NASA / ESA / U. of Va. / STScI / ANU
Click for video: Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3 captures a detailed view of
starbirth in the spiral galaxy M83. Click on the image to watch a zoom-in video.
The Hubble Space Telescope's new wide-field cameraŠhas sent down a picture showing how the "assembly line" of starbirth works in a nearby spiral galaxy.
The galaxy is a stunner in its own right: M83, also known as the Southern Pinwheel, is 15 million light-years from EarthŠlies in the constellation Hydra. TheŠgalaxy can just barely be made out with the naked eye under optimal conditions, but the telescopeŠview reveals a spectacular face-on spiral ... hence the "Pinwheel" label.
Hubble'sŠWide Field Camera 3, which was installed in May during the space shuttle Atlantis' final visit to the orbiting observatory,Šfocuses on one of the pinwheel's spiral arms. Image data from five different filters, ranging from ultraviolet to near-infrared, were combined to create the big picture released today, said Ray Villard, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute (and author of the Cosmic Ray blog).
"This is wonderful for really sorting out the details of what's happening in the picture," he told me.
You could regard the picture as a kind of time machine. Toward the right side of the image, near the dense core, newborn star clusters are being squeezed into existence amid the murk. The stars are swathed in cocoons of dust and reddish-glowing hydrogen gas.
When you turnŠyour eyes toŠtheŠleft side of the image, the star-formation process has advanced further along the timeline: Radiation from the hot, young, blue stars has blown away the surrounding gas and dust,Šcreating bubbles of open space that lets the light shine bright. In today's advisory, the Hubble team describes this as a "colorful 'Swiss cheese' appearance."
"You're really seeing an assembly line in wonderful detail," Villard said. "This is a prime target for getting a God's-eye view of star formation."
Astronomers have also spotted the remains of about 60 supernova blasts, about five times as many as had been seen in previous images of the region. Those blast sites are harder to point out in the image, but the scientists can analyze the chemical signatures of the remnants to figure out what the exploded stars were made of.
TheŠstudy can shed new light on the process by which heavier chemicalŠelements are created by one generation of stars and passed on to the next generation. Without thatŠprocess, the elements essential to lifeŠas weŠknow it (such as carbon and oxygen) would not exist.
Villard said Wide Field Camera 3 and Hubble's other instruments are primed to take on a new batch of scientific challenges, thanks to May's extreme makeover. "The instruments are all working fine," he said. "Hubble isŠin full science mode."
One of theŠgoals in Hubble's sights is to identify objects on the very edge of the observable universe. This year, NASA's Swift satellite spotted a gamma-ray burst that is thought to have occurred when the cosmos was only 630 million years old, settingŠa distance recordŠwith aŠredshift of 8.2. (An object's spectral redshift serves asŠa cosmic yardstick: The bigger the redshift, the farther away the object is.)
"We hope eventually to say we've found something beyond 9," Villard said.ŠThat would mean the light from the object began its journey when the universe wasŠaŠ mereŠ550 million years old.
Nailing down the evidence for an object that far away isn't easy. "You're into the very dim and mysterious early formative years, so how you interpret what you have and how you convince yourself that it's real is tricky," Villard said. But I have a feeling that the Hubble Space TelescopeŠandŠthe astronomers who use it are up to the challenge.
For a closer look at the Southern Pinwheel, check out the Hubble team's zoomable view. And to see more of the Hubble team's feats, check out these slideshows:
Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto."ŠIf you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've just set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
Reed Saxon / AP
| LaserMotive's David Bashford, right,
prepares a robotic climber for its
ascent on Wednesday.
Like the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the Power Beaming Challenge is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a program aimed at encouraging new technologies that could be adopted by the space agency for future exploration. This particular competition could eventually lay the groundwork for future space elevators - but power-beaming technology is likely to be put to work even if those space elevators are never built.
Teams entered in the challenge have been working on robotic transport systems that can be remotely powered by laser beams to climb up a long steel cable. The contest, part of the Space Elevator Games managed by the Spaceward Foundation, started up in 2005 and has been getting progressively harder every year.
This year, the teams have to get their laser-powered robots to zoom up to a height of 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) on a cable that's attached to a helicopter hovering above NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California's Mojave Desert.
To win the big money, it's not enough just to get up to the top: To qualify for a $900,000 prize, the robot has to maintain an average speed of at least 2 meters (6.6 feet) per second. That's about as fast as Batman would rise on his super-strong bat rope in the movies, the Spaceward Foundation's Ben Shelef told me back in August. To qualify for an additional $1.1 million, the robot would have to go even faster: 5 meters (16.4 feet) per second.
Today LaserMotive, one of the three teams competing for the cash, sent its robot up the track in just a little more than four minutes, at an average speed of 3.72 meters per second. That's fast enough to qualify for the $900,000. Now it's up to the other teams - the Kansas City Space Pirates and the University of Saskatchewan's USST team - to see if they can claim a share of the prize as well.
The formula for determining how much money goes to whom under which circumstances is rather complicated - and rather than troubling you with the math, I'll just point you to the competition handbook.
Spaceward via Ustream
|LaserMotive's climber rises to vie for a prize.
The Spaceward Foundation came up with the power-beaming contest - plus another competition that encourages the development of super-strong tether materials - in order to encourage technologies that would be needed to build a space elevator to Earth orbit. If such a system could be created, it would revolutionize access to outer space. But NASA says power-beaming technology would be of use long before such elevators are built.
If the technology is perfected, it could be used to keep remote-controlled rovers moving on the moon or Mars, even in situations where sunlight isn't available. Power-beaming also happens to be a key technology for transmitting solar power from space. In the shorter term, better laser control systems could have military applications as well.
The best way to stay on top of the ups and downs is to watch streaming video offered via Ustream.tv. Here are other ways to track the power-beamers:
Update for 7:50 p.m. ET Nov. 5: LaserMotive improved their time by about 13 seconds during another series of runs on Thursday. Their best performance resulted in an estimated climbing speed just shy of 4 meters per second. The two other teams weren't able to make the required climb today, but the competition continues on Friday.
|NASA's Ares I-X rocket rises during October test.
The countdown is ticking toward some multibillion-dollar decisions on America's future in space, as explained in my big-picture analysis today. When the space shuttle fleet is retired, will NASA stay the course with its Ares rocket development effort, or will it emphasize buying seats on other people's spaceships instead? It's a question that touches upon technical as well as political complexities.
Want to feel like an insider? Here are some Web sites that give you countdown status reports on the space debate:
More on the space debate:
This item was last updated at 3:20 p.m. ET Nov. 5.
Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've just set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
NGLLC / X Prize Foundation
Click for video: Masten Space Systems' Xoie rocket rises above the Mojave
Desert during its prize-winning flight. Click on the image to watch a video report on
the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge from msnbc.com's Dara Brown.
California-based Masten Space Systems' Xoie rocket prototype has won a million-dollar prize from NASA, edging out its closest competitor by just a couple of feet.
NASA announced today that the Masten team's "try, try again" effort at California's Mojave Air and Space Port won the top prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 2 contest. The Xoie rocket's final flight on Friday was good enough to best Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, which qualified for the prize with its Scorpius rocket in September.
NASA said Armadillo would receive the Level 2 contest's $500,000 second prize.
A different flight by a different rocket, known as Xombie, earned Masten the $150,000 second-place prize in the Lunar Lander Challenge's less ambitious Level 1 contest. Armadillo won the $350,000 top prize in Level 1 last year.
Armadillo and Masten will be awarded a total of $1.65 million at a Washington ceremony on Thursday, NASA said. The ceremony will close out the three-year-old, $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge program.
The program, one of NASA's Centennial Challenges, was aimed at encouraging the development of new rocket technologies that could potentially be used in future spacecraft. The kind of power required to win the contest would also be enough for a lunar landing and ascent. But the current contestants don't expect to provide NASA with honest-to-goodness lunar landers anytime soon. Rather, they see the prize as an extra incentive to build vehicles capable of taking up suborbital space tourists, or putting small payloads into orbit.
"The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge has had its intended impact, with impressive performances by multiple teams representing a new generation of aerospace entrepreneurs," Andrew Petro, NASA's Centennial Challenge program manager, said in today's announcement. "These companies have demonstrated reusable vehicles with rapid turnaround and a surprising degree of precision in flight, and they have done all this at a much lower cost than many thought possible."
NASA put up the prize money for the Level 1 and Level 2 contests, but the competition was managed by the X Prize Foundation with commercial sponsorship from Northrop Grumman, the corporate heir of the company that built the Apollo lunar module. The contests were modeled after the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for private-sector spaceflight. The X Prize Foundation claims that rocketeers invested the equivalent of $20 million to go after the $2 million in Lunar Lander Challenge prize money.
"This space race was exciting to watch and experience, as these dedicated teams raced to advance space technology," Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, said today in a news release.
The contest reached its climax on Friday, when Masten's Xoie rocket made its million-dollar flight. "The drama has just been unbelievable," Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, told me when it was over.
The rules for the Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 2 contest required rocketeers to guide their remote-controlled craft through a complete round trip between one launch pad and a different boulder-strewn pad more than 50 meters (164 feet) away. Each leg of the flight had to last at least 180 seconds, and the rocket had to rise at least 50 meters above the ground. All this had to be done before time ran out on a 135-minute period.
Friday's launch came after days of ups and downs: Communication glitches twice ruled out launch attempts on Wednesday, and a fire that broke out on the launch vehicle spoiled the Xoie rocket's maiden flight on Thursday. The blaze was quickly put out, but not quickly enough to avoid doing damage to Xoie. That damage meant Xoie couldn't get all the way through the required course.
On Thursday night, the Lunar Lander Challenge judges said they would let the Masten team make repairs to the rocket overnight and give them one more chance to fly. The team worked all night to get Xoie back in shape.
Success ... and a protest
After some technical delays, Xoie took off on Friday morning and touched down successfully on the boulder-strewn pad. Then the Masten team prepped the rocket for its return flight. A stuck valve required some last-minute fiddling. Once the fix was made, Xoie took off again and completed the course. However, there were only six minutes left in the 135-minute window to finish all the close-down tasks.
One last snag left the outcome in doubt: The truck being used to transport Xoie got stuck in the Mojave sand for a few seconds, but broke free. Masten team members scrambled to get the rocket back in position. The job was finished just under the wire.
Thus, Xoie as well as Armadillo's Scorpius qualified for a prize. The tie-breaker had to do with accuracy, as measured by average landing distance from the center targets on the pads.
Scorpius' average landing accuracy on Sept. 12 was about 34 inches (86 centimeters). The unofficial figures for Xoie were around 11 inches (28 centimeters) for the first leg of the round trip, and 4 inches (10 centimeters) for the second. The resulting average of 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) was enough to move Xoie ahead of Scorpius.
After Friday's flight, questions were raised about the fairness of giving Masten an extra opportunity to launch beyond the scheduled times on Wednesday and Thursday. Armadillo team leader John Carmack said in an e-mail that he was unhappy with the way the competition turned out:
"For the past couple weeks, as it became clear that Masten had a real shot at completing the Level 2 Lunar Lander Challenge and bettering our landing accuracy, I have been kicking myself for not taking the competition more seriously and working on a better landing accuracy. If they pulled it off, I was prepared to congratulate them and give a bit of a sheepish mea culpa. Nobody to be upset at except myself. We could have probably made a second flight in the drizzle on our scheduled days, and once we had the roll thruster issue sorted out, our landing accuracy would have been in the 20-centimeter range. I never thought it was worth investing in differential RTK GPS systems [as Masten did], because it has no bearing on our commercial operations.
"The current situation, where Masten was allowed a third active day of competition, after trying and failing on both scheduled days, is different. I don't hold anything against Masten for using an additional time window that has been offered, since we wouldn't have passed it up if we were in their situation, but I do think this was a mistake on the judges' part.
"I recognize that it is in the best interests of both the NASA Centennial Challenges department and the X Prize Foundation to award all the prize money this year, and that will likely have indirect benefits for us all in coming years. It is probably also beneficial to the nascent New Space industry to get more money to Masten than Armadillo, since we have other resources to draw upon. Permit me to be petty enough to be upset and bitter about a half-million dollars being taken from me and given to my competitor.
"The rules have given the judges the discretion to do just about anything up to and including awarding prize money for best effort if they felt it necessary, so there may not be any grounds to challenge this, but I do feel that we have been robbed. I was going to argue that if Masten was allowed to take a window on an unscheduled day with no notice, the judges should come back to Texas on Sunday and let us take our unused second window to try for a better accuracy, but our FAA waiver for the LLC vehicle was only valid for the weekend of our scheduled attempt."
In the end, the judges decided to award Masten the million dollars and give Armadillo the $500,000 second prize.
Andrew Jones / NASA
Unreasonable Rocket's Blue Ball vehicle rises during a flight on Saturday.
One more competitor takes flight
The contest started out with four competitors. One of the teams, BonNova, withdrew from the competition before making an official flight attempt. But the Unreasonable Rocket team - founded by Paul T. Breed and his son, Paul A. Breed - persevered to the very end.
On Friday and Saturday, Unreasonable Rocket repeatedly tried to fly its Blue Ball rocket through the Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 1 course at Cantil, Calif. The Level 1 requirements were easier than those for Level 2: The rocket had to stay up in the air for only 90 seconds during each leg of the round trip, and both landings could be made on flat pads.
Blue Ball eventually made it through the first leg of the Level 1 course on Saturday - but the rocket sustained damage during the landing and could not launch again for the second required leg. The fact that Blue Ball fell short meant Masten was assured of winning the $150,000 second prize for Level 1, thanks to Xombie's successful flight back on Oct. 7.
Unreasonable Rocket's Level 2 entrant, known as the Silver Ball, made a series of tethered test flights on Sunday. During the day's fourth test, the rocket severed the tether and crashed, ending the final flight of the Lunar Lander Challenge with a bang.
Even though they didn't win any money, Unreasonable Rocket's father-and-son team won high praise from onlookers as well as the organizers of the challenge. "They are only the third team to successfully fly the flight profile of the competition, so they have much to be proud of," the X Prize Foundation's Amanda Stiles wrote on the foundation's Launch Pad blog.
The Mojave Air and Space Port's Witt said he was happy to see multiple competitors blazing a trail for future space technologies. "I'm really proud of all the teams, regardless of the winners," he said.
Update for 3:45 p.m. ET Nov. 5: Masten and Armadillo received their awards at a Washington ceremony with a huge crew of dignitaries in attendance. "This isn't about money. It's about vision and inspiration," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was quoted as saying in the NGLLC Twitter report from the festivities.
Bolden noted that "prizes allow people to dream, and to do."
This is an updated version of a report that was first published on Oct. 28. An earlier version of this report mischaracterized the status of BonNova's rocket prototype. "The rocket was very close to flying and in the process of hover tests," the BonNova team reported.
Check for updates by doing a Twitter search on NGLLC. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto."
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Years after the controversial presidential election in 2000, election activists are still struggling to work the bugs out of balloting systems. The butterfly ballot may be ancient history, but changes in voting practices have brought in a whole new slate of challenges.
"U.S. elections really are a mess," said Arlene Ash, a biostatistician at Boston University who has made a study of statistical issues in elections. She said the chaos was astounding for "a country which has prided itself on industrial quality control and really getting technology right."
Tuesday may be an off-year Election Day, but the occasion serves as a good time to consider how far we've come since the year 2000, and how far we have yet to go.
Nine years ago, the big story of the election focused on ballot problems in the key state of Florida - problems that arguably cost Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore the election. With financial support from the federal government, states rushed to phase out paper ballots and phase in electronic voting machines.
So what's the problem now? "Really, we got ahead of ourselves," Ash told attendees at last month's New Horizons in Science meeting in Austin, Texas. "We got ahead of ourselves in the sense that the timeline for instituting new technology to solve the electoral problems was too rapid for the community to really figure out what the protocol and what the specs should be. So a lot of states bought equipment which actually made things not better."
The glitches associated with e-voting machines have been well-documented over the years since 2000: Some of the concerns have to do with the potential for hacking the vote - but the more immediate concerns have to do with lapses in poll-worker training, poor ballot design and the thousand natural shocks that machines are heir to.
Ash dwelled on one example where a ballot design flaw, plus the weaknesses of touch-screen voting systems, almost certainly added up to the wrong electoral result.
In a 2006 congressional election in Florida, Republican Vern Buchanan beat Democrat Christine Jennings by a mere 369 votes out of nearly 240,000 cast. However, records showed that 18,000 voters in Democrat-leaning Sarasota County passed up making a choice in that race.
Just after the election, a statistical analysis by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune suggested that Jennings would have easily won that race if those "missing" votes followed traditional electoral patterns. Ash's own analysis, which was done in league with Dartmouth mathematician John Lamperti and published in the journal Chance, confirmed that conclusion.
But why were the votes missing? That's where poor ballot design played a key role.
Fla. Div. of Elections via Arlene Ash
The first page of Sarasota County's 2006 election ballot lists Senate candidates.
The Sarasota County ballot required 21 electronic "pages" on the touch-screen machines. It so happened that the Buchanan-Jennings race was easy to miss on the second page of the ballot, because it was displayed in smaller type above a large heading for statewide races, as a continuation of the previous page.
Voters complained to the Herald-Tribune that the race was "hidden," and that the machines made it hard to verify whether they had actually cast their votes. Based on their statistical analysis, Ash and Lamperti estimated that Jennings should have won by 3,000 votes.
Fla. Div. of Elections via Arlene Ash
The congressional race is on top of the second page of Sarasota County's ballot.
Despite challenges, Buchanan's election was confirmed by the courts, and last year he handily beat Jennings in a rematch. Meanwhile, some of the e-voting systems installed in the wake of the 2000 election have been replaced with optical-scan systems, due to concerns about computer glitches.
Problem solved, right? Wrong.
In Sarasota County, for example, ink-reading problems turned up last month during a pre-Election Day test of optical-scan systems. That has led some activists to insist that paper ballots should be tabulated by hand rather than by machines.
Meanwhile, the whole e-voting controversy has given way to new debates sparked by the rise of mail-in voting. BlackBoxVoting.org's Bev Harris, who raised some of the first alarms over e-voting several years ago, has compiled a "top 10" list of potential problems with mail-in balloting, also known as no-fault absentee voting.
Harris has much less of a problem with early voting, in which voters are allowed to cast their votes before Election Day, at the central election office or designated polling places. In such a situation, it's easier to verify that voters are who they say they are, and that the process is conducted above-board.
Ash said shortcomings in voting technology can be as hurtful to the democratic process as good old-fashioned vote fraud. "I think it's a form of theft, and I think we should call it theft," she said. In the Sarasota case, the lapses rose to a level so serious that the courts should have called for a new election rather than blaming "voting error," she said.
"There's just a lot of stuff we tolerate that we shouldn't tolerate," she said.
That doesn't mean every losing candidate should be allowed to use "vote theft" as an excuse. Ash said determining which elections suffer from a systemic, statistical bias is a fit topic for the kind of research she and her colleagues are conducting.
"It is absolutely predictable that some people will be manipulating things in all elections," she said. "The goal of this line of research that I'm involved in ... is to try to make elections less sloppy, so that there's less room for either frivolous mudslinging to say the election was wrong - or to say 'We won' when in fact 'we' didn't win."
And here's one other factor to consider: Ash noted that the United States was the world champion when it came to ballot complexity. "We jam up, on one electoral ballot, typically 40, 50, even 90 different issues, races, questions, choices," she said. Maybe it's time to spread out the ballot decisions - for example, by uniformly scheduling federal elections in even years and the state and local elections in odd years.
What do you think? How much confidence do you have in your electoral system as you gear up to vote this Election Day? (You are going to vote, right?) Feel free to leave your comments below, particularly if anything interesting happens at the polls on Tuesday.
Check out this full-length video of Ash's presentation in Austin. The New Horizons in Science seminar is presented annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. I've been on CASW's board for several years, and this year I'm serving as the organization's treasurer.