Sunday, April 28, 2013

Carnival of Space, Week #299!

The Sun.
Source: Wall Street Journal.

I am hosting the Carnival of Space again this week!! This is my fourth time hosting the Carnival; you can find my first Carnival here, my second carnival here, and my third carnival hereThe Carnival is a weekly round-up of space stories from around the internet. If you've got a space-related blog, you too can join the Carnival of Space. Email carnivalofspace at gmail dot com to host, share a story you wrote, and to get to know other space bloggers!

This week's Carnival of Space explores our solar system and beyond, and includes a lot of news about spaceships! Read on for some interesting stories...

Source: NASA.

Urban Astronomer shares news of a recent discovery by NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope: a huge halo of super-hot gas that surrounds our galaxy!

Folks in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia might have seen last week's partial lunar eclipse, which was the briefest lunar eclipse that will occur this century. Gadi Eidelheit of Venus Transit shares his photos of the partial lunar eclipse.

The Meridiani Journal shares news about Jupiter's atmosphere: it's got lots of water, thanks to the impacts of comets over the years!

Source: One Minute Astronomer.

Earth Science Picture of the Day features a beautiful photo of a chrondrite meteorite and chrondrules, as well as an explanation of their composition and origin.  

Dr. Paul Spudis of The Once and Future Moon explains what we've learned about the composition and formation of the lunar crust from the Apollo and GRAIL missions.

Everyday Spacer shares some space-related activities you can do locally or online. Reading Everyday Spacer is a great way to find out about many different space exploration themed events that you can do- often, right in your hometown!

Cheap Astronomy's fascinating recent podcast tells the story of seven lesser-known astronauts: the "increment astronauts."

Over at Astroblog, Ian Musgrave shares some neat amateur space photos: the Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon; the occultation of the star Alpha Librae (also called Zubenelgenubi, which means "southern claw" in Arabic); and photos of last week's partial lunar eclipse as well. 


The Next Big Future shares recent some exciting recent developments in spaceflight. It features news from the Harvard Business Review, which examined SpaceX's process for cost innovation in spacecraft development, and how SpaceX can serve as a model for other businesses. In more SpaceX news, the Grasshopper recently flew 820 feet straight up in a test flight, and Next Big Future features a video of the flight. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is going to embark on a hypersonic test flight sometime in the next few days... and then hopefully it'll be headed into space later this year! The Next Big Future also shares news about the Starship Century Symposium, which is coming up in a couple weeks; attendees of this conference will discuss whether this will be the century we travel beyond our solar system. I wish I could be there, it looks like it's going to be so, so cool!

Lastly, on my blog, I told a story about the Apollo Guidance Computer, and a computer glitch that could have derailed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon landing.

Source: NASA.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tech Support On the Way To the Moon

In honor of Boston, this week I'm telling a little story about the Apollo Guidance Computer, which was designed and built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Apollo 11 lunar module, just after undocking from the command module.
Source: National Geographic.

The Apollo Guidance Computer* gave Apollo astronauts the data they needed to pilot the command module and lunar module during lunar landing, ascent, and docking. There was so little room for error in these tasks that the precision afforded by a computer was necessary. When the Apollo Guidance Computer was built, it was a technological feat... but it is roughly comparable in terms of processing power to today's graphing calculators. Nowadays, if you have some programming expertise and a lot of spare time, you can actually build your own Apollo Guidance Computer, no MIT degree or MIT lab facilities necessary. I wish building a Saturn V rocket was that easy!

 * = Actually, there were two Apollo Guidance Computers aboard every flight to the moon. One aboard the command module, one aboard the lunar module. Plus, there was a launch computer inside the Saturn V rockets and an abort computer in the lunar module.

An engineer with a mock-up of the Apollo Guidance Computer interface.
Source: MIT.

While shockingly simple compared to today's computers, the Apollo Guidance Computer was a very capable piece of equipment. It could multi-task, performing up to eight different calculations at the same time. It could also prioritize its memory as needed. And, it was relatively small and lightweight, an important design feature on a mission that was already consuming nearly a million gallons of fuel just to leave Earth's gravity. At a time when room-size computers were common, the Apollo Guidance Computer weighed 70 pounds and occupied about one cubic foot of space.

An MIT Instrumentation Lab engineer runs tests on the Apollo Guidance Computer.
Source: MIT.
Like any modern computer, the Apollo Guidance Computer didn't always work perfectly. Any number of problems would trip it up, and it would respond by producing an error code. There were many, many possible error codes. Some error codes signaled computer malfunctions, some required immediate corrective action, and some could just be ignored. Astronauts and mission control staff devoted considerable training time to learning what each error code meant, and how they should respond.

The crew of Apollo 11, and the "moon."
Source: ontheunspeakable.tumblr.

NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz's autobiography, Failure Is Not an Option, tells an interesting story about these error codes. Astronauts and ground crew spent weeks and weeks practicing mock missions in advance of the Apollo flights. They'd run through these fake missions just like they were the real thing, with Simulation Supervisors throwing problem after problem at them. Sometimes, mission control would work out a solution in time to salvage the moon landing and save the fake flight. Sometimes they wouldn't figure out a solution in time and the simulation would end with a fake disaster.

A fisheye view inside one of the Apollo lunar module simulators.

The Simulation Supervisors were always relentless, with one exception. They gave mission control a relatively problem-free flight for the final pre-launch simulation. That way, the practice runs would end on a high note, with mission control engineers feeling that they were completely prepared for the real flight.

So, a few days before the launch of Apollo 11, Kranz and his crew went into the final scheduled lunar landing simulation expecting an easy flight. During the practice descent, the Simulation Supervisor sent the lunar module's Apollo Guidance Computer a "1201" error code. Not a single engineer in mission control knew what this code meant. Without any idea of what had gone wrong, the only safe choice was to abort the landing.

Richard Koos, the Simulation Supervisor, gave mission control the bad news: calling off the landing was the wrong decision. The 1201 code just meant that the Apollo Guidance Computer was temporarily overloaded; it did not indicate an impending computer crash or any other mission-critical problem. Kranz and mission control had just (in pretend) wasted the Apollo 11 flight and ruined their chance at a moon landing because they hadn't known what the 1201 code was.

Crowds in Grant Park, Chicago watch the first moon walk.
Source: Washington Post.

Recounting the story in his autobiography, Kranz tells how furious and ashamed he was. Kranz, along with Jack Garman (the engineer charged with keeping track of Apollo Guidance Computer codes), Chris Bales (a guidance officer) all had that particular series of alarm codes seared into their brains. They would never forget what a 1201 (or a related code, 1202) meant.

Astronauts Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise in mission control during Apollo 11.
Source: Wikipedia.

A few days and a few hundred thousand miles later... the real Apollo 11 lunar module was descending to the moon with less than 10,000 feet to go when the Apollo Guidance Computer produced a 1202 alarm code, and then a 1201 alarm code. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin asked mission control what the alarms meant. Thanks to the final simulation, Kranz, Bales, and Garman knew the answer right away- they were "go" on the alarm! Capcom Charlie Duke told them they could ignore the alarms and keep descending. Just a couple minutes later the Eagle landed safely in the Sea of Tranquility!

Celebrating after the Eagle landed.

What caused the 1201 and 1202 alarms? The Apollo Guidance Computer was receiving too much radar data. Buzz Aldrin (an MIT grad!) had asked MIT engineers to design the computer to be able to track both radar readings from the lunar surface and the command module. This would allow a quick decision to land or return to the module. But the Apollo Guidance Computer couldn't properly track both sets of data. So at the stage in lunar descent when the alarms occurred, the computer was getting simultaneous readings from both radar systems, and it was causing brief system overloads. 

Sources: American Space; Popular Mechanics; NASA;; Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not an Option; Air & Space's The Daily Planet blog; Computer Weekly; Wikipedia.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What Laws Apply In Low Earth Orbit? (Besides Newton's Laws!)

A couple weeks ago I was revising a manuscript on comparative intellectual property law, and I came across  a little quirk in the United States' patent law. 35 U.S.Code Sec. 105 gives the United States patent law jurisdiction over inventions made in outer space, so long as one condition is met. The invention must have occurred on a space ship that is "under the jurisdiction or control of the United States."

Under 35 U.S. Code Sec. 105 Romulan cloaking technology is not subject to U.S. patent law.
Source: Memory Alpha.

U.S. law says a bit more on the subject, but the bottom line is that if you invent a patent-able product and you're aboard a U.S. space ship, U.S. law applies to your patent claim. American courts can therefore hear interplanetary patent cases! (Though there haven't actually been any such courts cases just yet.)

Finding this interesting fact got me wondering how Earth laws apply to the International Space Station. The station is a completely international endeavor, as it is constructed of modules built by the Russians, the European Space Agency, the United States, and the Japanese. The current crew consists of a Canadian, two Americans, and three Russians. What if one of them commits a crime affecting another nationality- what country's law applies?

Judging humanity since 2364.

In 1998, the fifteen countries that built the ISS signed a treaty, the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement, that explains (among other things) who has criminal jurisdiction aboard the Station. This treaty is just one of a number of international agreements between various countries that establish cooperation in the construction and use of the ISS.

Article 22 of the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement sets forth what happens if a crime were to occur on the Station. If the crime affects just one country (for example, a U.S. astronaut damaging an American-built space station module) then the affected country prosecutes its own astronaut-citizen for the crime. But what if more than one country's astronaut or property is involved?

Who has jurisdiction?
Source: Wikipedia.

Here's a little hypothetical showing how jurisdiction would work for a crime committed aboard the ISS involving multiple nationalities. (As is probably obvious, I recently discovered Star Trek, the original series, on Netflix.)

A Canadian astronaut (I'll call him "Captain Kirk") and a Russian cosmonaut (I'll call him "Ensign Chekov") get into a heated argument in the American-built Destiny module aboard the ISS. The subject of the argument is Ensign Chekov's latest scientific experiment: he's breeding tribbles inside the Destiny Module. There are too many of them, they smell bad, their fur is clogging the station's air filters, etc. Captain Kirk wants to send all the tribbles to Earth on the next Dragon X flight; Chekov objects. The argument escalates. There's some yelling, some pushing and shoving, things get more heated, and before you know it, Captain Kirk has fired a phaser,* wounding Chekov and causing several million dollars worth of damage to the Destiny Module.**

* = No one has actually invented a phaser yet... but if Captain Kirk invented it in an American-built ISS module, he'd be subject to U.S. patent law!

** = Lucky for Kirk, the Ensign didn't have "Chekov's pistol." :-D

The trouble with tribbles.

What happens next? Under Article 22, the two victimized countries (the U.S., which suffered damage to Destiny, and Russia, whose national was wounded) are obliged to negotiate with Canada until either (1) Canada agrees with whatever the U.S. and Russia want regarding jurisdiction over the crimes or (2) Canada begins to prosecute Captain Kirk's for his alleged crimes against U.S. property and a Russian national. The three countries have a predetermined amount of time for either of these two events to happen. After that time expires, Russia can prosecute Kirk for the crime against Chekov, and the U.S. can prosecute Kirk for the damage to the Destiny Module.

Senior governmental officials at the Kennedy Space Center,  in the early days of ISS  cooperation.
Source: NASA.

The ISS Intergovernmental Agreement even provides a process for the alleged criminal's country to extradite him or her to the victim country. Presumably, extradition happens after the alleged criminal returns to Earth... the treaty doesn't contemplate imprisoning someone of one nationality in the victim country's ISS module!

But, there are plans in place for immediately handling unrest or violence aboard the station. Astronauts are subject to an ISS Code of Conduct while in orbit. And, a crew disciplinary policy applies in the event of a violation of the Code of Conduct. Under this policy, Code violations are to be addressed as necessary by the ISS commander. The commander should first issue a verbal warning, then, if necessary, a written reprimand. Finally, he or she is authorized to remove from duty anyone threatening to damage the station or endanger the crew.

Did someone mention space stations and crime?
Source: Wikipedia.

Sources: The European Space Agency; NASA; The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement; Stacy Ratner, Establishing the Extraterrestrial: Criminal Jurisdiction and the International Space Station, Boston College Int'l and Comp. L. Rev. (1999);;