Loud and Clear

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Under the Rainbow

As Donald Trump spouted his “America First” trade rhetoric to gatherings of gleefully unimpressed representatives of Asia-Pacific nations earlier this month, one could sense a not-so-subtle diminution of America’s mojo as leader of the global pack as China challenges our perennial alpha dog status. And while Trump closes his eyes, clicks his heels three times and recites, “There’s no place like home,” most of the rest of the world is racing to cooperate in an increasingly tech-connected and environmentally-marred world.

This paradigm shift includes humanity’s endeavors to understand and explore the cosmos, as a recent Atlantic article about China’s spanking-new, state-of-the-art, alien-searching radio telescope illustrates. The 1,650-foot-wide “Tianyan” dish, the first such instrument built specifically for eavesdropping on extraterrestrial civilizations (as well as possibly snooping on other countries’ military satellites), showcases China’s intellectual gusto and political will to jump into the unknown head first, while our own leaders abandoned the original SETI program a quarter of a century ago, declaring “the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.”

China’s ginormous “Tianyan” radio telescope dish located in Guizhou, the country’s most remote province. Despite lack of official U.S. funding, the scientific world is experiencing a SETI renaissance, with global players such as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner pouring $100 million of his own cash into a new SETI program led by scientists at UC Berkeley who perform more sky scans in a single day than what took years to do just a decade ago. Andrew Siemion, the leader of Milner’s SETI team, who has coordinated efforts in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (and now China), has called the Tianyan instrument the world’s most finely-tuned telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter.”

China’s cosmic bugging device also embodies that country’s transition from a focus on applied sciences such as building the world’s fastest supercomputer, to fundamental sciences that includes constructing an atom smasher that will “conjure thousands of ‘god particles’ out of the ether,'” making Cern’s Large Hadron Collider look like a technological has-been. And of course the “Celestial Kingdom” has it eyes on this century’s ultimate photo-op: landing astronauts on Mars.

So while our “Prosimian-in-chief” and his neo-Nazi buddies are busy channelling the status quo from a time when America wasn’t so great, others in the US chain of command are starting to panic a bit regarding our stature as a cosmic superpower. For instance, a couple of weeks ago Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast expressed concern that China is bearing down on our rear view mirror when it comes to leadership in space, at least militarily. “In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Kwast told CNBC. Kwast, who authored a recent study called “Fast Space” in which he stresses that public-private partnerships must be the nation’s focus, not an “an Air Force in space” is obviously also focused on national security matters.

China and Europe are looking to establish a lunar base without the cooperation of NASA.

Militaries will soon operate between the Earth and moon, said Kwast, adding that “China is working on building a ‘navy in space'” that would work even beyond Earth’s gravity. However, China is the not the prime threat that’s keeping him awake at night. North Korea, with its continued missile testing, is “a real problem,” Kwast warned, adding that “Right now, if North Korea were to launch a missile into space and detonate an electromagnetic pulse, it would take out our eyes in space.”

The problem facing Kwast, as well a host of other more grounded bureaucrats and policy experts, is that they are paddling upstream against the most scientifically-bereft administration in perhaps the past 80 years. And as anyone with a modicum of intelligence tries to deliver the message, “Donald, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” all they get back are the lumbering strains of “If I Only Had a Brain.”






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Don’t Hold Your Breadth

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October 9, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Moonrise Agendum

It’s finally official – or at least as conclusive as anything can be in Trumpland. Aftter months of hemming and hawing, the Trump administration, as articulated by Vice President Mike Pence at the first assembly of the newly-reconstituted National Space Council, announced its intention to boldly go where we’ve been before (and probably shouldn’t have left) and direct NASA to land humans on the Moon and sooner than later establish a continual occupancy on the lunar surface. The move is an about-face to former President Obama’s focus on Mars, and hearkens back to ex-chief George W Bush’s lunar priorities, as well as aligns with the focus of many other countries vying for lunar real estate..

“We will return NASA astronauts to the Moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation, we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said to a gaggle of representatives and press at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

While this move hardly comes a surprise, it does create a whiplash effect for the US space agency, which has been preparing to send humans to mars since 2010, and currently has no official plans for sending people to the Moon. Giving the old college try, NASA is expected to retool its deep-space transportation duo comprised of the Space Launch System and Orion crewed spacecraft to deliver the new lunar mandate. The space agency also is expected to forge partnerships with commercial space concerns to help shoulder the current priorities. In fact, a large part of last week’s Space Council fete concentrated on how NASA can buddy up with private space firms both for lunar and solar system exploration and for maintaining Earth-orbit operations.   “American companies are on the cutting edge of space technology, and they’re developing new rockets, spaceships, and satellites that will take us further into space faster than ever before,” Pence said. “By fostering much stronger partnerships between the federal government and the realm of industry, and bringing the full force of our national interests to bear, American leadership in space will be assured.”

Some feel, however, that NASA’s future is as cloudy as before, since much of Space Council meeting was big on talk and slim on concrete measures. Seems that the gathering was another opportunity for space industry leaders to hawk there wares and for Trump’s proxy to score political points, grandstanding that the days of America’s lost edge is space “are over,” without providing any real  follow-up.

Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Ultimately, with no new policies coming out the the Space Council summit, the US Congress will have the final say on how NASA’s money is spent. “With the upcoming budget process, we will look to solidify this work with our new goals in place,” NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot said in an overly-optimistic statement. For the time being, though, America’s leadership in space, as well as its road to the Moon, are still a no-go..
 Air Ball

Artist’s impression of the Moon with an atmosphere 3-4 billion years ago. At that time, the Moon was nearly 3 times closer to Earth than it is today and would have appeared nearly 3 times larger in the sky

While future lunar inhabitants won’t be taking long, unsuited constitutionals at the Sea of Tranquility, a recent paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters indicates that the ancient Moon 3 to 4 billion years ago actually had an atmosphere created when violent volcanic eruptions belched more gases than could escape into space. “This work dramatically changes our view of the Moon from an airless rocky body to one that used to be surrounded by an atmosphere more prevalent than that surrounding Mars today,” said David King of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). King, along with Debra H. Needham,of NASA Marshall Space Center calculated the amounts of gases that rose from the erupting lavas to form a transient lunar atmosphere that was the thickest around 3.5 billion years ago and lasted for about 70 million years before dissipating into space.

More relevant for today, says Needham, is that some of the water released during the eruptions may have found its way to the lunar poles and now exists as ice.This, according to the scientists, has important ramifications for future exploration, and in fact, the new analysis can quantify a source of frozen H2O in the shadowed polar regions suitable for sustained lunar missions, providing fuel and air for astronauts on the surface as well as for excursions beyond the Moon.

Flare for the Eccentric

Mystifying KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s star, is 1,500 light years from Earth.

Since two years ago when a team of astronomers led by Tabetha Boyajian revealed a mysterious, long-term dimming of star KIC 8462852 (now known as “Tabby’s star”) wild theories have swirled around cyberspace claiming that the puzzling observation is evidence of anything from a giant network of solar panels to a destroyed planet, and even proof of the existence of a highly-advanced alien “megastructure.” And not surprising, a new study published last week in the The Astrophysical Journal, advanced a more prosaic explanation for at least some of “Tabby’s” star’s weirdness, concluding that the dimming is caused by dust, which is more pronounced in ultraviolet light. “This pretty much rules out the alien megastructure theory, as that could not explain the wavelength-dependent dimming,” lead author Huan Meng of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We suspect, instead, there is a cloud of dust orbiting the star with a roughly 700-day orbital period.”

Artist illustration of Kepler telescope.

The new report, however, does not solve all of KIC 8462852’s enigmas. For example, it does not account for the short-term 20 percent brightness dips detected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. On top of that, a different study — spearheaded  by Joshua Simon of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California — just discovered that Tabby’s star experienced two brightening cylces over the past 11 years. “Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction — dimming,” Simon said in a statement. “The realization that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behavior.” Alien megastructures anyone?

Dishing the Dirt

Climate change scientists are starting to sweat a bit more following the release of data from a 26-year study showing that carbon released into the atmosphere by warmed soil is a greater contributor, and in fact an accelerator, of global greenhouse emissions than previously thought. Ominously, the report, published in the journal Science, indicates that 17% of carbon discharged from bacterial microbes in the earth is the direct result of heat, and with the planet topping temperature records each year, the process ultimately worsens climate transmutation by adding to the overloaded stockpile of human-caused carbon dioxide smothering us. And with more than 3,500 billion tons of carbon lurking under our feet, it’s hard to imagine how our current iteration of life on Earth will end well. According to Jerry Melillo of the U.S. Marine Biological Research Laboratory (one of the three research groups involved in the study), this self-reinforcing feedback loop with soils – once it starts – might be very difficult to turn off. “When we think about the current climate change, the soil wasn’t given any attention. It plays a significant role in climate change which cannot be ignored,” he added.

Hold  the Sugar

A senior astronomer from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute made splashy headlines last week following his semi-bold wager that he “bet everybody a cup of coffee that we’ll find intelligent life [outside the Earth] within 20 years.” Aside from generating more press for SETI since the release of the movie Contact 20 years ago (even the non-sciency publication Food and Wine picked it up), researcher Seth Shostak proceeded with some pretty boiler plate pablum during an interview with Futurism at the Worlds Fair in Nano, NY that was packed with snorers such as, “We may find microbial life – the kind you’d find in the corners of your bathtub. We many that a lot sooner, but that remains to the seen. But it’s gonna happen, I think, in your lifetime.” And when he says “find,” he doesn’t necessarily mean in your face, take-me-to-your-leader stuff.  “I don’t know about contact,” Shostak said. “I mean if they’re 500 light years away. . .you’ll hear a signal that’ll be 500 years old, and if you broadcast back ‘Hi we’re the Earthlings, how’re you doing?’ — it’ll be 1,000 years before you hear back from them. If you ever hear back from them. So, it’s not exactly contact, but at least you know they’re there.” So .. I guess that’s where the coffee bet comes in – to keep us awake while we continue to wait.


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As the Worlds Turn

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July 24, 2017

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

Hype Dreams

SpaceX CEO and uncharismatic Tony Stark action figure Elon Musk continues to kick his plans for a space-faring civilization down the information-overloaded corridors of public opinion, recently calling for a human outpost on the Moon. “To really get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” Musk told attendees of the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development (ISSR&D) conference held in Washington, D.C last week. “Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body, which would be the kind of moon base, and then getting people to Mars and beyond — that’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for,” the gazillionaire entrepreneur told NASA Space Station program manager Kirk Shireman, who interviewed him onstage at the conference.

Musk also said this September in Australia he plans to announce a tweaked version of his  Interplanetary Transport System designed to colonize Mars, and possibly lead to further human expansion on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s tantalizingly enigmatic satellite, Enceladus. According to Musk, the downsized ITS spaceship — originally designed to carry at least 100 people — will now be used in some profit-generating “Earth-orbit activity” to help make Mars colonization economically feasible, reports NBC News. “That’s one of the key elements in the new architecture,” Musk said. “It’s similar to what was [unveiled earlier this year] at IAC, but it’s a little bit smaller — still big. I think this one’s got a shot at being real on the economic front. You know, that’s the trick.”

The high-tech empresario also touted yet another of his ventures, The Boring Company, which he said could assist in Mars colonization by burrowing space-age catacombs to shield Red Planet pilgrims from high doses of radiation on the Martian surface. “You can build a tremendous amount underground with the right boring technology on Mars, so I do think there’s some overlap in that technology-development arena,” Musk said. However, unlike Earth-optimized tunneling juggernauts that weigh several tons, Martian counterparts would need to be featherweights by comparison. “The Earth ones are really heavy. Like, really heavy,” Musk said. “You’re not worried about weight for an Earth tunneling machine; actually, you want one that’s nice and heavy. But a Mars one, you’d have to redesign it to be superlight — that’s a tricky one — and then just take into account the different conditions on Mars and everything else.”

Faster than a speeding bullet, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop system would zip passengers on a cushion of air via subterranean vacuum-sealed tunnels.

Musk earlier this month claimed that The Boring Company had received verbal government approval to build an underground, supersonic hyperloop transportation system connecting New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. The New York to Washington, D.C. hyperloop, which Musk boasts will take 29 minutes to travel from city center to city center, will be built in parallel with the Los Angeles tunnel system announced in May.


Street Cred

Last week, Google maps officially linked Earth and the cosmos, publishing “Street View” images of the International Space Station. Taken by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet during his just-completed six-month stint aboard the ISS, the annotated photos were produced using DSLR cameras and other equipment already on the orbiting laboratory and then beamed down to Earth where they were “stitched together to create panoramic 360 degree imagery of the ISS,” said Pesquet. “The mission was the first time Street View imagery was captured beyond planet Earth … [and] provide additional information or fun facts like where we work out to stay physically fit, what kind of food we eat, and where we conduct scientific experiments,” Pesquet added in a Google blog posted last Thursday.


NASA’s eagle-eyed Hubble Space Telescope continues to amaze with a short string of photographs released by the space agency showing Mars’ tiny moon Phobos zipping around the Red Planet.  Apparently the football-shaped satellite photobombed Hubble’s portrait of Mars as it recently snapped a series of 13 separate pix over a 22-minute time period. The tiny, pockmarked Phobos, which measures just 16.5 miles by 13.5 miles by 11 miles making it one of the smallest moons in the solar system, appears as a small star in a short video NASA released last week produced from the multiple Hubble images.

Bidding Adieu

In a follow-up to last week’s “Grab Bag” item, the auctioned satchel used by astronaut Neil Armstrong to bring back the first lunar dust samples to Earth was sold to an anonymous winning bidder who snatched the historic item for the gavel price of $1.8 million — less than the anticipated $2-4 million reported last week. According to USA Today, Sotheby’s was still beaming about its space memorabilia sale marking the 48th anniversary of the first moonwalking mission, as it raked in $3.8 million from other items that sold way above their appraised values including the Apollo 13 Flight Plan that fetched $275,000, a $17,500 pic of man’s first look at the Earth from the Moon, and a Snoopy astronaut doll that went for a galactically-inflated price of $27,500.

Trillions and Trillions

Image of the Sun taken through the Earth in “neutrino light.” The most abundant substance in the universe, neutrinos interact so weakly that trillions pass through each of us every second.

Bigwigs from science and politics congregated deep underground at an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota last week for a stone-turning ceremony at the planned site of a gargantuan particle detector that will serve as part of the next grand physics experiment designed to determine the nature of the spooky, elusive neutrino. “We couldn’t be more excited to be actually starting construction,” says Mike Headley, head of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority in Lead, adding, We’re absolutely thrilled that [the project] is moving forward and about what it’s going to do for the U.S. scientifically,” Known as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF), the $1.5 billion project will fire neutrinos from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, to a the Lead detector 1300 kilometers away, and will help determine how different neutrino types morph into one another as well determine how slight asymmetries between neutrinos and antineutrinos caused the infant universe to form.

Can of Worms

A team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are giving a new meaning to the phrase “creepy crawler,” with a newly-created robot that expands exponentially as it slithers with the determination of a Terminator T1000 to accomplish its programmed mission. A recently-published article in Science Robotics introduces the grow worm concept that was conceived by the group lead by Elliot Hawkes, a roboticist at UCSB who was inspired by watching his English ivy plant grow around a corner seeking sunlight. Up until now most robot designers have used locomotion similar to humans or animals to move their machines; however the UCSB team’s “growbot” expands by using eversion powered by either pneumatic or hydraulic pressure basically turning inside out as the material coiled in it emits from its tip. The scientists believe self-propagation has advantages over typical locomotion such as the ability to maneuver in constrained spaces, widen, and become 3D. Until now, rudimentary cyborgs’ ability to extend had been constrained to only about 5 times their body length and it was done very slowly (centimeters per hour). Depending on the dimension of the coil and power of the pressure this new contraption can grow very quickly from inches to hundreds of feet at 22 miles per hour! Tests have shown that it can withstand surfaces covered with nails and glue, squeeze through small crevices, move around awkward angles, lift heavy weights, and still keep going. Cameras installed on the tip allow the operator to see what is happening, and maneuver it. It has been tested on several tasks so far, including pulling cable, spraying water on a fire, lifting a heavy crate, and generally going places that would be dangerous or un-accessible to humans. All sorts of practical applications from search and rescue emergency response, medical procedures to the more mundane construction and packing tasks, to more out-of-this world uses (see “Getting a Grip” below on a similar idea) could be made possible/easier by this type of device. For now it is constructed of easily procured, lightweight plastic but more robust materials are also being tested.

Getting a Grip

Underside view of proposed space trash “gripper.”

Engineers at Stanford University are working on a robotic “gripper” that would be used to help mop up the approximately 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting our planet at potentially destructive speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, reports Space Daily. Abandoning traditional terrestrial adhering materials that fail in extreme space environments as well as more invasive tactics that could ricochet debris into more dangerous trajectories, researchers are testing “gecko-inspired adhesives” as an “outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls,” says Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering and senior author of a study published in the June 27 issue of Science Robotics. The team has already performed tests aboard the International Space Station, and look to see how their concept works outside the craft. “We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects,” adds Aaron Parness of NASA JPL.

Russian designed Mayak satellite would use metallic reflectors to remove space junk circling the Earth.

In related news, Space Daily also reports that students at the Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering are cheering the launch earlier this month of a satellite they designed that will test aero-braking techniques used in removing space junk from Earth’s orbit.





Nothing to Hear Here

The red dwarf star in the nearby Ross system known as Ross 128 has been used as the setting for a few science fiction novels and even a video game from the 90’s, so when it was reported recently that there were some very odd and inexplicable radio signals coming from it, ET hunters went into speculative high gear. Alas for those persistent zealots, the truth, it seems, is probably much less fantastic and possibly downright snooze worthy. Abel Mendez, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory, suggested in a blog post this week they could be caused by: 1) solar flares from Ross 128; 2) emissions from another object in the field of view; or just 3) bursts from a high orbit satellite (sigh). But while these are good working interpretations, they are not watertight, so our faithful scientists will be looking and listening again to try to clarify which it is – or not. True believers can take heart in Mendez’s sign off that “In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.” Mendez jokes that he “has a pina colada ready to celebrate if the signals result to be astronomical in nature.” Amen to that!


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Gone With the Windbags

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September 28, 2015

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large

Even while the Times Square New Years Eve Ball drops toward Earth’s environmental Doomsday, Congressional Republicans aren’t even bothering to double-talk and whitewash their aversion to NASA’s earth monitoring space programs anymore.  They are outright voicing and voting their disdain for the health of our wheezing planet.

True to form, the Republican-heavy House Science, Space and TechnologyScreen shot 2015-09-27 at 3.33.43 PM Committee recently slashed $300 million from NASA’s Earth-science budget consisting mostly of weather and Earth-sensing satellites, in space.  Unfortunately, the GOP-laden committee, which has oversight on the EPA and NASA budgets, among others, is one of the few committees that Congressional peers actually heed.

NASA head administrator Charles Bolden, a former U.S. Marine Corps Major General and astronaut, indicated a controlled disgust in his response to the cuts: “NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.”

In a press event this week, committee head Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, aged 67,  gushed lovingly about space exploration.  He wants to be an astronaut!  Isn’t that special?

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 3.41.29 PM

Lamar Smith – If you don’t study climate change, it doesn’t exist.

When he was pinned down on his feelings about monitoring Earth’s changing environment, Smith finally blurted, “I don’t want to cut NASA, I don’t want to cut what we do in space, and that’s why I’m resisting the administration’s transferring funds from NASA to climate change! I want to keep NASA, NASA!”

In other words, don’t study it so you can continue to deny it.

It should also be noted that NASA’s written mission statement since the late 1950s includes exploring the environmental systems of our own planet for mankind’s welfare and to better understand our relation to the rest of the Universe.
Earth-science sat

Sadly, any proposal or satellite mission that might galvanize the overwhelming evidence proving the exponentially growing threat of global warming, or “climate change,” is program non grata now.  And whether climate change is caused by humans or is naturally cyclical, or both – it’s immaterial to them.  As far as these conservative, bought-out lawgivers are concerned, climate change doesn’t exist … especially since what they perceive as the  Earth-science Greenland“Muslim President Obama” pushed for Earth-science funding in NASA’s budget.  Whatever President Obama is for, they are against.  If Obama wanted them to not cut off their noses to spite their faces, they would snip their beaks off, pronto.

Not surprisingly,  Smith’s budding 2015-2016 re-election campaign has accrued, so far, $27,900 from a plethora of carbon-belching oil/fracking companies and $5,500 from lobbyists.

All Wet
Ironically, it just so happens NASA also announced this week that sea-level sea-level riserise due to global warming and Earth’s melting ice caps will eventually submerge Cape Canaveral and a myriad of NASA facilities into the oceans in as little as 35 years.

NASA’s Climate Adaptation Science Investigators (CASI) Working Group recently reported that the agency’s five coastal facilities can expect between five and 27 inches of sea-level rise by 2050. It also warned that the coastal flooding that usually occurs about once a decade in these areas will become more frequent. As for the San Francisco Bay/Ames Research Center area, it could become up to ten times more frequent.

In terms the GOP might understand, the future loss equals an estimated $32 BILLION and 60,000 jobs.  Maybe they’ll wipe the glee off their faces when they finally grasp what that means for their chances at re-election.

Cosmic College Bowl
HIAD heat shield Mars landerAnd while Congress also cut some funding for NASA’s Orion human mission to Mars – now bumped ahead to 2023 — the agency plans on using any resources they can scrounge.  NASA just put out a call to university and college science students to submit ideas for inflatable spacecraft heat shields for the Mars lander.  Students are to send in white papers by Nov. 15, after which NASA will divide those with winning concepts into three to five groups.  Each finalist team will be given $6,000 to develop their creations, and present their heat shields before a NASA panel at Langley in Hampton, Virginia, on April 16.

Go To the Head of the Class
ion space driveTrolling science students for their brains is proving to be a good move on NASA’s part.  University of Sydney PhD student Paddy Neumann recently came up with an ion space drive that blasts all of NASA’s fuel efficiency records to smithereens.

Like the rest of the world’s space agencies, NASA has been burning standard chemical propellants to move spacecraft since we started watching The Jetsons in the ‘60s.  Ion propulsion technology uses some of the same chemicals, but ionizes or electrically charges the gases.  We’re hoping Neumann’s findings will be applied to the Orion Mars Mission, yet we know that nuclear propellants are in the running.

NASA uses Xenon gas for its ion propulsion-driven craft, while Neumann uses a range of metals for his ion propulsion, including metal magnesium.  So far, Neumann’s system is way ahead of NASA’s in getting the biggest bang for the buck.

Wizards of Id
HI-SEAS IVAnother preparation for our Mars quest is the study of human psyches – including the abilities and limitations of our social graces – on extended space missions.  In a dejà-vu scenario of Biosphere 2, six scientists entered a self-contained (and much smaller) domed habitat on the slope of a dormant volcano in Hawaii on Aug. 23.  The mix of men and women will reside there, 8,000 feet above sea level, for a year, and whenever they step outside to gather rocks or fix a solar panel, they must wear the bulky spacesuits astronauts are expected to don on the surface of Mars.

The NASA-funded Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat (HI-SEAS) is 993 square feet on the ground floor where they will exercise, cook, and conduct experiments, with a smaller upstairs to contain their personal spaces and sleeping quarters.  A former shipping container attached to the dome serves as a workshop.  Let’s hope ball ping hammers are not allowed in the habitat.

Crackpot House
tin foil houseTin Foil Hatter of The Month:  And the award goes to … (drum role) …  Arthur Brown of Pennsylvania, who wrapped his suburban house in tin foil and shines ‘round-the-clock spotlights from his porch in order to thwart the imminent extraterrestrial alien invasion. (Rim shot!)

Let’s ask his neighbors how much they appreciate Brown as a foil guyteam-member of the community:  “Who wants to buy my house?”  said a frustrated Nancy Raich, who lives across the street from Brown.  “A nice decent house, garages, acreage in Hermitage, a nice place to live, when this yahoo across the street decides he wants to shine lights on me?”

It gets better.  Raich recently learned that Brown now believes she and her husband are secret liaisons for the aliens, out to “foil” Brown.  How dastardly.

A judge ordered Brown to take down the lights and pay a $500 daily fine.  Brown refuses to comply and has chalked up more than $20,000 in penalties for breaking local public disturbance and “eyesore” laws. At least the aliens haven’t attacked yet.


Edward Snowden

Lost in Translation
In the more credible pursuit of intelligent life outside the Earth, our signals sent to ET and our attempts to find a signal from them through the SETI program are getting screwed by high-tech encryption meddling, according to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.  The former National Security Agency employee is still living in asylum from U.S. prosecutors somewhere in Russia.

In a remotely podcasted StarTalk interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Snowden said that since tech companies and the NSA started encrypting communication signals, any message from ET would be indecipherable from background microwave radiation noise – and vice versa.  The only time signals were distinguishable and therefore, noticed, was in the early days of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence efforts, kicked off by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961 from West Bank, Virginia and continuing today at the Hat Creek installation in California.

It’s an interesting theory, considering the only and best candidate as a genuine signal from a distant planet, to date, is still the “Wow!” signal picked up in April, 1977, by SETI’s University of Ohio “Big Ear” radio telescope installation.

Snowden said humanity would not even realize it had received such communications today.

Always the optimist, a smiling deGrasse Tyson said to Snowden, “Only, if they have the same security problems as us.”

Monster Mash

black-hole-collisionTwo black holes are about to smash into each other in the constellation of Virgo, according to astronomers at Columbia University.  Their research concludes that a pulsating light emanated by the regurgitations of two black holes in the pulsar PG 1302-102 are indicating an imminent collision … about 100,000 years from now.  That is considered soon, in astronomical time.
Astronomers believe quasars, the brightest objects in the Universe, are powered by black holes.

This One’s Just Right
In more black hole news, scientists at NASA Goddard have discovered a third class black holenew class of these exotic light-gulping bodies.  Until now there were two kinds: stellar massive black holes about a dozen times the mass of our Sun, and supermassive black holes a million to several million times the size of our Sun (one of those big guys is looming at the center of the Milky Way right now,  and according to recent studies, is about to feed again on hapless nearby stars).

Now there’s a “mama bear” of black holes, a medium-sized one that is in the middle of the two others, about 5,000 times the mass of our Sun.

Galactic Sandbox readers will be treated soon* to a fascinating new world concerning these phenomena when we introduce “amateur” astronomer Tom Chargin and his absorbing new theories.  Believe me, this protégé of the late John Dobson is anything but amateur.  *Soon – in impatient human terms.  Seriously.

Basket Case
PongSatLaunch Alert!  A traditional Native American Indian basket will soon be launched to the edge of space.  I’m not kidding.  Young students of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians’ Noli Indian School of San Jacinto, Calif. are teaming up with JP Aerospace to blast-off the basket.  The students’ teacher, Kim Marcus, wove the basket by hand and gave it the name “Tukmal Tuupayum,” a Luiseno term meaning “Basket to symbolize connecting the Heavens and Earth.”

Accompanying the basket will be 70 ping-pong balls.  I wish I were yanking your chain, but alas, I am not.  The students’ experiment is called PongSat, and each student gets to load their ping-pong ball with whatever they want: magnets, a Lucky Charms marshmallow, candy, seeds. One student, Poe Pacheco, put two pennies and a corn seed in his.  When he plants the corn seed on the payload’s return, he predicts, “I think when the corn grows, it will be weird.”  Yeah.

The launch is slated for Oct. 4.  JP Aerospace uses a small sounding rocket and a platform called the “Tandem AirShip” balanced between two balloons.

Show Stopper

space junk 1

Ring around the collar – Orbiting junk belt poses galactic threat to future space missions.

This last story is about low-Earth orbit space junk.  Again.  But now it seems the problem has jumped to what experts are calling “critical density,” which means if the problem of orbiting trash isn’t solved soon, space exploration missions (like the Orion Mars Mission) to far points in deep space will have to be scrubbed.

NASA scientist Donald Kessler led the agency’s Orbital Debris Program Office for 20 years, and recently retired.  But since the problem has reached critical mass, he came out of retirement to help NASA come up with a plan.  We hope.
space junk 2

Some 200 miles above Earth there are currently half a million pieces of man-made space trash – nuts, bolts, paint chips, parts of satellites – flying at 17,500 mph.  An estimated 23,000 of these chunks are the size of softballs, or larger.  This is treacherous for the crew onboard the International Space Station, not to mention lethal for satellites and other craft in geosynchronous orbit as well.  The clogged belt around the Earth gets compounded when the space junk flies into each another, causing yet more pieces of space junk to join the garbage belt.

For decades we have heard how the problem gets worse and worse, but no one is stepping forward with a solution – like how about some kind of orbiting garbage trawler, a cow-catching scooper … anything, please!  Now, a gaggle of companies want to get in on what they call the “Space Situational Awareness” (SSA) game.  These firms expect to cash in on the object tracking market for space companies, but no, not actually invent a way to remove the trash.  Oh the humanity.


Galactic Sandbox Exclusive! Near-total through partial total Lunar Eclipse taken Sunday evening September 27 by Managing Editor Agnett Bonwit – Enjoy!

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