Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Venus and Other Distant Sites

Below is the script I intend to have roll across the bottom of the screen when I make a DVD of my video of the Venus transit last month. 

Footage of the Venus Transit

June 8, 2004, at 5:40 AM

Shot in St. Charles, Illinois

By Kent Nebergall

The sound in the background is Kent setting up the other camera.

Venus should appear as a very small dark spot on the right top corner of the sun.

It will slowly move off the sun towards the top of the frame.

The total time for Venus to cross the sun’s disk is three hours.

Right now, at sunrise, the dusky overcast is obscuring this level of detail.

By now, we should be able to see it.

If it doesn’t appear soon, the overall brightness will wash it out before the transit ends.

Well, crap.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring filters to help with this.

My sunglasses are in the other car, otherwise I’d try that.

Crap, crap, crap, crap, crappity, crap, crap, crap.

I got out of bed at 4:35 AM for THIS??

Oh, well, nice morning, anyway…


The birds are singing…

The light hitting us is one thousandth less bright because of Venus crossing the sun’s disk right now.

And if we could just SEE it, that would mean something.

Really, it IS!!!

Why on earth else would I be out this FREAKING EARLY on a Tuesday?

I have to go to work today, for crying out loud.

I hope the still camera got something.

Let’s check, shall we?

(switch to still images archive)

Ohhhh-kay…. Maybe if we enhance it.

Wait a minute…

There!!! There!!!

No, just kidding…

I did that in Photoshop.

But the real transit should have looked like that.

Here are some shots from the web…

Which I could have gotten…

If I’d stayed in bed.

Next Venus transit in ten years.

If I don’t own a decent telescope in a decade, you have my permission to yell at me.

At least I can honestly say you’ve never seen coverage of the Venus Transit like this before. 

Unless you, like me, are an amateur astronomer with no budget.

Thanks for your patience.

I’ll be planning a trip to Loch Ness for the follow up to this film.

Too bad John Cage is dead… He’d like this film.

I met John Cage once, when I was in college.

He was performing in Chicago, and a car load of us went to see him, and met him afterwards in a receiving line thing.


No, I don’t have any flipping pictures of that either, OK?

Just leave me alone. 

Hit stop or something.

Go out for a beer.  There’s some in the fridge.

Yes, there’s some after the transit… I didn’t drink it all!

You’re waiting for the film to run out, aren’t you?

Just patiently waiting for the next cute line…



How’s it feel?

A lot like the Venus Transit with no filter, right?


I know your pain.

You don’t doubt me about THAT, do you?

I should put this together with my footage of the 1999 Solar Eclipse in Europe.

We filmed it on our honeymoon.

Almost all of it is out of focus because the auto-focus went haywire in the dark.

And my wife's camera ran out of film after one shot, and spent the rest of the elipse rewinding itself.

I’ll make a compilation DVD.

I’ll call it, “When Amateur Astronomy Takes a Dump”.

Hey, I need to get SOME use out of this footage, and in a sense, this is much more entertaining than a dot, isn't it?

OK, unless you count my cat named Dot.

In other news...

The Bank Does What I Want... BUT...

I got a call from my boss today.  It was a call I'd have cut off a finger for at any point up until this month. 

But right now, the only finger I want to give is in a rather less flattering way.

They want to fly me to the home office...
For two weeks, minus the weekends...
Which is three time zones away...
In a beautiful location...




Well, for the first two issues, it appears I'll only really be able to work 9-5 on this job for most days (or so I'm told now), so I can spend my hotel time doing the papers instead of being distracted with cats and laundry and so on.  It may be a good thing.  As for missing the wife, there just is no way around that.  I suppose it will be a dry run for her to be home without me when I do the Mars simulation.  I do the housework and bills, normally. 

And I'll finally do all those things in that town I've been wanting to do - restaurants, a museum, and finally seeing my boss and the rest of my team.  One team member flew in this week to audit our documents.  It was very good to meet her - I hope the rest of the team is that cool. 

But even if they are, missing the wife-stuff really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really sucks a lot.

Yes, really!

Friday, July 23, 2004

If a Man Falls in with a Mars Conference, Does He Make a Sound?

One of the rewards in winning the Kepler Prize is presenting your winning design at the convention.  Now truth told, all contestants had the option to enter papers, so the organizer of the contest assumed the winner got a general session.  Note that general sessions are a big deal, reserved for NASA project directors and celebrities, whereas the other sessions basically can be anything from “I have an idea, lets…” to reports back on those ideas tried in the field.  In On To Mars, you can see examples of both great ideas and research and not so great ideas or research.

So anyway, Tom pushed to get me a slot speaking in front of the entire convention on Sunday morning.  If I did so, I would have to upgrade my slides and do my best to be both professional and entertaining.  It’s also a way to screw up big time, if you fail, in front of basically everyone who you’d love to work for someday.  Considering the opportunity, I asked Tom to go ahead and ask.  Given the risk, I wasn’t upset when it didn’t work out as such.  Maggie Zubrin, who is in charge of the convention and is the wife of Robert Zubrin, basically said that if someone drops out, I could take a general slot, so bring two presentations (break out sessions are 30 minutes, general sessions an hour).

There is another prize I nearly forgot about the day I learned I won.  That is taking a shift on the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Utah desert.  This is a simulated Mars lander in the desert from which crews of six volunteers simulate the tasks of living and working on mars to see what can be learned to refine the designs of real vehicles later.  There is another simulated hab in the Canadian Arctic that was the topic of a Discovery Channel series.  Both sites are the topic of the Zubrin book Mars on Earth.

Basically, you pay to fly to Salt Lake City, and they take care of the rest of your needs (food?, transportation to the simulated lander) for the two weeks you are on site.  During that time, you do simulated mars activities, such as doing field geology and so on in simulated space suits.  You are also expected to maintain the base (keep the generator running, etc.) during your stay. 

It seems a good fit for me – on the one hand, growing up on a farm I’m familiar with hard outdoor work and maintaining small generators, etc.  On the other hand, while not a field-anything, I’m enough of a science reader I could probably take instruction on that fairly well, and I have the tech skills to maintain and upgrade the computer equipment and telescope.  Many groups go out with specific work projects, such as running a simulated Mars rover they’ve brought with them or simulating construction of mars structures with local materials.  While not at that level at the moment, I’m certainly a good enough grunt at assisting in such projects.

Maggie informed me that assuming the project is funded this season, I have a slot.  I just have to “talk to Robert and let him know my skills so that he can assign me to the appropriate crew”. 

Not funded?  Gulp...

What stunned me with this was the fact that in less than a year, I’ve went from reading this guy’s books and thinking maybe I’d go to his convention someday but not seriously planning to do so, to being on a first name basis of sorts with him and definitely his wife.  How’s that work?  If you’d told me this a year ago, or told me to do it a year ago, I would have been mystified.  Winning a major contest, getting honorable mention in another, and helping with the convention and speaking on panels at other conventions - especially when no one’s heard of you except by name, and no one really has noted you outside of the staff at the home office – that must be slightly weird for them as well, just enough to be remembered.  At one of the planning meetings, a guy I hadn’t met before was helping judge the posters from the poster contest.  He seemed to have authority.  He also seemed to remember me from meeting Robert Zubrin at Capricon – which was very odd.  I don’t remember Zubrin being with anyone, though that may be an error on my part.  Why would this guy remember me, or seem to do so?

Yep, it’s getting very Harry Potter-esque again.  Only when I get there, I don’t expect anyone outside the committee to recognize me when I arrive – not the home office, not the guests.  By the end, many will.  What they think is up to them. 

Oh, by the way, today is my birthday. 


Thanks!  That's sweet of you!

Pause...  Grin...

That's OK, I didn't remember yours, either!

In Space Politics...
In other news, a congressional group rather stupidly cut funding for the lunar return program.  On the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.  As of today, Bush is threatening to veto the bill unless it restores funding.  Ironic that Bush and a lot of Moody Blues era liberals who now occupy space advocacy positions are so closely allied yet can't stand each other. 

By the way, most space advocates are boomers approaching retirement - they remember the promise of Apollo.  They are so prevalent in the movement they worry the whole thing will die out with them unless youth becomes interested soon.  How odd is that? "I wanna be an astronaut someday." is an OLDER person's realm, not that of children? 

Friday, July 16, 2004

Desktop Update
I tend to take toys on my work desk and make visual cartoons, some more subtle than others.  Typically it's just putting an angry and a playful figure in a fight, like when Samurai Jack and Spongebob faced off, or a character from Reboot stood off with Opus.  Today I bought the stuff for my next big project.
  1. Take one Elvis Presley action figure, holding guitar and singing at microphone.
  2. Take one Alien action figure, with jaws extended and a few face huggers in the package.
  3. Take one Halo action figure, with big freakin' guns.
  4. Place alien in front of microphone, with guitar (six strings, six fingers - tis good!)
  5. Put Elvis behind him with big gun, sneaking up as it were (the hands are in the right place from the guitar pose)
  6. Maybe put a face hugger on the halo guy somewhere around.

And you have my new desktop joke, a scene the new movie from the directors of Alien versus Predator and Bubba Ho Tep (where an aging Elvis and a black guy who thinks he's JFK fight a mummy haunting their nursing home): 
Alien versus Presley 
"Whoever wins, we lose", indeed.
I'll see about photoshopping a poster and putting it behind later.  It was inspired by the fact that they have the Elvis and Alien figs on the same posts at the store at the mall, and it was hilarious seeing Elvis singing with an alien peaking over his shoulder.
IT will go opposite Samurai Jack fighting Agent Smith in my The Matrix: Recast diorama.  
If I find a Ripley figure the right scale, I may put it in the battle armor from Matrix and put a caption on it saying "This time, Ripley's not screwing around".

For the more dry of humor, I'm doing the sequel to my rock garden from when I used to work here.  It will be a rock, paper, scissors garden.

Elvis on an alien world with a big gun was a major theme of the Red Dwarf TV show episode "Meltdown".  I plan to show it at our movie night tomorrow, with the setup I described above sitting on top of the television or on the kitchen table with the food.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Requests for Papers, ERV Simulators

To date, the following people have asked to see the ERV paper:

- My contact at NASA (directly from me)

- A Bulgarian scientist, who I think was one of the non-finishing teams (via the ERV group list – haven’t responded yet)

- A group called The Mars Direct Project, who is modeling the vehicles in a free program called Orbiter. (Stayed up late to send this one Sunday)

This last one is excellent, because if they build my design or something close to it, I can fly it on the PC! They said the next version will allow you to model the inside of the ship, so I could walk around it as well! Even if they don't use my design, I signed on to be on the team. I wouldn't mind having a crack at another ERV with my lessons learned from this one.

I was thrilled with this last one, as that was one of my goals when I originally started this project. The person there complimented me on the level of detail in the report. I knew I’d covered my bases well, where I could, but all this time I’ve been so focused on the areas I didn’t do right that I couldn’t possibly picture myself winning.

After letting the paper sit for a month, I reviewed sections of it today. I’d forgotten how detailed I actually did get. For example, here is a passage selected at random. It concerns thermal protection of the vehicle, starting with entering the Martian atmosphere.

The craft is angled into the atmosphere on a given side opposite the truck door, which is the largest opening on the craft. Engines are hidden on the leeward side as well. The command module and service module are the biggest challenges, as they have to withstand reentry heat at Mars twice and Earth once, nose first, with hundreds of days of exposure to Martian dust in the intervening time. The nose may be protected with additional ablatives or even a separate cover during the surface stay. A system on the base, first stage, and second stage that compresses Martian air and filters it, then uses this clean air to overpressure the modules to keep dust out, forces this air slowly out across the radiator panels for added efficiency.

OK, the grammar sucks because it was written late at night, but how many people would think to use a clean room technique they’d seen at Abbott Labs while documenting the IV bottle drug assembly line and apply it to keeping dust out of a Martian spaceship? And since this air is cold soaked by having been around all the fuel tanks, blowing it out past the radiator afterwards doesn’t hurt either. NASA probably would, but a grad student wouldn’t pick up on techniques from outside their field.

I guess this puppy is a winner, after all.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


The following arrived in my in-box this morning. (I deleted the e-dress of the contest organizer for anti-spam purposes).

Kepler Prize Award Winner 2004 Announced

The Mars Society announces that the first overall winner of The Kepler Prize for Mars Mission Design is team Daedalus, lead by Kent Nebergall. The judging panel decided that team Daedalus provided the best balance of material in answer to the criteria set in the request for proposal document. The prize award includes certificates for team members, a trophy for the team leader, and the chance to present their design to the assembled Mars Society conference in Chicago, IL.

The winner of the college division of the competition was The Personnel Earth Return Vehicle, a design submitted by an aerospace engineering design class at Penn State University. The team captain was Alicia Cole-Quigley. Team members will receive certificates, and the team leader will receive a trophy.

The competition required teams to develop a design for an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), a critical portion of the Mars Direct mission architecture. The ERV lands on Mars without a crew, autonomously filling its propellant tanks. The crew arrives later and uses the ERV to return to Earth. The complicated power, landing, and deployment stages for the vehicle provided plenty of challenge for design groups.

A total of five teams submitted design documentation in time for judging…three independents (two from the US and one from England) and two college teams. Teams were judged within their division first, followed by a second round of judging between the division winners for declaration of an overall winner. All teams were invited to present their designs at The Mars Society conference this year as part of a 1/2-hour session paper, and some have expressed interest.

Teams took radically different approaches to solve problems associated with the mission requirements. The difference in approaches made it difficult for judges to pick the winner that combined the best of new ideas and old technology to design a vehicle that would work while keeping development costs as low as possible.

Judging criteria included Technical Merit (25 points), Publicity (20 points), Innovation (15 points), Simplicity (15 points), Completeness (10 points), Reliance on Current Technology (10 points), and Team Size (5 points).

As a public outreach project, publicity carried a lot of weight in the judging. At times a team's publicity efforts tilted the scales in their favor.

Currently, the release of reports is up to individual teams. If copies are desired, contact Tom Hill at the email address below, and he will connect interested parties with teams. Teams are encouraged to submit their reports to The Mars Society report archive, and inclusion in a future publication is possible.

The Kepler Prize competition started in 2003, with a kick-off presentation to the assembled Mars Society convention. The goal of the design contest was to get more people thinking about Mars mission design, while in the process producing a workable design for the Earth Return Vehicle. Teams were required to submit a mid-term report of 10 or less pages in December and then a final report of no more than 100 pages on the 1st of June.

Judges for The Kepler Prize included Brian Enke, Dewey Anderson, and the project director, Tom Hill. Frank Shubert provided special support to the project.

There is no Kepler Prize contest scheduled for the 2004-05 year, although others may be held in the future. For more information or to express interest in competing in future contests, contact Tom Hill.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge"
-Albert Einstein

Friday, July 02, 2004

By the way... When Can I Read This Paper?

After that last post, I realized I've never said anything about how someone would actually READ my entry. After the announcment, I'll post sections of the text here. If I create a web site as I plan to, the full text will be there. Regardless, eventually it will be on The Mars Society website by Fall or so. It may be published as a chapter in an Apogee book someday as well.

The full versions would be PDF and have my lovely "God never intended Visio to do this" drawings at the back. If you know CAD, you'll be disappointed; if you know Visio, you'll be impressed.

Why Mars? Prize Arrived

I got my prize for the Mars Society's Why Mars? essay contest today - it included not only the autographed book, but the To Touch The Stars CD and a mousepad. They also extended my membership another year, so the combined total is around $90 - not bad for Honorable Mention. The CD is both moving and funny, depending which track - I'm very impressed - it's not just more lame filk. I was in tears driving to it more times than I care to think about, and the song "Dog on the Moon" is now the must-play for many friends and relatives. It's very cute and funny and slightly Dilbertesque.

Ego Return Vehicle Lands (Hard?) July 8
The ERV contest announcement of a winner is July 8. While from the start I did not expect to win, and I know my competition includes an aeronautics program at a university, the full impact of loosing finally has hit home since the actually gave us a date on which it would probably happen. Of the original twelve entrants, I was confident I would at least beat SOMEONE, and was both pleased and disappointed that only five finished. It was rough work, especially when a lot of the math was unworkable until two weeks before the deadline (after six months of running this race). I have a feeling anyone I thought I'd beat has already dropped out. While in that sense, it is an accomplishment just to finish, and that puts me in the top half in itself, any victory I'd feel from that is slightly dampened in that "twelve teams started, only five finished" will probably not be noted by anyone but myself and the seven dropped-out teams. I hold out hope that I will at least beat SOMEONE, but with one winner and no mention of how they will rank the other four, I'm just not sure.

The contest emphasized creativity over math, and boy, did I! One could even accuse me of some creativity with the math, since every time (as was happening even at 10:30 the night before the contest deadline) the math said "This won't work" in some known area of the ship, I had to borrow weight from some area I could not accurately calculate to make the difference. I have a feeling that the lower stages of the vehicle went from being made of aluminum, to composite, to pure magic somewhere along this process. This fact was made clear in the "I can't work this" section of the report. All the same, it was heartbreaking to have to design something that slowly became more science fiction as the process continued. I just wish I could have come up with more ways to make the crew area lighter. I think a lot of the same techniques could have been used along with some "dorm room tech" of stacking the bedrooms on top of each other or something, but that would have meant a total redesign. Maybe if they have another contest next year, I'd have a leg up on that. Or I may just do it for myself.

July 8, I find out. July 8 I'll stop with the tension and get on with the disappointment or glory, or most likely some mix thereof. The Mars Society leadership is nothing if not gentle to its base. They know this whole thing is driven by people's excess energy, and they do as much as possible to feed that rather than cut it. If you are wondering, given the title of this blog - no, I won't stop writing on July 9 or after I present my paper in August. The next project is lecturing to Mensa in October, then I'll start the science fiction novel work that lead to me entering the ERV contest to begin with. Those vehicles are nuclear, though, and a bit of pure magic powering them is more acceptable in a sci fi novel.

The other paper, called "Saturn Direct" is stalled a bit at the moment with work and other demands. It's been a rough week. I saw dad, had a big fight with my best friend at work. All better now, but emotionally exhausted. This weekend is Cornerstone Music Festival, so I'm looking forward to being awash in Christian Nerdom at the Imaginarium tent. I want to also go to Flickerings - the filmmakers tent, but I'm not sure how much time will be available for that.

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