Archive for the ‘Sciences and Exploration Directorate’ Category

New Comet Lovejoy video from SDO/SOHO Picture of the Week

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Steele Hill, NASA Goddard’s herald of all things heliospheric, just posted his latest  release of imagery, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Steele creates these images and videos for display in science museums and other public places. The video and image in this post combined solar imagery from both SDO and SOHO of the rounding of the sun by Comet Lovejoy last week. Steele’s  descriptive text (below) explains the details.

And by the way, Steele and his colleagues have just surpassed their 500th solar “Picture of the Week.” It took 10 years. Congratulations!

“Comet Lovejoy came into view on Dec. 14 as a bright, white streak, skimmed across the Sun’s edge about 140,000 km above the surface late Dec. 15 and early Dec. 16, 2011, furiously brightening and vaporizing as it approached the Sun. It exited our field of view on Dec. 18. It was the brightest sun-grazing comet that SOHO had ever seen, with a nucleus about twice as wide as a football field. It unexpectedly survived the pass and cruised out from behind the Sun some hours later. Comets are ancient balls of dust and ice.

“In this still and movie, we combine views from SOHO’s two different coronagraphs (which block out the Sun) with solar Dynamics Observatory’s view of the Sun itself.  Note how the tail of the comet always turns away from the Sun due to the forces of the solar wind.”

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.



Best Goddard Videos of 2011: Space Technology

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

On Friday this week, NASA/Goddard filmmakers, writers, and animators will screen what they consider their best work of 2011. It’s called the Best of Goddard Film Festival, and it’s held every year about this time for Goddard employees. (For employees, the festival will run from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm in the Goett Auditorium, Building 3.)

Even if you are “outside the Center,” you can still watch and enjoy the entries to the festival that are available on YouTube on the NASA Explorer channel. They’ll run in groups this week on the blog.

Yesterday’s post featured NASA scientific discoveries from 2011. Today, let’s look at videos about space and satellite technology.

Intro to LIDAR

  • Animators: Walt Feimer (HTSI) (Lead) Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Video Editor: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Producer: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Scientist: Gregory Neumann (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Videographer: Rob Andreoli (AIMM)
  • Writer: Chris Smith (HTSI)

LEND: The Lunar Neutron Counter

  • Animator: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Video Editor: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Narrator: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Producer: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Scientists: Richard Vondrak (NASA/GSFC); John Keller (NASA/GSFC)
  • Writer: Chris Smith (HTSI)

So, You Want To Build a Satellite?

  • Animator: Chris Smith (HTSI) (Lead)
  • Video Editor: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Narrator: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Producer: Chris Smith (HTSI)
  • Scientist: Bruce Jakosky (LASP)
  • Writer:Chris Smith (HTSI)

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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Goddard astrophysicist Jane Rigby tells TEDx audience why space telescopes are so amazing

December 1, 2011 1 comment

Astrophysicist Jane Rigby joined Goddard about a year ago; she studies the evolution of galaxies. On Saturday, October 29, Rigby gave a talk about space telescopes to the TEDxMidAtlantic 2011 event in Washington, D.C.

You may have heard of the TED phenomenon. In the organization’s own words, “Speakers at TED events — some of the world’s most fascinating, innovative and influential individuals — are challenged to give “the talk of their life” in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a sort of franchise of Big TED, known as “independently organized TED events.”

Big TED put out a call earlier this year for auditions for its annual conference in Long Beach. Rigby teamed up with fellow Goddard astrophysicist Amber Straughn to produce a 40-second narrated Keynote presentation as their audition entry.

It worked. Rigby was invited, along with 16 other finalists, to give a 5-minute live audition talk, in a bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City on May 24. In the end, Big TED did not choose Rigby for this year’s conference.

But Rigby DID meet a person named Nate Mook, one of the organizers of the Mid-Atlantic TEDx conference. And Rigby gave her talk; here it is.




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.”

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.”

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.



How it works: Building the Helioviewer "back end" with JPEG2000

Post 1 of 5: Explore the sun on your desktop with Helioviewer
Post 2 of 5: Getting Started with
Post 3 of 5: Explore the sun in depth with JHelioviewer
Post 4 of 5: How it works: building the Helioviewer “back end” with JPEG2000

New interactive visualization tools developed by the NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Helioviewer Project allow scientists and the general public to explore images captured by solar observing spacecraft. Previous posts explained the origins and aims of the Helioviewer Project, and the basics of a Web-based app called This post looks at the behind-the-scenes technology that makes Helioviewer possible.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captures hi-def images of the sun and beams them down to Earth at a rate of one every few seconds.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory beams data to Earth at a rate of 150 Mb per second.

The Web app and the JHelioviewer software are the on-screen interfaces that users see. But there is also a critical data-processing “back end” that required just as much effort to develop. The challenge was this: How do you acquire and manipulate solar images quickly enough so that the process is truly “real time,” without long waiting times for downloads and glacial refresh rates on the image view every time you make a change, like zooming in on a feature of interest?

This is particularly challenging when working with high-resolution images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. SDO sends down images that are 4,000 by 4,000 pixels, approximately the same number of pixels as in a 13 by 13 inch photographic print.

Google Maps and Google Earth overcame this issue by “tiling” large images into a checkerboard of smaller segments that could be quickly assembled into an image at the scale a user requested.

A Google Maps for the sun
The prototype of Helioviewer took this approach, too, following Google’s lead. “Google Maps was the original inspiration for it,” Helioviewer Project co-founder Jack Ireland says.

In the prototype of, each stage of a zoom-in required a complete set of tiles. The system retrieved the tiles it needed to build the view requested by the user with every click of the mouse. The trouble is, as you zoom in it requires an ever-increasing number of small tiles (numbering in the hundreds) to build the new image. Each tile is a separate file, and they all have to be labeled, stored, and pulled from storage and assembled when needed.

Then Helioviewer met JPEG2000, a standard for compressing images to make them extremely small while maintaining very good image quality. Also, JPEG2000 can extract sub-regions of the compressed image file without having to open the whole file.

In other words, the system generates only the part of the image you really want to see. If you have ever downloaded or extracted a very large compressed image file, you understand the time saving that JPEG2000 offers.

“One thing that changed early on that made a huge difference and made all this really possible is that we use this JPEG2000 technology,” Helioviewer Project co-founder Keith Hughitt explains. “Instead of generating all the possible tiles for every single image, we wait until the user asks for a tile and generate it right then, and only generate the ones we need. We were able to develop a way to do that quickly enough that you can do it right on the Web page.”

Data pipeline from Palo Alto
Lockheed Martin’s Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, based  in Palo Alto, California, that built the Atmospheric Imaging Instrument aboard SDO, uses JPEG2000 to compress every third new SDO image (i.e. one every few seconds) and then sends them through a data pipeline to Goddard. The image can be available on Helioviewer’s server at Goddard in as little as 20 minutes.

The system needs to store this one compressed master file, not hundreds of tiles. That one image file — or a portion of it — can be quickly decompressed and displayed at the resolution needed.

For example, as you click the little “plus sign” icon on Helioviewer to zoom in on a flare on the surface of the sun, the back end of the system decompresses the same file multiple times at increasing resolution — like a telephoto lens capturing an image at ever higher magnification — and displays it on your computer screen.

This “on the fly” manipulation also applies to time-lapse videos made with JHelioviewer. “JHelioviewer tells the server which portion of the images it is interested in, and the video-stream is updated in real time so that only those bits are transmitted back to JHelioviewer,” Hughitt explains. “The result is a sort of ‘dynamic’ movie stream that you can create, and then adjust as you are playing it.”

This means that as the video plays, you can zoom, pan, sharpen, brighten, or follow a specific feature across the sun. If you choose to download the video, the server renders the final product at whatever settings you choose.

If not for JPEG2000, you would need to download an entirely new version of the video – amounting to gigabytes of data – every time you made a change.  Another way of saying this is “the Web back in the 1990s.”

LEARN MORE (Web app)

A collection of video highlights from 2011 (so far) created by users.

See a video made by “citizen scientist” LudzikLegoTechnics on YouTube.

The Helioviewer Project Wiki

JHelioviewer (downloadable software)

Read a Web feature about JHelioviewer and its capabilities

The JHelioviewer online handbook

JHelioviewer video tutorial on YouTube HD

ESA Web feature about JHelioviewer.

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.”