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Perfect Test Flight for Orion! [Dec. 5th, 2014|12:20 pm]
Early this morning, the new Orion module design was put through a full flight test (designated EFT-1). This is not the final vehicle but a first version of the capsule which may get NASA back to manned spaceflight. This flight is the furthest we've sent a capsule (though unmanned this time) from Earth since the Apollo 17 flight.

It lifted off on a Delta IV Heavy and went up into orbit. (Above image is a long-exposure view of the launch.) After a first orbit of the Earth, the upper stage of the central rocket fired to take the vehicle into a high elliptical trajectory. (Below image is a view of Earth's limb from later portion of the flight.)

As it came around the other side of the planet, this brought it down into the atmosphere. It plunged down, ultimately landing in the Pacific about 630 miles SW of San Diego. It appeared to be in fine shape, bobbing upright in the waves (the position known as "stable-1").

One odd metaphor from commentary as it came down: "This is a golden spike in the bridge to the future of spaceflight." Um... Okay. The golden spike was where rail lines met (and not a bridge IIRC). Makes it sound like aliens rendezvoused with us in high orbit there. :)

Congrats to NASA and the team for a great test flight. The vehicle was packed with cameras and sensors so hopefully this will be a wealth of data as they complete the craft's design. Next major milestone will be the test of the new booster stack, currently slated for 2017. We'll see how the program progresses (and if it continues to be funded).


The other exciting event coming up is New Horizons' approach to Pluto. On the way, though, it'll be waking up to photograph a small Kuiper belt object, temporarily designated VNH0004. This is scheduled for January 2015. The flyby of Pluto will occur in July 2015.
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Space Updates [Nov. 7th, 2014|08:16 pm]
First, the bad...

Antares Explosion Investigation

Preliminary investigation points to the old Soviet rocket engines used by the vehicle. Specifically, the current theory is that the "failure likely originated in, or directly affected, the turbopump machinery", which then blew out (or as they put it "disassemble") the fuel feed system. (Hey, I just about called it!)

Loss of Virgin's SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic's vehicle SpaceShipTwo suffered a catastrophic failure on it's test flight. At around 50K feet and just above mach one the vehicle disintegrated. One of the pilots survived (miraculously!) but the other was lost.

Preliminary investigation points to pilot error, with one of them unlocking the feathering mechanism for the tail vanes before it was safe to do so. This likely led to the vehicle tumbling and coming apart at speed.

...and the good

Chang'e Returns from the Moon

The unmanned Chinese spacecraft Chang'e orbited the moon and took that absolutely fantastic image above. What a terrific photo!

The craft circled around the moon (it was a free-return trajectory so it didn't actually enter lunar orbit) and made its way back to Earth. Then it separated a capsule that returned safely to Earth and landed safely in Inner Mongolia. A real triumph for their space program!

Extrasolar Planetary Formation Disc

This beautiful photo was taken by the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. It's a view of HL Tau, a star located approximately 450 light years from us. The photo shows a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust. The gaps in the disk indicate that emerging planets orbit around the star and are sweeping clear paths the same way that shepherd moons are observed to do in the rings of Saturn.

It's mind boggling to me that we're now able to get these images (and with terrestrial telescopes!) of the details of other solar systems. While the large disc is easier to image than small rocky planets, it's remarkable that we've been able to capture this and that it matches much about our theories of planetary system formation.
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Antares Launch Failure [Oct. 29th, 2014|10:27 pm]
I was watching the Antares launch yesterday. Not in person but on a live NASA feed. I try to watch SpaceX and Orbital launches whenever possible. I was watching on Monday when the first Antares launch attempt got scrubbed because a sailboat drifted into the restricted safety area downrange. Then Tuesday...

The Antares is a relatively new craft so of course the possibility of a failure was something I considered -- more so than on other launches, anyway; it always goes through my head. Rocket science is challenging enough to inspire it's own saying, after all.

The sight was incredible. You've probably seen the footage on the news by now. (If not...) It had a clean lift off and first few seconds of flight before engine failure, after which the craft fell to the pad.

The good news is that this was an unmanned cargo flight and so no one was injured or killed. To overplay the contrast, that takes this from being a human tragedy to an engineering problem. And investigation of that problem started today, with examination of the launch site and wreckage.

Interesting Points Less Covered in the News

  • The Wallops launch site is surrounded by marshland. Rather than send in a fire crew at night they just let the site burn itself out.
  • The resupply mission was to the International Space Station. There's no risk posed to the crew there by loss of this vehicle. They have enough consumables to last about five months at present. Plus a Russian Progress resupply ship docked today. (That launch had been scheduled for a long time and was not in response to the Antares loss.)
  • The very first thing said by the Launch Director after the explosion was a reminder that all operators needed to stay at their consoles and ensure records and data were fully captured for the subsequent accident investigation. After some early NASA accidents, this has become a hard-learned lesson and such an announcement is the knell that you've entered into what they term "contingency procedures".
  • The Cygnus module carried a number of payload items including 18 science experiments from selected gradeschoolers. Read about one such student team.
  • Orbital Sciences is in the middle of a merger deal with Alliant Techsystems (ATK), one of the other aerospace launch companies, most well-known for the Delta rockets. ATK earlier acquired of Thiokol, the company which made the Solid Rocket Boosters for the space shuttle.

"What Caused the Failure?"

The press conference following the accident almost made me laugh at one point as the Orbital VP struggled to find new ways to say, "No, we don't know what caused the failure of our rocket only an hour ago. We actually need to investigate it thoroughly before we have a good answer. No, I won't blindly speculate for the press. Next question."

As someone unconnected, I'll feel free to speculate with the important caveat that it's entirely amateur armchair analysis. :)

Everyone is asking about the engines because it's clear in the video that there's an explosive burst from the aft of the rocket. Plus the Antares is powered by AJ-26 engines which have had failures during testing, including May of this year.

The AJ-26 is actually a refurbished Soviet-era engine known as NK-33. Orbital buys them from GenCorp subsidiary Aerojet Rocketdyne. Aerojet is refurbishing old Russian hardware (literally fixing up engine pieces built 40-45 years ago) and, due to problems, badly losing money on the deal.

Furthermore, Orbital had already decided to abandon AJ-26 engines and last year started looking for a new propulsion system, implying a drastic decision and extensive vehicle redesign work. Orbital has not announced what replacement engine it has selected but we know they considered "solid-rocket motors from ATK for the next block of Antares vehicles", which means the merger would make a lot of sense.

(If this were a spy novel or thriller, here's where the audience would realize the tragic motivation of the shady businessman at GenCorp/Aerojet, losing money and finding out his business deal has no future because his client is being wooed by another supplier, decided to take a drastic step...)

As a historical side note, the NK-33 engines (advanced for their time) were designed to power the Soviet moonshot vehicle, the ill-fated N1. This program's 5L launch failed about ten seconds after liftoff and crashed back to the pad in an eerie precursor of yesterday's event. The N1 accident in 1969 is possibly the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

It is also, to be fair, likely entirely unrelated to the Antares accident except for those superficially similarities. But it's such an interesting historical footnote that I had to share it.

What I find most curious about the footage of the Antares launch failure is the motion of the vehicle. The first stage booster features two AJ-26 engines side by side, as seen here:

Watching the launch video, you can see the explosive burst from the aft of the vehicle around T+0:13, after which there's a clear loss of thrust. The vehicle stalls and descends.

However it does not tumble (at least while visible around the smoke and glare in the footage released which I've seen). The booster remains basically vertical as it starts to fall. This seems to indicate the failure was in a common component and the fuel feed system completely lost pressure; presumably, escaping RP propellant is what we're seeing in the growing fireball. This would point to the failure not being in just one engine (where the other could continue operating at least for fractions of a second and impact torque) but something in the aft tank, feed flow plumbing, or front of the turbopumps.

So what happened? As they said at the press conference, we'll have to wait for a proper investigation. I'll be quite interested to learn, though. Perhaps the storied record of the AJ-26 will prove a red herring and something in the adapter to the booster tanks was to blame?

In the meantime, sympathies for the Orbital staff who've had to take this blow.
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New Horizons Closing in on Pluto System [Sep. 20th, 2014|03:46 pm]
The New Horizons mission is closing in on Pluto after all these years in flight!

The long range camera has previously been able to see Pluto and Charon orbiting (showing how they move as a binary). Article here.

Interestingly, the other moons orbit the binary pair -- in other words they are circling the common center of gravity (barycenter) between Pluto and Charon.

New Horizons has just barely been able to spy Hydra, the next largest object in the Pluto system. Here is a long-exposure time-composite image. Hydra is the little bump just above the Pluto-Charon bright spot. Article here.

Only 10 months until the flyby!
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FFFF Contender? [Aug. 7th, 2014|11:30 pm]
Someone nominated Hazrat for the Fursuit Fracas tourney! This is rather a surprise as I've never asked for anyone to nominate me. I've always stood clear of such popularity contests.

Nevertheless I'm really quite flattered that someone nominated me! So I filled out the form and will officially be part of the tourney this year. We'll see what happens. :)
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Family Vacation Time [Aug. 6th, 2014|09:41 am]
We are doing a late-summer road trip down to CA. We arrived last night at Trey's place in Santa Clara. I've been tweeting some pics as we travel. Once it's done I'll collect some of the better ones here too.

We are down here for a few days. On Friday morning we start the haul back up.
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Rosetta Mission Arrives at Comet [Aug. 6th, 2014|09:37 am]
Rosetta comet rendezvous is a triumph for the European Space Agency

Rosetta has finally arrived and the first images coming back are fantastic!
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TWENTY YEARS! [May. 8th, 2014|10:44 pm]
I've been in the furry fandom for over 20 years now. Wow. Let's indulge in a quick look back for the sake of nostalgia and regretfully cementing my graymuzzle status.

Like many, I feel that I was "furry" before I found the organized community. I grew up on cartoons (TMNT! Like, the first time around, dude.) and found animal characters fascinating. Then in my first year in college I found alt.fan.furry on Usenet in late '93 or early '94. A discussion there got me interested with the costuming aspect. (IIRC, the first posts I saw on costuming were from Flinthoof, Lance, and Robert King.)

I joined the fursuit list run by Robert. This is sometime in spring '94 and when I consider I really "joined" the fandom. I later designed these buttons for the members which were printed and assembled by Cheetah.

Through that group's help, I made my first fursuit, Widge the Rat. This is circa '96.

Here's a photo from my first ever public fursuit outing. It was to a local park. (Which is just down the street from where Trey now lives! It's next to what was nicknamed the Furry Arms apartments.) Did this guerrilla suiting run with Porsupah. I was hooked!

I met Kit, now my wife, while in college. I introduced her to the fandom and we both joined FurryMUCK. Besides being fun roleplaying and meeting a fine pack of wolves (among others), the muck saved us from running up huge long distance phone bills while we were in different states over the summer.

I went on to "write the book" on fursuiting, literally, with support from my friends. Chairo and Dark Fang and Trey in Yippee's Polka Dog got cover spots. It's still available on Amazon. And thanks to Jerry and Davina on the publishing side for making that happen!

Over the years since, I've met so many wonderful folks through furry! Including a number of fellow rodent fans. Here's a little group shot from FC -- I'm Remy, on the right. (Thanks to Madius for organizing that and making the banner.)

A few years back I passed the point where I'd spent more than half my life as part of the furry community. And I'm thankful for all the kind-hearted open-minded and endlessly-creative friends. Folks who aren't afraid to celebrate the wonder of imagination and furry fun.

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Uses for Tennis Balls [May. 5th, 2014|10:16 pm]
Harvest Mouse Homes

Used tennis balls from Wimbledon are being recycled into mouse habitat. These homes are to help preserve the smallest mammal in Britain, the harvest mouse. Besides being an important part of the ecosystem, it's unbelievably cute! The mice can get into the tennis balls through drilled entrance holes which are too small for predators.

BBC coverage with more info

Hat tip to QI elves for the story.
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E.T. Phone Excavation Crew [Apr. 27th, 2014|03:44 pm]
The E.T. video game has long been a legend in the industry. Considered to be one of the worst games made, at least from a major company. It was the late heady days of the early 80's home video game boom. And this was the start of the collapse.

It's long been believed that truckloads of unsold cartridges were buried in a New Mexico landfill in late 1983, covered over by rubbish and concrete. (The game itself was not lost and is available today on emulators. You can find lots of Let's Play videos on YouTube... all of which do back up the assertion that it's a truly terrible game.)

Recently the city granted permission for a crew to dig there and, sure enough, the legends were true...

Old E.T. cartridges are being pulled up, along with other Atari overstock. Amazing!

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