Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel: This Jack Fella Has a Few Roos Loose.

There are few games that manage to mix elements of different genres together well enough to produce a playable game but the Borderlands series stands out as one of the best examples. There’s the right amount of RPG style elements, with all the loot, levels and specializations you could ever want, combined with the fast pace of a modern shooter. That, along with it’s never-takes-itself-seriously style, makes Borderlands games an incredible amount of fun to play even years after they’ve been released. The latest instalment, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, continues along the established tradition bringing the same experience that Borderlands fans have come to expect.

Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Long before Jack became the handsome bastard that he was in Borderlands 2 he was just a simple Hyperion programmer based on the Helios satellite orbiting Pandora. Still he aspired to be something greater and that’s where you come in vault hunter as Jack wants to find the vault and plunder its secrets for himself. However as you’re making your way to meet him on Helios you’re ambushed by the Lost Legion, a group of fanatical soldiers led by the fearless Colonel Zarpedon, who then take over Helios. Now it’s up to you to fight your way through them in order to retake Helios and, hopefully, find your way down to Pandora to find the coveted vault.

The Pre-Sequel retains the same visual style of its predecessors, bringing along with it some noticeable improvements to the visual effects such as the lighting, physics and particle systems. It still uses the same engine as Borderlands 2, which is the main reason you won’t see it on previous generation consoles, so the overall feel of the game remains largely the same.  It’s at this point where my rig was starting to show its age as after tweaking with a few settings the game rapidly descended into unplayable territory, something I had never experienced with the previous Borderlands title. Once I figured out what I was doing wrong (cranking up PhysX without an NVIDIA card was probably bad idea) the game was buttery smooth throughout.

Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Pandroa's Moon

The gameplay of The Pre-Sequel remains largely the same as its predecessors, giving you the same hybrid RPG/FPS experience with all the Borderlands style trimmings. There are 4 character classes to choose from, each of which is roughly equivalent to the same kinds of character classes from the previous 2 titles. They are unique in their own right however and the skill trees further differentiate them from anything that’s come before. You’ll be collecting dozens of guns again, however this time around you might not be leaving all those greens on the ground thanks to the newly introduced grinder mechanic. Apart from that The Pre-Sequel will play pretty much the same as both of its predecessors, for better or for worse.

Combat flows between you being an unstoppable killing machine, able to lay waste to dozens of enemies without breaking a sweat, to feeling like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Part of this is due to the game’s slightly off pacing as I often found myself several levels ahead of many of the side quests by the time I got around to them which made me not want to do them. There’s a real dearth around the level 20~24 bracket which I got around by fishing out a couple quests and grinding the enemies, something which put me off playing for extended periods of time. Past that point though it started to feel a lot more balanced with my mistakes rightly punished but careful strategy was rewarded properly.

Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Your Mum

I chose to play as the Enforcer which seemed to match my desired play style pretty well. His action skill summons 2 drones, one that continually heals you and the other who hunts down enemies for you. It felt like probably the best “OH SHIT” action skill out of the lot since I could summon them just before I died and I’d usually end up getting a kill before the second wind timer expired. I did however opt for the more character focused skill tree which made certain gun types absolutely ridiculous at dishing out damage, especially if my shields dropped and I had just offed another enemy. Towards the end I became completely unstoppable however as I, somehow, got my shield recharge rate down to almost instant, allowing me to tank pretty much any enemy face on.

Loot will come at you thick and fast in The Pre-Sequel, much like it did in the previous 2 games. However The Pre-Sequel introduces the Grinder, a machine which allows you to combine 3 items of the same quality into one, hopefully netting you a better item. If you’ve got a hole in your gun selection and nothing good seems to be dropping then this can be a great way to fill it. However it does have an upper ceiling as you can’t combine 3 epic items into a single legendary (you can only create legendaries by combining 2 legendaries with an epic). I can somewhat understand the reasoning behind this, it’s for those end game gun raiders who are looking for the best gun possible, but it was a little annoying to find that out after I had saved up 3 epic pistols hoping to get myself a shiny orange.

Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Empyrean Sentinel

Probably the biggest issue I have with The Pre-Sequel is that it’s just too similar to Borderlands 2. Its predecessor introduced a whole host of new mechanics that made the game fresh and gave the end game players something to progress. The Pre-Sequel on the other hand feels pretty much like an expansion pack to Borderlands 2 as nearly everything is the same, just with new character classes and an additional loot generation mechanic. I’m sure Borderlands purists will love this aspect of the game but for those of us who like to see franchises grow and expand past their roots it’s a little painful to see something spin its wheels, even if the game itself is pretty enjoyable. This is most certainly reflective in my total playtime which is a stunning 9 hours less than in the previous title.

The Pre-Sequel’s story definitely has some moments of brilliance in it, especially with the Australian humour weaved into it. Of particular note is Jack’s transformation from a run-of-the-mill Hyperion employee to the insane psychopath you crossed paths with back in Borderlands 2, even if some of the events that happen feel a little forced. The rest of the characters are pretty much throwaways with enough backstory for you to know why they’re there but nothing to make you care for them in the slightest. It’s pretty much par for the course in the Borderlands series, much like the rest of the game.

Borderlands The Pre Sequel Review Screenshot Wallpaper TO THE FACE

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is sure to delight long time fans of the franchise as it brings the same hybrid FPS/RPG experience that keeps many of them coming back for years after initial release. However that’s also what makes the game somewhat weak in comparison to its predecessors; it fails to innovate past the benchmark that Borderlands 2 set all those years ago. Suffice to say I still think it’s worth playing however it’s longevity, at least for me, was drastically cut short due to the high levels of similarity.

Rating: 8.5/10

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is available on PC, PlayStation3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 16 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.

Antares Rocket Explodes Shortly After Launch.

There’s numerous stories about the heydays of rocket engineering, when humanity was toying around with a newfound power that we had little understanding of. People who lived near NASA’s test rocket ranges reported that they’d often wait for a launch and the inevitable fireball that would soon follow. Today launching things into space is a well understood territory and catastrophic failures are few and far between. Still when you’re putting several thousand tons worth of kerosene and oxygen together then putting a match to them there’s still the possibility that things will go wrong and, unfortunately for a lot of people, something did with the latest launch of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket.

The mission that it was launching was CRS Orb-3, the third resupply mission to the International Space Station using Orbital Sciences Cygnus craft. The main payload consisted mostly of supplies for the ISS including food, water, spare parts and science experiments. Ancillary payloads included a test version of the Akryd satellites that Planetary Resources are planning to use to scout near Earth asteroids for mining and a bunch of nano Earth observation satellites by Planet Labs. The loss of this craft, whilst likely insured against loss of this nature, means that all of these projects will have their timelines set back significantly as the next Antares launch isn’t planned until sometime next year.

NASA and Orbital Sciences haven’t released any information yet about what caused the crash however from the video footage it appears that the malfunction started in the engines. The Antares rocket uses a modified version of the Russian AJ-26 engine who’s base design dates back to the 1960s when it was slated for use in the Russian Moon shot mission. The age of the design isn’t an inherently bad thing, as Orbital Sciences have shown the rockets were quite capable of putting things into orbit 4 times in the past, however the fact that Antares is the only rocket to use them does pose some concerns. The manufacturer of the engines have denied that their engines were to blame, citing that it was heavily modified by Aerojet prior to being used, however it’s still probably too early to rule anything in or out.

One thing I’ve seen some people pick up on is the “Engines at 108%” as an indication of their impending doom. The above 100% ratings typically come from the initial design specifications which aim to meet a certain power threshold. Many engines exceed this when they’re finally constructed and thus any power generated above the designed maximum is designated in this fashion. For most engines this isn’t a problem, the Shuttle routinely ran it’s engines at 110% during the initial stages of takeoff, so them being throttled over 100% during the ascent stage likely wasn’t an issue for the engines. We’ll know more when NASA and Orbital Sciences release the telemetry however.

Hopefully both Orbital Sciences and NASA can narrow down the cause of this crash quickly so it doesn’t affect any of the future CRS launches. Things like this are never good for the companies involved, especially when the launch system only has a handful of launches under its belt. The next few weeks will be telling for all involved as failures of this nature are rarely due to a single thing and are typically a culmination of a multitude of different factors leading up to the unfortunate, explosive demise of the craft.

It did make for a pretty decent light show, though.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier

External GPUs are a Solution in Search of a Problem.

If you’re a long time PC gamer chances are that you’ve considered getting yourself a gaming laptop at one point or another. The main attraction from such a device is portability, especially back in the heydays of LANs where steel cases and giant CRTs were a right pain to lug around. However they always came at a cost, both financially and opportunity as once you bought yourself a gaming laptop you were locked into those specs until you bought yourself another one. Alienware, a longtime manufacturer of gaming laptops, has cottoned onto this issue and has developed what they’re calling the Graphics Amplifier in order to bring desktop level grunt and upgradeability to their line of laptops.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier

On the surface it looks like a giant external hard drive but inside it are all the components required to run any PCIe graphics card. It contains a small circuit board with a PCIe x16 slot, a 450W power supply and a host of other connections because why not. There’s no fans or anything else to speak of however so you’re going to want to get a card with a blower style fan system on it, something which you’ll only see on reference cards these days. This then connects back to an Alienware laptop through a proprietary connection (unfortunately) which then allows the graphics card to act as if it’s installed in the system. The enclosure retails for about $300 without the graphics card included in it which means you’re up for about $600+ if you’re going to buy one for it. That’s certainly not out of reach for those who are already investing $1800+ in the requisite laptop but it’s certainly enough to make you reconsider the laptop purchase in the first place.

You see whilst this external case does appear to work as advertised (judging by the various articles that have popped up with it) it essentially removes the most attractive thing about having a gaming capable laptop: the portability. Sure this is probably more portable than a mini tower and a monitor but at the same time this case is likely to weigh more than the laptop itself and won’t fit into your laptop carry bag. The argument could be made that you wouldn’t need to take this with you, this is only for home use or something, but even then I’d argue you’d likely be better off with a gaming desktop and some slim, far more portable laptop to take with you (both of which could be had for the combined cost of this and the laptop).

Honestly though the days have long since passed when it was necessary to upgrade your hardware on a near yearly basis in order to be able to play the latest games. My current rig is well over 3 years old now and is still quite capable of playing all current releases, even if I have to dial back a setting or two on occasion. With that in mind you’d be better off spending the extra cash that you’d sink into this device plus the graphics card into the actual laptop itself which would likely net you the same overall performance. Then, when the laptop finally starts to show its age, you’ll likely be in the market for a replacement anyway.

I’m sure there’ll be a few people out there who’ll find some value in a device like this but honestly I just can’t see it. Sure it’s a cool piece of technology, a complete product where there’s only been DIY solutions in the past, but it’s uses are extremely limited and not likely to appeal to those who it’ll be marketed too. Indeed it feels much like Razer’s modular PC project, a cool idea that just simply won’t have a market to sell its product to. It’ll be interesting to see if this catches on though but since Alienware are the first (and only) company to be doing this I don’t have a high hopes.

Fuck Gamergate

Everything About Gamergate Needs to Die.

I’m fucking fed up.

Fuck Gamergate

I’m fed up with the fact that I can’t go  a week without a female gaming icon getting harassed to the point where she has to leave her house. I’m pissed off that rational discourse broke down so quickly that all anyone talks about now is the hate. I hate the fact that I, as your stereotypical male gamer, feel like I’m responsible for all this shit despite the fact that I treat every female gamer like any other gamer. I’m fucking tired of feeling like all I can do is stay silent and try to be a good member of the community so I can lead by example, just like the countless others I play games with on a daily basis. So fuck it, I’ll paint a target on my back by calling out both sides of the argument for the shit they’ve flung in the wrong directions and hopefully I’ll convince someone that everything about this whole controversy needs to die a fucking swift death.

The one thing I’m going to abstain from doing is going over what sparked this (every recount of what happened to get us to this point is so charged with bullshit swinging one way or the other) and if you’re reading this you likely have your own idea of what the fuck is going on. So instead of getting off on the wrong foot here, although I’ve already likely done that with the first paragraph, I’ll just dive into the meat of what I think needs to happen here and then you can all feel free to flame/dox/death threat me in the comments.

If you’re one of the cadre who backs the idea that Gamergate is about ethics in games journalism then there’s really one thing, and only one thing, you need to do: stop fucking using the Gamergate term. No matter how good you think you are at dodging all the hate, bullshit and utterly atrocious actions of a minority of people you’re never going to rise above the rabble that they’ve managed to generate. There’s a larger debate in there that could have some wide reaching ramifications for how games sites handle their relationships with publishers and developers and it’s one I think still needs to be had. However should you go charging in brandishing the Gamergate tag as your source of inspiration all you’re doing is giving credance to those assholes who use the same platform as a place to spread their hate.

In fact I have no fucking idea why anyone who’s actually interested in having a rational debate about these matters even hold onto the tag at this point. I mean it’s not like we can’t create a new one #fuckingEthics or something like that and use it instead, what’s the point of holding onto a term that only gets press when it runs someone from their home? We may not be responsible for the people who are peddling this bullshit but fuck me, we can decry the label as one that’s been mutilated in only perpetrating hate and continue the conversation that needs to be had somewhere else.

The anti-Gamergate crew isn’t entirely blameless in this whole shitpile though as they’ve often lumped the wider gaming community in with hatemongers. Look a minority of people causing a shitstorm in the larger group is nothing new to the world and it is not fair to anyone in that group if you tar them all with the same brush. If we’re going to ascribe that kind of thinking to everything we might as well just assume all Muslims are terrorists and start treating them all as if they were. The hard and fast fact here is that whilst yes, the hate peddlers of Gamergate identify themselves as gamers, they are not representative of the whole and it does us all a great injustice to think that.

I know anecdotes don’t mean much in the larger scale of things but I’ve always tried to be inclusive of women in the games I play with them along with supporting titles that feature strong female characters as leads. I had a look through my reviews of this year and whilst, yes, they’re primarily filled with lead male protagonists a good half of them allowed you to choose your gender with half a dozen or so featuring what I’d consider a well written female lead. However if you formed your opinion of me based on the fact that I’m an (almost) 30 year old white male who spends an inordinate amount of time playing games and all you had was the Gamergate controversy to go on you’d figure I’m just another fucking misogynist hellbent on ensuring the female race stays out of my games.

Just…fucking no, that’s not me at all.

I want to do my part to stop this kind of shit from happening but there are some larger conversations I want to continue in spite of the hate. Hell I don’t think it’s too much to ask, I consulted with my journo friends when I first started getting offered game copies for reviewing and got great lessons on full disclosure, but it seems like maybe now isn’t the right time. What needs to happen now is for everyone to put a bullet in the Gamergate tag and then anyone who brandishes afterwards can be rightly labelled the peddler of hate that they are. Then, once it’s dead and buried, we can resurrect the conversation about journalistic ethics without the bullshit. I have no fucking idea if that will work or not, it probably won’t, but one thing is clear, everything about Gamergate needs to die right fucking now.

Alan Eustace Record Breaking Jump

Google VP Alan Eustace Breaks Baumgartner’s Record.

It was just over 2 years ago that Felix Baumgartner leapt from the Red Bull Stratos capsule from a height of 39KMs above the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking a record that had stood for over 50 years. The amount of effort that went into creating that project left many, including myself, thinking that Baumgartner’s record would stand for a pretty long time as few have the resources and desire to do something of that nature. However as it turns out one of Google’s Senior Vice Presidents, Alan Eustace, had been working on breaking that record in secret for the past 3 years and on Friday last week he descended to Earth from a height of 135,890 feet (41.4KM), shattering Baumgartner’s record by an incredible 7,000 feet.

Alan Eustace Record Breaking Jump

The 2 jumps could not be more different, both technically and generally. For starters the Red Bull Stratos project was primarily a marketing exercise for Red Bull, the science that happened on the side was just a benefit for the rest of us. Eustace’s project on the other hand was done primarily in secret, with him eschewing any help from Google in order to avoid it becoming a marketing event. Indeed I don’t think anyone bar those working on the project knew that this was coming and the fact that they managed to achieve what Stratos did with a fraction of the funding speaks volumes to the team Eustace created to achieve this.

Looking at the above picture, which shows Eustace dangling from a tenuous tether as he ascends upwards, it’s plain to see that their approach was radically different to Stratos. Instead of building a capsule to transport Eustace, like Stratos and Kittinger’s project both did, they instead went for a direct tether to his pressure suit. This meant he spent the long journey skywards dangling face down which, whilst being nightmare material for some, would’ve given him an unparalleled view of the Earth disappearing from him. It also means that the load the balloon needed to carry was greatly reduced by comparison which likely allowed him to ascend much quicker.

Indeed the whole set up is incredibly bare bones with Eustace’s suit lacking many of the ancillary systems that Baumgartner’s had. One that amazed me was the lack of any kind of cooling system, something which meant that any heat he generated would stick around for an uncomfortably long period of time. To get around this he essentially remained motionless for the entire ascent, responding to ground control by moving one of this legs which they could monitor on camera. They did include a specially developed kind of parachute though, called Saber, which ensured that he didn’t suffer from the same control issues that Baumgartner did during his descent.

It’s simply astounding how Eustace and his team managed to achieve this, given their short time frame and comparatively limited budget. I’m also wildly impressed that they managed to keep this whole thing a secret for that period of time too as it would’ve been very easy for them to overshadow the Stratos project, especially given some of the issues they encountered. Whilst we might not all be doing high altitude jumps any time soon the technology behind this could find its way into safety systems in the coming generation of private space flight vehicles, something they will all need in no short order.

Monument Valley Screenshot Wallpaper Feature Image

Monument Valley: All We Have is our Geometry.

My phone is a pretty boring place, filled with productivity applications that are more focused on work than pleasure. It wasn’t always this way, indeed I used to find all sorts of weird and wonderful titles to play on my phone mostly because I had the time to play through them during the hours I’d spend in transit to work every day. However I simply haven’t had that time to myself any more and so the world of mobile games has passed me by, with likely many good titles falling by the wayside. Today I finally make the return back to the platform and if there are many more titles like Monument Valley I believe I’ll need to make an effort to stay.

Monument Valley Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Ida, princess of a realm long forgotten. The world you inhabit is beautiful but barren, bereft of almost any signs of life yet filled with the signs that many have been here before you. Somehow though you can’t help but feel responsible for this and the quest for forgiveness is what keeps pressing you forward. So many questions lay before you, who built this place, where are they now and what led to their apparent downfall?

Monument Valley is a fantastic example of minilmalism, combining solid colours, soft gradients and simple lighting effects to great effect. Every puzzle screen has its own unique style to it which means that the game never gets visually boring or confusing. This is complimented by the use of Escher-esque style drawings with impossible structures and non-Euclidean geometry which, whilst also being amazing samples of this style of work, also function as the game’s main puzzle mechanic. Overall Monument Valley makes a great visual impression, one I’m sure many other games will draw inspiration from.

Monument Valley Screenshot Wallpaper Penrose Triangle

The core game play of Monument Valley is in the style of other non-Euclidean based games like Anitchamber or The Bridge (although it’s much closer to the latter) where you’re required to figure out how the rules of the geometry in your world work. The things start off relatively simple, only requiring you figure out that your perspective is the key, however you’re quickly thrown into the deep end where the world never behaves as you’d initially expect it to. The puzzles are very well laid out however as you’ll often be introduced to the prime mechanic in its most simple form at the start of the puzzle before you’re introduced to a use case that will require some lateral thinking on your part. There’s also a lot of visual red herrings to ensure that the puzzles aren’t too obvious but they’re uncommon enough as to not be overly frustrating.

This all culminates in a game that’s an absolute joy to play. The beautiful visual elements combined with the inherently non-intuitive puzzle elements just gave me this feeling of exuberance that few games have. There were so many times I’d be stuck on a puzzle for a few minutes before figuring out the solution which would give me a grin that wouldn’t go away for a long time. Probably by far my favourite puzzle out of the lot was the box as the way it was designed evoked this child like excitement in me every time I opened it in a different way. It speaks volumes to the developer’s ability to create an experience that is as fun as what they’ve created.

Monument Valley Screenshot Wallpaper THE BOX

Monument Valley does suffer from a few usability issues, at least on my Xperia Z. A lot of the touch controls felt like they were either far too sensitive, making me spin the puzzle pieces wildly with little input, or not sensitive enough, leaving me to think that certain pieces couldn’t be moved. I’m willing to admit that this might be a hardware issue rather than something wrong with the game itself however it did make some sections more frustrating than they needed to be. Since I’m on Android though your mileage may vary as I’m sure some more mainstream handsets will function better than my now aging Sony.

The story elements are pretty light on in Monument Valley, told only in the snippets before each puzzle and when you find the old lady hiding wherever she is, but it’s enough to elevate the game above other pure puzzlers. Given Monument Valley’s rather short length it’d be unfair for the story to develop much more than it did but I definitely feel there’s potential for this world to be expanded upon more, possibly with additional puzzles. Needless to say I’d love to see Monument Valley get the full release treatment as I believe the concept still has a lot of legs in it.

Monument Valley Screenshot Wallpaper The Tragic EndMonument Valley is a testament to what the mobile platform is capable of creating, combining gorgeous minimalistic graphics with great game mechanics to create an experience that’s up there with many high budget titles. Whilst it falls short in a couple categories, namely it’s overall play time and so-so controls, it makes up for it in spades in almost every other regard. It’s not a game I’d recommend for everyone, indeed any minimalist title is exclusionary by nature, however for lovers of good puzzle games you really can’t go past Monument Valley.

Rating: 9.0/10

Monument Valley is available on Android and iOS right now for $4.99 and $4.99 respectively. Game was played on a Sony Xperia Z with about an hour of total play time.

 

Windows 10 Logo

Windows 10 Brings Vastly Improved Security.

Windows has always had a troubled relationship with security. As the most popular desktop operating system it’s frequently the target of all sorts of weird and wonderful attacks which, to Microsoft’s credit, they’ve done their best to combat. However it’s hard to forget the numerous missteps along the way like the abhorrent User Access Control system which, in its default state, did little to improve security and just added another level of frustration for users. However if the features coming from the technical preview of Windows 10 are anything to go by Microsoft might finally be making big boy steps towards improving security on their flagship OS.

Windows 10 Logo

Whilst there’s numerous third party solutions to 2 factor authentication on Windows, like smartcards or tokens, the OS itself has never had that capability natively. This means that for the vast majority of Windows users this heightened security mode has been unavailable. Windows 10 brings with it the Next Generation Credentials service which allows users (both consumer and corporate) the ability to enrol a device to function as a second factor for authentication. The larger mechanics of how this work are still being worked out however the application has a PIN which would prevent unauthorized access to the code, ensuring that losing your device doesn’t mean someone automatically gains access to your Windows login. Considering this kind of technology has been freely available for years (hell my World of Warcraft characters have had it for years) it’s good to see it finally making its way into Windows as native functionality.

There’s also extensive customization abilities available thanks to Microsoft adopting the FIDO Alliance standard rather than developing their own proprietary solution. In addition to the traditional code-generation 2 factor auth you can also use your smartphone as a sort of smartcard with it being automatically recognised when brought next to a bluetooth enabled PC. This opens up the possibility for your phone to be a second factor for a whole range of services and products that currently make use of Microsoft technology, like Active Directory integrated applications. Whilst some might lament that possibility the fact that it’s based on open standards means that such functionality won’t be limited to the Microsoft family of products.

Microsoft has also announced a whole suite of better security features, many of which have been third party products for the better part of a decade. Encryption is now available for the open and save dialogs natively within the Windows APIs, allowing developers to easily integrate encryption functionality into their applications. This comes hand in hand with controls around which applications can access said encrypted data, ensuring that data handling measures can’t be circumvented by using non-standard applications. Device lock down is also now natively supported, eliminating the need for other device access control software like Lumension (which, if you’ve worked with, will likely be thankful for).

It might not be the sexiest thing to be happening in Windows 10 but it’s by far one of the more important. As the defacto platform for many people increases in Windows security are very much welcome and hopefully this will lead to a much more secure computing world for us all. These measures aren’t a silver bullet by any stretch of the imagination but they’ll go a long way to making Windows far more secure than it has been in the past.

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor

Lockheed Martin Promises Fusion in 5 Years.

There’s little question in my mind that the future of energy production on earth lies within fusion. There’s simply no other kind of energy source that can produce energy on the same scale, nor over the extended periods of time that it can. Of course the problem is that fusion, especially the net energy positive kind, is an incredibly hard thing to achieve. So much so that in the numerous decades so far no one has yet made a device capable of producing sustained power output and the one project that might, ITER, is decades behind schedule. Thus you can imagine my scepticism when I hear that Lockheed Martin expects to have a device operable in 10 years with it being widely available in 20 (snicker).

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor

The Compact Fusion project comes out of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works labs which have delivered such things as the venerable SR-71 in the past. They’re a highly secretive bunch of people which is why this announcement, along with a rather well designed website, has attracted quite a bit of interest as typically any project of theirs that might not deliver won’t see the light of day. Thus you’d assume that Lockheed Martin has some level of confidence in the project, especially when they’re committing to delivering the first round of these devices to the military in the not too distant future. Indeed if their timelines are to be believed they could even beat ITER to the punch which would be a massive coup if they pulled it off.

Their design has the entire reactor fitting on the back of a truck (although the size of said truck is debatable it looks to be the size of a tanker) which is an order of magnitude smaller than all other commercial fusion reactor designs. This is somewhat perplexing as the style of containment they’re going for, the tokamak style which ITER uses, scales up quickly (in terms of power) with increased plasma volume. There are limits to this of course but it also means that the 100MW figure they’re quoting, which is 20% of what ITER will produce, comes with its own set of problems which I don’t believe have good solutions yet.

Indeed whilst the project will be standing on the shoulders of numerous giants that have come before them there’s still a lot of fundamental challenges standing between them and a working reactor 5 years down the line. However should they be able to achieve that goal it will be the start of a new age of humanity, one where even our wildest energy demands could be met with the use of these clean running fusion reactors. The possibilities that something like this would open up would be immense however the the long running joke that fusion is always 20 years away still rings true with Lockheed Martin’s compact reactor project. I would love for my scepticism to be proven wrong on this as a fusion powered future is something humanity desperately needs but it’s always been just out of our reach and I’m afraid it will continue to be for a least a while longer.

X-37B-returns-to-earth

The X-37B Returns.

It’s been a long time since I wrote about the X-37B, originally NASA’s but now the Department of Defense’s secretive space plane, and that’s mostly because there’s not been a whole lot to report.The secret nature of its mission means that no details about its payload are readily available and unlike the first time it was launched it’s been behaving itself, staying within its own orbit. Still that didn’t stop the Internet from going on a rampage of speculation, the highlight of it being the ludicrous idea that it was spying on China’s efforts in space. However over the weekend it returned from its orbit around the earth after a staggering 2 years on orbit.

X-37B-returns-to-earth

Now 2 years might not sound like a long time, especially when the Voyager satellites are pushing 35+ years, however for a craft of this type such a record is a pretty significant advancement. Most capsules and spacecraft that had downrange capacity (I.E. they can bring stuff back) usually have endurances of a couple weeks. Even the venerable shuttle could only last a couple weeks in orbit before things started to get hairy, even if it was docked to the International Space Station. With the X-37B able to achieve an endurance of 2 years without too much of a struggle is a pretty impressive achievement and raises some interesting questions about what its true purpose might be.

The official stance is that it’s a test platform for a whole host of new space technologies like navigational systems, autonomous flight and so on. Indeed from what we’ve seen of the craft it certainly contains a lot of these features as it was able to land itself without human intervention just last week. It’s small payload bay nods towards some other potential purposes (the favourite speculation is satellite retrieval) but it’s most likely just used to house special equipment that will be tested over the duration of the flight. There’s potential for it to house some observational equipment but the DoD already has multiple in-orbit satellites for that purpose and unlike spy satellites of the past (which used film) there’s no real need for downrange capabilities in them any more.

Unfortunately any technological innovations contained within the X-37B are likely to stay there as NASA hasn’t been involved in the X-37B project since it handed it over. It’s disappointing really considering that the DoD has a budget for space activities that equals NASA’s entire  budget and there’s definitely a lot of tech in there that they could make use of. Thankfully the private space industry is developing a lot of tech along similar lines so hopefully NASA and its compatriots will have access to similar capabilities in the not too distant future.

Maybe one day we’ll find out the true purpose of the X-37B much like we did with Hexagon. Whilst the story might be of the mundane the technology powering things like Hexagon never ceases to amaze me. If the X-37B is truly a test platform for new kinds of space tech then there’s likely things on there that are a generation ahead of where we are today. We may never know, but it’s always interesting to let your mind wonder about these things.

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Dark Matter in our Back Yard.

The spiral shape of a galaxy is an image that would be familiar to many of us but the story behind that shape is much less understood. We all know that gravity inexplicably pulls all matter together however if we were to weigh everything we could see it wouldn’t fully account for the resulting shapes and distributions we see throughout the universe. The missing mass is what is commonly referred to as Dark Matter, a theorized type of matter which is incredibly hard to detect directly yet must be pervasive throughout the universe due to its gravitational effects. However that might soon change if observations from our own parent star prove to be correct and we’ll be able to detect dark matter in our cosmic backyard.

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The picture above is what’s known as the Bullet Cluster, the collision of 2 galaxy clusters with each other which is thought to provide some of the best evidence  for dark matter. It’s theorized that in a collision of this nature the dark matter would avoid interaction with all the normal matter and would essentially race ahead. This theory is supported by the gravitational lensing observed between the two galaxies as without some form of dark matter the lensing would follow the matter consistently whereas here it appears to be ahead of its observable matter brethren. There’s still not enough evidence  here to call it a direct detection of it, especially when other modified standard models can accommodate the effect readily enough.

However physicists at the University of Leicester in the UK have detected what could be the decay of dark matter particles coming from our sun which, if proven to be correct, would be the first direct detection of dark matter. The theory goes that axions, particles which were theorized to solve one of the more puzzling problems in quantum chromodynamics and are theorized to be a component of cold dark matter, are created in the sun and make their way to earth. Much like neutrinos they don’t interact with matter very often and thus race from the core at light speed, unimpeded by the sun’s great mass. When they reach our magnetic field however they decay into a x-ray photon which means that the level of background x-rays should be higher within the earth’s magnetic field. This is what the researchers have found and data from other orbital observatories seems to corroborate this.

Of course the theory is not without its problems, notably that the properties of the axion that they’re theorizing would be different to the one that’s predicted by the current model. There’s evidence to suggest this from other observations so in order to prove the theory one way or the other further analysis with that additional data will have to be taken into consideration. It’ll likely be years before we’ll have a definitive answer on this particular theory thanks to the large data sets that they’re working with but either result will provide some insight into where dark matter might be hiding.