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A Visit To
The United States Geological Survey (USGS)
Center of Astrogeology
in Flagstaff, Arizona
Friday, June 21, 2002
Report By David Sunfellow
An Interview With Carolyn Shoemaker
Maps, Maps, Magical Maps
The Mars Exploration Rovers
Calibrating Remote Sensing Spacecraft
The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV)
The Mars Pathfinder & Manned Missions To Mars
Jim In His Office
NHNE is fortunate to have readers and fans who are engaged in a wide variety of remarkable activities all over the world.
Take Jim Torson, for example.
Jim is a Computer Software Engineer for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Center of Astrogeology in Flagstaff, Arizona. For the past 16 years, he has been busy creating software that helps process the extraordinary images that NASA and other government agencies are constantly collecting from various space probes.
Currently, Jim is developing software for processing images from the THEMIS instrument on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft (a probe that has been orbiting Mars for several months now), the ASTER instrument aboard the EOS Terra spacecraft, which is a part of a project to monitor climate change by studying the Earth's glaciers (the GLIMS project), and assisting with the Mars Exploration Rovers project (which will be sent to Mars in 2003).
Jim also helped produce mosaics of the Moon from images produced by the Clementine spacecraft. One of these mosaics, the 5-band multispectral mosaic, fills more than 70 CD-ROM volumes! Many of these mosaics are available from the National Space Science Data Center.
Flagstaff USGS Campus
A few weeks ago, Jim invited me to visit him and take a look at the work being done at the Astrogeology Center. So I packed a camera and talked James Gregory and two of my daughters into coming along with me.
Flagstaff is located about 28 miles north of Sedona. It is the first city in the world to restrict outdoor lighting so that its residents can see the night skies. It is also home to TWO world class observatories: the Lowell Observatory and the U. S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station.
Overshadowed by towering, forest-covered mountains, there are seven buildings on the USGS Flagstaff Field Center campus. The folks who work for the Astrogeology Center are scattered among four of these buildings. With Jim as our guide, we spent two and a half hours touring offices, examining maps, posters, and displays, and talking with Jim and other USGS staff members.
Along with learning about the projects I mentioned above, we discovered, to our surprise, that the Flagstaff Center played an important role in the Apollo Moon missions. What's more, the Astrogeology Center was founded by Gene Shoemaker, "a legend of a man who almost single-handedly created planetary science as a discipline distinct from astronomy" (see Eugene M. Shoemaker and The Eugene M. Shoemaker Tribute for a brief overview of Gene's life and work).
The Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet impacting Jupiter
Gene, who died in a tragic car accident in 1997, played major roles in a number of innovative, forward-thinking projects. Publicly, he is perhaps best known for helping select and train the Apollo astronauts in lunar geology and impact cratering; suggesting that asteroids and comets are a real and present danger to Earth; and discovering, along with his wife Carolyn and fellow scientist David Levy, the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which captured the attention of the world when it slammed into Jupiter in 1994.
While Gene is no longer with us, his wife, Carolyn is still alive, kicking, and working out of an office located on the Flagstaff USGS campus.
Carolyn also happens to be the world's leading and most prolific asteroid/comet discoverer!
A sign on Carolyn Shoemaker's office door
Carolyn began her career as a lay person, at age 51 -- two remarkable facts considering how much she has accomplished and how important her contributions have been. (You can find out more about Carolyn and her work by reading "Carolyn Shoemaker" or "Comet Hunter" by Jennifer Laing.)
Towards the end of our tour we were fortunate enough to bump into Carolyn and she graciously took time to answer a few questions concerning her research and the potential of an asteroid/comet striking planet Earth (see below for our QuickTime interview with Carolyn).
As for Jim, well, he not only gave us a red carpet tour of the Astrogeology Center, but he also suffered through a torrent of newbie questions.
Jim Torson talking to James Gregory about a map of the planets in our solar system
What did we see and learn?
This website was created to give you a quick overview. It includes a couple dozen photographs, three QuickTime movies, and lots of interesting information.
A number of related links have also been tacked on to the end of this report for those of you who would like to find out more.
Special thanks to Jim for inviting us to see what he was up to; for answering our many questions; and for providing and/or pointing to much of the material found in this report. If you would like to thank him -- or pester him with more newbie questions -- he can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
And I, of course, can be reached at <email@example.com>.
An Interview With Carolyn Shoemaker
In the QuickTime interview below, Carolyn Shoemaker discusses just how serious a comet/asteroid strike on Earth is, what can be done to prevent strikes, the recent near miss of Asteroid 2002 MN, the spectacular discovery and crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter, and how she first got interested in hunting asteroids and comets. Considered the world's leading and most prolific asteroid/comet discoverer, Carolyn has 350 numbered asteroids to her credit (asteroids whose orbits have been determined), 800 unnumbered asteroids (asteroids whose orbits are still being calculated), and 32 comets. The discussion with Carolyn took place in her office at the USGS Center of Astrogeology in Flagstaff, Arizona.
QT Movie: 7 minutes, 36 seconds; 9.1 Megs
Towards the end of our interview with Carolyn Shoemaker, James, who has a degree in geology, noticed a strange, glassy, tear-drop shaped rock sitting on Carolyn's bookshelf. "Is this what I think it is?", he asked. "Yes," Carolyn answered, "it's a tektite." Tektites, she explained, are formed when asteroids and comets impact the Earth. The fiery, super-hot explosion causes the materials from the asteroid/comet to fuse with materials from Earth. After impact, these fused materials are ejected into the atmosphere and then rain back down, cooling as they fall, as tear-drop shaped rocks. The tektite pictured below comes from a Southeast Asia impact site.
Maps, Maps, Magical Maps
QT Movie: 17 seconds; 752 K
As I mentioned, there are several buildings in the USGS complex in Flagstaff. And in every building we visited, there were maps: old maps and new maps; small maps and large maps; maps in color and maps in black and white; maps of Flagstaff and Arizona; maps of the United States and the world; maps of glaciers; maps of the Earth; maps of the Moon; maps of all the planets in the Solar System (according to Jim, the Flagstaff Center is one of the few places in the world that produces maps of the planets of our Solar System).
There did, however, seem to be more maps of Mars than anything else (OK, I admit that I am fond of Mars and didn't conduct an official count, so maybe it just "seemed" like there were more maps of Mars). In any event, I've included three photographs of Martian maps on the left -- the first picture is of two Martian globes; the second is a Martian relief map pocketed by asteroid and comet impact sites and a few dormant volcanoes; and the third picture is a series of mosaic images from the Viking spacecraft of the entire planet.
Jim modeling a pair of cool 3D glasses
I was also impressed with a collection of 3D maps. When you look at these maps without the help of 3D glasses, they seem ordinary. But pop on a pair of 3D glasses, and, whoa, the maps suddenly come alive with raised mountains and low-lying valleys.
Click on the last photograph in the left column (the one with the red and blue lensed glasses), and you'll see what happened when I tried to fit my Canon GL1 camera with a pair of 3D glasses.
The Mars Exploration Rovers
In 2003, two powerful new Mars rovers will be on their way to the red planet. With far greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, these robotic explorers will be able to trek up to 100 meters (about 110 yards) across the surface in a Martian day. Each rover will carry a sophisticated set of instruments that will allow it to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet's past. The rovers will be identical to each other, but will land at different regions of Mars.
The landing for each will resemble that of the Pathfinder mission. A parachute will deploy to slow the spacecraft, rockets will fire to slow it further just before impact, and airbags will inflate to cushion the landing. Upon reaching the surface, the spacecraft will bounce about a dozen times, and could roll as far as one kilometer (0.6 miles). When it stops, the airbags will deflate and retract and the petals will open up, bringing the lander to an upright position and revealing the rover.
The landed portion of the mission features a design dramatically different from Mars Pathfinder mission. Where Pathfinder had scientific instruments on both the lander and the small Sojourner rover, these larger rovers will carry all their instruments with them. Immediately after landing, each rover will begin reconnaissance of the landing site by taking a 360-degree visible color and infrared image panorama. Then they will each leave the petal structure behind, driving off to begin exploration.
Using images and spectra taken daily from the rovers, scientists will command the vehicle to go to rock and soil targets of interest and evaluate their composition and their texture at microscopic scales. Initial targets may be close to the landing sites, but later targets can be far afield. These rovers will be able to travel almost as far in one Martian day as the Sojourner rover did over its entire lifetime.
Rocks and soils will be analyzed with a set of five instruments on each rover, and a special tool called the "RAT," or rock abrasion tool, will be used to expose fresh rock surfaces for study. Each rover has a mass of nearly 180 kilograms (about 400 pounds) and has a range of up to 100 meters (about 110 yards) per sol, or Martian day. Surface operations will last for at least 90 sols, extending to late May 2004, but could continue longer, depending on the health of the vehicles.
The camera that Jim is pointing to is one of nine cameras on board BOTH Mars Exploration Rovers. Jim, and some of the other folks in Flagstaff, will be processing the data collected by this camera.
The pictures taken by this camera will be sent from Mars to Earth and collected by three deep space network antennas -- one based in California, one in Spain, and the third one in Australia. From there, the data goes to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After the initial raw footage has been processed, it ends up with the folks in Flagstaff, who will transform it into precise, carefully calibrated images and maps.
OK, time for a pop quiz:
What kind of computers do the Astrogeology folks use
to unravel the fundamental mysteries of our planet and Solar System?
QT Movie: 32 seconds; 1.2 Megs
OK, now that you know what kind of computers the Astrogeology folks use (you watched the QuickTime movie right?), you'll want to know how "remote sensing space craft" (mostly Earth-orbiting satellites) can be sure their instruments are coming up with accurate readings.
Well, apparently in order to calibrate something, you need a known source of illumination to measure your instruments against. And Tom Stone, Project Scientist for the Robotic Lunar Observatory Project (ROLO), thinks the Moon is one of our best, most reliable sources. Tom is the fellow sitting on the steps in the picture below. And that little shed behind him houses a high-tech, research-grade telescope. Yes, the telescope is rather ugly and the little shed that houses it looks small and flimsy, but at night, when the Moon comes up, magic happens: the top half of the shed slides open, revealing a supercharged telescope that meticulously tracks and photographs the Moon.
How, exactly, does tracking the moon help calibrate instruments on Earth-orbiting satellites? Here's how Tom describes it:
"The telescopes acquire images of the Moon and stars. The stars are used to correct the Moon images for the atmosphere, and the ground-based calibration of the telescopes puts the images on an absolute radiometric scale. The result is exoatmospheric, radiometrically correct images of the Moon. These are used in numerical modeling of the Moon's photometric behavior to allow prediction of the brightness of the Moon corresponding to a spacecraft instrument lunar observation. The spacecraft instrument calibration teams use this information to develop or refine a radiometric calibration scale for their instrument, which they in turn apply to their remote-sensed Earth view images, thereby producing radiometrically accurate imagery."
In laypeople's terms, this means remote sensing space crafts focus their instruments on the Moon, and then the Earth. Their readings are then compared against the highly accurate baseline Tom's research provides, and calibrated. Once calibrated, the instruments can turn their attention back to Earth and get perfectly accurate readings on whatever they are looking at. No more being thrown off by cloud cover or bumpy rides into outer space.
And, oh, one more thing: since Tom's work is funded by NASA, all the data his telescope collects will eventually be available to the public.
The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV)
Here's how the lunar lander is described on the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum Website:
The lunar roving vehicle (LRV) transported two astronauts on exploration traverses on the Moon during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. The LRV carried tools, scientific equipment, communications gear, and lunar samples. The four-wheel, lightweight vehicle greatly extended the lunar area that could be explored by humans. The LRV could be operated by either astronaut.
LRV was the first manned surface transportation system designed to operate
on the Moon. It marked the beginning of a new technology and represented
an experiment to overcome many new and challenging problems for which
there was no precedent in terrestrial vehicle design and operations.
the LRV must be folded up into a very small package in order to fit
within the tight, pie-shaped confines of Quad 1 of the lunar module
which transported it to the Moon. After landing, the LRV must unfold
itself from its stowed configuration and deploy itself to the lunar
surface in its operational configuration, all with minimum assistance
from the astronauts.
lack of an atmosphere on the Moon, the extremes of surface temperature,
the very small gravity, and many unknowns associated with the lunar
soil and topography impose requirements on the LRV which had no counterpart
in Earth vehicles and for which no terrestrial experience existed.
The LRV was built by the Boeing Co., Aerospace Group, at its Kent Space Center near Seattle, Wash., under contract to the NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center. Boeing's major subcontractor was the Delco Electronics Division of the General Motors Corp. Three flight vehicles had been built, plus seven test and training units, spare components, and related equipment.
More information about the Lunar Rover pictured above can be found on the Astrogeology Website. According to Jim, the Lunar Rover will also be on public display in the lobby of the new Shoemaker Building.
The Mars Pathfinder & Manned Missions To Mars
I mentioned that the buildings we visited were full of maps. They also contained a good number of gorgeous posters and paintings. The ones pictured here are from past and future Martian projects: the two photographs on top come from a poster that illustrates the wildly successful Pathfinder mission; while the two photographs on bottom illustrate a future manned (or womanned, in this case, since the astronaut pictured here appears to be a female) mission to Mars.
Jim In His Office
And last, but not least, here are two pictures of Jim in his office.
(Is that a crop circle calendar on Jim's wall?)
While most of this report dealt with mainstream space and science, Jim, who is well versed in the far out topics NHNE typically covers, also answered a few questions that will be of interest to many of you:
Does he believe our planet is being visited by beings from somewhere else?
Speaking as a private citizen, NOT as a government spokesperson, Jim answered "Yes." But he wasn't sure where they were coming from. Other systems? Other dimensions? Parallel universes? Inner planes? Our own minds? All of the above? The jury was out.
Has he ever seen NASA, or any other U.S. government agency he works with covering up data, "doctoring" images, or deliberately misconstruing information before releasing it to the public?
And while Jim didn't rule out the possibility of government orchestrated coverups, he emphasized that he, and his co-workers, were under a mandate to provide the public, and other researchers, with the best, most accurate information possible.
Jim also said that the possibility of censoring or modifying raw data before it reached people like him -- people who specialize in turning raw data into clean, polished, rigorously accurate information -- was exceedingly remote. Not only do scientists meticulously study the data they receive, but there are a great many people, from a wide variety of institutions and fields, involved in these multi-million dollar projects. Launching an effective, full-scale coverup would, Jim believes, be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible.
One last thing: while Jim personally believes there is something important going on in the world of UFOs (and related topics), and also believes there might be a few genuine anomalies in NASA-related material, he laments the shoddy, half-baked, often misinformed research that tends to dominate UFO circles. According to Jim, who regularly monitors UFO-related conferences and events, a number of well-known UFO researchers tend to pass themselves off as "experts" of space-related data when they actually have very little understanding of, or experience with, the material they are talking about -- an observation that shouldn't surprise anyone involved with NHNE...
Earth Observatory Website
(Images of Earth from NASA satellites)
(How the landscape of Mars could have been formed without water)
(Information on UFO phenomenon by and for professional scientists)