Astronaut Greg Chamitoff brought a chessboard to the international space station.
NASA's orbiting chess player is getting ready for the biggest move since his epic "Earth vs. space" match began: the move back down to Earth.
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff, who has been living and working on the international space station for the past six months, is coming home this weekend with the space shuttle Endeavour's crew.
One of the things Chamitoff brought up to the station with him was a homemade, Velcro-equipped chessboard, suitable for zero-G play. He started off playing a series of games with mission controllers - and in late September he began his biggest match yet, against chess team members from Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash.
"Black is ahead by a pawn," said Hal Bogner, director for the match, which was organized by the federation in cooperation with NASA. "But white has more mobility and is further along in bringing pieces out."
Elliott Neff, who is coaching the kids, said it's a good thing for Chamitoff that Earth's moves are being chosen by Internet voting rather than strictly by Stevenson Elementary's finest. "That's what evens things out for Greg," he said. (Neff, a self-taught chess master, has helped the Stevenson team win national titles and thus may be justified in dishing out a little trash talk.)
Everyone acknowledges that the game is just getting to the good part. Which raises the question: What happens to the Earth vs. space match when the player from outer space is back on Earth?
"He'll finish out the match even while he's on the ground," Neff said.
Bogner said managing the Earth vs. space match has been a logistical challenge, especially because Chamitoff has so few leisure hours for playing games. (It's currently his move, by the way.) "It was a scramble just to get going," Bogner said. "Now that he'll be back on the ground, there'll be more communication and it'll probably be getting more regular."
Bogner estimated that the game would run through the winter, while Chamitoff recuperates from his stint in space. "And who knows, maybe into the spring," he added. By then, Chamitoff may be up to traveling on the publicity circuit - and finally meeting his opponents face to face.
"Our hope is to set up an event with him and the schoolchildren he's been playing sometime in the spring," NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier told me.
Neff said the high-profile chess match has been a lot of fun for the Stevenson team. "Being chosen to play against an astronaut has been an exciting event for them," he said. "It just opens up their world, really."
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff talks about chess in an Oct. 1 YouTube video.
Chamitoff also has been tickled by the experience.
"I think chess is a great game for stimulating young minds for analytical thinking, which is so important in all aspects of life, but especially math, science and engineering," he told the kids in an online video, "all the things that make the space station possible and our way of life possible."
Which raises the question: Will the Earth vs. space chess games continue once Chamitoff is back on the ground?
Based on a Mission Control conversation monitored on Sunday, the space station's crew might be setting the zero-G chessboard aside, at least for a while. Spacecraft communicator Terry Virts told space station commander Mike Fincke that with Chamitoff gone, "we won't be playing chess anymore."
"Maybe we can get a game of Pictionary going," Virts said.
"That's true," Fincke replied. "That's a little bit more my style."
Update for 2:25 p.m. ET Nov. 27: Here are some comments from Heather Rarick, the flight director at NASA's Mission Control who has been playing a key role in coordinating Chamitoff's chess adventure:
"Although we were not able to finish the matches before Greg leaves space station, we are all looking forward to doing so maybe in person. There has been a lot of interest in his chess matches, especially the Earth vs. space game. It's really been fun and also a bit challenging to play a game like this. Being involved in these games adds a personal dimension that makes our jobs even better. I know Greg likes playing, and he says he thinks about the games during his off time. We'll see him soon, and I do hope at least one of the Earth teams can win!"
Any goodies that the winner doesn't want will be offered to the second-place finisher, and so on. I just might add some goodies to sweeten the pot for the also-rans.
If this sounds familiar, that's because we did something similar a couple of years ago for our holiday geek gift guide. (The winner was the nuclear-powered spinthariscope toy.) To get yourself in the holiday mood, I'm serving up a load o' links - starting with the gift guides from previous years:
Ranks of robots, recommended by Robot Living and Robot Snob. Robots.net is due to post its gift roundup next month, but you can check out the 2007 list for starters. WowWee has brought out a whole new line of toy robots for the holiday season, headlined by the three-wheeled, remote-controlled Tri-Bot. The only downside is that it sounds as if WowWee's robots are getting harder to hack.
But enough of stealing ideas from other bloggers: Now it's time to steal ideas from you. Please feel free to add your suggestions and mini-reviews below, but make sure your comments are short and insightful. Brevity is the soul of wit, and a little bit of both will earn you extra points in this contest.
The quest is in its latter days at Fermilab in Illinois, and Europe's Large Hadron Collider is due to begin the quest next year - that is, after scientists spend a winter of discontent repairing the damage done shortly after the LHC's startup.
The LHC looms as an off-stage character throughout the film - in fact, one scene shows a digital countdown clock at Fermilab, ticking down toward the LHC's scheduled turn-on. Will America's Fermilab find the Higgs before Europe's collider enters the chase? Will shrinking budgets in Washington cut Fermilab's run short?
These are a couple of the themes driving the plot along in "The Atom Smashers." But the real drama comes from the scientists whose personal stories surface in the film, including:
Ben Kilminster, the spiky-haired rock singer and physicist who is just at the beginning of his career (as a physicist, that is, not a rock star).
Marcela Carena, the accomplished, Argentine-born theoretical physicist who hsa found a way to balance family and physics at Fermilab.
Leon Lederman, the Nobel-winning sage who literally wrote the book on the God Particle. (The film includes a time-warp pairing of contemporary interview footage with Lederman's appearance on the "Donahue" talk show almost 30 years ago.)
John Conway and Robin Erbacher, husband-and-wife physicists at the University of California at Davis who have to juggle a sometimes-long-distance relationship as well as the hopes and disappointments of discovery.
The film's directors, Clayton Brown and Monica Ross, said they tried to shoot a different kind of science documentary, in which the scientists were true-to-life characters instead of mere talking heads.
"The scientists express their fears and their hopes, which is something you rarely see scientists do," Brown explained. "We rarely see them frustrated or disappointed, or wonder whether this is the time to have a kid."
Conway and Erbacher, as a matter of fact, did end up having a kid: Ian Robert Conway Erbacher, born June 25. They also became something of a movie sensation, at least after the film's September premiere at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
"It's certainly the first time I've been asked for my autograph," Conway told me last week in a speakerphone interview.
"Rock star physicist," Erbacher chimed in.
"It's the first time a film has made physics look as cool as we think it is," Conway added.
It's not all coolness, however: While the documentary was being filmed, Conway's research team had their hopes built up by a "bump" in the Tevatron data that might have hinted at a detection of the Higgs boson - only to find that the bump went away when more data came in. The disappointment can be read in Conway's face toward the end of the movie.
Since then, Conway and the rest of the team at the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, have taken some consolation from what he called a "pretty striking result" that revealed a mysterious excess production of muons. Erbacher, meanwhile, is excited about a bump in her own top-quark data that she said could point to a "heavy quarklike object or something that is completely unexpected."
"It certainly makes continuing to work on the Tevatron exciting while we wait for the LHC," she told me.
Watch PBS' trailer for "The Atom Smashers."
The key to making discoveries with a collider that's not exactly cutting-edge anymore is to make smarter use of the data you get. That's been the prime focus for physicist Ben Kilminster (who still rocks on with his band, the Drug Sniffing Dogs).
"In the last four months or so, we've been able to improve the sensitivity for each of the main Higgs analyses by 15 percent," Kilminster told me today.
"We're basically looking everywhere, looking an all corners, and trying to pull out as many Higgs events as we can," he explained. It's like being able to buy more tickets for a scientific lottery, with detection of the God Particle as the grand prize.
Hedging their bets The scientists at Fermilab know that it'll only be a couple of years before their operation closes down - giving way to a brand-new lottery at the Large Hadron Collider. To get in on that action, Kilminster as well as Conway and Erbacher have joined the huge international team behind the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the LHC's particle experiments.
"In the movie, there was a lot of us-vs.-them, United States physics vs. European physics," Kilminster observed. "In practice, there are a lot of American physicists on the European experiments, and European physicists on the American experiments."
The LHC's post-startup problems have shown why it's smart to play both sides of the table.
"Many physicists are rethinking how they want to spend the next year or so. ... We have a really good shot at finding the Higgs boson in the next two years or so," Kilminster said - with "we" meaning Fermilab in this case.
Conway agreed that the delay at the LHC could be a "game-changer," if Fermilab's scientists are truly close to finding the Higgs. "I wish I could say we were sitting on something momentous, but I can't," Conway said.
Erbacher compared the Higgs search to investigative journalism: You don't want to publish the big story before you're absolutely sure it's solid, but you don't want to wait too long, either. "The game here is not to get scooped," she said.
Fears over funding And then there's the tension over whether there'll be enough support from the bean-counters to go out and get that scoop. "The Atom Smashers" chronicles the disappointment that followed the cancellation of Fermilab's BTeV experiment in 2005, and the insecurity over funding persists to this day.
"People are pretty scared," Erbacher said. "We haven't seen it this bad for a long time."
With President-elect Barack Obama coming into office, Conway and Erbacher are hoping that Fermilab will avoid damaging budget cutbacks. As senator, Obama played a role in easing last year's budget cuts in high-energy physics research, in large part because Fermilab is located in the state he represented. And Obama as well as congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have been saying the right things about support for science.
"We're hoping that between the Congress and the administration, they will not let this die," Erbacher said.
Riding the roller coaster Brown and Ross, the directors behind "The Atom Smashers," said one of their goals was to chronicle the ups and downs of a scientist's life.
"For every bit of good news, they get some bad funding news," Ross said. "That sort of roller coaster is their life, and I think that's what's in the film."
The film also touches on the theme of American competitiveness in science and technology - and, of course, it explains the workings of particle colliders and the quirks behind the quarks, using some charming blackboard-style animations. But you don't need to be a science geek to get into the movie. If you can keep up with "The Big Bang Theory," you can keep up with "The Atom Smashers."
"What we strove to do, and what I think we arrived at, was to have the film work with as much or as little of the science as you want," he said. "The science plays a role in the story - even if you don't understand what it is."
Click for video: Barack Obama may have to give up his BlackBerry phone, but his administration will have other high-tech tools at its disposal. Watch Savannah Guthrie's report for "NBC Nightly News."
After a historic presidential election, the tech-savvy campaigners who helped put Barack Obama in the White House say the nation is in for an equally historic four years of tech-savvy governance.
The way the Obama campaign used blogs, texting, social networking and other Web 2.0 tools to win this month's election is just "the tip of the iceberg," said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the political advocacy group NDN.
Those tools are quickly being adapted for the transition to the Obama administration: A new Web site for the president-elect, Change.gov, made its debut on the day after the election, offering supporters an outlet for their suggestions and stories as well as their resumes. In the two weeks since then, the transition team says more than 200,000 job applications have flooded in.
Obama's weekly video address, which premiered last Saturday as the response to President Bush's weekly radio address, also hints at the shape of things to come.
Barack Obama addresses the nation in a YouTube video released Nov. 15.
Rosenberg said it will be common for government agencies to host videos and blogs (as the Transportation Security Administration does already).
"You're going to see competition at the weekly Cabinet meeting between the DHS secretary and the HHS secretary over who had more views on their YouTube video, and who had more comments on their blog," he said.
Global Webcasting of presidential addresses and press briefings - perhaps translated into multiple languages - is likely to become routine. That policy could well filter down to other governmental agencies and even other governments, Rosenberg said.
He pointed to the example of David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, who stars in a series of "Webcameron" videos that touch upon his party's policies as well as his personal life. "You can watch videos of him washing dishes in his sink," Rosenberg said.
Ironically, President Obama himself will be much less connected to everyday networks than Candidate Obama was. For example, it looks as if he'll have to put his BlackBerry aside in order to comply with federal security and recordkeeping requirements. That's the sensible thing to do. For cautionary tales, you need look no further than this week's report that Verizon Wireless employees sneaked a peek at Obama's cell-phone records ... or, for that matter, the royal flap that arose over Prince Charles' intercepted cell-phone calls.
But whether or not Obama uses a BlackBerry or a laptop in the Oval Office really isn't the key issue. The more important question has to do with how Obama's White House operation will use Web 2.0 tools to follow up on his campaign's technological successes.
"This is the first time that we've had a social movement behind a president as he comes into office," said Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots Nation. Working through tech-savvy aides, Obama could enlist that movement to help push his agenda forward.
"It's going to be remarkable to see what happens when there are members of Congress or groups that get in the way of this incredible machine as he tries to pass his 100-days agenda," Rosenberg said in a Nov. 7 video postmortem on the election.
NDN's Simon Rosenberg assesses campaign technology on Nov. 7.
Obama's online army For now, Obama's new-media experts are catching their breath, reflecting on what they've done over the past 21 months and starting to think about what their next steps will be.
Scott Goodstein, who served as external online director at Obama for America, was in charge of attracting millions of social networkers to the cause via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other gathering places in cyberspace. "I was very lucky and fortunate to have a campaign that was willing to take the time and opportunity to recognize the power of viral communication and more information about these social networks," he told me.
Goodstein said the secret of success lay in taking advantage of the networking tools already being used by a rapidly increasing proportion of the population: computers, cell phones and other mobile devices. "Usually, campaigns are 10 or 15 years behind other consumer trends," he said.
For instance, one of the tools devised for the campaign was a downloadable application that could turn an iPhone into a hand-held political operative. "We were able to organize people's address books based on who their friends were in battleground states," Goodstein said. The campaign could also send out messages tailored to different geographic areas.
Such tools helped Obama and his aides build up and manage a record-shattering network: The Washington Post quotes campaign sources as saying that their e-mail list contained upwards of 13 million addresses. Two million people created profiles on MyBarackObama, the campaign's social networking site, and a million people signed up for text messaging. Volunteers made millions of phone calls on Obama's behalf through an Internet-based "virtual phone bank." More than 3 million supporters contributed nearly $650 million to the campaign, with more than $500 million of that raised online.
Figures like those could lead you to think that the magic is in the technology alone, but Goodstein insisted that this year's success was due to the message as well as the multimedia. "The tools are an additional channel for organizing, but the message and the campaign and the excitement around Senator Obama are really why people wanted to come together," he said.
Now that the campaign is over, the campaigners are either joining the transition, or taking on other causes - or, like Goodstein, taking a break. Obama's top political organizers are reportedly meeting in Chicago to consider where to go from here. (Which brings to mind the question asked by Robert Redford's character at the end of "The Candidate," a classic political flick: "What do we do now?")
What will the army want to do? Just this week, campaign manager David Plouffe sent out an online survey to the Obama faithful, asking whether and how they would like to stay involved in the movement. "Would you like to continue to volunteer in your community as part of an Obama organization?" the survey asked. Among the choices: promoting Obama's legislative initiatives, working for like-minded candidates or training volunteers "in the organizing techniques we used to elect Barack."
"I saw that as a pretty direct 'ask,' saying, 'Now that the election is over, who's really interested in staying involved?'" Brooks said.
Rosenberg said the volunteer army that emerges from the process will be a formidable asset. "Even if they spend 20 or 30 hours a year that they would not have spent otherwise, that becomes transformative when it's multiplied by millions," he said.
What will that army want to do? This week, Change.gov as well as MyBarackObama (which are separate operations, in accordance with federal law) pointed people to a volunteer organization that's coping with California's wildfires - but Brooks doubts that Obama's operation will serve merely as a switchboard for other people's causes.
"Whatever organization gets formed out of this is going to own it," he said. "I don't really see them saying, 'Go out and sign up at the Sierra Club,' or anything like that."
Governance by Web site Some foot soldiers in the Obama organizing effort are taking the "what next" question into their own hands - and setting up Web sites to help answer the question. "Fix This, Barack" lets online users suggest priorities and vote them up or down. ObamaCTO does something similar, as does WhiteHouse2.
Jim Gilliam, a veteran of left-leaning Brave New Films, told me he set up WhiteHouse2 as a model of what he'd like the real White House Web site to look like. "It seemed so simple," he said. "All you would need to do is add comments."
The priority-setting site is continually being fleshed out with more features ... including comments. "I hope that people will use it to organize, and that's what will give it critical mass and get people engaged," he said. He resists suggestions that the site is weighted toward left-wing or progressive causes. In fact, one of the top issues on WhiteHouse2's list is establishment of the Fair Tax system, due to a campaign pushed by conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz.
"Being able to find common ground on these things is very much what Obama is about, actually," Gilliam said. He's looking forward to seeing how the future president's agenda will move the needle one way or the other after Inauguration Day.
"People who are coming here are definitely saying, 'We're going to change the world,'" he said.
Connecting from the bottom up The world has already been changing inside the Beltway, said Steve Ressler, founder of the GovLoop social-networking Web site. Ressler's venture has been called a "Facebook for state and federal government employees," but the site's connections don't stop at the U.S. border. GovLoop's 2,800 users include Army personnel in Germany as well as government workers in New Zealand, Ressler said.
Ressler pointed to online ventures such as Intellipedia (an online forum reserved for the intelligence community) and Apps for Democracy (a contest set up by the District of Columbia's government) as evidence that government officials are already willing to experiment. And he said GovLoop's users are looking forward to more.
"With these new Web 2.0 tools you can start connecting from the bottom up," Ressler told me.
But what happens if the bottom-up network disagrees with the top-down guidance? We already saw a bit of that during the debate over whether or not Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who endorsed GOP candidate John McCain, should have been allowed back among the Democratic fold. The decision to let bygones be bygones sparked some dissension in the Netroots ranks this week.
Once Obama is in charge, Web 2.0 tools could be used to hold him accountable for his campaign promises, truly bringing a bottom-up approach to governance, Brooks said. "This is a unique point in our history where the average citizen is able to do that," he said.
The future of politics By the time 2012 rolls around, the political frontier just might have moved on to, say, Web 3.0. Remember that iPhone app? Video e-mail alerts and mobile-phone fund-raising may well become routine by the time Obama runs again. That could eventually become a turnoff for some folks - just as political TV ads can be a turnoff today.
"The problem with e-mail, and to some extent with social networking, is the amount of clutter and the amount of spam," Goodstein said. "That, with time, will change. But for right now, it's effective, efficient and inexpensive, and that is a pretty good recipe."
Rosenberg, who admits he's an optimist about such things, focuses on the bright side: Can high-tech politics change the world? Not just the country, but the world?
"Today, about half the world has mobile phones, and in the life of Obama's presidency, the majority of people in the world will have a phone with video capability," he said. "It will mean that the ability of the president to speak not only to the citizens of the United States, but the citizens of the world, will be unprecedented in history."
Update for 2:25 p.m. ET Nov. 21: In the weeks ahead, you can look forward to some new twists in the Obama transition team's Web site - and almost certainly in the White House's Web site as well. That's the word from Thomas Gensemer, managing partner for Blue State Digital, the company that created the Web sites for the Obama campaign as well as Change.gov.
Gensemer passed along these gems in an interview this morning, conducted by phone just as he was about to return from the opening of Blue State's London office:
Gensemer told me that one of the keys to keeping people engaged after the election will be to recognize their efforts. That's why Change.gov asked visitors to share their stories and suggestions with the transition team. But what will happen to all those submissions? Are they just piling up on a hard drive somewhere? "I would say, 'Wait! It's been [only] two weeks,'" Gensemer answered. "Those are likely to be packaged and proudly displayed in the days to come."
He expects to see significant upgrades in the WhiteHouse.gov site once Obama takes office. "The bar is quite low for a White House program," he observed. Change.gov is designed to serve as a "temporary thing," bridging the gap between election and inauguration. So does Change.gov just go away on Jan. 20? Not likely. "The URL is so good that they'll find some good things to do with it," Gensemer said.
During the campaign, MyBarackObama helped channel the tremendous enthusiasm that surrounded Obama's campaign. "Now the challenge is to keep it alive for both the administration and for the ongoing campaigning efforts," Gensemer said. Wait ... didn't the campaign just end? "I think 2010 has already started, and even 2012 for the Republicans," he said.
Web 2.0 tools have revolutionized politics, but the end result should not be just to have people sitting in front of their computers, watching YouTube videos. "The real heart of the program is when the online world meets the offline world, " Gensemer said. That meant making a contribution ... or making plans for a neighborhood party ... or making phone calls as part of Obama's formidable virtual phone bank. On the back end, Web 2.0 can track how strategies are working in real time. "All the metrics fall out of your e-mail ... and how people behave with the Web property," Gensemer said.
The online Obama campaign was a watershed, but Gensemer said the lessons learned can be (and will be) applied to less momentous campaigns as well. "Campaigning has been changed," he said. The secret of success isn't contained in fancy gizmos, however. "It's less about where the technology is going," Gensemer said. "It's more about how all these people have been trained. For the first time in many of those people's lives, they felt like their volunteerism in the campaign mattered."
Update for 3:20 p.m. ET Nov. 24: Newsweek's story on the wired White House says the transition team is considering setting up a nonprofit organization that would buy the address/phone/e-mail lists of Obama campaign supporters. "The nonprofit would serve as a conduit, letting the administration maintain indirect contact with supporters," Newsweek reports.
Update for 5:30 p.m. ET Dec. 2: It turns out that the State Department has been blogging for weeks on Dipnote, and there's even a Dipnote Twitter feed.
To learn more about the technology of politics, check out Personal Democracy Forum's TechPresident blog. You also might enjoy Ariana Huffington's interview with Google CEO (and Obama adviser) Eric Schmidt on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. Many thanks to Aaron Oesterle, a.k.a. Ferris Valyn, for his insights into the Netroots movement. As always, feel free to add your comments below.
The galaxy NGC 1569 sparkles with the light from millions of newborn stars in an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Click on the image for larger versions.
Long ago, astronomers spotted a galaxy far away and wondered why it was giving birth to so many stars. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, they have finally figured out the answer to the puzzle: The starburst galaxy turns out to be farther away than they thought.
Rather than being all by its lonesome, just 7 million light-years away, the starburst galaxy NGC 1569 is stuck in the middle of crowded galactic cluster nearly 11 million light-years away. The resulting gravitational interactions are probably squeezing the galaxy's gas so much that it's been forming stars at a rate more than 100 times faster than our own Milky Way ... for the past 100 million years or so.
"This was the strongest starburst galaxy in the nearby universe," Alessandra Aloisi, an astronomer at the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute and the European Space Agency, told me today. "It was really puzzling why it was forming stars at such a high rate. It wasn't fitting in with current theories."
Aloisi and some of her colleagues have been studying NGC 1569 for about 20 years, and they enlisted Hubble's cameras to help crack the case. For the key phase of the study, they were allotted 19 full orbits of Hubble's time, which translated into almost 19 hours' worth of observations. "I can tell you it's very hard to get such a big proposal approved," Aloisi said.
At first, the astronomers tried looking for a special kind of red giant star that fuses helium in its core to produce power. These stars are relatively dim, but if you can spot them, you can use them to estimate a galaxy's age.
"When we found no obvious trace of them, we suspected that the galaxy was farther away than originally believed," Aaron Grocholski, a colleague of Aloisi's at the institute and the lead author of a paper on the galaxy, said today in a news release. "We could only see the brightest red giant stars, but we were able to use these stars to recalibrate the galaxy's distance."
Such stars can serve as "standard candles" to correlate brightness with distance. But it takes a lot of telescope time to get the precise measurements that are required. Ground-based telescopes produced the earlier, closer estimates for the galaxy's distance - but only Hubble was able to resolve the individual red giant stars in NGC 1569 and determine that the galaxy was much more distant.
"Nobody before had thought that galaxy was much farther away," Aloisi said.
She and her colleagues had wondered what sort of mechanism could produce such a high rate of starbirth in an isolated galaxy. But the new distance estimate put the galaxy in close proximity to about 10 other galaxies, and it is well-known that the gravitational interactions between galaxies could be a powerful engine for star formation.
"Now that we know the galaxy is in a cluster, that makes much more sense," Aloisi said.
The astronomers' observations were made in 1999 using Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and in 2006 and 2007 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Results were published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. In addition to Aloisi and Grocholski, the co-authors included Marco Sirianni of ESA and the Space Telescope Science Institute, or STScI; Jennifer Mack and Roeland van der Marel of STScI; Luca Angeretti, Donatella Romano and Monica Tosi of Italy's Astronomical Observatory of Bologna; and Francesca Annibali, Laura Greggio and Enrico Held of the Astronomical Observatory of Padua.
Correction for 11:19 p.m. ET:Ugh, I typed "billion" instead of "million" in the original version of this item. The galaxy isn't that far away. The fix has been made, so sorry about this stupid kind of mistake (which has happened before). Thanks to all who pointed out the error of my ways.
After more than a decade of tinkering, NASA has successfully conducted the first deep-space test of a communication protocol that could serve as the foundation of an interplanetary Internet.
To mark the occasion, NASA team leader Adrian Hooke provided an e-mail reply to a message I wrote him back in 1999, asking when the interplanetary Internet would be deployed. He wrote, "I think that we just made it .... ;-)"
The fact that Hooke saved my nine-year-old e-mail message hints at how doggedly he and his colleagues have pursued the goal of creating a networking system suitable for deep-space missions.
Today, NASA's information superhighway to outer space flows through one major gateway - the Deep Space Network - to a host of space probes, scattered all the way out from Earth orbit to the edge of the solar system. As those probes proliferate, the Deep Space Network has to keep up with an increasingly complex communications schedule.
Hooke's team has been developing new networking tools to cope with the increasing load and the usual glitches and time delays that space missions have to weather. Those tools include a communication protocol known as DTN (which stands for Delay-Tolerant Networking or, more recently, Disruption-Tolerant Networking).
An Internet tough enough for space The four-decade-old protocols that rule the Internet, known as the TCP/IP communications suite, are designed to work over a continuous end-to-end connection between the various parts of the network. That isn't well-suited for Earth-to-Mars communications, where the delay between sending a message and having it received can run as long as 20 minutes. And that's assuming that the antennas on both sides of the signal are working.
DTN is designed to accommodate a store-and-forward system, with built-in smarts. If one link in a communication chain is broken, a robot on Mars could decide for itself the next-best way to get its data back to Earth.
"By making the best use of the contacts you've got, you can smooth out the load on the network, and avoid having the network just loitering on one spacecraft," said Hooke, who is manager of space-networking architecture, technology and standards at NASA Headquarters.
For years, engineers on Hooke's team have been working with other network experts to wring the bugs out of DTN, through a series of earthly pilot projects. Hooke said the protocol has been used by Laplanders herding reindeer on snowmobiles, as well as cell-phone users on the bleeding edges of their coverage areas. It's even being deployed by the Pentagon for battlefield communications.
"There's quite a community now, the happy band of delay-tolerant networkers," Hooke told me.
Last summer, the UK-DMC satellite used the protocol to send sensor data down from Earth orbit to a British ground station and onward to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio. That set the stage for October's monthlong deep-space test, involving NASA's Epoxi spacecraft.
"We have finally got the resources and the momentum up to take our own technology back and start putting it into space," Hooke said.
Simulated Mars missions Epoxi used to be known as the Deep Impact spacecraft. After it flew past Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, the craft was recommissioned for a new mission, including a fly-by of Comet Hartley 2 in 2010. Right now, it's 20 million miles from Earth.
Using the DTN protocol, NASA bounced image data between Earth and Epoxi several times via the Deep Space Network. The network knit together 10 nodes, including Epoxi and several computer servers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California that masqueraded as Red Planet probes.
"We have one computer which pretends to be a camera on Phobos [one of Mars' moons], and we have another one pretending to be on Mars," Hooke said.
Epoxi was chosen for the test because the spacecraft's architecture was well-suited for uploading the new communication protocols, Hooke said. "We got the first images on the 20th, and since then we've been running about two passes a week," he said.
Some of the people involved in developing the deep-space Internet also played a role in building the very first Internet - and the first image transmitted as part of the DTN experiment paid tribute to those pioneers: It was a reproduction of a hand-drawn diagram of the original four-node Arpanet, sketched in 1969 by Steve Crocker, who is one of the Internet's founding fathers as well as a participant in the DTN effort.
The second image was a photograph of another networking pioneer, the late J.C.R. Licklider. Licklider's concept of a "Galactic Network" was an inspiration for the present-day Internet as well as the interplanetary Internet, Hooke said.
Among those who have been working on the new protocol is Vinton Cerf, another Internet founding father who is currently a vice president at Google. Cerf continues to be "very hands-on" in his involvement, Hooke said: "I've been in almost daily contact with him for the whole decade."
Next steps Hooke said he was surprised to see that the protocol worked as well as it did for automatically routing data back and forth. "In the space community, that goes a long way toward persuading mission managers to put it on their spacecraft," he said.
The next step would be to install the software on the international space station, creating a permanent DTN node in Earth orbit. "These flight demonstrations are really important, because they show the thing working in a real mission environment," Hooke said.
It's hard to predict exactly when DTN will be needed for deep-space communications. Over the past decade, the "mission density" hasn't been heavy enough to require networks built to tolerate significant disruptions, Hooke said. But that time will come someday. Hooke just hopes that DTN will be fully tested and standardized by the time NASA starts building up networks of landers, orbiters and sensors, all talking amongst themselves.
"With Mars, we've already seen point-to-point-to-point archtecture," he noted, referring to the use of NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as relay satellites for Phoenix Mars Lander. "As you put stuff on the surface that could be networked itself, if you do everything by stitching together links, you end up with a horrible operations problem."
By the time astronauts make humanity's next giant leap, they may well be getting their e-mail via a dot-space address.
"The moon and Mars are probably the primary targets," Hooke said.
Those of us stuck here on Earth, meanwhile, can look forward to a brave new world (video from space!) ... or a brand-new nightmare (spam from space!). Will the interplanetary Internet be any better or worse than today's international Internet? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Biblical archaeologist Ron Tappy examines the Tel Zayit abecedary, a 2,900- year-old alphabet stone that suggests King Solomon was a real historical figure. Tappy's findings figure in "The Bible's Buried Secrets," a PBS documentary.
"The Bible's Buried Secrets," premiering tonight on PBS, presents archaeological findings that will annoy believers as well as skeptics - which suggests the TV documentary just might be on the right track.
At least that's the view of William Dever, a world-renowned archaeologist who worked on the show and calls it "the first honest film that's been made" about the first books of the Bible. For Jews, those books make up the Torah and other early scriptures, while Christians would call them the early part of the Old Testament.
The two-hour show has already stirred up a backlash among some believers. For example, the program airs archaeologists' assertions that:
The Bible's first books have been traced back to multiple authors writing over a span of centuries.
There's no evidence for the actual existence of patriarchs such as the biblical Abraham.
Some ancient adherents of Yahweh also worshiped his "wife," a fertility goddess named Asherah.
The Exodus appears to have involved just a small segment of the Jewish population rather than all Jews.
The Land of Canaan was not taken over by conquest - rather, the Israelites actually might have been Canaanites who migrated into the highlands and created a new identity for themselves. "Joshua really didn't fight the Battle of Jericho," Dever said.
That kind of talk has spurred the American Family Association to start up an online petition urging Congress to cut off federal funding for PBS. But Dever maintains that it's not a biblical archaeologist's job to demonstrate the truth of biblical stories, despite the many TV specials of the past about the real Christmas story, the lost tomb of Jesus and other claims.
"Archaeology certainly doesn't prove literal readings of the Bible," he told me. "It calls them into question, and that's what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible. No archaeologist thinks so."
David and the disbelievers Disbelievers may be discomfited as well: "The Bible's Buried Secrets" includes a segment highlighting the work of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary's Ron Tappy, who is part of a team studying an inscription at Israel's Tel Zayit archaeological site. The inscription hints that a well-organized state was functioning in the 10th century B.C., with Jerusalem as its seat.
Yet another inscription at Tel Dan, from the ninth century B.C., appears to refer to the "House of David" - although that interpretation is disputed. Such evidence suggests that King David and King Solomon were historical figures who matched up with the biblical accounts.
Dever said still more evidence may be coming to light with the discovery of a ceramic shard inscribed with Hebrew writing from the 10th century B.C. The shard was found amid the ruins of a fortified settlement south of Jerusalem, and the inscription appears to include words meaning "judge," "slave" and "king."
"That's dynamite," Dever said, "because if there's a small fortress where people were able to keep records, on the way to Jerusalem, there's a king up there. I don't care if you name him Solomon or Fred, it doesn't matter to me."
The way Dever sees it, "The Bible's Buried Secrets" plays it straight down the middle, and that may raise unsettling questions for literalists as well as those who see the Bible as a collection of fairy tales.
"The film's going to get it from both sides," Dever said.
Reality check for the reality check Dever would be expected to feel that way, since he's so closely associated with the film. But Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, agreed that there's nothing shocking in "The Bible's Buried Secrets" - that is, if you've been following the field closely.
"When you know a lot about something, it always appears that the media make mistakes," Shanks told me. "The scholarly experts can find emphases that they would disagree with. Biblical archaeology is a field that is riven [by such disagreements]. But overall, I think it's a fine production. It is very basic, for people who don't know much about it."
Those who believe in the literal truth of every word in the Bible aren't going to be happy, he said. "There's a question of what it means to be 'literally true,'" Shanks said, "whether you're talking about spiritually, or in terms of the lessons being taught, or whether you're talking about factual historicity."
Sometimes it's a matter of emphasis - for example, in the debate over how many Israelites (or would those be Canaanites?) took part in the Exodus, versus how many were in Canaan to start with. "If I were saying it, I would put more emphasis on the crew that did come from Egypt," Shanks said. "Nobody who deals with the Bible critically would say that there were 2 million or 3 million people moving across the desert. But that doesn't matter. We're talking about a group. How large, we don't know."
Once those sojourners arrived in the land of Canaan, it would be "perfectly normal and understandable" for other Canaanites to head into the highlands where the crew from Egypt had settled, Shanks said.
Debating the evidence, or lack thereof That doesn't mean archaeologists are fully in agreement: For example, Dever and Anson Rainey, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, have long been locked in a big argument over the Israelites' origins. (You can read Rainey's latest volley in Biblical Archaeology Review.) But Shanks said believers shouldn't feel threatened - even though some of the claims in the show may seem to equate the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.
"Anybody who says that Abraham never existed has no archaeological proof for that," Shanks said. "That's a matter of faith and an understanding of the way stories developed. But if someone wants to say we have no proof that Abraham existed, that's true."
You could even argue that it wouldn't make much of a difference even if every Bible story were proven true. In fact, that's exactly the argument made in Luke 16. You can also find biblical evidence to back up claims from "The Bible's Buried Secrets" that may seem controversial at first blush - for example, the claims about goddess worship among the Jews.
The fact that PBS is setting aside two hours of prime time to focus on the Bible's early books demonstrates that those ancient texts can still stir the soul - and stir the blood as well. The film's writer, director and producer, Gary Glassman, said that's why he spent the past six years raising money for the documentary, and the past two years making it.
"The testament to the fact that the Bible has great ideas in it," Glassman told me, "is that we're still wrangling over it today."
Update for 12:45 p.m. ET Nov. 19: In case you missed the program, or even if you just want to see it again, the entire show has been posted online at the PBS Web site, broken up into 13 video "chapters."
Leonid meteors flash over Jordan in 2002. Click on the image for more about meteors.
Remember the Leonids? Seven years ago, the November meteor shower was one of the year's biggest skywatching events. This morning's sky show, in contrast, was hardly heralded at all - but maybe it should have been.
If you were in just the right place (say, Europe or the Middle East) at just the right time (before dawn), you could have seen what one observer called a "fantastic outburst."
Even if you missed the fireworks this time around, don't worry: There will be more opportunities to enjoy the night sky's delights over the next month.
The Leonids hit their peak every year around Nov. 17 - and the meteors made a particularly big splash in the 1999-2002 time frame, because that was when Earth's orbit passed right through some of the heaviest streams of dusty debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle.
Meteors are created when that debris zips through the upper atmosphere, leaving behind ionized trails or even more spectacular fireballs. The year's major meteor displays are named after the constellations from which the shooting stars seem to emanate. For the Leonids, that's the constellation Leo.
The Leonid meteor shower is notorious for its sharp rise and fall, and high numbers of flashes occur only when Earth is heading right into the oncoming stream of cosmic grit. This year, the peak was projected to occur during prime time for Europe and the Middle East - which meant North Americans were doomed to miss the best of the show.
Even in the prime viewing area, the glare from a just-past-full moon washed out some of the Leonids' sparkle. Nevertheless, astronomers predicted that there would be a brighter-than-average peak visible early today - and based on accounts posted to the Meteorobs mailing list, those astronomers were right on the money.
Is that it for this year's Leonids? Actually, some astronomers say they expect to see a second peak at about 4:38 p.m. ET Tuesday. That's not great timing for North American observers. Nevertheless, it still might be worth casting your eyes heavenward during the wee hours of the morning, if you go in for this sort of thing.
If you're serious about seeing shooting stars, you'll want to review the top 10 tips I provided for the 2007 Perseid meteor shower. And even if you're not in the mood to stay up past midnight, there's plenty to see up above:
Tonight, Sky & Telescope highlights the view of Venus in western skies after sunset, with Jupiter glittering nearby.
If you're still missing those meteors after all that, put a big red circle on the calendar around Dec. 13. That's the peak date for the Geminids, one of the year's most reliable meteor showers. Lunar glare will get in the way once again, but there are ways to minimize the moon's effect: During the early-morning hours, try to find a way to keep the moon behind you - preferably behind a building or other obstruction. We'll have more viewing tips as the peak draws closer.
Click for video: Learn more about NASA's moon plans and National Geographic's "Direct From the Moon" documentary.
Even as NASA works to put the finishing touches on the international space station, it's laying the groundwork for the next giant leap. But is that leap heading in the right direction? Some prominent space advocates are calling for NASA to reduce its emphasis on returning to the moon. Other countries, however, have the moon clearly in their sights.
It will be up to the Obama administration to decide what kinds of course changes might be required in America's space vision, and a member of the transition team told me today that "the process is under way."
NASA Watch reported that the lead players in NASA's transition are Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who was once in the running to become an "AstroMom" in orbit; and Roderic Young, who served as a top NASA spokesman during the Clinton administration. Garver played a big part in drawing up Hillary Clinton's space policy a year ago, and switched over to the Obama campaign after the primary season.
In a follow-up phone call, Young confirmed the NASA Watch report and told me that he and Garver were just beginning their talks with space agency officials. Substantive policy discussions are not on the agenda right now. "It's high on listening, and offering options," he said.
Shrinking the gap NASA will be offering its own options in a report being prepared for the new administration. During the campaign, Obama as well as GOP candidate John McCain asked the space agency to determine what it would take to narrow what is expected to be a five-year gap between the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2010 and the debut of the shuttle's successor in 2015.
The successor launch system, including the Orion spaceship and its Ares 1 launch vehicle, is currently undergoing design and development under the aegis of NASA's Constellation Program.
On the other side of the gap, the Orion-Ares system could be ready to fly astronauts to the station by 2014, Constellation Program manager Jeff Hanley told NBC News. That could shrink NASA's spaceflight gap to three years.
After today's shuttle launch, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin confirmed that an early debut may be in the cards for Orion and Ares - perhaps starting with the launch of "an unmanned vehicle all the way up to orbit." But he emphasized that there ain't no such thing as a free launch, and declined to discuss the potential options in detail.
"The data's not in yet, and I do not want to prejudice the conclusions that the teams will come up with," Griffin said. Low-cost launch options such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket might help close the gap as well, although those didn't come up for discussion at today's news conference.
Shrinking the gap emerged as a key recommendation in a report on future space policy issued by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The center's top executive, John Podesta, now leads Obama's transition team - and the report could conceivably serve as a preview for changes in the shuttle endgame.
Beyond the shuttle So far, there have been no indications of a shift in NASA's longer-range space vision - which calls for sending astronauts to the moon by 2020, establishing settlements and then moving on toward Mars. But this week, the California-based Planetary Society outlined a revised vision in its own outer-space roadmap for the new administration.
The roadmap urges NASA to put the moon aside for now, and work with international partners to develop the next generation of spaceships. That strategy would spread out the costs of development, the Planetary Society said.
"Human landings should be deferred until after the costs of the new interplanetary transportation system and space shuttle replacement are largely paid, and after that system has been utilized to conduct the first human missions beyond the moon," the report said.
Those beyond-moon missions might go to one of Mars' moons instead, or a near-Earth object. Although the roadmap doesn't rule out establishing a moon base someday, it clearly shifts the focus of the vision from the moon to the Red Planet.
Moon vs. Mars The moon-vs.-Mars debate has been percolating for decades, and it's not clear how much of an impact the Planetary Society's report will have on that debate. The latest roadmap is already receiving some raves as well as raspberriesgalore.
One of the first men to set foot on the moon, Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, largely endorsed the Planetary Society's plan. "U.S. landings on the moon should be deferred so that they can be part of an international base on the moon preparing for the permanent settlement of Mars," he said in a written statement.
But one of the last men to set foot on the moon, Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt (who is also a former U.S. senator), scoffed at the roadmap in a letter that was sent to the Planetary Society's leaders (and shared with Space.com columnist Leonard David).
"This strategy would leave deep-space activities, exploration and resources to others, i.e., China, India, maybe Russia, for the indefinite future," Schmitt wrote. "I believe that would be major step in initiating the decline of America's global influence for freedom and the improvement of the human condition."
The emerging space powers - including China and India as well as Japan - have already decided to target the moon, with robotic as well as eventual human missions. All three of those countries (as well as the European Space Agency) have sentprobessuccessfully to the moon in the past five years - and just today, India reported that its Chandrayaan 1 lunar probe put a piggyback lander on the moon's surface.
If NASA is going to join forces with other countries, as suggested in the roadmap, the global space run's first destination would probably be the same place targeted during the Cold War space race. In fact, NASA has been pursuing international lunar collaborations for a couple of years now.
Unless space agencies around the world are willing to do a quick about-face, the moon will remain the destination for the next giant leap. To paraphrase JFK, the reason for that is not because it is easy, but because it is less hard than blasting off in a completely different direction.
The whole sweep of NASA's exploration effort, from Project Mercury to the Constellation Program, gets a review in two documentaries airing Monday: "One Giant Leap" airs on the Documentary Channel, and "Direct From the Moon" will be on the National Geographic Channel. Check your local listings for availability and times.
Saturn's northern aurora glows bluish-green in this color-coded infrared image. The planet's polar cloud patterns are shown in shades of red. Scientists say that the areas of auroral activity close to the pole shouldn't be there.
Scientists say the northern lights on Saturn are unlike anything they've ever seen, on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system. Infrared imagery from the Cassini orbiter, released today to accompany research published in the journal Nature, only adds to the mystery at the top of the ringed planet.
Saturn's north pole is already home to a bizarre six-sided cyclone that planetary scientists haven't yet figured out. That observation marked the first time a hexagon had been seen in atmospheric patterns. The northern auroral displays, monitored by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, also go against the conventional wisdom.
On Earth and Jupiter, for instance, astronomers are used to seeing auroral arcs or rings of light - which glow when energetic particles stream along a planet's magnetic field and interact with the atmosphere. The auroras on Earth, also known as the northern or southern lights, are sparked by the solar wind. Jupiter's main auroral ring is powered by the planet's own magnetic processes.
Saturn's main auroral ring, like Earth's, is caused by the solar wind. But the newly observed infrared displays go all over the place.
"We've never seen an aurora like this elsewhere," the University of Leicester's Tom Stallard, lead author of the Nature paper, said today in a NASA news release. "It's not just a ring of aurorae like those we've seen at Jupiter or Earth. This one covers an enormous area across the pole. Our current ideas on what forms Saturn's aurorae predict that this region should be empty, so finding such a bright one here is a fantastic surprise."
The northern infrared aurora has been seen to change size and intensity dramatically as the solar wind varies. Occasionally, it fades completely away, over a period of as little as 45 minutes.
"Saturn's unique auroral features are telling us there is something special and unforeseen about this planet's magnetosphere and the way it interacts with the solar wind and the planet's atmosphere," said Nick Achilleos of the University College London, a member of the $3.5 billion Cassini mission's magnetometer team. "Trying to explain its origin will no doubt lead us to physics which uniquely operates in the environment of Saturn."
The center of activity for the teachers' underwater expedition is the Aquarius underwater habitat, 4 miles offshore from Florida's Key Largo and 60 feet beneath the sea surface. In the past, the habitat's "aquanauts" have included researchers studying the marine environment 24/7 as well as NASA astronauts preparing for long-term space missions.
This is the 100th mission for the 15-year-old habitat, which is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. But it's the very first "Teachers Under the Sea" mission for high-school educators.
Miami biology teacher Mark Tohulka is living for 10 days down in the habitat and doing diving expeditions alongside two habitat technicians and three science aquanauts. The aim is to study fish movements at Conch Reef, in order to get a better fix on how much living space should be set aside for species in marine reserves.
Stephen Houwen, a biology teacher from Longmont, Colo., is Tohulka's backup and a member of the surface-based science team on Key Largo.
In addition to helping with the research, the teachers are writing blog postings (the poor guys!) and participating in live Internet broadcasts, Q&As and videoconferences with classrooms. You can dive into all the goodies via the Aquarius home page.
Expedition week coming up
TODAY / NGC / JAXA
Click for video: Learn more about NASA's moon plans and National Geographic's "Direct From the Moon" documentary.
While we're on the subject of expeditions, you will definitely want to tune in to the National Geographic Channel's "Expedition Week" lineup, kicking off Sunday with three shows about ancient Egypt. Other shows in the mega-series will focus on dinosaurs, lost cities, pirates, historical mysteries, the moon and Mars ... the list goes on and on.
A screenshot from Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope shows Jupiter orbiting the sun.
Just as space telescopes are getting better and better, so are the telescopes you can download onto your computer over the Internet. The software packages are becoming more and more like video games, letting you zoom out from Earth to explore a 3-D universe - while keeping the science rock-solid enough for professional astronomers to use.
Microsoft Research has made a splash in the past couple of weeks with the "Autumnal Equinox Beta" release of its WorldWide Telescope. (Microsoft is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.) We reviewed WorldWide Telescope six months ago, and since then, Microsoft has smoothed out some features and added others.
One of the coolest features is a 3-D rendering of the universe that lets you fly away from Earth, out of the solar system and into the stars that surround us. "You understand that the stars aren't just flat spots painted on the dome of the sky," Jonathan Fay, one of the lead developers for the software, told me during a demo this week.
The 3-D views are integrated all the way up from Microsoft's Virtual Earth database to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's map of large-scale structure in the universe. "We just went from looking at Building 99 [the home of Microsoft Research] to a view of about 21 gigaparsecs," Fay said after zooming out to the max. "This basically lets you go anywhere in the universe."
Another feature might go unnoticed unless you know where to look: Since its inception, the WorldWide Telescope has been set up to let users create and share their own "tours" of the sky. Now you can see at least some of the tours as videos at the WorldWide Telescope Web site.
More astrophotographs and 360-degree panoramas have been added to this beta version, including all-around views of the Apollo lunar landing sites. There's a nicer fly-around feature for the solar system, and you can overlay much more imagery - including a gamma-ray view of the universe from the recently launched Fermi space telescope.
Celestia and Digital Universe The hardware requirements for WorldWide Telescope haven't changed much in the past six months, so it'll still be a while before I can run it on my clunky home computer. But Fay said the requirements have been set conservatively. "We'd rather have people surprised that it works than angry that it doesn't work," he said. Although there's no Mac or Linux version, Fay said the software chugs along pretty well on a Macbook running Windows.
"For navigating the solar system and nearby stars, Celestia still rules, though bear in mind that WWT is beta," Geens wrote. "WWT provides the easiest path to getting a sense of the size and the composition of the visible universe (if you have Windows), while for those willing to do the work, PartiView offers the most data and can produce some beautiful results."
Google Sky and Stellarium There are lots of good (and free) virtual telescopes out there, and they're getting better all the time. When it comes to popularity, the leader would have to be Google Sky, which is integrated with the Google Earth viewing software. Google Earth has reportedly been downloaded more than 400 million times, and anyone who has updated the program over the past 14 months got Sky at the same time.
One of the coolest recent innovations is a plug-in that lets you embed Google Earth's 3-D applications into Web pages, said Noel Gorelick, technical lead and manager for Google Sky. "You can actually animate things moving across the sky, and have the Millennium Falcon go from planet to planet," he said.
If you have all the downloads in place on your computer, you can see the plug-in at work in the "USS Voyager Astrometrics Exoplanetary Data Console" on Arizona State University's Web site. The app is a fact-filled catalog of extrasolar planets, enhanced with audio and a hilarious "Star Trek" theme. "Clearly this guy has made it his own," Gorelick said.
"We want to give people tools to go out and be crazy with. ... There are a lot of people who are capable of doing something cool, so let's enable them to do it," he said.
A screen shot shows Stellarium's user interface for astronomical objects.
The open-source Stellarium virtual telescope is adding features as well, starting with a slicker user interface. The latest version should make it easier for additional datasets to be brought into the viewer, said Rob Spearman, one of the project's developers.
He said Stellarium is already being used by the professionals at the European Southern Observatory (which is in the process of taking on a longer name, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere). "Astronomers can do a visual browse of their terabytes of data," Spearman said.
Stellarium is also being used as a planetarium program by about 150 customers around the world. "What the audience is seeing is just Stellarium on a dome," said Spearman, who co-founded Digitalis Education Solutions, a company based in Washington state that sells digital planetarium systems.
Democratizing science Education ... community networking ... and professional-level research: Those are the applications that come up over and over again when you talk to folks who are tweaking their virtual-telescope offerings. One of the common aims is to let space-savvy amateurs work together on astronomical projects - a la Galaxy Zoo, Stardust @ Home and the granddaddy of distributed computing, SETI @ Home.
"What we're doing is encouraging organizations to use the communities to get crowdsourcing into what they do," Microsoft Research's Fay told me.
But Fay and his colleagues are targeting the professionals as well as the amateurs. He said that philosophy goes back to the originator of the WorldWide Telescope concept, the late researcher Jim Gray.
"We're going to try to have a balance between what we do for consumers and what we do for professional astronomers," Fay said. "Usually, it's the death of a product to try to be all things to all people. But for astronomy, the democratization of science that Jim Gray wanted is really important to us."
For evidence that the trickle-down approach to astronomy is working, Fay doesn't have to look any farther than his own family. "Even my 3-year-old sits there by the mouse, and he likes flying through the planets," he told me. "Three years old!"
Stars whirl over the 200-inch Hale Telescope's dome in a time-exposure photo.
Astronomer George Ellery Hale's decades-long drive to build bigger and bigger telescopes is the stuff that operas are made of. The epic brought him in contact with the richest and smartest people of a century ago ... forced him to struggle against petty jealousies and personal demons ... and led him to grand achievements that some thought were impossible.
"The Journey to Palomar," a PBS documentary premiering tonight, touches upon all those operatic elements while keeping its focus squarely on the quest's deeper meaning: In the first half of the 20th century, telescope-building was the biggest science around.
"This was the equivalent of a moonshot in that time period," historian Kevin Starr explains during the 90-minute documentary.
Today, it's hard to imagine throngs of people turning out to watch a train bearing a boxed-up mirror pass by. But that's what happened when a 200-inch-wide, 20-ton glass mirror blank made its way from New York's Corning Glass Works to the California Institute of Technology in 1936 for grinding and polishing.
Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
Dignitaries attend the 1948 dedication of the Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory.
It would be another 11 years before the finished mirror was set into the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar - in part because World War II got in the way.
Hale himself never got the chance to look through the consummate cosmic window he helped create. He died in 1938, a decade before the telescope was finished. That may sound like a tragic ending fit for an opera - but Hale's life was no tragedy. He lived long enough to witness a revolution in astronomy that he helped create.
"The Journey to Palomar," the result of five years of work by Los Angeles filmmakers Todd and Robin Mason, touches on the high points and the low points of Hale's life. The documentary also looks beyond Palomar to tomorrow's mega-telescopes. Here are just a few of the high points and low points from the show:
Hale began his telescope quest in Chicago by persuading one of the shadier tycoons of the 19th century, streetcar developer Charles Yerkes, to back the construction of a 40-inch telescope and observatory that would bear his name. The telescope was the world's largest when the Yerkes Observatory opened in Wisconsin in 1897, getting Yerkes the good press he was hoping for. But "the Goliath of Graft" soon became distracted by business controversies, and Hale moved westward to continue the quest.
California was the scene of Hale's greatest triumphs. He was the motive force behind the telescopes on Mount Wilson, near Los Angeles. Hale himself used Mount Wilson's 60-foot solar telescope to discover the sun's magnetic field. The 60-inch reflector telescope helped astronomer Harlow Shapley figure out where our solar system was located in the Milky Way galaxy. And Edwin Hubble used observations from Mount Wilson's 100-incher to reveal that galaxies were actually rushing away from us in an ever-expanding universe.
Hale didn't move easily from triumph to triumph. He struggled at every turn to find the money for his grand projects, but ultimately enlisted Andrew Carnegie's help for Mount Wilson, as well as John D. Rockefeller's help for Mount Palomar. One of Hale's benefactors, hardware millionaire John Hooker, cut off his support when he became jealous of the astronomer's friendship with his wife.
The problems with Hooker (and the Hooker Telescope) contributed to Hale's nervous breakdown in 1910, and for years afterward, Hale struggled with his inner demons. By some accounts, he saw an actual demon or "elf" who spoke with him, although other historians say the demon was merely a metaphor used by Hale rather than a hallucination.
The Hale Telescope on Palomar continues to contribute to astronomy, under management at Caltech. It's no longer the world's biggest optical telescope: That title passed to the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii in 1993. And the astronomical spotlight shines more often nowadays upon the great observatories in orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and most recently the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
This 3-D image places a computer-generated rover in the midst of Spirit's surroundings on Mars as it rolls off its platform on Jan. 15, 2004. Click on the image for a larger version, and look through red-blue glasses for the 3-D effect.
When he was a kid, Jim Bell loved to look at rockets and astronauts through his 3-D Viewmaster toy. He grew up to become a planetary scientist at Cornell University rather than a toymaker - but he still revels in 3-D space scenes, as the leader of the panoramic camera imaging team for NASA's Mars rover missions.
Following up on his previous picture book, "Postcards From Mars," Bell offers more than 60 of his all-time favorite stereo images from the rovers in "Mars 3-D," a weirdly wonderful volume that comes with built-in geek glasses.
Several other books about Mars have served up a smattering of 3-D views, and several Web sites feature stereo images from the rovers as well as other space probes. But "Mars 3-D: A Rover's-Eye View of the Red Planet" puts a bookful of three-dimensional imagery right in the palm of your hand. Scores of 2-D pictures, in color or black-and-white, have been added to provide context for the stunning stereo imagery.
"Having all of the greatest hits in one place was the goal," Bell told me.
You can look over the lips of yawning craters, examine the nooks and crannies of Red Planet rocks in microscopic detail, marvel over Martian blueberries and take in long-range, over-the-hill views of Mars' thrilling landscapes. So which 3-D picture is Bell's favorite?
"I don't have a favorite," he answered. "I've got 100 favorites in the book. What's in the book is a distillation from thousands of stereo pairs."
The why of 3-D Bell had thousands of pictures to choose from because the rovers routinely snap stereo pictures with double lenses that are spaced as far apart as a human's eyes. The rovers weren't built that way just for the coolness factor: As Bell points out in the book, the 3-D images make it easier for tour planners back on Earth to chart the rovers' course with a full understanding of the distances involved.
"There are really important reasons in terms of driving, mobility and trafficability to have that information," Bell told me.
He said there's a scientific benefit as well: "Using the parallax is a great way to determine the size of features, and to determine the slopes. ... If there was water here, would it flow in this direction, or that direction?"
How to see 3-D Usually, you have to go to some effort to get the 3-D effect: The rover drivers use special LCD goggles (which aren't practical for regular folks). You could cross your eyes to look at a stereo pair of images (which is a trick I've never been able to master). Or you could scrounge up a cheap pair of red-blue glasses (which is something I always carry in my pocketbook).
The publishers of "Mars 3-D" makes it easier for you by turning the pictures sideways on the page and building the glasses right into the book's folding cover. Bell said this is a clever marketing technique that allows you to sample the 3-D views right in the bookstore.
And this won't be the last book done this way: Sterling Publishing was so pleased with the way "Mars 3-D" turned out that Bell is now working on "Moon 3-D," a collection of stereo lunar imagery that is due to come out next June, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Some of the 3-D lunar views have been seen from orbit, or even from Earth. But a lot of the pictures featured in "Moon 3-D" were taken by moonwalkers. NASA developed a "walking stick" stereo camera that could take close-up views such as this one, and they also trained the astronauts to snap 3-D images on the fly.
"The astronauts had these wonderful Hasselblad cameras on their chests, and they did something called 'the stereo cha-cha,'" Bell explained. "They took one picture, and then they would lean to the right and take another one."
Coming attractions "Moon 3-D" isn't Bell's only coming attraction. Here's a rundown of other sights to watch for in the months and years ahead:
Bell and the rest of the imaging team have been toiling over panoramas that the Opportunity rover sent back to Earth from its stomping grounds at Victoria Crater. Meanwhile, Opportunity is on its way to an even bigger crater called Endeavour. "That's going to be a very long drive, and when we get there, it's potentially going to be even more dramatic topography than what we saw at Victoria," Bell said.
On the other side of the planet, the Spirit rover has been gathering imagery for a 360-degree view of its surroundings, nicknamed the Bonestell Panorama in honor of classic space artist Chesley Bonestell. "It's taken more than six months to acquire that," Bell said. "About 20 percent of that [panorama] is still on the rover, and so we're downlinking that. That might be a nice holiday treat from Spirit."
Bell is working on the stereo camera system for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, currently due for launch next year. The mega-rover's dual camera has zoom lens and wide-angle lens capability, with a stereo "sweet spot" in the middle. It can also shoot video at rates of up to 15 frames per second. "We'll be able to take some videos of the vehicle driving, the arm moving around, maybe some dust devils or clouds moving through the sky," Bell said.
Barack Obama wears safety glasses as he tours the Chrysler Stamping Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., during the presidential primary campaign.
The economy and foreign policy may be higher on President-elect Barack Obama's to-do list, but science and technology issues are on the radar screen as well. Among the top tasks: taking the ideology out of scientific issues, and doing more about what Obama has called a "planet in peril."
The Illinois senator included the "planet in peril" reference in his post-election speech on the challenges that will be "the greatest of our lifetime." That implies that global climate change ranks right up there with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Climate change and energy As I wrote last month, Obama's plan for dealing with the climate challenge includes a cap-and-trade system to provide financial incentives for cutting carbon emissions. The long-range goal would be to get an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. By that time, Obama would be 89 years old and well into senior-statesman mode, if he's still around. The trick will be to make a credible start toward that target during his administration, in the midst of massive economic problems.
Energy policy is joined at the hip with climate concerns: Obama has proposed spending $150 billion over the next 10 years to develop alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and biofuels. Nuclear power and expanded offshore oil drilling are also factors in Obama's energy equation - but not as much as they would have been if John McCain had won instead.
Stem cells On the biomedical front, change is most likely to come first in embryonic stem-cell research. Obama has made clear that he would open the door wider for federal support of embryonic studies - and his victory came as music to the ears of stem cell researchers like Clayton Smith, who moved from the United States to Canada five years ago.
The Vancouver Sun quoted Smith as telling attendees at a stem cell conference that he was "literally in tears" over Obama's election, "and I may even choke up even talking about it."
"Watching the election last night was a singular event, like watching the Berlin Wall fall," said Smith, who now heads a lab at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Terry Fox Laboratory.
No more war on science The most immediate policy change will be to put far more emphasis on scientific integrity in the White House, and far less emphasis on political ideology. Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," declared that the war has ended, and science has won.
Newsweek's Sharon Begley also hailed the end of the Bush administration's "poisonous science policies" - which reached their low point two years ago when NASA felt the heat not only over climate claims but over big-bang theory as well.
A month ago, Obama sent a letter to the leaders of the National Academies vowing that he would take scientific integrity seriously, even if the verdict runs counter to his own views. He said he'd issue an executive order "establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of publicly sponsored research, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and are not distorted by ideological biases."
"In addition, I will also strengthen protections for 'whistleblowers' who report on any government attempts to distort or ignore scientific research," he wrote. "And I will establish clear guidelines for selecting and vetting members of science and technology advisory committees for the White House and government agencies on the basis of merit."
Getting good advice Obama has also vowed to raise the status of the White House science adviser by making him or her a cabinet-level assistant to the president as well as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The last science adviser to have that status was Neal Lane, who served as science adviser in the final years of the Clinton administration. (President Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, is director of the OSTP but not an assistant to the president.)
Lane told me today that the sooner a new science adviser is named, the better.
"The early appointment of an adviser on science and technology is an extremely important thing to do," he said, "because science and technology tie in so much to other issues, and many of the other presidential appointments will benefit from having the advice of the science adviser."
Based on the kinds of responses I'm getting to my phone calls, it sounds as if some of the Obama campaign's science advisers are already in transition mode. No one is talking. However, Nobel-winning cancer researcher Harold Varmus would have to be on the list of prospects for the top science job, by virtue of the fact that he's heading the campaign's scientific advisory group.
Other campaign advisers with previous experience in the White House and in the scientific community include:
Henry Kelly, who was an assistant director for technology in the Clinton administration and is now president of the Federation of American Scientists.
Gilbert Omenn, a physician and professor at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Omenn served in the OSTP under President Carter.
Tom Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California at Berkeley. Kalil was President Clinton's deputy assistant for technology and economic policy, and served as Hillary Clinton's stand-in at a surrogate science debate during the primary campaign.
Tech talk Obama also intends to appoint a chief technology officer for the White House, and the rumor mill has produced some high-profile names to chew on, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Google executive Vinton ("Father of the Internet") Cerf, Princeton Professor Ed Felten and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC Universal joint venture).
It's worth noting that Schmidt is among the economic advisers due to attend a news conference with Obama on Friday, according to The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire. Wired.com highlights another tech-industry veteran on Obama's transition team: Julius Genachowski, co-founder of Rock Creek Ventures. Meanwhile, venture-capital whiz John Doerr has nominated Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy to be chief technology officer.
The Obama administration's leading tech issue will be to expand broadband Internet access to underserved communities, in part by providing tax incentives and reforming the Universal Service Fund that promotes telephone access. In a Q&A with CNET News, Obama argued that full broadband penetration "can enrich democratic discourse, enhance competition, provide economic growth and bring significant consumer benefits."
"Moreover, improving our infrastructure will foster competitive markets for Internet access and services that ride on that infrastructure," Obama said. "Market forces will drive the deployment of broadband in many parts of the country, but not all."
More science spending Obama has vowed to put research spending in the physical and life sciences, math and engineering on track for a doubling in 10 years' time.
"We will increase research grants for early-career researchres to keep young scientists entering these fields," Obama said in his response to ScienceDebate 2008's questionnaire. "We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs."
Is this an area where Obama will have to pull back due to the financial crisis? Lane hopes not. He expects Obama and his aides to argue that investment in research will help create the wave of innovation necessary to put America back on top.
"If we're going to get any money for research, that argument is going to have to be made," Lane told me.
Rebuilding America's infrastructure may well be a key element in the Obama administration's economic recovery plan, and that could bring welcome news for scientists and engineers.
"Investments in infrastructure seem like a very good idea, and that could mean physical infrastructure. But it could also mean human infrastructure, scientific and technological infrastructure," Lane said. "You'd like someone in the White House who's thinking through all this, and a science adviser could be very helpful if he or she were on tap - even between now and Inauguration Day."
... And finally, the final frontier I talked about NASA and space policy earlier this week, but there are a couple of new developments to ponder. First of all, the Government Accountability Office has just issued a list of 13 urgent issues for the new president and Congress to tackle, and retiring the space shuttle fleet is on the list.
Then there's today's report from National Review Online that Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., could be a prospect for transportation secretary in the Obama administration. It's unlikely that the conservative National Review is all that plugged into what the Democrats are up to. Nevertheless, the idea that Oberstar might play a role in commercial space transportation has sparked concern on the part of New Space proponents such as Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg and Clark Lindsey over at RLV and Space Transport News.
After all, it was Oberstar who raised objections to legislation opening the way for suborbital spaceflight experiments, claiming that giving private ventures too much freedom would lead to a "tombstone mentality." Commercial spaceflight will be entering a crucial period during the Obama administration, with the first passenger flights expected in the 2010-2012 time frame. What's more, regulations for the infant industry could conceivably be rewritten in four years' time, as we discussed last month.
Charles Lurio, writer/publisher of The Lurio Report, told me that putting Oberstar in charge of the Transportation Department "could raise a big question mark for the future existence of the entire private/commercial spaceflight industry."
It's not clear how much truth there is to the rumor, but for many in the New Space field, appointing Oberstar to that particular post would be a change they don't need. Lurio is hoping New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will keep Obama up to date on the New Space point of view, as he promised to do.
Update for 8:44 p.m. ET: I e-mailed an inquiry to Obama's team, asking for "any information you can provide about how the transition team intends to move forward on science and technology issues (or advisers)." Spokesman Dan Pfeiffer sent a quick note back: "We will have more to say on this at some point soon."