The rose in Spitzer's latest infrared snapshot is NGC 7129, a massive cloud of gas and dust 3,300 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus. The cloud is collapsing, and the gravitational pressure is lighting up a fresh star cluster at NGC 7129's core.
"The diameter of the cluster is equal to the distance between the sun and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri," Tom Megeath of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in a news release accompanying the photo. "Within that distance, we find 130 stars. By combining data from the Smithsonian's MMT Telescope in Arizona with Spitzer data, we find that roughly half of these stars are surrounded by disks of gas and dust. Each of these disks is a forming solar system."
Spitzer is the latest of NASA's "Great Observatories," and although it's not as well-known as its elder sibling, the Hubble Space Telescope , we can easily learn to love it with pictures like this. But as with every fresh love affair, there's a bit of illusion augmenting the reality: Spitzer sees infrared wavelengths that would be invisible to the naked eye. Thus, the colors in this picture have been gussied up, and don't match your typical telescope view.
The infrared view reveals details that would go unseen by normal eyes, particularly when it comes to old, cold or dusty deep-space objects. Based on what's seen here, astronomers believe our celestial neighborhood may once have been like what we see now in NGC 7129.
"The formation of our own solar system may have begun in a similar setting. Our sun's siblings would have drifted away and disappeared into the night sky long ago," said Megeath.
It's like the "Love Theme" from the Franco Zeffirelli film version of "Romeo and Juliet": "A rose will bloom, it then will fade. So does a youth, so does the fairest maid." For more love notes from the Spitzer Space Telescope, check out our slideshow and the Spitzer Web site.
• Feb. 13, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Holy triskaidekaphobia! Would you believe there's a love connection to Friday the 13th? The conventional wisdom, as explained by University at Buffalo anthropologist Phillips Stevens Jr., traces today's unluckiness to Jesus' crucifixion, which took place on a Friday after Jesus and the 12 disciples (total: 13) sat down to the Last Supper.
But others say the ancient Romans had the unlucky-13 hangup, believing that if 13 people gathered together, one of the group would die soon afterward. National Geographic reports that Norse myths also had a cautionary tale about bringing 13 gods together. And according to the Urban Legends Archive, the fear of Friday may have gone back to the indecent rites of love associated with the Norse goddess Freia.
In any case, Friday and the number 13 were thought to make for an uncommon double dose of bad luck. But when you turn the cold light of mathematics on the phenomenon, it turns out that the 13th day of the month is actually slightly more likely to fall on a Friday than on any other day of the week. Talk about luck!
• Feb. 13, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
•'Nova' on PBS: 'Crash of Flight 111'
•BBC: Virtual reality brings past to life
•Denver Post: Debunking the myths of Machu Picchu
•Astronomy: Get ready for Astronomy Day in April
• Feb. 12, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Sex and stem cells: The newly published research on human stem cells generated through cloning will surely stir a political and ethical controversy over whether the technique offers genuine medical hope or constitutes high-tech murder . In addition to that well-worn debate, a secondary theme is coming into play: Does the scientific trafficking in human eggs run counter to women's rights? Will the stem-cell industry turn females into factories?
"Cloning research is impossible to do without exploiting women," Daniel McConchie, director of public relations and public policy for the Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, said in a news release reacting to the research. "It should be banned immediately."
Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth strongly disagrees. Zoloth shared the stage with the Korean researchers today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Seattle, and she believes the Koreans did everything right.
"Go to the University of Washington, on campus, and you will find newspapers that put ads for UW coeds, offering up to $50,000 — in some cases, $100,000 — for 'smart eggs' donated by women college students. In this country, one could refer to that practice as potentially exploitive of women," she said. (This PDF version of a law review article provides further background on the ethics of human-egg sales.)
Zoloth said the Korean egg donations were altogether different. "This seems like a genuinely altruistic gesture," she said.
The 16 Korean women who donated the 242 eggs for the stem-cell experiments did so voluntarily, with no money changing hands, said Shin Yong Moon, one of the researchers. They were selected from women who sought out the researchers, he said.
"Some young ladies have a lot of curiosity about reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning," Moon explained. "They would contact us."
The donors were told from the beginning that they would be participating in an anonymous study, and would not benefit from the outcome of the experiments.
American researchers were surprised to hear how many eggs were donated. "More than 200 eggs? Wow, I'm drooling," Michigan State University's Jose Cibella told the journal Science. Cibella was a co-author of the paper but was not involved in the cloning phase of the experiment.
The voluntary nature of the egg donations is just one of the things that the Koreans did right, Zoloth said. They also published the consent form on the Internet for inspection, gave potential donors several weeks to think about their consent, then gave them a second chance to back out. The experiments were vetted and supervised by an independent review board, and funded with private donations.
With the first round of experiments completed, the researchers are suspending their work with cloned human embryos until the South Korean government issues them a license, under new legislation that bans reproductive cloning while permitting therapeutic cloning.
Like many other scientists, Zoloth believes the United States should follow a similar "yes on regeneration, no on reproduction" policy — and knows a long political debate is ahead.
• Feb. 12, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
•Discover Magazine: Monsters on ice
•NASA: Cities built on fertile lands affect climate
• Discovery.com: Tourists to look for ancient Persian army
•The Economist: Chemically addicted to love
• Feb. 11, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
The lighter side of Mars: NASA's twin-rover missions on the Red Planet have finally made it into the American mainstream. Just check out the Weekly World News at your local supermarket checkout stand: "Alien Skulls Found on Mars!" As evidence that the Mars rovers have captured the popular imagination, that's almost as telling as the 6 billion hits or so that the NASA Web sites have recorded since Spirit landed on the Red Planet on Jan. 3.
Frankly, there's no need to buy the Weekly World News. The pictures inside are so hokey they go beyond the point of laughability. But the actual photos sent back by Spirit and now Opportunity have enough pixilated detail to stimulate the usual Web of intrigue — especially when you add in Europe's Mars Express photos. Erik Baard has a great roundup of enigmatic Web sites at Tech Central Station, featuring Martian crabs, Nazca lines and more.
Martian enigmas are a time-honored tradition going back to Schiaparelli's "canali," which astronomer Percival Lowell believed were canals most likely constructed by Martians. More recently, Mars-watchers have made out "The Face on Mars" and other seemingly artificial features.
Richard Hoagland, one of the Face's biggest fans, offers a new crop of Spirit enigmas on his Enterprise Mission Web site — as well as new claims of a NASA cover-up. Of course, as Spirit continues its trek, further pictures of things that look like pistons or toasters reveal them to be the rocks that they are.
As time goes on, the Spirit snapshots could well become among the most reprocessed images on the Internet, both for scientific purposes and just for the fun of it. SpaceRef's Keith Cowing, for example, has passed along a QuickTime animation that shouldn't be missed.
The Opportunity rover, meanwhile, is in the midst of its own trek on the opposite side of Mars. Scientists are already taking extra pains to explain that Opportunity's Martian "blueberries" do not constitute evidence of life on Mars. I predict that pictures like this one, freshly received from Meridiani Planum, will provide more raw material for the enigma fans — and the supermarket tabloids as well: "Alien Bathroom Tile Found on Mars!"
• Feb. 10, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Space for sale: The first commercial space station may well already be in orbit, says Eric Anderson, whose company helped book the flights of the world's first paying space passengers.
Anderson, the president and chief executive officer of Virginia-based Space Adventures, said today that if the United States follows its timetable for reducing its involvement in the international space station, commercial entities just might pick up the slack.
"The space station could quite possibly be controlled by a semicommercial, semigovernmental consortium," Anderson speculated. New spaceports would likely arise on Earth to cater to commercial clients and space tourists.
All that would be good news for Anderson's company, which worked with the Russians to send millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the station in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The shift in NASA's focus from low Earth orbit to the moon and beyond, as well as the repercussions of the X Prize competition , point toward a new age of commercial space travel, he said.
Anderson sketched out his view of the next 30 years of space exploration during a visit to Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., in MSNBC.com's neighborhood. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
While NASA concentrates on a new generation of what are likely to be expendable, modular space vehicles, commercial operators will be focusing on a new breed of reusable launch vehicles, he predicted.
"I believe very strongly that that will be developed by a private company," he said of the reusable spaceships. "It will not be developed by a government program, because the kind of ingenuity and the kind of risk that will need to be taken will not be something that government is suited to do."
By 2020, a U.S.-led coalition and perhaps a separate Chinese effort should be able to put humans back on the moon, and if the new space initiative proceeds as planned, lunar bases will be established. The tourists won't be far behind, Anderson said.
"Within five years or so after there's a permanent human presence established on the moon, you will have the ability, maybe not to land on the moon, but to go, leave Earth orbit, and fly around the moon in a figure 8 and come back, as a tourist," he said.
Such flights would merely follow the trail blazed in 1968 by Apollo 8. Even Russia's Soyuz craft was designed to do that sort of mission, Anderson said.
Will NASA's new vision really fly, considering that it will depend on multiple presidential administrations? Anderson thinks there's no alternative.
"Even if Mr. Bush does not get re-elected this fall, it would be very difficult to go back and say, 'You know what, we're not going to go to the moon, we're not going to go to Mars, we're not even going to try, we're just going to keep funding this space station, and nobody knows what it's being used for now,'" he said.
"There's got to be something. So even if the plan changes a little bit with another administration ... I think the focus will remain the same. I think it has to — which is good, which is clever, which is positive for those of us who support space exploration."
One of the most challenging periods will be the next two or three years of transition, he said. Indeed, the transition could well delay Anderson's timetable for the next passenger trips to the space station, he admitted. With the shuttles grounded and the clock ticking down on space station construction, there's more demand for the same Soyuz spacecraft that the passengers would have to use.
Space Adventures, which has signed up two American clients for passenger trips, might have to delay its flight schedule by six to 12 months, Anderson said. "Either way, they'll be flying within the next year or the next year and a half," he said. The names of the clients will likely be revealed in the next month.
Once the federal government clears the way, suborbital spaceflights could be a growth industry, Anderson said. Even though a suborbital passenger service doesn't exist yet, Space Adventures is already taking reservations at $98,000 each. That price tag could come down as the tourism trade expands.
"Sometime in the next decade," Anderson said, "there is a greater than 50-50 chance that a suborbital flight would cost on the order of an SUV."
• Feb. 10, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Hubble's deepest field: The Space Telescope Science Institute says it will unveil the deepest-ever view of the universe on March 9. The "Ultra Deep Field" is a picture built up from data gathered during hundreds of orbits of the Hubble Space Telescope. It's the equivalent of a million-second-long photographic exposure.
"This historic image takes astronomers to 'within a stone's throw' of the beginning of the universe, unveiling galaxies that emerged from the end of the cosmological 'dark ages' (the time hydrogen formed, but the first stars had not yet ignited), merely 500 million years after the Big Bang, or when the universe was 5 percent of its present age," the institute said in an advisory to editors.
The observations were made by Hubble's best cameras, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer — both of which are operating thanks to a servicing mission that was conducted by the shuttle Columbia two years ago.
• Feb. 10, 2004| 9:15 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
•Nature: Curious mice need room to run
•Wired.com: Cool new ideas to save brains
• Science News: Virtual nanotech
•Scientific American: Sensors fight the fog of war
• Feb. 9, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Our survival in space: What's the biggest reason for sending humans into space? Is it to develop spin-offs like MRI scanners and artificial hip joints? Is it to mine exotic materials like lunar helium-3 that could someday be used in fusion reactors? Is it to discover the origins of life and the universe, or to discover the sheer beauty of the cosmos?
All those are good reasons — but they can't be the key reasons.
Some have argued that the technological spin-offs of the space effort could have been achieved less expensively by funding earthly research and development. I'm still not quite convinced that mining helium-3 and shipping it back to Earth will be more efficient than, say, working on renewable technologies , hydrogen energy and, yes, potential fusion fuels on this planet. The quest for cosmic origins touches the deepest questions in the human heart beyond Earth — but at least the beginning stages of that quest could be carried out by robots and space-based telescopes.
To me, the biggest reason is that we eventually have to get off this rock if we want to ensure the long-term survival of our species, in the face of human-caused threats such as bioterrorism as well as natural threats such as meteor strikes or gamma-ray bursts . I've said it before, and the message came through loud and clear as well in William Langewiesche's recent article in The Atlantic and in the transcript of last week's space debate in Washington.
The event's moderator, Adam Keiper, was kind enough to pass along a question of mine to the American Physical Society's Robert Park, a frequent critic of the human spaceflight program: Shouldn't we keep taking at least the first tentative steps toward our manifest destiny in space?
Park acknowledged that we might someday need the ability to do spaceflight: "At most, I think we should preserve some capability in case — and I can’t imagine what it would be — in case something arises where we really need to send a human being. I cannot for the life of me imagine what that would be. But it might be worthwhile to keep that option open."
As the past half-century has illustrated, spaceflight is hard: It's not just a case of firing up a rocket-powered Noah's Ark and jetting away to a space haven. Turning humanity into a two-world species will take decades at least, so we can't wait until the final hour to develop our spaceflight skills.
As NBC News space analyst James Oberg said in advance of last year's Wright Brothers centennial, "It's just a matter of waiting until we get some kind of cosmic 9/11 that will make everyone say, 'Why didn’t we see this before,' and then we'll have enough money to afford these programs."
A good number of Cosmic Log readers agreed. Here's a sampling of the e-mail received over the weekend:
Brian Fisher, Denver: "If the human race is to advance beyond the pettiness of politics and greed and survive as a viable intelligence, we have got to get off this planet. If we remain locked to this single world, the only advancement we are likely to make is to finally figure out a way to destroy ourselves and actually do it."
Ed Daniels, Golden, Colo.: "Of course this debate is missing the point about why humans must travel away from Earth and eventually colonize the planets. There is no long-term future for humanity on Earth. Sooner or later — tens of years or millions of years away — Earth will be rendered uninhabitable by a comet's impact or some Earth-originated disaster. If we do not have self-sufficient extraterrestrial colonies in place by then, humanity will no longer exist. That is the true imperative driving human space exploration. And what higher goal can there be than to get started on accomplishing that mission today?"
Herbert Erdmenger, Guatemala City, Guatemala: "I haven't been able to make up my mind for these reasons: As of now, it takes too long to get to Mars. As of now, humans won't be physically able to do anything once they get there. One medical problem — tooth pain, appendicitis, etc. — and they are doomed. At what cost? Where will the money come from? How long it will take, starting today, to send the first crew? What about the food required for the round trip? What about the fuel —propulsion, heating, cooling, cleaning? What about the water required to sustain life for the whole crew?"
Jim Moser, Sunnyside: "There are two issues here that need to be discussed here. One is population, the other is the eventual depletion of resources. At the rate humans are populating this planet, we'll need to find other places to put all these people. If we don't, nature will take care of the issue for us. With too many people, resources will become depleted. Anyone who thinks space travel will be safe needs a mental examination. History shows many died just getting to North America. Humans are expendable. So far we haven't dealt with these two issues at all, and humans ignore them. Stupid humans, they'll pay for it."
Donald B. Brady, McComb, Miss.: "Full speed ahead with human exploration of Mars. Private property has been essential here on Earth. If Bechtel and Halliburton can do it there, let's go. Of what value is Mars in any context left to itself?"
Diane Newcomer, Tempe, Ariz.: "I would hate to believe there are no more frontiers for man. Of course we should have manned exploration of space. And what's wrong with mining planets with no life? We could maintain more areas of Earth pristine. Besides, the space program has provided more technology that benefits all people than any other industry. We need the adventure."
Christine, Dallas: "It's such a big waste to be spending all of this money traveling to Mars and the moon. Yes, it is important to study out there, but right now we have more important things to worry about on our planet; for instance, people starving."
Courtney McManus, Topeka, Kans.: "I would just like to ask what would have happened if Columbus had said: 'Yeah, we can reach the New World, but there really is no point.' The first explorations of the Americas so long ago seems to mirror the current state of space exploration we are faced with. If we look at all the technological, economic and social advances that came out of the European expeditions to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries, how can we not continue to explore and strive to explore more the universe in which we live? Why was it OK for the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English explorers to sail to the Americas and set up a new homestead there, but it is not OK for the people of today to set up a permanent lunar base and further explore places such as Mars and asteroids? Sure, it costs money, but it cost the governments and merchants of yesteryear to fund the voyages that discovered and set up the countries in which we live today. Don't you think that the benefits of those expeditions greatly outweighed the cost? How is it any different for space exploration?"
Peter Park, Congers, N.Y.: "Let's get something straight. In about another couple billion years or so, the human race is gonna need to move. Unless we have another black death (quite likely), or a comet hits Earth (not as likely), or some other great war or calamity, we have a serious overpopulation problem. So what does someone do when their neighborhood gets a bit too crowded? They move! In order to do so, we gotta get some places ready. 'Terraforming' is a concept used in games, bring a piece of Earth to Mars, set up a self-sufficient ecosystem that will eventually accept human life, and colonize the planet. Expensive, unrealistic, and too far away for many people to care.
"Another reason we should keep up the space program is simply for worldly reasons. I have family in Korea, it takes me 16 hours to get to them. Imagine getting there in about 5 hours? High-atmosphere 'bouncing' is a possibility that I'm sure if explored would get very popular, if commercialized. ..."
Michael Schumacher, Ayase-shi, Kanagawa, Japan: "Some younger readers may not remember when the world only held 5 billion people (or less). Now that we are approaching 7 billion on this small planet, with many more to come in the future. It makes sense to look beyond tomorrow and try to figure out where we will put them all.
"One thing that many people tend to forget is that the world and its economy are a closed system. Eventually, all the resources of our Earth will be utilized, and no amount of recycling, reusable energy strategies or innovative crop rotations will be able to sustain the demands placed on them by our constantly growing populations. It is a 'zero sum' game that only those of limited vision believe can be won.
"An investment in space exploration (and colonization) now translates directly into the sustained existence and future of our species as well as that of many other species on the Earth. Without that investment and the clear path to follow off planet, we humans are relegated to the same fate as that suffered by our distant extinct ancestral cousins. The choices are clear: While trying to pollute ourselves to extinction, await the next big rock with our name on it. Or start looking now at ways to make humanity (and all the others under our protection) survive as a multi-world lifeforms."
Steve Hall, Huntsville, Ala.: "The argument over whether robots or humans are better suited to explore Mars, or any other location in the universe is a red herring. Unquestionably, both are required. Robots serve as the vanguard, to scout and do reconnaissance work to help plan — or dismiss — particular manned missions. Manned missions are useful for massive collection of data, highly flexible operations that quickly respond to opportunities, and situations where on-site data evaluation and decision-making is beneficial. The domain of sites for robots shall always be larger than that of humans, due to transportation limitations.
"What is really the issue? That our space program is incoherent and lacks integration: For instance, the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions, and we are speaking of one or two more missions being 'too dangerous.' Yet establishing lunar bases and flying multiple missions are not at least as dangerous?? What kind of logic is this? Furthermore, Hubble missions cannot be safely flown because the international space station is not in the right orbit to serve as a retreat in case a mission goes bad? Remember when the space station was slated to go into a low-inclination orbit? Wouldn't a station in a low-inclination orbit have been better suited to support lunar and Mars missions? (Yes!!) Remember a few years ago when the space station was touted as the greatest human enterprise in history? Now we are talking about abandoning the station and pressing on to Mars?
"Farther back, remember when the space shuttle was touted as cost-effective because it was reusable? When we were talking about flying it out of West Coast as well as East Coast launch sites? When we were planning a fleet of at least five orbiters, not four?
"I am a strong advocate of space exploration, manned and robotic. However, I firmly believe we need to develop a rational space strategy, then stick to it ... not retreat to square one and start over every few years! The American public can only tolerate that for so long."
Rev. Carl R. Lott, Angola, Ind.: "While a manned mission back to the moon and then to Mars may be admirable and perhaps even necessary long-range goals, the president's initiative smacks more of election-year sound bite that it does of sound science. One recalls that President Bush recently beat the drums for a new initiative on hydrogen-powered cars . We haven't heard about it since. It seems more sensible to try to use robotic exploration to discover all we can about the environment on the moon or Mars, so we can be better prepared to support the eventual human journeys. One more thing: It is naive to suppose that we can do human exploration without casualties along the way. Nevertheless, on to the stars — but carefully, carefully."
• Feb. 9, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
•N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The elusive science of cold
•The Economist: What if we're wrong about the dark universe?
• BBC: Artificial intelligence to help Mars exploration
•Discovery.com: Sonic tiller vibrates soil loose
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.