I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:
While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.
When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.
See that bizarre-looking mushroom above? I discovered it in July while on a birthday hike alone through Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park. Its strange whiteness made it hard to miss among the yellows and browns of dead leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor.
But more importantly, I discovered it. Indian Pipe was discovered before. Hence, its common name is Indian Pipe. If I were its first discoverer, it would be known as the Maryland Chalk Stalk, or Cookies ‘n Cream, or the Martian Oreo. Probably that last one just to mess with people. But still, I discovered it.
Discovery is a funny concept and I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll do my damnedest to illustrate what I mean.
My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.
I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.
When I was a teenager I enjoyed a lot of hot chocolate. On one occasion, after heating a mug of water in the microwave, I placed the mug on the counter, tore open a packet and, as soon as the Swiss Miss hit the water it boiled over. The counter was a literal hot mess as quick as I could say “Shit shit shit!”
My best guess for the cause is that the water was ready to boil but was too clean and the mug too smooth. It needed nucleation points — rough spots where a few molecules of gas could orient themselves and start to form bubbles. It’s the same as when carbon dioxide bubbles collect on the soda straw in your ginger ale, or the way a piece of dust or ash serves as a rough kernel upon which a snowflake forms. In my case, the sugar and chocolate dust in my Swiss Miss provided the necessary rough surfaces to allow the water to boil. And the word “dust” reminds me of a funny phrase: mote of dust.
Most of us would probably describe an individual dust particle as a fleck, a speck, or a bit of dust. I’ve only ever heard one man say “mote of dust.” Even when others use the phrase, they’re only quoting him. Him, as in Carl Sagan or, to some admirers, Carl. He was perhaps the greatest ambassador between science and the public who ever lived. In addition to being a NASA consultant for decades, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and much more, Sagan was the host of the 1980 public television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”
We who adore that television series simply call it “Cosmos” and, as anyone with an internet connection and the slightest geekiness knows, a preview for the show’s 2014 remake was released a couple weeks ago. They’re calling it “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey,” and it’ll be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are some big differences between Sagan and Tyson, of course, the only notable one being that Tyson has a mustache and Sagan didn’t. But, in a way, that makes them similar because Tyson has a mustache when they’re not fashionable, whereas Sagan lacked a mustache when it WAS fashionable, or at least when Freddie Mercury made it seem fashionable.
Rock ‘n roll aside, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and has been orbiting the planet Saturn since 2004, took a few photos of Earth July 19 at a distance of almost 900 million miles (see photo above). That photo, of course, calls to mind a similar one taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft (below) in 1990 at a distance four times farther than the Cassini photo.
The Voyager photo was advocated for by Carl Sagan himself, and served as the inspiration for the title of his book “Pale Blue Dot.” The Voyager photo remains the most distant ever taken of our planet, which takes us to Sagan’s famous phrase “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” a phrase he delivered in the original “Cosmos” program.
I’ll not waste time or electronic ink fiddling with lofty ideas that are so much better articulated by others in recent days regarding the Cassini photo, the Voyager photo, or the reboot of “Cosmos.” Instead, I’ll summarize: the Voyager photo and the show “Cosmos” captured humanity’s insignificance as well as our connectedness to all of nature (that means space too). As Phil Plait noted in the caption of the Cassini photo on his Slate blog, “No human has ever ventured outside the frame of this picture.”
So there’s a theme here — Cosmos, Sagan, photo of earth — what of it? Well, it all got me thinking about something that I was, honestly, already thinking about because I’m thinking about it all the time. But despite all that thinking, others still say it so much better. For example, Rachel Edidin at Wired wrote a piece reacting to the Cosmos reboot and composed my thoughts far better than I could:
“As we face an all-out assault on science and the principles that inform it — a dogma-driven, results-focused culture of denial and institutionally reinforced ignorance, as we strip science curricula from schools and research funding from budgets — we need Cosmos more than ever. Carl Sagan’s Spaceship of the Imagination isn’t just a convenient metaphor. It’s an ark, whose trajectory has the potential to change the course of our culture, and, possibly, our future.”
But lets widen the scope of our timeline a little, keeping in mind my mug of hot water from the beginning.
We live in a world where China, Japan and other nations are making news with their respective increased participation in spaceflight and the development of space technology. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are also successfully joining the field of spaceflight, and the Mars One project has received tens of thousands of applications from people around the world interested in a one-way trip to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet in 2023. Those are all good things.
The Mars rover Curiosity landed a year ago (Aug. 6, 2012), has steadily made the news since, and is now en route to its destination, Mount Sharp. On this pile let’s toss the Chelyabinsk meteor that ripped across the skies of Russia in February, certainly providing the world with a reminder: while space is a thing to be explored, it also harbors immense threats to our way of life. Further still, we’re in or near the solar maximum, a story that has found its way to the cover of nearly every science magazine (see the Sept. 2013 issue of Astronomy Magazine) in the last couple years, along with non-science publications.
Do you feel the mug of water heating up? Is the stage set? I’m hopeful, and I’ll explain why.
Any human born in 1890 who reached the age of 80 lived through both the first flight of the Wright brothers and the first humans landing on the moon in their lifetime. My parents’ generation were born when color television hadn’t even arrived in the U.S., but that same generation can now watch whatever they want on smart phones, and can do so with higher resolution and more vibrant colors than was offered in the best televisions when even I was growing up. In short, I concede that the phrase “We live in a special time” has probably passed the lips of someone in every generation for the last several generations and, at the time, they were right. But I still believe that our time is different. Why? Because you can Google and watch video footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor in an instant. Or here’s a time-lapse of the first 100 days of the Curiosity rover on Mars:
Videos like those are commonplace so what’s the big deal? Whether in Paris, London, Tokyo, Jakarta, Tehran, Beijing or almost anywhere else in the world, people with an internet connection can watch those videos and be inspired. Did immediate and broad access to such experiences exist 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago?
Yesterday morning I received an email telling me that the International Space Station would be visible over my town for a few minutes starting at 9:00 p.m. So I stopped writing this for 10 minutes and went outside to watched a spaceship the size of a football field silently cross the sky carrying three Americans, two Russians and an Italian. That’s the era we live in. Hell, I’m not special. Anyone can sign up for those email alerts.
So maybe the water is hot, or even ready to boil. But where’s our hot chocolate mix?
In late November, the mountain-sized and newly discovered Comet ISON will pass within 724,000 miles of our sun — if the distance from earth to the sun were a football field, the comet would be less than a yard from a touchdown — and after it passes the sun, hopefully blasted into high-visibility in the process, ISON might be the comet of a lifetime, meaning it could be visible during the day and outshine the full moon at night. It might also blossom into a sputtering nothing, but if it does put on a show the whole world will be unable to ignore ISON for days.
Finally, riding on that comet’s tail is “Cosmos: A Time-Space Odyssey,” which begins broadcasting in February.
Here’s the preview:
Yeah, it’s like that. A documentary, but with mad special effects, three decades of science updates and a side-order of badass. Could this change the world? Could Cosmos be the powdered hot chocolate mix that allows the water of global scientific curiosity to boil? At present, that remains as unknowable as Comet ISON’s winter performance.
I hope that you’ll not only watch Cosmos, but persuade your friends to do the same. Maybe it won’t be as ground-shaking as you or I hope, but we must give it a chance. Screw professional and college sports, boycott the reality shows, and let the sitcoms laugh at their own damn selves, because inspiration and awe about the universe are being served up on a silver platter. Not philosophy, myth or superstition, but facts about the nature of reality. Choosing to not watch suggests nothing better than that you don’t care about the future of humanity. And if that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before the feeling becomes mutual.
There. I said it.
Yeah, yeah, NASA budget, blah blah blah. I know, I really do. I wish NASA had the budget the Department of Defense currently enjoys and I wish we lived in a world where the DoD didn’t need a budget at all. We’ll get there, not tomorrow, but we’ll get there.
In the mean time, while space exploration isn’t as far along as space enthusiasts wish, exciting stuff is still happening. Specifically, one of the boldest missions NASA has ever attempted is about to reach its most nail-biting moment. First, you should sit down. Good. Now slide forward until you’re on the edge of your seat. No? Well, whatever.
Here’s the thing: A one-ton, nuclear powered, laser wielding, six-wheeled robot the size of a small car is going to land on Mars in less than a month. There. I said it. And I’m not making it up. This robot is called the Curiosity rover. Docile-sounding name? Yes. But here’s how I picture the rover:
Okay, now here’s what Curiosity really looks like (Curiosity is the 6-wheeled guy with the Wall-e head to the immediate right of two engineers having a picnic):
On Nov. 26, 2011, right around the time people on the East Coast of the U.S. were pouring their second cup of morning coffee, the Mars Science Laboratory launched from Cape Canaveral. When the craft arrives on Mars Aug. 6 it will have traveled 352 million miles.
The rover is powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG (pronounced: muh-muh-ER-tig … just kidding). That loosely translates to “nuclear generator that runs on plutonium dioxide.” The rover really is equipped with a drill and a laser (see drawing above), as well as an arsenal of cameras, spectrometers, detectors and sensors. The purpose of Curiosity’s permanent visit to the Red Planet is to determine whether the planet ever had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. But that purpose only bears fruit if Curiosity survives its arrival at Mars.
The process through which Curiosity will land on Mars is laughably complex, and at the same time awe-inspiring. Here’s NASA’s sci-fi-style computer-generated animation of Curiosity, from when it enters the Martian atmosphere to when it touches down. Remember those charming touches of realism in the 2009 Star Trek film, or in the Firefly series, such as lens flare, zooming in and out, and a little bit of wobbly camera action? Yeah, they’ve got that:
Regardless, the Curiosity rover reaches Mars in less than a month. Maybe all the engineers’ calculations were solid and nothing goes wrong. Or, maybe something does go wrong. I’d prefer the former but will accept the latter. That a group of people planned and attempted such a complex project is good enough for me. Success or failure, we learn. If Curiosity does set foot on Mars and get on with the mission, hold your breath. It probably won’t find life or signs of life (I just have a feeling, or maybe I’m trying not to get my hopes up) but it will find something, probably something groundbreaking or Earth-shaking. This is science in action. Don’t miss it.
You can follow the Mars Science Laboratory on Twitter here and on Facebook here. Want to see where the space probe is now? Or would you like to see the countdown clock to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars? Click here. And set aside some time Aug. 6 to watch a little NASA TV. I imagine they’ll provide live coverage of the rover’s successful or unsuccessful landing here. I’ll be watching too, but my mind will be hundreds of millions of miles away.
Behold! Another story of wildlife just beyond my doorstep! It’s not my fault. I can’t avoid the creatures. They’re everywhere, from the tiny red mites on the railings at school, to the slugs that migrate across my apartment sidewalk at the same location every night. I even have wildlife in my apartment. I know this because every time I eat popcorn at the desk in my home-office, some evil creature steals a couple kernels when I’m not looking and then places them under my desk so I’ll roll over them with my chair. Goodness knows I couldn’t be spilling popcorn myself.
But back to the wildlife outside my Baltimore apartment. A little after sundown a few days ago I was walking in the grass along the edge of the park across the street. As is common this time of year, the fireflies were out doing their thing.
Fireflies remind me of my years in Indiana. I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my family moved from steamy and sunny Florida to the Midwest and its long, chilling winters. One day during my first winter in Northern Indiana the temperature hovered around -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, my family’s house in Indiana had a huge perk. Beyond our backyard lawn was about an acre of woods, and down a small hill was a pond, about a quarter-mile long. Other homes were right on the pond, but they were all on the north end whereas we lived on the south end. We couldn’t see the other homes from the pond unless we walked around the point. On our end, we had the waterfront all to ourselves, and the whole thing was surrounded by tall trees. My memories from the pond are so fond that, when I’m in my final days of life, thoughts of my time there will be among those I ponder with the simplest but greatest satisfaction.
My older brother and I helped our dad build a sturdy set of wood stairs straight down the hill through the woods. From there, my dad cleared out a path to the pond and covered the path in wood chips. At the edge of the pond, he then mowed down an area big enough for a fire-pit and a dozen people to sit around it. He also built a short wooden dock and installed two floodlights on 20- or 30-foot studs at the end of the dock so that we could ice-skate after sundown (days are short in the Midwestern winter). We’d sit on the dock to put on our ice-skates, then we’d shovel the snow into a rectangle with rounded edges and play hockey with our school friends for hours on end.
Aside from the mosquitos, summers down on the pond were just as good if not better than winters. My dad had an old slightly waterlogged sailboat. We didn’t bother putting the mast and sail on — there wasn’t usually much wind down on the pond — but the boat had two oar-locks. So whenever I brought a girl over, even just a friend, my dad would suggest I take her out in the rowboat. I’d row and we’d chat while admiring the houses on the north end, and the fish, lily pads, turtles and tadpoles. Some evenings, my marching band pals and I would sit around the fire well into the night and talk about whatever. At other times, my dad and I would stroll around down by pond, talking about girls, my future, my brothers, or my awful grades.
But the end of the dock was where the real magic happened. If the water was low enough, you could sit on the dock without your shoes getting soaked and stare across the pond. On certain nights in the summer, the wall of trees across the pond would erupt into a silent light show. From high in the trees right down to the pond, the fireflies were everywhere shopping for mates.
But here’s the thing, I spent a lot of summer nights down by the pond, and I only ever noticed one color of firefly. In fact, it never crossed my mind that there were more than one species, let alone any firefly whose butt didn’t glow in a yellow-green color. I’ve enjoyed fireflies before and since, but only ever the one color. But on this recent night in Baltimore, walking along the trees near my apartment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.
First, I started paying attention to the fireflies because of how they were lighting up. Several of the insects weren’t doing the familiar slow fadeaway after they glowed. They were flashing on, off, on, off with no fade. This caused me to do a double-take. I couldn’t remember fireflies flashing so quickly on and off. A moment later I forgot about that surprise because I thought I saw an orange firefly. I stared and waited, then saw not one orange firefly but three.
After a while it was easy to know I wasn’t mistaken because the orange fireflies were mingling near the yellow-green ones. Have you ever been unsure whether a certain pair of pants were black or dark blue? What do you do to make sure? You find a piece of clothing you KNOW is black, and you put it next to the pants in question. Suddenly, they’re clearly blue, not black. It’s the comparison that makes their color clear, and it didn’t take long to confirm these were orange fireflies.
I wondered if maybe the fireflies had evolved to use orange streetlamps to hide from predators, or maybe the lightning bugs had somehow ingested manmade chemicals, which then accumulated in the insects’ light organ and changed the chemistry enough to make an orange color instead of a yellow-green one. Was I the first to see this change in the species? Or maybe I discovered a new species of bioluminescent insects that just happened to come out and glow at the same time of day in the same places as fireflies. [Ahem] No. I’ll have to keep dreaming of the day when I can name an orange-glowing-butt insect after myself.
Turns out there are more than one species of firefly. Well, a whole lot more than one. The National Geographic Society says there are about 2,000 species of firefly, and fireflies’ flashing patterns are unique to each species. Scientists aren’t certain how the insects control the on/off switch, but they do know how they glow. Fireflies take in oxygen and introduce it to a chemical called luciferin in a special organ in the bug’s rear end. The chemical reaction creates almost no heat and almost all light. We’re talking not quite 100 percent but darn close, according to the Ohio State University, which offers firefly facts online. The university’s site also says that a normal lightbulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy to light. The other 90 percent becomes heat.
But what about the color of fireflies’ glowing butts? That can range from the common yellow-green to a reddish-orange. I had no idea.
While we’re at it, here are a few other things you might not know (and I certainly didn’t know) about fireflies, from Ohio State University’s and Nat-Geo’s websites:
- Fireflies are not flies. They’re beetles (of the family Lampyridae), and most firefly species, but not all, have wings.
- Like humans, fireflies are omnivores.
- Unlike humans, fireflies generally live only 2 months.
- Some firefly species don’t glow. In the U.S., you’re unlikely to encounter the glowing types west of central Kansas.
- Both firefly larvae and adults glow, and both taste not-so-good to predators.
- Some Asian species of firefly live underwater, breath using a type of gills, and eat snails.
- Fireflies live just about everywhere humans do, except for the southernmost tip of South America, most of Greenland, and the northernmost reaches of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Also, you won’t find any fireflies in Antarctica, though you’re welcome to go there to look.
That said, keep an eye out and you just might see a firefly that’s not yellow-green. I’ve seen just three, and though I’ve kept looking since, I haven’t seen another orange one. Maybe I’ll never see another, but I’ll still remember the joy and surprise of this single occasion — one more fond memory to relish.
No, that crooked black line is not a crack in a tree trunk. It’s a snake climbing up a tree across the street from my apartment building. I may be a mediocre photographer, but I carry a camera just about everywhere and I try to get better all the time. When I’m on a plane, I use a zoom lens to photograph other planes flying nearby, or clouds, or sunlight reflecting in river tributaries that look like a sunset-colored octopus. When I walk to the university, I carry a camera just in case one of the local hawks puts on a show. I bring my camera so I can show my friends the things I see, but also because I will always need more practice. In that way, photography and writing are similar. Both are crafts that require a lifetime of regular, attentive exercise and application, resulting each month or each year in “better” photos and sentences rather than “great” ones. But that’s the idea behind a craft.
That said, I recently finished my thesis, and before I get back to practicing the craft of writing, I thought I’d give my other craft a little fresh air by sharing a few photos of creatures I’ve happened upon in the last few years. Minimal research. Just a few pretty things to give the mind a rest, starting with the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo.
Across from my apartment building is the lovely Wyman Park. It’s 20 or 30 acres of woodland that serves as the backyard of Johns Hopkins University. The park is a narrow but lush oasis of green where people from Baltimore’s Hampden and Charles Village neighborhoods run, bike, sit on rocks by the stream, and walk their dogs. Basically, Wyman Park is your typical city park — not a wilderness, but still home to some surprising creatures.
I met a member of Wyman Park’s wildlife community this Tuesday around 4 p.m. That would be the snake you saw in the above photo. My car was parked along a mowed field, the doorstep to Wyman Park. I was digging through my trunk for a quart of oil or something when a lady walked up and warned me that there was a huge snake under the car parked two ahead of mine. Just in case I were to walk that direction she wanted me to be aware. A HUGE snake? Yes, in fact. It was the longest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. By the time she warned me about it, the snake had already mounted the curb and was halfway hidden in the grass of the park. It reached a four-foot-diameter tree and began to climb. Steadily, the snake moved upward — a funny thing to watch since a snake has no familiar limbs, claws, tentacles, or anything visible to propel it forward, let alone straight up. Yet it climbed without slipping once. Only a few minutes passed before the snake silently slithered into a hole in the lowest branch. The hollow space must have been small because the snake ended up bunched up and folded over a few times. You can see its midsection kinked like a two-inch hose in the shadow behind its head if you click on the photo to enlarge.
After scanning the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website and elsewhere, my best guess is it’s an eastern rat snake (a.k.a. black rat snake). Maryland’s biggest snake, the eastern rat snake often grows to six feet long (the DNR says the official record is 8 feet 5 inches). The one in my photo is probably five feet long at most.
Snakes are charming, but I’m more of a bird guy. In April 2011, I visited a Catholic high school in Baltimore County to write a story about the school’s plan to provide iPads to all of their students the following school year. In the parking lot near the school’s athletic field, however, I stopped to capture an aerial battle. Something small and furry was dead, innards exposed, at the edge of the grass, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a wooden fence post a few feet away. A couple of American crows or fish crows were also interested in the meal, but neither the hawk nor the crows could get more than a nibble of meat at a time before the other species attacked to fight for the meal.
Here the crows frantically chase the hawk:
I’ve lived in or visited probably 20 states in the U.S., but I’ve never seen another place as richly green as the woodland around Portland. Florida is lovely too, but it’s a different kind of green — low palms of light green, tall Australian pines with segmented needles, and lots of sand, sunshine and heat. Oregon, however, is on the opposite corner of the U.S. and is ruled by towering pines, cool damp air, and moss on everything.
Moss grows on trees, rocks, and probably even on other moss. In the thick parkland, sunlight filters through the dark green vegetation and causes the moss below to glow. The natural beauty is so intense that it looks almost handmade, as if every moss-covered tree and stone were part of a movie set, a caricature of life at its most vibrant. During our visit, we went on a couple of walks through the wet green wonderland. On one walk, one of my dear friends spotted a slug, a relatively common one for the region, but still gargantuan, and yellow. I’m pretty sure it was a Pacific banana slug. I took a few photos, of course, and here’s the slug with its body contracted:
But, in case you’re about to eat something, I’ll try to supplant the image of the slug with something slime-less. Last year I was in Chincoteague, Virginia, and I took scores of photographs, but rather than overload you with all of my favorite animals from that trip, I’ll offer just one. Unless I’m mistaken, this is a laughing gull:
See? It’s “laughing.”
My girlfriend and I found this noisy guy while sitting at an outdoor bar and restaurant on the waterfront. The laughing gull sat on a dock-post about 10 feet from our table. All while we drank and ate, he remained on the post. Whenever another gull approached the perch, our gull would call and flap and fight to keep the spot. We soon learned why.
When I failed to eat all of my dinner (I know we’re not supposed to do this and I’m ashamed of myself) I decided to feed the gull. Apparently, he recognized my body language from experience with other people. After I tore a piece of bread from my plate, I turned back toward the gull. Before I knew what was happening, he had perched on the windowsill next to me, taken the bread from my hand, and returned to the dock post to eat it. He knew! He knew what I was doing before I’d done it! Animals. What the heck.
An interesting little tidbit from the laughing gull experience was something about his beak. I didn’t notice until looking at my photos later, but you can see straight through his beak via his nares (nostrils).
That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed one or some of the animals. And to any other students or instructors out there, Happy End of the Semester!
If I incorrectly identified any of the animals above, please let me know. Thanks!
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.
Ask me to draw a diagram of a two-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactor and I can probably do it — I love to draw and it’s been a while since I tested myself on basic reactor layout. But understanding the fundamental design of nuclear reactors is simple compared to describing my enthusiasm for outer space.
I’m one of those who want our species to explore the emptiness, populate the solar system, and eventually wander the galaxy. But that’s not the enthusiasm I’m talking about. My adoration of the great beyond is simpler, and yet I can’t find a container in which to put that adoration so as to carry it around and show to others. I’m just geeked that outer space exists at all and that we’re a part of it, composed of its fused particles.
To me, the fascination seems obvious. I’ve tried more than once to put this feeling into words, and have achieved consistent and complete failure. The response is usually a raised eyebrow or something like it. Words fail me, or maybe I fail the words. Regardless, I’m going to take another shot at articulating my glee, or whatever it is. Hang on, let me put on my seatbelt and crash helmet. Right then, off we go.
So space is there, several dozen miles above your head, but so what? Humans have been there and back. No biggie. Space is nothing new. In fact, it’s the least new thing ever. Space has been out there (and here, for that matter) as long as time has existed, and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or poetic about it. Time and space seemingly arrived on the scene at the same time. Maybe I should shrug and put on some fashionable air of “been there, done that.” But it would go against my very nature.
You may have noticed lately that two stars dominate the western sky shortly after sundown. They’re the planets Jupiter and Venus, the bright objects you saw in the photo at the top of this post. But which is which? Go ahead and guess. You might guess that the brighter one (bottom right) is Jupiter and the dimmer one is Venus.
Here, I’ll give you a clue. This is a close-up of the planet in the upper left of the photo:
Notice anything? Those little specks lined up near the planet are the four largest Jovian moons. From top to bottom they are Europa, Io, and Ganymede, with Callisto barely visible below Ganymede. That means this planet, the dimmer of the two, is Jupiter. If you want to double-check my interpretation of the image, see page 38 in the March issue of Astronomy.
Jupiter is more than twice the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined, but its orbit is also 483 million miles from Earth’s orbit. That’s 18 times farther away from Earth than the orbit of our next-door neighbor, Venus. Hence, Jupiter is the dimmer of the two.
You can look up and see these things and so what? They’re just a couple of planets. What’s the big deal?
Jupiter, Venus and their brethren aren’t just points of blurry light. They’re three-dimensional worlds composed of the same stuff as our own. They’re planets, huge spheres of matter, entire worlds that no Earthling has ever visited. They just float there, out of reach, perpetual mysteries. Some have their own earthquakes, volcanoes, or lakes. Others have wind and storms, while others have no atmosphere whatsoever. The planets in our solar system have been there for billions of years, the only witnesses to the entire history of our solar system.
Even when the sun is up and the sky cloudless, the blue is only a veil, behind which the ultimate dynamo — the universe — continues to crank along as it has for all time. In a way, these worlds (and everything beyond) are reassuring. Being human if often frustrating and scary, but the worlds, the solar system and the universe don’t need anyone to mind the store. We can disappear, and everything will be fine. Our neighboring planets are just there, indifferent and presumably lifeless.
When I look up, I don’t really see the points of light that my eyes see. I see huge islands among emptiness. I see the forever-baking surface of Venus, Jupiter’s 60-plus moons whirring about, the Oort Cloud, the galaxies with solar systems of their own. Outer space is the place of mysteries, with room for the mind to ponder the strangest ideas imaginable.
Oh dear, I’ve failed again. Maybe I need a different medium. Poetry? Song? Modern interpretive dance? Maybe someday.
In the mean time, what do you think about when you look up at the stars? What is outer space, or the universe, to you?
In December my sweetheart and I embarked on a road-trip to visit family. Our route made a triangle whose sides add up to about 1,800 miles — from Baltimore to Traverse City, to Indianapolis, and back to Baltimore. The trip was pretty uneventful…except for the birds.
This winter has been remarkably mild in the Midwest, and Beth (the sweetheart I mentioned) and I saw little snow or rain on our trip, which meant no white-knuckled driving or low visibility. So we just plugged in the iPod, put it on shuffle, looked out the windows and caught up on all the conversations we’ve been too busy to have or too preoccupied to think about. Great conditions for spotting something strange in the landscape.
My parents live on a small lake near Traverse City. If you hold out your left hand, with your palm facing away, you’re looking at a basic map of Michigan’s lower peninsula (they call it “The Mitten” for a reason). Traverse City is in that little nook between your pinky and ring fingers. At my parents’ place, depending on the season, we see hummingbirds, seagulls, a crazy-huge woodpecker once in a while, a bunch of bird-feeder types, and an endless parade of ducks and ducklings. This winter brought a shocker though.
Beth and I had spent a couple days at my parents’ place and were about to drive down to my brother’s place near Indianapolis. But as I was making my final “pitstop” before getting in the car, Beth came and found me, saying there was an owl outside. We went up to the second floor, where my parents were looking out their bedroom window. Down below, standing in the snow on the edge of Lake Leelanau, was a snowy owl.
Weeks later, National Public Radio would run a story about how snowy owls were being sighted all over the place. All I knew was that I’d never seen an owl in the wild. The National Zoo in D.C. has some charming specimens (one locked eyes with me and tracked me as I moved around the room — my black plastic frames look remarkably similar to the owl’s coloring…) and I met a few owls face to face at the Maryland State Fair a couple years ago, but this was different. This was a wild bird, a huge bird with white feathers and yellow eyes. It was difficult to comprehend, or even to see. From the upstairs window, we were only about 70 feet away at most, but there was so much white from the snow and the feathers that it was hard to process just where the bird ended and the snow began.
Exciting, but the drive to Indy would take seven hours. We had to get going. Beth and I hit the road southbound. As we neared the Indiana border, I probably shouted “bird of prey!” Beth was driving at the time and I’m not sure where she finds patience for my behavior. I guess she’s come to expect the outbursts.
The bird I’d spotted became a speck in the rear view mirror, so we went back to chatting about whatever. A few minutes later, we saw another perched on a branch about halfway up a tree right by the highway. Less than five minutes after that, Beth spotted a bird of prey on the guardrail in the median. It was getting weird, I took out my camera and attached the zoom lens. I had a hard time getting a good photo through road-trip filthy windows and moving at highway speed, but the birds kept on coming.
For the next few hours, we saw these same birds every five to 30 minutes. On I-94, the birds perched on street lamps near Michigan City and Gary. On I-65, we saw them perched atop billboards. At least twice, we saw two together on a tree. They were brown, with white breast-feathers. My fascination with birds is a relatively new thing, so I’ve yet to make time to learn about them. Beyond cardinals, blue jays, cowbirds or doves, I can usually only recognize whether it’s bird of prey versus a songbird. This one we’d have to just look up later using the photos, and we had plenty of photo ops.
But why along the highway and why so many? Most, not all, were perched on the highway side of the tree rather than away from the highway where they would have a view of the farm fields. Why? I lived in Indiana for nine years, and Michigan for at least half as long, but I’d never seen predatory birds line the highways like that. By the time we arrived near Indy, I’d forgotten about the snowy owl in Traverse City.
The next morning, after some time with my brother and his family, Beth and I set out for the East Coast. I drove and Beth manned the camera. She’s the better photographer, so she got the best photo:
We saw the birds through Indiana and Ohio, and a few in West Virginia, but by Pennsylvania and Maryland, they dropped off to nil, which was disappointing because Beth and I were then left reflecting on how tired we were of being in a car. Still, I was hung up on the question: what was up with these birds?
Days later, I got in touch with Cheryl Dykstra, editor of the Journal of Raptor Research, and described the birds and where they were perched. Dykstra didn’t seem shocked at the number of sightings or the birds’ location. Most of the birds were “almost certainly” red-tailed hawks, Dykstra said. Maybe a few rough-legged hawks and red-shouldered hawks in the mix, she said. Apparently, hawks are all about hyphens. But what were they doing near the road?
“They perch facing the highway because foraging is probably better in the short mown grass along the highway than elsewhere — likely they can see the small mammals running through the short grass more easily,” Dykstra said. “So the edges of highways may be quite attractive to them.”
That’s it. Nothing abnormal about the hawks perched where they were. But Beth and I will still go on hawk-alert next time we’re on the road. Now that we know they’re out there, it’ll be impossible not to look for them. If we’re not willing to pull over and take a decent photo, then why bother? I don’t know. Nature is my brain candy, and spotting a hawk anywhere or anytime tastes pretty sweet. If Beth enjoys the flavor as well and we’re stuck in a car together, all the better.