When you take a decades-long perspective on scientific milestones, you soon realize how much the current pioneers owe to their predecessors. Take medicine, for example: The genetic war on diseases such as cancer really ramped up in the 1970s, and is just now beginning to yield its richest payoffs.
The '70s also saw the discovery of Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old hominid fossil that opened a new chapter in the scientific story about human origins. This year, another fossil from Ethiopia, nicknamed Ardi, added yet another chapter to the tale just this year.
In the '70s, NASA's sent twin Viking missions to Mars and the Voyager spacecraft to Saturn and our solar system's other other planets. In 2009, NASA's twin Mars rovers and the Cassini orbiter are turning up new wonders in those old interplanetary neighborhoods.
These science sagas from the 1970s are part of a larger timeline of 50 scientific milestones from the past 50 years, drawn up for the 50th anniversary of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing:
13. Oncogenes: First cancer-causing gene is discovered in a chicken retrovirus. In 1976, J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus described the mechanism by which proto-oncogenes mutate and give rise to cancer - a discovery that earned them the Nobel Prize in 1989.
14. Medical scanners: First CT scanner is created. Computerized tomography X-ray scanners not only revolutionized medical imaging, but also presaged other imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance (MRI and functional MRI) as well as positron emission tomography (PET). Such techniques have been put to wide application in medical diagnosis and neuroscience, and even archaeology and paleontology.
15: Recombinant DNA: Stanford biochemist Paul Berg creates the first recombinant DNA molecule, pointing the way to genetically modified organisms and gene-based medical therapies. The technique proved so powerful and controversial that it led to a 1975 conference at California's Asilomar Conference Center, where scientists voluntarily agreed on research restrictions. The Asilomar conference itself stands as a milestone in scientific accountability.
16. Human ancestors: Paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson discovers the 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a human ancestor dubbed "Lucy" in Ethiopia. The australopith find serves as the best-known milestone in a long line of hominid discoveries also including the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania (1976), the Toumai skull in Chad (2002) and Ardipithecus in Ethiopia ("Ardi" found in 1994, characterized in 2009).
17. Countering the ozone threat: Chemists F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina propose that chlorofluorocarbons may affect Earth's ozone layer - a hypothesis that was borne out over the following decade, particularly with the identification of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985. Concerns about CFCs led to a phase-out of their production mandated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The Rowland-Molina research and its impact set a precedent for the current debate over greenhouse-gas emissions.
18. Pictures from other planets: NASA's Mars Viking probes land on Mars and send back the first color pictures from another planet. The twin missions follow up on the Soviet Venera 9 and 10 missions, which transmitted black-and-white images from Venus in 1975.
19. Deep-sea life: Biologists discover a rich ecosystem surrounding deep-sea hydrothermal vents along the Galapagos Rift. The discovery dramatically changed scientists' views on the conditions required for life on Earth, sparked new ideas about the potential undersea origins of life and led astrobiologists to consider the possibility of life in extraterrestrial settings such as the subsurface oceans of Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn).
20. Farthest frontier: NASA launches the twin Voyager probes, following up on the Pioneer interplanetary missions with a grand tour of the solar system. Both craft flew past Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and provided the first up-close look at Neptune. Voyager 1 is now the farthest-flung object ever made by humans. Both Voyager spacecraft probes carried a "Golden Record" with recordings of Earth imagery, sounds, speech and music.
21. Test-tube babies: The first baby conceived through in-vitro fertilization is born in England. The method is a boon to couples with fertility problems. Since then, an estimated 3.5 million "test-tube babies" have been born using assisted reproductive technology. But the method is not without controversy, as illustrated by the furor over the birth of octuplets to "Octomom" Nadya Suleman in 2009.
22. Data encryption: MIT's Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman describe the RSA public-key encryption method, which draws upon prime factorization to provide a means of secure communications. The encryption method serves as the foundation for applications ranging from military communications to Internet commerce.
You can see the full timeline on CASW's site. I'm also looking for suggestions on potential scientific milestones for the next 50 years. Monday's installment on the '60s has already generated some great ideas, ranging from medical nanobots to smart flying machines and amusement parks in space. Feel free to add your own flights of fancy as comments below.
Jenny Moltar / NASA
The top science sagas of the past 50 years span the spectrum from the cosmos
to the world of atoms, molecules and subatomic particles.
How do you summarize the past 50 years of discoveries in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics? And how do you predict what breakthroughs will be made in the next 50 years? That kind of challenge would be doubly daunting for any one person - but fortunately, we have a huge crowd of science fans to help with the task.
Coming up with the top 50 sagas in science is one of the ways that the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing plans to mark its 50th anniversary in 2010. The council began its work in 1960, in the wake of the first satellite launch, to help researchers and writers get the word out about the new era in science and technology that was dawning back then.
The end of the year is a fitting time to review the highlights of the past 12 months, and the end of the decade provides an opportunity to look back at the top stories of the previous 10 years. But the chance for a 50-year perspective doesn't come along too often, so the rules have to be different.
For this list, we're focusing on research milestones that have generated headlines through the years. You won't find listings for events in the realm of science, space and medicine that may have generated huge headlines but did not involve advances in research - for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986 and the Columbia tragedy of 2003. However, we are including the Sputnik launch in 1957 as part of the '60s timeline, in part because it seemed to serve as a fitting start for the past five decades of discoveries.
To engineer a list of 50 science sagas that are evenly distributed over five decades, you need to combine some developments and separate others. A single item on the list encapsulates five decades of particle physics, while no fewer than eight items document the revolution in genetics.
Strangely enough, you'll find that a lot of the stories we're talking about today trace their roots back to the 1960s. The Large Hadron Collider, for example, builds upon theories and experiments that are more than 40 years old. The Internet we know and love got its start in 1969. The effort to send humans beyond Earth orbit dominated the decade, and a renewed effort is much on NASA's mind today.
This list draws upon the input of other science writers, including members of CASW's board, but it's not set in stone. We welcome your comments about breakthroughs we may have missed. Perhaps there are some science sagas we've addressed in a single phrase that deserve a more extended mention. Or maybe there's a better way to explain the significance of a particular science saga.
This week, we're going to roll the list out day by day, decade by decade. Here are the milestones we've come up with for the 1960s:
1. Satellites: Russia launches Sputnik, opening the space race. America responded with the 1958 launch of Explorer 1, the first satellite to produce a significant scientific return - namely, the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt. The first successful weather satellite (TIROS 1) and the first communication relay satellite (ECHO) were launched in 1960. The space race and the satellite revolution kicked scientific and technological progress into high gear – and created greater demand for science news coverage.
2. 'The Pill': The first oral contraceptive is introduced. The Food and Drug Administration's approval of Enovid-10 ushered in the era of "the Pill." Few medications have had such a widespread impact on society and social norms.
3. The laser: First working laser is put into operation. Theodore Maiman's optical-light ruby laser followed up on earlier research by Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, who developed the first maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) in 1954. The 1964 movie "Goldfinger" may have portrayed it as a killer ray, but the device came to have user-friendly applications ranging from eye surgery to DVD players to supermarket checkouts.
4. Cracking the DNA code: Biochemist Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues publish the first of a series of papers laying out how DNA's genetic code is translated within the cell. The cracking of the code built upon Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA's double helix almost a decade earlier, and opened the way for the genetic revolution to come.
5. Plate tectonics: Geologists Harry Hess and Robert Dietz propose that seafloor spreading and subduction are basic parts of the mechanism for plate tectonics - a finding that led to the rapid acceptance of the tectonic theory behind Earth's large-scale geologic changes. The study of paleomagnetism led scientists to conclude that Earth's magnetic poles periodically reversed, providing an important geological dating method.
6. The environmental movement: Marine biologist Rachel Carson's masterwork, "Silent Spring," is published. The environmental concerns voiced in the book helped spark a grassroots movement that led the federal government to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and phase out the use of DDT in 1972.
7. Quasars: The first quasar - quasi-stellar radio source - is discovered by Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt. Scientists eventually determine that quasars are compact regions in the center of active galaxies that mark the presence of a supermassive black hole. The discovery was a key turning point in our understanding of galactic development and structure.
8. Quarks and all that: The quark model of particle physics is proposed. The ideas put forth by physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig touched off a decades-long quest to find the subatomic particles that matched the theory, including the J/Psi particle (found in 1974), the W and Z bosons (1983) and the top quark (2004-2005). The quest continues today at America's Fermilab and Europe's Large Hadron Collider, where scientists hope to detect the Higgs boson, the last particle predicted by the Standard Model.
9. Big bang's afterglow: Cosmic microwave background radiation is discovered by radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, an achievement that earned them a Nobel Prize in 1978. The background radiation serves as the fossil imprint of the big bang and has helped astronomers determine the geometry of the universe. The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), launched in 1989, was a landmark space mission that followed up on Penzias and Wilson's discovery by mapping variations in the background radiation.
10. Heart transplants: First human-to-human heart transplant is performed. Dr. Christiaan Barnard's operation in South Africa prolonged his patient's life by only 18 days, but helped set the stage for rapid progress in medical transplantation techniques. Stanford heart surgeon Norman Shumway was an early pioneer in transplant medicine, and Denton Cooley and Domingo Liotta made a significant contribution in 1969 with the first human implantation of an artificial heart.
11. Moon landing: Humans make first landing on the moon. The Apollo series of moon surface missions, beginning with Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, marked the climax of the decade-long U.S.-Soviet space race and also led to fresh scientific insights into the origins of Earth and the moon.
12. Internet: First node is connected on ARPAnet, the predecessor to the modern Internet. What began as an research project to develop a nuke-proof communication system ended up revolutionizing academic exchange - and eventually modern society. Twenty years after the Internet's birth, CERN's Tim Berners-Lee brought the global network to a higher level with the invention of the World Wide Web.
As long as we're talking about timelines, please suggest some of the milestones we might see on a timeline stretching from 2010 to 2060. My favorites include private-sector spaceflight to Mars and beyond, hints of life (or at least livability) beyond Earth, fusion power, more widely available terrestrial solar power and space solar power, cell-based therapies and increasingly intelligent machines. What are yours?
To get the creative juices flowing, here are some additional perspectives on the 50 years (and five years) to come:
Alan Boyle serves as the treasurer of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. 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 set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
|A clear 3-inch cube contains a Calabi-Yau manifold, the 3-D cross-section of a 6-D space.
String theorists say we may live in a 10-dimensional universe, with six of those dimensions rolled up so tightly that we can never see them. So how can you possibly visualize six-dimensional space? This year's top gift for science geeks can help.
The 2009 geek-gift competition resulted in a repeat (geek-peat?) of last year's outcome: Andrew Meeusen of Mesa, Ariz., received the most votes once again, this time for suggesting the Calabi-Yau manifold crystal.
So... what the heck is a Calabi-Yau manifold?
That's where extradimensional physics enters the picture: As string-theory fans know all too well, there are inconsistencies between small-scale and large-scale physics that could best be resolved if the universe as we know it has 10 dimensions, including time and the three spatial dimensions with which we're familiar.
So what's up with the other six dimensions? Theorists would say we're just not built to perceive those dimensions, perhaps because they folded down to sub-sub-submicroscopic size as the universe took shape. A couple of mathematicians named Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau worked out the geometry for how such folded-up extradimensional spaces might behave, and that's how Calabi-Yau manifolds got their name.
What's captured in Grossman's crystals is a three-dimensional cross-section of a six-dimensional space. Theorists say that every point in our 3-D world (well, 4-D if you count time) incorporates six additional curled-up dimensions, as shown in this animated visualization. To get a better grasp on the concept, watch this segment from the "Nova" documentary series based on Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe." (And check out my 2007 interview with Greene.)
You could say that at the most fundamental level, our universe is built up from myriads upon myriads of Calabi-Yau manifolds. If the crystals seem beautiful (and they do), that may reflect our appreciation of the deep (and deeply weird) geometry of the cosmos.
Here are a few alternative gift ideas for entering the extradimensional universe:
To reward such a smashing suggestion, Meeusen will be getting a signed copy of my newly published book, "The Case for Pluto." I'm gratified to see the positive reviews that the book has received, including the latest links from Samizdata, Instapundit and ScienceBlogs' Dynamics of Cats. Check "The Case for Pluto" Web site for ordering information and upcoming tour stops (including a soon-to-be-scheduled talk by my Second Life avatar, Boole Allen).
Because I want to spread the wealth, I'll be sending another copy of "The Case for Pluto" to the runner-up in the geek-gift contest, Buddha Dude, who suggested the Star Wars Force Trainer. The SWFT is one of the first toys to capitalize on brainwave training, and it's available from a wide array of retailers.
If you're not that taken with the "Star Wars" branding, there's another game called Mindflex Brainwave that is based on the same principle. Gizmodo's Sean Fallon gave the game a "meh" review. "Mindflex seems like something you would whip out at a party to impress your friends until everyone got a headache and stopped after 30 minutes," he wrote. But just knowing that such games exist make my brain smile.
For more geek-gift ideas, make sure you review the earlier stages of this year's contest (the initial suggestions as well as the finalists). Then move on to our Tech Holiday Gift Guide. If you still need more hints after all that, check out these links:
Just a day after a Russian rocket launch set off a spate of UFO sightings in Norway, yet another missile test created a similar sky show over the heart of Russia.
Like Wednesday's launch of the submarine-based Bulava missile from the White Sea, Thursday's launch of the land-based Topol ballistic missile from the Kapustin Yar missile range on the lower Volga River sparked plenty of sightings. Reports came in from Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg, Ufa and other cities, said NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
The rocket plume created a spiral pattern in the sky, though the pattern wasn't as striking as the one seen over Norway earlier in the week. "The difference in sunlight conditions from pre-dawn northern Norway may account for much of the visual differences," Oberg said.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said the test launch was successful, and the missile came down to earth in the Sary Shagan military reservation in eastern Kazakhstan. Oberg said the spiral plume doesn't necessarily mean anything was amiss, even though that was seen as a tip-off that the White Sea launch was a failure.
"I continue to get suggestions that the third-stage spin is a 'feature,' not a malfunction, and may be associated with guidance, or decoy deploy, or enhancing hardness against U.S. boost-phase antimissile weapons," he wrote in an e-mail. The latest space spin suggests that the spiral plume patterns seen over Norway aren't all that unusual, a view that Jeffrey Lewis confirms at ArmsControlWonk.com.
"The first rocket UFO was so much fun, the Russians fired off another one as an encore!" Oberg wrote. "Actually, the timing of the two tests is almost certainly accidental."
Check out the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog for more about the post-START missile test, and check out this roundup for video and imagery showing the rocket's glare:
T. Riecken / NASA
Fanciful visions of planets orbiting other stars aren't so fanciful anymore.
What's the best way to stay on top of the coming planet boom? You'll find resources galore on the Web, including tart tweets from the planets themselves. We'll start with the solar system, and work our way out:
Solar system: NASA's Solar System Exploration Web page rounds up everything that's going on in our celestial neighborhood, including planetary profiles and previews of missions to come, such as the Juno mission to Jupiter. For images, the space agency's Photojournal is a must-see site. Bill Arnett's Nine Planets Solar System Tour is a great resource, and the nonprofit Planetary Society offers its own roundup of solar system objects. You can explore the solar system online using Web-based planetarium programs such as WorldWide Telescope, Google Sky, Neave Planetarium or Heavens-Above.
The sun: The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory's Web site keeps watch on our nearest star, with updates from the long-running SOHO mission as well as more recent probes such as STEREO. SpaceWeather.com covers sunspots, solar storms and other manifestations of the sun's power. And the sun's Twitter updates don't let you forget about that power: "Does your fancy iPhone and sat TV work when I unleash my wind? The sun always wins."
Mercury: The Messenger Web site serves up the latest and greatest images from NASA's Mercury probe, which has flown by three times. Stay tuned for much, much more when Messenger actually enters orbit around Mercury in 2011. The planet itself can hardly wait, judging from its Twitter updates: "Why doesn't anyone visit? Only Mariner 10 came by; and that was so long ago I'm getting lonely."
Venus: The European Space Agency's Venus Express probe is in the midst of its extended mission, in orbit around our closer-in planetary neighbor. NASA still maintains a hefty archive from its Magellan mission, even though that one ended more than 15 years ago. Venus' bio on Twitter suggests that the old girl can still turn heads: "Brighter than any other planet, baby!"
Earth: You really don't know our own home planet until you visit NASA's Earth Observatory. The space agency also maintains a "Looking at Earth" Web site to round up the goings-on in Earth science. The European Space Agency does something similar with its "Observing the Earth" portal. And yes, our planet has a Twitter account, too: "I'm feeling a little warm today, wonder what those hairless apes are doing?"
Mars: Sometimes it seems as if Mars is Grand Central Station for interplanetary missions. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers are still in business (and tweeting away), more than five years after their landing, although Mars' tweets have voiced concern about Spirit's predicament. "I really hope Spirit can get moving soon," the planet said. "In the future, please clean up your tracks - you are messing up my drifts!" You'll find tweets as well from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's high-resolution camera and the frozen Phoenix Mars Lander. Europe's Mars Express and NASA's Mars Odyssey are still flying above. NASA's Mars Exploration Program Web site rounds up a lot of missions, including the Curiosity rover's future sojourn.
Ceres and other asteroids: NASA's Dawn mission is heading for Ceres, the smallest known dwarf planet, in 2015. The spacecraft has already entered the asteroid belt and is on track to fly by the asteroid Vesta in 2011. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory offers an Asteroid Watch Web site plus a Twitter account. A different NASA Web site concentrates on cosmic hazards, while the Minor Planet Center catalogs asteroids and comets. (See if your favorite name is on the list.) If you want to live in nearly perpetual fear of asteroids, check the tweets from Low Flying Rocks.
Jupiter: It's been six years since NASA's Galileo probe plunged into the Jovian atmosphere, but this Web site keeps the mission's legacy alive. Juno (named after Jupiter's mythological wife) is the next mission to target the giant planet. Other spacecraft, such as Cassini and New Horizons, occasionally pass by to steal a gravitational boost. This year the Hubble Space Telescope caught sight of a fresh black mark on the planet, likely left behind by a comet collision. "You are right, my hairless ape friends - that is a huge scar," Jupiter tweeted. "What I wouldn't give for a large mirror!"
Saturn: The ringed planet and its moons have been the stars of the show lately, thanks to all the attention from the Cassini orbiter. Just this week, the mission's imaging team came through with some fresh views of the planet's six-sided storm and the two-toned moon Iapetus. All these pictures are making Saturn self-conscious on Twitter: "Did my rings look fat?"
Uranus and Neptune: The last space probe to visit the solar system's ice giants was the Voyager 2 spacecraft, back in the late 1980s. Voyager's flyby yielded great pictures of Uranus and Neptune as well as their moons. Since then, it's pretty much been up to the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes to watch all those worlds. Uranus' Twitter tweets have been getting a bit surly ("So you think my name is funny? You suck") while Neptune dwelled on its Great Dark Spot ("How embarrassing was that!?").
Pluto and other ice worlds: In my book, "The Case for Pluto," I observed that Pluto was one funny planet - and its tweets don't disappoint: "Even though I am at the far reaches of your solar system, that doesn't mean you Hairless Apes can try to reset my password. #FAIL." But seriously, folks: The New Horizons Web site provides plenty of information on the dwarf planet as well as the spacecraft's progress toward a 2015 rendezvous. Caltech astronomer Mike Brown offers a Web site about dwarf planets, and Uruguayan astronomers have set up a Dwarf Planet and Plutoid Headquarters. UCLA's David Jewitt maintains a Kuiper Belt Web site. To get the perspective of a hard-core Plutophile, check out Laurel Kornfeld's Pluto Blog.
Exoplanets: The discoveries of planets beyond our solar system are mounting up so quickly (400-plus and counting) that you need a database to keep track of them. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia ranks among the most authoritative Web sites, and the Planetary Society's Catalog of Exoplanets looks like the most fun. (Here's a guide to exoplanets from earlier this year.) For Twitter updates, the Exoplaneteers list, managed by Exoplanetology, is the best place to start. But how will we name all those alien planets? Astronomer Wladimir Lyra has some suggestions, but not everyone's willing to go along. Maybe scientists can sell exoplanet naming rights to raise money for research, as is done with biological species. What do you think?
Correction for 8:23 p.m. ET: David Jewitt has moved from the University of Hawaii to the University of California at Los Angeles, but I didn't catch up with the move until he called the outdated information to my attention. Thanks, Dave!
Click for video: A spiral seen in Norwegian skies has sparked speculation
worldwide. Click on the image for Brian Williams' report on "NBC Nightly News."
A spectacular light show visible from northern Norway has energized the UFO crowd. Was that blazing pinwheel in the sky a signal from the aliens? Was it a practice run for an elaborate worldwide messianic hoax?
You'd expect the experts to come out with a less sensational explanation, and they have: They suggest that the display was caused by a Russian submarine-launched missile that went into a midair spin, causing a spiral-shaped rocket plume.
The glowing spiral, with a bluish column of smoke trailing down toward the horizon, was seen in eastern skies early this morning from a wide area of northern Norway. Photos and video clips of the display quickly proliferated - first in Norwegian news media, then around the world via the Internet. For a sampling, check out NRK, The Daily Mail and SpaceWeather.com.
The effect looks almost too good to be real, and tabloids floated some out-of-this-world suggestions for its cause - such as a previously unknown manifestation of the Northern Lights, a black hole or a "Stargate" to another dimension.
A former UFO analyst for the British Ministry of Defense, Nick Pope, was mystified by the flare-up. "It's ironic that something like this should happen the very week after the [Ministry of Defense] terminated its UFO project," he told The Sun. "It just goes to show how wrong that decision was."
One Internet forum debated whether the fireworks were a test run for "Project Bluebeam," which supposedly involves creating huge projections in the sky that show scenes of the Second Coming or an alien invasion. The hoax would clear the way for a one-world government to take over - well, at least that's what the conspiracy theorists think.
Russian and Norwegian news reports gave strong support to the missile hypothesis. The Infox.ru news site and Norway's Barents Observer referred to Russian advisories about missile test launches that were to take place around the time of the sighting.
"The missile was most likely yet another failed test launch of a Bulava missile from the Typhoon submarine Dmitry Donskoy in the White Sea area," the Barents Observer said. A similar phenomenon was spotted a month ago, but without the spectacular spiral.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg, an expert on UFO sightings as well as the Russian space program, says the missile spin is a plausible explanation.
"But it is still not clear that the missile actually failed. ... Spiral rocket plumes are also created by rocket stages spinning to create gyroscopic stability," Oberg said in an e-mail. "Also, Norwegian observers were looking 'up the tailpipe' of the rocket as it sped eastward, away from them - so even a slight thrusting wobble might manifest itself as an expanding spiral, exactly what was seen."
Oberg noted that the Bulava missile has been at the center of a Russian military scandal. "The continuing failures of its test program in the past two years is putting the Russian nuclear weapons retaliatory capability in doubt as older missiles degrade in their silos and the replacement missile is still years from deployment," he said.
So what does the Russian military have to say? Not much. "On this matter we do not confirm, we do not deny, we do not comment," a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Infox.ru.
If the spiral in the sky really was a missile failure, Moscow's higher-ups just might prefer to have the world think it was a UFO.
For more case studies from the ex-Soviet X-files, check out Oberg's reports on Tunguska's 'alien' artifacts, the 1984 Minsk UFO sighting and Russia's space dumping ground in the Pacific. Search for UFOs on msnbc.com - and to hear more from Oberg about the case of the Norwegian pinwheel, watch this video clip from "The Rachel Maddow Show."
Update for 10:55 a.m. ET Dec. 10: The Russian Defense Ministry has admitted that a failed missile caused the light show. Oberg said he was initially cautious about assuming that the missile failed because similar exhaust spirals had been seen in the past, but he accepted the official story.
"The impressive translucent moving spiral was the tumbling rocket moving eastward, almost a thousand miles away from Norway and moving almost directly away from the area," Oberg explained in an e-mail. "Observers were seeing - and photographing - it from behind, even as the images gave the impression of something moving toward them. The illusion was the result of the transparency of the exhaust clouds."
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 set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
The city-limits sign on California's Sierra Highway proclaims Mojave to be "the
Gateway to Space." The town is the site of America's first inland spaceport.
SpaceShipOne may have put Mojave, Calif., on the map five years ago — but when it comes to the future of space travel, there's more than one game in town. And if Mojave does live up to the town's claim on the city-limits sign to be "the Gateway to Space," the diversity of its emerging rocket ecosystem could well be the secret to its success.
"It's cool to think that three of the companies in the country that fly reusable launch vehicles are within a five-minute walk of each other," said Jonathan Goff, propulsion engineer at Mojave's Masten Space Systems (and one of the bloggers behind Selenian Boondocks).
Masten, which just won $1.15 million in rocket prizes from NASA, is one of those three companies, of course. So is Scaled Composites, the company that built the SpaceShipOne rocket plane as well as the just-unveiled SpaceShipTwo. XCOR Aerospace, which is working on a different breed of rocket plane, the Lynx, rounds out Goff's trio.
Add in other ventures old and new, ranging from BAE Systems to Interorbital Systems, and Mojave (population 3,836 as of 2000) would have to rank as one of the nation's leading municipalities in aerospace ventures per capita.
When you look at the town - sitting smack dab in the Mojave Desert, one and a half hours' drive from Los Angeles - you might wonder why. Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites' founder and one of Mojave's leading citizens, joked that the company used to keep track of how long its newly hired employees' wives wept when they saw the town. (He reported that the record was seven and a half weeks.)
But the desert's wide-open spaces - and especially the wide-open airspace over Mojave - have become the big attraction for rocket ventures such as Masten. That company's founder, former network engineer Dave Masten, noted that Mojave is much more hospitable for rocket testing than his previous base of operations, up the road in Silicon Valley.
"That had a little problem, that you turn on a rocket and the neighbors complain," he joked.
Aleta Jackson, one of XCOR's founders, said Mojave's open skies have an inspirational as well as a logistical benefit.
"Being able to see a horizon makes you think about what's beyond it," she said.
The Mojave Desert's space-age DNA goes back much further than SpaceShipOne: You could argue that America's rocketship culture was born at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, where test pilots made history - and made for good tales such as "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe. All the big aerospace companies are represented just down State Route 14 in Lancaster and Palmdale, where NASA's space shuttles were built.
You could also argue that the current sequel to "The Right Stuff" began 10 years ago, when Rotary Rocket's Roton craft lifted off to mark the first-ever rocket launch from Mojave. As a business, Rotary failed miserably, in part due to a sharp contraction in the anticipated satellite market at the turn of the century. (Remember Teledesic?) But the people who worked at Rotary have gone on to found a host of other aerospace ventures, including XCOR.
"I think you declare victory over that," said Stuart Witt, a former Navy test pilot who is now general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. "It may have been a failed business, but that was the catalyst."
Rotary Rocket's history shows that failure is an option for any of Mojave's space ventures - and that's OK. "This country needs a place where you can take great risk, otherwise you don't have great breakthroughs," Witt said.
Today, the Roton is on display as a monument to Mojave's space strivings, in a small park just a stone's throw from the airport's administrative building (and the attached Voyager restaurant, the town's premier gathering place). A replica of SpaceShipOne is also on view. Someday, perhaps, the rockets of XCOR, Masten and other Mojave ventures will join the exhibit. But not just yet.
Masten Space Systems, for example, is back at work refitting the Xombie, one of its prize-winning rocket prototypes, for even higher flights. "We're much closer to real altitude flights than we were a year ago, before the Lunar Lander Challenge," said Joel Scotkin, the company's lead investor.
Masten's Xoie flew well enough to win the challenge's million-dollar top prize in October - but the next-generation Masten rocket, tentatively code-named Foxie, could soar up to 100,000 feet. And Scotkin said the design planned for the rocket after that, known as Xogdor, should be "space-capable."
XCOR also plans to get to space in stages: The company plans to send its Lynx Mark 1 prototype rocket plane at least 38 miles high and sell rides at $95,000 apiece. Nelson said getting the Lynx off the ground was now XCOR's top priority.
"It could be the end of 2010 if we're extremely lucky ... and no one's usually that lucky," he said. The lessons learned with Mark 1 will be applied to a Mark 2 production version capable of reaching an altitude of 66 miles, beyond the internationally accepted 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space. The Mark 2 could take shape nine to 18 months after the Mark 1 passes its initial flight tests, Nelson said.
Space tourism is one of XCOR's potential markets, although the XCOR team prefers to call the people sitting alongside the Lynx's pilot "participants" rather than "tourists." The view looking up from the cockpit will be expansive, as I could see for myself when I sat in a mockup today.
XCOR is also targeting microgravity research, as are other suborbital space ventures. Nelson estimated that the Mark 1 could provide around a minute's worth of zero gravity at a time, while the Mark 2 could go weightless for several minutes.
The cockpit is structured to leave space for a small scientific payload behind the pilot's seat. And if you take out the passenger's ... excuse me, the participant's ... seat, there'd be enough room for two shuttle middeck lockers' worth of experiments. Nelson said the cost of flying an experiment would be in the range of $50,000 to $75,000.
Eventually, the space plane could be hooked up with an expendable launcher on top to send nanosatellites weighing up to 22 pounds (10 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. The price tag for doing that would be less than $500,000, Nelson said.
Nelson said the "sales pipeline" is filling up for the Lynx, even though it hasn't yet been completed. He estimated there could be $250 million worth of potential revenue in the pipeline. How about some specifics? Nelson declined to reveal any details, but the Mojave grapevine was humming with suggestions that XCOR had some good news on the way.
"It feels a lot like things are accelerating," he said. "Stay tuned. Give us a week and a few days."
Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 9: I mixed up XCOR's expected price list for flying payloads (onboard experiments vs. launches into low Earth orbit). That mistake has now been fixed. Many thanks for setting me straight, Andrew! I also added one of the chief reasons for Rotary Rocket's failure, which I meant to do as I was editing the item.
Andrew Gombert / EPA
Tonight's Hollywood-style debut of the world's first commercial suborbital spaceship was a spine-tingling affair - and not just because of the historic occasion, the appearance by a movie star turned governor, or the ice-cold vodka served afterward. It was cold out here in California's Mojave Desert.
Virgin Galactic's unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane drew hundreds of paying space tourists and travel agents, rocket geeks and glitterati to the Mojave Air and Space Port. For a while, it looked as if stormy skies and brisk winds would force a change in Virgin billionaire founder Richard Branson's plans for an after-dark, outdoor debut.
But in the end, the spotlights went on and the music blared as scheduled, despite the near-freezing temperatures, the wind and the puddles of rain. SpaceShipTwo rolled down the runway, suspended from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stepped out and smashed bottles of champagne - and Branson's daughter, Holly, officially gave the 60-foot-long craft its new name: the VSS Enterprise.
The name pays tribute to the sailing ships of old as well, to the fictional "Star Trek" starship - and to the idea that the craft will bring private enterprise into the world of space travel, said Virgin Galactic's president, Will Whitehorn.
SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years in a Mojave hangar at Scaled Composites - the company that built the craft's predecessor, SpaceShipOne, to win a $10 million prize for private spaceflight five years ago.
The aerospace guru behind both rocket planes, Burt Rutan, is known for playing his cards close to the vest - and today's unveiling marked the first opportunity for outsiders to get a close look at his latest brainchild. Rutan told the hundreds of onlookers assembled under a large plastic shelter that he considered himself "the luckiest guy in the tent."
Unlike Rutan, Branson is known for playing up the glitz game to market his ventures - and tonight's main event was a Virgin classic: Within minutes after the rollout, the tent was transformed into a lounge, complete with an ice bar, buffet and electronic music on the public address system.
Schwarzenegger, who left right after the christening, said he was tickled to be part of the event. "This here today is one of the coolest things I've ever done," Schwarzenegger told the crowd. Even his kids were jealous, he said.
Enterprise's unveiling marks the beginning of a new phase for Virgin Galactic, coming after last year's big reveal for SpaceShipTwo's WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane (dubbed "Eve" in honor of Branson's mother) and this year's successful series of rocket engine tests. "Virgin Galactic is now in the final stretch of becoming the world's first commercial spaceline," Branson declares in a promotional video.
Branson is spending an estimated $250 million to $400 million on his space venture, which will involve building at least six SpaceShipTwo planes and two WhiteKnightTwo motherships. The company already has signed up more than 300 would-be spacefliers, including actress Victoria Principal, Hollywood director Bryan Singer and 90-year-old enviro-theorist James Lovelock. Paralyzed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who sampled zero-G two years ago, may eventually fly as well.
The price for a three-day space tour package, including training, is $200,000. That price is expected to come down as the space tourism market takes root.
Touring SpaceShipTwo's hangar
Is there really enough of a market for space travel to allow Branson to recover his investment? "To be perfectly honest, I'm not too worried if I make money or not," he told our NBC News crew during a tour of SpaceShipTwo's hangar in advance of tonight's ceremony. He said his prime concern was to create something he's proud of, and have faith that any venture that inspires his pride will end up attracting customers and making money.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
|Click for video: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson chats with an NBC video crew Monday with SpaceShipOne's "Galactic Girl" hanging above them in a zero-G pose. Click on the image to watch NBC correspondent George Lewis' "Nightly News" report.
The rocketship, gleaming in Virgin Galactic's blue-and-black livery, sat mounted between the twin cabins of the Eve carrier airplane. Branson said the two planes were linked together for the first time just this weekend.
VSS Enterprise is emblazoned with an image of "Galactic Girl," a mascot who is modeled after Branson's mother as she looked in the 1940s, but floating in zero-G. The painting was done by one of her grandsons, Ned Rocknroll.
While we were there, Eve Branson, who admits to being near her 90s, stopped by to look at her likeness. "These are your belly-dancing days," Richard Branson joked.
"Could have made the boobs a little bit bigger," his mother said, grinning all the while.
"Never satisfied, never satisfied," the son replied.
Eve Branson said she was indeed satisfied, calling the likeness "marvelous" and congratulating her grandson, the artist. "Hey, if you put your grandmother on the side of a spaceship, you're all good," Ned Rocknroll said.
Richard Branson said he marveled to see the paired craft in their flight configuration. "I thought that I was dreaming. ... I hope it's not a dream. I hope it's real," he told us.
What SpaceShipTwo will do
SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space, past the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark. The flight profile would provide about five minutes of weightlessness, a commanding view of a curving Earth below the black sky of space, and the world's highest roller-coaster ride going up and coming down.
Rutan has kept mum about his expectations for the flight schedule, but observers guess that 2011 or 2012 is the likeliest time frame for the start of commercial service. Between now and then, SpaceShipTwo is likely to go through scores of tests. Ground testing starts on Tuesday, Branson told us.
The first flight tests, due to begin next year, would involve captive-carry flights during which the rocket plane would ride between WhiteKnightTwo's twin cabins so that Scaled's team can check the aerodynamics of the combined craft. Then there would be drop tests, in which SpaceShipTwo would be released and piloted through a glide back down to Earth.
Eventually, the hybrid rocket motor would be added to the mix: SpaceShipTwo would light up its engine in a series of powered flights, climaxing with the full profile for commercial service. SpaceShipTwo would be dropped from WhiteKnightTwo at a height of 60,000 feet, blast off, rise to spaceworthy heights and go supersonic on the way down.
SpaceShipTwo uses the same "carefree re-entry" design pioneered by SpaceShipOne. During the peak phase of the flight, the wings fold forward in such a way that the craft stabilizes itself as it descends through the atmosphere, even without pilot intervention.
Concerns about safety
But testing isn't simply a case of "flown there, done that": The new rocketship has been scaled up to more than twice SpaceShipOne's 28-foot length, as shown in this comparative graphic from Virgin Galactic, and that could affect how the craft performs.
There's always the chance of suffering a setback during the test phase, as the Scaled Composites team knows all too well: In 2007, a nitrous-oxide tank exploded at Scaled's rocket test site, killing three of the company's employees. The tragedy caused significant delays in the SpaceShipTwo development effort.
During today's unveiling, Rutan said the standards for passenger spaceflight had to surpass the safety record achieved by government-run space programs. "That's why our program has been longer and more difficult than anticipated," he said.
Whitehorn, also laid special emphasis on safety. Like Branson and his family, Whitehorn hopes to get an early ride on the Enterprise, so he has a personal interest in conducting a thorough test program.
"We're not in a race to do this," he told me. "We have only one chance to get it right ... and many chances to get it wrong."
New Mexico's role
If the effort proceeds according to plan, the first commercial flights are likely to take place from New Mexico's Spaceship America, thanks to millions of dollars of state and local backing. That explains why Richardson as well as Schwarzenegger were on hand today.
The two governors ribbed each other during their pre-christening speeches. Schwarzenegger declared that California has been a leader in the aerospace industry, and added, "I guess New Mexico is always following in our footsteps."
When it was Richardson's turn, he talked up his state's role in the future of the space industry, and then turned to Schwarzenegger. "Governor, you should join me in going to space - but I want you to go first," he said.
Richardson said private spaceflight could spawn new economic activity not only for tourism, but also for research and industry. "I call on President Obama to embrace commercial space travel," he said.
In addition to carrying people, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo could carry scientific experiments. WhiteKnightTwo is designed so that it could launch either the piloted SpaceShipTwo or an unpiloted rocket ("LauncherOne"). And SpaceShipTwo could conceivably bring up experimental packages, even during its testing phase.
Tonight, however, it was the tourists who were in the spotlight. Scores of customers who have already paid the full fare showed up to get their first close-up look at the craft they will someday take into space. Texas eye surgeon Carlos Manrique, a paid-up spaceflight customer who shivered along with me as the Enterprise rolled into view tonight, said he could hardly wait for the ride.
"It's not just about this," he said of the glitz that surrounded us. "It's about the adventure."
Update for 11:35 a.m. ET (8:35 a.m. PT) Dec. 8: The party broke up early: Guests were evacuated from the site of the rollout on shuttle buses at about 7:45 p.m. PT due to a high-wind advisory. Soon afterward, the tents at the site collapsed and were blown away. Amid the hubbub of the evacuation, some astronauts-to-be had to scramble to recover their personal items ... not always with success.
The confusion continued, along with the wailing winds, into the night. WhiteKnightTwo was moved to a protected location just outside its hangar, and partygoers congregated at the Mariah Country Inn and Suites while everything was sorted out.
The morning after was cold and breezy ... but there was nary a cloud in the desert sky. Eve and Enterprise were back safe inside their hangar, and Virgin Galactic's executives were relieved that everything worked out in the end with no injuries.
"Despite the insane weather conditions, SS2 did not fail to impress!" the company said in a Twitter update. Hyperbola's Rob Coppinger, who wasn't able to make the party, had a different take in his tweet about the wild night: "Congrats to the survivors!"
Update for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 9: Check out this amazing video of the ruins at the rollout site on the day after the wild night.
More about the debut of the Enterprise:
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 set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
The week ahead is shaping up as a great one for watching the skies. Here are four highlights that will open your eyes:
Update for 8:35 p.m. ET Dec. 5: Congratulations to the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team for winning the DARPA Network Challenge! This was an interesting experiment in information dissemination as well as disinformation insemination.
Watch the log on Monday for reports from Mojave, Calif., where Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane will be unveiled. 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" - the perfect stocking-stuffer. If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
Click for video: Learn more about nuclear fusion and the
science behind the National Ignition Facility.
Is nuclear fusion the ultimate energy source, or the ultimate pipe dream? Millions upon millions of dollars are being spent to find out which answer is the right one. For some technologies, the answer could come sooner than later. For others, it may be later rather than sooner.
The easiest way to access fusion power is to go outside on a sunny day: Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun, by crushing hydrogen atoms into helium atoms and converting the small blips of extra mass into energy. Hydrogen bombs, tested by the world's armed forces but never used on the battlefield, do the same thing.
For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out how to harness the fusion reaction to generate electrical power. A key milestone would be passing the "break-even" point, at which a controlled fusion reaction produces more energy than it consumes. Research aiming toward that goal is moving along three main routes, and the pace of progress can vary, depending on which road you're traveling down. Here's a status report on the fusion race:
Laser fusion: On the rise
The biggest buzz is being generated at the National Ignition Facility, the $3.5 billion laser research site at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. NIF is designed to produce fusion power on a small scale by aiming 192 laser beams simultaneously at a hydrogen target the size of a pencil eraser for a burst lasting just a few billionths of a second.
In the shorter term, the experiment will help the U.S. military simulate how thermonuclear warheads work so that the strategic arsenal can be kept up to date. In the longer term, the laser-blaster could point the way toward commercial power-generating schemes.
NIF was certified for operation in March, and last month officials reported that the laser beams could generate enough X-ray energy during the initial testing phase to ignite the fuel capsules as required. The research campaign is scheduled to begin in earnest early next year, and there's already talk in the fusion community that the reaction could reach the break-even point by the time 2010 ends.
Then what? Such an achievement could clear the way for laser facilities designed for more extended operations, such as the instruments pioneered by the Livermore Lab's Mercury laser project. NIF researchers are also looking at a plan to use neutrons from a fusion reaction to boost the efficiency of a nuclear fission reactor — a hybrid concept known as Laser Inertial Fusion-Fission Energy, or LIFE.
Inertial electrostatic fusion: Moving quietly
The dark horse in the fusion race is an approach known as inertial electrostatic confinement fusion, or Polywell fusion. This method, pioneered by the late physicist Robert Bussard, involves designing a high-voltage cage in such a way that atomic nuclei slam into each other at high speeds, sparking fusion.
Bussard claimed that Polywell fusion could lead to low-cost commercial fusion power and usher in a new generation of space propulsion systems as well. After his death in October 2007, his work was carried on by a small team of physicists operating out of Bussard's EMC2 Fusion lab in Santa Fe, N.M.
In September, EMC2 Fusion was awarded a Navy contract, backed by $7.9 million in stimulus funds, to develop a scaled-up version of a Polywell fusion reactor. Development and testing of the device is expected to take two years, and there's an option to spend another $4 million on experiments with hydrogen-boron fuel (known as pB11).
In the past, EMC2 Fusion's Richard Nebel has been able to describe the team's progress in general terms, saying that he was "very pleased" with the performance of an earlier test device. But now, with more Navy money on the line, Nebel has been constrained from saying anything about the project. The fact that the research is continuing, however, appears to indicate that the results have been promising enough to keep the Navy interested.
Private-sector ventures are pursuing a range of similarly unorthodox approaches to small-scale fusion — but it's not yet clear how big the payoff might be. Among the ventures that have surfaced so far are Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Tri Alpha Energy and Helion Energy.
Magnetic fusion: Not so fast
When it comes to fusion research, the road most traveled is the one that features magnetic containment of fusion plasma, usually within a doughnut-shaped chamber known as a tokamak. The current poster child for magnetic confinement fusion is the ITER project, headquartered in southern France.
ITER, which started out as an acronym standing for "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor," is projected to spend $13 billion over 30 years to demonstrate a break-even fusion reaction in an eight-story-high containment vessel. Components for the device are to be contributed by the ITER consortium's seven parties — the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
The facility is just in the beginning stages of construction, and the current schedule calls for the reactor to start up in 2018. However, Science magazine reported last week that the project's governing council held back its endorsement of the schedule, saying that the proposed startup date did not seem realistic.
"Europe is very concerned about the risk of pushing ahead too fast," Steven Cowley, head of Britain's Culham Center for Fusion Energy, told Science.
So what would happen to the ITER project if it turns out that other, cheaper routes to the break-even point bear fruit on a shorter timetable? That sounds like something worth talking about. Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
More on the fusion quest:
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" - the perfect stocking-stuffer. If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
|The "Star Wars Force Trainer" turns brainwave training into a sci-fi game.
What do you get a science geek? A perfume chemistry set? A brainwave-operated toy? Here's your chance to vote in the top geek gift of 2009 and help somebody win a prize.
This year's suggestions fit a wide range of holiday gift budgets, from a cute plush common-cold virus ($7.95) to a hand-crafted retro robot ($24,500).
The robot, a replica of B9 from the old "Lost in Space" TV show, was recommended by Michael Joyce - who founded the Next Giant Leap team to go after the multimillion-dollar Google Lunar X Prize. Joyce says that profits from the B9 sales will help support his team. That's one small step toward a moon landing, and too much of a leap for my bank account.
Other correspondents were anxious to find out exactly where you can buy the nuclear-powered toys known as spinthariscopes. Just click here to check 'em out (at $30 apiece) on the United Nuclear Web site, which has lots more fun science stuff.
Longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Dennis McClain-Furmanski suggests giving your geek-in-training a model-rocket starter kit, which costs somewhere around $40 to 50.
"Getting them just the rocket gives them something to make," he writes. "To really give them something special, give them something to be." Membership in the National Association of Rocketry will keep young rocketeers on track as they grow older.
"If this is for a young person, buy them the stuff and memberships, and buy the same for yourself so you can give them (and yourself) the very best kind of gift - give of yourself and your time by joining them in the hobby," McClain-Furmanski says. "It'll mean a lot more to them and they'll get more out of it, and you can get the same."
Words to live by, Dennis.
Here are the other top entrants in this year's competition for top geek gift of 2009, with the earliest suggestions listed first:
Just register your vote (or your write-in suggestion) as a comment below. Make sure you clearly indicate which one you're voting for. The suggestion with the most votes as of 3 p.m. ET Dec. 10 will win a prize: either a signed copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," or an alternate book from the Cosmic Log shelf (for example, "Planetology" or "Hubble: Imaging Space and Time").
Your write-in suggestion could still come away with the prize if you line up enough supporting votes by the deadline. May the best geek win!
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" - the perfect geeky stocking-stuffer. If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."
Maximilien Brice / CERN
A 3-D view shows how the Large Hadron Collider's magnet ring is
structured to shoot two beams of protons at near the speed of light.
Europe's Large Hadron Collider was knocked offline today due to a faulty electrical cable, just a couple of days after the accelerator broke the world record for proton-smashing power. Electrical power was restored within hours, with no major effect on LHC operations, according to the CERN particle-physics center.
"Even as we speak, they are still trying to get beam back to the LHC," CERN spokeswoman Katie Yurkewicz told me just before 3 p.m. ET (9 p.m. Geneva time).
She said the bad cable tripped an 18-kilovolt circuit breaker that served part of CERN's power supply network. The good news is that the outage did not affect the part of the system that powers the LHC's supercooled magnet system. The bad news is that it brought down the main computer system at CERN's headquarters in Meyrin, just outside Geneva, as well as the equipment that injects beams of protons into the LHC's underground ring.
That meant many of CERN's Web sites became temporarily inaccessible, and LHC operations were halted. Even when power was restored and all the equipment was back up and running, the LHC's operators had to put the system through a checkout to make sure it was safe to resume shooting proton beams through the ring.
The outage was nowhere near as serious as the blowup that damaged the LHC's cooling system in September 2008, shortly after the collider was turned on. It took more than a year to repair that damage and upgrade the facility's safety system, building up to the LHC's restart late last month.
Today's electrical glitch, which came to light on the LHC Portal discussion forum, was more like a power cut that occurred a month ago. That outage was blamed on a bird that apparently dropped a soggy piece of bread onto a power substation. This one was traced to a break in cable insulation that caused a short circuit, Yurkewicz said.
She stressed that today's setback was nothing out of the ordinary, particularly during the shakedown phase for a facility designed for peak power consumption of 120 megawatts. "This is the sort of thing that happens at accelerators," Yurkewicz said.
Update for 4:20 a.m. ET Dec. 3: Beams of protons are circulating again in the Large Hadron Collider. Here's the word from CERN spokeswoman Renilde Vanden Broeck:
"A cable fault had caused the failure in the 18 kV power supply network, which affected mainly the Meyrin site, in particular the injectors and the Computing Centre, but not the LHC cryogenics. It was a short circuit owing to faulty insulation. The network was back up by 10:30 a.m. As there were knock-on effects it took time to get everything back up (the LHC etc. is a complex electrical system). Power cuts are not that rare around here. There was again beam in the machine at 10:30 p.m. last night."
|Ten balloons like this one will be put up to kick off the DARPA Network Challenge on Saturday.
More than 300 teams have signed up for this weekend's DARPA Network Challenge, a $40,000 balloon hunt organized by the Pentagon's think tank to study how social networking works. And one of the things that has come out of the experiment is that you could earn some of the prize money yourself, just by being in the right place at the right time.
The idea is simple: The first team to report the locations of 10 weather balloons put up across the nation on Saturday wins the prize. But the social-networking strategy can get devilishly complex ... or just plain devilish.
"The most innovative ideas we probably haven't heard about yet, because there is an incentive to keep them secret," said Peter Lee, director of the Transformational Convergence Technology Office ("Tick-toe") at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
DARPA is known for delving into way-out ideas, ranging from robo-cars to teleportation. It's no wonder that Michael Belfiore's newly published book about the agency is titled "The Department of Mad Scientists." This latest challenge, however, is so un-crazy it just might work.
For one thing, the contest is a great way to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Internet, which began as a military project funded by DARPA's predecessor, the Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"In the 40 years since this breakthrough, the Internet has become an integral part of society and the global economy. The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems," the agency's director, Regina Dugan, said in the news release announcing the contest.
Ten clown-red weather balloons, each measuring 8 feet wide, will be raised on Saturday morning at publicly accessible locations around the continental United States. They'll be visible from surrounding roadways during daylight hours. Then, at the end of the day, they'll be taken down.
The $40,000 prize goes to the first participant to identify the latitude and the longitude of all 10 balloons. If no one reports all 10 of the locations by Dec. 14, then the "firstest with the mostest" will win the prize - as long as they get at least five locations right. Check out the official rules and the FAQ for the definitive word.
DARPA expects that schoolkids, geocaching fans, Slashdotting gearheads and just plain folks will participate in the experiment - and that network experts inside and outside the government will learn a lot about the state of the art when it comes to online collaboration.
It's not too late to register for the contest, but you can also play along by helping an existing team. The Red Balloon Wiki lists teams as well as suggested strategies for winning the prize. And that's where the devilish part can come into play.
"It's almost not enough to say 'We're just going to form a Facebook group,'" Lee told me. "What's really interesting is that teams have to come up with some way of mobilizing. ... How do you incentivize people to work toward this common goal when there's some small amount of prize money that you're going after?"
For DARPA, that's one of the most interesting aspects of the experiment. Some teams appeal to the common good, by saying that the money will be donated to charity. That could motivate the folks associated with a charitable cause to assist in the search, just as the friends and families of AIDS patients or cancer patients take on marathons to support their cause.
Other teams offer payoffs, either in the form of brownie points for the most diligent spotters or cash awards for making a confirmed sighting. Depending on the team and the circumstances, helping out a team could earn you $100 to $4,000.
"Another set of teams seem to be not working toward mobilization at all, but are trying to develop technology to mine the information on the Internet in some clever way," Lee said.
Trickery, secrecy and deception may also be used to throw off rivals. Mssv.net's Adrian Hon says that putting up fake balloons, making false reports or even destroying balloons after they're found will likely be part of the game. "I predict a veritable firehose of false positives being entered into the Network Challenge," he wrote.
Whom do you trust? How do you reward your collaborators without encouraging misinformation and double-crossing? How do you take advantage of open information systems without disclosing too much to potential rivals? All these questions have obvious implications for the military, and for international civil society as well.
Collaborative networks are already coming into play on national security issues. Lee pointed to North Korea Uncovered, which uses crowdsourcing to shed more light on one of the most secret corners of the earth, as an example of the genre.
"We're learning more and more every day about social networks - how they form, how communities grow and how they change over time," Lee told me. "It's become a very interesting field of research ... but when it's a competition, the dynamic changes." DARPA wants to see how rivalries and payoffs affect collaboration and trust.
"You can think of this as just the first experiment along these lines, and we might see more," Lee said.
The agency has already found out how quickly information bazaars can spring up. Lee mentioned that some weather balloons have been raised already to test out the procedures for Saturday's deployment. "The first time we did that, immediately someone was offering to sell the information about that balloon on Craigslist," he said.
DARPA isn't using any super-secret snoopware to keep tabs on the competitors. "That's something that we absolutely cannot do," Lee said. "So we just do what any other person like you can do."
DARPA researchers will be monitoring the traffic on Craigslist and other Web sites as well as on social networking channels such as Twitter and Facebook. They'll be consulting with outside researchers who are using specialized software to study the challenge as a scientific network phenomenon. And after the contest is over, "we'll actually phone up and interview up to 50 of the best competitors," Lee said. "We're hoping they'll be proud enough and excited enough to tell us how they approached the problem."
One thing's for sure: This kind of experiment couldn't be done without the Internet. Merely getting out the word about the challenge on a timely basis would have been a stretch back in 1969.
"You would need to be married to Walter Cronkite's niece to have a chance," Lee joked. "The cost of a one-minute telephone call from D.C. to Denver in today's dollars would have been $6.60. Unless you were expert with a sextant, you wouldn't be able to report the latitude-longitude coordinates accurately."
For better or worse, times have changed. "Now, only 40 years later, anyone is able to do this," Lee said.
Update for 8:35 p.m. ET Dec. 5: Congratulations to the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team for winning the contest! This was an interesting experiment in information dissemination as well as disinformation insemination.
Keep tabs on the contest via Twitter. We'll let you know how it all turns out afterward. 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 set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."