Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Government Money, Foreign Partners, And America's Space Prize.

Now that Bigelow Aerospace is operating a test inflatable habitat in Earth's orbit, The Los Angeles Times has published an in-depth story about Robert Bigelow's plans to provide places for humans to live and work in space. (Here.) Bigelow's business plan involves building destinations in space through his own company, Bigelow Aerospace, and relying on the other space captains of industry to develop cheap access to space.

Commercial development of space depends on both prongs: places to go in space and cheap methods for getting there. If Bigelow's plans succeed there will be destinatins in space that aren't government owned and operated. He's off to a good start.

Bigelow is not just sitting back and waiting for cheap access to space. He is trying to push launch costs down by sponsoring a competition called America's Space Prize. The winner of America's Space Prize must launch a ship to Earth orbit, dock with the inflatable space station Bigelow hopes to have positioned by then, and return within 60 days. Bigelow Aerospace will give the winner $50 million.

There are two rules of America's Space Prize that seem somewhat odd given the development history of inflatable habitat technology and how the Bigelow Aerospace's first test habitat was launched. (Here.) The prize rules state that no contestant may use government development money and all contestants must be American companies operating in the United States. Yet, Bigelow's inflatable habitat technology was developed by NASA and was given to Bigelow under a licensing agreement with the government agency. Bigelow's Genesis I, the inflatable habitat in orbit now, was launched earlier this year on a Russian rocket.


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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Maybe One Day Astronauts Will Do It.

If you're in San Diego on Friday, September 8th, you might want to head over to Balboa Park and visit the San Diego Air and Space Museum. At 6:30 p.m., the museum is hosting a multimedia lecture by Sex in Space author Laura Woodmansee. She'll be talking about, well, isn't it obvious, sex in space. The talk is being sponsored by the proactive and creative Mars Society of San Diego. You can read more about the event at San Diego's here.


Monday, August 28, 2006

They're All Still Planets

Jeff Foust gives a nice summary of the problem with the IAU's new definition of planet. (Here.) He says that the problem faced by the astronomers is that the term "planet" is too general. He argues that astronomers would have been better off not trying to define "planet" and instead should have described categories of planets.
"One might imagine three broad classes of planets: 'gas giant planets' for gaseous worlds like Jupiter, 'terrestrial planets' for rocky worlds like the Earth, and 'ice planets' for worlds like Pluto. Under such a system we would not have an eight- or nine-planet solar system, since 'planet' alone would have no official meaning: instead we would have a solar system with four gas giant planets, four (or five, depending on how Ceres was classified) terrestrial planets, and several ice planets, including Pluto. (One could add up the number of three different types of planets to determine the total number of “planets” in the solar system, but such a figure would be greater than nine, and would lead right back to the issues surrounding the original IAU proposal for the definition of the term planet.)"
Foust's is a reasonable proposal that could be adopted to define categories of planets. But it is not the knife that cuts through the gordian knot astronomers face in trying to define "planet."

The problem with Foust's proposal is that tries to avoid defining "planet," while using the term to describe the round worlds that orbit our sun without orbiting another world. In other words, he defines planet while pretending not to.

His proposal is simply a variant of the proposal rejected by the IAU. It is different from the rejected proposal in that it subcategorizes the planets further than that proposal did. It is superior to the proposal adopted by the IAU because it rejects the "clearing the neighborhood" standard while still using roundness and not being a satellite to define planet.

The term "planet" is not simply an historical artifact we've inherited from our past and can't get rid of. It's actually a useful word. Defining planet can't be avoided because the round objects that orbit the sun without being satellites of other round objects are categorically similar. They are all round objects in space that orbit the sun without being the satellite of another round object in space. Why not call them what they are? Planets, damn it. They're planets.

It has been a strange experience watching astronomers debate this issue. Their resistance to accepting what is such a patently obvious characteristic of The Heliosphere is mystifying. Despite being dressed up as science, it doesn't impress this outside observer as being about science. Foust's article reveals some of that when he discusses how much like an edict the new definition is and how much of the resistance seems to be driven by a desire to avoid the prospect of a definition that expands the Solar System to dozens of planets. (Hey, it worked for Firefly and Serenity, why not for us?)

Foust's is a useful proposal that should be considered by the IAU when the astronomers next meet. Anything is better than the neighborhood bully definition adopted last week.


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They Are Fighting A Holy War Whether We Are Or Not.

Two Fox News journalists were finally released by Islamist terrorists but only after the captives "converted" to Islam. (Here.) Not that there's much room for doubt but the conversions were coerced.
"'We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, and don't get me wrong here, I have the highest respect for Islam and learned a lot of very good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns and we didn't know what the hell was going on,' [Steve] Centanni said."
This event demonstrates a problem for the United States about the War on Terror that ought to be obvious to everybody but apparently isn't. Our enemies are not fighting a geopolitical war; they are fighting a religious war.

The Islamist motivation of the terrorists imposes a special burden on their fellow Moslems. Moslem leaders must demonstrate that Islam is not the enemy. To do that they must condemn each and every atrocity committed by Islamist terrorists in the name of Islam.

Moslem leaders must condemn the forced conversions. They also must disavow the forced conversions as theologically invalid.

This is just like the question of the meaning of "jihad." Moslem leaders constantly tell us that jihad means personal struggle not holy war. Of course, we don't need to be told since we're not the ones killing people in the name of jihad. The people who need to be told what jihad means are the terrorists. In this situation, non-Moslems don't need an explanation that the conversions aren't valid. We don't recognize their validity. The people who need to be told that forced conversions aren't valid, are the terrorists who forced non-Moslems to convert or die.

There's an old saying that "silence gives consent." The terrorists forced their captives to convert to Islam. By doing so the terrorists believed they were acting on behalf of Islam. If Moslem leaders or clerics remain silent about these forced conversions their silence will amount to an acceptance of the conversions. Their silence will be consent and permission for more forced conversions to come.

Modern Christians aren't fighting the Crusades. They don't conquer for the cross anymore. Non-Christians are no longer forced to convert or die. It's time for modern Moslems to mirror that and put a stop to forced conversions. Stop your fellow Moslems from fighting this jihad. You're either with us, or you're with the jihadists. There is no middle ground.


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Friday, August 25, 2006

Planets As Neighborhood Bullies.

The criticism of the new planet definition continues as more astronomers speak out. Where were they during the voting?

The best complaint so far focuses on the reguirement that a planet have cleared its orbital neighborhood of other objects. Some astronomers in the story linked below point out that more than one Kuiper Belt Object crosses Neptune's orbit, Pluto and Charon, for example. If being a neighborhood bully is a requirement for planethood Neptune is barely working at it. Astronomer Harold Weaver has a more fundamental objection that makes a lot of sense.
"'Regarding the resolution itself, I'm with Andy Cheng in concluding that the situation is still somewhat muddled. What exactly is meant by a planet 'clearing its neighborhood?' Since many 'plutinos' ... (including Pluto) ... cross Neptune's orbit, I'd say Neptune's neighborhood still needs some clearing!

'It just seems a bit risky to me to base a definition on a theoretical construct ('dynamically cleared regions') that's only approximate at best and may change significantly as our understanding of planet formation evolves over time.

'I further note that there have been particularly large swings in the theories of outer solar system dynamical evolution during the past decade. What was 'conventional wisdom' five years ago has been replaced with the latest fad, and I don't expect that situation to change any time soon.'" (Here.)


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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Naming Dwarf Planets

Apparently the next controversy created by the new definition of planet is how to name all the new dwarf planets waiting to be discovered in the Kuiper Belt. (Here.) In keeping with the new category of dwarf, let's name them after Snow White's companions. Since there are only seven dwarfs but lots of dwarf planets we'll have to use translations of the names. For example, we can start with the seven English names, and then the next seven could be named in Russian, then Chinese, then Japanese, and so on.

In honor of the IAU's new definition, Dopey can be the first name.

Another option is Baskin Robbins' flavors of ice cream. The company has 51 permanent flavors listed on their website (here) and claims to have over 1,000 flavors overall. Rocky Road, anyone?



Astronomy For Astronomers Not The Public.

Well, it's official. Pluto isn't a planet. (Here.) The minority of astronomers still in attendance at the IAU meeting voted to limit the number of planets in the Solar System to eight. (Here.) Standing athwart history with their hands indicating "stop," the astronomers let loose their reactionary instincts and said, "this far and no further."

This vote is a mistake and apparently some astronomers agree.
"'I'm embarassed for astronomy,'" said Alan Stern, leader of NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto and a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. 'Less than 5 percent of the world's astronomers voted. ... This definition stinks, for technical reasons,' Stern told He expects the astronomy community to overturn the decision. Other astronomers criticized the definition as ambiguous." (Here.)
This vote is a mistake because the chosen definition is more likely to stop the growth of public knowledge about the solar system. New Kuiper Belt Object discoveries will be placed into a category of dwarf planet that will be as ignored by the public as new asteroid and moon discoveries are today.

The rejected proposal would have led to incremental increases in public knowledge of the solar system as new KBOs were discovered and verified as planets. Under the rejected proposal public knowledge of the solar system could have kept pace a bit with the astronomers. The chosen definition is more likely to leave the public in the dark as astronomers make new discoveries.

The astronomers have decided on a category that keeps astronomy for the astronomers. Bully for them.


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Monday, August 21, 2006

AllSpace Mexican Dinner Recap

San Diego members of the Mars Society, the Planetary Society, and the National Space Society got together at Acapulco Restaurant today under the auspices of The Alliance for Space. Over margaritas and tacos, we talked about some of the historic events happening in space today.

For instance, the new definition of planet being debated by astronomers. We liked the planet/pluton proposal and couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about.

There's also NASA's big news with the selection of SpaceX and Kistler Rocketplane as COTS finalists. We were glad SpaceX got picked. It turns out we all think pretty highly of Elon Musk.

Which of the non-finalists will switch gears and compete for Robert Bigelow's America's Space Prize? Whatever happens, we all agreed we're rooting for San Diego's own SpaceDev to do something in space with their plans to fly a spaceplane using hybrid rockets.

We talked about the plans by the Mars Society to conduct a four-month long mission in the Arctic next summer.

And then we went way out there and started talking abour terraforming the planets. We got to talking about Venus and Mars and how Venus has the gravity we need but Mars has the "better" climate. This got us talking about how much better it would be if Earth's sister planets were located in the Sun's sweet zone for life. By the time dinner was over, we had moved Venus and Mars to the trojan points of Earth's orbit around the sun. Venus especially would be great to have nearby. It's got that gravity that is almost Earth-like, easier for humans to adapt to than Mars would be. Once we decided to move Venus and Mars it seemed a shame to leave Mercury way down there out of reach so close to the Sun. So we thought about moving Mercury and all its minerals too. After all, if you're going to think big, then think BIG. How to do it? That's just an engineering problem!

Join us next month at Killer Pizza From Mars in Escondido. When? Stay tuned at the AllSpace blog (here) or the AllSpace mailgroup (here).


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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Historic Times In Human Space Travel.

NASA's choice of SpaceX as a COTS finalist is a good sign. (Here.) SpaceX is a serious venture run by a serious man, Elon Musk, with a history of achievement. He's also a man with grand ambitions. (Here.)

At the same time that NASA is pushing COTS forward, another deep pocket, Virgin Galactic, is moving forward with their plans to fly paying passengers into space. Burt Rutan is building a fleet of spaceships in Mojave, California, and Robert Bigelow's spacestation is moving closer to reality.

These are good times for spacers.



Eight Planets, Nine, Eleven, Twelve. Can't We All Just Get Along?

It turns out there is some dissension in the ranks over the proposed definition of planet. (Here.) There's even a competing definition being proposed that would limit the planets to the big eight and demote Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet." (Here.) Either definition seems workable. But the definition that elevates Ceres and adds the "pluton" category is kind of cool. There's something geeky yet cool about the word "pluton."

There is one theme about the debate over defining "planet" that is a bit bothersome. More than one scientist has made comments similar to this one.
"'Scientifically, whether Pluto is also a planet is a non-issue,' [astronomer David] Jewitt writes on his web site. 'No scientific definition of planet-hood exists or is needed. Is that a boat or a ship? It doesn't matter if you are using it to float across the ocean. Scientists are interested in learning about the origin of the solar system, and setting up arbitrary definitions of planet-hood is of no help here.'" (Here.)
(First of all, Jewitt can cross the ocean in a dinky boat slammed around by the waves if he wants. Leaves that much more room on the ships for the rest of us. The big roomy safe ships. But we digress.)

Let's stipulate that whether Pluto remains a planet should not be the primary consideration. But it is useful to have a definition of planet. Scientists may only be interested in learning about the origin of the solar system but there are a lot of us who are interested in understanding the solar system as it exists now.

Science is not just for scientists.

It helps to make astronomy more accessible to laypeople to develop categories for objects in our solar system. The competing proposals both do that. But the pluton proposal is superior to the planet/dwarf planet option in one respect. Scientists agree there are lots of objects that may qualify as either a pluton or a dwarf planet waiting to be discovered way out there in the Kuiper Belt. Under the pluton proposal the number of planets will increase with each new discovery whereas under the opposing proposal we will never have more than eight planets.

Under the pluton proposal newly discovered plutons will be considered planets. With each discovery the number of planets will increase and public knowledge about the solar system is likely to grow as new planets are discovered and added. Under the planet/dwarf planet proposal the number of planets remains fixed. With each discovery of a new dwarf planet the number of planets remains the same. It'll be much easier to ignore discoveries of new dwarf planets because they aren't in a category that matters. They aren't real planets. The same happens now with asteroids. Newly tracked or discovered asteroids don't matter unless they have the potential to destroy civilization as we know it. Public knowledge of the solar system is unlikely to grow much under the planet/dwarf planet proposal.

But maybe astronomers don't care about public knowledge of their field. It would be a shame if that were the case and if the scientists voting on the competing proposals only had their own narrow interests in mind.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lowly Planet One Day, King Of The Plutons The Next.

According to Spacedaily the IAU's draft definition of a planet will have two general categories. The eight classical planets and plutons, which are objects with orbital periods longer than 200 years beyond Neptune's orbit. Pluto is the prototype pluton. (Here.) This seems workable. Using the draft definition in the article, the number of classical planets is likely to remain small and their names easy to remember. Eventually there are likely to be lots of plutons. But as a minor and far away version of planet, it will make little difference if students do or don't know the names of all of them. And best of all, Pluto will go from being the tiniest and least significant of the planets to being the King of the Plutons. Long live the King!


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NASA Puts Down Mantle Of Galactic Overlord. Vassals Not Sure What To Do.

NASA Adminstrator Mike Griffin announced Monday that "NASA is not the galactic overlord and shouldn't be." This appeared to come as news to some in the audience at Utah State University.

Griffin's comment was in response to a plea by a former university professor championing student involvement in space who said:
"'There's no present access for students in space ... Can't you figure out a way to get us some opportunity to fly on U.S. launch vehicles?'" [Gil] Moore asked. "'We're not asking you to pay for the satellites. Just get us some rockets, get us some access to space.'"
Griffin's response is priceless, if a bit harsh in its bluntness.
"Griffin responded that he has a lot of problems ahead of that one. 'NASA cannot be responsible for everything that needs being done in the space community,' he said. 'NASA is not the galactic overlord of space and shouldn't be.' If educators want to negotiate with firms to get students' experiments into space, he added, 'I wish you well. But it is not my job to be the broker for those launches.'" (Here.)
It doesn't get much clearer than that. There's something tremendously refreshing about Griffin's candor and directness.

Reading the rest of the linked article, it's clear that Griffin doesn't see NASA's job as serving the special interests of the various elements that make up America's space community. Griffin sees his job as implementing the mandate he was given by the President. Those who want something else done in space are going to have to do an end run.

Remain a vassal and lobby Congress much like the Planetary Society has done with their SOS (Same Old Stuff) campaign to reinstate funding for their pet science missions. Or better yet, drop the role of vassal to the government's space program, take up Griffin's challenge, and find your own way to space.


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Sunday, August 13, 2006

KO'd By The KBOs Or Aren't Eight Planets Enough?

Reports are that the panel of scientists meeting to decide what's a planet and what isn't may let Pluto remain one. (Here.) The scientists are mum on their agreed definition but apparently some favor this:
"Some panel members say they favor counting any object which is large enough that its gravity has made it round. If the object is spinning, a small bulge would be tolerated. "We're talking about no more than four or five new planets," says Iwan Williams.

Small potato-shaped asteroids wouldn't make the cut. But Ceres, a big round asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, might qualify. (Here.)"
Actually, astronomer Michael Brown suggests on his website that if a planet is defined as any object made round by its own gravity, the Sun could go from having 9 planets to at least 53. (Here.)

If you were in space you wouldn't hear them, but those screams you hear on Earth are science teachers and astronomy students everywhere.

Here are the names of some larger Kuiper Belt Objects to get you started on your memorization: Orcus, Varuna, Quaoar, Sedna, Ixion, and Huya (apparently, the US Marines have their own planet way out there in the Kuiper Belt). The other KBOs don't have names yet; just a series of numbers and letters like, 2003UB313 and 2005RM43. (See Brown's handy chart here. Be sure to look at the scribbled mess that 53 orbits makes of the map of our solar system compared to the beautiful 9 orbits we have today.)


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Monday, August 07, 2006

What's Up With That? Bob Zubrin Speaks Out.

The most recent Mars Society newsletter touting the success of this year's conference has some interesting things to say about the economic development of space.
"In eight years, our ideas have gone from Quixotic to mainstream, and now the task is to make sure they are implemented, and not stopped either by those who oppose the Vision altogether, or those charlatans who are currently peddling fraudulent promises of cheap electricity beamed from Lunar solar power stations in order to lure the public into accepting an initiative degraded to a Moon-only objective.

'They have a fundamentally base understanding of human nature,' [Mars Society President Robert] Zubrin said. "They use deceit, and appeal to greed. They try to tempt people to support space with a false promise of saving them some money at the pump. We say we need to go to Mars because it is the planet that has the resources to support the birth of a new branch of human civilization, because that is what this is really about – creating an open human future where people will have the freedom to be the makers of their worlds, not just the inhabitants of a world already made, and growing ever narrower and more regulated as it seeks to constrain human aspirations to accept ever tighter limits. In the battle of ideas we will beat theirs, because ours are based on truth. We will win by building a movement based on Hope rather than Greed.'" (Here.)
All rightee then.

To give the devil his due there is a kind of unrealistic "space saves the world" idealism that drives many of the ideas for economic development in space, solar power from space included. Comparisons between alleged economic benefits from space elevators or cheap rockets opening the space frontier and the benefits from the transcontinental railroad's opening of the American west ignore a crucial difference between the projects. The railroad was built to link the populations and developed economies of the east and west coasts. The only permanent settlement in space right now is the International Space Station.

And yet, there's nothing base about expecting some kind of economic return on investment in space. It's called fiscal responsibility. It's also the basis of capitalism, which has done more to improve the human condition for more people than any other economic system in history. Indeed, there's something refreshing and idealistic about spacers who try to think of ways that space can be made profitable and beneficial for humanity. At least they are trying to find ways space can improve the human condition.

Moreover, the idea that Mars will be a second home for civilization is no more based on truth than the idea that solar power beamed from the Moon will save the world. Sure Mars has resources for humans to use for settlements. But there is no evidence that humans can live their entire lives and especially produce healthy children in the high radiation low gravity environment that is Mars. Humans evolved in a 1G environment. We still don't know if humans can live permanently in space or if space will always be a place where humans travel temporarily for work and exploration.

Spacers really should stick together to advance our agenda. Advocates of solar satellites and making money in space are not the enemy. If we've got to have an enemy, lets pick on those who think we should do it all in space with robots.


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Republished once for editing.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

NASA Mission Excludes Earth?

Another teapot tempest erupted a few weeks ago over NASA's removal of the following phrase from its mission statement: "to understand and protect our home planet." Apparently, NASA's new mission statement says, "to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research." (Here, NYT article requires registration.) The change has gotten criticism. (Here and here.)

Yet the reality is that Earth sciences will get around 50 percent of science funding for the next five years. (See pp. 32-34 of budget here.) And there's this statement by OSTP Director John Marburger.
"The first stage of exploiting cislunar space is already well advanced, partly because applications have been found that can be achieved with small payloads and yet whose value to society exceeds the cost of launch. It is likely that these near-Earth applications will always dominate the use of space because Earth is where the people are, as well as the environment that sustains them. We must never forget that within our Solar System the object most important for humankind is Earth, and Earth-oriented space applications merit priority in a balanced portfolio of public investment." (Here, para. 5.)
So even though the mission statement has changed, Earth research is likely to remain in NASA's plans. Too bad, actually.

Here's a NASA Ames webpage that apparently hasn't gotten the message about the new mission statement. It has an entirely different mission statement and it's a long one.
"To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. To advance human exploration, use, and development of space. To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics and space technologies."
What kind of mission statement is that? It's more like six mission statements rolled into one. It's unfocused, it's long, and it has too much information to comprehend easily.

Now compare that mission statement to the new supposedly objectionable statement."To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research." (Here.) It's one short sentence that is easily comprehended. Despite it's brevity, it provides an overall description of what NASA is about. And it's a very broad statement. Notice that it doesn't limit scientific discovery to space. The breadth of the statement also leaves room to change the details of implementation as needs change over time.

It's hard to quantify the importance of a mission statement. Go to the NASA website (here) and try to find it. Good luck. Go to the NASA budget documents page (here) and you'll find it only in the strategic plan document. (Page 5 of 48.) Thus, the statement may not be as important as the complainers have made it out. What is clearly important is President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration and you'll find lots of discussion of that in NASA's documents.

Regardless, the critics are wrong. Part of NASA's problem has been that it tried to do too many things. NASA's primary mission should be exploration and discovery of space. NASA should be focused on looking up not down, out not in, and forward not backward. Pick your metaphor.


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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Star Trek Characters

Once I took the test and turned out to be Captain Egghead. But that test compared captains of the Enterprise only. The latest test has more characters to choose from and now I'm Will Riker. (Here.) Beats being a red shirt, I suppose.



Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Good News Everybody! Mars Is Probably Dead.

This study says the peroxides on the Martain surface make the planet inhospitable to life as we know it. (Here.)

To some this might be bad news because it reduces the likelihood of finding life on Mars and it also undermines one rationale for Martian exploration: the search for extraterrestrial life. However, to those of us who view space as a place for future exploitation by humans, this is good news.

The more the planets can be viewed as uninhabited real estate loaded with natural resources the better. If there's no eco-system to protect and no existing owner, the planets are ours for the using. With the exception of some parks, of course.


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