Do you remember the Microwave Power Plant in Sim City 2000? The idea behind them was an intriguing one, you launched a satellite into orbit with a massive solar array attached and then beamed the power back down to Earth using microwaves that were collected at a giant receiver. Whilst it worked great most of the time there was always the risk that the beam would stray from its target and begin setting fire to your town indiscriminately, something which the then 11 year old me thought was particularly hilarious. Whilst we’ve yet to see that idea (or the disasters that came along with it, but more on that in a moment) the idea of putting massive solar arrays in orbit, or on a nearby heavenly body, are attractive enough to have warranted significant study.
The one limiting factor of most satellite based designs though is that they can’t produce power constantly due to them getting occluded for almost half their orbital period by Earth. Shimizu Corporation’s idea solves this issue in the most fantastical way possible: by wrapping our moon in a wide band of solar panels, enabling it to generate power constantly and beam it back down to Earth. Such an endeavour would seem like so much vapourware coming from anyone else but Shimizu is one of Japan’s leading architectural and engineering firms with annual sales of $14 billion. If there’s anyone who could make this happen it’s them and it aligns with some of the more aggressive goals for space that the Japanese government has heavily invested in of late.
The idea is actually quite similar to that of its incarnation in Sim City. Since the Moon is tidally locked with Earth (I.E. one side of the moon always points towards us) there only needs to be a single base station on the moon. Then a ring of solar panels would then be constructed all the way around the Moon, ensuring that no matter what the position of Moon, Earth and the Sun there will always be an illuminated section. There would have to be multiple base stations on Earth to receive the constantly transmitted power but since the power beams would be pointable they needn’t be placed in any particular location.
Of course such an idea begs the question as to what would happen should the beam be misaligned or temporarily swing out of alignment, potentially roasting anything in the nearby vicinity. For microwaves this isn’t much of a threat since the amount of power delivered per square meter is relatively low with a concentrated burst of 2 seconds barely enough to raise your body temperature by a couple degrees. A deliberately mistargeted beam could do some damage if left unchecked but you could also combat it very easily by just putting up reflectors or the rectilinear antennas to absorb it. The laser beams on the other hand are designed to be “high density” so you’d want some rigorous safety systems in place to make sure they didn’t stray far from the course.
Undertaking such a feat would require several leaps in technology, not least of which would be in the automation of its construction, but it’s all based on sound scientific principles. It’s unlikely that we’ll even see the beginnings of something like this within the next couple decades but as our demand for power grows options like this start to look a lot more viable. I hope Shimizu pursues the idea further as they definitely have the resources and know how to make it happen, it’s all a question of desire and commitment to the idea.
Australia is a relatively unexciting place, tectonically speaking. We’re smack bang in the middle of the Indo-Australian plate which means that our landscape is quite old (as there’s no tectonic activity reshaping it) and earthquakes are quite rare, with the few we experience being rather weak by anyone’s standards. This is quite good for builders here as this means that tall buildings like skyscrapers and radio towers don’t require additional engineering in order to protect them from those kinds of natural disasters, although we still have tropical cyclones, mass flooding and spiders the size of small horses (I’m only lying about one of those, I swear).
Other countries aren’t so lucky and should they want to build something over a certain height there’s a certain amount of engineering that needs to be done in order to make sure they don’t go tumbling down once the first earthquake hits. Japan is arguably the leader in this technology as they have to deal with large magnitude quakes as a semi-regular occurrence. Seeing it in action though is rather impressive:
A quick bit of research shows that these are mass damper protected buildings (they are the Shinjuku Nomura on the left and Sompo Japan Head Office on the right, for reference) which have a large sprung mass inside them that moves counter to the direction of the seismic waves. Now this doesn’t completely eliminate all the energy passing through the building so they still sway a significant amount. However the majority of modern skyscrapers are designed to sway by a fair amount due to regular things like wind which exert an enormous amount of pressure on buildings this tall. You wouldn’t notice that however as it happens a lot slower than what you’re seeing in this video.
What I find truly amazing though is just how stable it is inside the building (Shinjuku Center) where the filming is occurring. Indeed that building would have been undergoing the same amount of sway and flex as the rest of the buildings were but to an observer inside it looks like you’d barely be aware that anything was happening. The translated description text does say that most of the building services shut down during the quake (elevators being the main concern) so if you weren’t aware of it when it started you’d probably find out in no short order.
I had seen many videos showing off the technology behind this video but after viewing it I realised that this was the first I had seen of it in action and it’s far more impressive than I expected it to be. It’s yet another testament to how far science and technology has come, being able to tame forces of nature that were long thought to be out of our control. It might not be the most exciting thing to talk about with your friends but it does make for some damn cool watching, that’s for sure.
It was the year 2000, a time when Napster was still nascent and the Internet was still that esoteric play ground for nerds or those who dared to trudge through the horror that was GeoCities. By this time I was already fully set in my geek ways with my very own computer in my room that I’d while away countless hours on, usually on Dune 2 or Diablo. Of course the way of the geek isn’t exactly cheap, my new computer had set my parents back a rather pretty penny or two, and they had said in no uncertain terms that I was no longer allowed to spend their money any more. It was time for me to get a job.
I was apprehensive at first after the horror stories I had heard from friends working in various fast food restaurants and other entry level jobs but the motivation to be able to have my own capital, money that I couldn’t be told what do to with, was far too tantalizing to give up. As luck would have it I landed in what was then geek heaven of Dick Smith Electronics and whilst it wasn’t all roses from day 1 it certainly was the perfect place for me, allowing me to fiddle with gadgets endlessly without having to shell out the requisite dollars.
Then one day a particular gadget caught my eye, the Sony MZ-R55. For those who aren’t familiar with this magnificent little beast it was one of the first MiniDisc players from Sony that you could truly consider portable as most of the models prior to that were rather large and bulky, even if they were “portable” in the true sense of the word. It’s size didn’t come cheap however as whilst CD players had become a commodity item at that point, with even the most expensive and lavish units costing under $100, the MZ-R55 was retailing for $500+ even with my ludicrous cost price + 10% employee discount. The price didn’t phase young me however, that MiniDisc player would one day be mine and that day did eventually come.
It wasn’t just geek lust after the size that attracted me to MiniDiscs it was the audio quality coupled with the amazing ability to have tracks I could skip to that pushed me over the edge. My MP3 collection had just started to take shape and I wasn’t impressed with the quality I got when they translated to tape. Recording on MiniDisc however, which was done by a pure optical TOS-LINK connection from a SoundBlaster Audigy card, proved to be far superior in every respect. Plus having a remote and a rechargeable battery proved to be the ultimate of convenience features and my little MZ-R55 saw use every day.
The player also earned a special place in my heart when I journeyed to Japan in 2001. You see apart from myself and a close friend of mine there were no other MiniDisc users that I knew of and I certainly didn’t sell many of them at work. In Japan however they were far bigger than CDs and there were even terminals where you could choose a selection of tracks and then have them burnt to a MiniDisc while you were waiting. That wasn’t what won the MiniDisc a special place in my heart however, no it was something far more special than that.
The trip was part of a school excursion arranged my Japanese teacher and part of that was a home stay with a family. I was billeted with a family of 3 girls and their mother. My host sister’s name was Akiko and I spent 5 days in their house speaking horrific Japanese, enjoying their company and even putting on a “traditional” Australian barbecue at their house. At the end of it all, during a tear soaked farwell that had all of the home stay families gathered together to see us off, she handed me a single MiniDisc with all her favourite songs on it. I had been fairly stoic up until that point but it was then that I lost it and spent much of the rest of the trip listening to it. Maybe that’s why I love Utada Hikaru so much.
And then today news reached me that Sony was stopping production of all MiniDisc systems next month.
You’d think that I’d be upset about this but MiniDisc had been an also ran for some time now; I had already mourned its death a long time ago. Instead when I heard about that today all I remembered was that amazing piece of technology that found its niche in a couple places, one of them in my home. Sure it had its share of problems and no one in their right mind would spend as much as I did in order to use them but it was like the vinyl of my geek generation, it just felt all over better. Whilst other manufacturers might continue to make MiniDiscs and their associated systems Sony was the original and them shutting down production signals the end of its era, even if it had technically happened years ago.
For those of us who had MiniDisc players we loved them to bits, sometimes literally with later models that had a tendency to shake screws loose. They were a stop gap technology that was the first to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world without having to resort to analogue means and the format itself was something of a technical marvel to with the discs being almost archival levels of quality thanks to them being based on Magneto-Optical technology. I really could go on for hours about how good they were and all the fond memories I had with my MZ-R55 but I’m already emotional enough as it is.
Here’s to MiniDisc. You might not have been the raving success that the WalkMan was but you were everything that it was and more to me. You won’t be forgotten, that I can assure you.
You know for all the writing on space I’ve done over the past few years I’ve never once mentioned one of the most intriguing ideas in this field: the space elevator. I’m not sure why I avoided it to be honest as the idea has good foundations in science and manages to generate a whole lot of interesting debate whenever it’s mentioned. It’s not like I haven’t talked about completely theoretical space technologies before either so today I’d like to introduce you to the space elevator concept and go over why it might (and might not) be the technology we should be pursuing in order to fundamentally change the way we access space.
At it’s core the space elevator is a simple idea. You see there’s an orbit around the earth where a satellite will, for all intents and purposes, remain steady over a point on the earth. Currently this space is filled with GPS and meteorological satellites since their mostly fixed position is highly desirable for such applications. These are referred to as geostationary orbits and they all lie directly above the earth’s equator. Theoretically then if you were to put a satellite at one of these orbits and then connect it directly to the place on earth which it hovers over you could then gain access to space by simply running up the cable, a damn sight more elegant than strapping everything to the top of a giant explosion and pointing it upwards.
This idea has numerous advantages over chemical rockets, not least of which is the significant reduction in cost in getting payloads into orbit. Most designs have the runners, the vehicles which “run” up the cable, being powered either directly from the cable itself or by power beaming technologies. This means that you’re not taking all your fuel up with you making the potential payloads much cheaper to deliver into orbit as you can use electricity generated on the ground. The end in geostationary orbit could also be used as a launch platform, enabling much bigger spacecraft to be built and launched into our solar system. It sounds like the perfect solution to many of the challenges behind getting into space but of course there’s always a catch.
The biggest challenge that a space elevator faces is finding a material capable of anchoring a satellite to the earth. Such a material needs to be light with an extremely high tensile strength, far beyond that of any metal or fiber that’s currently available. It also has be manufactured in great lengths on the order of 36000KMs to be able to reach the required height for geostationary orbits. To date the only material that has all these characteristics is carbon nanotubes which match the required strength and weight almost perfectly with the added benefit of being able to conduct electricity. However the inability to make them in lengths any greater than a few centimeters means that until mass fabrication method is discovered carbon nanotubes are unfortunately a pipe dream effectively killing any space elevator before it gets off the ground.
There are also many other factors that need to be considered before a working space elevator can be created. Whilst there’s little danger from the cable breaking to people on the ground (it would most likely flutter harmlessly down to earth) both the runners and the station need considerable contingency systems to be able to deal with this event. Also for payloads that require a non-geostationary orbit (I.E. low/high earth orbits) a space elevator does not provide any velocity to the craft, meaning to achieve a proper orbit you still need to hit Mach 25 unless you want to come back down to earth in a hurry. This is much easier when you’re in space, but it still means that you have to carry up significant amounts of fuel if that’s you’re goal.
Despite these problems however a space elevator is still an extremely attractive possibility and since most of the required technology is already available the idea is now starting to gain traction. Japan is planning to allocate some $10 billion into building the world’s first space elevator and whilst I’d forgive you for not taking them seriously Japan does in fact have a very good space program, they even run supply missions to the International Space Station. Such a commitment to the idea means that the space elevator has a strong possibility of becoming real in the next couple decades, and the flow on effects will have global implications.
Space was once only a realm for dreamers, then super governments and then finally the mega-rich. However the continued revolutions in this industry are driving the cost of space access down to unprecedented levels, serving to make space travel as commonplace as airline travel is today. It’s not going to happen today or in the next 10 years even, but we’re are on the cusp of a fundamental change to the world around us and it is on the back of a space elevator that we shall achieve it.
Solar sails are one of those things that a lot of people have heard about but no one really seems to know too much about. I guess I owe George Lucas and James Cameron a debt of gratitude for this phenomenon as both their sci-fi block busters feature the technology in one way or another. Still for all the postulating that has been done in the world of sci-fi that appears to well grounded in real world science you’d be hard pressed to actually find any actual craft that have launched and demonstrated the feasibility of solar sail technology. It would seem that something akin to the Mars Curse plagues the potentially revolutionary space propulsion that is solar sails.
That’s not for lack of trying however and since the idea was first thought of way 1924 by Friedrich Zander there have been many attempts to prove that the concept works. For a solar sail to work it needs a large surface area to capture as much of the minute pressure that the sun exerts on everything around it. This poses a significant challenge to craft designers as anything large either means lots of mass or some kind of tricky deployment system. As with any space mission weight is at a premium so all solar sails to date have been extremely large and very thin (in the order of millionths of a meter) and therefore have some kind of complicated deployment mechanism. As anyone who has worked with aluminium foil (which by comparison is 0.2mm thick, almost 100,000 thicker ) before can attest such materials are inherently fragile and all successful solar sail missions so far have focused on actually getting themselves deployed, not on whether or not solar sails actually work.
That might seem a bit strange, especially considering the potential game changer that solar sails are, but it all comes down to its potential applications. Right now there’s really little commercial interest outside Low Earth Orbit and as such the only interest comes from potential scienctifical applications. With the technology as of yet still unproven solar sails won’t make it aboard any deep space missions just yet as there can be no guarantee that it will function as predicted. This hasn’t stopped people from looking into the technology though, with Japan being the latest nation to step up to the plate:
Though solar sail-powered crafts have been used before, Ikaros is the first to attempt to enter deep space. The craft’s 46-foot sails come equipped with solar cells thinner than a human hair. When solar particles hit the cells, they generate power for Ikaros. Mission controllers on the ground will steer the craft by adjusting the sails’ angles, ensuring optimal amounts of radiation are reaching the solar cells.
Ikaros’s pricetag is in the realm of $16 million dollars. And while it’s certainly an ambitious project, there are no guarantees the fuel-free space explorer will work. A rocket will transport Ikaros to space on May 18th, along with Japan’s first satellite to Venus. Stay tuned to see how Ikaros fares when the spacecraft finally gets its day in the sun.
IKAROS (ha! Science humour) is quite interesting for a number reasons. The first is that it is the first solar sail mission to be aimed squarely at deep space. It’s admirable because nearly every other mission thus far hasn’t given any thought to get past LEO or HEO, mostly because it would be easier and cheaper. Secondly they’ve taken the novel approach of converting sections of the sail into solar panels as well, which will provide a decent amount of juice for the craft. This further reduces the required weight of the craft (eliminating heavy batteries) which means they can cram a whole lot more science into this package. Secondly the entire project is being funded on what is to be considered a shoestring, a mere $16 million dollars. If this project is successful it will not only prove that solar sails are a viable propulsion method it will also show that they can be extremely cheap. There are countless deep space missions that could be achieved if such deep space propulsion was this cheap, so you can see why the space community is a buzz with excitement at this missions prospects.
Solar sails are one of those technologies that’s been firmly rooted in the world of sci-fi for decades and the prospect of them becoming real just gets me all kinds of excited. I feel that we’re all extremely fortunate to be on the cusp on the next revolution in human’s ability to travel to places we’ve never gone before. The day will come when humanity begins stretching our reach beyond our solar system and there would be nothing more amazing than to do that by sailing on the solar pressure waves of our very own star.
4 days ago the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the first flight ready version of their HII Transfer Vehicle (HTV) line. Whilst on the surface that might not sound like much it marks a significant step forward in Japan’s space capability, as up until now their involvement with the Internation Space Station only involved the Kibo laboratory, all of which was hoisted up by their American counter-parts. It’s quite an interesting craft due to the omission of certain things and the reason it was built. Before I get into that however here’s a bit of eye candy showing it’s rendezous with the International Space Station:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=115pSsW9aXU
Apart from the amazing view of earth that this video shows it also demonstrates one of the oddities of the craft. Now the HTV isn’t the first of this kind of spacecraft to visit the ISS. The most frequent visitor is the Russian Progress craft, which has been responsible for delivering the majority of supplies to the space station. It’s basically a Soyuz craft minus all the gear to support a crew replaced with cargo storage, as it was impractical for the Soyuz craft to be used for both crew and cargo (it is quite small after all). The other is the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which made its madon voyage to the ISS in March last year. What separates these from the HTV is that they both have an automated docking capability allowing them to hook up to the space station with no involvement from the ISS crew. That’s why you see the CANADARM2 stretching out to grab it. You’re probably wondering then, why the heck do we need another cargo ship to supply the ISS and beyond?
The HTV is something of a special purpose craft. Whilst its payload capacity is less than that of the ATV it does sport a much larger docking portal. That by itself doesn’t sound like much but the ATV can’t carry the Interational Standard Payload Racks because of this limitation. The only other way of getting these things inside the ISS is through Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules which fly with the space shuttle, something which is scheduled to stop happening in the near future. In essence the craft is a cheaper alternative to getting standard cargo payloads up to the station once the shuttle is retired, which is a good niche for JAXA to fill.
It might not be the most sexy or exciting craft around but the more countries that develop a capability like this means a lot to humanity at large. We’re starting to see a critical mass developing in both the public and private sector space industries and for a space nut like myself it provides many an hour of slack jawed reading and gazing. Japan’s fresh view on how to get cargo into space is an idea that not many have considered in the past and I hope they continue their involvement past this endeavour.
Big thumbs up to you guys 🙂