March 18, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
The high cost of calling E.T.: How much would you spend to send a message into outer space?

As we reported on Tuesday, more than 130,000 messages from Craigslist subscribers were beamed into space through a deal with Deep Space Communications Network costing more than $1,225. A spokesman for Deep Space said the company would offer its airtime to anyone at $99 for a five-minute transmission. Meanwhile, TalktoAliens.com is selling transmissions to outer space at $3.99 a minute via a 900-prefix toll line.

The idea is that you're paying for a chance to communicate with extraterrestrials, but most Cosmic Log readers were skeptical about the idea. Some thought such attempts to contact aliens had no chance of working. Others feared they'd work too well.

A few even managed to have a little fun with the concept. Here's a sampling of the feedback:

Matt, Robesonia, Pa.: "If the price was right, why not? It kind of gives you a sense of immortality knowing that your image or words are just out there in space for anyone to pick up. And on the odd chance that aliens would pick it up in, like, 3 million years from now, you'll always be known as a part of the ancient race of earthlings in some alien schoolbook."

Diana Kritsonis, Kirkland, Wash.: "Absolutely not. We probably look like idiots to extraterrestrials sending messages to outer space. They're far more advanced than we are and have the ability to communicate with us telepathically — the problem is, we just don't 'get it.'"

Chris Preston: "We are constantly broadcasting into space. Cell phones, TV signals, radio, anything that emits in the electromagnetic spectrum is being 'sent' into space. Now you can pay for what was previously free. Only in America!"

E. Garner, Santa Cruz, Calif.: "I am an enthusiastic supporter of the search for extraterrrestrial intelligence — but this ill-conceived fiasco mislabeled as an attempt to communicate with aliens is just another sophomoronic marketing prank created for the entertainment of members of our shallow, TV-addicted culture. Personally, I find it demonstrates no socially or scientific redeeming qualities whatsoever."

Jeremiah, St. Paul, Minn. "I like the idea. I really doubt that many people think they will actually communicate with other life forms, but for me, the reason to do so would be so at least there was a chance. It's your chance to say your message. It will likely never be heard, but if it were to be heard, you would have to ask if you would rather have not said anything, just so you didn't waste your time or money. I'm sure if anyone is listening, they will surely take our silence as just being reasonable beings rather than not having anything to say. Personally I'd rather not let them make a mistake on how I feel, and speak my mind, but hey ... I'm human."

William, Green Bay, Wis.: "Well, I think it is a neat idea to get people interested in space exploration and the idea of first contact. Beyond that, it is silly, as a 500-watt transmission wouldn't even escape our solar system intact."

Edward Reasor, Tampa, Fla.: "A 500-watt transmission would dissipate into nothing long before it even left our solar system. To send a transmission to even our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, you would need a 300,000-watt transmitter. These folks are wasting their money."

Conrad Paul: "Why would someone spend $99 for a phone call to oblivion?  Feed a homeless family or donate to the cancer society, but don't line the pockets of the already-rich.  My reason includes the fact that I can’t spend $99 to chat with E.T. when I communicate with my family by email and we live in the same house!  My buddies never phone — they 'Nudge' me (MSN Messenger) or 'Buzz' me (Yahoo Messenger).  I have been a member of SETI @ home for a number of years and reason that any receiver out there that would deign to learn the message’s content would quickly discover that we are years from anyone even collecting that message.  Put a note in bottle and drop it into an unmarked and forgotten coal mine, then wait for the aliens to come here to find it and read it."

Lance Eldert, Scottsdale, Ariz.: "It is an exercise in futility that I wish I had thought of first. I may as well use a laser to transmit Morse Code ... hmm, now there's an idea. I could charge by the letter, too! Maybe I could just patent stupidity and collect royalties everytime someone comes up with ideas like these. I would never work again at this rate."

Ted: "While I assume that the messages that are broadcast will dissipate fairly close to Earth, within 100 light-years or so, I still think this is a foolish concept. Not foolish because it couldn't work, but foolish because it might.

"We have no idea what or who is out there, nor do we have any perspective on how they might react to messages from a place that is inhabited and that they might be unaware of. Further, there is no evidence that E.T. is there by earthly instrumentation ... that doesn't mean that he isn't there. ...

"When I was a kid on the farm, I used to look out on the pond in the morning. It was smooth and glassy, except for the fluttering of a moth who was trapped on the surface of the water and frantically beating its wings. As I recall, nothing good ever happened to those moths who announced their presence on the pond."

Rick: "That is a waste of energy and time in sending 'messages' into space. They should be using the technology for something more useful that spamming E.T. Haven't people had enough e-mail spamming already?"

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "On my way to drop my kid off at school this morning, I overheard this startling transmission break into the Dr. Octavo mix of Emma's 'Free Me' on the radio.

"'Hi! This is E.T. Since you people (and I use the term loosely) are intentionally yammering at me I figured I'd yammer right back at you ... just this once!

"'Not only am I able to receive your intentional messages, but all your other broadcasts as well, and know more about you than you do about yourselves. My advice is stop spending $3.99 a minute on trying to get my attention and use it to put some shoes and coats on all those kids in rural Appalachia who have none — this was a long and hard winter for them.

"'The fact that you'd rather blow 99 bucks whispering in my ear for five minutes rather than taking care of your own problems just shows that you aren't the kind of creatures with whom nice extraterrestrials should associate. It's like my grandfather Goozelfritznoodling used to say, "You can take the H. sapiens out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the H. sapiens."

"'If you earthlings must intentionally broadcast messages at me, the only message content that is truly appropriate given your circumstances is, "Help, help! Somebody please come save us from ourselves!" In sending any message other than this, you send a much louder, if implicit, message as well: Human hubris refuses confinement to Earth. Let me know when you get things sorted out, and maybe I'll consider you worth engaging in a pleasant chat. Until then, Good Luck and Goodbye!'

"At first I was sure it was a hoax (given that the speaker sounded exactly like Elvis) but found myself returning again and again to the words themselves and how penetratingly, obviously true they were. Anyway, just figured I'd pass the message on to you."

March 18, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
The lighter side of dark energy: Cosmic Log readers were intrigued by Wednesday's item about the mysterious dark energy in our celestial neighborhood:

R.G. Williams, Anahuac, Texas: "Isn't it a hoot? About the time these non-believing smarty-pants scientists think they have God's creation figured out, He puts a cricket in their schnizzle."

Anonymous: "It could be large alien ships that are undetectable by the human senses. If this is not the case, then perhaps there really is 'The Force,' like in the movie, 'Star Wars.' Or maybe it is a little different (we can't control it like in the movie). Maybe this has to do with what the Chinese call 'chi.' Or maybe I am just rambling on about something that is way beyond my imagination."

March 18, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
Will planetary theory stick? Thursday's item about "sticky ice" as a super glue for the initial pieces of planets sparked some quick but thoughtful responses:

Rotimi Afesumeh, Ann Arbor, Mich: "I would have thought magnetism could have played a bigger role in the clumping together to form the planets. Is there any evidence to support the formation of our planets in the reverse order as proposed? If the core of the planets are hot and molten, then they could not have formed from ice only to warm up as they move away from the sun. This hypothesis may apply to the outer, colder planets, but sounds implausible for the inner warmer ones — and even then, not likely to play a major role in their formation."

Actually, planetary scientists are still debating how planets migrate during the formation process. One of the leading theories, advanced by theoreticians such as Alan Boss at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, proposes that most planets migrate inward as they settle into their orbits — as referred to in this report about extrasolar Neptune-size planets . That would fit well with the idea that even terrestrial planets got their start in colder celestial climates.

Milt Overall, Lansdale, Pa. "As a engineer in the earth science (metallurgy), it seems this article ignores the interaction of the dust particles. That is, for all the elements (of the ore deposits, ocean floor materials) that gave us Earth's present structure and the ability to "make" things from the eruptions of magma, yielding our ores and other materials, would it be right to assume those crucial materials were encased in such stuck-together ice particles, allowing planets to form and progress into what we see now. In short, how did the 'sticky ice' accommodate those materials so crucial to our civilization now?"

In their paper, the researchers say that a variety of minerals — including silica and silicates, iron and nickel — could take on an electrical charge such that they would more easily stick together, and also speculate that inner planets could take on "quite a lot of material" from the outer, icier regions of a planetary system.

They also note that once these dirty snowballs reach a kilometer (half-mile) in diameter, the widely accepted theories for planet formation can explain the process for building them up into the planets (and asteroids like Ceres) we know and love today. The issue is how they get to that stage. Cowin said that when the bits are tiny, you need some mechanism in addition to gravitational attraction to explain the stick-togetherness.

The sticky-ice scenario would help explain why the protoplanetary bits build up like Rice Krispies treats, rather than cracking against each other and rebounding like billiard balls. "These things won't fracture, because they're padded," Cowin said.

If the planet quest is what turns you on, don't forget to tune in next week's extrasolar planet briefing, scheduled at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday on NASA Television.

March 18, 2005 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

Animal Planet: "Dragons"
The Economist: Dark messengers in astrophysics
Technology Review: The giant who walks amongst us
Wired.com: Divide undercuts efforts to ban cloning

March 17, 2005 | 11 p.m. ET
Super glue for planets: Billions of years ago, what caused the planets to stick together? It's not as easy to answer that question as it might seem, considering that the bits of primordial ice and dust might have ended up blowin' in the solar wind. But scientists think they've found just the kind of glue that could have done it: a special form of plain old water.

According to the current thinking on planet formation, the disks of debris swirling around newborn stars had to coalesce into half-mile-wide (kilometer-wide) dirty snowballs within just a few million years, or else the opportunity for building planets would have been lost. The only problem is, the gravitational attraction between the primordial flecks wouldn't be strong enough to keep them clumped together.

Researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory report a possible solution to the puzzle in the Feb. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal: They propose that the dust grains were coated with a "sticky ice" that was unusually fluffy. What's more, these grains were electrically charged so that there was an attraction.

"As soon as you put a charge on these grains, it's like throwing little bar magnets at each other," explained James Cowin, the research fellow who led the PNNL team in Richland, Wash.

When two bits of this stuff came together, the stickiness of the ice kept them from bouncing off each other. In fact, there was an "anti-bounce" effect — like two balls of that fluffy, sticky Rice Krispies confection smashing into each other, Cowin said.

"That was a kind of a one-two punch," he told me. "The electric forces were big enough to allow these things to stick fast enough for even elastic hard ice, but on top of that, the fluffy ice was inelastic."

One of the keys to the research is that the ice was formed under extremely low-temperature conditions rather than the temperatures we see here on Earth. To find out just how sticky such ice can get, Cowin's colleagues grew ice from water vapor in a chamber that reproduced the primordial vacuum and temperature (40 degrees Kelvin, or 387 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). Then they measured the ice's anti-bounce characteristics by dropping tiny ceramic balls on the super-cold ice as well as on garden-variety earthly ice.

Image: Ball bouncing on ice
PNNL
Time-lapse photography shows that a ball dropped on "sticky ice" has an unusually dead bounce.
The balls rebounded as high as 80 percent when they were dropped on the earthly ice, but only about 8 percent on the super-cold ice. That led them to conclude that the sticky ice did the trick, at least for the kinds of icy worlds found in Jupiter's orbit and beyond.

But what about the terrestrial planets, such as Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury? "In the inner region, silica dust can in fact behave similarly, at least in terms of the electrification," Cowin said.

Cowin also said it's possible that the inner planets got their start farther out, where the sticky ice would definitely come into play. Later in the process, those planets may have moved inward, "frying away" the ice, he said.

"The basic building blocks of our earth could have formed where it was colder," he said.

The other researchers on the PNNL team are Martin Iedema, Rich Bell, A.A. Tsekouras and Hanfu Wang. For additional perspectives on the research, check out the PNNL news release and today's report on sticky ice from the Why Files at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

March 17, 2005 | 11 p.m. ET
Shuttle troubles: Glitches involving the international space station and space shuttle operations are clouding the picture a bit for the scheduled May 15 launch of the shuttle Discovery, as reported on Wednesday . NASA says it isn't so concerned about a balky gyroscope on the station, but this Associated Press report provides further detail on the problems that have cropped up in getting Discovery ready to roll toward its launch pad.

It turns out that fasteners for the wire-tray covers in the space shuttle's payload bay could rub against bundles of electrical wire and cause chafing. AP says the problem was first discovered this week in another shuttle, Endeavour, and workers are now taking off the covers in Discovery and padding the bottom of the fasteners.

The problem is reminiscent of an episode in 1999, when the discovery of frayed wiring in Columbia's payload bay forced NASA to ground the rest of the shuttle fleet for inspections. The current problem doesn't sound quite as serious, but it's still likely to delay Discovery's rollout to the pad until early April.

March 17, 2005 | 10:45 p.m. ET
Corned beef and cabbage for the scientific palate:

BBC: Lab fireball 'may be black hole'
The Guardian: We are way past our 'extinct by' date
Washington Post: Pentagon has spacecraft in the works
National Geographic: Beneath Irish isles

March 16, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Dark energy is near: For years, scientists have known that we don't know all that much about the universe. In fact, ordinary matter — the kind we can detect with telescopes and other observational tools — accounts for only about 5 percent of the universe's content. About 25 percent consists of "dark matter," which can be sensed only by its gravitational effect. The other 70 percent is tied up in "dark energy," a mysterious quality that is apparently speeding up the expansion of the universe.

Astronomers first picked up on dark energy's influence on the edges of the observable universe, but now they have found evidence closer to home, in the relative motions of the galaxies around our own. The research indicates that dark energy isn't just a way-out-there quirk, but is truly a property that permeates all of space, including our own galactic neighborhood.

"It's like traveling from Seattle to Portland, Ore., rather than from Seattle to New York, to measure the earth's curvature," said Fabio Governato, a professor at the University of Washington and a researcher at Italy's National Institute of Astrophysics.

Governato and his co-authors — the University of Zurich's Andrea Maccio and Cathy Horeliou at Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology — report their results in a paper to be published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (PDF file).

To look for dark energy's signature, the team ran a series of supercomputer simulations of the universe's evolution, varying the parameters to reflect situations with and without dark energy.

"The computer crunches models for a few weeks, and then we compare the properties of our virtual universe with those of the real ones," Governato told me today.

The researchers looked at the actual motions of the Local Group galaxies with respect to each other — a complex pattern that is influenced by the mutual gravitational attraction between the galaxies as well as the repulsion caused by the expansion of the universe. They found that the only way to explain the galaxies' motions with their computer model was by including an extra factor for cosmic expansion.

"If you leave out the dark energy, you miss the data by a factor of three or four," Governato said. "But if you include the dark energy, there’s a match."

So what is dark energy? That's the 64,000-quatloo question — and one that researchers cannot yet answer. Some theorists say dark energy is simply an unchanging property of the universe, the so-called cosmological constant that Albert Einstein proposed, then rejected. Others say it may be "quintessence," a form of energy that changes over time.

If we had more precise data about the motions of galaxies, could Governato's model make more headway on such questions?

"In theory, yes," he said. "We could see how this 'flow' of galaxies is related to the properties of dark energy. ... The more accurate we are with this measure, the more precise we can be with our models."

Check out the University of Washington's news release about the research, as well as Science magazine's report on the dark side of the universe .

March 17, 2005 | Updated 12:30 p.m. ET
Dust devil in the details: The estimable science writer David Chandler notes that the dust devil spotted by NASA's Spirit rover last week was not really the first sighting from the Martian surface.

"The first image of a Mars dust devil was taken by Pathfinder," Chandler said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Some sources claim there were five images of dust devils taken that mission, but I talked to [Pathfinder mission scientist] Matt Golombek yesterday, and he said it was just one."

This Space Daily report from last year includes a Pathfinder image of a dust devil, so I was clearly mistaken in claiming that Spirit's spottings were the first. For setting me straight, Chandler richly deserves my thanks, as well as links to his New Scientist story on the subject and his brand-new blog, Cosmic Views.

March 16, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Coming attractions: Next Wednesday, NASA will reveal new findings from the Spitzer Space Telescope about planets beyond our own solar system. "Researchers have discovered new capabilities of the infrared telescope to aid in the study of these planets," the space agency said today in an advisory about the upcoming briefing. Get up to speed on Spitzer and the search for extrasolar planets by spinning through this report on infrared astronomy and our The search for extrasolar planets, then tune in to the 1 p.m. ET briefing via NASA Television.

March 16, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

New Scientist: 13 things that do not make sense
Nature: DNA gets a fake fifth base
BBC: New row over climate 'hockey stick'
Discovery.com: Dolphin shows off prosthetic tail

March 15, 2005 | 4 a.m. ET
Hey, E.T.! You've got mail: Precisely 138,179 messages were beamed into space on Friday, inaugurating a pay-for-play transmission service targeting extraterrestrial eavesdroppers.

The chances were slim any aliens were listening in — but the organization picking up the toll charges, the Craigslist community forum, indicated that it was satisfied with the exercise and is planning to do it again. Craigslist paid for the 23-minute transmission by Florida-based Deep Space Communications Network after winning an online auction for the opportunity.

For the past two weeks, Craigslist has been letting its millions of members queue up words and pictures for the almost straight-up broadcast from Deep Space's TV-style uplink facility.

"The response from our terrestrial community wanting to take advantage of being able to communicate with the new Craigslist space community has really been out of this world," Craig Newmark, Craigslist's founder and customer service representative, said Monday in a slightly tongue-in-cheek news release. "With over 24 million words and pictures building up in our space blog, we were contacted by the Deep Space folks with the launch window, and we jumped at the opportunity to get the messages out there."

Friday's 500-watt transmission came right after the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket bearing a telecommunications satellite. Craigslist said it intended to upload some more space-directed data around the time of the space shuttle Discovery's launch , currently planned for May 15. Cost of the transmissions has not been made public, but it's reportedly more than the $1,225 online bid that Craigslist registered.

Doug Kohl, a spokesman for Deep Space, said the company is planning to transmit a musical score and a movie trailer into space under the terms of other deals. A rate sheet is being drawn up for the general public as well, starting at $99 for a five-minute transmission.

Yet another outfit, TalktoAliens.com, is offering to broadcast your 900-prefix telephone call into space for $3.99 a minute.

Now that you know the price tag, what do you think about the idea? Would you sign up to send a message out to E.T., even though it might get lost in the blare of other broadcasts? Or is this just cosmic spam?

March 15, 2005 | 4 a.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Mother culture, or only a sister?
New Scientist: Charity begins at Homo sapiens
National Geographic: The mind is what the brain does
The Independent: The gender gap in dreaming

March 14, 2005 | 3:14 p.m. ET
Happy birthday, dear Einstein: What would be on Albert Einstein's mind if he were still around today, on his 126th birthday?

He'd probably be fending off scores of interview requests, not only because of his amazing longevity , but also because this year marks the 100th anniversary of his "miracle year," when he came up with revolutionary theories on special relativity, the visible effects of moving atoms and the quantum nature of light.

He'd probably be shaking his head over the fact that the idea he once called the "greatest mistake" of his career — the addition of a fudge factor to general relativity — has been resurrected to explain why the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating.

And he'd probably be speaking out about the way science and politics are being conducted nowadays, because that was a subject close to his heart in his latter years. He'd surely still be advocating nuclear disarmament, and he'd likely welcome measures to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction — but he wouldn't accept the idea that scientific inquiry had to be squelched to serve the cause of homeland security.

“If scientists were to refrain from investigation for fear of what bad people might do with the results, then all of us might as well refrain from living altogether,” he told The New Yorker's Niccolo Tucci for a 1947 profile, recently reprinted online.

One thing is certain: If anything, Einstein is a bigger celebrity today than he was a half-century ago. Few other scientists have had their persona attached to an opera as well as a kids' show, educational toys and games, and multiple  fictional  movies.

Just last month, scientists launched the Einstein @ Home distributed-computing project, aimed at answering one of relativity's great unresolved questions: Can we detect gravitational waves? Today, the tally of the screensaver program's users is passing the 55,000 mark.

"I’m thrilled with the response we've gotten in such a short time,” Einstein @ Home principal investigator Bruce Allen of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee said in a news release prepared for the occasion. “The growing number of participants increases the computing power available to us, and improves our odds of finding something. Were we to find a signal in this way, it would be an exceptional moment for both theoretical and experimental physics.”

To delve more deeply into the birthday boy's legacy, check out the Einstein Archives Online, Encarta's encyclopedic Einstein entry, the American Institute of Physics' Web presentation on Einstein's image and impact, Time magazine's "Person of the Century" profile and Slate's relativity reality check.

March 14, 2005 | 3:14 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

Celebrate Pi Day on 3/14
... And Brain Awareness Week as well
BBC: Europe tells U.S., 'Come to Europa'
Science News: The secret behind Renaissance palettes
Discovery.com: Did Neanderthals sing at high pitch?
Wired.com: Are nanobacteria making us ill?

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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