Tuesday, October 19, 2010


You read that right!  There's a third serious attempt at space beer being launched.  This one seems quite a bit more serious than the last two (a NASA study and a company that brewed beer using ingredients grown as part of spaceflight experiments), as this third one is geared directly toward the growing space tourism market.

A group called Austronauts4Hire is planning on conducting tests on a beer that is being designed for consumption in space.  The beer is being developed by an Australian brewery called Australian 4 Pines and an organization called Saber Astronautics Australia with a goal of eventually marketing it to space tourists.  Astronauts4Hire will test the beer in parabolic plane flights run by Zero Gravity.  Goals include getting the flavor, texture, and container just right for drinking in space.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: as soon as space tourism becomes commonplace, just about every earth-bound activity will find its way into space.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Monday, October 11, 2010

VSS Enterprise's First Flight

Does anything more really need to be said?

Fun fact: this happened on 10/10/10. 101010 is the binary form of the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Backpacking Trip 2010

Day 1
This was the second most difficult climb I've ever taken. I was way more tired than Alex, maybe due to my previous day's minor illness, maybe due to not being acclimated to the altitude. The lower bridge over the Lostine River was out, but there was a long that we reluctantly managed to cross. We camped in the lower Lostine meadow. Best view out the tent door ever. I was so tired that I fell asleep with one eye open. Alex said it was super creepy. The Clif bar I ate before nap time may be the tastiest thing I've ever eaten. Sorry Mom. We accidentally put too much spicy Cajun flavoring in the lentils for dinner; we thought it was barbecue flavor. I suffered through it, but Alex ate mostly trail mix. We had trouble lighting the stove and used way too many matches. Also, I discovered that I did my math wrong and brought way too much propane. There are amazing amounts of mosquitoes.

Day 2
We discovered that the stove can be on when the flame is almost invisible, so we probably wasted a bunch of matches the previous day. We got more matches from two groups coming down the mountain, and gave one of them a propane tank in return. This time, Alex had a way harder time of the hike than I did. However, we eventually made it to Mirror Lake. We decided we probably needed to scale back our super ambitious plans and rest at the lake for a day. Alex wants to stay in the lake basin for the duration, but I decided to try to convince him to at least make it to Glacier Lake. Alex made a tasty dish that I like to call Tuntils - lentils with tuna. It totally made up for the previous night's iffy meal. The mosquitoes weren't as big as in Minnesota, but they were at least as plentiful. We totally didn't bring enough bug spray.

Day 3
I convinced Alex to take a day hike up Glacier Pass to see if Glacier Lake was a possibility. After crossing two iffy ice sheets, we came to a third that we didn't want to cross even without packs, so we decided the high passes were right out. We would have to stay in the lakes basin after all. We didn't even get high enough to get cell signal. Still, it wasn't a waste, because we got some great silly and serious photography. Got back and after scrutinizing the map, I decided trying to find Unit Lake would be a fun alternate plan. Neither of us have been there, and there is no marked path to it, but it isn't far from a major path on two sides so it would be difficult to get lost considering the three compasses we brought. Mountain House made Alex fart. We couldn't stop laughing. We're so juvenile, it's awesome. Alex went out to do some moonlight photography and I tagged along. When we returned, Alex saw some sort of canine we couldn't identify in the dark. The sky was black with mosquitoes.

Day 4
Mirror Lake finally decided to live up to its name in the morning. We got hiking earlier than we had yet (about 11) and made it quick to Horseshoe Lake. We took the Lee Lake path which was a good decision because there were some great views. After setting up camp, I hiked down to where the path passes Unit Lake. I'm fairly certain I found the way down to it, but it was heavy with vegetation. Alex and I weren't sure we wanted to trudge through that with packs, so we decided to stay a day at Horseshoe lake instead. Alex took more moonlight photography and then we slept way in. I'm pretty sure a swarm of mosquitoes formed into one big supermosquito and chased me for a while.

Day 5
We decided to stay off our feet because the next two days would be rough climbs. I took a little walk around the side of the lake and we read a lot. After a while, I went and jumped in the lake while Alex took pictures. It was awesome and extremely refreshing. A bit too refreshing. Soon after that, ominous clouds started to roll in and we heard distant thunder. We got our stuff together and crossed a log onto an island near our campsite. We spent the thunderstorm on that island, complete with lightning, rain, and hail. No good picture opportunities, but I got some videos of lightning. When evening came, the sky graced us with one of the most brilliantly colored sunsets I had ever seen. Alex took tons of pictures and I took some more amateurish ones. The mosquitoes gained sentience and spelled the word 'blood' in the dust.

Day 6
We packed up camp and left at the earliest yet. We took our shortest hike of the trip and got to Douglas Lake at 11:30. While Alex scouted for campsites, I watched a bald eagle fly over the lake. We camped on a bluff overlooking the lake. We were kinda bored, so I put on some Muse while the phone charged. It was good. Another small thunderstorm passed overhead, and we just relaxed in the tent this time. Then as we ate Mountain House, the fattest chipmunk I've ever seen came asking for a bite. We didn't oblige. I tried to coax him out later with some nuts, but he wasn't interested. Fat and picky. We did some sunset and night photography and then went to bed. In the tent, I could see thousands of tiny mosquitoes trying to poke through the tent material to get at us.

Day 7
We stayed in the tent half the morning to avoid the rain. When it stopped, we went out and saw blue sky ahead, so we ate, packed up, and left quickly. When we arrived at Moccasin Lake, new clouds were moving in. We had timed our hike perfectly. After setting up camp, I went up to Mirror Lake to search for the cap to the water filter I had left behind a few days before. I had no luck, and in fact got caught in the rain preceding the next thunderstorm. The rain and thunder stopped when I returned, and the rest of the afternoon was uneventful. We read a lot. When we were getting out the last of the Mountain House meals, I discovered that I had accidentally bought one in family size, so we ate like kings. The sunset rivaled Horseshoe and we got lots more pictures of the fiery sky behind Eagle Cap. In a coordinated strike, the mosquitoes all attacked me at once and I had to jump into the lake to escape them.

Day 8
The morning was fairly uneventful; we got up, ate, got packed, and left like usual. When we passed Mirror Lake, Alex checked for and found the missing piece of the filter. I was totally looking in the wrong place. It's good that we got off when we did, because not an hour after we arrived at the upper Lostine valley, a new storm started. This one was the worst of the entire trip. We had to cower in our tent, hold it up when the wind threatened to blow it over, and then we got our hands stung by the hail through the tent material. Then after it stopped and cleared up, a few hours later another storm hit! This one, fortunately, wasn't as bad. That evening we set up our only campfire of the trip, but ironically, we didn't cook for the only time of the trip, instead sticking to trail mix and bars. Alex took some pictures of the river and the campfire, and as the moon rose we went to bed. Instead of water, the Lostine River flowed with mosquitoes.

Day 9
Alex had decided early on that he wanted to get off the mountain a day early to coordinate with some friends about what to do next. It's a good thing we planned for that, because as we were packing up on our last morning, two of the straps on Alex's pack broke! He managed to rig them up enough to make it down the trail, but since this was our longest hike of the trip (about 6 miles), he had it kind of rough. By the time we made it down to the log over the Lostine, my legs were so shaky from hiking that I couldn't cross it. Alex made it across the log while I tried to balance over rocks across the river. I made it most of the way across before slipping in up to my knees. It took two days for my boots to dry out. The four housemen of the Mosquito Apocalypse chased us all the way down the trail. When we got back to our cars, we promptly found showers before demolishing a large Carnivore pizza at Ember's Brewhouse in Joseph. I highly recommend it.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We elected this guy for what?

Time to get all political in here.

After some consideration, I've decided that I'm appalled by Obama's recent Oval Office speech. He said they're trying to figure out what caused the spill, but didn't call for the requirement of safety measures that would have prevented this spill. He said they're trying clean up the spill, but didn't call for BP to stop using the dispersants that are super harmful and making cleanup much more difficult. He mentioned that the House passed legislation to encourage clean energy development, but didn't call for the Senate to consider it, which they have not.

He talked up a lot of great-sounding plans, but didn't call for any of the measures that would be necessary for those plans to become reality.

What did he call for? He called for us to pray. And that is all.

I can't help but to notice that prayer doesn't reduce corporate profits. Just saying.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Space Adventures Partners with Armadillo

I can't understate the significance of this announcement.

I mentioned a couple years ago that Space Adventures, the provider of tourist flights to the International Space Station, were advertising that they were planning on providing suborbital tourist flights at $102,000 per ticket. I stated this because that's what appears on their website, but I doubted it would actually happen. I felt that way because, among other considerations, Space Adventures didn't appear to have plans to build, purchase, or charter suborbital spacecraft.

Today, that may all have changed.

I got an announcement in my e-mail today that Space Adventures is partnering with Armadillo Aerospace. Armadillo has done rocketry work for NASA and the US Air Force, along with competing in several X-Prize moon lander competitions. However, their plans have always centered around developing the expertise and capabilities necessary to build a suborbital tourist spacecraft. This announcement is a major step toward that goal, because Armadillo will finally have a major source of funding.

It appears that Space Adventures will be to Armadillo Aerospace what Virgin Galactic is to Scaled Composites; the source of marketing and funding necessary to make tourist spacecraft a reality. And at a lower price point, this makes for very healthy competition. I won't be changing my bars below to reflect the lower price because Space Adventures and Armadillo haven't yet announced designs for the potential new spacecraft, making Virgin Galactic still the best bet. It will probably be at least five years before anything is even ready for a test flight.

With that said, this is still amazingly good news.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why You Don't Piss Off a Tech-Savvy Woman

A warning to guys in the modern era: this is why you don't piss off a tech-savvy woman.


Honest, this is not me. Found it online.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W

Monday, January 25, 2010

Near-Space Photography Attempts 1 and 2

Yes, you read that right. I'm experimenting with high-altitude amateur photography. I would have posted about it before, but I wasn't sure this was actually going to happen until last week. Here's the story:

Around a year ago, I read an article on the BBC News website (which I highly recommend) that described a way to make a spacecraft with close to the same capabilities of Sputnik using household items. I was fascinated by the concept of building an actual spacecraft by digging up junk around the house, and I briefly considered doing it. However, I'm fairly results-oriented, and because I didn't have a way of launching the resulting spacecraft, I wasn't really interested in putting the work into building it. Besides, I was arms-deep at the time building my second eight-foot light bucket, which I'll talk about in another post.

Then four months ago, I was contacted by a high-schooler named Megan who had found my name on an astronomical website. She wanted help building a simulated satellite as a science project. This satellite would take pictures and transmit them to the ground during flight. I was initially skeptical due to the fact that launching even a small device would take far more rocketry than I (and indeed most people) had the expertise or budget to handle. When she told me she wanted to use a weather balloon to lift it to the upper atmosphere, I thought that this might just be possible.

Around the same time, I read about a group of MIT students called 1337Arts who had successfully done something similar; they lifted a camera attached to a weather balloon 18 miles high, took pictures, then retrieved them when the craft landed. They did it on a budget of $150 and appropriately called it Project Icarus. That's when I knew this would be possible. And as a bonus, they mentioned on their website that FAA regulations state that you can launch a free-floating balloon without any kind of clearance so long as it is under four pounds (along with some other minor restrictions).

However, our task was a little more difficult than Project Icarus. We wanted not only to take pictures, but to transmit them to the ground during the flight. Project Icarus transmitted GPS data using a cell phone to track their craft's location, but I couldn't find a way to get a cell phone to transmit pictures along with the GPS data with limited bandwidth and the kind of control we needed. The solution we came up with was to get a lightweight laptop computer, attach a webcam, a GPS receiver, and a wireless internet adapter to it, and launch the whole works into the atmosphere. As a result, we may be the first amateurs to attempt to launch a laptop computer into the upper atmosphere. I haven't been able to find another example, but if you know of one, please post it in the comments.

The laptop chosen was an Acer netbook with Windows Vista. Using Vista wasn't an ideal setup, but the laptop came with it and Megan was using it for schoolwork. I didn't want to cause her problems by installing XP or Linux, so I decided just to work with what was already there. It weighed less than two pounds and had enough battery life and hard drive space to last the entire flight. We used a weather balloon and parachute purchased from a scientific supply website, and we took 1337Arts' idea of using a styrofoam cooler and hand-warmer packs to keep the components warm during the flight. We used a Sprint Wireless Broadband adapter so that we could transmit pictures and GPS data to cell towers, and we used basic sub-$30 USB GPS receiver and webcam models. We also used a modified BeepX rocket retrieval beeper to make retrieval easier once it landed.

The report is due Wednesday, and we just started setting it all up last week, so it was sort of a frantic weekend. I have a Xubuntu server at home running my security cameras, and I had set it up so that I could access the camera images from my phone. We decided that it would be an ideal way to store the laptop's images and GPS data as well, since it would allow us to access everything from my phone as we were chasing the balloon without dealing with the cost and hassles of a third-party service. So I set up my server to handle the task on Friday, then on Saturday, Megan and her mother brought the laptop to my house so that I could set up its software.

I used completely free software for the project, making this an inexpensive way to perform the experiment. I installed GPS TrackMaker to record the GPS data from the USB device to a file that was updated every 30 seconds, and I set up Yawcam (which I think Megan had installed) to save images every ten seconds for later transmission to the ground. I decided to go with cwRsync to load the data onto the server using an SSH connection. cwRsync is a piece of software that synchronizes a local folder with one on a remote server. I then set up a Windows scheduled task to run cwRsync every five minutes. The advantage of using this setup for data transmission was that if the balloon left Sprint's coverage area, the computer would start from scratch every five minutes to attempt to send new data to the ground, so there was much less chance of a permanent failure due to a temporarily lost signal. Also, cwRsync allowed the computer to send only new files every five minutes instead of sending all of them every time, so it cut down significantly on bandwidth requirements.

The software took about four hours to setup properly, though with the information I now have (most of which I presented above), it would only take me an hour to set it up if and when I attempt it again. When the software setup was complete, the three of us drove out to the countryside to test poor and lost signal conditions. There were a couple of minor glitches, but for the most part, it worked beautifully. We were almost ready for the real thing.

That evening, Megan and her mother assembled the craft, and then they picked me up at 6:00 the next morning. We checked the University of Wyoming's balloon trajectory forecast site, and decided to launch from a coastal town about two hours away from us, which the site predicted would cause the balloon to land within 30 miles of our homes. When we got there, it took a couple of hours for final assembly of the craft and to work out the last few bugs in the software, but we were finally ready to go. Here is what happened:

That's right, complete failure. We actually ran out of helium when filling the balloon, even though we were told that we would only need about a quarter of what was in the tank. We discovered later on that this was because the people who had helped us calculate how much helium we would need had misplaced the decimal point. We were wold we needed to use about 250 pounds of tanked pressure when we actually needed closer to 2500. There was only 1000 pounds in the tank. To make it worse, the town we were in didn't appear to have any helium suppliers. So we had to deflate the balloon and go home with the empty tank. Then an accident occurred on the 2-lane highway between towns only 20 minutes from home, and it completely blocked all traffic, so we had to drive most of the way back to the coast to take the other highway. That added over an hour to our trip. And on top it all off, it was pouring rain the entire time. Still, our spirits were surprisingly high when we got back and we decided to try it again.

It was 1 PM by the time we were ready to give it a second shot. We didn't have enough daylight left to go back to the coast and still have a chance of retrieval before nightfall, so we decided to throw caution to the wind and launch right from the parking lot of the party supply place where we were getting our helium. We calculated that this would put the balloon in the mountains in very rough terrain, but there wasn't anything in the craft that we weren't willing to lose, and we wouldn't have time to try again another day, so that really was our best option. Here's what happened this time:

Forgive me for getting a little giddy in that video. See how much bigger the balloon is this time? Yeah, that helped. The scary part for Megan and her mom is there goes their brand-new laptop and if we can't find it (or it gets destroyed upon landing), they're out a whole computer. The scary part for me was that if there were any more software glitches, there was no way to fix them, no way to get any further data, and we would probably lose the whole craft. Everything hung on some sketchy assembled-at-the-last-minute free software. Yeah. Ouch.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. the data transmitted through the entire flight, and we got continual updates of images and GPS data every five minutes. However, we did have another glitch. It turns out that the balloon had a leak, and when it reached 766 feet, it hung there for a minute and then sank back to the ground. However, it did manage to travel about 30 miles (north instead of our predicted east) and it got so high that we couldn't see it anymore. As a bonus, as if to say "This was a really great try and you deserve a nice break", the balloon landed within a couple hundred feet of a major road near the next town over. But as if to say, "Wait wait, I'm going to throw one last challenge your way" it landed in a giant patch of blackberry brambles next to a big open field. It took us a half hour to fish it out:

We finally got it out after I hacked at the brambles for 10 minutes with a pocket knife, but not before the balloon popped on the brambles, preventing us from patching the leak and trying a third time. Still, it was a crazy fun project, and despite the fact that we only got about 2% of our desired height, we got some incredible pictures. Remember, all of these were transmitted to the ground from a laptop floating hundreds of feet in the air:

Not bad for less than $500 worth of parts and only two days to assemble them.

And if you think this is the end, you are sadly mistaken. Early on, my brother and I decided we wanted to try this too. He is a photographer, and he thinks he can get better pictures than the ones taken by 1337Arts. Our setup will be much closer to Project Icarus than Megan's was due to the fact that my brother wants to send up a professional camera, and we won't be able to transmit the images. However, if it goes well, I want to send up a spare laptop on a third venture and try Megan's experiment again. I would like Megan and her mom to come with us and help us out with these projects; it's only fair that after their hard work, they have their hands in some successful high-altitude photography. We have half of our parts already, and we are planning our first launch for spring.

Look out, 1337Arts, here we come.

Trip to Space
Progress: 6.47%  Flight Time: 0:09:42
Solar Array
Progress: 6.47%  Power: 65W