Flickr Photo of the Month: Sam Houston! [March 2011]

Sam Houston
Sam Houston by Yankee In Texas on Flickr.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we share one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, a dramatic image of the Sam Houston statue by Yankee In Texas calls to mind the dramatic exhibition that’s just debuted: Texas! The Exhibition features the events, artifacts and icons of centuries of Texas’ epic history – including many items associated with the big man himself.

The significance of Sam Houston is a point not lost on the photographer. In their words:

I don’t really have much to say about the photo itself. When I took it I was just beginning to learn some of the finer points of art photography. I had given up filling the roll at this point (I still had 5 frames to go on a roll of 30) when I saw the sun just behind the head of Sam Houston. I decided to use this opportunity to try my hand at silhuouette work, so I completed the roll. I was surprised myself at the result.

Houston was one of the founding fathers of Texas, and while he does get credit for his contributions to the founding of Texas, he is often lost in the shadow of William Travis and Stephen F. Austin. Upon reflection, this picture helps give Sam Houston some of the spotlight he deserves in forging a new nation and subsequently the largest state in the United States of America.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Flickr Meetup! Photography is not allowed in the Texas exhibition during general hours – but we will be hosting a special opportunity for Flickr photographers on Sunday, April 10. Get the details.

The Challenger Learning Center Inspires!

Today’s guest blogger is Tess Casswell, a Mission Control Operator at the Johnson Space Center here in Houston. Today she writes about how challenger space centers such as the one we have here at HMNS and at the George Observatory started her on the path to working for NASA. Start your own journey by joining us this Saturday for Family Space Day at the George Observatory!

I first participated in a Challenger Learning Center event when I was 11 years old. At that time the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska was in its development phase and I was immersed in the somewhat stereotypical, “when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut!” phase. Though I was still young, my parents saw this opportunity for inspiration. My Mother contacted the board of directors for CLCA and told them about their newest fan. Before I knew it I was giving a speech at a CLCA fundraiser in front of my heroes: astronauts Pete Conrad and Joe Allen. The timing of the event was perfect: the very next day I got on a plane and headed for Space Camp in Titusville, FL.

My Challenger Center experience set me on a course that landed me as a Mission Control Operator here at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

During the CLCA fundraiser, Joe Allen told me that to become an astronaut I should become an engineer. I followed his advice and now I monitor the Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems (ETHOS) of the International Space Station. While my excitement about space flight began before CLCA was developed, my first CLC experience gave direction to my enthusiasm.

Because the Challenger Center played such a pivotal role in inspiring me to pursue engineering, I do my best to make time for Challenger Centers wherever I live. During middle and high school I volunteered often at CLCA. I participated in several missions throughout the years and helped out with numerous summer camps. Of course, every time an astronaut visited Alaska I was able, through CLCA, to meet with them and pick their brains about how they reached their goals! Later, as a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I returned as often as possible to the Challenger Center to participate in STEM outreach events.

Now that I live in Houston, I go often to the Challenger Learning Center at the George Observatory. The missions there are fun and dynamic, and the observatory environment makes the location (and the groups who go there) unique! I hope that by volunteering I am able to pay forward the inspiration that the Challenger Center gave me.

Recently the NASA Education web site did a feature on Tess.

Upcoming Family Space Day at the George Observatory!

Come out to the George Observatory this Saturday for out-of-this-world fun! The Observatory is hosting Family Space Day, and this weekend there will be more fun than ever before. We hope you’ll join us for the adventure.

First, fly to the Moon on a simulated space mission aboard the Space Station Observer at the Challenger Learning Center.  Train just like the astronauts – you’ll run science experiments and control the spacecraft during your simulated voyage and landing. You may even have to overcome obstacles like meteor strikes and computer failures in order to land safely!

After returning safely from your simulated flight you will have the opportunity to speak with real NASA engineers and flight controllers who will be hosting various activities. Operate a robotic arm, build and launch a water rocket, or enjoy the exhibits at the Observatory – there will be a ton of cool, educational things to look at and experience!

It doesn’t stop there, either. Purchase a ticket for the George’s 36-inch telescope and be amazed by up-close-and-personal views of the heavens. Whether you get the chance to look at a galaxy light-years away or something as close as our very own Moon, the view is well worth the $5 ticket. Outside of the big telescope you will also have the opportunity to view the stars through various telescopes provided by local volunteers.

In short, it’s going to be awesome… so don’t miss it!
See the Observatory’s website for all of the details.

Changes in the World and Their Effect on Energy

Everywhere we look things are always changing.  Now that winter is leaving, spring has sprung.  In Houston we’re back up to the mid 70’s and we hope that lasts a long time.  While we may not be able to see some of the changes, like the movement of the stars, the changing face of the planet, or the shrinking of my book collection as I slowly switch everything over to the Kindle, other things are more apparent.  The birth of a baby bird or the emptying of a glass of a pleasant draught on a warm winter day, or the regime change of a country are all easy to see.

Lots has happened recently throughout the world.  Southern Sudan has seceded from the rest of the country.  Egypt and Libya have experienced popular uprisings, and other countries in the region are holding their breath to see what happens next.

You might be asking yourself, “why is he talking about this in an energy blog?” or “how can it possibly affect me?” This is a perfect time to talk about how events in other countries can affect the energy polices at home.

Egypt has a long history.  It has kept our imagination for centuries. From Herodotus to Sadat, from Alexander to Cleopatra, the great names associated with Egypt are innumerable.  The entire world can identify the famous objects from the land of the Nile (even when they’re in other countries).

Suez Canal as seen from Earth’s orbit

Modern Egypt produces about 660 thousand barrels of oil a day. In recent years it has grown its natural gas industry and has the third largest reserve of natural gas in Africa. Egypt is very important in the energy field for a different reason, the Suez Canal. While the largest hydrocarbon tankers are too large to pass through, 20% of the shipping that goes through the canal is hydrocarbon transportation.  If the canal were to shut down it would add a week or two to time to transport the hydrocarbons to their destination.  If that happen the increased transportation cost would make the cost of crude oil rise.  That’s why I’m talking about Egypt in an energy blog.

Libya has always been at the center of trade.  Under both the Phoenician and the Romans it prospered.  It was a major and power trade location in the 19th century as well.  It was an Italian colony during World War I and administer by the British after World War II.  After gaining independence in 1951, its current government came to power in 1969.  Currently there are large protests occurring across the country.

Again you may ask, “how does this affect me?’

Libya is a member of OPEC and has the largest oil reserves in Africa (44.3 billion barrels).  They produce about 1.4 million barrels a day.  The profit of the oil exports accounts for 80% of their revenue.  If all oil production in Libya stopped, Saudi Arabia might be able to use its excess capacity to keep global oil production levels stable.  But that’s assuming nothing else happens.   And the longer Libya is not producing, the more likely something else would happen.  In any of these events, the price of crude oil would climb, and with that the cost of gasoline and other petro products would go up (the cost of crude oil has leapt up to $99 over the past couple of days as a response to the protests).

back alley
Creative Commons License photo credit: tvol

As you can see, events throughout the world can affect you.  Therefore you should pay attention to what’s going on around you (if you walk with your head down you might run into that new shelves they have at Half Price Books).  Thankfully not all of it is as confusing as complexity theory.

Protein-eating butterflies and sex-changing plants

Everyone needs protein as part of a healthy diet:  proteins provide the building blocks for cells and are critical for the body’s proper growth and development.  Did you know that butterflies need proteins, too?  Flower nectar contains trace amounts of amino acids (the components of proteins), and that is enough for most butterflies.  You may not know that we lace the artificial nectar (sugar water) in the feeding stations in the Butterfly Center with a dollop of “body builder’s amino fuel”—a dietary supplement touted as containing all 20 amino acids.  This is our way of attempting to provide a “balanced” diet for our butterflies—I like to say that we give them Gatorade rather than Coca-Cola…

But some butterflies need more protein than others.  The longwing butterflies in the genus Heliconius, those elongated, slow-fluttering, brightly colored butterflies so common in the Butterfly Center—we import over a dozen different species from our various suppliers—are unique among Lepidoptera in their habit of collecting and eating pollen, which contains a lot more protein than does nectar alone.  If you look carefully at the butterflies next time you’re in the Center, you may occasionally notice a longwing with a blob of yellowish “stuff” on its proboscis.  This is the pollen that it has collected as it visits various flowers for nectar.  Once it has enough of a “pollen load,” the butterfly will sit and regurgitate a bit of nectar onto the pollen and then slurp up the dissolved amino acids.  As a result of this protein-enhanced diet, longwings can live much longer than many butterflies, and female longwings continue to generate eggs over their entire adult life (shorter-lived butterflies emerge from the pupa with all of their eggs fully formed).  UT Austin’s Dr. Larry Gilbert, who discovered pollen feeding in the longwings, and who has made a career out of studying their behavior, has records of individuals in the wild living up to six months.  Alas, we have not recorded quite such long lifespans in the Center—but in our mark-recapture studies, longwings typically outlive most other species.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Zac Stayton

The accompanying photos show a Melpomene longwing (Heliconius melpomene) probing the flowers of a rainforest cucumber vine, the genus Psiguria, and later sitting to digest the pollen. While longwings will collect pollen from a number of flowers in the Butterfly Center, this is their absolute favorite pollen source, and in their native rainforest habitat, longwings are the main pollinators of this group of plants.  Psiguria and the closely related Gurania, members of the same family as cucumbers and watermelons (Cucurbitaceae), are long-lived lianas that grow up into the rainforest canopy.  In nature longwings cruise from liana to liana, sometimes over several miles, searching for flowering individuals and stocking up on their pollen.  The interdependence between these two groups—longwing butterflies and rainforest cucumber vines—is so strong that it is often cited as a “textbook” example of co-evolution.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Zac Stayton
Hodgsonia heteroclita male plant
of the plant family Cucurbitaceae

Interestingly, these vines can switch sexes, just as some fish do.  Larger vines produce only female flowers—their flowers produce no pollen but must be pollinated in order to produce the cucumber-like fruit.  Female plants depend on the longwings to bring pollen from smaller vines that bear male, pollen-bearing flowers.  Until one of Dr. Gilbert’s students discovered that the same vine makes flowers of different sexes depending on its age and/or size, people thought that Psiguria and Gurania were dioecious plants (i.e., that an individual plant was either male or female—like mulberries and ginkgo trees).  We now know that rainforest cucumbers are monoecious—but produce their male and female flowers at different times, rather than in different places on the same plant (as in corn and pine trees).

When the Psiguria vines in the Butterfly Center get large, they produce only female flowers.  Without pollen, these aren’t as good for the butterflies, thus we are learning to keep the vines pruned back so they will produce male flowers.  Unlike fish, plants can get larger or smaller—so size, rather than age or population structure, determines the sex of the flowers in these rainforest lianas.

Next time you visit the Center, be sure to look for longwings stocking up on pollen.  One of the Psiguria vines grows adjacent to the “frog log” and is currently (spring 2011) producing male flowers.