• Dec. 5, 2003  | 8 p.m. ET
New phase in moon debate:
In physics, a phase transition occurs when a slight change of temperature creates a dramatic change in the state of a system, such as when water turns to steam. This week definitely marked a phase transition in the debate over going back to the moon.

The idea that President Bush would announce a new space initiative to prepare the way for steps back to the moon and perhaps onward to Mars — either to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight or to serve as a centerpiece for January’s State of the Union Address — has been percolating for weeks. With the Dec. 17 anniversary drawing near, the temperature has been slowly rising: Will he or won’t he? Starting on Wednesday, the trickle of press reports built up a full head of steam.

Among the media outlets weighing in: the National Review, the New York Post, the Orlando Sentinel (which went from “he probably won’t” to “maybe he will”), The Associated Press, a couple of our content partners, Space.com and The Washington Post, and NBC’s “Today” show as well as CNBC.

When the dust settles and an announcement is finally made, I have a feeling the plan will have less flash and more pragmatism than it appears right now: The White House could make clear that America’s space aims go beyond low Earth orbit, and that technologies will be developed to get us there. But will that take 10, 20 or 50 years? I’d be surprised if Bush set a date certain for any Kennedyesque space milestone, but we’ll see.

The suggestion I find most intriguing was raised today by Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Fly Me to L1” (free registration required). Instead of focusing on the moon or Mars, he proposes building a space station at the gravitational balance point between Earth and the moon, known as L1.

“Setting up a space port there would offer a highly stable platform from which spacecraft could head toward near-Earth asteroids, the lunar surface, the moons of Mars and wherever else mankind decides to travel,” Aldrin says. The idea dovetails with Aldrin’s proposal for converting the shuttle system into a heavy-lift transport, as well as his view that NASA should cooperate rather than compete with China’s rising space effort.

That would be a dramatic initiative — but I also could see a more realistic scenario, with privately funded efforts that turn spaceflight into a more profitable and less heroic enterprise, perhaps over the course of decades.

Even as news outlets thundered over the idea of going back to the moon, some progress was made this week toward real space innovation:

• The unveiling of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, a low-cost, mostly reusable launch vehicle that is to put its first payload, a military communication satellite, into orbit early next year. Thursday’s ceremony was conducted in downtown Washington, within sight of the National Air and Space Museum, to coincide with the Wright brothers festivities.

• An in-flight rocket firing for SpaceShipOne, the suborbital ship being developed by airplane designer Burt Rutan in California’s Mojave Desert. Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, has not yet released the results of Thursday’s test flight, but a report and photos appeared on Alan Radecki’s Mojave Airport Weblog.

So what do you think? Here’s a selection of the feedback received during this week’s phase transition:

David Gibson, Stockton, Calif.:“What we need to be doing is to get going on a planned manned mission. I mean a serious effort to put men on the Red Planet. ... We have the technology to do this. Does it always have to be in some kind of competition with some other nation for it to happen? We have won the Cold War, we have shown the world that democracy is a better way to govern a nation. We need to get back to what it is all human beings do. We explore. We have a thirst for what’s over the next ridge (and these space shuttle launches aren’t getting it), a natural curiosity that can’t be fulfilled. So let’s get this trip planned and get started with it. Once we get started with the true planning stages, we can start to feel like real human beings again.”

Vernon, Myrtle Point, Ore.: “I am totally with you in your space exploration project. I just wish I could be a member of the first team to go to Mars. I have nothing to keep me here, and I would not be a loss to anyone. I would go in a minute if I were called tomorrow. I know it would be a long and lonely trip, but I am used to being alone. If you should need a first-time volunteer, count me in. I am almost 70 years old and would make you a very good person for a project of that nature.”

Irina, Miami, Fla.: “We are spending too much on this. We need food for the poor.”

Tim Choal, Surprize, Ariz.: “We’ve already been in a space race with the Russians. We can save China a lot of money by letting the Chinese in on our secret. We’ve been to the moon and there was apparently nothing there that made it worth going back. If we get into another manned space race, let’s make it someplace we haven’t been, like Mars.”

Chris, Harrisburg, Pa.: “Anyone who desires to begin colonizing space — in order to preserve and expand our sciences, arts and evolutionary heritage — is also the type of someone who is completely and unequivocally open to a united, global endeavor in the pursuit of such commendable ends. Inherently, they would be someone open to a full technological exchange, who does not see a world full of boundaries! They would be someone not seeking military supremacy, or someone who takes all matters into their own hands despite world opinion! By its own nature, colonization (even just of the moon) is not a temporary ideal to gain votes, to belittle the world in a temporary effort for prestige, or to steal the limelight from the commendable efforts of the Chinese! It is, in fact, a deeply rooted decision (across all nations) that we are a race finally united and indeed ready to set sail for the stars. If these are not the true intentions, I would surely rather sit at home dreaming of the day the colonial powers of this world finally come to their senses! Space is as much our home as this planet! Let us colonize both correctly!” 
• Dec. 5, 2003  | 8 p.m. ET
Space and the Grammys: Among all the hip-hop artists and pop divas honored with Grammy nominations this week is a musical effort that was supported by NASA: Patti LaBelle’s rendition of “Way Up There,” the song commissioned by the space agency to commemorate this month’s centennial of flight, is among the selections for best traditional R&B vocal performance.

It was almost a year ago that we first heard of “Way Up There,” and you can hear songwriter Tena Clark’s rendition by checking the Cosmic Log archives. In February, the song became a tribute to Columbia’s fallen astronauts, and here’s a video of LaBelle’s performance at the Washington memorial ceremony.

On NASA’s Web site, you’ll find similarly free access to the same video performance, as well as the studio version of “Way Up There” in MP3 format.
• Dec. 5, 2003  | 8 p.m. ET
Billy the Kid’s court date: Will DNA detectives get their chance to figure out where Billy the Kid is buried, starting with the exhumation of his mother’s remains in Silver City, N.M.? Or will the town’s mayor, who is opposed to the forensic exercise, have a say in the matter? Such issues are due to come up for debate Monday in New Mexico’s 6th Judicial District Court in Silver City.

Among the lawyers in attendance will be two representing Billy the Kid. “Billy the Kid supports the exhumation and wishes to provide this court with a brief outlining the basis for his concurrence and asks leave to do so,” reads a brief filed with the court and cited by the Silver City Daily Press.

Catch up on the controversy by reviewing our backgrounder on the strange case of Billy the Kid, which is part of our “Genetic Genealogy” section. Here’s some of the recent feedback on the coverage:

Gerard L. Field: “This brouhaha over who is buried in Billy the Kid’s grave makes nice news items and draws a little attention. But a study of the events of the night when Billy the Kid was killed by Pat Garrett can leave little doubt as to who was killed.

“Both Pat Garrett and Pete Maxwell (at whose bedroom door the shooting took place), knew Billy intimately and would not make a mistake, even in the dark.

“As most people know, Garrett was sitting on the edge of Maxwell’s bed talking in whispers when Billy appears at the door, asks ‘Quien es’ (‘Who’s there,’ in Spanish). Maxwell whispers, “It’s him.” Garrett recognizes the voice. Garrett relates later that he ‘jerked his pistol and fired.’ One shot and it was over. By the next morning light, the body was still where it lay and Garrett convened a coroner’s jury then and there, from the locals, and Billy was identified.

“I will guess that the reason that Garrett did not investigate the circumstances of Billy’s breakout of the Lincoln County jail (such that it was), resulting in the deaths of Olinger and Bell, was that there might have been something embarassing about his management.”

Brian Kelly: “I was just reading the Billy the Kid article, and was wondering ... could this be the start of something that could potentially spread to other mysterious deaths? I admit that I kind of like this idea. Imagine opening Jim Morrison’s grave and finding out if he’s really there or not. Don’t get me wrong. ... I’m not one of those people that believes that both him and Elvis are still alive, but it would be nice to finally put the rumors and them to rest once and for all.”

Kevin:“It’s hard to imagine that people are spending time to determine if the ‘correct’ Billy the Kid is buried at the correct location, and should get a pardon at that. Good thing I had time to waste while my pizza was cooking in the oven to see what crap was on the Internet today.” 
• Dec. 5, 2003| 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
“Nova” on PBS: “Orchid Hunter”
• The Economist: Prepare to be scanned
• NASA: Scientists use radar to detect asteroid force
• Science News: Wings of change

• Dec. 4, 2003 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Fire from another galaxy: The fires of starbirth burn in a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope that was released today, but created from data that go back almost a decade.

The image shows a star-forming region known as NGC 604 in the spiral galaxy M33, about 2.7 million light-years from earth in the southern constellation Triangulum.

Young, hot stars are bubbling in blue at the center of the image, while rust-red filaments of gas and dust curl out into space, heated by stellar radiation. The newborn stars can get as hot as 72,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface.

Image: Colorful Hubble photo shows star-forming region
The Hubble Space Telescope snapped this color-enhanced picture of the star-forming region known as NGC 604.
Like many pictures from Hubble, this one is more colorful than what you would see in visible light. The various filters were color-coded to represent the light emitted by hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms in the nebula, and ultraviolet, visible and infrared light from the stars. The variations help scientists understand what’s going on inside the nebula’s complex structure.

“NGC 604 provides Hubble astronomers with a nearby example of a giant starbirth region,” the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute said in an analysis of the image. “Such regions are small-scale versions of more distant ‘starburst’ galaxies, which undergo an extremely high rate of star formation. Starbursts are believed to have been common in the early universe, when the star-formation rate was much higher. Supernovae exploding in these galaxies created the first chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.”

The image was created by the Hubble Heritage team, taking data from observations made in 1994, 1995 and 2001. For more classic snapshots, check out the HubbleSite archives or our own collection of “Hubble’s Greatest Hits.”
• Dec. 4, 2003 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Coming soon to a planet near you: NASA is making a Hollywood production out of next month’s Mars rover landings — literally. If you visit the space agency’s home page, you’ll find a selection of three movie-style trailers for “M2K4.”

This show is even going on the road: As part of a “Marsapalooza” campaign to bring Red Planet science to the public, a group of young NASA astronomers known as the M-Team has been traveling from museum to museum, working their way west from New York and Washington to Chicago. This weekend they’re visiting Denver, and on Monday they’ll meet with hundreds of schoolkids at Universal Studios Hollywood. In addition to the six human members of the M-Team, the road show stars a rover similar to the ones that will be hitting the Martian surface in January.

“The event will also feature a deployment of the giant airbags/parachutes that are used by NASA to land the Mars rovers safely on the Martian surface, as well as a dynamic visual presentation featuring video footage, computer graphics and music,” the Hollywood event’s organizers say. Let’s just hope next month’s reviews are as good as the advance publicity.
• Dec. 4, 2003 | 8 p.m. ET
Semi-scientific stops on the Web:
• What Michael Jackson should look like (via GeekPress)
• Scientific American: The top sci/tech gifts for 2003
• The Guardian: Crimefighters imitate “The Matrix”
• Wired.com: Alien sex! Bombs! Robots! Pathos!

 Dec. 3, 2003 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Invading the ‘Death Planet’: Does that sound a little melodramatic when it comes to describing the difficulty of landing on Mars? Not according to Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science: He says he commonly refers to Mars as the “Death Planet,” in recognition of the fact that two-thirds of all Mars missions have fallen short of success.

In 1999, NASA lost two Mars probes: the Climate Orbiter, which was famously felled due to a screw-up in converting between metric and English measurements; and the Polar Lander, which apparently suffered a glitch in the landing system. The twin failures forced a costly rethinking of NASA’s approach to Mars exploration.

The space agency has taken extra pains to make sure everything works for next month’s scheduled rover landings on Mars — but despite all that effort, Martian winds or an ill-placed rock could ruin either or both of the twin missions. If the airbags that are to cushion the spacecraft come down too hard on the jagged edge of a stray boulder, that could result in an untimely blowout.

“All it will take in the last few minutes is a strong gust of wind, more than we expected, and the mission will be over,” Weiler warned at a briefing Tuesday. In the thin Martian atmosphere, the winds don’t pack as much punch as they would on Earth. Nevertheless, a gust blowing at more than 70 mph would pose more risk than mission managers bargained for.

The risk is thought to be somewhat greater for the first rover, Spirit, which is due to come down around 11:35 p.m. ET Jan. 3 in Gusev Crater. Although there’s no hard data, computer models indicate that the terrain could be more conducive to wind gusts, said Peter Theisinger, project manager for the rover missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Theisinger also warned that the world shouldn’t expect instant gratification: Confirmation that the rover landed intact may not come for hours after landing, because of the time needed for the spacecraft to get its communication antenna oriented correctly. Once night falls on Mars, “it could be almost 24 hours later before we next hear from the rover,” he said.

Assuming that the Spirit is willing, when will the rover transmit its first picture? “I would not expect to see it before the next day, after Earthrise,” Theisinger said.

Then it will be at least eight more days before the rover rolls off its perch and starts investigating the surface up close. It could well take two or three days to analyze just one rock up close, said Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the rovers’ scientific payloads.

The best images are likely to come later in the projected 90-day mission. “This isn’t a sprint,” Squyres said. “It’s a marathon. The best stuff may come in February, March or April. It may take a while.”

Data and imagery will be distributed online via NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Web site.

The rovers aren’t the only game in town: In fact, the opening assault is likely to come on the night before Christmas, when the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter and the British-built Beagle 2 lander zero in on the Red Planet. Beagle 2 is scheduled to land at 0245 GMT Dec. 25, which translates to 9:45 p.m. ET Dec. 24. Shortly afterward, Mars Express is due to fire its engines to enter Martian orbit.

“We expect the first, rather poor-quality, image from the Beagle 2 mirror camera when we get the acquisition-of-signal data early on 25 December,” Peter Barratt, communications manager for the Beagle 2 project, said in an e-mail exchange. “Providing we achieve this, then the images will be released at an 0830 GMT press briefing held at the Beagle 2 Media Centre in London.”

The plan calls for imagery to be distributed online via the Beagle 2 Web site as well as the Mars Express/Beagle 2 Web site at Britain’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, starting at 1030 GMT (5:30 a.m. ET) Christmas morning.

As for Japan’s Mars probe, no news is not good news: Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are trying to revive the Nozomi orbiter’s power control system in time for a crucial Dec. 9 maneuver, but no word has yet come on the results of their efforts. It may well turn out that the “Death Planet” has claimed yet another victim.

 Dec. 3, 2003 | 8 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
 Physics News Update: Top physics stories of 2003
 National Review Online: Returning to the new frontier
 Discovery.com: Iceman gets a cool new home
 Nature: Jokes tickle the brain like cocaine

Dec. 2, 2003 | 5 p.m. ET
A birthday blast from the sun: Exactly eight years ago, the sun-observing Solar and Heliospheric Observatory was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. There could be no more fitting tribute to that launch than today’s spectacular outburst from the sun, known to astronomers as a coronal mass ejection or CME.

The sun sends out a coronal mass ejection, as seen by SOHO's LASCO C2 coronagraph.
“The sun also celebrates SOHO — with a nice CME,” Paal Brekke, the European Space Agency’s deputy project scientist for SOHO, said in an e-mail reporting the blast. The flare wasn’t as strong as last month’s monster storms, but it looks like an impressive birthday candle in the snapshot from SOHO’s LASCO C2 coronagraph.

Since its launch in 1995, SOHO has looked into the mysteries of the sun and its corona, providing a valuable early-warning system for solar storms. Last month’s storms were the strongest ever recorded in recent years, and yet the only reported casualties were a couple of Japanese satellites and a Swedish electrical power grid. Today’s big day provides another opportunity to tout the “greatest hits” from SOHO imagery, and to keep watch for the auroral displays sparked by solar outbursts.

Dec. 1, 2003 | 5 p.m. ET
Your pantheon of planes: Which airplanes would you pick for a personal hall of fame? We posed that question in honor of the centennial of the 1903 Wright Flyer’s ascent, and hundreds of you responded with your personal nominations.

Based on those selections, we came up with a list of 10 aircraft that changed the course of aviation history, plus 10 also-rans to stir up a little controversy. But for aviation fans, any list of top 10, or even top 20, is going to miss some favorites. Some correspondents had more than 30 planes on their dream list, while others devoted a great deal of thought to why their single nomination was so important.

Therefore, it’s only right that we also provide a selection of the e-mail feedback: In Britain, for example, David Bass worried that the pantheon of planes could be “abysmally U.S.-centric” and offered some international nominations. MSNBC.com alumnus David Kaill explained why you’ve got to love the “Beav” — as in the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver. And you really shouldn’t miss James DeRuvo’s slightly tongue-in-cheek top-10 list.

Take a look at the feedback file , review the MSNBC list, then let correspondent Jon Bonné know what you think. He’ll put together a follow-up based on your responses.

Dec. 1, 2003  | 5 p.m. ET
To the moon? Reports that the White House is planning to call for a return to the moon ... or maybe not ... have sparked a renewed debate over what NASA’s goals should be.

In a Washington Times op-ed piece, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on space, says government should make more room for entrepreneurs, “quit talking about sending a person to Mars, and look a little closer at what we can do with water on the moon.” He also refers to a space challenge coming from China “that could very well leave us in the dust.” 

At the Curmudgeons Corner, Mark Whittington says the U.S. government “needs to encourage a commercial launch industry to replace the aging shuttle fleet and to redirect NASA’s energy to the human exploration of the moon and beyond.” Meanwhile, at Transterrestrial Musings, Rand Simberg says it’s the “Anglosphere” that will leave the rest of the world in the dust.

Space risks vs. benefits ... China vs. NASA ... Mars vs. the moon ... costless rhetoric vs. expensive action: These are the outlines of the space policy debate ahead. Weigh in with your opinion, and we’ll pass along a selection of the feedback.

Dec. 1, 2003  | 5 p.m. ET
Unlocking the mysteries of the past:
Science News: Terra-cotta warriors show their true colors
Nature: Did West Nile Virus fell Alexander the Great?
Discovery.com: Who was Dante’s damsel in distress?
The Independent: Is it healthy to eat like a caveman?


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