To infinity and beyond

Things are a tad quiet on the Mars news front, with Curiosity still on walkabout in the “Pahrump Hills”. So here’s a little round-up of some upcoming NASA news.

Orion Countdown

Thursday, December 4th should see the first launch of NASA’s next generation crewed space vehicle, the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Superficially harking back to the days of the Apollo Moon landings, Orion is a two-stage vehicle comprising a capsule-like Command Module, capable of seating up to 6 astronauts, and a smaller Service Module, which supplies propulsion, power and life support. However, Orion is a lot more sophisticated than the Apollo craft, the capsule unit being a lot larger in both size and volume, and having the capabilities of both being reused and of making either a splashdown or landing on dry land on its return to Earth.

The Orions MPCV: an Apollo-like command module and, with its solar panels deployed, the Service Module
The Orion MPCV: an Apollo-like Crew Module and, with its solar panels deployed, the Service Module

As I’ve previously reported, this first launch of Orion will be uncrewed, serving to test the vehicle’s launch, flight and recovery capabilities in a mission lasting some 4.5 hours which will take the craft further from Earth than has been the case for any crewed vehicle since the last of the Apollo lunar missions in the 1970s. In doing so, the vehicle will be tested through the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth, and the capsule will be directed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at around 80% of the velocity it would achieve on a return from a cislunar mission (that is, roughly 4,000 kp/h (2,500 mph) faster than the space shuttle ever returned to Earth).

Orion is designed to sit at the hub of NASA’s plans for the initial human exploration of the solar system. Its likely future uses include ferrying crews to the Moon and back and, in the 2030s, forming the command vehicle in a human mission to Mars.

An artist's conception of Orion delivering a large lunar lander to the Moon
An artist’s conception of Orion delivering a large lunar lander to the Moon

For lunar missions, Orion will, again like Apollo, be mated to a lunar lander, which it will ferry to the Moon, before the crew transfer to the lander and descend to the Moon’s surface. Again, the differences are that with the Orion mission, the MPCV can remain “parked” in lunar orbit unattended while the crew use their lander and equipment and facilities landed remotely on the Moon to spend weeks or Moons there, rather than days.

For missions to Mars, Orion will be part of a much larger vehicle, the details of which are still to be decided, but which is likely to be launched by Orion’s dedicated rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), in a number of parts which will rendezvous in orbit prior to the crew flying to it via Orion and embarking. An Orion capsule would then serve as the Crew Return Vehicle, delivering the crew back to Earth at the end of there 3-year mission.

An Orion would serve as the Crew Return Vehicle to deliver the crew safely back to Earth at the conclusion of a nuclear-powered mission to Mars (NASA Design Reference Architecture mission)
An Orion would serve as the Crew Return Vehicle to deliver the crew safely back to Earth at the conclusion of a nuclear-powered mission to Mars (concept: NASA Design Reference Architecture mission)

Orion’s first mission will use a fully-functional capsule mated to a “dummy” service module (the actually service module is to be built by the European Space Agency, using the technologies developed in the hugely successful but grossly under-sung Automated Transfer Vehicle design, which has been quietly resupplying the International Space Station for the last five years (and refuelling it) with up to 7 tonnes of supplies per flight – more than double anything managed by the Russian Progress supply vehicles, the SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Science’s Cygnus vehicle.

In 2017, Orion will make an unmanned flight around the Moon (shown in the video below), this time using an actual Service Module and the SLS launcher, in what is being called the Exploration Mission 1. Then, in around 2021, Orion will fly its first crew in a mission to rendezvous and land on an asteroid.

New Horizons to Wake-up

Assuming all goes according to plan, two days after the Orion test flight, over 26 AU from Earth (AU being an astronomical unit – the average distance between the Earth and the Sun – that’s 149,597,871 kilometres or 92,955,807 miles), a tiny space craft will “wake up” from the third of three hibernation periods which have collectively lasted 31 months, allowing it to ready itself for its primary mission objective: a 6-month “flyby” of the dwarf planet Pluto, which should yield masses of information about that world and its major companion Charon.

after 10 years in space – the last 31 months of which have been largely in hibernation (other than brief periods of science data gathering), and a voyage through our solar system which has, like that of ESA’ comet-chasing Rosetta mission – provided many other opportunities for science discovery, New Horizons will commence its primary mission in January 2015, as it starts into its approach and fly-past of Pluto, Charon and their family of tiny “moons”, Kerberos, Styx, Nix and Hydra.

An artist's impression of New Horizon passing Pluto, with Charon and the Sun behind.
An artist’s impression of New Horizon passing Pluto, with Charon and the Sun behind.

No-one actually knows what New horizons will reveal; such is the distance between Earth and Pluto, we know very little about it in real terms, so the mission is very much like those of the pioneering days of space exploration, when we sent vehicle to Venus and Mars, not actually knowing for sure what they’d find.

Despite travelling at 1,600,000 kilometres a day, it will take New Horizons until July 2015 to reach its point of closest approach to Pluto – just 10,000 kilometres from the planet’s surface. The images and data it should return to Earth promise to be astounding.

And after July 2015? New Horizons will be heading out into deep space beyond our solar system, becoming only the third vehicle built by humans to do so, the other two being Voyagers 1 and 2. Providing it is still active, New Horizon should reach the heliosphere,  the “boundary layer” marking the divide between the solar system and interstellar space, in 2038. Between 2015 and then, the craft will be used to observe other Kuiper belt objects of interest and send back data on the space through which it is travelling.


Whether humanity ever joins Voyager and New Horizons in moving beyond our own solar system is a subject of popular debate. Given the distances involved between the stars, the only practical way of reaching solar systems beyond our own in through exotic methods – faster-than-light travel, wormholes, and the like – if we are to avoid centuries and generations travelling the interstellar void; and there is still no guarantee we’ll harness either.

But even should we remain locked inside our own solar system for centuries to come, we still have a vast range of environments to explore and possibly tame. This is something Erik Wernquist reminds us about in a stunning video he’s produced, using selected commentary spoken by the great Carl Sagan during his ground-breaking television series, Cosmos. This really is one to watch.

My thanks to Nalates Urriah for pointing me to Erik’s video.

A Kitten’s winterland

Kittens Heaven, Demented Love; Inara Pey, November 2014, on FlickrKittens Heaven, Demented Love (Flickr)

The end of another year draws ever nearer, and in the northern hemisphere this means thoughts turn to those of winter landscapes and cold, crisp mornings, something which tends to be carried into Second Life as well. Many regions are estates have already welcomed the soft cover of snow and winter scenes are starting to appear appear the blogsphere.

With December on our doorstep, I decided to head away to Kitten’s Heaven, Isabelli Anatine Hak’s homestead region, which offers a place for people to visit and relax and enjoy a spot of photography if they wish. Freshly remodelled for the winter months, Isabelli was putting the finishing touches to the region in its new look when I arrived, as she completed furnishing the main house.

Kittens Heaven, Demented Love; Inara Pey, November 2014, on FlickrKittens Heaven, Demented Love (Flickr)

Surrounded by icy waters which are in turn surrounded by snow-capped and dusted craggy cliffs and peaks, Kitten’s Heaven offers a picturesque scene of frost coated trees raising bare branches to the sky, under which can be found reindeer, bears, foxes – and even a penguin or two. There are skis available for those feeling active (snowboards may also be added), and a large frozen lake offers plenty of space for skating – but do mind the cats as they enjoy their own little bit of ice boarding!

A sliver of unfrozen water separates the lake from two rocky outcrops. Upon one of these sits the main house, a large Tudor-style building, reached by a rocky, snow-covered path. Here visitors will find refreshments to fortify them against the cold, and fully furnished rooms upstairs to explore. A snow-covered span of  rock bridges the gap to the second plateau, where an outdoor café offers hot soup and mulled wine to those of a hardy disposition who enjoy the bracing outdoor air.

Kittens Heaven, Demented Love; Inara Pey, November 2014, on Flickr“Wot’s going on over there, then?” Kittens Heaven, Demented Love (Flickr)

There are numerous places to sit down and enjoy the surroundings, be in on a sleigh or next to a blazing camp fire  or in the little cottage where more of Isabelli’s love of cats can be found. As noted above, wildlife abounds, and there is also a mysterious little man with his lantern taking a peek at what’s going on – but I doubt he means any mischief!

Kitten’s Heaven always offers an eye-catching and warm welcome to visitors, and even though snow may lay heavy on the ground right now, that hasn’t changed with this make-over. So why not hop over and take a look for yourself?

Kittens Heaven, Demented Love; Inara Pey, November 2014, on FlickrKittens Heaven, Demented Love (Flickr)

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Water, through a photographer’s eyes

H2O - Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)
H2O – Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)

Sometime in the early years of our planet, billions of years ago, two gases allied themselves – hydrogen and oxygen. They became a liquidity, which enabled the emergence of life on earth. Water – the basic element – the element of constant change. It all began with water and water is inside anything living. Water – the element of constant change.

Thus reads the introduction to H2O, a photographic exhibition by Walt Ireton – known in the physical world as Jay Evers – at his Sominiem Art Gallery in Tabula Rasa. Based in Hamburg, Germany and Enschede in The Netherlands, Walt’s business is creative wedding documentary and event photography. However, his passion lies within the fields of natural, street, and macro photography.

H2O - Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)
H2O – Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)

These three aspects of his photography are combined H2O, which, as the introduction and title suggest, focuses on the subject of water. On display are some 37 images taken from the physical world (four of them stunning photo montages of a single image divided into three or four parts), split across two levels of the gallery space which Walt also designed.  And believe me when I say, they are simply stunning.

“Water is very good in showing us how restricted our visual perception actually is,” Walt says of the exhibition. “Our eyes can see only a small part of the existing light [and] all information that our eyes do see, is filtered in various ways before it reaches the conscious part of our brain.

“Another aspect of water is, that it is moving most all of the time,” he adds. “A camera is capable of de-accelerated perception, which with longer exposure times makes moving water look like diffused veils or misty clouds. A vision of the primeval ocean suggests itself.”

H2O - Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)
H2O – Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)

All of which leads him to conclude that while a photograph does not really show an absolute and objective moment in time, it can nevertheless, and almost literally in the case of the natural flow and motion of water, freeze a moments in time which then themselves become timeless, literally.

And “timeless” is precisely the adjective to apply to many of the images here, from the foamed water roiling around rocks so suggestive of that primeval ocean Walt notes through to the amazing sight of the very top of a fountain plume caught in that 1/6000th of a second as it arches and twists at the start of its gravity-induced fall back towards the ground, with so many more in between – such as the reflection of a building caught in a street-side puddle, something unlikely ever to be captured in the same way ever again.

H2O - Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)
H2O – Walt Ireton (Jay Evers)

As well as the H2O exhibit, the upper levels of the gallery space (reached via the Anywhere Door on the ground level) also play host to two further exhibitions. The first is Impresiones de La Gomera, presents real life images of the island of La Gomera capture by Walt and his parter, Seoreh Voight, The second is Working Under Pressure, presents the comic book artistry of Martin Scarborough as large-format pieces.

As a final note, not only are the images displayed in H2O and Impresiones for sale at the gallery, those living it Europe can avail themselves of Walt’s website if they so wish and order copies to grace the walls of their physical world home. And when visiting Tabula Rasa, why not avail yourself of the other galleries and exhibitions in the region – including Walt’s own City Windows?

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Whirlybirding and painting things

A familiar fly-past: taking the MD-900 around the Fastnet Rock lighthouse
A familiar fly-past: taking the MD-900 around the Fastnet Rock lighthouse

Back at the start of the year, I wrote about my experiences in getting hold of an EC-135 Eurocopter from  Spijkers & Wingtips. As noted in that article, it’s a great little helicopter – easy to fly, plenty of space in the cabin, and nicely customisable. It’s been on my helipad ever since.

Well, at least until this weekend, when it found itself returned to inventory after one last (for the time being) flight. Not because I’ve given up on flying – oh no! Rather, as the images in this piece show, I’ve swapped to a new aircraft.

Gracing my helipad at home now is the Spijkers & Wingtips MD-900 Explorer. Superficially like the EC-series of helos in terms of exterior cabin looks, this is a 7-seater helicopter that is 100% mesh, the design by Sylvira (sylviramaus). And I have to say, it is beautiful, with a wealth of detail to enjoy.

The MD-900 in its default (supplied) finish
The MD-900 in its default (supplied) finish

The first thing that is immediately noticeable about the MD-900 is that it doesn’t have a tail rotor. Instead it uses a NOTAR system, employing a fan system together with a thruster mechanism at the end of the tail to both counter torque from the rotors and provide vectored thrust when turning, etc. With the S&W MD-900 the system is reproduced such that in-flight manoeuvring of the helicopter will see the directed thrust mechanism at the end of the tail moving in response to control commands, together with the twin rudders.

The helicopter comes as a comprehensive package: there is the MD-900 itself, Copy / Mod and with an LI of 54; a static display model, six customisable texture packs, optional combat script and cargo payload scripts. The default colour scheme for the helicopter is striking, and possibly the best of the supplied packs, and a further air ambulance option can be obtained from Sylvira.

The interior detailing is incredible; from the seat harness elements through to the individual buttons and dials on the controls and flight panel. Even the ducts air circulation system in the cabin is reproduced in detail, together with work front, passenger and rear cargo doors
The interior detailing is incredible; from the seat harness elements through to the individual buttons and dials on the controls and flight panel. Even the ducted air circulation system in the cabin is reproduced in detail, together with working front, passenger and rear cargo doors

Using the texture packs is a matter of unpacking the desired finish, then editing the helicopter via Edit Links Parts to drag and drop the various texture elements onto their requisite sections of the helicopter. For those who want something more personal, the textures can be saved as TGA or PNG files and amended locally & then re-uploaded at the usual L$10 a shot.

As most know, I have a penchant for red and white in my boats and planes, so one of the first things I did was grab one of the texture packs (“white with red stripe”) and download the various elements to produce a colour scheme more in keeping with my preferred style. When I did this with the EC-135, it literally took me 3 minutes to get something I was happy with  – although admittedly, I didn’t really try anything clever in editing the textures.

The MD-900 is one of the supplied texture finishes, and the default colour scheme to the rear
The MD-900 is one of the supplied texture finishes, and the default colour scheme to the rear

The MD-900 did take a lot longer. The was mostly down to my decision to go for a design which required some careful detailing around hinges and things. However, it also has to be said that, outside of the default paint scheme, the finishes on some of the packs are a trifle rough – in my case I found that white parts would have an odd splash of red where they shouldn’t (and vice versa, or that edging between the colours be a tad rough when looked at closely (and I do mean closely – the packs past muster reasonably when to the casual eye). Unfortunately, for me, once seen closely means such things are forever nagging; so I spent a good few hours doing some general clean-up, because I’m obsessive that way.

Handling-wise, the MD-900 is fabulous. I’m not sure how much updating Tig has done with her helicopter scripts, but the MD-900 really is a delight to fly. It’s very responsive, can move at a fair lick if required, and offers the usual 3rd person or Mouselook flight options (the latter feeling far more responsive that the EC-135). A HUD is provided for flying, although not essential (all commands can be entered via chat), and this reveals some of the extras – such as the searchlight (which can also be turned on / off via the chat command “sl”), the winch options for lifting cargo aloft – read the instructions carefully, and take note that cargo can behave oddly if particularly complex. There’s even a police / rescue siren!

A particularly nice touch with the more recent helicopters in in S&W range is the inclusion of auto-deploying pontoon floats. Simply drop down over Linden water in a low hover, and the floats will deploy for a water landing. They can also be manually deployed / stored when in flight via the HUD or a chat command.

My MD-900 at home
My MD-900 at home

All told, the MD-900 is a great aircraft, and niggles over the texture packs aside (they don’t in any way spoil the aircraft), it will make a great addition to any SL aviation enthusiast’s collection.

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The Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds 2015 workshop


The US Army’s Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy (MOSES) and AvaCon have announced the first Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds (FCVW) workshop, which will take place in a specially built virtual conference centre on Friday, March 6th and Saturday March 7th, 2015.

The workshop will be an active experience, with on-line exhibits and presentations provided in an interactive manner. Workshop participants are encouraged to engage and interact with the presenters, and the exhibits will range from cultural training material in a mock village to scientific ethical dilemmas in a city landscape.

The press release for the workshop notes that:

Virtual world technology has matured significantly and rapidly over the past eight years to the point where hundreds of people are able to simultaneously participate in an on-line event. The workshop is open to military and civilian personnel, including the public. The conference will be held entirely within an Open Simulator virtual environment, and reservations will be free for attendees.

The workshop will be a multi-track event, featuring keynote speakers and break-out sessions, and the FCVW and conference organisers are inviting proposals to be a speaker, presenter, or performer in one of the following tracks:

  • The Alternative User Interfaces track 
  • The Metacognition
  • Military Applications track
  • Security, Privacy and Identity track

In addition, the Knowledge Transfer track seeks public sector participants for a panel entitled Public Service Education in Virtual Worlds: Past, Present, and Future, which will discuss public service education uses for virtual world learning simulations as well as will feature panelists’ views on public service virtual world education projects from the past, present, and future. Participants in this discussion will be able to showcase relevant Open Simulator virtual world learning simulations via OAR and IAR uploads to be coordinated with the workshop organisers.

Full details on the above tracks, including information on areas of interest applicable to each of them, can be found in the workshop Call for Proposals page of the official website. Proposals must be received by the organisers by Monday, January 5th, 2015.

About the FCVW

The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds (FCVW) supports individuals and organisations from government (federal, state, local, and international), academia, and corporate sesectors to improve government collaboration through the use of virtual worlds, enrich collaborative online experiences, explore technologies that may enhance telework, and foster cross-agency collaboration.


The Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy (MOSES) is operated by the operated by the US Army’s Simulation & Training Technology Center (STTC), a part of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Human Research and Engineering Directorate. It is a coalition of military, industry, and academic partners who share a common interest in the advancement of virtual world technology for simulation based training and education. The MOSES Project seeks to address issues surrounding current game based virtual environment training systems in the two key areas of scalability and flexibility, and create a practical and deployable virtual simulation-based training system capable of providing a learner with a means to test skills in an accreditable manner.

About Avacon

AvaCon, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the growth, enhancement, and development of the metaverse, virtual worlds, augmented reality, and 3D immersive and virtual spaces. We hold conventions and meetings to promote educational and scientific inquiry into these spaces, and to support organized fan activities, including performances, lectures, art, music, machinima, and much more. Our primary goal is to connect and support the diverse communities and practitioners involved in co-creating and using virtual worlds, and to educate the public and our constituents about the emerging ecosystem of technologies broadly known as the metaverse.

DX Exchange offers SL Marketplace alternative

Note: both DX Exchange and the DX Marketplace have closed.

DX Exchange, the Linden Dollar authorised reseller has launched a new on-line marketplace for  SL goods.

The new DX Marketplace is intended to offer SL users the opportunity to “shop on the internet, order your virtual goods and pay and collect them in SL at our pay-and-collect terminal”, the new marketplace has set itself some pretty big goals:

It is our ambition to create a special place for Pro designers, who make good quality goods, of their own creation to display their collection. A place for them to stand out from the crowd of products and designers in SL.

For the customers, it has to be a tidy, well organised place where they can be sure to find only goods of ‘good standing’.

The site itself is gaining interest from SL merchants – the list of stores is growing almost by the day, although content seems to be slow in appearing in some cases.

The DX Exchange home page
The DX Exchange home page

There are some important points to note about this site when compared to something like the SL Marketplace. In particular, the engine used to power DX Exchange is Magento, and the stores within it are pretty much self-contained e-commerce sites contained within the DX Marketplace “wrapper”. This is important on two counts:

  • Merchants have access to virtually the full range of Magento e-commerce tools. These include not just product listing and sales reports, but options such as customer tracking, , creating and generating custom reports, running a store newsletter and / or blog, a range of CMS functions, setting custom search terms for product finding, and so on. In fact, far too much for a review such as this to cover
  • Each store actually stands as its own e-commerce site, with its own dedicated URL (if people want to use it), its own shopping cart and its own checkout.

This latter point may be confusing for people used to the SL Marketplace. Perhaps the easiest analogy is that while a visit to the SL Marketplace is like a visit to department store, where multiple items from multiple designers can by put into your shopping cart and paid for when you reach the checkout, a visit to the DX Marketplace is like a visit to a mall containing individual shops, where goods must be paid for at each store.

A couple of incentives have been offered to those wishing to use the site:

  • For merchants, all goods can be sold at 0% commission for the time being (commission will eventually be 4%)
  • Shoppers signing-up for the DX Marketplace newsletter get L$100 of a single purchase made via the DX Marketplace.

The Merchant’s Perspective

I don’t intend to cover all of the options available for merchants – as noted above, they really are extensive (and the chances are, many may well end-up not being used). The Magento site provides comprehensive contextual help pages for those who want to delve deeper into things,  all accessible directly from the various admin pages, and I recommend yo take a look through them; I’m only going to look at the basics of creating product listing and provide a few other pointers.

To become a merchant, the first thing you need to do is submit an application form. In return for this, you should receive an introductory note card with details on how to access the admin page for your store and various other notes, an invite to the Merchant’s support group, and a copyable dropbox.

Getting products onto you store listings is a familiar – if slightly more involved – pattern of:

  • Rezzing a dropbox somewhere safe in-world (and leaving it there)
  • Dropping your prepared items for sale into the Contents tab of the edited dropbox
  • Touching the dropbox to upload the details to the website
  • Switching to the website to create your product listings.

This last part requires logging-in to your store’s Admin page and then selecting Catalog > Manage Products from the menu, which will display you list of uploaded items. Once again, it is worth looking at the other menu options that are displayed at the top of the dashboard; Magento offer a huge range of tools and options, so of which may well prove useful to you.

You items will be initially displayed in the listing page under Catalog > Manage Products. To edit an individual item's listing, click on the edit link to the right of the item's entry in the list (circled). Also note the help option to the top right of every page (also circled) - this will take you to Magneto's comprehensive contextual help
You items will be initially displayed in the listing page under Catalog > Manage Products. To edit an individual item’s listing, click on the edit link to the right of the item’s entry in the list (circled). Also note the help option to the top right of every page (also circled) – this will take you to Magneto’s comprehensive contextual help (click for full size)

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