Space Sunday: rovers, robots, rockets and space stations

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has begun the steep ascent of an iron-oxide-bearing ridge that’s grabbed scientists’ attention since before the mission arrived on Mars in 2012.

“Vera Rubin Ridge”, previously referred to as “Hematite Ridge”, stands prominently on the north-western flank of Mount Sharp, resisting erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it.

“We’re on the climb now, driving up a route where we can access the layers we’ve studied from below,” said Abigail Fraeman, a Curiosity science-team member. As we skirted around the base of the ridge this summer, we had the opportunity to observe the large vertical exposure of rock layers that make up the bottom part of the ridge. But even though steep cliffs are great for exposing the stratifications, they’re not so good for driving up.”

The ascent to the top of the ridge will take the rover through a 65 metre (213 ft) change in elevation, which is being achieved through a series of drives which started in early September 2017, and which will cover a distance of around 470 metres (1542 ft).

Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic of 70 images captured by Curiosity’s Mastcam telephoto lens on August 13th, 2017. The layering of the ridge can clearly be seen. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

The ridge is of particular interest to scientists not only for its erosion resistant composition, but also because the rock of the ridge exhibits fine layering, with extensive bright veins of varying widths cutting through the layers. Orbital spectrometer observations have revealed the iron-oxide mineral hematite shows up more strongly at the ridge top than elsewhere on lower “Mount Sharp”, including locations where Curiosity has already found the mineral. It is hoped that a detailed study of the ridge will reveal why it has been so resistant to erosion and whether this is related to the high concentrations of hematite in the rock. Answering these questions could further reveal information on past environmental conditions within Gale Crater.

“The team is excited to be exploring Vera Rubin Ridge, as this hematite ridge has been a go-to target for Curiosity ever since Gale Crater was selected as the landing site,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme at the agency’s Washington headquarters.

A monochrome image of “Vera Rubin Ridge” captured using the imager on Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument shows sedimentary layers and fracture-filling mineral deposits. ChemCam’s telescopic Remote Micro-Imager took the 10 component images of this scene on July 3rd, 2017, from a distance of about 377 feet. Credit: NASA/JPL / CNES / CNRS / LANL / IRAP / IAS / LPGN

Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL added, “Using data from orbiters and our own approach imaging, the team has chosen places to pause for more extensive studies on the way up, such as where the rock layers show changes in appearance or composition. But the campaign plan will evolve as we examine the rocks in detail. As always, it’s a mix of planning and discovery.”

In the meantime, and in the saw-sawing of evidence concerning the past habitability of Mars, a team from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has discovered evidence of boron on Mars, adding weight to the pro-life side of the argument.

A key building block of modern life is ribonucleic acid (RNA), which requires the sugar ribose. Like all sugars, ribose is unstable and quickly dissolves in presence of liquid, particularly water. However, when boron is dissolved in water it becomes borate, which acts as would act as a stabilising agent of ribose, keeping the sugar together long enough so that RNA can form.

“Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA,” Patrick Gasda, the lead author of the LANL paper outlining the discovery. “Without RNA, you have no life. We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth.”

An artist’s impression of how the lake in Gale Crater may once have looked. The central “island” is the impact peak and humped formation of “Mount Sharp”. Credit: Kevin M. Gill

The mineral was detected by Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument, a joint development by LANL the French space agency, the National Center of Space Studies (CNES). It was found in veins of calcium sulphate minerals located in the Gale Crater, indicating it was present in Mars’ groundwater and was preserved with other minerals when the water dissolved, leaving behind rich mineral veins.

Curiosity has already confirmed that Gale Crater was home to a series of lakes, and the LANL findings add weight to the potential these lakes could have had life in them at a time when it would have experienced temperatures ranging from 0 to 60 ° C (32 to 140 °F) and had a pH level that would have been neutral-to-alkaline.

OSIRIS-REx Swings by Earth

Just over a year ago, on September 8th, 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) lifted-off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at the start of a journey which will carry it a total of 7.2 billion kilometres (4.5 billion miles) to gather samples from the surface of an asteroid and return them to Earth for study (see my previous reports here and here).

On September 22nd, 2017, the spacecraft returned to the vicinity of Earth – albeit it briefly –  to gain the gravity assisted speed boost it needs in order to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu, from which it will gather samples.

A graphic issued ahead of the OSIRIS-REx fly-be on Friday, September 22nd. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre / University of Arizona

In making the flyby, the spacecraft came to within 17,000 km (11,000 mi) of Earth, approaching at a speed of around 30,400 km/h (19,000 mph) and passing over Australia and Antarctica, gaining a velocity boost of around  13,400 km/h (8,400 mph) as it accelerated back out into the solar system. The fly-by also curved the probe’s course onto an intercept trajectory with Bennu, which it will reach in October 2018. During the operation, OSIRIS-REx performed a science campaign, collecting images and data from Earth and the Moon, which also allowed the science team to check and calibrate the probe’s suite of science instruments.

Bennu is roughly 450 metres (1,614-ft) in diameter, and its solar orbit carries it across that of the Earth  every six years. It is carbon rich, which is of significant interest to scientists because carbonaceous material is a key element in organic molecules necessary for life, as well as being representative of matter from before the formation of Earth. Organic molecules, such as amino acids, have previously been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating that some ingredients necessary for life can be naturally synthesised in outer space.

On reaching Bennu, OSIRIS REx will “fly” alongside the asteroid for some 12 months, surveying and studying it and imaging points of interest as possible candidates for a daring “touch and go” sample gathering mission, when it will collect between 60 and 2000 grams (2–70 ounces) of material. If all goes well, the probe will depart Bennu in March 2021, arriving back at Earth in September 2023, when the sample will be parachuted down for scientists to study.

A secondary reason for visiting Bennu is that, like many Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) there is a slim chance it might strike our planet towards the end of the 22nd Century. An analysis of the thermal absorption and emissions of the asteroid will allow scientists to better predict its future orbits and the real potential for such a collision, and could help determine the actual risk of other NEAs striking Earth.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: rovers, robots, rockets and space stations”


Sansar Product Meeting 2017 week #38: upcoming releases

(courtesy of Linden Lab)

The following notes are taken from the Sansar Product Meetings held on Friday, September 22nd. These meetings are held every Friday at 09:30 PTD and 16:00 PTD, and are open to all. There is no set agenda (currently), and the meetings are a mix of voice and text, and the official meeting notes are published in the week following each pair of meetings. Venues change on a weekly basis, and are announced in the Meet-up Announcements. The September 22nd meeting took place at the Zen Garden by Sansar Studios.

Bjørn Laurin attended both meetings to talk about the upcoming September / October release, and the next couple of releases beyond that. As such, the discussions were lengthy, so I’ve attempted to bullet-point key aspects of the major topics below, and have included a number of audio extracts of  Bjørn’s comments.

Again, for ease of reference, some of the audio extracts comprise comments made at different points in the conversations, which I’ve attempted to bring together to offer a cohesive flow of information. There is ambient background noise in the audio, as there is currently no way of disabling this in the Sansar client. Similarly, any sounds of background typing is due to others in the meeting leaving their microphone open while not speaking.

Discord Channel

The official Sansar Discord channel launched on Thursday, September 21st. 2017. The channel is designed to act as an extension to the Sansar user community, allowing them chat with one another, make friends, plan meet-ups in real-time, exchange ideas, etc. Discord works on the web, a desktop app, and a mobile app, allowing users to stay connected wherever they are.

The Sansar Discord FAQ provides full details on the channel. Joining is a case of following this link and the instructions provided. Those who do not already have a Discord account will have to create one as a part of the process.

Sansar Store Focus Group Meetings

There will be two sessions focusing on discussions and feedback on the Sansar Store in week #39. Guidelines on intent and scope of the meetings and their location(s), will be published on the Sansar blog ahead of the first meeting. However, the dates / times are:

  • Monday, September 25th, 15:00-16:00 PDT.
  • Wednesday, September 27th, 14:00-15:00 PDT.

Upcoming Releases Overview

The Lab is referring to the next release as the “Discovery release”, of which highlights include:

  • Easier discovery of experiences in the Atlas
  • Branded stores on the Sansar Store
  • The ability for users in Desktop mode to be able to interact with objects in an experience (picking things, up, throwing them, etc.).

Currently, this release is scheduled for deployment on Thursday, September 28th, 2017, depending on final bug fixes / QA.

Bjørn also indicated that fashion and avatar customisation has risen closer to the top of the pile of upcoming features following the Discovery release. He specifically notes work on hair together with skin shaders for the hair and avatar skin; the upcoming fashion / clothing support releases, and coming options for experience owners to be able to monetise their experiences (e.g. ticketed access, etc.).

Desktop Mode Object Interaction

  • In the Discovery release.
  • Will allow those running Sansar on  the desktop to have a similar level of interaction with in-world objects as those using VR. Desktop user will be able to pick up objects, “hold” them, throw them, drop them.
  • Objects around an avatar with interaction will highlight on a mouse-click, allowing the user to select which one they want to pick up.
  • Initially  will not include animations: clicking on an object will cause it to float over the avatar’s hand. However, future releases will support for “picking up” the selected object (see more on animations below).
  • There is some debate within the Sansar team in giving creators an explicit means of differentiating between users in VR mode and users in Desktop mode, or in allowing the platform to handle it internally.
    • Games designers see the ability to differentiate as “critical” to allow better design of control options, and which can be used by players in either mode, and Bjørn leans more towards this approach.

Atlas Improvements

  • The Discovery release includes a search option in the client version of the Atlas and a new Featured tab for featured experiences.
  • Future improvements for the Atlas will include a Favourites / Bookmarks tab, an Events tab and the ability to sort listed experiences.

Store Branding

  • Will be part of the Discovery release.
  • Comprises the ability to add a masthead logo to creator’s items. Details of masthead sizes available on the Discord channel.
People gather at the Zen Garden for the Friday, September 22nd meet-up

Beyond The Discovery Release

Avatar Identification in Desktop Mode

  • Possibly appearing in the October  / November release.
  • This will most likely offer the same capabilities as VR mode currently has: click on an avatar and see their name, offer friendship, mute them.

Fashion and Clothing

  • For the most part, fashion and clothing will be handled as a single release rather than a series of iterative releases over time adding essential capabilities.
  • The exception to this will be handling clothing layers which will be handled in two parts: separation of the current clothing bakes from the avatar and then the rest of the capabilities.
    • The separation of the bakes will see clothing initially defined as either a single, complete layer (e.g. socks, underwear, pants / skirt, blouse / shirt, jacket all-in-one), or possibly as a “top” layer (e.g. undershirt, shirt, jacket) and a “bottom” layer (e.e.g pants, underwear, socks, skirt).
    • Further division of individual clothing layers will come in the future, but is seen as a more complicated task.
  • Clothing will naturally fold, flow and fall like real clothing and cloth from the initial release.
  • The Sansar Store will also be updated with the “main” fashion update is released to more fully support clothing.
  • Bjørn’s hope for the “main” fashion release is December 2017.
  • Due to what is involved with support for fashion / clothing, there may be a requirement for creators to sign NDAs – Jenn will be reaching out to creators about this in due course.

Clothing Physics
  • Clothing physics will be part of the initial release.
  • It’s currently not clear whether cloth physics will have to be assigned prior to upload, or if it is something done from within Sansar (such as by right-clicking on an item in Edit mode and selecting a “make cloth” option).
  • Bjørn indicated that the process will not be complex but there will be two specific routes to achieve different sets of results for clothing.
  • There is vagueness around how things will work due to contractual obligations, but some may be familiar with the tools the Lab are using to making clothing in Sansar work.

Avatar Updates

  • The back-end avatar rigging will be changing over the next “one or two months”.
    • These changes will not be visible to the casual user, but the changes will facilitate clothing design and will allow designers to create their own clothing.
    • One consequence of this is that all current outfits will break – however Bjørn indicated that all broken outfits will be replaced.
  • Future avatar updates will include the ability to change the avatar shape – more body fat, less body fat, etc. However, these will not be in the Discovery release.
  • As part of the work on hair (noted towards the top of this article), it will be possible to blend hair styles with the face, and things like masks or facial tattoos with hair and facial features, so they all work naturally together, and  masks / tattoos respond to facial movements.
  • Aside I: the individual working on the avatar design spent ten years on developing the characters in the Halo game series.

Continue reading “Sansar Product Meeting 2017 week #38: upcoming releases”

Lab issues important update for international credit card users

Linden Lab has issued an important notice for international users who have a credit card filed with the company for the payment of services.

The blog post, issued on Friday, September 22nd, reads in full:

Due to some unexpected changes with our International Billing system, some Residents outside the United States with a Credit Card on file may have difficulty with their current payment method as of September 30, 2017.  

In order to avoid any service disruption, we encourage all Residents outside of the United States to please take a moment to log into your account and re-enter your existing Credit Card information. Doing so now will prevent any disruption in in-world and Marketplace purchases, as well as recurring monthly billing for Premium Accounts, Private Regions and monthly Mainland maintenance.  If you have difficulty with your payment method after September 30, 2017, updating your payment information will resolve the issue.

We apologise for this inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we continue to upgrade our billing systems in order to best service our Residents around the world.  If you have any questions regarding this notice, please visit to contact our Support teams.

To re-enter your credit card details, go to your account dashboard at, click on Account (top left) and then on Billing Information on the list of options that opens. This will display your billing information summary (sample image below).

Make a note of the services the card is Used For on the right, then Remove your card details (option on the left) and then click Add A Credit Card (circled). This will open the form for you to enter your card details. Make sure to click Add Card to add the card to the system.

When your card has been recorded, you can check the details under Payment Method, then review the services the card is Used For. Should you need to change any of the latter, click on the Change option (circled under Used For on the right) to display a pop-up of services charged to the card and check / uncheck as required.

Billing information summary page sample


SL project updates week 38/3: TPV Dev meeting and the Cloud

Gentle Breezes; Inara Pey, September 2017, on FlickrGentle Breezesblog post

The majority of the notes in this update are taken from the TPV Developer meeting held on Friday, September 22nd 2017. The video of that meeting is embedded at the end of this update, my thanks as always to North for recording and providing it. Timestamps in the text below will open the video in a separate window at the relevant point for those wishing to listen to the discussions.

Server Deployments Week #38 – Recap

  • There was no deployment / restart on the Main (SLS) channel on Tuesday, September 18th, leaving that channel running on 17#
  • On Wednesday, September 19th, the RC channels were updated as follows:
    • BlueSteel and LeTigre received a new server maintenance package, 17#, comprising improvements to address some problems that could degrade simulator performance in rare cases.
    • Magnum received a new server maintenance package, 17#, containing a fix for BUG-100505  “llGetEnv (“agent_limit”) is returning an empty string in Magnum, LeTigre and Blue Steel regions.”

SL Viewers

Alex Ivy 64-Bit

[0:54 and 6:00] The Alex Ivy 64-bit viewer is due an update, possibly in the early part of week #39 (commencing Monday, September 25th). This may not have all the fixes required for the viewer to get promoted to de facto release status. Before this happens, the Lab wants to tackle the problem with pipeline stalls in this viewer, and are working on an experimental branch of the viewer to try to resolve the issue. This branch will be made available as a test viewer to those who have reported the issue and can reliably repro it. Depending on the outcome of this testing, a decision will be made on folding it into the RC branch for the viewer.

The wiki instructions for the viewer should now be updated to the 64-bit build requirements, nd Oz indicates that a new 64-bit Havok library should follow the release of the viewer.

Voice Viewer

[1:33, 2:13, and 34:02-37:14] There will be a new Voice SDK arriving for the Voice RC viewer in the near future, which will include an updated SDK that includes a fix for some long-standing problems. There are still some problems to be fixed, so it is unlikely this viewer will be promoted until the new SDK has spent time in RC and the remaining major issues have been resolved.

This viewer already fixes the high number of failures to connect to the Voice service when logging-in; however, there is an issue where manually killing the Voice process will not restart (as it used to), and so Voice won’t work. The Lab would like to fix this so the process does restart the process, but this is not seen as a critical issue to be resolved before the viewer is promoted.

The new SDK does not alter the Voice protocols, but is not compatible with previous versions, requiring the supporting updates in the viewer to work. This means the new SDK cannot work with older viewer versions, and older SDKs cannot be used with viewers incorporating the code updates to support this new SDK.

Maintenance and Wolfpack RCs

[2:04 and 4:15] The meeting references updates to the Maintenance RC viewer (to and the Wolfpack RC (to While both updates were available at the time of the meeting and shortly thereafter, the Alternate Viewers wiki page now references the previous RC releases for both ( and respectively). It is not clear whether this is an error with the wiki page, or if the updated RCs have been withdrawn (both still appear on the viewer release notes list).

Snapshot Viewer

[5:14] There may be a new updated to the 360 snapshot viewer in the next week to two weeks. Work has also started on providing better support for using 360-degree images in Second Life Place Pages (see here and here for more on Place Pages).

Pipeline Status

Keeping the above in mind, the current viewer pipeline comprises:

  • Current Release version, dated August 9th, promoted August 23rd – formerly the Maintenance RC
  • Release channel cohorts:
    • Maintenance RC viewer, version, dated September 18th.
    • Wolfpack RC viewer,version, dated September 12th – this viewer is functionally identical to the release viewer, but includes additional back-end logging “to help catch some squirrelly issues”
    • Alex Ivy 64-bit viewer, version, dated September 5th
    • Voice RC viewer, version, dated September 1st
  • Project viewers:
  • Obsolete platform viewer version, dated May 8, 2015 – provided for users on Windows XP and OS X versions below 10.7.

New Viewer Splash / Log-in Screen

[7:12-7:42] As noted in my week #36 TPV meeting notes, Phronimos Linden is updating the viewer splash screen which will see a different look and feel to the screen, including how information is displayed (such as making grid status info more prominent), and will see updates to some of the widgets providing information in the splash screen. This work is now with the QA team, and information on the updates will be available for TPVs soon.

Windows Viewer  Installation Warning

[7:47-8:48] The Lab’s code-signing key used to verify the viewer with Windows (notably Windows 10) has expired. The Lab have a new key, but for an interim period, it means users installing the Windows version of the official viewer may find Windows SmartScreen reports the viewer as unverified.

You can read more here, on via my own blog post, which includes steps on clearing the warning and installing the viewer.

Server Version Updates and Move to the Cloud

[12:13-12:53] A number of server version updates are advancing. these don’t always have user-visible changes, but they are nevertheless important to Second Life. Among other things, they are part of the preparatory work for moving SL capabilities to the cloud (see my week #36 TPV notes for more on this).

[15:08-19:06] There is no time line for moving things to the cloud, simply because the Lab does not know at this point how long it will take. There are some significant changes which must be made to both the way things are built and the way they are run, and there need to be assorted updates to various components that go into building and running SL services.

Some SL services are already being tested in the cloud, and some are performing well – such as the process for determining if a user requires a viewer update. Others have been tested and revealed problems which must be addressed if they are to be run from the cloud – or should be addressed even when not running in the cloud.

It is unlikely the Lab will be providing specifics on services which have moved to the cloud / are being tested, and which are still based within their data centre until things reach a point where simulators are running in the cloud, simply because where many SL services run makes absolutely no difference to the user experience, as long as they are running. Moving and testing simulators in the cloud is likely to be one of the last things to be tackled, simply because of the complexities involved.

The first goal is to get everything working pretty much “as is” from the cloud. Only after this has been done, will work start on leveraging the benefits of having everything in the cloud be explored and exploited.

[19:06-21:49] This could include giving – and to use Oz’s words, the option of having their regions hosted in specific geographical locations. So, for example, the various communities located in South America could have their regions all hosted in South America, potentially improving response times between viewer and server.  However, whether this will in fact be possible is dependent on the Lab reaching that point at which they can start leveraging the benefits of the cloud.

Obviously there are trade-offs in this kind of shift, should it occur; relocating a simulator to better serve a community may not improve things for others access the region on that simulator. However, in potentially supplying the option, the Lab is providing land owners with a choice of what they would like to do.

[21:56-22:38] If nothing else, this work should be a demonstration that the Lab really is continuing to invest in Second Life and its future. Were they seriously thinking of letting it go (i.e. in favour of Sansar), then none of this work  – and the associated expenditure – would be taking place.

Environment Enhancement Project (EEP)

(See also my week #38 CCUG update.)

[29:26-31:16] There is a “fair amount” of back-end work that is being worked through, and the work is approaching the point of internal testing within the Lab. Once this has reached a suitable point, the server-side / simulator changes will be deployed (e.g. to Aditi) for wider testing, alongside of a project viewer to handled the client-side application of the capabilities.

Recent Grid Issues

[37:51-39:20] As most are aware, there have been some recent grid issues. While not the cause of these issues, but which has been a contributing factor to their duration, is some low-level code within the viewer which handles log-in retries far too aggressively. When this happens en masse (such as when there is a grid issue), it results in the log-in servers being swamped, adding to the woes for people trying to log-in.

A recent Maintenance update to the SL viewer addresses this issue (see my week #30 TPV update), and the request for TPVs to pick these code changes up was re-iterated at the meeting. In addition, the log-in servers have themselves been made more robust when facing large number of attempted / repeated log-in attempts.

Other Items

Estate Tool Ban List Improvements

[9:32-11:22] The Lab has resumed work on the region ban lists (layout / usability, etc), and the updates should be appearing soonTM. The specifics of what is being done will hopefully be available for the next TPV Developer meeting.

Premium Member Benefits

[13:13-14:53] There is apparently at least one Premium member benefit that will be appearing  real soonTM which the Lab believe people will like, and some further ideas are being considered.  Oz declined to comment on what any of these might be, citing it being more fun to find out when they are announced. He also indicated that appropriate and considered suggestions  / ideas for benefits (e.g. not things that persist after a Premium subscription has been cancelled) are also welcome.

Group Notice Failures

[28:00-28:55] Still no work on group notices (on-line and off-line) sometimes not getting through for some people. It’s not on the “now / next” roadmap of things the Lab is / will be looking at. The focus on sever-side work is on dealing with instability issues which can cause crashes / offer exploits to griefers.

Asset HTTP Messaging and Asset HTTP Issues

[41:14] As noted in my week #36 TPV meeting update, the recent Asset HTTP updates are leading to the texture pipeline getting out of sync, and people experiencing texture load stalls. A JIRA for this has been filed (BUG-139123), and a possible fix has been submitted to the Lab by Sovereign Engineer.

[43:16] The Lab is also working on the texture caches in an attempt to make them faster and more effective.