Space Sunday: hill climbing, the impact of salt, and landing a rocket (take 2)

CuriosityApril 16th, 2015 saw NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity clock-up 10 kilometres (6.25 miles) on its odometer since it arrived on Mars 30 months ago, as it continues its trek up the slopes of “Mount Sharp”, the mountain-size mound at the centre of Gale Crater.

The rover is currently making its way through a series of connected shallow “valleys” on the slops of the mound – which is more correct names Aeolis Mons – as it continues upwards and away from the “Pahrump Hills” area it spent 6 months investigating, and towards its next major science target, an area the science team have dubbed “Logan Pass”, which is still some 200 metres away from the rover at the time of writing.

While only a distance of around 550 metres separates “Logan Pass” from the upper limits of “Pahrump Hills”, the rover’s gentle progress has been the result of several stops along the way in order to further characterise the different rock types Curiosity has been encountering, and to make important observations of its surroundings as the science team try to understand the processes by which the region’s ancient environment evolved from lakes and rivers into much drier conditions.

A panoramic mosaic taken by Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) on Sol 951 of the rover’s mission (April 10th, 2015, PDT). The view shows the terrain ahead of the rover within “Artist’s Drive”, the first of the shallow “valleys” the rover is traversing en route to the next point of scientific interest, “Logan Pass”

The rover’s progress up “Mount Sharp” has so far been through the lower reaches of the transitional layers which mark the separation points between the materials deposited over the aeons to create the gigantic mound and the material considered to be common to the crater floor. These transitional layers have been dubbed the “Murray Formation”, in honour of the late co-founder of The Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, and comprise a number of different land formations, “Pahrump Hills” being one of the lowermost. Logan Pass marks the start of another, dubbed the “Washboard unit”, and which comprises a series of high-standing buttes.

The lower slopes of “Mount Sharp” and the transitional nature of the “Murray Formation” between the create floor (left) and the “proper” slopes of the mound, marked by the “Hematite Ridge” (right). currently, the rover is now approach the lower extreme of a range of buttes within the “Murray Formation” which include “Murray Buttes” shown in the image. and which have been marked as a future science destination for Curiosity

As several of the MSL reports in these pages have shown, Curiosity has already found considerable evidence that Gale Crater may once have been home to environments sufficiently benign to allow for the existence of microbial life. Whether or not those microbes survived down the millennia such that they are still present in the planet’s soil today, is not something the rover is equipped to determine; however, a recent report from one of Curiosity’s science teams  suggests that subsurface conditions are unfavourable to the support of microbial life.

The evidence for this comes in the form of perchlorate salts, and the effect they can have on their environment. Perchlorate was first detected in soil samples gathered by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission in 2008, while Curiosity found trace evidence for perchlorate in samples gathered early in its own mission.

What makes perchlorate interesting is that in cold temperatures, it is able to “pull” water vapour from the atmosphere and bind with it, lowering its temperature, potentially allowing it to form sub-surface brines which would be very destructive to microbial life.

It had been thought that the environmental conditions by which this might occur were limited to the near-polar regions of the planet. However, data gathered by Curiosity’s on-board weather station, called REMS (for Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) over the course of its mission suggests the night-time conditions in Gale Crater, are right for the formation of sub-surface brines throughout the year.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: hill climbing, the impact of salt, and landing a rocket (take 2)”

SJSU iSchool VCARA conference 2015

VCARA 2015Tuesday, April 21st will see the 2015 VCARA (Virtual Centre for Archives & Records Administration) Conference, organised ans hosted by the San José State University’s School of Information, take place in Second Life.

The title for the conference, which is now in its sixth year, is Within Our Grasp: Exploring Reality – Virtually, and speakers explore the means by which virtual environments and activities have meaning and impact in the physical world.

The conference will take place between 18:00 and 20:00 SLT on April 21st, at the SJSU iSchool Island. The main event will be followed by steampunk themed party and a tour of US Revolutionary War space.

Keynote speakers for the event are JJ. Drinkwater from Caledon Library and Caledonia Skytower from Seanchai Library, who will each be presenting two 30-minutes papers. Following the keynote addresses there will be a series of 10-minute mini-presentations.

The published schedule reads thus (all times SLT):


  • 18:00 – 18:30:  JJ. Drinkwater – Sideways Into the Past, or, What Does the Flying Clockwork Under-Footman’s Aerostatic Tea-Tray Have to Tell Us?
  • 18:30 – 19:00: Caledonia Skytower (Judith Cullen) – If You Build it . . . it is Still Just Stuff


  • 19:00 – 19:10: Sere Timeless (Kathryn Spoehr) — Exploring (Historical) Reality Virtually: The Rocca Sorrentina
  • 19:10 – 19:20: jsweatt (Jeni Crummey) — Building a Business in Second Life
  • 19:20 – 19:30: Valibrarian Gregg (Dr. Valerie Hill) — Minecraft and Information Literacy
  • 19:30 – 19:40: Jane Awesome (Kerri Keil) — Exploring Virtual Museums,Archives, and Libraries
  • 19:40 – 19:50: Snow Scarmon (Chris Nelson) – Avatar Personalization Through Social Interaction
  • 19:50 – 20:00: Amvans Lapis (Marie Vans) — VWBPE 2015: Recapping A Great Virtual Worlds Education Conference
  • 20:00 – 20:10: Cori (Jennifer Christensen) — Use of Virtual Worlds in the Treatment of PTSD
  • 20:10 – 20:20: Amza Hydraconis — My Renaissance Experience
  • 20:20 – 20:30: Cali Libby (Lori Harris) — Using Second Life as a Creative Approach to YA Library Collaboration,Design, and Study, followed by a tour of the YA Space.

The steampunk party will start at 20:40,  and will run for as long as people remain. Guests are invited to addend in costume, although freebie will be provided if required. For those unfamiliar with steampunk, the conference offers the following guidelines:

“Steampunk is an inspired movement of creativity and imagination. With a backdrop of either Victorian England or America’s Wild West at hand, modern technologies are re-imagined and realized as elaborate works of art, fashion, and mechanics … How can we apply this in the 21st century?  Think modern technology–iPads, computers, robotics, air travel–all powered by steam and set in the 1800’s. Think about a world where creativity and ingenuity are limitless!”

Of thumbs, bears, wizards, wasps and books

It’s time to kick-off another week of fabulous story-telling in voice, brought to Second Life and InWorldz by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library.

As always, all times SLT, and unless otherwise stated, events will be held on the Seanchai Library’s home on Imagination Island.

Sunday, April 19th

13:30: Tea Time at Baker Street

Caledonia, Kaydon and Corwyn accept a further invitation from Holmes and Watson to join them in the parlour at 221B Baker Street for a retelling of The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb, which first saw print in March, 1892 in The Strand Magazine, and was later included in the volume of tales The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes offers the injured Hatherley a drink whilst listening to his story (image: Sidney Paget, 1892)
Holmes offers the injured Hatherley a drink whilst listening to his story (image: Sidney Paget, 1892)

Early on a morning in 1889, Dr Watson attends an injury sustained by a Mr. Victor Hatherley. The injury turns out to be the stump of a severed thumb, and Hatherley, a consultant hydraulics engineer, has a very disturbing tale to tell about how he came to be sans one pollex. Having treated the young man, Watson insists Hatherley relate his tale to Holmes, making this one of two cases Watson himself referred to the Great Detective.

Once before Holmes, the young engineer relates how he was hired by a Colonel Lysander to examine the hydraulic press Lysander has in his possession, apparently for making bricks from fuller’s earth. However, Lysander not only offers Hatherley the outrageous fee of fifty guineas (about £4,000 or almost $6,000 today) for doing so, but insists on a curious amount of secrecy, including transporting the engineer to the press the previous night in such a way that he would be uncertain as to its actual location. Things get stranger still when a woman at the house warns him to run away – and Hatherley eventually does find himself fleeing for his life from Lysander before the night is through, losing his thumb in the process.

So, what is the secret of the hydraulic press? What use could it be put to that would cause one man to contempt the murder of another? Sherlock Holmes has the answer!

18:00: Magicland Park SL: The Real Winnie: A One-of-a-Kind Bear

Lt. Harry Colbourn and Winne, 1914 (image: Manitoba Provincial Archives via Wikipedia)
Lt. Harry Colbourn and Winne, 1914 (image: Manitoba Provincial Archives via Wikipedia)

We all know AA Milne’s classic character, Winnie the Pooh. But did we all know he was inspired in part by a real bear called Winnie?

“Winnipeg” (shortened to “Winnie”) was the name veterinarian Harry Colebourn gave to a black bear cub he purchased while en route to an Army training centre near Quebec in 1914.

A Lieutenant in the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CAVC), Colebourn found his bear unofficially adopted by the CAVC’s mascot, travelling with them to London, where he remained in the care of London Zoo while Colebourn and his regiment went to France. 

It was at London Zoo, where Winnie remained, that she became adored by one young Christopher Robin Milne, thus helping inspire the tales of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood.

Join Caledonia Skytower as she reads from Val Shushkewich’s book  relating the story of the real Winnie in a special encore reading.

Monday April 20th, 19:00: The Wizard of Karres

Gyro Muggins returns to the universe created by James H. Schmitz and given form through his 1949 novel, The Witches of Karres, as he opens the pages of the 2004 sequel, The Wizard of Karres, penned by by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer, which reunites the reader with some familiar characters.

Wizard of KarresFor Captain Pausert, it would seem that the old saying that no good deed ever goes unpunished should perhaps become the family motto. As a “reward” for thwarting the plans of the space pirates and eliminating the threat of the Worm World, Pausert is given the  secret mission of stopping the nanite plague, a self-aware disease that lay waste to entire planets worlds.

Only someone has once convinced the Imperial Navy, unaware of his true mission, that Pausert is actually a wanted man. so it is that the Navy set out to hunt him down – and almost succeed, managing to cripple his ship. When Pausert discovers his funding has also been cut-off, leaving him without the means to get his ship repaired, he and his companions, Goth and the Leewit, the Witches of Karres, are forced to go undercover – and join a travelling circus.

After all, the show – and the mission – must go on, and thus the adventures continue.

Tuesday April 21st

18:00 SLT – VCARA Conference 2015

Caledonia Skytower from Seanchai Library is one of the two keynote speakers at the 2015 VCARA (Virtual Centre for Archives & Records Administration) Conference organised ans hosted by the San José State University School of Information in Second Life.

Find out more about the conference here.

19:10: Caitlin and Elizabth

With Shandon Loring.

Wednesday April 22nd

06:00: WASP, Where is Thy Sting?

Freda Frostbite and Trolly Trollop return to the thoughts and writings of Florence King.

WaspWASP, Where is Thy Sting? was first published as a series of magazine essays in the 1970s prior to becoming a book in its own right, is a study by Ms. King focusing on the subject of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (the WASPs) of the title.

While biased towards her own background as a member of an Anglo-Southron Washington DC family, and perhaps slightly dated today, the book explores the various varieties of Protestantism in the United States, which have often been based on social background and ethnicity far more than specific doctrinal differences, and can still resonate with readers today, as one reviewer notes:

After the various ethnic studies which began showing up through the ’60s and ’70s, Miss King decided that WASPs, as an ethnic group, needed to be delineated and explained to everyone else. Overall, she does a decent job. Yes, this is a humorous book, but there are too many parallels to people I’ve known and grown up with to doubt her accuracy. And there are plenty of Miss King’s delicious aphorisms (referring to many WASP womens’ idea of fashion as “Calamity Jane Eyre Chic” is a good example). There are many such quotable bits throughout the book.

19:00: Christie’s Detectives

Join Caledonia Skytower as she presents short stories featuring Agatha Christe’s beloved detectives: Parker Pyne, Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Thursday April 23rd, 19:00: The Lost Race

With Shandon Loring.

Saturday April 25th, 12:00 Noon:  Seanchai Inworldz: Inkheart

inkheartShandon Loring opens the covers of Cornelia Funke’s young adult novel, Inkheart, the first novel in what would become the Inkheart trilogy.

The books chronicle the adventures of 12-year-old Meggie, whose life changes dramatically in Inkheart when she realizes that she and her father, a bookbinder named Mo, have the unusual ability to bring characters from books into the real world when reading aloud, as they have the “Silvertongue”.

Mo reveals that he once accidentally brought four characters to life from a story, once of whom is Dustfinger, and the villain Capricorn. while Meggie’s mother, vanished into the “Inkworld” after she and Mo had a bitter exchange.

Now Dustfinger has returned with a warning: Capricorn and his followers have also returned, and are seeking Mo and his daughter, and Mo’s copy of of Inkheart, with the intent of having Mo bring forth a monster known as “The Shadow” out of the book. With Dustfinger in their company, Mo and Meggie flee to Northern Italy and the home of Meggie’s Aunt Elinor, with Capricorn and his minions in pursuit.

Seanchai library, InWorldz are located in the ground the Community Library in InWorldz (https://inworldz/region/Sendalonde/217/144/28).


Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule. The featured charity for April / May is Habitat for Humanity, with a vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live – a safe and clean place to call home.

Related Links

VR update: Google launches Works with Cardboard and acquires; Freefly arrives

Cardboard, Google’s open-sourced approach to VR, has really taken off in the 10 moths since it launched. As well as the original headset made from, err, cardboard, there have been offerings from the likes of South Korean giant LG, while at the  end of 2014, Virgin Holidays adopted Cardboard as a means of offering customers a “try-before-you-buy” VR experience on certain holidays. It has even spurred an update to the 75-year-old Viewmaster.

Such is the popularity of Cardboard as a development platform that it is actually becoming hard to identify what might work with what; the open-source nature of the platform means when it comes to hardware, people can tweak things to their heart’s content – optics, focal length, dimensions, etc., with the result that not all headsets play nicely with apps created using the Cardboard SDK.

In an attempt to counter issues of poor experience, Google announced the Works with Cardboard initiative on Thursday, April 16th. The idea is to ensure that any Cardboard viewer / headset will work with any Cardboard app. It does this quite cleverly: manufacturers define their viewer’s key parameters to Google, and in return receive a QR code. People buying the viewer can then scan the QR code using the Cardboard app, and all Cardboard VR experiences they run on their ‘phone will be automatically optimised to run on the viewer / headset until such time as another QR code is scanned.

WWCIn addition, manufacturers can apply to Google for a programme certification badge (shown on the right) to place on their product, indicating it is suitable for running Google Cardboard VR experiences.

Alongside the new Works with Cardboard initiative, Google have also announced a new set of development guidelines are being put together on the web. These are a little light on specifics right now, but will grow as a resource.  The company has also revamped Google Play’s coverage of VR so that experiences can now be categorised by the following types: Music and Video, Games, and Experiences.

Perhaps most interestingly in terms of Google’s VR news, and as revealed by Road to VR, the company has acquired two VR start-ups.

The first is software studio Skillman & Hackett, who had been developing the award-winning Tilt Brush software, which allowed users to draw in VR using three dimensions, with paint, light, and textures, and then play their creations back. The software can be used  with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets to create scenes and paintings and play them back, while Cardboard users could use the Tilt Brush app to view art created using the software on other platforms. With Google acquiring Skillman & Hackett, it’s not clear if development of Tilt Brush will now continue.

The other company gobbled by Google is Dublin-based Thrive Audio, specialising in positional audio for realistic surround sound for VR experiences. With two patents filed for the technology they’ve been developing, it looks like Thrive will be added to Google’s growing team of VR specialist working on enhancing the Cardboard SDK.


The Freefly headset is designed to work with a range of Smartphones
The Freefly headset is designed to work with a range of Smartphones, both iOS and Android

April 2015 also saw the launch of Freefly VR, from UK-based Proteus Labs. With an introductory (“10% off”) price of £59.00 (US $99.00 / 79.00 Euros), the headset is designed to work with any smartphone with a screen size of between 4.7 in and 6.1 in diagonally, both iOS and Android. Freefly utilises the open-source ALP VR SDK, and the headset is not fully compatible with Cardboard apps with use a ‘phone’s magnetometer for input purposes, as this is used for positional head tracking.  To find out more on the system, read the overview over on Road to VR.