Arrakeen Colony, Mars


Arrakeen City-all

A view of Arrakeen Colony, a model we made of a possible city on Mars.

During our fall 2016 semester at American Academy of Innovation, we selected Mars Exploration as the theme of our first school-wide project. To prepare my classes and get students excited, I involved them in creating several projects related to Mars.

Mars colony sketch

Initial sketch for our Mars colony sculpture. We designed it based on an old autoclave that was donated to my school, supported by metal pipes and glass beams (made from microscope slide disinfecting bottles). The first level is for manufacturing, the second is residential housing, the third is administration offices and commercial buildings, the fourth is for the university, mayor’s mansion, and a park. The upper dome houses landing pads, a communication dish, etc.

I teach a unique course that I call STEAM it Up, where students create projects that integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. I’ve reported on these projects in my other blog site (, and they include designing inquiry chemistry experiments to study the variables of dyeing cloth, making marbled paper to study fractal math patterns, and building steampunk costumes. To bring in the Mars theme, we decided to build a sculpture of a possible Mars colony out of junk and repurposed items.

Constructing the city

My STEAM it Up students constructing the base of the city.

A few years ago, someone donated pieces of medical equipment to my previous school that came from some doctor’s office. I wasn’t there when the donation came in, or I would have turned much of it down as we had no use for many of the items. After all, what was I going to do with a broken down avocado green 1970s vintage water still? But some of the items were interesting from a junk sculpture point of view, including a plastic autoclave with four levels used for sterilizing surgical equipment. I thought at the time that it looked like a futuristic city. We decided to start with that as the basis of our colony – a multilevel domed city on Mars. The plastic grids of the autoclave would be the floors or levels of the city, held up by central columns made from microscope slide disinfecting bottles (old style, made from glass) that were also donated. We sketched it out on my whiteboard and decided what the different levels would be for.

Main levels constructed

The four main levels after construction. The levels were offset to allow more light to penetrate through the levels. On Mars, each level would be enclosed in a clear dome.

My first semester STEAM it Up students began construction and put together the main levels and built some smaller pieces of equipment out of my extensive collection of old motor and electronics parts. These would be factories and manufacturing plants for the colony. A student used old Macintosh charging cord adapters that had fallen apart (they tend to do this) and strips of ruffled foil from a princess party tiara to make Mars rovers. A student created the upper dome from the autoclave lid, adding landing pads for shuttles, an observatory, a defensive laser turret, and a communications dish. Another student built a base for the city. As first semester ended, I added some single family housing units on the second level made from Trulicity injection caps and the rubber feet that were taken off of my lab stools. I created the final pillars for the fourth floor and attached the dome to the top.

Adding upper pillars

During winter break, I added residential housing units to the second level and created pillars to support the upper dome.

Now you might wonder what this has to do with STEM (the art part is obvious). This was really an exercise in engineering and materials science. The students had to work out how to attach all of these different materials from many sources together so that they wouldn’t fall apart, have strength in the load bearing members, and be aesthetically pleasing and symmetrical so that it wouldn’t tip over. We wanted it to look like a deliberate piece of graceful engineering and architecture – seemingly delicate but actually sturdy and stable. And we had to figure out how to fit it all together with rods, brackets, bolts, wire, and glue. We tried several types of adhesives and finally selected E-6000, which takes about 20 minutes to set up but dries clear and hard and attaches many types of materials together. Time will tell if it holds up to UV light or turns yellow like some adhesives that I’ve tried.

Paper mache

Baseboards with paper maché added. The large based used traditional newspaper strips soaked in flour-water paste, the other two used commercial paper pulp. We designed it to look like a realistic site on Mars with craters that have been partially removed for construction.

As the first semester ended, I proposed several names for our colony based on ancient words for “Mars” and “city.” These included:

Huo Hsing Shr (Chinese)
Kasei Shi (Japanese)
Shalbatana Alu (Akkadian)
Simudopolis (Sumerian/Greek)
Mangalakha (Sanskrit) – this was my favorite
Tiuburg (Teutonic)
Ma’adim Salem (Hebrew)
Hrad K’aghak’(Armenian)
Harmakhis Delphi (Eqyptian/Greek)
Al-Qahira Madina (Arabic)
Marte Cuidad (Spanish)
Mawrth Dinas (Welsh)
Nirgal Alu (Babylonian)
Labouville (French)
Aresdelphia (Greek)

Painting the bases

STEAM it Up students painting the dried baseboards using tempura paint.

Many of the river channels on Mars bear these names, such as Shalbatana Vallis and Mawrth Vallis. The students liked several of these, but one student proposed that we name it Arrakeen after the capital city in Frank Herbert’s desert world Arrakis from the classic science fiction novel Dune. This is the name we chose. Our city is now Arrakeen Colony.

Painted baseboards

The completed baseboards, painted to look like the surface of Mars.

When second semester came, my new group of STEAM it Up students continued to work on the model. They built more equipment, ranging from construction sites to bulldozers, steamrollers, communication equipment, air processing plants, hospitals, etc. Many of the parts move or spin, such as the rotating communications center or the construction crane arm. They built several ground-to-orbit shuttles and cargo carriers, factories, and other parts. We found a 3D model of an astronaut online and printed out a bunch of them as small as we could manage (although they are still about twice as big as our city scale would dictate). Several students brought in HO scale plant materials – plastic grass, trees, bushes, etc – and used Pyrex jars, glass bottles, and plastic domes to build a series of greenhouses. They’ve also started to glue plastic strips under the top level in order to add trees for a park and fountain.

Arrakeen-other side

Arrakeen City near completion.

The biggest job was preparing the bases for all this. I purchased some paper maché fiber at a craft store and we used it to build up Mars terrains on two baseboards. We used traditional paper maché made from strips of torn newspaper soaked in a flour-water solution to build up a terrain on the larger base for the city. These took several days to dry. We then used orange, brown, and tan tempura to paint the bases to look like Mars soil. The end result was quite good, although the traditional newspaper strips cracked in places.

Construction site-2

Construction site on Mars. The large building under construction (left) is for manufacturing solar panels, a critical limiting factor for expanding the colony. Notice the construction crane with moving arm. A bulldozer is pushing up dirt into a ridge, with a steamroller flattening the dirt behind. At the lower right, a nuclear power plant and charging station is used to recharge the equipment batteries, aided by two small solar panels. A fork lift is parked nearby awaiting recharge. Astronauts in spacesuits are working at the site. Nearer the city stands the main communication link with Earth and a rotation communication and radar installation. Two small rovers are attached by access tubes to the city.

With the bases complete, we glued the factories, greenhouses, astronauts, and equipment in place and mounted the entire city onto the large base. The end result is better than I had envisioned. There is a great deal of interesting detail, and the total effect looks quite good.


Greenhouses and Air Circulation Center: On the other side of the city from the construction site stand a series of greenhouses to recirculate air and add oxygen. Most oxygen is produced by cracking atmospheric carbon dioxide in the processing plant next to the main greenhouse. Initial power for the city is supplied by the nuclear power plant in the upper left. At lower left is the heating plant and main circulation pumping station for the greenhouses.

There are still things to complete over the final few weeks of the semester. We need to finish the park on the top level and add the mayor’s mansion and the university. The third level has a hospital but we still need to create administrative offices, a school, and other buildings. The second level has ten housing units and pumping facilities but needs more. The bottom level needs a few more small manufacturing plants. And we need to add greenery and plants wherever we don’t have buildings, as a Mars colony would need as many plants as possible. We got some glue on the outside of the dome the other day and tried to clean it off with acetone, but that only started dissolving the dome’s plastic. We’ve covered that up with a solar panel made from a metal grid and some sparkly blue paper cut from an old folder I had. We have several such solar panels elsewhere in the model. Lastly, when all is in place, we’ll need to touch up the paint in places and add smaller details.

Roof with shuttles

Upper dome with landing pads. The shuttle models are attached with magnetic buttons. Notice the communications dish, the defensive laser turret, and the observatory dome and telescope.

I’m working on a virtual 3D model of the city with a moderate amount of detail in Daz3D Bryce, using pieces created in Blender and Carrara. Below left is a rendering of what it looks like so far.

Arrakeen 3D-partial

A 3D version of the city, partially complete. The levels would be enclosed in domes to protect the atmosphere inside.

In four weeks we’ll hold our STEAM Showcase at AAI. I want to put the finished colony on display, along with posters describing its construction and what all the parts are for. In the process of building this and imagining what a colony on Mars would really need, the students have learned a great deal about how our future might actually happen; how we may someday plan and build a city on Mars.

Residential Level

Residential and Manufacturing Levels of Arrakeen City.

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Using Mars MOLA 3D Data

Data video title

The title for my Mars 3D Data video.

Fourteen years ago I was on a quest. I knew that 3D altitude data of Mars was available online because I had seen it used in illustrations for National Geographic and other magazines. I wanted to figure out how to find the data and use it in my own 3D modeling software. This wound up being more complicated than I had anticipated and took several months of gradual tinkering, lots of e-mails, and some help from people who were doing it. Finally, I succeeded. I had to download the data as uncompressed .img files from the Mars MOLA data page at the NASA Planetary Data System Geosciences Node housed at the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Try saying that five times quickly . . . I then had to use some freeware software called 3DEM that could load the Mars .img files in directly, then export them as TIFFs or PNGs that I could crop in Adobe Photoshop, then load into my software of choice, Daz3D Bryce, as a grayscale heightmap.

Me Teaching Mars data

Teaching how to use the Mars MOLA 3D altitude data, a screen shot from my video.

One person that gave me valuable advice was Kees Veenenbos, whose Mars renderings appeared on the cover of National Geographic. He e-mailed me back and explained where to find the data and how to use Terragens to model it. Years later, when I met Artemis Westenberg as part of the Mars Education Challenge, I told her how I got started doing 3D Mars images and she told me she was good friends with Kees, and that she had some laminated posters of his images. Would I like them? Well – of course! They are hanging on the walls of my classrooms. Here is a link to a Huffington Post article about Kees’ work:

Kees image

An image created by Kees Veenenbos using Mars MOLA data and Terragens software. It shows the western end of Valles Marineris and Noctis Labrynthus.

In the years since, system software changes have made 3DEM obsolete. I tried loading the data into Adobe Photoshop as a raw image, but ran into a problem. The Mars data uses an aeroid, or “sea level” measurement as a zero point, and the altitude data is measured up and down from that level. However, Photoshop can’t read negative data. It created two gradients, one for the positive elevation and one for the negative. I figured out a work around in Photoshop, but it left a kind of bathtub ring where the data had to be blurred at the aeroid. I was able to use this technique for our lunar animations, but it wasn’t ideal.

Raw import settings for Mars data

Import settings for the raw .IMG Mars quadrangle data. The data has 16-bits per pixel with both positive and negative values (signed). Reading the .LBL file, the data is 11520 pixels wide by 5632 pixels tall. It is a large file, and may need to be cropped in Adobe Photoshop or other program.

In the meantime, I had started using a program from the National Institutes of Health called Image J. It allowed me to turn numerical data into a grayscale image. After years of using it for other purposes, it occurred to me one morning last year that it might be able to read the Mars .img data. I tried loading it in using the Import-Raw menu and found it had a choice for 16-bit signed data import. That sounded promising. I chose one of the 16 Mars quadrangles from the MOLA data site, typed in the size of the images (11520 by 5632 pixels at 16 bits per pixel) and chose OK. Viola! There was the data, in all its detail!

44n270 quadrangle in ImageJ

The full Mars quadrangle loaded into Image J. This is the megt44n270hb.img file, and contains the areas of Chryse Planitia, Ares Vallis, Aram Chaos, and Mawrth Vallis.

Since then I have used Image J for Mars and lunar data. I recently recorded a video demonstrating the steps for using this data in Daz3D Bryce. Here is the link to the video in YouTube:

Terrain editor in Bryce

Loading the cropped grayscale height map image into the terrain editor in Daz3D Bryce. You must increase the resolution of the grid to Gigantic size, then click the Load buttons under the Pictures tab.

Once you get the image cropped and saved in a format such as a 16-bit PNG or PGM, most 3D modeling programs can load it in as a grayscale height map and create a terrain out of it. I find that and entire Mars quadrangle is rather large for most 3D software to handle, so once I save it as a PNG or PGM from Image J, I use Photoshop or other image manipulation software to crop smaller pieces from the data, which I build into terrains.

Chryse rendering in Bryce

The model of Chryse Planitia flattened on the Y axis with an altitude sensitive texture, rendering in Daz3D Bryce.

I have experimented with printing out these models with a 3D printer. I use Daz3D Carrara to load a cropped height map onto a terrain model, then build a frame around it, rotate the terrain and frame 45 degrees, then build a support underneath it. By rotating the model, I can use the maximum resolution of the printer and avoid printer-added supports so that no clean up is necessary. It’s taken some experimentation to get the size and structure of the frame right, but we have had a few successful prints.

CHryse render 2

Final terrain rendered in Daz3D Bryce.

Mawrth Vallis 3D print

3D print of the Mawrth Vallis area of Mars. By rotating the model 45 °, the 3D printer can have higher resolution without needing extra supports or clean up.

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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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