B.O.B. Lives! – Well not quite but getting there

I have been living under a rock. Somehow I missed the launch of what could be the closest thing to a long-standing image of what robotics should look like from my childhood.

At some point in my childhood, I sat down with my dad to watch the 1979 classic The Black Hole. Truthfully, most of the film is lost to time in my mind (meaning I really should sit down and re-watch it) but two floating robots forever caught my imagination: V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.

They were what all space robots should look like. Small, compact, cute and most importantly they float. Turns out not only does NASA have floating robots on the International Space Station (ISS) called SPHERES that have been on the station since 2006, but NASA has just recently sent up the second generation of these robots named Astrobee. These second-generation bots will conduct research, be an extra set of eyes for ground control and assist with certain tasks.

iss020e019069.jpg
Image courtesy NASA

SPHERES got their start thanks to professor David W. Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory gave his students a challenge. He wanted them to build a space robot that was like the lightsaber training droid in Star Wars: A New Hope. The result was three satellites that tested formation flight and docking control algorithms. SPHERES also started the Zero Robotics competition that allowed students to have their code tested in space!

Astrobee robot family
Image courtesy NASA
NASA Astrobee space robot
Image courtesy NASA

The Astrobees will continue this tradition alongside assisting with tasking on the ISS, testing robotic components, trying out navigation algorithms, and just being plain awesome if you ask me. The three Astrobees (Honey, Bumble and Queen) all use fans to move them through zero gravity. With little to no weight restrictions on their lifting capabilities, because they don’t have to overcome the effects of gravity, these little robots pack quite the punch. I am very excited to see how they will change life on the ISS and am now thinking I need to get into robotics so I can maybe get my code tested on these inspiring robots.

Curious to learn more about them? Check out the NASA webpage or the code on GIThub.

-KMSB

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The Joy of Discovery

There is great pleasure in discovering new things. Be it a new restaurant or café, a new author, a friend, learning something new or, as in my case, an old newspaper.

My girlfriend and I are currently in the seemingly endless process of house upkeep and maintenance. This Sisyphusian process often leads to all kinds of discoveries that are more often financially … how best to describe it? stressing.

The first discovery was that the house’s weeping tiles are non-existent. This is going to be a costly repair, thankfully my girlfriend and I see our roles as caretakers of the house rather than homeowners. It’s a mindset that really helps when living in a century home (that and the fact that the bank still owns more of the house than we do) and the ever-growing list of things to get done.

As one might imagine, after learning of the weeping tiles we made a few more discoveries: mice, pipes freeze in the winter, bricks need re-mortaring, and toilets constantly keep running.

Over the winter and the last few months, we have been slowly saving for the big fixes but have also been tackling some of them ourselves. We re-mortared the foundation outside and then came inside the basement to re-mortar from the inside as well.

We first had to take down the drywall and pull out the insulation and a good thing we did. The insulation was mildew covered and the drywall not far behind. Once all that was tossed, we discovered just how beautiful the basement looks with the exposed foundation. We are still not sure if we will put drywall back up, the idea of using the basement as a cold storage for wine, canning and preserves is rather tempting too both of us. Plus, the drywall would hide some of the amazing historical features of the house that are still visible.

The old coal shoot is still in place, along with the small furnace for heating. Hard to imagine that it is what kept the house warm at some point in history.

As we were finishing up and checking the bricks between the floor joists, I found a cavity and pulled out loose rubble and fill when something odd caught my eye: a lump of crumpled paper. At first, I thought it was likely homework that a former resident had hidden away to get out of doing it. Once I had it out and in my hands, I saw that it was an old newspaper.

Cautiously my girlfriend and I opened the paper. It revealed mouse chewed holes, but also some lovely looking ads and articles of the day. Once it was all laid out, we had a few pages of a 1924 Winnipeg Free Press! only ten years younger than the house itself. It’s a mystery how it ended up between the foundation walls, however, one ad in the paper that was still in okay condition made us smile.

The lithograph of a boy and father with paint brushes sat above an ad for paint. The wording emphasises the importance of upkeeping a house for maintaining its economic value and that regular painting is part of that maintenance. It goes on to wonder if the father will teach his son the importance of upkeep on the house and if the son too will buy paint when he is of age and has a house of his own.

We plan to frame the advert if we can. Not only does it represent the legacy of this century home (along with the coal shoot and old furnace), but it also embodies our idea of being caretakers. This house will outlive the both of us and there is a certain joy in knowing that we will also leave our mark on it and maybe leave a few mysteries to be found a hundred years from now.

– KMSB

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Gears on the Brain

A couple of years ago I wrote about how failure is a learning opportunity. It is something I try to embrace as I learn new things and when I also fail to get things on the first go. Much like when I tried to fix the automatic mechanical pocket watch my partner got for me.

After it broke, she told me it was not all that expensive, which gave me the guilt-free pleasure of not only opening it up and poking around but also scratching a bucket list item off my list: learning about mechanical watches.

When the tools I had ordered arrived, I tore into the watch with delicate patience and glee. It was a marvel to take out the screws one by one, crown gear, balance wheel etc. I did my best to name and identify the parts, keeping them together as I had learned from various online videos.

The one thing I did not do was take pictures as I took the watch apart then cleaned the pieces. When it came time to put the whole thing back together I was left with a puzzle. It took me three days, but I was eventually able to piece it all back together between a combination of memory, logic and trial and error.

I was so excited to almost finish the project that I swapped in a right-hand screw for the left-hand screw that holds the crown gear. Then I lost the left-hand gear trying to put it in a right-hand threaded spot. I had sprung gears across the room several times during my tear down and put together, however this time I was not able to find it.

I eventually broke the right-hand screw out of the crown hear and decided to order a set of assorted screws for pocket watches. These came in a few months ago. I had been avoiding it in part because work was keeping me busy, but also I was still a little afraid of not being able to fix it.

With resigning from my work, I had some time between job hunting and writing to go get the screws and give it a go.  A couple of hours of tinkering and trying the various screws ended in me not getting any further ahead – none of them fit.

I am sad that I could not get the watch working again but am, as always, gleeful at the fun and learning I had during the process. Although I am not likely to get the watch fixed (a blog on repairing watches did warn me I was likely to break the first one I tried to fix) it has gotten my brain wondering about gears and gear ratios. I’m thinking I need to explore them further.

Stay tuned.

– KMSB

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Review of John Read’s 50 Things to See on the Moon

John Read sent me a copy of his latest book 50 Things to See on the Moon. I much enjoyed his last book, 50 things to See with a Telescope – KIDS and his new book does not disappoint.

Once again Read takes us through the basics of terminology and instruments that you need to observe the Moon. From there he walks through the 50 targets on the surface starting at the New Moon phase and picking out targets as the Moon’s shadow gives way to the growing lit surface of the Moon. By the time of the Full Moon, Read has walked us through his various targets.

Read supplies readers with views of his targets not only as seen with our eyes or binoculars, but also how the targets look when looking through different telescopes that can flip or rotate the image. This is something I have found useful when taking his book out under the Moon to explore.

Read also brings the Moon to life through interesting facts about how the craters or features got their names, how features were formed or about the many and various moon missions that have taken place. He also brings his wealth of experience and tricks and tips to make the experience fun and enjoyable. I have already found his approach of using a series of craters that form an L to remember that the L is for “landed” and points in the direction of the location of the Apollo 11 landing site.

Given that the book is again geared at new initiates to Moon gazing and likely a younger audience, there are at times technical terms or wording that is cumbersome, such as “Image of the same region on three subsequent nights.” instead of perhaps my personal choice of “Image of the same area over three nights.” This aside, the guide is accessible to both children and adults and makes for a great addition to any amateur astronomer’s library. I know I will be pulling it out again soon to go Moon gazing.

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The Darkest Black

Image of the black hole at the centre of M87 Image from: Akiyama, K., Alberdi, A., Alef, W., Asada, K., Azulay, R., Baczko, A.-K., … Ziurys, L. (2019). First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. II. Array and Instrumentation. The Astrophysical Journal, 875(1), L2. http://doi.org/10.3847/2041-8213/ab0c96

On April 10th The Event Horizon Telescope Collaborative released an image so exciting that I, like my parents with the Moon landing, will remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it – which happened to be on my partner’s stationary bike in our garage watching the YouTube broadcast on my smartphone.

The image that popped up on the screen before me was a ring of orange hues, weighted and thicker towards the bottom left. A dark, gaping, empty, expanse of black sat inside the ring. I was looking at a black hole and the shadow its event horizon. The orange hues were ionized gasses dizzyingly swirling around it at speeds a fraction of the speed of light; sending out their blazingly hot swansong before crossing a frontier into an area of space so unknown we can only conjecture at what is behind the veil of the event horizon.

The light from that gas travelled incredible distances of time and space before reaching not our eyes, but a group of radio telescopes spanning the globe, interconnected through an ambitious and creative collaborate effort. The end result of which is nothing short of breathtaking.

Being so enthralled in the image, I missed a good portion of what the researchers announced about their findings so far. To get an idea, I turned to the five articles that were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and thumbed through them. Between the formulas, diagrams and interpretations, I quickly saw the incredible amount of collaboration and work that went into capturing and processing the images taken between April 4 and 11, 2017. Numerous radio telescopes across the Earth all had to simultaneously have good weather, the petabytes of data that had to be transferred, standardized, aligned and consolidated. New algorithms were created, faster data processing were invented and countless hours spent to produce an image of a dark region in space, the shadow of the black hole, at the centre of M87 that spans 19 to 38 microarcseconds!

If you are like me, you want to know how much that is in light years not arcseconds and you’re not worried about the margins of error. Let us have a little fun and work that out for ourselves. We’ll need a few things: the small angle formula, the distance to M87 and a calculator.

The small angle formula (SAF) is: arcseconds = 206,265(diameter of object/ distance to object)

The distance to M87 is about 53.5 million Light Years

Let us take the upper end of the measurement because who really wants a small shadow? 38 microarcseconds become … 3.8 x 10^-5 arcseconds.

We want the diameter of the shadow, that means we rewrite the SAF to become diameter of object = (distance to object x arcseconds)/206,265 then plug in the numbers.

diameter = (53,500,000 x 0.000,038)/206,265

We get around 0.01 light years which we can convert into km by multiplying by 9.5 x 10^12 … and voila! 9.5 x 10^10 km or 95 billion km! Not bad for a shadow.

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When Change isn’t Planned For

After several years of working in one career with the same employer, it was time for a change. I’ll be honest, I was not planning on making this change. Instead, I had failed to look after my own mental health and failed to keep a good work-life balance. The imbalance led to a slow, subtle slide back into my depression. This put a strain on relationships, friendships and work. With the help and support of my partner, I thought it best to resign and regroup.

Now having had some time to reflect and focus on my mental health, I am faced with the challenge of figuring out where to go next. STEAM communication is very much my passion, I just have to figure out how I can make that passion earn a little revenue.

I have a few ideas and leads. The first of course is to concentrate on my Blog and website. I’ve always enjoyed writing and have neglected it for several years.

The other is the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference that is taking plays from May 23rd to 25th here in Winnipeg If you have not heard about it or registered for the event, I encourage you to take a look at their offerings (https://sciencewriters.ca/2019program).

I am very much looking forward it – both to meet fellow science communicators, but also to get a fresh view of the current world of science communication.

Beyond that, I am seeing what topics in STEAM I may want to branch out into. The idea of going back to university and getting that math degree I never pursued pops up now and again, but so does the idea of going rogue, as my partner calls it, and trying to carve out a digital piece of the pie with YouTube and blogging. For the moment, however, it is time for a cup of tea.

– KMSB

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An Evening With Friends and the Perseids

It has been a while since I have taken out my camera to do some astrophotography. In fact, I think the last time I did any was during the solar eclipse last summer.

Thankfully, I have good friends who like evening skies as much as I do and they made plans to head out and watch the Perseids–of course, they invited me along.

It was a great night full that started off with all of us muttering to ourselves trying to remember how to set up the right functions on our cameras to take shots for the evening.

After about ten minutes we were all set up and soon sitting back in our lawn chairs looking skywards. The evening did not disappoint. Between Mason jar cake, homemade mint tea cocoa and conversations that took us from catching up to discussing the hermit kingdom, we saw many bright, brief, and beautiful meteors.

Unfortunately, my camera didn’t catch any of them in the 120 pictures I took, but I was able to stack the images into a nice Morse code star trail image. Two of my friends lucked and caught a meteor in at least one of their images.

All this means that we will just have to head out again for the next big meteor shower.

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Failure is a Learning Option

When I was shopping around for my 3D printer, I made sure to do a little research. There is lots of excellent advice to be found in blogs and forums. I felt confident that if I followed a checklist that I would be up and printing in no time, worry and hassle-free.

  1. Do you want to print right out of the box?
    • Why yes I do! But ready to go printers are expensive …
  2. If you are getting a DIY kit, do you have experience with building and construction of mechanical parts?
    • No, but I did build an IKEA bookshelf once …
  3. If you are getting a DIY kit, do you have experience with programming an Arduino?
    • Oh! I can get the LED on my Arduino to blink with the supplied test code! So … that counts.
  4. Should you get an XY printer or a delta printer? Delta printers are harder to calibrate, so it is suggested that if it is your first printer and if you have little experience with 3D printing to start with an XY printer. You also lose build space on a delta printer.
    • Hmm… yeah, but the deltas look so much cooler.

In the end, I ignored all the advice and bought myself the FLSun Delta printer with heat bed and auto calibration. Only one of these has proven to be useful, the other led to … well, I won’t say frustration instead, I’ll say failures. Lots and lots of failures, but they began well before I  needed to calibrate my printer.

My 3D printer once I finally got it all put together.

I had done some research on the FLSun delta specifically and ran across a post that boasted that reviewer had their dad assemble the printer. As a gentleman who had not assembled a printer before it took him a few hours. Me? A couple of days. It was a comedy of errors as I put pieces in the wrong way, used the wrong screws and constantly fought with the little hex keys they supplied at weird angles. On the upside, I giggled joyfully every time I read, “install the other tow in the same way,” or, “fix screws firmly.”

With every setback, I began to understand the framework and geometry of my printer better. I also discovered that you can by hex keys with a rounded end, designed specifically for getting into those odd angles and corners that a “comes with the kit” key cannot do. Bonus, I’ve expanded my knowledge of tools. I couldn’t wait to impress my brothers at the next family dinner (turns out they knew of their existence, sigh).

After I built my printer I followed the instructions on installing the software and calibration. Once done, I made a print. It didn’t work out so I did another calibration. Things still weren’t printing right. So calibrated again … and then again. I started throwing in some random manual calibrations to see if that helped. In the end, I made so many changes that the printer could no longer even perform an attempt at an auto calibration.

My first series of prints. There were supposed to be cubes, they ended up as rectangular prisms.

I was back doing more research and learned how to calibrate my printer by hand. When I finished the calibration, which took a while given how out of whack I had adjusted my printer, I ran an auto calibrate just to see. It agreed with my adjustments and had no corrections to offer. I felt pretty darn proud.

At any of the failures I faced along the way, I could have given up and walked away. Instead, I sighed, took a sip of tea, or maybe I took a break, but I always tried to apply my what I learned in math to the situation – This answer is wrong. That’s okay. What Can I learn from this mistake? Where might I have missed a step? What variables can I change? Are things defined correctly? Can I redefine them? Is there a tool in my math kit that can help me here?

It sure has come in handy and will continue to come help as I know try to figure out how to print with ABS, let’s just say it’s off to a rocky start!

I was hoping to print some vibration absorption supports, I ended up with a mess.
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Book Review: 50 Things to See with a Telescope – Kids

Cover page of 50 Things to See With a Telescope - Kids

I was fortunate enough to get a copy of John’s book from him when we met at this past total solar eclipse. As a science communicator at the Manitoba Museum’s planetarium, I am always on the hunt for good astronomy books, especially ones that are accessible to a younger audience.

John Read’s “50 Things to See with a Telescope Kids” turned out to be one of those rare books. Not only did it teach and remind me a few things I didn’t know or had forgotten, but it was also a light read with spot on and fun visuals making it great for a reading session with your kid.

The book is a good introduction on what to expect from the hobby of amateur astronomy and gives good tips on how to enjoy your night beneath the stars. The first thing I really like in John’s book, compared to some I have read, is that he is up front and honest about the fact that it takes time, patience and practice to find objects in the night time sky.

His reminders about the challenges of telescope use, especially around more difficult objects to find, is so important to keep in mind, otherwise you and your child will get discouraged. I remember taking four evenings just trying to find The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (Target 37 in the book) when I was just starting out. Despite the frustrations, I kept at it. The sight was worth it.

This leads me to the second thing I really appreciate about 50 Things to See with a Telescope; John has included images of all the objects in his book as seen through a small telescope. It may seem obvious, but what you will see through the eyepiece of your telescope (or for some targets through your binoculars) will be very different from the images and views of the Hubble Space Telescope, whose images now colour our expectations of space.

The images are also incredibly useful as guides for what you should be looking for. Have you ever tried to find a blue cup in a friend’s cupboards when there are six different blue cups mixed in with a dozen other coloured cups? Well hunting for objects in the sky can be a little like that If you’ve never seen the objects before, these little beautiful images are sure to help you out.

I really appreciate that John included at least one binocular target for each season. This gives kids and parents alike a chance to try out some of the targets with a pair of good binoculars that they may already have at home and see if this is a hobby they want to explore deeper before going out and buying a small telescope.

There were a couple formatting issues where an image would cover the text a little, and some terminology and phrasing that I would perhaps have avoided in my personal style of writing, but none of this takes away from the enjoyment and usefulness of the book.

50 Things to See with a Telescope Kids is an excellent first book or addition to any kid amateur astronomer’s bookshelf – even for those of us who are still just kids at heart.

P.S. I wrote to John Read about the formatting issues and and he informed me that the issues have been addressed in the latest publications of his book.

-KMSB

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