Monthly Archives: June 2009

NASA’s Mars Odyssey Alters Orbit to Study Warmer Ground

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s long-lived Mars Odyssey spacecraft has completed an eight-month adjustment of its orbit, positioning itself to look down at the day side of the planet in mid-afternoon instead of late afternoon.

This change gains sensitivity for infrared mapping of Martian minerals by the orbiter’s Thermal Emission Imaging System camera. Orbit design for Odyssey’s first seven years of observing Mars used a compromise between what worked best for the infrared mapping and for another onboard instrument.

“The orbiter is now overhead at about 3:45 in the afternoon instead of 5 p.m., so the ground is warmer and there is more thermal energy for the camera’s infrared sensors to detect,” said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project scientist for Mars Odyssey.

Some important mineral discoveries by Odyssey stem from mapping done during six months early in the mission when the orbit geometry provided mid-afternoon overpasses. One key example: finding salt deposits apparently left behind when large bodies of water evaporated.

“The new orbit means we can now get the type of high-quality data for the rest of Mars that we got for 10 or 20 percent of the planet during those early six months,” said Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe, principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System.

Here’s the trade-off: The orbital shift to mid-afternoon will stop the use of one of three instruments in Odyssey’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer suite. The new orientation will soon result in overheating a critical component of the suite’s gamma ray detector. The suite’s neutron spectrometer and high- energy neutron detector are expected to keep operating. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer provided a dramatic 2002 discovery of water-ice near the Martian surface in large areas. The gamma ray detector has also mapped global distribution of many elements, such as iron, silicon and potassium.

Last year, before the start of a third two-year extension of the Odyssey mission, a panel of planetary scientists assembled by NASA recommended the orbit adjustment to maximize science benefits from the spacecraft in coming years.

Odyssey’s orbit is synchronized with the sun. Picture Mars rotating beneath the polar-orbiting spacecraft with the sun off to one side. The orbiter passes from near the north pole to near the south pole over the day-lit side of Mars. At each point on the Mars surface that turns beneath Odyssey, the solar time of day when the southbound spacecraft passes over is the same. During the five years prior to October 2008, that local solar time was about 5 p.m. whenever Odyssey was overhead. (Likewise, the local time was about 5 a.m. under the track of the spacecraft during the south-to-north leg of each orbit, on the night side of Mars.)

On Sept. 30, 2008, Odyssey fired thrusters for six minutes, putting the orbiter into a “drift” pattern of gradually changing the time-of-day of its overpasses during the next several months. On June 9, Odyssey’s operations team at JPL and at Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems commanded the spacecraft to fire the thrusters again. This five-and-a-half-minute burn ended the drift pattern and locked the spacecraft into the mid-afternoon overpass time.

“The maneuver went exactly as planned,” said JPL’s Gaylon McSmith, Odyssey mission manager.

In another operational change motivated by science benefits, Odyssey has begun in recent weeks making observations other then straight downward-looking. This more-flexible targeting allows imaging of some latitudes near the poles that are never directly underneath the orbiter, and allows faster filling-in of gaps not covered by previous imaging.

“We are using the spacecraft in a new way,” McSmith said.

In addition to extending its own scientific investigations, the Odyssey mission continues to serve as the radio relay for almost all data from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Odyssey’s new orbital geometry helps prepare the mission to be a relay asset for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, scheduled to put the rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012.

Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project. Investigators at Arizona State University operate the Thermal Emission Imaging System. Investigators at the University of Arizona, Tucson, head operation of the Gamma Ray Spectrometer. Additional science partners are located at the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, which provided the high-energy neutron detector, and at Los Alamos National Laboratories, New Mexico, which provided the neutron spectrometer.

For more about the Mars Odyssey mission, visit here.

Dirty poor people living in slime: Missionaries and American Idol


Actual missionaries
As you may have noticed, I have written a series of posts about missionaries in eastern Zaire in the 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on my own personal experiences. These seven posts represent only a small number of these experiences, but they are more or less representative. They are meant to underscore the down side of missionary activities in Central Africa. To some extent, the negatives you may see in these essays are part of the reason for missionary activity being illegal in many countries (although the reasons for those laws varies considerably). It is my opinion that missionary activity should never be allowed, but at the same time, missionaries can have a positive effect that would not likely happen in their absence.

Frankly, I think that the world of sceptics and non believers looks a bit asinine for not making much more of an effort to replace these positive effects in a secular way and to give the missionaries a run for their money.

One of the reasons that I’ve written these essays is because I was asked to address this issue by Mike Haubrich. Mike is the producer of Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio. The idea was that I would write a few blog posts on my experiences with missionaries, and then we would do an Atheist Talk Radio spot on the topic. As it turns out, this coming Sunday’s show will be the last Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio instalment. After this, the show will be off the air forever. So don’t miss the show! Mike is producing the upcoming show, and Stephanie Zvan will be conducting the interview.


Do not assume that mud hut = unhappiness
One of the things that I have not sufficiently conveyed in these posts about missionaries is the broad misconception people … not just missionaries, but most people in The West … have about Africans and Africa and the nature of life there. The average American will see a photograph of a mud hut with a grass roof and a family positioned outside the hut staring into the camera and this average American will think, “Oh, those poor people” without any understanding of the fact that they could be looking at the happiest people they’ve ever seen living in relative comfort, with fulfilling lives. They are just not the lives that the average Westerner has determined, in their privileged, middle class, suburban mindset, to be ideal. But who cares what you think?


Most likely, they are dead by now.
Or, you can look at the broadly smiling face of an African Child bursting with happiness, and think, “well, they fixed that one … he’s happy” and not have any idea that this is a kid who will die of malaria next month because the region of Africa he lives in has zero medical care because there is a war going on over access to the raw materials needed to make your cell phone. Or because he lives near a Christian mission with a medical facility but is not a Christian.

In other words, you have no clue, most likely. And not only do you have no clue, but most of the bad stuff happening to these people is your fault. And you’re probably never going to get a clue. In fact, you are going to spend your energy denying that this is all your fault instead of just doing something to undo what your civilization has done.

The reason you not likely to figure this out, and that you are most likely to keep doing the wrong this, is because the reality that you are willfully misunderstanding is actually quite complicated, but you’ve been trained by your culture and society to view Africa and Africans as rather monolithic and simple.

These posts on missionaries don’t help much in that regard. In these posts, the Africans themselves are not really featured, and though they are far from one dimensional (do look and compare the different individuals mentioned) since these posts are not directly about them, there is just not much there. But I do hope that in reading these seven essays that you will come to understand one thing: When the missionary is showing the slide show about the great work the missionaries are doing, whether you are seeing this in church or on the web or at the local community center or public school, and the missionary is asking you for your money to help do more, please do write a check.

And send it to the UN. Or to the Ituri Forest People’s fund. Or some place, but not the missions.

Here are links to the missionary posts:

On a Mission from God

Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?

Our Research Camp as a Mission Station

The Great White Missionary

Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

Don’t be a Jew

The good book

Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

As I’ve mentioned previously, the study site I worked in was beyond the Peace Corps Line. It was beyond the Blender Line. And it was beyond the Beer Line. Out here in this arguably very remote area, we were never short of remoteness. Every year the study site become more and more remote, as roads deteriorated, air strips grew over, bridges became more and more questionable. Over the previous decades there had been more of a missionary presence in this area, but the missionaries had withdrawn and now only passed occasionally down the ribbon of mud we laughingly referred to as the “road.”

One day a rabid dog appeared out of nowhere, bit three or four goats, killed my cat, and bit six people.
Continue reading Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

Evidence for gene-autism link just published

The new study identifies 27 loci that have rare copy number variations, where there are more or fewer repeated DNA segments than expected, common to the genomes of several children with autism spectrum disorder. These variations are not present in controls without autism spectrum disorder.

The peer reviewed paper is available in the Open Access journal PLoS Genetics.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe sample included 2,832 individuals distributed among 912 families that had multiple autistic children. The control group consisted of 1,070 samples of disease-free children who presumably are not clustered from a smaller number of family groups.

Note the apparent imbalance in sample size. Actually, it is not as big of a difference as one might think, as the 2,832 individuals samples do not represent 2,832 cases because they come from a set of under 1,000 families. In effect, the sample size of autism-related individuals in 912.

Continue reading Evidence for gene-autism link just published

Michael Jackson Has Heart Attack, Rushed to Hospital.

Not many details available, but it sounds like he was found ‘not breathing’ and rushed to hospital. UPDATE: The word is that Jackson may have been not breathing and unresponsive at the time the paramedics arrived.

He was taken to UCLA medical center. This happened 2.5 hours ago, and there are no other details available.

The best information for now is probably the LA times.

UPDATE : TMZ is reporting that Jackson has died.

Sarah Palin Attacks Blogger

In an unprecedented move, former vice presidential candidate and intellectual leader of the Republican Party, Sarah “my daughter can have your baby” Palin has ruthlessly attacked a blogger who was being funny.

From an official Palin office email:

Recently we learned of a malicious desecration of a photo of the Governor and baby Trig that has become an iconic representation of a mother’s love for a special needs child.

Desecration? Doesn’t that word usually refer to damaging holy things and stuff?

Continue reading Sarah Palin Attacks Blogger

Supreme Court: 8-1, Strip search of girl to find ibuprofen was … wrong. Duh.

Eight to one? Any guesses as to which of the nine supreme court justices think it is OK to get a 13 year old girl to strip down and shake out her underwear so you can see if she has TWO ASPIRIN ON HER???

The Supreme Court said Thursday school officials acted illegally when they strip-searched an Arizona teenage girl looking for prescription-strength ibuprofen.

In an 8-1 ruling, the justices said that school officials violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches when they ordered Savana Redding to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear.

Redding was 13 when Safford Middle School officials in rural eastern Arizona conducted the search. They were looking for pills — the equivalent of two Advils. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs and the school was acting on a tip from another student.

The dissenting opinion was, of course, Clarence Thomas.

Continue reading Supreme Court: 8-1, Strip search of girl to find ibuprofen was … wrong. Duh.

The Great White Missionary

It was a rare day that I was at the Ngodingodi research station at all … usually I was off in the forest with the Efe Pygmies, up the road excavating an archaeological site. It was also rare that Grinker, my cultural anthropologist colleague, was at the research station. He was spending most of his time in the villages learning language and waiting around for the other shoe to drop (he studied conflict, so on the average day … not much conflict).

But then an even rarer thing happened.
Continue reading The Great White Missionary

Light in Moon’s Permanently Dark Craters

I have friend who has been trapped in a mostly underground research facility at the South Pole since early winter. She recently broke her foot, which is just tough luck because nobody gets out of there until spring, which is, I think, in October.

This will remind you of the stroy of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was at an Antarctic research station and diagnosed herself of having breast cancer, and was rescued rather dramatically back in 1999. Nielsen died, by the way, Tuesday. (Of breast cancer.)

Well, my friend at the South Pole is not going to die of a broken foot. (Though perhaps other people will. Die of her broken foot, that is.) But what is eventually going to happen is that the sun is going to come up.

But on the moon, there are places where, for all practical purposes, the sun never comes up. Just as with the earth, the polar regions receive oblique sun. Now think about that for a second. A crater is essentially a round cliff. While a cliff may blot out the sun from one direction, the sun will eventually be on the other side of the cliff and any shadowed area will be visible. But if the cliff circumscribes an area steeply enough, that area will never, ever have sunlight.

Between the round-cliff effect and the polar oblique sunlight effect, there are craters in the Moon’s polar regions that are not visible. Well, the crater is visible, but not the inside.

Fearing that these dark places may be where Moon Dwellers have set up extensive cities invisible from outer space1, NASA has figured out a way of imaging these craters using radar.

Details from the press release:

Continue reading Light in Moon’s Permanently Dark Craters