Posted tagged ‘NASA’

June 4, 2012

Can’t say how much I chortled in glee at this report (by old friend Dennis Overbye).

It seems that one of our deep spook agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office (AKA the other NRO) somehow managed to accumulate not one, but a matched pair of Hubble-class space telescopes.  These now belong to NASA.

What’s coolest is that these instruments were optimized for a particular task — reading the label on my undershorts — but it turns out that the design choices made to enhance the two ‘scopes capacities as ground surveillance tools are also nicely tailored for two of the key observational goals of the next space observatories.  The instruments are much shorter than the Hubble, which gives them a wider field of view.  That wide angle capacity — useful indeed if you’re sitting a few hundred miles up and trying to pick out details at Parchin or Houla — turns out to be just fine for some serious astronomy and cosmology:

The two telescopes have a 94-inch-diameter primary mirror, just like Hubble, but are shorter in focal length, giving them a wider field of view: “Stubby Hubbles,” in the words of Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, adding, “They were clearly designed to look down.”

Dr. Grunsfeld said his first reaction was that the telescopes would be a distraction. “We were getting something very expensive to handle and store,” he said.

Earlier this spring he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

The answer, he said, was: “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect.”

Even bigger advantages come, astronomers say, from the fact that the telescope’s diameter, 94 inches, is twice as big as that contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power, from which a whole host of savings cascade. Instead of requiring an expensive launch to a solar orbit, the telescope can operate in geosynchronous Earth orbit, complete its survey of the sky four times faster, and download data to the Earth faster.

Equipped with a coronagraph to look for exoplanets — another of Wfirst’s goals — the spooky Hubble could see planets down to the size of Jupiter around other stars.

Caveats: the instruments themselves account for only a relatively small fraction of the cost of actually launching and running an observatory in space.  And Dennis has his snark meter set (subtly) on eleven when he writes that “responsible adults in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences have yet to sign one.”  But still, given the years of starvation predicted for the space science side of NASA, this is the first news in a while that gives me the sense that we’re in with a chance.

I’ll admit, it’s been hard for me to see much good in the news lately.  But this story reminds me that it ain’t all bad; far from it.  We can build unbelievably cool stuff — not bad for a bipedal ape (or a thinking radish).  And sometimes, it seems, a tool built to study the darkness of the human condition can in fact turn around, and capture the light that pierces the expanse through which we journey on our pale blue dot.

Image:  Gerard Dou, Astronomer by Candlelight, c. 1665

Friday Afternoon Science We Can Believe In

October 17, 2008

I’m weary of the election.

I can’t take much more of the BS and hate (and violence) emanating from the other side.  (See, e.g. this, and this, and this, for recent examples.)

I hear (and obey!) Senator Obama’s warning call keep plugging, not to get complacent.  I’ll be telephoning/canvassing this weekend, and next, and the four days up to and including the first Tuesday in November.  I will do my damn best not to leave any effort on the table.

But I’m damn tired — the GOP noise machine has had that much impact.  As far as this blog is concerned, acorn denotes that object out of which mighty oaks may go, and no sleazeball, scumbag robocalling, lying mailer-dispatching, my-campaign-is-positive honorless hypocrite is going to convince me otherwise.

I want to get some science back in this blog, something where people are engaged with the (secular) better angels of human nature, and asking deep and interesting questions of the material world in which we live.

That is: I want to think about work like this:

Outer space smells like hot metal, fried steak and the welding of a motorbike, scientists suggest. A chemist is recreating the smell to help Nasa to train its astronauts.

The Times (of London) Online reports that NASA has called on chemist Steve Pearce, whose day job has him investigating fragrances, to come up with a compound with the right pong to prepare those heading for International Space Station for the unique experience of sniffing in space.

Ah, Friday…but in fact the brief item does suggest that there is a genuinely interesting question behind the immediate application:

“We have already produced the smell of fried steak, but hot metal is proving more difficult,” he [Pearce] said. “We think it’s a high-energy vibration in the molecule.”

(h/t Scout Finch (my nominee for best screen name in the political blogosphere) at Daily Kos)

Image:  Jorge Barrios, “Un hombre soldando al arco una reja.” 2007.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

More on the fate of science under Bush (and McCain?…)

May 9, 2008

See this comment from Kevin on the Daily Kos thread responding to the McCain/science post below.

Kevin wrote:

Thoughts from a Cancer Biology graduate student (8+ / 0-)

I’m new to the site, but I just thought i’d throw my two cents in here. I’m finishing up my PhD in Molecular Cancer Biology at Duke University and I hope to give you some insight as to how bad things are getting in the scientific community. When i first entered graduate school in 2002, nearly 25 percent of all new grants were being funded by the NIH. Now, slightly more than 10 percent are. This has led to limited job opportunities for graduating students, a smaller group of professors holding a larger piece of the NIH pie (fewer new ideas and perspectives on complex and longstanding problems), and will surely have long lasting consequences on the ability to recruit new brilliant minds as the job market continues to decline.

I urge all to speak to your congressmen, and speak up about a problem many will talk about and few will actually do anything for. You can also find out more information at the American Association for the Advancement of Science website http://www.AAAS.org.

Technology is at the heart of almost all new invention. At a time when we need great thinkers to solve problems inherent in the U.S. and clearly the rest of the world (i.e. global warming, petroleum dependency, health sciences research and yes, even our countries defense capabilities) the Bush administration has taken away funding and slowed the progress that we’ve been moving towards in all these areas. Unless steps are taken soon, our ability to solve these problems will be greatly compromised in order to pay for a war we dont need, and tax cuts we cant afford.

Pay close attention to the key number in Kevin’s post: there has been a nearly 60% drop in grants funded by the NIH over the education of one graduate student. Similar cutbacks are occuring at other major science and engineering funding agencies.

Everything Kevin says about the consequences of such a decline is true: fewer grad students; fewer jobs for newly graduated researchers (not to be confused with graduated beakers); shrinking incentives for technically or mathematically skilled undergraduates to consider science or engineering basic research as a career, and so on.

The larger consequences follow on with shocking speed. It takes a long time — decades — to build up a research infrastructure. Labs, space, machines — but above all people who have ideas and time and room enough to pursue ideas that don’t work out (most of them) and the few that do. (Take a look at this NOVA program about Judah Folkman for the virtues of persistence and the absolute necessity of an ongoing flow of grad student and post doc money to produce important results.)

As Kevin argues, it takes much less time — years, maybe a decade, to unravel the technical capacity to do research. To take an example from the engineering side of things. As late as 1973, with the launch of Skylab, the United States possessed the ability to lift large payloads into orbit, and to carry manned missions as far as the moon, all using one of the true monuments of 20th century technology, the Saturn V rocket. That was the moon rocket’s last flight. Within a few years, though much of the infrastructure of the moon missions remained, the core manufacturing capacity to build more such rockets was lost.

The consequence: Skylab was designed to remain safely in orbit until 1981, two years past the scheduled debut of the Space Shuttle, which would be deployed to dock with America’s space station (yup, we had one thirty five years ago), and move the facility to a higher orbit.

Then Skylab’s parking orbit deteriorated early, in 1979. The shuttles, behind schedule, were unavailable. The last Saturn Vs had already long since been mothballed and placed, in some cases, on museum display. The production line had been shut down for almost a decade. A decade after landing men on the moon, the US had exactly no space vehicles capable of carrying humans to near earth orbit.

And now, even though the shuttle does exist, we lack anything approaching the heavy life capacity the US space program possessed forty years ago. Hence the very costly, unlikely-to-finish-anytime-soon Ares rocket development project, now scheduled for first flight in 2015, forty three years after the last American walked on the moon.

That is: to put it in the words of that noted analyst of science policy, Joni Mitchell,

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone

To return to the core theme of this post, this blog, and Kevin’s comment: John McCain’s priorities for federal spending put science funding in deep danger. If we continue to gut funding for basic science research and education, we face the loss not just of specific projects left undone, but of the capacity to do the cutting edge science and technological investigation that is the foundation of our prosperity and our national security.

Usually I illustrate this blog with fine art. But this clip from a seminal work in American motion picture history seems more appropriate somehow.