The group that staged NASA's first-ever Centennial Challenge has issued its first public draft rules for yet another $250,000 contest - this time, for gangs of robots capable of piecing together a plumbing system under outer-space conditions.
NASA is putting up the prize money and says the program "may directly affect how exploration is conducted on the moon." Come to think of it, the challenge just might affect how construction jobs are done here on Earth as well.
I discussed the robo-contest in broad strokes last month, but last night the California-based Spaceward Foundation said it has fleshed out the draft rules and invited public comment. Through July 15, comments can be sent to RoboticRules@Spaceward.org. The final rules are to be published by July 31.
Spaceward's Ben Shelef summarized the concept behind the contest, which is known as the Telerobotic Construction Challenge or the Remote Robotic Assembly competition:
"In order to win the prize, a team has to complete a robotic assembly task, but it must do so while controlling the robots from across the country with a control latency of 20 minutes! The team never gets to see the arena, except through the eyes of its robots. Even advanced knowledge of the arena is accomplished through a 'scout' robot that the team must build.
"The task is to construct a water-tight pipeline between a simulated 'resource generator' and a 'storage tank.' The task is complete when water can flow freely into the latter. The team has 24 hours to complete the task.
"The team 'launches' its robots to Mars by packaging them in a 'lander' and shipping them to the arena. The lander is simply a structure that can survive shipping and allow the robots to egress. When we receive a lander, we simply place it in the arena and activate the communication link. From that point and until assembly is complete, there is no more human intervention except through the communication link."
The robots will have to assemble their pipeline from standard plumbing fixtures, and move the 500-liter, 50-kilogram (130-gallon, 110-pound) storage tank at least 25 meters (82 feet) away from the "resource generator" tank that's filled with water - over terrain that's strewn with boulders and sand traps.
Did I mention that each robot can't measure more than 50 centimeters (20 inches) in any direction, and has to weigh less than the tank it will help move?
The competition would kick off in the latter part of 2007, but it won't be one head-to-head event, like the Space Elevator Games that Spaceward presented last year and plans to repeat this October. Instead, the teams that register (and pay an as-yet-undetermined entry fee) will alert Spaceward when they're ready to make an assembly attempt. The competition ends when no more teams are scheduled to compete, or when a two-year time limit runs out.
If only one team succeeds at the task, that team gets the full $250,000 NASA purse. If more than one team is successful, the first two or three finishers split the money according to a weighted formula.
So what's the point? "If the Telerobotic Construction Challenge can successfully demonstrate the remote assembly of simple and complex structures, many aspects of exploration in general will be affected for the better," Scott Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, explained in a news release.
Spaceward expands on that idea in its Web posting:
"Suppose we want to build an in-situ fuel/oxygen generation plant on Mars, comprised of an ore processor, a reactor and storage tanks. Or suppose we want to build a human habitat, comprised of several interconnected habitation and support modules.
"With today's technology, we already know how to build the basic machinery, and we also already know how to send payloads to the Martian surface... The problem is that we can only send up to a ton or two at a time (The Spirit and Opportunity packages only weighed about half a ton each), and so have to assemble the structures on the Martian surface - with the human operators still on Earth!
"This is difficult, since communication between Earth and Mars takes 20 minutes (at best) and so immediate 'remote control' is not feasible - check out the Mars Rover Autonomous Mobility Web page for an explanation - and keep in mind that cooperative tasks are infinitely more complex than simply 'driving around'...
"Of the technology development that is required, the topic of cooperative remote robotic operations is probably the one that is the least well understood."
The potential for interplanetary missions is obvious: Theoretically, you could have the robots put together a moon base - and have a hot cup of tea waiting for the arrival of their human overlords.
But if such a system is feasible, you could unleash the robotic chain gangs on tasks closer to home as well. We already have remote-controlled bomb disposal squads in Iraq, and hardhat robots in Japan. Iimagine turning troops of robo-wildcatters loose on inhospitable oilfields, or sending robo-cleanup crews to hazardous waste sites, or switching on a robo-construction crew to build a garage, or even calling the robo-plumber to unclog a pipe.
Could 21st-century life eventually look like a "Jetsons" episode? Is it an technically impossible dream, or just an impossibly expensive dream? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
And while we're on the subject, there are a couple of additional red-letter days coming right up for robots and their fans:
The keynote address will be given by Daniel H. Wilson, whose tongue-in-cheek guidebook "How to Survive the Robot Uprising" is being made into a Mike Myers movie for release next year.
We held our own "People's Choice" robot contest in April as well, and you might remember that B9 from "Lost in Space" (a.k.a. Robot) won by an electronic nose. B9's acceptance speech for the virtual award was written way back in 1965, for the original TV show:
"My micromechanism thanks you, my computer tapes thank you, and I thank you."
The American Southwest is emerging as the nation's new "Space Belt," with final-frontier entrepreneurs gravitating to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Southern California. Oklahoma definitely scored a coup this week by receiving a federal license for its spaceport near Burns Flat. But the next significant foray into the new-space frontier is scheduled for New Mexico, with this summer's inaugural launch from the Land of Enchantment's not-quite-spaceport.
UP Aerospace / KRQE
|The 20-foot-tall Spaceloft rocket is mated to
UP Aerospace's 56-foot-tall, 7-ton launcher.
The state hasn't even sent in its license application for the Southwest Regional Spaceport, near Upham, N.M. - but UP Aerospace will nevertheless send up its suborbital SpaceLoft XL rocket to the fringe of outer space sometime this summer, brim full with 110 pounds' worth of commercial payloads.
That poundage may not sound like a lot: It's about as much as Britney Spears weighed, pre-pregnancy. But UP Aerospace is trying to fill an ultra-low-cost niche in the launch industry - and the Connecticut-based company's chief executive officer, Eric Knight, says business is booming.
"We look at ourselves as a vertical airline - almost the Southwest Airlines of outer space," Knight told me Wednesday.
He declined to say what UP's launch costs were, saying he was playing that card close to the vest because it's "our competitive advantage." But one of UP's customers for this launch, Seattle-based ZG Aerospace, is offering to send business cards into space for $50 each - an indication that flying stuff on an UP rocket can be affordable, though certainly not yet dirt-cheap.
Knight noted that universities ranging from New Mexico State to Brown will have research payloads aboard the SpaceLoft - and he promises some additional commercial surprises. "We have some companies that are going to be doing product 'launches,' so to speak," he said.
Just this week, UP Aerospace completed its initial run-throughs for all the procedures that will be involved in the space mission. "We'll have many mission rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the launch," Knight said.
He said he couldn't name the launch date yet because of the company's arrangements with the White Sands Missile Range, where the rocket is to fall back to earth for recovery. "Within about a month, we'll be able to say when the launch is," he said.
UP is able to launch even though New Mexico doesn't have its spaceport license because its rocket will be operated under the terms of an FAA amateur waiver. Among other things, that means the SpaceLoft's burn time will be limited to no more than 15 seconds. Despite the limitations, the rocket should easily surpass the 62-mile altitude that marks the boundary of outer space, he said.
In fact, the data gathered during the SpaceLoft mission will be used to support New Mexico's spaceport license application to the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That meshes with the state's plans to finish its application by the end of this year, in hopes of becoming a true spaceport in the first half of 2007.
There were two other items adding to this week's buzz about the Space Belt:
One G, or gravity, is a measure of acceleration, equivalent to the pull you feel on Earth's surface at sea level. Here are a couple of more useful comparisons: Shuttle astronauts generally pull 3 G's, and the most challenging roller coasters give you 5 to 6 G's. SpaceShipTwo passengers will definitely have to take 7 G's lying down (in their cushioned, reclinable seats, that is).
Flight International also says SpaceShipTwo isn't likely to be unveiled until late next year. The first commercial flights may take off from and land back in Mojave, but eventually the main base of operations will shift to New Mexico - conceivably with takeoffs from the Upham spaceport and landings in, of all places, Roswell.
Rhetorical battle lines are being drawn in the strange case of the purported Bosnian pyramid - and in recent days, the skeptics have been shining a brighter spotlight on the murkier aspects of an amateur archaeologist's claims.
You have to admit there's a measure of romantic irresistibility about Bosnian-born Semir Osmanagic's contention that a forested hill in central Bosnia-Herzegovina is actually a buried Ice Age pyramid. The claim sounds a bit like the "Face on Mars" phenomenon - with the added appeal that you can actually dig around at the site.
The media momentum started building around the end of last year, when local scientists made surveys of Visocica hill. Last month, Osmanagic's claims got a big boost when an Egyptian geologist visited the mound and said it appeared to be human-made. Then the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said it would send its own team to Bosnia.
All this attention is worrisome to mainstream archaeologists, who are virtually certain the claims will turn out to be bogus. They worry that the misdirected excavation will end up damaging honest-to-goodness artifacts, and they're also bothered by some of Osmanagic's even farther-out ideas, such as the theory that the ancestors of the Maya came from outer space.
This week, Archaeology magazine's Mark Rose provides a withering update on the controversy:
"One might have thought that the Ice Age Bosnian pyramid story would collapse like a bad soufflé, but no. Mainstream media has become somewhat more critical of stories emanating from Visoko, but much of the real work in dissecting the claims has appeared on blogs and message boards, such as The Hall of Ma'at (see "Pseudoscience in Cyberspace"). Unfortunately, the mainstream folks haven't picked up on much of this."
Rose notes that a Bosnian group of experts judged the mound to be natural rather than human-made, and he points to last week's skeptical pronouncements from a visiting British archaeologist.
Should there be even more site visits and more digging, or should the Bosnian government heed the skeptics and call a halt to the project? Feel free to study the evidence and weigh in with your comments.
Everybody knows Andromeda, the big sister of the Milky Way, who lives right next door. But not as many are familiar with our home galaxy's little sister - the Triangulum galaxy.
Today Triangulum gets her star turn at last, in a high-resolution digital image from the 21-foot (6.5-meter) MMT Observatory in Arizona.
Caldwell, McLeod and Szentgyorgyi / SAO
|The Triangulum galaxy shines in shades of
orange, pink and blue in this image from MMT
Observatory's Megacam. Click on the image for
The newly released photograph shows Triangulum, the smallest of the three spiral galaxies in our celestial neighborhood, in shades of orange-brown, pink and blue. The orange areas are patches of interstellar dust, and the blue spots signify young stars, while the pinkish structures are filaments of hydrogen gas in regions of active star formation.
Today's image advisory from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics takes particular note of the pink nebula at upper left in the image, known as NGC 604. This nebula is analogous to the Milky Way's famous Orion Nebula, but stretches much wider (1,500 light-years as opposed to the Orion Nebula's 30 light-years or so) and is lit from within by more than 200 hot young stars.
Triangulum, also known as M33, is 2.4 million light-years from Earth in the northern constellation of the same name, wedged between Perseus and Andromeda. It spans about twice the diameter of a full moon in the night sky, but its light is so diffuse that it's hard to spot with the unaided eye. (This guide helps you find it.)
The galaxy is also a relative lightweight: It holds the equivalent of 10 billion to 40 billion suns, compared with the Milky Way's tally of 200 billion to 400 billion suns, and Andromeda's heft of more than a trillion suns.
"Triangulum is not a colossal giant like the Milky Way or Andromeda," said Nelson Caldwell, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. "But it has a charm and a beauty of its own that belies its junior citizen status."
Today's snapshot is one of the first produced by the MMT Observatory's new Megacam instrument. The camera was developed under the direction of Smithsonian astronomer Brian McLeod, and consists of 36 imaging chips, each capable of recording 9 million pixels. That makes Megacam one of the world's largest digital cameras.
"Megacam is like a turbocharged household digital camera," Caldwell said. "While a typical digital camera might have 8 or 9 megapixels, Megacam has 340 megapixels."
C. Wilson / McMaster U. / NASA / ESA
|The galaxy Arp 220 is actually the result of a collision between two separate galaxies. The blue points in this Hubble image represent massive star clusters.
Galactic smash-ups are always good places to look for brilliant bursts of starbirth, and the Hubble Space Telescope has found a real doozy: a mashed-up merger of two galaxies, containing more than 200 mammoth star clusters. Astronomers say the biggest of those clusters contains enough material to make 10 million suns - which makes it twice as massive as any comparable star cluster in the Milky Way.
In today's image advisory, the Space Telescope Science Institute says the galaxy Arp 220, which is 250 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens, is giving scientists a good idea of what the earliest galaxies in the universe could have looked like.
"This is starbirth in the extreme," astronomer Christine Wilson of McMaster University, the leader of the Arp 220 research team, was quoted as saying. "Our result implies that very high star-formation rates are required to form supermassive star clusters. This is a nearby look at a phenomenon that was common in the early universe, when many galaxies were merging."
The two galaxies that merged to form Arp 220 began running into each other about 700 million years ago. Based on an analysis of 14 clusters, Wilson's team says there has been at least two waves of starbirth: one long blast that has produced stars between 500 million and 70 million years ago, and another baby boom 10 million years ago.
Of course, all this is based on a timeline that ends with our current view of the galaxy. If we could magically suspend the special theory of relativity and see the galaxy up-close as it is "today," we would have a very different view of things. In fact, based on the current view, scientists say Arp 220 has enough gas to keep manufacturing star clusters for another 40 million years. Thus, if we could instantaneously travel through a wormhole into the galaxy itself, we would see that the fireworks have settled down by now.
Wilson and her team based their findings on observations made in 2002 by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, as well as earlier data from the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. Their study was published in the April 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
This view shows Arp 220 in visible light, but astronomers say the galaxy shines brightest in infrared light. In fact, Arp 220 is a classic ultra-luminous infrared galaxy, or ULIRG. Within such galaxies, new stars turn up the heat on the dust that surrounds them, causing the galaxies to glow brilliantly in the infrared spectrum.
Oklahoma's Burns Flat spaceport, the planned home base for Rocketplane Ltd.'s suborbital space tourism flights, has been cleared for operations by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency announced today. The FAA's issuance of a launch site operator license puts Oklahoma on a par with Mojave, Calif. - and gives it at least a temporary edge over New Mexico in the suborbital spaceport race.
I've put together a full report on today's developments. For the record, here's the news release from the FAA:
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that it has issued its sixth non-federal commercial launch site operator license to the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA) to operate a commercial launch site.
The license allows OSIDA to ensure the safe and efficient take-off and landing of suborbital, reusable launch vehicles at the Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark launch site, near Burns Flat.
Prior to a vehicle launch from the site, individual operators will need to apply for a separate launch license or permit from the FAA. The OSIDA license, issued by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, expires in five years with regularly scheduled FAA safety inspections of the site. Burns Flat is the second inland launch site licensed by the FAA.
Oklahoma joins several other states with commercial launch sites. There are two facilities in California and one each in Florida, Virginia, and Kodiak Island in Alaska.
Update for 8 p.m. ET April 13: I've added a link to the full report in MSNBC's "New Space Race" section.
The World Cup isn't the only game in town: This year's international RoboCup finals are also getting their kickoff this week in Germany, and even the commentators are of the robotic persuasion. But that's no easy feat: It turns out that programming a play-by-play robot is just as hard as programming a robo-soccer player.
"We have been working on robot soccer for a while, and we have seen the robots autonomously playing each other, but all the other functions around the robots have been done by humans," Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and head of the school's RoboCup teams, told me today. "It occurred to us to try to think about making the commentators and the referees and the coaches be robots, which would be interesting."
Play-callers not only have to keep their eyes on the ball - they also have to take in the big picture, appreciate the merits of the big play and keep their audience informed as well as entertained.
|Carnegie Mellon University
adapted two Sony Qrio robots
like this one to serve as play-
by-play commentators for
It's a job that's too big for just one bot, so Veloso's team programmed two mini-humanoid Sony Qrio robots to play different parts during this week's matches in Bremen. Sango is more inclined to explain the rules of the match or offer instruction on the fine points of a good play, while Ami is "more emotional, following the game more closely, making more exciting calls," Veloso said.
Ami, for example, would be more likely to break out in an android adaptation of Telemundo commentator Andres Cantor's signature call - "GOOOOOOAL!"
The call isn't exactly the same, because the robots' synthesized voices aren't capable of sustaining a long "O" the way Cantor can. "Therefore, we had to have the synthesizers repeat the 'L' ... Goal-oal-oal-oal-oal-oal-oal-oal!" Veloso said.
The 2-foot-high (60-centimeter-high) robots receive input from their own electronic eyes as well as from the same game management program that tells the robotic players about the status of the game. They have to translate all that input into an output that gives the flavor of the match, based on a repertoire of responses.
"We want them to follow the game," Veloso said. "If you see them, they don't look like they're not paying attention. They cheer at the right moments, they say the right things."
And if they're ever at a loss for words - for example, if some robot executes an amazing play that isn't in the commentators' playbook - the Carnegie Mellon team can prompt the robots using a system called Puppet Master.
"This is what we call 'sliding autonomy.' It means they are not fully autonomous, but they are not completely controlled by humans," Veloso said. "It's an in-between autonomy."
Perhaps most importantly, the commentators are programmed to interact with each other - which is particularly important, considering that neither robot can take in the full picture of the 13-by-20-foot (4-by-6-meter) playing field by itself. When do you let your sidekick drone on, and when do you interrupt? It's a problem that can challenge even human commentators.
"We spent a lot of time thinking about what to do when one is saying something and the other sees something like a goal," Veloso said.
She said the trickiest part of the job is how to calibrate the robots' commentary to reflect whether the match is a blowout or a nail-biter.
"What if the score is 5-0? What's the excitement of the sixth goal? Not much. ... There's that very sharp threshold between losing and winning, and that's a threshold that the commentators have to be very sensitive to," Veloso said. "It's not just the actual vision, but it's also keeping a memory of the state of the game."
The robots are also programmed to be the mechanical equivalents of a cheerleading squad, pumping their arms to celebrate a goal and doing sideline dances to keep the crowd entertained. In a sense, the success of Sango and Ami will depend on whether they can hold the audience's interest.
"We are competing with the crowd, and it's not clear that the poor little humanoids, who are not more than 60 centimeters tall, will be able to be the big winners," Veloso said.
Sango and Ami will be providing the commentary for a series of matches that pit teams of four-legged robo-dogs against each other, in the June 14-18 time frame. Still more games are planned for two-legged and wheeled machines, as well as virtual-reality bots.
But the 10th annual RoboCup is about much more than soccer. This year's event also offers virtual-reality and real-world workouts for robotic rescue teams, as well as a RoboCup @ Home competition in mundane tasks such as retrieving a soda can from a refrigerator or picking up a newspaper.
In all, 2,500 scientists from about 40 nations are converging on Bremen in northern Germany - not only for the competitions, but also for seminars on the future of robotics and artificial intelligence.
Veloso said the types of problems encountered in getting the robo-commentators to do their thing will eventually carry over to the future world of robotics.
"This is universal to having robots capable of observing their surroundings," she said. "Imagine robots helping out in a nursing home, or in your everyday environment. Imagine robots who help children cross the road. You will have to be able to observe specific events."
Would you ever be able to trust your kids to a robotic traffic guard - or for that matter, a robotic soccer referee? The long-term goal of the RoboCup series is to have a robotic team capable of beating a human team by the year 2050. Is that a realistic goal? For further thoughts on the prospects of robot-vs.-human competition, check out our "Olympics of Tomorrow" interactive - or find out how to survive a robot uprising.
Update for 4:30 p.m. June 13: Check out this video of the robo-commentators (and robo-players) in action, courtesy of WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh.
How will catastrophe strike? In a survey designed to stir up interest in the Sci Fi Channel's "Countdown to Doomsday," a catastrophic series of terrorist attacks came up as the likeliest scenario for mass destruction - although a potential disease pandemic generated virtually the same amount of paranoia. More tellingly, those same survey respondents said they didn't feel very prepared for either variety of doomsday.
The results are contained in a survey of 800 U.S. registered voters, conducted May 22-25 by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Sci Fi Channel and NBC News Productions. The poll was done in advance of a Capitol Hill roundtable on disaster preparedness, due to be hosted Tuesday by the Sci Fi Channel. (Sci Fi is a network of NBC Universal, which has a stake in the MSNBC.com joint venture.)
You just know this all has to be tied in with a TV show - and indeed, "Countdown to Doomsday" is scheduled to premiere Wednesday.
The show goes through 10 possible doomsdays - including terror attacks and pandemics as well as global warming, asteroid strikes, solar flares, supervolcanoes, mass extinctions, gamma-ray bursts, robo-rebellions and alien invasions. The poll concentrated on the top four possibilities:
Republicans tended to see the catastrophes as more likely than Democrats, but also viewed the country and themselves as more prepared to deal with it. Under-35 voters - and particularly younger men - were more likely to feel prepared to deal with terror attacks.
Yet another Sci Fi survey provides a different take on the doomsday question, with virtually all respondents conceding that at least one of the 10 catastrophic scenarios could conceivably happen ... someday.
Which begs the question: What are you afraid of? Does this match your personal paranoia index? Or is there any use to this kind of doomsday demographics?
The Hubble Space Telescope may well be the public's biggest object of affection in outer space, as evidenced by the warm response to the idea of extending the orbiting observatory's operational life. By the same token, the international space station - often referred to by its three-letter acronym, ISS - may well be one of the public's biggest objects of disaffection. Read on for one reader's pointed question about the station - and one astronaut's answer, aimed at explaining why the space station is worth the bother.
Here's what I received in response to my call for questions to put to NASA folks during my quick trip to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston:
Rick Freeman: "The shuttle is headed for the ISS and my question is ... Why is that ISS thing up there in the first place? I have never heard a nice, understandable, concise in-plain-English explanation for even having the ISS. It does a little of this and a little of that and is costing a bloody fortune. ... Ask them that. Then put on your goggles and raincoat to protect yourself from all the b.s. that'll come flying your way."
The original idea was that the space station would serve as the platform for all the space exploration to follow - a literal jumping-off point on the way to the moon, Mars and beyond. That's the way it's been portrayed, for example, in the sci-fi movie "Mission to Mars."
Unfortunately, the real-life station has had a figurative cloud over its head since before it was even born.
Because the Russians were brought into the project during the planning phase, the station's planned orbital inclination was changed so that it's not as easy to launch spacecraft to other celestial destinations. That led NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to say last year that he would have done things much differently if he were in charge back then.
The station could still be used as platform for space science, including studies that may be of use for trips to the moon and beyond. But because of delays, cost overruns and particularly the 2003 Columbia tragedy, the station is still basically a construction site, with two workmen living in a trailer (or, ahem, a manufactured home) and trying to do science experiments on the side.
That may change for the better starting with Discovery's mission, which is due to deliver German astronaut Thomas Reiter to bring the station back up to a regular crew of three for the first time in three years.
Reiter will be blazing a trail for next year's scheduled addition of the European-built Columbus laboratory module, which should at least double the station's research capability. The can-shaped lab arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center just last week. Yet another orbital laboratory, Japan's Kibo module, will be added to the station after Columbus.
Here's what Reiter had to say about the road ahead during Thursday's news briefing:
"With three persons on orbit, we can definitely increase the scientific output. Everybody understands that we are in the assembly phase, so the station cannot be considered to be in an operating phase as it will be when assembly is finished. But we will definitely be able, with three persons aboard, to increase the scientific output. ...
"One of my main duties during my stay is to perform a quite comprehensive scientific program for the European Space Agency, managing experiments from all different areas: life sciences, physics, biology. I will also be involved in a couple of other experiments, and for the rest of the time I will support my colleagues, Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, in maintaining the station and keeping it running to fulfill its function as a multidisciplinary laboratory. This role is quite important from the view of the European Space Agency, to have the opportunity to prepare for when Columbus comes up."
He expanded upon that point during a follow-up interview with me and my colleagues from NBC News:
"Now is the time to harvest, to get all the scientific feedback, to use the space station for its intended purpose, namely to function as a multidisciplinary research platform. Not only to get new information in all different areas of research, but also to prepare for the future. I think the ISS can serve also as an excellent platform to develop and refine technology for the future exploration of space - going to the moon, going to Mars.
"In this way, I think, we are hopefully still - from the European and also from the U.S. side - on the same page, in terms of using and harvesting all our investments that we have made."
Of course, all this follows the official line on the value of the station, and maybe I should have worn the goggles and a slicker (although that would have been oppressively hot in the Houston weather):
Our skeptical questioner, Rick Freeman, even anticipated Reiter's reference to the space station investment in a follow-up e-mail:
"I would bet one standard answer is something like, 'Well, we've invested so much we can't quit now' ... sorta like Iraq."
I'm hoping you'll weigh in with your own views and pointers to other perspectives on the space station and the road ahead. Is it time to harvest, or time to plow it under?
NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA
|This Hubble view shows the disk galaxy
NGC 5866 tilted nearly edge-on to our
line of sight. A crisp dust lane divides
the galaxy into two halves. Viewed face
on, NGC 5866 would look like a smooth,
flat disk with little spiral structure.
The scientists behind the Hubble Space Telescope delivered yet another stunning celestial image on Thursday, showing a galaxy on edge with a wispy glowing halo. "Hubble-huggers" have been on edge as well, hoping that NASA will send a space shuttle crew to extend the life of space-based astronomy's crown jewel. Although the space agency hasn't yet set a date for that final servicing mission, the shuttle program's manager says preparations are already being made for a rescue.
Shuttle crews have visited the Hubble for servicing four times since the telescope's launch in 1990, and the fifth mission would rank right up there with the first one, which effectively gave Hubble its sharp-eyed sight. New gyros and batteries would replace the ones that are failing. Two major instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3, would be installed.
With the fresh servicing, Hubble could produce unparalleled images for several more years. Without it, the outlook is less bright. Hubble's handlers have developed a "two-gyro" mode of operation that should keep things working until mid-2008, but eventually, the telescope will fall victim to a worn-out guidance system or power system.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has ruled out a robotic mission to save the Hubble while leaving the agency's options open for the shuttle rescue scenario. In fact, Hubble's scientists have been told to be prepared for a launch as early as December 2007. Griffin, however, has held off on giving the official go-ahead until the shuttle has a couple of successful test missions under its belt.
That doesn't mean NASA isn't working on the preparations. Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale admitted as much during a news briefing Thursday at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston (where I'm currently burning the midnight oil).
"There are some long lead items that are being prepared, based on the assumption that we will be authorized to do a Hubble servicing mission," Hale told me. "The authorization to do that mission has not yet been given, and I think it is dependent on how well we demonstrate our success in the next flight or two.
"Obviously, everybody would like to go back and service the Hubble again, but that is a decision that's ahead of us. And crew assignments are still up in the air."
Hale's comments notwithstanding, there was an intriguing hint last month about the composition of Hubble's repair crew — in the news that astronaut Scott Parazynski was being taken off the STS-118 mission, targeted for launch next year, "to prepare for assignment to another mission."
NASA spokesman Doug Peterson said Parazynski was being shifted to a different not-quite-yet-assignment because of his expertise in spacewalking — but he declined to provide any more specifics about the job. Expert spacewalkers are exactly what you need for servicing the Hubble. So could there be a Hubble angle to Parazynski's pre-reassignment? Drawing that kind of conclusion would be "too futuristic," Peterson told me with a smile.
Yet another "long lead item" could have to do with new techniques for inspecting the shuttle, and that's where the upcoming shuttle mission could play a role. A Hubble servicing job would be the only kind of trip not going to the international space station — which provides the best place in space for inspecting and, if necessary, repairing the shuttle.
During Discovery's mission, the very first spacewalk would be devoted to testing a technique that links together the shuttle's robotic arm and inspection boom to provide a platform for spacewalkers. That would be the only way to give the shuttle a full inspection if you weren't attached to the space station, explained Discovery spacewalker Piers Sellers.
By now I was firmly in the grip of a Hubble-hugging spell, so I asked if this sort of procedure would come into play during a servicing mission. "That's certainly an application," Sellers said. "For Hubble, you would need it for inspection or repair, because there's no one else around."
It turns out that Discovery commander Steve Lindsey said as much in February during an inspection visit to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Something tells me that a final visit to the lonely Hubble would stir up the general public's interest in spaceflight far more than any trip to the international space station. What do you think?
The debate over the definition of planethood has been simmering for years – and it bubbled up again this week, thanks to new research into free-floating planemos, or planetary-mass objects. It turns out that the debate could well be settled this summer.
Jon Lomberg / JonLomberg.com
|Artwork shows a planemo, or planetary-
mass object, surrounded by a disk of gas
and dust that could form satellites.
For most of the last 75 years or so, the conventional wisdom has been that there were nine and only nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. However, several recent discoveries have complicated that picture. Astronomers now know that Pluto is actually part of a wide belt of icy mini-worlds known as the Kuiper Belt – and that at least one other Kuiper Belt object just might be bigger.
Considering that there could be scores of objects like Pluto on our solar system's rim, should we demote Pluto from the ranks of the major planets? Or should other mini-worlds such as Xena, Sedna and even good old Ceres get a promotion instead? What classification system makes sense, not only for our little neck of the celestial woods, but for other yet-to-be-explored planetary systems as well?
As additional not-your-typical-planets are discovered, it's important to know exactly what you're talking about. That's why the planethood debate is important – not just for astronomy geeks, but also for future generations of students and explorers. Heck, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says he received "hate mail from third-graders" after he dissed Pluto's planetary status.
Brian Marsden, the director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has been involved in the debate for as long as anybody. "It still goes on," he told me today.
A working group associated with the International Astronomical Union has been chewing over the definition of planethood for several years, but the IAU hasn't yet resolved the issue.
There's general agreement on the upper limit for a planet: If the mass of a celestial body is 13 times the mass of Jupiter, then internal thermonuclear fusion starts up, and the body is classified as a star or a brown dwarf – that is, a failed star. It's the minimum bar for planethood that's trickier, particularly because smaller objects are generally measured in terms of diameter rather than mass.
"Three possibilities were being discussed," Marsden said:
"We're talking about the body itself, not what it's doing," Marsden explained. "Certainly the moon is perfectly good planemo, as are some of the moons of Jupiter."
Even the smallest planemos would tend to be spherical, conforming to our classical image of a planet. But clearly, not all planemos are planets. Marsden said planets might be defined as planemos that orbit a "fusor" – that is, any object that is generating energy through fusion.
That definition would add Xena, Ceres and other mini-worlds to the traditional planet list. However, some astronomers would toss out those candidates – and Pluto, by the way – on technical grounds, by adding a rule that excludes planemos that belong to belts such as the main asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt.
If all this has left you feeling muddled, you're not alone. The International Astronomical Union's effort to come up with a sensible definition of planethood is somewhat muddled as well.
"Because the committee was divided on this matter, yet another committee was formed," Marsden said. This group, which includes non-scientists as well as astronomers, is to meet sometime in the next few weeks and come up with a recommendation for the IAU's general assembly in
Scientists say the oldest decipherable DNA from a Neanderthal confirms the view that there was little if any hanky-panky between that long-vanished species and modern humans - but they also say their findings show that the Neanderthals were more genetically diverse than previously thought. If anything, the results deepen the mysteries surrounding our ancient, heavy-browed cousins.
G. Focant / Current Biology
|Current Biology's cover highlights a
100,000-year-old Neanderthal specimen
from Belgium's Scladina Cave.
These are the lessons drawn from a snippet of mitochondrial DNA recovered from the 100,000-year-old molar of a Neanderthal pre-teen, found in Scladinia Cave in Belgium's Meuse Valley. An international group of researchers, led by Catherine Hänni of France's École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, reported their findings in today's issue of the journal Current Biology.
Neanderthals were the dominant European representatives of the hominid family tree for most of the past 300,000 years, but they vanished from the scene soon after the arrival of modern humans on the continent about 30,000 years ago. Traces of mitochondrial DNA have been recovered from fossilized bones, and over the past few years, nine Neanderthal samples dating back between 29,000 and 42,000 years have been analyzed.
The genetic signatures of those nine samples fell outside the range of present-day humans - which has led some researchers to conclude that there was no significant genetic mixing with the Cro-Magnon invaders. Another conclusion is that we modern humans basically pushed the Neanderthals into extinction - a theory known as "rapid replacement."
These views are widely debated, of course, and so Hänni's group was interested in looking at older Neanderthal DNA that unquestionably predated contact with modern humans. The researchers recovered 123 DNA base pairs from the Scladina Cave specimen, then matched them up with other Neanderthal samples as well as the DNA of modern humans and chimpanzees.
They found that the Scladina sequence had less overlap with humans than the previously known, more recent Neanderthal samples.
"While the diversity of the more recent Neanderthals is similar to that of modern humans worldwide, the sequence from Scladina reveals that more divergent Neanderthal haplotypes existed before 42,000 years ago," Hänni and her colleagues wrote.
So what does that mean? The researchers speculate that a widely divergent Neanderthal species may have gone through "demographic bottlenecks" that reduced that diversity - bringing them closer to the central branches of the hominid family tree.
"This could explain the shift towards modern human pairwise distributions observed between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago," they write. "Whether this shift should be related to cohabitation, climatic changes, or any subdivision of populations, the Scladina sequence has revealed that the genetic diversity of Neandertals has been underestimated."
Did bad things happen to the quirkier Neanderthals before humans arrived in Europe? What sorts of bad things? Some have suggested that Neanderthals were less able than humans to adapt to changing climatic conditions - or more prone to disease.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One sample of 123 DNA base pairs is precious little to base a theory upon, and even Hänni's group acknowledges that more Neanderthal genetic sequences will be needed "to fully understand the extent of the past diversity of Neanderthals."
Svante Pääbo of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, one of the pioneers of Neanderthal DNA analysis, is of the same mind about the latest findings. In an e-mail, he told me that "there is not disagreement with what we have found."
"However, I think that there is too little data to say something [about] how diversity changed over time in Neanderthals," he wrote. "There is a single individual that is old ... and only four younger ones for which reasonable lengths of sequence are available, and for the latter ones, the datings are not very secure."
For more discussion of the latest study, check out John Hawks' observations in his Anthropology Weblog and Razib Khan's view in Gene Expression. And for an overview of the past and future hominid family tree, check out our "Before and After Humans" interactive.
In this item, I've changed quoted references to "Neandertal" to our American spelling for foolish consistency's sake.
Students and amateurs are working alongside professional archaeologists in rural Georgia this month, searching for the remains of a 400-year-old Spanish mission that's been lost in the mists of time. And although it's a little late to get involved this year, you just might have a chance to join them next summer.
The program is led by Dennis Blanton, curator of Native American archaeology at Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History. For years, Blanton and his colleagues have been unearthing hundreds of thousands of artifacts from St. Catherines Island, a site where settlements go back as far as 5,000 years.
Recently, archaeologists have turned their attention to the search for Santa Isabel de Utinahica, a one-time Spanish mission thought to have been located in Georgia's Telfair County.. Blanton says magnetometers have identified some intriguing anomalies to investigate, and in April the Fernbank Museum put out a call for volunteers.
This month, the volunteers will learn how to excavate artifacts, as well as how their finds will be studied to gain new insights into unwritten history. "Santa Isabel was in operation for nearly two decades and was the most isolated of the Spanish missions to be studies so far," Blanton said in a museum news release. "Through our findings, we hope to better understand the range of mission experiences."
There are plenty of other opportunities for amateurs to get involved in archaeological projects around the world. You can find a wide selection by checking Archaeology magazine's listing of field schools and educational opportunities. But it's hard to beat the price for the Fernbank field work: $100 a week for high-school students and $200 a week for college students and adults (not including accommodations).
Unfortunately, Fernbank's Brandi Berry reports that the four weeklong sessions are pretty much filled up. "Our archaeologist is already down at the site and has things pretty firmly set," she wrote via e-mail today. "I think there were only two spots left in the entire four weeks of programs anyway. But if you want to let people know to look for more information about signing up next year, we should be accepting applicants by early spring 2007."
When the time comes, I'll try to remember to pass along the contact information for applications. But in case I forget, hang onto Fernbank's e-mail address: email@example.com.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / CfA
|Red waves of dust swirl around a blue sea of stars in this color-coded infrared image of the Andromeda Galaxy from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
The Andromeda Galaxy — the nearest spiral to our own — is all dressed up in reddish, dusty swirls in a new infrared portrait from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The picture, which has plenty of scientific as well as aesthetic value, is just one of the visual delights coming out of this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Infrared light serves as a thermal signature for the dust being heated up by the galaxy's young stars — a signature that doesn't come through nearly so well in visible light. As detailed in today's image advisory from Spitzer's science team, the infrared readings were used to produce new estimates of the number of stars in the galaxy.
The readings confirm that Andromeda, 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation of the same name, puts our own Milky Way galaxy to shame in the star department: Andromeda has roughly 1 trillion stars, compared with the Milky Way's 400 billion stars.
"This is the first time the stellar population of Andromeda has been determined using the galaxy's infrared brightness," Pauline Barmby of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in today's advisory. "It's reassuring to know our numbers are in agreement with previous estimates of the mass of the stars based on the stars' motion."
Spitzer's view is actually built up from about 3,000 individual picture frames, stitched together in a submarine-shaped mosaic that also takes in a companion galaxy above Andromeda's disk (NGC 205) and another below (M32). In the color-coded image, blue represents the infrared light from older stars, and red represents the glow from dust made up of molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. In space, the substance is often associated with dense clouds of new stars; on Earth, PAHs are associated with barbecue pits and car exhaust.
George Helou, deputy director of the Spitzer Space Science Center at the California Institute of technology, marveled at the detailed tracings of star-forming material. "The challenge is to understand what shapes the distribution of this gas and dust, and what modulates the star formation at different locations," he said.
The data behind the image were gathered in January and August 2005, and the results were released today at the American Astronomical Society's spring meeting in Calgary, Alberta. The twice-yearly AAS gathering is a chance for astronomers from around the world to share their results — some of which have been held back for the occasion, and some of which may not be quite ready for prime time (or, more accurately, publication in a peer-reviewed journal).
In addition to the heavyweight studies on extrasolar planets and supernovae, you can always find some eye-pleasers among the presentations (always with a serious scientific point, of course). Here are a couple of links to other stunning images on the Web:
Stay tuned for more from the AAS meeting in the next day or two. And if you're curious about how the Spitzer Space Telescope and infrared astronomy fit into the grander scheme of things, check out our backgrounders on the Spitzer mission and the electromagnetic spectrum.