Space Sunday: a view of Earth, a look at China, and 5 exoplanets

The Earth and Moon as seen from OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), launched in September 2016 is on a mission to gather samples from the surface of asteroid Bennu and return them to Earth (see my previous reports here and here). It’s a huge undertaking, one which will take the vehicle on a journey of some 7.2 billion kilometres (4.5 billion miles).

Part of this journey involved OSIRIS-REx looping past the Earth in September 2017, in a gravity assist manoeuvre design to increase its velocity by some  13,400 km/h (8,400 mph) to almost 44,000 km/h (27,500 mph), and swing it on to an intercept with the asteroid, which it will reach in October 2018. During this Earth flyby, scientists carried out an extensive science campaign, allowing them to check and calibrate the probe’s suite of science instruments.

A part of this campaign involved testing the probe’s camera system, using it to take pictures of the Earth and Moon during September and early October. Several of these images, captured on October 2nd, 2017, were used by NASA used to create a to-scale composite image of the Earth-Moon system, which was released into the public domain on January 3rd, 2018 (seen above).

At time the images were taken, the spacecraft was approximately  5 million km (3 million mi) from Earth – or about 13 times the distance between the Earth and Moon. It was created by combining pictures captured using blue, green and red filters, allowing it to present a true colour view of the Earth and Moon as they reflect sunlight. Looking at it, one cannot help by be reminded of just how small and fragile our place in the universe really is.

China’s Space Ambitions

In reporting on China’s space programme, I’ve frequently noted the growing ambitious nature of their endeavours.  A mark of this is that in 2017, China mounted more than 20 successful launches – including some for foreign nations such as Venezuela, as a part of China’s desire to expand their commercial launch operations – matching Russia’s launch efforts, and sitting not that far behind the USA.

At the start of January 2018, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) upped the ante, indicating that in 2018, they plan to carry out 35 launches through the year. At the same time, CASC’s sister organisation,  China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation (CASIC) indicated it would be carrying out at least 5 launches during the year – four of them in the span of a week – while the Chinese private sector corporation, Landspace Technology, indicated it would commence launch operations during the year. Like America’s SpaceX, Landspace plan to become a major force in commercial sector launch operations, initially with satellite payloads, but ramping to flying people into space in around 2025.

One of the more notable missions China plans to launch in 2018 is the Chang’e 4 mission to the Moon’s far side. This is a two-phase mission, commencing in June 2018 with the launch of a communications relay satellite to the Earth-Moon Lagrange point. It will be followed in December by a lander / rover combination which will land on the lunar far side to commence science studies. It will mark the first attempt to carry out long-term studies on the side of the Moon permanently facing away from Earth – not to mention the first far side lunar landing.

The Chang’e 3 lander (top) and Yutu rover share similar designs with the upcoming Chang’e 4 lunar surface mission. Credit: National Astronomical Observatories of China

The CE-4 Relay satellite is required in order for communications to take place between Earth and the Chang’e 4 lander and rover.

As the Moon is tidally locked with Earth, and always keep the same side pointed towards us, there is no way to have direct communications with any vehicle on the lunar far side. This is overcome by placing a satellite in the Earth-Moon L2 position, where it can maintain a steady position relative to the Earth and the Moon’s far side, enabling communications between the two, and keeping scientists and engineers on Earth in contact with the lander and rover.

The lander / rover combination will explore part of the 180 km (112.5 mi) diameter Von Kármán crater, believed to be the oldest impact crater on the Moon. It lies within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast basin in the southern hemisphere of the far side which extends from the South Pole to Aitken crater.

The crater is of general interest because it contains about 10% by weight iron oxide (FeO) and 4-5 parts per million of thorium, which can be used as a replacement for uranium in nuclear reactors. In addition, the South Pole-Aitken Basin – one of the largest impact basins in the solar system (about 2,500 km / 1,600 mi across and some 13 km / 8.1 mi deep) – also contains vast amounts of water ice. These deposits are believed to be the result of impacts by meteors and asteroids over the aeons, which deposited ice within the basin, which lies in almost permanent shadow.

The water deposits will be part of Chang’e 4’s studies – China has already announced its intent to establish a human mission on the lunar surface, and relatively easy access to water ice could be a critical part of sustaining a human presence there. To carry out their studies, both the rover and the lander will carry a range of science instruments and experiments, including systems supplied by Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the lander will include a container with potato and rockcress seeds, together with silkworm eggs to see if plants and insects can survive in the lunar environment. It is hoped that if the eggs hatch, the larvae would produce carbon dioxide, while the germinated plants would release oxygen through photosynthesis, allowing both to establish a simple life-sustaining synergy within the container. If successful, it might allow larger biotic systems to be developed and used to augment the life support systems in a lunar base while providing additional foodstuffs.

2018 should also mark the return to flight of the Long March 5, China’s most powerful launch vehicle. This entered service in November 2016, but flights were suspended in 2017 following the failure of the vehicle’s second launch in July of that year. Long March 5 is critical to China’s ambitions, as it will be the launch platform for the Chang’e 5 (2019) and Chang’e 6 (2020) lunar sample return missions, the modules to be used in a planned space station, due to start in 2019 with the launch of Tianhe unit, and boost the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission to the red planet in 2020.

A slight fuzzy TV image of the Long March 5 launch on July 2nd, 2017. The vehicle suffered “an anomaly” shortly after lift-off and eventually crashed into the Pacific Ocean. 2018 should see the Long March 5 resume operations. Credit: CCTV

The 2018 return-to-flight of the Long March 5 will likely involve placing a Dongfanghong-5 (“The East is Red”) communications satellite, which will be placed in low Earth orbit.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a view of Earth, a look at China, and 5 exoplanets”

2018 Sansar Product Meetings week #2

The Intel CES booth at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, recreated in Sansar as a part of the show

The following notes are taken from the Sansar Product Meetings held on Friday, January 12th, 2018. These Product meetings are usually held every Friday at 9:30am PST and 4:00pm PST, and are open to all. There is currently no set agenda, and the meetings are a mix of voice and text. The official meeting notes are published in the week following each pair of meetings, while venues change each week, and are listed in the Meet-up Announcements. and the Sansar Atlas events section.

Joining both sessions alongside Jenn and Cara was Pierre (aka Paul), from the Business Operations team at the Lab, covering Sansar. His work involves the business side of Sansar (something not so in the public eye, but which particularly interests me), including corporate strategies and road maps, and among other things, he spoken about the Sansar presence at CES in partnership with Intel.

General Notes

Avatar Cap

There has been a 15 avatar limit imposed on Sansar experience during the past week. This has been to prevent individual instances of the experiences associated with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES – January 8th through 12th) becoming overloaded. As individual experiences cannot currently be capped for access, the 15 avatar limit was applied across all experiences. It should now have been lifted, or will be lifted soon.

Fashion and MD

The Lab will be starting a new series of meetings on Sansar fashion. It’s not clear what this will involve, but most likely will include information not only on what is upcoming on the fashion side, but also Marvelous Designer (MD). A request has also been put forwards for a new MD-specific channel on Discord. This is being considered, but for now, MD issues will be folded into the fashion channel.

Sansar Store 50 Item Limit for Free Accounts

In October, the Lab announced new Sansar Store policies, which at the time generated some negative feedback so that not all of them – e.g. the credit / debit card requirement – were implemented. At the Friday morning Product meeting, Jenn indicated that another restriction – limiting free Sansar account holders to only listing up to 50 items at a time – is also being lifted for the time being.

The Intel CES booth at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, recreated in Sansar as a part of the show

Intel and CES

As noted above, Linden Lab and Sansar were represented at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas in partnership with Intel. Three experiences were made available as a part of this partnership: the Intel CES Booth (actually the entire Intel display floor), Step Inside Intel’s 8th Gen Core (a tour inside Intel’s latest CPU), and Aech’s Garage, an experience reproducing one of the film sets from the Warner Brothers Entertainment / Amblin Entertainment / Village Roadshow Pictures film Ready Player One, also presented in association with HTC – and which you can read more about here.

This partnership was so high-profile, it featured in the CES opening day keynote by Brian Krzanich, Intel’s CEO, and his specific remarks can be heard in this extract from his address.

While it may look a little cheesy to some, this kind of exposure is extremely beneficial for a platform like Sansar:

  • It offers huge exposure to an audience, even allowing for Sansar’s current stage of development.
  • Perhaps more importantly, it offers a practical demonstration of how an environment like Sansar can be used as a tool for business (e.g. running virtual booths where people can see / learn about products, innovations, etc., without necessarily being physically present), and for learning (e.g. take the Step Inside … experience, and learn how a CPU actually works…).

I should have more to say on this in a separate article.

2018 Plans

Pierre re-iterated that 2018 will see a shift in a lot  – but not all – of the Lab’s focus from content creation tool development towards encouraging general user engagement and retention. This was in part couched in terms of wanting to improve / smooth the user on-boarding process so that as and when experience creators start looking to bring their own audiences into their experiences, it will be a lot easier for them to do so. He also expanded on some points touched on by Ebbe Altberg in the January 5th meeting:

  • Concurrency indicators are to be added to the Atlas, providing a measure of people using experiences, and the Atlas can be sorted based on this.
  • Improved options for making friends.
  • A broadening of events support to allow experience creators and users to be able to host more of their own events and activities and promote them more easily through a range of channels – the Atlas, the web, social media, etc.
  • Performance is to be looked at to ensure the experience people have in Sansar is optimal, whether in terms of the number of people concurrently in an experience (e.g. 50-100 having a smooth experience in Sansar towards the end of the year), the load time of experiences, being able to appropriately hear people across and experience, etc.

Experience Numbers

In line with the above, the Lab is looking at  – and seeking feedback on – “ideal” limits for numbers within an experience. For example: is it better to have a band performing to one mass audience of 200-300 avatars (or more) in a single experience, or to have them play before a mass audience that is split between a number of experience instances “looking in” on the band? The later could help counter performance degradation with large numbers in a single space, prevent interruptions, etc., affecting the entire audience but – if the audience is so sharded to groups of 100-ish, each unable to see the other audience groups, it could detract from the overall immersion offered by the event.

There are also other issues to be addressed as well: audio (voice) roll-off seems to be problematic in Sansar experiences. Sometimes it is possible to have 3 or more little groups conversing around an experience without all the audio running together; at other times, even with groups spread around an experience, all the conversations seem to over-run one another, leading to an ugly mess of voices.

Continue reading “2018 Sansar Product Meetings week #2”