An inexplicable pickup…

Hello all. I apologize it’s been a crazy long time since my last post. I actually came back to the blog a few weeks ago and realized that there has been a huge explosion of traffic on here. I had no idea why, but in the last four months, the number of views for this blog has nearly doubled what it had the entire first two years of its existence. I wish I knew what changed…

Anyways, a lot has been going on, so this post is going to attempt to catch you up.

In my last update, I was informing the world that Dr. Alex Fillipenko from UC-Berkeley was going to be speaking at the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival at the UNH Observatory. Well he came and delivered his talk to a standing-room-only crowd of over 300 people. It was a great talk and he spent over an hour fielding questions from the audience afterwards. Then he came down to the Observatory and took a look through our telescope. He’s a really nice, humble, and funny guy.

Dr. Alex Fillipenko and I outside the UNH Observatory at the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival.

Dr. Alex Fillipenko and I outside the UNH Observatory at the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival.

Since then I’ve been busily working on research. Just yesterday I finally submitted a paper to the Journal of Geophysical Research; a paper that I’ve been working on since my rocket launch last February. The paper talks about observations that a rocket (a different one from the one we launched in February) of a phenomenon in the ionosphere (the uppermost layer of the atmosphere) called the ionospheric feedback instability. The paper gets sort of technical, but the easy explanation is that we had a model of what we thought the rocket would see, but the rocket saw something slightly different, so we came up with a new model that seems to agree better with the observations. Hopefully it will fly through the review process and be published very soon.

You may remember that over the summer I chronicled my two months as an intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Apparently, based on the work I did during that internship, I was nominated and selected to become a NASA Student Ambassador. I’m not necessarily 100% sure what being part of Cohort V (the fifth class of Student Ambassadors) entails, but they only select about 100 out of the thousands of interns that NASA has throughout the year, so I guess it’s sort of a big deal. In any case, they say I’ll get a name badge! (Always cool having your name next to the NASA logo…when you didn’t put it there yourself.) According to the welcome/acceptance letter I got, I think the position requires that I represent NASA when necessary: apparently this can include going to career/internship fairs, giving talks to students and the public, and or accompanying an astronaut to public events. I may even get to go to special NASA events, so that’s pretty awesome!

So yeah, that’s what’s been going on here, be sure to keep visiting for more posts about science and NASA and all the cool things that are going on in grad school. But before I go, I’ll leave you with some pictures from the NASA booth at this year’s American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

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Close but no cigar…

Unfortunately I fell a few votes shy of making the top 20 posts and moving on from the voting round of 3 Quarks Daily‘s science blogging competition. Oh well, we’ll get ’em next year. Thanks very much to everyone who voted, there are some very awesome, very deserving science blogs out there and I’m interested to see which one ultimately wins the prize.

Luckily, I’m currently sitting in beautiful Snowmass Village, Colorado, about 20 minutes outside Aspen in the Rocky Mountains. I’m here to take part in the 2012 Geospace Environment Modeling (GEM) Summer Workshop. So science, sun, and mountains, sounds like a good way to spend a week!

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Into the belly of NASA…

Last week I was lucky enough to get to go on a tour of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with a group of other interns. Let me tell you, this place is amazing. I could try to do this all in words, but I think a lot of these pictures just need to be seen to be believed. So please enjoy the gallery below!

Here are links for more information about the NASA missions mentioned above:

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A lifetime goal accomplished: astroian, the NASA intern…

Hello all, first off I cannot even tell you how many questions, comments, and conversations I had with people in the past few weeks about Planetary Resources. Ever since I put my “A not so minor mining endeavor…” post, I’ve talked to dozens of people with a myriad reactions about the prospect of mining asteroids. Many people think it’s crazy and extraneous and will probably never happen, many think that it’s exciting and inspirational and awe-inspiring, and still others had no idea what I was talking about. But in any case, I did email Planetary Resources to get on their mailing list and let them know that I might be interested in a job down the line; I didn’t get a personal response, but in one of their recent mailings thanking their supporters, they mentioned that that since their press release on April 24th, they’re received nearly 2,000 resumes from interested potential employees! Talk about room for growth.

Moving on from that, I need to let you all know about something very exciting going on with me. As you devout followers may remember, last year I posted about getting a fellowship from NASA to help fund my graduate research. Well now as part of that fellowship I’m spending two months down at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD! Yes that’s right I am currently sitting at my very own desk, in my very own office (for now), with my very own NASA ID badge AT NASA! If only 10-year-old Space Camp astroian could see me now!

It’s official! I work for NASA and I’ve got the ID badge to prove it!

I got down here to Goddard last Tuesday and immediately I was impressed by the incredible size of the center’s “campus”. With nearly 13,000 employees at this single center (one of NASA’s eleven around the country), the complex has a more the feel of a college campus than a government agency. Even more mind-boggling than that is that the of the over 30 buildings that make up this campus, only TWO house all of the scientists. Yes, that’s right, of the over 13,000 employees, all of the scientists are housed in only two mere buildings. It really makes me wonder what they could possibly be doing in all those other buildings, but it’s not hard to imagine: there’s at least one building dedicated to new technology development and countless others to spacecraft construction and such. Still in any case, it’s crazy to wrap your head around.

As far as the research I’m doing is concerned, it’s a lot of writing computer code and waiting. This seems to be a large portion of most scientific investigation…oh and writing proposals so you can get money to actually pay for the research you want to do. Luckily I’ve been able to avoid doing a whole lot of that…for now. In any case, what I’m working on now analyzing and sorting calibration and test data from the Fast Plasma Investigation (FPI) instruments that will be on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, built here at Goddard and slated to launch in 2014.

A part of the FPI, the Dual Electron Spectrometer (DES) being built at GSFC. Credit: NASA/Karen C. Fox

The very basic idea of the Fast Plasma Investigation is that scientists want to look at “fast”, or highly energetic, particles that exist in the space around Earth. So everyone remembers from elementary school that there are 3 states of matter: gas, liquid, and solid. Well technically there’s a fourth: plasma. A plasma is a gas that’s so hot or energetic that the  atoms or molecules in it have been ionized (either completely or partially), meaning that negatively charged electrons have been separated from the positively charged ions. Most of the matter in the universe is actually in the form of plasma, so its abundance warrants some special consideration as a state of matter as well as the intricacies of how it’s different from a normal gas (aside from being electrically charged, plasmas can also generally be treated by as a fluid– using hydrodynamics).  So the FPI instruments are made up of two kinds of spectrometers–instruments that use electric fields to bend the path of a charged particle and determine its energy– one set for ions and one for electrons.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will fly a constellation of four of these octagonal spacecraft for better temporal and spatial resolution. The FPI instruments, the DES and DIS, are seen in purple and yellow on the X and Y axes. Credit: NASA

The MMS mission (which actually has a large team at UNH, headed by Physics professor Roy Torbert) will fly a constellation of four identical octagonal spacecraft (depicted above) in orbit. Having four spacecraft working in unison helps scientists to get a better understanding of how a region in space behaves. Think about it like this: let’s say you’re sitting in a boat on the ocean and a wave passes under you. You take a measurement of how much your boat moved (i.e. the energy of the wave) and at what time it occurred. Well that might be all well and good, but that doesn’t really help you say anything scientifically profound about the ocean, just that a wave with this strength happened at this location at this time. However, if you had four boats 500 feet from each other and each recorded the same data, then you could correlate whether all the events happened at the same time with the same energy or if the wave was travelling, increasing or decreasing in energy, or if it was just a abnormality that only occurred in one location and wasn’t indicative of a larger-scale event. Any time you can get more data points, the better off and more sound your science will be. So the FPI instrument– which is made of of 32 different instruments (4 ion and 4 electron on each of the four spacecraft)– will collect a full sky map of data at the rate of 30 times per second, 100 times faster than any previous similar instrument), as it helps MMS to investigate a strange natural phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection.

What is magnetic reconnection and why should we care about it? Well magnetic reconnection is the leading theory for how energetic particles escape from the Sun in solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and how those energetic particles get into the Earth’s magnetic field and cause aurora. So it has big implications for us Earth-dwellers, but although the theory is highly debated among scientists, it’s never been observed. MMS is hoping to do just that.

So what’s my part in all this? Like I said, it’s a lot of computer work. So about half of the actual instruments have been built and they are now being tested 24/7. As you can imagine running hundreds of tests on each instrument can generate a lot of data; data that needs to be sorted, analyzed, explained, and then communicated to the “consumer” (i.e. the team of scientists and engineers who designed it– who oddly enough aren’t always the same people who actually build the instrument). That’s where I come in, I’ve been writing computer code to help sort, analyze, and plot this test data so that it can be delivered as part of the team’s update on its progress and the instruments’ performance so far. So that’s what I’ve been doing: writing a lot of computer code and working at NASA. But hey, I’m still working at NASA–even if it’s just for a few months– and that is a huge life goal accomplished. Who knows where I might go next…

Next time I need to remember the spacesuit…

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A not so minor mining endeavor…

As I’m sure many of you have heard in the news recently (ABC News, Fox News, NPRSpace.com), there was a very big announcement made last week by a group of very wealthy businessmen who are planning to mine asteroids and possibly other heavenly bodies. The new space venture firm, named Planetary Resources, Inc., is focused on “looking for ways to extract raw materials from non-Earth sources” in an effort to “add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”, according to the company’s press release.

An artists’ rendition of what Planetary Resources‘ asteroid mining project might look like. Credit: Wired.com.

Now while hearing this all may make you roll your eyes, it’s not a terribly bad or new idea. Granted it is something straight out of science fiction (see Avatar), but many of the metals we consider “precious” or “rare” on Earth are abundant in the asteroids that populate our solar system. If we find an asteroid made out of pure platinum, the potential fortune it would be worth would be well worth the investment in infrastructure to be able to mine it. Plus, if we find enough minerals in space that we can construct equipment for space exploration and colonization in space, then that saves us a huge amount of money that we would have had to spend for launch. As Bad Astronomer Phil Plait detailed on his blog, Planetary Resources has a very legitimate shot to make this happen. Here are several reasons why:

They have the personnel, talent, and experience. The first thing you need to understand about Planetary Resources is that it isn’t a single or group of billionaires with too much money on their hands who have decided that they want to build their own rockets to got to space; not that there’s anything wrong with that (Richard Branson et al.). This instead is a very serious undertaking set up by some of the leaders of the private space exploration sector with very specific goals in mind and very practical steps in order to achieve them. The founders and co-chairmen of Planetary Resources are Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Anderson is the co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures, a space tourism company started in 1998. You may remember Space Adventures because they’re the ones that helped Dennis Tito become the first space tourist back in 2001. The company currently offers zero gravity flights, orbital spaceflights to the ISS, and plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and flights to circumnavigate the Moon. Diamandis may very well be the father of the space tourism industry. He is the founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, best known for offering the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize that was won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan with SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-government piloted spacecraft. These guys are titans of the space tourism/commercial space exploration industry and have very impressive track records in their accomplishments. In addition to the company’s founders, they also have several former NASA scientists and astronauts working in the company. The first and probably most important is Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer. Lewicki served as Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. He’s qualified to say the least. The company also has some pretty serious advisers signed on: former astronaut Tom Jones, planetary scientist Sara Seager, and James Cameron. Now, I must not that most news outlets have been making Cameron seem like an investor, but at this point he’s signed on as an adviser. Although I’m not sure what technical expertise he has to offer, unless he thinks making a movie about mining another world actually makes him an expert in the field…

They have the cash. The newly revealed list of Planetary Resources investors is impressive to say the least. It includes Larry Page (co-founder and CEO of Google), Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Ross Perot, Jr. (son of the former electronics executive turned presidential candidate, who has been a longtime space enthusiast), and Charles Simonyi (an early manager at Microsoft who led the team that devised Microsoft Office- he’s been a space tourist not once but twice, using some of his personal fortune to pay for trips on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station). These are no pushovers. Each of these men alone could probably finance a space-related endeavor alone, a la Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but together they have the financial clout  to do just about anything they want…including investing billions of dollars in the technology needed to mine asteroids in space. And hey you know what, it’s great that billionaires like these guys are finally putting there money in places where it can be really useful. Don’t get me wrong, any type of philanthropy is great, and I admire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the other billionaires who pledged to donate half of their fortunes to charity, but these space venture capitalists are basically investing in the future of mankind and at least attempting to ensure that future includes space exploration. As Phil Plait heard from Lewicki, “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment. They’re basing their decisions on our vision.” As the company’s press release says, that vision isn’t just about resources or space travel: “Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.” Now that to me sounds like a great mission.

They have a reasonable plan to accomplish their goals. For the full details of their plan, I’ll direct you back to Phil Plait’s post, but from his conversation with Lewicki, this doesn’t seem like some hare-brained, hell-bent attack on unsuspecting asteroids. As Plait explains, the process has three basic steps:

  1. Find a suitable asteroid by launching small telescopes and probes, possibly by the end of 2013.
  2. Once they identify an asteroid, they won’t start hacking at it, they plan to try to tap the rock for volatiles, elements and molecules with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen that can easily be burned off in space (possibly even blown off to help move the asteroid), captured, and then possibly sold. This would be to help that idea of building space components in space, or as Plait suggests, constructing supply depots in space.
  3. Then they’ll actually try to mine the minerals and return them to Earth (or other space colony, like the Moon). There aren’t many details on this aspect of the mission yet, but this step is still a bit in the future. But only a few weeks ago a white paper was written by several researchers (two of whom were from Planetary Resources) about the feasibility of such an endeavor. One possible idea is to alter the asteroid’s orbit so that it moves into an orbit around Earth or the Moon. So they’re working on it and the idea of it happening does not seem totally ludicrous.

In any case, Planetary Resources is an endeavor which I can get behind 100%. They have all of the necessary tools to reach their objectives and are doing it for the right reasons: to engage humanity in space exploration and ensure the preservation of our species. At least that’s what they say and I’m inclined to believe them. For awhile now I’ve been listening to arguments from Neil de Grasse Tyson and ex-Apollo astronauts who have claimed that NASA is doing the country a disservice by not launching another Apollo-type project of human space exploration. And while I agree, that this country does need something huge to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, I don’t think that NASA needs to do it. I think that’s exactly where Planetary Resources fits in. These men and women have the drive and money to undertake this project and just the fact that it’s happening should excite people all over the country. I know I’ll be excited to apply for a job with them once I get my PhD and I’m sure that this 10-year-old wanna-be astronaut will be too.

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MICA rocket launch, part 7…LAUNCH

Hello faithful followers, so as the title implies, we did in fact launch the MICA rocket at 08:41 PM AKST Saturday, February 18 (or 12:41 AM EST Sunday, Feb 19) and the rocket performance and scientific measurements were a success.  About an hour before the window opened we had a hint of good things to come, as both the team at Poker Flat and us at Fort Yukon got to see aurora during the twilight. Yes, that’s right, we got to see the beautiful sight of the sun setting on the horizon with aurora above it, just beautiful. Once we saw a well-formed arc over Fort Yukon, it was go time. Here are links to time-lapse videos of what the aurora looked like that night (aurora 1 and aurora 2). The rocket launched and from Fort Yukon I could actually see the rocket motor burning out on the southern horizon as it hurtled upwards. The two-stage rocket reached an apogee (maximum height) of 325 km (202 miles) in roughly seven minutes. Unfortunately for me, the boom that the DERPA was sitting on did not deploy (the one we tested in a video in my previous post), but we were still able to get some data from at least one of the instruments; it seems like the part responsible for releasing the boom, called the spider, did not function correctly, but that was not my responsibility. Everything I built seems to have worked perfectly.

After the launch Saturday night, we at Fort Yukon began packing up and I returned to Fairbanks Sunday evening where the entire launch team had a very nice celebratory dinner. Monday we returned to Poker Flat Research Range to finish packing up our equipment and then early Tuesday morning I left for the home and made it back Tuesday night. Now I’m excited to get some sleep in my own bed and get ready to do some seriously data analysis.

Surprisingly, we’ve been getting crazy levels of press coverage of the launch! It’s been great, we’ve seen mention of our rocket from the Fairbanks local paper, CNN, MSNBC, Foster’s Daily Democrat (the NH Seacoast local newspaper), and spaceref.com among others. Here’s the official press release from UNH (with my name specifically mentioned). Amazing videos and photos of the launch have popped up everywhere, including UAF grad student Jason Arhn’s blog.

Thanks for all who followed this blog through the launch, I hope you found this adventure as fun and interesting as I did and I hope that you’ll continue following this blog as I chronicle my experiences in grad school and new science that’s happening around the world.

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MICA rocket launch, part 6…

Hi all, we are now on day 6 of the launch window that opened on Monday night. It’s been a pretty long week, the days all seem to blend together and everything is even more skewed because we’re on a semi-night schedule, the window is open from 8pm to 2am.

Here’s a run down of the week:

  • Launch Window Day #1 — Mon 2/13 8pm-2am– The first few hours of the window were used for final preparations and checks on the payload by the Wallops crew down at Poker Flat.  We had some breaks in the clouds, but the aurora was not strong enough or in the right place to consider launching. It’s good for us though, because we were better able to arrange our equipment here at Fort Yukon.
  • Launch Window Day #2 — Tues 2/14 8pm-2:30am — So, the way the launch works is prior to the start of the window we count down from T-2 hours to T-10 minutes, “T-” means time to launch. Then we hold at T-10 minutes until we get some promising aurora, when we advance the countdown to T-2 minutes. Then we hold there until we get ideal conditions and decide to launch. Tuesday night we dropped the count down several times and had very good aurora, but it did not organize itself into the type of arcs in the right place, that we are trying to study.  The aurora was absolutely amazing. It was my first time ever really seeing it and it was absolutely awesome in the most basic sense of the word. We got quite a show here at Fort Yukon and standing outside it seemed like I couldn’t turn around fast enough to see all of the amazing activity. It was absolutely breathtaking. I wish everyone the opportunity to see it, it’s right up there with natural wonders like the Grand Canyon; I know these videos don’t quite capture the awe of the aurora that you get in person, but here are a few time-lapse videos from that night (aurora 1, aurora 2, aurora 3). This night we came very, very close to launching, getting as low as 36 seconds from liftoff before holding the count.  The auroral activity was actually much greater than anyone here or elsewhere would have predicted (this article is a great example of bad pop-science writing).  And the skies were clear at most of our sites for more than half of the launch window.  Extended the window to 2:30 am in hopes of getting the aurora to reorganize into arcs, but it never did.
  • Launch Window Day #3 — Wed 2/15 8pm-1:30am — It was a quiet night for two reasons: there was very little aurora and there was poor visibility at our down range sites (aka where I am). Just about the exact opposite of the previous night with hours of aurora and nearly launching.  Scrubbed at 1:30 am due to clouds at down range sites and low geomagnetic activity.  A videographer from the Discovery Channel filmed the launch pad, inside the blockhouse, the vertical checks inside the telemetry building, and the Science Operations Center, for a future documentary. I was pretty bummed about not being around for that…I guess I missed my 15 minutes.
  • Launch Window Day #4 — Thurs 2/16 8pm-2am — Clear skies up north for the entire window was very encouraging.  An arc formed in the far north early in the window and slowly moved south and then intensified.  We dropped the count to 2 minutes and held there for just over an hour as we watched the arc develop some structure briefly and then become more diffuse.  It never materialized into anything useful.
  • Launch Window Day #5 — Fri 2/17 8pm-2am — The skies were clear for most of the night up north, but we didn’t see much action until about half way through the window. An arc formed in the far north early in the window and slowly moved south and then intensified.  We dropped the count to 2 minutes and held, the results were very similar to the previous night.  Still no launch.

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