Stories tagged satellites

This week Time has an amazing feature showing time lapse satellite images taken from space document land-use changes over 30 or 40 years at significant locations around the world. Watch a lake practically dry up in Asia. See the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. View the sprawl of Las Vegas across the Nevada desert. And there's much, much more including an option to select a spot on Earth you especially care about. Cool stuff.


A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?
A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?Courtesy NASA
Man, I had this dream last night that my brother and I had each taken a long trip, and at the end of the trips we met up and floated around the sky while singing to each other about our feelings. What a strange dream. I think it means that I’m afraid of death. That’s what my dream analysis book says anyway, just like it says for every dream.

On an unrelated note, one of NASA’s latest experiments, the “GRAIL mission,” is ticking away smoothly.

If, like me, you assumed that the GRAIL mission was a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I’m afraid you’re about to be sorely disappointed. “GRAIL,” in fact, stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory,” so you shouldn’t expect any bullwhips or crusty old knights. No, the GRAIL mission will be carried out by the two identical satellites that just reunited in orbit around the moon, after a slow trip from Earth (Apollo program vessels made it to the moon in just three days, but the GRAIL satellites sort of took a scenic route that required less energy to get to the moon, but a lot more time—between three and four months.)

The satellites arrived at the moon on different days (the 31st and the 1st), but now that they’re back in the same neighborhood they’re going to be traveling around the moon together at about 35 miles above the surface. As they move, they’ll be transmitting radio signals to each other, which will allow them to precisely calculate the distances between them. As one or the other of the satellites flies over an area of the moon with greater or lesser gravity, the distance between the satellites will change slightly.

Because tiny differences in gravity are determined by the interior composition of an object in space*, these satellites will tell us more about the inside of the moon, and how it formed. And because the moon originally came from Earth, we’ll learn more about the formation of our planet from this mission as well.

*More mass means more gravity, so the satellites will be able to detect not only visible features on the moon, like hills and craters, but underground structures as well. Moons and planets after all, aren’t totally uniform inside—they’re less like giant marshmallows than giant scoops of rocky road ice cream.

The things that happen in space … amiright? Crazy!


A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.
A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.Courtesy NASA
History has shown us time and time again that careless exploration of backronyms can be a dangerous mistake. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, who had a mild stroke while constructing his theory of Green Round Apples Veer Inward To Dang. Or consider the vicious beating Roald Dahl received after founding his youth literacy and mentoring program, Real Everyday Adults Delivering Intelligence Not Gum. Constructing an acronym to fit an already decided upon word or phrase is a process fraught with the threat of physical harm (or, at the very least, mild embarrassment).

Thank goodness for the ironically straightforwardly acronymed NASA and MIT, who are braving the field of wild, retroactively applied acronyms so the rest of us don’t have to.

NASA’s and MIT’s current research in the field centers on its SPHERES project. SPHERES stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around. For the time being, NASA is attempting to sneak up on the principles of causation by pretending that it was a coincidence.

In addition to stressing linguistic credibility to the extent that its breaking point may become clear, the SPHERES project has a physical component with secondary objectives. SPHERES is actually composed of three separate robots, each about the size and shape of a bowling ball (get it?! “SPHERES”?!) The robots will be taken to the International Space Station, where they’ll just kind of float around together.

Or, I guess, they won’t just be floating around. I mean, if you’re in space and not tied down, you’ll float around. But if you, like the SPHERES robots, have your own onboard power supply (AA batteries), navigation and propulsion system (CO2 jets), and computer system, you can do a lot more than just float. The SPHERES robots will practice flying around the ISS in tightly controlled formation with each other.

I suppose it doesn’t sound all that tricky—after all, dumb ol’ birds can fly in formation, and they’re dumb. But, then again, birds have evolved for millions of years to do that sort of thing, and being in space—where there really isn’t a true “up” or “down”—presents its own challenges. These simple little robots have to coordinate with each other and their surroundings perfectly to stay in formation. And once they (that is, the people that make and program the robots) get the hang of that, there are some pretty slick applications for objects in space that can automatically stay in perfect formation.

For one, it should make the processes of servicing, re-supplying, reconfiguring, and upgrading the ISS and other space systems easier, because these things all involve two or more extremely expensive floating objects that need to be oriented just right to get a job done and avoid smashing each other up while doing it.

Also, it turns out that a formation of itty-bitty satellites (sort of like the SPHERES spheres) can do some of the work of a much bigger, more expensive satellite. For example, instead of using a satellite telescope that relies on one huge mirror, a formation of lots of small satellites could gather bits of light that could be put together into an image. That way, if one small satellite was damaged, it wouldn’t wreck the whole project. Also, the formation of satellites could potentially be larger than a single mirror (or mirror array on one satellite).

And then there’s also the notion that each astronaut could have his or her own fleet of tiny floating robots. They could be used to feed and clean the astronauts, and, of course, fight for their amusement.*

Here’s a video of the a recent (recent-ish—it’s from 2009) test run of the spheres. Watch as they do what they do best:

And here’s MIT’s SPHERES website, where they delve more into the motivations of the SPHERES project (but not so much into the acronym issue.)

For more pictures of the spheres floating in the ISS, scroll to the bottom of this page.

*This paragraph contains no NASA endorsed ideas. It just seems to me like the obvious thing to do.

Now that's some boomin' bass.

New data from a French satellite launched to detect really low frequency waves--way deeper than the tune bumpin' from that Escalade next to you at the stop light--generated by the earth, saw some significant activity right before the Haitian earth quake, last January. While earthquake prediction is always going to be a difficult nut to crack, these sorts of satellite based measurements could be another useful tool in staying clear of shaky ground.


I'm watching you...: No, not you, JGordon. Get over yourself.
I'm watching you...: No, not you, JGordon. Get over yourself.Courtesy NOAA Photo Library
I always assumed that I was under near-constant supervision by government satellites. I figured that because satellites can’t really see me inside stores (where I do all my shoplifting), they’d be making up for lost time by watching me put stolen clothing on the dog (in the yard) and having my bubble baths (near a window).

At first it was creepy … but then it was sort of comforting. Like a nightlight. A nightlight that’s always looking at you.

Well, it turns out that my privacy may actually be pretty low on NASA’s list of priorities.

See, a new online system was just launched in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, which should allow scientists and concerned organizations access to images from NASA satellites. Cool, I thought. I’ll get a fancy new hat. But, no, it just so happens that the images aren’t of me relaxing on the roof, or of me washing my car in carwash-appropriate clothing—they’re images of the Himalayas, and the massive glaciers they hold.

I wouldn’t say that I’m “devastated,” exactly. But I am crushed. I thought we—NASA and I—had something. I mean, yes, those images are recorded and distributed to track the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers, and, yes, the glaciers appear to be shrinking at an alarming rate, and, yes, more than a billion people depend on the water released by those glaciers, but … what about my feelings?

Hopefully, the data provided by the satellites will help the people in vast regions of Asia to prepare for floods and, perhaps eventually, severe shortages of fresh water.

In the meantime… I guess I’ll just hide some nanny-cams around the house. To feel looked after, you know?

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]


Beating the heat in Duluth, MN: Fearless swimmers take advantage of Lake Superior's record temps.
Beating the heat in Duluth, MN: Fearless swimmers take advantage of Lake Superior's record temps.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Last week, Lake Superior, which is bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, recorded its highest average surface temperature ever, a balmy 68.3°F. People seeking relief from a very hot summer have been flocking to the shores and beaches and actually swimming in the lake! That is so unlike the Lake Superior I remember growing up in Duluth. Sure, we liked to spend a day on the sand beaches of Park Point or lounging on the rocky outcrops along the North Shore but swimming was usually not an option. On average, Lake Superior’s overall temperature is barely above freezing (39 °F), and back then it seemed you couldn’t even wade in ankle-deep without having your breath sucked out of your lungs and thinking your feet had fallen off. Standing knee-deep in the water for even a short time was unbearable and a true test of endurance. And for guys, going any further was just plain crazy, unless you wanted verifiable (and excruciating) proof of Costanza’sTheory of Shrinkage.

Those hell-bent among us would sometimes make a mad suicide dash across the burning sands and actually dive into the frigid waters only to set off the mammalian diving reflex and cause their vital organs to start to shut down. Their only hope was if the lifeguards were watching and were properly certified in CPR.

Temperature ranges on Superior have been recorded for more than three decades. In recent years, the normal average surface temperature for Lake Superior during the month of August has been only 55°, so this dramatic rise in the average is unusual. As expected, many people are quick to point a finger at global warming as the cause for the rise. That’s not a bad guess considering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just proclaimed the year 2010 as the hottest on record, globally.

But physicist Jay Austin at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lake Observatory has been closely tracking the lake’s surface temperatures, and predicted the record high back in July. He says the warm water this summer is at least partially due to a recent El Niño event that had an unusual effect on the lake this past winter.

“2009 was a very strong El Niño year,” Austin said. “And that El Niño year led to a year at least on Superior where there was very little ice.”

That lack of ice led to a quicker and earlier warm up of Lake Superior’s surface waters. The other Great Lakes showed similar increases in their average warm temperatures as well. Although ice usually forms on the lake surface during the winter months, Lake Superior rarely freezes over completely. The last time was in 1979.

The following video illustrates the contrast between last winter and the one prior to that. Each day on their Coast Watch website, NOAA posts 3 or 4 photographs taken by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above Lake Superior. Early in 2009 I began collecting the images regularly thinking they could come in handy for a future Buzz story such as this. From March 2009 to May 2010 I collected something like 1100 satellite photos. Edited together, they make for an interesting time-lapse video that illustrates the weather patterns over the big lake from one winter to the next. At the start of the video (March 2009) ice-cover is apparent over much of the lake and can be seen building then melting away as the spring thaw brings warmer temperatures. But later in the video, as summer passes into fall and fall into winter, no ice appears at all over the expanse of the lake’s surface. Other than that I don’t know how informative the time-lapse ended up being but it’s certainly interesting to watch, particularly the wind and cloud patterns seen flowing off the lake starting in late January 2010.

"This year is just tremendously anomalous," Austin said. "This year ranks up there with the warmest water we have ever seen, and the warming trend appears to be going on in all of the Great Lakes."

The big question is what effect these warmer temperatures have on the lake’s ecology? Austin admits it’s hard to say.

"Fish have a specific range of temperatures in which they like to spawn," he said. "It may be that for some fish this very warm year is going to be great for them, but for others, like trout which are a very cold-adapted fish, it's not going to be great."

One problem for the trout could be that scourge of the Great Lakes, the jawless sea lamprey. Lampreys are invasive parasites and attach themselves to lake trout and live off their blood. It’s unknown what changes, if any, the warmer waters will have on their life-cycle. They may lay eggs faster and in larger quantities, increasing their populations, and their impact on the trout species.

Lake Superior has probably passed through its peak time for temperature this summer so more than likely the 68.3°F record will stand for the rest of the year. If you want to keep track you can go to the Michigan Sea Grant website where you can follow all the Great Lakes’ daily surface temperatures. But who knows? This summer may not be the height of the 30-year warming trend. Let’s see what next year has in store.

Personally, I’m concerned these warm water temperatures will spoil us. Being able to endure extremely cold temperatures is a Minnesota tradition, and helps build character. It makes you tough and able to withstand all sorts of adversity as well as the harshest of elements. Which brings to mind the time when my wife (then girlfriend) and I were in Glacier National Park and decided to go for a swim in St. Mary’s Lake. There were only a few other people goofy enough to be swimming in the glacial lake at the same time. It didn’t surprise us to learn they were all from Minnesota.

We were so proud of ourselves.

Minnesota Public Radio story
Lake Superior facts
More about Lake Superior
Great Lakes info


We have heard about the many fires in Russia. NASA satellites have detected over 600 600 hotspots from wildfires within Russian territory in one day!

Fires produce a heat signature that is detectable by satellites even when the fires represent a small fraction of the pixel. Fires produce a stronger signal in the mid-wave IR bands (around 4 microns) than they do in the long wave IR bands (such as 11 microns). That differential response forms the basis for most algorithms that detect the presences of a fire, the size of the fire, the instantaneous fire temperature.

The unusually hot and dry mid-August conditions beneath a strong ridge of high pressure across British Columbia led to a major outbreak of wildfires across that western Canadian province. The satellite image shows the location of those fires as red squares. The smoke plumes are also seen on the satellite imagery.

Here's an image from a NASA instrument: The red squares are fire locations and the smoke from the fires is evident.

The aerosols released by fires and the degraded air quality caused by them represent tremendous costs to society, so reliable information on fire locations and characteristics is important to a wide variety of users. For this reason, NOAA tracks these plumes and makes them publically available from NOAA at:

Each week, CNN posts a collection of space images. This week, you can see the green comet Lulin, thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, and some photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.


Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.
Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.Courtesy S. McAfee

I hate it when bad news gets confirmed.

That’s just what happened when Andrew Dessler and his colleagues at Texas A&M were able to show that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. Unfortunately, water is a greenhouse gas, so more water vapor means the earth warms, so the atmosphere can hold more water, which is a greenhouse gas . . . I think you can see where this is going. It’s a nasty feedback circle. If the earth stays more or less the same temperature, we don’t worry about this too much because there’s a really good way to get water out of the atmosphere. In fact, it just shut down air and highway travel all over the East Coast.

It may seem like a no-brainer that warmer air holds more water, but these scientists were able to put solid numbers on the link between temperature and water vapor, which is a big deal. They used information from a satellite called the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder to measure the amount of water in the air.

Using information from 2003 to 2008, they found that for every 1 degree Celsius the earth warms, the extra water in the air traps 2 watts for every square meter of the earth. If you stored that up over a square meter for an hour, you could run a 100-watt light bulb for about a minute. Bet you wouldn’t even notice that in your electric bill. But the earth is big, so let’s put it in perspective and do the math.

The surface of the earth is 510,072,000 square kilometers. According to howstuffworks, your run-of-the-mill power plant puts out 3.5 billion kilowatts in a year. That means the extra warming that water vapor adds for every degree the earth gets warmer is about the same as the annual output of 290 power plants, give or take. That’s a lot of light bulbs.