Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
• Dec. 19, 2003 | 10 p.m. ET
Merry Christmas from Mars: With today's release of the British-built Mars lander, Beagle 2, from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, you can expect the Red Planet assault to take an increasing share of attention. Beagle 2 and Mars Express are both due to arrive at the Red Planet on Christmas, and NASA's two Mars Expedition Rovers aren't far behind. The airbag-cushioned Spirit rover is due to bounce to the surface Jan. 3, and Opportunity is scheduled for a landing early Jan. 25 (or late Jan. 24, if you're on the West Coast).
Journalists and documentary filmmakers are already circling the scientists in charge of the rover, and you'd think all that would add to the pressure for success. But Cornell astronomer Steven Squyres, principal investigator for the rovers' science payload, didn't sound overly nervous about that during a telephone interview today.
"The pressure from the media attention pales in comparison to the pressure that we've already put on ourselves," he said, even as a film crew was shooting footage of him talking on the phone.
Squyres noted that $800 million of the taxpayers' money is being spent to put two golfcart-size vehicles down on a planet more than 90 million miles away. "That gives us a responsibility to do everything we can to communicate to the people who paid for this mission what they're getting for their $800 million," he said.
So far, Squyres admits, his workday hasn't been exactly the stuff of "The X Files."
"A lot of it’s sitting around and talking," he said. "A lot of it's meetings, but it's meetings about life-and-death issues for the project."
During the years of mission planning and spacecraft testing, Squyres said there were some heart-stopping moments: "We had parachute tests where we shredded the parachute. We had airbag tests where we ripped the airbags."
But if you really want to see drama, tune in next month and see what happens. "This is an incredibly risky enterprise," Squyres said. "January 3 and January 24 are going to be two very tense, very interesting nights."
By the way, Squyres' teammates at Cornell say they have figured out a way to use the rovers as digging machines on Mars: By locking five of the rover's six wheels and spinning the sixth one, it's possible to dig a hole up to 5 inches deep to analyze Mars' subsurface soil. If scientists are extremely lucky, they might even hit frozen water. Check out today's news release from Cornell for more about the rover choreography.
In the months ahead, you might be able to get some hands-on experience with the rovers, or at least Lego-block versions of the machines: Just this Thursday, the nonprofit Planetary Society opened the latest "Mars Station" at its headquarters in Pasadena, Calif. You can control rover operations remotely over the Internet, but be forewarned: The Web interface is clunky, and the data traffic can easily become overwhelming.
Kim DeRose checks a full-size model of the Mars Exploration Rover, constructed from 70,000 Lego pieces, that will be on display at the Planetary Society's "Wild About Mars" festival on Jan. 3 and 4.
If you prefer to explore Mars from your easy chair, "Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet," this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, might be more your style. To refresh your memory, the CLUB Club is a shameless rip-off of the "Today" Book Club and others of that ilk, aimed at highlighting books with cosmic themes that are probably available at your local library or used-book store.
For example, the Mars enthusiast on your holiday shopping list would certainly appreciate a copy of the recently published coffee-table book "Magnificent Mars," weighing in at 224 colorful pages and priced at $60. But our CLUB Club Christmas selection, published five years ago, is an only slightly smaller-format, 232-page book that has 3-D glasses to boot. The hardcover version can be had for as little as $8, and the paperback goes for just a couple of dollars. Now that's what I call cheap access to space!
• Dec. 19, 2003 | 10 p.m. ET
Rooting for Rutan: Cosmic Log readers reacted enthusiastically to this week's news that the privately funded SpaceShipOne rocket plane broke the sound barrier during a flight test. This doesn't mean that the craft has broken the space barrier yet, and the $10 million X Prize is still up for grabs. But the response certainly indicates that a lot of people are cheering for SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and other innovators who are trying to bring a little private enterprise into outer space. Here's a sampling:
Aniket Kadam, Pune, India: "I think it is a great development. It's a great job done."
Nelson Kelm, Divide, Colo.: "Burt Rutan is the Einstein of composite aircraft design. The SpaceShipOne effort is no less than I would have expected from him. Innovation at its finest. None of his many efforts over the years can be described without the use of superlatives. All I can say is, press on with your inspiring work! The world is a richer place because of Burt Rutan."
Rob McCaslin, Cornelius, Ore.: "Thank you for reinstalling romance back into our forseeable future. Do you need another electrician, perchance??"
James A. Sargent, Texas: "The time has come to make NASA solely an administrative and research organization. Ideally, they conduct leading-edge research and act like FAA to license the vehicles, and set standards for manned flight."
Steve Neil, Mesa, Ariz.: "What an accomplishment! The test flight of a spaceship on the 100th anniversary of the test flight of our first airship. And that this Rutan/Allen/et al. demonstration also has its roots solidly in the virtue of a man putting his sweat and money into turning a dream into reality makes it even more purely inspiring."
Marc Light, San Jose: "Two very big words today: Burt. Rutan. The government should give tax breaks and tax credits to U.S. private space endeavors. Burt Rutan is an uncontrollable maverick. Who is John Galt?"
Randall S. Kehres, Edwards, Calif.: "I believe Rutan and his team will be successful. I heard the sonic boom today as SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier. It's exciting to see and hear history in the making. I also applaud the work of their team member SpaceDev for the design and use of nontoxic fuel for their rocket engines. Engineering with environmental and occupational health concerns in mind is paramount to success in this day and age. Who wants to go to space? I do!"
Patrick Bishop: "Scaled Composites' achievement was momentous, but the devil is in the details. If Allen has invested tens of millions into the project already to achieve today's success, the $10 million in X Prize money is just a 'rebate' for Allen and the Brothers Rutan. If they succeed, they are still not breaking even.
"This concern is irrelevant if their joint project results in a commercializable service, but how commercializable is the service? I've seen their SpaceShipOne, and 'leg room' is constrained, to say the least. I think people are going to want to do more on a suborbital flight than look out the (tiny) windows; they'll want to experience the several minutes' worth of near-zero gravity conditions. That means room to move — to put one's body through roll, pitch, and yaw.
"I'm afraid that once a few people have given it a try, word will get out that it's not such a big deal. Interest will wane, and the SpaceShipOne will become an interesting punctuation mark somewhere in the middle of the story of human spaceflight. If they were lofting something at least the size of a Boeing 707 'up there,' I'd be more optimistic."
• Dec. 19, 2003 | 10 p.m. ET
Skepticism about Saddam: As for Saddam Hussein and his DNA, I'll let Mncedzisi Magagula from Swaziland have the last word for this week: "So am I right to say that the American forces 'might' have Saddam Hussein? Not unless they believe every word that comes out of his mouth. I mean, the man is believed to have at least four body doubles, and for a substantial fee one of these guys might be lured into taking the fall for his hero, I believe. I guess time will have to tell on this one."
• Dec. 19, 2003 | 10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• Science News: Statistical tests unravel literary mysteries
• "Nova" on PBS: "The Sinking City of Venice"
• Discovery.com: New pterosaur species discovered
• The Atlantic: Flashbacks from a century of flight
• Dec. 18, 2003 | 9 p.m. ET
‘Survivor’ on Mars: Take a bunch of people with diverse skills and cultural backgrounds, put them together in an isolated environment where they have to deal with physical, mental and interpersonal challenges, and see what happens. Add a few special twists, and you could have the recipe for TV's “Survivor” show — or for a different kind of reality programming: the Mars Society's simulated space missions in the Canadian Arctic and the Utah desert.
The idea behind the Mars simulations is to study tools and techniques that might come into play during yet-to-be-planned expeditions to other planets, as well as the "human factors" that can turn a bunch of people into an efficient team or an aggregation of adversaries.
In the next few days, Crew 20 is due to begin the 2003-2004 season at the Mars Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, under the command of Canadian environmental engineer Allan Morrison. During their two-week stint, the six crew members will study the biology and geology of the desert, using a Mars-style habitat as their base of operations. They'll try to mimic the Mars experience as much as possible, wearing simulated spacesuits whenever they leave the "airlock" and go outside.
"Mars on Earth: The Adventures of Space Pioneers in the High Arctic" shows how expeditions to one of the coldest, driest places on Earth relate to the future exploration of Mars.
Zubrin can never be accused of shrinking away from an argument: He starts out by blasting NASA's "goal-free approach to spending the taxpayer's money," contending that the life-on-Mars question is all but settled in the affirmative, and recounting how the Mars Society arose to lead the way to the Red Planet. Then he gets into the story of the Mars simulation habitats — and that's where the “Survivor” metaphor really comes into play.
Much of the story is told in the form of dispatches that appeared in 2001 and 2002 on MSNBC.com and are still available via the Mars Society's archives. Those "letters from Mars" tell of well-matched crew members, dealing with adversities and achievements as earnestly as the crew of the starship Enterprise might. I was most interested in what didn't appear in those original dispatches: What led to fallings-out between Zubrin and some of his one-time colleagues?
It turns out that the disputes were sparked by age-old "human factors": Is someone taking too big a risk, or playing things too safe? Is so-and-so trying to force me out, or grab the limelight? Am I going to be stuck with a huge bill? Who are the dependable allies, and who are the back-stabbers? Because only Zubrin's side of the story is told in the book, I don't want to get into the details of who was right and who was wrong. Suffice it to say that some of the dynamics would be familiar to "Survivor" fans.
Zubrin also has strong opinions on how deep-space missions should be run: He gives a thumbs-up to nuclear power, all-terrain vehicles, screwball comedies on DVD, the occasional glass of scotch and regular baths. The thumbs-down list would include robots, gambling games and excessive eco-friendliness. When it comes to selecting the crew for a real Mars mission, Captain Kirk need not apply; only Scotties and Spocks will be necessary, in Zubrin's view.
To back up those views, the Mars Society has intensified its letter-writing campaign and mobilized a Political Task Force. But some observers — including NASA Watch's Keith Cowing, who is probably not on Zubrin's Christmas-card list — worry that setting up a "Mars vs. Moon" policy battle could hurt the prospects for sending anyone beyond Earth orbit.
"In my opinion, the best thing Bob Zubrin can do to advance the prospects of a human mission to Mars right now is to sit down and shut up," Cowing wrote last week.
Will human space exploration, at least in the medium term, come down to a “Survivor”-style decision between going to the moon and going to Mars? Or do we have to return to the moon first, to stretch our space wings? Are the simulation missions in the Arctic and elsewhere a necessary part of the preparations? Or are they just exercises in make-believe that don't carry over to the real final frontier? Those are big issues to think about, and I'd love to hear what you think.
• Dec. 18, 2003 | 9 p.m. ET
Your virtual reading room on the Web:
• Discover Magazine: The anti-video game
• The Economist: Why it's hip to be hairless
• Popular Scientist: One jet engine and 18,000 pounds of fuel
• Wired: A ‘C-SPAN’ for science picks up steam
• Dec. 17, 2003 | Updated 10 p.m. ET
SpaceShipOne goes supersonic: The suborbital spaceship being tested by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites fired its rocket engine and went supersonic for the first time today, on the centennial of the Wright brothers' historic first flight. Hours later, multibillionaire Paul Allen confirmed long-rumbling rumors that he was the financial backer of Rutan's space effort.
The day's developments brought the underpinnings of the White Knight / SpaceShipOne program into the clearest focus yet — and added to a sense that the dawn of the age of private-enterprise spaceflight was just months away.
"Our flight this morning by SpaceShipOne demonstrated that supersonic flight is now the domain of a small company doing privately funded research, without government help," Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, Calif., said in a news release. "The flight also represents an important milestone in our efforts to demonstrate that truly low-cost space access is feasible."
Rutan's launch system is designed to take passengers to the edge of space — beyond 100 kilometers or 328,000 feet in altitude — and win the $10 million X Prize in the process. It involves a White Knight carrier jet as well as the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which is attached to the White Knight at takeoff.
SpaceShipOne is designed to soar to the edge of space.
Components of the rocket motor were supplied by SpaceDev, a company based in Poway, Calif. James Benson, SpaceDev's chairman and chief executive, provided a breathless account of today's test flight.
"It was an incredible sight!" he said. "We were watching as the White Knight dropped SpaceShipOne at about 10 miles up, and we waited breathlessly as the White Knight peeled off and SpaceShipOne fell for a few seconds. Then with a really visible flash of light and stream of smoke, our rocket motor lit, and SpaceShipOne seemed to blast straight up for about 15 seconds that seemed like minutes. Then the flame and smoke stopped, but you could still see little SpaceShipOne coasting up toward space at an incredible speed. What a sight! It was even more exciting than watching Apollo 17 lift off at night way back in 1972. After working on this project for four years, space is now exciting again!"
Vertical flight topped out at 68,000 feet, and Binnie then went into a "feathered" glide that reproduced the near-weightless feeling of a suborbital space flight.
A photo taken from far below shows SpaceShipOne firing its rocket motor, with a vapor trail stretching behind the craft.
Traditionally, Scaled Composites has held the details of its flight testing program close to its chest. Weeks ago, some observers had speculated that Rutan's team might actually attempt a spaceflight on today's historic date. The supersonic flight didn't quite meet that standard, but it was still a history-making way to mark the Wright brothers centennial.
The centennial and SpaceShipOne's success emboldened Allen to declare tonight that he has funded the SpaceShipOne project since March 2001. He told The Associated Press that he has put "tens of millions of dollars" into the effort.
Allen is a co-founder of Microsoft Corp. who currently owns a wide variety of ventures, ranging from Charter Communications, the nation's fourth-largest cable provider, to the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. His estimated net worth of $22 billion makes him No. 3 on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, behind fellow Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and mega-investor Warren Buffett. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
SpaceShipOne test pilot Brian Binnie, sponsor Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan congratulate each other after today's successful test flight.
Allen also referred to the fortuitous timing of the supersonic test.
"As we celebrate the centennial of flight, it's wonderful to be able to capture the spirit of innovation and exploration in aviation," he said. "SpaceShipOne is a tangible example of continuing humankind's efforts to travel into space, and effectively demonstrating that private, nongovernmental resources can make a big difference in this field of discovery and invention."
Rutan was quoted as saying that SpaceShipOne "would never have been possible" without Allen's support.
"Paul shares our energy and passion for not only supporting one-of-a-kind research, but also a vision of how this kind of space program can shape the future and inspire people around the world," Rutan said.
SpaceShipOne isn't the only serious competitor for the X Prize, but today's announcements solidified its position as the front-runner. The widely held expectation is that the prize could be won within the next few months. Is today's supersonic outing a sign that victory is at hand, or are the highest hurdles still ahead? What do you think?
• Dec. 17, 2003 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Quick hops on the scientific Web:
• New Scientist: 'Humanized' organs can be grown in animals
• NSF: New evidence for ancient, climate-changing methane release
• Nature: World's most mysterious book may be a hoax
• Scientific American: The 'Six Degrees of Immunization' strategy
• Dec. 16, 2003 | 11:25 p.m. ET
Real fish stories: So your kids have been wowed by the "Finding Nemo" DVD, and you're looking for more tales to whet their appetite? Here are a couple of suggestions that provide a healthy dose of science as well as splash.
George Schellenger, a former MSNBC.com producer whose 6-year-old interview with Apollo 12's Alan Bean is still online, sends along the first in what promises to be a trilogy of marine-science DVDs for kids: "Captain Jon Explores the Ocean." The 30-minute video presentation touches upon the astronomical reasons for tides, the work of the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, coral reefs, artificial reefs and plenty of colorful fish. Schellenger is the writer and producer, and other members of the family — including "Captain Jon" Schellenger — pitched in as well.
"It's aimed at ages 6 and up, to help get children interested in protecting the ocean," Schellenger says.
The "Blue Planet" DVD set is another option for Nemo's older fans: It's a four-disk set that rounds up the visually stunning eight-episode TV series, narrated by David Attenborough.
If your children are still ocean-crazy after the holidays, you might want to look into what the Jason Project has to offer: Every year, the educational project takes kids on an expedition to an exotic habitat, with thousands of students tuning in via video links and the Internet. Last January's expedition was to California's Channel Islands, as described in this Cosmic Log dispatch. Next month, the Jason team goes to Panama's Barro Colorado Island. EDS, one of the project's sponsors, has more information on past and future expeditions.
• Dec. 16, 2003 | 11:25 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
• Slate: I get paid to ping extraterrestrials
• NASA: Einstein makes other dimensions toe the line
• Astrobiology Magazine: Living on Mars time
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Writing science for kids
• Dec. 15, 2003 | 5:30 p.m. ET
What to do with Saddam's DNA: How do we know the DNA taken from the bedraggled hobo found in Iraq is actually the genetic signature of Iraqi's one-time dictator? That was the theme for a flurry of questions in response to Sunday's item about DNA identification.
Cosmic Log readers rightly pointed out that you need a reference sample to match up against the sample from your suspect. Military authorities were pretty sure they had their man, based on an inventory of scars and a tattoo. But when you're dealing with a man who reportedly hired body doubles, you want to be absolutely sure.
So where did the reference sample come from? The U.S. intelligence community has been cagey about the source. About all we have to go on is that before the invasion of Iraq, sources had indicated to NBC News that a reliable sample of Saddam's DNA was not available, but by summertime, the word was that the DNA signature was in U.S. hands after all. The implication would be that enough genetic material had been retrieved during the U.S. sweep of Saddam's palaces — say, from hairbrushes, toothbrushes or Saddam's sweaty exercise togs.
In addition, the identity behind the DNA could be confirmed by seeing how well the genetic coding matched up with Saddam's sons and other relatives. Jacob Goertz of Seattle explains in this e-mail:
"As someone who works in a DNA typing lab, I need to point out several problems with your article.
"Proving that Saddam Hussein is actually Saddam Hussein is as simple as proving that he is the father of Odai and Qusay. We have the bodies of his sons, we can take DNA from them quite easily, and should the DNA taken from the man found in the hole near Tikrit show that he is the father of Odai and Qusay, then we have Saddam Hussein. At least to 99.99999 percent probability.
"To do the test would take at least 8 hours. One hour or more to extract DNA, 3.5 hours to run a PCR reaction, 3 hours to run a PAGE gel, and a half hour of just wasted time that always occurs in lab reactions... It also involves having the correct equipment in place. I am highly doubtful the army has everything they need out in the field, but it wouldn't surprise me that they would have the appropriate hardware at, say, the Baghdad base. Sequencing the actual DNA would not be required.
"Finding a trusted agent to handle the DNA is not an issue as well. Proving that Saddam Hussein is actually Saddam Hussein is as simple as having a cheek swab from Saddam and blood samples from Odai and Qusay, all of which are not in short supply, as I am sure the army took postmortem blood samples from Odai and Qusay's bodies. A little blood goes a long way.
"Contrary to what many people believe, there is absolutely no controversy when it comes to DNA identification (outside of using mitochondrial DNA as an identifier, of course). The 'theory' of controversy lives on due to a handful of experts who make their living testifying in court. In the next 10 years, those people will no longer have jobs.
"If you would like more information, refer to the book 'DNA in the Courtroom: A Trial Watcher's Guide' by Howard Coleman. This book lays waste to many misconceptions that people have about DNA typing, and destroys the notion that DNA typing is in any way controversial. If the DNA says it is Saddam Hussein, then it is Saddam Hussein, no ifs about it."
I'd agree with Goertz that the testing was likely conducted at the base where Saddam was examined, rather than on the spot — although experts say it's possible to use a suitcase-sized mobile testing apparatus to process a genetic sample.
The question of the reference sample goes back to my point about DNA provenance: Do we need a "trusted agent" to certify the origin of reference samples, say, from Saddam's sweats, or the remains of Odai and Qusai? On the national level, state and local forensic labs serve this function, with interstate coordination provided by the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Is there an equivalent system on an international level?
Here are other observations on the tale of Saddam's DNA:
Ivy Sim Mei Hua, Malacca, Malaysia: "With modern DNA technology, science has improved by leaps and bounds. I'm so blessed to live in this era. Well-done."
Courtney, Houston: "As a Ph.D. student in genetics, the case of identifying Saddam interested me very much. People are usually amazed that preliminary DNA testing can be done so quickly. My family even phoned me to see if they really could prove it was Saddam. As the world sees more and more cases such as this, it would certainly be beneficial to the world to have an 'international scientific body,' if only to prevent conflicts between countries on who supposedly owns what. This may be especially crucial given that different countries have different regulations on the ethics of 'owning' another person's genetic testing results. As for Saddam's DNA evidence, it completely depends on what type of trial is given. If he is prosecuted solely by the Iraqi council, the answer is obvious: the Iraqi government. Under a war crimes tribunal, the answer is trickier, as the prosecution still must be in possession of the evidence. However, the final evidence should still be turned over to the Iraqis when any trials are over."
Shannon Caronello, Calgary, Alberta: "This body of experts should be a separate organization in which there are no favors done (as in past experiences with governing bodies). This whole case should be a springboard to have an agency for strictly this kind of thing. It helps solve many questions that the viewing public may have. We in turn will have better information, and it will be clear-cut. You can't tell lies through cells. They are what they are, and no matter how much a gene can be changed or enhanced, it still comes back to its basic thread."
Jamie, Philadelphia: "I think it would be good if there was an international scientific database for DNA storage. Maybe it could be run by trusted scientists from all over, whoever applies to work there. The database could store [information on] large criminal cases plus conduct regular research and deal with cases needing to be settled. Every nation doesn't have that technology, and the DNA center could review it for them. And I think it's safe. I mean, no one can really do anything to you about your DNA results, not really."
Actually, Jamie's comment brings up another point about the ethics of DNA databases: We have enough trouble safeguarding genetic privacy on a national level — what happens when the database goes international?
• Dec. 15, 2003 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of big ideas on the Web:
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The year in ideas
• New Scientist: Shadows are hard-wired into the brain
• Wired.com: Keeping cows safe from terrorism
• Scientific American: Does smallpox really spread that easily?
• Dec. 14, 2003 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Tracing Saddam's DNA: The capture of Saddam Hussein is giving DNA identification techniques their brightest spotlight yet — and, like other aspects of today's developments, the full genetic story will take days and months to play out.
Details about the DNA testing were sparse in the hours after the capture: Could a sample really have been analyzed and matched within hours after the seeming ex-dictator was pulled from his hiding hole, as the president of the Iraqi Governing Council claimed?
The short answer is yes. We went through this exercise with Saddam's sons in July, and experts said the U.S. military had more than enough training and experience — plus the necessary forensic equipment in the field — for a quick-and-dirty DNA test. The military says samples were taken during the initial medical examination of their captive, and in fact, the exam shown in today's widely released video provided a perfect opportunity to swab loose cells from the inside of Saddam's cheek, which is the standard starting point for most DNA tests.
But today's test is just the beginning of the process: In addition to the samples analyzed in the field, some of Saddam's cells are also likely headed back to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., for more detailed analysis. As explained in this interactive, genetic analysis involves matching up strings of chemical codes from specific areas on strands of DNA. The more markers you can match up, the more confident you are of the result.
An analysis based on mitochondrial DNA, which lies outside the nucleus of the cell, could take weeks, said Victor Weedn, the former director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
There may be some benefit in having an international scientific body serve as a "trusted agent" for DNA evidence. Such a body could play a role in a growing number of genetic controversies: It could help verify, for example, whether three Germans can legitimately claim to be Charles Lindbergh's illegitimate progeny — or whether someone claiming to be a cloned human really is a clone.
For more on how DNA analysis is changing society and history, check out our special report on "Genetic Genealogy." Then let me know what you think should be done with the DNA evidence in the case of Saddam.
The fine print: 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.