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#DSN50 II: Electromagnetic Boogaloo

21 Apr

On Day 1 of the #NASASocial 50th Anniversary Deep Space Network event (#DSN50), we toured JPL and were exposed to, among other things, the stairs technology of tomorrow.

It was impressive.

If you're at the JPL 'Center of the Universe' you'd like you'd like to spend less time on Mars and more time on everything else. You'd think.

The folks at JPL seem to spend a lot of time focused on Mars. Soon I figured out why.

There was so much we didn’t know that first day. Sure, that includes the New Age stairs designs. I talked about those in the last post.

But it also includes the alien threats.

He was here to kick ass or chew gum. Only those of us with gum to offer him survived the trials.

I’m pretty sure he’s thinkin’ about ninja moves and fatal pressure points

On Day 2, those of us who survived mortal combat with Mohawk Guy were rewarded with a tour of the Goldstone Deep Space network.

Yes, we had to throw down with the rebel Daft Punk of Science, Mohawk Guy.

How did this come about, you ask?

In the usual way.

It turns out there wasn’t enough room on the chartered bus to Goldstone for all of the #DSN50 attendees and staff, and rather than have some of the JPLers miss out on the tour, our hosts decided to make all the civilian guests participate in a death match with NASA’s most famous internet meme.

Not only did they get a lot of publicity with these cage fights, but I understand Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of JPL, cleaned up on the betting pool.

Never count out the geekiest looking guy in a death match cage fight.

Now if it had been me, I would have put those fights up on Pay Per View.

And if you’d seen the fight cage, with its spinning razor blades, flying chainsaws, and radioactive nunchakus, you’d have paid to watch.

Paid top dollar.

But evidently, the NASA lawyers ruined it for everyone since none of us had signed any sort of death match television rights release form.

Not intended just for the constant stream of trains and trucks, these ear plugs also help residents sleep through the test firings.

For a town in the middle of the desert, Barstow can be surprisingly loud between 12am and 6am.

Lawyers. But what else can you expect, right?

In actuality, Day 2 of #DSN50 started the night before, when, after applying salves and stitches to my wounds, I drove the long and lonely stretch through the desert to the tiny hamlet of Barstow, where I checked into the local Best Western.

Though I’m not sure this particular hotel earned the moniker ‘Best’ Western. More like ‘Passable Western if you enjoy architectural harmonics such that when someone uses the stairs in the wee hours, the entire building rattles and sways’.

And this hotel proved to be popular with the wee hours of the morning check-in crowd.

Quite popular.

So maybe just Terrible Western, for short.

That said, and unending stream of trucks and trains rattling by aside, the brave folks at this hotel did risk their liberty to provide me with my first clue as to the true nature of Goldstone.

The ear plugs.

I have to give them credit for that.

But wait, Ian, we don’t care about your noisy, sleepless night, I can hear you say. What we really want to know is why did you have to drive to Barstow the night before?

A fair question.

I had to drive down the night before because I am not a morning person.

I’m not really an afternoon person either, but societal norms, as well as my employer, require me to be up and about by 8am at the latest most days. On the remaining days, when I could sleep in, my kids burst into my bedroom at the crack of dawn to ensure I don’t fall into bad habits that carry over into the week days.

There are mornings, usual Saturday and Sunday, when I truly hate my spawn.

Now the morning bastards people at JPL, unaware of my slumbering predilections, scheduled the bus taking us to Goldstone to depart from Barstow at 6:30 in the morning.

There was only one bus that left the Park and Ride before that, and it was the 6:00am school bus.

Half the passengers were actual morning people. They insisted on singing Kumbaya during the drive. Fewer than half survived the trip.

Don’t let this seemingly well-lit picture fool you. This was a long exposure taken in the unsightly dark of morning.

When I imagine hell, it isn’t aliens raining hot plasma down on our cities, enslaving our cats and eating our children.

Oh no.

It’s having to catch the middle school bus at 6:00 in the morning, in the middle of the freakin’ desert.

A horror even Lovecraft would not touch with a 3.05 meter foot pole.

Once all the #DSN50 survivors were loaded onto the bus, we drove out into the desert.

Just as I was beginning to grow uneasy and fear that they were driving us out to a future mass-grave site, we reached a check point manned by heavily armed soldiers.

We quickly learned these men were not here to execute us because of our progressive views on science and space exploration, but to protect Fort Irwin, the military base where Goldstone resides.

Sadly, I did not learn this before soiling my pants.

Fortunately, I always carry clean underwear with me when I travel, and, much to both the joy and chagrin of my seatmate, I had soon changed into something more presentable.

Before we were let loose on the Goldstone facility itself, we were gathered into a large room to receive a safety briefing and, for those in our group who chose to stand in the back of the room, have our genetic material scanned and duplicated.

Oh, those clever NASA and JPL people. Putting the coffee in the back of the room next to the cloning scanners.

One poor attendee sitting in the back row fell asleep, head lolling back into the cloning field. Let's just say two heads are NOT better than one.

Looks like there’s a rastering problem with the cloning equipment

I wonder if all #NASASocial events have this high a casualty rate, and if so, how do they explain this to the relatives?

It’s a lot like Hangman, but involves Maxwell’s Equations, electromagnetic pulses from outer space, and actual death if you lose.

They also warned us about the snakes, which don’t have wings but can still be found on the antennas and in trees.

No one knows for sure how the snakes manage this, but the leading theory involves stray electromagnetic radiation causing mutations that either make the snakes more springy, or give them the power of telekinesis.

Or, nightmare of nightmares, both.

There is a third, slightly less unsettling theory that a disgruntled former janitor is living in a forgotten shed on the base, and that she goes around at night collecting snakes and moving them into unexpected locations like trees, antennas, urinals, and the coffee resupply cabinets.

Whether she uses brute force strength or telekinesis to manage the relocations is a hotly debated question, and until and unless she’s caught in the act, we may never know.

Regardless of the method, I had to break out my third (and last) pair of clean undies after that revelation.

To say some of us were put off or agitated by the snake revelation would be an understatement. Let’s just say there were a few other attendees wishing they’d had the wisdom I’d had to bring extra underwear.

As a relaxation exercise to sooth rattled nerves, Jeff, one of our hosts, tried to teach us the many nuances of Antenna Hangman.

Sadly, there was a snake in the cabinet with the dry erase markers, so it took a little longer than provided for on the schedule to get everyone settled down.

I also learned that I am hopeless at Antenna Hangman, but I still picked up the home version at the gift shop since it looked like something my kids would enjoy.

Plus it had Pat Sajak on the cover!

And then, after a careful survey for snakes, we went outside to enjoy the antennas.

This 34 meter antenna was sleeping. Our host informed us that we'd missed its mom feeding it by about half an hour. They had just enough time to wash all the blood off.

Don’t let the small size fool you – the babies have no venom control and are the most deadly of the antennas. You would do well to approach cautiously, or keep a building between you and it. Preferably a brick building, not one made of wood or straw.

If you stand under this thing, look up, and can only muster the adjective 'huge' then you are a complete and utter moron. This thing is freakin' ginormously garbiguan. And THAT'S an understatement.

The mother of the 34 meter antennas, or as she is known to the staff, Hortense. At 70 meters, she’s fully grown. Monogamous, antennas mate for life. However, the males are jerks and tend to split once the kids arrive. Probably so they can sleep in on the weekends.

Plus they tag you with an x-ray laser. It was fatal 50% of the time.

The Goldstone staff invited us to play a game of Marco Polo with the antennas. Turns out they’re really good at it, and they’re not very good sports. So if the antennas ever invite you to play a game, don’t bother.

Naw, I lied. You can totally see the aftermath photos. For $50 a shot. I've got dozens of them.

Some of the guests, out of a misplaced sense of bravado, wandered a little too close to this antenna. The aftermath was too gruesome to photograph.

Sadly, in order to maintain the overall health of the entire array, sometimes runt antennas need to be culled. This involves large dumpsters and high-security recycling yards. Since the only way to kill an antenna is to cut it up, ear protection is required. Their screams are known to drive even the most placid of sloths into a manic frenzy of slashing and stabbing. Human trials went even worse.

Sadly, in order to maintain the overall health of the entire array, sometimes runt antennas need to be culled. This involves large dumpsters and high-security recycling yards. Since the only way to kill an antenna is to cut it up, ear protection is required. Their screams are known to drive even the most placid of sloths into a manic frenzy of slashing and stabbing. Human trials went even worse.

Every time someone makes that 'your anus' joke, I just want to knock all their teeth out with a 8" telescope equatorial mount. That would learn 'em.

There was some sniggering on the bus as we drove past this antenna. Don’t know why. It looked no smaller than some of the other antennas we saw, and this one wasn’t wearing a pocket protector.

Now NASA and JPL have lots of propaganda official explanations they put out about the purpose of these antennas.

SETI (now discontinued by NASA…supposedly).

Communicating with spacecraft like Voyager 1, Voyager 2, New Horizons, Curiosity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity, LADEE (RIP) and a host of others with acronyms that just confuse me.

Imaging asteroids with RADAR.

But something didn’t ring true. Something was tickling at the back of my head. Even after I swatted away the fly on the back of my neck.

No, it wasn’t the altitude-induced headache that was setting in.

Or the sleep-deprived delusions caused by my involuntary lack of sleep at the so-called Best Western

It was something else.

But I needed more clues before I could figure it out.

The next stop on the tour was the 70 meter antenna.

In a pinch, you can use the antennas to catch rain water. If they're looking up when it rains, make noise so they look down and the water spills into strategically placed barrels. But don't let an antenna spot you. That's certain death.

‘Mom’ happily pondering the sky and clouds, blissfully unaware of the potential food milling about underneath her.

Allergy season at Goldstone is a killer.

You’d be surprised how quickly a hungry antenna can whip around towards the sound of lunch. Fortunately, all of the antennas were fed prior to our arrival, and the adult 70 meter antennas never eat out of habit, only out of hunger. Not true, the younger 34 meter antennas…

Hortense didn’t notice us at first, but then somebody sneezed and she turned to see what made the sound.

Fortunately, they’d told us at the safety briefing that like the T-Rex dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park, the antennas can’t detect motion.

We all froze. And unlike the bouts with Mohawk Guy, we all survived.

Once the antenna was suitably distracted by a desert squirrel, we made a mad dash for the control room.

Unlike the cake, the control room isn't moist and chocolatey.

If one could truly control an antenna, one would do so from here. But this control room, like the cake, is a lie.

Keeping morale high at Goldstone is very important. That's why all the water is spiked with grog.

I don’t know who this man is, but I salute his naive optimism.

Inside, we could tell morale was high. But little did I suspect the true significance of that ‘V’.

That didn’t come until they took us to the tunnels. They claimed the tunnels were for moving about while avoiding detection by the antennas, but I wasn’t so sure.

I would have gone with a more light and airy motiff. But that's just me.

When the alien bombardment begins and JPL staffers evacuate the surface of the Goldstone facility, this is the first view they’ll have of the next fifty years of their life. Cold, dark, dank, and filled with pictures of our solar system.

If you ask me, anyone forced to live underground would just find this depressing.

Ah, the mighty and majestic sun. Once something we took for granted. Why not? Above ground, you could just look up and see it. Not so these days, with the alien hordes patrolling the now Moon-like surface.

Yeah, just depressed. Sad, really, what we'll end up sinking to.

Yet another possible future denied us by the alien invaders. If only we had given more funding to NASA, we might be on Mars and the other planets right now, driving the (literally) heartless invaders from our beloved solar system.

I'm just not feeling inspired by these.

Ah, majestic Jupiter. If not for those cursed aliens now bombarding our surface and making life on Earth impossible, we might be there now, swimming in its cold, toxic atmosphere.

I would have gone with pictures of tropical beaches and redwood forests. More immediate.

Screw that. Sure, Saturn is all pretty with that ring and everything, but it’s cold and harsh there. The aliens can have it.

Everywhere we looked in those tunnels, there were pictures of the planets in our solar system.

Why? Why all the reminders about the solar system?

Could they be there to remind us, while we cowered underground during a brutal, overwhelming alien bombardment, of what was rightfully OURS?

A picture of Goldstone’s true purpose was beginning to emerge from the swirling confusion that is my mind. And it was not a pretty picture.

Or a very well-focused picture. At least, not yet.

And then there was the awards ceremony. We were told it was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network being operational and communicating with spacecraft, but if that’s true, why did the placard reference defending us from aliens?

If the aliens are socialists, then we're in big trouble. But if their hawkish neo-cons, we are all kinds of screwed.

The placard reads, in part, “For 50 years of excellence with regards to holding back the alien hordes currently occupying Mars, a grateful state thanks you.” Maybe next year the Federal government will thank them too.

After that, it didn’t take long before my extensive knowledge of science fiction movies and books enabled me to suss out the true nature of the Goldstone facility.

Alien repulsion.

If you believe NASA, all the antennas can do is send and receive communications transmissions, enabling us to stay in touch with our space probes.

But it’s way cooler, and better fits in with my theory, if they can transmit more than just puny communications.

I’m not talking about Skyping with belligerent ETs who keep waffling and flip-flopping on whether or not to invade Earth.

Oh sure, low power transmissions work great when it comes seeking a diplomatic solution with the forces amassed on the surface of Mars before they invade.

But if the talks fail? Well, that’s when this network of antennas becomes a network of LASER DOOM!

Ever wonder why there are three sets of antennas on Earth, enabling us to keep the entire sky covered at all times?

JPL and NASA tell us it’s so they can have constant communication with all those space probes we’ve launched.

Uh huh. Sure.

But if this trip to Goldstone was the opening chapter of a science fiction trilogy, I know what the next chapter would be.

It would be Chapter 2: The Ugly, Secret Truth Is Uncovered by the Incredibly Sexy, Unwitting Space Enthusiast Hero On The #NASASocial Tour.

Wherein our hero, who bears a striking resemblance to me, by the way, overhears the head scientist at Goldstone talking to her engineers about the breakdown in talks with the forces marshalled on Mars and the need to align and calibrate the antennas to maximize the Death Ray yield.

Weird. I have a series of moles on my left buttock that look exactly like the placement of the antennas at Goldstone. What are the odds?

I couldn’t build a more appropriately configured array of Death Ray antennas if I tried! And believe me, I’ve tried.

I sure hope not...for all our sakes.

If Australia was in the northern hemisphere, we could have had a perfectly straight line running through all three facilities. I wonder if this negatively impacts the output of the Death Ray?

So as my imaginary sci-fi trilogy clearly shows, these antennas aren’t just engineering marvels or pseudo-steampunk ear horns for the profoundly hearing impaired.

They are Earth’s last defense from the Martian hordes (who are actually colonists from 55 Cancri and very, very pissed that they initially landed on Mars instead of Earth).

I wonder if our new robot overlords will have better luck fighting off the alien hordes on Mars than we're having. Strategic subjugation, anyone?

Once I learned the truth, Security tried to silence me by running me over with a rover, but I swapped jackets with another visitor, and he got run over instead. It’s a little scary how much dangerous stuff they have on the Goldstone playground. It’s totally not suitable for children at all!

I leave you with this last image. It forces one to ask more questions:

Although when you think about it, would the world really be worse off with a few thousand fewer football fans?

Is this the space defense equivalent of what IT people call a ‘honeypot’? Yet another reason to avoid large venue sporting events, if you ask me.

Why there? Why in the middle of the Rose Bowl?

Are they using tens of thousands of humans as bait, to lead the alien hordes into a horrible, microwave-induced death trap?

Any why are there no other records or reports of this event? I mean, a 70 meter antenna in the middle of the Rose Bowl? People would notice…unless NASA has mind control satellites as well!

Or access to Photoshop.

Eh, it’s a coin toss which one it is.

(But I’m leaning towards orbital mind control lasers.)

All in all, an exciting and educational trip (unlike, perhaps, this blog posting).

I’d love to do it again.

I just hope my blog posts haven’t disqualified me.

And if you’d like to see which antennas are communicating with which space probes, in real-time, NASA has a website for that: DSN Now.

How does NASA do it?

With a cunning combination of nerds, science, and awesome.

That, and modern technology.

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Posted by on 21 April 2014 in Astronomy!, Science!

 

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