July 2, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Rocket ruckus revisited:
One year ago, homeland security regulations were dimming the rocket's red glare on the Fourth of July — for community fireworks celebrations as well as amateur rocketeers. Some feared the federal crackdown would force them to curtail their traditional Independence Day displays, or even force them out of business.

A year later, post-9/11 rules are still putting a damper on things, but the impact hasn't been as devastating as the doomsayers feared. On the fireworks front, most people are coping with the tighter regulations — and for the rocketeers, the legal battle continues.

The Fairfield Golf & Country Club in Iowa was one of the organizations that had to forgo fireworks last year because they didn't want to go through all the trouble of fingerprinting and background checks at the last minute. But this year, the club got their act together with plenty of time to spare.

"The fireworks are going to be delivered on Saturday, and we can hardly wait," said Cris Steinbeck, office manager at the country club.

Interactive: The inner workings of fireworks That's par for the course, said Julie Heckman, spokeswoman for the American Pyrotechnics Association. "By the end of the day on Saturday, all of the major shows should be safely set up and loaded," Heckman said. She estimated that "less than a dozen" shows had to be canceled nationwide this year due to problems with the regulations.

"The challenges for this year have been increases in insurance costs. ... It's more the financial impact on the display companies," Heckman said. "They're spending more time on paperwork and have less time to choreograph shows."

Another issue relates to tighter limits on the number of hours workers can spend around hazardous materials. To address that worry, the fireworks industry received a limited waiver from the regulations for the days surrounding the Fourth, she said. But as far as security-related regulations go, the problems have been few and far between.

In contrast, the homeland security debate is continuing full-bore in the amateur-rocketry field. Last year, Ross Dunton of Ohio-based Magnum Rockets worried that compliance with regulations from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would kill off his company. But Magnum is still in business, and in fact Dunton is at the LDRS (Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships) meeting in New York this holiday weekend.

A woman who answered the phone in Ohio and took a message for Dunton said business was "picking up a little bit ... but it's not like it used to be."

The federal regulations have been tied up in a court challenge brought by the National Association of Rocketry and the Tripoli Rocketry Association. This spring, federal District Judge Reggie Walton delivered a mixed ruling on the status of model-rocket regulations.

On balance, Dick Embry, president of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, was pleased with the outcome: "Although the ATF won on the fact that they can regulate ammonium perchlorate [the active ingredient in model-rocket motors] as an explosive, we won on the other points, in which single-use rocket motors and assembled reloadables are considered propellant-actuated devices and not explosives, and therefore are not subject to regulation as explosives. In that case, we won big.

"It's probably the first victory of its kind by a private organization," Embry observed. "Having said that, we've tried several times to meet with the ATF to offer our services, and they've turned us down flat."

Embry has heard that the bureau is working on a new round of regulations for model rockets, but he said "we've got some other things up our sleeves to combat that."

For the most part, amateur rocketeers have "great rapport" with the bureau's agents in the field, Embry said. There have been only a few "nuisance changes," usually having to do with changing the locks on storage magazines, he said.

Embry and other rocketeers are sympathetic to legitimate homeland security concerns — but they also don't want to see excessive regulations lead to the extinction of their hobby. "When you start kicking out the foundation of this whole effort, which is really in line with President Bush's space exploration vision , you can see the problem," he said.

Image: Exploding Terrorist Heads
Nati Harnik  /  AP
The "Exploding Terrorist Heads" fireworks, on display in Plattsmouth, Neb., feature the visages of Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi.
The key concern, of course, is that terrorists could somehow turn small-scale rocketry to their advantage, and indeed this is a matter of serious debate among rocketeers. To keep up with the controversy — as well as other news on the rocket frontier — check in with Clark Lindsey's Advanced Rocketry News.

For a completely different perspective on the fireworks vs. security debate, there's the story today from The Associated Press about the "Exploding Terrorist Heads" and "Game Over" fireworks, which are decorated to look like al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

One woman is quoted as saying, "I thought they should have shot Saddam in the head when they found him. ... So, this is a great way to get your aggression out."

I can't say I'm comfortable with the idea — I can only imagine what kind of fireworks they're making in China for the Middle East market — but I'd love to find out what you think about exploding terrorists and the weightier issues behind the weekend's fireworks.

July 2, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Setting the record straight:
This week's feedback included plenty of praise for the team behind the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, but there were also e-mail messages that provided additional perspectives on the cosmic news of the week. Here's a sampling:

Ron: "In your article dated June 28 , you referred to Cassini's Huygens probe as a 'lander.' This is very, very, very misleading. The Huygens is a 'probe,' not a landing vehicle. It was never intended, nor ever built, to land on the moon Titan. Its prime function is to analyze the atmosphere and to take photos on the descent. If by some slim chance it survives the impact, well, then we have a bonus. Your statement gives the impression that the Huygens was built to land on the surface, and if it doesn't, everyone not in the know will see it as a failure." [Alan responds: I've changed the reference as suggested to avoid disappointing anyone.]

Michael Scholzen, Launch Operations Mechanic, Titan IVB Heavy Lift, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.: "The Cassini spacecraft wasn't launched by NASA, it was launched on board a proudly built Lockheed Martin Titan IVB rocket. Many a reporter gets the facts wrong. The Cassini satellite was built and is monitored by NASA."

Guy S. Newell, Niles, Mich: "Your article 'Our Galaxy's Twin' is a summary of science done on an orbiting robot telescope. I'm still waiting for the science media to fill up with published results from science done on the space station. I've been waiting for a long time. And $30 billion."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md., on this summer's Arctic Mars exercises: "The SETI Institute, Mars Society and Mars Institute could get more mileage from their bucks if they got together instead of running some sort of competition. Now for a practical exercise. Check out the BBC News Sci/Tech site for the Antarctic base architecture (say that three times) contest! Sounds like a practical exercise for lunar/Martian bases to me!"

Jonathan Goff, Provo, Utah, on mobile moonbases: "I'm not so sure how hot of an idea this really is. As it is, habitats will be complicated enough as is without trying to make them fully mobile. I think it would be much better to try and develop the equipment needed to make small outposts where you could position emergency supplies, etc. It would probably be much cheaper, and more flexible. Even if it consisted of a simple excavation system, an inflatable storage room, a small life support system, a solar panel, a radio antenna and an airlock, it'd be a lot easier to mass-produce those than to make every habitat have to be some monster house-sized vehicle. But if NASA really wants to get shown up by the private sector, by all means they should go right ahead."

Dennis McClain-Furmanski, New Haven, Conn., on remembering names of moons and where they are placed: "The Sci.Space FAQ entry regarding Jupiter's Galilean moons is slightly lacking. While [remembering] 'Galilean Satellites of Jupiter: Io Europa Ganymede Callisto' as 'I Eat Green Cheese,' etc., may tell you the names, it does not tell you in what order and so which is which. My mnemonic, 'Call girls: easy in,' tells you which direction (in) they're named. Obviously, I am not in the business of teaching minors astronomy."

July 2, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Online field trips for the long holiday weekend:
BBC: Hubble discovers 100 new planets
NASA: First 3-D view of solar eruptions
The Economist: From Saturn, via unusual channels
ISVR: Listen to the simulated sounds of Titan
'Nova' on PBS: 'Galileo's Battle for the Heavens'

July 1, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
Generations of stars:
A newly released picture from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a family portrait of sorts, with stellar grown-ups and infants gathered together in a star-forming region.

"The image illustrates a perfect case of so-called sequential star formation in a nearby galaxy — new starbirth triggered by old massive stars," the Hubble European Space Agency Information Center explains in today's release.

The picture shows a region dubbed N11B within the Large Magellanic Cloud, just 160,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Dorado.

Image: N11B
NASA - ESA - STScI - HEIC
A Hubble panorama shows the star-forming region N11B within the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The blast from a cluster of "grandparent" stars, just beyond the top left of the image field, led to the birth of the hot blue and white stars seen on the left edge. Stellar winds and radiation from those "parent" stars pushed away the surrounding gas. When that gas collided with the surrounding interstellar material, it triggered a chain reaction, leading to another round of high pressure and starbirth.

Along the top right edge of the image, you can see several dark globules of material, with rims that are being eaten away by the radiation from nearby hot stars. Within those globules, the "infant" stars are being born.

A team of astronomers led by the University of Illinois' You-Hua Chu and the University of Liege's Yael Naze are comparing this crop of N11B pictures, taken back in 1999, with images of other regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud. For more cool pictures from Hubble and other space frontiers, check out the HubbleSite as well as our own Space Gallery .

July 1, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
Hot research reports on the World Wide Web:
Vanderbilt: Are dark matter and dark energy linked?
National Science Foundation: Micro-hotplate invented
EurekAlert: Physicists find flaw in EU constitution
The Guardian: Secrets of your body clock
Scientific American: Bacteria have clocks, too

June 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Paw prints sent to Saturn:
The bus-sized Cassini spacecraft, which goes into orbit around Saturn tonight, is bristling with 12 scientific instruments, plutonium-powered generators and the piggyback Huygens probe. But there's also a postcard from Earth aboard the probe, carrying pictures of golden eagle feathers, more than 600,000 digitized signatures going back to the 17th century — and even a few virtual paw prints.

The "postcard" is a DVD, inserted into an aluminum box, protected by thermal blankets and mounted on a pedestal on the side of the spacecraft. The Cassini-Huygens disk was the result of an outreach project organized by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the help of  Planetary Society volunteers, well before Cassini's launch in 1997.

Before Cassini, putting signatures on a spacecraft was something done with grease pencils or engraved metal plates. For the Cassini-Huygens DVD, hundreds of thousands of actual analog signatures were collected, then scanned as digital files for inclusion.

Nowadays, the idea of scanning in the signatures is considered too labor-intensive; instead, members of the public simply type their names into a form on a Web page (the current Mars Exploration Rovers and the upcoming Deep Impact probe are prime examples).

"Cassini may have been among the last projects that just took the ‘John Henry’ right off a piece of paper," Charles Kohlhase, who managed the Cassini public outreach effort, said in a Planetary Society interview.

Signature postcards were received from 81 countries, and volunteers put in hundreds of hours of scanning time. Among the better-known signatures are those of Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; action-movie star Chuck Norris; and Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Cassini, the 17th-century astronomers after whom the Saturn missions were named. (Hugyens' and Cassini's signatures were taken from surviving letters.)

Some space fans sent in paw prints from their dogs and cats. Kohlhase said there was a bit of debate over whether to include those prints on the DVD.

Image: Cassini-Huygens DVD
Design by Charles Kohlhase
The Cassini-Huygens DVD cover design includes pictures of Saturn and Earth, the spacecraft and golden eagle feathers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
"We knew that pets are often loved like family members and are very important. I know this. I just lost my Sheltie, Ben. Since we were putting all this on a DVD, we had the capacity — that was never an issue at that point — so Planetary Society volunteers then had a few paw prints to scan," he told the Planetary Society.

It's always a question whether an alien civilization, or even human explorers of the far future, will be able to decipher digitized space signatures.

But Kohlhase figures that the DVD is protected well enough to survive for a million years — which should give anyone enough time to break the digital code.

For more on the disk and the Cassini-Huygens mission, consult the Planetary Society's Saturn resource guide, or visit the mission's NASA Web site.

June 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Space passenger update:
New Jersey millionaire Greg Olsen hasn't given up on flying to the international space station, even though he's no longer in training after a Russian medical commission turned him down last week.

Olsen was reportedly in Houston today, waiting for the results from new rounds of tests. If he can get the medical ruling reversed, he would return to Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex and resume training for a Soyuz flight, most likely next April.

"He is not looking at this as something that is not going to happen," said Rob Volmer, a spokesman for Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that is assisting Olsen with the travel arrangements.

Meanwhile, Space Adventures' first orbital client, Dennis Tito , has been visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg with his Russian wife, Lyudmila, and discussing potential suborbital space travel ventures, according to a RIA Novosti report published by Pravda.

June 30, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
New Scientist: Speed of light may have changed recently
Nature: Robots get sensitive
PhysicsWeb: Could dark energy be studied in the lab?
EurekAlert: Birds make better listeners

June 29, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Moonbases that get up and go:
During the Apollo missions, astronauts drove lunar rovers from their moonbases to spots of interest. When NASA returns to the moon, the base itself may well do the walking.

NASA habitat researcher Marc Cohen sketched out the reasons for sending mobile bases at a forum back in February , and today Ames Research Center provided further details on the concept.

Cohen argues that exploration bases on wheels or legs — dubbed "habots" or "mobitats" — would actually be safer and more efficient than the stationary moonbases more typically envisioned in science-fiction lore.

"If you set up a base at a fixed location on the moon, you are very limited in the sites of scientific interest that you can reach," Cohen said. "What it comes down to is, if you're landing a habitat on legs and wheels, it doesn't take a lot more investment to make it highly mobile, provided you have enough energy resources that would enable it to travel great distance across the moon, with or without the crew onboard."

Linked mobile habitats could travel across the moonscape like cosmic Conestoga wagons, circling up to interconnect when they reach their destination. In Cohen's view, that would be safer than having to send out packs of pressurized rovers to explore the lunar frontier. "Why not make the entire base mobile, so that all the resources, reliability and redundancy of the lunar mission move with the excursion crew," he said.

Image: Habots
NASA
A "wagon train" of habots could move across the lunar landscape.
Mobile bases would also have the capability to move away from their designated landing site, to minimize the risk that follow-up landings (or launches, for that matter) might throw up debris that would damage other habitats.

Cohen has worked for years on space architecture, the art and science of designing living spaces for outer space. His concepts for Mars habitats served as an inspiration for our Living on Mars and the Mars Society's habitats in the Canadian Arctic and the Utah desert .

Next month, Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic will again become a testing ground for tools, techniques and habitats that could someday be used on Mars and even on the moon. The Mars Society will be returning to its Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. Nearby, the Haughton Mars Project will conduct its own studies, managed jointly by the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute.

The Haughton Mars Project has a full plate for its field season, due to last from July 9 to Aug. 4, said Marc Boucher, chief executive officer of the Mars Institute. Among the articles to be tested: a Humvee outfitted for exploration, a next-generation spacesuit and drilling equipment that could someday be used on other worlds. Stay tuned for more on the Arctic Mars missions as the summer progresses.

June 29, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Memorize more moons:
Have you "met Dr. Thip"? Over the next four years, an acquaintance with that phrase might be helpful. During its mission to Saturn , the Cassini spacecraft is due to observe nine of the ringed planet's 31 known moons — and the mnemonic "METDRTHIP" can help you remember all nine: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus and Phoebe.

But it won't necessarily help you pronounce them. For example, Tethys is "Teeth-is," not "Teh-thees," Iapetus is closer to "I-yap-at-us" than "Ya-peet-us," and three-syllable Dione is no relation to Dionne Warwick or Celine Dion.

Encarta Dictionary provides audio pronouncers for the major Saturnian moons, which are generally named after Titans from Greek mythology. Encyclopedia Mythica provides brief rundowns on the stories behind the names, and you can find all the moons listed at the Giant Planet Satellite Page. For more background on the major moons, check out "The Nine Planets." And for more astronomical mnemonics, click on over to the Sci.Space FAQ.

June 29, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Wired.com: Solar power to keep army on the go
Defense Tech: Mayday for Pentagon space program
Technology Review: Computing gets physical
Discovery.com: Elephants listen with their feet

June 28, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Our galaxy's twin:
If the spiral galaxy NGC 7331 looks familiar, it should: Astronomers say the cosmic pinwheel in Perseus, 50 million light-years away, could be the spitting image of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Like our home galaxy, NGC 7331 has spiral arms swirling out from a central bulge. It has about the same number of stars, the same mass and star formation rate as well.

Scientists say newly published observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveal a dense central region — either an unusually high concentration of massive stars, or a moderately active black hole like the one at the Milky Way's core .

The Spitzer scientists are also intrigued by the well-defined ring of star formation toward the galaxy's center. They're not sure whether such a ring exists in the Milky Way.

Image: NGC 7331
NASA / JPL / Caltech
This false-color image accentuates NGC 7331's spiral arms in red, its central bulge in blue, and its star-forming ring in yellow. Click on the image for a larger view.
By sizing up our galactic twin, astronomers get a better idea what to look for when studying our own galaxy.

"Being inside our galaxy makes it difficult to see what's going on in the center," J.D. Smith, a member of the observing team and an astronomer at the University of Arizona, said in today's  update. "By looking at a very similar galaxy, we gain a bird's-eye view of what the entire Milky Way might look like."

The space telescope's science team says NGC 7331 was the first target of a program to observe 75 relatively nearby galaxies, called the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxies Survey. Spitzer's infrared data will be combined with observations from other telescopes, on the ground and in space, to create a comprehensive map of the galactic neighborhoods in wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to radio waves.

The findings on NGC 7331 appear in two papers in the September issue of a special supplement to the Astrophysical Journal. For more of Spitzer's greatest hits, check out our slideshow .

June 28, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Rocket reading list:
It's been one week since the historic SpaceShipOne flight , and there's still plenty of news about the event and its aftermath. But if you're looking for something appropriate to read over the Fourth of July weekend, you might check out these recommendations from Cosmic Log readers:

Douglas, San Jose, Calif.: "Let's get going. I read Gerard K. O'Neill's books on 'The High Frontier' in the ’70s and ’80s — books on how to colonize space. Let's build space colonies in orbit. Let's colonize the moon. Let's terraform Mars. There are millions who want to. People will pay for this (private) first step."

Bob Grubbs, Louisville, Ky.: "Anyone who doubts the validity of SpaceShipOne should read 'The Man Who Sold the Moon' by Robert Heinlein. I and many others would go knowing we had less than a 10 percent chance of coming back! Never underestimate the human spirit of adventure!"

By the way, it's worth noting that Robert Heinlein's birthday is July 7 — and for that reason alone, "The Man Who Sold the Moon" deserves to be a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

If the trustees of the $500,000 Heinlein Prize saw fit to give its award for space commercialization this year, July 7 also would be the date for announcing the prize. But Art Dula, a trustee for the Heinlein Prize, said today that the big money would not be awarded this year.

"It isn't that we don't want to award the prize. It's just that nothing has happened in the commercialization of space this year ... which means profit-making, to us," Dula said. He said the SpaceShipOne launch wouldn't qualify, since the effort is far from profitable.

Instead, this year the Heinlein trustees will be awarding prizes of up to $5,000 to Russian students for presentations on future space commercialization.

"We may want to grow some of our own winners later on," Dula said from Washington, where he was attending the third annual Space Elevator Conference. "What we know in the past about space is probably not going to make the great fortunes in the future."

The student winners are to be announced in Moscow on July 21, Dula said.

June 28, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: The science of Frisbee-catching dogs
N.Y. Times (reg.req.): Oldest Americans may prove even older
Nature: Could laptops run on spinach?
National Geographic: Living with the stormy star

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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