A successful launch for the ATV-5 Georges Lemaître space cargo ship going to the International Space Station

The space freighter ATV-5 Georges Lemaître lifting off on an Ariane 5ES rocket (Photo ESA)

The space freighter ATV-5 Georges Lemaître lifting off on an Ariane 5ES rocket (Photo ESA)

It was night when in Europe when, from the spaceport of Kourou in French Guyana, the space freighter ATV-5 (Automated Transfer Vehicle 5) was launched. It was named Georges Lemaître after the Belgian astronomer who was the first to propose the Big Bang theory and it was launched on an Ariane 5ES rocket. With a total weight of 20,275 kg, it’s the heaviest cargo spacecraft ever launched by ESA to the International Space Station, surpassing the previous ATV-4, Albert Einstein, by about 80 kg.

The ATV freighters carry cargos of several different types, even in large quantities, in this case for a total of more than six and a half tons. The ATV-5 carries propellant, supplies such as oxygen, water and food and equipment that includes scientific experiments and various spare parts for the International Space Station. Part of the cargo is carried on behalf of NASA and the Japanese space agency.

The ATVs are the largest cargo spacecraft in use, much larger than the Russian Progress and the new American spacecraft Dragon and Cygnus. They’re built to transport electronic equipment and delicate scientific experiments so they’re pressurized. This has the advantage of allowing them to be used as an additional living module for the International Space Station during the period in which they are docked, which can last up to six months.

The ATV-5 will take about two weeks to reach the International Space Station. It’s a long time even by the standards of these space freighters but there’s no rush to arrive so they established the trajectory that allows minimal use of fuel and maximum safety.

The fuel still available will be used to boost the International Space Station, which is lowered every day several meters due to friction caused even by the thin atmosphere present at an altitude between 350 and 400 km. An ATV can boost the Station several kilometers in a single maneuver. A part of the fuel will be used to replenish the Russian tanks and allow the Station to maneuver independently.

The ATV-5 spacecraft uses an automatic rendezvous that will dock directly to the Zvezda module. It’s equipped with an experimental Liris (Laser InfraRed Imaging Sensors) system able to manage the docking to a non-cooperative system. This means that it can dock to objectives not equipped with sensors and instruments which allow the classic docking system to operate.

The ATV-5 is the last of the ATV space freighters but the international work done to create a spaceship so sophisticated in terms of hardware and software won’t get lost. For the future, ESA has decided to collaborate with NASA adapting the ATV projects to build a service module for the Orion spacecraft that will be used to carry both cargo and astronauts. In this way, the heir of the ATV will have the chance to travel even beyond Earth’s orbit.

When the time comes to leave the International Space Station, the last stages of life of the ATV-5, which will end with its destruction in its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, will be closely monitored. A special infrared camera called Break-Up Camera will shoot this phase from within the spacecraft along with other instruments. They will provide new information that will be useful in the future, also when the time comes to destroy the modules of the International Space Station. The era of the ATV space freighters will really end with a bang!



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Byron Scott is the new Los Angeles Lakers head coach

Byron Scott in 2012

Byron Scott in 2012

The news had already leaked a few days ago and now it’s official: Byron Scott (photo ©Erik Drost) is the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. The team policy is not to rleased the details of the agreement but according to rumors the contract is for four years for a total of $17 million. The native of Inglewood, near the old Forum where the Lakers played for several years, will have the difficult task of bringing the team back to a high level after the last difficult seasons.

Byron Scott was among the protagonists of the Los Angeles Lakers of the ’80s, the Showtime team that marked that NBA decade. As a coach he had his ups and downs, reaching two NBA finals with the New Jersey Nets, obtaining good results with the New Orleans Hornets, instead he had little luck with the Cleveland Cavaliers that didn’t have LeBron James on their roster.

Kobe Bryant indicated his preference for Byron Scott, recalling how his new coach was a sort of mentor for him when he arrived in the NBA. Scott told USA Today that he and Bryant have ideas about basketball that are very similar. Surely all this was important in the Lakers choice.

Now, after the typical enthusiastic statements by Byron Scott, the Lakers general manager Mitch Kuptchak and other people involved, comes the really hard part. Indeed, there are many doubts about the value of the team after trades thate weren’t particularly exciting.

The Los Angeles Lakers were hoping to bring some really big names in California, possibly LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. The choice of the new coach was delayed to discuss the decision with the possible new superstar. Eventually, Pau Gasol, the protagonist of the last two NBA titles won by the Lakers, left and they signed Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin, players who occasionally have done great things but at the highest levels have never convinced.

In the next season the Los Angeles Lakers can hope to finally have a healthy Kobe Bryant. However, in a few weeks the player is turning 36, another reason why it’s difficult to understand how decisive he can still be. Given the level of the Western Conference, the new Lakers have better quickly find a good chemistry, otherwise it will be difficult for them to reach the playoffs.



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Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance

Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance

Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance

The novel “Maske: Thaery” by Jack Vance was published for the first time in 1976. It’s part of a series of stories informally known as the Gaean Reach though it’s an autonomous novel.

Jubal Droad grew up in the Thaery continent on the planet Maske. When he reaches adulthood, he embarks on a rite of passage traditional among his people wandering the land. During one of the jobs taken in the course of his travels, the path he’s repairing with some workers collapses because of an arrogant nobleman who uses it despite his warnings, causing him serious injuries.

When he recovers, Jubal Droad go meet Nai the Hever, a very powerful man, with a letter from his uncle Vaidro. Thanks to that, he get a job that seems humble but he actually joins the local secret services. At the court, he meets Ramus Ymph and recognizes him as the nobleman who caused his accident and the clash between the two men is inevitable.

“Maske: Thaery” is set mostly on the planet Maske, colonized centuries before and rather isolated from the other planets because its inhabitants want it that way. The protagonist of the novel Jubal Droad is the second son of his clan’s leader and at the death of his father his elder brother succeeds him. Reached adulthood, he takes on the traditional rite of passage and in his travels he must also face dangers and prejudices regarding his people as the inhabitants of Glentin are considered coarse.

Especially in the first part of the novel, Jubal Droad’s manners are quite rough and this doesn’t help him make friends. His situation is made even more complicated when, at the court of Nai the Hever, he runs into Ymph Ramus, who in the past had caused an accident in which Jubal was injured. The clash between the two of them is one of the main elements of “Maske: Thaery”.

The theme of revenge is recurring in Jack Vance’s stories, in “Maske: Thaery” it’s important but is part of a more complex plot. Jubal Droad’s story is also a coming-of-age story of a boy who leaves his home and travels far away, even on an other planet. Handling himself through various types of danger, he slowly learns about the conventions of the society in which he’s trying to create a life for himself and to manage situations with cunning rather than with aggression.

Jubal Droad’s adventures allow the reader to learn about the society on the Thaery continent with the various conflicts and intrigue carried out by the various characters who force Jubal to try to discover their agenda. “Maske: Thaery” is a novel in some ways adventurous but the story is in part a kind of spy story that brings Jubal even to the planet Eiselbar.

Jack Vance has always been a master at describing exotic worlds with societies that follow strange customs. In “Maske: Thaery” he especially goes deep with the descriptions of the ways of life of the peoples of the continent of Thaery, in the early chapters with several footnotes.

Jubal Droad is the best developed character but other important characters are also well defined. In several cases, motivations and secrets of a character are revealed slowly among various twists. There is a good balance between ction of a more adventurous type and of the type developed in the intrigue. The pace isn’t particularly fast but Jack Vance knew how to keep readers stuck to his stories.

“Maske: Thaery” is in some ways a distillate of Jack Vance’s literature. His evocative style and the many themes contained in the novel seem to really concentrate in a novel that’s not even particularly long many narrative elements he used many times in the course of his long career.

There are some great classics of Jack Vance I like more than “Maske: Thaery”. This one is in my opinion a very good novel and because of its features is a must-have for both the people who appreciate this great author and the ones who wants to discover him.



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Google launches the Baseline Study project to create a portrait of a person in perfect health



Google announced the Baseline Study project, a detailed study on the biological level of human beings to determine what a healthy person should be. The initial study includes 175 people of which an enormous amount of medical information will be collected. A team that includes dozens of specialists led by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad will use this information to create a portrait of a person in perfect health.

In the past, Andrew Conrad worked among other things to the creation of cheap tests for HIV. In March 2013, he joined Google X, the Google’s laboratory where new technologies of various kinds are developed, from Google Glass to self-driving cars. In the medical / biological filed, it’s developing Google Contact Lens, smart contact lenses capable of monitoring glucose levels in tears useful for diabetics.

The subjects of Baseline Study, who in a future stage could become thousands, will be carefully studied by using state of the art technology to monitor their biological functions. Eyewear, smartwatches, bracelets and other equipment containing tiny sensors will collect medical data on the behavior of their bodies during their daily activities. In addition, the subjects’ bodily fluids will be examined.

The huge amount of data that will be collected will allow to identify biomarkers useful to figure out where you can work to avoid or at least reduce the risks to health. So far, medical science has identified biomarkers for diseases now at the last stage but the project Baseline Study Google should serve to identify trends that emerge much earlier.

Andrew Conrad used as an example a biomarker that shows how some people can break down fatty foods efficiently. Other people may not have it and as a result they may be at risk for heart diseases. Identifying those trends can allow to intervene before the disease becomes severe.

According to Google, all data collected will be completely anonymous and confidential. That’s because the data on health are among the most sensitive. In a period in which the issues regarding privacy are deeply felt, such data must be handled in an appropriate manner.

The connection between the Baseline Study project and Calico, the company created by Google to develop longevity defeating disease and aging, isn’t clear. The data that will be collected and their analysis will certainly be useful in studies related to longevity. There will certainly be time for the two projects to work together because they both have long-term goals.

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NASA might be over budget with its Space Launch System

Artistic concept of the Space Launch System during a lift off (image NASA)

Artistic concept of the Space Launch System during a lift off (image NASA)

Almost three years ago, NASA officially announced the Space Launch System (SLS) project for the next manned space missions, even beyond the Moon. The first test launch is scheduled for the end of 2017 but according to a report by GAO (Government Accountability Office), a U.S. Congressional investigation section dedicated to auditing, the budget for this project isn’t enough to keep that deadline.

So far, NASA and the industries involved in the construction of the SLS claimed that the project development is proceeding according to schedule. Instead, according to the analysis made ​​by GAO, in particular the development of the core stage, the first stage of the rocket common to all its configurations, is likely to take too long.

That assessment for the moment is theoretical but according to GAO the SLS core stage is still in an early stage of development and still has to pass several key steps to be ready. The time for its development, even according to conservative estimates which included reserves months, may not be enough.

According to GAO, there is a 90% probability that there are developmental delays of the SLS that will force to go beyond the scheduled date for the first test launch in December 2017. The missing budget is estimated in $400 million on a total of $12 billion.

According to GAO, NASA may review the budget of other projects to use a part for the SLS or postpone the first test to use part of the 2018 budget. According to NASA, it will be possible to stay within budget with appropriate adjustments of the work schedule and minimizing certain costs but big NASA projects have a strong tendency to exceed the budget and have developmental delays.

The controversy over the NASA management is nothing new. The political side is essential since there is always the U.S. Congress which have to approve the budget. In the case of high-profile projects like the SLS, many critics argue that representatives are trying to involve as many industries as possible. At a time like this it can be beneficial to the economy by creating jobs, but the costs can go up tremendously.

In recent years, NASA is also funding SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation to build three spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts into orbit. The budget for this program is much less than the SLS’s, a complete launch system toward deep space, so some comparisons that you can read are not correct.

At this moment it’s really difficult to say when the SLS will be ready for its first test launch. It’s possible that one of the private companies funded by NASA will send astronauts into orbit before the SLS, the real big challenge will be sending them into deep space.



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In 2012 the Earth was almost hit by a solar superstorm

Solar Coronal Mass Ejection (Image NASA)

Solar Coronal Mass Ejection (Image NASA)

Two years ago, the Earth was almost hit by a solar superstorm, technically called coronal mass ejection. It’s been studied by a team led by Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado that included scientists from NASA and other universities. Their conclusion is that if this solar storm had hit the Earth we would still picking up the pieces.

In 2012, very few people talked about this superstorm even though it was the most powerful of the last 150 years. In 1859, what was called the Carringon event because it was first studied by astronomer Richard Christopher Carringon caused problems to the network of telegraphs, which were then the state of the art of technology.

In September 1859, a series of coronal mass ejections hit Earth for a few days with a power never recorded before. Aurora borealis caused by that intense geomagnetic activity were seen in the northern hemisphere down to Cuba, much further south than normal.

Today our society is highly dependent on electronics and a particularly powerful solar storm is really dangerous. If the superstorm of 2012 had hit the Earth, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation would have ionized the upper layers of the atmosphere causing a disturbance to radio channels and problems to the GPS network. Waves of ionized particles would’ve reached the Earth’s surface with the danger of causing damage to electrical grids resulting in blackouts.



The effects of a solar superstorm could be truly catastrophic because it would strike globally. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the economic impact would be more than $2 trillion. It may take years to repair all the damages that a storm of that kind would cause to the electrical grids with all the consequences on people’s lives and work activities.

The STEREO-A spacecraft was hit by the 2012 superstorm. This is one of the STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) twin probes launched in 2006 exactly to observe the Sun. They were built to withstand extreme conditions so STEREO-A survived but generally electronic devices on Earth are much more vulnerable.

Coronal mass ejections are common events and occasionally some of them hit the Earth. Studying these phenomena is crucial to understand what are the best ways to defend ourselves.

This video tells the story of the 2012 solar superstorm.

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