Observing Narrative on the Reentry of the Stardust capsule - 1/15/2006 9:56 UTC


Observing point: Along Nevada state highway 93, approximately 30 miles south of Wendover, Nevada, about 300 yards south of the entrance to the Goshute Mountain Raptor Migratory Watch road and the Nevada Dept. of Transportation Ferguson Springs sand/salt cache at the Highway 93 mountain pass (40N 25' 38.37" 114W 10' 48.70", Elev. 5913ft). From this foothill position below Goshute Mountain but a 600 feet above the valley floor, with 8x35 binoculars, I can see the lights of the Utah Test and Training Range ("UTTR") main facility through low-lying haze on the basin and range salt flat below. On the far eastern horizon, at about 8 degrees altitude and 110 azimuth and just above the far eastern mountain range, the bright - magnitude 2.0 orb of Jupiter is visible, as are, through the binos, two of Jupiter's Moons sitting a line. I take a moving green flashing light to the south of the UTTR main facility on the valley floor to be a recovery helicopter waiting for the Stardust return capsule's plunge into the sub-freezing Nevada winter temperatures.

From my O.P., the Stardust reentry came over the horizon at magnitude -8.0 emitting a bright yellow light, traveling along a great circle about 2-5 degrees north of an east-west azimuth line, and was between 10-20 arc minutes in diameter. It was accelerating towards the zenith. The entire sequence of events took maybe 30-40 seconds. From my O.P. the view of the satellite was end-on and not to the side. I had the distinct impression I was looking at what a candle flame looks like, if you could look at a candle flame from underneath. Side-flames could be from the central glow. From this O.P., there was no opportunity to see the reentry tail streaming behind the Stardust capsule. After about 10-15 seconds, the satellite rose to about 35 degrees altitude and quickly dimmed to ruddy-orange glow as it moved from 35-60 degrees altitude. There was an apparent deceleration of the satellite's motion. Between 60 degrees and the zenith, the satellite body became invisible, but two wakes on either side of an empty track that glowed orange-red - could be seen. I took this to be the wake, with the satellite in the middle and two contrails of shield debris on either side. About 10 degrees past the zenith, both the satellite and the contrails abruptly disappeared. I took this to be initial chute deployment. I had hoped to see, using tripod mounted 20x70 binoculars, the recovery helicopter and perhaps the Stardust capsule's chute over the UTTR valley basin. Heavy extinction in the atmosphere in the basin floor quickly dispelled any notion of seeing those events. I assumed the reentry was over and started scanning the UTTR valley for activity with binoculars. But it was 3:00am (Mountain Time), I was sleep deprived, and forgot about the sonic boom. About 45 seconds after the capsule passed my zenith, I heard an odd combination of a two second rumble and whoosh sound followed by a 30-40 decibel "crack" - like someone had hit a rubber mallet on a wooden table. The sonic boom had passed. I watched for another twenty-minutes. Through the valley haze I could see a moving flashing green light that stopped after 10-15 minutes. I took this to be the recovery team helicopter landing near the touch-down point. I have no photographs of the reentry.

Trip narrative

The remainder of this note is in the style of a first-person narrative of my experiences leading up to the satellite reentry and aftermath.

The Basin and Range province

This region is Basin and Range province. Crystal spreading creates north-south trending mountain ranges spread about 10-20 miles apart, with graben-filled basins between that have filled to a depth of 10,000 feet with sediments topped with alkaline salt flats. Being alkaline, the soils support a few predominate plants - sagebrush, saltbush and small 6'-8' juniper trees. Where the basin floors are not covered in salt outright, as in the expanse of the Salt Flats, the valley bottoms are covered in an unusual mix of alkaline salt sea bed and a grey clay - leftovers from the last ice age when the valley floors were the bottom of an inland sea, 1,000 ft deep in some place. The gray clay of the valley bottom is a multifaceted substance, depending on the amount of water it contains. In the spring and fall, it is a gelatinous gue that will suck the boots off your feet. It was this substance that mired the oxen and wagons of the gold-rush Donner Party in a late September in the mid-1800's, delaying their progress and leading to the party's demise in the deep snow of the high California Sierras. In high summer, it turns to solid, and in the extreme heat of early autumn into a dust bowl that induces asthma in the locals. There wagon wheel tracks can still be, crisscrossing underneath the modern I-15 interstate that speed along in comfort to reach my vantage point on Nevada 93.

Lest one get the misimpression that Basin and Range is totally uninhabitable except by technologically advance moderns, the Goshute Indians sustained an ecologically aware hunter-gather society here for hundreds of years, numbering perhaps some 25,000. Then the Manifest Density migration brought small-pox, typhus and influenza and reduced their number to about 500 in the 1800s. (They have recovered somewhat since then.)

This Basin and Range province runs in an endless repetition of this landform and fauna from Salt Lake City in Utah, through Nevada to Reno. Traveling 30 miles west from Salt Lake City, there is the town of Tooele. For the next 120 miles to Wendover, Nevada, the Basin and Range expanse is largely uninhabited by humans except for some industrial and military complexes - the Dugway Proving Grounds, the Envirocare hazard waste site, the Lakeside Testing Area, Aragonite, and the mine at Clive.

The vantage point above the Utah Test and Training Range

My vantage point on Nevada Highway 93 is typical of Basin and Range highways. Highways run along the basin floors and, where a low-pass presents the opportunity, the highway engineers run the highway at an angle up the foothills of one range, across the low-lying pass, and down into the basin of the next valley. Highway 93 is typical of such western Basin and Range highways.

It is cold; very cold. I forgot to bring a thermometer, but the instant, ice freezing of my breath tells of temperatures around 25 degrees. The wind is blowing at 10-25 miles per hour from the west across a landscape covered with a few inches of snow. Although possessing a desolate, fierce beauty that my Eastern friends and relatives do not understand, the Basin and Range supports significant and ample wildlife. Even if winter, it is possible to see an owl streaking overhead at night or a small white-tit sitting on a tree branch - its feathers fluffed and its mind gone into the coma-induced tupor that these small birds use to survive the winter night. Tonight there is no hint of wildlife. This is what happens when it gets really cold in the West. There is only the sound of cold silence. Yes, in the cold western night with no other living person of 10 or 20 miles, and full Moon overhead with Saturn in conjunction, silence is noisy.

Earlier that day - deciding to make the trip

My base is in Salt Lake City, Utah. Throughout the Saturday afternoon before this cold rendezvous with a satellite, I monitor NOAA CONUS ("continental United States") satellite pictures << http://www.weather.gov/sat_tab.php >> and the Nevada NOAA station detail satellite images << http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/lkn/ >> - trying to decide if the three-hour drive to Wendover or the five-hour drive to Elko, Nevada, would be worth it. The official weather forecast reads:

"Saturday night: A chance of rain in the evening...then rain and snow likely after midnight. Cloudy. Accumulations possible. Lows around 30. Northwest winds 10-20 mph. Chance of precipitation 60 percent. Sunday: Breezy. Mostly cloudy with a 50 percent chance of snow. Highs in the upper 30s. Northwest winds 15-25 mph."

Although it is bright, sunny and warm day in Salt Lake City, the NOAA CONUS image at local morning shows two large bands of storm clouds - one in the Pacific and the other straddling the California coast. For 3:00am on Saturday-night Sunday-morning, the NOAA sky cover simulator shows for 3:00am a solid band of clouds from California through Colorado. Not too encouraging. I forget about traveling to see the return of the Stardust capsule - a once in a lifetime event - and readjust my mindset for an ordinary relaxed weekend. At 4:00pm the leading edge of the first storm band can be seen far on the western horizon, perhaps 60-80 miles away.

With the 4:00pm NOAA CONUS and Nevada detail satellite images, the situation has changed. The two large storm bands - that stretch from Washington State to central California - are fast-movers. These winter storms sweep down out of the Bering Strait, taking a great circle course across the Pacific, Washington, California, Utah, Colorado and then onto the Great Plains. The first storm band has moved hundreds of miles in the last seven hours and now is in Nevada. A large gap between the first and second storm bands is evident between in the NOAA CONUS infrared picture. 6:00pm and 8:00pm images show the same trend. I print these images off and crudely measure their rate of travel across the western United States. The inch marks on my ruler tell me that at 3:00 am in the morning, the backside of the second band will reach Elko and perhaps Wendover, Nevada. On the CONUS infrared image, little puffy white clouds ? indicators of partly cloudy skies behind the second front, are visible.

I have previously checked out some maps and decided on a spot thirty miles south of Wendover on Nevada Highway 93. As those of us who live in the west know, the mountains of the Basin and Range make the weather very variable. It can be overcast and snowing in one hour; sunny and warm the next. Potential and opportunity exist. It looks like it may be worth the trip, but success is not guaranteed.

A few hours of scrambling follow. Service and gas the Vanagon. Load the van with overnight survival camping gear should it break down in winter on a rural Nevada road. Put the few pieces of astronomical gear that I decide to use into the back of the van: a film camera, a VCR, 20x70 binoculars, and 8x35 binoculars. It is just past full Moon. The satellite will reenter at too fast a speed to track for narrow field telescopes. There is no need for a telescope tonight. I make calls for last minute invites to a couple of friends. It is now overcast and raining outside. I patiently explain the risks and potential rewards. "Your nuts, it's raining outside" come their replies, stinging through the phone receiver. I have been doing this amateur astronomy thing for a number of years. My hide is thicker to the rebukes of the uninitiated and uninformed. They really don't know what they are missing. But then again, I am not too sure myself at the wisdom going to Wendover in the middle of a winter storm advisory against traveling on highways - to view the reentry of a satellite that needs a clear sky to be seen.

The dash to Nevada through an underexposed Ansel Adams photograph

My doubt grows over the next two and a half hours as the Vanagon plows westward along I-15 through a 20-30 mile an hour headwind beneath a dark 500ft cloud base - at times through rain and sleet angled at 30 degrees to my windshield. The scene is eerily light with the light of a magnitude -12.5 full Moon, hidden above the thick clouds, but still bright enough to give them and the surrounding landscape a night glow. Through the weather mess I scan the horizon looking for the promised backside of the storm front. All I see is gray at the horizon.

Twice I am forced to power the Vanagon back to 45 mph because of the heavy rain and sleet on the road. The first time occurs at the turn-off to the Dugway Proving Ground; the second time occurs outside the industrial turn-off at Aragonite, Utah. Crossing the thirty miles of the Great Salt Flats, the rain has stopped and the cloud base has risen to 1500 ft; the wind has died down. It is as if the two-miles of graben-filling salt beneath the roadbed has sucked the water out of the air and the energy out of the storm.

This time of year "salt-flat" is a misnomer. Precipitation and winter snow settles on the salt - and not unlike your salted driveway - melts. Miles can be driven with the interstate highway being the only object cutting a glass-like surface of 6 inches to a foot of water covering the flats. In spring, I have walked across this surface, before the summer sun has baked it into the solid that the international jet-powered world-speed challengers favor. Most of the year, Salt Flats are more precisely described as a brine crust. In spring, you can walk over it for a few feet, before breaking through into the toxic salt brine below.

Tonight, the combination of the glass-like water surface, the full Moon light and the mountains to the north in the distance combined to create a new visual effect I have not previously seen on the drive to Wendover. The mountains to the north have a prefect moonlight reflection on the water flooding the salt basin. The cloud-filtered moonlight gives everything a blue-steel but black and white tint. I feel like I am driving through an underexposed Ansel Adams photograph. I take a driving rest-break at the "Utah Tree," a 100-foot tall concrete sculpture in the middle of this wasteland - and contemplate the "big open."

Another 20 minutes and I am in the middle of the casino unreality of "downtown" Wendover. When I first came to Utah a few decades ago, Wendover was kind of a dump. Now there are few modern 500 room casinos decorated with in the style of Nevada gambling glitz.

Arrival; dejection; the sky parts

It is overcast as far as the eye can see. It is 1:00 am. There is not enough time to drive on to Elko, nor does it look like any hope of clear skies if I do drive further west. I am dejected. There is no point in going down to the Wendover Airport and joining a group of fellow amateur astronomers from the Odgen astronomy club and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. I decide to go into a local trucker stop - "The Pilot" - for a cup of coffee and to buy a candy bar. I need some sugar for the three-hour return drive to Salt Lake. The headline of the local paper - The Wendover Times - reads "Spacecraft Will Cross Nevada While Bringing Back Comet Samples to Earth." Yeah, right.

Ten minutes later, I emerge from "The Pilot" and it is as if Moses has been in the neighborhood. Looking south down in the direction of Nevada state highway 93, I see a vertical half-mile wall of clouds moving away from the east side of the highway traveling east. On the west of Highway 93 are clear-dark skies containing the Moon, Saturn and the bright stars of Canis Major (Sirius) and of Orion (Orion's Belt and Betelgeuse) constellations. A few high cirrus clouds are on the far southwestern horizon. The backside of the storm bands has arrived!

Preparation on State 93

Another forty-five minutes of driving south on state 93 brings me to the Goshute Mountain Raptor Migratory viewpoint road-head at about 2:00 am (Mountain Time) and a draw cutting the foothills that gives me a view of the UTTR facility on the valley floor below. I have another hour before the Stardust capsule returns to Earth - bringing samples of materials unchanged over the last 4 and one-half billion years. I spend the time scouting locations - south of the Goshute Mountain Raptor Migratory viewpoint road, up the frozen dirt Raptor road. By 2:45 am (9:45 UTC), I have selected the draw overlooking UTTR as the best site.

I had previously chosen this area because it is on a line between the landing zone and Elko, Nevada, which the NASA Ames Hypervelocity Research Center has previously stated will be directly underneath Stardust's reentry track. I figure from here I can the see reentry and the recovery, although driving two more hours to Elko would yield more brilliant colors from the satellite's heat shield.

Now, one would think that at 2:30 am on a rural Nevada highway with subfreezing temperatures there would be no traffic. Outside of a nearby branch of the Goshute Indian Nation, you can count the number of human habitations along highway 93 between Wendover and Ely on one hand. But it is not so. Cars, an NDOT highway road-salt truck, long-distance truckers, oil tankers, even a stretch limo, go by every three or four minutes. It's casino traffic between Wendover and Ely. I recognize a white Izuzu "Tracker" as a couple of fellow amateur astronomers - two guys I saw pouring over maps back at "The Pilot" truck spot in Wendover.

It is 2:45am (9:45 UTC). I have less than 10 minutes to set up. I turn my portable short-wave radio to the United States Naval Observatory (UNSO) time broadcast. The "tick-tick" followed by the words "at the tone the time will be . . ." are the only company many late-night early-morning amateur astronomers have. Now, I make my one serious judgment error of the evening. I decide to set up only the VCR camera, but not my film camera for a long-term exposure. The VCR focuses and resolves the Moon and nearby Saturn, so I figure the VCR will resolve an -8.0 magnitude satellite reentry.

In the intervening 45 minutes, high cirrus clouds have moved into the west and southwest sky, partially obscuring Taurus, Orion and Canis Major. But the bright stars of each constellation are still visible through the cirrus cloud streaks.

The reentry - Stardust returns

The appointed time for reentry (9:56:45 UTC) is seconds away. I have checked my reference tables and charts and know the azimuth and altitude the reentry trail will follow. I have memorized how the reentry trail will progress through the constellation Taurus, just to the south of Auriga, below the Moon and Saturn, through my zenith and then on through the constellation Leo. I have practiced swinging and tracking the VCR on its tripod from the west horizon through the zenith. The VCR is humming from DC-to-AC converted electricity flowing out of my car's battery. My watch is synchronized to the sound of the UNSO time broadcast in the background.

My UTC-synchronized watch says 9:56:46. There is nothing on the western horizon. This is serious. In the world of Newtonian dynamics - the trains tend to always run on time. Has something gone wrong with the capsule? Then I remember that Goshute Peak and Ferguson Mountain cut off part of my horizon to the west. As the computerized UNSO announcer on the shortwave radio begins "at the tone, the time will be 09:57 Universal Coordinated Time," the brilliant flaming yellow disk of the Stardust capsule unmistakably comes racing low over the western horizon.

When an orbiting satellite passes overhead, like the International Space Station (ISS), they are "fast-movers," but it is still a lazy, beer-drinking kind-of-an-affair. It takes about four minutes for the ISS to cross from the northwest to the southeast horizon.

This was a whole new order of satellite motion; something that I had never experienced before. The entire event would be over in 30-40 seconds. It felt more like I was playing outfield during a baseball game. In baseball, a quirk of physics is that when a high and long ball is hit to the outfield, you determine where the ball is going to land by running as fast as you can until the apparent acceleration of the ball of stops. If you keep your running speed so the ball is neither accelerating nor decelerating, the ball is coming right to your mitt.

From its motion, the Stardust capsule is clearly coming in my direction - but not for an overpass. In the back of my mind, I take some comfort in the fact that the Stardust capsule is rapidly accelerating toward my zenith and does not, like the baseball moving into an outfield, neither accelerates nor decelerates.

As to the Stardust capsule's -8.0 magnitude apparent brightness, color and movement, reread the description at the beginning of this note.

A few things happen in quick succession. Although my VCR camera will focus on the Moon and Saturn, it quickly becomes obvious that something in its fuzzy-logic chip prevents it from focusing or imaging the Stardust reentry track. I abandon it and just enjoy the reentry show. Two kids in a supped-up Toyota screech to a halt on the highway about 100 ft away; they are startled by the brilliance of the Stardust reentry. Car headlights appear behind them. They hop back into their car and burn rubber off into the night. The sonic boom comes and goes. Rural back-of-the-beyond Nevada at 3:00am; go-figure.

I scan the UTTR with binoculars for another twenty-minutes, hoping to see some activity of the recovery, without success. I pack up and drive back to Wendover and "The Pilot."

Return to Salt Lake

My astronomy "high" is too strong and the concentration of caffeine in my bloodstream is too high to consider catching some sleep in the consumerist unreality of a Wendover casino. I walk into "The Pilot" to buy a second candy bar for the trip back to Salt Lake. I mention to the clerk, "I just saw that satellite reentry." The minimum wage clerk replies, "Oh, did they make it work this time. All that money and the last time it didn't work." I wonder if the clerk knows that "[a]ll that money" means one-fifth of a billion dollars. << http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=1999-003A >> "Yes, it looked liked it worked," I reply.

Driving back to Salt Lake, gives me time to think about the meaning of the night's great enterprise, it's social and economic cost, and my own insignificant connection to it - more as a taxpayer than as a guy standing out on a rural highway at three in the morning. I believe it was Pericles, the greatest mayor of ancient Athens, who said that the one reason people build cities is so that they can build upon the sacrifices of their predecessors by coming together to do great things that they otherwise could not do alone. Let's face it; modern U.S. post-industrial cities can be pretty monotonous, dreary and ugly. One of things that make cities worthwhile is this potential to come together to do "great things." Doing "great things" is one mark of a healthy civilization; its absence a mark of decline. Not to be mistaken, the first measures of a good civilization is in its ability to provide for the sick, the infirm, and the less fortunate, to educate the young, to free the unjustly imprisoned and to rehabilitate the justly imprisoned. The cost of the Stardust mission could build 8 badly needed new Utah high schools or 25 new elementary schools. The money could have funded better health care or drug treatment programs for the victims of Utah's methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse epidemics. But the ability to do great things - things that our predecessors sacrificed toward but only dreamed of in passing, but that are beyond the core business of caring for the sick, providing for the poor or educating the young - also is an indispensable marker of a healthy civilization.

The Stardust mission - which diverts about 0.0016% of our national 12.5 trillion GDP from the such core activities of society - qualifies as coming together to do great things - unimagined by our ancestors. We fly to the outer solar system using our robotic agents, capture microscopic particles unchanged for billions of years, and then have our robotic agents return those particles to Earth in order to investigate the initial conditions our own origins. In the post-Internet era, one way to celebrate those great works is watching NASA TV and seeing JPL scientists cheer and jump, up and down during reentry. Another form of celebration involves standing out on a quiet rural Nevada road, on a freezing wind-swept night, watching part of our future understanding of ourselves unfold.

One more decision to make for the night. What music to pop into the CD player to keep me out of the drowsy driving zone while going back to Salt Lake through the early morning hours. It's bad form to have a good astronomy night and then crack your car by falling asleep during the drive home. The Emerson Quartet playing Beethoven chamber music; Phillip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach"; McCoy Tyner's "Revelations"; Tina Turner; the Beatles? Tina, I think, turned up to an ear splitting volume assured to kill off a few of those inner ear cilia that I'll wish I still had when I'm in a nursing home in 25 years. I pop in Tina as I a streak down the moonlight interstate with the immensity of the Salt Flats on either side. I hit a random track on the CD player. Tina starts in with a duet:

Everything gonna be alright tonight.
No one's moving
No one's talking
No one's walking
But everything's gonna be alright tonight
. . . . .
I'll meet you high in the sky tonight
Everything's gonna be alright tonight

Yep, just another good night of amateur astronomy in the Basin and Range.

1/16/2006, corrected 1/17/06 fisherka@csolutions.net

P.S. - Did I mention that winter weather in the Basin and Range changes a lot? The drive back to Salt Lake was uneventful - no rain and the energy of the storm bands had dissipated into picturesque cumulus and high cirrus clouds. The Moon shines through the ice crystals creating a iridescent halo. Back in Salt Lake, I crash for 7 hours and wake up in the afternoon to overcast skies and two inches of snow to shovel out of the driveway!