Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NASA Tweetup: The Pretweetup-Wednesday

A few weeks ago when I found out that I was picked to attend the Mars Science Laboratory with NASATweetup, I was ecstatic as I would not have expected to have been chosen in a million years. However, I am a college student, and as a college student I do not have much money, so I would like to thank my parents and Aunt Marty for providing me with transportation and lodging for the event.

Originally, MSL was supposed to go up on Friday, so we were going to have the first round of speakers and a tour of KSC on Wednesday then nothing on Thursday and the final round of speakers and the launch on Friday. However, due to a battery malfunction the launch was postponed to Saturday. Changing my travel schedule to accommodate this was actually pretty difficult, and I realized just how isolated my little corner of the world is as it was very difficult to find flights coming back this way on the Sunday after the launch. However, registration and the tour was tentatively still on Wednesday so I had no qualms about going early, and I had never been to Florida and this would be only the second time I had been on the East Coast so I was excited to see something new.

One thing I do have to confess is that I'm not a very social person.  In large groups, I have a tendency to sit in the back and keep quiet and it usually takes me a while to feel comfortable around new people and I usually don't start talking until I feel comfortable. So when I arrived in St. Louis around noon and saw the tweet that all events had been postponed until Friday I was scared and thought that I would spend the first two days alone. Luckily, I couldn't be more wrong.

First off, NASATweeps are awesome people, besides the fact that they, as a prerequisite, are Space Nerds, they are incredibly kind and giving. From @conductor222 driving nearly an hour away from the Pre-Tweetup dinner to pick me up from the airport and driving around, to literally everybody stopping and saying hi if they saw you wearing your NASATweetUp badge; every space tweep demonstrated immense kindness and compassion, and on top of that each and every one of them was very interesting to talk to you, as they liked to talk about space which is one of the two coolest conversation topics(the other being geology).

So the Tuesday before the Tweetup passed without incident, I reached my hotel room watched NASA TV for a bit, and went to sleep. Wednesday started slowly @conductor222 picked me up and then we went and picked up @libbydoodle (who thankfully let me use her photographs as mine suck). We found KSC pretty easy; however instead of going to the press accreditation building we went to the employee badging office.
Wrong building
Correct building
They may look similar, but they were on different roads and a fair distance apart (if the press accreditation building was the bulls-eye on the dart board, we hit the wall). After we registered and met some of our fellow space nerds, we then decided to go take pictures of the Astronaut Hall of Fame (it wasn't open yet and it took us a bit to remember and decide to go to the Visitor Center.

 We took a lot of pictures, but the area basically boils down to these three sites, at least on the outside. We then decided that we should go check out the Visitor Center as it was open. I don't think any of us knew how much there was to do there, and how it would consume all our time (in a good way, like a whale with an amusement park in its stomach).
The Gate way to Nerdvana
They were ready for the holiday season

As were the Astronauts

We didn't have a solid plan when we entered the gates as there was so much to do.  We ended up seeing a 3-D Imax movie about the ISS (highly recommend it) then there was lunch. Afterwards we decided to pay our respects at the Astronaut memorial

Astronaut memorial
The memorial is amazing.  First off it is huge, and as you can (somewhat) see it has a mirrored surface with the names of the astronauts engraved into the surface and lit from behind. This creates an amazing effect which makes these heroes name seem to be floating among the clouds.

An engraving of those who have gave their lives in the pursuit of discovery
Here we then met up with @ridingrobots and @french_marc, two other NASATweetup participants, and were able to get a picture with one of them!

@ridingrobots was taking the picture

Afterwards we wandered over to the rocket park which is amazing, I have seen the ones at JSC and the Space History Museum in Alamagordo, but this puts both to shame by the shear size and quantity of the rockets.

I am still fascinated by the Saturn V
This is where we made a mistake, and wandered into the gift shop. You see, I usually have pretty good impulse control; however, I lose this when I become surrounded by amazing space memorabilia.

You look so inviting; little did I know you would take all my money!
I wanted one of everything (so I guess I did control my spending...a bit)
 @libbydoodle and I ended up spending way too much time in the gift shop and I ended up with a meteorite.

My Precious!
After an undisclosed amount of time, we left the gift shop (I really don't want to tell you how long) and wandered around a bit.  Eventually our wanderings brought us to these two amazing people

who we initially mistook as LEGO employees, which would have been really cool, but you know what assuming makes out of 'u' and 'me'. They were two engineers with decades worth of experience on the shuttle. We ended up talking to them for almost an hour which was one of the most inspirational and informative personal conversations I have ever had, and definitely the most of my conversations with strangers. They talked about the importance of hard work and STEM fields; they talked about their experiences from accidentally sitting on the shuttle toilet while moving components into the ship to the procedures they followed in their jobs. My favorite, though, was how they kept coming back to how you have to move forward, how you can't become complacent with where you are, instead you have to always be moving forward. While this was directed at the Shuttle and the 30 years we spent in the same place, their advice resonates with anybody at any stage of your life. You can become complacent and never strive to improve your lot in life, or you can push forward and achieve new and amazing things.

After about an hour, we had to cut our conversation in order to make it to Dr. John Grotzinger's talk about the geology of Gale Crater (MSL's landing site).  It was an interesting and informative talk and made me even more excited for Curiosity to start finding new evidence about early Mars. I also got the opportunity to ask him questions about graduate school and I received some advice about what I should do to get ready.

Some interesting slides from the talk

Dr. Grotzinger, if you are reading this, I would like to apologize for cornering you and asking about grad school
We then were able to explore the Explorer building which had some of my favorite exhibits

Like these awesome posters (does anyone know where you can buy copies?)
And an awesome mockup of Curiosity!
Then, as we are very much adults, Libby and I did the most grown-up thing possible; we played with LEGO blocks! NASA and LEGO were having an event where they were encouraging creativity among kids by having them build their own space themed LEGO designs. These ranged from the highly practical to the highly fanciful

Yep, these kids are having an amazing childhood
@conductor222 had already tried her hand at building, so we felt that we should try to do something as well, which were were pretty enthusiastic about so we hopped right to it. The best part was when the two engineers we talked to earlier stopped by and ended up helping Libby with her rocket and explaining what parts of the rocket would do in real life.

Libby's rocket
And I built a rover with a robotic arm. Its collecting a sample
By this time, we had filled up our day with as much space nerdery as the operating hours of the park would allow, so we headed back to the car for dinner with more space nerds and to rest up for tomorrow. But as we left, we were treated to a beautiful view of rocket park at sunset which was a great way to end the day.

New Mexico Geology: Seas of Gypsum

Sorry right now I don't have pictures of my own for this, two weekends ago I was going to meet up with family in Alamagordo then visit White Sands, but the family activity ended up taking over twice as long as planned, so it was dark by the time we finished. I will update with better pictures when I get them.

Update: Check out Ron Schott's post about White Sands, he has two amazing GigaPans of the dunes.

In second grade we took a field trip to White Sands, and I still remember that day. It wasn't too far of a drive, just on the other side of the Sierra Blanca, but it was amazing. After we passed through the military sign posts warning us of the dangers should we trespass on to the base, we drove into the national monument. It was like a sea of white stretched out before us as far as we could see; the white waves, frozen in time, just asked for a bunch of little kids to run up and down on and try to sled down. Eventually we gave up on trying to sled down the hills (damn you friction!!!) and instead took to rolling ass over teakettle down the huge dunes, burying each other in the sand and jumping off the dunes into soft(ish) piles of loose sand below us.

White sands is amazing because it is a beautifully bizarre place that illuminates some already pretty awesome geologic processes, but in an unique and beautiful way.

Dune Formation:
White Sands (which is a very original name) is the largest gypsum dune field in the world, and demonstrates the highly variable nature of dune formation. First off, there are Barchan Dunes which are crescent shaped dunes which move in the same direction of their limbs.  These dunes move incredibly fast up to 100 meters in a year (hey anything you can measure in terms of years instead of 100's or 1000's or 1x10^6 years is really fast to a geologist). Barchan dunes are common when there isn't much sand and the dunes are free to move across the desert pavement (highly cemented surface common in desert, it is this phenomena which allowed Rommel to quickly move across North Africa in WWII).

Photo Credit:
Then there are Parabolic dunes, which look like Barchan Dunes, but they are going the wrong way. This happens when Barchan Dunes move into areas with more vegetation, the vegetation bogs down the limbs of the dune first and turns them around. The vegetation acts as an anchor and makes these dunes really slow.

When there is plenty of sand, the Barchan Dunes join together into Transverse dunes, which are long lines of wavy sand. This is very common at White Sands.
Photo Credit:
Evaporite Minerals
If you are not familiar with geology, you might be curious what exactly is Gypsum, and if you are not, you should be curious (don't make the gypsum angry it is probably right behind you, hiding in plain sight). Chemically Gypsum is CaSO4*2H20, translated to  Calcium Sulfate (Sulfur plus four Oxygens) and two water molecules within the crystalline structure; it is an ionic compound, like table salt, which means it dissolves in water into ions (a +2 Ca and -2 SO4) and is precipitated out when the water evaporates. If you are unfamiliar with this, take a bowl fill it up with water and then a lot of salt into it, then hang a string where it is only just in the water and tape it to the sides. Put the bowl in a window (or under a heat lamp to speed things up) and as the water evaporates salt will precipitate on the string. SCIENCE!!

One cool thing about this mineral is that crystalline gypsum can come in three forms, satin spar, selenite, and alabaster.

Satin Spar gypsum is fibrous gypsum that has a silky luster (luster refers to the way the mineral interacts with light, so Satin Spar gypsum reflects light similar to the way silk does).

Satin Spar Gypsum in a unique shapePhoto Credit
Selenite is the transparent and colorless (geologists hate the word clear) version of gypsum. In New Mexico you can sometimes find dunes with large selenite crystals within them. A good place to check these out is the Living Desert Zoo and Garden in Carlsbad, NM, which has a whole exhibit dedicated to this feature.

Selenite Hills at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Carlsbad, NM
And Alabaster resembles the sands at White Sands, just clumped together into a soft rock.

An example of Alabaster Gypsum from
One important thing to note about Gypsum is that it is all around, as the mineral is used to make wallboard. In addition, Gypsum is used in art and other applications as Plaster of Paris. This application highlights a very cool property of gypsum, remember when I said earlier that Gypsum has two water molecules in its crystal lattice? Well if you heat gypsum you can drive off the water molecules and you end up with annhydrite which is just CaSO4 and if you know anything about making plaster casts, you know that the plaster first comes ground up in a fine powder which is the gypsum that has been ground up and heated which drives off most of the water, then you mix it with water and pour it into you want to make a  cast of. The annhydrite then absorbs the water becoming gypsum after it crystallizes thus hardens or sets. Well that's White Sands in a nutshell.