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Classified Atlantis mission nearly ends in disaster, hopes shattered for Alcubierre “warp drive” April 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cybernetics, Nasa, Space, The Future.
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www.spaceflightnow.com tells a dramatic story of when NASA almost lost space shuttle Atlantis on a “blacked out” mission to bring a top-secret spy satellite to orbit. So, a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and took huge chunks out of the ceramic tiles that make up the shuttle’s black underbelly. These tiles protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Remember Columbia? This was before that.

So the astronauts on board took a look at the underside (with the Canadarm maybe?) once they’d reached orbit and saw the catastrophic damage. However, because of the secret nature of the mission, they could only send back low-resolution video. People on the ground couldn’t make out the broken tiles, and ordered them to continue and land as normal…read the story. It’s really good. I found it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine.

In other news, an article on www.technologyreview.com shattered the hopes of hard-core space-travel fans everywhere by claiming that the Alcubierre warp drive might not work after all.
Although there has been no evidence whatsoever that matter can travel faster than light, the physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a means of travel where the space in front of a ship is compressed while the space behind it is stretched. The ship wouldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light compared to “local” space (ie “flat” space within the “warped” bubble), it could go from one point to another faster than the time it would take light to travel in a line through “flat” space.

One of the interesting side effects would be that people on the ship wouldn’t feel the acceleration because the ship wouldn’t actually be moving in the conventional sense. Also, the clocks on the ship would run at the same speed as the clocks on an observer’s wall. Normally something travelling at (or near) the speed of light would experience time dilation, in which a traveller might experience one year of time while the observer would experience five, etc. etc.

One question that I haven’t seen answered though (maybe because the explanation would be way over my liberal-arts head) is this: Even if space could be compressed and stretched like this, wouldn’t the ship eventually have to travel the distance through “flat” space one way or another? Wouldn’t the ship just end up back at its starting point when the space around it snapped back to its “flat” state? To actually land on (or even communicate with) a planet the ship (or its broadcasts) would have to cross the space between it and the planet, no matter how compressed or twisted that space would be. Follow me?

Regardless, the article says it would actually be impossible for a number of reasons. Too bad…although supposedly creating a bubble of warped space around a spaceship would take as much power as would be produced if all of Jupiter was converted to energy. That’s a little beyond our meagre fossil-fuel methods these days.

There’s a story on the National Geographic website about a robot controlled only by the power of human thought. Pretty neat, but I ask you this: Aren’t all machines controlled by human thought? I guess this demonstration just cuts out the middle man.

According to the North Korean media, they have successfully put a satellite in orbit, which is now transmitting revolutionary songs. Other countries are sceptical, and the claim has not been independently confirmed. Some think it was a cover for a long-range missile test. Read about it here.

Whoops! Scratch that. Satellite failure. Two stages of the rocket and its payload crashed into the Pacific Ocean (BBC used the term “landed,” which I think might be a little generous). Thanks for breaking the news, Twitter!

Finally, take a look at some of these great space photos! There’s a beautiful one of the ISS as seen from shuttle Discovery‘s window.

The Oldest Words, Bulletproof Goo and Lunar Robots February 26, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, Technology, The Future.
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Researchers at the University of Reading have used a computer model to chart the rate of change in the meaning of words, with some interesting results.
It seems like the model basically maps the evolutionary tree of its sample words as they change in meaning and cross into other languages.
According to the model, the words “squeeze,” “guts,” and “dirty” are all headed to extinction comparatively soon. Also, verbs tend to change more quickly than other word types.
They found that the more commonly a word has been used, the more slowly it has changed over time. Some of the oldest words could be dozens of millennia old.
A good quote: Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University, said “Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”
The BBC has a very interesting article on this. It’s well worth a read.

Also from the BBC comes a report of an exhibition of (probably not all) the Ministry of Defence’s new toys for the field. Included in the exhibit is a bright-orange goo that is stretchy and malleable like Silly Putty, but becomes hard in response to an impact and disperses the force safely. There’s a video of a man in a suit hitting a happy soldier’s goo-wrapped finger with a hammer.

Finally, here’s a press release from Astrobiotic Technology explaining how autonomous robots could prepare the lunar surface for a permanent outpost.
Resupply ships would have to land close to the outpost for efficiency’s sake, but without an atmosphere the grit sprayed off the ground from the rocket could be damaging to the building. The article weighs two options: building a berm around the landing site and constructing a permanent hard-surfaced landing pad.