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Hitting a Bullseye From Orbit: SpaceX’s Automated Landing System.

Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.

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Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge  that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.

Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.

The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.

It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.

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Curiosity Smells Farts on Mars.

There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.

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Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.

The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.

The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.

It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.

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Rosetta’s Data Provides Clues to Origins of Water on Earth.

The origin of Earth’s water is still something of an open debate. The popular theory at the moment is that the primordial Earth was far too hot to contain any form of liquid water, its molten surface still reeling from the cataclysmic events that led to its creation. However others postulate that the water was trapped deep below the surface, only to arise later on as the Earth cooled and an atmosphere developed. It’s an interesting question not only because of how fundamental water is to life but also because we seem to have a lot more of it than any other planet in the solar system. Thus the question of where it came from, and why it’s managed to stick around for so long, is one of continuous scientific enquiry, including such missions as the recently celebrated Rosetta probe.

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If we run with the theory that Earth’s water came from some extraplanetary source then the question turns to what the original source might be. Comets seem like a good candidate as they’re primarily water ice by composition and were far more common during the early stages of Earth’s life than they are now. However measurements of isotopes within water of several comets, including Halley, Hyakutake  and Hale-Bopp has shown that they are not likely the primary source of water that’s currently on Earth’s surface. The composition of water found on asteroids and other water formed minerals on the Moon seem to indicate that a source closer to home is far more likely which Rosetta’s latest data appears to confirm.

The comet that Rosetta was investigating, the romantically named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, has a ratio of isotopes that is completely different to anything that’s seen on Earth. The reason that this is important is due to it’s orbit as 67P is what we call a Jupiter class comet, a collection of various comets that have orbits that don’t extend far past Jupiter. It was thought that these kinds of comets would have been more likely to have been involved in the creation of Earth’s oceans than comets from further out, due to their proximity. However 67P, with its wildly different composition to Earth (and even other bodies in the same vicinity), lends credence to the idea that comets aren’t the likely source of Earth’s oceans. Indeed it’s far more likely that water and minerals trapped in asteroids are the likely source, based on how similar their composition is.

Now this doesn’t rule out comets completely as there’s potential for further out Kuiper belt class comets to have the composition we’re looking for but it’s looking far more likely that objects from within the asteroid belt are responsible for the oceans we have today. What the mechanism was for them making their way to Earth, whether it was early on in the cataclysmic forming of our solar system or later on when things calmed down, is something that’s still an open question. It’s one we might also have answers to very soon as Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres early next year, the biggest object in the asteroid belt. What Dawn finds there might be the key to unlocking the secrets of our Earth’s oceans and, potentially, the asteroid belt itself.

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Reaction to Destiny’s DLC Shows How Few Have Played MMORPGs Before.

World of Warcraft might have been my first MMORPG but in the decade that followed I’ve played my fair share of titles in that genre. Few of them have managed to make me come back after the initial play through (indeed I think only EVE Online has) but I’m readily familiar with the idea that my character is a kind of temporal thing. All those hours I put into getting them to max level and then kitting them out with gear will likely all amount to naught when the next expansion comes out. If it didn’t I wouldn’t have much incentive to keep playing as completely maxing out a character would be a one time deal. However if you were to take the reaction to Destiny’s latest DLC it would appear that the majority of its playerbase thinks the opposite, which is strangely out of touch with reality.

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I’ll admit that in the beginning Destiny’s loot system was inherently flawed. Things like Legendary engrams turning into green items meant that you had to pray to RNGesus twice in order to get the purples you desired, something which wasn’t fixed until months after launch. The raid was also just as bad as even if you ran it every week there was no guarantee you’d get the drops you needed to make it to level 30. Indeed I never did, despite my vault now being filled with 7 chatterwhite shaders (one for every week I ran it). However I still managed to progress my character in other ways, maxing out all my weapons and completing several of the exotic weapon bounties.

Then the DLC dropped and it seemed like I’d be starting from scratch again.

Except I wasn’t. Sure my exotics weren’t automatically upgraded and the new max level was 32 but I was able to complete all the new content (bar the raid) as my 29 self with my pre-DLC weapons. I even got randomly invited to the new raid with a bunch of guys just because I had everything maxed out and whilst we didn’t get past the second boss it was still awesome to give it a go without having to do anything. Once I got my head around all the new systems available to me it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a few strange coins, vanguard marks and commendations away from surpassing my previous level cap of 29. In fact I did just that over the weekend and I am now a proud member of the level 31 elite.

By comparison taking my level 90 paladin in World of Warcraft to level 100 took me the better part of 2 weeks and he wasn’t even ready to run the raid at that point. For the last week or so I’ve spent the majority of my time in that game gearing him up (increasing his iLvl which is directly equivalent to the Light level in Destiny) in order to be able to do the new raid. I was finally able to do it late yesterday afternoon after almost a day in game time of doing various dungeons, gathering up the crafting mats and getting lucky on a few drops. In Destiny to accomplish the same feat I didn’t have to do any of that. I simply completed a quest chain, did the weekly runs and spent a small portion of my strange coin haul on upgrading my chestpiece. It was honestly one of the most pleasant levelling up experiences I’ve ever had in a MMORPG.

I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t recognise Destiny for the MMO that it is being angry that all their playtime has been for naught (well, mostly) but eventually they’ll have to recognise that, yes, you’re playing one and this is what happens. Bungie made the levelling up process pretty painless, so much so that a filthy casual like myself was able to bash his way to 31 in the space of a weekend. It’s not like all that gear I’ve got is automatically useless anyway either, I’m still rocking my Vision of Confluence and Atheon’s Epilogue most of the time since I haven’t found a good replacement and I think that’ll hold for some time to come. The worst part might’ve been spending 14,000 glimmer and 14 strange coins on upgrading my 2 exotics of choice but that’s nothing when glimmer is everywhere and I’ve had 50+ strange coins for weeks.

It’s probably just the loud minority having their voices heard the most in this respect as I’m sure the vast majority of all the players are actually enjoying the new content rather than bitching about it. Indeed I was content to keep my big mouth shut about it after getting some time to sit down with it over the weekend however it seems that the games churnalism sites have latched on to the faux outrage with reckless abandon. In all seriousness I hope that those who are bitching about the DLC put their money where their mouth is and walk away as it’s only a matter of time before the next DLC and I’d rather not have to listen to people whine about all their time being “wasted”.

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World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor: This is Madness, Garrosh!

Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.

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Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.

Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.

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Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.

Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.

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The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.

The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.

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I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.

The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.

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World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.

Rating: 9.0/10

World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.

Super Cereal.

Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:

The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.

However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.

I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!

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The One Horse Race That is CPUs.

Roll back the clock a decade or so and the competition for what kind of processor ended up in your PC was at a fever pitch with industry heavyweights Intel and AMD going blow for blow. The choice of CPU, at least for me and my enthusiast brethren, almost always came down to what was fastest but the lines were often blurry enough that brand loyalty was worth more than a few FPS here or there. For the longest time I was an AMD fan, sticking stalwartly to their CPUs which provided me with the same amount of grunt as their Intel brethren for a fraction of the cost. However over time the gap between what an AMD CPU could provide and what Intel offered was too wide to ignore, and it’s only been getting wider since then.

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The rift is seen in adoption rates across all products that make use of modern CPUs with Intel dominating nearly any sector that you find them in. When Intel first retook the crown all those years ago the reasons were clear, Intel just performed well enough to justify the cost, however as time went on it seemed like AMD was willing to let that gap continue to grow. Indeed if you look at them from a pure technology basis they’re stuck about 2 generations behind where Intel is today with the vast majority of their products being produced on a 28nm process, with Intel’s latest release coming out on 14nm. Whilst they pulled a major coup in winning over all of the 3 major consoles that success has had much onflow to the rest of the business. Indeed since they’ll be producing the exact same chips for the next 5+ years for those consoles they can’t really do much with them anyway and I doubt they’d invest in a new foundry process unless Microsoft or Sony asked them nicely.

What this has translated into is a monopoly by default, one where Intel maintains it’s massive market share without having to worry about any upstarts rocking their boat. Thankfully the demands of the industry are pressure enough to keep them innovating at the rapid pace they set way back when AMD was still biting at their heels but there’s a dangerously real chance that they could just end up doing the opposite. It’s a little unfair to put the burden on AMD to keep Intel honest however it’s hard to think of another company who has the required pedigree and experience to be the major competition to their platform.

The industry is looking towards ARM as being the big competition for Intel’s x86 platform although, honestly, they’re really not in the same market. Sure nearly every phone under the sun is now powered by some variant of the ARM architecture however when it comes to consumer or enterprise compute you’d be struggling to find anything that runs on it. There is going to have to be an extremely compelling reason for everyone to want to translate to that platform and, as it stands right now, mobile and low power are the only places where it really fits. For ARM to really start eating Intel’s lunch it’d need to make some serious inroads into those spaces, something which I don’t see happening for decades at least.

There is some light in the form of Kaveri however it’s less than stellar performance when compared to Intel’s less tightly coupled solution does leave a lot to be desired. At a high level the architecture does feel like the future of all computing, well excluding radical paradigm shifts like HP’s The Machine (which is still vaporware at this point),  but until it equals the performance of discreet components it’s not going anywhere fast. I get the feeling that if AMD had kept up with Intel’s die shrinks Kaveri would be looking a lot more attractive than it is currently, but who knows what it might have cost them to get to that stage.

In any other industry you’d see this kind of situation as one that was ripe for disruption however the capital intensive nature, plus an industry leader who isn’t resting on their laurels, means that there are few who can hold a candle to Intel. The net positive out of all of this is that we as consumers aren’t suffering however we’ve all seen what happens when a company remains at the top for far too long. Hopefully the numerous different sectors which Intel is currently competing in will be enough to offset their monopolistic nature in the CPU market but that doesn’t mean more competition in that space isn’t welcome.

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Interstellar Brings Hard SciFi Mainstream.

As I hope is blatantly obvious by now I’m very much a fan of the sci-fi genre. It started out as a fascination with the future, with all the tech wizardry that it promises us, however it’s long since grown into a full fascination with the world of science and what plausible futures could arise from it. Thus, whilst I enjoy a good story in its own right, sci-fi movies and other media are a great opportunity to explore scientific principles and I love to see how they’re used as plot devices. Of course the narrative will often take precedence over the laws of the universe and whilst I can appreciate a departure for the sake of plot I have my limits, like Gravity’s take on how orbital mechanics work. However there’s been quite the hubbub around the science behind Interstellar and I finally managed to catch it over the weekend.

interstellar.black_.hole_In terms of basic science Interstellar gets top marks for getting so many things right. Things like travel time between planets in the solar system, gravitational lensing of light around objects that have heavy gravity or spacetime warping properties and the handling of relativity all line up with my (admittedly limited but I’d hazard a guess better than average) understanding of how those principles work. The black hole itself was absolutely stunning with the interaction of the accretion disc with the strong gravitational lensing, something which now seems so obvious, giving us a new perspective on what these monsters would actually look like out in space.

The robots are also one of my favourite aspects of Interstellar as they go from being what appears to be some kind of clunky, cumbersome relic of the pre-blight era they’re in fact highly capable machines. The designs are incredibly interesting too as whilst many movies would’ve gone for the stereotypical humanoid Interstellar instead opts for a HAL-9000esque monolith. It’s hard to discount that their personalities play a big part in this too, especially with all the humour around their programmable emotional settings.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

There are numerous liberties taken with certain mechanics however, all which are somewhat forgivable since they’re in aid of the plot. The small craft which are quite capable of achieving orbital velocities would have to have some kind of advanced engine that doesn’t rely on propellant and has the required thrust and specific impulse to achieve such feats. This is somewhat hinted at the start when the craft they use to get to Saturn makes it there in 2 years (I’d assume without any gravitational assists) however it’s still something that bears mentioning. It’s mostly only because if they had technology like that then it’d be quite easy to get a lot of people into space, potentially making that habitat they were working on viable without needing the secret “gravity” source.

As with all movies that like to play around with the notion of time things start to get a little hand-wavy once you start mucking with the timelines. Once Cooper’s character is stuck in the tesseract he’s essentially creating a paradox since he wouldn’t be there without the manipulations he caused, yet he is already aware of them when he’s making them. The one way to rationalize this away is to eliminate the prospect of free will within that world and so Cooper was compelled to do that no matter what happened. Otherwise he could, say, send the quantum data to someone else through another method, rendering the whole mission moot (but then introducing yet another) paradox to contend with. Indeed whilst this later part of the movie is a great piece of cinema it’s riddled with scientific problems, one that likely needs a novel to explain them away.

One thing that does irritate me about films of this nature is that they usually follow the format of “everythings going ok for a bit until things go all Event Horizon on you”.  I get that this is playing into the fragility of the human condition, where our survival instinct makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t, however it does feel like the trope has been done to death. There’s multitudes of other avenues to pursue to provide that kind of tension without relying on humans going postal, but it seems human fallibility is still the route of choice. Then again hard sci-fi is a hard sell without a relatable human element, which I guess is the reason we keep seeing it.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar despite the last sections wandering into extreme hand-waving territory. The scientific basis which it begins from flows through the entire movie, providing a great backdrop for the rest of the movie to build on. I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown of how all of the strictly-not-scientific elements were developed as there’s a lot of questions I’d like to see answers to. In the same vein though I’m also completely ok not knowing as the discussion my wife and I had afterwards were just as interesting as watching the movie itself. Definitely a must see for all sci-fi fans out there.

 

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NASA’s Orion Takes Flight.

Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.

Orion Exploration Flight Test

The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.

When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.

The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.

It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Game of Thrones: Iron From Ice.

You’d have to be willfully ignorant to not have come across the massive sensation that is Game of Thrones. I have to admit that I’m one of those people who only discovered it through the TV show, much at the behest of many of my friends who’ve urged me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic works. Still it’s easy to see just how detailed the world he created is with deep and complex political landscapes that stretch back over countless years. It was interesting then to hear that Telltale Games would be doing a title within the franchise as whilst they certainly have the pedigree to bring a story to life the world of Westeros isn’t exact their modus operandi. Indeed their entry into this gritty and uncaring world seems to signal that Telltale wants to begin rising above its current station, and that it has the skills to do so.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

MINOR GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS BELOW

The Forresters have been the bastions of the Ironwood forests for countless generations and loyal to the Starks for just as long. That loyalty is what led them to be in attendance for the horror that was The Red Wedding where many of their men met their fates. You are Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Gregor Forrester, who managed to escape the violence in order to carry a message from your lord back to the house of Forrester. Unfortunately the tragedy that befell you at The Red Wedding has also spread to everywhere else and now the house which you have long been loyal to is under threat. Can you fight your way out of this? Or will you use the more delicate hand to beguile your enemies and have them fall on their own swords?

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Telltale has a very distinctive style when it comes to the games they create, favoring the heavy bordering and solid colours that are typical of their graphic novel inspired works. This has been reworked somewhat for Game of Thrones, dumping the cartoony look and instead aspiring more towards realism than any of their other games have done previously. This has also come with an upgrade in visuals in almost all regards although the semi-stiff animations and less-than-stellar attempts at depth of field do leave a little bit to be desired. Still it’s hard not recognise that this is most definitely a big step up for Telltale games and potentially signals towards them feeling comfortable enough to experiment with the format they’ve perfected.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ironrath

The signature Telltale style makes a return in Game of Thrones, putting aside most traditional game mechanics in favour of focusing on developing the story and the characters within it. The majority of action sequences play out as a series of quicktime events, throwing up keys to press or mouse movements to make in order to get through a section. The heart of their style is, as always, the dialog system which includes a breadth of options that will shape the game in numerous ways depending on which one you select. Unlike previous Telltale games however Game of Thrones jumps between several different characters, mimicking the format of its source material. All in all there’s nothing too revolutionary about the game itself which isn’t surprising since this is a Telltale title.

Indeed Telltale is probably one of the few game developers out there who are able to get away with doing this since the innovation comes from their ability to tell a good story rather than develop new and novel game mechanics. For story-first titles it’s often better to err on the side of simplicity as too many mechanics, or just a couple poorly constructed ones, quickly distract from the story. This is what titles like Always Sometimes Monsters got wrong, thinking that a variety of different mechanics was necessary in order to keep the player engaged. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so long as the story that you’re telling is engaging enough.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper Before Cersei

Depending on what your current level of involvement is with the Game of Thrones franchise the story will likely mean a different many things to you although it does tend to assume you’re coming from the TV series rather than just the books. The story begins at the end of the third season and is slated to continue through until the end of the fifth. This means that, unless you’re up to that part in the series, there’s potential for bigger events to be spoiled and pivotal characters that have just recently appeared in the series likely won’t make a great deal of sense to you. Thus to properly experience the story you’d best be placed to catch up to the end of the third season. Who are we kidding though, you’ve already watched it twice.

The story itself is quite engaging, following a thread that’s apparently present in the books but yet to be explored in the series, retaining many of the qualities that made Game of Thrones so popular in the first place. The story isn’t written by George R. R. Martin himself though, rather he sent along his personal assistant Ty Corey Franck (a successful writer in his own right) to be a story consultant with Telltale. Since this is just the first episode there was still a lot of worldbuilding to be done so it wasn’t the most gripping story yet, however many of the events that have taken place are setting the scene for much grander things to come. I definitely have high hopes for Telltale’s version of Game of Thrones and I’m interested to see where they take it.

Game of Thrones Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Council is Empty

Game of Thrones is another excellent story-first title from Telltale games, taking the essence of what made their style so popular and maturing it to match the gritty world that George R. R. Martin had created. The graphics are the most notable departure from the Telltale style, ramping it up to a more realistic style whilst still retaining the same feel. However the core of what make their games great, their skill with storytelling, is very much the same and the world of Westeros provides a great canvas for them to paint a new story. Overall for fans of Telltale or the Games of Thrones franchise this title will be certain to delight and is most certainly worth the price of admission.

Rating: 9/10

Game of Thrones is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.