Dec 23, 2008 | 2
On Dec. 21, 1968, Apollo 8 was launched on one of the greatest journeys in the history of human exploration.
Imagine If Columbus took only the Santa María, sans lifeboats, 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Unable to go ashore without landing craft, he circled it and recorded his observations in log books. Returning later with his three-ship flotilla to plant the flag would still be dramatic, but also a tad anticlimactic.
It's hard to believe that Apollo 8's voyage around the moon had originally been scheduled as a less audacious Earth-orbit mission to test the whole moonship "flotilla": the monstrous, still problem-prone Saturn 5 booster, along with the recently redesigned, and only once flown by astronauts Apollo command ship fashioned to carry a three-man crew round-trip from Earth to moon orbit in tandem with the lunar lander, which ferries two astronauts to and from the moon's surface.
Feb 21, 2008
Whereas skepticism was voiced by some, the mainstream media outside of the science and technology press largely went along with the U.S. Defense Department's official line that it had to prevent 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of toxic fuel from polluting the atmosphere or bombing someone's backyard. So, with a wink, we could all get that cozy Kumbaya feeling knowing U.S. military might had been unleashed for the good of the environment, and the greener future of little children and baby seals everywhere.
But although much of the mainstream coverage debated the international political ramifications of this event, they missed, or ignored, its clandestine aspects. USA 193 is hardly the first errant satellite or rocket booster to tumble out of orbit carrying toxic fuel or other substances that may foul the atmosphere, and any falling space junk can do harm if it impacts on a populated areaâ€”but the problem, albeit serious, is local, rather than global in scale.
Aug 2, 2007
Thanks to insomnia, I have gone where only the most dedicated fans of Star Trek--the Original Series have gone before. It was 3 A.M. and I switched on the TV to somnambulantly wander with my remote through the hazy media netherworld of half hour infomercials, advertisement-pocked B horror flicks and tedious reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. Finally, I found safe harbor in the visage of Mr. Spock.
As I settled in, half attentive, I started noticing something was odd. First off, the crew's uniforms were brighter than I remembered. And wait, why was the image on the bridge view screen so crisp? Even odder, when the ship entered orbit around a planet, it's features, as well as those of the Enterprise, seemed much more detailed. Not only that, the planet was much larger in respect to my favorite starship; the scale seemed much more realistic. Later, in a shuttle bay scene, I could swear I saw figures in the windows of the observation decks looking down on a landing shuttlecraft. Wait a minute, what shuttle bay observation decks? By now I was wide awake. Something had changed. Had I, in my grogginess, somehow slipped into an alternate universe? That would be bad, because it would mean my evil version would be terrorizing loved ones back on my Earth, maybe getting into a low-speed chase with the police, or even more terrifying--writing SciAm blogs celebrating the Creationist Museum.
Jun 13, 2007
I am saddened by the news that Don Herbert, aka "Mr. Wizard" died yesterday at the age of 89. His weekly program, on NBC from 1951 to 1965, brought simple science to children—and made it fun. Although its pace would probably bore kids today, for me it was like a gateway drug, addicting me to scientific curiosity that eventually would only by sated by the harder stuff, like a subscription to Scientific American.
In 1960 I was seven. I was fortunate enough to spend my formative years in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was a great time for American science and technology. Despite the Damoclean threat that was the Cold War and the sci-fi outcome of WW III that it portended, for a kid, it was easy to seize on the optimism that bordered on naivete, but, more importantly, was devoid of irony and cynicism. Mr. Atom really could be our friend and taglines like "better living through chemistry" were said with all earnestness. Being part of the first television generation (that is, people who can't remember a time without electron tubes) we were amazed at the rapidly changing world it showed us—albeit in black and white. Those gee-whiz years included extensive coverage of the space race, which, along with the angst generated by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, would hone my future academic interest in international politics and science.
Mar 29, 2007
When it comes to where the atmospheric action is in the outer planets, move over Jupiter. As if having those gaudy rings weren't enough, Saturn is definitely hogging all the attention by sporting some bizarre atmospheric activity at opposite ends of the planet: polar storms, one with a cyclopean eye and the other shaped like a—hexagon.
This wonderfully weird hexagonal storm recently photographed by Cassini wheeling around Saturn's north pole is not an ephemeral phenomenon, one of those lucky, photo-opportune moments in which a dynamic event happened to take on a distinct, precise shape that can only be coincidental. Rather, the six-sided maelstrom was first imaged in 1980 by both Voyager spacecraft—and that's the thing about it: it's still there. Storms are not supposed to have straight sides and sharp angles—at least not here on Earth. I suppose that is the joy of expanding our scientific horizons with all this space exploration stuff.
Mar 13, 2007
Everybody duck and cover. Last week NASA shrugged and told Congress that it neither has the funding nor the resources to meet its goal of identifying 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) 150 yards or more in diameter by 2020.
It seems that NASA has passed the buck it claims it doesn't have to other space agencies, institutions and facilities, saying NEA tracking is not a question of feasibility but funding. This includes not having available dedicated telescopes, including the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, which will probably close or have its operations severely downgraded by 2011. (See this and this.) It is bad enough that we may lose Arecibo, which is one of the best-suited for the job of planetary watchdog, but NASA says it will have to rely on the kindness of others to do even the preliminary work to meet the goals called for by Congress in NASA's 2005 authorization bill.
Mar 23, 2006
Because astronomy is one of the ancient sciences we have learned much over centuries of observation. This continuity has also given us a perspective that has allowed us to understand that we live on diminutive planet that is part of a dynamic, even violent solar system.
Take for instance Jupiter's famous cyclonic superstorm, known prosaically as the "Great Red Spot"—though it is anything but ordinary. This mind-bogglingly massive cyclone has been a prominent feature in Jupiter's roiling atmosphere for centuries and is sometimes visible from a backyard telescope under good seeing conditions. With wind speeds at over 250 miles per hour, it is almost three times the size of Earth and estimated to be over 400 years old.
And now there is a sequel, and we have a front row seat for what could be titled: "Son of the Great Red Spot," or as it is being called by scientists, "Red Spot, Jr." Father and son can be seen here and here. We have had our scientific eye on the original for a long time: First observed in the 1660s by Giovanni Cassini and Robert Hooke, it has been continually scrutinized ever since. Present-day astronomers can take highly detailed measurements that earlier generations of observers could only dream of using tools such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Keck and space probes such as Pioneer, Voyager and Galileo. We've watched it long enough to note that it is in a state of flux, and even varies in hue, yet just what makes the ruddy cyclone tick remains a mystery.
Feb 8, 2006
So much in our vast universe seems hopelessly faraway, but with NASA's FY2007 budget even relatively close planetary neighbors like Mars and Europa now seem more distant. The venerable space agency's cancellation of so many robotic exploration and observation projects dawns as a dark day for space science. It is sadly ironic, considering that a hefty 76 percent increase to $3.06 billion has been allotted for the long-term manned spaceflight initiative. This bodes well for the future of American manned space exploration. But the price has been high, way too high.
Most salient among the robotic mission cuts is the Europa exploration program that had been given the highest priority solar system science objective after Mars by the National Academy of Sciences and NASA advisory committees. And even planetary exploration's job-one that has seen the Martian landscape increasingly covered with rover tracks was also not immune: NASA's Red Planet research budget has been cut by $243.3 million to $700.2 million. This includes the cancellation or indefinite postponement of projects such as the Mars Sample Return Mission and the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter.
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