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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Solar region could spark big space storms

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July 23, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Watch out for huge sunspot: A sunspot big enough to be seen by the naked eye (but don't!) is pointing straight at Earth and has already sparked a wave of auroras, also known as northern or southern lights.

Sunspot 652, which is wider than the planet Jupiter, is capable of generating the most powerful class of solar flares, known as the X-class.

Last fall, an unprecedented wave of X-class flares blasted so much electrically charged material toward Earth that it caused satellites to fail and stressed a power grid in Sweden.

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It's not clear whether the new sunspot could unleash that kind of power, but if it did, its bull's-eye placement on the sun's disk would send the blast directly at us.

One geomagnetic storm wave already has swept past Earth's magnetic field, according to an advisory from SpaceWeather.com, but the main effect of that outburst was to create enhanced auroras as far south as Wisconsin on Thursday night.

Image: SOHO view of sun
NASA / ESA
Sunspot 652 is the disturbance at the center of this image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

SpaceWeather's online gallery offers a selection of picturesque snapshots, and there's an amazing picture of the sunspot as seen from Pisa in Italy.

As explained in our sun viewing guide, you should never gaze directly at the sun without adequate protection. But there's no need to limit your sun exposure this summer weekend because of the potential for a solar storm.

Our atmosphere protects people on Earth from the radiation effects of the harshest coronal mass ejection, although astronauts and high-altitude fliers might receive extra exposure from a solar outburst.

To keep up to date on the space weather forecast over the weekend, check SpaceWeather.com or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center. The center expects geomagnetic activity from the previous outburst to settle down over the weekend, but its forecast also says solar activity is expected to be "moderate to high," with Sunspot 652 still capable of producing major flares.

Generally speaking, the sun is on a downward curve in its 11-year activity cycle, and experts are becoming much more savvy about protecting satellites and power grids from solar blasts. So chances are that the most visible impact of solar flare-ups will be those beautiful northern lights.

July 23, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Russia's SpaceShipOne on hold:
While SpaceShipOne team members are gearing up for a run at the $10 million Ansari X Prize, their Russian counterparts are putting their project on hold due to lack of funds.

The status of the Cosmopolis XXI project, Russia's only entrant in the Ansari X Prize competition, was updated today in a dispatch from Russia's RIA Novosti news service (with tip o' the Log to NBC News space analyst James Oberg). Like SpaceShipOne, Cosmopolis XXI's rocket plane would be launched from a carrier plane in midflight.

The project has been supported by Virginia-based Space Adventures, and it most likely was discussed last month when millionaire space passenger Dennis Tito went over to Russia with Space Adventures' Eric Anderson to discuss investment opportunities. But Sergei Kostenko, a Russian spokesman for Space Adventures, was quoted today as saying the project had been "suspended for lack of financing."

That's not all that unusual a situation for the Ansari X Prize contestants: SpaceShipOne and Armadillo Aerospace are well-funded by their respective benefactors, but for many of the teams, the fund-raising aspect can be as difficult as rocket science.

Even the successes of a rival can help with that part of the job, as illustrated by the state of Cosmopolis XXI. "Its creators hope that the launch of the American twin SpaceShipOne will be helpful," RIA Novosti reports.

July 23, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
What? Gone again!?
I'll be taking a quick trip down to the Oregon coast but will write when I can. Regular service will resume Thursday.

July 23, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Supercomputers get even more super
Discovery.com: High tech helps old recordings speak again
National Geographic: Did wine go back to the Stone Age?
The Telegraph: What was the first word humans ever spoke?

July 22, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Saturn's rings in living color: Most of the Cassini spacecraft's images of Saturn's rings have been in black and white, or in bold red and turquoise — but today, Cassini's featured picture presents the rings au naturel, in exquisite sandy tones.

The imagery was actually captured nine days before the bus-sized spacecraft entered Saturnian orbit, from a distance of 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers). But the wide-angle view, focusing here on the planet's B ring, is just as stunning as the close-ups that came later.

NASA / JPL / SSI
This natural-color view of Saturn's rings was captured by the Cassini spacecraft on June 21.

"Saturn's rings are made primarily of water ice," the Cassini imaging team explains in today's ringscape report. "Since pure water ice is white, it is believed that different colors in the rings reflect different amounts of contamination by other materials such as rock or carbon compounds."

It doesn't take much to add that bit of color: Cassini scientists found that water ice accounts for more than 99 percent of the ring content — even more than they previously thought. As the probe's four-year mission proceeds, researchers will get an even better idea what the other fraction of a percent consists of.

July 22, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Gray matter matters for intellect
New Scientist: Evidence for creation of elusive matter
BBC: Rovers to get extra time on Mars
The Guardian: To urgh is human

July 21, 2004 | Updated 10:10 p.m. ET
X Prize countdown begins: The X Prize Foundation is planning an announcement on July 27 that is likely to be part of the 60-day countdown for seeking the $10 million spaceflight prize.

The media advisory, distributed today, notes that SpaceShipOne team leader Burt Rutan and da Vinci Project leader Brian Feeney will be among those present for next week's announcement in Santa Monica, Calif. Both those teams have hinted at plans for suborbital space launches in late September, aimed at winning the Ansari X Prize.

The $10 million would go to the first privately funded team to launch a vehicle to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice in the space of two weeks, carrying a pilot and two passengers (or about 400 pounds of ballast representing the weight of those passengers).

The SpaceShipOne rocket plane soared to that altitude last month, but without the extra weight. The da Vinci Project's balloon-launched Wild Fire rocket hasn't yet flown, but Feeney hopes to finish up testing this summer. So the home stretch to the $10 million finish line promises to be at least a two-horse race.

The X Prize Foundation says it has to receive 60-day advance notice of prizeworthy attempts. Today's advisory appears to signal that such notice has been given or is imminent, meaning attempts could come in the latter part of September — just as SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill intimated earlier this month. The precise timing should become crystal-clear next week. In the meantime, get up to speed on the new space race by reviewing our special report.

July 21, 2004 | 10:10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Wired.com: Battlefield tech for aid workers
Science News: New crystal packs a punch
Archaeology: Cadaver canine case closed?
Popular Science: For that healthy glow, drink radiation!

July 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
New Mars meteorite found: As the world celebrates Apollo 11's moon milestone today, scientists are announcing the identification of a stone from longer ago and farther away: a meteorite that was blasted away from Mars millions of years ago.

The 1.6-pound (715.2-gram) black stone was found in an Antarctic ice field last December, during a survey supported by Case Western Reserve University, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation. But it took months more to confirm that the rock, known as MIL 00346, was actually from Mars.

MIL 00346 thus joins a family of 31 known Mars meteorites, and represents only the seventh specimen of a type known as nakhlites. The nakhlites are thought to have been formed within thick Martian lava flows that crystallized about 1.3 billion years ago, and were smashed into space by an asteroid impact about 11 million years ago. The shards of stone then drifted through space to land on Earth.

Image: MIL 00346
NASA
The newly identified meteorite, MIL 00346, measures 4 by 2.4 by 2 inches (10 by 6 by 5.5 centimeters). It was found on an ice field in the Miller Range of the Transantarctic Mountains.

Even in an age of high-tech Mars rovers, the meteorites represent one of the best ways for geologists to get up close and personal with Martian geology. A meteorite of a different type that was blasted from the Red Planet to Antarctica, known as ALH 84001, sparked a controversy over potential Martian nanofossils and ancient life.

It's way too early to say what MIL 00346 may reveal — in fact, NASA has just started soliciting research proposals. But the new specimen seems certain to shed additional light on Mars' tumultuous geological history. You can get more details about the rock from this report (in PDF format).

Meanwhile, the results being sent back from the Mars rovers are continuing to intrigue scientists. Last week, the mission team said Opportunity's analysis of a rock known as Razorback hinted at the long-term presence of water on Mars, and New Scientist puts some additional spin on the findings this week, supporting the view that liquid water persisted long enough to allow life to develop.

July 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Apollo legacy lives on: Even 35 years after the fact, you can find fresh perspectives on the Apollo 11 moon landing. NASA notes that one of the mission's scientific experiments, the lunar laser ranging retroreflector array, still keeps going and going like the Energizer bunny. The Planetary Society chose the Apollo 11 anniversary as the theme for the debut of its Planetary Radio program. And first moonwalker Neil Armstrong serves as the on-air host for a new NASA video on the Vision for Space Exploration. You can find it linked from this Web page.

July 20, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
NASA: Doughnut-shaped cloud has black-hole filling
Discovery.com: Does ancient DNA reveal skin color?
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Mysteries of animal colors
'Nova' on PBS: 'Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude'

July 19, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Space visions past and future: Tuesday's 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing provides ample opportunity for reflecting on the crowning achievement of the ’60s space effort, but what makes this year's Moon Day truly memorable is the prospect of returning to the moon and pushing onward.

We've launched a special report on space history that looks at the past and future of lunar exploration. And if you're interested in learning more about Apollo — as well as the future of human spaceflight — here are a few past and future publications that should satisfy your yearnings:

To my mind, the classic recounting of Project Apollo is "A Man on the Moon" by Andrew Chaikin. But to get the full story — and a full sense of the pushing-the-envelope attitude that fueled the early space race — you'd want to complement Chaikin's exhaustively researched history with "The Right Stuff," the rollicking chronicle by Tom Wolfe that reaches back to the roots of Project Mercury.

A fresh crop of books shed more light on the heroes (and would-be heroines) of the early space effort: "One Giant Leap" by Leon Wagener profiles Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong, based on an extensive review of his public record and interviews with friends and family. But Wagener's book was done without Armstrong's active cooperation. For that rare extra element, you'll have to wait until next year, when James Hansen's authorized biography, "First Man," is due to come out.

Another newly published book, Neal Thompson's "Light This Candle," profiles Alan Shepard, America's first man in space, the first lunar golfer and arguably the brashest of the early astronauts.

The past year also has seen the publication of two books on the women who were recruited for the ’60s space race, only to be passed over: "Promised the Moon" by Stephanie Nolen and "The Mercury 13" by Martha Ackmann.

As for the future, Frank Sietzen Jr. and Keith Cowing provide an inside look at how the White House and NASA forged a new space vision in "New Moon Rising." This book joins two others on recent space history: "Comm Check" by Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, which chronicles the Columbia tragedy; and Greg Klerkx's "Lost in Space," which puts the tragedy in the broader context of NASA's failings and the prospects for the "alt.space" movement.

During last month's milestone SpaceShipOne flight in Mojave, Calif., Klerkx told me that he would update the paperback version of his book with an afterword on recent developments in the "second space race."

The key plot development in the next few months will involve efforts to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a spaceflight competition in which the SpaceShipOne team is currently the clear favorite. Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, is said to be working on a book — and the SpaceShipOne team has taken on its own author, who is chronicling the inside story as it unfolds.

A new chapter may well begin this week, when the X Prize Foundation is expected to begin setting the stage for a prize attempt, or even multiple attempts. The initial public step could come as early as Wednesday, in the form of a media advisory hinting at the countdown to launch. SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill already has said his team was considering a prize attempt in late September, and that would mesh with a formal 60-day announcement coming sometime in the next week or two. Stay tuned ...

July 19, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Road-trip postscript: Just to wrap up last week's tale, we finished up our road trip from eastern Iowa to western Washington over the weekend: On Saturday, we passed through western Montana and north Idaho to wind up the day in Spokane, Wash.; after a delightful overnight stay with friends, we finished the route handily on Sunday afternoon. Total travel during the six-day jaunt: 2,452 miles (3,923 kilometers).

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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