An opportunity to see bison up close and help in conservation efforts

April 10, 2014

I found this amazing project to study wildlife on the prairies of Northeastern Montana. They require volunteers to gather data and help build the largest protected wildlife area in the continental United States, making it larger than Yellowstone National Park!

More information here.

Credit: Dennis Linghor

Credit: Diane Hargreaves

Credit: Valerie Bruchon


Exploring rocky worlds

March 27, 2014

Our solar system is a wondrous place. Not much time goes by after one exciting discovery before we come across a new finding that surpasses the previous one in impact factor. That may well be what is in store for NASA’s Dawn mission to the asteroid belt, a space mission to, effectively, study our planetary origins.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft's journey Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft’s journey
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Dawn spacecraft “visited” the third largest member of the asteroid belt, called Vesta, in 2011 and 2012, and is now headed towards an encounter with the considerably larger Ceres in 2015. Despite being traditionally known as asteroids, the relatively large sizes of Vesta and Ceres create a bit of a headache for astronomers as to their exact designation (under the new definitions introduced by the International Astronomical Union that demoted Pluto from the planet club in 2006, Ceres is now termed a “dwarf planet”), and so there doesn’t seem to be an agreement among the astronomical community about what best to call them. Nevertheless, most experts agree that those two huge rocks are protoplanets, that is, precursors of what would otherwise have been one or more planets.

Ceres is an almost spherical body with a diameter of 974 kilometers; that’s about the size of Texas! Its mass alone comprises about one-third of the total mass of bodies in the asteroid belt. With the help of very precise calculations, planetary scientists have concluded that it contains a rocky core at its center, which in turn is surrounded by a mantle of water ice that could be up to 100 km thick. If this is true, then it would mean that Ceres contains more water than the amount of fresh water on Earth!

Size comparison of Earth, the Moon, and Ceres. Image: NASA

Size comparison of Earth, the Moon, and Ceres. Image: NASA


Ceres viewed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Ceres viewed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

In fact, we might already have direct evidence of the presence of water on Ceres. An international team of astronomers recently discovered what could very well be a tenuous cloud of water vapor emanating from distinct sources on the surface of the dwarf planet. The observations were carried out with the Herschel space telescope, and they could point to either cryo-volcanic activity (meaning that volcanoes would erupt water instead of molten rocks) or comet-like sublimation of near-surface ice (sublimation is the transformation of ice directly into vapor). Which of these two mechanisms is the right one is something that Dawn might be able to answer in about a year’s time.



Vesta is slightly more irregular in shape than Ceres, and it has a mean diameter of 525 km. It contains very little water, and its south pole is marked by an enigmatic feature: an enormous crater almost as large as Vesta itself, with a diameter of 460 km and 13 km deep. There is no general consensus yet about what caused it, but some estimates suggest that a 42-km projectile, traveling at a whopping 5 km/s, might have been the culprit. Imagine what it would have been like to witness such an explosive event!

South pole of Vesta, imaged by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA.

South pole of Vesta, imaged by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA.

One of the most amazing outcomes of this collision is that it might have been responsible for sending pieces of Vesta our way, in the form of meteorites. This has been inferred from laboratory studies of a particular type of meteorites, called howardite-eucrite-diogenite, or HED for short, whose stony properties seem to match those of Vesta and its “family”, a group of smaller asteroids thought to have been expelled from the giant impact on Vesta’s south pole. I find it mind-blowing that we on Earth are able to hold in our hands fragments of material that was formed billions of years ago, when the solar system was still in its infancy…

The elevation on the south pole of Vesta (at the bottom of the image) is more than twice the height of Mount Everest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

One of the last images of Vesta taken by Dawn as it departed towards Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future astronauts will be able to land on, and explore, Ceres and Vesta. The good thing about landing on bodies of that size is that you won’t need as much fuel to take off again, because they have less gravity than, say, the Earth or Mars. Could it be you who will walk on the surface of an asteroid for the first time?



NewSpace at the American Museum of National History

March 21, 2014

Last Wednesday, noted science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of National History. The panelists included high executives from space companies, space organizations, and experts on space policy. The title of the debate was a concise “Selling Space”. Hopefully, it will become available on YouTube soon.

I share here a few conclusions that I drew from the many interesting points touched upon:

1. Access to space for ordinary citizens is still many years away. Even if the space tourism companies successfully pull their vehicles off the assembly line and into the launch pad (or runway), ticket prices will remain on the order of $100,000 for suborbital flights, and tens of millions for orbital and cis-lunar flights. On the upside, those same companies will be able to offer much lower prices for scientific research, compared to government-led missions.

2. There seems to be a disagreement between industry leaders and policy experts as to the inspirational value of space tourism to engage the public in space exploration. While some think that only government astronauts can inspire the public and younger generations, much like the early astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs of the 1960s and 1970s, others are confident that space tourists can add a certain educational value to their multimillion-dollar “joyrides”, as one panelist put it. I see merit on both sides of the argument, but I think space companies can renew the excitement for space exploration if their missions include precisely that kind of focus, exploration.

3. Some people are nervous about the safety goals of the commercial space companies. It’s probably natural that during the emergence of such a “disruptive” industry as NewSpace (the umbrella term that refers to the different private enterprises whose aim is to transport people and cargo to low-Earth orbit and beyond) some fears may arise. However, I’m confident that safety milestones are foremost in designers’ minds.

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

The bold rescue mission that never was

March 3, 2014

My friend Eva Noyola pointed out a recent article that describes a hypothetical rescue mission that could have been implemented to save the astronauts on board space shuttle Columbia 11 years ago, according to Appendix D.13 of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report. The article is gripping in its rendition of the drama that would have unfolded had NASA decided to launch a rescue flight to bring the astronauts back to Earth. It seems, however, that such a complex operation would have been extremely difficult to accomplish given the time constraints. Nevertheless, it’s food for thought for future rescue missions.


Image credit: NASA

The most vivid first lunar landing to date

October 28, 2013

I came across this magnificent website, built by an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, of the first lunar landing.

The website shows communications between Mission Control and the astronauts of Apollo 11 during the last several minutes before touchdown, as well as after. The transcripts are shown in real time, and they allow the user to understand what’s going on (if you are familiar with the technical jargon, that is!).

The website also features a pictorial representation of the Lunar Lander and its pitch angle, and video of the lunar surface as seen from one of the windows.

It’s the most realistic experience that I’ve found of that historic event!

The website is here:

Mountaineering in Alaska! (part 2)

September 1, 2013

After we arrived at our base camp site and had a little time to rest and absorb the magnificent views around us, we got to work and started building the camp. We set up our tents on the snow and we dug pits (“vestibules”) right in front of the entrances to make it easier to get in. We also built what would be our kitchen and dining area: a large pit in the snow complete with ice seats and table, all covered by a tarp. I felt like I was at one of those hotels that you occasionally see advertised as completely made of ice.


Digging a vestibule for easier access to our tent.


Building our kitchen.

Our first formal lesson, which took place right after dinner, was about knots and “hitches”, which keep you and your climbing gear safe and steady during critical parts of a climb. It took me a little while to get the knots right (you even have to “dress” them to make sure they keep a certain symmetry), but once you are done it’s amazing to see how strong they can be, and the loads that they can hold are incredible.

During the following days we learned basic techniques to set up anchors in the snow, to advance as a group tied to the main rope while being tied to the anchors, and to stop ourselves with our ice axes in the event of a fall downhill (probably the most fun exercise of all).


Late afternoon at base camp. Directly behind me is Satellite mountain, blocking the sun. You can see the face of the mountain that we climbed on to get to the highest point (shown in the pictures below).

The real challenge for me came on the fourth day, when we set out to climb the nearest peak to our camp, called Satellite. We started off very early in the morning, and we headed towards the snowed ridges in a single line, like a group of ants. It wasn’t long until we met with a near-vertical slope covered by gravel and loose rocks, which in most cases would easily crumble and roll downhill. The instructors told us that as long as we fixed our boots to the unstable terrain as best we could, without putting our weight on our hands, the climb up would be easier. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but by trusting our guides’ technique and focusing on my moves, I was able to ignore the rocks falling several hundred feet below me and to my side.

Once we got past that part, we continued on until we arrived at a small plateau from which we could see the summit. It was only a few hundred meters away, but to reach it we had to walk on a very steep slope of snow. Our group leader, Chris, went first, and treading carefully but with resolve he planted anchors as he went forward, so that we would have a secure hold in our trek to our “finish line”.

Half-way through our climb.

Half-way through our climb.

Bury your ice ax in the snow to get a good hold, then take another step.

Bury your ice ax in the snow to get a good hold, then take another step.

Climbing to the summit. We had to bury the tips of our boots in the snow to get a good hold, in addition to using our ice axe for stability.

Climbing to the summit. We had to kick and bury the tips of our boots in the snow to get a good hold, in addition to using our ice axe for stability.

Closer to the summit. Notice the steepness of the slope on which we are walking.

Closer to the summit. Notice the steepness of the slope on which we are walking.

Since the snow was relatively untouched, the first climbers were setting off small avalanches as they climbed on, which was an amazing sight. Step by step, using our ice axes for better stability and being careful not to slide down too much, since to our left we could see a 200-meter drop, we reached the highest point of the mountain and were fortunate enough to admire a magnificent view of the surrounding mountain ranges, well worth the hardships, sweat and stress of the last few hours.

Part of our view during our climb to the summit of Satellite mountain.

Part of our view during our climb to the summit of Satellite mountain.

We couldn’t stay for too long at the top: as the sun got higher in the sky, the temperature rose accordingly and the snow  started to turn into a slush. It was imperative to start our climb down before the snow lost its cohesive strength. This was the most demanding part of our climb, but once again, I forced myself to focus only on my technique and put aside any thoughts of falling down in the melting snow to the foot of the mountain.

Mountaineering in Alaska! (part 1)

July 31, 2013
First camp

First camp

I’m back from a fantastic experience in the mountains of Alaska. It was an episode filled with firsts: first time climbing a snowed mountain, first time rappelling, first time not taking a shower for more than two days…since I was 14.  Not only did I learn the basic technical aspects of the demanding sport of mountain climbing, but I also learned a little about group expeditionary behavior, leadership under strenuous circumstances, and how to overcome one’s self-imposed limits.

Getting to the site

As we hiked up with our heavy backpacks full of gear and the trees gave way to open plains surrounded by mountains, I felt glad that prior to this trip I had trained for the physical demands of the course. We also took turns dragging sleds which contained our entire food for the following 12 days, plus more gear. The views were absolutely stunning, and they would remain so for the duration of the course.

From our first camp at around 10 pm.

From our first camp at around 10 pm.

Towards the end of the first day we set up camp on a morraine (an agglomeration of rocks and dirt formed by the motion of glaciers) about 2 miles from our intended site. Our instructors reckoned that it was better to spend the night there and rest than pushing ourselves for the last leg of our hike up. That was my first lesson on adapting to a difficult terrain or environment.

Late that night (or very early in the morning, rather) I went outside my tent and I was instantly fascinated by the spectacle around me. It was far from dark, and I was able to walk around without using my headlamp. It was chilly and calm, and far in the distance I could see a blinking light right in front of a remote mountain, possibly a guide for low-flying helicopters. But what I found most captivating was the complete silence. It was a bit of a surreal experience, being in the middle of all those beautiful mountains in the summer Alaskan night and not hearing a single sound.

The next day we finished our trek to the camp site, and I will forever remember the amazing workout that my legs got by dragging a sled and carrying my backpack  up a 30-degree snow slope. To make our walking easier we wore snow shoes, and by doing so I learned a valuable lesson on leadership. When I put on the shoes, I noticed that one of them was broken and my boot would not stay attached to it. I let our group leader, Billy, know about the problem, and after he realized it would not be possible to completely fix the snow shoe he took off one of his and gave it to me. During our hike I noticed that he was the slowest one of the group, and was also the last one to arrive at base camp. A few days later I learned that Billy had suffered a broken ankle in a previous expedition, and he was experiencing considerable pain now. I was completely amazed at, and humbled by, his phenomenal level of professionalism. That’s a true leader right there, I thought.

Snow shoes

Snow shoes



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 312 other followers