Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Sky in Google Earth

Given the name of this blog, you might understand why I'm excited by the latest offering from Google. They have just released a new version of their popular Google Earth software that include the ability to show the night sky above any point on the planet.

Rather than list all the features, I've link to their features video:

In addition to the features shown in the video above, users and organizations have already created special KML files that all the user to explore their sky in an interactive and intuitive way. These KML "tours" include (links will open in Google Earth, if installed):

While this is very exciting news, it's not exactly bug-free. While exploring the interface, I saw a long, winding feature that I couldn't recognize. When I zoomed in, I discovered it was a portion of the 2007 Tour de France route (which I had added to my local data layers). Interestingly, the route is displayed with East and West reversed, which is logical if GE is displaying the sky layers on the "inside" of a projected sphere, with the observer at the center, instead of looking in...

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 17, 2007

Earth to NASA: WTF?

I simply cannot fathom why the folks at NASA have decided not to repair the damaged tiles on Endeavour. As William Harwood wrote today:

"Late Thursday, mission managers decided test data and analysis proved Endeavour could safely return to Earth as is. A tile repair spacewalk was ruled out and the astronauts were told to press ahead with the station assembly EVA instead.

The damage assessment brought back memories of an internal debate after the shuttle Columbia's launching in 2003. In that case, a relatively limited study was carried out to determine the possible damage caused by a large piece of foam debris that hit the underside of the shuttle's left wing during launch. NASA's Mission Management Team accepted a hurried analysis by a small group of engineers and concluded Columbia could safely re-enter as is even though the actual impact site could not be seen in launch imagery.

The analysis was deeply flawed. Equally troubling in hindsight, the Mission Management Team did not hear, or take seriously, concerns from lower-level engineers who were not satisfied with the review. As it turned out, what NASA managers believed was relatively minor damage to heat-shield tiles was, in fact, a 4- to 6-inch hole in the leading edge of Columbia's left wing. Sixteen minutes from touchdown, the left wing failed, the spacecraft broke apart and all seven crew members were killed. "

Here we are again, 4 1/2 years later, and NASA has another damaged shuttle on orbit. The differences in this case are stunning:

  1. NASA knows for certain there has been damage

  2. NASA spent years developing and testing various damage control methods

  3. The newly-developed repair materials are onboard Endeavour

  4. The Endeavour crew have the skills, materials, time, and consumables needed to effect repairs

But even given the facts above, NASA mission planners have decided that the risk in an unplanned EVA is greater than that in landing the orbiter with damaged tiles in a vulnerable location.

But a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who served on the Columbia investigation board 4 years ago, Douglas Osheroff, questioned NASA's hesitancy to perform the repairs since they "can only increase their chances of making it down." "I don't see why NASA is going to invent a fix and not use it," Osheroff told the AP. He added: "This attitude of, 'It looks like it's OK, let's not do anything about it,' it seems like the Columbia NASA."

Hole? What hole?
About those damaged tiles-- NASA reports that the gouge between the two tiles goes all the way to the aluminum skin underneath, approximately 2 inches deep. I am not an engineer, but I'm sure there was a really good reason to make the tiles that thick, given the added cost in weight, fuel, & decreased payload for every gram of extra mass. It just doesn't seem reasonable that a hole in this surface doesn't pose a threat to the orbiter.

Let's hope for the sake of the crew, their families, and the continued human exploration of space that they are right.

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 06, 2007

Commerce Department Imposes Gag Order on Government Scientists

An order has been issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce that controls what federal government climate, weather and marine scientists can say to the media or in public, even when they are speaking as private citizens. Under rules posted Thursday, these federal scientists must obtain agency pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, concerning any scientific topic deemed "of official interest," according to agency documents released by a national association of government employees in natural resources agencies.

"This ridiculous gag order ignores the First Amendment and disrespects the world-renowned professionals who work within Commerce agencies," said attorney Jeff Ruch, executive director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

The new order will become effective in 45 days and would repeal a more liberal "open science" policy adopted by NOAA on February 14, 2006.

"Under this policy, National Weather Service scientists can only give out name, rank, serial number and the temperature," Ruch said.

The new administrative order on "Public Communications" covers the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, which includes the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the NOAA Ocean Service, and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.

It forbids NOAA scientists from communicating any relevant information, even if prepared and delivered on their own time as private citizens, which has not been approved by the official chain-of-command.

Any "fundamental research communication" must "before the communication occurs" be submitted to and approved by the designated "head of the operating unit." While the order states that approval may not be withheld "based on policy, budget, or management implications of the research," it does not define these terms and limits any appeal to within the Commerce Department.

National Weather Service employees are allowed only "as part of their routine responsibilities to communicate information about the weather to the public."

"Scientists must give the Commerce Department at least two weeks "advance notice" of any written, oral or audiovisual presentation prepared on their own time if it "is a matter of official interest to the Department because it relates to Department programs, policies or operations."

Ruch says that while claiming to provide clarity, the order "gives conflicting directives." On one hand it tells scientists that if unsure whether a conclusion has been officially approved "then the researcher must make clear that he or she is representing his or her individual conclusion."
Yet, another part of the order states non-official communications "may not take place or be prepared during working hours."

Ruch warns, "This conflict means that every scientist who answers an unexpected question at a conference puts his or her career at risk by giving an honest answer."

Via the ENS

Here's a link to the actual policy announcement.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Google Mashups for the Masses

Google is calling upon its millions of users to chart a new direction for its online maps.

As part of an initiative being launched today, the Internet search leader will provide free tools designed to make it easy for people to share their knowledge about their neighborhoods and other favorite places by creating customized maps that can assemble information from a variety of sources.

The map creators will be given the option to make the content public or keep it private. Thousands of hybrid maps, often called "mashups," are already available on the Web, documenting everything from local housing markets to active volcanoes.

But cobbling together an online map typically requires some computer coding skills. Google has tailored its tools for a mass audience, making map mashups as easy to produce as pointing and clicking a computer mouse. The Mountain View-based company is hoping the simplicity will generate millions of highly specialized maps that can be stored in its search index.

While testing the new tools, Google's own engineers created maps focused on U.S. Route 66, the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Major League Baseball stadiums and voting patterns in the 2004 presidential election.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Microsoft's New Search Tool?

While viewing the map mentioned in my previous post, I noticed the following teaser on the page:
Coming Nov. 7, the next dimension in search!

I tried all the usual sources in an attempt to find out exactly what this means, but was unsuccessful-- I guess we'll find out on Tuesday.

2006 Key Political Races on MSNBC

MSNBC has published an interactive map that lists those key races in next week's mid-term elections that could change hands. Not too surprisingly, it uses Microsoft's LiveLocal map server, powered by Virtual Earth.

via 2006 Key Political Races - Politics -

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Atlas Gloves: A DIY Hand Gesture Interface for Google Earth

Dan Phiffer and Mushon Zer-Aviv have developed an amazing hand-gesture interface for Google Earth called Atlas Gloves.

If you have access to an LCD projector, a webcam, and can invest about $5 in parts, you can download their free software and use it to control Google Earth as it's projected on a screen.

I've had the opportunity to play with the TouchTable technology at a number of conferences and meetings, but just don't have the ten$ of thousand$ of dollar$ needed to purchase one. Many schools and businesses already have the technology needed-- all they would need is the software and a pair of the do-it-yourself gloves to have a fully-interactive system.

The educational applications alone are amazing the thing about. Imagine how kinesthetic learners might respond by being able to directly manipulate a rich interactive environment such as Google Earth. I hope that the developers can be persuaded to adapt their software to work with other environments, such as ESRI's ArcGlobe & ArcGIS Explorer, and NASA's WorldWind.

Be sure to check out their website and view the two demo movies at