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Cosmic Log: May 21-27, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: What ailed space millionaire? ... The latest zero-G giveaway ... Titan's red spot ... How you see stem cells ... Saturn's radio rings ... and more.

What ailed space millionaire? A year ago, inventor-entrepreneur Greg Olsen was bumped from his multimillion-dollar flight to the international space station, due to a medical problem. Now the problem is said to be "remedied," and Olsen has resumed his cosmonaut training at Russia's Star City complex. But no one's ever come out and said what the problem was ... on the American side, that is.

Russian news reports hint that Olsen's eligibility for flight had been put on hold primarily because he couldn't handle being spun around in a centrifuge at the required accelerations. Last year, said "physicians established Olsen's unfitness for the space overloads." (Original article in Russian.) This week, Kommersant referred to that factor again, saying "training in a centrifuge showed that Olsen doesn’t endure well the G-load."

However, Kommersant said a source at the cosmonaut training center declined to be specific about Olsen's problem or how he resolved it.

An Associated Press report quoted the co-founder of Olsen's New Jersey-based company, Sensors Unlimited, as saying American doctors didn't turn up any medical problem at all. "I guess it was a matter of understandable hypersensitivity" on the part of Russian doctors, Marshall Cohen said. This might fit the pattern for G-load sensitivity, which wouldn't strictly be considered a medical matter in the United States.

It's possible to condition yourself to handle higher G-loads, as fighter pilots do during their training. This report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology goes into how to cope with motion sickness, whether you're traveling to Mars or merely a Memorial Day destination. Maybe Olsen has been taking some extra Tilt-a-Whirl cycles to build up his tolerance.

Even though Olsen is now back in Star City, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be on a station-bound Soyuz craft this fall. He'll have to keep up with further medical tests as well as the payment schedule for a fare thought to amount to as much as $20 million.

Moreover, a report today from Russia's RIA Novosti agency quotes the head of Russia's space agency as saying Olsen's flight would probably not take place in October, partly because "launches of American space shuttles are constantly postponed" and Soyuzes have to fill the gap.

May 27, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

The New Yorker: Why intelligent design isn't
Defense Tech: Unmanned culture clash

The latest zero-G giveaway: When SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize last October, the marketers behind the Diet 7UP soft drink said they would give away the "first free ticket to space" — and this week, the contest has begun.

To take part in the promotion, you go to (actually, a linked Web site) and enter 15-character codes that are printed on a variety of 7UP, Sunkist, A&W Root Beer and Canada Dry bottle caps and 12-packs, sometime between now and Sept. 15. Codes are also available by mail. Check out the official rules for details.

The grand prize is a suborbital trip to the fringe of space, on a yet-to-be-flown craft that's based on SpaceShipOne technology. Why SpaceShipOne? Because the giveaway deal is being put together through the auspices of the X Prize Foundation.

"One of the rules that the [X Prize] teams signed onto in their master team agreement was that the X Prize Foundation would have access to some of the early seats at the going ticket price," Peter Diamandis, the foundation's chairman, explained.

7UP plans to take one of those seats, Diamandis said. It will also take care of the $200,000 price tag, plus an extra $100,000 to cover the tax bill.

It would be up to SpaceShipOne's team at Mojave Aerospace Ventures to make sure the seat is open on a spaceship that has licensed the SS1 technology. For now, the obvious candidate is Virgin Galactic, the only known licensee, but the agreement could also be fulfilled by "someone else who licensed the technology," Diamandis said.

Hmm. What happens if there are multiple licensees, which would be allowed under Virgin Galactic's non-exclusive agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures? "I have no idea," Diamandis said.

If no one can make good on the ticket by the end of 2009, the winner would just get $300,000 in cash.

7UP isn't the first to give away a "free ticket to space": Volvo and Virgin Galactic crossed that threshold back in March when they gave Doug Ramsburg a suborbital reservation back in March. (The make-good deadline for that contest is March 1, 2009.) And there are still more contests, presented by Oracle and a Norwegian chocolate company in cooperation with Space Adventures. So there may well be a promotional space race ahead — to see who really gets that first free ride.

Diamandis said such promotions hinted at the shape of things to come: "I believe we will have lotteries for spaceflight, and we will have many other promotions. ... This is an important part of keeping the concept in the minds of the public that personal spaceflight is possible."

In the shorter term, Diamandis is turning other zero-gravity aspirations into reality through Zero Gravity Corp., another venture he pioneered. Last year, Zero Gravity began operating parabolic zero-G airplane flights, and now NASA is preparing to contract for at least a couple of those parabolic flights for its own research purposes this summer.

Diamandis declined to discuss the potential deal in detail, but Keith Cowing's NASA Watch Weblog notes that the space agency has prepared a solicitation that's tailor-made for Zero Gravity's service. NASA already has retired its KC-135A "Vomit Comet," and Diamandis said the modified C-9 airplane that was supposed to take its place for zero-G flights isn't ready yet.

"Our job is to provide a better service," Diamandis said.

Zero Gravity's "G-Force One" plane will play a role in the Diet 7UP commercial to be unveiled on national TV June 13, touting the "Free Ticket to Space" sweepstakes. For further background on space contests (including the Buzz Aldrin angle for the 7UP promotion), check out Space Race News and the "Space Tourism" roundup at Clark Lindsey's HobbySpace log.

May 26, 2005 |
Physics and metaphysics on the Web:

Orlando Sentinel: Shuttle accident ends dream
BBC: Scientist spooked by ghost study
New Scientist: 11 steps to a better brain

Titan’s puzzling red spot: Scientific instruments have cut through the mysterious haze surrounding Saturn's biggest moon, Titan, only to find yet another mystery at the surface: a bright reddish spot about the size of West Virginia.

What is it? Researchers on the science team for the Cassini probe, which captured the infrared imagery during flybys in March and April, confess that they're baffled.

"At first glance, I thought the feature looked strange, almost out of place," said Robert Brown of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who heads the team in charge of Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. "After thinking a bit, I speculated that it was a hot spot. In retrospect, this might not be the best hypothesis, but the spot is no less intriguing."

Based on the infrared imagery, the 300-mile-wide (500-kilometer-wide) spot is the brightest area yet seen on Titan. It's sitting just southeast of a continent-sized region called Xanadu and appears to correspond to a semicircular feature known as "The Smile," which was first seen in different wavelengths last December.

"It's just the kind of thing we've been looking for," Jason Barnes, one of Brown's colleagues, said in a University of Arizona news release. "Unfortunately, we don't know yet what it is."

Scientists have suggested several possibilities:

  • It might be a persistent cloud, hugging the surface and somehow held in place because of the topology of the semicircular feature — perhaps just as fog on Earth might be contained within a depression.
  • It might be a patch of exotic surface material that's more reflective than its surroundings. "Titan's surface seems to be mostly dirty ice. The bright spot might be a region with different surface composition, or maybe a thin surface deposit of non-icy material," Barnes said.
  • It might be a mountainous area. But if that's the case, the mountains would have to be much higher than the elevations detected earlier by Cassini's radar altimeter — something scientists regard as unlikely.
  • It might be a hot spot — that is, an area warmed by a recent asteroid impact or by a mixture of water ice and ammonia from a warm interior, oozing out of an ice volcano onto colder terrain.

Brown's team should be able to test the hot spot hypothesis during a Cassini flyby on July 2, when the spectrometer will take nighttime images of the same area. If the spot glows at night, that would argue in favor of the red spot being a hot spot.

For more on the red spot, check out the news releases and imagery from NASA, the VIMS team and the Cassini imaging team at the Space Science Institute. The red spot is sure to wind up in May's "Month in Space Pictures" roundup, which we'll be putting together in the next few days.

Another side of stem cells: President Bush has made quite a splash in the stem-cell debate with his repeated veto threats and his visits to children who started out as "adopted" frozen embryos. But the proponents of embryonic stem-cell research say objections similar to the ones the president has voiced were made before — about those very frozen embryos that turned out so well. In fact, researchers hope they will someday be able to do without the egg cells or embryos, and transform a patient's own cells into the needed stem cells.

"We think we can do this without the egg altogether. But I think that we need to pursue all these avenues because we've been fooled in the past," Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology told Reuters. "Ultimately, we hope to take a cell from the body — say, from the skin or a cheek swab — and turn it directly into the tissue the patient needs. This is known as 'transdifferentiation.'"

Check out the full story for another side of the debate over stem-cell ethics, and don't miss the National Institutes of Health's online guide to "Stem Cell Basics."

May 25, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• •
Nat'l Geographic: Stegosaur plates used for ID, not defense?
Christian Science Monitor: Secrets of the Maya ... unlocked!

How you see stem cells: The truth got stretched in both directions during today's debate leading up to the House's approval of a bill liberalizing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

On one hand, you had House Majority Leader Tom DeLay decrying the "dismemberment" of embryos (as if the cell masses already had arms and legs). On the other hand, you had one of the bill's proponents, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., saying that "we're this close to stopping juvenile diabetes" (even though most researchers say any cures involving embryonic stem cells are still years or decades away).

In reality, efforts to look at embryonic stem cells as a black-and-white issue will quickly run into a lot of gray matter — specifically, the brain power that's being devoted to bridging the gaps on ethical and scientific issues.

For example, opponents of embryonic stem-cell research emphasize that adult stem cells and cord blood could provide at least some of the potential therapeutic benefits without the moral qualms. Some researchers are trying to go even further and come up with fail-safe embryos that are genetically altered so that they have no chance of developing into humans.

One of the proponents of this "third way," Stanford University's William Hurlbut, is profiled in the new issue of Wired magazine and praised today in a National Review Online Q&A. Hurlbut is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics as well as a physician with training in theology.

Some people — reportedly including the Vatican's new defender of the faith, William Levada — think Hurlbut's concept just might hold a solution to the stem-cell controversy. Others — particularly those who are already in favor of using embryonic stem cells — worry that the idea could result in "Franken-embryos" that would be useless for research or therapy, while raising even sharper moral questions.

Woo Suk Hwang, the South Korean researcher behind last week's milestone paper on patient-specific stem cells, argues that his technique already produces "NT-embryos" that are unsuitable for reproductive purposes — but his critics aren't buying that claim, and raise the specter of all-out baby-cloning.

As discussed here and on Slate last week, you can expect the nomenclature surrounding nuclear transfer (or is that cloning humans?) to become a key battleground in the months ahead. Here's a sampling of the e-mail responses to our coverage of the stem-cell debate so far:

Elizabeth S. in Omaha, Neb.: "Whereas the South Korean research is a marvelous advance, there are other techniques that I feel are being equally ignored. The public has become so concerned about embryonic stem-cell use that they have forgotten that there are other sources of stem cells. An intelligent group of research scientists could easily find research material if they could simply find a way to approach new parents and ask for the donation of umbilical cord blood. ..."I agree that the terminology for this new scientific field must be more carefully and specifically defined, because the average American is not going to pick up on the differences between normal embryonic stem cells and the nuclear-transfer stem cells recently developed. All they are going to hear, and all a politician with no scientific background is going to hear, is 'embryonic stem cells' and will develop a corresponding negative attitude. Scientific issues are among the most difficult to deal with in the Senate and House because politicians are very, very rarely proficient enough in science to understand what they are discussing. More explanation is needed so that our representative and senators have a clear understanding of the issues they are debating and upon which they are voting. The recent South Korean research brings this to the fore."Brian in Rhode Island: "It is commonly assumed that conception is the point at which a human life starts. ... I'm only saying that a few cells dividing in a womb or Petri dish do not a human make; and indeed some adults today seem to not adequately meet the definition. Particularly some Republicans. It's always attractive to some people to see things in black and white, but this issue is too complex to yield to such narrow definitions; it's completely gray. No one can define at what exact point a person begins, and it's in fact different for every person. So where to start? The death of a few cells in a dish must be considered a lesser evil to the death of a fully functional adult, or we have lost our sanity in looking at the details. That's where the 'devil' resides, as I've heard."Curt in Austin, Texas: "I've been paralyzed and waiting patiently for 14 years. Frankly, I'm getting a little tired. How about paralyzing all those who oppose stem-cell research just enough so that their sex organs don't function properly? I suspect that we would see pro-stem-cell research legislation and federal funding faster than you can re-read this paragraph. Regardless of where the stem cells are originating."Robert Rabenhorst, Salem, S.D.: "I would rather suffer here on earth and spend eternity in heaven than to take life on earth from an embryo to benefit me and spend eternity in hell."Dennis McClain-Furmanski: "The argument as it exists now is not scientific but cultural. That is not surprising. What is surprising is people's reticence to recognize the reason for the argument. It must be kept explicit that the primary barrier to this line of research is the pro-life/anti-abortion movement. They cannot tolerate any definition of human biology that erodes the premise necessary for their argument, that any biological material that could develop into a person must be considered as a person from the earliest possible time. Any ground given with respect to stem-cell research is potentially ground lost in the abortion argument because it allows for a non-person definition of human biological material."It also must be recognized that the cultural heritage from which their position arises includes the assumption that they have the right to impose their beliefs on others. Rather than simply refusing abortion themselves, they believe nobody should be allowed them. It is the conflict between personal choice and the enforcement of a belief system on others that makes the abortion issue unresolvable, and thus does the same to the stem-cell/cloning issue. As long as this medieval world view dominates, no 21st-century Aquinas will be allowed to be heard."Rick McGuire, Carmel, Ind.: "It seems that this administration only cares about you if you're wealthy, healthy and 'thump the Bible.' How can George Bush send young men and women to war, support capital punishment, yet defend the rights of something that by most definitions is not life? How can he support the destruction of unwanted, leftover fertilized eggs versus being used for medical research? How can he continue to ignore every objective poll taken that overwhelmingly supports embryonic stem-cell research? This country is tired of him playing God! (He's not that smart.)"Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "In a perfect world, we would never have to mess with God's creation, but this is not a perfect world. Being realistic, the Republicans need to choose their battles. This would be the perfect time for a compromise. Being that a fetus is more clearly life than an embryo, we should make this offer: Make abortion illegal and we will be more lenient with research. (After all, it is just research.) Considering that most abortions are done for convenience and this research could save many lives, it would make more sense to do this, but we cannot allow cloning, as every person deserves to know they are unique. You do not choose to get sick, but you choose to get an abortion. Life for life makes more sense then life for convenience. It is not about a 'woman's right to choose' but 'a baby's right to live.'"Charles Trigilio, Mentor, Ohio: "Whether there is fertilization with a man and woman or fertilization in a test tube, it's still a human baby. With this form of embryonic re-creation, it is the murder of one human for another. Please, let's not forget that all this is done for 'money.' There is precious little altruism here."Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "...In the long run, commerce always gets what it wants. Stem-cell research is going to continue somewhere, even if not in the United States. Breakthroughs are going to be made that will make all of us wonder why we made such a fuss about it. Cloning entire healthy human beings as well as creating enhanced humans in the lab only requires that sufficient time and money be expended on those projects. It is inevitable."

To keep up with the controversy, bookmark our special report on stem-cell research. And as always, feel free to let me know what you think.

May 24, 2005 |
Wonders and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
• •
Nature: The Americas had 70 'founding fathers'
The Onion: Science news in photos

The radio rings of Saturn: The Cassini spacecraft has used an unorthodox imaging technique to map Saturn's rings in unprecedented clarity. The color-coded view shows the wide variance in the size of the particles that make up the rings, ranging from giant boulders to flecks of ice and rock smaller than a marble.

To create the map, Cassini beamed radio signals back to Earth from the other side of the rings on May 3. The strength of the received signal depended on the density of the ring material in between: The denser the ring, the weaker the signal.

Scientists took readings in three radio wavelengths simultaneously, then charted the variations in different colors: Purple indicates regions where there were no particles smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter. Green stands for places where there were particles smaller than 5 centimeters; blue indicates areas with particles smaller than 1 centimeter (about a half-inch).

There's a broad white band in the middle of Saturn's B ring, where the material was so dense that Cassini's scientists couldn't get accurate readings.

The results show that Saturn's seven main rings have different characteristics, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said today in a news release. The mysterious B ring has a dramatically varying structure. The C ring, further inside, has a gentle, wavy structure, with "many dense, narrow and sharp-edged ringlets" permeating its outer edge. The A ring, toward the outside, is "relatively flat," but has more than 40 wavy features caused by gravitational interactions with nearby moons.

A side-by-side comparison with visible-light imagery shows how much more clearly the rings show up in the radio view.

"The structure of those remarkable rings is a sight to behold," said Essam Marouf of San Jose State University, a member of the Cassini radio science team.

NASA's Cassini Web site offers other sights to behold, including a view of the Saturnian moon Mimas that looks unsettlingly like a distant Death Star from "Star Wars" preparing to menace the ringed planet. For more classics from the Cassini probe's nearly 11 months in the Saturnian system, check out our Cassini slide show.

Cosmic Log stew: Quite a few miscellaneous items struck my fancy today, so here's a recipe for cosmic cassoulet: Start out with the extrasolar planet, roughly three times the size of Jupiter, which was detected with the aid of amateur astronomers using a technique called gravitational microlensing. The discovery is part of a project called MicroFUN.

Add a touch of history: If the Cosmos 1 solar sail is launched as planned on June 21, it would be a fitting way to mark the first anniversary of SpaceShipOne's milestone spaceflight. Feel free to season with an extra pinch of X Prize mystery.

Stir in the urban legend about the student who mistakenly assumed that a couple of "unsolvable" problems were part of his homework — and then solved them. This ingredient is particularly piquant, because the one-time student at the center of the true story, mathematician George Dantzig, passed away earlier this month at the age of 90.

Finally, add a slice of Onion, provided by Jason from New York, a longtime Cosmic Log reader:

"I was particularly amused by [Tuesday's] link to The Onion's 'New, Delicious Species Discovered' article, but imagine the surprise when I saw life is imitating art the very next day (well, other than the delicious part — either the newly discovered highland mangabey isn't very tasty or they're not telling us!)"

May 23, 2005 |
Scientific side dishes on the World Wide Web:
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Science News: Uh-oh ... river sediment is piling up fast What's eating at Otzi the Iceman?

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