Aug. 27, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Sampling the Sphinx: If we can the read the whole history of a rock on Mars, why can't we do it with the Sphinx? That's what Mark Giacobbe of Coplay, Pa., wants to know in the wake of last week's look at the debate surrounding the age of the Sphinx.

"Just read your article about the Sphinx and whether water has altered the sides of the Sphinx," he writes. "If there are any questions as to what formed the cracks, why not use the same techniques that the Mars rovers are using? After all, that is one of the main goals of the rovers — to study Martian rocks and see if water has altered them."

The type of drilling and chipping that the rovers are doing on the Red Planet would certainly tell us more about the rock of the Sphinx, but it probably wouldn't answer the kinds of questions that "Mystery of the Sphinx" author John Anthony West has been posing.

First of all, the raw geological data couldn't settle exactly when the Sphinx was chiseled on a scale of mere thousands of years. I'm not sure that a microscopic look at the rock could tell you whether it was cracked by stress exfoliation or by rainfall, but I'd love to hear what a qualified geologist would say about that.

Of course, West would love to get his hands on rock samples from the Sphinx, but he's not holding his breath. He recalled the time when he was sitting in the office of Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, listening to a woman researcher make her pitch for taking a sample. West recalled that Hawass exploded in anger at the suggestion.

"Zahi almost tore the poor girl's head off," West said. "I learned not to use the 's-word.'"

Meanwhile, Chris E. writes that the Sphinx is clearly a part of Egyptian art and culture, rather than the product of some pre-pharaonic Atlantis.

"People need to realize that there wasn't a civilization prior to 5,000 B.C. that could have made the Sphinx, which is carved in a typical Egyptian pharaoh's headdress with typical animal/human-human/animal art," Chris says. "History is certainly 'wonderful' and 'exciting' without such wild speculation. The only time the Sphinx will be 38,000 years old is in another 34,000 years."

Aug. 27, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Planet guessing game: What kind of extrasolar-planet discovery will NASA be announcing next week? Cosmic Log correspondents got in on the guessing game:

Tony Calabrese: "I would be willing to bet that NASA has not only detected an Earthlike planet, but has observed it, analyzed light wavelengths and has an idea of the atmosphere. I would venture the opinion based on recent global telescopic hookups creating giant interferometers. As you know, this technology is proven and is on line for an upcoming NASA mission, the Terrestrial Planet Finder or Kepler. I would think that connecting large telescopes in South America, Australia, North America and Europe would give our scientists a firsthand glance at other terrestrial-type planets. Just a guess, but what the hell."

Jesse Houtz: "If you are a 'Star Trek' buff you understand this term.  I think they found the so-called M-class planet.  One that is a lot like Earthlike conditions."

William: "To say that new worlds or extrasolar planets have been found is one thing, but to say that they are like our own (Earth) is another. It is more a leap of faith, and the hope that these new worlds could be like ours, that's driving this terminology — not good science."

Chris Eldridge: "Exoplanets are a primary interest of mine. I am hoping that they were able to 'visually detect' a Jovian-sized world and then infer the existence of Earth-sized 'moons,' which could be detected around such planets if they were to either eclipse the light coming from it or cause a detectable Doppler shift! Whatever they found, I am all ears!"

We should find out if anyone has hit the mark next Tuesday.

Aug. 27, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Yellowstone reloaded: Since last month's semi-continental road trip, I've slowly been catching up with the e-mail, and there are a couple of messages about the Yellowstone geysers that I have to pass along, even though they're more than a month old. Some readers didn't take kindly to my juxtaposition of Old Faithful and the Soda Springs "artificial geyser." Here's the feedback from Bill Johnson of Los Alamos, N.M.:

"Oh, come on. Calling the Soda Springs phenomenon a geyser is equivalent to calling an Indy car a racehorse, or calling the re-entry of a satellite a meteor shower. It is a man-made artifact, not a geyser.

"Your silly report devalues the hundreds of true geysers that are found around Yellowstone, a concentration unmatched anywhere in the world and rivaled only in the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. It brings us one step closer to the day when the uninformed are willing to write off the world's few geyser basins because the purveyors of synthetic experience can duplicate the effects seen there. We will all be diminished when that happens, and you will be partly to blame. Shame on you."

I'm properly chastised. And as if that weren't enough, Wayne from Milwaukee weighs in on treating geysers with proper respect:

"There is a glaring safety issue here that you have completely ignored at the end of your article: The reason people aren't allowed to walk around off the paths at Yellowstone is because the grounds in the hot areas of the park are extremely dangerous.

"The hot springs in the park move around a lot, and there are many areas where the ground is just a thin crust with scalding water or even an acid solution (strong enough to melt your boots off your feet before you could remove them) just beneath the surface. Hundreds of people have been severely burned in Yellowstone, and several dozen have died. One of my father's friends was scarred for life and almost lost a leg.

'She was an employee at the Lodge and was taking out the trash after a shift, and stepped onto a spot on the asphalt where a hot spot had melted away the ground beneath, and fell through. The acid burns took years to heal properly, and left behind keloids, similar to those burned at Hiroshima by the Bomb.

'The safety issue is something you should consider before you blow off the concern for your safety by the folks at Yellowstone."

To be sure, there are quite a few warning signs around the geysers, but it's even more sobering when you hear a personal story like that. I'm not blowing off the safety issue, though I do think it's nice to have an up-close experience of a geyser, even if it's the "synthetic" blast at Soda Springs. Even at Yellowstone, some of the paths bring you so close to geysers and hot springs that you can smell and feel them — which is a part of the fun.

Finally, in response to my road-trip item on highway Wi-Fi, there was this note from Glenn Fleishman, the Seattle guru of wireless tech: "Try Jiwire.com for Wi-Fi hotspots. I'm working with them on editorial, and they sell ads for my site, but I only work with them because they're the best. They have a downloadable, offline hotspot finder which includes proximity to a ZIP code or city. Online, you can enter a street address and find all nearby hot spots, too."

Aug. 27, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Double birthday for space telescopes
Defense Tech: All that secrecy is expensive
BBC: Bananas could power Aussie homes
Seattle Times: Doctors may ask 'What's your sign?'

Aug. 26, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Extra-special exoplanets: NASA is promising a "major" announcement next Tuesday about a new class of planets discovered beyond our own solar system. The news briefing, scheduled for 1 p.m. ET at the space agency's Washington headquarters, will be streamed on MSN Video .

NASA's advisory says the "discovery represents a significant and much-anticipated advance in the hunt for extrasolar planets." Among the panelists will be Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, arguably the world's best-known planet-hunting duo. Other speakers include the University of Texas' Barbara McArthur and the Carnegie Institution's Alan Boss, with NASA's Anne Kinney as moderator.

The claim that the finding is "much-anticipated," and the fact that the briefing was moved up from its previously scheduled date of Sept. 13, only add to the guessing game.

The search for extrasolar planetsMy bet is that the planet-hunters have followed perturbations in other star systems long enough to detect the signature of the smallest exoplanets yet, approaching the scale of Earthlike worlds.

Just this week, astronomers announced that they had pushed the envelope by finding a "super Earth" 14 times as massive as our own planet, only 50 light-years away.

Could the hunters have found worlds even more like our own? Would you care to hazard your own guess on the upcoming announcement?  Feel free to send along your speculation.

In the meantime, you can also bone up on your extrasolar-planet lore by checking out our The search for extrasolar planets as well as NASA's New Worlds Atlas and the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopaedia.

Aug. 26, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Before ‘Blade Runner’ ... there was the novel on which it was based, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The fact that a poll of well-known scientists has anointed "Blade Runner" as the best science-fiction movie serves as a perfect excuse for designating Philip K. Dick's robo-noir classic as this month's selection in the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

The CLUB Club is a shameless rip-off of the "Today" Book Club and others of that ilk — including blogmate Gael Cooper's new virtual book club , which is highlighting a tale about rocketeer/programmer John Carmack and his colleague John Romero. CLUB Club books should focus on cosmic themes, and be around long enough to show up at your local library or used-book shop.

Like the movie, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he tracks down murderous robots, but the book is far more meditative and multidimensional. "Androids" is a classic in its own right, and as detailed in this Wired magazine article, the author has turned out to be one of the biggest hits in Hollywood — 20 years after his death.

Feel free to let me know what you think about Philip K. Dick's legacy, and offer up your own nominations for the CLUB Club. If your nomination is put on next month's reading list, I'll send you a slightly used copy of Nick Sagan's virtual-reality novel, "Idlewild."

Aug. 26, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
The Guardian: Dreamers of the impossible
New Scientist: Biggest bets in the universe unveiled
Wired.com: Where do the extra embryos go?
Archaeology: Tracking down the wreck of the Kad'yak

Aug. 25, 2004 | 10:15 p.m. ET
The Grid grows together: The world's biggest online science project, SETI @ home, is going way beyond the search for alien signals: It's morphing into the operating system for a wide spectrum of applications, from climate prediction to molecular analysis to the search for black holes.

A big step toward what SETI @ home director David Anderson half-jokingly calls the "grand unification" of the Grid takes place Thursday, when ClimatePrediction.net officially gets aboard the software platform developed for the next-generation SETI @ home: the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or BOINC.

Eventually, Anderson hopes SETI @ home's 5 million-plus users will get on the BOINC bandwagon as well. Having a common platform will allow Internet users to decide how many of their spare computer cycles will go toward analyzing SETI @ home's deep-space radio data, and how many will be devoted to ClimatePrediction.net's computer projections of climate data.

"The big idea here is that you don't have to participate in just one or the other," Anderson explained today. "You can participate in both. ... During periods where one project is down for some time, BOINC will keep working on the one that's up."

BOINC also supports a distributed-computing project to model protein structure, known as Predictor @ home, and Anderson said there's more to come in the months ahead:

  • Einstein @ home, which will sift through data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, for the faint signature of gravitational waves from pulsars. Such evidence could help fill observational gaps in Einstein's general theory of relativity.
  • LHC @ home, aimed at helping the European CERN consortium optimize the design for what will eventually be the world's largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider.
  • Astropulse BOINC, which would piggyback on SETI @ home to look for radio patterns that may point to black holes, pulsars or even a previously overlooked type of alien broadcast.

Anderson said Folding @ home, the long-running Stanford-based effort to study protein folding, would also be offering compatibility with BOINC. The Predictor and Folding projects represent two different distributed-computing approaches to protein analysis, both aimed at uncovering new insights into diseases as well as new pharmaceuticals to fight those diseases.

Folding @ home has its own constituency, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and some of those users aren't crazy about the idea of using BOINC. They say the platform isn't as good as the one currently in use. In a posting last month to the Folding @ home discussion forum, project director Vijay Pande tried to answer those concerns: "If having a BOINC client will help, we'll add one (just as we added a Google client). If not, we won't."

BOINC's biggest attraction may well be the huge user base that the earlier-generation SETI @ home program has built up over the past five years. In fact, SETI @ home currently has a surplus of computer cycles, Anderson said.

"For some time now, SETI @ home has had too much computing power for the fixed amount of data that it has," he explained. "User demand has forced us to increase our redundancy to the point where we analyze each piece of data eight or 10 times, which is not what we want to do."

Because BOINC has the ability to juggle several distributed-computing projects running on a particular computer, other BOINC-compatible projects could find it easier to benefit from SETI @ home's unmatched user base.

However, this vision of nerd nirvana assumes that those millions of SETI @ home users make the switch from the "Classic" alien-hunting software to the BOINC version. So it's up to Anderson and his team to make sure BOINC doesn't crash with a thud.

The Planetary Society provides more background on BOINC and its associated projects, and Kirk Pearson provides a pretty good Web portal page on distributed computing. 

Aug. 25, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Watch the rocket, read the book: Da Vinci Project leader Brian Feeney and Toronto Star reporter Scott Simmie have struck a deal for a book about the Ansari X Prize space race, Publishers Marketplace reports in its daily e-mail roundup. The book, titled "Zero Gravity," would tell the "David-and-Goliath story of Brian Feeney and his band of volunteers who have organized and built — in the back of a scuba store in Toronto — a space rocket that is now one of the two front-running rockets in pursuit of the international X Prize for privately funded spaceflight," according to the PublishersLunch mailing. The deal reportedly involves the Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart.

Feeney and Simmie aren't the only ones in the X Prize literary marketplace: The SpaceShipOne team has retained its own author to chronicle the story of the other front-running rocket and its developers, and a Discovery Channel documentary is in the works as well. The X Prize Foundation's Peter Diamandis also has said he's been working on a book.

Meanwhile, in other X Prize news, the HARC Liberator team reports that it has conducted its first flight tests.

Aug. 25, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Lop-sided features linked to temper
NIST: Scientists track atoms flying in formation
Scientific American: Miracle on Probability Street
Discovery.com: What robots need to walk like a cockroach

Aug. 24, 2004 | 3:45 p.m. ET
More melodies for Mars: Explorers usually bring their own inspirational tunes with them — whether it's the CDs and DVDs sent up to the international space station, or the melodies sung from memory during Lewis and Clark's expedition to the American West.

"Our party received a dram [of whiskey] and Sung Songs untill 11 oClock at night in the greatest harmoney," William Clark noted in his journal during the return trip in September 1806.

So what songs will explorers bring to Mars, humanity's next great frontier? To encourage greater harmonies for space exploration, the nonprofit Mars Society created the Rouget de Lisle Award — a competition that takes its name from the soldier who composed "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem.

The first award-winning songs were selected in 2000, and one of the top tunes, "Pioneers of Mars," was broadcast to Mars this February as a Mars rover theme song. The winners of the second Rouget de Lisle contest were announced last weekend during the Mars Society's annual conference in Chicago.

"I believe that any movement that has ever gone anywhere has always had its music, and now we have ours," said Robert Zubrin, the society's president.

First place and a gold medal went to "Thank God Dreams Survive," performed by Bill, Tina and Casey Swindell. Tina Swindell is a management analyst in the Flight Projects Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. And if you search hard enough on the Web, you'll also find references to the musical side of her life — with groups such as the Nite Owls and the Valley Cats.

Marshall is known as the historic home base for Wernher von Braun and his rocket team.

"The lyrics of the song were inspired by several thoughts, including: a letter written by Dr. Von Braun to a team member here at MSFC that I found while compiling an award history on one of my managers; the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America; a song about Halley's Comet performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter; and some science projects on display by local high school students," Tina Swindell told me in an e-mail.

"The song has been used for a NASA video, as well as three other songs written by my husband and myself.  I have performed them many times for various NASA-related events."

The Swindells gave me permission to post this excerpt from the song. (Copyright 1992, Bill and Tina Swindell).

Other winners include:

  • "We're Moving on to Mars," by Robert McNally. Second place and gold medal. ("It's kind of a folk-music thing," Zubrin said.)
  • "Lullaby for Mars," by S. Miria Jo. Third place and silver medal.
  • "When Mice Become Men," by Janetta Deavers. Fourth place and silver medal. (Zubrin explained that the "mice and men" title refers to the artificial-gravity experiment that received an initial push from the Mars Society.)
  • "Make This World Come Alive," written by Leslie Fish, sung by BeBe Serrato. Fifth place and bronze medal.
  • "First Footprint," by Robert McNally. Sixth place and bronze medal.

The Rouget de Lisle songs will be made available via the Mars Society Web site and sent along to Prometheus Music for possible inclusion on a future CD.

The Mars Society conference also provided updates on the Mars rover missions from principal investigator Steve Squyres, on NASA's new space vision from Craig Steidle, the agency's associate administrator for exploration systems, and on the Mars Society's campaign to promote future human missions to the Red Planet.

"We think that the situation is going to continue to be politically fluid, regardless of whether Bush or Kerry is in office," Zubrin said.

Attendees got a sneak peek at James Cameron's next 3-D Imax documentary, "Aliens of the Deep," scheduled for release in January. "It's like '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' for real," Zubrin said. And they also heard that Zubrin's own science-fiction tale about a Mars mission, "First Landing," may be made into a movie as well. For further details, you can check out the Mars Society post-conference press release posted at Clark Lindsey's HobbySpace.

Aug. 24, 2004 | 3:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Missoula Independent: In NASA's Mars game, nobody dies
European Space Agency: Space houses on Earth
National Geographic: Textile fabrics tell ancient tales
Rants from the Amazing Randi

Aug. 23, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Space leftovers for sale: Rocket science is a dirty, messy business, as amply illustrated by this month's space-race mishaps involving Space Transport Corp. and Armadillo Aerospace . But in this age of Internet commerce, even when the rocket goes to pieces, the scraps don't necessarily go to waste.

For example, wreckage from Space Transport's Rubicon 1 rocket quickly went on the online auction market. The crumpled crew capsule and the blasted bulkhead assembly sold for $500 each. Even the head of the rocket's crash-dummy mannequin was put on the market — and although it didn't attract a bid from the auction site, a $200 offer came in over the weekend, said Phillip Storm, Space Transport's president.

Storm said the prospective buyer provided a link to a Web site that uses Space Transport imagery to tell the tongue-in-cheek tale of astronaut "Stevie Austin."

"We can rebuild her," the Web page promises, in an echo of the classic "Six Million Dollar Man" TV intro. The video is certainly worth a laugh.

"A little strange, a little odd, but interesting," Storm wrote in an e-mail.

Image: Dummy head
Alan Boyle  /  MSNBC.com
The head of a dummy that was placed within the Rubicon's crew compartment to represent the pilot washed up on the beach after the Aug. 8 launch failure.
Storm also said Space Transport is planning the Rubicon 2 launch in the Sept. 12-19 time frame, with a major investment from the Spacefleet Association defraying the estimated $22,000 rocket construction cost. If all goes well — a big "if" — Space Transport could still make the transition to piloted launches by the end of the year, Storm said.

He acknowledged that Burt Rutan and the rest of the SpaceShipOne team still had the inside track for the $10 million Ansari X Prize. "Even if Burt wins in September and October, we want to still do our original plan," Storm said.

Meanwhile, Armadillo Aerospace is converting the wreckage of the "big vehicle" that dropped from the Texas skies into "Armadillo Droppings" — bagfuls of rocket detritus that are sold for $125 each via the company's Web site. If you're curious what's inside the typical bag of droppings, a member of the CollectSpace online community has provided a picture.

"It's a nice idea," said CollectSpace's editor, Robert Pearlman. He's hoping that the SpaceShipOne folks might start selling their rocket junk as well — but so far, "no such luck."

Just today, CollectSpace launched a higher class of space-paraphernalia auction, to benefit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. The silent auction, which runs through Sept. 4, offers space-site tours conducted by veteran astronauts, as well as patches, pens, photos, posters and a used space shuttle bolt.

As you might expect, items that have been flown in space go for top dollar. And the highest-priced item as of Monday (at $1,250) was a humble scrap of netting from Apollo 16, smudged with moondust. It's the dust that makes the item so expensive, of course.

The second space race is creating further marketing opportunities: Space Race News, for example, notes the online auction of X Prize items and memberships, while the New Mexico Museum of Space History is working with the X Prize Foundation on a "send your name into space" program .

Aug. 23, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Asteroid shaves past Earth's atmosphere
Nature: Sedna 'has invisible moon'
Discovery.com: Olympic symbols have sinister origins
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The political brain

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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