Sept. 17, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Multiplying by zero-G: A lot of people seem to be having a good time during this week's launch of Zero Gravity Corp.'s parabolic free-fall flight tours. You can watch "Today" show correspondent Tom Costello go through his weightless acrobatics in a video added to my report on Zero Gravity.

Blogger Xeni Jardin reported that her zero-gravity flight from Los Angeles was a flying dream come true. After whooping her way through the parabolas, she enthused about the incredible lightness on BoingBoing, as well as on Wired.com and in an audio report for NPR's "Day to Day" program.

For other fliers, however, the experience wasn't as uplifting. In his description of a Newark flight, Reuters' Chris Reese noted the "expressions of shock and fear" that were on riders' faces as they arose for the first time. Some took to the experience like Superman, while others took their seats (after taking their motion-sickness bags in hand).

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times' Scott Gold reported on the swan song for NASA's honest-to-goodness "Vomit Comet" (registration required to read article). It seems that the space agency is retiring the modified KC-135 transport jet that has long been used for research and training.  A "newer and sleeker DC-9" will take its place.

Based on all the initial glowing reports about Zero Gravity, HobbySpace's Clark Lindsey says the company is "going to need to arrange for more planes." And indeed, the fact that Zero Gravity uses a patented technique to convert cargo planes for weightless service, then convert them back in a matter of hours, should make it easier to add flights if there's enough business.

Zero Gravity says that it has scaled down the parabolic experience to minimize the chance of getting space-sick, and gives all sorts of guidance to its passengers. Nevertheless, Cosmic Log reader Ayanna Bryan provides a cautionary note:

"As someone who has gone on parabolic flight several times for research purposes, let me assure you that most people do indeed get sick. And it's not just nausea. There are other forms of motion sickness that are very unpleasant and sometimes disturbing.

"Some people remain sick for several hours after the two-hour flight. Unless medicated (which has its trade-offs: comfort in-flight for discomfort 6 hours later), the normal human vestibular system is easily affected by sharp changes in gravitational level. Some fliers still get sick after taking the Scopolamine/Dexedrine medication. Some people even 'freak out,' for lack of a better term, once they experience the effects of increased and then decreased gravity.

"I hope fair warning is given to paying customers, and I hope the preflight training is good enough to meet Air Force standards. Otherwise someone could get seriously hurt."

Sept. 17, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Rubicon redux: In the wake of last month's spectacular blow-up , Space Transport Corp. is aiming for the second test launch of a Rubicon rocket from Washington state's Olympic Peninsula during the weekend of Sept. 25-26, co-founder Philip Storm said today. A new location has been selected for the launch site, and the rocket engine has gone through more rigorous testing. "We won't have that engine problem again," Storm said. Like the first attempt, the upcoming launch would use just two engines rather than the full complement of seven, with a target altitude of 4 miles (6.4 kilometers). Eventually, Space Transport wants to send a rocket to the 100-kilometer mark as part of its Ansari X Prize effort, but the timing for that launch is "up in the air," Storm said. For a humorous take on Space Transport's mission, check out the latest installment of the "Stevie Austin Project."

Sept. 17, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Exorcising the weather demons: Even as the storm formerly known as Hurricane Ivan continues to move north, survivors are trying to cope and repair the damage. I also had to do some repairs, in my case to the Cosmic Log item on storm-naming conventions. Originally, I said meteorologists gave names to tropical cyclones when their sustained winds reached 74 mph — but they're actually named at the 39-mph level, when they become tropical storms. The storms receive hurricane status when they hit 74 mph. Thanks to all the readers who quickly set me straight.

With Ivan slowly fading from the scene, weather-watchers are turning their eyes to Jeanne and Karl. The list of names goes on, of course, but Jan from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., thinks we should throw out Charley, Frances and Ivan as well as Alex, Bonnie and the rest, as part of a meteorological exorcism.

"I think this year's set of names should all be retired," Jan wrote. "Get rid of them all this year."

Sept. 17, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: The trouble with voting technology
Popular Science: Why give a dead man a body scan?
Discovery.com: White shark's meal makes history
Fortean Times: In search of the Mongolian Death Worm

Sept. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Strings of Saturn's rings: From afar, Saturn's rings look so substantial you could drive a tank around them — but when you get as close as the Cassini spacecraft has, you can see more clearly what astronomers have known for a long time: Some regions of the rings are only a few yards thick, and virtually translucent.

Image: Saturn's rings
NASA / JPL / SSI
This Cassini image shows thin ringlets and shadows on Saturn.
The latest image from Cassini shows the delicate tracings of Saturn's C ring, which is closest to the planet itself, as well as the shadows of those ringlets on the cloud tops below. A gap known as the Cassini Division cuts through the top of the image.

In today's advisory from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the ringlets are compared to the strings of a musical instrument, "wrapped in a harmonious symphony with the planet." The image was obtained July 30 when Cassini was 4.7 million miles (7.6 million kilometers) away from Saturn.

For further music of the spheres, check out our Cassini slideshow as well as the compositions on the Cassini imaging team's Web site. The next big milestone for the Cassini probe comes on Oct. 26, when the probe has its first truly close encounter with the Saturnian moon Titan .

Sept. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Space legislation faces hurdles: A few weeks ago, some observers may have thought all the kinks were worked out of a bill that would open the way for paying passengers to take suborbital spaceflights at their own risk. But it turns out that the bill, designated HR 3752, is facing another round of revision in a "preconference" procedure.

The talks, which involve staff members from the Senate Commerce Committee as well as the House Science Committee, are aimed at getting the bill's language into a state that can be cleared by the Senate panel, approved by unanimous consent in the full Senate, then voted through by the House.

Among the main issues, according to industry sources: the precise form of the waivers, liability arrangements and indemnification that would follow from the "fly at your own risk" concept. The idea is to have an appropriate level of accountability, while not saddling experimental space ventures with so much liability that no one will invest in it.

Some of the players are getting nervous about the prospect of getting the bill passed before Congress adjourns, but staff members for the House as well as the Senate say they're "cautiously optimistic" that the deal will be done by the October recess.

"We're pretty cognizant of the limited time frame," said Tim Hughes, majority staff counsel for House Science Committee. There may be a second chance for passage of the legislation during a lame-duck session of Congress, but for now, those involved in the talks aren't counting on the extra time.

Meanwhile, United Press International reports that the congressional contest over NASA funding for new space initiatives is in the "eighth inning with the score tied." It's not at all clear whether NASA will get the money it's looking for, but NASA Watch's Keith Cowing notes that  lawmakers may be able to free up some funds through legislative magic, and GovExec.com suggests yet another route through a continuing resolution.

All this reminds me of the quotation often attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made."

Sept. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
‘Go’ for Russia's SpaceShipOne: Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency is reporting that Suborbital Corp.'s Cosmopolis XXI project — a rocketplane-plus-carrier concept that some have compared to Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne — is moving forward and could be ready for flight in early 2005. That confirms what Space Adventures' Eric Anderson told me last month, although Anderson says 2007 is a more realistic date for the start of flight operations. California millionaire Dennis Tito , the world's first space passenger to pay his own way, is thought to be one of the Western investors fueling Suborbital's plans.

Sept. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
NASA: See the shards of the Genesis probe
PhysOrg: Spinach may soon power your laptop
EurekAlert/LANL: Traveling-wave engine for deep space
National Geographic: Pre-Inca ruins emerge from forests
Defense Tech: DARPA, we have a problem

Sept. 15, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
After the post-apocalypse: So you've survived the end of the world ... now what?

That part of a post-apocalyptic tale usually isn't addressed in science fiction. From "Deep Impact" to "Mars Attacks," from "Independence Day" to "28 Days Later," the story usually ends when the survivors of some cosmic threat finally reach a safe haven, look around and realize that civilization has to start from scratch.

The rest of the story is what Nick Sagan explores in "Edenborn," the second book of his Idlewild Trilogy. The trilogy is set in the aftermath of a mysterious viral outbreak that has killed off all humanity, except for a handful of genetically engineered progeny who have been raised in "Matrix"-like virtual-reality pods.

"The main question I'm asking is not who survives," Sagan told me. "There are two questions: One is, who inherits the world? Not so much 'who' individually, but what philosophies, what belief systems survive in the wake of such a cataclysm? And the next question is, how do we rebuild? How do we create, if not a utopia, a society, once we've gone through such devastation?"

As the son of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the 33-year-old writer/futurist just might be genetically predisposed to wrestle with those kinds of deep questions. But "Edenborn" is no Hegelian philosophical tome: The younger Sagan handles his tale entertainingly, which is what you'd expect from someone who has spent years writing scripts for Hollywood productions such as "Star Trek: Voyager" and video games such as "Zork: Nemesis."

"Edenborn" is a mystery told from multiple viewpoints that also manages to touch on the speculative side of cloning and cryonics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and even the Islamist/modernist clash of civilizations.

Image: Edenborn
Putnam Publishing Group
"Edenborn" continues the post-post-apocalyptic saga begun in "Idlewild."
Anyone who has read the first book in the trilogy, "Idlewild," should be hooked right off the bat. And if you haven't read "Idlewild," consider it as this month's selection in the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

At the end of "Idlewild," the post-apocalyptic survivors go in separate directions. During the course of "Edenborn," those little groups find out they need each other — and also learn what it means to be the parents of a post-post-apocalyptic generation.

If anything, the all-too-human generation gaps play a bigger role in "Edenborn" than the gee-whiz technologies.

To hear Nick tell it, there was little evidence of a generation gap in his own family. Nick was the one who, at age 6, recorded the greeting "from the children of Earth" for the Voyager interstellar probe's "golden record," which Carl Sagan helped create. Today, Nick Sagan can still recall the talks he had with his father on the long-term future of the human species.

"I used to debate my father on this all the time, this talk about the dangers coming up ahead," he said. "He was very hopeful. He was a believer in the optimistic side of it, and our ability to work together, which I think is terrific. I always played a bit more of the pessimist between the two. My feelings right now are that we're in for some bumpy weather. I think that the odds are that we're ultimately going to be all right, because we're an incredibly hardy species. We're driven toward survival. I think it will take something very serious to wipe us out.

"I think that the danger of annihilating the human species is probably very low. But the danger of some very big cataclysm in the next few years worries me, at least. And so one of the nice things about being able to write science-fiction books is that there's a wonderful tradition of cautionary tales that you can tap into. I think the job as a science-fiction writer and as a futurist, to whatever extent that I am one, is to look ahead and try to show people glimpses of utopia or dystopia, heaven or hell — looking at potential traps or pitfalls, and also things we might want to drive ourselves toward."

Image: Nick Sagan
Angelica Mitchell
Nick Sagan is working on the third book in the Idlewild Trilogy, titled "Everfree."
Toward that end, Sagan is working on the final book of the trilogy, "Everfree," due for publication next year. And after that? He's already been asked to help with scripting a video game that could also spawn a movie. He also has been invited to be a consultant for an upcoming ad campaign — something he's never done before. And there will surely be more books, perhaps in a completely different genre. But it sounds as if the Idlewild Trilogy, his first foray into book-length fiction, will always be closest to his heart.

"These books were really an experiment to write just for me, and it was a tremendously rewarding experience to discover that there are fans of the books who really tap into them and enjoy them," he said. "My goal is to finish it as originally conceived, as a trilogy — but because I enjoy it so much, I may very well return to it somewhere down the line."

For an extra sampling of Nick Sagan, check out his observations on the future of sport in our "Olympics of Tomorrow" interactive — or click on over to his Web site.

Sept. 15, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
New Scientist: Starry nights clearest in Antarctica
U. of W. Ontario: Beer is as healthy as red wine (via Slashdot)
BBC: Human genome hits halfway mark
Nature: Earth's mantle can generate methane

Sept. 14, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Balloon passes space test: The Canadian rocket team hoping to beat the SpaceShipOne team to the Ansari X Prize finish line got a long-sought boost on Sunday: The da Vinci Project successfully tested the balloon that will serve as the aerial launch pad for its Wild Fire rocket.

"It was a complete success," said Brian Feeney, who is the da Vinci team's leader as well as the designated pilot for the balloon-launched spaceship. "The payload stressed the balloon, and it had a very rapid rise rate from the ground, which is what we wanted."

The balloon test flight, which had been delayed for a week due to weather conditions, represents a significant step in the da Vinci / GoldenPalace.com bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight next month.

During an actual launch, the da Vinci balloon would rise to more than 70,000 feet (21 to 24 kilometers), with the 8,500-pound (3,860-kilogram) Wild Fire rocket tethered beneath it. The rocket would be released at ignition, and Feeney would pilot it to an altitude of at least 62 miles (100 kilometers). A $10 million purse would be awarded for the first qualifying X Prize vehicle to reach that 62-mile mark twice in a two-week time frame by the end of the year.

Last weekend's test, conducted at an undisclosed location south of the U.S.-Canada border, was designed to simulate the weight strains and temperature stresses that the balloon would experience during launch.

The balloon was partially inflated, and carried a scaled-down payload of brine to the 40,000-foot-plus (12-kilometer-plus) level — high enough for air temperatures to fall to 50 below zero Fahrenheit (-45 degrees Celsius), Feeney said. Then the brine was dumped to simulate the release of the rocket. Feeney said the balloon "performed well at the launch and also performed well at an altitude with extremely cold temperatures."

Feeney said his volunteers were working as much as 20 hours a day to get the rocket, balloon and other launch systems ready for liftoff on Oct. 2 from Kindersley, Saskatchewan. Some observers have wondered whether all the pieces — including the required insurance and government clearances — could possibly be in place that soon.

Image: Balloon
Da Vinci Project
Artwork shows the da Vinci Project's balloon high above the Saskatchewan prairie. The red dot shown hanging from a tether represents the Wild Fire rocket.
"I can confirm that we have an insurance policy in place, period," Feeney said today. He also said the required documentation was being filed with the Canadian government "over the course of the next 24 hours."

Will everything be ready for Oct. 2? The timing is tight, because famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne team have scheduled rocket flights on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4 in hopes of taking the prize. Rutan has said there would be three launch opportunities in the two-week timespan, providing an extra chance for victory. He may even fill one of the passenger seats for a prize-winning flight.

With the countdown ticking away, Feeney said his team was "still in the hunt."

"It's a steep hill we're climbing, but we're climbing it rapidly," he said. "I'm not prepared at this time to give up the date, or give Burt Rutan an inch."

Even if all the pieces are ready in time, there's still no guarantee that Wild Fire will blast off on schedule, Feeney acknowledged.

"You can have weather that can trip you up, or a last-minute glitch," he said, "but we continue to plod through everything, and we hope to be ready for that date."

Sept. 14, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Surveying space and time on the Web:
Discovery.com: Mars valleys reflect dry climate
The Guardian: Space probes still feel mysterious tug
Archaeology Magazine: Riding with Alexander the Great
Astrobiology Magazine: Saturn's family portrait

Sept. 13, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
What's in a hurricane name? With Hurricane Ivan brushing past Cuba, the big question is exactly where the storm will make landfall on the mainland United States. As meteorologists ponder the imponderable , Cosmic Log readers have their own, more manageable questions.

"Who gives the hurricanes a name?" John Watson asks. "How is the name determined? I thought hurricane names were alphabetical starting with 'A' and going consecutively through the alphabet, but it seems this year they are skipping two letters between names. Are there smaller hurricanes that we don't hear about that take up the void?  Is there an Internet resource you could recommend?"

Our "Hurricane Briefing" interactive provides most of the answer, but I can fill in some of the gaps: The World Meteorological Organization and its regional committees are in charge of the naming process.

There are actually 11 lists of tropical cyclone names that are cycled through over a period of years, for various regions of severe weather. For example, Alex, Bonnie and Charley churned through the North Atlantic, but Agatha, Blas and Celia ripped through the Eastern North Pacific, and it was Damrey, Longwang and Kirogi in the Western North Pacific.

North Atlantic storms are named alphabetically, of course, A through W (excluding Q and U). If a particular hurricane season were to become so catastrophically bad that meteorologists worked their way through W, then they'd simply resort to the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma ...).

Tropical cyclones receive names when they reach sustained wind speeds of 39 to 74 mph (63 to 119 kilometers per hour). But not all of the named storms become famous — that's why you haven't heard as much about Alex, Bonnie, Danielle, Earl, Gaston and Hermine as you have about Charley, Frances and Ivan.

Most of the names for North Atlantic tropical storms are cycled through every six years, so the lesser siblings are likely to reappear in 2010. But what about Ivan and the other monster storms?

"It is a widespread practice that when a tropical storm attains notoriety, when for example it inflicts a heavy death toll or causes devastation of property, its name is retired — that is, taken off the list and replaced with another name, where appropriate, beginning with the same letter and of the same gender," the World Meteorological Organization says in its PDF fact sheet.

That job falls to the respective regional tropical cyclone committee —which, in the case of North Atlantic hurricanes, would involve Region IV. For example, after Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992, that name was replaced by Alex for 1998. In that year, Tropical Storm Alex wasn't such a big deal, so it carried over to this year — and will probably show up in 2010 as well.

If you want to send in suggestions for future names (ex-girlfriends, etc.), I suppose you could forward them to the National Hurricane Center, which represents the United States on the Region IV committee. But don't hold your breath waiting for Hurricane Evil Boss to show up on the list.

Sept. 13, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
Desert News: White Knight to launch X-37 test flights
Science News: The ultimate crop insurance
Defense Tech: Pentagon's LifeLog revived?
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The science behind déjà vu

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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