Thursday, December 26, 2013


Well, going to set aside the Yutu miniature for a while. 
Conflicting information. 
The model I started on was based upon the first bits of information as it became available, and as such was incomplete. More images have since become available, and while my dimensions were pretty good, my proportions weren't.
Going to suspend the work on the model for a while, and probably conclude work on that version. More than likely, before too much longer, I expect some Chinese company to produce their own model of the Jade Rabbit.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Behold, Our Robotic Proxies

The Jade Rabbit & Alan Bean
image by Robert Little
Since the landing and deployment of the Yutu rover on the surface of the Moon, my mind has gone back to thinking about robotic vs. human missions on planetary surfaces. Recently, Katy Levinson posted over at BoingBoing a piece talking about how the Moon really is a harsh mistress ("The Moon is Terrifying, and That's Why I Love It")
As a child, I remember clearly the images of the astronauts after those landings, and especially the later ones. Their once pristine white suits were now dingy, covered with lunar regolith, dust. Lunar dust, it turns out, is nasty stuff. Not only does it cling mercilessly to just about everything, it has sharp edges that makes it something of a real threat, not just to equipment, but to human life. Breathing the stuff could be potentially hazardous.
At the same time I read her article, I was working on a model 1/12.5 scale of the Yutu (still frozen in construction, at the time of this writing). As I analyzed every available image I could about the rover, I made a few observations, and in many ways it truly drove home how this approach is in many ways preferable to having human prospectors at this time. 
As I mentioned in my previous entry, I talked about what dimensions for Yutu that were available. The most stated dimension was its height, 1.5 meters, or around 59 inches. This is very close to the same height as human eyes. The way the camera array is setup on Yutu's mast gives the operators an almost human view of the lunar surface. Not quite telepresence, but close. This makes Yutu more than just a rover, gathering data and performing experiments. 
It is very much a human proxy. That's what my drawing up there symbolizes. 
The Yutu rover is going to be exposed to the elements far longer than any human can as well.
Does this negate sending humans to the Moon, let alone any other world within the Solar System?
I don't believe it does. However, having these robotic pathfinders out there doing the grunt work makes the best sense for now. The time is coming when, once again, human beings will step foot on the surface of these other worlds. Until that day, we should leave it to these mechanical proxies. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Trying To Capture The Jade Rabbit In Miniature

Now that China has become the third nation to successfully land a probe on the surface of the Moon, I felt it necessary to do what I usually do.
I decided to build a model.
This isn't normally such a big deal. Just find a good set of drawings, decide on a scale, and start building. In this case, I decided to build the model in the same scale as the old Mattel/Hot Wheel Mars Pathfinder "Sojourner". Unfortunately, the folks at Mattel didn't post the scale for their little rover. Some measurements put it at around 1/12-1/13, so I decided to split the difference and go for 1/12.5, or thereabouts.
The bigger problem, of course, is the lack of drawings. 
This is really not surprising. The CNSA doesn't seem to normally share this information. Trying to build accurate models of their spacecraft is a little daunting. The only dimension that has really come out is the rover's height, 1.5 meters. Fortunately, the shape of the Yutu rover is pretty simple; a box on a box, with six wheels, a neat little suspension system, a mast with both cameras and a radio dish, some weird little masts on the back.  
Actually, it is a bit more complicated than meets the eye. 
There have been various models displayed, namely this larger one.

This model was the oldest displayed, and in actuality is quite a bit different. The wheels are far different than these, the suspension system as well. The hull has a different shape. In short, not really very accurate, but for a long time, it was all we had.
Then, they began showing this model.

(Those Taikonauts are not to scale, by half!)

This one is much closer to the final design. At an indicated scale of 1/8, it seems to show most of the details that actually made it to the operational rover. In fact, there appears to have been a prototype photographed as well, different in small details but otherwise very close

This is the actual Yutu on the Moon.

Looking at the 1/8th scale models, though, there are questions about some details. These details are on the operational rover as well. For instance, on the PV (solar) panels are pairs of probes that stick up for no apparent reason.

The set on the right panel (left in this image) are actually larger in diameter, more like tubes, whilst those on the left (right here) are nothing more than thin rods. Because the panels fold one on top of the other, my guess is that these serve as supports. The port panel folds over the starboard panel. These supports prevent the fragile PV cells from bouncing off one another; the port pair rests inside the tubular starboard, probably down to a stop, while the starboard supports rest against the "floor" of the case on top of Yutu. A simple yet elegant solution.
While I cannot be certain what the other masts and antenna do, at least I have a better idea of their location on the actual rover. We will wait to see if CNSA releases more information. I expect a model to appear soon, but in the meantime, I will plug away on mine.

That little rover below the shiny, foil covered box?
Yes, that's the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover from 1997.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Starship Dreaming.

Like many who became enamored with space, I grew up with a healthy dose of "Star Trek". I was too young to remember when it premiered, but I do remember seeing the final few episodes on NBC in 1969. They re-ran it for a season or two in syndication, but it was gone from the airwaves in Jacksonville by 1971. It returned to the air on WJKS-TV, channel 17, in early 1974, at 5 P.M., and immediately I began watching it. As a starry eyed youth with dreams of space, "Star Trek" was the perfect show. Not only did it give me spaceships; it gave me a daily morality play as well as good stories. I was hooked.
It was that way for the next year and a half, until "Space:1999" premiered. For the first few episodes of this new show, I was convinced that my "Star Trek" days were behind me. A few episodes later, I began to have my doubts. While the designs from "Space:1999" were in many ways better, the stories were a bit too philosophical and a touch slow. 
It was in late 1975 that I met a fellow Trekkie named Greg Staylor. (I am probably misspelling the last name). He lived nearby, and was one of the few people I knew who had picked up copies of those most desired items; the blueprints to the "Enterprise", and the "Starfleet Technical Manual". Both came from the mind of Franz Joseph Schnaubelt (or as we knew him, Franz Joseph). 
My recently turned thirteen year old mind was amazed. Greg let me look through that manual for hours once, and I couldn't put it down.
Over the next few weeks, my mind was abuzz with my own Starfleet designs. Most of them were support craft, cargo carriers, tugs, exploration vessels, etc. But one would stick out.
The U.S.S. Los Angeles.
I recall naming it after the US Navy dirigible, and pictured a small class named likewise. This would only have been like four ships, the Los Angeles, the Shenandoah, the Akron, and the Macon. By the time of "Star Trek," the original series, it was the sole survivor.
Because I knew it was old, akin to the legendary DY-100/Botany Bay class vessels, I decided to borrow from vessels that looked late 20th-early 21st century. It had a primary hull that was spherical, maybe 37 meters (121 feet) in diameter. Length was around 243 meters (800 feet). That basic design borrowed heavily from the "Discovery" from "2001: A Space Odyssey", as well as the designs built by Martin Bower for "Space:1999". 
What separated it from those designs were the two warp nacelles. 
I did a profile drawing of the ship, along with a full description and history, on a notepad that I did all the starships in. 
When my eighth grade school year began, I brought in the notepad to show my art teacher, Mrs. Sullivan. She was very impressed, and encouraged me to do more.
As the school day was ending, a fellow student named Steve came up behind me, knocked the pad out of my hands, and took off with it. Days of pleading, even giving him a bribe of $5, never saw the notepad returned. 
It was simply gone.
But I never forgot that design.
Recently, I had the design come to mind while finishing up a story that involved my thirteen year old alter ego in 1976. After all these years, I never forgot that ship.
Today, I decided to resurrect it. 
This is just a quick sketch, really. It captures the design well. What's different is that my skill as an artist has improved. 

So, what has changed about the ship?
The Los Angeles is not an official Starfleet vessel, so it is not "U.S.S.". It is operated by a civilian crew and spends most of its time near the major Solar System based naval yards. It is based out of Utopia Planitia Yards, Mars. The design allows for easy removal of the warp nacelles (in this case, labelled "TEST", with yellow and black diagonal bands on their sides). Most of the time, it operates using impulse power. When it does do warp drive testing, it normally travels no further than a few light years out. The forward nacelle mounts can slide in tracks down the length of the spine of the ship, allowing for various lengths to be tested. As per my original story, not only is it very old, it is also the sole survivor of its class.
It felt good to bring this design back to life. For a couple of hours today, I was that thirteen year old again, huddled over my dining room table, carefully designing one of my first starships.