Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dragon returns to Earth

Earlier in the month we reported on the successful launch and docking at the ISS of SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Dragon CR-2 splashed down in the Pacific on the 26th of March ready for recovery.

Dragon has returned to Earth the results of a number of science experiments, over 200 of which are ongoing on the International Space Station. The results returned include from experiments on improved food and crop production both in space and on Earth and improved solar energy panels. In total 1,200 KG of material was returned though of it was waste materials (you can't just kick your trash out of the airlock!), some of it has been transferred from the Dragon capsule as soon as it reached dry land with the rest staying in the capsule until it returns to SpaceX's facilities in Texas.
Photo credit: SpaceX

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Micro Life (3) : BBC Micro B

The Commodore VIC-20 was a great little computer i played a lot of games on but my Dad (for some reason) wanted a computer he could actually do... like... stuff with so he bought a BBC Micro Model B. This was our computer for the next few years and a very fine computer it was too. It marked the end of me being part of the mainstream with video games though, while my friends had Spectrums and C64s (and even one weirdo with a Dragon 32) i had a BBC Micro and as no one else in my class so i couldn't share any games any more...

We could however expand the computer fairly easily (a key feature of the BBC) and could actually use it to do some useful things. We bought a printer for it (a Star NL-10), it was difficult to get anything decent printed out though. (Cynics might say the printer was working perfectly normally then!) We bought a word processor which loaded from ROM (the name i can't recall right now but it may have been a Word Star variant). My Dad wrote a HAM radio database program while i wrote some text-based adventure games and some other rubbish.

More excitingly we got a 5.25" floppy disk drive for the computer and were freed from the misery of having to load software from cassette tape!

The BBC was a great little computer which was in use for a long time especially with schools and universities, i know Birmingham City University for example still had them in its Engineering faculty up into the early 1990s, but ours died long before then. It suddenly conked out one day while i was using it (and i would like to emphasise not because of anything i was doing on it!) The 8-bit era was over in any case so our next computer was our first foray into the PC world but that is a story for another day...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Recovery of Saturn V engines from the seabed

What to do when you are the mega-rich founder of Amazon like Jeff Bezos, well you could fund an expedition to recover the F-1 engines from the Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo missions on their way perhaps? That is exactly what he has done and now 2 engines from the massive rockets' first stage have been successfully located and salvaged from the seabed off Florida.

The engines will be restored as they are somewhat corroded after 40 years under the sea however the photos show the engines are in remarkable condition all considering. Serial numbers are however as yet unreadable so the team are unsure which Saturn V rocket the engines came from. No decision has yet been made how to display the recovered engines in future.
F-1 engines being stored in the F-1 Engine Preparation Shop. (NASA/MSFC)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

IBM 5100 Portable Computer advert

An advert for IBM's 5100, one of the first portable personal computers... though as it weighed 50lb/22.7KG "portable" was maybe a matter of opinion...

Has Voyager 1 exited the Solar System?

After travelling through space for thirty-five years it is now thought that Voyager 1 has finally left the Solar System. In fact it is thought, by scientists writing in Geophysical Research Letters, that the spacecraft exited the Sun's heliosphere back in August 2012 when dramatic changes in cosmic rays were detected by Voyager. Cosmic rays trapped by the heliosphere practically vanished but galactic rays emanating from outside the Solar System greatly increased.

One major question scientists are considering is whether Voyager has left the Solar System or has simply reached a previously unknown region outside the heliosphere. The Voyager team itself at NASA think the spaceship is in a new region called the magnetic highway.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

Since 2008 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) has been recovering data from 5 unmanned NASA spacecraft in the 60s which were tasked with looking for landing sites for the Apollo missions. Running on a shoestring and now reliant on public donations after NASA funding ended the project involves restoring data from tape drives from the original Lunar Orbiters which were found in a barn and analogue data tapes. Funding is needed to refurbish the tape heads and pay for the engineering team which looks after the old hardware.

The Lunar Orbiters developed their own photos, scanned them and then transmitted the data back to Earth where they were printed out. Luckily the received data was also recorded onto analogue tapes which the LOIRP team is now processing. The resulting images are of a higher resolution than the original printed photos from 47 years ago.

People donating to the project (and today is the last day) can receive a number of goodies depending on the size of their donation, even some of the original printed photos from the 1960s. The official LOIRP website can be found here.
Photo taken by Lunar Orbiter 4, from here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Return of the Gastric Brooding Frog

In 1983 a frog unique to Australia was declared extinct but now scientists have bought the species, Rheobatrachus silus, back to life! The frog, known as the Gastric Brooding Frog, is notable for giving birth via its mouth having incubated the offspring in its stomach after swallowing the fertilised eggs. It was one of only two species of Platypus Frog (both now extinct) but it died out to to habitat loss and disease.

However tissue samples from the frog taken in the 1970s were implanted into cell nuclei from the eggs of a similar species, a form of cloning known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Although the embryos only survived for a few days it is hoped that the technique could bring other extinct species back to life, the implanted cells when divided were shown to contain genetic material from the extinct frog.

Cue the Jurassic Park headlines. The team of scientists, known as the Lazarus Project, say the technology shows great promise and could be of great use to conserve the world's amphibians, which have been suffering from a great decline of late.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Old Calculators (1) : Triumph-Adler 814

I have a fair amount of old computer junk... i mean equipment in my attic including several dozen calculators from the 1970s and 80s. The 70s was especially an interesting time for calculators with many different manufacturers and designs. In this series i will display some of the more interesting calculators in my collection. We start with the Triumph-Adler 814, a chunky mains powered calculator no doubt intended for desk work and heavy duty number entry. I suspect this calculator has calculated a few payrolls and monthly accounts in its time.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

ICL Personal Computers

A promotional film for ICL's early PCs from 1982.

Weapon Fail : Northrop XP-79

Fed by data captured from the Nazis Western aircraft designers in the immediate post-WW2 period sought to see just was possible with the new jet engines and related techologies. Not everything worked out though, and the Northrop XP-79 was one of them. What was wrong with it? Really it was the concept of the weapon system, the XP-79 was intended to stop enemy bombers by hitting them!

The XP-79 was an interceptor developed by Northrop in WW2 initially to powered by a rocket but later 2 turbojets were substituted because of delays in developing the rocket engine. Although it was to be fitted with 4 machine guns the XP-79, which was built very strongly from a magnesium alloy with very strong wing leading edges, was intended to ram enemy bombers and slice off their tails with it's wing's leading edge!

Whether this could have worked is unknown, the XP-79 only flew for around 15 minutes. On it's first flight in September 1945 the pilot, who lay in a prone position in the plane, lost control and was killed whilst trying to escape it. The project was canceled. Perhaps a reason for this was the authorities suddenly realising that ramming enemy aircraft was the act of a desperate collapsing power not the side who actually had won the war.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alma observatory now operational (video)

The Alma (or Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) observatory in Chile is now operational. This group of radio telescopes is said to be able to look further into space than ever before. See below for a video from the Guardian/ITN.

Alma consists of an array of 66 radio telescopes observing millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Visi On

The early days of personal computing saw a number of competing early graphical user interfaces (GUIs), in fact the first i ever used was GEM Desktop on an Amstrad PC but pre-dating that was Visi On by VisiCorp which was the first GUI for the IBM PC back in 1983. The excellent GUI Gallery site has a tour of the system as well as some of the original files and how to get them to run nowadays.
Visi On was quite different to later GUIs with its menu bar at the bottom, though this was in some ways similar to early Apple Lisa prototypes. Although it may look quite primitive these days, compared to contemporary GUIs it wasn't that bad and indeed was superior in some ways to Microsoft Windows' early versions (which was not to arrive for a couple more years anyway).

Aimed mostly at businesses Visi On was never a success. It was rather slow and pricy and Microsoft promised that Windows was just around the corner in order to deter people from buying Visi On. By the mid-80s VisiCorp had merged with other companies and Visi On faded away.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our new near neighbour, WISE J104915.57-531906

A pair of stars have been identified by NASA's Wide-Field Survey Explorer (WISE) survey which is the third closest system to the Sun. The brown dwarf pair WISE J104915.57-531906 is the closest star system discovered since 1916 and is 6.5 light years away, just a little further out than Barnard's Star. As the stars are brown dwarfs they are small and dim which has meant it has been difficult to detect them until now (and of course means there could be other close bodies yet to be discovered).

The system was discovered by Kevin Luhman at Penn State University who studied images from WISE over a 13 month period, the star system was seen moving quickly across the sky indicating its proximity. Once detected Luhman was then able to other equipment and surveys to measure its distance away and its temperature which was found to be low. Sharper imagery from the Gemini South telescope in Chile also revealed there were two stars not one orbiting each other.
Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF

Russian satellite hit by debris from past ASAT test

Last month it was reported that a small Russian satellite's (the BLITS Ball Lens In The Space) orbit changed noticeably. Changes were noticed in its spin velocity and altitude. Now these changes have been traced back to a debris strike back in late-January. It is thought the satellite has been damaged by the collision. The debris came from a retired Chinese satellite which was deliberately struck in an anti-satellite test in 2007.

Fengyun FY-1C was a retired weather satellite which destroyed by a kinetic kill vehicle launched on top of a modified ballistic missile, over 2000 trackable pieces of debris resulted from the strike plus over 150000 particles. The size of the debris cloud and resulting danger to other space vehicles sparked international controversy and concern.

Debris strikes are still pretty rare though are getting more common as the amount of debris in orbit increases. A couple of times debris from the Chinese ASAT test has come close to the International Space Station.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bell Labs' Holmdel Computing Center training videos

What was intended as a training video for new employees to Bell Labs' iconic Holmdel Computing Center (which after all was where the likes of C and Unix originated) in 1973 is now a fascinating insight to high-end computing back in the pre-PC age and a nostalgia fest of old iron. This reminds me of my minicomputer days at university, writing programmes in a Volker-Craig terminal and then going to the library to collect my print outs on big fan fold paper...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weapon Fail : Nuclear Bazookas

The idea between the nuclear bazooka was fairly simple: it was a very short range tactical nuclear weapon that can be used by troops at the front line against fast approaching enemy troops. Weapons like the Davy Crockett (US Army) and Wee Gwen (British Army) were designed in the 1950s as a way of halting Soviet ground forces and buy time for NATO to regroup.

Davy Crockett was a nuclear recoiless rifle projectile with a range between 2-4km. Obviously the nuclear warhead of such a device had to be very small otherwise it would be destroy the defenders too. Davy Crockett had at it's core the W54 warhead which was the smallest ever produced by the US. The warhead had a yield of between 10-20 tons of TNT (0.01-0.02 kilotons) but a major part of the weapon's effect was the radiation produced that would leave the area of impact uninhabitable for 48 hours. As such it was one of the first neutron bombs though the term was not used at the time.

This radiation hazard proved even more important when the weapon was tested and found to be highly inaccurate. Anything 400m from the blast was likely to receive a fatal dose of radiation even at the lowest yield setting though 550m was considered the minimum safe distance for friendly troops. The margins were a bit tight though as 500m would cause sterility and a lack of co-ordination. Contrary to myth the blast radius was not greater than the range of the weapon so it was not a suicide weapon, in fact the blast radius could be as small as 200m.

Davy Crockett was used by the US Army between 1961 and 1971. The British Wee Gwen never entered service, it was very controversial with the Army who considered weapons like it and the Davy Crockett unsound because of the difficulties it would create with command and control.

The inaccuracy was the main problem with the Davy Crockett, because the blast radius of the weapon was small it was likely the defenders would have to fire a lot of the weapons to try and halt a determined mass Soviet attack. The further the projectile was fired (and thus safer to defending soldiers) the more inaccurate it got too... Well you see the problem there.

Because of the inaccuracy troops would have to fire more against concentrations of the enemy to try and ensure a hit and lets just say there were cheaper warheads they could have fired. Never mind less hazardous! Like many "toys" from the Cold War, we should just all be thankful the Davy Crockett was never used.

Who built the first aeroplane?

We all know that the Wright brothers built the first practical aeroplane don't we? Everyone knows they flew first in 1903. However there have been other claims over the years about people who may have beaten the Wright brothers to it. One claim is that Gustave Whitehead (or Weißkopf) first flew his Number 21 aeroplane in 1901, interestingly Jane's have now said that they think he was indeed the first. The first flight was widely reported at the time in over a hundred newspapers and periodicals though nowadays of course everyone knows it was the Wrights.

Its no surprise if it is true and that Whitehead was first but is largely forgotten now, often this happens with inventors. The first is not necessarily the one who is remembered especially if there are a number of people working on the same problem simultaneously. Historical "facts" can be challenged later on especially as new technology allows for analysis of material that was not possible earlier. One example is the analysis that has been made of a proported photograph of Whitehead's aeroplane in flight at a 1906 exhibition. A photograph of the exhibition has been forensically examined to see if the phone of the flight can be discerned. The analysis is fascinating but i remain to be totally convinced.

This story comes with a whiff of conspiracy too. The Smithsonian has barred access to some photographs which may (or may not) show Whitehead's aircraft due to the fragility of the material. The Smithsonian got their hands on the original Wright Flyer in return for giving the honour of first flight to the Wright brothers (this has been found to be true thanks to a Freedom of Information request according to Jane's).

Gustav Whitehead probably did fly his aeroplane first though whether it was what you could consider a controlled flight is a matter of opinion, he stated himself that to steer the aeroplane he had to move himself around in the fuselage. Whitehead's aeroplane was a bit of an evolutionary dead-end, the Wright biplane was the template for heavier-than-air aviation for the next few decades in many ways.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Dr Who's Pr1me Adverts

Yes indeed Dr Who, who looked uncannily like Tom Baker at the time, did some adverts for Pr1me Computer in 1980. Here they all are collected into one video. Proper computing!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Atari 2600 iPhone dock

Peter Morris has turned an Atari 2600 into an iPhone speaker dock, complete with 6 EQ settings and an FM radio. I am in two minds about this, its cool but at the same time a 2600 should remain a 2600... mind you the console was not working anyway so i suppose it is an incredibly funky example of recycling. Its available from Peter's Etsy shop (probably already long sold!)

Blue Monday 30 years on

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the first release of New Order's classic early synthpop electropop track Blue Monday. The original music video is also a complete 8-bit video nostalgia fest.

My Micro Life (2) : Commodore VIC-20

As we saw in part 1 of my series documenting the computers i grew up with, the ZX-80 was fine but i didn't do a great deal with it. I needed something with a bit more oomph in order to fully be able to explore the world of computing and be able to properly interact with this exciting new paradigm... in other words i needed something that could play decent computer games. So our second microcomputer was the Commodore VIC-20.

Technology wise it was quite a leap from the Sinclair, having a whole 5K of RAM (which was later expanded to a mind-boggling 16K!) and more importantly it had colour! It also had a proper keyboard as opposed to the awful membrane keyboard on the Sinclair. Software was loaded from a special Commodore cassette player (same as with the Sinclair) though there was also an extension socket to load games and other software from cartridges. We later added an extension board so you could load multiple cardridges.

I had a few games on cartridge and my Dad tried his hand at a bit of assembly language programming (you can see the cartridge for that in the photo below, its the black one by the joystick. The cartridge loaded in the VIC is the RAM expansion one). Actually my Dad was a keen programmer back in the 8-bit days but i don't think thats why i became a programmer myself later on, it is just because its one of the few things i am any good at.
Me on the VIC in 1983, see the cartridges and other paraphernalia.

The VIC-20 gave us several years of trouble free and largely enjoyable computing and for me that meant a lot of gaming. I can remember some of the games i played on it, vaguely, though not their names. My favourite was one where you flew a Harrier jump jet and had to shoot down MiGs, though running out of fuel was always a problem and when you landed for refuelling the MiGs would always come out of nowhere and blow you up! I used to play videogames quite a lot back then, not that i have ever been any good at them.

After a few years the VIC was becoming a bit obsolete and my Dad wanted something with more expandability potential so he could experiment with computing and his HAM radio so the next computer in our house was the BBC Micro but that is a story for another day...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How guys will use Google Glass

This is funny and probably very true. More seriously read the Google Glass feature no one is talking about.

The strange beauty of old iron, historic computers

Wired have a great article on the sights and smells of historic computing, the strange beauty indeed of mainframes, minicomputers, line printers and other historic computing artifacts. Many of the computers and peripherals at places like the Computer History Museum in California (somewhere i must visit one day!) still work after being restored adding an extra dimension to the experience. The sound and heat of a punched card reader...

It is a very different tech world to now, a bigger world too. Computers filled huge rooms with printers being the size of small cars, plus tape units the size of wardrobes. That is part of the fascination i feel, its just so different to the computing we use now.

Unfortunately by the time i entered work we were past the age of old iron, though i did use a Prime minicomputer at university which was great fun. The biggest computer i've ever had physical access to is a HP PC server which was the size of a small fridge. Just not the same. One place i must try and get to this year is the UK National Museum of Computing which includes a fair amount of old iron in it's collection.
Photo from Flickr Commons

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Twitter have announced that Tweetdeck, the stand-alone Twitter client they bought some time ago, is to be relegated to merely being a web app (ironically they announced this on a Posterous blog, something else they have bought and will kill off soon). There will be a Tweetdeck Chrome app and the native OSX and Windows apps will remain (but will not be updated as quickly) but the original AIR, iOS and Android versions will go.

This is disappointing me to me as i have used Tweetdeck for years and i will probably not be moving to the web version. I find Twitter is much superior and easier to use when it is in its own stand-alone client rather than relegated to yet another tab in a web browser. Of course Twitter want you to use their web site for the service.

So now i am in the market for a new client should the native app Tweetdeck also go (matter of time?), Tweetbot has been recommended to me, are there any others i should try? PC Mag lists some alternatives.

Saving endangered and historic photographs

The conservation of historic photographs is a very complicated business because of the variety of methods used in early photography, and the science itself being a fairly recent development.

This fascinating article traces the history of photo conservation and the complications involved. Research into photo conservation was spurred in the 1990s by the explosion in value of historic and artistic photos and the discovery of some notable frauds.

What astounded me was that there have been over 150 different photographic processes developed in the 187 years since Joseph Niépce first took a photograph of the view from his window. The article lists some of these including processes i've heard of like daguerreotypes and also others i hadn't like ambrotypes (example below) and kallitypes!
Photo from Flickr Commons, British Officer from Sir William Dixson's collection of ambrotype portraits, ca. 1857-1858, possibly by Thomas Glaister (State Library of New South Wales)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dragon reaches the ISS

Despite having some problems initially with the thrusters SpaceX's Dragon capsule has docked with the International Space Station for the second time bringing supplies and science experiments. Although there are other ways to send cargo up to the ISS the Dragon is the only one that can return materials to Earth as other cargo spaceships like the venerable Progress are discarded and burn up on re-entry (although an older version of Progress could use a returnable cargo container called Raduga though this hasn't been used with the ISS).

Among the items the Dragon capsule will return to Earth later in the month are some fishes. Some Japanese Medaka fish that have been on the ISS for 6 months will be returned to Earth to study the effect of zero gravity on bone density. Blood and urine samples from the astronauts will also be returned to study the effect on human anatomy of spaceflight.

Dragon could be the basis of a new generation of manned spaceships, as mentioned already it could be used for Dennis Tito's planned trip around Mars.
An earlier Dragon mission lifts off, image from NASA/Alan Ault

Sunday, March 3, 2013

IBM 360 Mainframe

You have got to love Youtube, every possible video is on there... including...

Weapon Fail : Rockwell XFV-12

The Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jet is, to date, the only successful V/STOL jet fighter in the west (and the way the JSF is going that may well remain so). The US adopted the Harrier themselves but in the 1970s they tried to produce a superior supersonic fighter to replace it. This was the Rockwell XFV-12 which was fine looking and futuristic but had one slight snag... it couldn't actually take off.

The XFV-12 had a thrust augmented wing, engine thrust was diverted through slots in the wing to produce vertical thrust. The XFV-12 had 2 sets of wings more or less as it's canards provided almost half of the available wing area. So why did the plane fail?

The problem was simple, the thrust available even with an uprated engine was not enough to get the plane off the ground. Too much engine thrust was lost through the exhaust ducting. It probably could have worked, if the aircraft weighed 25% less. Another major drawback with the thrust augmented wing scheme was that the wings could not be used to carry weapons which meant that the only place to carry weapons was under the fuselage.

This proved rather academic in any event as the project was canceled by the end of the 1970s due to cost... and being useless.