There’s nothing routine about going into space

I was on top of the roof of Smith Hall at Towson University with four of my physics students. We were looking toward the southeast, toward NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Antares Rocket on its flight to the International Space Station. Although I had NASA TV playing on my iPhone, our eyes were trained on the horizon. In my experience I’ve found that NASA TV is anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds delayed. So we started scrutinizing the horizon as soon as the clock read 6:22 pm. By my guess, we should see the rocket emerge from the horizon even as we were listening to the final countdown play out on the phone.

But no rocket appeared.

I then heard something that sounded like a crackling sound coming from my iPhone. I looked down at the screen and saw this:

Still from NASA TV showing Antares Orb-3 Explosion. Credit: NASA
Still from NASA TV showing Antares Orb-3 Explosion. Credit: NASA

I’ll spare what I said next, but suffice to say it was not the sort of thing a professor would normally say in front of his students.

Realizing there wasn’t going to be a rocket rising over the horizon, we went downstairs to the classroom. I put NASA TV on as the students filed in for the class that was to begin at 7pm. I had given my students the “homework” assignment of trying to spot the rocket’s flight over the horizon; a timely assignment as we had discussed the physics of rockets and space flight last week.

I started class by filling them in on what had happened. I explained what little we knew and what we didn’t yet know. Needles to say, there were a lot of questions: Was there anyone on-board? Was anyone near the launch pad? Will they be able to launch from there again? Will the astronauts aboard the International Space Station have enough food?

Thankfully, I could answer the most important question — nobody was on-board the spacecraft, nor was anyone anywhere near the launch pad. In fact, NASA was reporting that all personnel were safe and accounted for. Thank goodness.

The students got to see a perspective of spaceflight that they probably hadn’t considered before — this stuff is difficult, challenging, and dangerous. Rockets have to unleash a tremendous amount of fuel as fast and with as much energy as possible. Only then can the spacecraft accelerate forward in reaction to the controlled explosion raging underneath it.

It’s a lot harder than it looks.

After I got home, I watched the news conference and shared some reactions on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of people are upset tonight and understandably so. Many man-years of hard work and effort were lost tonight, including the spacecraft, the rocket, and most of an entire launch complex.

But now the investigation is underway. It’s tempting to speculate what might have been the cause, but I’ll refrain from doing so here. There is a lot of data that will need to be examined, including telemetry, video, and even the scrap paper used by the launch team.  And then there’s the physical debris that will need to be collected and scrutinized.

NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp. have their work cut out for them. But I’m also confident that they will find out what the problem is, correct it, and get back to flying again. In the meantime, I hope that my students and the public can use this as an opportunity to learn an important lesson:

There’s nothing routine about spaceflight.

Having a go at Ello


Last week I received an invite to Ello, the fancy new social network everyone is talking about but few are using (though that is rapidly changing as of this writing). It’s very new, but in my opinion not that fancy, at least not just yet.

Ello’s mission goals are to create a social network that is permanently free of advertising, guarantees the privacy of its users, and promises never to sell your personal info or anything you post to third parties. Others have tried this before and failed. But who knows, perhaps enough of the public have reached a tipping point with Facebook’s “All your data are belong to us” model. Time will tell.

I’ve tried other social networks before, but I find myself coming back to Ello from time to time and seeing what’s going on in there. I’ve already linked up with several longtime friends and even some Launch Pad and NASA Social friends as well so it very much has that “private party” sort of vibe to it.

Oh, and I’m on there as @christianready so feel free to link up if you’re on Ello.

Starstuff Shirts

This summer, I backed a Kickstarter campaign to help get Starstuff Clothing off the ground. My funding level entitled me to two shirts which I received a couple of weeks ago. After wearing them a bit, I thought I’d offer a review. But first, here they are, modeled by yours truly:

We are all made of star stuff, and so are our shirts.
We are all made of star stuff, and so are our shirts. Me rocking Hubble Space Telescope images of the Orion Nebula (left) and Tarantula nebula (right).

Believe it or not, I am  not a professional model. I know, right? Anyway, as you can see, the shirts are complete wraparound space images! Starstuff calls these Galaxy shirts, but they are really Hubble Space Telescope images of the Orion Nebula and the Tarantula Nebula, both of which are star forming regions in the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud.

What really sets these shirts apart is that the images are dyed into the fabric using a process called sublimation printing. As Starstuff explains on their site:

Essentially, a gigantic sheet of ink-covered paper is laid across a blank shirt. The ink is pressed and heated, literally vaporizing the ink … which then immediately binds to the fibers of the shirt. You can’t feel the ink printed on top of the shirt, because it’s not — it’s DYED into each individual thread. This creates an incredibly natural, smooth feel to the shirt — and it’s literally impossible for the image to crack or flake off over time like regular screenprinted shirts do. The colors will always stay vibrant and amazing as long as you live.

I was a bit skeptical at first, having bought many a t-shirt that looks cool but turns out to be rather uncomfortable to wear. However, these shirts are very comfy and wear very easily. I haven’t noticed any wrinkling, binding, or fading since I’ve had them. W00T!!!

But this technique does have one drawback:  the ink cannot make its way into every fiber and thread of the shirt, particularly in the seams and armpits. The result are white “image artifacts” in the shirts – that is, spots where the ink didn’t reach. Starstuff is very up front about this, and they explain this phenomenon on their website. My shirts were no exception to this problem.

Sublimation printing blues. White seams in the armpit (left) and shoulder (right)
Sublimation printing blues. White seams in the armpit (left) and shoulder (right)

In my view, this is hardly a show-stopper. I’ve found that the white seams really don’t distract from the beauty of the shirt. But I’d like to point this out just in case anyone decides to pick one up and wonders what’s going on there.

And I hope you will pick one up, because any business that promotes an appreciation of the cosmos is a business very well worth supporting. Besides, you’ll look damn good doing it. I love my shirts and look forward to ordering more as their product offering expands. If you’re like me, you probably wear your love for astronomy on your sleeve. Now you wear it on the rest of the shirt, too!

Neptune, 25 Years Ago Tonight

On August 25, 1989, I was in the observatory at Villanova University taking data with the astronomy department’s 15-inch telescope. The telescope was doing it’s thing – measuring the shift in brightness of a binary star system as one star eclipsed its companion hundreds of light-years away. It wasn’t exceptionally difficult work – you boot up the computer, point the telescope to its target, turn on the photometer and let the photons come trickling in. In a roll-off roof observatory, I had the entire night sky to gaze upon, which I typically did during those long observations.

But on this night, my attention was turned toward a television set I brought into the observatory. I turned the brightness almost all the way down, and tuned to WHYY, the local PBS station serving the greater Philadelphia area. I never watched TV while observing before, but tonight Voyager 2 was making its closest approach to Neptune, and I was going to see it live.

The broadcast was billed as “Neptune All Night” – a live, real-time telecast as Voyager 2 made it’s closest approach 5,000 miles above Neptune’s cloud tops. From midnight until 7am, I watched image after raw, grainy image appear on the screen revealing an alien world as seen by the spacecraft as it flew by at 42,000 miles per hour.

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989. It didn't look like this on the TV screen.
Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989. It didn’t look like this on the TV screen. Image credit: NASA/JPL

During the broadcast, a panel of astronomers from the Franklin Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, and even a science fiction writer commented on the images as they were coming in.

Clearly, there were millions of people watching. I’m sure there were watch parties in people’s homes, universities, and of course at JPL, where the mission was being run and was the primary broadcast center for the evening’s flyby. Throughout the evening, people would call in asking questions the experts did their best to answer.

Intro to Neptune All Night – WHYY Philadelphia

But standing there, alone in the dark, it felt at times that it was just Neptune, Voyager, and myself. I often looked up from the TV toward the southwest sky, where, 2.7 billion miles from earth, our robotic emissary was transmitting these images.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 9.51.31 PM
Simulation of sky from Philadelphia on the morning of August 26, 1989. Source: Starry Night College.

As Neptune set in the southwest, the encounter was coming to an end. Toward the east, the sky was lightening and the Sun would be up soon. I ended the observation, closed up the telescope, shut down the computers, and closed the roof.

And Voyager 2 sped on into the night.

October is Here, and My Picture is on the Tee Vee

October is my favorite month, and to celebrate, I went outside and took a picture of the corn harvest next door to my house:

The Harvest is on!

As it turns out, the folks over at Weather Nation noticed and used it as part of a backdrop during today’s Half Past Update:

Screen cap from Weather Nation's Half Past Update. I'm somebody!!!!
Screen cap from Weather Nation’s Half Past Update. I’m somebody!!!!

Pretty cool! Here’s the video, which I hope will still show today’s update (my pic shows up at around the 4:20 mark):

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Well darn, the video it appeared on is no longer available. I assure you it was spectacular in HD

Happy October!