March 5, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Robots on a roll: If you're into robotics, all roads lead to the DARPA Grand Challenge next week in the California desert, where autonomous vehicles will be vying to win a 300-mile road race and earn a $1 million prize from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

It's not just the 20-plus teams who are preparing robotic Humvees, pickup trucks, station wagons or what have you for the contest. Adding to the hubbub will be industrial sponsors such as Agilent, BFGoodrich, Boeing, IBM, Intel, Texas Instruments ... squadrons of volunteers and public-relations types ... and hundreds of journalists, including yours truly.

The stories in Wired and Popular Science, on our own Web site and elsewhere provide just a foretaste of what is to come over the next week, climaxing with the race itself on March 13. There's a real sense of excitement about these gearheads, analogous to what the Wright brothers and their rivals must have felt a century ago.

The $1 million prize is no doubt part of the allure, and that augurs well for other grand contests such as the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight and NASA's planned Centennial Challenges for achievements to be named later. But it's not just the money: When you include in-kind contributions and the volunteer brainpower and muscle power, some of the teams already have used $1 million or more to get their robots ready.

When you consider the rising role of robots in endeavors ranging from exploration to warfighting , it's clear that a dramatic transformation is under way. And you don't need to go to Mars or the California desert to see it: Beginning this week, thousands of students are competing in regional contests leading up to the FIRST Robotics Competition finals next month in Atlanta. If you want to be involved with the next generation of robotics, the FIRST program is a good place to start.

Feel free to send along your questions or comments relating to the DARPA Grand Challenge, and I'll try to incorporate some of them in next week's postings. Because I'll be on the road, the Cosmic Log updates may not be as extensive as usual, but I'll do my best to keep in touch.

March 5, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
More Mars merriment: I'll also be spending some time next week at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to get an inside look at the Mars rover missions. I'll try to bring along some of your questions, including anything I can find out about wind speeds and temperature readings.

Here is some of the recent feedback on the Red Planet, the rovers' playlist, the Hubble Space Telescope and more:

Ashleen George, Twin Falls, Idaho: "I am only 14 years old, but I have been extremely interested in Mars exploration since before I knew the names of all nine planets. I think that there is a good chance that there is, or was, life on Mars. I used to think that our small planet we call Earth was the only inhabitable planet there was. But now I think differently. Why would this minuscule planet be the only one with life on it, when most all the stars you see in the sky are like our sun? If there is life on Mars now, it won't be little green men with antennas sticking out of their heads, they'll be microscopic ... either pre- or post-multicelled organisms. Or there could be nothing there, like my previous theory. If there isn't life out there, are we wasting our money and endangering our astronauts by exploring the unknown? Or are we bound to discover something?"

Rawad, Lebanon: "I think there is possible life on Mars, but you didn't consider something. You didn't consider that maybe Mars is one of the chances for the survival of human species in the future, because the sun may grow, causing disasters here on Earth or there may be disasters that we humans created. Mars' atmosphere might change due to a change of temperature, so it might be a way of survival."

David, Toronto, on songs for the rovers: "There's always 'Red Rover' by Fleetwood Mac from their latest album, 'Say You Will.'"

OM: "The playlist has to include Johnny Cash's "Five Feet High and Risin'."

David A. Zapolsky: "Where the heck is 'Here come the Martian Martians,' by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers???"

George Branchaud, Clemons, N.Y.: "In re 'Mars: The Bringer of War' by Gustav Holst, an artist named Isao Tomita did an exceptional electronic version in 1976. ..."

Rodd Jones, Wichita, Kan.: "With the incredible results of the Mars rovers, let's continue sending unmanned devices and experiments of discovery to Mars ... a Mars exploration blimp that can remain airborne indefinitely and travel widely around Mars and hover over chosen locations and also release exploration modules. Keep the fabulous Hubble updated and in operation for as long as possible, even after a replacement is in operation. Keep the space station evolving along with design of a second-generation space plane to replace the shuttle. Forget manned missions to Mars until alternative propulsion systems are available that would reduce manned mission duration from years to months."

Laura Tingley, Kaiserslauter, Germany: "Why doesn't Hubble raise some extra dough by marketing T-shirts with the awesome images it produces? I would wear one. I think it's a crying shame such a wonderful resource is going to be left to die of old age."

March 5, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Spiritual neurology Scientists identify anti-sex scent
Science News: Killer waves
The Guardian: What's popcorn in Aramaic?

March 4, 2004 | 1:30 p.m. ET
Hubble's 'Starry Night': Astronomers are seeing artistic flair in the Hubble Space Telescope's latest image of a distant star called V838 Monocerotis. They compare the expanding echo of light to the Vincent van Gogh masterpiece "Starry Night," with "never-before-seen spirals of dust swirling across trillions of miles of interstellar space."

The red supergiant star flashed with a pulse of light two years ago, and since then Hubble has watched the reverberation of that pulse through the surrounding interstellar dust. The light echo looks like an expanding bubble in a time-lapse video of the observations.

"This new image shows swirls or eddies in the dusty cloud for the first time," the Space Telescope Science Institute said in today's release. "These eddies are probably caused by turbulence in the dust and gas around the star as they slowly expand away. The dust and gas were likely ejected from the star in a previous explosion, similar to the 2002 event, which occurred some tens of thousands of years ago."

Image: V838 Monocerotis
In the latest image of V838 Monocerotis, a pulse of light illuminates swirls of interstellar dust. Click on the image to watch an MPEG video of time-lapse imagery.

V838 Mon is on the edge of our Milky Way galaxy, about 20,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros.

Astronomers say that V838 Mon acts like a nova — a type of star that can suddenly increase in brightness due to thermonuclear explosions at the surface — but its bright red color and other characteristics make it unlike any other nova known.

"Nature's own piece of performance art, this structure will continue to change its appearance in coming years as the light from the stellar outburst continues to propagate outward and bounce off more distant black clouds of dust," the institute said. "Astronomers expect the echoes to remain visible for at least the rest of the current decade."

But will Hubble be around to see it? The controversy over NASA's plan to forgo future telescope servicing missions is still echoing through Washington: This week, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced a resolution calling for an independent review of NASA's decision.

"The potential gains from extending Hubble's life are real and achievable — and I believe we should not arbitrarily cancel the servicing mission without exploring all options for safely carrying it out," Udall said in a news release.

Yet another major contribution from Hubble is due for release next week: the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, billed as the deepest-ever view of the universe. Check back on Tuesday to see the picture and learn the lessons it will teach about the frontiers of our cosmos. In the meantime, click through Hubble's greatest hits in our Space Gallery .

March 4, 2004 | 1:30 p.m. ET
Save the Saturn 5: CollectSpace editor Robert Pearlman sends along a plea for another historic spacecraft:

"The only surviving Saturn V made from all flight-ready components is in need of your help," he writes. "For 27 years, it has sat outside NASA's Johnson Space Center as the ultimate lawn ornament. Houston's ozone-rich, humid air has left the mighty moon rocket in great need of restoration. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is set to begin work next week; however, $540,000 must be raised to fund the completion of this conservation effort. Every space history enthusiast can help save the JSC Saturn V by making a donation now."

Donations may be sent to the National Air and Space Museum Saturn V Fund, P.O. Box 23197, Washington, D.C. 20026. Checks should be made payable to "National Air and Space Museum Saturn V."

Unfortunately, it may be too late to rescue yet another piece of space history, the Apollo Launch Umbilical Tower that once supported the moon rockets. (A tip o' the link to the Space Log.)

March 4, 2004 | 1:30 p.m. ET
Marvels and mischief on the scientific Web:
UC-Berkeley: Researchers developing exoskeleton
The Onion Archives: Stephen Hawking builds exoskeleton DNA report revives czar mystery
Nature: Scientists behaving badly

March 3, 2004 | 3:30 p.m. ET
Return to the moon in 3-D: Next year, an all-star cast is due to take theatergoers where no 3-D movie has gone before: the lunar surface.

The 45-minute documentary on the Apollo missions, "Magnificent Desolation," involves Tom Hanks, the actor who starred in "Apollo 13" and was executive producer for the miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," as well as Imax, NASA and Lockheed Martin. Hanks will be a co-producer and most likely a narrator of the Imax large-format film.

"Exploring the moon was humankind's most incredible road trip," Hanks said in today's announcement. "Our film will bring along anyone who wants to take that giant leap for themselves."

The script is based on the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, a word-for-word record of lunar surface operations. The imagery comes from the Apollo missions as well — including previously unreleased footage and never-before-seen photographs.

Seeing the Sea of Tranquility, the Ocean of Storms, the Taurus Littrow Valley, the Fra Mauro Highlands and other lunar landscapes on an eight-story-high screen will be impressive enough. But how do you turn all that 2-D imagery into 3-D?

"Imax has the ability to convert computer-generated animation to Imax 3-D, and will do so with the CGI renditions of the lunar landscape for this film," a company spokeswoman told me. "Imax has already done this successfully with the 1999 release of 'Cyberworld' and the 2002 release of Steve Oedekerk's 'Santa vs. the Snowman.'"

"Magnificent Desolation" will be directed by Mark Cowen. Meanwhile, another director, George Butler, is working on an Imax film about Mars, using imagery from the current rover missions as well as film shot in Antarctica. The movie reportedly will blend Antarctic footage and rover imagery to give audiences the sense they're walking on Mars, which hints that this could be a 3-D project as well.

The Imax 3-D isn't the same as the NASA-issue, red-blue anaglyphs we've seen already during the current Mars mission. Imax's technique uses polarizing glasses to put full-color 3-D on the big screen. For more on how big-screen 3-D works — and why it's becoming more popular — check out my interview with James Cameron on last year's 3-D Titanic documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss."

March 3, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
Purdue: Further evidence for tabletop nuclear fusion
Science@NASA: A close encounter with Jupiter
NSF: Rare 'Tumbleweed' survives Antarctic conditions
Joint Astronomy Center: Find your birthday star

March 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
The merry side of Mars: Now that NASA has shared its big news — evidence that the Opportunity rover site was once drenched with enough water to make the place livable — kick back with some Mars-related merriment:

For example, did you catch the Diet Pepsi "Rover" commercial during Sunday's Oscar ceremonies? If not, watch it on Pepsi World. And if you're wondering what would have constituted really big news on Mars, take a look at this 360-degree view of the Spirit rover's landing site.

Today marked the debut of the Planetary Society's "EarthDialers" Web site, which features a worldwide network of Webcam-monitored sundials, modeled after the sundials that went to Mars aboard Spirit and Opportunity. Be sure to check out the Antarctic sundial, which works correctly only at the poles.

Image: Antarctic sundial
University of Washington
This design for a 24-hour sundial works only in the land of the midnight sun.
The Planetary Society is also continuing to offer its "Secret Mars Code" contest, which challenges you to decode messages that were printed on DVDs mounted on the Mars rovers. You'll find plenty of clues — but no answer key yet.

Are you dying to have your very own personal Mars mini-rover? You could pay $90 for a rover replica — but a low-cost alternative would be to print out a rover construction kit from this Dutch site.

You'll also find cut-outs for the Spitzer Space Telescope and other space gear. (A tip o' the link to Martian Soil.)

Martian Soil also passes along the report that "A Princess of Mars," the first book in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series, is being made into a movie for Paramount by "Spy Kids" director Robert Rodriguez. The 1912 classic may be a bit creaky, but it's a perfect selection for our Cosmic Log Used Book Club, a shameless rip-off of the "Today" Book Club.

To refresh your memory, the CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that can be found at your local library or favorite used-book store. "A Princess of Mars" takes the cheapskate theme to the next level: You can read the whole thing absolutely free on the World Wide Web, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. And if you enjoy "Princess," you can read three other online books in the John Carter series.

Finally, we received a healthy batch of additional suggestions for NASA's rover playlist . I passed along a few of the selections last week, and here are a few more:

Basil Sattler: Somebody must have suggested "Mars: The Bringer of War" from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst. It is instrumental classical … I’m sure there is a rock version of the song if that is preferable.

John V. Stone, applied anthropologist, Michigan State University, East Lansing: "Rover," by Jethro Tull (off the "Heavy Horses" CD); "Rock Island," also by Jethro Tull (off the "Rock Island" CD); "In a Stone Circle," by Ian Anderson (off the "Divinities: Twelve Dances with God" CD).

Lee Hawthorn, Grand Saline, Texas: "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf. Self-explanatory.

Tim: Wouldn't "Spirit in the Sky" be the perfect song?

Scott: "Take Me to the River" by the Talking Heads, or how about "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" by B.J. Thomas. It will hopefully be one of those, or we all will be singing "Small Circle of Friends"!

D. Moore, Corpus Christi, Texas: "I Turned Into a Martian" by the Misfits.

Garvin, Phoenix: When contact with Spirit and Opportunity is lost, I cannot think of any better: "I Know You're Out There Somewhere" by the Moody Blues.

March 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Back to the serious side of Mars:
Joint Astronomy Center: Hydrogen peroxide in Mars' atmosphere
The Independent: Birth of the 'Beagle Generation'
The Age: Broadband alive and well on Mars
Space Daily: Mars Express in the shadows

March 1, 2004 | Updated 2:25 p.m. ET
Big news from Mars: After a weekend of escalating buzz , NASA has scheduled a rush news conference at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday at its Washington headquarters to announce new findings about water on Mars.

The specifics are being held back for the briefing, but clearly they have to do with evidence sent back from the Mars rovers relating to the role liquid water played — and may still be playing — on the Red Planet. If there is even a bit of salty liquid water beneath the surface of Mars, as hinted last month , that theoretically could open the way for life to exist there even today.

Among the clues are the threadlike features seen in some of the microscopic imagery, which could have been laid down by mineral-rich water percolating through the soil; the fine-layered appearance of Martian bedrock around Opportunity's landing site, which points toward a sedimentary origin; and fancifully nicknamed geological features such as blueberries and macaroni .

The rover missions' principal scientific investigator, Cornell astronomer Steve Squyres, will be among the speakers at Tuesday's briefing, NASA spokesman Don Savage told Other speakers include Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science; John Grotzinger , a geologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Benton C. Clark III, chief scientist of space exploration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Astronautics Operations; rover project scientist Joy Crisp of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Jim Garvin, NASA Headquarters' lead scientist for Mars and the moon.

Arrangements for the briefing were firmed up over the weekend — and Savage said the plans were made so hastily because the news couldn't be held back much longer, "not that we would want to hold it." So stay tuned for the news as it happens, via MSNBC's Go to MSN Video to watch Live Coverage of the Mars missions.

March 1, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Million-year-old water on Earth: While some geologists debate intriguing traces of subsurface water on Mars, others are intrigued by a particular patch of subsurface water on Earth. This isn't just your garden-variety aquifer: What's special about this particular groundwater is that it's been moving slowly beneath the Sahara Desert for the past million years, since a time when the Sahara was a lush, green landscape.

That conclusion comes from an analysis of thousands of gallons of water drawn from wells in Egypt's Western Desert that dip into the Nubian Aquifer. The research team, whose findings have been accepted for publication in the March issue of Geophysical Research Letters, developed a laser-based method to measure isotopes of krypton within those samples.

Figuring out the ratio of radioactive krypton-81 to the more common krypton-84 told scientists how long the aquifer's water has been on the move, and how fast it's moving — basically providing a radioisotope dating method for groundwater. They found that some of the water was a million years old and moving northward at a rate of 1 to 2 yards per year, about as fast as grass grows.

"Isotopic characteristics of the water itself indicate that it was transported by air masses traveling long distances over North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean, thus reflecting climate conditions much different from the present during the past million years," the American Geophysical Union said in a news release. "Changing climate patterns turned this green oasis into today's desert."

March 1, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: Creatures queue up to be sequenced
New Scientist: Magic cube conjures up kids' tales An 'Excalibur' mystery in Tuscany
Scientific American: Lines drawn in debate over Vinland map

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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