Image: Condensation cloud
NASA
A condensation cloud forms around the shuttle Discovery's nose during its liftoff on July 26 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Such clouds arise because of changes in pressure and temperature created by lifting surfaces in humid air.

Aug. 5, 2005 | 5 p.m. ET
Discovery’s clouds of glory: As the shuttle Discovery's crew prepares to come home, you can check out a "spooky-cool" detail in the imagery of Discovery's liftoff 10 days ago.

If you watch a NASA video of the ascent (Windows Media file), about 52 seconds in you'll see a cloud cap forming around Discovery's nose. Boing Boing noted the effect on the day after launch. "'Spooky-cool' is a novel way of describing these very fascinating clouds," a Cosmic Log reader writes.

The cloud is due to a well-known aerodynamic effect called lift-induced condensation, and this is by no means the first time the phenomenon has been spotted around a space shuttle. In fact, this explanation from the Gallery of Fluid Dynamics notes that the condensation clouds can be seen during shuttle landings as well. So if Discovery is backlit just right during its scheduled pre-dawn touchdown on Monday, you just might see another cloud of glory.

Starting this weekend, you might be able to spot the international space station or even the shuttle in orbit, as explained in NASA's report on "Shuttle Sightings." And as Discovery descends to Earth, it should create a bright streak in the skies over Central America.

Tune into our live video coverage for the best views of Discovery's landing. The first opportunity for landing is scheduled at 4:46 a.m. ET Monday, with the second one coming an hour and a half later at 6:21 a.m. ET.

Aug. 5, 2005 | 5 p.m. ET
Saturn’s Death Star: Mimas, a heavily cratered moon of Saturn, is known as the ringed planet's "Death Star" because of its resemblance to the Galactic Empire's doomsday weapon in the "Star Wars" movies. During a flyby on Tuesday, the Cassini spacecraft made like an X-wing fighter and captured some ultra-close reconnaissance of the moon.

Image: Mimas
NASA / JPL / SSI
In this false-color image of Mimas, green, blue and violet shades represent subtler color differences in the moon's surface.
This view accentuates subtle differences in Mimas' surface colors, as a tool for scientists trying to figure out variations in the composition and texture of the moon's icy soil. The bluer shades surround Mimas' most prominent feature, the 87-mile-wide (140-kilometer-wide) Herschel Crater — and scientists speculate that the blue smudge may represent material that was blasted away when Mimas was struck by whatever created the crater.

There are plenty more images where this one came from, including a fascinating zoom-in sequence documenting the flyby. Check out the Cassini imaging team's CICLOPS Web site for flyby imagery, and give a look to NASA's Cassini-Huygens site as well.

Aug. 5, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Once more to the Cape: I'll be heading from MSNBC.com's West Coast headquarters to the East Coast over the weekend for the space shuttle Discovery's landing and other stops, so postings over the next few days will be dependent on time and bandwidth. The regular routine resumes a week from today.

Aug. 5, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Secret of Photo 51'
The Economist: What makes life funny?
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Design for confusion
The New Yorker: What I'd say to the Martians

Aug. 4, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
The Great Mars Hoax: Will Mars really loom bigger than the full moon in the night sky this month? There's a wave of e-mail messages that say so, but don't believe it.

The truth is less spectacular, but still worthy of note.

It's true that the Red Planet is getting closer to Earth, but when Mars makes its close approach in late October and early November, it won't be as close or as bright as it was during 2003's history-making sky show.

The e-mail that's currently going around appears to be a garbled replay of the advance notices for the 2003 encounter , which reached its climax in August of that year. Here's an excerpt the bogus text:

"The Red Planet is about to be spectacular!

"This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. Due to the way Jupiter's gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years before it happens again.

"The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles of Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. ..."

Some of the folks who received the message read even more significance into the text, thinking that Mars might look as big as the full moon even without the aid of a telescope. But taken at face value, the message pretty much describes what happened in 2003.

This year, Mars is due to come closest to Earth on Oct. 29, and on Nov. 7 it will reach opposition (which means the sun, Earth and Mars will be in a straight line). Mars will be 43 million miles from Earth at its closest, with a width of about 20 arc seconds.

By that measure, the viewing conditions will be slightly worse than they were in 2003 — but they're still the best we'll see until 2018.

There's another consolation this year: Mars will be higher in the sky than it was in 2003, meaning that the atmosphere will create less wobble in the image you see through your telescope. And you'll need a telescope to see Mars as anything other than a bright reddish "star" in the sky. So you might want to start checking into what your local astronomical society has on tap for this fall.

For more on the mixed-up Mars e-mail, consult Sky & Telescope or Earth & Sky. The Shallow Sky has a pretty good guide to this year's Mars encounter, and refers to the bogus e-mail as well.

You don't have to wait until fall to see the Red Planet: Mars is shining right now in early morning skies. To find out the where and the when, consult Space.com or Heavens Above. And stay tuned for more information about this month's featured sky show, the Perseid meteor shower , which hits its peak next week.

Aug. 4, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Space support slipping? Cosmic Log correspondent Jim Campbell was bummed out about the report that a CBS News poll found slipping support for the space shuttle program:

"I am disturbed about the downward trend in positive attitudes with the shuttle program.  What age group are we talking about?  I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and now the shuttles.  There is nothing cooler on planet Earth than the ability to go somewhere else ... like to the moon.

"The space shuttle is, without a doubt, the most complex system of computerized machinery that man has ever designed, built and flew.  Rather successfully, I might add.

"This is not unlike the seagoing adventures that were undertaken by the sailing explorers of the 1500s and 1600s.  We all know about Magellan.  But what about all the ships that sank, or were destroyed by storms, or fell ill due to poor seamanship?  History does not dwell on that.

"We have had flights to the moon with the deaths of three in a training mission on the launch pad. We had Apollo 13 (which due to pure will and hard thinking was a success), the loss of Challenger and, most recently, Columbia.

"Tragedies?  Yes.  But, no more and no less so than any troop ship that went down in the Second World War. Did we give in because we lost a ship? No. We built more and willing people rode the waves in them.

"This is not unlike the space program. We have had failures.  Hard, hard lessons that NASA needed to learn were learned.  Did we know that pure oxygen was a bad environment? We learned it when Apollo 1 had a spark and the crew died so quickly. Each blow to the program has been totally different, yet each has been absorbed and overcome by people wanting to make what they thought worked flawlessly, in the end, into something that worked with fewer flaws. 'Gaining an understanding of the system' is the phrase. Giving up or giving in the face of a seemingly unpopular vote would be the unqualified and singly dumbest move the USA could ever do. Therefore, it should never be done.

"We are the established leading force in space exploration, and NASA, with its very few flaws, is the model on how you launch humans into outer space to do work and advance the understanding of the cosmos.

"Maybe the voters just don't get it."

Campbell and other space fans can take heart from the assessment of surveys provided by Jeff Foust on the Space Politics Web log. He points out that measures of public opinion on space exploration vary widely, due to the public's "weakly held, inconsistent" views on the subject as well as the way the wording of survey questions can tip the responses one way or the other.

Over at the Space Log, Clark Lindsey points to reports that the shuttle Discovery's launch brought record levels of Web traffic to NASA's Web site. And although the details may be proprietary, it's no secret that the traffic to MSNBC.com on launch day was pretty high as well.

"Space advocacy organizations need to reach the members of this audience, and expand and deepen their involvement with space," Lindsey says.

Aug. 4, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Food for thought on the scientific Web:
Texas A&M: How to turn manure into power
Univ. of Bath: Did life begin in 'hot soup'?
Univ. of Colorado: See the 'Northern Lights' of Saturn
Journey through the digestive system (via Improbable Research)

Aug. 3, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Society vs. science? After President Bush appeared to voice support for the anti-Darwinist, intelligent-design movement, it fell to White House science adviser John Marburger to explain what the president really meant:

In a New York Times interview, Marburger reiterated his past view that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." Bush's remarks should be interpreted to mean that intelligent design should be discussed as part of the "social context" in science classes, Marburger said.

Science and social issues are sure to mix occasionally in the classroom, as well as in Web logs and around the water cooler (check out Will Femia's Clicked for more links). That applies to issues ranging from the origins of life to global warming and cloning research .

But that doesn't mean all claims on a scientific subject should be given equal weight, or that the science curriculum should reflect the current political climate. That point is made by Jim Connell in his e-mail response to Tuesday's item on Bush's comments:

Jim Connell: "While not surprised by President Bush's comments, I am still irritated at the prospects that people with a stake in the education process will continue to be influenced by what is now a presidentially endorsed pseudo-science. Since fundamental scientific concepts seem to be too much even for presidents to grasp, perhaps what we really need in education is more history lessons. Has everyone forgotten about state-sponsored Lysenkoism and what a 'boon' that turned out to be for Soviet biological science? Let's let science be determined by scientists and not by a popularity contest, so that the high quality of American scientific investigation has a chance to continue, rather than having us all someday mutter under our breath 'Eppur si muove.'"

In honor of the reference to that famous remark, often attributed to Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, here's a link to the Italian-language translation of Tuesday's Cosmic Log entry, posted by Macchianera's Fabrizio Pilotti. Over the past few months, he's been kind enough to translate a number of Cosmic Log reports. Here are his observations (in English) on the latest controversy:

Fabrizio Pilotti: "America was always the land of the frontier, of the new, of the bold. This move to the intelligent design says something like: 'Do not try to explore all the complexity of nature. Some stuff, some steps, some changes are not lands to explore and to understand. They are not part of the frontier.' I think it is somehow a limitation of the American dream. Ciao, Fabrizio ... P.S.: I just renewed my personal weblog; I also renamed it Darwin."

Molto grazie, Fabrizio!

Stephen Ocvirek: "Speaking as a former evolutionist and atheist, I get sick of hearing the whining of those against intelligent design. First off, they cannot scientifically prove that life on this planet was not altered from intelligent beings (UFOs, for that matter). Second off, they never like to have the problems with evolution brought out in the open because it causes thinking people to question which of the multiple evolutionary theories they should believe in. Science is only science when all feasible possibilities are explored and expounded, and evolution is still a theory. Of course let's not upset the evolutionary fairy tale, we can just continue to believe that dead rocks, dirt and mud magically come to life and frogs turn into princes — just given enough time."

Mike Roberts: As a geologist (Ph.D. 1974, Penn State University) I am quite familiar with the scientific evidence and theories concerning evolution. I have been trying to learn more about the creationists' arguments, and 'intelligent design' is one aspect that has been discussed by scientists, at least in popular science books. Doubt is a healthy attitude for scientists and encourages research and testing of theories. If I were teaching evolution in our public schools (and I am unaware of any such course — it usually is a small part of biology class or perhaps earth science class) I would have no problem addressing the claims of the intelligent design people or creationists, and no problem discussing the things that the various evolution theories do not explain well. I would have a problem if forced to teach creationist doctrines as 'equals' to scientific approaches, for they are quite different. To paraphrase an old quote from Bertrand Russell: 'William James used to preach the "will to believe," but I wish to teach the "will to doubt," for it is not the will to believe that is important, but the wish to find out.' Lastly, I resent the characterization of this debate in so many editorials as a 'liberal vs. conservative' issue. I think of myself as a conservative Republican in most matters, but as a scientist I go my own way. I am not ashamed to have voted for Bush, but I respectfully disagree with his opinions on science and intelligent design."

Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Arlington, Texas: "Bush isn't wrong: Both sides ought to be properly taught. I'm only a scientist. I'm not qualified to teach religion, only science. Science is the name for a body of knowledge, as well as the name for the process by which it is accumulated. This process is what I do. If someone can give me a replicable, independently verifiable and, most importantly, falsifiable hypothesis based on intelligent design, I can do this process called science, and add the results to the body of knowledge called science. Until it can be brought down to my level, it doesn't belong in my classroom, it belongs where its experts can teach it properly — in church. ..."

Benjamin, Windsor Locks, Conn.: "One thing that must be clarified is that intelligent design is not simply the result of scientists or theologians throwing their hands up and saying we can't figure this out naturally, so it must have been designed! This is not the case at all. Intelligent design seeks through direct scientific evidence and observation to bring to light aspects of nature that have the direct evidence of having been designed. An animal or organism put together so perfectly, and with no evidence of a predecessor or intermediate form from whence it came, is direct evidence toward an intelligent designer — whether people will accept it as such or not."

It still seems to me that saying something is put together so perfectly that it couldn't have been created through an understandable, natural process is the moral equivalent of throwing up your hands. Where would we be if Galileo, or Copernicus, or Kepler, or Newton, or Einstein had thought the "music of the spheres" was brought about by divine intervention rather than gravitation?

John Newman, Columbus, Ohio: "My question about President Bush and his comments about 'intelligent design' is this: Does he understand the difference between science and theology, and does he know what the scientific method is? While I have no objection to classroom presentation of various ideas about cosmology and life origins (which includes the biblical view) the proper place is within a cultural and science history framework. We should be honest with students in presenting problems or controversies within science which may include methodology and interpretation of results. These are expected. We may disagree on when humans first reached North America for example, or dating of materials. How does one measure an 'intelligent designer'?"

Bob Cruder, Elizabeth, Colo.: "Accepting the results of secular science, like accepting the limits of moral coercion by a secular government, are elements of rendering to Caesar. A true Christian could accomplish both while still honoring his personal creed. The fake Christians, the cowards who can only follow their path if everyone else is forced to do the same, are not worthy of my contempt."

L. Gutzman, Roseville, Mich.: "If there is some great benefit to students in being conditioned to accept that 'scientific knowledge' is either all-encompassing or unfailingly true, I can't imagine what it might be. Exposing children to the concept of 'intelligent design' isn't foisting pseudoscience upon them, it's teaching them to think critically and to recognize the shortcomings of naturalist science — not the least of which being that it represents the best guesses of a bunch of near-monkeys. Once naturalists began positioning theory as fact and asking us to take on faith that which is supported less by available evidence than by the 'inadmissibility' of evidence to the contrary (and I'm talking fossil here, not biblical), they transformed science itself into a pseudo-religion, complete with adherence to dogma, quests for a grail, and the castigation of heretics. And ironically, the very people who would recoil in horror at the prospect of state-sanctioned religion take no issue at all with having the state sponsor and indoctrinate our children into this cult of naturalism. A science classroom is obviously not the right setting in which to teach religious creationism, but it's also not the right place to present a problematic theory as fact or to deride those who might not adhere to it."

In discussing the status of evolutionary theory, it's important not to fall into the "theory, not a fact" trap. As Cosmic Log correspondents have mentioned in the past , theories (such as relativity) are supported by facts (such as the observed bending of light in a gravitational field). Similarly, the theory that different species have common ancestors is supported by the fact of common genetic coding . There do tend to be gaps even in well-supported theories (for example, what happens inside a black hole?), but the existence of such gaps doesn't mean the theory is problematic, just that our understanding is incomplete. For a much better guide to the whole subject than I could ever provide, check out the National Academy Press' "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science."

Ron Stein: "If intelligent design is really the goal, then all intelligent-design concepts should be taught.  This would include the dance of Shiva and other religious and cultural ideas about the origin of life.  Also, the idea of an alien-being origin of life would need to be examined.  The problem with this whole movement is that it is clearly focused on only one view of this issue. This is the reason that the state should stay out of religion. It will never be all inclusive."

Stan von Kotin, Hamtramck, Mich.: "Teaching intelligent design in school science classes is a great idea! I'm sure they can find a place to fit it in on the curriculum; somewhere between phrenology, astrology, baraminology, alchemy and geocentrism..."

Aug. 3, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Dry commentary: Eric T. Steele had this to say about today's report that Titan, a mysterious moon of Saturn, may not contain oceans of hydrocarbons after all:

"As much as I enjoy the science and space articles that are presented on your Web site, through no fault of the writers or editors, there exists a disturbing fault with the scientists reporting for these articles.

"Each week I read about 'watery surface' or 'ice' or 'compelling evidence of liquid' and other misleading and speculative arguments given by scientists. Every time I read one of these new findings or guesses by scientists it makes my skin crawl. I always thought that the nature of scientific research needed hard facts, not circumstantial guesses by educated men. I realize that with the drive to be published and recognized within the academic and scientific community that great leaps and wondrous discoveries are necessary, but at what cost to the reader?

"One of the most disturbing subjects that I’ve encountered over the last year was the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Huygens probe to Titan. The scientists and developers made so many promises and provided so many guesses, that when the mission went forward, it was a major letdown. Same problem occurred with the Deep Impact mission. With the costs of these missions in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the idea of trial and error, or best guesses, seems wasteful and unprofessional. As I said before, this is not a criticism of the reporting done by your staff, just an underlining concern with the mind-set of today’s scientists and ground-based explorers."

Aug. 3, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Wired.com: Child mummy wows Egyptologists
National Geographic: The human-techno future
Space.com: Is Earth's air trapped in moon dirt?
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): From giant leaps to baby steps

Aug. 2, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Evolution and the White House: President Bush's comments on intelligent design — the idea that some aspects of nature are best explained as the creation of an intelligent being — have sparked a lot of buzz over the past day: In response to a question about evolution education,  Bush said he thought "both sides ought to be properly taught."

If you look through a transcript of Bush's session with Texas journalists on Monday, that's about as close as the president came to endorsing intelligent design as an alternative to the mainstream scientific process, which seeks natural explanations for natural processes. Generally, he said education should "expose people to different schools of thought" — without ever mentioning Darwin or his detractors.

In theory, there's not much to argue with when the president says people ought to be exposed to different ideas in school. But in science class? That's a different matter. There are plenty of unsettled matters in biology, physics and other scientific disciplines, and those should be discussed — but that doesn't mean folks should throw up their hands and conclude things were just made that way by a supernatural force. Teaching intelligent design as science in that way would go against the advice from Bush's own science adviser, John Marburger.

The American Geophysical Union's executive director, Fred Spilhaus, said that if Bush really meant that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in science class, the policy "puts America's schoolchildren at risk."

"Americans will need basic understanding of science in order to participate effectively in the 21st-century world," he said in a statement issued today. "It is essential that students on every level learn what science is and how scientific knowledge progresses."

The issue came up even as the evolution debate was revived in Kansas as well: Today, a panel of educators voted to have their names removed from science standards that gave a boost to the intelligent-design concept.

Check out what Sciencegate's Chris Mooney and The Loom's Carl Zimmer have to say about Bush's comments. As always , I'm interested in finding out what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the responses later this week.

Aug. 2, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Tune into a Mars mission: The perils of the shuttle Discovery are still topic A on the space front, but NASA is also on the verge of another mission: the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter toward the Red Planet. Questions about the mission are already being solicited for a Webcast scheduled a week from today, and of course you'll be able to watch the Aug. 10 launch over the Web as well.

Aug. 2, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
BBC: Ancient Roman puzzle yields clues
New Scientist: Methane on Mars? The plot thickens
Popular Science: The science of 'Stealth'
Scientific American: Will medicine finally get personal?

Aug. 1, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET
What’s in a planet’s name? The curious case of the "10th planet" is getting curiouser and curiouser, with more details coming out about the circumstances behind Friday's hurried announcements by NASA and Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown.

The discovery of the iceball known as 2003 UB313 is scientifically significant because it appears to be bigger than Pluto, the current runt of the planet litter. That has resurrected the long-running debate over the definition of planethood . There are some astronomers who believe Pluto isn't special enough to be considered among the major planets. Others suggest that Pluto should be grandfathered in with dual status, as one of the traditional nine planets as well as one of the thousands of "minor planets" beyond the orbit of Neptune, in the Kuiper Belt.

The tale of 2003 UB313 hints at a bit of scientific skulduggery as well. According to National Geographic, an analysis of the object's orbit, based on observational data Brown had put on the Internet, was reported to the planetoid clearinghouse known as the Minor Planet Center even before Brown was ready to distribute his own team's findings.

Brown had planned to reveal 2003 UB313's status in October, after he and his colleagues had completed their analysis. But Brian Marsden, the director of the Minor Planet Center, reportedly advised Brown to make the find public before he was scooped on his own discovery.

Thus, word about the 10th planet spilled out on Friday, amid confusing reports about another object in the same fringe region of the solar system.

There'll surely be more about the Kuiper Belt caper in the coming days — and we may also find out more about the permanent name that the discoverers have selected to supplant the numerical designation 2003 UB313. It's up to the International Astronomical Union to approve the name.

"We have a name we really like, and we want it to stick," Brown was quoted as saying by The New York Times. Although the discoverers don't intend to reveal the name until the IAU renders its decision, they do admit that they're informally calling the object "Xena," as in "The Warrior Princess" of syndicated TV fame.

For now, Xena is indeed available: It doesn't show up on the Minor Planet Center's long, long list of names that have already been taken (the closest match is an asteroid named Xenia). But if the center and the IAU stick to their traditions, Xena wouldn't fill the bill.

As explained in an earlier Cosmic Log posting, the names for solar-system bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune are supposed to refer to creation deities — such as Sedna or Quaoar, for example.

In addition to Xena, there are already a good number of names floating around, which may or may not fit the formal rules. Some of the really good ones, such as Minerva and Persephone, already have been given to other minor planets — so there'd have to be some name-shuffling. Here are some of your suggestions, as well as other observations relating to 2003 UB313 and whether it should really be considered the 10th planet:

Jeff: "Those of you lucky enough to own a set of the star charts from the 'Star Trek Maps' (Bantam Books, 1980) should take them out and look at the Sol System chart. It eerily predicts a tenth planet called 'Persephone.' ..."

Jets: "Call it Goofy! Why not? We have an object called Pluto."

Ed Szewczyk: "The last time I read anything about it, Sedna was the 10th planet, although there was a similar debate going on about its planethood. Isn't this new celestial body the potential 11th planet? How can you write an article about this without even mentioning Sedna, after all the press it garnered previously?"

Actually, last week's report does refer to Sedna, and last year's story about the object debunks the idea that Sedna was considered the 10th planet.

Barry: "I just recently got into astronomy, but it seems to me that any object that is spherical and bigger than our smallest planet Pluto could be considered a planet, regardless of where in our solar system it is or how it orbits our sun. ..."

Mary: "I do not think it is fair to name this a new planet, it is bad enough that Pluto is a planet, when it is only half the size of our moon. Please do not name 2003 UB313 a planet."

Ruth: "How many planets should there be? That shouldn't be the question. Instead it should be how many planets do you think there are? We can't just put a number to how many planets we think there should be. The planet number is how many planets there are. My guess is there are a whole lot more out there than we can even fathom...."

C. Dixon: "We actually need two more planets to complete the zodiac. Astrologers, myself included, are aware that four astrological signs share two planets.  Venus is shared by Taurus and Libra.  Mercury is shared by Gemini and Virgo.  There is a belief in the astrological community that a planet yet to be officially 'discovered,' named Vulcan, should represent Virgo.  So, yes, bring on the new planet, and another one soon please."

If we're talking about portents and signs, maybe we could add Nibiru, the paranormal "12th planet," as some Cosmic Log readers have suggested.

K. Morgan: "I propose ... a definition for a planet: a natural and spherical body gravitationally bound to a stellar object. I think that to settle the controversy regarding the large bodies being discovered in the outer portions of the solar system and their questioned planethood, the requirement of a spherical shape (or ovoid for those planets in extremely close orbits to the stellar objects) should be the defining feature. Further, the object should be natural as opposed to manufactured and should be gravitationally bound to a stellar object (from brown dwarfs to stellar black holes). If the object does not have sufficient gravity and density to create the spherical shape, it is not a planet. This definition could be further extrapolated to define a moon as a natural and spherical object gravitationally bound to a planet or other moon."

Laura: "I think that anything that does not orbit the sun on the same plane as the eight current planets should not be classified as planets. Also, if Pluto's orbit is so 'off kilter' and erratic, then it should not be the ninth planet."

Gordon: "Regarding the discovery of the new solar system object, I find it annoying that the focus seems to be on what to call the object (a planet or something else). Is this what science has degenerated into? Let's hear about what this object is like and what we know about it. Whether we call it a planet is absolutely irrelevant, and should be more of a concern to the writers of dictionaries than scientists."

Aug. 1, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET
Space race update: Millionaire space passenger Gregory Olsen is at NASA's Johnson Space Center this week for training in preparation for his October flight to the international space station, alongside the professional astronauts of Expedition 12.

When the first millionaire space passenger, Dennis Tito, showed up at NASA's gates back in 2001, he received such a cold reception that his Russian crewmates briefly boycotted their own training in protest. This time around, Olsen is being received much more warmly, and will have a seat on stage for a NASA briefing on Thursday — although the post-briefing interviews will be conducted off the space center's grounds.

Meanwhile, SpaceShipOne , the first privately developed spaceship, is on its way to the Smithsonian Institution for processing — after a week of public display at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin and a stopover at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Next month, SpaceShipOne will go on display at the National Air and Space Museum. In the meantime, you can check out Eric Hedman's report and podcast about the AirVenture experience at The Space Review.

Aug. 1, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET
More out-of-this-world tales on the Web:
SpaceRef: How NASA plans to stick with shuttle technology
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Over the moon ... in the Canadian Arctic
The Space Review: 'Magnificent Desolation' should be magnificent
Wired: I drank pee for NASA

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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