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Cosmic Log: Oct. 1-7, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: "Liftoff" for orbital venture ... A sharper sunspot ... Rocket reaction ... Ghost of a supernova ... To zap or not to zap? ... and much more.

Oct. 7, 2005 |
‘Liftoff’ for orbital venture: Interorbital Systems, one of the more unconventional entrants in the commercial space race, says it now has enough money to take the next step in its grand plan to put tourists into orbit.

The Mojave, Calif.-based company announced today that Missouri businessman Tim Reed has purchased the first seat on its yet-to-be-built Neptune Spaceliner orbital launch vehicle, paying a "promotional fare" of $250,000.

Those funds, along with other money that Interorbital has taken in, will clear the way for Neptune's predecessor, a one-third-scale version aimed at hurling payloads of up to 30 pounds, rather than people, into space. The Sea Star microsatellite launcher, like the Neptune, would be a sea-launched, "stage-and-a half-to-orbit" craft.

"We are funded as far as we're concerned for the satellite project," Randa Milliron, Interorbital's co-founder and chief executive officer, told me. "This is our liftoff. Essentially, we're good to go."

Testing of the Sea Star's propulsion system, powered by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas, has already been under way, but now Interorbital will proceed with flight testing, she said.

Milliron said she's been in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration about launch licensing, as well as potential customers for the microsatellite launches. "There are people apparently waiting for the low-cost launchers. ... We were laughingly calling it the 'academic pricing' for satellite launches," she said.

The timeline for developing the Sea Star is ambitious enough, with the first launch targeted in just 10 months' time. But Milliron and the rest of the 12-person Interorbital team are aiming even higher for the Neptune flights: They hope to make good on Reed's ticket in the 2008 time frame.

Revenue from Sea Star satellite launches would fund the Neptune project, which Milliron estimates would cost $30 million. That figure roughly matches the amount spent to create the SpaceShipOne suborbital rocket plane, and is far less than the multibillion-dollar cost of the orbital space programs maintained by the United States, Russia and China.

Milliron insists her company can do orbital flight for far less than the national space agencies. "They're supporting a whole infrastructure. We're not going that way," she said.

The Neptune's flight profile calls for an orbital trip of seven days for five passengers, with the emptied liquid-oxygen tanks serving as a habitat. At the end of the trip, the crew capsule would splash down in the ocean like the Apollo capsules did.

Interorbital's promotional fare is aimed at attracting seed money for the fast-track development plan. Once 10 of the $250,000 seats are sold, the published rate for orbital trips would rise to $2 million. Two years after the first manned flights, the folks who went for the promotional fare would get their $250,000 returned as a rebate, Milliron said.

If the orbital passenger flights aren't available in 2008, "it's the customer's option whether to take full complete refund or to wait for service to begin," Milliron said.

"The main feature of this whole program is the chance to get a free trip to space — and that is enough of a guarantee for all of the people we're currently dealing with," she said.

It's an unconventional method for funding an orbital space program, which matches the Interorbital team's unconventional background. Randa Milliron spent years as a TV producer, director and teacher. Her husband and Interorbital's other co-founder, Rod Milliron, has had Hollywood acting experience as well as years of experience as a mathematician, physicist and aerospace engineer.

Some might say the idea of sending private-sector passengers into orbit in 2008, fully free of government support, is as realistic as a Hollywood movie plot. But Randa Milliron is staying focused on the next step. She says she's heartened by "encouraging results" from the Sea Star tests so far, and the positive review in Parade magazine this summer didn't hurt either.

"It's time to make a flight," she said.

The previous version of this item was revised to provide additional comments from Milliron on details of the Neptune flight arrangements.

Oct. 7, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web: The future needs futurists

Oct. 5, 2005 |
A sharper sunspot: The picture may look like an up-close and personal view of your iris, or perhaps a photomicrograph of a stem cell. But what you’re seeing is actually one of the sharpest pictures ever taken of a region three times as wide as our own planet: sunspot AR 10810.

The image illustrates the latest advances in a technology called adaptive optics – in which a telescope’s mirror changes shape ever so slightly, many times a second, to compensate for the shimmering effect of our atmosphere.

Subtle turbulence in the air causes the stars to twinkle, and adds an ever-so-slight blur to high-resolution imagery from ground-based telescopes. The twinkling is certainly romantic, but the blur causes havoc for astronomers.

That’s the reason why the pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope – which orbits well beyond the atmosphere – are so darn good. It’s also the reason why Earth’s best telescopes tend to be in high, dry places, like Hawaii or Chile, where the twinkle effect is at a minimum.

Now technological tricks are making it easier to get rid of the twinkle. The sunspot image, for example, was taken at the National Science Foundation’s Dunn Solar Telescope in Sunspot, N.M., using a recently installed high-resolution camera and adaptive-optics image correction system.

The system monitors the twinkle in an astronomical image, then reshapes and refocuses the Dunn telescope’s deformable mirror 130 times a second to compensate. As a result, the telescope can operate at its theoretical peak, with 0.14 arc-second resolution, rather than the 1.0 to 0.5 arc-second resolution typically allowed by Earth’s atmosphere.

In the sunspot’s case, 80 images were captured over a period of just three seconds on Sept. 23, then processed to produce an even sharper composite image.

This particular image was made in a blue part of the electromagnetic spectrum, where features reflecting the sun’s magnetic field stand out in high contrast. The whole point of having sharper sunspot imagery is to learn more about the structures radiating out from the sunspot’s center.

“These features hold the key to understanding the magnetic structure of sunspots in ultra-high-resolution images such as this one,” the National Solar Observatory said in today’s image advisory. “Magnetism in solar activity is the ‘dark energy problem’ being tackled in solar physics today.”

The image advisory also includes a fuzzed-out picture illustrating what the sunspot would look like without adaptive optics. For more adaptive optics, check out this online tutorial. And to delve into the mysteries of the sun, check out's roundup as well as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory's Web site.

Update for Oct. 6: I've changed the date of the imagery and the designation of the sunspot to conform with corrected information from the National Solar Observatory.

Oct. 5, 2005 |
Rocket reaction: A lot of money will have to change hands and a lot of regulatory clearances will have to be issued before we’ll see liftoff for the Rocket Racing League that was unveiled this week. Some observers are already wondering whether races that follow a mile-high virtual track will have as much appeal as the NASCAR contests they’re meant to emulate.

“So where are the bleachers?” one Cosmic Log correspondent asked. “I cannot imagine how a rocket race, high in the atmosphere over long distances, can be as successful as NASCAR without bleachers [in the sky]. Are they going to float seats in space?”

The league’s organizers say spectators at home and at the “track” will be able to follow along on hand-held displays and big screens – but others wonder whether the league’s NASCAR aspirations are really in line with the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety standards.

At Transterrestrial Musings, one commentator mused that “half the people watch NASCAR for the race, the other half watch for the crashes. ... Racing rocket planes has about as much in common with racing stock cars as bicycle racing has to do with hang-gliding.” Another jokingly suggested shooting Sidewinder missiles at the X-Racers to make things more interesting.

Still, if it’s bright flames and loud engines you’re looking for, rather than pile-ups per se, you can’t do much better than a rocket race. I’ll be getting a taste of the experience this Sunday at the Personal Spaceflight Exposition in New Mexico, where XCOR Aerospace’s EZ-Rocket – the prototype for the league’s first X-Racers – will perform aerial demonstrations.

I’m en route to New Mexico as you read this, and that means postings to the Log over the next few days will be dependent on time, bandwidth and news developments. If everything works as expected, you’ll be seeing daily reports from the Countdown to the X Prize Cup festivities through the weekend. I should be back on my regular virtual racetrack by Tuesday.

Oct. 4, 2005 |
Ghost of a supernova: Like a tag team of cosmic "Ghostbusters," two space telescopes have joined forces to capture the fading remnants of an exploded star — helping to shed light on how such blasts enrich the universe with the complex stuff of life.

Today's image of the supernova remnant N132D combines views from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory: Chandra picked up X-ray readings for the large, bluish horseshoe of gas that sweeps around the left side of the image. Hubble, meanwhile, picked up readings for the smaller, pinkish horseshoe on the right half of the image.

Both horseshoes represent "shells" of gas that have slammed into the surrounding interstellary medium, creating shock waves and sparking characteristic emissions of radiation. In this processed image, pink indicates hydrogen emissions, while purplish wisps represent oxygen emissions.

The combination of Hubble and Chandra imagery illustrates how two telescopes are better than one when it comes to dissecting the innards of stars.

In the latter stages of its life, a star's fusion furnace combines lighter elements (like hydrogen) to create heavier elements (like oxygen and even weightier stuff). When a massive star blows up, those heavy elements are blasted out into space, eventually ending up inside a newborn star and its surrounding disk of dust and gas.

Astronomers believe that's how many of the key elements we see on Earth — ranging from carbon, nitrogen and oxygen all the way up to uranium — got their start. Studying supernova remnants such as N132D helps scientists understand how the process works.

N132D's entrails are particularly interesting because the star is thought to have blown up relatively recently: about 3,000 years earlier than the current view. That provides plenty of fresh material to analyze.

N132D is about 160,000 light-years from Earth, in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy on the suburbs of our own Milky Way galaxy. That means that the light we see today actually left the scene of the supernova about 160,000 years ago. Thus, when we say the blast occurred "recently," that's a relative term (or perhaps a relativistic term).

To generate the kinds of emissions detected by Chandra, the gas in N132D's larger shell must have been heated to 18 million degrees Fahrenheit (10 million degrees Celsius), researchers say. And the shell is still moving outward, at a speed of more than 4 million mph (2,000 kilometers per second).

For more views of N132D, check out a couple of golden oldies from Hubble and Chandra. And for highlights from the past month's worth of space imagery, don't miss the latest "Month in Space" slide show.

Oct. 4, 2005 |
The week that was ... and is: With a millionaire at the international space station and a rocket festival unfolding in New Mexico, this is a big week for space fans — but it's big for space historians as well. Today marks the first anniversary of SpaceShipOne's X Prize-winning flight, and on Wednesday the wraps will be taken off the rocket plane at its new home, the Milestones of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. This week is also marked as World Space Week, commemorating the anniversary of Sputnik 1's launch as well as the Outer Space Treaty.

Oct. 4, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

The Daily Grail presents a Sub Rosa sequel

Oct. 3, 2005 |
To zap or not to zap? That is the question considered by a goodly number of Cosmic Log readers in the wake of last week's item about suggestions for zapping hurricanes — or at least guiding them away from vulnerable areas.

Ross Hoffman, who's been studying the idea at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, told CNBC that "it's a very difficult idea," and that we don't have nearly enough know-how to consider messing with the chaotic atmospheric systems that determine a hurricane's course.

"We need to be able to forecast hurricanes much better in order to apply our technique in the real world," he said. Better forecasting would provide a payoff far sooner than actually trying to modify a hurricane's course.

Some readers suspected that changing the weather might be closer than we think, pointing to the long-running controversy over the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Facility, or HAARP, as well as the more recent debate over the proposed Weather Modification Operations and Research Board.

However, most of the current work in weather modification is still concentrating on cloud-seeding rather than, say, solar power stations. Check out this recent story on the subject, or page through an online book published by the National Academies Press for an in-depth view.

Here's a selection of the feedback:

Mark R. Whittington: "First of all, thanks for the links to some of my stuff. Second, if Doctor Evil gets a hold of a solar power station and starts blackmailing the United States for 'one million dollars!" ... then a missile or two would put a stop to it. Third, as far as feasibility, I don't think we'll know if we don't try. Perhaps a pilot project could be undertaken as proof of concept."Ralph Bridges: "Certainly an idea worth examining. Right off the top, it shouldn't be as hard as you imply. A ton of aluminum a few atoms thick would make a hell of a mirror. It would not be easy to deploy it, but perhaps not impossible. Of more concern would be to develop weather prediction programs to determine whether it would do more harm than good. Perhaps breaking up a potential hurricane would spawn several worse ones, or perhaps the contribution to global warming (If such there be) would be worse than the present situation. In any case, studying the question will certainly lead to new knowledge."Carrie Pierce: "Forgive me if I am wrong, but don't microwaves increase the temperature of any given object?  Wouldn't 'stirring' the winds of a tropical storm just increase the water temperature under the storm which will lead to a hurricane? Is that right? Don't hurricanes use the warm water to increase wind speed and strength? What kind of damage would the microwaves do to the ozone layer? I was always told not to look at the microwave in my mom's kitchen while it was running.  Would the microwaves from space cause cancer?  God knows the red M&Ms did.... What else?"Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Lawton, Okla.: "A major hurricane carries the power equivalent of 8,000 megatons of nuclear weapons. Anything that's going to be applied to something of that much power is going to have to carry a lot of power of its own. Since we know of no precise point or process which we can use to efficiently disrupt a hurricane (we know of no exact 'brakes' to push), we'll be stuck with dumping lots of energy into something that already carries lots of energy. We don't know enough about what we're doing yet to be able to do this without making things worse. A recent article mentioning using 'chaos' to find the most vulnerable point failed to recognize that the nature of chaos is that it is unpredictable and can result in enormous changes from small input with no guarantee which way things would go. If it takes say, 1,000 megatons of energy to break up an 8,000-megaton weather system, what's the release of 1,000 megatons (in whatever form — even slow atmospheric heating by microwave beam or solar mirror) going to do to the piece of the planet where it's released? As a point of perspective, the total nuclear arsenal of the world is presently estimated at 5,000 megatons. One thing that such an effort would certainly accomplish, no matter how it was done, is adding an enormous amount of heat to an atmosphere which already is carrying more than it should. Are we willing to melt the ice caps and inundate Florida to save it from storms?"Jan Seiffer: "I love it when we begin playing God with yet one more knife in Mother Nature.  It's bad enough we didn't realize the impact of the industrial revolution on the environment until very recently.  Now we are talking about controlling the weather!?  We don't even understand enough of the movement of weather patterns now let alone zapping hurricanes into submission or steering them to other areas.  Nature has always sought to balance itself with earth, wind, water, and fire.  But scientists are still debating the impact of our damming the Colorado, building levees on the Mississippi, clearing the Amazon, placing breakers along beaches amongst many other changes and without answers on how we have changed the Earth with our actions, now we talk about controlling the weather? What happens if the Gulf Stream should change as a result of killing or moving hurricanes we see moving too close to us?  We have been very good at inventing gadgets and modifying nature to suit our purposes. but one thing we have not been good at is very long-term thinking.  Everything seems to come down to the here-and-now and passing the buck to future generations. Bottom line: Invent and implement only after long-term planning and impact analysis."Mike Tannura: "People think it's so simple to control the weather, but they just have no idea.  For example, say you had 100,000 people all standing in a row. Now, say all of them blew as hard as they can, as if they were blowing out a birthday candle.  What effect would that have on the weather?  None. What about 1,000,000 people? The answer: None. Now try to explain to me how there is something out there that could have an effect.  Even the big nuclear bombs didn't change the weather in the 1940s, and it certainly won't happen anytime soon."El Torro: "This is already possible with the use of scalar waves. The Soviets have had this capability since 1960 and the U.S. departments of energy and defense, under the HAARP program, are also capable of controling weather. In 1977 the UN attempted to control the use of weather as a weapon with the "Convention of the Prohibition of Military or any Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques" and the United States ratified this convention in 1978. Why would we need a U.N. treaty if weather modification was not already a possibility? ..."Joe Ferrell, "I think the idea of space solar power is amazing. Just because it's actually achievable. If the brightest minds in the world are working on this, then it will happen. People are already test-running prototype space elevators. It's just a matter of time before they start hauling full loads — hopefully. It would be great for this world to move away from oil. Move to something that every country can claim as theirs: the sun. Start building receiver stations and we're in business. But how do you keep it away from Dr. Evil?? Make it do one thing and one thing only. Make it so that it can only beam to the receiver stations. If you made it multifunctional, that would probably make it more vulnerable for uses of terror. We know that anything that can be used as a weapon will be. Even if it was created to better mankind."Mark Wiener: "The most frustrating aspect of global warming is that the solutions are all at hand. They are blocked by the continuing notion that the world needs to burn more fuel, generate more power and consume more resources.  If hatred and stupidity do not cause humanity to suffer needlessly, greed and ignorance will. Very few of the good ol’ boys in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi will make the connection between the big SUV their wife drives with maybe one kid or the family dog to the grocery and the problem of more and more severe hurricanes. More fuel-efficient vehicles are available in the form of hybrids.  If the automakers ever get away from their subsidy of the petroleum industry and make the hybrids plug-in hybrids, so much the better. Widespread use of plug-in hybrids would reduce the U.S. contribution to global warming (the largest on earth) by half or better."Keoki, San Diego: "That is a easy target for an enemy to be able to destroy power sources. Why not make everything have a solar panel of its own? From your backyard jacuzzi and down to the 18-volt power drill. This will alleviate the need to burn the fossil fuels that create global warming, which in turn warms the waters, which in turn creates the monster storms. Solar is the only way to go, but we shouldn't waste time and thought on outer-space microwave-blasting contraptions."Rodger: "... Basically a hurricane is heat energy. Beaming microwaves into a tropical depression, tropical storm, or hurricane would only intensify it. A massive flat umbrella (reflector) in a geostationary orbit over the Gulf of Mexico would reduce the midday heat, cooling the gulf, and reflect the setting and rising sun, extending daylight hours and saving energy in the process. However, the ideal way to deal with hurricanes is to make the first 50 miles of the Gulf states into a national park and wildlife refuge to be enjoyed by all."

Oct. 3, 2005 |
Space millionaire on the air: Greg Olsen, the well-heeled inventor-entrepreneur from Sensors Unlimited who purchased a $20 million trip to the international space station, will conduct the first in a series of Webcasts from orbit at 6:27 p.m. ET Tuesday. Olsen's other Webcasts are scheduled Thursday and Friday, as detailed on Sensors Unlimited's Web site. There's also a news conference with the full crew scheduled at 1:22 p.m. ET Tuesday, which will be aired on NASA TV.

Oct. 3, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

Scientific American's Sci-Tech Web Awards 2005

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