Livestream on the Mars helicopter starts now. IT FLEW!

April 19, 2021 • 5:15 am

UPDATE: Everything appears to have been copacetic: the flight was successful and there are even photographs from the rover.  First is a photo from the Ingenuity showing its shadow on Mars, and the second is a photo from the Rover showing the Ingenuity in the air!

According to the NYT, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, which weighs only about four pounds, has already attempted its first flight, but we don’t yet know the results as they must be transmitted to Earth. I’m posting this at 5:15 Eastern time, when that data and perhaps video on the flight are supposed to start arriving. The first go will be a short hop, only about 30 seconds long, and the video link is at the bottom. Given the thinness of Mars’s atmosphere (offset a bit by its lower gravity), this feat has been compared to flying a helicopter at an Earth altitude of 100,000 feet—something that’s never been done.

A gif of the Ingenuity (courtesy NASA/JPL CalTech):

From the paper:

At the Ingenuity site on Mars, which is within an ancient crater named Jezero, it will be the middle of the day, about 12:30 p.m. local Mars solar time. (The time zones on the red planet don’t have names, yet.)

For people on Earth, that translates to about 3:30 a.m. Eastern time on Monday. But no one on Earth will know for hours whether the flight has succeeded or failed, or if anything has happened at all. Neither Ingenuity nor Perseverance will be in contact with NASA at that time.

Instead, the two spacecraft will conduct the flight autonomously, executing commands that were sent to them on Sunday. Later, Perseverance will send data back to Earth via a spacecraft orbiting Mars.

NASA TV will begin broadcast from the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory beginning at 6:15 a.m. Eastern time as the data starts arriving on Earth. You can watch it on NASA’s website.

I’ve put the NASA YouTube feed below:

Additional information will be provided at a news conference at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Monday.

Click below to watch, and fingers crossed. Look how young all the kids are in the helicopter control room!

The Wikipedia article on Ingenuity gives a lot of useful information, and the most poignant piece is this:

Ingenuity carries a piece of fabric from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Wright Brothers‘ airplane, humanity’s first controlled powered flight on Earth.

Can you imagine how the Wright brothers would have reacted had they been told 118 years ago that part of their own plane would be flying on Mars?

Transiting the Suez Canal: a lovely video

March 31, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Since the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal (it’s now freed), a lot of us have been looking up the Canal, and asking questions like “can ships go both ways at the same time?” (Answer: yes, if they use the bypasses, but ships usually travel in convoys, two southbound and one northbound.)

What does it cost to go through? It’s expensive: an average of $250,000 (US) per vessel.

You can learn everything you need to know from the Wikipedia article on the canal, including when it was built: surprisingly long ago, between 1859 and 1869. A few essential facts:

 It offers vessels a direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans and reducing the journey distance from the Arabian Sea to London by approximately 8,900 kilometres (5,500 mi), or 8 days at 24knts (JAC: “knots”) to 10 days at 20knts. The canal extends from the northern terminus of Port Said to the southern terminus of Port Tewfik at the city of Suez. Its length is 193.30 km (120.11 mi) including its northern and southern access-channels. In 2020, more than 18,500 vessels traversed the canal (an average of 51.5 per day).

Here’s a satellite photo of the Canal.

And a diagram of the complex setup. I always wondered if there was a bridge over it, and there is one, as well as a tunnel.

This is all an excuse to show this lovely 2½-minute GoPro video of a ship going through the canal in real time; a passage takes 11-16 hours because low speeds are mandated.

The music is a bit annoying, so you might want to turn the sound off.

You can see a similar transit of the Panama Canal (11 hours) here. I actually did half of this while lecturing on a Sci Am cruise to the Caribbean. We went through the locks, guided by those powerful “mule trains” that serve not to power the ship (it steams under its own power), but to guide it and keep it centered in the locks. After going to Lake Gatun (I got off to visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an island in the lake), we turned around and went back out to the Caribbean.

Lagniappe: Burger  King put out an ad showing a Double Whopper blocking the Canal, presumably because of its size. Predictably, some of The Easily Offended got upset, and gave several reasons for their distress.

Watch them try to free the Ever Given in real time

March 29, 2021 • 8:30 am

If you click on the screenshot below, you should be able to zero in on the Suez Canal at the linked site and see where the hapless container ship is stuck—and also watch tugboats try to free her (as icons) in real time The icons move about as the tugs and other ships fuss and fidget.

If you don’t see it, go to the “vessels” function at upper left, put in “Ever Given” for the name, and then click the three vertical dots at the right to go to “show on live map.”

Every few minutes the map updates the position, course, and speed of all the vessels involved. You might get fixated!

Will they free her this week? I’m not counting on it. Howevr, this morning’s New York Times reports that the Ever Given has been “wrenched from the shoreline”, is partly afloat, and may indeed be freed soon.

This is a screen shot from abut 7 a.m. Chicago time.

Here’s the traffic jam south of the ship. I’ve put an arrow by the Ever Given:

h/t: Stash Krod

Perseverance took its first drive on Mars

March 6, 2021 • 10:30 am

Yesterday Perseverance finally revved itself up and took a short drive: 33 minutes.  It apparently went well; as CNN reports:

The NASA Perseverance rover has taken its first drive on Mars, traveling about 21 feet and doing a little spin across Jezero Crater. And that first 33-minute test drive on Thursday went “incredibly well,” according to Anais Zarifian, Perseverance’s mobility test bed engineer.

Perseverance sent back images of its wheel tracks across the red Martian surface Friday.

This is the first of many checkouts and milestones for the rover after its successful landing on February 18. Once the mission truly begins exploring Mars, it will go on drives averaging about 656 feet or more.

“When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive,” Zarifian said. “This was our first chance to ‘kick the tires’ and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover’s six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years.”
During the first drive, the rover drove forward 13 feet, performed a 150-degree turn to the left and reversed 8 feet. The rover was able to turn its cameras to the site where it landed.
Here’s the “wheelie selfie”, showing the tracks that proved the thing moved, and below that is a video report on the drive featuring NASA engineers, with some nice footage of Perseverance’s trial on Earth.


We don’t yet have video from Perseverance in the surface, and I’m not sure why that is. But of course I’m greedy; it’s just amazing that we put a wheeled vehicle on Mars that is tootling about and will soon pick up rocks and drill into the surface. What an achievement! What boggles my mind the most is that a species of primate, wresting materials from the earth alone, forged all technology to get this thing to Mars, set it down, and drive it about.

h/t: Charles

Mars Perseverance Rover lands today!

February 18, 2021 • 8:30 am

Today the Mars Rover “Perseverance” will land on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. Eastern U.S. time (2:55 Chicago time, 8:55 pm London time). You’ll want to be online then, for the landing will be filmed live with several cameras and a microphone. NASA has a countdown page here, which links to all kinds of information about the Rover and the mission.

The live NASA videocast, however, begins over an hour earlier, at 2:15 p.m. EST, 1:15 Chicago time, and 7:15 p.m. London time. You can watch it live below. Be sure to set your alarm for at least 3:30 p.m. Eastern time so you can be there during the Seven Minutes of Terror. Watch at the site below:


Other places you can watch are these: NASA’s public TV channelwebsiteappYouTubeTwitterFacebookLinkedInTwitchDaily Motion or THETA.TV. There’s also a Spanish-language broadcast here.

Remember, if the landing is successful, we won’t see the live video until at least eleven minutes after touchdown, for that’s how long the signal takes to get from Mars to Earth.

Fingers crossed! If all goes well, we can puff out our chests and share a bit of pride in humanity—and science. (And don’t forget that science also gave us the Covid vaccines.)


Mars Rover “Perseverance” lands tomorrow

February 17, 2021 • 11:00 am

Tomorrow the Mars Rover “Perseverance” will land on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. Eastern U.S. time (2:55 Chicago time, 8:55 pm London time). You’ll want to be awake then, for the landing will be filmed live with several cameras! NASA has a countdown page here, which links to all kinds of information about the Rover and the mission. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll post some links where you can watch the landing, assuming that all goes well.

The landing sequence of this gizmo in Jezero Crater is known as “The Seven Minutes of Terror” because the slowing down of the spacecraft from 12,100 miles per hour to just 1.7 mpg right before landing takes seven minutes and a ton of complicated technology. All of that was recently programmed into the spacecraft and rover: since there’s an 11-minute delay between Earth and Mars communication, we won’t know whether the Rover has landed until it’s all over.  And there’s nothing anybody can do to help at Mission Control.

Here’s a NASA animation showing how damn complicated this landing will be! It involves separation of the module containing the rover, deployment of a parachute, jettisoning of a heat shield, jets helping navigate over the surface to find a good landing spot, and most amazing, a “sky crane” that gently lowers the rover to the planet’s surface and then flies away.

It’s stunning that a mammalian species can pull off something like this. Don’t miss the live feed tomorrow!

This is a SCIENCE mission, and the rover will be landing in a crater that harbors an ancient delta. As reports,

Perseverance, or “Percy” for short, will explore the Martian terrain and conduct a number of science investigations. Among its objectives, Percy will collect samples, deploy the first helicopter beyond Earth, and search for signs of ancient life on the fourth planet from the sun.

And from the USA Today link above courtesy of NASA, a timeline of the landing:

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I guess there will be sound, too, as there is an array of cameras and a microphone:

h/t: Tom

Billy Bass + Alexa = Awesome

February 14, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Big Mouth Billy Bass is an adult toy consisting of a plastic bass that sings music and moves its head and fins (see here for an early example). 

This videomaker apparently connected Billy Bass up to an Alexa and managed to synchronize its mouth and head with the words. Ergo, you can ask Billy anything. 

You used to be able to buy Alexa-compatible Billy Basses on Amazon, but they appear to be out of stock.

But can it herd sheep? Spot, the Boston Dynamics robot

February 1, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Here’s the YouTube video of Spot the Robotic D*g, of course a product of Boston Dynamics. It’s programmed to do this stuff, meaning it doesn’t find trash by itself and deposit it in the basket (at least, as far as I know). That’s coming, though. And of course it would be good for police work, disposing of bombs, and so on. Spot can certainly bring you your slippers, too!

The YouTube notes:

Now that Spot has an arm in addition to legs and cameras, it can do mobile manipulation. It finds and picks up objects (trash), tidies up the living room, opens doors, operates switches and valves, tends the garden, and generally has fun. Motion of the hand, arm and body are automatically coordinated to simplify manipulation tasks and expand the arm’s workspace, making its reach essentially unbounded. The behavior shown here was programmed using a new API for mobile manipulation that supports autonomy and user applications, as well as a tablet that lets users do remote operations. For more information, watch our launch event at 11am EST tomorrow.

And that launch will be at this site.

h/t: Bryan

Why do backs itch so much?

January 31, 2021 • 12:00 pm

A while back, someone gave me a Chinese backscratcher: a piece of bamboo with a hand carved at the end with slightly separated fingers.  I use it every couple of days when my back works up a good itch, and believe me, it provides substantial relief!  Here’s what mine looks like:

But when I use it I’ve pondered two questions.

A.) Is the relief you get when scratching your back pleasure, or simply the removal of discomfort? (Or are they equivalent?) This same question applies when you finally make it to the restroom after having to hold your bowels or bladder for a long time. I wonder if philosophers have debated this question.

B.) Why do backs itch so much? I have two theories here, which are mine. The first is that they itch no more than do fronts (i.e., your chest), but we’re unconsciously scratching our fronts all the time, while we can’t reach our backs without a special implement. But I don’t notice myself scratching my chest.

The other is that dirt and oils accumulate on your back more than they do on your front, simply because you can’t reach your back so easily in the bath or shower. I don’t have a sponge on a stick or anything like that, and so am forced to wash my back by reaching around with a piece of soap. I’m never sure that does a great job because it’s hard to reach all the places.  If any accumulated back schmutz makes you itch, this could be an explanation.

Maybe there are other theories as well, but these are the only two I’ve thought of.