Of Shuttles and Star Parties


The space shuttle Discovery aboard its transport, Tuesday 4/17/2012. I totally stole this photo from my classmate, Jay Thompson, who was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C. to take this picture!

After the space shuttle Discovery was ferried across the sky on the back of a specially-equipped 747 from The Kennedy Space Center to its new home at the Smithsonian, I was filled with a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. I grew up along with the shuttle program, as well as anything else that had to do with NASA and space. I probably watched close to every launch on the news if I wasn’t in school when they occurred.

If you asked most little girls in my kindergarten class what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would generally get a range of answers from ballerina to teacher, while a select few would opt for attorney or doctor. But, I was the only one who wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. This desire and love of all things space and flight-related was in part later fostered by my amazing fourth grade teacher who not only started and headed my elementary school’s ‘Young Astronaut’ program, but also built a ¼ size scale model of the space shuttle’s cockpit. She expertly attached white and black plastic sheets together that could be essentially blown up with big fans, like a giant balloon, and reinforced with plastic tubing so that it maintained its shape. We could crawl in and out of this “inflatable shuttle,” which we had to blow up in the gym because it was so big, and would have mock missions inside of it after school. It was a thing of beauty, and I don’t think any other classroom in the world had anything like it.

Anyway, aside from Mrs. Greenstein, my dad had always been a major role model in my life first and foremost. He used to be a pilot, and I always remember seeing him fly over my house in his little Piper Archer II. I would know it was him because he would quickly bank the plane back and forth, essentially wiggling the wings; a pilot’s wave from the air. I would point him out to my friends- that was MY dad and he was the coolest. He also has always been an amateur astronomer, and on summer evenings we would set up the telescope and spend the night looking at whatever we could find. He would even wake my mom and me up at whatever super early hour in the morning to see a meteor shower, and helped me put those little plastic glowing stars on my ceiling based on real constellations illuminated from his mini star projector.

These memories are some of the fondest of my childhood. In fact, Mrs. Greenstein would often invite him to come to our Young Astronaut meetings and talk about what it was like to be a pilot, and then he would also talk about how airfoils worked. Another fond memory was a tradition that we all did every year, where my classmates and I, along with our parents and Mrs. Greenstein, would get together at some point in the summer and have what we called a “star party.”

One of the reasons I am writing this post is to spread the idea if you haven’t heard of star parties already- they really are a lot of fun. We would go out to a field in a local park on a nice clear evening, bring as many telescopes as we could find, and aim each at something different in the sky. We would bring snacks, hot chocolate, and flashlights covered with red cellophane to reduce their brightness. We would spend the evening marveling at what we saw, while the adults taught us lessons about the cosmos. It was a humbling experience- realizing just how small we were in the vast scheme of things, and just how amazing the universe is when you are out there looking at it in all its splendor.

This sense of wonder as well as camaraderie has always inspired me to pursue science in school in one form or another. Whether from the grand scale of the universe to the microscopic scale in a biology lab, science has been a part of who I am. However, the National Center on Education Statistics has shown that only a small percentage of high school and college students choose to major in what they call ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. According to their research, students in these majors make up only 16% of all students throughout the country. The main reason that they feel this is the case is due to the sheer difficulty of these fields and the ensuing lack of interest due to this. The center also fears that soon there will be such a lack of students in these fields that the number of people available upon graduation will not be sufficient to meet the U.S. workforce demand.

This needs to change. I feel that if students can be properly inspired, they will have more of a drive to do well in STEM fields. I also feel that a love of science doesn’t just develop overnight. Perhaps an interest may, but a deep love is something that is nurtured over time. Let us find more teachers like Mrs. Greenstein and people like my dad to inspire kids to love science and to want to do well in it. Let parents get more involved in their kids’ education. Let the next generation experience and understand the sense of wonder that I felt throughout my childhood and want to strive to learn more. Maybe it can all start with star parties.

The Story Told By Fingers That Don’t Wrinkle

A boy who researchers called F.S. had a severed nerve in his arm. They did not mention his age, and his case is buried deep in a study published in 1936. But that severed nerve exposed an unusual phenomenon that has been a curiosity for many scientists since.

The nerve, called the median, is connected to the thumb, index and middle fingers. So, for F.S., those three fingers were numb. Scientists Thomas Lewis and George Pickering watched F.S. closely, hoping to learn more about the nerve’s function, and they found something bizarre and unexpected. When immersed in water, the fingers with feeling wrinkled, but the three numb fingers remained smooth. In fact, Lewis and Pickering wrote, wrinkling in F.S.’s entire palm was “almost sharply separated by a line” from his wrist to the base of his middle finger. After a few months, the boy healed naturally and full feeling returned to his hand.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Flagstaffotos

The study, published in 1936 in the journal Clinical Science, brought a new mystery to the surface. Common perception is that wrinkling is a local effect on the skin, unconnected to rest of the body. But if that was the case, why would a nerve that stretches down the length of the arm be involved? Decades of research have since provided some answers, and some scientists believe these answers could help doctors diagnose diseases that disrupt the nervous system.

Einar Wilder-Smith, a neurologist at the National University of Singapore, has done research looking into the wrinkling effect over the past decade. His research suggests that finger wrinkling relies on nerve endings that entangle sweat glands and blood vessels in our fingers. “We always think of nerve fibers as motor function or sensory function,” says Wilder-Smith. “But there are many in the background that go unnoticed, and possibly only get noticed by wrinkling.” Many nerve fibers sit on key crossroads for blood, small arteries called arterioles which lead to tinier blood vessels. These nerves either tell blood vessels to constrict or allow them to relax depending on signals like temperature.

Palms are also riddled with sweat glands, especially in fingers. These sweat glands can act as a two-way street; not only does sweat come out, but water can go in. When water intrudes on a sweat gland, the water comes in contact with nerve fibers. The nerve fibers are collectively jostled from their sleep and begin to fire all at once, telling the arterioles to constrict. The arterioles constrict as a group and for a stretch of time, leaving an empty space between the blood vessels and the skin. The skin on the finger tips then slowly sinks inward, creating a set of folds like a collapsed tent. The end result is the prune-like fingertips that fascinate children and scientists alike.

So, unwrinkled fingers could mean that a major nerve has been entirely disabled, as was the case with F.S. “Cutting nerve is like cutting a power supply to your socket,” said Wilder-Smith. But it could also signify a less direct kind of nerve damage, such as the corrupting effect of a larger disease such as leprosy or diabetes. Because of this, some doctors are already using the wrinkle-effect as a diagnostic tool.

Andre van Rij, a surgeon with the University of Otago in New Zealand, sometimes uses the test took look for nerve damage from diabetes in patients’ legs and feet. Since sweating is also reliant on working nerves, he said, the classical way to look for general nerve damage is to see if feet sweat. The method is called the iodine and starch test; doctors swab iodine on the patient’s skin, let it dry, sprinkle on some white starch powder, then put the foot in a plastic bag. If the foot sweats, the iodine turns the starch dark blue, and doctors know there is nerve damage. But van Rij says it’s easier to look for wrinkling on feet. “It’s easy just putting someone’s foot in warm water, and you see if they don’t wrinkle,” he said.

Another study shows some correlation between finger wrinkling and the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord. A 2001 study out of Tel Aviv University in Israel compared finger wrinkling in 18 Parkinson’s disease patients with nine healthy patients. The researchers counted the wrinkles on their research subjects’ fingers one at a time, and found that while those suffering from Parkinson’s still wrinkled, they wrinkled less than people without the disease. Wilder-Smith said the Parkinson’s study isn’t necessarily useful as a diagnostic tool.  “The differences are much more subtle,” he said. But the study does demonstrate the connectivity of nerves throughout the body, he said, because when part of the central nervous system breaks down, still-working networks of nerves are more likely to try to compensate for what was lost.

Wilder-Smith has been looking for ways to use wrinkling as a diagnostic tool while avoiding water altogether. Soaking a hand in warm water can be inconvenient, he said, because it takes about half an hour of soaking for skin to wrinkle, which is about as long as a conventional neurological exam. He’s taken to using an anesthetic cream that causes blood vessel constriction called EMLA. Wilder-Smith says the cream produces wrinkles faster than water does and can be applied directly to the fingertips. “We’re not sticking hands in buckets anymore because it’s much more practical to put EMLA on the skin,” he said.

Supersonic Conga Line

A sounding rocket launches March 27 as part of the ATREX mission from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility [Photo Courtesy of NASA

About two weeks ago I visited Fells Point, a neighborhood on the north side of Baltimore Harbor. Fells is one of those old-town districts with brick-paved roads, clothing and art shops, and taverns that offer live music seven days a week. But I wasn’t there for food and drink. I came to watch the night sky glow in a way I’d never seen before.

A little before midnight, I sat on the wooden boardwalk near the docks behind Henderson’s Wharf Inn. Few sounds interrupted the quiet. Just a pair of ducks quacking as they strolled through the water among the boat slips, and a fish jumping now and then. The water was so smooth that the nearby sailboats didn’t even rock, eliminating the usual sound of metal rigging pinging against masts.

My camera sat atop a tripod next to me, and I split my time between punching the refresh button on my laptop’s web browser and scanning the sky to the southeast. On a launchpad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility about 100 miles away, five rockets were ready and waiting to launch.

I was in the best viewing-spot I could muster without driving an hour. The bright lights of downtown were behind me and the broad harbor to the southeast kept my view clear. Even the ships on the south side of the harbor were distant enough that their silhouettes weren’t worth complaining about. On my laptop was the NASA Wallops website, from which I was trying to squeeze a flight-status update. The launch window this night was from midnight to 3 a.m.

As the minutes ticked away, I worried that NASA would delay the launch for the third night in a row. I waited, but I am not a patient person. Tolerant? Sure. Patient? Not even close. Less than an hour passed before I gave up and drove home to get some sleep. I found out the next day that the launch was indeed delayed. A few days later, I discovered something else: I wasn’t alone in my eagerness to see the launch.

Three things made the launch worth watching. First, they’re rockets. Second, all five rockets were launching in the same direction from the same location about 80 seconds apart. Third — and this is the biggest attraction — when the rockets reached an altitude of 50 miles, they’d release trimethylaluminum (TMA), a liquid that reacts with oxygen. The result being a trail of glowing whiteness dozens of miles long near the East Coast. I didn’t want to miss it.

By the way, NASA would like you not to worry about trimethylaluminum. After it reacts with oxygen, all that’s left are aluminum oxide, carbon dioxide and water vapor, all of which occur naturally in the atmosphere.

Anyway, the participating rockets, between 20 and 25 feet long, are sounding rockets, named such because “to sound” means “to take measurements.” Just as mariners used to drop a weighted rope off the side of a ship to sound the water’s depth, scientists now use rockets to sound the atmosphere and space.

More than two years in the making, the five-rocket mission is called ATREX for Anomalous Transport Rocket EXperiment. Miguel Larsen, a physicist and professor of physics at Clemson University in South Carolina, is principal investigator for the ATREX experiment, through which he’s trying to understand a difficult layer of atmosphere. At an altitude of around 60 miles, right on the edge of space, the winds are whipping along at 200 to 300 mph and researchers don’t quite understand what’s going on. “The key question in this experiment is the nature of the turbulence,” Larsen said. “There’s a coherent movement…a coherent flow. What we don’t know is why it’s there. Why at this height, these high speed winds?”

ATREX is the latest in an ongoing effort to understand what’s over our heads. Since 1958, researchers have sent more than 500 rockets into the sky to release glowing gas and other tracers to better understand how the atmosphere flows at different altitudes. But this is the first time anyone has released a tracer from five rockets flying at the same time, Larsen said. Even more important, he said, is that this is the first time a series of rockets are flown along the same path at the same time to blanket such a large area of the upper atmosphere’s high speed layer.

The experiment is like dripping dye in a stream to observe the turbulence of the water. Squirting dye from one bottle might tell you something about one part of the stream, but when you get five people lined up in the river, each with their own bottle of dye, you can send a curtain of dye downstream and see the larger, more telling patterns of flow.

NASA put together a video about the mission, with cool graphics, a narrator, and music that sets the mood like it’s a futuristic military mission-briefing in a video game, only better because it’s about science. Check it out here.

By releasing a glowing chemical across hundreds of miles near high-altitude winds and recording the flow of the glow with cameras in North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey, Larsen hopes to understand what’s happening and why. But if the sky is cloudy, the ground-based cameras can’t see the glow. Hence the launch cancellations.

On that note I’ll come clean. I didn’t go back out the next night to wait for the launch. Or the next night. I couldn’t keep staying up late to stand outside and stare at the sky. I was pretty sure my homework wasn’t going to do itself, and I wasn’t willing to confirm it the hard way. So I started forgetting about the launch. The rockets screamed into the sky around 5 a.m. March 27. I found out about it later that day from a Washington Post update on Facebook.

But a bunch of other East Coast folks saw it. If you watch the launch video, you’ll hear a voice in the control center reporting that people from Connecticut down to North Carolina saw the rockets, the glow, or both. But the launch was at 5 a.m.! Who were these people? Turns out Larsen knows who they are because he heard from some of them before launch. “Some were casual observers who were just hoping for a good photograph,” he said. “Some were amateur astronomers who were interested in more detailed information about the location and timing of the releases.” Others were atmospheric researchers, or simply people (like me) interested in the light display, Larsen said.

But I wasn’t the only one who missed the experience. As the experiment’s primary researcher, Larsen was stuck in the Wallops control center. “Really, all we get to see is on TV, on video monitors.” Larsen describes his seat as the “worst place to watch a launch.” But he was in it for the science, not the spectacle, and it sounds like he found what he was sounding for. When I heard from Larsen March 30, he said, “Everything went well, as far as we can tell so far.” The rockets, the payloads, and the ground-based equipment all performed as hoped, he said. Digesting the data will take time, though, because Larsen and his team plan to create a three-dimensional model of each glowing trail. For now, the preliminary results look good, he said. “There was quite a bit of turbulent structure evident in the trails, which is also what we were hoping for.”

Well, at least someone saw what they hoped to see. I guess I’ll keep checking the NASA Wallops Flight Facility website for the next launch. After all, not every rocket leaves Wallops at 5 a.m. Or maybe I’ll just have to start getting along with less sleep. Might be worth it to see some rockets make the sky glow.

March Wrap Up

This blog advises against giving psychiatric drugs to fish

The Sieve’s writers discussed a variety of topics in March, from log jams to fish to planets to GPS. Here are a few links if you missed them:

- Over a century go, there was an enormous log jam, over 100 miles long in the American South.

- When antidepressants get into the water, they can have screwy effects on fish.

- Three cheers for the coolness of outer space!

- We’re at a point where drivers take GPS tech for granted. So how does it figure out where you are exactly?

- Calvin and Hobbes had an undercurrent of science commentary and humor.

- Check out the secrets and subtleties of the National Cryptology Museum.


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