Mastering the Dark Arts: BYU-RET Week 2

NGC663 (Photographed by Hunter Wilson). This is one of my targets for analysis.

NGC663 (Photographed by Hunter Wilson). This is one of my targets for analysis.

With my prospectus completed and approved, I was ready to begin my actual research project at Brigham Young University. I am here on a Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program funded through the National Science Foundation (Grant # PHY1157078). I’m working with Dr. Eric Hintz to study high-mass x-ray binaries, among other things, in several open star clusters. In my last post I outlined this background research. Not all of it will be relevant to my final analysis, but that’s something you don’t know when you start out.

During my second week I moved to the next step, which was to learn the software and processes I would need to successfully analyze the star data. Wait a second, you say, why am I jumping right to analysis when I haven’t collected any data yet? What we have is a science Catch 22. You can’t know how to best collect data until you know how that data will be analyzed, but you can’t analyze the data until you’ve collected it. The answer is to learn how to analyze data with another data set that someone else has already collected before you try to collect your onw. That way you can check to make sure you know what you’re doing, then apply your process knowledge to planning your research methodology.

The Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The outlined area is the original boundary of the reservation. The dark red areas are the sections actually controlled by the Ute Tribal government. Fort Duchesne is the government center for the reservation.

The Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The outlined area is the original boundary of the reservation. The dark red areas are the sections actually controlled by the Ute Tribal government. Fort Duchesne is the government center for the reservation.

Perhaps a personal story will illustrate what I mean. When I was in my undergraduate program at BYU, I was studying psychology with a minor in political science. I wanted to do some independent research even then, and got some other students involved with me. We arranged to work with a professor in the political science department to get some independent poly sci credit. We proposed to study the attitudes of members of the Ute Tribe on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation toward tribal self-government (one of us was a tribal member). We created a questionnaire and selected respondents at random from tribal rolls. One person, for example, was actually in jail in Fort Duchesne at the time and I had to go in and interview him. We compiled all the data, did statistical tests, wrote up the report, and got our credit without too much trouble.

To get rides out to Fort Duchesne, we also worked with the Multicultural Education Department at BYU. They had another project going on at the same time. They created an extensive questionnaire that compared white students with Native American students in the elementary, middle, and high schools in the area. There is an extremely high drop out rate among Native American students in the area once they reach high school, yet both groups are evenly matched through most of elementary school. The questionnaire asked their attitudes toward education, their sense of self-confidence, their support systems, etc. We gave the questionnaire to hundreds of students (with the full cooperation of the school district). I helped to administer the study on one of my trips out there.

A Ute warrior on horseback.

A Ute warrior on horseback.

When we collected all the questionnaires, they formed a stack literally four feet tall. And it was then we realized we had a big problem. The students that had designed the questionnaire had never considered how the data would be recorded and analyzed. It would have taken a small army of flunkies to record the data and put it into a computer program. And this was in the early 1980s, before spreadsheets were readily available. Lotus 1-2-3 hadn’t been invented yet, let alone Excel. So by the end of the semester, no data reduction had been done and the questionnaires sat in a pile in a corner of our professor’s office. To this date, I don’t know if the study was ever completed.

Moral of the story: When dealing with a mountain of data (such as looking at hundreds of stars in an open cluster over several nights with different filters), it’s essential to know what the data will be like and how to manage it all before collecting it in the first place. Every NASA space probe mission has to plan its data pipeline carefully, including how the instruments on board will store and transmit the data back to Earth, how that data will be collected and recorded and archived here, and how it will be reduced and analyzed. Then and only then do you start designing the instruments. You’ve got to know the end from the beginning.

The only type of data you have to work with in astronomy is light. It can be measured directly, filtered, ran through a spectrometer, looked at across the entire EM spectrum, and compared over time. I’m amazed at how much we can learn just from the light coming from a star. Much of what we do is to measure the intensity of the light at its various wavelengths. This is called photometry, literally “measuring light.”

IRAF and DS9 showing a Coordinate file for NGC663.

IRAF and DS9 showing a Coordinate file for NGC663.

The software for photometry (and many other things) used by most astronomers is called IRAF (Image Reduction and Analysis Facility) developed by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). It is powerful and can do both image reduction and analysis. I’ll talk about the reduction end in this post and the analysis end in the next. It is also essentially open source, so astronomers can program their own add ons and tweaks. But it is a pain to use, because it was first developed back in the days before GUI operating systems and to this day still uses a command line interface. So the learning curve is steep and painful. I must at least partially master it before I can attempt to do my own astronomic research.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander, whose meticulous research led to the Bonner Durchmusterung, the standard catalog of northern stars for many years.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander, whose meticulous research led to the Bonner Durchmusterung, the standard catalog of northern stars for many years.

Data Reduction:

Whenever you collect data for a science project, the data has to be converted into some format that makes sense. This could be as easy as creating a Likert scale in a questionnaire and recording the numbers chosen. But it makes a difference if the scale has limited, discrete choices (such as only being able to select 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) or if it has a continuous scale (where people could choose 3.7, for example). It takes experience to know how to set this all up. Once the questionnaires are finished, the data must be recorded or entered into a program such as MS Excel where analysis and comparisons can be made. But can you imagine having to measure and type in all the parameters for a star, including its right ascension and declination, its magnitude, its stellar class, etc. and having an image field of hundreds of stars for each observation and each filter with several runs per night over many nights? They used to do it that way, such as the Bonner Durchmusterung (Bonn Star Catalog) that surveyed hundreds of thousands of stars in the northern hemisphere in the 1850s without the use of photography. Now we use IRAF.

The actual Bonn Star Catalog (Bonner Durchmusterung).

The actual Bonn Star Catalog (Bonner Durchmusterung).

But to get IRAF solutions to have any meaning, the data must be filtered before it can be analyzed. Any photograph of the sky done recently uses electronic sensors called CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices) which were first invented for astronomy and the space program but now are found in every cell phone and digital camera. They act as a grid of sensors or photon traps: as a photon from a star hits a sensor pixel, it knocks an electron off of the silicon and stores it in a register where it can be read out as a digital number. By reading all the numbers stored in all the pixels, a grid of digital data is built up representing the brightness of the image for each location. We call this a bitmap or a raster. Since I teach computer graphics, I’m very familiar with this aspect of astronomy and photography in general.

Now every CCD has some biases that affect the accuracy of the pixel data. First, when you read out the data, not every electron is successfully pulled out of the photon traps. Some get stuck, and you have to account for them and subtract these trapped electrons from your final image. Second, the electronics of the camera creates a background hum of noise that must also be subtracted out. Now these effects are not very important when taking a regular photograph, where there is so much light or signal compared to this background noise. But in astronomy, where you leave the shutter open for minutes or even hours (days in the case of the Hubble Deep Field), and you try to trap every photon that hits the sensor, then these effects are very noticeable. Finally, the individual sensor pixels in the CCD do not have the same sensitivity. One pixel may trap 90% of all photons that hit it, whereas another (especially those around the edges) may only trap 60%. You have to zero out this sensitivity bias as well.

An analogy would be to clean up a photograph taken indoors under dim fluorescence lighting. You’ve got to improve the photo’s brightness and adjust the color bias away from yellow toward blue. Likewise, astronomers have to remove the biases caused by trapped electrons, system electronics noise, and sensor sensitivity. The cleaned up images have been “reduced” and are ready for analysis.

The Master Zeros, Darks, and Flats:

I know it sounds like something out of a Dungeons and Dragons game, but these are terms familiar to any professional or aspiring amateur astronomer. To get rid of the biases, calibration frames must be recorded and averaged and digitally subtracted from the original raw images. Anything that remains is the result of “seeing” (visibility and air conditions).

A Zero Frame (frame taken at zero time) in DS9. It represents the electrons still trapped in the CCD.

A Zero Frame (frame taken at zero time) in DS9. It represents the electrons still trapped in the CCD.

To get rid of trapped electrons, the camera on the telescope collects an image with the cap on at zero time – basically instantaneously. Since it should be completely black, any numbers above zero that show up are electrons trapped in the pixels. To get rid of electronics hum (called dark current), images are taken with the cap on at 60 or so seconds. When compared with the Zeros, any electrons showing up were built up by the surrounding electronics. In both cases, ten or so images are taken and the results averaged to get a master zero and a master dark which are applied to all the images taken on a particular night.

The Master Dark frame. This represents the electronic noise of the CCD system. Or a great character in Dungeons and Dragons . . .

The Master Dark frame. This represents the electronic noise of the CCD system. Or a great character in Dungeons and Dragons . . .

To get rid of sensitivity biases, astronomers take a series of ten or so images with a neutral sky. Some take images using a flat gray paper equally illuminated taped to a wall. Or they point the telescope at the zenith at twilight to get a flat field. Since all the pixels should have the same number, any differences are divided out from this flat value. This should make a nice even image across the entire field of view of the telescope, provided there aren’t any high level cirrus clouds or other “seeing” problems.

The Flat Frame: Taken of a neutral gray background or at the zenith at twilight, it represents the sensitivity bias of the CCD sensors. Notice it is less sensitive (darker) around the edges and corners.

The Flat Frame: Taken of a neutral gray background or at the zenith at twilight, it represents the sensitivity bias of the CCD sensors. Notice it is less sensitive (darker) around the edges and corners.

IRAF is a command line program but it works in tandem with DS9, another package developed by the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory (SAO). If you know the names of your individual files, IRAF will load them one at a time, create the masters, then apply them to the .fits or .imh files in DS9 and save out a final reduced image for each frame taken for a given night or filter.

All of the data I will use for the first few weeks will already be reduced, so I won’t go through this process for a while. I researched the process during this second week so I could understand it and get a better feel for what astronomers do. Now what I learned as a SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador makes more sense. The scientists on board talked frequently about data reduction and the “data pipeline.” For infrared astronomy the process is even worse because IR is measuring heat, and the heat of the sensor, the telescope, and the air all interfere with the image to create terrible noise. And that’s not even counting vibrational jitter. That’s why the scope on SOFIA chops and nods; it is doing much of the heat noise reduction right in the telescope. The CCD/spectrograph biases have to be processed out later, and they are still working out the final bugs as SOFIA reaches full operational readiness.

The same field of stars in DS9 before and after data reduction. With the noise and biases removed, the field has the same background darkness throughout and the data is much cleaner.

The same field of stars in DS9 before and after data reduction. With the noise and biases removed, the field has the same background darkness throughout and the data is much cleaner.

The data we will use for NITARP is already reduced and digitized in the IPAC databases. I am really appreciating that for the first time. All we will have to do is analyze the data, which will be difficult enough.

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Prospectus: BYU-RET Week 1

Statue of Brigham Young on BYU campus. Local legend claims that if you run past him quickly, he will do the funky chicken dance.

Statue of Brigham Young on BYU campus. Local legend claims that if you run past him quickly, he will do the funky chicken dance.

For the next ten or so posts, I will report on my experiences doing astronomical research at Brigham Young University this summer (2014). As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been selected to participate in a National Science Foundation program called Research Experiences for Teachers (RET). I have several objectives:

1. To do some actual original research in astronomy, where I make observations, reduce the data, and analyze it into something that could be worthy of a poster at a science conference (such as AAS next January). In other words, I want to be an actual astronomer for the summer and learn how it’s done through first hand experience.
2. To translate my experience back to my classroom, and actually teach my students how to do authentic astronomical research themselves. With the grant that comes with this program, I hope to purchase a decent telescope and camera and learn to do real astrophotography and photometery.

The Eyring Science Center at BYU. The new planetarium dome is seen here. I work on the fourth floor.

The Eyring Science Center at BYU. The new planetarium dome is seen here. I work on the fourth floor.

3. To pass on what I’ve learned, how I’ve learned it, and the entire experience to you who read this blog. I will utilize this knowledge in other potential future projects as well (maybe a book or a video – who knows? At least it will help me with the SOFIA video I’m working on). At least I want this to exemplify how one goes about doing real science.
4. To compliment my experiences with NITARP and provide relevant background knowledge to help me train the students who will be going with me to Caltech at the end of July.

Y Mount and the Lee Library Atrium at BYU

Y Mount and the Lee Library Atrium at BYU

I’ll take this approximately one week at a time rather than reporting daily like a diary. I don’t want this to sound like, “Today I did this, then this, then that.” I want to focus more on the why and the how instead of the what. Eventually I will write up all of the what, all of the small steps and details for the use of my students and others, but for now let’s just get the feel and the big picture of what I’m doing.

The First Day:

We started with a general meeting and breakfast on Monday, June 9. I didn’t know anything beyond the date; the precise time and place where not given in the e-mail. Communication prior to this experience was minimal, and I approached the whole thing with a bit of uncertainty and concern, because I didn’t know what to expect or what would be expected of me. But not really knowing what you’re doing is a common feeling in science. We’re all walking into the unknown. So I had confidence I’d work it all out.

The new Joseph Fielding Smith Building and the SPencer W. Kimball Tower. I spent much of my undergraduate time attending classes in the SWKT, which was the new building back then.

The new Joseph Fielding Smith Building and the SPencer W. Kimball Tower. I spent much of my undergraduate time attending classes in the SWKT, which was the new building back then.

I discovered there are three teachers in this program. Both of the others are new, with one having one year of classroom experience and the other just beginning. They both went through Duane Merrill’s program for science teacher training here at BYU. There is also a group of about 20 undergraduate students who are also doing research, called the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU). Everyone else seemed to know more of what was going on than I did. But we probably all felt that way.

We introduced ourselves, and Dr. Steven Turley, who is over the program, told us more of what we would be doing as a group. We need to write up a prospectus of our research topic and plan by Friday, then during our fifth week we will give an interim presentation to the group on our progress. Then we will give a final report the last week as well as write up a paper for review. All of this must be done in cooperation with our mentor teachers. There will be group activities such as hikes and Tuesday mini-classes to attend.

A computer workstation in on the astronomy floor, with my notes and laptop. The sign at left says "Astronomy (Tyan Wen Shwe)"  n Chinese.

A computer workstation in on the astronomy floor, with my notes and laptop. The sign at left says “Astronomy (Tyan Wen Shwe)” n Chinese.

We also toured the Eyring Science Center and had a general tour of BYU campus, which started at the Alumni House and took us in golf carts around campus. It was a strange feeling being back here again full-time. I haven’t been a student here since 1986, although I’ve visited campus many times to do research in the library or attend cultural events. Now I’ll be an actual Adjunct Research Faculty member, and get a coveted “A” Parking Permit and faculty ID, if only for 10 weeks.

I spent a total of six years as a student here, and touring campus brought back a flood of memories – of classes I took, of dates I’d been on, of experiences both wonderful and terrible. Of course I wondered what has become of all the people I used to know when I was here – where are they now? Have they made a name for themselves? Will I ever hear from any of them again? Even sitting in the remodeled cafeteria, which is very different that the old, brought back memories. I just hope the memories don’t distract me and stifle my ability to do useful research.

Cygnus X-1, a High Mass X-Ray BInary (HMXB) system

Cygnus X-1, a High Mass X-Ray Binary (HMXB) system

High-Mass X-Ray Binaries (HMXBs):

I am working with Dr. Eric Hintz, whom I had met in January at the AAS conference in National Harbor, Maryland. I sat down with him and two REU students, Angel Ritter and Olivia Mulherin, who are also doing astronomy research. He suggested a few projects based on his own research and areas where he has collected data but hasn’t had enough time to analyze it. Angel will be working more directly with Dr. J. Ward Moody and his research assistants, and Olivia and I will work with Dr. Hintz. Olivia decided she wanted to work on a project related to general relativity and gravity waves – a binary system where two stars are spiraling in and are slowing down as they radiate gravity waves.

My project will be to observe and analyze data from high-mass x-ray binary stars in open clusters in the constellation Cassiopeia, including NGC 663 and NGC 659. I will be analyzing data to look for periodicities – cases where the stars vary in a regular pattern and not chaotically. I spent most of the remaining week researching these stars, how they form and evolve, and where they are in these open clusters. Along the way, I found out some fascinating information.

NGC 663 in infrared wavelengths. I created this composite image by combining the WISE 1 (3.4 microns), WISE 3 (12 microns), and WISE 4 (@@ microns) data as Blue, Green, and Red channels, respectively, in Adobe Photoshop.

NGC 663 in infrared wavelengths. I created this composite image by combining the WISE 1 (3.4 microns), WISE 3 (12 microns), and WISE 4 (@@ microns) data as Blue, Green, and Red channels, respectively, in Adobe Photoshop.

HMXBs contain a highly compact, high density x-ray source orbiting around a large B type blue supergiant. For the x-ray source to be there, its original star must have been larger than the remaining B star. It must have been a type O star that has already gone supernova, smashing its remaining mass into a neutron star or black hole, which is now orbiting a center of mass between it and the blue giant. The blue giant is large enough and spinning rapidly enough that it is overflowing its Roche Lobe, throwing off material that forms a ring around the blue giant which is radiating infrared energy. Some of this ring material is pulled into a streamer toward the compact star. As it spirals in, the particles collide and heat up, eventually so hot that they give off x-rays from an accretion disk around the black hole or neutron star. Magnetic fields pull charged particles out of the disk and form jets that travel out along the magnetic poles, plowing through other material and producing radio waves. So HMXBs are messy, complex, dynamic systems that spew out much of the EM spectrum. The only EM band not represented is gamma rays, and even they might be produced occasionally as material falls onto the surface of the neutron star.

NGC 663 with prominent variable stars labeled. The only HMXB I have found from my research so far is V831 in the upper left.

NGC 663 with prominent variable stars labeled. The only HMXB I have found from my research so far is V831 in the upper left.

These systems are also very young, less than 20 million years. This means that these binary systems haven’t had time to move far from their stellar nurseries and can be used as standard candles to more accurately pin down the cluster’s age and distance. When the x-ray source went supernova, the shockwave was asymmetrical, which gave the whole system a kick to the side and pushed it out of its nebulous cocoon into interstellar space. Those binaries that stayed together now have eccentric orbits and show periodic changes in brightness at optical and other wavelengths.

The spectrum of a B-e star at the H-alpha wavelength (6562.8 angstroms or 656.28 nm). The broad absorption band is bisected by a narrow emission band at the same wavelength. The star's atmosphere absorbs the H-alpha light, but the hydrogen gas in the star's ring is emitting H-alpha light.

The spectrum of a B-e star at the H-alpha wavelength (6562.8 angstroms or 656.28 nm). The broad absorption band is bisected by a narrow emission band at the same wavelength. The star’s atmosphere absorbs the H-alpha light, but the hydrogen gas in the star’s ring is emitting H-alpha light.

Hydrogen Alpha and Be Stars:

The B-type stars in these systems that have not yet gone supernova show an unusual feature in their spectrum. Most stars have absorption spectra – the atmosphere of a star will absorb certain frequencies of light coming from the star, making a series of dark lines on the spectrum. This is how we identify the type of star it is – hotter stars have more absorption lines than moderately hot stars (Type A). Very cool red stars have many absorption lines and show a prominent double line for sodium, which hot stars do not show. There are particular series of lines called the Lyman and the Balmer series that represent the quantum leaps of the single electron in hydrogen atoms. One very prominent quantum leap is called the Hydrogen-alpha (Hα) transition, and occurs in the red end of the visible spectrum at 656.28 nm. It represents the absorption of just enough energy for the hydrogen atom’s only electron to jump from the second to the third quantum level (n = 2 to 3). These stars show a prominent, deep red hydrogen alpha absorption line. But right in the middle of the absorption dip is an emission spike. The hydrogen gas in the ring around the B star is being excited by energy from the star and is emitting light like a neon sign. The electrons in the gas ring are falling from the 3rd energy level back down to the 2nd, emitting exactly the same wavelength of energy that the star’s atmosphere is absorbing. These stars are called Be stars (B emission stars).

Target open clusters in Cassiopeia. They are left of Ruchbah and northwest of 44 Cas. All three are part of the same Cassiopeia Stream of gas and dust about 8000 light years away in the Perseus spiral arm.

Target open clusters in Cassiopeia. They are left of Ruchbah and northwest of 44 Cas. All three are part of the same Cassiopeia Stream of gas and dust about 8000 light years away in the Perseus spiral arm.

Deep in Cassiopeia:

The open clusters I will investigate are NGC 659 and NGC 663. Both are located inside Cassiopeia. I did some research on them and found that they are both part of a larger structure of hydrogen gas, dust, and stellar nurseries imbedded in the Perseus Arm of the galaxy, about 8000 light years away from us toward the outer rim. Our solar system is located on the inward edge of the Orion Spur, a branch of the inner Sagitarrius Arm that crosses from the area of Deneb and Cygnus across through Orion. Both clusters are just under the left leg of the Big W in Cassiopeia (the Throne asterism) to the left of Ruchbah and northwest of 44 Cassiopeia.

A Color (B-V) -Magnitude Diagram showing M67 and NGC 188. Both show a turnoff point and strong red giant branch. The stars to the upper left are blue stragglers.

A Color (B-V) -Magnitude Diagram showing M67 and NGC 188. Both show a turnoff point and strong red giant branch. The stars to the upper left are blue stragglers. NGC 188 is slightly older.

Dating a Cluster:

The larger a star is, the faster it consumes its nuclear fuel, converting hydrogen into helium through fusion in the star’s core. While this is going on, we say that the star is on the “Main Sequence” of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram, a chart comparing the temperature (or color) of a star versus its intrinsic brightness (or absolute magnitude or luminosity). These H-R Diagrams are also called Color-Magnitude Diagrams, or CMDs. An O-type super giant star is very hot (35,000 °K) and runs out of hydrogen 10-15 million years after forming. It then starts fusing helium into even heavier elements and migrates off the main sequence, becoming cooler and redder as it expands into a red supergiant, like Antares or Betelgeuse. Cooler B and A stars last longer before migrating off the main sequence.

Color-Magnitude Diagram for M55. Once the stars have left the main sequence, they move up and to the right (cooler and brighter) to become red giants. After the helium flash, they migrate across the Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) and Horizontal Branch to become blue and hot, then eject their outer layers (if they are the size of our sun) and drop down to become white dwarfs.

Color-Magnitude Diagram for M55. Once the stars have left the main sequence, they move up and to the right (cooler and brighter) to become red giants. After the helium flash, they migrate across the Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) and Horizontal Branch to become blue and hot, then eject their outer layers (if they are the size of our sun) and drop down to become white dwarfs.

If you chart a CMD for a cluster of stars such as M67 in Cancer, you will see a pattern similar to the diagram shown here. The bigger, bluer stars have already left the main sequence and migrated to the right. As time goes on, smaller and smaller stars migrate off. You can look at the “turn off” point on the H-R Diagram and get a good estimate of the overall age of the cluster. In the case of M67, the bluer stars are almost all gone except for a few “blue stragglers” that haven’t quite become red giants yet. These are probably stars that were in binary systems where two smaller stars have recently merged into a larger, bluer, hotter star. M67’s turn off point has progressed down into the A and F stars, and it is about 3.8 billion years old with quite a few yellow dwarfs similar in age and composition to our sun. It is unusual that we can still identify it as a cluster – by this time, the stars will usually disperse. NGC 663 and 659, however, are young clusters that are just beginning to turn off, probably about 15-20 million years old, and still rich with stars in the center of the cluster.

A Color-Magnitude Diagram showing the evolutionary tracks for several open clusters. The "Hertzsprung Gap" is also called the Instability Strip - this is where variable stars are found crossing back and forth across the gap as they pulsate.

A Color-Magnitude Diagram showing the evolutionary tracks for several open clusters. The “Hertzsprung Gap” is also called the Instability Strip – this is where variable stars are found crossing back and forth across the gap as they pulsate.

The Instability Strip:

Some stars, as they progress through larger and larger atoms in their cores, will become unstable and start to pulsate. This seems to happen in a particular range of temperature vs. magnitude on the H-R Diagram, a narrow rectangular area known as the Instability Strip. Dr. Hintz is very interested in these variable stars, because they tell us a great deal about stellar dynamics and nucleosynthesis (how new elements are formed). They are also extremely useful as standard candles for measuring distances. Regular variable stars that are truly variable for intrinsic reasons and are not just eclipsing binaries come in several varieties. They are classed according to the period of their variability and its amplitude (how many magnitudes it changes) as well as their size, age, and composition.

The shortest period stars are called “Delta Scooty” stars after the prototype star δ Scuti. They have very short periods on the scale of hours and magnitude changes of from .003 to .9 magnitudes. A well-known star of this type is Altair. Such stars are usually spectral type A to F white giants.

The next class is RR Lyrae stars (pronounced by astronomers here as “RR Laurie”). They are white stars of class A with short periods from .05 to 1.2 days and magnitude fluctuations of .3 to 2.0 v. They are also divided into two classes depending on the metallicity of the star.

The next class of variables is the Cepheids, named for δ Cepheus, with periods of 1 to 70 days and magnitude changes of 0.1 to 2 v. They are orange to yellow-white F to G or K giant stars. There are two types of Cepheids – the first are younger stars with higher metallicity and belong to Population I stars found mostly in the spiral arms of galaxies. Type II Cepheids are older, with less metals, and are usually found in globular clusters and galactic cores. They are sometimes called W Virginis stars. The relationship between the period and the magnitude change of these stars was first mapped out by Henrietta Leavitt and was used by Edwin Hubble to prove that the Andromeda Galaxy was a separate “island universe” from our own Milky Way. Because the intrinsic brightness of the star is related precisely to the period of its variability, and you can see the variability changes from long distances away using a large telescope, you can then work out the distance using a distance modulus formula based on the fact that the apparent brightness of a star varies inversely with the square of its distance.

Finally, there are variables such as RV Tauri, which are yellow to orange giants with periods of 30-150 days and magnitude shifts of 3.0 or more, and there are long period variables such as Mira, which are red giants with periods of 80-1000 days. As you go to brighter and larger stars, they also become cooler and more on the right side of the H-R Diagram. Because they change in brightness, they tend to be on one side or the other but not often inside the instability strip. This tends to produce what seems to be a gap in the H-R Diagram.

Categories of Variable Stars. Extrinsic variables change brightness because of something outside the star blocking light, such as an eclipse or dust. Intrinsic variables change brightness because of changes in the interior of the star.

Categories of Variable Stars. Extrinsic variables change brightness because of something outside the star blocking light, such as an eclipse or dust. Intrinsic variables change brightness because of changes in the interior of the star.

As for what the underlying mechanism is for pulsating stars, it comes down to the elements in the star and how they transmit or block light. In these older stars, helium has begun to build up as core fusion has progressed, and the helium forms layers in the star. As the helium is ionized, it changes opacity. In a normal star, the denser a layer is, the more transparent, so a star will stabilize at a particular size and energy flux. But if internal layers become opaque, as in the case with ionized helium, then the energy coming from core fusion can’t escape and it builds up under the layer. This causes the helium layer to expand and pushes the outer layers of the star with it, making the star larger, brighter, hotter, and bluer. As the built up heat escapes, the helium layer cools and ionization drops, making the layer more transparent and allowing more energy to escape. The layer then cools and shrinks, the gravity of the star compresses the outer layers and the star becomes smaller, dimmer, and redder. Then the cycle repeats. The pulsations are therefore effected by the mass, age, and composition of the star. This is called the Kappa Mechanism or sometimes the Eddington Mechanism, after Sir Arthur Eddington, who first proposed it as an explanation of variable stars.

Prospectus:

It took me several days to do all of this research, and I took quite a few notes in my research journal. My job was then to distill all of this into a working proposal and write it up as a short prospectus, which I am including here: Prospectus-David_Black Dr. Hintz approved it and sent it on to Dr. Turley. The REU students actually get a bonus payment for submitting one, but we RETs do not, as it is worked into our contracts.

My biggest frustration the first week was dealing with actually getting a contract and getting hired, which I’ll talk about in later posts. I also missed my second day (Tuesday, Jun 10) because I was previously booked to give two conference presentations, one at the IT Educators conference at Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake (I presented on ideas and projects for teaching Python programming) and one at the Utah Association of Charter Schools at the Davis Conference Center in Layton. I presented there on our STEM-Arts Alliance projects (see my other blog at: http://elementsunearthed.com.)

Notes in my science journal.

Notes in my science journal.

The Process of Science:

We tend to teach that science has a fixed “method” that all scientists use in exactly the same sequence of steps. This isn’t a very accurate picture. True, following this method will help ensure you’ve done the right things in the right order, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get any useful results. And, of course, real science is never that neat or cut and dried. No one sits down and writes up a formal hypothesis, etc. But you do start with a question and then follow your nose, and along the way, if you are thorough and think things through well enough, you can collect some useful data that actually means something and could answer your question. It’s a much more organic and messy process than what we teach kids in elementary and middle school and force them to follow on their science fair projects.

I hope through the next several posts to describe just what astronomy is like as a science and the kinds of activities astronomers do. They don’t spend all of their time staring through telescopes, and never did. I used to think to be an astronomer you needed to have good eyesight, and that misconception kept me from pursuing astronomy as a career. But all astronomy is done with cameras, not raw eyesight, and uses sophisticated software and some excellent thinking to compare one star with another.

Nearest Star Clusters and Nebulas. M103 in the upper right is near NGC 663 and 659 and about 8000 light years away.

Nearest Star Clusters and Nebulas. M103 in the upper right is near NGC 663 and 659 and about 8000 light years away.

So the first step of science is to know enough about your general area of study to know what is knowable, what is known, and what is not yet known. You’ve got to do some background research to understand what even constitutes a decent question. So that’s what I did this week – found out as much as I could about Be stars, HMXBs, and variable stars. I thought I already had a good knowledge of these things, but I’ve learned so much more. Now I can begin to formulate a question or objective for my research: Do HMXBs show periodicity, either extrinsically or intrinsically? Can I detect and characterize these variations? Beyond that, can I learn the process of astronomic observation, data reduction, and analysis? Can I translate what I’ve learned to the high school level so my students can share in this experience and do authentic research themselves?

Stained glass window for the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at BYU. I am officially an Adjunct Research Faculty member for the summer.

Stained glass window for the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at BYU. I am officially an Adjunct Research Faculty member for the summer.

I’m sure I will take detours and diversions along the way, following rich veins of possibility. Some of these will peter out and lead to dead ends, blind alleys, and box canyons of knowledge. I’ll have to backtrack and try a different direction. Perhaps some of the best things I’ll learn will be accidental or serendipitous – something I never anticipated and couldn’t have planned for but just happened to be at the right place and time to learn. I’ve already come across one of these that I hope to follow up on in the next few weeks. This entire experience will be a messy, uncertain, and at times frustrating process.

Welcome to real science.

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An Article for The Science Teacher

Title frame from my video explaining the nearby star model activity.

Title frame from my video explaining the nearby star model activity.

Over a year ago I wrote an article for The Science Teacher, the journal of the National Science Teachers Association geared for high school teachers. I’ve known two of the authors of a column for that magazine, called Science 2.0, about technology tools for teaching science. They are Martin Horejsi and Eric Brunsell, whom I got to know through the NASA/JPL Solar System Educators Program back in 2000 to 2004. I also had a chance to sit in on a focus group for TST two years ago at the NSTA conference in Indianapolis, where I met the editor, Steve Metz. I decided then that I should write an article at some point, and with a lot of effort, I finally did.

Cover of The Science Teacher, Summer, 2014. My article is inside!

Cover of The Science Teacher, Summer, 2014. My article is inside!

The article is on an activity I do in my astronomy classes: to build an accurate 3D model of the nearby stars out to 13 or more light years. I’ve described this activity in detail in a previous post (http://spacedoutclass.com/2013/05/05/the-nearby-stars/). For the article, I wrote up an abridged description, edited the graphics I’d made for my original lesson plan, and followed the manuscript submission process online.

These articles are peer reviewed, but it took several tries to find reviewers who would look over the article, so it was delayed about five months. I’d almost given up hope, when I suddenly received a message and the review notes from Steve in November. The review had good suggestions, plus a note about another article written by Tracy Furutani, a professor at a college in Washington, who had authored an article in Astronomy Education Reviews with a similar activity. I had to address how my version was different and (I believe) better. I had not ever heard of this article; I had known of a small model written up by the NASA Advanced Concepts group, but came across that after I had developed my own model.

Title page for my article in The Science Teacher magazine, Summer, 2014.

Title page for my article in The Science Teacher magazine, Summer, 2014.

The main differences are that my model hangs from a platform, which in turn hangs from the ceiling and allows more precise positioning. The other models are built from the ground up, either sitting on straws or on wires. It would be very difficult not to bump the stars and knock them out of position with a floor model; mine keeps the stars in place by gravity. Mine also uses trigonometry to find the stars’ positions more accurately.

Pages 32-33 of my article. I created all the graphics and captions as well as writing the article.

Pages 32-33 of my article. I created all the graphics and captions as well as writing the article.

My revisions were complete by the deadline during the first week in December. Then the article went to editors to review. Mine was Steve Stuckey, and the edited version was definitely shorter and better than my original, with some of the detailed materials, such as follow up assignments, moved to a website for download. Once the writing was done and we all agreed on it, I worked on final versions of the graphics. I changed the fonts, added more details, and cleaned up the line art.

Pages 34-35 of my article for The Science Teacher.

Pages 34-35 of my article for The Science Teacher.

By late April, the initial layout was done and Steve sent me a draft version with graphics, photos, etc. in place. I could only see one change, which was to add my middle initial to my name. There are too many other David Blacks out there, so I usually use my middle initial, which will bring people right to me in a Google search.

P{ages 36-37 of my article for The Science Teacher in the Summer, 2014 edition.

P{ages 36-37 of my article for The Science Teacher in the Summer, 2014 edition.

Steve also requested that I create a video explaining the activity, which would be included with the online iPad version. So in between all the other craziness at the end of April and start of May, I filmed myself explaining what the activity was for, why it was a good idea, how to build the platform, how to make the stars, and additional ancillary activities and materials teachers can use. I recorded it in the science lab, which has bad resonance, but the video was at least of good quality and decently lit. I edited the pieces together without too much fancy stuff (Steve didn’t want much of that) and submitted it via Dropbox. It wound up being too big of a file, so I had to compress it and resend. This was all by May 20th or so, right before graduation (I was working on three other videos and a grant application at the same time).

A still frame from the video I made explaining the 3D star model activity. I'm demonstrating how to make and hang the stars.

A still frame from the video I made explaining the 3D star model activity. I’m demonstrating how to make and hang the stars.

Yesterday the magazine arrived and there was my article starting on Page 31. It has been a very long road since I first attempted to do this activity back in 1993 at Juab High School. I’ve done it many times since, including at my NASA Explorer Schools workshops at JPL, at Provo Canyon School, and now at Walden School of Liberal Arts. I’ve made a smaller scale model that I take to workshops as well as the full-scale model’s stars and platform.

There's actually a rather clever pun here . . . In college, I sang this poem as a song in BYU's Oratorio Choir. The middle photo on this inserted page is of M16, the Eagle Nebula. I took this photo myself using the 24 inch reflector at Mt. Wilson Observatory as part of the TIE (Telescopes in Education) program.

There’s actually a rather clever pun here . . . In college, I sang this poem as a song in BYU’s Oratorio Choir. The middle photo on this inserted page is of M16, the Eagle Nebula. I took this photo myself using the 24 inch reflector at Mt. Wilson Observatory as part of the TIE (Telescopes in Education) program.

Since the last time I had my students make the model in class, two more star systems have been discovered by Kevin Luhman, an astronomer with Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds. These systems are now considered to be the 3rd and 4th closest star systems to us.

A list of the nearest star systems. Since I published this, a new star system 7.2 light years away has been discovered.

A list of the nearest star systems. Since I published this, a new star system 7.2 light years away has been discovered.

He used data from WISE (the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) to locate the first system, now called Luhman 16 or WISE 1049-5319. This system is binary, with a late type L star and a T type star orbiting each other. Although they are called brown dwarfs, their actual color would be closer to magenta. Observations with large telescopes have shown that Luhman 16b has a fairly plain atmosphere but that Luhman 17b has a crazy, turbulent atmosphere with hot and cold patches where it could be raining silicates and molten iron. They were able to determine the temperature and appearance of the atmosphere using Doppler imaging techniques. Here’s an article about it: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/space/the-first-weather-map-of-a-brown-dwarf/

A surface map of the brown dwarf star Luhman 16B, created by Doppler imaging.

A surface map of the brown dwarf star Luhman 16B, created by Doppler imaging.

Luhman 16a and b have an orbital period of 25 years. Astrometric observations (measuring the exact position of a star compared to others in the same field) show a wobble in the stars’ paths that may indicate a large Jupiter-class planet orbiting one of them at about 3 AUs. This system is only 6.6 light years away, in the constellation Vela. It is has knocked Wolf 359 out of its standing as the third closest star system to Earth after Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s Star. It’s also the closest system to Alpha Centauri.

A comparison of different sizes and colors of stars. The large yellow disk at the left is our sun. The next star is an M5-6 red dwarf. The next is an L-class brown dwarf. The next is a T-class brown dwarf, which is actually more magenta in color. The far right object is Jupiter. Notice Jupiter is actually a bit larger than the red or brown dwarfs, but it is much less dense. The T-class brown dwarf is at least 13 times the mass of Jupiter, and has just enough mass and density to ignite deuterium fusion in its core. But what of the objects between Jupiter and L-class stars? Are they really stars if no fusion occurs?

A comparison of different sizes and colors of stars. The large yellow disk at the left is our sun. The next star is an M5-6 red dwarf. The next is an L-class brown dwarf. The next is a T-class brown dwarf, which is actually more magenta in color. The far right object is Jupiter. Notice Jupiter is actually a bit larger than the red or brown dwarfs, but it is much less dense. The T-class brown dwarf is at least 13 times the mass of Jupiter, and has just enough mass and density to ignite deuterium fusion in its core. But what of the objects between Jupiter and L-class stars? Are they really stars if no fusion occurs?

Kevin Luhman has also discovered another nearby brown dwarf just this year (2014), called WISE 0855-0714. This one so small and cool that it should probably be classified as a sub-brown dwarf or Super Jupiter (Super Juper?) and could be a rogue planet instead of a star, with 3-10 times the mass of Jupiter. Since a mass of 13 or more Jupiters is needed for deuterium fusion, this object cannot really be considered a star. It’s surface temperature is estimated to be 225 to 260°K, or -48 to -13°C, about the temperature of a balmy day in Antarctica. It has a high proper motion and large parallax, with a distance of about 7.2 light years, and is located in the constellation Hydra. Which means Wolf 359 has gotten kicked down to fifth place. Here’s an article about this rather cool object: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/wise/spitzer-coldest-brown-dwarf-20140425/#.U6nK5M1Tw0M

Distances of the Sun's closest neighbors. The next star out (at least for now) is Wolf 359.

Distances of the Sun’s closest neighbors. The next star out (at least for now) is Wolf 359.

All of this goes to show that we don’t yet know everything there is to know about our stellar neighborhood. Entire star systems have been hiding in plain sight, with some amazing characteristics. My article is already obsolete, and it just came out yesterday.

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Recent Developments: Spring, 2014

An RGB combined image of one of our possible targets for NITARP. This image takes the 4.6 micron filter as blue, the 12 micron filter as green, and the 22 micron filter as red.

An RGB combined image of one of our possible targets for NITARP. This image takes the 4.6 micron filter as blue, the 12 micron filter as green, and the 22 micron filter as red.

I haven’t written any posts recently for this blog for several reasons: partly because I’m not actively teaching astronomy or astrobiology this semester (winter 2014) and partly because I’ve been so busy with so many things that I haven’t had time to stay up to date. I’ve written several grants, traveled to Boston to present at the National Science Teachers Association conference, taken an online class to prepare for our move to an International Baccalaureate school, finished a video for the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, etc. But in the midst of all this craziness there have been developments related to astronomy education. I will explore each of these in more detail in later posts, but for now here’s a rundown/summary of what’s happening in my life:

BYU-RET Program:

I met Dr. Eric Hintz of Brigham Young University’s Physics and Astronomy Department while at the AAS meeting in Washington, D.C. this January. He told me more about the NSF funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program at BYU. As soon as I returned home I filled out the online application. I was notified in April that I have been accepted into the program and will work with Dr. Hintz for a 10-week period this summer. It carries a stipend roughly equal to my salary at Walden School and I will be an Adjunct Research Faculty there for the summer. I get to be a professional astronomer and make some extra money, plus bring back $1200 worth of equipment to my classes!

22 micron filter image of the same target. It has been inverted to better see the stars.

22 micron filter image of the same target. It has been inverted to better see the stars. The blue circle is the target coordinates, but in this case, the cluster of stars has created source confusion in the software. The bright star to the east (left in this image) is probably the actual red giant we want to study. It gets brighter in WISE 1 through 4 whereas the other stars get dimmer. This is also a great deal of nebulosity, as one would expect for a star cluster.

Air Force Association Award:

In my frequent search for opportunities in aerospace education, I looked through the Air Force Association website. I had received a small grant from them several years ago that helped fund our science demonstration/showcase program at Walden, where students develop lesson plans and demonstrations that they present to classes in our elementary school and to the public at an evening Science Showcase. Looking through the site, I came across an application for a Teacher of the Year award available through each chapter of the AFA. There are three chapters in Utah, and given my background with NASA educational programs, I figured I had a good shot. I applied in February and received a phone call from Grant Hicenbotham on April 17 (right in the middle of parent teacher conferences) that I had won the Salt Lake Chapter award and the State AFA Teacher of the Year award. There would be a cash award and a salmon barbeque dinner at the Hill Aerospace Museum on June 18.

NITARP Training and Tasks:

Since we have now chosen our topic to study for NITARP (red giant stars that may be consuming their own planets), our next step is to develop a solid list of target stars to study. The four teachers (myself, John, Stef, and Elin) have held telecons with Dr. Rebull each Monday at 5:00 to write up our proposal, develop a master list from three previous papers that studied stars that had excess lithium and unusually fast rotation. We’re going to take the next step and look to see if the same stars have an excess of IR radiation in bands that would indicate a shell or ring of dusty debris orbiting around it, leftover from planets that have been pulled apart. But not all of the stars on the lists for the respective papers are good candidates (or possibly not even stars). So after we merged the lists, we’ve gone through each star in Finder window of IRSA, which is a software package that allows the images in IPAC to be loaded and analyzed.

Sample of the merged list of stars - yellow areas are stars I'm assigned to analyze for our final decision (all of us did all the stars for the first run through). Pink areas are the average and standard deviation of ratings.

Sample of the merged list of stars – yellow areas are stars I’m assigned to analyze for our final decision (all of us did all the stars for the first run through). Pink areas are the average and standard deviation of ratings.

We’re searching through several missions, including DSS (the Digitized Sky Survey, an Air Force mission to identify natural IR sources to prevent heat-seaking missiles from getting spoofed by false targets), 2MASS (the Two-Micron All Sky Survey), WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), and IRAS (Infrared Astronomy Satellite). It’s been a tedious job to analyze the images and see if we have a good point source – not too bright or saturated, but without other stars overlapping the target star. The IRAS data and early DSS data was gathered several decades ago and some of the stars have high enough proper motions that they have drifted in the field of view. Some of the images have so many sources clumped together in star clusters that the software that did the data reduction got confused. In some cases we have nebulosity or other sources of contamination. As of this writing in mid-June we are going through the list of worrisome stars and deciding which ones to drop.

The return window in IRSA Finder Chart. It is displaying the same coordinates (which are typed in) for DSS, 2MASS, and WISE. In this case the IR source is a planetary nebula surrounding the target star.

The return window in IRSA Finder Chart. It is displaying the same coordinates (which are typed in) for DSS, 2MASS, and WISE. In this case the IR source is a planetary nebula surrounding the target star.

Meanwhile, I have begun training the students who will go with me to Caltech at the end of July. I’ve been showing them the software and databases, explaining what we will be doing in more detail, and preparing them. We’ve taken a break because two of the three were gone on an expedition to India for three weeks but are now back safely. Once we get to Caltech, we’ll learn data reduction procedures, how to do photometry at different wavelengths for the target stars, and how to chart all of this as a Spectral Energy Distribution (SED) curve. Hopefully, something will come out of this analysis that we can draw conclusions from.

An Article for The Science Teacher:

Over a year ago I wrote and submitted an article to The Science Teacher, NSTA’s journal for high school teachers. It was finally accepted, and is now in print. But I’ll explain more about this in my next post.

So no rest for the weary, onward and upward, and no matter where you go, there you are.

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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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