Image: Rogue wave
Warner Bros. Pictures
A rogue wave bigger than any reliably recorded in real life approaches in a scene from the movie "Poseidon."

May 12, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Big-wave science: Take one scary phenomenon, find the worst conceivable real-world scenario and scale it up a few notches  … that’s the formula for disaster flicks ranging from “10.5” to “Armageddon” to “The Day After Tomorrow,” and now for the “Poseidon” remake as well.

This week, the subject is rogue waves — giant walls of water that dwarf even your run-of-the-mill storm swells. These are distinct from the 33-foot-high, earthquake-generated tsunami waves we came to know all too well in 2004. For ages, mariners have told of much bigger midocean waves, rising  more than 200 feet to hammer the ships caught in their sights.

The plot of "Poseidon" posits a 150-foot-high rogue wave, big and bad enough to upturn a cruise ship. Although that's way over the top — kind of like Shelley Winters' acting in the original 1972 "Poseidon Adventure" — it turns out that real-life rogue waves can come closer to that mark than scientists once thought.

Rogue waves, also known as freak waves, have been the subject of more studies in recent years, due to the availability of ocean-monitoring satellites . The European Space Agency says its MaxWave satellite radar project detected more than 10 rogue waves measuring higher than 82 feet (25 meters) over a three-week period in 2001 — perhaps including the 100-foot whoppers that smashed the windows of the cruise ships Caledonia and Bremen.

A 70-footer washed over the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship last year, a nearly-100-footer was reported in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan, and there have been reliable measurements of a 112-foot (34-meter) wave that rose over the USS Ramapo in 1933. Could there have been bigger waves that people didn't survive to tell about? Maybe so: In "The Bird in the Waterfall," Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff report that computer models can produce theoretical waves as high as 219 feet (67 meters).

The big mystery has to do with the mechanism that causes the waves. A variety of studies, including the MaxWave observations, have shown that cross currents can "focus" the energy of wind-driven waves through constructive interference.

"At some point, the waves all march in lockstep together, and then again they go their own way," Vijay Panchang, a maritime engineering expert at Texas A&M University in Galveston, told me today.

But sometimes freak waves can arise without those cross currents. "Sustained winds from long-lived storms exceeding 12 hours may enlarge waves moving at an optimum speed in sync with the wind," the ESA reported.

Seabed topography may play a role as well, Panchang said. A "bump" on the seafloor, for example, could give an extra boost to a wave at just the wrong time.

One of Panchang's biggest contributions to the science of big waves is to develop a forecasting model for coastal waves. Currently, the model is being applied to waves off the coast of Maine as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of Alaska. You can check out the predictions here.

"Our predictions are reasonable," Panchang said — nothing like the whoppers of "Poseidon," but big enough to catch the attention of mariners and oil-platform operators.

For much, much more on the real science of freak waves, check out archived articles from Science News and Discover magazine — as well as this tutorial from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and this "Savage Seas" Web site from WNET. You can even play around with a virtual wave generator. Here's an interesting safety angle from the Boston Herald, just in time for the debut of the Freedom of the Seas . (Think "Poseidon" will ever play in that ship's theater?)

Meanwhile, for an intriguing discussion of where the physics goes wrong in "Poseidon," check out this blog discussion. If you spot any other scientific howlers from the film — or other summer blockbusters, for that matter — feel free to let me know.

May 12, 2006 | 9:25 p.m. ET
Must-see comet TV: If you see only one movie of Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3's breakup, make it this one from the Palomar Observatory. The crumbling comet is making its closest approach to Earth this weekend, and Sky & Telescope provides an excellent roundup of pictures as well as sky charts to help you find it. But don't get your hopes up too high: The glare of the full moon will interfere with viewing, and in any case you'll need a telescope to get a good look. Universe Today and SpaceWeather.com also have cool comet roundups.

May 12, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Happy birthday to Coz: Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of Cosmic Log — which would be, oh, about the 16th anniversary in Internet years. It seems hard to believe in this day when MSNBC.com offers more than 20 Weblogs, but four years ago, Cosmic Log was the first blog ever to appear on MSNBC.com.

On May 13, 2002, a Google search would bring up only 18 hits for "Cosmic Log." Now the count is up to "about 275,000." To root through the Cosmic Log warehouse, you can browse through the 2002-2003 archives on MSN, as well as the 2004-2006 archives here on MSNBC.com. We're working on yet another makeover for the log format, so stay tuned for a bloggier Cosmic Log in the weeks ahead.

In honor of the occasion, here's a rerun of the Cosmic Log birthday trivia quiz:

May 12, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Why Mars? This week we've been talking a lot about colonizing Mars, perhaps with a series of privately funded one-way missions . But why go at all? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, said during last week's International Space Development Conference that history offered only three reasons to take on grand, monumental projects:

  • Defense (ranging from the Great Wall of China to the U.S.-Soviet space race).
  • Promise of financial gain (which applies to the European exploration and settlement of the Americas).
  • Praise of power (which drove the construction of Egypt's pyramids and Europe's cathedrals).

Tyson doesn't see scientific inquiry or exploration (for example, the search for alien life) as a prime motivator on a par with those three, although such lofty pursuits could be put to the service of the Big Three. So where does Mars settlement fit in this scheme?

You could argue that becoming a multiplanet species will serve as a cosmic insurance policy against, say, a monster asteroid strike, a global bioterror catastrophe or that golden oldie of the apocalypse, nuclear war. You might hold out hope that there'll be something on Mars worth shipping back to Earth. And although Tyson thinks the "praise of power" motivation is becoming obsolete, you shouldn't rule out the possibility that some future Croesus or Cheops (or Ozymandias) would want to be immortalized by establishing a new civilization.

More likely it'd be the same motivation that drove humans to the moon to begin with: the fear of being shown up by someone else — which speaks to trade and security as well as global prestige. Two years ago, NBC News space analyst James Oberg addressed this fear factor as it applies to lunar exploration, and his thesis could easily be extended to Mars as well.

Of course, this might be a case of looking at the Red Planet through rose-colored glasses. Here are some follow-up comments that raise questions about one-way missions to Mars:

William Fanjoy, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: "Get real! Any governing body on this topic, be it NASA or any other foreign power/agency, should never embark on a one-way suicide mission such as this. If you were to seriously consider a colony on Mars of any size, the first people to touch down should not be the overanxious, rich, corporate dream-chasing types. Engineers, scientists, construction crews must be selected and screened to pave the way first. Perhaps robot laborers would be the best choice. Many payloads of fresh water, equipment and supplies of all kinds must be present for a succsessful settlement to grow. The planning for such an endeavor needs to be methodically thought out and scrutinized under a microscope (so to speak).

"Large biospheres which protect all from radiation, and perhaps magnify the sun's rays enough to allow plants to flourish would be necessary. (Sounds outlandish to say the least.) Underground caverns with a source of artificial light may be the more logical and cost-effective route.

"Basically, I'm saying most of the politicians and other leading authorities on this topic are pushing these ideas into the mainstream and raising false hopes. Perhaps this is done to attract naive, aging, wealthy investors who will likely never see the value of their contributions. Mankind must one day see through the illusions and corruption created by media and governing bodies alike, before any plan of this magnitude could be a success. There's no rush. Don't waste our money, do it right!"

Randy Franz, Montgomery, Ill.: "Mars is too small to ever support life other than underground or in greenhouses. The technology being developed to prevent asteroids or comets from hitting Earth could be fine-tuned by actually causing them to hit Mars. The asteroid belt would be a great source of material as well. After a couple thousand impacts, the planet would be large enough to support an atmosphere and have a magnetic field to fend off radiation. Sending a few astronauts or cosmonauts to Mars is feasible, sending colonists isn't. I'll go when I can leave my house on Mars to take my dog for a walk under a blue sky."

Corey: "I personally would not care to go to Mars. Except for the view. That would be spectacular. Sending up nuclear devices to power our homes is like trading one bad idea for another. If you could divert an asteroid to move in between the two planets, you could cut down on energy expenditures and travel time. Mars Express. There is a way to harness common materials to produce clean energy. Question is ... what makes you think that the animal inside every one of us wouldn't follow us up to Mars? Great ... stuck in this three-room house on Mars with the guy voted most likely to be pushed out of an airlock in high school."

There are certainly some cool views on Mars, and perhaps someday virtual-reality telepresence and telerobotics will progress to the point that you won't need to leave your home planet to see them. And now for something completely different:

Gregory Ryder, Springfield, Mass.: "A one-way trip to Mars? Oh, how we wish we could get back home. It has been a very long time since I had a good meal of fresh microbe mush. I would rush out at night to hug the night-appearing cactus under the blinking light of Phobots and Donots, being careful of the low orbital track of Bottomot. What a joy to hear the satisfying 'splat' as it penetrates a new cactus lobe like an accelerator particle. We had a neighbor who wasn't paying attention during a sunset stroll. Well, it made the neatest hole in his middle, but he did not enjoy the experience apparently. He makes a great planter now, though. We left him to mark the zone. We would like to get back and check on all the planters. We can't pay until we get there, though. It was a one-way trip coming here, but only because 'Hollywood Computers' ran out of bit parts for our potato warp chip."

May 12, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Mystery of the Megaflood'
NZHerald: Biodiesel made from sewage (via Slashdot)
Overmatter: Outtakes from the 'Rocket Renaissance'
Discovery Times: The Da Vinci Code Quiz
The Guardian: He's seen the future of cloning ... and it's fluffy

May 11, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Potato chip in space: The latest picture from the European Southern Observatory documents a double blast in a warped galaxy that's been compared to "a gigantic potato crisp."

The distorted shape of the tightly wound spiral, officially known as NGC 3190, is due to gravitational tidal interactions. In fact, the warp is so pronounced that astronomers initially gave the southwestern lip of the spiral a different galactic designation, NGC 3189.

Image: NGC 3190
ESO
The warped spiral galaxy NGC 3190, which lies 70 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Leo, has been compared to a gigantic potato chip.
Scientists believe a supermassive black hole is hidden within the galaxy's bright center — but from their point of view, the rarest features of this picture are a couple of barely perceptible flashes within the interstellar dust. Those flashes, pinpointed in this picture, are Type 1a supernovae that were first spotted in 2002. Type 1a supernova is used to calibrate our cosmic yardsticks — and as a result, shed light on such mysteries as the expansion rate of the universe and the effect of mysterious dark matter.

"Two supernovae of this type appearing nearly simultaneously in the same galaxy is a rare event, as normally astronomers expect only one such event per century in a galaxy," the ESO said in today's image release.

NGC 3190, which is 70 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo, has been closely watched ever since 2002's twin explosion. The image seen here was derived from a 14-minute exposure in March 2003, using the ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

The potato chip galaxy's crunched shape calls to mind another galaxy, ESO 510-G13, which contains a warp first noticed by the ESO and most famously imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. For still more space oddities, check out our archive of the greatest hits from space.

May 11, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Nigeria’s space program: A couple of weeks ago, we had Nigeria as the wrong answer for a quiz question about countries with space agencies. It turns out that Nigeria is aiming to become a space-industry powerhouse, building and launching its own satellites by the year 2030. "This plan may sound like a joke, but this government is serious about it," Turner Isoun, Nigeria's minister of science and technology, is quoted as saying in The Guardian of Lagos.

May 11, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
‘Idol’ scorecard: For "American Idol" fans, Wednesday's elimination of rocker Chris Daughtry came as a shocker ... unless they checked the DialIdol Web site in advance. Based on an analysis of busy signals (or lack thereof), Daughtry was projected to be at the bottom of the four-singer list, with Katharine McPhee coming in third. That's exactly what happened. After some early glitches, DialIdol's analysis of the call-in contest has been close to the mark, though not perfect. Click here for earlier reports about DialIdol's experiment in prime-time computer modeling.

May 11, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
CarlZimmer.com: Did DNA come from viruses?
CNET: Mapping a path for the 3-D Web (via Daily Grail)
The Economist: Rocket renaissance
Antelope Valley Press: Interorbital aims straight for orbit
U. of Rochester: Scientists push light waves into reverse

May 10, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
The race to Mars: While NASA is setting aside its dreams of a human mission to Mars until 2030 or later, Russian space officials are talking up their plan to get to the Red Planet by 2020 — leaving the Americans back in the moondust.

The latest sales pitch came today in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. You might have to use your favorite machine-translation program to read the original interview with Energia researcher Leonid Gorshkov, but the gist is that a $14 billion series of assembly missions could eventually send a two-cosmonaut crew down to the Martian surface for two to four weeks. Gorshkov estimates that the round trip would last two and a half years.

Gorshkov has raised this idea before , and in fact he says the concept has been kicking around since, oh, 1960 or so. Over the decades, the details of the plan have been fine-tuned — but one of the big sticking points would be coming up with the $14 billion, or perhaps even more, to begin with.

Image: Mars craft
Energia
An artist's conception shows Russia's Mars spacecraft, powered by huge solar panels. A researcher at Russia's Energia rocket company says his plan could put humans on Mars by 2020.
In the interview, he acknowledges that the average annual development cost of $1.5 billion is almost three times as much as Russia spends on space in a year.

"But if we consider the potential of the project for technical innovation that would subsequently be claimed by the economy, then the expenditures for the Martian expedition undoubtedly woulld be paid," he says. "The country will as a result obtain advanced technologies, and this something is larger than petrodollars. I am confident that sooner or later, Russia will send people to Mars. Better early than late."

In a newsletter mailing, Mars Society President Robert Zubrin says Gorshkov is correct. "Should the Russians mount a human Mars exploration program, the Bush administration's strategy of trying to reach Mars via the moon will unquestionably cause America to lose the race," he writes.

Could a privately funded, volunteer "Mars Citizenship Program" beat both NASA and the Russians by setting up a one-way path to Martian settlements? That's the idea that X Prize founder Peter Diamandis floated during the International Space Development Conference.

The concept sparked an interesting response among Cosmic Log correspondents: Our unscientific Live Vote indicates that as long as the flight risk seemed acceptable, more than 300 of you would be willing to pay a significant price to go to Mars even if you couldn't return to Earth. That's based on a total sample size of roughly 1,000 respondents. So maybe it's not totally wacky to suppose that thousands of people would be willing to put money down on Mars.

Some of you elaborated on the pros and cons of the Mars Citizenship Program, which calls for would-be settlers to pay in $10,000 to $1 million for a chance to take the one-way trip. Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback:

Chazz: "Boy, I've been dreaming of an opportunity like this since I was a little kid, peering through the homemade telescope my uncle gave our family. I would totally be down and do whatever it takes to be involved in this undertaking. To me the hardest part of space travel and the exploration of the solar system is just getting off this planet. After that, it's basically inertia.

"The thing I don't like about this deal is that it is geared for the richer part of the population, and we all know that usually the richer population's motivations aren't always sound. I might suggest rounding up a good amount of volunteers; screen them to see if they are basically fit for the trip, and then present them to the world and see if you can find some backing for the volunteers. That way, you can find some truly noble and excited people. And the rich (investors) can also get their hands in.

"Either way, I wanna go."

Charles: "Go to Mars? Yes, if there was some infrastructure that had a chance to provide survival, and feasible plans for an improvement of conditions over time. A static future would not be acceptable. Survival with chances to adapt over generations must be the objective, because Mars can't adapt to human needs fast enough."

Jon: "If I had enough money for the trip, I would pay. One condition. I would have to qualify myself, or in the event of my illness or death, an immediate family member would be allowed to go in my stead."

Yes, I forgot to mention that Diamandis said your "Citizenship" spot would be inheritable and transferable.

Bryan Raum: "Your poll misses out an important option. I would certainly help finance it, but I wouldn't go ... there are younger people who would do better."

Andrew Miller, Willow, Alaska: "Going on a one-way trip is not outside the sphere of human exploration. I would hope to be able to sign up at a lower level, without hope of actually going. I would pay the full amount if I could. Just being able to participate in some way would add so much meaning and perspective to my existence."

John: "I am 41 years old. I remember the day that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, so maybe it is something that was hard-wired into me a long time ago, but yes, I’d go in a minute.

"Having said that, I think Mars is not far enough away to make the question [of a one-way trip] valid. You know that within decades, if the colony survived, there would be two-way transportation. For one thing, once it became obvious that the colony would survive, there would be people lining up to go there. Now ask the question of how many people would sign up for a trip to visit/investigate/explore a star system that would take 100 years to get there. (That is, 100 years to the exploring party.) I think the numbers would be considerably smaller.

"One question that I wonder if you could answer: How does the costs that these guys are asking compare to the costs of moving to the New World from Europe back in the 1500s?"

That's a very tricky question, and some historically minded Cosmic Log reader might have an authoritative answer. For now, I'll merely note that this Web page quotes 30 to 50 pounds as the cost assessed to the average Mayflower voyager in 1629, and based on this online calculator, 50 pounds back then was the equivalent of roughly $12,500 now. However, a footnote on this Web page notes that the average income in 1650 was 5 pounds a year. So go figure. By the way, roughly half of the passengers on the first Mayflower voyage in 1620 were dead after their first winter in the New World.

Andre Gorelkin: "...A human colony in as hostile an environment as the one on Mars would necessitate a purely socialist, secular humanist approach to governance. No decision can be made based on a religious belief, and capitalism won't work. Each Martian must do his or her part for the betterment of the community. As all will be volunteers, this is an opportunity to show how egalitarianism can work. The opportunity to establish a human society truly based on equality and one common goal — even if that goal is nothing more than survival (at least, at first) — may be the most noble venture humanity has ever embarked upon. I think that might just be worth any and all risks."

Troy Boyle: "I would definitely go to Mars as part of the 'Citizenship' plan.  I have said it all my life.  My wife is aware of it, even supports me in it should it ever become feasible.  Why?  Because there are no true frontiers left.  There are no new lands to conquer, no societies (Utopian or otherwise) that someone can 'get in on the ground floor' with, as it were. Humankind needs frontiers.  It’s what we do. It is a species imperative to break barriers and thrust our lives into new areas. This is the way in which we test our fitness for survival. It is necessary."

Is this one-way trip really necessary? Other Cosmic Log correspondents provided a reality check:

Fred Mushel,Bayside, N.Y.: "I would not take a one-way trip to Mars because I value the experiences I have on Earth far more than the desire to travel in space. I'd like to ride in the space shuttle before that spam-in-the can capsule (CEV) replaces it. As far as future space predictions go, I believe it will be a lot longer than we predict until we land a human on Mars. We need more long-duration flight data (i.e., the international space station) and other as-yet undeveloped technologies before we can attempt to send humans to Mars."

Douglas Fingles,Warner Robins, Ga.: "I'd contribute $10,000 to send someone on a one-way trip to Mars, but only if I get to name the person."

Michael: "The author of this dream does not have sufficient cost studies to support his claim. The quantity of food, life support equipment and infrastructure is decades away from reality...."

M.: "The idea is intriguing, to say the least. However, it seems to me that Mars may not be the most preferred place to extend our race. It appears, the more we search the solar system, we may eventually find a more suitable environment for human life. We are far from analyzing all the property out there. For instance, we have only seen close up a few of the moons out there that exist, and surprisingly noted that a few of them have weather systems and cycles that closely mimic Earth's functional cycles — and they have active cores. The only thing missing is the chemical makeup. From what I understand to date, Mars has a stagnant core and does not even produce enough of a magnetic field to protect it from solar winds. I personally think we should give scientists a little more time to review our options concerning other possible habitats. The travel time might end up being a little longer, but the wait could be well worth it."

Drew Kukura, Houston: "I really think that this is way too far ahead of its time. The thought of sending people to Mars on a one-way trip sounds very dangerous. In other words, this to me is a stupid waste of time and money."

Robin Snelson: "No, I would not give $10 for 1 percent of a Martian Citizenship certificate. Personally I am worried that Peter Diamandis is losing his marbles. Ever since he announced that his X Prize brand would solve the problems of human mortality and cheap renewable ground transportation, I've been discouraged about his dedication to the original X Prize goal — solving the cost-of-space-travel problem. I heard the Red Planet Kool-Aid speech, and found it disturbing. As a thought experiment, fine. As a business plan, weird. But there was one good part of the speech — the part when he said, 'It's the launch costs, stupid.' Maybe he should have stopped there."

Harry Keller: "Does anyone realize that Mars settlers will have to live underground to escape severe radiation from cosmic rays? Mars does not have the atmosphere required to block them. I wouldn't expect many people would like the idea. The trip to Mars will dose the settlers with enough radiation to cause problems with having children and to create some amount of cancer unless very heavy shielding is employed. Another turnoff.

"The weak sunlight will make growing crops in the sun difficult, even if the radiation effects on plants is not severe. Plants won't grow outdoors due to the cold and low air pressure. People may have to eat single-celled plants, which can grow in closed containers under these conditions. Eating bacterial goo is not all that exciting either.

"The only answer to these and many more problems is terraforming, which will require decades of air generation on the surface of the planet. You could more readily colonize the moon. Why not?"

Thomas Wylie: "I would like to comment on the fact that, although the idea of populating Mars may have come from Diamandis, some (all?) of the plans were worked out by Talmon Feuerstein in 2003, at the time a student at the International Space University in Strasbourg. His thesis, bearing the very same name, can be found at the ISU library.

"Being the space buff that I am, I heard about Feuerstein's Mars Citizenship Program from a friend of his two years ago, with the added remark that after the submission of the thesis he kept on working on his ideas because he felt that in that form they were not quite workable yet, and that since then he came up with a better solution.

"As far as I can tell though, Diamandis' presentation was based on those original figures only, while Feuerstein's name was not mentioned at all. Right now Mr. Feuerstein is the vice-president of a German company, NSD-Fusion GmbH, and I am really wondering whether he is aware of Diamandis' presentation at all.  :)"

Don't know, Thomas. Diamandis was a founder of the International Space University, and I do notice that some of the ideas currently being kicked around (for example, an orbital X Prize) have been the subject of student papers.

John A. "Tony" Rusi: "I wish you would have presented a complete synopsis of his plan. What is missing is the economic incentive. How will these 'settlers' make money? The West was settled by people trying to make a living. Some did. Some didn't."

Diamandis didn't really lay out the "living off the land" or the "how to make money" part of the plan — and that's certainly an issue. The Mayflower expedition, for example, was backed by the 17th-century equivalent of venture capitalists aiming to make a buck. But Mars doesn't look much like a verdant New World — Antarctica or the Canadian Arctic more readily come to mind.

What resources would sustain a Martian economy? Could it ever be terraformed into an off-Earth Eden? Or would the settlement be more in the line of a polar research station — looking for microbial traces of life, studying another realm's geology and climate, but not really meant to pay its own way?

There are plenty of questions to chew over in considering the value of Mars citizenship. Feel free, as always, to send in your answers.

May 10, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Flights of fancy on the scientific Web:
YouTube: Nine Inch Nails to Mars (via Space for All)
Defense Tech: Ride a giant slingshot to space?
Chemie.de: Man vs. machine in wine tasting
Science @ NASA: The space weather forecast for 2022

May 9, 2006 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Rockets go Hollywood: For years, entertainment types ranging from "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett to 'N Sync pop star Lance Bass have been involved in efforts to blend rocket science with reality TV. No one has pulled that trick off yet, but the Rocket Racing League has enlisted one of Hollywood's top talent agencies to make another go at it.

The William Morris Agency — which represents the National Football League, the National Hockey League, General Motors, Starbucks and other big-name brands — has been engaged to create revenue and branding opportunities for the league, which some have characterized as "NASCAR with rockets."

"It's a very, very significant announcement, because it's the first representation of an aerospace company, not only for William Morris, but for any Hollywood agency, period," Granger Whitelaw, the nascent league's chief executive officer, told me today.

Whitelaw, who has been involved in Indy car racing, sees the development as "a sign of maturity in the industry and the growth of the space industry that everybody is working toward."

Video: Rocket race In cooperation with the Hollywood agency, the league intends to create a series of rocket plane races. Flame-spouting X-Racers would roar up into the sky, soar through a three-dimensional course for several minutes, come back down for a pit stop, then take off for the next round. The entire race would last about an hour.

A prototype EZ-Rocket plane went through its paces last October at the X Prize Cup expo in Las Cruces, N.M., and the first full-fledged X-Racer is to be demonstrated at this October's X Prize Cup. An honest-to-goodness racing schedule is planned for next year. Going forward, Whitelaw is envisioning behind-the-scenes reality TV, ESPN-style coverage of races, big-screen documentaries, video games, merchandising ... the whole nine yards.

"The fans will see something they've never seen before," said Whitelaw, who is in Los Angeles this week for meetings with producers and visits to the E3 gaming conference.

Mark Itkin, executive vice president and worldwide co-head for television at the William Morris Agency, said rocket fans will see "the planting of the seeds" this year. Between now and next year, the Rocket Racing League "will start to appear on the radar screen, whether it's television, radio, print ... multiple platforms," he told me.

Itkin acknowledged that others have tried, and failed, to get the rockets-plus-glitz formula right. In fact, the William Morris Agency itself played a part in Lance Bass' space bid for a time. More recently, director Ron Howard and his partners developed a reality-TV show titled "XQuest" that would pit contestants against each other in a faux space setting.

Itkin says he hasn't heard much about "XQuest" lately, and he's understandably much more psyched about the possibilities for the Rocket Racing League. "I think things like this are going to make things like that obsolete," he said, "because this is the real deal."

May 9, 2006 | 9:30 p.m. ET
H Prize in the House: Proponents of the H Prize Act of 2006 , which would set up a multimillion-dollar prize program to encourage hydrogen-based energy technologies, say the U.S. House of Representatives is due to vote on the legislation on Wednesday. "The bill is expected to come before the House as a suspension approximately between 10 a.m. and noon," according to today's heads-up from U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C. That implies that the skids are pretty well greased for the bill's passage in the House and referral to the Senate. For extra credit in civics class, check out this PDF file on the suspension procedure.

May 9, 2006 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Space tour upgrade? I mentioned last week that X Prize backer (and venture capitalist) Anousheh Ansari was in line to become the first woman to pay her own way into space. Today the Russian newspaper Kommersant reports that Ansari might achieve that goal even sooner than expected. Software billionaire Charles Simonyi has been penciled in to fly to the international space station next spring, but Kommersant quotes Russian space official Alexei Krasnov as saying Simonyi may have to change his plans due to "some recent developments related to his business." That means Ansari, who is officially the backup for Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto's flight this fall, would have "better chances" to fly next spring, Krasnov says. (Tip o' the Log to Jeff Foust's Personal Spaceflight blog.)

May 9, 2006 | 9:30 p.m. ET
More stops on the scientific Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Mothers who aren't maternal
BBC: Proposals to re-create Stonehenge
Christian Science Monitor: A light with a bright future
Mini-AIR: Professor professors and other humorous bits

May 8, 2006 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Risking it all on Mars: Would you chip in a million dollars to have someone go on a one-way trip to Mars? How about $100,000, or $10,000? It may sound like the ultimate revenge, but X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is floating the idea as a privately funded way to start settling the Red Planet.

The plan, which Diamandis outlined this weekend during the International Space Development Conference, assumes that 100,100 contributors would drink the Red Planet Kool-Aid. It also assumes that all the medical, technical and logistical challenges involved in setting up a permanent Mars base can be solved for about $8 billion — far less than NASA's projected price tag.

But some folks are already to go, including SpaceShot founder Sam Dinkin, who is offering to run the lottery that would select the Mars trainees. "I am in for $100,000," Dinkin writes in Transterrestrial Musings.

The idea of one-way Martian settlement missions, with no provision made for returning to Earth, has been seriously kicked around for a couple of years, with Australian scientist-philosopher Paul Davies among the high-profile proponents. Davies and others say that making the trip one-way would make the journey affordable — and that plenty of people would be willing to take the ultimate risk to push the frontier forward.

Diamandis' plan, which he calls the "Mars Citizenship Program," adds a private-sector, volunteer twist to the funding arrangements. "I do believe that there is no government in the world that will send a person on a one-way mission," he said. "They will never take the risk."

He envisions kicking off the recruitment effort with an endorsement from "a very wealthy individual, or a hypercredible movie star or someone of global notoriety." This is in line with Diamandis' theory that even a seemingly wacky idea have a better chance of getting off the ground if a phalanx of credible authorities stands behind it.

"If you announce it the right way above the line of supercredibility, it will succeed," he said. "When we announced the X Prize, we had the NASA administrator there, the head of the FAA, 20 astronauts, Burt Rutan , Erik Lindbergh. People never asked me, 'Do you have the money?' 'Are any teams out there?' They believed that mission, and we made it real."

His formula for raising the money this time calls for getting would-be Mars settlers to contribute to the cause, according to this schedule:

  • $10,000 each from 90,000 people.
  • $100,000 each from 10,000 people.
  • $1 million each from 100 people.

That's $2 billion to start out with, and Diamandis projects that smart investments could bring the war chest to $8 billion in the course of a decade. During that time, the project's managers would undertake a series of preparatory missions. "They start sending to Mars a nuclear reactor, habitats, remote-controlled rovers, food supplies," he said.

A lottery would pick 101 candidates out of the 100,100 supporters for medical screening and training. A succession of six-member crews would then be selected from the pool for the one-way missions. Each crew would be brought up to a space station for the transfer trip to Mars. As the transfer vehicle whizzes by the Red Planet, "you hop out in your capsule, and you just send the people down to the surface" — where the robotically built habitats would hopefully be waiting.

The Mars settlers would have "100,000 people rooting for them" back on Earth, sending what's needed to sustain the new colony.

There are plenty of gaps to be filled in here: When orbital push came to shove, would that many people really give that much money to sever physical ties with their home planet? Whom would they trust with the money, and is the technology really doable? Could the project survive those first citizen casualties? Wouldn't it be better to wait for the professionals to go in there first?

If you're waiting for the NASA mission, you're going to have to wait a long, long time. At one time, the space agency said it could conceivably send humans to Mars by 2025 or 2030. But Dan McCleese, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said those dates are no longer workable, due to budgetary considerations.

"This date of 2030 is slipping very rapidly," he said over the weekend in Los Angeles.

McCleese told me that NASA has discussed staging one-way human missions — but that the challenges would be unprecedented.

"The first time you go is permanent," he noted. "The first time I land, I have to have all the infrastructure to stay there forever. That's an entirely new thing for a space mission."

All this raises the question: Would you go? Feel free to register your vote in an unscientific poll, and send along your comments on the Mars Citizenship Program or other settlement schemes. I'll pass along a selection of the feedback later in the week.

May 8, 2006 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Metaphor misfires: Generally speaking, a good after-dinner speaker should put you at ease as the dessert settles, but at the International Space Development Conference, there were a few times when the speeches took awkward turns. It might involve telling an off-color political joke, or going into a rant against U.S. cooperation with Chinese space officials — while a Chinese space scientist is sitting just feet away. But the most controversial example came during X Prize founder Peter Diamandis' banquet talk on Saturday, when he was tracing the legacy of space pioneers such as Wernher von Braun:

"If you look back at what von Braun did in Nazi Germany — it was incredible what you can do with, literally, a dictatorship. Look at the numbers: 6,000 V-2s built, 6,000 missiles built in Nazi Germany. The recurring cost of $13,000 a launch for those vehicles. You can bring the cost down with mass production. ..."

"And slave labor!" some in the audience added. Diamandis continued for a few seconds: "We'll come back to what will drive ..." Then, as the comment and the laughter spread across the room, he stopped and listened: "What's that? 'And slave labor' ... Thank you, yes, thank you."

He tried to recover in a jocular tone: "But I guarantee you that the rest of us would happily be slave labor for that mission." As murmurs of "no" went through the audience, Diamandis instantly realized the misstep. "I should be careful about that," he said. "Can we erase that from the videotapes?"

Amid the laughter, he started once again to get back on track: "So, but the fact of the matter is that mass production of rockets is possible if you have a real marketplace — um, and war is not a good one. Moving forward, though..."

The next morning, the remarks came to light on LiveScience's Weblog, and NASA Watch's Keith Cowing called for a formal apology. Diamandis obliged, sending a message that was posted Sunday on both Web sites:

"I want to apologize for comments that I made last night regarding the 'economies of scale' that the German V-2 rocket had. The comments that I made did not recognize that the cost of that launch vehicle were only made possible through the slave labor of thousands of people that were held during one of the darkest periods of human history.

"It was a completely inappropriate and insensitive example and I will not use it again. My comments were not consistent with the vision that all of us hold for our future in space. My speech was written in the hours just before, and I didn’t think appropriately about what I was writing. I apologize to anyone who was offended by what I said."

In response to inquiries, Metzada (Meekk) Shelef — president of the Spaceward Foundation, an organization that is planning to participate in the X Prize Cup this October — provided her perspective via e-mail today:

"While the V-2 analogy made by Dr. Diamandis during his address was lacking and inappropriate, we know Peter personally and this was obviously only an error in judgment while preparing a speech. I am Israeli, and my family was directly affected by the Holocaust, since my father is a survivor of a concentration camp. It is therefore easy for me to understand the emotional reaction to any analogy that highlights Nazi achievements while ignoring its cost. It saddens me that the memory of the Nazi horrors seems to be fading away.

"Still, while the choice of words was unfortunate, Peter's speech was about the possibilities offered by economies of scale in space access, and had nothing to do with Nazi rule. Peter has published an apology and it is perfectly satisfactory. We believe this episode is behind us, and it is time to move on.

"Lastly, I'd like to thank the members of the press for swiftly commenting on this and helping to resolve it quickly."

May 8, 2006 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: The whole Enceladus
New Scientist: Robotic tentacles tested (via Slashdot)
ATK wins methane propulsion contract from NASA
Skeptical Inquirer: In search of Dracula

May 6, 2006 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Let the robo-games begin: The folks behind the Space Elevator Games will be taking things to new levels this year, in more ways than one.

Last October in Mountain View, Calif., robotic climbers tried to scramble up a 164-foot (50-meter) ribbon during the first running of the games. The contest was part of a NASA Centennial Challenge aimed at promoting new types of beamed-power systems as well as stronger tethers for use in space. Such technologies also happen to be central to the eventual construction of space elevators , which could drastically reduce the cost of putting payloads in orbit.

In the end, none of the robots (or the tether-makers) made the grade. As a result, NASA's $100,000 in prize money went unwon. But this year, the purse goes up to $200,000 for the robots, and another $200,000 for the tethers — and more teams are chasing after those prizes.

The Spaceward Foundation, which organized last year's games, had planned to conduct the second Space Elevator Games in Mountain View again this August. But at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles, Spaceward's Ben Shelef said the games will instead be held in October, during the X Prize Cup in New Mexico. "We're basically working on the paperwork for that," he told me.

The shift should make the logistical preparations easier for Spaceward, and add still more cool stuff to the X Prize Cup schedule.

Meanwhile, Spaceward is making plans for yet another NASA-backed competition, called the Telerobotic Construction Challenge. Shelef said the draft rules should be issued within the next few weeks, with the first contest potentially taking place in October 2007. The $250,000 competition is aimed at promoting robotic systems that could go onto the lunar surface (or, even more aptly, the Martian surface) and assemble equipment on their own.

"We are building a rulebook ... in which robots will basically have to build a pipeline between a full tank, which represents a resource generator, and an empty tank, which represents a storage tank," Shelef said. For the purposes of the competition, the tank will be filled with water rather than, say, methane or liquid oxygen.

The rules will require that multiple robots work together to accomplish the task, Shelef said. That provision is aimed at ensuring that teams in the competition come up with methods for collaborative autonomous operation, rather than relying on one big robot to do the whole job.

Also, the teams managing the robots will be confined to a control center, receiving data with a 20-minute time delay. That's meant to simulate the transmission delays that mission controllers would face during a real-life Mars mission, and test the robots' capability for autonomous operation. "You can't put a remote control on a robot that's 20 minutes away," Shelef said.

May 6, 2006 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Rocket roundup: There's so much going on here at the International Space Development Conference that it's impossible for one person to cover it all. As I get ready to fly back from Los Angeles to my home base in the Seattle area, here are a couple of extra snippets, plus links to other bloggers who are keeping up much better than I am:

  • Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow provided more hints about his plans for an inflatable space hotel : The Russians have said the first one-third scale prototype would be launched June 13 , and at a conference dinner, Bigelow said two prototypes would be launched each year. The size of the prototypes would be increased "till we finally get to a lifesize system," he said. Later, Bigelow told me the second prototype launch was scheduled for the September-October time frame.
  • When the organizers of the Rocket Racing League announced that a demonstration of their X-Racer rocket planes would take place at the X Prize Cup, they voiced the hope that as many as four racers might be ready by October. But Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X Prize Foundation and a co-founder of the Rocket Racing League, says the current plan is to demonstrate one rocket-powered plane, perhaps accompanied by a propeller-driven version. (A propeller-driven training plane was unveiled last month in Florida.)

Check out the excellent roundup on Clark Lindsey's ISDC 2006 page for much more on the conference, including pointers to other Web sites following the action.

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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