Archive for August, 2011

Space station could be evacuated following Soyuz crash

Posted August 31, 2011 By David Kolle

Astronauts may need to take the unprecedented step of temporarily abandoning the International Space Station after a Russian rocket launch accident last week.

Until officials figure out what went wrong with Russia’s essential Soyuz rockets, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents have to leave in mid-November.

The unsettling predicament comes just weeks after NASA’s final space shuttle flight.

“We have plenty of options,” said NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini.

“We’ll focus on crew safety as we always do.”

Abandoning the space station, even for a short period, would be an unpleasant last resort for the world’s five space agencies that have spent decades working on the project. Astronauts have been living aboard the space station since 2000, and the goal is to keep it going until 2020.

Mr Suffredini said flight controllers could keep a deserted space station operating indefinitely, as long as all major systems were working properly. The risk to the station goes up, however, if no one is on board to fix equipment breakdowns.

Six astronauts from three countries presently are living on the orbiting complex. Three are due to leave next month — the other three are supposed to check out in mid-November.

The September 22 launch of the next crew — the first to fly in this post-shuttle era — has already been delayed indefinitely. Russia’s Soyuz rockets have been the sole means of getting full-time station residents up and down for two years.

To keep the orbiting outpost with a full staff of six for as long as possible, the one American and two Russians due to return to Earth on September 8 will remain on board at least an extra week.

As for supplies, the space station is well stocked and could go until next summer, Mr Suffredini said. Atlantis dropped off a year’s supply of goods just last month on the final space shuttle voyage.

The unmanned Soyuz craft destroyed last week was carrying 3 tonnes of supplies.

For now, operations are normal in orbit, Mr Suffredini said, and the additional week on board for half the crew will mean additional science research.

The Soyuz has been extremely reliable over the decades — this was the first failure in 44 Russian supply hauls for the space station. Even with such a good track record, many in and outside NASA were concerned about retiring the space shuttles before a replacement was ready to fly astronauts.

Russian space officials have set up an investigation team and until it comes up with a cause for the accident and a repair plan, the launch and landing schedules remain in question.

None of the spacecraft debris has been recovered yet — the wreckage fell into a remote, wooded section of Siberia. The third stage malfunctioned — a sudden loss of pressure apparently was noted between the engine and turbopump.

While a crew may well have survived such an accident because of safety precautions built into the manned version of the rocket, no one wants to take any chances.

One or two unmanned Soyuz launches are on tap for October, one commercial and the other another space station supply run. Those would serve as important test flights before putting humans on board, Mr Suffredini said.

NASA considered vacating the space station before, following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Back then, shuttles were still being used to ferry some station residents back and forth. Instead, the station got by with two-man crews for three years because of the significant cutback in supplies.

The space station’s population doubled in 2009, to six. It wasn’t until the space station was completed this year that science research finally took priority.

Even if the space shuttles were still flying, space station crews would need Soyuz-launched capsules to serve as lifeboats, Mr Suffredini said.

The capsules are certified for no more than six and a half months in space, thus the need to regularly rotate crews. Complicating matters is the need to land the capsules during daylight hours in Kazakhstan, resulting in weeks of blackout periods.

NASA wants US private companies to take over crew hauls, but that’s three to five years away at best. Until then, Soyuz capsules are the only means of transporting astronauts to the space station.

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Apple creator 'Steve Jobs' faces a new challenge

Posted August 29, 2011 By David Kolle

Steve Jobs., the famed Apple CEO – a man whose products are in almost every household and business in the western world and who has influenced modern popular culture like no other – is facing a sad end to his lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer.

At odds with the warm, sunny climes that draped the Silicon Valley hub of Palo Alto, California, yesterday morning, Steve Jobs appeared skeletal, his skin flecked grey, relying on the hold of a close friend.

A new picture, taken while he made a short walk dressed in a light, lengthy black outfit, explains why the 56-year-old Jobs resigned as the boss of Apple on Wednesday.

“I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know,” Jobs wrote in an open letter to the company’s board and Apple customers. “Unfortunately, that day has come.”

While he did not detail his failing health, colleagues and Apple fans held grave fears for Jobs since January, when he took leave of absence.

One recent, arguably stoic appearance came in March to launch Apple’s iPad 2. Much like the device he was spruiking, Jobs appeared both thinner and lighter.

As such, his decision to stand-down – to relinquish the reins of the computer monolith he co-founded from his parent’s garage in 1976 – was not unexpected.

Ironically, the announcement followed news that Apple had surpassed Exxon Mobil as the world’s most valuable company – valued at $341.5 billion.

It was in 2004 that Jobs – dubbed the “maestro of the micro” in a 1982 Time magazine cover story – announced he had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of his pancreas. An insidious disease, there is an average three-year survival rate for people with the condition.

In a 2005 speech at Stanford University Jobs recalled the day doctors told him “this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months.”

He proved them wrong, although subsequent work appearances had him labelled “listless” and “gaunt”.

In April 2009 he underwent a liver transplant eventually returning to work in September of that year.

“I feel great. I probably need to gain about 30 pounds, but I feel really good. I’m eating like crazy. A lot of ice cream,” he told reporters at the time.

A staunch vegetarian and devotee of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the fiercely private Jobs married Laurene Powell in a Zhen Buddhist ceremony in 1991.

The couple has three children. Jobs had another child, Lisa, from a previous relationship when he was 23.

For two years he denied paternity and in a signed court document claimed he couldn’t have fathered Lisa as he was “sterile and infertile, and as a result thereof, did not have the physical capacity to procreate a child.” Father and daughter later reconciled.

Jobs was 21 when he quit Atari and co-founded Apple alongside Steve “Woz” Wozniak. The pair’s goal was to produce a computer that was both inexpensive and simple to operate. Initial success came with 1977′s Apple II, while 1984′s Macintosh saved the company from financial ruin and introduced the mouse and Windows to the world.

Amidst infighting Jobs quit the company in 1985 – he launched the NeXT Computer Company that same year – returning to Apple 12 years later. As CEO Jobs proved his savvy in again turning around the ailing Apple amidst a saturated and inexpensive PC market.

The first iPod was released in 2001, cementing Jobs’ position as a technological wizard whilst taking Apple from a simple computer company to the world’s dominant digital lifestyle brand.

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The Amazon gets Google Street View treatment

Posted August 24, 2011 By David Kolle

Google has extended the coverage of its Street View program – which allows Google Maps viewers the ability too look at a street as if they were standing on it – to the Amazon River.

The Amazon River flowing through the rainforest

The Amazon River flowing through the rainforest

The project started when Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS) approached Google Earth hoping to turn Street View into a view of the Amazon Basin, in the hopes of spreading awareness of the issues of climate change, deforestation, and poverty.

The 360º cameras are usually mounted on top of cars, but, for this project, they are being pulled along by pedal-power trikes.

There will be two trikes in action; one sits atop a boat, capturing the view from the river, while the other will be ridden through riverside communities.

One of the trikes will also be used to capture rainforest walks as it moves along rainforest trails.

Beyond creating awareness of the area, FAS hopes that the Google project will show that people can live in harmony with the rain forest, and also help promote eco-tourism in the area.

“We want the world to see that the Amazon is not a place only with plants and animals,” said FAS chief executive Virgilio Viana said.

“It is also a place with people, and people who are not completely at odds with the current thinking of global sustainability.”

“People have learned how to live here for centuries,” Viana said. “In a way, this partnership with Google is a window that opens for us to show that there is a solution.”

“Deforestation is not the result of stupidity,” he went on. “It is an economic decision; so we have to make people earn money with the forest standing.”

Eco-tourism along with forest and fishery management are being pursued as ways to support local communities without destroying rain forest, according to Viana.

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Robonaut awakens aboard the ISS ready for action

Posted August 23, 2011 By David Kolle
Space Shuttle Robot

NASA’s humanoid robot has finally awakened in space.

Ground controllers turned Robonaut on overnight for the first time since it was delivered to the International Space Station in February. The test involved sending power to all of Robonaut’s systems. The robot was not commanded to move — that will happen next week.

“Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind,” Robonaut posted in a Twitter update.

(All right, so a Robonaut team member actually posted the tweets for him at @astrorobonaut.)

The four visible light cameras that serve as Robonaut’s eyes turned on in the gold-coloured head, as did the infrared camera, located in the robot’s mouth and needed for depth perception. One of Robonaut’s tweets showed the view inside the American lab, Destiny.

“Sure wish I could move my head and look around,” Robonaut said in the tweet.

Robonaut — the first humanoid robot in space — is being tested as a possible astronaut’s helper.

The robot’s handlers at Mission Control in Houston cheered as everything came alive. The main computers — buried inside Robonaut’s stomach — kicked on, as did the more than 30 processors embedded in the arms for controlling the joints.

“Robonaut behaved himself,” said deputy project manager Nicolaus Radford.

“Oh, Robonaut definitely got an ‘A’. He won’t be held back a grade, if that’s what you want to know.”

“It was just very exciting,” he said.

“It’s been a long time coming to get this thing turned on.”

The robot was delivered by space shuttle Discovery on its final flight. It took this long for the operating software to get up there, and for the astronauts to have enough time to help with the experiment

On September 1, controllers will command Robonaut to move its fingers, hands and arms.

“It’s been asleep for about a year, so it kind of has to stretch out a little bit,” Mr Radford said.

“Just like a crew member has to kind of acclimate themselves to zero gravity, our robot has to do a very similar thing, kind of wiggle itself and learn how it needs to move.”

For now, Robonaut exists from the waist up. It measures 3 feet 4 inches tall (91cm) and weighs 330 pounds (150kg). Each arm is 2 feet 8 inches long (60cm).

A pair of legs currently are being designed and should be launched in 2013.

Radford said if everything continues to check out well, the robot may be able to take on a few mundane chores — like taking air velocity measurements inside the space station — early next year.

For now, Robonaut — also called R2 — is designed to stay inside the space station. Future versions might venture out on spacewalks, saving astronauts time while keeping them safe.

During the two-hour test overnight, US astronaut Michael Fossum and Japanese spaceman Satoshi Furukawa took Robonaut from its sleeping bag, placed it on its fixed pedestal, then floated away as ground controllers took over. The robot went back into its bag following the test.

Because Robonaut has some flammable parts, NASA wants it stored in its fireproof bag.

Controllers were tempted to make the robot move, but held off.

“We want to be respectful,” Mr Radford said.

“It’s a very complicated piece of hardware.”

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