Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Going to the moon, Romanian style

In a bid for the Google Lunar X Prize, the Romanian team has come up with an unorthodox approach that involves balloons and balls.
That tested technology includes a balloon that can carry ARCA [Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association]'s European Lunar Explorer (ELE) space probe into the upper atmosphere, eliminating the need for a traditional launch pad and allowing ARCA to launch close to the equator from a sea platform. The "0" pressure balloon design is similar to a giant black hot-air balloon that uses solar energy to heat the air inside, instead of the burner that normal hot-air balloons use.

Once the balloon soars above 11 miles (18 km), the three-stage rocket slung below will fire and boost itself into low Earth orbit. ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing.

The Google Lunar X Prize requires teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high definition views back to Earth. ARCA's round lander would skim the lunar surface using its rocket engine.

Unlike some teams with plans for lunar rovers or crawlers, ARCA sprang for the easiest lunar lander they could design. The team's focus is on getting to the moon, as opposed to what happens once they get there.

"Our design for the lander is extremely simple, it's a sphere," Sburlea said. "It's too complicated, too expensive to build a robot."
Interesting approach, but I wonder if that will qualify for the prize. It seems that the criteria calls for the lander to land first and then move across the surface, and it looks like the Romanians are more concerned with just getting there in one piece. Which, of course, is an admirable goal itself.

I wish them luck.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Seeing how far we've come

Probably because this is hitting the theaters ...

... the SciFi channel was running this all day long today:

I caught the tail end of one episode, and another was just starting when my seven-year-old son walked in and asked me what I was watching.

Me: This is a TV show I used to watch when I was a kid like you. We used to watch it on Saturday mornings.

My son: What's happening to those people?

Me: They're getting taken away to the Land of the Lost, where dinosaurs and lizard people live.

My son: What happened? Did they get shrunk first? 'Cause that's just a little creek.

Me: No, the special-effect world was much bigger then.

I don't think he bought it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Memorial Day 2009
Fort Sam Houston

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What I just finished reading today

My inspiration to seek out, find, and read this book came from a conversation in the comments of this post. While discussing Iron Maiden's Brave New World album, I included a sample of the song "Out of the Silent Planet." Totally unaware of C.S. Lewis's science fiction works, I was surprised when Alan from Blogonomicon told me that the name of the Maiden song came from this book. I was intrigued. Iron Maiden has based some of their songs on literary works, and I was hoping that this would also be the case and I would find a satisfying connection after reading the book.

But it was not to be.

Apparently this is one of those Maiden songs that simply borrows the name of the book without cleaving to the subject matter. Just as Maiden's "Stranger in a Strange Land" has nothing to do with Robert Heinlein's classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, so also Maiden's "Out of the Silent Planet" has nothing to do with Lewis's work.

Oh, well. I like the song, and I like the book. I suppose I can enjoy them both separately as well as together.

Later, if I'm so inspired, I might put up a review of Out of the Silent Planet. The book, that is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Komodos are venomous

For a long time, people in the know thought the bites of Komodo dragons were deadly because of the septic properties of their mouths. Supposedly the high levels of bacteria left behind by a bite were enough to kill a person with infection.

Now they think otherwise.

SYDNEY (AFP) – The world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, has a snake-like venom in its bite which sends victims into shock and stops their blood from clotting, according to Australian research.

It had been widely believed that deadly bacteria in the carnivorous lizard's mouth helped kill its prey.

But magnetic resonance imagery has for the first time uncovered venom glands containing a shock-inducing poison which increases blood flow and decreases blood pressure, scientists say.

Lead researcher Bryan Fry said three-dimensional computer imaging comparing the Komodo's bite with that of Australia's saltwater crocodile showed it used a "grip and rip" pulling manoeuvre to tear deep wounds, similar to a shark or sabre cat.

Fry surgically removed a venom gland from a terminally ill Komodo at Singapore Zoo for the study, and said it contained a highly toxic poison which would induce potent stomach cramps, hypothermia and a drop in blood pressure.

Can those damn creatures get much more scary than that? First, they're big. Second, they're fast and aggressive. Now, they're poisonous. Geez, what else can this monster muster to scare us?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Brute force in space

Astronauts can be tough, when they need to be. They can even rip things apart in space.
After two separate attempts to unscrew the bolt out with different custom-made tools - Plans A and B - Mission Control finally gave [astronaut Michael] Massimino the go ahead to just rip the handrail off, while taking care not to lose any of the broken pieces. The handrail was attached to a cover plate with four bolts, three of which were easily removed. It was the last bolt that stuck fast, apparently because it was stripped.

"Make sure you're ready," said astronaut Andrew Feustel, who was coaching the spacewalkers from inside Atlantis.

Mission Control warned the astronauts that it would take some serious strength to bend the handrail and shear off the stuck bolt. Massimino braced himself, then let loose. Mission Control was essentially blind as Atlantis passed out of live video range.

"Easy Mike, just real easy," [astronaut Michael] Good said.

"There we go! I think I got it," Massimino said. "I don't think we even scattered any debris."
And then give it a stout kick, just for good measure!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sunny shuttle day

Here is a great image of the space shuttle passing in front of the sun.

Read more about it here.

(Image courtesy of NASA/Thierry Legault, posted on Caption at link: "In this tightly cropped image, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had grappled the Hubble Space Telescope.")

Word of the day

Here's a new word I learned today:

Pseudobiceros hancockanus.

The dinosaurs taught it to me. (Make sure you read the mouse-over quote!)

UPDATE: Drat! The mouse-over text isn't at the link. So, here it is:

one such species that does this is "pseudobiceros hancockanus", and don't worry, you will be easily forgiven for thinking its name is totally made up

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sonata evening

Earlier tonight, something started playing in my head. It was this:

That's the the first movement (allegro assai) of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, popularly known as the Appassionata sonata. This particular recording was done on a period instrument, a reconstruction of a type of piano that Beethoven would have actually been able to play. I like this recording because the sound is distinctly different from that of a piano from today, and you can tell that the construction of the instrument is not as hardy as that of modern models. Go back and listen closely to the selection at about the 38-39 second mark.

There you will hear something that I have never heard on a modern piano: string clatter. The performer is playing the forte parts with such power that the strings vibrate massively, interfering with each other before their sounds fade. You can hear string clatter sometimes on a vigorously strummed guitar with slack strings, but I have never heard piano wires do this before I heard this recording. It's a testament to the power of Beethoven's works and the level of performance he demanded from musicians and instruments.

One can imagine piano makers after Beethoven working hard to make their instruments more sturdy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday sonnet: John Clare

Here is another sonnet in blank verse, though it does not seem to exhibit the proposition/resolution structure that is characteristic of the verse form (unless the shift of the focus from people to the dog in the ninth line qualifies as the "turn"). Or perhaps this work, written between 1837 and 1841, is nothing more than a fourteen-line poem.


The snow falls deep; the forest lies alone;
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The gypsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close in snow like hovel warm;
There tainted mutton wastes upon the coals,
And the half-wasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong, and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away.
'Tis thus they live--a picture to the place,
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.

Rhyme scheme: blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thank you, Richard Branson

Practical space travel -- for laypeople -- could actually happen in my lifetime. In fact, within two years, possibly.

LONDON (Reuters) - Long-haul trips could be made in spaceships instead of planes in 20 years' time if Virgin's efforts to commercialize space travel succeed, the president of Virgin Galactic told Reuters in an interview.

Will Whitehorn said Virgin's plans to take tourists into space were just a first stage that could open up a range of possibilities for the company including space science, computer server farms in space and replacing long-haul flights.

Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has collected $40 million in deposits from would-be space tourists including physicist Stephen Hawking and ex-racing driver Niki Lauda, and hopes to start commercial trips within two years.

Whitehorn said the bookings from 300 people willing to pay $200,000 each for a space flight had convinced Virgin the venture was viable. It is currently running test flights and hopes soon to win a license from the Federal Aviation Authority.

I hope so, too.

(hat tip: Instapundit)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Streetscape morning

Sometimes you walk because they won't let you arrive.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Symphonic poem: The Water Goblin

For no other reason than I think this piece is absolutely wonderful, I share with you a brief excerpt from Antonín Dvořák's symphonic poem called The Water Goblin.

Good stuff.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ten random Wikipedia pages

Randomness chosen by others still involves careful thought.

1. Alexander Mair
The Hon. Alexander Mair (25 August 1889 – 3 August 1969) was an Australian politician and Premier of New South Wales from 5 August 1939 to 16 May 1941.

2. All Day: Nike+ Original Run
Commissioned by Nike, All Day: Nike+ Original Run is an original and exclusive composition written and performed by Aesop Rock.

3. Lex de Maiestate
The Lex Cornelia de Maiestate was a Roman law passed by Sulla during his dictatorship from 81 to 80 BC using the Tribune Cornelius.

4. Wierzchowo, Pomeranian Voivodeship
Wierzchowo [vjɛʂˈxɔvɔ] (German Firchau) is a village in the administrative district of Gmina Człuchów, within Człuchów County, Pomeranian Voivodeship, in northern Poland.

5. Wienerberger
Wienerberger AG is the world’s largest producer of bricks, and No. 2 on the European clay roof tiles market.

6. Charles Lawrence
Brigadier-General Charles Lawrence (December 14, 1709October 19, 1760) was a British military officer who, as lieutenant governor and subsequently governor of Nova Scotia, was responsible for overseeing the expulsion of Acadians from the colony in the Great Upheaval.

7. Greenwood Cemetery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Greenwood (Knights of Pythias) Cemetery is a historic cemetery in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

8. Chongjin
Ch'ŏngjin (Ch'ŏngjin-si), North Korea's third largest city.

9. Pardonnez-moi
Pardonnez-moi is a 2006 French movie, directed and written by Maiwenn Le Besco, starring Le Besco, Pascal Greggory, Hélène de Fougerolles, and Aurélien Recoing.

10. Derek Grimm
William Derek Grimm (born August 3, 1974 in Peoria, Illinois) is an American professional basketball player.