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Archive for May, 2008

A Day in Washington DC

Thursday, May 29th, 2008
Capitol Building, Washington DC
Capitol Building, Washington DC

Tuesday night I found myself facing a dilemma. My problem was what to do on Wednesday. I was faced with two radically different alternatives. This was my fourth trip to DC and I had come in two days early so that I could spend the day before the International Space Development Conference sightseeing and photographing – an opportunity I never got to take on my previous three trips.

My plan was to rise early, get tickets to ascend the Washington Monument for a great view of the city, and then head over to the National Academy of Sciences to take in “The Last Iceberg”, an exhibit of photographs by Camille Seaman. After that, more photographing the various national monuments.

Or I could join National Space Society Executive Vice President Greg Allison and visit the offices of several U.S. Senators and Representatives for meetings with aides for the purpose of outlining why the senator/representative should support space in general and full funding for the NASA budget in particular. My mental calculus was this: I could come to D.C. and take photos anytime but how often would I have the opportunity to sit down and speak with legislative staff about the importance of human and robotic space exploration.

The next morning three teams of blitzers met at the Dirksen Building cafeteria for breakfast. Greg Allison, Myrna Coffino, and myself were Team Two. Our first visit was to the office of Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) to meet with Legislative Aide Ryan Habmleton. We had made it through most of our informal presentation when a fire drill ousted us from the building.

After an hour outside, our team split up in order to make both our appointments. Myrna, who is from New York, headed off to visit with Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s (D-NY) Staff Assistant Linda Forman, and Greg, who is from Alabama, and I, whose family is from Mississippi, headed to Senator Wicker’s (R-MS) office to meet with Legislative Assistant Kelly Mixon. I really enjoyed our meeting with Kelly, who was both gracious (southern charm) and attentive. Good vibes all around

Our teams met back at the cafeteria for lunch and then took off for our afternoon round of visits. Our first visit was with Robert Bovard, Legislative Correspondent for Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). This was followed by a lengthy visit with Mike Buttry, the Chief of Staff for Senator Hagel (R-NB). Mr. Buttry was the highest ranking individual we met with that day and scored “5’s” from us across the board in our post-meeting review. Mr. Buttry demonstrated that he was well informed on the relevant issues. He even volunteered a fair amount of useful advice for us. This, our last meeting of the day, definitely left us feeling good.

Our teams then met up at the American Restaurant in Union Station to have drinks and dinner and compare notes. All in all, the three teams had generally positive feedback from the staffers we met with, which was encouraging. After that we caught the Metro back to the hotel, ditched our suits and ties, and took on a more casual appearance.

Meeting back in the lobby, we ran into Chris Carberry, the new Executive Director for the Mars Society. Chris, Greg, myself, and Rick Zucker – the mastermind and coordinator of the day’s visit to the Capitol, headed out to McCormick & Schmick’s for drinks and eats – in that order. A round of Guiness later we were ready to order. Having already eaten, I opted for desert – smartly taking Lauren’s advice by ordering her favorite dessert – double baked apple pie with a walnut glaze and cinnamon ice cream. FYI, Loren was our waitress and she did an outstanding job. Later I put Greg on the spot by telling Lauren that Greg would write a poem about her before we left. Not one to back down from a challenge, Greg rose to the occasion and wrote a short poem that impressed Lauren and the rest of us. If only I could remember it, I’d reproduce it here.

And that’s where I’ll end this story of my second day -Wed. May 28 – in Washington D.C.

Ad Astra, Jim

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The Passing of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger

Monday, May 26th, 2008
Ernst Stuhlinger at right
Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger (at right) in 1999.

I was saddened to learn last night of the death earlier in the day of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger. Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger was one of the last surviving members of the Peenemuende rocket team that came to America after World War II with Dr. Wernher von Braun (Operation Paperclip).

I had the good fortune to meet and speak with Dr. Stuhlinger on a couple occasions over the years. He was very generous in volunteering to mail me typewritten versions of a couple of his presentations so that I could add them to my Astrodigital web site and publish them in the Chicago Society for Space Studies newsletter Spacewatch which I edited at that time.

In addition to having a Ph.D. in physics, Dr. Stuhlinger’s career with NASA included serving as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center space science lab from 1960 to 1968, followed by being the associate director for science from 1968 to 1975, after which he retired from NASA. Dr. Stuhlinger worked on Explorer 1 – America’s first successful satellite, part of which I have been told was built in his garage! Dr. Stuhlinger was also a pioneer in the field of electric propulsion and wrote the book Ion Propulsion for Space Flight. In 2005, the Electric Rocket Propulsion Society awarded him their “Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Electric Propulsion.”

Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
Born: 19 December 1913 in Niederrimbach, Germany
Died: 25 May 2008 in Huntsville AL, USA

Ad Astra Dr. Stuhlinger

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Phoenix Lander Safely on Mars

Sunday, May 25th, 2008
Phoenix First Picture of the Martian Surface
Phoenix Lander First Picture of the Martian Surface

Hurray. The Phoenix Lander has survived Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) to arrive safely on the surface of Mars. The radio signal indicating its success was received at NASA JPL at 4:53:44 p.m. Pacific Time. The signal was relayed from Phoenix to Earth via Mars Odyssey, now in orbit around Mars.

As I write this Phoenix has been on the surface of Mars for almost three and a half hours. Phoenix was launched August 4, 2007 and followed a Type II trajectory to Mars. It has landed in an arctic lowland plain in a vast region known as Vastitas Borealis. The longitude of the Phoenix landing site is 233 degrees East longitude. This lies to the east of the line of longitude on which the volcano Arsia Mons sits. Phoenix’s latitude is 68 degrees North. On Earth this would be in northern Greenland and very close to the Artic Circle.

Phoenix’s prime mission is to last 90 days. Believe it when you are told that this won’t be like the MER missions which have outlived their 90 day mission by years. Right now summer is just starting in the northern hemisphere of Mars and the Sun will be above the horizon all day. But as winter approaches, less and less sunlight will reach the solar arrays and the nights will get colder and colder. And there will come a day when the Sun doesn’t rise and before the winter is over Phoenix could well be buried under a foot or more of dry ice – the Martian version of snow. So this mission will effectively end sometime this November when Mars passes behind the Sun from our perspective and all communications with the red planet are cut off.

So Phoenix will have a short life, but let’s hope that it is a very productive one.

Ad Astra, Jim

P.S. My interview with WBBM radio (780 AM) about the Phoenix mission is to air sometime tomorrow (Monday).  Sometime after airing, the full 30 minute interview will be posted to their web site.

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Mars Phoenix Lander Interview

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008
Mars Phoenix Lander
Mars Phoenix Lander

Earlier today I made a trip to the local office of the Daily Herald in order to be interviewed for a WBBM-AM radio (780 on the dial) newscast. The interview was conducted by Steve Grzanich, reporter and co-anchor of the afternoon news at WBBM. For half an hour we talked about the Phoenix lander mission to Mars and its place in the exploration of Mars. We discussed past missions to Mars, current missions to Mars, how we benefit from the study of Mars, and what the prospects are for future human missions to the red planet.

In addition to talking about Mars, I was able to get in brief plugs for the Chicago Society for Space Studies, the National Space Society, and my upcoming presentation on space art at the International Space Development Conference in D.C.

I was also supposed to be interviewed by Julie, a reporter for the Daily Herald, but just as I arrived at the Herald’s office, she was called away on breaking news on the Drew Peterson escapade.

It was a fun interview and the time passed quickly. My long time interest in Mars is largely responsible for my work with the raw image data returned by various Mars missions, beginning with the Viking missions. I’ve been lecturing about the exploration of Mars since 1988 and it was my desire to provide unique images as a part of my presentations that got me started with processing raw image data instead of relying on images released by the NASA public affairs folks Prior to the Internet, the only way to obtain this mission data was by ordering CD’s from the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC). Now the NASA PDS Imaging Node makes those data files easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

I am told that the interview should air Thursday (tomorrow) afternoon and that the full interview will be available as a podcast in a few days on the WBBM web site. I’ll provide the details once I have them.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Context Free Art

Saturday, May 17th, 2008
Context Free Art
Context Free Art Example

My favorite aspect of digital art is the seemingly endless possibilities for mental and artistic exploration it provides. For example, I have only just begun to learn how to use Context Free. Context Free is a graphics program that creates an image based on a set of written instructions. These instructions are termed a grammar and consist of rules and parameters. These rules are saved in a Context Free Design Grammar (CFDG) file.

For me, this is reminiscent of the way computer graphics were created back in the early days. Unfortunately I do not recall the name of the programming package I first used to create graphics on an Apple II+ back circa 1982. Having no input device other than the keyboard meant that the only way to create graphics was programmatically.

The colorful geometric figure above was created using Context Free. The program I wrote to create this illustration is shown below.

// A sample Context Free CFDG
startshape Art
rule Art {
draw{ hue 120 sat .5 }
}

rule draw {
SQUARE{ b -1}
SQUARE{ s .995 b 1 }
draw{r 30 s .995 hue +1 }
}

In brief, the above program works as follows. To begin, the startshape directive tells Context Free the name of the rule to start drawing with. In this case the name of the rule is Art.

The rule Art consists of one statement: an instruction to execute the rule named draw. You will note that the draw statement has two parameters. The hue parameter specifies the color to draw and the value of 120 corresponds to green. The sat parameter specifies the saturation of the color, in this case 50%.

At this point control is passed to the draw rule. The first statement, SQUARE, tells Context Free to draw a square. The parameter b is used to specify brightness and the value of -1 corresponds to black. So a solid black square is drawn. The second statement, SQUARE, tells the program to draw another square. In this case there are two parameters. The s parameter is used to specify the size percentage. In this case .995 tells Context Free to draw this square at 99.5 percent the size of the last square drawn. The parameter b, used to specify brightness, is given the value of 1 which corresponds to white. So a solid green square is drawn. If this were the last statement, then the result would be a simple solid green square (from the second SQUARE statement) with a black border (from the first SQUARE statement).

The magic happens in the final statement. The draw rule is directed to execute the draw rule. When a statement or function calls itself, this is referred to as recursion. The beauty is that in this new call to the draw rule we can modify the initial drawing conditions. The r parameter tells Context Free that the first thing it should do is to rotate the drawing angle by the number of degrees specified, in this case 30. The s parameter instructs Context Free to reduce the size of whatever is to be drawn to 99.5 percent of what was drawn last. Finally, the hue parameter says to increment the value of the hue by 1.

The draw rule is then executed using these new initial conditions. And when the statement to call the draw rule again is encountered, the initial conditions are again altered by the parameters. And again and again and again. The draw rule will be called over and over until the size of what is being drawn shrinks down to nothing. When this last draw is executed, it returns control to the draw that called it and so on all the way back up the chain until control is finally returned to the Art rule.

Writing programs for Context Free can give you a nice mental workout. The program shown above is a very simple one that just scratches the surface of what is possible. You really should give this software a try. And I’ve saved the best for last: the Context Free software is free. You can download a copy for yourself from the Context Free web site.

Go ahead – give it a try. Jim

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Gallery of Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings

Thursday, May 15th, 2008
Trouvelot astronomical drawing Sonne
Trouvelot astronomical illustration: Sonne III

Earlier this evening while doing research for my upcoming presentation on space art at the International Space Development Conference (see Art and the Promotion of Space Exploration), I was looking for information about Étienne Trouvelot, an astronomical artist active during the 1870’s. Quite to my surprise, I found a small gallery of his art at the New York Public Library web site. The 15 images are all from his book The Trouvelot astronomical drawings published in 1881 by Scribner’s Sons.

Of the images contained in the gallery, my two favorites are Mare Humorum, from a lunar study made in 1875, and The planet Mars, drawn based on observations from September 3, 1877. To view these and the rest of the images, visit New York Public Library’s Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings gallery.

P.S. Trouvelot is perhaps more well known as being the individual responsible for the accidental introduction of the gypsy moth to North America.

Ad Astra, Jim

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