The State of the Universe

The Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill

The Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill

Room 2325, where the State of the Universe Briefing was held

Room 2325, where the State of the Universe Briefing was held

On January 9th, the last day of the American Astronomical Society conference in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to do something quite unusual. I attended a briefing on the State of the Universe presented by the President of AAS and several noted science education experts. It was held in Room 2325 at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Here is the flyer I got describing it:

aasbriefing_flyer_9jan2014

How I got involved in this is a bit convoluted, which is how these things usually are. Dr. Luisa Rebull, the director of NITARP (which is the program that brought me to the AAS conference in the first place) had been asked if one of the teachers participating in the program could testify at a briefing before congress. It was to be held concurrently with the AAS conference, since the conference was just outside Washington at the Gaylord resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Luisa sent the e-mail on to us and of course I volunteered. Sounded like a fun opportunity. I wasn’t chosen to speak, but as I was one of the first to respond, I was offered the chance to attend the meeting anyway.

I woke up and packed my bags, since I would not be able to return to the hotel. I checked out at the front desk and waited by the front door for the others to arrive. This shindig was planned by Josh Shiode, a public policy intern with the AAS. Several other NITARPers, their students, and SOFIA AAAs and EPO personnel were with us. Hotel cars and drivers loaded us up and drove us up the Maryland bank of the Potomac until we pulled off onto Capitol Hill and unloaded on Independence Ave. in front of the Rayburn Building. I had my luggage, computer bag, and camera with me.

High School students getting badges

After we went through security, we elevated upstairs and walked down the marble corridor to 2325, which is one of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee rooms. I stashed my luggage under the refreshment table and got my badge. We had some time to kill before the briefing actually started, so I chatted with some of the participants and took photos.  I hadn’t had breakfast and we were asked not to eat any of the refreshments until the congressional staffers and others arrived. I got shaky enough that I had to sneak a couple of cookies.

Before the Briefing

Before the Briefing

The other guests finally arrived and we could start eating. Since I was the only one with a decent SLR camera, Josh asked me to take some pictures of the speakers. The room was full to overflowing, with people standing up. The meeting was introduced by Senator Lamar Smith of Texas, who spoke of his love for college physics and astronomy courses and how his orange tabby cat is named Betelgeuse. Dr. Megan Urry, President Elect for AAS, introduced the speakers.

Dr. David Helfand, showing the famous Apollo 8 photo of Earthrise over the Moon. This photo changed our whole viewpoint of Earth.

Dr. David Helfand, showing the famous Apollo 8 photo of Earthrise over the Moon. This photo changed our whole viewpoint of Earth.

Dr. David Helfand, President of AAS, was the lead speaker. He spoke on the State of the Universe, and showed slides comparing what we know now with what we knew 45 years ago when he took astronomy in college. We have truly discovered a great deal in what will probably be known as a Golden Age for astronomy. But this Golden Age might be drawing to a close as reduced budgets slow the pace of discovery. Here is his Powerpoint with the slides from his remarks:

the_state_of_the_universe_2014

Ari Buchalter and Dr. David Helfand at Columbia College

Ari Buchalter and Dr. David Helfand at Columbia College

Ari Buchalter, Chief Operating Officer of MediaMath, a business marketing and digital advertisement analytics firm, spoke on the importance of STEM education and science literacy for all areas of business and society. He received a PhD in astronomy from Columbia University (where he worked with Dr. Helfand) and developed programs to analyze data from radio telescopes that mapped the Big Bang at Caltech. He then went into business software development and found his ability to think logically, to problem-solve, to program computers, and to work with data helped him develop their analytical tools. As a computer technology teacher, I have actually heard of him before. He is a big proponent of teaching computer programming in K-12 schools. Here are his notes for his remarks:

aribuchalterremarks_forweb

Blake Bullock and Ari Buchalter at the State of the Universe briefing

Blake Bullock and Ari Buchalter at the State of the Universe briefing

Blake Bullock, Business Development Director for Civil Air and Space at Northrup Grumman, spoke on how she has used her knowledge of STEM fields as she led the team that designed and built the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Because it will need a mirror much larger than the Hubble Telescope’s, it can’t fit into any existing rocket, so the mirror had to be made in segments that can fold up. Since it is an infrared telescope, it must be kept extremely cold, so they had to develop five layers of sunshades, each the size of tennis courts, that could unfurl after launch. To detect the formation of the first galaxies, it required instruments more sensitive than ever built, which required new technologies that are already being used in other businesses. For example, the mirrors have to be precisely ground. If one segment were blown up to the size of Texas, the imperfections would be about the size of a grasshopper. The device invented just to measure the curvature of the mirrors for JWST is now being used to diagnose eye disease. The JWST has certainly been beneficial to Utah, since the primary mirror segments are made of beryllium, the only metal light enough and tough enough to work in such a large space telescope. And the only source of beryllium ore is in Utah. Here are Blake’s notes:

blakebullockremarks_forweb

Peggy Piper before the briefing

Peggy Piper before the briefing

The final speaker was Peggy Piper who, like me, is both a SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador (Cycle 0 in her case) and has participated several times in NITARP. She is a high school teacher from Wisconsin and is now transitioning into an informal educator at Yerkes Observatory. She told of how she became involved with Yerkes and how that led to bringing astronomers into her classroom, which led to her involvement with NITARP and SOFIA. She gave examples of students who have been inspired by these programs and developed skills and abilities in math, science, and computers they never had before. Here are Peggy’s remarks:

peggypiperremarks_forweb

Peggy Piper speaking at the State of the Universe briefing, Jan. 9, 2014.

Peggy Piper speaking at the State of the Universe briefing, Jan. 9, 2014.

I don’t know what impact we made on people in the room. Most of the members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee did not attend personally, but sent their aides and staff members. The overall message – that investing in astrophysics and STEM in general is of great benefit to our country – may have fallen on deaf ears. But maybe not. Much that happens in congress is “for the record” and is said not because anyone is listening but because it must be officially said. This was the official position statement of the American Astronomical Society regarding the need for astronomy research in the United States. At least I can say I was there, wearing my SOFIA flight jacket and flying the flag for STEM education.

Dr. Meg Urry, President Elect for AAS, speaking with Wendi Lawrence and high school students at the State of the Universe briefing, Jan. 9, 2014.

Dr. Meg Urry, President Elect for AAS, speaking with Wendi Lawrence and high school students at the State of the Universe briefing, Jan. 9, 2014.

I took some more photos after the session was over, then got my luggage out from under the refreshment table and headed back outside. I had arranged for my airport shuttle to meet me on the steps of the Rayburn Building on Independence Avenue. Two ladies asked me to take their photo with the Capitol Building in the background, so I asked them to return their favor. It was good to be back on Capitol Hill as something other than a tourist. It’s been a long journey since I was a Congressional Intern here in 1982.

David Black with the U. S. Capitol Building, Jan. 9, 2014.

David Black with the U. S. Capitol Building, Jan. 9, 2014.

It was a short drive to Reagan International Airport and security took no time at all to get through. I got a Dunkin Donut while waiting and worked on blog posts. I wound up sitting across the aisle from Dr. Eric Lindt from BYU whom I had met at the conference and whom I hope to get a chance to work with. The flight was uneventful but long, having to sit in the same seat for four hours. I was glad to have an aisle seat on the left side of the plane so I could stretch out my right leg. My wife and two youngest children picked me up at the airport.

It was a great conference and expanded my knowledge and allowed me to rub shoulders with the leaders of the astronomy community. Now I must pour myself back into my normal life as if nothing has changed. But I can’t help but think that we’ve come a long way from what we knew at the beginning of the space race, and that the destiny of humanity still lies in space.

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AAS Day 3: Lots of Posters

More posters at the AAS

More posters at the AAS

On Wednesday, Jan. 8 I spent the better part of the day in the Exhibit Hall looking at posters. I had intended to visit several of the breakout sessions, but the posters today were mostly on exoplanets, young stellar objects, and astrobiology, topics that I am particularly interested in. I found that I could understand the research questions and conclusions better overall than on previous days. It was like a prospector following a rich vein of ore – you don’t abandon a good vein to go prospect elsewhere. So I stayed with the posters because I was learning a great deal.

Poster presented by two students from Brigham Young University. Dr. Rebull's poster is on the left.

Poster presented by two students from Brigham Young University. Dr. Rebull’s poster is on the left.

Posters of Note:

One of the first posters I encountered was of the two students from Brigham Young University, who detected pockets of water around YSOs that are acting as natural masers (microwave lasers) that focus microwave light from the YSO into coherent beams.

Luisa’s own poster was right next to his. She was looking at the rate of variation of YSOs over timescales of years. This requires frequent observations of the same area of the sky over several years to observe how the stars change over time.

Dr. Luisa Rebull and her poster

Dr. Luisa Rebull and her poster

Several of the NITARP student groups presented their posters today, since their projects were related to YSOs. Conner Laurence from Park City presented with John Gibbs’ students and others. Their project looked at protostars forming in a bright-rimmed cloud called BRC 38 along the edge of IC1398, a stellar nursery. Central young O and B stars are blowing away the center of the nebula, leaving a bubble of cleared space. Around the edge of this bubble, denser globules are not evaporating from the stellar wind of these central stars. Inside these globules, new stars are forming but are only visible in infrared. Getting a spectral energy distribution curve (SED) can determine if the protostars still have disks or rings of material around them where planets could be forming. The students had discovered five new protostars within BRC 38 that were previously unknown. I had gone over this poster on Sunday with John and knew what it was saying, so I grilled the students to help them be prepared for today’s questions.

Conner Laurence and another student explain their poster on finding YSOs in BRC 38.

Conner Laurence and another student explain their poster on finding YSOs in BRC 38.

Another poster was from students at Villanova University and looked at the radiation fluxes in X-ray and UV wavelengths for several known exoplanets within 10 parsecs (32.6 light years) of Earth that are in the habitable zone (HZ). Using known data about their host stars, they determined that at least four of these planets, Gliese 876 b and d, GJ 581 d, and Tau Ceti f receive roughly the same radiation as Earth does. All of their host stars are also older than our sun, so in addition to liquid water they have a radiation environment that would allow life to exist as we know it.

NITARP student poster

NITARP student poster

Another NITARP group looked as YSOs in the Upper Centaurus Lupus nebula. This was done solely by Chelan Johnson’s students as an independent project beyond their initial NITARP run.

Another poster was by Ryan Lau, the Cornell graduate student whom I have interviewed previously on SOFIA (I’ll talk about this in a future post when I get a chance to finish my experiences with SOFIA last summer). He presented on the differences between three luminous blue variable (LBV) stars near the center of our galaxy. They are similar spectroscopically, but their surrounding nebulas are quite different because of differences in their environments. Ryan wasn’t with his poster, so I took a photo and moved on.

Poster by Ryan Lau on Luminous Blue Variable Stars near the galactic center.

Poster by Ryan Lau on Luminous Blue Variable Stars near the galactic center.

Of all the posters I saw, the most interesting one was by Steinn Sigurdsson, et al, from the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State (website: http://www.astro.psu.edu/astro-research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-exoplanets) and Cal Poly Pomona. They are looking at galaxies that have an infrared signature, which could be the result of galactic civilizations giving off excess heat. The second law of thermodynamics states that all energy sources eventually work their way down to less ordered forms, resulting in random heat emitted in infrared wavelengths. Our own civilization emits at about 300 ° K, giving off about 0.01% excess from what would be emitted naturally. An advanced civilization would be able to detect our presence here simply by the heat we generate. The same goes for us detecting them. Even if they are more efficient at energy usage and emit at 200 ° K, they should still be detectable since there are few natural sources that emit at those wavelengths. If they are able to entirely use all the energy from a star, such as building Dyson spheres, they would still have to emit some waste energy or it would build up inside and make the sphere unlivable. Talking with Dr. Sigurdsson, who was at the poster, he put it in terms of the movie Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country: The thing has to have a tailpipe.

Poster on Searching for Galactic Civilizations, with Steinn Sigurdsson.

Poster on Searching for Galactic Civilizations, with Steinn Sigurdsson.

The most astonishing thing about my conversation with Dr. Sigurdsson wasn’t that someone has the audacity to look for such galaxies, but that 400,000 such galaxies have been discovered. The group is now winnowing them down, eliminating the many false positives that could be the result of recent star formation bursts or other natural sources. He said that they have already found several galaxies that are “intriguing.”

Sorry, Mr. Spock

Sorry, Mr. Spock

While talking about his poster, a graduate student commented, “If you think this is way out there, you should see the poster on the other side. He’s trying to prove that we can have sex with aliens!” So of course, I had to take a look. The presenter wasn’t at his poster, and it appeared to have been hastily put together from separate sheets of standard paper. It discussed the possibilities of actual alien contact and culture clashes given the huge distances involved. He had created his own version of the Drake Equation to determine the possibility of humans being able to reproduce with aliens (or serve as food for them). Both species would have to have similar left-handed proteins, amino acids, dextrose sugars, cell membranes, etc. to even serve as food, let alone similar enough DNA to reproduce. Sorry, but no human-Vulcan hybrids. And probably no Arcturian Megadonkeys either.

I couldn’t see where any actual science had been done, and the poster seemed to be more an advertisement for the author’s book than a serious scientific paper. But it was interesting. He brought up culture clashes between civilizations that were only hundreds of years apart technologically and were of the same species. If aliens did visit Earth, the results would be disastrous (this is Stephen Hawking’s conjecture). But he concluded that actual visits are extremely unlikely. Even if such civilizations exist, the great distances and energies involved to reach us would make the trip undesirable. He agreed more with what is called the Fermi Paradox: If such civilizations exist, then where are they? Why haven’t they visited us by now?

A poster next door was also interesting. Rachel Worth talked about the possibility of lithopanspermia, or the idea that life could have started on one planet (Mars or Earth) and spread to other bodies in the solar system. She had created a computer model of objects knocked off Earth or Mars during a large collision (such as happened during the Late Heavy Bombardment period) and ran it forward for millions of years. Much of the ejected rock fell back to the planet of origin (40%), much fell inward to the sun, but with increasing time the remaining rocks had orbits that became more eccentric and perturbed, with a few migrating outward where they could have landed on Europa or Titan, thereby carrying life with them and seeding these moons.

The Nearby Stars:

By this time my feet and legs were killing me after standing on a concrete floor for several hours. I returned to my room to rest and snack and check up on my wife. She has been able to finally get a ticket home to Utah today and is at the Miami airport. She will be flying home through Charlotte, NC.

I attended today’s Amateur Talk by Todd Henry of the RECONS team about how they are measuring the positions of the nearby stars, a topic that is obviously of interest to me since I’m writing an article on the 3D model I’ve developed to teach about this topic. I’ve used their data in my model. He described how the proper motions of these stars are being measured through astrometry, photometry, etc. The RECONS (Research Consortium on Nearby Stars) program is trying to find “missing” stars within 10 parsecs and to characterize all the stars within this area. They are now expanding to 25 parsecs. His team discovered the star system SCR 1845-6357 AB (which is in my model), found that Fomalhaut is a triple star system, and measured that the effective lower end of the Main Sequence for red dwarfs and the beginning of the brown dwarf sequence is at 2075°K, among many other discoveries. I wanted to talk with him after his address, but had to move directly to my next activity. I’ll try to read up more in the literature about their techniques. I do know they have been using a highly reliable 0.9 meter telescope at Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile. Their website is: http://www.recons.org/.

SOFIA group. Cycles 0-2.

SOFIA group. Cycles 0-2.

SOFIA Ambassadors and the NASA Origins Program:

I returned to the Exhibit Hall because I was asked to be part of a photo opp at the SOFIA booth. The new class of Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors was officially announced at noon today, so those of us who are here wore our jackets and gathered at the booth. We took photos as a group, with Cycle 0 through 2 representatives there. I took the time to interview Peggy Piper, Chelan Johnson, and Theresa Paulsen but had some camera and audio problems. My wireless lapel microphone had a broken connection to the battery, and I didn’t have the batteries on my HD camera charged up as much as I thought. Hopefully the onboard microphone was able to pick up decent audio.

SOFIA group with John Gagosian, director of NASA's Origins program.

SOFIA group with John Gagosian, director of NASA’s Origins program.

I was able to interview Ryan Lau by his poster, but the second half I had to use my separate audio digital recorder (I’m glad I brought it) because the reserve battery on my HD camera gave out.

Here is a better copy of his poster he sent me after the conference: AAS 223 Ryan Lau

As a group we also talked with John Gagosian in the NASA booth. He is the director of the entire Origins Program for NASA, which includes SOFIA and several other missions. John explained to us about the new technology programs that look ahead as much as twenty years and provide seed money to develop strategic technologies that will be needed for the next decadal surveys. These include new types of glass for mirrors, new types of sensors, and all types of technology that could make space missions more powerful, more sensitive, and lighter in weight.

Dinner with my Cousin:

By 4:00 I was exhausted again and getting hungry. I also needed to rest my aching legs. I ate a few snacks I’d brought with me, then met my cousin Wade Williams at the hotel entrance. He drove me to his home in Springfield where I had a very pleasant dinner with him, his wife, Jenny, and son Jason.

Wade has a PhD in nuclear engineering and has worked at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California for over 20 years, on projects ranging from the laser fusion efforts to Department of Energy programs. He is now on loan for at least a year to the DOE national office where he is involved in management, budget, and oversight functions. They’ve been in Virginia about four months now, and it was nice to catch up.

It’s interesting to see where we’ve come over the years. When we were both teenagers, I used to stay at his house in Orem, Utah for a week while his sister, Mary, would stay with my sister in Deseret. Wade and I were budding engineers and scientists even back then; we would spend days planning and building elaborate spook alleys in his basement. Our displays were very dynamic and interactive, not just bowls of cold cooked spaghetti pretending to be brains. We had sliding doors that would trap people, a cage that would drop, a guillotine that would chop off a head, a dummy stabbing a vampire in a coffin, and our pride and joy: Count Yorga, Vampire.

Count Yorga: Vampire. It's amazing what you can find online . . .

Count Yorga: Vampire. It’s amazing what you can find online . . .

There was a B horror flick by that name playing at a drive-in in north Orem that summer (1973) and it gave us the idea for one of the rooms on our spooky tour. We built a dummy and decorated it to look like a vampire, complete with a bag of “blood” inside its shirt (we ruined a lot of Uncle Clyde’s white shirts doing this). He could flap his arms/wings, drop to the floor after being stabbed with a stake in the heart, and even carry on a conversation through an intercom. All this was done with strings, rigged up and controlled by Wade from a closet while I acted as Tour Guide. We brought in kids from all over the neighborhood to see the final tour.

I’d like to think our creativity and problem-solving for these spook alleys has paid off. I’m still a tour guide of science, so to speak, and he’s a nuclear engineer, pulling on the strings that govern the laws of physics. We just don’t have to deal with vampires any more. Unless there are some wandering around at the DOE that I’m unaware of.

Wade returned me to the Gaylord hotel and I spent most of the remaining evening working on an application for an Innovative Teacher award through KUED, Salt Lake’s PBS station. I’d received an email requesting additional information, and it was due Friday, Jan. 10. I knew tomorrow would be too tiring to get it done then.

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At the AAS Conference, Day 2: Astrophysics

Posters at the American Astronomical Society conference

Posters at the American Astronomical Society conference

I had fallen asleep while flipping through the channels on my hotel TV the night before, then when I finally woke up enough to take my contacts out and really go to bed, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I had too much on my mind. By the time I got back to sleep, it was after 3:00 a.m. and I had a hard time waking up when my alarm went off at 7:00. I slept in a little and went down for breakfast, then went directly to the 10:00 breakout sessions.

Quantum Computing and Machine Learning

I choose one on Exoplanet Detection Methods. The first speaker talked about using a DWAVE quantum computer (in a project jointly sponsored by NASA Ames Research Center, USRA, and Google). The DWAVE computer is very sensitive and has to be maintained in a Faraday cage, vibrationally isolated, and supercooled. It is able to use some of the properties of the legendary qubit – the quantum equivalent of a binary digit that uses multiple quantum states instead of merely ones and zeros. This computer isn’t a full quantum computer but is the first step in that direction. So far, they were able to use it to search through the Kepler data to better isolate signals from noise. It has been used on confirmed exoplanets to see if it could correctly identify the same signal, which it can. It will now be used on the upcoming K2 mission and the follow-up TESS mission, scheduled to launch in 2017.

Using a 3D printer to create raised models of nebulas for the blind. Different textures are used to represent different elements/colors and the height of the model represents light intensity.

Using a 3D printer to create raised models of nebulas for the blind. Different textures are used to represent different elements/colors and the height of the model represents light intensity.

The second speaker talked about using machine learning software to identify possible exoplanet signals, again filtering out the signal from the noise of the Kepler data. The machine learned how to categorize false positives versus astrophysical positives (such as eclipsing binaries or flare stars) versus actual exoplanets. Once it was able to correctly identify each type of signal at about 90% accuracy, it was used to analyze new data and has found 800 new potential exoplanets.

The third speaker talked about their technique to use a point-spread function to pull the signals from the noise, and how it improves detection by over 60%. They hope to be able to increase the sensitivity of this technique until it can identify planets around 12th magnitude stars.

This would have been very interesting under different circumstances but my sleep-deprived brain wasn’t taking it in, and my notes were becoming sparser and more illegible as I had trouble concentrating. I decided to move to a different session, which I had marked as my second choice.

NITARP Education Poster at AAS

NITARP Education Poster at AAS

Exoplanet Atmospheres:

The session I moved into was on exoplanet atmospheres. This is extremely intriguing to me, that the data we’ve gotten from Kepler can be massaged even further to pull out atmospheric details. I caught the end of one presentation on how narrow band filters applied to the Kepler data can be effective at detecting different elements in the planets’ atmospheres, such as potassium. They had looked at the planet GJ1214b, which seems to be a popular one here.

The next speaker discussed plotting the equilibrium temperatures of exoplanetary atmospheres and finding a gap around 1850°K, which the author interpreted as possibly a transition from cloudy to cloudless atmospheres.

One of the new things I’ve learned at this conference is that brown dwarf stars can actually have cool enough atmospheres for water clouds to form. A star with clouds on it. Another interesting fact is that we are finding fewer than expected brown dwarf stars – the vast majority of mass in the galaxy (about 75%) is tied up in red dwarfs. For exoplanets, most of the mass is in sub-Neptunian sized planets from 5 to 15 times the size of the Earth, not in Jupiter class planets. That means the distribution of mass in our galaxy is bimodal, for some unknown reason. Of course, we are only just beginning to find the Earth mass planets. Estimates range from 17-50 billion planets from 0.5 to 2.0 Earth masses in our galaxy. Of course, most of these will lie outside the habitable zone (HZ), but if even one out of five lie within, we could have 3-15 billion Earth-sized planets with liquid water. There’s got to be life out there somewhere.

The honeycomb pattern milled from Zerodur glass for the SOFIA telescope.

The honeycomb pattern milled from Zerodur glass for the SOFIA telescope.

Another presentation discussed looking at planetary atmospheres for systems with x-ray host stars. Since x-rays are produced in a star’s corona, as a planet passes in front of the corona the transit curve makes a W shape. Planetary atmospheres absorb x-ray energy, and as the corona passes behind the atmosphere’s limb (where the total amount of the atmosphere that the light has to pass through is thicker) it absorbs more light. Then, as the planet’s center passes, less atmosphere is passed through and the curve rises slightly, then dips again as the back limb of the planet passes in front of the star’s corona.

Making Contacts:

The next presentation discussed the atmospheres of hot Jupiters. I began to lose it again and my notes became more scribbled. I decided to head back to my room to check on my wife, who is stranded in Miami because of the bad weather (caused by a huge polar vortex descending over the Midwest). On the way, I ran into Wendi Laurence who is one of the NITARPers from this last year and a former Aerospace Education Specialist. She lives in Park City. She was talking to a man I hadn’t met, and she introduced him to me. He is Dr. Eric Hintz from Brigham Young University, who told me more about opportunities they have at BYU. He is here with two graduate students who are presenting. He also told me more about the summer research program for teachers I had read about. I will look into applying for that program, as it includes a stipend and I wouldn’t have to stay in campus housing – I could commute from home.

I got my wife’s hotel room and phone number and relayed information to people through her Facebook status and messaging. I’m not a big fan of Facebook, mostly because its interface is a useless jumble, but in this case it has come in handy to reach people in a way e-mail can’t.

Title slide from Dr. Paul Hert's presentation for the Astrophysics Town Hall

Title slide from Dr. Paul Hert’s presentation for the Astrophysics Town Hall

NASA Astrophysics Town Hall:

I rested for a few minutes, then headed back downstairs. I attended today’s town hall meeting in the Potomac Ballroom A.  Dr. Paul Hertz, whom I had met and spoken with on Sunday night, led the meeting and described the current and future plans for how NASA’s $1.25 billion astrophysics budget will be spent. At the beginning of each decade, NASA develops a Decadal Survey, which lists their top priorities for the next ten years. These include astrophysics, planetary science, and aeronautics priorities. Beyond the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which is on target for launching in October, 2018, priorities include a new mission for locating exoplanets. This will be after the K2 mission I heard about yesterday. It is called TESS: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. There will also be a detailed all-sky survey in infrared to add to the WISE and 2MASS data.

Dr. Hertz also talked about the realities of the current lack of a finished budget and the uncertainties it puts into all planning. Because of sequestration and the partial government shutdown, this year’s entire season of balloon research from Antarctica had to be cancelled – the shutdown occurred at the worst possible time, just as the balloons were about to be shipped to the South Pole. Without the balloons, there could be no observations.

Posters:

Today’s posters had an education and public outreach theme, and there were groups of high school students visiting various booths, such as using an infrared camera and a blow drier in the JWST booth. I looked around the poster sessions, which are divided into about five sections sandwiched between the exhibiter booths. The educational posters from the NITARP teams were up today, and I photographed them so that I could get a feel for what will be required of us.

I also looked at the booths in more detail, such as the Schott glass booth. They are the people that made the glass and backing for the primary mirror on SOFIA. They mill out most of the specialized glass, called Zerodur, leaving behind ribs to support the mirror. I heard later that they had special Schott shot glasses to hand out, but I missed getting one.

Laser Interferometry Gravity Observatory booth

Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory booth

Detecting Gravity Waves:

One of the booths was for the new LIGO detector. It is the Laser Interferometery Gravitational Wave Observatory. Gravity waves should be produced by the large-scale sudden change in mass of a star or galaxy, such as in a supernova explosion. The waves, although weak, would propagate through the space-time continuum and cause large masses to move very slightly, and this can be detected (in theory). The idea is to suspend two large masses that are isolated from any incident vibration. Even a passing car would be too much. A laser would be split 90° and each beam would bounce off one mass, then come back together. If the masses remain motionless, the beams will add up constructively. If the masses move slightly because of any vibration, the beams will be out of phase and interfere with each other. They are building two facilities, one in Louisiana and one in Oregon, with a third planned for Australia or elsewhere. With three, they can triangulate a direction for incoming gravity waves.

I went to a talk session on education and public outreach, but had a hard time finding the room. When I got there, the room was small and overcrowded, so I had to sit on the floor by the door. It wasn’t what I had expected, and I did not recognize anyone there. Under the current budget proposal from the President, all EPO functions in any federal agency would be transferred to the Department of Education, the NSF, or the Smithsonian. It would effectively end all NASA EPO programs, including the one that brought me here and all the others I’ve been involved in. It is a huge mistake. I actually wrote letters and sent e-mails to all of Utah’s congressional delegation protesting this proposal. I’ll give the details of this in another post.

Educational poster on the impact of NITARP

Educational poster on the impact of NITARP

My legs were getting cramped, and my lack of sleep last night was catching up to me. I returned to my room and took a nap, then woke up about 6:00 and finished my blog post from the night before.

SOFIA Dinner:

I was invited to dinner at a Mexican restaurant nearby with all the SOFIA people, including the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors that could attend the conference. Most of us were NITARPers. The announcement of the new class of Cycle 2 AAAs is going to be tomorrow, and one team from Ohio was able to be here. I sat between Steve Jensen, the chief engineer for SOFIA, and Eddie Zavala, the program manager. The new team from Ohio was also at our table, as well as Theresa Paulsen (a Cycle 0 AAA) and her two students who were here for NITARP. We had a lively conversation, and I learned a great deal about the engineering challenges of SOFIA from Steve. I got his card so that I can ask more questions as they come up. I wish I could have recorded the conversation.

Educational poster on aligning NITARP with the Common Core standards

Educational poster on aligning NITARP with the Common Core standards

One story Steve told was of his previous work managing a pre-design team for the Orion crew capsule. In one meeting, he finally got the engineers and scientists to agree that they needed simple interfaces. This was the first thing they had ever agreed on. Steve stopped them and asked each group to clarify what they meant by “simple interfaces.” The scientists said they wanted touch screen controls that were intuitive to use. The engineers protested how hard and time-consuming it would be to make such controls, and that they weren’t simple at all. When Steve then asked the engineers what they had meant by a simple interface, they said, “A bolt!”

I am greatly impressed with the scientific, engineering, and management teams on SOFIA and their willingness to bring us educators in on the process, not as an afterthought but as an essential part of SOFIA. They’ve spent a great deal of engineering and planning to build the educators’ station on board, and Eddie puts in a great deal of time and effort to speak and work with educators. I feel like one of the team every time I meet them.

Educational poster on Extending the Invitation to participate in authentic science through NITARP.

Educational poster on Extending the Invitation to participate in authentic science through NITARP.

One of many things I learned at dinner is that the remaining three first generation instruments will go through final checkouts this spring. In the summer, SOFIA flies to Germany for a normal maintenance cycle, and then during the fall will be fully operational. The new AAAs will fly this spring.

Eddie Zavala, SOFIA Program Manager, and David Black, SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

Eddie Zavala, SOFIA Program Manager, and David Black, SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

I walked Mary Blessing back to her car. She lives in Virginia and had driven here for the dinner. She is another of the original six educators from Cycle 0. She dropped me off at the hotel, and I spent the rest of the evening catching up on e-mail, etc. I’ve met most of the Cycle 0 group now, with Cris, Mary, Theresa, and Peggy. Tomorrow we are to all be together for photo ops in the afternoon after the press release comes out. I hope to interview the other AAAs then. Eventually, my goal is to meet all of the AAAs. We are becoming quite a club.

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At the AAS Conference, Day 1

Sign for the American Astronomical Society conference in Washington, D.C.

Sign for the American Astronomical Society conference in Washington, D.C.

Today was the opening day of the American Astronomical Society conference in Washington, D.C. I’m here to learn about NITARP, the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program. Seven teachers, including myself, have been selected as a new class to learn how to do original research using the infrared astronomy archive (IPAC) housed at Caltech. We will be presenting a paper on our experience at next year’s AAS conference in Seattle. This coming summer, we’ll bring up to four students with us to Caltech to learn how to use the archives that are part of IPAC.

I had a hard time sleeping the night before, and just barely managed to drag myself downstairs at 9:00 without breakfast to meet with Dr. Rebull, our team’s scientist and director of NITARP. We met inside the exhibit hall, and went over a few more details, such what to do to prepare for writing up our proposals due March 7 and how to get up to speed on our research project. We’ll be looking at K giant stars that have excess lithium to try to determine if that lithium could have come from ingested planets. We’ll look for the signature of a dusty shroud or disk around these stars, which may indicate that a planet had been torn apart by tidal forces as the giant expanded.

IPAC booth at AAS

IPAC booth at AAS

Exomoons and Planet Migration

I went to a session on Exomoons and Planet Migration. An exomoon is a moon orbiting a planet which orbits another star besides the sun. So far we have not discovered any, because they are very difficult to detect and verify, but we probably have data from Kepler in the pipeline now that will verify the existence of such moons within the next year or two. The problem isn’t if they exist – they surely do – it’s how do we tease their signals out of the noise. The first talks were about planet migration. One talked about how he had discovered that younger planets have more eccentric (elliptical) orbits, which suggests that some third body (another planet) has deflected the planet into a more elliptical orbit. Then tidal forces and the gravity of residual dust would circularize the orbits. The next talk discussed how planetesimals achieve resonances in the periods of their orbits by interactions with remaining dust.

Zachary Berta-Thompson, a Torres Exoplanet Fellow at MIT, looked at alignments between a star’s spin and the planet’s orbital plane for mini Neptunes, as measured by comparing transit energies. If the depth of the transits change, it could mean the planet is not aligned with background features of the star, such as a sunspot group, and that it migrated closer to the star in a violent fashion. If they are aligned, it means the planet and the sunspots stay lined up, and the planet’s original migration was probably gradual and smooth.

Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Paul Mason from the Univeristy of Texas El Paso spoke of how the habitable zone (HZ) for P-type planets orbiting both stars in a binary star system would actually be wider and more stable than planets orbiting single stars. He based this on the ideas that the stars would become tidally locked (if their orbits had short periods), which would weaken their magnetic field and lead to a decrease in stellar flux and wind. With less wind, the water on the planet would not evaporate away as easily, leading to more possibility of life. In fact, he claimed that if our sun had a .6 solar mass companion with a 30-day period, then Venus and Mars would both lie inside the HZ and not just Earth. Of course, such Tatooine-like planets are probably rare, but they do exist. We have found them.

Natalie Hinkel of SFSU showed how a moon orbiting a planet might have habitable conditions even if the planet itself does not stay inside the HZ all the time. It all comes down to the actual radiative flux reaching the moon.

Kepler Town Meeting

Steve Howell led a Town Meeting on the Kepler mission and its proposed successor, the K2 mission. The moderator in the previous session has strongly suggested attending this. Kepler lost its second of four reaction wheels last year, effectively ending the primary mission since the telescope could no longer be pointed at the target area with any precision. But the scope still works and has steering propellant, so astronomers have been making suggestions for how it might still be used. Steve went over the close-out timeline for the primary mission, which still has many candidate stars and raw data that need to be confirmed. The properties of stars in the existing catalog need to be better characterized. A final catalog for Kepler Objects of Interest (KOI) will be made, showing which are junk (false positives), which are astronomical objects such as eclipsing binaries or high sunspot stars, and which are truly planets.

The K2 mission will be cool. They will use the remaining two wheels to keep the telescope pointed radially away from the sun along the ecliptic. They will use the thrusters to change the field of view every 85 days, since the scope can yaw more then about 90 degrees with only two wheels and still stay pointed away from the sun. Precision roll will be accomplished by thrusters and balanced pressure from the solar wind. In essence, they will use the telescope as a solar sail. They can still look at areas for about 80 days, enough to see short period planets and other phenomena. Some star clusters, such as the Pleides and Hydes lie along this path and will be studied for planets. It will be interesting to see what sort of planets are found in an open cluster.

Large group preparing for photos at NITARP debrief

Large group preparing for photos at NITARP debrief

Stranded in Miami

My wife called me out of the Town Hall Meeting to say here flight from Miami to Chicago had been cancelled. She has been in Chile visiting her parents (nice place to go during winter). We’ve had a huge polar vortex move south over the entire Midwest and East Coast, bringing terrible wind chill. Chicago’s airport was shut down. She was at the back of the plane, and by the time she got off and got into line for the ticket counter, she was at the end of a long and slow line and all available seats on all flights were full. Thousands of flights are cancelled, and she was unable to find a flight out of Miami until Thursday morning. Meanwhile, our two youngest children are being watched by my sister while I’m in D.C. She has to go back to work tomorrow. We’re not sure what we’re going to do. I went back to my room to try to help her out. Her bags have gone on to Salt Lake and all she has is the clothes on her back, her purse, her cell phone (without a charger), and the blanket she’s crocheting.

Teachers and students from the NITARP program at the 2014 AAS conference.

Teachers and students from the NITARP program at the 2014 AAS conference.

Characterizing Exoplanets

I returned to the conference after having lunch (I was starved). I ate at the Pienza buffet in the hotel. This next session was on characterizing exoplanets. The first talk (I missed his name) talked about how we have a better frequency distribution now for the abundances of different planet sizes. At first, we were finding many hot Jupiters because our detection methods favored this, but we now know they are actually quite rare, and the smaller planets a bit larger than the Earth but smaller than Neptune are the most common. Yet we have none of this size in our own solar system. He also looked at the H/He ratios and the relationship between the mass and the size of the planets. He concluded that planets with less than about 10 Earth masses are mostly rocky (less than one percent H/He) and planets larger are more gaseous (>10 % H/He). These findings, coupled with the fact that we are finding fewer brown dwarfs than expected, indicate to me that certain sizes of stellar and sub-stellar objects are more likely. The peaks occur at subNeptunes and at red dwarfs, for some reason.

The next speaker discussed how water clouds are possible on Y-class brown dwarfs. I hadn’t heard this before. So stars can have weather . . . The next speaker used computer simulations to show that giant planets can form around low-mass stars, as many as 10% of the planets formed.

Sarah Ballard of the University of Washington showed how exoplanets can be verified using astroseismology. In other words, the planet’s gravity can create tides in the star that are visible to us as surface radial velocities. She looked at Kepler 93b, and showed how her technique could make planet measurements much more precise because the density of the star can be worked out to milligrams per cubic centimeter using astroseismology. The planet here is only 73 miles in diameter.

Group discussion at the NITARP debriefing meeting.

Group discussion at the NITARP debriefing meeting.

Bryce Croll looked at an asymmetric transit depth (deeper on one side than on the other, and fluctuating with time) to suggest the object was a sub-Mercury sized planet just outside the Roche limit and in the process of breaking up. The dust and gas blown off as a plume are creating the asymmetries in the transit curve. Lauren Biddle of the University of Arizona talked about discovering non-transitting planets in a system by looking at the variations in timing for planets that do transit

Galactic Archeology

I then went to the Henry Norris Russell lecture given by Kenneth Freeman from Australia. He talked about how the abundances of elements found on a star’s surface doesn’t change (except for elements under magnesium), so these abundances can be used to identify which stars belong to which open clusters and moving groups (stars that formed together and still move together). Piecing these together brings a picture of the evolution of our galaxy’s structure over time, and helps us know that we are in a barred spiral galaxy. Looking at the motions of these associated stars, we see a kind of bowtie or peanut shape to their orbits around the galactic center from our perspective. We also see different areas of our galaxy, such as the thin disk of the spiral arms, the thick disk, the central bulge, the stellar halo with globular clusters, and the final halo of dark matter. Another interesting fact is to see that metal rich stars are found in the thin disk (arms) and that metal poor stars, even though found in outside now, were formed close to the center of the galaxy where there was less metal available. On a final note, he said we have yet to find the association of which our sun is a part.

List of what worked and what didn't.

List of what worked and what didn’t.

NITARP Debrief

After resting in my room and helping my wife, still stuck at the airport in Miami, to get a hotel room, I went out to Thai food with some of the new NITARP teachers. We swapped ideas, especially about making and using videos in the classroom. We’re all scrambling to contact our subs and provide materials while attending the meetings here. I had to leave early to go to a reception and town hall for SOFIA. But I couldn’t stay long there because I had to report to the NITARP group for a debriefing of this past year.

All the previous teams are here now, and there are about 75 of us. We took photos, then met in mixed groups to brainstorm what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve. We made the process go quickly so that we could get to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk at 8:00.

I talked briefly with Wendi Laurence, who said the Mohling Award judging was basically done and I needn’t worry about it – I had not heard from her for a while. She must have been using a wrong e-mail address.

Title slide for Neil deGrasse Tyson's talk

Title slide for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Potomac Ballroom A was quite full. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and has become quite a celebrity in science popularization circles. He’s appeared on the Big Bang Theory TV show, on Stargate: Atlantis with Bill Nye, and has now even appeared in the DC Comics series of Superman, where he helped Superman see a view of Krypton exploding. He explained how it all got started. When he was newly at the Hayden, the first exoplanet was discovered and the local news station asked him some questions. He went on and on with a great scientific explanation of the radial shift method of planet detection, but the only part that got on TV was him doing a little jiggle to show how the star shifted. He decided never to by sound bit again. So as he was asked questions on camera, he always gave a “tasty” sound bite the press would eat up. Things mushroomed, he made appearances on shows, and has now become quite the celebrity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the AAS meeting

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the AAS meeting

The point of his address was to show anecdotes of how there appears to be a groundswell in the public interest in science. He showed how science ideas how entered the public consciousness, even made it into comics and art. And tattoos. He talked about memes and the Twitterverse and showed how his followership jumped when he had done certain things or made certain comments. It was all very interesting and entertaining, although the language used was not appropriate for such an audience.

Superman visits the Hayden Planetarium

Superman visits the Hayden Planetarium

But he also came across as someone who has crossed the line from scientist to arrogant celebrity. He managed to offend quite a few people in the audience, even going so far as to hint (very strongly) that only uneducated people would have voted for Mitt Romney. Now he’ll claim he never said this, but he did show a slide showing the top 10 states in education level and how they voted (all Democratic) and the lowest 10 states in education level, where all but one voted Republican (the exception was Nevada, where Senator Reid is from). And there were dunce caps on Mitt Romney’s head.

Tyson with the cast of Big Bang Theory

His showing of the slide in this way (without much comment) would imply a causality, without making the necessary scientific addendum that this chart only shows a correlation, not a causation. And in fact the figure’s accuracy is questionable. Look at Utah, which has a high education rate, but voted more strongly for Romney than any other state. Yet exceptions were not mentioned. It’s a case of observational selection. But then he went further into offensive territory to ask how many people in the audience were Republicans by a show of hands – about eight dared to respond. I didn’t, even though I am a Republican. I did not want to invite the public scorn he then heaped upon those who raised their hands, or try to make Tyson’s point for him. It was hardly a scientifically valid poll.

Now this is going a bit too far . . .

Now this is going a bit too far . . .

I can’t imagine any responsible scientist acting this way. But I can imagine an uneducated, unenlightened celebrity acting this way. Just because one is famous doesn’t give one the expertise to comment on public policy or any other field. I do not understand how these so-called well-educated people are unable to see that it takes two sides to make an argument, and that our current budget crisis is just as much the blame of the President as it is the Congress. It’s the political polarization that’s hurting us; the inability of either side to reach common ground. I also have a hard time with the apparent liberal attitude that they know what’s best for us and that we all need to be saved from our own ignorance. But I’ll talk about this more in a future post. I need to cool my jets a little.

The highlight of his lengthy ego trip was to show a trailer for the new Cosmos series. That, at least, looks to be worth watching. He described the history behind the new show and why it is going to be on Fox TV. It’s mostly because Fox is willing to put good money into it, whereas PBS wanted to control it all.

Science reaches pop culture

Science reaches pop culture

After his remarks I walked back to my room. I encountered some of the high school students who had come for NITARP and who had all heard Tyson’s remarks. I asked what they felt of it, and they would only say, “It was OK.” That’s the high school equivalent of saying, “We didn’t like it.” Some of the students were from the very states Tyson’s graphic had said were uneducated. I’m sure that’s going to help persuade them to become scientists . . . I just hope Tyson considers next time that there could be high school students in his audience before sharing R rated language and offensive comments.

I understand the Twitterverse exploded with negative comments after his remarks. Maybe that’s what he had in mind all along – seeing if his talk would create the very types of memes he was describing.

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The NITARP Workshop

View of National Harbor, Maryland from the Gaylord National Resort.

View of National Harbor, Maryland from the Gaylord National Resort.

Today is Jan. 5, 2014. It’s been a fairly steep learning curve as I’ve attended the opening workshop for NITARP, the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, NITARP provides opportunities for science teachers and their students to do professional-level research using NASA’s infrared data archives located at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. The purpose of today’s workshop was to bring the new class of teachers up to speed with the program. Here is a press release about the NITARP teams at AAS: NITARP_release_final

NITARP 2014 Teams

NITARP 2014 Teams

There are seven of us that have been chosen this year, a smaller group than previously because funding sources have constricted due to sequestration (more on this in a future post) and the budget uncertainty. There are also two mentor teachers who have participated before. We have been divided into two teams. I will be working with Dr. Luisa Rebull as the lead astronomer and with John Gibbs as our mentor teacher. There are three of us new teachers on Luisa’s team.

Part of our process today was to pick a research topic and a time this summer when we will for our training workshop at Caltech. We also chose what time each week to hold a telecon to stay in communication. We still need to pick a team name.

My team for the NITARP program

My team for the NITARP program

We met in the Chesapeake 12 meeting room at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland where the American Astronomical Society conference will be starting tonight. The MAGFest (Music and Gaming Festival) is still winding down today, and there were a few unusually dressed people wandering around, though somewhat subdued after last night’s partying. By afternoon the astronomers started filtering in.

We started with general introductions of each other and a basic overview of the program and its goals and timeline. After breaking for group photos, we were introduced to the types of data archives available at IPAC and given a primer on astronomical imaging. IPAC holds data from many missions, primarily in the infrared band from such missions as IRAS, Spitzer, 2MASS, and WISE. It also holds NED, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Luisa has done much of the work on designing a common interface for these datasets and creating links between them, including datasets by ESA missions such as Herschel and Planck. She also directs the NITARP program. Here is a link to the IPAC website: http://www.ipac.caltech.edu/.

One of the most interesting parts of our discussion was when we asked Luisa and Varoujan how they came to be interested in the subjects they’re experts in (young stellar objects and active galactic nuclei, among others). They both said you often get involved in a mentor teacher’s project as an undergrad or graduate student, become expert in that area, then follow your nose. Sometimes you need to learn about things you don’t anticipate. Varoujan said he had to become an expert at zodiacal dust so that he could remove it from readings of the cosmic infrared background radiation.

Bright Rimmed Clouds in IC1398. The region expanded is called BRC 38. One of the teams discovered several YSOs in the area.

Bright Rimmed Clouds in IC1398. The region expanded is called BRC 38. One of the teams discovered several YSOs in the area.

During lunch, we met as a team and discussed several possible projects. These included extensions of previous projects, such as looking for young stars embedded in globules of dust at the edge of Bright Rimmed Clouds (BRCs). These clouds have hot young stars that are pushing dust and gas away from them in a bubble. At the edge of the bubble, fingers of denser material extend into the cleared area in the center. Inside these fingers, protostars are forming. One such area is the nebula IC1398. Another is the Eagle Nebula made famous by the Hubble image. The Wall inside the Orion Nebula is a BRC created by the Trapezium stars.

Bright Rimmed Clouds in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Stellar wind pressure is clearing out a bubble of space inside a nebula, except for the finger-like projections where matter is too dense. In those areas, it is collecting into accretion disks around young stellar objects.

Bright Rimmed Clouds in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Stellar wind pressure is clearing out a bubble of space inside a nebula, except for the finger-like projections where matter is too dense. In those areas, it is collecting into accretion disks around young stellar objects.

Another possible project was to characterize stars in a Moving Group, an association of stars that all formed in the same open nebula and have moved together ever since. Some of these have grown so large that they have only recently been recognized from proper motion studies. We would look at them in infrared and see if they have excess IR, indicative of protoplanetary disks, which would confirm that they are young stars.

Although these are both fascinating, the first project has been done a lot by previous groups. The second one we discovered today has just barely been published by a group of astronomers. We’ve been scooped! So we turned to a third idea, which we know has not been done. We would extend the work of Dr. Jolene Campbell on giant stars that have excess lithium. Usually, lithium is not found much in stars. It is bypassed in the normal nucleosynthesis process that builds heavier elements out of hydrogen and helium fusion. What lithium there is in a star when it first forms is quickly broken down by fusion in the core.

A giant star eating a planet as it expands. We will be looking for infrared signatures indicating a ring debris such as shown here.

A giant star eating a planet as it expands. We will be looking for infrared signatures indicating a ring debris such as shown here.

Yet some stars have more lithium than they should have, especially stars beginning their giant phase, migrating off of the main sequence. One theory is that these stars have developed larger convective zones as they expand and are dredging up lithium from the radiative zone below. The other theory is that the lithium is coming from planets that the stars are swallowing as they expand (which will happen to us in about 5 billion years). Her study also looked at the rotation rates of about 150 such lithium rich stars. We would extend her study by looking at the same stars in infrared to see if there is any excess, which would be caused by a debris field of dust as the planets are destroyed.

This immediately struck us as a pretty interesting topic in that it deals with stellar evolution, planetary destruction, the chemistry and rotation of stars, and the fate of our own solar system. It will not be an easy topic. We’ll have to worry about calibration issues and the disks we’re looking at are faint and hard to isolate from the glare of the stars. But that’s what science is about- making order and meaning out of uncertainty and chaos. We’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of us. We’ll travel to Caltech for training the last week in July and we’ll have out weekly telecons at 5:00 on Mondays, Mountain Time. It’ll be fun!

And while we're on the subject of planet eaters . . .

And while we’re on the subject of planet eaters . . .

We also talked about what to expect at the AAS conference and received a treasure hunt assignment to help us maximize our experience here. The teams from this last year came in at the end of the day to give a short introduction to their posters. We looked at the posters more closely as a group and John described the process their team went through to make them.

After crashing for an hour in my room and talking with my youngest kids on the phone, I headed down to the opening reception in Potomac Ballroom A. One of our assignments is to network and talk to people, which I don’t have any problem doing. While standing in line for horse doovers, another man came in line behind me and offered to take the plate of roast beef I’d just finished to a receptacle tray. He was wearing a brown suit coat and had a mustache and glasses. He recognized the lady in front of me, who works at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and said to us, “It’s a good thing they have free food. Those of use who work in the D.C. area don’t get expense accounts to pay for food here.” I asked him where he works, and he said NASA Headquarters, so I asked him his name and what he did there. Come to find out, it was Dr. Paul Hertz, the Director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate for NASA. In other words, he oversees all the astrophysics research done at NASA. We had a nice conversation about the NITARP program, which he was very familiar with. He mentioned he had been to Logan, Utah to visit USU’s space science program.

Dr. Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA

Dr. Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA

I kept thinking how more than half of the people in the room would have loved to be having the conversation I was having. Dr. Hertz has authored more than 100 papers and is responsible for a $1.25 billion annual budget. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being part of NASA’s education programs. The people who are much greater, smarter, and more important to our future than any movie star or “celebrity” are still very approachable and willing to strike up a conversation with a high school teacher like me.

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You Know You’re at the Wrong Conference When . . .

Our icy plane at Salt Lake International Airport

Our icy plane at Salt Lake International Airport

I realize this will be out of order. I still have two days of my SOFIA trip last June to report on, and now it’s suddenly January and I’m in Washington, D.C. I want to describe my experiences here in almost real time, so I will get back to SOFIA later.

The lobby of the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Site for the 2014 AAS Conference.

The lobby of the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Site for the 2014 AAS Conference.

But first a little introduction of how I came to be here. After seeing SOFIA in action this summer, I wanted to have the opportunity to utilize such data with my students. I had heard of the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) before and had even applied for it two years ago, but we weren’t selected. It was from my rejection letter that I heard of the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program that I am now a part of. Here is a link to the NITARP website: http://nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu/

The atrium of the Gaylord National Resort

The atrium of the Gaylord National Resort

Last year I accidentally misread the deadline date and barely missed it. I vowed this year I would create the most compelling application possible, which was due in September. Within two weeks I was notified by Dr. Luisa Rebull, director of the program, that we had been accepted, along with six other schools for this year’s class.

A Firefly at the conference. Now all I need are some Browncoats . . .

A Firefly at the conference. Now all I need are some Browncoats . . .

NITARP is a chance for teachers and their students to make real astronomical discoveries and communicate them professionally. We will use the infrared image and data archives at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. These images and their metadata were acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope and saved in .fits format, which I’ve talked about previously. Part of our training will be how to use and analyze these .fits files. The students will be matched with a mentor astronomer, and together they will create a poster to be presented at the 2015 American Astronomical Society conference, to be held in Seattle, Washington.

Standard dress for the AAS conference

Standard dress for the AAS conference

But to help me see how all of this will work, the NITARP program is sending all of us newbies to the AAS conference this year, which is held at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. and across the Potomac River from Alexandria, VA.

Yes, exhibit halls sometimes do feel like dungeons . . .

Yes, exhibit halls sometimes do feel like dungeons . . .

I flew out of Salt Lake International Airport this morning after our plane was de-iced (it snowed a few inches last night). The flight was uneventful, and I watched “Star Trek Into Darkness” on my iPad to pass the time. Flying in to Reagan National Airport, we had a great view of National Cathedral and the Washington Monument (with the scaffolding almost gone) as we turned over the Potomac to align with the runway.

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

One of the people in my SuperShuttle van to the hotel was also a new NITARPer (Ni-Twerp?) from Colorado. The hotel/resort was very obvious as we crossed Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge into Maryland. It has a large glass atrium facing the river, and it even snows inside on demand.

A blue goat . . . so maybe I'm at the wrong conference?

A blue goat . . . so maybe I’m at the wrong conference?

I got my room assignment and headed up the elevators, but noticed that the hotel seemed rather crowded already, and that a number of people were dressed up in science fiction costumes. I hadn’t know what the standard dress code was for the AAS conference, and was surprised to see such as casual, festive atmosphere. Most of the attendees seemed quite young and nerdish, although you get that at any science conference. I figured they must be astronomy graduate students who had come early. There did seem to be some partying going on, as the music level was a bit loud coming from some of the rooms I passed and people were arriving with six-packs and pizza boxes. I guess those graduate students really like to unwind after studying galaxies and black holes all the time.

The Gravity Gun, a revolution in quantum physics. Or something . . .

The Gravity Gun, a revolution in quantum physics. Or something . . .

I went exploring the hotel/resort/convention center and as I saw even more unusual costumes, such as elves and fireflies and various types of animals in slinky leotards, I began to wonder if I was at the right conference. One person was dressed as a Ghostbuster. OK, so a bit out there, but having an unlicensed nuclear reactor strapped to your back is not entirely out of the range of possibility for an astronomer. Then there was the guy dressed as a blue goat – I think it was a guy. But if there are Blue Goats here then perhaps there could be Brown Coats. No power in the ‘verse can stop them. Then there was the guy with the Gravity Gun. I can’t wait to hear his presentation next week . . .

But what clinched my doubts was the heavy metal rock band concert playing in one of the Ballrooms. That just doesn’t sound like astronomers to me. Well, OK, maybe – but I finally asked someone and found that this is the second day of the MAGFest (Music and Gaming Festival), a huge gamer’s celebration held here each year. It continues tomorrow (here’s the link: http://magfest.org/). Then on Monday the astronomers take over, and the real party begins!

I was starving by this time and went walking outside in the bitter cold that has descended across the Midwest and East Coast. I found a place called Potbelly’s Sandwich Works and struck up a conversation with two people waiting in line. They were both here for MAGFest, and told me the attendance is huge and growing – 6000 two years ago, 9000 last year, and 12,000 this year. No wonder the hotel is packed. One of them is studying computational neuroscience, the other teaches programming and uses Raspberry Pi machines, as I am hoping to do. I felt a bit more at home talking with them instead of the Catwoman in the leotard. The sandwich I had is called The Wreck and it was excellent.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time . . .

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time . . .

Back at the hotel, I talked with my wife who is visiting her parents in Chile. They are just south of Santiago, and I had asked her to do a little vicarious astronomy for me. I’ve never been to the Southern Hemisphere before, so I had her look for the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri. After some orientation with me using Stellarium on my computer while talking on the phone to her in Chile, she finally found the Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri, along with Canopus. Maybe one of these days I’ll see the Southern Cross for the first time. Now I have that song stuck in my head. But isn’t technology wonderful? I can watch Captain Kirk battle Kahn (spoiler alert!) while flying on an airplane and walk my wife through the southern constellations while she’s in a completely different hemisphere.

I will attempt to write a blog on my impressions after each one of my five days of this AAS conference, as well as what I can see of MagFest. A group of gamers just walked past my door discussing ectoplasm in heated voices. Just wait for the real fireworks about dark matter, exoplanets, and federal funding over the next few days! This is going to be an interesting week.

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My Flight on SOFIA Part 2: Westward Leg

Start of our Westbound Flight. The navigation path and current position are shown on the Flight Navigator's console.

Start of our Westbound Flight. The navigation path and current position are shown on the Flight Navigator’s console.

In my previous post, I wrote about the first half of our flight aboard SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, on the evening of June 25-26, 2013. We took off from the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility near Palmdale, CA and headed northeast to Moab, Utah, then east southeast to Louisiana and north to Missouri, observing different objects along the way with SOFIA’s 2.5 meter telescope. In that last post, I described how the telescope works, how light passes from the primary parabolic mirror to the secondary hyperbolic mirror, is then angled 90 ° through a pressure bulkhead using the tertiary mirror, and comes to a focus where the instruments are attached. I also wrote about how the FORCAST instrument works and how the guide telescopes help to stay on target. On tonight’s flight, FORCAST was attached to the instrument flange. We had just completed a calibration leg, observing the well-known star Arcturus, or Alpha Bootes.

Just north of Branson, Missouri we turned due west to observe G35.2N IRS 1-1. We were at the midpoint of our flight.

Randy Grashuis, Mission Director for our flight.

Randy Grashuis, Mission Director for our flight.

Using the Grisms

Since FORCAST splits the infrared beam into two channels, it’s possible to photograph two wavelength bands simultaneously or to photograph one channel while using a grism (a combination diffraction grating and prism) to obtain spectroscopic measurements of the other channel. This is what we did for the next observing leg of our flight. Dr. Alessio Caratti of the Max Planck Institut für Radioastronomie in Bonn, Germany is looking at the spectroscopic lines for hydrogen molecules in massive young stellar objects that are emitting jets of materials. G35.2N IRS 1-1 is such an object.

A copper salt tested in a Bunsen burner flame gives off bluish-green light when heated.

A copper salt tested in a Bunsen burner flame gives off bluish-green light when heated.

All elements and molecules have specific wavelengths of light that they emit when heated up. For example, potassium glows with a light purplish color, sodium vapor gives off an orange color, copper glows blue or green, and strontium emits red light. In fact, this is how fireworks get their colors. Molecules also have their resonance frequencies where they will absorb energy as the atomic bonds vibrate, flex, and stretch. By looking at the wavelengths that are absorbed or emitted in the gases around proto-stars, one can tell the temperature of the gas as well as its radial motion. For gas moving toward us, the expected absorption lines are shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. For gas moving away, the spectral lines are shifted toward the red end of the spectrum

Dr. Caratti is measuring the cooler hydrogen molecules in the gas and dust that surrounds these young stars. As an energetic stellar jet slams into this gas, a shock wave is produced that warms up the hydrogen and causes it to emit particular wavelengths of light that are separated out by the grism inside FORCAST. The energy given off by vibration of the hot gases (over 2000 degrees Kelvin) can be observed from the ground, whereas SOFIA can observe the energy emitted by the rotational energy of the cooler hydrogen gas, at about 200 degrees Kelvin. Combining these observations gives a more complete picture of the motion and energy of these proto-stellar jets.

Recording data at the science stations aboard SOFIA.

Recording data at the science stations aboard SOFIA. Joe Adams is at right in the cap.

We were getting excellent data. I was invited back to the science station to see the data as it came in. One of the scientists explained what I was seeing. Both channels of FORCAST were seen in grayscale windows on the main science monitor. For this leg, the photographic image was displayed on the right window and the spectroscopic data in the left window. To me, the left window looked like a lot of random noise with a darker band through the center. He told me that that darker band indicated we were getting a good signal through the noise and background radiation, and that the data reduction algorithms should be able to provide good, clean results.

After about 50 minutes of observing this proto-stellar jet, we turned toward the northwest over eastern Colorado to a heading of 294 degrees to start our next leg. I took the time to sit down in the business class seats to eat a sandwich and snack. I had to be careful to keep my blood sugar up during this all-night flight. Rebecca Salvemini and Carey Baxter, the two STAR interns aboard, were also eating “lunch” and we talked about their research projects. Carolyn joined us and we all discussed the teaching profession and its advantages.

STAR interns Rebecca Salvemini and Carey Baxter at the AAA console.

STAR interns Rebecca Salvemini and Carey Baxter at the AAA console with Dana Backman.

The Evolution of Preplanetary Molecules

Our next leg was to also use a grism to observe the spectroscopic lines of ices coating dust grains in the molecular clouds from which new stars are born. Professor Douglas Whittet of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York is looking at the 5-8 micron region of infrared. The grism in FORCAST performed high-resolution spectroscopy of interstellar ice molecules such as water, methane, ammonia, methanol, and formic acid. These ice molecules freeze out inside deep molecular clouds and create mantles around dust grains. As proto-stars form inside the clouds, the ices are heated up and chemical reactions occur that produce more complex molecules. Eventually the evolved ices become incorporated into planets as accretion disks collapse. These processes are of great importance to astrobiology, to see how the molecules essential to life as we know it first formed. The target object for this observing leg was called CK1 (EC 90).

Looking at a stellar jet in two wavelengths of infrared. The image on the right shows the jet as a small dark area up and to the left form the central target star. The left window does not show the jet, as it is visible only through a narrow wavelength band.

Looking at a stellar jet in two wavelengths of infrared. The image on the right shows the jet as a small dark area up and to the left form the central target star. The left window does not show the jet, as it is visible only through a narrow wavelength band.

A Proto-stellar Jet

We were now at 43,000 feet. As we burned off fuel, SOFIA grew lighter and we were able to climb higher between each leg. We had crossed over the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake, almost directly over where I was at a week before during the astrobiology workshop. I waved to my wife and kids, who were hopefully enjoying a good night’s sleep some 80 miles to the south.

We turned slightly left to a heading of 290 for our next leg. We were to look at another proto-star, this one also blasting a huge jet of superheated plasma into space. The grism was rotated back out of the light path so that both channels could build images. Professor Jonathan Tan of the University of Florida is observing a series of eight proto-stars, looking at stellar jets. He hopes to gather enough data from different stars to test several competing theories about high mass star formation. Our target was G45.47 +0.05, a young star with a prominent jet

At 42,000 feet.

At 42,000 feet.

Joe Adams, one of the science team members, showed me the images from both channels on the science monitor, which show up reversed, or the white of stars becomes black and the black of space becomes light gray. In the right window, the jet was plainly seen as a dark smudge pointing up and to the left of the main dark spot of the proto-star. In the left image, which was filtered at a different wavelength, the jet couldn’t be seen but the proto-star was more prominent, as were other features. By picking the right filters, scientists can isolate details such as a proto-star imbedded inside a nebula of dust, invisible at optical wavelengths, or the dynamic swirls of cooler dust surrounding it (such as the jet itself)

Joe also the explained to me why the images required an hour or so for each leg. In infrared wavelengths, there is a great deal of background interference caused by radiation from the atmosphere above us and from the telescope itself. By looking at an object for a longer time, the signal or light from the object builds up and becomes easier to see compared with the background noise.

Chopping between the target and a background area in order to cancel out background infrared interference.

Chopping between the target and a background area in order to cancel out background infrared interference.

Chopping and Nodding

I had observed in the flight path camera’s monitor window that each star appeared as two blobs connected by thin streaks. The science monitor also showed ghost images of the target as lighter spots above and below the main dark spot. This is caused by a process called chopping and nodding, which helps to cancel out the background infrared radiation noise emitted by the telescope and atmosphere. SOFIA’s telescope has a parabolic primary mirror with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters. The light is focused toward a hyperbolic secondary mirror. This secondary mirror is able to oscillate rapidly between two positions, causing the focal position to shift on the detector. One position is the target itself, the second is an area of the sky close by that has only space in it, or in other words, it shows the background radiation only. The second image is digitally subtracted from the first image, leaving the star showing as a black area in a light gray background. This process occurs several times a second at a rate faster than fluctuations in the air temperature outside the airplane, and effectively cancels out the effects of atmospheric infrared emission. Since the secondary mirror moves back and forth rapidly, it looks like a cleaver chopping vegetables.

A city below us.

A city below us.

To cancel out the effects of the telescope giving off infrared noise, the primary mirror is also moved to a new position slightly off-target every few seconds as the chopping continues. Since it happens at a slower rate, it looks like someone’s head nodding up and down. Altogether four positions are imaged. You can label them Nod A Chop 1 (which is on the target), Nod A Chop 2 (which is off target) and Nod B Chop 1 and Chop 2, which are both off target. By adding and subtracting these images from each other, the final science image is produced. This is why the target is black on light gray with two mirrored white targets above and below it. All of this happens in the telescope hardware and software as we are flying

To use an analogy from my own field of media design, I often have to remove unwanted noise from an audio file, such as background ventilation noise. To do this, the audio file is loaded into an audio editing program such as Apple’s Soundtrack and a section of audio without anyone talking is used to set a print of the background noise. This is similar to the off-target chops. The denoise filter then subtracts the frequencies of the noise from the original clip, hopefully leaving only the sound of the person talking. If the background noise changes over time, several noise prints must be taken over time just as the SOFIA telescope must continuously chop and nod as the air temperature fluctuates outside the airplane.

Taking a break. A conference table will be installed where Rebecca and Carey are sitting on the right side of SOFIA. The telescope control technicians are sitting behind them.

Taking a break. A conference table will be installed where Rebecca and Carey are sitting on the right side of SOFIA. The telescope control technicians are sitting behind them.

Data Reduction

Joe also explained to me some of the data processing that happens after the flight. The sensors in FORCAST and the other SOFIA cameras are similar to the sensors in regular digital cameras in that they have picture elements in a grid pattern that are sensitive to light intensity, producing a voltage as light hits them. These voltages are read as numerical digits. The FORCAST sensor reads infrared light, which is less energetic than visible light. Defects also occur. Sometimes a particular pixel in the array produces bad data, or additional infrared noise or artifacts creep in, such as internal reflections inside the detector. Shortly after landing the data recorded during flight is transferred to storage and sent to the SOFIA Science Center at NASA Ames in Mountain View, CA. Over the next few weeks, the data is processed and errors reduced or eliminated to get as clean an image or spectrum as possible. From there, the scientists analyze the results according to their original proposals. The data, both raw and processed, is archived for future scientists to use.

Beta Pegasi, or Sheat, in the Great Square of Pegasus.

Beta Pegasi, or Sheat, in the Great Square of Pegasus.

After 44 minutes of observing on this leg, we had reached almost as far as Portland, Oregon. We turned south-southwest to a heading of 192 degrees. This part of our flight would be another calibration leg, this time looking at the star Beta Pegasi, or Sheat, a red giant star about 200 light years away. It is the upper right star in the great square of Pegasus. At this time of the year, it is visible in the east in the early morning hours, or to our left as we traveled south over Oregon and California.

Using the Data

Once we were set up on the calibration leg, the scientists relaxed a bit. It was a good time to grab a drink of water from the large coolers brought on board or to eat a snack. Some took time to catch a quick nap.

Marissa Rosenberg before boarding SOFIA.

Marissa Rosenberg before boarding SOFIA.

When we went through the egress and safety training the day before, we met Marissa Rosenberg, an astrophysics graduate student studying with Dr. Xander Tielens of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. His project would be our final set of observations for the evening. Marissa joined us for dinner Monday night and explained her background. She is originally from California and majored in astrophysics, studying in France and the Netherlands along the way. She speaks several languages fluently, and has a pretty good sense of balance. She had waited patiently all night for her turn as a guest investigator.

At dinner the night before, she had mentioned to me a freeware program created to load and analyze .fits files. This is the file format used by NASA to archive most astronomical data, and contains metadata that includes the coordinates, corner position, scaling, wavelengths, and other parameters of the data file.

M16, the Eagle Nebula, as seen in three infrared wavelengths. Image was compiled using DS9 software.

M16, the Eagle Nebula, as seen in three infrared wavelengths. Image was compiled using DS9 software.

I had already learned how to use .img files last year, which is the data format used for the Mars MOLA and Lunar LOLA 3D altitude data. I had worked out a process to load the .img files into Adobe Photoshop using the Photoshop Raw setting and the file’s label data. From Photoshop I was able to save the image as a 16 bit PNG file, which I could then load into my 3D modeling software as a heightmap. That’s how my students were able to make such amazing 3D images of the moon for our animations.

But now I had the chance to learn how to use .fits files, which had eluded me up until now. Marissa was kind enough to sit down with me and show me the program, called DS9, which allows the .fits images to be loaded into separate red, green, and blue channels. She had some files prepared already, and I was able to create custom RGB images of the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula using different infrared wavelengths. She proved to be an excellent teacher, and I have practiced using this program since returning home. The image shown here is of the Eagle Nebula, or Messier 16, using three different infrared wavelengths as red, green, and blue channels. I’ve photographed this same object before using an optical 24 inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory, and my photo had about the same size and resolution. This photo shows the familiar beak of the eagle in the bottom left corner, also known in Hubble photos as the Pillars of Creation. But I don’t recall seeing the nebulosity in the upper right corner, which is perhaps only visible in infrared.

Preparing for Marissa's Observations

Preparing for Marissa’s Observations

Scientists have developed tools like DS9 to read and analyze their astrometric data, both .img and .fits files. NASA scientists don’t like using commercial data file formats, such as .jpg or .psd. They have developed their own set of preferred file formats. The only problem as an educator is trying to find ways to translate these formats into something that can be easily taught and used in the classroom. I’ve used quite a few tools by NASA and other agencies, such as ImageJ by the National Institutes of Health. They are utilitarian in that they work but are not much to look at; scientists aren’t interested in making fancy interfaces. They also tend to assume that you already know how to use them and understand all about the data formats required (and have a degree in astrophysics). Finding tutorials that are accessible for high school students is a challenge, and has become one of the threads of my teaching career. I have high hopes that DS9 will help me finally unlock the .fits format for my students. It can also read non-image data, such as spectroscopic data, and create charts and graphs.

Southward leg, observing Beta Pegasi (Sheat) to calibrate a grism detector.

Southward leg, observing Beta Pegasi (Sheat) to calibrate a grism (diffraction grating and prism) in FORCAST.

When Things Go Wrong

After showing me how to use DS9, Marissa was herself shown what to expect during her observation leg by Jim De Buizer and the other science staff. We had reached a point just over San Francisco Bay as we made a short non-observing leg of nine minutes to put us over Monterrey Bay and in line to make her observations. We turned to a heading of 120 degrees.

NGC 7538, in the constellation Cepheus.

NGC 7538, in the constellation Cepheus.

With the grism recalibrated, it was brought back into the light path in order to study the spectrum of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These molecules are made of complex hexagons of carbons joined like a honeycomb and surrounded by hydrogens. They often have a pleasant aroma, and so are called aromatic hydrocarbons. Some examples are chrysene, naphthalene, and benzopyrene. They have been found inside interstellar dust, meteor fragments, comet tails, and are part of the building blocks of organic life. This leg, we were looking for them inside an ultra compact cloud of ionized hydrogen, known as an H-II region, in NGC 7538.

Looking at Marissa's data

Looking at Marissa’s data

At first, the observations seemed to be going well, but as the leg progressed, one could tell from the increased tension and number of people crowding around the science station that the data wasn’t coming in as planned. I could see that the image in the right channel window had streaks and lines through it as if the chopping and nodding were not cancelling out the background noise completely. Through some of Marissa’s leg, especially toward the end, the mirror was vignetting, meaning it was being blocked by the side of the doorway along one edge. The flight plan showed this as a possibility, saying to return to base as needed.

Marissa looking over the science station monitors as her data comes in.

Marissa looking over the science station monitors as her data comes in.

Jim De Buizer and the rest of the science staff and the mission directors and telescope operators kept a cool head, working the problem, as the pilot would say. They proposed different possibilities for the problem as the leg progressed and tried several solutions. The region we were studying was large, requiring the secondary mirror and primary mirror to chop and nod further than usual to pick up the background signatures. This might also explain the vignetting. It could also have been that since this was the final leg before our landing approach, our heading was more constrained so that the telescope might not have been able to center on the target. We also had to avoid several military no-fly zones.

Discussing the data.

Discussing the data.

It was a great disappointment for Marissa. She had traveled all the way from the Netherlands to be on this flight, only to have the data not work out. It reminded me just how risky cutting edge science really is. To push the boundaries of what’s known requires instruments that are extremely sensitive and precise, and therefore expensive to build, and complex and finicky to use. Gone are the days when a lone amateur astronomer could simply point a homemade telescope anywhere in the sky and hope to make new discoveries. Putting all of the systems of a jetliner together with all of the controls of a large telescope and its detectors is hard enough. When you add the systems needed to isolate the telescope from vibration and turbulence, you’ve got SOFIA, one of the most difficult technological challenges every attempted. Having most of our observing legs go very well tonight, I forgot just how amazing it is when everything goes right.

Closing the telescope door and preparing to land.

Closing the telescope door and preparing to land.

I saw a team of scientists, engineers, and computer programmers working together for a common goal, trying to solve problems using all of their combined experience and talents. They recognize the chancy nature of what we’re doing on SOFIA, and do everything they can to make it all work. I can’t imagine a more fascinating and rewarding career, unless its education, of course.

As for Dr. Tielens, his project will need to be put back into the pool to try again another night, perhaps to look at a different target or after the exact cause of tonight’s problem can be determined and corrected. But Marissa will have to return to the Netherlands without getting get a chance to fly again.

Dawn through SOFIA's windows as we head back to Palmdale.

Dawn through SOFIA’s windows as we head back to Palmdale.

Heading Home

Dawn was beginning to streak the eastern sky as we turned for home. We strapped in for landing, and I sat in the front business class seat with Dana Backman, who explained to me how nodding and chopping worked as we made our approach. After landing we had a long taxi back to the DAOF hangar, and I fell asleep after an intense and memorable night.

SOFIA at sunrise after a night's observations.

SOFIA at sunrise after a night’s observations.

 

Sunrise back at Palmdale, CA and the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility.

Sunrise back at Palmdale, CA and the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility.

We walked down the steps that were rolled up to the airplane as the sun rose, and walked back to the hangar building as a waning gibbous moon hung in the sky next to the NASA meatball logo. We grabbed some breakfast back at the hotel and headed to our rooms for some well-deserved sleep.

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