Monthly Archives: March 2007

Surpassing Hubble from the Ground

Several friends have asked me recently what I thought of the eventual, and possibly imminent, decommissioning of the Hubble Space telescope, arguably one of the preeminent scientific instruments of the last century. My reply describing wondrous past utility now becoming obsolete was almost always met with stark surprise. Wasn’t Phillip supposed to be the champion of all things space and astronautics?

Well, for all you space telescope traditionalists, witness the future today. Last week, there was a release from the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, HI that included images even the Hubble telescope couldn’t have taken, and they were taken from the ground, through the earth’s atmosphere.

The Gemini observatory images combined optical and infrared wavelength images of the Pillars of Creation area of the Orion nebula. The really interesting new data refutes one of the earlier theories that hot energetic starts were blowing dust and matter off of several proto-stellar objects to form the dusty pillars. Gemini’s latest data shows that there was a violent explosion from below the lower left corner of the image that ejected several large objects (shown in blue from the hot and energetic iron gas emissions) that are leaving wakes of energized hydrogen gas shown in orange.

The innovation that made this type of image quality possible from the ground, even through the distortion due to the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere is called adaptive optics. An actuated deformable mirror is manipulated to introduce the inverse distortion from an image of a very tiny or point source of bright light which has passed through the atmosphere. Here is a diagram of the system used by Gemini.

AO Schematic Illustration

From the Gemini site: A schematic of how an adaptive optics systems, like Altair on Gemini North, works to correct distorted starlight. The illustration (1) is an example of a blurry image taken without the help of adaptive optics. When starlight is collected and focused by the telescope, just prior to coming to a focus, the light entering an adaptive optics system is first collimated (2) and is reflected off a deformable mirror (3). After reflecting off the deformable mirror, the light passes through a beam-splitter (4) where the shorter wavelength light (optical) enters the wavefront sensor (5) which takes a “snapshot” of the distortions on the wavefront and sends the information via a computer (6) to the deformable mirror to keep the wavefronts corrected and flat. Finally, the light is focused (7) and imaged on a detector (8) for astronomers to study.

When there is no bright star in the field of view, the Gemini system uses a laser that targets the ionosphere to create an artificial star. Here is an image of the system in operation.

I can’t wait to see what else this system comes up with.
Do check out their web site for all the details: Gemini observatory.

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Chandra Reveals Thousands of Black Holes

NASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory in orbit is racking up quite a record of groundbreaking discoveries this year. After enabling the verification of Dark Matter earlier this year, Chandra’s latest mission peered through interstellar dust and obscuration that have historically plagued visible light instruments to discover over 1000 Black Holes in a patch of the sky about the size of a paperback book held at arm’s length.

Each of the colored dots in the field below (taken in the constellation Bootes) is a direct image of a black hole that lies at the center of a remote galaxy (hence the name “Active Galactic Nuclei” [AGN]).

Chandra image of a region of the Bootes constellation

X-Ray astronomers are already all stirred up about the fact that the prevailing theories on Black Hole formation and light emission are now being called into question by this new data. In our latest theories, matter falling into Black Holes would emit light as it sheds angular momentum while falling into the hole, to result in a bright torus (donut) of orbiting matter.

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Animation Published by:
Goddard Space Flight Center

Date Published: April 30, 2001
Official ID:blackholebinary1

Animation from Harvard’s Chandra center.

But Chandra’s latest survey doesn’t show the distribution of brightness we would expect from over 1000 donuts of orbiting material oriented randomly around 1000 Black Holes. Stay tuned while the astronomers figure out what is really going on!

Read all the details from the Chandra Web site, and learn more about Black Holes here.

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Behold the Glide Toaster

Hat tip to Gizmodo.



More details here.

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Only in Japan: A Pedal-Powered Roller Coaster

Via TechBlog and Tree-Hugger, and an auto-translated version of the original Japanese site.

The Skycycle at Washuzan Highland Park in Okayama, a pedal-powered roller coaster.

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More on Mary’s Spectrograph

After digging around the web for a bit, I found Mary Masterson’s web sites that chronicle her life, with the Littrow Spectrograph project figuring prominently. (See my earlier post on High School Innovation for the initial story on Mary’s award-winning science fair project.)

Check out the Spectroscopy web site that Mary put together including links to the MIT science institute for high school students she recently attended FREE OF CHARGE!

She also has a more technically oriented site that describes her project in detail, including nice photos of her equipment in operation. The real beauty of her shining example is that Mary covers all the scientific bases from strong inquiry and innovation, disciplined and meticulous experimental techniques, strong communication and presentations skills (including web, paper, and poster publication), all the way to strong participation in the broader scientific community to learn from others at world-class institutions and share her ideas with mentors and peers.

One of the things I really love about Mary’s project is how she was able to assemble a first-rate solidly designed and constructed bit of scientific equipment for under $300. At first glance, the whole assembly looks like a bit of expensive commercial-grade laboratory equipment, but the reality is that Mary found many of these parts to be readily available in surplus equipment shops. A couple of used camera lenses, a pre-owned CCD camera and a laser were the big tickets that were all attached to some custom-machined base and mounting hardware. So in order to complete the project, Mary started with the theories, designed the physical system, machined the parts, assembled them, wrote software, managed the computer interface, data collection and analysis, and finally published the results.

A very complete package indeed.

The real shame, in light of this gold standard, is that most students are completely unaware that these sorts of opportunities exist and are open to any motivated applicant.

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High School Innovation

17 year-old Mary Masterman of Oklahoma City just won $100,000 by designing and building a Littrow Spectrograph system with just under $300 worth of parts in Intel’s Science Talent Search competition. Not a bad investment after all, not to mention her high likelihood of getting into the college of her choice.

Here is a picture reproduced from the Make Magazine web site of Mary in front of her contest-winning poster.

Make 414

Note in particular, the three hefty laboratory notebooks resting on the table. That gives you an idea of the likely efforts, scope, and duration of a genuine science research and development project that is actually approachable in high school with the right mentorship and guidance.

Plus she got to meet the President.

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A Call For More K-12 Science Resources

In the spirit of leading our nation to technological greatness, I hereby issue a call for your favorite science and technology resources, comprised of either online or traditional media. Please post comments here with links, stories, pictures to your hidden, or not so hidden gems!

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K-12 Science Resources, Part 2

The MIT alumni association just hosted a panel with some of the luminaries in the battle to improve elementary and high school science education, and the archive along with several great resource links were posted on the web log.

You can watch an online broadcast of the panel here, if you first download and install the free RealPlayer from here.

Here is the list of speakers:

  • Catherine Drennan, Associate Professor, Chemistry – Chemistry and Beyond
  • Woodie Flowers ME ’73, Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering – FIRST Competition
  • Mitch Resnick EE ’88, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, MIT Media Lab – Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group
  • Isaac Colbert HM, Dean for Graduate Students – Introductory Remarks
  • Dedric Carter ’99, Executive Director, Office of Engineering Outreach Programs – Moderator
It is a great panel, where each told of anecdotes and learnings from the K-12 science innovation efforts. Here are some of the comments from attendees:

“Very impressed by all of the speakers. I am a physics teacher so it energized me to hear great ideas and wonderful stories.” Kelly Forest CE ’92

“Great speakers, very timely topic in both my personal life and the world at large.” Megan Brewster, PhD student

“Very significant and important topic. Personally interested for both my own children and our nation. Very creative programs have shown practical tools/links to find more info-Thanks!” Scott Brazina GM ’89

Here are some links to a few of the individual web sites chronicling their respective missions.

Kid Tech 2004
MIT’s K-12 education outreach initiatives for students and teachers. This one is a real treasure trove with dozens of programs throughout the year for students and teachers to come to MIT and learn to do their own science research and undertake their own creative efforts at technical innovation. Every school should make strong efforts to find and attend services like this one, even if it would require extra fund raising efforts to make it happen. (I would very much like to hear from anyone, student, teacher, administrator or otherwise that would like to attend such a program but is having difficulty for any reason, be it finance, distance, or time that is the barrier. I would also like to receive links to other programs in other cities that support similar notion of hands-on, unguided exploration and innovation.)

MIT Alumni Discussion on K-12 science education.

Go forth, crusaders, and banish the ignorance!

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Stereo-B Warming Up

If these first test shots from NASA’s Stereo-B satellite are any indication of what more is to come, the future is bright indeed. NASA’s Stereo Satellite pair is now in orbit around the sun, both leading and lagging the earth in order to capture stereo views of solar activity.
Animated view of STEREO's orbit

The first official images are expected in April, but on the warm-up run, Stereo-B captured an amazing series of images of a lunar transit across the face of the sun. (Note that the moon looks smaller than a typical solar eclipse because Stereo-B is much farther from the moon than the earth, while at a similar distance from the sun.)

STEREO eclipse movie
See the movie: small, medium or large.

All images courtesy of NASA. Click here for all the details.

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MobiTV in Time Magazine!

Despite my general policy of separating this blog from my day job, I can’t resist a plug for MobiTV’s latest public relations home run. Everyone should run out and get a copy of Time Magazine’s latest issue.

Time Cover

Jason and Nicole from our PR department scored us a 5 page gate-fold spread on why people work at MobiTV. You can see the online version here, but do check out the hardcopy to get the full page photo-impressions of many of the awesome people who make MobiTV such a fantastic place to work.

Here are a couple links from the Time online site:

Programming Provocateurs

What draws workers to MobiTV? A hot technology, a cool company and maybe even a big payoff.

Portrait of Jason Mikami inside the network operations
closet of MobiTV, in Emeryville, Calif., February 2007.

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