July 30, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Tallying the dot-com vote: As you might expect, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's appeal to the dot-com crowd during Thursday night's convention-closer produced a sharp spike in traffic to JohnKerry.com: ComScore Networks reports that visits to the campaign Web site peaked at 50,000 for the 10-11 p.m. ET hour, during Kerry's speech.

But visits to GeorgeWBush.com peaked during the speech as well, with 30,000 visits in the 10 p.m. ET hour.

Thursday was very good to JohnKerry.com: ComScore's figures showed a total count of more than 300,000 visitors for the day, compared with an average daily count of 40,000 in June. But does higher Web traffic translate into campaign benefits, particularly since candidate Kerry is now required to follow tighter federal limits on fund-raising? The answer could well be yes, Federal Computer Week reports.

Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, told the publication that Kerry's Web site is "good on focusing on what he needs to focus on immediately right now, which is to draw people in as volunteers, as opposed to drawing them in as contributors."

For what it's worth, President Bush's Web site also rates volunteer involvement higher than contributions, even though Bush's campaign won't come under post-convention federal contribution limits until September. It'll be interesting to see how the traffic figures compare by then — surely some researcher is already tracking Web usage vs. the poll numbers.

July 30, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
How does the X Prize rate? The $10 million Ansari X Prize, aimed at promoting private spaceflight, is 400 times richer than the prize that Charles Lindbergh won for his trans-Atlantic flight back in 1927. But will it be as well remembered? In the wake of news that Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne team will be trying to win the prize in September, Cosmic Log readers weighed in with their views on the Ansari X Prize's significance. Here's a sampling:

Gary R. Bradski, Santa Clara, Calif.: "My bet: It will spark an industry first for suborbital thrill flights, and then as the equipment standardizes and shakes out, for commercial use of space, orbital flights, space hotels and on upwards. That is, I think it will be a pivotal event."

John Corbin, Fort Worth, Texas: "In the beginning, suborbital flight is likely to be faddish, and exclusive to people like Dennis Tito who can afford the high ticket prices.  And the initial reason to fly will be the aesthetic experience of weightlessness plus a panoramic view of the earth.  I believe suborbital flight will make practical sense when everyday people can get cheap seats on a space plane in Los Angeles and land in Tokyo in two hours' time."


Kiley Uzelman, Unity, Saskatchewan: "I think the SpaceShipOne flights will make space travel seem even more routine than the space shuttle already has. I deliberately boldface the word 'seem,' because it is not routine yet due to the risks, and also because it will never become as routine as air travel. I also think the X Prize flights will show that it doesn't take a big government-funded agency such as NASA or Arianespace to be able to send people and/or machines into space. These flights are just the beginning of a brand new era in space exploration. Hail SpaceShipOne!!"

Nathan Morrison, Bronx, N.Y.: "It will indeed hold a very special place in aviation history when private individuals are verified by the public at large as being capable of safely delivering passengers and payload to orbit. It is also important to note that these private individuals (Scaled Composites) have already proven that they can accomplish this feat, and on that day aviation history was also made. It is further important to note that there are more important days to come, and hopefully to come soon. The day when public citizens who are not either millionaires or heavily involved in an aerospace corporation can safely and affordable travel to space will be one of the most important days in aviation history. Further, we must keep in mind that we are only solving for one problem with vehicles like [SpaceShipOne]. We must still solve the problems for vehicles that are capable of interplanetary travel. Then those vehicles must go through this process as well (until the public can afford and own them) before we move on to interstellar vehicles, which must undergo this process as well. All of these days will be important days in aviation history, and are sort of a road map for days to come. Rutan, Scaled, and the X Prize in general have only provided the names for one of those slots in the overall aviation history timeline. I wonder who will be next?"

Thomas Ainsworth, Ionia, Mich.: "I believe it will be comparable to the 'Star Trek' movie 'First Contact,' where the first warp engine was sent into space."

Dave, Brugg, Switzerland: "I think it's fantastic but it would be interesting to explain the difference between just getting up to 100 kilometers and actually going into orbit. I think they are worlds apart." [Alan replies: Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others, has noted that orbital space vehicles would have to reach velocities five to six times as high as SpaceShipOne.]

Patrick Bishop: "There's a lot that makes me think the X Prize winner is just going to be a footnote. The first trans-Atlantic flight was by Lindbergh, right? Not so. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown crossed the Atlantic in 1919. They were British, as was their plane. Lindbergh's flight was not until 1927. The only thing that distinguished Lindbergh's flight was that he did it alone ... and he was an American. But how many American schoolchildren know of Alcock and Brown? If Rutan succeeds, it will add luster to his reputation, but of course he's going to be remembered as a major contributor even if his project fails. If some other team succeeds, it'll be a different story. In 1965, hardly anyone had flown in space. If this privately funded attempt had been made back then, the winner's name would certainly be as familiar to us today as Gagarin, Shepard, Armstrong and Aldrin. Today, hundreds and hundreds of people have flown in space ... there's a lot less 'market share' for newcomers to exploit in terms of fame, glory and historical recollection. ..."

Colin W. Kingsbury: "I'm a certified air-and-space addict (private pilot, own a [Cessna Skyhawk] 172) but I think comparing these flights to anything like Lindbergh's flight would be spurious. The vast majority of people today simply don't care, and there's something to it. We have in fact done these things already, so this achievement is a lot more Amelia Earhart than Charles Lindbergh.

"Also, people today have become largely jaded and cynical about the promise of technology. In 1928, technology was cars, washing machines, refrigerators, devices which simply made life better with no apparent downside. Today, we have robots that cost factory jobs, telecom systems that allow us to outsource office jobs to India, and credit agencies that know every mistake you made balancing your checkbook since you graduated from high school. With much of the scientific community concluding that space exploration is best done with robots and much of the public wondering why we're spending gabillions to find out whether there's water on Mars, there just isn't any romance to it. Looking back on Apollo, which led to so many other advances, most people will now reply it was simply to beat the Russkies, and perhaps it was.

"In many ways we seem to be at a point not unlike the Chinese of the 15th century, who had assembled perhaps the greatest fleet of exploration known to man, and yet let it rot in port after a few trips because they didn't see the point. Having gone from the surface of the earth to the surface of the moon in one man's lifetime, a rate of technological progress that remains today almost unthinkable, it saddens me to no end to see so many cast their gaze back upon the ground.

"But then, space tourism may be the key — if it can be made cheap and common enough, it just may reignite the fire of wonder that drives all exploration. And so centuries hence, our descendants on Mars may celebrate these days, but if history is told correctly, they will recall that like so many other great advances, few men appreciated them in their time."

July 30, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
'Blue moon' revisited: Saturday's full moon is the second full moon of the month, and thus qualifies as the "blue moon" celebrated as the proverbial rare event (as in "once in a blue moon"). Check out the explanation of blue-moon lore from Space.com's Joe Rao, as well as NASA's take on the phenomenon. And if your skies are clear, look up and enjoy the view.

July 30, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Last Flight of Bomber 31'
The Guardian: New Zealand's very own Stonehenge
The Economist: Press 'print' for body parts
Defense Tech: The Pentagon's future U-Haul in the sky

July 29, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Martian spies wanted: NASA plans to ask the general public to help analyze satellite photos of Mars and pick out interesting targets for future probes — in effect, to become spy analysts targeting the Red Planet.

Of course, plenty of folks are already poring over the flood of images from Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars rovers. As detailed in the latest issue of Wired (and months ago in Cosmic Log) the weirdest images are cataloged on sites such as MartianCrabs.com and the Enterprise Mission.

But NASA will be looking for something quite different when it beefs up its Marsoweb image database in the months ahead: Eventually, professionals and amateurs alike will be able to sift through mountains of data from NASA's 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — a task that will require an army of volunteers.

"We will ask volunteers to help us create 'geologic feature' databases of boulders, gullies, craters — any kind of geologic feature that may be of interest," the SETI Institute's Virginia Gulick says. "Scientists or students can use these databases to propose theories about Mars that could be proven by future exploration."

Image: Ascraeus Mons
Volcanic features mark Ascraeus Mons' flanks.

You can already click through Marsoweb's interactive map to look at high-resolution imagery from Mars Global Surveyor, and it took me just two minutes to find an intriguing spot, on the flanks of Ascraeus Mons.

The photo shows pit chains and lava tunnels stretching across bubbly volcanic terrain — a scene not unlike that captured in 3-D by the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe in March.

To my untrained eye, some of the features seem to be  craters and canyons, while others look like ridges (perhaps lava flows?) rising from the surface.

It just goes to show how quickly you can become hooked on Martian enigmas. For a daily roundup of Red Planet imagery, check out Martian Soil — and for a Martian reality check, you can always turn to the Bad Astronomy Web site.

July 29, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Scenes from Cassini: The Cassini spacecraft, which entered Saturnian orbit just a month ago, is also capable of providing eerie views of the ringed planet and its satellites.

Image: Mimas
Herschel Crater dominates Cassini's view of the Saturnian moon Mimas.
Cassini's view of the moon Mimas looks a lot like the Death Star from the original "Star Wars" movie — but the cosmic bull's-eye is actually an effect created by the moon's enormous Herschel Crater.

Herschel is about 80 miles (130 kilometers) wide and 6 miles (10 kilometers) deep, with an Everest-sized central peak that rises 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the crater floor. That makes Herschel the most prominent feature on the 247-mile-wide (398-kilometer-wide) moon. The impact that created the crater probably came pretty close to smashing Mimas apart.

For more about Mimas, check out "The Nine Planets." For the latest imagery from Cassini, including a cool new view of Titan's "Purple Haze," click on over to NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web portal or the home page for the CICLOPS imaging team. And stay tuned for NASA's televised update on the Cassini mission, scheduled for 1 p.m. ET next Wednesday.

July 29, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Discovery.com: Some butterflies 'talk'
BBC: Squirrels emit 'silent scream'
NASA: Urban heat islands make cities greener
FHCRC: Anti-HIV protein existed before HIV virus

July 28, 2004 | Updated 11:15 p.m. ET
X Prize questions arise: When the $10 million Ansari X Prize enters its climactic stage starting Sept. 29, with the scheduled launch of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, “the devil is in the details,” chief judge and ex-astronaut Richard Searfoss told journalists Tuesday.

Searfoss was speaking about the mechanics of judging whether a particular flight meets all the requirements for winning the prize, which would go to the first privately funded team to send its craft with a pilot and about 400 extra pounds of ballast to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles), twice in a two-week time frame.

But the "devil-in-the-details” proverb could just as well apply to other aspects of the X Prize climax this fall. Tuesday’s conference call raised several devilish questions about the potential outcome:

Will SpaceShipOne hit its mark?
SpaceShipOne’s milestone flight last month cleared 100 kilometers –- the internationally recognized boundary of outer space –- by just 400 feet (122 meters), due to a less-than-perfect ascent and a mechanical glitch. This time around, the plane will have to carry extra weight to demonstrate it can carry passengers as well as the pilot. If the extra ballast were on SpaceShipOne the last time around, the rocket plane might not have flown high enough to meet X Prize standards.

“We’re making changes to get extra power,” SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan said, including upgrading the rocket engine and aiming for a better ascent trajectory as well.

Rutan also said that SpaceShipOne wouldn't literally be carrying an extra 400 pounds, because some of the extra equipment that was flown during past flights would be taken out. Other gadgets, such as the in-flight video gear, would count toward the 400-pound requirement. “The amount of weight we have to add is a lot closer to one person than two people,” he said.

Last month, Rutan said he would plan to do three flights in the two-week time span to get an extra shot at reaching the required altitude. Today, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Rutan as saying he'd like to do the second, prize-winning flight on Oct. 4 — the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik launch that opened the first space race. Meanwhile, the X Prize Foundation’s “frequently asked questions” file says the follow-on flights would occur in the Oct. 4-13 period.

When will the Canadian challenger be ready?
The Canadian da Vinci Project has announced that it will roll out its X Prize vehicle, the Wild Fire rocket, on Aug. 5 in Toronto. But there’s a big gap between that rollout and a prizeworthy da Vinci flight from Kindersley in the prairie province of Saskatchewan.

Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney said he wasn’t quite ready to announce when the flight attempts might begin, and he told me that the delay was “100 percent funding-based.” He estimated that the team needed another $350,000 in cash before the first flight could be funded. That’s about as much cash as Feeney has been able to put into the project so far -- although he estimates that the effort also has benefited from $10 million to $15 million in the form of in-kind contributions and volunteer time.

Despite the big financial hurdle, Feeney wouldn’t rule out the possibility of announcing a flight timetable that could beat SpaceShipOne to the finish line. “We’re measuring things hour-by-hour, day-by-day as we approach our rollout,” he said.

Even if the money is raised, the Wild Fire rocket would be launched without full-up flight testing, he said. Feeney insisted that the nature of the da Vinci system –- which involves a balloon lofting the rocket to 80,000 feet for a ballistic launch -– was so simple that a test flight was unnecessary. “We feel we can go all the way,” he said. But that attitude toward what is, after all, rocket science would inject an extra element of drama, to say the least.

If you fly it, will they come?
When SpaceShipOne flew last month, estimates of the public turnout ranged from 11,000 (according to the local sheriff’s office) to more than 20,000 (according to the X Prize Foundation). This time around, the admission policy will be more organized -- and more expensive: Parking passes for the Mojave spaceport already are on sale, at prices ranging from $35 per carload, to $100 for recreational-vehicle parking, to $250 for charter buses.

Peter Diamandis, the founder and president of the X Prize Foundation, says there’ll be much more publicity about the prizeworthy flights in the weeks ahead, and he’s hoping that the turnout will be higher than last month’s levels. But the public also will be able to stay home and watch Webcasts of each flight.

Will onlookers pay the fare this time around or, in the wake of last month’s SpaceShipOne flight, will this fall’s launches be seen as anticlimactic? Even Rutan believes that his project’s “main goal” has already been achieved, as he said in an e-mail exchange over the weekend:

“The WK and SS1 [White Knight carrier airplane and SpaceShipOne] are not very active now, with no overtime being worked since the historic Big Flight on 21 June,” Rutan wrote. “We are pleased, of course, to have met our main goal, the demonstration of private manned space flight.”

What place will this fall’s X Prize flights hold in aviation history? I’d love to hear what you think — and I promise to publish a sampling of your views on Friday, after my return from the Oregon coast.

July 27, 2004 | 6:42 p.m. ET
Scientific lore and laughs on the Web:
CollectSpace: The mystery of the Apollo 15 panels
Univ. of Washington: Neutrinos linked to dark energy
NASA: How a ‘Mole’ could search for Martian life
The Onion: John Glenn installed in Smithsonian

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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