How VR and AR could turn you into a bona fide space explorer

12444-c9a15545b69790cfe97a93810d1c1e12Mainstream virtual reality is still in its infancy but it’s been tackling the final frontier – space – for years. Now the latest hardware, such as the Oculus RiftHTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR headsets, combined with sophisticated 360-degree filming techniques, is finally bringing space exploration to the masses.

VR’s ability to produce large-scale 3D environments not only offers armchair astronauts a glimpse of what life is like in space, it is now also more helpful than ever at aiding real-life astronauts in their jobs both on Earth and out there. 

What’s more, augmented reality can offer spacemen and women a new perspective by merging the worlds of Earth and space. Compared to VR, though, augmented reality still has some way to go before we start to see smartglasses and AR helmets both on our faces and in our homes.

Training astronauts

While virtual reality has been relatively slow to catch on in the mainstream, NASA has been using it for more than 25 years because it’s simply one of the best ways to replicate space while remaining safely on home soil.

“Simulated environments have always been important in astronaut training,” explains Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut crews all spent at least one third of their training time in simulators and contemporary crews use VR simulations to train for tasks on the International Space Station (ISS).

Early NASA headsets were improvised affairs – the first prototype of the Virtual Environment Workstation headset was built from a motorcycle helmet – and the American space agency has continued to update the tech involved. Astronauts now use NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab (VRL), located at the Johnson Space Center, to train for missions aboard the ISS. Using a headset, real-time graphics and motion simulators, astronauts train to carry out tasks during microgravity spacewalks.

A vital part of the training involves using their powered jetpack – the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER) – which carries very limited fuel, to navigate their way back to the ISS should they get stranded in space. 

The ability to recreate a life-size 3D environment makes VR ideal for astronaut training and now NASA is looking at using augmented reality to keep reality in the frame.

You can read the full article at Wareable (originally published 20 April 2016).

Why you should go and check out Cosmonauts at the Science Museum, London

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While the U.S.A supposedly won the space race – with the admittedly impressive feat of putting a man on the moon – It was the Soviet Union that led the way with practically every other space ‘first’.

The Soviets were behind the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1), first man in space (Yuri Gagarin), first woman (Valentina Tereshkova), first dog (Laika) and first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov).

What’s more, it was also responsible for the first photos of the dark side of the moon (Luna 3), first probe to orbit the moon (Luna 10), first multi-person crew (Voskhod 1) and first space tourist (Dennis Tito on Soyuz TM-32). Even following the Apollo moon landings, it was the Soviet Union that was the first to build a space station (Mir).

However, until now Soviet and Russian space tech has been wildly underrepresented, especially at London’s Science Museum, with its permanent space gallery including only a passing mention.

The South Kensington institution is putting that right with its museum-based form of Perestroika in which curators have gathered together the largest collection of Russian space exploration artefacts ever seen. Brought in from numerous locations, most of the pieces on show have never been on public display before.

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The impressive selection of artefacts ranges from early satellites and spacecraft to personal cosmonaut memorabilia and Soviet space propaganda.

Techie highlights include Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 capsule, visibly charred from its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, along with first multi-person space craft Voskhod 1 and the spacesuit used by Helen Sharman who became the first Briton in space when she flew to space station Mir in 1991 on a collaborative mission between Russia and a collective of British companies.

A scale model of the stunning Sputnik 1 hangs from the ceiling as you enter the exhibition. The Soviet Union’s visionary rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, then only known as the mysterious ‘Chief Designer’ cannily declared that the history-making satellite needed to look good as one day it would be displayed in museums around the world.

Seeing numerous parties of school kids arriving at the Science Museum reminded us how just important this exhibition is. When the T3 crew were at school in the dying days of the Cold War, we were taught about Gagarin and Tereshkova and not much else.

It wasn’t until 1989, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost reforms in full swing, that the Soviet Union even admitted that it had worked on a manned lunar programme, which it ditched in 1970 after Neil Armstrong beat them to the moon.

The Cosmonauts exhibition includes the LK-3 Lunar Lander – a five-tonne spacecraft built to go head-to-head with Apollo – a sight never seen outside of Russia before…

You can read the rest of the article at T3.com (originally published 13 October 2015).

The wearables from NASA that made it back to Earth

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What has spaceflight ever done for us? A hell of a lot, actually – and aside from trying to get humans to Mars, NASA’s technology has trickled down to a host of wearable gadgets.

NASA makes a huge investment in technology and each year it releases a report called Spinoff. This details all of the innovations that have been developed as a result of space travel, from Sony’s latest ‘magnetic fluid’ speakers to more realistic 3D mapping in video games like SSX.

NASA estimates that over the last decade or so, its spinoff innovations have saved 449,850 lives, created 18,888 jobs and created $5.2 billion of revenue.

From healthcare to aviation, sports and product manufacturing, the benefits of spaceflight have filtered down into almost every aspect of our lives, and there are several pieces of wearable kit that have been developed as a result of space exploration. Here are some of the best so far…

Zephyr Bioharness

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NASA was in need of a gadget with real-time sensors for astronauts to track their own physiological symptoms in order to prevent vomiting caused by microgravity.

Step forward Maryland-based Zephyr Technology which developed a product for the space programme, while also giving it the opportunity to improve its own technology. The Bioharness is now used for tracking health and fitness by the US military, firefighters and several pro sports teams in the NBA, NHL and NLB as well as numerous college teams.

Jockey Staycool

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Famous US underwear maker Jockey’s Staycool range was created using the ‘phase change materials’ that NASA developed for astronauts’ space gloves. The special material is designed to maintain a suitable temperature for optimum comfort. Basically, space pants.

Jasper Systems compression wear

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NASA’s Ames Research Centre originally developed liquid-cooled garments to keep astronauts’ airtight spacesuits from becoming hot and humid. The technology has since been used by California-based Vasper Systems to produce compression garments which are designed for more efficient exercise by concentrating lactic acid buildup in the muscles.

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 8 April 2015).

Astrophotography: How to shoot the night sky

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Long exposure showing the astrophotography setup (Libby Plummer)

For those of us living in large towns and cities, we rarely get to see the stars due to round-the-clock light pollution so it’s often assumed that photos showing spectacular starscapes have been produced in Photoshop. However, as the stunning pictures of the recent Geminids meteor shower prove, it is possible to capture incredible starscapes on camera, just as long as you step away from the street lights.

Professional snapper Andrew Whyte (@LongExposures) makes a living from doing just that – he’s one of the UK’s leading night photographers and is also well known for his quirky Lego man photos. We tagged along on an astrophotography shoot with him to learn how to shoot the night sky.

Where can I shoot the night sky?

While it’s possible to shoot the night sky in the UK, plenty of preparation is needed and that all starts with the location. Wide-field astrophotography – which involves capturing the night sky with a normal camera, without the need for a telescope – requires a location that’s largely free of light pollution.

These areas are known as ‘dark sky’ sites and can be found all over the country. It’s also a good idea to research the area and find out about any features – like buildings and monuments – that can be used as a foreground to your starry backdrop.

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Long exposure with star trails (Libby Plummer)

We took our shots around Douglas on the Isle of Man, but you can find out which sites are closest to you with a quick internet search. Dark Sky Discovery is a useful place to start.

It’s also important to check the weather, as too much cloud cover will prevent you from seeing the stars at all. Andrew Whyte pro snapper Andrew Whyte, who specialises in long exposure photography which includes astrophotography and lightpainting, offers some advice:

‘I’ve found XCWeather to be fairly reliable for forecasting cloud cover, and timeanddate.com provides my lunar phases and timings. A guy known as @VirtualAstro does a great job of updating Twitter with information like the times of the International Space Station passing over and aurora alerts’.

What kind of camera do I need?

While most cameras offer a range of pre-set shooting modes with some even including ‘night sky’ options, you really can’t hide behind these when it comes to astrophotography, says Whyte.

He argues that you really need to get to grips with your camera’s manual settings to get good results. But what qualities do you need to look for in an ‘astro’ camera’? Whyte explains:

‘Ultimately what makes a good camera for astro is image quality. Current models with a high ISO range, like the Sony Alpha 7S, which has a range of 40-409,000, are especially well suited to low-light photography. This particular camera also has a full frame sensor which is good for dimly lit conditions’…

You can read the rest of the article at Yahoo News UK (originally published 19 December 2014).

Wearables in space

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

From the famous Mercury Seven astronauts to the spacemen and women on the ISS, what these pioneers wear is absolutely critical when it comes to coping with life at Zero-G.

Much of the technology that Nasa develops for space flight eventually makes it into the products that we all use here on Earth, but what about wearables in space? We’ve pulled together some of the space-aged kit that astronauts wear in space and a few things they might wear in future…

Space watch

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While the first watch to make it into space was a Sturmanskie, worn by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the official watch of the Apollo moon landings was the Omega Speedmaster. But it was the Timex Datalink that was arguably the first smartwatch in space as it was also the very first watch capable of downloading information from a computer.

Made in conjunction with Microsoft, the watch has been approved by Nasa for space travel and has been worn by many astronauts since, but the Speedmaster remains the only watch certified for spacewalks.

Health monitoring

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Wearable health monitors have been a big part of human spaceflight from the start, with all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts wearing biosensors ranging from a belt-like harness to a full biosuit comprising heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure monitors.

Nasa recently tested out Google Glass and Bluetooth heart rate monitors during simulated space walks on its Neemo (Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations) underwater facility for potential use on the ISS in future.

GoPro

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Action cam specialist GoPro was named ‘official on-board camera of Nasa’ in 2011. Used by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), and famously by Felix Baumgartner in his epic space jump, the brand’s Hero 3 is compatible with a huge selection of mounts, ideal for keeping the action steady in zero gravity.

This spectacular selfie was above was snapped outside the ISS by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide…

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 28 September 2014).

The Great British Take-Off: Brits in Space

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ESA astronaut Tim Peake

Next year Tim Peake, a former Major in the British Army Air Corps, will be Britain’s first official astronaut to make it into space. Selected by the European Space Agency (ESA), Peake will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) where he’ll spend six months carrying out experiments on the ESA’s Columbus laboratory module.

While he’ll be our first official astronaut, he won’t be the first Briton in space – that honour goes to Helen Sharman, a chemist who was selected from 13,000 hopefuls for Project Juno – a joint mission between the Soviet Union and a consortium of British companies in 1991. Sharman was also the first woman aboard the Mir space station.

A handful of Brits – albeit ones with American citizenship – flew missions aboard Nasa’s space shuttle programme before its retirement in 2011, while two other astronauts with dual nationality took self-funded flights on the Russian Soyuz. Bizarrely, English soprano Sarah Brightman is in training for a privately funded seat aboard the Soyuz in 2015.

However, Peake is the first to boldly go where just a handful of Brits have gone before as part of an official astronaut corps and is due to blast off on Soyuz TMA-19M in November 2015 as part of Expedition 46, alongside Russian Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa’s Timothy Kopra.

As a home-grown space adventurer, clearly Peake has the potential to become something of a celebrity, in a similar vein to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), whose Tweets from the ISS managed to captivate the Twitterverse and make being an astronaut look like just about the best thing in the world (and beyond).

Peake has already made a great start as poster boy for the British space contingent on Twitter (@astro_timpeake) and Flickr and he hasn’t even left the planet yet.

Naturally, we’re all hoping that the ESA has already been in touch with David Bowie to enable Peake to do a rendition of Space Oddity on the ISS, just as Hadfield did. However, he’s already cast doubt on our dreams, quipping:

“I do play the guitar, but very badly, and I wouldn’t inflict my singing on anybody.”

Come on, Tim!

While he might not be blessing us with his vocal talents (or lack thereof) any time soon, Peake has teamed up with maverick chef Heston Blumenthal to launch the Great British Space Dinner – a competition to invent a “tasty meal with a hint of Britishness” to offer a cosy slice of home while he’s on the space station.????????????????????????????????

And while we’re on the subject of taste, it’s no secret that Lavazza recently unveiled the first coffee machine designed for use in space – the superbly named ISSpresso – which will make its way to the ISS in November 2014. But wouldn’t Brit Peake prefer a nice cup of tea?

The Sussex-born spaceman sets the record straight:

“Tea in the morning, and a cup of coffee at 11 o’clock”.

He didn’t say what biscuits he prefers with his cuppa, but his quintessentially British precision when it comes to hot beverage timetables is admirable.

Space-friendly coffee machines aside, the list of innovations that filter through from space exploration programmes to consumers is, well, astronomical.

From new ways of improving commercial flight safety and superconductors that enable lower cost MRI scanners, to producing more realistic terrains in video games and making your car seats more comfy – it’s almost certain that you will have benefitted from these advances in some way.

Nasa estimates that over the last ten years alone, its spinoff innovations have created 18,000 jobs, reduced costs by $4.9bn, generated $5.1bn and saved 444,000 lives.

But if spaceflight is so beneficial to us down on Earth, then why has the UK never made any plans to put together a British astronaut corps? As you can probably guess, it all comes down to cost – with a manned spaceflight programme deemed prohibitively expensive for our frugal country’s wallet.

However, while the UK Space Agency doesn’t have its own crew of astronauts, it is a member of the ESA, providing a rather modest 6% of the European collective’s budget (although it doesn’t supply any direct funding for the ISS).Tim Peake

Further adding to Blighty’s space credentials, the UK Space Agency recently announced the eight coastal locations – six of which are in Scotland – that are under consideration to become the UK’s first spaceport. Due to open by 2018, the first site would provide a base for satellite launches as well as defence and military applications. It could also provide a lift-off point for space tourism companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Of all the suggested sites, my personal preference for a ‘local’ spaceport would have to be Glasgow Prestwick Airport, purely as it was the only place where Elvis Presley ever set foot in the UK thanks to a refueling stop en route from his army service in Germany. Just imagine the crossover merchandise possibilities in the gift shop.

In the meantime, Tim Peake will be flying the flag for the UK, and hopefully learning the chords to Space Oddity, if only because the lyric “Ground control to Major Tim…” is simply too good to waste.

Let’s all raise our bone china teacups to the Great British Take-Off.

This article was originally published on 17 July 2014 on The Huffington Post UK.

Buran: The forgotten Soviet space shuttle

Buran HPIt’s been just over two years since Nasa mothballed the Space Shuttle, but did you know that the Soviet Union built an almost identical shuttle known as Buran?

Development on Buran (‘snowstorm’ in Russian) started in 1974, primarily for defence purposes in response to the perceived military threat posed by the United States’ shuttle programme.

With the US winning the race to put the first man on the moon, it’s easy to forget that it was the Soviet Union that managed to get the first man into space (although Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard by just a matter of weeks).

In 1963, the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space – a milestone which, wasn’t met by the US until 1983, courtesy of the late Sally Ride. However, with Buran, it was the Americans that led the way, with the Soviets following their lead.

The Buran, superficially at least, was practically identical to Nasa‘s shuttle, almost certainly as a result of Cold War espionage. Having said that, the US didn’t make things particularly difficult for the KGB – all of the technology that went into the space shuttle programme was, inexplicably, unclassified and open to anyone.

The ‘shared’ data from the US meant that Buran was very similar to the American vehicle in terms of size and shape. However, with a strong heritage in space flight, the Soviets had also been working on a form of reusable space plane as far back as the 1960s, so they also had plenty of their own homegrown tech to deploy for Buran. The main difference was that Buran’s main engines were housed in the standalone Energia launch vehicle, rather than on the shuttle itself.

STS-Buran-petitThe propellant used in both the boosters and the shuttles’ manoeuvring systems was also different, and the thermal protection tiles were laid out differently on the two vehicles. The Buran was designed with an automatic landing system, which was only later fitted (and never used) on Nasa’s shuttle as a precautionary measure. The Soviet shuttle was designed to take a maximum crew of ten, as opposed to the space shuttle’s seven and crucially, the Soviet version was fitted with ejector seats.

The USSR built a total of eight test models and five production models and on 15 November 1988, the first flight-ready Buran shuttle was launched from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although the flight was unmanned, the shuttle spent three hours in space and made two orbits of the Earth before landing safely.

The timing of the Buran’s 1988 maiden flight was unfortunate. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in full swing, the Soviet Union was crumbling, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only a year away. The state and its economy eventually collapsed in 1991, with the Buran programme being officially cancelled in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, a year before the first planned flight with a crew on board.

While the US may have won the shuttle race, with the programme ceased after 30 years of service, US astronauts have had to hitch lifts to the International Space Station (ISS)aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft – at around $63million a seat.

While both the Buran, and the more successful Space Shuttle both led to technical advances for their respective space agencies, many of which are now in commercial use, the orbiters themselves now live out their days as museum exhibits.

Buran_Launchpad_12_medNasa’s four remaining shuttles (including test vehicle Enterprise) are spread out at various museums across the US. Sadly, the only Buran that actually made it to space – OK-1K1 – was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002.

Test vehicle OK-GL1 is displayed at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany, while another test unit is displayed in Moscow’s Gorky Park, serving as a tourist attraction and a relic of the Soviet era.

Having made it my mission to see all of Nasa’s decommissioned space shuttles – I’ve already ticked off Enterprise, Discovery and Columbia (the last of which I saw on the launch pad ten years before its tragic demise) – Buran has now been added to the list. Next stop, Gorky Park.

For some great images, head over to russianspaceweb.com and buran.su

This article was originally published on 30 July 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Neil ArmstrongWhen I heard the sad news of Neil Armsrong’s death via NBC‘s Twitter feed, it really hit home that the only generation to have walked on the moon won’t be with us forever.

Many of the elite Apollo astronauts, including first American in space Alan Shephard, have already departed and only two of the Mercury Seven – immortalised in the 1983 biopic The Right Stuff – survive (although John Glenn continues to bat a cracking innings at the age of 91 and even managed to get into the record books as the oldest person in space when he flew on the space shuttle at the age of 77, as well as being the only individual to fly in both the Mercury and shuttle programmes. What a life!).

Even relative youngster and first American woman in space Sally Ride passed away a short time ago. Sad times indeed.

If we ignore the crackpot conspiracy theorists who claim that it was all an elaborate hoax (as, thankfully, the scientific world does), the moon landing in 1969 can be considered one of the most significant moments in 20th century history.

It’s safe to say that I’m a bit of a space nerd. I own mission patches from all of the Apollo flights, my favourite mug is emblazoned with Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz’s memorable book title “Failure is Not an Option” and I got up at 6am on a Monday morning a few weeks back to witness the Mars Curiosity rover touching down on the Red Planet.

Neil ArmstrongI recently visited the the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where I got the chance to see the Apollo 11 command module as well as a huge selection of artefacts from the mission including spacesuits, and the Hasselblad camera used by Michael Collins to take photos of the lunar module.

In short, I would’ve loved to have been around to witness such an important moment in the history of science and exploration – my mum has always talked fondly of staying up until the small hours to watch the moon landing with my gran.

Although most well-known for his history-making role as Commander of the Apollo 11 mission and being the first human being to set foot on the moon, making him the first of only 12 men to do so, Armstrong also flew in Nasa’s previous programme, as Command Pilot of the Gemini 8, making him one of an elite band of astronauts to have flown in more than one space programme.

Second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin paid tribute to Armstong, saying:

“My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history.

“I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit”.

Neil ArmstrongLast year I wrote about the the end of the Space Shuttle programme, which was canned after 30 years to make way for the Constellation programme, in which the Americans were set to go back to non-reusable spacecraft.

Following the NASA Authorization Act 2010, this plan was ditched with Nasa not expected to launch its own spaceflights again until at least 2016. In the meantime, American astronauts will be hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians, for the measly sum of around $63 million per seat.

We can only hope that Nasa picks up where it left off in terms of manned spaceflight. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s dangerous, but in the spirit of human endeavour, it would be a crime not to invest in further exploration.

While the future of spaceflight appears hesitant, one thing’s for certain – whatever “the right stuff” is, Armstrong had it.

Images: Nasa

Space shuttle: the ultimate gadget – 30 years of service

Space shuttle final launchHere’s a feature that I wrote for Pocket-lint.com on the history of the space shuttle to coincide with the final mission.

Despite lifting off 135 times, making an appearance in a Bond film, and even its immortalisation in Lego, the famous space shuttle is taking early retirement. On 8 July 2011, the Atlantis orbiter will embark on the very last space shuttle mission bringing NASA’s shuttle programme to an end after 30 years. It’s the end of an era, both for space exploration and for technology, so it seems only fitting to look back over the life and times of the space shuttle, the amazing gadgets and gizmos that make her go and find out why the programme is coming to an end and what happens next.

Firstly, let’s deal with the basics. What is the space shuttle? Well, it was the first reusable orbital space craft, unlike the old Saturn V rockets as used in the Apollo missions (including the moon landings) that could only be used once. The concept of a spacecraft returning and landing horizontally, like a plane, was born in the 1950s, although development of the space shuttle didn’t actually begin until the 1970s, after the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was given the official go-ahead by president Richard Nixon in 1969.

The very first space shuttle orbiter was named Enterprise and was designed to perform test flights in the Earth’s atmosphere, so it was never actually ready for spaceflight. Construction began in 1974 and it first took to the sky in 1977. Supposedly, the shuttle was originally going to be called Constitution but was re-named following a campaign by Star Trek fans who thought that it should be named after the Starship Enterprise. Serving US president Gerald Ford said that he was “partial to the name”, but that may have had more to do with the fact that he spent much of his WWII naval service on aircraft carrier USS Monterey, which served with the famous USS Enterprise, the most decorated warship in the conflict. However, adding some weight to the sci-fi story, or at least making full use of the publicity that it generated, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and a fair number of the cast were present at Enterprise’s dedicaton ceremony.

You can read the rest of the article here on Pocket-lint.com (originally published 08/07/11).