Hacking Classrooms via Mars

1 08 2013
Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

A short report today on the inspiring Mars Education Hackathon I recently had the good fortune to be invited to attend in San Francisco.

Hosted by the Mozilla Foundation, digital studio MX, and local PBS affiliate KQED, the two-day blitz included six ad hoc project teams – fresh and interdisciplinary collaborations between planetary scientists, computer scientists, educators, innovators, multimedia producers, and historians.

Attendees represented the gamut of potential stakeholders, from NASA’s Ames Research Center to science and education TV production firm Spine Films.  I was there on behalf of MX studios, with whom I’d had the pleasure of supporting as a space/planetary science consultant.

What was it exactly that brought such a motley crew together near the Bay?

Working as fast as we could, our mission was straightforward:  Leverage recent advances in computing and networking technology in combination with the truly stunning quantity and quality of data available to us from the Red Planet in order to give science education a much-needed kick in the pants.

In my view, it was a rousing success.

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View of hacking in progress – two of the Hackathon working groups at KQED headquarters.

The team projects were each ambitious and varied from virtual science learning environments using actual NASA rover models to orbital flight trajectory and planning simulators; from helping students pack for a trip to Mars to using VR headsets to explore the Martian landscape with their own eyes from the comfort of a classroom.

(Yes, I finally got to try an Oculus Rift – it lives up to the hype!)

It was also an excellent opportunity both to meet new faces as well as finally assign faces to names I’ve known (or even been working with from afar) for some time.  (Many thanks to MX and Mozilla for their support!)

In the end, I truly believe the seeds of future models for using computing technology to integrate frontier science into the classroom were sewn here.  Education needs this kind of work to compete with gaming multimedia that, unfortunately, is usually just much more engaging than learning-based systems.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Mars shows us that.

More to follow on the fruits of this little side-adventure…

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Could frontier exploration environments like Mars be the key to bridging the divide between new web-based technology and classroom education experiences? (View from outside Mozilla headquarters.)

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Wonders of Flight and Patterns in Time

17 07 2013

Flight

Space Really Isn’t that Far Away

A quick note today on two thoughts resulting from the same image (above).

Taken with my phone while pressed against the starboard-side window during a recent cross-country flight, (I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately), the first thing you’ll probably notice about this picture is that I’ve inverted it.

Why?  Simply, it was for those who may not be quite as impassioned about space exploration as I am.

I did it to illustrate what I felt, as an aspiring astronaut, every time I look up and away from the plane at altitude.  Look at how close space feels here!  It’s almost as though you could touch it, or hanging from the Earth by your hands, stick your toes in it.

(At the time and altitude this picture was taken, the plane was nearly 10% of the way there!)

Now, under ordinary circumstances, the trick is that I don’t think people notice the sky darkening above them as they rise out of the lowest parts of our planet’s atmosphere.  Flip the image over to turn conventional experience on its head, however, and now it’s easier to see that the reality of space is much more in-your-face.

Instead of a simple window view from an airplane, the picture now shows (at least to me):

The Earth’s cumulus clouds, floating in a thin, cobalt band of blue atmosphere, puff outward over the infinite black abyss of outer space, shackled to the Earth only by the iron grip of our planet’s gravity.

Look again!  Note how suddenly, in the precise same image from a different perspective, space seems wildly close and our atmosphere amazingly thin!

Feel free to tell me if you think turning this image on its head provides the dizzying sort of effect I was going for – illustrating that space really isn’t so far away.  And next time you fly, maybe when no one is looking, try turning your head upside-down for a moment and peek outside.  You might be surprised at how it feels.

(As an aside, in the same way inverting the view from an airplane window can bring space closer to home, perhaps just by upsetting the way we look at other ordinarily-abstract, obscure, or esoteric pursuits, they might also be made to feel more real?  Two cents.)

Patterns in the Past

Secondly, immediately after taking the above photo, I was compelled to consider just how much of the conventional, hum-drum experience of modern life is anything but conventional when viewed through the lens of human existence.  The view was amazing!  But is there any way to quantify just how amazing or extraordinary many of our day-to-day activities truly are?

As it turns out, with a simple geometric expansion of time moving backwards, and after making some very, very generalized assumptions about human perception, it’s pretty easy to pick out a rough pattern in just how unconventional the experience of our modern world really is.

Allow me to show you what I mean.

Looking at the above image once again, (even right-side-up), I would argue that actually achieving that view with human eyes would have been considered:

  • Completely commonplace last year;
  • Just as commonplace ten years ago;
  • Truly wondrous a century ago;
  • Utterly fantastic (as in the stuff of fantasy) one millennia or so ago;
  • Completely unimaginable by our ancestors ten millennia or so ago.

That’s an easy order of magnitude with each step, (i.e., 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years, respectively).

Think on it – What we grumble at having to suffer through (TSA screening, layovers, jet-lag) would have been the very realization of the fanciful dreams of, say, the ancient Greek inventors, philosophers and mathematicians – to master the elements and achieve the power of flight!

(Contrast that with the reality that when flying today, many of us slide a shade down because the view above the clouds is too bright, and we read a book or nap instead!)

Patterns in the Future

However, in addition to attempting to highlight some of the wonder that may slip under our collective radars in the commotion of our modern lives, I also quickly realized that the above exercise has another, more functional and perhaps more surprising and seductive utility.

In a way, by walking through and establishing the (if only rough) time-perception pattern above, we actually can claim to have created a tool we can use not only in looking at ourselves and at the past, but also in looking forward.  It becomes a tool that gives us an intriguing and strangely mathematical window into what our future might look like.

So, if the logarithmic pattern I mentioned above can be said to generally hold true, then it certainly has something to say about our future.

It begins sensibly, but then it quickly carries us into (in my opinion) extremely interesting territory.  So, based on our ancestors’ perceptions and using flight as a guide, playing the aforementioned temporal pattern model forward from now gives us the following:

  • That which will be commonplace one year from now will have also been considered commonplace today.
  • That which will be commonplace ten years from now will have generally been considered commonplace today.
  • In a hundred years, that which inspires wonder in us today will have become commonplace.  (Spaceflight?)
  • In a thousand years, our most fantastic modern technological imaginings can and likely will have been made real.  (Interplanetary travel?  Colonies?  Medical immortality?  Mind-transferability to machines?  Teleporters?  Time Machines?)
  • In ten-thousand years, we will have accomplished feats that are unimaginable to us today.  (????)

What fun it is to try and imagine what the achievements of that last point might be!

Perhaps in recognizing a pattern, we can have a leg up on the game.  (How about it?  Could we use the McGee Scale to truly relate the passage of time to the rate of technological advancements within a civilization?  Does this work at all scales?)

The take-home here is that, with history as a guide, maybe nothing really is impossible to a self-aware and curious species given enough time, persistence, and trial-and-error…

I think I’ll play around with this and see if it holds up with technological advances other than flight… Thoughts welcome!





Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!

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My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…





Talking Space Radiation Dosimetry at NSRC 2013

24 06 2013
Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

I recently had the great pleasure to give a talk (and serve as co-author for a second) at the fourth annual Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), held this year in Boulder, Colorado.

As a one-of-a-kind collection of researchers, entrepreneurs, spacecraft providers, students, and government representatives, NSRC’s intent is to foster collaboration of a sort that will enable the research world to fully utilize what amount to a fleet of new spacecraft looking to come online within the next 24 months.  In all, exciting to be amongst like-minded folks, great to see familiar faces again, and a thrill to forge new alliances.

Two Radiation Take-Homes for the Suborbital Space Community

IMG_4535So, what was I doing there?  In brief, on behalf of my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright, I made a daring and ill-advised attempt to shove a 40-slide presentation into 10 minutes, with (based on positive feedback) it seems at least a small amount of success.  (I wouldn’t have even made such a blitzkrieg attempt unless it was absolutely necessary in the context of my talk.)

The intent?  To give a broad enough overview of radiation detector theory so that I had a prayer of communicating to this very select audience two imminent realities of space radiation dosimetry:

  1. The private/commercial spaceflight world, particularly in the suborbital context, is primed to (mis)use off-the-shelf radiation dosimeters designed for the commercial nuclear world; these instruments will not deliver complete or ultimately meaningful numbers without applying specific scaling algorithms to the results, in essence calibrating them for the space environment.  User beware!
  2. The greatest benefit of bothering to outfit suborbital astronauts with radiation dosimeters might not be to the spaceflight participants themselves, (who would receive in all but the most extraordinary circumstances a practically immeasurable radiation dose).  Instead, the greatest effect may be to improve Earth-based low-dose modeling and safety standards, the researchers engaged in which would benefit immeasurably from having a completely new population group to study who are intentionally exposing themselves to low-dose, high-intensity radiation.  This is also, *hint hint*, a completely untapped research funding angle (contact me if interested in collaborating – seriously!).

So, there you have it.  If not taking advantage of my own firm’s radiation dosimetry services, my message to the suborbital spaceflight world was to at least engage in planning one’s own flight experience armed to understand that accurate dosimetry in the space environment is not something one can just pull off a shelf and slap on the outside of a pressure suit!

Space Training Roadmap

The second talk, which was expertly given by co-conspirator Dr. Mindy Howard of Inner Space Training, involved a task-based assessment of potential spaceflight tasks for suborbital spaceflight participant.  The objective there?  The development of a spaceflight training “roadmap” to help participants decide which training amongst the many types offered by providers is relevant and necessary for their personal flight goals.

The power to decide which training is or is not relevant to an individual should not, in my opinion, be left up to the spacecraft providers (who may and likely will not have your specific goals in mind)!  That’s where our roadmap research comes in.

Please feel free to contact me or Dr. Howard for any additional details along those lines.

Lingering Thoughts

Well, the pulse at the conference was that the next twelve months appear to be crucial.  With business plans starting to kick in and metal finally being flight tested, I feel as though there are two distinct options for NSRC 2014: It will either be aflood with the excitement borne of the dawn of commercial suborbital spaceflight, or attendance will plummet as cynicism and a fear of perpetual development cycles sets in.

For now, the future looks bright, and that’s good news!

Until next time, NSRC.  Cheers!

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Having an equally unashamedly-good time having the opportunity to give a NSRC presentation about a topic that’s actually in my field of expertise! (I’ve been fielding for other sides of the house the past couple of years…)





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episodes 7 and 8

1 09 2012

The Chasing UFOs team: Erin Ryder, me, and James Fox (left-to-right) interviewing Brigadier Jose Pereira. (Credit: Dave West)

Well, so I’ve gotten a little behind here on the personal blog, life’s unexpected twists and turns being what they are.  However, for completeness’s sake, I’m including links to my final two web contributions to the National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Chasing UFOs.”

Without getting nostalgic, it’s been a heck of a ride.  Based on the content of these blogs, I think many would rightfully conclude that much of the scientific angle of the show wasn’t featured in the way I expected or would have preferred.  However, having the opportunity to engage – and more specifically – to try and deliver real planetary science content and a critical and logical scientific viewpoint to public discussions of astronomy, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the realities of spaceflight, is something I will forever appreciate.

So, without further ado, for those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including global thermonuclear war and Brazilian UFOs, misidentified marmosets, upside-down moons, volcanoes and “dirty” lightning, and oil field interlopers from space, look no further!

Episode 7, “Alien Castaways” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/09/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-castaways/

Episode 8, “Alien Baby Farm” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/17/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-baby-farm/

Many thanks to everyone who supported me in this project, either directly or indirectly by reading these blogs.  My foray into ‘reality TV’ was at the very least an valuable education for me in the realities of TV, and at the end of the day, it was a real kick in the pants.  I had the opportunity to interact with a broad cross-section of people from around the world that I would have never had the opportunity to speak with otherwise, and hopefully as a result, at least a few were inspired to look into what we really do know about the night sky and spaceflight, and to wait just a little longer before leaping to the “It’s aliens!” hypothesis. =)

In closing this season out, I say Semper Exploro! – or, “Always Explore!”

Cheers,

Ben





Profiled in Vegas Seven Mag!

16 08 2012

Deanna Rilling, a high-school friend of mine who now writes for VEGAS SEVEN recently reached out to do an interview about all of the trouble I’ve been getting into lately.  Well, the article came out – and if you’re interested in hearing me talk about growing up in Las Vegas, the relationship between jazz improvisation and frontier science, my role on a National Geographic television series, and my high hopes for the aerospace industry in Nevada, read on!

The article link is as follows:  “Head in the Stars





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episode 6

4 08 2012

Me meeting with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

For those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including paradoxes, Apollo astronauts, and billion-in-one reflections, look no further!

Direct link-through to my article on the NatGeo TV blog can be found here:

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/04/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-game-of-drones/

Cheers!

Ben








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