Jan. 24, 2004 | Updated 10:30 p.m. ET
Ideas for a spaceship: Flight of the Phoenix? Or should that be the spaceship Freedom? Or Destiny, Serenity or Enterprise? In response to our call for nominations, hundreds of Cosmic Log readers sent in plenty of flashy names for NASA's proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle, the yet-to-be-designed craft that would sail a new course beyond Earth orbit, to the moon and beyond.

As you might expect, "Star Trek"-inspired names like Enterprise led the suggestion list, closely followed by "Firefly"-inspired names like Serenity. Of course, Enterprise is also a time-hallowed name for sailing ships, which is one reason why "Star Trek" went with that name in the first place. But "Phoenix" would have to be the leader among names that didn't already have strong TV or naval connotations. (Update: Kevin Grazier of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who also knows his way around the sci-fi world, points out that Phoenix was a "Star Trek" spaceship name as well. "That has to explain at least part of the popularity, apart from the obvious Columbia reference," he says.)

"Freedom" was also a strong contender — and after all, if President Reagan had his way, the current international space station would have been called Space Station Freedom.

At the risk of inviting some serious ballot-box stuffing, we're offering a thoroughly unscientific Live Vote that lists some of the top picks. To my mind, it's far more interesting to read some of the rationales for unconventional suggestions. So you'll definitely want to check out the latest feedback file for a selection of the e-mail letters.

Who ultimately decides what space projects are named? That's generally up to the project managers or the politicians. A NASA online book titled "Chariots for Apollo" describes how Abe Silverstein came up with the name Apollo in 1960 while he was director of NASA's Office of Space Flight Programs:

"Silverstein, one of those leading the charge toward more far-ranging flights than Mercury, had been looking for a suitable name for a payload for the Saturn rockets. None suggested by his associates seemed appropriate. One day, while consulting a book on mythology, Silverstein found what he wanted. He later said, 'I thought the image of the god Apollo riding his chariot across the sun gave the best representation of the grand scale of the proposed program.'"

NASA is a long way from deciding what the Crew Exploration Vehicle will look like, let alone what it will be called. But that hasn't stopped the Boeing Co., one of the certain bidders on the CEV project, from putting up a selection of artist's renditions showing what components of the space transportation system might look like. (Thanks to Transterrestrial Musings and NASA Watch for providing the Boeing links.)

Judging from the selection, it looks as if NASA will have plenty of doodads to name.

Jan. 23, 2004 | 11:30 p.m. ET
E-voting experiments: Should we tinker with voting technology? In a way, that's what the Pentagon is doing with its controversial experiment on Internet voting for Americans overseas — and in a newly published book, two experts on election reform vote in favor of such step-by-step testing.

"Point, Click and Vote" is written by Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology; and Thad Hall, a program officer with the Century Foundation. Alvarez and Hall are among the experts monitoring the Pentagon's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, and both men disagree with the view, advanced by four computer experts this week, that the SERVE project should be canceled.

Check out the Caltech news release on the book, then read the book itself for their side of the e-voting story. For the other side of the story, check out SERVESecurityReport.org or Bev Harris' Web site on "Black Box Voting."

Cosmic Log correspondents weighed in with their own views on e-voting. The aforementioned feedback file provides a selection of the e-mail.

Jan. 23, 2004 | 11:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
"Nova" on PBS: "Lost King of the Maya"
Discovery.com: Primates swapped smell for sight
Archaeology: Welcome to Hierakonpolis!
SpaceDev: Check out the Lunar Lander Simulator

Jan. 22, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
New views of Blue Planets: The Spirit rover's communications gap has shut off the spigot for Red Planet pictures temporarily, but in the meantime, newly released pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope are highlighting planets of a different color.

Today's images of Uranus and Neptune were taken last August by Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and what could be the last instrument ever installed on the orbiting observatory , the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

In visible light, the two gas giants look like nearly identical twins in robin's-egg blue. But by fiddling with Hubble's color filters, scientists can bring out details that reveal much about atmospheric composition and even weather.

Image: Uranus
Erich Karkoschka  /  Univ. of Arizona - NASA
Methane storms, thin rings and moons are visible in this enhanced-color image of Uranus.

"The enhanced-color images show how an instrument with different spectral sensitivity than that of the human eye can change the view," Erich Karkoschka, a researcher at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who processed the imagery, said in a university news release. "There is more to everything than what the eye can see."

For starters, it becomes much clearer that Uranus rolls on its side in its orbit, and that it has a set of faint rings composed of dust and pebbles.

The bands of color on the Uranian disk indicate variations in the altitude and thickness of the hazes and clouds surrounding the planet. This picture also shows three fuchsia-colored blotches that represent localized methane storms in the planet's northern hemisphere.

You can see some of Uranus' satellites, including Ariel in the lower right corner. These same observations, processed somewhat differently, were used to confirm the discovery of new Uranian moons back in September.

Based on these images, Uranus appears to have more extreme seasons than Neptune, according to scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Image: Neptune
Erich Karkoschka  /  Univ. of Arizona - NASA
Hubble image of Neptune is enhanced to bring out atmospheric details.
The banding on the picture of Neptune is much more subtle, but you can easily spot the reddish methane concentrations in this image.

Hubble's earlier observations of Neptune have tracked storm systems as they moved around the planet. The Space Telescope Science Institute has even put together a video gallery of Neptunian weather systems and the planet's changing seasons.

While we're all waiting with crossed fingers for Spirit and/or its twin rover, Opportunity, to send new batches of Red Planet snapshots, there are yet more celestial sights to see: The Spitzer Space Telescope has sent a cool infrared view of the Tarantula Nebula, and the Kitt Peak National Observatory has provided a colorful look at the Rosette Nebula. Check out our space gallery for more of the greatest hits from the cosmos.

Jan. 22, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Scientific fear factors on the World Wide Web:
Defense Tech: Air safety info in NASA terror database
Univ. of Arizona: Volunteer spots close-approaching asteroid
BBC: Should 'cowboy cloners' be outlawed?
Science News: How you can unlearn your fears

Jan. 21, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Should Pentagon scrap e-voting? Four computer security advisers say Internet voting is so vulnerable to tampering that the Pentagon should shut down its $22 million real-world, election-year test of the technology. But the Pentagon and others involved in the project say that they're addressing the potential vulnerabilities, and that the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment will go forward.

It's not that there's anything particularly terrible about the SERVE system, the four say in their analysis. Rather, it's that the Internet and personal computers are so open to hacker attacks and tampering that no system could be acceptable.

"Because the danger of successful large-scale attacks is so great, we reluctantly recommend shutting down the development of SERVE and not attempting anything like it in the future until both the Internet and the world's home computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned, or some other unforeseen security breakthroughs appear," the report says.

"That's not going to happen," Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood told MSNBC.com.

The analysis was written by four members of a 10-person Security Peer Review Group selected to monitor the project: David Wagner of the University of California at Berkeley, Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University, David Jefferson of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Barbara Simons, a computer policy consultant and a past president of the Association for Computing Machinery. Their criticism takes the debate over e-voting up yet another notch.

SERVE is a limited test, set up under a congressional mandate, to see if Internet voting could provide a more user-friendly alternative to on-paper absentee ballots for some of the estimated 6 million military personnel and overseas U.S. citizens. The experimental system, developed by Accenture, would be used in about 50 counties in seven states — Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North and South Carolina, Utah and Washington state. Up to 100,000 voters may participate, the project's organizers say.

For overseas voters, the existing absentee-ballot process leaves much to be desired, said Meg McLaughlin, president of Accenture eDemocracy Services. She cited a federal study indicating that 20 to 29 percent of eligible voters either didn't receive a requested ballot or got it too late for their vote to be counted, and that another 18 to 20 percent were so turned off by the process that they didn't bother to try.

Learn how voting systems work, from paper ballots to e-voting. Electronic voting has been championed as a way to make the electoral process easier and more accessible — but it's also been pilloried as a way for computer attackers to mess with elections. Just last month, the e-voting software company VoteHere reported a computer break-in , although the company said its system was designed to be tamperproof even in such situations.

The analysis released today says that SERVE, like any Internet-based system, could fall prey to a denial-of-service attack that would cut off access for would-be voters; a "spoof" attack that would involve setting up a fake Web page to steal or alter votes; or malicious software that was pre-planted on the voter's computer.

"Voting in a national election will be conducted using proprietary software, insecure clients and an insecure network," Simons said. "Congress and the Department of Defense should understand that providing soldiers with an insecure system on which to vote is not doing them any favors."

Simons and the other three authors are well-known for their skeptical view of e-voting. That's why they were asked to serve on SERVE's Security Peer Review Group, said Michael Alvarez, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology who has been charged with monitoring SERVE scientifically.

Alvarez said the critical report was "welcome in the sense that we brought these people together to get some feedback." But he, as well as Flood and McLaughlin, noted that the analysis was a "minority report," representing the views of four of the group's 10 members. McLaughlin said several others "have specifically said they don't agree with the conclusions of the report."

Flood said the Federal Voting Assistance Program was enhancing the SERVE system "to ensure that it will be trustworthy and secure."

"The last letter of the acronym is 'experiment,'" he pointed out.

In a similar vein, McLaughlin said Accenture was addressing the concerns pointed up by the analysis. "None of the problems they came up with had not already been considered by our team," she said. However, she said she could not be specific as to how such problems were addressed. Accenture's director of corporate communications, Jim McAvoy, said "we don't want to talk about what exactly" has been done to beef up computer security.

McLaughlin said the SERVE system is currently going through certification and testing. That means it's unlikely to be ready for the Feb. 3 South Carolina presidential primary — but it could come into play later in the primary season.

We've had plenty of debate about e-voting in general, but feel free to familiarize yourself with the pros and the cons , then send in your opinion about SERVE and alternative ways to beef up the voting process.

Jan. 20, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Nukes in space: NASA's plan to press on toward the moon, Mars and beyond is coming under fire from some quarters, not because it might end up as an incredibly expensive pipe dream, but because it might actually get somewhere.

This strain of opposition represents the latest front for the astro-environmentalist movement, which could well become more vocal as NASA develops nuclear power systems for spacecraft.

NASA's nuclear initiative, known as Project Prometheus, isn't the only astro-environmental concern: Other issues involve:

  • Plans to bring samples back from Mars or other extraterrestrial environments, which activists fear could spark an alien epidemic reminiscent of "The Andromeda Strain." We'll probably hear more about this when interplanetary particles are brought back this fall by NASA's Genesis mission, and in 2006 by the Stardust probe.
  • Efforts to "terraform" other planets to make them more hospitable to Earthlings, and perhaps in the process killing off the alien organisms we're searching for. (The Apollo 12 mission provided evidence that earthly bacteria could survive for years even in the moon's hostile environment.)

The mere idea that the United States might someday set up a permanent base on the moon has activists nervous. Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, voiced concern that President Bush's space initiative was the first step toward the creation of an "armada" to control the 21st century's cosmic shipping lanes.

But the issue of space nuclear power is the rallying point for astro-environmentalists: Gagnon was among the leaders of the opposition to NASA's plutonium-powered Cassini probe, which made a couple of Earth flybys after its 1997 launch and is due to reach Saturn this July. The plutonium on Cassini — and on past probes ranging from the Apollo lunar modules to the Galileo spacecraft — is contained in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, which convert the heat of radioactivity into electrical power.

Video: Nuclear power in space That's different from the kind of fission reaction that powers earthly power plants and nuclear weapons — and which just might power NASA's Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter a decade from now. Despite the difference, RTGs have drawn a lot of flak from environmental activists. In next month's issue of Extra! magazine, published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, journalism professor Karl Grossman criticizes media outlets for not resurrecting the RTG controversy in connection with last year's demise of the Galileo probe.

In "Gaga for Galileo," Grossman also argues that Galileo may have contaminated Jupiter's atmosphere when it was sent on its final fatal plunge last September. The lack of attention given to such issues, he says, is further evidence that the media take "an unquestioning stance ... toward U.S. space activities."

Some might dismiss the views of Grossman and the cosmic "tree-huggers"; indeed, the professor cites some creaky science in support of his claims (for example, a 28-year-old hypothesis on Jovian life). But if nothing else, such critiques serve as an antidote to some of the more fawning commentaries on NASA's new initiatives — and a reminder for all of us to be on our toes as the space effort moves along its "new course."

"With proposals to send astronauts back to the moon and to Mars in the news, hard-hitting journalism on space safety is as crucial as ever," Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting says.

By the way, for a lively look at the other side of the "nukes on Galileo" controversy, check out Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" column and SpaceViews' roundup on RTGs.

Jan. 20, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Weird science on the World Wide Web:
Popular Science: Build mental muscles of steel
EETimes: Lie-detector glasses under development (via GeekPress)
NASA: Astro-mice to live in Mars-style gravity
The Onion: Scientists abandon A.I. after seeing 'The Matrix'

Jan. 19, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Name that spaceship: In the beginning there was Mercury. And Mercury begat Gemini, and Gemini begat Apollo. Then arose the space shuttles: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis. Since then, times have been tough for the spaceship-naming business in America.

Past efforts to come up with a spacecraft that could replace the shuttle — such as the National Aerospace Plane, the Delta Clipper or the Venture Star — have fallen by the wayside even before their names could get settled. And about all we ever saw of the Orbital Space Plane was its name.

So you might think it's premature to start thinking about more euphonious names for the latest heir apparent to the shuttle, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. But space commentator/author Mark Whittington argues that a cooler name just might make the CEV an easier sell.

So far, it sounds as if the CEV would be a crew-carrying ship that could be accessorized for different destinations, ranging from Earth orbit to the moon to Mars and beyond. Thus, Whittington suggests three names: Valkyrie for the Earth-to-orbit configuration, Artemis for the moonship, and Ares for the Mars-capable craft.

I like Artemis (moon goddess of the ancient Greeks) and Ares (Greek god of war, a.k.a. Mars to the Romans). But to me, Wagner fan that I am, Valkyrie is a bit offputting. I'm not sure I'd like to ride up on a craft named after the warrior women who ferried the dead to Valhalla, and I can't put the image of Brünnhilde perishing in the flames of "Götterdämmerung" out of my mind. To my mind, Gaia would be a better choice.

Beyond that quibble, it still seems that there should be a single name for the single CEV project. Since NASA already has a Project Prometheus, aimed at developing the nuclear propulsion system that may well be used for Mars missions, how about calling the CEV effort Project Hercules? After all, in the Greek myths, Hercules and Prometheus helped each other out.

You should know that my batting average for space names is .000. If I had my way, we'd be watching the Orville rover on Mars, monitoring Space Station Xanadu, and chuckling over the cleverness of Asteroid Douglasadams. So I'm sure you can come up with something better than the Hercules spaceship. Send in your nominations, and I'll publish a selection of the names Friday.

One Cosmic Log correspondent already has written in that "they had better make very sure they name the first manned Mars spacecraft Enterprise!" But be careful what you wish for: When the shuttle program was just getting started, fans of "Star Trek" mounted a similarly vigorous campaign to have the first craft named Enterprise. Unfortunately, that turned out to be an aerodynamic test shuttle that never flew in space. The shuttle Enterprise was used for spare parts and was hidden away for years — kind of like Prometheus, come to think of it.

There's a happy ending, however: Enterprise now holds a place of honor in the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center. Check out our Cathedral of flight for a virtual tour.

Jan. 19, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
U.S. Space and Rocket Center: Save the Saturn 5
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): NASA may turn to retro designs
New Scientist: Mole rat's magnetic magic revealed
Nature: Personality test for dogs

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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