Space Sunday: ninja space stations, Falcons, Dragons and ET

The cislunar Deep Space Gateway with an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module approaching it. Credit: NASA

Lockheed Martin has announced it will build a full-scale prototype of NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a space habitat occupying cislunar space. The facility, which if built, will be both autonomous and crew-tended, and is intended to be used as a staging point for the proposed Deep Space Transport NASA is considering for missions to Mars, as well as for robotic and crewed lunar surface missions.

DSG is part of a public-private partnership involving NASA in developing technologies for carrying humans beyond low Earth orbit called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP). A Phase I study for the facility has already been completed, and the full-scale prototype will be constructed as a part of the Phase II NextSTEP habitat programme, which will examine the practical issues of living and working on a facility removed from the relative proximity of low Earth orbit, outside of the relative protection of the Earth’s magnetic field and subject to delays of up to 3 seconds in two-way communications.

“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges,” said Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin NextSTEP program manager.

“Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit. While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”

The proposed Gateway, which if built would likely enter service in 2027/2028, will be designed to make full use of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module as its command and control centre, and will also use avionics and control systems designed for the likes of NASA’s MAVEN mission in order around Mars and the Juno mission at Jupiter, which will allow the facility to operate in an uncrewed automated flight mode around the Moon for up to seven months at a time.

NASA’s MPLM mission logo. Credit: NASA / Marshall Space Flight Centre

The core of the prototype will be the Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), originally designed and built for flights aboard the space shuttle and capable of delivering up to nine metric tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Two of these units, Leonardo and Raffaello flew a total of 12 missions to the ISS between 2001 and 2011, with Leonardo becoming a permanent addition to the space station in early 2011. And if film and comic fans are wondering, yes, the modules were all named after a certain band of mutant ninja turtles – hence the MPLM mission logo (right).

Donatello was a more capable module than its two siblings, as it was designed to carry payloads that required continuous power from construction through to installation on the ISS. However, it was never actually flown in space, and some of its parts were cannibalised to convert Leonardo into a permanent extension to the space station. In its new role, Donatello will form the core habitat space for the DSG prototype, and will be used as a testbed for developing the living and working space in the station, which will also have its own power module and multi-purpose docking adapter / airlock unit.

The Phase II development of the DSG is expected to occur over 18 months. Mixed Reality (augmented reality and virtual reality) will be used throughout the prototyping process to reduced wastage, shorten the development time frame and allow for rapid prototyping of actual interior designs and systems. The results of the work and its associated studies will be provided to NASA to help further the understanding of the systems, standards and common interfaces needed to make living in deep space possible.

The DSG is one of two concepts NASA is considering in it attempts to send humans to Mars. The second is the so-called Deep Space Transport (DSH). This is intended to be a large vehicle using a combination of electric and chemical propulsion to carry a crew of six to Mars. It would be assembled at the Deep Space Gateway.

While having a facility in lunar orbit does make sense for supporting operations on the Moon’s surface, when it comes to human missions to Mars, the use of the DSG as an assembly  / staging post for the DST actually makes very little practical sense. Exactly the same results could be achieved from low Earth orbit and without all the added complications of lunar orbit rendezvous. The latter simply adds an unnecessary layer of complexity to Mars missions whilst providing almost no practical (or cost) benefits, and perhaps again demonstrates NASA’s inability to separate the Moon and Mars as separate destinations – something which has hindered their plans in the past.

Musk Walks Back SpaceX Aspirations

SpaceX CEO and chief designer, Elon Musk has walked back on expectations for the initial lunch of the Falcon Heavy booster and on longer-terms aspirations for the Dragon 2 crew capsule.

Musk: a successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy “unlikely”. Credit: Associated Press

Speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference held in Washington DC in mid-July 2017, Musk indicated that a successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket is extremely unlikely. He also indicated that the company is abandoning plans to develop propulsive landing techniques for the Dragon 2 when returning crews to Earth from the ISS – and to achieve a soft landing on Mars.

Falcon Heavy is slated to be the world’s most powerful rocket currently in operation when it enters service in 2018, capable of lifting a massive 54 tonnes to low Earth orbit – or boosting around 14 tonnes on its way to Mars. Designed to be reusable, the rocket uses three core stages of the veritable Falcon 9 rocket – one as the centre stage, two as “strap on boosters” either side of it.

But computer modelling has revealed that firing all 27 motors on the stages (nine engines apiece) at launch has dramatically increased vibrations throughout the vehicle stack, making it impossible to gauge by simulation whether or not the rocket will shake itself apart without actually flying it. Hence Musk’s statement that the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy  – slated for later in 2017 – is unlikely to achieve a successful orbit. However, telemetry gathered during the flight – should the worse happen – will help the company more readily identify stresses and issues created by any excessive vibration, allowing them to be properly countered in future launches.

Once Falcon Heavy is fully operational, all three of the core stages are intended to return to Earth and achieve a soft landing just as they do when used as the first stage of a Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and SpaceX is also working to make the upper stage of the Falcon 9 / Falcon Heavy  recoverable as well.

Also at the conference, Musk announced SpaceX will no longer be using propulsive landings for the crewed version of their Dragon 2 space capsule, due to enter operations in 2019 ferrying crews two and from the ISS, operating alongside Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule. Initial flights of the Dragon 2 were intended to see the vehicle make a “traditional” parachute descent through Earth’s atmosphere followed by an ocean splashdown – the technique currently used by the uncrewed Dragon I ISS resupply vehicle.

However, SpaceX had planned to shift Dragon 2 landings from the sea to land – using parachutes for the majority of the descent back through the atmosphere, before cutting the vehicle free and using the built-in Super Draco engines (otherwise used as the crew escape system to blast the capsule free of a Falcon launch vehicle if the latter suffers any form of pre- or post-launch failure). The engines would fire during the last few metres of decent, placing the capsule into a hover before setting it down on four landing legs.

Extensively tested in tethered “hover” flights, propulsive landings would in theory made the recovery and refurbishment of Dragon capsules for future launches a lot easier, lowering the overall operating costs for the capsule. In announcing the decision to scrap the propulsive landing approach, Musk indicated it would have unnecessarily further drawn out the vehicle’s development as SpaceX sought to satisfy NASA’s requirements for crewed vehicle operations.

The decision also affects Musk’s hope of placing a robotic mission on the surface of Mars in 2020. Under that mission, a special cargo version of Dragon 2 – called Red Dragon- would fly a NASA science payload to Mars and use supersonic propulsive landing to slow itself through the tenuous Martian atmosphere and achieve a successful soft landing. This approach was seen as ideal, because using parachutes on Mars is extremely difficult with heavy payloads – NASAs studies suggest parachute on Mars have an upper limit of payloads around 1.5-2 tonnes. A Red Dragon capsule is liable to mass around 8-10 tonnes.

SpaceX have dropped plans to use propulsive landings on both their crewed Dragon 2 vehicles returning from the ISS and on their Red Dragon automated Mars lander (above). Credit: SpaceX

However, Musk no longer believes the use of a propulsive landing mechanism is “optimal” for Red Dragon, and the company has a better way of realising their goal – although he declined to indicate what this might be. Instead, propulsive landing systems would seem to be something the company will return to in the future – particularly given their hopes of placing vehicles massing as much as 100 tonnes on the surface of Mars.

No, ET Isn’t Calling Us

The Internet was agog recently after it was announced some very “peculiar signals” had been noticed coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star just 11 light-years away. While not known to have any planets in orbit around it, and despite the best attempts of astronomers – including the team picking up the signals at the Arecibo radio telescope, Puerto Rico – news of the signals led to widespread speculation that “alien signals” had been picked up.

The usual signals – officially dubbed the “Weird!” signal, due to the comment made in highlighting the signals in an image – were first picked up on May 12th/13th, 2017. However, it was not until two weeks later that the signals were identified and analysed, the PHL team concluding that they were not “local” radio frequency interference, but were in fact odd signals coming from the direction of Ross 128 – sparking the claims of alien signals, even though the director at PHL and the survey team leader -Abel Mendez – was one of the first to pour water on the heat of the speculation. “In case you are wondering, he stated in response to the rumours, “the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.”

The Weird! signal. Credit: UPR Aricebo

Without drawing any conclusions on what might be behind the signals, PHL liaised with  astronomers from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute to conduct a follow-up study of the star. This was performed on Sunday, July 16th, using SETI’s Allen Telescope Array and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s (NRAO) Green Bank Telescope. The fact that SETI was involved probably also helped fan the flames of “alien signal” theories. However, initial analysis of the signal and the portion of the sky where it was observed have suggested a far more mundane explanation:  geostationary satellites.

“The best explanation is that the signals are transmissions from one or more geostationary satellites,”  Mendez stated in an announcement issued on July 21st. “This explains why the signals were within the satellite’s frequencies and only appeared and persisted in Ross 128; the star is close to the celestial equator, where many geostationary satellites are placed.”

While certain this explanation is correct, Mendez does note it doesn’t account for the strong dispersion-like features of the signals (diagonal lines in the figure). His theory for this is that it is possible multiple reflections caused the distortions, but the astronomers will need more time to evaluate this idea and other possibilities.

So sorry, no ETs calling out into the night – yet.

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Expectations, beasts, sisterhoods and fables

Seanchai Library, Holly Kai Park

It’s time to kick-off another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home at Holly Kai Park, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, July 23rd

13:30: Tea-Time at Baker Street

Tea-time at Baker Street continues with readings from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the final set of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories first published in the Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

This week: The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

The year is 1903, and John Watson has returned to 221B Baker Street to see his old friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes. However, he is met not by Holmes, but by Billy Boy, one of the Baker Street Irregulars. Holmes, it seems, is up to his eyeballs trying to solve a case – that of a stolen £100,000 crown diamond.

In due course, Holmes appears, but not before Billy Boy has revealed  – much to Watson’s surprise – a very life-like effigy of the great detective, posed in an armchair as if reading and sitting in the window bay. And if that isn’t enough, Holmes, having exchanged greetings with Watson, dispatches Billy Boy on an errand and promptly adds to the good Doctor’s surprise.

“That boy is a problem, Watson. How far am I justified in allowing him to be in danger?”

“Danger of what, Holmes?”

“Of sudden death. I’m expecting something this evening.”

“Expecting what?”

“To be murdered, Watson.”

18:00: Magicland Storytime

Caledonia Skytower reads Beauty and the Beast.

Monday, July 24th 19:00: A Boy Ten Feet Tall

Originally published in 1961 under the title Sammy Going South, and then later Find the Boy, W.H. Canaway’s novel is often referred to a “The Huckleberry Finn of Africa.” It became the basis for a 1963 British film Sammy Going South, starring Edward G. Robinson, which was released in the United States as A Boy Ten Feet Tall – hence the revised title for the book.

Born in the Suez region of Egypt, where he is orphaned, Sammy learns he has an aunt living in Durban, South Africa, and is determined to travel south to be with her.

Already distrustful of adults – he was told immunisation shots he was given at a young age would not hurt, when of course they did – Sammy sets out on foot uncertain of how he will complete the journey, but determined that he will. Along the way his distrust of adults is reinforced thanks to encounters with those who seek to profit from him and due to his witnessing the cruelty humans can inflict upon one another.

But also along the way there are those who do seek nothing more than to help him. One of these is a poacher and diamond trader – the kind of person you’d believe only to willing to take advantage of a young boy alone in the world. But it is compassion that rules this man’s heart (played in the film by Edward G. Robinson), and he takes the boy under his wing, helping him to heal from his emotional wounds …

Join Gyro Muggins for more of the adventure.

Tuesday, July 25th 19:00: What’s Cookin’ in Miss Trolley’s Kitchen

Short stories by Laurie Colwin, Nora Ephron, Courtney Eldridge , and Pascale Le Draoulec with Trolley Trollop.

Wednesday, July 26th 19:00: Secrets of the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Caledonia Skytower reads Rebecca Wells’ 2014 tale.

When Siddalee Walker, oldest daughter of Vivi Abbott Walker, Ya-Ya extraordinaire, is interviewed in the New York Times about a hit play she’s directed, her mother gets described as a “tap-dancing child abuser.”

Enraged, Vivi disowns Sidda. Devastated, Sidda begs forgiveness, and postpones her upcoming wedding. All looks bleak until the Ya-Yas step in and convince Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of their girlhood mementos, called “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

As Sidda struggles to analyze her mother, she comes face to face with the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for.

Also presented in Kitely (hop://grid.kitely.com:8002/Seanchai/108/609/1528).

Thursday, July 27th

19:00: Brea’s Tale from The World of Feyland (Part 1)

With Shandon Loring. Also presented in Kitely (hop://grid.kitely.com:8002/Seanchai/108/609/1528).

21:00 Seanchai Late Night

Finn Zeddmore is back with more contemporary Science-Fiction-Fantasy.


Please check with the Seanchai Library’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

The featured charity for May through July is Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, raising awareness of childhood cancer causes and funds for research into new treatments and cures.

SL project updates week 29/2: Content Creation UG

Content Creation User Group Meeting, Hippotropolis Camp Fire Circle

The following notes are taken from the Content Creation User Group meeting, held on  Thursday, July 20th, 2017 at 13:00 SLT at the the Hippotropolis Camp Fire Circle. The meeting is chaired by Vir Linden, and agenda notes, etc, are usually available on the Content Creation User Group wiki page.

Medhue Simoni live steamed the meeting to You Tube, and his video is embedded at the end of this article. These notes present the meeting in terms of topics discussed, rather than a chronological breakdown of the meeting, so the provided time stamps may appear to be out of sequence in places. All time stamps are provided as links which will open the video in a separate browser tab, allowing the discussion to be heard in full.

Animated Mesh

Project Summary

The goal of this project is to provide a means of animating rigged mesh objects using the avatar skeleton, in whole or in part, to provide things like independently moveable pets / creatures, and animated scenery features via scripted animation.

  • At this point in time, this is not about adding fully functional, avatar-like non-player characters (NPCs) to Second Life
  • Animated objects will not (initially):
    • Have an avatar shape associated with them
    • Make use of an avatar-like inventory (although individual parts can contain their own inventory such as animations and scripts)
    • Make use of the server-side locomotion graph for walking, etc., and so will not use an AO
    • Use the avatar baking service
  • The project may be extended in the future.
  • It will involve both back-end and viewer-side changes, likely to encompass new LSL commands to trigger and stop animations (held in the object’s contents)
  • It will most likely include a new flag added to an existing rigged object type in order for the object to be given its own skeleton.

Current Status

[3:33- 4:29] Work is focused on getting right-click selections and wire frames to work correctly (e.g. when you right-click on a mesh, the object stops moving, the correct menu is displayed and the mesh is shown as a selected wire frame. All of this seems to be working well, and while Vir is still not in a position to give a time frame estimate of when a project viewer will appear, his feeling is that there are no major obstacles sitting in the way.

[13:24-16:54] Performance impact assessment: The work isn’t sufficiently advanced to carry out any kind of assessment on the impact multiple animated objects may have on simulator and viewer performance. Animated objects should not have as significant a cost as avatars tend to have, but it could get expensive with multiple rigged vertices being animated in a single location.

Vir’s view is that the relevant test will likely be how many joints are actively animated and rigged to, rather than just how many bones are in the scene, given that idle bones aren’t really going to impact anything. Until sress tests can be held and the figures refined, any cost / impact values assigned in a project viewer will be place holders, subject to change.

[43:50-58:00] Attaching animated objects to avatars / rigging prims or non-rigged mesh to skeleton bones:  A discussion encompassing BUG-134018 and attaching animated objects to avatars. Vir sees the problem with the latter as being primarily a performance question / costing issue (large numbers of objects with potentially no land impact be which influence performance).

Attaching avatars to animated objects (outside of sitting on them, as is done with vehicles, etc., currently) is seen as more complicated because the animated object is being controlled by a viewer-side skeleton about which the simulator has no notion, and so ideas of attachment points become vague, and questions open up on how things are tracked by the simulator, given there is no notion of agents associated with animated objects. This discussion also encompasses issues of attaching avatars to bones within animated objects, raising questions of parenting, animation synchronisation etc.

Bakes on Mesh

Project Summary

Extending the current avatar baking service to allow wearable textures (skins, tattoos, clothing) to be applied directly to mesh bodies as well as system avatars. This involves server-side changes, including updating the baking service to support 1024×1024 textures. This may lead to a reduction in the complexity of mesh avatar bodies and heads.

Current Status

[4:32-4:39] Anchor Linden has been working on other projects recently, but the hope is he’ll be back working on bakes on mesh soon.

[5:40-6:19] Bakes on mesh should allow alphas / transparent textures to be used as they are with the system avatar at present: if an alpha / transparent channel is in a bake, it will place “holes” in the mesh just as they can be used to blank parts of the system avatar. However, once the bakes on mesh project has progressed far enough, this will requiring testing to confirm.

[58:27-58:48] There is no estimate on when a project viewer, etc., for bakes on mesh might appear.

Other Items

Increasing the Build / Mesh Import Size

[6:24-12:18] It was asked if the current upper limit imported objects could be increased so that very large items such as region-sized landscape / terrain models could be imported with having to break them into smaller segments.

There are currently no plans to make any increase in the size of prims / single mesh imports. It’s also unclear how massive objects might be affected by land impact. The latter include things like the overall area of the object, the amount of screen space it might occupy based on its dimensions, etc; so having one large piece of terrain could have an exponentially larger land impact than  using a number of smaller sized pieces to achieve the same result. Additional concerns include the increased risk of encroachment issues, etc., for very large objects.

JIRA feature requests outlining why an increase might be useful and the kind of use cases it could meet are invited.

Maya .ANIM Exporter

[17:39-18:28] Aura Linden continues to work on the .ANIM exporter for Maya (which she has been developing in her own time), and which she plans to make available as a open-source offering. There are also the pre-Bento (translations on mPelvis only) and post-Bento (translations on all bones) .BVH exporters available on the Bento testing page of the wiki.

In Brief

  • [18:59-19:42] Various requests were put forward to extend the mesh object physics types which can be specified at upload (e.g. cube, basic havok presets, etc.). Vir requested a JIRA be raised so it could be noted and as / if / when time allows, pain point could be looked at and perhaps improvements / changes to the uploader made.
    • [20:40-22:54] Discussion about a specific issue in uploading a model cat using the official viewer (which crashes) and Firestorm (which manages the upload).
  • [25:13-29:26] Discussion (primarily text) on dynamic mirrors STORM-2055 and water as a reflective surface.
  • [31:35-34:18] Discussion (primarily text) about BUG-134006 “Viewer code is not aligned to server code when calculating physics shape for thin objects”. This has been accepted by the Lab, but as it is seen as a conflict between the viewer and the server, no decision has been made on whether it should be a server-side or viewer fix. Firestorm have adopted a viewer-side fix, which will appear in the next release. The root of the problem appears to be changes made in the physics costings as a result of mesh being introduced. This is followed by a further conversation on the physics uploader, “custom pivot points, and issues through to 42:14.

Art of the Artists: machinima challenge with L$350,000 prize pool

Poster by Eliza Wierwright

At the start of July I was able to break the news that the University of Western Australia would be retaining a presence in Second Life for at least two more years. As a part of that report, I made mention of an upcoming UWA machinima challenge. It has now been officially announced.

Art of the Artists – subtitled SLartist@UWA Machinima Challenge is not a resumption of the UWA Machinima Grand Challenges, the last of which took place in 2015 with Pursue Impossible. Rather, this is a special challenge, sponsored by LaPiscean Liberty of SLArtist and Singh Albatros and The Writers Centre, Singapore. On offer is a combined prize pool of L$350,000, including two special prizes.

Competition

The aim of the challenge is to produce a machinima film focused on any of the art exhibits located on the UWA regions in Second Life.

Entrants may choose individual pieces of art or a collection around which to weave a story. However, the art must be a relatively significant part of the story, and not merely something glimpsed in passing.

Films entered for consideration of any of the prizes can be no longer than 8 minutes duration; films with longer running times than 8 minutes may be submitted for showing, but will not be eligible for any of the prizes.

The Prizes

  • 1st Prize: L$75,000
  • 2nd Prize: L$50,000
  • 3rd Prize: L$40,000
  • 4th Prize: L$30,000
  • 5th Prize: L$20,000
  • 6th – 10th Prizes – L$7,000 each

In Addition, there are two special prizes:

  • L$50,000 UWA Art of the Artists Special Prize: this will be awarded by Jayjay Zifanwe on behalf of the University of Western Australia
  • L$50,000 The Merlion Special Prize: this will be awarded by Singh Albatros on behalf of The Writer’s Centre, Singapore to the film which – in the view of the judge –  best represents the The Merlion,  the national personification of Singapore (see below for more).

The 10 main prize winners will be selected by a selected panel of judges. Details of the full panel will be available on the UWA website soon.  Each of the special prize winners will be judged independently to the judging panel, and as such, may be eligible for a prize in the general classification as well.

The full Merlion installation at Monash University

Where to Find the Art

Art which can be used in films submitted to the Challenge can be found in the following locations:

  • The UWA Main Gallery – the primary exhibition space for art at UWA, including entrants to the most recent challenge, Transformations, which is expected to remain up at least through the end of this year.
  • The UWA Main region – this is the home of the iconic Winthrop Hall clock tower, Somerville outdoor cinema, the Moreton Bay Figs, and Sunken Garden. Some of the art from the UWA regions which will be closing will be relocated to platforms above this region. The relocation work is expected to be completed by the end of July 2017.
  • The Merlion – celebrating Singapore’s iconic Merlion sculpture, the full-sized version is hosted by the Monash University in Second Life. The smaller version at te UWA offers information on Merlion Portal Project concerning cultural, literary and artistic significance of the Merlion. It also provides a landmark to the full size installation.

Note that selected art for a film may be filmed in its current location. however, films do not need to be restricted to these locations, as long as the art is the focus of the story being told. Entrants may contact artists about filming their works in other locations and / or collaborating with them on a film. Should you require a blue screen for part of your filming of the art, please contact FreeWee Ling or Jayjay Zifanwe.

How To Enter and Guidelines

  • The challenge is open to all machinima makers, unless involved in the judging process.
  • Films entered in consideration of any of the prizes should not exceed 8 minutes in length.
  • Films with running times longer than 8 minutes may be entered, but will not be eligible for any prizes.
  • Completed films should be uploaded, preferably YouTube or Vimeo, and a link to the film sent to  Jayjay Zifanwe and LaPiscean Liberty.
  • The closing date for submissions is December 31st 2017
  • Please acknowledge all art featured in your film, and please acknowledge and get authorisation for any music you use.
  • You own all rights to the films you create, but by entering the challenge you give permission for it to be shown on the UWA Blog, the Slartist Website and to be played on UWA lands.
  • The ten winners of the general prizes will be adjudicated by a panel of 5 judges. The special prize winners will be selected by Jayjay Zifanwe (UWA Special Prize) and Singh Albatros (The Writer’s Centre prize).
  • If you have questions, want to discuss anything, or add to the prize pool,  please contact Jayjay Zifanwe.