May 27, 2009
By the summer of 1990, NASA’s “Hubble troubles” had Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski outraged. “They have had 10 years to put this together and spent $2.8 billion to be able to get this right,” she told an Associated Press reporter. “Now we find that the Hubble telescope has a cataract.”
The surgery to repair the telescope’s defect involved a replacement part—”the camera that saved Hubble.” After an exciting space walk last week to replace it, the retired camera is slated to go on view at the National Air and Space Museum in late fall. A fitful conclusion to the camera’s noble tale.
NASA launched the Hubble telescope in April 1990 with the promise that it would bring in a new era of astronomical discovery. The shuttle that delivered Hubble into space had already returned by the time scientists and engineers realized that there was a problem—a defective main mirror.
When Hubble transmitted its first blurred images back to earth on May 20, 1990, Ed Weiler, Hubble’s program scientist at the time, described the feeling “like climbing to the top of Mount Everest and then suddenly, within a couple of months, sinking to the bottom of the Dead Sea.”
For three years, the word Hubble at a cocktail party brought a room full of chuckles. As late-night comedians poked fun at the bus-sized “tin can” orbiting the planet, NASA scientists were busy building a camera to compensate for the defect.
The piano-sized Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was installed on December 2, 1993. And by January, 1994, Hubble was beginning to earn its credibility back. At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA astronomers identified a neighborhood of aging stars, known as white dwarfs, in a dense field of other stars. (These stars would later reveal the universe’s birthday.)
Public adoration for Hubble grew as it sent back pictures of stars being born in the Eagle Nebula and colliding galaxies. The second camera is credited with “saving Hubble,” not just from the original defect, but also after the technical failure of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, installed in 2002.
The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was removed on May 14, 2009, (no thanks to a stubborn bolt), and returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. It was replaced with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3, which promises to take even higher quality photographs than its predecessor.
The retired camera will arrive at the Air and Space Museum some time in October or November. “I really look forward to the moment when I get to walk up to it in the Smithsonian and say, ‘that is the camera that saved Hubble,’” says Ed Weiler, a NASA official.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Hubble mirror was defective and not the camera. The final quote was previously attributed incorrectly to John Trauger.
May 21, 2009
The dead watch from glass bottles as John Ososky strips the flesh off yet another bird. A shorebird, he thinks, though he’s a museum specialist, not an ornithologist.
Ososky sits at a sink in the Smithsonian’s osteology laboratory in Suitland, Maryland, where animals are reduced to their skeletal frames for scientific research and education. Surrounded by a gorilla skull and the complete vertebrae of a Burmese python, Ososky keeps the water running as he scrapes the shorebird’s leg bone with a scalpel.
Ososky, 52 and with the Smithsonian for nearly 11 years, prepares 1,000 birds annually for the Institution. Curators gather the specimens during their travels and hand them, skinned and wrapped in plastic bags, to Ososky. He then takes these lifeless lumps of flesh and transforms them into the skeletons that museum visitors might see on display at the National Museum of Natural History. For this part, Ososky has tens of thousands of assistants.
In most cases, a researcher would use a chemical to burn off an animal’s flesh. Dab it on and you’ve got a clean skeleton in a few days or weeks. However, bird skeletons are so tiny and fragile that chemicals damage the bones, destroying the specimen’s scientific value. The solution is to clean the bones naturally with insects called dermestid beetles.
The “beetle chamber” is located in a plain government-issue building behind the lab. When Ososky opens the door, the smell of insect dung is striking. In 2002, a Washington Post journalist described the odor as “sickly sweet.” Ososky doesn’t even notice the smell anymore that always gets into his clothes by the end of the day. There’s a washing machine and dryer on premises just so he doesn’t have to bring his work home.
Ososky checks on the progress the beetles are making. He lifts the cover of a tank full of birds. The beetles don’t seem to have an appetite this week. He picks up a spray bottle of ammonia and sprinkles the carcasses. In moments, hundreds, if not thousands, of the beetles emerge from hiding. It’s like New York City at lunch hour.
After the beetles have their fill, Ososky brings the specimens back to the lab where they are cleaned, dried, and entered into the collection. Despite the sights and smells, Ososky loves his job and has no intention of leaving before retirement. He says, working with dead animals each day gives him an appreciation for death and it’s place in nature. “I’d love it, when I go, to be bugged and put in the collection,” he jokes.
May 20, 2009
Ben Stiller, Amy Adams and Owen Wilson aren’t the first stars to shine on the National Mall. Though “Night at the Museum II: Battle of the Smithsonian” is the first film to use the museum complex as the main setting, the Institution has been featured before. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives, which has a complete list, here are five other films shot at the Smithsonian:
We interrupt this blog to report an amazing phenomenon—the arrival of a space ship in Washington D.C.. In the opening scene of this science fiction classic, this space ships flies over the Smithsonian castle as people stand in front of the Arts and Industries Building and at the National Museum of Natural History to watch the space ship land on the Ellipse. Luckily, for the spectators, the alien from a planet 250 million miles away comes with message of goodwill.
When the survivors of a disintegrated solar system come to Earth, it’s not for the tourism. See flying saucers topple the Washington Monument and the Capital Building, as well as fly through the towers of the Smithsonian Castle, in this B science fiction movie released one year before the launch of Sputnik. The world’s only hope? A married scientist couple racing against time to invent missiles that can destroy the invaders.
In this romantic comedy, Corrine Jefferies (played by Cybill Shepherd) is a museum curator in charge of the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History. Jefferies’ husband is killed by a car crash on their first anniversary and is instantly reborn. Her husband reappears years later as 23-year-old Alex Finch, (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), a friend of Jefferies’ daughter. The First Ladies Collection, as well as the exterior of the Smithsonian Castle and Enid Haupt Garden are shown throughout the film.
In the 1960s television, “Get Smart,” the audience never learns the location of CONTROL, the secret government agency that employees Maxwell Smart. So for the 2008 franchise reboot, the filmmakers decided it would be cool to put the agency’s headquarters inside the National Museum of Natural History. Several exterior and interior shots were filmed around the museum. Steve Carell plays Smart, the enthusiastic but inexperienced secret agent, who tags along with Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway, who must stop the terrorist group KAOS after they attack CONTROL headquarters.
In 1990, a Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” a reconnaissance aircraft used by the military and NASA, took its final flight from Palmdale, California, to Chantilly, Virginia. Upon arrival, the Blackbird became a permanent addition of the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven Udvar-Hazy Center, where it went on display in 1993. In the upcoming Transformers sequel, filmed at the center, the Blackbird comes back online as an elderly, reformed bad-guy named Jetfire. Movie director Michael Bay told Empire Magazine that Jetfire is “a cranky, forgetful old man. When he falls down he creaks and he doesn’t transform well – it’s like arthritis.” The robot does have one neat trick, Jetfire can combine with the heroic Optimus Prime, giving him a pair of wings. Watch for the Object at Hand column on the SR-71 in Smithsonian magazine’s upcoming July issue.
May 19, 2009
The first Starship Enterprise hangs in the National Air and Space Museum’s gift shop. It is 11-feet long.
“But is it 134-inches long or 135-inches long?” Star Trek fans would ask space history curator Margaret Weitekamp. For years, the precise measurement was a raging debate on Trekkie Web forums. The fans needed the exact length of the 11-deck ship so they could be sure their own models were at scale with the original. Finally, Weitekamp broke out the measuring tape.
Matt Jefferies designed the Smithsonian’s Enterprise model on behalf of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for the failed 1966-1969 television series. Through Star Trek’s various reincarnations for film, television and video games, every Starship Enterprise featured has been some variation on the saucer and cigar shapes of Jefferies’ design. To fans, the original model is considered a “material touchstone of the Trek canon,” Weitekamp says. “It’s a living cultural object.”
The model arrived at the Air and Space Museum in 1974. It came in a box, disassembled and dirty. To the curators, it was nothing more than a prop from a canceled television show that was a nice example of what human space flight might look like. They restored the model and hung it up for display.
As the Trekiverse grew, along with the number of fans, the Smithsonian’s Enterprise became a popular stop in the Air and Space Museum. Weitekamp gets regular complaints from fans and collectors about how the Air and Space Museum displays the the model. They offer money and manpower for what they consider to be a better restoration. She always turns them down. “It’s not broken,” she says.
However, for those that do ask about the model’s length, she has the number cold: 135-inches long.
May 13, 2009
Only for science would I spend my Saturday morning sitting on minnow nets in the back of a mud-stained, blue pickup. Armed with latex gloves and the wrong kind of shoes, I was happy to be out of the office and helping Smithsonian researchers catch salamanders at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia.
Brian Gratwicke, the zoo’s amphibian biologist, warned me that this was not going to be a relaxing hike in the woods. A deadly fungus that’s wiping out the world’s amphibians is spreading through Virginia, and Gratwicke needed extra hands to swab salamanders for evidence of the invader, known as chytrid or Bd (Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis). The results will reveal whether the fungus has reached the Conservation Center’s 3,200-acre campus, located in the northern tip of Shenandoah National Park.
Thirty-five volunteers showed up for the bioblitz, a 24-hour inventory of the park’s amphibians. Most of the participants were National Zoo employees, wearing T-shirts that read “I Root For Endangered Species” or “Disappearing: 50% of World’s Amphibians.” There was no hiding their passion for herpetons, the Greek word for reptiles and amphibians. The park is the perfect place for salamander lovers especially. The Appalachian Mountains are home to 14 percent of the world’s 535 salamander species.
“What’s your favorite herp?” I asked two other volunteers riding in the dirty, blue pickup with me.
“Gopher tortoise,” said Edith, an animal pathologist.
“Too many to choose from,” said Barbara, a reptile house zookeeper with a degree in anthropology.
We were part of Stream Team One, the group responsible for finding salamanders under rocks and leaf litter along Shenandoah Park’s muddy banks. Once caught, we were to swab the salamanders slimy underbellies for fungal spores and then set them free. Although, not everything goes as planned.
Growing up in New York City has made me naive when it comes to nature. I had expected the salamanders to be sitting in plain sight, waiting for a human to scoop them up and tickle their bellies with cotton swabs. What I learned is that the critters are small, fast and they can swim.
Searching for salamanders also helped me understand what it takes to do conservation work. I never realized that the reason we know how many beetles or frogs there are in Virginia or New Mexico is because a biologist got on his or her hands and knees, fought off a few ticks, and counted.
By the time evening came, I had caught two salamanders. Of those two, one escaped its Ziplock bag before he could be properly swabbed. “Perhaps we won’t count you as a searcher,” Gratwicke told me. The others were more successful. After surveying more than 30 sites, the teams had collected hundreds of samples. “It was a good salamander day,” Gratwicke said. “There was a lot of wet stuff and it didn’t rain.”
Gratwicke now has enough swabs to find out whether or not the chytrid fungus is on Zoo property. The samples will be tested for the presence of chytrid DNA, a process that will take two months. If positive, the Conservation Center will be a handy laboratory to test possible measures to combat the disease. If negative, scientists will try to prevent chytrid’s spread. For now, we wait.
The chytrid fungus is a global problem, with the potential of wiping out more than half of the world’s 5,743 known amphibian species within our lifetimes. Check out the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, to learn about the National Zoo’s recently announced initiative to stop the fungus in Panama.