Image: SPIRIT
NASA / Boeing
An artist's conception shows the SPIRIT setup, which consists of two light-collecting telescopes mounted on rails, on each side of a central beam-combining instrument.

Dec. 10, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Space telescope on rails: First, imagine putting a huge telescope in space. Then, imagine splitting that telescope's mirror into identical puzzle pieces, each sitting in a slot. Now, imagine that only two of those puzzle pieces actually exist, and you just move them from one slot to another.

Gather the light from each position, then put that light together. Voila! You've created the observing power of the entire hypothetical Puzzle Space Telescope from just two pieces.

That's the clever idea behind space interferometers in general — and specifically behind the Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope, or SPIRIT. The idea is one of nine mission concepts under consideration for NASA's Origins program, which is aimed at studying our cosmic beginnings.

"You just break a mirror into chunks and move all the chunks around," SPIRIT's principal investigator, David Leisawitz of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in an interview this week.

In SPIRIT's case, two telescopes would move along the tracks of an orbiting 120-foot (40-meter) space railway, gathering light from all the different slots along the rail. If the rail is spinning around its center point, you could fill all the observing slots around a 120-foot-diameter circle, meaning SPIRIT would have the resolving power of a telescope with a mirror that wide. In comparison, the world's largest optical telescope mirror is just 33 feet (10 meters) wide.

Because SPIRIT would be an infrared telescope, with 100 times the resolving power of the Spitzer Space Telescope , it could peer deep within the dust disks that surround distant stars, looking for the planets hidden within. SPIRIT could also look far back in time, to an age when primeval galaxies were merging into the majestic spirals we see today.

"We're trying to tackle questions that are really very profound," Leisawitz said. How are distant planets taking shape? What elements exist in their atmospheres? Are there parallels between today's infant planetary systems and what we think happened in our own solar system?

Leisawitz posed the big question this way: "How did we living critters wind up on a rocky planet bathed in light from the sun, one of a hundred billion stellar denizens of the magnificently spiral-shaped Milky Way galaxy?"

The scientific challenge is just one part of the equation. The technical challenge of building a space telescope on rails is daunting as well, because in order for an interferometer to do its work, the position of each telescope has to be known to a fine tolerance at all times. "If you get to 1 millimeter or a few millimeters, you'd be quite happy," Leisawitz said.

The Boeing Co., which is familiar with space railways in its role as the international space station's prime contractor, is helping with that part of the puzzle. Boeing's Ed Friedman is looking into whether designers can take the station's space rail system and "scale it down in mass and cost."

Friedman is hoping that the work being done for SPIRIT could be applied to other space telescopes that aren't yet even on the drawing boards. But it will be years before SPIRIT itself comes off those drawing boards.

So far, each of the nine Origins study teams has received "a little over $100,000, supplemented with people's time," Leisawitz said. Next month, the teams will present their studies to NASA's Origins program planners — and any team that is chosen could eventually receive around $600 million to turn its concept into reality.

If all goes well, SPIRIT could be launched around 2015, Leisawitz said. And if SPIRIT doesn't make the cut?

"Even if it should turn out that SPIRIT never flies," Leisawitz said, "there is still an aspect of doing what we're doing ... that will inspire the next generation of explorers."

Dec. 10, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Feedback Friday: Take particular note of this story about how intelligent-design study turned a prominent atheist into a deist (if not a theist). It provides more grist for our third annual "Science and Religion" symposium, which I'll roll out starting Dec. 20. I'm already getting some great feedback, but keep those e-mails coming.

Speaking of e-mail, here's an assortment of the feedback received during the week:

Doug Fingles, Warner Robins, Ga.: "Have you been following the saga of 2004 VD17 on NASA's Near Earth Object Program? This asteroid is currently working its way up the hit parade to No. 1 with a bullet. It started out as most do with a fairly low Palermo Scale number (around -2.5, I believe), and is now at the top of the chart with a -1.35. The chances given are now at 1 in 24,000 that on the 4th of May, 2091, this beauty could make a lot of people's day very interesting. So, at what point do we look to intervene? Is it size/energy of impact? Cost of potential insurance losses vs. cost of developing an intervention program? If it takes some intervention programs decades to work (e.g., dusting with dark/light material and use solar energy to push it away), won't it take a decade or two just to design/build/launch/intercept any intervention method chosen? Then, who pays for it? The potential impact area/country? The U.N.?"

Richard Miller: "Quite some time ago you were kind enough to mention my sci-fi novel 'Dreamer.' Not sure if you read it, but as part of the story line, the characters used a throat device to communicate with the lab techs while in their dream state. The idea for the device was simple: a superconducting quantum interference device (SQID) was used to detect microtremors in the larynx. The signal was then digitized and sent to a chip that would use a 'best guess' (actually, a Markov) algorithm combined with a lookup word frequency table to figure out what was being said. Nifty, eh? Well, now NASA has one. Now, now the government will build that Dreamer lab." (The Slashdot link to the wire story is broken, so here's a link to the NASA news release.)

Rob, UnSpace: " [You said,] 'NORAD admits it hasn't been able to figure out just how Santa gets down the chimney.' Come on, that one's been solved long ago. At Christmas, Santa goes into a quantum mechanically indeterminate state. That way, there is a certain finite probability that he will be in the houses in a given area at the same time. One of the tricks of quantum mechanics is that a particle can sneak through a barrier that it cannot pass through according to classical mechanics. Santa thus goes down a chimney too small for him! This is also why children have to go to sleep. If they see him, he is observed. This collapses the wave equation, localizing him and greatly slowing down his evening activites.

"Of course, to deliver presents, he needs to have a certain level of probability of being in a house. That's why he has to fly around on Christmas Eve. He could be in absolutely every house at once, but because the wave equation probability for being in any one house would be so low, he can't reliably deliver presents to every house.

"What do they teach in schools these days?"

Dec. 10, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: The journey of the sorcerer
Christian Science Monitor: Fusion closer to reality
Science @ NASA: Why do workouts work?
Build your own paper Enigma machine (via GeekPress)

Dec. 9, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Space sausage factory: Bismarck said it, and I've repeated it: "If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made." Despite the warning, I'm still curious about the inner workings of a sausage factory — and about the machinations that led to Wednesday night's surprise passage of private-spaceflight legislation in the U.S. Senate.

The plain-vanilla text of the proceedings gives little hint of the drama leading up to the Senate's unanimous-consent approval of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, or H.R. 5382, which its backers hope will establish a foundation for private-sector space travel.

The bill had been passed by the House less than three weeks before, not without travail, on the last day of an earlier lame-duck session. Then it was the Senate's turn. According to various reports emerging from this week's short session, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was holding back the bill from consideration, along with about 11 other bills sent over by the House, until he could work out a deal with Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas., for consideration of boxing-reform legislation during the next congressional session.

In the meantime, congressional aides on both sides of the aisle were hearing that Senate Democrats had their own, more substantive concerns about the bill — having to do with whether the legislation did enough to protect crew and passenger safety on future suborbital spaceships. At the end of the day, if any senator was adamantly opposed, that would have killed the private-spaceflight bill for this session.

The presumed double-whammy — the McCain hold plus the potential Democratic hold — made the bill look like a long shot indeed. But even as the boxing-bill negotiators worked into the evening, newly chosen Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was persuading his colleagues to let the bill go through, sometimes during one-on-one chats. (A grass-roots lobbying campaign undoubtedly helped.)

Finally, a deal on the boxing bill was struck, the paperwork was prepared, and the package of House bills was released for floor action. The very last paper handed up to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., listed H.R. 5382. Frist, the clerk and the presiding officer read their standard legislative incantation, and the bill cleared the Senate without a discouraging word.

President Bush is certain to sign the measure into law, although the schedule for signing is not yet clear.

That won't be the end, but only the beginning: The Federal Aviation Administration will have 12 months to write draft regulations for manned suborbital spaceflight, and those regulations are to take effect in 18 months.

In the meantime, suborbital space companies will have to line up the investors, the insurance and the know-how to get their ventures off the ground. Those companies told Congress that they needed H.R. 5382 to start that process. Now it's up to them, working with the FAA, to deliver the goods.

Dec. 9, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Unconventional wisdom on the World Wide Web:
U. of Washington: Who really won? We may never know
Discovery.com: Alien eavesdropping judged nearly impossible
Nat'l Geographic: Are crows as intelligent as great apes?
Skeptical Inquirer: Stupid dino tricks

Dec. 8, 2004 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Saturn’s black-and-white moon: The Cassini spacecraft has sent back the most detailed images ever taken of Iapetus, Saturn's bizarre two-tone moon.

In addition to an unprecedented close-up of Iapetus' Saturn-facing side, illuminated by the ringed planet's reflected light, you can see the side that faces away from Saturn in a multiple-filter image snapped during Cassini's flyby in October.

Half of Iapetus is as bright as snow, and half is as dark as a freshly tarred blacktop. Scientists don't know for sure what's behind the black-and-white split, but some suspect it may be due to the deposition of dark debris from space as Iapetus ("I yap at us") pushes its way through its orbit around Saturn.

The latest imagery shows mountaintops as a string of bright dots running roughly along Iapetus' equator.

Image: Iapetus
NASA
This Cassini image of Iapetus shows a string of mountaintops as bright dots running along the moon's midsection.

"These mountains were originally detected in Voyager images, and might compete in height with the tallest mountains on Earth, Io and possibly even Mars," Cassini's imaging team says in today's update on "Waning Iapetus."

The team also has put out a majestic view of Saturn itself and its rings, titled "The Adventure Ahead."

Speaking of upcoming adventures, Cassini is on track to release its piggyback Huygens probe for a descent toward the surface of Titan, the planet's mysterious smog-shrouded moon. Check NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web site as well as the Cassini imaging team's home page for updates.

Dec. 8, 2004 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Holding out an X Prize cup: Now that the X Prize Foundation has handed out its $10 million purse and trophy, it's raising fresh funds for follow-ups, including the X Prize Cup , envisioned as an annual suborbital space competition modeled after the great aviation races of the past and present. In a letter to its e-mail list, the foundation admits that this year's space race left its "fuel tanks dry," and asks for donations to meet a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $100,000. Check out X Prize Space Race News for the letter and further background.

Dec. 8, 2004 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Looking for ‘First Man’: The authorized biography of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, is due to come out next October, according to an update passed along by CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman. "First Man," written by space historian James R. Hanson, will weigh in at 608 pages, according to publisher Simon & Schuster. Actor/director Clint Eastwood has already bought the movie rights. In the meantime, you can work your way through a substantial reading list focusing on the pioneers of spaceflight.

Dec. 8, 2004 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Science and more on the World Wide Web:
Discovery.com: Book claims Lincoln was gay
Nature: Left-handers flourish in violent societies
LiveScience: Scientists teach sparrows to sing backward
Science @ NASA: Get set for Geminid meteor shower

Dec. 7, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Selling the sky: You may already be the winner of a suborbital trip to outer space, even though you can't yet use the actual tickets.

For example, if you happen to have 20 million American Express membership points lying around, you can cash them in for a reservation aboard a future successor to SpaceShipOne . And if you're a software developer who works with Oracle Corp., you just might win a suborbital ride in a newly announced sweepstakes.

Those two opportunities and similar offerings were engineered through the auspices of Virginia-based Space Adventures, the company that helped send millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the international space station. Such deals could hint at the shape of outer-space things to come, says Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' co-founder and chief executive officer.

"The deal with Oracle is big," Anderson said today during a telephone interview from Moscow, where he was in the midst of a business trip. "They looked at this and they decided that it was safe and it's going to happen."

But exactly who will make it happen? Space Adventures? Virgin Galactic, which has struck a multimillion-dollar deal with the SpaceShipOne team to develop a new fleet of suborbital passenger spaceships by 2007? One of the other companies involved in the suborbital space race? The answer, Anderson said, is all of the above.

"We ourselves are not vehicle developers," he said. Rather, Anderson's company is pursuing deals with at least half a dozen potential suborbital operators, including Virgin Galactic. "We're really a wholesaler and a tour operator for what they do," he explained.

Another question: Where would it all happen? That's up in the air right now, particularly because U.S. law makes no provision for suborbital space passenger service. Legislation that was passed last month by the House, H.R. 5382, might have opened the way, but it looks as if the bill is dead in the Senate. Anderson said the bill should be a priority for the next congressional session.

"If there is not a clear regulatory structure in the U.S., it's going to be difficult to get investors to develop a program in the United States," Anderson said.

If it doesn't work out in America, there's always Australia. Anderson has been checking into sites for an Australian suborbital spaceport, and in the past he has said he'd announce Space Adventures' selection by the end of the year. Today he amended that slightly, saying the announcement would come "if not by the end of December, then the end of January."

As for orbital flight, Space Adventures still has dibs on a couple of seats aboard Russia's Soyuz flights to the international space station. Anderson said that the interest in those seats "has increased lately," and that there may be "several clients over the next four years."

Space Adventures' previous candidate for a Soyuz seat, New Jersey millionaire inventor Greg Olsen, had to pass up a chance to fly due to unspecified health reasons. But don't be surprised if Olsen or some other well-heeled spaceflight candidate surfaces in the next few months. After all, Anderson isn't spending December in Moscow just to go sightseeing.

Dec. 7, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
The Herald: Punk professor hunts for elixir of youth
Near-Death Newsletter (via the Daily Grail)
Astronomy Picture of the Day: Strange streak
The Onion: Scientists admit they just don't like mice

Dec. 6, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Monkey embryos cloned: Scientists from South Korea and the United States say they have adapted a technique from human cloning experiments to produce cloned monkey embryos — which could open a new avenue for embryonic stem-cell research.

Just last year, the Americans on the research team had speculated that cloning primates might prove to be virtually impossible, but since then the South Koreans demonstrated the technique in controversial experiments with human embryos. The technique calls for extracting nuclear material from donor eggs at an early stage, with a gentle squeeze rather than a sucking vacuum needle.

When tried with macaque monkeys, this "squish" method yielded 135 cloned embryos that were implanted into 35 surrogate mothers. None of the implantations resulted in a pregnancy, however — indicating once again that it's difficult, if not impossible, to produce cloned primate offspring.

But in another part of the experiment that's more relevant to stem cells, three of the cloned embryos developed to the blastocyst stage, when a hollow ball of about 200 cells has the potential to yield embryonic stem cells. Those are potentially "immortal" cells that scientists believe can be programmed to turn into any of the cells of the body — including those in the brain, skin, blood or muscles.

The researchers said they could isolate stem cells from two of the blastocysts, but none of them lasted for more than a week. Nevertheless, they were heartened that the process got farther than any earlier experiment. (In 1997, Oregon researchers reported that they had cloned monkeys from donor embryos, but those experiments fell short of the goal.)

Scientists hope that stem-cell research may someday result in new cures for maladies ranging from spinal-cord injuries to Parkinson's disease. If scientists can isolate stable stem-cell lines from cloned monkey embryos, as now seems more likely, they could conduct basic research using those lines rather than studying less closely related animals or turning to the more controversial practice of using human embryos.

“This approach does not violate federal or state laws, and allows for preclinical investigations that would not be ethically feasible in humans,” the research team's lead author, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, said today in a Pitt news release. “Our hope is to help advance the preclinical and fundamental knowledge accurately and swiftly so that perhaps clinical trials on stem cell donations might be responsibly considered within this decade.”

The findings were announced today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and are being published in the Dec. 11 issue of the journal Developmental Biology. For further perspectives, check out the reports on Wired.com, New Scientist and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Dec. 6, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Pharaonic postscript: Now that "Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?" has aired, I'm not sure the TV documentary took the right track in its scenario suggesting that the firstborn son of Ramses the Great met his doom at the hands of the Hebrews.

The show speculated that the pharaoh's firstborn was killed in a battle with Moses' forces in the midst of their Exodus from Egypt, on their way across the Sea of Reeds. But in the Bible, it's the firstborn's death that leads Pharaoh to let Moses' people go — then he changes his mind and sends the chariots after them.

It just illustrates how difficult it can be to mesh the biblical and archaeological worlds — and how fascinating it can be as well. For another example of the genre, check out this week's cover story in Newsweek on the birth of Jesus .

Newsweek also reports the results of a poll on Christian beliefs that reinforces past findings on the depth of the creationism vs. evolution debate: Most of the Americans surveyed say that creation science should be taught in addition to evolution in public schools, and 43 percent say it should be taught instead of evolution.

Sometimes it seems as if the split between the scientific establishment and the general public is growing, not shrinking. Does it seem that way to you? With Hanukkah starting Tuesday night and Christmas just a few weeks away, let me know what you think about the cultural divide. I'll publish a sampling of the feedback during our third annual "Science and Religion" symposium.

Here are a few e-mails following up on the Cosmic Log debate over the Discovery Channel's "Rameses" documentary:

Charlene, St. Louis: "When are you going to do a story on the true hair and skin color of the entire Egyptian race? It was not white, so why are they always white in pictures like these, with straight hair? Someone please tell the truth."

Donald Selman, Sterling, Va.: "Ramses II? You have to be kidding. Dudimose, last of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs, was the pharaoh of the Exodus. By the way, 'firstborn' is an error in translation from Hebrew. The word refers to the elite, or highborn of society."

Abigail Quart, New York City: "'Firstborn' (b'khorim) is an erroneous translation. The original word was 'chosen' (b'chorim). Now can we stop this ridiculous argument?"

Anne Rady, Cairo, Egypt: "A few years back, I remember watching a Discovery special about the plagues of Egypt during the Exodus time frame. It was trying to shed light on each plague. They decided that the one about the biting flies was inaccurate, as allegedly, flies don't bite. Well, I live in Egypt and have so for the past 26 years. I can assure you they do bite, and quite hard."

Dec. 6, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: U.S. review rekindles cold fusion debate
Science News: Scientists put randomness to work
Nat'l Geographic: Students log on to deep-ocean trip
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): String theory explains it all (or not)

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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