Category Archives: Travel

Go West, Young Man, Woman and Prius!

July 27, 2017 Day 1
Boulder, Colorado to Hanksville, Utah (413 miles)

We really enjoyed our six years in Boulder, CO and made many friends there, so when moving day finally came, it was emotionally charged. Even on the day we were to set off on our road journey all our lovely neighbors kept stopping us to stay goodbye for the third and fourth time. As we drove away with a sad heart, and absorbing all the beauty of Boulder County, wondering if we can indeed return here to live some day, we just had to get on with our journey.

We had done this CO to CA drive three times now, two east and one west, and each of those times we choose the “northern route” via Salt Lake City, Utah. We learned the day before that our household belongings would not arrive on this weekend, but actually a week later, so we could actually try the “southern route” which would add another day unless we drove a lot more than 300 miles per day. So our destination was getting near Fish Lake, Utah on the first day. We made good time and took a chance to find accommodation in small Hanksville, Utah after passing a larger town Green Rivers, Utah.

July 28, 2017 Day 2
Hanskville to St George,Utah via Pando, Bryce and Zion (339 miles)

Pando, Latin, for “I Spread” is a single colony of quaking aspen trees located near Fish Lake, Utah. When we approached it felt as if we did not leave Colorado, and geologically speaking, we had been still on the Colorado Plateau. Seeing the hills dotted with aspen trees was just lovely. At this time of year they were a nice dark green. I can only imagine the colors of orange and yellow in the autumn and perhaps those quiet roads of north Utah would be packed with seasonal color hunters, like what happens to the Peak to Peak Highway in Colorado.

Route taken July 28, 2017

Pando is claimed to be the single largest oldest organism with identical genetics on earth. Whether it is as old as 80,000 years or at least since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, which wiped out a lot of many species, Pando was a delightful site to find.

Quaking Aspen near  Fish Lake, Utah

Getting there involved a wonderful drive through picturesque Capitol Reef National Park. We stopped a bit to admire wonderful petroglyphs (stone carved images) from the Puebloan ancestors.

Pictographs, Capitol Reef National Park

After Fish Lake, we looked at our progress and saw we had enough time to do a quick trip to see Bryce Canyon National Park. Robert had never been. I had visited it once back in 1998, which when I recalled that, I was humbled to realize that was nearly 20 years ago. Now with the height of the summer season and shuttle busses (which had not been part of the landscape 20 years ago), we did not know whether we could drive in at our own pace. We found we could and only manages less than 2 hours to see this natural beauty. Perhaps our shortest ever trip to a National Park. In any event, we knew we need to come back properly to do some of the lovely trails, perhaps best in winter where we can snowshoe the rim!

Beautiful Bryce vistas!

Our evening destination was St George near the southernmost tip of Utah, and we got a lovely ride through Zion National Park, although with daylight fading, we did not have enough time to take the shuttle to see the majority of the park, leaving that for another visit.

One highlight for me was driving through the narrow 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, an impressive work of 1920 engineering. Of course the breathtaking scenery of the narrow roads winding through the canyon was amazing. I was driving so I only have the images in my mind.

Zion Arch after the Tunnel

July 29, 2017 Day 3
St George, Utah to Mammoth Lakes, CA via four states (432 miles)

We started our journey in Utah, then a bit into Arizona, followed by a Las Vega fly-by in Nevada, across the desolate Nevada high dessert (with army vehicles for colorful attention and what would appear to be abandoned air force bases and we learned later, nuclear test sites), and ended in Mammoth Lakes, California, 8000 feet, near the beautiful Yosemite National Park.

Route July 29, 2017

Beatty (pronounced BAY-dee), Utah was a quaint little town that broke our long journey north through Nevada after turning at Las Vegas. At 70 mph, it was less than a 2 hour drive from Nevada. We stopped at Mel’s Diner which was adorned with photos from the 1920s and 1940s illustrating its place in breaking the journey for passengers of old going to and from Las Vegas. Yet perhaps back then such a journey would have taken 5 or more hours and a restful break was indeed much warranted.

Mel’s Diner in Beatty, Utah

July 30, 2017 Day 4
Home James and Don’t Spare the Horses (300 miles)

Returning to our townhouse we moved away from over six years ago was the objective of the day. We had the choice of going over Tioga Pass and through Yosemite National Park, which we had done previously, or a different route, which according to Google, although more in mileage would actually be less time. We were intrigued. So waving goodby to Tioga, we drove past Mono Lake and experienced the Sonora Pass, the 2nd highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada,.

Route July 30, 2017

The drive over Sonora was long and windy and very steep going east. Certainly kept my rally driving skills up to date. It would drop us in the central valley where along Highway 108 we could espy the nut and fruit trees, with what appears to be a lot of newly planted orchards.

We headed onto Highway 580 and noticed the Altamont Pass Wind Farm Ahad been upgraded to newer windmills, now adjacent to the forever dead-looking 1st generation wind farm.

Then we criss-crosse through Livermore proper and headed home along the picturesque backroads of Fremont and Union City onto the Dumbarton Bridge (which had a toll the took us by surprise) across the south bay onto the well worn Highway 101.

Then Mountain View came into view.

We arrived home. Our belongings we hope will arrive on the weekend. Many things have changed here in the bustling Silicon Valley, and yet, our townhouse smells and feels the same as we left it those many years ago.

The adventure continues….

To There and Back Again

July 8, 2017

Looking ahead my longest (3 week) trip to Christchurch was now 2/3rd over and the next week was looking pretty intense with science adventures, from the MU69 occultation flight on July 10th to the commissioning of a new capability at long-wavelengths that week. I realized I would only get one day off, and I took the advice of a colleague and booked a day return aboard the TranzAlpine, a 4.5 hr train ride from Christchurch on the east coast of the south Island to Greymouth on the west coast, and then 4.5 hrs back again. I truly lucked out with wonderful weather revealing beautiful scenery. Oh I must return to really explore this amazing countryside.

8:15am we departed Christchurch. My word! It looked so much like Cambridgeshire, England, with the flat grass fields, filled with sheep or the occasional herd of cows. These were the Canterbury Plains. The only odd thing on the landscape were these huge hedgerows. The commentary aboard the train mentioned they helped with wind-control. I just looked at these marvels and realized they had been growing (and also untouched) for a long time.

IMG_5540Giant Hedgerows along the Canterbury Plains.

Within an hour, we would be starting to see foothills as we approached the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana).

P1080351-modViews after leaving Darfield

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P1080371-modThe Waimakariri River gorge

We continue climbing. At this point in the ride I have secured a spot in the open carriage to get unobstructed views (no glares). I was better equipped with my hat, scarf, fleeces and gloves than my fellow passengers who just sneaked out for a quick photo and then dashed back into the warm. I was just awestruck by the scenery as it evolved, and I knew a nice hot cup of tea awaited my return.

On this amazing train ride, we would nip in and out of narrow tunnels over lovely bridges.

P1080370-mod ‘Staircase’, 73 metres above the river

P1080386-modGrassy plateau with hills, as we neared the summit

By 10:40am we reached Arthur’s Pass (elevation 739 m) and drop off some passengers for a day’s walking in the National Park nearby.

P1080390-mod Train station at Arthur’s Pass

The train resumes its journey and they would close off the viewing gallery when it entered the Otira Tunnel, 8.6 kilometers in length, otherwise one would suffer from the diesel fumes. Apparently when they close off the train this week, the motion of the train acts like piston to push out any fumes.

P1080523-modView from the viewing cab of the TranzAlpine rail

We slowed down but did not stop in the town of Otira, which described by the onboard commentary as getting over several meters of rain a year. Historically it was a key stagecoach town when crossing the Alps took many days. It also became a key railway town keeping the coal flowing from west to east.


P1080392-mod Otira

P1080400-modTransAlpine route west of Otira

We pull up to Moana (not the 2016 Disney film 🙂 ), a small town on the west coast region of the south island. A few passengers got off. The striking view of Lake Brunner with the hills in the background was very fine indeed.

P1080488-modLake Brunner near the town of Moana

P1080440-modGlimpses of New Zealand’s coal culture, outside Greymouth

P1080476-modP1080547-modCoal trucks are a common sight along this route


P1080471-modViews of the Grey River (Māwheranui), as we near Greymouth

The train reaches Greymouth, a town at the mouth of the Grey River, where we will stop for about 30 minutes to change engines and directions to head back over the mountains. Usually the schedule allows for an hour stop, but we had delays after crossing Arthur’s Pass that cost us minutes. Thus, I only got a tiny glimpse of this interesting coastal town.

P1080457-modTrain arriving into Greymouth to take us back to Christchurch

P1080533-modReaching mountains again in afternoon sun, about 20 minutes to sunset

P1080541-modA touch of frost

The sun has set by 5pm and I spent the rest of the journey listening to the commentary about the geology of the area, especially referencing the confluence of three major plates on the Earth which made these amazing mountains through uplift, but also source of earthquakes. It was an amazing day out. I got only a brief taste of “To There and Back Again.” And “To There” I need to return properly someday.

P1080454-modSpotted “West Coast Time” at the Greymouth train station

Re-discovering our cosmic origins

July 4, 2017

Last night we had two Guest Observers aboard the flying observatory, Dr. Monica Rubio from the University of Santiago Chile, and Dr. James Jackson, from the University of New Castle, north of Sydney, Australia, both first time fliers. It was fascinating sitting down with both of them during the course of the flight to learn more about them and also what they think of SOFIA. Guest Observers Monica Rubio, James Jackson and Stefanie Milam all excited about doing their science with SOFIA and first time flyers. Stefanie would fly the next day.


James was a veteran Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), the precursor airborne observatory to SOFIA, observer and his first remarks to SOFIA is – “It’s big. The instruments are 10x larger. And more people. Plus there is room to walk about.” And when he witnessed the “mapping” feature of the GREAT instrument on the SOFIA telescope, he remarked “phenomenal.” It took a bit over a year to design (and equally important, fully debug), but this piece of software aptly called “The Translator” really enables efficient hand-shaking between the science instrument and the telescope, so much so that you can truly embrace this airborne observatory does use every precious minute in the sky to its fullest potential.

Now his object of interest was the ‘Nessie Nebula.’ It is a large filamentary gas cloud in the spiral arm of our Milky Way. It’s a fascinating place as it is home to some wacky star forming regions. It got it’s name from the fact that is looks quite serpentine across the sky. He’s looking for gas infalling on the cores, which supposedly are forming massive stars. With this information he hopes to be put together a clearer picture how stars form from collapsing clouds.

IMG_5388James Jackson (standing) talking strategy with Ed Chambers (seated), instrument scientist.

Monica’s favourite place in the sky is the Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, a neighbouring galaxy to ours, a meer 200,000 light years away. The SMC is very different from our own galaxy, in terms of its chemical makeup, with a makeup more similar to high-redshift galaxies at the edge of the known universe. SOFIA is in a prime location from the southern hemisphere latitudes to see this object high in the sky. Over the course of a few nights, she was targeting seven different star formation regions in the SMC. She’s studying a transition of ionized carbon with the hopes to measure the reservoir of star forming gas in the SMC and investigate how we can use local knowledge about the SMC to better explain the chemistry of the high-redshift universe. Monica uses a lot of ground-base sub-millimeter telescopes for her research, and SOFIA gives her the ‘infrared’ chemistry she needs.


Monica Rubio discussing her science with GREAT instrument team members Anna Parikka and Denise Riquelme Vasquez.

Our route this flight took us down to 64 deg 55 min 39 sec South latitude which provided a nice glimpse of the aurora Australis, a chemistry of a different kind, that of our planet’s atmosphere interacting with the solar wind.


Southern Lights or Tagu-Nui-A-Rangi, the great burning in the sky.


Panaroma of July 3rd flight.


Exploring a bit of the Garden City

July 2, 2017

For those who know me, I am pretty much a workaholic, especially when I get into my projects. And this SOFIA gig is no different. I had no idea I have been here a week already and not explored beyond my hotel and the lab. So it was time to check out Christchurch, the Garden City.

To first glance it’s quite larger than I expected, and it had the welcome feel of being back in England. That said, that could be because they drive on the left here, speak English, with many street names sound like they came out of London’s A-Z. The country does pride itself on its independence from the British Empire of yonder, although when you walk among Christchurch I could not quite shake the feeling of being back in England.

Take the old site of Canterbury College, with its Gothic Revival stonework. Most of the site is under scaffolding (another fine remembrance of British cityscapes) due to reconstruction after the devastating earthquake of February 2011 that went right through the center of Christchurch. Even after 6years the city is still rebuilding, with lots of vacant lots of what had been most of the historical brick and mortar buildings of New Zealand’s past.

The old Canterbury Collage is where Earnest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, worked for a ti,e.  And he worked in den! Every scientists needs a den.


The Container Mall was a fun find, being built as a temporary location for businesses in an area of the city that had been decimated by the 2011 earthquake. From the audio tour I learned that finally those businesses are moving onto to more permament locations.

Container Mall

The Botanical Gardens were a lovely find, even in winter. They had a nice Victorian-era greenhouses hosting the more humid plants. I giggled as I saw many of the foliage there are common houseplants one can pick up in any garden store in the USA. The rose garden was properly trimmed back to its winter state, and the collection of ferns and tropical plants in the New Zealand garden gave me a sense that there is much more diverse flora in New Zealand than one picks up in the cityscapes.


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The next day when I re-explored the city via tram with my friend Stefanie who was out to fly on SOFIA this coming week, we stumbled against the Wizard of Christchurch, a known entity who travels the city telling stories.


When I look back at the weekend exploring with no set agenda, thinking about things, reflecting on the tough year my family has gone through and still is, and thinking about how this city has survived and is rebuilding, one can take the message from the Art Gallery to heart – Everything’s Going to Be Alright.



Southern Lights Just Take Your Breath Away

Monday June 26, 2017

So what’s up tonight for the flying Observatory? Shocks, jets, and all things molecular gas. We’re looking at the Central Molecular Zone (region around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy), young protostars, massive young stellar objects, and using background star forming regions as lightposts to look at the “stuff between the stars,” aka the Diffuse Interstellar Medium. Goran, the Instrument Scientist for the spectrometer aboard SOFIA tonight, in his science brief before we boarded ,described it more eloquently as measuring the properties of many “translucent clouds.” (SPOILER: I never thought I would be seeing “translucent clouds” a bit closer to home.)

As with any SOFIA flight, there is a timeline of preparation activities that is followed to ready the plane for science. Aircraft items like refueling and coordination of power transfers need to be scheduled. The crew meets to go over departure and arrival options. The mission team gets together for an overview of the flight and any one flying has to be present for head count.

SOFIA Mission brief for flight #410

Soon you find its time to board and the clock is ticking. I found myself fortunate to be in the cockpit again, this time for departure, and pilots Paul & Dean with flight engineer Moose (Marty) certainly were being kept busy with air traffic control. For SOFIA, taking off within a narrow time window is crucial for the flight’s success in terms of the science observations. If there are delays with takeoff, the mission directors need to direct the pilots to intercept the science timelines later and that typically means less science. Not something to make into a habit. At the same time if the plane taxied too early they could find themselves in a queue of planes and then find themselves late in the actual takeoff. It was a fine temporal balance and Paul & Dean handled it smoothly.

The flight plan takes us very south, in fact, in the flight we reached 64.534 deg. S. Latitude.


And this delighted us to a show of the southern lights!

Southern Lights seen from SOFIA, location about 63 deg S, 170 deg, 0 E.

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At the end of the 10+ hour flight, the science team disembarked with high quality data at their wavelengths of science need thanks to the very low water vapor at 43,000 feet. New insights into the role of atomic gas in extreme conditions, like at our galactic center, in jets and outflows of protostars and in the regions of massive young stellar objects.