Hopes for a Messy Metaphorical Kitchen Counter

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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.

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NASA

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:

What about a couple of time-lapse films from the International Space Station, here and here.

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.

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Atomic super robot in space!

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:

Artist’s interpretation of Curiosity rover ruthlessly doing science.

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):

Image courtesy of NASA (Photographer: Dutch Slager)

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.


Supersonic Conga Line

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.