Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Tag: space

Landing your space craft

I am a bit of a SciFi geek. I like good “speculative fiction” in whatever the form. And when it comes to TV and Film I do love me a good space ship landing. It’s great when a director takes the time and effort to do a good landing. You get to see the transition from a stable orbit, down the gravity well, and onto the surface of an unknown world. This is spectacle, this is dramatic. And it is something that only SciFi can do. Though of course not all Sci Fi does do it. Star Trek typically just has its characters appear on the surface of a world – famously for budgetary reasons.

I wanted to show three great examples of the evolution of the art of the spacecraft landing from film. Each one uses the landing to make a transition in the story. They all go for an approach that emphasisies technology, and at least a passing claim to realism. Landing a space craft is a serious business, undertaken by serious trained professionals. They are there to do a job, and they will do it properly, because that is what will maximise the success of the mission.

First up is the Saucer Landing from Forbidden Planet – 1956.

The professional crew of the UniteD Planets cruiser skillfully take their ship down to the surface of an unknown world. Of the three it is the most high-tech ship even if the production is the most dated! Bonus points if you recognised Leslie Nielsen.

Second up is Aliens 1986.

The planet landing is a staple of the Alien franchise. It is never a trivial thing for the crew to do. And it marks the transition where the nervous but determined characters are comitted to the unknown on the ground. Its clear there is no simple way back now. “Aliens” is the most militarised of the Alien films. The military trope of the invasion or beach landing is is similar but different to the space craft one. Aliens brings them both together. The clipped chatter of the pilot, the rugged ship, all tell the story of going from the space environment to the planet. This is a job for professionals, and that is what these people are.

The last example is one of my favourites. But I am cheating a bit. It is not from a work of fiction. It is Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in First Man 2018.

Yeah this is a dramatisation of how the lunar landing actually happend in 1969 (almost mid way between the two fictional depictions). The presentation is modern (do blow up the 4k video if you can), with close up personal camera shots, only one long shot of the space craft descending, and an excellent athmospheric sound track. But it is a classic space craft landing sequence.

The crew have to get from orbit to the surface. They have a ship that is built for the job, and they are the professionals at operating it. What they will find when they get there is important, but right now the focus is on the flight from space to the ground. It is made clear to the viewer that this is not a trivial process. It is going to need a spohisticated machine, capably operated by experts. It just happens in this case the depiction is of a real event!

I will finish with a side note . I am not a writer, but I suspect that the TV Tropes website makes many authors, and script writers cry. It’s a very comprenhensive listing of every plot device, story line, and narrative element there is out there. If you can think of it, then TV Tropes can probably show you dozens of examples of it in use. I did some digging there, but I have not been able to find a Trope listing for the space craft landing!

[2020 Target: 24/52. 12,536/25,000]

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Starlink – a humble proposal

It looks like the Starlink satellites are already causing problems for the scientific community. There are less than 1% of the planned constellation of sats in orbit but they have begun interfering with astronomical observations. And if the company gets its way the dozens they have today will grow to tens of thousands! 

Leaving aside the whole question of whether this is the best way to provide internet connectivity to the unserved (full disclosure I work for a company that is committed to alternatives like 5G), what could be done to help?

Two things spring to mind. First, to get around the light pollution issue the best location for the astronomer’s telescopes would be in orbit, above the problem satellites. And secondly in most of the world the principle is “polluter pays”.

My humble proposal then is that Starlink’s parent, SpaceX, should be responsible for providing a constellation of space based telescopes in orbit for astronomers. There is a lovely symmetry to this. SpaceX touts their ability to reduce the cost of access to space, and how their work benefits humanity in the long term. They are have the rockets, and are building/commissioning satellites by the bucket load anyway. And the astronomers would then get an improved platform for observations. 

The article does mention that there is no legal protection for the scientific observation community. But in most of the world, the western bit anyway, regulatory approval would have been conditional on an impact assessment. And it would be possible to make permission to proceed conditional on making sure that impacts are mitigated. Wouldn’t it have been great if Starlink could not get their project rolling until they had built dozens or hundreds of space based telescopes first?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblr

Going to the moon. Maybe

It is the week of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. And a bit surprisingly it seems like there may actually be a return to the moon within the next decade! Though there are technical, monetary and political challenges to be overcome first. 

The Economist has a good summary of the different national plans, and some of the “why”. 

The fun thing is that the new 2024 deadline is being driven by Trump. He would like to have this milestone with his name against it before he leaves at the end of a second term. But to do that he will need money from the Democratic congress to accelerate the original (and already challenging) timeline of 2028. Want to bet the Democrats will give it to him?

This is all part of the ongoing debate in the US and elsewhere about where to point a manned space program as the International Space Station’s end comes into sight. Bush said Mars, knowing it would never happen on his watch. The efforts there were never serious. It can be done. But the technical and logistical challenges are huge. It would demand a financial and political commitment that to be sustained for over a decade. I struggle to see how any single government will do that (from the US or any other nation). Elon Musk’s plans are a wild card. But even they have to be regarded as speculative.

Obama effectively killed the Mars plans. Instead the target was made an asteroid landing. And along the way the moon reappeared. But now Trump’s administration, with an eye to its legacy, says it will be the moon again. Fair enough. There are hairy logistical challenges to face as well though.

NASAs description of the “Gateway” to the Moon

The US probably has a rocket for the job (the delayed and over budget SLS). It should have a spaceship to carry astronauts (the delayed and over budget Orion). The gateway is under contract (even if the timelines are to be advanced and it will be smaller than planned). The missing element is the moon lander itself. 

If all the political stuff bores you, then there is the question whether the “Gateway” idea is a good one at all. NASA likes it as it is a permanent piece of infrastructure that will anchor the manned program beyond low-earth-orbit (LEO) for years. But if your longer term objective is Mars or elsewhere, then it may actually be a speed bump. 

In the case of going from LEO to the lunar surface, the delta-v required is 6.1 km/second (it takes 4.1 km/s to get from LEO to low-lunar orbit and another 2.0 to get from there down to the surface). By contrast, to go from LEO to the Gateway’s proposed halo orbit—and then to the lunar surface—requires a delta-v of 6.85km/s.

Put another way, a spacecraft could leave LEO, reach the surface of the Moon, and return directly to Earth for a total delta-v cost of 9.1km/s. To do the same mission through the Gateway, both coming and going, requires a delta-v of 10.65km/s, a 17 percent increase. This is one reason why Zubrin has taken to calling the lunar Gateway a “toll booth,” because it adds significantly to the energies needed to reach the Moon.

Personally I think the solution to these various problems would be to massively increase the (relatively modest) spending there is on space exploration and do all of these things – moon with Gateway, a Mars program and whatever else besides. In the US NASA costs the average tax payer about $55 per year (0.5% of a $10,500 annual tax bill). And in Europe the European Space Agency is about €10 per person.

I doubt there is much political appetite for that though. Especially as in the mean time the public seems to be largely happy getting its space fix in a cheaper, and far more spectacular form from Netflix, HBO, and Amazon…Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblr

Best photo I have seen all day

This image of a dust storm on Mars is from last year. It’s amazing to think this is a shot of weather happening on another world!

Dust storm on Mars

Dust storm on Mars

It was taken by the ESA Mars Express craft which has been doing science over Mars for 15 years now. As a European citizen about €10/year of your tax money goes on space exploration and science. Which is bloody great value in my view.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblr

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