blues for a red planet

Ms. Monstrrr and I have been working our way through Cosmos, which absolutely stands the test of time. Some of the science is a little outdated, but not very much. I credit Carl Sagan for my first experience of awe at the universe, and for much of my assumption that we will be going to space. I can’t imagine why it would be a controversial subject- it’s more like a logical and organic progression.

After watching the episode on Mars, it made me sad that Sagan wasn’t around to see all the exploration of Mars that’s happened since the mid 90′s. So who’s on Mars right now?

For starters, there are the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. They were designed for 90-day missions, but that was 2003 and they’re not dead yet. Spirit is in the deepest sleep it’s ever entered, from which it may not wake up, but Opportunity is still cruising along doing science.

Meanwhile, there are three active orbiters: Mars Odyssey, Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

It’s amazing that we have so much happening on Mars (and elsewhere) when so much of NASA is such a mess today. There’s a lot of politics going on about the future of human spaceflight as a NASA project. There’s also a fair amount starting to happen on the commercial side of human spaceflight, but the gap between the two is still huge. More on NASA politics one of these days.

life on mars? no! water on asteroids? yes!

The Sun, ever a bastion of journalistic credibility, ran a big story the other day making a pretty big claim:

NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Of course, the first thing to do when you see a sensational story in the Sun is to disbelieve it, and the second is to look for sources. Lots of people have re-posted this article as fact, or written other articles proclaiming OMG LIFE ON MARS !!!11!, but the only source they can refer to is the Sun.

Fortunately, my friend Mr. Google was able to provide a more reasoned account of the story:

It seems that there’s lots of gypsum and similar types of rock on Mars. Researchers have recently discovered that gypsum on Earth holds lots of microscopic fossils of ocean life:

The scientists said they are impressed by the unexpected discovery of 6-million-year-old fossils in rocks from a time when the Mediterranean Sea was known to have dried up completely.

During a NASA phone briefing Wednesday, J. William Schopf, director of the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life at UCLA, said the fossil life forms include organisms much like those in the oceans of today – phytoplankton, diatoms, and cyanobacteria, better known in a non-ocean environment as “pond scum.”

So the findings on Earth give scientists a clue where to look for evidence of life on Mars. The Sun reporters (one of whom is listed as “Sun Spaceman”) seem to be a little confused about what was reported. The real story is how this affects future plans for Martian exploration:

It’s much more interesting to look at pictures of rocks when they’re ROCKS ON MARS:


Meanwhile, here’s an actual discovery that doesn’t sound as glamorous, but is pretty significant:

“For a long time the thinking was that you couldn’t find a cup’s worth of water in the entire asteroid belt,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Today we know you not only could quench your thirst, but you just might be able to fill up every pool on Earth – and then some.”

The general spin on this is that it might explain where the Earth’s water came from. More importantly, though, the need for water is one of the major obstacles to humanity getting off the Earth and into the rest of the system. On the other hand, I’ve seen what mining sites look like here. We’d better clean up our act a whole lot before we make our way to the asteroid belt.

This is also pretty interesting:

Do you know about the Oort cloud? It’s pretty awesome.


NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

space roundup

Here’s a week’s worth of news from space:

Population in Space at Historic High: 13

Here’s the baker’s dozen breakdown of the three spaceships in orbit today [last Thursday, in fact- jfb]:

* Soyuz TMA-14: Three people aboard, including space tourist Charles Simonyi and the new Expedition 19 crew for the station which numbers two, a Russian and an American. Launched Thursday and will arrive at the station Saturday morning.
* Space Shuttle Discovery: Seven people aboard, returning from the space station after delivering the last pair of U.S. solar wings to the orbiting laboratory, boosting it to full power during their STS-119 mission. The shuttle is due to land Saturday in Florida to end a 13-day spaceflight.
* International Space Station: Currently home to three astronauts, one each from the United States, Russia and Japan. Two will return home April 7 with Simonyi to end their Expedition 18 mission.

Half an hour after Prometheus tore into this region of Saturn’s F ring, the Cassini spacecraft snapped this image just as the moon was creating a new streamer in the ring.The dark pattern shaped like an upside down check mark in the lower left of the image is Prometheus and its shadow. The potato shaped moon can just be seen coming back out of the ring.

so much trouble in the world

It’s been a bad week for Obama, and so air bases in Kyrgyzstan may not seem like the most pressing matter. But this may be his most significant defeat:

We could very well end up using the base under some new arrangement, but this makes clear it will be an arrangement with Russia, not KZ. So this means that we have to accept Russia reclaiming its sphere of influence, if not its old borders, in Central Asia. It also threatens our supply lines to Afghanistan, which are already threatened from the other side as well:

It was not immediately clear whether supply convoys could reach Afghanistan through alternative, smaller routes in the region. Another official in the area, Fazal Mahmood, said repair work had begun on the bridge.

Up to 75 percent of the fuel and supplies destined for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan travel through Pakistan after being unloaded at the port of Karachi. Most are driven along the Khyber Pass.

Meanwhile, the news from space…. Iran managed to launch a satellite this week, but it remains to be seen if it’s a big move or just a propaganda ploy:

“The rocket is not that sophisticated,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, told The Washington Times. “That Sputnik technology, a little metal ball that goes ‘beep beep beep,’ is not the same as a nuclear warhead or a telecommunications satellite. It’s harder to send heavier objects and more sophisticated objects into space or across a continent.”

And assorted bumps along the way:

Back on Earth, the stimulus bill may turn into more life support for Detroit. A generation’s worth of debt to prop up a failing industry:

The word on the street is that after some small victories in the House ($3B added to capital funding for transit) there will be another fight in the Senate where various amendments are being proposed to strip transit funds and move them to highways, or to simply add $50B to highways.

This could be interesting- it’s a civil disobedience action that’s actually part of a larger strategy, well-targeted and hopefully well-organized. DC is famously a black hole for media events, but this one might cut through all the crap.

As Congress continues to sputter on solutions for the climate crisis, a national coalition of more than 40 environmental, public health, labor, social justice, faith-based and other advocacy groups have announced plans to engage in civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington D.C. on the afternoon of March 2, 2009.

The event, known as the Capitol Climate Action (CCA), will be the largest mass mobilization on global warming in the country’s history. The event reflects the growing public demand for bold action to address the climate and energy crises. It means no more waiting, no more excuses, and no more coal.

A couple more along those lines:

I’ve been saving up some Sea Shepherd stories for you. Soon come.

more news from the science-based community

And NASA Watch has got the right angle on that:

The Obama administration is just now naming interim leadership at NASA, after a whole lot of drama from the outgoing boss. The new boss, whenever they arrive, will have to lead NASA through a lot of important decisions: do they proceed with developing the Ares rocket or modify an existing model? What’s the balance between science and exploration? Between human and robotic missions? Between the moon, Mars and other places? NASA needs to get it together in the next 4-8 years, or else get out of the way.

And to bring it back down to Earth:

My analysis of news articles published in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and newsmagazines between December 2007 and June 2008 suggests that for most reporters covering this story, the default role was that of stenographer — presenting a nominally balanced view of the debate without questioning the validity of the arguments, sometimes even ignoring evidence that one side was twisting truth. Database searches yielded a sample of 40 published news and analysis stories that explored the cost debate in some de-tail (see appendix). Of these, seven stories were one-sided. Twenty-four stories were works of journalistic stenography. And nine stories attempted, with varying degrees of success, to move past the binary debate, weigh the arguments, and reach conclusions about this thorny issue.

And finally, I’ve failed now in three efforts to grow an indoor moss garden. The lack of humidity is always the problem, and growing it in a closed container just seems to promote the growth of mold that quickly chokes it the moss. I’ve thought about keeping it in the bathroom, but space has always been an issue. Here’s a solution that never occurred to me:

They also grow it on foam instead of soil, which probably helps a lot with the mold. Still, I’d rather try it in a dish than on the floor.

update- methane on mars

Here’s the actual story:

Wait out the first minute or so of animations, and you’ll hear from one of the researchers.

the news from mars

Not like anyone reads those books anymore- they’re kind of dated. A good movie could be pretty awesome, though. But don’t hold your breath- IMDB says it’s not coming out til 2012.

In other news, The Sun screams for your attention with a bold headline:

ALIEN microbes living just below the Martian soil are responsible for a haze of methane around the Red Planet, Nasa scientists believe.

But it turns out that there’s a little less to the story than meets the eye:

NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity.

That’s it. There’s methane, and it could come from living things. Or from geological activities. Or maybe something else. Just because methane is produced by living things or volcanoes on Earth doesn’t mean it can’t be produced by something else somewhere else. It’ll still be interesting to see what they have to say tomorrow, of course.

And finally, those wacky Mars rovers that were designed to last for ninety days are coming up on five years of operation:

Won’t it be a great day when NASA has all the money it needs to colonize the solar system, and the Air Force has to sell dime bags on the street corner to buy a bomber? Or maybe they’ll just quit bombing things. Whatever.

earth and space and rock n roll

As Taboos Ease, Saudi Girl Group Dares to Rock
myspace: The AccoLade

When I visited their myspace this morning, they had 14 friends. Now they’re up to 584 after being in the NY Times all day. 585, actually, now that I friended them. I’ll be curious to see if some myspace exposure offers them any protection. There should be an Amnesty International campaign devoted to defending the right to rock in oppressive countries.

Such new initiatives should include dramatically amplifying our capability to monitor the changing Earth in every form, from climate change to land use to the mitigation of natural disasters. Such an effort should also accelerate much needed innovation in aircraft and airspace system technologies that would save fuel, save travelers time, and regain American leadership in the commercial aerospace sector. And it should take greater responsibility for mitigating the potential hazards associated with solar storms and asteroid impacts.

So, too, a more relevant NASA should be charged to ignite the entrepreneurial human suborbital and orbital spaceflight industry. This nascent commercial enterprise promises to revolutionize how humans use spaceflight and how spaceflight benefits the private sector economy as fundamentally as the advent of satellites affected the communications industry.

With the pick of Bill Richardson for Secretary of Commerce, this article suddenly becomes very relevant. Commerce has a lot to say about the development of a non-governmental space industry.

And rounding it out with a fresh assortment of enviro stories:

Obama said that will “start” with a federal cap and trade system to reduce global warming pollution, an approach that could create millions of jobs in the U.S.

If you’re wondering what those jobs are, how will they be created, and who will get them, check out a just-released report from Duke University that for the first time pinpoints the direct link between climate change solutions and U.S. workers.

There are plenty of criticisms of emission trading, by the way, but I plan to read up on it before I start pontificating. Half the criticisms I can think of are ideological in nature, and therefore suspect. Most of the rest are practical, meaning they may be answered empirically.

sea, space and stupid

Starting of course with the stupid. The one redeeming factor here? At least it wasn’t the Amurricans this time.

Students in ‘Weird Science’ Halloween party arrested under anti-terror laws

OK, on to the srs b. I’ve never posted anything like an ad before, but this is something I want to see. If I find a torrent, I’m going to make all my friends watch it. Unless it sucks. It is TV, after all.

Sea Shepherd Heads for Antarctic Battle With Japanese Whalers
Greenpeace lays off Japan
Greenpeace won’t chase whalers

Guarded shipping corridor limiting Somali piracy
European Union approves anti-piracy patrols off Somali coast

Icy Profile

The Cassini spacecraft looks toward Rhea’s cratered, icy landscape with the dark line of Saturn’s ringplane and the planet’s murky atmosphere as a background.

Chandrayaan-1 Successfully Enters Moon’s Orbit
Astronauts head for extreme home makeover in space
Mars Phoenix Lander completes its mission

According to NASA, the space agency is no longer receiving communications from Phoenix, its Mars lander, after more than five months of operation. The not unexpected event came after the lander moved into an area, NASA said in a release Monday, where “seasonal decline in sunshine at the robot’s arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight for the solar arrays to collect the power necessary to charge batteries that operate the lander’s instruments.”

RIP, Phoenix. You almost convinced me to take the Twitter pill. Almost.

sea, space and earth

Conservationists gear up for whale season
Anti-sealers profit as Fisheries foots seized vessel’s bills
Sea Shepherd Hires Retired U.S. Federal Agent Scott West To Head Up Criminal Investigations
‘Sticking it to the Man,’ 21st Century style… Paul Watson interviewed by Jason Miller

Arms ship: UN okays commando attack
‘Somali pirates cut ransom, set deadline’
Owner co refutes reports on upcoming freeing of Ukrainian ship in Somalia

‘Anti-piracy efforts scotched by human rights of sea pirates’
Danish tanker sailing off the coast of Somalia repelled pirates

NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander powers down for last time?
Ammonia tank thrown from space station last year falls harmlessly in South Pacific, NASA says
NASA Water Recovery System Headed to the International Space Station
SMD Turns Its Back on Suborbital Science

Bush team rushes environment policy changes

The Bush team has urged that these regulations be issued no later than Saturday, so they can be put in effect by the time President George W. Bush leaves office on January 20.

If they are in effect then, it will be hard for the next administration to undo them, and in any case, this may not be the top priority for a new president, said Matt Madia of OMB Watch, which monitors the White House Office of Management and Budget, through which these proposed regulations must pass.

NY’s Plans For Eco-Friendly Taxis Halted

The plan to turn New York City’s entire fleet of yellow cabs green by 2012 was halted Friday by a federal judge who ruled that regulation of fuel emissions standards fall under federal, not city, authority.

The plan called for every new taxi to have a minimum standard of at least 30 miles per gallon, a target now met by hybrid and clean diesel cars.