Friday, February 29, 2008

NASA and Gen Y Perspectives

This presentation was produced by four young NASA employees. They presented it at the Next Generation Exploration Conference held earlier this month at NASA Ames Research Center. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin was in the audience. The presentation was remarked upon by Wired a few days ago. According to Wired, "The presentation chronicles their love of space and the heartbreak of working at an agency that has had such a tough time connecting with the rest of their generation and getting them excited about space. It also talks about how important the under 30 crowd is. They are the ones who will pay for the bulk of the cost of the return to the Moon. By 2014, they will comprise 47% of the workforce. Is NASA ready? How can we help?"

Shared with permission.

SlideShare Link

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New Mnemonic to Help You Remember the Planets

Ten year old Maryn Smith from Montana recently won a contest to create a new mnemonic for remembering the newly assigned 11 planets, including 3 dwarf planets, in our solar system. The 11 planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and Eris. The dwarf planets are Ceres, Pluto, and Eris. Her mnemonic is:

My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.

To read the full story about Maryn's mnemonic, which will be published in a book and recorded in a song to be released in March, click here.
To learn more about dwarf planets, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Follow the Carbon." Follow the What??

Recently I had the pleasure of writing an article about the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) for the February 2008 issue of ChemMatters, which is a publication of the American Chemical Society for high school classrooms. Below is an excerpt from the article. To download and read the entire article (including a Spanish translation) and issue, as well as to access the accompanying teacher's guide, click here.

“Follow the yellow brick road”. “Follow the leader”. You’re probably familiar with both of these phrases. But who would want to “follow the carbon” and what does that even mean? To NASA, “follow the carbon” means to identify carbon-bearing compounds, their sources, and the processes that transform them in order to evaluate the habitability of Mars. And that is exactly what the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) intends to do. MSL is scheduled to launch in late 2009 and will land on the surface of Mars in mid 2010, where it will spend at least one Mars year (687 Earth days) roving around the surface and collecting data. MSL will be the biggest rover yet to visit Mars. It will also carry the biggest suite of instruments ever sent to the martian surface, including a camera, neutron detector, laser, microscope, and an analytical laboratory. SAM is one component of this laboratory. SAM plans to “find the carbon” on Mars by collecting samples of the soil and atmosphere and analyzing them with three scientific instruments. Using the results obtained by the SAM instruments, scientists back on Earth will seek to investigate the habitability of Mars by answering the question, “What do the presence or absence and characteristics of key compounds at Mars tell us about the ability of Mars to support past or present life?”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Latest image from the Mercury Flyby

As MESSENGER flew by Mercury, the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) captured this view on January 14, 2008. Two of the larger craters in this image appear to have darkened crater rims and partial “halos” of dark material immediately surrounding the craters. Both craters appear to have nearly complete rims and interior terraced walls, suggesting that they formed more recently than the other nearby shallower craters of similar size. There are two possible explanations for their dark halos: (1) Darker subsurface material may have been excavated during the explosions from the asteroid or comet impacts that produced the craters. (2) Large cratering explosions may have melted a fraction of the rocky surface material involved in the explosions, splashing so-called “impact melts” across the surface; such melted rock is often darker (lower albedo) than the pre-impact target material.

For more images check out

Catch up on the latest planetary science news with "Planetary Science Research Discoveries"

Planetary Science Research Discoveries (PSRD) is an educational site that summarizes the latest research on meteorites, asteroids, planets, and other bodies within our solar system. The site is supported by the Cosmochemistry Program of NASA's Science Mission Directorate and by the Hawai'i Space Grant Consortium. In existence since 1996, PSRD maintains a searchable archive of its issues, as well as a helpful glossary. The articles are neither too technical nor too simplified and include links to additional information and resources to help readers further their understanding of a particular topic. You may also choose to subscribe to be notified via email when new issues are posted. It's an excellent way to learn about current scientific research from the scientists who are actually doing the research!

The most recent article of PSRD focuses on the formation of the Moon. Check it out!!

Friday, February 22, 2008

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center-WETA All Access

On Thursday, February 28, 2008, at 8:00 pm WETA TV 26 will broadcast "NASA Goddard Space Flight Center-WETA All Access". This 30 minute feature covers the Center's major achievements in space flight, the ins and outs of a space mission, earthbound work, and the extensive and impressive team behind it all. This is a Washington DC station. Please for video of this program.

WETA announcement available at:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On the Road for LRO: Earthquake!

Hi all! I just wanted to let you know that I'm here in Salt Lake City for the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) Conference, and as I was sitting here this morning, I felt the 6.3 Magnitude earthquake that was centered near Wells, NV.

I have never been in an earthquake before, so imagine my surprise as I was sitting here doing some work, and felt the bed begin to shake! I looked up from the computer and could see the contrast of the white comforter cover moving against the dark wood furniture. The first thing I did was IM my fiance and tell him the bed was shaking. I got up to look out the window to see if anything was moving outside, but I couldn't detect any movement. I sat back down on the bed, and lo and behold, it was still shaking.

I can tell you that the timing of this thing couldn't have been more fortuitous for me. I have been to California many times before, and was never lucky enough to feel an earthquake. And since I arrived last night, I am still on East Coast time, so I was awake and aware this morning when the ground began to shake. And, this is the most intense earthquake the area has felt in quite awhile.

The news is currently reporting damage from Wells, and so far, there are no reports of injuries.

Well, that's all. I just wanted to give you a firsthand account of an earthquake, coming to you from Salt Lake City!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

View Tonight's Total Lunar Eclipse - The Last One Until 2010!

Tonight, February 20, 2008, will be your last opportunity to view a total lunar eclipse until December 2010. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lines up directly between the Sun and Moon such that the Earth's shadow completely covers the Moon's surface. Tonight's eclipse will last for about 3.5 hours, 50 minutes of which the Moon will be in totality. During the eclipse the Moon will change color from gray to red. This is due to the glow cast on the Moon from indirect sunlight passing through Earth's atmosphere. The Moon's color during an eclipse varies based on the amounts of dust and clouds in the Earth's atmosphere. The more dust in the Earth's atmosphere, the more red the Moon will appear. The United States will be able to view the majority of the eclipse. Click on the above map above to determine your best viewing times.

To learn more about tonight's eclipse, see the NASA Eclipse Home Page and this NASA feature story. To learn more about eclipse terminology, see the Educator's Guide to Eclipses. Click here for a classroom activity on creating two scale models of the Earth-Moon system that can be used to demonstrate lunar phases and eclipses. Click here for an eclipse viewing activity for students.

Happy viewing!!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Other Side of the Moon: Synchronous Rotation lesson

Have you ever wondered why we only see one side of the Moon? Well, the reason why we never get a shot of the far side of the moon is because the Moon is in what we call a "synchronous rotation" with the Earth. That is, it takes the Moon the same amount of time to rotate on its axis (or one lunar day) as it does to make one orbit around the Earth. The lesson highlighted in this entry was written by the Cassini team to explain how moons move in synchronous orbits.

Grades 5-8
Time required: 1 hour

Desk chair that rotates
Rubber, styrofoam, or tennis ball
Pencil or long dowel
Marking pen
Desk lamp or overhead projector
Optional: strong adhesive tape


Stick the pencil or dowel (for use as a handle) through the ball along a diameter; this simulates the Moon. With the marking pen, write a large letter or number every 90 degrees around the circumference of the ball. The handle will either be held at arm’s length by a student sitting in the chair or it can be taped to the armrest of the chair. Place the chair (Earth) a few feet away from the desk lamp or over- head projector (the Sun). The students can stay in their seats for this demonstration or they can gather in a circle around the Sun–Earth–Moon system. Ask the students if the Moon rotates. Most will say no, since they have seen the same face of the Moon whenever they have looked up in the sky at it. Choose a student to sit in the chair and watch the ball-Moon with numbers/letters on its quadrants. Slowly turn the student in the chair and ask that student if the view of the Moon is changing. The answer will be no; the hemisphere the student observes is always the same. In contrast, the other students will see the different quadrants appear as the chair makes one full rotation. This proves that the Moon rotates, even though it presents the same face to Earth (the student in the chair).

For the full lesson, please see lesson "What is Synchronous Rotation?" on the Saturn Educator web page.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Aura Sees Volcanic Plumes in Near Real-Time

Orbiting 700 km above the Earth, NASA’s Aura spacecraft is responsible for keeping an eye on the health of our atmosphere. So, when a volcano decides to cough some of its fumes into the air, Aura is there to see it. That’s what happened during the January 1, 2008 eruption of the Llaima Volcano in Chile. As the volcano erupted, Aura orbited overhead and picked up the SO2 emissions from the volcano. The resulting image shows the movement of the plume of volcanic gas over the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to understanding the movement of air masses in the atmosphere, tracking volcanic plumes is important because the resulting ash and acidic air masses can cause damage to aircraft. This isn’t the first time Aura was able to spot volcanic plumes. Scientists studying Aura data were also able to track the eruption of the Anatahan and Soufriere Hills Volcanic eruptions in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

For more information about how Aura tracks the volcanic eruptions, visit the following websites:

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Blip in Time Makes Nine…

On its long journey to Pluto, New Horizons has very little to do but sit and ponder the great Pluto debate. But occasionally, the spacecraft wakes up and takes a look around its neighborhood. Such an instance occurred on October 6, 2007. The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons woke up and took a high-resolution look around. Low and behold, LORRI spotted Pluto! It took an exposure of 0.967 seconds to get enough light off the surface of Pluto to be able to see it in the image.

To read the press release about this image, visit:

Friday, February 8, 2008

What will radiation do to Moon travelers?? LRO will find out!

Check out this video of astronomer Harlan Spence talking about CRaTER (Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation), an experiment that will be on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter when it launches later this year. CRaTER will collect data on the Moon's radiation environment. This information will help engineers design spacecraft, spacesuits, and habitats that wil protect the astronauts that will one day travel to and live on the Moon.

For you science teachers out there that will be attending next month's National Science Teachers Association meeting in Boston, Dr. Spence will be giving a presentation on CRaTER, LRO and the Moon on Sunday (3/30/08) from 11am-noon in Room 257A of the Boston Convention Center. Check it out!! And while you're there, also check out the NASA booth in the exhibit hall. Most of us bloggers from Adventures in Earth and Space will be there.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rock and Rocket Science

Back in November Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band did two concerts at the Verizon Center in Washington DC. We invited the band and the crew for a tour of Goddard and behind the scenes look at the LRO mission. Five members of the crew came to visit (photos here).

Kurt Wolak, the keyboard programmer on the tour sent me this message comparing rock to rocket science a few days after their visit. The pictures in this post are from their tour of Goddard.

On this tour I am a keyboard programmer (and re-programmer). In the world of instrument techs, we are often referred to as the rocket scientists, huddled over our displays punching buttons and twirling jog wheels. Due to your graciousness, I have now confabbed with real rocket scientists in the rocket scientist clubhouse.

After I saw the room with the flat sat and the test team, I had to laugh on how similar my workspace looks and operates when I am designing and setting up a keyboard rig for a tour.

It must be able to be delivered to a predetermined set of coordinates, deploy, perform a mission, and return safely. It must be re-deployable again and again, or the next show will be, well, deplorable.

It is assembled from instruments constructed by different teams from different countries at different points in time. Sometimes components are pillaged from previous missions for cost and timeline reasons. Somehow this disparate pile needs to communicate and function together, so...
We drag all that stuff (and the stuff to test that stuff, and the stuff needed to fix the stuff once the test stuff confirms that something's whack) and a big pile of cable and connectors into a room, set it up on some tables and equipment stands and after (insert indeterminate number of hours and dollars, pizza and beer), we make it work, debug, improve, increase robustness.

We build mock ups redundant systems/components and data capture/backup are part of the design criteria. Technical support from the component manufacturers can be a daunting prospect.

We build complex wiring harnesses using a variety of connectors and ports. There are people in our field who are specialists at this; these harnesses are a core component and vital to continued mission success.

Fortunately, the technology we use is quite advanced. One of the most commonly used connection systems was designed in the 1920's, abandoned long ago by the original specifier. Our primary communication protocol - MIDI - that allows keyboard components to talk to each other is based on a serial hexadecimal language created in the late 70's. It has never been replaced.

There isn't even a MIDI 2.0. Most all keyboards and similar components using MIDI have a specific button or easily executed key command on the work surface labeled PANIC, used when the buffer overloads. The name and the fact that it even exists gives you all the info you need to know.

Once the system has been thoroughly tested, there is a burn in period. We then load the components into the specialized housings specified for the mission; it's often a tight fit with close tolerances. These housings and others are gathered together and become the payload, literally, in the transport vehicles. Many a manager have told many a promoter upon arrival, "We are not unloading the (expletive) truck unless you (expletive) pay us first!"

We operate in a universe in which stars explode, implode, collide, change their color (usually only the hair, but not always) increase in diameter, dim, die. Some of them exhibit behaviors that seem beyond the laws of physics, or at least beyond the law. Quantum mechanics apply; quasi-Shroedinger effects are commonly observed, in which someone is expected to be in two positions at once.

Surrounding these stars is a collection of lesser bodies that have been pulled into orbits around the stars. Planets, moons, objects; band, crew, poseurs - we each have our nomenclature. Nebulous clouds of gas are common, some of them inept. Inert, sorry. Bowing to your tradition of classical references, we call these egos, alternatively, "I am god!" or "Oh, my god..." (OMG's), from the Latin.

Solar flares do erupt, sometimes with local consequences. Dark matter exists, we work with it every day. Unlike you, we have regular contact and communication - more or less - with alien life forms, though our associates working on another project in this mission, the GTR (Guitar Tuning and Repair) techs, inform us that it is sometimes easier just to hand them their instrument and walk away. I trust their data.

The root of rocket is rock.

Therefore, in this newfound spirit of co-compatriosity, at the end of our mission, I would like to propose a test to be conducted in your massive centrifuge room, involving the keyboard rig I am 'project manager' of, and a ball of jute twine that has been soaking in a puddle of biodiesel in one of the bays of the tour bus for the lastyear. Maybe call it the Tour Twine Tensile Test or something catchy like that. Up to twenty five G's, huh? I'll spring for the stickers...

Thanks again and good luck with the LRO project. I will track your

project. Congrats.

Kurt Wolak
c/o Thrill Hill Production/Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band 2007