May 21, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
New blue planet:
Japan's Hayabusa probe snapped a stunning picture of the home planet this week from a distance of 185,000 miles (295,000 kilometers), during a flyby on the way to the asteroid Itokawa.

At its closest, Hayabusa (a.k.a. MUSES-C) came within 2,350 miles (3,725 kilometers) of Earth on Wednesday, getting a gravitational boost that should help it reach Itokawa in June 2005. The spacecraft, which was launched a year ago, is designed to bring samples of the space rock back to Earth, with a parachute descent to the Australian Outback scheduled in June 2007.

On its way through the Earth-moon system, Hayabusa also took a couple of snapshots of the moon's far side. Click on over to Astrobiology Magazine for more about the pictures and Hayabusa's mission.

Image: Hayabusa view of Earth
JAXA
This full-disk view of Earth was captured by Hayabusa's Asteroid Multiband Imaging Camera, or AMICA.

Hayabusa (Japanese for "Falcon") is powered by an ion engine — the same kind of propulsion system used on NASA's Deep Space 1 probe and the European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft, which was launched last September and is slowly making its way toward entering lunar orbit next March.

In the future, we're likely to be seeing more and more of such systems on spacecraft. To learn how ion engines work, check out our archived Deep Space 1 interactive.

Hayabusa's postcard is reminiscent of a similarly evocative picture of Earth and the moon captured by the Japanese spacecraft Nozomi back in 1998, when that probe was headed for to Mars. Let's hope Hayabusa is luckier than Nozomi, which had to take a years-long detour on its way to the Red Planet and suffered a mission-ending glitch before it even arrived.

May 21, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Deliciously bad update:
We're getting a good number of entries in our "Deliciously Bad" science-movie plot contest, but there's always room for more — particularly if they're delicious. Consult the original item for rules and potential rewards, then send in your entry by Monday.  So far, it seems to work best if the entry is cast in the form of a teaser rather than a complete blow-by-blow plot. And feel free to come up with a new disaster movie in the spirit of "10.5" or "The Day After Tomorrow." For example: "Pole-cano!" Here's another example sent in by D. Williams:

"Armageddon II: Nemesis Rising" — "The 'Harmonic Convergence' of the last century had an unseen effect. Nemesis, our sun's long-sought dark companion, has been pulled out of its orbit and is now heading for Earth. Unable to blow up a stellar object, mankind is left with one choice: Move the planet."

"Powered by the revolutionary ice fusion power source, Antarctica is burned to push the Earth out of danger. Our heroes head to Antarctica to construct the housing for the 'World Engine.' Can they meet the deadline? Can the earth be saved? Can Greenpeace save the penguins before their home is torched?"

The problem is, that almost sounds too much like a real Hollywood movie to be funny.

May 21, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Slate: The big lab experiment
Space.com: Yang, Buzz ... Buzz, Yang
Science @ NASA: Why the West is dry
Nova on 'PBS': 'Death Star'
The Economist: What's in a name? Check the mutation rate

May 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Wonders in western skies:
Celestial jewels are piling up after sunset tonight and Friday night. The stars of the show are the twin crescents of the just-past-new moon and the planet Venus.

To the naked eye, Venus looks like a bright point of light — or perhaps even a UFO. To see it as a crescent, you'll have to use binoculars or a telescope. But it's worth the effort: SpaceWeather.com passes along a picture of Venus taken Wednesday night by David Anderson of Fountain Inn, S.C.

The two crescents are so close in the sky that observers in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa just might see the moon pass in front of Venus on Friday, a phenomenon known as occultation.

The daytime occultation will be difficult to make out, but it's good practice for the big Venus transit coming up on June 8. Check out Space.com or VT-2004 Web site for more on Friday's occultation and the transit to come.

Image: Sky chart
SpaceWeather.com
This sky chart shows key objects in the western skies as seen after sunset Friday. Click on the image for a bigger version.
In addition, you might be able to make out three fading beauties: Saturn and Mars should still be easy to see after sunset, but you'll likely need binoculars or a telescope to  find Comet NEAT, which is quickly dimming.

To get a sense of how the comet looked at its peak, check out the images from astrophotographers Wally Pacholka and David Harvey.  And to keep posted on NEAT's progress, check in with Sky & Telescope.

If you miss out on NEAT, don't despair: Comet LINEAR should start showing up in evening skies later this month, though it won't be as bright as some had hoped. Consult StarDate Online for details.

May 20, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Columbia debris on loan:
Unlike the pieces recovered after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, the debris from last year's Columbia breakup is being preserved for future study — and today NASA announced that eight pieces of debris have been lent for the first time to a non-governmental entity for research purposes.

The Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., is studying the pieces of composite material from Columbia to learn how such structures are affected by atmospheric re-entry, NASA said. The space agency said the families of Columbia's crew were notified of the one-year loan.

Several other groups have filed requests to study Columbia debris, which is being stored inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The idea of studying pieces of Columbia came to me in the debris hangar soon after the accident," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said in the NASA announcement. "It was clear to me we could learn a lot from it, and that we shouldn't bury the debris as we did with Challenger's."

May 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Rocket recovered:
The Civilian Space Exploration Team's GoFast rocket, touted as the first amateur rocket to be launched into space, has been recovered in Nevada after an extensive search, the Rocketforge Web log reports. Readings indicate that it reached a maximum altitude of more than 77 miles (123 kilometers), well above today's widely accepted 100-kilometer boundary for outer space.

May 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
More scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
CICLOPS: A closer look at Saturn's mystery moon
Lowell Observatory: The asteroid with the smallest orbit
BBC: Claim made for new form of life
Space millionaire Greg Olsen's training log

May 19, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Deliciously bad science plots:
For years, scientists have taken potshots at the plots of big-budget disaster movies like "10.5,"   "The Day After Tomorrow,"  "The Core" and "Armageddon." Heck, there's even been grumbling about what "Troy" has done to the Bronze Age. Here's your chance to get in on the action, take shaky Hollywood science to the next level and even win a prize while you're doing it.

For our "Deliciously Bad" movie-plot contest, we're soliciting plot summaries for hypothetical science-fiction sequels — say, "11.5," or "The Day After 'The Day After Tomorrow,'" or "Armageddon II," or some other howler. Entries should be received by Monday, and we'll publish the finalists’ entries on May 28, the opening day for "The Day After Tomorrow." Over the week that follows, Cosmic Log readers will select the winner, using a Live Vote that's at least as unscientific as the "American Idol" voting system .

What can you win? The top vote-getter will get the slightly used preview tapes for "10.5," the miniseries about an impossibly large earthquake. Second-place prize is a slightly rumpled paperback novelization of "The Day After Tomorrow," based on the movie about impossibly rapid climate change and written by Whitley Strieber, the well-known author and UFO activist.

To make this work, here are some important rules to follow:

  1. Make it funny: This is the main criterion for selecting finalists and most likely for choosing the winner as well. If you have a scientific ax to grind, you might find it satisfying to write a humorless political screed filled with inside-baseball references to your favorite canards. But it's not going to rate a "10.5" — which, by the way, gets funnier with repeated watchings.
  2. Keep it short: A single paragraph of 100 words or so would be a good rule of thumb, though not an ironclad rule. The longer your entry gets, the less likely it is to be funny (See Rule 1).
  3. Include your e-mail address: You can send your entry to cosmiclog@msnbc.com, or use the feedback form below. Be sure to include your reply address, or else there'll be no way to get in touch with you for sending your prize. Your e-mail will not be published, and you are free to provide or withhold your real-world identity (although it makes things nicer if we can refer to you by your name rather than as "Anonymous"). Multiple entries are OK, as long as you don't make a pest of yourself.

The cleverer, the better. If you can play off the scientific inconsistencies or implausibilities of the original on which your sequel is based, you'll score extra points. But keep Rule 1 foremost in mind.

By the way, Hollywood never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Here's some of the recent reader feedback to last Friday's item about "Troy" and Hollywood's take on history:

Robert Hoenshell, San Clemente, Calif.: "I imagine a lot of 5th-century hoplites are wondering where their armor is, and I cannot imagine how the movie commissary was able to feed all those extras. They would have eaten the real Troy's yearly food supply in two weeks. Back in those good old days, if you had 10 fighters under your command, you were a 'hero' or a leader of your city, and if you had 10 of those 'heroes or leaders' (with their 10 guys each) under your command, you were a 'king.' Another thought: How were they able to pay all those guys from Troy? Maybe that's why cruise ships were invented!"

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Hollywood get it right? Hasn't happened since 'Tora, Tora, Tora!' Shortly after that true epic, Charlton Heston (NRA weapons salesman) et al. produced 'Midway,' which was as much an insult to those who fought as 'Pearl Harbor' was a few years ago. Why should they worry about events 3,800 years ago?"

Rob McCaslin, Cornelius, Ore.: "And you are saying that the doctor scene in 'Master and Commander,' where he operated on himself, is realistic? And we have running gun battles with high explosives going off all around, along with military equipment running pell-mell through our street in our major cities all the time, too? ... Critics don't even know what they criticize anymore! Why don't you just appreciate the cinematics and be done with it. Is it a good story? Hell, yes! Is it correct? Who knows!? ... Who cares?! Just get the popcorn, sit down, and shaddup!"

How much worse could you do? To get yourself psyched up for the contest, check out Improbable Research and Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics ... and may the worst plot win.

May 19, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Casting call for castaway professors:
Speaking of Improbable Research, Marc Abrahams calls attention to a "Help Wanted" ad for professors willing to be shipwrecked with a skipper and first mate, a millionaire and his wife, and the real-life equivalent of Ginger and Mary Ann. Yes, producers say they actually want to remake "Gilligan's Island" as a reality-TV series.

Male professors (full, associate, adjunct or assistant) between the ages of 21 and 40 are invited to apply, by calling Craig Bland at 818–972-0997 or by consulting the new Gilligan's Island Web site.

May 19, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
Defense Tech: Atomic planes in the works
U.S. News & World Report: The real Trojan War
Science @ NASA: Electricity from human waste
The Onion: Problems with electronic voting machines

May 18, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Putting a star in orbit:
Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that put millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth in orbit, says it has worked out a deal to send a Japanese celebrity into space for a commercial endorsement.

The celebrity, to be named later, would go into space "within the next several years" under the provisions of Space Adventures' deal with Tokyo-based Dentsu, the world's largest advertising agency.

Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' president and chief executive officer, said in today's announcement that he welcomed the opportunity to work with Dentsu.

"As Dentsu has cultivated unique artistic designs and opportunities for advertising in today's marketplace, we at Space Adventures are using the same enthusiasm and innovative techniques to open the space frontier to private citizens," Anderson said. "Together we will make history by sending the first Japanese citizen explorer to space."

The last point is debatable: In 1990, back when Russia's Mir space station was still in orbit, the Tokyo Broadcasting System bought a $10 million-plus ride from the Russians for TV reporter Toyohiro Akiyama, who is considered the first Japanese astronaut and the first journalist in space.

But if the amateur flier truly turns out to be a "prominent Japanese figure," as promised, he or she could qualify as the first celebrity in space — a title that eluded Lance Bass , the would-be space star from the pop group 'N Sync. (OK, you could argue that John Glenn was a celebrity when he flew in 1998, but he was an astronaut before that.)

Who will the astronaut and the commercial sponsor be this time? Bloomberg News quotes Anderson as saying that Dentsu and Space Adventures are still going through a "short list" of prospects. But when word of the project leaked out in March, Dentsu said it had its eye on someone like Shigeo Nagashima — not exactly a household name in the United States, but revered in Japan as a former manager of the Yomiuri Giants and the manager of Japan's baseball team for this year's Olympics in Athens.

This isn't Dentsu's first foray into space advertising: In 2001, it arranged for Russian crew members on the international space station to film a commercial for Pocari Sweat, a sports drink.

Space Adventures says the Dentsu deal means it has commitments for two of the four Soyuz seats it contracted with the Russian Space Agency to sell. The other seat is going to millionaire entrepreneur/inventor Greg Olsen , who is currently in training at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex. Within the next month, the Russians, NASA and other space station partners are expected to decide whether Olsen flies in October or next April.

May 18, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Moonshot lost in translation:
Is China canceling its manned moon program? You might think that, based on reports distributed today by Reuters and Agence France Presse. But NBC News analyst James Oberg, who provided testimony on the Chinese space program to a Senate subcommittee last month, says the reports are based on a misreading of statements from top space official Wang Yongzhi.

Oberg pointed to the Xinhua version of Wang's comments, which makes clear the official is talking about the initial lunar probe in China's Chang'e moon program.

"He said that their first [lunar] probe would be unmanned because it would be too expensive to build it big enough to carry an astronaut. That's true. It has nothing to do with later missions," Oberg said in an e-mail advisory about the wire reports.

"There have never been 'official man-on-the-moon plans' in China, although there was some wild nongovernment speculation and some mistranslated interviews in the past year," Oberg observed. "Since such a step is at least 10 to 15 years off, no official decisions would yet have been made, anyway."

Oberg said "the Chinese unmanned lunar program will continue, with an orbiter in December 2006, followed by landers and rovers and samplers."

As for China's plans beyond that ... stay tuned.

May 18, 2004 | 7:20 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Wired.com: Teen techies engineer the future
Science News: Glimpses of genius
Popular Science: Hollywood and the end of the world
BBC: Geological time gets a new period

May 17, 2004 | Updated 10:30 p.m. ET
Next flight to space:
Exactly five months ago, Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne rocket plane racked up its first supersonic flight , reaching an altitude of 68,000 feet. Last month, during the second supersonic test , it soared to 105,000 feet. Last week it got to 211,000 feet.

So what's next? The target for SpaceShipOne's next powered flight is the magic number of 100 kilometers, or roughly 329,000 feet, says Scaled Composites spokeswoman Kay LeFebvre. If that flight is successful, with a repeat performance during the following two weeks, Scaled Composites would win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight.

The X Prize Foundation confirmed today that it would give 60-day notice of any prize attempt (even though the official rules talk about a 30-day period). That means there are no Ansari X Prize flights planned until July 17 at the earliest. That also means I totally blew my Fourth of July prediction: I had read too much into the foundation's plan for a May 5 announcement, which turned out to be about the Ansari family's backing for the $10 million purse.

Of course, the SpaceShipOne team can fly its plane anytime it wants to — say, for a 100-kilometer test flight that wouldn't count toward the Ansari X Prize. The team appears to be gearing up for a media splash befitting what could be SpaceShipOne's first official spaceflight.

In the meantime, space activists are flocking to Capitol Hill this week to press for action on the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, H.R. 3752. The bill has cleared the House but appears to be stuck in the Senate and may wind up in pre-election limbo. That would be a shame. H.R. 3752's passage would open the way for suborbital space companies to take the next step beyond the X Prize: getting clearance for takeoff with paying passengers. For more information, consult The Space Review or the Suborbital Institute.

Update for 10:30 p.m. ET: Today marks yet another 100-kilometer milestone: The Civilian Space Exploration Team finally succeeded in sending an amateur rocket above that altitude, carrying an amateur-radio telemetry package. The 21-foot (6.4-meter) GoFast rocket was launched from Nevada's Black Rock Desert. As of this evening, search teams were still looking for the rocket.

"We have a telemetry beacon telling us where it is — that it's alive and waiting to be found," team member Eric Knight said in a report posted by the American Radio Relay League. Knight said the launch was a "phenomenal experience." (A tip o' the cosmic hat to Rocketforge.)

May 17, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
The science of sarin:
Today's news about sarin isn't the first time the deadly nerve gas has made headlines in the Iraq conflict. U.S. forces unwittingly destroyed a large sarin stockpile just after the first Persian Gulf War, setting off a long-running health controversy. And in January 2003, weapons inspectors discovered artillery shells that were apparently designed to hold sarin or other chemical agents.

In both these cases, the warheads were leftovers from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s — and didn't necessarily indicate that Iraq had a chemical-weapons program after the first Gulf War. But today's report demonstrates that the weapons could still pose a threat even years later. For more on the subject, check out this archived item from Cosmic Log.

May 17, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Cosmic kudos, part 1:
For the second year in a row, Cosmic Log has won an award in the Western Washington Excellence in Journalism competition. We placed third in the online regular news category. Taking a page from the Avis playbook, we pledge that we will try extra harder.

May 17, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Cosmic kudos, part 2:
Congratulations to the SETI @ home project, which today marks the fifth anniversary of its official launch. Just about 5 million users have registered to use the software, which sifts through radio data from the Arecibo Observatory in hopes of finding traces of extraterrestrial intelligence. The Planetary Society, one of the project's sponsors, pays tribute to the top 10 data-crunchers. In honor of the day, here's an audio explanation of what the project is looking for, plus our Arecibo slideshow .

May 17, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
More quantum fluctuations on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): From a C student to celestial traveler
New Scientist: Pole flip? Solar wind will shield us
Nature: Army plans battle biomonitors
Discovery.com: The history of breast-baring

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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