Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mr. Mojo Rising

You know, maybe I should just go ahead and say that I'll update this every other Thursday.  Wednesday just seems to have some kind of bad mojo about it that makes getting an update done impossible. was worth the delay, because boy do I have some cool stuff to tell you about.

Yesterday I attended a regional Math & Science meeting held at NASA Langely.  The first part of the morning was devoted to touring around.  Now, I've worked with folks from NASA  Langley for years, and I figured I'd seen most everything cool there at least once.

Man, was I wrong!

First, we went to see the National Transonic Facility.  This extraordinary wind tunnel is one of only two in the world that can effectively scale the "air" in the wind tunnel to match the scale of the model.  This can be critical in testing models of aircraft and even submarines where the forces created by the movement of air or water around the vehicle can translate into huge changes in performance of the craft or fuel consumption of the vehicle.  They've tested many, many type of craft in the tunnel, and it's an amazing process.  We got to walk all around the facility with Scott (our guide), and even stood directly under part of the tunnel itself.  We also got to play a little with liquid nitrogen, which is always fun.  The most amazing tidbits I carried away from our tour:

  • When it was constructed, the NTF wind tunnel used up ALL of the stainless steel available in the U.S. at the time.  ALL OF IT.  They had to buy more from Japan to finish the tunnel!
  • The thickness of the tunnel's stainless steel ranges from 6" down to only 1".  One inch of stainless steel may sound like a lot, but it's nothing when you consider the tunnel is essentially a giant pressure vessel that can be pumped up to 120 psi!  (That's almost 9 times normal air pressure!)
  • To scale the "air" in the tunnel appropriately, sometimes they use liquid nitrogen instead of air.  When that supercold material is used, the entire tunnel can contract 8-10"!  Therefore, the tunnel is fixed in only 2 places...the other stability points have to be flexible to allow for this expansion and contraction, or the tunnel would rip itself apart!

A blended wing-body aircraft model is set up for tests in the NTF's unique wind tunnel.  Even the models have to be made to exact specifications or the testing can damage them!  Image courtesy NASA.

Our second way cool stop used to be known as the Lunar Landing Research Facility.  Under that name, it was where the Apollo astronauts came to learn to land the LEM.  They used a system of pulleys to simulate 1/6th gravity and gave Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and all the rest of the Apollo team the chance get a feel for what it would be like to set the LEM down on the Moon!  Incredible!  The facility is now a National Historic Landmark, and would be incredible to visit, just because of that.  Heck, I stood on the same spot where the astronauts were learning to settle down on the Moon!

Today, the facility has been repurposed as  the Landing Impact Research Facility...and its new mission is just as awesome as its old one!  They now use the massive rig and newly-added hyrdo-impact basin (it's NOT a pool!) to perform crash tests of a variety of air- and space- craft!  We even got to see the body of a helicopter that had been used for crash testing!  You can see videos of tests performed at the LandIR Facility on NASA Langley's You Tube channel.  Talk about some guys with serious mojo!  Martin and Justin have what must be one of the coolest jobs ON THE PLANET!

The new Orion space capsule is tossed into the hydro-impact basin at the LandIR Facility.  What a fun job - dropping and breaking things for science!  Image courtesy NASA.

If all that wasn't enough, we got treated to an incredible spectacle while talking with the guys at the LandIR Facility.  Overhead, low and loud, was an F-22 fighter jet performing the most incredible aerobatic stunts I've ever seen!  Turns out these guys have to re-certify every year to be able to perform at airshows, and this guy happened to be doing his re-certification just as we were touring around.  Now that pilot definitely had some wicked mojo rising, let me tell you...his plane looked suspended in mid-air, rolling and pitching and yawing in ways that made me queasy just watching him!  It was an amazing spectacle!

The F-22 Raptor.  Wicked cool at aerobatics too.  Image courtesy Wikipedia

So...I guess what I'm trying to say is, if there's a NASA center near you - get on a tour!  You'll never know what amazing things might be right there in your backyard unless you take the time to check them out!

More mojo in two weeks...
Until then...carpe noctem!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I am very sorry, sir, I am behind my time...

It's only once a year, sir, it shall not be repeated.  I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.

Bob Cratchit from Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott.  One of my favorite versions of the classic Christmas tale. 

Happy New Year!  Like Bob Cratchit, I am behind my time (by a day) and was making rather merry yesterday.  And in the process of welcoming 2014, I discovered something amazing.

For many years I have extolled the virtues of getting away from people to enjoy the sky.  Well, more specifically, people's lights.  The city is a terrible place to do astronomy...few stars can be seen, and finding a spot with open sky can prove challenging to say the least.  So I often recommend that folks go somewhere else to see the stars.  Areas with little population (Casper Mountain in Wyoming has astounding skies!), the desert southwest of the United States (my Dad, who loved to hike the Grand Canyon, bought a tent with a special skylight in it for stargazing...he said the sky from down in the canyon was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen), out on the water far away from shore (but not on most cruise ships, which are lit up like bonfires), and other such far away destinations have been my suggestion to people looking to see more of the sky than they usually do.

Or, you could drive about an hour west of Richmond.  No, really!

We generally spend New Year's Eve in a cabin at Bear Creek Lake State Park.  It's wonderful to get away from it all (there's no cell service or internet out there either!) and just enjoy some time with family and friends.  Most years, the sky has been cloudy...especially if I go through the trouble of packing my telescope.  This year, I said the heck with it, and left it home.

On New Year's Eve night we went out to build a fire and make s'mores (always a hit with the kids).  My friend suddenly said "Hey, look at the Milky Way!"

I looked up and almost fell over.

The sky was cold and clear and the air unmoving.  It was deep black, and spangled everywhere with stars so bright they seemed to leap out of the sky at me.  Jupiter shone like a beacon...for a moment, I was disoriented...I thought it was Venus, it seemed so bright to me!  As my eyes adjusted, I could see more and more faint stars playing in the background of the sky...and indeed, the lovely swath of the Milky Way, arcing high above us.  I wasted no time bemoaning my lack of a telescope - I simply took my daughter aside and we looked for constellations.  We spotted a couple of satellites and caught a few meteors in the bargain.  It was breathtaking, delightful, dizzying, and altogether awesome.

So here's my recommendation to you for a new year's resolution - make a reservation and stay at a State or National Park near you sometime this year.  You probably won't have to even travel very far!  Many parks offer traditional camping (bring your own tent) or cabins for rent (very reasonably priced, and come with all the comforts of home like heat, AC, and indoor plumbing!).  Some even have yurts (I hear they can be tons of fun!).  You can make reservations online at Reserve America.  It's great way to get some time away, bond with family and friends, explore your local area, and rediscover the sky.  Trust me, you'll love it.

One of the cabins at Bear Creek Lake State Park in Virginia.  Yes, it's as awesome as it looks.  Image by Tracey Shaffer courtesy Reserve America.

Here's hoping that 2014 is truly a stellar year for us all.
See you in two weeks, and until then...
Carpe Noctem!