Scoping out the rowdy neighbors and baking Apophis cake

It’s been a pretty exciting week to be an asteroid researcher: you’d think the sky was falling!  Really, it was just a confluence of some rowdy neighbors checking in on earth asking, “How’s that space program coming?”  An ordinary chondrite meteorite exploded over Russia, and later that day a 150-foot-wide piece of spacerock skimmed 17,000 miles above the earth, just ducking inside the orbits of geostationary satellites.
We had nothing to do with either: the Russia bolide was detected maybe seconds beforehand by some satellites; 2012 DA14 was too low in our sky for Arecibo to observe.

The media guy here is still getting calls, almost a week later.  Univision came by, Dish Network wanted to interview someone…
 
Inline image 1 What are we doing in the midst of all this?  Regularly scheduled observations of asteroid (99942) Apophis, everyone’s favorite potentially hazardous asteroid that we’ve known about for almost nine years now.  None of these recently discovered raucous interlopers for us this week, pshaw.  Even so, the events of last week underscore the importance of “finding them before they find us” and commercial solutions to asteroid problems.
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Sailing on the seas of Titan

It’s past 3 am and we’re observing asteroids with the Arecibo planetary radar system. In the lulls between experiments, Twitter conversations covered everything from the Russian bolide explosion, 2012 DA14, Toutatis, rain on Titan, and some jokes about sailing on Saturn’s largest moon. The sky is falling, what else will you talk about?

Who would run the Titan sailing expedition?  I suggested myself and nominated Sarah as admiral; an aeronomer offered to be railmeat.  Cracks about how we’d all be “squidbate” went back and forth.  Brian christened our ship “The Calamari”.  Alex designed a mission badge.

Before I knew it, Justin “@UrbanAstroNYC” Starr had turned the whole conversation into a meme.

From @UrbanAstroNYC, “Sondy and friends go sailing on Titan”, with apologizes to Charles Schultz

My grandfather Bill Littlejohn used to animate Peanuts; he would have been 99 this year.  An animator, union organizer, test pilot, and airplane designer, his long and varied career reminds me that it’s okay that mine is taking a variety of twists and turns through technical and creative pursuits.  Bill grew up in a sailing family, and a few of his hand-illustrated birthday cards that he’d mail or fax every year involved sailboats and depictions of me with short brown hair.

Thank you, Grandpa, for all you created and gave; you’re living on as we continue to explore the cosmos.

Guiding out the waves: engineering planetary radar

I spent last week observing of asteroids from the telescope: our first night was just another 8-4 workday night, where we looked at space rocks in our neighborhood and out beyond Mars for eight hours.

Arriving at the control room, I sat down with my binder full of… notes on how to observe at Arecibo, which hadn’t made much sense.  At any optical observatory you enter your coördinates into a computer and take an image.  After verifying that you pointed the telescope correctly, you then tell the telescope system to take data for the rest of the night, occasionally adjusting pointing or focus.

Hector está llamado por telefono

At Arecibo, you’re pointed in the right direction.  Alignment with the William E. Gordon Telescope is not an issue.  Even with the 305-meter dish, you’re good to a few millimeters.

Position of the platform, receiver, transmitter

Getting the signal out of the receiver and properly into the computer is the hard part of observing.  Instead of a few shiny silvered mirrors and a charge coupled device digitizing and sending your photons to a screen, here a maze of waveguides, cables, and wires brings signals from the matte metal dish, after being ushered into the receivers, along a path 1,600′ long to the control room.  Where computer monitors would display starfields at an optical observatory, wavy lines danced across oscilloscopes at Arecibo.  It felt like junior year electronics laboratory again in the physics department, so different from most of the things we were doing in astronomy, and not just because of cgs/MKS units arguments.

Ellen had considered walking me through cabling the week before our six-night-long marathon observing run, but ultimately decided that it wouldn’t make sense out of context.  Wait for the actual observing run to understand the cabling.

Cabling

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Critters

On Friday’s holiday, a postdoc and I trundled down to the beach to go swimming.  Protected by rocky arms, this tiny cove remained still as giant waves broke over the brown barriers.

I swum out in the flat water, enjoying not being pummeled by waves.  A man and a boy rode up on Paso Fino Horses, then tied them up under the coconut palms.  As we were swimming, the boy rode the larger horse, a dapple grey, into the water and they both began swimming.  He asked me if I could hold the bridle as he tied his shoes, then he hopped off the horse and swam alongside the equine.  The horse was non-plussed, but compliant.  The boy rode the horse up onto the beach, exchanging him for a smaller brown Paso Fino.

The second horse, spirited and younger than the first, held no interest in going in the water.  The boy led him toward the waterline where the horse bucked and flicked his tail, but eventually he gave in and followed the boy into the water, still bucking and kicking.

The boy lunged the horse in water about shoulder height, then took him out toward deeper water, and eventually rode the horse as it swum.

Back at the observatory, the coqui sang into the gathering darkness.


Saturday evening we were due to get rinsed by Tropical Storm Raphael.  I wanted to go for a run around the dish, so I checked in at the control room to tell the operator that I was going.  I looked out the window to see a raptor sitting on the railing, looking at us.

I pointed out the raptor to the TO.

“A Puerto Rican eagle!  I’ve never seen one.”  He ran off to grab his camera as the eagle and I stared at one another.  The eagle turned around, fluffed his plumage, turned around to eye me some more, then flew off after the TO returned with his camera, along with someone from electronics whose lens fogged up in the chilly control room.

Creatures, everywhere.

I ran around the dish, listening to the frogs sing.

The storm never arrived.

A week at Arecibo Observatory

Receiver

A little over a week ago I arrived at the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world.  My boss picked me up at the airport and drove me up into the hills of Puerto Rico’s karst country where I caught my first glimpse of the support towers of Arecibo Observatory, peeking out over the wooded hills.

8 o'clock tower

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Matsushima: pine-covered islands

May 23, 2012

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Daruma omikuji

I’d spent last spring reading news reports and watching footage of 東日本大震災 (“the big earthquake disaster of Eastern Japan”), especially of the tsunami that traveled six miles inland in areas near the city of Sendai.  Curious to see what had happened in the last 14 months since the earthquake, I boarded a Shinkansen for the relatively short ride up to the Tōhoku region, 東北, “east north”.  My friend Dan-chan, our guide on the Fuji-san climb, recommended visiting Matsushima, 松島, the pine-covered islands near Sendai.

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National Optical Astronomy Observatory of Japan

May 22, 2012

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Just a few kilometers down the road from JAXA where I’d spent the summer of 2011 was 天文台通り, “heaven language hill avenue”.  By some combination of my lack of kanji comprehension and the supreme focus of my colleagues, no one put one and one together and so during my first seven weeks in Japan I managed to be unaware of the proximity of the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan.  I fortunately sat next to Ito-san at the ACM banquet, and he offered to give me a tour of the facilities.  I went back to see my old lab at JAXA, talked about the high quality of rice from Niigata, and was picked up by Ito-san in the midst of a rainstorm to visit NAOJ’s campus.

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The Great Honshu Circumnavigation

May 21, 2012

When I looked at a map of Japan to find Niigata, I noticed that a train line ran all the way from the coastal city hosting our conference to Kyōto, the tracks flirting with the shores of the Sea of Japan (日本海, “Japan Sea”).  I’d been encouraged to visit Kyōto, and as this was my third trip to Japan without yet visiting the ancient capital, I figured now was the time to go.  With a week-long JR rail pass, I decided to take the trains from Niigata to Kyōto, rather than pass back through Tōkyō and down to Kyōto, a route I’d taken eight times in the last ten months.

After the eclipse, I boarded a local train in Niigata.  Past flooded rice fields, mountains flecked with snow, and a placid coastline, the trains rumbled and sped, me as practically the only passenger in most cars as we passed the tail end of springtime on Honshū (本州, “main province”), the main island of Japan.

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