Archive for July, 2010

Confessions from Comic-Con

Thursday, July 29th, 2010
Illustration of Whitney Clavin at Comic-Con 2010

Written by Whitney Clavin of JPL’s News Office while attending Comic-Con 2010 in San Diego

I’ve been standing in line next to a green monster for more than an hour. This might sound like a bad situation, but the monster is actually a rather nice human in body paint and stunning, neon-green contact lenses. This is my fourth time at Comic-Con — San Diego’s annual gathering of all things geeky (some people call it “The Nerd Prom”). Lines to get into the various panels are a regular part of the program, especially now that attendance has swelled to well over 100,000. The lines here can actually be kind of fun — people sit down on the carpeted floors, read comics, enjoy all the costumed creatures and superheroes, and chat with like-minded friends.

Standing in line to see one of Comic-Con’s regular heroes — Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and director of the new “Avengers” movie — I discover that a couple of my line companions and I are even more like-minded than I thought. They also work at JPL in Pasadena. One is an engineer working on the next Mars rover, Curiosity (although he didn’t call the rover Curiosity — like many engineers, he’s accustomed to using its original acronym, MSL, which stands for Mars Science Laboratory). The JPL connection doesn’t stop there. My new JPL friends just came from a panel that included Kevin Grazier, who works on NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn — he’s also science advisor for “Battlestar Galactica” and “Eureka.”

It’s no surprise that there’s crossover between science and science-fiction geeks. Many of the astronomers I work with at JPL were inspired to go into astronomy by sci-fi shows like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek.” Science fiction and superhero stories take us to imagined worlds, while scientists and engineers take us to real worlds that can sometimes be even more surprising and exotic. At Comic-Con, the excitement about what we can do with our minds is more than a buzz, it’s a roar.

Mingling with all of us humans (or people like me who still haven’t figured out a good costume) are robots and creatures from many worlds. I spot bands of Cylons and stormtroopers, Bender the robot from “Futurama,” Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood,” and many more. Superheroes stride proudly through the crowd, stopping about every two feet to pose for more pictures. There are numerous “Wonder Womans.” I was particularly impressed by one, a gray-haired woman probably in her 60s, who looked fantastic in her star-spangled short shorts and red vinyl boots. And of course there are lots of zombies. (If there’s one thing that became very clear to me this year, it’s that vampires are on their way out and zombies are back in.)

I also chat with several artists and writers, and sit in on a few panels teasing us with upcoming storylines for TV shows. In the end, I am left with the impression that there are still so many stories to tell, so much left to explore. The Comic-Con experience inspires me in the same way that astronomy conferences do. We’re all pushing into the unknown in unique ways. It would be cool, though, if astronomers also dressed up as what inspires them during their conferences. I’d love to come across a globular cluster of human stars parading across the exhibit-hall floor.

Rocks and Stars with Amy: Milestones

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010
Rocks and Stars with Amy
By Amy Mainzer

It’s hard to believe that we’ve just crossed the six-month mark on WISE — seems like just yesterday when we were all up at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Santa Barbara, shivering in the cold at night while watching the countdown clock. But the time is flying (literally!) as WISE whips by over our heads. We’re analyzing data ferociously now, trying to get the images and the data ready for the public release next May. Even though the mission’s lifetime is short, we’ve gotten into a semblance of a routine. We receive and process images of stars, galaxies and other objects taken by the spacecraft every day, and we’re running our asteroid-hunting routine on Mondays and Thursdays. We’ve got a small army (well, okay, three — but they do the work of a small army!) of extremely talented students who are helping us verify and validate the asteroid detections, as well as hunt for new comets in the data. Plus, there is an unseen, yet powerful, cadre of observers out there all over the world following up our observations.

asteroids and comets detected by WISEThis plot shows asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ULCA/JHU   |   ›See related video

And so it’s come to pass that we’ve achieved some milestones. We completed our first survey of the entire sky on July 17 — and we just discovered our 100th new near-Earth object! That’s out of the approximately 25,000 new asteroids we’ve discovered in total so far; most of these hang out in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter and never get anywhere near Earth’s orbit. These new discoveries will allow us to conduct an accurate census of both the near-Earth and main belt asteroid populations. We’re really busy chewing on the data right now and calculating what it all means.

Because it’s so short, this mission reminds me a little bit of what the first days of college felt like — a tidal wave of new ideas, new sights and new thoughts. The pace of learning has been incredibly quick, whether I’m trying to get up to speed on asteroid evolution theories or tinkering with the software we use to write papers.

Speaking of papers, we’re in the process of preparing to submit several to science journals; in fact, I’ve already submitted one. The gold standard of science, of course, is the peer-review process. We submit our paper to a journal, and the scientific editor assigns another scientist who is an expert in the field but not involved in the project (and who usually remains anonymous) to read it and offer comments. The referee’s job is to “kick the tires,” so to speak, and ask tough questions about the work to make sure it’s sound. We get a chance to respond, and the referee gets a chance to respond to our responses, and then when everybody’s convinced the results are right, the paper is accepted and can be published. So stay tuned — we should have some of the first papers done soon telling us what these milestones mean for asteroid science.

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