Did You Miss the Lunar Eclipse? Gorgeous Photos from Eric.

I was feeling really bad on Tuesday.

A gorgeous lunar eclipse took place that was visible from most of Asia-Pacific, and even stretched to full visibility over California.  But with peak viewing at just past 3:30am, I just couldn’t make it.  One of the liabilities of having two kids under 3 and a full-time gig at a start-up, I guess.  🙂

Fortunately, Eric did stay up, and since he is an incredible photographer, I’m feeling better about it.  Tell me that these aren’t gorgeous shots:

Eric’s full post on how he took them is here.  His web gallery, where you can buy his more famous prints, is here.  Full data from NASA on the eclipse is here.

New Horizons Spacecraft Swings by Jupiter. Next Stop, Pluto, Charon & the Kuiper Belt

One of my first posts on this blog was about Pluto, namely the incredibly stupid move to re-classify it as a dwarf planet. For the first month of my blog, that post generated a surprisingly large amount of traffic.

Since then, I’ve posted about the New Horizons spacecraft, and the current mission to send a probe to fully explore Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt.

This is just a quick post to highlight the fact that the spacecraft hit a major milestone today. According to the NASA press release:

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of Jupiter early this morning, using the massive planet’s gravity to pick up speed for its 3-billion mile voyage to Pluto and the unexplored Kuiper Belt region beyond.

“We’re on our way to Pluto,” said New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md. “The swingby was a success; the spacecraft is on course and performed just as we expected.”

New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter at 12:43 a.m. EST, placing the spacecraft on target to reach the Pluto system in July 2015. During closest approach, the spacecraft could not communicate with Earth, but gathered science data on the giant planet, its moons and atmosphere.

At 11:55 a.m. EST mission operators at APL established contact through NASA’s Deep Space Network and confirmed New Horizons’ health and status.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons is gaining nearly 9,000 mph from Jupiter’s gravity – accelerating to more than 52,000 mph. The spacecraft has covered approximately 500 million miles since its launch in January 2006 and reached Jupiter faster than seven previous spacecraft to visit the solar system’s largest planet. New Horizons raced through a target just 500 miles across, the equivalent of a skeet shooter in Washington hitting a target in Baltimore on the first try.

You can find up-to-date mission pictures and information here on the New Horizons website.

July 2015 is going to be a lot of fun.

Sonofusion: Could the Key to Fusion Lie in Bubbles?

This week’s Science Times in the Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007 edition of the New York Times was just phenomenal. So many things worth writing about!

I’m just going to write one tonight, but I had to give a shout out to their cover story, and one of the coolest technologies I had the chance to investigate years ago, sonoluminescent fusion.

New York Times: Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble

The basic concept behind sonofusion, also known as bubble fusion, is to take advantage of a unique behavior of liquids when exposed to sound waves. The sound waves can create spontaneous bubbles in the liquid, which then collapse with such force that they actually generate light. This behavior is called sonoluminescence. Here’s the innovative idea: if you use heavy water, which features radioactive forms of hydrogen, it may be possible to actually use sonoluminescence to actually create temperatures high enough to create fusion. And with fusion comes a 50-year dream of using the ultimate form of clean energy, not for weaponry, but for commercial and personal use.

When I was in venture capital, I specialized in software companies, not experimental physics. When you work for a top-tier firm, you get hundreds of unsolicited business plans submitted to you, by email, on a weekly basis. In most cases, an unsolicited submission is the worst possible way to connect with investors.

However, one day I got an email with a business plan for a company in Grass Valley, CA called Impulse Devices. It wasn’t every day I got a plan for a new energy company (this was 2002, and the recent boom in clean energy companies hadn’t begun yet.) Imagine my surprise to find the founders with credible backgrounds, and published material in peer reviewed journals.

Over the course of a few months, I took a few calls with the company, both to better understand the technology and the potential opportunity. It wasn’t a good fit for the firm I worked for, but I was nonetheless curious.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to deliver the addition orders of magnitude improvement in energy generation to generate viable fusion where other approaches have failed. The NY Times piece has a nice summary of current fusion efforts, which, while successful, currently take in more energy than they produce.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2016 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

However unlikely it is that a maverick approach like sonofusion will be the one to succeed where others have failed, there was a great quote in the article I wanted to spotlight:

“It’s really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program,” said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year’s budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department’s acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. “Since the mid-’90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy.”

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

“I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded,” said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. “Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off.”

This is the problem with large, centralized-planning-based approaches to big science, and the reason why private capital markets can be so much more effective at generating innovation.

The big dollars, whether they are from large corporations or from governments will always go to the most practical, the most developed, and the most accepted approaches. The idea of funding 100 ideas, knowing that 90% will fail is not something that seems prudent to stewards of public capital. This is what the venture capital industry, however, enables in the aggregate, and society benefits heavily from that 1 in 100 approach that actually does change the world.

I am so excited now for space exploration, because for the first time, the great giant shackles of centralized government planning for the industry are being broken. Vanity contests and start-up capital are generating more innovation in spacecraft and related technology than the entirety of the post-Apollo space program. That same approach is breathing incredible new life into technologies around clean energy.

So, just in case sonofusion ends up being the miracle that brings practical fusion to the world, just maybe you read about it here first. If not, let’s all hope that another 99 ideas as out-of-the-box as this one get funded.

Mission to Pluto: New Horizons Craft at Jupiter

I am a huge supporter of space exploration, and a big fan of the recent boom of entrepreneurial activity around space. For example, I’m the type of person that gets excited when I see that the Blue Origin spacecraft managed a very successful test recently of their new launch vehicle. (Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ pet space company).

However, I have a special connection with the ongoing mission to Pluto, dubbed “New Horizons”. The spacecraft has been in the news lately because the ship will soon be passing Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with Pluto (which is a planet).

The reason is kind of quirky – it has to do with my activity on the Speech & Debate team in High School. I went to a very small high school (less than 200 students), but it had, at the time, a very successful and well-recognized Speech & Debate team. I was successful enough on the team to be both President of the team (about 40 students) and Captain of the Policy Debate team (sometimes called Oxford debate).

I had a lot of success in individual speech events – my specialty were the variants where there was little to no preparation. Extemporaneous speaking was an event where you had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speach on a topic, typically current events or policy. Impromptu, my favorite, gave you only 2 minutes to prepare a 5 minute speech on anything. Literally anything – a quote, a person, a place, an item. One of my best speeches ever was the final round of the Stanford invitational, where I won first place after picking my topic out of a Stanford bookstore bag (it was a condom).

One area where the team had struggled historically had been the annual, official statewide competition for policy debate. Unlike college invitationals, the state competitions tended to have “lay” judges – parents, friends, locals. As a result, winning had more to do with persuasive speech, and less to do with well thought out policy or evidence.

Our senior year, at the qualification tournament at Bellarmine High School, my partner and I had prepared a special case – one that was less technical, inexpensive, and incredibly compelling. It was a secret – we had never used it before at a tournament (we typically did 15-20 tournaments across the country, per year). The topic that year was space exploration.

The policy proposal? Send an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto. It was inexpensive (under $200M), obvious (it’s the only planet we haven’t explored close up), and it had urgency – there was a specific window in Pluto’s orbit that makes it economical to launch only once every decade or so. Pluto goes through a unique atmospheric event every 200 years, and it turned out that sending the craft immediately, in the next decade, made the most sense.

Not as grandiose as a moon base. Not as compelling as a manned mission to Mars. Not as exotic as developing solar sails. Not as economically valuable as beaming solar energy down from orbit to provide clean, inexpensive power.

But it won. And we qualified for the State tournament that year.

We didn’t end up winning the State championship that year, although I did pick up 2nd in the state in Extemporaneous. But I still look back on that case fondly; it was our last one.

That was spring of 1991. And as it turns out, it was a good idea, and we really are doing it. And now the ship is racing across the solar system, due for its rendezvous with Pluto… in July 2015, when my oldest son will be 10.

See you in 2015.

Don Norman in Defense of PowerPoint

How is it possible that I didn’t know that Don Norman wrote a post entitled:

In Defense of PowerPoint

He wrote the post over two years ago. However, I remember the storm over this like it was yesterday. It all started with a New York Times article in 2003 called “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb“. It was written in response to the investigation into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which pinned part of the blame on a “PowerPoint Culture” with too little detail.

A sample paragraph from the NYT article:

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

This issue resonates with me for three reasons:

  1. Don is one of the HCI legends. Even though I now work at eBay, I began my career at Apple Computer, working in the Advanced Technology Group before transferring to the WebObjects team after Apple acquired NeXT. Towards the end, ATG was rebranded the “Apple Research Labs”, and Don Norman was the VP (and Apple Fellow). Don’s book, The Design of Everyday Things, is one of the standard bearers for an education in design.
  2. I find myself using a lot of PowerPoint. It started with my work in venture capital, digesting 6-10 new presentations a day presented live, and an uncounted number over email. Now at eBay, I find that in the end, there is no better way to pitch a new business or a new product strategy broadly than to go through the exercise of producing a truly great slide deck. I wonder sometimes whether I now see more decks at eBay than I did in venture capital.
  3. Don is right. PowerPoint has its place. I love to joke about PowerPoint – I even use some quotes from the article in a lunch presentation I do at Stanford every year as an ice-breaker. But the fact is, there is a time and a place for a PowerPoint presentation. Like any other mode of communication, there are situations where the ability to distill concepts into a short, simple visual presentation is the right answer. I have written my share of 1-page memos, 10-page decks, and long emails. There is a time and a place for each, and if you think any one of them is right for every audience and every situation, then you are not thinking hard enough how to match the best communication vehicle to every situation.

So while I can’t say that I’m proud of the fact that these days I probably produce better PowerPoint decks than Java code, sometimes it is the right tool for the job.

As an aside, I remember the Columbia disaster like yesterday. It was a relatively quiet time for me, as I was home with my wife and our new puppy, Newton, who was only a few months old. I woke up that morning, read the news, and we went to get coffee and a bagel to relax and absorb it. (For those in the Valley, we went to the Starbucks & Noah’s Bagel on the corner of De Anza & Stephens Creek, right near Apple)

Strong Leonid Meteor Shower for 2006… But Not on the West Coast

I love the Leonid Meteor shower.

Every year, at this time, if you are willing to stay up late and drive to an area that is relatively dark, you are rewarded with a great show. It’s always exciting to see a shooting star – it’s even better to see dozens of them in one viewing.
I got excited by this news on Space.com today:

Strong Leonid Meteor Shower Expected This Weekend

On the surface, this sounds like incredible news:

A brief surge of activity is expected begin around 11:45 p.m. ET Saturday, Nov. 18. In Europe, that corresponds to early Sunday morning, Nov. 19 at 4:45 GMT. The outburst could last up to two hours.

At the peak, people in these favorable locations could see up to 150 shooting stars per hour, or more than two per minute.

“We expect an outburst of more than 100 Leonids per hour,” said Bill Cooke, the head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Cooke notes that the shooting stars during this peak period are likely to be faint, however, created by very small meteoroid grains.

Now, here’s the problem:

Unfortunately for viewer’s on the U.S. West Coast, the peak occurs before Leo rises. Outside of the expected peak, the best time to watch for Leonids is in the pre-dawn hours, when the constellation Leo is high in the sky.

Drat. If you are interested, the Space.com article has great information about the cause of the annual Leonid meteor shower (it’s caused by the Earth rotating through the trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle every year), and how to best view the shower wherever you are in the world.

Too bad. 2 shooting stars per minute sounds amazing.

Orion & The Rebirth of the Space Program

On Friday, NASA announced the selection of Lockheed Martin as the major contractor to build the space vehicle to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet.

Orion Crew Vehicle
The vehicle is called the Orion Crew Vehicle, and Lockheed Martin will be building eight of the reusable launch vehicles, with an initial launch target of 2014. For those of you following at home, the Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010.

Time magazine has a nice piece outlining the selection, and the type of multiple-administration support that the ongoing efforts to establish a permanent manned-presence on the Moon & Mars will require.

This is an incredibly exciting announcement for a number of reasons. The first & foremost reason is that this finally begins to put the unmitigated disaster that was the Space Shuttle program behind us. The last thirty years have been an amazing failure in terms of manned presence in space, largely due to the abysmal failure of the Space Shuttle program to meet any of its estimates for reusability, cost, and scale. Originally promised to have launches that could be turned around as quickly as commercial airliners, we’ve been lucky in years to even have half a dozen launches – and that is ignoring the catastrophic failures that have befallen two of the shuttles.

The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy & Space has a nice piece on the new Orion program.

Establishing a permanent manned presence in orbit, on the Moon, and on Mars are goals that transcend administrations and nations.

When viewed from the lens of history, it is likely that the decision to firmly establish a timetable and goal of manned presence off this planet will be seen as the most significant of our generation. We can only hope that the administrations to come will not play political football with the most significant of human achievements.

It is sad in many ways that the timeline for this success will be in the 2020s, rather than the 2000s – which it easily could have been if we had avoided the Space Shuttle program. Still, it’s cool to see space get so much attention again. The X Prize, Space Tourism, SpaceX – this is the type of rapid technical improvement that they dreamed about in the 1950s & 1960s.

PS For those of you trivia buffs out there, Project Orion was also the codename for the 1960s concept of a nuclear-pulse propulsion craft that would make inter-stellar flight practical. The concept: a big spaceship with a large metal plate behind it, propelled by small nuclear explosions.