Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Apollo Moon Tree


Armed with my handy space maps, I am always on the lookout for Apollo Moon Trees, wherever I go.  Virginia was no exception, and I found the tallest one I've seen yet!

Apollo 14 Command Module pilot Stuart Roosa, who remained in lunar orbit while his cohorts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell frolicked about Fra Mauro, took hundreds of redwood, sycamore, pine, fir and sweetgum tree seeds aboard the Kitty Hawk capsule in 1971, at the request of Forest Service employees. Upon return to Earth, the seeds were distributed to various communities, resulting in the "Moon Trees".

Apollo Drive
Can you think of a better place to plant a Moon Tree?

Most Moon Trees were planted as experimental controls, alongside normal seeds, though many decades later there is no visible difference. The majority were distributed as seedlings, and planted in 1976 for bicentennial celebrations, though the List of Moon Trees records plantings from as early as 1973 and as late as 1984.

A few traveled to foreign nations, and still others found their way to universities, NASA centers, national parks and monuments -- including the White House.  To date, only one was ever deliberately removed – a New Orleans pine that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

My recent find was a beautiful sycamore at Booker Elementary School on Apollo Drive in Hampton, Virginia.

Hampton, VA Moon Tree

This particular tree is very special, and different from the others in that it was the result of a poetry contest held among the schoolchildren.

In 1976, then-6th grader Marjorie White (who is 52 now) wrote the winning poem called "A Tree Lives", which Booker has kept on their main office wall for many years, alongside a gold NASA plaque from when the tree was dedicated during the Bicentennial, and once again at the 30th anniversary in 2006.

The Winning Poem!
"A Tree Lives" by Marjorie White
(Click to see original in larger type!)

Despite knowing Roosa had hundreds of seeds, only 90 are listed officially by NASA – and a mere 44 have been photographed by the Waymarkers Moon Tree Group.  Sadly, they were not tracked efficiently. Like the Goodwill Moon Rocks, the 1970s handlers were casual about what would one day become a part of world heritage.

Pulling togehter many resources over the years, I have catalogued directions and coordinates to 83 Apollo Moon Trees, which can be found (along with outdoor scaled Solar Systems) on my Pillownaut Nature Walks Map.

If you know the location of any seeds, or where they were planted, curators at the National Space Science Data Center would love to hear from you. Email NASA if you find one!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Flying a Piece of America


Bucket List item! Just this past July, I wrote an article about the Amazing Objects That Have Sailed To Space, and while in Virginia this past week, I got to visit the rarest and oldest!

Yames Towne Cargo Tag

BEHOLD: The "Yames Town" metal cargo tag from America's very first 17th Century settlement in the New World, which flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis!

NASA Shuttle mission STS-117 carried the small lead piece from "Yames Towne", a 400-year-old artifact excavated by archaeologists in what we now call "Jamestown", Virginia, 2006. This particular item made a trip across the Atlantic Ocean around 1611, along with European passengers destined for Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

Jamestown Virginia Archaeological Site

Archaeologists at the present-day site of the original James Fort the coast of the James River (are you seeing a pattern, here?) who are still actively digging to find many more relics, say this archaic equivalent of a modern-day luggage tag very likely attached to a wooden barrel or box to identify cargo destination.

Gun powder previously warehoused in London? Someone's personal trunk? Foodstuffs or supplies for the colony? We may never know.  The spelling with the "Y" seems strange to modern eyes, but may indicate Dutch origin, as this language typically represented "J" with "Y" during this historical era.

Yames Towne Cargo Tag

In honor of the 400th anniversary of the founding of this first colony of the New World, the metal plate was packed aboard Atlantis in 2007, and took 219 orbits around the Earth – this time crossing many oceans in a fraction of the time!  It's quite breath-taking to think of how far our technology has come in such a short time -- but certainly the craftsman who created this item could never have forseen its eventual journey, centuries later.

The tag is now in the Archaearium, the historic Jamestown museum in Virginia, along with a Space Shuttle plaque showing the ISS, the mission patch, the crew of STS-117 and a certificate returning the tag to the new Colonial National Historical Park.  The site of the first ship's landing is only yards away.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

For originals of the Jamestown colony visit, or the previous days at NASA Langley, see my Pillownaut Picasa gallery of my trip to Virginia!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Orion Space Craft Tests


Spacey awesomeness continued from yesterday's Orion crash tests by NASA Langley's Project Splash! Just when you think it can't get any cooler, I and some other enthusiastic SpaceTweeps visited the Norfolk Naval Air Station at Sewell's Point on the Elizabeth River.

Can you say, "largest naval complex in the world"?!  Also, if you're into American history, we were near the site of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac (CSS Virginia). We felt very honored to be allowed on base, with a knowledgeable Navy escort who took us along the 14 piers, where we spied various Destroyers, Aircraft Carriers, and Cargo Ships.

Said piers regularly support 75 ships in total, and 134 aircraft, amid the highest concentration of U.S. Navy forces. Port Services controls more than three thousand ships' movements annually as they arrive and depart their berths. You want to be on your best behavior, here.

Once situated among Navy, Marines, Lockheed-Martin personnel, local press and even Virginia Congressmen(!), we witnessed a by-the-book Stationery Recovery Test of an Orion capsule from ocean into the USS Arlington, San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock (also called landing/platform dock), designed to transport troops and helicopters by sea.

This class of ship also has a wide "well deck" that can take on (up to) 14 feet of water in ballast, and quickly deballast, to capture or release water crafts... or in our case, the new class of space capsules being developed by NASA and Lockheed for the next generation of missions. We hope!

In this second video, Commander Brett Moyes, Future Plans Branch chief, U.S. Fleet Forces, narrates the guiding of tending lines to attach-points, so the capsule can be loaded into the well deck -- free of tangles, without smashing into walls, and without killing or drowning any of the Navy sailors or Navy Dive Team involved.

Some men above water, and some men below water -- all worked together to maneuver the module.  It may look slow and simple, but don't be fooled. This is a precision operation of many complex procedural checklists when you're on the water -- and when genuine capsule recoveries are performed, it will most certainly be with higher waves, higher winds, and perhaps less forgiving weather.

What a rush to see the very capsule from crash test films up close, in the ocean for the next testing phase! Next year, the U.S. Navy will team with NASA again to recover a capsule out to sea, so the word "stationery" will be dropped from the recovery test.  We're seeing mission experiments in action!

For photographs of the entire day, see the NASA Langley album in my Pillownaut Picasa galleries.  Includes snaps around LaRC, Orion sea recovery, plus older pictures of Orion mockup crafts at the final Space Shuttle launch (STS-135) and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) in Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

NASA Langley Project SPLASH!


Awesome trip to Virginia! I often despaired that I might never get to see the NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC), but I not only finally had the opportunity -- I was able to cross a major space site off my bucket list in the process. THE GANTRY!

Lunar Landing Research Facility

This "Gantry" is 240 feet high, 400 feet long, 265 feet wide, and it's massive A-frame  won't fit in any photographs unless you take one from a helicopter!

Built in 1963, and operational by 1965, it was initially used to model the Moon's 1/6th gravity level with complex suspension systems. 

The Gantry at NASA Langley

Originally called the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF),  it was upon this sacred site where all 24 Apollo astronauts trained to land on the Moon with Lunar Excursion Model Simulators (LEMS)

The suspension systems also allowed all the potential Moonwalkers to practice walking in low gravity in their life support suits-- as uncomfortably evidenced here by astronaut  Roger Chaffee in 1965.

The Gantry

Still actively used for testing, the area is now a National Historical Landmark, and has recently been re-named the Landing and Impact Research Facility (LandIR).

Can you remember all those acronyms? There will be a test later. 

Our host at the Gantry was Richard Boitnott, 7-year veteran of the Structural Dynamics Branch at NASA Langley, and he inspired the most laughter I've ever heard at a NASA presentation, as he treated us to fascinating films of Orion space capsule drop-testing at the LandIR. Oh, the hilarity.

Richard Boitnott

Watch Richard narrate dry-lake bed landings, animal mishaps, NASCAR comparison crashes, airbag blowouts, sand & honeycomb decelerations, slow-motion impacts from different angles, water landings (the first in a toddler wading pool!), and finally, a time-lapsed video of the construction of the Hydro Impact Basin used for advanced capsule water landings.

The video is just short of 9 minutes, but undeniably one of the best ways to see how Orion is being prepared for space travel, and how it will return to Earth. And funny. So funny. Can you spot the dragonfly?

The capsule used in the final drops was the same one we saw later in the day at the Norfolk Naval Air Station, being pulled from the ocean into the USS Arlington, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock. I'll upload those videos tomorrow!

If you enjoyed these films, you can see all the originals at the NASA Langley Hydro Impact Basin website, where the last 2 years of tests are archived.

For photographs of the entire day, see the NASA Langley album in my Pillownaut Picasa galleries!  Includes snaps around LaRC, Orion sea recovery, plus older pictures of Orion mockup crafts at the final Space Shuttle launch (STS-135) and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) in Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

NASA Social #10!


NASA Social #10! Well, okay, that's actually a bit of a squeaky count.The first five events I either attended for fun or worked with dearly-departed Camilla were called "Tweetups". The switchover to "Social" didn't seem to go over too well, but the gatherings themselves have been no less exciting and informative! 

NASA Langley Research Center

As you read this, I'm already on the airplane. This post, like many I write in advance, was set to auto-schedule right around the time I'll be landing in Norfolk, Virginia to finally visit NASA Langley Research Center!

Over the next few days, we will be touring the Landing & Impact Dynamics Facility, the National Transonic Facility wind tunnel, and the Structures & Materials Lab. Following these highlights of the "LaRC", we will travel to the Norfolk Naval Air Station for the Orion Stationery Recovery Test!

Orion spacecraft

Lockheed-Martin has spearheaded the Orion since it's concept stage as part of the Constellation project. It is now the last remnant of Constellation, and its design, manufacturing, construction, and testing processes employees thousands of workers at 90 companies across 26 states.

Orion started out as a "Crew Exploration Vehicle" (CEV) in 2004; the capsule evolved to be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and you can follow development and testing updates on Twitter at @NASA_Orion.

Of course, over the course of the social events this week, you can also follow me a @Pillownaut on Twitter, the Orion recovery ship clan, or the hashtag #NASASocial.

Orion Engineers

I was lucky enough to meet some Orion designers at NASA Kennedy during the last Space Shuttle launch, and also witnessed astronaut testing of the capsule in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) at NASA Johnson. For a sneak preview, see my Pillownaut Picasa gallery for capsule pictures. Much more will be added here over the next week!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Space Junk 2: Surface Litter


Continuing on from yesterday's essay about the floating trash heaps we clever little monkeys keep unleashing into space, I though it was also worth mentioning the things we have sent to the orbit or surface of other celestial bodies.

Click for list of objects on Mars

Did you know the United States sent five probes to planet Venus in 1978? Then an orbiter in 1989. The Soviet Union sent 16 crafts to Venus between 1966 and 1985, including capsules, landers and even "balloon gondolas". You read that right. Balloon gondolas. No space-faring nation has sent anything since around the time the movie "Back To The Future" came out.

Still, even bringing up the rear of mysteries we have explored in our inner solar system, the scattering of major hardware on Venus amounts to 50,000 pounds or 25 tons. That's an awful lot of metal, slowly melting on the hot Venusian crust!

Surveyor 3 on the Moon
Click for a graphic of large objects mapped on the Moon

We hear far more about Mars in the news and popular culture, but only a fraction of similar metal exists on the red planet. And here, of course, some are still operational and moving about!

As of last summer, when the Curiosity MSL Rover landed successfully,  all the artificial objects on Mars, compliments of NASA, RFSA, and the ESA, come to 20,000 pounds or 10 tons.

It may sound like a substantial heap of hardware, but it's a relatively meager showing, considering that's only 13 crafts total out of 42 attempts! It's also a mere 5% of what we have landed or smashed into the moon.

It is not as easy to reach Mars and land as we might think. The majority of crafts sent up have either failed somewhere along the way, or suffered communication malfunctions, leaving their fate a mystery.

Space crafts on Venus, Moon and Mars
However, the list of lunar junk truly sets the record for off-world trash heaps. Our moon holds a whopping 393,000 pounds of space crafts, or just under 200 tons of human-made objects.

The USA, USSR, Japan, the European Union, India, and China now have 73 probes, [intentionally] crashed orbiters, landers and rovers on the lunar surface.

Wonder which of these will be heritage sites, national parks or Earth Monuments when we are finally a space-faring species? Or will we just send a clean-up crew? Either way, each of the lists linked above have convenient coordinates listed, so it's fun to go to Google Moon or Google Mars and map the human hardware!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Space Junk 1: Orbital Debris


Still on that Mars Curiosity high! It's interesting how exciting I am each time we as a species launch something into space. It's stunning to hear how things zing around above our heads studying various properties of Earth, how far probes travel, or how hardware land successfully on other celestial bodies due to precise calculations and engineering.

All these amazing feats are so rare and so special, proposals have recently emerged to protect them as national treasures. However, it then occurs to me just how much hardware we have released into our solar system, on both successful and unsuccessful missions. We value many -- but others are pure hazards. Then I remember: space debris, as a byproduct of exploration, is a genuine hazard.

Orbital Debris in Low Earth Orbit
Artist's Concept of Objects in Low Earth Orbit

At this time, pieces of orbital debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO) number in the tens of millions. About 20,000 of these objects are larger than 10cm. Particles between 1-10cm are estimated at about half a million. The rest are less than 1cm.

Orbital Debris is defined as a human-made object in orbit around the Earth which no longer serves a useful purpose, such as launch vehicle upper stages, spent payload carriers, derelict spacecraft, pieces resulting from explosions or collisions, and even tiny paint flecks released by impacts.

Most orbital debris reside within 2,000 km of the Earth's surface, or are in LEO.  How do we estimate the numbers and placements? Ground-based radars can detect objects as small as 3mm, and space-based detection systems can detect things as far as 40,000km out.

Orbital Debris in Geosynchronous Orbit
Artist's Concept of Objects in GeoSynchronous Orbit (GSO)

The US Space Surveillance Network tracks all orbital debris larger than 10cm.  An average of one catalogued piece of debris falls back to Earth each day, and this has been the case for the past four decades.  In LEO and below, orbital debris circles at around 7-8 kilometers per second, or up to 18,000mph.

As a result, the International Space Station (ISS) is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown. Nodes holding human crews and pressure tanks on the structure are able to withstand impact of debris as large as 1cm. The ISS can also maneuver to avoid tracked objects.

The higher the altitude, the longer the debris will remain in orbit. Debris left below 600km fall back to Earth within a few years, though precious little survives the super-heated re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. Things higher than 800km take decades to return. Above 1,000km or more? Those may circle for a century or more.

Geosynchronous Orbit as seen from Polar View
GSO Polar View

Most telecommunications and meteorological satellites operate at the 36,000km altitude in geostationary orbit, where the problem or orbital debris is less severe. Which is not to say... harmless.

If you happen to have nothing to be indignant about this week yet, you can read about how NASA handles Orbital Debris Re-Entry. Or if you want to be part of all future re-entry dangers, you can sign up for NASA's "Orbital Debris Quarterly" newsletter.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Year of Curiosity


One year ago today, Curiosity Rover, carrying the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), landed on Mars. There were 127 landing parties in the USA and 15 other countries, and thousands of people watched breathlessly until news of the successful landing gave way to raucous celebrations all over the globe!

NASA JPL Mission Control
NASA Television had a record number of viewers. went DOWN. Ustream froze. Live data feeds tanked due to the onslaught of online demand. The world watched. Together. And believe it or not, the fun has just barely begun...!

Neil deGrasse Tyson predicted the risky Entry, Descent, & Landing (EDL) would fail. Many of us writers considered preparing two articles -- one for success and one for a crash. I spent days feeling sick to my stomach at the idea of what would happen to the NASA budget for Mars missions if Curiosity didn't land safely. (Humanity doesn't exactly have a stellar success rate with missions to the red planet!)

MSL Tweet

Everything that could have gone right, went right. Every expected signal arrived. Everyone who worked on this magnificent mission of space exploration can be proud, choked up, relieved and sleepless-for-days jubilant! And millions of us who had followed this mission for years could finally say that our most cutting edge technology now roves on the fourth rock from the sun.

I saw the very first images on a huge screen at the largest landing party on Earth. By the time the EDL was in progress, more than 7,000+ people had congregated at NASA Ames Research Center near Moffett Field in California. The cheer that rose from that crowd when we knew Curiosity had landed safely was utterly EPIC!  The roar upon receiving the first photograph on Martian terrain...? Well, I'm pretty sure people in Las Vegas heard us.

Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars
MSL Curiosity has since drilled rocks, fired lasers at soil target, photographed landslides, ound streambeds, and even photographed the Martian moon Phobos overhead!

From Bradbury to Glenelg,from Rocknest to Point Lake, from Shaler to Cumberland, and on to the base of Mt, Sharp, MSL is making herself at home in Gale Crater, teaching us more about Mars than we ever thought possible: radiation, what was once under water, volcanic vs. sedimentary rocks, determined temperature and humidity, nature of Martian minerals, and most importantly -- what is now almost certainly proof of ancient habitability.

This advanced rover found evidence that geochemical conditions were once suitable for microbial life.  MSL Curiosity detected water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, chloromethane, and dichloromethane.What happened to the Martian atmosphere over the last billion years? We know it was there.  And now, thanks to MSL, scientists finally know why Mars changed!

Curiosity, which may last as long as a decade on Mars, may be able to tell us so much more! So stay tuned for good science.  A toast to the first 354 sols!  May there be thousands!

NOTE: The anniversary being celebrated today and tomorrow represent one Earth year. 668 sols of the Martian year (687 equivalent Earth days) would put the Martian Anniversary on July 14, 2014 .