Monthly Archives: October 2013

Happy 2nd anniversary – (Suomi) NPP

On 28 October 2011, the NPP weather and climate satellite launched on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Launches are complicated affairs and delays are routine. Not this one. The launch poll was unanimous, the countdown was smooth, and I had the good fortune to be able to witness the rocket ignite, climb, turn, and disappear into an unusually cloudless sky very very early in the California morning. It settled into a polar orbit about 512-miles over the earth’s surface and will continue collecting and relaying vital data for the foreseeable future.

CERES FM5 in the test chamber.  Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman Corporation

CERES FM5 in the test chamber. Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman Corporation

NPP carried five instruments and I managed the team that delivered the sole climate sensor to the spacecraft. The CERES (Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System) radiometer measures sunlight reflected from clouds and the earth’s surface along with infrared energy radiated by the warm earth itself. Science teams at NASA and around the world have been using data from CERES instruments to understand the effects of aerosols and clouds on the earth’s climate. CERES was not intended to be part of NPP but was manifested late to take advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. We were given a shade under nine months in 2008 to prepare the Flight Model 5 (FM5) instrument for the satellite including updating its innards, software, and performing extensive ground tests and calibrations. Our team delivered the unit a few days ahead of schedule. The instrument then waited for other sensors to arrive and the spacecraft underwent intensive testing before its ride to orbit. Following the launch, the mission was renamed Suomi-NPP in honor of Dr. Verner Suomi, one of the pioneers of space-based earth observation.

CERES instrument and team members  (foreground) and the NPP spacecraft, background Photo courtesy Ball Aerospace Corporation

CERES instrument and team members (foreground) and the NPP spacecraft (background)
Photo courtesy Ball Aerospace Corporation

It typically takes months to fully commission a satellite as complex as Suomi-NPP once it is launched. Instruments are turned on one-by-one and carefully put through a well-planned and thoroughly rehearsed set of checkouts and tests by the mission operations team. CERES FM5 was not turned on until late January 2012. One of the ‘first-light’ CERES images from the NASA science teams is below. It shows the visible light from the sun scattered off of clouds and land.

Incoming solar energy reflected back into space by clouds Image courtesy NASA Langley Research Center

Incoming solar energy reflected back into space by clouds
Image courtesy NASA/NOAA CERES Team via NASA Langley Research Center

There are now five CERES instruments in orbit. FM1 and FM2 launched on the Terra satellite in 1999, FM3 and FM4 launched on the Aqua satellite in 2002. The first four units are operating well beyond their five year design life and FM5 will preserve the continuity of a critical piece of earth’s climate data record.

Cue ball in the stunning pocket

Goran U's gorgeous Saturn image

Gordan Ugarkovic is a computer programmer. In his spare time he takes science data from space missions and creates his own mosaics for popular audiences. The one above is from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

Click on the photo to see more in Emily Lakdawalla’s blog at Pasadena’s The Planetary Society. Once there, keep clicking on the image to see it in even larger sizes.

It is breathtaking.

Visit NASA’s Planetary Data System to access data from many other missions of exploration.

MIT’s legendary Professor Walter Lewin explains how to pronounce Huygens here:


Youtube Channel: Lectures by Walter Lewin

[Updated 27 November 2022]

Laser radar for historical preservation

Motivated by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the CyArk Foundation seeks to preserve the world’s cultural heritage through intensive mapping of historical sites. Noble work if ever there was.

Laser radar (aka lidar or ladar) is among the techniques they use. Here, short pulses of laser light are directed towards an object and some of the light hitting the object gets backscattered towards the transmitter. A telescope sited alongside the transmitter collects the light and electronics determine how long it took for the light to return. This establishes the distance to the illuminated point. Scanning the transmitted beam across the target generates three dimensional point clouds that can be refined further into images.

The CyArk site contains wonderful imagery including point clouds of many notable sites in areas made accessible to their teams.

Read an interesting Washington Post article about the project.

The Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall

The BPO’s Digital Concert Hall deserves a look by fans of symphonic music. I’ve subscribed since it came out and it keeps getting better. Listen live on concert days (usually 11am California time) or immerse yourself in the archive at your leisure. Single event tickets through full season subscription options are available. A great orchestra, topnotch videography, on demand, no traffic, no parking, no goobers phlegming up a lung in the pianissimos.

– Free trailer on the main page

– Free full-length Beethoven and Mahler concert (registration required)

– 2009 review to the late, lamented Moderated Classical Music Mailing list

BPO’s Youtube Channel with excerpts

Mr. Yasuhisa Toyota – The honest engineer of Disney Hall

In the distant past, I belonged to an affiliate group of the LA Philharmonic.  This was around the time the Disney Hall project came out of limbo and went into construction.  The highlight of that membership was hearing Mr. Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics speak about concert hall design and the WDCH project, in particular.  My career to that point had been spent in academic R&D, laboratory-scale experimental work, and instrument development. I had little exposure to the practical engineering of large projects under close public scrutiny.

Mr. Toyota’s speech was a revelation and not just for the physics of symphony halls. His presentation to a group of non-specialists was a model of rigor and integrity.  There was none of the glad-handing or gorilla dust that’s often put forth when donors are in the audience looking for guarantees.  Everything he foresaw for the auditorium has come about.

Since then I’ve moved into applied science and actual engineering with customers to satisfy, milestones to meet, and profit to deliver.  That talk, 30 months before the Hall’s Grand Opening, became the standard to which I aspire when I give presentations.   I wrote up my notes from that day and sent them to a few people. I’m reprinting them after the break on the occasion of the Hall’s tenth anniversary.  Please note that the hyperlinks from a long-dated article may no longer work.

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