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Over Thanksgiving weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the NASA Tweetup for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity. And I am definitely thankful for this opportunity. Those of you who do not know what a NASA Tweetupis and you tweet, I would highly recommend you check out the website I have linked. It is definitely a very creative and amazing way for an agency to get the word out about their programs. It is beyond the agency just having a twitter account, but it is actively using the masses or your followers who have twitter account to also help with outreach.This was my first NASA Tweetup and participants ranged from K-12 educators, artists, hobby astronomers, entrepreneurs, computer programmers and of course a few engineers. Everyone was a (space) nerd in one way or another, but very few (at least of the people I ran into) were engineers which was a bit surprising to me. But that really goes to show how approachable this program is, scientists are not the only ones who are drawn to this opportunity.

NASA has a range of tweetups from meeting former astronauts to rocket launches that place participants as close as the press gets to be.The most popular of the tweetups were probably those that surrounded the Space Shuttle launches, and sadly STS-135 (the final launch) was is when I first heard about the opportunity. Naturally, as a child who launched 2L bottle rockets and created PVC pipe model rockets stuffed with those single use cardboard rocket motors, I desperately wanted to be picked in order to have an excuse to go down to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of a NASA rocket. But additionally, I specifically choose this tweetup because it was the launch of the Atlas V rocket that would carry the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity on it’s 9 month trip to Mars.
Curiosity will be the largest rover we have sent to Mars and will have an extraordinary suite of analytical chemistry instruments. Instruments tasked to further explore the minerals on Mars for signs of prior or present life forms. The rover has 80 kg of instrumentation and one specific instrument, the CheMinwill analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s soil and rocks for signs of a past Martian environment that could had supported life.  CheMin is a powder X-ray diffraction instrument also capable of X-ray Fluorescence. ChemMin is using x-rays because minerals have characteristic diffraction patterns and enables us to identify of the crystalline structure of the materials the rover will see. CheMin is about the size of a shoebox, which is amazing as our lab PXRD is the size of a large armoire.  Therefore, I had to ask our guests the question: how did you make it so small?! Here’s how: the samples are vibrated (by a tuning fork) on a platform and are therefore suspended to allow all incident angles to be scanned. Rather than sweeping the incidence angle as we do in our lab PXRD, the sweep comes essentially from the rotation of the sample. Dr. Conrad said that this miniaturization of the instrument was actually very difficult, but it now has been commercialized and a PXRD the size of a suitcase can be purchased!

The highlight of this experience is seeing a rocket launch, but also a wonderful part of the program of a NASATweetup is the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their involvement with the project and to ask questions about being a scientist at NASA. The speakers for the science instrumentation on Curiosity were Pan Conrad (deputy principal investigator, SAM instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) and Ashwin Vasavada (MSL deputy project scientist at JPL). They did a great job presenting the excitement surrounding instrumentation being sent to Mars and the important implications for future Martian explorations in the discoveries. In addition to the amazing PXRD, the cameras and SAM instrumentation are actually able to inhale the martian atmosphere, providing real time, and year-round insight on the thermal, chemical, radiation and solar composition of the environment for future manned spaceflight to Mars. A key point that Dr. Conrad made was to not take the data that we will get back from Curiosity and compare it to what we see on Earth, but to think about how it fits with the data they have on Mars from other missions.

The Altas V successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am. Seeing a rocket launch for the first time was absolutely an amazing experience. What I was thinking at the moment: it is moving a lot slower than I thought nearly 900,000 lbs of thrust would be able to move a rocket. But my favorite was the complete silence until about the time the Atlas V was to hit the clouds. Ah, how slow sound travels. Seeing a launch really is something that you cannot tell someone about, there are not quite words, except, to tell that person: you need to go see one yourself. And if you sign up for a NASA Tweetup, you will be as close as the press.

But most importantly, a NASA tweetup is how you can be involved, it is how you can see what type of science your taxes are going to and then you go out to tell your friends and followers what you saw. As much as I wish I could bring people to my lab to tell them one of the ways that NSF funding is being used, it is not as exciting as space exploration, but the basic science is the same. The software to navigate Curiosity to avoid sand dunes (Spirit’s demise) was not build from scratch but perhaps was based on a graduate student’s thesis. The instrumentation I use in my lab will have a cousin, Curiosity, on Mars, that is built with the same underlying theories for analysis. Support in science leads to new markets, and an example is the suitcase PXRD. Government science does support industry* and will pave way for a successful future. On the second day of the tweetup, Lori Garver (NASA Deputy Administrator) gave the advice: talk to your congressmen. get more congressmen to believe in the investment of science, that missions like this provide data that will better our lives, bring new technologies that will open new markets and help us to prosper.

All images from:

Interesting Links:Sign up for upcoming NASA Tweetups

#MSL #NASATweetup on NASATelevision

Youtube video of, Leland Melvin, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Lori Garver presentation on Why Support Science?
* at the start of the Q/A (about 11:30 min mark) someone asks Lori Garver if NASA supports commercial space flight: basically, yes! NASA does support commercial space flight, and has always.

Official NASA video of the MSL Launch

Another piece of extraordinary instrumentation I did not talk about, the ChemCam:

Animation of Curiosity’s cruise state, entry, descent, landing, and surface operations:

Give Clean Tech A Chance

As disappointed as I am with the fate of Solyndra, what I am even more disappointed in is the public and media’s immediate response to take this example as the penultimate example as the Administration going about clean tech the wrong way. Wrong in that we are investing in it at all with “precious tax dollars”.We do not need this now. We already do not have the push we need to invest heavily in Clean Energy Technology so that it can be deployed widely as well as the incentives to fund research in these technologies that will make a difference and alleviate our dependence on oil.

I decided to add my blog to the plea/screams/challenge made in David Roberts’ great piece in Grist. What he said scares me:

“What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself.”

Seeing the relationship to “Climategate”, Roberts’ says this:

“This left the field entirely open to a massive attack from the right, coordinated among ideological media, staffers, lobbyists, and pols. When the left finally stirred itself to action, all that emerged were a bunch of long, boring investigations into the details and good-faith efforts to be fair about how both sides a point.”

So then I thought to myself then, why are we, clean energy and environment advocates, not louder! Here, I am adding my voice. Because this is important. We cannot stop these investments. (Granted, we should invest in a company that adapts, how can installing individual glass tubes be cost effective?! That’s another story. It was innovative, I might give them that.) But in order to avoid Solyndra to be the symbol of failed clean technology, I add my voice.  We cannot have that happen. Now, all of the the clean energy technology companies that the Administration has supported is being called into question. The media measuring their success based purely on job numbers and calling out the potential influences of campaign support of these other energy technologies.

I bring up this question, since just 2 months ago, we said “good-bye” to our space shuttle program: Did we not back the $200 billion investment in the space shuttle program?  We did. Adamantly.

There is always a risk with new technologies. For a program meant to make spaceflight cheap and frequent, there were 131 shuttle missions flown between 1982 – 2010 and two tragic disasters. And yet, the American taxpayers, after 30 years, are devastated by its end.

Solar Dynamic Laboratory - final launch preparations underway

NASA Solar Dynamic Laboratory

Why can we not give Clean Energy the same chance? We became attached to space exploration and everyday use the materials and science that came out of the research to get us there. But why is it not the same for Clean Energy Technology? Do you not find it strange that we are not as attached to protecting our current home when we have not even found a new home yet?!
There still continues to be many many defendants of space exploration, and I am one of them, but why are the advocates of clean energy/alternative energies not as adamant?

“Both the American public and policymakers should recognize that spaceflight programs represent a “risky, expensive and long-term commitment,” Pielke said. He also emphasized the need to design programs with greater flexibility than the shuttle and station, so that the programs could evolve based on changing circumstances.”

Despite the risk and setback significant funds are going to research and in educating the next generation of engineers to take us to space. I don’t understand why there isn’t the same fight and same excitement in new energy technology. What is so different?

Many argue that the benefits of space flight that cannot be measured in dollars. I feel that this is the same for energy. How can you measure cleaner air and healthier people? An energy security in which we are not at war over resources that are limited? An economy that thrives due to new innovation.

Looking at Sea Salt from Space

Here is an introductory chemistry mantra: freezing point depression, boiling point elevation.

Tomorrow, NASA’s JPL will launch Aquarius, a satellite outfitted to collect sea surface salinity data. The salinity data will allow for us to gain a better understanding of the global water cycle, ocean circulation and the effects of these on our climate. Even with all of the routine ship and buoy observations, there is only salinity data for 24% of the ocean’s surface. This is a significant gap in our understanding of the ocean and the current models for ocean circulation. Recently, for World Ocean’s Day, there was a great guest blog post in Scientific American mentioning that perhaps the “Ocean Conveyor Belt”  picture for our understanding of heat flow in the ocean is an oversimplification. This concept has dominated the field of oceanography and what is exciting is that Aquarius has the potential to help researchers track processes such as precipitation, evaporation, ice melting, and river runoff that influence the global water cycle in order to develop better models.  Aquarius will provide sea salinity surface data for the entire Earth’s surface every 7 days. 

Salinity of the ocean may seem like a simple and obvious concept for many of us who have experienced the coast. But knowing salt concentrations to 0.2 g/kg (about 1 ppt) can reveal what salinity changes can disrupt ocean circulations. Drastic changes in salinity (ocean circulations) has the potential to lead to changes in the Earth’s climate. The dry regions of the ocean (more evaporation, less precipitation) are the regions of highest salinity. Creating and understadning patterns for future climate/precipitation conditions will be important for agriculture or the stability of ocean fronts for fisheries.

It is all connected. Oceanographer Josh Willis uses balloons to show how water in ... on Twitpic Pictured is an excellent demonstration done by Josh Willis at the JPLtweetup June 7, wherein he illustrates water’s ability to store heat. This ability to store heat effects the temperature of our oceans, which has a direct effect on salinity. And what happens in places with strong variations in salinity? Drastic changes in evaporation and precipitation from season-to-season. Which in turn impacts the global water cycle and ocean circulation.

Global warming is perhaps changing the way in which the ocean is adapting. And isn’t it fascinating that a simple compound like NaCl, with the help of a satellite can help us understand the connection between our climate and the ocean better?

My work here has only begun....*Edit (06/10/2011) Aquarius is about to launch (t-minus 15 min.) How exactly is Aquarius able to measure salt from space? Through microwave emissions! From an interview with Gary Lagerloef, Principle Investigator, just before the launch: Aquarius will measure the electrical conductivity (directly correlated to the salt concentration – greater the salt concentration, higher the electrical conductivity) which modulate the microwave emissions off the surface of the ocean.

**Edit (06/10/2011. 10:4o am) successful launch of Aquarius/SAC-D!

Aquarius SAC-D Launch (201106100016HQ)

Why go where no one has gone before

“Every vision is a joke until the first man [or woman] accomplishes it” – Robert H. Goddard

Shuttle launches are a great opportunity to tout my science nerd flag. What other event gets so much of the nation to pay attention to an amazing feat of science?
STS-134 Endeavour Launch (201105160002HQ)

Later in this blog post I will present to you a bit of NASA research tangentially related to my own research.

It is a very sad to think that there is just one more shuttle launch left. But then the next question is what is next for the space program? Especially now that we are in the throws of a budget debate, how much of federal funding actually goes to the space program?

Space expenditures are actually quite minimal in comparison to defense spending. In the President’s FY 2012 budget, NASA has requested a total of about 18.7 billion (relatively flat according to Chairman Wolf). For perspective, the Department of Defense has requested 670.9 billion.

Nonetheless we are in difficult economic times and the questions that are being asked is not quite “how much”? but “why”? Because if we have the motivation, we can get anything done within a budget.

The biggest question that surrounds space policy are the rationale for such a scientific endeavor in which the benefits are for the most part taken on faith. The rationale has evolved significantly since its inception in 1958. However, because it was born out of a desire for national security, it might have prevented it from emphasizing scientific exploration or commercial development. And the question is now, with military rationale is less of an emphasis, can economic competitiveness and civilian space be enough to continue to drive the space program?

Yet, one of my favorite rationale that perhaps is not as prevalent in the public’s view as civilian space flight, are the scientific advances that have succeeded as a result of our desire for space.


Blue Hazy Material is a Aerogel

One such advancement I see potential in is the commercialization of Aerogel.

Aerogel is the blue hazy material, in the image, that is holding up the crayons and keeping them from melting.  This material is insulating the Mars Rover keeping it warm, and was the only material that could capture interstellar dust at the high speeds Stardust would be traveling. What I believe to be most exciting, is that Stardust was able to capture the amino acid glycine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins that carry out important functions in our bodies! Indicating that perhaps there are important pre-biotic molecules in space!

But why should you care about this material? It is easy to support the space program that offers protection and national security or that satisfy the human desire for exploring the unknown (both can be categorized as intangible benefits). Can we care just as much about the economic benefit (perhaps a more tangible benefit?) of a material that NASA used that is as light as air (as it is 99.8% air), less dense than glass, and is a good insulator?  If NASA or the private sector can take this material and continue to do innovative research, we could figure out how to make this material cheap and transparent, for insulated windows. Then this material would be an invaluable contribution to our push to improve energy efficiency.

This is just a very very very tiny snippet of why we need the space program. And it is just the science exploration rationale. I have not yet gone into rationale such as the military applications, satisfying human destiny and commercial/satellite applications. Dr. J.M. Logsdon puts it best:

“Is travel beyond Earth orbit the only sustainable rationale for human space flight? How widely shared is the belief that human travel to other destinations in the solar system…is a high priority societal goal? If [these questions] are answered well, the 21st century could see the full realization of both the practical and inspirational potentials of space.”

Roger Handberg, “Rationales of the Space Program” in Eligar Sadeh, Space Politics and Policy (2002)
John M. Logsdon, “Which Direction in Space?” Space Policy, May 2005
David A. Mindell, et al, “The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009