Voting for the 3QD Science blogging competition is open!!…

ATTENTION Readers: Voting for the 3 Quarks Daily Science blogging competition is open!

Here’s how you can get involved:

1) Check out my nominated post: Saturn’s rings explained…

2) Go here and check out the other 100+ nominated blog posts that span all of the sciences

3) If you like my blog and think it worthy (or any of the others nominated), please go here and vote by 11:59pm on Saturday, June 16

4) Please share this with your friends, there’s tons of great science writing to be had!!


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SpaceX: mission (and history) accomplished…

Here’s SpaceX’s Dragon capsule after it was captured by the International Space Station‘s (ISS) Canadarm2 early this morning. Credit:

It’s official! According to NASA’s official press release, “The International Space Station Expedition 31 crew successfully captured the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the station’s robotic arm at 9:56 AM EDT. The feat came 3 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 23 seconds after the mission’s launch. The station was 251 miles over northwest Australia when capture occurred.” This was soon followed by, ” The SpaceX Dragon capsule was securely bolted to the Harmony module of the International Space Station at 12:02 p.m. EDT.” As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, SpaceX has made history and single-handedly ushered in a new era of space exploration. They are now the only private company ever to launch into orbit and return and the only to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Not too shabby for an endeavor that only started a mere four years ago after President Obama announced the beginning of NASA’s new Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The success of Dragon‘s launch, rendezvous, capture, and docking with the ISS can’t be emphasized enough, this now helps to close the space gap which I have mentioned previously and no longer leaves the U.S. without a viable means to launch astronauts into space. Of course, there will still need to be more test flights and it might still be awhile before NASA okays manned flights of its astronauts on Dragon capsules, but this is definite and exciting progress to say the least!

I think without a doubt though, my favorite tidbit from this whole event was the reaction by NASA astronaut and current ISS resident, Don Pettit who relayed this gem after the ISS’s Canadarm2 (the robotic arm used to grab and move things outside the station) had successfully grabbed hold of the Dragon capsule: “Houston, it looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail.” Classic.

At 12:02pm EST, Dragon successfully berthed (docked) with the ISS’s Harmony module. Credit: NASA


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Looking to launch and preparing for transit…

As many of you probably heard, SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) that was slated for early Saturday morning was aborted at literally the last second before launch. The abort was triggered by readings of excess pressure in one of the rocket’s engines. The problem was ultimately traced back to a faulty valve on one of the rocket engines which was replaced on Sunday. Now with everything supposedly right as rain, SpaceX looks forward to launching at the opening of the next possible launch window, which opens at 3:44am on Tuesday. As you may remember, back in December 2010, SpaceX became the first ever private company to launch into space; now it looks into sweetening the deal as it’s slated to become the first private company to dock with the ISS. This is a VERY good thing for the American space program. Despite flurries of protest and new ideas from Congress to limit the competition in space commercialization, SpaceX is doing exactly what President Obama hoped companies would do when he announced the space commercialization initiative back in 2008– beating the rest of the competition to the punch. Not that Obama is specifically backing or rooting for SpaceX, but this is exactly what the President wanted, competition fostering and driving innovation and accelerated success. I’ll have to wholeheartedly disagree with Congressmen who argue that competition breeds lackluster performance and unsafe equipment. Let’s face it, when going into space, there’s an inherent level of risk. Even NASA, the be-all, end-all of space-faring lost two (Columbia and Challenger) out of its five Space Shuttles, so it happens. But let’s examine this: Orbital Sciences, another company vying for NASA launch contracts, has already launched two NASA-funded missions (nearly $700 million) into the Pacific Ocean. Now, using the Congressional argument, we would have been locked into using Orbital Sciences and SpaceX would not have gotten federal subsidies or contracts to help get it to where it is today. Now to be honest, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are trying to work on two different goals at the moment: Orbital Sciences is set on launching new satellites into space and SpaceX is focused on transporting crews and cargo, but you can see my point. If anything, competition forces greater concern over safety and ensuring success and greatly reduces the probability of project delays and going over budget. And if you don’t think that’s true, just look at how careful SpaceX was this weekend. As President Hoover once said, “Competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer, but is the incentive to progress.”

Ultraviolet image of Venus’ clouds as seen by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter on February  5, 1979. Credit:

Switching gears a bit, you may or may not have heard, but a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event is happening on the evening of  Tuesday, June 5, 2012: Venus will be transiting the Sun. What does that mean? Well what that means is that we (Earthlings) will be able to see Venus on the disk of the Sun. You may say to yourself: why is this so special, doesn’t Venus go around the Sun every year? Well yes, you’re right, Venus orbits the Sun once every 225 Earth days, but Venus’ orbit doesn’t exactly lie in the same plane as the rest of the planets– it’s off by what might seem a slight 3°. But since distances are so large in space– Earth is a whopping 93,000,000,000,000 miles from the Sun– that small angle means that Venus only crosses the line of sight between the Earth and the Sun twice (in events separated by eight years) every century. The last transit of Venus was back in 2004 (imaged below) and it won’t happen again until 2117. Now if you’d like to find out more about the transit, you can visit, they’ve got pretty much everything you need to know, including what the transit is, where and how you can see it, a short video summary of the event and why it’s important, and even a recipe for a nice cosmic cocktail to enjoy responsibly while you view the transit! You can also check out or NASA’s official page, which have lots of stuff including information about NASA’s planned live feed of the transit from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and maps of transit events in your area!

The entire June 2004 transit of Venus is captured in a composite photograph composed of 11 separate images taken at 30 minute intervals. Photographs by Fred Espenak,

Jeremiah Horrocks, an English astronomer, predicted the first ever observed transit of Venus back in 1639– contradicting the great Johannes Kepler, who said that Venus would miss transiting the Sun– and then observed it using a telescope. In fact, the transit of Venus is very important historically– it’s one of the ways we calculated the size of our solar system. You see, when you have two observers watching the transit from two locations on Earth, each sees a distinct path (red and blue below) of Venus across the Sun.  The slight difference in time that Venus takes, moving from edge to edge, can mathematically unlock the distance from Earth to the Sun, and thus the size of our solar system. In fact, after realizing this, the great English astronomer Edmond Halley (of comet fame) greatly encouraged countries to send expeditions around the globe to time future transits of Venus across the sun. Explorers and scientists faced great peril and set out all over the world for the transits of the 17th (1761 and 1769) and 18th (1874 and 1882) centuries.

Two observers from different locations on Earth will see Venus trace different paths across the Sun. The difference in time of the transits between the two paths can be used to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun and thusly the size of the solar system. Credit:


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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 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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MICA rocket launch, part 5…

Hello all, greetings from within the Arctic Circle. Yes that’s right, on Friday I safely arrived in Fort Yukon, Alaska (66º 34.39′ N, 145º 15.03′ W), about 125 miles northeast of Fairbanks and about 1.5 degrees (8 miles) into the Artic Circle. The flight up was fairly horrifying to begin with, the plane only had 9 seats, 7 of which were empty; that’s right, it was me, the other grad student working on the campaign and the pilots. At first I was mortified because I was sitting within 5 feet of the engine propeller, but once we had taken off and gotten above the clouds my mood immediately changed. Soaring above the mass of clouds as the sun rose was absolutely breathtaking and immediately soothed my nerves. At times it was hard to tell when it was clouds below us and when it was snowy mountains. All in all the flight was good and less than an hour after takeoff we had landed.

We (University of Alaska-Fairbanks grad student Jason and I) got a quick tour of the village of Fort Yukon. It’s a very small little place, with a population of about 700 people and almost all of them are natives who’ve lived here their whole lives. There are no roads in or out; in the winter you can use snowmobiles or dog sleds or fly and in the summer locals use river barges. Possibly the oddest part is the high number of junked cars that litter the town; many of them look like they have been abandoned, sitting for decades with broken windows and rust and snow on the inside. Between all the busted cars and the small dilapidated and abandoned houses, the village almost resembles something out of a movie about the nuclear apocalypse.

On Saturday we spent the day unpacking and setting up our video and camera equipment. In addition to my (in comparison) dinky Xybion ICCD (intensified charge-coupled device) video camera, Jason and the UAF folks have several very impressive cameras and video cameras plus some very fancy equipment to run and house them. Last night we were sitting around waiting for the aurora to show up, but it never did. It’s being pesky. Meanwhile, back at Poker Flat, the Wallops folks have finished the rocket’s final assembly and moved it to the rail to begin final preparations for launch. Saturday night they performed a practice launch count and had Sunday off to get onto a night schedule to begin the campaign. So far we’ve been “socked in” due to clouds at Fort Yukon, but the folks down at Poker Flat have seen some pretty nice aurora. It’s like the aurora’s mocking me, teasing me, showing up where and when it knows I can’t see it…pesky aurora. In any case, we’ve been tracking the auroral forecast from and things are looking very promising. We have a very large sunspot with a lot of potential facing towards Earth, which could mean some very good auroral activity in the next few days.


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MICA rocket launch, part 4…

Over the last few days, the team at Poker Flat has made a lot of progress with the MICA rocket. We did hit a bit of a hiccup when we discovered on Monday that the installed GPS sensor on the rocket’s main payload was fried. The GPS is extremely important, as you can imagine, for the control and tracking of the rocket. This discovery was made during our initial payload “rollout”. A “rollout” means that we bring the payload (roughly the entire rocket) outside into the cold so that we can test the GPS signal and the transmission of data to and from the Telemetry building. Now of course it’s really cold, so we have to cover the rocket in lots of thermal blankets. You can see some pics below. During that time we also turned on the DERPAs to make sure the data showed that they were working properly. Everything looked good.  But even without the GPS we’ve been plenty busy with things.

On Tuesday, we tested the DERPA boom for the first time. The concept of the rocket payload is that once the rocket reaches space (a height at which it is clear of most of the atmosphere) the payload will be isolated and in free fall. At that point, small pyros (explosives) will be ignited, freeing all of the instruments that have been stowed on the main payload, safely tucked in beneath the nosecone. Once the pyros blow, the boom arms holding the instruments will be deployed. Of course, we need to test these booms before we launch to prove that the arm won’t break off. We tested the boom by deploying it at 45-degree angle and it latched very successfully, just as we planned. Here’s a link to a video of the deployment test.

Later in the day we went through a full sequence test. This is where we simulate an entire countdown and launch in the computers. Meaning, we don’t actually launch, but we do a countdown and turn the instruments on and off and deploy the booms at the correct times to make sure that the computers register all of the activity correctly. Everything went extremely well in the sequence test, yet another good sign.

The GPS failure was only a slight setback, the good folks back at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia sent us a backup and we finally got her installed yesterday (Wednesday). After that we had a sub-payload “rollout”, same procedure as we had on Monday for the main payload; everything on the sub (including the ERPA) worked nicely.

So as you can see everything’s been moving along nicely. Today (Thursday) is actually my last day on the range. Tomorrow I’ll be heading up into the Arctic Circle, to Fort Yukon. The maximum height of the rocket’s trajectory, or apogee, will actually be just west of Fort Yukon. Here’s a map that shows the flight trajectory for MICA. The launch site at Poker Flat is near the bottom. Fort Yukon can be seen where the two rivers (blue squiggly lines) diverge between 66- and 67-degrees latitude. The target-like blue reticle is the targeted landing site. The black line running almost due north from Poker Flat to the center of the blue target is the proposed flight trajectory. The red zones emanating from the launch site are the different zones of influence for the launch; these basically rate how significantly the launch will influence these areas. Ideally we’ll be looking to launch into a stable auroral arc almost directly over Fort Yukon. I’ll be stationed there taking images of the aurora to help support the launch.


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