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Aries and Ellen's NASA NPP tweetup adventure

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Last week, NASA Goddard science writers Aries Keck and Ellen Gray covered the launch of the NPP satellite. Here is Ellen’s account of the tweetup that was part of the launch event.

DSC03424On October 27, NASA held its first West Coast tweetup at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was my first tweetup and having heard some of the planning details, I was as excited as the nineteen netizens and space enthusiast invited to ask questions and see sites at Vandenberg that civilians, and even most airmen who work there, don’t get to see.

The day started in the same room as the prelaunch press briefing the day before, but the atmosphere was much more informal.  Gone were the suits and ties, and the podium was hidden behind a pair of screens.  NASA’s Tweetup Program Director, Stephanie Shierholz, got things rolling with introductions of tweeters and speakers alike, and joked around with everyone until it was time to start the program.

DSC03432I hung around back, taking pictures as tweeters’ heads bent over laptops, tablets, and phones every time a fun fact popped up.

The program was 90 minutes long. Astronaut Piers Sellers kicked off it by introducing the NPP mission, then took questions that tended toward his time in space. Evie Marom (@SpaceGurlEvie) asked what he thought of the commercial space industry.  Sellers was all for it, saying he would take everyone with him to space if he could. Evie said she intended to be one of the people to go.

NPP Project Scientist Jim Gleason talked about NPP’s instruments and data that like wine, gets better with age since it can be used for long term climate studies. Allan Managan (@AllanManagan) asked about the team involved in building NPP, which Jim explained from the instruments (~300 people for VIIRS) to the spacecraft, getting additional numbers from representatives of Ball, Raytheon and other contractors till it was well over a 1000 people.

DSC03433After the briefing we got moving on a tour of Vandenberg. We first walked to NASA’s Mission Director’s Center which is the control room where the launch is go or no go.  Then we boarded a white painted school bus and drove around only some of Vandenberg’s 150,000 acres.  It was a gorgeous day.  The base for the most part is wild land, and indeed is also a wildlife refuge – you just have to be careful of the unexploded ordinance left over from Vandenberg’s time as an army base.  As we drove, Oliver Hine (@oliverhine) set up a camera on the window of the bus to take continuous pictures. He then compiled all the photos into a time lapse video.

DSC03463Highlights from the trip:

NASA Mission Director’s Center: The only people who usually get to sit in these seats are the controllers who are sending the rocket into space.  While George Diller, the Voice of NASA TV, spoke about the launch broadcast, tweeters got to sit in the hot seats – with the caution from Stephanie Sherhodtz, “Please don’t touch anything. We don’t want an accidental launch.”

Pacific Coast Club: While we had lunch at the Pacific Coast Club, the commander of the Space Wing, Colonel Richard Boltz stopped by before he had to go on enforced rest. He talked about launch safety being the number one priority – one reason Vandenberg was chosen for launches was because the rockets will fly over the ocean. Several questions then turned to blowing up the rockets and non-active missiles that don’t go where they’re supposed to.

DSC03521Western Range Operations Control Center: When we arrived our tour guide and Vandenberg Public Relations lead Larry Hill told everyone. “No phones, no cameras, no kidding.” The WROCC is a secure zone and home of launch control for the base.  In addition to NASA launches, the WROCC launches DoD satellites and tests non-active Minuteman missiles at the end of their shelf life. Here we also learned that WD-40 was invented at Vandenberg as a lubricant put on the outside of rockets to reduce “triggered lightning” that can occur when rockets pass through clouds.

DSC03638Boat House: On the south side of the base, an old house sits on a bluff above a massive dock.  Here, rocket parts too big and heavy to travel by truck are delivered by water. The morning following NPP’s launch a rocket delivery from Decatur Alabama would end its three week journey through the Gulf of Mexico, Panama Canal and up the Pacific coast to Vandenberg.

Space Launch Complex-6: SLC-6 (pronounced slick) is the largest launchpad at Vandenberg.  Originally it was built to launch the space shuttle, and Enterprise was all set on the pad when Challenger broke up during launch.  NASA decided to scale back its shuttle operations, and now SLC-6 launches the Delta-IV rocket, way more powerful than NPP’s Delta-II for heavy payloads.

DSC03665Missile Museum: Late in the afternoon we arrived at the old site of SLC-10 which is now a museum and national monument of the rockets and missiles that Vandenberg has launched since the 1960s.  Inside were decommissioned rocket parts and consoles from the early days of the space age – complete with inbuilt ashtrays, buttons that lit up when pressed, and even a key to turn. The most memorable tidbit though was when our host described the guidance computers of the first missiles.  “They filled up half a room, and checked in with the missile by radio signal. ” The missile didn’t have any processing power. Then he lifted up his phone. “Today, your phone could do all of that.”

DSC03692Tower roll back: The last stop of the day was probably my favorite: SLC-2 where NPP sat in the tippy top of its Delta-II rocket.  When we arrived, the rocket was hidden inside the tower, a gray construction that allows the launch team access to the rocket.  As the sun set, the tower slowly rolled back only a couple hundred yards away.

That was the end of the day.  After the tweetup, I returned to the hotel with my fellow writers for dinner and a nap before launch. — Ellen Gray, NPP Media Team
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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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Our loopy sun (x3)

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

trifecta_sun_600
From Steele Hill, solar image media maven of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, comes this trifecta of a video from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. It shows three “active regions” on the sun, where charged solar material (plasma) is flowing along vast magnetic loops on the sun’s surface. Several Earths could fit under those loops — amazing, ja? The video version is at the end of this post.

Here is Steele’s text, which is provided weekly to museums and science centers, along with the images and video:

Three active regions lined up vertically and each of the loop structures above them twisted differently (Oct. 15 – 17, 2011) when viewed in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The high arching loops of the top active region seemed to lean to the north; the one beneath it clearly coiled to the south; at the bottom one spread upright and to the left and right as well. The loops are tracing particles spiraling along magnetic field lines that have emerged from underneath the Sun’s surface. While the movie shows that the loops shifted and changed over 2.5 days, the basic structure of all three remained very much the same. It is not common to see active regions so neatly aligned atop one another.


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6…5…4…3…2…1…WOO!!! NPP blasts off

October 28, 2011 2 comments




At the public viewing site we had a terrific view of SLC-2, the launchpad where NPP sat on it’s Delta II rocket, 3 miles away.  As promised, the sky was clear, the Milky Way visible in the sky, and not even a hint of fog.

Everyone I talked to was really excited. The mood was festive as people sat bundled up in hats, scarves, and blankets.  The tweeters from our first West Coast tweetup all wore glow sticks that lit up the area along with cameras, flashes, and phones.

Early arrivals were entertained by the Air Force guys who had set up streaming video of NASA TV projected onto the side of a white truck.  There was music, swag give-aways for the people who could name NPP’s five instruments, and more details on the CubeSats from the university teams that built them.  Someone from the crowd shouted, “Give us more physics!”

The buzz through the crowd transmitted the various launch countdown updates as wireless was intermittent.  But at T-30 seconds the whole crowd of at least a hundred grew silent.

Camera phones went up, the true photographers got ready.  Before the countdown no one spoke. T-10 seconds.

Then the rocket lit up!

A bright light in the darkness that slowly rose as gasps and cheers rose from the crowd.  It was incredible to watch.

About a minute later while we watched NPP go up and up and up, the grumbly noise of takeoff reached us.

We saw the first stage drop and we could see the arc of smoke left in the sky from the Delta II.

Then there was a sudden brightness the from the expanding rocket trail as the rocket flew south. And then slowly the lights from the rocket winked out.

Then everyone’s eyes turned to their twitter feeds and NASA’s live TV feed and shouted status updates out loud.

The main bleacher lights came on as people headed back to their cars.  Behind us we heard the popping of a Champagne cork from the CubeSat folks. Then we had to tear ourselves way from the public viewing site and all the new people with whom we had just shared this incredible experience

Ellen Gray, NPP Media Team
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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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NPP: the pre-launch press conference

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

DSC03364The NPP team previewed the launch and the mission to the media yesterday. Not quite all of the 30 or so seats were filled, but the room where NPP’s prelaunch press conference would take place in five minutes felt packed.

In front of the stage a few reporters chatted with the speakers until the producer called the thirty second warning. Then the six speakers straightened up, everyone settled in, and it was 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go.

Andy Carson, NPP’s Program Executive, started off with an overview of NPP’s mission as the next Earth-observing satellite that will provide data for both research and weather forecasting. But the bulk of the press conference was both a retrospective and a preview of the main event taking place in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, October 28th — launch.

Tim Dunn, NASA Launch Director from Kennedy Space Center, talked about what NASA folks call the launch vehicle, the Delta II 7920. While he spoke a video showed the Kennedy team assembling the pieces on the pad. Watching this giant cylinder coming off an 18-wheeler marked Caution: Wide and Long Load brought home that the Delta II isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a big rocket. And that was just the lower half!

DSC03330Once assembled the Delta II has four main parts. Around the base are nine solid rocket motors, which are essentially canisters filled with fuel to give the rocket extra thrust to break free of Earth’s gravity. Six of them will be ignited on the ground with the main rocket, and the remaining three will fire once the Delta II is in the air to maintain its speed. They look pretty small, but in real life they stretch two stories high.

The NPP satellite sits in the white top section, called the fairing. The fairing is high enough that when the team hoisted NPP up into the tower that supports the rocket, said Dunn, the team had to wait a day for the winds to die down before loading it into the fairing so the satellite and the people working at the top of the rocket wouldn’t be jostled about.

The rocket itself has two stages that were explained by Vernon Thorp, Project Manager of NASA Missions for the United Launch Alliance. The lower two-thirds is called the first stage and it does the heavy lifting — literally.

DSC03321All told, the rocket, its fuel, and NPP will weigh 500,000 pounds and the thrust provided by the boosters will be 650,000 pounds. The fuel will be burned up four minutes and twenty seconds into the flight, and then the first stage will be released and the second stage engine will take over to get NPP the rest of the way into its orbit.

A little less than an hour after liftoff, the second stage will separate and NPP, free of the fairing by this point, will automatically deploy its solar wing and fly free. According to Ken Schwer, NPP’s Project Manager, the first thing NPP will do after the solar array is say hello with its communications array to the controllers on the ground.

Excited is the word of the day. “NPP has touched so many lives already, and my team is so excited for NPP to touch the rest of the world,” said Schwer.

In the science briefing that followed, NPP’s Project Scientist Jim Gleason said the most exciting part for him was, “wandering around just looking at the launch vehicle and the rocket, knowing it’s really going to happen.”

But the question secretly in the back of everyone’s mind was, will we on the ground actually get to see this launch happen? Vandenberg Air Force Base is located right on the California coast. It’s great because solid rocket motors will fall into the ocean instead of someone’s house, but it also means an almost daily coastal fog rolls in.

The last speaker, Lt. Lisa Cochran of the 30th Operations Support Squadron at Vandenberg, gave the answer in a strange weather report: 0 percent chance of weather. Translation: NPP’s going to have a gorgeous night with clear skies. — Ellen Gray, NPP Media Team

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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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Behind the scenes at the NPP press conference

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment
NPP missionj experts at the NASA press conference 10/26.

From left to right: George Diller, the voice of NASA TV; Tim Dunn NASA Launch Director from Kennedy Space Center; Vernon Thorpe, Program Manager for NASA missions from United Launch Alliance; Ken Schwer, NPP Project Manager, Goddard Space Flight Center; Lt. Lisa Cochran, Launch Weather Officer from the 30th Operations Support Squadron, Vandenberg.


Just before NPP’s prelaunch press conference, my fellow science writer Aries Keck handed me her tricked out camera and said: go wild. I grinned, tucked myself in the back corner, and took pictures of people taking pictures.

Best seats in the house. . .

Best seats in the house. . .

The camera operators had the best seats in the house. They were perched up on wooden blocks to get the head-on view of the panelists.

A couple of NASA photographers wandered around for the up close shots. And most of the rest pulled out their camera phones at one point or another.

The tech world of the modern media was everywhere: trip hazards in the aisles, working journalists with their laptops, and NASA Public Affairs lead Steve Cole on the Internet asking questions submitted by those watching the briefing live on NASA TV.

The briefing was a multimedia event with screens on the wall with video that some of us in the back had to crane to see. Also on display were models of the NPP and Delta II rocket that will take it into orbit. We even got to see a real sized satellite! Six CubeSats will be going up with NPP.

Goddard science writer Aries Keck held down the back corner live tweeting the press conference on her phone … and her computer on #NASANPP. — Ellen Gray, NPP media team

DSC03456

Aries Keck tweets from the pre-launch.





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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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Behind the scenes pix of the next NASA satellite launch: cue the theme to The Right Stuff, here comes Piers Sellers, astronaut

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Here on the East Coast, it’s 12:44 a.m., and most sensible people are asleep.

Not me: With Rex the Wonder Dog by my side, all 130-pounds of giant schnauserness of him snoring at my feet, I received these cool pix from California sent by my Goddard science writer colleague Christina Coleman.

I’m stuck here in Maryland while she and the rest of the NASA media team are out in California stoking the media blitz surrounding the launch of the NPP satellite. What’s that? Read up.

Below, TV produceress extraordinaire Malissa Reyes patches in TV people to “live shots,” which means local TV stations get to ask NASA scientists questions about the NPP satellite and what it will do for climate science and weather forecasting. (A lot, in case you are wondering.)


Goddard TV produceress extraordinaire Malissa Reyes patching in TV people to "live shots," which means local TV stations get to ask NASA scientists questions about the NPP satellite and what it will do for climate science and weather forecasting. (A lot, in case you are wondering.)

Below, see NASA’s Piers Sellers on a monitor in the production truck, whatever that is. In Christina’s photo he’s delivering yet another satellite interview at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Um, who are you?

NASA 020_control room

Did I mention that Piers Sellers is 1) an actual astronaut, and 2) is one of the head science guys at NASA/Goddard? Piers Sellers. Astronaut. Cue theme music to The Right Stuff.

At the bottom of the blog, see a video of Justin Berk from ABC2 in Baltimore interviewing a sincerely-numbly-patient-Piers-Sellers discussing NPP’s capabilities and conducting a short tour of mission control. This was taped by Goddard veteran “shooters” Rob Andreoli and Silvia Stoyanova.

Rex is tired; gotta go.

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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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Categories: Uncategorized

NPP’s 'almost' world tour? Reporting live from the media blitz about NASA's newest climate and weather satellite. And Al Roker is entering the building. . .

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

NASA earth science writer Christina Coleman is one of the people on the Goddard team out in California this week to send off the NPP satellite, which is scheduled for blast off early Friday morning. Here’s her report from the scene. . .

The NPP satellite will start its pole-to-pole world tour Friday morning after blast off.

The NPP satellite will start its pole-to-pole world tour Friday morning after blast off.

It’s not even Friday morning and NPP has already gone on a world tour.

Well, not exactly. Early this morning — or late last night for Vandenberg Air Force Base folks —  NPP hit the airwaves to strut its stuff. Four new state-of-the-art sensors, anyone? Five instruments capable of gathering data to continue more than 30 long-term sets of scientific data?

During live TV appearances by people associated with the mission (“live shots” in media lingo), early morning national news segments gave the newest Earth observing satellite some shine. Viewers got the scoop on how NPP will improve weather forecasts and the data that scientists use to predict climate.

Getting up in the dead of night to prepare for hours of back-to-back call-ins from perky anchors, who are used to working the  graveyard shift, isn’t the easiest thing to do. But the camera crews from Kennedy Space Center and Goddard pulled through.

And for me, a first timer on the producer line, calling to confirm scheduling of the live shots for each station was full of television producer jargon like “stand-by,” “roll video,” “hold b-roll,” “45 seconds out,” and other really cool things everyone wishes to say at least once in their life while sitting in a production truck. I can’t take full credit. Most of the time I was repeating what our super-talented producer, Goddard’s own Malissa Reyes, was saying to the crew on the other end.





One after one, news stations called in via satellite connection to discuss NPP’s capabilities and societal benefits. Former astronaut and current deputy director of the Science and Exploration directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center, Piers Sellers, toughed it out at 3:00 a.m. live from Vandenberg Air Force Base to talk to more than 20 news stations about NPP’s impending launch on a Delta II rocket.

With hits from The Weather Channel, Fox, and even a shout out from Al Roker himself, NPP was no less than a superstar today. Even after we drank all of the coffee meant to keep us awake, Sellers kept the meteorologists well informed and excited about the new spacecraft and its capabilities.

The major topic this morning was weather. More than half of the meteorologists who tuned in via satellite wanted to know how NPP could improve weather forecasts. In three months, scientists will be able to obtain NPP data and incorporate it into the computer simulations (models) they use to predict the weather and issue weather warnings. These not only help the public decide between galoshes or sandals, but will also assist emergency responders with natural disasters such as hurricanes.

That’s good news for meteorologists. Just ask one.

“Anytime we see a new weather satellite in space it’s exciting,” said Justin Berk, a meteorologist with ABC2 Baltimore. “It will also greatly enhance our forecasts.”

Let’s not forget that NPP also has a role in climate research. During live shots, anchors also asked the question: What about climate change? NPP’s five instruments will monitor the health of Earth from space, sending down measurements of ozone near the ground (harmful) and high in the stratosphere (protective). NPP will also monitor sea and land surface temperatures, sea ice and glaciers, and changes in vegetation.

“NPP is the grandson of Terra,” Sellers said. “I’m really excited to see the imagery from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).” VIIRS will collect radiometric imagery of the land, atmosphere, ice, ocean and observe active vegetation and fires and other surface temperatures.

After launch, NPP’s world tour truly begins, as it will orbit our planet pole-to-pole 14 times a day. But in the build up to the launch, NPP is getting a little taste of what it will be like for the next few years of its satellite life: anticipation regarding improved climate and weather data. Hope you’re just as excited as we are for this new earth science tool. Al Roker certainly was.

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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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Here comes NPP: the latest Earth satellite that will blast off Friday

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment




Goddard Space Flight Center is abuzz with the impending launch of the NPP satellite. My Goddard science writer pals Aries Keck and Ellen Gray (and other Goddard folks) are encamped at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, helping to spread the word. Here is a video feature about the mission. More video and stories and images will appear on the blog in the coming days.

Here’s the official description of the video above.

The NPP Pre-Launch Webcast looks at NASA’s upcoming NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) mission. NPP represents a critical first step in building the next-generation of Earth-observing satellites. The mission will test key technologies and instruments. It also will continue to gather information to continue to build on the data record from previous Earth-observing satellites. Tim Dunn and Bruce Reid of NASA’s Launch Services Program discuss preparations for the launch and NPP Project Scientist James Gleason talks about what results are expected from the spacecraft’s five unique instruments.

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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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Coincidentally, about those exploding stars. . .

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment

An exploding star can release a massive amount of energy, an event called a gamma ray burst, as shown in this National Science Foundation illustration. But it's hard sometimes to tell the different between a statistical blip in data from the real thing.

An exploding star can release a massive amount of energy, an event called a gamma ray burst, as shown in this National Science Foundation illustration. But it's hard sometimes to tell the difference between a statistical blip in data from the real thing.


Phil Evans, an X-ray astronomer in England and frequent guest blogger for Geeked On Goddard, sends us this report on the fascinating nature of coincidence in science.


I have the power to make stars explode!

No, seriously. True, I can’t draw my sword and turn miraculously into a muscle-bound hero, like He-Man, nor can I turn my pet cat (Tinkabell) into Battle Cat, He-Man’s ferocious feline familiar.

But I really can make explosions at the other end of the universe. Skeptical? Here is the proof:

Last year, NASA’s Swift satellite (data from which I use in my work) was going through a bit of a lean observing period, with no gamma ray bursts (GRBs) detected for some time. GRBs are vast releases of energy from collapsing or collidign stars.

So, just as my duty week began at the University of Leicester, I tweeted, “Wake up universe!”

In the next 24 hours, Swift snagged four GRBs. Coincidence?

The only other time that we have had that many bursts in one day was the day celebrated science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke died? Coincidence?

Well, actually — yes. The thing is that coincidences happen all of the time.

A couple of years ago on her BBC Radio show, Sarah Kennedy asked people to send in their “coincidence” stories. Countless people mailed in about times they’d gone around the world on holiday, and met someone from three streets away. The response was continually, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing?” when what the was program actually demonstrating was that these “unlikely” events actually happen regularly.

In fact, when people respond to these stories by saying, “Small world,” they’ve got it totally wrong! It’s because it’s a big world that these things happen. Imagine something that only affects 1 in a million people. Pretty unlikely? Well, it will affect something like 300 Americans, and 60 Brits!

image of possible gamma ray burst

Image of possible gamma ray burst, or statistical blip? (click to make me big)

Coincidences happen. And this can be a real pain for astronomers. I’ve got some data, there’s a cluster of pixels close together. Is it a faint source, or just a coincidence that some background light has clustered? (See image at right.) This spectrum shows a blip. Is it a real feature, or just noise?

Fortunately, using statistics we can at least quantify how likely things are. Typically in astronomy we would only claim we’d found a source, for example, if there was less than a 0.3% chance that it was just a “lucky” fluctuation in the background. Even this happens, well, 0.3% of the time!

For Swift, we have to be even more conservative. When the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) thinks it’s found a GRB, there has to be only a 0.0000000000008% chance that it’s just a fluctuation in the background [for us to interpret the observation as “probably real.” This threshold was carefully determined to minimize the number of false alarms, without losing real (possible) GRBs.]

Despite this, we do get a few false alarms every year, because of the number of times and ways the BAT looks for GRBs. We tried a “subthreshold” test a couple of years ago, where we triggered on things which were more likely to be spurious, that is, there was a 0.00000000006% chance of them being a random change in the background. We expected, and got, about 2 false alarms a day.

Overall, I’d say we get maybe 5 false alarms a year — but about 100 real GRBs. And the false alarms we usually identify within 20 minutes or so, so they take very little of our time.

So, next time someone tells you something unusual that’s happened, and asks if it could be coincidence, the best answer is probably, “Yes!”

Check out Phil’s twitter feed: @swift_phil

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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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Highlights of this week's exoplanet feast at Goddard

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment
Spiral signpost of planets

Spiral signpost of planets

This week, it’s been a feast of exoplanet science at Goddard, which hosted the Signposts of Planets meeting Oct. 18-20. The three-day conference gathered an international crowd of observers, computer modelers, and instrument builders to explore the relationship between exoplanets and the circumstellar disks in which they form.

Circumstellar what?

Circumstellar simply means “disks of gas and dust around a star or stars.” Astronomers have discovered some 687 planets around other stars, but ironically they rarely are able to “see” one directly. What the Hubble telescope and other instruments see are dusty disks.

Circumstellar disks are the “signposts of planets” referenced by the name of the conference. Want to find planets? Look for dusty disks.

Here is Goddard astrophysicist and Signpost meeting organizer Marc Kuchner explaining the lowdown on circumstellar disks, back when we only knew of about 400 extrasolar worlds:


The conference produced some show-stoppers in terms of new discoveries announced. Four were the subject of press releases:

Spiral signposts
At the meeting, Goddard astronomer Carol Grady announced the discovery of a type of exoplanet telltale predicted but never actually imaged before. In some circumstellar disks, the tug of a planet’s gravity can create subtle spiral features in the gas and dust. That is good news, because it means that disks with spirals could lead astronomers to planets.

“What we’re finding is that once these systems reach ages of a few million years, their disks begin to show a wealth of structure — rings, divots, gaps and now spiral features,” said John Wisniewski, a collaborator at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Many of these structures could be caused by planets within the disks.”

The newly imaged disk surrounds SAO 206462, a star located about 456 light-years away in the constellation Lupus.

Baby planet

Baby planet

Baby planet
Also at the conference, astronomer Adam Kraus explained how he used the mammoth Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to image an infant planet. “LkCa 15 b is the youngest planet ever found, about 5 times younger than the previous record holder,” said Kraus, who is based at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

Kraus did the work using a technique called interferometry, which allows a telescope to achieve the detail-resolving power equivalent to that of a much larger telescope.

Cool findings
In another report at the Signpost meeting, astronomer Kevin Luhman of Penn State University described his observations of a star with a cool planet-like companion. The object, a gaseous not-quite-a-star called a brown dwarf, has an outer temperature described as comparable to “a hot summer day in Arizona.”

Coolest brown dwarf ever

Coolest brown dwarf ever

Luhman commented:

“Its mass is about the same as many of the known extra-solar planets — about six to nine times the mass of Jupiter — but in other ways it is more like a star. Essentially, what we have found is a very small star with an atmospheric temperature about cool as the Earth’s.”

OK, not quite a planet — but not quite a star either. Brown dwarfs lie in between. But they lie along a spectrum of objects that exoplanet researchers study.

Ever since brown dwarfs first were discovered in 1995, astronomers have been trying to find new record holders for the coldest brown dwarfs because these objects are valuable as laboratories for studying the atmospheres of planets with Earth-like temperatures outside our solar system.

Comet storm

Comet storm

And last but not least, comet storms!

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected signs of icy bodies raining down in an alien solar system. The downpour resembles our own solar system several billion years ago during a period known as the “Late Heavy Bombardment,” which may have brought water and other life-forming ingredients to Earth.

Carey Lisse, senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland., announced the finding at the Signposts conference. The research will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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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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