Submitted by Peter Orvick
|A Perseid streak stands out amid the stars in a picture taken from rural Minnesota.
Now that the fireworks have settled down, skywatchers say the weekend's Perseid meteor shower performed about as expected - with fantastic displays separated by not-so-fantastic delays. "Seemingly interminable five- to 10-minute gaps ... followed by five meteors within 60 seconds," Bill Godley reported on the Meteorobs discussion forum. That roughly matches my own assessment, based on my outings early Sunday and Monday.
An even more elusive prize awaits: the Aurigids, which could outshine the Perseids - but only for a brief interval, in a particular area of the country, under special conditions. Take a look at some of the snapshots taken during recent meteor sightings, and get some special tips for the finicky fireworks ahead.
The meteoric streak above is a detail taken from a wider-angle photograph that Peter Orvick sent in response to our FirstPerson plea for pictures. "This is a picture of one of the Perseid meteors in the western sky in rural Minnesota," he wrote. "In the lower right-hand corner we just managed to catch one next going along the Milky Way."
Eugenio Bigornia sent in a similar snapshot from Alaska's Excursion Inlet. "I had given up, thinking it just takes dumb luck to get a meteor picture, so I just pointed my camera to the Big Dipper ... Not sure if it is a meteorite or a plane, but I think it is a nice shot with the Dipper and streak in the same frame."
Submitted by Melanie Reterrer
|Strange-looking sky phenomena punctuate a picture
of the sun's rays breaking over the horizon in Hawaii.
The "shooting stars" in Melanie Retterer's picture at right probably aren't Perseids. In fact, I'm not sure what they are. But they do make for an interesting sunrise snapshot, taken on July 20 from the top of Haleakala on Maui.
Our FirstPerson meteor watch was a fair first effort, but for the cream of the celestial crop, you simply have to feast your eyes on the gallery at SpaceWeather.com. For years, the Web site has served up gobs of delicious pictures of meteors, auroral displays, noctilucent clouds and other sky phenomena.
When it comes to seeing this year's Perseids, Peter Jenniskens, a meteor researcher at the SETI Institute, had one of the best seats in the house: a seat aboard a NASA plane that made detailed research observations from an altitude of 45,000 feet.
"On the plane, of course, we see four or five times more meteors than we see on the ground," Jenniskens told me today. "Sometimes we see two or three at the same time. It was really a very nice shower to look at."
Jenniskens said the statistics for the Perseids pretty much matched the predictions, rising to a rate of around 86 meteors per hour at 6 a.m. ET Monday. He agreed that meteors can get a bit bursty - with appreciable gaps between sightings. Sometimes that's just a function of normal statistical distribution, but sometimes it indicates that larger pieces of debris have broken up into smaller pieces that re-enter the atmosphere at nearly the same time.
"If you see meteors move in the sky as pairs, then there's a bigger likelihood that a meteoroid broke into pieces," he told me.
For Jenniskens, the Perseid flight was just a practice outing for the Aurigids. Because Earth is passing through what's thought to be a particularly rich section of cometary debris this year, the Aurigids are expected to put on a brief, intense show at about 7:36 a.m. ET Sept. 1. That's a terrible time for East Coast observers, but it's not a bad time on the West Coast, where it will be 4:36 a.m.
"There will be really nothing two hours before the event, and then if you start watching around, say, 4 o'clock in the morning in California ... suddenly you'll see meteors, and gradually the rate will go up until the peak, about 4:36, and then it will go down again," Jenniskens said. "Then, after a half-hour or so, it will be over."
At the peak, a ground-based observer who has ideal viewing conditions could see two or three meteors per minute, he said. "It's like watering a distant flower with a garden hose, and you just hit the flower very briefly," Jenniskens explained. "That's a phenomenon that's extremely rare. We're very interested in this type of meteors."
That's why Jenniskens is keen on having regular folks go out and try photographing the Aurigids as they fall.
"This is a great way to get people involved," he said. "This is a very important little piece of science - that is, what is the biggest piece that made it out into the dust trail? We want to know if there are fireballs in the shower. Will somebody catch a fireball? ... You have to be lucky, but with this distributed-observing idea, somebody out there will be lucky to catch one."
Even if you're just in it for a good time, watching the Aurigids won't be quite as easy as watching the Perseids. You'll have to find clear skies, far away from city lights, of course - and the tips I passed along last weekend would still apply. But you'll also have to cope with the glare of a nearly full moon - an extra distraction that didn't enter into the picture for the Perseids.
"Put the moon behind an obstruction, like a telephone pole," Jenniskens advised. If the moon is blocked by a pole, or a building, that takes the direct glare out of your eyes. You'll also want to be facing east, not only to avoid the moon in western skies but also to have the meteor shower's radiant in sight. Aurigid meteors appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Auriga, but they can appear in any section of the sky.
Stay tuned for much more about the Aurigids in the weeks ahead - and if you do happen to snap an awesome Aurigid snapshot, feel free to send it our way using the FirstPerson page for sky sightings.
|This graphic shows the comparative sizes
of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis, Galaxy,
Sundancer and BA-330 space modules.
Bigelow Aerospace's billionaire founder says he'll be skipping a step in his grand plan to send up an inflatable space habitat capable of hosting humans, due to escalating launch costs. That means Bigelow's Sundancer module, which will be designed to accommodate three people, could be ready to go even before 2010.
Word of the schedule change came in an announcement e-mailed today from the venture's Las Vegas headquarters on behalf of Robert Bigelow - who made his fortune in construction and the hotel industry, and has committed to spending $500 million on his private space program.
Bigelow has successfully launched two prototype inflatable modules (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) on Russian rockets, and he had been planning another test launch in late 2008 or 2009 with a larger prototype, dubbed Galaxy. All these tests would blaze the trail for Sundancer, the first module designed for human habitation.
Now that plan has changed. Here's the word from Bigelow:
"First, I would like to thank all of you who have written, called and otherwise expressed congratulations to myself and our team on the successful launch of Genesis 2. The energy, enthusiasm and encouragement that we receive both here in the U.S. and abroad are an inspiration to us and part of the reason that we believe so strongly in the dream of entrepreneurial space development. I would like to take this opportunity to honor the interest and support that we've received from the general public by providing you with this update in regard to our future plans.
"As anyone associated with the aerospace industry is aware, global launch costs have been rising rapidly over the course of the past few years. These price hikes have been most acute in Russia due to a number of factors including inflation, previously artificially low launch costs and the falling value of the U.S. dollar. What this now means for Bigelow Aerospace is that to conduct another subscale demonstrator mission would cost two to three times what it has in the past.
"This dramatic rise in launch costs has forced us to rethink our strategy with Galaxy. Due to the fact that a high percentage of the systems Galaxy was meant to test can be effectively validated on a terrestrial basis, the technical value of launching the spacecraft - particularly after the successful launch of both Genesis 1 and 2 - is somewhat marginal. Therefore, we have decided to expedite our schedule yet again, and are now planning to move ahead directly with Bigelow Aerospace's first human habitable spacecraft, the Sundancer.
"We still intend to construct and test the Galaxy spacecraft and/or various parts of it in order to gain familiarity and experience with critical subsystems. However, by eliminating the launch of Galaxy, we believe that BA can move more expeditiously to our next step by focusing exclusively on the challenging and exciting task presented by the Sundancer program.
"With this decision made, the future of entrepreneurial, private sector-driven space habitats and complexes could be arriving much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated. While recognizing the inherent difficulty, all of us at BA are eager to begin work on an actual human spaceflight program, which is the reason that I and others began this effort in the first place.
"In the meantime, we now have two spacecraft in orbit - both of which we hope will produce invaluable data for years to come. It's upon this solid foundation that we will be constructing our most ambitious spacecraft yet, the Sundancer. I will continue to keep you all apprised of our progress, and promise that every effort will be made at BA to ensure that this bold next step into human spaceflight will be a successful one."
Sundancer had been set for launch in 2010, but Bigelow's comment that a habitable complex could be available "much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated" implies that 2009 or perhaps even late 2008 might be in the cards.
Just don't chisel those dates in stone: Sure, Bigelow Aerospace has been successful so far, but schedule snags could still develop during the Galaxy testing phase. And Bigelow might decide to wait until there's an orbital spaceship available to transport passengers to Sundancer. That could be a SpaceX Dragon, or a Rocketplane Kistler K-1, or a SpaceShipThree, or even an extra Russian Soyuz craft.
Bigelow Aerospace spokesman Chris Reed told me that the schedule change has energized the team, and hopes are rising in Vegas that the world's first private-sector space station will be in orbit sooner rather than later.
But when would it be safe to say that Sundancer will be scheduled for launch? "It's safe to say not to say," Reed replied.
This weekend, outer space isn't just something to dream about: There are opportunities galore to take part in space adventures, online and offline.
Do you have additional suggestions for getting spacey? Pass them along as a comment below - and this weekend, may your nights be merry and dark.
Today the Pentagon revealed its list of 36 contestants for the next multimillion-dollar race for autonomous vehicles - and also revealed where the robo-finalists will face off in November. It may be called the "DARPA Urban Challenge," but the race course is actually a slice of faded suburbia in the California desert.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says the competition will take place on the decommissioned George Air Force Base near Victorville, Calif. - home to a 1,000-building complex that's been used for urban combat training and has thus been dubbed "Al-George."
Despite the nickname, Al-George looks less like downtown Baghdad and more like a suburban neighborhood, complete with traffic circles and street signs. There's even a golf course nearby. Once the Army finishes its current training cycle, DARPA will clean up the site (for example, removing downed trees) and get it ready for the robots.
The qualifying event for the 36 semifinalists will be conducted from Oct. 26 to 31, and the top 20 teams will move on to the Nov. 3 finals. Top prize is $2 million, with $1 million going to the runner-up and $500,000 to the third-place finisher.
DARPA is funding the competition to promote technologies that can eventually produce smarter robotic vehicles for military applications - yes, even in downtown Baghdad. Congress has told the Pentagon it wants a third of America's ground combat vehicles controlled autonomously by 2015. Along the way, civilians will likely benefit from smarter cars and trucks as well.
During the finals, the autonomous vehicles will have to complete a roughly 60-mile course in six hours, simulating a military supply mission. Al-George was selected as the site for the competition because its street network simulates the kind of terrain U.S. forces face during overseas deployments, DARPA said in today's news release.
"This adds many of the elements these vehicles would face in operational environments," DARPA director Tony Tether explained.
But it's not enough just to hit every waypoint on the route. The robots will have to obey the rules of the road - including dealing with the traffic circles, four-way stops and merging traffic. That's a change from DARPA's $2 million Grand Challenge in 2005, which merely called for autonomous vehicles to drive over 132 miles of desert roads.
"The vehicles must perform as well as someone with a California driver's license," Tether said.
During the finals, penalties will be added to the times of the vehicles involved in traffic infractions - and the winner will be decided on the basis of the adjusted time. Thus, it's possible for a reckless Bender to finish the race first but still lose out to a safe-driving C-3PO.
That may sound like a tall order, but some of the semifinalists have been working on this challenge for more than a year already. The list includes all the teams whose vehicles finished the 2005 Grand Challenge:
Stanford Racing Team
|Stanford's Junior is an autonomous VW Passat.
The co-leaders of the Stanford team told me that they're well into their testing schedule for Junior, a computer-controlled VW Passat wagon. They're programming Junior to deal with four-way intersections, parking-lot navigation and traffic jams. "The most challenging maneuver would be merging traffic," said co-leader Mike Montemerlo.
The other co-leader, Sebastian Thrun, told me that this year's race was likely to have more of a "random outcome" than the previous Grand Challenge. As any commuter knows, the best-laid plans to get from point A to point B are easily ruined if you get stuck behind an oafish driver.
"It doesn't just depend on yourself, it depends on the other robots," Thrun said. "If other people act very poorly, then our strategies for dealing with traffic might fail to work."
The win might well go to the vehicle that's best at avoiding traffic tie-ups. "The smarter your robot, the more it will be able to escape," Thrun said.
CMU / Tartan Racing
|Boss is a self-driving Chevy Tahoe SUV, created by
Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team.
Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon's team members say they have already logged hundreds of test miles with Boss, a self-driving Chevy Tahoe SUV.
"Boss today can handle maneuvers at 30 miles an hour that it performed at 15 miles an hour back in June," Chris Urmson, director of technology for Tartan Racing, said in a news release. "It can park itself and it can yield at intersections, not just stop."
Although Boss and Junior would have to rank among the favorites, the winner could well be Team Gray's Plan B, or Team Oshkosh's TerraMax ... or one of the other 32 teams ... or no one. In any case, Stanford's Thrun is looking forward to one heck of a show.
"I think it's going to be a major event in autonomous driving," he told me.
Here is the full list of 36, linked to team profiles on the DARPA Web site:
|Clay Morgan is supportive of his
astronaut-wife's space aspirations.
Educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan is the star of the show today - but her husband, Clay, has made a name for himself as well, as a published author. While Mrs. Morgan went through space training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Mr. Morgan wrote up a history of the shuttle-Mir program for the space agency, and you can read his work online.
Clay Morgan is better-known for his fiction, however, including a well-received novel for middle-schoolers titled "The Boy Who Spoke Dog." His reflections on the life of a writer sheds light on the life of his astronaut wife as well.
As most readers must know by now, Barbara Morgan was the backup trainee for schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe for the 1986 Challenger shuttle mission that ended so disastrously. In the publicity material from his publisher, Clay Morgan mentions the impact of the Challenger accident:
"The Challenger accident changed many people's lives. It made us realize that we needed children. Our two fine knuckleheaded sons were born back in McCall, Idaho, on the shores of Payette Lake."
Clay Morgan said "The Boy Who Spoke Dog" - about a kid who could understand the language of canines - came from the bedtime stories he told his sons. Now there's a sequel, "The Boy Who Returned From the Sea," which is due to come out in September.
There's much more to the Morgan saga than NASA: The two spent the first year of their marriage in Ecuador, where Barbara taught English and science while Clay wrote his first novel, "Aura." Their year in South America strongly influenced Clay's second novel, "Santiago and the Drinking Party." Along the way, Clay has put in time as an editor, a firefighting smokejumper and an NPR commentator.
Mr. and Mrs. Morgan have clearly found ways to accommodate each other's careers through the years - and for at least the next couple of weeks, Barbara will be in the spotlight while Clay will be the steady spouse on the sidelines. Before the launch, Barbara Morgan told NBC News that her family is "very proud of space exploration and the program" - while Clay Morgan said he understood his wife's tenacious 22-year-long drive to go into space.
"I think she has the sense that this has to be done," he said. "She owes it to teachers."
More than 85,000 Internet users have signed up to become galaxy inspectors as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's "Galaxy Zoo" project - and you can, too. Inspectors go through a tutorial and click their way through an initial database of 1 million galaxies, classifying them by type. Since the project was launched, less than a month ago, each galaxy in the current database has been checked multiple times (for a total of 12 million checks), but the organizers say there's much more work that this astronomical army can do.
For nine years, hundreds researchers from around the world have been using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's telescope in New Mexico to create a three-dimensional map spanning a quarter of the sky. "We're a roadmap or an atlas of the universe," Sloan spokesman Gary Ruderman explained.
|Oxford astronomer Caroline Zunckel uses the Galaxy
Zoo Web site to classify a spiral galaxy.
The idea behind the Galaxy Zoo is to corral the sky survey's massive files of observations into categories using the wisdom of crowds - or "the wisdom of the public," as Ruderman prefers to put it.
The Galaxy Zoo draws upon the same kind of public interest that has fueled projects such as SETI @ home, which sifts through radio data for patterns suggestive of extraterrestrial intelligence; Einstein @ home, which looks for the signature of cosmic gravitational waves; and Stardust @ home, which has enlisted users to seek out interstellar dust trails.
Astronomers on the Galaxy Zoo team were floored by the response to their plea for help. On the first day the "Zoo" was open, the demand was so great that it overloaded a circuit breaker in the computer room circuit breaker, said Johns Hopkins University's Jan Vandenberg.
"The traffic was 20 times higher than what we hoped for," Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Alex Szalay said in a news release. "This shows the public is really interested in science if they feel they can contribute in a meaningful way."
It's not hard to do: The tutorial guides would-be galaxy hunters through an assortment of objects, and you just have to decide whether each galaxy is elliptical (a fuzzy ball) or spiral (a starry whirl). If it's a spiral, you judge whether it whirls clockwise or counterclockwise. And there's always a "none of the above" category - say, for things that don't look like galaxies, or galaxies that are facing you head-on so you can't tell which way they twirl.
"Computers can do this classification automatically, but humans are far more accurate," said Portsmouth University astronomer Daniel Thomas. "It's like trying to distinguish male and female faces - no computer algorithm will do this as accurately as a person, because we are much better at identifying the most important cues."
Now the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has tens of thousands of eyeballs on the case, instead of mere hundreds. Nearly 7 million images have been checked, and 12.3 galaxy classifications have been registered.
"We now have the world's largest computer working for us, through the combined power of all these human brains," Thomas said.
Ruderman said the goal is to have each galaxy checked at least 20 times, just to make sure there's a consensus for each classification. Particularly interesting anomalies might be flagged for further review, but the main scientific aim is to get at the big picture for galaxy formation: What is the distribution of the different types of galaxies? What determines whether a galaxy becomes a spiral or an elliptical?
"We have theories for how this happens, but to test them we need to know what kinds of galaxies are found in different cosmic environments," Oxford astronomer Anze Slosar said. "The combination of SDSS-II and the Galaxy Zoo will give just the information we need."
But won't the zookeepers eventually run out of things to do? No worries there. Here are the answers to a couple of follow-up questions, e-mailed by Bob Nichol of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at Portsmouth University:
Q: What happens after 20 people classify each of the 1 million galaxies? Is there a "next" project? Where does the Galaxy Zoo go from here?
A: Twenty classifications per galaxy is our first goal, but more classifications per galaxy will only help us more. So there is no formal cut-off, and the more, the merrier. After 20 classifications per galaxy, we really can start using the sample for detailed scientific research.
The project could be expanded in several ways. First, we could simply do the remaining 50 million galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey! We have only done the tip of the iceberg. These other galaxies are fainter and thus harder to classify. However, we could imagine looking for mergers/interactions in these fainter galaxies, which is easier than looking for spiral arms, for example.
Alternatively, we can use data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which has better resolution and can see distant galaxies better than ground-based telescopes.
Finally, there are many other astronomical data that could be presented to the public in this way - e.g., classification of the spectra of these Sloan galaxies!
Q: When do you think you'll have statistics on galaxy distribution (elliptical vs. spiral)?
A: We can expect the first published results within a year of taking the data. However, I think this database will be important for many years to come - a "famous" database in astronomy.
CLICK ON IMAGE TO VISIT SPACE WORLD
You've seen zoomable pictures of outer-space sights, and synthetic 3-D views of alien worlds, and 360-degree panoramas of space scenes ... but today there's a brand-new way to look at the highlights of the high frontier: Space World, a photo database offered through MSNBC.com and powered by a technology called Photosynth.
The experimental software, pioneered by Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington, combines elements of all the visualization tools I've mentioned, plus an extra bit of video-game flash. Just how cool is it? That's for you to say.
(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
I'm still in the midst of exploring Space World myself, but I can provide a couple of tips for finding your way around, plus a reality check for the press-release hype.
Over the past couple of months, Photosynth's developers worked with NASA to snap hundreds of pictures at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The software is able to identify the similarities in different perspectives of the same object, and then knit the photos into mosaics of imagery known as "collections."
Right now, our Space World consists of four collections:
"What you're seeing here has never been seen before," Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, told me. "Even if you're a VIP, you're not going to get this close to any of these facilities and get pictures like this."
In each of the collections, you can click through the photos using a filmstrip-type interface, and the perspective will morph from one photo to the next. You can also zoom in and out on each photo by clicking on the + and - buttons on the screen. You can take a 3-D swing around the "point cloud," where each point represents a particular perspective on the scene. You can even break the collection apart into its constituent images, then focus in on a particular high-resolution view.
"It's a little bit like having a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, where the net result is an environment that's reminiscent of a video game, where you can navigate around and explore," said Adam Sheppard, group project manager for Microsoft Live Labs.
The video game analogy is apt in another way: The more processing power and bandwidth you have, the better. I was able to fly through Space World well enough on my office desktop computer, but navigating the scenes on my wireless-equipped laptop was downright painful. (To be fair, my lackadaisical laptop also absolutely refuses to run Second Life.)
Our Space World doesn't present a 3-D view in the way Second Lifers would understand the term. Rather, you jump from one flat view in the collection to another - or you "teleport" to a particularly interesting perspective by hitting a hyperlink. In each view, you're looking at a zoomable, reality-based 2-D picture rather than a synthetic 3-D construct.
The software had its genesis with a University of Washington initiative called "Photo Tourism" for knitting together bunches of photos into the collections, plus software developed by Seadragon (which was acquired by Microsoft) for making huge picture files more digestible over the Internet. In addition to Space World, Photosynth has been used to create collections for tourist hot spots in Britain, Korea, Italy and other locales.
Sheppard hopes Space World will add to the buzz over Photosynth.
"Access to NASA content has been a great opportunity to reach a broader audience than we might have traditionally reached in the past," he told me. "We do a lot of cutting-edge Internet research. We're eager to learn how the general public uses this technology to help inform our product strategy over time."
You do need a downloadable plug-in to use Photosynth, and although the software is compatible with Firefox as well as Internet Explorer, it works only with Windows XP or Vista - not Linux or the Mac OS. That might rub some people the wrong way - as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes today. The BBC, which has partnered with Live Labs for the British Photosynth collections, has already been facing some flak over a separate video collaboration with Microsoft.
So what's in it for NASA? The space agency provided special access to Live Labs' photographers, but no money is changing hands either way. Rather; the payoff for NASA comes in the form of increased public outreach, Ames Research Center's Kemp said. "This is just great technology being put to great use, at no cost to the American taxpayer," he said.
In the future, we may well add other sights to Space World, such as all-over views of the Hubble Space Telescope and the international space station, rover vistas from Mars and panoramas of Apollo lunar landing sites. Microsoft Live Labs may open up the collections to pictures contributed by the public. And NASA may put Photosynth to work in other applications as well.
"This collaboration with Microsoft gives the public a new way to explore and participate in America's space program," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said in today's news release. "We are looking into ways of using this new technology to support future missions."
That last point refers to Photosynth's ability to stitch together huge photo databases automatically - for instance, the terabytes of shuttle imagery captured during every mission nowadays. As a test project, Photosynth has already been used to knit together the high-resolution pictures of the shuttle taken during the backflip that precedes docking with the space station.
"You're able to zoom around the shuttle, and zoom in and see the serial numbers on almost all the tiles. But then you're able to zoom out and see where all the photos were taken," Kemp said. "It's a much more elegant way of organizing the huge number of photos that we take of the shuttle. A lot of the people who've seen it in space operations say, 'Wow, we'd love to get our hands on that.'"
So what's your verdict? Is it closer to "Wow," or "Whoa"? Whether or not you download the plug-in and visit our new Space World, feel free to voice your views in the comments section below.
Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 2 inflatable space module has been turned into an orbital billboard - not the kind you can see from Earth, but the kind that can project ads or announcements onto the spacecraft's skin itself, with a picture taken for posterity. And as of now, the billboard is open for business, according to the private space effort's billionaire backer.
|A picture of a Bigelow Aerospace employee is
projected onto the side of the orbiting Genesis 2
spacecraft. The projector and the camera taking
the picture of the "billboard" are both mounted
on the tip of a solar panel sticking out from one
end of Genesis 2.
The first picture showing the billboard in action was put up on Bigelow Aerospace's Web site on Thursday, and company founder Robert Bigelow reported that more samples were posted today. The samples range from small company logos to big color photographs of Bigelow Aerospace employees.
"We use ourselves as guinea pigs on a lot of things here," said Bigelow, a Las Vegas real-estate magnate.
The images are uploaded to the spacecraft via Bigelow Aerospace's data communication system, and displayed by a digital projector mounted on the tip of one of Genesis 2's solar arrays. The picture has to be projected while the spacecraft is on Earth's dark side - otherwise, the image would be washed out by the sun's glare. A camera, also mounted on the arrays, takes a picture of the projected image. That's what's transmitted back down to Earth.
The images can be text messages, of course. Bigelow said one of the messages he had sent up reads "Hello Alien Friends" - a nod to his past interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.
"We're just playing around with this, just kind of having fun," Bigelow said. "Don't know who would be interested. We have no idea."
Space ads have been around for years, but Bigelow's little experiment in orbital image projection could make it much easier to get commercial messages into orbit - even though the images are way too dim to be seen from Earth itself.
Bigelow told me that he hasn't yet formulated a detailed plan for selling outer-space advertising. "We're open to any ideas or suggestions from people" on how the projector could be used, he said.
OK, then: Suppose someone called up and offered him $5 to shine a picture of Grandma onto Genesis 2.
"We would do that," Bigelow said.
In fact, Bigelow said he was willing to take requests from regular folks for pictures and messages to display on the spacecraft. "I guess they would call Bigelow Aerospace, and we would try to handle their call," Bigelow said. He told me interested parties should leave their contact information with the company, and someone would call them back to work out the details. (Bigelow Aerospace's phone number in North Las Vegas is 702-688-6600.)
Bigelow suggested that images or text might be e-mailed, or they could be snail-mailed to the company and digitized in Las Vegas for uploading. "We'd have to probably ask people how long an image should remain" projected on the spacecraft, Bigelow said.
It really sounded as if he was working out his advertising policy right on the spot. "The truth is, we have no idea if anybody cares," he said. "Right now it's just kind of a toy for us."
Genesis 2 has already served as an advertising medium of sorts, through the company's "Fly Your Stuff" program. Scores of people paid $295 to have a photo or business card included in the Genesis payload, in hopes that the item would show up in pictures taken by one of the cameras mounted on the spacecraft's interior.
Bigelow's orbital billboard suggests yet another revenue-generating opportunity - maybe "Flash Your Stuff." And since new imagery can be regularly uploaded to the projector, that opportunity would be available for years to come, as long as Genesis 2 remained in orbit and in contact.
Bigelow doesn't expect the price for flashing your stuff would ever be anything close to $295. "Since it's only going to flash on the spacecraft for a certain period of time, I would imagine that if we do charge for this, it's going to be a lot less," he said.
For now, though, Bigelow sees the orbital billboard as one more small step toward his grander plan to put a habitable module dubbed Sundancer into orbit in 2010 or so.
Several other companies are working with NASA to develop new orbital transportation systems, including SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, t/Space and PlanetSpace, SpaceDev, Spacehab and Constellation Services International. If any of those companies are successful, Sundancer could serve as a destination for tourists riding private-sector spaceships.
And if that comes to pass, Bigelow isn't above giving Sundancer a splash of Vegas-style glitz that would put Genesis 2's feeble shine to shame. Sundancer's flashing lights might well be visible from Earth, he said.
"We're hoping for our Sundancer spacecraft to light up on the outside," he told me. "If you have some blue and green and amber-colored lighting going on, you would have something that really has a lot of blink to it."
Update for 1 p.m. ET Aug. 7: Bigelow published a note on the company's Web site, cautioning that the projection system isn't ready for commercial prime time just yet:
"We don't exactly have a system set up yet for commercial use of the spacecraft's billboard capability.
"Commercial use is in the process of evaluation and may take a while. We are using the spacecraft for many other experimental purposes - all of which require transmission bandwidth. At this time, our downlink capabilities are significantly more enhanced for both spacecraft than our uplink capabilities. Uplink non-video messaging only requires a second or two per message for transmission. To send a video up requires a significant increase in bandwidth over what we currently possess if we were to do this in volume. An aggressive commercial program would tax our existing capability. As we have been increasing our number of communication stations, we have also received approval to increase our bandwidth capabilities.
"Again, we are working on it. Thank you for your interest."
The tone of the note makes it sound as if video would be the big draw for commercial applications - which is an intriguing but high-bandwidth idea. It doesn't sound as if Bigelow is closing the door on folks who just want to have Grandma's face shining into space for a short while.
This week's tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis triggered another collapse of sorts: a jam-up of the cellular phone networks in the area. Bystanders and survivors tried to phone loved ones, only to find that they couldn't put the call through. So what's the solution? Two words: text messaging.
For some cell-phone users on the scene, the call-blocking was brutal: "Every tenth call I tried to make went through, and half of the successful ones had problems like not hearing the other end, dropping, or unusable quality," Charlie Demerjian wrote in The Inquirer.
His bottom line was that "the cell network is barely adequate for public use, and completely inadequate for mission-critical use."
Cell-phone providers acknowledged that the call volumes overwhelmed their networks in the area around the bridge collapse, but they took issue with the idea that they're not up to dealing with a crisis.
"Whenever you have a crisis, people tend to use their phones a lot, and there is a tendency for networks to get congested," Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T's wireless business, told me today. "It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the network."
Adding to the congestion was the fact that the collapse came at 6 p.m. CT, in the middle of rush hour, "during the busiest hour of the day for our wireless callers," said Karen Smith, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless in Minneapolis. Smith said the call volume came to twice as much as Verizon's system was built to handle.
AT&T's Siegel and T-Mobile spokesman Peter Dobrow told a similar story. Verizon and T-Mobile quickly brought in extra "cells on wheels" - cell-phone stations mounted on trucks - to handle the increased load. Siegel said AT&T started bringing in reinforcements as well, "but things had cleared up before they were moved into place."
The three company representatives were unanimous in their No. 1 piece of advice for cell-phone users:
"The biggest tip is to understand the importance of text messaging," Smith said. "Text messaging uses far fewer of our network resources."
Cell-phone networks are set up in such a way that text messages can piggyback on the streams of voice data traffic bouncing around the system. The digital messages, which amount to mere dozens or hundreds of bytes, can be slipped into the gaps in that stream.
"They're able to sneak through there, even when you and I are having a conversation," Smith explained.
So if you don't know how to use the text-messaging feature on your phone, now is a good time to learn. "Get one of your nieces or nephews to teach you how to do it," Smith joked, "or stop by a Verizon store and ask them to show you."
Here are two more common-sense tips for cell-phone use in a crisis:
Even though the cell-phone jam has subsided at the site of the collapse, all three service providers said they were monitoring shifts in call traffic and positioning their resources accordingly. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina taught the companies that reinforcements had to be pre-positioned for rapid response - and in the Twin Cities area, those reinforcements are being placed to accommodate higher traffic along the highways that are serving as alternates to Interstate 35W.
So what about the emergency communication systems used by first responders? The cell-phone jam didn't affect them, of course, and officials said the systems worked together without a hitch. Over the past three years, the whole state has been moving toward a 800 MHz system for emergency communications, said David Berrisford, field services branch director for Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The first responders at the scene of the bridge collapse were literally all on the same wavelength.
"It worked wonderfully," Berrisford told me.
That view was seconded by Skip Jackson, Minnesota's section manager for ARRL, the nation's amateur-radio association. Ham-radio operators went on standby to assist in case they were needed, Jackson said, but "because the communications infrastructure of the emergency responders in the Twin Cities did not fail, there was no critical reason for us to deploy to the scene."
That doesn't mean the situation is perfect: For instance, if text messaging is the best way to get the word out from the scene of a disaster, doesn't it make sense that you should be able to text your cry for help to 911? Well, you can't do that yet - but just wait.
Next Generation 911 systems, capable of transmitting text as well as voice, data and video, are currently undergoing testing and could start rolling out next year. Police in Los Angeles are already looking into such a system. Boston police have begun accepting anonymous crime tips via texting, and New York is considering doing the same.
National standards for Internet-based 911 services could be released as early as next month, said Pete Eggimann, director of 911 services for the Twin Cities' Metropolitan Emergency Services Board. The board is already negotiating with potential vendors to conduct a pilot project, he told me.
"It's certainly being considered," he said. "That would allow us to pass along different forms of communication, as opposed to today's system, which just passes voice."
Eggimann said he'd like to have an Internet-based 911 system in place within the next year or two. Theoretically, such a system could take in not only text messages, but also video showing what the police might be up against at a crime scene, or data beamed automatically from vehicles involved in a bridge collapse.
"That's going to be the backbone," Eggimann said. "It will carry the next generation of 911."
Here are some Web links that delve into some of the technological questions raised by Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis, courtesy of Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science and the American Institute of Physics:
So how safe are your local bridges? For piles and piles of information about the nation's bridge infrastructure, check out this Web page on the Resource Shelf and this one on Massroads.com. The searchable database of the National Bridge Inventory isn't accessible right now, but I trust that it will be back in business once the traffic subsides.
Thirty-one teams say they'll line up to compete for at least $10 million by developing a marketable 100-mpg automobile … if the Automotive X Prize program can come up with the cash, that is. The X Prize Foundation says it's hoping to do that by the end of the year, in time for the big auto shows.
The 31 would-be entrants have sent in letters of intent to participate once the competition is launched, according to today's announcement from the foundation. The best-known teams on the list are Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley startup that is selling plug-in electric sports cars; and ZAP Motors, which has long been involved in electric-powered vehicles and is now marketing the fuel-sipping Smart Car.
The list serves as a good initial indicator of who's interested in the multimillion-dollar purse - but Donald Foley, executive director of the Automotive X Prize, emphasized that he doesn't expect the list to stop at 31 entries.
"We're certainly not closing the door," he told me today. "We want to get more, including some of the large automakers, I hope. It's fair to say that we're in active discussions with the larger companies."
It's not surprising that the big automakers haven't yet joined in, considering that the prize has yet to be funded and there's no firm time frame for the contest yet. One of the purposes behind releasing the first 31 names now is to attract additional sponsors for what's projected to be a multimillion-dollar purse. Historically, each X Prize reward (for spaceflight and genomics) has amounted to at $10 million, "and we're still aiming for that," Foley said.
|FuelVapor Technologies' concept car is among the
potential competitors for the Automotive X Prize.
So far, the Automotive X Prize is listing Adobe, Idealab, Ray Sidney of Big George Ventures, the Elbaz Foundation and the Jack D. Hilary Foundation among its early sponsors and donors. But the "title sponsor" has not yet been identified. "We don't know if we will have a single title sponsor or a combination," Foley told me.
He told me that the X Prize Foundation's internal goal is to have the prize funded and the rules finalized later this year, so that the competition can get its official kickoff either at the L.A. Auto Show in mid-November or the Detroit Auto Show in January. "Those are the two most widely attended and most prestigious auto shows in the industry at this time, so if we had our druthers, that's where we would go," Foley said.
If the foundation sticks to its schedule, the competition would lead to an honest-to-goodness race in 2009 or so.
The prize program is aimed at rewarding innovations leading to a marketable motor vehicle that gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. It doesn't matter whether the vehicle actually uses gasoline, or diesel, or plug-in electric power, or compressed air. What does matter is that the technology offers greater energy independence, a radical improvement in fuel economy and a lower greenhouse-gas profile.
"It's our firm belief that the incremental changes that have been debated in Congress lately are not sufficient to meet the global environmental challenge," Foley said.
The X Prize Foundation has fielded hundreds of inquiries about the automotive prize, but each of the 31 teams listed today had to send in a $1,000 fee to signal that they were at least somewhat serious about competing, Foley said. "It's modest, but it's still a fee," he said. The entrants range from student teams to long-established companies, and the technologies span a similarly wide range.
"The plug-in hybrids seem to be more prevalent, but we do have some diesel entries as well," Foley said. "They run from the usual to the exotic."
A closer look confirms that plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids dominate the field. Here's the list of 31, with a brief description of the technology involved and Web links, if I could find them. Let me know in the comments section which technology (or team) looks like a winner: