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Up and Away and Cosmic Rays May 25, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Physicists in the current world of high energy and particle physics cast their collective gaze in the direction of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Owing to the Lofty duo’s well-documented interest in all things science—and to the fact that one of us, Doug, used to work at Fermilab, home to what was, formerly, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron—we’re sure to be writing about the LHC and its discoveries as they unfold.

AMS-02 is lowered into Endeavour's payload bay on March 18, 2011

But first things first. Last week, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) was delivered to the International Space Station by space shuttle Endeavour and her crew and is now offering an unparalleled view of the cosmos by virtue of its purchase 200 miles above the surface of the earth. This new science experiment reminds us that there was a time when, if you wanted to be at the cutting edge of probing the secrets of matter and the universe, you didn’t do it on earth. You used a balloon. Why do science in a balloon-basket? Roll back your memory to the tools and techniques of late 19th-century physics.

The electroscope, sometimes called an electrometer, is often the featured device in high school and freshman physics courses for demonstrating electric charge. Electroscopes played an important early role in the discovery and characterization of radioactivity when Ernest Rutherford (1908 Nobel Prize winner who did much early work on alpha and beta radiation) and Pierre and Marie Curie (Nobel Prize winners together in 1903 and for Marie in 1911 who did early work on the theory of radioactivity and isotopes) used the device to make measurements of the intensity of the radioactivity associated with various substances, in particular radium and its decay products, radon and polonium. (Search “radioactivity” here at Lofty Ambitions to see some other interesting takes on this topic.)

As Rutherford, the Curies, and other experimenters continued to use electroscopes in their experiments, they began to run into an odd effect: their electroscopes would continue to “leak” electrical charge, even when they weren’t being exposed to radioactive materials. Efforts to build more robust electroscopes, namely by adding thick lead shielding around the experimental apparatus, failed to completely prevent the leakage effect. Physical intuition convinced a number of scientists that a previously unknown form of radioactivity—and given its ability to pass through lead barriers, a very powerful one—was responsible for the leakage effect.

Stellar Evolution

A natural assumption was that there was some form of radiation present in the earth that was responsible for the effect. Therefore, the next step in understanding radioactivity was to eliminate the effect of earth-based radioactivity by getting off of the ground. In 1910, Jesuit priest Father Thomas Wulf did just that by hauling an electroscope to the upper levels of the Eiffel Tower (he went up approximately 900 feet). In one of those lovely curious moments that litter the scientific record, Wulf discovered that the leakage effect in his electroscope was nearly as great as was predicted by theory. From this result, he inferred that, in addition to earth-based radioactivity, there must also be a source in the heavens as well.

Other physicists took up the challenge posed by Wulf’s results, and the only recourse that presented itself was to go every higher. So, in the years1911-1913, Austrian-born physicist Victor Hess loaded a balloon gondola full of electroscopes and hopped in with what must have been a amazing spirit of adventure. Hess’s experiments soared ever higher, culminating with measurements made at 17,500 feet. His characterization of the intensity of ionizing radiation at various altitudes gave the first proof that, after reaching a minimum at about 5000 feet, ionizing radiation levels continued to climb dramatically, thereby demonstrating the extraterrestrial origin of the rays.

Many other scientists were deeply involved in this research area, too. In fact, it would be American Robert Millikan of the Nobel Prize-winning oil-drop experiment who gave this radiation its name: cosmic rays. But ballooner Hess would be honored with the discovery of cosmic rays, and in 1936, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his high-flying work.

The spirit of Victor Hess and the other researchers who performed early cosmic ray experiments lives on in the AMS-02 that is now orbiting our planet. Those scientists of yore sought to escape as much of the earth’s atmosphere as they could to perform their work. Today, the AMS-02 has done them one better by leaving the earth’s atmosphere to bask in the cosmic rays.

Interview: Mike Coats May 23, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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This video launches our NEW INTERVIEW FEATURE, which will appear every 2nd and 4th Monday of the month. To mark the end of the space shuttle program this year, we’ll begin with a series of interviews we’ve done with astronauts in that program. We have a lot more in store, including interviews with Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke and Walt Cunningham as well as with the first nurse to the astronauts.

Don’t worry! We’re keeping our established format as well. Our guest blog feature continues on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month, and we post a regular piece every Wednesday. We include extra posts now and then too.

Today, we begin our interview feature with Michael Coats. We interviewed the Director of Johnson Space Center when we were at Kennedy Space Center for what turned out to be space shuttle Discovery’s not-launch last year. Astronaut Mike Coats flew on Discovery three times. He also grew up in Southern California so you can hear him reprimand Anna for not yet having visited the happiest place on earth.

Endeavour Launch Photos May 20, 2011

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Endeavour Launches, 16 May 2011, Kennedy Space Center

Launch Pad 39A, Empty

The Beginning of the End May 18, 2011

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Today, a little sleep deprived and somewhat sated, we returned from the Space Coast of Florida to Southern California, where we reside. Upon our return, we headed to our local watering hole for a meet-up with graduate students and colleagues. This evening is a sort of teetering, as will be the next several weeks. Endeavour is in orbit, the shuttle crew is awake, and its focus is on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). According to NASA, “The crew will extract AMS using the space shuttle robotic arm at 1:56 a.m. Shortly thereafter, the station crew will wake, and at 3:01 a.m., the shuttle robotic arm will transfer AMS to the station’s robotic arm. At 3:41 a.m., the crew will manipulate the station arm to install AMS onto the starboard side of the station’s truss structure on the zenith side.” For more on the AMS, click HERE.

Atlantis STS-135 Crew: Chris Ferguson, Rex Walheim, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus

At the same time that Endeavour circles overhead, we saw the beginning of the end of the space shuttle era, the era in which we’ve fully come of age, with the rollover of space shuttle Atlantis from the Orbital Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building. We were right there. We were watching history unfold as the last shuttle scheduled to launch made its last trip over that concrete slab to the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank that awaited it. You saw some photos from those moments in YESTERDAY’S POST, and we include a couple more here in this post.

We also share with you a video of part of the rollover process. Remember that with our Flip camera, like some sideview mirrors, objects may be closer than they appear. How close we were to the actual space shuttle and to its last crew ever in history still boggles our Lofty Ambitions minds.

A Launch to Remember (Conclusion!) May 17, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration.
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The past few days have been amazing! We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve had fun. That’s not to say that “A Launch to Remember” was easy for us. In fact, we’ve been running ourselves pretty ragged.

Anna at Atlantis Rollover on May 17, 2011

Two cross-country trips in two weeks without missing any classes was a bit of a feat for Anna. And the lack of sleep and twelve-hour workdays may be taking its toll on both of us. We were up by 2:00a.m on Monday to see the launch; we woke at 5a.m. today to see Atlantis roll over from the Orbital Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and then we did the “Then and Now” tour of launch pads at Cape Canaveral; and we’ll drag ourselves out of bed at 2:00a.m. tomorrow morning with hopes of seeing Atlantis “lift to mate” to the fuel assembly in the VAB. In fact, our last day (tomorrow) may be our busiest, with an interview scheduled before we take our flight home so that Anna can meet with her graduate students in the evening.

Doug at Atlantis Rollover on May 17, 2011

Just because it’s hard work, of course, doesn’t mean “A Launch to Remember” has not been thoroughly enjoyable at every stage. We know we’re lucky to have this opportunity. Maybe that’s why we’re expending as much effort as we can muster. We know this trip is not going to last beyond tomorrow. We know the space shuttle program will end soon too.

This concludes “A Launch to Remember” because Endeavour launched, and we saw our first space shuttle launch. Now, it’s the beginning of the end of Atlantis, too. Below, see our Table of Contents for this series (CLICK to view the individual posts):

Part 1: We Get Media Credentials

Part 2: A Space Shuttle Tile in Our Hands and the Leatherby Libraries Collection

Part 3: Arrival at the Space Coast

Part 4: Launch Is Looking Good

Part 5: About the STS-134 Crew, especially Mike Fincke

Part 6: STS-134 Crew Walkout & President Obama’s Visit to KSC

Part 7: PHOTOS of Space Coast Wildlife (Alligator!)

Part 8: Endeavour’s Delay

Part 9: On Leaving the Space Coast

Part 10: On Being a Couple of Journalists and VIDEOS of Us on NASA-TV

Part 11: Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

Part 12: Rotating Service Structure Rollback PHOTOS

Part 13: STS-134 Crew Walkout PHOTOS and more

Part 14: VIDEO of Endeavour Launch

Part 15: This POst (TOC)

Part 16: Launch Photos





Guest Blog: Stewart Bailey May 16, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Guest Blogs.
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Because Lofty Ambitions never stops having fun and because we promise a guest blog every first and third Monday, we have an especially good one for you here. If you’re interested in today’s earlier posts in the series “A Launch to Remember,” CLICK HERE for the video of Endeavour’s launch and CLICK HERE for the photos and commentary on the STS-134 crew walkout.

H-4 in (Only) Flight

Today’s guest blogger is Stewart Bailey, curator of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, one we have visited many times. The central piece in this museum’s collection is the one-of-a-kind so-called Spruce Goose, built by Howard Hughes. Before he became the curator at the aviation museum in MicMinnville, Oregon, Stewart Bailey was the education director at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan, another great museum we’ve visited. We’ve written about the Spruce Goose before at Lofty Ambitions (CLICK HERE) and welcome the insider’s take on this aviation endeavor.


Howard Hughes inside the H-4 Hercules

This year, as the U.S. Navy celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation, it is interesting to reflect on how the aircraft, the ship, and the technologies they embody, have shaped our world.  When one looks at the centuries preceding the twentieth, the major powers that controlled the world were those that controlled the sea.  From the Phoenicians to the Dutch, the Spanish and the British, the growth of commerce, the spread of knowledge, and the fruits of empire belonged to those that controlled the world’s oceans.  But with the rise of the airplane, that all changed.

In World War II, the struggle between the ship and the aircraft was at its peak, and many of the world’s fiercest battles took place between these technological antagonists.  Even forty years after the Wrights took to the air, there was still a question of whether or not aircraft would replace the ship (or the sub-surface ship) as the dominant factor in controlling the seas.   Most notably in the Atlantic, German submarines had a stranglehold on the Allies’ ability to move men and supplies, making prospects of an American invasion of Europe somewhat dicey.

H-4, the building begins

It was at this point that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser came up with a game-changing proposal: if German U-Boats are sinking so many ships at sea, why not fly over them?  Kaiser proposed a fleet of “flying cargo ships,” moving vast quantities of men and material over the ocean, non-stop to Europe and Africa.  Also, being a shrewd businessman, he surely saw the impact that such an idea would have on world commerce after the war was over.  However, Kaiser was not an aircraft builder, so he turned to Howard Hughes to make this concept a reality.  Together, they received a government contract to build three aircraft within two years that could carry up to 750 troops or two Sherman tanks and would bring the might of America to the old world’s door.  But there was one caveat: these aircraft had to be made of non-strategic materials such as wood.

The result was the largest aircraft in the world.  It was to have a wingspan longer a football field and be powered by eight of the largest piston aircraft engines ever built.  At that size, there was no runway in the world that could handle it, so it had to be a seaplane so that it could use miles of water to take off and land.  It would push the limits of existing materials and aeronautical technology to leapfrog over the threats presented by the submarine.

But there were problems.  By 1944, as the two-year time frame closed in, Kaiser grew frustrated with Hughes’s perfectionist nature that delayed the aircraft; by then, it had only just begun construction.  He withdrew from the project in mid-1944, leaving Hughes to go it alone with his efforts to create a flying freighter.

Right Horizontal Stabilizer Assembly

The aircraft that Hughes shaped was both elegant and technologically advanced.  Hughes oversaw every aspect of design and was particularly concerned with the control systems, since he personally test-flew all of his designs.  He wanted it to be capable of being flown by one pilot, and he insisted on the control layout being to his personal taste.  An outcome of this was the hydraulically assisted controls that allowed the pilot to move ailerons, elevators, and a rudder that were the size of whole wings on some aircraft.  Additionally, Hughes beat the challenge of making the plane from wood, utilizing a process called Duramold in which thin layers of birch were bonded together with resin glue and shaped under extreme pressure and temperature.  The resulting material, for its weight, was stronger than wood.

Despite numerous setbacks and delays, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, (derisively called the Spruce Goose by the media), did take to the air on November 2, 1947. Its single flight became a culmination of Hughes’s vision for the flying cargo ship. But by that point, the very reason for which it existed had vanished.  The Second World War had unquestionably proven that the aircraft had replaced the sea-going vessels as the new measure of global power projection.

H-4 Hercules

So, was the so-called Spruce Goose a waste of time and money?  No, not at all.  By its very creation, it helped to pioneer technologies like the hydraulically assisted controls that make today’s transoceanic airline flights routine.  It helped ensure that the aircraft would make global commerce possible on a scale beyond the imagination of ancient sea-faring nations.  And it proved that, while not every technological effort is a success, there is no success without effort.

Today, the Hughes H-4 Hercules rests in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, a reminder of a time when the struggle for control of the seas—and of the world itself—hung in the balance.

A Launch to Remember (Part 14: Launch Video!) May 16, 2011

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GO, ENDEAVOUR! LAUNCH IS A GO! And Lofty Ambitions is there to see it!

A Launch to Remember (Part 13) May 16, 2011

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STS-134 CREW WALKOUT at 5:11a.m. on May 16, 2011

STS-134 Crew on May 16, 2011

We arrived at the KSC News Center at just after 3a.m. this morning. Within an hour, we had gone through the dog-sniffing security and were on the bus to the astronaut walkout, where we waited about an hour for the STS-134 crew to emerge.

STS-134 Crew Departs for Launch Pad 39A

The STS-134 mission is commanded by Mark Kelly, about whom we’ve written before. Kelly’s wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is not among the Members of Congress listed among those attending today’s expected launch. California Representative Jim Costa is among the five Members of Congress who plan to view the launch here at KSC, and other VIPs include Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (one of our favorite astronauts!), Irish Embassy official Catherine O’Connor, and Nobel Laureate and Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS, we’ll have a post on that soon) Principal Investigator Sam Ting.

Left to Right: Mike Fincke, Greg Johnson, Mark Kelly

The crew ate before they suited up. Mark Kelly, Greg Johnson, and Mike Fincke had lobster, though Kelly opted for a spinach salad and pear instead of a baked potato and salad. Roberto Vittori and Andrew Feustal, whose relatives (parents, perhaps) were in front of us in line at the KSC gift shop yesterday, feasted on pasta. Vittori’s was cooked al-dente and served with bread and extra virgin olive oil, whereas Feustal opted for pasta primavera with chicken strips. Greg Chamitoff had a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich with salt and vinegar chips, Greek nonfat yogurt, and a banana. We also grabbed a bite: bagels and Diet Coke, with oranges and snack bars planned for later this morning.

Left to Right: Roberto Vittori, Mike Fincke, Greg Johnson

The crew looked especially happy this time out and into the Astrovan. They didn’t linger as long as the last time, the recent not-launch when they knew the engineers were working a problem. As we compose this post, the crew has been strapped into the orbiter, the orbiter access hatch is now closed, and the astronauts are checking various systems, including communications with Johnson Space Center in Houston.

EVA Glove on Anna's Hand

The sun has now come up over the horizon behind Endeavour, and the News Center is buzzing. Anna tried on the glove of the EVA suit used for spacewalks that’s on display for press. We hope to do a couple of interviews with astronauts in a couple of hours. And we’re hoping that the cloud cover blows off. No matter how this goes, we’ll update again later. In the meantime, our final photo in this post features the first seven astronauts chosen by NASA for the Mercury program.

The Original 7 Plus One

A Launch to Remember (Part 12) May 15, 2011

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Go Endeavour!

White Room and Crew Compartment Waiting!

It’s bedtime now! We have to be back at the KSC News Center at 3:30a.m.! If everything remains on schedule, we’ll see the STS-134 crew in their orange flight suits at 5:11a.m. Then, they’ll make their short drive in the Astrovan to launch pad 39A, where Endeavour awaits. Mechanical problems are in the back of our minds because of our past two not-launch experiences, but it’s the wind that’s the tangible concern for the launch right now. That said, Endeavour looked great on the launch pad and seems ready to go.

A Launch to Remember (Part 11) May 14, 2011

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We made our way from California to Florida once again. We’ll head to Kennedy Space Center on Sunday morning. In the meantime, here’s what’s caught our attention.


Even now, comfortably residing in the aft section of space shuttle Endeavour’s bay is a sixteen-ton, three-meter-square instrument that represents a laundry list of significant commitments: 16 years from drawing board to delivery; 600 scientists, engineers, and technicians from 56 institutions and 16 countries to design and build it; and $1.5B (yep, that’s billions) of cash to fund it. And that price tag doesn’t include the $500M cost of launching the instrument into space and connecting it up on its new home, the International Space Station (ISS). This extraordinary expenditure of scientific and financial capital is labeled with a descriptive moniker: Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, commonly referred to as AMS. More precisely, this machine is AMS-02, having been preceded by a ten-day proof-of-concept flown by the STS-91 mission on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

So, why the big money, the multinational collaboration, and the long-term investment? The AMS is the brainchild of Nobel laureate Sam Ting, a particle physicist at MIT. The fact that the AMS will spend its working life affixed to the ISS is the result of a marriage of convenience, perhaps necessity (as it’s sometimes difficult to tease the two apart), between Dr. Ting and former NASA chief Dan Golden. In 1991, Dan Golden was desperately seeking scientific legitimacy for the ISS. At the same time, Dr. Ting was looking for the best possible spot in the world for his device to access unadulterated, so-called primary, cosmic rays. When hunting cosmic rays, it doesn’t get much better than 200 miles above the earth’s atmosphere. If you also happen to need to transfer a significant amount of data to physicists so they can analyze it, the ISS is a pretty good place to be. In fact, it not only provides support for communicating data, it also provides power and navigation. If you’re building an AMS to orbit the Earth, the ISS simplifies the project enough that it becomes much more possible.

We’ll have a future post about cosmic rays and their role in science, once the AMS is up in orbit and working. For now, suffice it to say that cosmic rays can be used to glean a significant amount of information about the universe’s past, its current makeup, and quite possibly its future evolution. In other words, if the AMS gets very lucky, it could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.

On a more workaday level, the AMS was designed to sift through the streams of cosmic rays that will pass through its multiple layers of detectors. The AMS will be looking for hints about one of the great cosmological mysteries: why the universe is predominantly comprised of matter. The logical outcome of the Big Bang Theory is that matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts. If this is the case, where did all of the antimatter go? The AMS hopes to find out.

Another question that the AMS will attempt to answer is perhaps an even greater mystery than the disappearance of—or our lack of ability thus far to detect—antimatter. Cosmologists, astronomers, and astrophysicists are confronted by the fact that what we can see in the universe—the visible matter in the universe—accounts for less that 5% of the matter that MUST be present in the universe if we explain it gravitationally. Simply put, from what we can observe, there simply isn’t enough matter to account for the rate at which the universe is expanding.  Most current theories that attempt to explain this apparent contradiction do so by invoking dark matter and dark energy. Sam Ting and the hundreds of other scientists on the AMS project are hopeful that clues as to the nature of dark matter will be revealed by the project.

STS-134 Arrives at KSC AGAIN

To accomplish this—to give scientists a chance to find dark matter—the AMS had to be a formidable piece of technology. At its heart is a 1250-Gauss permanent magnet that will curve the path of charged particles that make up cosmic rays. Particles that bend one way are ordinary matter, whereas those that are bent in the opposite direction are antimatter. The AMS has 300,000 data channels to transmit information about the particles passing through it. The dry run in 1998 had nearly 100M cosmic ray events in 103 hours, so they’re expecting a lot of data. We’re at the Space Coast hoping they start getting that data from space in about a week.


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