We have a special guest arriving in Christchurch this weekend – NASA’s Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Built into the frame of a specially modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet (and thus hard to miss), SOFIA is the world’s only airborne telescope, designed to soar above the water vapor and other lower atmosphere distortions that cause problems for ground-based observatories.

Click through for image source. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—SOFIA

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

A collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), SOFIA can fly for extended periods well above 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), allowing its astronomers to conduct infrared research that would be impossible on the surface of the Earth. The plane carries an array of instruments including a high-speed imager and a sensitive far-infrared spectrometer.

Research performed on SOFIA can provide insights into distant star formation, the chemical composition of deep space, and the nature of the atmospheres of other planets within our solar system. The current mission is focused on studying G35, a massive protostar still in the early stages of its development. G35 provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about how stars are formed.

With a far southern latitude, long runway, and uncongested air space, Christchurch is an ideal base for SOFIA’s current mission. Over the course of the next three weeks or so, SOFIA will make nine long (all-night) flights around New Zealand air space studying the heavens before heading home to California.

SOFIA is currently scheduled to arrive in Christchurch this Sunday afternoon. If you live in the area, keep an eye out for the huge plane with the NASA logo and German and American flags. It’s quite a sight.

Now back in Wellington, I’m delighted to reclaim authorship of my blog. My team did an excellent job keeping things current while I was away, but it’s good to be writing again myself. I thought I’d start with a few notes about NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, which I judged in Auckland shortly after deplaning from New York City (via San Francisco) earlier this week.

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The International Space Apps Challenge is a very American approach to problem-solving which convenes folks from around the world to collaborate on addressing challenges facing humans both here on Earth and as we venture farther out into space. Structured as a mass global crowd-sourcing exercise, the event brings participants together for 48 straight hours to advertise their expertise, access the skills of others, and work together in teams, wherever they happen to be located on the planet’s surface.

Last weekend the Challenge attracted more than 9,000 people and 480 organizations in 83 cities across 44 different countries on all 7 continents, as well as online from many other locations including the International Space Station. This year our Embassy and NASA were pleased to add Auckland to the list, and I am grateful to Auckland University of Technology for providing space and co-sponsoring the event with us. My good friend AUT Professor Sergei Gulyaev managed the local proceedings.

Venues for 2013 International Space Apps Challenge, including Antarctica, Lower Earth Orbit and Auckland.

This year’s Challenge locations included Antarctica, Lower Earth Orbit, and Auckland.

Participants had 58 challenges from which to choose, each individually curated by NASA and its partners, including the National Science Foundation, European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, UK Space Agency, Department of State, mLabs, Tech Shop, Raspberry Pi, Cloud Signa, Leap Motion, Tumblr, and Geeks without Bounds.

The challenges included detecting near Earth objects, creating techniques to visualize invisible solar flares, predicting water contamination from data collected in space, creating a 3D printing framework for use in remote problem-solving in outer space, improving how NASA provides scientific data to the public, and creating tools to improve understanding of the tangible benefits that space exploration produces back on Earth.

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The event was designed to engage people of varying backgrounds and all ages. Simply put, you did not need to be a rocket scientist, brainiac, or computer wizard to participate. Among the challenges that non-scientists like me might have enjoyed were creating a better poultry management system for backyard farmers, expanding the NASA GIRLS program to mobile and tablet platforms, envisioning and imaging what Kennedy Space Center Spaceport  might look like in the year 2040, …

… designing jewelry or wearable art that celebrates 55 Cancri E (a carbon-rich exoplanet), conveying through words and/or images why we should continue to explore space, creating a crowd-sourced gaming platform to evolve best ideas for future air traffic control and management, developing games related to space exploration, and designing a smartphone operation system to control a Lego robot. One of my favorite challenges was mapping from space the Peace Corps’ more than 50 years of humanitarian projects around the world.

click through for image source.Why go to all this effort? NASA explains it best:

“Our space program, more than ever, requires the active engagement of the public to co-create our shared future.

“This weekend demonstrated the true potential of participatory exploration and what can happen when an agency like NASA takes a chance on engaging the untapped, unexpected, and uncharted know-how of thousands of passionate citizens around the world.

“Innovation is bottom-up, decentralized and unpredictable. True innovation necessitates failure. The more you experiment, the more you fail, the more you learn. Small technologies and initial development deserve innovative process and the opportunity for failure. …

“At the International Space Apps Challenge we open up challenges of space exploration and social need and empowered citizens around the world to solve those challenges. … Passionate citizens are being asked to find and share their solutions to the challenges. In the process of planning and implementing the Challenge we have learned a lot and recognized the power released when we work together with others committed to changing the way the world works. Space Apps exemplifies a model for accelerating technology and we are capturing that story here to be built upon.”

Reviewing the presentations with fellow judges Candace and Matt.

Reviewing the teams’ presentations with colleague judges Candace and Matt.

The event kicked off at 9.00 a.m. last Saturday morning in Auckland, with interested participants (mostly students) assembling, coalescing into four teams, and selecting specific challenges to address. For the next 48 hours the teams worked almost non-stop to develop solutions, reaching out online to compare notes, seek advice, or simply observe participants in other locations. Some folks brought sleeping bags and took naps on the floor from time to time, while a few slipped away home for some rest. The culmination of each team’s effort was an 8-minute presentation documenting and demonstrating their solution.

I landed in Auckland in time to get to AUT by 9:00 a.m. Monday for the presentations and judging. Joining me on the panel were Candace Kinser (CEO of New Zealand ICT Group) and Matt Bostwick (Microsoft NZ’s Tertiary Education Sector Manager), both of whom I had met earlier this year when we judged the Microsoft Imagine Cup. We spent an hour listening to the presentations, questioning the teams, and then scoring their solutions based on product design, impact, creativity, complexity, sustainability, and collaboration.

Team ‘Space Cadets’ listening to advice on their 3D Printing Challenge.

Team Space Cadets hard at work.

Given the quality of the projects, judging was difficult. We ended up awarding honorable mentions to a team that designed a greenhouse for use on Mars and a team that developed a mobile app for collecting feedback from participants in NASA educational programs. Our first runner-up was Team Space Cadets, which imagined a platform to use remote 3D printing to address problems encountered during space exploration. We were particularly impressed with the wheel that the Cadets designed and printed that could be used to rescue a Mars rover stuck in soft soil.

The winning team in Auckland was Team Spot the Station, which developed an app for the android smartphone which will track and provide information about the International Space Station. A user of the app will receive an alert and directions when the station is visible from their particular geo-location. Users can then take photos, share their photos and observations, and check the status of experiments being conducted on the Station. The Cadets impressed us with their plans for improving, producing, and distributing the app.

Team ‘Spot the Station AUT’ with their winner’s trophy.

Team Spot the Station, with trophy and judges.

Team Spot the Station and Team Space Cadets, as well as the top two solutions from each of the other Challenge locations, will be featured on www.SpaceAppsChallenge.org in May, shared with scientists and educators at NASA and other partner agencies, and submitted for global judging in several categories. Prizes will include flight suits, 3D printers, space launch invitations, space flight training, and opportunities to collaborate with NASA and European Space Agency scientists on implementing certain of the applications and solutions.

As I said last Monday (and in every such competition in which I’ve been involved), however, getting a trophy isn’t the point. What matters is convening kindred spirits, building global networks, stimulating creativity, wrestling with big challenges, finding solutions, and celebrating practitioners of the scientific and technological arts, who contribute so much more to life on this planet than the folks we usually spend most of our time watching and cheering.

The official International Space Apps Challenge T-Shirt.

Again, thanks to NASA, AUT, Sergei, Candace, Matt, and everyone who participated in our inaugural International Space Apps Challenge event in Auckland. I’m confident that we’ll be back again next year, so I hope to see you there. If there is sufficient interest, we might even consider expanding to a second city.

Neil Armstrong. Click through for image source.Today one of the most iconic explorers in human history was laid to rest during a private ceremony in his home state of Ohio.

In attendance to bid Neil Armstrong farewell was a small group of family and friends including his Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as well as John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

During the course of his career Neil Armstrong was a distinguished engineer, aviator, test pilot, professor, and astronaut, a loving and beloved family man.

He will of course be best remembered, indelibly throughout history, as the first human to step onto soil other than Earth’s, at 2:56 UTC, July 21, 1969. Despite that grand accomplishment he remained throughout his life what he had been before, a man of great grace and humility who recognized that his achievements were only possible because of the extensive labors of a very large, dedicated team.

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As noted in yesterday’s post, Curiosity, piloted by NASA engineers, has successfully landed on the surface of Mars. The rover’s two-year mission is to investigate whether conditions on Mars are favorable for microbial life and to seek clues in Martian rocks about possible past life on and beneath the surface of the planet.

Mars. Please click through for image source.

Curiosity’s new home.

Launched from Earth on November 16, 2011, the robotic lab sailed through space for more than eight months, covering 352 million miles (566 million km). It pierced Mars’ atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, which is 17 times the speed of sound. A complex process involving a supersonic parachute, sky crane, retro-rockets, and retracting cables was employed to slow descent and then lower Curiosity onto Martian soil. The rover came to rest near the foot of a huge mountain (three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter) inside Gale Crater.

The NASA team celebrates the successful landing of the Curiosity rover. Photo credit: NASA.

Ecstatic engineers celebrate as Curiosity rolls onto Martian soil and sends back its first pic.

A computer-generated image showing what Curiosity would look like on Mars. Click through for image source.

A computer-generated image of Curiosity on Mars.

About the size of a car and weighing more than a ton, Curiosity has six wheels, 17 cameras, and 10 sophisticated scientific instruments. All in, it’s more than 15 times larger than its predecessor Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  Some of the Curiosity‘s scientific tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition from a distance.

The massive Curiosity rover weighs 1 ton, the largest rover sent to Mars to date. Photo credit: NASA.

This gives you a better sense of how big Curiosity really is (larger than my last Pontiac).

NASA plans to put Curiosity and its various instruments through several weeks of engineering checks before driving it beyond the landing site. Once certified fit to ramble, Curiosity will be able to move at a rate of approximately 660 feet (200 meters) per day on Martian terrain. It will stop here and there to drill into rock, scoop soil, and feed samples into particular laboratory instruments inside itself, and it will transmit data and photos back to Earth.

The Curiosity rover caught in the process of landing on Mars on August 6. Photo credit: NASA.

Curiosity, photographed by an orbiter as it was landing on Mars.

Curiosity is important for several reasons. It’s the first astrobiology mission of any sort since the 1970s, as well as the first rover designed to search for life on Mars. In terms of size and weight, the vehicle is huge by comparison with prior probes, and its successful landing demonstrates the feasibility of delivering heavier loads to the Martian surface, paving the way for eventual manned Mars missions. (As Ambassador Bleich noted yesterday, the President has challenged NASA to land humans on Mars by 2025.)

One of the first images of Mars sent from the Curiosity rover. Photo credit: NASA.

One of the first pix of Mars taken by Curiosity, as its front wheel rolls onto Martian soil.

NASA’s long-term Mars program is a science-driven enterprise that seeks to determine whether Mars was, is, or can become a habitable world. The four key goals are to understand the climate of Mars, understand the geology of Mars, determine whether life of any sort ever existed on Mars, and to prepare the way for in-person human exploration.

My friends at NASA say that Mars seems strangely familiar (with polar ice caps, clouds, and seasonal weather patterns) yet different enough to challenge our perceptions of what makes a planet work. New discoveries regularly shake up their understanding and send them back to the drawing board to revise existing theories. Most tantalizing are hints that the seemingly sterile Martian wasteland once raged with volcanoes, thunder storms, flash floods, and ocean tides.

Earth and Mars side by side, to compare size. Click through for image source.

Earth and Mars side by side, to compare size.

NASA has been studying Mars for a long time. Our first close-up picture of the red planet was snapped almost 50 years ago, in 1965. Fly-by and orbiter missions have regularly photographed and mapped the planet from above. And then, on July 4, 1997, Sojourner rover successfully landed on the surface and explored Mars for approximately three months before communications contact was lost. It was Sojourner whose findings suggested that Mars may once have had liquid water on its surface and a thicker atmosphere.

Sojourner rover on Mars. Click through for image source.

Sojourner rover on Mars.

In January of 2004 twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on different sides of the planet. Those two rovers focused on investigating Mars’ environmental history by examining geological formations. Both were highly successful and functioned long after their expected lifetimes. Spirit operated until communications were lost in March 2010, and Opportunity still continues to send back valuable information.

This gives you a sense of the evolution of rovers in size and complexity. Clockwise from lower left: Sojourner, Opportunity, Curiosity.Click through for image source.

This gives you a sense of the evolution of rovers in size and complexity. Clockwise from lower left: Sojourner, Opportunity, humans, Curiosity.

So, what’s next? The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, is scheduled to launch in 2013. Selected from 26 competitive proposals in 2007, MAVEN will explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the sun and solar wind.

Basically, the mission will try to determine what might have happened to Mars’ ancient water. More technically, scientists will use MAVEN data to determine the role that loss of volatile compounds (such as carbon dioxide and water) from the Mars atmosphere to space has played over time, which in turn will provide insight into the history of the planet’s atmosphere, climate, and prior and future habitability.

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The surface of Mars.

In addition, NASA is considering a robotic surface mission for later this decade that would focus in part on improving and testing technologies necessary to facilitate direct human exploration of Mars. The effort is part of NASA’s ongoing outreach to and collaboration with international and private-sector partners.

In response to NASA’s solicitation of outside ideas, more than 400 concepts and abstracts were presented at a public conference in June at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. The Institute will submit to NASA later this summer a report on the best of those ideas, which will help NASA plan, calibrate, and sequence future steps in the Mars Exploration Program.

So, there’s lots of excitement ahead. For now, though, I’m just happy to celebrate the safe arrival of Curiosity. In due course I look forward to seeing the rover pass its post-landing systems checks and sally forth across the Martian landscape.

I’ll tweet and blog from time to time as new data or particularly interesting photographs are sent back to Earth from Mars. If you are interested in seeing the full version of the above video of Curiosity’s landing, click here.