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Tomorrow is a big day for planetary science. A committee of scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency will meet to decide whether the next flagship mission to the outer planets will visit Saturn's large moon Titan or Jupiter's moon Europa. This is big science: the budget for either mission is in the neighborhood of three billion dollars. The selected mission will launch around 2020 and arrive at its destination in the late '20s. I'm really hoping that the Titan mission gets selected. Titan is a world with many of the same processes and features as Earth--a thick atmosphere, lakes, rivers, dunes--but quite different materials. The 'rocks' on Titan are made of ultracold water ice, and the lakes are filled with liquid ethane and methane. The mission proposal includes a spacecraft that would orbit the moon as well as a lander to splashdown in one of Titan's seas and a balloon that would be drift through the atmosphere for six months or more. There's an appealingly nostalgic aspect to exploring by hot air balloon. Too bad I'd be sixty by the time the mission reaches Titan...

Details on both missions are here: http://opfm.jpl.nasa.gov/
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Mercator, sinusoidal, and stereographic: yawn. Myriahedral projections are where it's at. Computer graphics noodling at its finest...

Details here: http://www.win.tue.nl/~vanwijk/myriahedral/
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I just got back from an eight-day trip to the island of Hawaii with Allison and my family. One of the things that I'd been wanting to do ever since I last visited the Big Island was to climb to the summit of Mauna Kea. The sheer novelty of tromping across snow in Hawaii and the world class astronomical observatory at the summit were the big attractions for me.

The summit trail begins at the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Center, elevation 9200 feet. The road actually continues past the visitor center and ascends all the way to the summit; I'm sure the telescope operators and technicians appreciate this, but I wanted to do the trip on foot. Mauna Kea has the characteristically gentle slopes of a shield volcano, so there's no technical climbing required to get to the summit--one of many reasons that it's a superior site for an observatory than most mountains of similar elevation. The only tough part of the summit hike is the altitude : climb 4600 feet to stand on the 13,796 foot summit less than eight hours after waking up at sea level.

The first part of the climb was quick and quite easy. The dry grasses, bushes, and silversword surrendered to a nearly empty Marsscape of volcanic rock within an hour of leaving the visitor center. I started to see patches of snow just below 11,000 feet. After another thousand feed of elevation gain, bare patches of rock were getting rare. The snow had warmed and gotten slushy; this combined with the thin air forced me to slow my pace quite a bit. Just above 13,000 feet I caught a glimpse of a few of the telescopes on the summit. This was also the point where a side trail to tiny Lake Waiau branched off. Lake Waiau is the seventh highest lake in the US, though that depends on exactly where you draw the line between "lake" and "puddle". I was a little disappointed to see that it was frozen over and blanketed with snow. Still a neat sight though.

Shortly after the Lake Waiau side trip, the trail joins the paved section of the Mauna Kea summit road. While aesthetically disappointing, it was a relief to be hiking on a solid surface: the sun had warmed the top layer of snow, and the combination of altitude and postholing through the soft snow was exhausting. I left the road at its high point, then ascended another 150 feet or so to the top of the cinder cone that is the true summit of Mauna Kea. I waved at my parents, who had managed to arrive at the top of the summit road by car just as I'd gotten to the true summit on foot. My dad was very interested in checking out the observatories on the summit, and meeting up with them meant that I got to go down the mountain the easy way.

View from the true summit:

There's some controversy about all the observatories atop Mauna Kea. The mountain is sacred to native Hawaiians, and even some non-natives complain that the structures distract from the natural beauty of the mountain. While I generally prefer that mountaintops remain in a pristine state, I found the bright white and silver observatory structures somehow appropriate for--almost enhancing--the environment of the summit. Unearthly architecture for an unearthly place. Not to be missed on a trip to the Big Island, whether you visit on foot or wheels.

A few of the telescopes on the summit:

Cinder cones (or pu'u in Hawaiian) on the broad summit region:

I hadn't arranged any sort of tour, but the Keck observatory does have a visitor's center that's open during the day. The Keck is one of the top astronomical facilities anywhere in the world. If you visit the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, you've certainly seen images from the Keck. It was a treat to be able to see one of its twin 10 meter mirrors first-hand:

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I didn't want to try my luck at driving out to the mountains today, so it was another day of snowboarding the hills of Seattle. Too bad about the crust of freezing rain--I could have had some nice powder turns without that. Still fun though... I did 10 laps on Pike from 31st to MLK, repeated the 37th to Lake Washington run starting down Columbia, rode 31st from Pike to Denny, and a few other things. Several other people were out skiing (including one telemarker) and sledders were everywhere. A Land Cruiser owner climbed Pike St. a few times to pack down the snow for the sledders (and show off his traction...)

I realized that Lake Washington is over 300 feet lower than 34th at Pike St. This is comparable to the total vertical at ski hills that I used to visit when I live in Minnesota, like Welch Village with 360 feet. To those people who complain that the Washington DOT / City of Seattle doesn't do a good job of keeping the roads open after a snow: if Seattle was located in the Midwest, they'd call it a ski resort.
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I've been waiting for this line to be in for almost 10 years:

From Snopocalypse

Columbia St, from 37th down to Lake Washington. Altimeter reading at the Randolph Ledge:

From Snopocalypse

No sign of avalanches: five inches of powder on top of an inch of compressed slush, very stable.
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I headed up to Mt. Baker on Saturday night to be there for opening day on Sunday. I'm renting a ski house in Glacier with Adrianne, Josh, Chuck, and two other people, which makes Baker trips much easier than round tripping from Seattle in a day. I left Seattle around 5:30 and watched temperatures drop and road conditions deteriorate the further north I got. By the time I exited onto 542 at Bellingham, it was 20 degrees and the air was filled with enough snow that turning on my high beams meant I was in a white-out. The highway was slippery, but safe enough when crawling along at 30mph max--getting to the ski house was a matter of patience.

Chuck and I got up at 6:45 the next morning and were at the mountain half an hour before the lifts opened. Skies were mostly clear, temps frigid, the snow light and deep. I'd guess that there was around 18" of dry, light powder. The first few runs were bliss. The only problem was maintaining enough speed to get through deep snow on the gentler slopes. Since the underlying snowpack was so shallow, there were lots of rocks, trees, and stumps to dodge once the snow got packed down. By around 1:30, my legs were done. I thought the half-marathon training would give me serious endurance on the slopes, but I shouldn't have been surprised that deep powder turns work the legs out in a different way. Overall, a late but very promising start to the season. I'm going to wait for the next snowfall before heading onto lift-serviced terrain again; now that the fresh snow has been tracked out, the mountains need some more coverage.

Mt. Shuksan beauty shot:
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I got my very first running injury yesterday. The injured body part: my face. Ran straight into a parking sign while I was running along blissfully and obliviously, looking backward at... something. So if you see me, you'll know what the signpost-shaped red stripe is on the left side of my head. No witnesses, fortunately.
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I finished the Seattle Half Marathon yesterday well off my target time of 1 hour 35 minutes. My final time was 1:48:05, 123rd out of 515 in my division, 859 of 7277 overall. I made the newbie mistake of starting out too fast and also underestimated the hills, the worst of which were cruelly placed in the second half of the course. Between mile 9 and 10, I bonked. My lungs and legs were OK, but I had zero energy keep them going. I'm pretty sure I was experiencing "The Wall." I reached for a Gu packet that I'd stashed in my pocket just for this situation, but it was gone, apparently having bounced free of my pocket a few miles earlier. I had to slow my pace dramatically; I managed a few bursts of speed for the finish line and anywhere else there were lots of spectators.

Despite the agony of miles 10 through 12, the race was a lot of fun. All along the course, spectators were lined up clanging bells, yelling, and waving signs. I loved the support, though I felt a little bad that I was too focused on running to manage anything other than a weak smile as an acknowledgement. Runners took over the I-90 express lane from downtown Seattle to Mercer Island. Running through the I-90 tunnel and making a lot of noise was practically worth the price of admission all by itself. At one point, I took a cup full of Gatorade from a volunteer at a water station and tried to drink it while running; for as effective as that was, I may as well have just thrown the liquid in my face. From I-90, the half marathon course followed Lake Washington Boulevard to Galer Street. Galer was lined with sadists who'd showed up to watch us run up a two block hill much too steep to be part of any distance race (their cheering was still welcome.) Right after Galer was... another hill! A longer but more gradual climb up Madison to the Arboretum, veering onto Interlaken for another big, slow hill. The last couple miles of the course took us from Interlaken through South Lake Union and on to the finish line at Memorial Stadium. I was immediately a huge fan of the 'Victory Recovery Center' that had been set up in the stadium: palettes full of bottled water and energy drinks, boxes of bananas, fruit cups, massage stations, and a free space blanket!

I'm hooked on races. I'll have another go at the Seattle Half Marathon next year. Another one I want to try is the Vancouver BC half marathon at the end of June--the course is flatter and it stays very near the coast the whole way.
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I'm enjoying the last few days of a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium. Here's a photo of Ghent, Belgium that I took last night after a snowfall:

I love this town. I want to apologize for ever laughing at any Belgium jokes. It's full of canals, cathedrals, cozy cafes, and even a castle (alliteration totally unintentional there.) Allison and I are staying in an old cloister that's been renovated with niceties like modern showers. Since we're in Belgium, every restaurant offers a big selection of interesting beers. I'm trying to sample as many of the unfamiliar ones as I reasonably can before I have to leave here tomorrow. Wish I had a few more days...

The first week of the trip was all business. I spent most of my hours in an office at ESTEC, the European Space Agency's development center in the Netherlands. The work culminated in a demonstration of the STA (Space Trajectory Analysis) application that I've been collaborating on for about a year now. ESTEC is located near Noordwijk, a beach resort town that's popular in the summer months but nearly deserted in the winter. No tourist would pay money to endure the ever-worsening storms that came rolling off the North Sea while I was there. But, that was perfect weather for focusing on work.
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