought to be similar when comparing 10 MHz to the 850 or 1950 MHz of cell phones.
"There is also a misleading section when the authors talk about transferring 60 watts into the light bulb. It's really not clear how much energy was transmitted, but it was enough to power a 60-watt light bulb, and the energy transmitted to do that would not need to be much (essentially meaning that there isn't that much energy 'freely roaming' between the transmitter coil and the receiving coil, which is also reassuring from a health effects standpoint)."
When I ran these remarks past Kurs, he responded thusly by e-mail:
"Concerning the power radiated: Devices containing alternating currents generally radiate, and ours certainly does. As Ms. Classic points out, this radiation occurs in the far field and is not relevant to health issues of humans standing close to the device. We mentioned the power radiated not because of its relation to health, but because it is considered as power lost in our scheme, and due to concerns about pollution of the electromagnetic spectrum. Note also that the 5 watts cited can be considerably reduced, as we point out in the article.
"About the amount of power transferred, we properly calibrated our experiment to make sure that the light-bulb was indeed being fed 60 watts."
You'd think this week's news would be heartening to any gadget geek. But our own gadget guru, Gary Krakow, isn't impressed just yet. In addition to the health issue and the efficiency issue, Krakow brought up a bigger philosophical point - which I'm sure Chris Eldridge and some of our other Cosmic Log regulars would share. Here's some of what Krakow had to say:
"The future of electricity is that our homes – and cars (Prius, etc.) will generate electricity for our own, personal use. ...
"My weekend home is cooled/heated by a heat pump – now 20 years old. I pay something like 40 percent of what a normal 'all-electric' house pays for air conditioning and heat. Just kick that idea 'up a notch' – put a small windmill (etc.) in your neighborhood for 20 to 30 homes – and you no longer need high-tension power lines.
"Those high-tension lines produce huge magnetic fields. How about the MIT guys standing under those to light their bulbs? They can also see what those fields do to the grass beneath the wires. ..."
Spaceship-building used to be an exclusively government-funded game, but software billionaire Paul Allen changed all that when he put $25 million or so into the venture that ultimately won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight. Now a bevy of billionaires and millionaires are getting into the act, ranging from Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack and SpaceX's Elon Musk to Bigelow Aerospace's Robert Bigelow and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson.
But it's going to take more than lone tycoons to build the personal spaceflight industry, and many "NewSpace" firms have had to court individual angel investors who were willing to put their money where their outer-space dreams were. Now, however, there's a change in the air: Just today, California-based XCOR Aerospace announced that it's received its first money from a whole team of angel investors to support the development of a new suborbital spaceship. XCOR's new relationship with the Boston Harbor Angels hints at the next stage in the space tourism industry's ascent.
Two years ago, XCOR's Rich Pournelle told me that it was high time for the industry to make the transition from individual investors to institutional investors. But there's a chicken-and-egg problem: It takes tens of millions of dollars to build a spaceship ("No bucks, no Buck Rogers," as astronaut Gus Grissom famously said), but traditional investors aren't willing to put up all those millions until the spaceship is flying.
"Wall Street takes a cynical viewpoint, which is, 'Show me the bottom, show me what can go wrong, and the upside will take care of itself,'" Paul Schlosberg, chairman and chief executive officer of INCA Group LLC, explained during last month's Space Venture Finance Symposium in Dallas. "I want to be able to tangibly measure what's my risk, what's my return, what's my liquidity."
So how do you get from here to there? The investors (and investment-seekers) who attended the symposium highlighted the role of angel networks. Such networks, generally organized along geographical lines, can pool their members' resources into investment chunks that can exceed $1 million.
"Usually we will get deals ranging up to a million and a half, and usually three or four groups syndicate the deal," said Aleksandar Mollov, managing director for the Boston Harbor Angels.
Mollov said his group of 36 investors bought into XCOR's space effort after hearing presentations from Pournelle and one of the company's individual angels, Lee Valentine. "It was very revealing to us to understand that most of the parts of a spaceship [today] are thrown away after each flight. ... The prospect of having less expensive flights to space is what we're betting on," he said.
He said the group was also swayed by XCOR's development strategy, which focuses on going after government contracts that move the company closer to creating its own commercial space vehicle. XCOR has worked on methane-powered rocket technology for NASA, and was recently awarded an Air Force contract to design a rocket-powered supersonic vehicle that can reach altitudes of 200,000 feet.
"They have figured out a good way to fund the development of their company in a very capital-efficient manner ... picking the projects that will help with building their own aircraft," Mollov said.
The members of the Boston group make their own individual investments, but collaborate on fellow members' expertise in deciding who they'll back.
"We hope other angel groups and possibly institutional investors will follow the Boston Harbor Angels' example," XCOR's chief executive officer, Jeff Greason, said in a news release.
Like Musk and Bigelow, angel investors don't have to answer to analysts or stockholders about the return projected over the next year or two. But even Musk and Bigelow don't have unlimited forbearance. Neither do the lesser angels. "In general, we are looking for exit opportunities within five years, but we always understand that it can take more time," Mollov said. "The sooner the better, that is our hope."
That expectation squares with XCOR's hopes as well: "People who are looking for a return in two or three years aren't going to invest in this industry," Pournelle told me today. "But if we're successful as an industry, it's going to be by showing that kind of five-year business case."
Does that mean XCOR is aiming to fly passengers on its two-seater suborbital spaceship within five years? Some companies, such as SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, are committed to getting their orbital spaceships off the ground by 2010 in order to satisfy the requirements of NASA's $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, known as COTS. But Pournelle resisted any invitation to play the timeframe game.
"We continue to raise money," he said. "We're probably one of the few companies out there that hasn't announced a deadline."
But Pournelle doesn't believe suborbital space travel will be subsumed by the orbital space race. "Investors need to look at both orbital and suborbital transportation industries," he told me. "There are significant opportunities in both. The COTS program isn't the only game in town."
That goes right back to the payoff for private-sector spaceflight. During last month's symposium, Schlosberg observed that "you see your money taking off, [but] you don't know if there's a return flight." Will investors really be able to earn a return, through acquisition, a public offering or some other means? Or will all this activity end up being little more than a monetary-ejection mission? Let the debate begin anew.
It's nice to see some forward motion on the final frontier:
After an awkward infancy, the Hubble Space Telescope has turned into a teenage idol: At the age of 17, the 12-ton telescope has racked up a hit parade that would put even "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks to shame. So is there one picture that ranks as Hubble's biggest hit?
NASA / ESA / STScI / ASU
|CLICK IMAGE FOR SLIDE SHOWS
This 1995 photo shows the Pillars
of Creation in the Eagle Nebula.
To my mind, Hubble's "Pillars of Creation" is the highest highlight: Like 1968's "Earthrise" picture from Apollo 8, and 1990's "Pale Blue Dot" picture from Voyager 1, the space telescope's 1995 picture of the Eagle Nebula's starbirth regions reminds us how small and precious our own celestial neighborhood is. Seen on the scale of the Pillars, our entire solar system would be just one barely imaginable speck inside a fingerlet of dust.
So you'd think the iconic picture of the Pillars must be the most sought-after view from Hubble, right? At least that's what I assumed. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Here's the scoop on Hubble's hit parade, and an advance peek at the space telescope's coming attractions:
Over the years, we've put together a series of slide shows that recap the greatest hits from Hubble, as well as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and other views of the farthest frontiers. The Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite has its own gallery of greatest hits - and according to Hubble spokesman Ray Villard, there's a code to the way the pictures are arranged.
The leftmost picture in the gallery's top row represents the most recently released image from the Hubble team, Villard told me. The image in the same position of the third row is also a recent release, as is the leftmost image of the fifth row, and so on. If you exclude those images, the all-time most popular images line up from one row to the other.
Thus, the top number on the hit parade is actually a montage of greatest hits from Hubble's first eight years. If you had to pick one winner to take the People's Choice award, you'd go to the next picture on the list. And that brings you to what is arguably Hubble's single most popular astronomical subject: a supernova remnant known as SN1987A.
NASA / ESA / CfA
|A Hubble photo released in
February shows SN1987A as a colorful "triple ring."
The stellar explosion was first spotted in 1987, three years before Hubble's launch. Its evolution has been chronicled throughout Hubble's operating life - and in fact, the top-10 list includes an image released this year as well as a classic view from 1995. The 1995 view also appears in the eighth-anniversary montage. This video compilation of imagery from 1995 to 2003 shows how the supernova has been changing literally before our eyes.
You could certainly dispute SN1987A's status on the top of the Hubble heap: The European Space Agency's Hubble Web site, for example, doesn't include even one image of the supernova in its own Hall of Fame - and you'd be hard-pressed to find the supernova in its "Top 100" roundup.
But that's what picking your favorites is all about: arguing over why you made the choice you did, whether it's Jordin vs. Blake or SN1987A vs. the Pillars of Creation. Feel free to graze through all the Hubble highlights, then make the case for your favorite in the comments section below.
The hits are due to keep on coming in the months ahead - even though the telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys suffered a crippling blow early this year. Villard said Hubble's team is getting ready to release a monster montage of 50 galactic collisions, and new pictures of the asteroids Ceres and Vesta should be coming out in support of NASA's upcoming Dawn mission (now due for launch no earlier than July 7).
Mars is due to make a close approach to Earth this Dec. 18, and Villard said Hubble's astronomers are already gearing up for that encounter. "We'll definitely get a look at Mars," he told me.
Looking further ahead, NASA is training a shuttle crew to ride to Hubble's rescue in September 2008. Spacewalkers would install upgraded equipment that would boost the telescope's observing capability by at least a factor of 10. So when it comes to Hubble's hit parade, you could well argue that the best is yet to come.
To see more of the best, not only from Hubble but also from other cosmic quarters, check out our latest installment of Cosmic Sightings. Every time we bring out a fresh batch of pictures, there are people who write in asking where they can find the larger-format originals. We can't provide some of the pictures because of copyright considerations, but here are Web links to others that are freely available:
Thousands of onlookers are expected to turn out for the launch of the shuttle Atlantis, now scheduled for Friday, and you'll find plenty of information about the best viewing sites around NASA's Kennedy Space Center. But if you're not inclined to fight it out with the crowds, you can elect to watch the liftoff on TV, on your computer or even on your mobile phone. Here's a viewing guide:
By the way, Spaceweather Phone may not offer live launch video - but it does provide mobile updates on solar flares, sunspots, space station flyovers and other highlights for skywatchers. And if you're looking for the plain facts about the final frontier, you can steer your Web-enabled mobile device over to SpaceRef Mobile.
All this virtual shuttle-surfing is nice, but if you have the chance to experience a launch in person, you shouldn't be content with just seeing it on the screen. No plasma screen can capture the incredible brightness of burning when the shuttle rocket engines light up. No surround-sound system can replicate the deep rat-a-tat rumble rolling from the launch pad.
Do you have some stories to share about past launches - or tips for viewing launches to come, either in person or remotely? Feel free to add them as comments below.
Last year, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace ended up just shy of winning $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. But over the weekend, the rocketeers under the leadership of video-game programmer John Carmack did everything they needed to do to win the prize - wowing legions of space enthusiasts in the process.
|Armadillo Aerospace's rocket prototype takes off
from its pad Saturday during a test at the Oklahoma
Spaceport. Click on the image to watch the video,
redistributed with permission.
As detailed in Carmack's latest dispatch, Armadillo's rocket-powered hovercraft blasted off, hung in the air for 90 seconds and landed safely at the Oklahoma Spaceport - not just once, but twice. You can watch Armadillo's video record of the flight by clicking on the image at right - or you can opt for the original, large-format video on Armadillo's Web site.
Representatives of the X Prize Foundation and the Federal Aviation Administration were on site to watch the test, and Carmack said the there-and-back-again flight would have been a Level 1 winner if it had taken place during the actual X Prize Cup competition. Unfortunately, the Armadillo team will have to wait until October, when the X Prize Cup returns to New Mexico.
"If it weren't for the X Prize Cup doing the management of the NASA prize, we would have won it last weekend," Carmack wrote. "I understand the reasoning behind tying it to an event to help promote the industry as a whole and provide more opportunities for other teams to catch up with the front runner, but as the front runner, I would rather have the check."
Carmack's report drew a wave of adulation from the aRocket e-mail forum, where rocketeers from all over compare notes. Among those joining in the congratulations was Dave Masten of Masten Space Systems, Carmack's closest competitor in the Lunar Lander Challenge.
"Now how about taking a break," Masten suggested in an e-mail posting addressed to Carmack. "Say, four or five months' worth."
Later, Masten told me by phone that his team is moving ahead with vehicle integration and rocket engine tests. You can watch the video from some recent tests by clicking through the company's Web log.
As we discussed last week, Carmack plans to go after the Lunar Lander Challenge's big $1 million prize with Armadillo's four-engine Pixel design. That means the hover time will have to be extended to 180 seconds, and the landing will have to take place on rougher terrain. A diffferent launch system, designed to be more modular and scalable, would vie for the $350,000 Level 1 prize. Carmack's plan calls for retiring Pixel after the prize is won, and then turning his focus toward a modular system that could eventually get Armadillo into orbit.
In contrast, Masten plans to stick with the basic design being used for the Lunar Lander Challenge. "The vehicle that will fly at the LLC is the same that we would have developed if there had not been a Lunar Lander Challenge," he told me.
Several other teams have signed up for the challenge as well. That means this year's challenge could result in a real rocket race - as opposed to last year's challenge, when Armadillo was the only entrant. Check in with Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News for updates (and catch up on past developments by reviewing Robin Snelson's Lunar Lander Challenge blog).
Of course, the challenge is meant to promote rocket innovation in general, rather than actually producing the real lunar lander for NASA's back-to-the-moon effort. But Lindsey puts forth an interesting idea for a Lunar Lander Challenge offshoot:
"Landing on a long pillar of flame is really cool. As I've mentioned before, I really think someone could make a business by buying one of these vehicles from AA [Armadillo Aerospace] and flying it at air shows and state fairs. As experience grows, for both the operator and the FAA, you could start to do night flights and adding showbiz enhancements such as laser lightshow battles and fireworks."
In an op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle, space consultant and curmudgeon Mark Whittington goes even further, suggesting that NASA could turn over a part of its own lunar exploration effort to the private sector:
"The way it would work is that a prize - of, say, $50 million - would be awarded to the first group to land an instrument package in a predetermined area of the lunar surface, such as the South Pole, and return data. NASA would define what sort of data it is looking for, but it would be up to the private competitors to determine how to obtain it."
Whittington says "everybody would win" that kind of space race. But in the past, lawmakers have been loath to expand NASA's Centennial Challenge program - perhaps because no one can predict exactly when the money would be paid out, and to whom. Also, the biggest and most capable aerospace companies might not want to play for the stakes being suggested. Over at the Space Politics blog, Jeff Foust says $50 million wouldn't be nearly enough:
"One could argue that any venture mounting such a mission could supplement that money with other income streams, like the commercial sale of imagery or other data, but the efforts of companies like Applied Space Resources, LunaCorp, and TransOrbital have demonstrated how difficult it's been to make the business case for a private lunar mission to close; the additional NASA prize money may not be sufficient to close the gap."
Clark Lindsey's posting on the subject has drawn some similarly thoughtful observations, including feedback from Ken Davidian, NASA's program manager for the Centennial Challenges. Should NASA try for a Lunar Lander Challenge with real lunar landers? Would raising the purse to $100 million do the trick? What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.
Update for 6 p.m. ET June 5: I've heard back from another Lunar Lander Challenge entrant, Allen Newcomb, who is working on the Lauryad lander prototype. "We're still on track," Newcomb told me in an e-mail. "Things are moving very fast right now as we're just a few days away from our first test engine firing."
You can look forward to further updates on the Lunar Lander Challenge in the days ahead.
Imagine hitching a ride to the moon on a pint-sized space probe - and experiencing every high point of the flight in real time, thanks to virtual-reality technology. If Pete Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center, has his way, this dream could well become a reality - well, at least a beta version of reality - in a little more than a year.
Worden provided a preview of mass-audience space exploration last week during the International Space Development Conference in Dallas, delivered direct from the virtual world known as Second Life. The event marked the debut of Worden's very own Second Life avatar, called SimonPete Raymaker. The computer representation looked sort of like Worden, only younger and thinner.
|SimonPete Raymaker is
the online avatar of
NASA's Pete Worden.
Worden's talk, addressed to crowds assembled at the National Space Society's real-life conference as well as at NASA's Second Life digs on Space CoLab Island, focused on how virtual environments can enhance public participation in space exploration:
"We are looking at how this island can be a portal for all to fly on space missions," Worden/Raymaker said. "Real data from real missions such as the international space station can be ported to the virtual environment and allow all to accompany these space missions.
"For example, I can imagine a future robotic mission to the moon where we can all walk or fly along with the lunar rover as it makes its way over the lunar landscape," he said. "If the rover streams its data back to Earth, we can build up an increasingly accurate virtual model of the land it's traveling. Your avatar can explore along with those of scientists and engineers managing the mission."
What's more, the avatars could conceivably interact: An earthbound geologist could call out through the virtual world, drawing the attention of a robot-human team to a particularly intriguing rock off by the side of a real-life lunar path, Worden/Raymaker said.
"In this manner, we can all participate in space exploration," he said. "When the next people step on the surface of the moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them. Of course, we haven't yet figured out how to address the light travel time delay, so you'd be with them a few seconds in the past."
|The real-life Pete Worden
is director of NASA's Ames
The idea may seem as way out as the holodecks frequented by the Starship Enterprise's crew on "Star Trek." But Worden thinks this will become a reality way before the 23rd century. In fact, he's targeting the first experiment in virtual exploration for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, an Ames-managed mission that is scheduled for launch in October 2008.
LCROSS is designed to send a probe crashing into the moon, then analyze the composition of the debris thrown up by the impact. The results could tell NASA planners just how deep they'd have to dig to find water ice and other materials that will be useful for lunar exploration. (Here's an online video from KQED that traces the mission plan for LCROSS and its big-brother probe, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.)
"It's my intent to try to get everybody to go along with us on the LCROSS mission," Worden/Raymaker said. "How high-fidelity we can do on that will certainly be part of the effort."
The online presentation, projected on the big screens at the conference site, demonstrated that Second Life still has its limitations as a high-fidelity simulation tool. The avatars can be a bit cartoonish (Worden's was crafted by space activist Robin Snelson, a.k.a. Rocket Sellers). And the computer response time can be a bit laggy (due to too many users and not enough data bandwidth). In fact, there were times when Raymaker froze up altogether.
"Sometimes things go a little slow in Second Life," he observed philosophically.
Nevertheless, the real-life Worden is totally sold on the promise of virtual worlds - not only in Second Life, but in other environments such as the open-source Croquet platform. NASA's recently announced open-source software initiative, CosmosCode, should contribute to that collaborative spirit.
As an initial step, Worden said NASA could use its own wealth of imagery to create a high-fidelity virtual rendering of the international space station. After LCROSS, the next step would be to use virtual-world tools to design future spacecraft.
"Second Life is a way you can actually build stuff," he noted. "You can build prototypes, and actually test them as the fidelity of the simulations gets better."
Virtual worlds also offer a way to bring people together into online workspaces, even though they may be dialing in from the other side of the continent - or from the other side of the world, when you're talking about NASA's international partners.
"The exciting thing about Second Life, I think is that it offers an opportunity to easily work in these spaces," Worden said. "It is a global collaborative workspace. I see this as one of the key parts of the international commitment that the United States goverment has made for the Vision for Space Exploration."
"The revolution in our ability to do big things with small satellites, using off-the-shelf technology, means we can mount frequent, small robotic spaceflights to the moon," he said. "We could easily carry scientific and exploration instruments. But due to their low cost, potentially only a few million dollars, small lunar and other deep-space missions of the nanosat class - weighing only a few kilograms - might be supported by wholly private means."
So maybe that truly high-fidelity, virtual mission to the moon will be brought to you by MSNBC rather than NASA. We can always dream, can't we?