• Jan. 9, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Scoops from space: If President Bush announces a bold new plan to establish a permanent moonbase as a steppingstone to Mars next Wednesday, as a rising number of media outlets are reporting, Keith Cowing and Frank Sietzen Jr. might feel justified in saying "I told you so."

Cowing and Sietzen have been working on a book telling the inside story of the Bush administration's developing space policy, titled "New Moon Rising," and in the course of their research they got in on the debate over NASA's future course. For months, media outlets have been speculating over what the White House would do, and for months, Cowing has been telling readers of his NASA Watch blog to stay tuned for something big.

On Thursday afternoon, with word of next week's announcement beginning to leak out, they provided the most detailed report on what they claim the White House is planning. Among the exclusive details: how much President Bush would ask for ($800 million more in fiscal year 2005, part of a 5 percent-per-year increase for the next five years at least); what would happen to the shuttle fleet (retirement after completion of the international space station, and replacement by a new spaceship called the Crew Exploration Vehicle); and the proposed timetable for manned moon landings (2013).

"There will be several more exclusive stories in next week's Washington Times," Cowing told MSNBC.com last night.

And there will be several more questions as well, which come out loud and clear in follow-up versions of the story carried by, say, The Washington Post and The New York Times (registration required). How specific will Bush's announcement really get? Can we really afford this? Will America's space effort again be dependent on Russia after the shuttles are retired? How will this play with Congress and the electorate?

In the Post's account, one presidential adviser mocked the big-ticket plan as an unworkable "mission to Pluto." That's an interesting reference, because according to Sietzen and Cowing's report, any NASA programs that don't support the new effort will have to be scaled back or scrapped. That would certainly cast a pall over the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. What would happen to other space science missions like the recent Stardust comet flyby and the upcoming Messenger mission to Mercury? Do planet-finding missions like Kepler count?

If the announcement does come through as advertised, just days before the Iowa presidential caucus, it'll be interesting to see how the Democrats will respond. Cowing says the initiative would put outer space right up there with defense and homeland security on the Bush agenda.

"If anybody ever had any doubts about George Bush's devotion to the space program," he said, "this should put those doubts to rest."

• Jan. 9, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Jiggyvision on Mars: So you like those stereo views of Mars? You're not alone: USA Today reports that the 3-D glasses required to see them in all their geeky glory have become a fashion statement (although the story calls them "analgraph glasses" instead of anaglyph glasses).

Now Alan Taylor, a veteran of MSNBC.com, suggests an alternate way to get the 3-D effect:

"Was just reading your log on Mars imagery, thought I'd send you a pointer to another way to display the stereo pairs, the 'space-for-time' wiggle — one set is a series of seven images I did myself, based on some 1997 Pathfinder stereo images, the other a couple of images from Spirit done using the same method here (done by someone else)."

Taylor's fellow practitioner, Daniel Root, calls the technique "Jiggyvision" — a term that's almost as fun as the images themselves, and a lot more respectable than "analgraph."

Here's some more of the week's Mars feedback:

Joe Randolph, Mulvane, Kan.: "Looking at the Mars Unearthed 3-D pictures I told my wife, 'Wish I had some glasses' ... Quickly she fixed up red cellophane paper and a small blue cellophane game card from an Orville Redenbacher popcorn box, and bingo!! The effect was wonderful!"

Morrell Aberdeen, Valencia, Trinidad: "I go to the Internet daily just to read the latest information coming from Mars. I am extremely excited about space exploration and more so about the landing on Mars, given the history of failed landings and the difficult conditions. Heartiest congratulations to the team."

James Lee, Oisterwijk, the Netherlands: "Because of the thin atmosphere, I expected the Martian sky to be (almost) black. Instead, it seems to be a sort of pearly gray. Why is this?" (Answer: Diffusion of the light by dust in Mars' atmosphere.)

Jaiprakash B. Suvarna, Mumbai, India: "After the Spirit rover has landed on Mars, the next step is for man to land on Martian soil."

Bill Hall, Santa Rita, Guam: "So far this is absolutely exciting. The photos are excellent. It is just like being on Mars. I have a strong interest in astronomy, and thank you."

Ron and Kathy Fontaine, Avon, N.Y.: "Can you still sign up to send your name to Mars? This is the first we heard of it." (Answer: Spirit and Opportunity have already left the station, but I'll bet there will be a similar opportunity involving the 2007 Phoenix Mars lander.)

 Jan. 9, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
 "Nova" on PBS: "Submarines, Secrets and Spies"
 The Economist: Babel's children
 BBC: When archaeology gets bent
 Nature: Split personalities probed

• Jan. 8, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Crack a Martian code: OK, kids, put on your thinking caps and break out your decoder rings. NASA's Spirit rover has carried a secret message to Mars, and the Planetary Society wants you to figure out what it is.

The dots-and-lines code is printed in triplicate on a mini-DVD that was mounted on the rover's landing platform. This is the disc we talked about a couple of days ago, which carries the computer code for more than 3.5 million names.

The Planetary Society's Web page on the decoding contest provides a more detailed view of the mini-DVD, and includes a form you can fill out with your solution to the riddle. If you come up with the right answer, you'll receive a certificate of accomplishment, and you may win a prize from Lego or the Planetary Society in a random drawing.

Image: Spirit DVD
NASA - JPL - Cornell
A picture from Mars shows the Spirit DVD.
"The Spirit DVD code is very sophisticated and difficult to crack," the society says. "Do not be discouraged if you find you cannot solve it in your first few tries."

If you're stumped, the Planetary Society will provide additional clues every couple of days to help you figure out the message.

I'll just note that the message consists of three lines of 25 dots and lines each, and that there are plenty of online resources on codes, ciphers and secret messages. Kcul doog!

• Jan. 8, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Highlights from EurekAlert:
 Mayo Clinic: Genetic fusion of animal and human cells observed
 U. of Florida: Study suggests life on Earth sprang from borax
 NIH: Can cloned cows resist mad cow disease?
 Stanford U.: How the brain blocks unwanted memories

• Jan. 7, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Mars rules the Net: Just four days into the Spirit rover's mission on Mars, NASA's Red Planet Web sites can put up a hamburger-stand sign saying "10 Million Served" — and the incredible thing is that hardly anyone had to stand in line.

Between Saturday and midday Wednesday, the NASA Portal network received 1.3 billion hits from 10.4 million unique users, says Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She said the system has pushed out more than 34.8 terabytes of information — that's basically 35 trillion characters' worth. In comparison, the full textual content of the Library of Congress has been estimated at a mere 20 terabytes.

"It's just a testament to how interested people are in seeing images from another world," she told MSNBC.com. During the comparable four-day period of the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997, the traffic amounted to 220 million hits — only a fifth of what it was this time around.

The biggest crush came when NASA released the first  high-resolution color image from Mars. That spike, which occurred midmorning PT on Tuesday, went as high as 6.6 gigabits per second. On NASA's chart of data traffic, the spike looks like the silhouette of New York's proposed new Freedom Tower  set against gently undulating Midwestern hills.

Keynote Systems, which has been monitoring NASA's Web response times, said that was the only time Internet users experienced noticeable delays. "The sites for the Mars rover images are beginning to show their limitations," observed Roopak Patel, a senior Internet analyst at Keynote.

NASA coped with the crush by limiting the available file sizes for the imagery: When the color "postcard" was first released, the NASA network offered an 8-megabyte version as well as a whopping 40-megabyte, full-scale image. Those versions were taken offline to keep the traffic more manageable. Holm said the 8-mb version has since been put back online, but Mars-related videos have been removed.

As reported here last week, the space agency contracted with outside vendors like Speedera Networks to knit together a global, 1,300-server system for serving up Mars-related information. The network is scalable, but more bandwidth means more expense for NASA. Tuesday's spike "pretty much exceeded our ability to provide data cost-effectively," Holm said.

If the Web rush settles down, higher-resolution files, video clips and other big-bandwidth goodies will be added to the Mars Web. But based on the incredible level of interest so far, that may take longer than NASA expected.

• Jan. 7, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Dig this! Back on Earth, Johns Hopkins University is putting a different kind of expedition on the Web: its annual archaeological journey to Egypt. This year's online expedition focuses on ancient sites near Luxor, and the daily photo dispatches provide a behind-the-scenes look at how students and researchers do what they do. If you want to dig into some archaeological action yourself later this year, you can start with Biblical Archaeology Review's directory of Middle East digs and Earthwatch Institute's expedition offerings. If nothing else, it's a great thing to dream about in the depths of winter.

• Jan. 7, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Science with a twist on the World Wide Web:
 NASA: What time is it on Mars? Mars24 tells you
 Nature: The science of cake-cutting
 Wired.com: Mobile robots take baby steps
 BBC: Virtual cash exchange goes live

• Jan. 6, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
In memoriam on Mars: NASA is naming the site of the Spirit rover's landing on Mars in honor of the seven astronauts who lost their lives 11 months ago in the loss of the shuttle Columbia. From now on, Spirit's base of operations will be known as Columbia Memorial Station.

"During this time of great joy for NASA, the Mars Exploration Rover team and the entire NASA family paused to remember our lost colleagues from the Columbia mission," Sean O'Keefe, the agency's administrator, said in a statement announcing the new name. "To venture into space, into the unknown, is a calling heard by the bravest, most dedicated individuals."

This was no spur-of-the-moment decision: Engineers attached a 6-inch-wide aluminum memorial plaque to the back of Spirit's high-gain antenna last March at Kennedy Space Center. The plaque — which bears the names of Columbia's astronauts — was designed by Chris Voorhees and Peter Illsley, engineers on the rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Image: Columbia plaque
A photo sent back by NASA's Spirit rover shows the Columbia memorial plaque, mounted on the back of the rover's lollipop-shaped high-gain antenna.
"As team members gazed at Mars through Spirit's eyes, the Columbia memorial appeared in images returned to Earth, a fitting tribute to their own spirit and dedication," O'Keefe said. "Spirit carries the dream of exploration the brave astronauts of Columbia held in their hearts."

The naming of the Spirit landing site follows a precedent observed during the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997, when the lander's resting place was named Sagan Memorial Station in honor of the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan. In fact, the Mars Viking 1 landing site also has a lesser-known memorial name: Mutch Memorial Station, in honor of the late Thomas Mutch, a former NASA associate administrator and Viking team member.

The Columbia astronauts aren't the only ones whose names are enshrined at the Spirit landing site: More than a year ago, 3.5 million names (including that of yours truly) were collected and encoded on mini-DVDs that were attached to Spirit as well as its rover twin, Opportunity, as part of a "Send Your Name to Mars" program. Now you can spot the mini-DVD on the panoramic pictures from Mars. My name may be harder to read, but I'm proud to hold a tiny speck of Columbia Memorial Station alongside the shuttle's seven fallen heroes.

• Jan. 6, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
More 3-D glasses: In addition to the three online sources for red-blue glasses I mentioned on Monday, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory lists Dimension 3 and 3D Glasses. In its guide to 3-D anaglyph viewing, the space agency makes clear that it "does not endorse or warrant any of these." The same goes for me — so consider this a listing, but not necessarily a recommendation.

• Jan. 6, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
Quick spin around the scientific Web:
 New Scientist: American footballers endure car-crash blows
 Discovery.com: Snails led to pottery's invention?
 Reason: Bruce Sterling on the cybergreen movement
 Scientific American: Turning DNA tubes into nanowires

• Jan. 5, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Souped-up views from Mars: Are you among the millions of people going gaga over NASA's pictures from Mars? Today's 3-D, 360-degree view of the Spirit rover's surroundings is definitely cool stuff, but image experts from outside NASA are getting into the act as well.

Even before today's red-blue view hit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Web site, anaglyph aficionados were using NASA's raw materials to develop their own homebrew 3-D imagery: Mars Unearthed put together a set of pictures based on stereo pairs from Spirit's hazard avoidance cameras, while a Slashdot correspondent offered up an alternate selection.

To get the full effect, you need the glasses, of course. In today's story I said the red-blue shades should be available at most novelty stores, but Mark Margolis, president of Rainbow Symphony Inc., wrote to say that's not the case:

"Truth is, the anaglyph style red-blue 3-D glasses are very difficult to find in novelty stores," Margolis said. "We are a manufacturer of the proper 3-D glasses, and they can be gotten for 'free' at our Web site or can be purchased at the Rainbow Symphony Store. We are a recommended resource for the 3-D glasses at JPL / NASA.  These images are going to be great.  People should have the right glasses, and we will provide them for free if they follow the instructions on the free page."

To be fair, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also has recommended Deep Vision 3D, which will also send you a "free" pair of glasses if you send them $2 for postage and handling. Reel 3-D Enterprises is another JPL-recommended supplier, and JPL says you can always check with your local hobby store as well. If you're a supplier with a "free" 3-D offer, drop me an e-mail and I'll pass along the links in a follow-up posting.

Looking beyond the red and the blue, CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman has been working on a different kind of imaging project:

"When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I worked with David Palermo, then with Apple Computer (and now with WorldVR.com) to produce the first QuickTime VR (360-degree) movies of the Pathfinder panoramas," he wrote. "Well, we did again! David has provided the first two of many QTVR movies to come, based on the images taken by Spirit on Mars. You can find them here."

Meanwhile, imaging expert Keith Laney, who works with NASA on the Marsoweb site, points out that the Spirit landing site shows up in his high-resolution version of Mars Global Surveyor imagery.

Malin Space Science Systems, which operates the Global Surveyor camera, provides pictures showing how the appearance of the landing site has changed over just the past six months, due to the action of dust devils. Malin says this shows that Spirit has come down in the middle of a "dynamic, changing place" — which means things could get even more interesting in the months to come.

To keep up with the latest, check our special section on Mars exploration.

• Jan. 5, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
 N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Reliving 9/11, with fire as teacher
 National Geographic: Explorer uses DNA to unlock history
 NASA: El Niño-related fires boost greenhouse gases
 Guardian Unlimited: Now it's 'Ancestors Reunited'

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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