Hell or High Water

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September 4, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Eclipsing Expectations

A handful of the Galactic Sandbox team and friends had the privilege to witness the total solar eclipse last month from a front-row perch in the Idaho Rockies. Below are a few photos of the experience, including an exclusive shot of the totality by filmmaker and photographer John Zibell who was with us (note, the planet Mercury can be seen at about 8 o’clock from the Sun/Moon), and partial eclipse pix taken by yours truly.

As we stood agog over the spectacularly silent celestial show, it wasn’t hard to understand how such an event has made an indelible impression on humanity for thousands of years, and how little we’ve scratched the surface of our wondrous universe. It was also hard not to think of how our dear friend Kate Woods would have loved to have been there — in a just cosmos, she should not only be in a place looking up to the stars, but looking out from them!  — Agnett Bonwitt

                                                    ECLIPSE REVIEW

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.

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Flooded Gates

While the human and economic toll from Hurricane Harvey continues to (rightfully) remain as a top concern for rescue and relief efforts as well as the focus of media attention, the general public may forget that NASA’s mission control is headquartered in besieged Houston. According to Space News, Johnson Space Center was drenched with 42 inches of rain last week, and through Labor Day is being manned by a skeleton crew to monitor International Space Station operations. In addition, the space agency’s next-generation, $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope that is scheduled to launch late next year, has been at JSC for testing and while the building it’s being housed at was flooded, the telescope fortunately remains unscathed.

Quick Editorial Aside: Obviously, the recent flooding – not only in the Gulf Coast, but also the catastrophic deluge which has left over a thousand dead and one third of Bangladesh under water – if not directly caused by climate change, does offer a chilling preview of things to come if Trump and his cronies continue to willfully and greedily turn their backs from the ability of humankind to survive a greenhouse gas-choked Earth.

Days of Future Past

As many US citizens continue to reel from the political, environmental, and cultural devastation that has reached a possible point of no return with the Trump administration, ultimately we can’t say that we weren’t warned of such an Orwellian scenario. Making the internet rounds lately is an excerpt from a 1996 Carl Sagan book, “The Demon Haunted World,”  in which Sagan paints an eerily familiar picture of our present time:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

Sagan also provides a warning that applies all too fittingly to our orange-tinted sociopath-in-chief: “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Celestial Sweepstakes

In July, Elon Musk’s Space X commercial space venture passed the $20 billion valuation mark.

Investors’ appetite for commercial space ventures continued to be ravenous in 2016, according to newly-compiled data from industry consulting group Bryce Space and Technology that reported a record-smashing $2.8 billion in more mainstream capital thrown at out-of-this-world projects last year – a $400 million increase since 2015. And while the SpaceXs and Blue Origins continue to be the darlings of the burgeoning sector, it is a new generation of small, relatively inexpensive satellites beaming terabytes of data to Earth that have venture capitalists drooling over the potential returns on everything from the satellites themselves, to software used to interpret their data, and from the new rockets designed to boost them into orbit. “Fundamentally, investors go after opportunity, and the way I would sum it up is, this is one of the last frontiers, to be a little cliché,” said Tom Barton, chief operating officer at Planet, whose 190 imaging birds grind out 7 terabytes of new Earth imagery each day. “It’s still old-school; it hasn’t really been touched by Moore’s Law,” Barton told CNBC.

In 2016, 114 investors poured more than $2.8 billion into space start-ups. Above satellite imagery produced by commercial space firm, Planet.

However, according to authors of the Bryce study, the industry has advanced to the point that investors are anxious to see a return on dollars, not just pie-in-the-sky dreams. “We’re not yet seeing the outcome of investment in a lot of funded companies,” said Bryce’s CEO Carissa Christensen. “We’re seeing their ability to raise money, we’re seeing their ability to design and deploy their systems, but we’re not seeing their ability to return profits,” she added. It’s also a make or break time for many start-ups which according to Planet’s Barton, could go bankrupt in the next few years. “As much as I say that we’re at the start of consolidation in the new space sector, I think we’re probably at the start of some of these companies going bankrupt,” Planet’s Barton says, adding, “I would guess that over the next two years we see five or 10 significant bankruptcies or acquisitions for pennies on the dollar for people that just aren’t going to make it on their own.”

Homecoming

US astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth last weekend from the International Space Station, breaking the record of cumulative days in space for any American or any woman worldwide. According to Phys.org, Whitson’s homecoming aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule at a desolate region of Kazakhstan early Sunday morning local time marked 665 days in orbit, with 288 days for her just-completed mission. As well as time marked in space, Whitson broke past a few other milestones: world’s oldest spacewoman, at age 57; the most experienced female spacewalker with 10; and the first woman to command the ISS twice.

Rock Stars

The largest asteroid in more than a century to cruise safely pass Earth reached within 4.4 million miles our planet on Friday as professional and amateur astronomers stampeded optical and radio telescopes to get a detailed glimpse of the mountain-sized space rock that last visited our neck of the solar system in 1890. Nicknamed “Florence” after nursing pioneer Florence Nightengale, the 3 mile-wide boulder provided scientists with a celestial living room view of an object we usually have to send multi-million dollar spacecraft to chase down and study. And in fact a team of researchers operating the humongous radar-equipped dishes at NASA’s Goldstone tracking station in California and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico took advantage of Florence’s lumbering speed and discovered that it has two moons, each estimated at 300 to 1000 feet across.

 

Asteroid 2012 TC4’s path past Earth.

In a related story, on October 12, researchers will have a rare opportunity to assess Earth’s “planetary defense” systems – or lack thereof – when a house-sized asteroid travels harmlessly by our planet at a distance of only an eighth of that between us and the Moon. “It’s damn close,” said Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany as he commented on the hair’s-breath 27,300 miles the wayfaring space rock dubbed 2012 TC4 will approach before continuing its path into the void of space. Observing TC4’s movements “is an excellent opportunity to test the international ability to detect and track near-Earth objects and assess our ability to respond together to a real asteroid threat,” said an ESA statement.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Sierra Nevada’s mini-me “Dream Chaser” space shuttle completed a “captive carry” test above the Mojave Desert in California at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, as part of  a significant step toward returning American-made civilian winged spacecraft to orbit by 2020. While the Colorado-based firm lost out to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronaut crews to the international space station, NASA approved Sierra Nevada’s development of a dwarfed, robotically-piloted spaceplane that will deliver supplies to the orbiting station. “Today was a great accomplishment on Sierra’s planned march towards doing that approach and landing test,” said Mike Lee of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is led from Kennedy Space Center, following the captive carry test. Their are at least two launches of the reusable Dream Chaser slated from Cape Canaveral atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

Relatedly, the Air Force’s fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission is slated for launch this Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and will carry an Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload that will study the long-durational exposure of experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in space, reports Space Daily. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community,” said Randy Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. The uncrewed X-37B space plane completed its fourth mission last May, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the total number of days off the Earth to 2,085.

Mixed Signals

Scientists are scratching their heads over the origin of 15 recently-recorded radio bursts from a galaxy 3 billion light years away that have ignited a barrage of sensational headlines speculating that the mysterious signals could have been produced by an alien civilization. A UC Berkeley-based team employing the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia caught the ancient radio beacons on August 26 and reported their initial findings as an Astronomer’s Telegram that can be read here.  The California researchers are part of the Breakthrough Listen project,  a global astronomical initiative launched in 2015 by Internet investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking to “observe nearby stars and galaxies for signatures of extraterrestrial technology.”

Untested Waters

According to recent Hubble Telescope findings, out of the 7 Earth-sized Trappist-1 planets located 40 light years away, the inner two worlds could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years, while the outer planets, including e, f and g which are in the habitable zone should have lost much less moisture, suggesting that they could have retained enough H2O for habitable life.

Another report that sent news outlets in a tin foil hat tizzy involve findings by an astronomy team using the Hubble Space Telescope suggesting that the outer Earth-sized planets orbiting the recently-discovered Trappist-1 solar system might still harbor substantial amounts of water, making them prime candidates for habitable life. Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier, lead researcher of the squad that studied the effects that ultraviolet rays from the Trappist dwarf star have on breaking up water vapor on its now famous seven planetary offspring, noted that information garnered by our our current scientific instruments is insufficient to draw final conclusions on how wet these planets are. “While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability,” Bourier said.

Clap Traps Tin Foil Hat Pusher Alert!

Over the past week or so, there has been an avalanche of news items covering the above puzzling radio bursts and Trappist-1 water stories that range from a mild ding to a full-blown, circus clown horn blast on our Tin Foil Hat meter, suggesting, and in some cases unabashedly asserting, that these inconclusive cosmic observations involve proof that alien civilizations exist. One of the more blatant offenders was the UK’s  Daily Star that laughingly proclaimed the following: 

As if this error-laced screamer weren’t bad enough, scattered throughout the actual “story” like IQ-reducing buckshot were unsubstantiated (and grammatically incorrect) claims such as  “Scientist find [sic] evidence aliens could have been living on Trappist for billions of yea [sic],” and “more than 40,000 Americans have taken out insurance against being abducted by aliens,” While all of this is neither surprising or new, it does show that  Carl Sagan’s prophesied “celebration of ignorance” continues to rage at a fevered pitch. Tin Foil Hats all around!

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

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July 2, 2017

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

Valhalla in the Sky

Ok, I’m definitely getting too old and cynical. For proof, I offer my response to what you would think should be happy, or at least interesting tidbit about a new ‘nation’ that will orbit Earth that its creators have named ‘Asgardia’ after Norse mythology’s city in the sky ruled by Odin and Frigg of Valhalla fame, or so they say. (Asgard also just happens to be an outer plane in the Dungeon’s and Dragons game, and the fictional extraterrestrial race in the Stargate series, but that doesn’t sound quite as good.) Still in its conceptual stage, the space-based nation will, according to its “founding fathers,”  mine asteroids and defend Earth from dangerous meteorites, space debris, solar flares, and I guess anything else incoming that is a bad idea. Well that’s just great! (Of course, it has to first defend ITSELF from these existential threats). It’s nowhere near an actual country yet, but listen to the nice things its originators also have in mind for this new Earth-orbiting ‘nation-in-a-can’: “Asgardia will be a space nation that is trans-ethnic, trans-national, trans-religious, ethical, peaceful entity trying to settle humanity in space.” Well who wouldn’t be a part of that! Space geeks and adventurers sign up now! This could be even more fun, and a good deal cheaper than Elon Musk’s planned adventures to colonize Mars (see June 26, 2017 Galactic Sandbox.) Our species has such a firm grasp on ethics and works together so well, what could possibly go wrong? (? strains of, “It’s Only a Paper Moon “?)

Igor Ashurbeyli

Right now mighty Asgardia exists as a nonprofit, non-governmental organization based out of Vienna, Austria, and currently largely funded by founding member Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian aerospace engineer and billionaire and led by Ram Jakhu, the director of McGill Unversity’s Institute of Air and Space Law. Well that sounds legit enough, however the next bits have me thinking more cynically. Hundreds of thousands of people (256,345 to be exact) have signed up to become citizens and vote on a constitution, which supposedly is going to be initially set up as a constitutional monarchy. (Wonder who they have in mind for the ‘monarch’ – some fun thoughts come to mind. Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, wanna be a space czar!?)

Photo submitted to be carried aboard Asgardia nanosat.

So, what are Asgardia officials planning first to literally get things off the ground? Launching a ‘nanosat’ the size of a loaf of bread with 512 GB of pre-loaded data that will proudly be the proto-nations “first presence” in space, carrying data uploaded by Asgardian citizens. Quoting Ashurbeyli such beamed material will be important things like “maybe the photo of your little cat or of your neighbor, of your mother, or a child – whatever comes to mind, this will be for as long as Asgardia exists. In other words, forever.” Really?! This little ‘nanosat nation’ is expected to crash through the atmosphere and burn up in 5 years, which is a bit shy of forever by my calculations. Oh, but before then they will re-upload your 300 KB of space (that’s less than one frame of a typical DVD video) on to their next little microsat. Great – how space Instagram of them. Just what we need, more space debris to hit the for-real, actually functioning International Space station with real international people on it.

One possible orbiting space city.

Ultimately, what this space-age social experiment IS, in my world-weary opinion, is a pretty nifty way to get a lot of people to give personal information to another Russian Oligarch. On the bright side, however, if we don’t destroy ourselves in the next hundred years, we will have Earth orbiting cities and probably colonize nearby planets too. And it WILL be great if we get there. But I just wonder why all these rich folks want to get off earth so badly? Do they know something we don’t?  If actions speak louder than words, then they are a good deal more worried about what is going on on this planet than they are saying. After all, nothing we are going to build will house the entire population of earth – nowhere near.

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Gone March

The inaugural mission of China’s new Long March-5 Y2 heavy-lift rocket carrying what the government called its heaviest satellite ever, failed yesterday sometime after launch, reports the Xinhua news agency.  According to Reuters, the Y2 is the same model slated to blast China’s lunar probe later this year that is designed to return with samples back to Earth, and at this time, it’s unclear how that mission’s timetable will be affected by Sunday’s failed flight.

An Entangled Web to Weave

While the US continues to be crippled from a leadership beholden to anti-science, Russian election meddling, and one large dollop of megalomaniacal, narcissistic paranoia, the Chinese are busy revolutionizing the way the internet is protected from hackers and spooks, while at the same time leap-frogging the rest of the world in a 21st Century space race. According to a report in Science, researchers at Hefei University have conducted a groundbreaking experiment by beaming proton twins from a satellite to two different ground-based stations 1200 kilometers apart without breaking their quantum entanglement property in which subatomic particles are linked even while being great distances apart. (Apparently this feat smashed the previous distance record by nearly tenfold.)

So what does this stunning achievement have to do with web security?  Well, these Chinese brainiacs plan – with the help of a fleet of specialized satellites -to use an encryption technique based on quantum communication to design super-secure internet networks. “In physics we are trying, and we have demonstrated some encryption techniques that rely on the law of physics rather than the mathematical complexity and we call this quantum key distribution,” professor Ping Koy Lam from the ANU’s Department of Quantum Science told news.com.au last year, before China launched its first “quantum” satellite in August. “For that to work you need to send laser beams that carry certain information, quantum information, and then you need the senders and the receivers to get together to find a protocol to secure the communication,” Lam continued, adding that “The reason it can’t be hacked is because the information carried in the quantum state of a particle cannot be measured or cloned without destroying the information itself.” So, while the 12-year-old in the White House (not Barron) continues to “make America great again,” China marches toward developing a quantum kryptonite lock for a future world wide web, leaving concerned and sane American citizens fruitlessly stuck in an alternative reality attempting to hack Donald Trump’s brain.

Asking for the Moon

Earth rise photo taken by Japan’s Kaguya lunar-orbiting spacecraft around 2007.

Japan is the latest nation to throw its hat into the lunar sweepstakes, announcing last week that its plans to land a human on the Moon by 2030. The mission, which was proposed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will constitute that country’s first crewed space concern beyond the International Space Station. A spokesperson for JAXA has said that the effort will be an international one due to the exorbitant costs of sending a Japanese rocket on a cislunar trajectory, and hopes to hitch a ride aboard another nation’s (possibly China) lunar excursion. The agency expects to unveil its proposed human-based Moon jaunt in time for the Japan’s International Space Exploration Forum in March 2018.

It Takes Two to Tango

Filled with gas and dust that block the light from stars forming inside as well as stars and galaxies located behind it, the Perseus molecular cloud, can only be explored via radio waves.

Was a twin of our sun responsible for slinging the dinosaur-killing asteroid into our Earth? It has long been suspected as such, but the long-sought ‘Nemesis’ star has never been found. We know that many stars have companions (our nearest sun neighbor, Alpha Centauri, is a triplet system) and astronomers have questioned if they were ‘born that way,’ were somehow captured, or split up later and become single stars. Now according to a new analysis of the Perseus molecular cloud (located about 600 light years from Earth and about 50 light years long) by a UC Berkeley Physicist and a radio astronomer from Harvard, most of the sun-like stars in the universe start out as twins.

A primitive binary system is located in the IC 348 region (lower right-hand corner or pic) of the Perseus molecular cloud and was included in the study by the Berkeley/Harvard team

This new assertion – the result of a radio survey of a giant molecular cloud filled with new stars in the Perseus constellation – is currently the only mathematical model that explains the observations has all the sun-like stars born with a companion. Co-author Steven Stahler, from UC Berkeley explains, “We ran a series of statistical models to see if we could account for the relative populations of young single stars and binaries of all separations in the Perseus molecular cloud, and the only model that could reproduce the data was one in which all stars form initially as wide binaries. These systems then either shrink or break apart within a million years [which is a blink-of-an-eye in universe time].” Wide, in this case means two stars that are more than 500 astronomical units apart, so any binary partner to our sun would have been 17 times farther than its distance is from Neptune today! So it seems that Nemesis most likely escaped and mixed with all the other stars in our region of the Milky Way, never to be identified as the trouble-maker it likely was.

Kepler and Company

The European Space Agency (ESA) is joining NASA’s Kepler observatory in seeking habitable planets with the planned launch in 2026 of a deep space observatory of its own. Green-lit last Tuesday, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) will be blasted 932,000 miles into space and use 26 onboard telescopes to monitor thousands of stars as it scans for planets in the ‘Goldilocks zone’, not so close to its star that water evaporates, but not so far away that it freezes. The scientists are hoping to answer questions like “How common are Earth-like planets” and “Is our solar system unusual or even unique?” And of course, the most important question of all for most of us, the possible detection of extra-terrestrial life! But of course there is no solar system close enough for us to reach unless we go all Star Trek and develop warp-drive space travel.

So far Kepler has provided a good head start, discovering 3,400 confirmed exoplanets, 30 of which seem to be in the habitable zone. Hubble and several dozen ground-based telescopes have also contributed to the search. So we can expect these numbers to go up dramatically with the addition of new ‘eyes’ in space.

We Still Want to Believe

Tin Foil Hatter Alert! Long-suffering Roswell UFO buffs received a much-needed shot of adrenaline recently after an extraterrestrial and paranormal “expert” claimed to have received “ultra top-secret” report with proof that the alleged 1947 alien spaceship crash actually happened. According to The ExpressHeather Wade, host of the  Midnight in the Desert  radio program, told her jazzed-up listeners that the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dossier obtained from an unnamed “trusted” source details how the UFO met terra firma on July 2 or 3, 1947 (hmm… exactly 70 years this week), and also describes how four decomposing alien bodies were discovered two miles from the New Mexico crash site.

According to Wade, the supposed government sources states that, “Aerial reconnaissance discovered that four small human-like beings had apparently ejected from the craft at some point before it exploded … All of the four alien crew members were dead and badly decomposed.” Wade has passed the documents on to Roswell believer and investigator Stanton Friedman, who also happens to be a nuclear physicist. Upon looking at the material, Friedman’s first reaction was, ‘I have never seen anything like this, this is new MJ [Majestic] 12 information.’ According to Wade’s website, Friedman will continue to scrutinize the records for authenticity, “but at the time we can find no evidence of forgery.”

Son of a Pizzagate

“CIA insider” Robert David Steele.

As if NASA doesn’t have enough on its plate to worry about, last week it was forced to deny the bats-in-the-belfry claim made by an Alex Jones/ InfoWars guest that for years children have been shanghaied and sent to Mars to be sex slaves. According to Robert David Steele, who was invited to speak about child trafficking on The Alex Jones Show (which airs on 118 radio stations nationwide), “there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride … once they get to Mars they have no alternative but to be slaves on the Mars colony.” And before

you could pick your jaw up from the floor and bestow Steele his Tin Foil Hat of the decade trophy, his story turned really bonkers, claiming the pirated children were not only being taken for space labor, but also murdered for their blood and bone marrow. “Pedophilia does not stop with sodomizing children,” explained Steele. “It goes straight into terrorizing them to adrenalize their blood and then murdering them. It also includes murdering them so that they can have their bone marrow harvested as well as body parts.” “This is the original growth hormone,” added Jones, who seemed nonplused by his guest’s bizarre theory, which dwarfs last year’s baseless Pizzagate tale (which Jones helped in hyping) that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was running a child sex ring under the basement of a D.C. pizza joint that in fact has no cellar.

When asked by The Daily Beast to comment on this galactic pile of horse pucky, NASA’s spokesperson for Mars exploration provided an awkward response as if he didn’t understand Steele’s fundamental charge (or the reporter’s question): “There are no humans on Mars. There are active rovers on Mars.There was a rumor going around last week that there weren’t. There are. But there are no humans.” Ultimately, the only thing worth noting regarding Steele’s fantasy is that the sort of person who would take a loopy leap of logic and take this smoldering piece of fiction seriously is none other than fake news crusader Donald Trump, who as recently as 2015 publicly complemented Alex Jones on his “amazing” reputation, and vowed not to let him down. At least we’re not expecting Elon Musk to start recruiting commandos to pick off Martian pedophiles and rescue the phantom kinder-chattel.

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Chip Off the Old Blockheads

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February 27, 2017

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

At Sixes and Sevens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven Card Studs

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

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

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

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Want to Get Away?

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd

Lost Their Way

Galileo GPS satellite.

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

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

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

Century City

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

Long Hauler

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

Falling To Pieces

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

Leveling the Playing Field

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

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

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

 

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