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Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ 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.


Written by Christopher ZF

February 10, 2012 at 09:35

Posted in NASA, Space Exploration

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

Kepler-22b? What about the first first habitable planet?

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According to Wired, “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star.” What planet is it? Well, it depends on what article you are reading.

There’s a wonderful, exciting new story radiating far beyond the science portions of the internet and receiving heavy coverage. A newly discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star. We love such stories at TRC, and follow closely the expanding catalog of planets outside our solar system.

So it was a little strange to read the sentence from Wired today. Because I’ve read it before, in Wired.

Here’s Wired today, on Kepler-22b. “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star, where temperatures are good for life.”

And, here’s Wired on September 29, 2010, on Gliese-581g: ” Gliese 581g is the first planet found to lie squarely in its star’s habitable zone, where the conditions are right for liquid water.

This isn’t anything new, or particularly problematic. It just struck me in the brain as I read the story. More than anything, such reporting likely comes just as much from enthusiasm over new discoveries in space, which are increasing in pace and wonder, as it does from a lack of critical detail. The discovery of new planets, and questions of size, temperature, atmosphere, etc. takes time and precision and confirmation. And this is space, after all. Reporting is bound to jump the gun because we are talking about planets that could support life (maybe). And at the time, Gliese-581g was thought to be the first such discovery.

But for now, to solve the mystery fr those who do not follow such matters, it looks like Kepler-22b is the first habitable planet found. Unfortunately for the first-first habitable planet, Gliese-581g, well, she may have just never been there in the first place. Following up on the de-classification of an exoplanet from habitable to non-existent makes for much less interesting copy, and is thus much more likely not to get covered in the non-science corners of the internet.

For more on Kepler-22b, look at any news source on the internet. Specifically, as usual, I recommend Bad Astronomy for a good rundown of the new, actually confirmed first discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star.

**UPDATE: Even when I think I’m covering my bases, there is still trouble in the “first” notation being given to Kepler-22b. I’m not an astrophysicist or astronomer, but my link above update his post thusly: “I have been informed that this is NOT the first planet seen in the habitable zone of another star, but the first seen by Kepler, and moreover the first that is not a gas giant.”

Sigh. Just goes to show the difficulty of such descriptions.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 5, 2011 at 16:14

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

Senate ‘Funds’ JWST

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A rare piece of good funding news came from Washington, D.C. yesterday. The Senate will continue funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the mark-ups made for the 2012 budget bill. Which means that the program will be funded through to its completion and launch in 2018, assuming the funding is able to continue through the appropriations committee, pass a floor vote, be reconciled with the House budget, and passed again, then signed by President Obama. But we’ll take it as a positive.

There was much concern, expressed here previously, that the JWST would not receive the appropriations necessary to see it through to completion, due to a myriad of reasons (including NASA’s running far over-budget and extending the program years beyond deadline).

But much had been invested already, and the telescope, it is said, is 75% complete (what that means is open for discussion). It would be a great shame to have the successor to Hubble scrapped, and be left without an eye to the universe’s deepest secrets.

The scientific community galvanized around the issue, and made the funding of the JWST a priority. When the JWST is complete, astronomers and astrophysicists will see things we’ve never seen before, and learn what we don’t even know that we don’t know, or, as the saying goes discover ‘unknown unknowns.’

So congratulations to the Senate, even at this early stage, for looking beyond to the budget woes of today, and for funding science, knowledge, and the future. Keep moving it through the process, one step at a time.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 15, 2011 at 10:02

the method of science is universal.

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Did you hear about the discovery of a planet made of diamond? If you are interested in science, space, or use the interwebs, or receive media input from any source, I imagine you did. It was a scientific discovery that people of all ilks loved to discuss, pass around, and chat about over the water-cooler (do people still do this?).

In the general population, this is the kind of science we can all get behind. It is fun. Interesting discoveries about the universe are received, processed with minimal critical consideration, and filed away without much controversy. The national coverage allowed a few days of fame for the researches who discovered this planet, and then they went about their lives.

According to one of these scientists, Matthew Bailes, this finding will be the biggest discovery of his career because pretty much the whole world’s media covered it, and covered it positively. But at the end of the day, it’s not really that big a deal. Of course, this brush with fame did not have to go this way. Bailes wrote an article on this celebration of the diamond planet, and wondered how different his life would be if he were a climate scientist. After all, same method used to discover this planet has provided that other, easily rejected and dismissed science of the swindlers: climate change. Here’s Bailes:

Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.
The diamond planet was featured in Time Magazine, the BBC and China Daily, to name but a few.
I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.
In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.
Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.
How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.
Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.
Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.
Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.
People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.
There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were “buddies” with the journal referees.
If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.
Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.
But luckily we’re not climate scientists.

The point that Bailes makes often goes unmentioned in popular scientific discourse in the US, where science literacy continues to decline and ignorance about the scientific method is rampant not just in the citizenry but in the media. The scientific method is the scientific method, and is no less valid a method in astronomy than it is in climate science, or any other scientific endeavor.

The labor and attention to detail and  process is no more absent in climate science than in other disciplines. The need for testing and repeating hypotheses, recording observations, submitting to peer review is necessary in climate science and astrophysics, and it is a process whose participants make mistakes, and when they do they can be loud jerks, or humbly correct the record. Often they don’t make big mistakes and are quiet and desire not to be in the public eye. When something important comes about that challenges the status quo it is not hidden from view, at least not for long, and will be adopted into the scientific literature. It will be dealt with by future research, and compared to other observations, tested against other hypotheses, and the conclusions that stands up will be the conclusion that stands up.

I have said this before, and I was told that this is too rosy a picture of science. But I don’t think it is. Mostly this accusation accompanies a defense of climate science. Making that accusation against the process goes beyond climate science and attaches to capital S Science.

It is not appropriate to simply accept without question one field of research, such as astronomy or astrophysics simply because the results provide something bizarre or heretofore never envisioned, and reject another field, such as climate science, because politics allows it. If as a community we want to take science with any seriousness, then this selectivity has to be done away with. As Balies concludes:

In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.
When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.
Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.
The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 13, 2011 at 16:51

Founding Scientists

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Some things that I like are: History, Science, and Politics. In fact, at TRC these are three of the world’s most interesting and important pursuits. So, though I have little to add here, I wanted to post about Science Progress’s question article by Thomas Moreno: Are We Still a Nation of Science?

Why present it here? It is delightful, and because I spend a lot of time (a lot being relative) arguing that the Founding Fathers were not the Christians that today’s American Christians make them out to be. In fact, I would argue that most of them would barely qualify for salvation under the broad conservative Protestant denominations of 21st century America (half surely would not make the cut). The founders were religious folks, it is true, but not solely. They were  also scientists, or at least, advocates for science.

Wondering whether scientists should engage in public debate and advocacy, Moreno writes:

There are many good reasons for science to be put on the front burner of our public agenda. More than fifty percent of our economic growth since World War II is attributable to science and technology; this is the best investment our country has made. And our scientists and engineers are the best possible advocates for reinvestment in innovation, especially considering the state of our economy.

But the very fact that American scientists feel the need to aggressively advocate for science conceal a bitter irony that the Times article failed to note: We once had a group of brilliant, influential and politically engaged leaders who were fascinated by science, wanted the country to be the world leader in the pursuit of new knowledge about the natural world, and in some cases even made original contributions.

They were called the founding fathers.

Starting with Franklin and Jefferson, and moving straight through the Revolutionary generation and beyond, the article gives a quick history of how the forces behind the greatness of America always supported, encouraged, and engaged in the sciences. Thomas Paine, for example, “theorized that there must be millions of worlds like ours millions of miles apart.” (Wonderfully spoken, Tom).

Then, argues Jonathon Moreno, modern biology arrived, and threw the whole narrative of science in the United States into disrepute. But surely we can overcome this hurdle, as reason continues to make clear that evolution is not false, and not such a terrible threat after all.

As the calls increase for United States to regain a leadership role in science and innovation and technology and space exploration and the whole endeavor, it seems useful to remember that the drive for science in society goes right back to the historical heart of the country.

Written by Christopher ZF

August 15, 2011 at 16:55