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NASA

NASA Projects 2010 to be Hottest Ever

March 25th, 2010

From the Washington Post

The headline to this post may surprise many Washingtonians who are still thawing out from the cold and historically snowy winter. However, not only does a new NASA draft analysis predict that 2010 will likely set a new global temperature record, but it also projects that it is “virtually certain” that a new 12-month running mean global temperature record will occur sometime this year.

Wait a second, you may say. That doesn’t make sense, given the relentless cold thus far in 2010 (at least until the past two weeks), not only in Washington, but also throughout Europe and parts of Asia.

So, where is this forecast coming from?

First, as I detailed last week, the winter of 2009-2010 wasn’t actually very cold from a global perspective. In fact, according to NOAA, the past winter (Dec.-Feb.) was the fifth warmest on record on a global basis.

Second, NASA’s projection, which is in the form of a lengthy and technical paper that is publicly available here, is based on a combination of recent observations and historical evidence. Part of the projection rests on the continued presence of a moderate El Niño, which is a natural climate event characterized by unusually warm water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño has long been known to boost average global temperatures by warming the ocean and atmosphere. The all-time record warm year of 1998 (depending on whose statistics you cite) was a year that featured a strong El Niño, for example.

On the other hand, La Niña, which is marked by anomalously cool waters in the equatorial tropical Pacific, can lead to cooler global temperatures.

NASA’s temperature projection is based in part on the knowledge that global surface temperatures tend to lag behind El Niño by about four months. Since El Niño has continued to remain at a moderate strength, and global average temperatures are already running significantly warmer than average, it follows that there is a window of another several months of extra warming within which to set a new record.

You can think of El Niño as adding another few logs on a preexisting fire. Only in this analogy, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels are also adding their own kindling at the same time.

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Exploration

Opportunity is Thinking

March 25th, 2010

From Discovery

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity have surpassed their designed mission lifespan by an astonishing six years, but don’t let that fool you into thinking their mental capacity is suffering.

Far from it.

With help from the MER mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., our two tenacious robotic explorers are getting smarter with age.

But how can they be getting smarter? It’s not as if any of the hardware has changed; they can’t have more memory slotted into their USB ports (as they don’t have USB ports or a Radio Shack nearby).

Also, the Red Planet isn’t exactly a good host, throwing dust storms at the wheeled explorers, taxing their power supplies and, for Spirit, creating sand traps. Understandably, it’s not only their wheels, joints and solar panels are showing signs of attrition; their on-board computer systems are being pushed to the limit too.

The answer lies in the more sophisticated software beamed to the rovers so they can carry out more sophisticated tasks. And in the case of Opportunity, it’s now choosing which rocks it should study without consulting mission control.

Yes, in a manner of speaking, Opportunity is thinking for itself; the first space robot to select observation targets automatically.

After being upgraded, Opportunity’s computer can study photographs taken with its wide-angle navigation camera, scanning for rocks that fulfill pre-defined criteria. When a target has been found, the robot will take a series of images through different color filters with its narrower-angled panoramic camera.

It’s basically looking for strange-looking rocks (to scientists, “strange-looking” means “very interesting”), grabbing a closer look and then flagging them for further study. In the past, images had to be sent back to Earth to be studied by controllers before a decision could be made to do a follow-up study, often days later. Now these decisions are made ‘on the fly’ by the rover, cutting us humans out of the loop.

“We spent years developing this capability on research rovers in the Mars Yard here at JPL,” said Tara Estlin, rover driver and leader of the development group who developed this artificial intelligence (AI) software. “Six years ago, we never expected that we would get a chance to use it on Opportunity.”

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International Space Station

ISS to get ‘Man Cave’

March 24th, 2010

From Universe Today

There might be a new favorite hang-out for astronauts aboard the International Space Station later this year. The Multi Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) known as Leonardo – which will be going to the ISS on the upcoming STS-131 mission carrying cargo and supplies – will be transformed after the mission into a Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), and brought up to stay on the station on STS-133 as a storeroom for supplies. But it might also become a haven to get away from it all.

“The thought is, the PMM might become sort of a ‘man cave’,” said Mike Kinslow, the Boeing payload manager out at Kennedy Space Center. “It won’t have all the background noise of fans, computers and other equipment running like in the laboratories, so it will be a quieter atmosphere that might appeal to the astronauts during their off-duty hours.”

No plans for a big screen TV Kinslow said, but there will be ports for computers, and since internet is now available on the ISS, Leonardo could be the location of choice to compose emails to loved ones back home, or do a little Twittering.

Another interesting piece of hardware scheduled to fly on the PMM is the Robonaut 2, NASA’s second generation of dexterous robots with a human-like torso that can work with tools and one day are envisioned to be able to do EVA work outside the ISS. But for now, R2 will be tested inside the station in zero-g. “It will be used on orbit for routine maintenance indoors only.” said Kinslow, “This is not an external unit.”

It has a “head” with a vision system, with hands that can do work, controlled by virtual-reality-like operation. Any chance R2 could be programmed to serve drinks or bring food into the man cave?

Turning Leonardo into a permanent module will take some work, said NASA Payload Manager Joe Delai. “Once it returns from this flight we will beef up the external shield and change things internally to become a permanent module. It will be about a four month process to get it ready.”

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Exploration

Shuttle Tech

March 24th, 2010

From Motherboard tv

Watching astronauts repair one of the most complex machines ever built while flying 300 miles above the Earth in the new IMAX film Hubble 3D may be a ‘religious experience’. But the vehicle they took to get up there can sometimes feel as small and ramshackle as an old 18-wheeler.

The soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle is 30 years old and remarkably relies on an on-board flight computer much less sophisticated than the phone you’re reading this on: yup, the craft’s General Purpose Computer uses just one MB of RAM. It kind of puts your memory problems into perspective, now doesn’t it?

The shuttle’s reliance also goes to show how much humans can do even with old tools, provided they’re reliable. The aging ship – perhaps the most complex machine ever built – is “truly a remarkable piece of hardware,” astronaut (and erstwhile IMAX cameraman) Scott Altman told Motherboard at a recent reception for the film, where he was wearing his blue flight suit while juggling a glass of gold-colored liquid and a mini hamburger.

Besides the fact that the computer just works, there’s at least one benefit of relying on a machine slower than a 386 with a purpose-built operating system: “You never get that blue screen of death!”

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Exploration

Mars Gale Crater Flyover

March 24th, 2010



From Universe Today

The videos are created using actual, high-resolution data from the HiRISE camera – DEM (Digital Elevation Model)- also known as DTM Digital Terrain Model files.

“The videos were produced using software I originally designed to visualize the MOLA data in 2001,” Adrian said. “The software, called Mars Explorer, is a real-time rendering engine for visualizing 3D terrain data interactively.”

Adrian said the Mars Explorer software renders at about 60 frames per second on a PC with a moderately powerful graphics card when not outputting video. “When creating videos it runs at about one tenth of that speed. The 4 minute 50 second Candor Chasma video took about half an hour to generate,” he said. “The software requires the elevation and image data in raw binary format so I first have to pre-process the HiRISE DTM and image data into this format. This process takes about an hour.

One of my favorites is one Adrian created of flying through Gale Crater, above, which includes the sun in the sky and even “glare” of the sun off the “lens” of your camera (or the windshield on your Mars hovercraft! – the sun and glare can also be seen in the Olympus Mons video, top). But he says the earlier videos he created, such as the Gale crater animation, did not utilize the full image resolution that he now has by making his software more memory efficient. “I can now use the data at its full resolution,” he said. “I have to crop some of the larger datasets such as the Mojave crater DTM because they require more system RAM than I currently have.”

About the sun and glare, Adrian said, “The shadows in the Gale crater animation do not correspond correctly to the position of the sun. The sun should be to the left and possibly higher. The sun glare is an effect I programmed that brightens the whole screen by an amount depending on the angle between the sun and view direction.”

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International Space Station

Shuttle Takes on Cargo

March 24th, 2010

From Florida Today

Kennedy Space Center workers today plan to install more than 15 tons of cargo inside shuttle Discovery in preparation for an April 5 launch, a date that could be made official during Friday’s flight readiness review at the spaceport.

Shuttle program managers met Tuesday to discuss results from weekend tests that confirmed the health of helium regulators needed to fire steering jets on Discovery’s right, rear side.

The regulators became more critical after engineers determined a helium tank valve became stuck fully or partially open during the loading of propellants earlier this month.

“The testing over the weekend gave (managers) even more confidence in the health of the regulators, which is the most important factor in that system,” Kyle Herring said. “This is one of the more redundant systems on the entire vehicle.”

The stuck valve wouldn’t prevent a launch or threaten the safety of Discovery’s crew, Herring said, but could cut short a planned 13-day mission to re-supply the International Space Station under failure scenarios considered unlikely.

The valve could only be replaced by rolling Discovery off its launch pad, causing a lengthy mission delay.

Managers will discuss one other special issue during Friday’s readiness review: the performance of ceramic inserts stuck between protective tiles on portions of the orbiter. One came loose near a window during Endeavour’s recent flight.

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