‘Boldly Go!’: Where No Musical has Gone Before

by Agent Alicia Glass (a.k.a. Pandora the Punctuation Horror)

Who doesn’t love the sweeping span of the Star Trek universe? While we all wait for our next beloved offering of the Roddenberry-inspired series to come back to the small screen, we can all get off our collective butts and go see the Trek-inspired stage play of Boldly Go!

A stage musical of epic farcical proportions, Boldly Go! follows the intrepid crew of the — what else? — Starship Enterprise, featuring the return of many beloved characters along with some brand new ones, all off on a brand new exciting adventure! Previous assumptions will be confronted, old paradigms challenged, new alliances tested, and brand new contacts made – whether for good or ill as has yet to be seen. And our beloved sci-fi world is all set in a side-splitting tour de force of musical mayhem!

While the stage show has fun with the sometimes ludicrous aspects of science fiction and parodies Star Trek, this new show also lovingly satirizes the entire musical theater genre as well. At its core, Boldly Go! is a story about being true to oneself and one’s convictions even if and perhaps especially when they can be considered laughable, about friendship and love, about the discovery and wonder of things new, about the triumph of the individual over any adversity, and about the joy of sharing with one another this vast and mysterious Universe.

Boldly Go! is written by the Remmen brothers: Cole, a University of Minnesota Theatre Arts Senior, and Grant, a Caltech theoretical physics graduate student. The Caltech world premiere of the stage play features a talented cast from the Caltech and Jet Propulsion Lab communities. The musical is being shown at the Ramo Auditorium of the Caltech Campus in Pasadena, California. Scheduled performances are as follows:
Friday, February 26, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, February 27, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, February 28, 2:30 p.m.
Thursday, March 3, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 4, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 5, 2:30 p.m.

Purchase your tickets online here, and remember, to Boldly Go! where no musical has gone before!

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New Horizons Makes Pluto Flyby

by Agent Nur Hussein (a.k.a. The Robot Whisperer)

Today, the New Horizons space probe made its fly-by of Pluto. This is a historic occasion; it’s our first close encounter with Pluto, and it will likely be the last first encounter with a planet (Pluto’s downgraded status notwithstanding) for a really, really long time.

New Horizons is a NASA space probe mission with the specific aim of studying the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon. The probe was launched on January 19, 2006, from Cape Canaveral and has spent the last nine years traversing the solar system. When it reached Jupiter about a year after its launch, it used the gas giant as a gravitational slingshot to increase its velocity by 4 km/s, thus shaving three years off its travel time to Pluto.

During the rest of the journey to Pluto, New Horizons went into hibernation mode, waking only about 50 days a year for self-diagnostics. In December last year, the probe was fully awakened for its approach to Pluto. Earlier this month, there was a bit of a panic as the craft went into “safe mode” due to a software anomaly, but thankfully NASA engineers managed to nudge the software back into a fully functional state a few days later (fixing software bugs on a computer 5 billion kilometers away is quite a feat).

Today, the New Horizons probe has accomplished its flyby of Pluto, passing 12,500km from the dwarf planet at 11:50 GMT. As it whizzes by, we will be treated to a series of spectacular photographs of Pluto, at a resolution and clarity human eyes have never before seen. As it zooms past Pluto, New Horizons will head out to study Charon and other planetoids in the Kuiper belt, the region of space inhabited by other such bodies similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Congratulations to NASA and the New Horizons team for yet another successful mission, boldly going where no one has gone before.

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News Update: SpaceX Falcon 9 Break up

by Special Agent Laura Davis (a.k.a. Hex Quilion)

This morning’s launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which was to carry the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station ended abruptly, approximately 139 seconds into the flight, just before the first stage separation was to be executed. At a press conference held a couple of hours later, representatives from SpaceX, NASA, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) discussed what little is now known about the incident. The investigation into the causes of today’s explosion is headed by SpaceX, with oversight from the FAA.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer, explained that they’re still collecting and analyzing data from more than 3,000 telemetry channels, as well as video and other evidence to determine the precise causes of today’s explosion. “We know that the first stage flight remained nominal, but saw some pressurization indications in second stage [liquid oxygen tanks] …We received telemetry from Dragon after the event … [it] was transmitting and appears to have been healthy for some time afterward.”

It’s not clear at this point what became of Dragon after it stopped transmitting. Shotwell continued, “We’ve re-deployed a number of assets to look for any possible debris [in the ocean], but we haven’t had any word yet.” She explained that many of the assets that were being re-assigned to search for debris had not yet arrived on site, and that a meeting among SpaceX team members would be taking place later today to follow the search. “I’ll know then whether we’ve arrived at the site and if there’s anything we can recover. Whether we’re going to find something that’ll be help remains to be seen.”

In response to media speculation from earlier today that the explosion had actually been triggered deliberately by Mission Safety [to avert a potentially dangerous crash to the ground], Shotwell clarified, “I don’t believe that there was a destruct signal sent. I’ve heard no indication that there was a destruct signal.”

NASA spokesman Bill Gerstenmaier said, “Space flight’s not easy, and this points out the difficulty and challenges we face. This is a very demanding environment that requires precision … the SpaceX team did everything right. The space station crew is fine on orbit … they’ve done a tremendous job of balancing resources on orbit. This is a blow to us, we lost a lot of important research equipment on this … but, from a macro level, the team’s in no danger.”

The lost cargo included IDA and its radio control unit, which is a docking apparatus needed to make it possible to connect two U.S.-designed ships to the ISS at once; a replacement EMU suit, which is used by team members to go outside the station; and a number of research equipment and experiments. Sadly, it also included a second set of water filtration beds for the ISS, and the replacements for several experiments created by school kids, which were all destroyed last October, when the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft exploded during launch at Wallops Island. A third set of water filtration beds are already being manufactured, and will be sent up on a later flight. Both NASA and SpaceX representatives stated today that their agencies would be helping the student to replace the experiments, yet again. ISS Program Manager, Mike Suffrendini said, “We had quite a few student experiments on board, and this will be a challenge for [the students], but it will also be a learning experience. It’s what you do after you stumble and fall that defines success and greatness.”

There is no present danger to the crew on board the ISS, due to these losses. Suffrendini continued, “It’s a disappointing loss … We manage the ISS to be able to get through these types of incidents. It does challenge the systems every time they fly into low earth orbit. We have quite a bit of logistics on board to help support the crew … On orbit, we have a water filtration system. The multi-filtration beds we have today are starting to get full. We take water samples and bring them home and study them … we are reaching the limit where we’d stop using the water processor, but we have a little while. We have some more run-time left on that water processor. If we had no water processor at all, we’d be ok on water for quite a while. The team is already building the next set of water filtration beds. We’re in good shape, because we store quite a bit of processed water on board to protect from an anomaly like this … We could go to the end of October [with what’s already on board] … About 45 days before zero is where we start planning the return of the crew. Today, we’re at about four months. We plan to be back up to six months by the end of the year … That’s not the position we’re in. I would expect us to continue to operate nominally.” He adds, “We have plenty of opportunity to keep supplies and research coming to the station. We always have a vehicle there that can bring them home safely.”

Earlier this week, a Congressional sub-committee voted to reduce funding to NASA’s crew program, which is intended to allow NASA to fly manned missions to the ISS, where currently, Russia is the only nation flying our team members to the station. The Russian Progress craft is due to launch on schedule this Friday, July 3, with additional supplies.

Gerstenmeier addressed some of the possible consequences of this incident on NASA’s plans for a manned launch in December 2017. “I think it’s too early to discuss whether this will impact the timeline for the crew program. We’ll know more when we understand what went wrong with this mission. It could help us to nail down the design and move forward … This gives us a chance to learn when there’s a little less risk [because it was a cargo mission, not manned]. And then we can apply that knowledge to crew program. So we’re really safe and really ready when it’s time to fly crew to the station.

“We really need funding at the level requested to keep this research going, so we can get that work moving forward, and not be dependent on the Russians … We need the time to work the technical items and difficult engineering problems before us. We need the funding to match. It’s not right to delay from a funding standpoint and think you’ll catch up technically later.”

He explained, “It’s really important to have two developers working for crew capability in parallel. As you can see through these three failures, all separate failures, all separate causes, you have to have enough data to predict who [is going to have the superior solutions] in the end … Orbital and ATK, they’re currently scheduled into December. We’ll work with Orbital launch alliance, and if the flight manifest allows us, we might want to move that launch up [from December] to October. We’re making pretty good progress for Orbital ATK to return to space on an Antares rocket. The pad repair [at Wallops Island, damaged by the Antares/Cygnus crash last October] is coming along, and … it will probably return to flight next spring.

“You can see the benefit of this strategy to have multiple providers. The teams can work together to come up with solutions. The exciting thing is when you see the teams come together to overcome and move forward.”

Looking forward, Shotwell said, “This is a tough business. Any launch provider has to have considered this in their operational plans. We must find the cause of failure and we must fix it. We will pour even more effort into looking at every possible source of issues in the future … We will leverage the help of NASA, the FAA, and the Air Force, as well … This doesn’t change our plans. It’s time to take a pause and make sure we’re doing everything we can.” The next generation SpaceX craft, Dragon 2, is already designed with a Launch Escape System, which helps get astronauts safely away in case of an incident like today’s.

Gerstenmeier concluded, “We expected that through the commercial cargo program we’d lose some vehicles. We didn’t expect that we’d lose all of them in the span of a year, but we have. We’ll learn from this, take that learning forward and move forward. Through these failures and events, we can learn more and come back stronger. It’s not easy living on the frontier of space. It’s not easy and it’s not routine.”

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Hubble Telescope Deployment Anniversary: 25 Years

by Nur Hussein (a.k.a. The Robot Whisperer)

The Hubble Space Telescope celebrated 25 years of operation this month; it was first deployed on April 25, 1990, after launching as a shuttle payload aboard the Discovery the day before. The official date of the 25th anniversary celebration co-incides with the launch, but today is the anniversary of the date the telescope actually started working. It is hard to overstate the impact of the sheer volume of science that Hubble has helped us discover in those 25 years. The telescope, named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, has served us to probe regions of space that we had never seen before. It orbits the earth at 17,500 miles per hour, sending us high resolution images of objects in space.

Since the mid-1960s, there had been proposals and feasibility studies done for the construction of a large space telescope. It was only in 1977 that NASA secured funding to start the project in earnest. The most important part of the telescope, the mirror, was built by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and the rest of the craft was built by Lockheed. The project went over-budget, and experienced delay after delay, most notably the Challenger disaster in 1986 which grounded shuttle flights until NASA ironed out safety issues.

Finally, in April of 1990, Hubble was carried to low Earth orbit by the shuttle Discovery. On the morning of the 24th, at 8:33:51 a.m., EDT, the shuttle took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The telescope was deployed on the 25th, with the mission recorded on IMAX cameras. The footage would eventually be featured in the IMAX film Destiny in Space, released in 1994 and narrated by Leonard Nimoy.

After the launch of the telescope, it was discovered that the Hubble had a major problem; the reflecting mirror, though it was the most intricately designed mirror money could buy, had a flaw. The primary mirror had been crafted with a slight error, hence the shape was slightly off; it was a little too flat. Thus, the images produced by the telescope were a lot less sharp than expected, because the focus was off! NASA bore the brunt of the flak from this glitch, and for the longest time it felt like the Hubble telescope was going to be a huge, expensive landmark of colossal failure.

However, this turned out not to be the case. The clever engineers at NASA had begun thinking of a solution for the focus problem. Hubble was always designed to be serviced, and for the next service mission in 1993, Endeavour flew astronauts up to install corrective mirrors that would compensate for the flaws that caused the focus issues. Essentially, the solution was to put “spectacles” on the telescope. It was ingenious, it cost far less than replacing the primary mirror, and it shut up the critics, as Hubble began to send stunning high resolution images of our universe.

The Hubble Space Telscope is a complex assembly of components, which is part telescope and part spacecraft. The telescope consists of an antenna for communication with the ground, huge solar arrays for power, the on-board computers that run the telescope, the housing that lets it operate in the harsh rigors of space, and finally, the telescope itself. The telescope is of a reflecting variety; rather than using lenses, a curved mirror reflects images onto photoreceptors that record the image and transmit them back to Earth.

In the 25 years Hubble has been operational, it has made more than a million observations and generated more than 100 terabytes of data. At least 12,700 scientific papers have been published with the help of observations from this telescope: It has paid off big time. Among the most important discoveries Hubble has given us is the work by astrophysicists Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess. Through observations from the telescope, they discovered that the rate at which the universe is expanding is ever-increasing. This led to the discovery of the so-called “dark energy,” a phenomenon which is still largely a mystery. This work earned the scienstists the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

Another discovery that Hubble assisted in making was the fact that super-massive black holes exist at the centers of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. The discovery was aided by the study of the motion of stars and galaxies recorded by Hubble. All data from the telescope is archived and publicly accessible. You can do your own search of the archive here.

The Hubble telescope is controlled from the ground by a team of scientists working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. A total of five servicing missions were flown from Earth to the telescope, the last of which was done in 2009. NASA believes the Hubble telescope will last until at least 2020, but without further servicing missions, it will eventually suffer fatigue and equipment failure, and will have to be taken out of service. Meanwhile, Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is gearing up for launch in 2018. Until then though, the Hubble space telescope is our best eye in the sky, giving us a breathtaking view of the final frontier.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Launch and Recovery

by Agent Nur Hussein (a.k.a. The Robot Whisperer)
The landing drone ship, Just Read The Instructions. Photo: SpaceX.

The landing drone ship, Just Read The Instructions. Photo: SpaceX.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the private spacefaring company, is one step closer to safely landing a reusable rocket booster! After a failed attempt at landing a stage one booster rocket on the deck of a drone ship Marmac 300 last January, the SpaceX team made a second attempt at landing the Falcon 9 rocket on the very same deck today. Musk tweeted that the “rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival.” The craft was launched at 4:10:41 p.m. EST today on mission CRS-6, from Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). Though the landing was still not fully controlled, it’s another valuable learning experience, and a rather-impressive feat of engineering to have hit the ship at all. The drone ship has been re-named Just Read the Instructions, as inspired by a ship from an Iain M. Banks novel. The payload, an unmanned Dragon spacecraft, is well on its way to the International Space Station and is scheduled to deliver 5,200 pounds (2,360 kilograms) of supplies to the orbiting station.

On January 10, 2015, SpaceX attempted to land the Falcon 9 booster on the deck of that very same drone ship. The landing wasn’t terribly successful; the stabilizing fins designed to slow and control its descent ran out of hydraulic fluid, and the rocket exploded after a hard impact on the deck of the ship. Musk resolved to fix the issue, and joked that if it should explode again, it would be a for a different reason (it didn’t this time, so Musk should be a happy man). The deck of the ship suffered some damage, but it was  patched up and upgraded in time for today’s launch and landing. The cause of today’s crash is not yet known, but it sounds like Just Read the Instructions is headed back for more repairs.

The launch of this Falcon 9 mission should have taken place on Monday, but the countdown was cancelled due to lightning and thunderstorms approaching too close to the launch area. Earlier on Monday, Musk tweeted that the chances of a successful landing were less than 50 percent. Despite the less-than-optimistic outlook of the landing situation, today the rocket managed to steer onto the deck but was still not quite able to make a controlled landing.

The Falcon 9 rocket adopts the radical design of using thrusters to slow the descent of its first stage booster, thus making it able to land softly and be recovered and reused. The rocket is consists of two stages, both comprised of high-strength aluminum-lithium alloy:

  1. The first stage is a rocket booster, comprised of nine Merlin 1D engines inside its assembly. It can lose up to two engines mid-flight and still complete its mission successfully. The rocket is equipped with steering fins and landing gear, and uses cold nitrogen thrusters and hypersonic steering fins once it drops back into the lower atmosphere for controlled descent onto the landing platform. Thrust at sea level for this rocket is 5,885kN (1,323,000 lbf). In vacuum however, you get more thrust: 6,672kN (1,500,000 lbf).
  1. The second stage is the craft that carries the payload into orbit. After separation it is propelled by a single Merlin vacuum engine, and has redundant ignition systems for reliability. It has a thrust of 801kN (180,000 lbf).

The two stages are connected via an interstage assembly that houses the second stage Merlin vacuum engine. At the topmost of the rocket sits the Dragon capsule, unmanned for this care package delivery to the ISS.

After Falcon 9 lifted off, it continued flying upward and about 3 minutes into the flight, the first stage separation was initiated. The second stage engines ignited as planned and the Dragon capsule headed out into space. It was also at this point that the first stage engine burned its nitrogen thrusters to do an amazing flip before heading back down towards the target, the drone ship.

This is SpaceX’s sixth mission on a 12-mission contract for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services: an agreement worth $1.6 billion dollars. Among the supplies sent on the Dragon capsule are science experiments to study the effects of microgravity on cells, especially bones cells. Also in the shipment are food and other supplies for the astronauts, including an Italian espresso machine which is a present for Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who can’t stand instant coffee.

The successful recovery of the booster rocket will be yet another bold technological step in our quest for reusable space-faring vessels. For today, Musk and the SpaceX team will be studying and evaluating the results of today’s attempt, and preparing for the next one. Congratulations on being a few more broken eggs closer to an omelet!

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Welcome to the Super Villain Network

Welcome to the Super Villain Network. We are now in control. You have been selected for recruitment. We are pleased that you’ve responded to our summons, and have come to join the new order. We reject the “superhero” paradigm of maintaining the status quo. Super Villainy is true democracy in action. We recognize your potential as a Super Villain.

We will use our media influence to highlight the best, the up-and-coming, and the under-appreciated aspects of fandom, in order to restore free-thinking and creativity. We have overthrown the champions of box-store tyranny. We have overthrown the mundane and liberated the shackled imagination. You are a new asset in our order.

We are the Super Villains.