A train on the Moon?

It’s still early times, but what a captivating thought!

Last year, DARPA created the LunA-10 study, a 10-year effort that “aims to rapidly develop foundational technology concepts that move away from individual scientific efforts within isolated, self-sufficient systems, toward a series of shareable, scalable systems that interoperate.”

So far, our trips to the Moon have been isolated visits, but if we’d like to get serious about sustained activity, additional infrastructure (for mobility, communication, energy generation, etc.) would surely be useful.

Recently, Northrop Grumman provided some details about their part of LunA-10, which aims to develop a framework for a railroad network on the Moon. How cool is that? I’d love to be part of that study.

LunA-10 participant updates are planned to be shared at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium meeting, final reports from each of the LunA-10 participants will be due in June – here’s hoping they’re made publicly available.

Where old friends go when the mission is over

Recently I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall for the first time. I lost myself in the aviation section for a couple of hours, learning all sorts of interesting things about the history of our airlines, flight attendants, airmail, aircraft development, and even a board game for instrument flying!

Then I went into the exhibit dedicated to our planets and was immediately drawn to the Mars section. It featured three examples of our Mars rover lineage, increasing in size from Sojourner to the Mars Exploration Rovers to the Mars Science Laboratory rover.

“Huh,” I thought, “They didn’t bother to mock up solar panels for the Mars Exploration Rover.”

I stared at its blank grey deck for a few more seconds before I remembered where else I’d seen a Mars Exploration Rover with no solar panels: at JPL, where I worked on the planning team for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. While Opportunity was at Mars, we had a twin rover here on Earth in the Mars Yard (or the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory) where we could try out command sequences before sending them to Mars. That rover, too, did not have solar panels because it was powered by a cable that plugged into the wall.

I squinted more closely at the display and found that it identified this object as the “Surface System Test Bed” (SSTB) which meant that IT IS EXACTLY THE TEST ROVER that we used at JPL during mission operations. Confirmed: in 2019, which was after both Mars Exploration Rover missions had ended, the MER SSTB was sent to the Smithsonian.

And what better place, really, for such a unique artifact? Even if it totally took me by surprise. I think the other museum-goers were surely puzzled by the sight of a woman standing in front of the Mars rovers and crying.

How to make chocolate

While in Guatemala, I took a class called the Bean to Bar workshop at the ChocoMuseo in Antigua. This two-hour delight really did go from how cacao grows – to how beans are extracted from the pods, dried, and roasted – to how the cacao nibs are removed, crushed, ground, mixed with other things, and aerated – to make what we call chocolate.

We learned that the ground cacao paste does not become “chocolate” until it is mixed with some sugar. So 100% dark chocolate doesn’t exist; it is 100% cacao :) (and nearly inedible, even for chocolate lovers!)

Quite possibly the most challenging step was when we each took a turn stirring and roasting the beans, which was when our friendly host asked each of us to tell us something about ourselves (in Spanish!). He got really excited about my job at JPL and wanted to know if we’d found life beyond the Earth :)

We roasted cacao beans, then split them open to get the nibs out.

Grinding was a frenzy accompanied by a group chant: “Choco, choco, la-la! Choco, choco, te-te! Choco-la, choco-te, choco-la-te!” Aerating the mixed chocolate by pouring it back and forth between two pottery carafes was also tricky to do without spilling!

We made two kinds of hot chocolate (drink): Mayan (cacao, water, chili, honey, and BLOOD) and European (cacao, milk, sugar, no blood). We used spices instead of blood :) and most agreed that the Mayan was more tasty than the European.

Next, we poured chocolate (I chose 70% dark) into individual molds and added flavorings as desired – I went for cinnamon, mint, cashews, ginger, orange slices; others chose cayenne, salt, gummy bears (?!), and other options I’ve forgotten. Mine turned out tasty, but SUPER intense, and sort of crumbly, possibly due to its dark level and lack of wax/gum/binders/whatever they put in store-bought chocolate.

We also made chocolate tea. It turns out that you can steep the cacao bean shells (from which the nibs were removed) in hot water and make a tea that tastes like a cross between coffee and tea :) I brought home some of this “tea” with a cinnamon flavor. Yum!

Volcanoes in Guatemala

I recently visited Guatemala as a volunteer with Librarians Without Borders. We first visited the city of Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), which is colorful and vibrant. We toured the central market, the municipal building/palace (fascinating history), the lone public library, and other sights. One thing we did not get to visit up close is the massive volcano that looms over the town.

Santa María is a breathtaking sight whenever it deigns to be seen. (Much of the time it is shrouded in cloud.) It has been active for the past 30,000 years and last erupted in 2009. It had a dramatic eruption + earthquake in 1902 that was the third largest eruption of the 20th century that dropped volcanic ash as far away as San Francisco (!).

Xela is at 7600′ above sea level, and Santa María rises another 5000′ up!

Here’s what it looks like from Xela:

And here’s what the south (active) side can be like (per Wikipedia):

We then traveled on to Panajachel (a cute touristy town on the shore of Lake Atitlán), where there are three more huge volcanoes – Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro. And then on to Antigua, with its own collection (Volcán de Agua, Volcán de Fuego, and Acatenango). In all, Guatemala has 33 volcanoes. Ring of Fire indeed!

How to drive in New Zealand

Start by staying on the left. :)

I found some great resources to prepare for driving in New Zealand.

Check out this interactive driving video/game, which is a good chance to practice for any driver. It definitely tests your observation skills!

Some of the road signs that I found interesting or unusual are:

Speed limit sign indicating that there is “no restriction” so the national speed limit of 100 kph applies
One-lane bridge ahead. The little red arrow means that you do NOT have right of way but instead traffic from the other direction (big black arrow) does.

There are lots of warnings that it will take you longer to drive somewhere than you may expect. I saw this billboard a lot:

and this great reminder to take breaks:

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the extensive construction going on everywhere I went, which certainly did make it take longer to get places. Many of the roads between cities were being resurfaced in various areas, so there was a lot of slow driving on gravel. In one place, there was a sign that we were driving on “wet concrete – wash car today” (!).

I also found that gas was much more expensive. Somewhat confusingly, prices are displayed in cents per liter (e.g., “199” instead of “$1.99”). I paid between $1.99 to $2.06 per liter, which works out to $7.50 to $7.80 per gallon (!). Giving how much driving I did, this ended up being a non-trivial part of my trip costs. An electric vehicle would make even more sense there :)

Older entries »