June 29, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Joys from the field

Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes ... ?

Tony Freeman

From Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth Science Manager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Most NASA scientists study Earth from the perspective of space. They use information collected by satellites to learn how the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and land work. But space, “the final frontier,” is not the only frontier. Researchers also collect data from the ground, ocean and air to augment space missions. In fact, many NASA Earth scientists got their start flying instruments on one of the many aircraft NASA have in their fleet, which is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center out in the Mojave Desert.

"If it all sounds a bit like Indiana Jones without the bad guys that’s because it is." A much (much) younger version of the author taken on a field trip in Belize.
"If it all sounds a bit like Indiana Jones without the bad guys that’s because it is." A much (much) younger version of the author taken on a field trip in Belize.

Why bother with aircraft when we can fly spacecraft? Well, airborne missions enable us to do unique — and crucial — experiments in the fields of atmospheric chemistry and volcanology, for example, from altitudes that range from 100 feet (30 meters) to 60,000 feet (18 kilometers). They also help us to check and validate the performance of the instruments that fly onboard NASA satellites such as Aqua, Aura and others in the so-called “A-train” of Earth-observing satellites. And, airborne instruments are often cheaper to launch. Tethered and untethered balloons; manned aircraft ranging from small propeller craft (think Cessna) to large jet engines (think the DC-8 aircraft); unmanned airplanes such as the large military surveillance craft known as the Global Hawk — NASA uses them all.

In this last year alone, NASA has flown:

- Over Greenland to study the ice sheet and glaciers there as part of Operation IceBridge (total flying distance was more than 1.5 times round the world);

- To the Gulf of Mexico to map the extent of the ongoing oil spill;

- To California’s border with Mexico to map the extent of damage caused by an earthquake that rocked Baja California;

- Way out into the Pacific Ocean on a Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle packed with science instruments designed to look at cloud formation. Scientists, meanwhile, examined the information they collected live at their desks, through a satellite phone link.

Having done it myself, I have to say it’s really exciting to take a brand new instrument that no-one’s ever used before out into the desert, have it bolted on to an aircraft and set off on a data collection campaign somewhere in the world. Over the last decade or so, NASA has flown campaigns over the jungles of Belize and Costa Rica, the icy wastes of Antarctica and Patagonia, the ancient Khmer ruins in Cambodia, the mineral-rich deserts of Australia, the rubble of the Twin Towers in New York after 9/11, and hurricanes forming in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa.

And even cooler is the fact that for most places where we fly our aircraft and our instruments, we also send a ground team in to make field measurements at the site of interest. On the ground, I’ve had fun making snow trails on a skidoo, navigated 50 miles (80 kilometers) down the Tanana river in Alaska as far as the Yukon, hiked out on a salt pan in Death Valley in 38°C- (100°F)-plus temperatures, ridden an ox cart in Cambodia, and stopped to let a boa constrictor cross the road in the heart of the Amazon. If it all sounds a bit like Indiana Jones without the bad guys that’s because it is, and I don’t think my experiences would be considered unusual amongst my colleagues.

Airborne Earth science is currently undergoing a renaissance at NASA. You can learn more here.

June 21, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Spaced out

On a mission: Grace

From Gretchen Cook-Anderson, NASA's Earth Science News Team

NASA's gravity mission Grace is tracking the movement of water and ice on our planet.
NASA's gravity mission Grace is tracking the movement of water and ice on our planet.

High above Earth's surface — 300 miles to be precise — a special set of twins continually unveils new information about our planet. They're not human twins, nor are they the constellation we know as Gemini. They've arguably, however, attained star status in their eight years in space.

They are the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or Grace, a pair of NASA and German satellites that fly about 137 miles apart, changing position relative to one another in response to variations in the pull of Earth's gravity. A microwave ranging system captures microscopic changes in the distance between the two satellites. Grace responds to gravity changes that occur when mass — primarily water and ice — on or beneath the surface changes.

And like many stars, the harmonious Grace twins have achieved some very big hits. They've racked up unprecedented observations of some of the world's most famous waterways; shed light on ice loss at the coldest reaches of the globe; and rendered first-time measurements of changes in hidden groundwater reservoirs that sustain millions daily.

Though Grace has also shaken up old ways of studying changes in solid ground — in the aftermath of earthquakes, for example — today's nod is to the mission's contribution to water science.

In celebration of a deal inked earlier this month by NASA and the German Aerospace Center to extend Grace's on-orbit life through 2015, here are just a few of the mission's greatest water- and ice-related accomplishments to date:

  • NASA scientists found that groundwater levels in northwestern India have been declining by an average of one foot per year. More than 26 cubic miles of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States.
  • Grace data confirmed the mass of ice in Antarctica decreased significantly from 2002 to 2005, enough to elevate global sea level by 0.05 inches during that period — about 13 percent of total sea level rise observed over the same four years.

Cross posted and adapted from NASA’s What on Earth blog. Gretchen is based in Chicago.

June 20, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

Those lucky astronauts

Astronaut photograph ISS023-E-58455, courtesy of the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center.

Astronaut photograph ISS023-E-58455, courtesy of the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center.

Astronauts are lucky things. Apart from the whole being-in-space thing, they get to see sights like this one, taken from the International Space Station (ISS), on May 29, 2010. It shows the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights — mesmerizing, ever-changing displays of light that appear in the Antarctic skies in winter.

The Southern Lights and Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are a by-product of the way the solar wind — a stream of electrons and protons coming from the Sun — collides with gases in the upper atmosphere. These shifting displays of colored ribbons, curtains, rays, and spots are produced by atoms, molecules and ions that have been excited by energetic charged particles travelling along magnetic field lines into the Earth's upper atmosphere.

This particular shot of the Aurora Australis was taken during a geomagnetic storm that was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 24, 2010.

Image taken and caption adapted from the NASA's Earth Observatory.

June 17, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Award honors

Putting the Buzz in the Webbys

The Webby awards went down with style on Monday night, and NASA’s Global Climate Change team was there to partake in the fun. The 14th Annual Webby Awards gala was held at the Cipriani in New York City where we collected our “People’s Voice Award” for Best Science Website.

As B.J. Novak (the intern from the TV series “The Office”) hosted the awards, we shared a table with colleagues from NASA websites NASA.gov and NASA Home and City 2.0, both of whom picked up a Webby in the government website category. Oh, and we just so happened to be seated with none other than Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the Moon, and his wife Lois. Buzz was swarmed with fans the whole night long. He went up on stage to accept the award on behalf of all three NASA sites and got a standing ovation along the way. His five-word speech was “Humanity. Colonization. Phobos. Monolith. Mars.”

There were a handful of other celebs present, including Dr. Vint Cerf (co-inventor of the internet, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award and gave one of the best speeches of the night: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”), Roger Ebert (Person of the Year), Amy Poehler (Actress of the Year) and band OK Go (for Film and Video Artist of the Year; see here for more on their collaboration with NASA folks).

Thanks to all the folks out there who voted for us and helped us win the People’s Voice Award. You spoke, the Webbys listened, and we’re super-grateful for your support. You can watch our five-word speech here.

June 10, 2010, 17:00 PDT

OK, Go!

Art, music 'n rocket scientists

From Mike Carlowicz, NASA's Earth Science News Team

What do NASA techies do with their spare time? They make rock-n-roll videos. Not the big-hair, booty-shaking, smoke-and-fire kind. They help make rock videos that would make their daytime colleagues proud or jealous, or both.

Band OK Go prides itself on creative visual expressions of their music, and they wanted an extra dose of gee-whiz fun for their song "This Too Shall Pass." In early 2010, the group enlisted the help of Syyn Labs — a self-described "group of creative engineers who twist together art and technology." The Syyn Labs fraternity included (or ensnared) four staff members from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

OK Go requested a Rube Goldberg machine as the centerpiece of a video. To borrow from wikipedia, a "Rube Goldberg machine is a deliberately over-engineered machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The name is drawn from American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg." Think of the classic board game Mousetrap or your favorite chain reactions from Tom & Jerry cartoons.

More than 40 engineers, techies, artists, and circus types spent several months designing, building, rebuilding, and re-setting a machine that took up two floors of a Los Angeles warehouse. The volunteers went to work after work, giving up many nights, weekends, and even some vacation days to build a machine that has drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube.

The JPL staffers included:

- Dr. Mike Pauken, a senior thermal systems engineer - Chris Becker, a graduate student at the Art Center College of Design and a JPL intern - Heather Knight, a former JPL engineering associate (instrumentation and robotics) who is now preparing to start work on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University - Dr. Eldar Noe Dobrea, a planetary scientist working to study landing sites for the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory.

We caught up with these rock-n-roll moonlighters to learn more about the machine and video.

What was your role in the creation of the machine, and what was the inspiration behind your piece?

Eldar: My main role was to help design and construct the descent stage (2:06 to 2:28 in the video). The inspiration for the rover was a small Japanese Rube Goldberg machine that had a tiny mock-up of a mouse rover, about the size of a Hot Wheels car. It struck me that since I am representing JPL, we should have a Mars Rover in our machine.

Chris: I helped finish up the sequence of interactions and the filming. I have a couple things that I was involved with, but cannot take complete ownership of any. But during the filming, I redesigned the beginning dominos (0:06-0:18 sec.) and helped set them up between the numerous takes (60+).

Mike: I worked on the tire ramp, mostly focusing on wiring the relay circuits for the lamps that were triggered by the tire. You've got to wonder when a mechanical guy does electrical work. A friend from CalTech told me about a band making a music video featuring a Rube-Goldberg machine. Any time I've seen one in a movie, like in Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I've always wanted to make one myself.

Heather: I helped make sure all the modules came together in the first half of the video. I also worked on the intro, the Lego table, and the inflatables. There were a few guiding principles behind the machine. No magic: Mechanisms should be understandable and built from found objects where possible. Small to big: The size of the modules and parts becomes bigger over the course of the video. One take: As in their other videos, the band wanted the entire piece shot in one piece by a single handheld camera.

How many "takes" did it take to get the machine to work?

Mike: Before filming, it took more tries to get things right than anyone could ever have counted. Sometimes I'd spend three or four hours just fiddling with one part to get it right. Even then, it often got changed a couple days later to something else.

Heather: We learned something very important about physics in the process of making this video. It is much harder to make small things reliable. Temperature, friction, even dust all greatly effect the repeatability and timing of the small stuff. The first minute of the video failed at a rate that was tenfold of the rest of the machine. Remembering that rule about getting everything in one shot — if your module is further down the line in the video, you're in big trouble if it doesn't work! The machine took half an hour and 20 people to reset.

What's the funniest or strangest thing that happened on the set?

Chris: Realizing that a number of Ph.D.s built one thing and a clown from a circus built another part. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was there for the same purpose: to build a machine that worked and was fun!

Mike: I helped assemble the sequence between the piano and the shopping cart (1:34 to 1:41). The tetherball pole was supposed to trigger the shopping cart, but when we played the song, the timing was off. The band wanted more delay so that the cart crashed at the end of 'when the morning comes.' I added in a sequence using a director's chair, a piano cover, a waffle iron, and a 10-pound weight to give the necessary delay. Heather's shoe became part of the sequence, too.

The director's chair has a rope holding one arm in place. My first thought on holding this rope was to use an umbrella, but Heather told me there were already too many umbrellas in the machine. I rummaged around the warehouse and found a high-heeled shoe sitting around a bunch of junk, and I thought this would make a great holder for the rope. I fastened the shoe to a 2-by-4 with three large wood screws, pried off the rubber tip of the heel, and sanded it a bit to allow the rope to slip off with just the right amount of force.

Then Heather walks up with a friend, who says: 'Heather, isn't that your shoe?' I thought she was kidding, but then Heather said, 'What are you doing with my shoe?' I still thought they were making a joke, but then I could tell that Heather was serious and getting mad. Then she started laughing and said: "The machine needs a high-heeled shoe!"

What is your favorite part of the machine?

Eldar: I think the beginning, where the ball bearing jumps out of the speaker when the music begins (0:24) is absolute genius. But the guitar hitting the glasses and taking over the music (1:24) is also quite phenomenal in timing and execution. There were so many things in this machine that blew my mind.

Heather: There are various 'Easter eggs' from the band's other videos that are nestled within the machine. The most obvious is the treadmill video playing on the TV that gets smashed (2:37). But there are also references to the Notre Dame marching band video on the Lego table (1:17) — from the tall Lego drummer to the dancing grass people (I made those!).

Chris: My favorite is the falling piano! That thing took such a beating and was screwed together take after take. It only lasts for a fraction of the video, but it has such comical importance and was triggered after one of the best parts of the video — the clinking glasses.

So if you could quit the day job and get paid for such things, would you?

Mike: I don't think so because I really like my day job. And even though working on the video was great fun, if it became a full-time job, I don't think it would seem as fun anymore. The build seemed like a college frat house at times, and that would definitely go away if it became a job.

Eldar: No, I work on missions to other planets! This was fun, but the real deal is at NASA. They say that there is no business like show business. They can keep it.

Adapted from NASA’s What on Earth blog. Mike is based in Washington, DC.