Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
Entrepreneur has a passion for habitat design
• March 19, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Living space for outer space: Aerospace engineer/entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty has been living a simulated dream come true this week: She's making her home in a Mars habitat.
No matter that the habitat is actually in a desert in Utah rather than on Mars. Figuring out how to make life more livable for space exploration is her passion, and her place among the crew at the Mars Desert Research Station is as close as she can come to the real thing, at least for now.
"That will be a fantastic experience, to understand what it took the Mars Society to actually construct the habitat in the middle of nowhere," she said in an interview before her two-week desert stint began.
Mohanty's top priority is to conduct an experiment in habitat design.
"My premise for the experiment is that fixed layouts within a space habitat, especially for long-duration missions, is not a good idea," she said. "Within a habitat, there are certain elements, especially mechanical elements, life support elements, which have to be fixed. But I think there are many other elements within a habitat which can be moved around and should be flexible.
"If I'm going to Mars, if I've got to live out there for like 500 days and take six months going back and forth, I definitely as a crew member would want to change something."
Mohanty theorizes that letting the crew members redesign their living space will keep them interested in their surroundings — and keep them from going stir-crazy. That doesn't mean she's planning to move the furniture around at the Utah desert station. Instead, she'll work with small-scale models of the habitat, and gather feedback from her crewmates on textures, colors and layouts — kind of like playing house on Mars.
"Those little things go a long way in ensuring that a mission doesn't go awry," she said.
Susmita Mohanty helps construct a shelter for the generators at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
She now runs two consulting firms — MoonFront in San Francisco and Liquifer in Vienna. In 2002, she helped organize a lunar base design workshop for the European Space Agency, and she's looking forward to a day when some of the designs might actually become reality.
One of her main themes is to make spaceships and robotic habitats more intelligent. "Can future architecture be programmable in ways that a spaceship could morph into different modes, based on what the crew is doing?" she asked. For example, a moon base could be built so that it configures itself one way when a crew is living within it, and another way when it's running on autopilot.
But will she be working for NASA?
"My plan is to head back to India, possibly in a couple years, because the moon mania is catching on in India as well," she said.
India is planning to send an orbiter to the moon in 2007, and Mohanty is hoping that humans won't be far behind.
"I would like to set up the human space exploration side, when it comes to going to the moon, in India," Mohanty said. "There will be opposition, there will be support. It won't be easy, but it'll be worth it."
• March 19, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Grander Challenges ahead: Even though no robot could drive the entire course last week during the DARPA Grand Challenge, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is undeterred: Director Anthony Tether says he wants to have the next robotic road race in about a year to 18 months, with the $1 million prize boosted to $2 million. During last weekend's wind-up, Tether also hinted that the course might be shorter than this year's 142-mile marathon. He made clear, however, that the next Grand Challenge would still be conducted in the Mojave Desert — which would try any robot's patience.
For an insider's postmortem on this year's race, check out today's Washington Post's chat with Gary Carr, leader of Team ENSCO. And keep your eye on the International Robot Racing Federation, which is trying to organize its own commercially funded "Open Challenge" with a $1 million prize.
• March 19, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• "Nova" on PBS: "Mysterious Mummies of China"
• The Economist: The gentle rise of the machines
• Archaeology Magazine: Hollywood Holy Land
• Wired.com: E-voting snafu in California county
• Seattle Weekly: Black box backlash
• March 18, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Space vision gets sharper: This week brought two examples of how much our view of the cosmos is improved by better telescopes and cameras: the discovery of the planetoid Sedna, the most distant object seen in our solar system; and the detection of a 100-foot-wide (30-meter-wide) asteroid named 2004 FH as it flashed past Earth during the closest recorded cosmic encounter.
In each case, the observed object is almost certainly just one of many like it. But such objects are either too small or too distant to be seen — until now.
In Sedna's case, the detection came about during a full-sky planetoid survey that is only 15 percent complete, using a sophisticated 170-megapixel camera array. And even though space rocks like 2004 FH are thought to pass as close every couple of years or so, it's only been in the past few years that projects like LINEAR have been methodically scanning the sky for near-Earth objects.
So what's next? Keep your eye on the Spitzer Space Telescope, project scientist Michael Werner advises. The latest of NASA's "Great Observatories," which was launched into an Earth-trailing orbit last August, already has sent back some pictures and played a supporting role in the Sedna observations, but Werner says the best is yet to come.
Spitzer is designed to "see" in infrared wavelengths rather than the visible-light spectrum, and that means it's particularly well-suited to study the old, cold and dusty corners of the cosmos.
Among the highlights will be images of nebulae and supernovae in our own galaxy, as well as the signature of organic molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
"The dust is not so much indicative of potential planets as it is indicative of planets that have formed around other stars," Werner said.
Spitzer's resolution for deep-sky imagery may not be as good as that of the Hubble Space Telescope, but it can still provide fresh infrared perspectives on big-picture projects ranging from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to the DEEP Survey.
Referring to the debate over Hubble's fate, Werner said, "We hope to be able to absorb some of the shock which would be a consequence of Hubble's early demise."
Of course, most astronomers are hoping Hubble will hang around much longer. Now the Space Frontier Foundation has taken up the cause as well, backing the idea of a robotic mission that could facilitate a later upgrade.
“One of the crazy ironies of this entire situation is that since they decided not to use the shuttle to save it, NASA is planning to spend millions on an automated spacecraft to dock with Hubble and bring it down in a ‘controlled’ manner,” said the group's founder, Rick Tumlinson. “If they can do that, why can’t they use a similar commercial spacecraft to push it up to an orbit accessible by shuttle or space station crews, or to a high ‘storage’ orbit where it can wait until a long-term solution is found? It defies logic.”
If Hubble can be serviced, it won't be merely to keep the telescope running at its current capability. Scientists and engineers have been preparing two new imaging devices for installation: the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. Check the Hubblesite to refresh your memory about the intended servicing mission and how it could extend our space vision even farther.
Here are some of your comments on Hubble, Sedna and the definition of planethood:
Phil Pennington, Houston: "Why can't NASA purchase a standby rescue mission from the Russians to make the Hubble Space Telescope repair safe? If the mission is needed, it can be launched immediately, and if not it can be scrubbed. Surely the Hubble is worth the investment."
Edna, Anderson, S.C., on the planetoid Sedna: "I think they should drop the 'S' and name it Edna."
Greg Curti Sr., Mechanicsville, Va.: "I think if this discovery (Sedna) is in fact a new planet, then that would be really cool. I hope that NASA will have one of its deep-space probes check out Sedna and send back some pictures."
Everette Short: "This planet's existence was predicted over 30 years ago. I believe they called it 'Chiron.' Anyone else remeber this?"
James: "The term 'planet' is an archaic term needing either an updated definition or complete replacement. ... 'Stellar satellites' of varying classes would be more appropriate, or redefining planet to be any body of matter orbiting around a stellar mass, further subdivided by classes describing diameter, orbit, mean temperature, mass, atmosphere, and composition (DOTMAC Classification)."
Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "An idea for the astronomers who want to make their classifications neater. How about we eliminate the 'planet' classification altogether? In fact, how about we ignore size as well? Substitute 'Silicon Belt Object' for the inner three major and the swarm of minor Sol-orbiting objects, 'Gas Belt Objects' for the big guys, and 'Ice Belt Objects' for the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud stuff. Toss Pluto into the Ice Belt and the problem goes away! No more undefined wanderers! And moons remain moons regardless of composition or position. Might we say that this is a more 'object-ive' scheme?"
• March 18, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Scientific questions on the World Wide Web:
• Discovery.com: Can earthly telescopes replace Hubble?
• BBC: Have old teeth unraveled Anglo-Saxon legacy?
• Scientific American: Will physicists get their dream machine?
• Nat. Geographic: Do birds and monkeys understand each other?
• March 17, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Blueberry bonanza on Mars: The mysterious Martian blueberries that were first seen by NASA's Opportunity rover are giving off a "whopping big hematite signal," the mission's top scientist is quoted as saying. That's great news for the science team, because Opportunity's primary mission is to study hematite, an iron-bearing mineral that can be formed through interaction with liquid water.
The Planetary Society quotes Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres as saying the strong signature of hematite was picked up by Opportunity's Mössbauer spectrometer while it was sniffing around the "Berry Bowl," a concentration of the BB-sized spherules lying within a shallow bowl of bedrock. Squyres and other Mars mission scientists discussed their work Tuesday during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.
Opportunity already has sent back evidence that its landing site was once "drenched" with water, based on the presence of sulfate deposits. Geologically speaking, the hematite could serve as the second half of a one-two punch — strengthening the case that liquid water persisted long enough to allow for the development of Red Planet life.
The Opportunity rover will soon emerge from the crater where it landed almost two months ago, onto the plains of Meridiani Planum. Once it gets onto the plains, the rover could well be rolling over "billions of blueberries," the Planetary Society quotes deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson of the Washington University at St. Louis as saying.
Arvidson and many other members of the science team left their home bases to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. — which can be a hardship for family life. Once the team takes a good close look at Martian hematite, that may well signal a changing of the guard, said Arizona State University's Philip Christensen, a member of the science team.
NASA / JPL / Cornell
An image created by the Opportunity rover shows the "Berry Bowl" with a concentration of spherules at the bottom of a depression in bedrock. The colors have been enhanced, or "stretched," to accentuate differences in the rock.
In addition to keeping up with the developments on Mars, the Planetary Society is planning a special push for its EarthDial project, timed to coincide with this weekend's equinox. The equinox (at 1:49 a.m. ET Saturday) marks the official start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.
It's a special time for sundials as well as for season-watchers, according to Bill Nye the Science Guy, a guiding light for the EarthDials as well as the MarsDials mounted on the rovers.
"Most days, the shadows of flagpoles, trees and posts track graceful hyperbolic curves, here on Earth and on Mars," Nye says. "But on the day of an equinox, they become straight lines. On the 19th and 20th, we'll all be able to watch those straight shadow paths on EarthDials around the world."
The Planetary Society says the EarthDial project will keep going at least as long as the Mars rovers do — and that could be another three or four months.
• March 17, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Log o' the Irish: St. Patrick isn't exactly the patron saint of scientists (that honor belongs to Albertus Magnus), but you can always find a couple of egghead angles to go along with today's Wearin' o' the Green: For example, there's the new study into why bubbles in a freshly poured pint of Guinness sink rather than rise. Then there's the perennial concern over the potato fungus that caused the Great Famine of 1847. My favorite subject is the search for Irish family roots, which spawned our special report on "Genetic Genealogy." And for something completely different, check out my wholly unscientific guide to this year's Bloomsday centennial in Dublin.
• March 17, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Serious and silly science on the World Wide Web:
• Nature: Robolympics contestants go for the gold
• New Scientist: 'Nanniebot' targets online pedophiles
• NASA partners with Energy Department for space exploration
• The Onion: Raving lunatic obviously took some advanced physics
• March 16, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Handicapping the private space race: Privately funded efforts to give everyday people a taste of the final frontier are advancing on several fronts: HobbySpace's Reusable Launch Vehicle News passes along a report that New Mexico's legislature is dangling a $9 million carrot in front of the X Prize Foundation, if the foundation selects a New Mexico site for its X Prize Cup competition.
New Mexico's Office for Space Commercialization is already hinting that one of the X Prize front-runners, Armadillo Aerospace, will be using the White Sands Missile Range for suborbital test launches.
Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne program, another front-runner for the $10 million X Prize, conducted a glide test last week — representing the craft's first publicized flight since a precedent-setting supersonic test on Dec. 17. RLV News notes that SpaceShipOne will fire up its hybrid rocket engine again during the next test flight.
Meanwhile, Space Adventures, the travel firm that helped send two millionaires to the international space station in 2001 and 2002, is expected to reveal later this month who could be the next paying passenger to take a trip to the station on a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.
Today, Space Adventures announced that it's looking for a place to build its own spaceport. We previously reported that one of the potential locations was Australia. Other locales on today's list are Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma in the United States, as well as the Bahamas, Florida, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Space Adventures would use the spaceport for suborbital takeoffs, spaceflight training and other flight operations. Executives of the Virginia-based company have surveyed sites in all the listed countries. Although today's announcement did not provide a timetable for selecting the location, Eric Anderson, the company's president and chief executive officer, told me in January that the decision would come "definitely this year."
"Securing the location of a spaceport will be a progressive step for Space Adventures in its evolution from a space experiences provider to an actual spaceflight academy," Anderson was quoted as saying in today's announcement. "We are aggressively seeking a location and enthusiastically look forward to the launch of the first Space Adventures suborbital flight from our spaceport in the coming years."
• March 15, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Grand and not-so-grand challenges: In the wake of the DARPA Grand Challenge — a robotic road race aimed at sparking innovations for future autonomous military vehicles — some Cosmic Log readers came up with suggestions for future technological challenges to be posed by NASA or other governmental agencies. Others wondered whether the Grand Challenge was all that grand after all.
Here's a sampling of the feedback:
Gary Bradski, Intel Labs, Santa Clara, Calif: "Next grand challenge: a robot that can build a copy of itself which can build a copy of itself."
Michael Huang: "How about a challenge involving life support for bases and colonies? Contestants would design and build a closed-loop life support system. The system that supports a person (or group of people) for the longest time wins. The contest shares a similarity with the 'Survivor' series: More and more contestants get knocked out until the winner emerges."
Jim: "We all know that finding terrorists like Osama bin Laden is hard to do. How about having a contest where contestants enter systems and devices to help provide real-time intelligence on a specified area. The contest would identify various scenarios that you would want the systems to work in. For example, a mountainous region is the home of some terrorists. Have a detachment of soldiers or volunteers that will run around the mountains as stealthily as possible while contestants try to discover them and identify if they are friend or foe, etc. Another scenario could be a fake city where you stage regular people with some 'terrorists' that are making bombs, etc., that contestants will have to identify."
Doug Fingles, Warner Robins, Ga.: "I would like to see a challenge that can come up with a way to rid low-Earth orbit of space debris. My wife and kids, on the other hand, would like to see a challenge for a robotic driver that can drive from New York City to Los Angeles and find every rest stop along the way, without prompting, crossed legs or begging."
Scott, Los Angeles: "I would like to see a contest ... to produce an 'automated freeway.' By this I mean a networked highway on which cars would be driven by computer alongside each other. The highway would control the flow of vehicular traffic from the time vehicles entered its on-ramps until they exited on its off-ramps."
Patrick Bishop: "The robots' mission was too unrealistic and the contestants' methods too complicated. Giving the robots a highly detailed map of the terrain, including a route between A and B, doesn't accomplish anything. Instead, give it the two coordinates and enough buglike intelligence to avoid obstacles and dangerous terrain en route. But no military mission is going to be simply 'Get from point A to point B.' Much more realistic is something like 'For 14 days, wander around in the area defined by these geographic coordinates and shoot anything that moves.'"
Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Did I see a justification for the 'Grand Challenge' that 'by 2015 one-third of the Army's vehicles will be autonomous'? Does this mean that a third of the Army will be monitoring vehicles?
"Assuming reliability of unmanned vehicles is increased by an order of magnitude, I guess that means that two-thirds of the Army's vehicles will be tripled in cost and have three troops to monitor them (eight-hour shifts) per day. How about a simple remote control instead of autonomous?
"Because there won't be anyone near with a wrench, if the thing breaks down do we just combat-loss it and e-mail back to ConUS [Continental United States] for a replacement? What keeps the enemy from trucking it off, or just stripping it?
"This begins to sound as though DARPA has been in the ivory tower too long. Harks back to the Hiller flying platform and the Bell rocket belt! I have noted a new rifle design that has an exploding shell set by a computer using a laser range-finder. Wonderful room-clearing from 200 meters, but the thing would be useless hand-to-hand!
"How about a wonder weapon that shoots 750 rounds per minute, is effective fom 10 to 600 or more meters, can fire a range of devices from fragmentation to smoke to anti-armor and is very useful in a bayonet fight? Especially if it works in any climate on Earth and tolerates dust, sand or mud! Sound too good to be true? It is the old M-14 rifle that was supposedly replaced by the superior M-16 in 1967 by Robert the Strange McNamara.
"Sorry, but technology for the sake of technology just don't cut it on the battlefield! KISS!"
• March 15, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Return of the links (on the scientific Web):
• Astrobiology Web: Clues to life in the mines of Murgul
• Independent Online: Graves of Egyptian king's courtiers found
• The New Yorker: Bring on the nanobubble
• Science News: Brain size surprise
• March 15, 2004 | Updated 10 p.m. ET
It's a mini-planet! Far out! NASA is revealing information about the most distant object ever detected in orbit around the sun on Monday — and it doesn't take a lot of guessing to figure out what it is. Some reports have characterized the mysterious object as a "10th planet," but it would be more accurate to call it a Kuiper Belt object, one of thousands of iceballs orbiting on the edge of the solar system.
The object was discovered by astronomer Michael Brown and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology. The researchers apparently used data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, which looks at objects in infrared wavelengths.
The Australian quotes Brown as saying the object is "very big, and much further out than previous discoveries." It has provisionally been named Sedna, after the Inuit goddess of the sea, the newspaper reports. The paper says the mini-world is more than 3 billion kilometers (2 billion miles) beyond Pluto's orbit, with a diameter of almost 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles).
Those figures would beat the statistics quoted for 2004 DW, a large Kuiper Belt object that Brown and other researchers found just last month. In fact, one could imagine a scenario in which the Spitzer data led researchers to believe that 2004 DW was bigger and farther out than they originally thought.
Even at a diameter of 1,250 miles, Sedna still falls just short of Pluto's size — but there may come a time when a far-out Kuiper Belt object is judged to be larger than the solar system's ninth planet. That would fuel the simmering controversy over how astronomers define "planethood." For more about the planet debate, check out this Cosmic Log guide from last August, and stay tuned for the full story on Monday.
Update for 10 p.m. ET March 15: OK, here's the full story ... it turned out to be somewhat different from what I was expecting.
• March 14, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Still challenged: I'm still recovering from this weekend's DARPA Grand Challenge and catching up on your e-mail. There are plenty of suggestions for future grand challenges that NASA could offer, and plenty of sideline sidelights to be recounted in a follow-up. So even though the race is over, you can look forward to a postmortem in the Log later this week.
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.