Archive for June 2008

Long Live Cassini

June 30, 2008

Just like the Martian Rovers (does that sound like a spin-off of the Irish Rovers?) Opportunity and Spirit, exceeded their initial 90 day missions, the Cassini Spacecraft has completed its 4 fear Mission. Time flies.

“We’ve had a wonderful mission and a very eventful one in terms of the scientific discoveries we’ve made, and yet an uneventful one when it comes to the spacecraft behaving so well,” says Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We are incredibly proud to have completed all of the objectives we set out to accomplish when we launched. We answered old questions and raised quite a few new ones and so our journey continues.”

Is this the end for our intrepid explorer? Not on your life. Funding for a two year continuation has already been approved, and plans are underway to get a better look at the largest moon in the Solar System, Titan, and the extraordinary Enceladus, which is quickly overtaking Jupiter’s Europa as the next most likely place to find life, after Mars on Saturday nights. Ta-da-Dum!

Leaving For Canada

June 30, 2008

Not An Option Anymore

From Real Clear Politics, David Warren writes about the loss of freedoms in Canada.

I have mentioned only the current cases in which periodical publications have been prosecuted, in the strange new world of “Kafkanada” — where you can be tried for the same imaginary “hate crimes” in any or all federal and provincial jurisdictions, simultaneously or sequentially. A single complaint by any reader anywhere is enough to launch a secret inquiry. The target has no right to confront his accuser, and will not at first even be told who he or she is.Truth is no defence, the absence of harm is no defence, there are no rules of evidence — due process is entirely subverted. The inquisitors of these kangaroo courts may ultimately reach any “judgement” they please, after months or years of playing cat-and-mouse with their selected victim.

Kafkanada, indeed. These are pretty big charges. Isn’t the Mark Steyn/Maclean’s trial a one-time thing? An aberration? Warren says not.

A Protestant minister in Alberta was, for instance, recently ordered to publicly renounce his Christian beliefs, as well as pay a big lump sum to the anti-Christian activist who had prosecuted him, in a case I mentioned in a previous column, and which I am pleased to see is getting wide publicity in the United States even if not up here. “Re-education” programmes are frequently assigned, for which the victim must also pay.

In the spring of 1973 I drew a big 003 in the random draft lottery that would have sent me to Vietnam had the war not been coming to an end starting the winter previous. “Going to Canada” was an option that, I must admit, I weighed for a time (and rejected – so, fear not, Mom). Had it come to that, I would have joined (that is, after embarrassing myself…). There are scenarios that have become conceivable now – the loss of my first and second amendment rights, for instance – that have given me pause and even caused me to wonder if it might be wise to know the location of an exit again, even at this point in my life. (Fortunately for me, although my first amendment rights are daily brought in question, my second amendment rights were recently made more secure.) But it’s clear that Canada is not an option a lover of freedom can seriously entertain any longer, and that’s a shock. Because as much as we’ve traded freedom for security here in the US, there may be no freedom left to trade in Canada.

Buffalonians have always considered themselves part Canadian. Carling’s Black Label Beer, Genesee Cream Ale and Molson’s are used as municipal tap water, or at least they used to be. The defunct Crystal Beach amusement park, around the lake (Erie) in Ontario was our version of Coney Island, and our version of a Bar Mitzvah was to ride the Comet, its famed roller coaster, “no hands”.

In 1980, I attended a Washington Capital’s hockey game, vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the very week that several U.S. hostages, held in Iran, had been smuggled out to safety by Canadian efforts (both military and personal). That night, we all sang “Oh Canada”, stood and applauded the Canadians in the stands as well as on the ice for as long as our strength would let us in sheer gratitude.

I like Canadians. The U.S. likes Canada. I know Canadians feel like they’re sleeping next to an elephant. But free speech is not an American concept. It is not an American right. It is universal, whether or not the U.N. agrees. Rejecting it on that basis is just about the most idiotic thing I’ve seen come from the Great White North since Bill Shatner’s last record album.

Is There Life On Mars

June 28, 2008

And Why Can’t NASA Find It?

With all the news about water being found on Mars, when (oh, when) will NASA find evidence of life there? Why has NASA, seemingly, not come up with a definitive result that says once and for all, Yea or Ney to the question? What’s taking so long???

Jeremy Hsu asks for Space.com.

The discovery last week of water ice just under the surface of Mars has researchers buzzing, given that water is a key ingredient for life. The finding, by the Phoenix Mars Lander, is the most recent hint that the Red Planet might be habitable to microbes.

But in the parlance of treasure hunters in the movie “National Treasure,” this looks a lot like just another clue that will lead to other clues, and still more clues. The big question still hangs over NASA: Is there life on Mars? And just as important: Can NASA ever find the evidence for it?

And Jeremy Hsu answers.

NASA has long taken an incremental approach to searching for biology, with “follow the water” as a driving strategy. That means, perhaps to the frustration of some, that the current Phoenix lander mission and the twin rovers on Mars are not even designed to detect Martian life.

Frustrating, isn’t it? It seems odd that, if a little green Martian came up and bit Spirit on the nose, NASA wouldn’t have a clue what happened.

The problem is, of course, that no LGM is going to do that. And the microbes that might be there (and have an infinitely greater chance of existing there than any LGM) are hard to distinguish from – dust. That’s especially true if all we have left are the by-products of life long gone.

[T]he melting and refreezing of water could also erase records of previous life or organic material, scientists say. That presents a dilemma between searching for existing life versus past life.

Clearly, finding life on Mars (or, of equal scientific import, the complete lack of life) is not easy. It would be, in fact, one of the most important discoveries since fire. There are things that might make the search easy, however – shortcuts of sorts.

[S]cientists have also examined gullies where liquid water may have bubbled up recently in the planet’s history. Finding an active hot spring could lead to finding life similar to extremophile bacteria that can thrive under intense conditions.

“Hot springs are at the top of my list,” said Bruce Jakosky, a geologist at the University of Colorado who has worked on Mars missions. “Organisms might not survive and thrive on the surface, but recently exposed hot springs might bring something up from beneath.”

That’s why Phoenix is near the North Pole of Mars – we’re trying to look in places where the conditions are most favorable, not for life, but for us to find it.

The questions we should ask the moment life is recognized, are things like “Is the biology like ours? – Did it come come the Earth, or did life on Earth possibly come from Mars or did it come about independently” and “Did life in this solar system come from outside the solar system?”

Always more questions than answers.

Cells For Cell Users!

June 28, 2008

Almost

Time for my yearly rant about cell phone etiquette and the lack thereof. This will do!

“I was on speaker!” she said.

He was over the Delaware River on a bridge.

Yet, like many other motorists, they found out first-hand that New Jersey has gotten serious about reducing the dangerous yet defiant use of handheld phones by drivers.

Tickets have soared eightfold since March 1, when the violation became a primary offense – meaning police no longer needed to see a different violation to pull a driver over.

Text-messaging and using other electronic devices such as BlackBerrys while driving were also banned.

Remember, children. Friends don’t let friends drive with cell phones.

Artic Volcanoes

June 28, 2008

Maybe Not So Much Heat As Gas

The artic is melting, but the reason is (maybe) not what you think.

“These are the first pyroclastic deposits we’ve ever found in such deep water, at oppressive pressures that inhibit the formation of steam, and many people thought this was not possible,” said WHOI geophysicist Rob Reves-Sohn, lead author and chief scientist for the Arctic Gakkel Vents Expedition (AGAVE) of July 2007. “This means that a tremendous blast of CO2 was released into the water column during the explosive eruption.”

It’s certainly not the reason that Catherine Brahic at New Scientist hints at.

Despite its news value in the media, the North Pole being ice free is not in itself significant. To scientists, Serreze points out, “this is just another point on the globe”. What is worrying, though, is the fact that multi-year ice – the stuff that doesn’t melt in the summer – is not piling up as fast as Arctic ice generally is melting.On average each year about half of the first year ice, formed between September and March, melts during the following summer. In 2007, nearly all of it disappeared.

Moreover, an atmospheric phenomenon known as the Arctic oscillation kicked into its strong, “positive”, phase this winter. This is known to generate winds which push multi-year ice out of the Arctic along the east coast of Greenland.

My emphasis. In other words, warm air. In other words, despite her efforts to avoid the term, Global Warming.

Plenty Dark Out There

June 26, 2008

And It’s Way Darker Than Expected

A pair of articles on Dark Matter has demonstrated to me that I’m terribly, terribly behind the curve in astronomical knowledge. Gee – I used to know it all! That was the good ol’ days, when Saturn had only 9 moons, Jupiter and Uranus didn’t have rings, Mars had canals and Pluto was a planet.

Things change – sigh.

Dark matter may not exist, but it seems to be about 26% of everything that’s out there (including the totally not-understood “Dark Energy” which you should not confuse with the merely confusing Dark Matter). At first, Dark Matter was a speculative artifice, put there by astronomers interested in the problem of balancing the gravitational books. It was known quite some time ago that there wasn’t enough matter (not in the stars and interstellar gas we see, anyway) to hold galaxies like our own Milky Way together for very long. By the ’60s, it became clear that something unseen was also holding clusters of galaxies together too. And lots of it.

Astronomers didn’t know what it was, but they were pretty confident that it was in an invisible halo surrounding a galaxy. That pretty much accounted for stars not flying away from the galaxy like bees on a mission. Now two U. of Arizona astronomers have determined that the stuff is right here in our solar system too.

Dark matter isn’t just far off in the Milky Way or somewhere on the other side of the Universe, though: it’s right here at home in our Solar System. In a recent paper submitted to Physical Review D, Ethan Siegel and Xiaoying Xu of the University of Arizona analysed the distribution of dark matter in our Solar System, and found that the mass of dark matter is 300 times more than that of the galactic halo average, and the density is 16,000 times higher than that of the background dark matter.

So can we identify it? Maybe, but maybe not. They theorize that there’s only enough inside the solar system that, if you could scoop it up in one place, you’d have only enough to equal the mass of the largest asteroid.

Don’t get me wrong – that’s a lot of mass. But it’s nothing close to the mass of a planet (and it’s spread out more or less uniformly over the vast area of space between the sun and the orbit of Neptune). Does this solve the so-called Pioneer Anomaly?

And, alas, the mystery of the Pioneer anomaly is not going to be solved by this revelation, as the mass of the captured dark matter is not enough to explain the odd motions of that spacecraft.

The second article, (see also this article by Ker Than), posits that the primordial stars born into the universe, the so-called population III stars, which were very different from stars today – and which should no longer exist – may indeed be around for us to see. The reason? Massive clouds of – you guessed it – dark matter that inhibited the normal course of their evolution and death.

When I saw that, my initial reaction was – and I think I can quote myself exactly – “huh???”  They explained:

This amazing theory comes from research carried out by Gianfranco Bertone and his team at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics in France. The thought that the first stars, born over 14 billion years ago, could possibly inhabit the Universe today is a very impressive idea. These primordial stars are thought to have been seeded inside dense clouds of dark matter, where gravity caused dark matter compression. As the matter became concentrated, non-baryonic particles may have begun annihilating, stopping natural hydrogen fusion (the mechanism commonly associated with star creation). “Normal” stellar evolution was therefore paused and the “dark star” phase began as dark matter annihilation heated the stellar cores.

Non-baryonic matter, huh. Interesting. What they’re saying here, is that this mysterious matter is made from a kind of normal, but rare (in nature) type of matter. The stuff we’re used to seeing – made of protons, neutrons (and electrons, which are different) – is made from quarks, held together in groups of 3, in an elegant formation described by quantum dynamics. Non-baryonic matter is everything else, including neutrinos, free electrons, and the “super-symmetric” particles.

Oh boy! These theoretical entities (also known as sparticles), whose existence come from attempts to combine the fundamental forces of nature (electro-magnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces and gravity) into one, go a long way towards explaining the universe that we observe. BUT NOBODY’S SEEN THEM. And there may be scads of this stuff around us, even in our own solar system.

Consider me boggled.

What NASA Doesn’t Know

June 26, 2008

SpacePolitics reports on the op-ed piece in Thursday’s Orlando Sentinel by former Senators Jake Garn and John Glenn [That’s former astronauts to you, bub. – ed.] and (current) Senator Bill Nelson. The three take the Bush administration to task for not providing “appropriate guidance and funding” to support NASA’s Vision for Space. The claim they make is that the administration is ignorant – “[W]e suspect it can be explained by Bush not knowing all the facts about what the real impact of NASA’s annual budgets has been since the loss of the Columbia in 2003.”

From SpacePolitics:

The three believe he’s not aware that NASA has not been reimbursed for the costs returning the shuttle to service after the Columbia accident, forced to come up with the $2.8 billion by raiding other programs. They believe Bush doesn’t know that the budget requests for the Vision his administration has submitted -have been on average a half-a-billion per year less than he projected- when the Vision was unveiled in 2004. He may also be unaware, they claim, that his directive in his 2004 speech about the Vision calling for completing the station and then retiring the shuttle by 2010 “has been turned into a mandate to end the shuttle program in 2010, whether or not the space station is finished.” (See some earlier discussion on differing interpretations of this deadline.) And, they say, Bush isn’t aware his budgets are creating a five-year gap in “U.S. human-spaceflight capability” (correct only if we exclude any US commercial alternatives that may arise during the Shuttle-Constellation interregnum.)

Others, like Rand Simberg have consistently insisted that with Constellation (the successor to the Shuttle) NASA has been pursuing the wrong mission with the wrong vehicles (actually, his statements are much more subtle than that characterization). Clark Lindsey essentially agrees, claiming that NASA had better options that it didn’t choose.

My worthless opinion is that NASA did not (does not) know how constrained it is by simple politics. The administration can propose all the budget it wants for NASA, but nothing that substantially exceeds recent baselines is getting past a Democrat Congress. Or a Republican Congress, for that matter. The good will and (fabulous) PR generated by Phoenix, Spirit, Opportunity, Cassini, and other missions does not rub off onto either the Shuttle, its replacement, or the Space Station in the publics mind, each for good, but different reasons, and right now the public’s priorities are elsewhere.