Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where is Pluto now?

Far, far in the rear view mirror I'm afraid. As our spacecraft zooms away at almost 15 km/second (or over 32,000 mph!) we continue to blast images back towards Earth, where there are gathered on the ground thanks to the lovely DSN and sent to the scientists for analysis.

Over the past few months, we have seen some beautiful images and learned some amazing things.

One of my favorites, the image above was the far side of Pluto as it was back-lit by the Sun. You can see right away the existence of an atmosphere, apparently 5 times what was predicted.

Here you can see the famous heart picture of Pluto, enhanced in false color with the help of the RALPH instrument.

And not to be forgotten, Pluto's largest moon Charon had this beautiful closeup. To me, the level of detail is absolutely amazing.

The images and scans continue to come down. I won't even pretend to understand all of the scientific discoveries that have happened, but from what I've read they are significant. Next week I am attending a conference given by the Division for Planetary Science and will be able to listen to some presentations about what we have learned so far.

Finally, here's a really cool video of what it was like for New Horizons to encounter the Pluto system.

Our universe is vast and largely unexplored. I for one am thankful to be part of this teeny tiny view.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pluto Day!!!! Part 2

When last we left off Matt and the kids were off to the K-Center for the festivities and I was heading back to the MOC to await the signal from the spacecraft telling us that it successfully completed the fly-by.

The MOC was getting pretty busy. No one wanted to miss out so we all squeezed into a spot. We were waiting for 15 minutes of telemetry that the spacecraft had turned back to earth to transmit. Not only would the telemetry tell us that our little ship had survived but also whether or not it had encountered any problems and had it recorded all the data expected (images etc.). Meanwhile, behind us in the conference room watching through the glass were a good amount of important people just waiting for the call that everything was nominal. Nominal, people in the space industry really like that word. It conveys so much with just 7 letters.

Instead of writing about our excitement, you can watch it all unfold here. You can find me in the middle left hand side of the room. (Notice the use of 'nominal' quite a bit).

The excitement in the room was more than I was expecting. Once all the of the subsystems reported 'nominal' and we knew that we had recorded the expected amount of data there was rejoicing! And maybe a few tears. And lots of fist pumps. All of the people waiting semi-patiently in the Situation Room poured in. The rest of the 15 minute telemetry track is a bit of a blur.

When the track was over, it was decided that our Mission Operations team would walk over to the K-Center so we could be congratulated on stage. The website got some of the best pictures of us. We were hot, sweaty, and emotional. And it was awesome. (Full article link here.)

And best of all, there was a standing ovation for our Mission Operations Manager, Alice. Cause she is awesome.

It was an amazing day and I'm so glad that my family was there to share it with me. And I'm proud of all of the people that I work with; it took an entire team to make this happen. As more and more amazing pictures are coming down, we know we have only scratched the surface of what we will learn about this amazing planet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pluto Day!!!!! Part 1 (there's SO much to share)

By now  you *might* have heard about us on the news, seen us in the paper, on the interwebs, inundating facebook, twitter, and well everywhere. Perhaps someone out there is still using morse code to send the news.

"New Horizons Probe arrives at Pluto"
"-. . .-- / .... --- .-. .. --.. --- -. ... / .--. .-. --- -... . / .- .-. .-. .. ...- . ... / .- - / .--. .-.. ..- - ---"

(who knew the internet had a morse code translator?

I'd like to step you through my day on July 14th. It was absolutely amazing. And long. And something I will never forget.

I got here to APL at 5:45am so that I could make it to the science team meeting. I was in the room when the now famous "Pluto Heart" picture was revealed and to say there was a bit of excitement was an understatement. And after the first 'wow' there was discussion and gesturing and pointing and discoveries as they all took in what no one had ever seen before.

You can see a bunch of the scientist's pictures here and it's hard not to feel what they are feeling. To have worked so many years on this project. To have seen a world for the very first time. To know that they have years ahead of them to analyze the data. And to know that more is coming! Amazing.

After that fun we headed over to the K-center. A ton of people had shown up to celebrate the countdown to the actual Pluto closest approach (4.5 light time hours away). Since we didn't have telemetry (you know, because the spacecraft was a little busy) all of the Ops Team was able to join in the celebration.

Picture from We are hiding way in the back.
We left the stuffed animals in charge.
Then it was time to head back to the MOC because we had uplink tracks most of the day. Somewhere in between those and the super fun events to come that evening, I was contacted by the local paper for my county. I gave an interview and they sent a photographer down to take my picture out by the dish here at APL. Little did I know I would be the whole front page the next day. Here's a link if you care:

It was getting into the early evening and families and friends were starting to gather at the K-Center. Everyone was gathering to wait for the first telemetry back just before 9pm from the spacecraft to tell us that it survived the encounter and was holding all of the data we were so desperate for. I headed over to meet Matt and the kids to make sure they got their badges and such. The kids were proud to be wearing their Mission Operations t-shirts!

to be continued....................

Monday, July 13, 2015

One day left!

As of last night at 11:38 pm, the New Horizons spacecraft was exactly 1,000,000 miles from Pluto. So between that time and tomorrow morning at 7:30 am it will have closed that gap. That's fast people. Phew! Slow down already!

The most recent LORRI image from July 11th, amazing.

Also, Pluto and Charon together from a few days ago. :)

Also, here is a link to a great article from the Washington Post about our anomaly and the success of our recovery. This was in the print paper and I was named in one of the photos (make sure to click through the collection of pictures about APL).

Finally, here's an events update:

First the updated link for NASA television events,  you can also watch NASA TV online if you don't have the NASA channel.

But mostly, here's the short, fun version.

Tuesday morning at 7:50 am, the actual Pluto closest approach. We'll be watching a clock countdown to zero here at APL, and will be broadcast live. This will also have a NASA release of the most recent Pluto image, and I'm sure it's going to be amazing.

Tuesday night at 8:50 pm (full broadcast from 6:30 to 9 pm with interviews and stuff). First 'phone-home' from the spacecraft after the closest approach. We will have telemetry for about 15 minutes but no pictures. This will definitely have live-streaming of us in the MOC. Very exciting.

Wednesday some time: the closest-closest picture of Pluto will be released at some point. Looks like there will be a live media briefing at 3 pm.

On to Pluto!!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Safe!! ............and safe..........

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post about communications to a satellite 4.5 hours away by light to tell you that New Horizons decided to have her (him? it?) own fireworks on the 4th of July.

By design, the spacecraft detected a problem on it's prime computer and promptly switched over to the backup one and safed itself. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, but it still makes our heart skip a beat! And since it was only a few days before Encounter mode started and a recovery takes many days (because our Round Trip Light Time to get a command there and back is almost 9 hours!!), it was a BUSY weekend. Many of our people hardly slept from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning.

We are all happy to report that we are back on schedule and the spacecraft is NOW in Encounter Mode! We are starting to get science observations again, new pictures and scans, and the excitement is ramping up.


Who doesn't want to wear a New Horizons model for a hat?

And for now, here's the most recent LORRI picture, taken this morning.See the heart?

Sunday, June 28, 2015


Our star-studded status is ever building; from 90210's The Peach Pit to our destination Pluto, check out Ian Ziering talking for NASA:

But now you're asking, what can I do to be a part of this momentous event? Where can I watch the goings on? How can I see Sarah and the rest of the Flight Control team LIVE on television? Well, I'm here to give you the answers.

Our period of closest approach really spans from July 7th through the 16th. This is our Encounter Phase. I imagine there will be many beautiful pictures that will come out between now and then. But the actual closest approach to the planet happens on July 14th.

So, the wonderful people in our Education and Outreach department have put together a PlutoPalooza toolkit for everyone to access. Click here. On this link you will find informational videos, stickers you can print, posters, info graphics, you name it. There will be tons of these parties being held around the world; at museums, NASA centers, astronomy clubs, or even YOUR LIVING ROOM if you so choose.

The spacecraft will actually be flying past the planet at closest approach at about 7:30 am on the 14th. However, because it will be actually taking data (instead of talking to Earth) and the one-way light time (the time it talks the signal to reach us) is about 4.5 hours, we won't actually have our first contact again until about 8:30 pm that evening.

MUY IMPORTANTE: NASA will have a live telecast on their channel (check your local listings) that will include broadcasting from the auditorium here at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory with interviews and such AND live streaming from inside the Missions Ops Center (that's me!) from 6 to 9 pm on July 14th. This is the time to watch, and have a PlutoPalooza in your own living room. (For DirecTV users it's channel 346 but you must be an HD subscriber, so mom and dad you might need to go to someone's house). This content will also be available live on the NASA website, but I imagine you may have a harder time getting in on that.

That's all I have for now. Up next time, how do we talk to something that's 2.9 million miles away? Hint: with some very big equipment.

Monday, June 22, 2015

3 weeks, and one planet to go

Three weeks to go!!!! Check out the short video below, it's a quick glimpse at how far we've come since our first planetary trip (Venus) in 1962. 

And the pictures keep increasing in resolution, I should have more soon.

Here's one from June 21st of Pluto and Charon from the LORRI camera, it was the most recent one I saw on I know it still looks so fuzzy but you just can't believe how exciting this is given the 4 or 5 pixel pictures we had for so long.

And finally, if you have time please check out this video called "The Year of Pluto". It's an hour long so you need some time but it talks about all aspects of the mission. If you want to see me in particular, I'm at 26:00, 27:10, 28:50 and minutes 40 to 43-ish (not that I was taking notes). Apparently though I do all kind of engineering at my job, I'm only good on camera for taking care of our hibernation bear and eating cake. Famous!

Up on the next blog, information on how YOU can participate in closest approach. It involves something called a "Plutopalooza".  Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

6 weeks to go!!

New Horizons is screaming along towards Pluto and Charon, we have only 8 6!! weeks until the encounter (apparently I started this post 2 weeks ago, sigh). I find myself getting more and more excited; there's nothing like seeing articles about your day to day work on CNN or having a slot on your calendar as a reminder that the New York Times will be coming by for an interview (and don't do anything stupid or infamous while they watch you through the glass).

As an example of what our little spacecraft is doing, here's some pictures of Pluto and it's moons. You can see how the scientists process the images coming down from New Horizons; for the first time we are seeing the tiniest moons of Pluto. You can read the article here.

We also were able to see that *maybe* Pluto has ice caps from this video.

In other space news close to me, MESSENGER finally gave up the ghost and crashed into the planet Mercury, having run out of fuel and the will to fight gravity. I was in the Ops Center for the final transmission with gobs of others and it was really nifty. See the pictures below, on the left is the first picture it took of the Mercury surface after achieving orbit, and then it's final picture before impact on the right. MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury and was able to full map the planet, seeing parts unknown to human eyes. You can visit for more info and cool pictures.

More to come, including my trip out to California to visit the big 70-m antenna!!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Slowing Down in the midst of a Speed Up

Life is moving so fast, and sometimes I want it to go faster, and then sometimes I am desperate for it to slow down. Because MommyShorts is so much more eloquent than I, please click here to see what I mean.

One of the things I cherish right now is that Evan gets off the bus and we have about an hour together before we get Zoey from preschool. Lest you think I should pick her up right then, she *loves* the afternoon at her preschool and the time on the playground with her friends and doesn't want me to come early. Also, we pay good money for that playground time. :)

But for Evan and I, it's relaxing. He tells me about his day (a little begrudgingly but isn't that how it works?). Sometimes he plays with a friend down the street, but usually it's just us. And I know that won't last for long so I enjoy it.

Moving on to what's happening!!

On having family too far away:

Evan says "I miss that little girl".

"What little girl?"


Later he mentions that he only has cousins that live far away. Sigh

On how Spring is drunk:

Today is the first day of spring, and this is how we greeted it. Clearly Zoey is pulling out her gangsta face again; this is a new phenomena with her. Usually it is accompanied with crossed arms as well.

This week in the two months since I last blogged in Space:

Another spacecraft here at my work successfully delayed it's dramatic splat onto the surface of Mercury for a little while longer. MESSENGER celebrated 4 years in orbit and is currently preparing to mouse fart out the gas it has left to keep it afloat until late April.

But most excitedly, New Horizons is almost there! As of now, the spacecraft is closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun (for more info click here). We recently used our long-range camera to get pictures of Pluto and it's largest moon Charon. Though it doesn't look like much it was really exciting to actually be able to see it!

Later, LORRI also captured these images of two of Pluto's other moons, Nix and Hydra (discovered through Hubble images in 2005):

That's all for now, only a few months to go!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A New Year and New Destinations!

It's here! It's 2015! The year we arrive at Pluto! The year I finish my Master's Degree! The year Zoey turns 4 and Evan turns 7!! The year we are hoping to move into a bigger house!

I feel like I need to take a big deep breath. And a nap. (You know, to get ready for my next midnight shift coming up!) Anyone know of a good cleaning service? Cause we are going to need some help...........

As of today, we are six months from encounter. I can't believe it's this close.

Video cameras were present when we work up from our last hibernation back in December, and you can see yours truly in this video (New Horizons starts at the 1:35ish mark):

In other news, our family is doing great. Evan has finished his first half of Kindergarten and loves it. He has made many new friends and is one of the better behaved kids in his class (?!?!). Zoey is in her first year of preschool; her favorite job is when she gets to be the flag girl (or the weather girl, or calendar, heck she loves all the jobs).

I'm going to try to keep up with weekly recaps this year, with more frequency as we get closer to the Pluto Encounter. Should be fun!

So Happy New Year from our crazy family to yours!