Wednesday, February 28, 2007

By Jove!!

Jupiter's Little Red Spot Imaged by New Horizons Spacecraft
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons spacecraft flew by Jupiter early this morning, picking up a gravity assist on its way to Pluto-and-beyond.

This evening some friends and I (after a stop for Mexican food and margaritas just outside the Lab) attended a Planetary Society sponsored event at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the organization which built and is now controlling the pioneering spacecraft. We heard one of the leading mission scientists present the history of the project and the latest results and images from the flyby.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Astronaut Farmer: the Dream and the Reality

I saw the movie Astronaut Farmer starring Billy Bob Thorton and Virginia Madsen last night. While it would be easy to pick out some technical inaccuracies and a plot that strains credibility, I recommend it as a fun and inspiring movie (mostly family friendly, aside from a few instances of profanity).

The story of a Texas rancher who builds a rocket and spacecraft in his barn evokes a 'New Space' spirit while hearkening back to a very retro spaceship design. Here are reviews by Alan Boyle and Rob Pearlman.

The idea of a non-governmental effort to put humans into space has already come to reality, at least at the level of suborbital spaceflight, with the 2004 flights of SpaceShipOne. And private enterprise space travel may soon be reaching much further, as described by this article in this week's Time magazine.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Today marks the start of the holy season of Lent, leading up to the joyous feast of Easter. Here is Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten message.
May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we, in turn, must "regive" to our neighbor, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need. Only in this way will we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter.

Also, here is a list of Lenten links from the Anchoress (Hat tip: Kathryn Jean Lopez).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Too Much, Too Soon

When a political wonk like Karl Rove says the 2008 presidential campaign is getting revved up way too early for the candidates' own good, you know that things are getting out of hand.
"I think it is going to mean that people develop a persona earlier and wear out their welcome earlier than they would," he told The Politico in an interview. "I think there's going to come some point this year where people are going to basically be saying: 'I'm largely disinterested in the contest.' "
Believers, Deniers, and Skeptics

Ellen Goodman is sure about human activity causing warming of the global climate, and what she thinks of those who don't necessarily agree with her.
I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

But Mark Steyn, in his witty way, describes some of the various scientific studies being published that draw a range of conclusions regarding the climate question, going beyond the over-simplification of the Media echo-chamber.
Are you thinking maybe it's time to turn over the page to the Anna Nicole Smith "A life in pictures" double spread? Well, that's my point. Most of us aren't reading the science, or even a precis of the science. We're just reading a constant din from the press that "the science is settled," and therefore we no longer need to think about it: The thinking has been done for us. Last week's U.N. IPCC "report," for example, is not the report, but a political summary thereof.

As I've said in an earlier post, scientific climate study must be vigorously pursued and developing alternative sources and more efficient use of energy makes sense on a number of grounds. However, when we're told that a question involving major economic and social policy implications is 'settled' and that no doubts are allowed, maybe that's a sign that some healthy skepticism is due.

BTW, Wednesday's House subcommittee hearing on "Climate Change: Are Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Human Activities Contributing to a Warming of the Planet?" has been postponed due to the snow & ice storm hitting this part of the country.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Spectacular Galactic View


Here's a spectacular view of galaxies in the cluster Abell S0740 over 450 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Centaurus. The image was taken by the now mostly non-functional Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) onboard the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
Astronaut Highs and Lows

So much has been written about the sorry turn of events involving astronaut Lisa Nowak. Summaries of article links are provided by and HobbySpace. All I can add is that we take the bad with the good within us wherever we go and bring it back home with us.

On the lighter side, Apollo 11 lunar pioneer Buzz Aldrin (who went through his own personal difficulties following his historic flight) appeared recently on a British TV talk show, showing he still has the 'right stuff' including a quick sense of humor. Here's the link to the YouTube clip (~9 minutes) (Hat tip to Pete Backus).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Climate Debate Heats Up

Well, since we're going through some days with sub-freezing temperatures this week, it must be time to bring up the topic of climate change. The United Nations has released the first volume of the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The policy summary (PDF file) states
Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years (see Figure SPM-1). The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture. {2.3, 6.4, 7.3}

Meanwhile, the editors at National Review Online comment that the IPCC has pulled back from some of the more dire conclusions of their 2001 assessment.
Gone from the latest summary is the infamous “hockey stick” of the 2001 report. This was a graphic purporting to show that the planet is warmer today than at any time in the last thousand years, a demonstration which required erasing the inconvenient medieval warm period and the little ice age. The new IPCC report has also reduced its estimate of the human influence on warming by one-third (though this change was not flagged for the media, so few if any news accounts took notice of it). That reduction is one reason the IPCC narrowed the range of predicted future warming, and lowered the new midpoint — i.e., the most likely prediction of temperature increase — by a half degree, from 3.5 degrees Celsius in 2001 to 3 degrees in this report. The new assessment also cuts in half the range of predicted sea-level rise over the next century.

So an appropriate response to the question is somewhere between complacency with the status quo and a panic induced push toward economic restrictions and social engineering. Certainly, climate does change (warmer and cooler) over time, and the natural and human factors involved are not yet fully understood. Scientific efforts to monitor and analyze the situation must be sufficiently funded. And regardless of the actual impact of human activity on the global climate, practical measures to develop alternative energy sources and use the energy efficiently make sense from national security, economic, and general environmental grounds.
Federal Budget Day

President Bush sent the Administration's proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 federal budget request to Congress today. Highlights include $145 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and projecting a balanced budget by FY 2012 while making tax cuts permanent. Needless to say, there is much debate about all of these provisions.

The FY 2008 request for NASA is $17.3 billion, a modest increase over last year's request, but a more significant increase over the FY 2007 level as it stands currently in the House, at $16.2 billion. That spending measure would have a serious impact on NASA programs, especially the development of the exploration vehicles planned to replace the Space Shuttle. Of course the congressional budget appropriation process is rather arcane, and the situation may be improved later in the year, but in the mean time this situation does complicate program planning. Here is's report.

Space organizations are weighing in on the budget issue. The Space Foundation says that even the Bush Administration request shortchanges the exploration effort, while the Space Frontier Foundation sees an opportunity in the proposed congressional cutbacks.