Funding Opportunity a “no brainer”

As Congress debates NASA’s budget there’s been some talk about pulling the plug on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Seattle-based Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs says that would be pure folly.

“We get so much bang for such a little buck for planetary sciences,” Hobbs says. He notes that Opportunity is a mere 600 meters away from what he calls “the promised land of clay” in the Endeavor crater—stratified clay that will give scientists a wealth of information about the geological history of Mars. It’s also a beautiful spot.

“For the photography alone it should be worth going, for the science alone it should be worth going,” Hobbs says. “Put the two together, to me, it’s a no-brainer” to keep Opportunity operating.

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity took this self portrait in late March as wind storms cleaned its solar panels. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU

Hobbs notes that it’s just such a geological feature that caused scientists to pick Gale Crater as the destination for the Curiosity rover, which should reach its primary target later this year. Hobbs adds that, to some degree, the existence of Curiosity is a threat to Opportunity.

“If they shut down Opportunity it will be a victim of its own success and the success of all the things that JPL does,” he says.

Hobbs says Opportunity also may be a bit of a victim of over-delivering on its promise. The mission was originally slated to last 90 days, in large part because planners—a superstitious lot—didn’t want to jinx the mission by predicting a long life. Hobbs notes that we build robust spacecraft in America, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out in space.

“You’re going into an extreme environment, and who knows what could happen? You could get hit by a meteorite and be vaporized. Mission over right there,” he says. “You could not land, which is actually the biggest risk and why they sent two” rovers to land on Mars in 2004: Opportunity and Spirit, which worked until 2010. The longest anyone dared suggest the twin rovers would last is a year.

“I think everybody assumed that the first Martian winter would kill them,” Hobbs says. “They certainly thought that a dust storm would kill them. It’s blowing everybody away at this point that Opportunity is still around 10 years later. Nobody expected this.”

In fact, he says anyone who had suggested a rover would last for a decade would have been drummed out of the scientific community.

“They would have been dismissed as completely wacko!” he laughs. “Yet, here we are!”

In fact, Opportunity is working better than it has in several years. A recent wind storm cleaned off its solar panels, and they’re generating higher power than they have in a while.

Hobbs has a hunch that Opportunity ultimately will be funded. It’s continuing work on real science and the public’s love for the rover would likely generate an outcry were the plug pulled.

Stay tuned!

Further reading:


An Earth Day plea to help spot killer asteroids

Last year’s explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor in the skies over Russia notwithstanding, most people still think that asteroid impacts on Earth are exceedingly rare events. In fact, over the last 13 years the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization has detected 26 explosions of between one and 600 kilotons.

The B612 Foundation, established to give us some early warning of asteroid strikes, used the backdrop of Earth Day to release a new video that graphically depicts the data from these impacts. The video notes that “our current strategy for dealing with asteroid impacts is blind luck.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Ed Lu, CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, at a news conference held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. “We humans can actually go and change this, and there is nothing stoping us from doing that.”

The foundation is working to launch the Sentinel Mission space telescope to detect possibly one million or more undiscovered asteroids in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. The mission is planned for launch in 2018.

Lu, Jones, and Anders at MOF.

Former astronaut Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation, spoke at an Earth Day news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle about the organization’s plan for detecting Earth-threatening asteroids at an Earth Day. Seated behind Lu are former astronauts Tom Jones, left, and Bill Anders, who shot the famed “Earthrise” photo behind them from Apollo 8 at the Moon. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is what Earth Day is all about,” Lu said. “It’s looking at the big picture. It’s realizing that sometimes the most important thing isn’t what’s right in front of your face; it’s what you see when you look up.”

Lu said the object of the video isn’t to scare people.

“I think you should be inspired to do something,” he said. “The point of it is to roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Let’s just solve this.’”

Sentinel is based largely on the design of the Kepler Space Telescope. It would be launched into an orbit near that of Venus and would look back at Earth with infrared instruments in order to more readily spot asteroids. Lu said it will be able to spot a charcoal briquet at a distance of nearly 30,000 miles.

Former astronaut Tom Jones, president of the Association of Space Explorers, said his group is working with the UN to build international acceptance and cooperation in the effort. The association hopes to see an asteroid deflection demonstration—a process as easy as ramming a spacecraft into the object—within a decade.

“On Earth Day we focus on understanding and protecting our environment,” Jones noted. “It’s time to use our space skills to change the workings of the solar system and make sure that we protect humanity through our technology in space flight.”

A third former astronaut joined the panel to support the effort. Bill Anders shot the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 that is sometimes called the most influential environmental image ever. While fairly new to the B612 family, Anders supports the mission, noting that it’s something NASA isn’t doing right now.

“These civilians have stepped forward and are doing something with their post-space careers that I view as quite significant, and I’m honored to be a small part of it,” Anders said.

It will cost about $250 million to build Sentinel. While Lu avoided giving any exact figures, he said they’re about 15 percent of the way to that in their fundraising. Noting that the cost is barely that of a freeway overpass, he expressed confidence that the foundation will reach that fundraising goal in time to meet their launch schedule.

“This is the only wholesale natural disaster that I know how to prevent, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Lu said.

More reading


Seattle as sundial capital of North America

“I am passionate about sundials,” says Woody Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. “I have a goal to turn Seattle into the sundial capital of North America.”

Most of us don’t think of Seattle as the capital of anything related to the Sun, and we’re especially grumpy about it in the midst of a relentlessly gloppy March. But Sullivan points out that the second half of our year has long, clear days, and he observes that while people in, say, Phoenix often seek to escape from the Sun, we celebrate it.

“In Seattle, when the Sun comes out you go running out to see your sundial!” Sullivan says.

Sullivan gave a talk titled “Sundials Around Seattle and Beyond: Fascinating Mixtures of Astronomy, Art, Design, and History” at a recent meeting of the Eastside Astronomical Society in Bellevue. While the designation of sundial capital is hardly an official one, Sullivan thinks Seattle is on the way because of its large collection of interesting, well-cared-for public sundials.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

Sullivan’s academic interests include astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the history of astronomy. His passion for sundials came about almost by accident. When the UW was constructing a new physics/astronomy building in the early ’90s, he suggested that a sundial should be placed on one of its large, outside walls. The architects went for it, and Sullivan spent a couple of years supervising the design and installation of the sundial.

“This is what got me into sundials, and ever since my life has been changed,” he says.

Inspired by the design of a sundial at the Sorbonne in Paris, the UW dial is on a wall that faces southwest. That means it’s design is asymmetrical, “which I think is more interesting from an aesthetic point of view,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan notes that all good sundials have a motto, and the one for the UW dial is “What you seek is but a shadow.”

“I thought that was good for a university,” he says. “It feels like it’s making progress.”

In a nod to our northwest weather the dial also is inscribed with a little poem:

I thrive on the Sun
Can’t work in the rain
So if I’m beclouded
Please come back again.

There’s a wealth of information about the UW dial on the web, including a webcam.

If you visit a Seattle sundial you will notice that the it doesn’t agree with your watch.

“Sundials do not tell you clock time,” Sullivan explains. “Your watch is off because we keep the same time as the people in Spokane. That ain’t right! Solar noon”—the moment when the Sun is due south and highest in the sky—”happens there 20 minutes before it happens here.”

Mars dials.

Sullivan helped design pancam calibration targets like this one that also serve as sundials on the three rovers on Mars.

Sullivan gave us a look at numerous other sundials in the area, and he’s had a hand in the design and construction of many of them. They’re in parks and at schools and even on picnic tables. He supported the Battle Point Astronomical Association in its successful effort to fund a new sundial on Bainbridge Island which is scheduled to be completed this summer.

In addition to all of those here on Earth, Sullivan also helped design three sundials that are now on Mars. The rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity all have targets that are used for color calibration of their cameras in light and in shade. Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is now CEO of the Planetary Society, saw a mockup of the target, a disk with a post in the middle of it, and immediately thought it should be a sundial. Nye got Sullivan involved in the design. Coincidentally, Tyler Nordgren, astronomer who keynoted the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s annual banquet in January, was also part of the team that put it together.

Woody Sullivan

Woody Sullivan brought a variety of small sundial samples to his talk, and the conversation continued well past the end of his formal presentation.

There’s also a bit of baseball on the Red Planet. As Sullivan and Nye share a passion for baseball in addition to their love of sundials, they made weight-saving cutouts in the bases of the Mars dials in the shape of home plate. Seattle’s Museum of Flight has Sullivan’s copy of the Mars dial on display in its space gallery.

Sullivan’s talk was tremendously well received. One EAS member noted that she switched her scheduled night at the opera to be at the talk instead. Staff at the library at which the talk was held booted us out well after closing time, and even at that the discussion continued in the parking lot for a good 45 minutes more.

Check out Sullivan’s sundial trail website for a guide to visiting Seattle sundials.

Other reading:


The destruction of Hogwarts and other science goofs in fiction

If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts existed in the real world and Professor Minerva McGonagall turned herself into a cat, it would blow the place to smithereens, according to Charles Adler, professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Adler, author of Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, spoke earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle. He said the school for wizards would be toast because author J.K. Rowling didn’t follow one of the basic laws of science.

“By transforming herself into a cat, she is not conserving mass,” Adler noted, figuring that the cat probably weighs at least 90 pounds less than does McGonagall.

“If you convert that into pure energy, what ever that means, how much energy does she have to get rid of to turn herself into a cat?” he asked. “The math is pretty easy: e=mc2. It turns out that basically you’ve got about 50 H-bombs of energy liberated when you do this. BOOM! There goes Hogwarts.”

Adler cuts Rowling some slack because the Potter books are pure fantasy. He is a big fan of science fiction and fantasy writing and says thinking about the accuracy of the science boosts his enjoyment of the genres. He doesn’t expect it to be completely accurate—it is fiction, after all—but he believes authors and their stories need to need to be reasonably grounded in reality.

“If you’re going to introduce something which is in variance with the laws of science, you have an obligation to explore how that idea is going to affect the world, how that idea is going to affect the story that you’re writing, how to make it consistent with everything else in the story,” Adler contended. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing fair with the reader.”

Chuck Adler

Chuck Adler. Photo: St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Adler agrees with the approach of Poul Anderson, one of his favorite sci-fi writers to whom Wizards, Aliens, and Starships is dedicated. Anderson felt authors should use the laws of science to devise plausible settings for their stories.

“If you try to actually make your story obey the laws of science, at least mostly, you will have a better story, and it will also serve up ideas for how the story can go,” Adler explained.

Science fiction often runs into trouble with economics, according to Adler. In Star Trek, it would be preposterously expensive to produce enough antimatter to run just one starship, much less a fleet of them. There’s a practical problem, too.

“If we build a spacecraft like this anywhere near the Earth, merely turning the starship on will destroy the Earth” because of the gamma radiation it would emit, Adler said.

Even the food service raises questions. Adler said that making a cup of Earl Grey, hot, in the replicator for Captain Picard  would burn up enough energy to brew about two billion cups of tea.

“I’m not sure why they’re doing it this way on the Enterprise,” Adler said. “It looks cool, I will grant you that.”

We asked Alder to talk about authors who he thought got it right, who were almost visionary in coming up with gadgets or story lines that became fact. His top-of-the-head list included Larry Niven, who came up with the notion of the cellular phone in his 1974 story The Mote in God’s Eye; Arthur Clarke, who came up with the idea of the communication satellite; and Olaf Stapledon, who turned out to have a great grasp of the scope of cosmological history.

Adler’s fascinating talk included lots of analysis of space travel and human exploration, the engineering challenges of building space elevators, and a lot of math behind the science and magic of sci-fi and fantasy. The book includes even more analysis of the science in science fiction.

You can purchase Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from the Seattle Astronomy Store.


BPAA shoots for summer solstice for sundial dedication

We received a nice package in the mail this week: a wonderful, clear-sky-blue Battle Point Astronomical Association Sundial t-shirt, the perk for our support of last year’s Indiegogo campaign that helped finalize funding for the project. (Here’s our story with details about the planned sundial.)

Sundial t-shirtBPAA reports that work on the sundial is progressing in earnest. They’ve completed the engineering on the foundation and are working with the artist on the details of the construction of the 12-foot-tall equatorial bowstring sundial near the association’s Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Once those are finalized they’ll arrive at the price for construction and get under way. They’re hoping to be able to dedicate the sundial on the summer solstice. In the meantime watch for the handsome t-shirts around town. They include the coordinates of the sundial so you’ll be able to find it easily once it is built!

You probably won’t get a t-shirt, but you can still donate to the sundial project by visiting the BPAA website. Make sure to designate your contribution for the sundial. Funds received in excess of the cost of the sundial will be applied to a planned plaza around it.

Sundials at EAS

Speaking of sundials, “Mr. Sundial” himself, UW astronomy Prof. Woody Sullivan, will be the guest speaker at Wednesday’s meeting of the Eastside Astronomical Society. Sullivan will give a talk titled, “Sundials Around Seattle and Beyond: Fascinating Mixtures of Astronomy, Art, Design and History.” Sullivan is a sundial buff who helped design the sundial on the southwest wall of the UW astronomy building as well as the small sundials used on the Mars Exploration Rovers that landed in 2004. He also has designed many sundials around Seattle, and created the Seattle Sundial Trail, mapping 21 sundials around the city. Sullivan lent his expertise to the video that supported the BPAA’s Indiegogo effort.

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Newport Way Library, 14250 SE Newport Way in Bellevue.

Watch the Seattle Astronomy Calendar to find out about space and astronomy events in the area, and visit the Seattle Astronomy Store to purchase our favorite astro books and gear.


Half the park is after dark

Tyler Nordgren wears many hats: astronomy professor, author, artist, photographer, national park curriculum designer, and night-sky ambassador. The author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks was the keynote speaker at the recent annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Nordgren, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Redlands in California, pegs his early interest in astronomy to his suburban-Portland grade school principal, who happened to be the uncle of astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar used his connections to bring NASA folks to the school for talks. Nordgren decided then that he wanted to be an astronaut, too. Then he was amazed by Carl Sagan’s TV series.

“When I saw Cosmos I realized why I wanted to be an astronaut, or if not an astronaut, to be an astronomer,” Nordgren said.

Coincidentally, Nordgren attended graduate school at Cornell University when Sagan was on the faculty. He never took a class from Sagan, but in one of his first teaching gigs Jeremy Sagan, Carl’s son, was in Nordgren’s class. He said Jeremy sat in the front row, asked a lot of questions, and then talked over the lectures with his famous dad. No pressure there.

“I learned to be on my toes!” Nordgren joked.

Chaco poster

Nordgren’s posters like this one for Chaco Culture National Historical Park help call attention to the importance of dark night skies in the parks.

A couple of events inspired Nordgren’s work in the national parks, which includes marvelous photography and a series of travel posters based on the style of the 1930s WPA graphics. The first was a visit to Palomar Observatory.

“My very first telescope was an eight-inch Celestron my father bought for me when I graduated from college,” Nordgren recalled. “My second telescope was the Palomar 200-inch” which he used in research about dark matter in spiral galaxies. When he returned 10 years later he was taken aback by the increased light pollution fueled by a housing boom in the area.

“It had been like a tidal wave of light had just swept out around the mountain,” he said. “It was stunning just how bad the skies now were at Palomar.”

Shortly after that trip, Nordgren celebrated gaining tenure by taking a trip to Yosemite National Park and attended an evening ranger talk about astronomy.

“For many, many people this was the first time they had seen a night sky, a truly pristine night sky,” Nordgren marveled.

He decided to spend an upcoming sabbatical in the National Park system helping rangers develop programs for park visitors to experience the night sky. He spent time in a dozen different parks over the course of 14 months, and came to realize that the preservation of the land that prevents development in the parks also, almost by accident, preserves the precious resource of truly dark skies. It’s a growing part of the appeal of the parks, articulated by the slogan “Half the park is after dark.”

“In those parks that offer night-sky programs the attendance they have is equal to if not better than the next two types of programs added together,” Nordgren noted. “Far and away these are the most popular ranger programs that are offered.”

Mars poster

Nordgren’s Mars poster

Much of Nordgren’s work is to link what people can see in the sky to what they see in the national parks. For example, he compares Mars to parks in the American Southwest; both Earth and the Red Planet have similar geology and chemistry. Yellowstone National Park has numerous geysers, similar to those on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

One of Nordgren’s favorite parks is the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, which was recognized last year as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. He noted that many of the ancient structures there serve as astronomical markers ala Stonehenge.

“People paid attention to the sky, people have been doing that for centuries, millennia,” Nordgen said. “Unfortunately we’ve made it tremendously difficult to keep doing that.” As evidence he showed a photo of the sky above Chaco, which is still impressively dark and starry, but all around light pollution is encroaching from the cities of Gallup, Crownpoint, Albuquerque, and a nearby coal mine. Thus a big part of his aim is to get communities near the parks to recognize that the night sky is an attraction, and to encourage them to be good stewards of the dark sky. His spiel goes just as well for any city, regardless of its proximity to a national park.

“All that light that shines above the horizon doesn’t do anything useful,” Nordgren said. “So why are we lighting up the sky? There is nothing we need fear up there, so why are we paying for that light? Why are we generating that light? Why are we burning the natural resources to create that light?”

There really aren’t great answers to those questions, and Nordgren said the solutions are within reach.

“This can be a win-win situation for all of us,” he said. “We can get the stars back, we can save money, we can save natural resources. It really doesn’t have to be stars versus safety.”

Stars Above, Earth Below is available at this link or from the Seattle Astronomy store. Check out Nordgren’s posters and other artwork on his website.


Someone you know will travel in space soon

Leaders of four private, Northwest-based commercial spaceflight companies got together earlier this month at the Museum of Flight to talk about what we will see in their industry in the coming year. While they have some fascinating events on the docket for 2014, the conversation got most interesting when they talked about the not-much-more-distant future.

“I think we will expand out into space faster than people might realize,” predicted Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc. “It’s less than five years, I think, before everyone in this room will know someone who has been higher than 100 kilometers.”


L-R: Erika Wagner of Blue Origin, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, Roger Myers of Aerojet, and Phil Brzytwa of Spaceflight, Inc. spoke Jan. 18 at the Museum of Flight about the future of space exploration.

Erika Wagner, business development manager of Blue Origin, said the destination is cool, but the passenger list is even better.

“Where we’re going next is more exciting than ever because space and the whole frontier is becoming democratized,” Wagner said. “It’s no longer the realm of billion- or trillion-dollar economy nations, or even of millionaire tourists; it’s getting to the point where everyone in this room can have access to space in their own way.”

Wherever anyone is going Aerojet Rocketdyne is probably helping them get there. Dr. Roger Myers, executive director for advanced in-space programs at the company, noted that “rockets from Redmond” have powered many space missions, including Cassini at Saturn and the New Horizons spacecraft that will arrive at Pluto next year.

“There’s a lot going on in 2014 and beyond,” Myers said. “There’s a great future in this business.”

Myers said that true exploration of space is going to require a variety of rockets, other propulsion systems, and transportation options.

“If we’re going to expand the human economic sphere, if we’re going to become a species that exists beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to have a transportation infrastructure that mimics what we have on the Earth,” he said.

Aerojet has rocket engines on the recently launched MAVEN spacecraft headed for Mars, and also designed engines for the Orion craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test flight this year. Blue Origin is busy testing its BE-3 liquid-hydrogen engine. Planetary Resources anticipates the launch of its first ARKYD space telescope this year, thanks in part to a Kickstarter fundraiser last year. While others build rockets, Spaceflight, Inc. is working to get your package delivered to orbit.

Photo (1)“We want to become the or the UPS providing delivery of cargo to space,” said Phil Brzytwa, head of sales and business development for the company. “We want our customers to be able to pay by the seat not pay for the entire launch vehicle.” Spaceflight, Inc. works the details and can send up numerous small satellites, cube-sats, and other smaller projects as part of a single payload, making things less complicated for everyone.

Many folks still find personal spaceflight and asteroid mining to be pretty far-fetched concepts, but Lewicki said we should not be so shocked at the rapid advance of technology.

“One hundred fifty years ago there wasn’t an internal combustion engine, and the idea of a steam-powered train was high-tech, and was getting us rapidly across the countryside faster than a horse could,” he noted. It didn’t take so long to get to horseless carriages and lighter-than-air flying machines. Lewicki doesn’t think affordable space travel and mining the solar system for resources are alien concepts.

“If we can conceive of it we can make it happen,” he said. “There’s nothing in the laws of physics that says these things aren’t possible. It’s just a matter of bit-by-bit finding the best use of them, finding the markets and the economies that drive the need for them, and then making them scalable enough so that everyone can benefit from them.”

“We are living during extremely exciting times, the likes of which will be written about in the history books,” Lewicki added, because “this is the time when our species got off the planet.”