Space Sunday: of detours and sailing the solar wind

CuriositySince my last Space Sunday update, NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has experienced successes to overcome some setbacks, major and minor.

The major success came in the form of what amounts to “corrective eye treatment” for the rover’s famous laser system, which has been zapping rocks and soil hundreds of thousands of times in order to analyse the resultant plasma, and thus understand the chemical and mineral composition of the target material.

Called ChemCam, the Chemistry and Camera instrument, actually comprises a laser system and a telescope / camera connected to a spectrograph. The laser is in fact two systems in one, a primary laser, used to “shoot” targets and generate the plasma, and a smaller rangefinder laser used to accurately focus the telescope camera on the intended target. However, several months ago, this rangefinder laser suffered an unrecoverable failure.

Since that time, the ChemCam team have had to rely on taking multiple images of a target rock at multiple focal lengths in order to determine the best focal length the telescope should use when the main laser is set to fire.

The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture
The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture, at the centre of which sits the laser “barrel”

The problem here is that the images had to be taken, transmitted to Earth and then assessed by a team of scientists to determine the best focal length setting for the telescope, which then had to be transmitted back to Curiosity, which then had to make the required focal adjustments. Only then could the main laser be successfully fired and accurate images for analysis obtained by the telescope. Obviously, all of this is a very protracted process compared to the rover being able to automatically focus the telescope directly.

However, as a part of a recent software upload to Curiosity, the international team responsible for ChemCam were able to install an update that has resorted Curiosity’s ability to auto-focus the ChemCam telescope. Now, instead of having to send a series of images to Earth for analysis, the rover can simply run the images taken at different focal lengths and then run them through an on-board algorithm which then selects the optimal focal length for the telescope, allowing the laser firing to proceed.

A series of test firings using the new software were carried out on Thursday, May 21st, and the results weren’t only positive – they indicated the new, software-driven auto-focus technique actually yields better quality results than the original method.

The second success for Curiosity actually has its origins provide to my last Space Sunday report. As indicated at that time, Curiosity was attempting to reach a point dubbed “Logan Pass”, an area sitting at the head of a series of shallow valleys and marked by the confluence of two different types of rock.

At the time of my last report, Curiosity had already been diverted from the original route selected for getting to the target. Images of the route revealed it in part comprised what NASA calls “polygonal sand ripples”, which can cause the rover to suffer extreme traction difficulties and wheel slippage. As a result, a decision was taken to attempt the ascent to the desired science location via slightly rougher terrain; it didn’t work out.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver said of the attempt. “There appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Too dangerous to drive: this Mastcam image, take by Curiosity on Sol 981 (May 10th, 2015 PDT), shows the two areas of rock the rover was attempting to reach in the middle distance (the light-coloured rock and the more grey rock above). The sand in the centre of the image had been judge too loose for a safe traverse, so the rover team had hoped to reach the target over rougher terrain, as seen to the right of this image (click for full size)

Two attempts to climb over this “unconsolidated material” (that’s loose rocks, pebble, sand, and dirt to you and me) came to an end when the rover experienced wheel slippage beyond acceptable limits, forcing the drive to stop. Coupled with indications of some sideways slippage – something the rover certainly doesn’t want to encounter lest it topple over – the decision was taken to reverse course and try an alternative route offering a way to another point at which the two rock formations meet and are both exposed.

On Thursday, May 21st, the rover successfully completed a climb up a 21-degree incline to reach a point overlooking an area where the two different strata of rock sit one atop the other, presenting an environment rich in scientific potential, and where the rover may spend some time engaged in investigations.

Rover’s reward: a Navcam image taken by Curiosity on Sol 991 (May 21st, 2015 PDT), following the large stage of a rough, steep climb. Central to the image can be seen an area of pale rock overlaid by darker material. The marks the meeting point of two different rock formations, which may give further clues as to the nature and history of “Mount Sharp’s” formation (click for full size)

Continue reading “Space Sunday: of detours and sailing the solar wind”

BURN2: A Playa before time in Second Life


The BURN2 team have announced the latest in the series of BURN2 events for 2015. with it, come invitations to artists, builders, DJs, musicians, blogger and the Second Life populace as a whole to join with them for three days of art, music and events that will take place between Friday, July 10th and Sunday July 12th, 2015.

Called Primordial the event will, in the words of the official announcement:

Find a way to look back at how our beloved Playa may once have been, so a window was opened to one fanciful possibility of the past.

A primeval jungle surrounds the Playa as it was long long ago, a great lake.  On the edges here and there are hot springs and geysers, some of which remain even until today. Steam drifts from them out across the water in the same way the dust we know so well does today.  Thick mats of vegetation float upon the surface, some large and strong enough to hold sizeable structures.  Other mats are less substantial. You must pick your path across the maze of them; one wrong step and you drop below into briny water.  Who knows what else has slipped below? What rests or lives there awaiting its genesis, ready to emerge in the next stage of our growth?

Parcels for artists, builders and creators on the Playa are being provided free of charge, and are available for builds on land, in / on the water or floating over the water.  Those interested in applying for a parcel should:

Musicians, DJs and performers wishing to participate on stage at Primordial should:

No closing dates for applications appear to be given, but as BURN2 events are very popular, parcels and stage slots are liable to fill-up fast – so the sooner those intending to apply do so, the better their chances!

About BURN2

BURN2 is an extension of the Burning Man festival and community into the world of Second Life. It is an officially sanctioned Burning Man regional event, and the only virtual world event out of more than 100 real world Regional groups and the only regional event allowed to burn the man.

The BURN2 Team operates events year around, culminating in an annual major festival of community, art and fire in the fall – a virtual echo of Burning Man itself.

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Tales of horses, dragons, wealth and worlds in Second Life

It’s time to kick-off another week of fabulous story-telling in voice, brought to our virtual lives by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and all events in Second Life are held at the Seanchai Library’s home on Imagination Island. OR, from Thursday, May 27th, Bradley University.  Locations for events in InWorldz and Kitely are given within the write-ups for those events.

Sunday, May 24th: Tea-time at Baker Street

Caledonia Skytower, Kaydon Oconnell and Corwyn Allen open the covers of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in 1894, and which brings together twelve (or eleven in US editions of the volume) adventures featuring Holmes and Watson, as originally published in The Strand Magazine. This week: Silver Blaze.

Silver Blaze, an Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1892
Silver Blaze, an Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1892

“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.

“Go! Where to?”

“To Dartmoor; to King’s Pyland.”

I was not surprised. Indeed, my only wonder was that he had not already been mixed upon this extraordinary case, which was the one topic of conversation through the length and breadth of England. For a whole day my companion had rambled about the room with his chin upon his chest and his brows knitted, charging and recharging his pipe with the strongest black tobacco, and absolutely deaf to any of my questions or remarks. Fresh editions of every paper had been sent up by our news agent, only to be glanced over and tossed down into a corner. Yet, silent as he was, I knew perfectly well what it was over which he was brooding.

Thus begins one of the most popular of all tales concerning Holmes and Watson: the disappearance of the famous racing horse Silver Blaze on the eve of a great race, and the apparent murder of the horse’s trainer.

First published in 1982, Silver Blaze is set in the brooding surrounds of Dartmoor, and involves what is regarded as one of Conan Doyle’s most subtle but effective, plot points: “the dog in the night-time”!

Monday May 25th, 19:00: The Pathways of Desire

Gyro Muggins reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1979 short story The Pathways of Desire, which also features as one of 20 of her stories gathered together in 1982 to form the volume, The Compass Rose.

The Pathways of Desire forms study of perception, reality, dreams, creation, and exploration, focusing on a group of anthropologists studying a distant world’s society where there’s barely a culture and few myths, but whose language seems to be based on English.

“There is room. There is time. All the galaxies. All the universes. That is infinity. There is room. Room for all the dreams, all the desires. No end to it. Worlds without end.”

Tuesday May 26th, The Great Gatsby, Part 1

Great GatsbyCaledonia Skytower, Corwyn Allen and Kaydan Oconnell commence, by popular demand, a a reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnificent 1925 novel.

In 1922, Nick Carraway arrives in New York to learn about the bond business. He rents a small cottage in West Egg, home of the newly-rich, only to discover the owner of the huge Gothic mansion next door, the deeply mysterious Jay Gatsby, is prone to throwing lavish parties every weekend, to which in seems everyone comes. Everyone it seems, except Nick’s cousin Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan. Together they live across the bay in the more fashion East Egg, where the “old money” resides.

Following a visit with them, Nick is slowly drawn into their world, both discovering Tom Buchanan has a mistress who lives in the Valley of Ashes, an industrial area lying between the Eggs and New York city, and finding himself increasingly attracted to the Buchanan’s friend, the beautiful, if cynically minded, Jordan Baker.

Then, one Saturday, Nick finds himself invited to one of Jay Gatsby’s great parties, and is thus drawn into an increasingly deep well of infatuation, lust, and tragedy, witnessing first hand a darker side of the so-called American Dream.

Wednesday May 27th – “Farewell, Imagination Island”

Seanchai Library closes its doors at Imagination island with a final set of readings prior to a move to a new location and venue setting.

06:00: Forever Erma

Erma BombeckErma Bombeck achieved great popularity for her newspaper column that described suburban home life from the mid-1960s until the late 1990s. She also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. From 1965 to 1996, Erma Bombeck wrote over 4,000 newspaper columns, using broad and sometimes eloquent humour, chronicling the ordinary life of a mid-western suburban housewife. By the 1970s, her columns were read twice-weekly by 30 million readers of the 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada

Join Freda Frostbite and Trolly Trollop as the delve into Erma’s wit and wisdom of everyday life, joined by Caledonia Skytower.

19:00: The Night Fairy

With Faerie Maven-Pralou.

Thursday May 28th “Hello From Bradley University!”

Seanchai Library opens its doors at their new venue at Bradley University – more details to follow on the official Seanchai blog, but see below for the events!

19:00: Celtic Flash

With Shandon Loring.

21:00 Seanchai Late Night

With Finn Zeddmore.

Saturday May 30th, Seanchai InWorldz 12:00 Noon: The Reluctant Dragon

Caledonia and Shandon read Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 short story (turned into a film in 1941 by Walt Disney), which plays on the legend of St. George and the Dragon.

reluctant-dragonWhen  a dragon is discovered living in a cave on the downs near a medieval village, the most unsurprised of the village’s inhabitants is a young boy. He’d always thought the cave to be a dragon’s cave, so the news that one had been seen living there didn’t faze him at all. In fact, given a dragon did live there, it seemed only natural he should go pay it a visit.

What he finds is not entirely what he expected. Rather than being all involved in battling with knights and making a general nuisance of itself, this particular dragon has a passion for poetry and a willingness to be friend with those willing to be friendly towards it.

Unfortunately, the rest of the village don’t take kindly to the dragon’s hospitable ways, and determine that this “pestilential scourge” must be done away with, and call upon none other than St. George to administer the dragon’s dispatch. Hearing of the plan, the boy arranges to bring St. George to meet the dragon and the two become fast friends, and determine not to fight.

Problem is, the villagers are expecting a fight, demand a fight, and by golly, they’re going to make sure there is a fight; something which leaves St. George and the dragon with a bit of problem: how can they fight without actually hurting or killing one another?


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.

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