Tuesday, June 20, 2006

NASA, Planets, and a Certain Satellite

If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger? ~Thomas Henry Huxley

NASA is at it again

If there's one thing as sure as death and taxes, it's that NASA managers will make decisions based on, well, something. I can't really say what the basis of their decisions is, although I'm leaning toward Ouija boards. Or pure politics. One is as bad as the other.

If you can't figure out what I'm talking about, it's that NASA has announced that the shuttle will launch July 1 or thereabouts (weather and mechanical issues permitting). But in reports here and here, we learn that the decision was made over the objections of the safety managers. Now, given that the Genesis report was just released and given that the last launch revealed a number of unpleasantries, one would expect that NASA would err on the side of caution. Not NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. “I can't possibly accept every recommendation given to me by every member of my staff, especially when they all don't agree. “ Now, this may be the dumbest statement to come out of NASA since “Better, Faster, Cheaper.”

Mr. Griffin, if you'd ever watched a launch, you'd know that all stations must report “Go” before a launch can go forward. The only unanimity that counts is 100% “Go” answers. One station can put a launch on hold. When your safety managers say, “Hold”, that means something isn't exactly kosher. As I've said before, space flight will never be without risk, but taking potentially foolish risks is becoming something of a habit for NASA.

Apparently, NASA thinks that, in the event of a problem, the crew can hide out in the ISS until a rescue mission can be mounted, presumably by sending a bunch of Soyuz capsules up to ferry back seven people. Exactly how long the ISS can support nine people is open to serious question. I presume that the plan actually intends for Discovery to stay linked to the ISS, but even so, the supplies are intended to support two-man crews, not an entire NASA glee club.

I sincerely hope that the safety people have overestimated the danger. But, even if they haven't, the latest NASA administrator is still an idiot. Hopefully, no one will suffer from his folly.

If something does occur, the investigating commission will have a quick job doing their report. All they'll have to do is cut and paste all the management mistakes from the previous ones.

Postscript -- I wrote this over the weekend. Since then, the Safety Officer and Chief Engineer have issued statements saying everything's cool, the crew will be okay. In one breath the safety people say "there remain issues with the orbiter" and "we should redesign the ice/frost ramp before we fly this mission." They follow by saying "we do not feel ... that these issues are a threat" to the crew. You could sprain your whole face trying to talk out of both sides of your mouth like that. I'm wondering how far behind their backs their arms were twisted to get that left-handed blessing out of them.

So, what is a planet, anyway?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is going to try to clarify the definition of the term “planet,” or, as the article puts it, “propose wording to delineate planets from other small, round objects.” Presumably, this means defining how Jupiter is different from a basketball. Oh, all right, it's a bigger issue than that. Ever since Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, astronomers have been questioning whether it qualified to be a planet. The issues has become far hotter of late because of the discovery of Kuiper Belt objects that are similar if not larger than little Pluto.

I am reminded of a prescient article that appeared in “Astronomy” magazine some years ago. It was entitled “Where Have All the Plutos Gone” and discussed the fact that by theory there should be many more Pluto-sized objects out at the edge of the Solar System. It now has been demonstrated that they are, in fact, out there.

The problem with defining a planet is the vague criteria. Size is hard to use because, beyond the fact that the object should be massive enough to be round, there's no reason to say that a 2000-mile-diameter object is any less of a planet than an 8000-mile rock. Orbit is also an issue. Planetary orbits are supposed to be fairly circular (although still elliptical) and in a similar plane. Some of the debated objects (including Pluto) have more eccentric orbits and don't necessarily stay in the main planetary plane.

So what's the big deal? Well, in the great cosmic scheme of life, it probably isn't all that important, but science is built on clarity of definitions and rules. Vagueness is not just sloppy, it leads to sloppy theories. Defining these objects is important to developing theories about the formation of the Solar Systems.

Which is a cosmic question.

What's in a name?

Russia, Italy, Germany, and Sweden have teamed up to launch an interesting new satellite designed to study dark matter, the stuff we can't see that makes up most of the universe. It's an ambitious project that will hopefully find out information to help better define the nature of universe. However, I think I know now why so many space exploration and science projects are delayed. The name of the satellite is “Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics” or (are you ready for this?) PAMELA.

Can you even imagine how long it took them to come up with a name for the device that would spell Pamela? Probably added a couple of years to the development cycle.

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