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Cosmic Log: June 18-24, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Hydrogen power play ... Stem cell-ebration ... Mars radar ready for action ... Commercial space vision ... Comet probe spots target ... Solar-sail sideshow ... No sun? No problem!

| Hydrogen power play: What America needs is an Apollo-style program to encourage the development of alternative energy sources — in part by allowing fossil fuels to become more expensive. At least that's the view of a researcher who has done an analysis of a wind-and-hydrogen energy economy.

"You do need to undertake an Apollo program because even though the cost of a new wind turbine averaged over a long time is similar to a new coal or natural gas power plant, there's no incentive to replace these other sources with wind," Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, says in a news release linked to a study in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford, Whitney Goldsborough Colella and David Golden, have proposed a power system in which wind turbines are used to generate the electricity for a water-to-hydrogen conversion system. The hydrogen, in turn, would go toward powering fuel cells in next-generation automotive vehicles.

"Converting all the current vehicles to fuel cell vehicles powered by wind would save 3,000 to 6,000 lives in the United States annually, and it could be done at a fuel cost that's comparable to the cost of gasoline — and less than the cost of gasoline, when you consider the health effects of gasoline," Jacobson said.

The scientist said he has no financial interest in any alternative-energy endeavor — other than his house (solar-powered) and his own transportation (a hybrid-powered Toyota Prius). But in the Science study, a wind-to-hydrogen combination comes out looking better in terms of the grand picture than four other alternatives, ranging from the status quo to hydrogen generated from natural gas (as is most common today) or coal.

The Stanford team contends that the cost of making hydrogen from wind would be $1.12 to $3.20 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline or diesel — on par with the current price of gas. But they say gasoline also has a hidden cost of 29 cents to $1.80 per gallon in societal costs such as reduced health, lost productivity, hospitalization and death, as well as cleanup of polluted sites. So the study contends that gasoline's true cost in March 2005 was $2.35 to $3.99 per gallon, which exceeds the estimated mean cost of hydrogen from wind.

The problem is, the up-front cost of conversion could be steep. Jacobson advocates supporting a new wind-to-hydrogen infrastructure to a level similar to the $20 billion recently proposed for a new natural gas pipeline from the continental United States to Alaska. That's roughly one-fifth the current-day equivalent cost of the 1960s Apollo space program, according to NBC News space analyst James Oberg's calculations.

Jacobson also believes fossil-fuel pricing should reflect the old technology's "true health and climate costs" — which means ending exemptions from current environmental regulations. That

Publishing in Science is a big deal for this type of analysis, and Colella reportedly has another paper in press at the Journal of Power Sources. With all this talk about the energy bill, the questions over the "end of oil," the climate change debate and the prospects for nuclear power, does this sound like a smart way to go? I'd love to hear what you think.

For further background on the technology and politics of alternative energy, check out our special report on "Green Machines" — and be sure to read about the account of last year's hydrogen-powered odyssey by my colleague at, Miguel Llanos. Next Tuesday, by the way, the House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus will kick off its "End Dependence Day" campaign with a Capitol Hill display of civilian and military fuel-cell vehicles.

| On the road again: I'll be heading out of town on vacation over the next week, so as always, postings will be dependent on time and bandwidth, and definitely less regular than usual. I'll be back in the office on the Fifth of July.

| Summertime field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Ripples in the sands of time
New Scientist: Russia planning double assault on Mars
National Geographic: 'The Search for Adam'
Science News: Energy on ice

| Stem cell-ebration: This week is a banner week for stem cell science, headlined by the International Society for Stem Cell Research's annual meeting in San Francisco. Check out the MSN Newsbot for a sampling of the reports.

Today officials signed the agreement to build the headquarters of California's $3 billion embryonic stem cell research effort in San Francisco — and you can bet that many of the meeting's 1,000-plus attendees are checking out the California scene.

"I doubt that there's a stem cell researcher in the United States that hasn't traveled out to California and hasn't contemplated moving to California," Michael West, chairman of the board, president and chief scientific officer for Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, told me today. "For all of the labs in the other 49 states ... just as a thought experiment, if they packed up their bags and moved, that's a year's down time for the majority of the stem cell researchers just relocating."

The stem cell debate is playing out state by state, and federal legislation could be taken up in the Senate as early as next month. To learn more about what's at stake, check out our latest overview of the debate and our extended interview with the University of Washington's James Thomson, one of the field's most influential researchers.

Here is a selection of the reader response to the Thomson interview:

Roman Urbanczyk, M.D.: "Well-done interview. He is truly a pioneer in the world of embryonic research. To read this interview and hear him say we're waiting for this administration to be out of office is embarrassing. It is also clear that he has rationalized the U.S. scientific community's position in the world of stem cell research."Yes, he's right that the Brits don't have the money to do full-bore research in this area, but he also knows that the more head start you give someone the more likely they are to get large amounts of private funding to make up the difference.The point in fact is what he didn't mention. That is, the University of Wisconsin's research foundation gets royalties for every cell line sold. This is what it's about — the money, and he knows it. The cutting edge of science really does cut both ways. ..."David Forbes in Australia: "As a young-onset (35) Parkinson's sufferer for the past 12 years, I am most interested in stem cell debates. I have no interest in moral debates; there is no debate to be entered into. My questions are regarding practicalities such as rejection issues, side effects, long-term effectiveness of dopaminergic neuron cells, anti-rejection issues and availability of treatment (aside from in the Dominican Republic). I have had brain surgery four times (pallidotomy, two thalomotomies, deep brain stimulators) and need something to hope for."Chuck and Judi Kiskaden: "We believe stem cell research for medical purposes that would help cure disease and deformities and genetic problems should move forward.  A tool that helps us learn more about the human body is a good thing, and throwing out all the unused frozen embryos seems like a waste.  Actually making human embryos to study is a sticky question, and one that we will all most likely be debating for a long time."

| Curiosities old and new on the World Wide Web:
MIT: Physicists create new form of matter
LiveScience: Oops! Dinosaur teeth sales are a croc
Times Literary Supplement: A new Sappho poem
Make a head-turning dragon (via Improbable Research)

| Red Planet radar ready: After more than a month's worth of snags and fixes, the European Space Agency reported today that its Mars Express orbiter has fully extended its radar booms and is ready to go to work.

The MARSIS radar system can probe the surface and subsurface, mapping out the Red Planet's geological structure and looking for the telltale signature of underground water reservoirs. If liquid water exists beneath the surface, as some scientists suspect, that could provide a refuge for Martian life — or at least a resource for earthly visitors during future missions.

Image converted using ifftoanyCcarreau

The booms were deployed in three installments: The first 66-foot-long (20-meter-long) boom was unfolded from the spacecraft in early May but didn't immediately lock into place. Fortunately, solar heating warmed up the boom's hinges so that it could unfold to its full length.

Mission planners took advantage of the lessons learned from that glitch, and the second long boom was successfully deployed on June 14, ESA said. The third, 23-foot-long (7-meter-long) boom unfolded itself smoothly three days later. On Sunday, ESA ran a successful test of the signal transmission system.

Over the next couple of weeks, MARSIS will go through its commissioning phase, which involves pointing the radar straight down at the areas it will pass over during the closest phase of its orbit. "This includes interesting features such as the northern plains and the Tharsis region, so there is a small chance of exciting discoveries being made early on," ESA said.

MARSIS is due to begin its scientific survey on July 4, focusing on the area between 30 degrees south and 60 degrees north latitude. "This area, which includes the smooth northern plains, may have once contained large amounts of water," the space agency said. Eventually, the radar will analyze the Martian atmosphere as well.

"With MARSIS now at work, whatever we find, we are moving into new territory," said David Southworth, ESA's science program director.

In other Red Planet news:

  • NASA's Opportunity rover has sent back new imagery of the dune where it had been stuck for more than a month.
  • The Mars Society reports that its Mars Desert Research Station, a Utah outpost that's meant to be a testing ground for future interplanetary missions, is being featured on "Future Tech," an episode of the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" series.

| Commercial space visions: NASA's new chief signaled this week that the space agency will be in the market for entrepreneurial space services — but not on a pay-first, build-later basis. The speech that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin made in Washington on Tuesday to the Space Transportation Association seems to be setting the commercial-space community abuzz.

"Based on his comments and responses to questions after his main presentation, he has clearly given a lot of cogent thought to the topic," Keith Cowing, editor of the independent NASA Watch Web site, said in a commentary plus transcript. "From the viewpoint of a 'NASA Watcher' it is a breath of fresh air."

The idea is to open up cargo and crew transfer services to the international space station for commercial providers, as long as those providers also have some "skin," or capital, invested in the venture. That approach could mesh well with Transformational Space's proposal for a crew transfer vehicle, or Constellation Services International's plans for a "LEO Express" transport.

"CSI applauds Mike Griffin’s commitment to commercial-style purchase of ISS resupply services," Charles Miller, the company's chief executive officer, told me in an e-mail.

Can Griffin translate his vision into an entrepreneurial reality? That remains to be seen, particularly because the two teams that were recently chosen to design NASA's next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle are headed by the "usual suspects" in aerospace: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the Boeing Co.

HobbySpace blogger Clark Lindsey and the Space Frontier Foundation's Rick Tumlinson provide their own perspectives on NASA's commercial vision.

In other commercial space news, Lindsey points to an update on Virgin Galactic's space tourism plans and a building permit application for what could end up being Blue Origin's spaceship factory in Kent, Wash. As previously reported, Blue Origin intends to truck the finished rockets  from the Seattle-area production facility to a West Texas launch facility, starting next year.

| Quick trips on the scientific Web:
National Geographic: The stem cell divide
EurekAlert: Researchers grow stem cells from human No wings? No chutes? No problem
NSF: Camera captures how hummingbirds hover Early mammal bit like a snake

| Comet probe spots bull's eye: With the aid of some photographic trickery, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft has produced an image of its target, Comet Tempel 1, as it closes in for a July 4 collision.

The raw material for the picture was gathered at the end of May with the probe's medium-resolution camera, from a distance of about 20 million miles (32 million kilometers). But in the unprocessed data, any signature of the 3-by-9-mile (5-by-15-kilometer) nucleus is obscured by the glow of Tempel 1's coma of gas and dust.

So scientists digitally removed that glare using image-processing software, revealing the nucleus as a bright point in the center.

Nasa / Umd

"It's exciting to see the nucleus pop out from the coma," University of Maryland astronomer Michael A'Hearn, who leads the Deep Impact mission, said in today's image advisory. "And being able to distinguish the nucleus in these images helps us to better understand the rotational axis of the comet's nucleus, which is helpful for targeting this elongated body."

A couple of weeks ago, the Deep Impact team released an animation of the twirling nucleus, based on data from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. But this is the first time Deep Impact itself has been able to identify Tempel 1's dirty snowball.

"We detected the nucleus a lot sooner than expected, but now we'll be watching the nucleus all the way to impact!" said Carey Lisse, a team member who led the image-processing effort.

The enhanced data will help mission planners figure out exactly which part of the comet will be struck when Deep Impact's copper-sheathed Impactor hits Tempel 1, at about 2 a.m. ET July 4. The main part of the spacecraft, nicknamed Flyby, will monitor the collision from afar and analyze the debris thrown off when the 820-pound (373-kilogram) Impactor hits.

Comets are thought to be composed of stuff left over from the origins of the solar system. Therefore, those bits of ice and dust could shed light on the kinds of chemical building blocks that eventually gave rise to life on Earth. Next month's bust-up also could provide insights on what would need to be done if we ever wanted to divert comets from a collision course with Earth. Besides all that, it just might be one heck of a fireworks show.

| Solar-sail sideshow: Today's launch of the Cosmos 1 solar sail didn't quite go as the privately funded mission's managers had hoped — and the Planetary Society might well have to go back to the drawing boards. But even if this mission fails, solar sails seem certain to become a part of our space fleet sooner or later, as NBC News space analyst James Oberg reported on Monday.

In the meantime, you can build your own solar-sail model, thanks to the Space Craft Kits Web site (and a pointer from Clark Lindsey's Space Log). You can also muse on the technology of solar sails, as Jeff Capron did in this e-mail:

"When you do eventually mention the solar sail experiment this week in your blog, perhaps you could address the question on how a solar sailing spaceship returns from its journey? I have heard so much about the sail riding the light to a destination, nobody ever speaks on how these things are supposed to return. What pushes them back?"

It turns out this is a bit like asking how a sailboat gets back from the other side of the lake: Navigating one way or another is a question of "tacking" correctly with respect to the photonic breeze, according to Quirks and Quarks.

For interstellar flight, you'd probably have to navigate your way out of the solar system, perhaps with an assist from lasers or microwave beams, as described in this NASA feature. Then you'd have to use the same type of cosmic seamanship when you arrive at your destination. Be sure to build a laser beaming station or a "mag-beam" terminal at the foreign star system before you set out on the homeward journey.

| Futuristic wonders and whimsy on the Web:
The Onion 2056
Popular Science: Is this the future of air combat?
PC World: Japan dreams of robot moon base by 2025
BBC: Teleporting over the Internet

| No sun? No problem! Scientists say they have found a new strain of bacteria that lives deep in the ocean, beyond the reach of the sun, and yet appears to use the dull glow from undersea volcanic vents to generate energy through photosynthesis.

The findings, published online today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have implications for the search for life on other worlds — such as Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that some believe could exhibit just such hydrothermal activity.

"We even wrote the word 'Europa' in the original draft, but one of the reviewers didn't like it," said J. Thomas Beatty, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia who is the lead author of the study. "If this organism really is using light energy in the depths on Earth, maybe something similar could be existing on other worlds."

Researchers already have seen plenty of microbial life thriving at hydrothermal vents, but such organisms survive through chemical reactions rather than photosynthesis per se. This strain of green sulfur bacteria, however, gets its fuel by converting sulfur compounds with the aid of low-level light. Scientists harvested the bacteria from around a vent on the volcanically active East Pacific Rise, about 1,300 miles west of Costa Rica and 7,850 feet beneath the ocean surface, with the aid of the Alvin submersible vehicle.

"The only thing we can prove is that this organism was alive and well and in close proximity to a vent that gives off light," Beatty said. "Our inference is that since this organism required light for long-term survival, it might be using this light."

He admitted it was possible that the bacteria drifted in from a sunnier clime, but because they're anaerobic organisms, he said the nearest place they could have come from would be the coastal seas around Costa Rica.

"OK, this is possible," he said, "but given the vastness of the ocean and the small size of a microbial cell, it seems unlikely that we could have picked this up just by chance."

Beatty and his colleagues — from the University of Munich, Arizona State University, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the College of William and Mary and the Bermuda Biological Station for Research — propose that the bacteria soaked up the extremely faint, close-to-infrared light emitted by the hydrothermal vents. It's not yet clear how much heat the bacteria can take, but Beatty speculated that the organisms could have survived in a sweet spot between the ultra-hot vent and the ultra-cold depths of the ocean.

"It's possible that a non-thermophilic organism could exist close enough to the light source to harvest those photons without being cooked," Beatty said.

The discovery "frees the thinking of the scientific community from the constraint that any form of life that depends on light energy is necessarily limited to solarly illluminated habitats," the researchers wrote. Astrobiologists already think mineral-munching microbes could well live on other worlds through chemosynthesis — the latest results just widen the possibilities for finding life in dark corners of the cosmos.

To learn more about the search for life beyond Earth, check in with NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the Astrobiology Web.

| Space travel, Texas-style: Cosmic Log correspondents generally liked the idea of putting a spaceport in West Texas — and elsewhere:

Robert Larson, Kingman, Ariz.: "Texas will work, as will the Australian outback. Perhaps the Sahara and Gobi deserts would become future spaceports. Vast open spaces, accommodating vast tonnage of supplies, worldwide as well as into space, to moon and Mars bases. Hubs for the advancement of Third World nations. Australia could also become the world's center for ocean habitats."David Harrison, Irving, Texas: "It strikes me that these millionaires and billionaires funding space research are much like the old patrons of the Renaissance, funding scientific/engineering development along with the arts, etc. They are in the same position, having more money than they need, and more than the government is willing to spend."Alex in London: "This may sound like a silly question, but if until now astronauts who travel into orbital space more than once have all been in the best possible physical condition, is it not a concern that, since wealthy individuals would theoreticaly be able to do the same, repeated exposure to the rigors of even traveling to suborbital space might have unexpected, detrimental or even dangerous effects on these 'average' people?"

It seems certain that there will be minimum health requirements for private-sector suborbital trips. Although the rocket rides would not be as stressful as, say, an orbital spaceflight, passengers would have to be capable of weathering the equivalent of a heavy-duty theme-park ride. And unfortunately, those rides do carry some risk. If you're looking for an early reality check, click through our "Are You Fit for Space" quiz.

| Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Astrobiology Magazine: Physics of extraterrestrial civilizations
New Scientist: Martian life might threaten human mission
Purdue University: Physicists measure exotic small-scale force
Science @ NASA: See the summer moon illusion

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