Feb. 27, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Your music for Mars: What songs would you play to boost a Mars rover's spirits? Or more accurately, the spirits of the scientists and engineers working on the rover missions? After looking at the daily playlist for the Mars mission teams, MSNBC.com readers sent in their own suggestions for future selections. Who knows? Maybe NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory takes requests:

Jason: Because the rovers move so slowly … “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar.

Wayne: "Power Tools" (on a day using the grinder or other power tool) and "I Won't Wake Up" (when the rovers finally shut down), both from the album "Planet P Project" by Planet P Project (Tony Carey).

Gregg: With all the great shots ... how about Paul Simon's "Kodachrome"?

Brent: "Grinder" by Judas Priest, for days when the rover will be using its grinding tool a lot.

H. Michael Denton: "Rock Me Baby" by B.B. King, "Beautiful Day" by U2.

Brad: How about "Martian Boogie" by Brownsville Station?

Thomas: "The Martian Hop" by the Ran-dells.

Martin Bruntnell: "Hey, Mr. Spaceman" by the Byrds.

Jim Oliver: It may sound a little trite, but David Bowie has done a bunch of songs that were not only spacey but kind of space-themed ... some great songs for the rovers would be "Life on Mars" (maybe for if they find signs of water, or fossilized bacteria), "Spiders of Mars" (for just general goofiness) and "Space Oddity" (for when the mission runs down) ... oh, maybe even "Heroes" (if the mission discovers something truly amazing).

Feb. 27, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Cassini for kids: With the Cassini spacecraft sending regular postcards from Saturn and its surroundings, scientific storyteller Sue Kientz sent a timely reminder from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory about her Cassini children's tale:

"Originally called 'Spacecraft Cassini Is Going to Saturn,' I recently changed the title to 'Spacecraft Cassini Is Visiting Saturn,' since, well, it's there! The image of Saturn on the opening Flash intro movie is Cassini's own shot of Saturn from just a few weeks ago.

"Since the Huygens probe is a contribution from ESA, we also have a German translation of the site, done by a space enthusiast, Austrian Wolfram Patzl, whom I met via e-mail in 1997 when he offered to do the German version of 'Little Rock on Mars.' We have been e-pals ever since. He was the one who put together the Flash movies for me, which is a recent improvement (we used to have an animated GIF intro 'movie'). See his translation. ...

"While targeted for kids, the one comment I've gotten time and again (even from engineers working here at JPL!) is that these illustrated stories are the most engaging way to understand these missions. One guy I worked with actually admitted that all he knew about Galileo and Cassini was what he learned through my stories."

Feb. 27, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Machine Design: Flight without fuel? (via Slashdot)
Popular Science: Mind over machine
'Nova' on PBS: 'Life and Death in the War Zone'
The New Yorker: 'Duet on Mars'

Feb. 26, 2004 | 3:45 p.m. ET
The politics of space: A month ago, President Bush put outer space at center stage when he announced an initiative to send humans back to the moon by 2020 — and campaign calculus dictated that this year's Democratic challengers had to come down on the skeptical side of the equation.

For example, one-time frontrunner Howard Dean said last November that "we should aggressively begin a program to have manned flights to Mars" — but after Bush announced his initiative, Dean used Mars as little more than a gag line.

Today's Democratic sound bites on space policy, provided in response to a questionnaire from The Associated Press, are in line with the calculations about public opinion — general support for space exploration, but questions about the advisability of Bush's plans. Here's AP's roundup from the candidates:

Sen. John Edwards: “I am a strong supporter of our space program. It reflects the best of the American spirit of optimism, discovery and progress. A manned mission to Mars is in the American tradition of setting ambitious goals for exploring space, but we must be able to pay for the program.”

Sen. John Kerry: “Our civilian space program represents a great opportunity for scientific research. Sending a person to Mars is a great mission worthy of a great nation like America. Given the Bush budget deficit, it is imperative that we balance funding for a manned mission to Mars against critical domestic needs as well, such as education and health care.”

Dennis Kucinich: “An International Space Station in Earth orbit is a far more practical launch platform than a base on the moon. So, if we as a nation decide to send manned missions to Mars, I would not support construction of a lunar base. In regard to space exploration, we are faced with an unprecedented national deficit and a war without end, both of which will force this nation to abandon many hopes, dreams and aspirations, including space exploration, if allowed to continue.”

Neither Bush nor Democratic candidate Al Sharpton responded to the questionnaire, AP said. There's no sign that newly announced independent candidate Ralph Nader was asked his opinion, but I have a feeling he's not a big fan of multibillion-dollar space initiatives. I've sent my own inquiry to the Nader folks and will keep you posted.

To find out more about how space figures (or doesn't figure) in the political campaign, check out Jeff Foust's Space Politics blog. One of his posts puts you in touch with a Yahoo discussion forum on Democratic space policy and Kerry's policies in particular.

Feb. 26, 2004 | 3:45 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
UC-Berkeley: Understanding Evolution
EurekAlert: Monkey memory tests could help humans
Nature: Snapshot taken of tiniest time interval
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Centenarians' secrets revealed

Feb. 25, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Martian flights of fancy: Do the Opportunity rover’s microscopic pictures of the Martian surface show threads from the spacecraft’s air bags, or roots from Martian plants? Are Martian “blueberries” merely spherical bits of rock, or are they actually the seedlings of alien sponges? In both cases, the more mundane explanation is far more likely. But as we wait for Thursday’s news conference on the latest findings, it’s fun to speculate on the wilder hypotheses.

Take those Martian blueberries, for instance. The BB-sized spherules are among the most unusual features turned up by the rovers so far — and the mainstream view is that they may be congealed droplets of once-molten rock, or concretions built up as mineral-rich water percolated through layers of rock, or perhaps stuck-together bits of volcanic ash. But several folks saw parallels to the spherical gemmules that play a role in the reproductive process of sponges on Earth.

"This explains everything we see at the Opportunity site. ... The outcrop at the Opportunity site is clearly covered by a decomposing sponge and its gemmules," one observer wrote.

Image: Ground-away spherules
NASA - JPL - Cornell - USGS
This microscopic image of Martian rock shows the cross-sections of two Martian spherules that were partially ground away by the Opportunity rover's rock abrasion tool. The round circles can be seen here at lower left and upper right.
When Opportunity ground away at the spherules, however, the interior looked rock-solid, as seen in this microscopic image. Thus, the blueberries appear to be a geological curiosity rather than a biological breakthrough.

The microscopic threadlike features pose additional puzzles, as outlined last week on Space.com. The mainstream view is that they're stray airbag threads, spread around when Opportunity rolled to a stop in its Meridiani Planum crater a month ago. That explanation hasn't stopped the speculation, though: One reporter joked that they might be the roots of plants, but Linda Moulton Howe presents a more serious discussion of the way-out possibilities at the Earthfiles Web site.

On another Martian matter, Mark Giacobbe wrote in to shed more light on last week's question about why the rovers move so slowly.

He recommended reading this Web page from JPL.

"It explains that the rover drives for 10 seconds, stops and looks around, figures out if there is anything in its way, then starts again for 10 seconds and does the whole process again," Giacobbe wrote. "This gives the rover more of [a speed of] 1 centimeter per second, one-fifth of the 2 inches per second that everyone talks about."

Tune in to Go to MSN Video to watch Live Coverage of the Mars missions at 1 p.m. ET Thursday to hear about the latest Martian flights of fact from the NASA science team. In the meantime, you can conduct your own Mars observations tonight: Just look for the crescent moon — the Red Planet should be sparkling right beside it, as shown in this sky map from SpaceWeather.com.

Feb. 25, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Sunspot alert: SpaceWeather.com also reports that a prominent sunspot has made its appearance on the solar disk. "Sunspot 564, barely visible just a few days ago, now stretches eight Earth diameters from end to end and poses a threat for M-class solar flares," the Web site reports. In addition to explaining exactly what an M-class solar flare is, the site provides instructions for viewing the sun safely.

Feb. 25, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
More scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
Science@NASA: Greenhouses for Mars
New Scientist: Teen brains show low motivation
Science News: Plants may be calculating creatures
People's Daily: China's 'Jade Age'

Feb. 25, 2004 | Updated noon ET
Russia's space clipper: Almost as soon as NASA announced its plans to develop a new spaceship that could work more like a Russian Soyuz craft than the shuttle, the Russians announced plans to deploy their own next-generation spaceship by 2010 — and that new vehicle, dubbed the Clipper, could well look more like the shuttle than a Soyuz.

The Russian rocket company Energia says it has been working on plans for the six-passenger Clipper for years, but details about its design are only now trickling out. Mark Wade's Astronautix Web site passes along reports that the Clipper's reusable crew section would be a "lifting body," which implies a swept-back, stubby-winged design.

Wade's accompanying graphic brings the point home. The drawing may not reflect the actual design, but it looks very much like Lockheed Martin's concept for NASA's next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle. In contrast, the analogous CEV design from the Boeing Co. has more in common with the old Apollo command module. Both of the CEV designs hint at a mostly expendable system like the Soyuz, rather than a mostly reusable system like the shuttle. This would represent an about-face from the trend set two decades ago by the shuttle and its Soviet carbon copy.

Image: Lockheed Martin CEV
Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin's concept for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, shown here, involves a lifting body mounted on an Atlas rocket. Russia's Clipper would be a lifting body mounted on an Onega rocket.
It might not be such a bad idea if there were a convergence in U.S. and Russian spacecraft — that could well ease the planning for future international missions to the moon and beyond. Russia's bigger Clipper also may suggest future commercial applications for the international space station. The Russian news reports intriguingly note that Clipper flights could boost the tourist capacity of each flight to the station from just one millionaire to four.

Meanwhile, plans for America's new spaceship are moving forward: This week, Lockheed Martin announced that it was setting up a new Denver-based organization called Space Exploration to spearhead its effort to attract business from the new NASA. Next week, managers of NASA's freshly minted Office of Exploration Systems will explain the agency's new vision to industry leaders and journalists.

Update: NASA Watch's Keith Cowing points to a report from Russia's Channel 1 about the Clipper, including an artist's conception that looks a little less sleek than Lockheed Martin's CEV. Channel 1 says Clipper would benefit from the "unique navigation system and ... reusable heat shielding" developed for the Soviet space shuttle.

Feb. 24, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Bursting the antibubble: Remember the physicists who predicted that the stock market was heading for a big fall by this month? Didier Sornette and Wei-Xing Zhou of the University of California at Los Angeles based their projection on an analysis of "antibubble" behavior — that is, the way that herds of investors act in the months and years after the bursting of a market bubble.

Sornette and Zhou said that the S&P 500 index should have fallen to somewhere around 700 by this time. But last week the researchers looked at the latest numbers and backed off from that projection — in fact, they said the charts indicated that we've already weathered the worst of the antibubble.

What went wrong? Or perhaps it's better to say, what went right? In their latest analysis, the researchers say that intervention by the Federal Reserve weakened the dollar in world financial markets to such an extent that it was foreign investors, rather than domestic investors, who felt the brunt of the post-boom hangover.

"The tentative conclusion of this new study is that the strong impact of the Fed intervention has perturbed the fingerprints of the antibubble, so that we conclude that it has ended in the U.S., while maybe in reality the herding bearish-bullish oscillations are still present but are hidden by the distorting feedback actions of the Fed," Sornette and Zhou wrote. "Then, the antibubble signature could be better observed from the different reference frame of foreigners."

It all just goes to show that reality has a way of confounding the mathematical models, whether you're talking about financial markets or presidential elections.

Feb. 24, 2004| 8:30 p.m. ET
Fat Tuesday for science on the Web:
Nature: Science meets samba
Scientific American: Hunger intensifies taste
Wired.com: From Frankenstein to frog steaks
BBC: How close did we come to asteroid red alert?

Feb. 23, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Turning waste into watts: Researchers at Penn State say they have developed a microbial fuel-cell system that enlists naturally occurring bacteria to clean up wastewater and generate electricity at the same time.

Microbial fuel cells, or MFCs, work by using chemical reactions within the bacteria to drive electrons through a circuit. At the other end of the circuit, the electrons interact with hydrogen ions and oxygen to produce water.

Penn State's microbial fuel cell is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and 2.5 inches (6.25 centimeters) in diameter.

So far, the Penn State experiments have generated 10 to 50 milliwatts of power per square meter of electrode surface, or about 5 percent of the amount needed to light one mini-light on a Christmas tree. The system also removed up to 78 percent of the organic matter in the wastewater, as measured by biochemical oxygen demand.

Image: Logan and Liu
Greg Grieco  /  PSU
Bruce Logan and Hong Liu work with wastewater in their Penn State lab.
That power output may not sound like much, but the real trick is that the system works with regular wastewater and regular bacteria.

"If power generation in these systems can be increased, MFC technology may provide a new method to offset wastewater treatment plant operating costs, making advanced wastewater treatment more affordable for both developing and industrialized nations," Bruce Logan, the project's director and a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, said in a university news release.

A paper on the experiments, written by Logan along with Penn State researchers Hong Liu and Ramanathan Ramnarayanan, was released online over the weekend and will appear in a future issue of Environmental Science and Technology. The project was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Feb. 23, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Perils of the Pentagon: Is global climate change driving us toward "nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting" in the next 20 years? A report appearing in The Observer and widely redistributed in the European press says that's the dark scenario painted in a secret, suppressed Pentagon report — a report that "will prove humiliating to the Bush administration, which has repeatedly denied that climate change even exists."

But not so fast: This isn't the first time we've heard about the Pentagon's climate change report. An earlier account in Fortune magazine sounds more likely, saying that the "weather nightmare" was drawn up as a planning exercise, merely to see what the political and military implications of abrupt climate change might be.

"It doesn't pretend to be a forecast," Fortune's David Stipp reported. "Rather, it sketches a dramatic but plausible scenario to help planners think about coping strategies."

The unclassified report, completed late last year, hasn't been circulated widely, but it certainly is not secret or suppressed. And because it's a "what-if" study — on a par with Pentagon studies about what might have happened if Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction — the report seems unlikely to become a campaign issue. At least this year.

Feb. 23, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Physics Today: Muons may unlock secrets of Teotihuacan
NASA: Scientists watch 'movie' of neutron star blast
Get ready for the World Year of Physics in 2005
Help build the first Flash Mob supercomputer

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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