February 15, 2013
Today, at around 9:20 a.m. local time in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a massive 11-ton meteor burned up in the sky, triggering a sonic boom that damaged buildings and shattered windows in six cities and reportedly injured hundreds. Eyewitnesses say the meteor’s shockingly bright flash as it burned up (10 seconds into the Russia Today video above) was briefly brighter than the morning sun.
That this event happened today—the same day a 147-foot wide asteroid will whiz extremely close to the Earth at 2:26 p.m. EST—seems to be a coincidence of astronomical proportions, as experts say the two events are entirely unrelated. But unlike the asteroid, which will cause no physical damage, the meteor’s sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, fractured roughly 18 to 32 miles above the ground and subsequently rained fragments over the region, led to as many as 900 injuries, 31 hospitalizations and widespread damage including the collapse of a rooftop at a zinc factory .
So, what caused this massive explosion? “For one, meteors move extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound—so there’s a ton of friction being generated as it comes through the atmosphere,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist with the Natural History Museum who specializes in meteors. “If there are any weaknesses in it already, or if there is ice that melts and leaves empty fractures—like freezing and thawing in a pothole—it could easily explode.”
To get a knotty bit of nomenclature out of the way, meteor refers to a variety of pieces of debris—made up of either rock, metal, or a mix of the two—that enter the atmosphere from outer space. Before doing so, they’re called meteoroids. Most burn up entirely during their descent, but if any intact fragments do make it to the ground, they’re called meteorites. Meteors are also called “shooting stars” because of the heat and light produced when they slam into the still atmosphere at supersonic speeds—today’s meteor was estimated to be traveling faster than 33,000 m.p.h.
The distinction between this meteor and the asteroid that will fly past us later today, according to Corrigan, is a matter of size and origin. “Asteroids are generally bigger, and they typically come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter,” she says. The size difference also explains why we were able to predict the arrival of the asteroid nearly a year ago, but this meteor caught us by surprise: It’s impossible to spot the smaller meteoroids up in space with our telescopes.
Meteors like the one that fell today aren’t exceedingly rare, but for one to cause this much damage is almost unheard of. “There are events like this in recorded history, but this is likely the first time it’s happened over such a populated area and this level of destruction has been documented,” Corrigan says. Notable meteors in recorded history include the Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion over a remote area in Russia that knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830-square miles), the Benld meteorite (a small object that landed in Illinois in 1938 that punctured the roof of a car) and the Carancas impact (a 2007 meteorite that crashed in a Peruvian village and may have caused groundwater contamination).
Much larger meteorites have fallen in prehistory and been discovered much later, including the Willamette Meteorite, a 32,000-pound hunk of iron that fell millennia ago and was transported to Oregon during the last ice age. The largest meteorite ever discovered in North America, it is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.
Early reports suggest that remnants of the meteor have fallen into a reservoir near the town of Chebarkul; testing on these meteorite fragments could provide more information on the object’s composition and origin. “It might be an ordinary chondrite—which is what 90 percent of the meteorites that we have are made of—or it could be something more rare,” Corrigan says.
While chondrites are made mostly of stone and result from the relatively recent breakup of asteroids, iron meteorites originate from the cores of more ancient asteroids, and even rarer types come from debris broken off from the moon or Mars. ”Every meteorite that we get is another piece of the puzzle,” says Corrigan. “They’re clues towards how the solar system and Earth were formed.”
December 6, 2012
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” said G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, reflecting on the Institution’s role in educating the public about climate change. “We are the world’s largest museum and research center. . .but if you wanted to find out something about climate change and went to the Smithsonian website, you’d get there and have trouble finding out about it.”
In “Climate Change: Connecting the Dots,” a wide-ranging speech the Smithsonian secretary made today about the state of climate science and education at the Smithsonian, Clough conceded that, while the Institution has led the way in many fields of scientific research relating to the issue, it’s been less effective at conveying this expert knowledge to the public. “We have a serious responsibility to contribute to the public understanding of climate change,” he said.
Clough recently decided that communication the issue is a priority, he said, while contemplating the unprecedented damage of Hurricane Sandy and its link to climate change. Previously, while speaking to friends and outside groups about the impacts of climate change in other areas, such as the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, or the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, he’d frequently encountered an attitude of apathy.
“I would tell all of my friends, ‘this is a big deal,’ and inevitably, what they told me was, ‘well, those people in New Orleans build houses at places that are below sea level,’” he said. “‘That’s their problem, that’s not our problem.’”
The tragic consequences of Hurricane Sandy, though, have changed the climate of discussion around the issue. “Sandy and some other recent events have made this easier. You cannot run away from the issues we’re facing here,” Clough said. “Suddenly, it’s now become everyone’s problem.”
In response to this problem, he announced a pair of initiatives to expand the Smithsonian’s role in climate science. The Tennenbaum Marine Observatories will serve as the first worldwide network of coastal ocean field sites, designed to closely monitor the effects wrought by climate change in ocean ecosystems around the globe. TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution), conducted by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, will be the first space-based project to monitor pollution in the North American upper atmosphere in real time.
These will join dozens of climate-related research projects that have been ongoing for decades—research on wetlands, oceans, invasive species, carbon sequestration by ecosystems, wisdom on climate change from traditional cultures, historical changes in climate and other fields.
For an Institution that has become embroiled in controversies over public education on climate change over the years, making the issue an overall priority is significant. Clough feels that an inclusive approach is key. ”Let’s start with the idea that everybody’s educable, that everybody wants to learn something, and they’re going to go someplace to try to learn it,” he said. “No matter who you are, I think the place that you would want to come is the Smithsonian. So part of our communications task is to bring as many people to the table as possible to have this discussion.”
December 3, 2012
This week, if you take a stroll through the Haupt Garden, past the Sackler Gallery and into the Moongate Garden, you’ll come upon something you likely won’t see everyday: a 1500-year old intricately painted Buddhist cave from northwest China. Okay, but not really. In a remarkable marriage of the ancient and the high tech, the Sackler welcomes an innovative and precise 3D digital representation of one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in existence.
“There are over 600 caves in this escarpment, and they were painted over a period of about 1,000 years,” says Jeffrey Shaw, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who created the digital exhibition Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang, along with the Dunhuang Academy. “It is certainly one of the great art treasures of the world, and what we have here is a prototype for being able to explore the caves using digital data.”
Until you visit the exhibition, now shown outside China for the first time, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a gimmicky sideshow. But once you step inside the darkened tent and position the 3D glasses on your nose, the 360-degree virtual cave comes to life. It is utterly unlike the supposedly 3D experience you get, say, in a movie theater. Standing inside the tented chamber and seeing the richly detailed paintings and rock faces jut out at you from all sides, it really feels as though, if you reached out, you’d feel weathered millennial aged stone, rather than a smooth plastic screen. The digital cave, in short, is unnervingly lifelike.
Located at a natural oasis on the Silk Road—a crucial trade route linking China, western Asia and India from roughly the 2nd century BC through the 1300s—the Mogao cave complex was an ancient holy site where Buddhist monks practiced meditation. Over the centuries, they carved hundreds of chambers into the rock escarpment and filled them with intricate paintings. One cave of note, known as Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Paradise (now called Cave 220), is painted with seven figures known as medicine Buddhas, along with other traditional images such as incense burners, animals, dancers and musical instruments—and is now digitally represented as part of the new exhibition.
The virtual project began with painstaking work done by teams from the Dunhuang Academy, located at the site of the caves, in digitizing them over the course of several years. “They do a laser scanning of each of the caves, and they do ultra high resolution photography of the paintings,” Shaw says. The group has collected this data for a few dozen of the several hundred grottoes, but has only produced a fully-interactive virtual 3D exhibit for the one cave thus far.
The digital interface is controlled by a custom app installed on an iPad mini at the center of the room, which allows a tour guide to select from a menu of different options for displaying the work. It initially appears as a dark room, with a virtual flashlight’s beam bouncing around and illuminating small portions of it. Then, suddenly, the virtual house lights come up, and the six projectors and next-generation 3D technology provoke a wave of oohs and aahs from the tour groups crowding in to see it this week.
The fact that the entire experience is virtual gives visitors superpowers when exploring the cave. With a tour guide’s tap on the iPad, the group can suddenly move up to the ceiling, zoom in on a particular element with a massive magnifying glass or even animate elements of the paintings, bringing dancers or musical instruments out of the ancient painting to seemingly hover and perform in midair.
These capacities also allow visitors to experience the work in a pristine form unavailable at the actual cave. With another click, the seven medicine Buddhas are transformed, their dull pigments becoming vivid colors. “Here, the Buddhas have been virtually repainted to match the color quality of the original paintings,” Shaw says. “This is based on research by the Dunhuang Academy looking at what the original coloration would have been.”
One of the key motivations for the innovative project is conservation. “The Chinese want to reduce the amount of tours in the caves, because they are causing damage to them,” Shaw says. “The idea is that this will take some of the stress away from the touristic boom of interest in the caves themselves.” In addition to the touring exhibition, a permanent virtual cave will be installed at Dunhuang, along with the real ones, to accommodate the increasing level of cultural tourists without putting the grottoes at further risk.
“The Sackler is fast becoming a museum of the 21st century, taking the lead in adapting digital technology to a museum context,” said Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries, at an event marking the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary last week. “The ‘Pure Land’ project exemplifies the exhibition experience of the future.”
Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang will be open through December 9th. Timed tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Sackler Pavilion. The show will also return in the spring of 2013 for a longer-term installation at the International Center Gallery.
Sultan bin Salman, the son of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, serves as the Secretary-General of the country’s Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. A former fighter pilot, he became the first-ever Arab in space while serving on the fifth flight of NASA’s Discovery program as a payload specialist in 1985. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C. for the North American premiere of the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, now on view at the Sackler Gallery—a groundbreaking collection of newly discovered artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula—and sat down with Around the Mall to discuss the show, the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship and what it’s like to look at Earth from space.
What’s so special about this exhibition, and why did you decide to travel here for the opening of it?
It is really a window to [a] Saudi Arabia not seen before. It’s a new focus on the heritage of Saudi Arabia, and its history, that connects very much to its future.
People have to see Saudi Arabia as not being just a barren desert. Although people of the desert, like myself, take offense when people say it’s a “barren desert.” The desert is very rich: One night in the desert will really show you a different version of the universe that you’ve never seen before. And Saudi Arabia is not all desert to begin with—we have mountains, beautiful countryside, rivers and very vibrant communities.
But this window is opening to something new, to the history of Saudi Arabia, to the cultures and civilizations that have crisscrossed it. Hence the name, “Roads of Arabia.” This [is a] very critical and important part of the world, in the sense of its geographic location. The great religions of the world were all created in that part of the world. And Saudi Arabia has been the center of incredible civilizations, going back thousands of years. It’s very important for the world to see another dimension of Saudi Arabia. This is a nation that didn’t come from nowhere. And also, Islam, as a great religion, came to Mecca, a site and a place where culture and politics and trade [were] well and alive. So Islam came to a place in the world that is very complex, very rich, and not void.
So it is really timely. If you’re going to see Saudi Arabia well, you need to see it from where it came, in terms of history. This is represented by the artifacts and beautiful objects that tell the story.
What can museumgoers learn about Saudi Arabia that might surprise them?
Every culture that has come through Saudi Arabia, every civilization that has crisscrossed the “Roads of Arabia,” has left its imprint. Some of these civilizations have left an imprint in terms of objects. Many of them have left archaeological sites, like Mada’in Saleh, which was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia. It is the Southern capital of the Nabateans, or the original Arabs, who wrote the original Arabic language.
These civilizations also left a lot of stories, whether stories written in rock art or other artifacts—the beautiful statues, jewelry and pottery in the exhibit. The diversity of things that we’re discovering today in Saudi Arabia is staggering, and we’re not even scratching the surface, according to the experts of antiquities.
When Americans think about cultural tourism, they might think of Petra in Jordan or Machu Picchu. Do you imagine Saudi Arabia as someday being a destination for cultural tourism?
I have to assure you one hundred percent that this exhibition is not really meant to encourage people to go to Saudi Arabia. We are not even open for tourism, the way you see it. We are really in the build-up stage of our national tourism. Sites are not necessarily prepared the way we want them to be prepared, including Mada’in Saleh.
So this is mainly a window on a country that is very much intertwined with America, in particular. We have been friends for tens of years, and we’ve gone through thick and thin together. But Saudi Arabia has always been seen by most of the American public simply as the world’s largest producer of oil. When oil prices go up, we take the brunt of criticism, to say it politely, while we probably are not to blame.
We are keen that, in the U.S., people see Saudi Arabia from a different light. It’s almost like if you came to a major art exhibition, or you came back to a major architectural exhibition of Saudi architects, but on a much deeper scale. You’d see a human dimension. In this exhibition, you’re seeing multiple human dimensions throughout thousands of years of history.
When this exhibition was shown in Europe, what did people think?
It was stunning—between a million and a half and two million people visited the exhibition. Those are not people going for joyrides, they’re people that went on a learning experience. We think that, in America also, this will be a learning experience. We invest a lot in America, and I don’t mean financially—we are investing in bringing closer, rather than standing between people. I think these are two countries that need to work together towards the future. It’s very important. It’s a must that people understand each other better. Your President Obama has always spoken of Saudi Arabia as a great nation, and a great friend of the U.S., so as did the other predecessors. And we in Saudi Arabia think of America as a great nation that is leading the world towards the future. We all, as humans of one earth—having also seen earth from the perspective of space—eventually we’re going to have to find those common grounds. One of those common grounds is understanding where we came from.
It’s funny you mention space—for our readers, who are really interested in science and space as well as art, I wanted to ask you what it was like to actually go into orbit.
It’s an incredible revelation. I still carry the memory of seeing Earth smaller, a lot smaller, than I thought it was. I still carry the memory of seeing Earth in the vastness and blackness of space. That hit me hard. Thinking, we all have different languages and different cultural backgrounds and different religions, but we all actually live on that one space ship, one planet. Our fate is very much connected, intertwined.
This is, to me, the transition that has not been made, as much as we have become more sophisticated, talking to each other through social media and mobile phones. I still don’t know why we haven’t transitioned as humans. As many pictures as we’ve seen of earth from space, we still haven’t transitioned to understanding that this is a pretty small place, and we are not much different. We speak different languages but it is the same language, it’s a human language.
July 10, 2012
Television penetrated the average American life with astonishing speed. At the end of World War II, just a half percent of U.S. households had a TV set; by 1962, that number had increased to 90 percent. But no matter how many TVs we bought and broadcasting stations we constructed, the reach of broadcast signals over long distances was still limited by a basic physical problem: the curvature of the earth.
“The TV signal, which is a radio wave signal, travels in straight lines,” says Martin Collins, a curator at the Air and Space Museum. “So if you’re having to overcome the curvature of the earth, signals can only go so far before they need to be picked up by an antenna and repeated.”
All this changed with the launch of a rocket in Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, exactly 50 years ago, today. The rocket carried the Telstar communications satellite, the first ever spacecraft that served to actively relay communications signals between distant points on earth. “In essence, it meant putting a relay station high up in orbit, instead of on the ground,” Collins says. ”From a technical perspective, the satellite was a nifty solution to a basic problem of physics.”
The spacecraft allowed broadcasting stations in both the U.S. and Europe to send signals up into space, bounce them off the satellite, and have them received across the Atlantic nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing mass communications between the continents. The device could also be used for phone calls and even faxes. To celebrate the achievement, authorities conducted an international demonstration of Telstar’s capabilities. “There was an exchange of programs—first from the United States to Europe, and then from Europe to the U.S.” says Collins. The American broadcast included a press conference with President Kennedy, a baseball game and images of famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Telstar, an experimental satellite, successfully relayed signals for just under a year before various technical problems forced it offline. But it played a crucial role in shaping the development of subsequent satellites and helping us understand how we could conduct communications through space. The satellite employed solid state technology, provided information about how electronics functioned in the radiation of the Van Allen Belt and assisted in developing techniques to establish contact between ground antennae and spacecraft.
The launch was also tremendously valuable for an American psyche rattled by the early Soviet dominance of space during the Cold War. “Telstar was an event that signaled U.S. achievement in an area that the Soviets themselves had not done,” Collins says. “The perception was that the Soviets were ahead in human space flight, and they were creating new accomplishments faster than the U.S., but Telstar represented an aspect of space flight that the U.S. was clearly first in.” The fact that the satellite was developed primarily by AT&T, a private firm, further served to demonstrate the power of private industry, as compared to the U.S.S.R.’s state-run model.
To celebrate the golden anniversary of the achievement, the Air and Space Museum—which is home to a backup duplicate of Telstar, produced along with the actual satellite launched—is hosting a day of special events on Thursday, July 12. A live satellite connection will be established with the Telecommunications Museum in Pleumeur-Bodou, France, which was the site of the original French ground antenna. The broadcast will be followed by a special symposium of space historians and industry experts, including Martin Collins, and will feature original footage from the 1962 broadcast. The event is open to the public, and will be available as a live webcast for those outside Washington.
In addition to the museum’s special events, there’s yet another way to celebrate Telstar’s legacy: by looking to the skies. Although the satellite was ultimately disabled by radiation in 1963, it has remained in orbit ever since, reliably circling the earth every 2.5 hours. Modern satellites have outstripped Telstar’s capabilities by several orders of magnitude, but the relic lives on as a physical reminder of our first successful foray into space communications.