Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The future (of the past) is now!

Space dorks like me often have a childhood filled with science fiction books. I pawed through a lot of pulp as a kid, including the stuff kids are supposed to read, like Tom Swift; the stuff kids of a different generation were supposed to read, like The Secret of the Marauder Satellite (dunno why that one stuck in my head, but hey, it did); and stuff that blew my mind, like Fahrenheit 451.

Almost everything I read was written before 1980. A lot of the "classic" stuff was from the '50s and '60s. And space travel, in that era, had a common mechanical element: rockets took off and landed tail first (check out what happens about 1:38 or so).

Of course, all that changed in the late '70s, when the Space Shuttle did its now-famous "take off like a rocket, land like an airplane" trick:

And basically from then on, you had spaceships that were either never meant to land at all, and thus could look more or less like a flying radiator…

In space, no one can hear you complain about aerodynamics.

… or like an aircraft of various permutations. Taking off vertically seemed optional, and landing vertically seemed, well, anachronistic.

Well, here we are in the 21st Century. The Space Shuttle is retired, we're hitting "interplanetary holes in one" with Mars rovers and private launch companies are perfecting new vehicles for getting stuff, and people, into Earth orbit and beyond. And what do we see as the latest round of innovation?

Why, a rocket landing tail-first, of course.

And so it was that the tales (and tails, ha, little space dork humor there) of my childhood have become reality. Not just because it looks neat, either: when landing on a planet with a thin atmosphere--like Mars--parachutes and wings become dramatically less effective ways of slowing an object down to non-splat impact speeds. And as computers, robotics and other technology have matured, we have gotten to the point where this can be routinely pulled off.

That's exciting. I just hope the arrival of science fiction past doesn't also include tentacled monsters and mind-control rays.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Be careful what you wish for

Just a quick post on what "news" seems to mean to many in the 21st Century.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, the story moved fast. So fast, in fact, that several outlets reported incorrect information. Today's latest screwup seems to be CNN reporting that someone had been arrested in connection with the bombing. That turned out not to be true. Ouch.

But what is driving all this incompetence?

It's not a lack of smarts or--I hope--a lack of training. It's the desire to be at the front of the pack in reporting a story in which every detail was being followed, posted, tweeted, retweeted and blogged. The adage is that as a journalist, your goal is to get the story first but your duty is to get it right. But the pressure to lead the digital herd has, apparently, flipped that on its head.

This is not an attack on digital journalism, by the way. The Internet is where the readers are, it's where most people consume their news, and it offers a remarkable spectrum of tools for presenting that news.

And speaking of tools, the wide and instant dissemination of information creates another opportunity... and problem. The opportunity is for crowdsourcing: investigators can easily reach millions of people instantly with information, and those people can instantly reach investigators. The odds that "someone saw something" are high; with the immediacy of the Internet, it is extremely likely that such information winds up in the hands of investigators.

The problem is that crowdsourcing an investigation can quickly and easily snowball into the digital version of vigilante justice. Sites like Reddit and 4Chan, which are essentially fast-moving message boards, have  spawned conversation threads in which users have sifted through the thousands of images from April 15 and "deduced" the identities of several "suspects." (I'm not going to link to the threads for obvious reasons.)

The guy in the green vest was seen near the site of the bombings. SUSPECT!

The quotes, if it's not clear, indicate skepticism. After this New Yorker piece about a guy of Arabic origin--wounded in the blast--who was tackled while running away, it's a little disheartening to see that no one seems to have learned a goddamn thing about jumping to conclusions.

"Arabic running guy" was tackled because he looked suspicious. Suspicious, in this case, basically meant "brown." So maybe we should be a little cautious about posting pictures of people online and linking them to a fatal bombing because they were, for instance, carrying backpacks at the Boston Marathon.

It's easy for anyone these days to post about hearing "chatter" (usually code for "I read it on Twitter") or identify a "suspect" based on nothing more than what the person was wearing or carrying.

Yeah, so many scare quotes. Sorry. But these days, it's scary to see what rushing into a story can do.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Missile interceptors and you

North Korea has continued popping crazy pills at an astounding rate. Their latest move, it seems, will be to fire (or test-fire, as in, not at an enemy target) a medium-range missile or two from its east coast. This has everyone a little nervous, because if even if the thing flies perfectly--and they don't always work out that way--it could very well fly over or land near Japan.

A brief look at what the DPRK is bringing to the table: The Musudan ballistic missile.

Pointy? Check. Fins? Check.

With a range of a little over 2,100 miles, it could concievably hit all of Japan, bits of Russia, a scattering of U.S. island bases and of course China. (A Co-Worker of the Blog suggested hitting China would be North Korea's ultimate "look at us, we're so crazy and unpredictable!" card.) It can theoretically carry a 1,600-pound warhead. I say theoretically because it has not been successfully tested.

Meanwhile, South Korea, the United States and Japan have brought their own pointy-finned toys to the table. In Japan, you have the MIM-104F Patriot PAC-3 deployed around Tokyo.

It's in a box, but yes--pointy and finned.

These are the latest iteration of the Patriot air defense missile made famous--or infamous--in the first Gulf War. These days, they are lighter, faster, stronger and have a tougher job than their predecessors. The early Patriots were designed to destroy their targets by exploding nearby and spraying it with high-velocity fragments. The idea is that this structural damage would rip the target, also traveling at high speed, straight to pieces.

But there is a better way: hitting it directly. Until relatively recently, the idea of hitting a missile directly with another missile was too difficult an engineering challenge to pull off reliably--thus the blast-fragmentation warhead. But the PAC-3 is in fact designed to hit its target directly. It does this by combining high-quality radar data from ground stations with a radar receiver in its own nose (now conveniently empty of a large warhead). When it hits its target, the kinetic energy of two objects, each moving about five times the speed of sound, is enough to completely obliterate the incoming missile... and thus prevent its warhead from following a ballistic path and hitting something on the ground. To make sure the job is done, the PAC-3 also carries a small explosive charge.

Meanwhile, in Korea and Guam, you have the latest in missile-blowing-up technology, the THAAD, whose unwieldy acronym stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. It looks a little something like this:

Yep. Another box.

The THAAD is designed to actually destroy an incoming ballistic missile at the edges of the Earth's atmosphere, essentially before it has time to begin falling toward its target. This is a fantastically tricky task, and the actual interceptor is studded with reaction control jets that make it look like a freaky alien spaceship:

And that weird-looking box smashes into the warhead, again using kinetic energy to blow the enemy missile up real good.

And finally, both the U.S. and Japan have ships loaded with RIM-161--the boringly named Standard Missiles--that can actually blast satellites out of orbit.

Pointy again!
As the link above illustrates, these missiles, in combination with the U.S. Navy's Aegis radar system, are designed to hit incoming warheads well away from the target. This includes ICBMs, which thankfully North Korea has none of, but also shorter-range ballistic missiles. And like the THAAD and PAC-3, they are designed to directly hit their targets.

The exact ranges and capabilities of these systems are played relatively close to the vest. The Patriot's ground-based radar has a range of 65 or so miles. The THAAD and RIM-161 are harder to pin down, but as their targets are essentially extra-atmospheric, we're talking hundreds of miles, most likely.

What does this all mean? Well, essentially, it means that barring multiple failures--not impossible, but unlikely--if North Korea shoots a missile... and it works... and it's headed anywhere remotely dangerous... it will probably be shot down by one of the above systems. But in the meantime, let's hope for a sure thing: if North Korea doesn't test its missile, no one will get hurt.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hiding (or not) in plain sight

So the French intelligence agency has been quite angry at the Internet the last few days. First, Wikipedia rebuffed their censorship of a wiki page about a radio installation that the DCRI said was classified. Then blogs around the world picked up the story, rightly mocking the French spies for trying to dismantle a page that had both been online for years and was constructed of, as far as anyone could tell, public information.

I'll join the party. Looky here!

Si elle ne peut pas vous voir, vous ne pouvez pas le voir.

But it's interesting to consider what the DCRI might be so upset about. The folks at Wikipedia, who are of course onboard with not breaking laws, offered to take down any specific content that the intelligence agency could show was classified or damaging. But the DCRI insisted that they take the entire page down.

Why is that? Well, if you think about it, they might have a good reason. If you take down the entire page, no one will ever know exactly what bits were so dangerous... and the secret is relatively safe. On the other hand, if you just excise the aforementioned dangerous bits, well, a cached version of the page will tell any spy with a mouse and a monitor exactly what the DCRI didn't want you to read.

Of course, like I said, because most--if not all--of the page is constructed from publicly available information, including a VIDEO INTERVIEW with the person who runs the station, it's tough to see where they're coming from. But then again, they're spies. So maybe that's the point.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Meanwhile, at Pax River...

Sure, North Korea seems to have gotten its hands on some top-quality crazy pills. Yes, U.S. employment figures are going through their annual spring swoon. And just across the road--if you live in Hong Kong, anyway--China is killing birds to head off what may or may not be another outbreak of deadly avian flu.

Stay tuned on that last point, by the way. If it ever does become an actual outbreak, expect to see a lot of scenes like this...

Note: in an actual Hong Kong emergency, the sign would be in Chinese, and it would be sterilized six times a day.

... in the 'Kong, and I'll tell you all about it in this space.

But anyway. This post isn't about those things. This post is pure fun, at least if you're an aviation dork like me. The F-35 program, dogged by budget overruns and technical setbacks, appears well on its way to producing one of the most impressive airplanes the world has ever seen. And what's better than a vertical landing video? A vertical landing video filmed with night vision equipment, of course.

She's a beaut, ain't she? So yes--there might be bigger stories out there to consider, but this is one that you don't have to think too hard about just enjoying.