Searching out Sagan in Ithaca

Taking a break from reading Pale Blue Dot in Carl Sagan’s hometown of Ithaca, New York. (Elizabeth Howell)

I never knew of Carl Sagan as a living human being, as I missed him by mere months. I read Pale Blue Dot sometime in 1997, if my memory serves, sometime after the movie Contact (based on his book) came out in theaters and I asked my parents what the “FOR CARL” dedication was at the end of the movie.

At a time when I was all awkward teenagerhood, Sagan’s writing showed me a Universe of beauty. Not organized beauty, to be sure, but a destination worth exploring. Worth learning more about, even from a humble perch on Earth.

Sagan had a bit of everything in him: a knowledge of philosophy and history, an influence on early NASA missions, an ability to take the Universe and make it homey enough to show on television screens and in books.

His formative research years were at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. More than 15 years after his death, he’s actually pretty easy to find in that town.

Carl Sagan’s grave in Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York, adorned with blue marbles. It’s between the two trees in this map. (Elizabeth Howell)

The exterior of the Space Sciences building at Cornell University, where Carl Sagan spent his most influential research years. (Elizabeth Howell)

Carl Sagan’s picture at the Sciencenter in Ithaca. He was a founding member of the science museum’s advisory board. (Elizabeth Howell)

Our Sun shining upon an exhibit of Neptune in Ithaca’s Planet Walk. The 1200-meter walk has the distances of all the planets in the solar system to scale. The exhibition was created in honor of Carl Sagan’s memory, and has a podcast available that is narrated by one of his students: Bill Nye, the Science Guy. (Elizabeth Howell)

Google Honors Canadarm’s 31st Anniversary

Canada’s most famous robot is on the front page of today. The Google doodle honors the 31st anniversary of the first use of Canadarm in space.

Canadarm is a robotic arm that flew on virtually every shuttle mission. The technology is still being used today in space.

According to the 1992 book A Heritage of Excellence, Canada was first invited to work in the shuttle program in 1969. Toronto engineering firm DSMA-Atcon Ltd. initially pitched a Canadian-built space telescope, but NASA was more interested in DSMA’s other work.

“The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland expressed interest in another of DSMA’s gadgets – a robot the company had developed for loading fuel into Candu nuclear reactors,” wrote Lydia Dotto in the book, which Spar commissioned to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

“It was just the thing for putting a satellite they were building into space.”

Dozens of astronauts have used the Canadarms during spacewalks, including Michael L. Gernhardt on STS-104. Credit: NASA

The Canadian government and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding in 1975 to build the arm. Legislation allowing the project to move forward passed the next year. Canadian company Spar became the prime contractor, with DSMA, CAE and RCA as subcontractors.

Engineers had to face several challenges when constructing the Canadarm, including how to grapple satellites. The solution was an “end effector“, a snare on the end of the Canadarm to grasp satellites designed to be hoisted into space.

Several NASA astronauts, including Sally Ride, gave feedback on the arm’s development. Canadarm flew for the first time on STS-2, which launched Nov. 12, 1981. (Ride herself used the arm on STS-7 when she became the first American woman to fly in space.)

Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut in space, has said the arm’s success led to the establishment of the Canadian astronaut program. He flew in 1984, three years after Canadarm’s first flight.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield during an EVA in 2001. Also in the image is the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Some of the arm’s notable achievements:

– Launching space probes, including the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, as well as short-term experiments that ran during shuttle missions;

– Retrieving satellites for servicing. One prominent example was the rescue of the INTELSAT VI satellite on STS-49, which required the first three-astronaut spacewalk;

Launching the Hubble Space Telescope, then retrieving and relaunching it during each repair mission;

– Helping to build the International Space Station along with Canadarm2, its younger sibling;

– Scanning for broken tiles on the bottom of the shuttle. Astronauts used a procedure developed after Columbia, carrying seven astronauts, was destroyed during re-entry in 2003. A Canadarm was modified into an extension boom; another Canadarm grasped that boom to reach underneath the shuttle.

The arm was so successful that MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (which acquired Spar) built a robotic arm for the International Space Station, called Canadarm2. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield helped install the arm during his first spacewalk in 2001.

Canadarm2’s most nail-biting moment was in 2007, when astronauts used it to hoist astronaut Steve Parazynski (who was balancing on the extension boom) for a tricky solar panel repair on the station.

November 3, 2007 – Canadarm2 played a big role in helping astronauts fix a torn solar array. Here, Scott Parazynski analyses the solar panel while anchored to the boom. Credit: NASA

More recently, Canadarm2 was used to grapple the Dragon spacecraft when SpaceX’s demonstration and resupply missions arrived at the International Space Station this year.

MDA recently unveiled several next-generation Canadarm prototypes that could, in part, be used to refuel satellites. The Canadian Space Agency funded the projects with $53 million (CDN $53.1 million) in stimulus money. MDA hopes to attract more money to get the arms ready for space.

You can read more about the Canadarm’s history on the Canadian Space Agency website.

Kansas Cosmosphere Vote Passes on Election Night

The Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft at the Kansas Cosmosphere. (Elizabeth Howell)

As an update to our story yesterday, more than 70 per cent of residents in Hutchinson, KS voted to keep tax money flowing into the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The museum is located in the community, which is about an hour north of Wichita.

Museum officials were closely watching the vote Tuesday night, which took place at the same time as the U.S. general election for convenience’s sake.

The Cosmosphere gets 18% of its revenues from the city sales tax, which puts 33% of a quarter-cent aside for the Cosmosphere. Additional sales tax funds go to a nearby salt museum, as well as other city initiatives.

The tax vote takes place every five years, and this is the fifth time the measure has been approved, the museum noted. The votes tallied showed 8,935 people in favour and 3,635 opposed.

“The community’s response to the Cosmosphere’s request for continued commitment to the quarter-cent sales tax is greatly appreciated,” said Becky Christner, the Cosmosphere’s marketing and sales manager, in an e-mail to Universe Today.

“We look forward to continuing to serve the community as we work daily to succeed at our mission of honoring the past and inspiring the future of space exploration.”

The Cosmosphere is looking to expand its restoration, exhibition and fabrication customers in the coming years to bring in more revenue to the museum.

Past projects the Cosmosphere is known for:

– Rebuilding the Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft, which was torn apart for an accident investigation following a near-fatal explosion;

– Restoring the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, which sank at the end of its mission in space, and spent decades in a shallow part of the Atlantic Ocean;

– Film and television productions such as Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon and Magnificent Desolation.

How Today’s Election Could Affect the Kansas Cosmosphere

The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. (Elizabeth Howell)

Hutchinson, KS — While the nation is polarized between choosing Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as the next American president, voters going to the polls in this city of 40,000 will have another matter to weigh during elections today.

Along with their ballot, residents will consider whether the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center will continue to receive funding from city coffers. Since it represents 18% of revenues for the science museum, Cosmosphere president Jim Remar says his colleagues have been paying close attention.

The city sales tax sets aside 33% of a quarter-cent for the Cosmosphere, and some additional funding for a nearby underground salt museum and other city initiatives. Money to the museum goes for general operations.

“I feel good that it’s going to pass, although we do have some nervous moments,” Remar says. Supporters of the tax have been spreading the word through radio, billboards, editorials in local newspapers and any other means possible to get out the word.

Museum president Jim Remar, inside the Cosmosphere’s restoration facility. (Elizabeth Howell)

Sales tax funding for the Cosmosphere renews every five years, with the current iteration set to expire in 2014. The city tries to get the vote out for the sales tax at the same time as the general election, for convenience and financial sake.

While 18% of the museum’s funding lie in the hands of voters, Remar is trying to increase the share of the remaining 82% under the Cosmosphere’s control.

Getting visitors out to the museum is always a challenge; it’s an hour from the nearest major center (Wichita), a city that itself is many hours’ drive from any city to speak of. Still, the museum brings in 120,000 people every year, an attendance figure that includes space camps, museum visits and other events.

For the city itself, though, the museum is a jewel: “I can’t think of any other town of 40,000 that has such a facility,” says Remar, speaking proudly of how he grew up in the area, left and then chose to come back to help lead the museum’s management. His focus now is on trying to bring in business connections to enhance the Cosmosphere’s power in the community.

One of the most promising aspects is the Cosmosphere’s restoration and fabrication facility. The museum is perhaps most famous for putting the pieces of the Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft back together around the same time the movie came out in 1995. This was no easy task, as Odyssey was disassembled and scattered during an investigation into a near-fatal explosion aboard the spacecraft in 1970.

The restored control panel in Apollo 13’s Odyssey spacecraft, which sits in the Cosmosphere. (Elizabeth Howell)

The Cosmosphere required the Smithsonian’s help as the museum hunted through NASA centers, contract facilities and other spots for months in search of missing pieces. More than 85% of the spacecraft, which is on display at the Cosmosphere, was retrieved. The rest of the components came from spares and other odd pieces the Cosmosphere could find.

Restoration capabilities came out of necessity, Remar says. In the mid-1980s, the museum had a need to put spacecraft on display and spiffy them up for visitors. As other museums had the same requirement, the Cosmosphere gradually built out capabilities in restoration.

“It’s not something where somebody can come in a day and do it. It is a lot of trial and error,” Remar says of the employees who work in the facility. The lead mechanic has been around for 14 years, though, and there are two other workers with him who have adapted well over the years.

Cosmosphere officials realized there are only so many spacecraft to restore, and added exhibitions, replication and fabrication to their capabilities. This positioned them well for a surge of Hollywood films and other productions in the 1990s, such as Apollo 13, HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, a short-lived TV series in the ’90s called The Cape and (in the 2000s) the IMAX film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D.

An individual project will cost anywhere from $10,000 to $2.5 million to build; overall revenues from this division are 15 to 20% of the museum’s coffers every year. And that could grow bigger very soon.

A tool box inside the Cosmosphere’s restoration facility. (Elizabeth Howell)

On Saturday, a “Science of Aliens” exhibit will open in Taipei at the National Taiwan Science Education Center. One major part is a UFO spacecraft – 19 feet wide by 7 feet tall – that the Cosmosphere built for the exhibit. It includes running lights and some alien-sounding noises.

Asia happens to be a hot economy these days compared with North America and Europe, where the Comosphere’s work historically went.

The Cosmosphere is in discussions with Taipei-based Universal Impression, a broker that negotiated the science museum work, to do more work in the future. Remar says he hopes the Cosmosphere’s presence there will serve as a calling card to other Asian clients.

“International work can explode here,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential.”

‘Chasing Atlantis’ Film Launches Fundraising Campaign

A member of the Chasing Atlantis film team captures Atlantis during its last journey to a display at the Kennedy Space Center in November 2012. (Matthew Cimone)

The team behind Chasing Atlantis, an upcoming film talking about the legacy of the space shuttle program, is asking the public for help funding the post-production.

This weekend, the five Canadians involved in the production opened an IndieGoGo campaign online to crowdsource $15,000 from the masses. (IndieGoGo is a similar service to Kickstarter, but unlike Kickstarter, it accepts banking information from outside of the United States.)

“We’ve gone from a small road trip doc to sitting before astronauts like Chris Hadfield, and now actors such as Wil Wheaton,” wrote team member Matthew Cimone in a statement sent to Universe Today.

“The whole film, to date, has been completely self funded, but to assist in the final post-production push, we are launching an IndieGoGo campaign.”

The team says the money is not supposed to recover the whole cost of the project, but just the final stages of it. They plan to use the money for additional on-location shooting as well as post-production costs such as sound design, colour grading, research assistance and an original score.

You can view the fundraising campaign here. Potential contributors have until Dec. 17 to donate, and the team will receive all of the money donated even if they do not reach their goal.

SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On


In 1985, famed astronomer, author and TV host Carl Sagan invited Jill Tarter to dinner at his house near Cornell University. Tarter, heavily involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, gladly accepted the chance to speak with Sagan, a member of SETI’s board of trustees.

Seated with Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, Tarter learned that Sagan had a fiction book on the go.

“Annie said, ‘You may recognize someone in the book, but I think you’ll like her,'” Tarter recalled in an interview with Universe Today.

Suspecting the character was based on herself, Tarter’s response to Druyan was: “‘Just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cones so much.’ It was something I was teased about.”

Female, in a male-dominated field

It was 15 years ago this month that the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s book of the same title, expanded to a run in international theatres after a successful summer in North America. The movie explores the implication of aliens making contact with Earth, but does it from more of a scientific perspective than most films.

While Contact, the movie did not talk about the pi sequences or advanced mathematical discussions in Contact, the book, it did bring concepts such as prime numbers, interference with radio telescopes, and the religion vs. science debate to theatres in 1997.

Tarter, who has just retired as the long-time director of the SETI Institute, said she was stunned by the parallels between her own life and that of Ellie Arroway, the character based on her in Contact. Both lost parents at an early age. Both also had to make their way in a field aggressively dominated by males.

Tarter recalls a meeting with fellow female scientists of her generation some years ago.

“A huge percentage of us had been, in high school, either cheerleaders or drum majorettes. This is so counterintuitive, right? Because we’re the nerds, we’re the brainy ones … (it was because) we were all competitors, and there weren’t any (female) sports to compete at. These sports were open, and we competed, and we generally won.”

Working on set

Tarter cautions the parallels did not totally match. The hopes and aspirations of Ellie in the book, and also the movie, were products of Sagan’s imagination. But the producers and actors of the film did want to get a close sense of what it was like to work with SETI.

After Jodie Foster was cast as Ellie, there were multiple phone calls between the actress and Tarter to discuss SETI.

“From her point of view, she was clear she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy. She was interested, in a personal way, about what the scientists were like,” Tarter said.

When the crew was filming at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Tarter flew there to observe the work, meet with Foster and also show the actress around. Tarter recalls bringing Foster up in a cabin that had a perfect view of the telescope, some 500 feet above the dish.

Microphones and walkie-talkies

Filming was an interesting process for Tarter, as well. There were the microphones, and the tools the crew used to check continuity. Most amusingly for Tarter, she observed Foster (reported height 5 feet, 2 inches) needing to stand on a box for most of the close-up shots with actor Matthew McConaughey (reported as 6 feet tall).

Two errors still irk Tarter today. There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said.

The other large mistake is a scene where Ellie gets a potential signal from space, while working at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array set of radio telescopes in New Mexico.

“She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

But overall, Tarter said the movie did a great job at portraying the feel of SETI. And Foster appreciated Tarter’s help. “She would write me handwritten thank-you notes, which was a kind of manner that most people have lost. A great courtesy.”

Hollywood outreach

Tarter walked the red carpet at the movie premiere and spent most of her time watching the film in tears of happiness. That euphoria evaporated when she saw the SETI Institute was not credited at the end of the film. When she talked to one of the film producers, she said she was informed that lawyers usually draft agreements specifying the length of time the credit appears, and the compensation received for doing so.

“We don’t have a lawyer at the SETI Institute,” she said. “When I write a paper, I acknowledge my collaborators. We got that wrong, so we never got any credit. We might have gotten even more recognition.”

But the professional connection with Foster still remains. Foster happily responded to a request from Tarter to do voice-overs for a video clip used for a SETI high school curriculum for integrated science. She also narrated a show, Life: A Cosmic Story, for the California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium.

Tarter is now shifting into full-time outreach for SETI, saying the budgetary problems that shut down the organization’s Allen Telescope Array for several months last year were a warning call.

One of the organization’s newest initiatives is, which crowdsources analysis of signals from the Kepler Field. SETI solicits the public to take some time looking at the signal patterns, one at a time, in search of extraterrestrial communications.

“SETI is too important to allow it to fail,” Tarter said, adding her focus is finding substantial, stable funding from “that individual or institution that is capable of taking a long view.”

See Armstrong’s Hands and Eyes on the Moon

You see those gloves? Those gloves grasped the lunar ladder as Neil Armstrong hopped down to the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Tinged with blue silicon rubber fingertips to help Armstrong feel his way, those gloves carried experiments, and tools, and touched Moon dust. They were the first gloves used while walking on the Moon.

They’ve been in storage for more than a decade. But right now — for at least the next two weeks — they are sitting in a special display case at the Smithsonian’s airport annex in Washington. The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is showing them to the public in honour of Armstrong, who died at the age of 82 on Aug. 25.

Oh yeah, and you can also check out the helmet that Neil Armstrong used as he described the lunar surface to millions of awe-struck listeners on live television. (The gold-plated visor he used on the surface is not being lowered again due to concerns about damaging it, but it’s inside the helmet.) No big deal.

Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.

This is probably your last chance to catch these artifacts before at least 2017. Armstrong’s spacesuit has been in storage since 2001 in a special temperature and humidity-controlled facility, to protect it from damage. The museum has tentative plans to display it again when it renovates the Apollo gallery in the main museum building on the Washington Mall. That said, his crewmate Buzz Aldrin’s spacesuit is on display there right now.

Photos by Dane Penland, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Life from Mars could have ‘polluted’ Earth: Krauss

Unless you’ve been living under a rock — Earth or Martian — in the past month, surely you have heard about the Curiosity rover’s landing and early adventures on Mars.

The prospects for what the rover could find has many in the space community very excited, even though Curiosity is supposed to look for habitable environments, not life itself.

However, a couple of weeks ago, noted theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said he wouldn’t be surprised if we do find evidence of life on Mars.

In an interview with CNN, Krauss said it’s possible Martian life could have “polluted” Earth early in our planet’s history, giving rise to life as we know it today.

The big surprise (in finding life) would be if it weren’t our cousins. Because what we’ve learned is that material goes back and forth between the planets all the time. We have discovered Martian meteorites in Antarctica, for example, and it goes the other way around, and microbes certainly (can) survive the the eight-month voyage in a rock.

Though Krauss did not specify which meteorites in Antarctica he was referring to, he is most likely talking about ALH84001, which was found in 1984.

The meteorite shot to international prominence in 1996 when scientists, led by NASA’s David McKay, published an article in the journal Science saying there was evidence the meteorite showed “primitive bacterial life” from Mars. In particular, they used a high-power electron microscope and found formations that they said are consistent with those caused by bacterial life.

The team’s proclamation met with scientific skepticism. The Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Allan Treiman said even if it did show evidence of life, the rocks could have been contaminated by Antarctic life or by handling of the meteorite after it was found.

John Bradley, an adjunct professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took his skepticism a step further: “Unfortunately, there are many signatures in the fossil record here on Earth, and probably on Mars, that look very similar to bacterial signatures. But they are not unique to bacterial processes,” he said in an undated NASA page (most likely from 2001, since it references a meeting from that time) that was reportedly based on a story.

NASA revisited the sample in 2009 with more advanced equipment and argued that life was the most plausible explanation for the formations. In a paper published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, the authors rejected the alternate hypotheses of shock or heating affecting the meteorite based on their experiments.

That said, the 1996 announcement is still a long way from confirmation. Krauss’ interview is below. What do you think of his views of Martian life?

Lead image courtesy of NASA.

Elizabeth Howell (M.Sc. Space Studies ’12) is a contributing editor for SpaceRef and award-winning space freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in publications such as, Air & Space Smithsonian, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.,  CTV and the Ottawa Business Journal.

Chasing Atlantis: An Upcoming Film about the Shuttle’s Legacy

Shuttle Atlantis as it enters the Vehicle Assembly Building (Ryan Horan.)

Take five shuttle fans and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, mix in some artistic creativity, and you will understand the enthusiasm and love behind the Chasing Atlantis film production.

Five Canadians made the trek to Florida to watch the final shuttle launch last year. They are wrapping up filming and interviews — which included astronauts and sci-fi stars — to discuss the legacy of the program.

They plan to release Chasing Atlantis in November. Team member Matthew Cimone talked to Universe Today by e-mail about why they made the journey in the first place.

UT: What is your connection to space?

There were five of us in total. Matthew Cimone, Paul Muzzin, Melanie Godecki, Chris Bourque and Rebecca Mead. We ranged from total space geeks and sci-fi junkies to those who were simply interested in being part of an adventurous road trip.

Continue reading “Chasing Atlantis: An Upcoming Film about the Shuttle’s Legacy”

Chasing Gene Cernan’s Childhood — and Apollo Years

A wonderful travel moment of serendipity: While sitting near a convention centre in Chicago, I punched in nearby points of interest in my GPS and found something called the Cernan Earth and Space Center.

Suspecting it had something to do with Eugene Cernan, one of the last two men to walk on the moon, I drove to a small building on the Triton College campus, walked inside the front door, and was astounded at what was visible from the entrance.

An Apollo spacesuit. A helmet. A spacecraft gimbal. A diorama of lunar and Martian vehicles. Various pictures, tokens and artifacts showing Eugene Cernan’s aerospace life — all for free.

While I gaped at these artifacts, center director Bart Benjamin approached me and explained Cernan had grown up in the neighbourhood — in fact, his high school is just a few miles away, Benjamin explained. The artifacts are mostly loans from the Smithsonian (the spacesuit was briefly returned there for cleaning and restoration recently); revenues for the center come from its gift shop and laser/planetarium shows, which run several evenings a week.

I unfortunately was not able to stay for a laser show, but I did ask Benjamin for directions to Cernan’s school. Cernan went to Proviso Township High School, now known as Proviso East.

According to Cernan’s biography Last Man on the Moon, at high school he played varsity basketball, baseball and football and was courted by a couple of schools offering football scholarships.

But influenced by the Korean War, he instead applied for a Naval scholarship and did not get his first choice, receiving only partial financing to head to Purdue, as he recalls:

I didn’t want it, because I knew my entire family would have to work hard to pay for me to attend Purdue as an out-of-state student. But at Dad’s insistence, I reluctantly agreed, knowing that not only would I get a degree, but I could still get a commission in the Navy, albeit in the reserves, and maybe somehow could spin that into my dream of flying.

Cernan graduated in 1952 and he flew, all right — including walking on the Moon just 20 years later.

All pictures by Elizabeth Howell.

Elizabeth Howell (M.Sc. Space Studies ’12) is a contributing editor for SpaceRef and award-winning space freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in publications such as, Air & Space Smithsonian, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.,  CTV and the Ottawa Business Journal.