Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, April 10, 2009

Now We Know - The Final Frontier Begins At 73 Miles

If one is venturing to the final frontier, it would be nice to know where it actually begins. Space has a definition – it is that point where the earth’s atmosphere officially ends and the vacuum of space officially begins. In aerodynamic terms, it is that point where there is no longer any lift on aerodynamic structures – such as the wings of aircraft.

NASA has a true need to know where this is for the purposes of piloting the Space Shuttle – and their equations define the boundary layer at 62 miles and the shuttle’s performance is plenty good with this definition.

However, scientists at the University of Calgary applied instrumentation to this question by a rocket launch to this boundary, too high for balloons and too low for satellites. The space boundary instrument was carried by the JOULE-II rocket on Jan. 19, 2007. It traveled to an altitude of about 124 miles (200 kilometers) above sea level and collected data for the five minutes it was moving through the "edge of space."

According to this study, the precise boundary of space is exactly 73 miles above the surface of the earth.

This has a fairly important meaning. NASA defines an ‘astronaut’ as anyone traveling to an altitude of more than 50 vertical miles. For the most part nearly all NASA astronauts fly well above that – but there are some interesting exceptions.

For example: The X-Prize was awarded in 2004 to Scaled Composites as the first private flight into space. But, Spaceship One, according to telemetry, never actually made up what the Calgary definition now defines as 73 miles. Spaceship One only made it to 367,422 feet, nearly three and a half miles short of the boundary. They were significantly above the “astronaut’ definition of 50 miles and just above the space shuttle boundary – but just short of the new definition.

And – there are eight X-15 pilots who have earned “Astronaut Wings” who have flown above 50 miles but still short of 73.

It is, of course, so much trivia and much ado about literally nothing – but – in the future when many millions of dollars are on the line – the precise definition and bragging rights will eventually come into play. This scientist and engineer predicts that the boundary between 50 and 73 miles will be a true no-man’s-territory that no one will want to settle who desire to be called a 'real astronaut'. For after all - who will pay all those hundreds of thousands of dollars and still fly just short of the newly defined boundary? After all - the whole private spaceflight venture is all about and only about bragging rights, period.

PS. If I may be allowed an afterthought – Spaceship Two, is currently designed to carry fairly large numbers of people into that no-man’s-boundary with an advertised max altitude of 68 miles – an agonizing five miles short of the newly defined Calgary limit. I strongly suspect there is going to be an inevitable political argument over this finding!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

400 Years of the Telescope

When I was 12, I sold garden seeds from my bicycle door-to-door in a small Oklahoma town. When the task was done, I had earned $18.00. I thereupon took my windfall down to a local store and bought a 3” reflecting telescope. There were many nights that spring and summer that I slept by my telescope on the Oklahoma parries alone with my scope and the brilliant stars, planets and comets. It was a love affair that sparked my interest in all things science and continues to this day.

With that in mind, I have to let you know that the Public Broadcasting System is ready to release a video special that I personally cannot wait to sit down and watch: 400 YEARS OF THE TELESCOPE, a beautiful new film airing on PBS April 10 (local airtimes may be different from market to market so check it out on your local schedule.)

This is the very first PBS documentary to be filmed on 35mm RED technology. Recorded at 4520 X 2540 pixels per frame, the output is RAW format, over five times the resolution of HD! You definitely DO NOT want to miss this! Here is what PBS has to say about the presentation:

This visually stunning 60 minute film takes viewers on a breathtaking journey back to Galileo's momentous discoveries, through the leaps of knowledge since then, and into the future of colossal telescopes both here on earth, and floating in the cosmos. The cinematography is extraordinary, as we travel across five continents and through space to view the world's leading observatories and the majestic visions of space they capture. Leading astrophysicists describe, with warmth and humor, their startling breakthroughs and near failures. With narration by Neil deGrasse Tyson and a musical score by the London Symphony Orchestra, the film makes accessible the exciting future ahead of us.

The show is tied to the International Year of Astronomy 2009, with events worldwide celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first look at the heavens. The airdate specifically coincides with 100 Hours of Astronomy in early April Astronomy clubs, planetariums and observatories around the world will be hosting star gazing events, with the hope that everyone will take a moment to look up and see what Galileo saw.

Seriously – you just cannot miss this event showing in your living room!