Orion’s Dress Rehearsal, a SpaceShipTwo Crash Update, and the Opposite of a Killer Drone | Vol. 2 / No. 2

Artist's rendition of the Orion in space. Photo: NASA.
Artist’s rendition of the Orion in space.

Orion Launch Approaches

It’s less than a month now until the planned December 4 launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on the back of a Delta-4 heavy rocket, and things are progressing according to plan. SpaceflightNow reports this week that NASA and its partner for the mission United Launch Alliance (a commercial spaceflight company composed of elements of both Boeing and Lockheed Martin) have completed what’s called a Wet Dress Rehearsal. In essence, they’ve stood up the rocket, fueled it, run it through all the countdown checks and done everything you can do that isn’t actually launching it — and so far it’s all looking good for EFT-1 (Exploration Test Flight No. 1) in early December. If the launch is successful, the craft (unmanned this time) will orbit the Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere at about 20,000 miles per hour. If any of you were around for the Apollo 4 mission (47 years ago today!) it’s about the same thing, but with a new spacecraft and different rockets. I can’t wait.

SpaceShipTwo Crash Update

SpaceShipTwo being carried by WhiteKnightTwo before Friday's crash. Photo: Jeff Foust, CC BY 2.0
SpaceShipTwo being carried by WhiteKnightTwo previous to the crash. Photo: Jeff Foust, CC BY 2.0

While there’s still months of investigations left into the recent fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, signs are pointing to the craft’s tail “feathers” as a possible culprit. In normal operation, the flaps are locked in a horizontal position to allow for greater speed during launch; they’re typically raised during re-entry to slow and stabilize the craft during its unpowered descent. However, an initial report suggests that the feathers were deployed immediately after launch, which could have torn the craft in two. It seems as though a lever inside the craft was pulled to unlock the feathers, but that alone shouldn’t have caused their deployment. It’ll be a while before we know what really happened, but it’s at least interesting to note that the first suspicions — that it was caused by a rocket explosion while testing a new fuel — seem less and less likely to be the case. Check out SpaceflightNow’s coverage of the NTSB briefing last Sunday for more.

Also definitely worth reading is this editorial in Wired. There have been a lot of pieces in the past two weeks talking about how commercial spaceflight “isn’t worth it” — this is a great rebuttal.

Ambulance Drone

"Ambulance Drone" in folded position. Photo: Alec Momont
“Ambulance Drone” in folded position. Photo: Alec Momont

With all the news about so-called “killer drones” — as well as the hysteria about “government” drones — it’s nice to see someone thinking of a way to use them that is exactly the opposite. Alec Momont, an industrial engineer with an MS from the Technical University in Delft, has created a concept for an “Ambulance Drone.” Think of it as an emergency defibrillator with wings: the idea is that it can get to anywhere in a twelve square kilometre area in under a minute, give instructions on its own use, and potentially save the lives of people in cardiac arrest. Momont envisions fleets of these drones with a wide coverage area and a team of remote operators to get first-responder access to the scene with lightning speed. We’ll see if he’s able to get funding, but in the meantime you can check out his idea on his personal website.

Bitcoin Mining Accident

When you think of a mining accident, you probably imagine workers trapped underground for weeks, food and water being delivered to them through tubes while rescue workers struggle night and day to reach them. But last week a different kind of mining accident took place: a Bitcoin mining accident. It’s a wholly different kettle of fish. To mine Bitcoin competitively (and trust me, it’s competitive) you need one thing: raw processing power. Unfortunately, that power produces heat, and sometimes fire. Bangkok-based outfit Cowboyminers lost a massive mining operation last week when it caught fire. The cause is still unknown, but the damage is extensive and, as reports tell, uninsured. Cowboys, indeed. Check out Gizmodo for more on the story (including before and after pictures) as well as links to the Bitcoin forums where the accident was discussed.

Photons Interacting

Normally, photons want nothing to do with one another, which has made light-based quantum computers rather problematic. But now, researchers have managed to do something new: by introducing a single rubidium atom into a tiny glass “bottle,” they’ve made two photons interact strongly with one another, which could lead to the creation of quantum logic gates and scalable quantum computers. It’s early days yet, but every time I read something like this I wonder just how far out we really are from a sea-change in computing. Check out this article from io9 for more, or if you’re feeling really adventurous, the original article over at Nature Photonics.

Amazon’s “Echo”

In a piece of news that could just as equally be baseless hype as prescient excitement, Gizmodo has a piece on Amazon’s latest “innovation,” a talking piece of furniture called “echo.” The idea is simple: it’s a cross between Siri/Cortana and a countertop radio. It seems to be pretty intelligent, as far as these things go, allowing you to name it yourself, hear you across the room without shouting at it, answering questions hands free, and playing news feeds or telling you the weather. And it’s cheap, at only $100. But the real question is, will you even use it? Check out Gizmodo’s article on it for hype, and an awkward five minute long promotional video featuring the most fake family since the Magic Bullet infomercial.

Best of the Rest

Here’s everything I didn’t go into detail about this week: some stunning shots of the Earth from the ISS; an article in the New York Times about breast milk and infants’ cortisol sensitivity (if you haven’t hit your paywall this month); a sexy flying car with foldable wings; a photo of sunshine reflecting off the seas of Titan; and a simulation of what seeing two black holes collide would look like (from a safe distance).

That’s all for today. Have a great week.