Monday, May 26, 2008

Caught in the Act...

Of parachuting, that is. This is just amazing:
NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander can be seen parachuting down to Mars, in this image captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This is the first time that a spacecraft has imaged the final descent of another spacecraft onto a planetary body.

From a distance of about 760 kilometers (472 miles) above the surface of the Red Planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its HiRISE obliquely toward Phoenix shortly after it opened its parachute while descending through the Martian atmosphere. The image reveals an apparent 10-meter-wide (30-foot-wide) parachute fully inflated. The bright pixels below the parachute show a dangling Phoenix. The image faintly detects the chords attaching the backshell and parachute. The surroundings look dark, but correspond to the fully illuminated Martian surface, which is much darker than the parachute and backshell.

Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of about 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) and a velocity of 1.7 times the speed of sound.

The HiRISE acquired this image on May 25, 2008, at 4:36 p.m. Pacific Time (7:36 p.m. Eastern Time). It is a highly oblique view of the Martian surface, 26 degrees above the horizon, or 64 degrees from the normal straight-down imaging of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image has a scale of 0.76 meters per pixel.
One satellite, whizzing by in it's orbit, takes a photo of the lander on its way down to the surface and itself moving very quickly. All done with the nearest human being several hundred million miles away. The capabilities of these robotic explorers staggers even a reasonably well-informed geek like me!

I never saw any announcement that they were attempting such a feat. That probably means it was a real longshot, and they didn't want to get expectations up...

Wow. Just wow!

Memorial Day Song...

Something to get you in the pondering frame of mind, on this Memorial Day:

The lyrics:

If you’re readin’ this
My momma’s sittin’ there
Looks like I only got a one way ticket over here.
I sure wish I could give you one more kiss
War was just a game we played when we were kids
Well I’m layin’ down my gun
I’m hanging up my boots
I’m up here with God and we’re both watchin’ over you

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul
Is where my momma always prayed that it would go.
If you’re readin’ this I’m already home.

If you’re readin’ this
Half way around the world
I won’t be there to see the birth of our little girl
I hope she looks like you
I hope she fights like me
And stands up for the innocent and the weak
I’m layin’ down my gun,
I’m hanging up my boots
Tell dad I don’t regret that I followed in his shoes

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul
is where my momma always prayed that it would go
If you’re readin’ this, I’m already hoooommmmmeeee

If you’re readin’ this,
There’s gonna come a day
You move on and find someone else and that’s okay
Just remember this
I’m in a better place
Soldiers live in peace and angels sing amazing grace

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul is where my momma always prayed that it would go
If you’re readin’ this
If you’re readin’ this
I’m already home

Remember our fallen heroes – and their families – today...

Full Color, Full Resolution...

Here's the first of what will be many to follow – a spectacular mosaic of color images taken at various elevations along a single azimuth.

This particular image is monocular, taken from just one of the pair of cameras on the mast. Soon we'll see similar examples in pairs, one from each camera, giving us stereo views just like our own eyes give us. Then we'll see the same scene with the added dimension of depth.

Those polygonal hummocks really jump out at me. I've very similar terrain in parts of Alaska and northern Finland. While driving through Finland I stopped to get out and look at this odd landscape, for at the time I had no idea what caused it. Just scraping with my foot a couple of inches deep got me into soil mixed with small chunks of ice (this was in April, almost at the northern border of Finland). Another inch or two down, and I ran into solid ice with embedded soil particles. Seeing this terrain provoked me into reading up on it, and from that reading I discovered that these polygons are the natural result of millenia of freezing and thawing cycles. When the liquid water freezes, it expands and moves the soil particles about – and eventually, through a complicated but predictable process, these polygonal hummocks form. I think the chances of them finding water ice just under this soil are very good, just based on my own observations in Finland...


Today we celebrate Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember the soldiers, sailors, and others of the United States who gave their lives defending our freedom. Originally this holiday (established after the Civil War) was each May 30th, but some years ago Congress, in a fit of pandering to the electorate, moved Memorial Day and several other holidays to be “floating” holidays – moved to the nearest Friday or Monday so as to create a worker-pleasing three day weekend. In the process, of course, they further eroded the symbolism of the day and helped turn it into a generic extra day off from work.

Our flag is flying today, on this wet Memorial Day. My habit is to just sit for a while and reflect on the sacrifice so many have made. Today I got to thinking about the statistics of war casualties – the way that the raw numbers have changed so much, even within my own lifetime. For starters, consider the numbers of American war dead for each major conflict we've been in:

Since the Vietnam war, in ten conflicts, we have suffered less than 5,000 casualties – nearly all of which are in Iraq. In just the preceding portion of the 20th century, we suffered over 600,000 war casualties – 120 times as many. But actually the impact on those earlier generations was even greater, as the U.S. population grew from 76 million to 281 million in that same period. I just ran the numbers, and it works out to roughly 1 American in 150 died in war in the first half of the 20th century, whereas today it is roughly 1 in 56,000. The generations that included my parents and my grandparents suffered casualties in war at a rate that is roughly 400 times what we're suffering today.

You'd never, ever figure that out from the news...

The casualty rate from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars works out to about 1,000 per year over the course of the war (though the rates are much lower than that today). Just for comparison purposes, the U.S. has between 35,000 and 40,000 traffic fatalities each year. And here's a much more politically-incorrect comparison: each year, something like 1.5 million American women kill their babies (exercising their “choice”).

Pondering all that, I can't help but observe that the vast majority of the men and women I'm remembering today were born before I was. They fought in wars that were much riskier for Americans – wars fought with weapons that look primitive compared to what our soldiers today have, wars fought against enemies with comparable (or even superior) military capabilities, and often wars that were much more clearly existential in nature.

None of these facts detracts from the courage and sacrifice of today's soldiers – this American couldn't be prouder of the superb troops we're fielding today, along with their incredibly superior weapons systems and the world's best military leadership. But it is surely something to reflect upon, as we listen to those so inclined talking endlessly about the terrible price we're paying in Iraq. Earlier wars exacted a vastly heavier toll in American blood, something that seems to have been generally lost from the American consciousness.

Too many Americans have forgotten the enormous sacrifice of earlier generations; I have witnessed this myself in many conversations, mainly with younger Americans, who have badly distorted views of our past. For instance, I recall a conversation a couple of years ago with a co-worker, a man about 30 years old. He was very angry about the Iraq war, and made a comment in my hearing to the effect that Bush was killing more Americans than any President before him.

I asked him if he really meant what he was implying, that more soldiers were dying in Iraq than had died in any previous war. He replied, with some heat, that of course that's what he meant. Further conversation revealed that he really did believe that we suffered more casualties in Iraq than we did in Vietnam, or World War II, or even than the Civil War. Such profound ignorance of history does more than dishonor the soldiers of yesterday – it's dangerous, as these ignorant people (Obama appears to be an example of this) are going to be our political leadership soon.

Now there's a scary thought on this Memorial Day!