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Chasing Comets: Notes for Project Leaders #2

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Chasing Comets

OK, we’re back for part 2.  Remember that our goal is to impart an intuitive, long-term understanding of how comet tails work.  I’ll give you an observation worksheet that students can use during the Comet Running game, but if time or attention-spans are too short for a worksheet, dispense with that element in favor of learning through movement and Socratic dialogue. (What? You think an engineer wouldn’t have read the Greek philosophers?)

If you have time and enough outdoor space for the “Game” version of this simulation, move right along to “Stage 2” now. The promise of a chance to make their own models is what will entice the students back to the classroom. Otherwise, save the great outdoor model for another time or place and move directly to “Stage 3,” building the individual models.

Stage 2: The Game

Chasing Comets

That’s One Big Comet

This is an outdoor game, and it works to best advantage with a nice BIG comet model. Four five-yard lengths of white fabric streamers attached to a single badminton shuttlecock (“birdie”) make our Comet Chase model. A playground ball or a soccer ball (around 8” in diameter) stands for the sun.   Sort the participants into groups of no more than five and no fewer than three, and move to the great outdoors. A grassy area is safest, because this game involves some complicated running; if you’re stuck with pavement, tone down the running to “jogging” and allow a little extra time.

Start by laying out the ground rules for the game. First, each group will get to play every role. There are three parts: being the sun, being the comet, and being observers back on Earth. Remind everyone of your local rules for behavior outside. It’s harder to listen to instructions out in the sunshine and fresh air!

Take a moment to review the lesson so far. Place the model Sun on the ground, at least ten yards away. Ask an adult helper or one of the students to stand about halfway between the class and the Sun and to hold the head of the comet

Chasing Comets

Large Comet Head With Coma

while you extend the tail’s long white streamers.   This model is much more evocative of the scale of a real comet, which has a tail tremendously longer than the diameter of its coma, or head—but it’s still not a scale model. Allow for some oohs and aahs, but move on to your query: which direction should the comet’s tail point? Don’t move yet; both you and your helper just stand in place.

Chasing Comets

Large Comet: Incoming or Outbound?

Don’t be concerned if it takes more than one answer to get the right one! Some may still want to know which way your comet is moving. But in a few moments, you should achieve the consensus that the tail should point towards the class and away from the sun.

Now, add the movement and ask everyone to call out which way for you to move. Ask your helper to start walking (slowly, please!) towards the sun and then to loop around the sun. You will need to move quickly to keep the comet’s tail pointing away from the sun. In fact, even if your helper cooperates by walking slowly, you will need to break into a run! As you run, if the students aren’t already hollering directions to you, tel them to keep reminding you which way to point the tail: away from the Sun!

Pause partway and while you catch your breath you can demo a technique for helping to align the tail while in motion. With your outside hand, hold the streamers. With your inside hand, point at the Sun. The tail-runners should always find that pointing at the Sun also means pointing at the comet’s head.

Now, it is finally the students’ turn. Run as many iterations as necessary to ensure that each group does each job at least once. For instance, for a class of 20, allow time to run the game at least four times.

The Comet Group: The comet group needs one Head and up to four Tail-Runners. Name the comet after the person who’s serving as the Head. Comets are always named according to the last name of the comet’s discoverer. So if you have Robin Williams as the comet’s head, then this will be Comet Williams. Getting the comet named after him/her may compensate for the fact that the “head” only gets to walk slowly around the sun.

Meanwhile, the tail-runners get to hold the ends of the tail streamers and run to keep the comet’s head between themselves and the Sun.  In the normal course, the “tail” group will tend to lag a little and spread out, but that actually serves to more-accurately represent the shape of the dust tail. If you’re working with a two-tails group, designate one especially determined runner to represent the ion tail by taking one ribbon and maintaining a straight line from the ribbon end through the comet head to the sun.

The Sun Group: The sun group stands in the middle of your running space. One or two group members hold the model sun overhead. This makes it easier for the Comet group to see if they have successfully aligned the comet head and the sun. If the tail-runners stray out of line, members of the sun group need to to shout out “Got you! Got you!” or “Solar Wind Coming!” to warn them that the solar forces are blasting the tail.

The Astronomer Group: The people who are not part of the sun-comet demonstration still have a critical role. They are not just watching other people play the game, but they are tracking the shape of the comet’s tail as it passes around the sun, as observers on Earth. Depending on their perspective at each point in the comet’s orbit, the tail will appear longer or shorter. For example, if the comet is roughly between Earth and the Sun, the tail may look short, because it is stretched towards us. If you have time for writing, ask the Observers to sketch the comet as they see it. (See the handout.) In an average class, each student will get to observe the comet at least twice, which is very helpful for catching the unexpected views.

When every group has had a chance to play every role, take a few minutes to review one more time. As a comet is orbiting around the sun, which way does its tail point? By now, everyone should be willing to state that the tail always points away from the sun.

Still, you may still have a few hold-outs who are not quite sure this can be true. If you are lucky and it’s a sunny day, you have a hole card to play. Invite the students to each imagine that they are comets. “Guess what? You can see exactly where your tail would be. Who can point at it? Where’s your tail, Comet Human?”

If you are not saved by the insight of a student who’s totally absorbed the lesson, it is OK to resort to hints. “Everyone has one. It’s easy to see. Yes, you can see your comet tail! Where is it? Which way does a comet’s tail point? Right: away from the sun. Where’s the sun right now? What do you have that’s pointing away from the sun? It’s not bright and shiny like a comet’s tail. It’s dark, because there are no sunbeams there.

“Yes! Your shadow is your comet tail. It points away from the sun, always, no matter what direction you run.”

Stage 3: The Reward

Finally, everyone needs a model comet of their own to take home and show off and share with family members everything about how comet tails work. This is not an art project; it’s an opportunity to review and experiment individually. If some students are fussy about carefully arranging their streamers to make a colorful pattern, that is all right, but the point is to assemble a working model.

Each participant needs 24 feet of curling ribbon and a birdie (remember what I told you earlier about calling it by its proper name—be prepared for lots of giggling and teasing if you insist on that) . Cut the ribbon into eight lengths of roughly 3 feet. It is perfectly all right—and in fact more realistic—if the streamers come out various lengths. And depending on the students’ social skills, it is also all right for them to exchange colors once the cutting is done. (There are always some who prefer to discover a multi-color comet and others who prefer monotone.)

Once each student has six streamers, have them tie one end of each streamer to the head of the birdie.

Chasing Comets

Detail–Attaching Ribbon For Comet Tail

Your meticulous planners will distribute them evenly around the netting; others will be clumped randomly. Either is fine. Every comet is unique and most are quite non-uniform.

Be real. This project is not done when it the comets have been only built. Everyone needs a chance to try them out. They will, of course, want to toss them around the classroom; if this is not acceptable, make some provision for them to try out that technique outdoors. More scientific, of course, as time permits, is to allow the participants to take turns trying out their comets in the pretend “solar wind” of the classroom fan. As long as they willing and able to mind safety rules about working around a fan, by all means have everyone try out the tail position approaching, passing, and retreating from the Fan Sun. But don’t get all hot under the collar if other comets are flying through the room while you monitor the fan users. Just imagine you’re in the Oort Cloud and you’ll be OK.

Up next:  Supplies You Need and Resources You Can Use

Chasing Comets

A Cluster of Comets, Incoming & Outbound

Chasing Comets: Notes for Project Leaders #1

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Chasing Comets

In this activity, the most important idea is to explore and experiment with models and games to understand how a comet’s tail behaves as the comet hurtles around the sun. The key concept is that the comet’s tail is being pushed away from the sun by the ionizing radiation, solar wind and even the light itself blasting out of the sun. This means that when the comet is inbound, approaching the sun, its tail streams behind it, like a horse’s tail. But on the outbound journey, as the comet leaves the sun behind, its tail flies out in front of it. What we hope the participants will take away from these activities is a picture of what a comet looks like as it moves and the knowledge of why it looks that way.

Comet-tail behavior simply makes sense when “experienced” from the comet’s point of view.  If by any chance some of these facts are a discovery for you, too, don’t feel like you have to keep it a secret that you are learning–have fun with it. A key ingredient in the formula for growing a scientist is that finding out how the universe works is fun. Or, in the words of one physicist profiled in the film Particle Fever: The real answer to “why do we do this is . . . because it’s cool.”)

Keep in mind the constraints of your particular situation when assembling your materials and pre-planning the project. For instance, if there aren’t enough classroom scissors or if session time is tightly constrained, you can pre-cut the ribbon for the individual comet models into 3-foot lengths. Be aware of opportunities for participants with special needs—for instance, the comet-running activity does require at least one person to be standing still. In return, that one who just can’t stand still could be a pinch-runner. If the group as a whole isn’t particularly fast-moving, the “running” game can be done at whatever pace suits the team.   (One can be a “student” at any age—most of us middle-aged folks are not exactly speed-demons.)  If you’re planning this as a home-schooling project, this is one you’ll want to save for a get-together with other home-schoolers–you need at least three players and it is ever so much more fun with a group.

Stage 1: The Small-Scale Experiment

This description may look long, but that’s just to let you walk through it easily and to share some photos to help. This whole Stage 1 should take about fifteen minutes, tops.   I’ll spare your weary eyes and park the “Stage 2” and “Stage 3” activities in the next posting–but don’t worry, the entire activity fits into a single science session if you can claim an hour’s time to play with.

Before distributing materials, bring out one individual model comet, the sample to be used for the models everyone will take home. It’s simply an ordinary badminton birdie with long streamers of ribbon tied to it. For now, keep the ribbons bunched up inside the net of the birdie. Explain that the ball at the end of the birdie is the comet’s nucleus, the frilly part can be its atmosphere, or coma, which begins to form as the gas and dust which jets away from the outer layers comet as it warms up.

Chasing Comets

One Small Comet

Notes: I’d suggest that you relax and let your sample comet be imperfect—comets are messy creatures by nature and you don’t need that one super-meticulous individual slowing down the whole event by striving to exactly matching a perfect sample. If you have an older, more experienced group of comet enthusiasts to work with, you can interject the extra information about the distinction between the ion and dust tails—perhaps even represent them by different ribbon colors. On the other hand, if you’re working with anyone between the ages of 5 and 15, and you don’t want to deal with distracting snickers and giggles erupting through the group, simply refrain from using the technical term for a birdie. Oh, come on, you know why.

OK, back to it. The ribbon represents those gases and dust particles that make up the comet’s tail(s). Now, if we toss our model across the room, what happens to the streamers tied to it? Right . . . they float out behind. They don’t stretch out in front or clump in a bunch around the head of the “birdie”. You can demonstrate by trying to throw your comet backwards: hold the tail in front and toss, but the tail will just fall back to the head and—if your throw is a mighty one—end up in back again..

Now, invite answers to a key question: why does the ribbon float behind? What pushes the tail behind the cone as it flies through the room? With a little nudging, you should get general agreement that it is the air pushing on the lightweight streamers, shoving them behind the “head” of our comet.

But now we must turn to a more difficult line of questioning. Pull out playground or soccer ball (a handy model for the sun), and ask one student to stand and hold up your Sun so everyone can see the next portion. Bunch up the comet’s tail in the back of the shuttlecock again, and carry the comet in a “flight” around the “Sun”. As you move, ask the students to think hard about what happens to the comet’s tail as it whips around the sun.

Start easy. Shake out the streamers, and stretch them out with your free hand. Move the comet towards the sun. Which way should I point the streamers? Everyone will be quick to tell you to pull them backwards, away from the sun. Now, place the comet at its closest approach to the sun, just before it curves back to head into deep space again. “I’m at the Sun now,” you can say, “zooming around the back of it. And moving as fast as I’ll go in this journey. Which way should the streamers point?”

Usually this question generates some disagreement. A reasonable argument would be that you should hold the streamers behind the comet, as it moves, which would mean the comet’s tail would point along a tangent to its orbit around the Sun. (Even if the students are covering tangents in math, please don’t interrupt yourself to pause and discuss tangents right now! Use this lesson later to enliven the math session.)

Chasing Comets

Tail Behind?

Chasing Comets

Tail In Front?

Chasing Comets

Tail Sideways?

Some students may suggest—quite logically–that when you are that close, the Sun’s gravity should pull the tail towards it. If the group is large enough, you should also get someone who can argue that the tail should point away from the sun—for now, it doesn’t matter if this is a knowledge-based claim or just a contrarian viewpoint from snarkiest person in the room. Whatever hypotheses are offered, just accept them as proposed solutions and demonstrate what each would look like.

Finally, move to the “outbound” portion of your comet’s orbit. “Our comet now flies on away from the sun, perhaps to return in another century or two. Now, which way should the comet’s tail point?” Again, if you have managed to keep a poker face so far, the most popular answer is likely have the tail streaming behind the comet. As before, accept and demonstrate each of the guesses. If students have reasons for their theories, let everyone hear them. Discussing and justifying hypotheses is an integral part of the real scientific process.

If you have access to a blackboard (oh, well, it’s modern times, so, okayokayokay, you can use your smelly whiteboard or that fancy tablet-linked projector), now is the moment to leave off demonstrating with the model and sketch the competing hypotheses for everyone to see. Your picture will look kind of like this. Please remember to Keep It Messy.

Chasing Comets

Discussing Possible Tail Directions

Have you ever read one of those annoying mystery stories in which the author leaves you in the dark about a critical fact that solves the entire case? Well, here too, we have denied our puzzle-solvers an important clue. So, tell the group it’s time for a change of topic. But actually what we’re doing is rolling out the narrative twist that makes the whole thing so cool.

Here on Earth, it is air that pushes the streamers on our comet model. But how much air is there out in space? (So little that you might as well say “zero”!) But without air, why should any comet have a tail at all?

What comes out of the sun? You should hear the following answers: heat, light, maybe even radiation. But has anyone heard of the solar wind? The sun blasts out particles, too? The sun is shooting out plasma, protons and electrons flying through the solar system at thousands of miles per hour. This is the solar wind, which blows through the solar system all the time, at thousands of miles per hour. The particles are tiny, not even as big as atoms, so it is an invisible wind. And like wind, it’s not perfectly even, it gusts and changes from moment to moment as the Sun itself changes.

All of those things we named help to make our comets look the way they do. Consider your audience…

Explanation #1: You are all correct. All of that stuff blasting out of the sun–light, radiation, heat, and the solar wind–shove all that stuff leaking out of the comet into a tail. And since all that stuff is coming from the sun, the only way the tail can point is away from the sun.

Explanation #2: All of those answers are correct . . . and they all combine to make a comet’s tail. The heat of the sun warms the comet to free the gases and dust. The solar wind blasts the gases—and the particles in the solar wind also interact with those gases, stripping some of their electrons to make that part of the tail a glowing stream of ionized gas. The radiation from the sun actually can push things, and that pressure is just strong enough to shove those tiny dust particles enough to counteract their tendency to fall towards the sun. And the visible sunlight reflects from the spread-out cloud of dust, making the comet shine in our night sky.

Again, with older/experienced participants, now is the time to clue them in that radiation pressure—the totally cool idea that sunlight itself exerts pressure—exists because light is electromagnetic radiation and electromagnetic radiation is a wave and a wave [http://physics.info/em-waves/] pushes on the objects it encounters. You may not feel battered and bruised by the TV and radio waves powering through you day and night or be physically bowled over by the sunlight forming a gorgeous rainbow. But: it’s enough to push fine grains of dust. The only sad thing about radiation pressure is it’s not common knowledge yet—it’s been proven since 1873.

To represent these solar forces, we need to make a breeze. For that job, a fan does the trick. When we turn it on, it blasts a healthy “solar” wind. (Be sure to experiment in advance with your fan and sample comet–there’s a lot of variation in fan settings.)

Chasing Comets

Inbound Comet

Hold the comet in the “inbound” position, with the front of the birdie pointed at the Fan Sun.  Yes! We were all correct: the tail points behind the comet as it moves towards the sun.

If the fan is strong enough, you can also use the model to hint at how the length of the comet’s tail changes. Far from the sun, the comet has no tail; far from the fan, our streamers dangle to the floor. A little closer in, a real comet’s tail appears as a pale streak behind it; as you approach your fan, the model’s streamers lift up and begin to flutter weakly behind it. Near the sun, the tail stretches out millions of miles behind a real comet’s head; near the fan, the your streamers stretch their full length.

Now, what about when the comet is heading away from the sun? Which way will the tail be pointing, now that we know about the solar “wind”? Nearly everyone will see, now, that it must point away from the sun.

Chasing Comets

Outbound Comet

Demonstrate that this works: you point the birdie’s nose away from the fan, turn on the blast, and the streamers flow out over the front of the birdie. The shape of the birdie helps emphasize the incongruity of our expectation—that the tail goes behind—with the reality: the solar forces push the tail.

If the class has patience for one more test, add the third question: what happens when the comet is rounding the far side of the sun, and is pointed “sideways”? Hold the comet model perpendicular to the flow of the fan.

Chasing Comets

Comet At Perihelion

Let everyone see how the tail sweeps out to the side of the comet. It always points away from the sun, no matter what direction the comet is pointing.

Here’s 13 seconds of one model comet in action:

 

 

Coming Real Soon:  Stage 2

 

 

 

 

Chasing Comets

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As a  re-entry activity, let’s fall right into the project which inspired the overarching theme for this so-called blog:  cometary tails.   That is, in this instance, we’ll be “studying” the behavior of the tails of actual comets falling along their orbits about a star.    But of course, this is a “Messy Monday” project, so it  involves running, arguing, and playing with scissors (not all at the same time).

So far, the only star whose comets we’ve observed have been those of our own Sun, but as our star is not particularly unusual, it’s likely that comets ply their trade throughout the cosmos.  We’ll not be delving too deeply into astrophysics, instead we’ll be building fun models of comets and playing games which illustrate the apparent motion of a typical comet’s tail.  If you’re running this project as part of a school science program, you can double-count the activity as a P.E. session, as the central game involves more than a bit of running, though not likely moving as fast as a comet.

Just as a reminder, what I want to give you in these “Messy Monday” project descriptions is 1) enough background on the science that you’ll be prepared for questions and have resources to draw on if your own curiosity is triggered, 2) a play-by-play description of running the project with a group, recognizing that your time and resources are limited and your participants will vary in both interest and prior knowledge, and 3) a shopping list detailed enough to help you minimize your costs as well the time you have to spend assembling supplies.

Shoemaker-Levy panoramic (courtesy NASA-NSSDC)

Fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy heading for Jupiter (courtesy NASA-NSSDC)

So, What Do You Want to Know?

For thousands of years, humans have wondered at the strange visitations of comets.

Natural philosophers of the middle ages studying comets.

Natural philosophers of the middle ages studying comets.

In our time, people now understand that comets are not harbingers of doom or annunciations of the births of kings but fellow travelers in our solar system, icy bodies wheeling in towards the sun and shedding a fraction of their substance as they approach the sun.  However, a key aspect of the comet’s tail remains counterintuitive to us earthbound air-dwelling creatures.  The tail of a running horse flows behind her as she gallops, so we naturally expect that the tail of comet simply flies behind it as it plunges along its course.  But a comet’s behavior plays tricks with such expectations.

Where do comets come from?  The Solar System is a big place, but for most of us, the territory ends with Pluto, the Object Formerly Known as The Ninth Planet.

Great_Comet_of_1577 by Georgium Jacobum von Datschitz public domain

The Great Comet of 1577

However, if you’re a fan of Cosmos (either Carl Sagan’s or Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s version) or if your school is lucky enough to have new textbooks, then you’ll know about the Oort Cloud , that sphere of orbiting material from which most comets emerge.  Do you realize how much farther out this region is? On a scale of one inch per 100,000 miles, in which the orbit of Pluto would be one mile across, the distance from the Sun to the Oort Cloud would be the length of the state of California.  It’s even been hypothesized that the Oort clouds of neighboring stars may physically interact, exchanging comets.

The Oort cloud is a long way out, but it’s still a part of the Solar System, because the objects there are still subject to the Sun’s gravity.  Occasionally, a piece of this clutter is jostled from its orbit and begins the long fall towards the sun.  Depending on the path it takes as it zooms around the sun, the comet may slingshot out of the solar system entirely or it may settle into a new orbit, returning to loop around the sun on a regular schedule.   For instance, Comet Halley returns every 86 years.  The last time round, it actually came in ’86–1986 that is.  I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand that year, so I can confirm that Comet Halley was extremely unspectacular that year–only just barely visible.  Fortunately, New Zealand itself is spectacular every single day of any given year.    NASA was more successful, having a noticeable advantage in telescope access.

Babylonian Astronomers Wrote Down Their Observations of Halley in BCE 164

Babylonian Astronomers Wrote Down Their Observations of Halley in BCE 164

Comet Halley's Appearance Dooms King Harold in 1066

Comet Halley’s Appearance Dooms King Harold in 1066

Comet Halley in 1910

Comet Halley in 1910

Comet Halley in 1986 (Courtesy of NASA)

Comet Halley in 1986 (Courtesy of NASA)

                                                                                                                                                                                        But why do comets even have tails?  We don’t see shiny tails glowing in the wakes of our planets.  Well, it all has to do with the change in environmental conditions as the comet moves towards the Sun.  Comets are composed of water ice, frozen gases, rocky matter, and even traces of organic compounds.  As this frozen jumble approaches the sun, it warms up enough that the various ices in the outer layers of the comet become gaseous—water vapor, ammonia, carbon dioxide.  These gases bubble and boil into a misty cloud, so the comet will have an atmosphere of sorts, called the coma, for the duration of its passage through the inner Solar System.  The gas expulsions may even shoot out of the comet’s rocky layers like jets, causing the comet itself to tumble as it falls along its inward path.  At the same time, very small-scale “dust” particles are swept from the cometary nucleus.  This is not the heavily-organic dust we find under our furniture here on Earth (if you really want to know what’s in household dust don’t use “Google images”;  stick to text searches or just ask your friendly neighborhood allergist).  What we mean is that the particle size—a few microns—is extremely fine, about the same size as the particles in cigarette smoke.

We get our fabulous cometary tail once these newly-ejected gases and dust of the coma approach the sun just a bit closer, enough that the various solar emissions can have their ways with the comet’s atmosphere.   First, there is sunlight itself, which acts in several ways to provide us with the visual spectacle of the comet’s tail.

The simplest role of sunlight is to shine on the cloud of dust ejected from the nucleus.  That’s the main tail we see.  But that still doesn’t explain why the dust forms a tail at all:  the secret is that light, as electromagnetic radiation, actually exerts pressure on objects, and with tiny objects like cometary dust this radiation pressure force is enough to fan that  material out from the core.  Plus, there is a cool bonus “secret”: that most comets actually have two tails—one formed by the gases and one formed by the dust.  The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight blasts the gas particles, stripping away electrons, and so creating a mass of ionized gas, which fluoresces (mostly blue) in sunlight. Then those glowing blue ions are blasted in a straight line away from the sun by the solar wind, a stream of high-energy particles hurtling at supersonic speeds through the solar system.  The solar wind is a wonderfully intricate system in its own right, but for our purposes here it is most important to convey that, like earthly winds, it consists of particles moving at high speeds and that its direction is away from the Sun.

The result of all these combined forces is that a complex, continuously shifting cloud of gases and dust streams out from a comet during its time in the inner solar system and that tail—or, rather, pair of tails—points away from the sun, even when the comet is on its way back out to its origin.  (If you’re a die-hard comet enthusiast, you’ll know that the dust tail does curve inward a bit, as the small particles of dust battle with the solar forces, striving to curl into their own individual orbits about the sun, but from our earthly perspective, the outward forces have the upper hand.)

In the next installment, we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of building our own comet models and playing a game of As the Comet Tail Flies.

Oh, yeah, and I’m not making things up about radiation pressure.  Consider the prospects for spaceflight under the power of light!

The Japanese IKAROS spaceprobe in flight (artist's depiction by Andrzej Mirecki).

The Japanese IKAROS spaceprobe in flight (artist’s depiction by Andrzej Mirecki).

Avoiding Hyperbole

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OK, right, it’s been so long since the last post that even my backup program is writing me off as too far gone. Too bad, Updraft, back to work, you lazy batch of code.

True, some comets hare off to interstellar space on hyperbolic orbits. However, two or three things:
1) There’s much to be said for the sweet homey stability of an elliptical orbit.
2) On a hyperbola, there are two arms, and who’s to say if you’re on the right one?
3) My top speed is less than 2 m/sec whereas an escape trajectory on Earth demands moving at about 11,500 m/sec.
4) I’m not actually a comet, I’m a human being who is interested in comets both as astronomical objects and as metaphorical images.
5) That’s four or five things.

Aiee Hyperbola Wiki

Redlining on a hyperbola. Aieeee!

Stuff happens, and it’s not exactly a huge crime to neglect a blog that no-one is reading. Last year, I whined about the inconveniences of having a broken arm. Well, there’s worse stuff than a broken arm. Besides, I needed time to read other people’s websites. Like catching up on the doings at Gunnerkrig Court. Like reading anything about robots that turns up on IEEE Spectrum. Or reliving grad school days on Jorge Chan’s Ph.D. comic. Or vacillating between reading Allie Brosh’s hardcopy book or her online stories at Hyperbole-and-a-Half.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to keep up a little better on the easier-to-maintain Facebook & twitter side of things, under the Pixel Gravity moniker.

But it’s time to dump more stuff out on the world and see if anyone who isn’t a spammer notices.

Here’s the deal:  I’ve got a year’s worth of science projects for kids that I want to share.  Maybe they’ll be a book too, some day.  (Insert self-knowing laugh here.)  I’m a year behind on delivering my Grand Canyon stories & pictures, which I promised my fellow-travellers would be “up” by the end of last summer.   But there’s other stuff I want to address as well.  So there will be a little discipline applied, in a way that would help any of my imaginary readers look ahead for the next entry in a category of interest.

First week of the month:  One “Messy Monday” project

Second week:  One “Grand Canyon” entry–either a half-day of storytelling or a photo album.

Third week:  Science & fiction stuff–the science fairly topical, the fiction

Fourth week:  An extra week to play catch up, first on the Grand Canyon, and later on Messy Monday, but also a piece of flexible time for interesting stuff of the moment.  For instance, Memorial Day Weekend will yield four days of BayCon 2014.

Next up:  Comets in orbit…

 

 

 

Drake & Josh at the Kepler Conference

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No, this entry has absolutely nothing to do with the old Nickelodeon TV show.  It’s just that while doing my edits on the very few photos I took last night, I found that half of them were titled Drake & Josh 1, Drake & Josh 2a, and Drake & Josh 2b.

No, wait.  Back up.

(Note:  if “Kepler” means nothing to you, go peek at this first:  NASA’s Kepler page.)

Last night was a public session during this week’s Kepler Science Conference at NASA-Ames Research Center.  Frank Drake—does anybody even faintly interested in extraterrestrial intelligence NOT remember the Drake equation?—was the speaker for a ‘sold-out’ evening at the Conference Center.

Drake with a glimpse of Lynette Cook's Art

Frank Drake          (with a glimpse of Lynette Cook’s Galactic Internet)

With the tiniest bit of encouragement, my husband “Clark” had scored a pair of the free tickets offered to the public by the Ames Events Program.  We even managed to arrive early enough to worm our way into decent seats just behind the “reserved for press” row.  Just between you and me, acquiring those seats involved summoning the chutzpah to ask a woman who was clearly saving a seat for her husband if she could shift left or right one seat to make room, either by claiming the aisle seat for her husband or dibsing the middle seats.  She chose the aisle-seat access.  As she moved over, so did the young man next to her, leaving us with one more free seat which was swiftly nabbed by someone in the next wave of arrivals.

So it all works out well.  One more person got a nearly-front seat (without having to ask for favors), we started the evening filled with gratitude, and the college student got to sit with David Morrison—NASA astrobiologist and SETI Institute leader—and his wife.  (Yes, that’s who the tardy husband was.  “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said to Clark.  “Well,” he lamely explained.  “I don’t see him with his wife at the cafeteria.” )  The student had taken Caltrain all the way from San Francisco and then hiked from the train station to Ames.  He was excited to be surrounded by so many astronomers, but instead of being daunted by that, he’d decided to get as many autographs as he could on his printout about the event.  Most people he asked for autographs from also gave him business cards and some asked for his name in return.    His name is Joshua Caltana.

So now you see where that strand is headed.

Meanwhile, there were a fair number of cell-phone photos being requested in the front-row group.  Frank with one Kepler astronomer.  Frank with another.  A photo of someone taking a photo of Frank with someone.  Was it noted that one of the people sitting in the front row a few feet away was Dr. Drake?   Oh, to be an official Press Person.  They really needed a proper camera with a bounce flash in that light.

A free public talk in the heart of Nerd Country is a strong draw, and traffic was backed up at the gate, we heard.  So there was a delaying action.  Kepler staff launched a putatively impromptu quiz game, awarding Kepler memorabilia to audience members who had the correct answers to crucial astro-trivia.  Alas, I was way too slow to raise my hand on the few I knew, Clark was not interested in playing the game, and Joshua’s answer to one question was just close, not correct.  So our Local Group did not win any of the tchotchkes.  Oh, well.  We didn’t come for prizes.  We came to hear “Frank”.

But finally, they tuned up the computer with Drake’s slides and let him speak.  He had a bit of a scratchy throat to cope with, and the Mac was balky about launching the animations on his slides, but he soldiered on with all those rapt faces in attendance.

So yes, I’m going to make you endure a summary of a great talk before looping back to Drake & Josh.  Or you can be lazy and scroll to the end.  Bear with me.  There will be cool links.

Drake does autographs

Drake does autographs (later, later)

So, the talk was entitled “Kepler and Its Impact on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”  But Drake put it a little more strongly.  Kepler, he said, is one of the “most important events in the history of science.”   Not only has the Kepler team’s search for habitable planets spotted thousands of planets orbiting stars in the small portion of sky selected for study, their data are useful for sorting through those finds for planets which might fall in the habitable zone.  The sheer impact of numbers is amplified when we realize that Kepler isn’t looking everywhere and that the Kepler results strongly suggest that there are many many more planets out there that the current tools can’t locate just yet.

For one thing, Kepler’s detection technique relies on occultation—spotting a planet passing in front of its star.  Only planets fairly close to a star are likely to be sighted this way, because the farther out a planet’s orbit lies, the more likely that a slight tilt of its orbit relative to our plane of view would make the planet pass ‘above’ or ‘below’ the star—making it invisible to us.  For example, even just at Earth’s orbital distance, 99% of such planets would be missed.

But for now, the numbers are big enough to give us plenty of data to study and inspire us.  Drake’s presentation included a snippet of the Kepler Orrery in which all the planets discovered as of early 2011 dance their way through Kepler’s mission period.  If you’re not too hypnotized by that, you can try Fabryky’s 2012 updated edition.

Kepler results include information about the planets’ orbital distances, and the stars’ characteristics are well-known, so the likelihood of there being planets in their respective habitable zones is becoming accessible.  For instance, with a cooler star, the habitable zone is close.  But what affects the habitable zone other than the star and the orbital distance?  From studying our own solar system, even just our own planet, we know that the characteristics of the planet affect habitability.

The Habitable Zone:  Colorado University

So, then Drake moved into Phase II of his talk, which he later revealed should have its own title

Everything I Ever Needed to Know

I Learned in

Kindergarten   

The Solar System

Aiming for that laugh, he led us on a tour of our own locale.  On Planet Earth, habitability changes markedly if we go up in altitude or down into the ocean.  So the topography and water on a planet affect its habitability.  In the deep atmospheres of the outer planets, it’s been proven that there are altitudes at which temperatures—even so distant from the sun—are about what they are on the Earth’s surface.  He shared an image by Lynette Cook illustrating Carl Sagan’s notion of “floaters” evolving and living in the clouds of Jupiter.   Comb jellies accustomed to the arctic seas of Earth—or alien life evolved to a similar design—would be well-suited to the deep, dark ocean beneath Europa’s insulating icy crust.  Our focus on the traditional Habitable Zone defined by certain distances from each star, based on stellar conditions, means that these alternate conditions for life finally need to get some attention so that the Habitable Zone can be redefined to include these non-Earthly, yet potentially life-supporting situations.   He foresees the narrow band illustrated above being widened to include most of the outer planets…and even those wandering ‘rogue’ planets warmed by nuclear decay.

Next, Drake turned to the conundrum of M-type stars and their planets.  He’s now convinced—thanks to Kepler—that there are likely to be planets around most of these stars as well—and those cool M-types (more familiarly known as Red Dwarfs) are far and away the most common stars.  There are more of them than of all the other star types combined.  Until recently, most astronomers were convinced that a planet anywhere in the narrow old-style Habitable Zone of an M-Type would be so close that it would be tidally locked—with one face permanently facing sunward, dooming the planet to be boiling on one side and frozen on the other.   But those convictions are faltering in the face of new understandings about how orbital eccentricities—such as that of our own planet Mercury—can prevent tidal locking and instead force a planet into a resonance pattern.   (Is this breaking news—did you still think Mercury keeps one face to the sun?  Take a break with Universe Today’s article on resonance.)

Even for a planet that ‘succeeds’ in achieving a tidal lock, atmospheric scientists have decided (provided the planet does have an atmosphere), that mixing by the currents of gas moving over the surface, driven by the heat of a star, would more or less normalize the planet’s temperature, establishing stable conditions in a range of habitation zones.  Drake mused that residents of such a predictable planet would consider it nothing more than “wretched circumstances” to endure life on a rock which rotates constantly and varies its temperature patterns hourly, daily, and seasonally.

Drake never directly brought his famous equation into his talk.  But one critical factor is the length of time that a civilization might be communicating—the likelihood of our finding one another falls if our conversational eras fail to overlap sufficiently.   However, he reported “good news for people who afraid that we have been advertising our presence” and are worried about aliens being “about to invade.”  Our own passive “communication” to the Universe has been dropping off precipitously as our use of technology and energy has shifted.   We used to beam many megawatts of television broadcasts into space.  No more—we’re going with digital, satellite, cable TV now, meaning thousands of times less energy expended accidentally broadcasting to the stellar neighborhood.  Soon, the only signature of our technological civilization to a far-off society could be the lights of our night-lit cities—something we aren’t yet capable of looking for ourselves.  A very patient observer might notice our atmosphere heating up over time and deduce that we have been subjecting our planet to global warming.

Drake enjoys a chat about astronomy

Drake enjoys a chat about SETI

Drake said he is beginning to feel that it may be our moral obligation to start an intentional broadcast, to try to share what we have learned with unknown aliens in the far-off planetary systems.  His reading leads him to believe that altruism is a part of our evolutionary heritage and to hope that evolution elsewhere has instilled enough of that same drive to cooperate so that eventually we may be able to do the one thing that we can do over interstellar distances—talk.

What about the Fermi paradox?  Where are those others?  One audience member was convinced that visitors have been here already, but Drake sadly told him he’d checked out those same stories when he was younger, too, and was disappointed to find they were all dead ends, that the fantastic accomplishments of early civilizations on Earth didn’t rely on helpful aliens but on ordinary humans performing great feats.  Interstellar travel is too expensive, in energy terms, he thinks.  When pressed, Drake’s line is that the reason we haven’t seen alien interstellar travellers is that “the only ones who would try are the dumb ones—and they don’t know how.”

So after the Q&A, there was a little bit of meet-and-greet.  Yes, I got to shake Drake’s hand and tell him I enjoyed the talk and always like it when I hear something new.  He said, “well, I try.”  Our new acquaintance, Joshua, roamed the crowd collecting a few new autographs and working up to saying hello to Drake.  By that time, he was one of the last well-wishers.  Drake was surely pining for dinner (his companions were already talking about food), but he listened to this young student, gave his autograph, and then instead of grabbing his bag and dashing away, he stood up and chatted with him for a few minutes.  Ergo:  Drake & Josh 1, 2a, and 2b:

Drake & Josh 1

Drake & Josh 1

Drake & Josh 2a

Drake & Josh 2a

Drake&Josh 2b

Drake&Josh 2b

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coda:  Clark was starved, I was hungry.  So we went in search of dinner.   We randomly selected an open restaurant, placed our orders.  And then Frank Drake and his entourage arrived.  (Well, is 2 people an entourage?  Let’s just say yes.)  So I conclude my report with a mention that Frank Drake finished his long day of Keplering with an omelet plate at Crepevine.  I hope he survived—the portions there are well on the way to having detectable gravitational effects.

 

 

 

 

Day Two, Afternoon: From 20 Mile to Lone Cedar Camp

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We have been encouraged to shift about and ride with all of the guides, as each has different perspectives, stories, and expertise.  Still, Clark needed to simplify things this morning and so re-joined Christian in the sweep boat.  And it happens that Eliza and Todd also jumped back on the same boat as yesterday.   Smart move for them, as I was OK with staying in the back all day to deal with my sand-in-eye issue, so they got a full day up front.   This will set a new pattern for our partners in the Fab Five, as, with the possible exception of Lana, we’re all keen to ride up front as much as possible.  So our couples will be endeavoring to not ride too much as a foursome, as each pair wants the same seats as the other!

Today, plunging deeper into the canyon forces us to expand our minds in the geological direction as well.   As the day began, we felt ourselves all knowledgeable, having mastered the notion of a “formation”, that is, a group of rocks that is readily distinguishable from layers above and below.  Our first formation was the Kaibab Limestone so naturally we thought  a “formation” meant a layer of one type of rock. But then we had to come to terms with the Toroweap layer, sandwiched between the Kaibab Limestone and the Coconino Sandstone.  But that middle layer has three main types of rocks—and no one is calling it the “Toroweap Gypsum and Shale and Sandstone”, it’s just the “Toroweap Formation”.

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab Limestone

The point is a formation has a recognizable structure that geologists use to build their maps and that even we non-geologists can spot as a distinct layer.  Its main observable characteristic is it seems more bust-up-able, so the Toroweap also introduced us to talus slopes.  Turns out the gypsum and shale are more susceptible to erosion, so the transition between Kaibab and Coconino is a sloping mess of tumbled and jumbled rock, providing footholds for vegetation and for wildlife.  The Hermit Shale, underneath the Coconino, also turns out to be a slope-forming layer.  So we are sometimes going past vertical walls but sometimes alongside rocky slopes hosting vegetation—and wildlife.

 

Big Rock Slide

One Big Rock Slide–from the Kaibab over the Toroweap talus slope to drop off the Coconino wall to the Hermit shale slope

Well, we thought we were so smart, but our comeuppance struck earlier this morning, when we descended below the Hermit Shale into something entirely new.  The Supai Group.  What the heck is a “group”???   Is this some kind of pun on “rock group”?  Are we supposed to be asking which layer plays “bass”?  Naw, it’s just that sometimes geologists find it helpful to describe an assemblage of formations as a “Group”.   There are four formations (is that another pun?) in the Supai—and we will have rolled through all of them by dinnertime.    Why “Supai”?  That’s the name of the people who live in the Grand Canyon, the members of the Havasupai Tribe.  Not coincidentally, “Coconino” is the old Hopi name for the Havasupai.  So far, the geologists seem to have been relying on the locals to come up with formation names—Kaibab and Toroweap are Southern Paiute words, which are usually translated as “mountain lying down” and “dry/barren valley”, respectively.   We’ll learn about the “Hermit” moniker later.

With all these complex rocks in the vicinity, after lunch we make a short run to a place for a hike.  We pull in at Upper North Canyon Camp…no, not to camp, instead to make the scramble up to the North Canyon pool.  It’s a try-out, Billie says, to see how the group fares on hikes involving some scrambling.  I’m having something of a relapse in my eye condition, so I (yeah, yeah, grumpily) stay behind to take care of that.  I like scrambling, but it’s not a good idea when you can’t see.  Meanwhile, Christian is also on break, left behind to keep an eye on the boats and any stay-behind passengers.  I think I’m the only one staying.  Oh, well.

When my eye is feeling better again,  I let Christian know I’m going to roam about in the area near shore, with my camera in hand.   It’s actually a relief to have a little time seemingly “on my own”.  (This has to go in quotes…there are tons of people around, no fewer than a dozen at any given time, as other groups leave and arrive from the river, or from up-canyon.)  I just ignore everyone else and find for myself some photogenic calcite lumps, fire ants, lizards, a garden of native plants (agave, prickly pear, and more), and a spot to video the rapids.

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Heart of Stone

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

White Rock & Friend

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Spray and Moss

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Grand Canyon Fire Ants with Straw

Rainfall at North Canyon

Rainfall at North Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is an effort to ignore just how popular this spot is.   I’ve already learned to be careful setting up a shot when folks are first pulling in to shore.    The very first thing guys do after shipping oars—whether they’re wriggling out of a kayak or beaching a raft– is stand up and urinate.  Another reason to roam a bit away from the beach.

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Arrivals at North Canyon

While I may have enjoyed my little wander and my personal discoveries, I did miss the adventure of the day, so here are a few of Clark’s pics from the Reason So Many People Stop Here:

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Billie leads the group up North Canyon

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Florence heads up the drainage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Tiny reflecting pool

 

 

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

The main pool, in the rain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not far to camp, but it’s a fun ride.  We’re now in the “Roaring Twenties”, a sequence of lively rapids between the 20-mile and 30-mile rivermarks.    At camp, another benefactor appears.  Trillian (of the triad Art & Trillian & Barry) has a solid familiarity with the trials of irritated eyes, as she suffers with one of those ailments that interferes with tear production, so she shares a pair of vials of her prescription Restasis.  I was a little skeptical about “borrowing” a prescription medication, but it turns out to be just the right thing.

Another lovely freshly-prepared dinner.  This time, it’s grilled chicken—with a choice of sauces.  Clark is ecstatic.  I think he goes back for seconds.  Matt works out his golf technique with the help of some driftwood.  Like Clark, he’s looking forward to the Master’s this coming weekend;  unlike Clark, he will be at home in time to watch the whole tournament.

During dessert, the portable grill becomes a firepit for our circle of chairs.  TitleThe crew breaks out some toys—horseshoes and a set of glow-in-the dark bocce balls.  Everyone is in the mood for some relaxation.  I’m in the mood for taking more pictures.

We made over close to 20 miles today (even with that annoying person whining in the back of the sweep boat).  We’re having wonderful weather.  A little drizzle during the hike just added a little variety without causing any problems for anybody.   We’ve stopped at Lone Cedar Camp, which is big enough for folks to spread out a bit.  Our tent is tucked into the lee of a large rock, and I persuade Clark to try putting up the flysheet tonight (the excuse being it might rain again).  The combined effect is to reduce somehat the quantity of sand infiltrating our tent this time.

Wishing I owned a sleep mask—or that I’d happened to pack one of my several headbands—I fashion an eye covering from a spare pair of long johns (well, let’s say “elegant thermal underlayer”) which serves to keep my head warm in the night and to keep the Restasis (and the extra tears it produces) in and to keep the sand out of my eyes.  At least no one at all can see how silly I look—Clark is already fast asleep.

 

Day Two, Morning: From Soap Creek to Lunch at 20 Mile Camp

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Well, the narrative for the morning of Day Two will be slim on personal observations.  I missed about half the day to a wrestling match with sand.   To squelch the urge to overindulge on the topic of having sand in one’s eye, I’ll attempt to fill the void with some post-trip discoveries and stolen photos from Clark’s morning shoot.  Yes, I hear you, “Big deal, I’ve had sand in my eyes!” and indeed I will have sand in my eyes plenty of times on this trip, but this Day Two Experience was like having had a disgruntled Brownie spend the night firmly packing sand into my eye socket.  That is, I woke up half-blind.  As a person who deals with hay and dust and animal hair/dander and agricultural dust regularly, I have rather a lot of tricks to deal with grit in my eyes, so it is difficult to express just how embarrassing and frustrating it was to have to seek help.

This is our first de-camping morning, and here I’m a useless cussing chump clumsily using a full-size water bottle to squirt water into one eye while both eyes fill with helpful, blinding tears, and Clark packs two people’s gear into bags and takes down the tent pretty much by himself.   Meanwhile, someone loaded plates with breakfast for Clark and me, so we’d not miss out on blueberry pancakes and bacon.  Despite my frustration and handicap, it turns out to be possible to swiftly consume a large quantity of this bacon.  Pancakes not being finger food make them problematical, though tasty.  Clark doubles up on bacon, not being a fan of pancakes contaminated with healthy antioxidant-bearing fruit.

So anyways, off we launch, all attired in our waterproof gear, for our run through Soap Creek Rapid.  I wish I had the chameleon’s skill of moving one eye while keeping the other still, so I could watch with one eye and not worry about damaging the cornea on the other.  Oh well,  I can deal with missing the visual portion of the rapids we ride—first the thrashing-wet Soap Creek, then a couple of what would be mere riffles but are actually more exciting in the uncertain dark, then the lightweight  Sheer Wall Rapid.

Approaching Soap Creek Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

Approaching Soap Creek Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Sheer Wall Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

It’s not a big drop—though my readings indicate it used to be much more problematic.  For the early explorers like Powell, who were not really equipped to run rapids, Sheer Wall was one of those that required extra effort to scout routes for portaging the boats .  Due to the “sheer” walls of rock rising from the river at that point, Powell’s crew were forced to scramble up tricky gaps in the rock and cling to uncertain ledges.

As Clark’s photo shows, the rapid at Sheer Wall is very short, and for us is more like a 2-foot weir over the debris-flow from Tanner Wash.  (Though, of course, with higher or lower water flow, it will be different—facts of life on the Colorado.)  Hikers coming down from the Rim can enjoy some fabulous experiences upstream in Tanner Wash.  While at river level, it’s an bland-looking open canyon, if one can climb up or around the dryfalls or pour-offs that form a barrier to up-creek hikers, there is a slot-canyon experience to be found, plus beautiful delicately-layered staircases as the creekbed cuts through the Coconino sandstone.  Follow the link to John Crossley’s photos—these thumbnails are just a screenshot of a single page on his site.

 

John Crossley's Tanner Wash page

John Crossley’s Tanner Wash page

And keep in mind that the hiking guides I’ve found share the opinion that these views of Tanner Wash are out-of-reach for anyone other than a technical climber or an experienced traveller on the only-slightly-marked go-arounds, if approaching from river level.  So we’re not heartbroken by missing that side-trip.

 

 

 

While there’s a certain novelty in surfing blind, my mood is in the dumps, so I’ll admit to wasting too many available conversation opportunities by whining.   It is suggested I wash out my eye by dunking my head in the river.  The river full of sandy water.  Yep, that would certainly work. Well, it would shut me up for a bit, I suppose.

Well, it does beat drowning, which is a recurring theme in the history lectures we hear on the trip.   Surprisingly, the first to make it through, John Wesley Powell, didn’t lose any men to the river.  (However, of the four who decided to hike out partway, three fell prey to old-fashioned death-by-human.)   The brilliantly tight-fisted Frank Brown, who considered it sensible to sink his cash into Robert Stanton’s project of surveying the Grand Canyon at river level for the purpose of building a railroad (in order to profit from the transport of coal from Colorado) also considered it a waste of money to invest in life preservers on a treacherous river.  He drowned just downstream of Soap Creek when his boat flipped over.  Two more of the men on that expedition drowned a couple of days later and the rest of the team hiked out South Canyon.  Stanton came back a year later—with life preservers, this time.

We pull ashore for a short break and then—cue trumpets and cymbals—Florence appears at my side and in short order she produces—from her accessible drybag, no less—a perfect, traditional blue glass eyecup, exactly like the one my family always had in our medicine cabinet.    “I always carry an eyecup,” she says.  And my trip is saved!  It’s going to take some time and more patience, but there is nothing like having the right tool for the job.

Now that I can see a bit, I learn that this “short break” is in part a chance to scout House Rock.

Barry scouts the rapid with Curtis, Jimmy, Christian, Will, Billie, Krista, and Erika

Barry scouts the rapid with Curtis, Jimmy, Christian, Will, Billie, Krista, and Erika

It’s the first rapid on our trip with any potential trickiness to it, and this will be the first time that the crew will see it this year.    Every year, things change as floodwaters shift material, rockfalls contribute to rapids, and flowrates change.  The Grand Canyon River Guides even keep a record of the changes over time, under their “Adopt a Beach” program.  For instance, here  you can see how  one of the beaches I didn’t see this morning has changed.

The thumbnail view of GCRG's Adopt-A-Beach page for Salt Water Wash

The thumbnail view of GCRG’s Adopt-A-Beach page for Salt Water Wash

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Scout’s-Eye view of House Rock Rapid

 

There’s a little scramble to get a sightline to House Rock.  The guides are all together discussing the best route through the obstacles they see. I take a peek at the view and snap a few photos of my own before I need to stumble back to more-level ground to give Florence’s eyecup another workout before it’s time to re-board and run this rapid.  It is definitely more fun with eyes open to see the waves coming.

 

 

Lunch is a stop at 20 Mile Camp—we are really Making Time today—for a lesson in creative use of groceries.   For those of us who love cream cheese, there are bagels and cream cheese, while salmon fans can choose cream cheese blended with grilled salmon from last night.  And there is the always-available peanut-butter & jelly option for the non-cheese-consumers, like Clark and Barry-the-vegan, or anyone who just doesn’t care for bagels.  And fruit, of course.  Did I mention our caretakers make sure we have plenty of fruit and veg in our river trip diet?

But here we are at the entrance to the “Roaring Twenties”.  No more flat water for a while.  Did you know that you can explore the canyon via Google Earth?  You can take the do-it-yourself route and just install the software and do your own scans (which should be even cooler and in more 3-D soon, according to announcements made at Google’s I/O event this spring!)   Or you can hook up with experienced Earthers like Riverbrain, who have put together stats on the river, rapids, and camps with zoomable satellite views from DigitalGlobe and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, no less.

Touring the Colorado River on Google Earth

Touring the Colorado River on Google Earth

Eyes in the sky on 20 Mile Camp

Using Riverbrain to zoom on on 20 Mile Camp

 

 

Year of the Comet?

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This is an exciting year to be looking at the sky!

Comet Pan-STARRS, back in March, was a thrill–if you had clear skies or access to a space telescope.    Here is NASA’s STEREO view of that comet:

Comet Pan-STARRTS (courtesy of NASA)

Comet Pan-STARRS (courtesy of NASA)

 

 

 

 

In October, our intrepid Mars exploration robots and satellites will have a close call with a comet–and there is even a possibility that it will strike Mars:

Comet 2013 A1

Comet 2013 A1 (courtesy of NASA)  See video here.

 

 

 

 

Aaaand…in November, Comet ISON will appear.  This one has been billed as The Comet of the Century, and while other comets have had similar billing and flopped, we’ll have many opportunities to view and learn from its passage.  It may be visible to the naked eye by mid-November, but there’s a chance of an uptick in brightness when it hits perihelion on November 28th (aka Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.).  Many turkey dinners will be sitting cold while astronomy fans dash out with their solar-protection lenses to attempt to spot a brighter-than-Venus comet wheeling close to the sun.  Then will come a few days of frustration until the comet emerges from perihelion in the morning sky, hopefully trailing a dramatic tail.  Sky and Telescope predicts the finest view will come on December 14th, with a huge tail–perhaps spreading across as much as a fourth of the sky–will gleam brightly in the dark sky just after moonset.

In the meantime, and especially during those days it’s seemingly out-of-sight, ISON will be generating considerable science.  NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory will have eyes on the comet, as previous sun-grazing comets have yielded masses of information about the sun as well as the passing visitors.  And the twin “STEREO” (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) stations can be expected to contribute their views for potential 3-D detail.

 

Monday at BayCon 2013

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There are fewer options on the final day, and the available time is short, so opportunities for plans to stray from reality are fewer.  We’d expect less divergence…here are the results of our field test:

Time Frame What the Plan was What really happened
Monday morning Sleep in a bit, then go to session on James Bond vs Dr Who, and finally pick up art if I win any auctions.

One of Patricia McCracken's Little Dragons came home with me!  Find your own here http://www.patriciamccracken.com/miniprint.html

One of Patricia McCracken’s Little Dragons came home with me! Find your own here .

Did sleep in.  Fed horses & scooped manure, too.  Didn’t arrive until close to noon.Trekked to the Art Show first to pick up the two pieces I’d bought, but then also discovered my single bid on the dragon-butterfly print was the winning bid.  So paid and went to look for that panel talk.  JB vs DW still ongoing, but after a half-hour I figured I’d had about all I needed on the topic.  So no regrets about turning up so late. 

My next move was to get my art safely into the car, though I did make a detour to make sure there was no boffering available today.  Dang.  Just another panel talk going on in what had been Boffer Central.

 

So I betook myself down to the Gaming Room to buy a coke and eat lunch.  Two older teenagers who had joined in on the dancing last night were there playing some form of D&D.  The one thing I haven’t done at this convention is play games, and it looks like that will have to be another time.  For now, I just have to settle for having spent some time hanging out in the Gaming Room.

Monday afternoon Go to session on “how to build a spaceship.”  Go home!

First firing of the Falcon 9-R advanced prototype rocket. Via Elon Musk on Twitter. Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/102692/spacex-tests-falcon-9-r-advanced-reusable-prototype-rocket/#ixzz2WVt42LYG

First firing of the Falcon 9-R advanced prototype rocket. Via Elon Musk on Twitter.   At least there is a good place to read about the topic I skipped:  start here.

 

MKB's latest novel in the Star Wars universe

MKB’s latest novel in the Star Wars universe

 

 

California Autism Foundation

California Autism Foundation

 

diy

 

 

 

 

 

It was easier to walk to the media tie-in panel from the Gaming Room, so that’s where I went.   I hadn’t actually looked at the list of panelist, so it was a pleasing surprise to see Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff  there, in her capacity as a leading author in Star Wars novels.  Her panel partner, Kevin Andrew Murphy, works also in gaming tie-ins and had a much more positive spin on the quality of that literature than the board-game guy in yesterday’s panel.  Overall, I gained a much better picture of life as a tie-in fiction author.  And an appreciation for authors who can face intense fans in the middle of a panel.    Btw, about half the people in the audience are people I recognize.So things were winding down, including the dealer’s room.  So I went on up to the closing ceremonies.  In between that and the “hiss and purr” session, there was some dead time.  I poked my head into the Art Room to see how the art auction had wrapped up.  One of the women I remember from dancing last night was clutching the steampunk flamingo.  Turns out it hadn’t had any bids, so the artist had offered it to her at a lesser price in order to avoid hauling it home.  Good for her! 

Next stop:  the Gaming Room, for one last donation to the California Autism Foundation (the beneficiary of the Charity Vending machine) from which I gained a Coke for myself and an accidentally-vended ginger ale which I could donate to one of the nearby volunteers.

 

I was determined to stay for the critique session because I wanted to praise the DIY idea.  The downside was having to sit through a huge laundry list of facility complaints and an equally lengthy recitation of praises for hotel staff.  However, managed to retain my nerve enough to actually participate in the “programming” discussion.

 

After that subject was concluded, I took off for Nob Hill.  Not the SF landmark, the grocery store.  Got home before the guys and even fixed dinner for everyone.  Does tacos count as dinner?

 

It’s All About the Sand

OK, Time for Our First Entry in SECRETS REVEALED!!!

#1  It’s All About the Sand

Approaching a Grand Canyon rafting trip, all you think about are those thrilling rapids, the blazing sun, and the electrifying/drenching thunderstorms. Your packing list is heavy on waterproof gear, quick-drying clothing, sunblock, and hats.  But at least half of your time is spent in the Kingdom of the Sand Demon, and you will be reminded of that for weeks to come, as you find sand in yet another impermeable item.

Think of it this way:  the glistening white sand beaches along the Colorado River are formed of particles eroded from a mile of rock—much of it sandstone, no less, and almost all of it the product of eons of marine sedimentary deposition—with the grinding-down happening over five or six million years.  All those thousands of thousands of years of tumbling in the river yields sand so fine that it blows right through your tent walls.  Yes, really.  You will snuggle down to sleep in your little tent with the windows and doors zipped tight (because you did notice all that sand out there and were even sharp enough to notice that the wind tends to shift its direction and roar turbulently down the canyon every evening).  And you will wake up with a layer of dust-scale sand all over your gear, your sleeping bag, your mat, and your face.

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

So—once you think about it, there is no mystery.  Ultrafine sand plus forceful winds equals sand in everything.  Most of the time it is a minor annoyance, an opportunity to bond with your travelmates: “Yep, I have sand in my beer/cocoa/coffee/soda/water, too.” Sometimes, it’s just another technical chore, such as brushing the sand out of your waterproof camera housing.  But sometimes, it’s a way to mark yourself as a seasoned river-runner:  the clean, safe water supply at Phantom Ranch was “turbid” (nanoscale sand, yes?) when we stopped by—so Billie advised the crew to pump water through the team’s super-filters for refills, instead of simply using the Park Service’s ready-to-use water, in order to avoid giving the new arrivals an unpleasant surprise on their first day.  We old hands merely filled our bottles at the tap and chugged the wetness gratefully.

On occasion, it’s more than annoying (see my Day Two Morning whine-session).   To quickly recover from the more-than-annoying times, bring the following:  an eye cup and a tube of liquid tears.  If you have any dry-eye issues, make sure to bring your medication.  If your weight allowance allows, tuck in a bottle of pH-balanced eyewash.  If you don’t need these supplies, fine.  But if someone else does, you will make a friend for life!

And to save those supplies for being a hero, apply an ounce of prevention.  If you’re a side-sleeper, face away from the tent walls.   Tuck a headband in your gear—if you find yourself waking up with sand in your face, use the headband as a night-time eye covering and wash your face in the morning.  Shake the sand out of your sleeping gear before packing it away in the morning.  Try to keep your hands reasonably clean—humans are always putting their fingers in their eyes, but you sure notice it more when you rub sand into them!  And if you must sleep under the stars, tent-free, choose a less-comfortable spot out of the sand-blow.  (You’ll realize the guides don’t concern themselves with tents—but they are usually bunking down on their boats.  On the water.  Away from the sand.)

Keep in mind, this is no excuse to Avoid The Trip.  Just one of the Secrets they don’t tell in the literature.  To paraphrase one of Clark’s favorite poets, Robert W. Service, “It isn’t the river ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your eye”.

Want to read the real quote, and more?  A good place to start is Goodreads.  Yes.  Pun intended.

And remember, add $10 to your budget for:

A proper eye cup.  Bring your old glass version if you have one--this the the best out there now.

A proper eye cup. Bring your old glass version if you have one–this is the best plastic one.

adforeyewash

Kinder than water and sand-free.

liquidtears

Helpful dose for irritated eyes…not the stinging “red out” stuff.

 

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