It’s Good To Be A Space Cadet

For those of you who aren’t obsessed with following every available bit of news about space exploration, both robotic and crewed –

Well, first of all, what in the hell is wrong with you?

Somewhat more politely, let me point out to you what a great couple of weeks we’re in the middle of here for folks who are obsessed with following every available bit of news about space exploration. (It’s cool, you can join us!)

As I write this, the MAVEN team is having their post-orbital insertion news conference, celebrating a successful thirty-three minute long rocket firing to slow MAVEN down enough to drop into Mars orbit. This all happened two or three hours ago after a launch on November 18, 2013. The MAVEN science team will now be starting to check out the spacecraft and prepare it for a year (or more!) of science looking at the Martian atmosphere, attempting to figure out how it evolved from a dense, warm, moist atmosphere millions of years ago to the thin, cold, dry atmosphere we find today.

On Thursday, the 25th, the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan mission will be trying to do the same thing MAVEN did tonight. Mangalyaan launched on November 5, 2013 and is India’s first attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. The instruments on Mangalyaan, along with the instruments on MAVEN, along with NASA’s Mars Odyssey (orbiting since 2001), ESA’s Mars Express (orbiting since 2003), and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (orbiting since 2005), should all combine to start giving us an even better view of Mars from orbit, as well as information about the Martian atmosphere and environment.

Of course, on the surface of Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is now in the 3,892nd day (not a typo) of its ninety day mission, and NASA’s Curiosity rover is now in the 776th day of its ninety day mission. There was an announcement this week that Curiosity has now reached the base of Mount Sharp in Gail Crater after over a year of driving. Let the mountain climbing on Mars (and the über spectacular science) begin!

To make things even more interesting, on October 19th, just four weeks from now, Comet Siding Spring will pass just 82,000 miles from Mars. It will take several hours for the comet’s closest approach to occur, a time during which all of the orbiting spacecraft could be vulnerable to being hit by all kinds of ice and dust spraying off of the comet’s nucleus. All of the orbiting spacecraft will be maneuvered as best we can to have them on the opposite side of the planet during closest approach, letting Mars be a shield of sorts, but it could still be risky. The two surface rovers will be fine and should give us some unbelievably spectacular pictures. The Martian atmosphere, thin as it is, will shield them from any danger — as long as the comet doesn’t actually hit Mars, which is listed as “unlikely” on the NASA site.

Further out, Juno’s on the way to orbit Jupiter and will be there in July, 2016. That whole spectacle of waiting to see if the rocket fired and the spacecraft is successfully in orbit will be played out again then, just with a bigger planett, a bigger budget, and a bigger spacecraft.

Even further out, New Horizons is just less than a year away from its flyby of Pluto. It will be our first visit to Pluto, whether it’s a planet or not (it is) and should be amazing. After that, New Horizons should last for years and there’s a search on already to see if there are any other Kuiper Belt objects that might be close enough to its path to get a good look at.

Meanwhile, Cassini continues to orbit Saturn (over ten years now!) and makes yet another close flyby of Titan this week. Cassini’s extended extended mission is scheduled for another two years, including some riskier moves (now that it’s sent back a ton of pictures and data already) including passes through the gaps between Saturn’s rings. Not only will the pictures be unbelievable, but we’ll find out empirically if those gaps are actually empty of orbiting material. If Cassini all of a sudden goes quiet…

On the crewed side, NASA announced this last week that it’s going ahead with funding for both SpaceX’s Dragon2 crewed capsule and the Boeing CTS-100 crewed capsule. With luck, we’ll be launching American astronauts to the ISS from American soil in less than three years, with multiple systems from multiple vendors to get the job done. Sierra Nevada is currently out of the NASA-funded process, but says they will continue independently to develop their Dream Chaser spacecraft, and the NASA Commercial Crew program allows them to jump back into the game and get contracts to carry astronauts on missions if they’ve got a system to do so.

Of course, as a side note, if SpaceX and/or Boeing and/or Sierra Nevada have working crewed vehicles and NASA only wants them to launch astronauts three or four times a year, there will be people like Bigelow Aerospace who have been waiting for years to launch their own, private space station, to be used both as a research facility and as a tourist destination. Needless to say, I would look on that as a very good thing.

With the current ISS setup and hardware, SpaceX last night successfully launched a Falcon 9 with the CRS-4 Dragon mission. The Dragon should dock at ISS on Tuesday.

The ISS Expedition 39/40 crew came down from the station and landed in Russia on September 11th. Their replacements, the Expedition 41/42 crew, is scheduled to launch from Russia on Thursday, September 25th.

Finally, earlier this week NASA rolled out its first flight-ready Orion spacecraft, moving it to the mating facility where it will be attached to the rocket for its first (uncrewed) flight test in December.

So in summary:

  • Yesterday — Dragon CRS-4 launched
  • Tonight — MAVEN successful Mars orbit insertion
  • Tues, 23rd — Dragon CRS-4 arrives at ISS
  • Thurs, 25th — Expedition 41/42 crew launches
  • Thurs, 25th — ISRO’s Mangalyaan arrives at Mars

as well as:

  • Opportunity — on Mars, apparently indestructible
  • Curiosity — on Mars, climbing Mt. Sharp
  • Cassini — at Saturn, buzzing Titan this week
  • Juno — headed to Jupiter
  • New Horizons — headed to Pluto

As I said, it’s a great couple of weeks to be a space cadet!

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Filed under Astronomy, Space

Kyoto (Part Nine)

To Recap: In May, 2012 I went to Asia on the “Three-Countries-Three-Weeks-Three-Kids” tour. The first stop on this once-in-a-lifetime trip was Shanghai, followed by several days in Seoul. Now I was footloose and fancy-free (i.e., lost a lot) in Kyoto, Japan. I found one of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever seen and I’m going to give you the final sets of pictures from that particular location in Kyoto.

After seeing the Fushimi Inari temples, the thousands of vermilion torii gates, the occasional shrine on a side path, warning about wild monkeys, finding every inch of space used, I finally found the top of the mountain.


Approaching the bottom of the mountain off to one side from the main temples and the point where I had started up the mountain, there was one final long stretch of vermilion torii gates.

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One last set of shrines, along with the fox icons wearing vermilion yodarekake. However, the end was near, at least as far as Fushimi Inari goes, since I could see houses just a few yards ahead. There’s no extra space wasted on anything, remember?

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Then, as the path led out to the street next to what seemed to be nothing other than normal houses on either side, there were these very non-Inari Okami-like statues and shrines. To my semi-educated eye (at least as far as Eastern religions go) these seem to have elements of Buddhism and Hinduism in them.

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At the same time, the pose of the large statue and the baby being held all gave it an odd “Virgin Mary” look that I didn’t understand. To see it at the exit to the Inari temple site was even more odd, like it had been put there deliberately to expose visitors to an alternative theology.

That’s just my ignorant American’s gut-feeling view — if anyone actually knows what it is and why it happens to be here, just feet from the exit of the Inari shrine, I would love to be educated.

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I worked my way back along a residential street to the main entrance to Fushimi Inari. I left through the main gate that I had missed coming in. (I had been just a bit lost, if you recall.) One last giant vermilion torii gate, then there were houses, mini-markets, and the (correct) train station to get me back to Kyoto Station.

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Kyoto Station is huge, a hub of local, regional, and national rail lines. Just outside of the main doors is this beautiful and monstrous lattice roof and unique architecture.

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Directly across the street is the Kyoto Tower, which I had only seen at night when I came in the previous evening. The area around the station and tower is a very colorful, vibrant, busy section of the city, which I found quite enjoyable. I prowled around at all hours for the couple of days I was there, shopping, eating, and exploring.

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Going out to dinner with my daughter that evening, we went past the Kyoto City Hall, which is where the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and signed in 1997.

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Heading toward our restaurant, just down the block we found a construction site. I found these barriers so much more interesting, whimsical, and entertaining than the ugly and routine sawhorses, orange plastic fencing, and yellow hazard tape that seem to be the norm in the US.

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Filed under Photography, Religion, Travel

Oot & Aboot Across SoCal

It’s been a very long and very busy day helping a friend of a friend of a friend and there have been many exciting adventures. I’m sure I’ll share some of them that can be safely shared, but on another day.

For now, I wonder why people line up for hours and hours in malls to get new phones:

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Aren’t there ways to order one online a week or so in advance and just have it delivered to your door today? What do you mean, “That doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to?” Yet another story for yet another day.

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In our journeys we passed through Palos Verdes, which has some pretty spectacular views. Yeah, (on a clear day) you can see the Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, downtown, Century City, LAX, Santa Monica, Malibu, and probably that old Nike base observation site in the hills over Encino. (Binoculars or a small telescope might help, but you can see them!)

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Filed under Computers, Los Angeles, Photography

Flash Fiction: Twinkle (Act Two)

Late last year we did something similar to the current ongoing Flash Fiction Challenge. Then, we spent five weeks (here, here, here, here, and here) writing 200 words each week. Each week we used the previous work of someone or some group to build on. It was pretty fun.

This time we were supposed to write 500 words as the first half of a 1,000 word story, but as expected, Grand Exulted Potentate Supreme Chuck changed the rules on us. Turns out our 500 words are only the first third (at least, until the rules change again) of a story, so our task is now to pick someone else’s first 500 words and add the “middle” 500 words of our own. Supposedly this means that next week we will all pick some other 1,000 words created by two other authors and finish it. Or at least, add 500 more words. You get the drift.

My first 500 words from last week was picked up by Jemima Pett and her continuation of my story can be found here. I really liked what she did and there are many suitably creepy things for us to figure out on our own.

The first 500 words that I picked is “Twinkle” from Aspen Gainer — her original post and website can be found here. I wanted to try to keep the tone of Aspen’s first half, while switching to Tomas’ point of view, and with luck, leaving it open-ended enough so that someone will tell us how it ends (or at least where it goes from here) next week. I hope you enjoy it.


Act One (by Aspen Gainer)

“I’d like to go to space,” Katarina told her friend Tomas, tentative but confident. She turned the phrase over in her mind, testing the shape of the words in her mouth.

People laughed at her when she talked about going, but it felt more and more right each time. Even Tomas doubted her, writing it off as one of ‘Kat’s weird, wishy-washy ideas’ that would never pan out.

To be honest, Katarina even laughed at herself. Every time she thought about space travel as a real thing–not just a Heinlein-Asimov-Bradbury fuelled frenzy of excitement–after the awed giggles bubbled up through her tight chest and out of her upturned lips, she would shake her head just like her friends and tell herself why she’d never go.

“You’re too fat,” she’d say to the pink, blobby girl who lived in the mirror. She envisioned her reflection trying to squeeze into a spacesuit, coaxing and yanking an imaginary helmet over her chubby cheeks in the idle hope those cheeks wouldn’t trip up this one small step for Kat-kind.

“You’re too stupid,” she’d trace in the dust on her dresser while getting ready for bed. Even at night when she dreamed it was about her unsuitability for space travel. She’d find herself in a classroom, deep in a maze somewhere in NASA, and the man at the whiteboard would tell her she could fly whenever she wanted…after she solved the math problem on the page in front of her. Lost in space even in her dream, she doodled and doodled until the hand was just a skeleton and the paper had long since disintegrated.

Katarina knew she’d never go. She was nothing, no one, completely unworthy of these dreams. She was the night shift girl, the alcoholic’s daughter, not the Bondar-Lightyear-infinity-and-beyond type. Katarina Yosefa was tied irreparably to the gravid Earth, forever unable to ascend. She was not made of the right, light stuff.

But her heart was there anyway, buoyant beyond all sagacity, beyond the sky, beyond atmosphere and into the deep, vast nothingness–the emptiness that should have terrified her but reassured her instead.
Up there in the vast black space, she left here behind, left her behind. No heavy, cold blue-water world with all of its fluid, flexing pain. Up there she could lose herself in the searing-hot sun and empty darkness. She could drift in nothingness, alone and apart from everything she had ever known about life, about humanity, about feeling.

In space, there was nothing, her few friends told her, but for Katarina there was everything. Anything. The black, vast emptiness was potential, creation; she could build her own world and a life that came from within her.

Tomas, who never laughed at her, rang her doorbell one night for coffee. He hadn’t heard from her in more than a week, and while this was not unusual, it suddenly made him uneasy. There was no answer so he went in. The empty house chilled his skin.

Act Two (by Paul Willett)

The house was overflowing with an oppressive silence as Tomas crept through the downstairs rooms. Katarina had never allowed him to come in and had never said why. Tomas had been curious, but had always respected her wishes. Trespassing now felt like a betrayal.

Everything seemed to be in place and in order, but decorated from a period half a lifetime past. The main room was arranged around a low table serving as an altar, holding only a single, framed picture of a young woman. She stood next to a small airplane, one arm draped across the propeller, the other on her hip. Her head was thrown back with laughter and her expression was one of undiluted triumph.

On the couch and floor were scattered a multitude of empty liquor bottles. Tomas carefully picked his way around them in the gloom.

Creeping up the stairs, Tomas could see four doors leading off from the landing. The one directly in front of him led to a bathroom, dominated by a claw-foot bathtub. Mismatched towels lay in a pile under the freestanding sink.

Testing the door on the far left, Tomas found it locked. The middle door was ajar and swung open easily at his touch.

Inside, the dim light showed little, but the smell was revolting. As Tomas’ eyes adjusted he could see chaos, garbage and litter mixed with weeks’ worth of discarded clothing. The outline of someone was sprawled across the bed, far too large to be Katarina.

Had Kat’s father finally drunk himself into a grave he had pursued for years? Tomas was seized by fear and indecision, trying to think of what he should do and how he could explain his presence here. When the body suddenly convulsed with a snore and collapsed back into unconsciousness, Tomas thought his heart would burst.

Backing out, Tomas turned to the final door. This must be Katarina’s room. It was clean but cluttered, the dresser top covered in books about Mars and space travel and galaxies. The window was open, thin curtains fluttering with the breeze. Scraps of paper covered the bed, pages filled with doodles of alien landscapes and strangely beautiful ships of the night. The ceiling was covered with phosphorescent stars and moons only faintly glowing a pale and sickly shade of green, their energy from today’s sunlight nearly spent.

“Katarina?” he softly called. There was no answer, but a light behind him caught his eye. He spun, but saw nothing.

“Katarina?” he called again, a touch louder. Again, no sound could be heard but for the rustling curtains, but this time Tomas saw a short, faint increase in the light from the dim stars on the ceiling, as gentle as a sigh.

“Katarina? Where are you?” Tomas asked the emptiness more urgently. “Talk to me, I’m worried about you. What’s going on? Kat?” With each invocation of her name, a wave of light rippled across the plastic constellations, each swell of photons successively brighter.


Filed under Science Fiction, Writing


Crepuscular is a $5 word that describes rays of sunshine that appear when the sun shines through gaps in the clouds and the rays stand out against a background of darker clouds. They’re also known as “sun rays” or “Jacob’s Ladder.” I prefer the big word, although I probably can’t pronounce it without exposing myself as a poser.

Regardless, with moisture being sucked up into California, Arizona, and New Mexico from the remnants of Hurricane Odile, last night was a good night for seeing them, even if you can’t pronounce it.

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Despite that big, threatening cloud directly overhead, no, we never got a drop of rain, no matter how desperately we need it. Just a pretty sunset, clouds, shadows, and crepuscular rays.

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If the local coyote is to be “Wiley,” and the local raccoons are “Rocky” and “Raquel,” then this little guy must be “Harvey.” For a couple of different reasons.

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First of all, given the popularity of the play and the movie, “Harvey” is a natural  choice. I know, “Bugs” might be more popular, but this guy didn’t have a “Bugs” attitude. He was very quiet, calm, and sedate, much more like, “Good evening, Mr. Dowd…Ed Hickey was a little spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?”

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Secondly, while I’m a huge fan of Bugs Bunny (although Marvin Martian is my spirit guide), “Harvey” was our high school senior play, the only acting I ever did (it was a blast!) so it will always have a soft spot in my heart.

Finally, and most importantly, it seemed that I was the only one who could see him. I let Jessie out into the yard knowing that the rabbit was there and Jessie showed absolutely no sign of knowing the rabbit was there. She was walking back in forth less than ten feet away and she didn’t smell the rabbit, look at it, perk up her ears, bark, chase it halfway down the block or out into traffic, all of which are her usual behavior when a rabbit dares to enter her yard.

I took Jessie back inside because I saw someone coming down the block with a pit bull on a lead, but I stopped to watch when they got by our house. The rabbit was still sitting there, but the guy didn’t notice it, nor did the young, healthy, massive, pit bull. Less than ten feet away. Nothing.

I grabbed the camera and started walking out, taking pictures as I went, figuring the rabbit would bolt at any second. Nope, I got to within about five feet. It just sat there and blinked.

I was late to get to the hanger, so I left it, still sitting there, wondering if maybe I should have brought Ed Hickey along.

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Filed under Castle Of The Willetts, Critters, Dogs, Photography

Scene Of The Kill

It’s one of those “circle of life” things. (Insert “Lion King” song here.) CSI-SFV, critter division.


From the color and size of the feathers, I’m guessing it was one of the many mourning doves that live here. Or I guess it could be a mockingbird. The sparrows are more brown and small, and the crows are much bigger and black. Yep, mourning dove or mocking bird. Probably mourning dove.

There wasn’t any blood or other icky signs about, which makes me think it might be one of our local hawks that made the kill, not one of our local cats. A dive, a strike, feathers flying everywhere, then the hawk takes its trophy back to the next or to a safe perch where it’s not going to be stolen.

Jessie thought the scene of the kill was interesting. She did a thorough job of sniffing everywhere nearby. Her analysis of the DNA and olfactory evidence has yet to be written up. (She’s lousy with paperwork!)

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Filed under Critters, Photography