The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft blasted off for its CRS-3 mission for NASA

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA TV)

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA TV)

A few hours ago the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft blasted off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in its CRS-3 (Cargo Resupply Service 3) mission, also known as SPX-3. This is the third of 12 missions that include the sending of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station with various cargos and then return to Earth, again with various cargos.

It’s normal for these missions to be delayed for various reasons but the CRS-3 was supposed to start last year. A series of problems on the International Space Station and recently a failure in a U.S. Air Force radar system needed to mission control moved this launch ahead several months. There was the risk of a new delay following the failure of a backup computer on the Station but at NASA mission control they assessed the risk as minimal and gave the OK to the launch.

Meanwhile, compared to the previous mission, the Falcon 9 rocket has been changed a lot so this time they used the 1.1 version already tested last year. For this occasion, the first stage has been equipped with special carbon fiber legs to try a controlled landing. The purpose is to be able to have a soft splash down without damage, so that it can be recycled.

The technology for the controlled descent of the first stage is experimental so the expectations were pretty low but SpaceX announced that the descent into the Atlantic Ocean was successful. Obviously they’ll have to assess the conditions of the first stage but it’s a big step forward.

The Dragon spacecraft is carrying a heavy cargo, a total of around 2.4 tonnes (about 5,000 pounds) between the pressurized and non-pressurized ones. Among the many devices, there is the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), one of the experimental instruments for communications via high-speed laser, in this case between the ISS and the ground stations. There’s also the High Definition Viewing Earth (HDEV) package, which consists of four HD cameras to be tested in the space environment for shooting of the Earth from various angles. A particular electronic component is a pair of legs for Robonaut 2, an android in the testing phase on the Station that didn’t have them yet.

The cargo of the Dragon spacecraft also includes scientific experiments such as the Veg-01 or Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), which aims to experiment the growth of lettuce on the International Space Station under LED light. Another biological experiment aims to investigate the causes of depression of the immune system with age and in microgravity.

As a secondary cargo there are some CubeSat satellites. One of them, KickSat, was produced through a crowdfunding campaign and has the aim of launching femtosatellites, which are satellites slightly larger than a postage stamp. The CubeSats were deployed regularly and the KickSat started the deployment of no less than 104 femtosatellites called Sprites.

The Dragon spacecraft is en route to the International Space Station and everything proceeds normally. The arrival is scheduled for tomorrow with the berthing on the Harmony node.

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The NBA playoffs 2014 are starting

Tomorrow, Saturday, April 19, 2014 the NBA playoffs 2014 are starting. The end of the regular season is always a little complicated because there are teams who are looking to rest their stars, others that need to win their playoffs berth and still others just waiting for the end of the season to think about the next one. For the first time in the NBA history the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks have all failed to reach the playoffs. This year the injury situation was quite complicated for some of the likely protagonists of the post-season with consequent ups and downs.

Let’s have a look at the teams with the best playoffs positions in the two conferences.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers

After the All-Star Game, the Indiana Pacers had ups and downs and give the impression that within the team there’s some problem. Nevertheless, they got the top seed in the Eastern Conference, proving to have a really huge potential. They should win without big problems the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, another team that has a high potential but is been disappointing for years. The Pacers, however, are under pressure and in the later rounds, probably against the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat, will have to play better to win, otherwise for them the season will be a disappointment.

Miami Heat

For the reigning NBA champions starting the playoffs with the no. 2 seed might seem like a disappointment. However, the players know exactly what they need to do to win so I think they’re still the team to beat. In the first round they should easily defeat the Charlotte Bobcats, who finally showed signs of life and have already achieved a great result, in the later rounds we’ll see if the Heat are really ready to win their third straight title.

Toronto Raptors

The surprising Toronto Raptors won the no. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs but will have to face in the first round the Brooklyn Nets, a team that had many ups and downs during this season but with several veteran players who have great experience in the playoffs. In my opinion the Nets will win the series and try to make the surprise beating the Miami Heat as well, an almost impossible mission.

Chicago Bulls

Derrick Rose has played very few games before surrendering to another unlucky season but the Chicago Bulls are a team that fights to the end. I think they’ll win the first round against the Washington Wizards but they should hope for a suicide by the Indiana Pacers to go further.

Western Conference

San Antonio Spurs

Once again, the San Antonio Spurs have played a great regular season, showing they have the best system. However, last year they were lucky because in the Western Conference playoffs they faced opponents who were missing important players. This year they might have to work hard since the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, another team with several veterans. They’ll probably win but already in the conference semifinals they’ll face an athletic team and there could be a surprise.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The key to the Oklahoma City Thunder is the players’ shape. They had some important injuries, now we must see if the players who just got back are ready for the playoffs. The first round won’t be easy against the Memphis Grizzlies but if they don’t reach at least the NBA Finals their season will be disappointing.

Los Angeles Clippers

After one season of improvements, the Los Angeles Clippers need to play the first round against the Golden State Warriors, the surprise of the last year’s playoffs. In the regular season, the games between these two teams were very balanced but the playoffs are a different thing. The Clippers have the home court advantage and the Warriors won’t have Bogut, injured. In my opinion it will still be a long series and there might be a surprise.

Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets have improved with the arrival of Dwight Howard but they have to play a first round that’s not easy against the surprising Portland Trail Blazers. For the Rockets it’s the moment of truth because the team is ambitious. If they were to go out in the first round it would be a big disappointment. If they could find the right confidence, in my opinion they could even beat the San Antonio Spurs and get to the conference finals.

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The planet Kepler-186f has a size similar to Earth and is in the habitable zone of its solar system

A comparison of our solar system with that of the star Kepler186 and in particular of the Earth with the planet Kepler-186f (Image NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

A comparison of our solar system with that of the star Kepler186 and in particular of the Earth with the planet Kepler-186f (Image NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet that is about 10% larger than the Earth and is in the habitable zone of its solar system. It is very likely a rocky planet, which means that it’s the most similar to Earth found so far. With those characteristics, it could host liquid water and have the conditions for the emergence of life forms.

The planet Kepler-186f is part of the star system of the Kepler-186 star, a red dwarf about 500 light years from Earth. The mass of this star is about half of the Sun, which means that it’s colder than our star. For this reason, the planet Kepler-186f is considered to be potentially habitable even if its distance from its star is similar to that of Mercury from the Sun with a year that lasts about 130 Earth days.

The star system Kepler-186 had already been the subject of observations by the Kepler space telescope. The presence of four other planets had already been established, other rocky planets with a size of less than one and a half times the Earth. The problem is that those planets are very close to their stars so even if it’s small and relatively cool they are still too hot to host life forms of a type known to us.

The planet Kepler-186f is the best candidate to host life forms found so far, so much that the announcement of his discovery was hyped by NASA. This is understandable considering that the characteristics of this planet are objectively interesting and the American space agency is increasingly looking for praises to avoid further budget cuts. The hype reached media with very strong statements on this planet but is it really so similar to Earth?

Actually, the observations of the planet Kepler-186f are indirect and at least for now it will be impossible to observe it directly because it’s too close to its star for the existing instruments. Its size has been established with a good approximation but its mass and composition are yet to be assessed. These characteristics are essential to understanding how much it’s truly Earthlike.

The presence or absence of an atmosphere and its possible composition and density are another crucial factor in the evaluation of a planet and in this case at the moment we know nothing about the planet Kepler-186f. In short, this is a really interesting discovery but there’s still much to learn about this planet to understand if it can really host life forms similar to those on Earth.

What is certain is that the interest raised by this discovery will make scientists try new observations with other telescopes. In a few years, when finally the James Webb Space Telescope gets launched, the planet Kepler-186f could be one of its first research targets.

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The Cassini space probe discovered a possible new Saturn’s moon

Part of Saturn's ring showing the disturbance at their outer edge caused by Peggy (Photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Part of Saturn’s ring showing the disturbance at their outer edge caused by Peggy (Photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The Cassini space probe has detected an object at the edge of the planet Saturn’s outermost ring, the one called ring A, that could be a new moon. Informally called Peggy, it may be just forming, a small block of ice with a diameter of less than one kilometer (about half a mile) detectable only by the slight gravitational disturbance that caused on the ring.

The photograph that shows the perturbation on the outer edge of Saturn’s ring was taken almost exactly a year ago, on April 15, 2013. Specifically, this disturbance is an arc 20% brighter than the area that surrounds it. The scientists also found an unusual protuberance in the profile generally smooth of the ring’s edge.

These abnormalities have been attributed to an object present in the area that causes a disturbance with its force of gravity. The details of the observations were published on April 14, 2014 in the journal “Icarus”. Those are indirect observations because the object is too small to be studied directly.

The formation of this possible moon may seem a really trivial matter but it’s a phenomenon never seen before. Many of Saturn’s moons are composed mostly of ice, just like the particles that make up the rings. According to one theory, the moons were formed from those ring particles then moved away from the planet, sometimes merging with other moons. Peggy could give scientists the opportunity to test this theory.

Probably in the past Saturn’s rings were even more massive therefore contained enough material to form some moons. Today, as majestic as they still are, they have enough material to create only small objects such as Peggy. Probably, this tiny moon won’t grow anymore and may even fall to pieces, too small to be stable. Other objects of detectable mass are unlikely to form.

Peggy is an icy object but the mechanism of its creation is also valid for the dust disk that existed at the dawn of the solar system. The planets may have formed in a similar manner to Peggy from that disk, another reason why astronomers are trying to get all the information they can. The Cassini spacecraft will approach the outer edges of Saturn’s rings near the end of 2016. This will give astronomers an opportunity to study the area more closely and maybe even to directly observe Peggy.

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Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

The novel “Absolution Gap” by Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2003. It’s part of the Revelation Space series and is the sequel to “Redemption Ark“.

2615. Quaiche got in trouble with Queen Jasmina because he failed to keep his promise to get her some deals that would have enriched her. She gives him one last chance by sending him to seek his fortune in the system of the star 107 Piscium but to stimulate him she closes his lover Morwenna in a sort of sensory deprivation sarcophagus. On Hera, a moon of a giant planet in the system that he called Haldora, Quaiche finds an alien artifact and the planet momentarily disappears.

2675. After 23 years on the planet called Ararat, Nevil Clavain and his group, which includes the population saved from the destruction of the planet Resurgam, are reached by a capsule that contains Ana Khouri. A lot has happened in those years and the Inhibitors are coming but they’re not the only danger.

2727. Rashmika Els is a girl who wants to find her brother, who some years before had joined one of the cathedrals that move constantly to keep an eye on Haldora and observe its periodic disappearances. Her quest will take her into contact with Quaiche, who many years before had started an actual religion centerd around the planet.

“Absolution Gap” is the last book of the trilogy of the Inhibitors and should be read after the previous two to appreciate the development of the characters already present in one or two of them and the developments of the story, which is really complex. Sure, there are several references to the previous novels but they’re just useful to allow readers to refresh their memory, they certainly can’t replace the reading of more than 1,000 pages.

The structure of “Absolution Gap” is the same become familiar to the people who read the previous novels in the Revelation Space series with initially separate stories and many characters who sometimes are not what they seem. The novel is initially split into three subplots set in different years though the two concerning the events on Hela constitute the beginning and the end of Quaiche’s religious work.

The subplot that starts on the planet Ararat is directly connected to the war against the Inhibitors from the beginning. Over twenty years after the ship “Nostalgia for Infinity” carried there the survivors of the planet Resurgam, the Inhibitors are getting close to the planet. Before them, Ana Khouri and Skade arrive, upsetting the lives on Ararat, which at that point was going on with a semblance of normality.

More than in the previous novels, in “Absolution Gap” there are twists and turns from the beginning. For the characters already present earlier in the trilogy, there’s a conclusion of their journey, especially in a figurative sense. The events of the previous decades have changed them, even those who have lived for centuries.

For some of these characters, the end of the journey means their death because Alastair Reynolds has no problem killing even a few protagonists. For the others, it’s instead about finding themselves and realize their potential, taking the necessary decisions even when it’s hard.

The subplots set on Hela tell the story of Quaiche and the religion he creates after seeing the planet Haldora disappear for an instant. This religious belief is reinforced by an indoctrination virus and Quaiche himself needs to get “infected” with new strands over time because he keeps on developing a resistance to it.

Quaiche’s story, with his inner conflicts, the mystery of his ultimate plan, may seem completely detached from the story of the Inhibitors but in the course of the novel the two stories eventually intersect. Alastair Reynolds describes with an abundance of details this strange religion whose believers have built cathedrals that move continuously on Hela to keep an eye Haldora in order to observe the disappearances, considered miracles.

The many descriptions, not only on Hela and its inhabitants, sometimes slow down the pace of the narrative. Alastair Reynolds is an important writer of hard science fiction has a past as a scientist so he may be especially appreciated by readers who like stories that are not only simple adventure.

The novels in the Revelation Space series are not the type that can be read quickly or easily. They need some time to enjoy all the details and technical-scientific descriptions. Those are are complex readings but in the end I found them satisfying.

The real flaw of “Absolution Gap” is in its hasty final, partly narrated by a character a few centuries in the future, partly a sort of cliffhanger for possible more novels. If at the end of a story you want to know all the details remained obscure and the solution of all the mysteries, honestly you’ll be disappointed.

Objectively, Alastair Reynolds could give some more details, exactly considering the amount of details included in the Revelation Space series. However, at least in some cases it would be impossible to make sure that the protagonists could find out all about the events that have affected many star systems.

In the end, I think that “Absolution Gap” is the worthy ending of one of the best space opera series of this beginning of the third millennium so it’s a must-have for all the fans of this sub-genre and hard science fiction.

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Google acquires drone producer Titan Aerospace

Titan Aerospace drone Solara 50 (Photo courtesy Titan Aerospace. All rights reserved)

Titan Aerospace drone Solara 50 (Photo courtesy Titan Aerospace. All rights reserved)

Google announced the acquisition of Titan Aerospace, a company based in New Mexico that produces drones. There are no information about the price paid by Google but a few weeks ago there were rumors that Facebook had offered $60 million for the company. It’s possible that Google has offered more but Facebook ended up buying another company in that sector, Ascenta, for $20 million so it’s difficult to say how much it actually cost to buy Titan Aerospace.

Due to the acquisition of robot maker Boston Dynamics by Google at the end of 2013, now someone might worry. Actually, Titan Aerospace doesn’t produce war drones but for civilian uses. In fact, they are solar-powered aircraft that can reach an altitude of 20,000 meters (almost 66,000 feet) and have an autonomy of 5 years that Google can use for some of its projects.

First of all, Google may use those drones for its Project Loon, which aims to send balloons into the atmosphere to bring a high-speed Internet connection in areas not covered. The idea is to provide a wireless connection up to 1 Gbps, meaning at very high speeds. Titan Aerospace’s drones, being airplanes, have fewer problems than balloons in case of bad weather and are solar-powered so they might represent a better solution.

Titan Aerospace’s drones can take photographs of the areas they fly over, useful to keep Google Maps and Google Earth updated. Using the drones instead of a satellite could be much cheaper, especially if it’s just one of their tasks.

Last year, Google bought Makani Power, a company that manufactures airborne wind turbines. The idea is to transmit the generated power to the ground via a cable connected to them. Titan Aerospace’s drones could also be used for this project, presumably flying at altitudes far lower than 20,000 meters.

We have just to see how Google will develop its various projects bringing together those of the various companies acquired in recent months. Considering Facebook and Amazon’s interest for drones, in the coming years we can expect a sky increasingly full.

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