Thursday, November 22

Curious about Curiosity

The media are abuzz with speculation about the expected announcement of new results from the Curiosity rover on Mars, at the AGU meeting on Dec. 3. Expectations were fanned to a frenzy by John Grotzinger's comments to NPR's Joe Palca this week, in which he said this would be one for the history books, and would be earthshaking. Needless to say, that has triggered ever-escalating notions of what it might be, from the silly to the superlative and sublime.
What's more likely is that it will indeed be an important announcement, but not of the extreme kind people are thinking of. It's probably not something wriggling or slithering in front of the camera, and it's probably not a fossil, though lord knows I'd be delighted to be proved wrong. Most likely, it's one of two things:
1. Organics in the soil. Ever since the Viking mission in 1976, this has been the biggest bugaboo about life on Mars. No organics were detected by the instrument on that mission, a gas-chromatograph mass spectrometer, that should have found them. That non-detection was taken by most scientists ever since to contradict the results of the labelled-release test, which otherwise would have been seen as a positive detection of living, breathing microbes on Mars. Since then, other tests have demonstrated that fairly abundant organics on Mars could in fact have fallen below the threshold of detection of that GCMS, but the prevailing view for all these years that Viking had failed to find signs of life had become too deeply ingrained for the new evidence to make much of an impression. So, while direct detection of organics in the soil by the much more sensitive instruments on Curiosity would of course not prove the presence of life there now, it would show that the one piece of evidence that had been interpreted as ruling out a positive detection by Viking has now been shown to be false. At the very least, that would open the question anew, and provide a strong impetus to carry out the follow up experiments, which could clinch the matter, and which should have been done long ago.
2. Methane in the air. Though this is also an indirect sign, it too could provide strong evidence for the presence of living, breathing microorganism on Mars today. Curiosity detected signs of methane when it first arrived, but a second set of tests found none, so the initial results were then taken to have been just residual contamination carried there from Earth. But if a third set of tests did find methane again, that would show it had to be Martian after all. And while there are some highly unlikely non-biological mechanisms that could explain methane in the air of Mars, seeing methane that comes and goes would be very, very hard to explain that way. So, like organics, this would be a strong indicator of extant life forms on Mars today.
Either of these findings, while very exciting and likely to cause a turnaround in the prevailing scientific thinking about whether life exists on Mars today, are nevertheless indirect, complex, and likely to remain highly controversial for a long time. But if nothing else, it will finally provide the needed spur for future missions to carry out the tests that would be needed to prove it once and for all.
Or, I could be wrong and the new findings could be something completely different. In any case, we'll know what it is a week from next Monday.

Sunday, July 12

Earthlings going to Mars!

I have written many times over 30-some years about why I'm quite convinced, based on the results of the Viking experiments in 1976 and supported by a lot of new evidence since then, that living organisms exist on Mars today. (Examples include my book, and articles in The Atlantic, Wired, New Scientist, etc.) We'll certainly have the proof within the next couple of decades, and we'll see if I've been right about this (along with a few others, including Viking scientist Gil Levin, and former NASA scientist Robert Jastrow).

I also think it's pretty likely, though by no means proven, that Terrestrial life may actually have originated on Mars, and that primitive microbes were first brought here by meteorites blasted off by asteroid impacts on Mars. We'll find that out eventually too. And it's also almost certain that living organisms from Earth have already contaminated the surface of Mars (see this story, for example).
But in the meantime, a new and very interesting experiment on a Russian spacecraft to be launched this October will be testing part of that hypothesis -- the ability of microbial life to survive the radiation, zero-g, the shock of blastoff and so on of an interplanetary trip. Four vials of organisms will be carried to Mars (actually, to the surface of its moon Phobos), and then brought back to Earth for analysis. The experiment is happening thanks to the Planetary Society.
There's a good story with some of the details here. It sounds like a good selection of organisms they're testing. The results should be very interesting.
I certainly hope it works -- unlike the last attempt to send a biologically-interesting experiment to Mars, a (fairly crude, simple) followup to the Viking labeled release life-detection test that was carried aboard the Russian Mars 96 probe (in guess what year?), which alas ended up somewhere in the Atacama desert of northern Chile after a launch failure and was never found.
They'll also be bringing back to Earth some soil from Phobos, which could be quite interesting -- and which is a much better idea than bringing back Mars soil, which I think would be premature at this point, given the danger of potential contamination (if, as I've just been ranting on about, there is life there now that's closely related to us).
I'm excited about this new mission, and I hope it all succeeds.

Monday, June 16

another day, another blog

I haven't posted anything on this blog for quite a while, but don't give up on me yet, I still may from time to time.
But in the meantime, you might take a look at a new blog I've started, on the Discovery Channel's new space website. It's devoted to space and astronomy projects involving college students. It's called Next Generation. Please take a look at it HERE.

Tuesday, September 18

When I was your age ... A million Pluto fans!

I've already ranted at length in this space on my feelings about the IAU's decision last year -- in my opinion, silly and misguided -- to demote Pluto from planetary status (For example, my postings here and here). And I knew that it was an issue that had attracted a lot of interest from the public, and especially students, far beyond the level of public interest in most astronomical subjects. I was struck at the time by how quickly it became fodder for cartoons and even songs written about the ex-planet.
But I hadn't realized just how powerful that level of interest was.
Last week, I joined the popular online social networking site Facebook, because I had read about some other journalists joining the site and finding it useful. Almost immediately, my page on Facebook began showing me the names of "groups" on the service that I might be interested in, based on the groups I had already signed up for. And the very cute name of one of those groups immediately caught my eye: "When I was your age, Pluto was a planet."
As soon as I went to that group's page, it blew my socks off. The other groups I had joined had a few dozen members, or a hundred or so. One of them even had a few thousand. But the Pluto group already had 950,000 members! In the days since then, it has now surged across the million-member mark.
Talk about striking a nerve!
I later read an article about the group (here ) that says within a few weeks of its founding last year, it had become the second-most-popular group on the whole Facebook site. Most of the top groups have more predictable subjects -- political or social causes -- but this one was a big surprise. Passions run very strong about poor little Pluto -- as I had predicted, but even more than I expected.
Alan Stern, lead scientist for the New Horizons mission that's on its way to Pluto and now a top NASA official, has been leading the charge to overturn the IAU's misguided decision, and I wish him well. I think nothing substantive is likely to happen until the IAU has its next general meeting in 2009, but maybe the movement will have gained enough steam by then to get the decision changed.

Thursday, September 13

Google me to the moon

A big new prize was announced today, which may help to spur further development of private space vehicles the way the $10-million Ansari X-Prize did three years ago. (See one of my stories here about the winning SpaceShipOne).
Coming from the same folks, the new $30-million Google Lunar X-Prize will be awarded to the first private company to send an unmanned rover vehicle to the moon, travel at least 500 meters on the surface, and send back lots of pictures of its activities to Earth. Alan Boyle has lots of details in his story today on MSNBC.
Among those who may try for the prize is Armadillo Aerospace, the odds-on favorite to win $2 million next month at the Lunar Lander Challenge in New Mexico. Armadillo's Pixel has already demonstrated that it's capable of winning the prize, as long as nothing goes disastrously wrong between now and then. (See my story on that today at Technology Review)
Things are really heating up in the private space arena, as I've been predicting for years. This could be the busiest year yet, and next year even more so.

Tuesday, March 20

Another step toward a new age

Elon Musk's Falcon 1 rocket made a very impressive takeoff today, setting a series of records and making Space Exploration Technologies only the second company ever to send a privately-financed rocket into space (after Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, which flew SpaceShipOne to 100 km three times in 2004). In the process, it set a variety of records, including the highest flight of a private rocket, at 300 km.
The flight ultimately failed, as the second stage went into an oscillation that caused the engine to shut down prematurely. But Musk is confident that the most important objectives were achieved -- a successful first stage liftoff and flight, second-stage separation, fairing separation, second-stage ignition and initial stable flight.
The live webcast was very impressive, showing the whole flight from an onboard camera -- a trick even NASA only learned to do relatively recently. I hope they post a copy of it on their website ( )

Monday, March 19

SpaceX will be trying again

After their first launch of the Falcon 1 rocket went awry seconds after liftoff a year ago (March 24), Space Exploration is about to try again. This time, they've even got a live webcast covering the event. (It's at )
Unfortunately, today's attempt was halted at T minus 1 minute 30 seconds, and it's not clear what the cause was. Such things are normal and expected in the rocket biz, especially with a brand new design. Nothing to worry about. They've scrubbed for today, but they've said they could reschedule for another try tomorrow or the day after.
Kimbal Musk, brother of SpaceX founder and president Elon Musk, keeps a nice firsthand blog on launch events, from right there on Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific, where these intial tests are being carried out (see it here: ). The operational launches will be from spaceports in the US.
Here's a view of the pad, from the live webcast:

Monday, September 18

Amazing photo of shuttle and ISS

An amateur astronomer in France, Thierry Legault, took this amazing picture yesterday (full-size version here) of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Atlantis, which had just separated from it in preparation for its return to Earth. Legault managed to catch the pair just as they passed in front of the sun, providing a stunningly clear silhouette that shows the newly-installed solar panels on the ISS.
Legault has been taking amazing telescope pictures for years, and has previously taken several shots of airplanes passing in front of the sun, as well as of eclipses and other more usual astronomical subjects, and has written a book (in French) about astrophotography. He has a great collection of pictures on his own website.
Thanks to, a wonderful website where I first saw this photo.

Tuesday, August 29

Pluto blues

I just came across this new song about the IAU decision last week to downgrade Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. It's called "They Demoted Pluto," and I think it's a remarkably well-done and apt song. My kudos to Jimmy and the Keyz.
At least people are talking passionately about a scientific (sort of) issue! How often do you hear a catchy song with lines like this:
"God, I hate the IAU
They demoted Pluto
What's a guy like me to do?
They demoted Pluto..."

Wednesday, August 23

Retreating from crazy, IAU proposal is now just bad

I should point out that my diatribe below about the crazy IAU proposal being debated this week is already obsolete, since an amendment to the original definition was adopted earlier today that would trim the number of planets from the proposed 53 (masquerading as 12) down to just 8. This decimation of the population was accomplished by adding one simple phrase, that the object must dominate its region of space. That immediately knocks out Ceres (part of the asteroid belt), and Pluto, Charon and 2004 UB313 (parts of the Kuiper Belt). So instead of gaining 44 planets, the solar system loses one, namely Pluto, and everybody who cares at all about this is just going to be very ticked off (except Neil Tyson of New York's Hayden Planetarium, who had already made the decision to go to just 8 planets).
It's an improvement over having 53 planets, which obviously nobody was going to take seriously, and eliminates the craziness of including Charon, and the weirdness of including Ceres. But really, what's the point?
Defining the "region" that must be dominated by a planet is intrinsically arbitrary. So why bother? If we're going to have an arbitrary definition, on a matter that affects culture far more than it does science, why not use the arbitrary decision that fits harmoniously with what culture has overwhelmingly agreed on, and is simpler and easier to rememeber to boot? Accept anything bigger than Pluto, or (virtually the same thing) bigger than the nice round 1,000 km radius, and everybody's happy. Kill off Pluto as a planet, and no scientific purpose is served, but lots and lots of people will be very angry. That's the choice that the astronomers in Prague now seem to be heading toward, like lemmings streaming toward a cliff.
Clark Chapman, an asteroid and comet specialist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder and someone who has spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the way astronomy is communicated to the public, agrees with the size-cutoff idea, as does Michael Brown, the discoverer of the "tenth planet." But almost nobody else has spoken up publicly for this simple, commonsense solution. Here's what Clark said about it in a recent email he sent me:
"Because the public is interested and involved, and because historical precedent is important, the solution I preferred (and sent last week to some of those involved in the Prague discussions) would have been to accept the nine planets we have had for most of a century, and add anything as big or bigger than Pluto to the list of planets."
Too bad he's not in Prague. I'm not sure if Brown is or not. We'll see what happens.