Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The People Demand Free Rocket Engines!

I'm wondering how much it costs to ship 4-odd tonnes of space shuttle engine to South Africa. The reason I say this is because NASA is giving away worn-out space shuttle engines for FREE!!!! plus of course shipping and handling costs. The SSMEs as they're refered to by jargon-loving NASA (and me) are good for several missions before they wear out and need replacement. Brand new, they cost something on the order of $50 million apiece, so that is some serious discounting going on. What I love about these things is the way they look so dirty and scruffy now, just like the space shuttles, having been reused over and over again. Sadly after 2010, we're looking at the end of the Space Shuttle Program. Sniff. A possible 3-flight extension is being looked at up to 2012, to continue servicing the ISS (after NASA seriously screwed up the shuttle replacement).

The New York Times Article

Oh, and the shuttles themselves are up for grabs, although they are a bit more pricey at $30-odd million each. Mark Shuttleworth, care to give me a loan? But, the good news is that the shuttle is not dead. The SSME, the trademark orange external fuel tank and the white solid rocket boosters on the side will live on. Latest rumblings are that NASA's new administrator, Charlie Bolden, will adopt a new launcher design, based closely on the space shuttle hardware. The current (old) design, Ares V and its smaller counterpart Ares I, suck in many ways which I won't bother going into here, but safety is one of them.

This new launcher is based on an old NASA study about making a big heavy lifter using shuttle components. A group of space enthusiasts and engineers inside NASA resurrected and refined the idea, risking getting fired in the process (can you believe that!?) Called Team DIRECT, they've been championing the launcher design for years now. I'm proud to have offered some (incredibly minor) support to their cause. So, instead of outright cancellation when Ares I and V became engineering and budget nightmares, we have the good old space shuttle once again. No wings, but you don't need those out there, in the black...

Visit the team's website...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shattered Horizon - Which Way Is Up?

I've been playing with a game I got for a steal on Steam - Shattered Horizon (75% off - $5!!!). Basically, it's a First Person Shooter in space. Pretty much like the battle in Moonraker. This especially brings back memories of Descent on my old computer. But what it most of all feels like to me is Ender's Game - the enemy's gate is down (I'll have to explain this bit a little later)!!

A bit of comment on the game. It's set in the 2040s, and a "mining accident" has resulted in a large chunk of the moon being blown off and the debris orbiting the Earth in a deadly ring of boulders. The International Space Agency (ISA) and the Moon Mining Corporation (MMC) are both trapped in orbit, and supplies are hard to get through. The ISA blames the MMC for the "accident" and wants to bring them to book. The MMC of course don't want to go to jail and don't want to suffocate / starve so they wind up raiding supplies sent to the ISA. Pretty straightforward and kind of original plot - not that it really matters, as Shattered Horizon is a multiplayer-only game.

The game is not entirely ruled by the laws of Newton - there are maximum velocities but you do keep drifting once you fire your thrusters. Stopping dead is heard unless you anchor onto something with your boots. Aiming is harder when not anchored, so this is the better option for shooting. It also gives you better cover. Your weapon is a standard assault rifle, with some utility grenades - EMP to short out other players' suits and slow them down temporarily, a concussion warhead to knock other players away and ice clouds to hide behind or in. And a bayonet to slice suits open. Despite the single weapon choice, and the fact that there are only 4 maps availabe (one being a privatised ISS - pretty much like my previous posts' idea!), the game is lots of fun and has a dedicated following. The devs are also responsive to requests and feedback, and can incorporate ideas brought up in forums to updates. They also give clear Yes/No responses as to what they are going to do. For example, some players wanted blood squirts etc. and the devs responded No, because that would alter the game's rating to a more mature rating. Personally I think this is a good idea - plenty enough games have blood and guts already. The only thing really lacking is a solid single player experience, but with bots that may come in time.

The game is produced by Futuremark, those guys who build software to test the speed of your system, and this is a pretty demanding game. You wouldn't think it, but the shaders required to make the rocks look rocky chews up a lot of system power. There are LOTS of objects being rendered as well, unlike games set indoors with few visible objects. My laptop runs an ATI Radeon 4570, a sort of low-middle end card that will handle older DX9 games like Fallout 3 fairly well, but Shattered Horizon is DX10 only and really takes it through the wringer. After turning graphics way down, turning off Windows Aero and installing the latest video drivers, I managed to get the game running smoothly at about 20-25 fps (frames per second), which is the minimum for shooter games if you don't want to get shot every single time (movies typically run at 24 fps).

In terms of realism, this game is both quite realistic and gratifyingly fun. There's only a single multipurpose rifle, as I mentioned, as you don't want to fiddle with other weapons in zero G. "Sounds" in space are handled as being part of a situational awareness suite, which makes sense to me. Make gunfire sound like gunfire, and humans will react accordingly. Get your suit knocked out by EMP or power the suit down for stealth, and the sounds go away. You hear muffled sounds transmitted by anything you are in contact with, but that's it. Really atmospheric.

As for the Ender's game reference, the book basically involved young child cadets fighting with laser tag guns in a zero-G battle room. Ender, the main character of the book, revolutionised thinking by telling his posse to think of the enemy's gate as being down. In other words, to advance feet first because that made you a smaller target and forced you to think in 3 dimensions. The ISS level in Shattered Horizons makes me think of this quite often. I find it refreshingly mind expanding to pop up from a rock, hanging upside down and shoot somebody in the top of the helmet. It's also quite funny to get shot in a completely random direction. Watching other players' creative tactics is quite rewarding, especially when friends work in teams.

Overall, the game is pretty darned original and fun, and considering the price I got it for, is really worth it. Good for just mucking around in between working or hours of red-eye LAN gaming. Also a very good example of how a small company can produce a really quality product and stay in touch with their consumer base. Other games devs should take notice, in amidst this sea of World War II shoot-em-ups and Half-Life 2 wannabees.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Avatar and Lithium

Avatar and Lithium. What the heck does a movie and an element used to treat bipolar disorder have in common? The answer is planets. But first, let's talk about Avatar, a most pleasant surprise for this SF bunny. Yes, this review is kinda late but it's not like a lot of people read this blog anyway.

I had the opportunity to watch it in 3D at IMAX, which was terrific. As it was subtitled, I had Japanese floating in front of me and when the Nav'Ri spoke I had to struggle to read the kanji to figure out what they were saying. Mostly guesswork. I'll have to wait for the DVD.

The arrival sequence at Pandora was most gratifying, because the interstellar transport was actually a well-designed vessel, not something created by a 7-Up gulping graphic designer with no understanding of engineering and far too much Gundam influence.

You can read Winchell Chung's rave review here.

Pandora itself is a fascinating planet, or rather, moon. It orbits a gas giant around Alpha Centauri B, although the interesting thing is that astronomers have watched the Alpha Centauri system and are pretty sure that there are no gas giants in orbit around either. Theory says that there may be some planets tucked in there, and the two stars are far apart that planets in the "Goldilocks" zone won't get ejected by the stars' gravitational tug.

Now here's the interesting part. We know that stars that have planets appear to be depleted in lithium, including, of course, our sun. How lithium depletion relates to all this, we're not sure. th Alpha Centauri A and B have high levels of lithium depletion. There are two interesting possibilities here:

First, about a third of all stars seem to have lithium depletion. So as many as 1 in 3 stars may have planets. Of course, so far this means planets we can detect, not terrestrial-sized planets. Normal (lithium-rich) stars may be swarming with asteroids and terrestrial planets, which we can't we can't yet detect.

Second, Alpha Centauri A and B may well harbour small rocky planets. Maybe quite a few, since they are both heavily depleted compared to our own sun. But that remains to be seen, since there are so many other factors that could influence planet formation. For all we know, the planets may have been ejected into space by tidal forces long ago. It seems likely that a giant planet did not form close in and gobble up all the newly formed planets, because that giant planet would have wound up dumping its lithium back into its parent star as it continued inwards on its death spiral (computer simulations of "hot jupiters" indicate that they are so big that drag from solar wind decays their orbits and dumps them into their star).