Week 2: NASA

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Sunday, June 8, 2014


Nick Durofchalk

And so on Monday, the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center hosted its orientation for the fresh crop of summer interns. Kirsten, the other SPS intern working with Nasa, and I caught the Metro, road to the end of the line, then caught the bus and arrived at the Goddard Visitor's center a little ahead of time. Honestly, I was surprised by the number of students, recent graduates, and other people who had been selected to intern with Nasa. I got the chance to talk to a few of them, and it was quite interesting hearing their stories. While I had been offered this opportunity through SPS, others had received their offers through NSF grants, or even directly from Nasa. Orientation went smoothly, and by 12:30, I was having lunch with my new mentor and peers at a picnic table outside on Goddard's Campus. My mentor, Dr. Ted Gull, introduced me to people I would be working with, and starting talking about the project I'd be tackling this summer. He did his best to summarize the binary star system, Eta Carinae, and the bipolar nebula surrounding it, but as he talked, I knew I had a lot to read about.

World War II memorial, at night. Its a beautiful sight when its lit up, and a fitting place to to pay your respects on June 6th.Lo and behold, the four days to follow were basically just that: a lot of reading! Of course, there were other things to be done in addition to reading. In fact, I didn't do much reading while at Goddard, as I never really had the downtime to read. I met the two other interns I would be working with, Caleb Gimar and Jamar Liburd, I successfully navigated my way through the Nasa security clearances to get a Nasa email address and a username and password for the system, and attended a fair amount of presentations on a variety of subjects!

The biggest success of the week, in my opinion, was my introduction to Unix coding. When Ted first asked me "do you use a PC or a Mac?" I answered confidently "I'm a PC person!" Little did I know, that apparently the majority of the Physics Research World uses Mac and Unix based systems (like OSX and Linux systems). So Caleb and I were given a Mac Book and a Mac Pro (for use on Goddard Campus only) to share between the two of us and get started learning Unix. Now, at the end of the week, I think I've gotten the basics: I can navigate throughout the different directories, open up files to edit, create aliases in my .cshrc file, download files from the web with the curl command, and call up the IDL programming language all from within the terminal of OSX! I consider that a success.

So what exactly am I doing this summer? From what I understand from this first week, I, along with Caleb, Jamar, Ted, and a few other scientists, will be observing Eta Carinae, as its two stars approach each other in their eccentric orbit. That event, known as Periastron, is going to happen later this summer, and when it does, we will be monitoring the changes of its spectral output (which kind of light is emitted from the stars). In addition to that, Caleb and I will be going back through old data gathered from the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite, and creating a history, if you will, of Eta Carinae throughout time based on its periodic orbit. Its going to be an exciting summer at Goddard, and I can't wait to dig in deeper!

An expanse of gravestones at Arlington Cemetery. Its a breathtaking place to be... words cannot describe the emotions that rush through your body as you wander the hallowed grounds.Of course, work isn't the only thing on my mind this summer, and this week there's been a fair share of play. The other SPS interns and I have been getting a long great. We've done some more touring of Washington, going to see one of the Smithsonian's art galleries and watching the Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery (if you've never seen the changing of the guard, its breathtaking. I highly recommend it). We even entered a massive city-wide scavenger hunt called the Post Hunt (hosted by the Washington Post). We didn't win, but it was still a blast solving the riddles scattered throughout DC. We've gone out to eat, we've stayed in and played games, and we've been having a blast. Just today, nine of us interns went to the HoCo Stem Festival, hosted by the Howard County Community College. There, we set up a couple physics demos and attempted to "spread science to the masses" as the SPS Director Toni Sauncy proclaimed. I was in charge of explaining to the interested kids who came to my station why its easier to balance a stick when the heavier end is higher in the air. If you're curious, its because when the center of mass is farther away from the point of rotation (the balancing point in this case), it takes more torque to make the stick rotate, giving you more time to react and steady the stick!

All in all, it's been an awesome week two. Nasa's treating me well, and my fellow interns are making my time in DC so much fun. At this point, all I can hope for is that these next few weeks don't go by too fast!

Nick Durofchalk