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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

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• Jan. 2, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Hunt for a Martian Beagle: Has the Beagle landed? Scientists at the European Space Agency and Britain's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council haven't yet given up on the hunt for their Beagle 2 lander, which has been silent since well before its scheduled Christmas Day landing on Mars. The next best opportunity to make contact comes at 7:13 a.m. ET next Wednesday, when Europe's Mars Express orbiter is due to pass directly over Beagle's supposed landing site, says Mars Express project scientist Agustin Chicarro.

In the week since it entered into Martian orbit, Mars Express hasn't gotten as much ink as Beagle or the NASA rover assault that is due to begin Saturday. But European controllers have been steadily working to get the orbiter ready to join the Beagle hunt and conduct its own scientific observations. The probe's first picture taken from Martian orbit could be released as early as this weekend, Chicarro said during a Planetary Society teleconference with journalists today.

On Sunday, Mars Express will fire its thruster to settle into its regular polar orbit, and then try making contact with Beagle 2. Past attempts, using NASA's Mars Odyssey and Britain's Jodrell Bank radio telescope, have been unsuccessful — either because the Beagle has broken, or because its 5-watt antenna is pointing the wrong way, or because the frequencies don't match up as expected.

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Mars Express, however, is specifically designed to communicate with Beagle 2, and there won't be any better opportunity than the one next Wednesday. "Even if the antenna is not pointing exactly vertically, the orbiter should be able to pick it up," Chicarro said.

Controllers won't give up if contact isn't made on Wednesday. In fact, the flyover opportunity will come up every three or four days, and the Beagle is designed to take care of itself for several weeks.

"Maybe by now things will have worked, and it's taken a few pictures and is just waiting to make contact," Chicarro said hopefully.

Image: Mars Express
ESA
The Mars Express orbiter, shown in this artist's conception, is adjusting its orbit around the Red Planet.

But even if the Beagle is gone, Mars Express has its own mission to accomplish: Chicarro said the orbiter's high-resolution camera and other scientific instruments should be sending data back to Earth by the third week of January. Around the end of February, the orbiter will deploy the antennas for its ground-penetrating radar system, which could find evidence of Martian permafrost as far as 3 miles beneath the surface.

"The kind of data it will provide will be more similar to that which you get in, for example, oil prospecting," Chicarro said.

By March, Mars Express will settle into the scientific routine it will follow for the next two to four years, conducting a full-globe survey of the surface and subsurface. If all goes well this month, at least five spacecraft — the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the Mars Odyssey, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express orbiters — will be in action. Beagle would make six.

"We hope that in terms of global imaging of the surface, in terns of mineralogical mapping, in terms of atmospheric composition and circulation, and in terms of water reservoirs below the surface, we could certainly provide a significant step in our understanding of Mars," Chicarro said. "And hopefully also in the life question — if Beagle is still alive, as we still hope."  

To get the full story on this year's Red Planet campaign, check out our special section. And if you want to watch the story of NASA's Spirit rover unfold in real time on Saturday night, tune into NASA TV via our Live Video offerings. Briefings are scheduled at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET. Live NASA commentary is due to start at 9:45 p.m. ET, with landing expected at 11:35 p.m.

• Jan. 2, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Robot vs. robot: The Grand DARPA Challenge is on track for March 13: Twenty-five teams are building autonomous all-terrain vehicles to make the trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas without the aid of human navigation. Basically, this is a test that could pave the way for future robotic battle wagons. The robo-car that clocks the shortest travel time under 10 hours would earn its team a $1 million Pentagon-funded prize.

But the Pentagon's challenge isn't the only game in town: Scores of teams that had hoped to compete were excluded, sparking an outcry detailed in The Register and on Slashdot. The result: an alternative competition, organized by a group called the International Robot Racing Federation, backed by private sponsors and tentatively scheduled for September in the Las Vegas area. Will the federation outdo the feds? Stay tuned.

• Jan. 2, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Feedback Friday: We're closing the books on the old business of 2003 with some of the feedback relating to stone-skipping, e-voting and pop theology.

S.K.B. from Oil City, Pa., reports that Jerry Coleman-McGhee's stone-skipping record was successfully challenged in Franklin, Pa. — and indeed, there's a report that Kurt Steiner of Kane, Pa., bested the old 38-skip mark with a 40-skip showing in 2002.

Lance Curtis on e-voting: "There's an elegant and simple solution right at our collective fingertips. The one that was always around: paper ballots. The European Union has banned voting machines. ... We should take a cue from that action. Incidents such as the one you've reported will be impossible. As long as the ballots are not handed over to a private corporation to regulate/count, no 'scrub' list is tampered with, creating a false list of ineligible voters; it will be extremely difficult for voter fraud to be perpetrated. We'll only have to worry about 'hanging chads.'"

David Knowlton, Tampa, Fla., on pop theology: "Books like 'The Da Vinci Code' are good fun. Humans look for patterns in things, however mundane, and then think they have uncovered God! My mother notes acronyms in auto license plates that correspond to the names of friends from her school days. Just good fun, unless she starts believing God is trying to communicate with her via apparent order arising out of randomness. I search for God, laugh at myself when I get it wrong and try not to work too hard at overthinking. Asking children about God might be as revealing as reading Aquinas or Bonhoeffer."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Nothing is so useless, albeit dangerous, as the theologist. They sit, speculate and dispute about something that they cannot prove even exists and then incite wars over the disagreements. Please note, I haven't said that gods don't exist, I just can't prove the negative! ... So, until the Cosmic Overlord or whatever, gets his/her/its own column, how about we set a ground rule that if you can't see it, measure it or at least describe it mathematically, we let it die."

• Jan. 2, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
 "Nova" on PBS: "Mars Dead or Alive"
 The Economist: Whaling wars
 Science News: Quarks take wrong turns

• Dec. 31, 2003 | 7:15 p.m. ET
The science of skipping stones: The Guinness world record for skipping stones across the water is held by Jerry Coleman-McGhee, who achieved 38 skips in 1994 at Texas' Blanco River. Do you think you could do better? Then remember this magic number: 20 degrees.

To find what they called the "magic angle," French researchers built a stone-skipping machine that hurled aluminum disks at various velocities and angles.

"By monitoring the collision of a spinning disk with water, we have discovered that an angle of about 20 degrees between the stone and the water's surface is optimal with respect to the throwing conditions and yields the maximum possible number of bounces," the researchers wrote in the New Year's Day issue of the journal Nature.

For reasons not yet fully known, the 20-degree angle minimized the time of collision between the test disks and the water. "The amount of energy dissipated during a collision is directly proportional to the collision time," the researchers reported, and thus the disks conserved more energy to keep on skipping.

They said more analysis was needed to develop a "more detailed description of the time-dependent hydrodynamic flow around the stone."

Twenty degrees may be the "magic angle," but past research conducted by one of the members of the research team, the University of Lyon's Lydéric Bocquet, shows that other factors enter into a record-setting skip: The flat stone has to be spun with enough force to get a stabilizing gyroscopic effect, and the velocity has to be high enough to keep the stone skipping and skipping. Bocquet calculated that a 38-skip showing would require flinging a rock at 25 mph, with a spin of 840 rpm.

Humans have thrown stones at the water since time immemorial, but the researchers said their study showed there were still some things to learn about the pastime. "The ancient art of stone-skipping may therefore benefit from modern scientific insight," they said.

• Dec. 31, 2003 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Galaxies on the edge: The latest imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope targets two galaxy clusters from the young universe — in one case, 9 billion years ago, and in the other, more than 12 billion years ago.

Image: Baby galaxy
NASA/ESA/Leiden Obs.
This "baby galaxy" is producing powerful radio emissions, and is the brightest galaxy in the proto-cluster known as TN J1338-1942. The green color indicates that the galaxy is emitting glowing hydrogen gas. Its clumpy appearance suggests that it is still in the process of forming.

The latter case involves the most distant "proto-cluster" ever found, designated TN J1338-1942. Some of the galaxies within the cluster are so young that scientists say they can see first-generation stars still forming within them. The observations, gathered by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, are the subject of a paper published in this week's Nature.

"These findings further support observations and theories that galaxies formed relatively early in the history of the cosmos," the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute says. "The existence of such massive clusters in the early universe agrees with a cosmological model wherein clusters form from the merger of many sub-clusters in a universe dominated by cold dark matter. The precise nature of cold dark matter, however, is still not known."

Check out the report at HubbleSite.org for more on the findings and the imagery.

• Dec. 31, 2003 | 7:15 p.m. ET
More light on dark energy: Speaking of dark matters, Nature also has published new research supporting the idea that most of the universe's content consists of a mysterious dark energy that is causing galaxies to fly apart at an accelerating rate. During the past year, astronomical surveys confirmed the existence of dark energy, and the editors of the journal Science rated such research the top scientific breakthrough of 2003. The new findings, based on an analysis of radio galaxies and X-ray galaxy clusters, help fill out the time line for dark energy's effect. To learn more, check out the University of Portsmouth's report.

• Dec. 31, 2003 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Ringing out the old: Cosmic Log will go dark on New Year's Day, but you can expect to see e-mail feedback on e-voting, pop theology and more on Friday. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Saturn and Stardust.

• Dec. 31, 2003 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Quick scientific skips to ring in the new:
 Nature: Dead comet spawned New Year meteors
 National Geographic's top 10 stories of 2003
 Discovery.com: Champagne bubble mystery uncorked

• Dec. 30, 2003 | 8 p.m. ET
Putting Mars on the Web: When the Mars Pathfinder probe and its Sojourner rover landed on the Red Planet in 1997, NASA was overwhelmed by 17.3 million Web visits during the first month of the mission. Next month, two NASA rovers are scheduled to hit Mars, and the Web traffic is sure to be even heavier. But this time around, the space agency is benefiting from what's been learned about managing Internet data in the past six and a half years.

This time around, when you click onto NASA's portal for the Mars missions, you'll be routed automatically to the data server that can best handle your traffic. If you're in Sydney, for example, you might well snag the rovers' latest panorama from a computer in Australia without ever being routed through the States.

"It's a little like mirror sites, but it will be invisible to the public," said Michelle Viotti, manager for Mars public engagement at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They will be routed to whichever server worldwide has the least amount of traffic."

To plan for the Web rush, NASA reviewed Internet traffic patterns from Feb. 1, when the shuttle Columbia was lost, as well as the Olympic Games. The load could surge dramatically, based on how the images come in and how the missions are covered on TV, said Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect for NASA Web infrastructure.

"We expect that we could see as many as 200,000 simultaneous people coming in.  ... We expect to see this very spiky kind of traffic, and that's typical for NASA events," she said. "We've prepared our infrastructure to handle that dynamic flexibility."

In the course of an hour, millions of Internet users might surf through NASA's network, she said — reaching levels comparable to the 3 million users per hour during the height of the Columbia tragedy.

The setup for the Mars missions involves eTouch Systems, the agency's prime contractor for the NASA portal; Sprint, whose servers host NASA's data; and Speedera Networks, whose global network of 1,300 servers will distribute the goodies from Mars.

"We are expecting this to be one of the biggest events that has ever occurred," said Ajit Gupta, Speedera's chief executive officer, president and founder.

Gupta compared the Mars landings to a movie release: "If everyone had to go to Hollywood to watch a movie, you can imagine what's going to happen. Instead, you go to your local theater. We offload the resource requirement to our distributed network, which is worldwide."

Assuming that NASA's show is a hit, what will those millions of Internet users see? "We're going to be having the raw images come back from the spacecraft, and we'll be putting those up on the Web in near-real time," Viotti said.

Those raw images will be in black and white, but NASA teams also will be processing the data to produce full-color panoramas, 3-D pictures and other imagery for daily release. The Web site also will offer behind-the-scenes feature stories, daily status reports and diary entries from scientists and students.

Slide show
Mars' greatest hits
See two decades' worth of Red Planet images.
"Once the rover is off the lander, we hope to have Web videos of what the rover did on the surface during the day," Viotti said. "They can take the surface data and emplace a model of the rover on the surface, and chart its path across the landscape."

As the scheduled 90-day missions continue, NASA would also provide a public version of its science applications planning tool. "That will be on the Web as well so that folks can see how the scientists make decisions on where the rover goes, what it studies, and how they plan to do that," Viotti said.

In addition to serving up Mars on your desktop, NASA will be sending high-resolution imagery to more than 70 facilities via the Internet as part of the Mars Visualization Alliance, Viotti said: "The hope there is that beyond looking at your computer screen, people can go to their local museum or science center and get a big-screen experience firsthand."

• Dec. 30, 2003 | 8 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
 Wired.com: The fantasy and reality of 2004
 Nature: Prion proteins may store memories
 Scientific American: Why machines should fear
 SciScoop: Interview with a skeptic, part 1 

• Dec. 29, 2003 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Rewriting Holy Writ: For our second annual Christmas "science and religion" symposium, I pointed to the rising popularity of books and TV shows that blended scripture, speculation and scientific findings to come up with new perspectives on the New Testament. Are hybrids like "The Da Vinci Code" good, bad, or really nothing more than a good yarn? Here is a selection of the feedback:

John Newman, Columbus, Ohio: "If one considers the impact of the Indiana Jones movie series on archaeology, then pop articles or programs about religious issues do more good than harm. But unlike archaeology, a science, theology is difficult to quantify or provide empirical evidence to reach objective conclusions. The public will be better served if the media and scientists identify references (a bibliography) used in these articles or programs."

Brian Wood, Denver: "I would say that all history, anthropology and archaeology only reveals more about truth and about God and His providence. Mixing with fiction would be a dangerous thing. After all, he is a God of Truth, and cannot lie. He has revealed himself in the Holy Scriptures, which were not decided upon by men, but discovered by men, which were preserved by the Hebrew people and the church."

Janet Sullins: "The search for truth is never-ending. 'Good or evil,' really??? I think the chances for misinterpretation are immense, based on who’s interpreting it. If it agrees with your ideas fine, but if it doesn’t, it's evil??? I think there is enough of this type of prejudice in the world right now. Is there a good reason why we can’t let people believe what they want to believe?  I think all the Holy Scriptures are or were based on truth. Our truths may have changed with wisdom, but others may still need to learn those lessons, and who are we to say 'No, you can’t learn it for yourself because we don’t think it is truth, so it’s evil.'"

Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Australia: "Pop religion tackles the questions that the entrenched opinion-mongers of the established religions are afraid to handle — it's lateral thinking on the subversive, marginal heresies of the past. Is it truth? History? Or reinterpretation run rampant? Good or evil is too polarizing. It's what you make of it in the end, and it can inspire holiness or wickedness. Having read a lot of emphatic, dogmatic claims on the Web, presented by ever more marginal, fragmented religious groups, I think if all of us learned how to greet new ideas with a certain tolerant skepticism then we'd all be better off. ..."

Ed, Dayton: "Since most people believe what they see or hear, mixing fact and fiction ('Da Vinci Code') does more harm than good (just look at how many people believe wrestling is real). While the critical approach to historical research has its benefits, too much is read into the past using today's knowledge."

Jason Alexander Hefner: "It’s a horrible idea to blend religion, anyone’s religion, and fiction. There is enough dissension and agitation in the world today without attacking someone’s core beliefs. What seems like fun to one person is just plain maliciousness to the person who truly believes in their truth. Many people don’t appreciate having their religion belittled by others, particularly those simply seeking profit. The more fiction that gets heaped on top of religion the harder it is to actually determine any type of worldly truth that may be there."

Shen Michael: "I think that with the network of information we have available to us on the planet now, we should be trying to reconstruct the various pieces of our history, and to get as close as we can to knowing the truth of these stories which so many people take for granted as fact, when we know that the stories presented in mainstream scripture are synthesized through the writing of men with strong opinions and doctrines.  Personally, in my studies, I have come across many sources indicating that Miriam of Magdala was in fact the bride of Yeshua, which was the correct name for Jesus the Christ, and I have never read 'The Da Vinci Code,' though I know of its contents.  It is important for there to be a rebalancing of the feminine and masculine energies on the planet, and women must be given the credit they deserve for their part in the creation of our collective reality, and begin to see themselves in a more positive and self-respectful light. ..."

Duane Jones: "I think it is always good when mankind devotes serious thought and discussion about God.  He doesn't want us to be robots."

Lisa J. Nunez: "...I have a very hard time with blind faith because I have a scientist’s mind.  But I work on it constantly because I don’t have all the answers. Having expressed that, I contend that any information which supports or refutes any dogma (religious or otherwise) is significant.  Since religion is a human construct, it is vitally important that it be as effective as possible.  If we are in need of it, then we should feel that its ideals are irrefutable. However, because it is a human construct, religion is inherently flawed.  Humans see everything colored by personal perspective.  Culturally, women (with few exceptions) were insignificant politically and economically until very recently (within the scope of written history).  So it stands to reason that women are less significant in the Bible because it was written by men.  Obviously, women’s stories are not entirely excluded (after all, there is Mary, Mother of God).  However, the Bible does not recount the role of women in the inception and growth of the church, and many stories have been twisted by the church to suit specific needs.  (There is no mention of Mary Magdalene’s prostitution).  Certainly men and women understand each other better when we have more information of any kind.  It is imperative that we understand women’s role in history as well as the early church. ..."

Larry M. Beasley: "'Is pop theology good or evil?' This subject ranges from suppressed bible verses all the way to fringe mythology (like Scientology) and beyond (if there is such a thing). That’s way too broad a question to paste a blanket judgment across. Personally, I will treat every claim with healthy skepticism until someone manages to walk on water, raise the dead and feed the multitudes. Even then, I’ll be looking for a second opinion."

R.P. Nettelhorst, academic vice president, Quartz Hill School of Theology, Quartz Hill, Calif: "Pop theology is pretty much like pop astronomy or pop geology, in my experience: rarely very well done.  What I find surprising is the amount of credence that people will put into the fringe areas whether in science, history or theology, while ignoring the mainstream.  If people want to think about theology, at least of the Christian variety, they’d do well to actually read the Bible through in a modern translation, perhaps read a bit of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and maybe delve into Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as examples, or most any standard systematic theology textbook.  Just as if they were interested in astronomy they’d do well to take a look at a basic textbook on the topic, and then search out the works of some of the more respected astronomers in the field, and then maybe get a telescope or just go outside and look up with a nice star chart from Sky and Telescope.  Simply sitting in a chair and deciding, without any research, that God is, say, ‘ineffable mind’ is about as intellectually rigorous and as reasonable as agreeing with the guy who decides that God is a baked potato he keeps under his bed."

• Dec. 29, 2003 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• 
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Quest for the $1 billion telescope
• Science@NASA: Earth's inconstant magnetic field
• Discovery.com: Wildfires reset rock clocks
• BBC: 'Robot Tarzan' at work in Washington forest

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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