Students as Teachers


A continuum of student activities, ranging from passive through active to creative.

One of the cornerstones of my education philosophy is that students learn best when they are expected to teach concepts to others. I’ve talked about this at some length on my other blog site at: It is based on the old saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” To which I would add, “Train a man how to teach others how to fish, and you’ve fed an entire village forever.”


My student Desmond presenting at the 2015 STEM Expo.

A number of years ago, I developed a diagram to illustrate the continuum of possible student activities ranging from students as passive consumers of educational content through students interacting with content to students as creators and producers of content. On the left (passive) side, students listen to lectures or watch a video. Since their minds wander, they maybe retain 10% of what’s taught.

In the middle, where students interact with content, are the types of activities we would label “hands on.” They are doing an active cookbook style lab or completing a step-by-step activity where the results are known and predictable. This is certainly better than passively sitting and consuming content, as they are up and doing, but we can do better. We can go beyond hands-on.

On the right side are creative students, doing self-directed inquiry labs where the results aren’t known in advance, the activities are student centered rather than teacher centered, and the students actually create a product, such as a video or lesson plan, that can be shared with others. On the far right side, students become teachers themselves and share what they have learned with others or, best yet, they actually become scientists and ask questions and determine answers, communicating their results with a larger world. What we call Project-Based Learning should largely exist on the right side of this diagram, where students work on self-determined projects with meaningful results that solve local (or even global) problems.


David Black presenting at the 2015 STEM Fest at South Towne Plaza in Sandy, Utah

During the 2014-15 school year, my astronomy students at Walden School were given several opportunities to teach others and share what they’d learned. At the beginning of the school year, the STEM Action Center set up a series of areas in a building at the Utah State Fair where students and teachers from participating schools could present what they are doing. I heard about this opportunity and volunteered my students, and had six students come up with me to do a series of astronomy and chemistry related mini lessons. I had been up the day before by myself to demonstrate how to do simple 3D modeling using Sculptris by Pixologic; I took up about six laptop Macs and anyone that I could pull in and sit down I showed how to model a head. There just weren’t that many people stopping by this building. The next day, my students helped do the demonstrations and went outside to gather people to come in. Again, the numbers weren’t too high but we had fun and showed some of my standby presentations. I ran into a former colleague of mine, Paul Fowkes, who is now teaching at the Granite Technical Center.


Cece and Desmond at the 2015 STEM Fest.

One of the other schools at the State Fair was Beehive Science and Technology Academy and I talked with the students and Director while we were there and he told me that they were planning on hosting a STEM Expo at South Towne Plaza in the spring and invited us to participate. When spring came, two of my students, Desmond and Cece, agreed to travel with me up to Sandy and present. On Saturday, April 25, we travelled up to Sandy and wheeled our materials into the Plaza on my old dilapidated equipment cart. We found that one of the Plaza’s main halls was filled up with students, mostly from Beehive, making presentations. We found a spot along one wall where we could tape up a makeshift screen and near enough to a power outlet that we could plug in our projector. We laid out examples of student STEAM projects and got ready to present.

We spent two hours going through several short demonstrations of about 20 minutes each, including our MESSENGER Student Planetary Investigator project, how to use Sculptris, creating stop motion animations of chemical reactions, and other projects my classes have worked on. Desmond and Cece had the chance to wander around and look at the other presentations going on in between helping me present, and we had a fun time of it. We also got some nice T-shirts for our troubles.


Wyatt helping participants during our first session at the BYU Astrofest, May 16, 2015.

On a Saturday, May 16, 2015, Brigham Young University’s Physics and Astronomy Department held their annual Astrofest and asked me to come present some of our activities, since I had done my BYU Research Experiences for Teachers research that previous summer. I came up with five classes, each to last one hour, starting at 11:00 with one hour off for lunch and to prepare for the last session. The first session was to make RGB images out of WISE infrared data, the second to use the MESSENGER data to make images of Mercury, the third to make to make a stop motion animation of the evolution of the moon, and the fourth to make 3D models using Mars data and search for landing sites for future missions. These were all computer based and merely required me to load some files onto the 12 laptops I brought with me and use my Mars posters and maps. Our last class was to make models of space probes out of candy. I thought this might be a good draw for the mostly elementary aged attendees, and Dr. Denise Stephens, the professor organizing the science day, agreed to pick up the materials and candy I would need.


A simulated lunar surface at the BYU Astrofest in May 2015.

I drove up onto campus and onto the broad sidewalks to the Eyring Science Center and my son Jonathan helped me unload my minivan and take the computers, posters, etc. into the building. I drove the car back to the parking lot and we set up in the room assigned us, just off the stairs on the second floor east hallway. I had to run over to the Wilkinson Center to buy a dongle, because my Mac dongle didn’t seem to be working. Two of my students, Nate and Wyatt, met us at the ESC and helped to run the classes. My first four classes were not terribly well attended – maybe 10-15 each session. But the candy space probe session was packed, so much so that we had to run people through in shifts.


David black presenting how to use LOLA data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe.

We laid out various types of candy ranging from Graham crackers, stick pretzels, and wafer cookies to Rolo candies, Skittles, Hersey’s kisses, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls, and many more. We allowed them to use coffee stirrers and wooden skewers, and glued it all together with frosting and marshmallow crème. To encourage students to build models of actual probes, I prepared copies of Mars probe diagrams such as Mars Pathfinder and the Exploration Rovers.


Enhanced color Mercury data from the MESSENGER probe, as created by participants at BYU’s 2015 Astrofest.

A rough count of all the participants in just this one hour was about 200. Altogether, we taught about 250-260 children and parents. Jonathan was my photographer, using my iPad’s camera, and many photos were blurry but some turned out well. I am showing you some of them here.


Participants in Astrofest making candy space probe models; May 2015.

The results of this activity were fun and excellent, and some actually did look like the real thing. Others were rather fanciful. Jon built one of his own and brought it home. There was probably as much eating of the candy as there was building. The room was something of a mess after this, so we spent some time cleaning up and trying to get the marshmallow crème off the tables (somehow it got everywhere even with the tablecloths we brought). It was a fun but exhausting day. Wyatt and Nate both enjoyed themselves and were very helpful managing the crowds and helping to teach and answer questions. This was my main reason for doing this – for the benefits it would bring my own students. Wyatt told me after that even though he wasn’t planning on returning to Walden, he still wanted me to have him help me next year.


Using Rolos for wheels.


Not exactly a space probe: “Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!”


The Mars Pathfinder lander built out of candy. I especially like the little wafer Sojourner Rover.


Building space probe models out of candy.


Another satisfied customer . . .


Our candy space probe activity was a huge hit; we had to let people do this in three shifts to get everyone in, and counted about 200 people for this activity.

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MESSENGER of the Gods


3D image of Mercury using MDIS data from the MESSENGER space probe and mapping it onto a sphere in Daz3D Bryce.

My second semester astronomy class during the 2014-15 school year at Walden School of Liberal Arts focused on planetary science. Our trip to the American Astronomical Society conference in early January had been the final project of our first semester class, which had focused on astrophysics. I wanted a comparable project that involved analyzing planetary data for the second semester.


3D image of Mercury using MESSENGER data. The bright spot is the Rachmaninoff region of Mercury.

I had heard of a program called MESSENGER Student Planetary Investigators, where teams of students in schools could collaborate with scientists on the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) space probe orbiting Mercury to download data and images. I applied for it during the fall and we were accepted.


Large double-ringed impact basins on Mercury. The distinct crater at the north has rays that cover much of Mercury’s surface, but they are much more obvious in our enhanced color images (see below).

We held a series of monthly webcasts with scientists on the MESSENGER team. The probe was the first to visit Mercury since the three flybys of Mariner 10 in 1975. Launched on August 3, 2004, it took a looping path past Venus, twice past Earth, and three times past Mercury to gradually slow down its orbit around the Sun to where Mercury could capture it into orbit. It went into orbit on March 18, 2011 and collected data for four years before running out of navigation propellant. It was deliberately de-orbited (NASA-speak for “crashed”) into the surface of Mercury on April 30, 2015, which was during the time we were studying it.


Here is the same crater in enhanced color. The bluish-lavender lines are rays ejected from the impact. They are more visible in the 430 nm MDIS image, here mapped to the blue channel in Adobe Photoshop.

Our first webinar was with Dr. Nancy Chabot, who taught the students about the mission and the various on-board instruments, including the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) and the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA). The MDIS could image the surface using filters in ten wavelengths, and we learned where and how to access the data in what was called Quickmaps and choose which wavelengths to download. Each image was over one gigabyte in size, and stretched the memory of our Macintosh laptops to the limit. Because of Mercury’s slow rotation, the images show high Sun elevation in some areas and lower angles in others, and quite a bit of adjustment has been made to patch the mosaics together. The MLA 3D data of the surface was only available for the northern hemisphere, because of the highly elliptical nature of MESSENGER’s orbit.


More rays ejected onto the Mercury surface by impacts. Some of these impacts have rays that cover much of the surface. In this enhanced color image, impact features are blue-lavender and volcanic features are yellow-orange (higher sulfur).

We started by taking one of the MDIS images in visible wavelengths and used it as a texture map on a sphere in our 3D software to create an animation of Mercury rotating. This was remarkable in itself as only 40% of the surface had ever been mapped before MESSENGER.


A large double-ringed impact basin on Mercury. In this enhanced color image, yellow-orange areas indicate volcanic features. This crater was filled by a basaltic eruption.

Using the same technique we had learned for the WISE mission, we picked three of the MDIS images (including some infrared) and put them into the RGB channels in Adobe Photoshop. Different students used different images, but whichever one was the shortest wavelength, we put into the blue channel. The middle wavelength went into the green channel, and the longest (usually infrared, such as 1000 nanometers) went into the red channel. The result wasn’t terribly exciting at first, because it showed basically the same boring gray color that Mercury appears in normal visible light. But I had the students push the contrast and saturation of the colors to the maximum, and interesting things began to happen.


In this enhanced color image, the crater with the yellow bottom shows hollows and pits that are fairly recent and show that Mercury’s surface is still evolving. The blue-lavender lines are ejected rays from a crater to the north.

One student, Elena Mitchell (who had also gone to Seattle for the AAS), decided she wanted to pursue this research further as a science fair research project. She chose the three images that were furthest apart: 430 nm (violet), 730 nm (far red), and 100 nm (infrared) and combined them into the blue, green, and red channels in Photoshop. She then stretched the saturation and color contrast and came up with images that showed different colors for impact features (lavender, we think because of higher levels of magnesium sulfate) and volcanic features (yellow-orange, because of more sulfur). She had picked the wavelengths specifically to show up sulfur. She chose several areas of particular interest and learned their names. All Mercury features are being named after famous artists, such as the Rachmaninoff Basin. Her images showed yellow-orange pits in the Lermontov region called hollows that are fairly recent and show that the surface of Mercury is still evolving. Large double-ringed craters showed different shades of orange to red, indicating different basaltic eruptions. Large lavender rays covering much of the surface radiate out from impact basins such as Caloris Basin.


The brightest area on Mercury is this region northeast of Rachmaninoff Basin. In this enhanced color image, it is clearly showing recent volcanism. The basin itself shows a double ring with different chemical compositions in each ring – more sulfur-based materials in the center (possibly from the volcanic center to the southeast), more magnesium in the outer ring (if our analysis is correct). You can also see how piecing the mosaics together led to some calibration issues when we enhanced the color.

She worked very hard to understand what the colors indicated, looking at other instruments that got data on the surface composition. She also found the MLA data for the northern hemisphere and created 3D models, although they are not as detailed as the ones we’ve done for Mars and the Moon. She tried to match up the 3D models with Lermontov and other areas that showed interesting features. She even built a paper 3D model of the MESSENGER probe.


Lermantov Crater shows pits and hollows inside that appear to be associated with recent volcanic activity. Of course, on Mercury, “recent” could mean a billion years.

She was the only student from Walden School that did a science fair project, and she was able to advance from the Charter District fair in February to the regional Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair in March. I was very pleased when her project was announced as one of the Sweepstakes winners, which meant she would be going on to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburg in May. This has been a bucket list item of mine, to help a student go all the way with a science fair project. She also won a full-ride scholarship to Westminster College.


A view toward the north pole of Mercury using enhanced MDIS images of 430, 630, and 1000 nm mapped into the RGB channels in Adobe Photoshop and enhanced (added contrast and color saturation). You can see ghost craters where lava flows have filled in the crater but left slight impressions behind.

In between all of this, she was selected as our school’s Science Sterling Scholar, a competition for high school students in 13 categories, where one student for each category is chosen from a school. They complete a portfolio, write essays, and interview for the position. Elena made it past the regional interview and was one of the 15 finalists for the entire state of Utah.


Elena’s science fair project. She explains the process she used to combine three wavelengths into the RGB channels of Adobe Photoshop to make our enhanced color images. She also took MLA data to make 3D models, and built a paper model of MESSENGER (below left).

She spent five days in Pittsburg for ISEF, and it was an amazing experience for her. She won a geology association award, and is now studying Geological Engineering at the University of Utah. It just goes to show how important it is for students to get their hands on real data and do their own original science. It can engage and inspire them and show them that science is not just for nerds and brainiacs. Anyone can become a scientist, if they’re motivated enough. Elena was always one of my best students, but she hadn’t really considered geology as a career until she did this Mercury data project. Between using the MESSENGER data, traveling to AAS, and being part of NITARP, a new world of possibilities opened up.

This is why I am a teacher.


Elena with her science fair project. She won a Sweepstakes Award at the Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair (CUSEF) and traveled to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburg in May, 2015.

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Publishing a 3D Illustration of SOFIA



Article by Kelly Beatty in Sky and Telescope Magazine, featuring a 3D illustration of the SOFIA telescope by my student, Rosie.

The second semester of the 2014-15 school year was incredibly busy. I was elected to the Utah Science Teachers Association board, representing science teachers from Charter, Private, Home, and Online schools. I traveled to Chicago for the National Science Teachers Association conference to present at several sessions and to be recognized for winning the Robert E. Yager Excellence in Teaching regional award (for Utah, Colorado, and Arizona). My astronomy students embarked on a new project to work with scientists on the MESSENGER space probe and download data of Mercury. My students and I presented our work at a STEM conference and at Astronomy Day at Brigham Young University. My video production students helped to film and edit a documentary on chocolate making (a chocumentary). I will write blog posts on all of these activities over the next few weeks, but for now, one interesting thing occurred in February 2015.


Our 3D image of the telescope assembly and bulkhead aboard SOFIA. The labels/call-outs were added by Sky and Telescope Magazine.

I was contacted by e-mail by Kelly Beatty regarding an image of the telescope on SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) that my student, Rosie, and I had made two years before. Rosie built the parts in 3D modeling software and I assembled them and added textures. I rendered out the model from different angles and added several images to this blog. Kelly had found the image and asked if he could use it for an article he was writing for Sky and Telescope Magazine about a flight he had taken on SOFIA. I talked with Rosie’s parents and they gave permission, so I told Kelly yes. I found the original model and rendered some high-resolution images from several angles, then e-mailed them to him.


SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) 3D model built by my 6th grade Creative Computing students in 2013. The telescope assembly by Rosie is incorporated into this model (see the open window).

A couple of months later he sent me two copies of the magazine. They had added labels and call outs to the various parts. It was nice to see something we had done used to add value to his article, and that our details were accurate enough. I gave Rosie a copy as well, and she can now claim to have had her work published at the age of 14 in a national magazine. Something nice to put on a resume, along with presenting at the AAS the month before.

SOFIA layout

Diagram of the SOFIA fuselage interior that I drew for my 3D modeling students to learn the basic layout. We started modeling the parts, but didn’t have time in the semester to finish.

In truth, we never completely finished the model as we didn’t add some of the parts around the instrument interface and counterweights. My 6th grade Creative Computing course in 2013 had built the entire exterior of SOFIA as a 3D model and we incorporated Rosie’s telescope model into the whole. My goal was to model the interior as well, based on my own experience flying on SOFIA. I took many photos during my flight in 2013, and my 3D students during winter semester 2015 were given the assignment to create the equipment and stations inside the fuselage. I used Adobe Illustrator to draw a layout of the interior based on my photographs. We didn’t get very far on the 3D models, but I am including some of what we did here. Eventually I hope to finish it and create detailed animations to go with the video footage I took. At some point I want to return and see SOFIA again, perhaps this time with students.


A render of a 3D headset model created by my student Casey for the SOFIA interior.

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Returning from the AAS: Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015


The Seattle monorail system. I first saw this in 1968 when my family visited the Seattle World’s Fair.

Our last day in Seattle we had a later flight than most of the other teams, so I packed up my bags and met my remaining three students down in the lobby. Kendall had already departed for Washington, D.C.. I walked with Elena, Julie, and Rosie to get some breakfast at Top Pot Doughnuts, not too far from the hotel. We had established a kind of tradition on our trip to Caltech when we discovered Randy’s Donuts, and I had heard this was the place to go to in Seattle.

On our way there, we walked by the elevated monorail tracks, which reminded me of my first trip to Seattle in 1968 when I was eight years old. We drove up in our old station wagon to visit my mother’s twin sister in Aberdeen, Washington. In Seattle we visited the World’s Fair, which included exhibit halls and the Space Needle. On this trip, I hadn’t gotten out of downtown nor even seen the Space Needle, but it was nice to see the monorail and be reminded that this was, indeed, Seattle.


On our way to Top Pot Doughnuts. It’s kind of a tradition.

At Top Pot Doughnuts, we bought our choices and ate on the balcony, talking about what our favorite parts of the conference had been. The students agreed that the professional astronomers were different than they had anticipated. Instead of stuffy, brainy eggheads (which is how movies and TV shows tend to portray scientists), the found the astronomers to be engaging, excited, highly motivated, and eager to share their work even with high school students. Rosie and Julie both said they are now thinking about careers in astrophysics. As Julie put it, being around the astronomers made her happy. She had made a number of contacts for potential undergraduate and graduate schools when she graduates from high school in two years.

We walked back to the Hyatt Regency and checked out, then walked to the light rail station and bought tickets back to SeaTac Airport. On the way back, I finally spotted the Space Needle north of the city. We worked our way through getting boarding passes and I collected all of our receipts, knowing I’d have to justify all expenses with the NITARP accounting and with the Utah STEM Action Center, who were paying for our trip. We passed through security and had some time to wait before boarding the airplane, so we found some seats in the gate area and I dozed off while the students played games and texted friends on their cell phones.


The Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Seattle, where we stayed for the AAS conference.

The flight home to Salt Lake was uneventful, and I had already worked out a shuttle van ride back to the school. We had a few other people in the van to drop off, and traffic was slow, so it was a bit over an hour’s drive back to Provo. I struck up a conversation with the driver, who was from northern Pakistan. He was working in the U.S. to earn money to try to set up schools for girls, including finding textbooks and supplies. He told us of how difficult it is for girls to get any formal education there, and how the beautiful mountain valley he was from had been destroyed by decades of war and conflict. I can’t remember the exact name of the valley, and none of the ones listed in Wikipedia seem familiar. It might have been the Kurram Valley, which borders on Afghanistan south of the Khyber Pass.

Upon return to Walden School, I had a lot of work to get classes underway and on track since I had missed the first week of the second semester. I revised our application to the Utah STEM Action Center for a higher amount, as per their request, enough to cover the other two students. I assembled all of our receipts and sent them in to NITARP for reimbursement.


Seattle-Tacoma Airport as seen from the light rail system on our way home from Seattle.

As a result of all this, I got behind on writing up our adventures in this blog. Other things got in the way. Now, over two years later, I am finally writing about it. Much has happened since, and I hope to bring this blog up to date in the next few weeks (before the middle of February 2017) as things start to heat up with our Mars project at my new school. I will want to stay current on that project, so the sooner I can catch up, the better.

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AAS in Seattle: Wed., Jan. 7, 2015

On this third full day of the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle, we had a lot going on. This was the big day for our students to present the science results of their NITARP study and the poster we had all put together.


Our hotel in Seattle

After a quick breakfast in my hotel room, I took some time before the plenary session to help set up the student poster and to wander around a bit. This was also the day for posters on astrobiology topics, so I looked them over. I was especially impressed by posters on science instrument proposals to look for dark energy with a detector called DESI (Dark Energy Science Instrument) and galaxy clusters with NuSTAR, an x-ray telescope that would detect at higher energies than Chandra. I also saw a poster on the results of the G-Hat search for extra-terrestrials that might be detectable in WISE data from the excess heat that a galaxy-wide civilization would produce. It was disappointing to find that the results so far have been negative.


Poster on the G-Hat search for galaxy-spanning civilizations

The plenary session this morning was amazing and brain-warping. Max Tegmark of MIT spoke on “Inflation and Parallel Universes: Science or Fiction?” He is a well-known author of the leading book on the multiverse theory called Our Mathematical Universe. He had a bit of trouble with his microphone at first and wondered if it might be in a parallel universe somewhere. He began by noting that all of our astronomy results so far have had the affect of enlarging our universe, whatever we mean by “our universe.” If a universe is everything that is, then additional universes can’t exist except in imagination, which is where his theories lie.


Tegmark’s Level 1 Multiverse: All universes in this multiverse obey the same laws of physics but start with different initial conditions.

We can look at four levels of the Multiverse: (1) Unobservable extensions to our own universe. Our local Hubble Bubble is everything we can observe, or that has had enough time elapse for light from it to reach us. There could be other Hubble Bubbles, such as what would be visible from an observer at the very edge of our Hubble Bubble – to him/her/it, we would be at the edge of the universe and half of what we can see would be non-observable to her/it/him. Over time, as our Hubble Bubbles expand, our observable regions would continue to overlap further, but there would be an infinite number of such bubbles in infinite space, including some just like ours. Since one could argue that these bubbles are extensions of our own universe, they would follow the same physical laws but not necessarily the same initial conditions.


Max Tegmark, who addressed us at the Kavli Lecture plenary session on Wed., Jan 7, 2015.

(2) Post-Inflationary Regions, places that are not in our own space-time and started with differing physical laws entirely, such as those postulated in Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. These universes could be inflating or expanding faster than our own, have a speed of light faster than ours, or differing parameters for the four (five?) forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces because the initial symmetry breaking event worked out differently. These areas are permanently outside our observable universe.


The Extra-sock Phenomenon in a parallel universe. If our universe has a net disappearance of socks, then there must be one where the socks re-appear . . .

(3) Separate branches of quantum wave functions, otherwise known as the Many Worlds hypothesis or Hilbert Space. This idea states that because of quantum uncertainty, any possible event that could happen eventually does happen in an infinitely uncertain universe. So there is a universe where you are Batman. Think about that!


Yes – in some other universe, I AM Batman.

(4) Other mathematical structures, or Platonic Realms, or what Tegmark calls the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. This suggests that the reality of the universe is mathematical in nature and can contain self-aware subsets (us, in other words) that can comprehend the mathematical nature of the universe. My brain began to go “Huh??” at this point. [Or was it that my brane began to go “Huh??” Sorry. A little multiversal joke.] I guess the idea that our universe is really a computer program isn’t so strange after all. If our universe is one possible system of mathematics, there could be others based on other self-consistent laws.


Of course, the important question really is . . . which Batman am I?

His discussion got deeper as he progressed, and my notes show I was writing rapidly trying to keep up. He delved further into realms of philosophy as well as physics. He said that some of the implications of these four theories might be testable, or at least could narrow the possibilities. If you can verify some part of one of these theories, then you can’t throw it out. One part implies the rest – you can’t throw out the parts you don’t like, such as taking the caffeine out of coffee. So if one part can be proven, the rest must follow.


As Einstein always suspected, God DOES play dice with the universe. And I’m not in the right one . . .

He spoke of the inflationary period in our universe, when the universe apparently expanded faster than the speed of light should allow. One of the properties of dark matter is that it doesn’t appear to become diluted with time. He drew a diagram showing how inflationary matter eventually coalesces into normal matter (with quarks and such) and the inflation slows down. He described the nature of pocket universes, a “horn model” of divergence, talked about the absence of scalar fields, and how the Higgs Boson followed the simplest model proposed as an example of Occam’s Razor.


A Level 4 multiverse, where the very mathematical structures that govern reality are different. Suppose planets follow fractal pattern orbits and not ellipses . . .

How all these ideas tied together was beyond me, but he was speaking to an audience of professional astronomers and cosmologists, not to high school science teachers like me. I’m just glad I could follow as much as I did.


Take your pick.

He finished up by talking about ways that we might test parts of these theories. We need more refined cosmological data at Planck scales and some proposals, such as the BICEP instrument on the Keck array and the HERA project. He spoke of the limits of the data from the WMAP and Planck probes, which he helped to prove. We might be able to soon have better data, such as looking for gravitational waves left by inflation.


Bubble universes intersecting

I returned to the exhibit hall and checked on our student poster. My students are scheduled for this afternoon, and the other students seemed to be doing well. I looked at more posters and visited some of the booths. Dr. Hintz and Dr. Joner of Brigham Young University had a poster on comparing the Hydrogen Alpha wavelengths of several open clusters, including two that I studied with them during the summer of 2014. The charts and graphs looked very familiar, since I had made my own versions of them. It’s good to see that I was doing it correctly.


Poster on H-alpha observations of open clusters by Drs. Hintz and Joner of Brigham Young University. I did similar work for Dr. Hintz in my summer 2014 RET program, and got similar results, which means I was actually doing it right!

At noon I attended a Town Meeting led by Dr. Paul Hertz. As the Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, he is the point person for all of NASA’s astrophysics research missions. He shared news of budget amounts. Congress restored funding for SOFIA (yay!) but with a reduced budget. He announced that they had also moved Education and Public Outreach away from the field centers and put it under the central Science Mission Directorate, which I think is a bad thing. Yes, it might be more efficient from a budgetary standpoint, but it is the difference between having reporters at headquarters reporting on World War II versus having reporters embedded with the troops at the front lines. The field centers are the front lines of NASA research, and it is there that the action occurs and the exciting stuff gets done, so that’s where the education needs to happen. If it gets centralized, all of the great EPO people I’ve worked with at the field centers will be out of a job, and the SMD will homogenize and regularize the content and insist on “systemic change” and “reaching under-represented groups” and “leveraging NASA assets through partnerships” so that lone teachers like myself from suburban school districts won’t be able to participate anymore. I wrote letters to all of Utah’s congressional delegation in 2014 and said all of this – only one responded. I had a nice 30-minute conversation with a staffer for Senator Mike Lee about this issue.


Dr. Paul Hertz at the NASA Town Hall Meeting at the 2015 American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle.

In the past, each space mission was required to spend 1% of their budget on education and public outreach, which meant the efforts were uneven and ranged from printing fancy books (ala the Voyage to a Ring World book done by the Cassini team) to the Solar System Educators Program I’ve been a part of, but it meant there were more opportunities to get involved. Now education has a fixed budget of $42 million overall and the old days are ending soon. What comes next, I do not know, or if I can even continue to be involved.


Julie explaining the NITARP student science poster while I look on.

Dr. Hertz reported on ongoing efforts, including testing of the James Webb telescope, the 25th anniversary of Hubble, WFIRST, exoplanet detection efforts, and the Small Explorer Announcement of Opportunity, where 25 proposals were submitted. They will select a number of these for feasibility testing, then narrow it down to two missions. This is how it goes – about 20% of all mission proposals eventually receive some funding, but this goes down as budgets remain flat, costs go up, and the number of proposals continues to increase.


Kendall explains the students’ NITARP poster at the Seattle AAS conference in 2015.

The rest of his presentation was to look ahead to the next Decadal Survey in 2020. We are now halfway through this decade, and missions are moving forward as planned, so it’s time to think about the next decade. What are the missions we want to do? He said his office is soliciting feedback, knowing that proposals would be only a sketch given that technologies haven’t been developed yet. Some of the possible missions he mentioned were a Far Infrared Explorer, a Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (cool!), a UV/Optical/or IR Surveyor, an X-Ray Surveyor, etc. Now that the huge budget hole of the James Webb will be complete, there might be room for 3-4 big missions if the science is compelling.


Students from Walden School of Liberal Arts in front of their NITARP poster at the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle in January 2015. I must have cracked a joke just before this was taken . . .

After the Town Hall Meeting, I attended a concurrent session on astronomy education led by Dr. Tim Slater of the University of Wyoming. I had been visited by his wife, Stephanie Slater and by their graduate student, Debbie French, at my poster the day before. The session was quite packed and I was a bit late getting there, so I had to listen in through the door at first, then find a seat for the next presentation. The presentations centered on scientific research on the effectiveness of various educational programs, most of which I had not heard of. I wish I could say there was some take away for me, but this was all research-based educational theory, not practical education strategies. I had to remember that this wasn’t an educator conference, it was a science conference. But at least I had some exposure to the Slaters and a possible graduate program to look into.


Students from Utah, Oregon, and Nebraska in front of their poster at the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle; Jan. 2015.

While in the session I got a phone call from the Utah STEM Action Center about my student travel grant. They said it was basically approved, but that I could apply for more if I wanted. Well, OK – if you insist. This should now pay for my extra two students, as the NITARP program will only pay the way for two of them and I brought four.


The streets of Seattle as I looked for a place for a late lunch.

I went looking for a place to each a late lunch and walked around a few blocks from the convention center while the light lasted and found a sandwich shop that was still open. It was a chilly but sunny January day and the city was nice to explore. I just wish I’d had the time and energy to go further. I haven’t even glimpsed the Space Needle since arriving.


Artist’s concept of what two merging black holes might look like

I headed back to the exhibit floor, which was up a long escalator on the fourth floor and a bit of a hike to get to. My students were doing well – Elena and Kendall were as entertaining as ever. I did some more exploring around the hall. One interesting stop I made was at the booth for the LIGO project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), which was finally scheduled to go online this year with their improved, lengthened laser paths. Basically, they have two tunnels underground at right angles and several miles long with lasers shining down them at the same wavelength. If any gravitational waves pass through the detector, the beams will go out of phase and create an interference signal that should be extremely sensitive – so sensitive they have to be miles away from any surface traffic.

There are two detectors, one near Livingston, Louisiana and one in Washington State near Hanford. A third detector would allow for triangulation of the direction of the signal, as an event gets to the detectors as slightly different times. Little did I know (or they, for that matter) that their experiment would get positive results within the year almost as soon as they turned it on (actually during final testing). They detected the gravitational wave signature of two colliding black holes on Sept. 14, 2015. Then they detected a second event on Dec. 26, 2015. Here is a link to the press release:

For the first time, we have something besides light to look at – we have waves to hear. It’s like using sight all your life and suddenly discovering that you have ears. Both detections agree perfectly with General Relativity. Looks like we can’t throw out Einstein yet.


Myself and my students from Walden School of Liberal Arts at the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle; Jan. 2015.

When the session ended at 6:00, we took photos with all the NITARP students by the poster in a whole group and by schools. We packed up everything and headed back to the hotel. On the way downstairs at the top of the escalator was the big AAS sign, so we stopped and took photos in front of it for posterity.


Seattle at twilight as seen from our hotel room. The sign for our restaurant for dinner can be seen at bottom right.

Some of the group are heading back first thing in the morning, including Kendall, who is actually here as her family moves to Washington, D.C., where her father will be heading up the Washington Seminar Program for BYU. She has an early flight to Reagan National Airport. We decided to have a last dinner together as an entire NITARP group, and we found a nice Asian Fusion restaurant across the street from the hotel. The food was good but a bit small in portions, so we decided we wanted to top off the meal with crepes. We walked back to the convention center where there is a crepe shop that the students had already tried out, and I got a delicious chocolate and cream crepe. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel.


Eating crepes at the Seattle convention center; Jan. 7, 2015.

I had schoolwork to do but was exhausted, so I crashed again.

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AAS in Seattle: Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015


A photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken from the Rosetta orbiter.

Note: I am writing this almost two years after the fact. Life has been busy and events carry one onward, but for the next week I hope to do some catching up on this blog. Fortunately, I took good notes and can remember most of what we did at the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle in January, 2015.


Dr. Paul Weissman, a scientist at JPL (now at the Planetary Science Institute) who worked the Rosetta mission.

On the second full day of the AAS conference in Seattle (Jan. 6, 2015), we had an incredibly busy and fulfilling day. This was the main day for educational posters and presentations, so I divided my time between a plenary session and presenting two posters. One I created on my own from my astronomy lesson plans that came out of my Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program at Brigham Young University. The other one was a group poster created by the four educators involved in the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) under Dr. Louisa Rebull.


An artist’s illustration of the Rosetta orbiter and Philae lander. The comet wound up being much more interesting that this illustration shows.

Before the beginning session, I called my students and none of them wanted to go with me to breakfast (they wanted the extra sleep), so I walked to a small convenience store nearby and bought some donuts and juice, which I ate back at the hotel room. I then walked to the convention center.

Plenary sessions are scheduled so that nothing else is going on and everyone can attend. The opening plenary session this day was by Paul Weissman, a scientist at JPL for the Rosetta-Philae mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency built Rosetta, but management and data analysis tasks were shared between several agencies including JPL at NASA.

The large auditorium was full, and I sat toward the front to better see the slides. He had previously worked on the Galileo and Stardust missions. He worked on the Champollion lander/sample return mission, which was eventually scrapped, but much of the work and design was used in the more advanced Rosetta/Philae mission. It launched in March 2004 on an Arianne rocket and took a slow looping ride and several gravity assists (three of Earth and one of Mars) to catch up to the comet, arriving in July 2014 after encountering two asteroids.


Another view of the “rubber ducky” shape of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken from the Rosetta orbiter.

The Rosetta orbiter had 12 instruments and the Philae lander had nine. It was sent down very slowly toward the comet on Nov. 12, 2014 and was supposed to fire two harpoons that would stick it to the surface. The comet is small and lightweight compared to asteroids, so there isn’t much gravity and the idea was to prevent the lander from bouncing off. They picked a landing site that was the least objectionable to the scientists and had safe terrain.


Diagram of the Philae lander. The MUPUS are two harpoons that were supposed to anchor the lander to the surface of the comet, but the lander bounced off and came to rest wedged on its side next to a cliff.

Unfortunately, the harpoons failed and the lander did bounce off. It took a slow arc up and eventually landed in the worst possible place, wedged up in a corner on its side next to a small cliff where sunlight can’t reach it very often. The lander had batteries for only about two days, and wasn’t able to use some of its instruments because of its awkward position. Yet it did return useful data while its batteries lasted and is considered a success.

An analysis of the images from the Rosetta orbiter show three holes where the lander feet tried to touch down – the two harpoons didn’t fire, possibly because the surface was softer than expected. Apparently the friable surface ice overlaid a much harder layer, which no one suspected was there. The resulting force of the landing poked the holes through the outer surface, but it hit the harder layer, rebounded, and launched the lander back into space.


Final resting place of the Philae lander after it bounced off the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Every comet we’ve visited is unique. Some are fairly active, such as Halley or Wild 2. Others are older and aren’t outgassing much because their surfaces are covered with dark gunk – mostly carbon with a surface albedo of less than 5%. That makes them very hard to see – about the color of black printer toner powder. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is one of these dark comets, covered with old outgassing basins. It looks as if two smaller comets collided and stuck together, with a thin neck between the two larger lobes that make it look something like a giant rubber ducky.

Dr. Weissman spoke of some of what we’ve learned from Rosetta-Philae. The comet rotates just over once per 12 hours (there is some variability due to outgasing) and is about 4 km in diameter. The dark outside layer insulates the remaining ice, and the neck area acts as a heat sink. The unusual shape creates stresses inside which can be seen as cracks in the surface. Analysis of its density (mass to size) and radio sounding of its interior show that it is made of some rubble (smaller boulders) and mostly dust. It contains more silicates and organic compounds than ices. It has a halo of smaller particles the size of hailstones orbiting around it. Its water ice has a different isotope ratio, with more deuterium than Earth water, which means Earth did not get its water from comets like 67P. It apparently formed in the very early solar system even before the Sun’s accretion disk was fully formed.

They have hopes that when the comet gets further in its orbit later in the year, sunlight might reach the lander and they will try to re-activate it. As of this writing (December 2016) they were able to successfully regain sporadic communication with the lander in June and July of 2015. At the end of the mission, the Rosetta orbiter was slowed down to gradually move in toward the surface and land as softly as possible on September 30, 2016.


My personal poster at the AAS education poster session on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. It explains several lesson plans I taught in my astronomy class that were developed from my work at the BYU-RET during the summer of 2014.

I had dropped off my poster prior to the plenary session, so I hurried from the session to the poster exhibit hall and tacking it up, then laid out copies of the lesson plans it describes. I’d had the poster printed at Kinko’s a few days before leaving for Seattle and carried it with me on the plane. For most of the remainder of the day, I attended to the poster and explained things to visitors. I had a good stream of people stop by, many of which were astronomy educators. Some were even from PhD programs in Science Education that I might someday apply to.

The lesson plans I presented included (1) using Adobe Photoshop to take WISE images from three wavelengths and combine them into the RGB channels as a representative color image, (2) charting Spectral Energy Distributions using data from SIMBAD and IPAC, and (3) calculating star distances using the distance-modulus formula. I’ve written up blog posts previously on each of these lessons, so you can scroll down to my other blog posts to find them.


Dr. Eric Hintz of Brigham Young University presenting his poster at the AAS educational session.

Dr. Eric Hintz, my mentor for the RET program at BYU, had his own poster near mine on using virtual reality glasses (Google Glass) to provide translation services in ASL for deaf visitors to the BYU planetarium. Before, when deaf people visited and ASL services were used, the planetarium couldn’t be darkened all the way so that the translator could be seen. Now, the translator can be in another room and videotaped, then projected into Google Glasses for the deaf visitors.


Chelin Johnson (left with camera) and her students presenting their poster on an independent project at the AAS education poster session.

Chelin Johnson and her students had their own educational poster a few spaces down from mine. She has been a SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador like me, participated in NITARP, and has her students do independent WISE projects each year, which they present at this conference. It is a great example to me of what’s possible.


John Gibb, Elin Deeb, Estefania Larson, and David Black presenting their poster on the NITARP education program at the AAS conference in Seattle; Jan. 6, 2015.

We had divided up the times during the day for who would stay with our group NITARP educational poster, so I spent some time with it in the afternoon while also trying to see the other posters in the section. I was so busy all day trying to stay at two posters that I didn’t take time for lunch. When the day ended at 6:00, I was very ready for food. The EPO people at the SOFIA booth had arranged for a dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, and my students were invited. Elena and Kendall had other plans, but Rosie and Julie came with me. It was a good meal (I’d never eaten here before and hadn’t realized they have complete meals and not just cheesecake).


David Black standing by his poster at the AAS education session; Jan. 6, 2015.

We had quite a group, and Ryan Lau was there (he was presenting a poster at the conference) and I asked him to explain his research to my students. He has now completed his PhD program at Cornell and explained what he’s been working on for his thesis. I wish I had brought along my cameras and could have recorded what he said. I had dropped them off in my room before supper, and didn’t have my notebook with me, either. My students were impressed and both became more interested in pursuing a career in astrophysics, hearing how Ryan’s work was so accessible. He talked about SOFIA’s instruments, how he has studied the galactic core and its accretion ring, and some of the huge Luminous Blue Variable stars near it.


Presenting my poster at the AAS conference.

I was pretty exhausted after the dinner. I tried to get some work done back at my hotel room, but soon had to crash. It had been a great day of meeting people and sharing my astronomy lessons.

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2015 AAS in Seattle – Day 2: A Sampler of Sessions

JWST model

Functioning model of the James Webb Space Telescope. It demonstrates how the solar shields will unfurl and the primary mirror will unfold.

On the first full day of the American Astronomical Society Conference in Seattle, my students and I attended a variety of plenary sessions, poster sessions, parallel sessions, and a follow up meeting of all the NITARP groups. I also had the unexpected opportunity to meet one of my personal heroes and to meet someone who was about to become somewhat famous.

After getting up and getting ready, I called my students to see if they wanted to meet for breakfast. One thing I find irritating about nice hotels is that they don’t provide free breakfasts – I guess they figure that if you can afford a room at over $150 per night, you can afford your own breakfast. This is why I usually choose to stay at places like Comfort Inn or Days Inn – they provide free hot breakfasts and their rooms and beds are almost as nice – certainly nicer than what I have at home. And they cost less. But since the NITARP program was paying my way and providing a per diem for meals, I wasn’t complaining.

Julie and Rosie met me downstairs in the lobby and we ate next door at the restaurant associated with our hotel. The breakfast was good, but overpriced and not very filling. My other students opted out of breakfast so they could sleep in a bit.


William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Werner von Braun holding up a model of the Explorer 1 space probe after it successfully discovered the Van Allen Radiation Zones.

Van Allen’s Pants

The conference began officially with a plenary Kavli Foundation Lecture by Dan Baker on his work on Earth’s magnetosphere with the SAMPEX mission. It is expected that everyone attend the plenary sessions – nothing else is scheduled during these times. There was a large crowd attending and I sat toward the back. He told of how the Russians could have beat us to discovering the Van Allen Radiation Belts. There was an instrument package with Sputnik II (which contained the dog Laika). The probe reached apogee over Australia at a high enough altitude to be in the radiation belts, but the Australians refused to share the data with the Russians. So Explorer 1 with its Geiger counter onboard found out the belts were there, and Van Allen (who suggested putting the Geiger counter in the probe in the first place) made the cover of Time magazine. Van Allen was Dr. Baker’s mentor. When Van Allen was asked by a reporter what the belts were good for, he replied, “To hold up Van Allen’s pants!” Apparently, he hated the term “belts” and preferred to call them radiation “zones,” which is a more accurate description.

AAS 2015 posters 2

Posters and exhibits in the main hall of the Seattle convention center for the AAS 2015 conference.

The SAMPEX mission had an elliptical polar orbit, and as it dipped in and out of the zones, found out some interesting things. First, there are three, not two, radiation zones or layers. The newly discovered outer ring acts as a storage area for atmospheric ions. Second, radiation from the Sun has profound affects on the zones. Over time, the zones weaken, but whenever Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are blasted off the surface of the Sun, they spiral out (because the Sun rotates) and as they interact with the Van Allen zones, they cause a stripping and decoupling of the ions in the zones, weakening them rapidly. But the CMEs also provide new particles that re-energize the zones, causing a reconnection within tens of minutes to hours. During these decoupling events, Earth’s energy and communication grids are vulnerable since high-energy electrons can penetrate through. Third, there are gaps or slots between the zones with fairly sharp edges.

AAS 2015 Monday posters 1

Posters at the Seattle AAS conference in Jan. 2015.

SOFIA booth at 2015 AAS

The SOFIA booth at AAS in Seattle; Jan. 2015

After his lecture, I walked to the main hall to look through the posters. I didn’t stay long – just got a quick overview and snapped a few pictures. I stopped by the SOFIA booth to talk to Coral Clark and see if we were getting together for dinner.

Exoplanet Atmospheres

I attended a parallel presentation session on exoplanet atmospheres, where graduate students give five-minute presentations on their work with two minutes for Q & A. I was intrigued by the title – it seems amazing that we can tease any information about atmospheres out of the exoplanet data from Kepler, where the signals for the planets themselves are so hard to ferret out of the noise. But you would be surprised, as I was, how much can be discovered from those slight dips in the light curve of a star.

Nick Cowan spoke on his study of Hot Jupiter atmospheres and the difficulty of inferring conclusions from such uncertain data. They did manage to get some good reads on the daytime temperatures of some planets. Joel Schwartz spoke further on how these temperature readings provide some clues as to the circulation, radiation, and albedos of the exoplanets.

Bjorn Benneke studied oxygen-rich Hot Jupiters to model where the planets formed and if they migrated inwards, which is a big question concerning Hot Jupiters. Our best models of planet formation say that a Jupiter-class planet with a thick gas atmosphere must form away from the star, or the star’s stellar wind would have stripped all the gases away. So conventional wisdom says they formed further out and migrated in. His analysis shows discrete cloud layers and compositions on some planets, others with hazy atmospheres and a top cloud deck.

Soon to Be Famous


Tabetha Boyajian, a post-doc student at Yale University and director of the Planet Hunters project.

The final presentation in this session was on the Planet Hunters project, where anyone can access Kepler data to look for planets. Ran like the other Zooniverse projects, each light curve is vetted by several citizen scientists. If one of them disagrees with the others, it is looked at by a moderator who makes the final decision. The presenter said that their search also looks for RR Lyrae and other variable stars. She gave her e-mail address at the end, but I was beginning to get sleepy in the warm room and my writing trailed off. In my notebook, it reads: “Tabetha.boy…..” before trailing off completely. Yes, it was Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral student at Yale University who heads the Planet Hunters program.

Tabby Star map

Approximate location of KIC 8462852, also known as the Where’s the Flux Star and Tabby’s Star.

Little did I know (or she, for that matter) that within a year of making this presentation, she would become famous for Planet Hunters detecting the weirdest star yet spotted in the Kepler data – KIC 8462852, now called Tabby’s Star or the WTF (“Where’s the Flux?”) Star. It is a real space oddity, an F-type star in Cygnus about 1480 light years away. Instead of the regular, small dips in the light curve that indicate a nicely behaved exoplanet, this star has frequent, irregular dips of as much as 20% of the star’s light, as if it is orbited by large chunks of something much too big to be a planet. Tabetha’s analysis suggested it might be swarms of comets, as shown in the artist’s drawing. But recent further analysis shows that it would take 680,000 comets, each over 200 km across, to make that kind of dip in the star’s light. Not very plausible. There is no infrared excess, so there is no warm dust that one would expect from a collision scenario.

Tabby Star comets

The comet swarm hypothesis – a large number of cold comets are blocking the light of the star, possibly pulled out of their Oort cloud by a passing star (such as the red dwarf at about 830 AU from the primary).

So what is causing it? One suggestion is that an alien civilization is building some kind of megastructure around the star, perhaps a Ringworld or Dyson Swarm. But more recent detailed analysis of historical photographic plates shows that the star has gradually dimmed 20% over the last 100 years. It’s hard to think of any civilization having the wherewithal to cover 20% of their star in that short of a time period. There is none of the waste infrared energy that one would expect of an alien structure, and SETI searches during the fall of 2015 have found no evidence of signals. It just gets weirder and weirder. Several things are certain: Tabetha Boyajian’s presentation at the 2016 AAS will be very well attended! And it proves the importance of citizen science studies – no automated system would have discovered this. Many studies are underway as I write this to observe the star and determine if the dimming is caused by cold dust (from comets or Kuiper belt collisions) or if the obscuring objects are more solid. Stay tuned!


An artist’s concept of what a partially completed Dyson Sphere might look like, with pieces being moved into place and gradually obscuring the primary star.

Finding lunch was a bit problematic, but there was a small sandwich shop along the walk between the Hyatt and the Convention Center that I went to. Our NITARP group met together at some tables set up at the back of the main hall to eat lunch and plan our schedule for the next three days. Tuesday is the astronomy education day, with concurrent sessions and posters. I will have my individual poster to present all day, and we had our NITARP educational poster as well. We set up times for who would do what. The science poster would be presented on Wednesday, so we assigned groups of students to different times, with teachers to keep an eye on them.

Tabby Star light curves

Light curves from the Kepler Mission for KIC 8462852. Instead of nicely predictable periodic dips, this one has huge, irregular, asymmetrical dips in the light curve.

Meeting a Personal Hero

After lunch there was a plenary session on space exploration policy featuring Dr. John Logsdon of George Washington University and the Space Policy Institute. I wanted to attend to see what the future of NASA and space exploration was likely to be (or should be). I was sitting toward the back when two of John Gibb’s students, Ashwin and Matt, walked past and saw me. They said they were going to sit on the front row and invited me to join them. Now I knew that the front row is where the Big Wigs sit – NASA directors and AAS presidents and the like. I figured that the students would be able to get away with sitting there because no one would expect them to know the etiquette of these sessions, but I also decided to join them to make sure they didn’t commit any major faux pas.

Space policy lecture

Space Policy lecture by Dr. Jon Logsdon at the 2015 AAS conference in Seattle.

We sat down just to the side of the podium and I was crossing my fingers that no one would ask us to leave. It was several minutes before the session, and a photographer was taking photos of Dr. Logsdon at the podium in front of the big AAS sign. I was watching this when a man sat on my right, and I turned to discover it was Dr. Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Director for NASA, whom I had met at the reception at AAS in National Harbor last year. He was looking at notes, but I decided to be bold and introduce him to Matt and Ashwin. I re-introduced myself. He remembered me from last year and that I was part of NITARP and SOFIA. I introduced him to the students, and he said that this was a great opportunity for them because not many high school students ever get to come to professional astronomy meetings, let alone present. Then he said, “In fact, you really ought to meet my boss!” He tapped the shoulder of a man standing in front of us with his back turned. The man turned around, and it was John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and a six-time astronaut. Three of those missions, he led the repairs/refurbishing of the Hubble Space Telescope and probably has more space walking time than anyone else on the planet.

John Grunsfeld as astronaut

John Grunsfeld on a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Dr. Grunsfeld was very gracious, talking with us for several minutes. I mentioned I was here for NITARP but had also flown on SOFIA as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, and it was an amazing experience. He said that he and Dr. Hertz kept meaning to fly on SOFIA (since they are over it) but that getting his schedule to work out to take a trip to Palmdale, then sleep during the day, attend the briefing, and fly all night on SOFIA was hard to arrange. I encouraged them to try, and that it was worth the effort.


Astronaut John Grunsfeld, now Science Mission Director for NASA.

(Several months later, when looking through some press releases from SOFIA, I came across an article and photos showing John Grunsfeld on SOFIA, flying with Kathleen Freddette, a Cycle 0 AAA from Palmdale, in February 2015. That was only a month and a half after we had this conversation. I give myself credit for convincing him to do this!)

John Grunsfeld on SOFIA

John Grunsfeld and Kathleen Fredette on SOFIA in February 2015.

Drs. Grunsfeld and Hertz were pulled away by other matters as the session was about to start, so I turned to Ashwin and Matt and said, “Do you have any idea who that was? He’s the director of all science missions for NASA and a six-time astronaut!” I think they were duly impressed.

The Future of Space Policy

Dr. Logsdon asked what we should expect of a space program. We spend more on space than the rest of the world combined, and since 1971 the U.S. space program has been plagued by analysts who say we don’t have clear goals for what we want to accomplish in space. Pres. Kennedy’s challenge to go to the Moon was backed up by a 100% increase in funding for all aspects of space exploration – not just the Apollo program. It would be the equivalent of boosting NASA’s budget today to $40 billion. It’s true that much of this went to building the initial infrastructure we’re still using, but as Carl Sagan put it “A rising tide floats all boats.”

Pres. Nixon’s administration valued building capabilities over going on beyond the Moon. VP Spiro Agnew’s Blue Ribbon Panel recommended building the space shuttle to service a large space station, from which we could then go on to Mars. But Nixon saw it as too expensive and trimmed the ambitious plan. Nixon wanted space to take its place as just one of a rigorous system of national priorities.

Since the 1970s things are largely unchanged. Pres. Obama has not put the resources behind his rhetoric, and NASA’s real budget adjusted for inflation continues to slowly dwindle. Dr. Logsdon was on the Columbia accident review board in 2003 and part of their findings was that NASA was straining to do too much with too little, like trying to squeeze a 20 lb watermelon into a 2 lb bag.

But given its limited resources, NASA is doing OK. HEDS (the Human Exploration and Development of Space) gets the most public attention and faces the most uncertain budget. The President is also making direct decisions about HEDS instead of simply taking the recommendations of his scientists. Planetary Science, Robotics, and Astrophysics tend to have a more constant budget of $5-$6 billion per year without a lot of debate in Congress. The fact that they do decadal surveys and meet their goals speaks to the stability of these programs.

Grunsfeld repairing Hubble

John Grunsfeld repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Say what you may about the Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) mission of NASA, there are many things that simply can’t be done by robots or space probes. Finding life on Mars or elsewhere may well be something that only people with eyes and brains on the site can do.

As for HEDS, we continue to lack a strategic focus that everyone can get behind. He predicted the most likely outcome is that we will continue to muddle along with a weakly supported program, unable to make any truly bold explorations like going on to Mars. The only way this could change is if we get a president who truly supports space exploration or if we share the expense with other countries. As for civilian space programs such as SpaceX and the X-Prize, it takes a country to truly lead the way and show vision for such an undertaking. We’re not racing anywhere anymore, so it will take a coalition of countries with a compelling goal for us to move outward again.

None of what he said was new to me, and I’ve written about it in previous posts. I simply wish we had a compelling reason to explore Mars and beyond. The China Challenge simply isn’t getting anyone excited – so what if their stated goal is to return to the Moon and go beyond? I fear that in the next 50 years, China will surpass us in space simply because we lost the motivation. There’s no reason the first flag on Mars must be American. I guess I’m glad that I speak Chinese . . . because when we stop progressing, stop innovating, stop exploring, we will cede our spot as the leading country to whoever doesn’t stop. Perhaps those with vision will need to move to China.

Galactic Streams

After the plenary session I went to a parallel session on the galactic center, the Milky Way, and streams of stars. I was astonished again by how we are now able to determine which stars belong to which populations, and that there are streams of star formation that can be traced through space and time.

Lauren Campbell spoke of hypervelocity stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They have identified 18 O and B stars and 20 G and K in a 5 kiloparsec sphere, and are now looking for F stars. They’ve found over 15, and all are metal poor. These HVSs are moving at 600-1300 km/sec and are going too fast to stay bound to the Milky Way – they’re headed out into the intergalactic void. They hope to find a population of stars already ejected from the Milky Way. Their explanation is that these stars were once part of binary systems, possibly close to the galactic center, and were ejected by gravitational interactions.

Matthew Newby spoke on the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy Tidal Stream. As this dwarf galaxy on the opposite side of the Milky Way from us merges with us, at least two streams of stars are being pulled out. He had to look at the CCD and CMD turn-off points to eliminate any blue stragglers, and account for the Virgo overdensity (a bright stream probably not associated with the Sgr Dwarf). Actually, what amazed me the most about this presentation is that I actually understood all of it. I know what he means by turn-off points and blue stragglers.

Branimir Sesar looked at the Ophiucus Stream, a group of 12.7 Gigayear-old metal poor stars orbiting in a looping pattern about 9 kpc from the galactic center.

Heidi Newberg spoke of rings and radial waves in the galactic disk. By subtracting the north galactic disk from the south, they should cancel out but they don’t. It produces a corrugated wave pattern. These might be ripples caused by the infall of the Sagittarius Dwarf.

NITARP Meeting

NITARP group photo-Seattle 2015

The entire NITARP group at the 2015 AAS conference in Seattle. Most of the teachers and students were independent projects and found their own way here.

After supper, we had a meeting of all the NITARP groups, present and past (and teachers for the future) at 7:00. We asked what had been effective, what needed to be improved, with anonymous comments. I commented that I wished the students had had more to do with the final writing and analysis on the poster – it felt that the teachers took over for them, even though they will be presenting it. It was a large group, and we did some small group brainstorming on different questions.

I met Tim Spuck for the first time, and he told us about his new NSF funded program to take a group of astronomy educators to Chile to see the various telescope systems there, including the ALMA array. I decided I wanted to apply for this program, even though I would have to come up with my own $1800 airfare.

We took a large group picture, and by the time I got back to my room I was exhausted and brain dead. There is so much to see and do at these conferences, and this had been a very full day.

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