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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Experts gather to discuss search for alien life

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Aug. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Primer on new planets: A new crop of distant planets is being revealed this weekend at a symposium on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, presented at Harvard University.

This symposium is unusual because it brings together some of the top names in SETI research — including the SETI Institute's Frank Drake (of "Drake Equation" fame), Harvard's Paul Horowitz and SETI @ home project scientist Dan Werthimer — as well as one of the world's top planet-hunters, Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley.

Marcy will "announce some newly discovered worlds" at the event, according to its sponsor, the Planetary Society. Astronomers already have detected more than 100 planets around faraway stars. For now, almost all of those planets are gas giants that would not be hospitable to life as we know it, but the search could eventually turn up Earthlike worlds.

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To learn more about the planet search, check out our "Other Worlds" interactive, review the latest theorizing about the existence of other Earths and get a glimpse of what's ahead for the extrasolar planet search. Our archives also offer a SETI status report; an audio report on what SETI researchers are looking for; and a virtual tour of the Arecibo Observatory, the epicenter in the search for alien signals.

Aug. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Rocket-race remainders: The chatter over suborbital spaceflight is definitely rising as the $10 million Ansari X Prize heats up. NBC News space analyst James Oberg says the more established space programs could learn a thing or two from the private sector.

"The handful of serious competitors in this contest have developed a remarkably varied array of engineering approaches, and government space programs could benefit from paying some attention to many of these innovative — even half-baked — ideas," Oberg writes in an e-mail commentary.

"Far from ending the race, I anticipate the winning of the prize to be a signal for many other competitors — and potentially some entirely new players as well — that the psychological barrier has been broken. I'd be surprised if there weren't cash-paying passengers on a few such missions within a year or two."

Oberg's mention of "entirely new players" is a reminder that Virgin tycoon Richard Branson still hasn't revealed what space-tourism plans he has up his sleeve. There have been numerous hints that Branson has something in the works, but for now he appears to be focusing on his core business — plus the Virgin Global Flyer venture, in which X Prize competitor Burt Rutan also has a hand.

Thursday's announcement of the da Vinci Project's Oct. 2 bid for the X Prize is a clear indication that Rutan's SpaceShipOne will be getting some real competition. But Clark Lindsey, a longtime observer of the X Prize scene, says he's "flabbergasted" that the da Vinci Project seems to be rushing toward the crucial launch prior to full-scale flight testing.

I did ask team leader Brian Feeney about that on Thursday. Feeney seemed to leave the door open for more extensive pre-launch testing, but he told me he was trying to say as little as possible about his preparations, so as not to tip off the competition.

Yet another X Prize team, Space Transport Corp., is proceeding with plans for a partially fueled, unmanned test flight of its Rubicon rocket on Sunday, from private property on the coast of Washington state. If Sunday's test goes well, Space Transport co-founder Phillip Storm says that would help lay the technical groundwork for a prizeworthy launch. Unfortunately, his team would still be held back because of the required paperwork — including a launch license and 60-day advance launch notice.

Finally, X Prize News reports on one man's effort to turn the X Prize story into a fictional movie, with "First Flight" as the working title. It's not clear whether anything will ever come of filmmaker Joseph Conti's concept — let's just hope no one goes down in flames like the craft shown in his online video clip.

Aug. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Feedback Friday: Cosmic Log readers sent in some great feedback on matters ranging from the Mars Society's simulated Mars mission to, um, antimatter. Here's a selection from the week's e-mail:

Guy S. Newell, Niles, Mich: "Someone should point out to the Mars Society that robots have beat them to Mars already. Two of them, in fact. For less than $1 billion. Enough scientific data returned to generate dozens of Ph.D.'s for years to come. No lives were endangered during the project. We could have robot traffic jams on Mars for what the president has proposed spending to send just a couple of people there. I predict that university students will have robot competitions on Mars before the first humans set foot on that planet. All the good parking places will be gone long before that."

Wade Whitlock: "The equipment tests for Mars gear would be better done in drier and less temperate regions. If the dry valleys of Antarctica don't suit (arf!) then perhaps a plateau in the Andes with the advantage of lower air pressure (gravity is lower than the polar regions, too). Face it, Mars is dry and the atmospheric pressure is about zero compared to the internal pressure. What is the effect of zero humidity, low temperatures, high-pressure differential and dust all at the same time? If you are going to test, then let's test!"

Alan responds: Wade isn't the only one who's had that bright idea. Carnegie Mellon University has often tested its rovers in Chile's Atacama Desert and in Antarctica. Carnegie Mellon's robotics experts are currently working on a new autonomous rover named Zoë, which is being groomed "to seek and identify life in hostile environments" such as Mars. Later this year, Zoë will undergo nearly two months of testing in the Atacama as part of a $2 million project funded by NASA, but next Thursday the machine will be demonstrated at the former LTV industrial site in Pittsburgh. Is that environment hostile enough for you? (Just kidding, Pittsburghers!)

Tom Emmett Jr., Palm Desert, Calif.: "I think the whole theory of the 'Big Bang' is a bunch of hogwash. The idea that a small particle explodes to create the universe is beyond absurd! Scientists say that a particle in nothingness explodes and, thus the universe is born. First, where did the particle that exploded come from? They say it started from nothingness ... so, answer me this, where did that one particle come from? How did that one particle get the energy necessary to explode? Furthermore, how could one particle explode to create all the stars, planets and gas giants in the universe? Please answer these questions for me ... if you can!"

Alan responds: Tom has hit upon one of the big unanswered — and perhaps unanswerable — questions in cosmology. What happened before the Big Bang? Everything that happened after the Big Bang appears to point to such a cosmic explosion giving rise to the universe as we know it, but the cosmic record doesn't reveal how the Big Bang itself arose. That hasn't stopped theoreticians from trying to work out more than one explanation. If this is the kind of question that intrigues you, you might enjoy "Origins," the PBS miniseries coming up next month, hosted by the Hayden Planetarium's Neil deGrasse Tyson. We also have an archived interactive, "Beyond the Big Bang," that might whet your appetite.

Aug. 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Christian Science Monitor: Rules to govern the cosmos
The Economist: Making the connection on autism
Archaeology Magazine: The city in the clouds
Earthfiles: The Aztec angle on English crop circles

Aug. 5, 2004 | 5:20 p.m. ET
The road ahead for space tourists: Be prepared for a private-space letdown after the $10 million Ansari X Prize is won. That's the advice from the head of the company that helped send the first paying passengers to the international space station — and is lending support to X Prize contestants as well.

"Fortunately, I think the prize will be won in the next couple of months," said Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Virginia-based Space Adventures. "Unfortunately, I think there may be a bit of a denouement for the next couple of years. ... We're going to have to wait around for a year or two to see what comes out."

In a wide-ranging interview, Anderson pointed out that the X Prize spaceships — including SpaceShipOne as well as the da Vinci Project's Wild Fire rocket — are demonstration vehicles rather than commercial craft. SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and billionaire financial backer Paul Allen have both said they'd consider taking a ride on their rocket plane, but neither of them intend to sell tickets for such rides to the public.

In the longer run, Anderson hopes his company will play a big role in developing suborbital spaceflight services. "I think we could be funding the development of these services," he said.

Even at this early stage, Space Adventures has provided backing for suborbital space companies, including XCOR Aerospace in California, Suborbital Corp. in Russia and perhaps others he declined to name. "We've definitely provided some funds," he said.

Russian news reports have indicated that Suborbital was suspending its effort to develop a suborbital spaceflight system called Cosmopolis XXI, but Anderson said, "I think they found some money recently. I think they're moving along."

Could that support be coming from Dennis Tito, one of Space Adventures' millionaire clients, who went to the space station in 2001 and recently traveled to Russia with Anderson? "Potentially yes," Anderson said. "You'd have to ask Dennis ... [but] everybody's heard about his intent to help out."

Image: Anderson
Space Adventures
Eric Anderson is president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures.

As for future space station visitors, Anderson acknowledged that his company suffered a setback when the Russians disqualified would-be millionaire space passenger Greg Olsen on medical grounds. "I'm very disappointed that it happened, but health is health, and we just have to keep going," he said.

He declined to be more specific about Olsen's health issue, but said there's a "significant chance that he'll be able to fly in the future. ... If there's a will, there's usually a way."

The next piloted Soyuz flight to the space station is scheduled in October, and the Russians may select military cosmonaut Yuri Shargin or millionaire Sergei Polonsky to fill the third seat in the Soyuz craft. Anderson said he considered Polonsky to be a "special case," since he's had significant military experience and has gone through almost all the required cosmonaut training over the past four years.

"I'm not even sure I would call him a tourist," Anderson said.

He said Space Adventures had some prospective passengers lined up for the Soyuz flight after the next one, in April 2005 — but as usual, he declined to name names until the arrangements were firmed up.

Over the longer term, Space Adventures hopes to establish its own passenger-flight spaceport — and Anderson confirmed earlier hints that Australia was a favored location. That could well determine which suborbital space companies will end up being allied with Space Adventures, due to U.S. export regulations. "There are two categories of suborbital space vehicles: those that are made in the United States and those that are made outside," he noted.

Anderson said he expected the spaceport location to be announced at the end of the year — but not before then. "I will take till the end of the year to make a decision," he said.

As usual, when it comes to the infant space passenger business, Anderson knows more than he's telling.

"We've got a lot of interesting things in the hopper," he said. "We're working hard. This is an exciting time for space."

Aug. 5, 2004 | Updated 9:35 p.m. ET
Casino fuels rocket launch: The Canadian-based da Vinci Project is planning an Oct. 2 launch of its Wild Fire rocket from Saskatchewan, backed by GoldenPalace.com.

The Internet casino concern has committed to kicking in hundreds of thousands of dollars to fuel da Vinci's bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize — and it says da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney will be bringing a laptop along on the Wild Fire flight for casino games. GoldenPalace.com says it will also send along a "Beckham Ball" that figured in soccer great David Beckham's Euro 2004 match. Click here for the full story.

Aug. 5, 2004 | 5:20 p.m. ET
More scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: Body of evidence at the Olympics
Wired.com: 'Onion routing' averts private eyes
BBC: Women wanted for space-age tests
Scientific American: Questions that plague physics

Aug. 4, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Lessons from an Arctic Mars: Two groups of researchers are winding down their field season in the Canadian Arctic, after testing tools and techniques that could well come into play during future human missions to Mars. They're bringing back tips for those future explorers — ranging from practical feedback on spacesuits and drilling equipment for the Red Planet to new types of robotic helpers you might call "hoverbots."

Devon Island in the High Arctic, part of Canada's Nunavut territory, is one of the places on Earth judged to be most like Mars, due to its geology as well as its otherworldly isolation. Two camps are nestled within Devon Island's 12-mile-wide (20-kilometer-wide) Haughton Crater.

The Mars Society has already finished up its three-week-long simulated Mars mission at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. In one of the closing dispatches, simulation commander Jason Held noted that his seven-person crew covered 160 miles (257 kilometers) of off-road driving and 32 miles (51 kilometers) on foot.

"There is no way that current robotics technology can cover that distance, over Mars terrain, while receiving the level of data detail recorded by our crew," Held wrote. However, he noted that robots would be essential helpmates on Mars, even after humans arrived.

Hovering aerial robots would be useful as communication relays for wide-area radio traffic, particularly since Mars’ scant ionosphere can't extend radio signal range as well as Earth's does. As a test for such a system, the Mars Society crew used a land-based radio repeater that was situated on a high point along the exploration route — a setup that Held said was "very effective."

Hoverbots also could serve as advance scouts, gathering aerial imagery in preparation for astronauts' excursions.

Meanwhile, the NASA-funded Haughton Mars Project is in its last week of operations, not far from the Mars Society's base. The Haughton Mars researchers have been going there every summer since 1997 — and this year, the team helped test Hamilton Sundstrand's next-generation spacesuit as well as an automated drilling system that is being developed by Honeybee Robotics for future Mars missions. (Honeybee is the company behind the rock abrasion tool, or RAT, on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.)

The team is also building a new "core module" to supplement the camp's tent city and its Arthur Clarke Greenhouse. For more on the Haughton Mars Project, check out their "Mars on Earth" Web site.

You can find out much more about the Mars Society's exploits at the organization's annual conference, scheduled Aug. 19-22 in Chicago. And for the latest on real-life missions to the Red Planet, including the glitches affecting the rovers and a newly expanded image database, check in with NASA's Mars portal page as well as our own special report.

Aug. 4, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Robot guard will smoke out villains
Defense Tech: Raising the dead
Nature: Could astronauts sleep their way to the stars?
Space.com: Machines as brain boosters

Aug. 3, 2004 | 2:30 p.m. ET
Another boost for rocket race: The rollout of the da Vinci Project's made-in-Canada rocket won't be the only news coming out of Toronto's Downsview Park on Thursday, team leader Brian Feeney says. Only hours after describing the scramble for money to fuel a bid for the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, Feeney called back to say there would be an additional "major announcement."

"Something has happened — very positive, obviously," Feeney told me.

He wouldn't go into the details, but when you consider that Topic A for the da Vinci Project has been finding the sponsorship money for a launch this fall, you can't help but think that Feeney's "late-breaking news" relates to those issues. If the Wild Fire rocket gets the go-ahead for launches in early October, that could make for a real race with the SpaceShipOne team, which already has scheduled launch attempts on Sept. 29 as well as early October.

The $10 million would go to the first privately sponsored team to launch a piloted vehicle to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) twice in a two-week time frame. As many as 27 teams have registered for the space race, but over the past week the field has been trimmed back to 19 active participants.

X Prize News quotes Peter Diamandis, the founder and president of the X Prize Foundation, as saying several teams were "de-registered" because their prize efforts have gone inactive or they did not respond to inquiries. Those teams include Advent Launch Services, Discraft Corp., Flight Exploration, Kelly Space & Technology, Lone Star Space, Pan Aero and Suborbital Corp. Another team, Blue Ridge Nebula, had been delisted months ago.

That's not to say the teams have disbanded. For example, Pan Aero's Len Cormier said he's turning his attention to ventures he views as more potentially attractive to investors. "Time's running out for raising money for the X Prize," he observed.

"It only makes sense to shift priorities," he told me. "Our emphasis has always been on orbital [flight]. I view suborbital as a distraction."

For Cormier, that means raising money to develop his Space Van 2008 concept, which blends rocket power with high-tech kites.

Aug. 3, 2004 | 2:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
The Space Review: Soyuz to the moon?
NASA: When brains spin in space
The Telegraph: Turning blood into a food additive
Nat. Geographic: Cloning trees from Lewis and Clark's day

Aug. 2, 2004 | 7:15 p.m. ET
New clue in antimatter mystery: An international research team says it has picked up new clues that could help solve one of physics' biggest mysteries: What happened to all the antimatter?

Today's report comes from the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, a collaboration that brings together about 600 scientists from around the world. The BaBar scientists smash subatomic particles in SLAC's PEP-II accelerator to create short-lived pairs of particles known as B mesons and anti-B mesons.

Such matter-antimatter pairs are the focus of intense study because their behavior reveals subtle differences that one day could explain why matter won out in its primordial match with antimatter.

Current theory contends that the two varieties were created in equal quantities during the Big Bang. However, as "Star Trek" fans know all too well, matter and antimatter annihilate each other when they come in contact, producing a flash of energy. So why didn't the primordial matter and antimatter cancel each other out? And if almost everything we see today in the natural world is made of matter, where did all the antimatter go?

Image: BaBar experiment
SLAC
A worker crouches within the guts of the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Earlier findings from BaBar and the Belle experiment in Japan hinted that the decay rates for matter and antimatter are not the same — producing what is known in physics as "CP violation." The results announced today, which have been submitted to Physical Review Letters for publication, quantify the difference in decay and provide what researchers say is the "first observation of direct CP violation of B/anti-B mesons."

“We found 910 examples of the B meson decaying to a kaon and a pion, but only 696 examples for the anti-B mesons,” said BaBar spokesman Marcello Giorgi, a physicist at Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics and the University of Pisa.

Princeton physicist James Olsen said the effect for B mesons is 100,000 times stronger than a similar effect that already had been observed with kaons. “The pattern of different types of matter-antimatter asymmetries is starting to come together into a coherent picture,” he said.

It's too early to say exactly why it is that antimatter acts differently, but the latest findings serve as an important piece that helps fill out the matter-antimatter puzzle. To learn more about antimatter and the alphabet soup of CP violations and B mesons, check out Encarta's entry on antimatter, CERN's Web portal for antimatter, "CP News" at the University of Cincinnati and this archived Space.com report on the state of antimatter propulsion.

Aug. 2, 2004 | 7:15 p.m. ET
X Prize update: With the rollout of the da Vinci Project's Wild Fire rocket scheduled for Thursday in Toronto, project leaders are scrambling to find the half-million dollars or so they need to make a serious play for the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney says the team definitely won't be making an announcement about a launch attempt before Thursday's rollout, but he's still hoping to give the favored SpaceShipOne team a run for its money this fall.

"Some things are happening," Feeney said Monday. "It’s a matter of whether they can be concluded in time. ... Clearly we want to get our hat into the ring."

Meanwhile, Space Transport Corp.'s Eric Meier has told the Peninsula Daily News that he and his teammates will be testing their Rubicon X Prize rocket this weekend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The initial test flight will aim for an altitude of 18,000 feet (5.5 kilometers) — one not-so-small step toward what they hope eventually will be 100-kilometer heights.

Aug. 2, 2004 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Deception detection
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Inventing a way to walk on water
Popular Science: How long will the oil age last?
Discovery.com: Men and women see colors differently
Slashdot: Top 100 papers in physics ranked

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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