The field for the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is leaner than it was, with two teams dropping out of the rocket competition. The exit of Micro-Space and a mysterious unnamed group leaves seven teams still in the hunt - but there could be further spills and thrills between now and October's Wirefly X Prize Cup contest, says organizer Will Pomerantz. You don't have to look any further than the setback recently suffered by the Lunar Lander Challenge's front-runner to see that.
The Lunar Lander Challenge is one of the Centennial Challenges backed by NASA, which is putting up the $2 million in prize money. Teams will compete at the Oct. 27-28 X Prize Cup at New Mexico's Holloman Air Force Base to get their rocket-powered lunar lander prototypes from point A to point B and back again, in accordance with the contest rules.
Pomerantz, the X Prize Foundation's space projects director, is responsible for making sure all the teams follow the rules. One of those rules is that all the teams have to make themselves publicly known 60 days before the competition - and that meant the contest's mysterious ninth team had to reveal itself this week or withdraw.
"They decided it was in their best interest to withdraw from the competition altogether for this year," Pomerantz told me.
Colorado-based Micro-Space, a competitor in past X Prize rocket contests, also decided to pass up this year's faceoff. Micro-Space missed out on a mandatory meeting this month, forfeiting their bid, Pomerantz said. "They have a number of projects going on, and probably they just determined that the best plan for them was concentrating on those efforts, even if it meant they would be forgoing a chance to bring home a check," he said.
That leaves Acuity Technologies, Armadillo Aerospace, BonNova, Masten Space Systems, Paragon Labs, SpeedUp and Unreasonable Rocket still in the running.
"All of our seven teams are in pretty good positions," Pomerantz said. "That said, there's a lot of work to be done between now and October. They're all in a position where they need some things to go right and not a lot of things to go wrong."
Something did go wrong earlier this month for Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, the only team to compete in last year's Lunar Lander Challenge and the widely acknowledged front-runner to win big bucks this year. One of their two rocket prototypes, Texel, was destroyed in a fiery crash during testing in Oklahoma.
Armadillo's John Carmack said the setback isn't a mortal blow: Texel's twin, Pixel, will vie for the challenge's top prize of $1 million - and the team plans to enter one of its new Module rocket ships in another, less ambitious competition level. But Pomerantz said Armadillo's setback illustrates how quickly fortunes can change. After all, this is rocket science.
If all seven teams make it to October's finals, the show will be positively hopping at Holloman. X Prize Cup spectators could find themselves watching a two-ring rocket circus.
"We've designed for two pad zones, so you can have two competitors with heavily concurrent operations," Pomerantz explained. "While one team is getting ready to pump their gas, the other team is flying - and once the first team touches down, the next team is ready to go."
For more on the buildup to the X Prize Cup, check out Space Prizes, the Spaceports blog and of course RLV and Space Transport News. My friend over at Space.com, Leonard David, is also keeping track of developments on his LiveScience blog.
Update for 1:30 a.m. ET Aug. 31: The X Prize Foundation has scheduled a Sept. 6 briefing on its Automotive X Prize program, which aims to promote more efficient road vehicles (getting the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon). Among those due to speak is Malcolm Bricklin, the auto-entrepreneur who helped bring the Subaru and the Yugo to America and is now planning to bring plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to market by 2010 through his Visionary Vehicles venture.
The folks behind the Automotive X Prize have signed up 31 teams for the contest and are looking for sponsors to put up the prize money. Is Bricklin signing on? Will it turn out to be the Visionary Vehicles Automotive X Prize or somesuch? Stay tuned for updates next week.
The Internet Archive, whose mission is to preserve the riches of the online world, has struck a deal with NASA to preserve the riches from nearly five decades of space missions. Many of those visual gems are already available from a variety of Web sources, but the deal represents the latest attempt to bring order to NASA's terabytes of photos, text documents and particularly video.
A few Web pointers will help you get by while the Internet Archive ramps up its interplanetary Wayback Machine.
Actually, the existing incarnation of the archive can already turn up some otherwise-hard-to-find goodies, particularly some classic video clips from the golden days of the space effort. This half-hour documentary on the Apollo 11 mission is a prime example. You can find other mission documentaries by searching the archive for NASA-related movies.
Videos on the early space effort are the hardest things to find on the Web. NASA does make a smattering available via the galleries on its Human Spaceflight Web site as well as its main multimedia video gallery (click the "Video Vault" link). You can also find historical NASA video on YouTube, although you have to separate the digital wheat from the chaff. Our own interactive time line on NASA's glory days provides some nice snippets of footage, including an NBC retrospective on Apollo 11.
Still imagery from past space missions is far more available, although the good stuff is widely distributed among NASA centers as well as other research institutions. Here are a few examples of the diversity:
You begin to get the idea that having the Internet Archive help NASA organize everything into one easily accessible, easily searchable database would be a really good thing. And there's a whole lot out there that has never been digitized - particularly all that historical video.
"We're dedicated to making all human knowledge available in the digital realm," Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of Internet Archive, said in last week's announcement of the nonexclusive deal with NASA. "The educational value of the images NASA has collected during the course of its five decades of scientific discovery is unprecedented. Digitizing NASA's imagery is a big step in Internet Archive's ongoing efforts to digitize a vast spectrum of content and make it freely accessible to the public in an easily searched online destination."
Over the next five years, the San Francisco-based venture will work with NASA on digitization as well as organization of the database - and raise the funds required to support the effort. The first job is to consolidate more than 20 major imagery collections. Then additional digital imagery will be added to the archive. In the third year of the deal, NASA and the Internet Archive will gather up the offline imagery to be digitized and added to the database.
The freely accessible archive could also include historically significant audio, documents and computer presentations as well as videos and stills, NASA said.
This isn't the first time NASA has enlisted help for the massive task. Seven years ago, NASA struck an ambitious deal with a dot-com venture known as Dreamtime to create new multimedia presentations as well as organize NASA's existing store of space masterpieces. Dreamtime did provide some HDTV cameras for the international space station, but since then the venture has fizzled out.
A couple of years ago, NASA struck a similarly nonexclusive deal with Google to collaborate on a variety of projects, including data management. Google has incorporated NASA imagery in a variety of its mapping projects, including Google Moon and the recently announced Google Sky.
Microsoft, too, has been experimenting with NASA image databases as part of its Photosynth project, which provides the foundation for our own Space World image collections. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC Universal joint venture.)
This all goes to show that there's plenty of room for those who want to preserve (and benefit from) NASA's space masterpieces - which, after all, have been bought and paid for by American taxpayers. For a sampling of the latest and the greatest, take a spin through our space gallery - and stay tuned for a fresh crop of Space Shots next week.
Update for 2:55 p.m. ET Aug. 30: The Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle got back to me with more details on the project. "The big news on this is not now, it's when it comes live," he told me Wednesday afternoon.
The initial incarnation of the unified NASA archive should go live in a year or less, Kahle said. It would be hosted by the Internet Archive, not NASA, and Kahle said a separate address would be created. (Brace yourself for the cybersquatters.)
"We're trying to make it so that people who are interested in imagery will have an easier time finding and enjoying these materials," he said. "Hopefully we can get another generation interested in space."
The Internet Archive will bear the costs of digitizing, organizing and presenting the imagery. Kahle said the "vast majority" of material at NASA's centers has never been digitized but is sitting in libraries.
So how much will it cost to bring all those visual riches online?
"It's in the millions of dollars, so it's significant," Kahle said. "But we actually don't know. We're just getting going. We're excited about the opportunity to get into this, but NASA has been concentrating on just getting their next mission going."
He's hoping that corporations or foundations will step up to the plate - perhaps one of the billionaires who has already shown an interest in space adventures. Although he didn't name names, the list of prospects could well include Google co-founder Larry Page (X Prize Foundation board member); Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin backer); and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (SpaceShipOne backer).
"One sponsorship from somebody of that ilk, or a corporate entity, could bring the wealth of historic NASA collections online," Kahle said.
NASA / JPL / Univ. of Ariz.
| Sunlight is reflected off the wall of a Martian pit.
Fresh imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that the strange holes detected in earlier pictures of the Red Planet's surface are most likely vertical pits rather than openings to underground cave networks, as some had previously speculated.
Here's the latest from the imaging team for the MRO's high-resolution camera, or HiRISE, posted today on its Web site:
"Dark pits on some of the Martian volcanoes have been speculated to be entrances into caves. A previous HiRISE image, looking essentially straight down, saw only darkness in this pit.
"This time the pit was imaged from the west. Since the picture was taken at about 2:30 p.m. local (Mars) time, the sun was also shining from the west. We can now see the eastern wall of the pit catching the sunlight.
"This confirms that this pit is essentially a vertical shaft cut through the lava flows on the flank of the volcano. Such pits form on similar volcanoes in Hawaii and are called 'pit craters.' They generally do not connect to long open caverns but are the result of deep underground collapse. From the shadow of the rim cast onto the wall of the pit we can calculate that the pit is at least 78 meters (255 feet) deep. The pit is 150 by 157 meters (492 by 515 feet) across."
Insiders tell NBC News that NASA has found nothing in the past 20 years of spaceflight to back up last month's allegations that some astronauts used alcohol heavily just before flight - and one space pioneer says many of his colleagues are "pissed off" over what the original report has done to the reputation of the astronaut corps.
The space agency's safety chief, Bryan O'Connor, is due to release the results of his internal investigation into the alcohol claims at 11 a.m. ET Wednesday - then discuss those results at a 1:30 p.m. ET news conference that will be broadcast on NASA TV.
O'Connor's probe was sparked by an independent panel's claims of "heavy alcohol use" among astronauts before flight, which were contained in a wider report about shortcomings in NASA's medical screening procedures (PDF file). The independent panel was chaired by Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., and included medical and legal experts from other federal agencies.
NBC News' Jay Barbree passed along a preview of O'Connor's follow-up report today, based on interviews with knowledgeable sources who could not speak publicly because they lacked official authorization to do so:
"Former astronaut Bryan O'Connor, NASA's chief of safety and mission assurance, is set to tell a press conference tomorrow his investigation into allegations of improper alcohol use by astronauts found nothing.
"O'Connor sifted through the last 20 years of spaceflight and was unable to verify any of the drunken reports made by the NASA Astronaut Health Care System Review Committee stemming from astronaut Lisa Nowak's stalking and attacking a romantic rival during the unraveling of a love triangle with a fellow astronaut.
"The committee had reported rumors that some astronauts were allowed to fly intoxicated.
"O'Connor will say his investigation was unable to verify any of the rumors astronauts were drunk.
"Those involved with readying astronauts for flight say that, because of the many hours astronauts are under direct scrutiny and live television cameras before flight, it is most unlikely any astronaut could fly drunk.
"O'Connor's investigation suggests that if any astronaut ever boarded a spaceship intoxicated, it was a masterful deception and certainly a rarity."
Barbree told me that O'Connor's report could not absolutely deny astronauts used alcohol in the crucial hours before flight - only that no evidence could be found to back up the claims in the independent panel's report. Those claims were based on interviews with astronauts and flight surgeons, but the panel said it wasn't in a position to verify whether the claims were true.
The tales of drunken astronauts have sparked much levity on late-night talk shows and in editorial cartoons - but agency officials, lawmakers and the astronauts themselves aren't laughing. The House Science and Technology Committee has scheduled hearings on the issue as early as next week.
"It is beyond my comprehension that anyone in the astronaut office would consider doing what is suggested in this report and exaggerated in the press - showing up on launch day under the influence of alcohol. This is serious business and we take it as such."
But Kelly's publicly expressed ire was nothing in comparison to the disbelief and outrage that Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean expressed during an interview with me on Monday.
Most of our conversation was focused on the good old days depicted in an upcoming documentary, "In the Shadow of the Moon." Bean confirmed my initial impression that he was an "aw-shucks" kind of guy, more interested in his art than the ins and outs of space policy. But when the topic turned to NASA's image as it looks toward future exploration, Bean couldn't resist addressing a topic that was clearly close to his heart - and his gut:
"My hat's off to NASA, it's a good agency. And boy, one of the things that's pissed me off lately has been this talk about astronauts drinking and flying with drink. I was in there 18 years, OK? I heard all the rumors.
"First of all, I never saw anything like that, ever. Never heard it even as a rumor. Whoever that guy is that was in charge of that group that released that information, which I think is wrong and a lie … he's got to be held accountable for this kind of embarrassment – letting people on late-night TV make fun of these astronauts who are so dedicated.
"No astronaut would put up with that. Nobody would say, 'Oh, you've been drinking, huh? That's OK. We're headed up there, our lives depend on it. But what the heck.' They would say, 'You've been drinking? We're not going, and you're not coming to work ever again here. You're out of here, we'll never see your ass again!' Nobody would put up with it.
"Every astronaut I've talked to has been pissed off about this. And not a single one of them would put up with it for one second. This is a terrible hurt to those people up there now. ..."
You can hear the hurt in Bean's voice in this audio clip, which includes the above excerpt and a little bit more.
He urged NASA to fight back vigorously to protect the image of the agency and its astronauts. "I don't think that when you're defending the people who work for you, you have to be politically correct. I think it's just the opposite," he said.
The exchange made clear that Alan Bean isn't just an "aw-shucks" guy who happened to find himself on the moon 38 years ago. He's someone who speaks his mind and lets the chips fall where they may.
"Now you know why I'm an artist," he said finally. "I wouldn't have put up with that for 10 seconds."
China Photos via Getty Images
A composite photo shows the progress of the lunar eclipse on Tuesday, as seen
Most Americans didn't get a chance to see the year's first total lunar eclipse back in March - but we were in a much better position for the year's second lunar eclipse, taking place in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
For many on the East Coast, the moon faded away just when the show was getting good, with totality beginning at 5:52 a.m. ET. The timing was somewhat better for the West Coast, where the eclipse played out during the middle of the night. But folks who were outside the prime eclipse zone, or frustrated by cloudy skies, could still get a taste of totality by tuning in real-time Webcasts from around the world. And if you slept through the whole eclipse, never fear: You can still catch the highlights online.
The University of North Dakota has done eclipse Webcasts for years, and this time they set up their telescopes on the roof of the physics building at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
"We were worried at first," UND physics professor Tim Young told me Monday. "On Sunday, it was raining and cloudy, and the forecast didn't look good. But today it looks like the sun is going to come through. The forecast looks partly cloudy, which is good. Sometimes that actually looks pretty cool."
The Webcast did look pretty cool - and it's safe to say that thousands flocked to see the eclipse online. Young's team also offered a chatroom where virtual viewers around the world can register their reactions and ask for help if necessary. "People from European countries, from Japan and Asia, type in to see how it's going," Young said. "It's really fun to see how many people are watching the Webcast simultaneously."
Some chatroom visitors typed in their observations as they watched in person. "It's rust red invisible," one said.
For others, seeing the Webcast was the only way to experience the eclipse. "Thank you for traveling to bring this eclipse to us on the Web," read one comment. "It's awesome to watch."
Elsewhere, Discovery Channel Australia streamed the eclipse and offered a live chat with Springbrook Research Observatory's Andre Clayden. I couldn't get into the chat during the peak hour - the virtual room was too crowded. The Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Ga., also scheduled a Webcast, but I didn't get much of a view there. It turned out the best view was right from my front porch.
Total lunar eclipses are much easier to observe than total solar eclipses, which can be seen only for a few minutes from a narrow track of territory. In contrast, Tuesday's lunar totality was visible from a wide swath of Earth for almost an hour and a half.
"It's the longest lunar eclipse in seven years, mainly just because it goes right through the main part of [Earth's] shadow," Young told me. "There's some indication that it might be more colorful, too. ... Supposedly it's going to be redder than usual."
That prediction turned out to be correct: From my vantage point, the eclipsed moon looked like a dim Japanese lantern, hanging in the sky. The reddish glow results when Earth's atmosphere refracts the faint light of countless sunrises and sunsets onto the lunar disk, as explained in this archived article. It was quite a sight - and quite different from the new-moon phase we see every month.
If you missed seeing the eclipse in real time, either in person or on the Web, you can check out this time-lapse video of the partial phase. Young promises to make an archived video available via UND's Web site. The Mount Wilson Observatory provided some nice snapshots of the red moon as seen from its Towercam. And even while the eclipse was going on, imagery started flowing in to SpaceWeather.com. (For comparison's sake, here's a gallery of images from the March eclipse.)
In the days and weeks ahead, keep looking up in the sky, and on the Web as well. Tuesday's eclipse was part of a string of skywatching highlights - starting with the Perseid meteor shower earlier this month, and continuing with Saturday's Aurigid meteor shower as well as Sept. 11's partial solar eclipse.
It's been exactly a year since the International Astronomical Union busted Pluto down a rank, from one of the solar system's nine major planets to one of potentially thousands of dwarf planets. Scientifically speaking, the debate over planethood for Pluto (and other denizens of deep space) will go on for years. But when it's time to buy that glow-in-the-dark planetary mobile, you're increasingly likely to get eight planets, plus an explanation.
If Alan Stern has his way, the makers of toy planets shouldn't be too quick to toss out their Pluto mold. Stern, one of the underdog planet's biggest proponents, is the principal investigator for NASA's Pluto-bound New Horizons probe as well as NASA's associate administrator for space science.
NASA / ESA / JHUAPL / SwRI
|A Hubble photo shows Pluto with its largest moon,
Charon, as well as two moonlets, Nix and Hydra.
Stern thinks the scientific tide has actually turned in favor of Pluto's planethood over the past year: "Many people just refuse to use the IAU definition," he told me this week. "Although a lot of teachers think the IAU [decision] is a done deal, people are slowly coming to realize, 'Not so fast.'"
Even at the time that the definition of planethood was hammered out in Prague, the IAU faced a storm of criticism over some of the clauses in that definition - for example, the rule that a planet had to have "cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." That definition could conceivably allow someone to argue that Jupiter wasn't a planet, due to the asteroid belt or even perhaps the Oort cloud.
"It's like saying a cow is not a cow unless it's on a particular kind of ranch," Stern said.
The planethood debate arose in the first place because some of the worlds discovered on the solar system's icy edge were close to or even exceeded Pluto's size. That forced astronomers to choose between adding to the list of planets and subtracting from it. The IAU chose subtraction - but others have different ideas. Stern even noted that some experts have referred to Ceres, the biggest object in the asteroid belt, as a planet. Maybe there should be 12 planets rather than just eight or nine.
The fact that some scientific societies still haven't settled on the IAU's definition could leave the door open for Pluto's comeback.
Even if the "dwarf planet" designation sticks, Pluto still might hold its historical place of prominence - or at least that's Stern's hope. "A dwarf planet is still a planet, just like miniature dogs are still dogs, and dwarf people are still people," he said.
The IAU's defenders would agree that nothing about Pluto itself has changed, and that the plucky little world is still worthy of attention. It's not so much a question of Pluto, but of the pigeonhole you put it in. If you have only so much space in the pigeonhole, and only so much time to devote to the solar system in the classroom, where do you draw the line?
When you look at the issue that way, Pluto's chances for lingering on as the ninth planet aren't that great. Sure, you can still find the nine-planet set at most toy stores, but that might last only until the new stock comes in, said Carl Benoit, editorial director for Illinois-based Learning Resources, which sells educational supplies, toys and games.
"From what I've seen, it's eight planets - and then they will talk about Pluto being a dwarf planet," he told me today.
Anton Skorucak, chief executive officer for PhysLink, another online science store and Web portal, said he's seen mixed reaction to Pluto's demotion.
"Some still specifically want products that do have Pluto in the planets, particularly the older clientele," he told me. "A lot of people are buying products that still have Pluto left over because of the collectible value, because in five years or so, the products that have Pluto in them will probably be priced higher. It's very interesting."
The changeover from nine to eight planets depends on the product cycle: Web sites, for example, can change at the drop of a hat. Wikipedia already recognizes eight planets and at least three dwarf planets, including Eris and Ceres as well as Pluto. The widely respected "Nine Planets" Web site has had its logo virtually spray-painted with the number 8, and although it's accessible via nineplanets.org, you can also get to it through eightplanets.org.
When it comes to physical products, it's easier to change a planetary poster or place mat than a solar-system planetarium kit with more than two dozen parts. Skorucak admits that people sometimes ask for a solar-system poster that has Pluto as a planet. "But it's too late - the manufacturer has already changed its stock," he said.
San Francisco-based Great Explorations currently sells a nine-planet set as well as an eight-planet set, but program manager Amy Rosen said the company hasn't heard strong feedback either way. "I don't think consumers think about whether there are eight or nine in the box," she said. "They just take what's available."
Most companies, like most scientists and educators, see Pluto's predicament as a teachable moment. "We do have several games and mobiles and puzzle pieces that have Pluto in there, but we're just using the opportunity to teach that things change in science, and that this is one of those times when Pluto has been declassified from a planet to a dwarf planet," Benoit said.
Maybe it's not so bad being a dwarf planet - considering that they'll be having their day in the sun in the years ahead. Next month, NASA is scheduled to launch the Dawn spacecraft toward Ceres and its smaller sister in the asteroid belt, Vesta. Then there's New Horizons, which is due to fly by Pluto and Charon in 2015 and perhaps see other icy worlds as well.
New Horizons famously flew past Jupiter earlier this year, and since then the spacecraft has covered half the distance between Jupiter's orbit and Saturn's, Stern said. The craft is due to go through a course correction next month and run through some instrument calibrations before going back to sleep.
As it makes its way into the outer solar system, New Horizons will periodically wake up to make observations - for instance, measuring the solar wind and taking pictures of Pluto ahead. "There are a half-dozen things that we're doing, and we're always on the lookout for something we can get relatively close to," Stern said. "If something pops up in our path, we're going to go after it."
Stern admitted that it can be hard to keep the public interested in a mission that will take nine years to reach its main destination. To humanize New Horizons' progress, Stern came up with the idea of selecting five kids who were born on the day New Horizons was launched - Jan. 19, 2006 - as well as five more who turned 10 on that date.
The first group of "Pluto Pals" made their Web debut this month, and the 10-year-olds (who have by now turned 11) will be selected this fall. The New Horizons Web site will check in on the kids annually through 2016 to find out how they're doing, and compare their milestones with those of the spacecraft.
Will the debate over eight vs. nine planets still be simmering when those Pluto Pal infants turn 10? Or will we instead be wondering how to classify hundreds of planetoids around distant stars as well as our own? Stern trusts that the scientific debate will eventually settle on the right answer - about Pluto, and about the worlds to come.
"Things that don't work fall by the wayside," he said. "Things that do work are the ones that we keep."
Today you can see the night sky from your computer, using the newly announced Google Sky or a more traditional gallery like HubbleSite. But that's just one small step toward hacking the sky for yourself. Internet-based ventures such as Slooh and Global Rent-a-Scope let you operate a real live telescope and take pictures by remote control.
Once you start pointing and clicking your way through astronomical imagery online, it's not such a giant leap to point and shoot your own pictures - taking advantage of globe-girdling network connections and remote-controlled telescopes set up under wide-open skies.
Professional researchers have conducted remote observations that way for years, and now amateurs are getting into the act, said Tierney O'Dea, Slooh's chief operating officer. Slooh has set up two telescopes on the Canary Islands, and lets its 40,000 subscribers look in on the view via an online console. Slooh's users can even take turns operating the equipment and snapping digital photos.
"It's always been a challenge to us to transmit this idea to people, that this is how the professionals do astronomy," O'Dea told me today. "People understand the notion of Google Earth, and Google Sky will help convey that idea of how you can experience the night sky with your computer. If they want to take the next step, [and say] 'I'm going to explore the night sky for myself,' Slooh is the place to go."
|A screenshot of Slooh's computer interface shows an
observation of the Whirlpool Galaxy.
Because of the telescopes' Canary Islands location, the nightly observations get started as early as 2 p.m. ET, and a real-time science show goes over the network "pretty much every night" at 9 p.m. ET, O'Dea said. A chat interface lets observers who are logged into the telescope at the same time talk amongst themselves and conduct joint observations.
"We program it like a really narrow-niche cable channel," O'Dea said. "We have the commentary, and we have the live views."
The Slooh community is on the lookout for scientific discoveries as well as pretty pictures: As an example, O'Dea touted Slooh's supernova search team, which she said counts a "soccer mom" and an Iraq War veteran among its members.
By October, Slooh is due to expand its coverage to the southern sky, thanks to a new telescope being put up in Chile - and eventually the venture aims to have dark skies available around the clock, O'Dea said.
Global Rent-a-Scope already has 24/7 night-sky coverage, thanks to its lineup of remote-controlled telescopes in New Mexico, Israel and Australia. The pictures typically look sharper as well - compare this Slooh view of the Eagle Nebula (a.k.a. the Pillars of Creation) with this one from Rent-a-Scope. But there is a cost difference: A yearlong subscription to Slooh costs $99, while the pricing for Rent-a-Scope time ranges from $37.20 to $145 an hour.
"For educational or occasional use for the family, Slooh will be your best bet. For more serious (and expensive) work for your own personal enjoyment, then Rent-a-Scope is your pick," amateur astronomer Charles Piazza wrote in a January review.
Another option for institutional users is offered by iBisque at New Mexico Skies. This venture makes time available at New Mexico Skies' telescope farm in blocks of 100 hours for $5,000, billable monthly. Or you can have your very own remote-controlled telescope year-round for $36,000.
The area has become quite the hot spot for telescope tourists as well as remote-control rigs. You can actually stay at New Mexico Skies and gaze at the cosmos to your heart's content through a 14-inch or 16-inch scope, at prices starting at $640 for a two-night stay. Or you can head over to the Sacramento Mountains Astronomy Park and set up your own observatory.
Among New Mexico Skies' institutional clients is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which runs an educational program for teachers and students. For the past decade, the NOAO has brought middle-school and high-school teachers to Kitt Peak in Arizona for hands-on telescope training - and after the training sessions, the teachers and their students can operate one of the New Mexico facility's telescopes by remote control.
Steven Croft, an astronomer and science education specialist at the NOAO, said folks around his office have already been discussing the potential impact of Google's new venture. "We were just hoping and wishing that Google Sky would get people interested and looking a little bit further into some of the programs that we're doing," he told me today.
Next month there could well be another upswing in interest: On Sept. 19, PBS is scheduled to air a documentary about stargazing titled "Seeing in the Dark," and as a follow-up to the show, yet another telescope at New Mexico Skies will be made available for student observations.
The goal is to make the thrill of astronomy available to kids, even in places where the stars can no longer be seen from the backyard. Come to think of it, that goes for grown-ups, too. After all, not everyone can drive dozens of miles out of town to find a patch of dark sky, or afford the five-figure price of a totally tricked-out telescope.
"It's a 'green' solution," Slooh's O'Dea said. "We have one telescope that thousands of people can share, and you don't have to drive anywhere to see the sights."
Does the future of energy lie in fuel cells? You might think so, based on what chemists have cooked up for this week's annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. One team has come out with a pellet system that could open the way for safe and easy hydrogen-based fuel, while another has developed a battery-scale fuel-cell system that capitalizes on, um, the microbes in a cow's guts. Such technologies could provide less smelly alternatives to the poop-fueled systems that are already belching out power today.
Pellets are often proposed as the best way to distribute hydrogen for use in next-generation fuel-cell cars like the ones being developed by GM. The hydrogen isn't an energy source per se, but rather a carrier of energy generated from other sources, ranging from natural gas (not so good) to wind (better) to microbial waste processing (best).
When it comes to distribution, the trick is to come up with pellets that can pack a lot of hydrogen inside. Purdue researchers recently unveiled a system that could extract hydrogen from water using aluminum pellets, but they acknowledged that the raw materials for the system were too expensive to compete in today's economy.
Researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are pursuing a different approach, with compressed pellets of ammonia borane that are about the size of aspirin tablets. It would take just two pellets to store the equivalent of a liter (61 cubic inches) of hydrogen gas - and after the hydrogen is released in a fuel-cell system, the pellets can be reprocessed for reuse.
The lab says the pellet fuel system could take up less space and weigh less than systems using pressurized hydrogen gas - potentially resulting in fuel-cell cars that are comparable to today's gasoline-powered cars in room, range and performance. Now the researchers are working on ways to regulate the release of hydrogen from the pellets, so that accelerating would be as easy as stepping on a gas pedal.
"With this new understanding and our improved methods in working with ammonia borane, we're making positive strides in developing a viable storage medium to provide reliable, environmentally friendly hydrogen power generation for future transportation needs," Dave Heldenbrant, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said in Tuesday's news release.
Hydrogen storage is just one challenge facing future fuel cells. The cost of the materials that go into building the cells themselves is another. Today's fuel-cell engines require expensive catalysts that often incorporate platinum, one of the world's priciest metals. However, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory are experimenting with less expensive ruthenium-based catalysts. As noted in this week's news release, ruthenium costs just 1 percent as much as platinum.
Now, about those cows: The idea of generating electricity from the methane in cow manure isn't exactly new, and some farmers have even experimented with extracting hydrogen from the methane for fuel cells.
Researchers at Ohio State University have been experimenting with a different kind of cow power for fuel cells: microbe-rich fluid extracted from the largest chamber of a cow's stomach, known as the rumen. The microbes in the fluid can be harnessed to produce an electric current as they break down cellulose in a specially designed biofuel cell.
The scientists collected the fluid from a living cow's stomach via a surgically implanted tube. The fluid was then mixed with cellulose in one chamber of the cell, and an oxidizing agent called potassium ferricyanide was put in the other chamber. As the cellulose was digested, the microbial brew released electrons that flowed from one chamber to the other, setting up a circuit.
The system generates a tiny amount of power - enough to put the shine into a miniature light bulb on a Christmas tree, said Ann Christy, an associate professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State. The key is to make the system smaller and more efficient, so that tiny fuel cells can take on bigger and bigger jobs.
Ohio State's researchers have already come a long way: The latest biofuel cells are only about a fourth the size of the cells developed two years ago, but generate three times the power, said researcher Hamid Rismani-Yazdi. Each cell measures about 2 inches wide and 3 inches in height and length - somewhere between the size of a D-cell battery and a 6-volt lantern battery. Two of the cells are enough to recharge one AA-size battery, the research team reported.
Rismani-Yazdi said he adds fresh cellulose to the cells every two days or so. The amount varies, depending on how quickly power is drained from the cells.
"But the power output of these fuel cells is sustainable indefinitely as long as we keep feeding the bacteria with cellulose," Christy said in Tuesday's news release. "We ran these cells for three months."
And the kind of cellulose digested by the bacteria can be harvested from crop waste, wastepaper or wood - the sorts of things that even cows leave behind.
Will Ohio State's biofuel cells - plus other renewable-energy technologies ranging from cellulosic ethanol to microbial fuel factories - add up to enough to avert a future energy crisis? Or does the energy frontier offer more hype than hope? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Now you too can be a space shuttle tile inspector. A new collection of shuttle imagery, offered through our portal to Space World, lets you click through the detailed pictures of the shuttle Endeavour's underbelly that were taken 10 days ago from the international space station. NASA analysts will be making an even closer inspection of the imagery, as well as photos taken after landing, to decide what needs to be done for future missions.
The NASA pictures are woven together into a three-dimensional mosaic using Microsoft's Photosynth software - and you'll have to download a plug-in to navigate through the collection, as we explained a couple of weeks ago. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
The first picture in the collection shows the much-talked-about gouge in Endeavour's tiles as a whitish chink in the armor, toward the lower left corner of the frame. You can zoom in on the chink for a closer look, or scan through the surrounding images to get a sense of scale. One thing you'll quickly find is that the gouge is not the only damage done: There are other chinks downwind, which NASA's experts decided were not serious enough to worry about.
If you're not in the mood to download another software plug-in, you can still compare NASA's ultra-high-resolution views from orbit and from the landing strip. The post-landing view is so sharp you can spot the gap fillers wedged between the surrounding tiles.
The damage, which was traced to foam insulation flying off the shuttle tank's fuel-line brackets, signals that NASA still hasn't fully solved the debris problem that led to the demise of the shuttle Columbia and its crew four years ago. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged that the problem may not be fully solved even by the time the shuttle fleet is due for retirement in 2010. "We'll still expect to see things come off," he told reporters.
But NASA's aim is to reduce the flying foam to such a degree that it can never pose a threat to the crew or the spaceship - and Gerstenmaier contended that the agency is close to that point. Agency officials have told NBC News that the shuttle's fuel tank can be modified once again to reduce the risk from the fuel-line brackets, in time for the next launch window in October. Whether or not NASA can make that schedule, it's clear that flyaway foam has once again become the top issue hanging over the shuttle program.
Here are a couple of other bits of unfinished business relating to Endeavour's mission:
"We call on NASA to fly the three remaining educator astronauts as soon as possible and to give them more time to teach lessons from space," foundation chairman Bob Werb said today in a news release. "After flying, they should return to the classroom, alongside the astronaut teachers we will be creating."
|Simulation crew member Ryan Kobrick flashes a thumbs-up sign outside the Mars
Society's habitat in the Canadian Arctic as a 100-day expedition winds down.
The Mars Society's 100-day simulation of an expedition to the Red Planet is wrapping up in the Canadian Arctic - and although some have scoffed at the exercise as little more than grown-ups "pretending to be space explorers," a prominent NASA researcher who participated in the effort says the crew has done groundbreaking research.
"The work that this crew has done will contribute to studies of Mars and to studies of the response of permafrost on Earth to global warming," Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center, who was in charge of the mission's remote science operation, said in a report marking Tuesday's official end of the simulation. "Their pioneering simulation of crew operations on Mars time is by far the best work on this topic ever done. It sets the standard for future Mars mission simulations such as the proposed European Space Agency 500-day mission."
Mars Society President Robert Zubrin even argues that, in some ways, the 100 days spent at work in the Arctic are worth more than the 500 days that will likely be spent sitting around an isolation chamber in Russia.
"What we have been doing is opening up a new field of research," Zubrin told me today. "We're researching extraterrestrial exploration. Not the planet, but we're researching the exploration process itself."
The aim of the simulation was to put people to the test as they lived and worked under conditions that were made as Marslike as possible. The locale was Devon Island in the Canadian North, a cold, dry place that bears an eerie resemblance to the Red Planet. When the crew members ventured outside "in sim," they had to don faux spacesuits - not really to test the spacesuits themselves, but to test how humans cope with wearing all that bulk every time they step out the door.
During their workday, the crew members surveyed their surroundings, riding all-terrain vehicles for simulated rounds of extravehicular activity, or EVAs. At night, they'd take shelter in a habitat designed for life on Mars, digesting the scientific observations they made (as well as the meals they cooked for each other). For more than a month, they even adjusted their sleep cycle to obey the Martian clock, which adds 39 minutes to every 24-hour Earth day.
Three-month mission simulations have been conducted before, at NASA's Johnson Space Center and Russia's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, and those experiments occasionally highlighted the dark side of long-term crew isolation - phenomena well-known to longtime "Survivor" or "Big Brother" reality-TV fans.
But Zubrin said the 100-day Arctic simulation went a step beyond those experiments, by putting the crew members through the same types of stresses they would face during a Mars surface mission. "Not with a group in a chamber in isolation in a hangar in Moscow or JSC, but with an active team out in the field," he said. "If the crew is not doing work, the study is of little value."
Zubrin said this year's sim reinforced many of the lessons learned from past years:
Crew member Ryan Kobrick seconded the view that the team cohesiveness was a big factor behind the simulation's success. I asked him via e-mail whether the experience was more like the "Big Brother" TV series or the "Mission to Mars" movie, and here's his response from the Arctic:
"This was nothing like 'Big Brother,' we were mostly on our own and their were very few conflicts... well, pretty much none. I could punch someone for you for a story :-) Just joking, my crewmembers are like family... sometimes they get on my nerves, but I love them anyway. As for 'Mission to Mars,' we didn't quite have that level of support, but the group that did volunteer their time this summer to be our remote team were very helpful."
To mark the end of this year's simulation, the Mars Society crew members will take part in a teleconference with space station astronaut Clay Anderson, then head down to the society's annual convention in Los Angeles to present their preliminary findings. But Zubrin says this won't be the end of the Mars analog experiments.
The Mars Society sims have already branched out to the Utah desert. Meanwhile, the NASA-supported Haughton Mars Project only recently wrapped up its own field season in the Canadian Arctic - and will soon start looking ahead to next year.
In the future, the stakes in the sim game could get much higher, Zubrin said.
"When we actually send crews to Mars, the way the crew should be selected is that we'll have three high-fidelity research stations in the Arctic," he said. "Ask each crew to do a practice mission like this for a year. We'll see which one holds together best as a team, and that's the team you send to Mars."
Now that's the kind of show that could turn into must-see reality TV. What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.
The Slashdot set is buzzing over a new experiment that seems to indicate light can move faster than … um, the speed of light. The fact that the last statement sounds so strange hints at the bizarre caveats that surround such experiments, and mainstream scientists have argued for years that the phenomena really don't break Einstein's rules of the relativistic road. At the same time, they admit that the results are pretty darn weird. And weirder experiments are on their way.
The latest controversy focuses on research conducted by physicists Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen of the University of Koblenz in Germany. They set up an apparatus using microwaves and two prisms to look for a phenomenon called quantum tunneling - basically, a phenomenon in which a particle can sneak through places where it's not supposed to go and pop up on the other side.
The outcome is described in their research paper and summarized in a New Scientist report. First the two prisms were set against each other with a small gap between them. When the microwaves were sent through the apparatus, most of the signal was reflected internally by the first prism - but some of the signal tunneled through the gap and went through the second prism.
Nimtz and Stahlhofen found that the reflected signal and its quantum-tunneling doppelgänger arrived at their respective photodetectors at the same time. That led them to the conclusion that, in effect, the tunneling photons bridged the gap between the prisms instantly, violating the 186,000-mile-per-second speed limit laid out in the special theory of relativity.
"This is the only violation that I know of," Nimtz is quoted as saying.
The research hasn't appeared in a publication yet. In fact, the online version was just submitted for review a couple of weeks ago. But it's already drawn plenty of comments in the geek world, from A (for Ars Technica) to Z (for ZDNet).
"Unfortunately, the claim is worse than weak; it is silly," Chris Lee writes on Ars Technica.
Others are more cautious in their criticism, but the bottom line is that physics can play tricks when you use quantum phenomena to look for loopholes in relativity. Over the past several years, Nimtz has taken aim at this subject multiple times, and he hasn't convincingly hit the bull's-eye yet.
A seemingly faster-than-light effect can arise from the way a signal is shifted as it travels through different media. The crest of a wave in one medium may become a valley in another medium, and the valley may become a crest. It may look as if that crest has zipped ahead faster than the speed of light - but in actuality, it's just the same old wave with its shape shifted.
We delved into this explanation more fully four years ago and revisited the subject specifically with regard to Nimtz's research in a follow-up. The phenomenon of quantum tunneling makes the latest results even fuzzier, figuratively and literally. To learn more about how physicists play fast and loose with faster-than-light experiments, check out this entry from the Physics FAQ and this discussion of group velocity on the MathPages.
When it comes to assessing the latest faster-than-light research, I particularly like the down-to-earth explanation that New Scientist was given by Aephraim Steinberg, a quantum optics expert at the University of Toronto:
"Steinberg explains Nimtz and Stahlhofen's observations by way of analogy with a 20-car bullet train departing Chicago for New York. The stopwatch starts when the centre of the train leaves the station, but the train leaves cars behind at each stop. So when the train arrives in New York, now comprising only two cars, the centre has moved ahead, although the train itself hasn't exceeded its reported speed.
"'If you're standing at the two stations, looking at your watch, it seems to you these people have broken the speed limit,' Steinberg says. 'They've got there faster than they should have, but it just happens that the only ones you see arrive are in the front car. So they had that head start, but they were never travelling especially fast.'"
Speaking of Cramer, I figured this was a good day to check in on the progress of his own weird quantum experiment. Cramer has been gearing up to test whether causality can go backward in time, thanks to quantum entanglement.
The last time I checked, Cramer was hoping to wrap up his laser-and-mirrors experiment by Sept. 15, because the apparatus he was working with was supposed to be dismantled by that time to make room for the next occupant. "Probably that was optimistic," he told me today. He isn't even finished assembling the rig for doing the entanglement test.
Fortunately, the deadline pressure has gone away because Cramer has found alternate lab space at the university. "Last week we successfully moved the laser and the rest of the equipment two doors down," Cramer said. He no longer worries about having to move just when the experiment is reaching its retrocausational climax.
"I feel a lot more relieved," the physicist told me.
Will Cramer's experiment turn up fantastic new twists at the intersection of quantum mechanics and relativity? Will it spark a fuzzy controversy, like the debate over seemingly faster-than-light communication? Or will it simply fizzle? Cramer doesn't know if his experiment will result in new physics - but he's anxious to find out.
"There are things that can move faster than light, but signals don't seem to be among them," Cramer said. "Unless our experiment works."
Update for 8:40 p.m. ET Aug. 17: The debate over causality would seem quite peculiar to some of the characters in Kurt Vonnegut's classic, "Slaughterhouse-Five." On one level, the book is a semiautobiographical novel about the 1945 firebombing of Dresden and the outrages of war. On another level, it's a science-fiction story about the nature of time and Tralfamadorian timelessness. And on an even deeper level, it's a philosophical meditation on the human condition, with all its wonders and horrors.
That makes it a perfect selection for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club, our mostly monthly offering of books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to become available at public libraries and used-book shops. In fact, "Slaughterhouse-Five" has been around long enough to become available as an audio book and a movie on DVD. But it's still a particularly timely selection, due to the current debate over the war on Iraq as well as Vonnegut's recent passing.
Judith Moore suggested "Slaughterhouse-Five" in response to last month's CLUB Club offerings, and as a reward I'm sending her a copy of "Rocketeers," Michael Belfiore's just-published book about the private-sector space race. Do you have a nomination for future CLUB Club selections? Leave your suggestion as a comment below, and you might just earn a book as well.
Update for 8:50 p.m. ET Jan. 9, 2008: For an update on Cramer's experiment, check out this progress report.
|This artist's conception shows a Galactic Suite hotel serviced by a space shuttle.
Executives at 4Frontiers say the final designs may be dramatically different.
Can a Spanish-led venture really put a luxury space hotel in orbit by 2012? No way, says a Florida firm that has served as a consultant to the Galactic Suite venture. But if you look beyond 2015, the job just might be doable, representatives of 4Frontiers Corp. say.
Barcelona-based Galactic Suite made a splash last week when a Reuters article quoted the venture's director, Xavier Claramunt, as saying he expected to put up the world's first space hotel in 2012. Tourists would undergo training in a James Bondish space camp, then fly up for a three-day, $4 million stay on a private space station, according to Reuters.
The Reuters article, which provided much of the raw material for our own report on the Galactic Suite concept, said an American company intent on colonizing Mars had "come on board" for the project.
That company happens to be 4Frontiers, a space commerce company that was founded two years ago in New Port Richey, Fla. The company is trying to work its way into a variety of projects - ranging from consultation on space settlement issues, to curriculum development for elementary- and middle-school science classes, to space-themed entertainment and space-branded gifts and accessories.
Mark Homnick, the chief executive officer and co-founder of 4Frontiers, told me this week that Galactic Suite hired his firm "as a consultant to provide strategic business planning insights," and to turn the venture's artwork into "components that are adaptable into current space hardware."
Homnick quickly brought the high-flown claims in the Reuters report back down to Earth. For example, he noted that Bigelow Aerospace is planning to launch a habitable Sundancer space module in 2010 or earlier. If Bigelow is able to follow that timeline, Sundancer could be considered the world's first space hotel (unless you regard the international space station as a glorified tourist destination).
Galactic Suite would certainly not be in the orbital business in 2012, primarily because there wouldn't be a reliable way to get tourists up there in the numbers required, Homnick said.
"We do expect somewhat improved orbital access to be available for tourism in that time frame ... but the amount of folks who can go up there will be pretty limited," he said. "Why would we put an orbital resort there that no one can reach?"
Homnick said he's guessing that the required launch capability won't be available until 2015 or later. And he said 4Frontiers has already begun making contacts with the companies that might be providing those capabilities in the years ahead.
"I believe that the response to the Galactic Suite orbital resort concept is going to be an early indicator for the success of other initiatives," he said.
So is Galactic Suite for real after all? That's hard to judge, even for 4Frontiers. Homnick emphasized that his company has not yet decided what its relationship with Galactic Suite will be over the long term. "We're going through a due-diligence process," Homnick said. "This is pretty early on."
He declined to discuss what he knew about Galactic Suite's finances - for example, the claim in the Reuters report that the venture already has found a space enthusiast willing to front "most of the $3 billion needed to build the hotel."
"I hate to say 'no comment,' but unfortunately we don't have much leeway" due to legal restrictions on what can be publicly discussed, Homnick said.
In any case, it appears that the venture is intriguing enough to engage the interest of someone who draws upon more than two decades of hard-core business experience at AT&T and Intel. Homnick says the fact that he and his 4Frontiers colleagues are still talking with the folks at Galactic Suite should count for something.
"Obviously, we wouldn't have gone with them and wouldn't have spent a lot of time with them unless we were interested in them as a client," he said.
There's a "giggle factor" that surrounds any venture that talks about building cities in space, or mining asteroids, or colonizing another planet. That goes for 4Frontiers as well as for Galactic Suite. But Homnick and his colleagues are willing to start with the smaller steps here on Earth - like the Crazy4Mars Web site, for instance - and have faith that the giggles will eventually die away.
"Certainly this is speculative," Homnick said. "Certainly the orbital resort is challenging in itself. It's quite speculative. But still, it's the kind of thing that we have to start talking about."
Courtesy of Jerry Ehman / BigEar.org
|The code "6EQUJ5" indicates a radio signal detected in 1977 at the Big Ear Radio
Observatory in Ohio - a signal so strong that astronomer Jerry Ehman wrote "Wow!"
Exactly 30 years ago today, astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking over a printout of radio data from Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio Observatory when he saw a string of code so remarkable that he had to circle it and scribble "Wow!" in the margin. The printout recorded an anomalous signal so strong that it had to come from an extraordinary source.
Was it a burst of human-made interference? Or an alien broadcast from the stars? No one knows. The source of the "Wow" signal has never been heard from again - even though astronomers have looked for it dozens of times.
Now the SETI Institute is gearing up to look for it one more time, using the latest tool for seeking signals from extraterrestrial civilizations: the Allen Telescope Array in California.
The array combines observations from dozens of separate 20-foot-wide (6-meter-wide) radio dishes to produce an instrument that will eventually become more sensitive than the world's largest single-dish telescope, the Arecibo Observatory.
"Once the Allen Telescope Array is up and running, and that should be later this year, there's going to be a small project in which we'll look at the same section where the 'Wow' signal was detected, and of course the same spot on the radio dial," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told me today.
Although that area of the sky has been searched dozens of times before, the Allen Telescope Array will bring more sensitivity and wider spectral coverage to the quest, Shostak said.
The renewed search came as welcome news to Ehman, the man behind the "Wow."
"Back in 1977, of course, the computers weren't very powerful," he told me. "Nowadays, if you have the money, you can get excellent receivers, filter banks, computers - you can do much more now than you could in 1977."
But he cautioned that the search could well come up empty again.
"With the Big Ear Radio Telescope, we stayed on that same strip of sky for close to two months and didn't see anything," he said. "A few years later, we looked at that same area of sky and didn't see anything. That was frustrating."
After the single radio burst was detected, astronomers tried to track down a terrestrial cause. But they could find no glitch in the system, and no source that could have explained the strength and the frequency of the seconds-long signal. Since then, the "Wow" signal has stood as one of the central enigmas for alien-hunters, inspiring a scene in "The X-Files."
"The 'Wow' signal is the best evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence," says one character, who refers to Ehman as "my buddy."
Ehman said aliens weren't the first thing that came to his mind when he saw the Big Ear data and wrote his famous word.
"The 'Wow' was just an instantaneous response in writing," he said. "I had no expectations, other than 'here's something extremely interesting - and gee, let's try to find out what it is, or what it isn't.'"
Ehman recently updated his own report on the "Wow" signal for the 30th anniversary, but the report's conclusion hasn't changed over all this time.
"It's still an open question what the source of the signal was," he told me. "We just don't have enough information to determine that. ... We just can't draw any conclusion other than it still allows for the possibility that it was a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization."
Over the past three decades, signal searchers have developed strategies for dealing with "Wow"-type anomalies, Shostak said. For example, if an interesting signal happens to be on a precisely tuned frequency like 14.2700000 MHz, Shostak said it's safe to assume that "some earthly engineer" is responsible (unless E.T. also uses a decimal counting system and measures time in earthly seconds).
If astronomers pick up an interesting signal from one point in the sky, they'll shift their telescope's focus to aim at a different spot. If the signal doesn't go away, the astronomers assume that terrestrial interference is affecting the observations.
That kind of reality check will be much easier to do with the Allen Telescope Array, Shostak said. "You can very quickly switch the telescope to 'point' in a different direction without physically moving the antenna," he said.
For these reasons, the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence hasn't produced a fresh crop of "Wow" signals, although every once in a while there's a false alarm that sets Shostak's heart racing.
It could well be that the "Wow" signal will remain in a class by itself for millennia to come: never repeated, but never eliminated as a potential alien transmission. I can easily imagine that a civilization might send out a one-shot broadcast rather than a continuous stream of signals. After all, that's what we did.
In 1974, scientists at the Arecibo Observatory sent a coded signal in the direction of the globular star cluster M13 for three minutes - and then just stopped. "It was really just a demo," Shostak said. It will take 25,000 years for the signal to reach M13, but once it arrives, the Arecibo signal might be as enigmatic for the aliens as the "Wow" signal is for us.
"If there is somebody on the other end, they're going to call it the 'Zork' signal, or whatever you want to call it," Shostak said. "They may puzzle over that for years."