Aug. 13, 2004 | 7:10 p.m. ET
An Olympic-size prediction: And the winner in Athens is ... the United States, with 93 Olympic medals! At least that's the prediction from two economists who cranked figures on population, income and past performance into a computer model to project the medal counts for this year's Games.

Megan Busse, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, admits that she and her colleague, Dartmouth University's Andrew Bernard, went out on a limb when they published their analysis months before the Games, in the February issue of the Review of Economics and Statistics. An updated version of the paper was put online last month.

"I hope we don't have egg on our faces," she jokes.

But she points out that the model did better than Sports Illustrated in predicting the counts for the 2000 Sydney Games. Instead of sizing up each individual contest, she and Bernard took a statistical approach to the mathematics of athletics — an approach that she thinks takes better account of the upsets and surprises that always occur during the Olympics.

"If you're predicting sport by sport, it's hard to predict enough surprises such that when you add up the numbers you get to the right total," she says.

The model assumes that countries with larger populations and higher per capita income are going to do better than the smaller, poorer countries. Past performance — the number of medals won in previous Games — also plays a role.

"If you had good athletes in Sydney, many of those athletes are going to come back to Athens," Busse explains. Also, "if you produced good athletes in Sydney, part of the reason for that is that you've got good facilities and good trainers. ... Those kinds of innovations that paid off in the past are likely to pay off in Athens."

Then there's the "host effect": The home-field advantage and the extra effort that the host country puts into its athletic preparations translate into an extra 1.8 percent of the medals in the computer model. For Greece, that almost doubles the projected medal count, to a total of 27. (This PDF file gives the full rundown.)

If the economists are right, U.S. athletes are fated to receive 37 gold medals and 56 silver and bronze — fewer than the 97 total medals they received in Sydney. That would turn the U.S. Olympic Committee's stated goal of garnering 100 medals into an act of hubris worthy of an Athenian tragedy.

In fact, the computer model predicts that Olympic riches will be more widely distributed than ever before. Because of the past-performance factor, the countries that did well in Sydney — Australia, China, Russia and Britain — should do well this year as well, Busse and Bernard say.

Busse claims that there's an economics lesson behind all this handicapping.

"A reasonably simple economic model turns out to be pretty good at predicting success in an endeavor that is not explicitly economic in nature," Busse says. "What this tells us is that economic models turn out to be pretty useful for explaining the world around us."

Of course, economists probably said that about other, not completely successful experiments in modeling — such as the study that predicted Al Gore would win the 2000 election, or the one that said the Standard & Poor's 500 was in for a severe drop this year. (In the latter case, the researchers contend that the signature of the stock index's drop was "perturbed" by the Federal Reserve's intervention.)

"We economists don't always have a terrific track record," Busse admits. "But we actually hit the U.S. medal count on the nose in Sydney. So we're hoping that economic lightning is going to strike twice, and we'll do it again."

Spoken like a true contender ...

Aug. 13, 2004 | 7:10 p.m. ET
Try, try again:  Space Transport Corp., the Washington-based rocket team whose rocket blew up last weekend, is targeting Sept. 12 for the next test launch from the Olympic Peninsula, says Phillip Storm, the company's president.

"We’re going to fabricate two more identical Rubicon rockets. ... We're going to do another engine test in early September," Storm writes in an e-mail.

Storm says telemetry from the launch of Rubicon 1 indicates that the attitude control system "was fighting to keep it straight, even though the rocket was being torn apart."

"The rocket held in there pretty good even though one of the engines exploded," Storm writes. "I’m fairly confident a pilot could have thrown the parachute and been OK. The capsule was catastrophically damaged only on impact with the water. We’ll come up with some extra safety measures to ensure a command is sent for parachute deployment in the event of a failure."

This weekend's big event on the private spaceflight front is the Canadian Arrow team's drop test over Lake Ontario. Space.com provides further details on the test.

Aug. 13, 2004 | 7:10 p.m. ET
Friday the 13th, Part 2: This is the second and last occurrence of the legendary unlucky day during 2004. To get some surprising perspectives on Friday the 13th's history (and the math associated with it), you can check out this fresh perspective from my MSNBC colleague, Alex Johnson, this stale Log item from February, and this evergreen article from Encarta. (They say good things come in threes.) For you superstitious types, next year will provide only a single dose of bad luck, in the month of May.

Aug. 13, 2004 | 7:10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
BBC: Super ant colony hits Australia
New Scientist: Surveillance network shields Olympics
Wired.com: Wrong time for an e-vote glitch
L.A. Times (reg. req.): A thorny tweak for the rose

Aug. 12, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Cracking open a cosmic geode: That's how astronomers refer to the latest picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, which provides a glimpse within the gorgeous gaseous shell surrounding a nebula called N44F.

As any rock-shop habitue knows, geodes are geological coconuts, with a drab exterior wrapped around a hollow crystal-lined cavity. In N44F's case, the blast of fast-moving particles from the nebula's hot central star, on the left side of the image, is pushing out an envelope of cooler gas — creating an interstellar bubble.

Image: N44F
NASA / ESA / U. of Liege / UIUC
N44F's central star is wrapped within a roughly spherical shell of cool orange gas, with fingerlike columns of cool gas and dust protruding from the interior wall.

Instead of crystals, the interior wall of this shell is lined with fingers of cool gas and dust, much like the "Pillars of Creation" that Hubble saw a decade ago in the Eagle Nebula. The fingers are sculpted by the central star's ultraviolet radiation, and researchers have hinted that the the fingers may play an important role in the shell's evolution.

Unlike geologists, the Hubble astronomers didn't have to crack anything to look inside N44F's shell. The gaseous envelope is so transparent that Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 could peer right inside.

N44F is about 160,000 light-years from Earth, in the dwarf galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. To see other gems from the Hubble Space Telescope, visit the HubbleSite or our own Space Gallery .

Aug. 12, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Canadian Arrow takes aim: One of the entrants in the $10 million Ansari X Prize has scheduled a key test of its launch vehicle on Saturday. The Canadian Arrow team, based in London, Ontario, is planning to drop its crew capsule into Lake Ontario from a height of 9,000 feet (2,745 meters) to see how it will weather splashdown. The drop test is a step along the way to full-fledged test flights later this year. For more information, check Clark Lindsey's report at Reusable Launch Vehicle News.

Aug. 12, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Meteor memories: As the Perseid meteor shower reached its peak, several readers sent in their reminiscences of past shooting-star sessions. Check out our review of the Perseid show to read a selection of the feedback. And remember: It's not too late to enjoy the encore. As for me, I'll be catching up on sleep after last night's meteor marathon.

Aug. 12, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Science and tech frontiers on the Web:
The Guardian: I'm not guilty ... but my brain is
Wired.com: Biology enters the fourth dimension
CNews: Human-powered copter grounded
Nat'l Geographic: Good and bad insect vibrations

Aug. 11, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Armadillo's next small step: The crash of Armadillo Aerospace's "big vehicle" may have spoiled any hopes that the Texas-based team could have won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private manned spaceflight — but in the bigger picture, even the X Prize is just one small step toward a giant leap for the suborbital space industry .

Like Space Transport Corp., which also suffered a setback in its rocket development program last weekend, Armadillo plans to be back on track with a new vehicle in the next month or so, under the leadership of John Carmack, a 33-year-old millionaire video-game programmer.

Just days after the crash and the release of his latest software project, "Doom 3," Carmack provided some e-mail answers to questions about the next stage in Armadillo's space quest:

Will the design of the next big vehicle change significantly, considering that the focus is starting to shift from the X Prize to the post-X Prize era? What are the top things that will be changed?  I assume the engine innards will be a big item.

Carmack: "The new vehicle is going to use our 'mini-nozzles' for the engine, which will give us more control at very low throttles and cut a foot of height off the vehicle.

"Internally, the engine will use small hole drilled support plates instead of water jet cut support plates backed up with screens.  This will make it impossible for any catalyst rings to make their way past the screens.

"The bottom engine support plate will be welded between two chamber sections instead of being welded inside a single chamber section.  We are also going to connect the top retaining plate to the bottom support plate.  These two fixes should basically eliminate the plate bowing.

Image: Carmack
X Prize Foundation
John Carmack is a programmer for id Software as well as leader of the Armadillo Aerospace rocket team.
"We are building jet vanes out of Rene-41, a rather expensive high-temperature alloy.  With this, even if we have malfunctions that turn the vanes completely flat-side into the exhaust, they will not bend.  We also won't have to worry about any issues with flights of multiple minutes.

"We are adding a propellant level sensor.

"We are building custom PCB for all the electronics to eliminate almost all of our hookup wiriing.

"We are milling the manway flange from a big block of aluminum, instead of using an aluminum insert above the standard composite flange.  This will save some weight, allow us to use a thicker O-ring for sealing, and make it easier to add new ports on the bottom.

"The vacuum line used during propellant loading is being relocated to the bottom of the vehicle, so we don't need a ladder to connect and disconnect it from the top.  The propellant loading equipment is also being upsized to cut in half our loading times.

"We are probably going to add a drogue chute to the back so we can force it to come down nose first and decelerate with a long crushing nose cone under crash situations."

Might there be some consolidation or more cooperation among X Prize teams?

Carmack: "I can't see any real cooperation with other X Prize teams, because most of the work really does require people to be in the same location, working on the same vehicle.  I always appreciate discussion of ideas, either public or private, with knowledgeable people, but that isn't a large factor in getting vehicles flying."

What's the mood at Armadillo? It seems as if you're getting a lot of encouragement from the rocket community.

Carmack: "We are doing fine.  We wanted to make most of these changes anyway, this just forced the issue.  It will probably take a bit more than a month to get the new vehicle flying, but all the important parts are already on order.  I ordered two of most of them, in preparation for the next time we crash."

I read somewhere that in financial terms, the big vehicle's loss was comparable to a luxury car — $35,000? What figure would you put on the cost of fabricating a new vehicle? Is there a significant price drop due to the fact that a lot of the design debugging has been done?

Carmack: "$35,000 is basically what the vehicle cost.  The new one will probably be closer to $40,000, because we are doing more custom machining and using some more expensive materials.  Total shop labor will probably be 300 hours or so.  If we built two identical ones at the same time, cost would go down a little, probably 15 percent, and labor for the second one would probably be cut in half.  We don't want to do that, because we will probably have a long list of additional things to improve for the next rebuild."

Speaking of debugging, how does this job compare with writing code? It strikes me that there may be a lot of similarities, except that there's somewhat less risk of being killed when your software crashes.

Carmack: "I find the debugging process quite similar to software, but the cycle times are obviously longer. A major goal for us has always been to keep the cycle times as short as possible to allow effectively interactive debugging."

Postscript: Phillip Storm of Space Transport Corp. says his team is also pressing on to the next launch test. "We hope to launch another Rubicon in about a month or so, with the appropriate fixes to the engine and quality measures in place," Storm told me in an e-mail update. "The capsule is being built by Reynold Grey Machining in Port Townsend [in Washington state]. They should be able to fabricate another in around one to two weeks."

By the way, the Peninsula Daily News reports that Space Transport has received e-mail inquiries from "a slew of investors" in the wake of Sunday's noble failure.

Aug. 11, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Legislation for the 'Space CHASE': Over at Transterrestrial Musings, Andrew Case provides more details about the proposed legislation that could open the way for people to buy a ride on, say, a future Armadillo or Space Transport suborbital space vehicle. The Senate version of the legislation is called the "Space Commercial Human Ascent Serving Exploration Act," or Space CHASE Act for short.

As was reported last month , the revised language answers the concerns of companies such as Rocketplane Limited by focusing the definition of a qualifying suborbital flight on the rocket-powered segment of the flight. It also makes clear that if the Transportation Department provides a license or experimental permit under the provisions of the Space CHASE Act, no further licenses are required.

The language is meant to reassure companies with rocket-jet hybrid vehicles that they won't have to go through the laborious process of airplane certification before testing their craft. That eliminates the objections to the original legislation that held up its passage in the Senate. Space CHASE backers hope the bill can win congressional approval next month, after the summer recess.

Aug. 11, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
Planetary Society: Cosmos 1 solar sail reaches milestone
Nature: Reefs get global warming lifeline
TRN: Tiles let you walk in virtual reality (via Slashdot)
Daily Grail: Another robot to attack pyramid's secrets

Aug. 10, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
Interplanetary net widens: For the first time, NASA's Opportunity rover has sent pictures back to Earth via Europe's Mars Express orbiter, demonstrating the workings of the first high-speed international interplanetary network.

The spotlight image is a "stretched-color" view of the terrain inside Endurance Crater, where Opportunity is analyzing rock for signs of ancient water. The picture was created by processing red, green and blue filters to exaggerate color differences and highlight geological features, including the BB-sized "blueberries" that cover the terrain surrounding the rover.

The blueberries seem to be spread over reddish slabs of Martian bedrock like coarse-grained mud on an elephant's skin.

Image: Endurance Crater
NASA / JPL / Cornell via ESA
This image of the terrain inside Mars' Endurance Crater was captured by NASA's Opportunity rover and transmitted via the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.

Looking beyond the latest imagery, international cooperation on communications will be key for future missions to the Red Planet, NASA and the European Space Agency said today.

This month's experimental linkups are using a protocol called Proximity-1, which has been developed by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems over the past several years. Last Wednesday, Opportunity sent 15 stored images as well as other data up to Mars Express, for immediate forwarding to the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Wednesday's data amounted to 42.6 megabits, sent during a 6-minute window. That translates into a transfer rate of about 116 kilobits per second — not quite as good as DSL or cable on Earth, but still far better than the rate that was achieved with the Spirit rover in February during the first test of the international network.

Proximity-1 is also routinely used to relay data from the rovers through NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter at speeds of 256 kilobits per second. In addition to the Mars Odyssey and Mars Express links, the rovers can send data through Mars Global Surveyor or a direct link with NASA's Deep Space Network.

The networking experiment is due to continue through Friday the 13th, as outlined in NASA and ESA news releases.

"The capabilities that our international teamwork is advancing this month could be important in future exploration of Mars," Gary Noreen of the Mars Network Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in the release.

"This will allow ESA and NASA to more accurately track spacecraft during their approach, atmospheric entry and even descent, as well as to increase the coverage and the amount of data that can be brought back to Earth," Con McCarthy of ESA's Mars Express project explained.

Networking experts have been building the groundwork for an international interplanetary Internet for at least seven years — check out this archived 1999 report for background, plus a graphical explanation.

Aug. 10, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
Star spills its guts: The latest picture from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals clouds of gas expelled during a star's death throes — a sight that's invisible to the naked eye, but detectable by Spitzer's infrared camera.

The star and its cloud halo constitute NGC 246, a planetary nebula 1,800 light years away in the constellation Cetus. Here's the Spitzer team's explanation for how such nebulas arise:

Image: NGC 246
NASA / JPL / Caltech / CfA
Spitzer's false-color image shows the clouds of material given off by the central star in the planetary nebula NGC 246.
"When a star like our own sun begins to run out of fuel, its core shrinks and heats up, boiling off the star's outer layers. Leftover material shoots outward, expanding in shells around the star. This ejected material is then bombarded with ultraviolet light from the central star's fiery surface, producing huge, glowing clouds — planetary nebulas — that look like giant jellyfish in space.

"In this image, the expelled gases appear green, and the ring of expelled material appears red. Astronomers believe the ring is likely made of hydrogen molecules that were ejected from the star in the form of atoms, then cooled to make hydrogen pairs. The new data will help explain how planetary nebulas take shape, and how they nourish future generations of stars."

You can learn more about Spitzer by checking out our archived background report . Don't miss our must-see slideshows of Spitzer imagery as well as pictures of Dazzling Deaths from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Aug. 10, 2004 | 5 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science News: Corals without boarders
JAXA: Japanese deploy solar sail in space
Scientific American: The Olympian's new clothes
Sydney Morning Herald: Alien messages in DNA?

Aug. 9, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Déjà vu for space-crossed lovers: First bridegroom-in-space Yuri Malenchenko and his Russian-American wife, Kat Dmitriev, repeated their vows last week in a Russian Orthodox church service in Tutayev, north of Moscow.

Their first wedding ceremony , exactly a year ago Tuesday, was anything but orthodox. Malenchenko was serving as the commander on the international space station, while a family friend stood in for him during the service in Houston. Texas commonly allows such proxy ceremonies, but NASA and the Russian space agency required some extra convincing to cooperate.

The two had always said they intended to follow up on the unprecedented space wedding with a church service once Malenchenko returned from space, but it took several months to make the arrangements. Wedding planner Jo Ann Schwartz Woodward, who assisted with the long-distance wedding, offered "a little long-distance help" for the Russian ceremony as well, according to the Houston Business Journal.

Schwartz Woodward herself found out just today that the wedding in Russia was a done deal. "Yes, they got married on Wednesday," she told me. According to the Russian media reports, gleaned by NBC News space analyst James Oberg, the affair was conducted with the stealth of a Hollywood wedding: News photographers were banned from the church, and one paparazzo had his film confiscated.

The Hollywood parallel may be apt in yet another way: Schwartz Woodward says one filmmaker is already working on a documentary about Malenchenko and Dmitriev's love story.

Aug. 9, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Catch a falling rocket: We've added some video to my report on Sunday's Space Transport rocket explosion on the Washington coast. And as long as you're looking at that video, you should check out the views of this weekend's other Ansari X Prize rocket reversal: the crash of Armadillo Aerospace's "big vehicle" during testing Saturday in Texas.

Rocket geeks will delight in the vivid description of the glitch from Armadillo team leader John Carmack, who made his millions as a video-game programmer. "It's a good thing Doom 3 is selling very well," Carmack observed.

The vehicle fell from the sky after running out of fuel, in large part because it took longer than it should have to get the rocket engine warmed up. You don't need to be a rocket geek to be fascinated by Armadillo's MPEG video of the flight and the fall.

Although this weekend's setbacks pretty much confirm that Armadillo Aerospace and Space Transport Corp. are out of the race for the $10 million prize, both teams are continuing to pursue their space tourism dreams. Carmack hopes to get flying again in five weeks — about the same time frame that Space Transport co-founder Phillip Storm projects for getting another Rubicon rocket ready for testing.

Aug. 9, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Countdown to next Mars mission: The most recent round of Mars missions hasn't even ended yet, but NASA is already beginning the yearlong countdown toward the next one. The projected launch window for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter opens a year from Tuesday, on Aug. 10, 2005. Check out the mission status report from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Aug. 9, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Moscow Times: Construction mogul bargains for space ride
BBC: Death before defeat in the ancient games
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Lawyers unearth early patents
Nature: Science secrets of chess masters revealed
The Globe and Mail: The unknown Newton

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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