Archive for July, 2007

Expeditions to Near Earth Objects

I have longed believed that Near Earth Objects (asteroids) make a far better early target for post Moon expeditions then distant Mars. Only modest rocketry is required to reach them, the shorter mission time means radiation problems are reduced. Also it would be an excellent way to test crews and equipment and the asteroids are of scientific interest in their own right. Mars has two asteroid type moons which could be used as bases for surface activities so NEOs can be stepping stones to Mars. Asteroids may even contain that most important of all resource, water.
Some people at NASA appear to have come to the same conclusion because NASA hired Digital Space to design a simulation of a NEO expedition.

The simulation is based on the Orion and Ares hardware being developed right now. As yet there is no firm plan to send anyone to an asteroid, the presentation is meant to stir discussion. It remains to be seen if these ideas ever reach reality. After all NEO expeditions could have been done years ago with Apollo era technology but the United States decided to relegate its Apollo heritage to museums.

Have a look at the simulation video.


New Exploration Site

Today the population of the most expansive region of the earth is zero – and it has always been. But – there is a group of engineers, scientists and explorers who are seriously intent on changing that status-quo by establishing the first permanent human colony in the ocean. Their website, the ATLANTICA EXPEDITIONS is now open.

The group (of which I have an intimate familiarity) has already begun the process which culminates in the first ever undersea colony off the central Florida coast in 2012. Until then the Atlantica Expeditions are planning two experimental undersea stations, the New Worlds Explorer and the Leviathan – scheduled for launching in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

The relatively huge site features several videos and other awesome graphics as well as many pages. It is definitely worth a test drive of the site!


A Seemingly Stupid Question: What did the Big Bang Sound Like?

Everyone has heard of the Big Bang which occurred some 14 billion years ago when a kernel of energy smaller than a proton exploded and gave rise to the whole shebang of existence. The extreme heat generated by that explosion exists today as the 3 K microwave background radiation that permeates the whole of the Cosmos. But, in my teaching experience some variation of the following questions always seems to crop up: Did the Big Bang really go BANG, as in KABOOM? And if so what did it sound like? Personally, I always thought these questions were rather stupid and would proceed to remind the offending student of some very salient facts from pervious lessons.

Well we all know from high school physics that sound waves cannot travel through a vacuum and need a medium such as a solid, liquid, or gas to carry them. We are also taught that sound waves are generated by vibrations that give rise to changes in the density of a medium known as rarefactions and compressions. Such waves can only be generated and travel within a material medium. So in a vacuum it’s basically impossible to hear anything. If you have trouble remembering this basic fact, just remember the old adage from the motion picture Alien – “In space no one can hear you scream.”

True enough but, it turns out though that the early universe wasn’t a vacuum. The primordial cosmos was in fact filled with hydrogen and ionized gas and these provided the medium through which the birth cry of the universe was allowed to travel. So these questions are not so stupid after all.

Well one fine day, physicist John G. Cramer of the University of Washington was confronted with the very same questions from the mother of an eleven year old who was doing a science project concerning the Big Bang. His initial impulse was to answer “NO” and perhaps proceed to answer in the way I outlined above. But, this query tickled his curiosity and he proceeded in a way that separates great minds from mere high school physics teachers and actually tackled the problem head on.

Using data from BOOMERanG, a balloon-borne cryogenic microwave telescope experiment that flew at an altitude of about 24 miles over the Antarctic and a space mission the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) he was able to calculate and recreate in a computer simulation the sound wave generated during the first 760 thousand years of the universe. He then proceeded to correlated this data so that the sound intensity varies to match the cosmic microwave background as it changed during this epoch of cosmic history and obtained the necessary parameters of just how such a sound wave would propagate given the physical properties of the universe at that time. The frequency of the sound wave generated was too far below the range of human hearing to be perceived by the human ear. But, Cramer in his simulation boosted the frequency within the range of human hearing and produced an actually audio recording. The story of how and why Cramer decided to tackle the problem is a fascinating one and I highly recommend it to any teacher who was ever confronted by a seemingly stupid question.

For All You Armchair Astronauts!!

If you are one of the many thousands of people who ever dreamed of booking a holiday into Earth orbit, or dreamed of exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond but, can’t afford the price tag, here’s the next best thing.

The Orbiter Spaceflight simulator by Dr. Martin Schweiger of UCL, it’s free, fantastic and downright addictive.

ORBITER is a free flight simulator that goes beyond the confines of Earth’satmosphere. Launch the Space Shuttle from Kennedy Space Center to deploy a satellite, rendezvous with the International Space Station or take the futuristic Delta-glider for a tour through the solar system – the choice is yours.

For an excellent introduction to Orbiter, read The Space Review article by Bruce Irving and Wikipedia’s Orbiter page. Bruce Irving has also co-authored with Andy McSorley an outstanding first time users’ guide entitled ‘Go Play in Space’ With this simulator you can fly practically every spacecraft real or imaginary ever conceived because of the various add-ons developed for it. My favourite is the one developed by Erik Anderson, Alain Hosking and Wolfgang Schwarz entitled ‘World of 2001: A Space Odyssey’ which brings this science-fiction classic to life.

Since Orbiter is a space flight simulator, flying spacecraft is kind of the point. In making a universe full of flyable ships from 2001, we had to extrapolate a bit. Not only did we need to make an Orion III space plane, but also the booster stage, and the catapult to launch them both. And we needed the Orion II cargo spaceplane, to fly payloads into space. The Titov V spaceplane is mentioned in the novel; we wanted to be able to fly it too! Of course, all of these and more come with bases to fly to such as Clavius, Tycho, and Tchalinko on the moon, Port Lowell on Mars, and more.

But, don’t take my word for it. Download the program yourself and take it for a spin to the ends of the solar system and beyond.

Prehistoric Exploration

One of the great explorers of the 20th Century was the Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl. He believed that prehistoric societies were capable of trans oceanic travel and trade. He would point to similarities in language and artifacts on different continents as well as legends of great sea voyages as evidence. In 1947 Thor and a small crew set sail across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft to show that Polynesians may have originated from South America. In latter years he sailed an Egyptian type reed boat, the Ra, across the Atlantic to South America.

His book “Kon-Tiki” is a true exploration classic, still in print its one of the touch stones of my generation. Get a group of people of a certain age together and you can bet a large percentage would have read it. I think it must have been in every school library in Australia.

Of course none of these expeditions prove prehistoric societies actually had intercontinental trade. Although the discovery of traces of nicotine and cocaine in the mummy of Ramses II and tobacco beetles in Egyptian graves sure appear convincing to a layman like me. However, the Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions traveled with the prevailing currents and winds, they were one way journeys, If transoceanic trade was possible then the vessels had to get back.

Now another group of explorers are trying to show two way trade was possible. The Abora III expedition is trying to sail a reed boat from North America to Spain.

From explorersweb:

. Now a ten-person crew including Tormod and led by Dominique Gorlitz is out to prove that others may have taken that historic intercontinental voyage far before Columbus — up to 14,000 years ago — by crossing the North Atlantic in a prehistoric-style boat made of reeds.

Gorlitz and his crew left port in New York City bound for Spain in the ABORA III, a boat made from reeds harvested at Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Since its July 11 departure, the boat has traveled 188 miles into the Atlantic.

“The prevailing opinion is that the North Atlantic passage was not possible 14,000 years ago,” Gorlitz says. “And if the return journey from the Americas into the Old World was impossible, so too was regular commerce between the two continents. But every assumption is valid only when the opposite is proven to be untrue.”…

Aside from the heady implications the completion of their voyage could entail, first the crew needs to deal with the crossing itself.

“Waves have been reaching 10 feet and winds have been blowing up to 17 knots per hour,” the crew reported this week. “Handling the fragile boat demands conservative judgment. Last night, Görlitz had no choice but to partly lower the sail in order to temporarily reduce the speed of the ABORA III. The boat performed well in the challenging conditions, but left many a crewmember sleepless as ABORA III rolled heavily in the waves….”

Certainly a successful voyage would show that primitive boats were capable o the trips but of course , not prove it was actually done. To my mind there remains one big question, how did they navigate? Could ancient sailors successfully navigate the Atlantic to allow trade? I realize the Polynesians could sail the Pacific without instruments but the Atlantic is a rough ocean I’m not sure their methods would be suitable.

Maybe they did have instruments after all. Crichton Miller makes the case that the ancient Celtic Cross was a navigation tool. Perhaps it was, or perhaps Mr Miller is being too imaginative. I not qualified to have a proper opinion but as recent discoveries show the ancient world can surprise us .

A Special Note of Thanks to Space Artist David A. Hardy

One of the most memorable books from my childhood will always be “The New Challenge of the Stars” by Patrick Moore and space artist extraordinaire, David A. Hardy. The day I first opening the pages of that wonderful book, and spent hours on end staring at the beautiful paintings between its covers, will forever remain one childhood memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Mr. Hardy’s paintings not only showed the majesty and beauty of the heavens but, also the wonderful and awesome adventures that await us when humans take the next great leap into space and venture out amongst the stars.

Later in life I have had the singular honour and great pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Hardy for over eleven years. He has always been a most generous and gracious person and on numerous occasions has proven most helpful in all my projects both large and small.

After I posted my last article “The High Road to the Moon”, Mr. Hardy was most charitable in pointing out a significant and glaring error on my part. Quoting Mr. Hardy in his most recent e-mail to me:

‘Surely the top R. A. Smith illustration you’ve used is not of the 1939 lander, but the 1950 version from the liquid-fueled BIS Moonship, rather then the cellular solid fuel one? I attach my own painting, done in 1957, of the 1939 lander on the Moon’

And please allow me to publicly declare:

Mr. Hardy Dear Sir, I stand corrected and most humbly apologise for my gross error. Also, I am most grateful for your kind generosity in providing a more accurate depiction of the 1939 Moonship. I shall forever be in your debt.

Yours faithfully,

Alex Michael Bonnici

The story behind the great collaboration between Patrick More and David A. Hardy, which led to that wonderful book, can be found elsewhere and makes fascinating reading.

The first edition of the “The Challenge of the Stars” did not appear until 1972, eighteen years later. They were unable to find a publisher because it was consider ‘too speculative,’ at the time. A subsequent edition appeared in 1978. In 2004 a fiftieth anniversary edition of the book was released entitled “Futures: 50 Years In Space – The Challenge of the Stars”. This book will stir the imaginations of the young people of the new millennium, as its earlier editions roused the hopes and dreams of the children who witnessed the dawn of the space age and the voyages of Apollo. And, across the vast gulfs of space, within the great crystal cities humankind will erect under alien suns there will be art galleries that will house special collections devoted solely to one David A. Hardy, Artist Extraordinaire of the Space Age, that will invoke a new renaissance of wonder in generations yet to be born.

Mystery Space Ship

I enjoy reading retro Space Fiction, science fiction stories written years ago about a future that never was. One of my recent reads was “Edison’s Conquest of Mars” by Garrett P. Serviss. The story was published in 1898 and features the first fictional appearance of space suits, asteroid mining, scientists-astronauts and manned maneuvering EVA guns. It inspired a young Robert Goddard who would regularly re-read the novel during his life.

Properly the author who inspired the early rocketeers the most would have been Jules Verne. His book From The Earth To The Moon is the great science fiction classic, but its more, its the first book on astronautics. Verne describes in detail how a Moon expedition could be accomplished using the known science of the day.

It seems Verne is still influencing the current generation of space pioneers. Above is a photograph of a full scale model of the Jules Verne moon ship (more here). It appears to be in some office lobby and may belong to’s Jeff Bezos. Can anyone please confirm this?