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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Return of X-WING!

Playing the STAR WARS: X-WING video game on my laptop computer. On-screen is an A-Wing fighter that I'm flying for this mission.

Happy Halloween, Everyone! Just thought I'd celebrate this spooky holiday by mentioning how ecstatic I am that I can now play the classic Star Wars: X-Wing video game on my computer once more! Almost 8 years ago, I posted this entry about how I wished that LucasArts would re-release this awesome space combat simulator for modern PCs that run Windows XP (now Windows 8 on my new laptop). Well, thanks to Disney and GOG.com, X-Wing and other LucasArts titles (such as the X-Wing spin-off, TIE Fighter) can now be downloaded for at least 10 dollars from the GOG website. So last Monday, after I came home from work, I immediately went on my computer to purchase X-Wing and began playing it that night. Of course, this game was difficult as hell to play without a computer joystick (it's crappy enough that my cordless mouse needs its battery replaced)...so I went to the local Best Buy store to buy a joystick yesterday. So as of right now, I've completed all but one of the Historical Missions (the only one left being B-Wing Mission 6...in which I'm flying this awesome vehicle on a sortie that involves destroying the Death Star by flying through the trench made famous in Star Wars: A New Hope and firing proton torpedoes into its exhaust port), and I'm on Mission 9 of Tour 1. That's progress for ya.

Using an X-Wing fighter to take on an Imperial Star Destroyer in the STAR WARS: X-WING video game.

The only downside of playing X-Wing, at least with this version, is that the graphics aren't as crisp as in the original CD-ROM version. The screen on my laptop isn't as large as the one on my previous computer, so it's harder to spot incoming Imperial fighters when they're more than 2 klicks away on certain missions. Also, glitches tend to take place when I open the game where I'll have a problem calibrating the joystick, and the game would abruptly go from full-screen to a minimized window on my computer monitor...so I have to restart the game since I'm unable to make the window large again. And lastly, I never realized just how friggin' slow the Y-Wing is! It's a pain in the ass to eliminate faster craft such as TIE Fighters and Interceptors that are flying away from me, and it's slower to maneuver in battle than even the bigger B-Wing. My favorite ships to use happen to be the A- and B-Wing fighters. I'd also include the titular X-Wing here, but it's only a slight improvement on the Y-Wing in regards to combat.

Using an X-Wing fighter to take on a group of TIE Bombers in the STAR WARS: X-WING video game.

So all-in-all, I'm glad that X-Wing is back! The last time I played this game was during my college days more than 10 years ago. But I'm more nostalgic about the time when I first began playing this classic simulator—which, I believe, was during the second half of 9th grade almost 20 years ago. So many awesome memories...of X-Wing, that is. High school didn't get coo for me till sophomore year. Carry on.

Bought this computer joystick from my local Best Buy store to play the STAR WARS: X-WING video game on my laptop.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In the Spirit of Halloween...

Jupiter's moon Ganymede casts a shadow on the giant planet's Great Red Spot, in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on April 21, 2014.
NASA / ESA / A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Here’s Looking at You: Spooky Shadow Gives Jupiter a Giant Eye (Press Release)

This trick that the planet is looking back at you is actually a Hubble treat: An eerie, close-up view of Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Hubble was monitoring changes in Jupiter’s immense Great Red Spot (GRS) storm on April 21, 2014, when the shadow of the Jovian moon, Ganymede, swept across the center of the storm. This gave the giant planet the uncanny appearance of having a pupil in the center of a 10,000 mile-diameter “eye.” For a moment, Jupiter “stared” back at Hubble like a one-eyed giant Cyclops.

Source: NASA.Gov

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hubble Never Ceases to Amaze...

A composite image of comet Siding Spring and Mars, as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on October 18-19, 2014.
NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU / APL, STScI / AURA

Close Encounters: Comet Siding Spring Seen Next to Mars (Press Release - October 23)

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has produced a unique composite image of comet Siding Spring as it made its never-before-seen close passage of a comet by Mars.

Siding Spring, officially designated Comet C/2013 A1, made its closest approach to Mars at 2:28 p.m. EDT on Oct. 19, at a distance of approximately 87,000 miles. That is about one-third of the distance between Earth and the moon. At that time, the comet and Mars were about 149 million miles from Earth.

The comet image is a composite of Hubble exposures taken between Oct. 18, 8:06 a.m. to Oct. 19, 11:17 p.m. Hubble took a separate image of Mars at 10:37 p.m. on Oct. 18.

The Mars and comet images have been added together to create a single picture to illustrate the angular separation, or distance, between the comet and Mars at closest approach. The separation is approximately 1.5 arc minutes, or one-twentieth of the angular diameter of the full moon. The background star field in this composite image is synthesized from ground-based telescope data provided by the Palomar Digital Sky Survey, which has been reprocessed to approximate Hubble’s resolution.

The solid icy comet nucleus is too small to be resolved in the Hubble picture. The comet’s bright coma, a diffuse cloud of dust enshrouding the nucleus, and a dusty tail, are clearly visible.

This is a composite image because a single exposure of the stellar background, comet Siding Spring, and Mars would be problematic. Mars actually is 10,000 times brighter than the comet, so it could not be properly exposed to show detail in the Red Planet. The comet and Mars also were moving with respect to each other and could not be imaged simultaneously in one exposure without one of the objects being motion blurred. Hubble had to be programmed to track on the comet and Mars separately in two different observations.

NASA used its extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, to image and study this once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby. In preparation for the comet flyby, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the newest member of the Mars fleet, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), in order to reduce the risk of impact with high-velocity dust particles coming off the comet. Other NASA space observatories also joined Hubble in observing the encounter, along with ground-based telescopes on Earth.

Siding Spring is the first comet from our solar system’s Oort Cloud to be studied up close. The Oort Cloud, well beyond the outer-most planets that surround our sun, is a spherical region of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Photos of the Day: An Eclipse Above SoCal...

An image I took of the partial solar eclipse that took place on October 23, 2014.

Just thought I'd share these trio of pics that I took of the partial solar eclipse that was visible over most of the continental U.S. today. These aren't as cool as the images I took back in May of 2012, but it's all good. I'm just waiting for a total solar eclipse to take place above Southern California next. That is set to happen on August 21, 2017.

Using special sunglasses provided by ASTRONOMY magazine to view the partial solar eclipse on October 23, 2014.

An image I took of the partial solar eclipse that took place on October 23, 2014.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

MAVEN Update (and the Amazing Adventures of Comet Siding Spring)...

An image of comet Siding Spring (green smear at lower-left of center frame) passing by the bright orange globe of Mars...as seen by astrophotographer Damian Peach on October 19, 2014.
Damian Peach

NASA's MAVEN Studies Passing Comet and Its Effects (Press Release)

NASA's newest orbiter at Mars, MAVEN, took precautions to avoid harm from a dust-spewing comet that flew near Mars today and is studying the flyby's effects on the Red Planet's atmosphere.

The MAVEN spacecraft -- full name Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution -- reported back to Earth in good health after about three hours of precautions against a possible collision with high-velocity dust particles released by comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring.

"We're glad the spacecraft came through, we're excited to complete our observations of how the comet affects Mars, and we're eager to get to our primary science phase," said MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

MAVEN began orbiting Mars on Sept. 21. The opportunity to study this rare near-miss of a planet by a comet comes during the project's commissioning phase. A few weeks of instrument calibration and orbit fine-tuning remain before the start of the primary science phase. The mission will study the upper atmosphere of Mars and its interaction with the solar wind.

Comet Siding Spring hurtled past Mars today at about 125,000 mph (56 kilometers per second), coming within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the planet. That is equivalent to about one-third of the distance between Earth and Earth's moon. The closest approach by the comet's nucleus came at about 11:27 a.m. PDT (2:27 p.m. EDT). The period when dust from the comet was most likely to reach Mars and the orbits of spacecraft around Mars peaked about 100 minutes later.

From about 10:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. PDT (1:45 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. EDT) MAVEN kept in a defensive posture to reduce its profile relative to the direction from which the comet's high-velocity dust particles would come. In that "hunkered down" orientation, its main antenna was not facing the right way for transmitting to Earth, so communications were maintained at low data rate via a secondary antenna. Also, the mission performed a maneuver on Oct. 2 that set its orbit timing so that the spacecraft was behind Mars, relative to the possible dust flow, from about 12:53 p.m. to 1:23 p.m. PDT (3:53 p.m. to 4:23 p.m. EDT).

Downlink of data has begun from MAVEN observations of the comet and Mars' atmosphere. Some observations are designed to provide information about the composition of the gases and dust being released by the comet. Others are investigating possible interaction between material from the comet and the atmosphere of Mars.

Three NASA Mars orbiters, two Mars rovers and other assets on Earth and in space are studying comet Siding Spring. This comet is making its first visit this close to the sun from the outer solar system's Oort Cloud, so the concerted campaign of observations may yield fresh clues to our solar system's earliest days more than 4 billion years ago.

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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A composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
NASA

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rosetta Update: Philae's Landing Site and a Selfie...

An image of Philae's landing site on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, known as Site J, as seen by the Rosetta spacecraft on September 21, 2014.
ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM

ESA Confirms the Primary Landing Site for Rosetta (Press Release - October 15)

ESA has given the green light for its Rosetta mission to deliver its lander, Philae, to the primary site on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November, in the first-ever attempt at a soft touchdown on a comet.

Philae’s landing site, currently known as Site J and located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, was confirmed on 14 October following a comprehensive readiness review.

Since the arrival, the mission has been conducting an unprecedented survey and scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the early phases of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history.

At the same time, Rosetta has been moving closer to the comet: starting at 100 km on 6 August, it is now just 10 km from the centre of the 4 km-wide body. This allowed a more detailed look at the primary and backup landing sites in order to complete a hazard assessment, including a detailed boulder census.

The decision that the mission is ‘Go’ for Site J also confirms the timeline of events leading up to the landing.

Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET on 12 November at a distance of approximately 22.5 km from the centre of the comet. Landing will be about seven hours later at around 15:30 GMT/16:30 CET.

With a one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on 12 November of 28 minutes 20 seconds, that means that confirmation of separation will arrive on Earth ground stations at 09:03 GMT/10:03 CET and of touchdown at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET.

“Now that we know where we are definitely aiming for, we are an important step closer to carrying out this exciting – but high-risk – operation,” says Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager.

“However, there are still a number of key milestones to complete before we can give the final Go for landing.”

A series of Go/No-Go decisions must be taken before separation, starting on 11 November with a confirmation from the flight dynamics team that Rosetta is on the right trajectory ahead of lander delivery.

Further Go/No-Go decisions will be made during the night of 11–12 November concerning readiness and uplink of commands, culminating in confirmation of the lander readiness for separation.

A short manoeuvre must then take place around two hours before separation. This will set Rosetta on course to release Philae on the right trajectory to land on the comet. The final critical Go/No-Go for separation occurs shortly after this manoeuvre.

After the release of Philae, Rosetta will manoeuvre up and away from the comet, before reorienting itself in order to establish communications with Philae.

“If any of the decisions result in a No-Go, then we will have to abort and revise the timeline accordingly for another attempt, making sure that Rosetta is in a safe position to try again,” says Fred Jansen.

All being well, Rosetta and its lander will begin communications about two hours after separation.

During the seven-hour descent, Philae will take images and conduct science experiments, sampling the dust, gas and plasma environment close to the comet.

It will take a ‘farewell’ image of the Rosetta orbiter shortly after separation, along with a number of images as it approaches the comet surface. It is expected that the first images from this sequence will be received on Earth several hours after separation.

Once safely on the surface, Philae will take a panorama of its surroundings. Again, this is expected back on Earth several hours later.

The first sequence of surface science experiments will begin about an hour after touchdown and will last for 64 hours, constrained by the lander’s primary battery lifetime.

Longer-term study of the comet by Philae will depend on for how long and how well the batteries are able to recharge, which in turn is related to the amount of dust that settles on its solar panels.

In any case, it is expected that by March 2015, as the comet moves closer in its orbit towards the Sun, temperatures inside the lander will have reached levels too high to continue operations, and Philae’s science mission will come to an end.

The Rosetta orbiter’s mission will continue for much longer. It will accompany the comet as it grows in activity until their closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and then as they head back towards the outer Solar System.

This unprecedented mission will study how a comet evolves and give important insights into the formation of our Solar System, and the origins of water and perhaps even life on Earth.

A detailed operations timeline, including key Go/No-Go decisions leading up to separation, will be available soon.

Source: European Space Agency

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An image that the Philae lander took of Rosetta and one of its twin solar panels just as the spacecraft orbited 16 kilometers (10 miles) above Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko...on October 7, 2014.
ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

(Woohoo!) Looks Like New Horizons Has A Second Date To Meet After Pluto...

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Kuiper Belt Object.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

NASA’s Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission (Press Release)

Peering out to the dim, outer reaches of our solar system, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered three Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft could potentially visit after it flies by Pluto in July 2015.

The KBOs were detected through a dedicated Hubble observing program by a New Horizons search team that was awarded telescope time for this purpose.

“This has been a very challenging search and it’s great that in the end Hubble could accomplish a detection – one NASA mission helping another,” said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. KBOs belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.

The KBOs Hubble found are each about 10 times larger than typical comets, but only about 1-2 percent of the size of Pluto. Unlike asteroids, KBOs have not been heated by the sun and are thought to represent a pristine, well preserved deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago. The KBOs found in the Hubble data are thought to be the building blocks of dwarf planets such as Pluto.

The New Horizons team started to look for suitable KBOs in 2011 using some of the largest ground-based telescopes on Earth. They found several dozen KBOs, but none was reachable within the fuel supply available aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

“We started to get worried that we could not find anything suitable, even with Hubble, but in the end the space telescope came to the rescue,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer of SwRI. “There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs; we are ‘over the moon’ about this detection.”

Following an initial proof of concept of the Hubble pilot observing program in June, the New Horizons Team was awarded telescope time by the Space Telescope Science Institute for a wider survey in July. When the search was completed in early September, the team identified one KBO that is considered “definitely reachable,” and two other potentially accessible KBOs that will require more tracking over several months to know whether they too are accessible by the New Horizons spacecraft.

This was a needle-in-haystack search for the New Horizons team because the elusive KBOs are extremely small, faint, and difficult to pick out against a myriad background of stars in the constellation Sagittarius, which is in the present direction of Pluto. The three KBOs identified each are a whopping 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. Two of the KBOs are estimated to be as large as 34 miles (55 kilometers) across, and the third is perhaps as small as 15 miles (25 kilometers).

The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006 from Florida, is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. Once a NASA mission completes its prime mission, the agency conducts an extensive science and technical review to determine whether extended operations are warranted.

The New Horizons team expects to submit such a proposal to NASA in late 2016 for an extended mission to fly by one of the newly identified KBOs. Hurtling across the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft would reach the distance of 4 billion miles from the sun at its farthest point roughly three to four years after its July 2015 Pluto encounter. Accomplishing such a KBO flyby would substantially increase the science return from the New Horizons mission as laid out by the 2003 Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. APL also built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of a Kuiper Belt Object with the distant Sun and the outer planets in the background.
NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

MAVEN Update: Its First Science Results Are In!

Three views of Mars' atmosphere taken with the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph aboard NASA's MAVEN spacecraft.
University of Colorado / NASA

NASA Mission Provides Its First Look at Martian Upper Atmosphere (Press Release)

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has provided scientists their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars, produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet, and yielded a comprehensive map of highly-variable ozone in the atmosphere underlying the coronas.

The spacecraft, which entered Mars' orbit Sept. 21, now is lowering its orbit and testing its instruments. MAVEN was launched to Mars in November 2013, to help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.

"All the instruments are showing data quality that is better than anticipated at this early stage of the mission," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "All instruments have now been turned on -- although not yet fully checked out -- and are functioning nominally. It's turning out to be an easy and straightforward spacecraft to fly, at least so far. It really looks as if we're headed for an exciting science mission."

Solar energetic particles (SEPs) are streams of high-speed particles blasted from the sun during explosive solar activity like flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Around Earth, SEP storms can damage the sensitive electronics on satellites. At Mars, they are thought to be one possible mechanism for driving atmospheric loss.

A solar flare on Sept. 26 produced a CME that was observed by NASA satellites on both sides of the sun. Computer models of the CME propagation predicted the disturbance and the accompanying SEPs would reach Mars on Sept. 29. MAVEN's Solar Energetic Particle instrument was able to observe the onset of the event that day.

"After traveling through interplanetary space, these energetic particles of mostly protons deposit their energy in the upper atmosphere of Mars," said SEP instrument lead Davin Larson of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. "A SEP event like this typically occurs every couple weeks. Once all the instruments are turned on, we expect to also be able to track the response of the upper atmosphere to them."

The hydrogen and oxygen coronas of Mars are the tenuous outer fringe of the planet's upper atmosphere, where the edge of the atmosphere meets space. In this region, atoms that were once a part of carbon dioxide or water molecules near the surface can escape to space. These molecules control the climate, so following them allows us to understand the history of Mars over the last four billion years and to track the change from a warm and wet climate to the cold, dry climate we see today. MAVEN observed the edges of the Martian atmosphere using the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS), which is sensitive to the sunlight reflected by these atoms.

"With these observations, MAVEN's IUVS has obtained the most complete picture of the extended Martian upper atmosphere ever made," said MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member Mike Chaffin of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "By measuring the extended upper atmosphere of the planet, MAVEN directly probes how these atoms escape to space. The observations support our current understanding that the upper atmosphere of Mars, when compared to Venus and Earth, is only tenuously bound by the Red Planet's weak gravity."

IUVS also created a map of the atmospheric ozone on Mars by detecting the absorption of ultraviolet sunlight by the molecule.

"With these maps we have the kind of complete and simultaneous coverage of Mars that is usually only possible for Earth," said MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member Justin Deighan of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "On Earth, ozone destruction by refrigerator CFCs is the cause of the polar ozone hole. On Mars, ozone is just as easily destroyed by the byproducts of water vapor breakdown by ultraviolet sunlight. Tracking the ozone lets us track the photochemical processes taking place in the Martian atmosphere. We'll be exploring this in more complete detail during MAVEN's primary science mission."

There will be about two weeks of additional instrument calibration and testing before MAVEN starts its primary science mission. This includes an end-to-end test to transmit data between NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars and Earth using the MAVEN mission's Electra telecommunications relay. The mission aims to start full science gathering in early to mid-November.

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
NASA

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Photos of the Day: JPL Open House 2014...

Scheduled to launch in January of 2015, the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite is displayed inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

After a 2-year absence due to NASA budget cuts, the Open House finally returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena this weekend. Based on the huge throngs of people and the extremely long line of cars trying to enter the Caltech-run installation today (the traffic jam extended all the way to the 210 Freeway; if you've ever been to JPL or at least the La Cañada Flintridge area, you'll know that this is pretty major), I wasn't the only one waiting for this NASA center to open its gates to the public once more. It's not a surprise though... The huge success of the Curiosity Mars rover since she arrived at the Red Planet in 2012, the continuing on-pour of amazing photos from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn and Voyager 1's historic arrival in interstellar space two years ago has whet people's appetites to visit the facility that is responsible for constructing and managing these amazing robotic probes.

Visiting the Mission Support Room inside the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

The highlights of this year's Open House were: 1.) The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite that was on display inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility (SMAP will be shipped to its launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base 160 miles north of Los Angeles sometime this week or the next... It's scheduled to head into space next January), 2.) Crowds being able to visit the Mission Support Room (above) inside the Space Flight Operations Facility (below) for the very first time (The MSR, of course, was made famous by all the cheering flight controllers on NASA TV as Curiosity safely touched down on Mars) and 3.) Pretty much everything else on exhibit at JPL. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the fact that this Open House was extremely crowded showed that folks wanted to see anything and everything that this NASA site had to offer. And hopefully, they weren't disappointed (I sure wasn't). I definitely can't wait to visit the Open House again next year...with the highlights of 2015 most likely being Dawn's first-ever images of the dwarf planet Ceres after the spacecraft arrives there next March, and the preparation for NASA's next Mars lander (called InSight) as it gears up for launch in early 2016. That is all.

Visiting the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

A model of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission spacecraft is displayed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

The Scarecrow, the main prototype for the Curiosity Mars rover, is displayed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

A huge crowd of people mill about during the Open House at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, CA...on October 12, 2014.

Friday, October 10, 2014

(Why SoCal Rocks...) A National Monument In My Own Backyard!

A photo that I took of the San Gabriel Mountains from the city of Walnut, on July 5, 2014.

President Obama Designates San Gabriel Mountains National Monument (Press Release)

Today, President Obama will use his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish 346,177 acres of national forest land in the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California as a national monument, permanently protecting the popular outdoor recreation destination to increase access and outdoor opportunities for the area's residents. This monument designation builds on more than a decade of public support from business, tourism, environmental justice, conservation, academic and cultural preservation communities and on the leadership from members of Congress. For many residents of Los Angeles County -- one of the most disadvantaged counties in the country when it comes to access to parks and open space for minorities and children -- the San Gabriel Mountains provide the only available large-scale open space. In addition to permanently protecting this land, the monument designation will create new opportunities for the Forest Service and local communities to work together to increase access and enhance outdoor opportunities.

Building on the monument designation, leading philanthropies are also announcing commitments to help jump-start public involvement and restoration of high-priority projects in Los Angeles County and the new San Gabriel National Monument. The National Forest Foundation announced that they will commit $3 million for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Fund to respond to community priorities and support restoration and stewardship of the new national monument. In addition, the Hewlett, Wyss, Packard, and California Community foundations, the California Endowment, and the Resources Legacy Fund are working to establish a $500,000 San Gabriel Partnership Fund to support recreation and habitat improvement projects in the monument and surrounding communities. Secretary Vilsack and the Forest Service are also stepping up by investing more than a million dollars in additional education staff and maintenance work on the monument’s trails and picnic areas.

More than 15 million people live within 90 minutes of the San Gabriel Mountains, which provides 70 percent of the open space for Angeleños and 30 percent of their drinking water. The 346,177 acre site contains high-quality wilderness areas, habitat for rare and endangered animals like the California condor, and a rich array of cultural and historical features.

Today's action builds on steps the Administration has taken over the past five and a half years to expand access to millions of acres for recreation, make historic investments in restoring critical landscapes through the President's America's Great Outdoors initiative, and permanently protect areas significant to our Nation's rich history and natural heritage. All of these efforts support an annual outdoor economy that includes approximately 9 million jobs and $1 trillion in economic activity, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The new monument area overlays about half of the Angeles National Forest, which hosts more than 4 million visits each year. Based on 2012 data, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that the Angeles National Forest alone contributes more than $39 million to the local economy each year.

Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming in 1906, the Antiquities Act has been used by 16 presidents to protect unique natural and historic features in America, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Alaska's Admiralty Island National Monument. President Obama has previously used his authority under the Antiquities Act to create or expand 12 other National Monuments across the country, including the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific Ocean last month - the largest marine reserve in the world that is completely off limits to commercial resource extraction. With this designation, President Obama has now protected more than 260 million acres of land and water, more than any other President since the Antiquities Act became law in 1906.

About the San Gabriel Monument & Southern California Community:

The peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains frame the Los Angeles skyline and offer hundreds of miles of hiking, mountain biking, motorized, and equestrian trails as well as campgrounds to the area’s diverse residents. In addition to providing drinking water, the San Gabriels' rivers support rare populations of native fish, while the vegetation found in the monument supports native wildlife and insect species, including pollinators important to farmers. The area is also rich in cultural and scientific history. More than 600 archeologically and culturally significant sites are found within the new monument, such as the Aliso-Arrastre Special Interest Area, which features rock art and cupules that exemplify more than 8,000 years of Native American history. The new monument is also home to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, where Edwin Hubble discovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way and Albert Michelson provided the first modern measurement of the speed of light.

Improving public access and recreational opportunities within the monument will help address the region’s public health challenges. Studies have shown that increasing recreational access to public lands translates to higher levels of youth activity and lower youth obesity rates. National monuments also play an important role in supporting local economies. A recent study by the independent and nonpartisan research group, Headwaters Economics analyzing the impacts of over a dozen monuments found that, without exception, local economies grew following the monument’s designation.

The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument will be managed by the U.S. Forest Service and will be the eighth national monument under Forest Service management. There are more than 100 national monuments across the country managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Source: WhiteHouse.Gov

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A photo that I took of the San Gabriel Mountains from the city of Walnut, on July 5, 2014.

A photo that I took of the San Gabriel Mountains from the city of Walnut, on July 5, 2014.

A photo that I took of the San Gabriel Mountains from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, on May 15, 2011.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Curiosity and MAVEN Update: Watch Out for That Comet!

An infographic showing all of the NASA assets that have been and will be observing comet Siding Spring through its closest encounter with Mars...on October 19, 2014.
NASA

NASA Prepares its Science Fleet for Oct. 19 Mars Comet Encounter (Press Release)

NASA’s extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, have front row seats to image and study a once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby on Sunday, Oct. 19.

Comet C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, will pass within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet -- less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 2:27 p.m. EDT, hurtling at about 126,000 mph (56 kilometers per second). This proximity will provide an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to gather data on both the comet and its effect on the Martian atmosphere.

“This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency’s diverse science missions will be in full receive mode,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system's earliest days.”

Siding Spring came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region of space surrounding our sun and occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units. It is a giant swarm of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Siding Spring will be the first comet from the Oort Cloud to be studied up close by spacecraft, giving scientists an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Some of the best and most revealing images and science data will come from assets orbiting and roving the surface of Mars. In preparation for the comet flyby, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the newest member of the Mars fleet, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), in order to reduce the risk of impact with high-velocity dust particles coming off the comet.

The period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes after the closest approach of the comet's nucleus and will last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening trail of dust flying from the comet’s nucleus.

"The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus itself, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles -- or it might not," said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The atmosphere of Mars, though much thinner that Earth's, will shield NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from comet dust, if any reaches the planet. Both rovers are scheduled to make observations of the comet.

NASA’s Mars orbiters will gather information before, during and after the flyby about the size, rotation and activity of the comet's nucleus, the variability and gas composition of the coma around the nucleus, and the size and distribution of dust particles in the comet's tail.

Observations of the Martian atmosphere are designed to check for possible meteor trails, changes in distribution of neutral and charged particles, and effects of the comet on air temperature and clouds. MAVEN will have a particularly good opportunity to study the comet, and how its tenuous atmosphere, or coma, interacts with Mars' upper atmosphere.

Earth-based and space telescopes, including NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, also will be in position to observe the unique celestial object. The agency’s astrophysics space observatories -- Kepler, Swift, Spitzer, Chandra -- and the ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii -- also will be tracking the event.

NASA’s asteroid hunter, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), has been imaging, and will continue to image, the comet as part of its operations. And the agency’s two Heliophysics spacecraft, Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), also will image the comet. The agency’s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), a sub-orbital balloon-carried telescope, already has provided observations of the comet in the lead-up to the close encounter with Mars.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, taken with a camera on her robotic arm in late April and early May of 2014.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

A composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
NASA

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Return of the Kings...

The L.A. Kings and their fans watch as the 2014 Stanley Cup championship banner is raised towards the rafters at STAPLES Center, on October 8, 2014.
Image courtesy of LA Kings - Facebook

A few hours ago, the Los Angeles Kings celebrated their 2014 Stanley Cup title by raising their second consecutive banner up the rafters at STAPLES Center. Despite losing to the San Jose Sharks, 4-0, in tonight's opening game, Dustin Brown and Co. continue to contribute to the championship pedigree that fills the arena on L.A.'s Figueroa Street. This makes up for the fact that the Lakers will probably have another mediocre season once it starts about 3 weeks from now, and the Clippers will still be the Clippers and start a respectable regular season that will probably culminate in another disappointing postseason where they get eliminated in the first round. And the Sparks, well... I don't know the names of any of the players who are currently on that team. And who here watches WNBA games?

The L.A. Kings and their fans watch as the 2014 Stanley Cup championship banner is raised towards the rafters at STAPLES Center, on October 8, 2014.
Image courtesy of LA Kings - Facebook

The crowd watches as the Stanley Cup is lowered towards the ice during the L.A. Kings' opening game ceremony at STAPLES Center, on October 8, 2014.
Image courtesy of LA Kings - Facebook

Team captain Dustin Brown shows off the Stanley Cup trophy to the STAPLES Center crowd during the L.A. Kings' opening game ceremony, on October 8, 2014.
Image courtesy of LA Kings - Facebook

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Photos of the Day: Another Jump for Parman!

Jumping out of an aircraft to do another tandem skydive...this time above Lake Elsinore, CA, on October 4, 2014.

Earlier today, I celebrated my 35th birthday (woohoo) by doing another tandem skydive...this time at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, California. Unlike last year's HALO jump—which was from an altitude of 29,190 feet, or my previous skydives in 2005 and '06 (both were from 13,000 feet)—the Elsinore jump was from 12,500 feet. However, for some odd reason (maybe it's because I'm getting old!) I felt like I was gonna pass out during the free fall, which was not a feeling I had in San Diego and Perris Valley almost a decade ago (and definitely not during the HALO jump, seeing as how I was breathing comfortably through an oxygen mask). I also felt like I was getting windburned...which might have to do with the fact that it was 100 degrees in Riverside County today. (I was protected by a blue coverall during my Perris skydive and was totally shielded in military gear during the HALO jump. It also helped that both dives took place in the relatively cool springs of 2006 and '13, respectively...and not during the hot days of early fall in SoCal.) I was obviously stoked once the main parachute deployed a minute after free fall, moreso this time around since the jump was more intense than my previous experiences.



Will I do another tandem, you ask? Good question. I probably shouldn't have told the awesome folks at Skydive Elsinore that this was my fourth time being strapped to an instructor and jumping out of a plane...seeing as how they were all trying to convince me to train (understandably so) to become a licensed skydiver next. I knew that this was gonna happen though, since the HALO jump was supposed to be my swan song from this extreme sport. However, I couldn't think of another cool thing to do to celebrate my 35th birthday (unless I went to Catalina Island again), so I opted for another skydive. I'd rather just enjoy the ride instead of having to worry about constantly staring at an altimeter to see when it was time to pull the ripcord on my parachute...nor do I want to worry about having to pull the ripcord myself! As far as everyone is concerned, I'm a 4-time tandem skydiver. Not as cool as being called a professional skydiver, but I'm still a skydiver nonetheless! Carry on.

LINK: Click here for more images from my Lake Elsinore tandem skydive

Soaring 12,500 feet above Lake Elsinore, CA, on October 4, 2014.

Free falling above Lake Elsinore, CA, on October 4, 2014.

The parachute is deployed above Lake Elsinore, CA, on October 4, 2014.

Preparing to land on the drop zone at Lake Elsinore's Skylark Field Airport, on October 4, 2014.

The certificate for my Skydive Elsinore jump.

Friday, October 03, 2014

RIP, Little Buddy...

Earlier today, I stumbled upon this dead praying mantis laying on the driveway at my house. I have no idea how it died... It clearly wasn't run over by a car, so I must say that it was either attacked by a predator or was done in by the hot weather (lousy California drought). Or maybe the mantis was just old and dropped dead. I kid. Either way, these insects are cool and it's too bad that this one met its demise on my property. Click on this previous entry to see the mantis in all its feeding glory... Or don't if you're squeamish and don't wanna see Mother Nature in action. Carry on.

Stumbled upon this dead praying mantis laying on the driveway at my house, on October 3, 2014.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Photos of the Day: Cool Space Stuff in Orange County, CA...

A photo I took of a Delta III upper stage rocket booster that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.

Last month, I decided to drive down to Orange County (which is only about 20 miles from where I live) just for the heck of it. Rather than heading to The Outlets at Orange (formerly called The Block at Orange) as originally planned though, I instead decided to visit Discovery Cube Orange County (formerly known as the Discovery Science Center... I have no idea why all of these O.C. locales are doing name-changes, kinda like the um, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) in Santa Ana. It's in the parking lot of this science museum where a refurbished Delta III booster is displayed, as well as a replica of space shuttle Endeavour's forward fuselage. Kinda like the random O.C. name changes, I have no idea why this replica was built, nor if it had any use in the space shuttle program (I'm pretty sure it didn't). One thing's for sure, it obviously isn't the same as viewing the actual orbiter herself at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. But the Delta III is pretty cool— One wonders if the Discovery Cube may one day harbor a booster that belongs to the currently-operational Delta II or Delta IV rocket. That'd be awesome.

A photo I took of space shuttle Endeavour's forward fuselage replica that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.

A photo I took of space shuttle Endeavour's forward fuselage replica that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.

A photo I took of a Delta III upper stage rocket booster that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.

A photo I took of a Delta III upper stage rocket booster that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.

A photo I took of a Delta III upper stage rocket booster that's on display at Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, on September 20, 2014.