Dec. 9, 2005 | 6:20 p.m. ET
Shuttle schedule in flux: The current time frame targeted for the next shuttle launch is next May — but in the past couple of days, there have been hints that NASA might have to schedule liftoff for even later next year.

One such report comes from Keith Cowing's NASA Watch Web log, which says a later time frame is being discussed within the space agency to guarantee sufficient time for testing modifications to the shuttle's troublesome external fuel tank. Cowing says a directive signed on Thursday "authorized moving forward" with the modifications.

Although NASA hasn't officially given up on the May launch window, shuttle managers won't know whether the current schedule is realistic until February or so, when the modified fuel tank is due to go through a crucial round of wind tunnel tests.

As reported last week by the weekly Space News , the modifications would involve eliminating a troublesome piece of foam insulation that covers protuberances on the tank. NASA has to find out whether the tank would be aerodynamically good to go without that piece — known as the protuberance air load ramp, or PAL ramp.

If the tests raise concerns, NASA's schedule would almost certainly have to focus on later launch windows — say, next July, which would be roughly a year after the shuttle fleet's first post-Columbia mission .

Another issue has to do with a potential oxygen-leak problem, which was noted in the wake of this summer's Discovery mission. In a status report, NASA says that although the unusual oxygen readings are currently categorized as "a formal in-flight anomaly, the readings could be a mistake in the analysis."

Florida Today says an investigation of the problem "is not expected to have any immediate impact" on preparations for launching in May. And in a report carried by SpaceFlightNow.com, CBS' Bill Harwood quotes shuttle launch integration manager LeRoy Cain as saying "it's too soon to know" whether the apparentl oxygen leak will have any impact on the schedule.

For the time being, then, "too soon to know" is the best way to characterize how next year's space shuttle schedule will turn out. Which is not that big a surprise. After all, it wasn't too long ago that some officials were talking about delaying the next shuttle launch until the autumn of 2006 .

Dec. 9, 2005 | 6:20 p.m. ET
Literary adventures: How do you get kids as fired up about real-life science as they are about fictional adventures like the Harry Potter and the "Chronicles of Narnia" series? The best way is to work some good science into a good story.

That's what oceanographer Ellen Prager does in "Adventure on Dolphin Island," a tale set in the Bermuda Triangle. For years, Prager has taught marine science and has also brought the wonders of the ocean to general audiences — and in the interest of full disclosure, I worked with her back in 1998 on a series of MSNBC.com dispatches from the Aquarius underwater habitat. They're no longer online, but if there's enough of a clamor I might be able to dredge them up from our computer system's briny deep.

Prager's latest fictional adventure is targeted at tweens and teens rather than grown-up literary critics, but as you follow the travails of young Kelly Wickner, you'll definitely learn a thing or two about marine mammals and coral reefs. To hear Prager talk about "Adventure," listen to this podcast from Our Ocean World.

If you want to tell your child a bedtime story with a subtle scientific message, "Why Explore?" would be a great choice. The picture book, written by the Planetary Society's Susan Lendroth with illustrations by Enrique S. Moreiro, traces the kinds of questions that parents and children might have asked each other about exploration through the millennia in rhymes meant for reading out loud.

At the end of the book, Lendroth provides more details about explorations ranging from Polynesian voyages to particle physics and space missions — an afterword that the wee ones will appreciate when they get a little older.

Both authors say they plan to contribute to scientific good works: Part of the profits from "Adventure on Dolphin Island" will go toward marine education, while a portion of the proceeds from "Why Explore?" is being donated to the Planetary Society.

Do you have additions to the science reading list for young people? Send me your suggestions and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

Dec. 9, 2005 | 6:20 p.m. ET
Dark matter in detail: The mysterious unseen stuff that makes up 90 percent of the universe's matter appears to gather in "cosmic webs" that enmesh visible galaxies, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute report today.

Video: Cosmic cobwebs The high-resolution analysis of dark-matter distribution, published in December's issue of the Astrophysical Journal, follows up on a less detailed report that appeared in the same publication back in January.

Dark matter is stuff that can't be seen in any wavelength, but can only be detected through its gravitational effect. The latest findings support the idea that dark matter and visible matter coalesce in the same regions under the influence of gravity, with dark matter extending farther out into space.

Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Myungkook James Jee says the analysis also indicates that particles of dark matter are "collision-less," meaning that they don't bounce off each other like particles of ordinary matter, but pass through each other.

"Collision-less particles do not bombard one another, the way two hydrogen atoms do. If dark-matter particles were collisional, we would observe a much smoother distribution of dark matter, without any small-scale clumpy structures," Jee said in today's news release.

Dark matter is just one of the two "dark" mysteries surrounding the nature of the universe. The other, even bigger mystery has to do with dark energy, the factor driving the accelerating expansion of the universe. But that's another story .

Dec. 9, 2005 | 6:20 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Improbable Research: A breath of fresh Mini-AIR
Slate: The dwindling refuges of creationism
Nature: Warped geometry speeds airline boarding
Seed Magazine: Blogging the Nobels in Stockholm

Dec. 8, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
After X, the O Prize? A year after the $10 million X Prize for private suborbital spaceflight was won, the foundation that was behind that space race says NASA would have to offer at least five times that much if it wanted to set up an orbital spaceflight competition.

In a study made public today (via PDF file), the X Prize Foundation recommends to the space agency that the top purse be set at $50 million for the first privately funded, expendable space vehicle that goes into orbit — and then at $150 million for reusable spaceships in a follow-up, "Tier 2" contest.

The proposed competition would be part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which itself was inspired by the X Prize experience and is just now hitting its stride . X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis told MSNBC.com back in October that his group was studying the possibilities for an orbital spaceflight prize (the "O Prize"?), and today's announcement lays out more fully what the foundation has in mind.

Space entrepreneurs are already chasing after a $50 million "O Prize" called the America's Space Prize , backed by Las Vegas hotel magnate Robert Bigelow. In the past, Bigelow has said he would prefer to work with NASA on his prize program — and there appear to be some scenarios where the Bigelow prize could serve as a "Tier 1" to NASA's "Tier 2."

"A situation where the two were complimentary would certainly be ideal," Mike Gold, the Washington-based corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace, told me today. "We have not spoken with NASA about it recently, nor with the X Prize, but it's certainly something to consider."

Here are the high points from the X Prize's presentation to NASA on the "Human Orbital Vehicle Challenge":

  • The SpaceShipOne team won the $10 million X Prize by spending at least $25 million. That's in line with the expectation that prizes serve as a partial rather than total incentive for taking on a technological feat. But NASA shouldn't expect the same ratio to apply for the HOV Challenge — a 2-to-1 ratio of spending for the prize amount is more realistic.
  • The foundation estimates that it would cost $50 million to $100 million to develop a three-person, non-reusable orbital vehicle. "Each team may require many investors to raise sufficient capital," the study says. There would also have to be the expectation of a follow-on market for crewed orbital vehicles.
  • The contest rules should allow foreign participation as long as the winning spacecraft would be eligible for purchase or use under "Buy American" laws. NASA or the Defense Department would likely be the primary customers for the new spacecraft.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration, rather than NASA, should set the safety standards for the contest's spaceflights, but NASA should give technical assistance to teams dealing with the FAA. The teams should be allowed to keep their intellectual property but required to grant NASA a kind of "most favored nation" status for its application.
  • The ideal HOV Challenge would have a "Tier 1" contest for non-reusable, two- to three-seat orbital vehicles that fly to low Earth orbit and are recovered safely. The purse would be $50 million for first place and $25 million for second place. The "Tier 2" contest would be for reusable two- to three-seat orbital vehicles, with high-capacity craft flying twice within 60 days. Tier 2 prizes would be $150 million for first place, $75 million for second place.
  • Teams could compete for both tiers, or shoot for just one of the contests. "Ideally, prize purses are tax-free," the study says.
  • The study says $50 million would be the minimum amount for funding any HOV Challenge. The $100 million level "may generate twice as many competing teams." The ideal would be $250 million to $300 million. And $500 million "might allow major breakthroughs, but introduces new problems," because such a program would be "extremely difficult to fund."
  • The study emphasizes the importance of multiple tiers of competition — as well as second and even third prizes to heighten the interest of competitors and financiers.
  • The foundation says it is "critical for NASA to define its goals before creating the Challenge." For example, is the aim to secure the cheapest possible space rides, support NASA's wider vision for space exploration , or strengthen American industry?

Turning back to the existing "O Prize," Bigelow's main aim is to encourage the development of reusable spacecraft that could service his inflatable space modules . The prototype for a such a space hotel is already being developed for launch next year.

Gold said the America's Space Prize competition has attracted interest "from a broad array of entities, both large and small."

One of those interested parties, SpaceDev founder Jim Benson, said the O Prize range of $50 million to $100 million sounded about right — but he said his main concern had to do with the sources of funding for the competitors. For instance, the America's Space Prize rules out any government funding for spacecraft development. Benson, whose California-based company takes in funding from government agencies as well as private sources, said that restriction sets too high a bar.

"If Bigelow Aerospace needs a passenger delivery service, it shouldn't matter where the money came from to develop that service," Benson said. "I would think the important thing would be that I would want the passenger delivery service to be owned, operated and controlled by the private sector."

Then there's the issue of whether NASA could ever devote tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to one prize program. There are hints that Congress will agree to expand the Centennial Challenges program — but $300 million might be a bit of a stretch. I'm open to hearing your feedback on the O Prize ideas, relating to Bigelow's program as well as NASA's.

Dec. 8, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Sci-Tech Today: The bigger the testicles, the smaller the brain
The Guardian: Geomythology can save your life
The Australian: Were 'hobbits' the first Australians?
PhysOrg: Is interstellar spaceflight possible?

Dec. 7, 2005 | 7:55 p.m. ET
Moonstruck meteors: 'Tis the season for the Geminids, one of the usually reliable meteor showers of the year. Over the coming week, the level of shooting stars should gradually increase, rising to a peak in the wee hours of next Wednesday morning.

Unfortunately, a bright moon will put a damper on all but the brightest meteors — just as it did during last month's Leonid meteor shower , which by most accounts was pretty much a dud.

In fact, you could argue that the best time for meteor-watching is right about now. "At this time the moon will set near midnight, allowing morning observers a good opportunity to view the early December activity," Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society advises on the Meteorobs mailing list.

To maximize your viewing pleasure, now or next week, set out a comfortable chaise lounge in a location far from city lights, under clear, crisp skies. Lie down and bundle up, give your eyes plenty of time to adjust to the dark, and try to take in the whole sky. Although the Geminids originate from the constellation Gemini (hence the name), they can be spotted anywhere in the sky. In fact, the best of the Geminids are known for their long, bright trails.

The meteors are actually bits of space dust left behind in a trail by the asteroid Phaeton. Earth plows through the trail every December, and those bits leave an ionized streak as they burn up in the atmosphere. For that reason, the best viewing comes between midnight and dawn's early light, when Earth is turning right into the dust stream.

For more about meteors in general and the Geminids in particular, check out Sky & Telescope and Comets & Meteor Showers, as well as our own What causes meteor showers?.

Astronomers use data about objects that cross Earth's orbital path — such as Phaeton and Comet Tempel-Tuttle (the comet responsible for the Leonids) — to figure out how strong meteor showers might be in a given year. And conversely, meteor showers can tell astronomers more about the objects that created them. For example, the SETI Institute's Peter Jenniskens suggests that an unexpected meteor shower on Oct. 5 actually points to the existence of a yet-to-be-discovered comet that could conceivably pose a threat to Earth.

"Chances are very small that Earth will be at the intersection point at the time of the return; hence, there is no immediate concern," Jenniskens says on the SETI Institute Web site. "The dust, however, is forensic evidence that may provide more insight into the nature of this new comet when the meteor shower is seen again in the future."

Dec. 7, 2005 | 7:55 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
BBC: Scientists voice tsunami concern
Purdue: Geneticists target a real louse
The Telegraph: Rat brain flies plane
Science @ NASA: Moon storms

Dec. 6, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Rules for space winners: Add South Africa's Julie Krause to the list of astronauts-in-waiting. Krause won her seat on a future suborbital spaceflight through a contest sponsored by eBucks and South Africa's First National Bank, arranged through the auspices of Virginia-based Space Adventures. She thus joins other space-themed contest winners such as Brian Emmett, Eivind Almhjell and Doug Ramsburg .

Still more chances to win are on the horizon — through similar promotional contests sponsored by the likes of Plantronics as well as online skill games such as Virgin Galactic Quest and SpaceShot.

SpaceShot's founder, Sam Dinkin, told me today that he's getting closer to the game's official launch — though he's not sure he'll make his target date of Dec. 21. "I'm ready for beta testing," he said. "Hopefully I’ll start tomorrow, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it's not to make prospective statements."

It's important to note that none of the spaceships on which the winners are due to ride has yet been built. Usually, the contest rules state that if the spaceships aren't ready to go by a specified date, the winners may receive cash instead. On the other hand, if the winner is judged medically unfit to fly, he or she may be bumped for an alternate. So when it comes to the contest terms and conditions, look before you take that giant leap.

SpaceShot's prizes would be rides on a suborbital spaceship currently being built by Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. In an interview with the Oklahoma Journal Record (registration required), Dinkin said winners who decided against flying for any reason could take a cash prize instead. But he really hopes the prize-winners will go for the flight.

"I want to make the prize high enough that people who miss out (because of) medical can get the full value on their entry, but I want to make it low enough so people will choose to fly," Dinkin told the Journal Record.

The terms and conditions are important for the big-ticket space items as well, such as those $20 million flights to the international space station. For example, if you become too ill to make your flight, you could end up paying millions for nothing. Moscow-based attorney Peter Pettibone discussed the ins and outs of the Russian spaceflight contracts last month in the publication Legal Week. (PDF file)

Meanwhile, there's more discussion of potential prizes for the folks who are working on private-sector spaceflight, ranging from near-Earth orbit to a trip to Mars. For an update, check out Jeff Foust's Space Politics Web log — and to keep tabs on all things related to outer-space entrepreneurship, consult Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News as well as our own "New Space Race" section.

Dec. 6, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Improbable Research: Odd's not always bad
New Scientist: Galaxies become monsters through mergers
Discovery.com: Are there methane-making microbial Martians?
The Onion: Human-genome patenting

Dec. 5, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Seeing space storms: Someday soon, your favorite weather Web site just might be able to offer a space weather report in addition to the extended five-day forecast and the ski report. And when that day comes, NASA and the National Science Foundation have the coolest graphics ready to show what's coming.

Video: Storm fronts

Researchers have blended data from different levels of Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field to show how disturbances in the ionosphere are linked to plumes of plasma being ejected far deeper into space.

The linkage is helping to solve longstanding riddles in the study of "space weather" — storms of electrically charged particles that can disrupt satellite communications, power grids and even GPS navigation.

Scientists are anxious to learn how to predict the onset of space storms with the kind of accuracy that meteorologists can predict terrestrial weather — and the latest research sheds new light on the actual mechanism behind space weather systems.

"People knew there was a space storm that must have disrupted their systems, but they had no idea why," Tony Mannucci, group supervisor of ionospheric and atmospheric remote sensing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release issued today in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union's meeting. "Now we know it's not just chaos; there is cause and effect. We are beginning to put together the full picture, which will ultimately let us predict space storms."

Jerry Goldstein of the Southwest Research Institute said that discovering the link between ionospheric disturbances and the plasma plumes "is like discovering the movement of cold fronts is responsible for sudden thunderstorms."

The electrical "cold fronts" are driven by interactions between passing waves of solar plasma and Earth's magnetic field. Researchers say the solar plasma generates an electrical field that propels ionospheric and plasmaspheric plasma out into space, creating electrically disruptive effects at lower altitudes — as well as colorful, crowd-pleasing auroras. The "turbulence" in the electrical field also throws off GPS signals, just as turbulent air in our atmosphere causes stars to twinkle in the night sky.

It doesn't have to be dark out for space storms to cause trouble. "We also know these disturbances occur most often between noon and dusk, and between mid- to high latitudes, due to the global structure of the electric and magnetic fields during space storms," said Anthea Coster of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Haystack Observatory.

To learn more, check out Space.com's video backgrounder on space storms and their effects, as well as this archived story about how space weather researchers are improving their predictions.

To keep up with the daily report, be sure to check in with SpaceWeather.com and the National Weather Service's Space Environment Center. For the big picture from the federal government, click on over to the Space Weather Center and read about the National Space Weather Program.

Finally, for another dose of cool solar imagery, take a spin through the Solar satellite pictures slide show.

Dec. 5, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Hearing science: The reviews are already coming in for "The Loh Down on Science," Sandra Tsing Loh's brand-new radio/podcast commentary on not-always-serious scientific matters. The first installment aired today on Pasadena's KPCC Radio, on the subject of self-tickling (or the impossibility of same). Over at Cosmic Variance, physicist Clifford Johnson bemoans the low level of Loh during the minute and a half of airtime. "The theme tune, combined with the commercial for Caltech and the other sponsors, is longer than her part," he says. He points to the daily StarDate spot as an example of a short but sweet podcast — but if you're looking for a 'cast you can really sink your ears into, check out Nature's weekly show.

Dec. 5, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Surfing the scientific Web:
Science News: A skunk walks into a bar ...
Space Review: Pay no attention to the man with the notebook
PhysOrg: Crystal of holes discovered
Univ. of Chicago: Yet another 'new state of matter'

Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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