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Cosmic Log: Feb. 4-10, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: NASA rocket contest planned for X Prize Cup. Plus: NASA and the Olympics .. Geeks bearing gifts ... Predicting the Olympics ... Olympics from space ...  Galaxy-go-round ... Big Bang politics ... Microscopic Mars.

Feb. 10, 2006 |
Gentlemen, start your lunar landers! Rocket-powered test versions of potential moon-landing spaceships will be vying for up to $2 million at October's X Prize Cup as part of NASA's nearly announced Lunar Lander Analog Challenge.

At least that's the plan formulated by the X Prize Foundation's Peter Diamandis, who told me today that the draft rules for the competition should be issued "as early as the end of next week."

The rocket contest, announced at last October's Countdown to the X Prize Cup expo, would be part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program. Brant Sponberg, the program's manager, said during this week's Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington that the lunar lander rules were almost ready for release.

Diamandis, the mastermind behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize, was just wrapping up a chat with Sponberg and others at NASA when I checked in with him by telephone today. Based on the early expressions of interest, Diamandis expected that October's first lunar lander contest would feature "a dozen flights" at the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, N.M.

Although the formal rules haven't yet been issued, Sponberg told me last October that the contest would probably involve suborbital rockets taking off vertically, achieving a maximum speed of Mach 6 to Mach 8, then landing vertically. That's the kind of technology required for safe landings on the moon. (To practice your skills, check out SpaceDev's Lunar Lander Simulator.)

Diamandis is psyched about October because of the upcoming challenge, and for other reasons as well: In all, he hopes to see 20 to 30 rocket-powered demonstrations, including the first race presented by the Rocket Racing League. He also hopes to see attendance skyrocket. "We think we can bring in up to 50,000 people," he told me.

NASA has bigger plans as well: A couple of days ago, the space agency put out a call for comments and partners with the aim of creating a new flock of Centennial Challenges:

  • Fuel Depot Demonstration Challenge: $5 million for the first team to "build, launch and demonstrate a subscale liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen storage or production facility system in Earth orbit."
  • Human Lunar All-Terrain Vehicle Challenge: A $1 million race for human-operated all-terrain vehicles capable of traversing the lunar landscape for the purposes of scientific exploration and general astronaut mobility.
  • Low-Cost Space Pressure Suit Challenge: $500,000 for the first team to show that its spacesuit prototype meets "design and test requirements, including a depressurization test on an instrumented mannequin in a test chamber." NASA says the winning team would have to sell a certain number of suits on the open market to demonstrate that its suit is cost-effective.
  • Lunar Night Power Source Challenge: $500,000 for the first team "to demonstrate a rechargeable power source that provides power over a period of one lunar night (approximately 14 days) while meeting volume and heat requirements."
  • Micro Re-entry Vehicle Challenge: $2 million for the development of an orbital re-entry vehicle that can "return six of 12 common hen eggs safely to Earth from low Earth orbit without damage."
  • Station-Keeping Solar Sail Challenge: This is a two-fer competition, with two prizes of $2.5 million each. One prize would go to the first team "to deploy a solar sailcraft, demonstrate a resultant trajectory acceleration change of at least .05 millimeters per second squared, and fly along a trajectory that will pass through a defined target located at the first sun-Earth Lagrange point (L1)." The other prize would go to the team that enters a defined region at the L1 point and stays there for 90 consecutive days.

This is just the first stage of formulating the challenge, and NASA hasn't yet identified the partners who would actually run the contest. But you can check out the details of the draft rules (in an online Word document) to get an early start.

NASA has already gotten a crop of less pricey Centennial Challenges going, but its current budget allows for much bigger purses.

Then there's the really big prize for private-sector orbital spaceflight, which could involve tens of millions of dollars. It's no secret that the X Prize Foundation and NASA have been talking about such a prize program, and Bigelow Aerospace has already offered $50 million for an orbital follow-up to the X Prize, known as America's Space Prize. May the best rocketeers win, be they gentlemen or ladies.

Feb. 10, 2006 |
NASA and the Olympics: Everybody wants to get into the Olympic act, and that goes for the space agency as well. NASA offers a series of short videos from U.S. Olympic athletes on a variety of space subjects — including skier Eric on whether he could double his quadruple-twisting flip with a perfect landing on the moon, which has just one-sixth of Earth's gravity. Other guest stars include bobsledder Todd Hays and snowboarders Hannah Teter and Kier Dillon.

Feb. 10, 2006 |
Geeks bearing gifts: What to get your geeky valentine? Diamonds are merely compressed forms of charcoal — but for something a little more off the beaten track, you might consider Made With Molecules jewelry (tip o' the Log to Inky Circus), or perhaps a chunk of aerogel carved in the shape of a heart (tip to HobbySpace).

Feb. 10, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Jewel of the Earth'The Economist: Transforming taxonomyThe New Yorker: Remaking Mary Magdalene
Game-theoretical approach to toilet seat closure (via GeekPress)

Feb. 10, 2006 |
Dismal science at the Olympics: Economics is called the "dismal science," I suppose, because it tends to look at cold, heartless numbers rather than the beauty of fresh snow, a perfect dismount or a triple lutz.

But when you start talking about the gold, silver and bronze of the Winter Olympics, it's hard for even an economist to stay out of the game. And it's equally hard to argue with the contention that Olympic prowess in part reflects the economic wherewithal of the nation in question.

"Winning Olympic medals isn't going to make your country rich," Dartmouth College economist Andrew Bernard told me, "but being rich and powerful lets you do a lot of things, and one of the things it lets you do is spend a lot of money on athletes."

That's probably why Bernard and other economists take an interest in the most basic quantitative measure of success at the Games: the medal count. Over the years, researchers have developed several computational models that plug in purely economic and demographic data (as well as the "host effect," which gives an extra edge to the Olympic host country) to produce predictions for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

These economists don't care whether speedskater Apolo Ohno is having a bad day, or whether figure skater Michelle Kwan is over the hill.

"While specific knowledge about the potential competitors may provide a better prediction for individual events, adding up the predictions on a sport-by-sport basis can produce a case where the whole is different from the sum of its parts," Wade Pfau of Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies says in the introduction to his 2006 predictions (PDF file).

Can economists really do a better job of predicting the medal count than sportswriters? There's another justification for the "dismal science" tag: During the 2004 Olympics, at least, many of the economists' predictions underestimated the U.S. tally, while the sportswriters were closer to the actual return of 103 medals for Team USA.

At least one economist was right on the money, however: Colorado College's Daniel K.N. Johnson. He not only got the total number right, but his estimate of 35 gold medals was just two short of the actual take.

This year, the predictions are all over the map. Johnson predicts 22 total medals for the Americans, with eight gold. Dutch economists Gerard Kuper and Elmer Sterken predict 24 total, with 10 gold. Pfau has a sunnier outlook for the United States: 31 total, with nine gold. But once again, the sportswriters are coming up with higher projected tallies than the economists: Our own Mike Celizic, for example, forecasts a range of 30 to 36 total U.S. medals, with eight to 12 gold. That's right in the ballpark for other pundits.

The economists as well as the scribes put Germany in the top spot for the medals race, with the United States, Norway and Russia scrambling for the second tier of prestige. But none of the economists whose predictions I've seen expect the Americans to match the 34-medal tally they achieved at the last Winter Olympics, held in Utah in 2002.

So if you're in the mood for a little geek vs. jock competition, think of it this way: Score one for the math geeks if the U.S. medal count comes in at less than 30 — but if the count exceeds 31, the sports jocks should have the bragging rights once again.

Bernard is one economist who's sitting this game out. "We don't do winter," he told me. "The reason is that there are not enough countries, not enough events and not enough athletes."

Because the Winter Olympics is a smaller-scale event than the Summer Olympics, the sample size just isn't large enough to produce the averaging effect Bernard and his colleagues generally look for.

"When we did it for Utah [in 2002], we looked at the results and said, 'Nahhh, I don't think so,'" Bernard said. "From my perspective, that makes the Winter Games a little more fun, because I don't know what's going to happen."

Colorado College's Johnson agrees that the Winter Games are dicier than the Summer Games, statistically speaking. He himself badly underestimated the U.S. medal count for the 2002 Olympics, although it's not clear whether that was an anomaly or a sign that the formulas have to be fiddled with.

"The sample size is so small that idiosyncratic events — like Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican bobsled team — can throw the statistics off," he told me.

Feb. 9, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web: NASA considers new Centennial Clay allowed advent of large animals
Nat'l Geographic: Henry VIII's lost chapel found under parking lotThe Guardian: Enough already

Feb. 9, 2006 |
The Olympics from space: Just as athletes and fans are focusing on the Italian city of Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics, so are Earth-imaging satellites: You'll be able to see views from space in time for the opening ceremonies, according to DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, the United States' two major commercial satellite imagery providers.


The images might not be up-to-the-minute fresh — in fact, the pictures that are publicly available now were taken months ago.

Nevertheless, the views from on high add to the flavor of this year's Games, just as they did for earlier Olympics in Athens and Salt Lake City.

GeoEye, which was recently formed when Orbimage Holdings acquired Space Imaging's assets, has already put some cool, zoomable imagery of Turin sports venues online. Spokeswoman Val Webb told me that GeoEye is gearing up to post 3-D virtual tours of Turin as well. DigitalGlobe, meanwhile, will be offering a gallery of Turin imagery on its Web site, said spokesman Chuck Herring. (Here's a low-resolution taste.)

Digital Globe

Years ago, the European Space Agency's ERS radar satellite provided some ultra-wide-angle images of Turin that are now available as part of the agency's Cities Satellite Views gallery. There's also an Envisat image of the Alps that includes Turin in the picture.

If you're nostalgic for Olympics past, you can still review the satellite coverage of Athens from DigitalGlobe, GeoEye and the Athens 2004 Web site, as well as Salt Lake sights from NASA and in 2002.

And if you're in the mood for a sweepstakes, you can enter a contest sponsored by Fiat and Google Earth that involves picking spots on satellite imagery of the Turin Olympic sites. If you select the right spot, you could win a car. But check the PDF document listing the rules; you'll need Google Earth software to play the game.

Feb. 8, 2006 |
Whimsy and wonderings on the World Wide Web:
NASA: Lunar Olympics
Technology Review: NASA's 'bizarre' cutsNew Scientist: Brain scans reveal power of Super Bowl adsThe Onion: NASA completely forgot probe was returning today

Feb. 7, 2006 |
Galaxy-go-round: The latest image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a dazzling pinwheel of stars, viewed face-on in the galaxy NGC 1309. But this isn't just a pretty galactic face: By sizing up the latest image against earlier views of the same galaxy, as well as observations of other galaxies, astronomers can get a better fix on the universe's past and future.

Left Image: W. Li / Uc-berkeley

Putting Hubble's image alongside a picture from the Lick Observatory illustrates how the comparison works. The big difference is the bright spot just to the right of center in the Lick picture: That's supernova 2002fk, an exploding star that was the brightest object in the galaxy for several weeks in the autumn of 2002.

The light from this particular kind of blast, known as a Type Ia supernova, can be analyzed to determine how fast the galaxy was receding at the time, thanks to the Doppler effect. By observing the same type of supernova in galaxies at various distances from Earth, astronomers can determine how the universe's expansion rate has changed over different phases of cosmic history.

Those numbers could provide clues to unlock the mysteries of dark energy, the little-understood quality that is apparently causing the expansion to speed up as time goes on. Has dark energy's influence been constant, as called for in Einstein's theories, or is there some variability in the cosmic speed-up? Is our universe headed for a "Big Chill" fadeout or a "Big Rip" cataclysm? Such ultimate questions could be addressed, if not completely answered, by the data from galaxies like NGC 1309.

But in order to get the most precise numbers, astronomers need to know as best they can the distance for the galaxies they're observing. That's why the fresh high-resolution imagery from Hubble, gathered last August and September, is so useful: Another, fainter type of star known as a Cepheid variable — visible in the Hubble pictures — can be used as a "yardstick" to calibrate the galaxy's distance.

Astronomers already know that NGC 1309 is roughly 100 million light-years from Earth, in the Eridanus galactic group. But the Hubble imagery will help supernova-watchers fill out their database with better numbers, which in turn will help them come up with better answers to the ultimate questions.

Check out this archived item for more on dark energy and its implcations for the Big Chill vs. the Big Rip.

Feb. 7, 2006 |
Extra test for SpaceX: Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is postponing its third attempt to launch its first Falcon 1 rocket by another day, to allow time for an engine test right on the launch pad on Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean. The Falcon launch is being closely watched because if SpaceX is successful, it could open the way for a series of low-cost orbital launches. But the launch has been delayed twice so far in the final minutes of the countdown — the first time because of a helium leak, and the second time because of a pressurization glitch that damaged the rocket's first stage.

Here's SpaceX's latest update:

"As an additional reliability measure, SpaceX will conduct a full test of vehicle systems, including initiating the flight countdown autosequence and briefly firing the main engine on the launch stand.  This test will take place Thursday, February 9 (California time).  If no flight critical anomalies are detected, launch will take place on Friday, February 10. The launch window on Friday is 1-7 p.m. (California time)."

The first Falcon payload will be a research satellite for the U.S. Air Force Academy. For more about the launch and SpaceX's grander vision, check out this report about the aborted second attempt — and stay tuned for the word on how Thursday's test went.

Feb. 8, 2006 |
Big Bang politics: Is there pressure at NASA to downplay views that run counter to the Bush administration's political views on climate change — or other scientific issues with religious ramifications, such as the origins of life and the universe? As mentioned on Monday, reports in The New York Times suggested that there was some spin control going on with respect to even Big Bang cosmology.

NASA Watch and the Times (registration required) report that George Deutsch, the politically connected NASA spokesman who was involved in such spin control, has resigned. This came after indications that Deutsch did not have the journalism degree he claimed to have on his resume. My efforts to contact Deutsch over the past couple of days have been unsuccessful, and NASA has declined further comment on his situation.

Here are some of your views on the subject:

Joey Gooch, Benson, N.C.: "I disagree with George Deutsch's comment that NASA shouldn't make statements 'about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.' I for one believe in a creative force that made and shaped this universe. But science is a path of discovery and to censor that data ... scientific data ... is wrong. Data does not lie, and the truth can not be hidden. It can be misinterpreted, but data is the direct relation with the world we have. Eventually, I believe the scientific community will prove the existence of that creative force. But let's not put the cart before the horse. Science is only one of many ways to exploring the universe. Religion is another, as are philosophy and the arts. Each has a path to take and has different methods to getting to a conclusion. I say respect the others who take another path. Let science use its methods. In time, they will prove the existence of a creator. If not, they are going to have to show me the proof there isn't."Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg, Pa.: "There also seems to be a current NASA taboo about looking for life on Mars. On its very first attempt, the European Space Agency tried to send an instrument that could detect life directly on the Red Planet with a lander that was about half the size of one of our two rovers, which are not built to detect life. In this regard, my suggestions for rover names would have been Embarrassment and Missed Opportunity. Mars is the nearest planet largely believed to have once held life, and it is an embarrisment not to have at least given one of the rovers a simple suite of instruments that could have tested for it. Even the new Polar Lander/Phoenix mission is really only built to test for ground water ice to my knowledge — something already proven, at least in my book. ..."Judith: "I can understand the science world not addressing the idea of a creator. They have to deal with evidence, facts. But I don't understand the Bushites. How does the Big Bang theory discount an intelligent design by a creator? Maybe the Big Bang, or whatever the process, was a design by a creator. I've read that the translation of 'creation in seven days' is in error. The translation should be 'seven phases.' Personally, I do not see any contradictions between science and the possibility of a creator."Thomas, New Albany, Ind.: "Being a scientist and also somewhat religious (maybe I'm covering all the bases?), I find this talk of creationism offensive. What happened to separation of church and state since Bush took office. How dare he think he has such authority to encourage and even carry the banner for intelligent design? Are we going to start telling people the world is flat next year? We should be moving forward, not reverse."Mic: "The Kansas School Board is going to change. The vast majority of religious Kansans (from Kansas) are as irritated as the rest of the world with the nonscientific insertion of religion in government. Science is science, not to be mixed up with religious points of views. We Kansans can almost guarantee the removal of individuals on that school board who have embarrassed all Christians with their propaganda. Just like Islam has their extremists, we Christians have ours. ..."Theo Jager, Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada: "How little we know and how much we do indeed. But what are politicians doing in this? Not a chance that politicians have anything useful to contribute besides very hollow phrases. Religion should not be mentioned, and freedom of thinking should and has to remain intact if science has even a remote chance of being heard. The Big Bang theory has not been unproven, and neither have some of the other theories. Eventually we will learn the answer. But never ever with the help of politicians. Let the scientists to what they do best and let the politicians stay in politics, where they can do the least damage."

Feb. 7, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Wired: Ad scientists stir up online brew
ScienceNow: Which fake cure works better?
Nature: Dark matter warms up
New Scientist: Planet debate ends up as deadlock

Feb. 6, 2006 |
Microscopic Mars: NASA's Mars rovers have sent back some amazing horizon-to-horizon panoramas of the Red Planet — but you could argue that the biggest scientific advances have come from the closest encounters.

Nasa / Jpl-caltech / Cornell / U

The best evidence that at least some regions of Mars were once covered by water has come from microscopic views documenting the effect of wave action on ancient sediments. Just in the past week or so, the rovers have sent still more pictures that appear to chronicle how volcanic activity, wind and water sculpted the Martian surface.

For example, check out the Spirit rover's pictures of wind-worn volcanic lava in Gusev Crater's "Inner Basin." When the lava rolled over the landscape, billions of years ago, tiny pockets of gas bubbled through the molten rock, creating what NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory called a "frozen sponge" effect.

Then the lava was sandblasted by Martian winds, wearing away the surface until the tiny pockets were exposed. Even now, sand swirls within the pits, creating the approximately inch-wide abstract sculpture seen in the pictures from Spirit's microscopic imager, or MI. Since then, Spirit has moved on to a rock nicknamed Home Plate.

Nasa / Jpl-caltech / Cornell / U

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, the Opportunity rover is studying different types of rock in Meridiani Planum, nicknamed Overgaard and Roosevelt. The snapshots captured by Opportunity's microscopic imager may not be as aesthetic as Spirit's mini-lavascape, but the rocks appear to exhibit the kind of layering that hints at water's effect.

In Sunday's mission update, principal rover scientist Steve Squyres doesn't go into detail, but he does indicate that the rover missions are still uncovering scientific mysteries after more than two years on the Red Planet:

"... Just the story at Meridiani would be good enough. We've wrapped up all the MI work on Upper Overgaard. It was a struggle, but everything's done, it's all in focus, and we're ready to move on. We had a go/no-go meeting this morning, and with everything we wanted at Upper Overgaard in the can, we're now ready to move on to Roosevelt. Commands have been uplinked, and we'll see what we see next."And then there's Home Plate. Wow. We've really pushed hard for this, with the rover planners executing one spectacular drive after another for days now. Today we pulled up in front of the north edge of Home Plate, and it's stunning... by far the best layering we've ever seen at Gusev. Check out the Pancam images from Sol 744 as soon as you have a chance. Only the fine-scale layering we've seen at Meridiani comes close."It's too early to tell what we're dealing with. This stuff could be volcanic, it could have been formed by impact, or it could be sedimentary. Everything's on the table at this point. We've got a lot of work to do here."Because it's a weekend, most of us were looking at these pictures from home when they first hit the ground, rather than in our offices, and most of the initial reactions came via email. It made for some pretty amusing email traffic, dominated mostly by phrases like 'WOW!!!', 'Holy Toledo', 'just glued to the screen', "Superbowl? Who cares about the Superbowl?', and other exclamations not appropriate to print here. Real scientific stuff. :)"The outcrop right in front of us is named Gibson, after the baseball player Josh Gibson. It'll take a sol or two to approach it, and then we're going to have to put together some kind of IDD campaign. [IDD stands for "instrument deployment device," the rover's robotic arm]. It's difficult terrain... rugged and steep. But the slopes face north, which is good for power, and the rover planners have gotten very good at dealing with this kind of stuff. So I'm optimistic."The bottom line for now is that we've got a spectacular mystery in front of us, and far more questions than we have answers. I've got my guesses, of course, but Mars has fooled us so many times this mission that I'm going to keep them to myself. We'll just move in, do what we need to do, and see if we can figure out what's going on here. Stay tuned... it's going to be interesting for a while."

To keep up with the exploration saga, check in with our "Return to the Red Planet" section.

Feb. 6, 2006 |
The politics of theories: The culture clash between politics and mainstream science has been taken up a notch, due to reports about NASA's spin control on climate change — and, it turns out, cosmology as well.

The New York Times' Saturday story (registration required) follows up on NASA climate scientist James Hansen's claims that some of the space agency's public affairs folks have been muzzling his views on global warming. Hansen says that industrial emissions are a significant factor behind higher global mean temperatures, and that the trend could have "dire consequences" if emissions aren't reduced. Needless to say, that doesn't square with the Bush administration's stand.

The controversy over Hansen's comments led NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to send agency employees an e-mail on Friday, saying that public affairs officers shouldn't "alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff." But according to the Times, global warming wasn't the only taboo in some quarters. One directive apparently had to do with referring to the Big Bang as "just a theory" — and that's what now has scientist types really angry.

By itself, there's nothing wrong with the "theory" label. In fact, that's the preferred style at The Associated Press. To wit:

    big-bang theory: The theory that the universe began with the explosion of a superdense primeval atom and has been expanding ever since.    The oscillating theory, another hypothesis, maintains that expansion eventuall will stop, followed by contraction to a superdense atom, followed by another big bang.    The steady-state theory, an alternative hypothesis, maintains that the universe always has existed and that matter constatntly is being created to replace matter that is constantly being destroyed.

OK, you can quibble with AP's reference to an "atom" — and although it's true that there are alternatives to Big Bang theory, the alternatives don't fit the current cosmological data nearly as well.  But in NASA's case, the outrage has more to do with the report that NASA spokesman George Deutsch, a former Bush-Cheney campaign worker, told a Web site contractor that the Big Bang was "not proven fact; it is opinion"; that NASA shouldn't make a statement "about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator"; and that the debate was "more than a science issue, it is a religious issue."

The idea that NASA would introduce intelligent design as a factor to be considered in presenting scientific information, as if it were a Kansas school board, set alarm bells ringing all over the blogosphere.

Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait declared Saturday. Plait is an astronomer at Sonoma State University who once worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and is still involved in NASA's Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope project. Scores of commentators have weighed in as well (Plait lists more than 40). Over at NASA Watch, Keith Cowing says that if NASA's Griffin is serious about science communication, "then a good first step would be to fire George Deutsch — now."

NASA officials might just weather the Big Bang tempest, just as they weathered the earlier storm over James Hansen's comments. Will the religious angle change the dynamics of the debate? Weigh in with your own comments, and stay tuned for updates.

Feb. 6, 2006 |
Other destinations on the scientific Web:
Slate: The unlikely rock star of intelligent Computer senses user's frustration
Science News: Predicting OscarDefense Tech: Send in the 'Star Wars' Stormtroopers

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