Archive for July, 2010

That Was The Week That Was, July 25-30, 2010. . . A Digest of Goddard People, Science, & Media, PLUS Historical Tidbits and Our Best Stuff in the Blogpodcastotwittersphere

hubble repair tools

hubble repair tools

SUNDAY July 25: Blogger Tzu Chien Chan’s (syn)thetic blog features photos of Goddard technology in “Michael Solurion the still life of space hardware.” These are artful portraits of the special tools developed at Goddard to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit.

MONDAY July 26: NASA Blueshift’s Weekly Awesomeness Round-Up features the Webb mirror’s golden gleam, massively massive stars, cool planetarium widget for your computer, and buckyballs in space.

I CAN SEE YOUR BRUSH FIRE FROM HERE: The MODIS Image of the Day, courtesy the Aqua satellite, captures thousands of individual fires in south-central Africa.

TREE WORK: On the What On Earth blog, Adam Voiland profiles Colorado State University researcher Michael Lefsky, who created the first global map of forest heights using data from NASA’s IceSat satellite.

TUESDAY July 27: New video created from GOES-13 satellite images shows the violent storm that attacked the East Coast July 25.

NEW MOON: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Image of the Day shows a new 30-foot-wide crater on the moon, created sometime after the Apollo astronauts touched down.



SPACEQUAKE! In a feature story in NASA Science, Tony Phillips of Science@NASA explains how researchers used the THEMIS spacecraft fleet to discover a form of space weather that packs the punch of an earthquake and plays a key role in sparking bright Northern Lights.

WEDNESDAY July 28: The latest issue of Goddard View includes an interview with Nobel laureate John Mather about life outside the gates of Goddard.

GODDARD AT WORK: In a  new video profile, astrochemist Jamie Cook talks about her work in the lab and some of her most exciting discoveries.

YUCK! NASA Blueshift intern and blogger Faith Tucker recounts her visit to the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence where you can see, among other astronomical antiquities, Galileo’s preserved middle finger.

THURSDAY JULY 29: On this day in 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA.

TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden attended a townhall meeting at Goddard Space Flight Center to talk with NASA interns, fellows, and scholars about the importance of continued interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

snowpocalypse 2010

snowpocalypse 2010

SNOWPOCALYPSE REVISTED: In the What On Earth blog, Goddard writer Michelle Williams highlights a new data visualization, derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System Model Version 5 (GEOS-5) and created by NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio. It shows the first wave of the February “Snowpocalypse” snowstorms hitting the East Coast.

THANKS FOR STOPPING BY: Shuttle astronauts of the recent STS-132 mission shared their experiences during a visit to Goddard.

FRIDAY July 30: FOX 5’s Holly Morris visited Greenbelt, Maryland is this week’s stop on the station’s “Hometown Fridays” tour. See the video of their visit to Goddard Space Flight Center here.

COOL LINK: In a story published on Smart Planet, an environmental website, writer Andrew Nusca explains how researchers used a computer simulation of the land surface developed at Goddard to evaluate the impacts on painting roofs white. Answer: it saves energy and cools the climate.

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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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See the new video about Hubble Space Telescope exoplanet science

July 29, 2010 1 comment

exoplanet sun panorama_600

“I don’t know — when I was growing up, there was no such thing as planets around other stars. If you were to talk about it at a scientific meeting, people would laugh at you….”

Oh, how times change. And so begins a new short documentary by Goddard video producer Ryan Fitzgibbons and videographer Jamal Smith. 20 Years of Hubble Science: Exoplanets highlights the Hubble Space Telescope’s contributions to the study of planets around other stars.

In the video, Goddard scientists Marc Kuchner, Aki Roberge, and Jennifer Wiseman discuss how Hubble’s coronagraph and resulting images have helped scientists find exoplanets, dusty disks around other stars, and infant solar systems. All three astronomers are members of our Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory.

The science is at the leading edge and the graphics are awesome — especially the animated timeline showing all exoplanet discoveries to date. Go to the Scientific Visualization Studio website to download and view this film at the highest possible resolution. It’s worth the download time.

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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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What they're saying about us, July 27, 2010. . . . The Daily Planet blog tells the story of "the most well traveled Nobel in the universe"


John Mather at the Nobel ceremony

I just caught this great post on the Air & Space Smithsonian’s Daily Planet blog. It’s about an item of special significance to us Goddard geeks that was carried into space aboard the space shuttle in May. As blogger Rebecca Maksel explains:

But a number of smaller articles made the 11-day journey as well, one of which was the National Air and Space Museum’s replica of John Mather’s 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics. (Dr. Mather, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was awarded the prize jointly with George F. Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.”)

Read the rest on Daily Planet. . . . .

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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Gogblog's Monday Video Rewind Picture Show: Galileo's Gray Beard and the History of Astronomy

July 26, 2010 1 comment

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Galileo came back to life in a leather bomber jacket and made an abrasive and self-congratulatory infomercial  (“You’re welcome, science!”) about his many pioneering contributions to the advancement of astronomy? Now you can see it for yourself.

Goddard video producer Ryan Fitzgibbons made this short promotional video, and he also plays the Galileo character in a fake-looking gray beard. Goddard video producer Chris Smith and web producer Katie Lewis contribute cameo appearances as Blank Faced Hubble Telescope Married Couple.

This video was released to promote a March 2009 Goddard webcast for NASA’s Sun-Earth Day. Amazingly, Ryan filmed and edited it in a single day. He’d already completed his assigned videos for the event, and this one was just something he wanted to do.

I asked Ryan is the fake beard he wore for the video — purchased at Party City in Greenbelt, Maryland — was scratchy. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

For the scene where Galileo plays the keyboard, the music was written especially for this video by Ryan’s friend Dustin Zemel. They were students together in the Montana State University documentary film program. The name of the composition: Snowblind.

In the first scene, Ryan wears a leather bomber jacket. That’s an Easter egg, a hidden insider tip of the hat to Sten Odenwald, a NASA astronomer and member of the Sun-Earth Day team.

You can also download the video in various formats at NASA/Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio website.

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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.



Categories: Uncategorized

That Was The Week That Was, July 19-23, 2010. . . A Digest of Goddard People, Science, & Media, PLUS Historical Tidbits and Our Best Stuff in the Blogpodcastotwittersphere

gamma blitz

gamma blitz

MONDAY JULY 19: A year ago, something hit Jupiter, the Hubble Space Telescope saw it, and Goddard scientists were part of the response.

SPRECHEN SIE GAMMA BLITZ? The website for the German magazine Der Spiegel has produced a cool video — it’s (duh) in German, by the way — about last week’s breaking news about a gamma-ray burst (GRB) that temporarily “blinded” the Swift observatory. In German, a GRB is called a “gamma blitz.” (Yup, they make you first watch a commercial, in German, before the gamma-ray blitz starts.)

AWESOME STATISTIC: The NASA Blueshift Weekly Awesomeness Round-up takes the prize this week for most blogolicious science statistic. NASA scientists helped discovered a black hole with massive jets blasting from its poles. “If the black hole were shrunk to the size of a soccer ball,” scientist Robert Scoria explained, “each jet would extend from the Earth to beyond the orbit of Pluto.”

TUESDAY JULY 20: Today in 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 Lander touched down safely on the surface of Mars. Also, a NASA mission called “Apollo 11” landed two guys on the moons, whereupon one of them, named Neil Armstrong, went outside to take a giant leap for mankind. . . . The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Facebook page did a lusciously detailed and dramatic series of posts reenacting the mission.

UP FROM THE DEPTHS: The central peak of Aristarchus Crater on the moon has deep origins. Read about it on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC) Featured Image website.

SLICK OPERATIONS: See the NASA satellite time-lapse video of the Gulf oil spill through July 14, 2010.

HOW HIGH THE FOREST? The NASA Earth Science News Team’s Adam Voiland features a first-of-its kind map of the height of the world’s forests — based on data collected by NASA’s ICESat, Terra, and Aqua satellites.

star power

star power

WEDNESDAY JULY 21: NASA-funded researcher Bo-wen Shen re-runs the formation of the Tropical Cyclone Nargis in a supercomputer. COOL SHIPS: On the What On Earth blog, NASA Earth Science News Team reporter Gretchen Cook-Anderson profiles NASA/Goddard scientist Charles Kironji, who discovered that the wakes of ocean-going ships have a local chilling effect on climate. ATTRACTIVE: Sparkley loopy new shot of our supermagnetic home star from the Solar Dynamics Observatory uploads to the Goddard Flickr site.

booted out

THURSDAY JULY 22: Today in 1962, NASA launched the ill-fated Mariner 1 spacecraft bound for Venus. The vehicle was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer 293 seconds after launch when it veered off course.

GIRLS IN SPACE: Ten Girl Scout teams nationwide, including two girls from Kansas, spent the week at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as part of a NASA’s “Girls in Space” program. . . . This evening, members of the Goddard Astronomy Club held a special star party for the Scouts at the Visitor Center, featuring the moon, Venus, Saturn, and summer constellations.

COSMIC COOKERY: A new video explains how a powerful instrument called a mass spectrometer figures out the recipe of the universe.

FROZEN FLOW: NASA Earth Science News Team writer Kathryn Hansen reports on the Antarctic Surface Accumulation and Ice Discharge (ASAID) project. The project is making a new map of the “grounding line” where ice breaks off into the ocean.

AND STAY OUT! NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has detected two stars being tossed out of the Milky Way Galaxy.

FRIDAY JULY 23: The historic Landsat 1 satellite launched this day in 1972. Images from Landsat 1 demonstrated the usefulness of remote sensing data for land surveys, land management, water resource planning, agricultural forecasting, forest management, sea ice movement, and cartography.

HOT LINKS: The University of Virginia Engineering Department’s E-News Online for July profiles Alexandra Hoeft (Engr Sci, Math’11), a spring 2010 intern with NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP). Hoeft worked for 15 weeks at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with NASA mentor Stephen Waterbury. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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Hidden Heroes: 80 percent of the time, Jim Foster thinks about snow. But the rest of the time is consumed by his joy and his jailor — the earth science picture of the day

July 22, 2010 13 comments
got moon?

got moon?

Jim Foster is a senior scientist at NASA Goddard who studies snow 80 percent of his work time. “I’m in the Hydrological Science Branch, and my research deals with snow hydrology, also related to snow and climate,” he explains. “I’m involved in projects trying to better derive how much water is stored in snowpacks — seasonal snow not glaciers.”

Less well known is what he does with the remaining 20 percent of his time: EPOD: the earth science picture of the day website.

After many months of following the EPOD site and re-posting its images on blogs and Facebook pages, I finally noticed that the guy running the show is right here at Goddard, over in Building 33 around the corner from me. So I called him.

Foster explained that 10 years ago, he was asked to manage a new website featuring images related to earth science. This became EPOD.

EPOD rocks

EPOD rocks

EPOD echoes APOD — the Astronomy Picture of the Day. To say that APOD is wildly popular is an understatement. It was founded in 1995 by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell. Jerry is a scientist here at Goddard.

In 2000, Foster and the rest of the (small) EPOD team launched the site and put out a call for images. It took a while for things to pick up. But now there is no shortage.

“They come from everywhere,” he says. “We’ve received contributions from each continent. Sometimes it’s scientists, but most of the time just people have an interest in science, or folks that don’t have an interest in science but have a camera.”


lightning strikes

Each EPOD entry includes a caption, links, time and date when the photo was taken, and latitude and longitude coordinates. Often Jim has to research the details before posting.

The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) hosts the website on its server. (USRA is a private, nonprofit consortium of 105 universities offering advanced degrees in space- and aeronautics-related disciplines.) At USRA, Stacy Bowles handles the technical aspects of the site and runs the relatively new EPOD Facebook page.  And a former newspaper marketing specialist in Seattle, Stu Witmer, contributes to EPOD as an unpaid volunteer. He provides grammar checks, proofreading, and other valuable support. “Stacy and Stu help things run smoothly,” Foster says.

ISS transit_epod_152

sun crosser

Since last fall, NASA’s Earth Observatory has provided funds to cover 20 percent of Foster’s salary to work on EPOD. But there’s more to it than that. There is the more intangible element of commitment.

Day after day for most of the past decade, the ravenous mouth of EPOD had to be fed with a new image and associated information and web links. And through rain, hail, sleet or snow, Foster has delivered. Before going on vacation or traveling for work, he had to build up a queue of EPODs. No exceptions.


cloudy weather

In this sense, EPOD has been Foster’s joy and his jailor. And I think it makes him one of the unsung heroes of science on the web. You know, the people who just do what they do, day after day, usually for only the satisfaction of doing it, often with minimal or no financial support at all — or in some cases, just the reward of feeding an obsession.

There are many such people on the web. But countless earth enthusiasts all over the planet can thank one man for sustaining EPOD for a decade: Jim Foster at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Got any cool earth science images? Send them to Foster. The contact form is on the EPOD website.
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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Today In NASA History: Apollo Puts Bootprints On The Moon and A Viking Invades the Red Planet For All Humankind

July 20, 2010 8 comments
Viking's Mars

Viking's Mars

It’s July 20, and on this day in 1969 the Apollo 11 astronauts put boots on the moon. This same day in 1976, the first of two Viking Landers thumped down on the Red Planet.

I’ve detected two distinct groups here at Goddard: the Apollo people and the Viking people. Some imaginations caught fire in the 60s with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo and those daring young men with the right stuff. Others were awestruck in the 70s with the first images of the rusty plains of Mars.

Apollo 17's Moon

Apollo 17's Moon

Apollo and Viking: these are the reasons why some of us are here, either making science or explaining it. Whether data logging or science blogging, we owe it to historic missions like Apollo and Viking that inspired the world with their demonstrations of the best that our clever little primate brains could create.

Apollo or Viking: It’s not a matter of taste, as in “Beatles or Rolling Stones?” It’s generational. It’s about how old you were when the respective spacecraft — the Eagle (on the moon) and Viking 1 (on Mars) — touched down.

Older than me? Probably an Apollo. About my age — a Viking. Perhaps some of the summer high school interns scurrying around the Goddard campus at the moment will someday blog about how they were members of the “space station generation.” Or the “shuttle kids.”

mars panorama 2_608

mars color 1_152

First color image

I was just reaching high school age when those magnificent panoramas of Chryse Planitia filled TV screens, scan line by scan line. It was a new world, and one spookily like our own. Sorry Apollo tribe, we’ve got you on that one!

On the other hand, the Apollos beat the Vikings for the simplicity, drama, and grateful beauty of these words, spoken in typical cowboy-astronaut understatement by Neil Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

To be sure, the engineers who landed two half-ton contraptions on the surface of Mars were heroes. But not Neil Armstrong heroes. We didn’t believe in heroes anymore in the 70s, did we?

A windswept, arid landscape on another planet: Chryse Planitia. A flood plain at 23 degrees north latitude. There was something at once poetic, melancholy, and ineffable about that scene — something that was, and remains, difficult to compose into words.

Princess_of_Mars_152It wasn’t the schoolboy and schoolgirl Mars dreamt of by anyone who read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.

(If you are remotely interested in what this particular schoolboy was dreaming about Mars while reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, don’t miss the trailer for the 2009 B-movie A Princess of Mars.)

The real Mars didn’t have four-armed warriors, dinosaurlike beasts of burden, or sun-dappled canals. But Viking made me a marsaholic for life.

How about you? Apollo or Viking? Space Station or Shuttle? Where were YOU when the boots crunched the lunar dust, or when the pie-plate pads of Viking thumped the Red Planet?

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. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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That Was The Week That Was, July 12-16, 2010. . . A Digest of Goddard People, Science, & Media, PLUS Historical Tidbits and Our Best Stuff in the Blogpodcastotwittersphere

click to make me big

star factory

MONDAY JULY 12: Washington Post weather blogger Andrew Freedman writes about a recent glacier retreat in NASA eyeballs glacial melt in Greenland. . . .  NASA Earth science storyteller Mike Carlowicz explained the science last week.

DEAD WEIGHT: Engineers at Goddard simulate the heavy load of instruments James Web Space Telescope will carry into deep space.

AWESOMENESS: NASA Blueshift‘s Weekly Awesomeness Roundup covers Hubble fireworks, renegade planets, a mind-blowing physics experiment in Germany, and other USDA Choice Scientific Beef of the week.

MARS ROCKS! Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate Chief Scientist James Garvin gives you a guided tour of Martian geology on WorldWideTelescope. Here’s the article in The Universe Today.

RABBIT HOLE: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter unveils “rabbit holes” on the moon.

THREE’S A CHARM: On this day in 1961, NASA launched the Tiros 3 satellite. . . In 1960, Tiros 1 had taken the first-ever image of Earth from orbit. . . . Tiros stands for Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite, designed to test experimental television techniques and infrared equipment.

DUST-UP: A story about effects of lunar dust on equipment quotes Goddard planetary scientist William Farrell.

<b>blooming ocean</b>

blooming ocean

TUESDAY JULY 13: What, ANOTHER fabulous Hubble Space Telescope image of a cosmic star factory? This one’s in the constellation Puppis, the poop deck of Jason’s fabled ship Argo from Greek mythology.

GRAB A SHOVEL: In today’s Systems Engineering Seminar, Warren Mitchell, Syed Hasan, and Jason Laing of the Goddard Flight Dynamics Facility recalled the drama of supporting the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-130) mission and the launch and operation of the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) during the worst snowstorm in memory. Rani Gran’s account of Goddard’s Snowpocalyse adventure provides details.

MUMMA’s THE WORD: A video profile of astrobiologist Michael Mumma talks about the origin and evolution of life in the universe. . . . SAM I AM: And don’t miss the series of video profiles of Goddard researchers working on the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument package that will allow the Mars Science Laboratory rover to search for life signs.

OCEAN BLOOMS: The MODIS Image of the Day team posts a mighty fine satellite portrait of phytoplankton blooming in the North Sea.

TURN, TURN, TURN: A video made of GOES-13 satellite imagery tracks two weeks in the rip-roaring life of Hurricane Alex.

<b>X-ray blast</br>

X-ray blast

WEDNESDAY JULY 14: NASA’s Swift observatory is temporarily blinded by the X–ray flash triggered by the explosion of a massive star morphing into a new black hole. . . . ME TOO! Gogblog profiles Phil Evans, the British investigator who uncovered the X-ray flash. . . . FAST WORK: PSU and gogblog post the story 10:58 am; Science NOW posts a “ScienceShot” news brief at 4:24 pm by astro-writer extraordinaire Ken Croswell. . . . LISTEN:How a bright star fooled a top observatory into thinking it was unreal,” according to BBC Five Live presenter Dotun Adebayo. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: The University of Leicester, where Phil Evans works, posts its own release on the blinding blast.

RED PLANET RENDEZVOUS: Forty-five years ago today, the Mariner 4 space probe flew within 6,118 miles of Mars after an 8-month journey. . . . MARINER 4 was the first spacecraft to take close-up pictures of another planet.

NEW TREND: Goddard Tech Trends releases its summer issue, featuring blacker-than-black nanotechnology and other innovations brewing at Goddard.

GULF OIL SPILL: NASA’s Aqua satellite scans the Gulf oil spill in a natural-color image.

<b>planet or comet?</b>

planet or comet?

THURSDAY JULY 15: The late Dr. Timothy Hawarden receives a posthumous NASA Exceptional Technology Achievement Medal for developing innovative cooling techniques for infrared space telescopes — including the coming James Webb orbiting observatory.

SUPER-HUBBLE: Is it a planet? Is it a comet? No — it’s . . . . ANOTHER mind-numbingly interesting Hubble Space Telescope exoplanet discovery!

ORDER UP: According to a report in, Dell Inc. will sell Goddard’s NASA Center for Climate Simulation souped-up servers in a contract worth up to $5.1 million dollars . . . . The new servers will double NCCS’s computational capacity to more than 300 trillion calculations per second.

RUN THAT BY ME AGAIN: “The extreme tail loading and unloading observed at Mercury implies that the relative intensity of substorms must be much larger than at Earth.” Find out what Goddard space physicist James A. Slavin is talking about in a web feature about recent discoveries by the MESSENGER spacecraft.

ECLIPSE PORTRAIT: Like most earthlings, you probably didn’t make it to Easter Island to see the solar eclipse on Sunday July 11. But here’s something you would not have been able to see even from Easter Island: a combined space-and-surface view of the eclipse, created by Goddard media specialist and sun worshipper Steele Hill.

PLANKTON ON PARADE: The What On Earth blog posts the last of four dispatches from guest writer Karen Romano Young on the ICESCAPE expedition, “Plankton On Parade.”

<b>man on the moon</b>

man on the moon

FRIDAY JULY 16: Today in 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off at 09:32:00 am EDT from Launch Complex 39-A Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the first manned landing on the moon.

WoE OF THE WEEK: The What On Earth bloggers post the latest NASA Earth Buzz, with the top recent Earth science stories and the answer to the “What on Earth is THAT?” image quiz from last week. . . . ANSWER: soot particles from a wildfire.

WARM DATA: NASA’s Earth Observatory posts a global temperature anomaly map comparing readings for July 4–11, 2010, to the same dates from 2000 to 2008. Land surface temps come courtesy of the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite.

HOT LINKS: The Physics Today website offers a feature story about NASA’s A-Train of satellites, Touring the atmosphere aboard the A-Train, by Tristan S. L’Ecuyer and Jonathan H. Jiang. “A convoy of satellites orbiting Earth measures cloud properties, greenhouse gas concentrations, and more to provide a multifaceted perspective on the processes that affect climate.”

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 solar eclipse from above and below: Blogolicious image of the day, July 15, 2010.

click to make me big!

click to make me big!

Like most earthlings, you probably didn’t make it to Easter Island to see the solar eclipse on Sunday July 11. But here’s something you would not have been able to see even from Easter Island: a combined space-and-surface view of the eclipse.

This is another in the series of fantastic solar images that Goddard’s Steele Hill releases to science museums and other public places every week from the Solar Dyanamics Observatory (SDO), SOHO, and STEREO spacecraft. Hill is one of our media people for those three missions.

Steele created this image by combining an image taken by the Williams College Expedition to Easter Island (the black-and-white portion) with snapshots from space courtesy of SDO and SOHO.

SOHO’s contribution, in red, shows the sun’s outer atmosphere (corona). To make the corona more visible,  SOHO uses a device called a “coronograph” to cover the glaring central disk. It’s sort of what you do when you hold your palm out to mask the blinding glare of a bright light shining in your eyes.

The Williams College image (again, the black-and-white portion) shows the sun’s inner corona.

Finally, SDO donated the image of the sun’s central disk to cover the silhouette of the moon, which blocked the sun’s glare during the eclipse.

Goddard's Steele Hill Photoshopically manipulating the sun...

Steele Hill

Voila! A truly blogolicious composite of gogblog’s favorite star ever!

In Steele’s own words:

I’ve done this several times before.  The challenge is correctly rotating the image to align the structures in the eclipse image with the structures the coronagraph sees.  Since the eclipse image was taken in the South Pacific, the image has a different perspective versus our spacecraft.  But that did not take too long.  I like the way that we can combine ground-based and space-borne images and bring the three perspectives together.

For additional details about this image, read the NASA image release from this morning. And let’s not forget to thank Jay M. Pasachoff, Muzhou Lu, and Craig Malamut from the Williams College Eclipse Expedition for allowing this use of their image.

An earlier gogblog post explores one of Steele Hill’s previous solar images from SDO.

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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And then the universe said 'Hah!' NASA's Swift satellite can't believe its eyes when it spots the brightest X-ray glow from a gamma ray burst outside our galaxy

July 14, 2010 14 comments

Credit: NASA/Swift/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith and John JonesThree weeks ago, a distant point in space in another galaxy released a blast of X-rays so bright even the satellite that saw it first didn’t believe its eyes. Then Phil Evans came home from vacation and got very, very lucky.

“One of the things I personally like most about doing research,” he says, “is when you discover something brand new — even if it’s ‘just’ the brightest X-ray object that we think we’ve ever seen — there’s a moment when there is only one person in the universe who knows about this. And sometimes you get to be that one person.”

It went down this way: On June 21, NASA’s orbiting Swift observatory was on sentry duty for Earth’s astronomers, watching the universe for Gamma ray bursts. A GRB went off on June 21, later catalogued GRB 100621A. (GRBs are violent eruptions of energy from the explosion of a massive star turning into a black hole.)

Gamma ray bursts announce their appearance as, well, a burst of gamma rays. Since gammas are the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation, GRBs are the most powerful beacons in the universe.

When Swift detects a burst, it radios the coordinates to Earth. Astronomers and robotic observatories scramble to aim their instruments at the GRB. Swift also slews its instruments, such as the X-Ray Telescope (XRT), to the target.

Swift's X-Ray Telescope captured this image of GRB 100621A

Swift's X-Ray Telescope captured this image of GRB 100621A

Ideally, astronomers want to observe both the immediate or “prompt” emissions and, as time passes, the fading afterglow of X-rays, ultraviolet light, and (rarely) visible light.

Swift beams to Earth a record of when it detected each photon, and then software on the ground turns this into a “light curve” — literally a record of how the GRB’s brightness changes over time in various wavelengths.

Meanwhile, back at the lab…
OK, enough about Swift; back to Phil. He’s is a post-doctoral research assistant in the X-ray and Observational Astronomy group at the University of Leicester in England, and part of the Swift team. He wrote the software that converts the photo detections from Swift into light curves.

So he got home from holiday on June 29. The next morning, he examined the light curves that his software had created while he was in the Lake District in North West England, camping with his wife and two young sons.

And he saw something very puzzling: For one event, GRB 100621A, the record of its earliest X-ray emission was missing. He’d also received an email from another astronomer who had also noticed the gap.

Swift beauty 1 202“I looked at this and thought that’s odd, I’ll have to come back to it. I was looking at it and thinking, this is very strange.”

By noon, he had the data gap plugged. It took him a few more hours to check it, and to appreciate what had actually happened. The next day he announced it to the rest of the Swift community around the globe.

It turned out that GRB 100621A had been so bright early on, it had temporarily blinded Swift’s detectors. At the center of the image, which is the brightest part of the image, X-rays streamed in at a peak rate of 143,000 per second — well, for 0.2 seconds, anyway! But the X-ray camera literally could not count that fast. It was like a lone soccer goalkeeper being fired at by a dozen World Cup strikers.

Correct me if I’m wrong
Phil’s light-curve-making software has a way of dealing with this situation. It counts the X-ray photons streaming in around the edges of the image, where it’s not so bright and intense. Then it multiplies that by a correction factor to estimate how bright it must be in the glaring center of the image.

This correction was used in the famous “naked eye” GRB 080319B of 2008, which was so bright you could have seen it without a telescope, briefly, in a dark location on Earth. The correction: 32 times.

Correction for the June 21 GRB: 168!

Phil designed the software so that if the correction factor exceeds a certain expected threshold, the software just doesn’t report the data to astronomers on the ground. In a sense, Swift didn’t believe its own eyes.

“When it did the correction, it saw the size of it and said, no, that’s got to be nonsense, there’s got to be some sort of mistake,” Phil explains. “It just said, ‘This can’t be real. I’m not publishing this to the world because I’m going to look like an idiot.”

Or to put it more politely, Phil’s software refuses to report what it determines to be bad data. But it wasn’t bad; it was spot-on correct.

Swift beauty 2 202A new (X-ray) world record

“I didn’t totally register at first how bright it is, and then I mentioned it to a few people, and they went ‘What!’ And then we started to get a better feel for the fact that this was something to put in your record books.”

What kind of record are we talking about?

When the system was designed, astronomers weren’t expecting to see anything as bright as what Swift saw on June 21. The next brightest such object in X-rays was 2008’s naked-eye GRB 080319B.

This GRB was seven times fainter but twice as far away as the June 21 event. But move the new record holder to the same distance, and it would still be 1.5 times as bright as GRB 080319B.

Both of these events happened outside our Milky Way Galaxy. For example, the June 21 GRB happened 5 billion light years away, which means the light from it left about the time our solar system formed. There are brighter X-ray sources in our own galaxy, but that’s like comparing your next-door neighbor’s porch light to the blinking aircraft beacon atop a radio tower 10 miles away.

Relative to Swift, the latest GRB is a clear record-breaker. It is definitely the brightest thing, GRB or otherwise, Swift’s X-ray eye has ever seen.

And that is, perhaps, the most striking thing about this whole episode: the way in which this latest GRB has confounded expectations.

Barbara Kennedy said it best recently on a teleconference with Phil and a couple of other scientists, including Dave Burrows of Penn State University (PSU), the lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray telescope. Barbara is a press officer for PSU, which has issued a release about the event.

We — the scientists, Barbara, and a couple other media people who cover Swift — were discussing what approach to use to explain this GRB to the public. Biggest? Brightest? First?

I thought Barbara nailed it when she said:  “The best scientists in the world thought ‘We’ll never see anything that bright, so we don’t have to design the software to handle it.’ And then the universe said ‘Hah! Look what I can throw at you!'”


Phil_40Follow Phil Evans in his role as a Swift Scientist on Twitter: @Swift_Phil, where news of this discovery was first announced!]

See Barbara Kennedy’s press release on the X-ray GRB on the PSU website.

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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