Apollo’s on-board flight software source code, printed out

Thursday, 4 February, 2016

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist, lead a MIT Instrumentation Laboratory team that developed on-board flight software for the Apollo Moon flights. She is pictured here, standing beside print outs of the source code that was produced.

About the only time I see source code is on a screen, and if I’m lucky, it’s not too more than a thousand lines in length. Very rare is the occasion I see source code in printed format, if at all, and in this case, I suspect there’s somewhat more than one thousand lines of code.

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The misunderstood Fermi Paradox, ET may indeed be out there…

Wednesday, 3 February, 2016

I make mention of the Fermi Paradox from time to time, and possibly it may be a misunderstood concept. Enrico Fermi, Italian physicist, who died in 1954, is reputed to have said that if intelligent extraterrestrial life did indeed exist, it would have long ago manifested itself in some way.

Instead, and despite living in a galaxy potentially teeming with life-friendly planets, there is no sign, whatsoever, of anyone else. Now it turns out that Fermi may have been wondering about the feasibility of interstellar travel, rather than discounting the presence of extraterrestrial life, according to the accounts of three people who know him well:

Both York and Teller seemed to think Fermi was questioning the feasibility of interstellar travel – nobody thought he was questioning the possible existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. So the so-called Fermi paradox – which does question the existence of E.T. – misrepresents Fermi’s views. Fermi’s skepticism about interstellar travel is not surprising, because in 1950 rockets had not yet reached orbit, much less another planet or star.

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An oral history of Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Monday, 1 February, 2016

It has been just over thirty years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven members of the crew, just minutes after it lifted off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, late on the morning of 28 January, 1986.

Popular Mechanics has compiled an extensive oral history of the tragedy, through interviews with numerous people who had a connection with the launch, that offers a touching, and unique, insight into the disaster.

I remember seeing the explosion, the two streams of white smoke, and realizing there was no shuttle in the middle. I remember thinking specifically: Wait, that doesn’t look right. I remember hearing cameras clicking. I remember one of our beloved teachers standing up on the cafeteria table and shouting, “Everybody shut up. Shut the hell up. Something’s wrong.” We respected him so much that when he did that, we got really scared, because he was scared.

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What has caused star KIC 8462852 to dim? Not comets, that’s for sure

Wednesday, 20 January, 2016

KIC 8462852, a star located about fifteen hundred light years from Earth, made headlines last year after inexplicable variations in its brightness were noticed. It was speculated that something big, much, much bigger than even a Jupiter size planet was responsible, and people began thinking alien megastructures might account for the phenomenon.

Astronomers shied away from making such a conclusion, and insisted there was a natural explanation, such as comets, although that, as it turns out, was a big ask:

Schaefer saw the same century-long dimming in his manual readings, and calculated that it would require 648,000 comets, each 200 kilometres wide, to have passed by the star – completely implausible, he says. “The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot,” he says. “But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all published ideas.”

So, KIC 8462852’s brightness has decreased by twenty percent over a one hundred year period, and to date there is way to account for it.

Is it too early to say that this is starting to become interesting?

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Super, there may be a super-earth somewhat near Earth

Wednesday, 13 January, 2016

Astronomers may have found a super-earth planet, a body that is like our home planet, but a little larger, lurking in the far reaches of our very solar system, some three hundred astronomical units, or AU, from the Sun. An AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun.

For reference Pluto is an average of about forty AU from the Sun, so this object, if it is a super-earth, and it is indeed a member of our solar system, is a long way from home. Perhaps, if it is an Earth like planet, and there is still some doubt on that point, we could move there one day… if we can find a way to sufficiently heat the place, that is.

Another possibility (which seems more likely to the object’s discoverers) is that it is about 300 AU away and about 1.5 times the size of Earth, making it the first “super-Earth” found in our solar system. Observations of trans-Neptunian objects have led to some speculation that one or two super-Earth’s could lurk in the outer solar system, so it’s not out of the question.

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How our solar system compares to those so far found by Kepler

Wednesday, 16 December, 2015

A look at how the 685 multi-planet solar systems that have so far been discovered by the Kepler space observatory, compare with our own. While the size of the all the planets concerned is not to scale, the size of the solar systems are.

At first glance, many appear to be much smaller than ours, but it is possible not every planet in those systems has yet been spotted.

The size of the orbits are all to scale, but the size of the planets are not. For example, Jupiter is actually 11x larger than Earth, but that scale makes Earth-size planets almost invisible (or Jupiters annoyingly large).

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The asteroid hunters, keeping Earth safe

Friday, 11 December, 2015

There’s more than a few asteroids floating about in the space that our planet moves through, but hopefully the efforts of asteroid hunters will detect anything that poses a significant threat, well before it strays too close to us.

We understand now that impacts are a regular facet of life in the solar system, and if you take the extremely long view, close encounters with objects far larger than Tunguska – asteroids that could obliterate regions or even wipe out humanity – are flying around out there and will eventually hit us, 500 or 10,000 or a million years hence. That is, unless we locate these threats, study them, and make plans to mitigate them if and when necessary.

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Have you ever seen the whole of Jupiter’s south pole?

Thursday, 10 December, 2015

Jupiter, southern hemisphere, photo by ESA

The familiar object that is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, as seen from an unfamiliar angle. In this instance, we are seeing a complete view of Jupiter’s southern hemisphere, as opposed to the more usual north pole at top, to south pole at bottom, image.

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The latest high resolution images from Pluto

Tuesday, 8 December, 2015

Can it really be the best part of five months since NASA’s New Horizon’s probe made its closest approach to Pluto? Time flies, I guess, especially if you’re on a vessel moving at the velocity of New Horizons. Anyway, another batch of high resolution images has been released, revealing a little more of the dwarf planet’s varied surface.

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The Apollo flights in stop motion animation

Wednesday, 28 October, 2015

This is fantastic, photos from Kipp Teague’s Project Apollo Archive have been used to make a stop motion animation, by Vimeo member harrisonicus.

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