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Cosmic Log: Feb. 21-24, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: SpaceX's fourth attempt to pull off its first launch is tentatively scheduled for March. Plus: Search engines for shapes ... Take me to your funder ... Rules for lunar landers ... The neutrino hunters ... GloveSat and more.
The Falcon 1 rocket's engine fires briefly during a static-fire test on SpaceX's launch pad in Kwajalein Atoll.
The Falcon 1 rocket's engine fires briefly during a static-fire test on SpaceX's launch pad in Kwajalein Atoll.Thom Rogers / SpaceX

SpaceX sets new launch date: Space Exploration Technologies, a low-cost rocket company that some observers hope will revolutionize access to orbit, says the next opportunity for its first-ever launch has been tentatively set for March 20 to 25.

Since November, three previous launch attempts have been scratched in the final minutes of the countdown, due to unacceptable weather or glitches at the island launch pad in Kwajalein Atoll. The Pacific Ocean atoll is also used for tests of the Pentagon's missile defense system, and thus the California-based company — better known as SpaceX — has to coordinate its launch schedule with the U.S. military.

In its maiden launch, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket is due to put an Air Force Academy research satellite called FalconSat 2 into orbit to study the effects of space plasma, which can impact military communications. Cost of the launch, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been estimated at $6.7 million — which is far less than the going rate.

SpaceX's founder, dot-com millionaire Elon Musk, says he has invested about $100 million in the rocket venture, and the company has a contract potentially worth $100 million for military launches through 2010. SpaceX also has plans for even bigger rockets that could send people or payloads to the international space station and beyond. But first, that maiden flight has to get off the ground.

SpaceX's fans hope that the company will put the nascent commercial space race into overdrive, and some of them hang on Musk's every word. On Friday evening, Musk's latest missive was posted on the company's Web site:

"The tentative launch window for the maiden flight of Falcon 1 is March 20 through 25.  The gating items are receiving a shipment of liquid oxygen (LOX) from Hawaii and switching out the 2nd-stage tank.  Obviously, long-term operations on Kwaj will require that we install a state-of-the-art, high-reliability LOX plant on island.  In the meantime, we will get through first launch with LOX shipments from Hawaii and whatever output we can generate from the sad, old clunker of a LOX plant that we currently own."We are also replacing the 2nd-stage tank, following discovery of a small leak.  Fortunately, a Falcon 2nd-stage tank just barely fits through the door of a standard cargo airplane (no C-17 required), so the flight is relatively inexpensive and readily available.  Fixing the leak in the tank being shipped back is not a huge task, but also not something easily done far away from the factory.  Countdown procedures have been modified to prevent such leaks from developing in the future."The static fire performed during the last countdown attempt was really helpful as a preflight systems checkout, so we will be doing one again three or four days before the next countdown (most likely March 17).  In addition, we are doing another systems review with DARPA, AF and NASA in early March."

Sounding off on science: The American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting is like a scientific smorgasbord: a warm bowl of climatology, a dish of stem cell research, a plate of paleontology, and for dessert ... iceballs!

So it's only natural that the feedback to our AAAS coverage should be a potluck as well. For example, longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Chris Parker provided a personal spin on the scientific view that Sacramento faces the highest flood risk in the nation, after New Orleans:

"I grew up, and now again live, in Sacramento and have twice nearly lost the homes I was living in, once in the floods of '86, and the other time in '97."The north parts of town, Natomas and the area near the airport, are growing at an enormous rate, and they are part of Sacramento that are actually near or below the water level of the Sacramento and American rivers. Much of the flooding in Sacramento has not been from levee failure (though that has happened just recently), but from low-level areas not being able to drain because the water level in the rivers raises up so high in the levees."The Tahoe Park area of town where I was growing up in '86 was such an area, and I remember water shooting up into the streets from around manhole covers and street drains. Something that desperately needs to be addressed is the question of allowing further development in such low-lying areas as Natomas. While New Orleans is now examining the wisdom of rebuilding in such low-lying areas, I think Sacramento is seeing the trees, not the forest, and focusing narrowly on levee strengthening and not addressing other peripheral issues, such as development in such dangerous areas."Recently, FEMA changed developed areas designated as floodplain due to work on the American River levees, which allowed residents in those areas to drop flood insurance if they wished. This included a large portion of downtown Sacramento and all of Oak Park (right next to Tahoe Park, where I lived). The problem is that downtown, and several other re-designated areas, are closer to the Sacramento River, which is actually bigger than the American River, and lie down river from the confluence of the American and Sacramento. So levee work on the American is somewhat irrelevant — these areas are more threatened by the Sacramento River, which at that point also carries the water dumped into it from the American River. But these areas still already flood for the same reason that Tahoe Park floods — the water level in the rivers raising above the local elevation and causing backflow into the drainage system."While levee work is much needed, backflow flooding has yet to be addressed. I feel the more relevant lesson from Katrina that appears to have been lost is the usefulness of a pumping system like New Orleans has. They would certainly be useful during levee failure flooding, too, but would actually address the flooding that currently occurs regularly in the area."

You can always expect the topic of evolution in education to draw a response, and that certainly was the case for the story about how teachers are being prepared to deal with the controversy. Here are a couple of examples of the feedback:

David: "You never made clear what the teachers need protection from. Of course it is the students. They know right from wrong in this godless society. This country will explode one day, and it won't be from Islam. It's getting closer and the day will come. Some will turn away, some will be lost forever, but the rest will be harvested ... for the creator. Sound familiar?"John Nida: "I'm amazed and saddened by this specific section:"Answer: This one is simple — the courts have said not to teach this subject in this manner. Any discussion after belongs in the home or at a place of worship. If you don't like public state government-sponsored schools, enroll in a faith-based school that better suits your family needs.""Answer: Not really sure why this is an issue. Gravity is theory not fully understood yet well accepted and taught everywhere. The gathering of fact and the conclusions that follow are the natural ways science and math produce knowledge. If a child asks, 'How does my brain remember some things and not others, but my friend remembers everything he reads,' do you reply by, to borrow a word, framing a course to avoid discussing the human mind? Seems a silly point, but I remember a teachers job as to impart knowledge, not avoid it.""Answer: My sarcasm took a mighty grip here. I guess it would be too much to ask for an educator to spawn debate. But it begs the question: If an educator does not want to 'consume' valuable time, then why pursue the debate? Oops, there's that word, debate. Hmm, maybe debating is actually part of the process. Or did Socrates and Plato have this whole wacky game wrong?""Answer: So if you are not qualified to teach this content, are you saying you are qualified to teach faith-based content? Or are you saying you're not qualified to teach either content? Be that as it may, a teacher should always seek knowledge, not be defeated by it. That's laziness and an excuse allowing for failure. This concern is a failure on their part to understand the role education plays in any society. They should stay hungry for knowledge. The message should be 'Always Pursue Excellence.'"Today in our nation we have a great flexibility that others do not. With regard to this issue, teachers have missed the point. The courts have ruled time and time again, to keep church and state as separate as possible. They have not in any way shape or form said that one theory is better than another. Wonderfully, our great nation allows for and promotes the freedom to choose a different path. Public schools have been given a ruling. Those who do not agree have awesome options."

A couple of readers reacted to the newly announced list of top prospects in the search for Earthlike planets, and the fact that many of them had longtime connections to science fiction:

Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Australia: "The top 10 list of suitable stars for SETI searches is interesting from an SF point of view. You've mentioned 'Star Trek' and 'The Dispossessed' (my fave soft SF novel) which is always good. I think 'Enterprise' has put the home planets of the different extraterrestrials much further away in the galaxy — an early line is that one in 40,000 planets has intelligent life. Planets are hard to count, but if they average about 10 per star then one-4,000th of the stars have extraterrestrial intelligence, which means they average about 115 light-years apart. Andor, Vulcan and Qo'nos must be hundreds of light-years away. In a different SF universe, Known Space, Epsilon Indi is the system of 'Home,' an Earth colony that gets turned into a bunch of human Protectors. Tau Ceti is the system of the Lookitthat colony on a super-high mountain of an otherwise Venuslike planet. Wunderland is the colony planet at Alpha Centauri, which rotates on a tilted axis like Uranus and has supersonic seasonal winds. And of course Jinx's star, Sirius, didn't even get a look in because it's too young. Perhaps the reasoning for the SETI search is reasonable, but there's no guarantee the universe will oblige us."Brian Donohue: "As for SETI, we'd better hurry up with it, because we're pretty far along in making our planet into an unlivable pit of desolation. Once we find such a parallel Earth and can get there, of course, it will be just another Katrina situation, writ as large as possible: Only the top 0.5% of wage earners need apply. The poor and what's left of the middle class will be left to die right here. Now there's an interesting idea for a novel. Time to get to work."

And that's a reminder for me to get to work selecting another pick for our Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Of course I have one in mind already, and Adam has effectively put "The Dispossessed" into the hopper — but if you have other suggestions, send them in. If I use your pick, I'll send you some swag from the AAAS meeting.

Feb. 24, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Arctic Passage'NASA: Scientist looks at Olympic ice in frozen lightNew Scientist: Enzyme computer could live inside you
Sciam Observations: The rise of crimeware
The Guardian: DNA could reveal a criminal's surname

A search engine for shapes: Everyone has a favorite Web site when it comes to looking for Web pages or even images that match up with a phrase like "Cosmic Log." But what do you use if you're looking for a doohickey with a particular shape?

Something like the shape-searching 3D-Seek software tool, created by Indiana-based Imaginestics with an assist from the National Science Foundation, might be the perfect thing for the befuddled hardware shopper — or, for that matter, artistic dabblers everywhere.

Even if you're not in the market for a hinge or a rotary stepping motor, it's fun to play around with 3D-Seek: Once you've downloaded the proper controls, you can use your mouse to doodle a shape, or upload a photo of the whatsit in question, then hit the search button to find  thingamajigs that come close to a match. You can rotate a 3-D online rendering of each thingamajig, and follow Web links to a site where you can order the darn thing.

Practically speaking, the shape-search engine is set up for companies that need to check a whole bunch of suppliers for industrial parts that fit certain specifications. Why not just look up the part number, you ask? Well, you might not know those details — or there might be multiple manufacturers for essentially identical parts.

In today's news release from the NSF, Imaginestics President Nainesh Rathod cites one estimate that the lack of a proper shape-search technology resulted in duplicate purchases for 10 to 16 percent of parts. That's why Imaginestics' founders took their research project from Purdue University and are now trying to turn it into a business.

"In order to make such a search engine commercially viable we had to overcome the challenge of matching something as rudimentary as a doodle to a 3-D object — in seconds," Rathod said. "This is important, as Web users have become accustomed to retrieving information instantaneously. Our shape-search engine processes data that are far more complex than those handled by the leading Internet search engines, and yet still finds results quickly."

I can imagine shape searching coming in handy in other applications as well — ranging from a clip-art database to an online "what is it?" game for kids.

3D-Seek isn't the only shape-search engine out there. The Princeton 3-D Model Search Engine lets you doodle the outlines of an object as seen from as many as three perspectives, and when I sketched in a cartoon face, it did a pretty good job of finding sculpted busts (and snowmen) to match.

What's more, shapes aren't the only non-textual information worth searching for: For years, programmers have been working on melody search engines for those nameless tunes that stick in your brain. Usually, the search engines involve keying in a musical phrase, using Java-enabled piano keys. That's the concept behind Classical Music Search, an oldie but goodie that had no trouble finding the "da-da-da-daaaaah!" theme from Beethoven's Fifth but didn't turn up Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" when I keyed it in.

Another choice is Musipedia, which zeroed right in on "Do-Re-Mi" when I typed a couple of bars. However, I continued to strike out with Wagner's "Ride" until I used the text-based Parsons Code feature, which is so simple even a tuneless science geek can figure it out.

Do you have other favorite ways to search for the unspeakable? You realize I'm talking here about non-word-based queries — as opposed to word-based video searches or word-based image searches (I notice that "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken's picture is among the hits for "unspeakable" images, which is interesting ... but I digress). Send in your multimedia search strategies, and I'll pass them along. 

Feb. 23, 2006 |
Something old, something new, something scientific:
Berkeley Lab: Intelligent design used for molecular evolution
PhysOrg: Venerable ultraviolet satellite is back in business
Univ. at Buffalo: At old volcanoes, slopes turn mudflows deadly
Vanderbilt U.: New evidence backs Darwin's theories

Take me to your funder: His Seahawks may not have won the Super Bowl, and he may not have gotten that congratulatory phone call from the White House, but software billionaire Paul Allen has what may be an even bigger speed-dial distinction: If the SETI Institute ever detects radio signals from an alien civilization, Allen is No. 1 on the list of VIPs to call, says institute astronomer Jill Tarter.

Tarter, who heads the California-based institute's Center for SETI Research, has been involved in radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence for more than two decades — including a stretch in the 1980s and 1990s when the search received funding from NASA.

Back then, NASA had set up a detailed procedure for letting politicos know about the detection of potential alien signals before word was officially released to the public. But after government funding for SETI research was cut off in 1994, the SETI Institute has been relying exclusively on private support for its alien-hunting activities (although it still receives NASA grants for non-SETI research and education).

When SETI's funding sources changed, so did the alien alert system, Tarter told reporters in St. Louis at last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Today it is in fact a group of very generous philanthropists who will get the call before we get a press conference," Tarter said.

Later, Tarter told me that Allen was first on that phone list. That's doubtless because of his very, very generous support for the institute — which has amounted to $25 million so far.

The crown jewel for that support is the Allen Telescope Array, a network of linked radio telescopes that is being built in Northern California under the auspices of the institute as well as the University of California at Berkeley. The array is due to start operations with 42 dishes online this spring, representing one more big step toward the 350-dish goal.

Former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, a million-dollar backer of the telescope array, is also on the list, Tarter said.

At the AAAS meeting, astronomers announced five top prospects for the SETI search — and Tarter said those stars would certainly be targeted for closer looks by the telescope array, a task that takes about a day per star system.

However, such targeted inspections are not the first order of business once operations begin. Instead, the institute is planning a large-area survey of our Milky Way galaxy's central region, which will allow for other radio astronomy observations not related to the search for alien signals. That's an important element of the Allen Telescope Array: that it's not just for SETI any more.

So even if there's no message from E.T., the contributions from Allen, Myhrvold and those other "very generous philanthropists" will have an impact on astronomy for decades to come. And you never know: Someday that call to Paul Allen just might come through.

"I'm sure it's a call we'd all be looking forward to," said Michael Nank, a spokesman for Allen's Vulcan Inc.

Rules for lunar landers: A couple of weeks ago, sources at NASA and the X Prize Foundation said they would be organizing a $2 million contest for lunar lander prototypes that could get started as early as this October. Today, the foundation said it was releasing its draft rules as a PDF file for public comment.

The draft rules would split the $2 million purse between two prize levels, with $500,000 in prizes for a "Level 1" contest ($350,000 for first, $150,000 for second); and $1.5 million for the more difficult "Level 2" competition ($1 million for first, $350,000 for second and $150,000 for third).

A takeoff-and-landing course would be set up with two points separated by somewhere between 328 and 656 feet (100 and 200 meters). The unmanned, remote-controlled landers would have to take off vertically from Point A under rocket power, climb to a height of more than 328 feet (100 meters), then land within 33 feet (10 meters) of Point B. After five minutes, the landers would have to return to within 33 feet of Point A under the same conditions.

For the Level 1 contest, the landers would have to stay aloft for at least 90 seconds during each leg of the round trip. For the Level 2, that minimum hover time would be 180 seconds. Also, the Point B landing site would be nice and flat for Level 1 tests, but as rugged as a moonscape for Level 2.

The whole idea is that the rules should reflect the kind of energy and control that would be required for an actual lunar landing — which of course is a requirement for NASA's plan to return to the moon by 2018.

The X Prize Foundation stressed that these rules were "in no way binding, and should not be treated as official rules." Comment on the draft rules will be accepted until March 1. But if the draft is any indication of what the real rules will be, there's a tight schedule for teams that want to compete at the X Prize Cup this October: Competitors would have to register with the X Prize Foundation by May 15.

‘GloveSat’ spotted: More than two weeks after it was pushed into orbit from the international space station, the spacesuit-turned-satellite known as SuitSat appears to have gone silent. Its amateur-radio signal never was all that strong, which came as a disappointment to many listeners around the world — but the drama surrounding SuitSat provided plenty of buzz nonetheless.

In an e-mail, NBC News space analyst James Oberg reports that SuitSat itself apparently spawned a curious minisatellite of its own just a few days after its deployment:

"The mystery object was detected on Feb. 11 in the routine tracking data released by NORAD, which assigned a new 'object number' to the debris on Feb. 9, showing it to be orbiting very close to the spacesuit. Amateur satellite watchers in North America and Great Britain shared their calculations with me that indicated the object's orbit had diverged from the spacesuit three days earlier, on Feb. 6 — four days after the spacesuit was jettisoned."Space engineers I exchanged e-mail with suggested it might be one of the gloves, or the 'control box' mounted on the helmet. Now I'm being told that the 'working hypothesis' is that the object is one of those gloves, which may not have been fully 'engaged' when the suit was prepared for jettison."The glove is even lighter than the suit and will decay even faster. The suit itself is visible to trained observers, both with binoculars and even the naked eye, but the glove would take a computer-steered telescope of some size."Suitsat is proving to be even more interesting in its hiccups than it would have been if all had gone as planned. It's a great experiment."

Feb. 22, 2006 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
PhysicsWeb: Mystery of the skipping stone (via GeekPress) Gizmos trump gowns at nerd Oscars
Improbable Research: Dancer or octopus?The Onion: Army of identical scientists lobbies for cloning

The neutrino hunters: What happens when a theorist and an experimenter come up with contradictory scientific results? Either the theory or the data must be in error, right?

Well ... not always. For more than 30 years, there was a disconnect between theory and observation when it came to the scientific mystery surrounding neutrinos, subatomic particles that stream out from the sun by the billions but are devilishly difficult to detect. In the end, it turned out that the theory and the data were all stunningly correct — it was merely our understanding of the universe that was wrong.

The tale of the solar neutrino is the theme of "The Ghost Particle," a "Nova" documentary that's premiering tonight on PBS television stations. It's a tale that could well be instructive for some of the other seeming paradoxes of physics — such as the mismatch between general relativity and quantum mechanics, or the unknowns surrounding dark energy and dark matter.

"It's a wonderful human-interest story, because here the predictor did not back down, and the measurer did not back down," said Boris Kayser, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. "This went on for decades, and in the end it was proved that they were both right."

The theorist was John Bahcall at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The experimenter was Ray Davis at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. In the late 1960s, Davis set up an experiment to measure the pings from solar neutrinos as they passed straight through the Earth. The measuring device was a sensor-equipped 100,000-gallon tank, located almost a mile underground in an old South Dakota gold mine and filled with dry-cleaning solvent.

Bahcall worked out how many pings Davis should register, based on everything that was known about solar physics. In 1968, Davis and his team reported what seemed like disappointing results: The number of detections was only a third of what Bahcall had predicted.

The difficulties involved in Bahcall's calculations and Davis' observations were so great that it would have been "very easy to dismiss the discrepancy of a factor of three as an experimental error, or a theoretical error, or both," Kayser told me last week. So they both reworked their figures.

The conclusion? "Yes, they could be wrong," Kayser said, "but not by enough to explain a discrepancy by a factor of three."

So how could they both be right? Their figures were correct, as far as they went. However, they didn't know that during the trip between the sun and the Earth, two-thirds of the neutrinos were morphing from a type that could be detected in the tank into two other types of neutrinos that couldn't be detected.

"Because two-thirds are doing that, Davis only sees a third as many as Bahcall says the sun is producing," Kayser said.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Canada built two kilometers below ground, housing an acrylic sphere containing 1,000 tons of heavy water. Credit: DOX Productions for NOVA

The fact that neutrinos can morph from one type to another as they fly from the sun was confirmed in 2001 by the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada. It was a revolutionary finding, because it meant that neutrinos had a tiny amount of mass. Previously, particle physicists had thought that neutrinos were massless, like photons.

Neutrinos can't weigh that much. They're far less than a millionth as massive as electrons, and by themselves they can't solve the universe's "missing mass" problem. But that tiny amount of mass could have a bearing on other mysteries.

For example, why is the balance between matter and antimatter so lopsided? Kayser said that could have resulted from a "seesaw mechanism" involving lighter and heavier neutrinos. Yet another possible quest is to chart the neutrino afterglow from the first instant of the universe's existence.

"If someone should be able to detect the neutrinos from the Big Bang, there's probably an airline trip to Stockholm waiting for that person," Kayser said, referring to the Nobel Prize.

Davis himself won the 2002 Nobel Prize for physics, and in his honor, Bahcall wrote a Nobel essay on the cracking of the solar neutrino mystery.

Unfortunately, Davis is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which kept him from delivering his own Nobel lecture and limited his ability to participate in the making of "The Ghost Particle." Bahcall played a starring role in the documentary, which was filmed in 2003 — but the theorist passed away last fall at the age of 70, before the show could air on PBS.

Thus, it's up to a new generation of particle physicists to follow up on the solar neutrino solution. But the deeper lesson of the solar neutrino problem — that two opposing claims can be both right and wrong — should carry over to other scientific pursuits as well.

"It's sobering," Kayser said. "It breeds humility."

Xena seen: Amateur astronomers say they've made the first "through-the-eyepiece" sighting of what many consider the solar system's 10th planet, currently nicknamed Xena. But unless you've got a monster telescope, don't try this at home. Even with the 82-inch (2.1-meter) telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, the astronomers almost literally had to look cross-eyed to spot the incredibly faint object. "If you looked straight at it, you'd never see it," Louis Berman of the St. Louis Astronomical Society said in a news release that tells the whole story. Professional astronomers discovered Xena last year with the aid of a computerized imaging system.

Virtual test pilot: California-based XCOR Aerospace says it has teamed up with Silicon Graphics and Metacomp Technologies on a high-end computing project to iron out the virtual kinks in the design of its proposed Xerus suborbital spaceship.

Xcor Aerospace

Silicon Graphics is providing an Altix 3000 server on which Metacomp's simulation software will be running to work out the computational fluid dynamics for the horizontal-takeoff-and-landing rocket plane.

“We can speed up the design process while increasing flight test safety,” XCOR Aerospace's chief aerodynamicist Paul Glessner, explained in today's news release. “Modeling the aerodynamic stability, control and handling qualities of the vehicle on a supercomputer takes the place of expensive and time-consuming testing. We gain a better understanding of the performance and handling characteristics of the vehicle from takeoff, supersonic flight, through re-entry from space.”

XCOR's Rich Pournelle told me that computerized modeling is one of the big reasons why it's less dangerous to be a test pilot today than it was in the "Right Stuff" era, back in the 1950s and 1960s. He also said "development is going well" in the Xerus project, although he declined to provide details or a timeline.

Xerus hasn't yet gotten to the metal-bending stage, but XCOR already has a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration for a test vehicle.

XCOR is also involved in a marketing relationship with Virginia-based Space Adventures, which revealed last week that it had struck a couple of deals for the development of a different suborbital spaceship, the Russian-built Explorer. Pournelle said Space Adventures' announcement "doesn't change our relationship with them."

Feb. 21, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The science of ice can be slipperyBBC: Predators 'drove human evolution'
Digital Bits: NASA's plans for solar sails (via Slashdot) Some people are just born to dance

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