The medium is the message

When I started university, ICQ was the leading instant-messaging system, and people who were into that sort of thing knew their ICQ numbers so they could exchange them like business cards. MSN Messenger was gaining popularity, though, and I had some friends who used each, so after a while I installed that, and ran both.

I still miss ICQ sometimes. It was simple. Clean. Mostly ad-free. But moreover, it behaved differently than MSN did. For starters, it allowed you to send messages to people regardless of whether they were online. I could type a message, proof-read it, and send it off; the recipient would see it immediately if they were logged in and sitting at their computer, or whenever they came back. MSN, until recently, was like a telephone — if they weren’t there, you couldn’t reach them. There was something I liked about that blind transmission mode – it meant you could reach people even if your schedules didn’t line up, but it also meant that receiving a message didn’t imply a duty to immediately reply. You could think about it, take time writing the response, or even simply be absent — that was okay, since continuing the conversation didn’t require both parties to remain online and attentive; message latency was possible.

The other difference was in allowed message length. I don’t remember, anymore, the character limits, but MSN’s was only 225 characters or so. ICQ’s was longer, and the client would allow indefinitely long messages to be sent anyway, by breaking them up into segments for the transmission. This meant that you could compose complete thoughts — lay out an argument or a chain of reasoning, and complete it, before hitting ‘Send’. I used to have long discussions with one or two of my friends on all kinds of topics, and I really appreciated the freedom to write out fully-formed thoughts; those conversations were often long, detailed, and thought-provoking.

With MSN, I had to learn to think in sound bites. Complex arguments couldn’t be laid out in full, because barely could the first sentence be written before it was sent to make room for the next. It was less like exchanging letters, and more like constantly interrupting each other.

So my mode of expression changed. I rephrased things so they could fit the short message length. I changed topics, even, avoiding things that were too intricate to be explained so briefly. I became cautious about saying things that could be misunderstood if only partially received. I learned to speak quickly, and think short thoughts.

But not every thought fits into a sound bite, and so I turned to weblogging, as a way to express longer thoughts in a broadcast way, when dialogue didn’t allow that depth anymore. There’s value in expressing thoughts, working them out and writing them down, even if nobody reads them. (Well, there’d better be, or a website like this isn’t worth much.)

And so it is today with Twitter. I’ve got an account, and I post pretty regularly, but I often find myself rejecting thoughts because they won’t fit there. Not everything I want to say lends itself to the medium. And so here’s this weblog, for longer thoughts. Like this one. I suppose I could have posted:

McLuhan was right: Twitter changes the way you think by molding your thoughts to fit the nature of the medium #MediumIsTheMessage

… but sometimes I like to explain myself, you know? Paint a picture, give my reasons, indulge in a little expressive prose. There’s room for short announcements, brief thoughts, and concise messages:

Now at GO Bramalea; anticipate Union 10h37. See you upstairs!

#MSL just landed, and the pictures look great! @MarsCuriosity

METAR CYYB 131200Z 25015G25KT 1/2SM BKN004 OVC011 01/M00 A2893 RMK CU5ST3 SLP140

… but not everything has to fit into the See > Repeat ; Think > Shout mode of operation. So I’ll keep it up at Twitter, but also here.

If only I could find the time to write it all down.

MSL entry at Mars imminent

The MSL spacecraft should enter the martian atmosphere in just over nine hours. It will do what is always difficult — land on a planetary body — in a new and challenging way. It will be a tremendously impressive feat of autonomous space robotics if it succeeds, and crushing disappointment if it fails. Either way, it’ll be a big day in the history of planetary exploration.

This is the first time a mission I’m working on will reach another planet. It’s tremendously exciting. I’ve been reading and daydreaming about space missions and planetary exploration since childhood, and I’ve always thought taking part in those would be the kind of thing worth spending my life doing. With MSL approaching its entry to Mars, I stand at the threshold of doing just that.

Landing on Mars is always difficult; it doesn’t always succeed. The landing sequence for MSL is complex and ambitious. I’m sure, however, that the engineers who developed the landing system for MSL have done the best they possibly can. The spacecraft is in flight, and the autonomous landing sequence is already running. From here, there’s nothing more to do than wait and watch.

I’ll do that tonight from the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency. You can follow me on Twitter at @CosmicRaymond. Hashtags #MSL and #CSATweetup are in vogue; the rover is @MarsCuriosity.

Nav Canada and Iridium announce joint ADS-B venture

Nav Canada, the operator of Canada’s air traffic and air navigation system, and Iridium, the satellite communications company that will launch its replacement constellation in a few years, today announced a joint venture to implement and commercialize ADS-B based global air traffic surveillance. The system will carry ADS-B receiver payloads on all of Iridium’s new satellites (66 + spares), to provide coverage everywhere on Earth, together with the capacity to relay the the data to the ground. They plan to provide the data to air traffic service providers to augment ground-based surveillance, and enable active air traffic control in remote and oceanic airspace.

This is the exact plan I worked out in my Master’s thesis. That work focused first on the physics of the signal reception, second on the mission design of a satellite system to receive the signals, and third on the considerations for implementing such a system. I published that thesis two years ago, and, in fact, Nav Canada’s manager for new ADS-B projects was on my thesis committee. I’ve since presented the concept at national and international space conferences — including the International Astronautical Congress last year.

It’s fun to see that the research I did for my Master’s degree has a real and valuable application. This has the potential to change the way we control air traffic around the world, and to make global aviation safer, more efficient, faster, less polluting, and more effective. For reference, that thesis was titled “Detection of Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast signals using stratospheric and orbital platforms”, but you can read a 2-page summary here.

GeoFlow-II experiment campaign complete

ESA today announced the successful completion of the GeoFlow-II experiment campaign aboard the ISS, for those of you interested in experimental work on the interior dynamics of planets.

GeoFlow is a dimensional-similarity fluid-dynamic experiment in the Fluid Science Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. It uses a spherical fluid chamber with heat, pressure, and central attraction force to study the convection patterns in the interiors of planets, investigating the flows with schlieren interferometry. The first flight campaign launched with the lab in 2008, and modeled convection in the Earth’s liquid outer core. The second re-used the hardware, launching in 2011 after modification and refurbishment on the ground, to study the viscous mantle convection.

During my time at ESTEC, I had a small role in the verification and validation of the GeoFlow experiment hardware, and in the early planning for this second flight.

ESA has a more detailed article here.

Famous on the internet

In case you’re curious what I’m up to, here are a few recent mentions on websites other than this one. First off, my grad-student research is being highlighted on the CPSX website at the moment. It’ll be on the front page for a while, after which you can still find it here.

I recently worked with the CPSX outreach co-ordinator, Alyssa Gilbert, and teachers from the Thames Valley District School Board to develop and run a series of space robotics workshops for elementary school students, using Lego Mindstorms gear. The board’s online newsletter describes that program here.

And I also took Alyssa flying, which she’s written about on her blog.

Speaking of Lego, Marianne from CPSX has posted a video on the topic.

And, of course, Western Worlds is still going strong, with new interviews each week. You can generally hear me on the discussion panel, and often as the interviewer.

RMC launches FLOAT-3

A team from the Royal Military College of Canada launched FLOAT-3 last month, the third Flying Laboratory for Observation of ADS-B Transmissions. This was the first flight of a new, more effective receiver system, using a balloon and payload support system improved from the system flown twice in 2009. I’ve just had word from Ron Vincent, the RMC professor leading the project, and a former advisor on my master’s thesis work, that the launch, operations, and payload retrieval were a complete success, and that the receiver performed excellently.

The FLOAT-3 balloon system in flight
The FLOAT-3 Balloon system shortly after launch.

The FLOAT program began in 2009. I was one of two graduate students who together with Ron and three undergrads, put together the first-ever stratospheric balloon mission to track aircraft using the ADS-B navigation transponder system. The data gathered formed a core component of my master’s thesis, which showed, partly on the experimental demonstration of FLOAT-1 and -2, that air traffic monitoring over remote and oceanic airspace using orbital ADS-B reception was in principle possible. This year’s mission uses new receiver and payload designs, and the successful techniques and experience gained during those first two flights. The next goals for the program include deployment of a receiver aboard a nanosatellite in low Earth orbit — that spacecraft design is already well advanced.

The FLOAT-3 payload container at recovery
The FLOAT-3 payload container at its landing point southeast of Wingham, Ontario.

Congratulations to the whole FLOAT-3 team. I look forward to the next steps.

A local news article is available here, and an amateur-radio blogger from Kingston has the ground track of the balloon here.

Photos above provided by Ron Vincent of the Royal Military College of Canada.

Man, machine, and world

This is a fantastic image. Ed White on Gemini 4

It’s Ed White, Gemini 4 astronaut. He’s got a look of quiet contemplation fitting of pausing from your groundbreaking experimental space mission to look out on your home world, or the depths of outer space. I can read all kinds of emotions into that expression because I can identify so clearly with it. I don’t know what he was feeling at the time, but I know how it makes me feel. White is doing something substantial. Important. Trail-blazing. Difficult. Demanding, challenging, and risky. And it has afforded him a chance to consider his place in that effort, and in his world and the broader universe.
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Rediscovering old friends

There’s something charming about finding the stars you learned about as a child revealed, one by one, to host planetary systems. Even the best optical telescope images from my childhood showed a bright spot, shining in the cold, empty darkness of space. But now that I’m grown up, it seems that as I get back in touch with them, I find they’ve got children. Fomalhaut, for example. Or Epsilon Eridani. Even Vega seems to have a debris disk, at least. That universe I learned about, with vast, empty, cold spaces surrounding isolated, lonely stars seems to be revealing itself to be something very different. Where many (most?) stars have some kind of icy or rocky system of satellites, and the planetary systems that form in many of these cases come in surprising and baffling diversity. The universe is getting more crowded, more interesting, and less empty, and the age of exoplanet searches is an exciting time to be working in planetary science and exploration.

A quick skim through the 2012 Federal budget

Just some thoughts:

  • Total spending is $276B (17% of GDP). Deficit: $33.4B (1.2% of GDP). Spending, revenues, and debt charges are all forecast to continue rising until at least 2016, when the federal debt will be unchanged at $602B.
  • I can’t find any mention of tax increases (quel surprise), but they predict spending to go up while the deficit goes down. This requires economic growth and increased employment to provide greater revenues at the same tax rates. The budget gives numbers (Statement of Transactions, p 238) that allow a calculation of the assumed GDP over the coming years. They assume an average year-on-year growth of 2.11% in real GDP (2011 dollars), or 4.16% nominal. Both are in line with private sector forecasts reported in the budget document. Budgetary revenues, however, are expected to grow at an average 4.74% (nominal).
  • The budget only mentions space activities in two contexts. Continue reading
  • Whole worlds waiting to be revealed

    I spent last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference just outside of Houston, Texas. With an annual attendance of around 2000, it’s the main conference for people who study the nature and history of the solar system. All day long, in four or five parallel sessions, the world’s community of planetary scientists, robotics engineers, and the like present their latest discoveries and hypotheses about all the strange worlds that we find near the Earth.

    It served to remind me once again what a fantastic job I have. My main task, for the last week, was to listen to presentations about all the strange and surprising wonders that fill the solar system. To learn, discuss, meet with people who work on these things, and broaden and deepen my knowledge of the physical processes at work so I can better contribute to the development of technologies and missions to further explore and understand these strange worlds. Because that’s my job, after all: learn to do the things that enable space exploration. And boy, are those worlds strange enough to make exploring them irresistible. Continue reading