New Horizons has flown past Pluto successfully, and is now on the way to check out other Kuiper Belt objects. Here’s Corwin Wray’s simulation (made with Pixel Gravity, his software for doing multi-body models on your laptop), which concludes with a wistful look back at our Solar System:
Like New Horizons, you can explore further too.
It’s worth your while to start by tracking down Guy Ottewell. Yes, he’s on the web, folks, and you can connect with him! Start with his Home Page, which includes all of his books, including the latest version of the book form of his Thousand-Yard Model as well as innovative ideas in several fields, from voting systems to landscape design: He has a Facebook Page on which he’s been more active as of 2014, sharing art and world news: And he joined Twitter in 2013 and tweets regularly, especially on human-rights topics, which should interest anyone who’s become aware of just how small our human community is in this huge universe: find him as simply @GuyOttewell on the tweet machine. A few of his books are available at Amazon, but take care—the latest updates are best obtained by purchasing directly from the author.
Of course, you might want to follow some of informational links given in the workbook pdf’s for this project:
The National Optical Astronomy Observatory presents Guy Ottewell’s original project description from 1989 online:
A wonderful collection of poems and quotes related to astronomy, gathered by Michele Stark, an astronomer with a wonderful page she created while lecturing in physics at the University of Michigan, Flint. l You’ll also find astronomy labs she’s created for non-majors interested in the field, under “Outreach and Education”
A relatively exhaustive listing of scale models in place around the world—most are designed for point-to-point driving or cycling tours, so scroll to the bottom portion of the list for walkable models, several of which are roughly on the same scale as that presented here. Check before you set out—some of these installations were only temporary, as part of larger events and some are virtual (i.e., online). I would like to imagine astronomy fans travelling to all of them, as baseball fans travel to all the major-league parks.
The Project Astro Notebook used to be sold as a huge expensive bulky (and still wonderful) binder. Soon, you’ll be able download at least some portions in pdf format from the free government-sponsored education resources site eric.gov. However, for now your best bet is to buy the DVD’s at http://astrosociety.org/astroshop/index.php?p=product&id=577&parent=1
Why use a FIFA 4 or 5 ball? Well, the dimensions are good for it. But any similar-sized ball will do for this project…like the tennis-ball-patterned playground ball I have. Guy Ottewell likes to use a bowling ball—but notes that it’s kind of heavy to lug around. http://www.achallenge.com/t-faq.aspx
If you need more reassurance that science and math are not only fun but also funny, visit http://www.xkcd.com (but do prescreen before sharing with students—this webcomic does sometimes use “PG-13” language.
For the jacks ball, you can pick up a jacks set anywhere. Online (e.g., www.orientaltrading.com , they’re often sold in party packs of a dozen sets. But any bouncy ball bigger than ¾” and no bigger than 1” in diameter will do the trick.
If you decide to buy a playground ball or soccer ball online, locate an air pump before your shipment arrives—they’re often shipped uninflated.
And if you buy on Amazon, be sure to sign up for smile.amazon.com first, so your purchases can support your favorite charity.
If you skipped Part 1, then you need to know know that in this activity, you will build a scale model of the Solar System as far as Pluto. You will use familiar objects and easy, approximate measurements—mostly simply pacing off distances. This is not a project about being extremely precise; the goal is to develop a strong perception of just how big the solar system is and how small the planets are within that system.
For preparation, you need only to assemble the collection of properly-sized objects listed in the requirements table (See Step 2) and print out the “cheat sheet” you’ll carry on the Walk. A glance at a map of your local area will help you decide which way to take your expedition and to identify some landmarks to stand in for more-distant things like the far edge of the Oort Cloud. To build your own interest and enjoy some discoveries of your own, check out some of the links I’ll include in the references section (Step 4).
You can feel free to substitute alternate model planets, using the scaled sizes as a guide; however, most of the items called for can be found in an average family home, borrowed from classroom parents, or purchased at a very modest outlay. While modern kids may not find the contents of kitchen spice jars terribly fascinating, using an allspice or peppercorn seed as your “Earth” model will give them a lifelong reference point–they’ll be smelling pumpkin pie or watching a chef grind pepper and that spark of memory will remind them of this project.
Because the scaled planets range from the size of a pin point to the size of a jacks ball, it also makes sense to attach each object to something larger, such as an inverted cup or a 4 by 6 index card. If you have access to sports equipment, the bright-colored cones often used for laying out a temporary playing field are helpful. You can position the planet-holder and also tape a “Please Leave Our Experiment Here” sign to the top of the cone. And the bright colors and signs help the explorers to look back and spot the distant planets. Again, be creative! There is no need to run out and buy sports equipment—any handy rock or a brick will do to keep your objects and notes in place.
When reviewing the Cheat Sheet, you’ll see that this model describes our solar system as far as the outer edge of the Oort Cloud. However, to go all the way to the Oort Cloud in this model is a journey of 75 miles (100 km), so don’t expect to travel that far. Instead, as part of your preparation, identify a few local landmarks 1 or 2 miles from your start point and also pick some regional and further-off destinations to match the scaled distances for such key locales as the Oort Cloud, the heliopause, the estimated positions of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, the far edge of the Kuiper belt, and our further neighbors in the Universe. If you’re too short on time, the Cheat Sheet includes some general destinations, but your own localized ones will be much more meaningful to the group. If your group won’t have time to walk all the way to Pluto, find out where Pluto would be in that locale and point ahead to that location before you do turn back.
Once in the classroom, before launching your exploratory mission, start with a quick review of the concept of scale. Regardless of your target age group, toys which are also scale models of cars or airplanes or trains are helpful examples. Quickly walk through a sample of numerical proportions to give a sense of how it goes when you are creating your own scale model: for instance, sketch on the board or a sheet of poster paper a rough scale drawing of the classroom room at 1 inch per foot (5 cm per m). Rather than slowing down the project with extra work, prepare for this session by making your own rough measurements of the classroom dimensions in advance—simply pace off the length and width and note any additional features to the room. Remember, the idea is to illustrate your point, not to create an architectural drawing.
Moving on to the Solar System, start with the Sun…an 8-inch-diameter playground ball or an ordinary soccer ball fits our scale. Ask if anyone can guess what size the Earth should be to go with this “Sun”. The guesses are very likely to be way off, because most “models” used in classrooms and the pictures in the textbooks are not at all to scale. In those, Earth is shown as a recognizable ball appearing as much as a tenth the size of the Sun.
Once you have a few guesses on record, share the key data. Write on the board or a flip chart as you go, to keep the presentation lively. (Nothing kills attention like a PowerPoint!) The Sun’s diameter is about 800,000 miles (1400 thousand km), and we’re using an 8-inch (18 cm) ball, so each inch stands for 100,000 miles (or, a cm stands for 75,000 km). The Earth’s diameter is only 8,000 miles (12,700 km). So how big will the model Earth be? It turns out we need something less than 1/10th of an inch across, only 0.08 inches (0.17 cm). So now you can pass around your “Earth”…a peppercorn will work, so will an allspice seed. (And, yes, you can get away with crumbling up a bit of paper and claiming it’s a spitwad you found.) If you have a spice-jar worth of seeds, everyone can have their own Earth to keep. Let the students take a moment to actually compare the sizes of Earth and Sun. It’s a dramatic difference, nothing like what their textbooks show.
Now it’s time to figure out where the Earth and Sun should be to fit in with this scale. Start by inviting students to guess…they will likely assume you can fit the Earth-Sun model easily inside the room. So now, add the distance data they need and we can “step” through the necessary calculation:
The Earth is roughly 93 million miles (150 million km) from the sun.
In our scale model, that’s 930 inches (2000 cm)
or 78 feet (20 m),
or 39 steps of about 2 feet (40 steps of 0.5 m)
In our model we’re using a pace distance reasonably close to the average woman’s step length and not too far off the step length of a child who is supposed to be walking but can’t resist running. If your group is adult men or tall women, you can use the worksheet to adjust the number of steps accordingly.
Our scale in SI (Système international, or metric) is slightly different than in English units, so that those using the SI version can also use simple round figures.
At this point, try to keep a straight face while pretending to start building the model inside the classroom. Dramatically place the “Sun” at one end of the room and try to pace off 39 or 40 steps. Unless you’re doing this activity in a large lecture hall or a cafeteria, you will quickly run out of space (pun intended). By now, it should be clear to the students that this is to be an outdoor activity.
If the group is not too insanely anxious to get outdoors, you can take one more minute to assemble a part of the model which will fit in the room—the Earth-Moon system. Our Moon is nearly ¼ the diameter of Earth, so it’s actually an important body in its own right. And it’s close by. In our scale model, the Moon—which can be represented by a single nonpareil or cake “décor” candy—is 2 3/8” or 5 cm from Earth—so Earth & Moon can be stuck to a card or piece of paper. Keep in mind that if your group is too anxious to get outside, you can choose to save this step for your arrival at the Earth’s position in the model outside.
Set the very few ground rules for the mission plan. The model is built by counting steps—the students will be the ones to do the counting and you (the project leader) will expect them to try hard and in return will not be too fussy about precision or how the measurement accuracy may be affected when leadership shifts from short to tall students. The group will remain cohesive, so no-one misses out on any important discoveries—and no one will charge ahead lest they get “lost in space”. And everyone should understand the time constraints.
When the group is large, I’ve had success assigning small subgroups to accompany one adult leader as the “vanguard” to each planet, leaving the rest behind until they have “landed,” then allowing the followers to run full-speed to catch up. If you do this, it’s important to ensure everyone has a turn to be in the vanguard at least once. If the students have been studying the planets, the vanguard students can also be asked to provide just a few key bits of information to the other explorers as features they have “discovered” about the planet they just reached. However, resist the urge to turn each stop into a seminar—the goal is to travel as far as possible across the system quickly enough to return before class time ends.
Remind the group that it’s a long walk across the solar system and then get started for real. Carry your Sun to a central location outside. If you can park Sol near a tall landmark (such as a flagpole), you’ll find it easier to point back to the “center of the Solar System” as you move further away. Take your Cheat Sheet in hand (the page from the resource kit listing your step-off distances) and read out the number of steps from the sun to Mercury. Send the Mercury explorer team ahead to place Mercury in its position, and quickly join them with the rest of the group. If the vanguard has some cool facts to share about Mercury, give them time to speak. And move on to Venus and the rest of the inner planets.
The asteroid belt portion is the first region containing many objects. If you pause at Ceres, the biggest dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, it helps reduce the stigma of Pluto being “only” a dwarf planet. The fun part in these “belt” regions is to pretend to dodge the small asteroids or other objects—while you may mention that there really isn’t any significant risk of running into an asteroid, that is no reason to turn down the chance to pretend you’re in a crowded mess of obstacles just like in the movies. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his reboot of Cosmos, includes a sequence in which his Ship of the Imagination zigs and zags through, first, a crowded Asteroid Belt and later a densely-packed Oort Cloud.
If time is short or you are working with younger children, it is reasonable to make it to Jupiter (don’t forget to dodge the asteroids on the way out) point out roughly where the outer planets, Pluto, and the further objects would be found and then head back to Earth.
In any case, carry some ordinary first-aid supplies and be sure to have extra adults on hand to slow down those who want to jump to lightspeed. Don’t worry if you don’t have a straight route to use…twisting and turning your way around the streets of a neighborhood is equally impressive. If time will permit, participants can bring lunches and picnic in the Kuiper Belt before returning. And remember, as you return to collect the planet models, it is just as fun to rediscover the distances on the way back.
Don’t worry. This is one of the least expensive major science projects you’ll put together.
1) Any ball roughly 8” (19mm) in diameter—a basic playground ball is likely to work, as will a standard soccer ball. FIFA size 5 works for the English-units model; the SI model is slightly smaller, so a youth-sized FIFA size 4 is appropriate—but don’t get bogged down in the details. Visually, when compared with the planet models, all of these ball sizes look the same. It’s most likely that you already own or can borrow a ball for this project; if you simply must buy a ball, you should be able to find one for under $10.
2) A set of eleven objects to represent each of the eight planets, our Moon, and two of the dwarf planets:
a) four pins (two pin heads represent Mars and Venus, two pin points represent Ceres and Pluto),
b) one tiny candy nonpareil (cake décor or “sprinkle”) for the Moon
c) two peppercorns or allspice seeds for Earth and Venus
d) one jacks-size ball (Jupiter)
e) two jelly beans (or coffee beans) for Neptune and Uranus
f) and a ¾” (19mm) “shooter” marble or a big round piece of candy (also 3/4″ or 19mm) for Saturn. (It’s just so nice to have something extra-cool and colorful for our most spectacular planet.)
Total cost: less than a dollar US; ideally, rummaging about an average home or allowing participants to bring contributions should turn up most of these objects for free. To splurge, pick up a whole jar of fresh peppercorns for around $5 and share them out among the students.
2) Eleven inexpensive holders for your objects, with the object names written on them. Empty clear yogurt containers or plastic drink cups work very well (see photos), as the pins can be pushed through the cups and others attached with glue to the cup bottoms…such that the cups then serve as mini-pedestals for the model objects. However, don’t feel bound by guidelines here—a set of index cards will do the job if that’s what you have handy. It does help to secure each object to its support. However, be sure that students can see the actual object clearly so that everyone has a feel for the scale. Cost: as much as 10 cents
3) A few signs printed on regular-sized paper to leave with objects that will be waiting for your return, such as: “Please Leave This Experiment Undisturbed — (Teacher’s Name).” Cost: 10 cents
4) Weights to keep each sign from blowing away in a breeze—anything from a handy rock to a water bottle to an actual sports-field marker from your supply closet. Cost: negligible
5) Your basic first-aid kit and/or other equipment required by local protocols for a field trip.
6) Water as needed (Up to $10 if you need to buy each student some bottled water; negligible if students can bring refillable water bottles.) You may choose to make the walk as short as a half-mile (kilometer) or as long as twice that. For a short walk, you should only need modest supplies; for a long walk, snacks and water will be welcome.
7) A printout of your “Cheat Sheet” for either the English-units or SI-units version of the project Walk to Pluto, Miles or Walk to Pluto, km (Just click to download the desired document) Whichever measurement system you’re using, it’s just one sheet, front & back, and includes short comments you can make as you take your trek. Cost: 15 cents, if your printer ink is expensive, because it does have colors.
Total cost of essential supplies: normally about a dollar, assuming most items can be gathered at home or borrowed. For bottled water, if needed, budget an additional 50 cents per student
If you purchase all new supplies, you could spend as much as $40 for a brand-new soccer ball, a jar of nonpareils, a jar of peppercorns, a packet of pins, a jacks game, a bag of marbles with a shooter, and a package of jellybeans.
(For workbook copies in Excel format, ready for editing, I can send you a copy via Facebook messaging. Just connect to one of my pages, Pixel Gravity or Cometary Tales. Say, while you’re there, “like” the page. Either way, you’ll receive the file in a return message. The beauty of this approach is that you don’t even need a copy of Excel to use the workbook—Facebook will prompt you to choose whether to open it in Office Online or to download it. The alternative is to email me via email@example.com.)
It’s been a super-fantastic #PlutoFlyby day (see the video for a Pixel Gravity simulation of New Horizons’ close approach path on 7/15/2015), and I can’t resist going to one of my favorite astronomy projects: building a scale model of the Solar System that takes you out of the house, out of the classroom, and under the sky. (Where maybe Pluto’s shadow, cast by a distant star, will pass over you.)
As a reminder, you can look for the following in any Messy Monday project:
A set of notes for project leaders, sketching the key elements of the project and the science topic it is meant to address
A detailed supply list, structured to make it simple to purchase supplies for either a one-shot demonstration or for a classroom-sized group activity.
A set of instructions for working through the project with students, including commentary to help cope with common classroom-management issues, questions that are likely to arise, and issues to keep in mind from safety to fairness.
A rough estimate of the cost to run the project.
As before, I’ll break down the presentation into four postings, to spare readers trying to scroll through a 5000-word document, but I’ll post them quickly, so you can jump ahead if you are raring to go or want to access the reference materials first. In other projects, we built our own comets. In this project, we travel out into the solar system, hoping to reach the source of that comet.
Step 1: Space is Big
It’s a long way to Pluto. But as far as the Universe is concerned, Pluto’s in our condo’s tiny back yard. What would it be like, though, to take a hike to Pluto? Like the New Horizons Spacecraft spacecraft buzzing past Pluto and its cluster of moons, but, well, maybe taking a bit less time about it. Nine years (the explorer was launched in early 2006) is longer than even the above-average student’s attention span. What if we could shrink the Solar System down to a reasonable size for nice walking field trip?
No surprise here: it’s been done. Six ways to Sunday, in fact. While no one person claims to own the idea of building a scale model of the solar system, my favorite advocate of such models is Guy Ottewell, who likes a scaling factor that makes the model a reasonable size for the average person to walk. You can buy his book on the subject (now with cartons!) at the books page on his website. As a bonus, you’ll also find the most current editions of all of his other books on astronomy and much more. (He self-effacingly describes his annual Astronomical Calendar as “widely used”; a more-accurate description would be “fanatically used by serious amateur astronomers”.) No disclaimer necessary; we’re not friends, I’m just one of his (many) Twitter followers.
The goal of this project is for everyone involved to obtain a personal sense of the feature of Outer Space that is hardest to conceptualize by reading books and trolling the internet: Space is BIG. (Yes, you may pause to reread the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.) Indeed. Really Really Big.
On top of that, the places you can stop—the non-empty bits—are few and very tiny compared with the distances between them. And it takes a long time to get from one stop to another.
So, when assembling materials and presenting this project, keep these two key goals in mind. It’s not important whether you model Earth as a peppercorn (Ottewell’s model) or an allspice seed (easier to find in my own kitchen) or a spitwad from the ceiling that happens to be about a tenth of an inch across. What’s important is that the Earth is not only extremely teensy compared to the Sun, but you can’t even fit the Sun and Earth into an ordinary classroom. And you have to hike at least a half a mile (a kilometer) if you want to make it to Pluto. With any luck, you can make practical use of the excess energy in a classroom-full of kids and also amaze them. If you’re doing this as a classroom helper and the teacher is used to taking advantage of the time to catch up on infinite paperwork, this is a time to persuade that teacher to shove the paperwork aside and join the expedition. There will be no regrets!
The objects used to represent planets and other bodies should be chosen for familiarity, because you want the participants to absorb the scale comparisons effortlessly. “Everyone knows” how big a jellybean is, a pin is familiar—both the pushing end and the painful poking end—a soccer ball is a known object, and so on. It doesn’t matter if the object you use is not exactly the design diameter—and no one is going to care that jellybeans or coffee beans are bumpy ovoids, not spheres. The next time you’re eating a jellybean (or slurping a Starbucks), at the back of your mind will be “I had to hike a half-mile just to get to this little Neptune here”. Plus, “Yum, astronomy is delicious.”
If you’re interested in the underlying concepts, I encourage you to stop by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s website and read Guy Ottewell’s original 1989 description of his Thousand Yard Model; however, if you consider yourself a mathphobe, don’t let the arithmetical computations worry you. I’ve made you an Excel worksheet to do that task. Running a mind-expanding science project should help relieve that condition, not make it worse.
If you have visited a museum’s scale model, read Ottewell’s book, or done a similar project in the past, there are a few differences you may encounter in this project. In particular, I suggest you avoid having planets represented by peanuts. Including nuts in school projects, can be problematical if any student (or parent helper) with nut hyper-allergy could possibly be affected. (I have relatives with this allergy, and there is nothing quite like coping with anaphylactic shock to ruin a day’s outing.)
I’ve included a few more “destinations”—such as the ever-popular asteroid “belt” and my personal favorite of Pluto’s fellow dwarf planets. The number of steps taken between planets (and other destinations) is greater, because kids take shorter steps than grown-ups. (Also, other models I’ve seen assume a stride length more typical of men—and the majority of teachers and parent volunteers are still women, with shorter strides than men.) And I’ve included the current (for now, at least) locations for a few more distant “destinations” that we can look out towards from our turnaround point at Pluto.
The tables I’ve provided are in both English and SI units. The scales are slightly different between the two, in order to yield intuitively-scaled results in either set of units. And I’ve provided a “cheat sheet” of the key data for a teacher or other presenter to carry as a reference source on the walk. If anyone would like to get completely precise and build their own model matching their pace length exactly, or adjusting to a different scale, you can request a copy of my Excel workbook for this project to create your individualized pace-off. Or if you know a Senior Girl Scout or Boy Scout in need of a Gold Star or Eagle project, a community solar system model would be a very cool service project. (C’mon, Scouts, do you really want to build another park bench?)
Speaking of space, and coolness, and peanuts, and bigness, by the time your group finishes this project—everyone who participates should wholeheartedly agree: Space is Big
The final stage of our State-Of-NASA day starts with Lunch. If you turn up in the morning with a bit of cash, you can sign up for a box lunch, and I knew from before that it’s a good one. But luckily today, I left my cash at home so my lunch is the granola bar that’s been hiding in my computer bag since I’m not sure when. But, yes, luckily, since we’ve gotten back to the visitor’s center just in time for the start of the budget presentation, livestreamed via the big screen at the Exploration Center. There’s no time to eat more than a granola bar if I want both hands free to type & tweet.
Now, I know that Ames employees were also gathered elsewhere watching the livestream. I’m wondering if it might have been more efficient and more socially fun to have the Social Media crew join that larger group for these livestreams. Maybe next time…
A Disclosure Moment
Sure, I’m a space fan, so it wouldn’t be out of line to assume I’m in favor of funding NASA. But of course, on top of that, my husband does work for NASA, so there can be an actual family effect from budget decisions. Though I’m really writing about a) the general budget picture and b) what it’s like at a NASA Social, I’ll avoid the budget topics that directly affect our family. No, wait, the budget issue that’s most likely to have a real, measurable effect on us isn’t some line item, it’s the regular sequestration of funds by our truculent Congresspersons. (As in, my husband hasn’t had an actual raise in more than 5 years.) And then there are those wonderful times when Congress shuts down the government and he and all his colleagues don’t get paid at all and proceed to complain (bitterly) that they have been told to stay home and not work. There’s nothing worse to a scientist than being told not to work. In any case, here I’m not aiming for a critical review, but more of a “what’s in the budget” overview.
Let’s see if I can squeeze it into a few paragraphs. And keep in mind this is the requested budget, part of President Obama’s 2016 budget. Congress has to approve it. These numbers sound big to us, spending $18.5 billion on NASA. Just keep in mind that this is 0.04% of the total 2016 Obama budget. And if compared to the defense portion of the military budget, it’s 3% of that. Here’s the Big Picture:
Did you find NASA? OK, once you peer into that 0.04% of the total, here’s what you get:
Category I. Science. $ 5.29 billion (about the same as 2015)
For this, we get: Landsat and all its kin providing Earth images, taking over all of NOAA’s earth-observing satellites except for the weather satellites, all of the current & upcoming Mars missions, Cassini, the Pluto mission (New Horizons), a mission to Jupiter, detection of near-Earth asteroids, all the space telescopes, the search for exoplanets, the James Webb telescope project and dozens of solar physics projects. Whew.
Category II. Aeronautics. $0.57 billion (down)
For this we get air traffic management tools, tech for unmanned autonomous vehicles, and new technology development for air vehicles.
Category III. Space Technology. $0.73 billion (up)
This covers new technology development in and for space applications, such as alternative fuels, solar electric propulsion,
the life-support system development for Orion, and development of laser communications systems.
Category IV. Exploration. $4.51 billion (up)
This is a big category, because it’s for big stuff, mainly the Orion system, for which the first test flight went so well. Next up is the Exploration Mission, an unmanned trip to the Moon and back. And of course it’s all about The Journey To Mars. And a major subcategory is support for the development of commercial spaceflight. Like SpaceX and Boeing.
Category V. Space Operations. $4.00 billion (up)
That’s taking care of what we have up in space: mostly the International Space Station,
but also the facilities for support of those space missions, from the satellite fleet that provides tracking to the launch support on the ground.
Category VI. Education. $0.89 billion (down 20%)
Wow. No clear explanation for this, but education funding has been shaved by about 25%. There’re education-related funds under other categories, but this is the core education funding for NASA’s contribution to the Federal plan to support STEM education. That includes Space Grant and programs to get more minority students interested STEM and going on to earn degrees in science and engineering. This is in addition to some education funding budgeted elsewhere, totaling $26.
Category VII. Safety, Security & Mission Services + Construction + Environmental Compliance + the office of the Inspector General. $ 3.25 billion (about the same)
That keeps all the NASA centers operating and takes care of any needed construction work (including environmental clean-up jobs).
We also get a few key bits to ponder:
On average, between 2015 and 2020, we’ve got about 17 launches per year planned, of which about 13 have a science focus.
NASA is taking on a lot of former NOAA stuff, like ozone monitoring, ocean altimetry, and non-defense Earth-observing satellites, leaving just the weather satellites in NOAA’s budget.
But–wait for it–the proposed budget assumes that the venerable Opportunity rover retires this year. Wait. Whaaaat? Oppy has not even hinted at a desire to quit her roving ways. If the “science value” makes sense, then they’ll try to provide funding anyhow.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (la bella osservatoria in volo, SOFIA) is fully funded in this budget request (last year, it wasn’t funded, but they got Congress to fund it later on, which kept the airborne observatory flying through fiscal 2015. No need for such machinations in 2016.
The State of Ames
Aaand, for a grand finale we get our very own presentation by Director of Ames S. Pete Worden and Ames CFO Paul Agnew. I’m actually awfully impressed, that this small group gets the attention of these top administrators, when I’m sure they’ve been through a similar session with the “real” media.
Here’s the short version: Director Worden is delighted that the President supports a larger budget for NASA as a whole and happy that Ames is well taken care of in this budget, scoring its own $31 million overall budget increase with no cut in the education budget here. The special favorite is that solid funding for SOFIA, which is what bumps up Ames’ science budget. There’s funding for the CubeSats we saw today and for K-2 (the second-generation Kepler program) to keep ferreting out exoplanets around dwarf stars. And the upcoming new planet-finder TESS is in the works. Ames is on the forefront in reentry systems and several other areas critical to the Orion mission, so those are in well as is the Intelligent Robotics Group. The guys across the street from the Roverscape, the advanced computing group, also have a stable budget for next year.
And they are very pleased that Ames’ own SOFIA is saved for another budget year.
I asked how Ames managed to keep its education budget stable when the agency-wide budget has such big cuts. I got a fuzzy answer, broadly indicating that a center’s education budget is affected by what that center asked for at the agency level, and that Ames has established a steady set of relationships and grants.
OK, just to review.
The requested budget for NASA is $18.5 billion, an increase of about $500 million.
But put this in context. The defense request is $605 billion.
So, NASA is asking for about 3.1% of what the military is asking for, just for current defense purposes, not including taking care of our veterans.
And that’s out of a total budget of $4 trillion.
So the President is asking if it’s OK if he spends 0.04% of our taxes on exploring our solar system, establishing a human presence in space, and using space-based research to find out all kinds of cool stuff that will help people on Earth.
So now we just have to wait and see what happens in Congress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
This is my second “NASA Social”, part of a new(ish) PR program at NASA which is (successfully, I should add), linking the venerable government institution with this modern social-media-dominated universe. At Ames Research Center, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, I even qualify as “younger generation.” That alone is worth the price of admission. Last time, I stayed in the Facebook & Twitter world; this time I worked on my photos & videos for the blog. While I may not tweet as rapidly as those youngsters sporting Google Glass, I hope I’m bringing a relatively-informed viewpoint to the show along with my fangirl attude.
Yeah, I know. I have my own engineering Ph.D., but I’m still a fangirl when it comes to space stuff, science stuff, and robot stuff. And the best place to find all that stuff is still NASA.
OK, so, I’m expecting this one to be relatively dull, as the thrilling event of the day is The State of NASA (insert non-martial fanfare here) address being livestreamed from Kennedy on the big screen at the Ames Exploration Center. The last-minute info email the Ames team sent out last night hints at more than that: a “preview” of the ATV-5 re-entry, a “tour” of the Roverscape (a dirt lot with rocks in it), and (oh, joy) all about the new budget proposal.
Waiting for the livestream from Kennedy Center to get under way, it becomes clear we’re really just watching NASA TV, only without access to the DirecTV remote. There’s a very brief, flashy video of inspiring fun NASA images: think ooh! ahh! all accompanied by the voice of the lovely Peter Cullen (aka Optimus Prime). But then NASA TV switches to their familiar old-style rolling globe image with a static “coming next” title. No sound, just a slide. Not something that would get a channel-skipper to pause and watch. A teasing view of the crowd jostling for seating and the Director finding his spot in front of Orion would be more engaging. Maybe they could bring in an intern from a college media studies program to keep viewer interest up when there’s a little delay in an event startup.
Meanwhile, here’s a party game: What did you recognize in that rapid-fire video with Optimus Prime narrating? Here’s my list:
Well, you can watch the State O’ NASAmessage yourself on YouTube, to get the full effect. It’s only a half-hour, plus that four-minute preview video featuring brief glimpses of the work NASA is doing, with Real Scientists and Engineers. And robots. And Astronauts. Run it in the background while you’re updating your Facebook. Make the kids watch the preview, maybe inspire them to consider training to work at NASA someday.
What you get here is a few my own off-the-cuff reactions and observations.
No surprise,The Journey To Mars is still a core theme. If you’re down on manned spaceflight, one thing I’m noticing is that there is a heck of a lot of science being packed into these projects. It’s almost as if the popularity of the notion of sending human beings to Mars is being leveraged to get more actual discovery accomplished. Hmmmm. As always, at least since Apollo ended, NASA’s a shoestring operation, and it’s rather astonishing just how many things are going on under that big umbrella.
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might not know that our current NASA Fearless Leader is a former astronaut, Charles Bolden. He flew on four Shuttle missions between 1986 and 1994, so he was part of NASA for Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton. Ten years after Bolden had left the astronaut business to go back to his first career (the U.S. Marine Corps), G.(noH.)W. Bush got so inspired by the success of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers that he decided NASA’s new mission should be to get people back to the moon and on to Mars. And just five years after that, Obama put Bolden in charge of that mission, as well as the rest of the tasks NASA manages with a budget equal to about 3% the size of the defense budget.
The fun part of the State of NASA speech was not the words, because they were pretty much what you’d expect: upbeat, replete with “Reach for New Heights” inspirational affirmations. The fun part was the setting: they talked the engineers who’d been happily disassembling the Orion capsule to put it back together, and Bolden gave his talk in front of the blackened shell of the successful first trial of NASA’s new system designed to carry humans into space…even to Mars. To add flavor to the show, the organizers commandeered a space large enough for not one but three future human vehicles. There was a SpaceX Dragon C2+ capsule
—said to be the actual capsule used for the first successful ISS resupply mission flown by SpaceX—and, for fair balance, a Boeing CST-100 capsule
showing off its innovative weld-free design structure.
Oh, and there were lots more people at Kennedy than we had at Ames. But at Ames, front-row seats were very accessible and anyone wanting to spread out over several seats was just fine.
Just as I notice a poster peering out from the edge of the Orion capsule, with logos and addresses for all NASA’s social-media connections, the feed goes down. The smartphones rotate 90 degrees and are all searching for the livestream. OK, it’s not just Ames, it’s NASA TV. But, really. Hire that intern, guys.
Well, it’s up again within a few minutes, though the audio is sketchy for a bit. What do interns get paid? Like, minimum wage, right?
So here are the highlights picked up in between tweets:
The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) gets first mention in the context of pathway to Mars—though we still haven’t decided if the plan is to capture a whole small asteroid or to extract a chunk from a larger asteroid.
A glimpse of the budget comes next…there’s a bump-up of $500 million for fiscal 2016, though who knows what Congress will do with the budget request. Keep in mind that NASA’s proposed $18.5 billion is about 3% of the proposed defense budget and about 0.04% of the overall budget. How NASA can do this much with peanuts is amazing. Oh, wait. Suddenly I understand the peanuts ritual at JPL launch & landing events.
There’s a return to the Mars topic with shout-outs to all our Mars explorer robots, including a total brag on the U.S. having the first and (so far) only Mars landers. (OK, yes, we still love our friends at ESA, who landed on a comet.)
Then we get a reminder of the brilliant science from our telescope projects
from Hubble (which Bolden helped launch) to Kepler to James Webb. Even Chandra, which does superb work in the X-Ray spectrum, gets a mention this time. And the Solar Dynamics Observatory scores a slot in the closing segment.
The Shuttle program is over, but it still makes it into the talk. Keep in mind Bolden is a shuttle veteran but also remember that, like his boss, he’s the first African-American to hold his job. Bolden flags the Shuttle program as the one that brought diversity to NASA, since it finally opened up space to women, minorities, and others who previously “wouldn’t have a chance to fly”. That is the thing he tells us to view as the crucial long-term legacy of the shuttle program. (Side note: Bolden’s Deputy Administrator for 2009-2013 was the first woman to hold that position, Lori Garver.)
There’s a reminder that the money spent on space is money spent in the U.S., from small business to large ones, from textile mills to welding shops. And the cash gets shared out, with 37 states having a stake in the commercial crew mission.
Education gets a nod, though to be honest I’m a little disappointed that what gets the splash are the student science program at ISS and the flight of a student project on the Orion test flight. Those big projects still tend to end up at private and/or privileged schools, since it takes resources to play. I might have gone for a specific shout-out to one of the schools for which participation was a big leap, like Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy. Still, if there’s a kid doing a science report who hasn’t logged into a NASA website, then that kid doesn’t have internet access.
All right, then we get a round of teasers on upcoming technological developments: “green” (less-polluting) propellants, advanced autonomous robotics, high-power solar electric propulsion, aviation advancements.
NASA’s moving forward in its ongoing role in earth and climate science. We’ve got that successful launch of the SMAP climate science satellite (http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/), just a week ago, which has both direct practical applications for agriculture. And the Airborne Snow Observatory has already produced data to help with the drought in the West, especially California, where snowpack is key to water supplies.
True to the core message, the closing draws focus back to Mars, promising a geophysics mission with the InSight lander scheduled to launch in March of next year. And a taste of special features planned for the Mars 2020 successor to Curiosity, including a way to shoot a sample back home to Earth.
One last item in the dark hall of the Exploration Center: we get to watch a video from the re-entry of ESA’s ATV-1. Kinda cool, but old-school, dating back to 2008. But this is just a teaser, for the upcoming re-entry of ATV-5. Here we’re working at the opposite end of the scale from Orion and Dragon, where the concern is careful braking and heat-shield materials and safe landings. These re-entries are in the realm of Design for Demise, in which hardware at the end of its life is sent down to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not as simple as it might seem, when your goal is to NOT have bits of debris landing on the surface. I snipped together my video of their video to make a one-minute infomercial for ATV-5. Well, one does what one can:
There are two instrument packages onboard ready to monitor descent. ESA’s contribution is a video camera (wow!) while NASA’s package records acoustic data, temperatures, deceleration info and more. Both will “phone in” their results using the Iridium satellite network. Yep, ESA and NASA will be totally outclassing everyone else’s phone video uploads that day. (ESA’s page is complete with a countdown clock. The twitter tag will be #bigdive.)
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.
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.
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 Orreryin 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.
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 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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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!