Monthly Archives: November 2009

Thanksgiving in Review

This holiday break, I didn’t really have extended access to an internet connection, primarily because of the fact that my house does not have a wireless router. It is very much stuck in a time six years ago, and that has been a constant for most of my life (we had Windows 95 until the early 2000s). That technological gap is one of the reasons why I don’t really like leaving my apartment in East Lansing to head home; yes, I love my family, but I just feel trapped and cut off when I am with them.

Not that it’s all bad. Free food that actually tastes good is always a plus in my book! Add to that the fact that my roommates and I didn’t go grocery shopping for over two weeks before break so that we could minimize spoiling, and you have a recipe for a very grateful college junior. Thank you, large amount of disposable income and parents that know how to cook more than four different meals!

While at home, I worked on my research paper on alternative energy, finished reading a book (Moonrise by Ben Bova), started another book (Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson), and didn’t do much of anything else productive. Sure, I played The Beatles Rock Band quite a bit, and hung out with my sister’s boyfriend, and played ping-pong in our basement, but that can’t really be considered productive. I did also get a slight trim to even out my hair from my summer buzz cut, but that was just a minor note.

One thing that upset me, going back to the technology gap, was the fact that I could not communicate in “real time” with my MDRS crew. I checked my e-mail each night, and I read through a half-dozen e-mails that I had missed during the day and wouldn’t be able to respond to fully until I got back to EL (thankfully, not many required a response from me…), and I still haven’t been able to fully digest everything that I received. I only have 54 days until I meet up with the crew, which may seem like a lot until you eliminate basically half of that for school-related work (finals, pre-emptive homework completion, etc.) and holidays. I’m slowly going through all of the e-mails and making notes of what I need to fill out, send out, or get in place within the next month, just to make sure I don’t forget about things before my finals season starts.

Speaking of finals, I have no exams until finals, I am done on the Wednesday of finals week, and I only have four exams. I’ll start the season late this week, especially for the classes that I am most worried about (Classical, mostly). Should be a productive end of semester for me.

Book Review: The Case For Mars (Zubrin)

I’m starting something new with this post, and hopefully I keep doing it. Of course, it is dependent on the number of books I can actually read within a given timeframe, especially when you take into consideration my schoolwork and everything else going on in my life. I’m also going to limit this to “first reads,” meaning that all the books that I will invariably read for the third or fourth time in the coming months (Moonwar and Jupiter, both by Ben Bova, at the top of that list) won’t be a part of this book review series, since I’ll be including initial responses and what-not in my dissection of the book. These, however, won’t be full reviews, but more my thoughts on the most pertinent issues or ideas presented in the book, so there will still be a lot of information within the book that I never mention here.

The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin (1996)
Purchase it on

Initial Thoughts: I ordered this book soon after being selected as a crew member for MDRS 89 as the author is the founder of The Mars Society, and I should read the book that was basically the basis for setting up MDRS and FMARS before actually going to the station. Those I know that had read the book highly recommended it, so I figured the very low cost was well worth it. It was nice getting an actual scientific and factual description of martian colonization, especially since I was able to juxtapose many of Zubrin’s ideas for the “Mars Direct” plan against various SciFi versions of sending missions to Mars, notably Ben Bova’s Mars.

Note: You’ll notice that I’ll reference Bova multiple times in this and future reviews. He is by far my favorite SciFi author, and his Grand Tour series is an excellent read which can be read as a super-extended series, as individual stories, and in any order you want. I highly recommend those books for anyone who likes harder SciFi.

Zurbin uses a lot of anecdotes and historical comparisons throughout the book, which I enjoyed. I felt that relating the first Mars missions to the initial voyages of Columbus or the expansion across the American frontier makes the idea more tangible to readers, especially since the wealth of comparisons really digs in the fact that a Mars mission is not difficult to obtain with present technology, so long as we remember the lessons of the past of living off the land and using ingenious methods to both get to Mars and survive there.

Mars Direct: Zubrin’s plan calls for two launches every two years to send both an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) and a crew habitat (Hab) to Mars when the launch window opens, after the initial launch of a single ERV in order for the first crew to have a fueled ERV for when the leave the martian surface 500-some days later. While the two launches may initially seem like having more possibilities for things to go wrong, a la Murphy’s Law, it surprising is also the basis for NASA’s Constellation program (using the Ares I and Ares V boosters), making Zubrin’s mid-90s plan very current given the current situation at NASA.

The extended stay on the surface is because of the availability of launch windows from Mars to return to Earth. The crew could either spend the 500-plus days on the surface, accomplishing a multitude of mission goals, priming the area for the next mission, and discovering things that no one might expect. The other option is a 30-day stay which, in both mine and Zubrin’s opinion, would do nothing more than be “putting boots on the ground” and accomplish very little scientifically, which is of course the reason for the manned mission. His longer stay also exposes the crew to less solar radiation, less time in zero-g, and has less fuel requirements, making it in basically all areas the superior choice for a launch schedule.

One depressing part of the book, for me at least, is definitely the timing of it. I’m reading it thirteen years after its publishing date, and the fact that we still haven’t landed on Mars saddens me. It’s even harder to cope with when he gives a theoretical example using Apollo-era technology that could allow for a Mars mission, and that was forty years ago! We could have been a space-faring race for a quarter of a century, but due to the government and changing administrations, among other problems, prevented this from occuring.

Colonization of Mars: Zubrin goes on the discuss the benefits of having a branch of the human race on Mars, from economics to advancement of technology. While, in my opinion, this option will still be far off (twenty years or more after the first Mars mission) and highly dependent on the government’s backing of the program, it should be the ultimate goal of any Mars mission plan. The human race cannot continue to exist on a single rock, especially when you consider the problems that we face daily from having over six billion people confined to a world we are slowly working to destroy. In my opinion, I feel that a Mars colony should be established to be self-sufficient, making the high shipping costs of raw goods from Earth to the red planet not matter. If the colonists can grow food, mine metals, construct additional habitation areas, and survive, that’s good enough for me and I would gladly hop on a ship out there in a heartbeat.

Of course, Zubrin describes the huge economic advantages to establishing a base, from the large amounts of deuterium (for fusion power), access to the Asteroid Belt, and general materials that we use all of the time (aluminum, iron, etc.). That economic advantage will definitely help convince some pocketbook-minded members of Congress to support it (if they took the time to read through the book) and will help convince people to actually move out there that aren’t astronauts. We can’t just have a bunch of spaceheads running around, now can we?

He also discusses the possibility of terraforming the planet, but this of course would take place over centuries, so I don’t see this as a major point for getting that first mission off the ground; it’s more to give a more grandiose purpose for the second, third, fourth missions. By the time that colonists can walk around Mars in shirtsleeves and a breathing apparatus, we will have invariably already expanded to habitats in the Asteroid Belt and possibly other star systems. I agree that the eventual plan for the human race includes all of these things, but going to Mars just for these reasons is the wrong idea, which thankfully is in agreement with Zubrin.

FMARS and MDRS: After finishing this book, I am that much more thrilled to be a part of an MDRS rotation, and to have the possibility of having an actual Mars mission in my own future, whether I go through NASA or as a civilian. Based on how sluggishly the government invariably moves, we probably won’t have a Mars mission for ten plus years, which would be right about the time that I’ll be applying to become an astronaut. Since astronomers/physicists won’t be high on the priority list for the first few missions, I do have some leeway for getting on a future crew should I become an astronaut.

And frankly, this book made me want to become an astronaut even more! Exploration and going where few, if any, people have gone before were what brought me back into wanting to become an astronaut after my young child phase where every American boy wants to become an astronaut. What cooler job is there than traveling to another planet? I can only hope that we get off our seats and go for it.

Conclusion: There’s no sense in giving a rating for this book, since I hate ratings anyway. I’m just going to recommend this to anyone interested in space travel or Mars, or anyone that’s ever had a dream of scooping up a handful of martian regolith. You’ll definitely have dreams of being that person the entire time you read it.

Semester Update – Part 2

Well, with less than five full weeks left in the semester (including finals), I figured it was an opportune time to divulge what’s been happening recently, what I have coming up, and all sorts of school related odds-and-ends. This final stretch of the semester should be tough, but I’m pretty sure that things will turn out fine, especially with my developing insomnia.

Classical Mechanics II
Currently, I am most worried about this class. It’s not that the information is tough or hard to understand, it’s just the way that information is presented. It’s hard to tell during the lectures what is actually important, what is just an example and not necessary to write down, and what is completely pointless. We still haven’t gotten back our scores for the first exam yet (or at least I haven’t), and our last exam before the final is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Thankfully I’ll have basically 1.5 weeks to just focus on that, so we’ll see how that goes.

Abstract Algebra and Number Theory
I had my last midterm on Friday, and while I initially had some problems with a few of the problems, I realized that I had already solved one on the exam and the other just needed a slightly different look on what it was asking. Just like the first exam, I’ll be surprised if I get below a 90%. Homeworks have also been relatively fine, with no disastrously low scores or skipped assignments. Plus, I’m enjoying this class a lot as well. Definitely a big turn-around from earlier in the semester.

Quantum Mechanics I
My last midterm is today in eight hours, but I feel suitably prepared. My homework scores have been astounding, my one exam score above average, and my H-Option paper is languishing on my hard drive. I’m not too worried about this class, but I know that working on the paper should take a while. Of course, that’s what Thanksgiving Break is all about, right?

Galaxies and Cosmology
Had an exam last week, not worried about the homework or the material, and things are running smoothly. Not much else to say on this front.

Social Aspects of Climate Change
The final paper work is starting up, with a progress report due within the next two weeks. I have the outline, an introduction, and a conclusion all written up, so it’s basically just synthesizing the information. The in-class work for me is basically done, with just one more news source necessary and classroom participation. Should be a 4.0, and the Honors credits helps out as well.

Spring Semester
I’ve only spoken with two of my future professors so far about my two week absence. One was completely fine, and the other acted very differently than I expected. I basically had to defend myself as a motivated and hard-working student, citing my Honors College membership, a previous Honors 300-level PolySci course, my work in a doctor’s office, among other things, and he still tried to get me to re-think my enrollment in his course. I already don’t like him, especially when you account for him taking a long lunch during the time that he asked to meet me…

Calculus II
The students are finally finishing up the hard parts of the course and are moving into vectors, which will be a very welcome change for me, especially since I’ve been pounding out vectors in classes for the last year plus. The workload hasn’t been a problem at all, but the only thing I don’t like is that fact that (aside from two students) only students in other sections come to my office hours. I mean, they can go to any of the four LAs’ hours that they want, so it kind of makes sense…

I’m “tutoring” some local middle school children for an hour on Thursdays (aside from the last two Thursdays), meaning that I walk around, tell some jokes, and make sure that they’re doing their work. It’s not that bad of a gig, but it does cut off some of my office hours time on Thursdays, but that doesn’t matter too much (see above).

Well, that’s about it. MDRS prep has been running along smoothly, I saw my little brother’s play, and I’m going home for Thanksgiving before buckling down for finals mode.

Luminosity Changes

With only seventy-four days until I leave for MDRS, the crew and I have been gradually learning about each other and figuring out what exactly we’ll be doing. Thankfully, because I’m a little anal and will be buried in work in a few weeks, I’ve been refining my own ideas over the past few days. It’s also necessary for a few sponsorships that some of my crewmates are trying to get, so having what we’ll actually be doing out in the desert written down helps us get money and plan everything out. I’ve also written a bio about myself for the crew website and the MDRS website, but that’s not up yet… So, let’s get on to the research!

Synopsis: A subset of three to seven Algol (EA/SD) variable stars will be observed using the Musk Observatory 0.36m telescope and CCD camera. The stars will be observed while watching for the two luminosity dips during one complete period, which will be measured and analyzed to extrapolate physical characteristics of the dimmer companion. Two exoplanet transits (HD 209458 and TYC 1987-1212-1) will also be observed in a similar fashion, but in the case of TYC 1987-1212-1 those observations will be to either confirm or deny the existence of the exoplanet. These projects will give a good indicator of what research can be completed on the planet Mars, and at MDRS, in future missions.

Description: Algol-type (EA/SD, eclipsing binary) stars are binary systems where the dimmer companion passes within the line of sight of the observer by moving in front of the brighter companion. This leads to a cyclic drop in luminosity twice during the entire orbit: once when the dim star is in front of the bright one and once when the dim star is behind the bright one. During the two times of occultation, the luminosity is for the most part constant once the dim companion is completely in front of or behind the brighter star, as viewed from our solar system.

The periodic luminosity changes of seven EA/SD Algol stars, with three (TX CMa, R CMa, and AK CMi) being the primary targets of the study, will be analyzed from the Musk Mars Desert Observatory (Musk) at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah. By observing the luminosity changes and the duration of the minima, the size and orbital separation of the stars, thereby refining the observed measurements of the variable stars.

Similarly, the current search for exoplanets involves observing planetary transits, such as the current Kepler mission. The basic premise for observation is the same: observe the target star to watch for luminosity changes due to the transiting planet. Two such targets will be analyzed, the parent stars being HD 209458 and TYC 1987-1212-1. The first star is a known exoplanet, so the observations would center on refining the measurements already obtained. As for TYC 1987-1212-1, the transiting exoplanet has not been verified, so observing these transits would either confirm or deny the existence of that planet.

Both of these experiments rely upon careful calibration of the equipment, long observing sessions, and careful analysis of the data. Due to the non-linearity of the luminosity changes, these observational targets are tough to observe, especially with periods of inclement weather poor observational conditions, and other weather-related variables. Such conditions, however, would be frequent on Mars, so a successful data set would verify that such research could be performed on the surface, as well as other less fickle projects.

Exercise and Mentality

Last week, I ran a 5K (my first official 5K in a while, maybe over a year), and I have another 5K in less than two weeks. This upcoming one is in the early afternoon, on a Sunday, and helps support the group one of my friend’s is in. Plus, we get a T-shirt! Why the two races? I decided that I was going to get into shape.

Breakfast of Champions?

For those that know me, I am not out of shape. Strangely, my physique just keeps itself in shape. Take last year when I ran a half-marathon: the last time I ran before it was a month prior, and the night before I stayed up late drinking Mountain Dew and eating Pokey Sticks while watching Apollo 13. Not exactly the best training I could have done, but I ran a 1:45 and came in second for my age group. This last 5K, I ran a total of four miles to get ready, and didn’t run for the week before. Result? 20:33, or 3.1-consecutive 6:37 miles.

While both of those are slow compared to my old standards back in high school, I haven’t been training, or even being very active, lately in my life. I am working on that (hence the two 5Ks and a few other things I’ve planned), but part of my mindset that is detrimental to that change is that I don’t need to run to stay in shape; I just am in shape. I have been trying to erase that thought by telling myself that I am not in shape, especially right before I go for a run, to try to re-wire my brain back into something similar to my Cross Country days.

Other types of physical conditioning are different for me, and I am making an active effort on those front because I know that I’m not where I want to be.