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Cosmic Log: March 25-31, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Researchers go beyond the oohs and ahhs in the eclipse zone. Plus: Blue Origin on the move ... When black holes collide ... Pros and cons of hydrogen ... Silver linings in space.
This image merges reddish views of the sun's disk and the outer part of the corona from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory with a black-and-white photograph of the sun's inner corona, taken from a Greek island by the Williams College Eclipse Expedition. Merging the imagery lets astronomers trace features in the corona from their bases on the sun's surface up until the gas escapes into interplanetary space.
This image merges reddish views of the sun's disk and the outer part of the corona from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory with a black-and-white photograph of the sun's inner corona, taken from a Greek island by the Williams College Eclipse Expedition. Merging the imagery lets astronomers trace features in the corona from their bases on the sun's surface up until the gas escapes into interplanetary space.NASA / ESA / Williams College

March 31, 2006 |
The science of eclipses: Amid all the oohs and ahhs associated with Wednesday’s total solar eclipse, some serious — and strange — science was being done as well, including an oft-repeated experiment to find out if Albert Einstein was wrong about gravity.

Decades ago, eclipse expeditions were a huge deal for scientists, in part because they afforded the only opportunity to study the sun's outer atmosphere, known as the corona. The expeditions served other purposes as well: In fact, one of the most famous eclipse experiments ever done took place back in 1919, when astronomers confirmed the light-bending implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

With the advent of sun-watching satellites such as SOHO and TRACE, eclipses lost some of their scientific luster. Nevertheless, scientists are still chasing after eclipse observations, not only to unravel the mysteries of the corona but to keep checking up on relativity.

For example, students and researchers from Williams College traveled to the small Greek island of Kastellorizo to record the eclipse in a rapid-fire set of filtered images. The team, led by international eclipse expert Jay Pasachoff, hopes the imagery will shed light on the mechanism that heats the corona to millions of degrees.

The Williams College team also took pictures of the corona with a specially built telescope that matches one now out of commission on SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The imagery captured from Kastellorizo was blended with digital images taken by other instruments on SOHO to produce a full picture of the coronal streams spreading far into space. Such imagery could help astronomers link structures on the sun with features seen in the corona.

Cosmic Log correspondent James Coulter took me to task for not mentioning the scientific significance in advance of Wednesday's eclipse — and brought the Einstein angle to my attention in the process. In his e-mail, Coulter refers to a phenomenon known as the Allais Effect, named after a Nobel-winning French economist:

"Not surprisingly, the MSNBC article fails to mention anything significant that we might learn from an eclipse and instead focuses on how much effort everyone is putting into enjoying the pretty light show.  This is especially disappointing because this article is presented by the science editor of MSNBC, who should know better. ..."So, what's the big deal?  There is a longstanding debate as to whether gravity is somehow affected by an eclipse. At first, this sounds like one of those urban legends that would be slammed on 'MythBusters.' In fact, it has been seriously researched for decades and the debate rages on.  Though, as the technology improves, the results seem to be swinging in favor of there being some anomalous effect."

Coulter then cites a Science @ NASA report about the apparent anomaly from 1999, as well as a Wikipedia article on the effect.

Back in the 1950s, Allais reported that the path of a swinging pendulum took on an extra wobble, or precession, during a total solar eclipse — leading some to claim that the alignment of the moon and the sun somehow modified the gravitational field. That would run counter to Einstein's explanation of how gravity works.

The experiment has been repeated during a number of eclipses. Sometimes the experimenters saw the precession, and sometimes they didn't. A network of researchers, including NASA scientists, made a serious attempt to detect the effect during 1999's total solar eclipse — but nothing ever came of it. "As I remember, none of the reports showed any positive effect," said Ron Koczor of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, who was involved in the project.

So I don't think it's yet clear that the results favor the idea of a cosmological anomaly. Some scientists suggest that any perceived anomaly could be due to atmospheric or geological changes in the eclipse zone, or the subtle seismic influence of crowds tromping around the area ... or plain old measurement error.

In a 2004 New Scientist report (archived here), Williams College's Pasachoff is quoted as saying, "There are enough fascinating and important things to be studied during total solar eclipses that it is too bad people waste time looking for things that aren’t there."

On the other hand, a Dutch researcher claims that the effect makes a good match with another gravitational mystery known as the Pioneer anomaly.

Suffice it to say that the debate is indeed continuing, fed mostly by folks who are not in the mainstream of astronomical theorizing. One of Allais' biggest fans, an independent British researcher named Thomas Goodey, was in the Turkish city of Side to make another round of observations this week. (Here's Goodey's online tribute to Allais.)

You can get a sense of Goodey's work by clicking into photographer John Brecher's "Waiting for Totality" audio slide show and hitting the "Play" button.

March 31, 2006 |
Holy books: Hard to believe it's the end of the month again, and I still haven't made a March selection for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around enough to show up at your local library or used-book store.

Right now there's something of a grand convergence at work, with Easter and Passover coming up, as well as the imminent premiere of National Geographic's show on the "Gospel of Judas" (on April 9) and the not-so-imminent premiere of the "Da Vinci Code" movie (on May 19). Those shows are already stirring the pot for scriptural scholars, and if you want to know what all the fuss is about, you might want to check out "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels.

PBS' Web site provides an excerpt from the book as well as an interview with the author. You can also click through the Web companion to "From Jesus to Christ," a PBS documentary series based on the work done by Pagels and her colleagues.

If you're looking for a more recently published book — recent enough to put the "Da Vinci Code" phenomenon in context — add "The Gnostic Discoveries" by Marvin Meyer to your reading list. It's definitely on mine.

March 31, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Scientific American: Why are some animals so smart?
The Economist: Here be dragons Rare painted Roman statue found
Archaeology Magazine: Archaeology of the undead

March 30, 2006 |
Blue Origin on the move: One of the most enigmatic companies on the commercial space frontier is Blue Origin, the Seattle rocket venture started up by founder Jeff Bezos.

Even though Blue Origin has been around for six years, news about its activities comes out in  mere dribs and drabs: a story here about Bezos' plans for a West Texas launch facility ... a story there about the shape of the "New Shepard" suborbital spaceship Blue Origin plans to build ... and yet another story about the multimillion-dollar transformation of a 25-acre industrial site south of Seattle into an office and manufacturing facility.

Over the past year, Blue Origin has been ramping up its activities, apparently aiming to begin test launches in about a year. The company is just about ready to make the transition from its converted warehouse in Seattle's industrial Duwamish area to the remodeled offices in nearby Kent, Wash. Sharon Clamp, a staff member at Kent Planning Services, told me that the final inspection is scheduled for Friday — and reports from the site hint that the move-in process could begin in the next few days.

I recently took a stroll around the facility, which includes a north-facing, two-story office complex fronting one of Kent's main drags. The office area blends into a warehouse/fabrication plant with high-bay doors. Railroad tracks run right past the property. The only identifying signs I saw were for the construction company (Foushee and Associates) and an old driveway marker for "Power Pack and Strut," apparently referring to a Boeing division.

At the south end of the property, an engine test stand is being set up, shielded from the street by what looks like a 12-foot-high earthen berm ("to reduce potential auditory effects," Blue Origin is quoted as saying in a Kent planning report). Clamp said the engine test facility hasn't yet been slated for its final inspection.

The planning report notes that roughly 150,000 pounds of hazardous materials will be used on the site for engine testing. It also says the facility will house 70 to 100 employees over the long term, presumably including rocket-builders as well as Blue Origin's executives and support personnel.

Rumors suggest that there's already at least one rocket on the site — a Jules Vernish ornamental rocket that will grace the building's lobby, purely for show. I didn't get close enough to check it out for myself, however. Fresh fencing and "No Trespassing" signs line the construction site's perimeter.

Before my visit to the site, Blue Origin's Houston-based spokesman, Bruce Hicks, said he didn't have specific information on the company's plans to transition into the Kent facility — but he observed that the move-in would likely be gradual. My efforts to check back with Hicks today were unsuccessful. But in any case, it's clear that things are moving along in Kent.

They're moving along in West Texas, as well, according to Larry D. Simpson, editor of the Van Horn Advocate. Simpson broke the story about Bezos' launch plans last year, after the billionaire and Blue Origin program manager Rob Meyerson walked into his office to give a rare interview.

"Things are moving very quick down here," Simpson told me today. He said contractors have been working on the electricity, plumbing and roads for the launch center on a ranch owned by Bezos north of Van Horn. The phone company has installed fiber-optic cable, Simpson said, and preparations are being made for the launch pad. Bezos himself visited the area for a couple of days back in February, Simpson said.

He observed that the tempo provides a sharp contrast to the lumbering pace people usually associate with spaceflight development a la NASA. "It's amazing how fast you can move when the government's not involved," Simpson said.

Another thing that sets Blue Origin apart from NASA is that it's been flying under the radar for years. Perhaps the reason is that, as Bezos once told Newsweek, the company hasn't yet "done anything worthy of comment." Perhaps it's because, as the CEO of a publicly traded dot-com mover and shaker, Bezos can't afford to draw too much attention to his personal space dreams. In any case, once all the pieces are in place, Blue Origin's reticence could well change ... "very quick."

March 30, 2006 |
Stirring up scientific debate on the Web:
Slate: It's the earth, stupid
Popular Science: Terror-proofing jets
Defense Tech: Mini-sensors for 'military omniscience'
The New Yorker: The God project

March 29, 2006 |
When black holes collide: A new online movie graphically shows how two black holes could combine to create one bigger black hole that's spinning. The simulation, produced as part of a relativity research effort called the Lazarus Project, is meant to show physicists what they should be looking for when they search for gravitational waves.

The search is one of the grand quests of physics nowadays —  spawning a $300 million project known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which has set up twin gravity-wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state. The detection of gravity waves could lead physicists to confirm or even extend the deepest tenets of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Aip / Ut-brownsville

Thousands of Internet users have signed up through the Einstein @ Home project to help LIGO's scientists analyze gravity-wave data, from phenomena such as stellar explosions or black hole collisions. But scientists still aren't sure what a black hole collision is supposed to look like. That's where the Lazarus Project, based at the University of Texas at Brownsville, could come to the rescue.

A research paper describing the Lazarus Project's simulation method is published in the March 24 issue of Physical Review Letters. The associated movie, available via Physics News Graphics from the American Institute of Physics, shows two black holes spiraling in toward a merger, then releasing gusts of gravity waves as they come together.

"The importance of this work is that it gives an accurate prediction to the gravitational-wave observatories, such as LIGO, of what they are going to observe," UT-Brownsville's Carlos Lousto, one of the authors of the paper, is quoted as saying in this week's Physics News Update.

LIGO is already well on its way to ramping up for gravity-wave research, as described in this Caltech news release. Just this week, particle physicist Jay Marx took the helm as the project's new executive director. If you want to learn more about LIGO and the mysteries it's designed to solve, and if you have RealPlayer installed on your computer, you'll enjoy this 20-minute documentary titled "Einstein's Messengers."

March 29, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
NIH: Genetics experts try to ID Katrina's unknown victimsNew Scientist: Lie down for an out-of-this-world experience
Slate: The economics of basketball underdogs
MIT: Scientists show that children think like scientists

March 28, 2006 |
Pros and cons of hydrogen: A campaign to encourage the development of hydrogen-based infrastructure as an alternative to the current energy economy got a grand kickoff in South Carolina on Monday, courtesy of the chief backer of legislation to create the multimillion-dollar prize program.

U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., was joined by academics and industry types in Greenville for the formal announcement of his "H-Prize" proposal. Inglis said the prizes could range from $1 million to $100 million, depending on the scale of technological innovation. The idea, modeled on the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, would be to encourage an energy economy in which cars run on renewable hydrogen instead of fossil fuels.

"If we can get presidential lift, it could be a means of focusing entrepreneurs and researchers on the goal of a hydrogen economy," Inglis declared in a report from The Greenville News. He reportedly received some tentative votes of support from Clemson University as well as Shell Hydrogen and 30 political and industry representatives.

The News quotes David Bodde, Clemson's director of innovation and public policy, as saying "this H-Prize is a very interesting possibility." And The Associated Press quotes Shell Hydrogen's president, Phillip Baxley, as saying that "it's not really about the money."

"It's really about setting a prize, setting a target, setting aspirations," Baxley said. "It's really allowing everyone to participate and everyone to compete."

The idea, discussed here in the log on Friday, received a more mixed response from Cosmic Log correspondents. Here's a selection of the e-mail:

Dean W. Johnson, Spring Valley, Calif.: "You forget that hydrogen is not a source of energy but a means of energy transmission. There is no natural source for pure hydrogen. It costs more energy to release hydrogen from the bonds of chemical compounds like water and methane. Where does that energy come from? The only advantage is that hydrogen used in fuel cells is twice as efficient as carbon-based fuels and engines. That may be sufficient, but it should be remembered that it is not an energy source!"J. Haddock, Savannah, Ga.: "Personally, I feel a better option would be the E-Prize, where instead of limiting the effort to hydrogen production, [you] allow for other alternative energy forms as well, with specific minimums and maximums for size, energy output and emission output, regardless of the source of the energy.John Corrick, Calabash, N.C.: "I have long thought it was time for the U.S. to switch to a hydrogen economy. With the vast sources of hydrogen residing in the great oceans of the world, it is a natural way to go. The U.S. government needs to embark on something like the 'Manhattan Project' or the 'Putting a Man on the Moon' approach to moving toward a hydrogen economy. It is the way of the future for the U.S. to become energy-independent and free of energy worries. Just consider how much hydrogen is available from our oceans and how readily available it would be to us. The end product of consuming hydrogen is 'water' and not the polluting hydrocarbons that petroleum leaves us. I know it flies in the face of big oil and their infrastructure, which now feeds our energy needs, but it is truly time to move towards hydrogen."Edward, Missoula, Mont.: "I think it is a large waste of time and money, especially with vast reserves of geothermal power. What a waste ... like going to the moon."Steven B., "This is a nice start. But the use of oceanic waves and tidal forces to generate electricity is very green and immediately necessary (allowing a large fleet of electric cars, replacing the gasoline fleet). A second step would be the development of the 'trillion cubic feet of methane per year project' and hydrogen project — both of which would be offshore project using the oceans as the material and energy sources."John: "I would contribute to the prize amount just to get this going. I believe in the political climate that we live in, a transition to H-power is the only way we can move forward. I envision reverse-stack fueling stations at existing fueling stations and standalone operations. These would rely on existing power sources to start the transformation and then use their own gas to create hydrogen for automotive use. I want to go to a fueling station now and fill my car with hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. This is imperative that we move this technology forward now. Then maybe we could have peace and stop global warming. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Let's get it on! Can you believe that a religious war was caused by petroleum?"Anonymous: "There are only two practical sources of energy, nuclear and fossil fuels. The so-called green sources, wind and bioconversion, wouldn't even make a small dent in our energy needs. Nuclear energy could be used to split hydrogen from oxygen in water, and then that same energy would be regained in the fuel cell. That's about the only thing that's going to work. Might be able to use nuclear energy to make some form of synthetic gas. It could probably be made to burn with reduced emissions. You can't make energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. You can only convert it from one form to another. Fossil fuels came from the sun over millions of years (photosynthesis) and nuclear energy came from the universe. Where did the energy come from in the first place? God."Dan Sullivan, Merrimac, Mass.: "It's great that someone in our government is making a serious move to encourage the development of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. It's no longer a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen. There are MicroFuelCell products that have already been released, and other products are scheduled to be announced later this year and in 2007."C.H. Cosens Jr., Slidell, La.: "When we finally get serious about weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, we will realize that using atomic energy to convert sea water to hydrogen and oxygen is the ultimate answer. The hydrogen can be used to fuel internal combustion engines, or used in hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells to power electric motors. Either way, you have a non-polluting, renewable resource whose only byproduct is water."Anonymous: There are enough tar sands in northeast Utah to fuel the country for many decades. All we need is an atomic power plant built there to provide the energy to release the hydrocarbons from the solid rock."Terrence Hannibal Gay, El Paso, Texas: "...The government is spending some big bucks on the National Ignition Facility Project.  It's a means of using focused low-cost lasers to achieve fusion. The fusion creates a fantastic amount of heat that will replace fossil fuels in power plants.  This will allow for a low-cost and inexhaustible source of electrical energy that can also be used for large-scale electrolysis of water to free up hydrogen.  The mathematics so far have been reliable in the first small test held late last year.  The building and the equipment is now over 80 percent completed, and the budget so far is over a billion dollars.  It's a DOE project being run by Lawrence Livermore and it's being built as a large-scale plant with steam turbines to provide a lot of electrical energy."If this is successful when the first full-scale test is run in 2009, then we will have an energy source that will replace coal, oil, natural gas and every other fossil fuel.  Once the tests are successful, licenses can be granted for energy companies to make the multibillion-dollar investments in building identical production facilities  This will save design time.  Electrolysis plants can be placed near freshwater sources such as the Great Lakes or major rivers to minimize source costs, and existing pipelines can be converted to carry the hydrogen nationwide. ... I don't know if Representative Inglis is aware of the National Ignition Project.   If not, maybe he can avoid wasting his time or the country's tax dollars on dead-end technologies like ethanol and earmark prize money solely for hydrogen. ..."Steve Lumsden, Eldersburg, Md.: "There is real concern among some NASA/NOAA scientists that a hydrogen-based economy may carry environmental impacts equally as negative as the current hydrocarbon-based model. Being the lightest of elements, hydrogen tends to dissipate into space in the troposphere, frequently binding with oxygen molecules in the process. At current concentrations, the impact of this natural process is negligible, but at higher hydrogen concentrations that will occur as a result of a hydrogen-based world economy, the impact of oxygen dissipation could have a dramatic and unexpected reduction on free oxygen levels in the atmosphere. More research needs to be done on this topic in order to avoid an 'Out of the Pan, Into the Fire' scenario."Philip Florence, Novato, Calif.: "All this is fine, but it is probably too late to help us avoid major consequences. In addition to this approach, I suggest that we put up a global sun shield to stop some of the sun's rays before they reach earth. If we had a prize for the best engineering design for something like that, I'd be a lot happier. In fact, I will be offering a small (quarter-million-dollar) prize myself in the 2008 time frame. But if the government got on the bandwagon, it could be much bigger."Mark Ruyle, Tulsa, Okla.: "Whatever happened to the idea of in home production and use of hydrogen? I think the ideal would be for every household to have a small, easy-to-use and easy-to-maintain hydrogen plant that supplies all the hot water, electricity and auto fuel needed. Pipe dream? Make it a competition with production assistance and a large cash prize, and it might well happen."Kurt Jensen, Augusta, Wis.: "We have spent an awful lot more on wars, justified or not. $100 million is chicken feed compared to that. A prize that large will definitely get people's attention, though. What we really need is a serious program to make grants available to the people trying to make this happen. Something the American backyard inventor can easily get his or her hands on. We all know that most of the grants available now go to people or organizations that have the time or resources to jump through all of the hoops required to have a chance at a grant. The average citizen inventor has neither the time nor the resources to get the money to build their ideas into reality. How many potential milestones have been lost for lack of a few tens of thousands of dollars? We, the average backyard inventors, cannot compete against big corporations and universities!"

Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Autopia / Wired: Plug-in hybrids get more clout
Technology Review: Methanol ... the new hydrogenTimes of London: Brighter sun adds to climate fears
FSU Molecular Expressions: The universe within

March 27, 2006 |
Silver linings in space: The past couple of weeks have been pretty stormy for space fans. On the space science front, researchers complained bitterly about how NASA was shifting money away from their missions to pay for human spaceflight programs. On the human spaceflight front, NASA and the Russians dealt with a public-relations problem over their "no-go" condition for spacewalks from the international space station.

And in the private-sector space department, SpaceX suffered the failure of its first rocket launch.

Fortunately, the past couple of days have brought out silver linings for all those dark situations. It's not as if a total reversal is in the works, but the latest developments illustrate that setbacks in the space effort aren't always as dire as they appear at first glance.

For example, after the researchers' outcry at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, NASA reversed its cancellation of the Dawn mission to two of the solar system's biggest and best-known asteroids. This week, NASA's Astrobiology Science Conference is taking place in Washington, and one can only hope that the cool science and hot talk coming from that meeting will spur the agency to reverse cuts in its astrobiology program as well.

Meanwhile, it turned out that the spacewalk situation wasn't nearly as dire as first portrayed. NASA quickly laid out a plan for conducting spacewalks using U.S. equipment, by latching onto stanchions instead of handrails if necessary. And over the weekend, space station commander Bill McArthur found the missing lithium-hydroxide canisters that would have been required for spacewalks using Russian equipment.

"Bill found all four of the Russian LiOH canisters behind a panel in the Zarya module this weekend," NASA spokeswoman Kylie Clem wrote in an e-mail passed along by NBC News space analyst James Oberg.

Thus ends the tempest over space station spacewalks.

Even the SpaceX setback, attributed to a fuel leak and first-stage fire, may not be a total loss. According to the Kwajalein Atoll and Rockets blog — maintained by Kimbal Musk, the brother of SpaceX founder Elon Musk — the remains of the Falcon 1 rocket fell back on a dead reef in the Kwajalein Atoll, about 250 feet from the launch site.

There's hope that SpaceX will quickly get back on the road to its next launch, after a detailed analysis of the debris and telemetry, plus a close look at the high-resolution still imagery and video (WMV video file), plus another intense round of testing.

"I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability," Elon Musk said in his typically frank update.  "However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months."

SpaceX's reputation doesn't appear to have suffered grievously so far — in fact, Friday's setback seems to have been received as a noble failure, as I predicted during a pre-launch interview on "The Space Show," hosted by David Livingston.

The Air Force Academy cadets who built the satellite SpaceX was supposed to put into orbit were surely among those most disappointed by Friday's failure. But there's a silver lining even for them: SpaceX spokeswoman Dianne Molina confirmed today that the FalconSat 2 satellite actually survived the rocket's fall, as first reported in Kimbal Musk's blog.

"The satellite appeared to be intact, although obviously quite damaged," Molina said in an e-mail.

Here's how Kimbal Musk described the situation:

"Amazingly, the satellite was thrown high into the air when the rocket impacted and came crashing down through the roof of our machine shop, landing mostly intact on the floor! One helluva return trip. "The hole in the machine shop roof is the only significant damage to the island."

We may hear more from the academy this week about the fate of FalconSat 2, which was built to study plasma phenomena from orbit. Meanwhile, the cadets are pressing on with FalconSat 3, due for launch on an Atlas 5 rocket this fall, as well as FalconSat 4. Now there's a silver lining.

March 27, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science News: That's one weird tooth
Seed: Maybe 42 really (via Slashdot)
Scientific American: As luck would have it
BBC: Nano circuit offers big promise

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