[Sara's blog] James Webb Space Telescope 101… in one minute!

One of the things that was filmed during Coma Niddy’s visit last week was a special episode of his “SCI CODE” web series. He asked us if there was someone who could tell him the basics about the James Webb Space Telescope (no problem!)… in less than a minute (much harder!). We called upon Dr. Amber Straughn, who wears a lot of hats – Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Science Communications, lead of our Division’s education and public outreach team (a.k.a. our boss), and occasional guest Blueshift contributor, among other things. She nailed this video in just a couple of takes:

For more information about JWST (if you’ve got more than a minute), check out the mission website for tons of background info and multimedia. And stay tuned for more from Coma Niddy!

[Sara's blog] A visit from Coma Niddy and PBS Digital Studios!

Yesterday and today, we’ve been hosting a few special guests who have come to see what’s going on at NASA Goddard and… shoot a music video! We’ve been talking to science educator/rapper Coma Niddy about a collaboration for nearly a year now, and everything finally came together to schedule a visit from him and a team from PBS Digital Studios. After weeks of emailing lyrics back and forth for science fact-checking, and talking locations and storyboards and NASA visualizations, the big day arrived! Here are a few behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot for Coma Niddy’s upcoming music video about black holes (and why they’re not the scary monsters shown in pop culture).

Coma Niddy visits Goddard!
Rapping about black holes in front of a visualization of the Milky Way’s galactic center (which contains a supermassive black hole) on the Science on a Sphere at Goddard’s Visitor Center.

Coma Niddy visits Goddard!
Coma Niddy peers out of a vintage 1960s training model of a Gemini capsule.

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[Sara's blog] Bringing Astrophysics to YouTube: An Interview with Jessica Few

Earlier this year, Blueshift contributor Koji Mukai sent us a link to a series of astronomy videos produced by Jessica Few, a student at Durham University in the UK. We loved the videos, and knew we wanted to share them… and find out a bit more about Jessica and her project!

Blueshift: Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Jessica: I finished my physics degree at Durham University this summer. I’ve always been interested in physics – it’s so fundamental. I find it amazing that we can understand so much about the way that the universe works from the smallest scale to the largest… but there’s still so much more to discover!


Supernovae and their Remnants

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[space crafts] Build your own JWST costume!

For the past couple of years, we’ve run a Halloween costume contest – and we’ve seen some pretty amazing costumes! We also occasionally get a peek at costumes (in-progress and finished) on Twitter or Facebook… and when the Schoellner family tweeted a shot of their JWST costume, we knew we needed to share! They’ve kindly put together a tutorial for us about how they built it.

Without further ado… take it away, Dirk!


With rockets, space exploration, and alien planets, it’s natural that NASA inspires kids of all ages. Combine that excitement and creativity with Halloween and the possibilities are endless. We start early each year – by September, the kids have ideas of what they would like to be for Halloween, usually inspired by the latest NASA probes to make the news. This year’s costume by our seven year-old was inspired by a visit to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s visitor center where he saw an example of the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) hexagonal mirrors.

In general, we’ve found that designing NASA-based costumes out of common household materials adds to the kids’ creativity (and ours), and the JWST costume was no exception. We built the primary mirror array using a trash can lid, as it gave us a nice concave surface to work with.

Building a JWST costume
Credit: Dirk Schoellner

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[podcast] Studying Simulated Stardust

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Click to listen! (10MB MP3, right-click to save)
Transcript (Text, PDF)

Dust – on Earth, it’s a nuisance. But in space, it’s a valuable natural resource, a raw material essential to the formation of nearly any object imaginable. NASA Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Christina Richey studies interstellar dust grains through laboratory-created analogs, comparing the properties of simulated stardust to data from missions like SOFIA, Spitzer, and Herschel. This hands-on approach gives Christina and other researchers unique insight into the building blocks of stars, planets, and even life. This research complements observational data, computer simulations, and other studies of how objects form and work in space. In this interview, Blueshift spoke to Christina about her research as well as her adventures outside the lab, looking for life in exceptionally hostile environments.

Christina Richey
Credit: Christina Richey

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[Sara's blog] Awww! Cosmic baby pictures!

Infant Stars Peek Out from Dusty Cradles
Protostars in Messier 78, as seen by multiple observatories
Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/JPL-Caltech/Max-Planck

The side-by-side images above depict protostars found in Messier 78, a reflection nebula found within the constellation Orion (but not the Orion Nebula, which is Messier 42). These are some of the youngest stars that astronomers have ever seen – some of them are still embedded deeply in a gaseous envelope, which would suggest that they’re under 25,000 years old. That may seem like a long time compared to our human lives… but for stars that can live for millions or billions of years, it’s still stellar infancy. These images accompanied this press release from the Herschel space observatory, and represent observations from Herschel as well as ground-based telescopes. Though they can be difficult to detect, researchers are hoping to document more young stars in various stages of life – from before birth through infancy – to learn more about the early development of stars.

NASA often looks at “young” astronomical objects, to learn more about the formation and evolution of the Universe. Here’s a selection of some beautiful and interesting cosmic baby pictures…
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[Sara's blog] A Blast from the Past

The past few weeks have seen the release of several fantastic space-themed videos. You may have seen them as they made the rounds on Twitter or Tumblr, but I wanted to take a moment to highlight three that take a nostalgic look back at NASA’s missions and personnel in the 1970s and 1980s.

We’ll start with this TED-Ed animated video narrated by Astronaut Jerry Carr, commander of Skylab 4 (the final mission to Skylab) from November 16, 1973 to February 8, 1974. In this video, he talks about his time with NASA, which didn’t take him directly from basic training to a flight crew – in fact, he spent several years shadowing and supporting Apollo operations while he waited for a chance to go into orbit. I especially enjoyed his stories about working on Apollo 8 and 12, each of which definitely had some stressful moments but ended up as highly successful milestones in NASA history.
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[Sara's blog] Go, Super-TIGER, go!

Members of the Super-TIGER team in Antarctica
Super-TIGER team members in Antarctica:
John E Ward (WUSTL), Ryan Murphy (WUSTL), Thomas Hams (GSFC), Sean Fitzsimmons (GSFC)
Credit: NASA/WUSTL

We’ve talked about NASA’s scientific balloon projects in the past, even featuring them in a two-part podcast series about balloon-borne science in Antarctica and what it’s like to live and work on the ice. Scientific balloons are an alternative to satellites for some NASA projects – they cost less, are easier to launch, and often allow researchers to recover their hardware for future refinement and re-flight.

The Super-TIGER (Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder) balloon-borne experiment is currently flying over a hundred thousand feet above Antarctica, circling the South Pole for the third time since its launch on December 9, 2012. The project is a NASA-funded collaboration with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Goddard Space Flight Center, California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Minnesota. The scientific instruments on Super-TIGER are collecting cosmic rays, in hopes of better understanding their origins.

When Super-TIGER launched, its team planned for the balloon to make at least two full loops around the pole. When it completed that, they decided… let’s keep going! And soon after their third loop began, they set a new flight duration record for scientific ballooning.
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[Try It At Home] Turning Sound Into Light

This is a long-overdue follow-up to the blog where we showed you how to eavesdrop on the signals coming from your remote control, turning the infrared light patterns into sound through a simple circuit with a photocell and an amplifier/speaker. In this Try It At Home activity, we’ll build another circuit – and this one will turn your favorite songs into pulses of light to be received by the first circuit. Put the two circuits together and, well… we’ll show you what happens at the end of this entry!

Here’s the set-up:

Sound into Light #1

This circuit has a few more pieces than the last one, but again, these are items that you should be able to pick up from an electronics or computer supplier:
- An infrared LED
- A 0.22 μF (that’s a microfarad) capacitor
- An AA battery in an AA battery holder
- An audio cable with a 1/8″ plug on one end and two wire leads on the other
- Five test leads with jumper clips on each end
- An audio source

We’ll take you step-by-step through building this circuit. It looks more complicated than it actually is, mostly due to all of the long wires between parts! Building these circuits is really a breeze, you just clip the test leads to the wires on the components. We used multicolor test leads to help you see what’s connected, but they’re all the same thing – an insulated wire with a clip at each end.
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[Sara's blog] American Astronomical Society wrap-up

Each December, there’s a bit of a lull in astronomy news. Not only do the holidays slow things down, but astronomers are also getting ready for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in January. These AAS meetings (there’s also a summer meeting in May or June) are a particularly high-profile place to announce a groundbreaking discovery or other exciting piece of research – scientists are surrounded by their peers, with press conferences held daily throughout the week-long meeting. We’ve covered a few of these meetings in the past – you can learn more about AAS press conferences, follow Maggie’s adventures at the 2011 AAS meeting in Seattle, or even listen to our podcast from a meeting in 2010.

This year’s AAS winter meeting was held in Long Beach, CA, where astronomers got a bit of sunshine and sand as well as time to meet with their colleagues, present their research, and hear about the latest and greatest astronomy news. We wanted to share some of the highlights from the astrophysics press releases – and there are some particularly exciting ones in this meeting’s batch!


Schematic of Fomalhaut System
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

From a “zombie” to a “rogue” – the astronomy community still can’t get enough of the strange planet Fomalhaut b! First, there was controversy over whether it was a planet or a dust cloud, and now they’re looking at the planet’s unusual orbit within the debris disk of its host star, Fomalhaut. The planet’s highly elliptical, 2,000-year orbit leads astronomers to suspect that there may be other planet-like bodies hiding within the debris around Fomalhaut. One or more of these other bodies may have gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b, ejecting it from a position closer to the star and sending it on a wild and potentially destructive orbit through the debris disk. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard about Fomalhaut b, as astronomers are hoping to continue the hunt for other planets in its system, and to better understand its own characteristics.
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