Cities on the Sea

The Seasteading Institute, Paul Spooner - Concept Art
The Seasteading Institute, Paul Spooner - Concept Art

During a presidential election year in the United States and amid a troubling global economic situation, escape is probably in the back of many peoples’ minds.  Why not escape then to the sea, where your home might one day be mobile enough to set sail for a makeshift water nation tailored to your own beliefs?

Seasteading – creating “permanent dwellings on the ocean” – is an idea that has found recent financial backing and media attention.  Those interested in seasteading hope it will take off in the same way that the private space industry has taken off in recent years.

The Seasteading ’08 Conference will be held on October 10, 2008 in Burlingame, CA, USA.  The day of workshops will focus on the first steps required to reside on the ocean, including business plans, governance issues, and designs.

First Beams Circulate the Large Hadron Collider

Physicists today welcomed the beginning of a new era in particle physics with the first successful traverse of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by protons. At the University of Arizona, Elliot Cheu, Associate Dean of the College of Science, Professor of Physics, and a member of the LHC-ATLAS team, spoke to the public about the event and upcoming particle physics research using the LHC.

University of Arizona President Robert Shelton and Cheu kicked off “From the Big Bang to Dark Matter: Turning on the Large Hadron Collider” with confirmation that the largest particle accelerator ever built had been successfully activated around 12:30 AM Arizona Time this morning. Over the next hour, researcher at the LHC, located on the border of France and Switzerland near Geneva, successfully sent a proton all the way around the 27 kilometer ring. UA physicists had a good reason for spending a sleepless night awaiting updates on this test run: several components of ATLAS, one of the six LHC experiments, were designed and built here.

Installing the ATLAS calorimeter
CERN - Installing the ATLAS calorimeter

ATLAS will detect the spray of particles that result from the collisions between two protons. Cheu compared the multi-story ATLAS to an onion; various layers of instrumentation can detect different classes of particles made of quarks (known as hadrons.) These include electrons, protons, neutrons, muons, and perhaps new particles never before detected. For example, a theorized particles called the Higgs Boson is especially important to the Standard Model of particle physics. Some scientists believe the Higgs Boson gives matter its mass. Should ATLAS and other experiments in the LHC detect this particle, then theoretical updates to the Standard Model will be confirmed. If not, then the Standard Model, an otherwise very successful model of particles in our universe, may be in trouble.

With today’s race around the ring, how far are we away from results? Cheu said the first collisions between protons injected into the ring in opposite directions could come later in September or in October. Terabytes of data will be collected and analyzed for evidence of new particles created in these colossal collisions. According to Cheu the first scientific results could come as soon as Spring 2009.

First beam event seen in ATLAS
ATLAS - First beam event seen in ATLAS

LHC and its instruments will also look for particles that might make up dark matter, explore the nature of photons and cosmic rays, and tell us something about the conditions believed to exist in the universe less than a second after the Big Bang.

All these terabytes of data requires analysis. UA researchers have become software programmers, said Cheu, to help turn data about collisions and their resulting data into useful graphs and other abstractions. Meanwhile, advances in networking, GRID computing and software technology were required to meet the needs of the experiment. This technological progress could benefit the existing internet in upcoming years.

Addressing concerns about the danger of turning on the LHC, Cheu highlighted some of the physics that would make Earth-eating microscopic black holes and stranglets unlikely, if not completely impossible. Natural particle accelerators and the existence of neutron stars suggest that these dangers do not exist. Even if these dangers did exist, based on various calculations they would take far longer than the remaining age of the Sun to present any threat to the Earth.

The discovery of the electron in 1897 heralded the birth of the particle physics discipline, but it was not immediately clear how it would impact everyday life, if at all. In fact, over the past century, the discovery of this particle led to electricity, television, computers, cellphones, and much more. Cheu suggested that new particles detected by the LHC could also radically change our lives over the coming decades.

The LHC was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). It was first conceived of in the early 1980s and formally approved in December 1994. Construction began at the end of that decade and was completed this year. Over the coming months and years, scientists will explore reality at scales tinier and more elusive than atoms.

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Šteins Flyby Animated

Along with first images, anaglyphs and initial data results from Rosetta’s successful flyby of Asteroid (2867) Šteins, mission team members put together an animation of the flyby:


Credit: ESA ©2008 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPM/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - An animation of the closest approach of Rosetta to asteroid Steins

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Šteins Up Close

Hours after its successful flyby of “the jewel of the solar system”, the robotic traveler Rosetta continues to return data from the encounter. From a point of light discovered in 1969 into a world of new vistas, here is Asteroid (2867) Šteins:

Asteroid Steins seen from a distance of 800 km
Credit: ESA ©2008 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPM/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Asteroid Steins seen from a distance of 800 km

At a press conference to announce preliminary results and to show the first images of Šteins, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists compared the shape of the asteroid to that of a jewel and a diamond. The predicted shape model based on data obtained from Earth-based telescopes held up during the encounter, but the asteroid turned out to be nearly 10% bigger than expected. At its largest diameter Šteins measures 5.9 kilometers, and at its smallest 4.0 kilometers.

Asteroid Steins mosiac
Credits: ESA ©2008 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPM/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Asteroid Steins mosiac

Šteins is marked by a large 2.0 kilometer crater on its top hemisphere and a chain of seven craters that stretch from the rim of this large crater down the side of the asteroid. Whether or not these are secondary craters (fall back of material from an initial and larger impact) or a distinct primary impact event is unclear. Scientists counted 23 craters and believe they are of a variety of ages, suggesting a complex impact history.

To date, spacecraft have now explored eight asteroids up close. Šteins is different from the previously explored asteroids, however; it is an E-type body, a member of an asteroid family that is iron-poor and silicate rich compared to other families. Scientists will pour over the new data to determine the asteroid’s composition, mineralogy, topography, age, spin axis orientation, and impact history.

Anaglyph image of Steins
Credits: ESA ©2008 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPM/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Anaglyph image of Steins

Angioletta Coradini, Principal Investigator, announced that her team got a jump on calibration efforts using data from the VIRTIS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) instrument. She said that with quick input from the navigation team, a stable spacecraft platform, and extensive planning prior to the flyby, the team was able to provide nearly real-time calibration for the other instruments.

Gale Winters, ESA Director of Operations and Infrastrucuture, used the press conference to announce the Space Situational Awareness proposal. This proposed ESA and European program will conduct surveillance and tracking of a variety of objects in space, including Near-Earth asteroids that pose impact risk. The program will also support imaging of these objects and monitoring of space weather. Program researchers will use new data like those provided today from Rosetta to better understand these impact threats.

According to Andrea Accomazzo, Spacecraft operations Manager, the Šteins flyby pushed Rosetta to the limits of its capabilities. The complex flyby required thermal protection of the spacecraft’s back end, where the Philae lander awaits its future encounter with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In addition, poorly constrained orbital information based on monitoring from Earth-based instruments required autonomous fine-tuning from Rosetta itself. Rosetta began tracking Šteins on August 4, 2008 to better calculate its position and make the necessary course corrections to bring the spacecraft within 800 kilometers of the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft came within two kilometers of this target distance.

Rosetta remains in good shape for the rest of its mission. The NAC (narrow-angle camera) went into safe mode just prior to the encounter due to conservative guidelines meant to protect the instrument for its primary mission at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The camera went back into operations not long after the encounter and successfully took more images as Šteins receded.

Next up for Rosetta: a flyby of Earth in November 2009 and a flyby of Asteroid (21) Lutetia on June 10, 2010. Rosetta will arrive at its final destination Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014.

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Amazon Video On Demand Arrives

Amazon Video On Demand

Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand

[REVIEW] — Late last year Adobe released an upgrade to their ubiquitous Flash software that enabled higher quality video. In response, overall video streaming quality on the web has improved as various video services have upgraded their offerings. Amazon is the latest to make the leap, turning their unsuccessful and Windows-only Unbox digital media download service into a streaming digital media service. Amazon Video On Demand finally brings their large digital library of movies and television series to Apple Macs, removes the requirement for a separate software download, and offers compelling competition to Apple’s iTunes.

Downloads have not disappeared. Amazon Video On Demand offers both streaming in your browser and downloads to the Unbox software. However, the streaming service is meant to reduce or even eliminate the need for downloads. Digital media purchases remain in the Amazon cloud, available from anywhere you have access to the site and a sufficient internet connection.

I tested the new service with “Superman Returns”, a movie I purchased on Unbox over a year ago. The movie was only available for purchase for a short time. After I first downloaded the movie, I had subsequently removed all videos from my computer. When I tried to download “Superman Returns” later, I discovered that the draconian movie studio requirements prevented a second download. I was stuck with a purchase I could not watch.

Now that my video purchases are in the cloud, I was surprised and delighted to see I again have access to “Superman Returns.” Previous Unbox purchases show up in “Your Video Library” along with new purchases, ready and waiting to be streamed.

Amazon Video On Demand - Your Video Library

Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand “Your Video Library”. Well, My Video Library.

Video starts playing immediately. Video quality depends on the speed of your internet connection and network congestion. Apparently there is no buffering, though this could potentially improve the video quality at the expense of immediate access. Over my 12 mbps cable modem connection from Cox Communications and then over wireless, video quality started out poor, but improved quickly as the connection and streaming seemed to “take.” A “Connection” status button on the video menu bar notes kbit/sec and the video quality, up to mbps speeds and 480p (DVD quality.) The quality can fluctuate, but after minor stuttering early in the movie, the streaming stabilized until I was lost in the movie. If this quality can be maintained during network congestion in my local area and as more people begin to use the service, then Amazon Video On Demand may very well be considered a success.

The video menu bar has your standard video controls including play, pause, skip back, skip forward, and volume control. Video can be popped out of the video library page or launched into full screen. A download button allows you to archive the purchase and play locally from your computer, but, again, I think streaming success may make this unnecessary. While the button is also available on a Mac, the download is sent to your registered PC (you control the destination in your Amazon account settings) and Unbox installation. Unbox software is still unavailable for Mac or Linux computers, and you cannot transfer video to iPods.

Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand - Superman Returns

Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand playing “Superman Returns”. Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is that you do to me, Brandon Routh? I mean, Superman?

Amazon Video On Demand is fast, easy, and a much better experience than using the clunky Unbox download and player software. I have long desired to make a complete switch from PC to Mac, but a few remaining services I could not get on a Mac have delayed the change; my Macbook Pro sits side-by-side with my desktop PC. With my videos in the cloud, that final switch is coming soon.

How does the experience stack up against iTunes? ITunes remains the high bar against which all other digital media services will be compared. I have slowly begun to purchase more music from Amazon because everything there is DRM-free, but doing so does require a download of Amazon software that sends your purchases to iTunes. When it comes to video, Amazon potentially has the upper-hand (I would like to play with the service longer before I come to any firm conclusions.) All you need is a browser and an Amazon account. Amazon’s ease of purchase and the instant play capabilities of Video On Demand mean you can get started watching video right away, with little to none of the delay required for Unbox or iTunes downloads. Hard drive space is no longer a barrier to owning as many movies and television shows as you want. I had better watch my wallet…

Unfortunately, NBC Universal and their popular television series may be the deciding factor for some people between Amazon Video On Demand and iTunes, though this might to some extent be offset by Disney/ABC television series available only on iTunes. There is NO question that I will be watching the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica using Amazon’s service. Frankly, I have never understood why NBC Universal decided to settle for no further iTunes sales even while developing Hulu.com and propping up the offerings on Amazon. I still hope they will return to iTunes but this is no longer required for me to continue purchasing and watching my favorite NBC series.

With a movie library much larger than iTunes, similar television offerings, NBC Universal TV series, availability through most any browser with Flash on most any computer, a smooth transition for your previous Unbox purchases, and a beta of a service that will stream video to Sony BRAVIA televisions, Amazon Video On Demand is pretty fantastic so far. High definition video on demand will make or break all competing digital media services, a battleground I suspect all players will enter in a big way in just a few months. Amazon Video On Demand could be particularly successful internationally where many countries have far superior internet speeds to what we suffer through here in the United States. Verizon FiOS Internet customers in the United States might also be big winners, the lucky jerks.

We might see as early as next Tuesday how Apple plans to respond. I predict that I will make use of both services for some time to come. For there to be a clear winner between Amazon, Apple, and the other competitors, they will have to add new features including extras and high definition as quickly as possible, while maintaining and improving the quality of both the video and the experience. So far, I like what I see with Amazon Video On Demand.

Asteroid (2867) Šteins Flyby Coming

Rosetta spacecraft meets asteroid Steins
Image credit: ESA TV - Rosetta spacecraft meets asteroid Steins

Rosetta, the European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft on its way to orbit and deploy a lander on a comet, is now approaching Asteroid (2867) Šteins. The flyby will bring the spacecraft within 800 km of Šteins on Friday evening, September 5, 2008. The ESA will provide a webcast about the event beginning on September 06, 2008 from 04:00 until 11:20 GMT on the Rosetta website. Data is expect on Saturday after the flyby has been completed.

Šteins is 4.6 km in diameter and located in the main asteroid belt. Rosetta will collect information about the asteroid as it speeds by on its way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Here is the Šteins flyby timeline provided by ESA on the Rosetta Blog:

Timeline of nominal fly-by events

(All event times stated in ground time, CEST)

1 September

02:20 Instruments switched on (except OSIRIS which was already on for the navigation campaign)

4 September

07:20-11:20 Slot for possible trajectory correction manoeuvre (36 hours before closest approach)

13:20-18:20 Last opportunity to acquire images for optical navigation campaign

5 September

07:20-10:20 Slot for possible trajectory correction manoeuvre (12 hours before closest approach)

10:20 Navigation cameras switch to tracking mode – initially both used, then use CAM ‘A’ only (to be decided)

11:00 Uplink fly-by commands for asteroid fly-by mode (AFM)

Includes an update to the command profile already on board & the final updated AFM commands

20:18-20:38 Spacecraft ‘flip over’

20:39 Spacecraft switches automatically to asteroid fly-by mode

20:48 High-gain antenna on hold

From 10 minutes before to about 1 hour after closest approach, the high-gain antenna will not point to Earth. No telemetry will be received until the spacecraft exits the asteroid fly-by mode.

20:56 Sun illuminates Rosetta from the back and the asteroid fully

20:58 Closest approach, at a planned distance of 800 km from the asteroid

21:58 Rosetta automatically exits asteroid fly-by mode, high-gain antenna rotated to Earth pointing (until 22:05)

22:27 First post-fly-by acquisition of signal (AOS) – telemetry received via NASA’s Goldstone ground station

22:30 Start of science data download via Goldstone

6 September

04:06-16:01 Ground station pass via ESA’s New Norcia station – science data download continues. During the first 5 hrs, OSIRIS data will be downloaded, followed by 3:30 hrs of VIRTIS only, and then the rest of the science data

12:00 Live streaming of Rosetta Steins fly-by press conference from ESOC begins

13:00 Images from fly-by published on ESA web

15:00 End of press conference streaming

16:01 End of reception of first set of science data

After 6 September

Daily ground station passes until 5 October, including 8 hrs via New Norcia & one 4-hr DSN pass daily until 14 September – then daily passes via New Norcia only until 5 October.

As soon as the first closeup images of Steins are returned, I will update this page to change the background to a specific Steins theme. Please visit Frontier Channel on Saturday for the latest updates on the flyby.

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Planetary Provenance – Venus

Venus is the Earth-that-could-have-been and the Earth-that-still-might-be.  Our so called sister planet orbits second from the Sun. Cloudy, hot, and unhospitable to life as we know it, Venus demonstrates as well as Mars why comparative planetary science can greatly improve understanding of our own planet.

The greenhouse effect on Venus results in a poorly understood phenomena called zonal super-rotation. Hurricane winds across the cloud tops help the atmosphere to rotate much faster than the planet itself, but these winds give way to barely a breeze at the surface. The atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide with some nitrogen. Thick sulfur dioxide clouds and other particulates conspire to hide the surface. The USSR visited the surface of Venus with several landers, some that included cameras, while orbiters with radar equipment accomplished global surface mapping last decade by orbiters. Mountains, volcanoes, pancake domes, plains, channels, and a impact craters have been discovered on the surface. The surface appears to be geologically young, despite little evidence for plate tectonics, the process on the Earth that recycles old crust and exudes new crust. The youthfulness of the Venusian surface may be due to catastrophic upheavals that periodically see the crust overturned (this might have last occurred from 300 to 500 million years ago).

Volcano Sapas Mons

Credit: JPL/NASA – “Volcano Sapas Mons

The European Space Agency’s Venus Express is the latest mission to Venus and still ongoing. The orbiter has been tasked with several years of cloud and atmospheric studies and has already discovered a level of complexity in the clouds that had not been previously seen. “Boiling” clouds at low latitudes become streaky clouds at mid latitudes. At the poles thick and uniform clouds are interrupted rarely by darker streaks. At both poles there are huge vortexes in the cloud decks with mysterious features that resemble the eye of a hurricane that constantly changes shape.

False-colour ultraviolet image of the Southern hemisphere of Venus

Credit: ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA – “False-colour ultraviolet image of the Southern hemisphere of Venus

Now in an extended mission, Venus Express in July 2008 began a series of maneuvers to bring it closer to Venus.

The history of Venus remains a mystery. Was it ever more like Earth, and if so, what happened? Why does the surface appear to be geologically young, and what is creating the sulfuric acid and other particulates in the atmosphere? Could life exist in more temperate zones in the clouds?

Answering these questions will in turn tell us more about the Earth. Venus, perhaps, provides a snapshot of our own future, if our greenhouse effect were to speed away out of our control. Knowing more about the end result could help us avoid the same fate.

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