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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Clone cataclysm wins prize for worst movie plot

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June 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Deliciously baaaad science: Cloned sheep go berserk! Human hair harvested for sweaters! President Schwarzenegger copes with crisis! How much scarier — or sillier — can you get?

It's probably the silliness rather than the scariness that earned "Sheepsend" first prize in our "Deliciously Bad" movie science contest, inspired by the shaky plots of "10.5," last month's earthquake miniseries; and "The Day After Tomorrow," last week's global-warming blockbuster.

The plot treatment managed to skewer Dolly the sheep and the real-life cloning controversy over premature aging, as well as the recent cloning movie "Godsend." The winning entry earned William Mari the two-videotape screening version of "10.5." Mari, who lives in the Seattle area, will now be able to enjoy repeated viewings of the impossibly cataclysmic cracking of the Space Needle.

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Cosmic Log reader John Parson was tickled by Mari's mini-screenplay: "Am I the only one old enough to remember that intelligent sheep (typically flying ones) were a frequent sight on the 'Monty Python' show? Casting Mark Wahlberg as the Diabolical Lead Sheep is a stroke of pure genius, though! You could use footage from 'Battlefield Earth,' dubbing in a lot of 'baaa' sounds and have a mega hit on your hands ... well, at least in Utah."

Second place went to D. Williams for "Armageddon II: Nemesis Rising," which means Williams will receive a slightly rumpled paperback version of "The Day After Tomorrow" as a consolation prize. Coincidentally, "The Day After Tomorrow" also rated a second-place standing in last weekend's box-office competition, coming in behind "Shrek 2."

To refresh your memory, here's a reprise of the winning entries:

"Sheepsend"
(Screenplay by William Mari)
The first generation of cloned sheep, long neglected, have been prematurely aging. Unbeknownst to scientists, their brains have been swelling as well, and now they are brilliant, bitter and geriatric. They want revenge. No more cute and cuddly. These former "experiments" plot a global takeover, starting in Scotland, and will stop at nothing until all of humanity have become their slaves (they wish to harvest our hair for sheep clothes). Ironic, is it not?

Production notes: this is a live-action, TV movie. Suggested casting: Mark Wahlberg as Diabolical Lead Sheep, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the American President.

"Armageddon II: Nemesis Rising"
(Screenplay by D. Williams)
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?

June 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Space vision revisited: The President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond will release its recommendations for sending humans back to the moon and on to the Red Planet at 11 a.m. ET June 10, NASA announced today. Watch for the report on the commission's Web site, and watch the commission's news briefing on NASA TV via MSN Video.

The report will come out less than a week before NASA's workshop on the Centennial Challenges, a contest aimed at sparking private-sector participation in the space exploration effort. Cosmic Log reader Michael Huang suggests a topic for our next contest: What challenges would you like to see NASA pose? Check out our report on the Centennial Challenges, then send in your suggestions. I won't offer any prizes this time around, but I will print a selection of the responses on June 10.

June 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Full speed ahead on superconductors
Discovery.com: Ancient Egyptians were jokesters
The Atlantic: The universe made simple
Sacramento Bee: Pentagon sets phasers on stun

June 3, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Venus in our sights: The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory has begun tracking Venus as it heads toward next Tuesday's historic transit across the sun.

SOHO's coronagraph snaps pictures of the sun from a vantage point 1 million miles from Earth, and just today, Venus began showing up on the left edge of the imagery.

In SOHO's pictures, the sun's bright disk has been blocked out so that the surroundings can be seen without glare.

Over the next few days, you'll be able to watch Venus come steadily close to the sun by checking this Web page.

Image: SOHO view of sun and Venus
NASA / ESA
Venus is visible on the left edge of this SOHO image. Click on the image for a bigger picture.

As we've been reporting for months, the last time Venus actually passed over the sun's disk was back in 1882. Like solar and lunar eclipses, next week's transit is thus a testament to the  workings of cosmic clockwork and our ability to anticipate its movements.

Scientists still use such events as an opportunity for research; for example, one team will be analyzing Venus' atmosphere, looking specifically for signs of water vapor and carbon monoxide.

The prime viewing for this transit will be in Europe; only a portion of it will be visible over the United States, and only from the eastern half at that. Consult our stargazer's guide or NASA's Venus Transit Web site for details on when and where it can be seen. If you are in the viewing zone, don't dare gaze at the sun with your unprotected eyes. You should use special filters or an indirect projection technique, as detailed in NASA's advisory.

Even if you're not in the viewing zone, you still should be able to catch the transit over the Internet, via the Exploratorium, Astronomy.no, an assortment of other Web sites. The Webcasts generally start at 1 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Free video
Spotlight on Venus
June 3: NASA documentary explores the history and significance of Venus transits.
Ironically, SOHO happens to be at a vantage point that will miss the transit completely, as explained by deputy project scientist Paal Brekke:

"As seen from Earth, the planet Venus will be visible in front of the sun for more than 6 hours. From SOHO's perspective, however, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth and slightly off the sun-Earth axis, the planet Venus will not pass in front of the sun but glide slowly just beneath the solar disk. ... However, it will be visible against the emission from the diffuse corona. Thus, scientists will be able to take advantage of this Venus transit to improve the quality of data gathered by SOHO."

In the days ahead, we'll be bringing you much more last-minute advice for seeing the transit. And if you miss it this time around, there's still another chance ... in 2012.

June 4, 2004 | Updated 4:30 p.m. ET
The space challengers:
NASA has announced the lineup for this month's Washington workshop on the Centennial Challenges, a program that will offer prizes for feats related to the space agency's new exploration vision.

Among the participants for the June 15-16 event will be Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Science, Technology and Space subcommittee; White House science adviser John Marburger; Pete Aldridge, chairman of the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond; and Elon Musk, founder of the SpaceX rocket company.

The panelists include the people in charge of the Ansari X Prize and the DARPA Grand Challenge, two of the inspirations for the Centennial Challenges, as well as representatives of Kistler Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace.

NASA spokesman Michael Braukus says 210 people have signed up for the conference already, and online registration will be accepted through next Wednesday. You can also register on site at the Washington Hilton. Check out the Centennial Challenges Web site for more information and a link to online registration.

June 3, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

The Guardian: How the scientists won on D-Day
Nature: Cloned cows get sane future
New Scientist: To the moon and back with David Scott
Wired: The ultimate pitching machine

June 2, 2004 | Updated 3:30 p.m. ET
Handicapping the space race:
SpaceShipOne is due to take its first official spaceflight on June 21, as detailed in today's big story, but that won't be the end of the Ansari X Prize race.

This month's flight will involve a solo pilot without 400 pounds of extra ballast, representing the weight of two passengers, which is a requirement for a true X Prize attempt. The rules for the $10 million prize state that the extra ballast — or two actual passengers — would have to be carried to an altitude of 100 kilometers during two flights in the span of two weeks, to signal that the winning vehicle is actually capable of repeated passenger flights to space.

That little bit of weight could make a big difference when it comes to winning the prize, said X Prize competitor Brian Feeney, the leader of the Canadian-based da Vinci Project. Feeney is hoping that his team's balloon-launched Wildfire Mk VI rocket will still have an edge over Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

"There's still some question internally as to whether or not they've got the total impulse capability to get all three people up," Feeney said.

Feeney said his team was "still absolutely in the hunt for the prize itself," even if SpaceShipOne records the first piloted spaceflight in a privately developed craft.

"We're coming up on our drop testing and final engine testing in the late June to July time frame, and the results of all that will dictate to us how we look for a launch in the summer or thereabouts," he said. He said the Wildfire flight simulator indicates that "with three people on board we can actually get it up to 100K."

Other teams are moving ahead on X Prize entries as well, including Feeney's compatriots on the Canadian Arrow team; the Space Transport Corp. team in Washington state; and the Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace team, headed by millionaire video-game programmer John Carmack.

The da Vinci Project doesn't have a deep-pocketed benefactor like Carmack or SpaceShipOne's Paul Allen. However, the pace of corporate contributions is quickening, Feeney said. Just last week, the team announced backing from Kindersley Transport, Hinz Automation and Titan Crane, aimed at supporting the Wildfire launch from Kindersley in Saskatchewan. (Click to see the release as a Microsoft Word document.)

Image: Brian Feeney
Da Vinci Project
Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney says he's aiming to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Feeney said financing the project "has proven to be as difficult as anything I've ever done," but he said the da Vinci Project's crew of more than 200 volunteers has made things easier. "It's the largest volunteer technology project in Canadian history," he said.

Although Feeney still likes his chances, he has deep respect for the SpaceShipOne team and its leader, airplane designer Burt Rutan. And he plans to be part of the X Prize contingent for this month's launch in California's Mojave Desert.

"I'm quite happy to be there, because it is historical," Feeney said. "The magnitude of the event will show people just how interested the public is. There could be a quarter-million to a half-million people there, and that's great."

June 1, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Grand opening for a ‘Great Observatory’:
Even as NASA warms up to the idea of giving the Hubble Space Telescope a curtain call, Hubble's younger sibling — the infrared-sighted Spitzer Space Telescope — is settling in as the star of its own celestial show.

A couple of months ago, Spitzer project scientist Michael Werner promised that this week's big astronomy meeting in Denver would be the "grand opening" for NASA's latest "Great Observatory," which was launched last August. This grand opening features crowd-pleasing pictures, as well as findings that shed new light on dark mysteries.

Take black holes, for example: Because Spitzer's infrared eye is able to see through obscuring clouds of dust, it can identify the emissions being thrown off by supermassive black holes hidden within dusty galaxies. Spitzer's scientists built upon data from Hubble as well as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory — the other Great Observatories — to track down seven of these "missing" black holes within some of the earliest active galaxies.

Slideshow
  Infrared wonders
Highlights from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope

Yale astronomer Meg Urry and her colleagues suggest that most of the early universe's active black holes are hidden at visible wavelengths.

The black holes themselves can't be seen, but the violent bursts of radiation sparked by matter falling into the holes should be observable in infrared wavelengths, even if the visible light is absorbed by dust.

Results from the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey, or GOODS, support the view that black holes were more common than scientists thought.

"The Spitzer GOODS observations verify that large numbers — perhaps three-quarters — of the obscured active galactic nuclei were indeed present in the early universe," Urry said. Check out this news release for more on Spitzer's black hole quest, including a couple of videos.

Another Spitzer team is focusing on unraveling the mystery of dark matter — invisible stuff that can be detected only by its gravitational effect. The scientists determined that at least one suspected chunk of dark matter turned out to be a low-mass star only 1,500 light-years away, but so faint it could only be detected in infrared wavelengths.

"Historically, searches for unseen matter have been part of the justification for Spitzer," Werner said. "We are very excited about these initial results."

Learn more about Spitzer's work with the dark matter mystery, and click through our "Dark Matter" interactive to learn why the mystery matters in the first place.

Image: Pinwheel Galaxy
U. of Minn. / SAO
Dusty structures show up prominently in Spitzer's image of the Pinwheel Galaxy.

In addition to studying the invisible, Spitzer is also uncovering  secrets hidden within visible galaxies. The telescope is charting the layers of dust within one of the Milky Way's closest neighbors, the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as M33.

"M33 is a gigantic laboratory where you can watch dust being created in novae and supernovae, being distributed in the winds of giant stars, and being reborn in new stars," said the University of Minnesota's Elisha Polomski. "You can see the universe in a nutshell."

Over the next two and a half years, researchers from Minnesota, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the University of Arizona will study the galaxy's "metabolism" — the process by which stars are built up, destroyed and recycled like the cells of an organism. Learn more about the M33 project.

Spitzer also looked into the guts of another massive galaxy called Centaurus A — and found the remnants of a super-size meal: a spiral galaxy that apparently was consumed 200 million years ago.

Centaurus A itself is an elliptical galaxy, and a strong source of radio waves. Scientists suspected that the source of the radio emissions was a supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, fed by the remnants of the smaller galaxy.

"Now we can actually see the shape of this structure, which helps us explain how it arose," said Jocelyn Keene, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who headed the Centaurus A research team.

Image: Centaurus A
NASA / JPL-Caltech
The parallelogram at the heart of the Centaurus A galaxy appears to be the twisted remnants of a smaller spiral galaxy.

The smaller galaxy's outlines form a bright, thin parallelogram at the heart of Centaurus A. Scientists said that shape was best seen as a flat spiral galaxy that fell into the elliptical galaxy, becoming warped in the process. The folds in the warped disc, when viewed nearly edge-on, form the edges of the parallelogram.

The scientists' model predicts that the parallelogram will eventually flatten into a plane, then disappear altogether. Click here for the full story and a video.

Spitzer is finding so many new details about galaxies that astronomers may have to change their process for defining galaxy types. At least that's the way astronomer Michael Pahre of the Center for Astrophysics and his colleagues see it.

Eight decades ago, astronomer Edwin Hubble established a process defining galaxies by their shape, as seen in blue-light photographs: elliptical, lenticular, spiral or irregular. But it's easier to make out the various types in infrared light.

Image: NGC 5746
SAO / NASA / JPL-Caltech
The dusty ring at the edge of the galaxy NGC 5746 shows up clearly in Spitzer's infrared image.

Pahre pointed to the example of NGC 5746, a spiral galaxy whose structure is partially obscured in blue-light photographs. The galaxy's ring of warm dust shows up much more clearly in Spitzer's infrared image.

Even more surprisingly, some galaxies that had been classified as elliptical or lenticular were found to have spiral arms — arms that were too faint to be seen in visible light.

"Seeing spiral arms in lenticular galaxies was totally unexpected," Pahre said. "It could represent a missing link between lenticulars and spirals that gives us insight into both their past and current star formation history."

Pahre and his collaborators propose three alternate ways to classify galaxies, based on the infrared pictures. The criteria are rather technical — for example, the most fundamental measure involves the ratio of light emitted by a galaxy in starlight vs. that emitted via warm dust. However, the scientists say all the criteria appear to mesh well with Hubble's original categories.

"Our ultimate goal is to replace the Hubble classification method with a new Spitzer classification method," Pahre said. The research will be published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement. Get the full story from the Center for Astrophysics.

June 1, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
U.S. News & World Report: The new space race
Wired.com: Jump on the biodiesel bandwagon
Innovations Report: The robot that irons your shirts
Science News: Climate and the global vineyard

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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