Archive for June, 2010

International Observe the Moon Night Is Coming! On Saturday September 18, what will you be watching — Earth's only natural satellite or "American Idol"?

June 30, 2010 8 comments

Goddard Astronomy Club president Cornelis Dutoit took this picture two days after first quarter moon. It's what you would see through a small telescope with a low-power eyepiece.

I recently bumped into Andrea Jones, a senior outreach coordinator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission. That means she helps get LRO science into classrooms. Andrea is bright, enthusiastic, and personable — just the sort of person you want for this job.

It’s always good to get around Goddard and talk to people. You never know what you’ll learn. For example, I learned a new email emoticon from corresponding with Andrea: 😮  Does it say “I am happy and smiling while emailing with you” or “I am a hungry little baby bird; please feed me.” It’s hard to say.

InOMN logo_152More importantly, she clued me in on a cool new astronomical event of global proportions coming up in September. It’s called International Observe the Moon Night —  InOMN for short. It was hatched by the LRO people at Goddard and other lunar types at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

Going lunar
To be part of InOMN, if only in spirit, all you have to do is look up in the sky on September 18th. A waxing gibbous moon will be (we hope) shining brightly in a clear sky in your part of the world. What will you see? Check out the chart below.

moon_chart_152When people ask me how they can “get into astronomy,” I always say:  Look at the moon. It’s one of the most unappreciated heavenly bodies I know. That and the dog-bone-shaped asteroid 216 Kleopatra.

The moon and I go back a long way, at least 0.0000008% of the moon’s age. I got my first telescope for Christmas in 1974. Naturally, the first thing I did was spy on a neighbor through his kitchen window.

Ugh: some guy standing in front of the stove, cooking scrambled eggs. Not very exciting, 11-year-old-boy-wise.

Second stop: the moon. Humans had left the moon just a year and 6 days earlier after multiple missions of exploration. But Earth’s natural satellite was still terra incognita to me. I looked into the eyepiece: WOW! Vast craters and mountains leaped out of the formerly featureless glow of a waxing gibbous moon. Yes, a waxing gibbous moon, just like on September 18 this year. Some coincidence, eh?


Goddard Astronomy Club member Daniel Antonson snapped this image using a cell phone camera, looking through the eyepiece of the club's 12-inch reflecting telescope.

If you have never looked at the moon through a telescope or binoculars, you should. Mark down September 18 on your calendar: “Observe the moon tonight.”

It’s a Saturday, so the moon will have to square off against “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars.” But at least give it a quick look during the commercial break.

Depending on where you live, you might benefit from the expert guidance of a local astronomy club. If you come to the event at NASA Goddard’s Visitor Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, you will meet me and my friends from the Goddard Astronomy Club and peer through their phalanx of telescopes.

Schools will be involved in InOMN, as well as major astronomical observatories. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is jumping in. Other partners already include Astronomers Without Borders, the Museum Alliance, Mauna Kea Observatories Outreach Committee, Navajo Nation, Solar System Ambassadors, the Astronomy Society of the Pacific’s Night Sky Network, and Astronomy from the Ground Up.

Foreign nations where events will be held now include Canada, Chile, Greece, Great Britain, and Italy. Quite a party.

Hey, you don’t even need to join some fancy organization to get involved. You could host your own Observe the Moon party.

If you need information and inspiration, go to the InOMN website: The site is still under construction, but already includes a number of downloads to help people host InOMN events, such as a promotional flier and various moon maps. InOMN will also host a Tweet-Up and a photo contest. Follow these hashtags for updates: #InOMN and #InOMN2010.

“InOMN 2010 is only the first of what we hope will become an annual event,” Andrea says. “2011 to 2014 are already planned, and it’d be great if it could go on even after that.”

Goddard Astronomy Club member Joseph Novotka took this photo while observing through his 8-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope using his Nikon D90 camera to look through the eyepiece.

Goddard Astronomy Club member Joseph Novotka took this photo while observing through his 8-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope using his Nikon D90 camera to look through the eyepiece.

Over the moon about the moon

International Observe the Moon Night has its roots in the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, June 18, 2009.

Here at Goddard, we hosted a public event August 1 called “We’re At The Moon!” That same night, education and public outreach teams with the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite and the NASA Lunar Science Institute hosted a similar event at Ames Research Center.

National Observe the Moon Night at Ames was part of the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s astronomical observations using a telescope. One of his targets: the moon.

Both events were huge hits with the public, so the organizers started to think they were onto something. Thus was born International Observe the Moon Night.

Hope to see you there. Stay tuned to gogblog for updates.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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That Was The Week That Was: June 21-25. . . A Digest of Goddard Science and People In The Media This Week, Historical NASA Milestones, and FREE Stuff

June 25, 2010 6 comments
Is there an echo in here?

Is there an echo in here?

On Monday June 21, “The Case of the Mylar Mystery” debuted on the History Detectives program. The detectives came to Goddard in January to figure out whether a scrap of silvery Mylar was could be traced back to Goddard’s Echo II satelloon project. . . . Well, gogblog won’t ruin it for you by revealing the answer, but you can download the transcript if you don’t have time to watch the show.

Lagrange points_152On Wednesday June 23, the Goddard Public Affairs Office (PAO) posted a mission update feature, ‘L2’ Will be the James Webb Space Telescope’s Home in Space. The orbital sweet spot is called L2 and it sits about 930,000 miles from Earth, where the gravitational tugs of the sun and Earth balance out . . . . .Why the way-out waystation? For one thing, the gravitational stalemate means it takes minimal energy to make the ‘scope stay put at L2. Also, the frigid temperature out there keeps Webb’s sensitive instruments frosty and sharp.  And L2 offers an unobstructed view of the cosmos.


The lunar farside

Also on Wednesday, Goddard PAO’s Andrew Freeberg chilled out on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s first birthday at the moon with Ten Cool Things Seen in the First Year of LRO. And the winning contestants are 1) the coldest place in the solar system ever measured, 2) astronaut footprints, 3) a near miss with Cone Crater, 4) a lost Soviet rover, 5) the lunar farside, 6) a bevy of boulders, 7) mountains, 08) rilles, 9) pits, and 10) frigid polar craters. Andy’s fine review features lots of blogolicious moon images.


Goddard Astronomy Club president Cornelis Dutoit keeps an eye on the sun as relentless shimmering waves of solar energy melt the faces off of everyone else attending Celebrate Goddard 2010.

On Thursday June 24, “Celebrate Goddard” took over the grassy mall near the main gate, spotlighting “the diverse skills and individual differences that have made our legacy of success possible.” Atta boy, Goddard! You go, major NASA center for research in astronomy, earth, and space science! Lookin’ sharp, kid! . . . . . The day featured exhibits by Goddard scientists, organizations, and clubs; a Center talent show; and the first-ever Celebrate Goddard parade, featuring the  DuVal High Marching Tigers. . . . . The weather: hot enough to melt your face off, with heat index up to 104 degrees.

Earth from the moon, LRO-style . . .Also on Thursday, NASA released a near-full disk image of Earth snapped by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team created it by assembling multiple scans captured by LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera. The image was originally posted on the Arizona State University LROC featured image site by Mark Robinson, LROC’s Principle Investigator.

***UPDATE: Friday June 25, 4:22 pm . . . NASA released another LRO image: Goddard Crater, located along the Moon’s eastern limb and named after the namesake of our beloved Center, pioneering rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945). The LOLA instrument that captured the image was built here.

Astronaut Sally K. Ride

Astronaut Sally K. Ride

Thursday marked 27 years since the space shuttle missionSTS-7, June 18-24, 1983 — that carried astrophysicist Sally K. Ride into space and into history as the first American woman in orbit. . . . . But the anniversary is bittersweet: STS-7 was a flight of the Challenger, which was lost with all hands about three years later, January 28, 1986. Two female astronauts died that day: Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe.

On June 25, 1997, the Russian resupply vessel Progress collided with the science module Spektor on the Mir space station while attempting to dock. The blow punctured and decompressed Spektor, and knocked out its solar panels. . . . . The two cosmonauts and one American astronaut (Michael Foale) on Mir were not harmed. . . . . The Russian space agency refused to abandon ship, and kept Mir alive until it could be repaired. Foale stayed aboard, too. . . . . Watch the animated recreation of this near-catastrophe on YouTube to get a sense of just how bad it was — and how lucky the astro/cosmonauts were to make it through alive!

On June 26, 1978, NASA launched Seasat-A, the first satellite to make global observations of Earth’s oceans. The satellite carried the first spaceborne synthetic aperture radar. After 105 days of returning data, Seasat was crippled by an electrical fault. . . . . Now here is a blogolicious Seasat-A science fact: While not anticipated by the satellite’s designers, Seasat-A was actually able to detect the waves of SUBMERGED submarines!

remembering giants_202FREE STUFF
Gogblog loves space tech, and here is a massive dose of it for like-minded technophiles. Remembering the Giants: Apollo Rocket Propulsion Development, Monographs in Aerospace History, No. 45 (NASA SP-2009-4545), edited by Steven C. Fisher and Shamim A. Rahman. . . . . This monograph is the proceedings from a series of lectures on Apollo propulsion development hosted by NASA’s Stennis Space Center. . . . . Request a copy of this monograph by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the NASA History Division, Room CO72, NASA Headquarters, 300 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20546. Or just download a PDF of the report.

Gogblog gratefully credits the NASA History Division website as the source of the historical tidbits this week.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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That Was the Year That Was: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Marks 365 Days Exploring the Moon

Off you go!

Off you go!

A year ago today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter — that’s “LRO” to the spacecraft’s many close personal friends — reached the moon. It’s been an eventful and successful mission. LRO, let me be the first to say, “You Rock!”

Speaking of rocks, LRO has seen rocks a’plenty. Not to mention lunar rilles, a Russian rover, and the coldest place in the solar system ever measured. For more details and blogolicious weblinks, see the  roundup of LRO discoveries and observations by Goddard’s own Andy Freeberg.

Here are Gogblog’s LRO mission highlights, fun facts, sideshows, and uninvited commentary:

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched June 18 2009 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It arrived at the moon Tuesday June 23.

  • Historical irony: In the 1960s, the United States was locked in a race to the moon with the Soviet Union. But today, a Russian-built RD-180 first-stage rocket engine lifts every Atlas V off the pad, including the one that took LRO to the moon. Also, a Russian team built LRO’s Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector.

Fly me to the moon . . .

Science mission: The spacecraft carries 7 instruments to  survey the moon’s surface and environment and look for water. This is data that any future human explorers would benefit from — for instance, to identify safe landing sites, locate sources of water and energy, and minimize radiation exposure.

NASA imaging team discovers shocking new evidence that intelligent beings once walked on the moon!

NASA imaging team discovers shocking new evidence that intelligent beings once walked on the moon! (click to see)

On July 2, NASA released the first images of the moon from the supersharp Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, showing a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).

On July 17, fake moon landing conspiracy enthusiasts suffered a devastating dose of reality when NASA released LROC images of the lunar lander sites for Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17. In the Apollo 14 image, footprints and scientific instruments left by the astronauts were visible — I mean, unless the LROC images are fakes, and pigs can fly, and the tooth fairy is real.

  • Fun fact: In the LROC images, the 12-foot diameter lunar landers occupy just 9 pixels.
  • Great pixels: If you want to drink up some fantastic images from LRO and the history of manned exploration of the moon, check out the Big Picture image spread that ran in January 2010 on the Boston Globe website.

Cold storage: shadowed craters could keep water frozen for billions of years.

On September 17, LRO science teams released early results of the mission. Included in the findings: LRO’s Diviner instrument found spots in permanently shadowed polar craters at -415 degrees Fahrenheit (-248 Celsius). That’s cold enough to store water ice or hydrogen for billions of years.

In a related development . . . On September 25, a team of scientists reported in the journal Science that data from the Indian lunar Chandrayaan-1 probe and NASA’s Deep Impact and Cassini spacecraft confirmed the presence of water molecules on the moon’s surface — especially near the poles.

A second mission, the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), had piggybacked to the moon on LRO’s Atlas V. (Its instruments rode to space in a ring-shaped package stuck between the top of the Atlas V’s “Centaur” second stage and the bottom of the LRO payload.)

The scientists crashed the spent Centaur into the moon’s surface on October 9 and used LCROSS’s instruments to search the debris plume for water. On November 13, the LCROSS science team announced they found it. “I am here today to tell you that, indeed, yes we found water,” said Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist for LCROSS. “And we didn’t find just a little bit; we found a significant amount.”

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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The Supercomputer Down the Hall: A Journey into the Guts of Goddard's Discover Supercomputing Cluster

June 16, 2010 4 comments
This portion of the Discover supercompouting cluster racks up about 90 teraflops of number crunching power.

This portion of the Discover supercomputing cluster racks up about 90 teraflops of number crunching power.

Have you ever seen a supercomputer? Do you know how one works?

I got a chance to look a supercomputer in the face recently, when I took an employee tour of the Discover supercomputer at Goddard Space Flight Center. It’s literally down the hall from me. I just never got a chance to see it up close since I started working here almost a year ago. Discover is the workhorse computing resource for the NASA Center for Climate Simulation.

It’s a pretty impressive gadget. Walking between the metal racks packed with equipment, multicolored blinky lights aglow, I thought of a famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The spaceship’s supercomputer, HAL, has gone all homicidal on the crew, so astronaut Dave Bowman climbs into its brain and starts to unplug stuff. Famously, this reduces the paranoid evil genius HAL to the level of a blubbering toddler singing “Daisy.”


Blogolicious Supercomputer Facts

Goddard Space Flight Center’s Discover supercomputer can perform approximately 159 trillion calculations per second. The supercomputer consists of:

  • 14,968 processors
  • 12,904 memory modules
  • 35,608 gigabytes of random-access memory
  • 3,120 hard drives
  • 5 miles of copper cables
  • 6 miles of fiber-optic cables


Tubes and wires oh my! The ENIAC supercomputer.

Tubes and wires oh my! The ENIAC supercomputer.

I would bet that if you asked 10 people on the street to draw a supercomputer, they would produce something like HAL’s nerve center — a softly humming, dimly glowing cybercave.

Or, they might sketch something like ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Eighty feet long and weighing 27 tons, ENIAC contained more than 17,000 vacuum tubes.

To make computers really fast in those days, you had to place their various components close together so the electrical signals wouldn’t have to travel too far. Each “trip” meant a tiny delay. Many, many delays add up to a computing traffic jam.

These days, it’s different. Supercomputers like Discover are essentially collections of many, many  smaller-scale computing devices working in parallel to solve big tasks.

They are not necessarily in the same place, either. Discover’s machinery is spread across several rooms, connected by a high-speed data network. People can network into the system from across the country via data superhighways.

Now I’m going to talk some tech. And I’m going to be disgustingly precise about it. Supercomputer people talk nodes, processors, cores, and teraflops. It’s notoriously confusing, but you have to understand these terms to really get supercomputing. So here we go . . .

The functional unit of Discover is the processor, just like in your desktop PC or laptop (or iPhone or whatever). The processor is a little brain on a silicon chip. It does the number-crunching.

Waaayyyy back in the day — like, before 2005! — the motherboard of your computer sported a single processor on a single chip. If you wanted more processing power, you had to add more chips.

Not anymore. Now the little brain in your computer has multiple Central Processing Units (CPUs), or “cores,” working in parallel. The processor in my Mac Book Pro, for example, contains two cores. It’s an Intel Core 2 Duo. Both cores reside on the same chip, the same little slab of silicon.

So, are you still with me?

The Discover supercomputer uses dual-core and quad-core processors. In other words, each slab of silicon hosts two cores or four cores. For the ubergeeks in the house, the brand name of the latest processor is Intel Xeon Nehalem. (And yes, you can buy personal computers with this processor — the Mac Pro 2.66 GHz workstation, for example.)

Discover uses about 15,000 cores to crunch data. The cores exist within racks and racks of gizmos called nodes.

Each node has two Xeon Nehalem processors, for a total of either four or eight cores. So each node is equivalent to a really, really fast desktop computer, something with twice the horsepower of the aforementioned Mac Pro workstation. Each node has a hard drive for its operating system software as well as network interfaces for moving data in and out.

Blinky lights: one of the high-speed switches that connect Discover's computing nodes.

Blinky lights: one of the high-speed switches that connect Discover's computing nodes.

So what does this all mean? It means that the supercomputer at the heart of climate and weather science at NASA Goddard runs on the same kind of processors found in personal computers — perhaps yours.

The processors work in parallel, like an army of workers digging a canal with shovels. Each processor lifts a shovelful of data at a time, but if you have a lot of shovels, you end up with the Panama Canal.

Of course, the thousands of workers also need life support, like shelter, food, and water. In supercomputing terms, that means electricity and cooling systems to carry waste heat away from the processors.

A lot of clever engineering went into packing Discover into a couple of rooms. For example, the back doors of the equipment racks have heat-sucking radiators built into them. The radiators are hooked up to Goddard’s chilled water system. Having multiple cores on the same chip reduces the hardware required to prevent a cybermeltdown.

Although right now Discover crunches with 15,000 cores, a planned upgrade will bring it to around 29,000. And what does this all buy you? About 160 teraflops of computing power for the moment.

A teraflop is one trillion floating point operations per second. Flops measure the computing horsepower of a system, its ability to crunch numbers. Add two numbers in your head: you have just completed one floating point operation.

So what is 160 teraflops?

Get the entire world population to add two numbers every second for 5 hours and 20 minutes. That’s 160 teraflops!

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Our Naughty Sun: Galaxy 15 Zombiesat Incident Highlights the Need to Keep a Close Eye on Our Home Star — and Congress Ponies up $100 million to Prevent "Electronic Armageddon"

I am the sun, and I am very angry at you!

Be afraid, be very afraid! This star eats satellites for breakfast, and wants to take away your Internet service.

I recently went to a talk by Goddard sun scientist Dean Pesnell about the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Pesnell is the project scientist for SDO, which launched February 11.

(Did you catch him being interviewed on CNN last week, June 7? Gogblog tips his solar dynamical hat to the SDO Tweeps out there who sent minute-by-minute updates of Pesnell’s on-camera adventures.)

Pesnell and others emphasize how important it is to have observatories like SDO to watch the closest star to Earth. Stormy space weather — basically, explosions of stuff from the sun’s surface — can interfere with or even damage satellites.

And in a case of life conveniently imitating PR, on April 5 the Galaxy 15 communication satellite stopped responding to commands, possibly because of a solar storm. The craft, which routes television traffic, was set adrift toward the telecommunication turf of another satellite, AMC-11.

Galaxy 15 was mindlessly broadcasting signals that could have interfered with other satellites. AMC-11’s operator, SES, worked to maneuver its bird to prevent interference. As of last week, Space News was reporting that no interference occurred.

It’s hard to be absolutely certain that our sun took out Galaxy 15, but the circumstances are pretty incriminating. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported a strong geomagnetic storm April 5 – the strongest of the year to that date. “A sharp gust of solar wind hit Earth’s magnetosphere today, April 5th, at approximately 0800 UT and sparked the strongest geomagnetic storm of the year.”

*** 1:43 pm.  This just in from our art-imitating-life department: Check out this Brewster Rockit comic, which has ripped the Galaxy 15 story from the headlines and put a cute new spin on it. Thanks to Michelle Thaller, Goddard’s official Mistress of Science Communications, for the tip…


Blogolicious Angry Sun Facts

  • In 2006, a solar storm knocked out GPS coverage for half of the globe.
  • A 1989 solar storm cut power to 6 million in Quebec.
  • The Superstorm of 1859 disabled telegraph systems in North America and Europe.
  • The storm triggered auroral displays as far south as the Caribbean.


Now, another reminder of the threats posed by our naughty sun has surfaced in the blogpodcastotwittersphere — “Electronic Armageddon: Congress Worries That Solar Flares Could Spell Disaster.” The article posted on yesterday (June 10).

Here are the nuggets:

High-energy electric pulses from the sun could surge to Earth and cripple our electrical grid for years, causing billions in damages, government officials and scientists worry.

The House is so concerned that the Energy and Commerce committee voted unanimously 47 to 0 to approve a bill allocating $100 million to protect the energy grid from this rare but potentially devastating occurrence.

The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or H.R. 5026, aims “to amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States against cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities.”

The science press has been full of warnings for years about the risk that a “perfect storm” of bad space weather could cause one of the underpinnings of Western society — the national power grid. But perhaps the dire language of a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report, “Severe Space Weather Events — Societal and Economic Impacts,” grabbed Congress’s attention.

Among other scary things, the report says that the impact of a major solar storm could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damage and take us a decade to recover from. Imagine entire cities without power, water, transportation, and (shudder) Internet service for extended periods.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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STEREO spacecraft captures comet's fiery demise: in space, no one can hear a dirty snowball scream as it falls into the sun

One minute you’re a comet soaring through space, free as a bird, and the next you’re solar road kill, evaporating in a psssstttt! of glory.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, recently tracked a comet deeper into the sun’s extended atmosphere than ever before. The comet was consumed in the 100,000-degree heat, but we got to watch. Not a happy ending for the comet, but what a way to go!

These images come courtesy of NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft, which observed the comet between March 12 and 14, 2010. (Goddard is one of six partners in the mission.) If you were a comet falling into the sun, what would you be thinking?

Ooohhh . . . pretty.

Ooohhh . . . pretty.

Hey, wait a minute, that's THE SUN!

Hey, that's THE SUN!

Getting kind of warm now . . .

Getting kind of warm now . . .

Oh no! Owwwwwwwww!!!!!

Oh no! Owwwwwwwww!!!!!


( silence )

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Categories: Comets, Spacecraft, The Sun Tags: , ,