Recently in 2009 New Mexico Category

Crying Air

Apropos of my previous post, Connor asks what the wind farm sounds like. There are several components, in fact. The wind, you expect of course, rustling at several tens of miles per hour over rocks and grass and whatnot. The low rhythmic pounding of the turbine blades isn't especially surprising, either, like distant waves or heavy machinery. Most remarkable, on top of all that, is the sibilant hiss from the blade tips as they rip a jagged gash through the air at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound. It sounded something like this:

Into the wild

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This barn owl apparently lives in the rafters of one of the capacious hangers at the airport here.

So I guess it's been about a week since my last post, and I have to say, I'd almost forgotten just how awesome the desert smells when it rains. But I found out, since as it happens, the two best ways to make it rain in a desert are to go camping in a leaky tent or to try and test a star camera. I knew about the first one from extensive first-hand experience, but the second one came as news, as the star camera gang had barely cracked the highbay doors to point the camera outside when the skies clouded over. Then it proceeded to drizzle and hail for half a week. The rest of the time, it has looked a bit like the photo below, clear but dusty.

Overall, I'd say we're making good progress in putting the experiment together. We now have a gondola -- the structure that hangs below the balloon, visible in the lab panorama from a couple of posts back -- able to hang from our gantry crane and point itself where you tell it. Although there are glitches, of course. The magnetometers (i.e. glorified compasses) in particular caused some difficulty, until we discovered that the highbay floor seems to be magnetic. Cute!

Cholla seems to be the dominant cactus variety out on the airfield and the surrounding ranchland.

I'm not really going to go into a full narrative of our experimental progress here, though -- for that sort of coverage, you should really be reading Asad's wonderfully detailed blog.

While photography is also a major feature of his effort, we definitely have different photographic styles.

Our major excursion into ranchland so far has been to see the wind farm up close. Up close, the turbines are even more colossal than you'd think from seeing them on the horizon ten miles away. And I cannot get over that sound.

Closing Day, Imaginary Technology

So it's a bit after midnight and at this point I'm mostly still in the lab out of solidarity with the cryostat gang. Today we set out on the final push to get the cryostat closed up, optics and detectors safely inside. By one estimate, we'd be done by 3 pm and then we'd all head to the lake or some such. Ah, optimism.

For the past couple of days I've had no flight computer to program, as two of them are sitting in an electronics crate that isn't quite reassembled yet, and a third is somewhere in transit. Fortunately (?) there are plenty of other entertaining problems to keep me occupied, most visibly including a mess of flaky networking hardware that occasionally leads to concerted cries of "Where have the intertubez gone!?" But I also stumbled into an interesting side project out of sheer frustration that nobody had done it yet -- a web-based detector visualization. Gave me a chance to finally sit down and learn the more advanced features of Javascript. I'd known for a while that, since the last time I did any real web development, it had matured into an actually useful language, and that people are happily writing applications with it these days (c.f. Google). So that was a bit of fun.

I found this image unaccountably adorable -- on one of our windy days, in the midst of 60-ish mph gusts, this big old tumbleweed got tired of tumbling and drifted up under our makeshift picnic table to hide from the wind.
The guts of our instrument suspended some twenty feet off the ground as we prepare to lower it into our cryostat. While it does represent an enormous number of sunk dollars and man-hours, there are actual valid scientific reasons for it to be gold-plated.
So who else knew there were whole abandoned steam locomotives bricked away in the unused tunnels beneath Brooklyn? It's a neat image, anyway, and I hope the fellow gets a change to do his excavation.

On a related note: steam octopod. The inside of that artist's head would seem to be an interesting place. Ditto PZ Myers' head, it would seem.

Speaking of technology-that-never-was ... cold fusion! Still not dead yet, again. Although the article doesn't mention the recent bubble fusion fiasco, it's an entertaining read as well as a fair overview of the state of play.

More recently, a particular piece of technology that probably won't be -- the CLOVER experiment has been defunded. While it was in some sense a competitor to my own group's EBEX project, it's heartbreaking to see so much good work go down the drain. The instrument, as I understand it, was nearly built and was just months from deployment to Chile.

And finally, while not in keeping with this post's theme, I would be remiss not to at least mention marriage equality coming to Iowa. Excellent news for Iowa, of course, but hopefully also a catalyst to get things moving elsewhere in the Midwest. It was decidedly disappointing for us Minnesotans to see a number of good measures along these lines die in committee in St. Paul this year.

P.S. I actually finished this post from the kitchen table of our rented house at 2 am or so. I got a lovely chance to cool my heels for a bit and admire the dark night sky here when, shortly after being dropped off, I discovered that Jeff still had my keys from when he had borrowed them at lunchtime. Nice of him to take a break to return them, since at the rate the closing is going, they may be there until sunrise.

Our insomniac rooster has already started crowing.

More Photos

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There is now a Minnesota House in Ft. Sumner. Asad, Jeff, and I moved out of the motel yesterday into a house just outside of town that we'll be renting for the duration. Unlike the previous houses we observed, it is clean and altogether not depressing. It has such a fully functional kitchen that we threw a housewarming dinner party right away. Unfortunately it has no internet access yet -- that will hopefully be fixed by the end of the week. Have I mentioned that the locals are ridiculously accommodating of us "NASA folks," as we're called?

By request, here's a wide-angle view of the highbay where I'm spending my days. More in-depth blogging will resume when I have a network connection from elsewhere than the lab.

The Ft. Nevis highbay, framed by the gantry crane, with our partially assembled gondola in centerstage.

If you're interested in a more voluminous photostream, our postdoc Asad has been updating his Picasa galleries daily. Sadly, his camera is nicer than mine.


Here on the edge of the great plains wind is integral to the landscape. Today it was between 30 and 60 mph out of the northeast, continuously and without pause. From our arrival until sunset the entire building rumbled from the force of the wind hitting it, and we had to keep the exterior doors latched to avoid eddies in the current violently whipping them open at random. At one point today a small plane had to set down to get out of the wind, and as it landed it came to a halt a few feet off the ground; despite having achieved zero groundspeed the headwind gave it a high enough airspeed to remain aloft. (This was, incidentally, the first plane we've seen use this airport all week.)

Panorama of the wind farm lining a ridge several miles east of Ft. Sumner, the New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located here. Click to get the huge version.

You can easily imagine a wind like this picking up enough topsoil to produce the epic dust storms of the Great Depression. Which leads me into today's links. A team of climate modelers at Goddard has published simulations of the climate during the Great Depression and demonstrated what I think was common knowledge to people that lived through it, that land use patterns were partially responsible for the dust storms. (via ars technica) Growing up I was always told that the dust storms came about because of all the dried-up farmland that had replaced the prairie grass of the great plains. What is interesting, though, is that the simulations suggest that the conversion to farmland actually amplified the drought itself. But again, that pretty much squares with experience.

Another nifty trick you can do with wide open agricultural spaces is tell directions. If you're sufficiently motivated, start recording what direction the cattle face as they stand around chewing their cud. The result turns out not to be random -- on average, cattle (and some types of deer as well) will tend to align with the magnetic north-south axis. It's long been wondered whether this is coincidence (due to some bovine preference regarding wind direction, sunlight, or what have you) or if herds of cattle can actually be used as large smelly compasses. Again from the PNAS, a group of European wildlife researchers suggest that the latter is true. The proof is quite elegant: when grazing near power lines the cattle will align themselves with the magnetic fields emanating from the lines, but with increasing distance will gradually revert to geomagnetic alignment. No indication is given as to why Angus like to imitate iron filings.

And while we're on environmental topics, you all knew that there is mercury in high fructose corn syrup now, right? HFCS is in essentially all processed foods, of course, at least in the United States, since it allows the massive amounts of corn we overproduce to be converted into sweets and preservatives. Making it is a somewhat proprietary (read: secretive) process, but it involves processing corn starch with, among other things, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. One way to make those substances in industrial quantities is the mercury cell process, an electrochemical process in which salt is dissolved in mercury. While the process is designed to recover and recycle the mercury, several tons per year cannot be accounted for, presumably some of which is dissolved in the output products. There is no regulation restricting the use of chemicals made this way from being incorporated into food, and as it happens the FDA mostly does not include HFCS-containing processed foods in its mercury testing program. Awesome.

On base

That windstorm yesterday did wind up dropping some ice and snow, just enough to coat the ground and make things a bit slippery, but if anything accumulated it blew away. I think the wind speed never dropped below 30 mph or so today, so the ground was pretty well scoured. More annoyingly, the high bay we're working in isn't all that well insulated, so for most of the day it was probably under 50°F in here. Brrr!

The NASA highbay at Ft. Sumner after a light dusting of snow. 27 March 2009

For the time being we're staying in the local Super8, but we spent part of the afternoon looking at houses and apartments to rent for the couple of months we'll be here. The two houses were both depressing and in serious need of a remodel -- while some of us have low enough standards that we could imagine sleeping in them, half the point was to acquire kitchen facilities so we don't have to eat out all the time, and in that department the houses were seriously delinquent. On the other hand, we found an apartment in town that was just remodelled, and is apparently spacious and clean. The current thinking is to stash a couple of the more fragile types there and make lots of keys so we can all cook. We'll see how that pans out.

Despite being a mite busy, I do still try to keep up with things. Via Baseline Scenario I find a longish article in the Atlantic (by that blog's author and former IMF economist) observing that the present United States economic implosion displays a disturbing similarity to the failed emerging economies that the IMF spent most of the 80s and 90s brutally repairing. Here, as then, the long-term solution is to break the power of the oligarchs running the country in question into the ground. Nice to see that sort of rhetoric is back in fashion -- until recently, only labor activists and other officially disreputable types were talking up our "second gilded age".

Taking a longer view, here is a comparison between the present mess and the Roman financial crisis of 33 CE. That one was solved in part by throwing the richest guy around off a cliff and seizing his gold mines for the emperor.


So my first full day in the field mostly consisted of unboxing things, singlehandedly setting up a computer network and moving a bunch of data around. The other folks moved heavy things with the crane and tried not to get in the way of the folks we're sharing this highbay with -- they were installing the mirror on their absurdly space-age looking gondola today.

It'll probably be a solid 12-hour day here, but it's not too bad. Playing rock music in a NASA hanger in the middle of nowhere with a windstorm howling outside in the pitch black. I've missed this part of the country.

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