Monday, November 21, 2011

My Thoughts On The Spaceship

As long as I can remember, I've been a fan of The Spaceship. The capitalization there is deliberate; The Spaceship as a concept, a state of mind, a symbol. But I'm also a pragmatist. It isn't enough that The Spaceship look good, it also needs to look perfectly functional within the framework of its universe. If they are real concepts, they should be able to operate within real world physics. Fictional spacecraft also need to look and feel real for the universes in which they operate. 
Fictional spacecraft, though, have always been a problem for me. We know that they only have to function for the stories in which they reside. In television and movies, especially, The Rules that apply in our world need not apply (most hard science fiction authors have a fairly decent grip on The Rules, also deliberately capitalized; The Rules are real world physics, if even conjectural). 
But I want to write about the one, the singular, Spaceship that I considered the most important in my early life. For those who know me, my choice might be something of a surprise; it is not the starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. As aesthetically pleasing as that design is, it is simply too futuristic and is beyond the bounds of current physics, even speculative.
The Spaceship for me was best exemplified by a little vessel known as the Eagle, of Space:1999 fame.

When I first glimpsed this spacecraft, back in September 1975, I was blown away. This was a Spaceship! It looked like what a Spaceship should have looked like; it had four large bell-shaped nozzles astern and orbital maneuvering and landing thrusters. It was un-aerodynamic, having an exposed backbone and four large truncated cubes that supported the landing gear. Amidships, the Eagle had a large pod that could be changed per mission. In fact, the whole ship appeared to be modular in nature, as the "command module" section would be used for the front of other spacecraft in the series. Brian Johnson, the series special effects director, designed the Eagle based upon his experience during the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He wanted everything in the Space:1999 universe to look perfectly feasible, even if the writers frequently showed little respect for science.
The thing is, though, somewhere along the way, somebody really blew it.
Keep in mind that when Space:1999 was on the air, the title year was not quite two and a half decades out. The show itself could be forgiven at times. Could the Eagle perform atmospheric flight? It did so in many episodes, and was even able to escape Earth-like gravity (even greater at times). The Eagle also appeared to have artificial gravity, but even then it was easy to imagine that the crew had magnetic shoes (my excuse at the time).
Where they blew was around the time the show was winding down, during the dreadful second (and final) season. In May of 1977, I picked up Starlog Magazine issue #7 for the express purpose of getting the Eagle blueprints it contained, and for some article about a movie that was being released that summer (more on that later). The blueprints were great, but a few items caught my attention. First was the range; 16 billion miles/25.74 billion kilometers. Even then, my fourteen year old brain thought this was a bit optimistic, though in space it could feasibly go on forever, physics being what it is. It listed the primary propulsion as nuclear fusion; again, that actually made sense to me, even the hydrogen fuel.
It was the top speed that didn't make sense. 
They listed it as .15c. That's 15% the speed of light. That was quite a bit of artistic license. If the landing gear supports were the fuel tanks (made perfect sense to me), that was not nearly enough fuel to allow for that type of acceleration. In 1977, 1999 was not really that far away, and that just seemed too optimistic. What realism the Eagle had, vanished.
The Eagle, though, would still serve to inspire, and for me it is still a fully functional design, if used for lunar and orbital operations only. It turns out, though, that I wasn't the only person inspired by the Eagle. The little movie that Starlog #7 covered, a flick known as "Star Wars", had spacecraft that the special effects crew admitted were inspired by the designs that the effects crew at Space:1999 dreamed up (somehow, though, the Eagle did not rate a mention in Ron Miller's epic tome "The Dream Machines: An Illustrated History of the Spaceship in Art, Science and Literature").
And for me, the Eagle still trumps them, warts and all.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chasing The Elusive Orbital Dirt Clod

I tried to chase an asteroid that passed very close to Earth in early November 2011; asteroid 2005 YU55.
That is will how I will remember this years from now; my first attempt to image a near Earth object (NEO). Not that it went well, but like any attempt that results in a degree of failure, it was a learning experience. 
It was the evening of the 8th November, 2011. My quarry was coming out of the western sky, very faint, not distant in astronomical terms. It would be one of the smallest objects I've ever attempt to image.
For the task, I was using my Samsung CCTV camera. This camera is fairly sensitive, and can take a series of 5 second exposures that can be stacked. It actually does that on the fly. To capture the images, I chose to use an old reliable method, a Macintosh set up for video capture. For years, my main choice was a heavy, but solidly proven, Macintosh 5260. At over 20 kg in weight, lugging it around was becoming a burden, so a few years back I located a USB video capture unit that works with new Macs, such as our old iBooks. Caveat; it only works with pre-OS X operating systems, so our Bondi Blue iBook would be the computer used. 
I was setup and running by 7pm that evening, using the hood of my Volvo as a base. According to the charts, the asteroid was clearing the main body of Delphinus, though still within its boundaries. It was at that time that the camera was aimed in, zoomed and focused. With exposure set, I waited.
There were scudding clouds blowing in from the east, but the sky was fairly dark. The Moon was still low. The camera was working fine. At the settings I chose that night, the trees in the backyard could be seen, pale orange from distant sodium lamps and blurred, their wind blown motion streaked together. They were ghost.
All the stars in Delphinus were visible, and the camera was easily catching the fainter ones. Screen capture was set to 640x480, though the camera was feeding in closer to 500 lines of horizontal resolution. 
At around 7:30pm, I saw a tiny streak.
It was small and faint, and the software was having a hard time discerning it from noise. But it was there. I waited to see if the camera and software would work together long enough for me to attempt a capture. The streak was where the asteroid should have been, but I needed to capture it for proof. It was heading east into Pegasus and a rising, brilliant gibbous Moon. It would be lost soon.
I opened the screen dialog box and attempted to freeze the image.
I got an error message.
That occasionally happens on all computers, so I tried again.
Same result.
This was not at all welcomed; when did it begin doing this? More importantly, why now? Especially now?
Then another anomaly emerged. The software appeared to be freezing at points, and when it would resume, it would jump with a blur.
Taking a guess, I reduced image size to 320x240 and tried again.
It froze the image, but there was a processing problem. Instead of what the camera was capturing, I got what can be best described as psychedelic line noise. I tried again... and again. Finally, success, and the image was saved. 
After doing this a few times, I decided to open up an image on the computer and zoom in. 320x240 resolution is extremely low, and for the image type, plenty of artifacts are certain to show up. They did; stars became blurry sets of pixels, and the background became a mosaic of very dark, multicolored squares. The asteroid was lost in all that noise.
By this time, the Moon had risen higher and was lighting up the sky. My neighbor John came over and witnessed the latter parts of the operation, so I turned the camera on Jupiter, which showed two of the Galilean satellites, and then the Moon, after resetting the camera to handle the brilliance. 
An hour later, I offloaded a few of the images in an attempt to study them. Nothing of the asteroid, and at 320x240, little was expected.
The takeaway is that sometimes even tried and true techniques will break down. Aside from my tablet, which carried my star charts, all of the equipment used is better than a decade old. 
Astroimaging isn't my thing, though. I am old fashioned, and the cameras, when they are used, are for the public, to bring in lunar eclipses and the like. Certainly, I could save up and buy a more modern camera. Even after this embarrassment, though, I doubt it.
I am always willing to give it a try, being the astronomical Don Quixote that I am.