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Category Archives: Astronomy!

Talk about a phobia that really sucks

The way things have been going in my life lately (dark, generally unpleasant, pulling me inexorably downward, outright terrifying), I suppose it’s only reasonable to talk about my biggest phobia (which is second only to my abject terror of Cuisinarts).

I’m deathly afraid of black holes.

I know it’s irrational. We aren’t near any black holes. I’m not in any danger of enduring extreme time dilatation and coming back to see my kids old and dying. I’m not about to get thrown into one and experience that latest slimming fad, spaghettification,

Though I could stand to lose an inch or two from my waistline…

But phobias aren’t rational now, are they?

A movie about extreme sucking that sucked extremely

Not visible: the heart of the black hole. According to my nightmares it’s a spinning Cuisinart blade.

Two space movies that sucked came out at the same time. Who woulda thunk it?

Dad eventually took us to both. Could have been worse: it could’ve been Star Trek: Generations.

It all started when my dad couldn’t decide which movie to take us to, The Black Hole or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ultimately, there was no good choice on this front, but still he rolled the dice and took my sibling and I to see Disney’s The Black Hole.

He must have thought it was a safe bet. I mean, it’s a Disney movie. How could it traumatize a young child?

In a Disney movie, it’s not like you have to worry about things like a momma deer getting killed by a hunter, thereby orphaning an adorable baby deer which then has to fight off a pack of hungry rabbits that announce their imminent attack via ominous thumping sounds, right?

So we saw it in the theater and, quite predictably, I cried when Old B.O.B. died.

But that’s not what launched my ignorant, child’s-eye view of terror when it came to black holes.

It was when Maximilian, the evil red hovering Cuisinart, killed Dr. Alex Durant (played by Anthony Perkins), slowly advancing on him with that rotary weed-whacker on steroids.

(I mean, what the hell does a robot in space even need with a built-in food processor unless it is a chef bot, which Maximilian definitely was not? Thanks again, Disney, for feeding my childhood nightmares so lavishly! I guess Bambi wasn’t enough, huh?)

So I forever associated that swirling black hole image from the movie with a whirring, shaky, shredded-paper-flying-everywhere death.

Later, I got older and in the arrogant manner of a teenager, tried to conquer my fear by knowing everything about it. Now, if you’ve read even a tenth of what is out there about what black holes can do, you know that further education, in this particular case, is a doozy of a mistake! The more I learned, the stronger and denser my fear became until nothing, not even cool rational thought, could escape it.

So I did what anyone else in my place would do: Avoided all references to Soundgarden and then went to a hypnotherapist who, after months of intense sessions, erased all awareness of black holes from my conscious mind.

(Apparently I also lost some of the details from Bambi, but to be honest, I’m not really sweating that.)

Flash forward a few years and, not knowing much about the plot, I went to see Interstellar (in IMAX, no less!!). All those hours of expensive hypnotherapy? Flushed down a black-hole powered toilet.

And, considering the (somewhat) more scientific accuracy of Interstellar, my nightmares were now even worse.

But with the help of an understanding wife who brought me a steady supply of food, I found solace in an extended stay in an isolation tank. An isolation tank, I should add, with one minor addition: it had a light.

When I first went in, I wasn’t thinking clearly and hadn’t added a light. It took me a week to claw through the sound-proof door of that chamber and make the necessary modifications. A week that felt like years. Or a different sort of relativity than what Einstein came up with. I call it the Not So Special Relativity. The closest way to experience Not So Special Relativity if you don’t have an isolation tank and a fear of black holes? Watch all of Carrot Top’s movies at full volume but half speed, twice.

I was forced to come out of my warm, brightly lit, comfy tank once my Medical Leave of Absence expired, but fortunately the respite served me well and I was mostly recovered. I was certainly well enough to resume a useful, productive life. Dark stars were a fleeting thought bubbling far back and in the depths of my psyche, only really bothering me in an occasional recurring nightmare (that also, for some reason, featured Carrot Top).

And then, this. This image exploded on the internet and I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing it:

Think you're having a bad day? Try waking up one morning, pulling open the blinds, and being greeted by this.

Objects in mirror are larger than they appear. Image credit: NSF

I used to think of science as a friend, but now that friend has shown its true colors: black and orange and oh so cruel.

These days I find myself staying clear of open spaces, lest I find myself plucked up off the Earth and dragged into relativistic hell, and strapping myself into my chair every time I sit down at my desk (the seat was…recently…bolted to the floor). That, a steady diet of the Twilight books on audio (as read by David Hyde Pierce, of course!), and a root canal or two should have my brain numb enough to cope with existence soon enough.

 

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Posted by on 18 May 2019 in Angst, Astronomy!, Life, Science!

 

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Why NASA needs me to participate in their next social media event, or better yet, space mission

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to participate in DSN50, a NASA social media event celebrating the 50th anniversary of their Deep Space Network.

It was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which I blogged about.

Except it turns out it wasn’t.

NASA is hosting another once-in-a-lifetime social media event, this time to witness the test launch of the new Orion space capsule.

(Not to be confused with the similarly named, nuclear pulse propulsion Orion spacecraft.)

Turns out, for this particular event, applicants must write a short essay justifying why they should get one of the few available slots.

Naturally, I started mine, when I realized something.

All I've ever wanted in life was to be an astronaut and to be hugged. If only there was a way to combine the two...

Imagine! This could be me!

I was aiming too low.

I shouldn’t be aiming for attendance at one of the nearby space centers to view the launch.

No, like NASA, I should be aiming for space itself.

Therefore, for the benefit of any NASA HR personnel who just happen to regularly read this blog, I humbly offer you compelling, irrefutable reasons why NASA should accept me as their next astronaut.

(Despite having no job application on file. Do I need one of those, or is a blog post considered enough?)

First and foremost, I am an engineer. So if we run into any of your run-of-the-mill, typical space-program-type issues, I am well-equipped to solve them.

I also happen to be a huge science fiction fan. Books, movies, TV shows, radio programs: I love them all. If we run into any unexpected problems, such as first contact, facehuggers, flux capacitors on a forced feedback loop or the like, again, I’m your go-to guy when it comes to dealing with it.

I am led to understand it can take a great deal of time and patience to get into a spacesuit. Well, I’m covered there too: I have five-year olds I regularly dress (they stubbornly refuse to learn how to do it themselves, the bastards), and if that doesn’t prove patience and perseverance, well, I don’t know what does.

Also, as just mentioned, I have two five-year olds at home who are stubborn and unwilling to dress themselves. I am really motivated to embark upon an extended trip. The further away from my home, the better, and you can’t get much further than low Earth orbit.

At least, with our current crop of spacecraft. You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to warp drives.

No idea.

And as a responsible, loving father of young children, I am eager to not leave them (permanently) fatherless. So you can count on me to avoid taking any reckless risks while in space.

Yup, I definitely won’t be forgetting to close that airlock door after a spacewalk.

In fact, I’m so reluctant to leave my children (permanently) fatherless that you will need to hire some muscle to actually get me into the launch vehicle. But I promise, once I’m in the vacuum of space and the only chance of safely returning is complete and total cooperation, you won’t find a more reliable and industrious astronaut.

By the way, a fresh-faced Daddy and his two young kids?

Photo op gold.

Plus I just had my teeth whitened. Don’t want that to go to waste, do you?

But lest you start thinking you should send my kids into space instead of me, let’s get back to what makes me a great candidate.

I may be that most dreaded of creatures, the pocket protector wearing engineer, but I’m not all awkward and uncomfortable around people, afraid to make eye contact and spewing jargon in lieu of meaningful communication.

I’m also an English minor. As this blog clearly demonstrates, I can (and will!) convey any sciency stuff we encounter to the masses, and in simple terms that even I can understand!

(Note: if there are complicated terms involved, you will need to simplify them for me before I can convey them to the masses. But it’s space, how complicated can things get?)

Lots of complaints from ungrateful astronauts about the food you provide them? Not from me! For the last six months, in an effort to bulk up, I’ve eaten only creatine powder, consumed straight from the jar with just a straw and a little water to lower the viscosity.

After six months of this, I don’t care what you send up with your astronauts. Cheese Whiz? Tang? Cricket dung? Don’t care. It can’t possibly be as dehumanizingly unfit for consumption as creatine sludge.

On a related note, my doctor keeps telling me to lose weight. I can’t think of a better in-your-face way to shut her up than to drop down to zero pounds. Am I right?

Which reminds me. Think of the endorsements you can get through me to help fund the space program. Weight Watchers alone ought to be willing to pay me millions upon my safe return.

We can call it the Weight Watchers NASA Certified Weightless Program. It’ll be huge!

I’ll cut you in for, say, ten percent?

And how can you judge an applicant without the context of current events?

You can’t, of course!

Which is why I am proud to state, for the record, that you have nothing to be worried about with me when it comes to Ebola. I haven’t been anywhere near Africa, let alone West Africa.

And Texas? I wouldn’t have my cremated remains sent to that state, let alone a viable, working body. So with me, you can rest easy, knowing the odds against my coming down with Ebola during a mission are astronomical!

Finally, if you still aren’t convinced of my bona fides, I will add only this:

If NASA can send monkeys and dogs into space, surely you can get me there too.

Though if any of those animals are available to talk about their experience, let me know. Like I said, I’m a little worried about leaving my kids fatherless, and talking to someone who’s been through the whole process would ease my nerves considerably.

And I’m really good with dogs.

Well, nice dogs.

Not dogs like mine. They’re jerks, and I don’t get along with them.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you and learning when I should report to space camp (by the way, I’ve always wanted to go to space camp).

Respectfully yours,

Ian M. Dudley

 
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Posted by on 27 October 2014 in Astronomy!, Science!

 

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#DSN50 II: Electromagnetic Boogaloo

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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NASA experiments with socialized Science – Thanks, Obama!

I recently returned from Southern California and the two-day NASA Social event #DSN50.

#DSN50 was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and as part of the event I was lucky enough to tour both JPL in Pasadena and the Goldstone desert facility that has a number of large antennas on-site.

It was awesome. And eye-opening.

At this point, the court-appointed lawyers have instructed me to point new readers to my blog site banner. Particularly, the bit mentioning mercury. And no, I’m not talking about the Mercury program.

Just so your expectations of accuracy are properly calibrated.

Besides, accuracy is overrated.

Unless you work at JPL, in which case, carry on, please.

On the flight down, I looked out my window to see this amazing sight:

I could feel their eyes on my neck. Their telescopically enhanced eyes!

That’s no double rainbow – it’s a bull’s-eye!

At first, I took this as a good omen for the trip ahead. But then I wondered, what if it’s a Strategic Defense Initiative targeting laser locked onto our plane?

I attempted to alert the flight crew to this potential threat, but all my efforts led to was detention upon landing at Burbank airport.

Fortunately, a check of my psychiatric history led to all charges being dropped, and I was released in time to still attend the celebratory events at JPL.

After registering, we were guided to the JPL control room. I got to sit in the very room where the Curiosity rover (among other missions) was tracked and, well, controlled.

I think I really annoyed the people around me with the constant muttering.

Under my breath, I kept saying, “Ten, Nine, Ignition Sequence Start, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Zero, All engines running, liftoff! We have a liftoff thirty-two minutes past the hour!”

It was a cool feeling, but when I started powering up the computer in front of me and pressing buttons, I was pulled aside and given a stern talking to about firing attitude adjusters on the New Horizons probe.

We were part of a broadcast for NASA TV, which coincidentally was also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network.

It was a huge production, seemingly lavish in its scale (Near-Earth Object Radar Scientist Marina Brozovic brought asteroids to show!), but it turns out they keep the costs down by paying everyone with peanuts.

I prefer honey roasted myself, but honey roasted peanuts are credited for the Mars Climate Orbiter failure

Our host, Veronica McGregor, shows us a typical JPL paycheck. Dammit, unsalted! Again!

During filming, I noticed that the cameras didn’t stay on me. In fact, they were hardly ever on me.

As the star of the show, I couldn’t understand this. When I flagged down the host, she gave me a strange look and then patiently explained to me that yes, I was the star, but in order to protect the delicate egos of the JPL staff and other attendees, they had to make it look like I was an incidental part of the production.

This made sense, and I resigned myself to relative obscurity during the rest of the show, even forgoing the song and dance number I’d planned for the end.

You guys really missed out on that one, let me tell you.

But even without my performance, it was a fascinating program to watch, and I suspect it retains its fascination even when not watched live and in person, but through a TV screen. So I recommend you check it out:

This image is from the NASA broadcast, so they probably own it or something

Despite the lack of focus on yours truly, I do appear…in the background

Another benefit of the trip was a journey to the center of the Universe. At first, I was worried – my flight home was the next day – but the trip was really short.

Did you know the center of the Universe is in Pasadena? I didn’t, but based on how people drive there, I’m guessing the native Pasadenians do.

Their first choice for slogan, 'consider doing timid things, but if it seems unlikely to succeed, skip it' didn't test well.

Gravity is different in the center of the universe – I felt light and giddy standing there

Five minutes before the event started, they were all watching college basketball on those screens. Except for one screen showing a cricket game.

The Control Room at the Center of the Universe is surprisingly close to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I’ll be honest. I thought the center of the Universe would be more … space-y … and less LCD panel-y. But I’m not a scientist.

Not since they revoked my license, anyway.

After the broadcast, there was a photo-op with NASA celebrity Bobak Ferdowsi, otherwise known as the NASA Mohawk Guy.

I tried to get a mohawk just like his, but my barber just shook his head and said, "Nope, you don't have the head or hair to pull that style off."

If you don’t know who the guy on the right is, you are dead to me. If you don’t know who the guy on the left is, well, that just hurts my feelings.

After I photobombed Bobak’s portraiture session, I was escorted outside for the tour of other sites at JPL.

Those other sites consisted of a lot of cool places, including the Mars Yard, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and the JPL Museum.

Confound these stairs!

I go to great effort to come down to this event and this is how you repay me?

They require effort to ascend!

You make me walk up stairs?

But before I talk about those, I want to talk about stairs.

There are a lot of stairs at JPL.

Now if you listen to the budget-hawkish NASA naysayers, you’d think everyone at JPL tooled around on their own personal rover.

Let me put that rumor to rest right now. I only saw one person riding a rover between office buildings, and frankly, given the anti-psychotic drugs the Burbank airport police administered during my detention, it is entirely possible I imagined that.

Besides, the rovers are too big to fit in most of the hallways.

But to support the more pedestrian mode of travel in use at JPL, there are stairs galore.

What impressed me most are the stairs currently under development at JPL.

Oh, to be sure, there are old stairs, gathering dust and waiting for retrofits and upgrades, but JPL also has new stairs.

Exciting stairs.

Gravity-defying stairs.

Sadly, as they are still under development, I was not allowed to photograph any of these new-fangled modes of ascent and descent.

In fact, prior to rounding one corner, we were all required to put on blindfolds so we couldn’t see a particularly advanced prototype we needed to use to get to the JPL Museum.

But if the smooth, effortless nature of my traversal of those particular steps is any indication, in the future people will take the stairs in lieu of seeing a therapist, and ski lifts everywhere will be replaced with these springy, refreshing wonders.

I look forward to the day I can tell my grandchildren (assuming I have any and the inevitable restraining orders are lifted) that I was there, at JPL, at the beginning of the Staircase Renaissance.

I wish I could say more, but the NDA I signed is quite explicit about the painful consequences if I let slip any more information.

The Mars Yard was a lot less Mars-like than I expected. For one thing, there was air there. Breathable air. Now I may have had my scientist card pulled out of my hands and cut up right in front of me, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t much air on Mars.

And there was way more gravity in the Mars Yard than you’d find on Mars.

In fact, it was pretty close to Earth gravity.

The weather on Mars on this particular morning was a partly cloudy 18 degress Celsius. Or Centigrade, if you're measuring it old school.

Apparently there are a lot of sheds on the surface of Mars too. Who knew? They’re a total mystery to NASA.

Now you can’t try a new maneuver on a Mars rover without testing it first. What if something goes wrong? You can hardly call roadside assistance and ask for a tow truck to come over and right an overturned Mars rover.

I asked. You can’t.

You want to test it on a sibling rover that you aren’t worried about wrecking.

So clearly the only way to truly test how well a new maneuver will work is to send a duplicate rover to Mars and try your routines out on that one first.

When I asked for confirmation on this, the guide sighed and then explained that while NASA had considered this option, in the end it was deemed too expensive and they decided to make do with the less-than-ideal mock-up here on Earth.

This, of course, was little consolation to the poor test rover who had her heart set on going to Mars. I did my best not to bring up the subject in her presence.

The only reason I survived the rover onslaught? Maggie's engine didn't turn over the first couple of times so I was able to hide behind a simulated Marian escarpment.

Jamie Catchen attempts to explain why she chose to aid and abet the robot armies just before flipping on the killbot pictured here, affectionately known as Maggie. The Mars Yard was never so red as it became in the next few moments.

Our JPL hosts, under the command of the robot rover sentries suddenly popping up all over the campus, next took us to the SAF.

No, not a safe place to hide from the malevolent rovers. The Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Basically, a giant cleanroom where they make new spacecraft and robots to crush the human uprising.

You can just make out the giant robot arm in the bottom left of this picture. Be glad it isn't clear enough to see its uncompromising, vicous strength, no doubt to be employed crushing hapless humans

In the SAF is where they build spaceships and rovers that will boldly go where no robotic overlord has gone before

Sadly, the latest satellite being built, called SMAP and supposedly intended to do climate study work, had been whisked behind the walls of a electromagnetically sealed inner chamber in the SAF as part of testing or some such.

I’m no fool. The roving rovers didn’t want us to see the latest killbot, no doubt. So it goes.

During a lull in the rover patrols, we furtively made our way to the last stop on our tour: the JPL Museum (and on the way used those magical, mystery stairs that I will dream about for the rest of my life).

There I was treated to an amazing interactive exhibit the JPL employees affectionately call Randii Wessen.

This life-like automaton engaged the audience, taking questions and keeping our egos in check by informing us that, kilogram for kilogram (damn JPL and their insistence on metric!), there is more life in the form of microbes in the rocks under the surface than all the life above ground combined.

This was my first moment of feeling puny and insignificant. The second moment came the next day, at Goldstone.

I haven't seen figure eights like this since the last winter Olympics!

Randii is either describing the sun’s path as viewed from the surface of Uranus with its 90 degree tilted axis, or dancing the Hokey Pokey. Or maybe both.

In all seriousness, it was an awesome day spent surrounded by smart, amazing, and really cool people, both my fellow guests and the JPL staff. Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget.

Unless I hit my head and get amnesia.

That would really suck.

Up next in Part 2: The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex or What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

 
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Posted by on 5 April 2014 in Astronomy!, Science!, Technopocalypse

 

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Getting your kids into Astronomy on a budget

Every modern parent today wants what’s best for their kids.

The best clothes, the best cars to drive them to school in, and, speaking of which, the best education.

But let’s face it, with the condition of public schools in this country today, that education is gonna need a home team advantage.

By which I mean, we need to get our kids excited about school.

In particular, the Sciences.

Because not enough kids are into the Sciences these days, which means if your kids pursue it now, they’ll be running things tomorrow, when you need a rich and powerful child who can afford to put you in a nice rest home instead of one of those scary, bed-sore ridden ones.

This looks like another case of backyard Astronomy to the rescue!

Except good backyard Astronomy, like good schools, costs money.

And time. But I’m more worried about the money right now.

What about the parents on a budget?

The parents who can’t afford the high-end, trendy Armani or Coach telescope?

The parents who have the money, but are too cheap to spend it, even on an entry-level Meade or Celestron telescope?

Well, I found a solution. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 (Brawny-brand) paper towel roll
  • 1 pencil
  • 1 computer with monitor
  • 1 internet connection
  • 1 image viewing program
  • 1 extension cord (optional)

Here’s how it works:

1) Take an empty (Brawny) paper towel roll. (It is recommended, but not absolutely required, that there be no paper towels on the roll). This is your optical tube.

2) Stab a pencil through the middle of the roll.

3) Stick the extruding end of the pencil into the ground in your backyard. Make sure one end of the (Brawny) paper towel roll is pointed up towards the sky. This is your tripod.

4) Stick one end of the extension cord into the lower end of the (Brawny) paper towel roll. Run the other end to your computer, shoving it into a port or something to make it look like it’s connected to the computer.
(Now I said the extension cord was optional, but seriously, if you’re too cheap to buy a real telescope, do you really think your kids will believe you ‘opted’ for a wireless (Brawny) paper towel roll? Yeah, me neither.)

5) Go onto the internet and download a bunch of pictures from outer space. You know, planets and stars and black holes and stuff.

6) Make a big production of showing your kids the ‘new’, ‘computer-controlled’ ‘telescope’.

7) Gather them around the computer and start paging through the space pictures you downloaded, ooh-ing and ahh-ing with each one. Click on arrow keys a bunch of times in-between pictures, to ‘drive’ the ‘telescope’ to the next ‘celestial object’.

8) Have a few facts for each picture handy so you can lecture the kiddos on what they’re supposed to be learning from the Sciences.

Here’s a screenshot of my approach in action. The window on the left is my ‘live’ ‘telescope’ ‘feed’.

So far, they're still more bad than good.

When the kiddos see this one, I tell ’em, “That’s Santa’s orbital observation station, where he watches you 24/7 to make sure you’re being good. So be good for goodness sake!”

Now your kids think they’re doing real Astronomy, and it looks so good (assuming you downloaded nice pictures) they’ll actually get excited about it. Trust me, this approach looks way better than using a real telescope in your backyard.

As an added advantage, this is the sort of astronomy you can do during the day! If your kids are smart enough to question this, tell them it’s a radio telescope, or an electron telescope. They’ll be so awe-struck about the impending Science that they’ll buy it.

If you really want to get them jazzed, get all fancy and neatly print ‘TELESCOPE’ or ‘AWESOME TELESCOPE’ on the (Brawny) paper towel roll before you start. Heck, if you’re artistically inclined, add some flames or starbursts or something sciency along the side.

Even if you can't afford toilet paper, you probably know someone who can

Can’t afford paper towels? What about toilet paper? Just remember to remove all traces of the original purpose.

It’ll totally psych your kids.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Geez, that’s brilliant, Ian, your are a certified uber-genius, but what happens when my kids get a little older and try this out for themselves? Won’t they be bitterly disappointed, and maybe even a tiny bit mad at me when they stab a paper towel roll on a pencil and it doesn’t work as a telescope?”

Relax, it’s covered, if you used a Brawny paper towel roll. Take a moment to inspect their rig, and then nod knowingly and say, “Ah, I see the problem. You used a cheap store-brand paper towel. Their tubes aren’t designed to be used as telescopes. Not like Brawny-brand paper towels. It’s a classic amateur blunder. Don’t feel too stupid, everyone who’s dumb makes this mistake.”

I guarantee, they will feel so lame that they won’t try again for weeks, which gives you time to come up with some sort of fancy lens system you can cram into a paper towel tube.

You’re welcome, future Astronomers and Scientists of America.

You’re welcome.

One could argue I pulled this one out of my arse.

You wouldn’t believe the amazing images this telescope captures.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me! I may not be available as I pretend to operate a telescope, but my books are under no such disadvantage.
 

The Santa Claus Gang:

The Santa Claus Gang: A Marlowe and the Spacewoman short story

Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

Marlowe and the Spacewoman

Kleencut (FREE, and totally appropriate for demon-spawn toddlers!):

So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

 
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Posted by on 10 August 2013 in Astronomy!, Parenting, Science!

 

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