Vestatrek: Now That’s What I Call a Web App!

NASA has just released a new Web app called Vestatrek that is a shining example of what Web-based applications can do in the real world.

Vestatrek is a VR kind of site that is also a space explorer and a laboratory rolled into one highly responsive and engaging program. Using it, you can explore the surface of the asteroid Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt. The spacecraft Dawn spent almost a year investigating Vesta on its way to its present location orbiting Ceres, another large microplanet / asteroid.

This app is amazing and great fun. I spent over an hour playing with it this afternoon. If offers 2d and 3d views of Vesta’s surface, you can navigate around, zoom in and out, overlay the mapping with displays of color (revealing relative depth) and hydrogen levels, measure the distance between things in terms of meters, miles, or Golden Gate Bridges or even school buses! It packs an enormous amount of functionality and data into a Web browser-based app that responds to the slightest touch of the screen or a pointer or trackpad.

Not only is it fascinating as an app, it’s a great counter to the argument that Web apps aren’t and can’t be performant, that they don’t scale, or that they aren’t really cross-browser and cross-platform.



Dawn Orbiting Ceres: First Impressions Promising for Life Signs

The Dawn spacecraft is now safely ensconced in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and the transmission of usable and interesting scientific data and imagery has begun in earnest. This is an enormously exciting event for those of us who are interested in space science and exploration. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt.

Photo of Ceres, largest object in asteroid belt, seen from spacecraft Dawn and showing two bright spots

BRIGHT SPOTS on Ceres appear to be evidence of outgasing, which may suggest water beneath surface

As the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres a couple of weeks ago, scientists were surprised to observe two bright objects on its surface. As it drew closer and achieved orbit, these bright spots were discovered to be at the base of a crater but they remain visible even when the rim of the crater would be expected to be blocking the view. This results in a tentative but plausible conclusion that the spots are connected to what is called “outgasing,” the process of gases beneath the surface of Ceres emitting plumes of gas. This might well indicate the presence of water on Ceres, one of the basic requirements for the presence of any form of carbon-based life such as we Earthlings are familiar with and naively expect all interplanetary life to resemble.

There’s been a lot in the popular mass media about the mission but if you want to dig into what’s really going on and what it means, I suggest you check out the Lunary and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) Web site. Scientists involved in the mission gave a series of talks yesterday drilling into great detail and sharing a lot of information about the surface, mapping, geology, and other amazingly fascinating stuff.

This is proving to be one of the most important space science missions in our nation’s history of exploration.

Orion Passes First Orbital Flight Test With…As It Were…Flying Colors

The NASA spacecraft designed to handle the first manned mission to Mars underwent its first high-orbit test today and passed it with flying colors. Orion traveled 3,600 miles from Earth during the test, marking the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.

This is very exciting work even though its fruition is still a long way off. I’d love to live to see it carry out its ultimate objective of taking Earthlings to Mars. That’s the stuff of the real science fiction I devoured as a teen and young adult and have remained interested in, more or less continuously, my whole life.

There are a number of intermediate missions for Orion before she transports Homo sapiens to the Red Planet, of course. It’s an ambitious plan in some ways, though critics have objected that it’s too slow-paced and modest to be worthy of the mission’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar price tag.

But Orion has already begun to restore America’s — and humanity’s — passionate dream of reaching the stars. As NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary on the perfect test flight, “America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.” The analogy to the completion of the east-west rail lines in the Frontier West is not lost. During this mission, most of the system’s mission-critical components were thoroughly tested and gigabytes of valuable data gathered for analysis. While this mission was unmanned, it was still a vital first step, resulting in the successful test of something like 55% of the total technology package needed for manned flight operations.

With an anti-science Congress peering blindly into its myoposcope, and grim economic reality at every turn, it’s not clear that NASA will be able to line up the funding it needs for the entire Orion program. Right now, the next flight for the mission isn’t scheduled until 2017 at the earliest and probably won’t happen before 2018. Not because of science limitations but because spending money in space is still a difficult sell despite the billions of dollars in commercial value spun off from previous space efforts.

It is, however, encouraging that the NASA exploration budget that finances Orion is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 request.

I recognize the problem and I appreciate it. But I think the answer lies not in pruning back space projects but in fostering cooperative undertakings with other space agencies, particularly the European Space Agency (ESA) which is enjoying huge success with the Rosetta mission. We have long since passed the time when nationalistic interests should hold sway in the exploration of space; these need to be Earth missions, humanity-owned-and-operated. I’ve long thought that creating a functional unit of the United Nations to carry out space exploration would go a long way toward addressing a number of issues plaguing national programs. But I expect that’s just another one of my personal windmills.

Meanwhile, I say, “Go, Orion!” and turn my eyes once again skyward if only to dream of the time in the 2030s when Earthlings set foot on the mysterious planet that has held such fascination for science-fiction writers and fans for a century or more.

Mind-Blowing Space News: Rosetta Philae Landing on Comet Wednesday Morning!

Some time just after midnight Wednesday morning, the European Space Agency’s phenomenally interesting Rosetta mission will launch a small, lightweight landing craft at a tiny portion of the minuscule surface of an asteroid. The craft, called Philae, will require approximately 7 hours to fall to the asteroid using the latter’s weak gravity, a distance of about 14 miles. (Rosetta has lately been pacing the comet at a distance of about 4.5 miles.)

As Philae touches down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it will fire a harpoon into the asteroid’s surface designed to keep it from being blown off by the motion of the rock as it whizzes through space. Then, for the next 2-1/2 days, until its batteries are drained, Philae will conduct some of the most important and intriguing scientific work in the history of space research.

The entire event is being broadcast live over the Internet at http://rosetta.esa.int/.

Rosetta is already an unqualified success, having beamed back to Earth orders of magnitude more data about this one comet than all previous comet-studying missions combined. On its amazing 10-year journey, Rosetta has gone through three separate slingshot-acceleration trips around Earth to get its speed to where it needed to be to catch up with and then keep up with the comet.

The math, the science, the incredible precision involved in a mission of this complexity is really breathtaking. To someone like me — a science and s-f nut who clearly remembers Sputnik — it is utterly amazing.

And the fact that this mission is almost entirely a non-NASA event is equally amazing and breathtaking…and significant. This is, perhaps alongside the International Space Station, one of the many reasons I am convinced that my spiritual teachings about Oneness — teachings which I know to many seem so far removed from science — will ultimately be proven true. Because humanity, working together, is finding itself capable of performing feats of extraordinary imagination and precision at once.

Interested in finding out even more about this incredible mission? Here are some of my favorite resources:

  • Excellent overview of the mission by New York Times science writer Kenneth Chang.
  • The aforementioned webcast location
  • “Where is Rosetta?” 3D imaging of the mission and the comet
  • Full 63-page Rosetta press kit including detailed timeline of landing and initial science work


How the Philae Lander will attach itself to Comet 67P for On-Comet Exploration

How the Philae Lander will attach itself to Comet 67P for On-Comet Exploration