Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.
Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.
Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.
As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.
For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.
Continue reading “Kepler Closes Eyes After a Decade of Discovery”
By the early 20th century, naval warfare was undergoing drastic technological changes. Ships were getting better and faster engines and were being outfitted with wireless communications, while naval aviation was coming into its own. The most dramatic changes were taking place below the surface of the ocean, though, as brave men stuffed themselves into steel tubes designed to sink and, usually, surface, and to attack by stealth and cunning rather than brute force. The submarine was becoming a major part of the world’s navies, albeit a feared and hated one.
For as much animosity as there was between sailors of surface vessels and those that chose the life of a submariner, and for as vastly different as a battleship or cruiser seems from a submarine, they all had one thing in common: the battle against the sea. Sailors and their ships are always on their own dealing with forces that can swat them out of existence in an instant. As a result, mariners have a long history of doing whatever it takes to get back to shore safely — even if that means turning a submarine into a sailboat.
Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Setting Sail in a Submarine”
In 1940, England was in a dangerous predicament. The Nazi war machine had been sweeping across Europe for almost two years, claiming countries in a crescent from Norway to France and cutting off the island from the Continent. The Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above the English Channel and southern coast of the country, while the Blitz ravaged London with a nightly rain of bombs and terror. The entire country was mobilized, prepared for Hitler’s inevitable invasion force to sweep across the Channel and claim another victim.
We’ve seen before that no idea that could possibly help turn the tide was considered too risky or too wild to take a chance on. Indeed, many of the ideas that sprang from the fertile and desperate minds of British inventors went on to influence the course of the war in ways they could never have been predicted. But there was one invention that not only influenced the war but has a solid claim on being its key invention, one without which the outcome of the war almost certainly would have been far worse, and one that would become a critical technology of the post-war era that would lead directly to innovations in communications, material science, and beyond. And the risks taken to develop this idea, the cavity magnetron, and field usable systems based on it are breathtaking in their scope and audacity. Here’s how the magnetron went to war.
Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: The Magnetron Goes to War”
If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.
For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.
Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions”
The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those who struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.
That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, the need for new and better ways to blow each other up tends to bring out the really nutty ideas and lower the barrier to revealing them publically, or at least to military officials.
Of all the zany plans that came from the fertile minds on each side of World War II, few seem as out there as a plan to use birds to pilot bombs to their targets. And yet such a plan was not only actively developed, it came from the fertile mind of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, and very nearly resulted in a fieldable weapon that would let fly the birds of war.
Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Pigeon-Guided Missiles”
Nothing brings out the worst in humanity like war. Perversely, war also seems to exert an opposite if not equal force that leads to massive outbursts of creativity, the likes of which are not generally seen during times of peace. With inhibitions relaxed and national goals to meet, or in some cases where the very survival of a people is at stake, we always seem to find new and clever ways to blow each other to smithereens.
The run-up to World War II was a time where almost every nation was caught on its heels, and the rapidity of events unfolding across Europe and in Asia demanded immediate and decisive response. As young men and women mobilized and made ready for war, teams of engineers, scientists, and inventors were pressed into service to develop the weapons that would support them. For the British, these “boffins” would team up under a directorate called Ministry of Defence 1, or MD1. Informally, they’d be known as “Churchill’s Toy Shop,” and the devices they came up with were deviously clever hacks.
Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Churchill’s Toy Shop”
On a bright spring morning in 1940, the Royal Air Force pilot was in the fight of his life. Strapped into his brand new Supermarine Spitfire, he was locked in mortal combat with a Luftwaffe pilot over the English Channel in the opening days of the Battle of Britain. The Spitfire was behind the Messerschmitt and almost within range to unleash a deadly barrage of rounds from the
four eight Browning machine guns in the leading edges of the elliptical wings. With the German plane just below the centerline of the gunsight’s crosshairs, the British pilot pushed the Spit’s lollipop stick forward to dive slightly and rake his rounds across the Bf-109. He felt the tug of the harness on his shoulders keeping him in his seat as the nimble fighter pulled a negative-g dive, and he lined up the fatal shot.
But the powerful V-12 Merlin engine sputtered, black smoke trailing along the fuselage as the engine cut out. Without power, the young pilot watched in horror as the three-bladed propeller wound to a stop. With the cold Channel waters looming in his windscreen, there was no time to restart the engine. The pilot bailed out in the nick of time, watching his beautiful plane cartwheel into the water as he floated down to join it, wondering what had just happened.
Continue reading “Miss Beatrice Shilling Saves the Spitfire”