Friday, March 31, 2006


O, it is monstrous, monstrous:
Methought the billows spoke and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper: it did bass my trespass.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dawn mission back

Is NASA's review process fair and unbiased? Does the fact that a mission has been reinstated after officially being cancelled show that political pressure affects scientific decisions?

NASA Reinstates Cancelled Asteroid Mission:

Solar eclipse misinformation

Night will turn to day in the eclipse's route and a corona will glow around the edges of the moon as it comes between the earth and the sun. But the corona's light can burn eyes.
From AP article

Uh, no.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Back from geology field course

I'm back from my spring break geo field course in Southern Nevada, Arizona, and California, and I've been out for seven days with no showers and email, so give me a moment to play catch-up.

Some 2 inches of snow fell on our campsite Tuesday morning at 4100ft near Knob Hill some 12 miles northeast of Searchlight, NV.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The solar spectrum -- magnesium green

This is an image of the sun's spectrum centered in green, taken through the Ryerson Astronomical Society's 106 year-old refractor at the University of Chicago.
The three prominent lines in the center of the image are from magnesium absorption in the solar chromosphere at 516.7, 517.3, and 518.4nm. There is 1 magnesium atom in the sun to every 28000 atoms of hydrogen. (See the solar abundance here). The emission spectrum of magnesium can be calculated with a java applet here. The spectrum is from neutral or unionized magnesium and is the Fraunhofer b line.

I think that the magnesium triplet is my favorite set of lines in the whole solar spectrum. Beautiful green, strong, what else do you need?

Some other solar spectrum posts:
Blue violet
Terrestrial oxygen red

WMAP data release

The experimental cosmologists are awaiting the second data release of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, aka WMAP. The data and papers should be dumped here when it's released tomorrow.

Wayne Hu has a good introduction to the Cosmic Microwave Background and why it's so important to cosmology. More advanced topics are presented here: A Tour of CMB Physics

I gave a talk to Library staff about the CMB a while ago and borrowed Sean Carroll's WMAP beachball for it. The talk was an attempt to explain Crerar Library's exhibit of materials relating to the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI).

Monday, March 13, 2006

Eldorado Mountains at twilight

Alright, perhaps the last of the "where I'm going for spring break" posts. This was taken on a MDW-LAX flight on November 18th, 2005. Barely visible at the bottom is Lake Mohave. Las Vegas is the big metropolis visible in the center.

I've also annotated the image identifying the points of light.

If you greatly extend the blackest part of the images, you can see car headlights on the busy highways. This image is from Arizona looking northwest along US 93 and Lake Mohave is visible on the left, and part of Lake Mead visible center.

Google: Mars

Holy cow! Google Maps now incorporates Mars!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Eldorado Canyon flower

I found a image of granite in Eldorado Canyon, as a background rock to a tiny tiny flower blooming in April 2005.

This cobble (to the upper right) is either from the Aztec Wash, Ireteba, or Nelson plutons, as I believe Eldorado Canyon drains all of them.

Eldorado Canyon

More photos of the upcoming field course location.

Looking southwest from Nelson's Landing road up into Ireteba Peaks. The background mountains are where the Aztec Wash pluton is located.

Looking directly west up the road back to Nelson from Nelson's Landing on Lake Mohave.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Enceladus and science by NASA press release

The hype surrounding the issue of liquid water on Enceladus is fueled by NASA's (legitimate) worry about funding for planetary science. It's not a shocking discovery; Enceladus has ridges that are tectonic in nature, has some younger terrain and is tidally heated. Cassini saw earlier gas streamers coming off the pole of the moon.

Science by press release, at least when hyped to the levels of this one, is not the way to go. It's nice that discoveries are reported on a quick cycle, but the "amazingness" of this does not warrent the media's response. The ALH80001 martian meteorite press hype was eventually undermined by real peer-reviewed science.

See my Enceladus animation from two days ago here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Contrails and Astronomy

You shouldn't believe this news story: Telescopes 'worthless' by 2050. Why? Contrails aren't as common as the report makes them out to be. Jet contrails do affect total cloud cover in certain areas, those that are in the early stages of a warm front approaching. But these weather conditions already are non-photometric for astronomers and so additional cloud cover from contrails aren't going to affect operational conditions.

P.S. The real danger to astronomy is the growth of light pollution--wasted energy that only lights the undersides of birds and airplanes.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Saturn, Enceladus and Dione: An animation

Click the above picture to view the animation.

Cassini followed Enceladus for a period on March 3rd, 2006 and watched as it passed in front of Dione. Transits and occultations like this happen a lot if you are in the equatorial plane. I retrieved the raw images from Cassini's site, cropped and resized the images in Irfanview using its batch conversion process, and animated it with ImageReady.

You can browse the images on Cassini's site and see that you can query by main target, but the raw images won't identify the additional moons visible. I used the JPL Solar System Simulator to identify Dione in this animation.

I processed one of the original images
to remove cosmic ray hits and other instrumental and download artifacts.

Individual frames in the animation are Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

P.S. Ha! It turns out Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society did the same exact thing. She's been animating this stuff for a while

Monday, March 06, 2006

Secret program for single-staged airplane-launched satellites? The Blackstar or Brilliant Buzzard project

A look into the supposed "Blackstar" aka "Brilliant Buzzard" or single-stage airplane-launched rocket is available at

Launching from a high altitude is great because the vast majority of the rocket's energy is wasted early in its trajectory: Moving and accelerating a very heavy mass at ground level through a thick atmosphere. The Pegasus Rocket is an example of a working design of this type.

Aviation Week and Space Technology's story on the project.

Image source: NASA/Jim Ross

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Wesley Huntress' Testimony to Congress on the new NASA Budget

The consequences of these unprecedented reductions would be to cripple the ability of NASA's science enterprise to create the next generation flight missions and worse of all it will short-circuit the careers of many young scientists. Precisely the opposite of what this country needs to remain competitive.

And all these cuts are immediate – today, in the 2006 budget year. Grants are to be reduced immediately, dimming the prospects of many young, motivated students now.

What kind of message is that to the best and brightest of American's hopes for a rich technological future? And if there is to be any science at all in human space flight to the Moon and beyond, it needs to come from these young people.

The bottom line is that the future of our Nation's solar system exploration enterprise has been mortgaged. The momentum of current mission development will carry it for about two years, and then the bottom begins to fall. We must sustain the science and technology that will afford us a new future when we get there two years from now.

P.S. I looked into the science budget part of NASA and here is what is being cancelled or not funded:
Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer
The Keck Interferometer outlying telescopes
Terrestial Planet Finder
SOFIA (funding stopped until "review" is completed)
Europa Orbiter
NuSTAR (an X-ray telescope)
Mars Sample Return

Others I have heard rumors but unable to confirm. This list doesn't include the Earth Science missions, which amazingly have direct repercussions on today's political climate, like answering questions about climate change.

P.P.S. What's really disingenuous is Dawn is fully listed as being funded in the full budget and mentioned that it's under review. If they then later say it's cancelled, Congress can be none the wiser. NASA's 2007 budget. What else is cancelled but listed in the budget?


Michael Milligan has been imaging things through his lab's microscope and challenging readers to identify the photographs. I don't have a clue as to what they are, but it reminded me of a time I took a cookbook CCD camera and used a simple 8 or 16mm film lens to provide crazy magnification.

The first two images are of the interior of a Intel 386 processor.

Clearly when I made these I couldn't be bothered to clean up!

In cutting off the metal plate that protected the CPU die, I ended up cutting the connection wires in several places. The icicle-like effect from the wires is called CCD blooming and an artifact from extra bright light.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Dawn Mission cancelled at NASA


The Bad Astronomer, Planetary Society Blog, and NASAWatch are reporting that NASA has cancelled the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, two very large and very different asteroids.

Ceres has a spectrum like that of a primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorite--a body consisting of carbon, water (usually bound up in minterals), and the round frozen droplets of high-temperature refractory minerals known as chondrites--essentially, the solar nebula as it was 4.6 billion years ago.

Vesta though, has a spectrum like that of common basaltic lava. It's brighter, more reflective, and meteorites that appear to come from the Vesta group of asteroids are distinctly igneous in nature. Vesta is likely an asteroid that underwent the process of differentiation, where iron-like (siderophile) elements separated and sank to the core of the proto-body and lighter elements floated to a crust wracked by volcanic processes, despite being smaller than Ceres.

In the meteorites that fall to Earth, we see this sort of heterogenity that is apparent from the different asteroids. Iron meteorites are the cores of processed asteroids like Vesta. Rare carbonaceous chondrites are the more primitive objects in the solar system. Other types show the igneous surfaces, and some even show the mix of the core and crust of Vesta--chunks of green olivine floating in a matrix of iron-nickel.

The Dawn satellite is complete and ready to launch, and it's a shame that we can't because of little bit of cost-cutting. The price of the mission is less than a day in Iraq.

(image source: HST)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Richard Epstein on Executive Power in the Wall Street Journal

On one side, a unitary executive allows the president to carry out the laws with speed and dispatch. But the Founders also checked executive power because of their deep fear of the dangers that a standing army posed to the safety and security of the nation. Nothing in Article II gives the president an exclusive control over national security issues, nor reduces Congress to a mere spectator on the grand events of the day. The Congress makes the rules; the president carries them out. That was the formula of 1787. It is the formula of 2006.
--Richard Epstein, Wall Street Journal, March 1st.