Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: Mangala Sharma

A Day of Celebration and Inspiration

August 16, 2012 by Mangala Sharma
A young boy watches himself on the Webb Telescope booth’s infrared camera at the Intrepid Museum’s Space Fest.

A young boy watches himself on the Webb Telescope booth’s infrared camera at the Intrepid Museum’s Space Fest.

Imagine flying in an airship that weighed some 150,000 pounds, could land like an airplane but needed a rocket to launch, and could fly both in and beyond Earth’s atmosphere. You’d belong to a select group of only 355 individuals who have ever flown on such a vehicle: NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis — between 1981 and 2011, these five Space Shuttles ferried the 355 astronauts and a huge number of satellites into low-Earth orbit. These shuttles orbited the Earth at altitudes of just a few hundred miles, typically; think Florida or Colorado standing up vertically. But they went round and round more than 21,000 times in total, racking up more than half a billion miles — the distance between the Sun and Jupiter. Thanks to the shuttle, we’ve built the International Space Station, seen astronauts perform feats of daring and delicateness in free fall, and launched and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another (actually, the first) shuttle, Enterprise, never flew in space but was the prototype used to prove that the vehicle could glide and land successfully, and to test how well the shuttle carrier aircraft worked in concert.

The shuttle era is now in the past; NASA is focusing on newer and more advanced vehicles to launch scientific satellites and carry humans to nearby asteroids and Mars. The retired shuttles are (or will be) on permanent public display at a variety of locations nationwide: Discovery at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near the US capital, Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Now, the American public and visitors to these cities can get up close and personal with the orbiters, and experience something of their remarkable history.

Enterprise had been on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and was transported to New York City in early summer 2012. The Intrepid Museum crafted a protective pavilion on its flight deck for this pioneering spacecraft, and plans to build a more permanent exhibit hall for it. It is truly moving to behold one incredible machine resting atop another, in the company of dozens of naval aircraft, all carrying historic legacies, and with the New York skyline as their backdrop.

To celebrate the shuttle pavilion’s opening to the public, the Intrepid Museum held a “space fest” between July 19 and July 22, 2012. And NASA was there to join the celebration. Dozens of exhibit booths showcased NASA’s aeronautics, space exploration and science missions and programs. There were models of the Mars mission Curiosity (that landed on the red planet just last week!), solar telescopes to safely view our nearest and dearest star, space suits in which people posed for pictures, and other cool exhibits. And thousands of museum visitors mobbed these exhibits, staying to chat excitedly about science and space exploration.

Several of my colleagues from STScI and NASA Goddard staffed the James Webb Space Telescope booth. We had a 1:20 scale model of the telescope. We showed videos of its mirrors and instruments being built, explained how the solar panels would unfold in space, and discussed the cool science to be done by Webb. Since Webb is an infrared (IR) telescope, we had set up a commercial IR camera and large display, so that visitors could see themselves in this “invisible light.”

All warm, dense bodies emit electromagnetic radiation. The temperature of the body determines the color or, equivalently, the wavelength of the radiation. Humans and other land animals emit IR radiation, not the visible light that our eyes can see. IR light has wavelengths that are too long for our eyes to detect, but specialized IR cameras or some regular digital cameras equipped with long-wavelength-sensitive CCDs can capture our thermal emission and show us our “temperature map” in false color.

Our IR camera at the Space Fest was a big hit. Visitors walking by stopped in their tracks to see familiar yet strangely colored versions of themselves on the monitor. They exclaimed about actually seeing — rather than feeling — how cold their noses or hands were in contrast to the tops of their heads. They rubbed their hands and saw the resulting warmth show up as a brighter glow on the IR camera. We offered them fun activities to try: hold an ice cube and see how that changed what their hands looked like; blow-dry their hair and make it seem like it was aflame. Mothers brought their kids, and kids dragged their parents, to “see” themselves in a new light. Visitor who spoke no English exchanged delighted grins and connected with us without needing words. And all this despite the overcast skies and cold rain that threatened to dampen the first two days of the Space Fest.

Outreach events like this take a lot of time and effort to organize. It’s all made worthwhile by the excitement people find in connecting with each other and with the wonders of the universe through the incredible journey of exploration that is science.

Sharing Astronomy With All

June 14, 2012 by Mangala Sharma

Saturn's ringsThere’s so much about our cosmos that engages our sense of wonder and awe. Through astronomy, humans hunt for answers to some of the most fundamental questions that tease our curiosity and intelligence.

Practically everyone around the world participates, to varying degrees, in astronomy. We may be occasional observers, led by our natural fascination with the sky, aware of how the Moon waxes and wanes, or we may gasp over the momentary splendor of a “shooting star.” We may follow astronomy news daily or pore over gorgeous astronomical images on websites such as HubbleSite. Some of us contribute our computer’s idle CPU cycles to cool projects like SETI@Home, searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life by analyzing cosmic radio signals. Hundreds of thousands of people are amateur astronomers or citizen scientists, observing the skies themselves or delving into the thicket of archival astronomy data. And a handful of us are professional astronomers, a niche market of only about 15,000 worldwide.

I love the fact that, at any point in time, somewhere on (or just above!) the Earth, humans are accessing astronomical experiences and discoveries. Access to such data or discoveries doesn’t happen by magic, though. It takes the creative and dedicated efforts of a large community of professionals or volunteers. Scientists and engineers working on astronomical archives and data centers such as the Space Telescope Science Institute’s (STScI) Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) make their collections available to not only professional astronomers, but also citizen scientists and anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world. There are thousands of college professors, teachers and education/outreach professionals preparing future generations of scientists and a science-literate public all over the globe. Amateur astronomers are wonderful ambassadors, connecting people to the wide cosmos through a telescope’s eyepiece.

Personally, I have benefited from every such effort, and strive to return the favor. Among my favorite memories from my days as a student in India is participating in, and then helping run, a telescope-making workshop for high school students: in barely 10 days, we made concave mirrors by grinding and polishing 6- or 8-inch glass blanks by hand, and used plastic tubes and store-bought eyepieces to rig decent reflecting telescopes. You can imagine our pleasure at seeing Saturn and distant nebulae through a ‘scope we’d built ourselves – everything looked gorgeous, even in poor seeing conditions or through patchy clouds!

For some years now, with other professional and amateur astronomers, I’ve taken small solar telescopes (with safe solar filters) to neighborhood farmer’s markets. It’s delightful to hear people exclaim as they see sunspots or solar flares, and experience the complexity and beauty of our own star.

Currently, I work at STScI’s Office of Public Outreach, being paid to do what I love – sharing astronomy. The tradition of sharing astronomy with all easily goes back to the Renaissance. Galileo, who first turned a spyglass skyward, took his handmade telescopes to the streets and gave the common man a chance to discover the craters of the Moon and the phases of Venus.  In 2009, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s pioneering work as the “International Year of Astronomy” (IYA). The UN-declared IYA encouraged people across the globe to get close and personal with astronomy, discover the universe for themselves, and gain a deeper appreciation of astronomy’s place in human culture. And millions of people all over the world did. Perhaps some inspired students will go on to become scientists themselves.

Which brings us to the question: why do we work to make astronomy available to all? For one thing, it’s the taxpayers that provide the majority of funding for professional astronomy. It makes sense to share with them the scientific returns on their investment, and garner their continued support for science. Science is more and more relevant to everyday life, and it’s in our best interests to ensure that people bring well-informed perspectives to policy decisions that affect scientific pursuits. Just as importantly, it’s a culture and viewpoint thing. “One sky connects us all!” goes the tag line for the American Astronomical Society. Can’t argue with that.