Monthly Archives: December 2014

Follow Santa Around the World!


Image captured from NORAD’s Santa Tracker. Just go there and have some fun!

‘Tis the season for the tracking of Santa Claus with systems designed to track incoming weapons of war. Instead tracking a warhead that would end with a mushroom cloud exterminating a city full of children, good and bad, the NORAD Santa tracker follows the JOE (Jolly Old Elf) as he flies overhead and then drops off presents for good children. It will also show any curious child just where Santa is.

Not only is he tracked on the site, there are also some video cameras on duty to capture the JOE in action as he flies by. For the more curious children, there’s also a history of Santa, his sleigh, the NORAD Santa tracking “program,” and a few other things. For even more information, a click on the NORAD HQ link will offer up some NORAD mission tidbits and other extras.

The globe on the tracking homepaged can spin, and it theoretically shows the home cities of children who are browsing (at least it showed where I lived). Every year, NORAD seems to tweak and change the site to make it more interesting for those wishing to track Santa. This year’s might be the nicest of the bunch, yet. And, there seems to be an application for each major phone platform for download (even the iPhone ;-)), so kids can track Santa while at the mall, in the car, etc.

Keep in mind and remind your young ones that even though they’re tracking him, he knows when they’re sleeping or awake. Which would be why he won’t show up, even if he’s in their area, until they do the right thing and go to bed.

Merry Christmas everyone!!



India Did WHAT??!

The Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle Mark III in action. Image from the ISRO.

What if you did something that was awesome, a first for you and your country, and the world just yawned? Can you imagine how irritating that would be? Especially if your accomplishment was nearly as important as certain other accomplishments that occurred weeks earlier? Imagine India being in that awkward position and the something significant they accomplished was a capsule re-entry test.

Yes, India tested a crew capsule last week. And barely anyone seemed to mention it. Compare this with the SLS/Orion hoo-rah-ing. Perhaps India’s focus is more on development than PR? (Doubtful, really. Most big organizations pursue PR like a lawyer chasing an ambulance.)

Last Friday, I happened upon an article in the Bangalore Mirror about India’s latest launch of a very big rocket–the Launch Vehicle Mark III (LVM3). On December 18, the LVM3 was finally successfully launched into the skies. More importantly, it carried a payload called the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE). The whole idea of the launch was to test a few things, such as the LVM3 actually working as it should while pushing through the Earth’s atmosphere into space and that it was going in the direction it was supposed to go. CARE was another experiment, which really was designed to allow the Indians to understand the re-entry characteristics of the module itself (pictured below).

A lot of space objects floating in the oceans lately… Image from the ISRO.

So, again, the Indians are testing a crew capsule, and this time they dropped it from the LVM3 about 126 km (nearly 80 miles) above the Earth. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the crew module weighs 3775 kg (a little over 4 tons), which is just shy of the new LVM3’s Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) payload weight limit of 4,000 kg. The re-entry vehicle/crew module came back to Earth safely, using parachutes near the end of its descent. It landed in the Bay of Bengal and was recovered. The ISRO is considering the test of the rocket and the CARE mission a success.

India’s been rather busy with space this year. There’s the BIG mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission, which is now orbiting Mars and twittering pictures back to us (although it’s been fairly quiet lately). India is also halfway towards getting its own positioning, navigation, and timing satellite constellation, the IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System), in orbit. Now India caps it all off, literally, with a successful crew capsule test AND gaining the ability to lift heavier satellite payloads in orbit.

And who were the idiots saying this was a bad year for space? The glass is halfway full, people…

Update:  At the risk of turning this into an echo chamber, one of the people who liked this post actually has a very nice run-down of their watching the launch 11 kilometers away from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. It’s very short, but you can read about it right here:

Another False Step for Mankind?

Image from NASA.

The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.

I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.

This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?

Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.

Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?

I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.

Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.

More posts coming

Life’s been a little busy, but there will be more posts coming, soon. Especially since in this December Orion is coming up for a test, SpaceX will try to land one moving object onto another somewhat slower moving object, and there’s also New Horizons waking up. I don’t think any of it will be uninteresting. Please stay tuned.