Jan. 21, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
How would you save Hubble? Today's report that the White House is planning to pull the plug on efforts to fix the Hubble Space Telescope sparked a sharp outcry from the scientific community — and from Cosmic Log readers as well. The verdict from our admittedly unscientific Live Vote is overwhelmingly in favor of going ahead with a shuttle servicing mission.

Can this observatory be saved? "Hubble-huggers" are still hopeful that funding for a robotic or shuttle-led rescue can be revived in a behind-the-scenes budget dance involving the White House's budgeteers, NASA officials and congressional leaders.

But should Hubble be saved? In discussions with NBC News, administration officials point to studies speculating that a robotic mission would have only a 20 percent chance of success, and that the repair cost would be around $2 billion .

Here are some figures for cost comparison: NASA says Hubble's original cost was $1.5 billion, and annual operation costs amount to $250 million. The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched last year and is returning spectacular pictures , cost just $670 million, thanks to expense-trimming tricks. Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is budgeted at $825 million.

By most accounts, then, fixing the 15-year-old Hubble would cost substantially more than launching a brand-new telescope — perhaps twice as much.

Admittedly, that future telescope would not be as versatile as Hubble, and it wouldn't be designed for servicing in orbit. There would also be a gap of several years between deorbiting Hubble (in 2007-08) and getting its successor up and running (in 2011 or so).

Looking beyond the cold, hard facts, there's another factor complicating the calculations over the space telescope's fate: The American public has had a decade-long love affair with Hubble, because of its awe-inspiring cosmic visions as well as its tale of overcoming technological adversity . Killing Hubble is like killing Bambi.

If the shuttle were able to bring Hubble back down to Earth for an honorable retirement in the Smithsonian, its demise would be easier to take. But to send it blazing through the atmosphere as a piece of cosmic junk? Now we know how the Russians felt about the Mir space station .

With all this in mind, here are some of your suggestions for Hubble:

Brett King, Hong Kong: "The new H-Prize: Why not let NASA offer $250 million to the first commercial organization who successfully can fix the Hubble? It would be the cheapest option and would add some real spice to the private space race."

Tom Montoya: "Why not use the system proposed for towing Hubble into Earth's atmosphere to instead pull it into the same orbit as the international space station? Then, by moving it into close proximity, it could be serviced by the space station crew with little risk. Since the shuttle is already going to the space station, the needed parts could be delivered there."

Chavik: "Hack the thing. Build quadruple redundancy into those gyroscopes. Glue them to the outside or whatever. It was built with four, right? Take 10 or 20 and glue them on the outside and program the things to not turn on until another fails. ... Drive it till the wheels fall off. Let colleges have the access codes and let them use it till it just won't work no more."

Bruce: "The federal government should give the Hubble to the first stock market firm that can have an initial public offering raising enough money to refurbish and use the Hubble. Of course it will never make any money, but neither has NASA, or the combined U.S. airline industry, or the post office, or any U.S. railroad since 1949."

Air Force Staff Sgt. David Douthwright: "Why doesn't NASA launch a grassroots fund-raising attempt toward saving the project? It would be great to see how much money amateur astronomers could raise, and let the people own it."

Robert Markowitz, San Diego: "OK, so money is the root of everything.  Turn the cameras toward Earth, take photos and sell them commercially for road engineering, weather, news, bird's-eye views, advertising, etc.  There's gotta be some creative ways to fix this magnificent instrument."

John Sullivan: "Sell its naming rights and rename the thing. Instead of the Hubble Telescope maybe you name it 'The Bill Gates Universe Scope' or 'The Amazon.com Scope.' They should do this with all of their spacecraft/missions. The agency can raise a lot of private money like this…."

Mardi Coleman, Dallas: "I suggest selling shares of Hubble to the public to raise money for its continued maintenance.  Then, rent 'time' to all interested parties to continue funding its upkeep, with three conditions: The results are made public, it's never used for military purposes, and NASA pledges to gives adequate priority to service missions...."

Paul Breen, San Diego: "Let's 'adjourn' the war in Iraq for two weeks.  The money saved would be enough to service the telescope."

Marc: "Hey, we did it for the tsunami victims ... let's get the Russkies to do the rescue mission.  If NASA abandons Hubble, then it's scrap, right?"

Neil: "Give the Hubble to China. We buy everything else from them. Might as well buy the images they get, too."

Rick Noyes: "Offer a lottery with the winner riding on the shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope, and all of the proceeds would then be used to finance the repair/maintenance."

Joe: "Push it into a higher orbit and delay its destruction until it can be serviced."

Eduardo: "Maybe they could consider building some kind of giant ball that could wrap the Hubble in space, so when it enters Earth's atmosphere, this huge ball can protect it from the heat. Maybe they can use the same tiles that are used in the space shuttle. This ball can have on the inside some kind of liquid foam, so that when the Hubble is inside the ball, it solidifies and protects the Hubble on impact. They can arrange for the ball to crash into the ocean...."

Jan. 21, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
The next space millionaire ... will still be Sensors Unlimited founder Greg Olsen, according to a report appearing this week on SpaceDaily. Almost a year ago , Olsen began training for a multimillion-dollar journey to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, but he was bumped from the mission after only a couple of months due to health concerns. (Word was that he couldn't handle the G-forces associated with spaceflight.)

Video: The new space race Now Space Adventures' Eric Anderson tells SpaceDaily that Olsen is at the top of the list for a Soyuz passenger seat as early as this October. And after Olsen, "there are a couple of others whom we hope to confirm in the months ahead," Anderson says.

All this fits with what Anderson told me last month . It's not clear what's changed in Olsen's health situation since last summer, and neither Olsen nor Anderson responded to efforts to contact them this week. But Olsen clearly has made efforts to correct whatever led the Russian doctors to hold him back.

Last month, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russia's space chief as saying that negotiations with two future space passengers were moving ahead. So for all the talk about suborbital space travel, the international space station is likely to serve as the only destination for space tourism for the next couple of years.

That could well change in the 2007-2010 time frame: SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already announced that he's aiming to win a $50 million orbital space prize by 2010, and there are rumors that other high-profile teams are being recruited for the competition.

The prize, funded by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, is intended to provide a privately developed means of traveling back and forth to the private-sector space station that Bigelow is developing. The first prototype for that station was to be launched on Musk's Falcon 5 rocket in November.  However, Space Race News passes along word that the launch has been delayed until mid-2006.

Jan. 21, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Get Cosmic Log alerts: Once upon a time, there was a back-door way to get Cosmic Log delivered to your e-mailbox, by signing up for Cosmic Log on MSN Groups. The log items were sent out to subscribers as a by-product of the archiving process.

For the past year or so, we've been using a different archiving method, and the MSN group has been inactive — but I'm going to revive the group for a little experiment: When I'm finished updating the log each day, I'll send a message out to subscribers letting you know that there's something new to look at. You'll still have to click on a link to read the full log, but at least you'll have a reminder to check the Web site (and get the latest news from MSNBC.com while you're at it).

So if you want to have that kind of notification service, join the Cosmic Log group and see what happens. We might be trying some other experiments aimed at making Cosmic Log more user-friendly in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned and let me know what you think.

Jan. 21, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Prospect Magazine: Escape from the universe
'Nova' on PBS: 'ScienceNOW' makes its debut
Nature: 'Schrödinger's Mousetrap,' Part 1
The Economist: Evolutionary games people play

Jan. 20, 2005 | 4:15 p.m. ET
Columbia’s legacy grows: It's one small step in the study of plant growth, but another giant leap for science from the shuttle Columbia, almost two years after the craft and its crew were lost in the skies over Texas.

One of the hundreds of experiments aboard Columbia was aimed at finding out how moss plants grow in the near-weightlessness of space. On Earth, moss plants have a mechanism that senses the pull of gravity and shoots out the other way. Moss also tends to grow toward light, meaning that it's "phototropic" as well as "gravitropic."

But what happens if there's no gravity or light? To find out, a team led by Ohio State University's Fred Sack sent up moss cultures in petri dishes, sealed off from any light source. You might expect the moss to grow in a chaotic tangle when it's stuck in zero gravity with zero light. However, the initial experiments in space, conducted in 1999 with three moss plants, indicated that the plants spread out in clockwise spiral patterns.

Sack's team sent scores of moss cultures on the Columbia flight, in hopes of confirming the spiral pattern. But on Feb. 1, 2003, the human tragedy overwhelmed the scientific questions. It was only months later that Sack's experimental package was recovered — in surprisingly good shape.

"Remarkably, we were able to recover 86 of the 87 moss cultures," Sack told me this week.

He said most of those samples were unusable because they were "smooshed ... that's the scientific term." Eleven cultures were intact, however, and eight of them showed the signature spiral patterns.

Thanks to the Columbia experiment, a research paper on the subject is currently in press, with  publication in the journal Planta due sometime in the next few weeks, Sack said.

So what's behind the spiral patterns? Sack speculates that the moss plants may have reverted to a set of genetic instructions that predated the development of its phototropic and gravitropic mechanisms. After all, if you're a plant looking to put a dense cover down over the widest possible surface area, sending out a pinwheel of shoots would be one quick way to do it.

For Sack, the mere fact that his experiment and others survived Columbia's breakup was as much a surprise as the spiral growth. "It was pretty remarkable," he recalled. As the second anniversary of Columbia's fall approaches, the research stands as just one more monument to the fallen.

Jan. 19, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
A capital mystery: Soon, throngs of enthusiasts will be swarming through Washington, D.C., excitedly breathing in the capital's public and not-so-public lore. They’ll be hoping to catch a glimpse of the secrets underlying all the pomp and circumstance, and maybe feel the thrill of danger and romance as well. …

What’s that? You thought I was talking about Republicans at the inauguration? No, I’m referring to the fans of Dan Brown's best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code,” who are breathlessly awaiting the publication of “The Solomon Key,” a secret-society sequel set in the nation’s capital.

Until “The Solomon Key” is published, the next-best thing may well be a slim volume called “Da Vinci in America,” in which first-time author Greg Taylor anticipates the puzzles and the personages behind the forthcoming book. Taylor lives half a world away from Washington, in the Australian city of Brisbane, but he's still well-suited to guide us through the grand myths that are likely to surround Brown's fictional symbolologist/sleuth, Robert Langdon, as he takes on yet another shadowy conspiracy.

Taylor is the proprietor of The Daily Grail, an online portal that wraps up news and commentary on far-out subjects ranging from the Great Pyramid to the Shroud of Turin. That kind of exposure gives him a solid grounding in the Founding Fathers' Masonic conspiracy, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and all the other bogeymen that Brown could draw upon in writing "The Solomon Key."

Of course, that doesn't mean "The Solomon Key" will actually posit the existence of such groups, even for its fictional plot. In fact, it's Brown's modus operandi to have clever conspirators fake an even bigger conspiracy to cover their tracks.

In an e-mail interview, Taylor said he doesn't believe much of what he hears about history's grand conspiracies either.

"I think I've actually become more circumspect (read: jaded) over the years, as I have to deal with sifting through a lot of information ranging from convincing to just plain kooky," he wrote. "I generally try to be skeptical of everything, although conversely I am a supporter of keeping an open mind to all possibilities (as you'd know from reading TDG) and considering the evidence as impartially as possible.

"In the case of this book, I had a bit more free rein for discussion without the usual cynicism, as it is about the possible subjects of a fiction book ... so it's hard to rule much out at all!"

Taylor's 180-page book devotes several chapters to the Rosicrucian-Essene-Templar-Masonic mythos as well as the links between Freemasonry and America's founders (including Washington and Franklin). He adds snippets of background on other potential players in "The Solomon Key," ranging from the Jesuits to the Ku Klux Klan.

Puzzles hidden in architecture and art have figured prominently in the past adventures of Robert Langdon ("Angels and Demons" as well as "The Da Vinci Code"), so Taylor lists some of the potential clues — such as the dollar bill and Edward Savage's portrait of Washington and his family at the National Museum. If Taylor's guesses are correct, you can expect a wave of tourists to scope out the Washington Monument, the House of the Temple, Meridian Hill Park and other sites with potentially cryptic meanings.

One key destination, Jim Sanborn's "Kryptos" sculpture at CIA Headquarters, is off limits to the general public, but you can get a flavor of that spy-vs.-spy intrigue at the International Spy Museum and its Zola restaurant, where more of Sanborn's work is on display.

Has Taylor cracked the code for Brown's upcoming novel? On one level, who cares? His survey of conspiracy theories and capital sites make for good reading even if Langdon doesn't pick up the clues. And it will be interesting to compare Taylor's take with Brown's when "The Solomon Key" comes out toward the end of this year. The mystery has already begun.

Jan. 19, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Technology Review: Do you want to live forever?
The Guardian: Relativity and all that
Slate: Robot stockbrokers are taking over
The Onion: How about those evolution stickers?

Jan. 18, 2005 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Flash from Columbia's past: It's been two years since the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew, but researchers are still adding to its scientific legacy. A report in today's issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters highlights an unprecedented type of upper-atmospheric flash observed from Columbia.

The flash — dubbed a Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red, or TIGER for short — was recorded on video downlinked to Earth during Columbia's final flight, as part of an experiment conducted by Columbia crew member Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut. Less than two weeks after the observation, Columbia disintegrated as it descended through the atmosphere for landing, killing all aboard.

Months later, an international team of researchers led by Yoav Yair of the Open University in Israel analyzed the video and determined that there was something special about the flash of Jan. 20, 2003.

Ramon's experiment was aimed at documenting lightning-type emissions in the ionosphere, including phenomena fancifully called sprites and elves. Out of 18 emissions detected by the equipment aboard Columbia, 17 could be easily classified as a known type. But unlike the others, the TIGER emission didn't appear to be linked to a nearby thunderstorm and didn't have the low-frequency signature usually associated with strong lightning discarges.

The researchers say the TIGER might have been caused by a falling meteor — except that in this scenario, there should have been a continuous trail of emissions rather than one brief flash. Other possibilities, such as reflections from a flash in a different location, were discounted as well.

So what was it? That's still a mystery, perhaps to be solved by future Earth-watching spacecraft. "The major point of this research, in my mind, is to show that there are some upper-atmosphere processes that we do not enough about. The best way we can monitor or research this properly is from space," Yair said in a news release about the study.

Columbia's last flight was a rare all-science shuttle mission, and although many of the experiments were lost in the tragedy, the downlinked data still contributed to global research, as detailed in this Space.com roundup. One experiment, involving live worms, even survived the crash.

Some other experiments, put together by students at elementary and secondary schools, were reflown aboard a Russian Progress cargo ship during last month's resupply mission to the international space station.

Jan. 18, 2005 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Off to the space races!
Even before the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for private spaceflight was finished in October, the X Prize Foundation began a push for an annual rocket festival in New Mexico, known as the X Prize Cup . Now the Las Cruces Sun-News reports that the warmup exposition is being planned for September. A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Office for Space Commercialization told me that details, including the precise dates for the X Prize expo, should be hammered out by the end of next week.

There's more than one space race to run: Wired.com reports SpaceX conducted a test of its Merlin rocket engine that went well enough for the rocket company's founder, Elon Musk, to talk about winning the $50 million America's Space Prize for orbital flight. And the Los Angeles Daily News focuses on NASA's plans to put its proposed crew exploration vehicle out for competition. Let's hope the race brings in more than just the usual suspects.

Jan. 18, 2005 | 7:25 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Scientific American: Exploding the self-esteem myth
HobbySpace: Take a virtual space trip on Orbiter 2005
Discovery.com: Ancient Egyptians sold fake cats
New Scientist: An astronomer under African skies

Jan. 17, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
When will we tour Titan?
Now that we've had our first look at Titan's tangerine surface, etched by what appear to be rivers of hydrocarbon-rich sludge ... who's ready for a trip to the Saturnian moon?

Voyages to Titan have been the stuff of science fiction for decades, based on what was known about the haze-shrouded world before the current Cassini-Huygens mission. Arthur C. Clarke's "Imperial Earth," for instance, traces a colonist's journey from Titan back to Earth for the quincentennial of American independence in 2276. Stephen Baxter's 1997 novel "Titan" focuses on a one-way trip to Titan that's put together after the shuttle Columbia crashes in 2003 — a partial foreshadowing of the Columbia tragedy.

Even Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, sees Titan as a real-life future destination for humans — once the Red Planet is settled, of course.

In his book "Entering Space," Zubrin suggested that Titan could serve as a way station and fuel stop on the way out to the stars. He expanded upon that vision in an interview today, now that the Huygens probe has filled in our picture of the mysterious, chilly moon.

"Obviously, Titan is an object of immense scientific interest, in terms of being a place frozen in time, resembling the early Earth," he said. "Titan could have been warmer in the past and then cooled down, and the chemistry froze. It's possible that on Titan you could study the evolution of prebiotic chemistry. ... So we definitely want to keep sending probes to Titan."

Is it time to start up a Titan Society for human exploration? Not yet, but the place could turn into a hot spot for colonists in a century or two.

To get things started, the first explorers would have to bring nuclear power plants with them, Zubrin said. Couldn't those colonists use the ethane and methane on the moon itself for fuel? "You could, but you'd need the oxygen," Zubrin answered. "That, you'd have to make from maybe the water ice on Titan, but the original source of energy to make that possible would have to come from somewhere."

Slideshow: Titan images The fact that Titan is so rich in hydrocarbons and devoid of oxygen would make living there a topsy-turvy experience. Flying aircraft there would be no problem, because the atmosphere is 50 percent denser than Earth's. Instead of having airplanes that carried fuel and sucked in oxygen from the air for combustion, "you could have a flight vehicle that carried oxygen and sucked in fuel from the air," Zubrin said.

The hydrocarbons could also be processed "to make plastics and any number of other things," he said.

But even under the best conditions, life on Titan would be no picnic: If you were to follow the Cassini-Huygens itinerary, it would take seven years to get there. Once you arrived, the skies would be perpetually dim and smoggy, and the typical temperature would be 290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-180 degrees Celsius).

So why go there in the first place? Zubrin says the real prize may not be on Titan at all, but in nearby Saturn's atmosphere.

If a safe nuclear fusion power system could be developed, some scientists suggest that helium-3 would be the most abundant long-term fusion fuel for space operations. "The helium-3 reserves on the moon, while impressive relative to humanity's current needs, are not that impressive relative to the needs we could imagine in the future," Zubrin said.

Jupiter has much more helium-3, but transporting the fuel out of the massive planet's gravitational field would be too hard, Zubrin said. Saturn also has gobs of helium-3, and not so many problems.

"If you combine the fact that Saturn's gravitational field is weaker than Jupiter's and it has a high rotation rate, then it actually becomes possible to attain orbit from Saturn," he said. "So one could envision freighters, perhaps robotic, that might go down into Saturn's atmosphere ... and you could bring them out. If you want to have people living around there to oversee the operation, then Titan may be the place."

Zubrin realizes a fusion fuel transport system is a long way down the road, but he says fusion propulsion offers the only theoretical possibility for interstellar travel. "It's possible to talk about, in principle, building rockets that go 10 percent the speed of light, which means you can reach Alpha Centauri in 40 years," Zubrin said.

Titan may never be a great vacation spot, but in Zubrin's view, Saturn's tangerine moon could be an important piece of real estate in the far future.

"What you're talking about here is a form of energy that can give humanity the stars, and the place where it can be obtained in very large amounts is the outer solar system, and in particular Saturn," Zubrin said. "So Saturn is going to be the Persian Gulf of the solar system in the 23rd century."

Image: Mosaic view
NASA / ESA / Univ. of Arizona
This picture of Titan's surface is a composite of 30 images from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe. They were taken from altitudes varying from 8 miles down to 5 miles (13 to 8 kilometers) when the probe was descending towards its landing site.

For more perspectives on Titan, you can check out the official Huygens pictures from the European Space Agency — but if you really want some cool views, click on over to this roundup of open-source imagery, and particularly this 98-frame, 1.6-megabyte animated image that qualifies as the first movie from Titan. And don't miss the first sounds heard from Titan, recorded by a microphone aboard Huygens.

Jan. 17, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
New Scientist: Chip sniffs out building blocks of life
Scotsman.com: Confessions of a synaesthete
Wired.com: Open-source biology evolves
BBC: Richard Branson unveils space trips

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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