Margaret Hamilton: Pioneer Software Engineer

Enjoyable, if brief, interview with Margaret Hamilton, who lead the software team for the Apollo moonshots. I can’t help but notice how few men are ever asked how their lives as parents ever collides with their work.

Q: Did your life as a software engineer and a mother ever collide?
A: Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed. She had selected a program which was supposed to be run prior to launch – when she was already “on the way” to the moon. The computer had so little space, it had wiped the navigation data taking her to the moon. I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission. I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and Nasa said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission – Apollo 8 – one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Children do make good testers – no fears about pressing the wrong buttons! Also, reassuring to know that even the ‘well trained’ make mistakes.

Nano-spacecraft: Alpha Centauri in 20 years?

Fascinating idea:

Breakthrough Starshot’s spacecrafts, which they call “nanocrafts,” will be gram-scale computer chips that will include “cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard scientist involved in the operation, told reporters.
A rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so of the nanocrafts into space. Once in orbit, the crafts would be propelled with thin sails and hyper-powerful laser beams shot from Earth into the universe to explore and discover. There the crafts would take pictures of their surroundings, which would take around four years to be sent back to Earth.
The nanocrafts would travel at around 20% of the speed of light, Loeb said. At that rate it would be possible to reach Alpha Centauri in around 20 years, and the potentially habitable planets within 70. Using the best currently existing technology, it would take some 78,000 years.

It is estimated the project could cost $5 billion to $10 billion, but Milner is initially investing $100 million for research and development.
Each nanocraft will cost roughly the same to make as a high-end smartphone, allowing a massive number to be sent on the journey.

There are still a number of challenges facing the creation of the nanocrafts, including the creation of the hyper-powerful laser beam — which, in order to launch the crafts, must generate the same amount of power needed for launching a large space shuttle — as well as making the crafts resistant to space accidents, such as impact with dust particles and space debris.

“As far as we can tell,” Loeb assured the crowd of reporters, “there are no deal-breakers in the physics behind this project.”

APOD: 2015 October 2 – Charon: Moon of Pluto

A darkened and mysterious north polar region informally known as Mordor Macula caps this premier high-resolution portrait of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. Captured by New Horizons near its closest approach on July 14, the image data was transmitted to Earth on September 21.

Always wondered what Pluto and Charon looked like, incredible to actually see it. So far away.

Source: APOD: 2015 October 2 – Charon: Moon of Pluto

Jupiter & Saturn: Destroyer and Protector?

This is very interesting:

Our solar system is weird.

First of all, it doesn’t look much like other ones we’ve been finding. A lot of those have Jupiter-size giant planets orbiting very close in to their parents stars (“hot Jupiters”), closer even than Mercury orbits the Sun. By contrast, our Jupiter orbits the Sun much farther out, more than a dozen times Mercury’s distance from the Sun.
Worse, a lot of these other solar systems are compact. They have several planets orbiting close in to their star, and these planets tend to be “super-Earths,” bigger than our home world but smaller than Neptune. They probably have thick atmospheres, too. A good example of this is Kepler-11, which has six planets that orbit their star inside the size of Venus’ orbit.

So why are we so different than everyone else? The answer may be: Jupiter. A new paper has been released that points an accusatory finger at our solar system’s largest world. Ours may have looked a lot like all the others we’ve seen, but Jupiter came along and wiped it out, setting the stage for what see today: lower mass worlds like ours close in, and bigger ones farther out.

So, it seems that Jupiters’ reign of destruction in the inner disc was arrested by the growth of Saturn. Saturn and Jupiter interacted, resulting in the slow return of Jupiter to its current orbit, leaving the inner disc free to create planets with what matter was left. Which also explains why the inner planets are a good bit smaller than the ‘super-earths’ we see in other systems.

Fascinating.

Later: A friend asked: “I wonder if anyone has thought about linking the idea to the Fermi paradox”
Good point, I’d suspect it would make a big difference. Could explain why we’ve seen no sign of other civilisations yet…

The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko

I can’t stop looking at this photograph. These kilometre high cliffs are part of the nucleus of the comet 67P/Churyumov Gerasimenko, as observed by the Rosetta spacecraft. I think it’s because I didn’t expect to see such details on a comet – plains, cliffs, boulders… it’s like earth, but very alien. There’s something awe-inspiring about it, these mountain walls on a far off comet.

The recovery of Salyut 7

Ars Technica has an good story on the Soviet mission to rescue Salyut 7, which was left floating dead in space due to a power malfunction with nobody on board. It’s a tale of engineering know-how, luck and hard work, largely based on the high level of experience of Soviet cosmonauts and the mission control staff.

The article also mentions this curious fact:

On February 19, 1986, the core block of Salyut 7’s successor station, Mir, was launched. Although its replacement was in orbit, Salyut 7’s role in the Soviet space station program was not quite finished. The first crew to launch to Mir did something unprecedented. After arriving at Mir and performing initial operations to bring the new station online, they boarded their Soyuz and flew to Salyut 7, the first and, to date, only time in history a station-to-station crew transfer had taken place. They completed the work left behind by the Soyuz T-14 crew, after which they returned to Mir before eventually returning to Earth.

Having more than one space station in orbit is pretty rare, I wonder when or if a transfer like this will ever happen again?