The Day Aliens Invaded… [UPDATE]

UPDATE (Mon. 9:50 a.m. PT): Shocker. NASA refutes Hoover’s claims. Apparently his paper failed peer review for publication in the International Journal of Astrobiology… in 2007! More here: “NASA Refutes Alien Discovery Claim — Discovery News

Original post: On Saturday, a NASA astrobiologist announced his “irrefutable proof” that aliens — the size of bacteria — exist. Using a sophisticated electron microscope, Richard Hoover looked deep into meteorite samples to see complex fossilized microscopic structures that looked suspiciously like bacteria found here on Earth.

Some of the suspect alien microorganisms even resemble cyanobacteria, a basic microorganism that helped make early-Earth hospitable to life by producing oxygen. Cyanobacteria can live in space for extended periods of time; tests on the International Space Station have shown the single-celled specks are hardy little buggers, surviving in a kind of “suspended animation,” sleeping for months (even years) in vacuous, frozen, high-radiation conditions. When brought back to Earth, the critters come back to life.

Needless to say, when Hoover announced this discovery of “alien” microbes, I wasn’t the only one who was thinking panspermia, the hypothetical mechanism where life — in the form of a microbe like cyanobacteria — hops from one planet to the next encased inside meteoroids.

Is this really proof of aliens? Is it evidence for panspermia? Does this mean life on Earth may have been seeded by alien microbes stowing away inside chunks of space rock? Does mankind need to invent an anti(alien)bacterial handwash?! (I’ve watched The Andromeda Strain.)

As mentioned in my Discovery News article on the subject, I’m skeptical about Hoover’s claims. This isn’t because I think Hoover’s work is rubbish (I have yet to finish digesting his lengthy paper), it’s just the way he decided to publish his work. The online Journal of Cosmology isn’t exactly the best place to submit your paper if you want your research to be taken seriously. And why the hell he gave FOX News the “exclusive,” I have no idea.

Sure, Hoover has discovered some odd-looking, alien-looking, bacteria-sized shapes in meteorite samples (he’s even done some interesting chemical analysis on the micro-“fossils”), but he’s going to have to do a far better job at convincing the scientific community that they are extraterrestrials.

Personally, I think these dinky “fossils” are a little too well preserved. Perhaps a far simpler explanation can be found? *cough* Contamination. *cough*

I’d love to know what NASA’s official line is, they seem to be staying remarkably quiet considering one of their employees has just announced the discovery of ET…

Read more: “Has Evidence for Alien Life Been Found?

It’s Official: “2012” Sucked

Just in case you didn’t know, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 wasn’t the best of movies.

Actually, from a science perspective, it sucked.

It sucked in so many ways that I can’t be bothered to list why it sucked (so have a read of my Discovery News review instead).

Now, I’m happy to announce that NASA agrees with me. They think 2012 sucked so much, they’ve branded it the most “scientifically flawed of its genre.”

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, agrees with what I’ve been saying all along (especially since all that “Institute for Human Continuity” bullshit hit the internet). He said at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory meeting:

“The film makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012. [NASA] is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Even though NASA agreed that Bruce Willis’ Armageddon was bad, it couldn’t compete with the scientific atrocities 2012 inflicted on its audience. The killer neutrinos, planetary alignment, crustal shift, geomagnetic reversal and super-duper-massive tsunamis proved too much. 2012 has even toppled The Core as worst sci-fi science movie. Now that is impressive.

But what does it all mean? Apart from us science snobs having a chuckle on our blogs, I doubt it will make the blind bit of difference. Why? This is why:

“On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in 65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.

Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.

Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.”

— “2012” Sells Tickets, Sells-Out Science

Oh well, you can’t win ’em all. Now, have a laugh:

Thanks to @mars_stu and @RogerHighfield for the inspiration.

EDIT: An earlier version of this blog post stated that the Science and Entertainment Exchange was involved with NASA’s decision to make 2012 “most scientifically flawed” movie in its list. I have received an email from the Exchange’s director that this is not the case. I have therefore edited any mention of the Exchange from the blog (even though my source, the Adelaide Now, still references the Exchange).

Who Cares if Ashton Kutcher is Preparing for Armageddon?

So, it’s 2011. A brand new year. Who knows what it holds? Actually, I know what it holds. Trolls. In fact, 2011 will henceforth be the Year of the Troll. (Not the Year of the Rabbit, sorry Bun-bun.)

I’ve noticed a rather crazy uptick in the number of anti-science diatribes and wet doomsday theories in recent months. Most are due to questionable reports written on quasi-news websites (as debunked in “2012 Alien Invasion? Um, No.”), and others are down to the trolls who surf the web dropping comments under otherwise benign science articles. Could it be that Fakemageddon is a year away? Or has the use of computers been granted in kindergarten? Could be both.

Although I joke about the misguided individuals inventing tales of doom to sell books, there is a rather serious undercurrent to my 2012 ramblings. People genuinely worry about this stuff. Sure, I’m totally numb to all this 2012 tomfoolery — it’s all crap, honest — but I’m still receiving messages from readers who are convinced something bad is going to happen on Dec. 21, 2012.

(The only person I know who’ll have a bad time is my little sister, who’ll be turning 30 on that day — don’t worry sis, I’ll be there administering the vodka, it numbs the chronological pain, trust me.)

So where does that leave us? What can we do to divert the nonsense and bring some real science to the table?

For one thing, I’m going to keep writing about the crackpots perpetrating these silly myths through 2011 and beyond. Although fellow debunkers and myself have been under attack recently for even mentioning the 2012 thing — something about a dead horse and a good beating — it’s important to inject common sense into the Internet whenever nonsense appears. If these doomsday theories go unchecked, for some, science and pseudoscience may become confused.

This is where the “Truth Squad” (as MSNBC science editor and Cosmic Log space maestro Alan Boyle has dubbed us) comes in, and I’m pretty sure all space science bloggers will be on the lookout for the doomsayers’ tall stories.

So, in conclusion, if you read something with an eerie 2012 flavor on the internet, be sure to check out my handy dandy “How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?” cheat sheet.

Also, don’t pay attention to celebrities who are obviously getting a little hyped up on the doomsday juice. No, I don’t think Ashton Kutcher really has anything to worry about in the near future, but if Armageddon works as a workout motivator… well, good for him (besides, I think he might have been taken out of context, so also look out for Huffington Post articles that try to make mountains out of molehills).

That is all.

Happy New Year!

PS. I hope to make Astroengine.com a little more productive through 2011. But in case you’re wondering what I’m up to, be sure to pop over to Discovery News, I’m always there.

Life on Mars? Only in The Sun.

In its haste to become the first newspaper to print the “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars” headline, the UK’s Sun website caused a stir last week. Not only was this headline incorrect, it was a wee bit irresponsible.

For starters, no evidence for life has been found on the Red Planet. Second, NASA has not proclaimed such a discovery. In fact, The Sun riled the U.S. space agency so much, this headline prompted NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown to issue the following statement:

“This headline is extremely misleading. This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false.”

So where did it all go so wrong?

This story stems from an astrobiology conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the search for alien life. At this conference, findings by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity were reviewed. One of these findings was the tantalizing discovery of sulfates by the rover in 2004. Where there’s sulfates, water once existed. Where there’s water, life might have existed.

In an exciting twist to this discovery, scientists studying sulfate deposits on Earth (known as gypsum) were asked by scientists in the Mars Program to investigate terrestrial gypsum deposits more closely. Up until now, it was thought that gypsum contained no fossils, but on closer inspection it turns out that ancient gypsum deposits from the Mediterranean Sea (dated to about 6 million years old — when the sea was actually dry) are stuffed full of microscopic fossils of algae and phytoplanktons.

So, on Mars we have sulfates. On Earth we have sulfates (gypsum) full of fossils of aquatic microscopic life. If we know the terrestrial deposits of gypsum contain fossils of basic life forms, perhaps sulfate deposits on Mars would be a good place to start looking for basic ancient extraterrestrial life.

Of course, for the tabloid newspaper, these Martian sulfate deposits became “pond scum” and therefore “evidence” for life on Mars.

In actuality, the text of The Sun article wasn’t that misleading and actually did a good job of reporting the science (apart from the “pond scum” bit). Unfortunately, the title of the article let the rest of the article down, ultimately undermining the journalists’ work.

But, coming from the same publication that printed the silly “Pictures show life on Mars” article from 2008, the “Evidence for life on Mars” headline is pretty tame.

Now, time for the same news with a more appropriate headline by Irene Klotz on Discovery News: “Earth Fossil Find May Lead to Martian Discoveries

Thanks to Astroengine.com reader Judy Mason for inspiring this post.

Indonesia ‘Meteorite’ Wiped Out a House… Or Not.

A week after Israel played host to the amazing burning ‘meteorite’, another report is coming in about a ‘meteorite’ strike in East Jakarta, Indonesia. (Note the use of the famous ‘skeptical quotes’.)

On Thursday, a falling object crashed through the roof of a house causing moderate damage. There was also light damage to two adjoining properties. Fortunately, there are no reported injuries.

According to a report in the Jakarta Globe, there was a “blast” that resulted from the impact and there was a deep crater in the floor of the house. After creating the impact crater in the floor, the ‘falling object’ bounced.

I suspect the object impacted at high velocity, hit the floor, bounced back and hit the ceiling, then fell back down,” said a researcher from the Indonesian National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Lapan). “It’s extremely difficult to recover the fragments, what with the rubble and broken glass, and it being so dark in here.”

The article also states that there was evidence for a residual heat footprint and melted items around the crater. Apparently, these facts all point to evidence that a meteorite, or some man-made space junk, was involved.

Although the details are sketchy, there are a few points that concern me about this meteorite report:

First, if this ‘meteorite’ was large enough to create a “deep” crater (there’s no information about the crater’s approximate size), that would suggest it was a hyper-velocity impact. Not only is this kind of impact very rare, I doubt there would be anything left of the building.

Unless “moderate damage” means “there is no house left,” I strongly doubt the crater was caused by a meteorite.

Secondly, according to the Lapan scientist, the space rock “bounced.” While this is possible — take the Virginia meteorite that crashed through the roof of a doctors office, bouncing off the floor of an examination room, for example — if its impact was energetic enough to excavate a sizable crater (and produce a “blast”), then I doubt much of the meteorite would be left to “bounce.” It would have disintegrated, got lodged deep in the bottom of the crater, or not produced a crater at all.

Thirdly, the article states: “the residual heat footprint and melted items pointed to a meteorite.” As I’ve said before, meteorites are usually cold when they make landfall (assuming they are small enough to be slowed by our atmosphere), so this residual heat did not come from the meteorite. If the meteorite was large enough to slam into the house at hyper-velocity speeds, or hit a gas canister, then perhaps there might be some “residual heat.” But in this case, I strongly doubt there would be any house left.

Fourthly, according to Evan Irawan Akbar, from the Bosscha Observatory in Lembang, this event has occurred shortly after the Lyrid meteor shower which ended on Monday. So he rules out any connection. Which is fortunate, as this meteor shower is caused by the Earth passing through a harmless dust tail created by the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.

But then he drops this clanger: “It could, however, be part of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, which peaks on May 7 and 8.”

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is caused by dust trail from Halley’s Comet… last time I checked, dust grains from comets have never been linked with house-killing chunks of rock. Comets are made from ice and dust, stuff that easily burns up when hitting our atmosphere. These are meteor showers, not meteorite showers.

The extent of the damaged caused is also a little strange. From the article: “It blasted a hole in the second floor of the house, sending furniture falling to the first floor, and tore big holes in the walls.” Doesn’t that sound like an explosion?

Apparently the police have ruled out speculation that this was a gas canister explosion and although there is “no conclusive proof the damage was caused by a meteorite, it was the most likely explanation.”

Alas, meteorite impacts aren’t likely explanations, terrestrial explanations are the most “likely.” The fact that an Indonesian counter-terrorism squad has been dispatched to the area to look for traces of explosives suggest the authorities aren’t placing all their bets on this being a meteorite impact either.

Thanks to @antonwilliam for the tip!

Source: Jakarta Globe

NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030’s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.

Warning, Over-Hyped Title Alert: But It’s A Frackin’ SUPERNOVA!

"SuperNova" by Shadow-Trance (DeviantArt)
"SuperNova" by Shadow-Trance (DeviantArt)

I’m not kidding, last week was a huge mess of a supernova doomsday circus. It was like whispering “there’s a bomb under your chair” to the person next to you in a crowded theater and then watching the resulting flood of people slam into the fire escape. It was internet chaos. And there was no stopping it.

I am of course talking about the first, great doomsday scare of 2010: T Pyxidis.

Luckily for me, the first headline I saw was in the UK’s Telegraph that read “Earth ‘to be wiped out’ by supernova explosion.” Uh oh, that title sounds rather definite. Immediately, the bullshit sensor in my brain was tripped so I stopped flicking through the embarrassing excuse for a UK newspaper and had a read.

According to the article, some star (that I can’t pronounce) was “set to self-destruct” (as a big hairy supernova), a little over 3,000 light years away. Global chaos will therefore ensue. The ozone layer will be stripped away… and the Earth will be “wiped out.” (I still can’t work out how the Earth will be “wiped out.”)

I’m only picking on the Telegraph.co.uk as my skepticism knives were already sharpened after a series of idiotic woo-fueled articles (here, here and here) the website has played host to in recent months, but they weren’t the only news outlet to go batshit crazy with the “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE” angle.

But who was really to blame for this mess? After all, the media was just the messenger, they must have gotten their lead from somewhere. Ah yes, the scientists… what did those guys really say?

You can find out how I got to the bottom of the science behind the hype in my Discovery News article “Will Earth ‘Be Wiped Out’ by a Supernova?” but cutting to the chase, it turns out that the scientists may have been a little hasty in their attempt to make international headlines.

As my mate Phil Plait mentions in his excellent write up (about my write up) of the T Pyxidis debacle on Bad Astronomy, this isn’t just a simple case of media hype, a lot of the blame should lay with Edward Sion et al. from Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Sure, some of the numbers didn’t add up (mistakes happen), but issuing a press release with a huge wad of inaccurate doom wrapped inside is pretty irresponsible. Have a read for yourself:

An interesting, if a bit scary, speculative sidelight is that if a Type Ia supernova explosion occurs within [that distance] of Earth, then the gamma radiation emitted by the supernova would fry the Earth, dumping as much gamma radiation (~100,000 erg/square centimeter) into our planet [sic], which is equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously. –Excerpt from the Villanova press release, “THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPERNOVA?”

“…fry the Earth”? Come on, that’s not even an accurate scientific term about what would happen if we were hit by a surge of gamma-rays. What’s wrong with saying “…the Earth would be at the receiving end of a Death Ray”? If you’re going to do the job of the tabloid press, hyping up your own research before the tabloid press has even read the release, you may as well be accurate.

And speaking of accuracy, my colleague Ray Villard was at the AAS and confirmed that Sion’s numbers were out by a factor of 10. “A supernova would have to be 10 times closer [to Earth] to do the damage described,” Ray said.

Although I was tough on the Telegraph in my Discovery News article (let’s face it, with an inaccurate and inflammatory title like that, they had it coming), in this case I think the main issue lies with Sion and co.

Why over-hype your research to get attention, when the research was interesting enough without declaring doomsday? By me even writing about the subject again, I think I just answered my own question.

But on a plus point, at least everyone knows what T Pyxidis is now…

What’s NASA’s Biggest Accomplishment of 2009? It’s Still Here.

A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any space station (the sci-fi writers in the 20th century didn't see that coming).
A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any manned outpost in orbit (sci-fi writers never saw that coming).

I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.

There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.

Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?

The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.

And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.

Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)

Slight-Of-Hand Rocketry

I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”

To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.

Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?

Myopic Politics

Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.

Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.

The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.

Commercial Rocketeers

Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.

So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.

But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.

Dear STFC, WTF? Sincerely, Ian

This week has been a horrid few days for UK physics. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced on Wednesday that it was going to plug a hole in their funding deficit by withdrawing the UK’s participation in a number of astronomy, nuclear and particle physics projects.

This measure will have a huge impact on the number of PhD and postdoc positions that will be available for students pursuing research training. In fact, a whopping 25% of fellowships and student grants for PhD projects will be eliminated next year.

On reading some of the reports, anyone would think the UK’s institutions are pissing their funds away Enron-style. How many billions of pounds is the STFC hoping to hide from these money-hungry physicists? After all, tea breaks and lasers don’t come cheap.

£115 million.

WTF?

Perhaps I’m just a little numb of hearing national debt topping “hundreds of billions” and “trillions,” but doesn’t £115 million sound petty by today’s standards? In a world where banks have vaporized zillions of pounds/dollars/euros and world governments are baling them back out again, just over one hundred million pounds doesn’t strike me as a huge number by a nation’s standards.

It’s okay, let’s pass the mic over to Prime Minister Gordon Brown for an explanation, surely he has a clue why baling out banks is better than baling out a research funding body? Actually, I think he’s got his work cut out in Copenhagen at the moment, but he seemed pretty upbeat about science in Feb. 2009 when he made the grand statement, “The [economic] downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

(I followed up the STFC turmoil on the Number 10 Downing Street website, but it appears the Prime Minister’s search engine is unavailable for comment on the issue.)

This statement came after a fairly ratty time during 2008 when I had a rant (across a series of articles) about the UK government’s stupidity when handling astronomy funding. The STFC — a then-recently appointed funding body that was formed after the merging of PPARC and CCLRC — had announced to the world that the UK was going to back out of its commitment as joint funding nation for the Gemini observatories in Hawaii and Chile.

Astronomer outrage and ceremonial Union Jack Flag-burning ensued.

In an effort to plug an £80 million hole in the STFC’s budget, the funding body appeared to slam the door shut on Gemini. But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and after huge protests by astronomers, the UK’s involvement in Gemini was reinstated. Good times.

However, it would seem that the STFC deficit is getting worse and increasingly desperate measures are being taken. For a full run-down of STFC funding problems, have a look at Paul Crowther’s growing list on STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy. Also see STFC Funding Crisis: Particle Physics and STFC Funding Crisis: Neutron & Muon Science.

Ian Douglas, Telegraph science producer, has compiled a sobering list of the projects that are facing the axe in this new round of science culling. However, for me, this is the most alarming part:

SOHO, a collaboration between ESA and NASA, was to study the structure of the sun and its solar wind. The loss of Venus Express again puts Britain on the back foot when it comes to the exploration of other planets. Withdrawing from ALICE at CERN means that Britain will lose influence at the site of the largest experiments ever conducted and the Boulby underground laboratory is one of the leading centres of research on dark matter.

SOHO? Cassini? Venus Express? ALICE? It’s beginning to sound like a Who’s Who of projects you would never withdraw from. This shouldn’t be a budget cut hit list. Granted, all the projects, no matter how big or small, will be an irreplaceable loss for all scientists involved.

The Institute of Physics President Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell echoed some of my points in a recent statement, but also highlighted a fundamental flaw in this STFC strategy (emphasis added):

The greatest shame about today’s announcement is the reduced investment in people. With all of the challenges we face, from climate change and energy security to a rapidly ageing population, we urgently need individuals well-trained in physics. Today’s announcement, which includes a 25 per cent reduction in studentships and fellowships, runs counter to this need.

The amount needed to avoid this unfortunate cut is minor in comparison to the huge sums of money spent saving the financial sector, surely money can be found to avoid it.

Money to one side, this is the thing that worries me the most: If the STFC cuts back on the research opportunities available to postgrads and postdocs, the UK’s future in a huge swathe of physics disciplines could be crippled. If you start weakening the UK’s ability to lead, or at least be involved with, international physics projects, you ultimately damage the nation’s competitive edge. This impacts employment, innovation, industry, education and the economy.

Although it is fairly easy to paint the STFC with an incompetence gloss, it is really the UK government that’s screwing up. I’d find it insane if any government didn’t step in to fill a science funding deficit of this size (yes, the money could be found), but for the UK — a world leader in science and technology innovation — to stand by, citing the current economic climate as a reason for not investing in the future, is idiotic.

Unfortunately, politics is short-sighted and politicians have a shelf-life of a few years, it’s too easy to let the next administration sweep up the mess.

An Explanation for the Norway Cloud Spiral

The mysterious cloud spiral that appeared over Norway at 7.50am on Wednesday morning took the internet by storm. Every major news outlet was talking about it and Google Search was stuffed full of results.

Like with any unexplained phenomenon, the knee-jerk reaction of conspiracy theorists (and tabloid press, naturally) was that the beautiful blue-white glowing spiral was either of UFO origin (no, not of the “unidentified kind”, but of the “probing-alien kind”), top secret “energy weapon” origin, LHC origin (yes, the Large Hadron Collider black holes are back) or some other supernatural origin. Well, it would appear that only one of those options are partially correct.

All indications pointed to some kind of Russian naval military missile test (because, um, the Northern Fleet was carrying out missile tests in the White Sea at the time), and Doug Ellison, ace space 3D animator from UnmannedSpaceflight.com, put together a demo of how the missile scenario might have played out in the above animation.

I was captivated by his first animation on the phenomenon that Nancy Atkinson presented in her Universe Today post on the subject, but this new animation shows how a failed rocket stage could spin out of control, spiraling fuel into the atmosphere.

Although it might be tempting to rush to the extraterrestrial reasons for the spiral, it would appear the missile scenario is the most plausible answer.

But… there’s a chance that it could have been a wormhole opening up from another universe, allowing the Annunaki to return to Earth ahead of their Planet X invasion force in 2012, but I’ll leave that theory for the doomsday wingnuts to mull over.