Ice Ice Baby

Cassini has detected evidence of liquid water on Enceladus venting from its south pole. There's been speculation of cold geysers or possibly an ice volcano. This suggests that under the moon's surface ice lies liquid water. This is unexpected, Enceladus should be too cold for liquid water, but there's speculation of an ammonia/water mix that wouldn't freeze at such temperatures. There's also cracks in the ice that suggest at tectonic shifting in the ice.

And curiously the hottest spot on Enceladus is its south pole. This is something of a mystery. Poles as you would expect, usually tend to be the coldest places on a body. Eggheads are being scratched as to what's generating this heat. And to top it all off Cassini has also detected organic compounds. That doesn't necessarily add up to life but the possibilites are mindblowing if you're sufficiently geeky. It looks like Titan has some serious competition for the Saturn's Coolest Moon title.

The BBC has a layman friendly version of the story here. A member of the Cassini Imaging team gets his geek on about this on his blog. These high res images you're seeing here are new but the ice volcano theory has been around since last summer.

I'll have the planet of the day please

I imagine a lot of you have already checked out NASA's excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day website. If not I'd reccomend remedying that now. Now there's a fictional version, it's called Terranova: Planet of the Day. Each day this site hosts an image of a computer generated planet. The resolution isn't as good as the Hubble but you get to see terrestrial planets complete with greenery and pretty clouds.

Maybe in a few decades we'll be seeing websites with titles like Simulated Universe of the Day "Play god for only $29.95 all major credit cards accepted". If you can't wait that long you can try the excellent set of links at World Builder Projects. You won't find any resources there that will let you set fire to bushes in your own fully realized simulated universe but you can have some fun nonetheless.

Science Fiction Author Interviews

I compiled a list of links for those of you who want a talking science fiction heads fix.

Agony Column has an excellent interview archive
A video interview of Kim Stanley Robinson on Fast Forward
Paul Di Filippo interviewed on Small World
Ben Bova discusses near future spaceflight on American Antigravity
Octavia Butler interviewed on Dragon Page Cover to Cover and NPR
Wired for Books interviews Isaac Asimov
Listen to Douglas Adams on Shockwave
IT Conversations interviews Eileen Gunn
Three short interviews with Arthur C Clarke on the BBC
Hour 25 has a good interview archive

Shoving elephants out the airlock.

To round off Jose's debate with Charlie about whether or not we should be pursuing manned or unmanned expeditions in space I wanted to consider the incentives driving the push outward. During the first period of space exploration the incentive was that of national pride, of competition between the two sides during the cold war to get the first satellite in orbit, the first man in space, the first to walk on the moon. Science at this stage, the search for knowledge, was a marginal incentive at best. After the Apollo program became prohibitively expensive (and boring for the viewers at home) science began to provide the primary incentive; our desire for discovery and exploration, to find out what is up there, (and also to spy on what is down here) started to drive the space program, but it was always and will always be at the mercy of those who control the purse strings. The third set of incentives, which started with the first commercial telecommunications satellites and has continued with G.P.S.(Yes I know it was a military project at first, but it is one of the few that has repaid its initial investment) etc., was the commercial incentive; the desire to make money out of space, and it is this I would argue, which will drive the next phase in the space programme, the exploitation, rather than exploration, of space.

On the blog Joe Haldeman mentions that it is only when "cislunar space offers goods and services that can't be had more cheaply on Earth," that we will see the next phase in technological development, such as space elevators or their equivalents, thus allowing us to lift large masses cheaply and truly begin the manned exploration of the solar system. Well what type of goods and services can we expect space to offer us? On the services side the nascent space tourism industry provides an incentive for research into manned space flight. There are an awful lot of jaded billionaires and multi millionaires out there who will gladly pay for the chance to see the curvature of the earth and while this will undoubtedly be a minority pursuit for quite some time, the need to make money out of such ventures will help guard against the traditional bureaucratic excesses and wastages of which NASA is famously guilty. While scientists may shudder at the thought of the ISS being used as a glorified hotel for the hyper rich, if we are honest is it currently being used for anything more worthwhile?

The question of goods however is a tricky one. There has been much speculation over the years about whether or not zero G manufacturies might be able to produce goods that are simply impossible to make on earth, such as novel drugs or crystals whose molecular structure requires a freefall environment. While this is perfectly possible, the thought that these could be produced in large enough quantities to justify the time and expense of setting up such manufacturies and providing them with raw materials from earth is rather dubious at the moment. So what are we left with? The debate about where to go next has tended to focus on the nearest planets, the Moon and Mars, and while the moon's gravitational well doesn't pose too much of a problem to a returning expedition, Mars's does, not to mention the time it would take to get there and back.

Why not first explore and exploit Near Earth Asteroid's (NEA's)? These are resources that are easy to get to, easy to return from, and which potentially contain extremely valuable resources. In addition if a space elevator were ever to be built, the logical thing to do would be to grab an NEA, move it into earth orbit, and then spin out the elevator from it. While this process was ongoing the asteroid could be mined, used as a space station and base for instruments and telescopes, and could be studied, telling us a lot about the formation of the solar system. The key here is bootstrapping, finding ways to make each step along the path towards the ultimate goal of man's colonization of the solar system as profitable, or at least less unprofitable, as is possible. The desire for knowledge about our solar system or national pride will only take us so far, and as long as the desire for knowledge or national pride, is what drives the space program, it will always be a political football, kicked hither and yon by the powers that be. But as soon as someone finds a way to make money out of space, and especially out of manned space exploration, then we will see a massive acceleration in the rate of technological progress and the scientific discoveries that go along with it.
Perhaps therefore instead of asking whether we should invest in manned or unmanned space exploration at the moment perhaps a better question is, what is the best way of making money out of space? If we concentrate our investment in those areas, providing seed money and incentives such as the X-Prize, to those who think they can make a profit from the void, then perhaps we can accelerate the current glacial progress of technological progress when it comes to launchers and finally move beyond von Braun to something a little more efficient.

While the desire to make a fast buck may not be as noble a motive as the desire to expand the sphere of human knowledge, we should not forget that the history of exploration and colonization here on Earth is the history of mercantilism and exploitation, albeit often with savage consequences for those who have been exploited. At least in space we shouldn't have that problem. Manned and unmanned space exploration go together, hand in glove, and we shouldn't rule out one in favour of the other. The real question is what is the most efficient way of getting out there, and the answer to that is to take the project out of the hands of the bean counters, bureaucrats and politicians and into the hands of those driven by that most basic of human desires, greed. While businessmen and corporations may not be paragons of human virtue, at least they have a tendency to get things done, because if they fail they cannot hide behind walls of bureaucracy and political manoeuvring, instead they go bust, and the technology and patents they have developed are snapped up by their competitors to be used again, rather than disappearing into the governments' archives, never to be seen again. We will get out there someday, but as long as the space program is a slave to the whims of government, of national expediency, of the military, and indeed of science, it will be a long, long road with many switchbacks, reversals and pauses, and I for one could do with rather less white elephants sitting in the middle of the road.
Here are a few slightly less carcinogenic gift ideas, for those of you frustrated in your desire to purchase a spinthariscope or some uranium glass marbles by inconveniently not living in the US, how about a mysterious snail ball (watch the video) or indeed any of the many unusual items available at the Grand Illusions shop. Other good places to invest hard earned cash in interesting and useless stuff include, the place to go for model Stirling Engines, levitating solar motors, and my personal favourite, tiny radio controlled aircraft. Just a shame that the worlds smallest radio controlled helicopter isn't in production...

Would you like some anti-radiation pills with that?

United Nuclear sells a variety of weird and wonderful substances via mail order. There's several items you'd be crazy to purchase like dinner plates which they describe as "pretty damn radioactive" but also lots of fun stuff like lasers and supermagnets. Some of their merchandise is so much fun its about to be made illegal so get your order for uranium glass in now.

The disclaimers alone are worth a visit.


The timing could not have been worse. While the United States suffered repeated pounding by hurricanes, on 19th September 2005 NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin announced the details of President Bush’s plan to return human explorers to Earth’s moon and go on to Mars.
The plan begins by phasing out the Shuttle. Space Station support will be offloaded to commercial launchers, encouraging a new industry delivering bulk cargo to orbit. The savings allow a giant rocket to be cobbled together out of Shuttle parts, which will launch a lunar lander and transfer stage into orbit. Then, a single Shuttle solid rocket booster will orbit a scaled-up Apollo capsule called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which docks with the lander. The transfer stage will send both toward Earth’s moon.
Dr. Griffin chose not to use existing commercial rockets, which would have saved money up-front and allowed earlier lunar missions. Instead, NASA will spend some $10 billion on the new heavy rocket to make lunar flights easier, and to prepare for Mars expeditions, before sending a single astronaut to Earth’s moon.
Building new rockets may prove a political mistake. Significant budget increases for NASA were improbable even before war and hurricanes. Conversely, latent political support for human spaceflight remains strong in Congress and the Senate, even after the loss of two Shuttle orbiters and fourteen astronauts. Major cuts remain possible, but a wholesale withdrawal from human spaceflight is unlikely, especially as China and other nations enter the field.
Dr. Griffin’s conservative plan may live close to within NASA’s current budget and it breaks little new ground at first, yet it still costs an estimated $104 billion over thirteen years. Why not give up on human spaceflight and send robots?
In his seminal history of the Soviet lunar effort, “Challenge to Apollo”, Asif A. Siddiqi attempts to compare the cost and scientific value of the large, carefully-selected samples collected during the first two Apollo landings, with those returned by the Soviet Luna robots of the same era. It is difficult to directly compare the two programs, he argued, but the robot effort was far lessscientifically productive and it is not clear it was more cost effective. Likewise, the Mars Exploration Rovers are one of the great achievements of our time. However, no rover will rule out life on Mars, locate and map the widespread distribution of any micro-fossils, or accurately date the fine stratigraphy of volcanic flows and flooding over wide areas. Answering these kinds of detailed questions requires on site geologists.
In this light, Dr. Griffin’s “Apollo redux” makes sense. An initial one week lunar stay will quickly escalate to repeated six month Lewis and Clark style expeditions. Geologists will do detailed traverses, while astronauts practice“living off the land” mining oxygen from lunar soil. The giant rocket sets the stage for the future.
To truly understand the accessible worlds of our Solar System, scientists on site are essential. If there is a way forward, Dr. Griffin’s back-to-basics, relatively affordable, and results-oriented plan is it.

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco.

This article originaly appeared in British magazine Astronomy Now and is used with permission of the author. Thanks Donald for contributing this to our manned vs unmanned debate.

Brain Parade

It's raining red on this parade

These little red things rained down on Kerbala India in 2001. Are they extra terrestrial in origin? Are they alive? Are they reproducing? Some people seem to think so. You can read an abstract going into more detail here. The first paper (unpublished) can be found here and another with some bold claims here. Further tests are being performed over the next few weeks that will hopefully settle this question. But why wait for tommorrow when we can speculate today?

As one to the main proponents of panspermia I think the claims made by Louis are very interesting. Evidence for panspermia - the theory that life is a cosmic phenomenom and was introduced by comets - has grown consderably in the past few years. It is now thought highly plausible that life on Earth came from comets. If so the process of comets bringing microbial life must continue even to the present day. Whether the red rain is evidence for this is left to be seen. We are fortunate in Cardiff University to have been given an opportunity to study a sample of the rain. Our investigations are still in progress.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology He was a student and collaborator of Sir Fred Hoyle. Their joint work on the infrared spectra of interstellar grains led to developing the modern theory of panspermia.

We encourage investigation of unusual phenomena like this, but Earth all by itself is a stranger place than many people realize, and great care is needed to rule out more mundane explanations.

Henry Spencer, the Vice-President and one of the founding members of the Canadian Space Society. He had a character named after him in Vernor Vinge's 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep.

Dear Jose,

Thanks for the red rain link! Sounds to me that something cooked the contents of the cell-like bodies. It would be fun to see if "disassembled" DNA building blocks and bits and pieces of other cellular denizens could be scraped off the insides of the "cells."

It could be that the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower was the source of the red rain producing "visitor." That shower peaked on 27 July in 2001.

Apparently nobody knows which comet is associated with the Delta Aquarid meteor showers. Find that out and we might get a clue as to the ultimate origin of the red rain.

The "extraterrestrial life" ideas that I'm pushing (which are not
original to me) are at: Influenza 1918, A Venus Connection?

Best regards.

Bob Fritzius is a practioner of kitchen sink and shade tree physics.

The date of the peak, and the radiant coordinates (RA 22.3h Dec -5deg)
for the 2001 Southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower were provided by
the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand on their website.

Brain Parade

No Brainiac with an inbox is safe from us

Is there a place in the real world that gave you the impression that it was ripped out of the pages of a science fiction story?

To cap off the Blue Corner dive day we visited Jellyfish Lake. I heard about this place about ten years ago, when I went to the "Planet of the Jellies" show at the Monterey Aquarium with Bruce Sterling later we wrote a story "Big Jelly" together about giant flying jellyfish. These special Palau jellyfish barely sting, they don't eat anything, they get their nourishment from algae cultures that live inside their bodies. All they do all day is pulse their bells so as to move themselves into the sunniest part of the lake to make the algae in their tissues grow. Shades of my moldies in Freeware!

More pieces of Rudy Rucker's brain can be found here

The first thing that pops into mind is the inspiration for the first scifi story I ever wrote. I was spending at summer at a college in High Point, NC, and it had long, immaculate brick walkways. One brick on one walkway was crooked. So noticeably crooked that I became utterly convinced that it was a trigger to a portal somewhere, and all I had to do was learn how to use it.

Not necessarily space age, but it entranced my little 16 year old mind that was otherwise obsessed with boys.

Mur Lafferty, is a writer and podcaster who should be writing

There is a place in almost every major cultural city in the western world where the present impacts with the future. You have seen this place in almost every “cool” science-fiction themed movie since the late nineties. It is a dark club, populated by dancing figures dressed for a time that hasn’t yet arrived. The music is electronic and industrial sounding, it is ripped directly from the future. Or perhaps just a potential future. Fashion always seemed to me like a kind of fiction, as do modes of societies.
At some point, the fiction/idea becomes more than just a meme and breaks through into active reality, and the fashions that adorn the bodies of the “agents” of this meme (people)act as aspects of living world-contexts for the successful compiling of this meme-program. So if fashion is a fiction, then I would venture to say that the genre found on the bodies of the denizens of these clubs is science fiction, and so is the music. Science fiction is often associated with warnings about potential future trajectories. Are these places celebrating the seemingly dystopian world that they would seem to fit with, or is it one giant,living attempt to divert the course of the future into something better?
In other words, what I’m saying is, we’re a kind of army from the future!

We suspect Omniresonant is an escapee from a Science Fiction story

I work for a company called Welch Allyn. We manufacture medical monitoring devices. Every time I see one, I think of Dr. McCoy's medical bed from Star Trek. Then I look at the computer I'm working with and think of Spock's workstation. Then I flip open my cell phone and think of Kirk's communicator, and I envy my co-worker with the Bluetooth wireless earpiece and think of Uhura's earpiece. I walk in the front door which opens as I approach and I think of the Enterprise bridge door.

Now if they could just finish Mr. Scott's transporter so I can bypass this awful commute...

Radical Russ is humorous

Most of those images from the Hubble Space
Telescope and others feel pretty science-fictional to me.

But the funny thing about the real world feeling as if
it's lifted from science fiction is how quickly things
*stop* feeling that way, and instead come to feel
ordinary. The net, for example--even what we're
doing right here, right now. Totally science fiction
come to life. And yet it's now hard to imagine life without the net.
When I was involved not long ago with a consulting-editor job, I was
working at home on my computer, my wife was at her office on
another computer, and still another editor was at her home in
another state. The three of us were trading questions and comments
and wisecracks across the net in a completely comfortable and
collegial way that would have been impossible ten or fifteen years ago.

Then there's the fact that we all routinely walk around with Star Trek
communicators now. Except that on Trek they weren't always going,
"Can you hear me now?"

Jeffrey A. Carver is a science fiction writer who among other things pushes a snake up a hill

Sitting in a sleek restaurant atop Hong Kong's Victoria Peak one night, looking down at the myriad skyscrapers outlined in fiery neon, I truly felt transported into a BLADE RUNNER future. The hybrid Anglo-Asian crowd around me confirmed the sensation. All that was missing was a replicant or two.

Paul Di Filippo is a science fiction writer known for being a prolific, wide-ranging writer of everything from steampunk to cyberpunk, and for his gonzo writing style.

The Hirschhorn Museum in Washington D.C. is an imposing swoop of drab concrete set in a huge field of drab concrete, studded with weird and abstract modern art. It reminds me of those depressing post-apocalyptic 1970's films where all that's left of our culture is bad vestiges of the 60's and 70's.

I'm so glad the 70's ended.

Brain Parade

The feature where we pester smart people. This week's question revolves around near future spaceflight, should it be manned or unmanned?

In case you've missed them Jose's original piece is here and Charlie's is here.

In terms of immediate priorities, there's no question that unmanned missions are far more cost-effective. At the moment Cassini is showing us yet again that every planet, moon and lump of rock in the Solar System is not only unique but has surprising features. The Mars robot explorers have shown us the same. But they've also raised questions that would be very easy to answer if only we had people there. In the longer term, we have to go ourselves.

Ken MacLeod is part of a new generation of British science fiction writers, who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera.

Ask an antarctic researcher if he/she could be cost effectively replaced by a robot without any loss of understanding of his findings. It is the cost of space transprtation which drives this sterile debate and it is that problemwe need to solve. Robots should always remain our assistants, not our substitutes.

Alan Bond is Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd [1] and associated with Project Daedalus, Blue Streak missile, HOTOL and Skylon.

Well, I agree with Carlos. Spaceflight isn't just about economics; indeed, I decry the worldview that says that all things should be reduced to the bottom line. Space travel is an ennobling adventure; it's part of our reason for being as a species. As the closing title card of Star Trek: The Motion Picture said, "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning."In fact, I sum up a lot of my thoughts on this in my own novel Hybrids, which contains this speech on this topic from a fictitious US president.

Robert J Sawyer is a rockin Canadian hard SF writer

Jose, being an astronomer by training, I'm prejudiced in favor of unmanned exploration -- the scientific return per dollar is orders of magnitude greater than you can expect from manned spaceflight.

Add to that the near certainty that George Bush's "return to the moon" pledge is just so much vapor. There's no money. There wouldn't be enough money even if he rescinded the tax cuts his wealthy pals enjoy.

Add to _that_ the fact that the shuttle has always been a dangerous juryrigged compromise vehicle, and now it's a geriatric one. Incredibly, there's no real successor on line; it will be at least eight years before one leaves a launch pad.

I'm greatly in favor of eventual manned flight, and I do believe that the ultimate destination of humanity is space. But the next step is a technology that will allow the transfer of large masses to Low Earth Orbit economically -- perhaps the space elevator; perhaps something else -- because nothing permanent is going to happen until cislunar space offers goods and services that can't be had more cheaply on Earth.

I'd like to be proven wrong.

Joe Haldeman has been shot on three different occasions. We don't know why, he seems nice enough to us.

Dear Jose: You and Charles are rehashing an argument I've watched develop over many decades.

In the 60s I couldn't figure out why they didn't land on the Moon with Apollo 1. Why wait until 11? Okay, that was naive. The machines have to be developed and tested, and the men don't get there without the machiness. What I notice is that your arguments (for the machines) are clear, precise, and rich in hindsight. Charles's arguments (for sending astronauts) are very much based on postulates and theory, and lead way around Robin Hood's barn.

And what I notice from my lifespan is that the machines, from magic telescopes to rovers and Voyagers, have shown us the universe in detail I could only imagine, and wrongly. Today's plans don't put men on Mars within my expected lifespan, and they could be cancelled at the stroke of an election.

But maybe I can hang on long enough to see Pluto. I've come to bet on the machines.

Larry Niven's Science Fiction classics delayed the loss of Jose's virginity

Robots will not have the capacity for a sense of wonder for many decades, I suspect. This aspect of human experience in space--the prospect of personal awe and discovery in the midst of infinite mystery--will propel funding far more over the long haul then robotic exploration, as marvelous as that is. People want to go and explore, not just sit and watch.

Greg Bear is a science fiction author. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (Forge of God books), artificial universes (Eon series) and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin's Radio, and Darwin's Children).

As we speak, unmanned space missions are exploring the moons of Saturn, heading to Pluto and the dark reaches of the Kuiper belt, and finding evidence that the Universe is mostly made of stuff we don't understand: dark matter and dark energy. Meanwhile, people aboard the International Space Station have a full-time job just keeping the thing repaired. Promised technological spinoffs like crystals grown in space aren't really amounting to much. The crew made news recently by throwing a space suit stuffed with rags and a radio transmitter into Earth orbit, just so ham radio fans could track it: a clear sign of diminishing returns.

Why are we even bothering with manned space flight? As a character says in Charles Stross' wonderful novel Accelerando, "NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!". This stunt, which will cost billions if we don't stop it, is the scientific equivalent of putting a goldfish bowl on top of Mount Everest.

It would be much smarter to spend the money creating cyborgs who don't breathe and can stand hard radiation; these guys will actually enjoy space travel. We can do this and we can do it quicker than you might guess. In the meantime, let's send machines into space, like the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. This project, if funded, has a decent chance of seeing gravitational ripples left over from the Big Bang. It's the only known way to see through the wall of fire that cleared up when the Universe was 400,000 years old, back to the first microseconds of history. And it's cheaper than sending canned primates to Mars.

John Baez is a a mathematical physicist who specializes in quantum gravity and n-categories.

As a one-time Astronaut Applicant, and a working space scientist who
works with unmanned science missions, my opinion is that the best space policy is to embrace the power of "and" when it comes to the manned/unmanned mission question. Unfortunately, it has become customary to pit the one against the other. Right now good unmanned missions are being cancelled and delayed because the Powers that Be have decided once again that "science must bear the cost" of the manned space program. This is short sighted, and among many bad things it turns the space community upon itself. We're being divided in order to conquer us. I'm confident that President Bush's Moon/Mars initiative will go nowhere, but in the process of going nowhere it will cause a number of good science programs to be cancelled.

There *are* scientifically sound reasons to put people into space. As others have pointed out, there are also reasons which transcend science. All of these are legitimate reasons to expend our time and treasure on a progressive and reasonable manned space program. It would be nice if someone had such a thing. The current US manned space program suffers from a number of
accumulated problems which have origins back in the late 1940s, and which have become entrenched policy over the course of successive administrations.

Space scientists resent the long-standing practice of raiding the space science programs for money to support the manned space program. Space scientists rightly point out that the International Ultraviolet Explorer accomplished more, at lower cost, than the two ASTRO missions flown aboard Space Shuttle flights. This is but one example of misguided efforts to tie science missions which could be performed by unmanned spacecraft to the manned space program.

NASA is fundamentally an engineering establishment. Scientists have always been in a minority at NASA, and science has never been the main driver in NASA organizational decision making.

While I'm not entirely sure that transfering space science funding to the NSF would be the best solution, I think it would be better than the status quo. NOAA has a nice partnership with NASA whereby they get NOAA weather satellites launched and into orbit. The NSF and NASA could develop a similar partnership that would insure continuting integration, test, and launch
support from NASA while moving the mission operations and data analysis funding out of NASA's budget into the NSF where it more naturally belongs. NASA would be left with manned spaceflight and its too often neglected aeronautical research mission.

Bill Gawne works for a NASA contractor in Maryland and teaches physics and astronomy at Towson University and is a top bloke