Fantastic Cartography Again

I know I’ve liked to draw fantastical maps for a long time now. So, I should not have been surprised at how much fun I had producing a fancy version of a map for a world I’ve been working with for several years. I figured out techniques for drawing the shorelines, forests, and mountain ranges that I think were very successful. I used a lot of watercolor pencil washes, with india ink for lines.

Map of the Southern Continent

Still, though I like it as an image, the product isn’t a perfect map. I made the decision to try and put in all the physical features before any points of interest of placenames, with the intention of doing so in an overlay. None of my scratch tests for such labels worked very well; I ended up putting labels on the map in postprocessing on my computer. Not ideal, but at the same time, it came out okay.

I had such a great time producing the map over the course of a couple of weeks worth of coming home from work, making dinner, and then throwing NPR on while I sat down with my pen and ink. (It was a very meditative sort of endeavor.) I have also been keen on trying to improve the map. Fortunately for me, Fiancée loved the thing and requested that I produce a similar map based on a template which she supplied to me. Well, then. I didn’t need a second excuse to start.

Map of Faerie

I worked primarily from the template; but I had leave to make some modifications such as putting detail on coastlines or changing river courses to be more realistic. I stuck with the same general techniques that worked so well for me on the first map.

This time, though, I planned a bit better. I noted the positions of the physical features; but I also included the major landmarks and indicated to myself where text labels would go. When I inked in the forests and mountains on this map, I left myself spaces for the labels. I practiced ink lettering on scrap paper, came up with a font style that I thought would be fitting, and this time put hand-lettered placenames directly on the paper.

A nicely labeled forest

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t succeed in all instances – this paper absorbed the ink in a very different way depending on whether there was a good base layer of pencil in place – but I like the results, in general. You can also see that this time I have added some carmine red ink to my repertoire, to add accents or denote features on the map (here, provincial boundaries from the template map). Another set of new features comes from a few special points of interest on the map. I will comment that inking a small symbol, such as crossed swords, on a large paper map comes with a particular set of challenges: ink is almost impossible to remove without leaving evidence, and so once I set about drafting such a symbol on the final image, I was committed to it! After all, I’d hate for one badly botched, critical item to ruin the whole work. (Happily, little goofs in the mountains and such simply add to the character of such an image!)

City and Battlefield

Just for grins, I threw on some other embellishments around the coastlines. You know: sea monsters and such. I’m particularly happy with this little guy.

Big fish

I still have the map in my apartment and I’m thinking about whether I should add some kind of border, but I think I’m just going to let Fiancée mat and frame it however she likes.

Now I’ve just got to think about what cartographic project to do next…

Kick Yourself into Orbit!

Ah, I’ve only been out a few months, but I already miss some things about being in grad school! For instance, I miss all the crazy brainstorming of new and wild space systems, missions, and technologies. No doubt you, dear reader, also miss my crazy brainstorming: after all, that is how I ended up writing blogs about space battles or missions to Europa or what the Earth would look like with rings or the science of Avatar. Now I have an industry job where people tend to care more about “affordability” and “reliability” and “performance,” than they do about harebrained schemes to drop space probes into the Europan ocean.

But, fear not, intrepid reader who has been sticking it out hoping for another crazy notion to appear here! You see, my research group at Cornell is still working at churning out wild ideas. And you can participate!

Check out this message from Zac, who was starting his Ph.D. as I was on my way out:

Zac has set up a page on KickStarter, which you can jump to by visiting The idea behind KickSat is to make a bare-bones 10x10x10 cm CubeSat which contains hundreds or thousands of microchip-sized satellites called Sprites and will deploy them all in low Earth orbit. The KickStarter platform means that, if you want, you can sponsor your very own Sprite – Zac has even defined a sponsorship level at which you get to write your own flight code for the tiny spacecraft to run in orbit!

The spacecraft, which each could fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, are very simplistic as far as spacecraft go – they consist of solar cells to charge a little bank of capacitors, a teeny TI processor for a brain, and a little antenna. These are proof-of-concept spacecraft, and are actually derived from three test units which my lab group sent up to the Space Station on the last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour! In the future, they hope to integrate other sensors onto the chips to give Sprites more capabilities. One of the ideas batted around during lab meetings that I consider a personal favorite: put “lab-on-chip” detectors on a Sprite to look for characteristic organic compounds (like nucleic acids!) and program them to simply send a chirp back if they get a positive result. Send a million Sprites to Mars, and listen to the peeps – and then you know where on the Red Planet the next big flagship mission has just got to go!

Imagine if you got the shot at writing the flight code. If you could put a solar cell in space and make it beep, what could you measure? How creative can you get in getting the Sprite’s whisper of a radio signal to carry information? Could you receive enough data to tell how fast the chip is spinning and seeing the Sun, or how much average power it has to work with, or how long it lasts before an errant proton from the solar wind blasts your Sprite out of the sky? The chance to put your own code on a spacecraft, even such a simplistic one, offers a lot of learning opportunities.

(Incidentally: one question that Zac and his research advisor, Dr. Mason Peck, get a lot is some variation on: “Hey, paint flecs moving at orbital velocity are enough to crash through the Space Shuttle windows. Aren’t these Sprites going to become dangerous space junk?” The answer is that yes, the Sprites could be hazardous as long as they are in orbit; but the orbit that KickSat will reach is going to be within just enough of the Earth’s atmosphere that all the Sprites will get dragged down in a couple days. The special property Sprites have that influences this fast orbital decay – and other effects – is a high surface-area-to-mass ratio.)

KickSat has already reached its minimum fundraising goal to start building hardware. However, the project is still looking for more backers to secure a commercial launch opportunity, which will offer more certainty than applying for a free launch program through NASA. But if Zac gets to about $300,000 of funding, he thinks that will be enough to start looking at new technologies to shrink the Sprite chips down to even smaller sizes – and offer even more capability in the future!

Cool stuff. I’m glad to see the Cornell Space Systems Design Studio keeping the wild space ideas flowing!

My Space Program

I’ve been very critical of NASA lately, and similar criticism to mine has been trickling out of the space blog community and into major news outlets. So, in all fairness, I would like to offer up some much more constructive thoughts.

If I suddenly became Dictator of NASA Authorization and Appropriation, this is what I would do: First, I would decouple the portions of the NASA budget that deal with science and with human spaceflight. Next, I would double (or triple!) both budgets. And then I would put the budget on a schedule in which it gets re-authorized every decade, rather than every year.

Finally, I would give NASA a mission for human spaceflight.

One finds many challenges in trying to come up with a solid mission for human space exploration. The mission must be simply stated, so that it is easily grasped by the community at large, has simple criteria for success, and gives scientists, engineers, and administrators maximum creative leeway. The mission must also have clear, tangible benefits to the public at large in order to maintain broad-based support. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the ideal mission for the program should be one that leads to a self-perpetuating endeavor of exploration. Those of us who see value in spaceflight want to go out and explore, and keep exploring, instead of reaching a goal and turning back, victory in hand.

In the political climate of the early 1960’s, reaching the Moon was the right mission. NASA was all about proving that our democratic society and civilian exploration program could beat the pants off our rivals’ soviet society and militarized rocket program. It was about spurring the development of high technology in this country. It was about national pride. It was about proving that we could do something awe-inspiring.

I think that we could use some of those initiatives again, but that our current society will not support a simple destination in space as a goal. I think that people today want to see immediate results from the exploration effort. They want to see a space program that pays for itself by giving them something to hold in their hand.

Paramount to the long-term success of this mission is its ability to survive success. In many ways, this is NASA’s problem. It went to the Moon, and the public began to question the need to go to the Moon any more. When the Apollo program ended, instead of a NASA that looked out to the next horizon, its reach diminished. Now NASA is in a position where its mission gets redefined too quickly for it to accomplish any goal. The space community squabbles over whether the exploration goal should be the Moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But I think we need a fundamentally new kind of goal: Often, the idea of a mission for NASA gets confused with the idea of a specific destination or a specific spacecraft program, but a “mission” is broader than both.  The problem is that NASA needs a focused effort, and that effort has to be harnessed in such a way that achievement of its goals perpetuates the mission instead of becoming a bygone climax.

I think the mission should be pushing the human presence out into the Solar System. And so here is what I would suggest for NASA’s human exploration goal:

Build and launch a human-carrying space vehicle, using no materials from the Earth, within the next 15 years.

That’s it. No engineering decisions, no restrictions on technology; a broad statement of an extremely big idea, simply stated. Oh, we can haggle over the precise wording or the timeframe, but I think this is it: the space exploration goal that could revitalize the space program.

You see, the goal I am setting is for a capability. I want to see humans figure out how to exploit space in an efficient and effective manner, and to prove it, I want to see them build a spacecraft in space. I don’t care where this happens: a crater foundry on the Moon, a near-Earth asteroid shipyard in an elliptical orbit, scaffolds on Utopia Planitia on Mars. Nor do I care where this spacecraft goes when it is launched. What I care about is this: in the process of achieving the goal I have stated, the space program is going to have to create an industrial and technological base, in space, that we don’t have at present. New technologies and products are going to come out of the space program on a weekly basis. The space program will create a foundation that our wider society can move onto. In other words, I want to see the space program create new industries, and I want it to drag them along with it into space and establish them firmly there. Think of this idea like spurring on an East India Trading company for space. So, I want to target the science and engineering of in-situ resource utilization and develop it into a discipline that will let human beings truly develop space.

Merely arriving at an asteroid – or even arriving at Mars – could be accomplished using technologies we have at our disposal right now. There are engineering challenges, to be sure; but we could potentially knock many of them off by optimizing known solutions. We only need put forward the effort and resources. Building something from scratch in space, though, will require some substantial new developments! Materials science, field medicine, robotics, chemistry, computing, electrical power generation, thermal management – all would likely have to jump forward in leaps and bounds. Tangible benefits would come out of such a program in many other disciplines, as well. I want average people getting to see and use devices that spin out of the space program at a pace that matches their expectations of high-tech fields. I want these devices and technologies making obvious differences and improvements to life on Earth: increasing our efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, making power more cheaply and more cleanly available, getting medicine into remote areas, growing food in truly sustainable ways to better support our populations – all things that are major problems in the world today, and all things that would have to happen to support a space-based industry.

I feel that it is very important for the timeframe on this goal to be ambitious. The reason is that I want to see space exploration become a high-tech industry again. It used to be – in the 1960’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. However, the most successful space programs and vehicles since then tend to be extremely conservative. For example: it used to be the case that the space program invented computer technology specifically for its new vehicles; now, the computers on spacecraft typically lag behind the state of the art by a decade or more. This is fine for the private sector if we care only about the bottom line of a single satellite, but it’s not good for long-term performance and I think our national space program should be reaching beyond those concerns. I feel strongly that the risks of new space technologies are often overestimated; but on top of that, I think we should be willing to take more risks with our astronauts! We should be filling our NASA missions with “firsts,” because only by doing so can we lay the groundwork for following developments. With that in mind, I would set a goal that requires entirely new engineering strategies and impose a deadline that forces rapid maturation of technology.

As the space program cranks out “firsts” related to building this ship, I want to see NASA taking full advantage of mass media. I want a Twitter feed posting pictures of spaceships under construction. I want the news showing astronauts each week, at least, doing things that look new: prospecting and mining on asteroids or the Moon, assembling huge structures, showing off how they support life in deep space with few resources from Earth. We should see astronauts, mission controllers, and engineers as heroes – as the people helping usher in new discoveries.

If the space program were to adopt my suggested goal, I can only speculate a little on how it would play out. I think asteroids would likely be the most obvious source for raw materials for the spacecraft – or might even be made into the spacecraft itself, if hollowed out in the classic sci-fi paradigm. I think that whatever asteroid or asteroids we choose to target would need vast solar power collectors to establish infrastructure. Closed-loop life support systems would likely be a key component of the set-up. And the space program would need a way to taxi astronauts up to space and back, as well as out to the asteroids and back. To do that, NASA would need to take advantage of affordable launch services from private companies and also develop or sponsor a fleet of interplanetary shuttlecraft. In all, I see the possibility for a lot of dramatic achievements – ending with a stirring first launch of the new spacegoing vessel from its drydock, of course!

That is what I want from my space program.