Feb. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
The great space debate: In one corner was Robert Zubrin, the champion of Mars colonization. In the other corner was Robert Park, the champion of exploration by robotic proxy. The two Bobs were prepared to slug it out like prizefighters. ...

OK, maybe that metaphor is over the top: Zubrin of the Mars Society and Park of the American Physical Society both showed up in jacket and tie, and sat sedately alongside each other next to the lectern. But the subject — how best to explore the cosmos beyond our planet — involves more money, and more bloodshed, than any "Fight of the Century." So Thursday night's debate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington drew a crowd, including a goodly number of NASA and Capitol Hill types.

"Given the number of people in the audience from NASA Headquarters, they were slightly more on Zubrin's side," observed Adam Keiper, the debate's moderator and managing editor of The New Atlantis.

The full transcript won't be available on the center's Web site until early next week, but Keiper offered a capsule review: "The heart of the discussion was what humans are capable of doing, and what machines are capable of doing, and that really gets to the heart of whether we're really exploring Mars when we're sending robots out there."

Obviously, it would take just a couple of hours for a human geologist to do what the Mars rovers have required days or weeks to accomplish. But how high would the cost have to be to put humans where Spirit and Opportunity are now?

And if we're really serious about finding faint traces of life on Mars, wouldn't putting microbe-laden humans in the middle of the experiment irrevocably foul up the results? That was the thrust of Park's last words at the very end of the debate. "It was clear Zubrin wanted to rebut him, but we ran out of time," Keiper said.

Keiper said Zubrin and Park agreed on at least one point: that the Hubble Space Telescope should be kept operational for as long as possible. And if it must fall someday, NASA should concentrate on making the James Webb Space Telescope and other heirs to Hubble as good as they can be.

Here are some of your own perspectives on space visions and the great debate:

Tony Calabrese: "Tell both of these people to explain, with facts, not suppositions, how a robot can perform better than a human. ... How a robot can follow up without direction on anything questionable outside of its original program, how a robot can keep doing other science while awaiting a 40-minute lag time for further instruction. Knowing a robot like Spirit can traverse 300 meters over two months, a human could do 10 times the science in 10 times more spaces in a fraction of the time. The downside to this 'super science in the field' is the cost. What benefits would humanity see in scientific advancement in new technologies and materials if we go forth with this huge undertaking?"

Paul Berthelot, Santa Maria, Calif.: "The only viable reason for space exploration or study is to learn as much as possible about the stars and planets without man physically interfering. There is no rational justification for manned space exploration! None! Neither does man (American or otherwise) need to colonize the planets. The only reason this country is pursuing space exploration is to locate minerals and natural planetary wealth for private American conglomerates to exploit! Scientists are being used; they are positively stupid and unintelligent if they think for one minute President Bush is promoting space exploration for true scientific study."

Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Australia: "Humans to Mars should be the priority, but I'd advocate a suggestion I read at the Habitable Zone, that the MERs [Mars Exploration Rovers] be mass-produced and sent to all sorts of sites before manned missions start. No new probe designs, just systems we know that work."

Guy S. Newell, Niles, Mich: "The only real hard science justification for continuing to fly the shuttle at all is to service the Hubble. If NASA doesn't want to do that, then I say the fleet should be grounded and the space station sold off to the Russians at a price they can afford. Unless, of course, some high-school student can come up with some experiment to justify the space station."

To get a better sense of what the shuttle's successor might look like, and what some of NASA's biggest suppliers think of the new space vision, check out the Project Constellation (a.k.a. Crew Exploration Vehicle) Web sites at Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co.

And to get a better sense of what space exploration contributes beyond the science, you might want to check out the final words of Mark Kurlansky's new book, "1968: The Year That Rocked the World."

Kurlansky focuses on the Christmas 1968 mission of Apollo 8, the first human journey to circle another celestial body — and a journey that NASA acknowledged had little scientific purpose. Rather, Kurlansky notes, "its purpose was to develop and practice the necessary techniques for landing on the moon."

The journey itself gave a lift to a society that was riven by war, discord and bitter politics — not all that unlike the world of 2004, come to think of it.

"Just before 1968 was over, there was a moment of tremendous excitement about the future," Kurlansky writes. "It was an instant when racism, poverty, the wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Biafra — all of it was shoved aside. ..."

Concluding the book, Kurlansky cites the final lines of Dante's "Inferno": "And so the year ended like Dante's traveler who at last climbed back from hell and gazed on the stars."

... To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I — so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
When we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

Feb. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
Tech Central Station: Mars mirage
Wired.com: Wi-fi enters the space race
'Nova' on PBS: 'Descent Into the Ice'
The Economist: The future of fusion

Feb. 5, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Turn science into child's play: Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space, has had her share of somber duties as a member of the investigative boards for the Challenger explosion as well as the Columbia tragedy. But she also is involved in happier chores, such as helping with the second annual TOYchallenge.

TOYchallenge gives students in grades five through eight the opportunity to exercise their skills in science, engineering and design by coming up with new ideas for games and toys. Ride created the contest, along with Hasbro Inc. and Domenico Grasso, director of Smith College's Picker Engineering Program. The idea is to inspire young people — and particularly girls — to pursue careers in science and engineering.

The registration deadline for this year's competition is Feb. 16. Design teams, consisting of kids in grades five through eight plus an adult coach, can work on a project in one of seven categories, leading up to regional and national showcases. But don't dally: The written project proposal has to be submitted by March 1. The top prizes include a trip to space camp and personalized action figures. Check the guidelines and the contest timeline for details.

"We exceeded all of our goals last year with the first Toy Challenge, and were thrilled to have inspired more than 1,000 girls and boys around the country to have fun with science," Ride said in an announcement from her company, Imaginary Lines. "We were so impressed with the level of creativity, communication and sophistication that each team exhibited, and are really looking forward to making many more face-to-face connections via the addition of our regional showcase events."

The Toy Challenge is just one of Ride's kid-oriented projects: She also has a hand in science clubs, science festivals and science camps, for example. And along with co-author Tam O'Shaughnessy, Ride recently wrote "Exploring Our Solar System," an informative, illustrated guide to our celestial neighborhood that is suitable for readers aged 10 or older.

Feb. 5, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Walk on the wild side on the Web:
National Geographic: Catapult makers really rocked
Discovery.com: Listening for Martian dust storms
Wired: Immortality or bust
The Onion: Anger-powered cars may revolutionize driving

Feb. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Join the space debate: How should outer space be explored? President Bush's exploration initiative has kicked off a round of rethinking that is still reverberating in the space community and the political world. Last night, embattled presidential hopeful Howard Dean used Bush's backing for human missions to Mars as a guaranteed gag line ("He's promising a trillion-dollar tax cut and a trip to Mars, and I think we ought to give him one"). Today's New York Times lays out the dimming prospects for the international space station.

The issue really isn't whether space exploration should be left up to humans or robots: Over the long term, there has to be a place for both. But where should we put our focus and our finances in the shorter term? For folks like the Mars Society's Robert Zubrin, human space exploration is an imperative as powerful as that which drove the journeys of Columbus and Magellan. But for folks like the American Physical Society's Robert Park, it makes more sense to keep sending mechanical "virtual astronauts" for the foreseeable future.

The two Bobs will go at it during a debate Thursday night at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, as I mentioned last week. Adam Keiper, the debate's moderator and managing editor of The New Atlantis, is inviting you to submit questions. Keiper himself wrote about a "New Vision for NASA" last fall, and he's looking forward to Thursday's event.

Although Zubrin and Park have debated before on talk radio, "they've never met face to face before," Keiper said today. Send in your questions for the dueling scientists by noon ET Thursday, and I'll forward a selection of them to Keiper. He promises to let us know how the debate goes, and to get a full transcript on the center's Web site sometime next week.

Feb. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Space spin-off for sleuths: NASA says the same image-enhancement software used to analyze a video of the shuttle Columbia's ascent is being applied to the video of an 11-year-old Florida girl's abduction . Kennedy Space Center agreed to put the video through its system at the FBI's request, in hopes that an enhanced view of the abductor's face, or perhaps even his tattoos, could help identify him.

The system employs Silicon Graphics computers and InteractiveFX's Piranha software, a space center spokesman told reporters. This PDF file explains how SGI and Piranha helped with the shuttle investigation.

Feb. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
The scoop on bug poop: Every year, the Jason Project takes middle-school students on expeditions to exotic scientific locales — and lets more than a million other students share in the experience via video and Internet hookups. Last year the destination was California's Channel Islands, one of the most diverse habitats on the planet, and that biodiversity theme continues this year on Panama's Barro Colorado Island.

"The island is crawling with all sorts of life — from howler monkeys to ocelots to agoutis," Jason Project spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh wrote from Panama.

Image: Crested katydid
Daniel J. Splaine  /  JFE
A crested katydid sits over a dropping of frass on a leaf. Scientists say even frass plays a role in rainforest recycling.
One of the big topics at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's facilities on the island has to do with insect poop, also known as frass, Walsh said.

"During the Jason expedition, students are looking at how the insect frass, cut leaves, rainfall and dead insects that fall from the rainforest canopy to the floor affect the growth rate of plants on the floor. ... and what happens if there is a spike in the matter that falls," she said.

When more of that material falls to the forest floor, that should boost the amount of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus available in the soil, said Meg Lowman, an expedition researcher and professor of environmental studies at the New College of Florida in Sarasota.

"That will in turn boost the rate of leaf litter decomposition, which escalates plant growth rates," she said in a Jason Project update. "This is a vital part of sustaining a healthy tropical environment."

The canopy-floor cycle could play a role in how the rainforest responds to rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming , Lowman and other scientists say.

"Rainforests act as carbon dioxide scrubbers, taking it out of the air," said Mike Kaspari, a zoology professor at the University of Oklahoma. "Rainforest plants can't thrive if the nutrients aren't being released back into the soil from decomposition. To keep global climate stable, the rainforests have to be healthy."

Feb. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
Defense Tech: Pentagon's LifeLog is dead
BBC: Mice produce viable monkey sperm
Nature: Super-sniffer mice smell good
New Scientist: 'Mindsight' could explain sixth sense

Feb. 3, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
The latest blast from Hubble: Sparkling supernovae light up today's picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, which shows stellar birth and death within the nearby dwarf galaxy NGC 1569. Galactic winds have stirred up bubble-like structures of glowing hydrogen gas, like the fizz of cosmic champagne.

"We are looking straight into the very creation processes of the stars and star clusters in this galaxy," Peter Anders of the Göttingen University Galaxy Evolution Group said in a news release from the Space Telescope Science Institute. "The clusters themselves present us with a fossil record of NGC 1569's intense star formation history."

The picture was taken back in 1998, but it relates to research published last month in Britain's Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Anders and his colleagues figure that the clusters were created in a burst of energy that began about 25 million years ago and lasted for about 20 milllion years.

Image: NGC 1569
ESA - NASA - Göttingen U.
Hubble's view of the dwarf galaxy NGC 1569 shows bubble-like structures and clusters of starbirth.
"The environment in NGC 1569 is still turbulent, and the supernovae may not only deliver the gaseous raw material needed for the formation of further stars and star clusters, but also actually trigger their birth in the tortured swirls of gas," the institute said.

Scientists say that the passing of the torch from one generation of stars to the next is essential for building up the more complex elements required for life — oxygen and carbon, for example. So it's fitting that today's image shows a commingling of stellar death and starbirth.

Hubble's scientists are going through a torch-passing as well, sparked by NASA's recent decision to call off future servicing missions for the space telescope. The decision is still being debated — but in the meantime, scientists are trying to extend Hubble's life as long as possible without a house call from the space shuttle.

In a new section of HubbleSite.org, the Space Telescope Science Institute explains what's being considered:

"Software and techniques that will allow Hubble to operate using two gyroscopes, instead of the usual three, will be tested in the fall. Adjustments to the batteries may help lengthen their life. Teams of scientists are looking at every possibility, from servicing Hubble without the space shuttle, perhaps robotically, to examining technical methods that could conserve the usefulness of key components."

Orbital Recovery Corp. has suggested sending one of its robotic space tugs to move the Hubble into a life-extending orbit, and in the months to come, other innovative ideas are sure to emerge. Check out our Space Gallery for more reasons why Hubble should be kept around as long as possible.

Feb. 3, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
BBC: Earth 'shook off' ancient warming
Science@NASA: Fruit flies heading for space station
Wired.com: Stacking the deck against science
National Geographic: 'Mysteries of the Deep'

Feb. 2, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Political insider trading: When public-broadcasting outlets teamed up to establish an electronic market for this year's presidential politics, loosely modeled on the Iowa Electronic Markets, they probably didn't bargain for the kinds of shady dealings that would make a securities regulator blush. But that's just what PBS's "Frontline," Minnesota Public Radio's "Marketplace" and KCET got when they flipped the switch on Presidential Market 2004.

Maybe it's a good thing the traders are just working with play money. Or maybe the shenanigans occurred precisely because it's play money.

The market Web site began its trading operations a couple of weeks ago, with each registered trader receiving an account of $2,500 in virtual money. You can use that money to buy shares in President Bush or his would-be challengers. As you'd expect, Bush and John Kerry are the current blue-chip stocks. But the real action involves penny-stock candidates such as Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.

In the first few days of the experiment, traders ran Kucinich's stock up and down repeatedly. If you were on the wrong side of the trades, you lost big. If you were on the right side, however, you could amount faux fortunes of $1 million or more. The market's managers suspect that the winners and losers were actually in league to run up good scores. Why? It turns out that the top two virtual moneymakers will get free trips to the presidential inauguration in 2005.

"Mischievous types have taken advantage," Marrie Campbell, editorial director of the "Frontline" Web site, acknowledged to the Hollywood Reporter . "There are people forming groups and wreaking havoc."

Now the managers are keeping a closer eye on the trading, but so far they're putting their trust in the free market.

"Most of our players seem to be interested in more stable stock prices, and we feel that in the coming weeks things will stabilize when a Democratic nominee emerges," the managers say in a posting to the market's discussion board.

Last week we talked about the Iowa Electronic Markets and other places where you can put down real money to speculate on political fortunes. In less than a week, Kerry's shares have jumped from 57.5 cents on the IEM to today's closing price of 76.2. Meanwhile, John Edwards has fallen to 10.5 cents and Howard Dean is at a lowly 4 cents. We'll have to see how Tuesday's primaries affect those prices.

By the way, as expected, the Pentagon's controversial Internet voting system won't be ready for Tuesday's South Carolina primary. In fact, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood indicated to The Associated Press that the SERVE system may not be certified for several months — which means it won't play any role in selecting the Republican or Democratic presidential candidates. It will, however, come into play for the November election, unless the plan is derailed between now and then.

Feb. 2, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Elsewhere on the scientific Web:
Discovery.com: Russians explain parting of the Red Sea
N.Y Times (reg. req.): When giants had wings and six legs
Nature: Scientists figure out reverse ventriloquism
MIT: Device makes the world’s most precise rulers

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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