Monday, June 13, 2011

We're moving

And by we I of course mean I. Moving to a more permanent home at - just registered, just wordpressed and sitting, waiting for the right header. Ideally the few people who have enjoyed things thus far (and I thank you!) will be redirected to my new site, but until that potentially nightmarish task is complete, please know that I am still writing about obscure things, I'm just somewhere else. No more blogspot VPN madness (thanks, Politburo), just an easy url with a nice template to play around with. The same old space science, and the same old stolen pictures from Air & Space Magazine. See you there.

Take care friends,

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reality TV on Mars

Men at Work (from left) Alexey Sitev, Romain Charles, Alexander
Smoleevsky, Sukhrob Kamolov, Wang Yue, and Diego Urbano
Somewhere between here and Mars, a hypothetical spaceship is returning to earth. It docked with the International Space Station before floating to the red planet, where it sent a lander and three men to the Martian surface for a month and hosted the first Chinese New Year celebration in space. Its six-member crew grow their own vegetables and enjoy telling each other stories from back home. They rarely get to talk with friends and family, and it's been a year since they saw anyone other than themselves. They say they're are beginning to look forward to reentering our atmosphere. Trouble is, they never left Moscow.
But don’t let that bother you. Mars-500, a very odd psychological experiment run by the Russian Academy of Sciences, is just as legitimate as any other space mission. The volunteers live together in a completely isolated (albeit futuristic) multi-room “spaceship” equipped with personal bedrooms, a medical quarantine, a gym, kitchen, and Mars lander. There are no windows, and they have very limited contact with anyone outside the craft. All of their transmissions to and from mission control are subject to simulated 20-minute delays. The only difference between it and true space flight is that they’ve never left earth—there’s just an empty hanger out in the suburbs.
The Spaceship.
Official reports are positive at the one-year mark. There have been no major surprises over the course of the experiment, the chief purpose of which is to test the physical and psychological effects of deep space travel and extreme isolation.
Each member has been asked a series of questions. What do they miss most? Naturally, each of them misses their families, fresh air and sunshine. But there’s also the food. Team commander Alexei Sitev wishes he could eat fried meat, and China’s Wang Yue misses his national food with every meal. Wang told earth that he must make a “complicated choice” everyday when dealing with his unhappy stomach. He eats the same rations day in and day out, he says, dreaming of his mother’s cooking.
China's Wang Yue and France's
Romain Charles practice their Hanzi.
They lead busy lives in space. The men get eight and a half hours of sleep each night, an hour of physical exercise toward the end of each day, and they generally log six hours of hard work on something, be it simulated dockings with the International Space Station or handling the occasional emergency. They also take turns flying the space ship.
Each member likes to relax in his own way, though with the lack of resources their personal time revolves around books, video games, Chinese calligraphy and movies. Italy’s Diego Urbina enjoys flight simulators. 
“I kind of have this little thing for going and flying a small plane when I get out,” he reports from the ground. As to what the rest want to do when the last hatch finally opens, there is lots of talk of fresh air and travel.
Urbina, along with researcher Aleksandr Smoleevsky and Wang, recently landed on Mars, which has been recreated in a dark room with lights shining from small holes poked through its black walls. They donned space suits and walked across the simple dirt covered floor, planting flags and collecting Martian dirt. Their “lander” had only bunk beds, bare research tools and a small bathroom. 
         The other three—Commander Sitev, France’s Romaine Charles and team physician Sukhrob Kamolov—remained in imaginary Mars orbit, circling the red planet for the whole month of February, where they had a strange and lonely Valentines day.
Real Mission Control, phony Mars walk.
Urbano and Smoleevsky watched by the media.
But they have become good friends. They all said it was inevitable. They plan surprise parties for one another, celebrate each other’s national holidays, and dressed up for Halloween.
When asked if they believed their work would be beneficial to mankind, they seemed optimistic. Urbina said peer reviews after the fact will lead to more experiments, and move things toward an actual trip in the future. Sitev gave a curt answer—“I should not participate in fool’s errand.”
Reportedly, the isolation isn’t as lonely as one would expect. And with the bulk of the trip behind them, the crew has confidence in what they are doing. Though, undoubtedly, imaginary space travel is unlike anything they have ever experienced. “When we get to Earth,” Urbina said, “We will feel initially like it is another planet.”
The crew on Halloween.

That's all. For more photos and information, visit the official site. See you all soon!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

To No One in Particular

The gold records.
            “May all be well,” begins an 8-track recording commissioned by NASA in the late-70’s. “Greetings to you, whoever you are,” the message continues, suddenly in Greek. Someone says, “Let there be peace everywhere,” in Bengali and then, in Chinese—“Have you eaten?”
            And so on, fifty-five times. It was 1977, and NASA planned to send its two Voyager spacecraft toward interstellar space—the void between stars, not planets—and they began wondering what the unmanned pods might meet. Spaceman Carl Sagan helped convince them to send along human artifacts and greetings. “[A] Bottle in the cosmic ocean,” he called it enthusiastically. Both vehicles were loaded with two gold-plated records, and scientists hope that whoever’s out there will know how to play them.
John Hersey's rendition of the
Voyager pods.

            The recordings begin with multi-lingual greetings, and then play sounds from nature, human laughter and the noise of engines and rockets. Extraterrestrials may listen to thunder and birdsong, look at photos of the Great Wall and see demonstrations of eating and drinking (the latter is a picture a young man pouring water into his mouth from a large pitcher).
And then, of course, there’s the music. Bach appears three times, beginning with his Brandenburg concerto. Louis Armstrong plays “Melancholy Blues,” and Chuck Berry plays “Johnny B. Goode.” The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is there, as are Senegalese drumming and Peruvian wedding music. There’s also Georgian folk music, pygmy girls from Zaire, and Australian aboriginal singing. Sagan wanted to include the Beatles’ song “Here Comes the Sun,” but EMI wouldn’t allow it.
Technicians install the disks on the side of Voyager 1.
The Voyager pods left earth toward the end of summer in 1977, and won’t come near another star for close to 40,000 years. Voyager 1 is now at the edge of our solar system, flying where the solar winds from our sun begin to turn back and flow sideways. It still sends and receives transmissions, and technicians guess the pods will be able to contact home through the 20’s. By then Voyager 1 should be all alone, flying with its old records through interstellar space. We have so much more than we did in 1977. But for Voyager 1 and 2 there are still just a few technicians, sitting in Barstow and Madrid, sending the occasional, lonely radio message.
            President Jimmy Carter included a personal message, fitting with the imaginative aesthetic of the time capsule. “We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours” he says to no one in particular. “We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations.”
There we are.
            Since leaving earth, the Voyagers have sent back some very interesting pictures from so far away. Perhaps the most famous, Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot," shows the earth as a small speck, taken from approximately 3.8 billions miles. They have also detailed Saturn, Jupiter, and both of their larger moon systems.
            In that summer before the launch Sagan fell in love with a friend, Ann Druyan. It was unexpected, they said, but they weren’t surprised. “I’ve been waiting ten years for this!” he supposedly yelled over the phone. After talking about it one night, they decided to include one more recording.
            Druyan spent one morning in a hospital in New York City, where doctors recorded her brain waves. “I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey,” she writes in Sagan’s book, Billions and Billions. “To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization.”
            She thought about the history of life on earth, from the time before us according to our scattered ideas to our time now, which for her was a small room with a window overlooking a busy street in New York. She thought about human life and the violence and poverty that hurt so many people, and about the great leaders of history and the people most important to her. “Toward the end,” she writes, “I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.
It’s possible that the electrical impulses of her brain may be converted back into thoughts, whenever or if ever the contents are ruffled through by extraterrestrials. Sagan died in 1996. Ann says that whenever she feels down, she thinks about those small gold disks, floating out to sea at 35,000 miles an hour.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Amateurs in Space Photography

Last year I graduated college and moved back home, where I got a job as a bus boy and saved money. Most nights after work I would surf the internet. I promised myself it wouldn't be more than a few months, and it ended up being around 4. Each night I put my tips in a white envelope that I hid in my bookcase, and I had more midnight job interviews over Skype than I can remember, trying to find work overseas.

Eventually I had about $2500, and I bought a Canon 7d. About a week after I bought it, I went to San Lorenzo's Seminary near my house in Santa Ynez, California and took this picture at about 2am.

I enjoyed it very much. But I eventually got that job overseas and moved to China, where the pollution is too thick to see anything besides the occasional airplane. I hope to go up to Siberia early next year, and there should be stars up there. And if I make it as far north as I want, there should be plenty of nights for taking pictures.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 5

Space Hotels in the Future and Where the Chinese Might be Going
Qian Xuesen with his wife
and kids.
In 2009, Qian Xuesen died. He didn’t make it to 100, but he came very close (97). Caltech and China alike mourned his death.
Like the rest of Chinese life, time seems to be going by a little faster each year for the country’s aerospace engineers, and much has been planned. The aforementioned Chang’e lunar missions have been successful so far. And there is talk of mining the lunar surface for Helium-3, which, when inhaled, may help scientists create an MRI-like image of a lung functioning in real time (or serve as a hyper-efficient form of alternative fuel). Someone should ask the rabbit about that.
Later this year the space station Tiangong should launch, as well as the unmanned Shenzhou 8 that is supposed to dock with it, as are 9, 10, and 11. A giant space station is planned later, in a few years, we’ll see. On the horizon—a lunar station, which will be a port into deep space.
But elsewhere the culture is changing, and the Chinese have a great deal of competition. NASA has lost a great deal of its funding, which will ironically allow for a new space age in the US and abroad—commercial and civilian space exploration.
Many companies have sprouted up. SpaceX in California is most likely to succeed—they have launched rockets from Cape Canaveral, and are the only private enterprise to have a recoverable satellite. Boeing in Seattle, WA has also received around one hundred million in funding from NASA. Virgin Galactic, lead by British mogul Charles Branson, is the surfer dude in the space yearbook, but they are making headlines and a lot of progress. Just last year, a Brooklyn man and his son tied an iPhone to a balloon that carried it up past 100 mile-an-hour thermal winds to a height of 100,000 feet, where it recorded video of the clear curvature of the earth. A Russian Entrepreneur named Sergei Kostenko announced he is building a space hotel.
Richard Branson (left), CEO of Virgin Galactic, aboard his spaceship.
And Google is sponsoring a contest between civilian groups—clubs, really—that have the money and the expertise to design and build their own ships and plan their own missions. 29 teams are competing for $30 million in prizes for the first teams to send a rover to the moon.
The plans are ambitious, but they are also very strange. A German team’s proposed rover looks something like a pool cleaner, with two giant wheels and a small box sitting on the axel. The Brazilian rover is supposed to inflate, and China’s looks like a race car. The prize money should be delivered by or before 2015.
President Obama with
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in Florida

            A new space race is beginning, wherein SpaceX has offered discounts on their rockets to each team participating in Google’s competition, hoping to move things along (and make money). It feels so very different from the nationalistic rivalry between the US and Russia in the 60’s, and much less harmful.
But while entrepreneurs across the globe are planning missions across the Kármán Line whether their home countries have space programs or not, China’s government is the largest state employer in the industry. India is becoming more involved, and so is Japan, but China is by far the most active of the governments still interested. 
And they are different from anyone among their peers, both past and present. "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory,” said Shen Zhongchang of the Chinese Navy Research Institute, whatever that means. There are many guesses as to what they are planning, and what they have already done, and experts continue wondering who will run the Pacific Ocean in ten years—the US Aircraft Carriers, or something Chinese.
Italian-American Donald Tito went to space ten years ago, becoming the first space tourist on April 28, 2001. He orbited the earth in a Russian Soyuz craft for two days and floated around in the ISS, listening to Opera and looking out the windows. When he landed in an empty field in Kazakhstan, he climbed out of the pod and told a bunch of Russians that he’d just returned from paradise. Feng Ru experienced the same feeling in Oakland, just before he crashed his first plane. And Qian was so proud, though so bullied, as he built his country’s program from nothing.
But he eventually got recognition.
What will come next, as the West makes money and the Chinese, supposedly, build their strength, will be known to us in time. We can only wait to see, or read in the news afterward, or try to understand from CCTV. Over and Out!

Friday, May 6, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 4

China Sends Monkeys, Fish, Man to Space
But in 1991, it finally happened—a reasonable president and budget, technology that was already half built, and a good timetable. President Jiang Zemin accepted head designer Ren Xin Min’s proposal, and in October of that year Qian retired.
The new program was called Program 921, and its stages of development, mapped out long in advance, look like a table of contents. Under it’s three phases—first a manned space flight, second a spacelab, and third (much later) a 20-ton space station of Chinese design—are numerous sub-systems that carefully plan the next twenty years of work. It began on January 1, 1992.
The most convincing members argued that it was best to start humbly, and so they did. The design for China’s ship came from the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, designed three decades before and still in use today.
Consisting of three modules—the orbital in the nose, the descent module in the middle, and the service module in the rear—it has never been “fixed,” only improved. Two solar wings fold out from the service module once it enters space, and the modules separate according to the mission’s plans. The descent module always carries the crew back across the atmosphere.
A Shenzhou, sans solar wings. (From top) Orbital Module,
Descent Module, and the white Service Module.
President Jiang named the Chinese ship Shenzhou, meaning Divine Vessel, or something (it’s not entirely translatable). It differs from the Soyuz only in that the Chinese had newer technology to start with, and so they have added a second set of solar wings and a control system to the front orbital module. This allows the unmanned pod to be flown autonomously after the crew flies home, which they have used excessively ever since. A Chinese Shenzhou weighs roughly 17,000 pounds, is thirty feet long, and its solar panels cover roughly 120 square feet.
In 1998 they had 12 astronaut candidates and began training. That year, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) began. You have probably seen it before on clear nights, but thought it was just another star. Whenever it’s visible, it is one of the brightest objects in the night sky.
Shenzhou 1 in Inner Mongolia, 1999
By 1999, their entire space program infrastructure was rebuilt or improved, and they were ready to begin testing. Their new tracking ships left port, causing the rest of the world to scratch their heads. One went off the coast of Australia; another floated near the International Date Line. On November 19th, the first unmanned test flight launched. Shenzhou 1 orbited and returned as mechanically ordered by one of the tracking ships chugging up and down the Namibian coast, and swayed underneath its parachute into the Gobi Desert.
In 2001 Shenzhou 2 launched, carrying all sorts of things—a monkey, a dog, several mice, and a rabbit (not the rabbit). It even had seeds from Taiwan. Unidentified marine life, probably very small, flew as well. No photos have been released in the ten years since its launch, and rumors have spread that its chute failed, causing it to crash land. Keeping silent didn’t brush away the rumors. One doctor did give an interview, though, that quickly deteriorated and ended with him yelling about a fruit fly experiment that did or maybe didn’t happen, but was supposed to see the results of reproduction in zero-gravity. He stormed out, saying flies had nothing to do with sending a Chinese astronaut into space.
But before the mission ever failed or succeeded, the ship released the orbital module while still in orbit, and it flew away. It circled the earth for the next half year on its own.
Shenzhou 3 saw a dress rehearsal. Pilot candidates sat inside the ship, pushing buttons. They ran out just before launch and were replaced by a dummy. Shenzhou 3 was also equipped with a full electronic payload in its orbital module, which circled the earth for 232 days after the initial mission, carrying such weird things as a space crystallization furnace, protein crystal equipment, and cameras with 600mm aperture, which is the sort that photographers use to take pictures of hummingbirds. What it took pictures of is unclear.
Experts have stared at press photos for the last decade, pointing at strange looking antennas and boxes on the nose of each new Shenzhou spacecraft. Most are worried about the cameras, and what they are taking pictures of. They also look at the ELINT (or Electronic Signals Intelligence) built into the nose of each ship—a little tool with three antennas that gathers information from earth.
The Chinese may be using an ELINT to catalogue the RADAR capability of the traveling US Navy, or maybe not. Whatever they are doing, some believe that their orbital modules have circled the earth for nearly 90% of the time since 2002. “That’s a long time,” we’ve been told.
Chinese scientists promised they were close to a manned flight. Pilots trained inside Shenzhou 4 in late 2002, and stayed at the Jiuquan launch site in the days surrounding the launch. The ship flew with a sleeping bag, food and medication. Politburo members attended the launch, which occurred in the lead up to the US campaign in Iraq. Foreign journalists began arriving in Bagdad, but the Chinese supposedly watched the first several months of the war from unmanned orbit.
Yang Liwei, pilot of Shenzhou 5
And then, in October 2003, the news became true. The Mission Insignia was a picture of Chang’e flying among bright stars, and the patch was placed on the shoulder of a space suit. The day before the flight, pilot candidate Yang Liwei was asked to step aside for a moment, where he was told he would fly into space tomorrow. He woke up early the next morning, ate a light breakfast, and orbited the earth 14 times.
Before his trip to space, Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin said that his entire life seemed like one beautiful moment, and wrote a letter to his wife and daughter. American Alan Shepard sat in the capsule, listening to the countdown, and reportedly thought about how the rocket under his seat was built by the lowest bidders, and cursed quietly under his breath. Yang, a quiet man, told mission control that he felt fine, and ate shredded pork with garlic and herbal tea. His descent module landed in the grasslands not far from the launch site after travelling more than 600 megametres (thousands and thousands of miles, essentially). He returned to Beijing that Thursday, and said it the best day of his life.
Qian watched the launch from his hospital bed. Premier Wen Jiabao visited him, and Qian confidently told him that he decided to live to be 100.
Shenzhou 6 followed suit, sending the two backups from Shenzhou 5 into orbit for nearly a week. Pigeons were released in front of the astronauts’ homes, and they reportedly traded seats midflight, which was a big deal.
Shenzhou 7 pilots (from left) Jing Haipeng, Zhai Zhigang, and Liu Boming
The latest mission, Shenzhou 7, launched a month after the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. It carried three pilots, and two of them made the first Chinese space walk, in which the taikonauts crawled out of the ship and floated in space for nearly half an hour, waving flags for viewers back home.
The Chinese managed another first on that mission—launching a really miniature satellite from the spaceship, which orbited Shenzhou 7 as Shenzhou 7 orbited the earth. The small box took photos of the ship and floated, blinking its lights, out about 120 miles away doing its own thing. Some time later in the mission, the ship flew past the International Space Station, just 20 miles below it. Whether the Chinese were trying to intimidate or show off is still unclear, but it seemed to annoy the rest of the space community.
“It was a glorious mission,” astronaut (taikonaut, yuhangyuan) Zhai Zhigang said upon landing. More Coming tomorrow.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 3

Shugang and Other Disasters
Beijing Opera singer
Jiang Ying, Qian's wife

April is a very cold month in Beijing, and the Jingxi Hotel had no heating.  Guards stood outside, shivering, while inside 400 delegates ate astronaut food through tubes and decided that they would lean on American and Russian technology for inspiration. This was in 1971, five years after the Cultural Revolution, but on the tail of their successful satellite launch. The experts, called in from across the country, were in good humor and admired the mock-up of the newest manned-space craft, though it was only made out of wood and cardboard. They named their newest program Project 714 or Shuguang, meaning Dawn in Mandarin.
They began the pilot selection process. The Russians, some argued, took shortcuts by cutting the selection pool to fighter pilots. This would save time. But the Americans, said others, considered only the most qualified fighter pilots, and so we should do the same. And, of course, the candidates should be politically motivated, no taller than 5’7, and no older than 38.
They narrowed it down to nineteen astronauts (or taikonauts as they are called by some of the press, or yuhangyuan as they are called officially but rarely by any Westerner that doesn’t want to embarrass themselves). All of them had stellar records and interesting histories. Among the potential spacemen were the few Chinese pilots who had shot at American planes, mostly in the airspace around the Vietnam-Chinese boarder. One, Fang Guojun, spoke passionately of the time when the People’s Liberation Army used his school as a barracks, and the committee loved him. Preparation began, and several committee members left for Sichuan Province to find a new launch site, ideally somewhere in the mountains, isolated and quiet.
The decision makers, however, had little to work with. Program 714 had only 7 officials, a phone and a jeep. Qian refused to complain about the lack of funding.
They took the pilots for training, but didn’t tell them anything, and fed them only steamed bread for lack of money. Due to the secrecy of the program, the government left them alone and pretended that they weren’t there. Members allegedly had trouble arranging for test flights of even the most average aircraft on military airfields. They began to complain.
Finally, someone spoke out. After asking Mao for more funding, the Chairman always replied that the members and trainees had no grit, and he finally told an envoy sent to meet him that terrestrial matters come first. And, like that, the program ended, again, and the pilots were sent home. Qian sat, wondering. This was 1972.
But basic preparations continued, and in 1975 they launched a recoverable satellite that successfully reentered the atmosphere. Scouts were sent to nearby mountains to look for the returning satellite as it parachuted back down. They waited and waited. Eventually, a small group of miners in Guizhou province—a few hundred miles east—watched terrified as something fell from the sky and crashed into a tree while they ate lunch. They approached the wreckage slowly, and threw a few rocks. When they heard the rocks hit and knew it was metal, they were less worried. Though they never understood what exactly it was.
Qian was aging, watching his space program make significant but gradual achievements. The Americans and Russians made brilliant progress in just a few years, but the Chinese always made short spurts, lost something (usually money, support), and then argued, went to a Beijing hotel, or just waited. In 1976, Chairman Mao died. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took office and slowly began reforming the economy, taking the first steps that led to its free-market capitalist system of present.
In 1981, the US began testing its space shuttle—the iconic spacecraft that looks like a killer whale and lands like a plane upon reentry. It is also, at the time of this writing, on its penultimate flight.
There was a great deal of internal arguing, but they were getting closer to a resolution and solid plan. Deng was not always helpful, siting how unlikely it was that any Chinese astronaut would enter space in his lifetime. But nonetheless China began to speak with the UN, signing space treaties and minimally participating in conversation.
In 1984, President Reagan offered to send a Chinese astronaut into space, but the Party said they were uninterested. Deng Xiaoping stepped down. Qian began to promote scientific investigation of traditional Chinese medicine, and no one heard anything for a long time.