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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.

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North Korea to launch “satellite” March 12, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, What?.
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North Korea says they’re getting ready to launch a communications satellite, but sceptics think it’s just another long-range missile test.
If it’s a missile, it would be able to reach Alaska. If it’s a satellite, North Korea would be beating the South into space (although there has already been one Korean astronaut).
A North Korean space program eh? Sounds familiar

Anyone care to place a bet?

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails to Reach Orbit February 24, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Nasa.
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AAARRRgh! Seven years of gruelling engineering, testing and planning and 270 million US dollars went crashing into the ocean near Antarctica earlier today.

If you haven’t already heard (and embarassingly it was my mother that tipped me off), Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) suffered a rocket malfunction three minutes after its launch.

It looks like the two-part (“clamshell”) fairing surrounding the satellite failed to open. The fairing protects the satellite as the rocket leaves the atmosphere, and is very heavy. The rocket didn’t have enough power to carry the satellite and its fairing into orbit so fell back to Earth, crashing into frigid antarctic waters.

The OCO was meant to measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and hopefully pinpoint previously unknown carbon sinks and sources. This would have helped us understand how our climate is changing. Which it is.

You can read about the mission and its failure right here on the Nasa website. There is a good video here of the moment the failure was announced. Listen for the order not to leak to the press! Also, here‘s a (rather dry) video of the press briefing following the failure, introduced by a bright red man in a bright yellow suit. Extraterrestrial? Must investigate further…The video is full of Nasa vaguenesses like “about eighty milliseconds later…”

If you get tired of the briefing you should watch the Jupiter and Saturn mission videos. Exciting!

The BBC also has a good thorough article about the mission background.

Apparently there aren’t enough spare parts to rebuild another OCO immediately, and we’ll have to wait to see what they decide to do. I feel terrible for those involved. What a crushing disappointment.

All is not lost, however. Japan launched it’s own Ibuki or Gosat satellite last month, which has a similar purpose and is so far doing just fine.

But enough bad news! This is the absolute craziest fish I have ever seen. It’s got a see-through head! And those are its eyes! It’s called a barreleye apparently. I wonder why…

If that’s not freaky enough for you, think about scientists growing human teeth in a laboratory. Your teeth.