Image: Molecule and stadium
ACS
A diagram of a "Superbowl molecule" at left shows how it's similar to the layout for Alltel Stadium, site of the Super Bowl. The molecule is designed to carry other molecules within its structure.

Feb. 4, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Super science on the Web: Super Bowl weekend carries on the grand tradition of huddling around the TV set — as much for the commercials and the camaraderie as for the game itself — but if you're looking for some real gee-whiz stuff, you'll want to huddle around the computer as well.

For example, when Australian chemist Michael Sherburn watches the big game Down Under in Canberra, he'll also have his mind on the "Superbowl molecules" he developed for precision drug delivery. The molecules are something like buckyballs, in that they're big enough to hold other molecules within their large-capacity structure.

"I wanted a name for our compounds which acknowledged this and recognized their larger size and shape," Sherburn said. "'Superbowl' was perfect since it conjures up — for me at least — the image of a sports stadium, which the molecules are similar to in shape."

You can see how the molecule works by going to the American Chemical Society news release and clicking on the link for the animation.

Also during the Super Bowl, Volvo will unveil its "Boldly Go" commercial, in which they'll offer a free suborbital space ride (plus training) on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spacecraft to promote their XC90 sport-utility vehicle. If you miss the ad during the game, you'll still be able to watch the spot and other teasers on BoldlyGo.com. We first linked to the site on Thursday, and since then Geek.com and Advertising Age (registration required) have published further reports on the sweepstakes.

RLV News' Clark Lindsey points out that two other suborbital space sweepstakes are in the works, involving Oracle and 7UP. And then there's Zero Gravity Corp., which let a few NFL players get a taste of weightlessness during a promotional parabolic flight today. To get your own vicarious thrill, watch the video on our story about Zero-G's launch .

For space geeks, a streaming-video event even cooler than the Super Bowl will kick off at 6 p.m. ET Monday: A free online astronomy class will be offered by California State University at Dominguez Hills, with the Planetary Society's Bruce Betts as the instructor. The 13-week course even qualifies for college credit if you're enrolled at CSU.

Monday is also the day the White House reveals its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, and that's when we'll find out what's in store for NASA's science and exploration programs. Stay tuned for our coverage, and watch NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe discuss the spending plan at a 1 p.m. ET news briefing streamed on NASA TV.

Feb. 4, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
What's in store for Hubble? Will NASA fund a robotic or a shuttle-based servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope? Or should the space agency focus solely on the safe disposal of the 15-year-old observatory and the construction of brand-new telescopes to take its place.

Wednesday's item on one of the proposed Hubble replacements, the Hubble Origins Probe, sparked a fair number of e-mails from readers — including this suggestion from Jim Powell of Lakeville, Minn.: "Use a remotely piloted vehicle to capture and lower the Hubble Telescope to an orbit where the shuttle crew has access to the international space station in case of an emergency."

Unfortunately, towing the Hubble to the space station isn't in the cards, because the orbits of the two spacecraft are too dissimilar. The expense and risk would far exceed the levels associated with the other options for Hubble's demise, revival or replacement.

Here are more of your observations on the Hubble Space Telescope and the Hubble Origins Probe, also known as HOP:

Vera: "Of course they should send up a new telescope instead of repair the old one!  I thought this a million times, and wondered why they would consider a servicing mission that would cost almost as much as the original, and less than an improved model. Hopefully logic and common sense will prevail.  I like that they've kept the Hubble name, as that will help get public support."

Vincent Lanzolla: "I am a staunch supporter of Hubble, and losing it would be a tragic, myopic decision. I have to admit though, the romantic in me loves the idea of a Hubble Mk II. Before I could throw my support behind such a project, I would have to see a clear, detailed cost-benefit analysis for each plan. It is hard to believe we could create a newer, better Hubble for less money than it would take to install these upgrades. But I am open to the idea. Tell me more!"

Lloyd Hurlbert: "A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Can we afford to wait another five years for the Hubble Origins Probe, at a mission cost estimated at $700 million to $1 billion? Another thing: What if something goes wrong with the new space telescope, or a rocket failure, God forbid. You won't have anything."

Bruce Neale: "Please — let's get on and fix the current orbiting Hubble using the shuttle.  The HOP has too many unknown variables.  I don't perceive the shuttle mission as that risky (I'm willing to go to prove that). The problem with the shuttle was a relatively low-tech one (fuel tank insulation).  Now we are saddled with a shellshocked and timid NASA — not the NASA of old.  So, as Cher says in her famous line, 'Get over it!' Let's fix the greatest asset we've put in orbit."

John Hobart: "What the government has so far ignored, when citing the $2 billion tag of a robotic servicing mission, is that an orbital servicing robot would have many applications beyond Hubble.  The up-front investment, while substantial, would quickly be made up in savings on subsequent servicing missions for the Hubble, its successors and other satellites.  Such a robot could be launched from a Delta or Titan platform, which is vastly less expensive — and less risky — than a shuttle mission."

Scott Marburger, Washington: "Let the Hubble be the project that takes us back to the moon. Task NASA to develop a powered cradle to send Hubble into a permanent orbit around the dark side of the moon until a permanent scientific research base and jump-off point could be established there. ..."

Les, Santa Barbara, Calif.: "Repair it. Tow it to the moon. Park it in orbit there along with every other piece of space junk we can send there. Use it to study everything and/or anything we can think of till it does fail. By then NASA may realize that we should place a manned station on the moon before we attempt to send people to Mars."

Philip Spivey: "I like the HOP idea. But if it is rejected, we need to save and even upgrade the Hubble. I don't think 99.999 percent safety for human missions was ever a realistic goal. We'd never have reached space at all with that constraint. NASA may need to make some safety protocol and hardware changes to the shuttle, but overall the safety margin has and will continue to be acceptable. Just ask the explorers, the astronauts themselves. As Captain Kirk said, 'Risk is our business.'"

Matt Jaenke, Waterloo, Ill.: "I can see it now: Hubble, in all its glory, standing in front of images of the cosmos.  Sitting safely in a museum generating revenues and inspiring generations.  We gotta get this thing down in one piece.  But how?  The Hubble X Prize: $100 million up for grabs from a museum that NASA would give its approval to put it in.  A nice heat shield to protect its re-entry, perhaps?"

Feb. 4, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Viking Deception'
Popular Science: Life built to order
Fast Company: Hondas in space
Look for 'liberty' and 'freedom' in the State of the Union

Feb. 3, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Bugs spotted on Mars: What's up, Doc? This "Face on Mars," photographed by the thermal imager aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, looks more like Bugs Bunny than Marvin the Martian.

Image: Bugs on Mars
NASA / JPL / ASU
A snapshot taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA's Mars Odyssey probe shows a satellite view of what appears to be a cartoon rabbit. It's actually a confluence of Martian valleys.
The nighttime infrared image kicks off the second annual THEMIS Art Month, lasting from Jan. 31 to March 4. The imagery, selected by a team led by "Doc" Philip Christensen at Arizona State University, highlights artistic flair rather than sheer scientific significance. For example, this picture's bunnylike look is merely due to a meeting of channels in a Martian basin.

For a daily dose of Martian fantasies, click on over to the "Image of the Day" gallery at the Web site for THEMIS (which stands for Thermal Emission Imaging System).

As for the most famous Face on Mars, check out this archived story for THEMIS' perspective on the decades-old enigma. And don't miss our Mars' greatest hits, which includes a view of the "Happy Face on Mars."

Feb. 3, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Echoes from a stellar flashbulb: Three years ago, a variable star known as V838 Monocerotis popped like a cosmic flashbulb in the night sky. Ever since, the Hubble Space Telescope has been tracing the reflected echo of that flash through the shells of dust surrounding the star.

The latest image, taken last October and released today by the Space Telescope Science Institute, shows complex dust patterns as the "light echo" moves farther out from the red supergiant, 20,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros.

Video: Light from a cosmic flashbulb Because the reflected light takes a less direct path to our eyes, the flash is still unfolding months and years after the initial outburst was spotted on Earth. The Hubble astronomers compare the effect to an echo resounding off the mountains, first from nearby peaks, then faraway. It's the visual equivalent of hearing a "HEY!!! ... Hey!! ... hey! ... (hey)."

At each stage, the echo illuminates another layer of interstellar dust — giving astronomers a better understanding of how V838 Monocerotis' neighborhood is structured. But they still don't understand why the star's outer layers weren't blasted away in the 2002 outburst.

"Instead, it grew enormously in size. Its surface temperature dropped to temperatures that were not much hotter than a light bulb," the institute says. "This behavior of ballooning to an immense size, but not losing its outer layers, is very unusual and completely unlike an ordinary nova explosion. ... The outburst may represent a transitory stage in a star's evolution that is rarely seen."

Feb. 3, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Saturn's hot spot: Polar weather is almost always on the cold side, whether you're talking about the poles on Earth or even on Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. But Saturn is an intriguing exception. Newly released thermal imagery from the Keck Observatory shows that our solar system's best-known ringed planet has a well-defined vortex at its south pole that's significantly warmer than the surrounding cloud tops.

Image: Saturn's hot spot
NASA / JPL
A thermal image of Saturn reveals a moderately bright warm zone near the south pole, with a hot spot right at the tip.

Not that the temperatures are all that balmy: At the hottest stratospheric spot, it's 188 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (151 degrees Kelvin).

It's not too surprising that the southern vortex is warming up, considering that that part of the planet has been exposed to the sun for 15 years. Nevertheless, the abrupt boundary of Saturn's hot spot has left scientists scratching their heads and waving their arms.

The likeliest theory, as outlined in this week's issue of the journal Science and today's NASA news release, is that the hot spot is due to a concentration of sunlight-absorbing particulates as well as a  pattern of atmospheric downwelling. As with many of Saturn's mysteries, the Cassini spacecraft could well shed additional light on the subject — and find out whether Saturn's north pole, hidden from earthly view, has a warm or chilly vortex.

Feb. 3, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Mirror reflects your future self
Universe Today: Telescope can see clearly ... from the moon
Brandweek: Super Bowl ad touts space (and BoldlyGo.com)
Wired.com: Games join space race

Feb. 2, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
A new and improved Hubble? Today's congressional hearing on the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope gave scientists an opportunity to promote the idea of sending up a whole new Hubble observatory instead of fixing the old one.

The concept, known as the Hubble Origins Probe, or HOP, would take a couple of the instruments already built for the nearly 15-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, then add yet another imager funded by the Japanese. All those goodies would be put on a brand-new, free-flying spacecraft equipped with a lightweight next-generation mirror, then launched into orbit on a Delta or Atlas rocket.

Mission cost is estimated at $700 million to $1 billion — as little as half the cost of a shuttle servicing mission to Hubble or a robotic rescue. At today's hearing, one of the leaders of the HOP team said the plan provides a cheaper and less risky option for keeping the Hubble legacy alive.

"Though we support any option that will maintain the Hubble mission, the Hubble Origins Probe is the best choice not only for continuing that tradition of discovery, but also for taking it one step further," Johns Hopkins University's Colin Norman told the House Science Committee.

The HOP team says it would take a little more than five years to get the telescope ready for launch. By that time, the original Hubble might well have gone dark, though it likely would still be in orbit.

Image: Hubble Origins Probe
Johns Hopkins University
The Hubble Origins Probe, shown in this artist's conception, would be a new, free-flying telescope equipped with two of the instruments built for the old Hubble, plus at least one more imager.

The two instruments that had been slated for installation on the Hubble are the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3, which would sharpen the telescope's sight in ultraviolet and visible-light wavelengths, respectively. The Japanese-funded instrument would be the Very Wide-Field Imager, a supercharged sky-mapping camera. The way the HOP team sees it, these instruments would complement the infrared cameras on the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA has already cleared to become Hubble's heir in the year 2011.

"HOP can address three of the most central intellectual issues of our age: the nature of dark energy , the nature and distribution of dark matter , and the prevalence of planets , including earths, around other stars," Norman said.

HOP would be built for an operational life of at least five years, without shuttle servicing.

The HOP plan is intriguing on a couple of counts: For one thing, it starts fresh with hardware that's already available, just as the 2007 Mars Phoenix mission rose from the ashes of NASA's failed Polar Lander project. It also draws on the huge reservoir of public support that has been built up for the Hubble "brand" — not an insignificant factor, as I noted last month .

The project is not yet a sure thing, however: HOP is only one of nine proposed projects currently under study as part of NASA's Origins program. The project teams have until April to flesh out their proposals, and not all of them will make the cut. (Another project in the group — the Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope, or SPIRIT — was the subject of a Cosmic Log item in December.)

If NASA decides to try fixing the old Hubble, using the robotic or shuttle repair option, HOP will almost certainly be out of the running for further funds, and the Origins money would go to other projects. Even if NASA makes the jump to HOP, the space agency still will have to work out a plan for the old Hubble's safe disposal sometime in the next decade, most likely through the use of a yet-to-be-developed robotic docking module .

It's not yet clear how the calculations of cost and risk will work out, but NASA is quickly nearing the decision time for the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Hubble Origins Probe. Can you bring fresh perspective to the debate? I still haven't caught up on the hundreds of letters received during our last Hubble discussion, but don't let that stop you from letting me know what you think.

Feb. 2, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
India's mission to the moon: Everybody's getting into the lunar exploration act: Europe already has its SMART-1 probe circling the moon, NASA is gearing up for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter , Japan is struggling with its Lunar-A and Selene probes , and China is talking about its Chang’e moon program. Then there's India's Chandrayaan-1 mission, due for launch in 2007 or 2008.

Today, NASA proposed putting a mineral-resource mapper on the Chandrayaan orbiter. If the Indian Space Resource Organization accepts the idea, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, would be funded by NASA and placed aboard the Indian spacecraft. That cooperative spirit goes both ways. For example, India is interested in NASA's program to send humans back to the moon.

Feb. 2, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
NASA joins the war on aliens: I just couldn't resist using that tagline for a report on how the space agency is helping a federal government effort to resist the spread of invasive alien species — no, not green-eyed monsters, but plants and animals that encroach on the habitats of native species. To find out more about the war, check out the InvasiveSpecies.gov Web site or click through our Alien invaders.

Feb. 2, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Nature: "Play It Again, Psam"
UW-Madison via EurekAlert: Wings show how flies evolve
Am. Psychological Society: Reaction time linked to longevity
The Onion: Nation's top alarmists excited about bird flu

Feb. 1, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
The dinosaur-killing tsunami: The first wave of death came as a storm of hot debris from above. But that was just the beginning: A 450-foot-high (150-meter-high) wave of water rushed over the shore, lapping more than 180 miles (300 kilometers) inland. Then the water withdrew, dragging dirt and dead creatures into deep water over the course of hours and days.

Unlike December's Indian Ocean disaster, no humans were around to witness this nightmare. It all took place 65 million years ago, when a falling asteroid or comet shook the world near the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The geological record hints at a nuclear-scale blast and a catastrophic ocean wave that swept over the land. It was just the opening act in a global mass extinction that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs, ending the Cretaceous period and opening the Tertiary period.

Research published in this month's issue of the journal Geology pieces together the geological record left behind by the dinosaur-killing blast — and seeks to solve some of the puzzles hidden within the layers of rock ringing the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, some scientists have found a layer laden with Cretaceous microfossils above the layer of debris laid down by the cosmic impact. That led them to speculate that those species survived for hundreds of thousands of years after the blast — implying that the extinction event was more gradual, perhaps with other causes such as global warming.

But the researchers behind the report in Geology, led by Tim Lawton of New Mexico State University's Institute of Tectonic Studies, say that mixed-up record is more likely due to the ebb and flow of water in the wake of the impact and the resulting tsunami. The backflow from the tsunami's surge might have deposited older fossils on top of the impact debris, Lawton said.

"Without a doubt, the impact debris is going to underlie fossils that were deposited before the impact but were excavated by this returning water," he told me today. "I think that we're probably looking at one of the biggest recycling events in Earth's history."

In fact, the recycling could have continued for thousands of years on the continental shelf, he suggested.

Data: Learn more about our planet's geologic ages "Not only did stuff get sent out into the deep ocean right away, but I can envision it being 'parked' on the edge of the shelf, so that every big hurricane that came through in the following thousands of years would reactivate this stuff," he said.

Those conclusions were based on a study of the La Popa basin in northeastern Mexico, which is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the Gulf Coast today but was probably much closer to shore 65 million years ago, Lawton said. The rock layers reveal scalloped patterns similar to those of "antidunes," which Lawton and his colleagues believe were shaped by the high-velocity backwash from tsunami waves.

This could mean that a single catastrophic shock created all the complexity we see today in the geologic record. Maybe the doom of the dinosaurs — and most of the other species of the Cretaceous period — was simple and sudden after all. Maybe it just took thousands of years longer for the earth's geological scars to close and heal.

In all of this, Lawton would emphasize the word "maybe."

"We haven’t proved anything one way or the other," he said, "but we've added a little piece of data."

Feb. 1, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Exploring the frontier on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Solar super-sail could reach Mars in a month
Science News: The Matrix Realized
Wired.com: The universe looks good from here
'The Online Staring Experiment'

Feb. 1, 2005 | 5 a.m. ET
Looking to the moon: Even as NASA looks back at the Columbia tragedy, visionaries inside and outside the space agency are looking ahead as well, not only to the shuttle fleet's return to flight , but also to future exploration of the moon.

One of the week's biggest events is the first Space Exploration Conference, winding up today in Orlando, Fla., on the anniversary of the shuttle Columbia's breakup. The conference has drawn hundreds more attendees than expected, and on Monday, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told attendees that the White House is planning to seek more money for space exploration in this month's budget request — a boost that could have the agency's critics "lined up" in opposition.

The next-best thing to being at the conference is to watch the Webcast, available through the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. NASA Watch's Keith Cowing is also keeping tabs on the goings-on.

Meanwhile, Clark Lindsey at HobbySpace passes along an update on Lunar Transportation Systems, a venture recently formed to develop new vehicles to be used to send payloads to the moon as part of the new space vision. LTS isn't the only player in the public-private moon race, of course: The two leading industry players in human spaceflight, The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, have lined up their own teams for lunar exploration, as have the up-and-coming Transformational Space consortium and other companies.

Why go back to the moon? This week's issue of The Space Review addresses that question in two analyses by Stephen Ashworth and Sam Dinkin. For both writers, the moon offers untapped potential for commercial exploitation and tourist appeal.

As fun as it would be to go trampoline jumping at Tranquility Base, I'm not convinced that moon voyages will be a money-making proposition, at least for the next century or so. But if the infrastructure for scientific exploration can be parlayed for appropriate commercial applications — as has been the case for, say deep-sea and Antarctic adventures — perhaps the economic model can make sense.

Is there a lunar hotel stay in your future? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a sampling of the e-mail feedback.

Feb. 1, 2005 | 5 a.m. ET
Musing on life's origins: On his Cosmic Ancestry Web site, Brig Klyce points to recent comments from Craig Venter, one of the scientists behind the decoding of the human genome, in which he states his belief that life on Earth "could have easily evolved from a few microbes arriving on a meteor or on intergalactic dust." That provocative theory happens to be exactly what Klyce's Web site is about.

Feb. 1, 2005 | 5 a.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the World Wide Web:
Science @ NASA: The sands of Mars
EurekAlert: 'Superbowl' molecule could improve health
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Evolution takes back seat in classes
'Nova' on PBS: 'Treasures of the Sunken City'

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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