Curiosity explores science wonderland

pgeweather@pge.comAugust 11, 2012 

On an unusually clear August evening in Los Osos on Sunday, I looked to the southwestern sky and saw what appeared to be three “stars” in the shape of a near-perfect equilateral triangle. The top point of light was the planet Saturn, the star on the bottom left was Spica in the constellation Virgo, and the bright spot on the bottom right was the planet Mars.

On that night, Aug. 5, a Mini Cooper-sized NASA rover called Curiosity successfully landed on the surface of Mars, otherwise known as the Red Planet because of its iron-rich soil. It’s a cold planet with a very thin atmosphere, more like a vacuum; however, dust devils and wind storms do develop at times.

The 2,000-pound Curiosity, also called the Mars Science Laboratory, traveled eight months and more than 352 million miles to Mars. As it approached Mars, Curiosity had to go from 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes.

Because of Curiosity’s mass and size, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to develop a new landing method they called the “sky crane” maneuver to safely lower the rover to the surface. After its fiery entry into the atmosphere, relying on a heat shield for protection, Curiosity then used a parachute and rockets to slow down. Curiosity was then lowered gently to the surface on cables from the hovering rocket-powered sky crane.

Curiosity is far larger than earlier rovers Spirit and Opportunity. In fact, it’s the heaviest piece of equipment NASA has landed on Mars. It’s chock full of the most sophisticated laboratory gear that has ever gone to another planet. Unlike solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity is nuclear powered, and it could continue to explore Mars for decades.

Many parts of Curiosity were built locally. Chris Baker, manufacturing manager at Next Intent Inc. in San Luis Obispo, told me his company manufactured various parts for Curiosity. Those include wheel mounting hardware, a titanium steering component called the “rotor housing” as well as the suspension arms and some other parts that will help it deal with Martian terrain. They even made the antennae and camera mounts along with the covers for the hazard avoidance cameras. They also built the wheels for Spirit and Opportunity.

“It was pretty challenging work, and it required a team effort on our part as well as great support from the designers at JPL. They have always been great to work with, and we are proud to help them on these types of ‘other world’ projects,” Baker said.

Another local company, Helical Products Company in Santa Maria, designed and manufactured flexible couplings and machined springs for Curiosity.

Altogether, about 7,000 people worked on this project from 37 different states and 12 countries, according to Alan Buis, media relations specialist at JPL, working for the California Institute of Technology.

Not only do these projects produce numerous jobs and inspire many of us, but they also demonstrate the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for our children.

Walt Reil, a PG&E colleague at Diablo Canyon Power Plant and a volunteer public outreach representative for JPL, said, “JPL and NASA missions represent what is wonderful about America. Having a strong foundation in STEM education is vital to our nation’s well-being and our children’s future success.”

Communities around our nation are now recognizing the need to strengthen and enhance STEM education inside and outside our schools. One such local community partnership, of which Reil is a founding member, is the new Central Coast STEM Collaborative. The all- volunteer organization is comprised of educators, business leaders, local residents and nonprofit STEM education organizations.

Another member of Central Coast STEM, Dennis Young, put it best when Curiosity successfully landed: “This is the gold, silver and bronze all wrapped up in one science package. A debt of gratitude to all involved. Excelsior!” To learn more about Central Coast STEM, go to http://ccstem.org.

Today’s weather report

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that this July was the warmest month on record since records have been kept: 1895.

The average temperature for the contiguous U.S. during July was 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.3 degrees above the 20th century average for the month.

In the North County, Paso Robles averaged 71.9 degrees during July, or 1.4 degrees below average. The lowest average temperature on record was 68.6 degrees set in 1954. San Luis Obispo normally averages 64.2 degrees during July. This July, San Luis Obispo averaged 63.5 degrees. The lowest average temperature on record was 62.9 degrees, also set back in 1954. By the way, the warmest July on record for San Luis Obispo was in 1998 and averaged 71.1 degrees.

On Friday, the temperature soared to 110 degrees at the Paso Robles Airport to establish a record high for the date. The previous high was 109 set back in 1970. Rich’s home weather station in Creston reported a high of 112 degrees. At the Carissa Plain School, the high reached a sizzling 117 degrees Saturday afternoon.

The Perseid meteor shower has begun as our planet enters the debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle.

Sky watchers are already counting dozens of meteors per hour during the darkest hours before dawn. Rates could increase tenfold when the shower reaches its peak today into Monday. Although many will be bright enough to see from light-polluted urban areas, the shower’s full grandeur is reserved for places with dark and starry skies.

A large ridge of high pressure that extends westward from the Four Corners region will continue to dominate Central Coast weather through today with continued hot temperatures across the North County. Today’s maximum temperature in Paso Robles should reach 104 degrees.

Closer to the coastline, San Luis Obispo is expected to reach 83 degrees. Near the shoreline, a shallow marine layer will keep the beaches in the 60s.

In addition to the North County heat, monsoon moisture will increase from the south, which will keep minimum temperatures up at night, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley. Afternoon thunderstorms are expected to increase in intensity and coverage through Monday, but at this time activity is expected to remain in the higher elevations of the southern Sierra and Tehachapi mountains.

A gradual cooling trend will occur Monday and especially Tuesday when the upper ridge will retreat back toward the east and a weak area of low pressure will begin to slowly develop over California. Over the following couple of days, this system is expected to deepen and retrograde to the west off the California coast. This will translate to near-normal mid-August temperatures through most of next week.

Along the beaches, the relaxed northwesterly winds will produce mostly overcast conditions with only partial afternoon clearing Monday through Thursday. High temperatures along the beaches will range between the low to mid-60s. Increasing northwesterly winds in a greater amount of coastal clearing is forecast Friday through the following weekend.

Today’s surf report

Today’s 3- to 5-foot northwesterly (315-degree deep-water) sea and swell (with a 7- to 11-second period) will become a 3- to 5-foot northwesterly (300-degree deep-water) swell (with an 8- to 11-second period) Monday and remain at this height and period through Thursday.

A 3- to 5-foot northwesterly (315-degree deep-water) sea and swell (with a 5- to 11-second period) is forecast along the coastline Friday through next Sunday.

Arriving from the Southern Hemisphere, a 1- to 2-foot Southern Hemisphere (180-degree deep-water) swell (with a 20- to 22-second period) from an intense storm off Chile will arrive along the Pecho Coast on Wednesday and increase to 1 to 3 feet (with an 18- to 20-second period Thursday into Friday). Note: Swell heights will be much larger in Southern California.

Seawater temperatures

Seawater temperature will range between 53 and 55 degrees through Tuesday, increasing to 54 and 57 degrees Wednesday, and will remain at this level through Friday.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and longtime meteorologist. Email pgeweather@pge.com.

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