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Breaking the speed limit of supercomputing: Goddard computer network engineers demonstrate the data superhighway of the future

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment
Goddard network engineers (in blue) Paul Lang (left) and Bill Fink (right) work with collaborators on high-speed data transfer demo at SC11.

Goddard network engineers (in blue) Paul Lang (left) and Bill Fink (right) work with collaborators on high-speed data transfer demo at SC11.

In a large, loud computer equipment room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, amidst the humming of fans and trilling of transistors, is a gadget about the size of a small paperback. Network engineers call them “pluggables.” These devices can pump data into a fiber optic line at rates up to 100 gigabits per second (100 Gbps).

That’s “gigabit” as in “a billion bits.” It is 10,000 times faster than a typical broadband cable modem connection, which operates at a mere 10 million bits per second, or 10 Mbps. 100 Gbps is fast enough to transfer a 25 Gb Blu-ray (HD) movie over the Internet in 2 seconds flat.

A data superhighway as speedy as this one doesn’t come cheap. The pluggable across the hall costs nearly as much as a luxury sports car. It converts electronic signals into pulses of laser light that travel down fiber optic wires and zip out onto the Internet at near-light speed.

A team of Goddard network engineers borrowed two of the super-fast 100 Gbps pluggables in preparation for a major technology demonstration in Seattle at the Supercomputing 2011 (SC11) conference, November 12-18. The demo gave the high-performance computing world a glimpse of how the Internet will be used in the future to conduct research involving extraordinarily large transfers of data.

Read more…

Breaking the speed limit of supercomputing: Goddard computer network engineers demonstrate the data superhighway of the future

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment
Goddard network engineers (in blue) Paul Lang (left) and Bill Fink (right) work with collaborators on high-speed data transfer demo at SC11.

Goddard network engineers (in blue) Paul Lang (left) and Bill Fink (right) work with collaborators on high-speed data transfer demo at SC11.

Across the hall from me, in a large, loud computer equipment room humming with fans and trilling with transistors, is a gadget about the size of a small paperback — network engineers call them “pluggables.” These devices can pump data into a fiber optic line at rates up to 100 gigabits per second (100 Gbps).

That’s “gigabit” as in “a billion bits.” It is 10,000 times faster than a typical broadband cable modem connection (which operates at a mere 10 million bits per second, or 10 Mbps). 100 Gbps is fast enough to transfer a 25-gigabyte Blu-ray (HD) movie over the Internet in 2 seconds flat. Read more…

Paul Lowman, Goddard pioneer, remembered

November 17, 2011 2 comments
Paul D. Lowman, pioneering NASA geologist

Paul D. Lowman, pioneering NASA geologist

Last week, friends and colleagues of pioneering NASA geologist Paul D. Lowman, Jr. (1931-2011) gathered at Goddard Space Flight Center to share stories and celebrate their friend’s life and career. Lowman died September 29, just 3 days after his 80th birthday. He had worked at Goddard Space Flight Center since 1959, frequently commuting to the Center from his nearby home in Bowie, Md., on a yellow bicycle.

Lowman was a member of Goddard’s Apollo generation. He was one of the NASA scientists that helped select geological activities to perform on the moon, a body whose nature and origin were poorly understood in those days.

One new thing I learned about Lowman at the remembrance event is that he was the first geologist NASA hired. Also, he helped train Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts to take photographs of geological Earth terrain from space. That had never been done before, and remains Lowman’s major claim to fame.

If you’re curious, read more about Lowman in an informative 2007 feature story by Goddard’s Rob Garner. I asked Rob, currently a member of the Goddard Office of Communications web team, to recall the interview experience:

“I was barely out of college, and I’d been at Goddard less than five months when I was assigned to interview Dr. Lowman, whose NASA tenure surpassed my own by more than 100 times.  I was downright terrified. That all evaporated the minute I sat down in his office.  Paul was affable, jovial, and he had a marvelous sense of humor.  He had me on the edge of my seat the entire time we spoke. Seeing him pedaling around the center on his banana-yellow bicycle from time to time in the years following our chat never failed to make me smile. The NASA constellation shines a bit dimmer with him gone.”

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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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Before NASA: When Jack Townsend met Dave Schaefer: Building the Vanguard telemetry system

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment
John Townsend in 2008.

John Townsend in 2008.

John (Jack) Townsend, one of the founders of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, passed away on Saturday, October 29. Among many other things, Townsend helped to develop the Vanguard satellite program, before NASA even existed. That was a long time ago, but many people are still around who worked with Townsend in those days.

Dave Schaefer is such a man. About a year ago, it was my pleasure to make the short drive to Dave’s home in the leafy outskirts of Silver Spring, Maryland. I was accompanied by NASA computer scientist James Fischer, who, like Dave, spent decades developing Goddard’s high-performance computing capabilities.

Dave Schaefer stands by the rug in his home office woven with the image of Explorer 12, a spacecrft he helped to design.

Dave Schaefer stands by the rug in his home office woven with the image of Explorer 12, a spacecraft he helped to design.

Dave was a member of the team that developed an important component of the Vanguard satellite: the telemetry system, which captured data from the satellite’s sensors, stored it temporarily, and relayed it to Earth.

Vanguard began as a program at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and transferred over to NASA (along with many of its personnel) after the agency was founded by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.

Vanguard was the first civilian satellite program, established for the International Geophysical year of 1957.  “Vanguard was supposed to orbit the very first artificial satellite,” Schaefer says. “It had its troubles.” Sputnik took over the honor, in October 1957, of becoming the first artificial Earth satellite.

But years before Sputnik was even a gleam in the eye of the Soviet politburo, Dave Schaefer and fellow staff scientist Robert Rochelle went to work at the Naval Research Laboratory, helping to lay the foundations for the U.S. civilian space program. That was in 1949.

Dave and Jack first met later, in 1955. It was all because of a radio broadcast heard in a car bound for Kansas. Schaefer told us the story this way:

“I was out in Kansas coming back from having taken two cousins of mine out there, on this auto trip. It was 1955, and here we had the radio on, and here there was a broadcast and it said mankind was going to do the greatest, most wonderful thing that had ever been done!” he says, raising his voice to preacher tone for dramatic emphasis.

“We were going to orbit an artificial moon. My God! And this was going to be done at a place called the Naval Research Lab. Well, I was already working at NRL on magnetic amplifiers. I had been there since March in 1949.

“Well I went to Whitney Matthews, who was my boss’s boss, whose name should show up in the annals of Vanguard, and I said to Whitney, “Why are we working on stupid magnetic amplifiers when the greatest thing that mankind has ever done is being done two buildings down?” And I slammed the door. I could have been out of a job, but I wasn’t.

“So two days later Whitney came to me, he said, “I have invited someone from the satellite project over to talk to us. His name is John Townsend. Jack is going to come over and talk to us tomorrow afternoon.”

“So he arrived and he said, ‘We need a telemetry system.’ He said if we go out commercially to get it, it will weigh 20 lbs. We need one that weighs — I think he said four pounds or something. And he didn’t say a lot more. He said to us, “You all think you can do it?”

“And of course we said yes, yes, yes! We made sure he went down to the elevator. We made sure he was on his way back to his office two buildings down. Then you know what we did? We ran to the nearest dictionary to figure out what in heaven’s name a telemetry system, was!

“He’d said I’ll be back in a week to see how you’re doing.  He was back in a week, because of our knowledge of magnetics, our group had a telemetry system operating for him.  And it only weighed 8 ounces, including the batteries. It met the specs, and in fact it used so little power we didn’t need to turn it off at all.” Schaefer says Bob Rochelle was the main person responsible for this achievement.

Dave Schaefer points to the portion of the Vanguard electronics core he helped to build in the late 1950s. This was an actual working model of the electronics package built for the Vanguard satellites.

Dave Schaefer points to the portion of the Vanguard electronics core he helped to build in the late 1950s. This was an actual working model of the electronics package built for the Vanguard satellites.

The United States — with the help of Dave Schaefer, Bob Rochelle, Jack Townsend, and many other people — attempted 11 Vanguard launches from 1958-59. They achieved orbit three times.

The grapefruit-sized Vanguard 1, the world’s first solar-powered satellite, launched St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1958 weighed just 3.35 pounds. It remains the oldest artificial objects orbiting Earth to this day.  The Rochelle telemetry system flew on Vanguard 3, launched on September 18, 1959.  This satellite is slated to remain in orbit for 300 years.

That same year, 1959, Jack Townsend jumped ship to the new civilian aerospace program, NASA, and helped establish Goddard Space Flight Center, assuming the role of Assistant Director for Space Science and Satellite Applications.

The rest is history — our history at Goddard Space Flight Center, and the origins of the nation’s aerospace agency. As Schaefer wryly points out, “The Vanguard telemetry system, the results of a ‘dare’ of Jack Townsend’s, will be in space, remembering him, for 300 years.”

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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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Oh the Horror! What eldritch tales of scientific terror hath the NASA Technical Reports Server wrought?

November 4, 2011 1 comment

I just found out about a wonderfully winsome project at the NASA Science and Technical Information Program (STIP) to promote its enormous collection of aerospace research and technical reports going back to the dawn of the space age. As explained in a blog post by STIP employee Gerald Steeman, the idea sprang from some illustrations in a 1966 report about a proposed design for a moon-crawling “worm” vehicle.

Says Steeman:

By chance, one day we discovered a web article about the lunar worm vehicle concept complete with a citation back to our own NTRS. We were at once enamored with the curious image of the worm crawling over the surface of the moon. An idea sprung forth to pay homage to the remarkable report by giving it a suitably cool cover.

The result is a series of four (so far) technical report covers modeled after the lurid pulp science fiction art of a bygone era. These works of art were created by Wade Mickley, Multimedia Designer at NASA Langley’s Media Solution Branch.

Here are the “Tales from the STIP.” You can search out and read any of these reports by going to the NASA Technical Reports Server.

Here are the original illustrations in the 1966 technical report, Feasibility study for lunar worm planetary roving vehicle concept (NASA-CR-66098):

worm-drawing_300

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Here they are, re-imagined as a pulp magazine cover. Click the image below for a large version:

stip worm



And here are other reports, with their re-imagined covers. Click to make them bigger:


The peculiar extinction of Herschel 36 (NASA-TM-84893)
stip-herschel


Pressure Flammability Thresholds of Selected Aerospace Materials (JSC-CN-20193)

stip-pressure

Developing and flight testing the HL-10 lifting body: A precursor to the Space Shuttle (NASA-RP-1332)

stip-lifting

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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: Graphic Arts

Three questions with NASA's Michelle Thaller, wherein she comments on our fast and furious expanding universe, mysterious matter in deep space, and 'the whole schmiel'

November 2, 2011 2 comments
Thaller-1_300

Dr. Michelle Thaller talks cosmology.

Yesterday I attended a talk here at Goddard by Michelle Thaller, our Assistant Director for Science Communication. Dr. Thaller trained as an astrophysicist and is a masterful public speaker, mostly because she has devoted her career to public outreach and she works hard at being good at it. She also has a wicked sense of humor and is pretty handy with a light saber.

Yesterday, she merely took on two of the greatest discoveries of modern cosmology: the microwave background “glow” of the Big Bang, and the quickening expansion of space/time due to dark energy.

Research in these areas have won Nobel prizes. Goddard’s John Mather shared one for discoveries made with NASA’s COBE spacecraft (he led the team that built it). More recently, Adam Riess and other scientists used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to make observations that contributed to the Nobel-prize-winning discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

(UPDATE 4:30 p.m. — Gogblog sincerely thanks Goddard astronomer Jane Rigby for pointing out an oversimplification in the way I initially described Hubble’s contribution to the discovery of accelerating cosmic expansion. She pointed out that MANY observatories all over the world contributed to the work.)

Thaller had to tap dance pretty nimbly to cover all this ground, while throwing in a discussion of dark matter (which by the way makes up the vast majority of the universe, although we can’t see it much less understand it). Afterward, she kindly agreed to field a few cosmic questions:

gogblog: If you consider all the creative hypotheses bouncing around to explain dark energy, which is the one that you think would be the most strange and therefore the most interesting, if it were true?

Thaller: I’m quite intrigued by the idea that gravity may work differently in different parts of the universe. In college, I believe such theories were called “perverse cosmologies,” so they’ve got to be interesting, right? I’ve heard the words “tame space” and “wild space” thrown around lately. The idea is that gravity acts somewhat differently when you are deep in a gravity well (like we are around the Sun), as opposed to out where there really isn’t any mass around (like between galaxies). Maybe there is a correction factor that we haven’t discovered locally, because it is overwhelmed by other effects, but out in “wild space,” gravity really is weaker, and therefore the galaxies are accelerating away from each other.

gogblog: You mentioned in your talk that you didn’t initially believe the new data from Type 1a supernovae showing that the acceleration of the universe is increasing. Do you recall when you accepted that strange conclusion, and did you immediately grasp the implications of it?

Thaller-2_300

Thaller: I’m still not totally sure I accept the accelerating universe measurement. The thing that sort of got me a bit more comfortable was that the change between the universe slowly decelerating to it beginning to accelerate turns
out to be fairly recent — about 5 billion years ago.

For one thing, I’m totally thankful that the turn-over isn’t right NOW, because that would make me very nervous about the “privileged viewer” problem. At least it happened a while ago. But 5 billion years ago is recent enough that the universe had pretty much the same chemical content, and I can believe that Type I supernovae weren’t very different.

I think Bob Kirschner (co-discoverer of accelerating cosmic expansion) won me over while we were dancing at one of the last AAS meetings. He was wearing old-style cinema 3D glasses at night, for no reason. He must know what he’s talking about.

gogblog: Finally, the God question. Let us stipulate for argument’s sake that there is an omniscient being you could communicate with meaningfully. And this entity grants you one question about the universe. What do you ask?

Thaller: I have to say that I’m very aware that we aren’t anywhere close to even phrasing the right questions. It’s getting fairly obvious that what we humans define as reality (space, time, causality, etc.) is only a small part of the whole schmiel, whatever that is.

Although I hate the term, there is a reason why people are calling the Higgs particle the God Particle. Somehow energy (which is massless and travels at the speed of light) gets turned into matter. HUGE amounts of energy have to coagulate to give you a tiny amount of mass. And think about what the universe is like to a photon — a bit of pure energy traveling at the speed of light. No space, no time, all the universe is sort of lumped together in a point of reality.

How do you get from there to slow, solid stuff like us? I’d really like to know how that works, and really KNOW why e=mc2.

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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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