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October 2, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

The 6-Gazillion Idea Man

A recent excellent article in The Verge makes a strong case for our suspicions that Space X chief Elon Musk is really a replicant from some dismal Blade Runner-type future as the author Andrew J. Hawkins rips apart the lack of human consideration in his latest seemingly off-the-cuff proposal to use his company’s future mega rocket launcher to blast people between major cities on Earth in 60 minutes or less.

“His [Musk’s] frustration with our current outdated methods of transportation is understandable,” Hawkins writes.  “After all, we’ve been stuck with four modes of travel (road, air, water, and rail) for almost a century … And while throwing cold water on his ideas has become a media cottage industry unto itself, his latest pitch to connect cities by suborbital rocket needs much closer scrutiny.”

SpaceX BFR concept.

According to Hawkins, Musk’s quixotic proposal  would involve his yet-to-be built “BFR” super rocket that would lift a spacecraft into orbit around the Earth, and would then alight down on floating landing pads near each destination city. While both launcher and spaceship are still only a gleam in his eye, Musk said he hopes to begin construction on the rocket within six to nine months.

Specifically, here are a few item’s in Hawkins’ laundry list of complaints about Musk’s newly-announce plan and obsession that “no trip between any two cities on the planet should last longer than an episode of The Big Bang Theory.”

  1. Musk hardly touches on the ginormous risks passengers would take ” by boarding one of these rockets “for a breezy trip from Shanghai to Paris or Dubai.” While’s SpaceX ‘s Falcon 9 rockets have had more successes than failures, the current triumph-to-defeat ratio is still unacceptable on a commercial basis (see recent blooper reel).
  2. From a physics standpoint, Musk’s idea is doable; however the human stress from spaceflight, even on short trips, could have adverse consequences too great just for shaving a few hours off a trip. “You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people.”
  3. Another danger with launching people like intercontinental ballistic warheads is the radiation exposure present in space. And while most deep space particles are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field thereby posing a less significant health threat,  Anderson feels that the high-tech empresario’s “indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.”
  4. Another huge hurdle is costs. Musk declared that these express trips would be competitive with commercial air travel. However this would be possible only if reusable rockets were able to be operated for up to 10,000 flights as conventional airplanes are. And since a recent US Air Force study found that recycled rockets were only good for about 100 flights, Musk’s space-age shuttle jaunts are “probably going to be 10 times the cost per-seat,” said Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC. “He may be 1-in-10,000 [for] loss of vehicle, but it’s nowhere near the 3-and-10 million reliability of airlines,” Miller noted.
  5. One of the surprising conclusions from a recent Department of Transportation paper is the effects that futuristic commercial space travel would have on pilots. “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning,” said the paper’s author, Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter.  “The much larger array of instruments and situations may require the pilot to quickly shift to a different activity using different instruments,” subjecting him or hert “to confusion and cognitive overload,” she added.
Essentially, Hawkins’ major beef is that while “we need visionaries to motivate us as a society …  Musk’s approach has always been more fatalistic than inspiring.” We would add, as Hawkins mentions earlier in his piece, that ultimately this is just another Silicon Valley scheme that “will most likely benefit wealthy VCs, billionaire industrialists, and no one else.”


Cosmic Co-op

Artist’s rendering of the proposed US/Russia Deep Space Gateway that would act as a staging platform for future Moon missions and serve as a possible springboard to Mars and beyond.

While America’s Congress, intelligence agencies, and special prosecutor continue their sleuthing into the extent of Russia’s presidential election meddling, US and Russian space agencies quietly signed an agreement last week on a new venture to orbit the Moon, and to potentially explore other parts of the solar system.Coming one week before the 60th anniversary of the historic Sputnik satellite launch (October 4, 1957) that sparked the space age revolution, the newly-inked “deep space gateway” deal between NASA and Roscosmos initially calls for a lunar-orbiting station where astronauts can evaluate systems needed for interplanetary travel, and for logging time in space while only being a couple of days from Earth. Eventually, the two agencies hope to establish a lunar base that would serve as a staging area for more exotic celestial locales such as Mars and beyond.

Photo Finishes

Below is a spectacular series of pix taken by NASA’s Juno Cam on September 1 as swooped by Jupiter during its latest in a series of scheduled fly-bys of the gas giant. The sequence of 11 color-enhanced images from “Perjove 8” spans 95 minutes, starting with the Jovian north pole on the right of the first image and the planet’s south pole on the left of the 11th photo.

In a not-so-related story, European Space Agency scientists were surprised and delight to find a final snapshot transmitted by its Rosetta space probe before the craft ended its 12-year mission and crash-landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) just over a year ago on September 29, 2016. Apparently the final moments of photo data originally not recognized by the agency’s automatic processing software, but in a recent manual scan, technicians were able to reconstruct the final clear pic of the comet’s surface:

Sticky Situation

If tests from a recent study hold up, we may have a glimps into how protoplanets are formed as cosmic dust circles around a newborn star.

Effervescent ice under ultraviolet light.

New research suggests that a combo of low temperatures and ultraviolet light makes ice behave like a liquid, and could explain how planets began to form in the earliest epoch of our solar system, reports Science Alert. According to scientists at Hokkaido University in Japan, when these deep-space conditions are present, the resultant mutant ice can gobble up dust and other cosmic debris. forming a chain reaction that ends up with, for instance, a giant gas ball like Jupiter. Head researcher Shogo Tachibana and his team reached their tentative conclusions after deep-freezing a brew of water, methanol, and ammonia, and as it began to warm, the scientist noticed that the icy substance began to bubble like boiling water and had a viscosity similar to honey.  “The liquid-like ice may help dust accrete to planets because liquid may act as a glue,” said Tachibana. “However, further experiments are needed to understand the material properties of the liquid-like ice,” he added.

Cutting the Cheese

A newly-released study sponsored by NASA has climatologists raising their eyebrows over updated figures showing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions flatulated/excreted by livestock worldwide is 11 percent higher than estimates made over 10 years ago, reports Gizmodo. If correct, the new research published in Carbon Balance and Management, is a fresh blow to efforts fighting climate change since methane gas, while being less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, is 30 times more efficient in trapping the Sun’s heat and consequently rising the Earth’s temperatures. And with approximately 1.5 billion bovines expelling 30-50 gallons of the planet-warming gas a day, that’s  a problem the world will have to collectively hold its nose and address before we roast ourselves into extinction.

Racket Man

While it’s not hard to recall less than five offensive brain farts Donald Trump has billowed out in the past couple of months, our Twerp-in-Chief’s recent racially-charged comments regarding Charlottesville and NFL players protesting during the national anthem caught the attention to former shuttle astronaut and NFL gridironer Leland Melvin, who had a few choice things to say in an essay to friends that was recently published in Boing Boing.

Below are excepts from Melvin’s essay (Note: Melvin also is a former NASA educator and author of “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances,” is pictured here with his two adorable pups):

To Donald Trump

I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this country even though at the time they were drafted, … only applied to a select group of people and not ones that looked like me.

… I listened to your Alabama rally rant and could not believe how easily you say what you say.

… I used to walk the grounds of UVA in Charlottesville, VA as a graduate student only to watch in horror as those same grounds became a battlefield being trod by Nazi and anti-Semitic worshippers armed with assault style weapons ready to fight to make America White again. (their words). You actually said there were nice people on both sides.

… Comparing this to what you say in condemnation of an unarmed black man peacefully protesting by exercising his constitutional First Amendment rights by silently taking a knee is appalling, unnerving and reprehensible.

Today, you called Colin Kaepernick “a son-of-a-bitch.”

You said he should be fired.

… The strong contrast in language for a black man and a Nazi is very telling. Do you have any sense of decency or shame in what you say to the American people that are part of your duty to serve respectfully with dignity, presidentially?

Our National Anthem has been edited to try not to offend, because when Francis Scott Key penned the song he watched freed slaves fighting for the British and wrote this stanza:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

I guess if I were a slave back then

 I probably would have done anything to obtain freedom from my American oppressors who were whipping, killing, raping, dismembering, hanging or releasing the dogs on people like me all under our Constitution.


… I served my country not in the military, but as 1 of 362 American Astronauts that have explored the universe to help advance our civilization. Not just Americans, but all humans. I also was briefly in the NFL and stood for the National Anthem with my hand over my heart. What makes us great is our differences and respecting that we are all created equally even if not always treated that way.

Looking back at our planet from space really helps one get a bigger perspective on how petty and divisive we can be. Donald Trump, maybe you should ask your good friend Mr. Putin to give you a ride on a Soyuz rocket to our International Space Station and see what it’s like to work together with people we used to fight against, where your life depends on it. See the world and get a greater sense of what it means to be part of the human race, we call it the Orbital Perspective.

Donald Trump, please know that you are supposed to be a unifier and a compassionate and empathetic leader. If you can’t do the job then please step down and let someone else try. I pray that you do the right thing.

May God bless you.


Leland Melvin
Former Astronaut and NFL Player

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Hot Spots

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July 17, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

That Sinking Feeling

Our celestial observatories do more than just look skyward; they are also used to stockpile valuable data about what is going on right here on our home planet. An important example of this is the project started in 1958 by Charles Keeling who began to measure the amount of CO2 in our air from the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. It was originally planned to run for only a year, but half a century later the project is still being run by his son Ralph, and the information produced is used to measure how human activity is affecting the planet. This knowledge has been employed many times by climate scientists who call it the “Keeling curve”, an uncomfortably rising line that we have not successfully leveled out despite the lowering of emissions in the last few decades.

Charles Keeling receives the National Science Medal from President Bush in 2001. Also in 2015, the The American Chemical Society designated the Keeling Curve as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

And now we may have the answer as to why we’re continuously chasing our tail. It seems that humans have nearly maxed out ‘carbon sinks’ – large areas of land and ocean that absorb huge amounts of CO2 as we pump it into the atmosphere. In the past, these carbon eaters helped keep the planet from warming as quickly as it otherwise could have, but now they are approaching capacity. Ralph Keeling explains that the sinks we have now can only suck up about half of greenhouse gases, the rest builds up in the atmosphere. In order to at least stop the toxic hemorrhaging, we would have to reduce our emissions by a drastic 50%, a number no country is anywhere near, and is far more radical that what is called for in the 2015 Paris climate change accord. As the sinks reach saturation we have to continue to lower our greenhouse gas belching to basically zero and then begin creating new carbon collectors to take out what we have already produced.

So for the past several decades, the full effects of our emissions have been kept somewhat in check, allowing many to disavow that the situation calls for urgent action because the data is not sufficient. But now some are sounding the alarm that our window of opportunity for avoiding the worst effects is closing fast.

Thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.

An open letter by six scientists and diplomats states that we have approximately three years before the worst effects of climate change take hold. They aren’t just Cassandra’s with no solutions however, they propose six goals to hit by 2020 to avert this catastrophe, but the whole world would have to adopt them. And this is of course at the time our current de-evolutionary administration has declared climate change is not on the agenda, and has freed the US from the burden of ensuring the Earth has a chance of supporting the existence of future generations. Unfortunately, by the time it’s no longer possible to deny the science on CO2 emissions and our part in them, it will be too late to update anyone’s agenda.


Spot On

“Sleepy Eye” by Tom Momary.

Detail of Great Red Spot by Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Last week, NASA’s state-of-the-art Juno probe in its most recent Jupiter flyby snapped the most detailed pix of the gas giant’s iconic Red Spot, displaying what the space agency calls “a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.” Stretching 10,159 miles wide (as of April 3, 2017), the famous Jovian “storm”  is 1.3 times as wide as Earth, and has been monitored since 1830. The magnificent maelstrom, which is believed to have lasted 350 years, appears in recent years to be shrinking. “For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.” As with other photos snapped by Juno, “citizen scientists” have been taking the available raw images and transforming them into glorious works of art. “I have been following the Juno mission since it launched,” said Jason Major, a JunoCam citizen scientist and a graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island. “It is always exciting to see these new raw images of Jupiter as they arrive. But it is even more thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate. That is what I live for.”

Skating on Thin Ice

In a CNN opinion piece written by John Sutter titled, “That huge iceberg should freak you out. Here’s why,” the author challenges the media blitzkrieg last week that scientists believe the trillion-ton runaway ice block that broke off of the Larsen C South Polar shelf has nothing to do with human-created climate change – a characterization which he calls at best misleading, and at worst, wrong. Among the five “takeaways” Sutter concludes after spending time discussing the Antarctic ice shelf calving with scientists is that we shouldn’t brush the event off as just a naturally-occurring event, with many researchers worried that their compatriots are failing to see the forest for the trees. “They’re looking at it through a microscope” rather than seeing macro trends, including the fact that oceans around Antarctica are warming, helping thin the ice,” Sutter quotes Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. Again, Sutter records the concerns of another leading researcher: “To me, it’s an unequivocal signature of the impact of climate change on Larsen C,” said Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine. “This is not a natural cycle. This is the response of the system to a warmer climate from the top and from the bottom. Nothing else can cause this.” Colleagues who say otherwise, added Rignot, are burying their heads “in the ice.” (To read Sutter’s full column, click here.)

Red Hot

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin kicked off a multi-year commemoration leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing in July 2019 with his own version of a star-studded gala as he raised $190,000 for his ShareSpace Foundation and rolled out the red carpet to hype his goal of landing humans on Mars by 2040. According to CBS News, Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham, Michael Collins and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt joined Aldrin  at the sold-out fete held under the shadow of a historic Saturn V rocket. “I like to think of myself as an innovative futurist,” Aldrin told a crowd of nearly 400 people in the Apollo/Saturn V Center. “The programs we have right now are eating up every piece of the budget and it has to be reduced if we’re ever going to get anywhere.” (Editors Note: Although, if NASA is forced to blitz its Earth observing programs, we may not have a place here to come from.) Aldrin’s Foundation also awarded Amazon.com and spaceflight company Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with the first Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award. “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system. What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive,” Bezos said. “I’m taking my Amazon lottery winnings and dedicating it to (reusable rockets). I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that.”

Also honored at the festivities was former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, who was bestowed with the Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneering Award. “When Buzz says, ‘Get your ass to Mars,’ it’s not just about the physical part of getting to Mars. It’s also about that commitment to doing something big and audacious,” Jemison told The Associated Press. “What we’re doing looking forward is making sure that we use our place at the table.”


Buzz Kill

There may be, however, no table to scoot up to, at least according to the gloomy assessment by a NASA official, who speaking at the recent propulsion symposium, admits that at current costs, the space agency doesn’t have the resources to “put boots on the face of Mars,” by 2030 as Vice President MIke Pence put it just as week or so ago. “I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier said on Wednesday during a propulsion meeting at the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

NASA’s Deep Space Habitat near the Moon would help test astronauts’ ability to withstand long-duration space missions.

That said, NASA is expecting to get more funds to focus on human exploration to the Red Planet, and, according to Gerstenmaier, returning to the Moon is still within the agency’s grasp. “If we find out there’s water on the Moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the Moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.”

Grab Bag

Other space-age collectables on the auction block this week include the Apollo 13 flight plan annotated by its crew, a spacesuit worn by U.S. astronaut Gus Grissom, and lunar photographs taken by NASA.

The tale of a long-lost sack used by Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong to collect lunar dust should be coming to an end this week when it is expected to be auctioned off for about $4 million along with other space memorabilia by Sotheby’s in New York City. The 12 by 8.5-inch bag tagged “Lunar Sample Return” disappeared for decades after the first Moon landing, and eventually turned up in the garage of a Kansas museum manager who was convicted in 2014 of pinching It. After the U.S. Marshals Service unsuccessfully put it up for auction three times, the satchel was bought in 2015 by a Chicago-area attorney Nancy Lee Carlson for $995. When she sent it to NASA for authentication, the space agency decided to keep it after discovering that it still had traces of moon dust inside. Carson successfully sued NASA’s butt, and the hoopla generated by her legal challenge brought several potential buyers out of the woodwork, so Carlson decided to have it auctioned again. Sotheby’s Cassandra Hatton told Reuters she was confident the bag would find a good home. “Just know that the kind of person that would pay money like this for this item is going to take excellent care of it,” she said. “Nothing is lost forever.”

Piece of the Pie

Moon Express’ proposed “Harves Moon” expedition to bring back lunar samples back to Earth.

One of the contestants looking to nab Google’s $20 million Lunar XPRIZE contest has revealed its long-term plans to mine the Moon and bring back samples by 2020. Last week, Florida-based startup Moon Express unveiled its ambitious two-phase proposal that will include 1) a 2019 “Lunar Outpost” mission that will establish a research station on the Moon’s south pole to search for ore as well as ice lurking in dark, chilly craters, and 2) “Harvest Moon” slated for a 2020 launch that will employ three robotic spacecraft to bring lunar rocks back to Earth to be available for scientific research as well as for collectors. Still, the private firm needs to get its MX-1E robotic lander off the ground and prove that it can get the craft to the lunar surface and perform the required hopping around and video taking by the December 2017 deadline so it can qualify for the XPRIZE gold ring. So far, however, the company’s “Lunar Scout” mission continues to face some roadblocks in that the experimental “Electron” rocket designed to launch the lander from New Zealand has in tests only reached sub-orbital space, and the MX-1E itself has yet to be completed. Other that that, if the firm can clear these hurdles, it will become the first private company to squish its toes on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Small Wonder

A team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge has boasted finding the smallest star yet measured, with a size just an ooch larger than Saturn,  and a gravitational pull about 300 times stronger than what’s felt on Earth. Part of a binary system, the newly-measured, fun-sized “EBLM J0555-57Ab” is about 600 light years away, and was discovered as it passed in front of its much more significant other, using a method usually employed to detect exoplanets.  “Our discovery reveals how small stars can be,” said Alexander Boetticher, the lead author of the team’s findings that will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.“Had this star formed with only a slightly lower mass, the fusion reaction of hydrogen in its core could not be sustained, and the star would instead have transformed into a brown dwarf,” he added. Such celestial mini-mes are of particular interest to scientists, since they are the best candidates for being the home of temperate Earth-sized, liquid-water containing planets such as those recently-found surrounding  the ultra-cool TRAPPIST-1 dwarf star.

Spot Check

Dubbed Active Region 12665, the recently-appearing sunspot area is the only one currently on the Sun’s surface. To give a sense of scale, the darker core on the right is bigger than Earth.

NASA scientists are monitoring a new, rapidly-growing dark patch on our Sun that is currently facing Earth. Spotted by the space agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the ominous  sunspot area, which is appearing at a relatively low ebb in solar activity, could create flares, which at a minimum can generate increased amounts of polar auroras to at worse possibly creating potential disruptions in communication satellites and electric power grids here at home.




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Land of Counterpane

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June 26, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Mayors and CEOs and Governors, Oh My!

How has the Divider-in-Chief managed to unite 3 state governor’s, 30 mayor’s, over 80 university presidents and more than 100 businesses? By putting ‘America First’ and not caring about the rest of the planet’s well being and reneging on our participation in the Paris Climate Accord! This is such an abysmal abandonment of America’s responsibility (after all, we are the second biggest contributor to CO2 levels in the world) that others in positions of relative power are ready to step in to fill the vacuum left by President Tyrannosaurus Rex.

So far this group has not created a moniker for itself, while former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is coordinating the effort, reports the New York Times. “We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” he said, adding that cities, states and corporations could achieve, or even surpass the pledge of the Obama administration. The United States is required to continue reporting its emissions for now, as a formal withdrawal cannot take place for several years (during which we had better figure out how to get the oil-backed greedy politicians out and the real human beings back in to our elected offices). Hopefully this is just the first of many more local and state level leaders to join this important move towards true ‘homeland security’ – an Earth with air we can breath and water we can drink!

And so while der Trumpenfuhrer has mastered branding himself (even while walking away from multiple business bankruptcies) he is going to find that ‘branding’ America as a standalone island becoming ‘great again’ all by itself is not going to work. Bankrupting an entire country’s reputation in the world is not something you can bail on and recover in a lifetime. Just like the manufacturing jobs that left, never to return (despite Trump’s PT Barnum promises to the contrary), America’s leadership role will slip away, allowing other more Earth-aware, science believing nations to fill the void. This is not something that a state such as California whose GDP is sixth in the world or Mayors who see the effect of climate change on their cities (Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Atlanta to name a few) want to happen.

According to the online resource SustainLane Government, Oakland, California is at the head of the class in meeting California’s mandate of 20 percent of electricity purchases to come from renewable origns by 2020. In fact, Oakland leads the US in green energy by drawing 17% of its electrical power from sources such as solar, geothermal and wind turbines.

In fact, most of the actual decisions that create climate action are made locally so if these actors remain committed to the Paris accord the goals can be reached, according to Bloomberg. For instance, the state of Washington, California, and New York, have adopted a cap on carbon pollution, invested in growing clean energy jobs and subsidizes electric vehicle purchases. Significantly, much of California’s booming economy is in the clean energy field and it risks losing out on this growing business sector to China if we follow President “Job Creator’s” lead and step away from being competitive in the world’s market.

California governor Jerry Brown discusses green technologies, innovation, and trade with Chinese President Xi.

And it isn’t just generous planet-hugging empathy that is motivating the CEO’s and Governors. These ‘American’ corporations do business all over the world, and if they piss off their overseas customers too much they risk losing enough business to put them out of the game. So while some corporations still have CEO’s on the ‘I can’t hear you unless you are singing my praises’ Presidential Advisory panels hoping against all apparent logic to make a difference, some, like Elon Musk, have called it a day and left. I can’t help but feel that this time around cutting loose the usual channels of power and talking with China (as California governor Jerry Brown did last week) is actually the more safe and sane approach. (If you had told me this in the seventies when we were just normalizing relations with China I would have thought you had lost your mind…but then haven’t we all these days, if only by reading the daily news!) – Elizabeth McMahon


Of Musk and Men

High tech tycoon Elon Musk unveiled his Red Planet survivalist manifesto last week, claiming that a million-person Martian urban center complete with ‘iron foundries and pizza joints’ could be achieved within 50 years, reports the Telegraph. According to the billionaire SpaceX impresario who published his Mars-civilization-for-dummies in the journal New Space, earthlings would need an escape rout from Earth to avoid a ‘Doomsday event’ and our ‘eventual extinction.’  “I think there are really two fundamental paths. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planetary species,” he said.

Musk estimates that the first wave of “colonists” could be sent to Mars in a decade, and explained that it would take between 40 and 100 years to transport enough people to populate a city on the Red Planet. Sounding more like an intergalactic Spring Break, rather than a perilous migration of humankind to another world, Musk describes the journey:

It has got to be really fun and exciting. It cannot feel cramped and boring. Therefore the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games. You can float around. There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time.

And once you get to Mars, the merriment doesn’t stop, says Musk. “It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37 per cent of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around.”

In addition to “iron foundries and pizza joints,” Musk envisions there will be methane plants on the Martian surface to provide fuel for rockets schlepping to and from Earth, a route he predicts will only take as few as 30 days (one way) in the future.

So, aside from the obvious questions like who/how will the million astro-squatters be selected, what they will breathe for air once they reach the Red Planet, and who will pull the short straw to build and work the foundries and methane plants, Musk’s dream of a Martian metropolis eerily reminds one of a cosmic groundhog day in which we tote our dirty laundry to the next unwrecked planet only to eventually slip on the same evolutionary banana peel that’s brought us to the edge of extinction here on Earth, thus truly becoming a multi-planetary species of wandering locusts dooming everything in its path.

It’s a Small World After All

In a less dumbed-down version of “stop the world, we want to get off,” famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently called for leading countries to unite in sending astronauts to the Moon by 2020 where they would complete a lunar base within 30 years, and also send humans to Mars by 2025, according to the BBC. Presenting his thoughts at the science and the arts Starmus Festival in Norway, the real-life Mr. Peabody communicated that he hoped such a shared endeavor would re-ignite a new sense of purpose for humanity as well as “unite competitive nations in a single goal, to face the common challenge for us all,” and “stimulate interest in other areas, such as astrophysics and cosmology.”

European Space Agency lunar base concept.

While not diminishing the need to also address Earth-bound crises such as a greenhouse gas apocalypse (unlike, he said, Donald Trump, “who may just have taken the most serious and wrong decision on climate change this world has seen.”), the renown physicist implored, “We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”

Star-Crossed Warriors

Believing the Pentagon is dragging its feet regarding America’s military readiness in space, key members of the US House Armed Services Committee have formally submitted proposed language to the National Defense Authorization Act calling for the creation of a dedicated “Space Corps,” by January 1, 2019 – a role traditionally held by the Air Force. “We are convinced that the Department of Defense is unable to take the measures necessary to address these challenges effectively and decisively, or even recognize the nature and scale of its problems,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee for Strategic Forces, and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), the subcommittee’s ranking member, in a joint statement. “Thus, Congress has to step in.”

The new Space Corps would be led by its own chief of staff, and would answer to the civilian secretary of the Air Force, who, interestingly, is pushing back on the proposed new military entity. Secretary Heather Wilson said on Wednesday that she opposes the Space Corps, complaining that “The Pentagon is complicated enough. We’re trying to simplify. This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart and cost more money.’ Congressional champions of the idea, who are pig-biting mad at Wilson’s cold shoulder, argue that the creation of a space fighting branch is essential in protecting America’s network of communications and navigation satellites from weapons developed by nations such as China or Russia.

Little Engines That Could

Prometheus engine concept.

Under a similar theme of cheap and recyclable rocket motors, the European Space Agency and Airbus Safran Launchers (to be renamed ArianeGroup on July1) inked a deal last week to cook up a low-cost, reusable liquid oxygen/methane rocket engine dubbed “Prometheus” to go online after 2030 that will be made with the use of 3D printers to keep costs dow to around $1.1 million, reports the New York Times. “The commercial market – at least the European one – is asking for reliability, on-time delivery and cost, and we have to find the best way to answer these market expectations,” Safran’s CEO, Alain Charmeau, told Reuters. Charmeau noted that in particular, the expected boom in driverless cars and their need to have data transmitted to them globally, will increase the demand for communications satellites – and therefore rockets to launch them.

 Goin’ Postal

The US Postal Service last week released a special stamp commemorating this August 21st’s total solar eclipse that will cut a 70-mile shadow through 14 states from South Carolina to Oregon. The collector’s dream features a pic taken by retired NASA astrophysicist and solar eclipse guru Fred Espenak, and boasts the first-ever use of thermochromic ink on a postage sticker, allowing the image to morph when the heat of a thumb or fingers presses the surface.  (The underlying thermal-triggered Moon image, transforms to the classic lunar occultation shot once the surface cools.) For fanciers who want to preserve the longevity of their philatelic gem, the USPS is selling a special envelope for a nominal fee. And for those who want to do more than just ogle at literally a postage-stamp sized version of this year’s astronomical event, click here for the best spots to view the celestial show.

F Goop

NASA last week tossed a penalty flag on claims that a miracle healing patch being hawked on Gwyneth Paltrow’s putridly pretentious “Goop” website is made with the same high tech wizardry employed to monitor astronauts’ health in space. Sold alongside such scientifically-sound products as vitamin supplements for women named “Balls in the Air,” and “The Mother Lode,”  the “Body Vibes” wearable stickers claimed to “promote healing” and to “rebalance” the body’s  “energy frequency” with the “same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals” via “bio-frequency” resonating with one’s “natural energy field.” So, before you can say, “Houston, we have a problem,” Gizmodo’s Rae Paoletta contacted space agency reps who reported that spacesuits “do not have any conductive carbon material lining.” In addition, a former chief NASA scientist, not surprisingly, added, “What a load of BS this is.” Goop on its part distanced itself from the fray, issuing the standard “we don’t formally endorse the advice and recommendations of overpriced crap that’s sold our our site” statement, while the Body Vibes dudes threw a company engineer and distributor under the bus, saying that it was all just a miscommunication between the two. According to Vox, the company, however, still stands by its wonder patch, saying that “the origins of the material do not [in] anyway impact the efficacy of our product.” Goop on the other hand has removed the controversial claims, awaiting further verification, and Gwyneth is, well you know the saying, “in space no one can hear you scream.”








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Blast into the Past

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June 5, 2017

By Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Editor’s Note: Please forgive our truncated issue this week as we continue to find our bearings following the loss of Kate Woods late last month. Many thanks for your patience! – Agnett Bonwitt

Orange is the New Stupid

Mission Accomplished: Donald Trump congratulates EPA Scott Pruitt for his assistance in the America First, Earth Last decision.

Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster! Donald Trump has officially placed planet Earth along side his cryptozoological menagerie of U.S. enemies following his baloney-fueled, fact-free Rose Garden speech last week in which he brashly declared that the second most polluting country in the world will ditch the multinational 2015 Paris Climate accord.

US to accompany Syria and Nicaragua as the three nations not part of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Accord.

In addition to widening the chasm of disapproval between him, the majority of Americans, and most of the world, Cheetohead-in-Chief’s “decision” also managed to alienate blue blood corporate CEOs, high-tech moguls, and even mega carbon-rich energy companies like ExxonMobil, who collectively believe the historic anti-climate change deal is actually good for America. Seems like the only ones now standing by the burnt-sienna Veruca Salt are his hard-core sycophants and followers, employees, and the cheering hyenas that make up the Billionaires Cabinet Club.

Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson.


Joining dozens of executives taking umbrage at Trump’s pronouncement, British gazillionaire and Virgin Galactic chief Richard Branson told CNN that “history will treat Trump incredibly unkindly for the message that he sent to the world,” adding that “It just makes so many of us literally want to cry when for some bizarre reason the president of America decides to make such a catastrophic decision.” Challenging the Trump’s claim that rejecting the Paris deal could save 2.7 million U.S. jobs, Branson countered that “Hundreds of thousands of jobs could have been created in the clean energy sector if he had given it his support.” (Also – fun fact – according to the New York Times, China is canceling plans to  build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, and, according to CBS, in turn will spend $361 billion on renewable energy by 2020 which it says should create 13 million new jobs.)

Space X’s Elon Musk (left)

Space X head Elon Musk finally reached the end of his rope and quit his position on two of Trump’s business advisory boards, tweeting, “Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”

Former Vice President Al Gore.

On the somewhat bright side of a loser loses all game, the world seems ready to treat Baby Man the only way one can deal with a narcissistic megalomaniac – that is by ignoring him. Former Vice President Al Gore on Sunday told CNN that while Trump’s decision to exit the Paris accord was a “reckless” choice that “undermines America’s standing in the world,” U.S. business leaders and governors will step up and reduce carbon emissions with or without our feckless leader. A newly recharged Barak Obama, who brokered the Paris deal, also chimed in as he shamed our chief executive and his cronies by basically explaining “we don’t need you”:

The nations that remain in the Paris agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created.  I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack.  But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.

And the list goes on with nations and people doubling down on their commitment to the success of what is one of the last best chances that life on this Earth can survive beyond this century. Even Pittsburgh, PA, which was used as an unwilling prop in last week’s “America first at all costs” overture, cried foul on Trump via its mayor Bill Peduto when he tweeted, “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

Hopefully the best of these intentions will garner fruition before it’s too late, and we see Donald Trump, instead of our home planet, forced down the garbage chute of history.

And finally, a salvo from original “Star Trek” alumni George Takei, who answered Trump’s question when the rest of the world will “start laughing at us as a country” for joining the nearly 200-member Paris accord:

Donald asks “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us?”

Literally, the moment you were elected.


Primordial Soup Mix

In what NASA is touting as a breakthrough in its search for past life on other planets, the agency announced last week that the Curiosity Mars Rover has provided an “unprecedented” amount of detail about conditions of an ancient lake that filled Gale Crater over three billion years ago in which different types of microbes could have existed simultaneously. “These were very different, co-existing environments in the same lake,” said Joel Hurowitz of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, lead scribe of a report of the findings published in the June 2 edition of the journal Science. Significantly, NASA’s Martian freebooter determined that the primordial basin was stratified much like what is found on our planet, allowing for oxygen-rich conditions to occur in shallow water and oxygen-deficient characteristics in deep parts. “This type of oxidant stratification is a common feature of lakes on Earth, and now we’ve found it on Mars,” said Hurowitz. “The diversity of environments in this Martian lake would have provided multiple opportunities for different types of microbes to survive, including those that thrive in oxidant-rich conditions, those that thrive in oxidant-poor conditions, and those that inhabit the interface between those settings.”

Visitors to a Small Planet

Robert Bigelow speaks with 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan. Bigelow Aerospace’s first inflatable human-rated habitat was launched last year, and his currently attached to the International Space Station.

On a recent 60-Minutes interview, Robert Bigelow, real estate tycoon and founder of the space habitat firm Bigelow Aerospace, threw a curve at reporter Lara Logan when he all but showed up for the segment wearing a tin foil hat and admitted that he believes that aliens have definitely visited Earth. Bigelow is such a true believer, in fact, that he admitted to dropping “millions and millions and millions” studying UFOs, and bragged that he probably has “spent more as an individual than anybody else in the United Sates has ever spent on this subject.” According to The Verge, Bigelow first caught the extraterrestrial bug when his grandparents had a close encounter outside Las Vegas. “It really sped up and came right into their face and filled up the entire windshield of the car,” he said, adding that “it took off at a right angle and shot off into the distance,” he explained.  Bigelow himself claims to have had run-ins with other worldly beings, but refused to divulge any details. (60 Minutes did confirm that the mogul receives UFO reports from the FAA via another company he owns, and has had an alien illustration splashed along the side of Bigelow Aerospace’s  headquarters in  Las Vegas.)

And finally, the Apartment King told Logan he wasn’t going to be ridiculed into backing down on his convictions that ETs are “right under our noses”:

Lara Logan: Is it risky for you to say in public that you believe in UFOs and aliens?

Robert Bigelow: I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.

Lara Logan: You don’t worry that some people will say, “Did you hear that guy, he sounds like he’s crazy”?

Robert Bigelow: I don’t care.

Lara Logan: Why not?

Robert Bigelow: It’s not gonna make a difference. It’s not gonna change reality of what I know.

Lara Logan: Do you imagine that in our space travels we will encounter other forms of intelligent life?

Robert Bigelow: You don’t have to go anywhere.

Lara Logan: You can find it here? Where exactly?

Robert Bigelow: It’s just like right under people’s noses. Oh my gosh. Wow.

Well, at least Bigelow doesn’t believe climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese.

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Too Big to Fail

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May 8, 2017

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

Fossil Fools

♪ The beat goes on.

It’s startling how diametrically different the mindsets are between politicians and scientists in this insane world. In just this last week, the world’s scientists have discovered a seemingly boundless galaxy cluster, named Abell 370, and then a solar system they are calling “a much younger version of our own,” again, in the backyard of our own Milky Way. Last week, NASA announced finding another exoplanet – a frigid ice-ball – a mere 13,000 light-years away.

Promising a rose garden from the Rose Garden.

Meanwhile back in fact-free land, Republican congressmen voted Thursday to literally kill poor, elderly and disabled Americans – so far the count is 24 million – with their new “health care bill” that repeals the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) and replaces it with nothing more than the old system of insurance companies denying anyone who is sick or gets sick, and charging those that get coverage exorbitant rates. The gall in calling it a health care bill is the zenith of Orwellian madness.  In France, Putin and his minions pulled the same stunts they did in our election with fake news stories, email thieving and leaking, and crafted terror attacks in order to get an avowed fascist, Marine Le Pen, elected. (Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that the French are smarter than we are and voted for the moderate!)

And on the environmental front, the schism between scientific thinking and cowardly political greed and stupidity is vividly aggravated. It will be daunting for me to list all the environmental crimes against this planet that have been committed by politicians in just the past 10 days, but I will try to name the most visible ones:

  • Global warming has melted the Arctic so severely that new shipping lanes have opened – which made it easy-peasy for Der Trumpenfuhrer to throw out Obama’s protections against oil exploration in the region and let the drilling begin.
  • The Planet-Killer-in-Chief, also in one of his copious Executive Orders, opened offshore drilling along the California coast and many other sensitive marine areas, including the Caribbean.
  • Scientists just announced that global warming has also made Quebec’s vast forests very vulnerable to mega-forest fires.
  • Scientists also warned that global warming will be responsible for a huge increase in air-flight turbulence since the jet-stream of air in flight paths is becoming super-heated.
  • Trump is still playing “she loves me, she loves me not” publicly on whether to decide if we will be in or out of the hard-fought 2015 Global Climate Accord between developed and developing nations made in Paris, while naturally, he has vowed to his idiot base that he will dump it. Environmentalists, indeed, the entire world, are hoping he pulls another about-face, as he has with so many other issues, and to that end Democrats – including CA governor Jerry Brown – have written the Moron-in-Chief a formal letter warning him of the existential dangers of scrapping the deal.

And then there’s Trump’s new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. Here we have a proven former lobbyist for filthy Big Energy (and many believe he is still working for the Big Oil/Fracking companies, while he is leading the EPA to oblivion), who actually sued the agency he is heading 14 times while he was Attorney General for Oklahoma (all this was illegal, but barely got a “meh” from Republican senators during his confirmation hearings). As a foreshadowing of the hell this crony-in-a-box plans to release, some two weeks ago he removed the “climate change” data page on the EPA website, angering environmentalists and scientists worldwide. Obviously, the incalculable harm and suffering this guy has the power (and intention) to inflict (including abolishing 56 EPA rules, dismantling the bipartisan chemical safety Lautenberg Act, and deep-sixing the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule) is breath-taking.

Late last month, Pruitt met with the National Mining Association’s executive committee members to personally request that the group write Trump to request that he withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

But here’s the latest: In a DC hearing on Wednesday, Pruitt was grilled by Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who asked him if he would recuse himself from his own ongoing lawsuits against the EPA, the agency he heads. He refused to say, other than he would rely on the advice of agency ethics lawyers. Huh?? Let’s not forget that Pruitt and his Political Action Committees were paid hundreds of thousands by Big Oil to push against drilling/fracking/spilling regulations while AG of Oklahoma.

“If you don’t agree to recuse yourself,” said Edward Markey (D-Mass.), “then you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on the cases you are bringing right now as attorney general of Oklahoma against the EPA.”

During the tense, packed hearing, protesters against Pruitt swarmed outside the chambers, and two managed to slip in: one was dressed as a BP technician carrying a fake can of oil, another as an oil-drenched seabird. The “BP technician” was removed by security after he yelled that Pruitt would gut the EPA.

Then there was the exchange Pruitt had with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).When Sanders asked Pruitt why the climate was changing, Pruitt said that his opinion was “immaterial.”

“Really?” Sanders countered. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?” (♪ crickets chirping.♫)

Getting any answers out of this turnip was like pulling donkey-teeth, apparently.

Yet as I write this, a tiny light appeared at the end of this blackest of tunnels. On late Friday night, The Hill announced that Pruitt has acceded to recuse himself from any of his own lawsuits against the EPA. What a guy! He will also not be involved in any cases challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule, the 2015 ozone pollution rule, the methane emissions limits for oil and natural gas, and more.

We applaud the decision. The next obvious question is, why in hell is he even at the EPA? But for the diligence of these democratic senators and the tireless protesters, Pruitt would at this moment be awarding millions of our dollars to the Big Oily and blowing up every environmental safeguard going back to Nixon. The Galactic Sandbox urges you, dear reader, to keep screaming at them, and in the meantime, contact your senators and representatives urging that the US remain in the Paris climate change pact, as well as sign this petition to defend the EPA. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large 


Sith Happens

Space X officially became a card-carrying member of the industrial military complex last week with the successful launch and orbital deployment of a hush-hush payload for the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO). According to TechCrunch, the mission, which was nearly scrubbed for a second time because of high winds, also included a controlled landing of the company’s Falcon-9 first stage booster on the LZ-1 pad at Cape Canaveral.  While the rocket’s generically-named “NROL-76” secret stash was classified, Space-X did provide blast-off footage as shown below:


While We Were Sleeping

Hazmat-donned technicians secure secrete X-37B space plane after landing on Sunday.

Speaking of dark missions, the US Air Force’s ultra-undercover space plane prototype returned to Earth Sunday at Cape Canaveral following a record two-year stint orbiting the globe, reports Reuters. The uncrewed X-37B craft – a quarter the size of the mothballed Space Shuttles – ended its fourth flight in orbit 700 days after it blasted off for space aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in May 2015. Air Force reps said the orbiter performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.” Of course the cost of the program is under wraps. The nonprofit Secure World Foundation that promotes the peaceful exploration of space believes the military is likely testing or evaluating intelligence-related hardware due to the clandestineness of the project.

Suicide Squad

Depiction of a Breakthrough Starshot microprobe arriving at an Earth-like planet in the  Proxima b star system 4.2 light years away. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Like bugs ker-splatting on a celestial windshield, Earth’s first messengers to an alien world may involve self-immolating nano sats crashing into a nearby exoplanet – at least that’s what the brainiacs at the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot initiative envision for their proposed fleet of tiny interstellar robotic craft that would buzz through the cosmos at 20 percent the speed of light. “I want 10 — at least 10 ships, not just one,” Harvard University astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov said last month at the annual Breakthrough Discuss conference at Stanford University, reports LiveScience. “So then, two of them I’ll point at the planet, straight into the planet, hit the planet and create a thermal event in the atmosphere,” added Sasselov. The remaining eight probes would “beam the data back, because you’ll get a lot better characterization of what’s in the atmosphere,” he said.

The postage-stamp-sized “starchip” would be laser-blasted from Earth tethered to a tiny sail, and at 20 percent the speed of light, would reach Pluto in three days and the nearest star in 20 years.

Philip Lubin, a physics professor at UC Santa Barbara, and the mastermind of Breakthrough Starshot’s planned lightning-speed, laser-propulsion system, curiously described how such a kamikazi mission would play out:

“Maybe you have a small mothership that sends out little daughters [and] drops them in the atmosphere,” Lubin said during the Stanford conference. “And then perhaps you could telemeter data back from the daughters to the mother saying, ‘I’m sacrificing myself for the good of science and humanity back home.’

Gee, even in interstellar space women have it tough.

One For The Dipper

NASA has cut a short movie comprised of images taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it swooped as close as 4,200 miles above Saturn late last month in a first of a series of encores before it plunges into the gas giant’s swirling cauldron of an atmosphere this September.  Imaging-editing magicians at the space agency stitched together one hour of observations as the venerable probe moved from the eye of the hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole down toward the equator. “I was surprised to see so many sharp edges along the hexagon’s outer boundary and the eye-wall of the polar vortex,” said Kunio Sayanagi, an associate of the Cassini team who helped produce the film. “Something must be keeping different latitudes from mixing to maintain those edges,” he added. And if you feel the quality of the photos are a little rough, just wait for the sequel, says Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini team member at Caltech. “The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings. We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 29 that we think will result in even better views.”

Young At Heart

Eridanus constellation

Scientists steering the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) have discovered a solar system remarkably like our own, only 10.5 light-years away but only one-fifth the age of ours.  It is named Epsilon Eridani, or “Eps Eri,” and it is located in the Southern Hemisphere of the Eridanus constellation.  Scientists have also found that the budding planetary arrangement not only has a star identical to our Sun, it also has a debris disk that’s still forming planets – one of which is very similar to our Jupiter.   The more we read about this latest SOFIA discovery, the more we are kind of creeped out… it’s like looking at a cloned Earth system in its infancy, wondering how much of our own history will be repeated.

Gas Guzzler

Researchers working with the Chandra X-Ray Space Telescope have just reported finding a colossal tidal wave of hot gas twice as big as the Milky Way galaxy, measuring 200,000 light years across.  That’s enough hot air to rival that coming from Washington DC!   The massive plasma tsunami, which scientists call a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, was found cruising through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster, and it is thought to have been caused by a smaller galactic array that passed by billions of years ago, which in turn churned up the gas in the Perseus cluster, and, well…it just kept kept growing, sort of like the Great Garbage Patch of plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean which is believed to be bigger than the state of Texas at this point, and won’t dissipate for many millions of years. The researchers plan to publish their findings in the June issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


Remember the days when they would show a “supercomputer” the size of an office floor (but at the time only had the computing power of a pocket beeper) on TV?  You don’t?  OK, so you’re younger than I or fearless editor Agnett Bonwitt.  But that’s the stuff you’d have to deal with if you want to win part of a $55,000 prize (a ton of dough in 1970s dollars) from NASA to update the speed – up to 10,000 times its current rate – of its old Pleiades supercomputer design software, written in ye olde Fortran code. The two categories that First and Second Place winners will compete in are ideation and architecture. Only U.S. Citizens can compete (since Fortran was written and created by the U.S. Government), and the deadline to enter is June 29, 5 pm Eastern Time.  Enter here and download the FUN3D link. Please, no punch cards!

Final Frontiers

This stunning pix of Abell 370 was taken as part of NASA’s Frontier Fields program that used 630 hours of Hubble observing time.

NASA”s unrivaled Hubble Space Telescope outdid itself again as it snapped a portrait of galaxy cluster Abell 370 with never-before seen clarity as the massive galactic neighborhood stares back at us 6 billion light years away.

According to the space agency, Abell 370’s ginormous gravitational clout warps spacetime around it, making background galaxies appear both distorted and magnified (seen as streaks and arcs in the photo). This phenomenon actually turns these clusters into natural telescopes providing a close-up peek of the distant galaxies behind the colossal cosmic assemblage, and a glimpse of how they looked in our Universe’s infancy just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Now that’s something to sing about.


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Tipping Points

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Rise of the No-Goodniks

NASA, we have a problem.

While Earth scientists and climatologists are ducking for cover over the incoming White House Administration’s threats to cut any science connected to “that global warming hoax,” there’s another space issue in this political quagmire that only those involved seem to know about.  And this one concerns our ability, as a nation, to get to Mars and beyond.

For years now, NASA has been working on a very BIG  project called the Space Launch System (SLS), the new generation of rocket that will enable us to go beyond the capabilities of Apollo’s Saturn V and take us to Mars.  Recent tests of the SLS boosters have been spectacularly successful.  But it has been hard-fought getting that far, namely because of the DC food fight over this program.  The SLS cost $19 billion in 2016 and is projected at $18 billion in 2017.  When it is ready to rumble, it will cost $500M to $700M for each launch.

Opponents of the SLS often refer to it as the “Senate” Launch System, since it is beloved  – despite its big-ticket price tag – by the old white shriveled guard of political conservatism that has gerrymandered its way to permanence in Washington.  These old white men entertain fond memories of dementia when it comes to the Apollo era, picturing themselves golfing on the Moon like Neil Armstrong in one-sixth the gravity of Earth, jumping up and down on the lunar surface, dog-piling in cosmic dust, clubbing socialists and tree-huggers in space, etc.

But the new, younger, political turks of space exploration embrace the daring entrepreneurial new-comers — Space X, Blue Origins, Sierra Nevada Corp.– as the capitalist saviors of our quest to reach the stars.  Some of them believe the SLS is already a white elephant.  The old demented white men that will make the ultimate decisions, however, are so accustomed to aerospace giants and longtime NASA rocket contractors like Lockheed and Boeing twisting their testes that they could hardly guess what life would be like without that oh so sweet pain.  They hate change…especially when it comes to someone else messing with their withered cajones.

And now we have to face the erratic Trump era, knowing that he loves over-sized ensconced corporations with Doomsday-machine appetites, like himself, but who also spouts reverence for entrepreneurial scrappers, unlike himself.  (No, he doesn’t have a single innovative cell in his walnut-brain.)

So as the goose-stepping Trump “transition” goons close in, they have created what they putridly call “landing teams” to encroach on NASA and other scientifically-oriented federal organizations, in order to get whoever is still standing in the department to “get their minds straight.”  These transition teamers’ lack of any basic scientific knowledge is, reportedly, horrifying to the scientists who didn’t get out of the buildings in time.

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, XKCD.

Meanwhile, as the Trump cabal tells us to pay no mind to that shirtless Czar behind the black curtain, and as our Stooge-in-Chief-elect and his sycophants jockey to drill and pillage the Arctic with the Russians, a more depressing reality is slapping the rest of us.  Rising ocean temperatures have now spawned deadly algae blooms off the west coast of the U.S., as seen from space, and our food-chain is becoming venomous for it.  This toxin is bio-accumulative – like methyl-mercury in acid mine drainage sites – and it builds up in seafood, such as clams, to lethal levels.  When humans ingest the tainted shellfish, it can cause seizures, memory loss, oh and in some cases death.  Thank You, Republicans!   (sung to the Van Halen tune, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”)

Beached coral.

And weirdly, we also just found out that a good kind of sea algae, called symbiot, is dying due to heated oceans.  A new report from Sputnik News tells us that the largest ocean reef in the Western Hemisphere is 70 percent dead because of the “bleaching” of the ancient coral animals that feed off the dying algae. The Sekiseishoko coral reef off of Japan now faces extinction, according to news that came out a few days ago when the Environmental Ministry of Japan published their findings. Thank You, Republicans!  (reprise)

What is the stand of Galactic Sandbox?  GS Publisher/Editor Agnett Bonwitt and I agree when it comes to space exploration: bringing massive pools of brainiacs together to resolve a scientific goal in a big project – be it government-backed or private – is a proven way of accomplishing beyond what we expect; and... when there is a need, the free market is king at inventing a viable solution.  Yeah, we want it all.  We want this country to invest in getting our hapless mortal coils off the crust of Earth as long as Republican lawgivers insist on sullying this sandbox with their lethal pollution – and then denying it! — and we want to encourage private companies to get in the act as well.

Even in this worst of times, Galactic Sandbox wants every federally-employed scientist of this nation to know: you are not alone.  We will not give up on you ever, and we support you.  Keep watching this space. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Eugene Cernan – Last Human to walk on the Moon passes January 16, 2017

After Apollo 17, America stopped looking towards the next horizon. The United States had become a space-faring nation, but threw it away. We have sacrificed space exploration for space exploitation, which is interesting but scarcely visionary. – Eugene Cernan (1934-2016)


Clockwork X

And now for the Big Deal of the Week! ( Old-timey Wurlitzer organ fanfare ) And … it’s NOT a big deal.  We don’t even know why we are reporting on this, when we all knew successful Falcon 9 rocket launches AND landings would be routine.  OK, so after the big fuel-explosion boo-boo on the Cape Canaveral launchpad last fall, Space X has once again soared to victory on Saturday with another fabulous Falcon 9 rocket liftoff, placing a 10-pack of Iriidium comsats into polar orbit, and then, 14 minutes later, landing the first stage on a garbage barge off the California coast.  Clappity clap clap clap  Sigh.

September 2016 explosion of Falcon-9 rocket on Cape Canaveral launchpad. SpaceX’s president has been deposed last week in a lawsuit filed by an employee fired in 2014 who warned company officials of potential safety issues.

On the other hand, the REAL news is that SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell (Yes, we are not making this name up) has been ordered by a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge to attend a deposition in the case of an ex-employee who was canned after blowing the whistle on managers for “allegedly pressuring technicians to ignore risks of explosions and approve tests of rocket parts”, according to The Daily Breeze. Former SpaceX’er Jason Blasdell, who worked as an avionics test technician at the company’s Hawthorne CA manufacturing plant from 2010 until his 2014 firing, says in his lawsuit filed last April that he received consistently positive performance reviews until he began noticing safety procedure issues that led him to question the risks these posed to not only the rockets but to human life as well. Despite presenting his concerns to Shotwell as well as founder Elon Musk and the company’s human resources department, Blasdell was eventually dismissed for being “disruptive” in his manner of following up with management regarding his original worries. Obviously, we can rush to judgement, however it wouldn’t surprise us if this isn’t the last we hear of this potentially “explosive” story.

That’s No Moon

Conspiracy Tin Foil Hatters are all atwitter over the new close-up snapshot the soon-to-be-crashed Cassini space probe just took of Saturn’s weird moon Mimas.  

The spooky Saturnian satellite looks like the Star Wars “death star” because of the seemingly perfect crown it sports on its side, which makes Mimas resemble the spherical headquarters of the villains of said movie.  Just so you know, it’s actually called the Herschel Crater, and the planet-mark was blown into that world by an asteroid who-knows-how-long ago.  As for the rest of the moon Mimas, it looks almost deader than our own.

Cosmic Reprieve

We have all heard about how the Voyager spacecraft (both of them) are still plugging away and zooming out toward interstellar space, how they are still sending back faint signals and how they will very likely be Earth’s first “messages in bottles” for any sticky-fingered extraterrestrial to grab and misinterpret.  The Hubble Scope has been observing the far-flung gizmos, and for those who would rather delay our announcement about existing in this galactic sandbox until we can at least boast a human with a brain as the leader of the U.S., things are looking up.   While the Voyagers are plowing 38,000 miles per hour through space, Voyager 2 won’t get out of the interstellar cloud surrounding the Sun’s total orbit – and we’re talking way past the icy, chunky Oort Cloud – for another several thousand years.  Pheeew.  Talk about mortifyingly close.

Reality Check

The Moon, scientists have just announced, is a lot older than we thought, saying it’s 4.51 billion years old, created just 60 million years after the solar system started forming.  The previous age of our lunar child, scientists believed until now, was 4.3 billion years, but that theory was blown to bits by a crew led by Melanie Barboni, a researcher in UCLA’s Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences Department, who had the “audacity” to come to a different conclusion after reexamining the Apollo moon rocks.  Barboni realized that the samples brought back to Earth were a jumble of relatively recent asteroid-hits themselves, so she instead studied the Moon’s mantel and overlying crust.  Well, as Agnett is babbling at me right now, it takes a woman to point out the obvious!  

Lest we forget, a Mars-sized planet called Theia ripped the young Earth a new one, yes, 4.51 billion years ago (as it stands now), and the debris it shot up from the Earth combined with Theia’s obliteration created the Moon.  Got it? 

Bursting Onto the Scene

Since 2007, astronomers have been flummoxed by a newly discovered galactic critter known as the Fast Radio Burst coming in from deep space.  Until now the origins of these bursts (only 18 have been detected) have been hard to pinpoint, until they found FRB 121101; it repeated!  So sharp-thinking Cornell astronomer Shami Chatterjee used the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in Socorro, NM, to lay a trap for this unique FRB and, after a decade of waiting, has pinpointed the neighborhood where it emanates from: a galaxy far far away, one in fact that is outside our Milky Way, 3 billion light-years from Earth, and one considered a “dwarf galaxy.”  Among the possibilities that cause FBRs, magnetars are good candidates.  They are very dense, bright neutron stars that have intense magnetic fields.  Or a spewing black hole could be the culprit.  Sorry folks.  None of these astronomers have mentioned the possibility of an advanced civilization trying to signal us.

Off the Beaten Path

The Jet Propulsion Lab just published a new cornucopia of incredible art posters for the public.  Obviously, this is a NASA project to get people mesmerized with the idea of living in a different world and supporting space exploration.  Guess what?  It’s working!  Especially for those of us who want to stop this Merry-Go-Round and get the hell off this planet, soon to be named “Trump Empire.”  Check out ALL the art pieces, created by visual futurist Carmen Moreno.

Double Whammy

NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory (in India) has captured a cosmic bonanza: it snapped a super-massive black hole colliding with an already colliding mass of galaxy clusters.  Yes, that’s plural.  This new image, along with data collected by the Very Large Array in New Mexico, has determined that the black hole under scrutiny started growing over billions of years before the Big Bang.  Don’t worry.  We’re scratching our heads too.

Keep on the Sunny Side

Finally, as we are acutely aware of the collective “malaise” that has shrouded our national psyche since the election, we would like to part on an upbeat note.  In late December, astronomers put together a gorgeous picture they call “Winter Wonderland” by fusing together images taken from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, with snapshots taken from 2004 through 2016.  It is actually the famous cloud of gas and dust, NGC 6357, known as the War and Peace Nebula.  (Humans who look at this nebula – a star cluster of young star clusters – think they see a human skull on one side of the nebula and a dove on the other. Whatever.)  But the resulting “art piece” called Winter Wonderland is truly astounding, full of wintry neon blue, purple and gold colors.  NGC 6357 is 5,500 light-years away from us, in the Scorpius Constellation.

Another zowy photo was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and we don’t really understand why it took a year for this photo to make it to the public.  Nonetheless it’s a stunner of Earth and our Moon taken from the Red Planet’s orbit.  The orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on board is the instrument that made this one possible.

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Do Not Feed the Ego Monster

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November 7, 2016

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

M a n  i n  t h e  M i r r o r

james-webb-space-telescopeAfter 20 years of arduous development,  the stupendous cutting-edge James Webb Space Telescope (JWT) is complete and on schedule for launch in 2018. And as the 2016 presidential election comes to an inglorious photo-finish pile-up tomorrow, we at Galactic Sandbox are crossing our fingers and toes, hoping that the next presidential administration will have the vision to allow this engineering marvel to widen the window of the cosmos for humankind.

Well, let’s be more specific …

While Donald Trump has not specifically mentioned the JWT in any of his pea-brained “space policy” statements during the past 18 months, if he were to become president, we would be certain no one would hear about the project ever again because it would be quietly cancelled and dismantled, with its 18 gold-plated mirrors installed in the screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-3-02-17-pmOval Office so the Pompadour-In-Chief can keep track of his tiny hands. (Trump did unveil a last-minute “space treatise” in what is most likely a cynical attempt to draw in swing state Florida voters)

In fact, we doubt that Trump even knows what a space telescope is or what it’s used for.  But praise be to The Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, if all goes well, this should be the last week any of us have to listen to any more toxic hyperbole or insanity coming from the mouth of whom we will charitably call a human being.

Now back to the good stuff.

james-webb-mirrorConsidered the successor to the Hubble Telescope, the JWT is the largest space scope ever built, sporting 18 massive gold-coated mirrors – a collection area five times bigger than the Hubble’s (check out 10 fab things about James Webb scope). And unlike Hubble, it will collect infrared light, which will enable it to cut through obscuring cosmic dust to see the first stars and galaxies ever born in this universe.  It also will be able to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, helping in the search for life outside of Earth.

The JWT is slated to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in October of 2018, and has cost $8.7 billion, a price well worth the wonders it will bring to light after it is placed at what’s called the Second LaGrange Point (or L2) – a million miles away from Earth, but still orbiting the Sun.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-3-12-08-pmOn Tuesday, after Hillary Clinton beats the unholy crap out of anti-science Trump (we hope), I know all of us here at the Galactic Sandbox will be breathing a sigh of relief… not just for the sake of our ears but for the sake of Big Science.  So if you haven’t voted by the time you read this, do so, and while we can’t tell you how to vote, ask yourself what kind of legacy you want to leave for future generations – a humanity with an ever-expanding universe at its gaze or a scorched, barren flat Earth?  Happy Election Week!

–  Kate Woods, Writer-at-Large and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Starshade – Thanks to xkcd, Randall Munroe.


Y e a r  o f  t h e  P i g

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-9-25-09-pmIn a rare moment of candor, top Chinese officials last week criticized Donald Trump’s threat that if elected president, he would “cancel” the United States’ role in the Paris Climate Agreement. “If Trump were to insist on doing things his own way, then he would pay a heavy price both politically and diplomatically,” said Zou Ji, deputy directory of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy, reports Reuters. “The U.S. would suffer the greatest harm and of course, the rest of the world would also be implicated.” he added as part of his comments made on Friday. Earlier last week, Xie Zhenhua, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration and China’s lead negotiator for the U.N. climate change conferences, also lectured the Republican presidential nominee saying that leaders “need to be in line with screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-9-28-27-pmglobal development trends,” and that a “country’s progress would be affected as a result,” As Galactic Sandbox readers know,  Trump wants to topple the apple cart of the meager progress made toward reversing climate change while Hilary Clinton promises to uphold our end of the Paris Agreement, and plans to bypass global-warming tin foil hat deniers in Congress to create new anti-climate change legislation. Fortunately, in the colossally embarrassing event Trump is elected, it would be difficult for him to back out since accord signatories had taken into consideration the U.S. political system and its built-in change of leadership when negotiating the deal. Also, the difficulty for a Trump president to disentangle the U.S. from the agreement has been additionally compounded since the historic Paris accord officially became international law on Friday.

H o m e  o f  t h e  G r a v e

In case you still have doubts about about a Clinton or Trump presidency, the pioneering environmental group Sierra Club recently released a new report stating that if elected president, Donald Trump would be the lone world leader who rejects the science of climate changescreen-shot-2016-11-05-at-1-09-37-am and that fossil fuel consumption is the primary cause. The finding puts an exclamation mark on most green organizations’ contention that Trump and the U.S. Republican Party stand as solitary luddites in the world on their shameful denial regarding global warming. “World leaders change, but Donald Trump’s total ignorance of science remains the same. Electing a climate science conspiracy theorist such as Trump would make America a global laughingstock and embarrassment, all while relinquishing our leadership role in the world, said Sierra Club’s national political director Khalid PItts, according to The Hill. “The ice caps don’t negotiate, and neither do rising seas,” he noted, adding that “Donald Trump’s moral failure to acknowledge the climate crisis might very well mean planetary disaster if he is elected.”

A d d i n g  F u e l  t o  t h e  F i r e

A NASA advisory committee has issued an additional stern warning to Elon Musk’s commercial Space X venture over its proposed unorthodox method of fueling future crewed rockets, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last Dscreen-shot-2016-11-05-at-6-35-59-pmecember, the space agency’s blue ribbon nixed Space X’s plan to pump rocket fuel with astronauts already strapped atop of the company’s space taxi –  a practice that goes against decades of international space launch policy. Obviously still concerned in light of last September’s spectacular unmanned Space X rocket explosion that occurred during a routine fueling exercise, the committee last week reiterated its disapproval of the enterprise’s novel approach of using a supercooled powerful propellant that requires to be burned within a half hour of being dispensed. So far, the only response by Space X is that the firm “has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimized the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” according to a company spokesman.

In a related development, Space X CEO Musk in a CNBC interview Saturday said he believes his firm has solved the riddle of the September 1 Falcon 9 blast, explaining that it was the “toughest puzzle” they ever had to solve. “It basically involves liquid helium, advanced carbon fiber composites, and solid oxygen … so cold that it actually enters [a] solid phase.” Musk is confident that launch activities will be able to resume next month.

E g g s t r a t e r r e s t r i a l

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-8-53-11-amNASA’s hyper-industrious Curiosity Mars rover has located and examined with laser precision a golf-ball-sized object on the Red Planet that it has identified as an iron-nickel meteorite. While such objects are a common class of space rocks found on Earth and Mars, this particular sample, dubbed “Egg Rock” for its odd ovate appearance, is the first time a rover has used a laser-firing spectrometer to test such metallic orbs. And predictably, this is not the first time UFO “experts” are claiming that the “egg” is proof of life outside our own planet. While we couldn’t find exact links, there are various news reports citing head spinning ET devotees waiting for the egg to “hatch” and New Agers proclaiming the discovery may signal an “imminent ascension.”  (whatever that means) Tin foil hats all around!

B a c k  i n  t h e  S a d d l e


Image of the sunlit part of Jupiter and its stormy atmosphere was recently compiled by “citizen scientist” Alex Mai using data from Juno’s JunoCam. Raw Juno images can be found here.

NASA’s state-of-the-art Jupiter probe is now out of safe mode, and has successfully completed a maneuver that will take it to its next close flyby of the Gas Giant. According to the space agency, mission controllers are still investigating the cause of a system “reboot” that put the craft in temporary hibernation on October 18th. Scientists are crossing their fingers for the next science swing-by slated for December 11, when a gaggle of instruments including the JunoCam imager, will be collecting data.

S e r v i n g  U p  H u m a n k i n d

still-hawkings-docDon’t be so eager to contact ET.  That’s what celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking reiterates in his  new half-hour documentary, called “Stephen Hawkings’ Favorite Places.”

The black hole guru warns humanity that aliens could be up to no good once they arrive at Earth, saying they could end up being “rapacious marauders” out to colonize and rape the resources of planets.  In this new project (and with the help of special effects), Hawking whips around in an imaginary spacecraft to witness the Big Bang, the hawkings-cosmossupermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, Saturn and its moons, and a potentially habitable planet scientists discovered called Gliese 832c.  Hawking says that someday we might receive a signal from Gliese 832c.  “But we should be wary of answering back,” he says.  “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”  No.  It sure didn’t.

O f  N o t e  T h i s  C o m i n g  W e e k

  • Largest Supermoon in 70 years on the evening of November 13-14
  • National Geographic Mars mini series premiers tonight, November 7.
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