Awaiting Comet ISON…and hoping to avoid Space Junk

Did little ISON — fairly small as comets go — survive its daring-close passage by the sun. She’s already provided lots of valuable science. But will she also give us Earthers a fine eyeball-show in mid-December? As we bite our fingernails, awaiting the re-emergence of Comet ISON, I flip through my old doctoral thesis (on comets!)  Meanwhile, have a look at XKCD’s terrific cartoon about what comets actually think of the Sun. Folks who want a much more thorough and lovingly detailed (hard science fictional) look at these strange creatures might have a look at Heart of the Comet!

…and ponder how valuable it might be to become a truly spacefaring civilization.

I’m trying to help that happen!  By telling good stories set out there.  By serving on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC) – meeting in Silicon Valley in February…. and by helping some of the groups mentioned in my previous posting (about personal philanthropy and saving the world!)


…here’s a truly excellent editing of my interview about SETI and the Fermi Paradox distills the crucial matters into just over three minutes. Well done, Daily Galaxy.

== Litter the moon with personal spam? ==

The latest worrisome Space Fan Stunt — the Pocket Spacecraft: Mission to the Moon project lets individuals or groups buy an 80mm diameter, 50um thin disk with hybrid printed electronics bonded on its surface that can do primitive sensing and communications, all of it under a printed image of your grinning face(s). “Additional variations that may fly on the mission include a 34mm diameter Earth Scout, and up to four triangular 8M2 SmartSail Scout panels on the optional solar sail propulsion module.”  “Explorers who back the project can personalise their own spacecraft by adding a picture and customising the message it transmits using just their web browser.”

Why worrisome? Sounds like one more fun outgrowth of the very successful CubeSat program, right? In fact this is part of a trend I’m not particularly fond-of. For-profit groups exploiting space-fans by providing a vicarious — and scientifically meaningless — “participatory experience” that ultimately boils down to a kind of subsidized pollution.

SpaceJunkOkay. This once isn’t so bad.  So a hundred silly disks get scattered on the Moon’s surface.  Far worse are the idiots who have got their mitts on old radio tracking and communications dishes that were paid for with taxpayer funds and that are now obsolete and cheap to acquire… suddenly proclaiming that they will beam forth “messages to ET” on behalf of humanity, for a fee.  Either spitting Dorritos ads at Gliese 382, or else jumbles of thousands of “yoohoo shouts” from individual zealots who pay $20 per millisecond of ego-time aimed at a speck — a stupid stunt, whose small but real potential for endangering humanity the perpetrators blithely ignore. Compared to that, this lunar thing seems pretty harmless.

Still, it is a general phenomenon we should keep an eye on.  Right and left-wing nostalgia junkies aren’t the only kinds of suckers… I mean eager potential sources of revenue… out there, ready to plonk down cash for intangible participation in a delusion.  These “science stunts” show that even on the side of humanity that loves the future, there are still folks with far more zealotry than sense. But did I have to tell you that? Ever been to Comicon?  Ever talked to a Star Wars fanatic?  Enough said.

Oh, but let me add a coda:  here’s a FREE audio podcast of one of my coolest recent stories — “Mars Opposition” — in which (alas) folks like me who took part in an earlier stunt… harmlessly “signing” a Mars rover… get what we deserve!

== Cooler space news! ==

Space-News-3D“What are your best ideas for creating a NASA human spaceflight program that is sustainable over the next several decades?”

Me?  I like the plan to investigate asteroids by dragging small ones to near lunar orbit.  It hits the sweet spot of challenging yet do-able, exploring deep-space technologies and methods… while helping new companies investigate possible treasure troves of asteroidal resources.  Sure beats returning to the sterile and (currently) useless Moon!

In any case…China plans to launch the Chang’e 3 lunar probe on Monday — the first time China will attempt to soft-land on the moon, a feat accomplished, so far, only by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

U.N. officials announced plans to establish an International Asteroid Warning Group to intercept and divert dangerous asteroids.

Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope will begin peering just past some tight clusters of galaxies, using their gravitational lensing effect to attempt to spot objects ten times fainter or farther away than normally possible.

Kepler-K2NASA has outlined a new plan — K2 —  to resurrect the Kepler Planet hunting Probe — using solar pressure to stabilize the probe and restore its ability to reliably point toward at distant exoplanets.

NASA‘s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has made history using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps).  That’s a huge breakthrough.

Incredibly bright black hole  puzzles astronomers.

Researchers have confirmed a suspected dust ring in the orbit of Venus.

NASA contest — open to high school and college students — challenges teams to create the next-generation space buggy — a vehicle capable of exploring the surface of other worlds.

==Technology Snippets==

Could we store data for one million to one billion years, using a new storage medium based on tungsten and graphene oxide?  The chosen information carrier is a wafer consisting of tungsten encapsulated by silicon nitride. Tungsten was chosen because it can withstand extreme temperatures. A QR code is etched into the tungsten (see picture) and is protected by the nitride.

Amazing: nanoparticles, guided by synthetic DNA to self-assemble into large-scale composite materials.

What happens to the human brain when it slips into unconsciousness? “In terms of brain function, the difference between being conscious and unconscious is a bit like the difference between driving from Los Angeles to New York in a straight line versus having to cover the same route hopping on and off several buses that force you to take a ‘zig-zag’ route and stop in several places,” said lead study author Martin Monti, of UCLA describing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of this transition.

== And more… ==

A cute summary of Nobelist economist Paul Krugman’s theory of interstellar trade.

IDL TIFF file“A NASA spacecraft has revealed an unprecedented view of Saturn from space, showing the entire gas giant backlit by the sun with several of its moons and all but one of its rings, as Earth, Venus and Mars all appear as pinpricks light in the background.”

Both Mars rovers are now climbing features named after my friend, the great planetary scientist and former JPL head, the late Bruce Murray.  See images of “Murray Ridge.”

A film, Pale Blue Dot — takes the Kerbal Space Program quasi seriously! Only then it gets elegiacal and beautifully moving.

Ringworld-nivenA cool article about space megastructures contains embedded a nifty animated depiction of a Niven Ringworld.

Okay, them’s cool stuffs.

Now back to nail-biting.  Come on ISON.  You may be little, but you’re tough!


Final note: Assuming ISON survives: Skygazers can plan on seeing the comet come Dec 1. “It would be low in the sky early in the morning,…Each day it will go higher in the sky and be visible earlier in the morning, closer to midnight. By the 17th it will be up or around the Big Dipper and should be visible closer to midnight.”  (ABC NEWS)


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