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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

NASA gives its new spaceship project a name

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• Jan. 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Flight of the Constellation: NASA hasn't yet come up with a design for its next spaceship, but it's come up with a snappy name for the effort. During Wednesday's Senate testimony, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe referred to the plan to build new Crew Exploration Vehicle as Project Constellation.

O'Keefe's pronouncement came just days after we debated names like Phoenix, Freedom and Enterprise. Hang onto those suggestions: They might come in handy for christening some of the ships that are spawned by Project Constellation.

The name Constellation has overtones of sailing-ship tradition as well as "Star Trek" tradition, although "Trek" fans might not be too crazy about the allusion. After all, the USS Constellation gave up the ghost in "The Doomsday Machine," and the "Next Generation" crew considered Constellation-class starships to be decidedly old-fashioned.

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But at least three Cosmic Log readers said Project Constellation was a winning choice. Dana E. Spade of Hurricane, W.Va., and Bruce Roepke included the name on their lists, and Peter Lloyd provided some extra information in support of his nomination: "The sister ship to the Constitution, representing the grit and determination that the United States was founded upon. Plus it relates to space at the same time."

This Sunday, amid all the Super Bowl hoopla, take a little extra time to remember the grit and determination of the world's explorers, past, present and future, on the anniversary of the Columbia tragedy.

• Jan. 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Annual swimsuit issue: Advances in swimsuit technology are among the sure signs that the Olympic Games are coming up: In the 2000 Olympics, sharkskin was all the rage. Will this be the year of the "turbulator"?

Image: Turbulator suit
U. at Buffalo
The turbulator ridges are placed on the suit front, across the shoulders and across the hips.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo hope so: Their turbulator technology made its debut today at the FINA World Cup Swimming meet, in Tyr's new Aquashift competition suits. The idea is that ridges on the suits, made of fabric-encased flexible tubes, can change the fluid dynamics around swimmers to reduce drag.

"When water hits the shoulders of a swimmer, it separates from the body, which creates drag," David Pendergast, a professor of physiology and biophysics at UB, said in today's news release. "By adding a turbulator, we cause water to follow the body instead of separating from it. This change increases friction drag, but reduces pressure drag."

The researchers found that the placement of the turbulators was crucial: The final design incorporates a series of ribs positioned on the suit front, across the shoulders and across the hips.

Pendergast said trials of turbulator suits showed that the added ribs could improve a swimmer's time by 3 percent. His colleague in the research was Joseph Mollendorf, UB professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

• Jan. 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
 "Nova" on PBS: "Dogs and More Dogs"
 The Atlantic: A two-planet species?
New Scientist: Particle experiment produces lots of hypernuclei
 Grand Rapids Press: A little global warming sounds pretty good

• Jan. 29, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Virtual space travel: It hit me while I was looking at the stereo image of Opportunity's landing site through 3-D glasses: This is cool. This is a place I'd like to go. I can almost make out the trail I'd take over the hill.

Is that the feeling that will drive humans to the moon, Mars and beyond? Or will it instead drive the creation of more capable robots in space, and better virtual-reality systems here on Earth? The chances that I will ever actually tread the dunes of Meridiani Planum are just about nil, of course. But I could visualize a time when robots and software could construct a 3-D virtual-reality moonscape or Mars-scape that for most people would be better than being there.

This is the latest twist on the old "humans vs. robots" debate, raised by the latest Mars missions as well as President Bush's space initiative. Just in the past couple of days, Clark Lindsey's Space Log has taken issue with a New York Times article on whether virtual exploration could satisfy the public's thirst for space wonders:

"The pursuit of human space colonies may seem less urgent, given the option of space adventures mediated by machines and operated by remote control," Amy Harmon's article in the Times states.

"I think it will have quite the opposite effect," Lindsey replies. "The landers' imagery transforms Mars from an abstraction into a real place and will entice and inspire many either to want to go there themselves or at least to want to see living, breathing, thinking representatives of the human race go there and report back their impressions and experiences in person."

The theme is likely to play out as well next Thursday at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where the Mars Society's Robert Zubrin, one of the most vocal advocates of human exploration, is due to debate the American Physical Society's Robert Park, one of the most vocal skeptics when it comes to human spaceflight. I'd love to sit in on that debate, but instead I'll have to rely on your feedback to let me know how it goes. You can also let me know what you think about robotic telepresence and human presence in space.

In the short term, NASA's new exploration mission will unquestionably result in more capable space robots. David Gump, the president of Virginia-based LunaCorp, is one guy who thinks his own robots-to-the-moon vision will get a boost from Bush's humans-to-the-moon vision.

For years, Gump has been trying to sell his idea of launching lunar landers that can transmit high-bandwidth imagery back to Earth for, say, a pay-TV moon channel.

"The two Mars rovers certainly demonstrate that the public is very interested, through billions and billions of Web hits," Gump said today. "And with the moon declaration, it's something that corporations can point to as an endorsement of the idea that going to the moon is a positive thing."

Some of the initial robotic missions to the moon, scheduled for 2008 and later, could be funded by commercial interests as well as the federal government, Gump suggested slyly.

"We could certainly work something out where a private network, or others, pay the marginal costs of a broadband telecom/video link. And things would complement each other," he said. "The government side would get an asset that they don't have to pay for, and the commercial side would get to ride along on the main mission."

Even the cheap 3-D glasses represent a giant leap for space imagery.

"It's an amazing difference isn't it, 3-D vs. 2-D? That's something we need to decide on with the high-bandwidth link," Gump said, "whether we spend those pixels on a 3-D view or whether we spend those pixels on an HDTV view."

For now, Gump's broadband mission to the moon is still on the drawing boards. For more on a commercial lunar mission that may get off the ground later this year, check out this report from Meanwhile, CNET has this archived report on 3-D display advances, and Encarta provides a primer on virtual reality.

• Jan. 29, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
 WSJ (via SFGate): Government works on space tourism rules
 Fortune: The Pentagon's weather nightmare
Arabic News: The world's first bowling alley? Mood ring measured in megahertz

• Jan. 28, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Challenger memorial on Mars: On the 18th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, NASA confirmed today that the Opportunity rover's landing site on Mars was being named Challenger Memorial Station in honor of the shuttle's seven fallen astronauts.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's announcement came in testimony to the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — three weeks after the site of the Spirit rover was named Columbia Memorial Station, and a day after the names of the fallen Apollo 1 astronauts were given to three hills surrounding Spirit.

O'Keefe said the Challenger anniversary "serves as a stark reminder of the price we pay for human exploration."

"This painful reminder serves as a clarion call to redouble our efforts to undertake this new chapter in exploration in the safest manner humanly possible," O'Keefe said. "As a testament to the courage of the Challenger crew, and their contribution to human exploration, we will designate the landing site of the Opportunity rover on Mars as the Challenger Memorial Station."

Image: Opportunity landing area
A composite image, based on data from Opportunity's descent camera and Mars Global Surveyor, shows the area around the rover. Opportunity is thought to have landed in a small crater just to the right of center. Click on the image for further details.

The agency followed up with a full news release and a picture showing the general area where Opportunity landed. Mars mission managers are still working to nail down the precise location of the 65-foot-wide crater that now bears Challenger's name.

The seven who lost their lives in the 1986 explosion included teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith and fellow astronauts Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik.

It'd be nice to say that a Martian memorial to the Challenger 7 was my idea, but it's been clear ever since Columbia Memorial Station was named that this was the most fitting complement.

For more about Opportunity's locale, check out NASA's Mars Web site and MSNBC's Red Planet coverage. For more about Challenger, read NBC correspondent Jay Barbree's retelling of the saga, and follow Web links from the NASA History Office.

• Jan. 28, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Quick hops on the scientific Web:
 New Scientist: Mysterious vulture die-off solved
 Scientific American: Becoming behemoth
BBC: Artifact recalls witches' shadow
 National Geographic: Fossil jaw adds to orangutan family tree

• Jan. 27, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Political market in flux: In the waning hours of the New Hampshire presidential primary, John Kerry's stock was up, while Howard Dean's stock was ... well, all over the charts.

"There's been a fair bit of movement during the day for Dean. ... There's a great deal of instability in the market, people seem uncertain about the outcome," Forrest Nelson observed today.

Nelson is no pol or pundit: Rather, he's an economics professor at the University of Iowa and a co-director of the Iowa Electronic Markets, where political fortunes are bought and sold like so many pork-belly futures. Over the past 16 years, the IEM has adapted market techniques to give thousands of small-time traders a way to place real-life bets on presidential campaigns.

The point of the exercise is to teach students about the predictive power of markets — and get the political juices going as well. Using accounts ranging from $5 to $500, traders can buy and sell futures contracts based on who they think will get the party nomination, or win the November election. Over the years, the IEM has reflected the actual popular vote with an average prediction error of 1.37 percent, the University of Iowa says.

In the Democratic nomination market, Kerry was trading at 57.5 cents a share as of 5 p.m. CT today, while John Edwards was at 19.4 cents and Dean was at 15.8 cents. The candidate who wins the nomination will earn his "investors" $1 a share. The losers' investors will get nothing.

Is it legal? Of course, the university says. The Commodities Futures Trading Commission has ruled that it will take no regulatory action against the IEM as long it sticks to its guidelines for education and research. And Nelson says economists already have learned some lessons from the experiment.

He said researchers were curious whether the market would actually work in a field that is by definition rife with partisanship and favoritism.

"The market turned out to work really well," Nelson said. Most of the traders played their personal favorites, even if their choices weren't financially rational. But a relatively small number of market-makers were able to keep the payouts in balance, the professor said.

"Not everyone has to be rational, as long as the people making the market are rational. ... We were able to identify some small group of traders, probably less than 10 percent of the trader pool, who were willing to take any position," he said.

Nelson believes the predictive power of markets could be applied to many other questions:

  • Will Company X's new product be a success?
  • How much will Organization Y's budget amount to next year?
  • Will political instability hit Country Z?

That last application generated a storm of controversy last summer, when the Pentagon tried to adapt the IEM idea and set up a Policy Analysis Market to track Middle East political developments. The idea was blasted as "gambling on terrorism" and died a quick death.

"It's too bad all that happened," Nelson said. "There are some tremendous applications of markets to predict events."

For example, the university has just set up a Flu Prediction Market to find out whether the IEM system can help predict when and where the next flu outbreak might arise. "This will be a market open only by invitation to people in the health-care field," Nelson said.

Traders can use Monopoly-style "flu money" — not real money — to place bets on the likelihood of an outbreak in Iowa, based on their reading of public health statistics, school absences and other factors. Researchers will track how closely the trading reflects actual flu statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the market works, it could give public health systems a head start in dealing with infectious outbreaks. "If they just had four weeks' notice of a big influx in flu, the hospitals could be better prepared," Nelson said.

The IEM isn't the only player in the predictive market game. In fact, "game" would be a good description for what the Irish-based Intrade venture does: Intrade facilitates trades for political contests as well as other events, such as the Oscar best-picture race ("Lord of the Rings" is the favorite) and whether basketball star Kobe Bryant will actually stand trial on rape charges.

Unlike the IEM, Intrade is a tool for profit rather than pedagogy: The company charges a 4-cent transaction fee for every lot traded. You'll want to check out the fine print to learn how the system works.

• Jan. 27, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
 Newsday: Columbia's final minutes in 'Comm Check'
 Nature: Butterflies boast ultra-black wings
New Scientist: Most flexible e-paper yet revealed Neanderthal extinction pieced together

• Jan. 26, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Sci-fi on the screen: And now for something completely different ... Yesterday's Golden Globes and tomorrow's Oscar nominations aren't the only sources of buzz in the movie world. In the past few days, a couple of science-fiction tales have captured Hollywood attention as well — and you may be hearing much more about them in the months to come.

"Primer," a little movie about time travel, won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films over the weekend. Newsweek's David Ansen says it's "both riveting and incomprehensible ... the most radically independent film in the competition." Let's hope it fares better than last year's big movie about time travel, "Timeline." 

Meanwhile, Ain't It Cool News reports that Steven Spielberg is considering a big-screen version of the Tripods Trilogy, a classic series of science-fiction novels by John Christopher (thanks to Mark Whittington of Curmudgeons Corner for the pointer). The books are suitable for children, yet carry spooky undertones of "The Matrix." The official site for the BBC's retro TV version of "The Tripods" says it all: "Killer robot nightmare or camp classic."

Somehow I missed out on the Tripods series during my upbringing — but it sounds like this month's ideal selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, a shameless rip-off of the "Today" Book Club and others of its ilk. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that are probably available at your local library or used-book store. You'll want to start with "The White Mountains," the first book of the trilogy — or with the prequel, titled "When the Tripods Came."

Drop me a line if you want to contribute a mini-review of the Tripods Trilogy, or if you have a recommendation for future CLUB Club books. If your book is chosen for next month, I'll get in touch with you and send out a barely used sci-fi novel from MSNBC's collection.

• Jan. 26, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Mars Web update: The hit count for NASA's Web sites since the Spirit rover's landing on Mars has surpassed the 4-billion mark, reports Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That's about 10 times the hit count for the first month of the Mars Pathfinder mission back in 1997.

Some observers, including's Robert Roy Britt, have rightly pointed out that hits aren't the most reliable way to measure Web traffic because one Web page request is likely to result in multiple hits, depending on how many graphic elements are on the page. So Holm has provided other measures as well: 80 terabytes of information transferred, 560 million Web pages viewed, 32.9 million recorded unique users. That last figure surely understates the actual number of users, Holm wrote in a Sunday status report, "since for services like America Online, all patrons from AOL to the NASA Portal are seen as one visitor."

"At times during the landing events and this morning, we have seen more than 1,000,000 hits a minute," she said. "The public's attention has clearly been captured by the Mars explorations of our intrepid robots. As an example, Nielsen ratings (for the Web) noted last week that NASA is the fastest-growing online destination for Americans."

Check out our previous look at NASA Web traffic for background on how the space agency and its partners are handling the load.

• Jan. 26, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Outer-space odds and ends on the Web:
 Gemini Observatory: Star reveals secrets on deathbed
 ESA: X-ray shout echoing through space
Sky and Telescope: How to help Hubble
 Slashdot: Another English-metric 'spacecraft' problem

• Jan. 25, 2004 | 5:30 a.m. ET
What's in a name? If the Spirit rover's landing site has been named Columbia Memorial Station in honor of the seven shuttle astronauts who died last Feb. 1, what name will be given to Opportunity's landing site?

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe declined to answer when that question was put to him just after Opportunity's touchdown. "Stay tuned," he said.

The most fitting name would have to be Challenger Memorial Station, because it seems only fair that the seven victims of an earlier shuttle catastrophe should be given equal honor. And because Wednesday marks the 18th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, that seems to be the most fitting day to make the announcement. But that's just an outsider's point of view. As O'Keefe said, "stay tuned."

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 or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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