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Archive for the ‘NASA’ Category

Don’t Cut the Mars Budget

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I want the US, in partnership with the European Space Agency and other nations, to explore the solar system, and I want that to include continued Mars missions, with the eventual development of sending manned missions to the Red Planet. Continued space exploration is beneficial for more reasons than I am going to recount here. Suffice it to say, it’s a worthwhile project, for reasons we haven’t even conceived of yet.

So I don’t have much to add to the news of President Obama’s request for cuts to the NASA budget, which scientists are saying will cut the Mars program. Projects like the Mars program need long-term, continual support. It’s hard enough to get to Mars without worrying about the uncertainty of budget cuts.

This is of course not a done deal, and space programs like the Mars program have support in congress that could prevent this from happening. The President’s budget request does not set the agency budgets, but outlines a recommended prioritization for each agency.

TRC doesn’t often quote conservative Texas Representatives to support our arguments, but this is exactly right:

“You don’t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have,” Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.) said.

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Written by Christopher ZF

February 10, 2012 at 09:35

Posted in NASA, Space Exploration

how do those climate models work?

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Computer modeling used in climate science is an easy target for the global warming deniers. And it is not hard to see why. The actual climate and its interactions with earth and all its various systems is extremely complex. Modeling those relationships in a computer, well, how can that possibly tell us much of anything? Especially when the models that exist often disagree.

That’s a good question. And one that TRC is not qualified to answer. But there are people out there who are qualified, and understanding how the evidence for global climate change comes about is important for those of us who argue that the evidence for global climate change cannot be denied.

And with that goal in mind, TRC recommends an article from Science Line: The future’s not straightforward: neither is modeling it. The piece is a conversation with Anthony Del Genio, from NASA’s Goddard Institute who currently works on the Cassini mission, and presents a clear, comprehensible look at how computer modeling of climate change (on earth and on Venus) works. It’s worth a look.

Although each new model is more sophisticated than the last, their initial results may actually look worse. Newly proposed models don’t usually agree with each other, Del Genio says, because they’re created by different groups of scientists who all have their own ideas on how to accommodate new factors. Climate change denialists use those discrepancies between the present 14 to 18 models to claim that they shouldn’t be trusted at all, but Del Genio — who doesn’t see how anyone can deny the reality of human-induced climate change based on the evidence — stresses that the disagreements over modeling are a natural part of the scientific process.

What we do know, Del Genio says, is that the Earth is warming in response to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. All the models predict higher temperatures in the future, but there is a debate about how much it will warm up and what that warming means.
No matter how sophisticated models get, the predictions will remain uncertain. Predictions always are. “We all envy Ebenezer Scrooge in a way,” Del Genio says. “He had the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. We wish we had the Ghost of Climate Yet to Come to show everyone what we think the world is going to be like if we continue along the current path…But we don’t have that.”

Written by Christopher ZF

January 4, 2012 at 13:44

Voyager 1 going Interstellar: “traveling in completely new territory”

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NASA launched Voyager 1 in 1977, before I was born, to explore the outer reaches of our Solar System and (hopefully) that which lies beyond our Solar System. It appears that Voyager will shortly begin that second phase. Now stationed approximately 11 billion miles from our sun, the spacecraft appears poised to travel into interstellar space. Amazing.

When that actually will occur, when the spacecraft will move beyond the heliosphere –the space within the impact of solar winds provided by our sun– and into the greater Milky Way (think of passing out of Roger’s Park and into the greater Chicago Area), cannot be precisely determined. And that is to be expected. We’ve never been here before, never traveled quite this far, and cannot accurately know beforehand how such a transition from heliosphere to heliopause to interstellar space is going to unfold. New knowledge completely, very exciting times.

Here’s where Voyager is now:

image from NASA

The latest data from Voyager 1 show the spacecraft is in a region of stagnation, where the stream of charged particles from the sun has slowed and the sun’s magnetic field has piled up, researchers said at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

“We’ve been using the flow of energetic charged particles at Voyager 1 as a kind of wind sock to estimate the solar wind velocity,” said Rob Decker, a co-investigator for Voyager‘s low-energy charged particle instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’ve found that the wind speeds are low in this region and gust erratically. For the first time, the wind even blows back at us. We are evidently traveling in completely new territory. Scientists had suggested previously that there might be a stagnation layer, but we weren’t sure it existed until now.”

One of the highest rewards for reading coverage of space exploration is reading a simple sentence in plain words meant to assist in human visualization of space and time, which to me, seems impossible. I’m thinking of something like this:

Traveling a billion miles every three years, the Voyager probes won’t reach the vicinity of another star for another 40,000 years. 

Holy macks.

If all goes according to plan, the Voyager Spacecrafts should be operating until 2020, or as late as 2025. Think about everything that means to accumulation of human knowledge. A human made craft, traveling beyond the borders of our solar system, providing perhaps 15 more years of data to advance our scientific understanding of the universe.

For more on the Voyager mission, go to NASA, where else?

Written by Christopher ZF

December 7, 2011 at 09:55

From the Moon to Customs

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I found this document on the tremendously tremendous astrophysics blog Starts with a Bang. I think it is worth spending some time looking at this paper, and really contemplating the contents and what they meant for the time. Has there ever been a more remarkable travel record than this customs and immigration form filled out by Apollo 11, upon return from the first human trip to the moon?

You’ve just returned from the moon, please fill out your customs paperwork:
What are the Places? Cape Kennedy, Moon, Honolulu.
Cargo? Moon Rock and Moon Dust Samples.

In 1969, no one else had ever walked on anything other than the surface of the earth. Sci-fi had just become sci. Think about having to answer this question: Any condition on board which may lead to spread of disease?
Answer? To be determined.

(the doc is courtesy of NASA/U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)

Written by Christopher ZF

October 13, 2011 at 11:47

Is putting people on Mars worth the money? A wandering series of thoughts on science, politics, and inspiration

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I would love to go into space, especially Mars, even if nothing ever happens there*. You know Mars, fourth planet from the sun, red, god of War. I want to go. But being a middle-class Midwesterner who works in energy policy instead of some kind of m(b)illionaire with money to burn  will likely keep that dream from becoming a reality. Alas.

Turns out though, lots of people want to go to Mars. And some people think that wouldn’t be all that difficult (difficult here being relative, of course). Life’s Little Mysteries has laid out a 5-step plan from Robert Zubrin to get humans to Mars, establish a base camp, and begin regular outgoing and return trips using technology that we already have. When you read the plan it seems that Mars is not that far away. Getting there would take billions of dollars, but that’s a political problem, not a scientific one.

That 5-step plan has me wondering if the hurdles to Mars are mostly financial and political. Isn’t this America? If we wanted to get to Mars, if we could overcome the politics, certainly the US could send humans to Mars. Damn right. As Zubrin says, “”We’re closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1969.”

But there is a real question to be asked: why should we go to Mars? Seriously. What argument would convince Americans that a trip to Mars is worth billions of dollars?

The first, and most obvious, answer is the knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, more than can be expressed in the sentiment ‘there is a lot to learn’, but why risk sending people on that trip? Take water. We’ve long since discovered that there is ice on Mars, a discovery that changes what Mars means. But now the evidence is mounting, (in full barsoomenating detail at BadAstronomy) that there is liquid water on the red planet. LIQUID! And it just might be that liquid water means life on Mars. Possibly. Well, maybe but worth looking for, for sure. For TRC, who is in a temporary political malaise, it’s a discovery that’s worth getting excited over, in the least, and maybe worth calling for manned Mars Missions, like Ross Pomeroy at Newton Blog:

It is my hope that a finding of this magnitude will spark renewed enthusiasm for devising a manned mission to the “Red Planet.” What could be more worthwhile than finally answering the question of whether or not life is only endemic to planet Earth?

If you stop reading the entry at this point, it is exciting. But it would also deny reality. Pomeroy continues:

Unfortunately, I doubt any such discussion could survive or even begin in the current political climate. A “we can’t” atmosphere has taken hold of Washington, D.C. Now, most politicians seem to look at everything through a narrow, short term lens that focuses purely on costs and poll numbers. Lost, in this distorted view, is the long-term picture.

This is what we’re doing. Focusing so narrowly on a political moment in time at the expense of the future. Is that over-simplified? Of course. Do we have serious short- and long-term political problems that need addressing? Of course. Do we need to work out this budget gridlock and our spending and debt problems? Of course. Should these political problems facing a country in 2011 involve themselves in the long-term scientific pursuit of knowledge and truth and life? A pursuit that needs steady certainty to move itself forward? No. These are politics of the moment, and we need to see beyond the moment. After all, just a flight to Mars is a political lifetime.

And this is Life on another Planet that we are talking about.

It might not be on Mars, but Life is what we’re really looking for, isn’t it? Deep down? The wonder of the cosmos, for TRC at least, is that somewhere some other life exists. Be it microbial or intelligent. It’s a marvelous thought. And that get’s to the second reason (of many) to go to Mars.

The search for liquid water and the implications for life on Mars can bring back what the American Space Program seems to be losing. Magic. Sending humans into space-to Mars, to an actually different planet than the one humans inhabit-is a mind-blowing endeavor. A collaborative, national mission to Mars is capable of inspiring literally millions of young women and men to engage in science and poetry and engineering and philosophy, and all the great pursuits of humanity. It can produce the next generation of innovators and dreamers that our nation seems to desperately need. That’s the romantic argument. The strongest one, really.

*couldn’t resist.

Written by Christopher ZF

August 10, 2011 at 16:07

No More Sailing on the New Ocean

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Early this morning the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth. It won’t fly again. The era of the shuttle is over, in America, and it is mourned at TRC. But we are optimistic that another program will come, that manned space flight in the United States will return, and we will put ourselves even farther beyond the earth than we already have. The future of Americans in space is hidden for now. But it won’t be forever.

Below a NASA photo of Atlantis touching down at 5:57 am this morning, ending the 30 year shuttle program at NASA.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 21, 2011 at 10:01

Posted in NASA, Space Exploration

Where has the Romance of Space gone?

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It is sad news today that the US government is considering the defunding of the James Webb telescope. The telescope may or may not happen at this point, but the possibility of its demise brings up a few less than flattering characteristics of the United States in 2011 that have been ruminating around at TRC.

In an important way, the manner in which the work of NASA and space exploration is now treated is not dissimilar to the manner in which higher-education has been devalued. There is a steady stream of articles these days about how the purpose of higher-education should be getting a job, and if it is not about job placement, it is a waste of money and young people’s time is better spent elsewhere, gaining experience in the real world or pursuing an entrepreneurial opportunity.

The problem here is not that gaining real world experience or starting a small business are not viable, positive life decisions. The problem is that the role of higher-education is not to act as a career center for its students—to match the student with the appropriate job and filling the  student’s brain with only that knowledge needed to perform that job. The role of higher-education is to educate students. Learning is the endgame. The career center can function as the career center. The classroom should be about teaching and learning, because, like the poster in every elementary school says: knowledge is power. I have been defending the US Space Program with this same argument for years. And I will continue for years to come.

Because this is the same misguided attitude that now seems to permeate American (or maybe just American Political) attitudes towards space exploration. It’s extremely expensive (true). NASA is poorly managed (which it is).  Money at NASA doesn’t always seem to get where it is meant to go (spot-on). And really, what is the point of seeing all those strange colored wispy things way out there in the universe? Of what value is astrophysics, astronomy, cosmology when we can’t even raise the debt ceiling in the US or find enough jail cells for all our drug users? The significance is: incalculable. Knowing more about the universe, knowing the whats and hows of deep time and creation, is an end in  itself, and should be, and it is of immeasurable value. Understanding the universe helps us understand our world, how it works, and what it does. But even if it didn’t, knowledge is an end worthy of pursuit.

And it leads me to wonder, is the romance of space gone? When I was a child, the idea of being an astronaut and going to space, of seeing the Earth from outside the Earth, or seeing the Moon from the Moon, was the ultimate daydream. Maybe, since the end of the USSR, and the lack of a “goal-oriented” space program—beat those Russians for the pride of all Americans!—the romance has lessened. But that too would be a saddening detail of 2011 in America. The visual and imaginative influence that shuttle program had on me as child was very real, and played a vital role in my future.  Though I pursued imagination (literature) over science (though the two are in no way mutually exclusive and rely heavily upon one another) in college, the role of the shuttles and Hubble, the tragedies and victories of the program deeply affected me and the way I read Paradise Lost or wrote a silly poem about love. It happened just yesterday, as I looked over and over again, in awe, at this single picture from the Cassini Spacecraft.

Now, the shuttle program is ending, NASA will likely lose the James Webb telescope, and the astrophysicists, comsologists, and astronomers of America wonder what will become of science in the US. We hear so often, especially from our President, about the importance of bringing an emphasis back to science education in the United States. But if we continue to de-fund the projects that will provide a future of science to those students, we are passing on a vital opportunity in exchange for a short-sighted vision that will have long-term negative impacts on our future. Says Matt Mountain (from Times article, linked above), director of Space Telescope Institute, “This is particularly disappointing at a time when the nation is struggling to inspire students to take up science and engineering.”

It’s not overstating it: one de-funded project at a time, we could end up damaging the future for American Science, withholding valuable childhood daydreams, and producing not only fewer astrophysicists, but also fewer love poems. Space is not just about science, it’s about inspiration.

*UPDATE
If you are looking for a higher authority on the subject, how about Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong, and their editorial in the USA Today from May 24, 2011.

After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
 “We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.”
— President Kennedy
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 7, 2011 at 11:43