‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Earth+Space: Other than the attractive but questionable title (which sometimes wreaks havoc on precise search engine searches), I love this book. I mean, you’ve got space. You’ve got photography. And I’m pretty sure there are very few people out there who do astrophotography better than NASA. I mean, how many space telescopes do you have?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

With a preface from Bill Nye (the Science Guy, don’tcha know), Earth+Space begins with several photos of Earth from space, including a beautiful nighttime shot. Then it quickly turns its cameras in the other direction, pointing us toward other planets and moons in the solar system, and then out to galaxies, comets, nebulae, brown dwarfs, various other space phenomena, and, one of my favorite things to say, globular clusters. As you move through the book, you get farther and farther away from Earth. Though the distance increases, the beauty does not decrease. NASA’s technology is second to none, and can get clear, detailed, intricate photos of objects far, far away. It also takes us back in time, as we see far away objects as they were many, many years ago.

Continue reading ‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Fund This! Crafteeo, iBesties, Maxwell’s Soaps, and ReBoot the Suit!

I don’t know about yours, but my summer is going faster than New Horizons past Pluto. Speaking of space things, don’t you want to see Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit conserved and displayed? How about girls as CEOs and tech leaders? Maybe you feel deeply about helping out the homeless, even in one small way? Or are you feeling feisty and need your own hackable suit of armor? Whatever your passion—you can fund it!

Happy Funding!

Photo credit: S. Cook

Crafteeo Pulsar Armor and Helmet

The photo above is the new product from Crafteeo, a full armor set with programmable lighting. I received the armor fully assembled, so I did not get to build the kit. However, I did get to play with the programming. Creating different lighting options was very easy, since it uses the Arduino platform, which our family is very familiar with. If your family is not, it is a fairly quick learning curve. Also, Arduino is open source, which makes this project highly hackable. My 10-year-old son was very excited and immediately put it on, but wished there was a sword to go with it. Fortunately, Crafteeo had also sent me a broadsword kit (available on their website), so we could get a sense of how hard these were to build.

Photo credit S. Cook

Generally, the kits are well put together and the pieces are easily identifiable. Crafteeo has directions on their website, as well as video tutorials. These worked great for me as a visual learner, but my son wished they were also narrating the steps. It definitely took both of us to make the sword. My son is a great builder, but some of the sections required my help and there were some lengthy drying times that had me helping him stay focused and patient. The benefit to this was family engagement. It was something we did together, learned together. It was also a product that he and his sister enjoyed using. My son decided to personalize his sword with the crest of the knight he was named after, which is another way you can hack the kits. I also ended up adding a couple layers of shellac to everything because I was concerned that our family’s energetic use of the armor and sword would quickly deteriorate them. Ultimately, I would love to see Crafteeo make custom kits where kids can choose their own combination of parts for even more control over their design. But for now, you can support this growing company with their new Kickstarter!

Completed broadsword and scabbard. Photo credit S. Cook.

GeekMom received Crafteeo’s Pulsar Armor Kit and Broadsword Kit for review purposes.

Photo courtesy of iBesties.


Another campaign targeted towards girls, but this time it focuses on entrepreneurship and tech leadership. At the center of this product line is a book about six friends who start a friendship blog that goes viral. Each of them has a special skill that they must hone for their collaboration and success. Once again, the product is clever and I like the fresh point of view. Very modern and stylish, but not inappropriate for their targeted audience of 6-11 year olds. My daughter went nuts over these. She immediately identified which role she would play and which friends she thinks would fill the other roles. And now she knows what a mogul is. The campaign is ending in 2 days! Hurry!

Photo courtesy of Maxwell’s Soaps.

Maxwell’s Soaps

This campaign doesn’t need me to sell it. A combat veteran turned entrepreneur who makes healthy natural soaps wants to raise money to supply a mobile homeless hygiene bus with enough soap for six months. Because natural soap is good for people, good for the environment, good for dignity and self worth.

From the Reboot the Suit campaign: Profile of astronaut Alan Shepard in his silver pressure suit with the helmet visor closed as he prepares for his upcoming Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) launch. Photo credit: NASA.

Reboot the Suit

Honestly, it never occurred to me that Neil Armstrong’s space suit—the one he walked on the Moon in—was not conserved and appropriately documented. I mean, funding, I get it. But how cool and necessary it is to make sure that this historically important artifact gets the preservation it deserves, and if it does, we get to enjoy it with our very own eyes. This campaign provoked a stirring of many GeekMom hearts, let me tell you. We are all behind Rebooting the Suit!

Deep Water Interests

Blue Abyss
Image: Blue Abyss Facebook page

As a child we would go swimming at our local public pool. It’s an indoor pool in my hometown of Walsall, and was the biggest pool I had ever seen. For some reason there were plastic windows part way down underneath the water. I would swim down to see them, and my shadow looming over them would make it appear as though some creature of the deep was passing by. It was tranquil underneath that water, and I loved being there.

I have always had an obsession with water, a love of marine life, a borderline obsession with sharks, and so I read with interest this week that the University of Essex in England, in conjunction with Blue Abyss, is planning the construction of the world’s deepest swimming pool to conduct research into spaceflight and human endurance. At 164 ft, it would be deeper than NASA’s training pool in Houston, by 124 feet, and they say things are bigger in Texas? Currently the deepest pool is in Montegretto Terme, Italy, but it too would be in the shadows of this planned pool, by 23 feet.

109245The project is being crowdfunded, and personally I’m tempted by the Hollywood star at the bottom of the 50m shaft. You can keep track of the project and its crowdfunding efforts on their Facebook page.

So, beyond my obsession with the water, why the interest in this project?

One of my favorite quotes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing sums up how I feel about most projects of this nature, why I support them, and why I like my tax dollars to go to them when possible.

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” – Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) on NASA’s trip to Mars.

Many people think that we should be exploring our oceans more. That there is much of our own world still left to discover, let alone that beyond the stars. For me, this project seems to have it all. The creation of an environment that would help us study our own bodies, and find better ways of moving in deep space and in deep water. A deep water pool may not be what’s next in terms of exploration, but it’s certainly a step towards further exploration, whether we choose to sink to new depths or soar to new heights.

Join This NASA Summer Online Mentoring Program to Learn About Real Life STEM

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

For the last three years, the NASA Girls and Boys has been connecting middle school students with NASA employees for a 5-week online summer program in all things STEM. This summer, they are doing it again and the time to apply is now! This incredible opportunity is open to any students in grades 5 through 8 or home school equivalent; the only caveat is that the child must be a U.S. citizen.

Each week touches on a different subject—I bet you can guess what they are!—science, technology, engineering, math, and STEM in real life. The student will have a choice of different projects to explore each week’s topic.

If you’re interested in signing up your child, the deadline is June 28th. Places are limited and will be filled randomly from the list of applicants. All you need for the application is your name, email address, and state of residency.

I had the chance to chat with a very special family who participated last year. Kim Haverkos, a professor in the Education Department at Thomas More College who specializes in STEM Education, applied both of her kids to the program and both were selected during the lottery. This was the only family to have two kids in the program, so they had twice the stories to share with GeekMom about NASA Girls and Boys! Gabe is now going into 9th grade and Abby into 7th, and as you can read below, they learned a lot from the experience—and had fun too.

GeekMom: What did you do during the program?

Gabe: I learned a lot about the calculations that go into launching a spaceship and we also talked about my mentor’s experiences with NASA.

Abby: I Skyped in with my mentor and we did experiments together. Sometimes the video wouldn’t work, but we always got the experiments to work.

Kim: Both kids enjoyed the experiences that we were able to do with the mentors through Skype. I loved the Skype aspect. We were on vacation for both of their first meetings with their mentors and used Skype to our advantage for those meetings. As an educator, I was excited to see the hands on/creative/engineering aspects built into the program. I know there are limitations on the mentors (we can’t have them all the time!), but would love to see the program expand so that the kids could continue to connect with the mentors as they got older.

GeekMom: Can you tell me about your mentor?

Gabe: He was a NASA engineer that lived in South Carolina. His specialty was the pod that releases off the spacecraft after it enters space.

Abby: She lived in Alabama and was getting married soon. She helped figure out ways to fix things or think about things when they went wrong and they got stuck. She sent me a box of things from NASA after the program—I have a poster of the stars on my wall.

Kim: Both mentors were great. They worked hard to tap into the kids’ interests and tie those interests into what the mentors did at work. I appreciated the mentors giving time in the evenings—their precious time!—to engage the upcoming generation of students in STEM.

GeekMom: How did it feel to talk with someone from NASA?

Abby: I liked it. But I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do at first, but it was fun and my mentor knew a lot and had lots of stories to tell.

What was the most memorable thing your mentor told you?

Gabe: The most memorable thing he told me was that if I work hard, I can achieve anything.

Kim: Gabe was so worried that his mentor was going to be someone old and “not cool”—I can’t describe how excited he was to talk to someone young and “cool” who was a part of the NASA team. It relaxed him right away and he looked forward to every connection with him!

GeekMom: Did you like the program? What was your favorite part?

Gabe: I loved the program. It was a lot of fun and I learned so much. My mentor had so much information to share. My favorite part was actually a little after the program was over. My mentor invited me to watch the testing of a rocket ship he helped build. I watched it online and it was very cool.

Abby: I got to see that launch too. It was cool. I liked the program. My favorite part was building the hand from string and straws, but I liked the penny boat thing too.

GeekMom: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Gabe: I want to be a bioengineer or maybe go into the medical field.

Abby: I want to be a brain surgeon.

Thank you to the Haverkos family for taking the time to talk with GeekMom. Good luck to Gabe and Abby with their ambitious career goals! If there are any GeekMom readers who end up applying and getting in, I’d love to hear how your experience went at the end of summer.

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

Happy 25th Anniversary, Hubble!

Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA
Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA

Who remembers April 1990?

I was a junior in high school. “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor topped the Billboard 100, while the films Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were dominating the box office.

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off carrying a remarkable piece of hardware: the Hubble Space Telescope, named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble. The day after liftoff, the telescope was placed into low earth orbit. By having this telescope outside of Earth’s atmosphere, brilliant images in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared spectra are possible.

Today we honor this invention’s 25th anniversary with commemorative events and celebrations of the amazing discoveries we’ve had based on the brilliant images it’s sent back to earth.

Image credit: NASA.gov
The Hubble Space Telescope is placed into low-earth orbit. Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about how there were problems with the first images. Within a few weeks the cause of the problem was identified: the blurriness was due to errors in mirror construction. What’s remarkable is that the error was on the order of just a few nanometers, yet it caused significant problems in the sharpness of the images.

It wasn’t until late 1993 that the first repair mission was launched, and a series of corrective components were installed during a record-breaking five-days worth of space walks.

The difference in image clarity was amazing!

Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov
Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about the corrections: I was in college, having had made several friends in the Penn State Astronomy Club. My friends had access to the first of the images coming in. For those who are familiar with the Apollo 13 story, the spirit of innovation and critical thinking rose to the challenge in a similar manner. America as a whole was rooting for science!

Yesterday, in honor of the 25th anniversary, NASA and ESA released a gorgeous image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster. The image was deemed “celestial fireworks” in honor of the anniversary.

There are events scheduled throughout the year honor this great invention. To learn more, be sure to visit the telescope’s anniversary site, the official Hubble Space Telescope site, and the Hubble’s Flickr site to enjoy the best images.

Disney Taps NASA to Consult for Miles from Tomorrowland

Miles and his pet robo-ostrich Merc blast off for adventure in Miles from Tomorrowland. Photo: Disney Junior.

If your little adventurer isn’t squeezing in enough about space and science on a daily basis, you may want to start setting the DVR for Miles from Tomorrowland. Disney Junior’s latest is a GeekMom dream, featuring NASA-backed facts, intergalactic family adventures, and celebrity geek icons such as Mark Hamill, Bill Nye, George Takei, Wil Wheaton, Alton Brown, and more.

Miles from Tomorrowland focuses on kid Miles (voiced by Mr. Peabody & Sherman‘s Cullen McCarthy), as he goes on intergalactic missions to connect the galaxy on behalf of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. His crew consists of his family: Mom Phoebe (Olivia Munn) is the ship’s captain, dad Leo (Tom Kenny) is the mechanical engineer, and Loretta (Fiona Bishop) is the tech-savvy big sister. Of course, it wouldn’t be a family show without a family pet. Yeah, that’s Merc (Dee Bradley Baker), the family’s robo-ostrich!

There are also tons of recurring guest voices, which is where Hamill, Nye, Takei, Wheaton, and Brown come in. Other guest voices to listen out for include Adrian Grenier and Brenda Song.

Besides family fun, you can expect plenty of aliens, super-cool vehicles, and high-tech gadgets. The show also incorporates space and science facts into every storyline, all of which are run by consultants from NASA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Space Tourism Society, and Google. According to Disney Junior, various members from that team has cited Star Trek, Star Wars, and even The Jetsons as influences when it came to making their career choices. They’re hoping that Miles will do the same for this generation.

Are you ready for this spacey adventure? You can take a little sneak peek at the show in the video below and download activities and other tidbits on the show’s website. Otherwise, Miles from Tomorrowland is blasting off with four back-to-back episodes on Friday, February 6, 2015, at 9:00 a.m. (ET/PT) on the Disney Channel. A companion app titled Miles from Tomorrowland: Missions is expected to launch for iOS and Android devices in conjunction with the show’s premiere.

Welcome to Mars, India!

Image: NASA

India made science news around the world on September 24, 2014, with the announcement that their first Mars satellite, Mangalyaan, entered orbit around the red planet.

Image: ISRO

Thus far the US, Russia, and Europe have led the “race” to Mars. India’s entry, however, is interesting for a few reasons. Mangalyaan (also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM) is India’s first attempt at orbiting Mars, and they got it right on the first try. The US and Russia each had failed attempts before they managed to be properly captured by Mars’s gravity. These failed missions on the US and Russia’s parts were extremely expensive. NASA’s infamous Mars Observer (launched Sept 25, 1992) originally budgeted for a “lean” $212 million, ended up costing $813 million. It disappeared before reaching Mars orbit. Our most recent Mars mission, Maven, cost $671 million. Yesterday’s success by India cost that country $74 million.

That’s right. A mission to Mars cost $25 million less than the budget for the movie Gravity.

Yes, that is disgusting. But it’s also sort of inspiring. I really hope that folks in this country take a hard look at that number, and perhaps think about what we could accomplish. We are so lucky to live in an affluent country, warts and all. What if we took a page out of India’s book? Instead of rushing to do things in part to show that we are better than others, why not slow down and do them right? I’m a great fan of our space program, but that number just totally blew me away. And here’s the thing: investors and tax payer will see that number as well, and they’ll start asking questions. The next time a $600 million project is proposed, I wonder if any eyebrows will be raised.

India did have the benefit of being able to look at other countries’ projects in order to see what worked, what didn’t, and how to make things more efficient. Their labor is less expensive than it is here. I think the important take home value is that we can spend $100 million on a movie and not blink. Yet people want to cut NASA’s budget.

One of my favorite moments in watching news about this mission unfold was this:

Image: Twitter


Yes, on Twitter you can follow @MarsOrbiter, like you can @MarsCuriosity, and get photos and updates about the orbiter.

What else was interesting about this mission? Let’s compare two images:

Photo: NASA
Photo: AFP News Agency

The first is the celebration of the landing of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in August 2012. The second is the celebration of MOM’s entry into Martian orbit. Something seems to be missing in the first picture.

In all seriousness, I find the number of women involved in India’s space program to be inspiring. And lest anyone say this is some kind of PR stunt, Nandini Harinath, a 44 year-old physicist, was the one “driving” the spacecraft from Earth to Mars. Minai Sampath and her team of engineers built three of the instruments on board the space craft, and has aspirations of directing her own space center. The list goes on and on, from engineers to scientists to researchers. Women take a very visible, active role in India’s space program, something i’d love to see more of in our own. And that is not to take away from the role women play in NASA. I was just a little saddened when I purposely went searching for a picture similar to the one in India’s mission control and couldn’t find one. At best, there were a couple women scattered here and there.

The photograph from the India Space Research Organization offers a great opportunity. Instead of telling our kids, “You can be anything you want when you grow up,” show them that it is possible. Men and women from anywhere in the world can make their dreams come true.

Maybe some day, pictures like this won’t give us pause. I hope some day, kids will look and say, “Yeah, so?” because it will become so normal. Until then, let’s celebrate, shall we?

The Mission Is in Sight!

Image: NASA

As a writer of science fiction, as well as a former astrophysics major in college, I usually like to stay up to date on science news. Space news in particular. And when I hear the words, “manned space travel,” I tend to get very excited.

See, when I was a kid, I remember the first shuttle going up. I was completely obsessed with the NASA space program. I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to Space Camp. I wanted to go up more than anything in the world. But then accidents happened, and budget cuts happened, and the political world seemed to get in the way. Shuttles got old and were retired. And there was never enough money, or, it seemed, interest.

On Tuesday (September 16th) when NASA posted there would be an announcement about their Commercial Crew Development contract, I was glued to NASA Television. For those of you who don’t know what this is, you can find some information on NASA’s website as well as the program’s Wikipedia page. In some simple terms, NASA is contracting two civilian companies to build vehicles and launch systems in order to reach low Earth orbit by 2017, followed by missions to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. Companies made proposals to NASA’s committee of career civil servants, who had the difficult job of choosing among them to find one or two that would meet all of their criteria.

There were four main functions that had to be accomplished by the spacecraft of whichever company was chosen for the contract. According to the workshop given by NASA on May 20, 2011, on the requirements of the Commercial Crew Transportation Contract, these functions are:

Image: NASA

1. Perform ISS (International Space Station) crew rotations
2. Deliver and return four crew and their equipment
3. Provide assured crew return in the event of an emergency
4. Serve as a 24-hour safe haven in the event of an emergency
(NASA Commercial Crew Program Workshop, Session 4: Key Driving Requirements Walkthrough; Rob Bayt, Panel Lead; May 20, 2011)

At the press conference Tuesday, NASA announced that Boeing, with their CST 100, and Space X, with their Crew Dragon, have earned the contracts for $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively.

This contract is exciting for many reasons. First of all, it’s fabulous to know that people of my son’s generation will be able to see the Earth from space. That had long been a dream of mine, and while I haven’t been able to realize it (yet!), it’s inspiring to think maybe my son or nephews/niece might be able to walk on the moon or an asteroid—maybe even Mars.

If all goes well and the program meets its 2017 launch date, it will mean humans can go beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in forty years. Forty years!

The Commercial Crew Transportation Contract will also allow these private companies to offer transportation privately, in addition to the services they provide to NASA. This will lower costs of the program, allowing for more research and development, and will allow NASA to afford other opportunities.

With this program, we will no longer be reliant on any other country to go into space. Our entire space program will not be in jeopardy if another country can’t afford it, or if politics get in the way. This will provide jobs within our country and make us a player again in scientific and engineering advances throughout the world. We will, as a nation, be “poised to explore a beckoning universe,” as astronaut Mike Fincke said during the news conference Tuesday.

Space is, in the immortal words of Gene Roddenberry, the final frontier. And fortunately for our endeavoring spirits, it is larger than we can imagine. I’m so happy we as a nation are taking the steps, no matter how small, to explore that place, and to expand our existence beyond what our forefathers ever thought possible.

Fund This! Integrated Space Plan, Backstory RPG Cards, Evolution for young kids and Potato Salad!

For those in the U.S., we hope this holiday weekend was relaxing and fun! We are back this month with a diverse range of Fund This campaigns to pique your interest, including an integrated space plan to launch us into the next phase of space exploration and technology, cards that help RPG players expand their experience, a gorgeous book on evolution for young children, and a guy who wants to make potato salad. Happy Funding!

lunar base
Proposed Lunar Base image courtesy of ISP Kickstarter

Integrated Space Plan, Envisioning Humanity’s Future

I think there is a concerted effort being made right now to create and energize a social movement around space exploration and travel, one that I myself am taking part in.

I don’t think people realize the extent of NASA’s contribution to our technology and our survival.

Their work extends beyond looking at the stars. NASA technology has helped us understand and adjust to things like weather patterns and crop rotation practices, teaching us so much about our own world as we also look at others. While space travel and exploration used to be a priority, this determination seems to have leveled off a bit. I think now is the perfect time to update the Integrated Space Plan, coordinate the efforts of many government supported agencies, as well as private, commercial organizations, and set ambitious goals for the next century.

I would argue that not only is it essential for us to become a community that looks outward again for all kinds of environmental and resource management reasons, but also because much of the technology needed to accomplish this plan also improves life here on Earth.

This may not, at first glance, seem like the sexiest of campaigns, but it is important. One group coordinating the efforts of many into a solid vision is more likely to be successful than anything else being done. On a personal note, the farther along we get in this plan, the more likely it is I can have my own ship.


Logo courtesy of Brooklyn Indie Games

Backstory Cards

Now, this looks super useful. A game for a game! RPG enthusiasts might find these Backstory Cards to be just what they needed, whether you have trouble coming up with good backstories for your characters or you just want to mix it up a little. For some, this will be a relief, for others I think Backstory Cards will help push imagination and the unexpected. Also, Ghost Pirates and Pathfinders (separately from the guys who created Backstory) are big hits in my house. I can’t imagine this project being anything less than awesome.


Grandmother Fish

There is an increasingly good selection of books and more on evolution for kids. At our house, we have a substantial collection. Another GeekMom sent this to me and I fell in love. It is a wonderful, simple, beautiful  introduction to evolution for young children. We have  particularly loved Our Family Tree  and The Giant Evolution Timeline  for older kiddos but Grandmother Fish is a much more appropriate book for the toddler and preschool audience. While fully funded already, I wanted to make sure other parents saw this gorgeous contribution to science education and understanding!


Image courtesy of Potato Salad Kickstarter

Potato Salad

This wouldn’t be proper Fund This coverage if I didn’t include the internet sensation “Potato Salad” campaign.

The dude just wanted to make potato salad, so he set a goal of $10 and now he is at $31,000.  I think people found it amusing. It’s just potato salad. Now the poor guy is confounded on what to do next. I am not actually telling you to give this guy money. I am going to be the voice of opportunity to help others here and suggest that he turn it into something meaningful. Hey, how about make all that potato salad and take it to the food kitchen? Or a women’s shelter. Lots of people like potato salad and $16k is a lot of food. Just saying.

Space Opportunities and News

Image: NASA

Did you know that there is an international competition for high school and college level drone engineering teams? The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted the 12th Annual Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition from June 18th to the 22nd in Maryland this year. According to the Southern Maryland Newspaper association teams from the U.S., India, Israel, Turkey, and others competed this year, building autonomous planes from scratch that could fly routes to hit prescribed waypoints and safely conduct abort scenario drills. The drone systems can compete in a number of different categories. Although this year’s competition is just past, this might be something to consider for the high school students who have gotten too blasé about robotics competitions.

Another opportunity for student scientists is the NASA Rock On! program. According to PilotOnline.com: “The students in the program build experiments in three days that measure acceleration, spin rate, radiation, humidity, pressure and temperature during a rocket flight.” On June 26th, a suborbital sounding rocket launched from Wallops Island carrying payloads designed by the student participants.

According to Wired magazine, there’s a new partnership between biological research and aeronautics brewing. While large animals can be tracked with electronic collars that can transmit information to orbiting satellites, any collar with enough oomph to communicate that way is too big to fit on smaller animals such as birds, small mammals, or even insects. So the Smithsonian and the National Zoo have pioneered an innovative collaboration with United Airlines (and others) called Partners in the Sky. United will allow some of its planes to be outfitted with antennas that can pick up the tinier signals from tinier tracking collars, and as they fly across the country hither and yon, they’ll be recording whatever signals they get from the ground below them. Then they’ll relay the information back to the biologists at the zoo. That’s a really smart partnership, and one of the few things to make me feel better about commercial air travel these days.

The spacecraft Cassini is celebrating its 10th anniversary in orbit around Saturn. Cassini launched in 1997 and was able to conduct observations of Jupiter on its way to Saturn, arriving there in 2004. It dropped a probe on the moon Titan, which successfully relayed information back to Cassini and back to Earth. It’s another mission that has long outlived its planned lifespan (in this case, four years) and has gone above and beyond its mission parameters to keep feeding us useful information. Most recently, it is being reported that it may have found an ocean of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini is currently scheduled to remain active through 2017.

Summer Science Fun: Nephology

Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus © Sophie Brown
Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus. Image: © Sophie Brown.

Nephology is a branch of science you may have never heard of, but that almost all of us will have casually participated in during our lives. It is a branch of meteorology that deals with the study of clouds, and who among us hasn’t stared up into the sky at least once to note an especially unusual formation? Learning about clouds is something we can all get involved in no matter where we live and requires no expensive equipment to get started.

One of the simplest things we can do with clouds is learn to identify the different types. The cloud types you might see vary depending on your location, but the three basic types—stratus, cumulus, and cirrus—should be visible across most of the planet. NASA has produced a free Cloud Identification Chart PDF that you can print off, or you could follow the instructions provided by the Measured in Moments blog and make your own portable field guide. All you need is a printer and possibly a laminator; where there are clouds, there is often rain, after all.

Sunset over England © Sophie Brown
Sunset over England. Image: © Sophie Brown.

The Cloud Appreciation Society has teamed up with NASA to produce the CloudSpotter app for iDevices. The app awards achievements for correctly identifying different types of clouds that the user photographs, but it also has a secondary and more scientific purpose. Data from the app is accessed by NASA and used to help calibrate their CERES satellite, using the geo-tagged ground truth observations to help determine if their instruments are identifying clouds correctly. For those without access to the app, NASA invites you to take part in their Rover Project. The Rover Project is an offshoot of NASA’s S’COOL Project for classrooms which records the same types of observations, but through permanent locations.

For budding photographers, clouds can be an ever-changing and interesting subject—and one that won’t require expensive trips to capture. Interesting cloud photos can be taken at any time, but sunsets and storms will often provide especially stunning results. Just be sure to take care standing outside during inclement weather. If you take a really great photo, you could submit it to the Cloud Appreciation Society’s gallery, which is filled with astounding photos from all over the world, or to one of the many cloud groups on Flickr.

Clouds are inextricably linked with the water cycle, a great topic for younger children curious about the world around them. The UK Met Office has produced a short film that explains how clouds are formed, including an explanation of the water cycle and a basic look at some main types of clouds you might see.

Finally, once you’ve spent some time learning all about clouds, why not round it all off with a classic movie about them—sort of—Twister. OK, so the science is more than a little dubious at times, but no one can deny the power of that soundtrack or the brilliance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dustin. For more tornado-based films, there’s always The Wizard of Oz and Sharknado. Actually don’t bother with that last one…

Be a Citizen Scientist by Hunting Asteroids

If you’d like to balance your video game-playing karma, head on over to the new web app Asteroid Zoo and try your hand as a real-life asteroid hunter.

Last year, GeekMom shared news of Arkyd, a Kickstarter project to both mine asteroids for resources and make space telescopes that are accessible to the public, including schoolchildren. Planetary Resources, the people behind Arkyd, has teamed up with the citizen science workshop Zooniverse to create a game-like opportunity for the public to scan our skies for asteroids. The job reminds me of the recent crowd-sourced search for debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean.

Asteroid Zoo doesn’t offer a very game-like interface, but it still sucked me in. The web app displays a short series of space images collected by the Catalina Sky Survey, so you can mark them for possible asteroid tracks. You get assistance from a tutorial and a Talk forum.

Seeking asteroids by looping through a four-frame sequence. Screen capture by K. Moore.

Planetary Resources can use data from these “sightings” to help pinpoint asteroids for their eventual asteroid mining efforts. NASA is also interested in asteroid detection and will use the data to test future asteroid-detection software. They are partnering with Planetary Resources to offer rewards for the creation of asteroid-finding algorithms.

Result of a sequence with 1 asteroid and 1 artifact identified. Screen capture by K. Moore.

Get a preview of the app in the video above or head on over to Asteroid Zoo and try your luck.

For more on Arkyd, Planetary Resources, and asteroid hunting, check out Fund This: Organic Yarn, Blast into Space and App Camp for Girls and Are You My Asteroid-Busting Hero? …Sign in Friday Morning.

Explore Space With LittleBits

Image from http://littlebits.cc

This week littleBits announced the results of their partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center when they announced the latest in their line of product kits. The littleBits Space Kit for Earth and space science explorers contains powerful electronic modules, coupled with projects and activities designed by NASA scientists and engineers.

“With the days old discovery of earth-like planet Kepler-186f, SpaceX’s successful docking at the International Space Station, recent evidence of the Big Bang, and the introduction of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos documentary, space is more than ever at the center of the cultural conversation,” said Ayah Bdeir, littleBits founder and CEO. “Yet our relationship to space remains distant. With the littleBits Space Kit, we aim to bring space closer to home by putting the building blocks to invent, learn and explore directly into the hands of educators, students, NASA enthusiasts and builders of all ages.”

Founded in 2011, Ayah Bdeir created littleBits with one sole mission, to turn everyone into an inventor by putting the power of electronics in the hands of everyone. LittleBits breaks down complicated electronics into powerful modules to make it easier to “play” with the electronic components without worrying about soldering or wiring. The Space Kit added an additional three modules to the littleBits product line, an IR LED, number counter, and a remote trigger.

I’ll admit when I opened the box I was surprised that these 12 tiny pieces could create the advertised rovers, satellites, and radar dishes that were described in the five lesson plans and ten hands on projects.  Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

Having studied electronics in college, I am very familiar with the amount of work that goes into planning a circuit and time that it takes to create a working project.  However, within minutes of opening the box I was able to light LEDs, play MP3s, and play with waveforms.  The Space Kit lessons are specifically designed to teach scientific principles such as electromagnetic, kinetic, & potential energy. As a STEM educator, I thought the ease of use was unparalleled. Each module is completely contained and modules connect via metal magnets that act as connectors between circuits. I had a friend’s ten-year-old daughter come over and she was able to follow the carefully designed lesson plans and blissfully play with the set as you can see in the video below, playing with sound wave forms.  She loved it!

As impressed as I am with this kit, learning that it retails for $189 really surprised me. The only thing that stopped me from buying this, and every other littleBits kit, is that high price point. For less than the price of a single littleBits Space Kit you can buy a massive educational kit from a comparable modular circuits company with more than 80 pieces and close to 175 written lessons.

Image by Helene McLaughlin

For more information and to purchase the littleBits Space Kit visit: http://littlebits.cc/kits/space-kit.

The 2014 NASA International Space Apps Challenges Announced

Space Apps Challenge. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Space Apps Challenge. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Want to participate in a hackathon to help NASA? Then the NASA International Space Apps Challenge is for you. Whether you can code or not, are signing up solo or with a group, want to attend one of the organized events or virtually, you can still participate. The Space Apps is looking for all kinds of people to become part of the hive mind on April 12th and 13th: engineers, artists, teachers, students, etc. The challenge is open to “anyone who has a passion for changing the world and is willing to contribute.”

On Monday, March 17th, the NASA International Space Apps Challenge has announced their 2014 challenge lineup. This year, the 50+ challenges are split into these 5 categories: technology in space, human space flight, asteroids, earth watch, and robotics.

Challenge categories. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Challenge categories. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

The challenges range from complicated to more simple, from technical to artsy, from serious to fun… Here are some of my favorites examples:

Technology in space: Space wearables: fashion designer to astronauts—“Your challenge is to design wearable clothing and accessories that could be useful for space travelers and/or the engineers and technicians involved with ground processing spacecraft and rockets.”

Human space flight: Growing food for a martian table—“Develop a conceptual design of a deployable greenhouse that could be used for pre-deployment on a space mission to the Moon or Mars.”

Asteroids: Make your own asteroid movie—“Create an asteroid movie with real asteroid observation data.”

Earth watch: Where on Earth—“Create a game or app that displays satellite images of places around the world and asks users to guess where and what they are.”

Robotics: ExoMars rover is my robot—“People have created models of the NASA Curiosity rover—this project would try to test actual functionality using robotic hardware/software.”

For more information, you can follow @SpaceApps on Twitter or Space Apps Challenge on Facebook. Online registration is open. You can also view the list of last year’s winners, from “best use of data” to “most inspiring.” Perhaps you can figure out the secret sauce that made them so successful?

NASA Joins Forces With GLaDos and It’s a Good Thing

Image: NASA

NASA has found an unlikely partner in the form of the evil AI that is GLaDOS from the Portal franchise of video games.

It’s all part of a public outreach and STEM education effort on behalf of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The little video officially focuses on addressing Next Generation Science Standards, PS1.C: Nuclear Processes, but for the layperson, it explains the difference between fusion and fission.

To make it a little bit more interesting, instead of a smartypants science type in a labcoat trying to explain the difference, they’ve got a smartypants evil AI. GLaDOS, voiced by actress Ellen McLain, uses her sarcasm and wit to explain to two NASA employees the difference between fusion and fission, and promises she has no intention of killing us all.

Yeah, and if you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

The Soft Side of Endeavour: What Space Exploration Means to Me

Space shuttle Endeavour at California Science Center. Photo by Ariane Coffin.
Space Shuttle Endeavour at California Science Center. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

While my in-laws were visiting us last month, we took them and our two kids to see Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. When I walked into the hangar and saw Endeavour, I got a little teary-eyed. I am not usually an emotional person, and certainly not one to attach meaning to objects, but Endeavour may always be the exception to my rule.

I saw Endeavour and remembered our first visit to see the shuttle eleven months ago. It was the very day we found out I was pregnant with the baby I was now holding in my arms. We had been trying to get pregnant for a long time, so seeing the shuttle symbolized not only the end of an era for the shuttle itself, but also the end of an era in our lives: We were finally done with the hardships of infertility. Seeing Endeavour was the end of our own endeavor and the launch of our next adventure.

I suggested to my husband that we name our unborn daughter Endeavour after that meaningful day. He, who had been much less moved by the coincidence of a positive pregnancy test falling on the same day as our Endeavour visit, quickly shut it down. “But think about how cute the nickname Endie would be,” I argued. In retrospect, it was probably a wise move on his part. Nevertheless, she will always be my Endeavour baby to me.

There are three of us in both photos! Photo by Ariane Coffin.
There are three of us in both photos! Photo by Ariane Coffin.

It wasn’t the only reason I felt sentimental. There was also something incredibly surreal about seeing the shuttle. This one object, standing right there in front of me, had been in space. Space! It wasn’t a video of the shuttle, it wasn’t a photograph of the shuttle, it was the shuttle. And it had seen things we can only dream of.

The essence of its presence left the adults in an humbled silence, but it was completely lost on my preschooler and the other children her age. They were all glued to the one television screen playing scenes from an Endeavour launch. Tried as I might to explain that this shuttle right here was the one in the launch video, the video was evidently much cooler in their mind’s eye. I have to admit there was still something special about seeing a space shuttle launch, so I let them be. They will see—really see—the shuttle itself soon enough.

Finally, the last part of my sorry-I-have-something-in-my-eye moment was what the shuttle represents for my daughters’ future. Space exploration stands for discovery and knowledge. It stands for the feats of engineering and a defiance against the seemingly impossible. It stands for a dream that our children will know a world bigger than our own.

Our children may not yet fully grasp the significance of Endeavour. Surely no one else, small or tall, will ever have warm fuzzy feelings for Endeavour for all the same reasons I do. My own baby story notwithstanding, I have nothing but good things to say about our visits to Endeavour, let alone the California Science Center as a whole—perhaps with the exception of L.A. traffic. We may or may not colonize Mars one day, but early exposure to space exploration can only help inspire the next generation of movers and shakers.

Want Your Name on an Asteroid? Let Spacecraft OSIRIS-REx Take It There

About one month and a half ago, on December 9th, 2013, a countdown began. 999 days left before the launch of OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid sample return mission lead by professor Dante Lauretta at the University of Arizona.

What’s cool, aside from the mission itself and the knowledge we stand to learn from it, is that you can submit your name to travel aboard the spacecraft to asteroid Bennu!

The university received its largest grant ever, to the tune of $800 million, for this mission. The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin Space System, while the mission management and launch will be provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as part of its New Frontiers program.

Moreover, the Planetary Society with CEO Bill Nye has helped run the “Messages to Bennu!” campaign. People can submit their names on the campaign website, all of which will be included on a microchip on board the spacecraft. Nye comments on the mission website, “at the Planetary Society, our mission is to engage the citizens of Earth in space exploration and the Messages to Bennu! campaign fits right in with this belief.” Lauretta told me that since opening the campaign to the public on January 15th, they have received over 200,000 names. He added, “no one will be left behind that wants to fly with us!”

Making the mission as open to the public as possible has been at the heart of this project. The mission will be very active on social media, providing daily updates on Facebook, tweets about the spacecraft’s build at Lockheed Martin on Twitter, and 321Science! educational videos on YouTube. The mission website also offers a wealth of information about the project and some of the science behind it.

Because this is, after all, a university-lead project, the mission has provided a priceless teaching tool for students of many disciplines. “We have over 60 students employed at the UA at any given time,” Lauretta told me. “These students work in the areas of science, engineering, business management, graphic arts, videography, and administrative support. It is great to give back to the students in this way—it is one of the biggest benefits to having a university lead a NASA mission like this.”

As to what they hope to get from this mission, Lauretta is keeping his fingers crossed for clues to the origin of life and volatiles on Earth. “My dream sample is something loaded in organic molecules that provides deep insight into the chemistry of carbon in the early solar system. Such a sample would help us not only understand the origin of life on Earth but also help us determine the likelihood of life originating elsewhere in our galaxy.”

The spacecraft will launch in 2016 and return to Earth with its precious loot in 2023. If you are curious, as I was, about the process it took Lauretta and his team to receive the right grants, permissions, and partnerships to lead this mission, Lauretta explains it in detail on his blog.

Canada vs. Mars in Temperature Death Match

Image Courtesy of NASA
Image Courtesy of NASA

OK, I was totally taken in by all the stories which claimed that places in Canada (the original soundbite I heard mentioned Winnipeg) were colder than what the Curiosity rover was experiencing on Mars. It sounded so plausible–and it is possible there are times that the coldest places on Earth can be colder than the warmest places on Mars.

However, the indefatigable team at PolitiFact.com have determined that it is not true right now.

As our own Patricia Vollmer has pointed out, the recent cold spell had some journalists overdosing on hyperbole. The root of the problem here is that the temperature numbers were comparing apples and oranges. So reporting from Winnipeg, Manitoba recorded -31 deg Celsius with the wind chill down to -50 deg C. Some of the most recent data reported by the Mars Curiosity rover measured temperatures of about -30 deg C–so woohoo! Canada is colder than Mars!

Well, not quite.

When we measure temperature and wind chill, we’re measuring the temperature of the air. When Curiosity measures temperature, she’s measuring the temperature of the ground–very different things. When Curiosity measures the air temperature around her it ranges between -198 and -76 deg C–much, much colder than even the recent polar vortex, plus windchill, was producing in Winnipeg.

I have to admit, I got caught up in the hype. And it is still possible that there are times and places where comparing air temperatures will still give you a warmer day on Mars than on Earth. But that didn’t happen this time, and I’ll try to remember to be more skeptical next time. Live and learn!

Ants… in… Spaaace!

Image: Edmund Scientifics

Orbital Sciences delayed Wednesday’s planned launch of a re-supply mission to the International Space Station. But what are they shipping to the ISS?

Along with fresh food, water, and clothes, this mission will also have a supply of ants.

These ants aren’t uninvited hitch-hikers, they’re VIPs getting a ride into space courtesy of a NASA project to partner with K-12 educational programs. This particular research effort will look at the ants’ foraging patterns and how their search patterns while looking for food change depending on their perception of how dense their population is. Previous ant research on the Space Shuttle and Space Station has shown that ants can change their behavior quite a bit in a microgravity environment, such as their tunneling patterns.

In this case, common pavement ants on Earth tend to search for food differently if they know there are a lot of compatriots in the area vs. if they are spread thinly. They assess their density based on the frequency at which they bump into other ants as they’re searching. The question is if they use the same density determination and if they change their search patterns the same way in space as they do on a downtown sidewalk.

Good scientific research needs control groups to compare to the experimental subjects, and in this case the controls will be ant colonies in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world. According to CU-Boulder:

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact [Education Program Director] Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu. More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at http://www.bioedonline.org.

This is just one small example of the kind of research that ISS is doing, combined with the mission to get kids more involved in space science.

Astronauts Are Moms Too

Photo: NASA

The Houston Chronicle has a nice profile of recently returned ISS astronaut Karen Nyberg and her family. They’re a bit unusual since Nyberg and her husband Doug Hurley are both astronauts, and their son Jack is three. Hurley was in quarantine for a shuttle mission when they learned Nyberg was pregnant in 2010. She started training for her six month stay on the International Space Station when Jack was only a few months old.

Needless to say, things are a little different when you’re the child of a NASA astronaut:

Nyberg was selected in July 2010 for the space station flight. Beginning a few months after Jack’s birth, she was on the road for two to six weeks at a time. Sometimes she took Jack to Russia—when Doug was in final preparations for the last shuttle flight—and sometimes he stayed home.

“Literally from the time Jack was old enough to comprehend things, he was either going to Russia or Skyping with mommy. That’s just the way it was,” Hurley said.

And it turns out that NASA got Jack a special iPad so that the family could video chat at least once a week.

Photo: NASA

Fundamentally, this is no different than what thousands of military families go through every day; it just feels more exotic because Dr. Nyberg went to space instead of Iraq or Afghanistan.

The article does a nice job of addressing the fact that it feels different for a mom to go into space instead of a dad (many NASA astronauts have had small children), but also highlighting the fundamental adaptability of children. The cutest photo in the whole piece is the cardboard space station that Jack and his mom built together. It’s also got some great pictures of some of the sewing and other craft projects that Dr. Nyberg created on the station.

Let’s hear it for moms in space!

Interview: Running a Kid’s Track at a Geek Convention

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
Kids talking with real life astronaut, Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)

When I went to the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon, aka LonestarCon3, aka LSC3) over the Labor Day weekend this year, I was very impressed by their services for children. From the bonded, licensed day care that I used for my two-year-old to the impressively creative “Rangernauts” track that an 11-year-old of an acquaintance of mine enjoyed, I wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. I tracked down the organizers, James Bacon and Alissa McKersie, and they graciously agreed to an interview.

Geek Mom: Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Could you briefly introduce yourselves, and maybe talk a little bit about how you first found your way to WorldCon?

Alissa McKersie: My name is Alissa McKersie and my first Worldcon was Denvention in 2008.  My husband at the time attended regularly and thought I would enjoy it.  And boy, did I!!!  I was told I fit in better than a fish to water!  It was a couple of years before I could attend again, however.  I was finally able to go to Renovation in 2011, and this is where it all changed!

James Bacon: I’m James Bacon, Irish Science Fiction fan living in London. I went with local fan friends by ferry and train to Glasgow ’95.  It was a great con, but I couldn’t get to another until 2004. I ended up helping the Children’s Programme there run by Inger Myers and Persis Thorndike.

GM: Once you made your way to WorldCon, how did you come to be involved in the kid’s track of programming?

AM: While looking through the program book of Renovation, I remember coming across a program item that I was really excited about called “Doctor Who Lego Build”.  Keep in mind, I was unfamiliar with Worldcons, and I had NO IDEA they even had separate programming for children.  On another note, I did quite a bit of volunteering. I helped out back stage for opening ceremonies!  That was quite fun! So, when I found out that this Lego Build was for kids, I thought that I’d just volunteer for it! Gosh, I work with kids everyday (I’d been teaching martial arts for 13 years), so let’s go have fun!  And, I did!  James Bacon was running the Kids’ Program at Renovation, so this was when we met.  I remember him coming to me the very next morning and asking me to join the team for the next year at Chicon 7.  Thus, ChiKidz was created.

JB: I’d been running unusual conventions, Aliens Stole my Handbag, Damn Fine Con, and They Came and Shaved us, which were ‘Fun Cons‘ aimed at adult friends in fandom who wanted an eclectic weekend. The organizers of the 2005 Worldcon, Vince Docherty and Colin Harris, asked myself and Stefan Lancaster to run the children’s program. This terrified most sane thinking parents in fandom. We ran Young Adult Fun Activities (YAFA). It was fun!  Iain Banks, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb all participated!  We chopped up a car and even played with liquid nitrogen! There was a program item entitled ‘Where will the Future of Fandom Come From’—to everyone’s surprise, except the panelists’, we invaded from the back door bearing water pistols!  It was very rewarding.

After YAFA we ran Chaos Space Pirates in 2006, gave Aussicon ideas in 2010, and ran Reno Kids 2011, ChiKidz 2012 and Rangernauts this year. I think being able to run the program of a moving event like Worldcon consistently and consecutively is really helpful.  It allowed a build-up of team and resources.

GM: What would you say is vital for making a successful kid’s track program?

AM: Willingness to have fun, be a bit goofy and enthusiastic yourself, and be genuine about what you’re doing. Kids know who’s real with them, and they see right through people who aren’t genuine.  There’s also a lot to say for being organised and prepared.  We (James and I) come days early to prep ahead of time.  We have a great team each year that we are so grateful for that we couldn’t be successful without!  Everyone works so hard to paint, build, and even test… just to make sure things can be played with (and even broken, LOL) right away!  But, that is the BEST part!  The KIDS are what matter!  THAT is what is vital for making a successful Kids’ Program.

JB: Real support. Financial support really helps. The Worldcons make funds and world class participants available while giving us a great location and space. Kids’ Program is not a 2nd class stream, in actual fact to most Worldcon Chairs it is one of the most important. It’s a 5,000 person event and we are looking after 200 children, but it is still a cherished part of the convention.

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
A stack of duct tape as tall as herself! (Photo: John O’Halloran)

A good Team is vital. A big one, it is exhausting. Planning, as Alissa says, everything must be ready. You cannot fail children, or run out of duct tape.

Listen. We did ‘Make Lightsabers’ nine years ago. The kids loved it. It never gets old. The best items we did this year were based on ideas, or successes and the feedback from children themselves.

If it seems or sounds dangerous, that is great, especially if there is a danger, but obviously the risk is managed.

Be flexible with the kids, while maintaining discipline and order. They are individuals, so everything is not for everyone, but a ‘Give it 10 minutes and see how it goes’ or ‘would you like to help me’ can carry children into something they subsequently enjoy. Be very relaxed, it is meant to be fun.

Would ‘YOU’ enjoy it? If Alissa or myself would genuinely enjoy an item, there is a good chance it will work. So, in a way we vicariously live through these kids, which is better than thinking like an adult and imposing what you think they might like.

GM: What worked particularly well at LSC3? What would you have done differently?

AM: Again, the team of people that supported our program was great. We had some returning staff members and some excellent new volunteers this year.  I think part of the difficulty we always have is that people don’t know that a separate program for kids is available.

JB: The Lead Pouring [with the artist Guest of Honor] was very successful, the warning that the molten metal will remove flesh from the bone got everyone’s attention. Frankenstuffies continues to be hugely popular, and the plush toy massacre was fun. The rockets propelled by pressurized air and water was good, too.

The best item was no doubt Astronaut Cady Coleman, accompanied by Scientist Tracy Thumm and Engineer Heather Paul: a full NASA team. They were fantastic and looked at the Lego Space Station and Ships the children made. We also had Corry L. Lee, a experimental particle physicist, and Lt Kate Zurmehly (US Army) for that item, and that made it quite the line-up. An amazing group of role models, and having them engaging with the kids was fabulous.

RN Frankenstuffie 4
Proud owner of a Frankenstuffie. (Photo: Alissa McKersie)

GM: OK, I have to ask: Frankenstuffies?

AM: Absolutely! What we do is we take stuffed animals and dismember them…yes, we cut them up! We actually try NOT to do this while the kids are around. Last year, a friend of mine and I did this at home in Phoenix because we had the time and the transport to Chicago…this year, we did it in the room, the day before the con started. If you ask our Team (Gaye will tell you especially), we had some traumatic events that day! So, for the activity, the kids can grab whatever pieces they want and stitch together their own Frankenstuffie! And we use embroidery floss, so it’s more visible, like Frankenstein! What they come up with is unbelievable! Some kids are very traditional, and some kids are so imaginative! The variety is so cool to see!

GM: What sort of feedback do you get from the parents and the kids?

AM: I am still getting emails from parents from Renovation that wish they could be coming each year! Every year that we are running a Kids’ Program, I hear from parents and kids alike “then we WILL be there,” or something to that effect.  Several parents have said to me that they enjoy the programming for the kids, so they volunteer for more activities (which is always nice, as we need more parent volunteers!) But the BEST feedback for me are the big hugs I get at the end of the convention from the kids that say, “this was the best part of my convention”!

JB: A lot of it is instantaneous. It is rather incredible. From mannerly thank yous to requests for hugs, one can see the happiness. Parents are always just grateful, and many are supportive and get involved. I have to be honest and say we had nothing but great feedback this year. But that is because we have a massive team, and the unseen people, like the Chair, Randy Shepherd, getting the NASA team; or the facilities team, Helen Montgomery and Joyce Lloyd, making sure we have un-damageable aluminum tables; it all makes it work, and the resulting positivity is really amazing.

GM: Do you have any final words of wisdom for those who might be thinking of tackling this sort of thing at their own conventions?

AM: Remember, Worldcon is a five day on-going event, so it’s a bit of an anomaly.  James and I spend the entire year working on it in various capacities.  I don’t know that another convention is going to be that intense.  However, that being said… I think we both have a blast at Worldcon, regardless of the intensity!  So, bring scifi (or whatever your convention is about) to kids, be genuine and enthusiastic about it, and like I said in the very beginning… be willing to have FUN!!

JB: Have a good team. We had Mary Miller, Scott Hipp and Gaye Ludwig, Joy Bragg-Staudt, Corry L. Lee, James Shields, Lia O., Linda Welzelburger all helping us, and we recruited some teenagers who turned up, and they were superb, too.

Yeah, have fun. Each evening I ensured I enjoyed the vast social scene, partied, danced. or attended amazing ceremonies, and that breaks up the continuous assault of children! Don’t worry too much about things, like girls love slot cars and train sets and boys like to make scrap books and dragon wings, make the stuff available and let them play where they like.

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
The 2013 Rangernauts team with NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)

NASA to Launch High School Students’ Satellite

Source: Montana State University

I’m continually amazed at how technology progresses: Where once computers were the size of warehouses, now they can be as small as spare change. Likewise, where once launching a satellite consumed a small but significant chunk of the GDP of a prosperous nation, now high school students can design a satellite and have it launched into orbit.

A satellite developed and built by about 50 students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology over the past eight years—the first ever built by high school students—is scheduled to be launched into orbit by NASA November 19, weather permitting.

The satellite, known as TJ3Sat (pronounced TJ-cube-sat), is one of 20 satellites selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative, which includes cube-shaped research satellites that weigh approximately three pounds, also known as nanosatellites.

The CubeSat initiative isn’t new; people have been designing and launching very small satellites for a couple of decades now. When my husband was in grad school in the 90s his department was involved in such a launch. It just blows my mind that the technology has become accessible enough that even high school students can design a space-capable system now. Congratulations to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology students and good luck for their launch!

[Editor note: GeekMom Jenny sends out a special congratulations to the students at her old high school! (Class of ’91)]

Government Shutdown: Frozen Scientific Research

Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)
Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)

We here at GeekMom pride ourselves in staying politically neutral, however we also pride ourselves in the quality scientific education that we provide to our readers.

The United States government is on day 16 of the federal shutdown. While this means that 800,000 government workers have been sent home without pay, it has meant significantly more to research scientists that receive government funding. Careers’ worth of science are on the brink of complete collapse, simply because the U.S. government has shut its doors. [Editor’s note: As of last report, it appears Congress is finally ready to make a deal that will re-open the government. Assuming the vote progresses as expected, the scientific fallout from the shutdown will become more clear in the next few days/weeks.]

You might be surprised to learn about some of the government funded research programs that are in peril.

Antarctic Scientific Research

Antarctica, one of the most remote locations on the planet, will also be one of the most thoroughly effected by the United States government shutdown. You might not know that there is no indigenous people that live anywhere on the continent of Antarctica. Instead, the massive continent is populated by only a couple thousand international scientists. Most are only in Antarctica during its summer field season, which only lasts from October to February.

The vast majority of Americans who are lucky enough to visit the bottom of the Earth have received research grants through the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation receives its funding from the federal government, and has announced that it has run out of money and cannot afford to open three of its Antarctic bases for the 2013-2014 summer field season. The NSF has already sent support staff home from the ice and turned scientists around that had been starring to arrive for the season. Some were turned around just as they reached the ice for the first time.

This government shutdown isn’t just a freeze on research; it could lead to a complete loss of many research programs. Field research in Antarctica usually entails some combination of harsh conditions, very short working time windows, the possibility of lost equipment due to weather, and inaccessibility for the majority of the year. Programs that placed equipment last year (or any previous year) cannot collect the past years data, cannot proceed with scheduled maintenance, and will possibly lose their equipment under extreme snowfall or icy conditions.

This week I interviewed Heather Buelow, a friend and antarctic field researcher. She explained what the shut down means to her and her doctorate dissertation, as well a the work of her collaborators.

I’m a second year doctoral student. I specifically applied to my advisor’s lab because studying microbial life in Antarctica was a dream of mine. Last year (2011-2012 field season) was my first season on the ice, and it was absolutely a dream come true.

While I was in Antarctica doing field work for my advisor’s projects, I would also spend time writing research proposals, seeking funding to begin my own research projects the following season. I was awarded a fellowship by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NASA EPSCoR) to begin a project that seeks to characterize Antarctic microbial activity, and also ties in with another love of mine: astrobiology. (Antarctic environments are often cited as excellent terrestrial analogues to other planets.) I hope that my research will contribute to both microbial ecology and astrobiology.

However, the shutdown has thrown a kink in the deployment schedule, and we won’t know how bad it is until the government reopens. Many people who maintain the research stations have already been sent home from the ice, and they would need to be brought back to accommodate scientific crews. I was supposed to deploy on October 21, but that seems impossible now. My lab group continues to hope that there will only be a delay of deployments, and not a complete field season cancellation.

This season, I was supposed to do field work for 4 projects: my own, my advisor’s, and 2 different collaborators’. All of these projects will factor into my doctoral dissertation, and each project allows me to gain experience with different sampling techniques in extreme environments.

If the field season is delayed, our research window will likely be cut short. (I’ve already had to start thinking about the minimum amount of field time I’ll need to accomplish different projects.) However, if the field season is too delayed—or worse, cancelled—it will change everything. My dissertation focus will change significantly if I’m unable to work on the projects I’ve already spent months preparing for. The fellowship I was awarded is good for one year, meaning I’m supposed to carry out my research within that time frame. A field season cancellation, or even too much of a delay, would make that impossible.

That being said, I know that NSF is eager to ramp up operations as soon as possible, and is fully aware of the ramifications that a cancellation would have on students and research in general. I believe they will try to restore our planned activities and schedule as much as possible.

NIH Clinical Research Studies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are known for their breaking edge research on a myriad of healthcare topics. Since the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to send most of its workforce home to wait till there is funding to pay them. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with live animals or extremely ill patients, time isn’t on your side. NPR reported earlier this week that thousands of mice used in diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s research will likely have to be euthanized due to the government shutdown. Some of the mice will be killed simply due to overcrowding, but more heartbreaking are the mice that will be euthanized because it is impossible to maintain certain lines of genetically altered mice without constant monitoring by scientists. Also, most federal scientists have been banned from their own labs since October 1st—even the few that have attempted to return to their research have found their security key cards completely inactivated.

Every week, about 200 new patients—including sick children—begin NIH clinical trials. Due to the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to stop accepting all new patients into its clinical research programs. For example, Michelle Langbehn was expecting to start an aggressive clinical trial as a last attempt to fight her battle with sarcoma as she had exhausted her body’s ability to withstand any additional chemotherapy. Instead of fighting for her life, Michelle has been spending her precious time left with her young daughter and advocating for the government to reopen so that all of the clinical trials can get back on track before time runs out. NIH has made exceptions to allow only 12 patients with immediately life-threatening illnesses, mostly cancer, into research studies since the beginning of the shutdown.

Smithsonian National Observatory

The massive radio telescope array, Smithsonian National Observatory, is used on a nearly constant basis to map stars within the Milky Way galaxy. Scientists like Mark Reid combine three or four seasons of data to triangulate stellar positions to an incredibly high accuracy. Even with a relatively short government shutdown (in comparison to stellar life cycles) every star that has been observed the last two or three seasons that were scheduled to be observed has to start fresh, and years of data are meaningless unless they are collected in ways that reduce as many variables as possible.

NASA Astronomy

Over 97% of the NASA workforce has remained furloughed without work or pay since the beginning of the shutdown.  While the Hubble Space Telescope has remained in in data collection mode thus far, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been forced to suspend all testing that was planned. This is particularly unfortunate since the main instrument module and three instruments had just started a thermal vacuum testing campaign which finished its initial month of chamber cooling down to 40K.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a 747 airplane with a huge infrared telescope onboard, has been grounded since October 1st. There are a number of programs that the grounding has affected, but none greater then the new research involving Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

If you are looking for educational information from the NASA website, you are redirected to the following notice, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.” Since there are so many NASA employees who have been furloughed, reliable information has been hard to come by since there are  no public relations officers working to confirm or deny rumors of ongoing changes in the current status of programs that were allowed to continue on a skeleton crew. Many non-PR employees who might have the latest information were asked specifically not to speak to the press in any official capacity while on furlough.

The programs that I have pointed out above are just a small number of affected scientific programs by the U.S. government shutdown. Without getting politics involved, I can only hope a resolution is found by Congress as soon as possible, so science research can be salvaged. If you are interested in doing something to help, call your local Congresspeople and let them know how important all science is to our nation. Science needs funding and our government needs to reopen.

Become a NASA Image Detective


The astronauts on the International Space Station spend a lot of their off-duty time looking back at planet Earth and lucky for us they take lots of pictures of it.

However, they don’t always have time to precisely catalog what each picture shows. That’s where citizen scientists can take part! NASA has a new program called Image Detectives, a web-based interface that lets people from all over the world match astronaut photos with Google Maps to get a precise location for what the image shows. Users can then tag the photos with labels for other features seen in each image. From the website:

Because a person in space took the images, people say the images give them a more personal feeling for the planet – quite apart from the amazing colors and shapes you have probably never seen before… The images give you a real idea of how big a dust storm can be, covering chunks of whole countries, or the extent of smog getting trapped in the valleys of Europe, China, or the United States, and that it can be so thick that an astronaut cannot see the ground. These images also give you an idea of how big a big city really is, or how long the Himalaya Mountains, the Alps, or the Rockies really are.

Images are much more useful if we know exactly which spot on the planet they show – to know which volcano is erupting, not simply that it is one of thousands of volcanoes on the planet. Everyone gets more use from a picture if they know the image center point and have a brief description, like “New York City”. Enter you, the center point detective! Scientists have used astronaut images for years, but the educational impact of astronaut images may be the most important thing about them. Watch your own geography skills change after you have located a few dozen images (ours sure did)! You will start to rack up points by correctly finding the center point and identifying the cloud cover percent and ground features.

This could be an excellent activity for middle grade or high school students who are really into space or geography.

I suspect that it will take some time to get fully proficient with the user interface, but integration with Google Maps means that most participants will have at least a basic familiarity. Still, the amount of panning, zooming, and rotating required would make it a tough sell for younger kids with shorter attention spans. But you don’t have to start from scratch: when you select an image a map will come up centered on the ISS coordinates at the time the photo was taken. So at least you’ll know if you’re looking at Africa or South America.

I love citizen science initiatives–they’re a great way to do something fun and educational while also feeling like you’re part of something a little bigger than yourself.

Meet S/2004 N 1, Neptune’s Newly Discovered Moon

Neptune's new moon
Neptune’s new moon, photo credit of NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

On July 15th, NASA announced the discovery of a new moon for Neptune. Making it Neptune’s 14th moon,  S/2004 N 1 was missed on the Voyager 2’s flyby in 1989 due to its small and dark nature. It measures only 12 miles in diameter and is fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye by a factor of one hundred million.

The moon was discovered by Mark Showalter of SETI on July 1st. The press release explains: “On a whim, Showalter looked far beyond the ring segments and noticed the white dot about 65,400 miles from Neptune, located between the orbits of the Neptunian moons Larissa and Proteus.”

The new moon may be diminutive but it is not to be scoffed at; it orbits Neptune every 23 hours. If my math is correct, 65,400 miles from Neptune implies the new moon has an orbital circumference of approximately 410,712 miles, meaning it travels at nearly 18,000 miles per hour. Our moon, in comparison, travels at approximately 2,288 miles per hour. Showalter further explains, “The moons and arcs orbit very quickly, so we had to devise a way to follow their motion in order to bring out the details of the system.”

Mark Showalter was also the lead researcher for the team who discovered Pluto’s newest moons, P4 (discovered in 2011) and P5 (discovered in 2012). As you may recall, Showalter and SETI recently organized a public naming campaign for P4 and P5, whose results were announced just a couple of weeks ago. While “Vulcan,” a name suggestion submitted by William Shatner no less, technically won the biggest number of votes, it was rejected by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU explained in the July 2nd press release that “the name Vulcan had already been used for a hypothetical planet between Mercury and the Sun. Although this planet was found not to exist, the term ‘vulcanoid’ remains attached to any asteroid existing inside the orbit of Mercury.” The runner-ups, Kerberos and Styx, were accepted.

Orbits of Neptune's moons
Orbits of Neptune’s moons, photo credit of NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

I had the chance to ask Showalter if he was planning to open another naming campaign for Neptune’s new moon. He responded that there is no concrete naming plans yet. While they are certainly considering another public naming campaign following up the success of the previous one, it did take a lot of extra work to organize! For P4 and P5, Showalter reported receiving approximately 30,000 name nominations, “many of them backed up by very thoughtful arguments.” They sifted through all the nominations and selected 21 names for the poll, which in turn received about 450,000 votes.

Neptune’s new moon, along with Pluto’s Kerberos and Styx, was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope. You can stay in the loop by following @SETIInstitute, @NASA, and @NASA_Hubble on Twitter.

Get Mentored by a NASA Employee… Sorry, Kids Only!

NASA GIRLS & BOYS logo, used with permission.

Last year, I had the chance to talk to Mamta Patel Nagaraja of NASA about their pilot NASA GIRLS online summer program. The 5-week program offered girls online lessons and one-on-one video chat mentoring with women working in a STEM field at NASA. I was so very glad to hear that the project was successful enough to be brought back this year, with an expansion for NASA BOYS no less! Applications are due July 2nd.

This year’s program is ready to accept about 40 girls and 40 boys, that’s four times the numbers of kids mentored in its pilot year. That should come in as good news to the 1500 applicants who tried their luck last year! When I asked Nagaraja to describe the success of last year’s program, she replied:

We were overwhelmed at the number of parents who actually applied to put their child in the running for a NASA mentor. We received over 1500 applications for a program that advertised 18-20 spots. The attention it got through a few Tweets was amazing, which signified that the public wants programs like NASA GIRLS. NASA really believes in education outreach and giving back to the public. One of the key elements to the program is it operates on zero budget and relies solely on volunteers. Of the families and mentors who participated, 100% said they would recommend it to other families. We employed a random lottery system to select the participants, and we were so impressed with the caliber of the students despite not using grades, test scores, essays, or other commonly used vetting tools. This shows that a low cost, minimal time consuming program has the potential to impact the next generation of great innovators.

The expansion into NASA BOYS was made possible by NASA GIRLS’ low cost success. By pooling volunteers from male employees, the new BOYS program will be able to reach a whole new demographic without taking away resources from the existing GIRLS program. “We believe all children deserve mentors,” said Mamta.

While the gender gap in STEM fields was the motivation to begin NASA GIRLS, there is another separate problem in America. We seem to have declining interest in STEM fields among the young kids. The White House started the Educate to Innovate program to move American students from the middle to the top of the math and science fields.  This is critical for our nation’s growth and economy. There are many young boys who do not receive the guidance they need to excel, and this program helps us reach out to them. However, Women@NASA has not forgotten the goal of encouraging young girls to pursue STEM courses, and we fully believe fighting the gender gap is a critical battle. We will continue to make this our main focus while also affording the positive impacts of having a mentor to all young children.

Space Jam: Not Just For Bugs Bunny

Images: Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk

This summer, several specially made jars of a Maine made jam are going to the space station. Flight Engineer Christopher J. Cassidy claims York, Maine, as his hometown, as does this rather delicious jam.

Of course, sending a jar of jam into space presented the company with some unique packing challenges.

“Our Wild Maine Blueberry Jam is produced in a glass jar, but for safety reasons we couldn’t send glass into space. We also needed to find a suitable replacement that could withstand our hot fill required for shelf stability,” said Somers. “Our R&D team sourced a natural polypropylene container and used a metal plastisol lined cap. Since this is not our standard packaging, we put our label on the front of the package to make it look like it’s from home. We loved creating a custom jam for space travel.”

You can read the full press release on their website, and comments from NASA concerning the special food orders at The Portland Press Herald.

Image: Amazon.comThis got me thinking about what treat from home I would want, were I on the Space Station for months at a time. Assuming that I was already getting regular video chats with my family, it’s hard to pin point just what I would want. My snack of choice is Twizzlers, but that smell in such a confined area does not appeal to me. My favorite soda from England, Dandelion and Burdock, would be nice, but it does tend to produce a lot of gas. Skittles, because how fun would it be to “taste the rainbow” while looking down at Earth instead of up at the sky. My husband would like space ice cream, because as he says “they probably don’t get that out there!”

No, final answer, it would have to be Robertson’s Marmalade, a taste of home, a taste of my childhood, and some darn good marmalade! GeekMom Jackie would like Taylor Ham, while GeekMom Cathe opts for a picture of her family, and a device on which to play her audiobooks. Excellent choices, but add my old copy of Pride and Prejudice to my list. GeekMom Patricia would want Kettle Corn; for me it would have to be fresh from the Clam Festival though.

What would you want sent to you on the space station?

Weekly GeekMom Video Playlist



Summer vacation is here! Or, it is looming in the not-so-distant future. Either way, kids are getting edgy and are requesting video suggestions to keep them entertained for a few minutes. So, this week’s video playlist features videos the GeekMom writers’ kids enjoy.

GeekMom Video Playlist for the week of June 6. Videos include a singing bird, Lego cartoons, music, NASA engineering, how to make a rocket, and Pokémon Minecraft. All of these videos are for the kids.
GeekMom Video Playlist for the week of June 6. Videos include a singing bird, Lego cartoons, music, NASA engineering, how to make a rocket, and Pokémon Minecraft. All of these videos are for the kids.

This week’s playlist and all of the previous weeks can be found on our YouTube channel. You can also find an up-to-date playlist of all of the GeekMom’s Game of Thrones Season 3 Recap Tea Party episodes.

Hangout with Astronauts Today

International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Image: NASA.
International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Photo: NASA/Public Domain

Today, May 23rd, from 3-4 PM EDT, you can join a NASA hosted Google+ hangout with three of the former International Space Station (ISS) astronauts. NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn and Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency are back home in Houston, Texas, and undergoing physical rehabilitation after their recent return from their extended time in the nearly weightless environment.

The three are prepared to answer questions about their daily life on the orbiting outpost. As part of their normal onboard operations, the three were involved in scientific experiments, spacewalks, and normal maintenance.

Google+ Hangouts allow as many as 10 people or groups to chat face-to-face, while thousands more can watch the conversation live on Google+ or YouTube. The hangout also will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

If you have a specific question that you would like to ask, submit it on twitter to the NASA social media team! Simply include #askAstro as part of your tweet, and it will be added to the pool of questions that will be answered. Just before the hangout begins, NASA will also be opening a discussion on its Facebook page for questions to be asked. Remember the more original and unique the question the more likely it is to be chosen.

NASA’s Google+ page: http:www.google.com/+NASA
NASA’s TV Streaming video: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Welcome Home, Hadfield, Marshburn, and Romanenko!

Last night, at 22:31 EDT, after spending 146 days in space — 144 of which were spent on board the International Space Station (ISS) — and making 2,336 orbits around the planet, clocking close to 62 million miles, astronauts Chris Hadfield (Canada), Tom Marshburn (United States), and Roman Romanenko (Russia) touched down safely in southern Kazakhstan.

They call the landing a “soft landing.” But as you can tell by the plume in the above video, it is anything but soft.

Shortly after they landed, Romanenko, Marshburn, and then Hadfield were carefully extracted from the Soyuz TMA-07M Spacecraft.

As I watched these events unfold, with millions of others around the globe, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of two things: Superman and childbirth.

Below is an edited video of Marshburn and Hadfield being extracted from the Soyuz. We never did get to see Romanenko being extracted.

Continue reading Welcome Home, Hadfield, Marshburn, and Romanenko!