Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 2)

India's Chandrayaan-1 science probe is closing in on the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) reports that its ground controllers in Bangalore have successfully tested the lunar probe's Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC) and that its image analysts in Byalalu confirm that the first photos (of the earth) were received in good order.

The TMC is one of 11 scientific instruments aboard the Chandrayaan, according to the Indian space agency. ISRO has a payload description index on its Web site--with this page devoted to the TMC.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu reports online today that ISRO's leaders are satisfied with the first test of their nation's first probe into deep space.

"Although we tested all the 11 scientific instruments of Chandrayaan-1 on the ground, we wanted to cross-verify, after the launch, the entire chain of its instruments, data storage, data handling systems, downlinking and radio frequency systems including the antennas at Byalalu village, near Bangalore and the ground processing of the images," M. Annadurai, the Chandrayaan-1's project director, told the paper. "The entire system is ready now."

He concluded that: "This shows that the instruments on board Chandrayaan-1 are ready to image the moon after it goes into the final orbit around the moon."

If all goes as planned, the probe should attempt to enter a polar orbit around the moon about six days from now.

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 1)

With the launch of a space probe to the moon last week, India has taken another important step in its quest to become a major space-faring nation.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired an Indian-made rocket carrying a probe called the Chandrayaan-1 on a two-year science mission to moon on 21 October. It was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

The Chandrayaan (a name that means "lunar-sojourn" in many Indian languages) is tasked with studying the surface of the moon for its mineral and chemical composition. The mission, which will cost about US $80 million, is India's first to reach beyond the orbit of the earth.

"Our scientific community has once again done the country proud and the entire nation salutes them," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a message from Japan, where he was making an official visit.

The craft is currently over halfway on its flight to a lunar rendezvous, according to a press release yesterday from ISRO.

Nanotechnology: Backlash against the Word

Last year, I suggested on this blog that maybe manufacturers employing nanomaterials would prefer not to mention the word â''nanotechnologyâ'' in their marketing rather than promote it.

Even earlier this year, I offered the opinion that perhaps companies trying to engage in reasonable debate on the safety of nanotechnology might be taking a big risk since there are so few â''reasonableâ'' people with whom to carry on the debate. Better just to keep your mouth shut.

This all seems to have been confirmed in a recent article entitled â''The New Plasticâ'' authored by Alex Schmidt that shows that in fact a PR firm specializing in nanotech advises companies to cut â''nanotechnologyâ'' out of their marketing lexicon.

The article is peppered with phrases like â''This dearth of information prevents consumers from making informed decisions.â'' One feels compelled to take the author aside and point that itâ''s sort of like the dearth of information we have on the hazardous materials used in making our mobile phones, no?

The article concludes with the ominous prediction of a future world where PR flaks are the ones determining what the consumer knows about nanotechnology-enabled products not government bureaucrats. Question is when has this ever not been the case for just about every consumer product?

Digital Railroad Derails


Digital Railroad's goodbye message will be taken bitterly by most.

Todayâ''s collapse of Digital Railroad is making me think about the value of Internet-based storage. Digital Railroad, until this morning, billed itself as a web-based archiving tool for photographers. Not only could you house your entire archive, but you could also tag images with keywords â'' allowing Photo Editors such as myself to search them and purchase image rights. While they did announce a week and a half ago that they were in trouble, trouble tolled a sudden-seeming death bell this morning with an announcement that site users have 24 hours to retrieve their data or lose it forever. Yes, thatâ''s the sound of thousands of photographersâ'' screams echoing in their homes. No, that sound is not heard in the forest of the Internet.

Iâ''ve always been a proponent of backing up your back-ups. (All it takes is for one photographer to not back-up their files and then lose everything from a one-time only shoot). And surely some people have done that and wonâ''t be struggling. A lot of people use the site for more than storage â'' they use it for their business model. All of those keywords will be gone, as will the ability to quickly sell pictures. It wasnâ''t just photographers who used DRR, though. I often buy images from Redux Picturesâ'' stock arm. They re-sell images from their wealth of photographers and from The New York Times. I just talked to Lori Reese there and she said that they are actively working right now to switch over to PictureMaxx. A visit to the venerable VII archive looks normal though I donâ''t know what will happen tomorrow â'' if the sites will just cease to function. People who remain faithful to the idea of Internet archiving will likely trudge over to competitor Photoshelter now. They have until November 4th to get a 3 month free addition to the yearly subscription. I just had my first real interaction with them earlier this month, buying an image through their now defunct stock-selling division. Looks like they decided to focus on the personal archive just in time. This disaster may lead people to keep their own archives where they can see them. Iâ''m sure the pie chart of a photographerâ''s time just slid a few extra percentage points into the business side of things. And as with any company downfall, competitors that can manage to survive this recession will surely benefit.

While Photoshelter is well known, I think working photographers should consider Digitalfusion. I heard Art Streiber sing it a love song last week at Photo Expo and I have to admit that it was pretty convincing at the time. Not only do they store everything, theyâ''ll process it, host sites for clients to see edits and do your retouching. Of course in this age of economic chaos, even the best deals make us weary.

Big Blue Combined with Nanotech Reassures Newbies

There use to be an old business adage: â''No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.â'' I guess that phrase was popular about the time that IBM ruled the roost for electronic typewriters.

But ever since Microsoft did there little end around on IBM and got the whole OS and software business while IBM--with egg dripping down its faces--was left competing with the rest of the world on the production of metal and plastic boxes, itâ''s not so clear cut that IBM is still such a reliable business decision.

But nations new to nanotechnology and eager not to screw up are somehow assured by calling upon IBM to answer all their nanotechnology anxieties.

Case in point Saudi Arabia are calling upon IBM to help sort out how nanotechnology can be applied to improving water desalination, solar energy and petrochemical processes.

Oh yes, IBM has a storied history in nanotech, no doubt: Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer and the creation of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), and then Don Eigler using an STM to spell out IBM with xenon atoms. Great stuff, ground breaking.

But nanotechnology for water, for solar power and the petrochemical business?

I am not sure I would be banging on IBMâ''s door for advice or solutions on nanotechnology for these areas, but I have to confess the incantation of the acronym â''IBMâ'' sounds a lot more impressive than the names of companies that are actually focused on these areas.

NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform

After four weeks of head scratching and trial and error, NASA engineers have finished a workaround on the electronics onboard the Hubble Space Telescope that should enable the science satellite to resume observing the universe.

The space agency posted a statement yesterday saying that the Hubble's crippled control and communications backup unit finally responded properly to instructions sent to it by ground controllers. This clears the way for handlers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to initiate the first of the Hubble's science instruments tomorrow.

The orbiting platform went dark on 27 September when a component known as the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system failed after 18 years in service in the cold of space. That left NASA with the problem of starting up a parallel version of the control system for the first time by sending a complex series of commands from the ground. It took the agency's engineers a couple of weeks to figure out how to get everything working fully (please see NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope), but they seem to have now overcome some initial setbacks.

The proof will come when the Goddard team instructs the platform's Wide Field Planetary Camera to begin aiming at a distant object and transmitting images on Saturday. If that goes well, the second test will come next week when they attempt to restart the Advanced Camera for Surveys for solar observations.

A committee quickly assembled to study the Hubble failure reported its preliminary findings to the space agency yesterday, as well. The review group, headed by the chief of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, John Campbell, issued the following analysis:

Regarding the sudden halt of the spacecraft computer, the team concluded that three separate events occurring with near-simultaneity were responses to a single triggering event. The triggering event was most likely caused by a self-clearing short-circuit, or a transient open-circuit, in the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system. One or more such events would not be highly improbable in hardware inactive since 1990, and will not harm the telescope, although it could cause another interruption of science operations.

If all goes well over the next week, the Hubble should be able to resume a portion of its historic observations of the cosmos. NASA, which had been planning to send astronauts to the telescope this month to upgrade its equipment, will then proceed with a shuttle mission early next year to replace the compromised control system along with new parts for other aging components.

Wish them luck.

Results of the San Francisco analog shutdown test

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gifOn Tuesday evening at 6:15 pm, 18 San Francisco broadcast stations briefly replaced their standard analog television programming with a notice informing viewers that their television sets are not ready for Februaryâ''s digital television transition. Stations promoted a variety of numbers to call for help, including three manned call centers, an automated number, and the national FCC help line.

Besides acting as a wake-up call for consumers who have, so far, ignored the upcoming analog shut-down, the test gave call centers and television stations an idea about what to expect when the real shut-down happens.

Hereâ''s an analysis of what happened, provided to IEEE Spectrum by Public Broadcasting Service affiliate KQED.

In the San Francisco market, 209,000 households received over-the-air television only (that is, they donâ''t subscribe to cable or satellite television). Many more households have second or third televisions that rely on over-the-air signals.

Of those 209,000 households, 40,000 were watching television during the test (perhaps they should have run the test during Survivor instead of during the evening news).

More than 2500 people called one of the phone lines during or shortly after the test. The live call centers were jammed until 6:30 p.m. Callers asked about the coupon program, about getting technical assistance, or about their own particular signal issues.

Kudos to the local stations for going beyond the public service announcements that have been running for months, and tests like this will likely motivate people to get their converter boxes. But getting the consumer out to the store to get a converter box is only the first step; actually making digital television work in all of these 209,000 households is an entirely different game, one in which nobody seems to be keeping score. I wish the FCC would poll a sampling of those ordering converter coupons and find out if they successfully made the switch to digital and how much it really cost them, or if they just gave up and are now paying a monthly subscription fee to a cable or satellite company.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

This is just a test: San Francisco TV stations shutdown analog broadcasts tonight


Broadcasters around the country arenâ''t just relying on public service announcements to warn viewers about the upcoming analog shutdown. Theyâ''re not stupid, they know that the vast amount of TV-viewers ignore advertisements, and even the analog TV viewers that that are watching donâ''t realize that the ad warning them that some TV viewers may have to take action to prepare for the February 17th analog shutdown is talking about them.

Sometimes, you have to really shake people to get them to pay attention. And tonight, San Francisco Bay Area broadcasters are going to try to shake analog TV viewers up. At 6:15 pm, local TV stations will briefly replace their analog signals with a still image warning viewers that they are not prepared for Feb. 17th and need to take action. This isn't trivial, broadcast engineers had to rig up a way to send a different program feed to the analog transmitters than they do the digital, cable, and satellite transmitters.

So far, brilliant. (The Bay Area is not alone, at least 80 such mock shutdowns have happened so far around the U.S.).

The image will display a link to, where folks can go online to learn all about the shutdown, along with a phone number for a regional call center. Explains broadcast station KGO: â''three beeps will be heard and an on-screen graphic will appear on our channel informing the viewer if their television is "ready" or "not ready" for the digital transition.â''

Here's where I get worried. Iâ''m glad theyâ''re including the phone number; I just hope that it goes quickly to a real person, not an endless voicemail menu, and it's a person who can go beyond telling the people to get a converter box and actually walk them through the process. Because the folks I know that will be most affected by the shutdown, that is, the elderly, donâ''t necessarily jump on line whenever they see those three little Wâ''s. They donâ''t necessarily have computers. They need to have a conversation with someone who is patient, and knowledgeable, and can in one phone call order their coupon and, perhaps, put them in touch with a volunteer to hook up their system for them. The video below, showing an elderly person struggling to follow conversion directions, is meant as humor, but itâ''s not that far off base. (This video is staged, but Consumer Electronics Association has launched a contest for the best DTV conversion video posted on YouTube, suggesting people converting family and friends record their experiences.)

Because the more and more I think about the day that analog TV dies, the more I realize that coupon programs and public service announcements and even test shutdowns arenâ''t enough. The Wilmington, NC, fire department, which in September went out to residentsâ'' homes and helped them hook up converter boxes, isnâ''t enough.

We are going to need volunteers in every city, knowledgeable volunteers, who donâ''t mind running out to Radio Shack to pick up that extra cable or signal booster that didnâ''t come with the TV converter; who can answer a hotline and help the people that canâ''t figure out which cable goes where. Could it be that we needâ''IEEE members?

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

One Shuttle Rolls Back From Launch Pad, One Rolls Out to Launch Pad

Caught up in the midst of recent problems with the Hubble Space Telescope, the U.S. space agency finds itself coming and going at the same time.

Today, NASA rolled the shuttle Atlantis back into its protective hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla., from its position at Launch Pad 39A. It was originally to have flown into space last week to make repairs on the Hubble (please see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble). Ironically, the orbiting observatory shut down unexpectedly on 27 September when the primary computer system controlling its science equipment and transmitting data from them failed. Since then, NASA has been trying to remotely initiate the system's back-up unit to operate the telescope's instruments (please see NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope). This has caused the space agency to postpone the latest Atlantis mission, STS-125, until next February at the earliest.

Meanwhile, shuttle Endeavour, parked in the interim at Launch Pad 39B, will be moved Saturday to the now vacant Pad 39A atop a massive vehicle crawler. Endeavour's upcoming mission, STS-126, will carry new crew members to the International Space Station. According to a NASA press release, Endeavour is slated to lift off on 14 November.

U.S. States Get Graded on Reverse Electricity Metering

By common consent, rapid adoption of renewable energy resources by homes and small businesses depends on the availability of whatâ''s called net meteringâ''the ability, technically and legally, to sell surplus energy back into the grid. Only if local jurisdictions guarantee that option will homes and small businesses find it profitable to install solar panels, erect a small wind turbine, or drill to tap geothermal energy. A new report from the Network for New Energy Choices assesses the state of the union in terms of net metering, grading progress or regression in all 50 U.S. states.

The report finds that three states in particularâ''Arizona, Illinois, and Floridaâ''have made major progress in setting standards and rules for net metering, and that 15 others have made significant progress. Texas, in a section about â''worst practices,â'' is singled out for criticism, its having formulated a progressive law only to let special interests torpedo it. New Jerseyâ''s standards and rules get extensive attention in a section about â''best practices.â''

Some states are taken to task for setting unduly low caps on the size of electrical systems eligible to feed back electricity into the grid, and for creating unnecessary bureaucratic impediments. New Jersey is praised for simplifying procedures, eschewing unnecessary safety requirements, allowing relatively large entities to feed back electricity, and for adopting model interconnection standards developed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More