NASA Does Cool Stuff That It Does Not Know That It Does

Keith's note: NASA has some amazing online resources - you can find exoplanets, track satellites, watch weather, and see meteors. These resources intrinsically overlap. So you'd think that NASA would always be thinking of ways to leverage one resource with another so as to provide an emergent property: a fuller, richer picture of the world - and the universe around us - using all of the tools NASA can offer. Guess again.

One part of NASA regularly knows that there is a synergy with someone else's stuff but they won't act on that since someone else's resources are well, someone else's resources. Different divisions or directorates or centers, different pots of money, different management interests. Net result: NASA is an amazing mix of neat toys spread out across the web with minimal thought given as to how best to convey them to the public. And then there is a sexy mission landing or launch and NASA is on a sugar high for a few days. Then its back to being dysfunctional. Why fix the routine stuff, they ask - did you see how many people watched the landing?

NASA stove pipes prevent collaboration. The net result of these artificial barriers is that trying to navigate the totality of NASA's web presence is often an exercise in rabbit hole diving. Yes, O my readers, I have ranted relentlessly about this before. But it is the gift that keeps on giving. NASA never fixes these things even when they are pointed out to them.

Some new examples. The NASA Meteorwatch Facebook page has a NASA MSFC website address that links to the NASA MSFC Meteoroid Environment Office. The Twitter account also has a MSFC home - yet the Twitter account has not tweeted anything about meteors since 2015 but retweeted a @NASA Tweet once in 2019 and another in 2020. And the Flickr account you are sent to has nothing to do with meteors. So why have this inert Twitter account named exactly the same as a NASA activity - one that is active?

That said, NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA HQ makes no mention of this Facebook or social media activity on a web page titled Watch the Skies - a page that one would think would highlight such things. Odd.There is a link to Meteoroid Environment Office - but why would anyone go there without some mention of "news" or "sightings"? You have to be psychic and already know where NASA resources are before you go down a rabbit hole and look for them. A few words and a little logic could reveal this resource to many more people. But even though this is a space science activity it is not run by SMD but rather the NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. As such, since it is not a SMD site it does not care if you find it easily.

And if you do go to NASA's All Sky Fireball Network page and click on the NASA logo (as you are supposed to do on all NASA pages) there is no link to NASA.gov. Nor is there a link to NASA.gov anywhere on the page. There is a link to Meteoroid Environment Office and that links back to NASA.gov but there is no link to the NASA Science Mission Directorate SMD (where all the science stuff happens) or the NASA Headquarters Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) which established this activity to begin with. And of course OSMA makes no mention of the Meteoroid Environment Office. There is a link to NASA MSFC but that webpage makes zero mention of anyone other than MSFC.

Oh yes: NASA SMD has a science news page And if you click on the NASA logo on the Science News page it gets 10% larger but does not send you to NASA.gov or to NASA SMD. And there is no obvious mention of fireballs or meteors or NASA Meteorwatch.

There is a great but missed opportunity here for agency-wide, nation-wide outreach. Last night a meteorite got a lot of people's attention in Vermont. The Facebook page noticed and provided updates but NASA HQ has no idea that this part of itself - something it funds - even did this. And the SMD, OSMA and MSFC people are asleep at the wheel when it comes to making NASA resources available to the widest audience possible.

I sit in my basement and see this broken web stuff. Its not hard to notice. Alas, I am baffled that NASA does not. "Shooting stars" are often people's first exposure to astronomical inquiries. And while they are looking up at the sky they see fast moving objects with red and green lights - airplanes - what NASA's Aeronautics division does. And of course they also see satellites - what other parts of NASA does. How do you tell them part? What a great thing for NASA to want to do - bring its astronomy, meteor, aeronautics, and space science sightings to gather so as to explain what all of the lights in the night sky are.

Part of NASA cares about meteor sightings. Other parts do not. And I am willing to bet that NASA SMD, OSMA, and PAO did not even know that the media says that NASA has commented on this event that many people experienced - until they read about it in a Google news search - or read my rant.

Vermont Meteor's Violent Explosion Causes Earth Tremors Detected by NASA, Newsweek

"The meteor that exploded over the state of Vermont on the evening of March 7 was detected by ground-based seismometers, NASA has said. The space rock violently broke apart in Earth's atmosphere around 33 miles high, causing a shockwave that could be measured and heard by instruments."

As some of you know I spent 6 weeks in Nepal in 2009 while an astronaut friend climbed Mt. Everest - and I had some Apollo 11 Moon rocks in my pocket. My trek in was eye opening. I wrote about teaching Sherpas to spot satellites here: "My Star Trek Episode at Everest"

One night in April 2009, as I trekked through the Khumbu region toward Everest, I stayed in Dingboche (elevation 14,470 feet) at the aforementioned Hotel Arizona. I went outside to call my wife on the Iridium satphone. It was impossibly dark with a sky full of stars unlike any I had ever seen. I was just mesmerized. It was so dark that I literally walked right into a small yak that was wandering around the Hotel Arizona.

At one point my trekking guide Tashi came out. Tashi is a Sherpa who has reached the summit of Everest 12 times. He asked me why I was looking up at the sky. He had seen satellite phones before, so he knew what they did. I explained to him that it was hard to get a signal for more than a few minutes due to the high peaks surrounding us. So, I waited to see if I could spot an Iridium satellite (easy to do) and then dialed my wife. I knew I'd lose the call as soon as the satellite passed behind a mountain - but having the satellite in sight allowed me to parse my conversation.

Tashi is a very smart guy. But he was a bit perplexed about my satellite spotting. So I taught him how to do it and explained the different types of satellites and their orbits. Like his neighbors, Tashi had always assumed that all of the moving lights in the night sky were airplanes. When I told him that they were satellites lit by sunlight he asked how they could be lit by the sun at night. I asked him why some mountain peaks were still visible well after the sun goes down or glow before the sun rises. He answered matter of factly that this was because the mountains were very high. I then asked him to imagine a mountain 100 km tall - where satellites are - and said that this is why they were still visible. Having had the experience of 12 Everest summits under his belt and gazing out over vast expanses, Tashi immediately got the concept. Several days later I saw him teaching and explaining my satellite hunting tricks to several other Sherpas.

To this day I get a shiver from this - it was a very Star Trek moment - teaching someone what the "lights in the sky" were - with a piece of the Moon in my pocket on my way to meet a space traveller. Tashi was very psyched about that. But this was not my only Star Trek moment in Nepal."

Properly done, an all-sky resource - one that explains what all the lights in the sky are - could extend NASA's reach vastly far beyond America's borders. I have witnessed such a thing with my own eyes. NASA can do this. But it has to want to do this.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 9, 2021 10:40 AM.

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