Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
References shed light on past and future of flight
• April 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Space race readings: What's next for the private-sector space race? Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne team, the front-runner to win the $10 million X Prize, doesn't announce its flight tests in advance, but some hints slipped out in a report appearing on DCMilitary.com and pointed out by the X Prize Space Race News blog.
SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie is quoted as saying that the next powered flight is aimed at achieving velocities of more than twice the speed of sound and an altitude of 250,000 feet. That would be more than twice as high as the previous supersonic flight, and two-thirds of the way to the magic 100-kilometer (62-mile) mark.
The SpaceShipOne effort is being backed to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by billionaire Paul Allen. Why would someone spend tens of millions on a quest to win a mere $10 million? Allen hasn't said much about his motivation, beyond his Dec. 17 statement extolling "the spirit of innovation and exploration in aviation." But it's clear that his fascination with aviation is no fly-by-night fad.
After all, he provided millions of dollars to help Eclipse Aviation get started, and he's been collecting historic planes for years. This month, he announced the establishment of the Flying Heritage Collection in Arlington, Wash., to show off all those planes and maybe even have them "exercised" every once in a while. Public tours started today.
"I wish I was a pilot, but I'm not," Allen said in a Seattle Times report on the collection.
To learn what the life of a pilot is all about — and what the X Prize is all about — add world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh's autobiography, "The Spirit of St. Louis," to your summer reading list. The book comes recommended by Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation. In fact, he joked that "The Spirit of St. Louis," which he read as a teenager, was responsible for getting him into the mess he finds himself today, on the verge of a busy space race summer.
"The Spirit of St. Louis," Charles Lindbergh's autobiography, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
This weekend is a fitting time to commemorate space-age Lindberghs: Five more astronauts will be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday. The honorees include NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory; Richard Covey, co-chair of the task force overseeing the shuttle fleet's return to flight; Kathryn Sullivan, NASA's first female spacewalker; Norman Thagard, the first American to serve an extended tour of duty on Russia's Mir space station; and the late Dick Scobee, who lost his life in the 1986 Challenger tragedy.
Where will we find the future Lindberghs and tomorrow's Wright brothers? Keep an eye on the X Prize contestants. Here's one of the letters received in response to this week's item on Phillip Storm and Eric Meier, the dark-horse X Prize contestants at Space Transport Corp.:
Susan Ruotsala Storm, Ph.D., Okemos, Mich.: "Space Transport's 'Way Out There' Space Dudes in Forks, Washington, are what the X Prize should be all about. They're not throwing corporate money at a puzzle — they're creating it. Their Rubicon, come what may, burns the bridges of vintage thinking and propels their commitment to commercial space tourism. I'm certain that Eric Meier's mother is as proud as Phillip Storm's is. (P.S. Orville and Wilbur Wright's mom's name was Susan.)"
Bill Hodges, Santa Clara, Calif.: "I was in the 7.0-7.1 Loma Prieta (San Francisco Bay Area) quake of 1989. Using that direct experience benchmark, if a 10.5 hits L.A. or S.F. (logrithmically tens of times more powerful than a 7.1), there won't be much left of these two areas. Buildings or people. I'm banking on the Big One being 8.0 and I'm not in the shower when it hits."
Patrick Bishop, Caldwell: "Not being very familiar with the level of destruction shown in '10.5,' I would like to nevertheless point out that scientists claiming that no such level of violence is possible (or probable) ought probably to rethink their answers. How violent was the quake associated with the explosion of the volcano Krakatoa? The Greek isle of Thera experienced one of the most violent earthquakes in the history of the human race when its volcano similarly erupted. Large volcanic islands have also suffered other forms of geologic shaking — such as when slices of them (sometimes many square miles in area) peel off and form runaway landslides off shore. How bad was the shaking the last time the Yellowstone Caldera seriously erupted? The shaking associated with such events (and let's not forget asteroid impacts) might well be inconceivable. 10.5 on the Richter scale might be a modest estimate."
Rev. George C Murray, Naples, Fla.: "Evidently many of the scientists have not read the Book of Revelation. Yes, the earth can heave like it is depicted in the movie. When we reach the end of times and God sends His wrath and judgment, the people of earth will experience an earthquake like never before seen or heard. In scientific terms it probably would be higher than 10.5."
Barbara Dutra, Nashua: "The movie is supposed to be entertaining, and as such poetic license is expected and anticipated. We should be more worried about the truth not coming out of our elected officials — not what the latest 'blow-up' movie is or is not making up."
I agree that we shouldn't look for scientific truth from Hollywood. If you want to see things blow up, feel free to watch "10.5." If you want to learn about earthquake facts and fiction, check out the U.S. Geological Survey.
• April 30, 2004 |
7 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'Battle Plan Under Fire'
• Defense Tech: Armored pooches on Iraq patrol
• ABC (Australia): Have scientists found Atlantis?
• The Economist: Biotechnology's sea of dreams
• Archaeology Magazine: Diving with the dead
• April 29, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
A star's fiery, icy death: Colorful blasts from an ultra-hot star wrapped in an icy doughnut are on display in the latest imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, released by the European Space Agency.
At the heart of the Bug Nebula, also known as NGC 6302, is one of the hottest stars known, with a temperature of at least 450,000 degrees Fahrenheit (250,000 degrees Celsius). That star can't be seen directly from Earth, however, because it's surrounded by a doughnut-shaped ring of dust and ice. The dark ring funnels the gas being thrown off by the dying star into billowing sheets and clouds.
Colorful gas is expelled into space from the Bug Nebula's central star, located in the upper right corner of this Hubble Space Telescope image. The star itself is obscured by an encircling ring of ice and dust. A wider-angle view would reveal more of the Bug Nebula's butterfly shape.
Astronomers believe the dense, dark doughnut was expelled about 10,000 years ago, but they don't fully understand how it was formed or how long it will survive. A research paper on the Bug Nebula, based on the Hubble observations as well as data from ground-based telescopes, has been submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
Today's release is notable not only because it includes links to videos and zoomable images showing the Bug Nebula, but also because it refers fittingly to American poet Robert Frost's 1920 poem "Fire and Ice":
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
The Bug Nebula is about 4,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Scorpius. It's also known as the Butterfly Nebula, and a wider view of the scene will show you why. For more about planetary nebulae, check out our Hubble gallery of "Dazzling Deaths."
• April 29, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Armadillo in the X Prize hunt: Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack set me straight about his attitude toward the X Prize, the $10 million competition for privately funded spaceflight. I went slightly overboard when I wrote that Carmack considered himself out of the running for this year because of the logistical difficulties.
"A slight correction — we haven't given up on the chance of winning the X-Prize," Carmack wrote today. "I was just being honest in saying that a lot of things would have to go right to make it happen, which isn't a high probability bet. We will undoubtedly be flying full-scale hardware this year, but getting everything well-tested enough to carry people, hitting all the performance marks, and getting the launch license all in the next eight months will be tough."
One thing I don't want to do is sell Carmack and his Armadillo team short. During the Space Access '04 conference, there were repeated references to the Orteig Prize competition of the 1920s, which was won by underdog Charles Lindbergh instead of the favorite, Richard Byrd. The pundits turned out to be wrong in 1927, and I'll try not to make that mistake again.
• April 29, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
New astronauts for Space Day: This year's class of astronaut candidates will be named next Thursday during the annual Space Day celebration at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center, according to a NASA advisory. You'll be able to catch NASA's Webcast of the Space Day festivities, including the astronaut announcement, via MSNBC.com starting at 9:30 a.m. ET.
Among the candidates in the class of 2004 are three teacher-astronauts. Two of them have been the subject of news articles already — Florida's Joe Acaba and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who teaches in Vancouver, Wash. Sources have told NBC News that the third "educator mission specialist" is named Richard Arnold. For more about the next class of astronauts and their chances of flying, check out NBC News space analyst's James Oberg's story from earlier this month.
Space Day is presented annually on the first Thursday of May by NASA and a consortium of companies and educational organizations, to commemorate past achievements in space and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Consult the Space Day Web site for a list of activities in your area.
• April 29, 2004 |
6:30 p.m. ET
More scientific fire and ice on the World Wide Web:
• NPR: Ben & Jerry's uses sound to chill ice cream
• Discovery.com: Charred plants reveal first wildfire
• Phenomena Magazine: Dragon tales examined
• National Geographic: Fire and Iceland
• April 28, 2004 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Quake fact and fiction: Is Earth capable of unleashing a magnitude-10.5 mega-quake? Could someone actually cause an earthquake? What effect would a catastrophic seismic event have on America's West Coast? Would the ground open up? Would California fall into the ocean?
The hype surrounding the miniseries "10.5," due to air on NBC Sunday, brings such questions to mind — but don't expect the show to provide the right answers. For weeks, seismologists have been saying that the scientific footing is shaky at best, and even by Hollywood's loose standards, the plot is said to strain credulity to the breaking point. (By the way, NBC is a partner in the joint venture that operates MSNBC.com.)
The U.S. Geological Survey provides a far firmer foundation for earthquake inquiries. On the USGS Web site, the government's seismic experts explain the science behind mega-quakes, and sort out "Earthquake Facts and Earthquake Fantasy." The USGS says that a 10.5 quake is theoretically possible, but highly implausible — and that even such a super-duper-quake would not have the effects shown on "10.5."
The USGS also has some great tools for checking up on real-life earthquakes: Click on an interactive U.S. map to get the location and magnitude for recent seismic events, and use the "Did You Feel It?" feature to report local rumbles.
Shane Harvey / NBC
Residents flee as the earth opens up in a scene from "10.5."
Next month will bring yet another disaster saga our way: "The Day After Tomorrow," coming to theaters May 28, spins a tale of global climate catastrophe that is a similarly extreme exaggeration of the science. While there may be a grain of truth behind the premise, the movie has been thoroughly pilloried by experts on both sides of the climate debate.
This week there was a brouhaha over whether NASA climate scientists were being told to keep mum about the film, but the space agency said it was merely concerned about employees providing "promotional support" for the movie. SpaceRef provides further background on the flap.
For a level-headed tutorial on the global warming debate, check out the Koshland Science Museum's online exhibit. For the latest climate news, keep an eye on our Environment section. And for a wickedly good perspective on deliciously bad Hollywood science, click on over to Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.
• April 28, 2004 |
7:15 p.m. ET
Space perspectives on the World Wide Web:
• HobbySpace: Private space takes off
• Transterrestrial Musings: A legislative breakthrough?
• ESO: Cosmic ballet or devil's mask?
• SpaceWeather.com: A comet's morning glory
• April 27, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Billy the Kid still bedevils the law: Should New Mexico authorities exhume the purported remains of Billy the Kid and his mother to confirm the details of the Old West outlaw's death? The effort to employ DNA testing is currently tied up in the courts, and the latest chapter in the long-running saga is getting even more tangled.
One of the lawmen petitioning for exhumation, De Baca County Sheriff Gary Graves, has been holed up in his office because of a tiff with county commissioners. Graves was also the target of a petition drive calling for his resignation. Another co-petitioner, Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan, is due to leave office at the end of the year, and the candidates to take over his job say they don't intend to pursue the case.
Meanwhile, opposition is rising from those who feel digging up the old bones would be an unnecessary desecration of the Old West's heritage. Among those against the exhumation is the mayor of Fort Sumner, N.M., the town where the Kid's remains are said to lie. A legal defense fund has been set up to support Mayor Raymond Lopez and the town council in their fight to keep the graves intact.
"This whole effort is so shrouded in secrecy, especially in terms of who is paying, that the exhumation should be called off, unless details are forthcoming,” Trish Saunders, a spokeswoman for the society, said in a written statement.
“An event like this would forever alter the history and landscape of Fort Sumner. If there was ever a case when citizens should be given full details, this is it. But instead, there seems to be a blackout on information.”
For more information on the Billy the Kid saga and the role of DNA in untangling historical mysteries, check out our "Genetic Genealogy" section. If you get the History Channel on cable TV, you should also watch for a rebroadcast of this week's "Investigating History" program on the Billy the Kid controversy.
• April 27, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Space race follow-up: At least one more team is shooting for space launch that could win them a $10 million prize this year, from a place that's known more for rain forests than rocket fuel.
"We're under the radar for a lot of people right now," Phillip Storm of Space Transport Corp., based in Forks, Wash., said today. But that could change if this summer's unmanned test launches proceed as planned and the funding comes together for their X Prize bid.
As Cosmic Log readers should know by now, the X Prize Foundation is set to award $10 million to the first registered team to send a manned vehicle past 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude twice in two weeks' time. If no one wins by the end of the year, the $10 million purse would disappear, although the X Prize trophy and prestige would still be available for the taking.
Storm and his partner, Eric Meier, say a key test for their team would come in June, when they intend to send their Rubicon crew-capable rocket up to 20,000 feet in altitude from La Push on the coast of Washington state. They've already launched a smaller-scale, three-stage rocket to a height of 45 miles (72 kilometers), and if all goes well, they plan to have the Rubicon cross the 62-mile (100-kilometer) mark by late summer.
They may not have a billionaire's backing, as the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne does, but they've already demonstrated their solid-propellant rocket engine — which is more than can be said for some of the X Prize teams. "We're two young guys out here, and we're dedicated to this," Storm said.
The engineers have been in contact with their X Prize rivals as well as with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. They hope to win a launch license quickly after the demonstration flights and move toward manned flights by the end of the year. There's no denying that it's a long shot, but Storm said the Rubicon is still very much in the running.
"What you've got to do is ignore what other people say they're going to do," he said. "You've just got to focus on what you're going to do."
On a related matter, Jeff D. from Williamstown, Mass., went along with my suggestion that SpaceShipOne could cross the space barrier on the Fourth of July if all systems were go by that time. But he had an alternate date in mind for the follow-up mission: "If Scaled is planning to launch in July, how about July 16, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, for a second flight? It's still within two weeks of July 4, and is probably more immediately recognizable to the public. Granted, the 17th ties in better with the theme of reusable, rocket-plane flight, but Apollo 11 is much more recognizable than the X-15."
One factor has to do with the X Prize rules: Xcor's craft would be designed for a pilot and a single passenger, while the competition rules say the winning vehicle must be capable of carrying at least three people. Xcor says a two-person spaceship is significantly less complex to build than a three-person space.
You also have to keep in mind that although Xcor has successfully tested its EZ-Rocket plane, it hasn't yet started building the space-capable vehicle. In fact, the most immediate benefit of the FAA license issued last week will be to help Xcor with its fund-raising. Jeff Greason, the company's president and chief executive officer, says the plane should be ready 18 months after the capital is raised.
Thus, there's no way Xcor could have won the $10 million, because right now its entry exists only on paper. It's counting on investors to buy into the vision of suborbital space transport and tourism. This is why Greason and the Xcor corps emphasize the long-term business strategy rather than the short-term competition.
• April 27, 2004 |
8:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
• Science News: The science of fishing lures
• Discovery.com: Did da Vinci invent the Mars rover?
• BBC: Fossils reveal oldest wildfire
• Deutsche Welle: Finger foods in space
• April 29, 2004 | Updated 9:15 p.m. ET
Space race summer: If you're following the saga of private-sector spaceflight, brace yourself for a busy few months. Based on the rumblings at last week's Space Access '04 conference in Phoenix, there could be some real fireworks between now and Labor Day. Here's a quick preview, with more to come in the next couple of weeks:
May: As previously reported, the X Prize Foundation is gearing up to start the countdown toward attempts to win the $10 million prize offered for the first privately funded team to conduct two manned spaceflights in the course of two weeks. The foundation will announce other details of the home stretch, including the title sponsorship (as in "the [Your Corporate Name Here] X Prize, Presented by Champ Car"). It will also reveal whether Florida and New Mexico is the intended home for future X Prize Cup events.
June: Would-be competitors and kibitzers are to gather June 15-16 at the Washington Hilton to delve into the details of NASA's Centennial Challenges, the space agency's latest effort to encourage entrepreneurial approaches to engineering and exploration. For this fiscal year, the challenges will be backed by modest amounts — up to $250,000, for contests that will expire after two years. But in future fiscal years, NASA hopes to offer bigger, longer-range challenges — say, $20 million for a lunar landing. Many of the folks at the Phoenix conference voiced skepticism, but if NASA is serious about bringing more players into the space game, the June workshop could represent a giant leap toward that goal. On another front, JP Aerospace could go forward with a key test of its balloon-and-airship system for reaching the high frontier.
July: Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne effort is the clear favorite to win the $10 million X Prize, but when will its attempt come? Aviation designer Burt Rutan and his team are holding their cards close to the vest — and that secrecy has given rise to "Scaledologists" who study the signs from Mojave as closely as Kremlinologists once studied the May Day lineup on Lenin's Tomb.
I'll throw in my totally unscientific guess, based more on the holiday calendar than on any inside information. Let's say the first spaceflight comes on July 4, with a fireworks display worthy of the Fourth. Then the suspense could build as the two-week deadline ticks down to the second, prize-winning flight on July 17. That's the anniversary of the 1962 X-15 flight that made Air Force pilot Robert White the first human to earn astronaut wings for a rocket plane flight. If that's the way it happens, you heard it here first.
Armadillo Aerospace was thought to be SpaceShipOne's closest rival, but team leader John Carmack admits that winning the prize is a long shot, at least this year. The Armadillo application for a launch license isn't complete — an environmental assessment hasn't yet been filed — and Carmack also is reluctant to pay the fees requested for launches at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The Canadian-based Da Vinci Project is talking publicly about a summer launch, and Geoff Sheerin of the Canadian Arrow team told Space.com that he has "every confidence we can make a launch before the end of the year."
Based on the Phoenix experience, I've added a few more resources to the links box at right, including Jeff Foust's Space Review and Michael Mealling's Rocketforge. Mealling provides an excellent "trip report" on Space Access '04. It was also great to meet HobbySpace's Clark Lindsey and Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg face to face, and I'm gratified to hear that the feeling was mutual.
Update for April 29: The original version of this item was too pessimistic in characterizing the status of Carmack's X Prize bid. Click here for the correction.
• April 26, 2004 |
11:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): At NASA, science sharply shifts course
• Scientific American: Synthetic life
• Wired.com: Islamic schools slowly warm to computers
• Archaeology Magazine: Ancient Olympics Guide
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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