Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 06 Jun 2006

Back to the future!

CEV in Lunar orbit

NASA have just announced that they're planning to start unmanned orbital test flights of the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) in 2012, with the first manned flights starting in 2014. The CEV (artist's impression above) is the Shuttle replacement that's designed allegedly to get NASA back into the manned space exploration business after an embarrassing forty year long diversion into putting lipstick (i.e. wings) on a flying pig. Meanwhile, the Shuttle's last flight is scheduled for 2010.

Betcha the CEV is overdue, over budget, and doesn't perform to spec. While by then the Chinese space program should be working on their first space station, and who knows where the Russian Kliper program will be?

I'm getting a really retro feeling off this next-generation space program. Smells like ... sailing ships!

Meanwhile, the price of developing CEV's launch vehicle is rumoured to have tripled, there's reason to believe that it may be much more difficult than anticipated to produce defect-free nanotubes needed to build a space elevator, and the environmental health risks of space travel turn out to be so large that hithero insignificant factors like galactic cosmic ray bombardment may stop us getting past the inner solar system (at least, without cheap, easy and effective treatments for cancer).

[Discuss space]

posted at: 12:27 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 19 Aug 2005

I want my space elevator ...

Every so often a sign that we are living in the 21st century bites me on the nose:

Scientists have created the ultimate ribbon. A thousand times thinner than a human hair and a few centimetres wide, the carbon sheet is stronger than steel for its weight, and could open the door to everything from artificial muscles to a space elevator capable of sending astronauts and tourists into orbit.

The team of nanotechnology experts from the University of Texas at Dallas and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia have developed a way to assemble a form of carbon called "nanotubes" into flat sheets.

This is one technology that's going to develop rather faster than most people expect -- because unlike some other cutting-edge technologies such as fusion power, there are commercial uses for intermediate products. Very strong woven carbon nanotube tapes that are not yet strong enough to support a space elevator are nevertheless still handy to have for building suspension bridges or aircraft fuselages, and the stronger they get the more uses they have; so the research into stronger and stronger versions will proceed with positive feedback from the market until this becomes possible.

[Link] [Discuss space]

posted at: 15:07 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 22 Apr 2005

We're going to Jupiter!

Maybe not just yet, but ...

By successfully inducing a state of reversible hibernation in mice, scientists have managed to make a mammal hibernate on demand for the very first time.

Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, led the work and reports his results in the journal Science today. "We think this may be a latent ability all mammals have - potentially even humans - and we're just harnessing it and turning it on and off, inducing a state of hibernation on demand," he said.

In his experiments, Prof Roth and his colleagues knocked mice out by making them inhale air laced with hydrogen sulphide, a chemical produced in humans and other animals which is thought to help regulate body temperature and metabolic activity. The mice were kept in a hibernation-like state for up to six hours before being returned to normal. During this time, the mice stopped moving and appeared to lose consciousness. Their breathing almost stopped and their core temperatures fell from 37C to as low as 11C.

"We have, on demand, reversibly demonstrated the widest range of metabolic flexibility that anyone has ever seen in a non-hibernating animal," Prof Roth said.

Okay, it's going to be a while before we get to human trials -- but there's a strong medical reason for going there: to allow the airlift of injured people out of remote regions without their medical condition deteriorating. And once we've got medically proven reversible hibernation, suddenly the multi-year journeys that current rocket technology imposes on us if we want to actually go visit other planets become a lot less of an insuperable obstacle.

[Link] [Discuss space]

posted at: 12:33 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 03 Aug 2004


In between other serious shit (don't ask) I'm keeping my spirits up by reading a rare-as-hen's-teeth copy of Ignition! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants, by John D. Clark. It's a wonderful source of insights into how rocket scientists got their reputation:

... But then Pino, in 1949, made a discovery that can fairly be described as revolting. He discovered that Butyl Mercaptan was very rapidly hypergolic with mixed acid. This naturally delighted Standard of California, whose crudes contained large quantities of mercaptans and sulfides which had to be removed in order to make their gasoline socially acceptable. So they had drums and drums of mixed butyl mercaptans, and no use for it. If they could only sell it for rocket fuel life would indeed be beautiful.

Well, it had two virtues, or maybe three. It was hypergolic with mixed acid, and it had a rather high density for a fuel. And it wasn't corrosive. But its performance was below that of a straight hydrocarbon, and its odor --! Well, its odor was something to consider. Intense, pervasive, and penetrating, and resembling the stink of an enraged skunk, but surpassing, by far, the best efforts of the most vigorous specimen of Mephitis mephitis. It also clings to the clothes and the skin. But rocketeers are a hardy breed, and the stuff was duly and successfully fired, although it is rumored that certain rocket mechanics were excluded from their car pools and had to run behind. Ten years after it was fired at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station -- NARTS -- the odor was still noticeable around the test areas. (And at NARTS, with more zeal than judgement, I actually developed an analysis for it!)

California Research had an extremely posh laboratory at Richmond, on San Francisco Bay, and that was where Pino started his investigations. But when he started working on the mercaptans, he and his accomplices were exiled to a wooden shack out in the boondocks at least two hundred yards from the main building. Undeterred and unrepentant, he continued his noisome endeavors, but it is very much worth noting that their emphasis had changed. His next candidates wer enot petroleum by-products, nor were they chemicals which were commercially available. They were synthesized, by his own crew, specifically for fuels. Here at the very beginning of the 50's, the chemists started taking over from the engineers, synthesizing new propellants (which were frequently entirely new compounds) to order, instead of being content with items off the shelf.

Anyhow, he came up with the ethyl mercaptal of acetaldehyde and the ethyl mercaptol of acetone, with the skeleton structures

C--C--S--C--S--C--C    and   C--C--S--C--S--C--C
         |                            |
         C                            C

respectively. The odor of these was not so much skunk-like as garlicky, the epitome and concentrate of all the back doors of all the bad Greek restaurants in all the world. And finally he surpassed himself with something that had a dimethylamino group attached to a mercaptan sulfur, and whose odor can't, with all the resources of the English language, even be described. It also drew flies. This was too much, even for Pino and his unregenerate crew, and they banished it to a hole in the ground another two hundred yards further out into the tule marshes. Some months later, in the dead of night, they surreptitiously consigned it to the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

They don't make 'em like that any more.

[Link] [Discuss mad science]

posted at: 15:40 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 29 May 2004

Moore's Law to end in 600 years: Silicon Valley in panic

According to a paper by Lawrence M. Krauss and Glenn D. Starkman, there's a hard limit to the amount of computation that can be done in the universe if -- as currently observed -- it is expanding at an accelerating rate. As Physics Web explains:

the nature of the universe itself also places limits on computation because it is not possible to transmit or receive information beyond the so-called global event-horizon in an accelerating universe.

The acceleration of the universe is driven by something that has repulsive rather than attractive gravitational interactions. However, although this so-called "dark energy" is thought to account for around two-thirds of the universe, no one knows what it is made of. Possible explanations for dark energy include a "cosmological constant" or something known as quintessence.

Krauss and Starkman have determined how far an observer could travel in such a universe and still be able to transmit energy back to Earth. They then determined how much energy could be transmitted this way. To calculate the total amount of information that could be processed, they assumed that the universe has a minimum temperature, below which no energy -- and therefore no information -- can be extracted. Theory predicts that this minimum temperature exists if the universe has a cosmological constant.

The duo calculated that the total number of computer bits that could be processed in the future would be less than 1.35x10120. This means that the effective information available to any observer within the event horizon of an expanding universe will be significantly less than the total so-called Hawking-Beckenstein entropy -- the entropy that is associated with a black hole -- in the universe.

Let's not rush around screaming just yet: the universe isn't about to halt on us. To put this in human terms, Hans Moravec expounds an estimate for the computational complexity of a human brain of around 1014 ops/sec. I'm inclined to think he errs on the optimistic side by at least 3, and more likely 6-9, orders of magnitude, but it's hard to see a human brain requiring more than 1017 MIPS to simulate accurately down to the synaptic level. Elsewhere, speculative posthumanists as Robert Bradbury discuss the amount of computation you can do with the entire mass of a solar system -- it's only about 1020-25 times higher than my upper (conservative) limit for a human brain. And by the time we move on to discussions of the computational bandwidth of a Kardashev Type III civilization some really big numbers are flying around. But we're still about 1060 step-units below the upper bound derived by Krauss and Starkman. That figure of 1.35x10120 corresponds to about 1040 times the number of elementary particles in the observable universe. So we aren't going to run out of bits any time soon, at least not in human terms. But there are some other tantalizing hints that puzzle me:

"It is interesting that the numerical value in [reference 8] for the future information processing capacity of an observer in an accelerating Universe is comparable to the value claimed for the computational capacity of our entire observable Universe over its past history ..."

I'm still trying to get my head around the implications of that one. Anyone got anything to offer?

[Link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 19:50 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 10 May 2004

Happy fun stuff

Well, I dunno about happy and fun, but it's not actively bad ...

The Cassini/Huygens deep space mission is now within sight of Titan, towards which it has been cruising for the past several years. In July, the Huygens lander will parachute into Titan's atmosphere, hopefully telling us a bit about what conditions are like on the largest moon in the solar system.

And the head of the Russian space agency is quoted as saying that a manned Mars mission by 2011-13 is feasible using off-the-shelf hardware. The report is a bit short on details, but if this is referring to the unused Mir modules and the Kliper Soyuz-replacement (and Onega booster), it's promising.

I really want to be around to see live video from the surface of Mars. And no, robots don't count.

[Discuss space]

posted at: 20:14 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 22 Sep 2003

3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Gary Farber provides an essential link: James Oberg's detailed write-up of the Shenzhou-5 due for launch between the 10th and 15th of October, with which China will become the third power to put its own astronauts (okay, taikonauts) into orbit using home-grown boosters. And they're not just interested in doing one-shot launches using a capsule that looks like it's based on Soyuz. Shenzhou is actually a home-grown design, the booster is home-built too, and China is shooting for the #2 slot in manned space exploration.

Phillip S. Clark, a British space consultant specializing in Russian and Chinese technology, expects China's space agency to launch a small 12- to 14-ton laboratory, perhaps within the next two years. Clark predicts that in 2006 or 2007 China will loft a larger station similar to the Russian Salyut stations launched in the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, Clark believes, China will begin the orbital assembly of a structure like the 130-ton Russian Mir station.

Got that? A Chinese space station by 2010.

According to space experts such as Harvey, boosting astronauts into orbit will be enough to make the world see China in a new light. "There will be a perception that the country has reached space superpower status," he says. "If China follows that with its own Salyut-class space station, it will impress the Asian region specifically and the world as a whole." China's goals for its space program are obviously not the same as America's, Russia's or Europe's. Judging from the hardware already built and the infrastructure in place, it seems clear that for the foreseeable future China intends to follow its own path in space.

[ Link ][ Discuss space ]

posted at: 20:54 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 26 May 2003

European Space Agency to acquire manned launcher?

Looks like ESA might (if they want to pony up the EUR 1Bn bill) take out a contract with EADS and Starsem to start launching Soyuz vehicles from Kourou in French Guiana, with the first launches as early as 2006. "Soyuz would give us the full range of vehicles to get into orbit" -- Esa director-general Antonio Rodota (via BBC News Online). "The low-cost Soyuz can lift medium payloads into low-Earth orbit and geostationary obit. It would also give Europe a manned spaceflight option."

[ Link ] [ Discuss space ]

posted at: 23:16 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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