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Archive for October, 2006

NSS Space Settlement Art Contest

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Enter the National Space Society Space Settlement Art Contest

The National Space Society is sponsoring an art contest in which artists are to create visions of a spacefaring future – a future of space settlement, be they on the Moon, on Mars, on asteroids, or orbiting independently in space. Twelve winning entries will be chosen to illustrate the NSS 2008 Space Settlement Calendar. Judges include world-renowned space artists David Hardy and Pat Rawlings.

The Grand Prize winner will have their artwork featured on the calendar cover and as one of the monthly images. This winner will receive a Beyond-Earth Enterprises 8 ounce Flight Container for sub-orbital rocket launch and return (valued at $1,500.00); a physical copy of Mojoworld 3 Professional 3D software (valued at $480.00); a $250.00 cash prize; a 1 year complimentary membership in the National Space Society, which includes a subscription to Ad Astra magazine; and a complimentary copy of the calendar.

There will be four First Prize winners in the categories of Best Lunar Settlement, Best Mars Settlement, Best Asteroid Settlement, and Best Orbiting Settlement. In addition to being published in the calendar, each of the four First Prizes winners will receive a physical copy of Mojoworld 3 Professional 3D software (valued at $480.00); a Beyond-Earth Enterprises Large Photo Kit for sub-orbital rocket launch and return (valued at $74.95); a $100.00 cash prize; a 1 year complimentary membership in the National Space Society, which includes a subscription to Ad Astra magazine; and a complimentary copy of the calendar.

The remaining seven winning entries will each appear in the calendar and the artists will each receive an electronic download copy of Mojoworld 3 Professional 3D software (valued at $480.00); a Beyond-Earth Enterprises DNA Flight Kit for sub-orbital rocket launch and return (valued at $34.95); a 1 year complimentary membership in the National Space Society, which includes a subscription to Ad Astra magazine; and a complimentary copy of the calendar.

For all the contest details go to

The National Space Society (NSS) is an independent, educational, grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization. For US tax purposes, NSS is a tax exempt 501(c)3 educational nonprofit corporation. NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space.

Ad Astra,
Jim Plaxco, Chair,
National Space Society Space Settlement Calendar Committee

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The Relativity of Size and Numbers

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Yesterday I received an email that contained some pictures of the relative sizes of the planets and some stars. One of the more impressive pictures was one that showed the relative sizes of Antares and Betelgeuse, two red giant stars, as compared to our own Sun. In the discussion of these images one person posed the question “so … How significant should we really be feeling, right about now?”
which set me to thinking.

I have seen statements to the effect that there are as many galaxies in the Universe as there are stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. I have seen estimates for the number of stars in the Milky Way that range from 100 billion up to 400 billion. For our purposes let’s suppose that the number is closer to 200 billion
and that all galaxies average the same number of stars, realizing that any average of this type could be off by literally astronomical proportions.

So we are talking about 200 billion galaxies that average 200 billion stars each. Simple multiplication reveals that there are on the order of 4 x 1022 stars in the Universe. In more traditional form, that is 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

Now that’s a lot of stars but consider this: I have seen estimates that a person who weighs 70 kilograms has about 7 x 1027 atoms in their body. Again that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms, a whopping big number. That means that there are more atoms in my body than there are stars in the entire universe.

You can get a ballpark on the number of atoms in your body by first converting your weight from pounds into kilograms with 1 pound being equal to 0.4536 kilograms. Then all you have to do is plug your weight in kilograms into the following equation:

Atoms = (your weight in kilograms / 70) x (7 x 1027)

And as a parting shot, realize that the latest estimates are that the atoms that make up all our bodies and all the stars and all the dust and gas of the universe represent only about four percent of the “stuff” that makes up the Universe. Kind of gives you the feeling of doing a Linda Blair head spin (couldn’t resist that since this is Halloween).

Ad Astra, Jim

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Designing a Spaceship

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

Streamlined Spaceship Picture

Pleasure Cruise Excerpt by Jim Plaxco

As a part of the Windycon Science Fiction Convention I will be participating in the panel “Designing a Spaceship.” From the panel description:

“How does an artist go about designing a realistic looking spaceship? How do authors make their spacecraft believable?? As they discuss the process, a rocket scientist will comment on their progress and process.”

From the lineup I see that one of the other panelists will be accomplished artist and 2006 Hugo Nominee Stephan Martiniere. He certainly has some impressive work on display in his web site galleries. If you like SF art, I highly recommend a visit there. The other panelist are Jeffrey Lilly, Francisco Ruiz, and Donna Waltz.

This promises to be a very interesting topic because different artists and authors have portrayed spaceships in such vastly different ways over time. Even within a single series of stories we see fantastic variety. Take Star Wars for example – there is the moon mimicking Death Star (with no visible propulsion system); the highly compact TIE fighter (complete with hyperdrive, deflector shield generators, laser cannons, not to mention life support); to my personal favorite – the ultra-sleek and very shiny Nubian Cruiser which has not a greeble in sight. For more information about these ships, see the Wikipedia List of Star Wars capital ships.

It’s interesting to look back over the years and see how depictions of spaceships have changed. Way back in the 1930’s spacecraft were primarily blunt nose bullet shaped objects with rocket engines at the back. Perhaps the best example of this design is Zarkoff’s Rocket Ship seen in the Flash Gordon serial. This seems to have been the dominant form until after World War II. Perhaps influenced by the real world design of the German V2 rockets, spaceships took on a more streamlined shape in the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s. These spaceships were sleek, smooth surfaced affairs with large tail fins. Of these my favorite must be the Cosmostrator from the movie “First Spaceship on Venus.” Of course the premier artist from this time was Chesley Bonestell.

The late 60’s saw the arrival of what I will call the “segmented look”. Spaceships took on more of an industrial look with an abundance of girders and modules. A classic example of this type of spacecraft is the Discovery from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Another popular example would be the Nostromo from the movie “Alien.” Perhaps the move in this direction was influenced by the decidedly unaerodynamic shape of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module.

The onset of computer graphics has seen a competition of sorts in the addition of complexity and detail to the spaceships that artists are creating. Much of this additional detail comes in the form of greebles or nurnies. Greebles and nurnies are the small shapes applied to the exterior of a spacecraft to give it added detail or texture. The intent is to make the spaceship look more technologically complex. According to the Wiki page on greebles, the term greebles was first used by the Star Wars special effects crew.

Shining examples of the visually complex spacecraft created with 3D software are the creations of my friend David Robinson. David creates incredibly detailed spaceships using the boolean tools in the 3D graphics package Bryce. You might want to check David’s web site to see what I’m talking about. Be sure to check out the spaceship USS Shenandoah.

At some point though one needs to stop oohing and aahing over how cool a spaceship looks and ask the question “just how believable is this design?” Believability is a design detail that should not be overlooked as it is one element in the viewer’s perception of the picture in question. There are a couple things that have always bothered me about many of the fictional spaceships one sees on book covers and in movies. First is that apparently unlimited fuel and/or power is contained within amazingly small spacecraft – kind of like the old westerns where it seemed the revolvers had an unlimited supply of bullets. What makes this most bothersome is that many of these spaceships are apparently powered by traditional chemical propulsion systems. Physics is physics and fuel can only be compressed so much.

The second aspect that I find troublesome is what I’ll call design impracticality. Many depictions of spaceships can be likened to a Rube Goldberg device in that they are ridiculously complex or nonsensical. One look and you say to yourself “no rational engineer would build it like that.” But this aspect does not bother me nearly as much as the size issue since taking liberties with the design makes the spaceship more visually interesting. I poked around on the net for an example of a design that would lead one to ask the question “why” and came up with a piece of cover art for Science Fiction Monthly by Bruce Penningtion. I won’t go into the questions I have about this design but rather leave it up to you to ponder why a ship would be designed in this way.

If you’re attending the Windycon Science Fiction Convention and want to know more about spaceships, be sure to attend our panel.

About the Picture Pleasure Cruise
The picture shown at the start of the post is titled “Pleasure Cruise.” I created this piece about 5 years ago using a combination of Bryce and Adobe Photoshop. The original picture is on a much larger scale and features a blue giant star. I cropped the image back to just the spaceship and downsized that for posting here.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Mars Imaging Presentation for Pixel Camera Club

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006
Hubble Space Telescope Picture of Mars

I’ll be speaking at the monthly meeting of the Pixel Camera Club Tuesday, December 19 at the Schaumburg Library. The subject of my presentation will be “Imaging Mars” and it should last approximately one hour. My presentation will focus on the workflow and techniques that I use to process the raw PDS (Planetary Data System) image files from the Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Exploration Rover missions to Mars.

Aside from using either the NASAVIEW or GIMP programs to open the PDS files and save them, all of my processing is done in Adobe Photoshop. This includes noise removal, destriping, contrast enhancement, and colorizing. Technically the most difficult of these tasks is the destriping of the push-broom noise inherent in the Mars Global Surveyor images and the stitching together of individual Mars Exploration Rover picture frames. Aesthetically, the most difficult task is the application of false color. I have developed several different methods of applying false color to pictures of Mars but which to use depends on the image itself.

I may also venture into some discussion of Hubble Space Telescope images of Mars. These pictures are stored in the FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) format which is the standard image format used by the astronomical community. In fact the picture that appears at the top of this post is a Hubble Space Telescope picture of Mars. For the inquisitive, Arabia Terra is the large light colored region on the right side. Acidalia Planitia is the dark region at the top. The light colored circular patch at the 7:00 position is Argyre Planitia.

In addition to the coloring challenge posed by these Hubble images, another challenge is locating the necessary FITS files. Locating and retrieving the FITS files for me begins at HubbleSite and ends at MAST (Multimission Archive at Space Telescope).

The folks at Pixel may get more than they have bargained for in that I’ll also be speaking about the geology of Mars. After all, how can you show pictures of Mars without explaining what the picture is. I suspect that many will find some interest here since one of their members indicated to me that many have an interest in nature photography.

Imaging Mars
Pixel Camera Club
7:30pm Tuesday, December 19 2006
Schaumburg Library, Schaumburg IL

Ad Astra, Jim

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Windycon Science Fiction Convention Programming Schedule

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Windycon Science Fiction Convention

I just received an email from the folks at the Windycon Science Fiction Convention informing me of my programming schedule. I am slated to be on the following panels:

The Year in Science: Saturday 10:00 Grand North: From the discovery that Saturn’s F Ring is a spiral to the Demotion of Pluto: the year since last year’s Windycon has brought a plethora of scientific change. B. Higgins, D. Lacey, M. Olson, J. Plaxco, S. Shostak.

Defining the Drake Equation: Saturday Noon Grand North: The panelists will explain what the Drake Equation is and then explain how useful it really is and whether it has any actual basis in fact. B. Higgins, J. Plaxco, S. Shostak, W. Thomasson.

Designing a Spaceship: Saturday 1:00 Narita B: How does an artist go about designing a realistic looking spaceship? How do authors make their spacecraft believable?? As they discuss the process, a rocket scientist will comment on their progress and process. J. Lilly, S. Martiniere, J. Plaxco, F. Ruiz, D. Waltz.

I will also be giving the following presentation:

The Universe According to Monty Python: Sunday Noon: Heathrow: An in-depth, systematic analysis of the planetary, astronomical, and cosmological findings of the comedy group as published in the “Galaxy Song.” J. Plaxco. (Note: attempts to put the name of the group (as seen in the title) into the previous sentence or even this sentence caused my hosting provider’s security alarm bells to go off. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps they have a thing against that group of comedians with the initials M.P.)

I’m especially excited to see that I will be on two panels with Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute. At the closing of last year’s Windycon, I was asked by Pat, one of Windycon’s organizers, if I could recommend someone prominent in the field of SETI. Seth was at the top of my list. I agreed to make the initial contact with him to see if he would be interested. I had met Seth once before: in 1993 at the International Space Development Conference in Huntsville, AL. I don’t recall much about that conference but I do remember Seth and I going out for breakfast at a nice restaurant in the historic district.

As always I look forward to the chance to participate in the programming at Windycon and to catch up with folks who I haven’t seen since the last local science fiction convention.

Ad Astra, Jim

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This Boot Was Made for Photographing?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006
Photoshop Processed Photograph of a Boot

The current issue of Photolife magazine, November 2006, has an article by Freeman Patterson. Titled Thoughts on Photography, Freeman reflects on his career as a photographer while offering advice to those new to the field of photography. I was particularly struck by one quote:“If you have a boot fetish, photograph boots until you’re sick of them or until you become so good at it that footwear manufacturers and fashion houses come knocking on your door – be who you are!”

In essence Freeman is advising newbies to not only pursue their dream but to pursue their subject. Contrast this with a photographer who loves astronomy but instead photographs weddings because that is where the money is. Yes you have to make a living but love of what you’re doing can take you to a higher plane of understanding. If you love photographing boots, you will be more likely to explore all aspects of the subject and become quite familiar with the angles, lighting and texture and ultimately produce better photos of boots than someone with only a passing interest in the subject.

This same reasoning is true of me with respect to the Viking and Mars Global Surveyor missions to Mars. As a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador, and prior to that as a speaker for the Chicago Society for Space Studies, I had created a number of presentations about Mars. But I chaffed at being limited to using the images that had been publicly released. To overcome this limitation I had to figure out how to process the raw image data myself. When I began processing the raw image data files, stored in the Planetary Data System or PDS format, from the Viking and Mars Global Surveyor missions several years ago it took me quite some time to come up with an efficient work flow and a methodology for processing the images. If my desire had been less I would have given up and resigned myself to using the MSSS and NASA publicly released pictures. My love of the subject and the desire to create my own renditions of Mars won out. You can see some of the pictures that I have created at my Mars Art Gallery web site.

To illustrate this story I decided to photograph one of my boots – a first. But rather than take just one photograph, I took two with slightly different focus and from slightly different angles. I then used Photoshop to merge the two pictures together. Layer blends, adjustment layers, selective blurring and sharpening were all used to create the final image (2200 x 1600 pixels).

For the digital photographer, photography should not be considered just mastery of the camera, but mastery of image processing software, like Photoshop, in order to create pictures impossible to obtain from the camera alone.

Ad Astra, Jim

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