GRAIL Impact: Why now?

13 12 2012

GRAIL’s Final Resting Spot. Image courtesy: NASA/GSFC

A little over a year ago, I posted an image of Delta II rocket on its pad to mark the launch of NASA’s GRAIL mission. Today, I’m posting a map of the Moon that shows where the GRAIL spacecrafts will hit on Monday (17 Dec 2012). The twin probes were always meant to be disposable; once they’d completed their mission (mapping the Moon’s gravitational field), they were to be crashed deliberately into the lunar surface.

NASA could just let “Ebb and Flow” die a natural death, so to speak. The twins aren’t quite empty of fuel yet, but eventually, they would find their own way to the lunar surface. If you chased down the article I mentioned yesterday and read its final section, however, you already know why NASA is reluctant to let that happen.[1] Two words: lunar heritage.

Lunar Heritage Sites and GRAIL’s Final Mile. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The map above shows all the sites NASA considers “heritage” (click to enlarge). The Apollo landing sites are marked in green. The Surveyor sites are yellow. Russia’s Lunakhod landing sites are red triangles; their Luna landing sites are red squares (unintentionally funny?). As recently as 2009, when Launius published his article on space heritage, very little discussion had taken place on the safeguarding or preservation of any lunar landing sites, American or Russian. It’s difficult to say what prompted the sudden surge of concern, but my educated guesses are:

  • Successes of private entities like SpaceX make NASA nervous. It was probably difficult to imagine a real threat to something located on the moon. It’s not so difficult to imagine it today, though.
  • Less pressing, I think, is the possibility that another nation will land on the Moon and lay claim to what the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) left behind. It may happen, but not before SpaceX gets there.
  • State entities pushing on federal policies. For instance, in 2010, the California State Historical Resources Commission voted to include the Apollo 11 landing site and relics on the California Register of Historical Resources. New Mexico has also laid claim to it as state heritage. This  leads to more pressure for Tranquility Base to be named as a National Historic Landmark.
  • Expansion of the nominating criteria/categories for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Tranquility Base has already been nominated for inclusion once on the list. At one time, the list included only architectural monuments. From there it has expanded to include gardens, cultural landscapes, intangible heritage, underwater sites, and natural sites. It’s only a matter of time before World also means Universe.
  • The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera has made it clear that there are artifacts involved, not just activity. In theory, the 2008 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage could be stretched to cover “space exploration” as a significant cultural practice, but significant space detritus is more likely to be included on the World Heritage List.

We’ve only begun to talk about the issues at stake—the difference between “space history” and “space heritage,” who owns the Moon, who owns the Universe, why do we keep throwing things away in space. Hopefully, policy will evolve along with our thought processes. In the meantime, I encourage you to track down Launius’ article, which represents some of the current thinking on the subject.


[1] 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!)

Toward a History of the Space Shuttle

27 11 2012

I was very excited to see an announcement from NASA’s Communication Support Services Center in my inbox today, because only good things ever come from that office. Today’s e-mail directed me to the download site for a new NASA e-book, Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography Part 2, 1992–2011, compiled by Malinda K. Goodrich, Alice R. Buchalter, and Patrick M. Miller of the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.

So exciting! If you’ve ever looked at the 1992 edition of Toward a History of the Space Shuttle An Annotated Bibliography compiled by Roger D. Launius and Aaron K. Gillette, you probably have a sense of what’s in this new edition. In short: everything. I’m reproducing the table of contents for you here, just in case you doubt my word (click on each image to make them larger).

Table of Contents, Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography, 1992

Table of Contents, Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography Part 2, 1992–2011, 2012

Any book, article, or bulletin even remotely related to the Space Shuttle program is likely to be cited in one or the other volume. The annotations cover popular publications (Popular Science, Washington Post), professional journals (Nature, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society), and technical/government reports (U.S. General Accounting Office, U.S. Congress).

Some neat things about the second volume: it opens with a list of abbreviations, a necessary tool when you’re reading NASA; it contains annotations for DVDs, so you can get your space on in front of the television; it covers children’s books, so you can get you kids in on it; and most usefully, the new volume has embedded links that connect to the parallel section in the first volume.

Solar Eclipse Online

12 11 2012

Most of the articles I’ve seen regarding tomorrow’s solar eclipse [11/13/12, 3:35 p.m. EST (2035 GMT)] have been pushing the SLOOH website and the USTREAM live eclipse broadcast from Cairns as the best online viewing options. Me, I’m going to try the Hot Air Balloon Cairns broadcast, just because it seems too good to be true.

Wallpaper Wednesday

17 10 2012

Milky Way, Southern Cross, alpha Centauri, Carina Nebula. Photo credit: A. Fujii

Threaded through the partisan bickering during the debates on twitter last night was a string of tweets discussing ESO’s discovery of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.[1] According to ESO’s press release, the planet was detected through the observation of “wobbles” in Alpha Centauri B’s path of motion. Astronomers speculated that the gravitational pull of an orbiting body was generating the irregularities. Putting the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory to work on the problem, they discovered a planet with an orbital period of 3.2 days. The twitter is excited because Alpha Centauri B is a lot like our Sun and the newly discovered planet has the same mass as Earth—the theory being that our planetary twin has been discovered orbiting the star closest to our solar system. I’m not too worked up about the twinning possibilities, but I do think it’s cool that HARPS is doing exactly what it was supposed to do: find new planets.

In related news, I was intrigued by NASA’s response to ESO’s announcement. It’s as if they’re taking the discovery of the new planet a bit personally. Their press release, ostensibly a statement of congratulations to ESO on its accomplishment, reads more like an attempt to stake a claim on exoplanets of the universe. “We, too, have exoplanet finding capabilities! We have Hubble! We have Kepler! We have the James Webb Space Telescope!”

Click on the image to download wallpaper.


[1] Two stars comprise the Alpha Centauri system, Alpha Centauri A & B. They are indistinguishable to the naked eye, so we usually refer to them in the singular, as in “Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus.”

Endeavour Day Two (Photos)

17 10 2012

Intersection of Crenshaw Dr., Crenshaw Blvd., 82nd. Photo credit: JR

I added Endeavour: Day Two photos to my flickr site last night (to go with Morning One, Afternoon One and Videos). It took me longer than I thought it would because I kept stopping to (re) watch the L.A. Times timelapse video of my weekend. Anyway, the Day Two collection is as much about the spectators as it is about the shuttle (don’t worry, there are plenty of Endeavour photos and all the engine porn you’d ever want). After being jostled around all day Friday—particularly at Randy’s Donuts—I was feeling a bit grumpy about the crowds. Saturday, I tried to use them to my advantage instead of fighting all the people. So, fewer clear sight lines, but more awesome moments of stranger happiness.

p.s. If you follow my twitter feed, you know I left the sidewalk unexpectedly at Crenshaw and King on Saturday night. A few days later, my right knee is definitely feeling the impact, but otherwise, all is good.

Endeavour Day One (Photos/Videos)

16 10 2012

See you later! Photo credit: JR

So far, my answers to the question “How was your weekend?” have been fairly inarticulate. “Amazing!!” is the quick answer, but even that extra exclamation point doesn’t convey the depth of my emotions. The people (friendly, excited), the sounds (beep-beep-beep-beep, endless-drone-of-LAPD-helicopter), the movement (slow and then slower), the spacecraft (OMFG)…it was overwhelming at times. In addition to sorting through all the meanings of the move for the history and future of the U.S. space program, I had to grapple with the idea of escorting the space shuttle through parts of the city known to me only as sites of social strife and political/racial oppression. My personal history with South Central L.A. meant that I couldn’t just chat blithely with my neighbor about the installation of the space shuttle at the California Science Center. Every conversation bumped up against a memory, many of them bad. For instance, on my second day, I walked through the intersection where I saw my first dead body in 1991—how weird is that? My mind was spinning simultaneously in fast-forward and reverse all weekend long and now I really need a nap. I’m going to need to rest before I can really process what this weekend meant for me, what it meant for the nation, what it meant for future space exploration. You know. The easy topics.

I’ve started the photo/video upload on my flickr site. If you want to see motion vignettes of the move, check out my Endeavour Videos collection. They’re short, from 20 to 90 seconds long, but some of them are pretty impressive (in terms of seeing Endeavour, not in terms of cellphone cinematography).

I’ve also uploaded a few photos from Day One: Morning and Day One: Afternoon. Day One began at 12:30 a.m. October 12, 2012 and ended at 11:00 p.m. October 12, 2012 (yes, almost 24 hours on 2-1/2 hours of sleep!); the photos start at the point at which the public was allowed to view the shuttle—the corner of Sepulveda Westway and Manchester—and finish with the rush across the 405 freeway at the end of the day.

JR! Photo credit: some random stranger with my iPhone

More later, I promise.

Endeavour On the Move

12 10 2012

Endeavour’s passing. Photo credit: JR

Here’s just a bit to let you know how well it’s all going out here in L.A. That’s a close-up of Endeavour’s flank as she (it?) moves out of temporary holding in the parking lot of Bed, Bath & Beyond at Manchester near LAX. That move occupied my afternoon. My early morning hours… Well, my early morning hours were spent getting as close to Endeavour as possible (or as allowed by the LAPD). Here’s what I saw when I looked up at about 4:30 a.m.

More soon—must get some sleep before the next stage of the move!

Wallpaper Wednesday

11 10 2012

SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon Launch. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Robert Murray

I missed posting yesterday. I was on the road (on the train, in the plane) all day. As you might have guessed, I’m writing this from Los Angeles, where I am preparing for Endeavour’s final move. The big event begins at 2 a.m. this evening and last two days—wish  my old bones luck!

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in Virginia. While there, I did something you should never do: pulled out my iPhone during a family dinner and propped it up on the serving dish in front of me so I could watch NASA TV’s pre-launch coverage of the SpaceX Falcon/Dragon launch.[1] Eventually, my phone was passed around the table while my partner and I explained why we were so interested in the launch. By the end of the meal, the TV in the living room was playing NASA TV instead of football. By launch time, fourteen people were sitting in front of the television, counting the seconds to liftoff. Thank god the launch didn’t scrub at T-1 second—that’s a lot of pressure, a room full of relatives!

Congratulations once again to SpaceX. People are paying attention and that’s a good thing for the future of space exploration.


[1] In my defense, a few members of the extended family were eating dinner in front of the television—baseball/football—so I wasn’t being THAT rude.

ESO at 50

3 10 2012

On October 5, 2012, ESO will host a live 6-hour broadcast of “A Day in the Life of ESO” as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. This is your chance to view real-time observations made from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal. You can submit questions in advance of the broadcast via twitter, fb, or e-mail. From the ESO website:

  • Send a tweet @ESO, also using the hashtag #ESO50years
  • Write a question on your Facebook wall in which you tag ESO’s Facebook page. To tag a page you must first “like” the page and then type @ESO Astronomy in your question. A menu will appear from where you have the option to choose our page, ESO Astronomy. See an example of a tag (“via ESO Astronomy”) on this post
  • Send an email to with the subject ESO50years. Optionally, please include your name and country.

The live broadcast runs from 11:00 to 17:00 CEST (that’s Madrid’s time zone, if you need a reference). So, six hours ahead of the eastern time zone in the U.S., seven hours ahead of the central time zone, etc.

Read the press announcement here.

Wallpaper Wednesday

27 09 2012

Gemini North with Southern Star Trails. Image credit: Gemini Observatory

I completely forgot yesterday was Wednesday. Rather, I remembered, but only as “Today is Wednesday, the day I talk to my developmental editor,” not as “Today is Wednesday, the day I remember that I have a blog I’m supposed to update at least once a week.”

It’s just as well I missed my regularly scheduled update because now I can write about yesterday’s press release from Gemini Observatory. The observatory announced that its astronomers have produced the sharpest image yet made using ground-based (Earth-based) instruments of Pluto and its largest companion, Charon.

Speckle image reconstruction of Pluto and Charon obtained in visible light at 692 nanometers (red) with the Gemini North 8-meter telescope using the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI). Image credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA

The pixelated image might not look like much, but as the press release noted, it’s “the first speckle reconstructed image for Pluto and Charon from which astronomers obtained not only the separation and position angle for Charon, but also the diameters of the two bodies.” That’s pretty exciting—if anyone has tried to sell you the diameter of Pluto recently, he or she should have prefaced the number with the word “about.” Astronomers have been setting upper limits on the diameter since Pluto’s discovery in the 1930s (the 1960s seemed to be a particularly fertile decade for arguments on the topic), but still qualify their assertions with “± 20km”. I’ve been looking forward to the New Horizons arrival at Pluto in 2015, but the Gemini announcement makes the wait a little less painful.

Of everything I’ve read today, the comment I enjoyed most was made by Elliott Horch, coauthor of the Gemini study:

This was a fantastic opportunity to bring DSSI to Gemini North this past July. In just a little over half an hour of Pluto observations, collecting light with the large Gemini mirror, we obtained the best resolution ever with the DSSI instrument—it was stunning![1]

First, you gotta love the enthusiasm. I recently heard an NPR story about the development of robotic intelligence. The claim was that one day, humans would stop experiencing the “A-ha!” moment because robots would do all our thinking for us. I’m guessing Elliott Horch wouldn’t agree with that premise.

Second, the comment about “just a little over half an hour” caught my attention. It’s a little misleading, of course. As Horch knows, since he was in charge of the project to develop the instrument, hours and hours and hours went into the design and installation of the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI).[2] But then again, this is how contemporary astronomy works: you request a time slot on a popular instrument and pray the weather, the instrument, and everything else in the universe that can affect your project goes the way you want it to go. Sometimes you get an entire evening with an optical instrument, sometimes you get a few nights, sometimes you have to change your project because there’s no open time available at all. When everything works out, well, then  you see Charon and Pluto.

Today’s wallpaper celebrates the Gemini/DSSI/Korch team victory. Click on the observatory and star trails to reach the download page.


[1] Gemini Observatory Takes Sharpest Ground-Based Images Ever of Pluto and Charon (

[2] DSSI was installed temporarily at Gemini North last summer. It’s spent most of it’s observing life at Kitt Peak.

Observatories and Instruments