Tag Archives: University of Southampton

Overture

 

Overture

Wow, I guess it’s been a bit a while since my last (proper) post [my recent round-up of Sonisphere 2014 aside]. Well, there’s a multitude of reasons as to why that is, but they largely boil down to me being TOO DARNED BUSY with one thing and another (some of which I’ll shed light on in today’s entry) and not always having the energy to update the blog with all the goings-on and extra-happenings that have been abound since April or so. Anyway, I’m here now to make amends, so let’s make the most of things while it lasts, yeah?

So, what has been happening? Well, I guess the major thing is that I’m now a PROPER ACTUAL DOCTOR (of philosophy) and stuff, and ‘Silly Hat Mode’ got activated last Wednesday at my official graduation ceremony in spectacular fashion.

SillyHatMode

I submitted my corrected thesis back in May; got things verified and checked in June or so; and I handed the final, darned thing in around a month or so ago to get stored in the University library to gather dust, spider’s webs and the weight of no-one looking at it. I’m all done! Four-plus years of research have come to an end, and last Wednesday, I donned silly hat and silly cloak and picked up an official certificate saying that I’m now a { Ph.D survivor } and that I can officially leap into action when the cabin crew of a transatlantic flight announce “Is there a Doctor on board?” and totally be no help at all.

AAAaaaaanyway, since there aren’t enough pictures of me on the internet wearing silly hats, here are some pictures from my PhD graduation. Hooray!

The downside to finally crossing the finishing line in the PhD Quadruple-Marathon was the almost simultaneous (if entirely coincidental) culmination of my funding as a Senior Research Assistant doing research into space debris; meaning that my era at the University of Southampton has, now, properly come to a close, almost ten years since I first begun this crazy journey through academia. Naturally, this has meant that I’ve – yet again – been thrust into the heady world of scavenging for employment, yet so far have had only minimal success in landing some gainful employment. I’m still trudging onward with (at least most of) my marbles still intact, and I’ll no doubt get somewhere in the end, but just making sure that chin is kept well and truly up has been the main priority over the last couple of months. #KEEPPUSHING, don’t give up, #PARTYHARD etc. etc.

PeepShowHard

Despite the fact that I’ve not always been 100% successful at keeping on top of things whilst I’ve been out of either gainful education or gainful employment, I’ve broadly been managing to keep myself busy with job-search endeavours but also filling time by delving evermore into a few creative projects: one of these has been a strategy-board-game-thing that I’ve been desperately hammering into prototype form on-and-off for a couple of months, but the one I’m most proud of (so far) was something known as ‘Project: Elephabric’ ~

Through a whole bunch of stress and last-minute artistic wrangling, 3-metres of burnt-orange cotton fabric, black fabric paint and some potatoes were turned into a badass, home-made Arabian wall-hanging to help decorate a friend’s “Arabian Nights”-themed outdoor party gathering thing.

All in all, I think I’m pretty happy with the outcome; I’m hardly the world’s most proficient artist, but hopefully the hand-painted flaws and imperfections add to the charm rather than distract from it. It also was my first-ever foray into the world of fabric-painting (not to mention the first time I’ve made potato-stamps in about twenty years) so given my relative inexperience, I think I can be pretty pleased with my artistic endeavours.

If nothing else, I managed to get the paint mostly on the fabric and not on myself, so I guess that’s progress of sorts, right?

Anyway, anything that is unrelated to elephants is irrelephant, so I must wish you farewell; at least for now. Godspeed, comrades!

[Zinar7]

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Interstellar

Interstellar

It’s been a little while since I properly posted here. So what have I been up to?

Well, I’m still plugging away at my post-doctoral research, trying to push through the wall of Academic Sucess & get my own research paper published and working on a bunch of ‘space’-based infographic-type display materials for some of the University’s outreach and public engagement events that I’m involved in; the latter of which I’m going to show off here because I can.

From some of the space debris work that @spaceman_ben and I have been involved in, I’ve constantly been looking for engaging, and interesting, ways to communicate some of the information that we’ve collected about the current state of Earth Orbit and to inform the general public about some key facts about ‘Space’. There’s a lot of cool, interesting and captivating infographic posters floating around the internet; and I thought I’d put my hand to coming up with some for myself. Some of my inspirations were:

I designed and produced each one from scratch (well, after making a template myself for the style of the graphic) in CorelDraw X4; collating some of the data on active spacecraft and debris drawn from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database and the public catalogues of space objects (SpaceTrack // Celestrak). Some of the results are also from the EU space debris project ACCORD which I’ve been contributing to, along with results from debris simulation results from the University of Southampton’s space debris model, DAMAGE [Dr. Hugh Lewis]. It’s been pretty fun; turns out I quite like doing graphic design and getting to funnel a little bit of creativity into my regular (research) job. 

Anyway, without further ado, here they are (I, II and III):

I. SPACE: 2014 |

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1llwe4T

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1llwe4T


II. SPACE DEBRIS |

Debris_InfoPoster_LR

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1lltche

III. EARTH ORBIT | 

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1cPNSsR

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1cPNSsR

Each poster is (IRL) at A0 size, approx. 84 x 59 cm, which is pretty big. Since the (original) files (output at like 600 dpi) were MANY MEGABYTES big, I cranked the resolution down a tiny bit to upload them here. If you want to download the super-high resolution [600 dpi; warning: large file size], then head over here:

Download full versions:

I | Space: 2014 (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 4.4 Mb)
II | Space Debris (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 5.4 Mb)
III | Earth Orbit (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 4.4 Mb)

Hopefully they should be winging their way to the printer’s office very soon and all ready in time for Southampton Science and Engineering Festival, which is just under a month away. I feel fairly proud of the end result (so far, at least), so hopefully I’ll feel even more pride once they’re turned into actual, physical things that I can hold in my hand/hang up on the mantelpiece/etc.  Either way, it was a monster effort and a massive time-sink to make and edit then around my regular research responsibilities, so I’m fairly pleased that they’re at a point where I can shove them out of the door and not keep tweaking them indefinitely like the perfectionist that I am.

Not sure what my next creative project will be quite yet; I’m toying with the idea of designing a card+dice game based on WWII air race/dogfighting, but that’ll need some further thought before I thrust myself into the endeavour. In the mean time, I will ponder.

Divider

Anyway, that’s all the proper stuff that I wanted to say; I shall finish up by sharing some of my most-recent playlists, cataloguing the soundtrack to 2014 so far.

I therefore leave you with these014/01 – Black Sails to the Wind (folk metal);  014/02 – Flextronix (electronic/indie lo-fi). Onwards to glory!

Playlist_01401

Playlist_01402

[Zinar7]

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UK Space Conference 16-17/07/2013 – Personal Debrief

Last week was the second UK Space Conference, so along with a couple of colleagues from the Astronautics Research Group, we headed up to steely Glasgow to put up and run the University of Southampton exhibfaition stand at the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) for the 16th-17th of July. All things considered, everything went pretty well and we put on a good show; nonetheless, here’s a few of my thoughts about the experience and what happened at #UKSC2013.

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Having sorted out shipping all of our exhibition materials up to Glasgow via DHL the preceding Friday, Ben, Rhys and I hopped onto a plane from Southampton Airport at Monday lunchtime to arrive in Glasgow in the afternoon. Grateful that our exhibition kit had all arrived at the on time (and in one piece), we set to work on fitting it all into our 2 m x 3 m display area. We set up the big stand, a couple of pull-up banners, the display counter and a table-top touchscreen PC, and hung the neon-coloured Southampton High Altitude Re-Usable Platform (SHARP) cubesat from the roof of our display (and its parachute) to attract the eye of potential visitors. With almost ruthless efficiency we erected everything in (unofficial) record time, ensuring that everything that could be duct-taped down was duct-taped down – either for the safety of passing hobbits/children who are in constant danger of the main stand collapsing and falling on them, or to avoid expensive pieces of equipment going AWOL during a busy conference. At this stage, I’m fairly sure that stock prices of duct-tape go through the roof every time we organise an outreach event, so we should probably look into some sort of sponsorship deal.

UKSC-DAMAGE

The University of Southampton’s space debris evolutionary model, DAMAGE

The conference began in earnest at 0900 on Tuesday, where I was immediately required to abandon the stand in order to deliver a talk in the opening session the conference, which was the ‘Have Your Say’ Soapbox session: a couple of months back, delegates were invited to submit a 140-character abstract for a 5-minute presentation slot, with those selected to give the presentation then required to finalise a 140-word summary and a set of 5 presentation slides that did not exceed 5 minutes but which fit into the main topics of the session covering “current industry and academic projects, new results, proposals for new work and availability of support and funding.” Taking my recent work on the ACCORD project, I submitted (with the help of Ben) an abstract entitled ‘A Web Tool for Spacecraft Manufacturers & Operators to Promote Sustainable Space Operations’, with the aim of introducing our new ACCORD environmental impact rating for spacecraft which measures future, prospective spacecraft designs for their potential impact(s) on the space debris environment in Earth orbit.

UKSC-Soapbox

The talk went fairly well, though I can categorically say that the strict five-minute slot was indeed very restrictive (but in a good way), and that the sight of your presentation slides slowly filling up with a red border as you approached the five-minute limit (and the threat of the microphone being cut off) was certainly an effective way to get speakers to conform to the time restrictions. Sadly, I didn’t win the prize of an iPad that was being toted for the ‘best presentation’ of the session, but I think I pulled things off fairly well – it was certainly the only space debris-related talk across the whole conference and, looking past the blinding stage lights, I could see a few members of the audience photographing my slides for future reference, so hopefully I raised some very valid awareness about our work on ACCORD. I definitely stressed out far more about the talk than I honestly needed to, but I always tend to get butterflies at these sorts of things.

[if you would like to download, or view, my presentation slides from the Soapbox session, you can find them by clicking here]

Returning from the stand after my talk, it was immediately obvious that we’d made the right choice to exhibit at the conference: despite the expense, hassle and energy required to purchase a slot and fill it with attractive marketing gear (and three post-grads), we were the only major UK ‘space’ university (aside from the Open University) to properly exhibit at the conference, and I think that this was good certainly from the point of view of ‘reaching out’ to industry and also trying to talk to students prospectively looking at careers in the space industry. It also helps that the space industry is scattered with graduates from the University; in particular, the current Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, Dr. David Parker, and the Chief Engineer, Dr. Richard Crowther – it was certainly nice to hear so many ex-students talking about their time here with some fondness. That being said, following a thorough survey of all the free pens we could steal from other stands, the generic University of Southampton pens we borrowed from the Faculty were by far the cheapest-looking ones at the conference and to blame, in no small part, for how few got picked up by visitors and how many we had to bring back to Southampton. For next time, I’d definitely be interested in getting some proper (and classy-looking) Astronautics Research Group ones, or at least Aero/Astro department ones.

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Our stand was positioned fairly well (an end slot near an aisle, and visible all the way down the main aisle) and nestled between the stands for the  National Physical Laboratory and Thales Alenia Space, so we ended up getting some pretty good footfall from people either walking through or passing by, and certainly plenty of questions. In retrospect, it would have been really handy to have one of the actual academics there (and not just three post-grads), but I think we fielded most of the queries pretty well in the most part. In our shipment, we’d send up a heckload of University prospectuses, leaflets and flyers (on everything from the whole Uni down to Faculty information) and a lot of this stuff came back – I guess we just overestimated the demand for paper materials, but it was better to have plenty left over than risk running out of publicity material. The same happened with ACCORD flyers, as we kind of over-estimated how many people would test/check out the new spacecraft rating system (head over here if you’d like to find out more), so we have plenty of ACCORD flyers to take to other events, or distribute by hand to spacecraft designers & manufacturers. In retrospect, it might have been worth going round some of the other stands when the exhibition hall was quiet and asking if they’d like to take a few minutes to test the rating system, but alas, we didn’t. Oh well.

And on that bombshell I shall end this post, but before I do, here are a few more of my photos from the conference. Enjoy:

UKSC-UoS_stand

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #09: At World’s End

PhDfraud09

Around a month ago, I received news about a journal paper I submitted nine or so months back: following a significant period of open discussion and peer review, it was “with regret” that the paper “would not be accepted for publication”. I’ve presented papers and oral presentations at conferences before, but this was my first submission to an academic journal, and I’m technically still to have something properly published at this point. As a late-stage thesis student (heck, I’m supposed to be submitting by October, eep) with ever-decreasing time to focus on PhD work, that’s a bit of a concern and it’s been rather difficult to figure out how I dig myself out of the misery-hole. Oddly enough though, despite a brief period of nervousness and dejection, I’m keeping fairly buoyant.

Perhaps I’m just coming to the realisation that, regardless of the quality of my thesis or whether I actually get awarded a PhD or not, all of this will be over by November and I’ll be able to move on with my life. I’ve been doing the same research for four years, and it’s probably not a massive surprise that I’m kind of bored with it. For a long time, I’ve not been able to see an end in sight, and I’ve always felt so far away from any sort of situation that I’d be confident (and happy) enough in my work to submit it for scrutiny. But since I now have a firm, fixed deadline of the 1st October that I must submit my thesis by, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can’t keep going indefinitely, no matter how much more I feel I need to do. There’s no time for al of that ‘extra work’ that I keep thinking I need to do, so all I can realistically do is put together everything I’ve done already and manoeuvre it into some sort of order. At the moment, my efforts are focussed on whipping my thesis into shape and trying to plan what little ‘jobs’ it’s feasible to complete in the remaining few months. There’s no sense getting overly worried about failing, since my fate has largely been decided by this point – if what I have will only give me an MPhil, then so be it; irrespective of the outcome of the viva, I’ll be free to do something else, and I’ll be ready to take on the next challenge.  And with that comes a sense of pseudo-closure.

Strangely for an academic (and even more strangely for an engineer), I kind of enjoy the writing process. I certainly find it more satisfying than wandering around in the fog of genuine research: I’ve always enjoyed being creative, particularly in the form of writing, so I quite look forward to exploring the word-space and trying to communicate things in a readable, interesting way. Over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to resurrect my passion for creativity as a method of jettisoning some of my extraneous frustrations.

Not so long ago, I used to write a bunch of video game reviews (e.g. Prince of Persia: the Fallen KingSuper Paper Mario and No More Heroes) as a method of expressing myself creatively. Even longer ago, I used to play guitar regularly (at least, privately in my own room), but I haven’t practiced regularly for like four years, which correlates almost exactly with starting the Dreaded PhD; I don’t doubt that the two are directly related. Through college and undergraduate stuides, I used to find that bashing away at my Fender Double-Fat Stratocaster at the end of a busy day would dissipate many of the worries and stresses of study and research. It was never to achieve musical stardom or monetary return; the passion was just to play. Quite why expressing myself musically seemed to be so effective for me in ‘killing’ off some of life’s stresses, I’ve never really been able to explain: I kinda always just put it down to the fact that I’m not very good at multi-tasking, so if I’m busy trying to keep up with fast chord changes and remember what note I have to play next, then I can’t possibly be stressing over research work or exam preparation. For whatever reason, this fact has largely been forgotten over the course of my PhD study, so it’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s only sunk in now, when I’m desperately close to wrapping up The Thesis for good.

Anyway, this has highlighted the appearance of a Stratocaster-shaped void in my life that I actively intend to patch up. Over the course of a few months, I’ve tried to re-forge my commitment to guitar-based noodling, although it turns out that four years of very little practice (maybe an hour total a month rather than an hour total every day or two) is not good for keeping your hands and reflexes in shape and it’s surprisingly hard to do even some of the basics. That, and the fact that I’ve probably managed to destroy my fingers and wrists with RSI in the intervening period probably doesn’t help. Either way, the upshot is that I (currently) can’t play at near the same capacity that I used to and that’s kind of a bummer, but hopefully only a short-term issue that can be remedied with just some Dedication and Willpower sprinkled over top.

It’s not like I was ever some kind of guitar virtuoso anyway – my flavour was always rhythm guitar; providing the backing sound for an imaginary set of remaining band members whose roles were never filled. No-one has ever showed me how to play guitar (not even in the days of YouTube tutorials), and everything that I’ve figured out how to do was figured out purely by ear, usually by listening to Green Day songs and trying to play along. For me, this is a very minor source of pride and I’d kind of like to think that I still have some sort of natural talent AT SOMETHING buried deep inside me somewhere; even if it isn’t academic research or scientific fame.

Anyway, I’m hoping that picking up my axe  more often will be a positive influence on both Work and Play; even if I do it just for my own ears and not anyone else’s. Heck, if I can’t be a stellar research student with a huge library of publications to his name, then I may as well use that empty library to turn my good mood up to eleven and make one hell of a racket, right? Rock on.

[Zinar7]

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Big Bang Solent Science Fair 21/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

Further to my previous update (Science & Engineering Day 2013), last Thursday presented the Astronautics Research Groups’ second event in in National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) 2013, with the arrival of the Big Bang Solent science fair to the Garden Court at the University of Southampton. This post documents the major goings-on of the day, what we can do to improve for next time, and also to share a few photos from our activities and exhibits. So, without further ado, onwards!

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Our stand and presenting team (Ben [spaceman_ben] and I, plus a few other stragglers) were once again out in full force at a brisk 0845 on Thursday morning  to put our stand and kit together; smugly earlier than most of the other stands exhibiting that day, leaving us plenty of time to soak up the free coffee and biscuits and to gently rib the other delegations who’d scheduled considerably less time to sort out their kit. Our setup was largely the same as for the previous Saturday, albeit with a few modifications to our LEGO Mindstorms demonstration, resulting in the substitution of Aquabot with a new, space-debris themed rover, Debrisbot:

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Saturday’s headaches were largely derived from the fact that Aquabot‘s mission of collecting coloured balls into its jaws provided unexpected sources of unpredictability: for example, our demonstrations of placing balls in Aquabot‘s path meant that visiting children were inclined to try picking up the balls and rolling them (sometimes with great force) into the rover’s maw. This was fine, except when it happened just as Aquabot approached the edge of the ‘green’ area, such that a ball would get stuck under the NXT colour sensor when the rover reached the  green card and hence would not detect that it was imminently going to crash into the makeshift (albeit perhaps with one less ‘f’) cardboard wall we constructed to make sure balls did not roll everywhere. In addition, we hadn’t accounted for the fact that children would ‘lean’ on the cardboard wall and bend it completely out of shape, meaning that its ability to contain both Aquabot and the coloured balls to the table area was severely impaired.

Given these points, it’s not only a miracle that we did not have balls rolling loose all over Building 85 but that we actually managed to get to the end of the day without any of our balls inadvertently going home in children’s pockets (or worse, mouths) for a permanent holiday away from the University. So, to remedy these, we decided to get rid of both the balls and the cardboard wall – by eliminating the other functionalities of the NXT colour sensor aside from the ‘am I near the edge of the table?’ detection using the green card, we could reinstate our previously-abandoned ‘is there object in the way?’ detection function using the NXT ultrasonic sensor to make the rover recognise any solid objects that we placed in its path (which we couldn’t use before because it kept detecting the balls themselves and tried to avoid them rather than trying to collect them). So with that, Aquabot was gracefully retired and replaced with Debrisbot; a rover programmed to sense nearby objects (which we assumed were nearby space debris fragments) and perform “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres to avoid impact. And in most senses, Debrisbot worked pretty well.

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Not brilliantly well, though. There were still quite a lot of issues arising due to the NXT ultrasonic sensor’s narrow field-of-view meaning that there would be an object to the left- or right-side of the sensor that wouldn’t be detected; or other cases where there was too little energy being reflected back to the sensor (where it was sometimes absorbed by the object, or reflected in a different direction), and the the rover didn’t detect object properly and would drive into it anyway. The idea was for Debrisbot to be roving around, avoiding bits of junk as necessary, but sometimes it would just clatter into it anyway, or turn around and get objects stuck under the tracks; doing ungainly pirouettes and wheelies before falling over like a boss.

So, an executive decision was made to transform Debrisbot from a debris-avoiding rover into a debris-sweeping rover; charging around the ‘black’ area, pushing the ‘junk’ objects into the ‘green’ zone like a giant space snowplough. And with that, a significantly greater level of success was observed, as within minutes, all of the bits of ‘junk’ (made from Tic Tac boxes stuck together and wrapped in black duct tape) would be pushed to the edge, leaving the black region of ‘space’ safe for satellite operations. Debrisbot was essentially just driving around in straight lines until it encountered the edge of the ‘green’ (and hence wasn’t aiming for objects at all, just ploughing them if they happened to be in the way) so it would be even better if Debrisbot was able to ‘look around’ for bits of junk and then explicitly move towards them, but that’s a larger task for another time. For the moment, though, Debrisbot demonstrated pretty much what we wanted it to in a nicely simple way and leaves plenty of room for improvement. Not bad, little buddy.

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The event itself was pretty enjoyable – essentially an event to get schoolchildren interested in doing science and engineering, and involved around 600 children from the nearby area visiting for the day to do some fun, science-based activities, talk to people in college/academia/industry [delete as applicable] who ‘do’ science and stuff for a living and to get an idea about future careers and stuff.

Our main drive for exhibiting was to demonstrate our research activities and show the youngsters that activities in ‘space’ are happening here in the UK, and to prod them towards taking up such work in their future education, if they want to. It was also interesting to find out how many young people are aware of the  space debris problem, and to ask them for ideas about how we could go about resolving it: while Debrisbot was hardly the most efficient (or successful) method of demonstrating how a space debris sweeper system might work, it did the job and (I hope) gave the visiting public a new perspective of the space debris problem and the ‘sort of thing’ that could be done to manage it.

Anyway, an enjoyable day: the Space Junker stuff went down pretty well as usual, with some visiting students managing some staggeringly high scores, and we certainly gave out of a lot of our ‘Space Systems Engineering’ worksheets which contain information on our research, details of how to access Space Junker online, and also a few puzzles and stuff. So, to round off the event and, indeed, this post, here are a few of my other photographs from the day: we’re not sure when we’ll be taking Aquabot/Debrisbot out on the road again, but I’m sure he won’t be in the garage for too long. Hooray!

[Zinar7]

EDIT – Our activities were recently published as a blog post from LEGO Education UK! You can find it here: http://legoeducationuk.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/space-research-with-a-little-help-from-lego-mindstorms/

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Science & Engineering Day 16/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

As part of the Astronautics Research Group‘s outreach and public engagement, last Saturday marked our first adventure in this year’s National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), with our annual involvement in the University of Southampton’s Science & Engineering Day on campus. Each year, we’ve managed to significantly increase our display stand and materials, and this year marked our biggest and best exhibit yet. Here follows a short summary of the day’s events, what we had on show and some photographs from the day.

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Having set up most of our banners and posters the night before, Ben (spaceman_ben) and myself (zinar7) arrived at a deathly-quiet Building 85 at 0800 hours prompt to set up the rest of our kit and get everything up and running. Thankfully for my sanity (and probably the safety of the general public), the University had elected to open the cafe in Building 85 at 8:00 am, and we were able to procure caffeine-filled beverages and sugary goods straight away to fortify us for the rest of the day, which was due to begin at 10:30 am and run until 4:30 pm, followed by packing up all the kit and hauling back to our offices for storage. A long day, then, but all in the name of science and trying to encourage the youngsters of today to get excited about all things ‘Space’.

Our touch-screen PCs were unpacked and booted up, our digital photo frames secured to our 2 m x 2 m backdrop banner, and the rest of our display materials dotted around our allocated ‘zone’, leaving us the remaining time to sort out the major new addition to our exhibit: Aquabot, the water-collecting Mars rover made from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0:

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Aquabot was conceived, built and programmed in the ten or so days prior to the event, after Ben and I had gotten hold of a current-generation Mindstorms kit in order to evaluate its usefulness in outreach for the Astro Research Group and in undergraduate teaching/projects: we’re hoping to use multiple kits when the next-generation is released later this year, to allow students to develop simple group projects looking at spacecraft control and formation flying (among other things). Our main focus, at least for NSEW, was on making something cool and vaguely space-related to encourage youngsters towards the space industry, and getting them excited about engineering in general. The result, then, was a rover of our own design (and vaguely anthropomorphic qualities) constructed to ‘rove’ around a table (without falling off), collecting up balls and doing some basic colour-sorting; something like this:

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Attached to the front of the rover, pointing downwards between the ‘jaws’ of Aquabot‘s maw, was the NXT colour sensor. To simulate the Mars environment, we used black card as a base, placed on a few large tables to make an area around 7 x 5 feet of black landscape. The colour sensor was programmed to catalogue the colour of the table surface and also of any balls that happen to roll into Aquabot‘s gape; and to ‘carry on as normal’ if sensing a black response. The rover was powered using two motors, and was run on caterpillar tracks to aid manoeuvrability and response. At the front of the vehicle, a funnel was placed to collect balls as the rover moved around the environment (although it kind of just ‘punted’ balls across the landscape rather than funneling them in, but oh well). The third motor from the kit was installed at the front of the rover, to which was attached an arm with the NXT colour sensor: when a blue ball rolled into the ‘jaws’ and was detected by the sensor, the arm retreated to allow the “water molecule” into a storage area beneath the rover; when a yellow or red ball was collected, the arm rapidly swung forwards to ‘kick’ the unwanted “martian rock” away. When it worked, it worked pretty well; although if multiple balls rolled in at the same time, it would still be doing the operation for the first ball when the second ball arrived, and so wouldn’t accept/reject the second. Still, such times were comparatively rare, and it was always satisfying when the rover detected an unwanted ball and punted it away with great force.

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Around the edges of the black card, we made a border of green card to make a ‘buffer’ around the edge of the table, which Aquabot would detect and subsequently turn round and return to the black region. But, because sometimes Aquabot would decide to choose its own fate and plough on through the green area regardless (for example, when there was already a ball in the jaws, and the sensor couldn’t see the ‘green’), we put up a barrier (of more card) around the edge to stop the rover (also any stray balls) from leaping off the table and plummeting to the floor. We managed to get to the end of the day with Aquabot pretty intact (minus the sum of around 12 fresh batteries) and all of the balls we started with, so I call that a success.

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All in all, I think our LEGO Mindstorms experiment were rather well: the publicity of the recent Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) mission has highlighted the current activities using autonomous rover in space, and many visitors were familiar with this mission and could draw comparisons with our simple reconstruction of a Mars rover. It was also encouraging that so many children (and parents) grasped the basic concepts of the system, and how even a simple robot could be programmed to carry out a range of functions without human interaction.

In terms of our regular activities, we had a lot of kids try out our Space Junker game on the large touch-screen PCs (developed by the Science Museum with our involvement), and plenty of parents and other adults reading our research posters and talking to us about our research into space debris and the problems that ‘space junk’ poses to space operations. Our other display materials also went down pretty well, which included our big stand, leaflets & pamphlets about the undergraduate programs in Space Systems Engineering, and these natty little cubes which I made to communicate some of our research into space debris and some of the problems:

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Anyway, a fun day was (I think) had by all, and we seemed to get a pretty great response from the Science & Engineering Day hordes that came to campus despite the dreary weather. For our point of view, it was yet again an entertaining, rewarding and uplifting outreach event, and getting a whole load of exposure for our research activities. A hugely exhausting event that seems to expend so much energy and brain/musclepower, but immensely fun.

Nonetheless, we’ll be doing it all tomorrow for our second activity in NSEW, which is the Big Bang Solent science fair, happening on campus at the University of Southampton. We’ve mainly got the same set-up, but this time Aquabot will be replaced by the second iteration of our Mindstorms display, Debrisbot: instead of wandering the Mars landscape looking for blue balls, Debrisbot will be navigating “outer space” (albeit an ‘outer space’ that has been transplanted into two dimensions), trying to “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres with various objects (“space debris”) placed in orbit. Not quite sure how Debrisbot will perform as yet, but hopefully it should be another entertaining and engaging day of science, engineering and being a big kid again.

Anyway, before I head off, here are some more photos from Saturday’s event; hopefully some of tomorrow will manifest in due course. Enjoy!

[Zinar7]

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Bestival 2012 Round-Up

I’ve been quiet on here for a while, but with good reason. A couple of weeks ago I landed back in Southamptonland after a mightily enjoyable 4/5 days on The Island attending Bestival 2012 as part of the University of Southampton Roadshow. Having now had a few days to recover both my brain and body, here’s a quick summary of all of the cool stuff that went down and the major discoveries.

I’ll start with some discussion about the reason we were there: As a group, populating the Bestival Science Tent with various stands and science and stuff, and on a personal level, to give an hour-long talk in the Besti-versity Tent on human spaceflight. The Science Tent itself was open 10am-6pm Thursday-Friday, but the UoS stands inside it swapped over on Friday evening, so our Astronautics stand stayed up only for the Thursday and Friday, giving us Astro Boys time off on the weekend to watch bands and generally lark about. Thurs/Fri was pretty busy in the tent, and we met a whole load of new people to talk about space debris to and to get the involved with the DAMAGE simulation and the Space Junker games we had running. Overall, we had lots of engagement and lots of questions from lots of people, so in those terms our presence at Bestival 2012 was pretty rewarding. It’s been estimated by higher forces that we directly engaged with 10% of the festival audience (6,000 or so) and had 20% at least pass by (12,000) or so, so those are some nice statistics.

Besti-versity wasn’t running on the Thursday but followed schedule of 12pm-7pm on Friday to Sunday, of which I was the inaugral speaker at Midday on Friday. Nerves were pretty wracked beforehand but I calmed down enough to deliver everything I had to deliver with increasing confidence; I imagined a kind of blithering, Boris Johnson-style performance but everything came out relatively well and in a relatively relaxed manner, so I guess that’s a positive thing. I didn’t count the capacity of the tent, but I reckon 40 or so people watched the talk, plus a few who came through and left or just stuck their head through the door. Not bad going, given I was expecting no-one to come at all. The tent itself was pretty baking in the beating sunshine, and also very bright, meaning that it was a little hard to see the Prezi slides I was projecting, but that wasn’t too big a deal. The tent itself was populated inside by armchairs and sofas to give it a relaxed atmosphere; so much so that there were a couple of people catching forty winks in there at various points, but I’ll put that down to the festival atmosphere/too much party rather than my failings/dullness as a speaker. I had a few people come up to me afterwards and ask a few questions, and even had people over the weekend recognising me out-and-about and saying that they’d seen my talk, which was nice. I also now have an official Bestival 2012 programme with my name in it, which is a super feeling.

What of the music? Well, I went Bestival with  only a few bands that I really really wanted to see, primarily Justice, Nero and New Order, and happy to wander around and discover new stuff the rest of the time without having to worry about missing things I wanted to see.

Thursday was closed on the main stage but open everywhere else, and things kicked off with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing  in the Bandstand, and my, how they kicked things off. The Men blasted out all the hits and easily were the loudest thing I heard all weekend. I had to scurry off at the end of the set in order to sort out Science Tent closing stuff, but since the bandstand was pretty much right next door, the rest sounded just as good. Alas, their second performance on the Saturday clashed with both New Order and Justice and so I didn’t see them again, but so pleased I heard them at some point. Thursday evening I went with the flow and went to the Big Top to hear Alabama Shakes, who were kind of okay but largely not my scene but everyone seemed to be having a good time. I think I poked my head into a few other tents across the night and heard some other bands, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they were.

Friday was the first main stage day, and the troops rallied to go watch The XX followed by Florence and the Machine, both of which were accomplished by relatively unknown to me. I actually preferred The XX, and they sounded epic in the live setting; much more so than on the records that I’ve since sought out. Florence was alright, and I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and did a little dancing, but it did kind of feel that the whole set was balanced very carefully on her and she seemed engulfed by the sheer size of the crowd and dwarfed by the stage. Not bad, just a little underwhelming to a newcomer to her stuff.

Saturday was my main day, with everything building up to Justice at approx. 11pm., and I wasn’t disappointed. The Big Top was absolutely packed and full of fluid, sweater festivalgoers dancing their minds away to ‘Genesis’, ‘D.A.N.C.E.’, ‘Civilisation’ and a mind-blowingly awesome live DJ set from the French house masters. If I hadn’t already seen Andrew W.K.’s glorious I Get Wet 10th anniversary show at London Forum (probably the best gig ever, solidified by Kerrang’s unprecedented 6K review), then this would easily have been the best gig of the year. As it is, it has to settle for a (very) close second. Earlier in the day we’d watched Earth, Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay, Two Door Cinema Club and the first half of New Order; all of which were entertaining and engaging, and we followed Justice up with Nero‘s late-night set in the Big  Top, which was as packed and sweaty as expected, with a ground-thumping Wub Wub that could be felt from across the festival site. Badass.

Moving to Sunday, I ducked out of the Science Tent during the afternoon to go watch 2:54 at the Psychadelic Worm tent (as brilliant live on record) and then Rizzle Kicks on the main stage (didn’t know any of their stuff, danced like a loon anyway). The evening’s events on the main stage kicked off with Sigur Rós, who were spectacular. Not a band that I knew much about, but now I’m pretty much a convert. This was then followed by Stevie Wonder, who did a fantastic job of closing out the festival. Musically superb and a brilliant showman, he even took technical failure of his piano in his stride and improvised with the rest of his kit. A solid effort, and followed up with a spectacular fireworks display to round off the night. Good stuff.

Anyway, I had an awesome time at Bestival 2012, and no mistake. So much so that I’d consider going back again next year, with the Roadshow (which has been making encouraging noises about returning in 2013) or under my own steam. Who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing by next September (thesis pending), but I’ll certainly keep my ear to the ground. If anyone wants to come along and join me, well that’d be rad. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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Big Bang Regional Science Fair 27/03/2012 – Personal Debrief

A few weeks ago, I was part of the University of Southampton‘s roadshow team at the Big Bang@Southampton Rose Bowl young scientists and engineers fair helping to promote the University’s research and get kids interested and excited about Science and all that schizz. I was there presenting (with some of the other guys in my office) as part of the demo/information stand for the Astronautics Research Group, in which I fail relentlessly at research for money. Here’s a picture of the whole research team, including Ben, Dan, Adam and Marius who were also manning our stand on the day, plus me somewhere in the rabble, smirking like a goon:

This is mainly a personal note debriefing myself about the day’s activities and what we can do it improve stuff, but I figured others of you might be vaguely interested in what’s’a happenin’, so thought I’d make this a public post.

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