Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bright Lights in the Night Sky, My Chance to Use NASA's Satellite Tracker!

THE STARS AT NIGHT ARE BIG AND BRIGHT, deep in the heart of...RAMSEY, MN! It's true! I slept over at my parents' place this weekend and right before I hopped into bed the night of February 26, 2010, I looked up at the night sky. I like to do this whenever I'm out in the 'burbs because, as a city-dweller, I don't often get the chance to stargaze.

But what the heck? There was a star pulsing like all the others, but was pulsing red, blue, green, and white! I didn't immediately think UFO, but I did think it was the International Space Station (ISS) and I got very excited about that.

There were two other not-as-prominent blinkers in the sky that seemed to be pulsing red and white. But I concentrated on the brightest, most colorful spot. I zoomed my camera in as far as it would go and propped it up into a pair of binoculars so I could get the above video footage (sorry it's so shaky -- that's me, not the lights). Then I got online to find NASA's ISS tracker to see if that's what I was seeing for sure.

That colorful blinking light, sadly, was not party time on the ISS. Ok -- so what was it then? Most likely a satellite, spinning and reflecting light which made it appear to be blinking. But we live in the future now, so during my internet search, I was able to find out exactly what satellite it was -- as well as what those two other ones might be.
This neato NASA Skywatch 2.0 java applet (click the Skysearch tab) was a helpful search tool that "provides information you need to view the International Space Station, the Shuttle (when it is flying), and any of seven other satellites from wherever you are in the world."

The list gave me three sightings for that night:

One was for the FAST satellite. Because of the colorful waves eminating between Earth and the satellite in the official NASA image to the left, I tend to think this is the satellite I saw. FAST was launched on August 21, 1996. According to the website, "FAST's one year mission duration will be highlighted by this period of intense spacecraft and scientific activity. The measurements made by FAST will address a a broad range of scientific objectives in such areas as: Electron and ion acceleration by parallel E-fields, Wave heating of ions-ion conics, Electrostatic double layers, Field-aligned currents, Kilometric radiation, and General wave/particle interactions."

Another possible satellite was AJISAI (EGS). Click that link and get a load of all 318 mirrors on that disco ball. According to the link, "Ajisai is Japanese for Hydrangea. Prior to launch, the satellite was called Experimental Geodetic Satellite (EGS). The Ajisai mission has two primary objectives. The first objective, which was short term, was testing of NASDA's (now JAXA) H-I, two-stage, launch vehicle. The second and primary long term objective was to determine the exact positions of the many isolated Japanese Islands. Ajisai can also be used for directional and photometric observations, using the mirrors equipped on the surface of satellite." This is also a good candidate for what I saw because, according to Wikipedia, "There is a flash produced when the sun's reflection from one of the satellite's mirrors crosses an observer's position on the earth. Due to the satellite's rotation, and the changing geometry as the satellite moves along its orbit, EGP produces several of these flashes per second. EGP can take up to 18 minutes to cross the sky.
EGP's flashes are visible in binoculars if the observer is on the nighttime side of the planet, and the satellite is in sunlight while its orbital trajectory takes it above the observer's horizon. These conditions are often met in the hours after sunset, and the hours before sunrise. When EGP enters the earth's shadow, the stream of flashes abruptly ceases."
And the final option is a satellite named COSMOS 482 DEB. I'm pretty sure this is not the one, though perhaps it is the cause of the smaller red and white spots I saw. What's pretty interesting about this satellite is that it is no longer really a satellite. According to NASA, its status is DEBRIS, hence the DEB in its name. It was first launched March 31, 1972 and, according to The Planetary Society, COSMOS 482 was a failed Venus lander mission. "The final stage of the rocket carrying the spacecraft into orbit failed and it was unable to achieve the necessary trajectory to carry it on to Venus."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pavek Museum of Broadcasting

Written in 2002
THERE ARE MANY HIDDEN TREASURES in Minnesota, but I was flabbergasted to find such a prize in St. Louis Park. Like most treasure chests, The Pavek Museum of Broadcasting isn’t easy to spot. Hidden among the unimpressive offices of an industrial park, The Pavek Museum mistakenly follows suit as a plain brick building. Only until you are inside and surrounded by the unique collection of television and radio memorabilia will you realize that you’ve found the X that marks the spot.

Upon entering the museum, a television camera that could hold it’s own against a German U-boat towered over me and took up most of the space in the lobby. Stephan Raymer, managing director and one of the museum’s enthusiastic tour guides, asked what brought me to the museum on such a nice day. “Sheer boredom,” I answered. Raymer started the tour by showing clips from an episode of Axel and his Dog, a children’s television show that first aired on August 5, 1954. I walked a few more feet into a hallway where a collage of Howdy Doody memorabilia crowded around a thick, cream-colored television. The Howdy Doody Show fizzled onto the screen; Clarabell teaching children, and Buffalo Bob, math with canned foods in perfect black and white. The sketch faded and I was lead into another room, slightly bigger than the lobby. Once again greeted by caricatures of today’s appliances, I was able to see how advanced the refrigerator-sized record players of the thirties really were. And how wonderful would it be to have one in my own home, to look at and listen to everyday?
Stand back,” Raymer said, as he plugged in a rotary spark-gap transmitter (telegraph machine) from 1912, not unlike the one used on the Titanic. “It’s pretty old and I don’t know how it’s going to act from time to time.” I stood back, watched him plug in a cord and hand-crank life into the giant machine and create sparks on the spider web-like antennae. My boredom had extinguished. This is the only object that I was told to stand back from, by the way. Mostly visited by children on school fieldtrips, The Pavek Museum teaches children about past technology and are also given the opportunity to make their own radio shows in the authentic 1950’s radio booths. Despite having such a rare exhibit, this is the most interesting hands-on museum I’ve been to.

There is a final giant room in the museum lined with old radios that represent the first 50 years of radio. You’ll have a chance to listen to them too, but not before winning points on the genuine quiz show television set. “Mickey, Mighty, Minnie, and Speedy Gonzales are all famous examples of…” Raymer acted as television host after I stepped up behind the quiz show podiums and viewed myself in the television monitor. I buzzed in on my buzzer, very similar to the thumb clickers on seen on Jeopardy, and answered nervously into the console microphone, “MICE!” I got twenty points for that. If the tour had been over then, I would have been completely satisfied. But I was then guided to a strange device in a corner of the museum. Upon turning on the device, my tour guide began waving his hands near the metal bars protruding from it. “It’s a Theremin,” he explained while trying to play a song. I found it was easier to make it whine like a police siren, but I felt like I was putting on a little magic show by not having to touch the instrument at all to make it work. The perfect museum object, now that I think about it.

Joseph Pavek, the man for which the museum was named, was Bing Crosby’s sound engineer, and so another rare piece the museum has is Bing Crosby’s first recorded music. Of course you are able to listen to it, on the original tape and the original machine it was recorded on. I never knew that radios from the thirties had remote controls, either. But here, of course, I was able to give one a try. The storage room of this place is not unlike the government warehouse scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark, which shows a never-ending room of anonymous crates. The storage room at the Pavek is likewise filled with old radios, television sets, and an old weather antenna made from the nosecone of a B-52 bomber that used to reside at the top of the Foshay Tower. The walls are covered with old signs, including rust damaged WCCO letters, and a barely used sign from TV Heaven 41. The Pavek holds a surprising amount of unique items and is a sure cure for boredom—unlike my television and radio at home.