Heave of Destruction

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Editor’s Note: The Galactic Sandbox editors are taking a two-week deep breath, and plan to exhale with new material on April 10th. Don’t forget to catch up with any issues you’ve missed by visiting our archive links at the right-hand side of this page. – Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Honest To Pete’s Sake

The more I read about the latest anti-science legislation grinding through our compromised political process, and the more I learn how Trump keeps “ordering” the removal of planet and life-saving environmental laws, I am left with a hideous image in my brain.  It entails a screaming, privileged, ignorant spoiled baby throwing a tantrum, flinging an I-phone, screeching like a banshee in order to get his way.  And his way is anything that will produce more money for him, personally — not for the American people — be it through fracking, drilling, dumping, habitat takes for a new grotesque luxury hotel, and subsequent defilement of waterways or the poisoning of the planet’s air.  And he has plenty of Congressional stooges only to happy to appease him.

The War on Science is now terrifyingly real, my friends, more real than most of us realize, and a lot closer to becoming a permanent reality.  I’ll explain later on why it could be lasting.

During the Obama years, there were a slew of insane and outrageous bills that the gerrymandered Republican majority in Congress constantly threatened to shove down our throats, much like they are trying to do with their (anti)-Health Care bill now.  They wanted to out-and-out abolish the EPA, and knee-cap the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) simply because it gleaned real science about the health of this planet through Earth and climate studies.  We all know the real reasons they wanted to destroy our environmental safeguards: because these so-called representatives are beholden to the Dirty Energy Industry due to the millions they have taken from those planet-rapers in contributions for re-election.  They shroud their crusade in slogans like “jobs jobs jobs for Americans!” and “let the market regulate itself!”

Ask the folks in Oklahoma and many other toxified states what their rivers look like since Congress recently abolished the Stream Protection Rule and the Methane and Natural Gas Waste Prevention Rule, the latter which would have required oil and gas companies to reduce methane leaks from fracking sites. Obama enacted these laws in the last days of his presidency.  The SPR prevented coal-burning plants from dumping coal ash into waterways, but under the rarely used Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to review and overturn federal regulations recently enacted (within 60 legislative days), Congress indeed dumped both of them.  What’s worse, the CRA prevents the laws from ever getting enacted again. Once the Stream Protection Rule was shredded, coal burners are going hog-wild with their ash dumping into any waterway close to a plant.

Obama kept this all at bay with his veto pen.  But since the Tantrumer-in-Chief is holding the pens and signing Executive Orders, we are in real trouble.  Using another stupidly written Order, Trump plans to command his stooge, new EPA head Scott Pruitt, to dismantle two more Obama-made planet-savers: the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and the Waters of the United States Rule. Does anyone remember back before Congress abandoned the Flint, MI, lead poisoning of that city’s water, when Trump bellowed how he was going to protect all the nation’s water?  What a big fat liar.

Now the neo-conservatives are again dusting off a pair of particularly heinous acts, and the sponsor leading the charge is none other than that Tin Foil Hat Hogger supreme, the head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Perdition).  Smith has re-launched the Orwellian-named Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act. Combined, they would significantly change how the Environmental Protection Agency uses science to create rules that protect the health of all creatures, including humans. “HONEST” – putridly-named – is a rehash of Smith’s notorious Secret Science Reform Act, a bill that would have required the EPA to only use scientific studies for which all data is publicly available and the results are easily reproducible. This new bill would effectively throw out any data the EPA has worked years on, which is yet to be published since it is ongoing.  The evil twin law paired with this idiocy is “SAB,” which lays out the rules by which a new board decides what is “relevant” science or not.  SAB bars any scientist who has been awarded an EPA grant from serving on this board and mandates that Big Polluter Industry paid “experts” serve on this board – as long as they disclose that they have an “interest” in any new regulations.  Gee, that sounds like a really good  transparency test!  

Oh but there’s more.  The HONEST Act requires that any “science” the EPA uses in its recommendations and enforcement MUST BE ABLE TO BE DUPLICATED by a third party.  So the notion of peer review, used by the scientific community for 300 years as other scientists read the results of a new discoveries and critique them as they see fit, is no longer germane to the Republican way of thinking.  As New Republic writer Emily Atkin reminds the backers of these new laws, how do you repeat a ten-year study of the effects of lead-poisoning on children and pregnant women?  And how do you reproduce the catastrophic BP oil rupture throughout the Gulf of Mexico?  The point is you don’t.  So – surprise! – you can not use data from the sad but scientifically true results of those tragedies. 

“I’ve always had a hard time understanding why members of Congress like to tell scientists how to conduct their research,” said Democratic Representative Bill Foster, one of only two scientists in Congress. “Scientists should set the standards for research. Not politicians.”

Many thanks Randall Munroe, xkcd

Congress and the Baby-Rattler-in-Chief all know how suicidal – to their careers — it would be to blow up the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, outright.  So they are doing it in a much sneakier way.  “It would be unpopular to attack these laws directly, but you can go after the way the EPA administers those laws,” says Yogin Kothari from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Too bad there aren’t more scientists serving as politicians.  We need them sorely.  These bills, which we will call Clump and Lump, have already passed the House.  Thanks Lamar. Thanks Baby Huey.

So once again, all I can do is inform you, our friends, on what is really happening.  And urge you all to, please, March for Science on April 22! – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large

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Grim Cheaper

While the Trump cabal’s Budget of American Devastation is not nearly as vindictive toward NASA as it is for the EPA, the State Dept., Education and so many other vital agencies that used to keep U.S. citizens safer and smarter, our space agency still got a machete taken to some of its hallmark programs – with little to no explanation. We shudder to imagine how such cavalier and arbitrary decisions to hack out whole programs like this blows up peoples jobs, let alone lifelong dreams. Specifically, Trump has carved out $19 billion for NASA, close to what it got last year, but the Bannon bean counters red-lined, of course, a number of Earth science and weather satellite programs, including the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) program, formerly slated for 2022.  The PACE sat would have measured the health (and sickness) of our oceans.  Gee, hope they’re not eating too many fish courses in the White House. Also chopped was the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 mission, which would have been piggy-backed on the space station. Another head on the chopping block is a current satellite program, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (a joint project between NASA and NOAA) that is orbiting Earth at this moment. 

Of course, Baby Trump wants to kill the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the concept which Congressional Republicans furrowed their brows at for the past two years.  ARM would have sent a crewed spacecraft to a nearby asteroid, pluck up a boulder and place it lunar orbit for further study.  Gee, hope we don’t get any incoming Alabama-sized asteroids plowing through our atmosphere any time soon.

And finally, President Bannon has his bony finger on the delete button for NASA’s Office of Education, which has operated on a mere $115 million per year.  How many bombs will that buy? Sigh.  All we can say is, Thank You Republicans! (sung to the tune, “Eve of Destruction”)

Flashes in the Pan:  Climate Change Say What?

17 Congressional Republicans Regrow Their Brains: We know this is hard to swallow but we got this one from Reuters, so there’s nothing “fake” about it, no matter what Bannon tells the Twitterer-in-Chief.  Seventeen congressional Republicans actually signed a resolution (non-binding, of course) in defiance of the immoral stupidity of their Fearful Leader der Trumpenfuhrer who still believes global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese.  The resolution, pledging to “study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates” and seek ways to “balance human activities” that contribute, was introduced by Republicans Elise Stefanik of New York, Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania.  Apparently, Curbelo, whose district includes Miami, could no longer deny the fact that seas are rising since his constituents see it every day in their downtown streets at high tide.  It is interesting to note that 17 Republican members of the last Congress did this same thing, and nearly all lost their re-election bids.  Galactic Sandbox believes that will not be the case this time, since the nation seems to be feeling decidedly pissed off right now at anti-science politicians.  Unless, of course, the Democrats do a clean-sweep in 2018 and wipe out all incumbent GOP members.  Could happen!

(Florida Museum of Natural History, illustration by Danielle Byerley via AP)

Honey We Shrunk The Horse: Scientists now believe global warming, in addition to giving the planet a host of other biological catastrophes, will also shrink animals. It has happened twice before in Earth’s past when carbon dioxide levels spiked and temperatures sweltered naturally, says University of New Hampshire researcher Abigail D’Ambrosia.  Some 54 million years ago a species of “compact horse” shrunk down smaller than it already was to the size of a cat.  Another creature, a lemur-like animal known as our earliest primate, also got smaller under high heats.  Farmers and scientists have long known that during prolonged heat waves some cows get smaller and do not give as much milk.  

Bullets Over Doomsday: Trump’s Defense Secretary, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis – yeah, not known for his liberal stances on anything – told Democratic senators during his confirmation hearings that climate change is a threat to national security and “can be a driver of instability.” This isn’t a new notion, but certainly one the Cheeto-in-Chief et al would never consider, let alone say out loud.  Mad Dog may turn out to be the greenest member of the Trumpian Administration.  Oy vey. 

White Heat: Leading climate scientists let the world know this week that the only thing that can save the world’s coral reefs from severe bleaching is to stop the rising temperatures of the world, hence the sea.  And it better be done fast, they said in a paper published in the journal Nature.  The Australian government, in a double whammy, also announced just a week earlier that the Great Coral Reef off their shores is suffering the worst mass bleaching two years in a row now, in fact, back-to-back high temperatures. Conservationists were hoping a curb in pollution along the 1,400-mile long reef would help reverse the bleaching.  But C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of the Coral Reef Watch program at NOAA and a co-author of the paper, said,At the level of heat stress that was seen during this event, it just didn’t matter.”  Time’s awasting. 

Returning to the Fold

NASA just came out with videos of its new Origami-like mini-rovers, called PUFFERsPop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots – which look more like those remotely operated model hot wheel toys.  But these little rovers are designed to do a big job on alien worlds, particularly Mars or icy Europa, where the plan is to have them disembark off a “mother rover” (more the size of a kid’s tricycle) and explore the crevices, nooks and crannies of the Red Planet’s harsh landscape.  PUFFERs can turn on a dime, survive 3-meter falls, fold down to the size of a cell phone, and they are equipped with their own tiny microscopes.  They were created through an 18-month long joint program between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UC Berkeley, and the Distant Focus Corporation in Champaign, Illinois. NASA will test the little bots in the Mojave Desert later this year.  

Music of the Spheres

What else would we call this one?  French astronaut Thomas Pesquet got a birthday surprise on-board the International Space Station when the crew presented the musical spaceman with a carefully stashed saxophone, Feb. 27th.  The sax was brought to the station Feb. 23 on a Space X cargo ship. But it’s not the first time a sax has been played in space; astronaut Ronald McNair took one up in the shuttle in 1984, two years before we lost him in the Challenger disaster.  And other musical astronauts have brought up everything from an electric keyboard to an Australian didgeridoo. Pesquet, a former Air France pilot, has been on board the ISS since November and has three months more to go.  He revealed the B-day surprise on Twitter this week.

 

 

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Abandon Ship

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March 13, 2017

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

Smog Test

Last week during a CNBC interview, EPA hired hit-man and seething pile of greenhouse gas-emitting excrement Scott Pruitt – surprise! – officially announced to the world he didn’t believe carbon dioxide is a a primary contributor to global warming:  “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” Pruitt told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Fortunately, someone at the EPA wisely took away Pruitt’s kinder-scissors so he couldn’t snip out the agency’s official statement on its website that contradicts Scott Smokestack’s climate change-denying mantra:

Since the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, human activities have contributed substantially to climate change by adding CO2 and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions have increased the greenhouse effect and caused Earth’s surface temperature to rise. The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

 

Just the Facts Ma’am: The only ones disagreeing with the above challenging data are well-paid skeptics, who are now free to dismantle already decades-late greenhouse gas regulations and safeguards. From the EPA’s official website: This graph shows the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere over the last 2,000 years. Increases in concentrations of these gases since 1750 are due to human activities in the industrial era. Concentration units are parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb), indicating the number of molecules of the greenhouse gas per million or billion molecules of air.

Sadly, we live in a political environment where 2 + 2 = fish, so the analytical-free Pruitt (who in the past has received 292 campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries) reportedly is being given a carte blanche to stockpile the endangered EPA with junk science peddlers, including former Trump campaign organizers, staff members of fossil fuel-friendly Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and David Kreutzer, a senior research fellow in energy economics and “climate change” at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has taken anthropogenic planetcide-denying to a whole new level by actually praising the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Not all is lost though, as Pruitt’s remarks garnered enough ire that the EPA was flooded with phone calls Friday, and by Saturday morning the agency’s messaging system was maxed out, making it impossible to leave a message, according to the Washington Post.

Hopefully, the EPA won’t be completely decimated by the time the worldwide March for Science rolls around on the April 22nd. Just to be safe, bring along a gas mask and a pair of scissors.

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Launch News: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set to launch an EchoStar communications satellite tomorrow from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, FL.

To the Stars (and Screw the Planet You Rode In On)

Orion capsule.

Our Congressional leaders finally passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act this week, the bill they couldn’t agree on last year, and it paints a rosy picture for NASA’s space exploration (i.e: get your butts to the Red Planet by 2033!) but with a glaring omission.  Surprise!  It completely left out the part called Earth Sciences…you know, that’s the study of how this globe will burn up in a fiery hell with the help of greenhouse gasses and the obliteration of all environmental regulations that der Trumpenfuhrer loathes so much.

NASA’s Space Launch Vehicle.

The bill originally was the Republican cry-baby response to the Obama Administration’s cancellation of their beloved Constellation program in 2010, a series of missions that would have taken humans back to the Moon in order to finish those old golf games and continue popping wheelies on the Lunar Roving Vehicle.  Obama’s science advisers wanted instead to get humans to Mars by the 2030s since there wasn’t enough money (thanks to the Republicans!) to go to both the Moon and Mars in the near future.  And typically of the conservative bloc, they are still sulking and vindictive over it.  And despite themselves, the GOP hardliners did leave some good points in that the bill at least won’t cancel the progress made on NASA’s new Space Launch System or the Orion spacecraft capsule. (Sheeeesh, we actually have to be grateful when politicians do something that isn’t completely devastating).

Anti-Science crusader Lamar Smith.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the far right’s hero of anti-science, Rep. Lamar “I’m Hoggin’ All the Tin Foil Hats” Smith (R-Texas), made sure the bill would make NASA charge any other agency an arm and a leg should said agency (like NOAA) receive any help from NASA in their climate/Earth studies – an utterly asinine notion since NASA already works with myriad other agencies, indeed with international partners, on crucially important Earth science studies and missions, and “climate change loving” hard science outfits like NOAA are already getting cut to the bone in this new Trumpian regime.  The bill passed by voice vote and is headed to the Twitter Tantrumer’s desk for his final signature (or gold crayon “X” mark).

Over the Moon

Cislunar space station concept.

While our Cheeto-in-Chief was madly tweeting Breitbart-fueled conspiracy theories and how much he hates Arnold Schwarzenegger, real adults met privately in Tsukuba, Japan, to iron out details of a new cislunar space station.  The international partners of the new endeavor include America, Japan, Europe, Russia and Canada.  According to Anatoly Zak’s blog in the Planetary Society website, the Moon-orbiting station will include two habitation modules built by Europe and Japan, a U.S.-built power and propulsion module, a Russian airlock module and good ol’ Canada’s contribution will be, once again, the 8.5-meter robotic arm.  The life-support system will be “closed-loop,” meaning, everything will be recycled including oxygen and, yes, waste “water.”  The station will also sport a 360-degree “glass” deck on the station for breathtaking panoramic views of our natural satellite.

Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit

But the most remarkable decision made at the Japan meeting was the finalization of the Moon station’s orbit:  a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit, or NRHO. This would mean a giant egg-shaped loop around the Moon that would be 43,000 miles away at its furthest and 900 miles at the closest point to the Moon.  This wild orbital path would take a week to go around the Moon, but enable the station to get maximum sunlight on its solar panels and save propellant for trajectory corrections.  However, as always, one problem solved in space begets another.  The crazy halo orbit would also make it harder for docked craft to get from the station to the surface, particularly since vehicles, such as NASA’s Orion, would have to use more propellant to get there.  

Lunar orbital station concept.

The Herculean project is moving swiftly.  Currently, plans call for the station’s construction throughout much of the 2020s, with its use as a deep space launching platform in the 2030s. NASA’s Space Launch System rocket should be making the first hardware delivery to lunar orbit by 2024….but let’s not forget the Russians! (How the hell can we?)  Roscosmos will deliver its air-lock module on its Angara-5 rocket.

On The Bright Side

Close-up pic of Ceres’ mysterious bright spot.

According to a new study in the Astronomical Journal, researchers have concluded that the enigmatic bright spot on the asteroid Ceres is only about 4 million years old, and was caused by cryo-volcanism in which water and dissolved gasses forced carbonate-rich materials to spew out to form the planetoid’s signature shiny dome. In fact, the reflective salt pile that’s nestled in Ceres’ Occator Crater is 30 million years younger than the pockmarked feature. Scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research used data from instruments aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft including its framing camera and infrared mapping spectrometer.

Many thanks Randall Munroe, xkcd,

Chilling Out

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will use lasers and magnetism to produce temperatures closing in on Absolute Zero.

Sometime this summer, the International Space Station may literally be the home of the coldest spot in the universe if a revolutionary NASA experiment is successful in creating temperatures to an inconceivable one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero (a whiff warmer than -460 degrees Fahrenheit). Dubbed the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), the box-shaped device – slated for delivery to the ISS by SpaceX – will use a series of lasers and magnetic force to chill a puff of gas down to what is called a Bose-Einstein condensate or superfluid, in which matter moves like a fluid but acts like a solid and appears to have no friction. “If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever,” Anita Sengupta, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and CAL’s project manager, said in a NASA-JPL press release. “There’s no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy,” she added.  Scientists, who are hoping that CAL will help bring us closer to understanding the mysteries of gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, believe the zero-gravity environment will enable superfluids to hover for minutes at time, rather than for fractions of a second on Earth in which gravity pulls condensates down into warmer substances and they immediately evaporate.

Pie In The Sky

Last week, NASA published the closest and most detailed images of Saturn’s tiny satellite Pan taken by the still-ticking Cassini spacecraft last Tuesday. The raw, unprocessed pics of the dumpling-shaped moon were snapped when the probe was about 15,268 miles away.

 

A New Hope

Chandrayaan-1 craft

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA just found a pair of lost spacecraft orbiting the Moon, one built by India and dormant for the past eight years, and the other a NASA craft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been providing us with essential Moon data since 2009. The derelict Chandrayaan-1 craft is most known for having found water particles on the lunar surface, also in 2009, but its last contact with handlers was in August of that year.  NASA’s JPL brains found the crafts using a new technique that involves a lot of math and ground based radar.  Instrumental in the quest was the famous 300-foot Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, which kicked off the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in 1960.  No word yet on just what the next chapter for the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter is.  If nothing is done, the orbiting but mute machine will eventually crash onto the lunar surface.

Twisted Sister

The proposed joint US-Russia Venera-D mission would include a lander that most likely will employ a chip recently developed by NASA that is capable of surviving Venus-like conditions including 870 degree F. temperatures and 90 times Earth’s atmospheric pressures.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s something the Trump Administration can really sink its teeth into: a joint venture to the planet Venus with those nice Russians! According to NASA, a team of its sponsored scientists will meet with the  Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI) next week to continue work on a joint definition study that will identify shared science objectives for Venus exploration – specifically refining the science objectives of the IKI Venera-D mission to Earth’s closest planetary neighbor.

“While Venus is known as our ‘sister planet,’ we have much to learn, including whether it may have once had oceans and harbored life,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “By understanding the processes at work at Venus and Mars, we will have a more complete picture about how terrestrial planets evolve over time and obtain insight into the Earth’s past, present and future.”

The Venera-D mission proposal includes a two-for-one combo of an orbiter that would circle Venus for up to three years, and a lander designed to survive the incredibly brutal temperatures and off-the-charts barometric pressures the craft would encounter on the Venusian surface (Venus is famous for its runaway greenhouse effect, making it the hottest planet in our solar system with surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead).

 

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Moonlighting

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March 6, 2017

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

To the Moooon, Alice!

When Space X chief Elon Musk announced last week his plan to send tourists on trips around the Moon – by the astonishingly early date of late 2018 — the networks gobbled it up with glee…probably as a welcomed respite from the myriad Trumpian assaults that our democracy suffers daily.

SpaceX crewed Dragon capsule.

Space X’s audacious Moon shot envisions sending tourists on a six- to seven-day flight around our cheesy satellite inside a life-supported Dragon capsule, lifted to the exosphere by a Falcon Heavy booster.  The Dragon capsule currently carries supplies to the space station, and Musk says no major modifications are needed for it to fly human passengers.  That’s sort of disturbing.  Even so, the Falcon Heavy is far behind testing schedule and the list of satellite providers still waiting to get their birds into orbit grows longer with every Falcon-9 mishap (there have been two in recent months). Still, Musk says the first Dragon test flight that will carry people is slated in late 2017.  But the part that really disturbs me is that the entire scheme will be auto-piloted, as in, no experienced astronaut on board to take over or improvise should anything go awry.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t get in that tin can without someone like John Young, Buzz Aldrin or Story Musgrave at the wheel. 

No one knows who the first guinea pigs are to book the exorbitant voyage, or how sky-high the price tag is, except that according to Musk, they aren’t “Hollywood types.”  Hmmmm.  Perhaps the first passengers will be katrillionaire Russian oligarchs?

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket concept.

Not to be left out, Blue Origin – the space company founded by Amazon king Jeff Bezos – has already briefed the White House about its plans to create an “Amazon-like delivery system” for future Moon colonies.  They’re building a new special cargo lander called “Blue Moon,” to be flown on Blue Origin’s “New Glenn” booster, also under development.  

And NASA seems to be shooting for the Moon too, according to what came out of a recent House Committee of Space, Science and Tech hearing.  Yes, we are talking about that gaggle of anti-science legislators led by Texas Rep. Lamar “Flat-Earther” Smith (R-Hell in a Handbasket) which has a big say in NASA’s budget.  More on that meeting in a story below. (Brace yerself).

Apparently, the Tantrumming Twitterer-in-Chief is hugely responsible for this new Lunar-launch fever. Recently, he has spoken loftily, if not briefly, about space exploration: “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” was the only reference he made to America’s space goals in that putrid ghost-written Joint Address he read off the teleprompter last Tuesday.   

But ask about funding for those footprints and its a different story.  Trump’s new overall budget for 2018 calls for anything that is non-defense to get slashed at least 10 percent.  And we just got a news flash that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) will suffer a whopping 17 percent loss from its budget. That means not only deep cuts to NOAA (and NASA) research and satellite programs, but it also eliminates funding for “coastal management, estuary reserves and coastal resilience, which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas,” according to the Washington Post report. 

Lunar colony concept.

Meanwhile, Trump’s space policy adviser, Robert Walker, says Trump wants lunar colonies, Helium-3 mining on the Moon, and nuclear-powered ships that could cut travel time to Mars.  But the inventor of that nuclear-fueled propulsion, astrophysicist John Slough, said that the cost of such power is financially prohibitive. Walker, in response, hints that NASA could be teaming up with private companies to reduce the costs.  

NASA Space Launch System.

Well, we already know that NASA, as well as the federal government, has helped subsidize a number of those companies, namely, Space X.  That NASA is teaming with space entrepreneurs is not a revelatory idea.  But the odd thing is that NASA will be almost competing with Space X to get to the Moon.  The difference is that NASA will land and do something there.  And their timeline to do so has, until now, been a lot more realistic.

But lately, NASA seems to be under some pressure to get their bigger better Space Launch System, yet to be flown, up and flying – and fast.  Just two weeks ago in a hastily slapped together press conference, NASA said they are looking into putting a crew on board its yet to be flown Orion capsule atop the SLS’s maiden flight slated for 2019.  Such a bold move, some say reckless stunt, could put humans back on the Moon several years ahead of schedule.  If it’s successful.

But reckless seems to be the password in these brave new days of stupid.  New U.S. cabinet heads can purger themselves to Congress and the American people; the Cheeto-in-Chief and his minions can collude with Putin spooks to throw an American presidential election; and certain news reporters can get locked out of White House briefings as the Constitution gets trashed.  Not even recycled. And no one is punished.

I just hope NASA doesn’t trash its boost in popularity – what with the discovery of the Trappist planetary system and the Musk boast of Moon rides – by another shortsighted and cavalier decision that could lead to a Challenger-like catastrophe.  Yeah, I said it.  Someone has to. – Kate Woods, Writer-at-Large

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Hidden Figure 2017

Ellen Stofan

When the now infamous House Science, Space and Technology Committee, larded with anti-science Republican congressmen and piloted by the aforementioned Rep. Lamar Smith, held a public hearing late last month to discuss NASA’s future endeavors, the committee held the chance to prove to a politically nervous public that they could do the right thing, be non-partisan about space exploration, and give us hope for the future of humankind.  Boy, did they screw that up.

Gavel-banger Smith, already reviled for tweeting false information about climate change “hoaxes” straight from the alt-reality e-rag Breitbart News, invited a panel of NASA veterans to speak: Harrison Schmitt, an Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator from New Mexico (who unfortunately is now an avid climate change denier); Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford, an astronaut on Apollo 10 and two Gemini missions; and A. Thomas Young, who was the mission director for the Viking Mars program and a former director of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  And hey!  One of the few Democrats on the committee invited NASA’s chief scientist adviser under President Obama, Ellen Stofan, the only woman at the hearing to testify about the future of space exploration.

Stofan did talk at length about NASA’s plans for the Moon and Mars, ultimately giving the most definitive timeline on the subject yet:  a human colony on the Moon can be expected by the 2020s, and people will be orbiting Mars by 2032.  Space enthusiasts were…enthused!

But people keeping tabs on the hearing through the Committee’s Twitter account didn’t even know Stofan was there.  Smith made sure her comments were omitted entirely during the meeting.  The account recorded ten Twitter appearances with comments from the other panelists, and a link to a live feed.  But Stofan was no where to be seen.  Lamar, Lamar, Lamar….  When will you ever realize that your insulting tricks and blatant lies fool no one?  

Gone But Not Forgotten

In 2006, Anousheh Ansari (left), became the first Iranian in space and the first self-funded woman to fly on the International Space Station.

Quickly overshadowed by the Best Picture kerfuffle at the end of last Sunday’s Oscar festivus was the fact that the two prominent Iranian-Americans accepting on behalf of Best Foreign Language Film director Ashgar Farhadi were astronaut Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space traveler, and Firouz Naderi, a former director at NASA. Two-time Oscar winner Farhadi, who chose not to attend the Academy Award bash following Donald Trump’s executive order barring visa-holders from Iran and six other countries entry into the US, won for his film “The Salesman,” wrote the following rebuke to our Restrictor-in-Chief:

“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”

Crash Course

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars for the past two years collecting data on the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, avoided an unscheduled close and personal examination of Mars’ lumpy satellite Phobos as the space agency performed a rocket motor burn that saved the probe from an untimely demise. While the MAVEN team is receiving kudos for quickly dodging a bullet, the incident adds a new entry to Phobos lore in which the crater-pocked moon has been the focus of intense speculation that includes a prominent “monolith” object, the ‘Hollow Phobos” theory, and the fate of two Soviet missions to the potato-shaped orb in which both spacecraft croaked under suspicious circumstances.

Nothin’ But Blue Skies

Graphic EWG.org.

The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson (as well as others) is calling for an FBI investigation into Trump’s EPA hit-man Scott Pruitt, who like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, lied to Congress at his confirmation hearing. While it is now public knowledge that Pruitt effectively served as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry during his tenure as Oklahoma’s attorney general (See Galactic Sandbox, “Chip Off the Old Blockheads”), and used a private email account to promote anti-environmental regulations and conducting official AG business, Pruitt directly fibbed in his pre-confirmation questionnaire where Senator Cory Booker asked,”Have you ever conducted business using your personal email accounts, nonofficial Oklahoma attorney general email accounts, text messages, instant messenger, voicemails, or any other medium?” In his response, which Michaleson believes could be a crime for making a false statement to a government agency, Pruitt wrote, “I use only my official OAG [Office of the Attorney General] email address and government-issued phone to conduct official business.” (Can we hear anyone say, “Your Fired!”?)

Shell Game

Pruitt and Sessions aren’t the only ones these days with their pants on fire given the unearthing last week by The Guardian of a 1991 publicly-released film produced by Shell Oil that looks like it could have been produced by the Sierra Club in its dire predictions about the catastrophic risks of climate change. Titled “Climate of Concern,” Shell’s 28-minute video was prepared for viewing in schools and universities, and talks about – surprise! – possibility of extreme weather, floods, famines and climate refugees as carbon-based fuel burning heats up the Earth. “If the weather machine were to be wound up to such new levels of energy, no country would remain unaffected,” the film warns. “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.” And of course Shell, as well as its other big energy counterparts, did the exact opposite, pouring billions into ultra-polluting fossil fuel exploration and production (including citing fracking as a “future opportunity”  as recently as last year), all the while paying craven politicians (hello Lamar Smith!) to proclaim that the world has nothing to worry about, and to discredit any scientific proof to the contrary.

Coughing It Up

Chomping on the bit to keep his campaign pledge to “cancel” U.S. involvement in the Paris climate change accord, baby Donald “Smokestack” Trump is stuck in the middle of a clash between President Stephen Bannon, who is pushing Trump to ditch the historic 2015 agreement, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ivanka Trump, who warn that such a decision would be a diplomatic disaster, according to a New York Times report. Times sources familiar with the climate-pact tiff say Trump wants an answer by next week so he can parlay it with his plans to sign an executive order dumping Obama’s regulations that cut greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants. While our Usurper-in-Chief can’t unilaterally dismantle the legally-ratified deal, he could begin a four-year process of divorcing the US (and its promise to reduce fossil fuel pollution by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025) from the pact.

Hydrogen Gone Wild

Harvard team member showing off ultra-pressure apparatus reportedly used to form metallic hydrogen.

Physicists at Harvard University are experiencing professional egg on their face as they apparently “lost” the first sample of metallic hydrogen they claimed to have created in January using a one-of-a-kind ultra high-pressure instrument. According to Science Alert, to the dismay of brainiacs worldwide the much-touted sample that was being stored around -316 degrees Fahrenheit between two diamonds in a vice-like gizmo, is believed to have turned back into a gas following a catastrophic failure of the instrument.

“Before transporting [the hydrogen sample] we decided to use our apparatus and remeasure the pressure to see if it had changed,” explained Harvard researcher Isaac Silvera via email, adding that as a very low power beam was zapped onto the sample through the diamonds. “We heard a noise and the diamonds had catastrophically failed.”

Transition of hydrogen from transparent to black to a reflective metallic stage (far right).l

When the scientists opened the anvil dingus, they found one diamond badly cracked and the other crumbled into fine powder. “The gasket confining the sample of metallic hydrogen was damaged and we could not find any residual of the sample (which was very small, about 10 microns in diameter),” Silvera said.

While the discouraged Harvard team hopes to recreate the conditions to produce a new sample, there are rumblings among the scientific community that perhaps they overstated their “discovery.”. Hopefully this will not be another Fleischmann/Pons debacle in which two researchers shocked the world in 1989 when they claimed to have produced cold fusion in a bottle only to be unable to reproduce their results, and as a consequence, were chased out of Dodge by unforgiving colleagues.

W ETs

During his 20-minute yuk fest last week with late night host Jimmy Kimmel, former president George W. Bush refused to talk about what he’s seen in office regarding secret files and UFOs. (It’s become somewhat of a tradition with Kimmel to ask ex-commander in chiefs about what they know about extraterrestrials.) When pressed about “the secret files, the UFO documents,”  Bush coyly responded, “Maybe. You know, it’s funny, my daughters asked the very same question.” After bugging him further, Kimmel finally told Bush he can do whatever he wants now that he’s out of office. To that, the surprisingly cagey W agreed, “True. But I’m not telling you … I’m not telling you nothing.” Tin foil hats all around!

Goldilocks and the Seven Dwarfs

Von Trappist family, “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti.”

Everything went all Boaty McBoatface for NASA last week when the agency capriciously asked the public to come up with names for the seven newly-discovered Earth-like planets (currently dubbed “a” through “h”) that are huddled around the tiny Trappist-1 dwarf star 40 light years away. Suggestions started out predictably with offerings like “Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, and Grumpy,” but soon things went off the rails as civilian exoplanetologists gleefully lit up the Twitterverse with eponymous gems ranging from:

Pluto
Long Live Pluto
Pluto Forever
We Love Pluto
Screw You For Killing Pluto
Planet of the Keks
Pluto

To the wistful:

Far from Trump1
Far from Trump2
Far from Trump3
Far from Trump4
Far from Trump5
Far from Trump6
Far from Trump7

To our favorite:

This one
That one
The other one
No, that one
More to the left
To my left
Oh, forget it

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