Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Opportunity rover reaches 10 years exploring Mars

NASA is celebrating the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's tenth year on the surface of the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

     The Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, continues its mission of exploration, far past its given warrantee as it makes new scientific discoveries, 10 years after its mission on the Red Planet began. Its most recent findings involve the confirmation of a more milder environment on ancient Mars found in older rock samples that contain higher levels of water when compared to oxidized and acidic rock samples that were examined before.

     “These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity,” said Opportunity’s Deputy Principal Investigator, Ray Arvidson, in a statement released by NASA.

(Video produced by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

     This new evidence was revealed thanks to the help of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) with arrived in orbit around the Red Planet in 2006. This orbiting satellite used its Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) to look for iron-rich clay material at the Matijevic Hill region located on the rim of Endeavor Crater. This area is believed to have been formed around four billion years ago. Opportunity studied the formation of the massive crater by comparing its structure in relation to nearby formations of rock.

     This is just the latest in a series of revelations from a mission that has gone well beyond the three months of service initially expected for Opportunity. Working in a close collaboration with MRO, Opportunity and the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover are helping to make important discoveries to aid manned missions to Mars planned in the coming decades.

     “The more we explore Mars, the more interesting it becomes. These latest findings present yet another kind of gift that just happens to coincide with Opportunity’s 10th anniversary on Mars,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in a statement released by NASA. “We’re finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars.”

     To date, no mission to the fourth planet from our Sun has detected any proof that Mars was ever inhabited, only that it was capable of supporting life in the distant past. Unlike the Earth, Mars didn’t have the ability to keep a liquid iron core that forms a protective barrier known as the magnetosphere. Without this protection, radioactive particles from the Sun known as the “solar wind” prevented Mars from forming an effective atmosphere allowing for oxygen and water to both form and stay in place. For those who have been involved with the Mars Exploration Rover project since its inception, while the past ten years have been historic, what awaits the golf-car sized robot is just as exciting.

     “We’re looking at the legacy of Opportunity’s first decade this week, but there’s more good stuff ahead,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., the mission’s principal investigator in a statement released by NASA. “We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission.”

By James Tutten

(Published at www.spaceflightinsider.com on Jan. 27, 2014.)

Delta II rocket blasts NASA's Opportunity rover into space from
Cape Canaveral in Florida on July 7, 2003. Photo Credit: NASA

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Orion spacecraft takes shape, begins vital testing

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion spacecraft is being prepared for its first unpiloted flight test, Exploration Flight Test-1, scheduled for launch in September.  (Photo credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Work on the Orion spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is shifting to a new vital phase in preparation for its first test flight scheduled for September of this year.

“This really marks the change from assembling a spacecraft to beginning the testing and eventual integration of systems,” said Scott Wilson, NASA’s manager of production operations for the Orion program.

Technicians working on Orion’s crew module and service module have nearly completed much of the work needed to begin stress testing the spacecraft's primary components. This includes propulsion and avionics systems used to control the vehicle in-flight, and other wire harnesses and electronic components used to convert what was a stripped down pressure vessel into a working spacecraft.

The next phase in this project will be to test the components and systems to ensure they function properly before the scheduled test flight in September. Other tests have been performed on Orion ground-based crew modules, including water landing and parachute deployment, but this will be the first crew module that will fly into space before returning to Earth.

The service module, which acts as a bridge to the rocket body and provides additional power and propulsion while in space has all its primary structures complete with secondary systems nearly completed. It too will begin a rigorous testing phase within the next month to ensure its structural integrity before it is eventually joined with the crew module and heat shield.

Joining all these complicated systems together will be the next milestone after this phase of testing is completed. Fueling the spacecraft, attaching the heat shield, placement within the service module, attachment of the Launch Abort System, and sending everything to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to be placed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, will lead to the planned Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).

NASA currently has two areas of focus when it comes to spaceflight in the post-shuttle era. The first being the Commercial Crew Program that works with private companies like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and The Boeing Company to develop spaceflight capabilities for government and commercial projects such as launching satellites and supplying cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

The other focus for NASA is the exploration side with planned missions beyond low-earth orbit. This is broken down into three areas; Space Launch Systems (SLS) that will eventually provide the largest heavy lift rocket ever constructed, the Orion program consisting of the spacecraft and all it’s components, and the Ground Systems Development and Operations program that will integrate everything and work on launches and recovery.

Exploration Flight Test-1 will also be the first major test for the heat shield that will protect Orion as it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft will perform two large and highly elliptical orbits that will take it to a distance of around 3,600 nautical miles from the Earth, the furthest distance traveled by a human-rated spacecraft in over 40 years. This will allow Orion to reach speeds around 20,000 miles per hour upon reentry, the same speed it will see when returning from distant missions.

Orion’s crew module is larger than the Apollo’s command module and will return to Earth at speeds greater than the space shuttle. All this will create heat friction that can only been fully understood by physically launching it and observing the outcome. Heat tests with arc jets have been conducted by Lockheed Martin in Denver, with temperatures that are greater than what is expected, but it won't be until the heat shield is tested as a whole in space that the design will be truly evaluated.

“I think getting back to space and exploring is what the nation needs and wants,” said Paul Cooper, Lockheed Martin’s director of assembly and test operations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “Our launch in September of this year is going to be a major step, we’ll get a lot of data from that launch and roll that data into the 2017 launch with SLS and beyond.”

Orion’s ultimate goal is to complete future missions to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and explore other deep areas of our solar system. If everything goes according to plan, project managers hope to see Orion’s first manned mission fly from KSC in 2021. 

By James Tutten 

(All photos by NASA)

Orion's service module secured to a work stand. (Photo credit: NASA/Daniel Casper)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stone Sour, Pop Evil rage on tour's opening night

     LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Hard rock titans Stone Sour and Pop Evil shattered the sound waves at the House of Blues Orlando on the opening night of their 2014 winter U.S. tour on Jan. 14.

     A haunting keyboard melody accompanied by lightly tapped tambourine played to a pitch-black stage in anticipation for Stone Sours’ entrance. The sold-out crowd cheered and shouted as the band’s members filed in, which climaxed with lead singer Corey Taylor’s triumphant arrival.

     Stone Sour went right into action, starting their set with the live debut of “The House of Gold & Bones,” from their latest studio album “House of Gold & Bones – Part 2.” This driving rock song showcased not only the bands tight-knit musicianship, but also featured the full range of Taylor’s vocal style that was in peak form throughout the night.

     Posed with one foot raised on a center stage platform was Taylor who was singing and screaming his heart out. Taylor is also the lead singer for the fanatically followed heavy metal group, Slipknot, and has perfected the difficult balance of melodic vocals and visceral screaming that has earned his groups strong fan support and international success.

     Taylor openly showed love and respect back to the audience between songs, as he looked genuinely excited to be back on tour after months off the road. “You guys are setting the bar high for the rest of the tour,” said Taylor on-stage as he praised the crowd.

     Never was this harmonious connection between band and audience more apparent than during the performance of the groups’ hit songs “Say You’ll Haunt Me,” “Through Glass,” “Bother,” and “Absolute Zero.” These well-crafted songs were supported by the crowd who sang along word for word and cheered on with deafening applause between each number.

     Not everything was perfect with the overall sound in the packed venue. The vocals and high treble were drowned out by the bass levels that were a little too high.

     “I wish who ever was running the soundboard had the vocals a little more pronounced and the group better balanced,” said audience member Mike Jenniges. “But overall, they were awesome and put on a great show.”

     Performing before Stone Sour was the rock group Pop Evil who also suffered slightly from poorly leveled audio, but still put on a phenomenal show.

     Pop Evil gave an animated blast to each song they performed from the squealing pinch harmonics that start off “Trenches” to the vicious shouting featured in “Deal With The Devil.” Every member of this group emphasized each note and beat they performed and didn't let up 'til the end.

     “Pop Evil was great,” said concertgoer Pathless Rusulis after the show. “ I dug ‘Trenches’ and I really dug their performance and energy on-stage.”

     Lead Singer for Pop Evil, Leigh Kakaty, ended their set by making the announcement that the group would be joining Five Finger Death Punch on their upcoming world tour once they finish this tour with Stone Sour.

     Tickets have been selling out well in advance for this tour, and anyone lucky enough to get to see these groups in person are sure to be impressed by what's to come in the future.

By James Tutten

(All photos by James Tutten)

Corey Taylor screams his heart out performing with Stone Sour in Orlando.
Stone Sour guitarist, Josh Rand, plays his pink polka-dotted Ibanez guitar.

Pop Evil's lead singer, Leigh Kakaty, on-stage at the House of Blues Orlando.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Stolen Babies create unique twisted metal fantasy

     ORLANDO, Fla. — Experimental rock group Stolen Babies are sharing their fantastical sound with heavy metal lovers on their current nationwide tour with Pop Evil and Stone Sour.

     “We weren’t going to turn this down,” said guitarist and bassist Rani Sharone when asked about accepting the invitation to join Stone Sour on tour. “We weren’t going to say ‘sorry, we’re staying home to write new music.’”

     Originally the group planned on working on music for their next album to follow “Naught,” released in 2012. Frontman for Stone Sour, Corey Taylor, saw them perform in Los Angeles a few years earlier, and gave word to their management that they were invited to join them and Pop Evil on their current tour that runs till mid-February.

     It’s difficult to musically compare Stolen Babies to the other groups that they tour with. They can all be classified as rock, but with most groups you know what to expect because they fit into a nice pre-packaged mold. Stolen Babies strive to be unpredictable as they embrace multiple music genres and cross several artistic boundaries.

     “We’re totally cool with the term experimental rock,” said Sharone. “We try to assimilate a lot of different styles, and within one song you might hear more than just one.”

     Their hauntingly dark song “Second Sleep” started off their set with the unique sound of a twisted metal fantasy. The faster and much angrier “Civil Disguise,” that doesn’t skip a beat with its rage against the system message, followed their opening number. Most of the songs they played were off their latest album, with only “Filistata” and “Tall Tales” from their first album, “There Be Squabbles Ahead,” performed on opening night.

     Lead singer and accordionist Dominique Lenore Persi was riveting while in action on stage. She transforms during her performance into a gothic girl-power persona, complete with bewitching movements and dynamic vocals. She often changes from singing with a slightly trembling operatic style, to raging with a powerful low scream filled with angst and pain.

     Rounding out this three-piece group are twin brothers Gil and Rani Sharone, who use their twin connection to play music perfectly with each other through some kind of mysterious musical telepathy. Gil is a talented percussionist who isn’t afraid to exercise the backbeat of any rhythm, and also frequently changes his style with ease to fit the ever-shifting sound of the group. Rani is also diversely talented as he switches from bass to guitar between songs as needed, and has a great on-stage energy when their music kicks into overdrive.

     Other members have come and gone since the group formed in 2002, but the group made it clear that this current lineup has always represented the core of Stolen Babies.

     There have been some challenges to this streamlined configuration, with tweaks being made to see what songs work best live. This three-piece style was debuted during a show in Oakland, California at The New Parish venue back on July 7, 2013.

     “It was probably the most horrifying artistic thing I’ve ever done,” said Persi talking about their show at The New Parish. “We’re just going with it, because if you're not putting yourself out there and making a fool out of yourself and moving forward, you just get stagnant.” The reaction from fans and their peers has been unanimously positive, with many stating the group has never sounded as good as they do now.

     They have also entertained the idea of picking up a multi-instrumentalist to join them in the future, but are currently filling out the empty side of the stage with a ghoulish sidekick. Positioned stage right from Persi was a freakish skeleton dawning an unusual mask to become the creature known as “Blobflower,” created by Persi for their last music video.

     When asked about Blobflower’s role with the band Persi said, “Ya, it’s nice to have moral support and Blobflower is our moral support.” Sharone added “And he’s like E.T., he has a heart that lights up, so he’s a prop and he’s a friend.”

     After an unscheduled hiatus between their first and second album, the group is now more focused than ever to keep touring and making music. This current tour allows thousands of hard rock lovers to be exposed to their music and shows have been selling-out well in advance. The crowd size and excitement is comparable to past tours with groups such as Sevendust, Lacuna Coil, Otep, and Devin Townsend Project.

     After this tour was confirmed the members of Stolen Babies say they are more inspired than ever to pound the pavement while touring and continue their musical experimentation. They also responded to the concept of what they could see themselves doing if they weren't playing music for a living.

     “If I wasn't playing music on-stage as a performer, I would literally play music,” said Sharone. “I’d like to be a classical music DJ. It’s impossible to think of anything that doesn't involve music.”

     “You know, I would have liked to have been a marine biologist,” said Persi. “I admire people who pursue stuff like that. I love sea life and the ocean, and that’s why a lot of the art I make for the band is influenced by sea life, it’s another universe.”

     Stolen Babies now plan on writing new music during the spring after they finish touring, and have also been approached about performing on certain tours during the summer, but nothing has been confirmed just yet.

     They do assure their fans that “new things are on the horizon” and if their past is any indication, it will have a unique style with eccentric creativity.

By James Tutten

(All photos by James Tutten)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Central Florida debut of 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'

     WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — Julia Gagne is making her return to directing with the Central Florida debut of the campy comedy musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Garden Theatre which premieres on Friday, Jan. 31.

     “The show is funny and above all it’s a lot of fun,” said Gagne. “I think my leads are terrific and I have a wonderful strong cast.”

     “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is a musical comedy that premiered in 2004 and went on to have a successful run on Broadway followed by tours around the U.S. and internationally. This story of two con men that compete to steal $50,000 from a rich young woman is based off the 1988 film by the same name starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

     Lead actors involved in this production show much promise as they embrace and develop the characters they will portray. Wesley Slade, who plays the zany Freddy Benson, displays sublime acting chops as he turns from over-the-top slapstick to loveable loser at the drop of a hat. His primary con man competitor, Lawrence Jameson, played by David Almeida is also strongly suited in his comedic and acting ability, and has a brilliant mastery of the several dialects he alternates between throughout the show.

     These two have their work cut out for them as they try to scam the rich heiress Christine Colgate played by the lovely and talented Jillian Gizzi.

     One of the dedicated crewmembers helping Gagne with directorial duties is stage manager Amy Cuccaro. Some of her many responsibilities include coordination of production teams, scheduling of prop purchases, costume customization, and general assistance with all behind-the-scenes action.

     “Julia is highly collaborative, so I do get to collaborate with her on different things,” said Cuccaro. “But mostly I’m there to assist her with anything she needs as far as communication and coordination.”

     Rehearsals for this production began on the first week of December, with a break for cast and crew from Dec. 20 till Jan. 1 for the holidays. Much of the music and choreography was focused on before the holiday break, and since coming back the cast has been working to perfect their lines and blocking before the opening night at the end of this month.

     This show will also feature eight diverse dance numbers that incorporate several movement styles including western, ballroom, jazz and others. This will give a challenge and opportunity for the ensemble and other cast members to show off their versatility.

     “It’s so great for a dancer and choreographer to work like this,” said choreographer Tami Uhrig. “Because the dancers get to do so many styles of dance all combined into one show.”

     Challenges are a part of any musical, but this location has created several hurdles that must be overcome by the cast and crew. The main challenge being the limited access to the theater itself, with only a few weeks of rehearsal time allotted in the space due to other demands. The cast has often gone over blocking and dialog in an adjacent ballroom area and even Winter Garden’s City Hall.

     The Garden Theatre will also be closed off to the cast and crew the weekend before the opening of the play. This is the time normally spent with all the technical run-throughs designed to work on lighting requirements, setting the sound levels, and testing out the microphones worn by cast members. All of this will now have to crunch together with the dress rehearsals before opening night.

     Despite any and all challenges the show must go on, and Gagne is set to utilize her decades of theatrical experience to fix any problems that arise along the way to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

     “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Garden Theatre will run from Friday, Jan. 31 until Sunday, Feb. 23. Showtimes will be Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.

     Tickets for general admission will be $29, with a discounted rate of $25 for students and seniors. More information can be found at the Garden Theatre’s website and advanced tickets can be purchased through vendini at this link.

By James Tutten

(All photos by James Tutten)

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