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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

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• Dec. 24, 2003 | 5:50 p.m. ET
Holy history revisited: You can always rely on the media to devote a good chunk of their Yuletide ink and bandwidth to the secular history behind sacred scriptures. It's as big a part of the season as Santa, holiday lights and yes, churchgoing. Last season, the big theme was the fundamentalism factor, but this year the hook has more to do with the bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code" and the status of women in religion.

Newsweek has looked at the Bible's lost stories and their implications for modern-day women, while The Economist focuses on the Jewish and Muslim perspectives on St. Mary. U.S. News & World Report weighed in with a report on "Jesus in America," looking at how Americans have riffed on the Jesus story since the days of Thomas Jefferson.

PBS has been rebroadcasting its "Frontline" series titled "From Jesus to Christ," the History Channel is presenting "Banned From the Bible" and other religion-related retrospectives, and the Discovery Channel has a whole day of Bible history planned for Christmas.

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The interesting thing about "The Da Vinci Code" is that it blends admitted fiction with fringe theology (e.g., Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene) and Illuminati-style conspiracy theories. It makes for a good read, and certainly gives the biblical story a firmer hold on the 21st-century zeitgeist. Here's something to consider during the long holiday: Is this a good thing, or do attempts to mesh scripture with history, archaeology, anthropology and just plain fiction do more harm than good?

We may be getting a bit outside the scientific realm here, but there's ample Cosmic Log precedent for this from last Christmas and from Easter. Is pop theology good or evil? Meditate on that and let me know what you think.

• Dec. 24, 2003 | 5:50 p.m. ET
Home for the holidays: Cosmic Log will be taking an extra couple of days off, but we'll return on Monday. In the meantime, watch the progress of Europe's Mars missions, keep your eyes on the Christmas skies for a great view of the moon and Venus, and may you have peace and joy, no matter what your religion (or lack thereof). I'll also pass along this e-mailed holiday wish from Andre Budianto in Jakarta, Indonesia: "Have a wonderful Christmas and a miracle prosperous New Year. Happy holiday!"

• Dec. 24, 2003 | 5:50 p.m. ET
Field trips for the holidays:
• 
"Nova" on PBS: "Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance"
• Scientific American: The top science stories of 2003
• New Scientist: The year in space and astronomy
• Science News: Undignified science of the future 

• Dec. 23, 2003 | 7 p.m. ET
Watch for Christmas stars: If you see a star moving from west to east around sunrise, that's not a replay of the Christmas story — more likely it's the international space station, which is visible from most of the United States this week.

NASA says this holiday week is a good time for space station sightings: The glint of the sun, reflected by the station's solar panels, can make the human-made object as bright as any of the stars in the sky. Check out the space agency's sighting guide for more on when and where to look.

If you have kids who are cruising the Web on Christmas Eve, the NORAD Santa site is the place to watch for reports on the Jolly Old Elf's progress around the globe. The grown-ups, meanwhile, should monitor MSNBC's Red Planet reports as well as the Web sites for Mars Express, Beagle 2 and Britain's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council for the status of Europe's Christmas space mission. Beagle 2 is due to land and Mars Express is scheduled to enter Martian orbit around 10 p.m. ET Christmas Eve — just as Santa is making his rounds.

• Dec. 23, 2003 | 7 p.m. ET
Prometheus space-bound: Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory say they've successfully tested an engine being developed as a candidate for Project Prometheus, the space agency's nuclear power initiative. The idea behind Prometheus is to develop reactor-powered spacecraft that can go places where solar cells just won't provide enough juice.

The Dec. 12 test involved the Nuclear Electric Xenon Ion System, or NEXIS. The system would use a nuclear reactor to generate electricity, which in turn would be converted into thrust by an ion engine similar to the one used five years ago during the Deep Space 1 mission. The NEXIS engine, however, would operate at more than 20 kilowatts, almost 10 times the power used by Deep Space 1's engine. It would have 10 times the capability of DS1's engine and operate for 10 years, two to three times longer than DS1.

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For the purposes of this month's test, NEXIS drew on commercial electric power rather than a nuclear reactor.

"This test, in combination with the recent successful test of the High Power Electric Propulsion ion engine at NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, is another example of the progress we are making in developing the technologies needed to support flagship space exploration missions throughout the solar system and beyond," Alan Newhouse, director of Project Prometheus, said in a written statement.

Nuclear electric ion propulsion systems such as NEXIS or HiPEP would be used for NASA's Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission, due for launch in 2012 or later.

• Dec. 23, 2003 | 7 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• 
Discovery.com: Early Americans outlawed Christmas
• Nature: Stem cells' 'secret of youth' found
• Scientific American: Unmaking memories
• Mars Society: Daily dispatches from Mars, Utah 

• Dec. 22, 2003 | 9:45 p.m. ET
How the cosmos changed color: First we were told that the average color of the universe was a ’50s shade of green ... then we found out that it was actually a warm latte beige. Now the European Southern Observatory says it's figured out how much the average color has changed over the course of billions of years.

When the universe was only 2.5 billion years old, it was much bluer than it seems today, the ESO's international team said. That's based on an analysis of optical near-infrared wavelengths from more than 300 galaxies, within a pinhole view of the night sky known as the Hubble Deep Field South. The exercise was part of a research project called the Faint Infrared Extragalactic Survey, or FIRES.

The target galaxies were selected on the basis of their high redshift values, an indication that the objects were extremely distant and therefore dated back to the infant universe. Then the readings were adjusted to compensate for the redshift. The result? A bluer cosmos.

"The blue color of the early universe is caused by the predominantly blue light from young stars in the galaxies. The redder color of the universe today is caused by the relatively larger number of older, redder stars," Dutch astronomer Marijn Franx of the Leiden Observatory said in the ESO's report.

The color correction isn't just a publicity stunt: Analyzing how the color distribution has changed sheds new light on how the universe has developed over its estimated 14-billion-year lifetime, said the research team's leader, Gregory Rudnick from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

Image: NGC 613
ESO
NGC 613's spiral arms give it an octopuslike appearance.

"Since the total amount of light in the universe in the past was about the same as today, and a young blue star emits much more light than an old red star, there must have been significantly fewer stars in the young universe than there is now," he explained. "Our new findings imply that the majority of stars in the universe were formed comparatively late, not so long before our sun was born, at a moment when the universe was around 7,000 million years old."

If you're not exactly entranced by the "color of the universe" conundrum, the ESO is offering other holiday goodies: three new pictures of distant, dusty galaxies, captured by the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The accompanying picture shows the barred galaxy NGC 613 in the southern constellation Sculptor.

• Dec. 22, 2003 | 9:45 p.m. ET
The moon vs. Mars: Should America first return to the moon, this time for good, and then think about going to Mars? Or should NASA focus on the Red Planet and look upon lunar missions as a case of "been there, done that"? If we're talking long-term, both the moon and Mars would rank among the top priorities for space exploration and settlement. But which giant leap should serve as the centerpiece for the White House's rumored space initiative?

The debate continues in the media. Among the latest to weigh in: scientist/author Timothy Ferris' op-ed piece in The New York Times (registration required), which comes down on the "Moon First" side of the controversy; the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which quotes last moonwalker Eugene Cernan as saying "the moon should not be the objective"; and USA Today, where founder Al Neuharth complained about President Bush's "missed opportunity" to sketch out a space vision during the Wright Brothers centennial.

Cosmic Log readers have weighed in on the subject as well. Here's a selection of the feedback on the moon, Mars and simulations of "Mars on Earth":

B. Selvadurai, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: "Like all exploration, we should go one step at a time. I believe our first step of having a permanent space station around Earth is the correct one. Our next step should be a station around the moon, then a moon station. After that, a station around Mars, and then a station on Mars. One reason for going with this approach is that the spacecraft [designed for travel] between a space station and a land base is very different from a spaceship [for travel] between space stations. The shuttle replacements, for example, will be only good for plying between Earth and our space station. We should be able to assemble a different spaceship at our space station to travel between the space stations."

Kyle Shelton, Spokane, Wash.: "It is my opinion that the Arctic/desert simulation missions are critical for testing equipment, theories and the science behind placing a crew on any planet or moon. But, I think another critical step in that would be to use the moon as a 'dress rehearsal' for Mars, work out any glitches, do a real test on equipment and personnel. in doing this, it would allow quick communication with support facilities such as the international space station, and Earth itself. it would also allow a quick recovery of any personnel should any issues occur, and would make the space station a great halfway point from which to launch further moon missions, and eventually Mars missions."

O.M.: "Hey! Let's send Paris Hilton to Mars and see how well she survives up there on 'Red Acres.'"

• Dec. 22, 2003 | 9:45 p.m. ET
SOHO, Ho, Ho! You can never accuse the scientists behind the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory of lacking a sense of humor, although sometimes it's the kind of humor that makes you wince.

Image: SOHO Santa
NASA / ESA
Do you see the Santa on the sun?

First there was the picture of Santa's reindeer on the sun, which was a novel interpretation of a coronal hole on the solar disk. Now Paal Brekke, the European Space Agency's deputy project scientist for SOHO, is sending around a Christmas card made up to look like a mustachioed solar Santa, based on imagery from SOHO's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope.

"With just a little contrast added to the mouth area, what you are seeing are active regions and magnetic loops on the sun that seem have arranged themselves into a Santalike face," Brekke wrote. "So we decided to take this opportunity to make the most of it and wish everyone a happy holiday season."

Maybe the Santa is a little hard to make out, but it's easy to recognize the Christmas cheer.

• Dec. 22, 2003 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
• 
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): A border whose roots grow deep
• Mercury News: Invasion of the centibots
• Wired.com: Flying saucer may yet take flight
• BBC: Antibubbles made in Belgian beer

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.


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