That’s Right, I Found Them

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While the rest of y’all were worried whether or not I will lose my stuff in NOLA last week, a a major announcement came out from NASA that was pretty big.  I mean, it may not to some of you non-nerds out there, but in the grand scheme of our advancement into the great unknown it is pretty big.  All of it happening just two months after I started at JPL … so yep … it was me who found them.

The announcement is the first solar system that rivals our own was identified, and so full that up to seven (7) earth like planets orbit within a zone that could support life.

Finding planets outside of our solar system is a relatively new thing.  It’s actually quite hard to find planets, mostly because planets don’t give off light and any of their effects could be dimmed by whatever star they circle.  The only proven method to see them is to actually see a ‘dimming effect’ on stars – which basically means you stare at a star and if it grows darker then something got between you and the star, if it happens on a schedule then you can say it is something in orbit … like a planet.  This method doesn’t really tell you much more about what those planets are; so they turn to higher powered telescopic instruments and try to collect more data.  Up until recently, they best they can do was to ‘guess’ that a planet could be within what they call the “Earth Zone” … or where a planet could be the right distance away from it’s sun so it isn’t too hot or too cold to support life.

In 1999, a bunch of beer loving Belgiums (which should go without saying) were using a telescope who they rigged it’s name so they could use the acronym TRAPPIST (which is a popular kind of Belgium beer).  As they were having a look around, they found a star in the Aquarius constellation that was a mere 39 light years away, and immediately they picked up that a couple planets were there.  With that data, researchers from JPL pointed the Spitzer Orbiting Telescope to get a much better look.  With that data, they could outright say that seven planets were in such a good location that they have water or had water … and for all of us beer lovers, we know where there is life there is water.  The star is named TRAPPIST-1 after the original discovery; the planets have no names, only letter designations tied to the star (e.g. TRAPPIST-1b, 1c, 1d, etc).

Now before we start cranking up to make a run for TRAPPIST-1 and see who all lives there – keep in mind that 39 light years is an awful long way.  Astronaut Scott Kelly (who got a nickname of Captain Buzzkill) tweeted that in order to make it to TRAPPIST-1 based on current propulsion technology would require us nearly 60,000 years to get there.  A reasonable trip will require faster than light travel methods, like the stuff you see on Sci-Fi shows (I am a fan of improbability drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Additionally, we don’t know if we really got all the information correct to begin with.  It’s not going to next year before the first real chance to get a good view will come when NASA sends up the James Webb Space Telescope; but that will still be five years before other ground based telescopes go live.

So we are a long way away from being anything other than being along way away.

All that being said, this is still a major announcement.  The point of the whole process to look for these “exoplanets” is to look for the existence of life elsewhere.  Not for the geeky concept of wanting to talk to little green men; but because there is no greater influence of learning about who we are than to find those who also exist and learn what makes us different.  This discovery doesn’t mean that we found life outside of our lonely planet, but it does tell us where to start looking.  So that’s what we will be doing.

Unless we are of course using Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a piece of ‘non-fiction’.  There it describes the whole population of the Universe to be zero – since there is a finite number of planets with life, and the universe’s size is infinite; and common math tells you that dividing a finite number over infinity would result in Zero.  To quote:  “Although you might see people from time to time, they are most likely products of your imagination.”

Now get back to work.

 

NOLA – All Present and Accounted For

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It’s been a long week, most of it spent down in New Orleans at the Nadcap meeting; but I can officially report that all is present and accounted for.  Including:

  • My Wallet
  • My Phone
  • My Credit Cards
  • My dignity

Heck, I nearly came home with all the same brain cells I left with.

It’s no secret that this is a bit of a change in trends from previous trips to New Orleans.  Nearly all those items have been lost on previous trips to the French Quarter; some more than once.  It is the city of bad decision making of course, and if you have visited you are sure to know what I am talking about.

What’s more surprising is that I was able to pull of this miracle during Mardi Gras week.  Sure, Mardi Gras ratchets up this weekend and hits insanity levels on Fat Tuesday next week, but the infamous parades started last weekend and were going on while I was in town.  Monday did feel slow on Bourbon Street, and Tuesday still seemed to be a bit of a lull, but with two parades including the traditionally womens’ parade (Krewe of Nyx) on Wednesday night there was some crazy to go around.

To be honest, I could have blogged about that parade experience, but it would probably way too thick with cynical.  I think I have proclaimed before my hatred for parades; and this maybe holds along with the same case.  There were two parades on Wednesday night, both following the same route one after the other and finishing right by our hotel.  We were told the first parade was to start at 6, and should last an hour.  Knowing we were at the end of the route, we were patient until about 7:30.  By 8:00 with the crowds on full along the route, I was getting antsy.  Somewhere around that time, someone found out the first parade hadn’t even started and they had 2-1/2 miles to go to get to us.  So a couple of us ducked out and headed for music, dinner, and drinks.  Wandering back towards our hotel just before midnight, we turned the corner and .. The parades were still going!    (not to make it sound like it went on forever, the first probably came through around 10PM)

It felt like a fish pool, and we were the fish.  Floats that were just makeshift busses were packed of Krewe members as they threw stuff at us.  Since we caught the Nyx parade, most of it was related to purses or female trinkets.  There were glow sticks, cups, and boas coming in.  I scored a tiny umbrella that I hope to make legendary next week at work.  But of course, the majority of beads … like loads of them.  At the end of the route, they were just throwing full bags at us.  I mean, it’s not like that you couldn’t get the other stuff, there were loads of that too. but the beads were just gushing.

And I don’t get beads.  I mean … There is the naughty reason we talk about Mardi Gras beads, but otherwise … why?  And why do we need to have so many?  And why does everyone jump over each other to get it?

Okay, maybe this post has turned into a cynical parade post, but … enough with the beads okay?

Otherwise, I checked the box on the usuals for me and New Orleans:
– Oysters at Acme
– Bourbon at Preservation Hall (which, the four last times I’ve gone there, the same band was play (“Loose Change”) and they finish a set shortly after I arrive)
– Slushy cup of something that cost way too much

I did slip in a few things that is standard for many other folk:
– Cafe du Monde … I think it was 1989 the last time I was there
– Frenchman Steet  … which is definately on the checklist from now on (Think – if NOLA was in Portland)
– Went to bed at a reasonable hour

Oh … and I also worked.

In short, a good week in New Orleans – and a rare treat to come home with everything present and accounted for.

Nadcap – The Gravitational Hairball

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I am going back to Nadcap one last time!
In a blog post I made just a mere 2 months ago, I gave a “proper goodbye” (Nadcap – A Proper Goodbye) to the program called Nadcap – a 3rd party aerospace special process accreditation program that defined most of my career the last 15 years.  I thought, that mere 2 months ago, I would never have an affiliation with that program again.  What I forgot was that Nadcap is like this great inward sucking vortex of terror that will never let you escape it’s clutches.  I once read a book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”, which suggested that institutions like companies or organizations can become hairballs of rules & concepts so big they have their own gravity that sucks you in (your goal is to find a safe orbit around it).  Little did I know that Nadcap’s gravitation pull would find me when I came to JPL.

Point being … Guess who’s going to a Nadcap meeting next week?  This Guy!

There really isn’t anything in my career that I hated more, loved more, loved to hate more, or hated to love more.  Nadcap took me to the greatest places, moved me to my greatest professional heights, and taught me more that any school I ever attended.  It also was a constant source of aggravation, lead to more angry pissing matches, and at times felt like a complete drain on my energies, passions, and time.

Technically speaking – Nadcap is a certification program that allows aerospace primes (the top level companies) to rely on 3rd party auditors to evaluate and mitigate risk of the most critical processes in manufacturing.  During my 11 years at Cessna, I served 10 years on the Nadcap Heat Treat Task Group, most of it as a vice-chair of that task group.  After my ‘Alaskan Sabbatical’, I was thrust into the other side of the process the last two years at Bodycote.

So, why I am going back?   Well … that’s a little complicated.

While we recognize and accept Nadcap audits, JPL doesn’t subscribe to Nadcap — subscription means you garner greater influence through direct evaluation of the program and input on such things like checklists and auditor training.  This subscription, of course, costs money … likely more than we want to spend tax payer money on for the return on that investment.  Still, part of the reason I am going there is to collect information from the new JPL eyes on whether it would be worth our time.

More directly, I am there to present on behalf of NASA  … I am going to let that sink in on you, cause doesn’t that just sound frickin’ awesome?  It’s actually only a couple of slides on Additive Manufacturing (the fancy term for 3-D printing using metal powders).  JPL is actually an industry leader in the developed use of Additive Manufacturing in flight hardware, and we expect to launch some parts on the next Mars rover slated for 2020 (ironically named Mars 2020).  Since we will have to rely on suppliers to make those parts for us, we have a keen interest in the oversight of said processes.  So I am attending to lay out what we would want to see from a 3rd party accreditation of that process.  Attending this meeting is likely a one-time thing, but you never know with programs like this.

All of this comes down to one main subject:
I am going back to Nadcap one last time!

Ironically – the meeting is being held in New Orleans; the city I most love to hate and hate to love.

 

First Night

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Yesterday marked a big turning point in my transition to becoming a California resident – specifically, I finally got my lazy ass to clean out my hotel room and officially spend the first night in my new rented house.  You think I am being funny, but for serious … I waited out of sheer laziness.  I took the keys to the rental house on Jan 31st; which meant after that I could get out of the hotel at any time.  But because I didn’t really have to get out until Feb 9th … I didn’t get out until Feb 9th.  Besides, its easier to bar hop from the hotel.

Finally packing everything up, the pup and I made the move to the house and did what we had to to make it a place someone can live in.  Shifting things around to make it easier to walk through was a big priority.  Getting all my laptops hooked up to the internet helped too.  Groceries, I guess.  Putting sheets on the bed.  All of this to be ready for what was going to be the first real test.  The First Night.

Anytime you have ever spent the first night somewhere new, it’s always an adjustment.  Think of when you are traveling for fun or work – and the first night in the hotel just doesn’t seem right.  Bed is different, sheets are different.  Granted, I am sleeping in the same bed I have slept in for years in the same sheets, but it has been two months since I’ve done just that.  Plus you have all the environmental changes — different temperatures than your old thermostat, new sounds, new smells, new world.

Now picture that from the eyes of a dog … and you get what is not a comfortable night.  I don’t always let Auggie sleep with me in the bed, but knowing this is a new place I wanted to make sure he could stay close to me if he wanted to yet give him the freedom to figure out what may lurk in the dark if he wanted to as well.  Sometimes he did … like at least two or three times he got out of bed and went on a search.  He was able to nose the back door open and go out to the back yard (fenced in by the way, so not bound to escape).  Once or twice, he saw something that made him growl.  At one point I woke up to find him doing the ‘snoopy vulture’ thing at the end of the bed as he stared at the refrigerator.  It wasn’t until about 3 or 4 that I noticed he finally curled up next to me and slept soundly.

It may have helped that by that time in the morning the house had grown cold.  It was a warm day in Montrose with little wind.  The house has no air conditioner, so wind blowing through open windows was the only consistent source of fresh air.  Having them open all night meant that the chilly morning etched into the whole house.  Honestly, it was perfect sleeping weather, but hard to get warmed up in a house where you haven’t exactly found all your coffee cups.  Plus that first shower let me know that my hot water heater isn’t turned up high enough for these kind of mornings.

What was nice was the commute – and it’s going to make work hours nice.  Since moving to California, I turned myself into an early riser – with the alarm going off at 5am daily.  While hours are pretty flexible at JPL, but with anyplace the earlier you start the earlier you can leave.  At the hotel in Burbank, the free breakfast didn’t start until 6:30.  By the time I was finished there, and the 20 minute commute, it could be sneaking towards 7:30a by the time I arrived.  Driving distance now to JPL is 9 minutes.  I let the dog out, showered, had breakfast, drove to work, and was at my desk by 6AM.  Not only does this give me more ‘end of the day’ flexibility, will make it easier to justify a nice lunchtime walk.

Regardless, we are through the first night.  Tonight we begin our first weekend.  By next week we should be well into a routine that will make things more comfortable.

… at least for a couple weeks, when the house hunting begins.

DSN Now

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If you are feeling a bit nerdy and what to feel like you are seeing really nerddom at work – I have a NASA website for you.  It’s a website you can access that may not look too interesting to begin with, but has become one of things I just like going on in the background to keep things in perspective.  The website is:

http://eyes.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

It’s Called DSN Now.  DSN stands for Deep Space Network, and is exactly what the name suggests.  DSN is the main communication path between most of the objects exploring our universe beyond Earth’s Orbit.  We are talking those man made objects sent out to explore, like anything that is on, around, or on route to other planets in the solar system.  DSN is made up of a series of radio antennas (or in lay terms, big old satellite dishes) that are placed in three stations approximately 120° apart around the world in Gladstone (middle of nowhere) California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia.  Each station has 4 or 5 dishes, most of which are 36 Meter (118 feet) and are  powerful enough to get data from as far away as Jupiter, and the big ones at 70 Meters (230 feet) are just monsters that can do way more than Jupiter.

The DSN has key functions with all those units out there.  First of all, they track them — make sure they are where they are supposed to be.  Then they get any data the probes are sending.  In return, they send back their own data for things like commands, trajectory changes, software updates, etc.  They do some of their own experimentation, for instance – in conjunction with the Jupiter bound JUNO probe, the communication comes with super accurate time stamps so that the effect of gravitational fields on radio waves can be measured.  For the most part … and this is the lay person description … they act as the guy who takes stuff from the space robots and gets it to the ground nerds.

DSN goes back to the earliest of early days of space exploration.  They were first built in 1958 to track Explorer 1, the first US Satellite – this before NASA existed.  Because Explorer 1 and DSN were both built by JPL … guess who still runs it (you bet … us guys!).  The 70 meter dishes were first built as 64 meter dishes, and were hastily done when the Mariner satellites were losing contact due to weak signals.  They were expanded to their current size because of those damn Voyager probes who don’t know when to quit … more on them later.

So why do I like DSN Now?  Well … it is a live status of what the DSN is currently doing.  If you are looking at the website, you will see a number of cartoon antenna.  Whether or not a wavy line is coming in or out tells you whether or not it is sending or receiving singles.  Not just that … its specific to who it is really talking to.  So as I type this, one of the Goldstone antenna is in direct contact with the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).  From this website, I can click on graphic of what ACE looks like.  Copy & Paste into Google, and I know ACE is out doing analysis on the Sun, including getting high resolution graphics of Solar Storms and radiation.  So it becomes this means to learn more what is going on out there.

Where I start to blow my mind some is looking at the ‘Spacecraft’ data that comes with the different data coming in and out.  Right now, the 70 meter in Canberra is working to get contact with Voyager 1.  That probe, launched in 1977, took flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s moon of Titan in the 70s and early 80s.  Expected then to just shut up and go it’s merry way, it did everything but shut up.  Okay, the plan wasn’t to make it shut-up, but the point is that the probe’s generators will support communication and instrumentation powerful enough to still get signals back to the DSN.  Currently, Voyager 1 is about 2.1 Billion Kilometers away from Earth.  To put that in perspective, astronomers use the measurement AU for Astronomical Units — meaning 1 AU is equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun.  That means, Voyager 1 is 137 AUs or the distance to go to the Sun nearly one hundred and forty times.  It is the furthermost man-made object from our planet.  The next furthest is it’s cousin Voyager 2, which we would have to go to Jupiter and back 5 times to cover that distance between those two (based on where Earth is).  This all makes Voyager 1 the loneliest thing we have ever created.

Except for the fact it routinely checks in.

That’s what I mean, there is still communication going on with these probes.  And watching the website shows it happening.  The single is weak, about that of a 90s internet dial-up.  But data still comes in, and data still goes out.  It takes awhile; the distance is so far that the signals the DSN is picking up now left Voyager 1 over 30 hours ago.  So he could have told us yesterday that he just saw an alien, and we won’t hear about it until tomorrow (and then, at America Online speeds).

But this is why DSN Now is so interesting to me.  It is like this quiet little signal that reminds you of the power we have to explore.  I can sit there with that screen up as I read some document or email, and with the gentle sounds of the office of AC units, computer servers, and keyboards, I can watch the steady stream of data crossing over the vast emptiness of space allowing us to get that little bit closer to knowing more of the world beyond our gravity.  It’s a simple, beautiful, and poetic symbol of how big space is – and how it can be at times so small too.

Beautiful Downtown Burbank

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This weekend will mark the transition from being a “temporary relocation resident” to a full fledged “resident” of California (albeit, a temporary resident of my full fledged residency).  Since December 12th, the pup and I have been housed in the Residence Inn Hotel off of Downtown Burbank as we search and moved into our rental.  I picked up the keys last night to the rental house, had a fridge delivered, and wandered the small place for a hour as I made plans of all the stuff I need to buy to make it a home.  Friday, movers arrive to move me in.  Saturday the last of the utilities gets hooked up.  And Sunday before the big game the last of the appliances are dropped off.  By this time next week, we should be fully settled.  Since my house is in Montrose, a 10-15 minuted drive from Burbank, this weekend will be my farewell to the temporary safe harbor I got to know.

Burbank maybe a town that you heard of over the years, mostly from Television shows.  Historically, many of the main networks built stuidos in Burbank to jump on the resources from the movie industry.  It started getting attention from shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; but got tounge-in-cheek call outs on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in when the announcer Gary Owens would say they were live from “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.”  The studios are still here, but have shifted ownership, and moved somewhere to the south end of town (closer to Universal City and North Hollywood).  Still, the influence is still here with many of the smaller budget production companies holding offices.

Burbank, though, is more than it’s studios and jokes about the downtown.  Much of the town is pressed up against the Verdugo Mountains that act as the eastern boarder of the San Fernando Valley.  This means not only do you get a nice view of the mountains rising up to the east, but you are able to look down on the valley to the west – along with Griffith Park and Downtown LA beyond.  Much of the valley is flat and industrialized or sprawled – so Burbank gets that extra big of luster that the rest of the valley doesn’t offer.

That being said, I really did grow to enjoy Downtown Burbank.  My hotel was two blocks from the start of it, and it ran for a good four or five blocks and into one of the big malls in town.  Old pictures suggest that the street was filled in by green space but now is a very walkable and very well kept sidewalks.  There’s even a growing plaza where bigger theatres and restraunts are going in.  I found myself on most nights walking the streets to selection from the variety of dining options.  There’s at least three good sushi places, a couple of nice Mediterranean places, and a nice selection of brew pubs.  Not just that, but I found that the people were right up my alley.  Friendly, easy going, and (this is almost hard to admit) mostly middle aged like me.  It was really simple for me to merge into the folks here, and woke me up to the fact that not all of the world is hard to get ot know like Bostonians.

I’m not saying that a return to Burbank is out of the cards.  It’s easy for me to say that if I found a house here I would move back to Burbank.  Part of the lure for me is that I lived three blocks from Beautiful Downtown Burbank … and there really isn’t good residences in that same area.  The places that would be good are either far enough away that Downtown now becomes a little bit of a hassel, or is out of my price range.

Until then, farewell to Beautiful Downtown Burbank – and thanks for putting up with us the last two months.