Posts Tagged ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’


I’m Jazzed Tonight

Sunday, October 19th, 2014
Slooh control room, East Hartford, CT

Slooh control room, East Hartford, CT

Broadcast position, in my office in Irvine, CA.

Broadcast position in my office. Irvine, CA.

I am jazzed tonight. Adrenaline pumping.

Two live shows in the can for today. Both were about a specific point in time when nothing specifically significant would happen.

It’s still a cool story. A giant space dirty snowball, C2013 A1, flew past Mars at 45 miles per second. NASA hid their satellites on the other side of the planet.

I was very invested. Lots of research for this.

There was reason for concern. I didn’t know my co-host and there are always emergencies which force a change of plans. Always.

I produced a video open using amazing NASA animations. They are the kings of single point lighting! It made us look better. More polished.

We meet an hour before air on Skype. I’m in my office, windows closed and blinds drawn. Mics are open. Cameras are on. We come and go, but we’re available to each other.

I was trying to get a feel on Dr. David Grinspoon, astrobiologist with the Library of Congress, aka the new guy. He seemed at ease. Good sign.

We were trying to show a comet 700 meters wide, 150,000 miles away and next to a huge and highly reflective planet… live! Nearly everything we would say would be ad libbed.

The broadcast went well. We had plenty of graphics and animations to keep people’s interest plus live images from telescopes in South Africa. The pictures weren’t perfect, but no one complained. This sort of access has seldom been available.

I probably can’t reveal how many watched, but it was significantly more than ever watched me simultaneously in Connecticut. This time they’re spread across the globe.

Dave held up his end perfectly. This is his field. We got the right guy. He was totally comfortable. And he can talk, a required skill.

Here’s why I’m jazzed. I consider the broadcast a good deed. For those interested we provided a previously unavailable service. We taught a lot of people things they never knew.

I feel like I felt after successful snow storm coverage. Like I was a force for good.

I’m Studying Up On Mars

Saturday, October 18th, 2014


Tomorrow will be busy for me. We’ve got two shows about the close encounter between Comet Siding Spring and Mars.

I host, surrounded by cometary experts. I still have to know the science.

This is an unprecedented event. We’ve never seen a comet get so close to a planet.

That worries NASA.

Actually, let me modify that. Their worry is later.

First, cards on the table. NASA is always interested in ‘visitors’ to our part of the solar system. But there’s a lot more buzz for Comet Siding Spring C/2013 A1. It will come close to Mars and to billions of dollars of hardware circling Mars, plus rovers on-the-ground.

Comet-Siding-Spring-Trajectory-Mars-br2Siding Spring is speeding in from the Oort Cloud, a theorized mass of billions of comets 100,000 times farther from the Sun than we are. It will zip by Mars at a closing speed 35 miles per second–186,000 mph.

The comet misses Mars. We’ve all got that, right?

Later, Mars passes through the debris field left in the comet’s wake. Scientists expect some fragments will be drawn toward the planet where we have satellites and stuff.

NASA’s official “Best Estimate” says the particles miss. Their conservative estimate says 90-100 minutes after the closest approach a stream of small debris will come, then quickly go.

Our satellites all had their orbits disrupted, putting them on the far side of Mars when this happens.

T-0 is officially called the “time of the particle fluence center.”

NASA is praying one or more of the rovers will take a photo or two of the comet brightly shining through the Martian atmosphere. That’s pretty damn cool. It will likely happen and will surely include a part of the rover, lest we forget whodunit.

We’ll also get images from whatever sensors can be turned around on satellites.

I’m not sure how much of this is actually advancing science and how much is showing off. An opportunity and challenge like this shouldn’t be squandered, but this is more photo-op than anything. After all, we’re landing on a comet next month!

Everything is now set. It’s too late for change to matter. Any debris that hits the Red Planet was jettisoned off the comet years ago.

Distance and time are very different in space. You can’t think in minutes and seconds or inches and feet. Our best orbital predictions say C/2013 A1 won’t be back for around a million years.

Rosetta Reaches The Comet

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014


Comet_on_3_August_2014_fullwidth (1)

As this blog entry goes out a spacecraft has reached a comet. That’s never been done before.

Rosetta launched in 2004 and will arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August. It will be the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet, escort it as it orbits the Sun, and deploy a lander to its surface. Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA.

ESA is the European Space Agency. They’re running the show.

I have mixed emotions about this sort of project. We spent a boatload of money and untold brain power solving a problem through science, math and engineering. An incredible achievement.

But, aren’t there more pressing practical problems on Earth which would have benefited from this kind of massive effort?

Rosetta, still around 60 miles away from 67P, is transmitting incredibly detailed photos of the weirdly shaped comet. Some have compared the shape to a duck. Potato shaped objects are much more common.

Was it once two separate entities that somehow fused? Does it contain pristine samples from the dawn of the universe 13.77 billion years ago? There are sure to be surprises.

After orbiting this tiny space chunk (about 2 1/4 by 2 1/2 miles though quite irregular) for a while Rosetta will move to an orbit of 30 miles, then 15 miles. Finally, probably in November, a capsule will be deployed from Rosetta to the comet’s surface.

Is this money well spent? It’s certainly splashy science… amazing science. I wish there was a well defined practical payoff.

Now It Can Be Told: My Stuff For Slooh

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Sequence 01.Still003

As some of you may know, I’ve been doing some work for Slooh is an astronomy community. Its three telescopes are available to the members. Two of the scopes are in the Canary Islands. One is in Chile. Each is in a superb location to clearly view the nighttime sky.

My job is to produce videos and host webcasts for Slooh. We’ve got one coming up Friday at 6p EDT/3p PDT about Comet 209P/Linear. It’s the object responsible for what could be an amazing meteor shower Friday night.

Slooh has also just announced a partnership with NASA in their Grand Asteroid Challenge. I produced a 2 1/2 minute video for that (below).

Screenshot-2014-05-16-19.59.36If you would have stopped me when I got into broadcasting and told me I’d be able to edit something like this without leaving my home office I’d have thought you nuts! These capabilities are beyond amazing.

I designed this PC specifically for editing It’s equal to the task. I couldn’t be happier.

I’m pretty happy with how the video came out too.

Keeping NASA’s Planetary Discoveries In Perspective

Thursday, February 27th, 2014


The headlines are breathless and shouted. “NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds.”

Big deal? Maybe it is. Likely it isn’t.

The Kepler mission points an orbiting telescope at a small slice of the sky. Day-after-day it watches the light from the stars in that slice, looking for variations in intensity.

When a planet crosses in front of its star as viewed by an observer, the event is called a transit. Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 1 to 16 hours. This change must be periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method. – NASA

The planets aren’t actually being seen. That’s why the image at the top of this entry is an artist’s conception, not a photo. Kepler is instead looking for a predictable dimming as planets pass between the stars and Earth.

The rest is speculation! We have no idea what the planets are made of or conditions on their surface.

NASA looks for planets in the ‘habitable zone.’ That doesn’t mean they’re habitable! These objects are incredibly far away. Our data is thin.

NASA readily admits what is doesn’t know, but since that’s not the glamorous part of the release we seldom hear it.

One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

Even the Earth, the benchmark for habitable planets, is only ‘habitable’ over a small portion of its surface. We can’t live in the ocean, or tall mountaintops, or where it’s too hot or cold, or too dry or wet. We’re picky eaters in the world of habitation!

So, what does the Kepler mission and these discoveries mean to us? From a practical standpoint, little. Maybe nothing!

These planets are too far to ever consider visiting. Our lives won’t change. We’ll learn enough to solidify some theories, no more.

Kepler is an amazing engineering accomplishment. That’s indisputable. It has taken complex planetary theories and made them observable. No small trick. Just don’t expect an exoplanet photo or financial payoff soon… or ever.

Incredible Engineering: Rosetta Wakes Up

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Comet_approach_node_full_imageNothing is impossible. I say that without fear of contradiction because of what the European Space Agency and NASA have been doing for the last decade. It’s the Rosetta mission.

Rosetta’s job is to monitor a comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, by placing an orbiter around it and a lander on it! It will do this as the comet races toward the inner Solar System.

Rosetta_trajectory_English[1]As you might imagine, catching a comet isn’t easy. Rosetta was launched in 2004 and has made three Earth passes, plus one trip around Mars, all to gain speed and set-up its rendezvous.

To conserve power while coasting through space, Rosetta’s been ‘sleeping.’ Here’s how they list it on the mission timeline.

July 2011 Aphelion/Enter Hibernation

Rosetta_approaching_its_ultimate_destination_Comet_67P_Churyumov-Gerasimenko_node_full_imageAphelion means its furthest point from the Sun. Hibernation… you get that.

Today Rosetta gets its wake-up call! It needs to start processing data. It needs to prepare for its May meet-up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

This is another unbelievably complex and intricate engineering challenge that should be impossible. What could possibly be more difficult than this?

It’s Just Not Practical

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

800px-STS-134_International_Space_Station_after_undockingPeople talk about travel to distant planets and space exploration. It’s so heroic. So romantic.

It’s not going to happen.

No, really. No one alive today will ever live on, or travel to, another planet. Sorry.

The challenges are astounding. Earthlings aren’t readily adaptable to living off planet. We can’t even live on most of the Earth!

At 10,000 feet above sea level our breathing is already labored. We can’t live very far below ground either.

We can’t live in the sea. We can’t live where it’s too hot or cold. We can’t live where it’s too dry or too wet.

This comes to mind because the International Space Station is experiencing plumbing problems.

Earlier Wednesday, the pump module on one of the space station’s two external cooling loops automatically shut down when it reached pre-set temperature limits. These loops circulate ammonia outside the station to keep both internal and external equipment cool. The flight control teams worked to get the cooling loop back up and running, and they suspect a flow control valve actually inside the pump module itself might not be functioning correctly. – NASA

800px-8_July_2011_ElektronKeeping the temperature constant is integral to astronauts living up there. There are currently six aboard.

It is all we can do, we being a dysfunctional international consortium of governments that runs the space station, to keep a handful of scientists safely in orbit 257’ish miles up.

Going to a planet is much, much more complicated. Farther away–distance and time. More hostile environment. We’re nowhere near ready to solve these problems.

Up on the ISS there’s hope a cooling solution will be found. Since this is an external problem, repairing it will probably require a trip, or two, or more, outside.

As amazing as astronauts making repairs on their space station while in orbit is, going to a distant planet is orders of magnitude more difficult and more expensive.

It’s just not practical and it never will be.

Do We Still Need NASA?

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

I’ve just watched a few videos on the site. They have, by far, the most amazing animation expertise in the public — comparable to Hollywood. The animations supplement technical feats as complex as anything humans have ever attempted.

We have a spaceship to orbit and map asteroids. Think of all the problems which must be solved just to make that one mission happen out in the void of space! There are other missions. Some are more challenging. None are easy.

But why? What are we getting out of the deal?

As much as NASA’s work is impressive it often seems without purpose… at least to me. This is pure science. The payoff will only be felt in academia. It takes a lot of money to make that happen. We just don’t have it.

Is this the kind of employment stimulus the Republicans object to? They’d be right. That’s what NASA is. It employs a lot of people and supports a decent chunk of America’s aerospace industry, but it doesn’t make anything!

NASA’s budget this year is $19,000,000,000.

If we’re going to fund NASA its bright minds and technical expertise need to be used to solve real world problems. If not, it’s spending we can’t afford.

The Thirty Foot Asteroid That Headed Toward Earth Unnoticed!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

bolide3.jpgSpace is a dirty place. There’s all sorts of interstellar junk flying around at breakneck speed. In our solar system Jupiter, the largest planet with the strongest gravity, gets hit most often.

Still, in terms relative to the age of our planet, the Earth gets hit all the time. Just the random dust and specks burning out in the upper reaches of our atmosphere add a few hundred million pounds of additional mass to Earth every day!

Sometimes the incoming rocks are large.

We don’t see much evidence because water and weather gradually heal our wounds. The pock marked surface of the atmosphere free Moon gives a more realistic impression of what really happens.

I mention this because a reasonably significant rock came pretty close to hitting the Earth a few weeks ago. I’m only hearing about it now–and I’m usually pretty up on these things.

Here’s NASA’s dispassionate reporting:

On October 8, 2009 about 03:00 Greenwich time, an atmospheric fireball blast was observed and recorded over an island region of Indonesia. The blast is thought to be due to the atmospheric entry of a small asteroid about 10 meters in diameter that, due to atmospheric pressure, detonated in the atmosphere with an energy of about 50 kilotons (the equivalent of 100,000 pounds of TNT explosives).

The Jakarta Globe said the explosion was loud enough that, “Locals at first thought it was an earthquake and ran out of their homes in panic.”

Well, yeah. A hundred thousand pounds of TNT would make quite a rumble.

No one saw this bad boy coming. Not NASA. Not the Air Force. Surprise! It was the size of a small house and we had no warning at all.

What little we do know of this incident comes because we monitor atmospheric noise while searching for nuclear tests. Again, it’s a surprise to me, but there is a network of “infrasound stations” associated with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and they pinned it down.

In writing about this incident NASA scientists mention “an average impact velocity for NEAs of 20.3 km/s.” In other words, near Earth asteroids hit the Earth’s atmosphere at around 45,000 mph! That’s New York to Los Angeles in under four minutes!

Bottom line, those scary movies where asteroids plunge to Earth causing death and destruction… maybe they’re more science and less fiction than we think.

On The Pad And On My Mind

Monday, May 11th, 2009


Earlier I’d been watching the voluminous coverage of today’s shuttle launch on With the launch just minutes away I’ve switched to C-SPAN3.

C-SPAN3? Really? They need three? Actually, today they could seriously use C-SPAN HD. I’d like to watch the shuttle launch in HD.

I just switched to Discovery Science HD which is covering the launch, but without C-SPAN’s unblinking eye. I don’t want to see studio coverage.

Countdown. Engines. Liftoff. OMFG. This is what HD is for.

There are cameras everywhere nowadays. I watched unmanned cameras as the service structure was moved away from Atlantis pre-launch. Now with the shuttle racing skyward there’s a camera on the vehicle itself.

For a moment as the shuttle lifted off the pad I thought I saw something fall off. Two tragedies has turned me into an uneasy watcher. As it is NASA has prepped a second shuttle should a rescue be necessary.

I have written often in the past how the shuttle program is an overpriced waste. I continue to feel that way. However, that doesn’t remove the awe that comes with watching something the size of an office building get propelled into space.