Category Archives: Blog

Lessons of a BayCon Gofer: Jill of All Trades

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In 2014, BayCon had its traditional four days to work with, and Friday was an ease-into-the event day. This was a great time to turn up at the Gofer Hole and ask if they needed help. “Yes!” being the inevitable answer. Warning: if you try this, there ARE forms! If you are a kid, there are parental signatures required. So I signed away liability for the horrific injuries and possible death that might occur as a result of my participation in the duties of a fetch-and-carry helper in a nice hotel constructed to meet modern building codes. More likely: infection by a zombie virus, but ha on them, they didn’t mention zombie viruses in the release form.

The reward for filling out forms: my first badge ribbon of the Con. Yes, this means I am Gofer #18. Shades of Caddy Shack.

Meet Gofer #18

Meet Gofer #18

So what does a Gofer do? Take a deep breath, plunge in. Oh, it is soooooo difficult.

Job #1: Go to the Big Ballroom, to help set up for some event tonight. No idea what the event is. The person who called for help? He’s not there. No one knows what he wanted done. But the guy hanging lights at the Art Show needs an assistant.

Job #2: Help hang lights at the Art Show. Now, actually hanging the lights is a Skilled Job, not a Gofer job. My job is to hand cable ties to the exhausted electrical tech, whose ladder-climbs for the weekend have already gone into the triple digits.   And to help spot weak links in the chain of power-strips and extension cords feeding electrons to the downlamps positioned to light the display boards for the art. Artists are already checking in, placing their work, jockeying for prime display spots in the venue. Still, we proceed up and down rows with a stepladder and a bundle of cable ties.

Job #3: The original person who wanted help is back. He needs a banner snapped onto a big framework thingy. It’s a multi-gofer job that takes some cooperation, especially amusing as none of us assisting with this thing have any idea what it’s for. My engineering brain helps with figuring out the layout itself, and we get the fabric stretched out nicely, but my partner gets to actually do most of the actual attachment, since there is a power element to the task.

Job #4: Hang around in the Gofer Hole, being On Call. Seriously, being available counts as working. Yes, indeed, this is even better than counting billable hours in my consulting practice. Dang, if only I could bill clients for time I’m home & my phone and email connections are working.   There are snacks here—bagels, mmmm. And electrical outlets, so I can plug in my netbook & work on a Messy Monday project.

Job #5: Schlep groceries for a party. Some longtime VIP staffers are having a private party. Their goodies for the party are stowed in the Gofer Hole. We On-Call Gofers have the hugely easy job of carrying the goodies a hundred feet down the hall. [Hint:  helping with a party does entitle one to partake of the party.  Generally speaking.  I did not take part, having a prior engagement with a soda machine.]

Job #6: Load sodas into the Charity Soda Machine. This is a magical device in the Games Room that converts geeks’ need for carbonated sugar- or aspartame-water into monies for this year’s charity fundraising. I was briefly concerned that I would run into difficulties with my limited weight-lifting capabilities. But the job soon devolves into a three-stage process free of excessive lifting:

Stage A: Wander about looking for the Keeper of the Soda-Machine Keys.

Stage B: Wait for the Individual Authorized to Use the Humungous Hand Truck

Stage C: Leave when Keeper of the Machine appears and disavows any need for help

Job #7: Build a LARP set. Someone has created a live-action role-playing version of a card-based game called “Kill Dr. Lucky”. This is a game I have never heard of, but someone has gone to great lengths to build an accurate, room-sized playing field that live humans can walk about on as if they are playing pieces in the game. Our mission: assist this charismatic lunatic by moving chairs out of the way, laying out the sheets his friend has carefully marked out with lines and labels, getting each in proper orientation to the other and smoothing out the boundaries with tape. By the time we are done, I’m determined to show up and try out this LARPing thing.    P1210948 The LARP Field2

And by this time, I’ve put in totally enough time as a Gofer for one day, while the activities I’m least interested in on the program are conveniently over.

My Very Own Ray Gun

My Very Own Ray Gun

I have time to dash up to the DIY room before dinnertime and make myself a cool ray gun by artistically decorating a plastic gun with gold and silver and red and purple and green Sharpies.   It is my favorite toy already. So shiny.

And I wouldn’t want anyone to think one has to devote the entire day just Gofering about. I did skip an hour of possible On-Call credit for a panel on the relative merits of James Bond and Doctor Who. And regretted it. There is no contest. Doctor Who is way, way cooler than James Bond, but the panel was mostly a bunch of guys keen on car chases in movies.

Finally, yes, I did get to play Kill Dr. Lucky. It was super fun, and while I cannot claim to be the One Who Did the Deed, the evil Dr. L was indeed assassinated. Here is our team’s creative enactment of the impending demise of the successful assassin.

Let's Get Doctor Lucky's Killer

Let’s Get Doctor Lucky’s Killer











Gofer Lesson of the Day: Sign up early & there will be lots of easy jobs to do while the con is barely getting started.  There’s never a dull moment, or if there is, you can get credit for working by napping while On Call.  And don’t leave home without a suitable weapon.

Have Ray Gun, Will Shoot

Have Ray Gun, Will LARP




Lessons Learned as a BayCon Gofer: Seeking the Secret Hideout

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BayCon 2015  looms on the horizon.   The increasing pace of email updates from the registration staff is bringing on flashbacks of the olden days, at BayCon 2014, when I fell deep into a gopher hole and didn’t emerge until the sun was fading on Memorial Day.

That is, last year I was a Gopher/Gofer/Go-fer at my local science-fiction convention. (Spelling must remain inconsistent & unimportant in this instance.) This year, I’m On Staff. It’s remotely possible that the two conditions are related, what the docs call “comorbid conditions”. Perhaps it’s worth revisiting, to give folks a glimpse into the life of a convention Gofer. Or to enable recognition of incipient volunteerism.

It all started on check-in day, the Thursday evening before Opening Day.

ED-209 from Robocop

ED-209 from RoboCop looms menacingly.

Inauspiciously, my badge was not waiting at the check-in table; something had gone wrong with the printing, and it was queued up with several other reprint orders. That meant I had nothing to do for a half-hour or so. Rather than sit patiently, I roamed the halls. The week before, I’d emailed a randomly-named staff address to ask about working as a go-fer, and the reply was fuzzy, but boiled down to stop-in-at-the-gopher-hole.   But where was this secret base?

Welcome to Baycon

Welcome to Baycon, Sponsored by Adipose Industries

Suffice to say, I failed to locate the base, but the search renewed my acquaintance with the layout of the Hyatt Regency & Santa Clara Convention Center. So I collected my program and newly reprinted badge

The Baycon 2014 Member Badge

Proof Of Membership

& went home to rest up for the long weekend.



Paradoxically, my unfulfilled search actually made me more determined to find the secret lair and get involved…once things were up and running on Friday. The secret? The Gofer Hole owns one of the smaller meeting rooms in a relatively quiet zone (across the hall from the Bayshore Room at the Hyatt) but during the Con, it’s clearly flagged with artistic signage and new Gofers are welcome to stop in and sign up.



Amazingly, Friday morning, they would even let this demented individual sign up:




Gofer Lesson of the Day: Don’t give up, take advantage of “wasted” time to learn something or, heck, catch some z’s.















An Update: Time-Travel to 2012

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So I’m watching the fake Late Late Show (forever fake, now that Craig has left) & suddenly Replacement Guest Host is doing make-your-own-comet with a Guest Astronomer.  I’m wondering if I could charge them with stealing my work, but, well Derrick Pitts probably doesn’t need to be getting ideas from the Invisible Blog of Doom.  On checking back to my own posting from late 2012, I find the following:

1) Mine has decent classroom-management tips and includes explanations of why each substance is being added in, and theirs does not.  Plus, they use Coca-Cola, which isn’t a such good idea for a school science demo. (Wayne Brady does demonstrate exactly what students will do with a can of soda.)

2) Mine is totally missing its visuals.  I took photos the last couple of times I did this demo.  Where are they? Aaaaagh!

Four days later, I’ve found the missing files, carefully stored on a clearly-labeled DVD backup disk in a plastic box in my office.  Under another box.  With a scattering of old DVD’s, mending, receipts, and old concert tickets on top of that. Plus dust.


A comet-building group at a Lyceum of Silicon Valley workshop

A comet-building group at a Lyceum of Silicon Valley workshop

And, ta-da! My comet project update is complete.  I’ve even learned how to embed a link to the Late Late Show’s YouTube channel on the appropriate blog post.  Time-travel to here and have your own cometary fun.  Remember to keep things safe but still keep the fun in science.

Groundhog Day at NASA-Ames: Episode 3, Billions vs Billions

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(NASA Social 2/2/15 State of NASA)

The final stage of our State-Of-NASA day starts with Lunch. If you turn up in the morning with a bit of cash, you can sign up for a box lunch, and I knew from before that it’s a good one. But luckily today, I left my cash at home so my lunch is the granola bar that’s been hiding in my computer bag since I’m not sure when. But, yes, luckily, since we’ve gotten back to the visitor’s center just in time for the start of the budget presentation, livestreamed via the big screen at the Exploration Center. There’s no time to eat more than a granola bar if I want both hands free to type & tweet.

Now, I know that Ames employees were also gathered elsewhere watching the livestream. I’m wondering if it might have been more efficient and more socially fun to have the Social Media crew join that larger group for these livestreams. Maybe next time…

A Disclosure Moment

Sure, I’m a space fan, so it wouldn’t be out of line to assume I’m in favor of funding NASA.  But of course, on top of that, my husband does work for NASA, so there can be an actual family effect from budget decisions.  Though I’m really writing about a) the general budget picture and b) what it’s like at a NASA Social, I’ll avoid the budget topics that directly affect our family.  No, wait, the budget issue that’s most likely to have a real, measurable effect on us isn’t some line item, it’s the regular sequestration of funds by our truculent Congresspersons.  (As in, my husband hasn’t had an actual raise in more than 5 years.)  And then there are those wonderful times when Congress shuts down the government and he and all his colleagues don’t get paid at all and proceed to complain (bitterly) that they have been told to stay home and not work.  There’s nothing worse to a scientist than being told not to work. In any case, here I’m not aiming for a critical review, but more of a “what’s in the budget” overview.

The Proposed 2016 NASA Budget

You can delve into every element of the budget here.

Let’s see if I can squeeze it into a few paragraphs. And keep in mind this is the requested budget, part of President Obama’s 2016 budget. Congress has to approve it. These numbers sound big to us, spending $18.5 billion on NASA. Just keep in mind that this is 0.04% of the total 2016 Obama budget. And if compared to the defense portion of the military budget, it’s 3% of that.  Here’s the Big Picture:

The Big Picture (Can You Find NASA?)

The Big Picture (Can You Find NASA?)  Source:


Did you find NASA?  OK, once you peer into that 0.04% of the total, here’s what you get:

Category I. Science. $ 5.29 billion (about the same as 2015)


New Horizons Nears Pluto

New Horizons Nears Pluto

For this, we get: Landsat and all its kin providing Earth images, taking over all of NOAA’s earth-observing satellites except for the weather satellites, all of the current & upcoming Mars missions, Cassini, the Pluto mission (New Horizons), a mission to Jupiter, detection of near-Earth asteroids, all the space telescopes, the search for exoplanets, the James Webb telescope project and dozens of solar physics projects. Whew.

Category II. Aeronautics. $0.57 billion (down)

For this we get air traffic management tools, tech for unmanned autonomous vehicles, and new technology development for air vehicles.NASA UAV Traffic Control

Category III. Space Technology. $0.73 billion (up)

This covers new technology development in and for space applications, such as alternative fuels, solar electric propulsion,

Orion at Splashdown

Orion at Splashdown

the life-support system development for Orion, and development of laser communications systems.

Category IV. Exploration. $4.51 billion (up)

This is a big category, because it’s for big stuff, mainly the Orion system, for which the first test flight went so well. Next up is the Exploration Mission, an unmanned trip to the Moon and back. And of course it’s all about The Journey To Mars. The Core MessageAnd a major subcategory is support for the development of commercial spaceflight. Like SpaceX and Boeing.

Category V. Space Operations. $4.00 billion (up)

That’s taking care of what we have up in space: mostly the International Space Station,

NASA's View of the ISS

NASA’s View of the ISS

but also the facilities for support of those space missions, from the satellite fleet that provides tracking to the launch support on the ground.

Category VI. Education. $0.89 billion (down 20%)

Wow. No clear explanation for this, but education funding has been shaved by about 25%. There’re education-related funds under other categories, but this is the core education funding for NASA’s contribution to the Federal plan to support STEM education. That includes Space Grant and programs to get more minority students interested STEM and going on to earn degrees in science and engineering. This is in addition to some education funding budgeted elsewhere, totaling $26.

Category VII. Safety, Security & Mission Services + Construction + Environmental Compliance + the office of the Inspector General. $ 3.25 billion (about the same)

That keeps all the NASA centers operating and takes care of any needed construction work (including environmental clean-up jobs).

We also get a few key bits to ponder:

On average, between 2015 and 2020, we’ve got about 17 launches per year planned, of which about 13 have a science focus.

NASA is taking on a lot of former NOAA stuff, like ozone monitoring, ocean altimetry, and non-defense Earth-observing satellites, leaving just the weather satellites in NOAA’s budget.

But–wait for it–the proposed budget assumes that the venerable Opportunity rover retires this year. Wait. Whaaaat? Oppy has not even hinted at a desire to quit her roving ways. If the “science value” makes sense, then they’ll try to provide funding anyhow.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (la bella osservatoria in volo, SOFIA) is fully funded in this budget request (last year, it wasn’t funded, but they got Congress to fund it later on, which kept the airborne observatory flying through fiscal 2015. No need for such machinations in 2016.

The State of Ames

Aaand, for a grand finale we get our very own presentation by Director of Ames S. Pete Worden and Ames CFO Paul Agnew. I’m actually awfully impressed, that this small group gets the attention of these top administrators, when I’m sure they’ve been through a similar session with the “real” media.

Here’s the short version: Director Worden is delighted that the President supports a larger budget for NASA as a whole and happy that Ames is well taken care of in this budget, scoring its own $31 million overall budget increase with no cut in the education budget here. The special favorite is that solid funding for SOFIA, which is what bumps up Ames’ science budget. There’s funding for the CubeSats we saw today and for K-2 (the second-generation Kepler program) to keep ferreting out exoplanets around dwarf stars. And the upcoming new planet-finder TESS is in the works. Ames is on the forefront in reentry systems and several other areas critical to the Orion mission, so those are in well as is the Intelligent Robotics Group. The guys across the street from the Roverscape, the advanced computing group, also have a stable budget for next year.

SOFIA Celebrates Another Year

SOFIA Celebrates Another Year

And they are very pleased that Ames’ own SOFIA is saved for another budget year.

I asked how Ames managed to keep its education budget stable when the agency-wide budget has such big cuts. I got a fuzzy answer, broadly indicating that a center’s education budget is affected by what that center asked for at the agency level, and that Ames has established a steady set of relationships and grants.


OK, just to review.

The requested budget for NASA is $18.5 billion, an increase of about $500 million.

But put this in context. The defense request is $605 billion.

So, NASA is asking for about 3.1% of what the military is asking for, just for current defense purposes, not including taking care of our veterans.

And that’s out of a total budget of $4 trillion.

So the President is asking if it’s OK if he spends 0.04% of our taxes on exploring our solar system, establishing a human presence in space, and using space-based research to find out all kinds of cool stuff that will help people on Earth.

So now we just have to wait and see what happens in Congress.

Groundhog Day at NASA-Ames: Episode 2, Live at the Roverscape!

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(NASA Social 2/2/15 State of NASA)

Before launching (pun intended) into this installment, I have to note some disappointing news from the European Space Agency’s ATV-5 mission. Due to a power issue, they decided not to do the shallow-angle reentry, which would require the vehicle to be in flight for an extra week or more after deploying from the ISS. Instead, it completed its mission in a more typical reentry maneuver, earlier today (Sunday, Feb. 15th ). Oh, well, the astronauts saved the new NASA monitoring instrument aboard the ISS for use in a future mission.  But it was not like we had anticipated. To cope with the loss, enjoy some NASA imagery from the reentry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft.

Blue Skies on the Roverscape

Terry Fong with NASA Social Team:  Blue Skies Over the Roverscape

Once we’re done with the agency-wide event of the morning, we find our way to the dazzling outdoors and distribute ourselves between a shuttle van and a minivan with our NASA team and a service-dog-in-training, and we’re off to the Roverscape.

Welcome to the Roverscape

Welcome to the Roverscape

I’m figuring we’ll get a few canned presentations about the rovers that roam that dirt lot, climbing its artificial hills and avoiding its alignements of obstacle-rocks. And I’m psyched for that. At Ames’ 75th-anniversary Open House, it was a crowd-fighting challenge to catch a glimpse of the rover patrolling on the other side of the barbed-wire-topped fence, subject to remote-control by a NASA roboteer hiding in plain sight under a pop-up tent in the parking lot.

But no. It’s not a presentation in the parking lot.

On arrival, our NASA Social Team quickly demonstrates thinking, writing, photographing, and connecting.

On arrival, our NASA Social Team quickly demonstrates thinking, writing, photographing, and connecting.

Now, presentations are nice. But the thing is, if you’re at a NASA Social, you feel like you have to be tweeting and posting the whole time and it’s been pretty thoroughly proven that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Which means while you’re tweeting and posting you’re missing stuff. Some folks handle that by simply recording presentations—you know, like the Real Media do. My strategy is to free-type notes, but that’s pretty dependent on having mad touch-typing skills. In any case, you don’t actually get much chance to interact with the people you’re there to learn from. Plus, for the presenters, gawd, there is nothing more tedious than being dragged away from your work to give a presentation to a bunch of people who seem to be playing video games and are not prepared to ask you questions.

So today the Ames Media Relations Gang are trying out a new idea.

The Clue-In & Reverse PhotoOp

The Elevator Pitch for The Elevator Pitch System, Featuring Today’s Reverse Photo Op


They have rounded up a bevy of NASA engineers & scientists associated with seven different project groups. Each group has chosen a representative to give a three-minute “elevator pitch”.  That would be either a) the one person who wasn’t there when the rep was chosen or b) a team leader who actually likes talking to groups. Then the social-media herd will be set free to scatter among the projects that have sparked their interest.

This is an experiment that works well on several levels. First, the quick-posting tweeters get snippets of video of the pitch presentations & those are up on YouTube in nanosecs.  Second, at first, the attendees naturally focus on projects that interest them the most. Third, because everyone’s free to wander, attendees also wander over to chat with folks whose topics weren’t as appealing at first. That means people discover new things. And they’re more likely to get excited about new discoveries. Fourth, because it becomes nearly a one-to-one discussion format, questions are livelier, connections are made, and, fundamentally, everyone has a better time.

The sole downside is, for an old-school note-taker like me, it’s tough to shoot photos & video, listen, ask sensible questions, and get notes written down. Gives you some respect for the professional media, eh, what? I’m envying that old-style team of reporter + photographer.

I tried to chat with every group. Very nearly made it, too.  So, with rough notes supported by follow-up research, my photos, and the power of memory…

Target #1: Big Giant Roverbots!

First off, I headed right for Terry Fong and the K-REX robot that was actively surveying the Roverscape.  Strangely, no one else was chatting with him yet. Maybe they were scared off by his position as Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group, aka King of the Roverscape. But, seriously, Terry Fong is one the most personable robotics experts you can talk to, and others quickly joined me. It was quickly evident that what people wanted were photos of the rover, so he suggested good shooting angles, led small groups close enough for the rover to demonstrate its detection-and-avoidance behavior, and (near the end of the event) asked his crew to go to RC mode for a bit so the rover wouldn’t trundle away so determinedly.

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Howdy, Prospector Bot K-REX

Where Be the Water?

Where Be the Water?

The current design mission for the K-REX (which is the upsized younger sibling of the workhorse K-10 robot platform) is developing prospecting tools and algorithms. For survey missions, the rover can use a variety of tools from ground-penetrating radar to its 3-D GigaPan camera. But the hot topic of the moment is seeking water ice under the surface, for Lunar and Mars missions. But how do you “see” underground water?  Robots, not being prone to faith-based data acquisition (or confidence tricks), aren’t good at dowsing. But water contains hydrogen, and each hydrogen nucleus (i.e., a single proton) is just the right size for interacting with a neutron in a measurable way. If you fire neutrons into the ground, they’ll penetrate about a meter, while bouncing around among the component atoms. Eventually, some will bounce back out of the surface. Ones that have only hit large, heavy atoms will be flying at close to their original velocity. But the neutrons that have struck hydrogen atoms will be slowed down significantly. The HYDRA neutron spectroscope detects the relative fraction of slowed-down neutrons and reports high hydrogen concentrations. Lots of hydrogen almost certainly means H2O. The team recently took their rover on a practice mission to search for water in the Mohave desert.

Rovin the Scape

Will K-REX find water under the pebble patch?

One factor they are teaching the robots to work around is the varied character of the surface of the ground, so at the Roverscape, there are test patches of gravel, smooth pebbles, sand, and even shale rocks with smooth surfaces and jagged edges.

Couldn’t resist snagging some video of the rover at work:


Target #2: Makers of the Three (or More) Rules of Flying Robots

At the far end of the row of tents were a couple of guys with, sadly, no active robots to play with. And no one hanging around asking them questions. So, ever happy to avoid a crowd, I left Terry and made a bee line for their display. And discovered the team working to protect us all from wild mobs of flying robots clogging our skies. No, seriously, have you not worried what’s up with drones these days? Anyone can pick one up on Amazon and start zooming about. There have already been legal cases with “peeping tom” drones. And towns arguing about whether or not to legalize shooting down drones above, say, your ranch property. More prosaically, but even more seriously, a drone wandering into airspace populated with passenger airplanes poses serious safety issues. Back in the early days of airplanes, there were similar issues of privacy, rights of transit, and safety.

In his State of NASA address, Charles Bolden trotted out the NASA aero mantra, “NASA is with you when you fly”.  Did you know that on top of cool aero hardware, NASA has been involved in air traffic control & collision avoidance? Now it’s time for UAV traffic controls. In big words, we’re talking: Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM). This mission involves devising both regulations and technology, because UAV’s need to be smart enough to “know” the rules and to recognize and avoid “forbidden” space.

The timeline is short, as the drones are already out there—with lots of useful and fun applications but just as many problematic situations—so the plan is to have essential systems for safe airspace in place within five years. NASA UAV Traffic Control The proposed solution space incorporates static elements (“geofencing” to tag keep-out zones) and drone smarts (to detect geofences and manage routing) to build, by stages, a comprehensive system allowing for autonomous operations which maintain secure areas and safe travel.

I only wish they’d been able to have a live drone to play with and illustrate their points. Because, you know, objects in flight.

Target #3:  The One I Missed, But Oh, Well, Didya Know…?

The guys next door had a huge UAV on their table, but, well, it was popular. I never did get to talk to them about it. Luckily Tokiwa Smith (@Tokiwana–follow her on Twitter, ok?) tweeted a good photo, so I was able to ID that fierce flyer as FrankenEye, a hybrid creation built largely by a group of student interns using parts from the NASA Dragon Eye UAV’s and their own 3-D printed parts.

It's FrankenEye:  A project student interns got to work on!

It’s FrankenEye: A project student interns got to work on! (Courtesy of NASA)

So, this is a good place to mention that NASA has a tremendous internship program.  The robotics programs alone at Ames pull in a dozen or more interns every summer. There are openings for liberal-arts students as well as engineers & scientists. And there are year-round internships as well. The best place to get connected with NASA internships all around the country is a single website, OSSI.  There are spots for high-schoolers, undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs, all with one application. However, if you (or a student you know) are in commute distance of any NASA site, check their website for a local internship. For example, at Ames there is the Education Associates Program  (supported by funding from USRA)


Target #4:  Innovative Bots Based On Baby Toys. Seriously.

Next up: the tensegrity bots, a NASA research project which has involved university students and professors from Ghent University to UC-Berkeley to Case Western Reserve.  We got our introduction from Vitas SunSpiral, a Stanford-trained innovator whose company is a contractor for the IRG.  Yes–one way to work “for NASA” is to work for a company that works with NASA.

Meet the Tensegrity Team

Meet the Tensegrity Team

These folks are thinking so far outside the box that there isn’t any box left. They’re most fascinated by designing structures with great flexibility, analogous to our own flexible spines and spring-loaded tendons and joints. For their inspiration, they’ve turned to the toy universe: remember those springy rattles or balls made of sticks and elastics?  At the Open House, I’d seen the large prototype that they’re sharing at this event as well as a prototype Berkeley students had built using LEGO Mindstorms. (SunSpiral told me that excited kids at the Open House partly disassembled the LEGO version.) They’ve even dubbed this design a “Super Ball Bot”, reflecting the nature of the device is to be “bouncy” in a flexibility sense (and it also works as a pun on the robotics event “Bot Ball”, though I’m not sure that’s intentional). The Ball Bot moves by adjusting tension in cables connecting the rods in response to dynamic pressure signals transmitted through this physical network. The result is a slow rolling peregrination. Theoretically, this device is its own safety net: it could roll to the edge of a cliff, drop down, and land safely. Eventually, a payload can be added, suspended in the middle of the “ball” and protected by the springy structure of its un-legs.

Here’s a fun video the team posted a while back of their Super Ball Bot in development, concluding with a demo run right here at the Roverscape:

Target #5:  Making Robots Take Charge of Their Own Health

OK, there were people nearby showing off tiny satellites, but I needed a big-robot fix again. The guys from the “Health and Prognostics” group were displaying an older-style roverbot with a laptop perched on top of it.

Health and Prognostics for Optimal Mission Success

“Health and Prognostics for Optimal Mission Success”   What? Huh?


What’s this all about? Health? Is this a bot that helps keep people healthy? I can tell from some of my fellow NASA Socialistas that this is the first-line guess, because that’s how they tag the first photos they tweet.

But, well, no. The “Health” under consideration here is the device’s own health. For this prototype, the robot assesses the status of its battery packs and then has to decide if it’s up to completing the mission it’s been assigned:  driving an assigned path and returning to base. It may need to eliminate some waypoints to safely complete at least the most critical stops on its route and skip the lower-priority stops. Consider that an autonomous survey rover on the Moon or Mars must be able to get itself back to its charging station and still make the cost of its construction and deployment worth the investment.   The laptop on this robot is displaying its “thoughts” as it assesses its assigned route and redesigns that route in response to having one of its battery units disconnected in a recent experimental expedition around the streets right near the Roverscape.

But, wait, there’s more! To do this job well takes more than an instantaneous measure of how the batteries are doing. This crew has tested batteries to build a system which predicts battery status in the course of the mission—that’s the “Prognostics” in the heading.  And that’s also information that is already set to be applied in batteries for electric cars–because this robot uses the same batteries.

It’s unfortunate that the nomenclature leads to a natural confusion here. This is a new field in systems engineering, one that truly sounds like something to do with medicine: Integrated Systems Health Management, or ISHM.  I’d’ve picked a different word than “health”, but systems engineers have used that term for so long, it would have been hard to change.  In any case, what’s important (and, analogous to biological health) is that it’s all about maintaining systems, and in this context a “diagnosis” isn’t determining the cause of a rash but more like asking a smart device, like, say, the starship Enterprise, to give itself a check-up, that is:  “run diagnostics.” This has applications in any area with multiple components with failure potential. Here, we’re seeing it applied to an exploration rover system.

Target #6: Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites

OK, as I plunge over the 2,000-word line, check out those little cubes that Astronaut Scott Kelly is playing with here.  I only got to look around the shoulders of others talking to the SPHERES crew, but I got the gist just fine.

Astronaut Kelly plays with SPHERES (Courtesy of NASA)

Astronaut Kelly juggles SPHERES (Courtesy of NASA)

First of all, they’re not cubes, they’re SPHERES.  Yes, clearly the acronym was assembled to be cute. But the job of these babies is cool:  they are flying ISS helper bots designed to be used as test beds for small satellite designs which include satellites which can work together to perform tasks in space. They’ve been under constant development since their first flight in 2006.  The original-style SPHERES in this photo aren’t really being juggled, they’re navigating within the ISS using echolocation, using fixed-position ultrasound transmitters in the ISS to establish their location and relative positions.  The most recent versions are “SmartSPHERES” equipped with smartphones  to communicate rapidly and enable image-taking and provide potential for vision-based navigation.

The resemblance of the SPHERES bots to the “remote” droids in the Start Wars franchise is no accident: the original SPHERES were designed by MIT students in response to a challenge from their professor to build him one of those droids.  Since then, the SPHERES have continued to be influenced by students, as students have been able to “fly” by writing programs for SPHERES to execute.

An interesting recent series of experiments involved using a pair of SPHERES to cooperatively rotate a canister of fluid to study the way fluids slosh in microgravity. This is not just an academic exercise. Sloshing behavior affects the way fuel behaves during spacecraft maneuvers. Here’s a little NASA video of one sloshing experiment (And YouTube will happily point you to more like this.):  

Target #7: Teeny-Tiny Satellites

I could see others moving towards the exit (and some groups packing up their displays), but I squeezed in a quick conversation with one of the CubeSat team members. What the heck’s a CubeSat, did I hear you say? Well, CubeSat is a modular design for a nanosatellite (i.e., a really small satellite).  Each CubeSat is composed of a specific number of same-sized cubical “units”.  Oh, and though the SPHERES bots look like cubes, a CubeSat “unit” is actually meant to be cubical: nominally 10x10x10 cm (though if you nit-pick, the specs come out closer to 10x10x11cm).   A CubeSat is assembled as 1 or 2 or 3 such “units”, with 6-unit and 12-unit cubesats in the works.  Look at it this way:  a 3U CubeSat is a bit smaller than a 12-pack of soda…roughly the size of a standard roll of paper towels.  The beauty of the small and modular design is that it opens up satellite-building to students, small businesses, and even hobbyists (though not everyone will score a launch ride with NASA).

You don’t launch a CubeSat from Earth. You launch it from space, by hitching a ride up to the ISS (or further) and having it slung from there to its desired orbit. When Orion runs its test flight to the Moon and back in 2017, it’s hoped that a few CubeSats will be able to hitch a ride and be launched from the orbit of the moon, for placement further from Earth.  For instance, solar physicists would love to see an array of little satellites spread out around the sun, so they could see the activity over the entire solar surface at one time.

My captive researcher was was happy to talk but eager to get going as well, because she’s involved in an important test scheduled for “very soon”.

TES-4 Coming Down Soon

TechEdSat-3 (a 3U CubeSat) was the first test of an Exo-Brake.                           TES-4 is coming down in February 2015

We’d like to be able to send small payloads to Earth. So far, the final parachute drop has been tested. The ability to communicate with the microsat during transit, using the the Iridium satellite network (yep, the smartphone network) for rapid interactive data handling has had testing, and we know how to pop the device out from the ISS. The exo-brake is a parachute designed for use in the low-density upper reaches of the atmosphere to steer the payload on the right course until regular parachutes can be deployed.  The upcoming test is the deployment and descent of TES-4, a CubeSat project involving San Jose State University students.  They’ll be testing the latest exo-brake and applying the Iridium communications system.

And then, finally, the call came for us all to exit the Roverscape. I walked backward and took the time for one last photo of K-REX before scrambling back aboard our vans for the ride back to the Exploration Center.

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Welcome to the Roverscape

Farewell,  Roverscape

Groundhog Day at NASA-Ames: Episode 1, The State of NASA

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At Ames: “The Big White Dome”

This is my second “NASA Social”, part of a new(ish) PR program at NASA which is (successfully, I should add), linking the venerable government institution with this modern social-media-dominated universe. At Ames Research Center, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, I even qualify as “younger generation.” That alone is worth the price of admission. Last time, I stayed in the Facebook & Twitter world; this time I worked on my photos & videos for the blog.  While I may not tweet as rapidly as those youngsters sporting Google Glass, I hope I’m bringing a relatively-informed viewpoint to the show along with my fangirl attude.

Yeah, I know. I have my own engineering Ph.D., but I’m still a fangirl when it comes to space stuff, science stuff, and robot stuff.  And the best place to find all that stuff is still NASA.

OK, so, I’m expecting this one to be relatively dull, as the thrilling event of the day is The State of NASA (insert non-martial fanfare here) address being livestreamed from Kennedy on the big screen at the Ames Exploration Center. The last-minute info email the Ames team sent out last night hints at more than that: a “preview” of the ATV-5 re-entry, a “tour” of the Roverscape (a dirt lot with rocks in it), and (oh, joy) all about the new budget proposal.

Waiting for the livestream from Kennedy Center to get under way, it becomes clear we’re really just watching NASA TV, only without access to the DirecTV remote. There’s a very brief, flashy video of inspiring fun NASA images: think ooh! ahh! all accompanied by the voice of the lovely Peter Cullen (aka Optimus Prime). But then NASA TV switches to their familiar old-style rolling globe image with a static “coming next” title. No sound, just a slide. Not something that would get a channel-skipper to pause and watch. A teasing view of the crowd jostling for seating and the Director finding his spot in front of Orion would be more engaging. Maybe they could bring in an intern from a college media studies program to keep viewer interest up when there’s a little delay in an event startup.

Meanwhile, here’s a party game: What did you recognize in that rapid-fire video with Optimus Prime narrating? Here’s my list:

Orion completes first EDL (Courtesy of NASA)

Orion bobbing in the sea

Curiosity exploring Mars





Scott Kelly with SPHERES on the ISS (Courtesy of NASA)

Astronaut Scott Kelly elated for a yearlong mission

ISS’rs playing with SPHERES and R2 the Robonaut

SpaceX and Saturday’s Launch of SMAP



The View from Ames

The View from Ames

Well, you can watch the State O’ NASA message yourself on YouTube, to get the full effect. It’s only a half-hour, plus that four-minute preview video featuring brief glimpses of the work NASA is doing, with Real Scientists and Engineers. And robots. And Astronauts. Run it in the background while you’re updating your Facebook. Make the kids watch the preview, maybe inspire them to consider training to work at NASA someday.

What you get here is a few my own off-the-cuff reactions and observations.

No surprise, The Journey To Mars is still a core theme. If you’re down on manned spaceflight, one thing I’m noticing is that there is a heck of a lot of science being packed into these projects. It’s almost as if the popularity of the notion of sending human beings to Mars is being leveraged to get more actual discovery accomplished. Hmmmm. As always, at least since Apollo ended, NASA’s a shoestring operation, and it’s rather astonishing just how many things are going on under that big umbrella.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you might not know that our current NASA Fearless Leader is a former astronaut, Charles Bolden. He flew on four Shuttle missions between 1986 and 1994, so he was part of NASA for Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton. Ten years after Bolden had left the astronaut business to go back to his first career (the U.S. Marine Corps), G.(noH.)W. Bush got so inspired by the success of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers that he decided NASA’s new mission should be to get people back to the moon and on to Mars. And just five years after that, Obama put Bolden in charge of that mission, as well as the rest of the tasks NASA manages with a budget equal to about 3% the size of the defense budget.

The fun part of the State of NASA speech was not the words, because they were pretty much what you’d expect: upbeat, replete with “Reach for New Heights” inspirational affirmations. The fun part was the setting: they talked the engineers who’d been happily disassembling the Orion capsule to put it back together, and Bolden gave his talk in front of the blackened shell of the successful first trial of NASA’s new system designed to carry humans into space…even to Mars. To add flavor to the show, the organizers commandeered a space large enough for not one but three future human vehicles. There was a SpaceX Dragon C2+ capsule

Dragon Hangs Out

Dragon Hangs Out

—said to be the actual capsule used for the first successful ISS resupply mission flown by SpaceX—and, for fair balance, a Boeing CST-100 capsule

CST-100 Shows Off Innovative Structure

CST-100 Shows Off Innovative Structure

showing off its innovative weld-free design structure.

Oh, and there were lots more people at Kennedy than we had at Ames. But at Ames, front-row seats were very accessible and anyone wanting to spread out over several seats was just fine.

Just as I notice a poster peering out from the edge of the Orion capsule, with logos and addresses for all NASA’s social-media connections, the feed goes down. The smartphones rotate 90 degrees and are all searching for the livestream. OK, it’s not just Ames, it’s NASA TV. But, really. Hire that intern, guys.

Well, it’s up again within a few minutes, though the audio is sketchy for a bit. What do interns get paid? Like, minimum wage, right?

So here are the highlights picked up in between tweets:

  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) gets first mention in the context of pathway to Mars—though we still haven’t decided if the plan is to capture a whole small asteroid or to extract a chunk from a larger asteroid.
  • A glimpse of the budget comes next…there’s a bump-up of $500 million for fiscal 2016, though who knows what Congress will do with the budget request. Keep in mind that NASA’s proposed $18.5 billion is about 3% of the proposed defense budget and about 0.04% of the overall budget. How NASA can do this much with peanuts is amazing. Oh, wait. Suddenly I understand the peanuts ritual at JPL launch & landing events.
  • There’s a return to the Mars topic with shout-outs to all our Mars explorer robots, including a total brag on the U.S. having the first and (so far) only Mars landers. (OK, yes, we still love our friends at ESA, who landed on a comet.)
  • Then we get a reminder of the brilliant science from our telescope projects
    Hubble Reveals the Butterfly Nebula

    Hubble Reveals the Butterfly Nebula (Courtesy of NASA)

    from Hubble (which Bolden helped launch) to Kepler to James Webb. Even Chandra, which does superb work in the X-Ray spectrum, gets a mention this time. And the Solar Dynamics Observatory scores a slot in the closing segment.

    Chandra X-Rays the Universe

    Chandra X-Rays the Universe (Courtesy of NASA)


  • The Shuttle program is over, but it still makes it into the talk. Keep in mind Bolden is a shuttle veteran but also remember that, like his boss, he’s the first African-American to hold his job. Bolden flags the Shuttle program as the one that brought diversity to NASA, since it finally opened up space to women, minorities, and others who previously “wouldn’t have a chance to fly”. That is the thing he tells us to view as the crucial long-term legacy of the shuttle program. (Side note: Bolden’s Deputy Administrator for 2009-2013 was the first woman to hold that position, Lori Garver.)
  • There’s a reminder that the money spent on space is money spent in the U.S., from small business to large ones, from textile mills to welding shops. And the cash gets shared out, with 37 states having a stake in the commercial crew mission.
  • Education gets a nod, though to be honest I’m a little disappointed that what gets the splash are the student science program at ISS and the flight of a student project on the Orion test flight. Those big projects still tend to end up at private and/or privileged schools, since it takes resources to play. I might have gone for a specific shout-out to one of the schools for which participation was a big leap, like Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy Still, if there’s a kid doing a science report who hasn’t logged into a NASA website, then that kid doesn’t have internet access.
  • All right, then we get a round of teasers on upcoming technological developments: “green” (less-polluting) propellants, advanced autonomous robotics, high-power solar electric propulsion, aviation advancements.
  • NASA’s moving forward in its ongoing role in earth and climate science. We’ve got that successful launch of the SMAP climate science satellite (, just a week ago, which has both direct practical applications for agriculture. And the Airborne Snow Observatory has already produced data to help with the drought in the West, especially California, where snowpack is key to water supplies.
  • True to the core message, the closing draws focus back to Mars, promising a geophysics mission with the InSight lander scheduled to launch in March of next year.   And a taste of special features planned for the Mars 2020  successor to Curiosity, including a way to shoot a sample back home to Earth.
The Core Message

The Core Message


One last item in the dark hall of the Exploration Center: we get to watch a video from the re-entry of ESA’s ATV-1.  Kinda cool, but old-school, dating back to 2008. But this is just a teaser, for the upcoming re-entry of ATV-5. Here we’re working at the opposite end of the scale from Orion and Dragon, where the concern is careful braking and heat-shield materials and safe landings. These re-entries are in the realm of Design for Demise, in which hardware at the end of its life is sent down to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not as simple as it might seem, when your goal is to NOT have bits of debris landing on the surface. I snipped together my video of their video to make a one-minute infomercial for ATV-5. Well, one does what one can:

There are two instrument packages onboard ready to monitor descent. ESA’s contribution is a video camera (wow!) while NASA’s package records acoustic data, temperatures, deceleration info and more. ESA's Camera Setup for ATV-5Both will “phone in” their results using the Iridium satellite network. Yep, ESA and NASA will be totally outclassing everyone else’s phone video uploads that day.  (ESA’s page is complete with a countdown clock. The twitter tag will be #bigdive.)


Next up:  At the Roverscape

Good News, Everyone!

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“Good news everyone! I’m sending you on an extremely controversial mission!”
―Professor Hugo Farnsworth, “The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz”, Futurama

It’s graduation season, and I’m in post-production now after playing the role of Audience Member in three recent productions of Commencement 2014. At UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Professor Tanya Atwater of UC Santa Barbara provided the keynote address. She was excited to report on her experience as part of the team writing the new science standards.  For members of the EPS department, the “good news” is that the new standards specifically include Earth & Space Science as one of four core disciplines.  Advocates of coding-in-every-classroom will also be happy that one of the four is “Engineering, Technology, and Applications”, though they may be disappointed to find that coding is not all there is to technology.

However, as Professor Atwater pointed out, this is a creation devised by a committee, and a large one at that.  These standards are huge, complex, and demanding.  I won’t be surprised if primary teachers throw up their hands and say “Heck, the old Science Framework was complicated enough!  We’re going back to literature, thanks a lot.” I had a peek at a few pages–the new standard can be surveyed in an interactively, online.  For instance, if you select Grade 1 and Physical Sciences, you are taken to a page entitled Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer

If that’s not enough to send your primary-grade teacher screaming to the arts-and-crafts cupboard, he/she is then presented with a grid of expectations about what first-graders should be able to understand and demonstrate about waves, from sound waves to light waves.  I can tell by the “clarifying statements” and all the hyperlinks to definitions for everything from the requirement that students “Make observations to construct an evidence-based account” to explaining that you use “Cause and Effect” to show that when the lights are off you can’t see objects.  Well, says the gamer kid, what if I have my night-vision goggles on? 

Meanwhile, the teacher is supposed to be tracing all the Common-Core standards links and the cross-discipline values obtained.  As an engineer, I find that sort of thing daunting, while I suspect most trained teachers find those elements-links an easy yawn–it’s the demand they convey science skills to kids at what seems to be a very sophisticated level that presents a barrier.   Remember, it’s unusual for an elementary-school teacher to enter the field with more than a bare minimum of science or technology training.

Not good news?  Well, it may be good news for some students currently graduating in the sciences–the new standards create a market for teachers who have science toolkits ready to hand.   And if states are not too heavy-handed in adopting these standards, the NGSS provides tons of leeway in the actual curriculum developed and in both straight-up statements and in the subtext of the descriptive matter the NGSS strongly urges the use of hands-on, experiential learning techniques.  That’s good, especially in elementary school, because hands-on activities are the best, overall, at evoking those Aha! moments that make science exciting.  What the scientists working on that committee were most excited about was the prospect of bringing that thrill to more students, not only to attract some to actually becoming scientists or engineers but also to allow those following other paths to understand what motivates the ones who do follow the siren song of science.

For example, if you jumped to Professor Atwater’s page, you’d have read her non-committee-developed description of her motivations to teach and her love for science, “In lecture, I used to think I wasn’t a good scientist if I admitted my passion. No more. In the last few years I have adopted a style of expressing my delight along with sharing why I’m delighted – the intricate order and sense (and, sometimes, irony) of how things work – wonderful!”

One of my best experiences during Commencement Week was talking about education with a Kindergarten teacher who was struggling with making sure his (yeah, don’t go sexist on me–men can so teach kindergarten) students each got the attention they needed, despite a class size of more than thirty, in a year when he had no parent volunteers to help out.  And though he was looking forward to summer vacation, he was the most interested to hear about some of my “Messy Monday” science experiences.   As a result, I’m determined that the next couple of activities I put up here under the “Messy Monday” label will be ones targeted to the K-2 crowd.

So, well, the new science standards, if you can get past the committee-style presentation, could be turned into good news.   Let’s get kids doing the kind of science that comes naturally to them:  trying things out, making mistakes, watching what happens.  Let’s help them break free of seeing what they expect to see–it’s those wow moments of unexpectedness that give doing science that endorphin rush.  It’s when the comet is chasing its tail on its way out of the inner Solar System or a water jet sprays farther than you guessed or you suddenly realize that a rainbow isn’t part of a prism or a raincloud or even a soap bubble–it’s the light itself that makes the rainbow.



Moon & Spica

Eclipsed Moon With Spica



A few weeks ago, we had a beautiful lunar eclipse visible in North America.  It was well worth sitting out to watch the Earth’s shadow advance until the Moon was completely covered and glowing with a warm red hue, then retreat until the Moon shone bright once again.  Here is a combination of a poem written for a workshop many years back, inspired by another lunar eclipse, with a few photos from this year’s event.  Multitudes of astrophotographers caught fine images of that eclipse.  This time, my equipment on hand was my hardy little point-and-shoot Lumix, which yielded many images suitable for artistic manipulation, especially with effects added by the drifting fog that interrupted our clear view.  Mars was in view as well, so I’ll include one image with Mars.  Can you spot it?

I watch the Mother walk my night,

spreading her darkness through my shadows.

She turns to me as the night turns, and I watch, I gaze,

rapt in the music of her light.


2014 April 14-15 Total Lunar Eclipse
Wrapped round and full in the stillness of this, my night,

she draws in light and darkness from the sky,

and sets them in my hands and at my feet,

until the whole land is an image of sky,

until I am full, full round and whole,

wholly wrapped in the music within my darkness.


Fog Rainbows
She waxes as the night wanes, and I gaze, gaze,

until I dream I am a fish which has never before known water,

and now, for the first time, breathes …

until I dream I am a child who has never known her name,

and now, for the first time, dreams …


Artist's Impression
dreams she stands with a woman, a stranger,

in a land which bears an image of sky.

The other, the stranger, is silent beside her,

while she speaks to the mother as a favored daughter.

As she speaks, I give back through my hands

the light and darkness which is the sky

until the land rests again beneath my shadows,

until the child knows me for herself.


Floating in the Ether
Even as we greet and join each other,

the Mother steps over the edge of the world.

Even as the stars first claim the sky,

I breathe the mist of my first morning.


Bloodshed Moon


The Eight-Sentence Paragraph

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Apparently there is some sort of internet rule that all pages must have pictures. Even tweets, which were supposed to be the haiku of the internet now have to have photos attached.  Sorry, but this post has no pictures.  Wouldn’t be appropriate, as you’ll see.  Please don’t report me to the internet police.  Oh, I’ll put in some links.  Will that help?

This is a story I wrote for my son after a school lesson like to killed his interest in writing, fiction or non-fiction.  Given that he’s going to be spending the next semester writing a senior thesis in biology at UC Berkeley, I feel it’s only fair to take credit for saving his writer’s mind back in fifth grade.  Of course, his favorite writer is Charles Darwin.




Thomasina Keck sighed, looking out on the chaos of her fifth-grade class. There were too many questioners in this year’s group, too many boys who objected when girls gave them the business, too many girls who preferred to talk in class. Her hopes of getting thirty decent essays on her desk by the end of the month were fading fast. And the stupid standardized tests were scheduled for the week after that. No one would be paying attention to anything that week; the stress of Test Week wiped out everybody, including the teachers.

Mark Peterson sighed, squeezing into the back-corner desk surrounded by chattery girls. An aura of doom hung over his head. Sooner or later today, he knew, he would tell Maura or Sue to knock it off, and his name would be up there on the board. “How can I help it if the only one she hears is me?” he had moaned to his best friend Drew only yesterday.

It didn’t help that Sue kept track of his Detention Count, as sort of an anti-charitable act. She giggled as he slid into his seat. “One more time, Markie-Mark,” she said, just loud enough for Maura to hear. Eight times up on the board, and it was Detention. Mark gritted his teeth and tried to focus on laying out paper and pencils from his binder. The last thing he wanted to do this afternoon was sit in the office writing about how he could have been a better student.

Mark tipped his chair back, so he could see around Sue, and made a face at his best friend, Drew. The Evil Ms. Keck had put the friends as far away as possible. Drew pulled a face of his own, his trademarked Sick Fish impression, made their secret sign for “crazy”, and pointed dramatically to the front of the room.

When he looked, Mark’s heart sank even lower. Ms. Keck had written across the board “The Eight-Sentence Paragraph.” Oh, no. Writing time. Dimly, Mark remembered a time not so long ago, in third grade, when writing had been his favorite subject. Fourth grade had been a bummer. Not only had he and Drew been stuck in separate classrooms, but Drew got Ms. Houlihan, the teacher who had all her kids write their own books as a class project. He, Mark, got stuck with Mr. Black, whose idea of language arts was an endless series of grammar worksheets, word finds, and spelling words written three times each. Mark had only survived by writing in his journal every day while Mr. Black went through the worksheets one question at a time every morning.

Now, here was this Ms. Keck, trying to teach him, Mark, how to write a paragraph! Mark grunted, picked up his pencil, and laboriously wrote out the now-familiar list:

  1. Introduction.
  2. Reason.
  3. Explain.
  4. Another reason.
  5. Explain that reason.
  6. Another reason.
  7. Explain that reason.
  8. Conclusion.

Then Mark wrote:

Eight-sentence paragraphs are pointless. They are really dumb. It is a way for stupid people to pretend they are writing paragraphs. They are really fake. Real books have paragraphs with lots of different numbers of sentences. They are boring. No one wants to read the same thing over and over in one paragraph. Only really bogus brainless dweebs write eight-sentence paragraphs.

Sue was leaning over. She was reading his paper. That made Mark mad. He glared at her, just barely keeping his mouth shut. But she just made the peace sign at him. What a bogus brainless dweeb! he thought.

Up at the front of the room, her nose twitching with the smell of the dry-erase marker, Ms. Keck tried to pretend she didn’t see the little exchange going on in the far corner. She knew Mark was in a bad spot, but she just had to have someone between those two jaw-waggers, Maura and Sue. This month it was Mark’s turn. He deserved a little slack. So she pretended not to notice how he’d scooted his chair back so he could read the book on his lap.

“All right, now, class,” she said, trying to inject a little energy into her voice. “Can anyone remember how we build our eight-sentence paragraph?” After eight weeks, you’d think they’d have it down. A few kids raised their hands.

“Alyssa.” That girl usually had an answer.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Ms. Keck felt like whapping herself in the head with the dry-erase eraser. That’s just what she needed—a procession of girls tripping off to the washroom.

“Alyssa, surely you can wait until recess. You just came in from lunch.”

“But I really really really have to go.”

All right then. She didn’t want to play the ogress today. But she could use her teacher power. Alyssa’s pal Katie was already standing up. The bathroom, like everything else in this cockamamie California school was reached from outside the building. So school rules were that all bathroom trips required buddies. Ms. Keck pointed to the big girl at the back of the room.

“Antoinette,” Ms. Keck called out, and the oversized girl in the back row jerked her head up from a page of doodles. “Please go with Alyssa.” Katie plopped back into her seat with a dark look.

Mark, despite his surreptitious reading, followed this little battle with some pleasure. Katie and Alyssa were the official class Popular Girls. They were fond of hanging out in the corner of the playground and calling the boys names when Yard Duty wasn’t listening. Some of the names were so rude that Mark wasn’t entirely sure what they meant.

But The Evil Ms. K. did not let her victory distract her from the task at hand. She turned immediately back to The Eight-Sentence Paragraph. Mark closed his eyes and felt a familiar feeling rush through him. First he felt hot, then cold, then all fluttery. He had a funny feeling recess would be bad today. It was always bad when he was feeling angry like this.

He opened his eyes and stared down at his book. It was the library’s copy of The Prince and the Pauper. Ms. Keck’s classroom copy was some bland kiddie version. It left out all the good stuff, like just exactly how mean and nasty the pauper’s dad was. He scanned over the two pages that were visible. Not one paragraph had eight sentences. He turned the page. No eight-sentence paragraphs here, either.

“I bet,” he thought, “there isn’t one eight-sentence paragraph in this whole dang book. Someone should show Ms. Keck.” And although he didn’t believe in wishing any more, Mark silently wished with all his heart that someone big and impressive and really convincing would really truly show Ms. Keck a thing or two about her stupid eight-sentence paragraphs.

Suddenly, he was aware that a large hand, a grown man’s hand, was resting on his desk. Half of his official eight-sentence paragraph was covered by the hand. It was rough, a little wrinkled, with short fingernails. He could see flecks of dirt under two of the fingernails.

“What’cha reading there, boy?” a low, masculine voice said behind him. Mark could feel all the hair on the back of his neck stand right up on end, as if he were a cat. Numb with surprise, he simply lifted up the book so the person behind him could see the cover.

A hand to match the first appeared from behind his head and picked up the book. The man chuckled. It was a pleased, contented chuckle, the kind you hear when your dad catches you picking up your room before he’s told you to.

“That’s not the best one. Written to make a point, as I recall, not just to tell the story.”

“Oh, but I really like it. And it doesn’t go all gloomy in the end, like Connecticut Yankee does.” Drawn into an argument, his favorite kind of conversation, Mark forgot he had the creeps and twisted around to look at the visitor.

The man was kind of tall. He had fluffy salt-and-pepper hair and a funny puffy mustache. He smelled strongly of tobacco smoke, which was kind of unpleasant but not quite as bad as the smell of Mark’s aunt’s cigarettes.

“Excuse me?” Ms. Keck’s voice struck its coldest, firmest level. “And you would be…?”

“I would be, madam, that most unwelcome of creatures, the unexpected visitor,” the stranger answered with a cheerful grin. His long, gangly legs carried him up to the front of the room in a few relaxed strides. “I’ll not be any bother. I’ll just set myself in the corner here. You just go on with what you were doing.”

The visitor wasn’t exactly in the corner when he said this. And it was hard to believe that Ms. Keck would not be bothered. He had planted himself at her desk. What’s more, he leaned back in her chair and parked his feet on the corner of the desk, right next to her Styrofoam mug full of Sharpie markers.

The class could not help itself. It gasped. It was a very soft, collective ah! And this meant Ms. Keck had to stifle her urgent need to tell this fellow off. By no means was she going to unbottle the energy of this class by giving any indication that she was bothered. She forced a smile.

“Welcome to our classroom, Mr. — ?” And she made it a pointed, direct question.

“Clemens, ma’am. That would be Mr. Clemens. I’m visiting from Connecticut, now, but I spent some time out here in California some time back, when I was in newspapers.”

“Is that so? Well, Mr. Clemends, if you can bear with us, we are reviewing our latest lesson in writing. Hassan, would you tell our guest what we have been studying?”

Hassan was usually quick off the mark. He was a short-term student, the son of a Nigerian engineer who had been brought over to the states for some big project up at IBM. Hassan had previously attended rather upscale private schools. But today, the boy was too dazzled by the tooled cowboy boots resting six feet to his left. He only turned his head slowly back to the front of the room and said, totally Americanized, “Huh?”

Corrina raised her hand and waved it vigorously. Having won the right to speak, she rattled off, “We’ve been studying paragraphs, because all our old essays are all just one big paragraph and you told us that was bad and so we have to learn to write paragraphs and the way to write a paragraph is to write eight sentences.”

“Very good, Corrina,” said Ms. Keck, actually allowing herself to feel a little pleased that the girl seemed actually to have absorbed the lesson.

The visitor shifted, making the old chair squeak. When the students’ heads swiveled his way, he asked, “And how long might those sentences be?”

“Oooh! Oooh!” It was Mayella’s turn to reach for the ceiling. “I know!”

“All right, May,” Ms. Keck said. “How long should each sentence be?”

“Short and sweet!” So that was two correct answers in a row. Ms. Keck felt a warm happy glow. Maybe things were going all right after all.

“Wonderful!” she said. “Let’s just go round the group and see if we remember our sequence. Neal, why don’t you start us off?”

Neal, a thin nervous boy who looked like he ought to be wearing glasses, coughed out, “Introduction.” Ms. Keck turned and swiftly wrote the word next to the number “1” she had ready on the board.

Oh, she was in her element now. Without looking over her shoulder, she called out the names and wrote their answers.

“Elena, what’s sentence number two?”

“Um, a reason?”

“Yes. Sasha?”


And so on through Carmelita, Edgar, Isaiah, Adnan, Paul, and Nick, until Mark could look up at the board and see his list replicated in orange marker. Ms. Keck finished her list with a flourish and turned with a smile.

“There now! I think you have it! Very good, class!”

But then there was a weird noise over at Ms. Keck’s desk, and everyone looked away from the teacher. The visitor was leaning over, tapping something on his boot. That was what made the strange thocking noise. Mark leaned over his desk to see past Sue’s bangs. It was a pipe. The guy had a pipe in school. Did he have the nerve to light it up?

But Mr. Clemens just tucked the empty pipe between his teeth. He may have had the nerve, Mark decided, but he just plain wasn’t that rude. He had claimed everyone’s attention, though. And once he knew all eyes were turned his way, the tall man stood up, grasped the edges of his vest with those big, gnarly hands, and said, “Poppycock.”

Ms. Keck made a squeaky noise. Then she swallowed and said, very coldly and politely, “I beg your pardon, sir?” She stood up very straight and stiff, somehow managing to be looking down at him, even though she barely topped five foot three.

“I said, ‘Poppycock’,” Mr. Clemens repeated, extracting the pipe from his teeth and tucking it into the pocket of his vest. “By which I mean, floptwaddle. Malarkey. Or, as the English fops so elegantly put it, stuff and nonsense.”

Ms. Keck, you had to give her credit for that, stood her ground. “And I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’, meaning ‘Have you forgotten that I am the teacher in this room?’”

But the big man was only revving up. “That’s confoundedly easy to forget, madam, when I hear you spouting such a load of tomfoolery. What in the blazes do you mean to accomplish here? The single-handed degradation of the art of American letters?” And he strode right up to the front of the room, picked up the eraser, and wiped The Eight Sentence Paragraph clean out of existence. Three of the boys at the back of the room actually burst into applause.

Ms. Keck stared at the invader. She honestly didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t leave the class to get help, not with a stranger in the room. Shouting for help could not be effectual, not in her hard-won self-contained classroom at the far end of the building.

Besides, what would she say? “This terrible man just erased my whiteboard”? She would be the butt of staff room humor for weeks to come. Nothing for it but a fight to the bitter end. She squared her shoulders, and stepped right up to the smart-alecky so-called visitor.

“Mister Clemends. You seem to have forgotten your promise. Observing classrooms is permitted. Interfering in lessons is not.” She glared up at him. He smiled down at her, with a twinkle of laughter in his eye.

“Very well then, madam. How about you provide some evidence of this spider-shaped paragraph, eh? You there, boy,” Clemens said, crooking a finger at Mark. “Let’s have a look through that book you have there.”

Mark passed the book forward, suddenly anxious that his sneak reading was now front-and-center with Ms. Keck. The visitor would be gone by the end of the day, for sure, well before she handed out detention notices.

Mr. Clemens took the book into his big hands gently, almost affectionately. “Says here,” he said with evident satisfaction, “that this book is one of the great classics of American literature.” And he slapped the slim hardcover right into Ms. Keck’s hand. “I dare you. Count the sentences in those paragraphs. Mark my words. I wager that you’ll not find even one, but even if you do, it will not read anything like this…” and he proceeded to quote Mark’s “bogus dweeb” paragraph, verbatim. Mark turned bright pink. He could feel it, like a fever. For once, he was relieved to be at the back of the room, with only Sue close enough to see. And her eyes were riveted to the front of the room.

But Ms. Keck was not giving up. “The children are learning to write essays, not fiction, sir. And you must realize that they are just beginning to learn about the structure of writing. The eight-sentence structure teaches children to organize their thoughts as they write and to justify the arguments they present in an essay.”

“Just beginning?” Mr. Clemens cast a skeptical eye around the room. “These great big boys and girls are only just beginning to write? What kind of a sorry excuse for a school is this?”

“A school with a well-ordered curriculum, Mr. Clemends. Now, if you don’t mind, we have very little time to complete our lesson today.” Ms. Keck felt herself in command again. She stepped back and glanced significantly toward the door, giving the ignorant interloper a fair opportunity to leave the room.

From his corner seat, Mark actually had a good angle on the action. He could see Ms. Keck with her head high, her chin in that commanding attitude that usually presaged a Name on the Board. But he could also see the bright gleam in Mr. Clemens eye as he took two steps towards the door, and then turned sharply, taking up position at the left side of the whiteboard. Once more, he had captured the attention of the class. Ms. Keck was totally upstaged.

Mr. Clemens reached down and picked up a marker, and pointed it at Mark.

“You there, boy. What’s your name?”

“Er…” Mark took a second to glance over at Ms. Keck. She was turning pink, too, but slowly. Would she explode? No one had ever seen Ms. Keck actually lose her temper. But then Mark realized that for now, he didn’t care about whether the teacher would break down and have a tantrum. He wanted to hear what this Mr. Clemens had to say, if only because the mysterious guy liked his book. “I’m Mark Peterson.”

“Good. Now, then, Mr. Peterson.” No one had ever called Mark “Mister” before. “Why don’t you stand up, so the other pupils can hear you? That’s better.” Mark felt a little funny standing up in the corner with everyone’s eyes flicking back and forth from him to Mr. Clemens. “Now, let’s hear from you. What’s a paragraph?”

“Um.” Mark felt desperate. Suddenly, he was sure he’d forgotten everything he ever knew. All that actually came to mind was Ms. Keck’s eight-sentence flapdoodle.

“Come along, come along. Madam, do these children also not know how to speak up?”

That helped Mark, because it revved up a little of his mad. Of course he knew how to speak up. “A paragraph,” he said, fumbling around in his head for those slippery words, “is when you have a lot to say on an idea and it just doesn’t fit into one sentence.” And he stopped to think a little more. What was even more amazing was that no one interrupted him. “But it could still be one sentence, if it has an idea that doesn’t fit with the ones around it. Or it could be really really long, like maybe a description. Or …”and his eye caught the poster of the Declaration of Independence at the far side of the room. “Or a list. Like a long series of …of…trials and usurpations.”

Mr. Clemens favored him with a grin, and turned that grin full force on Ms. Keck. It actually made her step back a little. “You see, madam? These children know what a paragraph is. Don’t you, boys and girls?” He pointed to Charlie, who sat smack in the middle of the room, because Ms. Keck could be sure he’d never say anything to anybody. “Why bother using paragraphs? Speak up, boy.”

And Charlie did better than that. He stood up, like he’d seen Mark do, and then he spoke up. Mark saw Ms. Keck’s mouth actually flap open in surprise. “Well, it would be a mess, wouldn’t it, if all the words just kept going and going? It would give you a headache.”

Then Maura raised her hand. The big man pointed and she stood up. “When the paragraphs are big, you have to read slower and when they’re short, you read faster. Do writers do that on purpose?”

“Aha!” laughed Mr. Clemens. “You have caught us out! See here, madam, you have children here who actually read books!”

Maura sat down, but she also twisted around to look back at Sue. This is so cool! she whispered.

And then Alyssa and Antoinette appeared in the door. Ms. Keck took her chance and marched across the room to meet them. “Girls,” she said, keeping her voice level and clear. “Please run up to the office for me and ask Mr. Cochrane to come over here.”   The pair were more than willing to skip class a little longer, not having been entranced by the Unwelcome Visitor.

Ms. Keck had every right to be in a panic. She had every justification to be calling in the heavy artillery. But as she stood there in the doorway, watching her students take turns standing up and speaking up, she took the time to give herself three nerve-calming breaths. No sense wasting all those hours in yoga class. She ran her eyes over the border strip on her whiteboard, which read, “Every new day is an opportunity, not a challenge.” It just one of those Classroom Inspiration decorations that ate into her meager salary. But maybe, just maybe, there was a grain of truth in that fatuous message.

Very calmly, Thomasina Keck walked up to her whiteboard. Mr. Clemends was still holding the orange marker, so she picked up the green one. She took a moment to think, and to listen, and then she began to write.

Mark’s brain had been working on overdrive ever since Mr. Clemends had answered Maura’s question. He had said “you caught us.” This guy was a writer, a real writer. Who in the class knew a real writer? Was someone’s Mom or Dad just as sick of the Eight-Sentence Paragraph as all the kids were? Did he know of any writers named Clemens? Had they heard him right?

Mark flipped over his paper and started scribbling down the names of writers: LeGuin, Konigsberg, Pilkey, L’Engle, Shakespeare, Sachar, Tolkein. No, too many women. Too many dead guys. Wait, he told himself, the bookshelf is right here. So he shifted his chair just enough to get a clear angle on the spines of the books in Ms. Keck’s classroom library. It didn’t take long.

Mark felt like his arm was going to pop out of its socket, he was holding it up so high. But Maura and Eleanor also had their hands up, and Eleanor was waving hers back and forth eagerly.

Suddenly, Mark realized that Ms. Keck was at the board, writing away feverishly in bright green marker. Mr. Clemens and she seemed to be working together, as if he were in fact an invited visitor. Every time a student spoke up, Ms. Keck scribbled something new on the board.

Mark couldn’t help being interested. He switched to holding up his right arm so he could write. Below the crossed-off names on his paper, he tried to copy what Ms. Keck was drawing. Somehow, it just looked cool, way cooler than the old eight-sentence list.

Finally, Ms. Keck tapped Mr. Clemens on the shoulder and spoke very quickly in a low voice that nobody else could hear. He pulled the cap off the orange marker, wrinkled his nose at the smell of the ink, and tested it on the board. Satisfied with the stinky tool, he wrote across the top of Ms. Keck’s green writings “The Authentic Paragraph”. Both adults stood back to admire the result. They both seemed happy. It even looked as though the Evil Ms. Keck was starting to smile.

When they turned back to face the class together, Mr. Clemens immediately pointed to Mark and said, “All right, Mr. Peterson. You have something more to say?”

Mark had nearly forgotten he had his hand up. But what he had to say was still on the tip of his tongue. “You’re the writer, aren’t you? Andrew Clements?” And he was careful to pronounce the t right before the s. “I really like your books. I read Frindle back in third grade and Drew and I made our own newspaper last summer, like in The Landry News, only we didn’t do it in school and we didn’t get famous, or even in trouble either.”

The visitor managed to look surprised, but he didn’t say anything. He just cleared his throat.

Ms. Keck whirled back around to stare at him. “Oh! I had no idea! And to think we have all your books in our class library! Why didn’t the PTA tell me you were coming?”

And just at that moment, Mr. Cochrane appeared at the door. He paused for an instant to assume what Ms. Keck thought of as his Aura of Mastery, that mixture of pose, gesture, and superior eye contact that declared him top dog in his little territory. Then he sailed into the room with a cheery “Good morning, fifth-graders!”, Alyssa and Antoinette marching behind him like a pair of half-size bodyguards.

One sharp look from Ms. Keck, and the girls fled to their seats. A word from Katie Lynn and Alyssa was back on her feet squealing “Oh, Mr. Clements! Can I have your autograph!”

Ms. Keck met Mr. Cochrane halfway. “Is there a problem here?” he intoned quietly, favoring the class with a deceptively cheerful smile.

By now, Ms. Keck could hardly remember why she had thought it necessary to send for the principal. “Not at all, Steve,” she said soothingly. “It’s just that we had an unexpected visitor in class today, and I knew you would want to be in on the excitement. Did the PTA President fill you in already?”

Mark had his eyes glued to the teacher and the principal. From here, it actually looked as though Ms. Keck was heading him off. Then a wave of oohs and aahs from the girls in front of him alerted Mark to something new. Mr. Clements was headed his way.

When he stopped next to Mark’s desk and Mark looked up at him, the author seemed even taller than he had up at the front of the class, towering over little Ms. Keck. He had Mark’s book.

“Glad you enjoyed the book, son,” he said. “Do me a favor. Try out my favorites. There’s a lot of Tom Canty in that old Huck Finn.”

Mark took the book back almost reluctantly. It seemed to spell an end to this adventure. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll check out Tom Sawyer. Mom says I should wait some before I read the big one.”

He was rewarded with one last deep chuckle. “Don’t wait too long. Huck’s not much older than you are, leastways with his life frozen in those books.” And he squeezed Mark’s shoulder as he moved on behind the row of desks.

“Children, can I have eyes front now, please?” came Ms. Keck’s commanding voice once more. Mark jerked his eyes up from the cover of The Prince and the Pauper to see the teacher pointing at a bunch of squiggles on the whiteboard. “Let’s show Mr. Cochrane what our visitor helped us work out today. Mr. Clements, would you like to…? Mr. Clements?”

There was no one in the classroom but twenty-seven students, one teacher, and one principal.

Brianna leapt from her desk and leaned out the door. “He’s gone!” she gasped. “Where did he go?”

“Now I’ll never get my autograph!” Alyssa whined.

Mark leaned back and tried to signal Drew. Mr. Clements had been heading in that direction. He must have slipped past Drew and out the door while Ms. Keck was getting fired up to show him off. Who knew a guy like that would be too shy to talk to the principal?

Up in the front of the room, Ms. Keck found herself still on balance, going with the flow. She only had to raise her voice just slightly, injecting a bit of calm and certainty. “Mr. Clements had to leave,” she said. “Our lesson did, after all, run much later than planned. But we still have our results, don’t we? Let’s take these last few minutes before math time to share them with Mr. Cochrane.”

The new paragraph-teaching approach was a huge hit. Steve Cochrane bought into it primarily because he was there when it was invented, and he used it to great effect in his political machinations up at the District Office. The kids bought into it because they, after all, had invented it. The teachers, as usual, were willing to try anything that worked.

It was Drew who named it, Mark Peterson’s buddy, the one kid who hadn’t actually had much to say that day. He’d sat there in the back of the room, stewing over all the attention “Mr. Peterson” was getting. And so he was the first one to notice the pattern Ms. Keck’s scribbles had made.

The biggest scribble said simply, “One Main Idea”. She’d circled it, so it made a big blob in the middle of the board. Then she had “Topic Sentence” in parentheses right next to the blob. The parentheses were big and swoopy, nearly meeting at the top and bottom. If you squinted, that made a blob with a head. So that made the New Improved Paragraph into some kind of creature. It was a live animal, crawling across the board.

It looked like it was crawling because there were all these words written as if they were springing out of the sides of the blob. Some made sense from what Drew remembered the kids saying in class, like “Details” and “Dialogue”.   Others made sense later, when they all copied the creature into their language arts notebooks and Ms. Keck explained why she chose certain words. For instance, “Pacing” had to do with Maura’s question about whether authors used paragraph length to get readers to slow down or speed up.

But long before he had the meaning of all those words clear, the shape of the whole thing was obvious to Drew. It was a spider, just like Mr. Clements had called Ms. Keck’s Eight-Sentence Paragraph. And he couldn’t help adding his own little observation, when he put in his suggestion for the Official Name, “It’s not really all that different from what Ms. Keck was trying to get us to do all along. The one big idea is the introduction and conclusion and all the other stuff is details and explanations. They just don’t necessarily add up to eight sentences every time.”

So Spider Paragraphs they were, all the rest of that year and for the rest of the years that Ms. Keck taught fifth grade. And she never tired of pointing out Andrew Clements’ books on her shelves at the back of the room. There were a few times that she wondered if it had really happened, such as the time she clipped a newspaper feature about the author.   He looked rather different than he had that day in class.

But Drew earned several shoulder-punches at afternoon recess that day, for sucking-up to the teacher. Only his best buddy gave him a break. Mark dragged him free of the guys and over to their personal hideout, in the shade of the bushes behind the backstop.

“Just look at this,” he said, urgently, pushing a hardcover book into Drew’s hands.

“What?” Drew protested. “I’m not on detention. I don’t have to read during recess!”

“No, no. Look here.” And Mark was eagerly flipping the pages at the front of the book, just as far as the title page.

“Oh, man,” Drew frowned. “You are in for it. This page is scribbled all over. You know what they make your parents pay for a damaged book?”

“Come on, come on,” Mark said impatiently. He bit his lip, he was so excited. He couldn’t stand it much longer. Drew was his best friend, the only one he could possibly trust with this. And he had to show somebody. “Just read it, will you?”

And Drew read it. The scribbling was actually pretty tidy for cursive writing. It looked smooth and even, as if it were done by someone who actually wrote by hand more often than by computer.

And he read it again. And again. Why was the last bit in quotes like that? Oh, yeah. Oh.

Mark watched him, tasting the metallic saltiness of the blood from his lip. Did Drew get it? Did he see?

“Oh, man,” said Drew. “Listen, I’ll help you pay the fine. No way do you want this book to ever go back to the library. Wow.” And he looked Mark in the eye. “Mind if I borrow it, sometimes, just to look at it?”

“Yeah, sure. Just don’t ever tell. Swear?”

“Swear.” And Drew handed back the precious book, with the long inscription on the title page. Mark knew this was one book he’d be keeping forever. While the end of recess bell squealed outside the hideout, he turned once more to read that loopy, elegant autograph:

To my dear friend and colleague,

Mark Peterson,

all the best of luck in the future.

Samuel L. Clemens

“Mark Twain”


Chasing Comets: Supplies & Resources

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Chasing Comets

Supplies and Materials

Below, you’ll find a handy supply document you can download, with shopping lists for small and large groups and a range of cost estimates, depending on how much of the supplies you can acquire from available supplies or donations by participants.   With a minimal outlay, you and your group can experience being comet chasers–observers of comets.

Basically, you need a bunch of badminton birdies for your comet heads—keep in mind you don’t need performance-grade shuttlecocks or even new ones. If your high school has a badminton team, they will have worn-out birdies you can take off their hands.   A grungy, beat-up birdie makes a more realistic comet head.

Chasing Comets

Birdies for Comets

And you need a bunch of ribbon—curling ribbon for the comet tails. The supply sheet estimates ribbon packages at around $8, but if you look at this photo, you’ll see the last time I bought supplies, it was out of the clearance bin at $2. And if you can get one in five of your participants to bring in a roll to share, it won’t cost you a dime.

Chasing Comets

Zoom Out–Yes! Here’s All You Need To Make Comets

The one oddball item is that tulle fabric ribbon for the big comet. This you might have a hard time finding in your junk drawer unless you’ve been helping a bride make wedding tchochkes. But for $10 you can buy enough to make three huge comets. Cut five-yard lengths and tie one end of each to a vane of a single birdie, allowing a few inches of extra length to fan out as the comet’s “coma”. Tulle scrunches up easily, so even a six-inch-wide ribbon will feed through the holes between the birdie’s vanes.

Chasing Comets

Detail–How To Tie Fabric Tails

You should be able to borrow a portable fan and a playground or soccer ball. If you can’t, it will take a roughly $25 expenditure to get those items in stock—a cost you can recoup in part by either donating it to the group you’re working with or simply deducting the expense as part of your cost of volunteering.

And it is presumed you can find a pencil, which makes holding the small model a little easier when you’re doing the demo with the fan;  here’s the trick for hooking the pencil to the comet head:

Chasing Comets

Holder For Fan Experiment

Depending on how good you are at scrounging supplies and locating soccer balls, your costs will range from $10 to $85 for typical group sizes.   The spreadsheet I use has a calculation column to adjust the requirements list for other class sizes  So, if you want a copy of this  fully-functional workbook, “like” the Facebook page & I’ll send you one via a Facebook “message”. (You can also try emailing me through the “contacts” page here, but you’ll get a faster response on FB.)  Your FB contact will be used for nothing other than sending you a file and boosting the “likes”-count on my page.  [Insert maniacal laughter, if desired.]

Meanwhile, you can get the static workbook as a pdf right away:

Just Supplies Chasing Comets


Resources and References

Now that you are all excited about comets, here are some fun places to go where you can find more cometary material:

A lovely one-page summary from the Spaceguard Program (sponsored by the European Space Agency) gives a clear description of comet tail structure and dynamics, including a neat animation of what both tails look like as the comet proceeds around the sun. The ion tail streams straight back, while the dust tail is curved a bit as the particles within the dust tail blend movement due to their individual orbits about the sun and the forces of the radiation pressure. Net, both tails roughly point away from the sun, as in our demonstration.

Sweet page from NASA with helpful animations and clear descriptions.

Follow the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, as it aims for the first robotic landing on a cometary nucleus.

Read this:  a “real” science article with a good set of detailed discussions of the types of comet tails and how they work.

Or, try this excellent piece by freelance science writer Craig Freidenrich on the inner workings of comets.

The Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing’s educational site helps with details on the structure of comets.

Explore a public-domain catalog of Solar System images, from Hubble and other spacefarers.

Discover how Oort clouds may be one way star systems interact directly with one another, because the Oort clouds project so far out.

See the invisible part of a comet.

Find out all about radiation pressure.

Plan to catch sight of the meteor shower sponsored by Comet Halley.

Explore the origins of comets at this UC Berkeley site.

Check out NASA’s solar system photo gallery, with images from NASA and European Space Agency exploration missions and telescopes.

Visit the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s educational site, with even more hands-on activities for young astrophysicists. Roam their site for educator workshops and more.

OK, seriously, I’m not the only science blogger keen on comets.

A new comet is incoming this month (May 2014).

Our guy Euler was the first one to suggest that light exerts pressure, but we had to wait over 100 years to get to Maxwell, who proved it, and then another quarter-century went by before some Russians managed to measure radiation pressure. (Also, gotta love Google Books.)

Oh, and by 1915 the proof of radiation pressure made it into Scientific American.




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