Thursday, June 29, 2006

Space shuttle Discovery begins countdown for July 1 launch

The space shuttle Discovery began its countdown yesterday for the anticipated July 1 launch. This will be the final shakedown flight before normal flight operations resume, as long as the flight goes well. Right now, there's some bad weather looming, though:
"Discovery's STS-121 spaceflight is set to launch toward the International Space Station (ISS) from Pad 39B at 3:48:37 p.m. EDT (1948:37 GMT) on July 1. Current forecasts call for a 60 percent chance of poor weather on launch day, NASA said."

Well, here's hoping the skies clear up in time. Actually, though, some colleagues of mine are hoping they purposely delay the launch a while longer, as they've heard there are still some unresolved problems with the shuttle. I haven't gotten a clear picture of how reliable these reports are. On Fox & Friends this morning, someone cited a chief engineer(?) at NASA who had supposedly been fired for saying it wasn't yet safe to fly. I can't imagine NASA would actually do that, if it was someone expressing a sincere concern. Especially these days. But the person being interviewed indicated that this engineer is now saying something different, and that it was an argument over an unrelated issue, and he wasn't actually fired. Well, I'll trust that the guys in charge know better the state of Discovery than I do...

My real hope is that this flight proves successful and shows that the entire fleet can go back into regular operation soon, so that we can get the Hubble repaired. We've got gyroscopes to be replaced and new cameras to install (COS--the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph), if we want to keep the HST up and running for several more years. With last week's shutdown of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, I'm getting a bit nervous about the long-term health of our observatory.

The UN and gun control, again

Via Instapundit, here are two reports from Cam Edwards on the UN's conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons: first and second. This is the conference in which the UN has been hoping to restrict private ownership of firearms around the world. A beautiful thing happened this week: the US representative (Robert Joseph, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security) told the assembled nabobs to go stick it. In so many words.

"The U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of our citizens to keep and bear arms, and there will be no infringement of those rights,” he proclaimed to the dignitaries and functionaries. “The United States will not agree to any provisions restricting civilian possession, use or legal trade of firearms inconsistent with our laws and practices.”

That's the spirit! Anybody think we would have gotten this statement two administrations ago?

Check out Edwards' regular reports from the conference, so we can keep a close eye on this bunch.

Pluto's "new" moons get named

See my usual caveats on the International Astronomical Union, but regardless, there's some happy news this week (actually, a week ago): Pluto's two newly discovered moons have gotten named "Nix" and "Hydra." The link here goes to the press release at Space Telescope, which also has photos of the moons. Click on "Full Story" to get more details on the naming.

From the full press release:

In Greek mythology, Nyx is the goddess of the night. Among her many offspring was Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead across the river Styx into the Underworld. (Because asteroid 3908 already bears the Greek name Nyx, the IAU decided to use the Egyptian equivalent, Nix, for the name of Pluto's moon.) The mythological Hydra was a nine-headed serpent with poisonous blood. The Hydra had its den at the entrance to Hades, where Pluto and his wife Persephone entered the Underworld.

Also interesting is that the discoverers were looking for names beginning with "N" and "H," partly to honor the "New Horizons" mission which will fly to Pluto, and "H" does double duty in also honoring the Hubble Space Telescope, which was the observatory they used in the discovery. Pluto itself was named in a similar way--"P" and "L" honor Percival Lowell, who began the search for Pluto, which was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at the not-coincidentally-named Lowell Observatory.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The UN and gun control

Despite the UN's proclamation that it's not trying to meddle in private gun ownership, it sure seems like it is. I think they've said at one point that they were just trying to restrict insurgencies. John Lott has an article on the topic here, mostly reminding us that not all rebellions are bad. (1776, anyone?)

One junior college radio station changes format, and it's a NY Times headline?

Yes, I'm sure this is worthy of the front page (online, anyway) of the New York Times.

A junior college in Kilgore, Texas, is selling its radio station, which will not cease to exist, but will simply change format from a "public radio" station playing classical music to a Christian contemporary format. Of course, from the Times' phrasing, you'd figure there was going to be a big, gaping hole in the radio spectrum all of a sudden: "The loss of KTPB would leave the Tyler folks the most bereft (to the east, some receive Shreveport's public radio station). No more Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. No more New York Philharmonic." People suddenly bereft?!! Noooooooooo!

Of course, they didn't interview anybody who liked Christian contemporary and was happy to find that he'd get more of his kind of music. It's as if there is only one kind of music out there, and it will suddenly cease to exist. If it's not in Kilgore, it's gone...forever: "The loss of a classical KTPB would be the latest footstep in the decline of classical music radio in the United States."

And then there's this scary statistic: "In 1990, about 50 commercial stations were on the air; the number is closer to 30 now." Wait--wasn't this a public radio station being sold? Is that counted as a "commercial station"? I wouldn't have thought so, but maybe the Times' reporter has mixed his terms, accidentally. Or maybe he's really citing a different statistic that doesn't apply in this case. I can't tell.

Look, I love classical music, and I prefer it to Christian contemporary. I like stations like this one being sold in Kilgore, except when they're yammering on for a week at a time, trying to bore me into becoming a "member," rather than selling honest advertising to make their living. "...the station has a meager 650 members. 'People want things, but they don't want to pay for them,' he said. 'It's not unique to the arts.'" Huh?! This is radio. You can build a crystal radio receiver for $10 and pick up the vibrations in the aether, free of charge. (Or you can buy a little AM/FM set premade for probably $5. Whichever.) It's always been this way. And radio stations have always realized that they were giving their broadcasts free to the public. You make your money by selling advertising. You don't imply people are stealing your precious electromagnetic squiggles if they don't volunteer to send you money.

Oh, but as I was saying, I'd be disappointed, too, if I lived there. I prefer classical music, and I'd miss having this station play my kind of music. But how is this a national issue? It's not. And it's not as if "Music" will cease to exist, either in Kilgore or throughout the country, if this sale goes through. It will simply be a different kind of music.

While we're at it, can we please finally get the Corporation for Public Broadcasting eliminated, or de-Federally-funded, or whatever? Why does my tax money go to pay for radio stations? We have a free press, and that should also mean the press is free of Federal money. Federal funding for radio stations is, quite astonishingly, not accounted for anywhere in the Constitution. Huh.

Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera shuts down

Geez I'm out of the loop this week. I'm an astronomer who uses Hubble data, but it was my parents who informed me about this one. The Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), the main imaging camera (redundanciness, there?--I mean, one that's not part of a spectrograph), has shut down, as of Monday last week. Rather than give you a watered-down summary from a newspaper, let me just copy the official notice from the Space Telescope Science Institute itself:

ACS Suspends Operations

On Monday, 19 June 2006, at 1:15 pm EDT (17:15 UT), the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) issued status buffer messages indicating that the +15V and +5V power supply voltages in the CCD Electronics Box (CEB) were above their high limits, causing the ACS to suspend. This event occurred in a period with no ACS commanding and outside the SAA. A dump of the relevant data showed that a total of 36 CEB items exceeded limits at the time of the event.

At this point, the ACS is in a safe configuration, and further analysis is ongoing. Preliminary reviews of the telemetry and technical details about possibly affected components of ACS have been carried out. However, the root cause for the ACS suspend is still unknown. Further analysis and testing revolves around low-voltage power supplies as well as analog to digital converters. Analysis of ACS images taken before the suspend event shows no anomalies of any kind.

The further course of action will simultaneously prepare for further testing of the Side 1 electronics, which has been used since the installation of ACS, while preparing for a potential switch to the Side 2 electronics. The Side 1 tests will commence later this week, after verification that the tests will not harm the instrument. These tests will check various registers and voltages to pin down the location of the cause for the suspend.

Preparations for a switch to Side 2 involve procedure verification, Flight Software changes, as well as the definition of calibration and verification programs to be executed before the full ACS science program could hopefully continue. A switch to Side 2 could come as early as the week of 26 June, if the tests successfully show that this would be beneficial.

For the time being, no ACS science observations will be carried out. Measures are being taken to advance non-ACS observations to fill the available time.

"SAA" is the South Atlantic Anomaly, a region of high radiation over the South Atlantic, appropriately enough. They've got to be careful whenever the Hubble flies over that spot, because the extra radiation can damage the electronics.

OK, so now having read this myself for the first time, I'm not as worried. They've got backup electronics ("Side 2"), and it's possible they could fix this by using them, instead. That wouldn't require a spacewalk from the still-non-flying shuttles to accomplish. Interestingly, though, if it did take a shuttle flight, the timing might be good. NASA administrator Michael Griffin has said (at the January American Astronomical Society meeting in D.C.) that if this next shuttle shake-down flight shows that they can fly, they will fly to the Hubble. Now, we'd already planned to use that Hubble Servicing Mission, if it happens, to install an ultraviolet spectrograph, the "Cosmic Origins Spectrograph," or COS, as well as do some routine maintenance and replace some gyros. But if they had to tighten up the screws in ACS, so to speak, they could work that in, too.

Anyway, there's a lot they can find out and often fix from the ground, so it's not time to panic yet. The engineers we've got are good at this sort of thing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cue the Imperial March from Star Wars!

I saw an ad for this on the same page as that Bill Gertz article, below. PBS is advertising a Frontline show called "The Dark Side," which is all about the Cheney-Rumsfeld Axis in the so-called "War on Terror." (My use of "axis," "so-called," and scare quotes intentionally sarcastic.) The ad has the picture of a frowning Cheney (you know he never smiles), with "The Dark Side" plastered over it. At first, I thought it was just a funny coincidence, that they wouldn't be that obvious or intentional. That this might really be an even-handed look at the need for covert operations (there's a quote from Cheney(?) about the need to use the shadows and the dark side in this war). But no. It's exactly what you think it is.

Check out the link and read their own summary. All of the quotations are anti-Cheney/Rumsfeld and are pro-Tenet. Richard Clarke is featured, among other gripers.

The astonishing thing to me is that PBS wouldn't be more sensitive of its leftist reputation--I'd honestly have thought they'd never let such a ridiculous stereotype of themselves make it through in the ad for this show. I mean, come on! At least try to hide your biases, or save this kind for the ads that play on the Daily Kos or some such site.

Unintentionally Funny

Homework assignment for Logic 101.

(1) Create a syllogism that concludes the following:

...most illegal immigrants obey the law...

(2) Is such a syllogism logically valid?

New technology to block CCD cameras

Georgia Tech has created a new technology that could be used to neutralize CCD cameras in sensitive areas, according to UPI. As I understand this, CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) chips (the light-detecting part of a digital camera) reflect the incoming light back towards the source, perhaps like the retinas of dogs and cats, which makes their eyes seem to glow at night when you shine a light on them. By constrast, normal film emulsion scatters the incoming light--no reflection back at the source.

This reflection is what the Georgia Tech technology identifies, and the equipment shines a bright beam of white light at the camera, overexposing the CCD. CCDs are limited in how much light they can detect in a given amount of time, and a source that is too bright will lead to bright streaks stretching from it across the field of view. We have to deal with this all the time in astronomical CCD cameras, which are intended to capture as much light as possible from faint sources. If you were to shine a flashlight down the barrel of a working observatory telescope, you'd "saturate" the CCD camera and render it useless as long as the light was turned on.

The article specifically mentions the potential to thwart spies from photographing sensitive areas with digital cameras, either still or video. I'm interested in whether this might lead to a movement back to film cameras in espionage. I'm just a little disappointed that digital technology has probably (not that I know first-hand) taken over espionage photography, eliminating the need for such exotic devices as pinhole cameras, 9mm film slitters, and daylight darkroom developing bags.

Back to the Minox C, men!

North Korea proposes, America disposes

With Pyongyang readying a new long-range missile for a test flight, I've been hearing some speculation that perhaps the US could try out our fledgeling missile defense system on a live target at last. I'd assumed such talk was only idle and uninformed, but here's an article by Bill Gertz, the Washington Times' ace reporter for missile technology stories. He has it from a "senior Bush administration official" that "an option being considered would be to shoot down the Taepodong missile with responding interceptors."

According to some other unnamed officials, "...the system was switched from test to operational mode within the past two weeks." We apparently have eleven long-range interceptor missiles, spread between two sites, one at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and the other at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Sounds to me like the North Koreans picked the ideal time to test out their new missile, from our point of view. By all means, let them test it. And we'll proceed with our own test...

Friday, June 16, 2006

How you can recognize an astronomer...

So yesterday, at about 10:30 AM or so, one of the undergraduate research students saunters into the astrophysics computer lab and announces, with some sense of pride and accomplishment, "Man, I love getting to work in the morning!"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cartography and politics

So The Economist has printed a map renaming the Persian Gulf simply, "The Gulf," and Iran (Persia) is mad and has banned The Economist. A similar thing happened a while back, when a National Geographic atlas made an alternative name of "The Arabian Gulf," printed next to "The Persian Gulf," and they got banned, too. It's a tyrranical regime we're dealing with here, so I'm not shocked at the censorship. Such petty censorship in this case, too.

But I'm still rolling my eyes at The Economist and National Geographic. I've never heard anybody in the English-speaking world use a term other than "The Persian Gulf" to refer to the Persian Gulf. So why go around trying to rename it? Do the British call it something different? Presumably not, since we'd probably have heard of everybody else in Britain causing such obvious emotional angst to the Iranian tyrants. Are these two publications trying to bend to some other nation who uses a different term? Then why change it for an English-speaking audience? (Actually, the article doesn't say it was in these companies publish in Persian, too? Maybe Arabic?)

I can get a little riled up over cartography sometimes, because the politicall-correct mindset seems to have infected map-makers lately. John Derbyshire at NRO has written on this before, of map-makers eliminating the anglicized names of foreign locales on English-language maps. How are we supposed to find the Gulf of Alexandretta, for instance, when the map only prints its Turkish-language name? It's maddening, especially because we have proper English names for these places in our language, but the maps increasingly revert to the foreign language, many times without even the addition of the English term. The whole "Torino Olympics" was an eye-roller of an example (in English, it's Turin, as in "Shroud of")...will Venezia and Fiorenze be next? And then Roma?

As soon as we're told to pronounce "Germany" as "Deutchland," you'll know it's all over!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

English-insisting Philadelphia restauranteur to be sanctioned?

If you haven't heard already, there's a Philadelphia restaurant that's put up a sign telling customers to place their orders in English. Seems obvious enough, right? But these days, with a creeping multiculturalism that discourages expressions of the majority language or culture, somebody's bound to whine. That's just what's happened now:

The city's Commission on Human Relations yesterday filed a discrimination complaint against Geno's Steaks over signs that read: "This is AMERICA ... WHEN ORDERING SPEAK ENGLISH."

... the restaurant is in violation of two sections of the city's antidiscrimination laws: denying service to someone because of his or her national origin, and having printed material making certain groups of people feel their patronage is unwelcome.

Not that the restaurant has actually denied service to anybody, and not that one's unchangeable national origin is different from the practice of speaking a language (say, the language of the person you're trying to order from), but the commission feels like maybe somebody might be offended anyway. And that's why the restaurant must be sanctioned on trumped-up legal charges! And that last section of the law, about making certain groups feel unwelcome: could you possibly make the law more vague and open to abuse? What about the freedoms of speech and the press, to say nothing of the whole notion of the American system of government and liberty? If I owned a shop and put up a politically-oriented poster, would that make my political opponents feel unwelcome and therefore give them grounds to sue? If I put up a religious flyer, would atheists or people of a different faith be able to sue me?

What open invitation to tyrrany!

UPDATE: The ACLU has totally wimped out on this issue (same article as above). Shame on them. They'll defend any fringe revolutionary they can wrap their arms around, but they won't touch a case in which both common-sense and our rights would be on their side.

The Inquirer's comments from readers are interesting. One person has decided he's had enough of freedom and liberty:

A two-month jail sentence would put a stop to this kind of thing. That's what the Cuban revolution did when barbers refused to cut Black hair -- they arrested them and boarded up their shops, and they put it all on TV. Result: barbers started obyeing the law.

It's that simple.

There you go! Cite our friendly tyrranical Communist regime to the south as the font of wisdom and justice! Throw the counter-revolutionaries in jail! Once again, the fact that this man hasn't denied a sandwich to anybody doesn't matter...