Planetary scientists have all the fun

I know I am not at my blogging best when I just write, “hey, look at these spectacular images!” But…look at these spectacular images!

An image-of-the-day gadget on my iGoogle home page showed me this picture, which I subsequently spent about a half hour trying to locate at a primary-source web site. It is wicked cool.

Possible Cyclic Bedding in Arabia Terra (HiRISE/MRO)

Click to go to this image’s description page on the University of Arizona HiRISE site. (Be sure to bookmark the 2560×1600 wallpaper version!!!)

I really want to know how these terraced buttes got to be the way they are…it looks like they must have been eroded in stages, with each layer from the top getting peeled back successively, but somehow the individual layers hold together – those are some pretty steep walls. I can see in the southwestern portion of this image that some of the terrace walls are eroding away in chunks; there are a couple good fallen boulders over there. The layers might be some kind of sandstone, because they haven’t eroded away in lots of rocks and boulders, so they don’t seem very friable, but there’s obviously a lot of source material for dunes in this area so the butte walls might be getting ground down into very small grains. I’m not sure what the fluvial history of Arabia Terra is – on Earth, that would be bound to play an important role in creating landforms like this.

I also really love the expression of the more recent aeolian features in this area. Looks like there are prevailing north-south winds on the east side of this image (I’m going to say the wind blows to the north because the north sides of the dunes look more like slip faces to me), but from the east-moving dunes in the terraced valley-like feature at center bottom and the east-west oriented ripples on the larger dune field, the winds are apparently going in rather circuitous routes around these buttes. There are also some confusingly-oriented dunes and ripples in the southwest portion of this image, probably from the wind winding around all the rocky towers. (In my mind, I can hear it whistling.)

Looks like the valley from which the east-going dunes have traveled is an exposed outcrop of one of the terrace layers. This image can resolve objects less than a meter in size, so the various crisscrossing dark lines in the light-toned outcrop might be joints or something.

Anyway, this is not a new image and I haven’t studied or researched this stuff…I just saw it today and wrote a little stream of consciousness of geological ideas. I just think this image looks beautiful and I want to send some rovers/people there. Any planetary science guys want to comment?

Last, and just for grins, here are some goodies I turned up in my search for that image on the UA HiRISE site. Here we have some dramatic contrast between dunes and some lighter, rockier topographically high areas:

Pitted Layers Northeast of Hellas Region

Here’s some great layer exposures around some hills – and if you zoom into the large version of this one, you can find some wild and interesting ripple patterns:

Light-Toned Rock Exposures in Noctis Labyrinthus

Thus ends today’s amateur geology geekage.

Solving the CxP-cancellation image problem

I was very encouraged to read that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) expressed some thoughts on the new NASA budget this past week that agrees pretty well with my own view. I’ve generally been worried about the Senators and Representatives from Florida, Alabama, and Texas; since I am very much a proponent of the new NASA programs, I don’t want to see politicians trying to drag out the generally defunct Constellation program just to get some pork for their districts.

Some of Sen. Nelson’s comments:

“I think they made two tactical mistakes that gave everybody the wrong impression,” the Florida Democrat said. “The first one is that the president didn’t set what the goal is, and everybody knows the goal and that’s to go to Mars.

“The second mistake was that they said they are canceling the Constellation program. That sounds like they were canceling the manned (spaceflight) program, when in the same breath he said we’re doing the research and development for a heavy lift vehicle, and they were putting all their eggs in the same basket of getting to the space station with the commercial boys.”

The most frustrating thing to me about the general space-blogger explosion in response to the new NASA budget and programs is that they all seem to have been screaming, “Obama cancelled the manned space program!” That has never been true; he cancelled the already-way-behind-Constellation program. Cancelling the human spaceflight program would look something more like erasing NASA’s Exploration Systems and Space Operations Mission Directorates. ESMD is, in fact, getting the large bulk of the new NASA money, and it’s earmarked specifically for new human space programs and technology. I have even seen news reports that talk about the NASA “budget cut,” when in fact the budget is increasing by a phenomenal $6 billion in the next five years.

What gives? Why do all the commentators think that what’s going on is the exact opposite of what’s actually happening? It could just be the people at Marshall SFC and the fans of Mike Griffin (who frequently pontificates that CxP’s thrown-together-knee-jerk-Columbia-reaction approach is the best and only way to get into space) don’t want to see Constellation’s vehicles go, but that is hard to understand given how far behind schedule Ares I is, how Ares V and Altair don’t exist yet, and how Orion keeps shrinking in capacity and capability. They’re also not everybody in the space community…and I’d expect the rest to be excited about the expanded budget and the new mandate for NASA to go ahead and put modern technologies on their vehicles, instead of sticking to Shuttle-era (that’s the 70’s, folks) stuff. I think Sen. Nelson hit the nail on the head – most of the media have conflated “Constellation Program” with “Human Space Program,” and the lack of an explicitly articulated space goal direct from the President is hurting right now. NASA Administrator Maj Gen Charlie Bolden clearly thinks that the goal is to get people to Mars by about 2030, and President Obama even asked, in his call to ISS astronauts last week, what it would take to get to Mars and beyond.

So I think President Obama desperately needs to give a Space Address, in which he articulates The Goal and expresses American spaceflight ambitions in a way that deals with the issues that Sen. Nelson identified. I think I know, from the budget documents, Bolden’s remarks, and what little we’ve heard from the White House, what would be in this address (again, see my post “NASA, unleashed!“). So, here’s what I think he should say. Everything here is factually accurate, based on the budget numbers and Bolden’s statements. The dramatic difference is that it leaves no ambiguity as to the positive position of our human space program. Obama could give this speech, or something like it, tomorrow. And he should! Continue reading Solving the CxP-cancellation image problem

Our biggest spaceship now has an Observation Deck!

This is just so cool.

STS-130: Endeavour

“Mike, if you’re CapCommin’ and you’re lookin’ for folks and you can’t find ’em…they’re probably in here.”

That was a radio call from the STS-130 crew to Mission Control in Houston from early on Wednesday, after all seven windows in the ISS Cupola were opened for the very first time. I have been watching NASA TV and trawling their multimedia galleries all the time I’ve been at my desk today…the views out the Cupola – of Earth, the Moon, the Station, and the Shuttle – are simply spectacular. Here is a small selection of the currently available images, available here. (I can’t wait till they release some of the photos looking out at the Shuttle cargo bay and the Soyuz spacecraft on the ISS exterior. Future robot arm work is also going to look amazing.)

S130-E-007858 (14 Feb. 2010) --- NASA astronaut Robert Behnken, STS-130 mission specialist, participates in the mission
ISS022-E-067184 (17 Feb. 2010) --- NASA astronauts Robert Behnken (left) and Nicholas Patrick, both STS-130 mission specialists, participate in the mission
ISS022-E-066963 (17 Feb. 2010) --- This image is among the first taken through a first of its kind "bay window" on the International Space Station, the seven-windowed Cupola. The image shows the coast of Algeria featuring (in the Cupola's round window) an area between the cities of Dellys and Algiers. The image was recorded with a digital still camera using a 28mm lens setting. The Cupola, which a week and half ago was brought up to the orbital outpost by the STS-130 crew on the space shuttle Endeavour, will house controls for the station robotics and will be a location where crew members can operate the robotic arms and monitor other exterior activities.
ISS022-E-066964 (17 Feb. 2010) --- NASA astronauts Terry Virts (left), STS-130 pilot; and Jeffrey Williams, Expedition 22 commander, pose for a photo near the windows in the newly-installed Cupola of the International Space Station while space shuttle Endeavour remains docked with the station.
ISS022-E-066976 (17 Feb. 2010) --- NASA astronauts Terry Virts (left), STS-130 pilot; and Stephen Robinson, mission specialist, pose for a photo near the windows in the newly-installed Cupola of the International Space Station while space shuttle Endeavour remains docked with the station.

Go Endeavour!

terrifying influences on school boards

I am reluctant to bump “Conference” down on my front page with this can of worms, especially now that my readership has been on the up-and-up, but hey, it’s my blog….

Yesterday I made the mistake of trolling around the New York Times web site for a few minutes between a lunch meeting and getting back to work. It was a mistake because I discovered this magazine article on the influence of religion in textbook revisions. It caught my attention with its headline, but it’s not really about how Christian the American Founding Fathers were. It’s about how Christian the Texas state school board thinks they were.

It’s a long article, and it covers a lot of ground. And I find a lot of it, honestly, terrifying.

I’m not just talking about the despicable attempts to get Christian creationism into science classrooms. (Side notes on semantics: “intelligent design” is a form of creationism, so I will not distinguish between the two; also, I will generally use the word “creationism” as a shorthand for “Christian creationism” – a necessary distinction, as there are hundreds of religions, each with their own creation story, to choose from.) Nor am I talking about the insidious efforts to insert the beliefs and practices of specific Christian sects into our government. I am talking about the repeated references to concepts like manifest destiny – the idea that American history has been guided by divine providence, that westward expansion was an effort to bring the One True Religion to the inferior heathen natives, that God has chosen America for divine purpose. It’s the divine right of kings all over again. And it’s the very reason why we have the First Amendment. A lot of that article made me so angry that I couldn’t do any useful work for about half an hour. Continue reading terrifying influences on school boards

this was good, I must write it down

  • One medium onion, chopped
  • One green pepper, ditto
  • 2-3 big carrots, or 6-8 baby carrots, also ditto
  • 3-4 slices of ham, cut into 1 cm square pieces
  • Pasta (I used half a box of rotini)

Cook the onions, peppers, and carrots in a pan over medium heat until the onions start to turn translucent. Throw in the ham and let that cook for a bit. At this point, I put some water on to boil for the pasta. I then added:

  • about two teaspoons chopped garlic (though I would have liked sliced fresh garlic)
  • about one to one and a half tablespoons parmesan cheese
  • a bunch of basil
  • some crushed red pepper
  • some oregano
  • a dash of paprika

Cook that while the water boils. When its time to put the pasta in, throw it in the water and then pour some white cooking wine over the veggies and ham. Turn the heat down to low and simmer until the pasta is done. (I left mine a little al dente.) Drain the pasta, then combine everything, cover it, and shake it all up.

NASA, unleashed!

or, The “Apollo on Steroids” Critics Have Their Way

or, President Obama Comes Through On Space

I am simply thrilled at the prospects offered by the NASA budget released earlier today. In that budget, President Obama directed that NASA’s mission shift in scope in a dramatic way – a new paradigm, as all the media proclaim. That paradigm is this: NASA is going to stick its neck out. The space exploration business has grown to become incredibly risk-averse. NASA is now going to start experimenting more, trying new technologies, pushing the envelope, and playing with new strategies while leaving the more conservative aspects of spaceflight to others. NASA is going to lead while others follow. This ends a decades-long effort in which NASA was, essentially, playing catch-up with itself.

There’s a pretty good article about this on SpaceRef, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s statement on the NASA budget is available online. The new budget also comes Buzz-approved! I read through Bolden’s statement carefully, and I think it has some very, very exciting things to say about the future of the space program. Continue reading NASA, unleashed!