Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grumpy Old Astonaut

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible. ~ Rod Serling

Buzz Aldrin has always been a little outspoken. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his quotes are sometimes edited to make them more so (like his mention of a UFO in a recent TV series, which was cut to make it sound like he thought the Apollo 11 command module was being shadowed by little green men). But reading this article, it doesn't sound like anything has been altered. It just sounds like Buzz is off base.

Basically, the second man on the moon complains that the boredom most kids (and, though he doesn't say it, the rest of us) feel about the space program is due to science fiction movies "where they beam people around" making space look easy.

Maybe he's tired of being called "the second man on the moon" or maybe the ice cream was hurting his teeth, but to blame sci-fi for the general any ennui on the part of the younger generation is like blaming "The Natural" for steroid abuse in baseball.

Now I think pretty highly of science fiction. I've also heard more than one scientist and engineer say that he or she was inspired by some sci-fi story or another to pursue his or her field. I went to school with a lot of geeks in the 1960's who were found in works by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and others goals for which to strive. Sci-fi talked about things like teleportation and faster-than-light space flight. Why not try to find ways to achieve such things?

We all knew about Einstein, so the idea of whizzing between stars did not seem to be an easy thing to achieve, but that didn't stop anyone from dreaming. And no one looked at a movie or at a Star Trek episode and said, "Well, they make it look so easy, there's no way I should imagine doing that."

It's possible that some kids get lazy attitudes about how much real work it takes to get into space, as opposed to the whiz-bang propulsion methods of Star Trek or Star Wars. Assuming there are kids dumb enough to feel that way, we shouldn't be concerned because those are the kids who are going to grow into scientists and engineers.

If there's a problem, it's that it is very hard to get excited about space travel today, as I've written on numerous occasions. I have trouble imagining some kid getting all excited about piloting a garbage-return mission to a space station that isn't doing much of anything.

If there's a problem, it's that kids are hearing that the only way to get into space is to pay a few million bucks to hitch a ride to that boring space station or, worse, to take a suborbital ride to nowhere that's about as exiciting as some amusement park rides. If it weren't for the element of some cheap part or short-cut engineering killing the rider, the park rides would be more exciting altogether.

Kids aren't as dumb as people like to think. They can see the excitement of a Cassini mission or a New Horizons trip to Pluto. They can also see our approach to Mars exploration and question just what NASA is thinking, sending dead-end missions like Phoenix instead of sample-return missions or more exotic rovers.

(Yes, I know those projects are "on the drawing board", but they certainly aren't getting off the board and onto spaceships.)

They can hear pronouncements about going to Mars in 2020 and draw the obvious conclusion that it ain't going to happen since governments would rather spend money on war than on space. More important, they can see that there's no plan or goal with respect to Mars. I mean, go to Mars just to plant a flag? A rover can do that. It's 40 years since we went to the moon, and we still haven't followed up with any kind of colonization or utilization.

If kids are bored with the space program, we shouldn't blame sci-fi movies. We should blame the people in charge of the space program.

And their bosses.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Flop of the Phoenix?

Well done is better than well said. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Some man-made probes have performed so incredibly well that it beggars belief.

Tied for number one on the all-star team are the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, still chugging along on the red planet years after they were supposed to be done. They continue to provide discoveries, and, barring NASA budget-cutting stupidity, could continue to explore Mars for some time to come.

Stardust, which went comet-sniffing, captured so many particles that scientists are still trying to find sort out data. A recent release showed that at least some comets have a makeup similar to that of asteroids. In a way, that news is confusing. Comet Wild 2, which Stardust sniffed, is supposed to have come from the Kuiper Belt or beyond, which means it should have been made up of pristine material from 4.6 billion years ago. Most of the material being found is newer, forcing scientists to do some rethinking about comet and/or asteroid makeup.

Even Genesis, which bought the farm on its return, is turning out to have some stories to tell. Despite having cratered in the desert, it turns out that the Genesis payload was at least partially recoverable, thanks to some incredible efforts by the team. Genesis is telling us something about the makeup of the sun, finding it to have more of some oxygen isotopes than Earth and meteorites.

Then there are the Voyagers, which are still sending data back to fascinated scientists. Both Voyager 1 and 2 have now reached the heliopause, and they're telling us that the heliopause is sort of squished, for reasons that aren't yet clear.

Even the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, precursors to the Voyagers, which were launched in 1972 and 1973 have left us with the puzzle of why they aren't exactly where they're supposed to be. Of course, this anomaly sends some people down the old "Einstein's theories must be wrong" road, but I suspect they'll find, eventually, that, as usual, Einstein was right and that the Pioneers have revealed something else more interesting.

And then there's Phoenix.

I'll admit to being very excited when Phoenix landed, even though it seemed way too much was being made about a powered descent onto Mars. After all, we managed to land Viking 1 and 2 that way in 1976. Surely we should be able to duplicate something we did 32 years ago. How are we ever going to land explorers on Mars if we can manage a soft powered landing?

At any rate, it was exciting to see the first pictures back from Mars' polar region. I was struck, however, by the rather Rube Goldberg method of relaying information. Phoenix uploads its data to either Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which relays the data to Earth. The orbiters also relay instructions to the lander. What this means is that doing anything takes a couple of days. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that both orbiters have had their relay systems go into safe mode at least once since Phoenix started trying to phone home.

I'm presuming that this arcane method of communicating is being done because of Phoenix's position near the polar region, which must put Earth below the horizon. At least, I hope that's why, because no other reason makes sense, when we've had five other probes on the planet that were able to directly communicate to Earth-based handlers.

They almost couldn't unencumber the digging arm, which would have been a disaster as it would have rendered Phoenix useless.

Then there was the clumping problem. It seemed that scientists weren't planning on Mars dirt clumping up, despite every indication that, if there was water immediately under the surface dirt anywhere, it would be at the poles. Thanks to the clumping, it took several days to get any dirt delivered to the little oven to burn some for analysis.

Now it turns out that the lander may only be able to bake one more sample, thanks to a short circuit.

I doubt we'll be seeing two years of extended missions for this lemon.

Frankly, the entire design concept for Phoenix seems wonky. To begin with, we got a lot of experience from Viking on digging and testing Martian dirt. We've also been seeing for some time now that Martian dirt clumps, thanks to the Rovers. Third, we know there has been water on Mars and have detected subsurface water on the planet thanks to ground-penetrating radar.

It would have made much more sense to dedicate resources to making a super rover that would be designed to cover large distances for a long period. Instead of concentrating on grinding rocks like the current Rovers, this one could have carried testing equipment for bacterial life. We've learned a lot about testing for extremophiles that would allow design of more sophisticated tests than were carried by the Vikings.

So Phoenix scraped some dirt and found something that looks like ice. A roving probe could have done that and looked for it in more places.

Phoenix was originially designed years ago and effectively cancelled. It was resurrected for reasons that aren't really clear, probably because there were no realistic plans for new probes that were anywhere near ready to go. Whatever the reason, Phoenix represents a lot of money and time being spent to accomplish very limited goals, goals that were being accomplished very well, thank you, by other devices.

I wish the Phoenix team well and hope that they get some meaningful return for their efforts. In fact, I hope they get any kind of return.

Maybe a Martian abominable snowman will come wandering by the camera.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Whaddya Know? Einstein's Right -- Again

We all agree that your theory is crazy, but is it crazy enough? ~ Niels Bohr

You've probably never heard of PSR J0737-3039A/B, but that's okay; it's never heard of you either. It turns out that
PSR J0737-3039A/B is a catalog number for the only known binary pulsars. It's a significant pair in that it has been used to confirm -- once again -- Einstein's theory of General Relativity.

Yes, yet again, old Albert has been shown to have been right.

In this particular instance, the prediction being tested was that an object in orbit around another would develop a wobble known as precession. Earth has such a wobble, a precession that causes the North Pole to point at a different star every 25,000 years or so. In a planetary system, what with collisions and all, precessions can come from a variety of sources, but in a pulsar pair, it's going to be caused by one thing: Gravity.

Using sophisticated techniques, astronomers confirmed that one member of the pulsar pair has just the precession predicted by Einstein. We should be used to this by now.

Trying to prove Einstein's General and Special theories of relativity to be wrong seems to have become a cottage industry in modern physics. I'm not sure why, but it probably has something to do with winning Nobel Prizes. People seldom win Nobels for confirming existing work. Disproving Einstein would be original work indeed, if anyone could do it. But, it has proved difficult.

Time dilation, physical compression in the direction of travel, frame drag, the warpage of space: The list goes on and on of things which have been observed directly. In fact, the same pulsar pair was used by the Jodrell Bank Observatory to verify gravitational redshift, Shapiro delay (an effect caused by the gravitational warpage of space and time; no, I don't know who Shapiro is), and gravitational radiation and decay.

Not too long ago, some yahoo had a program on the Science Channel, proposing once again the conundrum of the changing speed of light, a theory proposed about 10 or 11 years ago, which gets ressurected every few years. Basically, the program consisted of the guy doing his autobiography (explaining how brilliant he was), providing an overview of current cosmological thinking (done reasonably well), and then throwing out the old "variable speed of light" canard as new and original, implying that E=mc2 might have to be changed.

Which, even if the speed of light did change, would hardly be necessary.

It's all string theory's fault, you know.

Many physicists have invested time and grant money in this apparent dead-end, claiming that it will provide the long sought-after Grand Unified Theorem, while getting nothing from it. It's the flavor of the decade, and it's got little or nothing to show for all the time and effort spent on it. It's been so bad that a cottage industry in creating even goofier theories has sprung up. By the way, the linked article is the one where I first mentioned the Jodrell Bank data.

Now I'm not saying that scientists should quit trying to come up with new theories or that they should accept everything Einstein or Newton or any other great theorist ever said without question. But, when something doesn't work, it's time to move on.

The string is broken already. Find something new to work on.