Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blue moon

Speaking of sealing people up in artificial environments, Rutgers recently held a Symposium on Lunar Settlements featuring talks from aerospace experts, former astronauts, lunar policy wonks, and even a space arcitect. (I never knew such a thing existed, but the University of Houston actually has an entire institute devoted to space architecture, called the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture.)

The presentation powerpoints are all available at the symposium Web site. Check out floorplans for the lunar colony in Larry Bell's presentation--they even include privacy screens. (Bell heads up the SICSA.)

But Brent Sherwood's presentation has the most telling title: "What will we actually do on the moon?" Sherwood offers a plan for "selling" the project to the general public--or, as he puts it, to "non-nerds."

And Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business—Camden, suggested that workers assigned to duty on a lunar colony would be vulnerable to depression and anxiety, which could run through a settlement like "social contagion."

Which brings us back to Biosphere 2: A reminder that we still may have something to learn from that "failed" first experiment out in the desert.

New lease on life

The University of Arizona, the new tenant of Biosphere 2, got a peach of a deal. According to local reports, the University will pay $100 a year to lease the structure and some of the surrounding buildings, and the rest of their bills will be covered by a $30 million grant from the Philecology Foundation.

The Philecology Foundation? I hadn't heard of it, either. But the man behind it is none other than Ed Bass, who hatched the Biosphere 2 project in the first place.

I'll admit, it's a little weird. But the foundation has committed to supporting research at the facility for at least three years. According to a university press release, research areas will include "global climate change, the fate of water and how energy travels through Earth's ecosystems."

Said UA Associate Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Travis E. Huxman, who will serve as director of "B2 Earthscience":

As a research facility, Biosphere 2 is unique in its spatial scale. The facility provides us a bridge between our small-scale, controlled, laboratory-based understandings of earth processes and experiments in field settings where we cannot control all environmental conditions. Biosphere 2's size allows us to do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale.

The Biosphere will continue to be open to public tours.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reprieve for Biosphere 2

Good news from the Arizona Daily Star: On Tuesday, the University of Arizona will be announcing a "major research initiative" to take place at Biosphere 2. The word is that the dome will be used for climate change research.

I was less optimistic on the future of the "luckless dome" in Friday's Visible Universe, and for once I'm happy to be proved wrong.

Radio Free Emory

Back in 1985, political scientists at Emory University wanted to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain. So they installed a 25-foot satellite dish at the top of a campus parking garage, wired up a TV and VCR in the stairwell, and tuned in to a Soviet TV feed from a satellite above Africa. For a few years, they watched and analyzed Soviet TV shows. One professor even got a book out of it: Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union.

But the dissolution of the USSR rendered the dish obsolete. It sat unused for years until the physics department got to thinking: why not turn it in to a radio telescope?

So they fixed up the structure, installed a new 21 cm receiver (21 cm is a hydorgen emission line useful for galactic mapping), and got "first light" in 2006.

Now Emory students can get hands-on experience observing with a radio telescope.

How's that for swords into plowshares?

Read more about the telescope at Emory's physics department site. Click on "View the dish show."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Underground Science

No, not secret science; just science below ground. The National Science Foundation is evaluating proposals for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), a subterranean lab that would, according to the official literature, study essentially everything: particle physics, astrophysics, biology, geoscience, and engineering.

One of the candidate lab sites is Colorado's Henderson Mine. Henderson had been in a heads-up competition with South Dakota's Homestake Mine for the project but, in 2006, the NSF reopened the selection process to include sites in Washington state and Minnesota.

Site visits are underway, so all the competitors are waiting to see whether this $300 million federal investment will be coming their way. Arguments in Henderson's favor: It's close to Denver and, because it is an active mine, it is supported by modern infrastructure. Getting the operations of a working mine to mesh with those of a research lab might be a challenge, but Henderson has the aesthetic edge: in a 2006 Newsday interview, one of the project's leaders, Chang Kee Jung, (Stony Brook) described visiting Henderson as jaw dropping, like "the first time you meet Angelina Jolie."

Hey, how'd he get to meet Angelina Jolie?

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Buyer's remorse?

I have a soft spot for Biosphere 2, where I spent half of my Junior year as a student in Columbia University's Universe Semester astronomy intensive. So it was bittersweet to see that Biosphere and the surrounding land have been picked up by CDO Ranching & Development. They plan to build 1,500 new homes and a resort on the land around the structure.
What about the Biosphere itself? Tens of thousands of visitors are still touring the facility every year, and the University of Arizona may be able to secure a lease that would allow scientists to continue using it as a research facility. It's not clear whether the cost of maintaining it is worth the scientific payoff, but the dome might yet be spared the axe.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dome sweet dome

Not to recap the whole New York Times, but Wednesday's Travel section featured this story on "astronomy villages"--housing developments created for and by amateur astronomers, where dark-sky rules are part of community code.

The first of these "planned communities" is thought to be the Chiefland Astronomy Village about three hours north of Tampa Bay. There's also Arizona Sky Village, which doubles as a birding haven.

Of course, if you care enough about dark skies you could always buy your own lot on some Arizona mountaintop and not have to fuss with an HOA. But as Dan Ford, a resident of Georgia's Deerlick Astronomy Village, told the New York Times, “It’s just not as much fun sitting out in the dark by yourself.”

Saturday, June 9, 2007

But can they predict the weather?

In a lovely essay in Tuesday's New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes:
If you are of a certain science fiction age, like me, you might have grown up with a vague notion of the evolution of the universe as a form of growing self-awareness: the universe coming to know itself, getting smarter and smarter, culminating in some grand understanding, commanding the power to engineer galaxies and redesign local spacetime.

This in contrast to Lawrence Krauss (Case Western) and Robert Scherrer's (Vanderbilt University) prediction that future astronomers will be "fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe."

In the way way future (100 billion years from now), they write, cosmic expansion will have scattered galaxies so diffusely that our sky will be bare of all but a handful of galaxies. Observers in the Milky Way will have no way of knowing that other galaxies exist, that the universe is expanding, or that there was ever a Big Bang.

Future astronomers will perceive the universe to be empty and static, and their conclusions about cosmology will most closely resemble ideas that reigned in the very early 20th century, before Edwin Hubble, before Penzias and Wilson, when it seemed perfectly plausible that our galaxy was the only galaxy; that the universe was just as it had always been and would always would be.

The moral, according to Krauss and Scherrer:
Thus, we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe!

Overbye offers a different take-away:
The lesson in the meantime is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we never will — a lesson that extends beyond astronomy.

If that's the case, one might where Krauss and Scherrer get off extrapolating the state of science 100 billion years into the future (when, incidentally, the Sun and all of today's stars will be long dead, our solar system a cosmic ghost town). But I would never begrudge two physicists their daydreams.

Like a record, baby

Last week, I mentioned that a rotating sphere will bulge out around its equator. Why? The answer has to do with centripetal acceleration--the linear momentum that tries to keep matter moving in a straight line, even when gravity has other ideas.

In this case, centripetal acceleration wants to fling matter off the planet, and the strength of the acceleration is related to how fast that matter is moving. That velocity maxes out at the equator.

So gravity and momentum come to a mathematical compromise: the Earth is a little fatter where it has its greatest linear velocity, at the equator.

Want to see the math? Of course you do! The ever-prolific Eric Weisstein has encyclopedized it here.

Springtime in the Universe

It seems all of Boston is being punished for my harsh words in Friday's column on the city's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't spring: it's been sour and rainy since the column ran.

So listen up, weather: I apologize. Spring here is lovely, really. I should not have been so ungrateful. Now can the Sun come back out, please?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Stellar privacy at risk?

So what if Google is zooming its lenses into every peep hole in America? Astronomers have come up with a good close-up, too: they've captured the first image of a relatively normal, hydrogen-burning star (other than our sun). And they discovered that it is fat.

So, taking pictures of stars seems like the kind of thing astronomers would have gotten around to by now. But it turns out that imaging the surface of a star is hard. Until now, only bloated-up red giants were big enough to appear as anything more than single points of light in astronomers' images.

The imaged star, Altair, is pretty close to Earth--it's only about 15 light years away--and it's a "rapid rotator," which gives it what one of those weight-loss drug ads might call "belly bulge." That is, it's a distorted sphere, wider around the equator than around the poles.

The team had to jump through some technical hoops to snap the shot: they used four infrared telescopes as an interferometer, getting better resolution than they could with a single telescope.

They hope to use the same technique to image other stars and even extrasolar planets.

Read the NSF press release here, or check out more technical information, including a PDF of the Science paper, at author John Monnier's site.

Or learn more about the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA), the telescope array that Monnier's team used.

Friday, June 1, 2007

NASA and the Mercury 13

Last week, I wrote about the Mercury 13--a group of women who aced the physical exams required to join the astronaut corps but who, it seems, never had a serious shot at spaceflight, thanks to 1960s mores that kept women out of the daredevils ranks of the test pilots who became NASA's first astronaut class.

James Oberg argues that the media miscast this story as a "secret NASA training program" when, in fact, it was a private side project run by a NASA doctor. Read his commentary here.

The Mercury 13 have their own web site with bios of "the ladies" and additional background reading.

And check out NASA's diplomatic take on the subject here.

Astronomy with all five senses

In my May 11 column, I referenced a bunch of people and organizations that are working to make astronomy a multi-sensory experience. Here are some of the sites I mentioned.

Touch the Universe: A Braille Book of Astronomy

Total Eclipse, SE Australia, 1976, sound sculpture by Bill Fontana

And my personal favorite: The edible space shuttle for vegetarians and a shuttle dog for omnivores.

Barack Obama, Mars and the idea of West

Barack Obama's family history may seem plucked from a cycle on the It's A Small World ride--his mother, born in Hawaii to a pair of restless Kansanans; his father, yo-yoing between America and his native Kenya--but it is just one more retelling of the classic American frontier story, argues Larissa MacFarquhar in a profile of the presidential hopeful for the New Yorker.

Of Obama's maternal grandfather, she writes,

After a few false stars and eloping with a restless girl, he did what men of his type iconically do: he moved west. He moved to California, then to Seattle, and then, finally to the last frontier, as far west as he could go without ending up east again, to Hawaii.

How did it all turn out? As Obama points out in his memoir, his grandfather ended up physically distant from Kansas but psychically just where he started. His traveled paid off only in chronic disappointment.

Writes MacFarquhar,

Innocence, freedom, individualism, mobility--the belief that you can leave a constricting or violent history behind and remake yourself in a new form of your choosing--all are part of the American dream of moving west....But this dream, to Obama, seems...a destructive craving for weightlessness.

Some would argue that our drive to go to space--to open the new west, the new frontier--is just the next natural step in our cultural restlessness, and that it will be a similar letdown: That once we get to Mars, the Moon, wherever, we'll find what Obama's grandfather found--we can change our surroundings, but we can't change ourselves.

I like to think that this isn't the case--that new places, new discoveries, and the process of exploration itself can be transformational. Whether this hunch is enough to justify sending humans out into the solar system--well, scientists and their administrators have always been hesitant to justify their work in such abstract terms. Stephen Hawking, the newest initiate into zero-G, argues that we need off-Earth colonies to ensure the survival of the species. Few others in the scientific establishment would take quite that tack--they'd point to technological spinoffs, economic benefits, international competitiveness, that sort of thing.

And as for Obama: One might ask whether, if it weren't for his family's history of restlessness, we would have ever arrived where he is today. Perhaps you need to experience motion to know the value of staying put.