Image: Saturn
This wide-screen view of Saturn was assembled from 126 images gathered by the Cassini spacecraft last October.

Feb. 25, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
Guide to the greatest hits: As much as I like a good debate on evolution education , or the Hubble Space Telescope's fate , or whether alien abductions are real, the most gratifying letters I get in the Cosmic Log e-mailbox are thank-you notes for cool cosmic images like this week's "greatest" portrait of Saturn, sent back to Earth by the Cassini spacecraft.

In an ideal world, the notes wouldn't go to me, but to the hundreds and thousands of imaging experts and Web wizards who turn the data from far-flung spacecraft into true works of art . If I can make it just a bit easier to bring some of those beauties to light, that's a good day's work.

In that vein, Garry Laugerude sent in this request from Belle Plaine, Minn.: "I would like to get updated pictures from Cassini if possible, so I don't need to go through links to get them, or send me a Web site where I can get them readily."

So here are some of the not-so-secret shortcuts to the latest greatest hits from spacecraft imagery. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory handles most of the imagery from Mars and Saturn, and you can sign up for e-mail alerts from JPL on a wide variety of subjects. For still more about Mars, check out the THEMIS site at Arizona State University, the Global Surveyor imagery at Malin Space Science Systems, and Mars Express pictures from the European Space Agency.

As for Saturn, the Space Science Institute's CICLOPS site provides another way to get Cassini imagery, and ESA is the place for Huygens imagery from Titan.

For Hubble imagery, check in with the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite. A couple of years ago I mentioned the institute's "Inbox Astronomy" service that automatically delivers e-mail alerts on new Hubble pictures. ESA's Hubble site,, provides additional goodies.

Other cool pictures come in regularly from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory. When it comes to the space shuttle and the international space station, the places to go are NASA's aptly named Human Spaceflight Web site and the Kennedy Space Center Multimedia Gallery.

Our Space Gallery provides plenty of fabulous photos from past and present space missions, and we're in the midst of retooling the archive to make it easier to add and update slide shows. Soon we'll be rolling out a new feature that will display more greatest hits on a regular basis, so stay tuned.

For the benefit of the Cassini imaging team, here's a sampling of the thank-you notes received in response to the latest stunners from Saturn:

Sherman S. Drury, Hickory, N.C.: "Amid all the turmoil that has been going on in this century, it has been hard to focus. However, the space program has continued to endeavor. It is for me a great example of what happens when we continue to push, explore and discover. Perhaps NASA's most significant contribution is teaching us that we are only a very small part of an enormous dynamic. I don't think NASA gets enough credit for the involvement of youth. Every step of the way, you have tremendous children that contribute — showing us that no matter what age we are, we should always look to the skies with complete and awesome wonder, because all that we have discovered started as a dream. Whatever your pay is, double it."

Carmen Balvanera, Mexico City: "This is a wonderful view of Saturn and its rings. Undoubtedly, science progress is marvelous. Congratulations, I am very interested in all these new discoveries and pictures. Unbelievable!!! I must tell you I am 70 years old."

Barbara E. Airel, Edison, N.J.: "The picture of Saturn left me in awe and at the same time feeling like a piece of dust in space and time of this magnificent universe. It was an incredible feeling to start my workday with! I actually printed a color copy and taped it to my workstation to remind me of the nature of our existence and purpose. There's just no way this is it!!!"

Robert Gage, Green Bay, Wis.: "As an American, I believe we should stop funding other countries and focus on space exploration. Perhaps, once other parts of Planet Earth see what the United States is doing, they'll stop warring among themselves and follow a bright new future."

In fairness, there are other perspectives as well:

Virgil Latal, St. Louis, Mo.: "Biggest waste of money I ever did see. There are so many things here on earth that need attending to. We do not need info from space. We can't even take care of our own planet, much less worry about another one."

Andrew, Southaven, Miss.: "And we can't cure cancer or AIDS?? This planet is billions of miles away. We build a rocket and a camera that sends back the photos and we get to see stuff like 'Dragon Storm,' and we know it's a storm because we studied them. However, we can't find a cure for cancer ... simply amazing."

Feb. 25, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The New Yorker: A tale of two geniuses
'Nova' on PBS: 'Crash of Flight 111'
The Loom: Return of the prodigal bones
Science @ NASA: Rainbows on Titan

Feb. 24, 2005 | 7:15 p.m. ET
‘Greatest’ portrait of Saturn: On its way to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft snapped what its imaging team called the "ultimate picture of Jupiter." Today, in an image release that's similarly devoid of false modesty, the same team says it's captured the "greatest portrait of Saturn ... yet."

The natural-color view was assembled from 126 images collected during Cassini's rounds last October, from a distance of 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers). The full-size mosaic image measures 8,888 wide by 4,544 pixels high — that is, 40 megapixels by digital camera standards. Scientists say features as small as 24 miles (38 kilometers) across can be seen.

"Many of Saturn's splendid features noted previously in single frames taken by Cassini are visible in this one detailed, all-encompassing view: subtle color variations across the rings, the threadlike F ring, ring shadows cast against the blue northern hemisphere, the planet's shadow making its way across the rings to the left, blue-gray storms in Saturn's southern hemisphere to the right and tiny Mimas and even smaller Janus," Cassini's imaging team says in today's release.

Image: Dragon Storm
The orange swirl in this image is a Saturnian thunderstorm known as the "Dragon Storm."
But that's not all: Cassini is also sending back enhanced color imagery that brings out scientifically significant details about Saturn's storms, rings and moons. For example, there's this view of a long-lived thunderstorm in the Saturnian atmosphere, nicknamed the "Dragon Storm." Scientists are puzzled by the storm's radio bursts and periodic flare-ups, but they believe they'll be able to unravel the secrets of the Dragon by having Cassini watch it over the next few years.

Cassini discovered a new Saturnian moon that was officially named Polydeuces last month — and there's a wealth of new data about the planet's winds, the composition and mechanics of its rings, and even the presence of molecular oxygen above the ring plane. You can check out NASA's news release for a quick recap, or consult this week's issue of the journal Science for the full treatment. And for a virtual walk down memory lane, you can always stroll through our "Greatest Hits" slide shows for the Saturnian system , Cassini and the Saturnian moon Titan .

Feb. 24, 2005 | 7:15 p.m. ET
Business and pleasure for your brain:
University at Buffalo: Virtual reality heightens movie drama
The Guardian: Are we born to believe?
Newswise: 'Porthole' connects odors to brain
Nat'l Geographic: Americans rack up huge 'sleep debt'

Feb. 23, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Space signals for sale: What's the market for long-distance calls to outer space? That's what an outfit called Deep Space Communications Networks, based in Cape Canaveral, Fla., is trying to find out with its "Call an Extraterrestrial" online auction.

Bids are being taken for an opportunity to send digitized images, text — heck, even video — up into the sky, using a 16-foot (5-meter) television-style uplink antenna, said Jim Lewis, the fledgling company's managing director. A cursory Internet background check turns up a connection to Communication Concepts Inc., an audio-visual production company that's well-versed in satellite uplink applications.

Lewis told that the transmission to E.T. would be aimed at a deep-space target yet to be determined, rather than at a TV satellite. "The biggest thing is that we hit clear space," he said.

He said the transmission would run for about 15 minutes. Afterward, the auction winner would receive an e-mail notification "confirming the date, time and frequency and precise coordinates" of the broadcast. Lewis couldn't immediately say just how strong the signal would be, but he observed that "transmitters with probably one-tenth the power of what we're using have bounced signals off the moon and back" during amateur-radio experiments.

Lewis said this week's auction, which is due to close Sunday, is a test case for the Deep Space business model. "If it turns out to be a bigger market than we anticipate, maybe we'll do other things," he said.

As of today, the high bid was $209.50.

Will the cost be worth it to the winner? It sounds like the broadcast equivalent of a pet rock: cute, but of questionable efficacy. Come to think of it, the same could be said about many online auction items.

"This is not the first time this has been done, of course," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the California-based SETI Institute. "It's admirable to compete against all that military radar and the 24/7 television networks."

Shostak said the winner shouldn't expect the aliens to pick up the phone on the other end. "It's not on for very long, so what are the chances that they'd be watching when the signal was transmitted?" he asked.

Shostak has done studies into how far various interstellar signals would carry ( as we've discussed before ), and he figures that commercial TV frequencies just don't carry that far. Even if radio astronomers were to use the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish at the Arecibo Observatory , E.T. would have to be less than a light-year away to make sense out of the signals, Shostak said.

He doesn't see much harm in the exercise, however. Some people might say any signals we send could alert potentially hostile aliens to our presence, but Shostak said, "if you really feel that way, then you should be campaigning to have all transmissions from Earth shut down."

Military radar installations, for example, broadcast much stronger signals than TV antennas do, and they're on all the time. "If you're going to be paranoid, then you should be consistently paranoid," Shostak said.

But if Deep Space turns out to have a money-making idea on its hands, Shostak said he might be willing to consider a new fund-raising strategy. "I do take requests," he joked. "So if the extraterrestrials have something in particular they'd like to see…"

Feb. 23, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
Nature: To know science is to love it
NASA: Spitzer eyes the infrared universe
Boston Globe: Were dinosaurs done in by fungus?
BBC: Test for canine personalities

Feb. 22, 2005 | 2:45 p.m. ET
‘Rocket boys’ still rolling: When word spread that Space Transport Corp. was holding an auction to sell off some of its equipment, it may have sounded like the end of the road for the unsuccessful but endearing X Prize team dubbed the "rocket boys."

Space Transport's twentysomething founders, Phil Storm and Eric Meier, had gotten off only one launch in their dark-horse bid to capture the $10 million private-spaceflight prize. "Launch" may not be precisely the right term: Their Rubicon 1 rocket blew up right after ignition at the woodsy, oceanside launch site on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

Nevertheless, last August's noble failure won the rocket boys respect and the promise of more funding, setting them apart from those X Prize teams that had done little more than create paper concepts and flashy (or not-so-flashy) Web sites. Even after SpaceShipOne won the X Prize , Space Transport continued work on Rubicon 2 and courted bigger backers.

Last weekend's auction may have sounded like a selloff, but in a Sunday e-mail to reporters, Storm set the record straight:

"There appears to be some confusion. Our company is in the middle of selling some equipment (auction went well yesterday) and figuring out how to tackle privatization of space. We're going to use the proceeds to pay our bills and put the remainder in a company savings account until we figure out our future plans.

"I think our new approach will involve a highly different vehicle than the one we used for the X Prize — which was conceived for the purpose of winning the $10 million prize. We've learned quite a few things that we will apply to the design of a better craft as well as its development. We're considering alternative fuels, improvements in safety, varying passenger designs (number and comfort), but in all likelihood, similar recovery methods involving ocean/helicopter/vessel as well as a ground launch. It is not clear if development will occur in the Pacific Northwest or not.

"I'd like to note that this same process was undergone before we embarked on the X Prize design, the Rubicon, and we have no intention of calling it quits. Our small company is highly flexible and determined."

To keep track of Space Transport and the other suborbital ventures that survived the X Prize race, you can always rely on Space Race News and Clark Lindsey's RLV News.

Feb. 22, 2005 | 2:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Popular Science: Techopolis found Ancient Egyptians hoarded crude oil
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Tiny is beautiful
The Loom: The evolution (and de-evolution) of eyes

Feb. 21, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Frozen sea detected on Mars: Red Planet fans are abuzz about reports that the Mars Express orbiter has spotted a huge reservoir of water ice beneath the surface of the Elysium region near the Martian equator.

Research relating to the find was discussed today at a European Space Agency science meeting in the Netherlands and is likely to come up as well at next month's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, New Scientist magazine reports. The BBC says a report could be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers, led by John Murray at Britain's Open University, reportedly based their conclusion on Mars Express imagery showing what appear to be plates of buried pack ice. They theorize that water inundated the area millions of years ago and froze. Then, they suggest, layers of dust and volcanic ash covered the ice with a protective crust.

Water ice is present at the Martian poles, of course, but if it does turn out that large amounts of ice are buried under the Martian surface, the discovery could open new frontiers for scientists trying to figure out where the planet's ancient oceans might have gone, whether Martian life might have developed in ancient times, and whether Martian microbes could still exist underground.

If confirmed, the Elysium find would be of "extraordinary importance," Mars Society President Robert Zubrin said in an e-mail commentary. He noted that the region could serve as a "Rosetta Stone" for astrobiologists, as well as a precious resource for Mars-bound astronauts:

"The availability of pure ice easily accessible from the surface would be of enormous benefit to future Martian explorers and settlers, as combined with the known plentiful carbon dioxide resources of the Martian atmosphere, [it] would allow synthesis of hydrocarbon fuels and oxidizers, the production of food, fiber, fabrics, plastics and innumerable other necessary items. Water is also needed for many other essential industrial processes involving the production of metals and other chemicals.

"This is a vastly more favorable resource prospect than exists on the impoverished moon, where water is only present in parts per million quantities in deeply frozen, permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles, and carbon is absent entirely."

However, there could be other explanations for the platelike appearance of the Elysian fields — for example, they could be broken-up lava flows rather than ice floes. Mars Express is due to begin radar soundings of the Martian subsurface in the near future, but it's not yet clear whether the radar data will tell the tale.

Stay tuned for updates and further debates in the days ahead. My e-mailbox is already brimming with your feedback about an earlier controversy over the potential for life on Mars, relating to traces of atmospheric methane detected by Mars Express. Here are a few of your follow-up comments:

Ken Gunn: "Let's consider Logic 101 as applied to the recent notion that life exists on Mars despite extreme conditions. Life exists on Earth under extreme conditions, very extreme, in the presence of methane. These same extreme conditions exist on Mars, also in the presence of methane. Therefore life must also exist on Mars.

"False logic.

"Cows live in fields in the prairies in the presence of methane. There are fields by the ocean in the presence of methane. Therefore, cows must be living in those fields by the ocean. There may well be cows living in the fields by the ocean, but the logic being applied says nothing about their existence.

"Secondly, we have to consider evolution when we note that life exists under extreme conditions on Earth. Did those creatures actually originate under those conditions or did they evolve the ability to endure them? If it is the latter, then our search of life on other planets should not be in terms of conditions under which life exists on Earth today, but in terms of the conditions under which life originated, and did those conditions ever exist on the planet in question. If life ever formed on a planet, Earth has provided us with an important lesson: Once present, life is very hard to get rid of. It adapts to the most extreme conditions.

"So, one, we still have no evidence that life ever existed on Mars (although the poor logic being applied suggests the existence of cows). Two, if we ever do find any evidence of this, life probably still exists there. I'm hoping for Two."

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J. "I'm famous (among the two or three friends who can endure my rants) for saying, 'Given what we know about how evolution shapes living things in response to environmental changes, and given that life evolved on Mars when conditions were conducive, and given that changes on Mars occurred slowly enough, the planet should be positively sticky with life.' If Bishop's Extraterrestrial Life Postulate is true, and if Mars isn't positively sticky with life (and it doesn't appear to be) then either a) life never evolved there, b) life did evolve but was extinguished by environmental changes that happened too quickly for life to adapt, or c) we don't understand evolution as well as we think we do.

"There is an interesting d) possibility; that life evolved first Earthside and some microscopic form of it migrated Marsward, and has found a niche. Arguably, anything that could survive the rigors of being ejected into interplanetary space from Earth's surface and spend an interminable period coasting between the worlds and re-entry into Mars' atmosphere and (probably) a very abrupt stop at the end of the trip ... well ... there's a critter that could possibly prosper on Mars.

"In any event, show me the bugs. Turn over a stone and show me the little wriggly things, or even just the sticky green things. Good grief, even show me definitive fossils! Just don't get carried away with evidence that can be interpreted multiple ways. Doesn't anyone necessarily investigate every little argument? Why not?"

Mars Viking researcher Gilbert Levin, Annapolis, Md.: "Thanks for remembering my Viking experiment! ... Please see my Web site. It has the whole life-on-Mars story."

G. King, Atlanta: "A thousand years from now, people will still be trying to find and prove their worthless theory. Get over it, folks: There's no life out there, it exists only here on earth, where God created it."

Shad, Trinidad and Tobago: "I think the greatest problem is not how to search for life on Mars or on any other planet, but how to incorporate the findings of alien life into our world, which cannot fathom life anyplace else but here — a premise based largely on religion."

Gregory Lindstrom, Eagle, Idaho: "I think the methane is originating from the scientific community's nonstop B.S. about evolution. Their desperation to keep a dying science alive extends even to Mars, proving there are no limits to which they are willing to go. I am just surprised that NASA admitted the error, but then again, 'Anyone up for yet another slice of Mars meteorite?' Let's get the science right and leave the evolutionary B.S. out of it. And if it happens to lead there, fine! Put it on a flatbed trailer and parade it around America so we can all analyze the same data."

Joseph: "We spend all of this money on building machines that can do these fascinating tests, but they only pose more questions to justify more machines to run more tests. Let's just go ahead and send all the equipment and a manned mission up there at once so the scientist can get all the research done at one time, make the discoveries, and come home and celebrate what they do or don't find. Then we can move on to the next item in the solar system of interest instead of spending forever looking at one planet. Call me impatient."

Mark Hodges, Republic, Wash.: "Since the earth is teeming with life and has had many volcanic eruptions and been hit by large meteors, wouldn't it be unusual if some microbiotic life wasn't found on Mars? Wishful thinking aside, we have a Mars rock that may not be from Mars, with fossils that may not be fossils, etc., etc. Personally I think there should be microbiotic life on Mars that originated from Earth, not vice versa."

Bob Manke, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: "The Copernican paradigm is still in effect regarding the probability of life here or elsewhere. The bell curve of probability seems to imply: If we got life, then they got life. Mars, unfortunately, is embedded in a very large set of possible 'theys.' The same Copernican pattern holds for the much larger set of planets that do not have life also, and so the same logic holds for the improbability of life on Mars and is much more likely to be the truth."

Raymond R. Lucas, San Francisco: "While the discovery of 'some kind' of life on Mars or its moons maybe exciting to scientists, until they discover actual living, breathing, sunlight-absorbing or even 'walking' life, the average Joe will hardly notice, I'm sure."

Josh: "I think MSN needs to be careful about what they say on national news. You just don't go around telling people that there is life on Mars unless there is sufficient evidence to do so. That's just bad journalism!"

Tom Anthony, Sacramento, Calif.: "Congress should seriously consider implementing the following as law: Any government agency, commercial or private enterprise, or individual that deliberately withholds knowledge on the existence of life on bodies other than the Earth, shall be considered guilty of an act of high treason and high terrorism on the basis of withholding knowledge so as to retard the growth of civilization on Earth. The sentence in such cases will be of the highest form of punishment — death by slow torture, hard labor and confiscation of all property and financial savings and investments of the agency or person. The world will not tolerate these actions, and there shall be no excuse for withholding this knowledge."

Feb. 21, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Feedback Monday: For the past few days I've been closeted in a briefing room, a press room and a hotel room at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting, hardly venturing outside. Thank goodness for Cosmic Log readers who have wider perspectives on the research I've been writing about. Here's some of the feedback on reports from the AAAS meeting:

Nilchinaa (Whispering Wind): "I read your column on race DNA differences . I found it very interesting. I have studied and read about genetics, and from my information there happens to be four main races on this planet. They are Caucasian, Negroid, Mongoloid and Aboriginal. With out any ill intent I wish to convey a concern: Why is the Aboriginal race excluded from scientific studies? My heritage is Lipan Apache, and I'm always reading materials that will help the Native American people. Are we a non-people? In the near future, I would like for the Red People (Aboriginal) to be included.

"Some years ago there was a world conference of leaders in San Francisco. The Indian people wrote to the president so they would be included. Congress got into the issue and decided that the Native People of the United States were not a separate nation, so they weren't included. The Native People of America call for recognition. It is believed amongst Indians that there won't be peace until all the races are included in all matters. I apologize if I sound radical, but Indians have to become an integral part of this country's issues. I say that the eagle might be the symbol for this country, but the Indian is the conscience."

Glenn Richardson: "...Your article gave short shrift to the unique development among isolated populations of further genetic variation and its importance in mapping the code. Granted that medical applications seem to be an application that is closer to having tangible benefits for the average reader, but in the same note are you not a bit condescending in your assumption that we the readers of the Web are so base as to not understand or desire a more intellectual discussion than you provide? What about how mapping the genetic code reinforces or modifies our notions of evolution ... or is the E-word off limits?"

Sir Spuddly Buddly KWSN: "Your review of the Einstein @ home launch , I'm afraid, missed out two important points. Firstly, the importance of the work of BOINC from the University of California at Berkeley, and secondly the enormous oversight of not mentioning the people and teams who actually do the number crunching — namely, 'The Knights Who Say Ni!' and others. As a member of the esteemed chivalrous order of knights, I'd like you to know that we take pride in righting wrongs, and this is indeed a wrong worth righting. I trust you and your staff will redeem your now-tarnished reputation with said correction forthwith. If not, we will be forced to taunt you until you do!"

Pari Spolter, author of "Gravitational Force of the Sun": "Verification of Einstein's theories, or dreams, is costing the taxpayers a great deal of money. In the 1960s, Joseph Weber, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, claimed he had detected gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. During the next decade, 15 other research groups around the world obtained negative results even with markedly improved sensitivities of the instruments.

"These negative results did not discourage the die-hard supporters of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. They just said that they needed more money for outrageously gigantic equipment to reach higher precision. At a cost of more than $350 million, two separate installations of Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory were built. Each installation consists of two pipes 4 kilometers long. No gravitational waves have been detected.

"Another boondoggle project, funded by taxpayers for more than 30 years, is the Stanford Gyroscopes, or Gravity Probe B . They propose to measure a precession of 0.042 arcseconds per year at an altitude of about 650 kilometers, to test Einstein’s general relativity. When you consider that solar wind at that height sometimes reaches speeds as high as 800 km/s, the futility of the enterprise is obvious.

"These projects are diverting the needed funds from other more important research such as harnessing of solar energy and other means of producing clean and affordable energy, and research on climate control to find out how to prevent tornadoes and floods, and how to make rain when and where it is most needed for agriculture.

"When some scientists send a paper questioning the validity of the theory itself, they cannot get their paper accepted in any scientific journal. And when you present data supporting an alternate theory of gravitation, the establishment ignores it."

Feb. 21, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
The Guardian: Dark energy keeps galaxies apart
Nature: Termites tune in to food frequencies
BBC: Oldest fossil 'rabbit' unearthed
National Geographic: How eating meat changed us

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 or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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