Space Sunday: reusability, habitability, survivability

SpX-13 lifts-off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, marking the first time SpaceX has launched a previously-flown Dragon 1 resupply capsule atop a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, in SpaceX’s 17th launch for 2017. Credit: NASA

SpaceX Has completed its first mission to the International Space Station with a Falcon 9 first stage and a Dragon 1 resupply vehicle which have both previously flown.

The launch took place at 15:36 GMT (10:36 EST) on Friday, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As well as being the first time a previously used Falcon 9 first stage and Dragon capsule have flown together, the launch also marked the first from SLC-40 since a pre-launch explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in September 2016, which completely destroyed the rocket and its Israeli payload, and severely damaged the launch facilities.

Three minutes after the launch, the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 separated, the latter continuing towards orbit while the former performed its “boost-back” manoeuvre, and completed a safe return to Earth and a vertical landing at SpaceX’s Landing Complex 1 at Canaveral Air Force Station. The landing marked the 20th successful recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage – with 14 of those recoveries occurring in 2017.

The Dragon capsule, carrying some 2.2 tonnes of supplies for the ISS, was first used in a resupply mission in April 2015. In its current mission, it reached the station on Sunday, December 17th, where it was captured by the station’s robotic arm and moved to a safe docking at one of the ISS’s adaptors where unloading of supplies will take place. The capsule will remain at the station through January, allowing science experiments, waste and equipment to be loaded aboard, ready for a return to Earth and splashdown in the Pacific ocean, where a joint NASA / SpaceX operation will recover it.

The SpX-13 Dragon sits alongside the International Space Station on Sunday, December 17th, waiting to be grappled by one of the station’s robot arms and moved to its docking port. Credit: NASA/JSC

The mission is a significant milestone for SpaceX, bringing the company a step closer to it goal of developing a fully reusable booster launch system. Thus far the company has successfully demonstrated the routine launch, recovery and reuse of the Dragon 1 capsule and the Falcon 9 first stage. On March 30th, 2017, as part of the SES-10 mission, SpaceX performed the first controlled landing of the payload fairing, using thrusters to properly orient the fairing during atmospheric re-entry and a steerable parachute to achieve an intact splashdown. This fairing might be re-flown in 2018. That “just” leaves the Falcon 9 upper stage, the recovery of which would make the system 80% reusable.

However, recovering the second stage is a harder proposition for SpaceX – at one point the company had all but abandoned plans to develop a reusable stage, but in March 2017, CEO Elon Musk indicated they are once again working towards that goal – although primary focus is on getting the crew-carrying Dragon 2 ready to start operations ferrying crews to and from the ISS.

The major issues in recovering the system’s second stage are speed and re-entry. The second stage will be travelling much faster than the first stage, and will have to endure a harsher period of re-entry into the Earth’s denser atmosphere. This means the stage will require heat shielding and a means to protect the exposed rocket motor, as well as the propulsion, guidance and landing capabilities required for a full recovery.

SpaceX has proven the reusability of the Falcon 9 first stage (left) and the Dragon capsule system (right). All that remains is developing a reusable second stage, most likely for use with the Falcon Heavy – or as a part of the ITS / BFR. This image shows the discontinued proposal for a reusable Falcon 9 second stage. Credit: SpaceX

The problem here is that of mass. The nature of rocket staging means that – very approximately, every two kilos of rocket mass on the first stage reduces the payload capability by around half a kilogramme.  With a second stage unit, this can drop to a 1:1 ratio. So, all the extra mass of the re-entry / recovery systems can reduce the total payload mass, making the entire recovery aspect of a Falcon 9 second stage both complex and of questionable value, given the possible reduction in payload capability. However, with the Falcon Heavy due to enter service in 2018, a reusable second stage system does potentially have merit, as the combined first stages of the system can do more of the raw shunt work needed to get the upper stage and its payload up to orbit.

The Habitability of Rocky Worlds Around a Red Dwarf Star

Red Dwarf stars are currently the most common class (M-type) of star to be found to have one or more planets orbiting them. Many of these worlds appear to lie within their parent’s habitable zone, and while that doesn’t guarantee they will support life, it does obviously raise a lot of questions around the potential habitability of such worlds.

There tend to be a couple of things which often run against such planets when it comes to their ability to support life. The first is that often, they are tidally locked with their parent star, always keeping the same face towards it. This creates extremes of temperature between the two side of the planet, which might as a result drive extreme atmospheric storm conditions. The second is – as I’ve noted in past Space Sunday articles – red dwarf stars tend to be extremely violent in nature. Their internal action is entirely convective, making them unstable and subject to powerful solar flares, generating high levels of radiation in the ultraviolet and infra-red wavelengths. Not only can these outbursts leave planets close to them subject to high levels of radiation, they can cause the star to have a violent solar wind which could, over time, literally rip any atmosphere which might otherwise form away from a planet. This latter point means that one of the most vexing questions for those studying exoplanets is how long might such worlds retain their atmospheres?

In an attempt to answer to that question, planetary astronomers have turned to a planet far closer to us than any exoplanet: Mars.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: reusability, habitability, survivability”

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A poignant Second Life machinima for Christmas

Jenny’s Holy Night

Nikira Naimarc is a budding machinima maker who contacted me about her first film, Jenny’s Holy Night, asking me if I’d like to watch it.

When most of us would consider entering machinima cautiously, perhaps with a piece of a few minutes duration to test the waters publicly, Nikira went for something far more ambitious. At little under 20 minutes in length, Jenny’s Holy Night easily qualifies as a mini movie.  And it is a moving piece.

“It is a Christmas video, Nikira told me, when she contacted me. “It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Match Girl. We premièred in November, and I’ve had very positive feedback.”

First published in 1845, The Little Match Girl is the sad tale of a poor little girl attempting to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. Ignored by the passing people, she is too afraid to go home lest her father beats her. Instead, she sleeps in the cold, dreaming of better times – times she may never see.

For Jenny’s Holy Night, Nikira has updated the story to a modern setting and has moved it to the days leading up to Christmas, with the little girl now an orphan trying to sell little Christmas wreaths she has made to unsympathetic shoppers, concerned only with their own needs.

Made with the support of Die Villa video, who have also made available on YouTube through their channel, Jenny’s Holy Night is a poignant tale. It is a reminder that “the season of giving” can be especially hard for those who don’t have the luxury of having the money to give in order to receive what they need; that that all too easily exist unseen and outside of the excitement of the holiday season – until it is too late.

Please take the time to watch the film below, and if you appreciate it, do consider leaving a comment for Nikira here or on the film’s YouTube page.

The Haze in Second Life

The Haze

Now open at CKB Art Gallery curated by Ceakay (CK) Ballyhoo is The Haze. It is the latest installation in a series of living stories featuring art and focused on the adventures of a principal character, whose journey we are invited to follow in words, images and settings. For The Haze, CK returns to her own character of Ellie, who featured in A Watercolour Wander (read here for more) and The Forest Beyond (read here for more) in a collaborative story developed with 2D and 3D artist Silas Merlin.

“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” CK says of the installation. “An offer from Silas to use his new builds and sketches to form a story. Using Silas’s new digital sketches and the ruins and creatures he has created, a world started to form, darker than anything we’ve either done before, the story turned into a nightmare: Ellie’s nightmare.”

The Haze

The result is a full region installation far removed from the green and pleasant lands of the first two instalments of Ellie’s dreamworld adventures. Instead, visitors find themselves in a desert-like, ghostly landscape, heavy with a dusty haze (I recommend exploring using the default windlight). Instructions on following the story can be found at the landing point – and should be read. In short, look for the little illuminated STORY stones set on the ground along the way, each one presents a chapter in the unfolding nightmare.

Another difference between this and Ellie’s previous adventures is that not only are the chapters presented in note card form when the stones are clicked, but approach a stone will trigger it being read to you – just have local sounds enabled (*not* the audio stream) to hear the readings. These readings can actually overlap one another, depending on how many are playing when you visit, and where you are in relation to the different stones. This might annoy some; for me, they actually added extra ambience: whispering ghostly voices, overlapping but each telling a story – if you listen carefully and focus on just one of the voices.

The Haze

The setting, with its deserting buildings, twisted trees, creatures and ruins, presents an eerie landscape, barren despite the trees – which appear a sickly yellow-green, rather than the usual robust green of fir-trees.  It’s a haunting place in which scenes loom up at you. They can seem disjointed, sudden – and very nightmare-like for doing so. Amidst all the rocks and fir-trees, seemingly dead trees also sit, their branches denuded of leaves, left to form easels on which groups of Silas’ drawings sit. These also have little STORY stones alongside of them which, when touched, will deliver background notes on a scene to you in note card form, adding further depth the the story.

Silas’ art is as captivating as ever – and there is a lot to see from buildings to gnomes to creatures to rocks (someone them resembling creatures) to people awaiting discovery. The 2D art forming the background stories is cleverly presented and offers an illustrative style reminiscent of a storybook – so thoroughly in keeping with the setting. He and CK have created an immersive tale, one which invites exploration  – and be sure to keep an eye out for the Boogeyman and also the dragon rezzer – the latter will allow you to fly up to the higher reaches of the setting, unreachable by foot, and essential to the story.

The Haze

Also when visiting, don’t miss the UP teleport at the landing point – it will take you to a sky gallery where you can find CK’s own art, more from Silas as well as from other artists, all taken from CK’s personal collection.

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millay Freschi: studying our relationship with our digital selves

millay Freschi – studying the relationship between our physical and avatar selves

At the end of September, Gentle Heron sent me a note card concerning a study being carried out by millay Freschi focused on our relationships with our avatar, other SL users, the group we belong to, and so on. The survey is still open, and millay is still seeking people willing to participate (a link to the survey is at the end of this article). Also included in the note card was feedback from millay on her initial findings from the survey, which also offered me the chance to chat in more detail with millay about her work and plans for the study.

In the physical world, millay is Amy E. Cross, a PhD candidate in an Interdisciplinary Programme at the University of Maine, and the study forms a core part of her dissertation. “I’m compiling information and research on the components of the avatar and how they affect our lives,” she told me earlier in November. “Specifically, I’m looking at social movements as that’s been my experience in SL; but the avatar components are the brunt of the research.

“I believe that I had 500 or so respondents when I talked about my initial findings in September. That number has now risen to over 900, and my dream is to have 3,000 respondents by the time I close the survey. I would like to get an honest look at how we view ourselves, our interactions and the place itself. As a part of this, I’m also conducting interviews with people willing to talk about themselves.”

Amy E. Cross, millay’s alter ego

millay’s research is being overseen by Dr. Kristina Nielson of the University of Maine, and those participating in the study must be at least 18 years of age, and able to answer 47 questions on a range of subjects relation to their physical and digital selves. It should take around 30 minutes to complete.

“It really is an exploratory study,” millay says of it. “I want to use the information to provide a solid foundation – a baseline of experiences and responses – for researchers Second Life, so I tried to  create a survey that would convey a lot of information without overwhelming the respondents. I’ll be expanding on it through the interviews I mentioned, together with observations and my own experience within SL.”

And millay does have considerable Second Life experience herself. “I didn’t actually just come here as a researcher,” she says. “I first arrived in 2007 as a physics major with an eye on maybe becoming an astronaut, drawn to Second Life simply out of curiosity, but once in-world, I was hooked!

“In 2008, I started the Four Bridges Project after working with Amnesty USA, which convinced me that peace and reconciliation studies were more in line with what I want to do.” She chuckles and adds, “I realised as well that my chances of becoming an astronaut were pretty slim!”

She continues, “As I was deciding on my graduate studies focus, I thought about who we are in this community and how what we do here, in Second Life, matter out there. So my Masters focused on virtual technology in education with a slant towards civic engagement and peace studies. My dissertation focuses on how our avatar components might play a role in virtual social activism.”

Turning to her preliminary findings, millay said, “Even in September the results were interesting, and educational for me! For example, most of the respondents at that time said they came to Second Life out of curiosity; I actually wish I had worded that response differently, as I’d like to know what gave rise to that curiosity. I’ll be so much better at the next survey! Of the 500+ responses I’d had at that time, 25% said that they came in to meet people, and 70% said they had met an SL contact in the physical world.”

Given the number of avatar profiles which carry statements like “SL is SL and RL is RL, I don’t mix the two”, this latter statistic might seem surprising; but it also might indicate an interesting bias in the nature of those taking the survey. While entirely anonymous, the questions do delve into our physical world lives; this could make it more appealing to those willing to be more open about their off-line selves than those who see a clear demarcation between “real life” and Second Life. By extension, those completing the survey may be far more comfortable with physical world meetings than might otherwise be the case.

It is because of the risk of bias within the results that millay would like to a broader cross-section of Second Life residents participate in her research. “For example,” She says, “Around 80% of the respondents up to the end of September 2017, have been in-world for six years or longer, with 40% over 10 years. While I know this is meaningful because it gives the survey a picture of a history in a way,  I would dearly like to see more people who have been in-world for less than five years take the survey.”

She adds, “One of the more surprising results for me was on the subject of alts. I have several alts, probably seven or eight, which I use for money management, privacy, inventory management, and so on. But 44% of those responding up to the end of September say only have ONE avatar, I can’t even imagine! In fact, 88% are between 1 and 3. Of those with alts, 95% have a “main” avatar, and 55%, use their alt for privacy.

The survey is yielding a lot of information about people’s on-line and off-line selves and how they may (or may not) mutually inform one another, that it could lead to several additional investigations. “For example,” millay notes. “75% of respondents said that their avatars are helpful to others. That number went down to 60% with regard to their off-line personalities. I wonder why that is, and if this shouldn’t be examined more closely – The peaceful warrior in me says ‘yes!'”

Once she has completed her dissertation, millay plans to publicly share it and her findings. All things being equal I’ll be discussing her findings in a lot more details once she has published, and also exploring more about the Four Bridges Project in more detail.

Four Bridges Logo

“In short, Four Bridges is a virtual sustainable global community model founded on the four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace,” millay told me as we briefly discussed the project. “Members, who include fifteen organisations from sectors such as education and non-profits as well as individuals, share resources: space, venues, media, technology, as well as knowledge and skills.

“We had two regions in-world, but I actually closed them so that I could focus on my dissertation,” millay notes. “But we’ll be reopening in 2018, probably February.”

millay is looking to close her survey on or around December 15th, although it will remain available through until the end of the year. So, I’d encourage anyone interested in helping millay in her research to hop over to the Four Bridges website sooner rather than later. There is a comprehensive lead-in providing additional information, together with a link to the survey itself – and remember, it is completely anonymous.

 

With thanks to millay Freschi for her time, and Gentle Heron for the heads-up, and apologies to both for the delay in getting this article to print.