SETI @ Home / UC-Berkeley
|Ten years after the SETI @ Home screensaver
program made a splash, the Internet is being
enlisted once again to help alien-hunting scientists.
It's been http://msnbc.com/news/255770.asp">10 years since the SETI @ Home online project sparked a revolution in the search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over the past decade, more than 5 million people around the world have signed up to look for aliens, and now astronomers are enlisting the Internet masses for a new task: deciding what we should tell them.
The "Earth Speaks" project was organized by Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's director of interstellar message composition, to spark suggestions for messages that could be transmitted to extraterrestrial civilizations.
You can browse through the suggestions others have left, and add your own to the list. But feel free to take your time: Vakoch is in no rush to send the aliens an alert.
"It's just the opposite," Vakoch told me today. "If there's a virtue behind this project, it's the virtue of patience."
Broadcasters have tried transmitting coded messages many times before - ranging from the famous 1974 Arecibo message, to the Cosmic Calls beamed out from a powerful radio dish in Ukraine, to the whale songs and Craigslist postings sent by a not-so-powerful TV dish at Cape Canaveral. But Vakoch said it's not likely that any single message will connect with alien listeners. It would take an organized, sustained campaign to get a message across (that is, assuming that E.T. could understand it).
Vakoch and most of his colleagues involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, say it's best to refrain from a signal-transmission campaign until there's a consensus on what should be said, and how it should be said (and if anything should be said in the first place). But that can lead to a catch-22: If you're not planning to transmit a message, how do you get people interested in discussing what to say - and eventually coming to a consensus?
That's where Earth Speaks can play a role. "We're not intending to send these messages," Vakoch said, "but I think it's very likely that these messages will have some impact if we decide to undertake transmission."
In the 10 days that Earth Speaks has been open for business, about 140 messages have been posted to the project's Web site. Anyone can browse through the messages, and if you register with the site, you can add to the list or rate the appropriateness of the messages posted by others.
Vakoch and his team block any messages that identify individuals, or sound too commercial, or link to other Web sites, or are obscene or pornographic. But the approved messages still cover a wide gamut, with a fair number expressing sentiments like this: "Do not land!!!! No intelligent life."
That's the kind of warning Vakoch hopes will spark a discussion: "If there's a message saying, 'Stay away, because we are a civilization that doesn't get along with strangers,' would that be an appropriate message to send?"
Most of the messages for E.T. have been tagged as touching on kinder, gentler themes. "Right now, what we're seeing are a lot of tags emphasizing peace and hope and friendship," Vakoch said.
He plans to analyze the message themes in time to present an initial report at October's International Astronautical Congress in South Korea, and he'll be following up as the months and years unwind. If astronomers ever pick up a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence - or if they decide the time is right to take a more proactive stance toward alien contact - Vakoch wants to be ready.
"As we start thinking about what we want to say, we may also want to ask how the extraterrestrials benefit," he said. "Typically, one of the standard arguments for why we should emphasize passive SETI, listening only, is that it's a greater burden to transmit, and as a young civilization we don't even have the confidence that we'll be around to receive a reply. The problem with that is that any civilization could make that argument. Maybe it's the young, audacious civilizations such as ours who need to take the initiative to make contact."
What should we say to the aliens? Should we say anything, or is keeping our mouth shut actually the best way to serve man? While you chew on those questions, here are some additional Web resources on the SETI search:
Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." It might take a while to get a reply, though. To make up for all the extra time I've spent following the shuttle Atlantis' mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, I'll be away from the office for the rest of the week.
In this YouTube video, Endeavour commander Mark Polansky solicits video
questions that he intends to answer from space next month.
Atlantis spacewalker Mike Massimino made a splash with his Twitter updates from orbit, but from now on, those orbital tweets are likely to become routine. The commander for NASA's next shuttle mission, due to visit the international space station next month, has been posting 140-character updates for weeks.
"The next shuttle crew is known as 'prime crew,'" Endeavour commander Mark Polansky (a.k.a. Astro_127) observed after Atlantis' landing today. "I'd be < [less than] human if I didn't admit to being psyched about that!"
Polansky, who heads the STS-127 mission to install the final components of Japan's Kibo laboratory module, began using Twitter about a month after Massimino (Astro_Mike) did, on May 7. "This is my 1st time twittering, and I hope it will be fun," Polansky said at the time.
He's already attracted almost 13,000 followers. That's not quite in the range of Massimino's 344,000-plus ... but give him time.
Endeavour, which was held on standby to come to Atlantis' rescue if necessary, is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than June 13. Polansky has been posting updates through normal Twitter channels as he and his crewmates finish up their training for the mission. Once the mission launches, his tweets will likely be passed along indirectly through NASA, as Massimino's were.
Polansky has set up a YouTube video channel for taking questions from orbit, and he's already decided which question he'll answer first: "What's the best thing about being in space?" (The second one will be, "What happens if you fly into a black hole?") The questions and answers will be broadcast via NASA TV during the mission.
In one of today's tweets, Polansky said he can guess how Atlantis' crew members feel now that they've landed.
"Bittersweet," he said. "Trained for years & had a great mission. Literally on top of the world, but now it's over."
It may be over for Atlantis, but it's just starting for Polansky and his crewmates.
Terry Devitt and David J. Tenenbaum, two of the brains behind "The Why Files,"
hang out in the Zoology Museum at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Can poker make you sick? How can a few herbs make your Memorial Day barbecue a little healthier? Why has the world community failed to stop genocide? "The Why Files" takes on scientific questions great and small, on the Web and in a new book. (Answers below.)
"The Why Files" has been serving up weekly samplings of science on the Internet for 13 years, which is about as long as msnbc.com has been in existence. "When the Internet was a vast wasteland, we were lucky to get out in front," said one of the site's creators, Terry Devitt, director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The idea was to explore "the science behind the news" on the Web, even if that meant UW-Madison didn't get mentioned. "It's small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but we are a scientific institution, and it's important that people understand how science works and why it matters," Devitt told me.
The voice of "The Why Files" is David J. Tenenbaum, a veteran science writer who has been turning science into sprightly prose since the Web site was born. "I think of us as just a magazine that happens to appear on the Web," Tenenbaum said.
But this is not your science teacher's magazine: Each installment is enhanced by graphics, interactives and a literary style that always goes down easy, even when the subject is hard. One of the pieces on Tenenbaum's list of greatest hits is an explanation of what climate change is doing to the world's glaciers, titled "No Snows of Kilimanjaro," which is written in the style of Ernest Hemingway.
The concept still draws a chuckle from Devitt. "Not to take anything away from Dave," he said, "but I like the real Hemingway myself."
|"The Why Files" is an ink-
on-paper spin-off of the
award-winning Web site.
The faux Hemingway appears along with other greatest hits from the Web site (such as the tale of a dog's vocabulary, told from the dog's point of view) in the book version of "The Why Files," published just this month. The re-edited Web dispatches constitute only about 20 percent of the book, however. "Most of the book is new," Tenenbaum said.
Putting together the book was a task added to the "day jobs" that typically occupy Tenenbaum and Devitt's time at the university. "Doing this was a bit of a challenge," Devitt said. "But one of the positive things about doing this project [for the book publisher] is that revenues from the book feed back into the project [for the Web]. Dave and I don't make a nickel off this."
The book is ideal for setting out on the bedstand, the coffee table, the study desk or, yes, the bathroom reading rack. Each entry is one to three pages in length, packing a lot of science into small, easy-to-digest bites. But this isn't junk-food science (though you will find an item about the science of junk food). In the book and on the Web site, the "Why Files" team doesn't shy away from serious subjects.
"A couple of months ago we did 'How Come We Have Mass Murderers?'" Tenenbaum noted. In the book, Tenenbaum touches upon the roots of genocide and religious extremism, the effects of torture and, of course, the impact of global climate change.
"I'm really tired of global warming, but only because I wish someone would show that it's going to be slower than expected rather than faster. ... I continue to write the stories because it matters so much. It's the science story of the century, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
The authors hope "The Why Files" will also get across some serious messages about the way science is done. "Science is just a totally fascinating way of seeing the world," Tenenbaum said. "It takes perspectives and conjectures and facts and stereotypes, but it has really strong ground rules that matter - and work."
"Just being proud that 'I'm afraid of the science' ... that's a real no-no," he said.
There are a few things, however, that inspire fear in Tenenbaum, a veteran of newspaper and magazine journalism. "I fear a world of blogs and Twitter - is that over my 140 characters?" he joked. "I think it's really dangerous. They're all going to quote each other, and there'll be no basis for what they say."
I just might have to quote Tenenbaum about that on Twitter when it comes time to send a link to this latest blog entry. But before I start tweeting, here are the answers to the questions we started out with, gleaned from "The Why Files" book:
Don't be afraid: Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." But don't expect an instant response. I'll be away from the blog factory during the long Memorial Day weekend. Take some time to honor the fallen as you enjoy your holiday getaway.
The documentary "Orphans of Apollo" focuses on the effort to privatize Russia's Mir
space station, shown here during a 1995 space shuttle mission to the outpost. The
effort helped prolong Mir's life but ultimately failed, leading to its demise in 2001.
A behind-the-scenes documentary on the unsuccessful effort to turn Russia's Mir space station into a money-making operation serves as a cautionary tale for the private sector's present-day space ambitions.
"Orphans of Apollo," a movie that tells the story of the masterminds and millionaires behind MirCorp, has been making the film-festival circuit for months and is already on DVD. It's getting its London premiere on Friday, according to the documentary's director and executive producer, Michael Potter.
A decade ago, when the dot-com boom was going strong, a well-connected group of space enthusiasts and entrepreneurs laid plans to set up their own commercial beachhead in outer space. The title of the movie refers to the fact that many of these self-described revolutionaries were inspired by the Apollo moon landings that began 40 years ago - and then stopped 37 years ago.
"It was over in the government's minds, but a lot of young kids there, myself included, were ready for what was next," Peter Diamandis, the head of the X Prize Foundation, says in the film. "We drank the Kool-Aid."
Diamandis and many others anticipated an age when they themselves could follow Apollo's pioneers to the final frontier, and felt profoundly let down by what they saw as NASA's retreat. "We, as Apollo's children, felt we were Apollo's orphans. We had been left out in the cold," said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.
So when Russia's space officials began thinking about getting rid of Mir and turning their attention to the international space station, the revolutionaries began thinking about the opportunities. The central figure in the fight to save Mir turned out to be Walt Anderson, an "anarcho-capitalist" telecom millionaire with a penchant for supporting space causes.
"I had approached Walt earlier and said to him, 'Would you like a space station, because I think we can get it,'" Tumlinson recalls in the movie. "And he said, 'Yeah.'"
"Orphans of Apollo" chronicles the rise and fall of MirCorp, the venture created to turn Mir into an orbiting commercial paradise, through present-day interviews as well as extraordinary home video shot during Anderson's business dealings.
One sequence of shots shows Anderson and his buddies feasting on take-out pizza and wine and playing Risk while they fly on the millionaire's private jet for a crucial round of talks in Russia. During the year 2000, MirCorp's team spun out grand plans to refurbish the space station as a tourist destination and the setting for a reality-TV show. At one point NBC, one of the partners in the msnbc.com joint venture, had a deal with MirCorp and "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett to use Mir as the centerpiece of a prime-time series.
Thanks to Anderson's millions, MirCorp got their Russian "landlords" to send one more crew up to the space station in mid-2000 and keep the place running. But that was the venture's high point. The grand ambitions of Apollo's orphans ran up against a perfect storm of personality clashes, politics and economics.
On the personality front, Anderson didn't even bother to hide his contempt for governments, particularly his own. The video shows him telling the Russians at one point during their negotiations, "We're dealing with some of the stupidest bureaucrats in Washington at the State Department."
Unfortunately for Anderson, those bureaucrats would turn his life into a special kind of hell. NASA and other government agencies were worried that keeping Mir in operation would siphon off Russian resources that were needed by the infant international space station.
"Our concern was that it was an old vehicle and was costing more and more to maintain," Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's former national security adviser, says of Mir in the film. "And we wanted the Russians, if they had to choose which way to put their money, to put the money on what was coming rather than keep it going to what was clearly no longer useful."
The veterans of MirCorp suggest that NASA pushed hard on the Russians, the State Department and anyone else who mattered to kill Mir off. "I put a reward out for $1,000 for the person who can come up with the smoking gun," Potter, the film's director, told me. "From the MirCorp side of things, they always felt there was this conspiracy."
It didn't help that Anderson was often portrayed as an eccentric space nut. One famous New York Times article was accompanied by a cartoon tracing the adventures of "Wacky Walt."
But the nail in MirCorp's coffin was the dot-com bust that started in 2000 and gathered momentum as the months went on. Anderson had anticipated adding to his fortune and bringing in new investors, but the money troubles worsened instead. The Russians lost patience, and in April 2001, Mir was deep-sixed for good.
MirCorp tried to carry on, working on a reality-TV deal that called for pop singer Lance Bass to fly to the international space station in 2002. But Anderson eventually soured on the whole enterprise. And that wasn't the worst of it: In 2005, federal authorities arrested Anderson in what was then called the "biggest personal tax evasion case ever." Today, Anderson is serving a nine-year prison sentence and facing a $184 million tax bill.
Most of this seems like ancient history to those of us who covered MirCorp's rise and fall, but the movie clearly shows that Apollo's orphans have learned their lessons.
"This stuff really is rocket science," Potter said, "and it's not just the physics. It's the business model: How do you handle the risk assessment? How do you handle the insurance? It's really complicated - but it's not as complicated as NASA makes it."
The biggest lesson is that you want to have the government as your customer, not your enemy. "I think the slightly more commercial and realistic and politically savvy entrepreneurs who are now investing in private space understood where Walt went wrong," David Chambers, who was MirCorp's vice president of strategic planning, says in the movie. "And they're prepared to play nice with the various governments that they need to play nice with."
The examples are legion: SpaceX's Elon Musk has received millions from NASA to develop a new rocket and spaceship (with a crucial Falcon 9 launch planned this year). Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan has benefited from government contracts as well as investments from billionaires such as Paul Allen and Richard Branson. Robert Bigelow, a billionaire himself, is hoping government business will eventually help sustain his own privately funded space station program. XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace and many other "New Space" companies rely on government contracts to keep the money coming in while they work on their rocket revolution.
Potter said he's applying the lessons from "Orphans of Apollo" in his own work with Odyssey Moon, one of the teams entered in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition.
"We don't view ourselves as competing with NASA," he said. "We're just a gear in the cog. You want FedEx to the moon? We'll take care of that. ... We're pretty typical, if you compare us with a lot of Silicon Valley tech ventures."
And it's pretty typical that some ventures fade away while others keep going. To conclude, here's a quick rundown on how some of the space revolutionaries have fared since MirCorp faded:
Update for 10:45 p.m. ET: By the way, Potter had these comments about reports indicating that former astronaut and retired Marine Charles Bolden is likely to be nominated to head NASA:
"Charles Bolden should be selected as NASA administrator because of his qualifications primarily as a battle-hardened warrior, not because of his outstanding record as astronaut. If Charlie ever forgets for a moment that he is locked into hand-to-hand combat with the goal of bringing humanity to the heavens, he will be crushed by bureaucracy and politics. Let's wish the man Godspeed, our future may depend on it."
Warner Bros. Pictures
Can time travel save Los Angeles? Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington)
surveys post-Judgment Day destruction in the movie "Terminator Salvation."
Time travel has been a standard feature of science fiction, but never more so than today: The latest "Star Trek" and "Terminator" movies, as well as the TV series "Lost" and "Heroes," play off the classic paradoxes, and still more shows are on the way. In fiction, all it takes to travel back in time is a black hole or a flash of energy, with nothing more than a hand-waving explanation. If only real-life experiments in time and causality were that simple ...
It's easy to get your mind tied in a knot if you think too much about moving through loops of time - the sort of thing that inspires Heinlein short stories, "Twilight Zone" episodes, "Back to the Future" sequels and "Simpsons" parodies. To make things simple, let's just accept the first item in Cosmic Variance's Rules for Time Travelers: that there are no paradoxes.
This leads to three main conceptual avenues for time-travel plots:
We have a limited ability to anticipate and change the future, of course, but is it at all possible to change the past? In a sense, that's what University of Washington physicist John Cramer has been looking into.
For more than two years, he's been trying to set up an experiment that would test a phenomenon suggested by quantum mechanics: If you change the quantum state for one of two entangled photons, it might be possible to have that change reflected in photon No. 2 before you make the change in photon No. 1. The implications of the experiment are so intriguing that Cramer's fans contributed more than $35,000 to keep it going.
I've checked in with Cramer in 2007 and 2008 (twice!) to find out about his progress, and the latest is that the lab apparatus is still not right to do the experiment. The crystals that he originally planned to use have a "huge signal-to-noise problem," he told me today. The few entangled photons produced by the crystals are overwhelmed by stray photons that muck up the detection effort.
"Phase 1 and phase 2 [of the experiment] hit the wall, and we're about to start phase 3," Cramer said.
To get around the problem, Cramer is planning to switch to periodically poled crystals, which he said fellow quantum researcher Anton Zeilinger has used to produce millions of entangled photon pairs per second. Cramer still thinks his experiment is a "long shot," however. He suspects some factor will always prevent him from observing retrocausality in action.
For example, there appears to be a complementarity between quantum coherence and entanglement, he said. The more certain you are that the photons are really entangled, the less certain you are about the photons' quantum coherence. Both factors need to be nailed down in order to verify that retrocausality really, really works. "That could be the showstopper," Cramer said.
Until Cramer actually sets up the experiment with the new, improved crystals, he'll never know. But even if the experiment fails, it won't be a total loss. Because Cramer is a columnist and novelist as well as a physicist, that will just give him something to write about in his next book. Who knows? Retrocausality may soon be coming to a bookstore near you - or at least an alternate universe near you.
Astronaut Mike Massimino grins as he looks in on his crewmates inside
Atlantis from the shuttle's payload bay. Fellow spacewalker Michael Good
and the Hubble Space Telescope can be seen in the background, with Earth
looming over the scene. Click on the image for a larger view.
Spacewalking is serious business, especially when you're working on a multibillion-dollar telescope, but there's room for a little whimsy and wonder as well.
Take astronaut Mike Massimino, for example: The shuttle Atlantis' current mission marked his second visit to the Hubble Space Telescope, making him one of the astronaut corps' more experienced telescope repair technicians. Yet he had to slog through two overtime spacewalks, both of which ranked among NASA's top 10 in duration (and probably difficulty as well). Heck, he even had to rip off one of Hubble's hand rails with his gloved hands!
Did that get him down? No way.
Toward the tail end of Sunday's eight-hour-plus spacewalk, he and spacewalking partner Michael Good were carrying on like a comedy team.
"I'm afraid to ask how long we've been out here," Massimino said.
"I think it's been about an hour, 45," Good said.
"That's about right," Massimino replied.
When Good helped Massimino move a cable out of the way before getting down to work, Massimino referred to the hapless MacGyverish character from "Saturday Night Live": "MacGruber, that's what you are."
Today, Massimino joked about the length of his spacewalks: "I thought I was getting paid by the hour, then I find out it doesn't make any difference. ... I'm a little disappointed about that."
In addition to the whimsy, Massimino found time to enjoy the wonders surrounding him as he worked: "At the end of my spacewalk, I had time to just look at the Earth, the most awesome sight my eyes have seen, undescribable," he wrote in one of his unprecedented Twitter postings from space.
It's not as if Massimino is checking his iPhone every few minutes from space for a new tweet: In fact, his short updates are passed down as secure e-mail from space, then plugged into his Twitter account by intermediaries at NASA. That indirect method is used because the space agency wants to head off the possiblity of hacking into the space shuttle's computer network.
Nevertheless, Astro_Mike has definitely made a name for himself on Twitter: He currently ranks No. 133 on a closely watched list of Twitterati (ahead of MarsPhoenix and Stephen Colbert but way behind Britney Spears). Today tons of questions were sent in via the Google Lunar X Prize's Twitter and Facebook accounts for Astro_Mike to answer, arguably setting the stage for the first social-networking Q&A in space.
Massimino isn't the only guy to have a little fun in space, of course: Who can forget Alan Shepard's golf swing during the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971, or Harrison Schmitt singing "I Was Strolling on the Moon One Day" during Apollo 17 in 1972? The crew of the current Hubble mission broke out in song as well: As lead spacewalker John Grunsfeld rolled blankets of insulation onto the space telescope's exterior on Monday, a chorus of "Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'" from the "Rawhide" theme song could be heard over the radio link.
Some have pointed to the way astronauts dealt with the challenges of the mission's five spacewalks - including balky bolts, stray rivets and gyros that didn't fit - as evidence that tool-wielding humans will continue to be essential in space operations. You might be able to argue that future space telescopes, which are not designed for human service calls, will be cheaper in the long run. But there's no way those missions will be as entertaining.
Here are a few more must-see examples of astronauts indulging their lighter side:
What music would you like to wake up to in space? Feel free to add your musical suggestions - or any other observations about the lighter side of space travel - as a comment below.
Update for 10:05 p.m. ET May 19: X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is a middleman for the Twitter/Facebook Q&A with Massimino, and he asked the astronaut whether Atlantis' crew could see the moon. Here's the reply: "Peter - yes we can and it is awesome. You can sort of see it in 3D in space so it really looks like a planet out there, just awesome. Currently see about a half moon, and it[s] size is pretty constant except if you see it setting behind earth, and then the moon illusion has some effect, making it appear slightly larger."
Update for 11:12 p.m. ET May 20: How can spacewalkers work for hours at a time without going inside for a break? One of my colleagues at msnbc.com, Rich Shulman, pointed me to this HowStuffWorks discussion of the subject. And over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait touts this must-see video of Hubble floating away from Atlantis.
President Obama's meeting with the man who could be the next NASA administrator, former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr., has been postponed until at least Tuesday due to today's White House session with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
When Gibbs was asked whether reporters would hear anything about a new NASA chief, as suggested in an NBC News report last week, he replied: "You won't hear it today ... Because of the Netanyahu meeting's going longer, the visit with Mr. Bolden will be tomorrow morning."
Later during the briefing, reporters asked about Bolden once again.
"I don't want to get ahead of the president's meeting with him," Gibbs said, "but I know he's anxious to have strong leadership at NASA. I think we've all watched and read about the mission that's going on right now and the amazing efforts that are being undertaken with consecutive multi-hour spacewalks to repair the Hubble telescope. So we may have something after that meeting, but not until then."
In addition to being a four-time spaceflier, Bolden is a retired Marine major general and a former aerospace executive. If he is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first African-American selected to lead the space agency.
Bolden has been widely praised by space insiders, and he has a particularly strong advocate in Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on the space shuttle in 1986 under Bolden's command. But if there's any knock against him, it would be his past connections to companies such as ATK and GenCorp, which stand to benefit from NASA's plan to retire the space shuttles and build a new breed of spaceships to return to the moon.
That program is due to undergo a far-reaching outside review this summer, and some observers suggest Bolden may have to limit his involvement in the agency's core issue to comply with the Obama administration's ethics rules.
Update for 2 p.m. ET May 19: Bolden had his meeting with Obama on Tuesday morning. No announcement on the selection was made immediately, although Gibbs said the president "hopes that he's the right person to lead NASA in the coming years and through its evolving role."
Aerospace Industries Assn.
|Wisconsin's Madison West High School
rocket team prepares for liftoff during the
Team America Rocketry Challenge.
NASA's final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope has thrown a spotlight on the best and the brightest in space exploration, but next-generation space explorers are getting opportunities to shine as well.
One of those opportunities came over the weekend in Virginia, during the final round of the Team America Rocketry Challenge, an annual contest sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry.
Thousands of students from hundreds of schools across the country participated in fly-offs that involved blasting an egg-laden rocket at least 750 feet into the air and returning it safely to the earth. The rocket launches are rated based on their altitude and time aloft, and the top 100 regional qualifiers advanced to the final competition Saturday at The Plains, Va.
A team from Madison West High School in Wisconsin came away with the winning score and the top prize. "Hard work, perseverance, teamwork and custom electronics are the reasons our rocket performed well today," team member Ben Winokur said in a news release. The winning edge included "a very intricate active parachute ejection on ascent," he said.
Marion Blakey, the AIA's president and CEO as well as the former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the contest succeeded in its goal of spurring young people to consider careers in aerospace and advancing their studies in science, technology, engineering and math. "This is an encouraging sign that there is a promising pipeline of future employees for our industry," she said.
The payoff for the kids will include a trip to the Paris Air Show in June, plus a share of more than $60,000 in prizes. Among the sponsors are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department, the American Association of Physics Teachers and 34 AIA member companies.
Madison West's team also participated in a friendly fly-off with the winners of the U.K. Aerospace Youth Rocketry Challenge, or UKAYRoC. In this competition, the British kids from the Royal Liberty School in Essex walked away as the winners.
"We're amazed that we can call ourselves world champions," British team captain Lewis Marr said in an AIA announcement. "The team worked hard for six months, and it feels great to be so successful."
For the American side, there's always next year. Or maybe you don't have to wait till next year. Here are some additional opportunities for kids who'd like to take on a real-life star trek:
Click for video: Perched on the end of the space shuttle Atlantis' robotic arm,
spacewalker Andrew Feustel works on the Hubble Space Telescope with his Pistol
Grip Tool tucked at his side like a sword. Click on the image for a larger
version, or click here for a video about the tools developed for the mission.
Stray rivets? Stuck bolts? Parts that don't quite fit? Sometimes it sounds as if fixing the Hubble Space Telescope is like trying to put a new headlight in my VW Beetle. OK, there are a couple of differences - like the fact that all this is happening in zero-G, where a stray rivet or a broken bolt could ruin a $10 billion investment.
The differences between space repairs and earthly repairs go a long way toward explaining why spacewalkers' tools have to be built from scratch rather than bought off the shelf, and why it takes seven hours or more to install parts that would take much less time on Earth.
The big reason doesn't have as much to do with the technology as it does with the fact that the help desk is a few hundred miles below. During this mission, the small cameras attached to the spacewalkers' helmets ("helmet-cams") have been instrumental for showing Mission Control how the job is going so that experts on the ground can offer timely advice. Nevertheless, nice and easy does it, particularly when you're wearing thick gloves that have been compared to oven mitts.
We've already seen several examples of typical fix-it troubles, writ large because of the space environment:
More than 60 new tools were created for the Hubble mission, in part because the tools have to fit those bulky gloved hands. As I mentioned last fall, tool designers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center brought an astronaut glove with them to the local hardware store so they could see what kinds of grips worked best for the Mini Power Tool they were making.
The Mini Power Tool is due to get its prime workout this weekend, when Atlantis' spacewalkers try to replace balky circuitry for the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS for short). That's an unprecedented repair job in space, and if it works, it would be a testament to the cleverness of the gearheads at Goddard and ATK.
Your typical power tool would never work in space - and not just because it's hard to hold the darn thing with your glove. The materials and mechanisms have to stand up to the rough environment in space, where temperatures can fluctuate by dozens of degrees in the course of just one orbit. Even the lubricants have to be different: Dry-film lubricants are used in place of the wet lubricants and oils used in earthly tools.
The outer-space power tool of choice, for Hubble as well as the international space station, is the Pistol Grip Tool - a hefty version of a cordless drill/screwdriver. That tool came into play quite a bit during today's replacement of the space telescope's gyroscopes and batteries. But it's too big for unscrewing the more than 100 screws that need to be taken out in order to fix STIS and the Advanced Camera for Surveys.
The Mini Power Tool is smaller, with a screwdriver bit that's sized just right to poke through the holes in specially designed plastic capture plates. The plates will be fitted over the access panels for the two instruments to be repaired, and catch all the screws before they float away. The tool is designed for speed rather than torque: With that many screws, you can't wait around and count the turns one by one, as spacewalkers have done during previous fix-up jobs. For the STIS repair job, one screw should be removed every 15 seconds on average (which adds up to almost a half-hour of solid unscrewing).
So what happens when the work is done? Will all those screws have to be screwed back in? Fortunately, no. STIS' original electronics access panel wasn't meant to be taken off easily, but spacewalkers should be able to clamp down the redesigned panel in a snap, just by throwing two levers. Chalk up another one for the gearheads.
|Click for video: Watch
a clip from "Angels and
Demons" that explains
how the (fictional)
antimatter bomb works.
The good news is that you don't have to worry about an antimatter bomb blowing up the world. Physicist Michio Kaku says so. The better news is that the antimatter being made at Europe's CERN physics lab is used for good, not for evil.
The physicists who do real-life research with antimatter and other exotic substances see "Angels & Demons" not as a threat but as an opportunity. CERN is just one of the scientific institutions to capitalize on the "science behind the story."
The US/LHC research group has organized an entire lecture series around the movie, including virtual lectures you can watch on the Web. And at 1 p.m. ET next Tuesday, the National Science Foundation will present a Webcast featuring CERN's director-general, Fermilab's Boris Kayser and Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman - who literally wrote the book on "The God Particle."
CERN has been through this before, back in 2000 when "Da Vinci" author Dan Brown's book version of "Angels & Demons" came out. "The hits on our public Web site went up by more than a factor of 10, and I guess this will happen again now that the movie is coming out," said Rolf Landua, who led the research team for the ATHENA antimatter-making experiment at CERN.
That experiment didn't take place at the Large Hadron Collider, but at CERN's antimatter factory, more formally known as the Antiproton Decelerator. "We can make antimatter, we can slow it down to almost zero speed, we can trap it, we can manipulate it. But that's it," Landua told me.
Antimatter has been called the "evil twin" of ordinary matter. In ordinary atoms, negatively charged electrons swirl around positively charged protons. In antiatoms like the ones that Landua and his colleagues made, positively charged antielectrons, or positrons, orbit nuclei that contain negatively charged antiprotons. If atoms of matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihiliate each other, just like they do in "Angels & Demons" - or, for that matter (heh, heh), "Star Trek."
|This is an image of a matter-
antimatter annihilation in the
ATHENA experiment at CERN's
Antiproton Decelerator. Yellow
tracks indicate pions produced by
the antiproton, and red tracks are
gamma rays from the positron.
So if scientists can really make antimatter, why couldn't they create an antimatter bomb, or at least a new source of energy? Landua explains that it takes about a billion times more energy to make antiatoms than the energy you get by destroying them. This is why antimatter is considered the most expensive material on Earth. A commonly quoted figure is that it costs $1.75 quadrillion per ounce - and although that figure may be subject to debate, the bottom line isn't: No one could afford to make enough antimatter to cause trouble.
Then there's the problem of keeping the antimatter around once it's made. The antiatoms that Landua and his successors at CERN have made tend to drift out of the "traps" where they're created and quickly blip out of existence. "It's still not completely clear what atomic state they're in when they're made, and what their kinetic energy is," Landua told me.
OK ... so if you can't keep those antiatoms together, and if they cost so much to make, why make them at all? The main reason is to study why it is that matter won out over antimatter in the universe's earliest moments. The traditional view holds that matter and antimatter should be perfectly matched, and that they should annihilate each other so totally that nothing would be left but a cosmic sea of light.
"That would have happened to the whole universe," Landua said. "It happened almost, but a little bit of matter was left - only a tiny, tiny bit - which now makes up all the stars, planets and us."
Previous experiments have suggested that there is a slight asymmetry in the way that matter and antimatter decay. One of the LHC's experiments, known as LHCb, will look specifically at that issue once the big collider is started up this fall. "It has nothing to do with an energy source, or 'Star Trek,'" Landua said. "It's a basic, fundamental science question, which is coupled to the question of why we are here."
There are practical applications for antimatter, but they have more to do with medicine than propulsion physics. For example, positrons are used routinely in PET scans to trace the inner workings of your body.
In the future, antimatter might be enlisted in the fight against cancer. One experiment indicated that beams of antiprotons were three times as efficient as protons for destroying tumor cells in hamsters. If that technology could be harnessed for radiation therapy, "it looks like you could reduce the radiation to healthy cells by a factor of three," Landua said.
Today, the cost factor is working against antiproton therapy, but Landua said new technologies could bring the cost down - not low enough for bombmaking, but low enough for cancer-killers. "Maybe one day there will be different types of accelerators based on laser wakefields," Landua said. "I'm waiting for the development of powerful Lyman-alpha lasers. That should be the way to go."
For now, Landua and his colleagues can sit back and enjoy the Hollywood wizardry in "Angels & Demons." He and about 50 other scientists from CERN saw the film during an advance screening in Geneva. "They were all really enthusiastic about it," Landau said.
Some of the details weren't quite right: For example, the film shows scientists sitting just on the other side of a window from the LHC's ATLAS detector. In real life, anyone sitting that close to the beam would get a withering dose of radiation. And there's no way the beam would come to full power as quickly and easily as it does in the movie. But Landua, like most scientists, understands that this is Hollywood rather than real life.
"It was so for real, you know?" Landua said. "You see these ATLAS caverns and it integrates so perfectly well that you think, 'My God, is that reality? Did I miss it?' ... We wish we could work at a place which looks like that CERN."
Here are a few extra tidbits to enhance your "Angels & Demons" experience:
Update for 2:15 p.m. May 19: Particle physicists provided an additional reality check during the National Science Foundation's Webcast - including confirmation that a few things in "Angels & Demons" are actually true. For example, could a quarter-gram of antimatter set off an explosion with the energy equivalent of 5 kilotons of TNT? After running the numbers, Fermilab's Boris Kayser says yes, indeed. "I get 5.7," he said.
CERN's director-general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, said the physics lab does have an eye-scanning identification system for controlling access to the Large Hadron Collider, as graphically shown in the movie. It's that important to know exactly who is in the vicinity of the collider when it's running, he said.
I asked the physicists about the friendly competition between CERN and Fermilab to find the first evidence of the Higgs boson's existence. Heuer emphasized that the rivalry was not of the tooth-and-claw variety: "I don't mind ... who makes a discovery first. It is the science that counts."
But there is a rivalry, nonetheless. Heuer said the probability for Fermilab finding the Higgs first was "not very good, so I'm still sleeping pretty well."
Nobel laureate Leon Lederman is based at Fermilab but has done a lot of work at CERN as well. Like many physicists, he has divided loyalties - and he guessed that he would experience mixed feelings if Fermilab's Tevatron beat the shiny new, $10 billion Large Hadron Collider in the Higgs race. He joked that it would be "a little like your mother-in-law driving off a cliff in your BMW."
NASA / J. Frassanito & Assoc. / FISOWG / STScI
|This artwork shows one of the possible designs
for the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture
Space Telescope, which would have more than 40
times Hubble's sensitivity.
When Hubble finally fades into the sunset, what will take its place? More space telescopes are on tap, but some question whether any of them can truly replace the grand old observatory.
If you were to ask the scientists on the Hubble Space Telescope's team whether there's a successor, they'd have a quick answer: the James Webb Space Telescope, which is destined for launch in the 2013 time frame, just when Hubble is expected to wrap up its work for good.
NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency are spending $3.5 billion or more on the telescope, which is destined to observe the cosmos from a gravitational balance point about 1 million miles from Earth, known as L2. It's designed to take the handoff from Hubble as NASA's greatest observatory, and I've referred to it more than once as "Hubble's Heir."
Just don't call it a successor to Hubble while Bob Zimmerman, the author of "The Universe in a Mirror," is within earshot.
Zimmerman's point is that the Webb telescope is optimized for a set of wavelengths that are different from Hubble's sweet spot. Hubble's best observing takes place in the visible-light spectrum, the kind of light we can see with our naked eyes. In contrast, Webb will focus on infrared wavelengths, which are off the red end of the rainbow.
Astronomers say infrared telescopes provide the best way to see objects at the edge of the cosmos, because wavelengths at that distance are redshifted due to the expansion of the universe. But Zimmerman argues that false-color infrared images won't capture the public's attention the way Hubble's images have. Even though Hubble's pictures are enhanced during processing to boost the colors, the visible-light view serves as the basic framework.
"It's not that optical astronomy is the only thing - the end-all, be-all," he said. "But without the optical, it's difficult for the human brain to synthesize all the other data."
The trend in telescopes is to send up spacecraft that have been optimized for specific tasks rather than general observing. For example, NASA's Kepler probe, which had its scientific coming-out party today, is a telescope expressly designed to look for extrasolar planets.
The European Space Agency's Herschel and Planck telescopes, due for launch on Thursday, are designed to corral the infrared and microwave wavelengths, respectively. Like the James Webb telescope, Herschel and Planck are destined to hang out at the L2 point. Like Webb and Spitzer, Herschel will peer toward the far reaches of the observable universe and look into the dusty cradles of stars and planets. Like the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, Planck will look for the imprint of the big bang on cosmic background radiation.
The new instruments will bring capabilities that the old instruments never had, but they're not nearly as versatile as Hubble, Zimmerman said: "Although the focused research telescopes are useful and necessary, general observatories are useful and necessary as well."
Astronomers always have plenty of big ideas for future observations, and right now a host of proposals for next-generation space telescopes are being considered as part of the National Academies' Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Among the concepts are the New Worlds Observer, which would seek to characterize alien worlds; and the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Telescope (a.k.a. ATLAS Telescope), which would have more than 40 times Hubble's sensitivity.
The results of 19 NASA-funded next-generation studies - funded at levels ranging from $250,000 to $1 million - are expected to be released later this year, once the astronomers involved in the Decadal Survey have reviewed them. But the telescopes won't be launched until well after the Webb begins operations.
By then, the debate over whether to let Hubble die could well be raging once again. One of the tasks to be accomplished during a series of Atlantis spacewalks is the installation of a docking device that a future robotic craft could hook onto - in order to drive Hubble out of orbit to a controlled, fiery re-entry.
Zimmerman points out that the same docking device could conceivably accommodate spaceships carrying the supplies and/or the personnel for yet another servicing mission. Might Hubble's best successor in 2014 be ... Hubble itself?
"If Hubble is still functioning, and there is no replacement, I'm willing to bet NASA will not be talking about deorbiting it. They'll be talking about keeping it alive," Zimmerman said. "This is the telescope that refuses to die."
It's been seven years exactly since I first started chronicling the "follies and mysteries" of the universe in Cosmic Log, and boy, have times changed.
Here are some of the basic statistics for the birthday:
Sadly, the past year saw the passing away of MSN Groups, which housed the archive for Cosmic Log's early years. Happily, I've migrated the archive over to Cosmiclog.Multiply.com, and I'm now in the process of changing permissions on hundreds of items so you don't have to be a Multiply member to see them all.
Another good thing that happened in the past year is that I've started trying my hand at Facebook and Twitter. In fact, you have two Twitter accounts to choose from:
Although I'll never come up to the high standard set by my colleague at msnbc.com, Technotica columnist (and "America's Internet Sweetheart ©") Helen A.S. Popkin, I resolve to give this social-media thing more of a chance over the next year. Who knows? This Internet thing just might catch on.
Here's another thing that I hope catches on: "The Case for Pluto," my first book to hit the big time. The dwarf planet has gotten a bad rap since its reclassification by the International Astronomical Union three years ago, and my goal in writing the book was to present a sensible argument for planethood - not just for Pluto, but for all those other fascinating dwarfs out there. You'll be hearing a lot more about "The Case for Pluto" as the November publication date draws closer (just in time for holiday giving!).
I've always said the greatest thing about Cosmic Log is the comments from readers who know much more than I do - and for that, I want to thank you all once again. There's much more to look forward to over the next 12 months, ranging from the restart of the Large Hadron Collider to the likely rollout of SpaceShipTwo. Just you wait: Year No. 8 is going to be great!
To celebrate today's occasion, click your way through the traditional Cosmic Log trivia quiz and see how much you remember.
Update for 4:40 p.m. ET May 14: I've slightly revised the publication date for my book, "The Case for Pluto," based on the official schedule for availability. I notice that a well-known bookselling Web site is already offering it at a discount. Is that a good sign, or a bad sign?
NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA
Scores of books let you hold Hubble imagery in your hands — including "Touch
the Invisible Sky," from which this photoillustration is taken.
Only a few astronauts have ever held the Hubble Space Telescope in their hands, but "Hubble huggers" on Earth have plenty of opportunities to get hold of Hubble's finest - including books that focus on coffee-table-sized imagery, the deeper stories behind the telescope's travails, and even the feel of outer space.
Hubble's images have inspired a lot of big books over the years - including "A Journey Through Time," which was co-written in 1995 by one of the most experienced space reporters on Earth, our own Jay Barbree. (Click here for Barbree's up-to-date reflections on Hubble's continuing mission.)
One of the latest entrants in the coffee-table category is "Hubble: Imaging Space and Time," by David Devorkin and Robert Smith. The book was published last year, so it offers up recently released images such as this panoramic view of the Carina Nebula, and addresses recently explored mysteries such as the dark energy quest.
Robert Zimmerman's "The Universe in a Mirror" takes a completely different approach: This isn't a big book with text surrounding the pictures. Instead, it's a book that tells the big stories behind the telescope (while including 16 pages' worth of color pictures).
Most of Hubble's fans know that the telescope was crippled in its early years by an incorrectly made mirror. Zimmerman explains in depth why it was crippled. The story is stranger than fiction, involving a few flecks of chipped paint on a measuring device, 1.3 millimeters' worth of washers, and a look-the-other-way philosophy that led the experts to ignore the warning signs during fabrication. (Zimmerman points out that some of the same failings arose in the run-up to NASA's 1986 Challenger tragedy.)
"The Universe in a Mirror" also tells how Hubble's handlers triumphed over adversity - not only in the case of the misaligned mirror, but throughout the telescope's history, from the late astronomer Lyman Spitzer's inspiration in 1946 to the observatory's near-death experience in 2004.
"This is a story about the desire of people to see things they've never seen before," Zimmerman told me. Spitzer suggested putting a giant telescope into orbit long before Sputnik reached orbit in 1957, but for years he got no takers. When the money was available, the technology was wanting. By the time the technology caught up, the space-race money had dried up.
Even after the space telescope got the go-ahead, the project was beset by challenges - including the Challenger tragedy (which held up Hubble's launch) and the 2003 Columbia tragedy (which led to the near-cancellation of the current servicing mission). Zimmerman also touches upon the personalities behind the project: Spitzer as well as project organizers Nancy Roman, Bob O'Dell, John Bahcall "and a legion of others who sacrificed so much to get this telescope built."
"This is a telescope that was resisted every step of the way," Zimmerman said. "But those who oppose it are eventually won over by it."
What is it about Hubble that has made it so popular with the public, even when some astronomers were ready to move on? For Zimmerman, the roots of Hubble's appeal don't spring so much from the machine itself, but from our own vision of the cosmos.
"Before Hubble, we were like a person who is nearsighted and is not allowed to put glasses on. ... If someone tries to take your glasses away, you can get pretty indignant," Zimmerman said.
Hubble's vision isn't just for those with sight: Yet another book published last year, "Touch the Invisible Sky," presents the story of Hubble and NASA's other Great Observatories in Braille, along with tactile-enhanced versions of celestial wonders. The book received a thumbs-up review from Deborah Saylor, an Alabama space enthusiast who has been blind since birth.
"The way to seek and learn the most is to develop as many ways of 'seeing' things as possible," she told Science @ NASA. "And keep your sense of curiosity and wonder alive, always!"
You can keep the wonders coming into your e-mail account by signing up for "Inbox Astronomy" at the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite. And don't forget to check in with other Hubble resources, including the European Space Agency's Hubble home page as well as our own Space Gallery and Human Spaceflight section.
"From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!"
On Facebook, meanwhile, you can become a friend of Hubble Heritage and keep posted on the Last Mission to Hubble. Do you have other Hubblecentric resources to recommend? Leave a comment below and I'll pass them along.
NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA
|This view of the planetary nebula
Kohoutek 4-55 will be the last
"pretty picture" from Hubble's Wide
Field and Planetary Camera 2. Click
on the image for a larger view.
With only a few days before it goes dark, the camera that arguably saved the Hubble Space Telescope has delivered a stunning image of a dying star. The picture of planetary nebula Kohoutek 4-55 was snapped just last week by Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (a.k.a. WFPC2), the instrument that also imaged the iconic "Pillars of Creation" and the Hubble Deep Field.
WFPC2 was built in the 1980s as a "clone" of the space telescope's first wide-field camera, to be used as a spare in case something went wrong with the original instrument. Something went wrong, all right, but not with the camera. Shortly after Hubble's launch in 1990, scientists discovered to their horror that the telescope's primary mirror was shaped incorrectly, crippling its optics.
Fortunately, the Hubble team figured out a way to adjust WFPC2's optics to compensate for the mirror flaw - turning the tide in the telescope's favor.
Another corrective-optics package, known as COSTAR, was built for Hubble's other instruments, and WFPC2 and COSTAR were installed during a famous set of spacewalks in 1993. It wasn't long after that that Hubble came into its own. WFPC2 served as Hubble's primary observing instrument in visible-light wavelengths until the Advanced Camera for Surveys arrived in 2002.
NASA / STScI
|Click for slideshow:
Revisit Hubble's highs
and lows, including the
Pillars of Creation.
WFPC2's best-known picture just might be 1995's Pillars of Creation - a view of the Eagle Nebula that shows fingers of gas and dust enshrouding newborn stars. NASA's science mission chief, Ed Weiler, frequently points to the Eagle Nebula as Hubble's hallmark. "You don't see Eagle Nebulas on the cover of Time magazine taken from the ground," he said recently. "You see them from Hubble. Hubble still has a unique niche."
Toward the end of 1995, Hubble's handlers pointed the telescope toward a seemingly empty patch of sky - and came up with what was then the deepest view of the universe ever captured. WFPC2's Hubble Deep Field includes some galaxies that are more than 12 billion light-years away.
Since then, there have been somewhat deeper views - including the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, created using the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. But there'll never be any deep field like the first Deep Field. "It is hard to remember an image that has had such an impact in such a short time," astronomer Richard Ellis has been quoted as saying.
The camera also produced trailblazing images of Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and other planets. It was one of the best witnesses to Comet Shoemaker-Levy's impact on Jupiter in 1994. And then there are those planetary nebulae. When a star nears the end of its life, it can throw off billowing bubbles of colorful gas and dust. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, some astronomers wondered whether these puffballs were actually planets - sparking the not-quite-accurate name for the nebulae.
The color-coded picture of Kohoutek 4-55, taken on May 4 and released on Sunday, shows a bright inner ring surrounded by a bipolar structure reminiscent of Eta Carinae's double bubble. The entire system is shrouded by a faint, red, swirling halo - which is "fairly uncommon in planetary nebulae," according to a news release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The red colors represent nitrogen emissions, green represents hydrogen, and blue stands for oxygen.
Kohoutek 4-55, or K 4-55 for short, is one of a series of planetary nebulae that were named after their discoverer, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. Yes, that Kohoutek. It's nearly 4,600 light-years from Earth in the northern constellation Cygnus.
NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute say this view of K 4-55 will serve as WFPC2's final "pretty picture." The shuttle Atlantis' astronauts are due to remove the 16-year-old camera from Hubble's chest later this week and replace it with a new, improved instrument called Wide Field Camera 3.
During the buildup to today's Atlantis launch, Weiler said he remembered the exact moment when WFPC2 was put into Hubble, and he'll remember the moment when it's taken out. "But I really look forward to the moment when I get to walk up to it and touch it someday in the Smithsonian and say, 'That is the camera that saved Hubble.'"
For more reminiscences of WFPC2's wonders, check out Universe Today's list of the camera's greatest hits, NASA's WFPC2 gallery and this tribute from Music of the Spheres. Our Space Gallery includes more stunners from all of Hubble's instruments, and our Human Spaceflight section keeps you up to date on the Atlantis mission.
Update for 11:22 a.m. ET May 12: Some commenters may have gotten the misimpression that Hubble itself is passing away. Actually, the current shuttle mission will give Hubble a new lease on life, as we've described in more than one report. It's just WFPC2 that is going out of business. However, the camera played such a big role in reviving Hubble that it's eminently worthy of a place in the Smithsonian. I can visualize it on display alongside a mockup of the space telescope. At one time there had been talk about bringing the actual telescope back down for veneration in a space shuttle payload bay, but because the shuttle fleet is due to be retired next year, there's currently no way to bring the thing down intact.
On another matter, at least one commenter has questioned whether Eta Carinae should be classified as a planetary nebula - and just to be safe, I've revised this item to leave the question a bit more open.
Update for 10:25 p.m. ET May 13: We may see WFPC2 at the Smithsonian sooner than I thought. D.C. Agle, a spokesman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me that the camera is due to go on temporary display in October, and become a permanent part of the Smithsonian's collection later.
You might ask whatever happened to Hubble's first wide-field camera, WFPC1. Well, it's too late to put that one on display anywhere: Many of its parts were recycled to build the Wide Field Camera 3, WFPC2's replacement.