Monthly Archives: October 2008

What's Old is New Again

A few weeks ago, I discovered an archaeological relic while I was wandering in the wilderness. It was quite an expected sight. I had to stop and think a while to understand what its purpose was, to consider the role that it must have played in the lives of these ancient people. What were they doing? What were they thinking? Can we recreate these primitive folks from these few snatches of their lives? I respect the slow, steady work of archaeologists, and the challenges that they face in recreating historic puzzles with missing pieces and uncertain end states.

Less abstractly: while doing some maintenance a few weeks ago, I had to go to to acquire my API key in order to use the comment spam protection on this blog. I started to register an account on, then rememembered, "Hey, I already have an account here." I logged in and unexpectedly found my blog from my summer in Europe at the International Space University: Road Trip to Space. (It's empty there, but keep reading...)

I've spent a fair amount of time already in 2008 archiving bits and pieces of the past. I'm not stuck there, unwilling to move on. I welcome the future. I want the past to be the past. I'm filing things away so that the past can be a story shared with the characters who were a part of it instead of a private clutter in boxes and folders -- the past as a trail that can be followed instead of the past as a jungle that grasps, impedes.

Here are the posts from that old blog in their new home on this site: tag: SSP 2006. It's all the same, except that instead of hosting the photos on site, I've added them to Flickr and linked to them there. This is not groundbreaking stuff by any means, just a piece of the Kittell Legend. Sure, sure, it's not as interesting as any Duluoz Legend, but it's close to my heart nonetheless.

I've posted three sets of photos to Flickr from summer 2006. There are more -- quite a lot more, actually, and I'll get to them in due time. It takes some time to properly archive them due to my obsession with mundane details like tags, latitude and longitude, etc.

Panoramas from the Heart of the Mojave

A week ago, I was forced to go to Sacramento for a business trip -- forced, as in "don't fling me in dat brier-patch." Seriously. Have to leave Houston to go to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada? There are many, many worse things in life. I'll write more about the trip later. I'm still fussing with a .kmz file that shows my travels on a map. You know me: I'm obsessed with maps.

In the meantime, I wanted to show a few photos that I took in Trona, California. I tell people that I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Fulton County, Illinois. Trona is... maybe at the end of nowhere -- the end of the world, right before you fall off into the abyss. In other words, it's a pretty cool place.

It's hard to describe the Mojave Desert in photos in the same way that it is hard to describe central Illinois in photos: the place is wide open, expansive. If you focus your camera on the so-interesting horizon, you often end up with a so-disappointing photo. It's maddening. That squarish rectangle that your camera captures does not capture what it feels like to be in the wider landscape.

The way around this is to capture a panoramic view of the landscape. I have been taking panoramic photos since I got my first digital camera in 2004, but I have never tried in earnest to stitch them together. Finally, with this batch, I mustered the impetus to try it.

So, I picked up a copy of hugin 0.7.0 from SourceForge to create the panoramas.

It was fairly easy to use. There is a feature to create the panoramas automatically, but I set the control points -- the points common to multiple photos that would be stitched together -- manually. It looked better like that because I could do some quality control on each point, plus I did a more thorough job picking control points in the common areas.

Click each photo for a link to its page on Flickr. Welcome to the desert. Let me know what you think.

Trona Pinnacles:
Trona Pinnacles Panorama

Trona Pinnacles, from on top of a pinnacle:
360 Degree Panorama from Top of Trona Pinnacles

Panamint Valley, from CA-178:
Panamint Valley Panorama

If you're impatient, you can see all of the photos from this trip on Flickr before I write about it: California, October 2008

Trona Pinnacles:

Unanswered Questions Answered (Or: Lies I Told to High School Students)

Dear Mr. Lochhead,

Here are a few videos that I described in class on Monday. The real things are always better...

STS-123 Landing [YouTube] - You can start to see the APU plume in infrared at 5:05, a little bit in visible at 5:15, and very clearly near wheel stop at 6:05. The APU plume is normal, happens after every landing. It never looks this cool, though, usually it is invisible. For the flame to appear so clearly, there was a favorable combination of (1) a night landing and (2) very low wind. (The wind would blow the combustible gases away from the ignition source, sort of like trying to light a lighter in the wind.)

Boeing 777 Wing Load test [YouTube] - I was wrong about which aircraft I had seen the wing load test failure. I thought it was the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but it was actually a Boeing 777. (In this case, think of failure as success -- you want to break things in the lab, not in production or flight.)

Rolls Royce Trent 900 Bird Ingestion Test [YouTube] - The title says it all. Bird strike testing is required by the Federal Aviation for several components, including fan blades and windshields, so you can probably find more videos if you look for them.

Dear Ms. Franklin,

I got part of the story right about hydrazine combustion regarding ammonia, but I missed most of it. Now that I can cheat and use my notes, I can tell you that nitrogen and hydrogen products are also produced.

First off, I was wrong about one thing: the Auxiliary Power Unit [NASA] (APU) on the Space Shuttle Orbiter does not use monomethylhydrazine (CH3NHNH2) -- it uses plain old liquid hydrazine, which is the composition I gave you, N2H4. (The Orbital Maneuvering System [NASA], another set of rocket engines on the Orbiter, uses monomethylhydrazine.)

Combustion of hydrazine in the APU occurs without oxygen In space, there is no atmosphere to provide oxygen; anyway, during launch in the atmosphere, combustion is isolated from the environment.

  1. 3 N2H4 --> 4 NH3 + N2
  2. N2H4 --> N2 + 2 H2
  3. 4 NH3 + N2H4 --> 3 N2 + 8 H2

I was wrong about the catalyst, as well. The catalyst is iridium on alumina, but it is called Shell 405, not Shell 104 -- or if you want to be more specific, Shell Corporation stopped making this in 2002, so the new version produced by Aerojet is called S-405.

To both of you: thanks for letting me talk to your classes on Monday. It was fun. Engineers are good folks, but students are more interesting than engineers. I hope you found it useful. If you ever have any questions, email me at I can put you in touch with the smart folks that put their hands on this equipment, or can hook you up with more photos or videos, etc., which is even more interesting than listening to me describe it.

(To everyone else: My dad is a principal at Chester High School in southern Illinois. I was hanging out with a few of his teachers -- Ms. Franklin and Mr. Lochhead -- and students on Monday morning when I was in town.)