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Over the past several weeks, I’ve been learning a bit more of the Taiwanese (AKA Minnan) language. One interesting thing I’ve recently discovered is that Minnan is one of the many languages included in the spaceship voyager’s greeting message.

I was listening to the greeting message NASA sent out of our solar system to see how much I could understand, and was very surprised to hear something understandable as Minnan at about 2m50s into it. After a quick check at NASA’s website, sure enough there was Amoy, the prestige Minnan dialect! Below is the Amoy clip from NASA’s page.

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I never would have guessed this would be one of the languages we sent in our greeting, though in terms of the number of native speakers, I suppose it makes sense.

What a great week for progress! Right on the heels of China’s first extra-vehicular activity in space, the privately run SpaceX has made history!

SpaceX’s Falcon 1 became the first privately built liquid rocket to orbit the Earth tonight, following in the footsteps of SpaceShipOne which became the first privately built crewed spaceship to fly suborbitally in October 2004. One other thing they both have in common? All the people who said it was impossible.

Wired:Space Visionaries Prove Naysayers Wrong— Again

Shenzhou 7 launch
China has launched its 3rd manned space flight. As someone who grew up very disappointed in NASA’s failure to live up to the previous generations sky-high expectations, I absolutely love seeing this kind of news. While China is still doing things that the US and USSR did almost 50 years ago, they are making quite a bit of progress. Last year, they sent up a lunar probe (appropriately named Chang’e), and now Shenzhou 7 will include the first extra-vehicular travel of any of non-US/USSR mission. They’ll make it to the moon sooner than people expect. That’s good. China can do more to help kick-start the US space program than advocacy group could.

Here’s a speech by president Hu.

Here’s an interview with the astronauts.

I caught this on TED.com the other day, and it really reminded me of my friend Thomas. At least last time I met up with them, he was a programmer by day, and literally built a working spacecraft in his garage. The speaker Peter Diamonds is behind the X-Prize.

Last week, I saw Stephen Petranek give an interesting talk in the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences. It was from a presentation he gave in 2002, titled 10 ways the world could end. He takes a rational, scientific look at ten of the most underestimated threats humanity faces and proposes solutions for each.

One thing that was particularly interesting about Petranek’s solutions is that he suggested just 2% of the current anti-terrorism/homeland security budget to deal with these largely ignored threats. I’m not sure I agree with all of his solutions, but the material was thought-provoking.

I think it may just be because of the Apollo missions that I’m as much of a sci-fi geek as I am. Growing up with my grandparents, I remember hearing my grandfather and my uncle tell me story after story about the space program. For someone like my grandfather, who grew up during the depression and World War II, the idea of space exploration really must have been amazing. His grandparents had thought that human flight at all was improbable, and then not only did he live to see commercial flight become common, but he lived to see people sent to the moon. It’s only natural that these experiences set his expectations too high.

moon

I knew the names, color, and approximate distance of all the planets when I was seven. Within months I’d also learned how long their days and years were, how many moons they had and more. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I guess a lot of kids did. I stayed interested in space but, the progress I’ve seen has been the opposite of what my grandfather saw. I saw Challenger blow up when I was in elementary school. I read all kinds of exciting things about Mir, only to see it come to an unpleasant demise. I got fired up when scientists visited my school talking about possible life on Mars, only to see interest slowly fall apart. I saw space development funneled increasingly into weapons of war, and low-orbit communications. The US has spent eleven times what all the research and execution of a manned mission to Mars would have cost… re-invading Iraq.

After all of those disappointments, it was with great joy that I read about Yáng Lìwěi (杨利伟), and his historic first Chinese mission into space three years ago. If anything could get my fellow Americans interested in space again, rather than war, it’s the idea that the Chinese will go ahead without us.

In a perfect world, people would leave all their various petty brands of nationalism at the doorstep, but if there has to be competition, let’s see it in a way that will advance humanity rather than devastate it. This is good news.

SHANGHAI — China successfully launched the unmanned lunar space orbiter Chang’e 1 on Wednesday, fuelling Asia’s undeclared space race and moving a step closer to its goal of putting a man on the moon by 2020.

The liftoff in southwestern Sichuan province was broadcast live across the country as a demonstration of President Hu Jintao’s pledge of more science-based progress and to make China a competitor in the lucrative commercial space market in telecommunications.

The Vancouver Sun: China blasts into Asian space race with orbiter launch

When I went down to Xindian last month, I picked up a copy of Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since I was in the middle of The Diamond Age at the time, I didn’t get started until a couple of weeks ago. I read the first chapter pretty quickly, and then kind of got bogged down a bit. After making it a couple of hundred pages in, it really picked up and I finished the whole book last night. There won’t be any big spoilers in this review- it will all either be obvious things, or things that are established in the first few chapters of the book.
continue reading…

When I first saw the head-lines my jaw dropped. Russia is actually going to do it. They’re betting big on science and heading for the moon to mine it for helium-3, the one thing that would make the trip profitable. Even if the entire moon were made of gold, platinum, or even uranium, going there to harvest resources would be a losing proposition. Not so with helium-3. Not anymore.
moon

D+He3 Fusion

“Fusion!!?”, you say? Yes, fusion. Unlike the myriad of failed or unduplicable experiments of the past, there have been some recent experimental successes. I’m talking about experiments in which the energy spent to start a reaction was actually recouped. The only catch is, that they require helium-3. Previously, most fusion experiments involved fusing deuterium with tritium to make Helium. The problem is that reaction emits excess neutrons, which become more and more damaging as the size of the reactor is increased. Fusion between helium-3 and deuterium on the other hand, yields hydrogen and helium, neither of which is radioactive. The 18.4 MeV created from D+He3 fusion also exceeds the 17.6 MeV created by D+T fusion. Another very important consideration is that He3 is stable, and thus easy to store and easy to transport. The advantages of a D+He3 fusion reactor over Tokamak reactors, such as the one being built in Héféi ( 肥), are clear.

Sources of Helium-3

Finding helium-3 is a problem. On the entire planet there is only a small amount of helium-3. The majority of it is created as by products from the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The US currently holds about 29 kilograms in strategic reserves and could possibly create 15 kilograms per year. Gerald Kulcinski, of Wisconsin University, estimated that the moon holds a total of 1,100,000 metric tons of He3, which have been deposited by the solar winds. He said that “Helium 3 fusion energy may be the key to future space exploration and settlement,” and added, “It could be the cash crop for the Moon.” Based on current oil prices ($66/barrel), He3 has an energy value of 9.4 million US dollars per kilogram. A space vehicle with a payload bay the size of a space shuttle could bring back enough helium-3 to generate the electricity to satisfy the world’s needs for a full 3 months, turning multi-billion dollar profits each trip. Needless to say, this is one heck of a gamble. However, if Russia does go through with it, things will get interesting for sure.

News links:
http://www.hamiltonspectator.com
The Daily Record
Free-market News
The Independent
Space.com

He3 Fusion Summary from the University of Madison:
UW-Madison Fusion Technology Institute