Cometary Tales Astronomy & Astrophysics Drake & Josh at the Kepler Conference

Drake & Josh at the Kepler Conference

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


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.





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Make Hey! While the Moon ShinesMake Hey! While the Moon Shines

We have a full moon this weekend.  Stargazers will be complaining about the huge glowing face polluting the sky with light, but why not get out there and study our partner planet, good old Luna?  Elsewhere in this blog, I’m going on and on about my trip through the Grand Canyon.  Today I was searching for information on the rock layers, to improve the titles on some of my pictures.  And what did I find?  An astronomy resource!

Here it is: a great essay by Professor Charles Cowley of the University of Michigan, who uses the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon to explain the layers and rock formations on the moon.  Go here, read this!    Thanks, Professor Cowley!

Lunar crater view taken by Clementine orbiter.   (Courtesy of NASA)

Lunar crater view taken by Clementine orbiter. (Courtesy of NASA)


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

(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

Gravity & EnergyGravity & Energy

This category of the blog is dedicated to science & technology topics that I think may interest my fellow nerds.

(Note: Original post: 2012. A few updates were made during site reorganization in January, 2021.)

Tracking Movement In the Solar System

For starters, I’ll be posting in the blog regularly under Astronomy & Astrophysics. (In some of these older posts the category is tagged Pixel Gravity.)  To jump straight to those posts, visit the PG Archive–readily accessible in the menu.  For some time now, I’ve been running the social-media support for the program that made the picture you see here.  I’ve been posting about robots, space exploration, astronomy, big steps in physics, and so on.  Sometimes, the space available for a posting on Facebook is too restrictive.   So those kinds of discussions will move here.

What qualifies me to write about this stuff?  Well, I’ve admitted elsewhere that we are a family of hypernerds.  That’s not my term.  It was invented and applied by one of our charming (adult) offspring.  It’s not a misnomer As a family, we are 40% engineers and 60% scientists.

I’m a power systems engineer, which in my case means I’ve made a career out of simulating how power plants and electric and gas networks operate.

My husband is a computational physicist, specializing in solar physics.  Want to know what’s going on inside the sun?  He’s your guy.

Our youngest son is too busy for now, building catapults and robots on his way to a mechanical-engineering degree at UC Santa Barbara. (Update: graduated, with honors. Currently open to job offers.)

After two summer internships in NASA’s astrobiology group, our middle son is working on an honors thesis project on metabolic processes of microbes in deep serpentine wells, attracted by the prospect of doing biology fieldwork in extreme ecosystems right here on planet Earth. (Update: he’s now nearly done with his Ph.D.)

And the oldest escaped from UC Berkeley’s astrophysics program with a degree and a desire to never return to academia.  He built Pixel Gravity instead.

What’s “Pixel Gravity“?  It’s a detailed, graphical astrophysics simulator with real-time controls.  It looks sort of like a game, and it’s fun to play with, but it’s also a serious science tool  As an “n‑body” simulator, it lets users model complex groups of many objects, from the solar system to galaxies.  Most of the other easy-to-use programs available online limit the number of objects or lack physical accuracy, so (for example) relativistic effects on motion near a black hole are not handled properly, if at all.  University researchers have access to extremely-detailed models, but those require supercomputers.  Pixel Gravity provides accurate modeling on personal computers and is priced low so that even students can explore gravity in action.  In addition to Newtonian gravity, Pixel Gravity models the additional effects of atmospheric drag, general relativity, and dark-matter, as well as user-defined forces.  Plus, the software package includes helpful tools for curriculum development such as a tutorial-builder and video-production capability. (Update: Pixel Gravity is at present a retired product–contact us if you’d like a copy to play with.)

So, in short, the topics under this heading are just the kind of things we talk about at our house.  So if you come to dinner, you don’t need to bring a foodie specialty.  But you might scan the latest issue of Scientific American.

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