Breathtaking footage of the Sun makes for stunning desktop backgrounds

I came across a video released by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mission that I found so mesmerizing that I decided to create several wallpapers from it. After downloading the original UHD video file, I opened it in VLC and exported what I thought were the most dramatic and interesting frames.

They are all optimized for 16:9 4K (3840 x 2160) monitors, but given that they’re such high-resolution, they also look great on 5K displays, MacBooks, and iPad. You can download the full set as a zip file here.

I like these images enough that they are now in rotation with what I consider to be the most beautiful picture ever made: The Hubble Legacy Field, an image that combines nearly 7,500 Hubble exposures captured over the course of sixteen years, including some of the deepest images ever captured of the universe.

Thank you for continuing to inspire us, NASA.

The Soviet’s Obsession with Venus


Since information didn’t exactly flow freely between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it isn’t widely known that the Soviets took quite an interest in Venus in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, thirteen Venera probes (Venera is the Russian name for Venus) successful transmitted data from the atmosphere of Venus, and ten probes successfully landed on the planet’s surface. It’s easy to be somewhat dismissive of the Venera missions today until you consider how long ago it was that the Soviets were pulling this kind of thing off, and the fact that the pressure on the Venusian surface is 92 times that of Earth’s. (The longest any of the probes survived was two hours with the earliest spacecrafts being destroyed in only about 23 minutes.)

The Soviets accomplished several firsts with the Venera missions including:

  • The first man-made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet.
  • The first soft landing on another planet.
  • The first probes to return images, radar maps, and even a sound recording from another planet.

The pin in the picture above was created by the Soviet Union in 1961 to commemorate the initial Venera 1 mission. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift from my publisher (47North) after the release of my novel Containment in which Venus plays a key role. (They also gave me a bottle of tequila, but that’s a different story.)

Venera 1 successfully launched on February 12th, and successfully transmitted data back to Earth on three different occasions. However, the fourth telemetry session was a failure, and the probe was essentially lost — probably due to the overheating of a solar-direction sensor.

Below is a picture of Venera 1 which I think has a great retro look to it. One could even be forgiven for mistaking the interplanetary probe for a Soviet robot assassin from an early James Bond film.


How the Chrome Dev Tools Got Me an Awesome License Plate


One of my favorite places in the world is the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum (which is only about 15 minutes from my house), so when I saw that I could help support the Smithsonian with a custom license plate, I figured I’d give it a go. While I was at it, I decided to see if I could figure something out that would also symbolize one of my other passions: web development. It occurred to me that the perfect way to bring them both together would be the tag “&nbsp” which is the HTML entity code for “space” (technically, it’s “ ” but you can’t get a semicolon on a license plate, and most browsers don’t require it, anyway).

When I checked the plate online, I was both pleased and surprised to find that it was available, but after I started the registration and purchase process, I found out why. The DMV web application does not escape user input, so the character sequence “&nbsp” is always displayed as a literal space. I hoped I might still get away with it, however when I tried to submit the order confirmation form, I got a server-side error message explaining that the plate ” ” (empty space) was invalid.

Being the determined hacker that I am, I initially saved the source from the confirmation page, fixed the error by turning “&nbsp” into “&nbsp” (the character code for ampersand followed by “nbsp” — the proper way to escape user input in this case), and started working on tricking the DMV’s servers into believing that the form I was submitting actually came from them. But then it occurred to me that I could simply fix the DMV’s mistake using the WebKit Web Inspector. I opened up the awesome Chrome Dev Tools, made the change in the live page, and the form submitted perfectly. About two weeks later, my brand new plates arrived.

Thanks to the WebKit Web Inspector, the Chrome Dev Tools, and the openness and transparency of the web, I’m now rolling through Northern Virginia representing all my space-enthusiast and web-developer homies.

Inspired by the Past

Not long ago, I took my two daughters out of school for the day and the three of us went on a field trip to Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. I made a deal with them: they could miss school for the entire day if they promised to listen to everything I told them, read everything I asked them to read, and answer questions at the end of the day. I wasn’t taking them out of school to ride simulators and eat freeze-dried ice cream; we were going in search of inspiration.

The idea was prompted by the arrival of Discovery (which I also took them out of school to watch). I was about the age of my youngest daughter when the Space Shuttle Columbia first launched on April 12, 1981, and now, thirty-one years later, we were witnessing the (hopefully temporary) end of manned space flight in the United States. It suddenly occurred to me that without adequate education, children today might never know that:

  • Putting astronauts into low Earth orbit was once considered almost routine (the Space Shuttle fleet flew a total of 135 missions);
  • Forty-three years ago — more than four years before I was even born — man first walked on the moon, accomplishing a feat that doesn’t seem even remotely possible in today’s economic and political climate;
  • As children, we frequently saw the Concorde — a supersonic transport jet capable of traveling at over Mach 2 — fly overhead as it landed or took off from Dulles airport, conveying passengers from New York to Paris in only 3.5 hours — over twice as fast as brand new passenger jets being built today.

While I recognize that there’s a lot of fantastic innovation going on right now, we also appear to be in an era when the best way to inspire future generations is to look to the past.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The nose of the Concorde.


The unmistakable delta-wing configuration of the Concorde.


The SR-71 Blackbird.


Probably the best view in the entire museum. The SR-71 Blackbird in the foreground, and the Space Shuttle Discovery in the background.


The top of the SR-71 Blackbird.


Some of the toys that inspired me as a child.

Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Flight

Today we watched the Space Shuttle Discovery land at Dulles Airport on the back of a 747 for its final flight. It made two passes overhead, and I was well positioned for both.

Update (4/26/2012): I got a good look at Enterprise at Dulles airport today. It’s all loaded up and ready to leave for its new home in New York.


Update (4/9/2012): I went to visit Discovery in her final resting place this morning. Absolutely magnificent.


Scientists Propose Detecting Extraterrestrials Through Light Pollution (as Described in “Containment”)

alien_light_pollutionAstronomers Avi Loeb and Edwin Turner recently published a paper proposing a technique for detecting extraterrestrials: use telescopes to look for light pollution from alien cities. From the paper’s abstract:

This method opens a new window in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. The search can be extended beyond the Solar System with next generation telescopes on the ground and in space, which would be capable of detecting phase modulation due to very strong artificial illumination on the night-side of planets as they orbit their parent stars.

I was thinking the same thing when I wrote Containment:

The telescope assembled on the far side of the Moon succeeded in capturing some stunning images, including a few faint pixels of possible light pollution originating from a small rocky planet in the habitable zone of a nearby solar system…

The SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is already using arrays of Earth-based radio telescopes to search for evidence of alien technology (as dramatized in Carl Sagan’s excellent novel, Contact). Since we’re already detecting exoplanets, it seems reasonable that within the foreseeable future, the technology could exist to measure light pollution on extrasolar planets, providing the first hard evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Perhaps alien civilizations have already detected us.

It’s fascinating to watch technologies dreamed up for the sake of science fiction gradually become reality. For instance, the idea of using the LHC for time travel, and artificial photosynthesis.

The Ultimate Collector’s Lego Millennium Falcon 10179

Over the 2010/2011 holiday break, I worked on a lot of Lego models. My kids got some great sets for Christmas, and I finally had time to work on some sets that I’d been accumulating. But the 10179 Millennium Falcon was by far the biggest project we took on.

At 5,195 pieces, this is one of the biggest sets Lego has ever made, and definitely the biggest I’ve ever worked on. It took myself and two friends (and my kids, intermittently) about 14 hours over two days which I consider to be very fast for something this massive.

If you ever take something like this on, here are two important tips to make the process more efficient:

  1. Sort your pieces first. We spent about two hours sorting pieces into 12 different bins and about 12 Ziploc bags before we started building. Being able to find pieces quickly made a huge difference, and I’m sure cut our building time down dramatically.
  2. Use multiple instruction booklets. One of us used the included instruction booklet while I used a PDF version on my iPad, and another friend used a PDF on a laptop. That allowed us to work on three different parts of the ship simultaneously, then bring them all together when they were ready. (Download the Millennium Flacon 10179 instruction book here.)

And here’s how it turned out:

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Geek Art: Can You Break the Cipher?

painting_smallA good friend of mine, Ben Rossi, happens to be a very talented designer and painter. After admiring a painting of his for about a year, he finally decided to give it to me — probably just to shut me up. But before the ceremonious transfer, he decided to make some modifications to it. The name of the painting is now encoded in the metal plates screwed to the canvas. Can you figure out what it is?

You can see most of what you need to see in the small picture below, but there’s a hint that you might need in the lower left-hand corner, so I linked it to a larger version. That’s all I’m going to say for now. Who can break the code first?


Buran-Energia: The Soviet Space Shuttle Program

Did you know the Soviet Union had its own Space Shuttle program in the 1980’s and early 90’s? The Buran-Energia was the Soviet response to the America Space Shuttle program which they viewed as a major strategic threat. The term Buran (meaning “snowstorm” or “blizzard”) refers to the orbiter itself, and Energia (meaning “energy”) refers to the rocket system used to launch it into orbit.

Visually, the Buran was almost identical to the American shuttles, but there were several key differences:

  • The Buran could carry larger payloads (30 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle’s 25). Since the Buran had no main rockets (all the propulsion was provided by the Energia), it could carry more cargo. Additionally, it could return to Earth with a payload of up to 20 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle’s 15.
  • The Buran had jet engines which could provide thrust on reentry meaning it could actually fly (as opposed to the Shuttle which only glides).
  • The Energia system could deliver payloads to the moon. The Shuttle is confined to low-Earth orbit.
  • The heat shield on the Buran was more robust.
  • The Buran could operate entirely autonomously requiring no astronauts or pilots. In fact, the manual system was never installed.

The Buran’s only launch occurred in November of 1988 (ironically, during a snowstorm). It completed two full orbits, and landed automatically only a few meters off its intended target. It was transported on the back of an Antonov An-225 airplane which was designed specially for this purpose, and is still the largest aircraft in the world.

The program was canceled in the early 90’s due to lack of budget, and tragically, the Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the hanger it was stored in collapsed due to lack of maintenance.

The video below shows the evolution of the Buran project. Especially interesting is the animation showing it launching several nuclear warheads from space and destroying most of the United States.


Credits and additional resources: