Archive for September 6th, 2012


Satellite Era

Jean Thilmany

Post from Jean Thilmany:

I vacationed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in mid-August. The U.P. can be a place derided as full of Yoopers by Michiganers who live down below in the mitten, and I admit it can be depressing with its mostly deserted but still one-quarter-filled mining towns dotted across the landscape like so many ghost towns.

But the natural landscape is rich green and unspoiled and we rented a house right on the edge of Lake Superior; the lake stretched endless as an ocean but six times as cold not more than ten paces out the door. And overhead the sky at night exactly mirrored the lake, only dotted with bright stars ripped within the firmament. I could pick out the constellations clear as though I’d been sitting in my local college’s planetarium on a Friday night in seventh grade, first learning them.

When my son and I went out at midnight we saw, in addition to the dot-to-dot stars, two fast-moving largish starfish shapes that he took for either a UFO or shooting star and I knew couldn’t have been an airplane. We watched it for a while and even wished on it. That thing was moving across the night sky fast.

The next day my husband told us our starfish had been satellites and that he’d yelled up to one from the beach like a tormented lover, “Why can’t we get cell reception here?”

I’d never thought much about satellites. I occasionally write articles about mechanical or industrial engineers’ roles in their inception, including their launch pads. But since my vacation I’ve found them almost beautiful in an industrial art, art-meets-nature kind of way. And I have a newfound respect for them.

After all, it was with the help of a satellite that NASA reported last week that the extent of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has shrunk, something we likely all know but should be ultra concerned about. According to scientists from NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the ice cover is the smallest ever observed in the three decades since consistent satellite observations of the polar cap began. You can read the report at

The extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, as measured by the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager on the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft and analyzed by NASA and NSIDC, was 1.58 million square miles, 27,000 square miles smaller than it was on Sept. 18, 2007, a day later in the melt season of a warmer year, according to the report.

Satellites are responsible for much of modern life, including the phone reception my husband sought. And I’m newly in their thrall, like a kid interested in science and first discovering their importance. I may even pin up a poster of a satellite in my home office. But I’ll refrain from the black-light version.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

September 2012

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