State of NASA: A visit to Goddard Spaceflight Center

“The state of our NASA, is strong” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden emphatically stated.  This was the mantra of the press conference on February 9th, broadcast to all NASA centers as well as to NASA TV at 1:30pm eastern time.  The State of NASA event was a powerful event to attend, and I feel truly honored to have been present at Goddard Spaceflight center for this historic occasion.  This event was focused on the present and future of our space program.  With a special emphasis on the importance and necessity of exploration and scientific understanding of our solar system and of our home world, Earth.

The passion in Bolden’s voice was clearly audible as he outlined the importance of this great organization, as well as the future plans for the exploration of our solar system, as well as our home planet.  But perhaps his most moving moment was his recollection of the past.  He recalled growing up as a young african american in the segregated south and the struggles that he faced.  He never imagined that today, he would be leading our nation’s space program.  We truly have come a long way as a country, and our space program is better for it, both in terms of diversity and gender equality.  As Bolden pointed out, our latest class of astronauts is 50% female and 50% male for the first time in history.

NASA has contributed to our overall quality of live in ways that most people don’t realize.  In fact by some estimates, for every $1 we put into NASA, we get nearly 7$-14$ return.  There was an excellent article in Forbes with an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson about this.  As we look forward to future human crewed missions to Mars, we need to keep these benefits in mind.  The technology and innovation that are created out of necessity for these upcoming missions will be invaluable to industry and indeed our civilization as a whole.  Bolden made the claim that “every american will benefit from our journey to Mars.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  He also underscored the importance of our Earth science program, to understand our home planet, as he put it, “the most important planet.”  NASA has a huge role to play in our understanding of our climate and our planet as a whole.

JWST Mirror assembly at NASA Goddard.

In addition to the State Of NASA press conference, this event was also a NASA Social, where members of the public, particularly those with blogs and/or social media presence, can apply to attend and document the event.  I attended the event hosted at Goddard Spaceflight Center and was treated, along with the other attendees, to a tour of the facility, including a visit to the clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope is currently being assembled!  This, for me, was by far the highlight of the day.  As we ascended the staircase to the glass wall overlooking the clean room, I became very excited.  I could hardly breath as I looked out onto the massive structure that holds the segmented primary mirror assembly, as well as the arm which holds the secondary mirror.

JWST Secondary Mirror arm.
JWST Secondary Mirror arm.

Seeing this monument to our collective intelligence as a species in person, was an indescribable experience.  This artifact of our technological civilization will help us to understand our universe by looking deeper into the observable universe than the Hubble Space Telescope is capable of doing, and will also help us understand the atmospheres of nearby planets, among many other scientific objectives.  This massive telescope will be sent to our Earth-Sun Lagrange point L2, roughly 1.5-million kilometers away from Earth.  Someday soon in the near future, we will be able to look back at this telescope and point to our new understandings that were made possible by this great instrument, just as we have (and continue to have) with Hubble and other great space missions.

We also toured the area which housed their enormous vacuum chambers for testing spacecraft.  Below is one image of the chamber which will be used to test the JWST.

Thermal Vacuum Test Chamber for JWST
Thermal Vacuum Test Chamber for JWST




We also got a personal briefing on another space telescope currently planned for 2018, called TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will study the whole sky over a period of two years during its primary mission looking for exoplanets orbiting nearby star systems.  If Kepler is any indication, this will prove to change our understanding once again about the amazing number of planets out there in our galaxy.  I’m extremely excited about this mission in particular, because it will show us exoplanetary systems which are much closer to us than those discovered by Kepler.  This will allow us to better characterize their atmospheres (with the JWST and other observatories) which may ultimately help us to find planets with conditions that are potentially favorable to life.  Such planets would also make excellent targets for SETI search operations.  It was a privilege to hear about this mission from some of the scientists that work directly on this mission.

It was my great honor and pleasure to be invited to attend the NASA Social at Goddard Spaceflight Center on February 9th.  I want to thank those that organized this event, which was truly a one of a kind experience.


DPS 2015 Days 3 and 4: Venusian Aircraft, Pale Orange Dots, and Magma Oceans!

Yesterday on the third day of DPS, Dr. Yuk Yung of Caltech, towards the end of his acceptance speech after having been awarded the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize at this year’s DPS meeting, stated the following:

“Life is the ultimate poetry of the universe, written with the alphabet of molecules.” – Yuk Yung

This one sentence sums up the beautiful truth that Life is an emergent property of the universe.  It is a beautiful consequence of the four fundamental forces that govern our universe.  This one statement seems to embody the spirit of the DPS and its members.  By studying the planets, both inside and outside our solar system, we gain understanding about ourselves and where we come from.

The past two days have been a whirlwind.  I was very tired last night, so I didn’t post an article.  So tonight I plan to give a smattering of some of the more interesting talks I attended.

Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP)

At the poster session yesterday, I came across a particularly interesting mission concept, presented by Northrup Grumman.  This mission would involve a buoyant winged aircraft that would be powered by solar panels and would be able to glide through the Venusian atmosphere, taking samples and reporting back to an orbiting spacecraft.  This is a beautiful idea, and could well be used on other planets as well.

Pale Orange Dot

Giada Arney of the University of Washington gave a talk today about Exoplanets. She pointed out that when we look for habitable exoplanets, we typically look for planets that we consider Earth-like, or having liquid water and oxygen, etc., on their surface.  However, in the early archeo-Earth environment, as Arney points out, the world looked much different than it does today.  Early in the Earth’s history, the skies were filled with an orange hydro-carbon haze, similar to that of Titan.  This atmosphere would kill a human, but would be the perfect environment for early life on the earth, and would shield them from nearly all of the UV radiation that might otherwise harm them, just as the Oxygen and Ozone in our atmosphere do for us today.  This is an intriguing idea, one that will broaden the possible search criteria for identifying Earth-like exoplanets.

Magma Ocean Dynamo!

Alexander Bourzutschky of the California Institute of Technology gave a fascinating talk today about exoplanets with global oceans of magma on their surface.  These oceans, Bourzutschky says, could sustain their own magnetic field, acting much the same way that our iron-core dynamo works on Earth.  These global magnetic fields could potentially be detected by radio telescopes here on Earth.

Using Cassini VIMS to view Earth, Exoplanet Analog

It’s important to know what the limits of our current instrumentation are, and how to best utilize them.  Roger Clark at the Planetary Science Institute spoke today about using the VIMS instrument (infra-red spectrometer) on board Cassini to look back at the Earth to determine what kind of information we might expect to glean from an extra-solar planet using similar instrumentation.  This is an excellent test case, because Clark et al. can compare their findings to what we know to be present on the Earth.  This can help to design future missions and observations of other planets outside our solar system.

Well, it’s getting late, and I need to get some sleep.  Tomorrow will be the last day of DPS 2015, sadly.  I will report back tomorrow with and end-of-DPS wrap up.



DPS 2015 Day 1: Mountainous Pluto

Greetings friends.  Just a short post tonight.  This week, I am attending the meeting of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Science, aka DPS 2015. I’m very excited to be presenting my work on planetary rings during tomorrow’s poster session. More on that tomorrow. I plan post to this blog once per day all this week.

Today was largely all about Pluto and some very exciting results coming from the data from the New Horizons spacecraft. I also attended a session on Planetary Rings, which is near and dear to my heart.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

One of the more beautifully interesting pieces of information was the announcement that some of Pluto’s mountains may in fact be cryo-volcanos. 3D models of the terrain have revealed that some of these mountains have deep hollow centers. Cryo-volcano’s, unlike the volcanoes here on Earth, erupt icy materials rather than rocky magma.

This finding is one of many that point to geologically active Planet, with many features that were largely unexpected prior to the flyby.






I’ll report back tomorrow with more of the findings from the New Horizons mission, and talk a bit about my own research related to Saturn’s rings.

Stay tuned!


Pluto lovers rejoice! New Hi-Res Pluto Data From New Horizons

Hi-res mosaic of pluto. Click to see full resolution copy.
Raw data: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI
Mosaic: Stellar Aperture

Pluto lovers rejoice!  Today the NASA New Horizons team released a new set of high resolution images of the surface of Pluto from the LORRI instrument on-board the New Horizons spacecraft.  The images are truly breathtaking.  The team announced the results over a Google Hangout earlier today.  During the hangout Alan Stern, director of the New Horizons mission, said that this marks the start of a data down-link phase which should last about a year.  Over the course of the year we will learn more and more about Pluto and its system of moons.

As I watched the live hangout, new images kept posting to their website.  Each time I created a mosaic, I noticed more data on the page.  It was a lot of fun trying to keep up to work with the data as it was posted in real time.

I for one will be very excited to see the data from the Alice instrument, which is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer.  A very similar instrument is currently flying on the Rosetta spacecraft currently orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.  Comet 67P is thought to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, the same region of the solar system where Pluto resides.  I will be very interested to see how the UV data from Pluto compare to that of 67P.  This should tell us a great deal about the origin and evolution of our solar system.

Check out the hangout for the full scoop.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  I’ve embedded the video below.

Pluto Flyby a Success!

Pluto Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI

Tonight, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft successfully sent home the all-clear signal after it safely passed through the Pluto-Charon system. The image to the left was the last image obtained by the spacecraft before turning its sensors toward pluto for its primary science mission. During that time it was necessarily out of communication in order to focus all of its time on capturing the valuable data that it was created to obtain. Just before 9pm EDT (7pm MDT) tonight, we finally got word from the spacecraft that it had survived and collected its data.

I had a blast tonight. I attended a public New Horizons flyby event at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder Colorado. It was completely filled to capacity, with people lined up outside the door. They put on an excellent program and kept the audience engaged and excited throughout. When they announced that telemetry data had been acquired from the spacecraft, signaling good communications after the flyby, the audience roared.

Two speakers presented opposing views on the topic of Pluto’s planet-hood, which of course led to lively responses from the crowd. Personally, coming from a background of planetary science, I tend to fall on the side that yes, I would call Pluto a planet.  That requires some explanation, so perhaps I will get into that in a subsequent post.  But for tonight, lets leave this debate behind us and marvel at the beauty of this system of worlds that is in the process of unfolding before our very eyes.

The latest image, returned early this morning before the flyby event is by far the most stunning to date.  Pluto has become a real world, that we can imagine ourselves visiting some day, or perhaps sending a lander to in the future.  The geology of the world is fascinating and will no doubt lead to many new discoveries and surprises.  The system of moons is as diverse as it is mystifying.  The variation on the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon is more than we could have hoped for.

As a life long space-fan, and a planetary scientist, I would just like to thank NASA and the New Horizons team for giving the world this precious gift.  I can’t wait for all of the wonderful data that will be streamed back to Earth over the next few months.