Engineer Thinks We Could Build a Real Starship Enterprise in 20 Years

Diagram of a proposed current generation of a Starship Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

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In Star Trek lore, the first Constitution Class Starship Enterprise will be built by the year 2245. But today, an engineer has proposed — and outlined in meticulous detail – building a full-sized, ion-powered version of the Enterprise complete with 1G of gravity on board, and says it could be done with current technology, within 20 years. “We have the technological reach to build the first generation of the spaceship known as the USS Enterprise – so let’s do it,” writes the curator of the Build The Enterprise website, who goes by the name of BTE Dan.

This “Gen1” Enterprise could get to Mars in ninety days, to the Moon in three, and “could hop from planet to planet dropping off robotic probes of all sorts en masse – rovers, special-built planes, and satellites.”

Size comparisons of buildings to the proposed USS Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

Complete with conceptual designs, ship specs, a funding schedule, and almost every other imaginable detail, the BTE website was launched just this week and covers almost every aspect of how the project could be done. This Enterprise would be built entirely in space, have a rotating gravity section inside of the saucer, and be similar in size with the same look as the USS Enterprise that we know from Star Trek.

“It ends up that this ship configuration is quite functional,” writes BTE Dan, even though his design moves a few parts around for better performance with today’s technology. This version of the Enterprise would be three things in one: a spaceship, a space station, and a spaceport. A thousand people can be on board at once – either as crew members or as adventurous visitors.

While the ship will not travel at warp speed, with an ion propulsion engine powered by a 1.5GW nuclear reactor, it can travel at a constant acceleration so that the ship can easily get to key points of interest in our solar system. Three additional nuclear reactors would create all of the electricity needed for operation of the ship.

The saucer section would be a .3 mile (536 meter) diameter rotating, magnetically-suspended gravity wheel that would create 1G of gravity.

The first assignments for the Enterprise would have the ship serving as a space station and space port, but then go on to missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, various asteroids and even Europa, where the ships’ laser would be used not for combat but for cutting through the moon’s icy crust to enable a probe to descend to the ocean below.

Of course, like all space ships today, the big “if” for such an ambitious effort would be getting Congress to provide NASA the funding to do a huge 20-year project. But BTE Dan has that all worked out, and between tax increases and spreading out budget cuts to areas like defense, health and human services, housing and urban development, education and energy, the cuts to areas of discretionary spending are not large, and the tax increases could be small. “These changes to spending and taxes will not sink the republic,” says the website. “In fact, these will barely be noticed. It’s amazing that a program as fantastic as the building a fleet of USS Enterprise spaceships can be done with so little impact.”

“The only obstacles to us doing it are the limitations we place on our collective imagination,” BTE Dan adds, and his proposal says that NASA will still receive funding for the science, astronomy and robotic missions it currently undertakes.

A detailed schedule of building the Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

But he proposes not just one Enterprise-class ship, but multiple ships, one of which can be built every 33 years – once per generation – giving three new ships per century. “Each will be more advanced than the prior one. Older ships can be continually upgraded over several generations until they are eventually decommissioned.”

BTE Dan, who did not respond to emails, lists himself as a systems engineer and electrical engineer who has worked at a Fortune 500 company for the past 30 years.

The website includes a blog, a forum and a Q&A section, where BTE Dan answers the question, “What if someone can prove that building the Gen1 Enterprise is beyond our technological reach?”

Answer: “If someone can convince me that it is not technically possible (ignoring political and funding issues), then I will state on the BuildTheEnterprise site that I have been found to be wrong. In that case, building the first Enterprise will have to wait for, say, another half century. But I don’t think that anyone will be able to convince me it can’t be done. My position is that we can – and should – immediately start working on it.”

For the complete space nerd experience, check out Build The Enterprise.

Hat tip to Rand Simberg.

Will the Dream of a Flying Car Finally Become a Reality?

PAL-V in its first flight. Image courtesy PAL-V.

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We’ve all dreamed of having a flying car, but two companies are working to make this dream a reality. The latest in flying car designs is the Personal Air and Land Vehicle (PAL-V) One, which is advertised as going from high performance sports car to flying car in just minutes. Based in the Netherlands, the PAL-V company says this is “the ultimate vehicle to go wherever and whenever you want to, easily overcoming all sorts of barriers. Now you can leave home and fly-drive to almost any destination! Avoid traffic jams and cross lakes, fjords, rivers or mountain ranges like an eagle.”

Sign me up!

See a video of the PAL-V in flight, below.

While the PAL-V is designed more like a helicopter, another flying car prototype we reported on, the Terrafugia Transition, operates more like a airplane. Terrafugia recently completed its first test flight, and sells for about $250,000. The PAL-V One does not yet have listed price, but likely would be in a similar price range. Both companies hope to bring their products to market soon, with Terrafugia targeting a late 2012 release date, and PAL-V aiming for 2014.

PAL-V uses gyroplane technology for flying, with rotors that fold up when you want to drive the vehicle on land. It can fly to an altitude of 4,000 feet (considerably lower than the 30,000 to 50,000 feet where commercial jets fly), and owners would need to have a Sport Pilot’s certificate in order to fly the PAL-V One.

For more info, see the PAL-V website.

Take a Ride on a Rocket Sled To Test Supersonic Decelerators

Low Density Supersonic Decelerator prototype. Credit: NASA

Landing large payloads on Mars — large enough to bring humans to the Red Planet’s surface — is still beyond our capability. “There’s too much atmosphere on Mars to land heavy vehicles like we do on the moon, using propulsive technology completely,” said Rob Manning, Chief Engineer for the Mars Exploration Directorate, in an article we wrote a few years ago about the problems of landing on Mars “and there’s too little atmosphere to land like we do on Earth. Mars atmosphere provides an ugly, grey zone.”

The best hope on the horizon for making the human missions to Mars possible are supersonic decelerators that are now being developed. This new technology will hopefully be able to slow larger, heavier landers from the supersonic speeds of atmospheric entry to subsonic ground-approach speeds. NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program is testing out some of these new devices and recently performed a trial run on a rocket sled test to replicate the forces a supersonic spacecraft would experience prior to landing. The sled tests will see how inflatable and parachute decelerators work to slow spacecraft prior to landing and allow NASA to increase landed payload masses, as well as improve landing accuracy and increase the altitude of safe landing-sites.

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Three devices are being developed: two different sizes of supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators and super-huge parachutes. The supersonic inflatable decelerators are very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the entry vehicle and slow it from Mach 3.5 or greater to Mach 2. These decelerators are being developed in 6-meter-diameter and 9-meter-diameters.

The large parachute is 30 meters in diameter, and it will further slow the entry vehicle from Mach 2 to subsonic speeds. All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at speeds several times greater than the speed of sound.

Together, these new drag devices can increase payload delivery to the surface of Mars from our current capability of 1.5 metric tons to 2 to 3 metric tons, depending on which inflatable decelerator is used in combination with the parachute. They will increase available landing altitudes by 2-3 kilometers, increasing the accessible surface area we can explore. They also will improve landing accuracy from a margin of 10 kilometers to just 3 kilometers. All these factors will increase the capabilities and robustness of robotic and human explorers on Mars.

NASA is now testing these devices on rocket sleds and later will conduct tests high in Earth’s stratosphere, simulating entry into Mars’ thin atmosphere. The first supersonic flight tests are set for 2013 and 2014.

Find out more about the LDSD program here.

Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside

Dropping out of warp speed could have deadly results. (Image: Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios)

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Planning a little space travel to see some friends on Kepler 22b? Thinking of trying out your newly-installed FTL3000 Alcubierre Warp Drive to get you there in no time? Better not make it a surprise visit — your arrival may end up disintegrating anyone there when you show up.

“Warp” technology and faster-than-light (FTL) space travel has been a staple of science fiction for decades. The distances in space are just so vast and planetary systems — even within a single galaxy — are spaced so far apart, such a concept is needed to make casual human exploration feasible (and fit within the comforts of people’s imagination as well… nobody wants to think about Kirk and Spock bravely going to some alien planet while everyone they’ve ever known dies of old age!)

While many factors involving FTL travel are purely theoretical — and may remain in the realm of imagination for a very long time, if not ever — there are some concepts that play well with currently-accepted physics.

Warp field according to the Alcubierre drive. (AllenMcC.)

The Alcubierre warp drive is one of those concepts.

Proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, the drive would propel a ship at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of negative energy around it, expanding space (and time) behind the ship while compressing space in front of it. In much the same way that a surfer rides a wave, the bubble of space containing the ship and its passengers would be pushed at velocities not limited to the speed of light toward a destination.

Of course, when the ship reaches its destination it has to stop. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have done some advanced crunching of numbers regarding the effects of FTL space travel via Alcubierre drive, taking into consideration the many types of cosmic particles that would be encountered along the way. Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team — led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne — has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

In other words, don’t expect much of a welcome party.

Another thing the team found is that the amount of energy released is dependent on the length of the superluminal journey, but there is potentially no limit on its intensity.

“Interestingly, the energy burst released upon arriving at the destination does not have an upper limit,” McMonigal told Universe Today in an email. “You can just keep on traveling for longer and longer distances to increase the energy that will be released as much as you like, one of the odd effects of General Relativity. Unfortunately, even for very short journeys the energy released is so large that you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.”

So how to avoid disintegrating your port of call? It may be as simple as just aiming your vessel a bit off to the side… or, it may not. The research only focused on the planar space in front of and behind the warp bubble; deadly postwarp particle beams could end up blown in all directions!

Luckily for Vulcans, Tatooinians and any acquaintances on Kepler 22b, the Alcubierre warp drive is still very much theoretical. While the mechanics work with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the creation of negative energy densities is an as-of-yet unknown technology — and may be impossible.

Which could be a very good thing for us, should someone out there be planning a surprise visit our way!

 

Read more about Alcubierre warp drives here, and you can download the full University of Sydney team’s research paper here.

Thanks to Brendan McMonigal and Geraint Lewis for the extra information!

Main image © Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios. All rights reserved.

 

NASA Shuts Down Its Last Mainframe Computer

Sittra Battle of the Marshall Space Flight Center shuts down NASA's last mainframe computer. Credit: NASA

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NASA has just powered down its last mainframe computer. Umm, everyone remembers what a mainframe computer is, right? Well, you certainly must recall working with punched cards, paper tape, and/or magnetic tape, correct? That does sound a little archaic. “But all things must change,” wrote Linda Cureton on the NASA CIO blog. “Today, they are the size of a refrigerator but in the old days, they were the size of Cape Cod.”


The last mainframe being used by NASA, the IBM Z9 Mainframe, was being used at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Cureton described the mainframe as a “ big computer that is known for being reliable, highly available, secure, and powerful. They are best suited for applications that are more transaction oriented and require a lot of input/output – that is, writing or reading from data storage devices.”

An IBM 704 mainframe from 1964. Via Wikipedia

In the 1960’s users gained access to the huge mainframe computer through specialized terminals using the punched cards. By the 1980s, many mainframes supported graphical terminals where people could work, but not graphical user interfaces. This format of end-user computing became obsolete in the 1990s when personal computers came to the forefront of computing.

Most modern mainframes are not quite so huge, and excel at redundancy and reliability. These machines can run for long periods of time without interruption. Cureton says that even though NASA has shut down its last one, there is still a requirement for mainframe capability in many other organizations. “The end-user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible, but the need remains for extremely reliable, secure transaction oriented business applications,” she said.

But today, all you need to say is, “there’s an app for it!” Cureton said.

Do Alien Civilizations Inevitably ‘Go Green’?

Beautiful view of our Milky Way Galaxy. If other alien civilizations are out there, can we find them? Credit: ESO/S. Guisard

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In the famous words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This phrase is often quoted to express the idea that an alien civilization which may be thousands or millions of years older than us would have technology so far ahead of ours that to us it would appear to be “magic.”

Now, a variation of that thought has come from Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder, who posits that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” The reasoning is that if a civilization manages to exist that long, it would inevitably “go green” to such an extent that it would no longer leave any detectable waste products behind. Its artificial signatures would blend in with those of the natural universe, making it much more difficult to detect them by simply searching for artificial constructs versus natural ones.

The idea has been proposed as an explanation for why we haven’t found them yet, based on the premise that such advanced societies would have visited and colonized our entire galaxy by now (known as the Fermi Paradox). The question becomes more interesting in light of the fact that astronomers now estimate that there are billions of other planets in our galaxy alone. If a civilization reaches such a “balance with nature” as a natural progression, it may mean that traditional methods of searching for them, like SETI, will ultimately fail. Of course, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that civilizations much older than us would have advanced far beyond radio technology anyway. SETI itself is based on the assumption that some of them may still be using that technology. Another branch of SETI is searching for light pulses such as intentional beacons as opposed to radio signals.

But even other alternate searches, such as SETT (Search for Extraterrestrial Technology), may not pan out either, if this new scenario is correct. SETT looks for things like the spectral signature of nuclear fission waste being dumped into a star, or leaking tritium from alien fusion powerplants.

Another solution to the Fermi Paradox states that advanced civilizations will ultimately destroy themselves. Before they do though, they could have already sent out robotic probes to many places in the galaxy. If those probes were technologically savvy enough to self-replicate, they could have spread themselves widely across the cosmos. If there were any in our solar system, we could conceivably find them. Yet this idea could also come back around to the new hypothesis – if these probes were advanced enough to be truly “green” and not leave any environmental traces, they might be a lot harder to find, blending in with natural objects in the solar system.

It’s an intriguing new take on an old question. It can also be taken as a lesson – if we can learn to survive our own technological advances long enough, we can ultimately become more of a green civilization ourselves, co-existing comfortably with the natural universe around us.

Canada Looks to the Future in Space

The Canadarm on the Space Shuttle. Credit: NASA

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When it comes to space, the first thing most people think of is NASA. Or Russia and the European Space Agency, or even more recently, countries like China and Japan. In the public eye, Canada has tended to be a bit farther down on the list. There is the Canadian Space Agency, but it is better known for developing space and satellite technologies, not awe-inspiring launches to the Moon or other planets, which naturally tend to get the most attention.

Canada has its own astronauts, too, but they go into orbit on the Space Shuttle or Russian rockets. Canada’s role in space should not, however, be underestimated. It was, for example, the first country to have a domestic communications satellite in geostationary orbit, Anik A1, in 1972. There is also the well-known Canadarm used on the Space Shuttle and Canadarm2 on the International Space Station, as well as the space robot Dextre on the ISS. Canada has also contributed technology to various robotic planetary missions as well.

But even in these times of budget constraints, new ventures are being planned, including a mission to place two video cameras on the International Space Station late next year, via a Russian mission.

The cameras will provide near real-time video broadcasting continuously in high-definition. The cameras are being developed by Urthecast, a Vancouver-based firm, which is investing $10 million in the project.

Like their American counterparts now, the investment and development of space technology is coming increasingly from the private sector instead of the government. In 1996, the Canadian government contributed 32% to domestic space revenue; in 2010, it was only 18% and it is estimated to drop again over the next three years.

Because of smaller budgets, the CSA focuses on assisting with larger missions from other countries instead of developing its own launch vehicles. According to Mark Burbidge, head of industrial policy at the CSA, the Canadian Space Agency doesn’t have the money for such projects. “That got our astronauts up there,” he says, referring to the Canadarm.

Another area that Canada may be able to contribute to is space tourism, a prime example of private companies becoming involved in the space business. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Airspace are changing the way that people will go into near-orbit and low-Earth orbit. No dependence solely on government dollars to finance their objectives such as tourist space flights, small orbiting hotels or launching commercial satellites.

At this stage, government funding is still often required, especially for smaller firms, but the future looks promising. Space companies are becoming gradually less reliant on the government for revenue growth. The investment return tends to be primarily a scientific one, according to Dr. Jean de Lafontaine, founder of space services company NGC Aerospace in Quebec, making space tourism more of an ideal option for private companies.

This would seem to be an optimum arrangement, allowing companies to compete in orbital missions and tourism, while government agencies like NASA, ESA, etc. are better able to invest in larger-scale planetary missions and other costly space projects (noting however that some commercial companies also have their eyes on the Moon and Mars).

Canada may not have its own rockets or grandiose space missions, not yet anyway, but it will continue to make important contributions to space exploration. And as a Canadian, I am very pleased about that!

The Next Generation of Robotic Space Explorers – Powered by Bacteria!

Illustration of how a tiny robotic explorer could use bacteria. Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory

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As technology advances, a lot of the gadgets and other things we use keep getting smaller, lighter and thinner. Now that trend may soon be taken to another extreme – small robotic space explorers which in turn use a miniscule power source – bacteria.

It may sound like science fiction, or just odd even, but that is the idea behind a new proposal by NASA for an alternative to the solar and nuclear powered missions common today. The bacteria could provide a long-lived energy source which could sustain a tiny robotic probe; the amount of energy generated would also be small however, not enough to power larger probes like the Mars rovers for example. The microbial fuels cells could last a long time however, as long as the bacteria themselves had an adequate food supply.

The microbe being considered for the project is Geobacter sulfurreducens, which does not require oxygen for its survival.

Electron microscope image of Geobacter sulfurreducens, the microbe to be used in the new fuel system. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory

A research team at the Naval Research Laboratory would like to have a working prototype of just such a robot within the next ten years that would weigh about 2 pounds (1 kilogram). There are technological hurdles, as with any new mission concept, to be overcome which will take several years.

Another major concern however, is the problem of contamination. Planetary probes, especially ones going to Mars, have been sterilized before launch according to a long-standing protocol, to minimize the introduction of earthly bacteria to the alien environments. So what would happen if a bacteria-powered probe was sent? It seems counter-productive then to deliberately send microbes which not only hitch a ride but are actually the fuel.

According to Gregory Scott at NSL: “There are planetary protection concerns, as well as concerns about protecting the microbes themselves from radiation. Sometime down the road we also have to consider whether the microbes we’re looking at are most effective for radiation environments or extreme temperatures.”

Any bacteria-based fuel system would have to take the contamination issue into account and be developed so as to try to minimize the chances of accidental leakage, especially in a place like Mars, where such organisms would have a decent chance at survival.

The concept is an innovative and exciting one, if the various technological and environmental concerns can be addressed. If so, our tiny friends may help to open a new chapter in space exploration.

Scott continues: “As we move forward in the utilisation of MFCs as an energy generation method, this research begins to lay the groundwork for low powered electronics with a long-term potential for space and robotic applications,” says Scott. Microbial fuel cells coupled with extremely low-power electronics and a low energy requirement for mobility addresses gaps in power technology applicable to all robotic systems, especially planetary robotics.”

James Webb Mirrors Pass Deep-Freeze Exams

The James Webb Space Telescope mirrors have completed deep-freeze tests and are removed from the X-ray and Cryogenic test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: Emmett Given, NASA Marshall

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The last of the 21 mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope have come out of deep freeze – literally! – and are now approved for space operations, a major milestone in the development of the next generation telescope that’s being hailed as the “successor to Hubble.”

“The mirror completion means we can build a large, deployable telescope for space,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and Webb program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “We have proven real hardware will perform to the requirements of the mission.”

The all-important mirrors for the Webb telescope had to be cryogenically tested to make sure they could withstand the rigors and extreme low temperatures necessary for operating in space. To achieve this, they were cooled to temperatures of -387F (-233C) at the X-ray and Cryogenic Test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

When in actual use, the mirrors will be kept at such low temperatures so as not to interfere with deep-space infrared observations with their own heat signatures.

JWST engineers anticipate that, with such drastic cooling, the mirrors will change shape. The testing proved that the mirrors would achieve the shapes needed to still perform exactly as expected.

“This testing ensures the mirrors will focus crisply in space, which will allow us to see new wonders in our universe,” said Helen Cole, project manager for Webb Telescope mirror activities.

Planned for launch in 2018, the JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of the Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on Earthlike planets.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope here.

Underwater Neutrino Detector Will Be Second-Largest Structure Ever Built

Artist's rendering of the KM3NeT array. (Marco Kraan/Property KM3NeT Consortium)

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The hunt for elusive neutrinos will soon get its largest and most powerful tool yet: the enormous KM3NeT telescope, currently under development by a consortium of 40 institutions from ten European countries. Once completed KM3NeT will be the second-largest structure ever made by humans, after the Great Wall of China, and taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai… but submerged beneath 3,200 feet of ocean!

KM3NeT – so named because it will encompass an area of several cubic kilometers – will be composed of lengths of cable holding optical modules on the ends of long arms. These modules will stare at the sea floor beneath the Mediterranean in an attempt to detect the impacts of neutrinos traveling down from deep space.

Successfully spotting neutrinos – subatomic particles that don’t interact with “normal” matter very much at all, nor have magnetic charges – will help researchers to determine which direction they originated from. That in turn will help them pinpoint distant sources of powerful radiation, like quasars and gamma-ray bursts. Only neutrinos could make it this far and this long after such events since they can pass basically unimpeded across vast cosmic distances.

“The only high energy particles that can come from very distant sources are neutrinos,” said Giorgio Riccobene, a physicist and staff researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics. “So by looking at them, we can probe the far and violent universe.”

Each Digital Optical Module (DOM) is a standalone sensor module with 31 3-inch PMTs in a 17-inch glass sphere.

In effect, by looking down beneath the sea KM3NeT will allow scientists to peer outward into the Universe, deep into space as well as far back in time.

The optical modules dispersed along the KM3NeT array will be able to identify the light given off by muons when neutrinos pass into the sea floor. The entire structure would have thousands of the modules (which resemble large versions of the hovering training spheres used by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.)

In addition to searching for neutrinos passing through Earth, KM3NeT will also look toward the galactic center and search for the presence of neutrinos there, which would help confirm the purported existence of dark matter.

Read more about the KM3NeT project here, and check out a detailed article on the telescope and neutrinos on Popsci.com.

Height of the KM3NeT telescope structure compared to well-known buildings

Images property of KM3NeT Consortium