Wallpaper Wednesday (Pierre Auger Observatory)

13 02 2013
Surface Detector, Pierre Auger Observatory. Photo credit: Pierre Auger Observatory

Surface Detector, Pierre Auger Observatory. Photo credit: Pierre Auger Observatory

It was surprisingly difficult to locate an image to illustrate today’s post. I was inspired by the March 2013 cover story in Astronomy magazine. Written by Yvette Cendes (follow her on twitter at @whereisyvette), the article outlines the structure and research goals of the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina. As you can probably see from the image above, Pierre Auger is a different sort of facility, more akin to the neutrino detectors I discussed last year than South America’s more famous observatory, ESO at Paranal.

I read Cendes’ article a few hours after one of our weekly “Networks of Exchange” colloquia, the focus of which tends to be the  materiality of science. This week, we were back on the subject of astronomy and how the tools—and the movement of tools—shape practice. I’m not sure anyone is ready to attribute agency to the instruments, but I feel like we’re moving closer to the default position of architects/designers, which is that objects shape experience and subjectivity in unexpected ways that have little to do with human or social intent.

At any rate, I was inspired by Cendes’ article to think more intently about the construction of scientific spaces. One one hand, it seems as if cosmic-ray detectors are minimally invasive, small-scale structures with low profiles slotted into what Cendes describes as a “truly remote and empty corner of the world.” On the other hand, the observatory is backed by a multi-national contingent of 500 scientists from 55 institutions, which means that regardless of the physical location of the detectors, the exchange of data also requires a robust communications infrastructure with a global reach.

I was completely intrigued by one of the graphics that accompanied the article. It shows the distribution of particle detectors on the pampas northeast of Malargüe. Here is a very similar graphic, published a few years ago in the CERN Courier:

Distribution of water tanks, Pierre Auger Observatory. Image credit: CERN

Distribution of water tanks, Pierre Auger Observatory. Image credit: CERN

As Cendes explains, we can expect a ultra-high energy cosmic ray (UHECR)  strike only once per square-mile of Earth’s surface every 39 years. The distribution of 1,600 water tanks over an area of 3,000 sq. km with a 1-km module maximizes the chances of detecting a UHECR strike. This graphic raises more questions for me than it answers, though. That is, it illustrates quite well the system for detecting UHECRs, but as a historian, I wonder about labor processes behind the land survey, the construction and placement of the tanks, the cadastral maps that must have determined the boundaries of the observatory, the rationalization and flattening of the landscape into an instrument of measure, and the occupation of “nothingness”.

Some of my questions were answered by the “Voices of the Universe” video issued by the observatory. I was intrigued by Paul Mantsch’s assertion that the project transcended nationalist aspirations. As I’ve noted elsewehere, there is a significant number of NASA supporters in the United States who want us to return to the “glory days” of a U.S.-dominant space program. While I wish we as a people would do a better job supporting NASA, projects like the Pierre Auger Observatory demonstrate that “national” science, if it ever existed, is almost extinct.

Okay, this was a rather loosely constructed post (and I didn’t even get to the part about Auger North or ESO’s Deep Space Antenna 3, 30km south of Malargüe), the point of which was just to say: cosmic ray research is very interesting, Cendes’ article lead me to new questions, and you should probably pick up a copy of the March issue of Astronomy.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Peach Mountain Observatory)

6 02 2013
Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

As a consolation prize to Michigan for their loss to the Now-Number-One-Ranked Hoosiers (in both polls!), today’s post features the University of Michigan 26-meter Radio Telescope at Peach Mountain Observatory. Built in 1958, this dish supplanted an 8.54-meter radio telescope that had been built just three years earlier. If you zoom in with Google Maps (here, I’ve already zoomed for you), you can see the smaller dish at the south of the observatory’s cleared property, with the large dish at the north.

The most interesting thing I discovered while trying to ferret out primary sources documenting the construction of the radio telescope was a stack of technical papers from the 1970s related to the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO) and Interplanetary Monitoring Platform (IMP-6). For instance:

I love that a search for construction documents can lead to random readings on low frequency solar bursts and orbiting observatories.

Right click on the image above to download it or go to Michigan Engineering’s Peach Mountain Observatory set on flickr.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Night View of India-Pakistan)

30 01 2013
Night view of India-Pakistan borderlands (NASA, International Space Station, 08/21/11). Photo credit: NASA

Night view of India-Pakistan borderlands (NASA, International Space Station, 08/21/11). Photo credit: NASA

I don’t write much about my “real” work here, even though this site serves as a repository for ideas and images for future projects. You probably (hopefully) can’t tell, but this blog is actually a textual map of intellectual and geographical connections between observatories and astronomers. The proposal for my next book—assuming I ever finish the one on which I’m working—is hidden in some of my earliest entries.

Today’s image, a view across India and Pakistan from the ISS, is more about my teaching than my research, though. This semester, I’m teaching an undergraduate course on the very broad topic of “urban Asia,” and this week, we’ve been talking about 17-19th-century Lahore. I find myself constantly stumbling over geographical boundaries, saying things like, “in the state we now call Pakistan,” and “India-Pakistan-whatever, at this point, the division is artificial,” and “I know you’re accustomed to thinking of Qandahar as ‘somewhere, over there,’ but at this time, it’s well within the cultural and political world of the Mughals.” In other words, 20th-century borders irritate the heck out of me. It’s difficult to make students see that India and Pakistan under Aurangzeb were same-same. Delhi and Lahore were directly connected by the imperial highway and if you were a Mughal minister, you could just as easily be sent to Kabul as Ujjain.

One of my students asked, “Well, where is Lahore, then?” and the only I answer I had was, “Well…the Panjab, which was less of a state and more of an idea or geography.” As you might expect, that wasn’t a very helpful reply.

This ISS photograph shows that so much of what we think about the world is just a matter of perspective. If you pull back far enough, Delhi and Islamabad can be contained in the same frame of reference.

Click on the image to read NASA’s description of the image and/or to download it in various sizes. You can look at the original image posting here.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Observatories in the Snow)

23 01 2013
Lick Observatory

Lick Observatory, 1944. Photo courtesy San Jose Research Library

Because I know you’re sitting in front of your computer complaining about the cold, today I’m posting some images to make you feel even colder. Or maybe they will make you feel better: you could be sitting under an open dome in a non-temperature-controlled room, trying not to disturb the instruments with your shivering hands and chattering teeth.


Mount Wilson Observatory in Winter. Photo courtesy Mount Wilson Observatory, Zach Behrens


Washburn Observatory, University of Wisconsin, c. 1900. Charles N. Brown, Photographer. Photo courtesy Wisconsin History Images.

Atmospheric Research Observatory in the snow, Flagstaff, AZ, 2010. Photo courtesy NAU Observatory.

Atmospheric Research Observatory in the snow, Flagstaff, AZ, 2010. Photo courtesy NAU Observatory.

This one is my favorite and probably makes the best wallpaper:

Greenwich Observatory, 2009. Photo courtesy of The Greenwich Phantom.

Greenwich Observatory, 2009. Photo courtesy of The Greenwich Phantom.

And don’t forget the last snow image I posted—Paranal is always beautiful, regardless of season.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Snow at Baikonur Cosmodrome)

1 01 2013
Soyuz TMA-03M at the Launch Pad, 11 December 2011. Photo credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Soyuz TMA-03M at the Launch Pad, 11 December 2011. Photo credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

This is the companion to the Soyuz image I posted a couple of weeks ago. While that one was meant to evoke warm memories of autumnal weather and harvest moons, today’s is a confirmation of the winter weather just beyond my front door. We’re welcoming in 2013 with a foot of snow and freezing temperatures. While I’m generally fond of winter sports and the great outdoors, I’m not sure I’d want to be on the launch crew at Baikonur Cosmodrome during a December launch. I’ll take those warm-weather, 80-degrees-Fahrenheit-in-November launches at Cape Canaveral any day (a shout out to #GaleHouse and its extended family).

Click on the image above to go to the NASA download page.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Snow at ESO’s Paranal)

26 12 2012
Dark Sky and White Desert. Photo credit: ESO/Yuri Beletsky

Dark Sky and White Desert. Photo credit: ESO/Yuri Beletsky

It’s difficult to find a snowy shot of the observatory at Cerro Paranal. The air is so dry in the Atacama Desert that precipitation is a rarity, even at the elevation of 2,600 meters (8,500 feet). In addition to the domes of the VLT, this wintry scene includes a satellite trail and a meteor trail. Such good fortune for a photographer!

Right click on the image to download an image for your computer desktop (right sidebar of the ESO page).

Wallpaper Wednesday (Soyuz Launch)

19 12 2012
Rollout Soyuz TMA-13 Expedition 18, 10 October 2008

Rollout Soyuz TMA-13 Expedition 18, 10 October 2008

This morning at 07:12:36 EST, the Russian Soyuz TMA-07M Expedition 24 lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The astronauts on board the spacecraft represent three nations and their space programs. From the Russian Space Agency comes the Commander, Roman Romanenko. Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield represents the Canadian Space Agency and Flight Engineer Thomas Marshburn works for NASA. The Soyuz capsule is on schedule to dock with the ISS on 21 December 2012.

I couldn’t decide what photo to feature today, one that shows this morning’s action or one that represents the longevity of the Soyuz program. I chose the image at the head of this post because it was the most striking in terms of content and the quality of the photography. Soyuz rollouts are so different from the ones we’re used to watching at Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral. With a Soyuz, whether it will be launched from Kazakhstan or French Guiana, the body of the rocket is moved along a horizontal by train and tilted into place on the pad.


Soyuz TMA-04M Expedition 31 Rollout, 15 May 2012. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In contrast, Ariane 5, Atlas V, and Delta IV rockets rollout in the vertical position. Admittedly, the Atlas Vs and Delta IVs tend to be stacked close to the pads, so the rollout doesn’t require a long-distance move. But it seems NASA has always preferred to move a vertical stack—the Space Shuttles and Saturn V rockets were moved along the crawlerway from the VAB to the launch complexes in the upright position, for example.

The First Saturn V Rollout, From the VAB, 25 May 1966. Photo credit: NASA

The First Saturn V Rollout, From the VAB, 25 May 1966. Photo credit: NASA

As you know from my earlier posts, moving things around the planet is almost as interesting to me as putting things in space, so I enjoy photos of Soyuz rollouts almost as much as I do photos of launches. I’ll close this post with the runner up photo, which shows the Soyuz TMA-06M rollout from earlier this year. The side of the train says, “Space Center South.”

Soyuz Rocket Rollout, 21 October 2012. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Soyuz TMA-06M Expedition 33 Rollout, 21 October 2012. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls


Wallpaper Wednesday (Abandon in Place)

12 12 2012

Abandon in Place (Courage). Photo credit: JR

Today I’m giving you my own photo. Until last week, it was on exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle as part of the “2012 Spirit of Flight” show. The photos are no longer on display, but I’ve been writing up a short statement about NASA’s preservation policies to include in the most recent version of my portfolio and this image is at the center of my theorizing right now.

If you’re not familiar with LC 34, it was the site of the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee. NASA used the launch complex (with modifications) through the Apollo 7 launch in 1968, after which time the Apollo program moved to LC 39A & 39B. According to a 2007 report produced during an Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) survey, LC 34 was mothballed by NASA in November 1971 and abandoned in October 1973 (if you zoom in on the forward leg of the platform, you can see the “ABANDON IN PLACE” stencil).[1] The complex officially belongs to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station National Historic Landmark  District today.

If you’ve been out to LC 34, you’ve probably noticed two things. First, it’s quiet and peaceful on the pad, even if you’re surrounded by dozens of spacetweeps. Part of the tranquility comes from the reverence with which space enthusiasts approach the site, of course, but most of it comes from its relatively remote location. And that’s the second thing: LC 34 is quite distant from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the “special access” tours don’t seem to go there these days.[2] The launch pad hasn’t quite been abandoned—a trio of benches and a Historic Site Kiosk stand at the concrete’s edge—but it isn’t being maintained as much as you might think it would be, given the events that occurred there.

This observation isn’t new. Roger Launius, Senior Curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C (aka “the man who has the job I really, really want”), noted some years ago that in this case, “ABANDON IN PLACE” really means just that: no one is care-taking this piece of our (American, global, space, scientific, cultural) heritage.[3] Launius provides several good explanations—launch structures are constantly being dismantled, adapted, and redeployed to serve the next rocket design, NASA’s cash-poor state makes it difficult to initiate, much less sustain, a preservation program, NASA’s reluctance to part with artifacts, etc.—but I can’t help but think none really explain the status of LC 34.

I’d like to think that that undeveloped state of LC 34 was a conscious decision on the part of the CCAFS to leave things as close to the past as they could possibly be. Better interpretive signage would be a nice addition, but seeing the pad in it’s “natural state” is more moving than viewing it from behind a protective fence or under a spotlight. However, I suspect the real reason the platform is being left to decay is because the CCAFS doesn’t want tourists spending any more time than necessary at their top secret military satellite-weapon launch site. Add to that any financial concerns the Air Force might have about “wasting” money on history rather than war and I think you’ve got a fuller explanation.

Click  on the image to download and enjoy.


[1] Historic American Engineering Record, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 34 Operations Support Building, HAER No. FL-8-AN.

[2] I’m not sure if this is permanent or not. Until recently (2010?), the KSCVC ran a “Cape Canaveral: Then and Now” tour that went to LC 34. At present, that tour isn’t on the list of the available options, though.

[3] Roger D. Launius, “Abandoned in Place: Interpreting the U.S. Material Culture of the Moon Race,” The Public Historian, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer 2009), 9-38. (e-mail me if you can’t find a copy of this article!)

Wallpaper Wednesday (Sydney Observatory)

28 11 2012

Sydney Observatory, Sydney, Australia. Photo credit: Andrew, HDR Cafe

Today, I’m directing you toward a nice HDR image of the Sydney Observatory. Actually, I’m directing you to something even better; the flashy, crowd-pleasing image is just a diversion. Last night, I stumbled across a small treasure trove. Scattered across the Sydney Observatory’s blog are several reproductions and transcriptions of letters written by past NSW Government Astronomers: G. R. Smalley (1864–1870); H. C. Russell (1870–1907); and H. A. Lenehan (1907–1908). My favorite was the first one I found:

Letter by H. C. Russell, 4 June 1869. Image courtesy: Sydney Observatory

June 4th [186]9


I am directed by the
Government Astronomer to inform
you that he is put to very great
inconvenience by the smoky
state of the chimney in his Computing
Room, the smoke from which
sometimes drives him out of the
Room, while at others
everything in the Room gets covered
with soot and ashes; I am further
directed to ask you to carry into
effect with as little delay as
possible the requisition dated May 18
for the performance of this work.

I have the honor to be
Your obedient servant
H C Russell
for the
Govt Astronomer

The Colonial Architect

Follow this link to read more letters, click on photograph of the observatory to go to the image download page.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Aurora Borealis)

21 11 2012

Aurora Borealis, October 13, 2012, Hadseløya, Norwway. Image credit: Helge Korneliussen

Have you been chasing the northern lights? I’m considering un-following @AuroraMAX on twitter because it keeps taunting me. November has been particularly painful—all those light displays and I’m stuck below the 49th parallel.

If you’ve got a few hours to kill, I suggest doing a flickr search on the word “aurora” (don’t ask me about the kittens, I don’t know why they’re there). If you just want a beautiful image, click on the one above to go to the download page.