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Archive for June, 2007

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Data Released

Monday, June 25th, 2007
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Image of Polar Layers
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Image of Polar Layers

At long last instrument data files from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been added to the NASA PDS Imaging Node web site. Present is data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), Context Camera (CTX), and Mars Color Imager (MARCI). While the Context Camera has returned some great imagery, it is entirely overshadowed by the pictures captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Most impressive was a HiRISE image that showed not only the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity but the shadow from the PanCam mast. This picture can be seen on the Victoria Crater at Meridiani Planum TRA_000873_1780 page.

For those not familiar with the NASA PDS Imaging Node, this is the place to go to obtain the raw data files for various instruments from a variety of NASA planetary missions. Quoting from the news release about the addition of MRO data, “a PDS data node is designed to provide access to a particular data set during an active mission, when the data are of greatest interest” The Data Holdings Catalog page provides a full index to the data resources available. Note that as of this writing, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data has not been added to the list. However, you can bypass the PDS home page and go directly to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Online Data Volumes.

The image used to illustrate this entry (see above) is a 100 percent resolution subsection of a Context Camera image. To process the image I used Adobe Photoshop. I began by doing a dual High Pass Filter effect to sharpen the image. I then colorized the image using both a color layer and a Hue Saturation Adjustment layer, applying the two in tandem. The final step was to add a Curves Adjustment layer to increase contrast in the picture.

Some Useful Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter Links

Ad Astra, Jim

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View the Heavens With Google Searches

Monday, June 25th, 2007

For some time now I have been using a particular technique to search the web for pictures of astronomical and planetary objects. That technique relies on the ability to limit searches to specific domains. I also make use of the ability to specify the size of the images I am searching for because I don’t want to see every thumbnail, banner ad, and site logo out there – I am only interested in full size images.

As an example, let’s say that I want to search for any picture that Google associates with the search term “Mars”. Here’s what to do.

  1. Go to the Google Advanced Image Search page.
  2. In the Find results section, for the option related to all of the words box, enter the word “Mars” without the quotes
  3. For Size, click the drop-down arrow for the box and select “large”
  4. For Domain, let’s limit the search to the Mars Art Gallery so enter the domain name “” without the quotes.
  5. Click the Google Search button to execute the search and see the results.

That’s all there is to it. Some of my favorite search terms are nebula, galaxy, planet, exoplanet, messier, and supernova.

Taking a look at the Google Search Box you will see that the search term is:

It should be apparent that to switch to a different site, all you need to do is replace the domain name component so if you want to you can skip using the Advanced Image Search by entering the search term directly. Some of my favorite domains to site search on are (including the site keyword):

And don’t forget to make sure that you have the large image option selected.

For a final suggestion, if you want to see all the images available on a site, you can do each of the following searches in sequence:
Note that you can search on only one image file extension at a time, otherwise it does not work.

Happy Searching.

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STS-117 Atlantis and International Space Station Pass

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007
STS-117 Atlantis and International Space Station Pass
STS-117 Atlantis and International Space Station Pass, June 20, 2007

It’s been many years since I’ve gone outside for the sole purpose of watching a satellite or the Shuttle pass overhead. Before there was the Internet, there was a DOS program called SatTrack I think. Or maybe it was STSPlus. I seem to recall that the author was from Alabama. Anyway I would feed in the orbital elements to see what was going over and head out for a look. Seeing the Mir space station was a favorite of mine. When I learned that tonight both the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-117) and the International Space Station would be passing over, I decided to grab my digital camera and try to capture the moment, something I had not previously done.

Before heading outside, I reconfirmed the details of the pass using data from the Heavens Above web site. Following is the most pertinent data:


Event Time Altitude Azimuth Distance (km)
Rises above horizon 21:49:57 0° 300° (WNW) 2,120
Reaches 10° altitude 21:51:59 10° 295° (WNW) 1,284
Maximum altitude 21:54:47 47° 217° (SW ) 458
Enters shadow 21:56:03 25° 158° (SSE) 727


Event Time Altitude Azimuth Distance (km)
Rises above horizon 21:49:58 0° 300° (WNW) 2,121
Reaches 10° altitude 21:52:00 10° 295° (WNW) 1,285
Maximum altitude 21:54:48 47° 217° (SW ) 459
Enters shadow 21:56:04 25° 158° (SSE) 729

The visual magnitude for Atlantis and ISS were given as -0.9 and -0.4 respectively. This combined with the pass times told me that STS would be in the lead as the pair moved across the sky from northwest to southeast and that Atlantis would be the brighter of the two. I grabbed my pager and set its alarm to sound about two minutes before the start of the pass.

Stepping outside, I quickly inspected the sky. While it was not the best of skies, it was clear enough that sighting the space shuttle and space station pair wouldn’t be a problem. Me and my youngest son Thomas then walked to a near-by soccer field, which has a good horizon line, about 10 minutes before the pass. I wanted to have time to get set up and to experiment with shooting images of the Moon using a variety of settings. The last thing that I wanted to be doing was fiddling with camera settings while the pass was in progress.

My son Thomas gets credit for being the first to spot the pair as they traveled over our site. I was able to take several shots while simultaneously trying to answer my son’s questions about what he was seeing.

Following the pass, we headed back home. My son was somewhat disappointed – he expected to “see” the shuttle and the space station. His disappointment diminished when I explained to him how much farther away the shuttle and space station were as compared to the commercial jets that we observed at approximately the same time.

In the picture shown here, Jupiter is the bright “star” in the lower left hand corner of the picture. The bright streak of light in the center of the picture is the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the slightly dimmer streak of light in the upper right hand corner is the International Space Station. The pair were about one second of time apart and were traveling from the upper right to lower left in the frame.

Following are the camera settings used for the above photograph:
Nikon D50
2007/06/20 21:02:54.5
Compressed RAW (12-bit)
Image Size: Large (3008 x 2000)
Lens: 28-80mm F/3.3-5.6 G
Focal Length: 28mm
Exposure Mode: Manual
Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern
5 sec – F/7.1
Exposure Comp.: 0 EV
Sensitivity: ISO 1600
Optimize Image: Normal
White Balance: Preset
AF Mode: Manual
Flash Sync Mode: Not Attached
Auto Flash Comp: 0 EV
Color Mode: Mode IIIa (sRGB)
Tone Comp.: Auto
Hue Adjustment: 0°
Saturation: Normal
Sharpening: Auto
Image Comment:
Long Exposure NR: Off

I believe that the best part of this photographic experience was taking the opportunity to use my digital camera in a way I hadn’t previously. Novel shooting situations should be sought out, not avoided.

Ad Astra, Jim

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My Weekend at DucKon

Friday, June 15th, 2007
DucKon Science Fiction Convention

I spent this last weekend at the DucKon Science Fiction Convention as the Science Guest of Honor. I was both flattered and honored when the organizers selected me as Science GOH. It is worth pointing out that it was my love of science fiction, especially hard SF and SF dealing with human settlement of the Solar System, that got me interested in science in general and astronomy and planetary geology in particular.

Arriving at the con at 5:00 or so on Friday, I had to get checked in, pick up my registration, and get my artwork set up in the Art Show. I brought seven pieces with me, one of which I donated to the Super-Con-Duck-Tivity Charity Auction. This was especially fun because I told the staffers that they would have to pick which one of my seven pieces they thought would bring in the most money and that would be the one that I would donate. The fun part was listening as they weighed the pros and cons of each piece. In the end they choose NGC 7000, a digital astrophotography piece. The other six pieces in the art show were:

  • Fate of the Sister Star – an impressionist interpretation of a supernova,
  • In the Stream of Stars – a blue gas giant planet against a background “stream” of stars,
  • A Moonish Mars – a view of the region of Pickering Crater created from a composite of Viking orbiter images,
  • The Face on Mars – a color rendition of the “Face” using Mars Global Surveyor Narrow Angle Camera data,
  • Intus Astrum Navis – a 3D surreal rendering of the interior of an alien star ship,
  • Mistress Moon – a Photoshop created version of the Earth’s Moon.

My hat is off to Melissa, who ran the art show, and to Trouble whose assistance was invaluable. Both ladies encouraged me to participate in this fall’s Windycon SF convention and I might just take them up on it.

Friday evening’s activities consisted of the opening ceremonies, the high point for which was having a vulture from the World Bird Sanctuary flying around the room inches over the audience’s heads. Following was the Spacetime Theater’s presentation of Dancing With the Star Wars which was a mix of improv and comedy routines. Following the show I spent my time in conversation with various folks: some old friends and some new.

Saturday was a busy day during which I gave two presentations and chaired one panel. I was pretty happy with how my presentation of The NSS Space Settlement Art Contest turned out. I was even happier to have a full house for my The Universe According to Monty Python talk, which I had to rush somewhat since my analysis of this two and a half minute song actually has a little more than an hour’s worth of material. I met up with my space artist friends Walter Myers and Tom Peters for our panel Space Art: Voyage to a New Frontier. Tom had brought along several of his pieces to facilitate discussion. Walt had also brought art but, like me, he had it all in the art show. Dinner that night saw me, Walt, Tom and his wife heading out for a steak dinner.

Later that evening Walt and I attended the con’s art auction. Sotheby’s it wasn’t. An art auction at a SF convention is far more fun. The auctioneers and runners did a great job of selling artwork while simultaneously entertaining the audience. Afterwards Walt and I made the rounds of the parties, er hospitality suites. One such venue was serving a particularly appealing mysterious blue liquid: an interesting combination of tasty and deadly.

Sunday morning I was sitting in the con’s Green Room having coffee and a late breakfast when I was joined by the con’s guest of honor Alan Dean Foster. Surprisingly our conversation was centered around people we knew and family, and not science fiction. I was then off to deliver my Imaging Mars presentation in which I provide an overview of how people can process Mars science mission imaging data for themselves.

Checking in at the Art Show I was pleased to learn that four of my six pieces had sold, not counting the piece I donated which had also sold at the previous night’s auction. Surprising to me was that The Face on Mars had not sold. My supposition that it would be the most appealing piece to an SF audience was obviously incorrect.

And that was pretty much the end of my weekend at DucKon. I do expect to return next year with a new lineup of both presentations and art for the auction.

Ad Astra, Jim

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DucKon SF Convention and Schedule

Monday, June 4th, 2007
Rain Forest Fantasy Digital Art
Rain Forest Fantasy Digital Artwork by Jim Plaxco

I have no sooner recovered from the International Space Development Conference than I must get prepared for the DucKon Science Fiction Convention for the weekend of June 8-10. This year’s theme: “The Duck Side of the Force”.

I was very much honored and flattered by DucKon’s decision that I would be this year’s Science Guest of Honor. It seems strangely appropriate since it was my childhood interest in science fiction that got me interested in science to begin with.

Following is a list of the presentations and panels that I will be involved in.

Opening Ceremonies, Friday 7:00pm, Main Stage
The grand opening festivities for the convention.
The NSS Space Settlement Art Contest, Saturday, 11:00am, Conf B
This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave at the International Space Development Conference reviewing the NSS Space Settlement Art Contest and the artwork that won that competition and which is featured in the Space Settlement Art Calendar.
The Universe According to Monty Python, Saturday 1:00pm, Conf B
An in depth analysis of the planetary, astronomical, and cosmological statements made in Monty Python’s “The Galaxy Song”
Space Art: Voyage to a New Frontier, Saturday 3:00pm, Conf B
This is a panel about space art that I arranged and which will feature two space artist friends of mine: Walt Myers and Tom Peters. The description that we submitted for the panel is “an exploration of the aesthetic of space art and how artists must balance imagination and reality.”
Imaging Mars, Sunday 11:00am, Conf B
An introduction to the image processing associated with Mars mission data and an exploration of Martian geology using imagery from the Viking and Mars Global Surveyor missions to Mars. This presentation is focused on giving people enough information so that they too can begin to process PDS images themselves.

As always, I look forward to DucKon as I have always felt it to be the most science friendly SF convention in the Chicago area. For complete details about the convention visit the DucKon Science Fiction Convention web site.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Recovering From ISDC

Monday, June 4th, 2007
National Space Society Award for Excellence
National Space Society Award for Excellence Presented to Jim Plaxco

Well I’ve been home almost a week from the ISDC (International Space Development Conference) and I still haven’t fully caught up. I have quite a store of materials, recordings, and photographs to go through in order to produce some written reviews of some of the presentations I attended.

I arrived in Dallas at noon on Thursday the 24th just ahead of thunderstorms that were to cause massive flight delays and cancellations. I wound up sharing a shuttle bus to the hotel with an author working on a book about space tourism. Arriving at the hotel, I dumped my bags and headed straight off to the afternoon session of the Space Venture Finance Symposium. After sitting through three of the presentations, I ducked out in order to attend the meeting of the NSS Fundraising Committee. While not a member of the committee, I felt obliged to attend in order to report on the financial aspects of the NSS Space Settlement Art Contest and Calendar.

A dinner break and it was back to committee meetings. While I sorely wanted to attend the Space Settlement Advocacy meeting, I felt obliged to attend the meeting of the Web Oversight and Internet Development Committees. These were the two committees I created as chair of a special committee established to identify an alternate solution to the society’s Internet needs. Fortunately our committee was able to implement an all-volunteer system of web site support while procuring complimentary hosting from CyberTeams, producing substantial cost saving for the society. The meeting finally broke up shortly after midnight and that’s when I called it a night.

Friday was the first full day of the conference and I attended too many sessions to cover here. I also got a nice guided tour of the ISDC Space Art Show and Sale which had some very cool space art. Unfortunately I just can’t recall the name of the attractive young lady who so kindly walked me through the show. The Friday night dinner featured science fiction author and scientist Dr. Ben Bova whose presentation I will cover at a later time. Following dinner, which lasted a few hours and included a number of award presentations, I headed back to my room in order to download the photographs I had taken that day and to go over the three presentations I was slated to give on Saturday.

Saturday was more sessions and a busy afternoon as I had my own three presentations to give. Probably the most interesting session of the day was given by General Simon “Pete” Worden, Director of NASA Ames Research Center, who delivered his talk via the virtual community Second Life in which NASA has a presence. Afterwards General Worden appeared from behind the curtain to take questions from both the live audience as well as the audience in Second Life.

Saturday’s Gala Dinner featured Dr. Steve Squyres, Principal Scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission who spoke at length about that mission. The most memorable moment for me was when, during the awards segment that followed Dr. Squyres presentation, I was presented with the National Space Society’s 2007 Award for Excellence (see graphic above) in recognition of my work as the chair of the NSS Space Settlement Art Contest and Calendar Committee.

With my presentations behind me, I took the opportunity to spend Saturday night partying. I stuck it out until after 3:00am before heading back to my room in order to dump the photos I had taken that day to my laptop. Probably the longest conversation I had that evening was with Darel Preble, chair of the Georgia Tech Space Solar Power Institute SSP Workshop. We had an extensive discussion on, you guessed it, space solar power. You can learn more about Darel and hear him interviewed about space solar power on The Space Show.

Sunday came much too quickly. It was another morning of space with Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society opening the day with his Mars Direct presentation. The luncheon speaker that day was Apollo 9 astronaut and B612 Foundation Chairman Rusty Schweickart who spoke about the NEO impact hazard. Earlier Rusty had graciously autographed a 16×20 photo composite I had created from NASA photographs of his Apollo 9 mission. The speaker at that evening’s NSS Awards Dinner was former U.S. Senator and Apollo 17 Mission Scientist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt whose presentation dealt with mining lunar helium-3 as a fuel source for fusion reactors. His book on the subject, Return to the Moon was one of my primary sources for a class I taught on the subject at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Monday morning I opted to attend the three hour Moon Rock and Meteorite Samples Certification Course. I had previously taken this course in 1989 and felt that it was about time that I go through the course again. A good portion of the class was spent doing hands-on activities meant to be done by students in the classroom. I think most people liked making craters the best.

And that is how ISDC went for me. Following the Moon Rock class, it was time to check out and head to the airport. As it was on my arrival, the weather was nasty but I was able to catch an earlier flight by flying standby and was able to depart Dallas before the worst of the storms hit.

It felt good to be back home but am not sure when I will be able to go back through the pages of notes I took, the hours of presentations I recorded, and the hundreds of photographs I took. ISDC may be over but the real challenge of ISDC still awaits me.

Ad Astra, Jim

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