August 02, 2004

The Story of a Rock

I don't know what's harder to believe — that these things make their way here (and somebody actually finds them), or that we're able to figure out so much about precisely where they came from.

The rock left the Moon no more than 340,000 years ago, carved out of the Imbrium Basin -- the right eye of the "Man in the Moon" -- by an asteroid impact. Lured by gravity, the fist-sized object arrived on Earth sometime within the past 9,700 years.

Gnos even thinks he might know the exact crater on the Moon from whence the rock came.

Reading this, I can't help but ponder the fact that that the planet we're on has also had it's share of meteor impacts over the years, including one that led to the end of the dinosaurs. What did we shoot out into space with those impacts? Just rocks? Is it possible that there are portions of tree trunks, dinosaur bones — maybe even a T. Rex carcass? — in orbit around the sun, just waiting for an eventual near encounter with one of the planets?

It's fun to consider.

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July 28, 2004

It's Official

SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.

We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)

Posted by Phil at 02:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 26, 2004

Moore Meets Drake

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.

Shostak came to his conclusion by taking assumptions about alien civilizations already adopted by SETI to determine how long it will take us to find the first civilization with accelerating technology.

This brings together two ideas near and dear to the Speculist heart: Drake's Equation, and Moore's Law.

Drake's Equation was developed by Dr. Frank Drake to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy. It is:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

N = The number of communicative civilizations

The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose radio emissions are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars

The rate of formation of stars with a large enough "habitable zone" and long enough lifetime to be suitable for the development of intelligent life.

Fp = The fraction of those stars with planets

The fraction of sun-like stars with planets is currently unknown, but evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the sun.

ne = The number of "Earths" per planetary system

All stars have a habitable zone where a planet would be able to maintain a temperature that would allow liquid water. A planet in the habitable zone could have the basic conditions for life as we know it.

fl = The fraction of those planets where life develops

Although a planet orbits in the habitable zone of a suitable star, other factors are necessary for life to arise. Thus, only a fraction of suitable planets will actually develop life.

fi = The fraction life sites where intelligence develops

Life on Earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. Intelligence took a long time to develop. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop at all. For more information, please visit Dr. William Calvin's "The Drake Equation's fi".

fc = The fraction of planets where technology develops

The fraction of planets with intelligent life that develop technological civilizations, i.e., technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The "Lifetime" of communicating civilizations

The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.

Nevertheless, in attempting to maximize the chances of finding an extra terrestrial civilization, SETI has made some assumptions. Shostak took those assumptions and found that between 10,000 and one million radio transmitting civilizations should exist in this galaxy.

We have a lot of territory to search - there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Fortunately, for purposes of the search, many stars can be excluded from the survey as being outside of the Galactic Habitable Zone.

Shostak also took into account existing and planned radio telescopes and our improving ability to analyze these signals with computers.

Shostak assumed that computer processing power will continue to double every 18 months until 2015 as it has done for the past 40 years. From then on, he assumes a more conservative doubling time of 36 months as transistors get too small to scale down as easily as they have till now.

Within a generation, radio emissions from enough stars will be observed and analysed to find the first alien civilisation, Shostak estimates.

There are naysayers:

Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League, a separate organisation in New Jersey, says Shostak's prediction ignores one important factor. "It is altogether reasonable to project the development of human technology, based upon past trends and planned investments," he says.

"But predicting the date, the decade or even the century of contact is another matter because the 'other end' of the communications link is completely out of our hands. It would be nice to think we know something about the existence, distribution, technology and motivation of our potential communications partners in space, but in fact, we don't."

Shuch is right that we don't have any knowledge about alien civilizations. Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.


Richer All the Time

Fisking Sci Am


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July 22, 2004

X-Prize Announcement Coming July 27

Yesterday the X Prize Foundation alerted the media that "several key announcements" will be made on July 27. Because the X-prize rules provide that any contestant must give 60 day prior notice before attempting to win the prize, there is speculation that the announcement will be a flight schedule for SpaceShipOne.

According to the X Prize Foundation press statement today, “representatives from major teams including Burt Rutan from the American Scaled Composites team and Brian Feeney from the Canadian da Vinci Project team will be present [for the announcement].

Burt Rutan has said that when his team does shoot for the prize it will make three flights instead of the two required to win.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:41 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Happy Moonday!

Rand Simberg remembers that fine July afternoon 35 years ago, and comments on where we are now:

Thirty-five years after Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, we have neither the NASA Mars base, or the huge spinning space colonies. But we're finally seeing new progress on a front in between those two visions. Forty years after the end of the X-15 program, we're recapitulating some of the early NASA program privately, and diversely, with the efforts of Burt Rutan and the other X-Prize contestants and suborbital ventures. They won't be diverted down a costly dead-end path of giant throwaway rockets. Instead they'll slowly and methodically evolve capabilities and markets, creating the infrastructure for low-cost access to space. Once we can afford to get, in Heinlein's immortal words, "halfway to anywhere," we'll finally be able to return to the moon, to complete the job begun by those first voyagers, and this time we'll be able to stay.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Here's what I had to say on the subject a year ago. Still seems relevant.

Via Rand, here's a hopeful scenario.

Posted by Phil at 04:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 29, 2004

Mixing it Up

Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!
Well, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!

-- ad for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, circa 1979

So now, via Glenn Reynolds, we read that we might have a space elevator in 15 years.

Edwards believes a space elevator offers a cheaper, safer form of space travel that eventually could be used to carry explorers to the planets.

Edwards' elevator would climb on a cable made of nanotubes -- tiny bundles of carbon atoms many times stronger than steel. The cable would be about three feet wide and thinner than a piece of paper, but capable of supporting a payload up to 13 tons.

Yep. That sounds like what we've been talking about. But the part that really got my attention was this:

The cable would be attached to a platform on the equator, off the Pacific coast of South America where winds are calm, weather is good and commercial airplane flights are few. The platform would be mobile so the cable could be moved to get out of the path of orbiting satellites.

Well, now hang on a second. If we want to protect our elevator cable from winds, air traffic, and possible terrorist threats, maybe we shouldn't start it on the ground. What if built it up from about 100 miles up? That's right, what if we built a huge, massive version of Dark Sky Station (also here) to serve as the ground floor of the space elevator?

I imagine this would require somewhat more robust (shall we say?) balloon technology than is currently on the drawing boards. But if we can use nanotubes to make a cable to space, we ought to be able to use buckyballs or some other sufficiently strong nanomaterial to create a floating Dark Sky Planetoid in the upper atmosphere that could support the cable.

The planetoids — eventually I expect there would be several of them — would serve as spaceports. Airships would transport cargo and passengers to the planetoid, which would eventually make their way to orbit via the elevator. Returning passengers and goods acquired in space (minerals mined from the asteroids, etc.) would come down the elevator to the planetoid, where they would be transported back to Earth via airship.

This idea would not only provide a sound infrastructure from which to move commerce and everyday life into space, it would combine two of the coolest ideas for space exploration currently being tossed around.

And you want to talk about space tourism? Less adventurous folks would just hop an airship to the planetoid, where they would find hotels, casinos...normal big-city tourist stuff. They could say they went to space without having to experience weightlessness or any other inconveniences. But the more adventurous folks would ride the elevator up to the top and do some real space stuff. Weightless sports. EVAs. You name it. Eventually, the boldest of the bold would proceed from the elevator station to the Moon or even Mars.

Now that's what I call two great tastes that taste great together.

Posted by Phil at 10:07 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

June 25, 2004

Final Score

This just in.

(via GeekPress)

Posted by Phil at 11:05 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 21, 2004

Good Summaries

A quick note from Rand Simberg and a full-blown news story from Leonard David, both of whom got to watch it all happen from Mojave.

Posted by Phil at 10:10 AM | TrackBack

Weightless M&Ms

Apparently Melvill spilled his snack while weightless. I imagine we'll see footage of those floating chocolates in the eventual IMAX film of the flight.

Posted by Phil at 09:38 AM | TrackBack


Melvill on the flight: "It was a mind-blowing experience...and everything worked just as he [Rutan] said it would."

Rutan: "It's hard for me to talk right now...several times tears came to our eyes...I am absolutely delighted..."

Posted by Phil at 09:34 AM | TrackBack

Civilian Pilots

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Melvill will be the first civilian ever awarded astronaut's wings (at least that's what they keep saying on MSNBC). However, he is not the first civilian pilot ever to qualify for astronaut's wings, as explained here.

UPDATE: Reader Scott Janssens points out that Neil Armstrong was a civilian while in the space program. He didn't "earn his wings" while flying the X-15 (never quite made it to space), but I suppose he took some small consolation in being the first man on the moon.

Posted by Phil at 09:28 AM | TrackBack

Wheels Down

SpaceShipOne just landed. Since I was kinda young in the early Mercury days, this was my first opportunity to follow an entire space mission in real time over the course of a couple of hours.

Fun. This was definitely fun.

To qualify for the X-Prize, SpaceshipOne will have to make two such flights in a two-week period with a couple of passengers on board. Where do I sign up?

Posted by Phil at 09:19 AM | TrackBack

"Mission Accomplished"

Just heard the official confirmation. SpaceShip One did pass the 100 Km mark on its way up.

On to the X Prize.

Posted by Phil at 09:08 AM | TrackBack

Over the Top

SpaceShipOne has rounded the top and is on its way home. Pilot Mike Melvill (age 61) will be the first pilot ever to be awarded astronaut's wings on a non-government-sponsored mission.

Posted by Phil at 09:02 AM | TrackBack

We Have Separation

SpaceShipOne has detached from its mothership and is now rocketing straight up to 100 Km and history!

Live feed on works best for me. Also, Fox News is covering it live right now.

Posted by Phil at 08:53 AM | TrackBack

Watch it Live

MSNBC has good background on SpaceShipOne and is providing a live feed.

Posted by Phil at 08:32 AM | TrackBack

Now Past 50K

SpaceShipOne has past the 50,000 ft mark, on its way to 100,000, where it will detach from the airplane and start rocketing up.

Rand Simberg is actually there watching it all unfold.

Posted by Phil at 08:21 AM | TrackBack

Saw the Launch!

Just watched SpaceShip One launch on Fox News. This will be the craft's first flight to an X-Prize-eligible altitude of 100 Km. It will not be a qualifying flight, however, because Rutan and company are not prepared to do a follow-up in two weeks.

Will check back in a while when the airplane that the spacecraft is currently sitting on reaches altitude. Meanwhile, there is a lot of good information here.

Posted by Phil at 08:00 AM | TrackBack

April 09, 2004

The Space Age Begins

No, not 47 years ago with Sputnik.

Yesterday, a pilot named Peter Siebold flew a rocket-powered craft to a height of 105,000 feet, reaching a speed of just over Mach 2. It sounds like one of the daring rocket plane test flights that the Air Force conducted in the 50's and 60's, but there's a difference.

A huge difference.

The flight was not funded by any government. It was approved by the US government — specifically, the FAA. In fact, it was the first sub-orbital rocket flight ever to be licensed by the FAA. In a few days, I'll be flying from Denver to New York. The flight I'm booked on is also FAA-approved.

Of course, these two flights are pretty different. But they have something in common with each other that Siebold's flight does not have with the aforementioned rocket test flights of years gone by. Both are private ventures, activities that the government may regulate, but that private citizens and private industry create and manage.

Space travel is no longer a government monopoly.

I reiterate: the Space Age has begun.

Posted by Phil at 11:47 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

March 23, 2004

"Salty, Rippling"

My abs? Nope. This is NASA's description of an ancient body of water identified on Mars:

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is resting on what was once a salty, rippling body of water, project scientists announced today, saying the lander had explored and photographed rock layers that could only have been created by flowing liquid.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 03:42 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 12, 2004

Good News Roundup

Two pieces of good space news:
  • The [Spirit] rover has been operating for 65 days on Mars and has an expected lifetime of 90 days. Spacecraft operators, however, said both rovers could easily last more than twice that long.

  • The Hubble Space Telescope may have won a reprieve as Nasa has agreed to study ways to service it using robots.
As robots become more capable we could quickly reach a point where human space travel will be seen as too risky and costly for the scientific return - at least traditional human space travel.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 08, 2004

Ahead of His Time

Vincent van Gogh: June, 1889.

Hubble telescope: February, 2004.

We must find a way to save the Hubble. Not only has it shown us a universe we never imagined in our wildest dreams, it is also showing us a universe we have imagined in our wildest dreams.

That's worth saving.

Posted by Phil at 10:38 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 02, 2004

Wet, (Green?) Red Planet

Water on Mars:

NASA will hold a press conference Tuesday at 2 P.M. ET to announce "significant findings" about water on Mars based on evidence from its Opportunity Mars rover.

If there is liquid water presently at the surface of Mars, as several lines of rover evidence have hinted, then most scientists agree there is the possibility that life could exist.

A few years ago, we "knew" that there was no water on Mars. And we've been fairly certain that there's no life. Now we find that there's a lot more water than we ever would have thought. The serious search for life will be renewed.

It just goes to show you how hard it is to get to know a whole planet.

Posted by Phil at 06:21 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 20, 2004

Time Was They Would Have Called This a "Planet"

Largest Solar System body spotted since Pluto

The largest object to be discovered in the Solar System since Pluto was found in 1930 was spotted by a sky survey on Tuesday.

News of the hulking object leaked out on Thursday before the researchers at Caltech could pin down the giant's size and orbit.

The new object, which has been given the oh-so-poetic name 2004 DW, is 1650 kilometres in diameter. Contrast that with Pluto's 2320 kilometres, and its moon Charon's diameter of 1270. The next-biggest Kuiper Belt object after 2004 DW (unless we're now counting Pluto itself as a "Kuiper Belt object — could the ninth planet have fallen so low? — I note that the New Scientist article never once uses the P word in reference to Pluto) is the much-better named Quaoar, with a diameter of 1250 kilometres.

Posted by Phil at 09:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

The Black Hole

I know these pictures have been posted all over the web, but I hope you don't mind one more link. Plus, there's a movie. Check it out!

One thing that I wonder about is what the time frame was for this event. Presumably, the captured star was caught in the grasp of the black hole for a long time: tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. But what is the elapsed time in the movie? How long did it take for the star to complete those last two inward spiraling orbits and break up?

When I was a teenager, black holes were a hot "new" theory. It's only been in the past few years that we have had direct observational evidence of their existence, although a good deal has become available in a short time. Our rapid growth of knowledge in this and other areas is evidence that we, too, may be spiraling in towards some ultimate, mysterious destination.

Posted by Phil at 08:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 18, 2004

Imagine This

A vast crystal, the size of the moon, lying at the heart of a dying star.

You can't make this stuff up.

Posted by Phil at 09:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Voyages to Nowhere

Here's an interesting history of space initiatives conceptualized, planned, promoted and (almost always) abandoned.

via Glenn Reynolds

Posted by Phil at 08:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

Shouldn't These Be on Venus?

Missed this the other day. Check out these unusual Martian craters, just in time to be a couple of days late for Valentine's Day.

via Martian Soil

Posted by Phil at 02:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

Comparing Apples to Apollos

Assaying Space Policy’s Coin of the Realm (Part 1)

            “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” – Attrib. to Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (b.1896 d. 1969 House of Representatives 1933 - 1951, Senate 1951 - 1969)

[Author’s Note: If the variable-quality punditry of the blogosphere constitutes, in the immortal words of James Lileks, “free ice cream”, then the vast volume of primary and secondary research sources must constitute complementary cake, or for the francophones gateau gratis. It is to this resource that I owe a debt of gratitude for assisting in compiling the following that goes beyond the capability of mere citation and hyperlinking to properly acknowledge. My thanks to all who have laid the groundwork.]

            [Dateline: The secret lair of the intellectual guerilla known as El Jefe Grande, 8 February, 2004]

            The distinctly minimalist approach that the Speculist and members of the FastForward Posse M104 have taken to addressing the recently-proposed National Space Policy is a conscious matter of editorial policy. Simply put, if the issue is to be taken seriously, it deserves careful, deliberate consideration of all facets (including, but not exclusively limited to, its political dimensions both internal and geopolitical). As enthusiasts of all things futuristic, we believe that the eventual expansion of human activities and terrestrial biology into the cosmos is a positive and eventually inevitable development. We also tend to believe that, given humanitiy’s recently-acquired awareness of the hazards that may befall any given single celestial body, such an expansion is better undertaken sooner rather than later and to the greatest extent possible given the capabilities at hand.

            Having established our position regarding the fundamental question of whether travel to and colonization of other celestial bodies is a desirable goal, I’d like to present some information that may assist us and other interested parties to evaluate the options currently available in an objective and historically-grounded manner.

            Among several other problems attendant to evaluating the currently elaborated National Space Policy is a certain lack of adequate historical perspective surrounding the debate. Much of the program presented seems to be a reaccomplishment of feats already performed and, that said, there is a tendency to wish to compare the plan on offer to the previous one in an effort to establish the degree of realism on the part of the parties and organizations making the proposal.

            Unfortunately, such a large effort is very difficult to pin a firm price tag on. The Apollo program took place over a span of thirteen years and ended over three decades ago. What information is available regarding its expenditures is cast in the economic vernacular of that period and so provides little real basis of comparison against today’s plans unless subjected to a certain amount of adjustment to contemporary referents. In the discussion that follows I will try to make such adjustments and point those interested to both the available historical data sources and to source information about the current National Space Policy in the hope that such effort may at least contribute to serious consideration of our collective goals and progress in what I feel is the single most historically significant activity of modern humanity.

            Apollo by the Numbers, a NASA publication from 2000, has a table detailing annual expenditures on Apollo line-items in thousands of current-year dollars. The totals are as follows (for the sake of clarity I’ve converted implied thousands to literal ones.):

            1960: $100,000

            1961: $1,000,000

            1962: $160,000,000

            1963: $617,164,000

            1964: $2,272,952,000

            1965: $2,614,619,000

            1966: $2,967,385,000

            1967: $2,916,200,000

            1968: $2,556,000,000

            1969: $2,025,000,000

            1970: $1,686,145,000

            1971: $913,669,000

            1972: $601,200,000

            1973: $76,700,000

            Program Total: $19,408,134,000

            Nearly nineteen and a half billion dollars over thirteen years.

            This, however, only tells part of the story. As anyone knows who has had opportunity to make purchases over an extended period of time, a dollar just doesn’t buy what it used to. This is the short, colloquial definition of inflation. One, commonly utilized if not exclusively accurate, measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index. This measure of inflation tracks the changes in prices of a relatively consistent “market basket” of items supposedly typical of regular purchases made by urban consumers and uses those changes as an indicator of the general rate of price changes throughout the economy. The primary advantages of utilizing CPI to correct prices from one period to be more consistent with current prices is the length of time that this approach has been used (CPI data are available for the period from 1913 to present) and the fact that the U.S. Government publishes CPI data quarterly, meaning that the information is readily available. The CPI can be thought of as a correction factor for changing past prices to values from another era, either one also in the past (What would a Model T’s equivalent cost have purchased during the Nixon administration?) or brining them up to date for comparison to current prices. (Those interested in the intricacies of applying CPI data may indicate their interest in the comments. If interest is sufficient, I’ll write up the gory details for a later Speculist University piece.)

            Corrected for inflation, the numbers become (In 2003 current dollars):

            1960: $622,000

            1961: $6,154,000

            1962: $974,834,000

            1963: $3,711,052,000

            1964: $13,491,070,000

            1965: $15,272,695,000

            1966: $16,851,816,000

            1967: $16,065,293,000

            1968: $13,514,483,000

            1969: $10,152,589,000

            1970: $7,996,152,000

            1971: $4,150,990,000

            1972: $2,646,431,000

            1973: $317,856,000

            Program Total: $105,152,035,000

            This figure, hereinafter referred to as “1 Apollo (2003$)”, forms the jumping-off point for the analysis to follow.

            The subject of ‘progress’ is addressed frequently in this blog in various forms. One form of which that also bears on the comparison of the Apollo program to the proposed National Space Policy is the growth of the economy in the intervening thirty years. Not only can the United States economy produce more ‘stuff’ (Note the use of highly-technical economic terminology. – Auth.) than it did in ‘73, that ‘stuff’ is, itself, of higher quality, greater utility, less expensive, or some combination of the three. Since the ‘market basket’ used to calculate CPI is held relatively constant in order to make it more applicable across a longer period it does a poor job of reflecting this sort of progress. Fortunately for our analysis there is a measure that has been collected over the relevant period that does take such advance inherently into account. Gross Domestic Product, simplistically defined, is a measure of all of the ‘stuff’ (Okay, material goods and services. – Auth.) produced within the national economy over the period of a year. For the years in question (Current Year $):

            1960: $526,400,000,000

            1961: $544,700,000,000

            1962: $585,600,000,000

            1963: $617,700,000,000

            1964: $663,600,000,000

            1965: $719,100,000,000

            1966: $787,800,000,000

            1967: $832,600,000,000

            1968: $910,000,000,000

            1969: $984,600,000,000

            1970: $1,038,500,000,000

            1971: $1,127,100,000,000

            1972: $1,238,300,000,000

            1973: $1,382,700,000,000

            By comparing the (Current Year $) NASA Apollo spending to GDP for the years in question we can begin to get a feeling for the level of national effort involved in placing a dozen men on the moon for a total stay (in person-hours) of 24 days 23 hours 09 minutes 36.8 seconds, and “returning them safely to the Earth” . Expressed as a percentage of GDP the Apollo program looks like this:

            1960: 0.00002%

            1961: 0.00018%

            1962: 0.02732%

            1963: 0.09991%

            1964: 0.34252%

            1965: 0.36360%

            1966: 0.37667%

            1967: 0.35025%

            1968: 0.28088%

            1969: 0.20567%

            1970: 0.16236%

            1971: 0.08106%

            1972: 0.04855%

            1973: 0.00555%

            Finally, at least for the first part of this piece, we should address the issue of the Apollo program’s impact on NASA’s contemporary budgets to begin the process of allaying the fears that some have expressed that the current National Space Policy will prove the undoing of those things that NASA is doing to fund things that it might do. NASA’s budgets for the period were (Current Year $):

            1960: $523,575,000

            1961: $964,000,000

            1962: $1,671,750,000

            1963:  $3,674,115,000

            1964: $3,974,979,000

            1965: $4,270,695,000

            1966: $4,511,644,000

            1967: $4,175,100,000

            1968: $3,970,000,000

            1969: $3,193,559,000

            1970: $3,113,765,000

            1971: $2,555,000,000

            1972: $2,517,700,000

            1973: $2,509,900,000

Apollo’s portion:

            1960: 0.02%

            1961: 0.10%

            1962: 9.57%

            1963: 16.80%

            1964: 57.18%

            1965: 61.22%

            1966: 65.77%

            1967: 69.85%

            1968: 64.38%

            1969: 63.41%

            1970: 54.15%

            1971: 35.76%

            1972: 23.88%

            1973: 3.06%

            At this point, I’ll allow the audience to digest the information I’ve presented to this point. In my next entry on this topic I’ll use this background to illuminate some more detailed aspects of the proposed National Space Policy and, using the comparison, attempt to draw some conclusions about the feasability and desirability of the programs outlined in it.


Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 08:44 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Take Off, Eh

The Canadians are planning a Mars mission of their very own. Okay, this first one is unmanned, but it's only a matter of time before they send some poor hoser up there. I hope they pack him plenty of back bacon and Elsinore beer.

Posted by Phil at 08:36 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

X Prize Latest

I haven't written much about the X Prize lately, so I thought I'd give an update. There are now 27 teams in the hunt for the prize

Many of the teams vying for the "X Prize" already have conducted test launches, with one of the two U.S. teams propelling a suborbital spacecraft to 68,000 feet, or about 13 miles.

The contest calls for launching a manned craft to 62.5 miles --100 Km, ed. --above the Earth, which is generally considered the edge of space, twice within two weeks. The craft must be able to carry three people.

I'm really looking forward to hearing that someone has won this thing. Even the "losers" are going to make some important contributions.

Posted by Phil at 08:59 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 08, 2004


Looks like the drilling operation on Mars has taken an unexpected turn.

via Martian Soil

Posted by Phil at 08:52 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 05, 2004

Captain Jean-Luc Buzzkill

I find this to be much more disappointing and disturbing than Viggo Mortensen's wrong-headed, anti-American whining.

Actor Patrick Stewart - better known as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - says he thinks humans have no business traveling in space.

Et tu, Picard? Et tu?

I've just written a lengthy piece which will run here or elsewhere in the next day or so (stay tuned) which reisterates my view that the real political struggle of the 21st century will be between those who seek Freedom Through Change and those who seek "Freedom" Through Control and Freedom From Change. I guess now we know which side Patrick Stewart is on.

I would try to think of something clever and biting to say, but fortunately Lileks has taken care of that:

And Patrick Stewart has now become T. J. Hooker. I know him not.

Damn straight.

Go, Picard. Get thee hence.

Posted by Phil at 02:20 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 01, 2004

Remembering Columbia

As I type this, I'm watching the SuperBowl pre-game show. They opened it with a tribute to the Columbia astronauts. I'm reminded that (as Rand Simberg pointed out last week) the anniversaries of the Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia tragedies all occur in close succession. Today is the anniversary of Columbia.

Nothing like a national holiday — if SuperBowl Sunday isn't an American national holiday, then we don't have any — to remind us of our fallen heroes.

On, Jim Lovell writes that this is not just a day to remember, but to look ahead:

The STS-107 crew embodied a calling that is deeply rooted in the human soul -- the desire to climb to the top of the mountain, to travel beyond the horizon, and to comprehend and appreciate the whole of our universe. As we reflect on their achievements and their courage, we must honor their dedication and their humanity, and begin once again to look forward, onward and upward.

President Kennedy referred to the Apollo Program as "Mankind's greatest adventure." As an astronaut who made those journeys, I'd like to think he was correct. But as I look at the limitless vistas ahead, I have to believe that the greatest adventures are yet to come. We must continue the journey which has only just begun.

Meanwhile, Rand has a round-up of his coverage of Columbia.

Posted by Phil at 04:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 29, 2004

Save the Hubble

I hope this movement gains momentum:

Astronomers were stunned when Nasa's chief, Sean O'Keefe, decided on 16 January to cancel the fifth, and final, visit of the space shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

A service call is essential to ensure Hubble's smooth operation until the end of the decade.

The telescope has only three working gyroscopes, down from its compliment of six, and cannot afford to lose any more.

O'Keefe decided that in the wake of the Columbia disaster it was unwise to send astronauts on a shuttle mission that could not reach the safety of the International Space Station in the event of a problem.

I find it unacceptable that a beautiful and elegant piece of technology like the Hubble should have its fate tied to that of the albatross space shuttle. The shuttle needs to go, the Hubble needs to stay, and the friends of the Hubble need to get past this kind of zero-sum-game thinking:

"Let the voters say: 'We don't want to go to the moon! We want to go to infinity and beyond!'," said [save the Hubble organizer] Mr Ribeiro.

I see no reason why we can't pursue both. Saving the Hubble would be a great project for the nascent private space industry. It might be a good way to move the robotics industry along, as well. How much would it cost to send a private, fully automated, unmanned service unit up to work on the Hubble? My guess is that it would cost a lot less than a shuttle launch. NASA (or realistically, someone else, since NASA isn't likely to do anything like this) should put up a reasonable amount of money and let the free market save the Hubble.

UPDATE: Speaking of the Shuttle (and reasons it has to go) Rand Simberg makes note of the interesting convergence of the anniversaries of the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia tragedies.

Posted by Phil at 06:10 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

January 27, 2004

Last-Ditch Effort

This seems like a long shot, but I hope it works. Since all else has failed, mission control for the ill-fated British Beagle Mars Lander are going to do what we all do when the system won't respond.

They're going to attempt a re-boot.

Posted by Phil at 07:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 15, 2004

The Big Announcement

I have mixed feelings. Sure, as somebody pointed out, it's good to have the return to Space on the agenda. It's good that we're talking about going back. But I wanted a lot more than this. Hearing that we're going to go to the moon in 10+ years was something to get excited about in 1960. A permanent moonbase in 2020? A manned voyage to Mars in 2025? Yes, that all would have also been very exciting, 1960.

Anyway, I was looking through the Google News lsitings on this item and found a few interesting items:

Best headline:
Bush to Martians: here we come!

Lamest headline:
To boldly go ... Bush tells Nasa to build new shuttle for Mars

Thoughtful naysaying:
President shoots for moon, Mars LUNAR FOOTHOLD: Scientists disagree on value of U.S. return to Earth's satellite

Surly, knee-jerk naysaying:
Bush's Space Vision Thing

The all-important local angle:
Indiana likely to figure in Bush plan

But the best analysis by far and away has got to be this piece from The Telegraph:

To boringly go where they've gone before

The moment the black-and-white pictures flashed up on the screens, the celebrations began. Whoops of joy, tears of relief, high-fives: the team of Nasa scientists at mission control in Pasadena, California, were jubilant at their success.

They had sent a probe 250 million miles to Mars, landed, and were now looking at pictures beamed back from its surface. Later this week, their Mars Rover Explorer will start trundling about on the Red Planet.

Such celebrations were clearly merited for this whole slew of "firsts" - except they were nothing of the sort. Nasa has been visiting the planet since the early 1960s, and has even landed on its surface several times before.

Okay. So far so good. I don't think anyone really said it was a first, but what the heck. However, we then come to this little shocker:

The pictures splashed across the world's front pages last week were indistinguishable from those sent back by Nasa's Viking Landers more than a quarter of a century ago. Not even the plan to put a man on Mars was new: Nasa pulled that one off back in 1997.

A while back, I got really upset with a guy who tried to tell me we never went to the moon. I've learned from my mistake. I'm not angry with Robert Matthews, who writes surly editorials for The Telegraph and who believes that the US sent a man to Mars in 1997.

I'm not angry with him at all.

Posted by Phil at 06:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 14, 2004

I Like the Sound of That

Rocket Plane.

Say it with me: "Rocket Plane."

This is what I'm talking about, folks. It's 2004. We're supposed to have robots (dancing optional). We're supposed to have flying cars. And we're supposed to have rocket planes.

World peace and some of that other future stuff would have been good, too, but those three are the short list.

via Rand Simberg

Posted by Phil at 10:56 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 13, 2004

Space Cowboy

Glenn Reynolds, writing on whether opening up the Final Frontier might not be an appropriate legacy for an American President accused by many around the world of being a "cowboy," draws the following enticing scenario:

If you want settlement, and development, you need to give people an incentive. One possibility, discussed by space enthusiasts for some time, is a property-rights regime modeled on the American West, with land grants for those who actually establish a presence on the Moon or Mars. Some have, of course, derided the idea of a "Wild West" approach to space development, but other people like the idea of a "Moon Rush," which I suppose could be expanded in time to a "Mars Rush."

I think people will go even without land incentives, and even without clearly defined business plans, given the opportunity. They'll go for the adventure, which is probably the most motivating incentive of all.

Posted by Phil at 02:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 08, 2004

Back to the Moon

President Bush is planning to announce a return to the Moon (and the establishment of a permanent base thereon) and a mission to Mars:

White House - AP President Bush (news - web sites) will announce plans next week to send Americans to Mars and establish a permanent human presence on the moon, senior administration officials said Thursday night.

Bush won't propose sending Americans to Mars anytime soon; rather, he envisions preparing for the mission more than a decade from now, one official said.

In addition to proposing the first trip to the moon since December 1972, the president wants to build a permanent space station there.

This is all by way of some "unnamed senior officials," so we'll see if anything comes of it. But there have been rumblings of this for some time. If the President's proposal really does involve Mars, it will come as good news to our friend Robert Zubrin. And if it involves someone other than NASA being responsible for creating the infrastructure, Rand Simberg will be pleased. If the plan works for Professor Hall, too, we'll have ourselves a hat trick.

I must admist that I'm pretty psyched about it, whatever the details turn out to be.

UPDATE: Okay, the rush of excitement is over. Rand is underwhelmed by the idea. His skepticism resonates. And check out the very interesting discussion in the comments section.

Posted by Phil at 10:28 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

January 05, 2004

A Tale of Two Spacecraft

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Professor Hall has all the details.

Speaking of these developments, I think Jay Manifold has correctly idenitifed Martian Soil as the go-to blog for Mars coverage.

Posted by Phil at 03:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

One Out of Ten


One tenth of the stars in our galaxy might provide the right conditions to support complex life, according to a new analysis by Australian researchers. And most of these stars are on average one billion years older than the Sun, allowing much more time, in theory, for any life to evolve.

Interesting. A billion years is a good sized head start. If there is anyone out there, they might be so far ahead of us that we wouldn't have anything interesting to say to each other.

Posted by Phil at 06:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 31, 2003

The Year in Space

Rand Simberg tells the story, ending with this positive note:

There's an old saying in commercial space circles that the way to make a small fortune in that business is to start with a large one. These are all very astute businessmen, and at least one of them is likely to turn a small fortune into a larger one. When they do, it may set off a new investment trend, one that will finally break the monopoly of NASA and big aerospace on the new frontier, both manned and unmanned, allowing not just dozens, but thousands, and perhaps even millions to seek their own adventures and fortunes there. Ultimately, historians may in fact view 2003 as significant a year for spaceflight as 1903 was for aviation.

Well, here's hoping. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 12:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 25, 2003

Christmas Past

Rand Simberg has an interesting reminiscence of a Christmas Eve 35 years ago.

Posted by Phil at 03:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 18, 2003

Spaceship One Rockets On

They certainly picked an auspicious day for their proof of concept. Chris Hall has the details.

Speaking of auspiciousness, yesterday I should have mentioned that Rand Simberg was not only covering the Kitty Hawk anniversary here, he was doing it here and here as well. Anyhow, if you just can't enough Simberg (who can?) read this (which ties back in with what this entry was supposed to be about.)

Posted by Phil at 12:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 16, 2003

Like Driving a Porsche in 1978

Bigwig just doesn't get it:

[W]hen you have an FTL drive, who cares who the President is?

Think, man. Think. What kind of regulatory environment do you want in place after the aliens grant you your faster-than-light spacecraft? I can see the ad campaign now:

.000055C Saves Lives

Sure, you'd still be screaming along at 37,000 MPH. But how long would it take to get to Alpha Centauri at that rate?

Posted by Phil at 06:42 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 12, 2003

Don't Drink the Water, Either

Randall Parker presents some thoughtful analysis on what we might really expect of life-forms on those other earth-like planets:

It is incredibly common in science fiction movies and television shows for humans to mate and reproduce with aliens and to find edible food on distant planets. But if there is life on other planets both of these possibiliities are very unlikely. Other lifeforms will probably use different combinations of compounds for genetic encoding and for building tissues. Species on other planets may use amino acids to build proteins but probably not the exact same set of amino acids humans use. Ditto for sugars and other biological compounds.

So I guess English-speaking humans with facial ridges are out. And no human-alien hybrids a la Spock or B'Elanna Torres. Oh, well.

Randall is our official buzzkill of the week.

Posted by Phil at 09:24 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 11, 2003

Earthlike Planets Common


New research indicates Earthlike planets might be common. In 44 computer simulations of planet formation near a sun, astronomers found that each simulation produced one to four Earthlike planets, including 11 "habitable" planets about the same distance from their stars as Earth is from our sun.

When I was a kid, I remember being taught in school that there was no good reason to believe that planets were common elsewhere in the galaxy. And even if there were other planets, chances are there weren't many like Earth. Now at looks like the galaxy is full of them. At the rate we're going, we may find that we're living in the Star Trek universe—full of English-speaking humans with funny facial ridges.

Posted by Phil at 06:49 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

December 08, 2003

The Wrong Half Must Be Bigger

Rand Simberg is applying a vigorous fisking to Gregg Easterbrook on space policy. Interestingly, he asserts that Easterbrook gets it about "half right."

Yikes. I don't think I'll be eating in any restaurants that Rand labels as "not half bad."

Posted by Phil at 05:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ringed Planet Madness?

Another opportunity to celebrate is coming up. I wonder if we should make as big a fuss as we did last summer.

Maybe we should. It was a lot of fun, wasn't it?

Posted by Phil at 10:35 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

10 Reasons has published 10 reasons for going back to the moon. Most of them are pretty good (and about what you'd expect.), but I take a certain amount of exception to number 10:

10. Stepping stone to Mars

I reject this idea. The moon should stand or fall as a goal unto itself. We can get to Mars or the asteroids or anyplace else we want to go with a logical stepping stone (a real space station) or with no stepping stone at all. If you want to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles, Toronto is not a "stepping stone." It's just a different destination.

UPDATE: See it's a worthy desitnation unto itself. Or why else would everybody be talking about going there?

Posted by Phil at 10:08 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 25, 2003

New Ion Engine

Nasa is testing a new ion propulsion system:

A powerful new ion propulsion system has been successfully ground-tested by NASA. The High Power Electric Propulsion ion engine trial marks the "first measurable milestone" for the ambitious $3 billion Project Prometheus, says director Alan Newhouse.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 03:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 06, 2003

Our First Interstellar Probe

From WiredNews:

NASA's Voyager 1, built to last just five years to probe Earth's planetary neighbors, has reached the solar system's final frontier and may have surfed into interstellar space, more than 26 years after its launch.

It turns out that it depends on whose definition of "interstellar space" you use to determine whether the distinguished craft has actually made it across this threshhold. From the article, I infer that the probe really has made it out of the heliosphere, but that there are other objects farther out that might still be considered part of the solar system. This must have to do with Voyager's plane of departure.

But in any event,Voyager I has traveled more than 90 AUs; that is, more than 90 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It is the most far-flung object in human history, and promises to hold that record for a while.

Posted by Phil at 10:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 04, 2003

No Chinese Moon Shot

As noted last week, the Chinese are talking about seriously ramping up their progress into space. But we can forget about a space race, at least to the moon:

Fresh from putting an astronaut into orbit, top Chinese space officials on Tuesday set out their new targets, including a space station within 10 years, but no man on the moon.

Instead, they're focusing on achieving some basic space milestones, stuff we did 30-40 years ago:

Top space official Hu Shixiang told a Hong Kong news conference that China wants to achieve three new goals in the coming decade: a space station, a space walk and docking technology.

Those sound like reasonable goals. Certainly nothing for us to be alarmed about.

Posted by Phil at 09:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

Inexhaustible Motivation

Glenn Reynolds on returning to the moon:

I’ve been more of a fan of Mars missions than of a lunar return, though unlike many in the area I’m not committed to either the Moon or Mars as a necessary next step. There are plausible pathways to human settlement of outer space that start with Mars, there are plausible pathways that start with the Moon, and there are plausible pathways that involve neither, though those are a bit more difficult.

What’s most important is that whatever we do be sustainable, not just another flags-and-footprints mission to say we’ve done it. Long-term, that means getting private enterprise involved, and making sure that people can make money. Taxpayers get tired of spending money. Businesspeople never get tired of making it.

Absolutely. We need to replace scarce motivation with abundant, nay, inexhaustible motivation.

Posted by Phil at 12:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More Prize-Eligible Research

Meanwhile, speaking of breakthroughs-in-the-making, work continues on the world's first do-it-yourself home railgun.

Posted by Phil at 12:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 30, 2003

Signs of Intelligent Life

Rand Simberg has, as promised, a more complete picture of the Senate hearings on the future of NASA in his column on FOX News. He also has a correction here.

Sounds like our next big step might be back to the moon. I could live with that, I guess. As long as it doesn't stop there this time.

Posted by Phil at 08:11 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 29, 2003

Senate Hearings

Rand Simberg has a good run-down on the the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on the future of NASA which was held this morning. Sounds like there wasn't much enthusiasm for the orbital space plane. Robert Zubrin was there, making his case for Mars (if you'll pardon the expression.)

It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, there will be. Stay tuned.

Posted by Phil at 03:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

Mercury to Apollo in One Step

For those who sneered that the recent Chinese space mission was only a repeat of something we did 40 years ago, try this out for size:

Now China Plans to Send Three People Into Space

BEIJING (Reuters) - Basking in glory after its first manned space launch, China has set its sights on putting three people into space for a week, the China News Service said on Tuesday.

A space official who worked on the October 15-16 voyage that made China only the third country to rocket a person into space, said preparations were under way for the next in the Shenzhou, or "Divine Ship," series, the semi-official news agency said.

The Shenzhou VI was expected to blast off within the next two years, it reported.

Of course, this could all be just so much commie propaganda, but what if it isn't? The first Mercury launch was in 1961. The first Apollo launch was in 1965. That's four years. If the Chinese get their 3-man crew up there in 2005, they will have cut the time in half. Of course, I realize that there's a more significant difference between Mercury and Apollo than the number of crew on board. Nowhere does the article say that they'll be doing any of the EVA's (space-walks) or docking maneuvers that NASA pulled off in the intervening Mercury and Gemini years.

Still, it's an interesting development. And enough to make me think twice before categorically denying that a new space race might be in the works.

Posted by Phil at 10:26 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

Rail Gun or Space Elevator?

Finally someone is taking on this vital question. Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus has this to say on the subject:

The hint that space elevators and linear accelerators are economically complementary is correct. Space elevators can lift large, finished assemblies (with people in them if desired) at relatively long intervals (hours to days) and low accelerations; linear accelerators are best for inserting small amounts of raw materials into orbit at short intervals (seconds) and high accelerations.

This then raises an intriguing question: how long would a rail gun need to be in order to comfortably launch humans into orbit. Read the whole thing to find out. But if you don't follow along and do all the math, you're cheating!

Posted by Phil at 01:58 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 20, 2003

Space Elevator Blog

Via Transterrestrial Musings, here's a a new specialty blog dealing exclusively with one of our favorite topics.

Posted by Phil at 05:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 16, 2003

Speaking of Buzzkills

Rand Simberg explains (again) why doing something fun like going to the Moon or Mars just won't solve the problem.

Posted by Phil at 11:28 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

October 15, 2003

China Conquers Space

Posse member Chris Hall has the latest on the first Chinese manned space flight.

Rand Simberg is underwhelmed by the accomplishment.

[A]s during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese government is wasting valuable state resources on a circus that may, in the short run, provide some small bit of national pride to a government that is stealing those same resources from a people to whom it's unaccountable, but will not significantly contribute to the wealth of their nation. Ultimately, the only way to do that is to harness free enterprise to the task.

Rand says we're not in for a new space race. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Elevator Approaches

Via, it looks as though the Space Elevator is continuing to gain respectability. Now Los Alamos is jumping on the bandwagon:

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are proposing an elevator reaching 62,000 miles into the sky to launch payloads into space more cheaply than the shuttle can.

"The first country that owns the space elevator will own space," said lab scientist Bryan Laubscher. "I believe that, and I think Los Alamos should be involved in making that happen."

Some Los Alamos scientists are so convinced it can be a reality that they are working on their own time on technical details.

Five to 10 scientists at any given time are analyzing the economics, technical specifications of how the elevator would work and possible health risks to those using it. Laubscher said the grassroots effort hopes the U.S. Department of Energy could someday use the information as a start for investing in a space elevator.

This thing is looking more likely every day.

Posted by Phil at 09:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 08, 2003

They're More Than Just Hip and Fun

Appropos of the Ray Kurzweil piece on the dangers represented by coming technologies, here's Glenn Reynolds on the dangerous future, and the important function that space colonies might play in it:

Sounds like a scary world, but an inevitable one. I attended a high-level conference that discussed terrorism and advanced technologies a few years ago. One of the participants mentioned afterward that all of this talk made her think that colonies in outer space might be the only thing that would save the human race. She might be right.

She might at that.

Posted by Phil at 10:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chinese Manned Launch

Well, it looks as though some of my earlier speculations were incorrect. China is announcing exactly when and where their first taikonaut (so that's what we call them) will be launched into orbit. Xie Guangxuan, the head of the Rocket Design Department:

China's space technology has been created by China itself. We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it's amazing how fast we've been able to do this.

From reading the story in Yahoo! News, it looks as though the launch and subsequent manned program are a source of real patriotic pride for the Chinese (they even go so far as to boast that their astronauts get much better food than our astronauts.) So the launch will be shown live on TV.

I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Posted by Phil at 06:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 07, 2003

A New Kind of Space Race

I just saw this in my daily dose from Ray Kurzweil:

Shooting for Space

Cisco and its partners, including NASA, have launched a router into low Earth orbit as a test of extending the Internet into space.

Space-based routers could be used to tie the military's myriad networks together and the government's research networks together so that personnel on land, in the air or at sea can communicate directly.

On the one hand, pushing the Internet into space is a good thing, an important step towards a number of important developments. On the other hand, Cisco has rather thrown down the gauntlet. Who will decide to take them on in the quest for space supremacy? How long will Bill Gates allow his company to remain earthbound when others are taking this kind of step?

Posted by Phil at 07:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 03, 2003

Looking for Planets and Life

There's an interesting article on WiredNews on the search for planets outside the solar system, particularly those that might have life. Quoting a senior NASA scientist:

Our current method does best at finding big planets close to stars, but with every year it's like a curtain is being pulled back from that stage, and we'll see smaller planets further out... We may find a dozen or two dozen Earth-sized planets in the next eight years or so.

I was interested to read the estimate that 25% of may have planets. Some estimates go as high as 100%. Using the lower estimate, there may be as many as 100 billion solar systems like ours in the galaxy and 10 trillion in the universe.

Seems like there ought to be a few others with life, maybe one or two with the technology. I wonder if any of them have flying cars?

Posted by Phil at 01:16 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 01, 2003

NASA's Birthday

Rand Simberg celebrates NASA's 45th birthday with a recap of the agency's successes and an assessment of its ongoing problems. He concludes with some food for thought:

It's often noted that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting to get different results. By that definition, our current space policy continues to be insane.

For humans, with modern nutrition and medicine, age forty-five is now considered, at least in the west, to be the prime of life. But for government bureaucracies, it can be an age that's over the hill and down the other side, perhaps deep in their dotage. This is particularly the case when the political circumstances that brought about their creation disappeared years, if not decades ago.

While euthanasia remains a controversial topic for humans, it shouldn't be off the table for an agency that may have lived long past its usefullness. But abandoning a flawed governmental approach need not mean an abandoning of the high frontier. In fact, it may be a necessary first step.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Chris Hall (you'll have to scroll down; permalinks don't seem to be working) has a somewhat different take on how NASA should be assessed.

Posted by Phil at 04:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 30, 2003

Trekkies for Clark

This is bigger than campaign finance reform, bigger than term limits. This is even bigger than when we finally repealed the national 55 MPH speed limit a few years ago.

Wesley Clark is pledging to repeal the speed of light. He calls it his "only faith-based initiative."

Seriously, though. It's easy to make light of Clark's comments, but I'm kind of impressed that a man in his position would come out and say this:

"I still believe in e=mc², but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go," said Clark. "I happen to believe that mankind can do it."

I agree with that sentiment. If we ever do find a way around the FTL limitation (via wormholes or a tachyonic drive or warp nacelles), it won't be a violation of physical law any more than an airplane "violates" the law of gravity. It's interesting that WiredNews, of all news outfits, is so quick to pounce on the Clark-is-a-flake angle. The reporter, Brian McWilliams, doesn't even seem to understand that what Clark is talking about here is interstellar space travel. McWilliams portrays Clark as a time-travel enthusiast. While time travel is one of the implications of going faster than light, it doesn't sound as though that is what interests Clark.

I suppose most journalists would have this kind of knee-jerk response (the same response I started out with) to any truly speculative remark made by a Presidential candidate. That doesn't speak well of our tolerance for vision and imagination in public discourse. With all the big changes coming, maybe it's time journalists — even the really cynical ones covering political campaigns — opened their minds just a little.

UPDATE: Our favorite law professor has some thoughts, along with some legal citations he expects us all to be familiar with.

Posted by Phil at 06:07 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 26, 2003

China to Carry Out Manned Launch

Here's the latest on the Chinese space program:

China's first manned spacecraft could be launched "as early as next month" from a site in the remote northwest and will probably contain one crew member, the state-owned People's Daily reported today on its Web site.

It gave no further details about a timetable for the craft, Shenzhou-5, which the government had said earlier would fly with a Chinese crew aboard by next year. The flight will probably last 24 hours, the newspaper said.

What strikes me as interesting about this is that there is no official timetable given for this launch, which seems to be the approach they're taking for the program overall. There have been statements to the effect that they "could" be on the moon within five years, but I'll bet if that does happen, it will be handled pretty much like this. They'll give a little heads up a month or so ahead of time and then we won't hear anything official until they've got astronauts (or are they cosmonauts?) safely on the moon. In fact, we might not hear anything official until the moon mission is complete and the astronauts are safely back on the ground. There is a terrible risk of loss of face here should anything go wrong. The Chinese want the glory and prestige of a space program, but they have to avoid humiliation at all costs.

That's part of the reason (no doubt) that there is no official date given for the launch mentioned above. I'm sure that a strong dose of good old communist paranoia plays a role, too. But if they don't say when the launch is going to take place, they won't lose face if it doesn't happen on the assigned date.

via InstaPundit

Posted by Phil at 10:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 25, 2003

Farewell Galileo

I haven't made the time to write anything about the dramatic and somehow poetic end of the Galileo mission, and now I see there is no need. You can read this succinct summary of what Galileo was all about over on Samizdata, and then pour yourself a cup of coffee and hunker down for Stephen Den Beste's excellent treatise on primary and secondary mission objectives, and the role that chaos theory played in the decision to plunge the spacecraft into the Jovian atmosphere.

Posted by Phil at 03:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 23, 2003

Well, Now it's Going to Happen For Sure

We can all stop arguing now. The nanotechnology-based space elevator definitely will happen. How can I be so certain?


The New York Times is reporting on it.

Actually, come to think of it, there are those who would argue whether that credential really establishes any credibility. But never mind.

From the article:

With advances toward ultrastrong fibers, the concept of building an elevator 60,000 miles high to carry cargo into space is moving from the realm of science fiction to the fringes of reality.

Hmmm...the "fringes of reality." I like that. I'll have to include the fringes in my next map.

Posted by Phil at 01:51 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 08, 2003

Cool Venus

New Scientist reports that Venus may have been relatively cool and Earthlike for much longer than we thought. The second planet may have had oceans on it for as long as two billion years. Apparently, the calculations that led to the conclusion that Venus went inferno much earlier failed to take the cooling power of the planet's clouds into consideration.

Two billion years may have been enough time to develop not only life, but a wide diversity thereof. It will be while before we're able to explore Venus. It's a pretty hostile environment. If the temperatures hot enough to melt led don't get you, the regular downpour of sulfuric acid will. It seems unlikely that such conditions would allow any evidence of the planet's possibly lush past to have survived. Plus, the surface apparently got so hot at one point that it melted and had to re-cool.

So whatever was once there in the way of life, it seems unlikely that we'll ever find so much as a trace.

Posted by Phil at 04:51 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 28, 2003

Columbia Fall-Out

By the way, if you're interested in a serious, in-depth analysis of the Gehman Report on the Columbia disaster, you really need to drop by and pay Rand Simberg a visit.

UPDATE: Rand is directing us to the more spruced-up versions over at Fox News and NRO.

Posted by Phil at 09:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2003

Mars Day is Here!

What an auspicious day.

In addition to everything else going on, today is the Big Guy's birthday. Well, yes, that big guy, too. But the big guy I'm talking about is Ray Bradbury. He turns 83 today.

So, please. Before you do anything else. Before you take advantage of all the wonderful options you have for celebrating Mars Day, before you read today's startling interview Dr. Robert Zubrin on the path forward to Mars, take a moment to send a birthday greeting to the genius behind the Martian Chronicles.

Thank you.

Posted by Phil at 09:26 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

August 26, 2003

White Mars

Check out Nick Hoffman's White Mars website.

Nick is a geophysicist at the University of Melbourne, with past experience in oil geology and several other areas; he contends that Mars has always been cold and dry, and that the fluid erosion so dramatically visible on the surface is due not to liquid water but to carbon dioxide — in both fluid and turbidity flows (he uses the term "cryoclastic flows", in analogy with the pyroclastic flows so familiar with terrestrial volcanos; what makes them active over longer distances on Mars is the continual addition of fresh gas from the entrained solid and liquid CO2 components). The concept also naturally explains the prevalent layering on Mars, in ways sedimentary rock can't.

While we'd all love to see a warm Mars, especially one which had developed life (and preferably one which still had relict life), Nick's arguments are persuasive; the cold, dry picture fits much better than the other ones, which
have tremendous problems in explaining where all that water went (in the White Mars scenario, the water is right where it's always been: frozen in the crust), why the amount of carbonate rocks is so small, and why the currently-active flow gullies are formed on the cold side of the cliffs in the martian arctic (rather than nearer the equator, on the sunlit sides).

And then there's Philip Christensen's (of Arizona State University) recent observation of olivine layers at the base of Valles Marineris, some 4.5 km below ground surface. These olivines quickly rust away when exposed to liquid water, yet they are preserved here after ~3 billion years. Therefore, the crust of Mars must have been frozen at this (equatorial) location for all of the last 3 billion years, to a depth of at least 4.5 km.

Recent statements from NASA appear to support the White Mars picture. This was also recently discussed on VodkaPundit. Don't miss Robin Goodfellow's interesting remarks in the comments section.

Submitted by: Posse member Troy Loney

Posted by Phil at 08:21 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

NASA Chief Redux

Posse member Mike Sargent recommends the following alternatives to "Administrator," the current wimpy job title of the head of NASA.

  1. Secretary Simberg er, that is to say, Surname of the Cabinet-level Department of Space Development.

  2. Doctor Surname, Lead Presidential Advisor of the National Advisory Council on Aerospace Science [NACAS], a sub-unit of the National Science Foundation.

  3. Admiral Surname, Chief of Staff, United States Space Fleet (USSF) a uniformed branch of service within the Department of Defense. This position would be equivalent to an Undersecretary of a Cabinet-level Department.

  4. General Surname, Chief of Staff, United States Space Force (USSF) a uniformed branch of service within the Department of Defense. This position would be equivalent to an Undersecretary of a Cabinet-level Department.

  5. Director Surname, of the Central Space Agency (CSA), or the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), or the Congressional Office of Space Policy or the Presidential Office of Space Policy, etc., etc. etc.

  6. Senator Surname, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on National Space Policy

  7. Representative Surname, Chair of the House Committee on National Space Policy

  8. Commissioner Surname, Executive of the United States Commission on Space Policy. The Commission would be an independent governing body similar in concept to the Baseball Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

  9. Supreme Astro-Commander Surname. Organization unspecified.

  10. Ouranarch Surname, Leader of the United States Center for Exo-Atmospheric Research and Development. Ouranarch: [pronounced OW-ran-ark] literally ‘leader of the heavens’ from ancient Greek root words and akin in construction to nauarch, the ancient Greek term for admiral.

Posted by Phil at 08:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 21, 2003

New Head for NASA

Rand Simberg links to a James Oberg piece in USA Today calling for a change of leadership at NASA. In a nutshell:

NASA needs an inspiring leader, not just a competent manager, to guide it out of this wilderness and set a course for the next decade and beyond.

Not that anyone's asking me, but I nominate Dr. Robert Zubrin. He's an ex-NASA guy, president of the Mars Society, and he literally wrote the book (see below) on how to get there safely, quickly, and cheaply. Let's put human beings on Mars. Now there's a course for the next decade and beyond.

Plus, Dr. Zubrin is going to be our special guest when Red Planet Madness strikes the Speculist next week. He will be the subject of both our Speaking of the Future and Seven Questions features.

Anyhow, check out Transterrestrial Musings (the comments section) to see the debate unfolding. Rand is, of course, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to debating me on these kinds of issues. He actually knows what he's talking about.

That can be pretty encumbering, from what I've heard. I wouldn't know.

Posted by Phil at 02:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 18, 2003

Need a Lift to Mars

Here's an interesting report on the Sixth Sixth International Mars Society Conference, which took place in Eugene, Oregon last week. Money quote:

"Next year is a crisis that may well determine whether humans to Mars occurs in our lifetime. It is a unique opportunity. But if we let it slip by we really are going to blow it," said Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society. He is an unabashed advocate for putting humans on the red planet, and doing it near-term.

The question of whether we can go on with manned space travel comes down to a question of lift capacity. We lost the infrastructure to produce the magnificent Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program shortly after that program ended. In light of the recent Columbia tragedy and the aging of the shuttle program, it's likely that the shuttle will be shut down in the near future. That could lead to disaster:

A vital step is retaining the shuttle infrastructure, sans the human-carrying orbiter. By using the shuttle external tank, solid rocket motors, the shuttle main engines, and adding a new upper stage, that collective hardware can toss extremely weighty payloads into space.

Doing so results in the primary tool needed for human exploration of the Moon, Mars, as well as the near Earth asteroids, Zubrin said.

"We need to turn the shuttle into a heavy-lift vehicle and give it a goal thats worthy of a heavy-lift vehicle. And that means supporting humans being sent to either the Moon or Mars, or both," Zubrin said.

Zubrin said he does not see how the Columbia Accident Investigation Board can avoid recommending that the shuttle be replaced as the primary taxi for sending humans to orbit. The question then is whether the nation will preserve the space shuttle infrastructure or not.

In mothballing the shuttle infrastructure, so goes the human spaceflight program, Zubrin said. "The only way out is forward."

Without the shuttle, the only way to get humans into space will be NASA's proposed spaceplane. But it will be too small and short-range to allow for trips to the moon and the planets. [By the way, we'll be running an interview with Robert Zubrin on August 27th, the day Mars and Earth reach maximum convergence. Previous entries here and here.]

Whatever anybody wants to say about the Apollo program, we must have been doing something right. We live in an age of great change, on the verge of what will be remembered as some of humanity's greatest achievements. I find it interesting how often Apollo is referenced by those who are looking ahead, trying to bring one of those achievements into being.

- As I reported a while back, the nanotechnology community is looking for a moonshot goal of their own to move the industry along.

- The Discover Magazine article I linked to earlier today described the need for "a research and engineering effort at least as intense as the push behind the Apollo program" in order to get us to the stars.

- This morning, Rand Simberg linked to an MSNBC piece describing how we could solve our energy problems by collecting solar power on the moon and beaming it back to earth via microwaves. What will it take to get us there? "[A] financial commitment on par with the Apollo era could bring the first jolt of otherworldly electricity down to the ground in 12-15 years."

- A while back, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network published an article in Wired calling for a national initiative to switch the U.S. over from petroleum to hydrogen power. Their rallying cry? "We put a man on the moon in a decade; we can achieve energy independence just as fast."

- Just last week, in talking to us about the future of wireless networks and ubiquitous computing, Alex Lightman suggested that the U.S. could take a dominant position in the global race to 4G with the help of "an Apollo moon mission-style speech by President Bush"

Think about that last one. He isn't calling for an Apollo-style budget. If we could just get a speech on par with the one that launched Apollo, we'd be getting somewhere.

But Zubrin is calling for something even more modest than that. He's not saying give me an Apollo-like mission to Mars. He's not calling on anyone to try to emulate the program's success. He's just warning that we not repeat the mistakes we made after Apollo. That doesn't seem like too much to ask, now does it?

Posted by Phil at 01:54 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Live Long, Prosper, See the Universe

Discover Magazine presents a detailed article on what it would take to get us an earthlike planet in the Alpha Centauri system should such a planet be found. This is good reading, with descriptions of the different propulsion systems we might use (fission, fusion, matter-antimatter, laser sail) and a good run-down on issues like food, air, water, radiation, and gravity. With all these ducks in a row, the star voyagers could make the trip in about 45 years, raising the question of who would want to go on such a long trip, with no real possibility of return?

Ken Layne has the answer to that question:

Who wouldn't want to go? Let's see, die while taking the greatest voyage in history, or die down at the Loser's Club Home For The Aged? Just 500 years ago, the chances were very slim that a human would see anything beyond his or her village. Hell, a century ago it was terribly rare for a human to leave its birthplace. In this country, at least, the majority of us die far away from where we were born.

Absolutely. Besides, as we've been reporting here lately, we ought to have some good answers on the human lifespan front around the same time we have our laser sail starships ready to fly.

One of the issues Aubrey de Grey and I got into when doing the Seven Questions was the likely high-levels of risk-aversion that go hand-in-hand with a longer life. It isn't just flying cars: we would expect virtually all forms of transportation to be totally risk-free. Even the one-in-a-million threat that commercial aviation currently poses would be unacceptable. We would demand that all homes, workplaces, and public meeting places be indestructible: completely fire-, lightning-, earthquake-, and even bombproof. We might even decide to give up travel altogether in favor of staying home where it's safe. Some of us might even go so far as to shun personal relationships because of their occasional tendency to lead to violence.

There are three reasons why I believe this might happen:

  1. With other causes of death out of the way, all our death-prevention thinking will focus on how not to get killed.

  2. Risk aversion has historically gone up as our lifespan has increased and our own infrastructure has driven the risk of mortality down. That very infrastructure make us more risk-averse.

  3. Death is less acceptable when it occurs less frequently. Compare the horror and revulsion that we feel towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with the attitude towards infant mortality that our ancestors of 100 years ago had. It's not that they loved their children any less, but (by necessity) they viewed the death of an infant as more to be expected, more part of the natural order of things, and more acceptable than we can really fathom.

Of course, I'm painting in very broad strokes. I'm sure there will still to be those who are not only non-risk-averse, but who are downright risk-friendly: the thrill seekers and the adrenaline junkies. In fact, risking an abrupt and premature end to a 700-year life might be considerably more of a thrill than doing the same for one of our old 80-year models. But on the whole, I think attitudes will tend towards an intensely risk-averse direction. Eventually, the major cause of death may be suicide as people grow bored with hundreds of years of not going anywhere and not having any friends.

It is beyond ironic that the very technologies that are most likely to bring about radical life extension, and thereby foster radical risk-aversion, are the same technologies that will enable humanity's grandest adventure: the exploration and settlement of the solar system and beyond. When the starships are ready to fly, will there be anyone left ready to face the challenges and dangers of space exploration?


Maybe the very old. Maybe people who are alive now (or who will be born in the next few years) who live to see those days will be the most willing to go. After all, they might be a little more risk-friendly than their progeny, remembering as they will a world in which icy roads or unprotected sex could do you in. If that turns out to be true, then those of us who are interested in subjects such as life extension, nanotechnology, and space exploration have an additional motivation to stay alive.

The future needs spacefarers. And that might very well mean us.

Posted by Phil at 10:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

SpaceShipOne Update

SamizData has the latest.

Posted by Phil at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 15, 2003

Mars Approaches

Or rather, we approach Mars.

Actually, I suppose it's mutual.

Anyhow, while you're over at TCS, check out this excellent article by Sallie Baliunas on the upcoming near-pass we're going to have with Mars:

This year Mars and the earth will be extraordinarily close -- on August 27 the earth will sweep closer than 35 million miles to Mars. It's enough to give earthlings Mars Fever.

Remember, you read it here first. August 27th should be a banner day in the blogosphere. We've got some big stuff planned for that week. I hope everyone else decides to join the party.

UPDATE: Pejman has caugh the fever. Maybe we should have one of those blogwave deals on the 27th?

Posted by Phil at 12:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The More Things Change

In his new Tech Central Station column, Rand Simberg sees a potential for moving on to the next stage from space exploration's long childhood:

After decades, ruts as deep as this are hard to get out of, but we may be about to do it. With the full funding of the X Prize, and the emergence of dot-com millionaires' interest in the nascent commercial space transport industry, all that's about to change. We may be on the verge of introducing a disruptive technology, which will have interesting, and possibly unsettling effects on both our economy and national security, and sooner than we think.

Read the whole thing without delay.

Hmm...wasn't somebody around here talking about disruptive technology (actually, I think the phrase he used was discontinuous change) just the other day?

Meanwhile, Speculist reader Eric S. has proposed a disruptive idea of his own: use the technology behind a proposed gamma-ray weapon as the basis for an orbital propulsion system. (See the comments.) In his TCS piece, Rand bemoans the baggage that the military origins of our present missile-based launch systems created for subsequent applications of the technology. If we were to convert our (as yet nonexistent) gamma-ray weapon into a launch system, I wonder whether we would encounter some of the same problems.

Plus ca change, as the French astronauts always say. Or are they cosmonauts? Plus c'est la meme chose, I guess.

UPDATE: Good discussion on the potential of sub-orbital systems going on on Transterrestrial Musings (see the comments).

Posted by Phil at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 06, 2003

Space Elevator

Here's a good overview of the upcoming engineering achievement that's going to do more towards moving humanity into space than anything that's come before. As I noted earlier, not everyone is convinced.

Posted by Phil at 04:42 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 05, 2003

X Prize Update

Via InstaPundit, here's the latest on the X Prize, a $10 million contest to build the world's first do-it-yourself spaceship. The winning craft will be the first to fly to a height of 62.5 miles twice within a two-week period. (I really like precision of that "point five." Why not fly to 60 miles? Why not 65? Something significant must happen right at 62.5.) There is hope that a winner will claim the prize in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight in December of this year. In fact, the organizers of the X Prize contest are inspired by the big aviation prizes of the 20th century that led to major breakthroughs.

An example:

In 1919, hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris - a prize won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh aboard his Spirit of St. Louis.

What followed was the "Lindbergh boom": Aviation stocks skyrocketed as did public interest in commercial air travel.

Now, thanks to the X Prize, we have "astropreneurs" working feverishly to kick of a new space boom. And get a load of the descriptions of the elegant solutions they're working to implement:

They're pod-like. Cone-shaped. Bullet beauties.

They launch from water. From planes. From ships at sea.

They are named Wild Fire, Aurora, Cosmos Mariner. One is a flying saucer christened The Space Tourist.

This is a space race of a different kind. There's money to be won. By putting money on the line and saying exactly how high/how fast/how many times, the organizers of the X Prize have done a tremendous job of specifying an outcome. In response, the contestants have broadened their thought space as to what will and will not work in low-cost spacecraft design, and are even now pushing out the boundaries of the possible.

We need more contests like this.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg says it time to kill the myth that it takes a huge government bureaucracy to get us into space.

Posted by Phil at 12:36 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 30, 2003

Now That's What I Call Flying (2)

Not all designs for sail-powered spacecraft are lame. Throw a little matter/anti-matter combustion into the mix and you got yourself a pretty darn kick-ass spaceship, mister.

via the Slag Heap

Posted by Phil at 04:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Walking on Sunshine

There's an interesting piece in WiredNews this morning on the debate currently taking place about the feasability of spacecraft operating via solar sail.

The solar sail exhibit is part of Rockefeller Center's new Centennial of Flight show, which traces technological advances made in aviation during the last century.

If all goes well, Cosmos will prove that solar sails are the future of space flight, a viable technology that can allow humans to glide gracefully through space relying primarily on naturally produced propulsion instead of jet engines and fuel.

But some scientists say solar sailing is an impossible dream that defies the unbreakable laws of physics. Others insist that those very same laws of physics indicate that solar sailing is quite feasible.

Say, this whole thing kind of reminds me of the Great Assembler Debate currently taking place in the field of nanotechnology. So who's right: the Looney Tunes hobbyists who think you can sail around the solar system in a spacecraft pushed by the force of sunshine, or the constipated buzzkill realists who know it's impossible? To quote Richard Smalley (via Eric Drexler):

...when a scientist says something is possible, they're probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it's impossible, they're probably wrong.

So, yeah, my guess is that we'll have solar-powered spaceships sooner or later. My problem with solar sails has never been one of feasability. I've just always thought they were kind of, well, lame.

I remember first encountering the idea reading Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes when I was 10 or 11, and it left me cold even then. I guess I'm just a rocket guy at heart. I like ideas like the ramjet/scramjet. And nothing can compare to the good old-fashioned nuclear-weapon-powered-rocket.

Now that's flying.

Posted by Phil at 07:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 20, 2003

Remember this Day

July 20, 1969:

A human being sets foot on the surface of the moon, followed shortly by another. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. And it all happened so fast. Even in the fast-forward pace of human history, it had been only a blink of an eye since the invention of the airplane and the first flight.

Via Rand Simberg, an evocative quote from Arthur C. Clarke:

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world — but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.

There are a few folks out there who have not forgotten this day, who have some sense of the weight of it. Let's be among them, shall we?

Posted by Phil at 10:18 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 11, 2003

New Old Planet

We can file some of our ponderings about this development under the "what might have been" heading. The actual find: a new planet about 8 billion (appropriate Saganesque emphasis applied) years older than the rest of the planets discovered so far outside of the solar system. It's not only old and huge — about twice the size of Jupiter — it's apparently seen some action. is believed the planet formed about a sunlike star near the edge of the globular cluster. Over time, the star and its planet were gravitationally captured by the pulsar, which was then a neutron star with another star as a companion. As the sunlike star was sucked into the mix, the companion star was ejected from the group. This left the sunlike star and neutron star bound to each other while the planet orbited both.

Eventually, the sunlike star burned up its fuel, bloomed into a red giant and then collapsed into a white dwarf. The neutron star, with its greater density, sucked in material from the collapsing star. This caused the neutron star to start spinning at 100 times a second and emitting radio signals, turning into a pulsar. It was the clocklike pulsing of these radio signals, picked up by radio telescopes, that led to other observations and the discovery of the complex.

The article explains how this planet's very existence calls into question assumptions astronomers have made about when and how planets formed. The current thinking is that planets showed up only after the galaxy had cycled through a generation or two of stars. These later stars (like our sun) contained more heavy materials, such as carbon, that would make it possible for planets to form. So how did this planet manage to materialize so early? I think they'll be scratching their heads over that one for a while.

And while we're asking questions, let's turn to a few that have been raised by the all the other (more than 100) supersized planets that have been discovered outside the solar system. Are they all alone out there? Could they have smaller, earthlike moons or planetary companions? Is it possible that life has formed on any of these hundreds of smaller bodies?

These questions take on a certain poignancy when applied to our new old planet. Here's why:

But when the sunlike star was pulled into orbit of the neutron star, any planets near the sun would have been destroyed. Only the gaseous planet, orbiting some two billion miles out, would have survived.

If there was intelligent life on such a planet, he said, it was destroyed as the parent sun was pulled toward the neutron star.

"They would have seen it coming..."

But could they have done anything about it?

Let's say it was happening to us, at our current level of development. The only scenario that might work would be a desperate, swing-for-the-fences, When Worlds Collide kind of approach. Say we knew we had about ten years: we might be able to slap together a small fleet of manned "space arks" that could get a few thousand of us to the moons of the gas giant. I'm not sure if we'd be safe there, though. And of course, this assumes that the moons are there and that they would have sufficient resources to sustain us.

If we knew we had fifty or a hundred years, we might have a shot at building something that would carry us out of harm's way altogether and into interstellar space. Centuries later, our descendants could conceivably wash up on some hospitable shore. I'm not saying that's easy. How would we go looking for such a "shore?" There are none that we know of. We would just have to aim ourselves at a star that has big planets, and which therefore might have little, earthlike planets, and hope for the best.

I'm going on the assumption that we would want to land on a planet. That isn't necessarily the case. Putting oursleves on a permanent, renewable space station might make more sense in either the 10-year or 100-year scenario.

But what if we had been in that situation in the year 1800? If we were 100 years out from the big smash-up, I wonder whether our astronomy would have been sufficient even to tell us this fact? Presumably, one could just look at the night sky and know something was up. Under those circumstances, it doesn't seem possible that we could have done anything at all.

So here's to the hypotehtical inhabitants of a hypothetical planet that was once a neighbor of our newly discovered (very old) planet. I hope they were farther along than us technologically. I hope they found some way out of their predicament. And if not, I hope they went out with grace and dignity and (wouldn't it be nice) the biggest party their planet ever saw. They may have passed into oblivion, leaving behind no signpost or message in a bottle to declare that once they existed. So I'm glad I thought about them, and I hope anyone who reads this takes a moment to think about them.

There may be no way to remember them, but through us they are not entirely forgotten.

Posted by Phil at 06:21 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2003

Gearing up For Mars Day

Found this on website of the Planetary Society.

On August 27, the planet Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in more than 50,000 years. The planetary event will enable the public, space enthusiasts and astronomers to view greater detail on a planet that is increasingly seen as humankind's next giant leap.

To celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event, The Planetary Society will mark this occasion with special events around the world, including an 83rd birthday party for a man whose name is now synonymous with the Red Planet - Ray Bradbury, author of the famous The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury's birthday comes the same week as this historic Mars opposition.

I think a celebration is definitely in order. Bradbury is huge, and the idea of tying this thing into his birthday is a good one. Moreover, this strikes me as a good opportunity to look back on more than 125 years of Mars as a part of the popular consciousness. A partial list (not necessarily in the correct chronoligcal order, but pretty close):

  • Giovanni Schiaparelli and his canali
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • The John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Percivel Lowell and the "canals" of Mars
  • Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • Mariner 4
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Mariners 6, 7, and 9
  • Viking 1 and 2
  • Pathfinder
  • Mars Attacks!
  • Surveyor
  • Discovery of possible ancient Martian fossils in Antarctic meteorite
  • Mars Rovers

Again, this is just a partial list. I didn't even count the Russian missions, and I'm sure I skipped over some major cultural milestones. The planet Mars--125 years of dreaming and working ever closer to realize our dreams. That's definitely worth celebrating.

Posted by Phil at 11:22 AM | Comments (3)