Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Danger Reared Its Ugly Head, He Bravely Turned His Tail and Fled

4koma comic strip - Obiwan Confession
see more Comixed. I just saw the above, which made me wonder: What would Vader's side of the story be like?So now we know.

Fingers Crossed

I've been meaning to mention this for a while, but all sorts of news has been all sorts of crazy for the past week and more. On top of that, Interzone has (finally) switched ISP's, but the wifi is still buggy for long stretches at a time. To describe browsing as glacially slow would malign the celerity of glaciers. But in about two hours, the MESSENGER probe will fire its main engines for 15 minutes, allowing itself to be gravitationally captured, and become the first man-made object to orbit Mercury. The Planetary Society Blog has the time line and web resources (as well as the image above at a larger size) to follow it live, if that's your thing.

Even though Mercury is one of the closest planets, it's poorly known and studied. It's too close to the sun, from the earth's point of view, to get detailed telescopic images, and it's so deep in the sun's gravity well that spacecraft from earth have gained enormous speed after "falling" toward it from earth. That speed has to be nearly matched to Mercury's for the probe to orbit the planet. The MESSENGER probe has used a series of planetary flybys, over fifteen orbits of the sun, to bleed off some of its excess speed. Tonight's burn will be the conclusion of one voyage and the beginning of another, if all goes well.

Mercury is an important key to understanding the early evolution of the solar system, and I have little doubt there will be images and discoveries that flabbergast me. I'm pretty excited about this, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Followup, 6:50 PM PDT: Reports coming from NASA say the orbital insertion maneuver has been successful; expect first imagery in a couple of weeks. Congratulations, NASA and MESSENGER!

Followup 2, 7:28 PM PDT: The MESSENGER news service I subscribe to just sent me this report, titled "MESSENGER Begins Historic Orbit around Mercury" Full text of report:
At 9:10 p.m. EDT, engineers in the MESSENGER Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., received the anticipated radiometric signals confirming nominal burn shutdown and successful insertion of the MESSENGER probe into orbit around the planet Mercury.

The spacecraft rotated back to the Earth by 9:45 p.m. EDT, and started transmitting data. Upon review of these data, the engineering and operations teams confirmed that the burn executed nominally with all subsystems reporting a clean burn and no logged errors.

MESSENGER’s main thruster fired for approximately 15 minutes at 8:45 p.m., slowing the spacecraft by 1,929 miles per hour (862 meters per second) and easing it into the planned eccentric orbit about Mercury. The rendezvous took place about 96 million miles (155 million kilometers) from Earth.

“Achieving Mercury orbit was by far the biggest milestone since MESSENGER was launched more than six and a half years ago,” says MESSENGER Project Manager Peter Bedini, of APL. “This accomplishment is the fruit of a tremendous amount of labor on the part of the navigation, guidance-and-control, and mission operations teams, who shepherded the spacecraft through its 4.9-billion-mile [7.9-billion-kilometer] journey.”

For the next several weeks, APL engineers will be focused on ensuring that MESSENGER’s systems are all working well in Mercury’s harsh thermal environment. Starting on March 23, the instruments will be turned on and checked out, and on April 4 the primary science phase of the mission will begin.

“Despite its proximity to Earth, the planet Mercury has for decades been comparatively unexplored,” adds MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “For the first time in history, a scientific observatory is in orbit about our solar system’s innermost planet. Mercury’s secrets, and the implications they hold for the formation and evolution of Earth-like planets, are about to be revealed.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wait... What?

(The Daily What) I had to read this one twice to catch the gag. Once while working in the forest soils lab, I spilled some lab grade (37% -home use formula is 2%) hydrogen peroxide on my wrist- I hadn't properly pulled my glove up. Within seconds, I was rinsing it off, so there was no serious damage, but even those few seconds was enough to bleach my skin utterly white. And there's nothing like having a white blotch an inch or so across on your wrist for a couple of weeks to convince one's self that Caucasian people aren't actually white. Also, to be convinced that if you read or are warned a particular reagent is much more dangerous than you might think, it's a good idea to simply accept it, and not to test the claim empirically.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Evelyn at Georneys is hosting a book contest: you can win a copy of the recent book by Gillian Turner called "North Pole South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth’s Magnetism" by submitting your most side splitting, eye wincing, mind rending geology pun. I linked to a somewhat obscure mineral pun I devised a couple of years ago as a place holder, but it was not intended to be an actual submission. The comments have been pretty busy, but I wanted to come up with something original. The result actually takes me a while- I want to try to craft it into a relatively short set-up, and order everything for best comic effect. Here's my final submission:
A stone mason with a powerful phobia of indoor lighting was accused of misrepresenting the "black granite" he used in a counter top. He was charged with basalt, but when his condition came to light, the charges were dismissed due to lamprophyre.
Geologists have a perennial gripe with the phrase "black granite," which is like a furry fish: there ain't no such thing. "Charged with basalt" seems obvious, but I don't think I've ever heard this pun before. And I got a giggle out of "lamprophyre" interpreted as a phobia of indoor lighting. Lamprophyres are weird, obscure rocks that no normal person would ever need to know about, therefore, I'm very fond of them. My favorite was an outcrop near the eastern end of lake Nipissing in Ontario with awesome veins of barite, which has sadly been mostly obliterated by road construction.

Sunday, March 13, 2011