Build your own space communications network – on your iPhone

Among the many unsung heros of the space program are the people who build and maintain NASA’s space communications networks. After all, every spacecraft, whether it’s Hubble, the International Space Station, or even your everyday weather satellite has to communicate with the ground somehow. But let’s face it, space communication is not exactly the glitziest of jobs in the space program.

It does, however, make for a pretty cool game!

NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) program are kicking off this year’s World Space Week with NetworKing, a cool little game that let’s you build up your own space communication network:

Screen shot from NetworkKing – Credit: NASA/SCaN

The premise is fairly straightforward – you start out with a single ground station to keep track of two satellites for the duration of their missions. The more of you communicate with spacecraft, the more credits you earn to build additional ground stations, make repairs, and improve your network capacity. The more network capacity you have, the more spacecraft you can support and the more credits you can earn to develop more technologies and build out your network.

Along the way you have to deal with disasters that randomly happen to any of your ground stations, keep as many spacecraft flying as possible without overloading your network, and so on. Eventually, you can build up the entire Near Earth Network, the Space Network, and the Deep Space Network – all of which are actual networks consisting of actual ground tracking and relay satellites operated by NASA in real life.

I don’t play games that often but once I got the hang of it I found it to be fairly straightforward. I even admit it brought back some memories of my brief stint as a spacecraft flight controller at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. It was there that I “flew” spacecraft through the same ground stations depicted in this game.

So check it out as it’s definitely worth a play. NetworKing is available for Windows, Mac, and iOS and best of all, it’s free!

Crowdfunding a space science startup

It doesn’t appear that our investment in NASA is going to change anytime soon, and that’s a shame because about 10% of NASA’s budget goes to funding research and education. In other words only about 0.05% of the entire federal budget goes towards actually funding the research that leads to scientific and engineering breakthroughs or educating the next generation of scientists.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money to be spending on a resource our country – indeed, the entire world – needs.

And so, a team of astronomers and educators got together to fund Uwingu, a private company that will use its profits to fund research and education projects. The amount of annual funding it can provide is, of course, dependent on how well the company does. But the business model seems pretty straightforward; develop and sell educational products (after all, that is what the founders of the company are good at already) and use the profits to fund more research and education projects.

It’s so crazy, it just might work!

But like any company, Uwingu needs startup capital, and this is where we come in. So far they’ve raised a little more than the $65,000 of the $75,000 they need, but they need that final push to get them there. Check out their fundraiser page and kick in a few bucks. Every bit helps!

Here are a couple of videos to give you a better idea of what they’re all about:

I wish them the best of luck geting this venture off the ground.

Symphony of Science – Climate Change

John D Boswell at Symphony of Science created a beautiful video that describes our greatest challenge to date – climate change. Yes, the subject is a downer, and I would love to believe that it really isn’t happening as much as the oil industry would like us to. But the reality is that it is happening, and it’s getting worse.

Boswell’s video features the late Isaac Asimov, speaking out on climate change way back in the 1980’s. It’s a reminder of the fact that human-caused climate change is nothing new; we’re only now starting to feel the worst effects of it.

There is, however, some hopeful news. The climate change we are experiencing is caused by us, and that means we can do something to reverse it. Boswell emphasizes this point in his video, and turns what could have been a depressing commentary on rapidly diminishing polar ice into a message of hope; we can correct this problem.

If we choose to.

The Universe, now in collectible trading card format

Saturn, with statistics depicted
Saturn, from the The Solar System deck

Over the years, I collected some trading cards and even played a few games to a rather obsessive extent, hoping that my opponent trading partner wouldn’t have the cards I had and would be dumb enough to trade his rare card for a handful of my common ones.

But thanks to the Internet, and to people willing to do the hard work to make them available, you can download the entire set, print them out, and hoard them impress your friends.

And that’s just what Stephen Wilkins at Oxford University has done by creating an Astronomy card game. It’s still in the proofing stage, but you can download, print them out on card stock and trade away!

Card sets like these are a great way to engage the public. Of course, you can hand out links to websites but people may not remember to check them out later. But if you can give them something they can hold in their hand, it makes an immediate, physical impression.

Game play and other uses

Stephen Wilkins envisions the cards can be played in a manner similar to Top Trumps. Being an American, I haven’t heard of or played this game before, but it sounds like it would be a great game to play with kids. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Use the Solar System deck to create a model of the solar system by arranging the planets in order of distance, and using the information on the cards to set the distances to scale.
  • Create a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with the cards from the Stars deck
  • Work out the lifecycle of stars from the Stars and Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decks
  • Create a logarithmic scale of the universe from all the decks!

Looking sharp

And by the way, the production values of these cards are slick! I love the typography and graphic design. Below is a sample from each deck:

Gemini North
Gemini North Observatory from the Observatories deck
Antares from the Milky Way: stars deck
NGC 3603 star cluster
Young star cluster NGC 3603, from the The Milky Way: Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decsk
image of Centaurus A with stats
Centaurus A from The Universe deck

Needless to say, it’s hard to summarize all of the awesomeness of the universe into a few card decks, but this is an excellent effort. I can imagine expansion sets to include stuff like the Kuiper Belt, Brown Dwarfs, Binary Stars, Exoplanets, Black Holes, Quasars, Dark Matter, Cosmic Microwave Background, etc.

After all, you have to do something to keep the collectors busy!