Saturday, June 30, 2007

Space Simulator

I'm not a big fan of games these days -- for the most part, there just isn't time, and really, there are so many better things a man can do with his life than play with a computer or a Playstation.

However, over the years, there were a few that captured my imagination -- one of them being Microsoft Space Simulator. What made Space Simulator something special was that it literally put you in a space craft and allowed you to do, go, or land anywhere that you wanted in the the solar system -- and it even had a feature that allowed a type of "fantasy" ship with drives that would get you up near light speed. With time accelleration, you could visit other stars -- and it all fell within the realm of 'real' physics. Of course, if you didn't know a whig about orbital mechanics, the game would do all the hard work for you and let you cheat -- nobody wants to learn math to play games, right? :)

I'd pretty much forgotton about it, but then I discovered a couple years back that someone had taken the idea and ran with it -- in an open source, freeware kind of way. The result was something called "Orbiter: Space Flight Simulator", and it is just exactly that. This is, first and foremost, a simulator of physics; while it is technically a 'game', there are no real objectives other than trying to get, say, the space shuttle into a stable orbit or to do the complex orbital calculations required to get your landlubber butt to the moon. And I really do mean that -- the game's website reccomends that anyone who wants to try the game read a large primer on orbital mechanics and physics. Learning how to get into a stable orbit takes quite a bit of time; learning to get to and dock with the ISS is nearly impossible, and a moon shot is so complicated that you wonder how in the hell anyone ever managed to do it.

Now, as far as the shuttle is concerned, the game is somewhat unrealistic in that it forces the player to manually fly the thing. The shuttle is mostly flown by computer; the astronauts generally sit there and run through checkflights, pressing buttons and flipping switches -- they aren't expected to manually roll and pitch the shuttle during the ascent and re-entry, at least up until the actual landing. But it's a great simulator of what it'd be like if you literally had to grab the stick of the shuttle and pilot it into space.

Anyhow, what makes this game interesting is that it actually makes you a bit smarter. If you can figure out how to get into orbit, you understand quite a bit more about physics than you did when you started, unless physics is already your specialty. If you can figure out how to execute an orbital transfer to Mars, you probably know more than most freshman Physics students about orbital mechanics. I've often thought that one of the best ways to learn things via computers is by experiments and simulations that allow you to play with settings and try different things and see what happens -- this game does exactly that.

Above is a video capture of a shuttle from launch to the beginning of orbital insertion (there is still a good 5 minutes of burn left after the end of this video, and a apoapsis burn on the other side of the planet, but that would be boring.)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Insane lightning photos

I don't tend to post too many links here, but this has to be seen:

Truely *incredible* lightning photos

As the thread describes, these are photos of lightning taken by a Frenchman in the northern Alps, looking down on the city of Geneva. I can't imagine the kind of courage it takes to step outside with a metal tripod when the base of the thunderstorm is almost level with you and you are looking *down* on lightning -- but the risk sure paid off in this case!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Broken Bow stormchase

Been a while since I've posted -- I've been a busy bee! Here are photos from a recent storm chase just north of Broken Bow, Nebraska, on June 6th.

I took the day off work and zipped over to Kearney to pick up my friend, Darren. We waited around for a bit looking at data, then decided to go north to Broken Bow. The cap was a serious issue that day -- I was pretty pessimistic about it breaking, really. We settled down at an awesome soda shop in 'downtown' Broken Bow -- and they weren't kidding about the soda shop thing, either; they had every soda concoction known to man.

After a while, a couple of guys who were sitting in the corner came up and said hi -- they turned out to be storm chasers too. Data starved chasers, at that; they'd driven all the way from Salt Lake City when their laptop gave out on them, and all they had for data was some nowcaster in California that kept calling them. Eventually the cap DID break; it was rather spectacular, too, as an outflow boundary from Colorado smashed into the retreating dryline and literally sent up a 200 mile long severe squall line in less than 15 minutes. This happened in a clear blue sky, mind you. On initiation, we drove east a bit and then north to try to keep up with a storm out ahead of the line. This was a bit of a task, as they were zipping to the northeast at 45 knots.

So, we got to Sargent, NE, and paused in the parking lot of a gas station to behold the insane squall that had formed. It was getting quite dark, and we tried to watching among the lightning flickers for any signs of a lowering. You don't usually get tornadoes in a squall line, but there actually was an embedded supercell to our southwest putting a brief tornado down near Broken Bow (DOH!).

Eventually, the squall started to catch up with us and we zotted east. As we were going east, the gust front caught us. We pulled over and got out as a rather large, rotating gustnado formed about 200 yards to our south. (No photos -- way too dark.) This actually startled me a bit; as I hadn't noticed it until Darren (who was driving) pointed it out. Right behind that was what the dark had hidden -- a haboob. Talk about getting dirt blasted -- I literally had dirt in my teeth when I got back into the car.

We moved on a bit more, then stopped when we got near another clearing. This is how dusty it is in the wake of a haboob!

In summary, no tornadoes seen, but all in all a very fun chase. I'm still hoping to see a great supercell this season, though time is starting to run out. Here's to hoping that I can get Darren a glimpse of his mothership before the year is out!

BTW, this picture was begging for this:

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Today's photo is an abstract of some hay bales we ran across in rural Nebraska. These bales were right in front of a barn that Lanette shot -- so this is my proof, Lanette, that I wasn't stealing your shot! ;) Click to enlarge.