Chip Off the Old Blockheads

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February 27, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

At Sixes and Sevens

Ahh, if only we could get off this planet, get away from this authoritarian Trumpian Old World that divides those who are purple from those who are orange.

Many of you were bucked up this week by the NASA announcement of seven new Earth-like exoplanets, a mere forty light-years away in our own cosmic back yard. (See next story.)  Personally, I was buoyed by the news of a slew of newly-discovered, possibly inhabitable “nearby” planets orbiting the tiny Trappist-1 star a cosmically stone’s throw away. Not only that, the revelation shows the potential for such systems to exist close enough to get to, someday, sooner than later! It’s always a shot in the arm to hear about these kinds of new discoveries, to dream we might escape the exosphere and inhabit a new world in time to save ourselves from the steamroller of fascism and corporate planet killing.

In the meantime, however, to blithely believe it’s not as bad as all that is infantile. This new regime will stop at nothing to fill Donald J Trump and his associated fiends’ pockets.  And to accomplish this includes hatred of  all things scientific and truthful (i.e. keeping you and I stupid and not focusing on the real puppetmasters), even when it comes from Trump’s own hand-picked staff at the Department of Homeland Security, for example, who, standing up to his boss, just reported there have been ZERO terror attacks on American soil committed by the seven eastern countries he wants to bar from entering the U.S.  

This kind of nutballery is why former Attorney General of Oklahoma Scott Pruitt is such a perfect fit. as far as the Trump regime figures, to head the Environmental Protection Agency – which Pruitt sued 14 times – and who served as a highly paid lobbyist for the oil and gas industry while he was getting gets paid to protect Oklahoma.  That’s not just an impropriety.  It’s illegal.

In addition, during his tenure as Oklahoma’s AG, Pruitt’s favorite hobby was “cutting and pasting” the industry’s lengthy environmental regulation complaints and objections onto his own Attorney General letterhead, and submitting them as legal arguments written by him to higher courts so that the energy corporations would get their way.  And it worked.  By the way, that’s also illegal!

And when investigative reporters asked him for the years of correspondence between his office and the oil/gas industries, and even filed Freedom of Information Acts to get those “public records,” Pruitt refused to fulfill those FOIAs for two years.  Oh yeah, that’s illegal too!!

Finally, a judge ordered Pruitt recently to release all those letters with a deadline of last Tuesday which GOP Senators were fully aware of as they rushed to confirm him as EPA head  before the letters could be published. And we pay these blatant idiots to watch out for us?? Seems confounding that they’re willing to roll the dice knowing this guy would most likely become a public pariah once the emails are released. Do they know something we don’t, or is the confirmation bottom line really all that matters?  

Sure enough, so far 7,000 pages of the released emails reveal that Pruitt was getting paid to lie to the state and the courts about the effects that the fossil fuel industry has on all lives and the environment.  For example, in 2010 alone Pruitt, while Attorney General for Oklahoma, took in $40,000 in contributions from the poultry industry for filing briefs for them when they were found poisoning the water in a nearby state, with, yes, chicken poop, and sued for it.  It is known as, literally, “the Chickenshit Case” and it’s ongoing.  And what Pruitt did then was – surprise! –  illegal, too!

And we’re supposed to be okay with this serial rule-breaker who’s now in charge of the playbook?  During a cringeworthy talk on Saturday as part of the equally cringeworthy Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, Pruitt bragged of an “aggressive” agenda of regulatory rollbacks that could start as early as next week, and blamed the Obama administration for being “so focused on climate change.” “We as Republicans don’t have anything to be apologetic about with respect to the environment – nothing,” he added. “We have always believed that you can grow jobs, grow an economy, while also doing what? Being a good steward of the environment.” (Aaaaaah! Breathe in – where’s my paper bag? Trappist-1 hear I come!)

As of this writing, you can hear a pin drop from the silence as the press shrugs all this off and mutters “no big deal.” Of course we all know there will be no consequences for these egregious breaches in public trust.  No one is going to jail.  No one is even going to get fined.  Trump, or perhaps we should say President Steve Bannon, has made sure that the Justice Department is now headed by infamous Trump campaign cheerleader, environment-hating voter suppressor and racist extraordinaire Jeff Sessions.

Meanwhile, as venal “public servants” like Pruitt, and anti-science shills like Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Hades) of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology do their best to roll back any attempt to understand and fix the wrongs we have committed against our planet, and get paid for it while picking up the paycheck we give them, we are comforted that a few scientists are getting pissed off enough to actually jump into the public pool of political service.  JPL scientist Tracie Van Houten is one of them, and she is willing to give up her career in inventing innovative space missions for representing the 34th Congressional District of California in the U.S. House.  The election is in April. 

I am also reminded of the words of Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who told the Sydney Morning Herald that slashing NASA’s Earth Science and Climate Research programs “would be a shockingly stupid move that would deal a very severe blow to global research on environmental change across the world.”

March with us for Science on April 22!   – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Seven Card Studs

On Thursday NASA finally held a much-ballyhooed presser about the new Trappist-1 planetary system it discovered –  a heptad of worlds orbiting a star located a mere forty light-years away from us.  What makes this a big deal is that at least six of these planets are fairly Earth-sized, and their orbits reside in what is deemed the habitable zone for life around their star – not too hot and not too cold.  Even more significant, since Trappist-1 is one of an astronomically abundant (and longest lasting) category of puny gas balls, the probability of planets like our own existing in the cosmos has exploded exponentially. And when the super-duper James Webb Telescope launches in 2018, NASA said, the agency will be able to combine its findings with the current data from the Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer scopes currently trained on the system since its discovery three weeks ago. “With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere,” said NASA wags. “Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.” According to NASA, since Trappist-1 is an M class red dwarf, its planets are huddled close together and could be tidally locked, which means only one side is perpetually facing the star, as our moon is unto the Earth.  We’ll know more when and if the Webb gets kicking.

Just in! Find out more on how you can help NASA search for new worlds!  Click this link:

Also just in! NASA has added a Trappist-1 planetary system “tourist” poster to its growing collection of artwork intended to garner excitement about space travel and exploration. Collect them all!


Want to Get Away?

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd

Lost Their Way

Galileo GPS satellite.

The recent “Brexit” move that caught the world by surprise (in addition to many Uk’ers that voted for it) may also end up pulling England out of its current agreements with the European Space Agency.  One of those deals provided Great Britain use of the Galileo navigational satellite system operated for government use only, which, you know, allows lubberwortish members of Parliament to get from the districts they represent to their highchairs n the House of Parliament.  Weeks before the xenophobic Brexit vote came down, members of the European Union – as well as some of the more saner members of Parliament – warned their peers that having England fly solo economically could mean a damaging loss of a lot of EU goodies.  Britain will likely have to go through a cumbersome renegotiation process with the EU to re-establish their access to Galileo.  Say “Cheerio!” to your GPS nav systems, m’ lords!

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

SpaceX’s Dragon uncrewed cargo capsule carting 5,500 pounds of supplies successfully delivered its loot the International Space Station last Thursday after an abortive attempt the previous day. In a series of firsts a few days earlier, the Elon Musk-led commercial space enterprise ended its Falcon-9 launch hiatus since the fiery rocket explosion last September with a successful blast-off of the Dragon capsule from the famed Apollo-era pad 39A, and the subsequent safe landing of the first-stage booster at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Century City

After purchasing all the sterling-plated Rolls Royces in the showroom, what’s an Arab sheikh going to do? Plan a city on Mars, of course! At least that’s what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has announced in a series of Trump-like tweets recently as he unveiled that country’s plans to build a “mini-city” on the Red Planet by 2117. “‘Mars 2117’ is a seed we are sowing today to reap the fruit of new generations led by a passion for science and advancing human knowledge,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted, referring to the multi-generational nature of the project, given the tiny country’s current barebones space program, To help fuel the intellectual capital required for such an endeavor, the Mars 2117 project “includes a major space sciences focus in our universities [to build] a space pioneering passion among our young people,”  Sheikh Mohammed noted. The UAE has already fixed its sights on the cosmos with the announcement in 2015 of its “Hope” robotic mission that will arrive at the Red Planet in 2021.

Long Hauler

NASA announced last week that because of a technical glitch in an engine valve of its Juno spacecraft, the agency has decided to keep the Jupiter-orbiting craft on its 53-day path around the gas giant for the remainder of this mission instead of the original plan to plop the probe in a shorter (but not closer) 14-day orbit. “Juno is healthy, its science instruments are fully operational, and the data and images we’ve received are nothing short of amazing,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The decision to forego the burn is the right thing to do – preserving a valuable asset so that Juno can continue its exciting journey of discovery.” NASA insists that the longer orbital period will not compromise the mission’s science objectives; rather it expects the longer travel path will open up new opportunities to study Jovian space dominated by the planet’s super-strong magnetic field. Juno’s next close flyby of Jupiter will be March 27 where it will skim about 2,600 miles above the planet’s cloud tops.

Falling To Pieces

Yet another chunk of ice, this one a mile long, calved off the ever-changing Pine Island Glacier of Antarctica again, and NASA sats caught it.  No, we haven’t heard a peep from the Bannon Administration – “Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.”  In these recent years of glacier meltdown and Earth warming, scientists have warned again and again that the Pine Island area has become increasingly unstable, losing bergs the size of cities into the ocean, and frequently.  The last major event happened in July 2015, when a 225-square-mile iceberg calved from the glacier and disappeared into the sea.  Hopefully, these bergs will do their part in raising sea levels especially around Trump’s Mar-a-Lago restricted club in Florida.

Leveling the Playing Field

Don’t quit your day job, is the advice astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has given to Cleveland Cavaliers superstar Kyrie Irving, who recently revealed his belief that the world is flat, securing his current place as frontrunner in our Tin Foil Hatter of the Year Award. Irving, who spent only one year at Duke University before becoming the 2011 number one NBA draft pick, told ESPN in vaguely Trumpian terms that “I’ve seen a lot o things that my educational system said was real and turned out to be completely fake.”

Not one to waste such a delicious moment , Tyson spoke with TMZ: “Let me be blunt. We live in a free country, so you ought to be able to think and say whatever you want. If [Irving] wants to think earth is flat, go right ahead – as long as he continues to play basketball and not become head of any space agencies. My point is if you have certain limitations of understanding of the natural world, stay away from jobs that require that.”

Tyson then proposed we launch Irving and fellow flat Earthers into space, and only let them come back home once they all admit they are wrong (Editor’s Note: and our planet really is the same shape as a basketball).


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Pushing the Envelope

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February 20, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

News Alert!  NASA will be holding a major press conference this Wednesday, February 22, at 1 pm eastern time regarding a “discovery beyond our solar system,” including new revelations on exoplanets orbiting stars other than our Sun. The event will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website; in addition, media and the public also may ask questions during the briefing on Twitter using the hashtag #askNASA.

And the *Bleep* Goes On

Don’t look now, but the stars are aligning to bring a full stop to environmental safeguards in the US, including a not-too-subtle war to effectively abolish the EPA. On the front lines are DC Republican lawgivers, who – bolstered by der Trumpinfest’s War on Science and anti-pollution securities – are busy fanning the flames of ecological armageddon by putting the 1996 Congressional Review Act on autopilot as they systematically eliminate recently-finalized Obama-era protections, allowing carbon-based energy corporations to dump their coal ash and oily crap into any and all U.S. waterways . And as we have reported here for months, completing the deed is Trump, who has done anything and everything in his power – and NOT in his power – to protect his financial interests in filthy energy, including holdings in  Phillips 66 that is – Suprise! – a joint partner in the eco-dirty bomb known as the Dakota Access pipeline.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

Trump’s two-pronged plan to bump off the EPA specifically involves first shoving the anti-green hobgoblin Scott Pruitt down our throats to head the agency, followed by a flurry of perhaps FIVE Executive Orders, which should start raining down on beleaguered EPA workers now that Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who was sued the EPA 14 times in his infamous career, was shamefully confirmed by Republican senators last Friday. (Editor’s Note: A possible crack in the sulfur clouds is that senate GOP members may have stepped in their own hubrisitc doo-doo, by hurrying Pruitt’s confirmation before the court-ordered release of thousands of potentially illegal communications he had with big energy firms while serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general.)

To round out our unholy trinity in this saga, is that Trumponian lap-dog Rep. Lamar Smith (R-The Bottomless Fiery Pit), chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  According to Reuter’s,  last week Smith, who has conducted a series of anti-climate change witch-hunts for several years, asked the EPA’s inspector general to “investigate whether EPA staff were using encrypted messages to coordinate efforts to derail the new administration’s agenda, in possible violation of federal records laws.”

What a guy!  Apparently Smith longs for a simpler time when the sound of the subpoena “slap” and the “sacred” footsteps of the late Sen. Joe McCarthy echoed menacingly throughout the halls of Capital Hill.

So, you may ask, why do we continue to report on this?  Well, we love this Universe, albeit one of untold many.  We report on this solar system, and the Earth is in this solar system, it’s OUR one tiny planet in this cosmos, our only home so far, thereby, it is part of this vast Universe. And, frighteningly,  all signs point to an Ego-Monster child who is dialing the clock back on environmental stewardship and lead-footing the fossil fuel juggernaut until it lies scattered in charred pieces across a silent planet.  We do not believe Trump has a blood-lust to kill this globe, per se.  But anything that gets in the way of him and his gilded silverware, well, that’s WAR, and it’s going to suffer.

Galactic Sandbox has given you many stories of how this new Imperialistic Regime will do anything for votes or for money, especially if it means appealing to jobless coal miners who will never dig through the earth again anyway due to technological advances in automation.  Trump and his cabal of yes-men will lie until their death to everyone, to Jesus himself, to protect his bottom tax-free line.

Again, I am compelled to end this commentary on a note of realistic hope.  Right now an army of beautiful nerds is working hard to preserve the knowledge of our scientists, both in federal and private sectors.

Berkeley, CA, is also a stalwart of hope: “Groups like DataRefuge and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which organized the Berkeley “Hackathon” to collect data from NASA’s earth sciences programs and the Department of Energy, are doing more than archiving. Diehard coders are building robust systems to monitor ongoing changes to government websites. And they’re keeping track of what’s been removed – to learn exactly when the pruning began.”

We can not give up, gang.  Please….keep resisting.  –  Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Stress Test

In what appears to be pressure from the newly-ensconced and careening Trump White House, NASA’s chief announced last week that the agency is examining the risks and costs of sending astronauts on the first launch of its massive Saturn V-class Space Launch System rocket that’s now slated to send an Orion capsule around the Moon in late 2018. Adding humans to that mission would obviously pushback the launch date, but could accelerate the timeline for sending a crew on a lunar flyby on an order of a few years. In a memo to employees, NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot referenced ongoing discussions with the Trumpian transition team, saying that “NASA is clearly a priority for the President and his administration.” Trump administration adviser and former congressman  Bob Walker who helped cook-up the Trump campaign’s “space policy,” told USA Today – in the paper’s words – “that the administration wants to take a more aggressive posture on human space exploration with at least a lunar flyby as quickly as possible.” While Lightfoot seems willing to be bullied into considering Trump’s dicy proposition, Keith Cowing, editor of senses something is rotten in Denmark:  “If flying a crew on the first mission of SLS was a wise, prudent, strategically important thing to do, then the program would have baselined it in the first place,” Cowing writes. “To move this rather important milestone up now in the midst of dueling and ever-shifting policy directions — for no clearly articulated reason other than politics — starts to smell like launch fever to me — the worst kind of launch fever.”

Want to Get Away?

Flash news!  Wow, BIG goings on!  Russia is now selling tickets  to ANYONE who wants to get into outer space for a mere quarter of a million bucks!

Oh, wait – like the baritone strains of the wildly popular folk tune Kalinka-Malinka, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this diddy before.  In fact, if I had a nickle for every time my dear editor and colleague Agnett and I had to report on this pipe dream story, well, we would be richer than that moron who is currently Cheeto-in-Chief.  You see, Bonwitt and I have lived through literally decades of this hullabaloo regarding sending tourists into space, particularly those featuring a Russian-language countdown.  In fact, we were reporting on space “tourism” in 1989 and before that…and most of these fly-by-night entrepreneurs were con artists.   But for those of you who are still dreaming, here it is:  Russia’s Czar, Puto, (er I mean, Putin), wants to compete with the likes of Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Musk of Space X by offering “rocket rides” to the exosphere on their crappy outdated Soyuz vehicle, and they will charge you a mere $250,000 for the privilege.  The problem is that Branson and Musk are actually GOING to do just that, and they are not going to rip anyone off.  What a concept.  Of course, one must remember that this FREE PR story was printed in none other than the original fake news rag called the Daily Mail.  Putrid.

Three’s a Charm

Like Paris of Troy, NASA will now have to decide which of the three landing site finalists for the agency’s 2020 Mars mission is the most attractive for studying life on the Red Planet. Last week, a panel 240 scientists voted on the following Martian locations that will be the subject of further scrutiny: Northeast Syrtis (a very ancient Martian region), Jezero crater, (once home to an ancient lake), and Columbia Hills (an area once explored by NASA’s Sprit rover, and potentially home to an ancient hot spring.) The Mars 2020 mission is slated for launch in July 2020, and among various experiments, NASA plans to conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. It will also prepare a collection of samples for possible return to Earth by a future mission.

104 Birds With One Stone

Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego in a Dove snapshot taken in January.

India’s Space Research Organization torched a hole in the record books last week with the launch of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that wisked 3,000 pounds of payload into orbit including three Indian satellites and 101 nanosats from five other countries – Count ’em, that’s 104.  The bulk of the rocket cargo was a flock of tiny 88 Dove Satellites from the U.S.-based firm named Planet. In fact, not only is the US company part of the most numerous single satellite launch in history, it is now the proud owner of the largest private sat network with 149 tiny Earth-imaging eyes-in-the-skies. “With these satellites in orbit, Planet will reach its Mission 1: the ability to image all of Earth’s landmass every day,” the company said in a statement. In addition to the 1,500-pound Cartosat 2D mapping satellite, rounding out the lengthy list of spacecraft launched by the Indian booster were eight LEMUR satellites built by American company Spire Global that will be used to monitor ship traffic and offer meteorology data, and various nanosat missions carrying student projects and science experiments.

Baby Boom

Newly-discovered “super Earth” Gliese 411b is part of a slew of new exoplanets found near our solar system.

The known planetary population of our neck of the Milky Way has popped considerably thanks to an international team of astronomers that has discovered 60 new exoplanets – including a hot, rocky  “super Earth” – that are whirling around stars close to our solar system. According to the University of Hertfordshire in England, the intrepid  team found additional evidence of another 54 worlds, ringing up the cosmic discovery total to an astounding 114.  The results, based on 20-year observations using the Keck-I telescope in Hawaii, shows that virtually all the nearest stars to our Sun have offspring, including those close in nature to our own.

Out of This World

In our never-ending quest for our next Tin Foil Hatter of the Year, we have stumbled across a startling dark horse — none other than the late Sir Winston Churchill!  According to a recently-unearthed manuscript titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?,” the British Bulldog was seriously musing the potential of life elsewhere in the cosmos, apparently over two decades before famed astrophysicist Frank Drake forwarded his theory about the number of advanced civilizations outside our own. While it may seem unfair to toss England’s beloved wartime savior with the likes of climate change-denier extraordinaire Lamar Smith and the guy who “discovers” statues of Elvis Presley on Mars, however it does seem odd that as Great Britain was preparing to go to war with Germany in 1939, thoughts of extraterrestrials was one of the top things on his checklist. Also, years later when he was prime minister, Churchill ordered a suspected UFO sighting by the Royal Air Force to be kept under wraps for 50 years to avoid a “mass panic.” For more fun facts about this fascination of Churchill’s take a look at this New York Times article, and you can decide whether Sir Winston looks good in a foil Homburg.

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Slippery Slope

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February 13, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

“Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?”

(Joseph Welch, Chief Counsel for the U.S. Army to Senator Joseph McCarthy, June 9, 1954, the House Senate Hearings on UnAmerican Activities)

It’s official.  That HIGHlarious party animal we’ve all come to know and love, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Mad Max Apocalyptic Wasteland), has clinically lost his mind.  Medics have made a diagnosis: it seems Smith’s brain got pickled in fossil fuel power.  Cursory medical forecasts of the maroon’s mind are not good.  The larded muscle between his ears is atrophied stiff with oleaginous lobbyist money. (Since 1989, Smith has received $697,747 in “donations” from the oil and gas industry.)  Utterly putrid.

Smith – DC’s unofficial science-slayer – and, yes, head of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, held a hearing on the hill Feb. 7 called – hold onto yer hat – “Make the EPA Great Again.”  And if that doesn’t make your skin crawl, we suggest you get to the nearest emergency room ASAP.

Lamar Smith and Former NOAA Administrator (ex-astronaut and oceanographer) Kathryn Sullivan during a NOAA budget hearing. In case the scientific qualifications between the two isn’t obvious enough, here is what the late, great John Glenn had to say about Ms. Sullivan when she was selected to head NOAA: “Kathy is not just an ivory-tower scientist. She was part of NASA’s first class of female astronauts, selected in 1978, and went on to fly three shuttle missions. She is the first American woman to walk in space and served aboard the mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope That role in helping humanity look outward has not prevented her from looking homeward. The planet is suffering increasingly severe upheavals, at least partly a result of climate change — droughts, floods, typhoons, tornadoes. I believe my good friend Kathy is the right person for the right job at the right time.”

We know all too well about Smith’s unconstitutional crusade against federal scientists, especially those who study climate change.  During the Obama years, Smith pushed the envelope hard in his persecution of climatologists in federal agencies, particularly those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Enraged by NOAA’s 2015 Karl Report (which details how the oceans’ temperatures have risen at an alarming rate) oil companies – er, I mean Lamar – unsuccessfully subpoenaed the agency’s emails in a pathetically vicious attempt to “catch them” at faking global warming numbers.  NOAA’s Administrator Kathryn Sullivan (first American woman to walk in space, and one of the astronauts to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope)  told Lamar to stuff it when she handed him emails from the agency’s office support workers, but none from the agency’s scientists themselves.  (See Galactic Sandbox November 11, 2015, “Hot Under the Collar”).   He also unsuccessfully tried to introduce a bill to essentially “neutralize” the EPA’s Science Advisory Board when he found out that panel was doing research on fracking.

While Smith’s McCarthy-like fury against NOAA has been widely publicized, it seems NO scientist is immune from Smith’s hysterical witch-hunting.  The subpoena-happy harpy has issued many more on many other scientific groups – some that are simply non-profit researchers – like and the much esteemed Union of Concerned Scientists. And of course he rushed to the defense of Exxon Mobile when it had been revealed the company knew for years that fossil fuels contribute greatly to global warming, and that they absurdly tried to cover it up.  Lamar even slapped subpoenas on both the New York and Massachusetts Attorney Generals for attempting to investigate Exxon’s activities. (See Galactic Sandbox October 15, 2015, “Frankly, Lamar, We Do Give a Damn”) Ever the tireless crusader, Lamar is also still trying to slash the coffers of the National Science Foundation.

Lamar’s insane windmill-waving – which we always knew could not get too far as long as Obama was holding a veto pen – is now no longer amusing.  In fact, he is exactly the kind of shill der TrumpenFuhrer could normally only dream of.  

House Republicans partying like its 1876.

“You dare challenge global warming with scientific debate?”

Significantly, lost in the kerfuffle during the early days of 2017 when DC Republicans tried to pull a fast one in their failed attempt to eliminate the Congressional independent ethics watchdog, was the reinstatement of a little-noticed provision originally created in 1876 that dramatically beefed-up the powers of House committee staff to haul private citizens and government officials to Capitol Hill to be questioned under oath — in many cases without any lawmakers present. In other words, Smith’s staff can now play judge and jury, and depose witnesses during congressional recesses without supervision from a committee member. The GOP also introduced the “Holman Rule” which can reduce an individual  federal employee’s salary to $1.  I wouldn’t take any bets they will use it on themselves (as we would all PAY to see), but federal scientists?  It’s a full-blown modern Inquisition now.  Said Tom Burke, a scientist and former Obama EPA official who once served on the agency’s Science Advisory Board:  “What we have seen, unfortunately, is the emergence of a very elaborate assault on science to the detriment of public health decision making.” And last month, famed climate scientist and author Michael Mann (also the Director of Earth System Science Center at Penn State) accused Smith – rightly so – of leading a “McCarthy-like assault on science.”

And what of the “Make the EPA Great Again” hearing?  Of course, it was beyond putridity, and Smith used it as a one-man band to excoriate the EPA and the “idea” of climate change in general.  But he also used this “hearing” (which he stacked with oil/gas industry lobbyists the way Trump stacks every public appearance with clapping howling  “fans”) to go high-octane bonkers over a “story” (and we mean “fairy tale”) published last week in the British tabloid called The Daily Mail, which supposedly revealed a “whistle-blower” disputing the numbers in NOAA’s 2015 Karl Report. 

Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) pushes back on Lamar Smith’s farcical hearing last week by donning “Keep the EPA Great” cap.

But poor power-mad Lamar made the mistake of inviting the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), former Congressman Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), to the hearing, and after a windy indictment of NOAA, demanded that the AAAS denounce and redact the NOAA study. But Holt, to dumb-screwed Lamar’s amazement, gave him a big fat NO for an answer.  Holt instead argued the merits of NOAA’s numbers right there at the “Make the EPA Great Again” hearing.  One can imagine the coal-black smoke coming out of Smith’s ears when that happened. 

Lamar was burning with rage:  “I encourage you to talk to Dr. Bates, because everything I have read that he’s said about the Karl report suggest to me that NOAA cheated and got caught.”

In the end Lamar’s self-righteous indignation did nothing but bring into sharper focus how delusionally disingenuous he is. Within days the story was discredited over and over again – even by the so-called retired NOAA “whistle-blower”! – and by independent researchers from the University of California Berkeley and other unimpeachable science sources.  All confirmed the NOAA rising climate numbers.

Meanwhile, outside the hearing, Holt told reporters, “This is an internal dispute about a detail of how you might measure land temperatures or water temperatures. It is not a departure from the general understanding of what’s happening to temperatures in our globe.”  Holt added, “If you want to be on the right side of any issue, you would do well to go with the evidence ― the best understanding at the time of what it’s going to be. Not some fringe idea.”  Touché, Mr. Holt!

And there’s more hope in the push-back. “To be honest, Lamar Smith’s approach subpoenaing us only brought more attention to what Exxon knew [about climate change],” 350’s Lindsay Meiman said. “It brought much more attention to this issue that we focus on. In some respect, I’d like to thank him for that.”  

We got your back, 350!  Join the March for Science, to be held in cities worldwide April 22. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Galactic Overreact

JPL scientist Sidd Bikkannavar racing his solar-powered car. Note suspicious fire extinguisher on his right.

Here’s a late-breaking item from Gizmodo that provides another reason why Trump’s cowboys and indians immigration ban is an astronomically bad idea. Apparently JPL scientist Sidd Bikkannavar, who is a natural- born citizen and has a valid US passport, was detained by border agents during the weekend the birdbrain ban was put into effect, and was ordered to unlock his NASA-issued phone, potentially revealing classified information. Bikkannavar, who was returning from Patagonia where he was racing solar-powered cars, was able to describe his ordeal on social media after a few security issues were ironed out:

Sorry for the absence. On my way home to the US last weekend, I was detained by Homeland Security and held with others who were stranded under the Muslim ban. CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn’t release me until I gave my access PIN for them to copy the data. I initially refused, since it’s a JPL-issued phone (Jet Propulsion Lab property) and I must protect access. Just to be clear – I’m a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid US passport. Once they took both my phone and the access PIN, they returned me to the holding area with the cots and other sleeping detainees until they finished copying my data.

I’m back home, and JPL has been running forensics on the phone to determine what CBP/Homeland Security might have taken, or whether they installed anything on the device. I’ve also been working with JPL legal counsel. I removed my Facebook page until I was sure this account wasn’t also compromised by the intrusion into my phone and connected apps. I hope no one was worried. JPL issued me a new phone and new phone number, which I’ll give out soon.

It’s a Small World
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in a landmark federal climate change lawsuit last week named Donald Trump as a defendant as plans ramp up to begin the trial this fall. Originally filed in 2015 against the Obama administration by a group of children, young adults, and environmentalists, the lawsuit claims US government officials failed to protect the plaintiffs from the perils of climate change, despite detailed scientific warnings and research to its dangers. According to Scientific American, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said other Trumpian Cabinet members will be listed as defendants, replacing Obama-era leaders in the Energy, Transportation, Commerce, Defense, State, Agriculture and Interior departments who were tagged as offenders in the case.  “The policies of the U.S. government that ignore the threat of climate change are only going to get worse under the new presidency, based on Trump’s apparent lack of understanding of climate science and his plans to invest further in the fossil fuel industry,” Kiran Oommen, 20, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement last week. The government is expected to appeal the case to get it thrown out, however our litigious leader will have his tiny hands full putting out constitutional as well as personal fires if the first three weeks of his term is any barometer of things to come.

Stella Britannia

Space tourist contender Virgin Galactic could be one of several commercial space entities operating from Great Britain in the not-so-distant future.

The British government is looking toward the heavens for a renewed spark to England’s  sloth-like services-based economy, and has leaped forward in a push to build spaceports on its own soil with the announcement of a series of grants totaling 10 million pounds for a commercial consortia formed to launch satellites – and eventually humans – from the United Kingdom. UK ministers also are expected to introduce a Spaceflight Bill later this month to establish the needed regulatory and licensing framework for British-based launch activities that potentially will include traditional vertical rockets and tourist-toting spaceplanes, reports BBC News. “Spaceflight offers the UK the opportunity to build on our strengths in science, research and innovation,” said Science Minister Jo Johnson in announcing the new grants. Johnson added that the commercial spaceflight activities could be worth an estimated 25 billion pounds over the next 20 years.

Ice Breaker

Jovian satellite Europa has a subsurface ocean twice the size of all Earth seas.

A 21-member planetary science team delivered a report to NASA last week on the potential value of sending a lander to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. The plain-vanilla-named Science Definition Team (SDT) has identified three exciting goals for the proposed Europa mission, including a primary objective of scouring for evidence of life (the first such mandate since the Mars Viking era four decades ago), assessing the satellite’s habitability, and examining the feasibility of future robotic exploration of the satellite’s global saltwater ocean. According to NASA, the SDT brainiacs agree that while recent discoveries have shown that many bodies in the solar system now or in the past have subsurface oceans, the large Galilean moon is the only place (other than Saturn’s satellite Enceladus) where its briny deep has contact with a rocky seafloor, making it a prime candidate for possible life beyond Earth. The SDT team also coordinated with engineers to design a surface landing system to study the world’s mysterious icy crust. Since Europa has no atmosphere, delivering any payload to the hard surface will be a challenge without the benefit of proved technologies like a heat shield or parachutes

Raiders of the Lost Landmarks

The first out-of-this-world GlobalXplorer outback conducted from 435 miles above Earth will be an expedition in the remote deserts of Peru.

Many of you have seen the fascinating TV show called “What on Earth,” and now you too, can become the next Indiana Jones of space-based archaeology.  Sarah Parcak – who pioneered the use of satellite imagery to discover lost cities and buried ruins – is launching a new online tool called GlobalXplorer so that every Tom and Jane can find new wonders on our planet using Earth-spying satellites.  

“Archaeologists can’t do this on their own,” says Parcak, who estimates that only one percent of the world’s archaeological sites have been identified, let alone explored and studied. “If we don’t go and find these sites, looters will.” If you’ve seen the show (or have had a mining claim) you know that this pearl of advice is heinously true. 

 Parcak hopes GlobalXplorer will help catalyze a modern age of discovery and preservation – one that could give hope and perspective in “these challenging times.” Hmmm.  Do ya think this bold scientist is referring to the war on science fobbed on our souls daily by the Great Orange Cheeto could have something to do with her sentiments?

Pedal to the Metal

After nearly a century of failed attempts, a couple of scientists from Harvard have finally created “metallic hydrogen,” something that could revolutionize space travel.  The advent of metallic hydrogen was predicted 80 years ago by physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington, but trying to create the stuff in the lab proved harder than Donald Trump’s super-dense and insulated skull.  Harder, even, than diamonds. So Alex Silvera and his cohort Ranga Dias created “tiny anvils” made of lab-created ultra-pure diamond dust that could withstand atmospheric pressure 246,000 times what we know as normal.  Phew!  Pressures like that are only found in the cores of dense planets (like Jupiter -see left).  Not even Earth has a core as dense as that.  This new material can be used to make better magnetic-levitated trains and MRI machines in hospitals, but its most hopeful use could be used to propel us into the cosmos.

Meet George Jetson!

San Francisco-based Uber Technologies, a leader of the shared car ride service, just hired NASA scientist Mark Moore of NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia to help them develop a flying car.  It doesn’t mean we’ll see Jetson-like pods buzzing around the sky anytime soon – the concept from draft-board to helipad is decades off – but it’s a start being applauded by techies, especially those in the road car-clogged Silicon Valley.  Just last week, Space X boss and Tesla electric car king Elon Musk announced he’s ready to tunnel underground to get away from the maddening crowd.  Flying-car ports could be installed on high-rise rooftops, as they are now for helicopters, and the idea of landing in the middle of freeway cloverleafs is being spit-balled as well.  Right now, it takes some two hours to get from the San Francisco Marina to downtown San Jose.  Uber says their future flying car could do it in 15 minutes.  If it ever does happen we will indeed have Uber uber alles!

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All Fired Up

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February 6, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Animals In The House

The first, most important news… the March for Science date has been set:  April 22, and it is worldwide.  Get out your pink knit brain caps, or knit them or order them.  This IS something we can do to let the new fascist anti-science “order” know we don’t dig their alternative facts, gag orders, planetcide, and red herring hats emblazoned with the mendacious buzz-phrase, “Make America Great Again.”

I know how you are feeling at this point.  It’s like, “Why march? What’s the damn use?”  Personally, I just want to put on an old movie from the 1940s and see how art used to be done.  Just leave me alone.

The problem is that you won’t be merely left alone.  You, your family and friends, and everyone on this globe will be affected by the greedy, meat-tossing decisions made by the Cheeto-in-Chief and his Sith overlords.  I honestly wish I could be writing about something other than what the Trump Cabal is doing to the world’s air and water and diverse species, but since our very lives depend on this,  I am stuck with delivering this gut-wrenching news to you.

But first, a sliver of hope.

Here is the latest given to me by Agnett, Editor Extraordinaire.  As we suggested in last week’s Galactic commentary, if the science community would just stick to the law, the Constitution, we should be able to remain intact.  However our carrot-coiffed Wizard of Id continues to reconstruct American laws on a daily basis, and the way he is doing it – Executive Orders – will stick for four years until the nation gets its brains back and overthrow the Felt-Tip-Pen-In-Chief.   (Let’s not forget that on inauguration day a retooled White House web site fashioned in his own image, purged any mention of climate change and populated it with contemptible crap about how the National Parks and lands are such great candidates for fracking.)

So, here is how it stands.  We found a nice little law, actually made permanent by none other than former Prez George W. Bush, called the Information Quality Act of 2001.  Environmentalists are trying like hell to make this stick, and they have ample evidence and reason to take it to court:

“Posting blatantly false information on the EPA’s website would violate the Information Quality Act,” Romany Webb, a climate law fellow at Columbia University, told reporters Thursday. “The guidelines clearly state that information disseminated to the public, including via a website, must be substantively accurate.”

MIT Technology Review

It’s a start.  And it’s another way in which we can use existing rules to our own advantage. But it seems the orange creamsicle-in-a-suit has done an end-run around that. According to the publication called Daily Caller, “The law allows people who object to information presented by a federal agency to request a correction or to have it retracted. They can appeal in a process overseen by an independent inspector general (IG) if the agency denies their request. The appeal process would be filtered through a panel of political appointees – who will likely be named after the Senate confirms Trump’s EPA pick, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.”

Yes.  Trump is filling in the slots of the judges who will decide such appeals.

And Pruitt, as we have mentioned here before, has sued the EPA 19 times.  How’s THAT for hope and nihilism?? 

Apollo 14 Edgar Mitchell

If that weren’t “chilling” enough, here is one of Trump’s groveling goons’ most putrid quotes about global warming: “The fact is that in modern society we have the technology to deal with environmental challenges, and that’s why people live in Phoenix,” Myron Ebell, the head of the former transition team, said. “Because warm is good, as long as we have air conditioning.” This is the same Ebell, who in an interview with the Associated Press, said that Trump would likely significantly reduce the EPA’s workforce from its current 15,000 employees to half that. Sensing that might be a little too generous, Ebell added, “President Trump said during the campaign that he would like to abolish the EPA, or ‘leave a little bit,’”

Yee- Haw!

So this is what we have to push against, and the frat boys from Krappa Delta Trump are doing their best to send us back to the intellectual dark ages by gonad-grabbing the Constitution, flatuating on decades of scientific research, and turning the US into one big fossil-fuel keg party.

Yeah, I know, it’s like urinating in a hurricane.  Utterly useless.  Please, please join us, where ever you are, where ever you live, in the March for Science on April 22. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large

The Force is With Us

Don your pink-colored, knitted brain hats and ferret out your Granddad’s pocket protector – April 22nd has been chosen as the first-ever March for Science in which thousands of brainiacs will exchange their lab coats for placards and take to the streets in Washington DC as well as other cities around the globe to rally on behalf of “publicly-funded, openly-communicated, evidence-based research,” according to the Washington Post. The DC event (which is being held on this year’s Earth Day) will cap off with a rally on the Mall featuring speakers and scientific “teach-in” tents. Organizers say that more than 40,000 people have signed up online to volunteer for the event, which since its inception just two weeks ago has garnered over 800,000 followers on Facebook.

“We scientists are, in general, a reticent lot who would much rather spend our time in the lab, out in the field, teaching and doing research,” said one of the world’s leading climatologists, Professor Michael Mann of Penn State, in a recent interview with the UK’s Independent. Mann, who recently called out the Trump’s “assault on science” as putting the US “firmly back in the madhouse” of climate science denial, added that “It is only the most unusual of circumstances that gets us marching in the streets. Trump’s assault on science is just such a circumstance. And we are seeing a rebellion continue to mount.”

As of last weekend, other cities planning satellite marches include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Portland, Louisville, Oklahoma City and Miami.

Make America Think Again

According to leading astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the greatest threat to the US is from within as the rise in science illiteracy continues to grow.  DeGrasse Tyson told a sold-out crowd in Greensboro NC last week that Americans overall are “bad at science, scared of math, poor at physics and engineering, and resistant to evolution,” reports the Greensboro News and Record. “The consequence of that is that you breed a generation of people who do not know what science is nor how and why it works,” he warned. “You have mortgaged the future financial security of your nation. Innovations in science and technology are the (basis) of tomorrow’s economy.”

And America’s brain-drain decline isn’t unprecedented, Tyson added:

Just look back 1,000 years ago at the Middle East, where math and science flourished in Baghdad. Algebra and algorithms were invented in the Middle East. So were Arabic numerals — the numbers we still use today.

But when a new cleric emerged during the 12th century, he declared math and science to be earthly pursuits, Tyson said, and good Muslims should be concerned about spiritual affairs. The scientists drifted away, and scientific literacy faded from that part of the world.

Close Shave

This planet just dodged another bullet:  an asteroid the “size of a bus” grazed our upper atmosphere last Wednesday afternoon at about 3:25 PM Eastern Standard Time.  And it was close enough to slide between our Moon and the exosphere.  Gee, it’s a good thing we have so many scientific brains working on the detection and deflection of these cosmic wrecking balls.

Dream on!  The number of asteroid/astronomer scientists working on this planetary danger is, as the science community reminds the world continually, akin to the amount of “middle-class” multi-employed humans working in one McDonald’s fast-crap restaurant.  We wish we were being hyperbolic in this fact, but it is the unvarnished truth.

The near-Earth asteroid that kissed the planet last week was detected by the Slooh Community Observatory in the Canary islands on January 30 – far too late for any action to be taken had it been an Earth-smashing killer.  The space chunk was between 36 and 82 feet long (11 to 25 meters), and was traveling at a speed of 25,800 mph (42,000 km/h), or about 16 times faster than a bullet shot out of an AK-47 rifle, according to Slooh astronomer Erik Edelman.  Thank Dog we got rid of Obama before he could take our guns!  Again, we say, Thank You, Republicans!

Slipping Between the Cracks?

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that government investigators may have found a potentially dangerous pattern of cracking in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 turbine blades that could further delay the first crewed SpaceX missions. The Government Accountability Office’s report on the findings, which is still in draft form, won’t be officially released until later this month. Meanwhile, a company spokesperson told The Verge that while the rocket maker has designed its engines to withstand turbine splitting, t’s also working on ways to eliminate the problem. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” said SpaceX’s John Taylor. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether.”

Back at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, the first mission to fly a previously-used first stage rocket came a step closer to reality with the successful firing of a recycled Falcon-9 booster in late January. The 15-story candle, which was launched originally in April 2016 (and was the first to safely land at sea atop a floating barge) is slated to loft 10 communications satellites this March.

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.


Cooking With Gas

This false color view of Jupiter’s polar haze was rendered by “citizen scientist” Gerald Eichstädt using data from the Juno spacecraft’s JunoCam.

Holy Punxsutawney Phil, Batman! While us Earthlings last week were divining the sunning habits of a North American rodent to predict the weather, NASA’s Juno spacecraft was skimming 2,670 miles above the tops of Jupiter’s clouds while gathering new data that hopefully will unlock the mysteries of the gas giant’s tempestuous atmosphere “It’s never Groundhog Day when you are flying past Jupiter,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “With every close flyby we are finding something new.” Revelations from previous Juno close encounters include eyebrow-raising discoveries such as the Jovian magnetic fields and aurora are bigger and more powerful than originally thought and that Jupiter’s cloud belts extend deep into the planet’s interior. Juno’s current 53-day orbit will bring it back in spitting distance to the gas giant on March 27th.

Double Take

NASA has made public the results of its “Kelly astronaut twin study,” and it is all too clear just how detrimental space travel can be on the human body.  In fact, it seems to be way worse than physiologists predicted.  As many readers know, NASA sent astronaut Scott Kelly up to the International Space Station in March of 2015, where he spent 340 days on board the claustrophobic free-floater platform – with other cosmonauts and astronauts coming and going freely every two weeks.  Meanwhile, Scott’s brother, Mark – a retired NASA astronaut – stayed put on terra firma.  This gave NASA a well controlled built-in experiment, since identical twins are exact genetic copies of each other.  Scott came back to Earth, the prodding and examining started, and the results were recorded.  Most reports explain the upshot in clouded, smoothed out terms that are utterly confounding. Strained vocabularies, like the word-salad “altered gene expression,” are used in an overly ginger fashion.

Science Alert is one source we found that didn’t mince words:  “[T]he effects are the total opposite of what scientists were expecting.”  Naturally, one would predict that space radiation would be hideously bad, worse than what we thought we could bare, say, on a trip to Mars.  But Science Alert (as far as we can tell, the only rag to simply state the results in normal and clear terms) explains that Scott’s “telomeres” lengthened.  Telomeres are the protective “tails” on the ends of chromosomes that protect cells from the evils of radiation and other toxins.  It’s a good thing, and apparently, these telomeres do not normally grow by themselves under Earth-like conditions. It means that the human anatomy may be able to compensate Darwinian-style for the hell that the Universe  – or rabid lawgivers – chuck at us! 

Galactic Pushover

According to a new study published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Astronomy, our Milky Way and its Local Group of galaxies are in the middle of a cosmic tug of war between a couple of previously-known dense regions of the universe and a newly-discovered “void,” lacking any galaxies.  “By 3-d mapping the flow of galaxies through space, we found that our Milky Way galaxy is speeding away from a large, previously unidentified region of low density. Because it repels rather than attracts, we call this region the Dipole Repeller,” study lead author Yehuda Hoffman from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said in a statement. Astronomers have long believed that our galaxy’s sprint through the cosmos was caused by the gravitational pull wielded by two dense galactic regions of the universe — the Great Attractor that contains a half dozen clusters of galaxies about 150 million light-years from us, and the Shapley Concentration that is populated with over two dozen clusters and is lurking 600 million light-years beyond the Great Attractor. Researchers hope now that this Dipole Repeller has been pinpointed , they will be able to calculate both the direction and the speed of Milky Way’s motion (which is now assumed to be an astounding 1.2 million miles per hour).

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