M. Gieles / ESO
The spiral galaxy Messier 83 is a delicate wisp in infrared wavelengths, as seen at
left by the HAWK-I instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large
Telescope. But it looks like a fiery pinwheel in the visible-light image at right,
captured by the MPG/ESO telescope. Click on the picture for a larger view.
The spiral galaxy Messier 83, also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, is a spectacular fireworks show when it's seen through a big telescope in visible light. But when the European Southern Observatory looked at the pinwheel in infrared wavelengths, the result was a much more delicate, no less beautiful picture of the galaxy's hottest young stars with the surrounding gas stripped away.
M83, which sits about 15 million light-years away from us in the constellation Hydra, isn't exactly an undiscovered treasure. It's one of the best-known galaxies, easily seen with binoculars or a small telescope. It's also one of the most photographed galaxies: Just last year, the Hubble Space Telescope's brand-new Wide Field Camera 3 gave it the full treatment, focusing in on bursts of starbirth within its big, bright spiral arms.
But just one telescope is never enough, even if it's Hubble. The latest view of M83, released today by the ESO, comes from the High-Acuity Wide-field K-band Imager (HAWK-I), a near-infrared camera on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. This telescopic hawkeye can cut right through the dust and gas that obscures the stars within the galaxy.
The image above demonstrates the difference: The picture at right shows M83 as seen in visible light by the MPG/ESO telescope, while the picture at left was produced using HAWK-I. The infrared view isn't as flashy, but it does trace the underlying structure of the galaxy's spiral arms more clearly - and pinpoints individual stars.
"This clear view is important for astronomers looking for clusters of young stars, especially those hidden in dusty regions of the galaxy," the ESO says in today's image advisory. "Studying such star clusters was one of the main scientific goals of these observations."
There are lots of other examples showing how different telescopes, operating in different wavelength, can show astronomers a "fuller spectrum." Here's just a sampling:
The data for the HAWK-I image were acquired by a team led by Mark Gieles of the University of Cambridge and Yuri Beletsky of the ESO. Mischa Schirmer of the University of Bonn performed the data processing.
For more cool imagery of the cosmos, browse through our Space Gallery. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."
Tom Iraci / U.S. Forest Service file
|Research ecologist Charlie Crisafulli holds a frog that was netted during amphibian sampling in March 2005. A small steam plume rises from Mount St. Helens behind him.
The changes on the mountain are fascinating to biologists - and perhaps unexpectedly, creationists as well.
For example, consider the amphibians of the ponds: When the volcano blew on May 18, 1980, an avalanche of logs, rocks and other debris wiped out some lakes and reshaped others. Biologists thought amphibians such as salamanders, frogs and toads would be among the hardest-hit species.
"They're thought to be very sensitive to environmental change," Charlie Crisafulli, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist who has been studying St. Helens since shortly after the eruption, told a "Nova" documentary team.
So biologists were "absolutely shocked" to find that most of the area's amphibian species had survived the blast, Crisafulli said. The eruption created an array of 150 ponds that actually encouraged the amphibians to widen their territory.
These weren't your father's amphibians: The reshaped terrain reshaped the animals as well. The pond habitat favored Northwestern salamanders that could keep their gills and live their whole lives as aquatic animals, as detailed in this Seattle Times report.
"The salamanders are a good example of what I would call hedging your bets," Mount St. Helens monument scientist Peter Frenzen told me today.
The eruption wiped out land-dwelling amphibians, but new colonists could take advantage of protected burrows that were built by gophers beneath the ash.
A big factor behind the amphibians' resurgence is the fact that they've been able to stay a leap ahead of the things that could bring them down - predators, pathogens and parasites, which Crisafulli calls the "three P's." Once St. Helens' ecosystem fills out more completely, biologists expect the amphibian population to be brought back into check.
That might suggest that amphibians do best in off-balance environments, thanks to their ability to switch between marine and land habitats. But it really depends on the situation: Scientists have long argued that amphibians are in the midst of an extinction crisis precisely because their habitats are out of balance, in part because of human-caused pollution.
Unexpected consequences are a big part of the Mount St. Helens story, and not just for amphibians: After the eruption, some biologists thought that the thousands of acres of downed trees would leave the area more vulnerable to wildfires and insect infestation. Those concerns encouraged extensive salvage logging in some areas of the blast zone - but not within the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument that created by Congress in 1982.
The result was that significantly different ecosystems were created inside and outside the monument's boundaries. Selling all that salvaged lumber brought economic benefits for the region's hard-hit logging industry, but leaving the lumber alone didn't bring about the environmental problems some had feared: The volcanic ash that coated the trees served as a fire retardant as well as an insecticide.
Reviving the creationism connection
... Speaking of unexpected consequences, Mount St. Helens has become something of a poster child for "creation geologists" - the folks who argue that Earth was created in accordance with the chronology they say the Bible lays out.
If the floods sparked by the 1980 eruption could cut new canyons through the surrounding countryside, couldn't a global flood have done the same for the Grand Canyon a few thousand years ago? If the lava dome that has built up inside St. Helens' crater can produce anomalous radioisotope results, doesn't that imply that radioactive dating techniques could be way off? Questions like this are raised at places such as the Mount St. Helens Creation Information Center, not far from the mountain itself.
My colleague at msnbc.com, Alex Johnson, wrote about the St. Helens creationism connection five years ago. The TalkOrigins Archive addressed questions about the canyons, the claims about lava dating and Mount St. Helens' "coal" formation even longer ago. Nevertheless, today's 30th anniversary has sparked a revival of the creationist claims.
... And speaking of revivals, the anniversary also sparks a revival of Mount St. Helens memories. Thirty years ago today, I was in the midst of the ashfall in eastern Washington state - and through the magic of the Internet you can read the newspaper I helped put together on May 18, 1980.
To mark the occasion, my former colleagues at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane have put together a special report, including a heaping helping of reminiscences. If you have memories you'd like to share, please add them as comments below.
As you read stories about the rebirth of Mount St. Helens' ecosystem, and the scientific mysteries posed by its seismic activity, try to keep the eruption's 57 victims in your memory as well. The best-known casualty was David Johnston, the volcanologist who radioed "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" just as the volcano blew. His name now graces Johnston Ridge, the site of a volcano observatory and visitor center. Check out this memorial website for remembrances of all the victims.
Update for 7 p.m. ET: Peter Frenzen, the U.S. Forest Service's monument scientist for Mount St. Helens, says that the changes at the volcano illustrate how a huge disturbance in an ecosystem can open up opportunities for a different mix of organisms to gain a foothold.
"I don't think it's quite evolution," he told me. "Evolution takes a longer time to play out. This is more of an environmental shift and a shift in the habitat."
Such an environment favors organisms that can cope more easily with that kind of shift - a characteristic that ecologists call "amplitude." The salamanders that can keep their gills and go aquatic provide a good example of amplitude. So do Mount St. Helens' deer mice. "When seeds are around, they're eating seeds," Frenzen said. "When insects are around, they're eating insects."
Learn more about Mount St. Helens:
Tim Laman / National Geographic
|Click for slideshow: Get a good look at the long-nosed tree frog and other new species from Indonesian New Guinea's Foja Mountains.
Biologists returned to an exotic "Lost World" in Indonesian New Guinea - and found a fresh assortment of new species, including the kangaroo's smallest cousin and a frog with a Pinocchio nose.
Conservationists are so heartened by all the creatures they're finding in the world's wild places that they're aiming to double or triple the pace of discovery.
"While animals and plants are being wiped out across the globe, at a pace never seen in millions of years, the discovery of these absolutely incredible forms of life is much-needed positive news," Bruce Beehler, a senior research scientist at Conservation International, said in today's announcement of the species discoveries. "Places like these represent a healthy future for all of us and show that it is not too late to stop the current species extinction crisis."
If you think "crisis" is too strong a word, take a look at recent developments:
All this bad news comes in the midst of the International Year of Biodiversity - which makes the latest bit of good news from New Guinea particularly welcome.
The Foja Mountains of Indonesian New Guinea encompass an area of more than 1,150 square miles (300,000 hectares) of unroaded, undeveloped, undisturbed rainforest. Back in 2006, Conservation International, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and other groups hailed the region as a "Lost World" with dozens of species that were new to science. (Click through this slideshow to see a sampler.)
Many of those researchers, including Beehler, returned in late 2008 for the latest survey of the region. This time, the "rapid assessment" survey received an extra boost from the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. CI says the modern-day explorers battled torrential rain storms and flash floods as they tracked species from the Foja's foothills to the mountain range's 7,200-foot (2,200-meter) heights.
National Geographic is featuring the fruits of the expedition in its June issue. We've put together a slideshow of our own that shows off some of National Geographic's pictures, including shots of these amazing new types of animals:
Conservationists see areas such as the Foja Mountains as more than mere menageries. These "lost worlds" serve as reservoirs of biodiversity, carbon sinks that moderate global climate, potential sources of new medicines and materials, and living space for the region's forest-dwelling inhabitants. The region is already a national wildlife sanctuary, but Conservation International hopes that the additional documentation of the region's biodiversity will encourage the Indonesian government to beef up long-term measures to protect it.
Conservation International itself has been encouraged by its string of "rapid assessment" successes - so much so that it's embarking on a project to double or triple the number of species discoveries in "lost worlds" over the next few years.
"Many of the still-undescribed species may be beneficial to people's health, food and fresh-water security, and therefore important for conservation," the group says.
Feast your eyes on more new species:
Astronauts including Hubble spacewalker Mike Massimino and the crew of
Atlantis' current mission to the International Space Station explain how to
use the shuttle's space potty in a YouTube video from NASATelevision.
If this astronaut gig doesn't work out for Mike Massimino, he can always find a job as a TV comedian. Astro_Mike made a name (and a Twitter nickname) for himself during last year's Hubble servicing mission as Atlantis' onboard jokester, and he recently enlisted members of Atlantis' current crew to make a video explaining one of the great mysteries of spaceflight: How do you go to the bathroom? Click on the YouTube video embedded above for some must-see space TV ... and check out these other tips for space living:
A diamond scatters coherent green light from a laser. The laser revolution is still
going strong, 50 years after it was invented.
Fifty years ago this weekend, the Laser Age began - an era that has been as revolutionary as the Space Age. It's thought that half of America's gross domestic product is somehow connected with laser technology.
When Theodore Maiman turned on the first pulsed laser at the Hughes Research Laboratory in California on May 16, 1960, few could have imagined how much of an impact the devices would have on communications, manufacturing, medicine (and concert light shows). But Charles Townes had a pretty good idea.
After all, it was his work with microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation - masers - that set the stage for the optical lasers to come. In fact, he and others theorized that lasers could be built a couple of years before Maiman did it. Townes' research earned him a share of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics.
Today, at the age of nearly 95, Townes is still a working scientist at the University of California, doing research in astrophysics. And when you talk with him on the phone, you get the impression that his intellect is still as sharply focused as a you-know-what.
In an interview, Townes looked back at the first 50 years of the Laser Age - and looked ahead to the next phase of the revolution. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Fifty years ago, did you know how significant laser technology would turn out to be - or did you have the sense, like many other people, that the laser was a "solution looking for a problem"?
Charles Townes: I knew it was quite important. I could see many things for which it would be very useful. Some other people said, "Well, it's a solution looking for a problem." Actually, when we were working on the maser for some years, trying to make the first one work, nobody was interested. Once it got working, everybody got interested, and they saw the applications for it.
UC-Berkeley Nobel laureate Charles Townes is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
For quite a while, nobody thought masers could be pushed down to light waves - which is what I wanted to do. My primary object was to get the short waves. After a few years of working with the maser, with all the excitement about that, I decided, "Well, let me see how we can get right on down to light waves." I figured out ways of doing that and wrote a paper about how a laser might be built.
I could foresee a lot of applications, but many people doubted it.
Q: Are there some applications that you saw at the time that have not been done yet?
A: Uh, no, I wouldn't say that's the case. In fact there are many applications that have been done that I didn't foresee. For example, I didn't foresee the medical uses at all. The medical uses are enormous. I saw, oh, communications, and burning and welding and cutting, and a lot of scientific applications. About 10 or 12 Nobel Prizes have been given as a result of people having lasers or masers available to work with. It's produced a lot of good science. And everybody knows how important it's been in industry applications. It's really a very big business right now.
Q: There's an old saying that "success has many fathers," and of course a lot of people were involved in the development of laser technology. Is there a bit of a competitive discussion going on?
A: Oh, sure, everybody would like to claim some of the credit. Actually, the first idea was the maser. Nobody else was much interested in that - only the Russians, Basov and Prokhorov, who got the Nobel Prize with me. They were working on it in parallel, in Russia. I didn't know that at the time, and I don't think they knew just what I was doing. Only two groups in the whole world were working on masers.
Once the maser came along, it became a very exciting field. But nobody seemed to think you could get down to short wavelengths. After Arthur Schawlow and I wrote a paper on how to get down to short wavelengths, then everybody jumped into the field. Lots of different lasers were built. All the lasers were built in industry. I knew there'd be a lot of competition if I indicated that lasers could be built. That's why I wrote a theoretical paper on how to do it, rather than trying to build one, because I felt that people would beat me. And they did.
Q: Are there any lessons in that for future innovation? People have talked about how we'll find future solutions for energy or communication ...
A: Well, I would point out that my research was supported by the Navy. I was doing spectroscopy, and many people questioned whether the Navy should be supporting spectroscopy. One could question that, yet overall, it's paid off enormously. Not all research pays off, but every once in a while, research pays off enormously.
It's hard to predict. When I first started building a maser, the chairman of my department said, "Oh, that's not going to work. You should stop. You're wasting the department's money." Nobody competed. They didn't think it was going to do anything special - until it did work. Then suddenly everybody got excited about it.
New things are new. People don't visualize new things very well. So we've got to be open-minded in order to get new things. We've got to be open-minded, and explore, and that's going to pay off in the long run. Not all of it pays off. Some of it won't work. But some of it will work - and when it works, you can do great things.
Q: Do you feel as if the laser revolution has run its course?
A: No, it's still being developed. And it will continue to develop for years and years.
Q: How do you see the course of development going in the next few years?
A: Oh, boy. Maybe we'll get on down to X-ray lasers. We have some now, but they're not terribly effective. Maybe we'll get some better ones. We can get more power, and higher precision, and just a lot of applications that people will see. They're finding more all the time.
Q: What sorts of applications will X-ray lasers open up?
A: Just think: If you could have an X-ray laser to do X-ray medical work, it could be very sharply focused, you see. You could just affect the part of the body that you wanted to affect, and nothing else.
Q: Would that be for diagnostics, or for treatment?
A: Both. Also, X-rays will penetrate things that light won't penetrate. We could get X-ray lasers penetrating through materials, and focus on areas inside materials to weld or burn something, to cut the inside of the material without affecting the outside very much.
Q: How would that work?
A: You focus the X-rays to a point inside something, and the rays would be weak on the outside before they focus on that inside zone.
Q: Is there anything especially notable about the current generation of laser research? Is science being done differently from how it was when you did your Nobel-winning work?
A: There's a great deal of new science that lasers have produced, yes. Lasers have produced the lowest possible temperatures, and the highest possible temperatures. You may know that there's a big project to do nuclear fusion using lasers. That delivers billions of watts of power using laser beams. It will be the highest concentration of power we've ever had.
Q: People have been trying to achieve that dream of fusion power for many years, but do you feel that they're actually closing in on the goal?
A: I think lasers will produce fusion. Whether it will be economical as a source of energy is another question.
Q: I'm sure a lot of people are wondering what your secret is, to be so hale and hearty at the age of 94. What do you tell people about that?
A: Well, one thing I say is that I have practically never worked in all my life. I just have a good time doing research. I don't work, and for some reason people have paid me for it. It's good fun.
To hear more from Townes about the laser's past, present and future, check out these videos on the LaserFest website:
To learn more about the development of lasers, from fictional death ray to life-saving medical tool, click through "Bright Idea: The First Lasers" at the American Institute of Physics website. Scientific American has a special report about the 50th anniversary, and PhysicsWorld has a special issue.
X Prize Foundation
Click for slideshow: Aptera's electric vehicle zips along the track at the Michigan
International Speedway during the "Shakedown" trials for the Progressive
Automotive X Prize. Click on the image to see a slideshow featuring X Prize cars.
More than two dozen next-generation automobiles have survived the first round of on-track testing for the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize.
Twenty-seven of the 36 vehicles that were invited to the "Shakedown" trials are still in the running after a series of evaluations at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. The evaluations included technical inspections as well as zero-to-60-mph acceleration runs, double-lane-change avoidance maneuvers and braking tests.
The next step for the surviving vehicles will be a "Knockout" round of tougher head-to-head evaluations in June.
During the next round, teams will have to demonstrate that their cars can meet or beat 67 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) fuel economy. Because many of the cars are hybrid electric or all-electric, the X Prize has set up a formula to figure out the energy equivalence.
The contest's ultimate goal is to reward teams that can field marketable automobiles capable of getting more than 100 MPGe while satisfying requirements for range and low emissions.
"This was not meant to be easy," Eric Cahill, senior director of the X Prize competition, said in a statement issued today. "If it were, it would have already been done. We expect to see additional eliminations during the Knockout Stage as we narrow the field in preparation for the Finals Stage in late July."
The $10 million in prize money will be split by the top-scoring cars in three categories: $5 million for a mainstream four-seater, $2.5 million for an alternative side-by-side two-seater, and $2.5 million for an alternative tandem two-seater. The prizes are to be awarded at a ceremony in September.
Jason Fagone, a writer who is following the competition for Wired magazine and writing a book about the X Prize teams, says the Virginia-based Edison2 team would have to be counted among the favorites. All of the cars that the team brought to the Shakedown trials have been cleared for the next phase.
"They absolutely killed it," Fagone told me today.
But he also said there was a long road ahead. It's not clear yet which cars will rise to the top when it comes to fuel efficiency. "That's the big target, so it's still hard to know how it will shake out," Fagone said.
Some cars passed with flying colors. Others received a "conditional" pass, meaning that they didn't complete all the mandatory events yet. Still others received a "probationary" pass, meaning that they didn't get far enough through the off-track evaluations to do the on-track safety tests. Those conditional and probationary competitors will have to complete all the mandatory Shakedown requirements before they can go on to the Knockout phase.
Here's how the Shakedown results shook out:
Mainstream Class Teams:
Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range.
• American HyPower, Centennial, Colorado (Gasoline, Hydrogen)
• BITW Technologies, Palmyra, Indiana (Biodiesel)
• Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85)
• Liberty Motors Group, Botkins, Ohio (Gasoline)
• West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Gasoline)
Alternative Class Teams:
Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range.
• amp, Blue Ash, Ohio (Electric)
• Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)
• Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85)
• OptaMotive, San Jose, California (Electric)
• RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)
• Tata Motors Limited, Coventry, United Kingdom (Electric)
• Team EVX, Dallas, Texas (Electric)
• West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Biodiesel)
• ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric)
• Team EVI, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)
• Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington (Gasoline)
• Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85)
• Spira, Banglamung, Chonburi, Thailand (Gasoline)
• Tango (Commuter Cars), Spokane, Washington (Electric)
• X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric)
• FVT Racing, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada (Gasoline)
Update for 8 p.m. ET May 14: Don't miss our slideshow of the X Prize cars being put through their paces at the Michigan International Speedway.
AP / Xinhua file
China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, waves after landing on the Inner Mongolian
grasslands of northern China on Oct. 16, 2003. In his autobiography, Yang says
dog meat and other traditional Chinese dishes were on his spaceflight menu.
Dogs made their mark in space history as the first animals in orbit - but now they're in the news because they were on the menu for China's first astronaut.
Yang Liwei, who made history in 2003 as the pilot for the first Chinese-made spaceship, discusses his orbital eating habits in his recently published autobiography, "The Long March to Space," also known as "The Nine Levels Between Heaven and Earth."
"Actually we ate quite normal food, there is no need to keep it a secret," Yang says in a passage from the book quoted by Britain's Telegraph.
The list of items includes dog meat from Huajiang county in Guangdong province, which the Chinese say has medicinal benefits ranging from reducing high blood pressure to reducing frequent urination at night. It's also supposed to combat fatigue ("better than ginseng") and provide warmth in the winter.
Other items on the menu included braised chicken and steamed fish - but it was the dog meat that sparked a buzz, in the media as well as among animal-rights advocates. Hong Kong-based Animals Asia, for example, has been waging a long-running campaign to fight the Asian trade in dog meat and cat meat.
In a statement, Animals Asia's Irene Feng sais she was "a little shocked" to hear that China was putting dog meat on the menu for its astronauts.
"There are so many health risks associated with the farming, slaughter and consumption of dogs," said Feng, who runs Animals Asia's Doctor Dog program in China. "I hope our national space team will consider these issues."
Jill Robinson, Animals Asia's founder and chief executive officer, said it's especially important for China's astronauts to set an example.
"Yang Liwei is a role model for so many young people and he is one of China's greatest heroes," Robinson said. "We hope that he might recognize dogs as the heroes they are too - they found survivors during the Sichuan earthquake and protected people from potential terrorists during the Olympic Games. Surely they deserve more."
Space food reflects the planet's different cultures just as much as earthly food does. Jewish and Muslim astronauts, for example, probably wouldn't go for the freeze-dried "Kicked Up Bacon Cheese Mashed Potatoes" that were served aboard the International Space Station in 2006. But they probably wouldn't stop their pork-eating crewmates from chowing down.
Suppose Chinese astronauts brought dog meat with them onto the space station in future years: Would that be an acceptable reflection of their national culture, or an unacceptable example of bad taste in an increasingly international space workplace? What do you think?
More about space food:
Cliff Owen / AP
|Click for video: Apollo 11 commander Neil
Armstrong, left, looks on as Apollo 17's Gene Cernan makes a point during the Senate hearing. Click on the image to watch some of Armstrong's testimony.
The first man and the last man to walk on the moon spoke out forcefully against NASA's revised vision for future spaceflight today, suggesting that the space agency and President Barack Obama were in effect bamboozled.
"This budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and is in fact a blueprint for a mission to nowhere," Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who pledged just before leaving the moon in 1972 that "we shall return," told the Senate Commerce Committee.
Cernan said the Obama administration's decision to bypass the moon and settle on a more open-ended path to deep space was "most likely formulated in haste" by budget experts and science policy advisers, with little input from NASA itself.
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, arguably the world's best-known living astronaut, said in his written testimony that the plan was "likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the president that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program."
"I believe the president was poorly advised," Armstrong said in his written remarks.
It's rare for retired astronauts to take such a public stand against U.S. space policy, and particularly rare for Armstrong, who is renowned for his reticence. However, Armstrong and Cernan - along with Jim Lovell, who flew around the moon on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 - made their dissatisfaction known last month in a letter made public by NBC News.
During today's high-profile hearing, Armstrong and Cernan urged Congress to add back funding for the development of a NASA rocket to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA's current plan, in contrast, will rely on the Russians as well as U.S. commercial launch providers to provide space station transport services.
The Apollo astronauts said they were skeptical that the commercial sector - which is likely to include longtime launch providers such as the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences as well as newcomers such as SpaceX - could operate spaceships as safely and reliably as NASA will require.
SpaceX is due to launch its first Falcon 9 rocket within the next few weeks - a flight test that would mark a significant step in its drive to deliver cargo to the space station.
NASA's current plan calls for $6 billion dollars to be set aside over the next five years for the commercial development effort. SpaceX and other companies say they could start launching astronauts in as little as three to five years. The space agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, told senators today that he expected the first commercial crew flight to the space station to take place in 2015.
|Click for video: Watch Apollo 17 commander
Gene Cernan's opening statement at the hearing.
Cernan, however, said it "might take as much as a full decade" for commercial spaceships to become available, at a cost two to three times greater than projected. He said the commercial companies and NASA were underestimating how much effort would be required to certifying new rockets for human spaceflight.
In the meantime, America's space effort would have to rely on Russian space transports, "leaving us hostage as a nation to foreign powers for some indeterminate time."
He urged the senators to allocate more funding for NASA's Ares 1 rocket development effort, which the White House wants to cancel as a money-saving measure. "Get it up, get it running," Cernan told the panel.
In response to questions, Bolden estimated that keeping the Ares 1 project going would cost an additional $1 billion to $1.6 billion - depending on how much of that work could be incorporated into a more ambitious plan to develop a new heavy-lift rocket for trips beyond low Earth orbit.
Bolden said about $9 billion in all has been spent so far on NASA's back-to-the-moon Constellation program, and added that "not a dime of that has been wasted." Although the White House's budget proposal calls for Constellation's cancellation, current legislation requires NASA to stick with the program until Congress decides otherwise.
NASA's current budget plan faces stiff opposition in Congress, in part because canceling Constellation will result in thousands of layoffs. During today's hearing, White House science adviser John Holdren maintained that keeping Constellation was unworkable, due to "technical and budgetary difficulties ... that we inherited."
"It clearly was time to push the reset button," Holdren told senators.
The White House's "flexible-path" plan for space exploration was formulated after months of deliberations by an independent review panel, headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The panel concluded that the Constellation program, which called for astronauts to be sent back to the moon by 2020, was underfunded and unsustainable.
"It was our conclusion that there was really no way to conduct a human exploration program that would be meaningful and safe at all," Augustine told the senators.
The revised plan calls for extending support of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020. NASA would have to rely on the Russians and commercial launch providers after the expected retirement of the shuttle fleet in late 2010 or early 2011.
The Orion crew capsule, which was being developed for trips to the moon as well as the space station, would be used instead in scaled-down form as a lifeboat for the space station. NASA would begin developing the new heavy-lift rocket by 2015. The first destination beyond Earth orbit would be an asteroid, in the 2025 time frame, and crewed spaceships would be sent into Martian orbit sometime in the mid-2030s.
Senators and witnesses sparred over whether the revised plan was hatched without adequate consideration. Bolden, for example, was repeatedly asked whether he was consulted in advance of February's budget announcment. Bolden said that he was, before a trip to Israel.
The NASA chief was also asked whether he told Armstrong and Cernan during a briefing last week that the commercial space effort may need a bailout like the one given to America's auto industry. Bolden wasn't sure he said that, but Cernan was sure that he did. "As a matter of fact, it may be the largest bailout in history," Cernan quoted Bolden as saying.
Bolden did say during the hearing that he expected commercial launch providers to run into technical problems, and that he would "do everything in my power" to make sure they were successful.
There have been rumblings about a plan that might give NASA extra money for following up on the Ares 1 development effort. Such an arrangement is being pushed by Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who heads the Senate's subcommittee on space (and flew on the space shuttle with Bolden in 1986).
In addition, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who is the Commerce Committee's ranking minority member, suggested that the remaining shuttle flights could be stretched out for another two years.
The shuttle Atlantis is due to be launched on its last scheduled mission Friday, setting the stage for retirement of the fleet after Discovery and Endeavour take their turns later this year. Bolden said he would be in favor of adding one more shuttle flight to the schedule, most likely in 2011. But he said there would be no backup shuttle available to rescue a crew in the event of an emergency in orbit. (Observers say Russian Soyuz craft would have to be employed instead.)
By the end of the hearing, the message came through loud and clear that Congress would make revisions in the NASA budget plan - most likely to keep additional elements of the Constellation program in play. Hutchison said Bolden is "going to try to work with us" on such revisions.
Written statements for the hearing (PDF files):
Update for 7:40 p.m. ET: Some senators expressed doubts about NASA's plan to support commercial space transport, but others were supportive. As you might expect, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation focused on the supportive comments in its recap of the hearing.
Update for 9 p.m. ET: I corrected the reference to Lovell's spaceflight experience. Also, it's worth noting that some other prominent astronauts (including Sally Ride and Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate, Buzz Aldrin) are in favor of the Obama plan. For some straight talk, check out Rand Simberg's take on the hearing at Transterrestrial Musings. You'll also find some great comments at NASA Watch.
X Prize Foundation
A prototype moonbot made from Lego blocks roams over a simulated moonscape.
Hey, kids! Do you want to build and drive your own scaled-down moon rover prototype? Take a virtual walk on the moon? Launch a virtual space shuttle? Here's your chance.
The multimillion-dollar space race calls upon grownup teams to build lunar rovers that can be blasted to the moon for an exploratory trip that includes sending live video back to Earth. The kid-sized version calls upon student teams to design rovers that can drive around a simulated moonscape and capture video while they're doing it.
The deadline for signing up is Saturday, which leaves just a couple of days for choosing up a team (with four to six members) and filling out the X Prize Foundation's registration form.
The first stage of the rover-building mission will be done on computers, using free design software such as Google SketchUp or Lego Digital Designer. Team members are also required to create a video essay about lunar exploration and their expectations for the discoveries that will be made on the moon. And it doesn't hurt if the team sets up a blog or a website as well.
The design and the video have to be turned in by May 28. That's when the real fun begins.
"We will select 20 finalists, each of whom will get sent just shy of $500 worth of Legos," William Pomerantz, the foundation's senior director for space prizes, told me. Using Lego Mindstorms robotics kits, the finalist teams will build pint-sized moonbots based on their designs, plus a Lego-based lunar surface. Each webcam-equipped rover will be asked to perform a series of simulation tasks - for example, rolling off a landing base, visiting craters, collecting blocks, taking pictures and recording video.
"We've tested it out here at the X Prize Foundation offices," Pomerantz said, "so I can tell you from personal experience that it's a really fun experience, and the children will learn quite a lot about both space exploration and about robotics and engineering."
Winners will be selected in August. Members of the top team will get a chance to visit Lego headquarters in Denmark. Other prizes include free team registration and a startup kit for the FIRST robotics competition. Check the MoonBots website for full information about deadlines, rules and rewards.
Pomerantz said the MoonBots program meshes perfectly with the Google Lunar X Prize's goal of building up the buzz for the next generation of science and engineering, on Earth and in space. "We think we've got a platform here that is compelling for students," he said. "These are not boring jobs for the geeks in the class. These are the cool jobs."
Virtual walk on the moon
Even if you're not building a moonbot, you can still take part in lunar exploration through a new citizen-science project called Moon Zoo. The Web-based effort builds on the success of Galaxy Zoo, which has signed up more than 250,000 Internet users for astronomical research.
Moon Zoo explorers can hunt through imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and mark the craters that they see.
"We need Web users around the world to help us interpret these stunning new images of the lunar surface," Oxford University's Chris Lintott, chairman of the Citizen Science Alliance, said today in a NASA announcement. "If you only spend five minutes on the site counting craters, you'll be making a valuable contribution to science - and who knows, you might run across a Russian spacecraft."
Crater-counting is a time-honored method for determining the age and depth of a particular stretch of the lunar surface. The craters left behind by recent impacts could provide clues about the moon's past history - and the future risks Earth might face from meteor strikes.
"We hope to address key questions about the impact bombardment history of the moon and discover sites of geological interest that have never been seen before," said Katherine Joy of the Texas-based Lunar and Planetary Institute.
Virtual shuttle launch
For a down-to-earth classroom project about space, check out the Kennedy Launch Simulation System, or KLASS, a software package that simulates the preparations for a space shuttle launch. NASA says KLASS is based on the actual training software used at Kennedy Space Center, but tailored for sixth- through 10th-grade students.
Students get the chance to monitor simulated shuttle systems during a launch countdown and decide for themselves whether they're "go" for launch. The package, available on CD or via an online download, includes 40 hours of lesson plans and interactive resources for teachers.
To see how the real thing is done, just keep an eye on our Human Spaceflight section, where we're covering the countdown to Friday's scheduled launch of the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.
Michael B. Watkins / U.S. Navy via AP
A boat moves through oily water on Thursday at the site of the Deepwater Horizon
oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is getting progressively more serious, with the amount of leaked oil growing by 5,000 barrels (200,000 gallons) or more every day. In the three weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, about 100,000 barrels have been spilled. Tar balls and oiled-up birds are already washing up on the Louisiana shore - and the volume of leaked oil is projected to surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill sometime next month.
How much worse could it get? A lot worse, according to projections from BP, the oil company responsible for cleaning up the spill. That's why engineers are being careful about what they do to stop the leak.
If the safety equipment installed on the wellhead worked the way it was supposed to, there wouldn't have been a spill at all. A stack of valves and tanks known as a blowout preventer, or BOP, should have slammed the pipe shut as soon as the pressure went out of control. Obviously, that didn't happen, but experts believe that the BOP is reducing if not stopping the flow of oil.
When BP filed its oil-drilling plan for the site, more than a year ago, it estimated that the worst-case scenario would be a blowout leaking 162,000 barrels of oil a day. That's the equivalent of 10 Olympic-size swimming pools, or 32 times as much oil as is leaking right now.
Philip Johnson, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of Alabama, said that estimate is way beyond what could actually happen. He said that amount of oil flow would have to be sparked by a "hugely bizarre event," such as the kind of undersea earthquake you might see in a Clive Cussler thriller.
"It's an extremely high rate," he told me. "I don't believe that's a realistic upside to that well."
It's hard to judge how close the actual worst-case might come to the bizarrely huge projections, but Johnson guessed that the maximum flow might be 20,000 barrels a day. Last week, BP executives reportedly gave lawmakers a higher figure: 60,000 barrels a day.
The potential for a bigger leak helps explain why BP isn't blowing up the well site with torpedoes or nuclear weapons, even though some msnbc.com users have suggested that course. "My reaction to that is, why would you think that would work?" Johnson said.
What is now a partially controlled wellhead would become a "big crater with a hole coming up from the bottom of it," he told me. "The pipe lying on the floor provides a better opportunity to seal this than an open well."
Plan BP for stopping the leak
Over the weekend, experts tried dropping a containment chamber over the pipe from which most of the oil was leaking. If the chamber worked, the oil mixture could be brought up to the surface for reprocessing. But the effort was stymied because frozen gas and water - a slushy blend known as gas hydrates - clogged the opening at the top of the chamber.
BP is now looking into using a smaller containment chamber, nicknamed a "top hat." Johnson explained that the smaller chamber would cut down on the amount of water mixing with the gas coming out of the pipe. Methanol would be injected into the flow to further inhibit the formation of hydrates.
Another strategy under consideration is to plug up the leaking well from above - perhaps by injecting shredded-up tires, golf balls and other material into the blowout preventer. Such a "junk shot" could plug up any leakage inside the BOP - but it could also create a risky buildup of pressure at the wellhead. In a worst-case scenario, the weakened wellhead could blow its top - and increase the flow of oil.
Johnson said that such a turn of events could occur if the wellhead suffered significant damage. "If that's the case, then that wellhead is going to come off eventually whether or not you put the junk shot in there," he said. "The risks of doing the junk shot are far outweighed by the rewards: stopping the flow, and the sooner the better."
Stopping the flow is not the only front in BP's battle against the leak:
For a long-term fix, BP is drilling a relief well that should intersect with the leaking well 13,000 feet beneath the seafloor. Thick mud and concrete would be pushed down the relief well to plug up the leak for good.
Even if the flow of oil were to increase dramatically, "the strategy would remain completely unchanged," BP spokesman David Nicholas told me. "The response plan that is in place would be the response that would be in place for the worst-case scenario."
How long, and how far?
One factor that could make the worst-case scenario even worse is the possibility that coastal communities will have to deal with the spill for months or years. "If we have a three-month oil spill, we're talking about absolute devastation of the largest coastal fishery in the U.S.," Ralph Portier, an environmental science professor at Louisiana State University, told me.
Right now, dispersants are going a long way toward keeping the spill in check. "We've gotten some very excellent results showing that the oil dispersant mousse to a great extent degrades ... if we have a finite event," Portier said.
But it's hard to predict the long-term impact, especially if the end of the oil leak is not yet in sight. How will all those dispersants affect the Gulf's ecosystems in general and the fisheries in particular? Will blobs of degraded oil start washing up in Texas? Or in Florida?
"I guess our biggest concern is, we may have to redefine what an oil spill is," Portier said. "We may have to redefine what a catastrophe is. What if we have globules of oil that stay in the water column and continue to come ashore month after month after month?"
The dynamics behind the response to this oil spill are nothing like the dynamics that dictated the response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than 20 years ago. Back then, the massive spill was over and oil was washing ashore even before dispersants could have been flown up to Alaska. Today, the tools are in place to battle the spill. But for how long?
"If you visit the lower parishes, you'll see that people are in hurricane mode," Portier said. "It's the meteorologists who are telling the people where the oil spill is, just like it's the meteorologists who tell them where the storm is. There's a sense of urgency about this. There's a sense of being tough about it. But it is kind of defeating not knowing when the end is going to be."
Update for 11 p.m. ET: Here are a few more thoughts from the experts:
ESA / PACS / SPIRE / HOBYS
The Herschel space telescope's view of RCW 120 shows a bubble pushed out by
a big star's blast, with yet another giant star forming on the bubble's right edge.
The shapes of bubbles and clouds in outer space demonstrate that physics can do some pretty bizarre things on a giant scale.
Take RCW 120, for example. The star-forming bubble, about 4,200 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius, is the subject of a European Space Agency picture celebrating the first anniversary of the Herschel space telescope's launch.
|RCW 120's central star can be seen in this APEX picture.
Radiation from a hot, massive star at the bubble's center is blasting gas and dust outward, and that's what has cleared out the space around the star. The central star doesn't show up well in Herschel's infrared image, but you can see it easily in this submillimeter-wavelength view from the European Southern Observatory's APEX telescope in Chile.
The shock wave from the central star compresses the material on the bubble's edge so much that still more stars are being squeezed into existence. In the Herschel image, you can see a particularly bright spot on the right edge of the bubble. That's an embryonic star that appears destined to turn into one of the brightest lights in our galaxy.
The Herschel science team calls it an "impossible" star because it's exceeding the theoretical limit for a star's mass.
"This star can only grow bigger," Annie Zavango, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, said in the ESA's image advisory. "According to our current understanding, you should not be able to form stars larger than eight solar masses."
At about eight solar masses, the power of the newborn star should blast away any additional gas or dust before the extra mass has a chance to accumulate. But the star at the bubble's edge is already eight to 10 times as massive as the sun, and it's on track to get much larger.
Astronomers have already spotted stars that are as much as 150 times as massive as the sun, but they don't know exactly how they can get that large. A close study of the brightening light in RCW 120 could show them the way.
NASA / ESA / STScI
|Hubble's view of Eta Carinae.
Stellar blasts can blow amazing bubbles in space. Perhaps the best-known blast is associated with Eta Carinae, a supermassive star that could go supernova one of these days.
Its double-lobed shape, reminiscent of an old-fashioned dumbbell, arises because the star is blowing material out from both poles.
Lots of stellar explosions take on this shape: The phenomenon has been attributed to several factors, including spin dynamics and the star's magnetic field.
NASA / ESA / KULeuven / Berkeley
|Hubble image of Red Rectangle.
Perspective plays a role as well: One famous example is the Red Rectangle, which looks like a quadrangle but is actually two back-to-back cones of material flowing out from a double-star system.
And then there's the hexagon on Saturn: The six-sided cloud pattern at the ringed planet's north pole has puzzled astronomers for decades, but now physicists have figured out the dynamics that can cause hexagonal features - as well as triangular, square and even seven-sided shapes as well. They can even create them in the lab.
Researchers from Oxford University produced the geometrical effects using a solution of water and glycerol in a tank that could be spun up to various speeds. Their findings were published in the journal Icarus last month, and this week Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla provided plenty of pictures and videos explaining the phenomenon.
Still more strange sights can be seen at the surface of our sun, as illustrated by the first big batch of photos from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. One video clip shows a huge prominence looping up from the sun's surface and back down again. Another movie shows a wave of plasma rising up, then falling back down to the surface like "coronal rain."
|Click for slideshow: Looping flares and more April highlights.
The curling action occurs because of complex loops in the sun's magnetic field, as discussed by Discovery News' Ian O'Neill. Those loops help explain why the solar corona gets so much hotter than the actual surface of the sun.
The Solar Dynamics Observatory's perspective on the sun's sizzling loops is the top picture in our latest installment of the Month in Space Pictures. For more strange shapes, click your way through the curiosities on exhibit in msnbc.com's Space Gallery.
Follow the links below for bigger views and further background about the pictures in the latest Month in Space slideshow:
Geneticist Svante Pääbo, leader of an international team of researchers who
decoded the Neanderthal genome, holds the skull of a Neanderthal.
The first rough draft of the Neanderthals' genome suggests that they interbred with our own species - but only enough to leave a tiny mark on the genetic code of humans from outside Africa.
"The Neanderthals are not totally extinct," said Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "In some of us they live on, a little bit."
Pääbo is the leader of an international team of researchers who worked for four years to extract the genetic code from half a gram of ground-up Neanderthal bone, taken from three separate specimens. The resulting draft sequence, which represents about 60 percent of the entire genome, is unveiled in this week's issue of the journal Science.
The results shed light on the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, as well as on the genetic heritage of now-extinct Homo neanderthalensis. When researchers compared the detailed Neanderthal code with that of five modern-day humans from different areas of the world, they found overwhelming similarities. But they also found some scientifically significant differences.
Genetic sequences from the three non-African modern individuals (from Papua New Guinea, China and France) were statistically more likely to be similar to Neanderthals than the sequences from southern Africa and West Africa. That suggests that some interbreeding took place after early humans spread out from Africa, most likely in the Middle East 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, Pääbo and his colleagues said.
But it wasn't all that much interbreeding. Between 1 and 4 percent of the human genome appears to have come from Neanderthals, statistically speaking. The researchers could find no specific string of code could be definitively traced back to them across the full sample. They could not point to any trait that we have inherited specifically from Neanderthals.
Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the research, said the study meshes with earlier findings about the relationship between the two species. Just last month, for example, yet another team of researchers reported similar statistical signs of Neanderthal DNA in samples from modern humans.
"I don't think it changes the picture we already had, that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were functionally individuated entities," Tattersall told me. "This is what species are about. There may have been a bit of Pleistocene hanky-panky, but nothing that left a clear biological mark on either party."
A tangled tale
Untangling our connection to Neanderthals is tricky on several counts. First, you have to get the Neanderthal DNA.
The species is reflected in the European fossil record as far back as 400,000 years ago, and scientists believe that Neanderthals co-existed with us Homo sapiens types until about 30,000 years ago. Did we kill them off? Were they assimilated into our species' gene pool? Or were they simply ill-suited to cope with changing conditions on Earth?
Science / AAAS
|Neanderthal bones come from these four archaeological sites, marked with the approximate dates for the bones' age.
For whatever reason, the Neanderthals left behind a relatively scant record. To conduct their genetic study, Pääbo and his colleagues checked out 21 Neanderthal bone samples that were recovered from Croatia's Vindija Cave. Three bones, thought to date back to around 40,000 years ago, were selected for detailed DNA analysis.
Tiny amounts of powder were extracted from the interiors of the bones with a sterile dental drill, processed with chemicals and run through DNA-sequencing machines. An analysis of the DNA showed that 95 to 99 percent of it was from other organisms - for example, microbes that colonized the bones after the Neanderthals died. But the researchers used special enzymes to separate the signature of Neanderthal DNA from that of microbial (and human) contamination.
Even though the Neanderthal DNA was broken up into small pieces, the researchers sequenced 3 billion base pairs and completed about 60 percent of the genome's jigsaw puzzle.
Humans vs. Neanderthals
Decoding the genome was only part of the job. Comparing that genome with our own genetic code was just as tricky. Neanderthals and the human species are thought to have diverged only 500,000 years ago, which means the two species are close cousins in anthropological terms. In fact, if you compared a particular area of the Neanderthal genome with the corresponding genetic code in a single modern human, there's a chance you'd find more similarities than you'd see between two modern humans.
Max Planck Institute EVA
|Most of the Neanderthal genome sequence was retrieved from these three bones, which were found in Croatia's Vindija Cave.
When Pääbo started the project, he didn't think he'd find any evidence of "gene flow" between ancient Neanderthals and humans. After all, an earlier study involving a different kind of genetic code known as mitochondrial DNA showed no such intermixing. "I was probably biased really in the direction that it would not have happened," Pääbo said.
But when the comparison came back with the five modern humans, and the researchers found more similarities between the Neanderthal genome and the non-African genomes, that was a big hint that Neanderthals interbred with ancient humans after they emerged from Africa. "At first I thought it was some kind of statistical fluke," Pääbo said.
The researchers rechecked their results, looked for alternate explanations, and went so far as to do yet another comparison with genomics pioneer Craig Venter's personal code. But the link between Neanderthals and non-Africans held up.
"This was really a surprise to us," said Harvard geneticist David Reich, one of the co-authors of the study.
The question over whether ancient humans ever "did it" with Neanderthals now appears to be resolved, but the draft genome raises more questions that are just as deep. For example, what traits did humans develop that gave them an evolutionary edge over Neanderthals? The researchers found some intriguing clues:
Researchers are continuing to analyze the Neanderthal genetic data, and they expect to get a clearer picture of the species distinctions as time goes on.
Right now, the coverage of the genome is 1.3x, which means an individual DNA base pair was checked only 1.3 times on average. Pääbo said "our goal for the next two to three years is to come somewhere between 10 and 20x coverage," which would be comparable to the accuracy for a typical human genome. He estimated the cost of the project so far at 2 million to 3 million euros ($2.5 million to $3.8 million), but added that "it will be a lot cheaper to now go on."
Tattersall said the research team's first draft was "a remarkable achievement, and something they should be congratulated for." And he expected that there would be even more remarkable revelations ahead.
"This is the beginning of the story," he told me, "not the end of it."
More about human origins:
Here are the authors for "A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome," appearing in Science: Richard E. Green, Johannes Krause, Adrian W. Briggs, Tomislav Maricic, Udo Stenzel, Martin Kircher, Nick Patterson, Heng Li, Weiwei Zhai, Markus Hsi-Yang Fritz, Nancy F. Hansen, Eric Y. Durand, Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, Jeffrey D. Jensen, Tomas Marques-Bonet, Can Alkan, Kay Prüfer, Matthias Meyer, Hernán A. Burbano, Jeffrey M. Good, Rigo Schultz, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Anne Butthof, Barbara Höber, Barbara Höffner, Madlen Siegemund, Antje Weihmann, Chad Nusbaum, Eric S. Lander, Carsten Russ, Nathaniel Novod, Jason Affourtit, Michael Egholm, Christine Verna, Pavao Rudan, Dejana Brajkovic, Zeljko Kucan, Ivan Guic, Vladimir B. Doronichev, Liubov V. Golovanova, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Marco de la Rasilla, Javier Fortea, Antonio Rosas, Ralf W. Schmitz, Philip L. F. Johnson, Evan E. Eichler, Daniel Falush, Ewan Birney, James C. Mullikin, Montgomery Slatkin, Rasmus Nielsen, Janet Kelso, Michael Lachmann, David Reich, Svante Pääbo.
A companion paper, "Target Investigation of the Neandertal Genome by Array-Based Sequence Capture," also appears in Science. Authors include: Hernán A. Burbano, Emily Hodges, Richard E. Green, Adrian W. Briggs, Johannes Krause, Matthias Meyer, Jeffrey M. Good, Tomislav Maricic, Philip L. F. Johnson, Zhenyu Xuan, Michelle Rooks, Arindam Bhattacharjee, Leonardo Brizuela, Frank W. Albert, Marco de la Rasilla, Javier Fortea, Antonio Rosas, Michael Lachmann, Gregory J. Hannon, Svante Pääbo.
Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto." I'll be talking about Pluto and the planet quest on "Dr. Kiki's Science Hour" at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT) today.
Matt Stroshane / Getty Images file
The space shuttle Atlantis sits on its Florida launch pad after its April 22 rollout.
NASA today gave the green light for what's likely to be the space shuttle Atlantis' last launch, opening the final chapter in the orbiter fleet's 29-year history. Atlantis' solid-fuel rockets are due to fire up for a final time at 2:20 p.m. ET on May 14. But mission managers say they're not letting that finality sink in fully just yet.
"There's this ability to stay focused and compartmentalize," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told reporters today at the end of a flight readiness review for Atlantis' 12-day mission to the International Space Station.
"I have not spent a lot of time thinking about 'last this' or 'last that,'" said John Shannon, NASA's space shuttle program manager.
Launch director Mike Leinbach said shuttle workers have been preparing for this STS-132 flight just as they have for the 131 others in the program. "Probably a lot of hugs at the end of the day - but when they're working on the vehicle, it's the standard flow," he said.
Of course, the more than 15,000 workers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida can't help but think about this final scheduled round of three flights for the three remaining orbiters - Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavour. And they can't help but wonder about what will happen when the last shuttle rolls to a stop.
"We've gotten past the denial stage of the change," Leinbach said, "and we're into the exploration and acceptance stage." He said the reflections on Atlantis' flight would be "bittersweet, to be sure."
Last month, President Barack Obama visited the space center, seeking to reassure agency employees as well as contractors that they'd still be playing a vital role in the post-shuttle era. Over the weekend, the White House announced the appointment of a task force to oversee a $40 million program for workforce training and economic development on Florida's Space Coast.
That part of the economic endgame will play out over the months and years to come. But for now, the focus is on the first of the last shuttle flights.
What Atlantis will do
Atlantis' six-man crew, led by commander Ken Ham, will deliver Russia's 17,000-pound, 23-foot-long Rassvet ("Dawn") module to the International Space Station. Rassvet, which is also known as the Mini Research Module 1, has been packed with supplies and equipment for the station. A European robotic arm, radiator and airlock are attached to Rassvet's exterior.
During Atlantis' visit, Rassvet will be hooked up to the station's Zarya control and cargo module during Atlantis' visit, and in 2012 a full-blown Russian orbital laboratory (known as Nauka or "Science") will be added on. Atlantis' trip marks the first time (and almost certainly the last time) that a Russian module has been flown up on a space shuttle. The arrangement follows through on a barter deal for U.S.-Russian space transport.
The shuttle will also carry a pallet containing six fresh batteries for the station's power-generating truss, a new Ku-band communication antenna and a tool platform for the station's Canadian-built Dextre robotic arm. Atlantis' astronauts will install the antenna, add the platform and swap out the batteries during a series of three spacewalks.
It's fitting that Atlantis is bringing up the last pressurized module designed from the get-go to be permanently attached to the space station. (In September, Discovery is due to deliver the Italian-built Leonardo logistics module, which has been carried back and forth several times but is now being modified to become a permanent fixture.)
The 25-year-old orbiter carried up the station's U.S-built Destiny laboratory and Quest air lock as well as the European-built Columbus lab. It has also sent up the Magellan probe to Venus, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the now-defunct Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, which was once one of NASA's "Great Observatories."
"She's been around a long time, and a lot of us have known that ship for 25 years," Leinbach said today.
Retired astronaut Jerry Ross, who holds the record for the most shuttle flights (in a tie with Franklin Chang-Diaz), took five of his seven trips to space aboard Atlantis. "Personally, I think it's the best one in the fleet," he half-jokingly told reporters earlier this week.
Is there really a difference in the way Atlantis handles itself in space? The astronauts say the significant differences between flights really have more to do with the payload distribution rather than the characteristics of the particular orbiter. But STS-132 pilot Dominic Antonelli noted that Atlantis lacked something that the other two shuttles have: an extension cord that lets the shuttle tap into the space station's power supply.
"That will limit the duration of our stay," Antonelli said. There's only so much power that will be available to Atlantis while it's docked to the station.
Never say never again
Eventually, all three shuttles are destined to be placed in museums, and the job of transporting payloads to the station will fall to the Russians and commercial launch providers.
But when Atlantis comes back home, it won't be packed up right away. Instead, it will be put through the regular processing routine to serve as a backup rescue vessel, just in case something goes wrong during what is expected to be the final shuttle flight. The current schedule calls for Endeavour to take on that program-ending mission to the International Space Station no earlier than November.
If Endeavour were to suffer so much damage during that last scheduled flight that it couldn't return safely to Earth, Atlantis would be launched with a skeleton crew to bring the marooned astronauts home.
There's yet one more scenario for Atlantis to fly again: If the money is available for yet another flight beyond the three currently planned, Atlantis could conceivably be sent to the space station with a crew of four, to deliver a last load of supplies to the station. That STS-135 flight would have to come sometime next year.
Mission managers say they aren't counting on that STS-135 flight - but they aren't counting it out just yet, either.
The lead shuttle flight director for the upcoming mission, Mike Sarafin, likened this last go-around to the final season of a champion athlete. "We are in the ninth inning," he told reporters. "Atlantis may go into extra innings. We don't know."
Jim Young / Reuters file
President Barack Obama, left, talks with SpaceX millionaire founder Elon Musk
during a tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 15.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk says it's hard to imagine being under more pressure than he is now, during preparations for the first launch of a rocket that's being put forward as a replacement for the space shuttle system.
If the California-based company's Falcon 9 rocket delivers as promised, it could start delivering cargo to the International Space Station as early as next year. And if NASA gives the go-ahead, the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule could be configured to carry astronauts as well in as little as three years' time.
But those are a couple of big ifs, particularly for critics such as Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station, much less carry humans to or from space safely," Shelby said last month during a Senate hearing.
A successful Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida would go a long way toward assuring NASA, the White House and Congress that SpaceX can indeed carry the trash and eventually astronauts as well. A significant launch failure, however, would strengthen the hand of Shelby and others who want NASA to resurrect the Ares 1 rocket development program. Ares 1 was part of NASA's Constellation return-to-the-moon program, but is currently marked for cancellation.
|Engines on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket light up during a launch-pad test in Florida on March 13.
The way Musk sees it, this whole issue is not just about SpaceX: He points out that the potential beneficiaries of NASA's move toward commercializing space transport include the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, which currently co-manage the shuttle program (through their venture United Space Alliance). Their Atlas and Delta rockets have launched the vast majority of spacecraft for the space agency as well as the U.S. military (through another joint venture, United Launch Alliance).
"The thing is that it's much harder for Constellation's proponents to attack the Atlas and Delta than to attack Falcon 9, which has not yet launched," Musk told me last week.
But Musk doesn't want the Falcon 9 to be just another Atlas or Delta: His motivation in founding SpaceX eight years ago was to bring about a dramatic reduction in the cost of going to space, thus taking one giant leap toward the settlement of other worlds. The list price for a Falcon 9 launch is around $50 million, compared with $138 million or more for an Atlas 5.
Musk, a 38-year-old emigre who was born in South Africa, earned millions of dollars through his involvement in early dot-com ventures such as PayPal. He's a top executive in start-ups focusing on electric cars (Tesla Motors) and solar power (SolarCity). But right now, it's his role as a space entrepreneur that's putting him most in the public eye. During a Cape Canaveral visit last month, President Barack Obama made a point of touring the Falcon 9's launch pad with Musk at his side.
All that attention just adds to the pressure as launch day approaches. The stakes are much higher for the Falcon 9 than they were for SpaceX's less powerful model, the Falcon 1, which went through three launches that were less than fully successful before reaching orbit on the fourth and fifth tries.
SpaceX is currently waiting for the Air Force to sign off on the Falcon 9's flight termination system. "We're not sure when that will finish - if the testing goes well or if there are additional issues," Musk said. The waiting game means that SpaceX's first opportunity for a launch won't come until the latter half of May at the earliest.
Even then, Musk expects that the first countdown may not go all the way to zero. If anything looks the least bit suspicious, the count will be stopped and the launch will be rescheduled.
"There's a lot that has to go right on launch day, and we're also going to be extremely careful. ... We don't want to leave any stone unturned. We want to turn over stones two or three times, in fact," he said.
|SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, shown here in an artist's conception, is designed to carry cargo, scientific experiments or even astronauts into orbit.
SpaceX has fallen behind its original schedule for developing the Falcon 9 and the Dragon, which has provided some ammunition for Musk's critics. But the company is aiming to launch three additional test flights of the Falcon-Dragon system by the end of this year, culminating in a berthing demonstration at the space station. That would open the way for robotic cargo deliveries that could earn SpaceX $1.6 billion through 2016.
Although Musk's main focus right now is getting the first Falcon 9 off on a successful flight, he pointed out that the next rockets are already in production, with a new Falcon 9 rolling off the line every three to four months.
"It's not like this is just some one-off demonstration," he told me. "There's a lot of weight placed on this first Falcon 9 flight, and there should be. But it's most important to bear in mind that there's a whole production line of vehicles coming out after that."
During our interview, Musk not only discussed the upcoming launch but also touched upon the bigger picture for SpaceX and spaceflight. Here's an edited Q&A:
Cosmic Log: How has SpaceX's intiative been received, in the wake of the White House visit and the things that Sen. Shelby had to say? Has that complicated your life, or do you just try to keep your head down?
Elon Musk: It has complicated our life here at SpaceX, I suppose in a good way. That is, the president's decision to go with commercial astronaut transport in addition to commercial cargo transport ... we view that as a good thing.
A: Yeah, and the emphasis is on "could." If it does indeed herald a new era for spaceflight, and if it does indeed result in space being opened up to the masses, then I think it's fair to say that it would have an importance comparable to that of JFK's speech. Of course, the jury is out. That actually has to happen. But I think it will.
Q: But when it comes to the criticism you've been facing, I assume you have things that you would say to members of Congress, to reassure them about SpaceX's role. What are you telling people when they raise questions?
A: I think it's certainly a fair question to raise. But the thing that the opponents of the cancellation of Constellation have tried to do is, they've engaged in the classic straw-man fallacy, which is to reconstruct the other side's argument in a way that is intentionally weak or impaired and then knock it over. They do that by using SpaceX and saying, "This is all dependent on SpaceX." Which is ridiculous.
Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of commercial crew transport are going to be Boeing and Lockheed, and their Atlas and Delta vehicles. They've had something like 40 successes in a row. Delta and Atlas launch all the Air Force and NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] satellites, and they in fact launch all the NASA spacecraft. Moreover, before [former NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin came along, Atlas and Delta were planned to be the lifters for the successor to the space shuttle. The thing is that it's much harder for Constellation's proponents to attack the Atlas and Delta than to attack Falcon 9, which has not yet launched.
I think the proper response to people who ask whether this is the best way to go forward is to say, "Absolutely." It's the only way to go forward, because in the best-case situation, Ares 1 and Orion might be ready in ... 2016? So that's six years of depending on the Soyuz. You have to say, would commercial do it better? OK, you've got United Launch Alliance saying they can get it done in three or four years. We're saying we can do it in three years. Orbital Sciences is saying they can do it. All of these time frames are less than that required for the first flight of Ares 1 and Orion. If Boeing and Lockheed are saying they can do it, and they're launching these rockets right now, then I think probably they will succeed.
And then, as it was put by [XCOR Aerospace CEO] Jeff Greason on the Augustine Commission, and seconded by [former astronaut] Sally Ride, "Constellation is so expensive that even if Santa Claus gave it to us tomorrow for free, the operating costs are so high that the next thing we'd have to do is cancel it." The real question people should be asking is not "Should we be canceling Constellation?" It's "Why wasn't Constellation canceled sooner?" Why would you embark upon something where success was not one of the possible outcomes?
Q: But it sounds as if elements of the Constellation program are being picked up again as time goes on. For example, now Orion is being supported as a lifeboat space vehicle, and the White House wants to push forward with the heavy-lift rocket development program. Some people are even talking about reviving Ares 1 hardware as a step toward heavy-lift development. If Congress decides to keep Constellation going under another name, does that affect anything you do?
A: Well, the problem with Constellation hardware is that it's incredibly expensive. So if they continue those tests, then one of two things has to happen. They'd have to increase the NASA budget considerably, or they'd have to delay any replacement for the Soyuz. Which will it be?
Q: And I suppose that would impact SpaceX, because Congress could say, "Well, instead of giving $6 billion to commercial providers, let's give them $4 billion and use $2 billion to keep Constellation around."
A: I just don't see the point of keeping Ares 1 around. You have to ask, "Is success possible with Ares 1?" And if it isn't, why are we bothering?
Q: I'm sure a lot of people ask you why commercial providers, including Boeing and Lockheed and yourself, would be able to do this cheaper than NASA. That gets to the safety question: "Well, it takes more money to get up to the safety standards that NASA requires." What's your answer to that "why" question?
A: First of all, the answer there is that all of our air transport and road transport is managed by the private sector. And air transport has become incredibly safe. People have forgotten that what airlines used to compete on was actually their safety record, first and foremost. And then cost only afterward. It just got to the point that commercial airlines are so safe that saying you're safe is pointless. Everyone is safe.
The thing that people probably don't realize is that commercial will be much safer than government. And it'll be much cheaper, just as it is in the airline business: Who in their right mind would prefer to fly on Soviet Aeroflot vs. Southwest Airlines? One is a government monopoly, and the other is a competitive commercial entity.
Q: Are you finding that a lot of the people who have been involved in the Constellation effort are aiming to come over to SpaceX? Is there a shift in personnel, or at least in the number of applications that you're getting?
A: Yeah, we've actually gotten a lot of resumes from people working in the Constellation program. We've hired quite a few of them, and expect to do more of the same.
Q: Any numbers you can share on how you expect employment to change at SpaceX?
A: We expect SpaceX employment to rise from what it is right now, which is just under 1,000 employees, to several thousand employees eventually. But of course that's a function of what business we have. If we are doing a lot of astronaut transport, then our employment numbers will be much higher than if we're not. We can't afford to go hire a whole bunch of people in the hope that we'll have astronaut transport. We have to get from here to there.
Q: How does this all fit in with your grand plan? You've talked many times about how you'd like to see humanity become a multiplanet species. Do you feel as if you're getting closer to this goal as a result of new space policies?
A: Yes, I'm still focused on extending life beyond Earth, and that's why commercial crew is so important. I really think commercial crew could be as important as the decision to outsource air mail in the 1920s. That's what got Charles Lindbergh going, and all the other early airline pilots. If the Post Office hadn't outsourced air mail, I think there would have been a huge delay in the advent of everyday air travel.
So commercial crew is actually an important change, and will be really helpful. In the absence of this, we're going to have to try to self-fund all the way on crew transport. That's a much slower process, and there's greater financial risk. I think we'll succeed, but it's going to take us a much longer time.
Q: Are you feeling any extra pressure because of all this, focusing on the first launch? Or is it the same level of pressure you always feel?
A: We're probably red-lining on pressure. It certainly doesn't help. But people should know that SpaceX is around for the long haul. If the first launch goes well, that's great, we'll go on to the second launch. And if the first launch doesn't go well, we'll still go on to the second launch. ... People should take a look at my track record and realize that I always come through in the end. It may take more time than I expected, but I'll always come through.
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