Cosmic Log: March 4-10, 2006

Alien water everywhere? The water-spewing Saturnian moon known as Enceladus may be the latest and greatest prospect in the search for alien life, but it's not the only one. Before this week, Mars and Europa were the top picks for astrobiologists, and Brown University planetary geologist James Head says there may be even more in our own solar system.

"It just pushes the reset button on our thinking about subsurface water," he said in reference to this week's news about Enceladus. Then he referred back to the Galileo probe's study of Jupiter's moons. "The data from the magnetometer experiments suggest that even today, Ganymede and Callisto have subsurface layers of [liquid] water," he pointed out.

In fact, water can be found on many of the places in the solar system beyond Venus, primarily locked up as ice. So what do you get if you add organic compounds and an energy source, to fuel life's processes as well as to thaw the ice? Astrobiologists would dearly love to know the answer to that question — because on Earth, you’d get a place that's just dandy to sustain life. That's why Enceladus is such a big deal. As of this week, it's considered the next best place to Earth for providing the three requirements for life as we know it.

Here are some Web links that help explain the big deal in more detail:

And here's a selection of your feedback on Enceladus and the search for alien water and life:

Cara: "What's the purpose of sending these probes to find microbes? The space program costs billions or even trillions of dollars to support — that's money that could be used to rebuild Katrina areas and help the needy in this country (such as having a national health insurance program like every other country has). If you ask me, the space program is just a bunch of 'Star Trek' geeks playing with rocket ships."John: "While I applaud the discovery as noteworthy, I am always struck by how eager we are to sink millions into researching things way away from our home planet, and how eager we are to sink billions into killing off our poorer neighbors on earth for their resources, but unwilling to invest those same millions/billions into projects that would improve life on earth for everyone. What good is it to find life on another planet when we don't have any respect for the life we find all around us at home?"S.G.T. Jr: "As a scientist, I am bound to say that further exploration of Enceladus is important — we should try to understand why water is being flung from the surface of the moon and whether or not Enceladus is able to sustain life of any variety. Having said that, what does it matter? Is there some hope of colonizing this tiny ice moon when Earth is too polluted for man to survive? Is it important to prove that microbes can exist in a different part of the galaxy other than our little blue-green wonder? Or maybe we’re running low on water? I truly do understand that this is exciting to promoters of the space program. I also understand that thanks to this discovery NASA and other space exploration programs will have bigger budgets in the years to come. But my question is, when the research is finished, when we’ve determined the internal structure of this moon, and when we know exactly what is and what is not there, what will we do with this knowledge? I truly would like a response."

I think the motivation does have partly to do with the potential for future colonization, as well as our understanding of life's basic machinery and whether alternate kinds of machinery are possible. But there's also a romantic angle to the quest. I suppose that mix of romance and practicality similarly motivated early humans as they branched out from Africa, or European explorers as they sailed to other realms. Here's are a few more attempts to explain the appeal of the quest:

Jim Connell: "The discovery that tiny Enceladus offers the best extraterrestrial environment for harboring life yet found is one that must be further explored. However the result turns out would have profound consequences for astrobiology, indeed biology in general. Would the biochemistry of such life also be based on D-sugars and L-amino acids and employ the same nucleotides as our genetic material? Even the most primitive alien microbes could provide a wealth of clues as to the origin of life on Earth, possibly giving greater insight into the frequency of life outside our solar system. On the other hand, if an otherwise perfect environment for life proves to be utterly sterile, we still would get some appreciation of how (un)common life really is on other worlds. Better to try to draw conclusions from two data sets than one!"Aaron: "... I'm a high-school senior entering college, so this discovery really fuels my pursuit for a degree in astronautical engineering. Precision instruments like the Cassini or better yet, the Huygens, will be needed to investigate these moons. This story really blows the fuzzy lobster at the bottom of the ocean out of the water."Joel Wilson, Maryland: "I think that this is a monumental discovery — as exciting, and perhaps more so, than the volcanic activity found on Io. I was online as Cassini went into orbit. It was so exciting, I still remember it. On top of this, I am a scientist and engineer, and I do hope that we continue with this planetary study beyond 2008. This will revolutionize not only astrobiology, but also studies about early and later planetary formation and dynamics. And if there is life, if there is life, [it could have] implications for sustaining long-term space voyages. ... It could impact and change ... everything."

March 10, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Smell technology
The New Yorker: The president and the scientists
New Scientist Technology Blog: Tree-climbing robot Get set for a subtle lunar eclipse

SpaceX raises its sights: You can never accuse millionaire rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk of thinking small. His company — Space Exploration Technologies, a.k.a. SpaceX — revealed the shape of its future Dragon spaceship just this week. But he says that the Dragon concept has been "under development for almost two years," and that building a crew capsule has always been on his agenda.

"The long-term objective of SpaceX has been, from the beginning, manned spaceflight," he said in an interview Wednesday.

And that's not all: "We really want to go beyond orbit, obviously," he told me.

It's all part of Musk's grand plan to help transform humanity into a "multiplanet species" — a goal he says he shares with his occasional dinner companion, Jeff Bezos, the founder of and the secretive Blue Origin rocket company.

But first things first: For now, Musk is focused on getting his company's Falcon 1 rocket safely off on its maiden launch and putting an Air Force Academy research satellite into orbit. The next opportunity for liftoff from SpaceX's Pacific island launch pad is coming up in less than three weeks.

The plan is to conduct a static-fire test around March 17 on the Omelek Island pad in Kwajalein Atoll. If the test is satisfactory, the launch attempt would come sometime in the March 20-25 time frame. "Everything currently is on track for that, but our approach has been to take no chances whatsoever," he said.

Assuming the first launch goes up successfully, the second launch would take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California three or four months later, Musk said. That's the launch that would put up the Pentagon's TacSat 1 communications satellite — as well as a secondary payload from Space Services Inc., containing the cremated remains of "Star Trek" actor Jimmy Doohan, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and scores of other dearly departed.

After the initial launch or two, more development resources would be freed up for the bigger projects on the horizon, including the heavier-lift Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon crew capsule, Musk said. SpaceX submitted the Dragon concept to NASA last week in hopes of receiving some money from the space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS.

Musk said the development schedule would be accelerated if SpaceX gets some of that NASA money. "In the absence of having NASA as a customer, the amount of money that we'd spend on manned spacecraft is relatively small," he observed.

With or without NASA, Musk intends to put people in orbit someday. But he said he's not really interested in going after the suborbital market that many other companies are targeting as a shorter-term strategy.

"Orbit is really the first step," he said. When it comes to suborbital spaceflight, "a lot of those paths don't really have the evolution to orbit, because it's far easier to do a suborbital thing than an orbital thing."

And beyond orbit? To be sure, Musk is a big thinker who has talked about fostering a spacefaring civilization, going to Mars and spreading the species beyond Earth. But that doesn't mean SpaceX has sketched out the plans for space stations and Mars habitats ... yet.

"As far as beyond orbit is concerned, we're really not spending a lot of time — apart from the occasional fanciful conversation," he told me.

Here are a couple of additional bullet points from Wednesday's conversation:

  • Musk's rivalry with the giants of the launch industry, the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, is still going strong even though the Boeing-Lockheed plan to merge their launch operations is currently stuck in limbo. "SpaceX's concern with Boeing and Lockheed is not primarily with the fact that they were intending to merge," he said. "Our concern reaches back before the merger. It's really about collusive action in constraint of trade. That's primarily our concern. Whether they do that as separate companies or as a single company doesn't really matter, actually."
  • Musk has said he's put about $100 million into SpaceX since its founding in 2002, but he will probably seek outside funding once the company has a few successful launches under its belt. "I'm not sure we'll need a lot of funding, but I think it's wise to have as big a warchest as possible when you're fighting tough opponents," he said.

So what's the biggest lesson he's learned in the past four years?

"When they say something ain't rocket science — meaning it ain't hard and therefore rocket science is difficult — it really is quite difficult," he replied. "There's a reason. It's a very difficult, complex process. It takes time to get it done, and it takes a fair bit of capital to get there. Overall, I've come to have a pretty good appreciation for the difficulty of doing this, and I have a lot of respect for people who have been successful doing this in the past."

March 9, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Desert Exposure: Have spacesuit, will travel (via RLV/STN)
Nature: Fusion power gets slammed
UW-Madison: Liquid crystals show promise in controlling stem cellsNASA: Impact of climate warming on polar ice sheets confirmed Rising tide of ocean plagues

Pimp my prize: It's a way cool idea to offer a multimillion-dollar prize to foster innovation in the auto industry, as the X Prize Foundation is planning to do — but the devil is in the details. How do you make sure there's a level playing field for the big automakers as well as for the little guys with good ideas?

That's the challenge facing the project's executive director, Mark Goodstein, who says a draft version of the rules will likely be ready for public comment in the next couple of months. The comment period may turn up some interesting loopholes or gaps that may need to be filled in.

For example, just after the foundation released its draft rules for the NASA-sanctioned Lunar Lander Challenge, I noticed that the rules didn't exactly specify whether the lander vehicles would be piloted or remote-controlled. (The intent is that they'd be remote-controlled, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis told me.)

In response to this week's item on the automotive prize, Cosmic Log readers had their own suggestions on how to keep things fair. Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback, ranging from the serious to the silly:

Patrick Bishop: "If we want to change the status quo in the American auto industry, market share threats are far more likely to work than any other incentive. As long as their cash cows are not threatened by other companies' rising stars or question marks, American automakers have little incentive to change things, even including large cash prizes. Were American companies interested in changing the status quo before their domestic markets were threatened? Nope. It was American consumers' preference for small fuel-efficient foreign cars in the early 1970s (in response to rising fuel costs) that got Detroit to develop and offer its own substitutes."So how would this consideration shape a practical MPG X-Prize? Prohibit the big auto makers from participating; only small, independent companies allowed. Further, make the size of the purse inversely proportional to the size of the company; a small company with the winning entry would win a bigger prize than if it were a company of medium size."Capt. Brian E. Souhan, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.: "Let's focus on what people currently have. No one wants to have to go out and buy a $25,000 new car to get better fuel efficiency.  Let's make the X Prize a prize for the team that does the most practical vehicle conversion to some alternative fuel.  Ideally it would be a conversion from gasoline to a biofuel.  If it were inexpensive to convert to a current vehicle to biofuel, that would encourage more people to do it.  There would have to be only limited infrastructure changes (versus that compared to another fuel source), making the fuel more readily accessible.  Most importantly, it is probably doable now or in the near future.  In fact it has been done, but so far the results have not produced vehicles that meet the necessary emissions standards … so the challenge lies in an inexpensive conversion that can meet EPA standards.  I know I would do a conversion right now to biofuel if it was available and the conversion cost around $2,000.  I don't want to be tied to Middle East oil."Robert van de Walle, Alameda, Calif: "When fuel is shipped over and over again as it proceeds from raw material to finished fuel, it mounts up huge (usually hidden) costs. The fuel of the future must be produced and used regionally. If the contest rules are weighted so they account for many of the hidden costs of producing a gallon of fuel, the MPG challenge will be far more relevant (and most likely, more difficult). In short, a 100-mpg vehicle running on fuel that was produced just up the road is far more 'efficient' than a 100-mpg vehicle using fuel that got transported across an ocean."Luis Messina, Prunedale, Calif.: "Let's start with a baseline prize of $5 million for a vehicle that seats five, accelerates from zero to 60 in 10 seconds and gets truly 50 mpg in the city (not combined, not highway, not EPA estimate). Increases in mileage, seating capacity or acceleration augment the prize proportionally (for example, 0-60 in 9 seconds will get you $5.5 million, seating six yields 6 million, and so on) — but no trade-offs or compromises."Christopher Eldridge, Harrisburg, Pa.: "Make the focus be the engine and drive train only by making all entries use a standard, 'existing' car body that is both functional and safe. Perhaps something like an Accord or Civic that are readily available for tinkering. Next, do what jet engine makers did to dramatically increase airliner efficiency by having teams compete in a category using things like metallic glass (a.k.a. liquid metal) or single-crystal parts that are rapidly chilled after they are poured into a mold. This makes them much more heat-tolerant, allowing the engine to run far hotter and far more cleanly! ..."Charles Ligon, Goodlettsville, Tenn: "Because of safety concerns, the bodies of automobiles have to be constructed to that particular constraint. So why not specify a particular car body as the one to use in any contest to get the maximum mileage from an automobile?  I'd say pick a 2006 Toyota Camry as the base chassis.  Have the power train removed from it. Oh, by the way, it should have air conditioning, power steering and power brakes.  Matter of fact, it should have the most popular options sold with it. That way any test would be a realistic test and not some EPA-styled pie-in-the-sky stuff."

This turns the competition into "Pimp My Ride (for Fuel Efficiency)." If you put an experimental engine and drive train into a standard-issue chassis, you certainly have a level playing field for all competitors — but then you miss out on the real-world measurement of the vehicle's marketability. And that's an important principle in Goodstein's conception of the competition.

Lee: "You must use existing technology to get high mileage — i.e., a sort of 'Junkyard Wars,' using existing things such as turbos combined with lesser-known stuff (such as water injection) to get the most miles per gallon. Note!!! The Nash Metropolitan was a 1955 car that got approximately 55 mpg. No fuel injectors, no radial tires, no computer to adjust anything. I find it insane that cars today can't (don't!) get 100-plus mpg, with plenty of power."Eugene: "Consider making a car using the same concept as the one that powers the flashlight that never needs a battery. Though shaking, the energy would create the necessary power needed to run the vehicle."

March 8, 2006 |
Serious and silly science on the Web: Top Egyptologist shuts the file on Tut
The Guardian: Simple ways to make yourself cleverer
Improbable Research: If it's published, it must be falseThe Onion: Expand nuclear power ... for superheroes' sake

Mars of a different color: NASA's Mars rover team has put out a new crop of color panoramas, stitched together from image data collected by the Spirit rover in the Columbia Hills, as well as the Opportunity rover on the edge of Erebus Crater, halfway around the planet.

Spirit's view of the geological feature nicknamed "Home Plate" highlights the layered bedrock that made Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, the mission's top scientist, say "Wow" last month. The layers present something of a mystery — and astronomers say they may represent volcanic deposits, wind-deposited or water-lain sediments, or something else altogether.


Spirit and Opportunity are both cutting back on their operating hours as the long Martian winter closes in. Since their landings in January 2004, both rovers have already weathered one full cycle of Red Planet seasons — lasting far, far longer than the 90-day missions that the NASA team had expected.

Over the days to come, mission managers plan to send Spirit toward McCool Hill — named after Willie McCool, one of the astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy. A second Spirit panorama shows McCool Hill looming on the Martian horizon, with a reddish outcrop nicknamed "Oberth" at its base.

"The rover team anticipates that the north-facing slopes of McCool Hill should sufficiently tilt the rover's solar panels toward the sun to allow Spirit to survive the winter," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in Monday's image advisory.

Meanwhile, Opportunity is taking short drives and long naps as it makes its way around Erebus Crater in the Meridiani Planum region. NASA's ground game calls for Opportunity to stow its partially disabled robotic arm, travel about 10 yards, then unstow the arm again until the next Martian morning.

"This strategy allows Opportunity to drive with the arm safely stowed in its designed position and then unstow it before another night of stressful changes in temperature," the Opportunity team's status report explained. If the arm were to freeze up for good during some chilly night, it could still be usable in Opportunity's old age.

On Feb. 26, Opportunity took 28 snapshots that were combined into a mosaic view of an outcropping nicknamed "Payson," with Meridiani Planum's spherule-rich soil swept up against it. Layered rocks can be seen in the crater wall. Before Spirit and Opportunity, such bedrock had never been seen up close on Mars. Now it's looking more and more like classic Martian terrain.


The pictures you're seeing here are said to show Mars in false color — but "stretched color" would be a more accurate phrase. The human eye would see the terrain in shades of red and perhaps orange, but the rover imagery can be tweaked to emphasize subtle variations that hint at compositional differences. That helps the rover team select future targets such as the Oberth outcrop.

You can compare the "natural-color" views with the Mars of a different color by checking the latest additions to NASA's image gallery. And while you're at it, don't forget to check in with our "Return to the Red Planet" section for Mars rover updates.

March 7, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): To learn about lava, make fudgeSlate: Can you clone a movie star?
Scientific American: Unlocking the secrets of longevity genesIEEE Spectum: Mathematics of guerrilla war (via Defense Tech)

Revving up the MPG Prize: After SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight in 2004, the X Prize Foundation shifted gears to target other types of innovation for future prizes — and in the next couple of months, we may be hearing much more about a new multimillion-dollar prize for the automobile industry.

That's the upshot of today's announcement that the foundation has brought in computer-industry whiz Mark Goodstein to become executive director for the yet-to-be-announced automotive prize program.

"The X Prize is about changing paradigms," Goodstein said in today's release. "The current paradigm is that it's perfectly acceptable to drive a car that only gets 20 or 30 miles per gallon. This prize is about leveraging cash and opportunity to effect positive change in the environment, economy and geopolitics."

Goodstein was a founder of, which morphed into the Overture search-engine service — and more recently, he founded X1 Technologies, a desktop search company. Ian Murphy, a spokesman for the X Prize Foundation, said Goodstein was selected to head the auto-prize effort because of his entrepreneurial acumen.

Goodstein told me today that he was still in the information-gathering phase of the project, but a draft set of rules might be ready for public review in the next couple of months or so. "Right now we really are in an extended brainstorm session," he said. "There are no bad ideas."

He already has a few guiding principles in mind:

  • First, the competition would probably be a "first-past-the-post" affair, with a guaranteed winner at the end of, say, three years or so.
  • Second, market factors would definitely play a role in deciding who wins. One idea would be to reward the team that achieves the highest product of sales times miles per gallon, or miles per dollar of energy expense.
  • Third, the contest would be open to the full spectrum of energy options, ranging from fuel-cell concepts to hybrid-electric "Hypercars" to biofuel-powered cars to hyperefficient gas-powered cars.

"These are all different approaches, but the market really has to validate them. ... If it's hydrogen, great. How many sales are you going to get?" Goodstein said.

Another point he raised is that the prize isn't primarily about the money. "However big it is — $25 million, $10 million — it's more about the exposure that we can offer the winner, not the money," he said.

The X Prize Foundation has other prize ideas in the works, relating to genomics, nanotechnology and other fields. But energy efficiency and energy independence may well be the biggest priorities for prize promotion — as well as the toughest nuts to crack.

"This is the biggest industry on the planet, so there are a lot of entrenched interests that are keeping the market as it is today," Goodstein observed. That's why he's spending so much time meeting with the experts, trying to get the rules just right.

"People are looking at us pessimistically. They're asking hard questions, and they don't crack a smile," he said. "Then, at the end, they say, 'Gosh, this is going to be hard — but I wish I could join you.' So it's going to be great."

And now here's your chance to join in. We've talked about the "Alternative Energy Prize" before, but since Goodstein is still in brainstorming mode, he'd appreciate any fresh thoughts you have on how best to encourage innovation in the automotive industry. Send in your ideas, and I'll publish a selection of the feedback later in the week.

Stardust update:
NASA has scheduled a televised briefing for 3 p.m. ET March 13 to discuss the initial analysis of cometary dust brought back to Earth by its Stardust spacecraft, and we already have a good idea what Topic A is going to be. Last month we reported that the samples contain tentative evidence of organic chemicals. Over the weekend, The Sunday Times of London published its own report on the subject, quoting principal investigator Donald Brownlee as saying that organic materials make up "about 10 percent" of the comet. Stay tuned for more in days to come.

March 6, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
The Guardian: Could red rain prove the aliens have landed?
UC-Berkeley: Paleontologists find tiny triceratops skullS.F. Chron.: Look! Up in the sky! (via RLV/Space Transport News)
Sunday Mail: Was the Loch Ness Monster an elephant?

Looking for older items? Check the . Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with . If you link to this page, you can use or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.