China accomplished a rather major technological and scientific feat recently with the recent soft landing of its Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft on Dec.14th. This was the nation’s first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and firmly established them as a competitor in the ongoing space race. What’s more, the event has been followed by a slew of fascinating and intriguing pictures.
The first were taken by the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander, which began furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided landing. The Chinese space agency then combined the photos to create a lovely compilation video, with the point of view rotated 180 degrees, to recreate what the descent looked like.
The dramatic soft landing took place at 8:11 am EST (9:11 p.m Beijing local time) with the lander arriving at Mare Imbrium (Latin for “Sea of Rains”) – one of the larger craters in the Solar System that is between 3 and 4.5 billion years old. The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W – located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge.
The video begins by showing the Chang’e-3 lander approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge. At an altitude of 15 km (9 miles), the Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.
The vehicles thrusters then fired to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it was at an altitude of roughly 3 km (1.8 miles). The powered descent was autonomous, preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing. Altogether, it took about 12 minutes to bring the lander onto the surface.
Roughly 7 hours later, on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ (or Jade Rabbit) rolled down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil. The six wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt. This too was captured by the lander’s camera and broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.
The next bundle of footage came from the rover itself, as the Jade Rabbit took in its inaugural photographs of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. The photos were released by Chinese state TV on Dec. 15th, not long after the rover disembarked from the lander, and were then pieced together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface.
Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer – an amateur photo-astronomer and a science journalist who have composed panoramas from the Curiosity mission in the past – also composed the images together to create a series of mosaics. A sample of the 1st panorama is pictured below, with the Yutu rover in the center and tire tracks off to the left.. Click here to the see the full-size image.
The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander and captured the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft. The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.
Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, has this say about the images in a recent CCTV interview:
This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view
The 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another. The first is visible above, showing the Jade Rabbit rover (in better resolution), with the image of the Chang’e 3 lander below. Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer of the Chang’E-3 Ground System, was also interviewed by CCTV, and had this to about that part of the mission:
The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.
These are just the first of what is expected to be a torrent of pictures produced by the rover, which according to Chinese officials, will spend the next year conducting in-situ exploration at the landing site. Beyond that, the rover will use its instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by future missions.
In addition to accomplishing a great scientific feat, China has now joined a very exclusive club, being only one of three nations that has successfully conducted a soft landing on the Moon. The United States was the first, reaching the Moon with its Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. The Soviet Union followed less than a decade later, having reached the Moon with its unmanned Lunik 24 spacecraft in 1976.
And now, almost forty years later, the space race is joined by one of the world’s emerging super powers. Soon, we can expect the European Space Agency, India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran to be reaching the Moon as well. And by that time, its likely the spaceships will be carrying colonists. Hopefully we’ll have some infrastructure set up to receive them!
In the meantime, be sure to check out the Chang’e 3 descent video, and stay tuned for more updates from the Jade Rabbit and it begins its exploration of the Lunar surface.
When the Space Age began, some five decades ago, there were many who predicted that commercial space flight would follow shortly thereafter. This included everything from passenger flights into space, orbital space stations, and even space tourism. Naturally, these hopes seem quite naive in hindsight, but recent events are making them seem feasible once more.
Consider Virgin Galactic, a commercial aerospace carrier that will begin taking passengers into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) beginning next year. And there’s Inspiration Mars, a private company that wants to send a couple on a round trip to visit the Red Planet. And now, there’s World View Enterprises, a company that plans to send to start sending passengers on a near-space balloon ride beginning in 2016.
Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is a start-up that is looking to entice people into the budding field of space tourism by offering people a chance to get a taste of space without actually going there. Going into space is defined as traveling 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface, whereas their balloon ride will take passengers to a height of 30 km (18.6 miles), where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth
World View Enterprises recently obtained approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US $75,000 a ride, and are projected to begin in 2016. Each flight will consist of two balloon pilots and up to six passengers, which will be contained within a cylindrical capsule that comes equipped with heating and its own air-supply.
According to the company’s plan, the capsule – which measures 6 meters in length and 3 in width (approx. 20 x 10 feet) – will be deployed below a parasail (used for recovery) and tethered to a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cubic ft) helium balloon, which will provide the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to 30 km in altitude or Low-Earth Orbit.
Might sound a little dangerous to some, but the FAA has determined that World View’s design meets the engineering and environmental challenges posed by Low-Earth Orbit. They stressed that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, even though it will not exceed altitudes much above 30 km, and assigned it a safety factor of 1.4 – the same as that required of manned space systems.
The flight itself is projected to last about four hours, with the ascent taking 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will then remain at an altitude of 30 km for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.
That’s comes after, when the capsule is cut off from the balloon and begins to fall towards Earth. Once it gains enough speed, the parafoil will provide sufficient lift to slow the descent and bring the passengers in for a safe, controlled landing. Before touching down, the capsule will deploy a set of skids and lands much the same way a paraglider does.
All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points on the space tourism agenda. These include seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and having a view of the planet that only astronauts are ever treated to. That may very well add up to an experience that is as good as being in space without technically getting there.
The only question is, will enough passengers line up for an amazing day’s flight that costs a startling $75K? Only time will tell. One thing is fore sure though. The dream of space tourism appears to finally be upon us, though it is a few decades late in coming. Today’s dreams do tend to become tomorrow’s reality, though they sometimes take longer than expected.
And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from World View Enterprises showing their concept in action:
On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, becoming an instant hero to many and an historic figure. Tragically, his life was cut short when just seven years later (on March 27th, 1968) the MiG-15 UTI he was piloting crashed. Ever since, his death has been shrouded in confusion and controversy, with many theories being posited as to what actually cause.
And now, some 45 years after the fact, the details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less. In an article published online on Russia Today, former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.
A soft-spoken and well-mannered man, Gagarin began his journey into space in 1960 when he and 19 other pilots were selected to take part in the Soviet space program. Just three years after making history with the launch of the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik-1), the Russians were eager to follow this up with a mission that would put a man into low-Earth orbit.
After a grueling selection process involving physical and psychological tests, Gagarin was selected to take the pioneering flight inside the Vostok-1 space capsule. The launch, which was eagerly monitored by people all over Russia and around the world, took place at exactly 9:07 am local time (06:07 UT) on 12 April 1961. After spending just under two hours in orbit, the capsule made reentry, Gagarin exited it and parachuted to the ground, landing at around 11:05 am (08:05 UT) in a farmer’s field outside of Engels.
Observing the landing of Vostok-1 were two school girls, who recalled the site of the capsule hitting the ground with a combination of fascination and fear:
It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.
Elsewhere, a farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled:
When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’
After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad to promote the Soviet’s accomplishment in putting a man into space. Upon returning home, he found himself relegated to training and other tasks, due in part to the death of his friend, Vladimir Komarov in the first flight involving a Soyuz spacecraft. Shortly thereafter, he began to re-qualify to become a fighter pilot, and died during one of his training flights.
Officially, reports about Gagarin and Seryogin’s death claim that the plane crashed when Gagarin manuevered the two-seated training version of the MiG-15 fighter craft to avoid a “foreign object”. The report does not specify what this object was, but the term refers to anything from balloons and flocks of birds to airborne debris or another airborne craft. And as you can imagine, people have made some very interesting suggestions as to what this object could have been.
Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight. Apparently, an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin. In his article, Leonov went on to explain in further detail:
In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters. While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.
The pilot of the SU-15 survived the incident, is apparently still alive, and was not named – a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.
Afterwards, the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova (also a Soviet cosmonaut) was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut. After the revelation was made about the true cause of Gagarin’s death, she responded by saying that the details come as a bittersweet relief. “The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.
Indeed. Rest in peace, Yuri. Like many who have since come and gone, you’re a part of an extremely select few who went into space at a time when doing so was still considered by many to be an impossible dream. And regardless of the Cold War atmosphere in which this accomplishment occurred, it remains an historic first and one of the greatest accomplishments ever made by a human being.
Yesterday, at approximately 5:38 am ET, China took yet another step towards establishing itself as a major player in space. It’s latest manned spacecraft, known as the Shenzhou 10, departed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at the edge of the Gobi Desert, carrying three astronauts on what is planned to be a fifteen day mission that will see them rendezvousing with the prototype Tiangong-1 space lab in Earth’s orbit.
This is China’s fifth manned mission into space and will be its longest to date. The purpose of the mission is to educate young people about science, but for the Chinese state, it also presents an opportunity to flex its muscles as one of the new leaders in space exploration. Much of this has to do with the Tiangong-1, which is intended to serve as an experimental prototype for a much larger Chinese space station that will be launched in 2020.
In this respect, China is hoping to reach beyond its membership as on the three nations to send manned craft into space and join the United States and Russia by being able to send independently maintained space stations into orbit as well. If all goes well, China’s space station will join the likes of Mir and the ISS in Earth’s lower orbit. And with this kind of infrastructure in place, China will be well suited to play a role in future missions to Mars and the outer Solar System.
The craft carried two men, mission commander Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang, and China’s second female astronaut, Wang Yaping. After rendezvousing with the space lab, the crew will spend a total of 12 days living in zero-gravity and conducting scientific experiments, the results of which will be shared with people on Earth.
Borrowing a page from astronaut Chris Hadfield and his many popular Youtube videos that cataloged his crew’s mission aboard the ISS, the Chinese crew plans to deliver a series of talks to students while aboard the Tiangong. This development of “space classrooms” marks the boldest step so far for the Chinese space program, turning what was a military-backed program into something that will impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens.
Here too, China is following in the footsteps of NASA, which uses student outreach to inspire interest in space exploration and sustain support for its budgets. At a news conference on Monday, Wang said she was “eager to explore and feel the magic and splendor of space with young friends.” Her fellow astronaut Zhang told reporters they would conduct dozens of space science experiments and would “enjoy personalized space foods especially designed by our nutritionists.
On the day of the launch, President Xi Jinping was shown live on television at the launch center. State television showed Xi watching the launch, as well as Premier Li Keqiang who was at the space command center in Beijing. Prior to the launch, Xi delivered a statement to the astronauts, commending them on their efforts and wishing them luck on their journey:
You have made [the] Chinese people feel proud of ourselves. You have trained and prepared yourselves carefully and thoroughly, so I am confident in your completing the mission successfully. I wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world’s leading nations. Little wonder then why the launch was met with such fanfare and overseen by both the President and Premier. The mission comes at the height of ten years of Chinese space exploration and if successful, will mark China as a true superpower in the space race of the 21st century.
And be sure to check out the video of the launch of the Shenzou 10:
Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.
So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.
Suffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.
Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.
And when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.
But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.
But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.
And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:
Nuclear Propulsion: The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.
Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.
F0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.
Antimatter Engine: Most science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.
Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.
In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.
However, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.
No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.
Laser Sail: Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.
This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.
Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.
Once more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!
A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.
So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.
Generation/Cryo-Ship: Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.
The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.
By the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.
Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.
Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.
Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.
Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel: Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.
However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.
For one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!
Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?
And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.
Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…
But before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”
The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.
But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!
Summary: In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.
And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?
Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!
“That’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.”
-Neil Armstrong, July 20th, 1969
This iconic statement is the most famous to ever be uttered by a human being and still serve to inspire hope and fire the imagination, even after 43 years. Today, the world has lost one of the greatest historical figures of the 20th century, the man who was the first to walk on the moon and speak the words that signaled the beginning of a new era.
Yes, after decades of living large and inspiring countless people all over the world, Neil Armstrong passed away at the age of 82. According to statements made by the Armstrong family earlier today, Neil died following complications from heart-bypass surgery he underwent earlier this month, just two days after his 82nd birthday on August 5.
Best known for being the commander of Apollo 11, the NASA mission that sent a manned spacecraft to the moon, Neil will forever be remembered for doing what countless people have dreamed of doing since the dawn of time. After years of training, planning, development and testing, he and astronaut Edward “Buzz” Aldrin became the first to not only slip the bonds of Earth’s gravity, but the first to walk on a celestial body that was not Earth.
This achievement, great in its own right, was also of extreme historical significance. Taking place during the height of the Cold War, only six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Armstrong’s first steps on the moon provided a generation beguiled by arms races and fear with a sense of accomplishment and pride. His words, which were spoken on behalf of, and directed to, all of mankind even helped bridge the gap between East and West. Though there was a race on to see who could reach the Moon first, all of humanity shared in the celebration that a man, any man, had actually attained what many thought was unattainable.
And although he never retired from the public eye after that momentous achievement, Neil was nevertheless a very private man compared to his peers. Whereas Edward Aldrin and astronauts like John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt went on to become public figures, doing guest appearances on TV shows and running for political office, Neil did very little to draw attention to himself. This was, according to his closest friends and family, because of his intensely private nature.
In fact, according to James Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” Neil was often confounded by all the attention and accolades he received as a result of his historic accomplishments. As Hansen stated in an interview with CBS, “All of the attention that … the public put on stepping down that ladder onto the surface itself, Neil never could really understand why there was so much focus on that.” Wow. Humility on top of everything else, that’s the way to go!
Apparently, attempts were even made to try and coax Armstrong into running for public, but he repeatedly refused. Instead, Neil spent his post-Apollo 11 career committed to furthering the fields of aviation and space explorations from behind the scenes and never once tried to exploit his fame. In fact, his last known public appearance was in November of 2011 when he appeared before Congress to received the the Congressional Gold Medal (pictured above).
I think I speak for us all when I say he will be missed, and definitely not forgotten. I think I speak for us all when I say that the remembrance ceremonies and honors conferred on his name will be tremendous! Ironic, considering Neil probably would have refused them all 😉 RIP Neil Armstrong. May you forever walk amongst the stars!
***As a side note, I would also like to say that I hope the various conspiracy theorist of the world, the people who insist that this historic achievement was a hoax, or that it was actually filmed in a studio, take the time to bow their heads and hold their tongues. We are all entitled to our opinions, but such conspiracy theories are not only an insult to history and the intelligence of people who witnessed the event, its also an insult to this man’s memory. Please take this day to focus on something else, like the conspiracy behind putting fluoride in the water, Area 51, or 9/11 being an inside job, k? Many thanks, weirdos!***
Here we see Bradbury seated in the NASA control center back in the 1960’s. Apparently, it was his contention, prior to the Moon Landing, that the United States was headed for spiritual ruin unless “dumb politicians” got out of the way and let Americans reach for the stars. Well, he certainly got his wish, didn’t he?
Unfortunately, this science fiction great did not live long enough to see the colonization of Mars, which was a recurring theme of his writing. But given the current state of the world economy and the space race, I wonder if any of us will.
But I didn’t start this post to be gloomy. Mainly I want to share an article which I came across today from Wired magazine. It contains Bradbury’s thoughts on a multiplicity of subjects, as expressed in his most famous quotes. It was a lucky coincidence that I found it, since my wife shared one of his oft-quoted lines with me once I told her the sad news.
Riding home in the car together, she turned to me and said: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Since she’s always encouraged my writing, I couldn’t help but feel that she thought I could draw some inspiration from this. Mission accomplished.
These and other quotes can be found in the article, just click on the link below. And remember, you got any cool thoughts, be sure to write them down. You never know, someday, somebody could be quoting you!
3. Stupid Comic Relief:
Not long ago, I thought George Lucas was the authority when it came to using stupid characters in a movie, ones which were intended for comic relief, but were really just annoying and oftentimes racist. Then Bay came along not once, not twice, but thrice with his own take on that idea! In all three Transformers movies, it seemed that the only point of having black characters was to add some sass and punchy dialogue. Take for example the fat, hacker dude in the first one (Anthony Anderson*), the fat, whiney special ops dude in the third one, the “Twins” in the second, or the street-talking “Jazz” (“whaddut bitches?”) from the first, who was also the only one to die! In most cases, these caricatures bordered on racism, or at least, bad taste. But when it came to the “Twins” – those flappy-eared, gold-toothed, ebonics talking, non-reading robots – it was not only blatantly racist, but incedibly stupid! Really, the only strong black character in this entire franchise was Epps (Tyrese Gibson), but even he was constantly playing second fiddle to Lennox, the white special ops dude played by Josh Duhamel.
(*Anthony Anderson, from Harold and Kumar fame: “Pooky, we gotta burn this muthaf*cka down!”)
Then there were Sam’s parents. In all three movies, they are annoying, too-much-information spouting, no fashion-sense having, clueless morons who are constantly getting in the way. In the first one, this was semi-tolerable, just some passing talk about masturbation and the usual “parents are insufferable” stuff. But the scene in movie two where they are bringing him to college and the mom gets high on some pot brownies? How stupid was that? And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they are then captured by the Decepticons, thus becoming a total liability as well. By movie three, they are such incessant nags with the worst fashion sense that you get the feeling they are retired, eighty, and partly-senile (they’re even driving a massive Winnebago!) And aside from just popping in and being a total bother, they serve no other purpose. Yep, in movie three, they don’t even have the good sense to get kidnapped, but that was probably for the best!
And then there was John Turturro, a usually sublime actor reduced to the role of the Sector 7 agent, who’s purpose it seemed was to be awkward, inject some comic relief, and advance the action a little. He kind of peaked in the second movie, what with that whole “I’m under the machine’s scrotum” thing. Seriously, Transformer balls?! John Malcovich who they brought in for the third movie was similarly awful, a solid actor from such classics as Of Mice and Men, In the Line of Fire and Being John Malcovich brought in to plays an oddball eccentric who insists on color-coding everything on his office floor, boxes with a Transformer and then falls to the ground declaring he’s ticklish, and stares luridly at Sam’s girlfriend! Not funny! Dumb!
The same is true of Rainn Wilson (the creepy professor in #2), Alan Tudyk (Turturro’s fey, German bodygaurd in #3), Ramon Rodriguez (Sam’s cowardly, hacker roommate in #2), Frances McDormund (the CIA director-lady in #3), and Ken Jeong (office weirdo in #3). In each case, we see otherwise well-respected and talented actorw/actresses reduced to the most low-brow of antics in order to provide cheap laughs. Again, in the first movie, it was tolerable. The second time around, these antics were so awash in crappy writing that it kind of went unnoticed. But by movie three, I just couldn’t believe it anymore. In fact, it got so over the top by movie three that I had to wonder what kind of man Bay really is. Does HE think creepy weirdos who get in people’s faces, annoy the hell out of them and act so dumb you want take a monkey wrench to their faces are funny? Is HE that kind of person? Megan Fox would seem to think so, but she’s aint exactly the authority on sane behavior herself!
Above all, it seems like every single secondary character has no purpose in these movies aside from providing cheap laughs. Well, that and advancing the plot by increments, but always with an unhealthy dose of stupid antics! Who finds this funny? Seriously, who?
4. Women as Objects:
Speaking of Megan Fox, she did one thing which I respect the hell out of, and that was tell Bay where to go! Shortly after she quit the franchise, Fox went on record as saying the main reason she left was because she was sick of being treated like an object by her former director. This was by no means her only complaint about the man, nor his about her, but she had a valid point. Just look at how Bay positioned Fox in every single shot of movies one and two! When she’s not spread out on the back of a motorbike or reclining over something, she’s running around in tiny jean shorts and a tank top.
Once she left, look who Bay decided to replace her with… a freaking lingerie model! Yep, rather than go with an actress, Bay decided to enlist Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Fox’s replacement. Fox calls him an awkward sexist schmuck and he goes and does this. Way to prove people wrong, Bay! In addition to having zero acting experience, her range consisted of smiling seductively and staring vacantly, even when things are exploding around her. In every shot, she looks like she’s modeling, pushing out her breasts or puckering her big, luscious lips. That might work wonders on the runway or in commercials, but in a movie, people are expected to talk, interact, and show some emotion.
Oh, and remember that awful scene where her evil boss is talking about cars and the female form? The whole time, the camera is checking her out while she’s stands idly by, breasts out, back arched, arms behind her like she’s a mannequin. At no point in the movie is she wearing street clothes or sensible shoes, just dresses and high heels. She provides no real impetus to the movie, other than being a damsel in distress and providing sex appeal. But of course, that’s why Bay went with her, isn’t it? Whereas Megan clearly thought of herself as an actress and demanded more respect, Rosie is a model and clearly has no problem being moved around like a doll or told to pose seductively. It’s what models do!
But what this really seems to demonstrate is the attitude behind Bay’s approach. Just like his repeated use of racial caricatures, he seems committed to portraying women in the most stereotypical light possible. When they are not pretty little dolls constantly bending over things or running around in skimpy outfits, they’re damsels in distress, being captured so the hero can save them. The only exception is when they are vile temptresses. Remember robot-girl Alice from Fallen? It was the dumbest thing in the world that she turned out to be a robot, but still, her purpose was clear. A pretty thing with pouty lips and partially exposed breasts, constantly trying to screw Sam so he’d divulge secrets! That bit about the robot tongue only added insult to injury!
5. Raping History:
As a historian, it always bothers me when crappy movie makers try to rip off history in order to lend a sense of credibility to their movies. Just look at Roland Emmerich or Jerry Bruckheimer. The former used Roswell to make Independence Day, the American Revolution to make the Patriot, and the mysteries of the Mayan Calendar to make 2012. Meanwhile, Bruckheimer (who was the executive producer for several of Bay’s movies) has been at least partially responsible for the rape of Arthurian legend, 19th century piracy, and just about every conspiracy theory known to man in order to make The Rock, Pirates of the Carribean, and National Treasure.
But with this franchise, Bay had em all beat! In the first movie, he claimed that the Hoover Dam was some sort of secret base. Why? Because it was built during FDR’s presidency, which was when Sector 7 was formed and Megatron found. In movie two, ancient history becomes the target as Bay claims that the Pyramid of Giza and the ancient city of Petra were both built in order to hide some ancient Transformer artifacts. Then, hang onto your hat, in movie 3, he claims that the ENTIRE SPACE RACE was part of some alien, robot-related conspiracy. And the fact that we’ve never been back since the 70’s was attributed to some cover up by the Decepticon-collaborators. Yep, not budgets, not the general thaw in tensions between East and West. No, no, it was a big cover up! And let’s not forget Chernobyl. It was already established that the Appollo program led the US to discover the wrecked Ark and that Sputnik did something similar for the Russians. But they take that a step further by saying that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was in fact Russian scientists testing captured Decepticon technology. Only fifteen minutes into the movie and already I wanted to vomit!
6. Big Changes:
Just me just say off the bat that I am abundantly aware of how geeky this is going to sound! And truth be told, it always annoys me when people say how changes were made from the original like its automatically a bad thing. But in this case, I think they would be right. As someone who grew up with the original series, I did happen to notice that certain things had been changed or discarded from the original series that had actually lent it some depth and credibility. I mention this for those reasons, not because I feel like someone raped my childhood by deviated from the original script (George Lucas!) Okay, disclaimer signed, bring on the geekdom!
The All Spark: In the original series, it was never entirely clear where the Transformers had come from. They’re were references here and there to something called the Matrix, but it was never really made clear exactly what this was. But as the series got older, the concept seemed to mature (much like its fanbase). I never really did watch any of the spin offs after the original series, but by the time Beast Wars came out, nostalgia got the better of me and I watched a few episodes. Interestingly enough, by this time, the focus seemed to have shifted to dealing with more adult themes, like why the Transformers transform in the first place, the origins of Cybertron, and the purpose of their existence.
All of this seemed to point to some genuine signs of quality. There were also clear examples of Biblical allegories and parallels with other creation myths which was pretty cool. For example, in the course of Beast Wars, it was explained that the Matrix was a sentient machine that lay at the heart of Cybertron. It was also established that it was responsible for creating the earliest robot civilizations and had given rise to both the Autobots and the Decepticons. In addition, it was said that every robot had a spark, an indefinable essence that gave them life. Like a soul, it was indestructible and rejoined the Matrix once the robot died. Though the Autobots were around for several millions years, they really knew nothing about the Matrix or why it had chosen to create them in the first place. They also had no idea why it had chosen to create evil in the form of the Decepticons.
In short, the origins of the Transformers was something shrouded in mystery, subject to legend and myth. This was something that was missing from the movies. At no point in the original was there something known as an All Spark. And while the Matrix served the same basic purpose (i.e. giving the robots an origins story), we never really got a close look at it or learned much about it. Nor, for that matter, was there a race on to claim it because it really had no role in their war. In short, it was inaccessible, beyond the control of anyone, and who’s purpose, creators and motives were completely unknown. It’s obvious why Bay would choose to change all that; it simplified the plot, cut down on explanations and exposition, and provided an motive for why the bots came to Earth in the first place. Which brings me to change number 2:
The Ark: In movie three, we are told that the Ark was a ship carrying a weapon and was bound for Earth because Sentinel was trying to save Cybertron with it (in truth, he was defecting, but that’s neither here nor there). But in the original, the Ark served a much more inspired purpose. Essentially, it was a survivor ship that the Autobots built after they realized that the war on Cybertron was lost. It’s purpose was to carry the Autobots to some distant solar system where they would survive and rebuild. Yep, another Biblical allegory! However, the Decepticons intercepted and boarded it, and the resulting fight caused the ship to crash-land on Earth, circa several million years ago. In short, the Transformers came to Earth by accident, not in search of something.
Again, this was an example of real quality in the original. And again, Bay changed and simplified it. Not only was the Ark robbed of its significance in movie 3, it was also used for the purposes of giving the Transformers yet another thing to scramble for, just like in movies 1 and 2! So not only did he tamper with an original idea, he did so for the purposes of unoriginality! Which relates directly to the entire premise of the second movie – you know, the whole sun-destroyer inside the Pyramid thing. In short, none of it happened in the original franchise, but I’m sure everybody knew that already. The idea of Transformers hiding a massive sun destroyer inside the Pyramid of Giza was so dumb, audiences had to know that only Bay could be responsible.
Whoa! That was a long review! But this is a big franchise. Not in terms of depth or credibility, but definitely in terms of screen time and hype. And really, did it deserve either? As I’m sure I wrote earlier, I’m not one of these people who would say Bay is a criminal based on how he made changes from the original franchise. I WOULD say he’s a criminal based on what he’s done to our collective intellect; namely, insulted it! And if you look at Bay’s resume, this was just one entry in a long list of things he rehashed, rebooted, or reimagined: The Island, The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. In short, he’s done virtually nothing in his entire career that could be called original!
Ultimately, the Transformers Trilogy failed to be the big re-imagining and the pop-culture phenomena that many hoped it would be. The main reason for this, aside from the weak writing, poor acting and the directorial style of Michael Bay, was the motives that went into making it. Like all of Bay’s projects, the goal here was obvious: spend a shitload of money on some movies who’s sole purpose was to make an even bigger shitload of money. He’s good at that, no doubt about it! When all is said and done, Bay excels at giving the audience what they want. At least in the short-run. The problem is, once its over, we all feel guilty for wasting the time and money and subjecting ourselves to such insulting crap. In a way, its kind of getting waisted and having a one-night stand. Sure, it seems like fun at the time, but there’s always the hangover and walk of shame to worry about the next day!
Transformers: Entertainment Value: 7/10
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen Entertainment Value: 6/10
Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon Entertainment Value: 6/10