Archive for the ‘Earth Science’ Category

The Carbon Crisis in 90 Seconds: Goddard Earth scientist Peter Griffith explains the difference between a banana and a lump of coal

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

still image of banana and lump of coal from peter griffith video
In the run up to last week’s “Best of Goddard” film festival, I came to know Peter Griffith. It turned out we both had made science-related videos in 2011, but missed the deadline to submit them to the Best of Goddard screening. (Mine was a Hubble music video.) Better luck next year! You can see “Best of” videos here, here, here, and here.

Griffith’s day job is managing the NASA Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems research office. But he’s also been active in an interagency program called Earth to Sky, helping to teach national park public education “interpreters” about carbon and climate change so they can incorporate that knowledge into their talks and tours.

Thus was born the video below, which explains the difference between a banana and a lump of coal with respect to Earth’s climate. I won’t get into the details here; the film speaks for itself. It’s a clever and highly effective way to explain a scientific concept that could have easily become deadly dull in the wrong hands.

Griffith made The Carbon Crisis in 90 seconds in collaboration with Eric Mortensen, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art who was a 2011 summer intern at Goddard. It was one of the 10 videos selected for the American Geophysical Union “S Factor” Science Video Workshop, held in San Francisco on December 6th, 2011. See some of the videos here.

Three Hollywood filmmakers critiqued Griffith’s video and, he says, they liked it. It was one of three that got the nod from one of the filmmaker’s pre-teenage daughter. “I was kind of expecting a little bit harsher treatment,” Griffith says.

The animated version of the film is a more artistically evolved version of what Griffith calls his “talking head version,” with him on camera, well, talking a lot. That segment was originally produced for use on National Park Service Web Rangers site for kids aged 8-12 to earn merit badges by learning some Earth science.

Griffith has plans to obtain a summer intern in 2012 to make another film about carbon and climate (concept as-yet-undetermined). Geeked On Goddard has only one bit of advice: Stick with the banana.

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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Earth Science Picture of the Day

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Sarakiniko Beach on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea

In July 2010, Geeked on Goddard marked the 10th anniversary of the Earth Science Picture of the Day (EPOD), a social media site founded at Goddard Space Flight Center.

EPOD is still going strong. Here is today’s Earth Science Picture of the Day,  Sarakiniko Beach on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea.

Photographer: Attila Csernatoni
Summary Author: Attila Csernatoni

The photo above features Sarakiniko Beach on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea. It’s one of the most bizarre beaches of the Cyclades island group. Milos is volcanic in origin. Volcanic activity in the southern Aegean area began some 2-3 million years ago — Milos was active until approximately 90,000 years ago. Two extinct volcanoes are found on the island, one near Firiplaka on the south coast, and one near Trachylas in the northwest. Obsidian that resulted from rhyolitic volcanism has been exploited here since Neolithic age (70,000 years ago). Sarakiniko Beach was partially formed from numerous episodes of fossil layering — of both sea and land organisms. The contrasting fossil layers, the wind and wave sculpted volcanic rock forms and the absence of vegetation gives the beach the look of a lunar landscape. Photo taken on June 18, 2011.

About EPOD
The Earth Science Picture of the Day (EPOD) was started at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2000 by scientist James Foster of Goddard’s Hydrological Sciences Laboratory and is a collaboration with Universities Space Research Association (USRA). USRA’s Stacy Bowles handles the technical aspects of the site with help from Erin Carver. Stu Witmer does the editing and runs the EPOD Facebook page.

Since its launch in September 2000, the Earth Science Picture of the Day (EPOD) website has provided a forum for professional photographers, educators, scientists, students and the general public to share images that highlight Earth Science processes and phenomena. To date, there are well over 3000 user-submitted images and educational summaries representing the full spectrum of Earth Science.

Each year EPOD receives more than twice as many submissions as can be published. Submissions are reviewed for scientific accuracy, topic relevance, and aesthetic appeal before publication. Further, EPOD receives more 2 million visits (worldwide) resulting in over 4 million page views each year. Web analytics also reveal that in addition to a loyal U.S. and Canadian audience, EPOD reaches viewers in 205 other countries and territories.

Visit the EPOD website if you would like to contribute your Earth photography to the project.

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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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
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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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
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

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


Aries Keck tweets from the pre-launch.

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’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.

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.

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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Introducing Andy Hoffmaster and GROVER the rover

Post 1: Welcome to Engineering Boot Camp
Post 2: Introducing Andy Hoffmaster & GROVER the rover

Andrew Hoffmaster and GROVER, Assateague Island State Park, Md.

Andrew Hoffmaster and GROVER, Assateague State Park, Md.

Andrew (Andy) Hoffmaster is one of the dozens of interns working this summer in the Engineering Boot Camp at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He recently graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a degree in biomedical engineering

It’s Hoffmaster’s third year in Engineering Boot Camp. This year he has stepped up to a leadership role, supervising five different teams of interns who are working on a science robot called GROVER. In a time-honored NASA tradition, “GROVER” is a very impressive-sounding acronym: Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research.

photo of grover rover on beach

GROVER on the beach.

GROVER, in a nutshell, is a solar-and-wind-powered, caterpillar-tracked rover that carries a ground-penetrating radar device. It is designed to roam alone for months at a time measuring the thickness of the Central Greenland Ice Sheet, which is about the size of Texas. “The problem with sending people is that they run out of food and fuel too fast,” explains “NASA Mike” Comberiati, who runs the internship.

Someday, GROVER will crawl across frigid Greenland at up to 3 mph, 10 hours per day, for 4 months. NASA Mike and his interns are working with NASA cryosphere researchers Lora Koenig and Hans-Peter Marshall on the project. (Koenig is based at Goddard; Marshall is at Boise State University in Idaho.

GROVER being unloaded.

GROVER being unloaded.

Hoffmaster and GROVER have spent a lot of time together, although in his first year  internship (2009), he didn’t work on GROVER at all. He designed and built the mechanical parts for a laser-scanning device on another robot, referred to as “the Mothership.” More on the Mothership in future posts, but you can take a quick look at her HERE.

GROVER 1 & 2
In his second internship season (2010), Hoffmaster started working on GROVER. He built the housing for the rover’s electronics. In January 2011, he accompanied Comberiati to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to help install and configure equipment to communicate with NOAA POES satellites.

Making tracks!

Making tracks!

GROVER 1 (shown in the video and images in this post) weighs about 700 pounds. Its solar panels and wind turbines — the spinning blades produce power when it’s cloudy — provide ample power. It has performed admirably in testing.

But GROVER 1 is too heavy and too big, and it takes too long and too much work to unload and assemble. This summer, the interns assigned to build a better GROVER.

GROVER 2.0 will be lighter and smaller. It will sport more efficient solar panels and a lower center of gravity to resist tip-overs in gusty Greenland winds. The rover will also gain software to allow it to operate without constant human monitoring, and to uplink data via the Iridium satellite network.

Also, GROVER 2 will be fabricated in three sections to enable rapid assembly by people wearing bulky cold-weather gloves. After all, standing around in the cold in Greenland can be a health hazard!

This, and more, will require the labor of five intern teams to design, build, and test the electrical components and systems (headed by Hoffmaster) and four mechanical teams (headed by senior intern Guillermo Diaz, a student at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico). It all has to happen in about 5 weeks’ time.

Last year’s crop of interns completed construction of GROVER 1, which today sits on the front lawn of Building 25 in Goddard’s wooded east Campus. The rover will serve this year as a test bed for some of GROVER 2’s new systems.

On the beach with GROVER
It was a chilly day, April 1, 2011. Hoffmaster and three other interns drove with NASA Mike down to Assateague State Park, with GROVER on a flatbed truck. While backing GROVER down the ramps onto the beach, they paused cautiously to check the rover’s orientation.

Then something weird happened, Hoffmaster says. One of the twin caterpillar tracks switched into full reverse and tipped GROVER off the ramps and onto the sand. Thankfully, the robot was unscathed except for a piece of bent metal.

The culprit: “anomalous cold bit.” To us non-specialists, that means that because of cold temperatures, the caterpillar track’s electronic controller sent an incorrect instruction. It’s just the sort of thing that can happen during the development of new technology, and the interns will work to solve it this summer.

On the beach, GROVER proved itself, with enough traction to drag Andy across the sand. Sand, it turns out, is close enough to snow (from GROVER’s point of view) to provide a decent simulation of the rover’s performance in Greenland. They tested it until 3:30 that afternoon and headed for home.

Andy says Engineering Boot Camp gave him valuable engineering insights and skills that he will be able to apply to his new job with Aretech in Dulles, Virginia, developing physical therapy equipment for rehabilitating stroke patients. He’ll work on a device called a “body weight support gait trainer.” It’s a harness on a motorized trolley track that supports patients safely as they re-learn how to walk after brain injury. “I took what I learned at Goddard and can apply it to human kinematics.”

Jacques-Yves Cousteau: the NASA of the sea?

sea turtle_600
Have you heard about the NASA Earth science video contest?

We’re asking you to share with us your inspiring vision about what NASA’s exploration of Earth means to you by producing a short video. The contest runs through May 27.

When I heard about the contest, I wondered what kind of video I would make (were I not an employee of said contest sponsor). Nothing much came to mind.

Then the other night a weird association flashed into my head: Jacques-Yves Cousteau, NASA of the sea, exploring, documenting, and studying the “inner space” beneath the waves the way our nation’s aerospace agency explores, documents, and studies Earth from outer space.

I know, it sounds crazy, but stick with it for a minute.

First of all, for anyone reading this who has no clue who I am talking about when I say “Jacques-Yves Cousteau” and wonders if he is yet another combative F-bomb slinging TV chef, check out this lighthearted and trivia-packed video biography of the French film maker and adventurer on

Now, back to the contest:

The NASA earth video contest asks the following: Produce a short video that captures what you find inspiring and important about the unique view of Earth and understanding about how our planet works that NASA science provides.


Jacques-Yves Cousteau

First, what is inspiring? I learned about that on TV.

My father was a documentary junkie, so my brothers and I grew up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” which ran for eight seasons starting in 1968. None other than Rod Serling, the “Twightlight Zone” man, narrated most of the specials.

Cousteau had won early fame in film, most notably with “The Silent World,” co-directed with Louis Malle and winner of a 1956 Academy Award and the Palme d’Or award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

If you watch “The Undersea World” now, it feels dated, unfamiliar. It could occasionally slip into pomposity, with wordy and somewhat high-falutin’ rhetorical flourishes in Cousteau’s distinctive French accent like “the rapture of the deep that puts to sleep the instinct of conservation.” Huh?

And there was the pretend-danger-drama stuff written into the narrative: For example, check out the scene in Cousteau’s Antarctica programs in which deck hands in motorized dinghies desperately pole-push chunks of floating ice away from the Calypso’s massive steel hull. (The thing was a converted mine sweeper!)

Of course, Jacques often breaks in to remind us we are about to see something “never before filmed in its natural environment.” Be still my 9-year-old heart!

But it was magic. Cousteau showed us the secret places still hidden under the sea, the places we had never been, and could never go. He took us along with him to visit places that remain, to most of us, utterly inaccessible. In this sense, Cousteau was the NASA of the sea — at least on TV! — revealing the wonders of the home planet and the wider universe.

NASA’s satellite fleet does most of the heavy lifting of data collection on the home planet these days, although numerous field expeditions also make important contributions. The satellites see the Planet, on the scale of oceans of water and air, pulsing with life and energy.

It is a perspective on the planet that does not quite trigger the same emotions as swimming with whales, cavorting with penguins, or stalking ravenous predatory fishes in the Amazon River.

But Cousteau and NASA have both frequently delivered the same sense of wonder about the beauty and complexity of the planet, and showed us how all its wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels of life, air, soil, and water have to turn together to keep it all functioning properly.

So make a video about Earth and NASA, and make sure to listen to your inner Cousteau. Better yet, go to YouTube and watch some of his work for inspiration. It may put you in the right frame of mind for a sense of wonder.

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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