Timestream Post: A note from 03/17/2012

17 03 2017

Well, I’m standing in the midst of my 5th year wedding anniversary, and I thought it sensible to send a note forward another five years.  (It seems a nice increment for several reasons… not the least of which is our digits. *grin*)

We’re just hours from a renewal of our wedding vows downtown at a Las Vegas-style Strip-front “chapel,” to be wed by a singing Elvis.

No doubt, this will be a memorable affair. =)

Will we raise the bar for our ten-year renewal celebration?  Or, in the spirit of this experiment I suppose I should ask in the present-tense, are we raising the bar?  What are we doing?

The big difference this year compared to previous years (Elvis aside) is little Grayson!  At the time of this posting, he should be about 5-and-a-half.  …and I’m dying to know all about who the little guy is becoming!

Developmentally everything going okay?  (He seems to be cruising so far!)  Personality?  Does he still hate sleep?

I can only presume the 2012 end-of-the-world hype will go exactly the way of the 1999, 2000 end-of-the-world hype.  The economy is in shambles, particularly in Las Vegas.  Are things now looking up?

Please, tell me all about 2017!

From the Past and with love for my friends and family (Gray!),

Ben

Me (proud Dad) and Gray, March 17, 2012.

Advertisements




Jumping the Timestream: Post from 07/25/2012

25 07 2014

Well, as a follow-up to a timestream post sent a little more than a year ago, I’m writing today to ask the future about the ultimate merits and/or penalties of having engaged in the National Geographic television show “Chasing UFOs,” which as it would turn out is a great deal less scientific than I’d originally hoped/been led to believe.  Not for lack of trying, mind you.  It just wasn’t up to me.  But then again, you know about all that.

My real question is this: It seems there is a fraternity of professional scientists who wanted to try and engage in mainstream media with varying amounts of success.  I myself don’t like the trend toward less-informative television that I seem to have involuntarily become a part of, and I’m considering taking a more vocal stand on behalf of science in the media.

So…  What happens?  This is all very new territory for me.  What do I decide to do, and what doors do these decisions open and/or close?

Very anxious to learn more,

Ben

July 25, 2012; 03:20p.m. PT





The Science Behind “America Declassified” – White Sands

6 12 2013

IMG_4250

Unintended Consequences

My adventures as a scientist-host with the Travel Channel television series, “America Declassified” took me across the blinding flats of the White Sands Missile Range, which had unintended consequences.  Unnervingly, it deposited a sliver in my mind that I simply cannot ignore.

In forging outward across the staggeringly-immense, derelict runways we now know as White Sands Space Harbor, witnessing firsthand the contrast between what had until so recently been a fully-functional spaceport and today’s blatantly inhospitable reality, I was left with a persistent awareness of a haunting, obscure truth:

Ours is a civilization that is mature (and immature?) enough to have developed space travel technology… and then completely let it go.

Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Sifting the Future Past

This disturbing truth, revealed to me as we barreled across the slow-motion avalanche of selenite crystals relentlessly erasing the spaceport from existence, is that from this moment onward the science of studying humanity’s artifacts – archaeology – will include not just arrowheads and pottery, but also advanced spaceflight technology.

Could it be that we have reached an era where we – due to social, political, or economic difficulties – actually regress technologically?  A time where what we currently achieve is less advanced than what we achieved in the past?

It is here that we venture headlong into the little-known, frontier science of Space Archaeology.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Archaeology at the Final Frontier

Beyond the obvious, the study of historical space technology also includes places like White Sands Space Harbor.  The facility boasted several features unique to human history, like runways that were flat, long, and wide enough to be used to train people to land vehicles returning from space, or the fact that they were marked in such a way that they could be seen by human pilots reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles-per-hour, or speeds greater than Mach 23(!).

Admittedly, this concept of archaeology runs contrary to our popular view of archaeologists.  It seems difficult, for instance, to envision Indiana Jones racing against the clock to retrieve a turbo-cryo-pump from an abandoned rocket testing facility before it is demolished, or diving to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a historic rocket engine before it rusts to pieces… Yet, that’s exactly what a select few scientists are attempting as I type.

Travel Channel’s Citizen Science-Explorers

In the final analysis, it could very well be that viewers who share in this segment’s exploration of modern lore, tromping off the beaten path with me onto restricted territory at White Sands, were themselves briefly transformed into citizen space archaeologists.

-And in this light, we might all unwittingly serve a very important role through the lens of history – to help ensure that while spaceflight technology might indeed be lost to the sands of time, it will never be completely forgotten.

Semper Exploro – Always Explore!

Ben McGee





Timestream Post: A note from 07.19.2011

19 07 2013

Greetings from the past!

In this case, the date is July 19, 2011, and I’ve just returned from the first of a two-day assessment of a radiological laboratory outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  While I’m supposed to be knee-deep in schoolwork, I’ve found a little extra time to continue this a-chronistic endeavor.

When shall I send this?  When, oh when indeed?  I’ve written enough of these trans-temporal notes that picking an appropriate delivery time is starting to seem a little… difficult.  (-Is is chronistically gouche to deliver messages from two separate points in time to the same or similar destination dates?  Is that the time-equivalent of double-booking an evening date?  Hmm…)

I think I’ll send this a cool two years forward.  There are a number of things in play that I believe should be resolved – or at the very least resolved – by that point.  With a limping truck, a start-up company in play and my (somewhat obscured) face in Newsweek, a kid in the works, a potential brewing TV show, and a looming foreclosure of my ill-timed and financially ruinous townhouse…  I truly have no idea what the future holds.

So, future, how about it?

On this business trip, I'm cheating on my truck with this dashing machine...

Let’s go down the list.

Do I have a new vehicle in the future, or have I continued to resurrect my trusty 2000 Ford Ranger, “Wolfsburg?”  I must admit that I am quite taken with my rental car this trip, a fortuitously neglected Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport, which I received instead of a compact car from the rental agency.  It handles as well as a sturdy truck, has decent visibility, and one can even remove the top!

I’m smitten.  Does the burgeoning romance lead anywhere?

(After all, there’s not much room for a car seat in the truck…)

Spaceflight Fitness!

Second, what’s happening or has happened with Astrowright?  (Will that link even still work?)

Right now, I’m desperately trying to find time to iron out remaining services and organizational literature, promotional material, and I’m working to scrape up initial clients.  Truthfully, I’m having a hard time before having a child in my midst…

Is it folly to think I can do it all – work, school, side business, be a father – and be successful while maintaining my sanity?

What does 2013 have to say?

Though, I should also admit that the current spaceflight developments aren’t all stressful.  I was pleasantly surprised on my way out to South Carolina a couple of days ago to find myself in Newsweek Magazine article entitled “The Next Space Race!”

Yep. That's me on the left! (Credit: Newsweek)

As it would turn out, the Newsweek writer embedded with us while in scientist-astronaut training at the NASTAR Center had his story picked up to coincide with the final Space Shuttle launch – and so there it was, on page 59 of the July 18th issue, staring at me as I wandered through the airport!

So, yes, my face is covered by a respirator mask, but there I am, flightsuit sleeves rolled up and ready to go.

Also, by this time in the year 2013, we should be approaching the second birthday of my first kid!  I’m banking on it being Grayson James McGee that we’ll be meeting here in a bit, and he’ll likely be clipping through the milestones on his way to the “terrible twos.” =)

Will he want to be an astronaut like his dad?  (If so, will that freak his dad out?)

Also, while not spaceflight per se, I’ve got a meeting tomorrow afternoon with representatives from Ping Pong Productions – a television production house that filmed a demo for a UFO-crash-site archaeology TV show they’re interested in doing with me, if a network picks it up.  Apparently, they have news.

Honestly, I’m a little terrified.  I’m not a TV personality, and getting involved with a popular “UFO-hunter”-styled show will likely stretch my scientific credibility.  -But, it will likely be an adventure, to be sure.  It borders on too bizarre to feel real, but in just a day I’m going to be on the phone to find out…

What they heck are they going to tell me?  TV show?  If so, do I take the gig?  If so, was it a good idea?

8408 Majestic View Ave. Still in my tenuous possession in 2013?

Rounding out the things on my mind is, unsurprisingly, my townhouse.  As it stands, my cousin and her boyfriend are renting it from me, though prices have dropped so dramatically that I’m taking an incredible loss every month.

What am I doing?  It’s sufficiently destroyed my savings, and I feel like the last one to not ditch the now incomprehensibly underwater investment.

I ask again – what am I doing?  I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford it at all after having another mouth to feed in a few months.

Does 2013 show that I’ve hit the lottery and was able to hang onto the thing?

Like the Man says – there are no problems, only solution.  All times are good ones if we but know what to do with them, right?

Here’s to pretending I know what to do with this one.  =)

Cheers,

Ben

July 19, 2011.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011. 2:30pm.





Talking Space Radiation Dosimetry at NSRC 2013

24 06 2013
Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

I recently had the great pleasure to give a talk (and serve as co-author for a second) at the fourth annual Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), held this year in Boulder, Colorado.

As a one-of-a-kind collection of researchers, entrepreneurs, spacecraft providers, students, and government representatives, NSRC’s intent is to foster collaboration of a sort that will enable the research world to fully utilize what amount to a fleet of new spacecraft looking to come online within the next 24 months.  In all, exciting to be amongst like-minded folks, great to see familiar faces again, and a thrill to forge new alliances.

Two Radiation Take-Homes for the Suborbital Space Community

IMG_4535So, what was I doing there?  In brief, on behalf of my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright, I made a daring and ill-advised attempt to shove a 40-slide presentation into 10 minutes, with (based on positive feedback) it seems at least a small amount of success.  (I wouldn’t have even made such a blitzkrieg attempt unless it was absolutely necessary in the context of my talk.)

The intent?  To give a broad enough overview of radiation detector theory so that I had a prayer of communicating to this very select audience two imminent realities of space radiation dosimetry:

  1. The private/commercial spaceflight world, particularly in the suborbital context, is primed to (mis)use off-the-shelf radiation dosimeters designed for the commercial nuclear world; these instruments will not deliver complete or ultimately meaningful numbers without applying specific scaling algorithms to the results, in essence calibrating them for the space environment.  User beware!
  2. The greatest benefit of bothering to outfit suborbital astronauts with radiation dosimeters might not be to the spaceflight participants themselves, (who would receive in all but the most extraordinary circumstances a practically immeasurable radiation dose).  Instead, the greatest effect may be to improve Earth-based low-dose modeling and safety standards, the researchers engaged in which would benefit immeasurably from having a completely new population group to study who are intentionally exposing themselves to low-dose, high-intensity radiation.  This is also, *hint hint*, a completely untapped research funding angle (contact me if interested in collaborating – seriously!).

So, there you have it.  If not taking advantage of my own firm’s radiation dosimetry services, my message to the suborbital spaceflight world was to at least engage in planning one’s own flight experience armed to understand that accurate dosimetry in the space environment is not something one can just pull off a shelf and slap on the outside of a pressure suit!

Space Training Roadmap

The second talk, which was expertly given by co-conspirator Dr. Mindy Howard of Inner Space Training, involved a task-based assessment of potential spaceflight tasks for suborbital spaceflight participant.  The objective there?  The development of a spaceflight training “roadmap” to help participants decide which training amongst the many types offered by providers is relevant and necessary for their personal flight goals.

The power to decide which training is or is not relevant to an individual should not, in my opinion, be left up to the spacecraft providers (who may and likely will not have your specific goals in mind)!  That’s where our roadmap research comes in.

Please feel free to contact me or Dr. Howard for any additional details along those lines.

Lingering Thoughts

Well, the pulse at the conference was that the next twelve months appear to be crucial.  With business plans starting to kick in and metal finally being flight tested, I feel as though there are two distinct options for NSRC 2014: It will either be aflood with the excitement borne of the dawn of commercial suborbital spaceflight, or attendance will plummet as cynicism and a fear of perpetual development cycles sets in.

For now, the future looks bright, and that’s good news!

Until next time, NSRC.  Cheers!

IMG_4534

Having an equally unashamedly-good time having the opportunity to give a NSRC presentation about a topic that’s actually in my field of expertise! (I’ve been fielding for other sides of the house the past couple of years…)





Forecasting the End: The Science of Rogue Planets

21 03 2013

ftefbook2I’m pleased to report that I had the opportunity to consult on (and occasionally appear in) an astronomy/geoscience/climate science crossover project for the Weather Channel this past year, entitled, Forecasting the End.

The show, which premiers this evening, uses extremely-low-probability astronomical or geophysical disasters as a hook to explore and present astronomy, geology, meteorology, and physics concepts in a novel (and admittedly fantastic) way.

Of the six-episode series, the first deals with the concept of so-called “rogue” planets, a timely subject of recent research.

What is a Rogue Planet?

Many astrophysicists, astronomers, and exoplanetologists have set their research sights on puzzling out exactly how it is that new star systems go about forming planets, (in this case “exoplanets,” or planets outside our solar system).  Interestingly, the fruits of their labor have in recent years led to the realization that the process is a frequently violent one.  -So violent, in fact, that during the gravity tango performed between a fledgling solar system’s new planets, one of these “dancers” is thrown right off of the dance floor.

In other words, it seems that planets are often ejected from their home star system in the chaos surrounding a newly-formed star.  This actually serves to help the “dance” between the rest of the worlds calm into a more stable, final set of orbits, perhaps turning it into more of a “march.”

Any one of these escaped exoplanets, then, becomes a “rogue” planet – left to wander the cosmos along its lonely escape trajectory for billions of years.

-And to confirm that this knowledge is more than just theoretical, astronomers revealed last November that they captured what looks for all the world to be a rogue planet in the flesh a mere 75 light-years away:

Infrared image of rogue planet CFBDSIR2149. (Credit: CFHT/P. Delorme)

Infrared image of rogue planet CFBDSIR2149. (Credit: CFHT/P. Delorme)

Rogue Planet as Cosmic Bard

Astronomy-savvy readers may recall a splash last year when researchers reported calculating that there may be billions of these dark, lonely worlds wandering the galaxy.  However, as the “giggle-check” champion astronomer Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame was quick to point out, compared to the amount of free space in the galaxy, the odds of a collision with these seemingly innumerable rogue planets – any collision – are mind-bendingly slim.

Hence, while the Forecasting’s exercise deals with a disaster that is legitimately statistically possible, it is a threat far less likely than, say, being hit by a meteorite.  Or winning the lottery three times in a row.

Instead, the rogue planet has a different, more sublime function.  It can help us tell a story, and in the telling, learn a little bit more about the Earth.

By exploring the “What if?” scenario provided by the idea of a rogue planet breezing through our solar system, we have the opportunity to illuminate a seemingly-unrelated and often misunderstood phenomena at work much closer to home (and – for the “aha” moment – much more relevant to traditional weather):  Seasons.

Wherefore Art Thou Seasons?

The cosmic roots of our annual swing between months spent shoveling snow and sunning on sandy beaches may not be at all intuitive.  However, this reality becomes much easier to grasp in terms of a cosmic disaster.

Allow me to explain.

Many (intuitively) misunderstand why it is that the seasons exist at all, believing logically that summer is when the Earth is closest to the Sun, and winter is when we’re farthest away.  This is actually not the case.

Why not?  Simply, because the Earth’s orbit is almost perfectly circular, there really isn’t that much difference between the heat received by the Earth at closest and farthest approach to and from the Sun.

Instead, the seasons are caused by the fact that the Earth is tilted as it goes around the Sun.  This means that the Earth doesn’t stand “upright” as it goes round, but rather, it leans:

Illustration that weather seasons are related to the Earth's axis tilt; Summer on the hemisphere pointed toward the sun (northern or southern), and winter for the hemisphere pointed away. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Illustration that weather seasons are related to the Earth’s axis tilt; Summer on the hemisphere (northern or southern) pointed toward the sun, and winter for the hemisphere pointed away. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Consequently, summer is when your side of the Earth (northern or southern hemisphere) is pointed toward the Sun, and winter is when your side of the planet is pointed away.

This is also why, at the equator, the temperature is so consistent throughout the year – at the geographic middle of the planet, straddling the line between hemispheres, you’re neither pointed toward or away during any time of year and experience sunny temperatures year-round.  In contrast, if the “near-and-far” season misconception were true, one would expect snowy winters in Barbados, which simply never occurs…

Playing with Weather via Orbital Dynamics

All of this having been said, the reality explained above – the current cause of our seasons – goes completely out the window in the scenario explored in Forecasting’s rogue planet episode.  There, the orbits of Jupiter and the inner planets are enlongated by a rogue planet flyby (ignoring for the sake of brevity orbital resonances that might make such a shift even more catastrophic than advertised), which has a surprising result:

Such an event turns the previously-mentioned misconception (that seasons are caused by distance with respect to the Sun) into fact for life on Earth!

In such a scenario, the shape of Earth’s orbit becomes more oval (ellipse) than circle, and it travels much closer to and farther away from the Sun during its yearly course (aphelion and perihelion) than it does now.  As a result, seasonal changes due to the Earth’s axial tilt are totally overwhelmed by the global swing in temperatures based just on proximity to the Sun.

NOTE: These effects were actually scientifically modeled on Earth by Penn State astronomer Darren Williams and paleoclimatologist David Pollard in an effort to explore the habitability of worlds with more elliptical orbits around other stars and were published in the International Journal of Astrobiology in 2002.  This paper, which formed the conceptual basis for the effects depicted in this episode, can be found here.

So now, on a post-rogue-planet-soon-to-be-apocalyptic Earth, everyone on the planet experiences summer and winter globally, which leads to a rapid sort of climate change completely disruptive to our way of life:

With an elliptical orbit, (where during half the year the Earth is much closer to the Sun than the other), Earth's seasons are global and driven by proximity to the Sun. (Credit: Ben McGee)

With an elliptical orbit, (where during half the year the Earth is much closer to the Sun than the other), Earth’s seasons are global and driven by proximity to the Sun. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Earthly Take-Home in an Exoplanetary Context

Aside from the tantalizing (for space scientists) or terrifying (for everyone else) infinitesimally-remote specter of some sort of  interaction with a rogue planet, this episode provides a a roundabout and extreme way to drive home a simple truth:  Astronomy relates directly to weather.

The knowledge that the study of the universe beyond can help us understand life at home is a powerful one, and the take-home truth (to me) of the rogue planet episode is that orbit shapes and axis tilts work to define the temperature (weather) for any world orbiting a star.

-And today, because our orbit is not elliptical, it is the tilt of our axis that dominates our climate and causes our seasons.

________________________________________
Stay tuned for more, and I’ll try and have one of these out for each episode!





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episodes 7 and 8

1 09 2012

The Chasing UFOs team: Erin Ryder, me, and James Fox (left-to-right) interviewing Brigadier Jose Pereira. (Credit: Dave West)

Well, so I’ve gotten a little behind here on the personal blog, life’s unexpected twists and turns being what they are.  However, for completeness’s sake, I’m including links to my final two web contributions to the National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Chasing UFOs.”

Without getting nostalgic, it’s been a heck of a ride.  Based on the content of these blogs, I think many would rightfully conclude that much of the scientific angle of the show wasn’t featured in the way I expected or would have preferred.  However, having the opportunity to engage – and more specifically – to try and deliver real planetary science content and a critical and logical scientific viewpoint to public discussions of astronomy, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the realities of spaceflight, is something I will forever appreciate.

So, without further ado, for those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including global thermonuclear war and Brazilian UFOs, misidentified marmosets, upside-down moons, volcanoes and “dirty” lightning, and oil field interlopers from space, look no further!

Episode 7, “Alien Castaways” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/09/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-castaways/

Episode 8, “Alien Baby Farm” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/17/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-baby-farm/

Many thanks to everyone who supported me in this project, either directly or indirectly by reading these blogs.  My foray into ‘reality TV’ was at the very least an valuable education for me in the realities of TV, and at the end of the day, it was a real kick in the pants.  I had the opportunity to interact with a broad cross-section of people from around the world that I would have never had the opportunity to speak with otherwise, and hopefully as a result, at least a few were inspired to look into what we really do know about the night sky and spaceflight, and to wait just a little longer before leaping to the “It’s aliens!” hypothesis. =)

In closing this season out, I say Semper Exploro! – or, “Always Explore!”

Cheers,

Ben








%d bloggers like this: