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Articles by Bob Melamud

Separated from Earth by four billion miles, the ­New ­Horizons spacecraft explores the outer limits

     Stakes were high and tension palpable New Year’s Day at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, as Sarah Hamilton and her colleagues waited for a long-distance radio transmission confirming either a successful mission or a failure.
      About 10 hours earlier, the New Horizons spacecraft — launched 13 years ago on a mission to Pluto and beyond — had flown past a 20-mile-long object called Ultima Thule (pronounced Ultima too-lee). From four billion miles away, it takes hours for the signals to reach earth. In Mission Control and in the auditorium at APL, people waited for New Horizons to phone home.
 
Space Science
       Hamilton, an aerospace and software engineer living in Crofton, had tended to the New Horizons spacecraft since 2005, a year before its launch.
      She knew from experience that the best-laid plans could go bust in an instant. 
      On her first assignment at the Johns Hopkins lab, the University of Maryland graduate worked in Mission Control for a NASA space probe called Contour. Its job was to gather data while flying by comets. Like the New Horizons spacecraft that would follow, Contour was designed to receive a set of commands from Mission Control, execute them, then radio back to confirm the commands had been followed.
      In August of 2002, nine weeks after Contour’s launch, the Mission Control team sent it a set of commands that would initiate an engine burn and send the spacecraft into a solar orbit.
      “You could feel the tension in the room,” Hamilton remembered, as the team waited for a call home that never came. Sometime after contact was lost, telescopes detected debris where Contour should have been. The mission was a near total loss.
      Missions into deep space remain, like Apollo 1 through 13, acts of faith. Humans from planners to designers to engineers, fabricators and programmers do everything they can to create machines to act as mobile eyes and ears millions of miles distant. Then they launch their creation. If the launch is successful, their baby travels far beyond human reach over huge distances of space and time where they can guide it only by remote-control.
      Four infrastructure subsystems control New Horizons and its seven onboard instrument systems, cameras and other sensors. All these systems need to be told what to do; Hamilton builds and tests the strings of commands to accomplish these goals. 
      Every couple of weeks, a new set of commands is sent to New Horizons; then comes the tense waiting out the hours it takes the commands to arrive, and the hours it takes the spacecraft to respond that all is well.
      New Horizons had survived 13 years and four billion miles in space, but disaster was never out of reach. 
 
Mission: Pluto
     In July of 2015, New Horizons approached its first mission objective, an encounter with Pluto. Ten days before the fly-by, a routine command sequence had been uploaded. Then listeners in Laurel waited for hours for the signals to make their round trip. 
      To paraphrase, New Horizons said, “my main processor is overloaded, I have switched to my backup processor, and I’m running in safe mode.”
      The spacecraft was communicating and functioning at a basic level. But in 10 days, when it reached Pluto, it would need to be fully functional.
      There was no such thing as turning around and going back for a second pass. If they weren’t ready when they flew by Pluto, the mission would fail.
       Memories of that fateful message are still vivid for Hamilton. 
       “When the processor overloaded on July 4, I was at home checking my work email for confirmation that the fly-by sequence was safely onboard the spacecraft, stored in memory,” she recalled. “I had a bad feeling when the email didn’t arrive. I was in shock as if time was standing still when I first heard the news. I said goodbye to my family as they headed to the fireworks.”
      “The team was amazing. It was July 4, but the mission was still priority one, regardless of any plans people might have had. Everyone did what needed to be done.”
      It took three days and nights, but the problem was fixed, the fly-by was a success, and we now know more about Pluto than we ever did.
      A bumper sticker on Hamilton’s car reads My other vehicle explored Pluto.
 
Onward to Ultima Thule
      After the Pluto mission’s outstanding success, the spacecraft remained in good health with ample fuel and power. A new target was needed, and though Ultima Thule had not been discovered when New Horizons was launched, it was now the choice, a billion miles and three and one-half years away. Hamilton went to work on the command sequence to send New Horizon to its new destination.
 
The Final Approach
      As the moment of the fly-by approached — 12:33am EST on New Year’s Day 2019 — the energy level at the applied Physics Lab ramped up. For Hamilton, it was the climax of 14 years of work. Longer still for some on the program.
      “This mission has always been about delayed gratification,” Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, told the assembly at the pre-fly-by briefing on December 31. “It took us 12 years to sell the spacecraft, five years to build it and 13 years to get here.”
     On December 20, Hamilton uploaded the final command sequence for the fly-by. Twelve hours later, New Horizons responded that all was well. From December 26 to 31, the navigation team reworked their calculations for a critical parameter, the time of arrival at Ultima Thule.
      Hamilton and the Missions Operations team were sending this new data to the spacecraft. The corrections were only in the two-second range, but when you’re traveling nine miles a second and aiming to fly by an object only 20 miles long, that two seconds can make the difference between a perfect picture and a blank frame.
      On the morning of Sunday, December 30, the last command sequence was sent. Then Hamilton and her cohorts began to wait for the call home. 
     On New Year’s Eve, she brought her family to the main auditorium to celebrate the new year, the mission and — they hoped — success.
      That night, there were two countdowns: one to midnight, and the other leading up to the fly-by at 12:33am.
      It might have been hard for Sarah to explain to her daughters, ages seven and five, what all the excitement was about. But she gave them the key message: “I like my job, I love going to work. You can be anything you want to be and have a job you love, too.”
        Then most everyone went home to get some rest before the next morning revealed whether this 30-year quest was a failure or a success.
 
New Year’s Day
       The auditorium was subdued as the New Horizons team, their friends and families and reporters stared at the large screen focused on the Mission Control room, waiting for that phone call home. Suddenly, the auditorium went quiet as we sensed a change in the demeanor of the people in the control room. It was happening.
      At their computers, controllers narrated their reports — in technical jargon, of course. After one group reported its status as “nominal,” the crowd’s voice rose.
      “We have a healthy spacecraft,” Missions Operations Manager Alice Bowman reported. Then the crowd went wild. Me, too.
      Hamilton didn’t have to wait so long. “I was watching the telecommunications subsystems engineers,” she told me. “When I saw them smile, I knew we had data coming back, and the spacecraft was okay.”
      New Horizons had extended human reach four billion miles into the universe.
 
 
Learn more about the New Horizons mission and the Ultima Thule fly-by in the PBS science series NOVA; Season 46, Episode 1: Pluto and Beyond. Check your local listings or On Demand, or watch it online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/pluto-and-beyond. 

Allison Colden tweaked oyster reef balls to help break up dead zones

      A fiction writer imagining a character destined to become a key figure in Bay oyster restoration could save much time by basing the depiction on real-life Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 
     From an early age, Colden seemed destined for a role in Bay restoration. Growing up in Virginia Beach, she gravitated to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, learning about the Bay and the problems it is facing. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, majoring in biology while doing field work on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. For her PhD at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (part of William and Mary), she researched how to construct oyster reefs for maximum production. Next, foreshadowing the political aspect of Bay restoration, she spent a year on Capitol Hill as a NOAA fellow for a California congressman, advising on fisheries and natural resources policy. Then, in January of 2017, after a year with a Virginia nonprofit estuary restoration group, she joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a Maryland fisheries scientist specializing in oysters.
     She does some work on other fisheries — notably crabs and striped bass — but most of her time goes to our favorite bivalve.
     “I’ve been fixated on oysters for a long time,” she told me as the 60-foot Foundation workboat Patricia Campbell, moved up the Severn River to begin an oyster restoration experiment.
     “Every research paper I worked on in college turned out to be about oysters. By the time I entered grad school I knew I wanted to work on bringing this important species back.”
     Joining Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave her opportunity for hands-on science. “As much as I respect and admire my academic colleagues, I realized it took more than publishing papers to effect change,” she said. 
      Now an Annapolitan, she’s never far from the Bay.
      “Every day my husband and I take our Australian terrier Bismarck on a walk along Back Creek,” she said. “Being able to work for positive change is important to me as a citizen of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” 
 
Hands-on in the Field
      In April 2018, the Patricia Campbell was underway to drop concrete reef balls into the Severn River to test one of Colden’s oyster-directed hypotheses: Could “man-made oyster reefs with vertical structure agitate currents and break up dead zones?”
     It’s long been known that weather can affect dead zones; turbulent weather stirs up the water column, distributing oxygen-rich waters throughout. Could added structures do the stirring?
      The hope was this stirring would mix the oxygen-rich water on the surface with the oxygen-depleted water on the bottom, thus lessening the dreaded dead zones that plague our waterways every summer.
     These vertical structures were concrete half-balls about two feet across. The ship’s crane easily lifted the 240-pound balls and precisely placed them about a mile up from the Route 50 bridge in an area known as the Winchester Lump.
     This experiment was about water stirring, but reef balls make good oyster habitat, too. So why not try to grow more oysters at the same time? The balls were preloaded at the Foundation Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side with almost a million oyster spat. An instrument pod to measure certain key water parameters, like stirring, was also lowered to the bottom. The pod was to be retrieved in a few weeks. In the fall, Colden and the team of scientists would return to the new reef to check on the progress of the oyster spat.
 
Murphy’s Law
      Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Who hasn’t experienced it?
      In the biological and environmental sciences, Murphy’s Law can call on the forces of nature to humble up even the best-planned experiment. In this case, it was the record-breaking rain. All that fresh water pouring down lowers the salt content of Bay water. Fish can swim to areas of higher salinity. Oysters don’t have that luxury; they can be stunted or die if the water isn’t salty enough.
      The deluges also had other effects. Freshwater sitting on top of saltier water creates a boundary that discourages mixing of the water column, exacerbating dead zones. There was also a significant algae bloom, a mahogany tide, in the river this summer. Such blooms cause dead zones.
       The reef ball instruments recorded a four percent increase in mixing of the water column due to the reef balls. Still, the effect on the biology of the river was less clear; Colden suspected the algae and the fresh water would greatly affect the ecosystem of the river.
      To get the final word on that, she would have to wait for the return trip to the reef balls.
 
Return to Winchester Lump
      The April trip to place the reef balls had been a pleasant day on the water; the trip in late November to check the progress of the oysters was anything but. After several delays due to gale warnings and rain, the day of the trip was cold and cloudy. The only person who seemed properly dressed for the weather was the dry-suit-clad diver who would attach lines and floats to the submerged reef balls so they could be hauled up and examined.
       The balls emerged from their seven-month soak yielding expected but still disappointing news. There was plenty of life on the balls, but no oysters; rain and algae had done them in.
       All was not lost, however. The concrete was covered with false mussels. These are also filter feeders, which contribute to water quality, but they tend to be transient. Also present were worms and hydroids, a colonial animal like coral. We even found a naked goby fish.
      “We showed the reef balls can increase water column mixing and can decrease dead zones,” Colden explained in our followup interview. “We also learned that water depth matters, and in the future we might want to try the technique with a shallower bottom. We also learned that even with a low-oxygen, low-salinity environment, we can have life. It’s just different life.”

In Makerspaces workshops, you can make most anything

     My latest project is building a steam engine for a model railroad. 
     For project-hounds like me, each new ambition means new tools, which are fun but pricey. That’s a big commitment for a beginner. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to try a project, get some guidance and use some tools and supplies before having to buy your own? 
     Now there is.
 
Makerspaces? Places to Make 
     “A Makerspace is a shared workshop where members work on projects, collaborate with others and learn skills,” explained Russ Miller of the new Annapolis Makerspace. “Think of it as a gym where members pay a monthly fee, but instead of weight machines, members have access to many types of tools and equipment.”
     You might first take a Makerspace class to learn basic skills and safe operation of the tools and machines. Likely you’ll find other people with similar interests.
     Each Makerspace has its own facility, organization, specialty and funding, with monthly memberships discounted for students and seniors. All are reasonably priced considering what you get.
 
The Annapolis Makerspace
     “Everyone has their own interest, and they are varied,” said Jack Warpinski, president of the group of electronics hobbyists, programmers, 3D printer enthusiasts and woodworkers who merged their skills as the nonprofit Annapolis Makerspace. They rented a space off West Street by the National Guard Armory, donated or loaned tools, built workbenches and, by early August, were up and running. 
     “Right now we’re in startup mode,” Warpinski told me.
     Facilities include a computer lab with CAD software, an electronics station with test equipment, 3D printers and a wood shop with a CNC (computer-numeric-controlled) router. Membership is by the month, and classes are offered.
     “The Annapolis area is large enough to support a more substantial organization,” said Warpinski, “so I see us growing in members, square footage, tools, equipment and programs.”
     Microcontroller open houses Thursdays at 7pm, general meetings fourth Tuesday each month at 7pm: 42 Hudson St., Annapolis: www.makeannapolis.org. 
 
Chesapeake Arts Center Makerspace
     The Chesapeake Arts Center, housed in the old Brooklyn Park High School, since 2001 has been northern Anne Arundel County’s Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Now it’s broadened its plan to include technical arts.
     “It meshed with our community’s blue-collar roots in manufacturing and ship building,” headwoman Belinda Fraley Huesman told me. “There were a lot of things made in this area. We wanted to embrace who we were, who we are and lift up the neighborhood.”
     The new Makerspace has its grand opening Saturday September 30. It offers instruction and tools in wood shop, metal fabrication and welding, screen printing and textiles and electronics. There is also a computer lab, laser cutter, a CNC router and 3D printers.
     Mollie McElwain, the center’s education director, is in the thick of preparing for operations.
     “The curriculum for all the safety training is designed,” McElwain said. “We’re now looking for instructors with the specific skills and putting out a call for proposed classes.”
     Anne Arundel County and the state made grants of $90,000 for design and renovation of the space plus $100,000 for fit-up. Annual operating costs will be supported by Makerspace memberships and the Arts Center’s operating budget.
     Open house Saturday Sept. 30, 10am-5pm; open weekdays 10am-6pm, Saturdays 10am-noon. 194 Hammonds Ln., Brooklyn Park: www.chesapeakearts.org/makerspace.
 
Unallocated
     Unallocated is what Annapolis Makerspace could be seven years hence. In 2010, eight people with a shared interest in information security met in a local bar. Today Unallocated is a non-profit, membership cooperative with a facility in Severn and an extensive calendar of talks, seminars, classes and interest-group meetings, many open to the public.
     Stocked with some of the same tools common to other Makerspaces, like woodworking and 3-D printers, Unallocated focuses on all things computer: hardware, software and security, microprocessors and gaming, to mention just a few. There is a large server farm and many computers where members can tinker with both hardware and software. Unique offerings include ham radio and analog — traditional board — games. Most supplies were donated or loaned by members. Various levels of membership available, providing different levels of access
     Open houses Wednesdays at 7pm; check website for additional openings: 512 Shaw Court, Severn; ­www.unallocatedspace.org/uas.
 
The Foundery
     The Taj Mahal of local Makerspaces, The Foundery is a flourishing private enterprise. The facility is huge and very well equipped for a wide variety of hard and soft projects. The wood shop is extensive, and the metal shop well equipped with both machine tools and fabricating tools. Also on-site are a finishing shop with paint and powder coating booths, a blacksmithy, 3D printing, laser engravers and textile working, with embroidery and sewing machines and dress forms.
     The Foundery has recently switched from monthly memberships to pay-as-you-go. With discounts, a day pass can cost as little as $5. 
     The Port Covington area of southern Baltimore, where The Foundery is located, is an easy drive up Rt. 97, only a half hour from the Annapolis area.
     Bi-monthly open houses; open weekdays 9am-10pm, weekends 10am-5pm: 101 W. Dickman St., Baltimore: http://foundery.com.
 

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Space America Museum director turns his focus to film thriller

A murder at a Department of Defense facility and the theft of top secret files leads to the discovery of a dangerous spy organization operating in our nation’s capitol.
    Such is the plot of Fatal Deception, The Archuleta Files, a film written by Alan Hayes, of Owings, who also heads the production company, Spaceman Productions LLC.
    Hayes is best known in Calvert County as the director of the Space America Museum in Prince Frederick.
    Most of the filming is being done locally, key scenes shot in Washington, D.C., as well. The company will be traveling to Los Angeles shortly for a few days of additional shooting, then back to Bay Country for the final scenes.
    Expect to see Fatal Deception, The Archuleta Files later this year or early next year, with the full-length sequel Fatal Deception arriving late next year or early 2018.

The capacity of herons

The discovery that a heron was plundering my catch solved the mystery but did not end my ­curiosity. There was more to be learned.
    Apparently, herons are quite intelligent and know an easy meal when they see it. Almost immediately, a pattern became evident. If I was on the dock to use the boat or to check the crab traps, heron was nowhere in sight. As soon as I picked up my fishing rod, the bird would appear from nowhere and wait about 10 feet down the dock for my catch. At first I fiercely protected my perch. But heron was persistent and cute, and I gave into temptation, tossing an occasional fish. Eventually the bird was getting my first fish. Neighbors kidded me about having a pet heron, and when I gave him a name — Harry the Heron — I knew they were right.
    Having heard stories about adopting wild animals, I checked on potential dangers.
    My wife agreed. She thought I should see a shrink.
    But it was the bird I worried about. Dave Brinker, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bird expert, told me blue herons cause the biggest trouble for the state’s goldfish and koi farmers, who must protect their fish from these predators. The stately birds are not picky eaters.  “If they can catch it and subdue it, they will eat it,” Brinker said. “While we usually think of them eating fish, they will eat frogs and voles and even small muskrat.”
    I was amazed they could eat perch up to eight inches, but their bodies are designed to stretch. Perch are a favorite food because the fish’s shape is conducive to swallowing. Herons are smart enough to know what they can handle, and a bird choking on a meal is very rare.
    Brinker confirmed it was not a good idea to keep feeding Harry, but not for the reason I thought. Once a bird learns to fend for itself, it never forgets and can always go back to self-sufficiency. There are, however, other good reasons to avoid the practice. First, these are smart birds. Once they find an easy meal, they will stick around. This can be problematic at migration time. If Harry decided to stay for the winter, and it was a bad one, it could be hard for either of us to find him food, even if I’m willing to brave sub-zero temperatures to fish for a bird. The second is one’s neighbors. While mine think it’s cool to have a resident heron, not all would agree. Especially fish pond owners.
    I have to sever relations with Harry, and I will in a few weeks. We’ll both go cold turkey. I will stop fishing from my dock; he will have to catch his own dinner. I’m not sure which of us will suffer more.


To see the video of the solved the mystery, go to YouTube and enter Bay Weekly Newspaper Missing Fish Mystery Solved in the search box.

Who dunnit?

It wasn’t quite the mystery of whether aliens landed in Area 51, but around Casa Melamud everyone was perplexed and spending considerable brainpower trying to solve the case of the missing fish.
    It is my habit to go out every evening after dinner and cast my pole from my dock, trying to catch fish for our lunch or to bait my crab traps. I have been consistently getting a handful of medium-sized white perch. Unhooking the fish, I’d tossed them on the dock. But when I went to pick my catch, there were fewer fish than I remembered. This was happening evening after evening. I heard nothing and saw nothing. The fish were just disappearing.
    My wife was sure I was miscounting; she called the missing fish a “senior moment.” Maybe the first time, but not night after night. It’s easy to remember whether you caught two or three fish.
    My daughter thought a feral cat was stealing the fish. This sounded reasonable, except that in the almost four years we have lived in this house, I had never seen a cat outside, feral or otherwise.
    For a better explanation I went to the mother of all knowledge: Google. Search results made the answer clear.
    Aliens are no longer slaughtering and abducting cows. They are eating healthier as they are now abducting fish. I found some compelling arguments, but I reasoned that if I were an alien looking for fish, I would be after sushi-grade tuna, not white perch.
    Finally, I posed the question on the fishing bulletin board I participate in. About 15 other members chimed in with their thoughts on our mystery. Seven said all fishermen are liars, so none of this was happening. Seven told me I was using the wrong lure. If I used the one they recommended, I would catch enough fish to not care about a missing few. One supported the alien abduction theory.
    I was resigned to living with my mystery. But one of the keys to success is luck and timing. About a week after the mystery first posed itself, I happened to turn my head at the precisely right moment, and I saw my answer.
    Who’s got my missing fish?
    See for yourself.

After 9 years, Coast Guard mascot Rosie gets First Class promotion

At a Coast Guard station, where the crew is often separated from friends and family, the extra boost provided by a dog goes a long way. About half of all Coast Guard stations has a mascot dog.
    “It’s about morale” says fireman Justin Singleton, who’s been at Coast Guard Station Annapolis for a year. “She keeps us in good spirits.”
    Rosie, a black Lab, had served as station mascot for nine years without a promotion. All Coast Guard promotions — even First Class Dog — must be earned. So with dedication and a generous supply of training kibble, Rosie’s crewmates helped her master the skills and commands to rise to First Class.
    With three gold stripes to signify her new rank, Rosie continues her primary duty at the station.
    “She’s usually the first to greet visitors,” say Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Andrew Vardakis.

Read more about Rosie at: http://tinyurl.com/n57v2xz

Sign on for the DataBay Reclaim the Bay Innovation Challenge

     It’s the irony of our modern technological society. For most of history, we have craved more facts, more data. We had no problem putting these data to good use as fast as we gathered them.
     In the last couple of decades, that situation has reversed. We now have much more data than we can possibly use. This holds true for the Bay, where data ranges from water samples collected by citizens to reports from orbiting satellites. Just one example: We have water quality data for the entire Chesapeake. You can go online and find maps showing the daily water temperature and clarity.
    The challenge is figuring out how to use all this data for positive change.
    Can more brains help?
    Bring motivated people with the right set of skills and experience together for a weekend of intense collaboration to develop innovative ideas. That’s the plan behind the DataBay Reclaim the Bay Innovation Challenge.
    “We want to get environmental scientists collaborating with information technology people to foster new ideas,” explains Mike Powell, chief innovation officer for Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Most people are one or the other. This is an opportunity to get the best from both.”
    Similar plans have worked in other places on other problems. An event last year led to the creation of Baltimore Decoded, which provides citizens with user-friendly web access to all Baltimore city laws.
    The Reclaim the Bay Innovation Challenge runs from Friday, August 1 through Sunday, August 3 at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. So far, some 50 IT pros and environmental scientists have signed on. There’s room for 50 more, including you.
    Bring a team or join one at the event. Together, you’ll generate ideas for using available data to restore the Bay and involve more people in that important work.
    On Sunday evening, teams will present their findings. Top-rated ideas win cash prizes and will be presented to O’Malley and a panel of entrepreneurs, investors and environmental scientists.
    Is this challenge for you? Learn more at: http://databay.splashthat.com.
    Curious about what types of Bay data are available? Answers at http://databay-data.splashthat.com.

A visit will convince you spring is really here

    I’m finally starting to believe spring is here, but I need an extra nudge. Fortunately, the spring boat show is this week.

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This couple sets the bar high for local eateries

     It’s a rare week at Bay Weekly when we don’t get a press release proclaiming the opening of a regional or national chain restaurant. The release is a metaphor for the restaurant it touts. Produced at a corporate headquarters far away, with minor changes to make it appear local, it touts a menu and food you could just as easily find in Columbus, Ohio.
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