Cash Prize for Space

Canadian Arrow concept art

The X Prize is US$10,000,000 for the first privately funded team to launch three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), safely return them to Earth, and do it all over again within two weeks using the same spaceship. The prize is meant to stimulate interest and investment in space tourism and may help advance technologies needed to decrease the cost of space travel. All teams are designing and building their own spaceships. So far the company furthest along appears to be Scaled Composites. Their entry is comprised of two ships. White Knight is an airplane meant to carry the second ship, SpaceShipOne, into the sky where they will separate. SpaceShipOne will then use a hybrid motor to launch itself to its final destination above Earth.

Scaled Composites has already completed several test flights. It is generally believed that one of the teams will take home the prize sometime this summer 2004. For more information about the various teams participating, as well as truly spectacular images of completed spaceshifts, concept art, and the people behind the scenes, check out the X Prize website. There should be an ongoing reality show on broadcast television documenting the teams and their attempts to win this prize. Big media continues to belief that the television viewing audience is not interested in science and technology programming. Unfortunately, despite evidence suggesting otherwise, no one has yet come along to prove them wrong, although there is still hope for the eventual launch of the Cable Science Network (CSN).

SpaceShipOne and White Knight

The Weak-Jawed Mutants

Imagine that you are a new parent. Your baby is a strange-looking creature: obviously human, but with much more delicate features than the norm. At first you worry, but he grows into a healthy and very intelligent child. The mutation that caused his strange looks makes him weaker in some minor ways but he has new strengths that more than make up for the difference. The child grows into a man and soon has children of his own. These children obviously have the same mutation. After several generations, the mutation spreads through the genome with no obvious ill-effects. In fact, the benefits are staggering. Soon enough, all living humans have this strange mutation and this is now the norm.

Just such a situation may have happened early in human history, separating modern man from other species. Scientists have concluded that a genetic mutation caused the jaw to become weaker due to a more delicate skull structure. The mutation had a generous side effect – more room in the skull for the brain to grow. This sudden increase in room resulted in the rapid increase in intelligence in homo sapiens, perhaps over 2.5 millions years. The conclusions are of course still being researched. Interestingly enough, the original theory of evolution was noted for its gradual nature of genetic modification. A new revision of the theory suggests that while most change is in fact gradual, this change is punctuated by events that result in the sudden leap forward of a species. A similar debate rages in geological sciences.

Greg Bear sets in modern times a sudden genetic leap forward in humans in his science fiction novel “Darwin’s Radio” and describes the social ramifications. This is simply another example of science fiction oddly paralleling the discoveries occurring in reality. The outcome of this line of research is of course not certain, but reminds me that leaps in our own knowledge are beginning to occur with some frequency. Science and technology are not just about the latest and greatest consumer electronic. Pure science itself surprises us with new insights that open up our world in ways we could never before have anticipated.

A New Day, a New Mars

First there was evidence of fossil bacteria in a Martian rock found in Antarctica. Next came confirmation of liquid water on the surface of Mars in the distant past. Now three separate scientific teams have discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, two primary sources produce methane: volcanoes and life.

So, what is the source of that methane on Mars? First, scientists needs to confirm that the methane actually exists there and is not an error in their research. Next, differences in methane concentration need to be mapped and correlated with possible Martian sources. Finally, robots and/or humans need to explore the potential sources up close. I volunteer.

Population Future

Most of world will live in cities by 2007, UN says (AFP). – UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Urban areas are growing so quickly that for the first time in history, most of the world will be living in cities by 2007, a new UN study said.

– Source: Yahoo! News – Science; Thu Mar 25, 2:28 AM ET.

While I expect this trend to continue for some time, populations will eventually spread apart. Along with advanced communications, declining birth rates, molecular manufacturing and robotic labor, transportation advances will make every point on the Earth as close as our own backyard. There will be plenty of room for each of us to roam.

You read it here first.

Nine Lives are Not Enough

CC the calico cat clone

Cute CC is the clone of a calico cat and looks absolutely nothing like the original. This apparently is only a problem with cloning calico cats in particular, and other cats should clone more exactly.

Genetics Savings and Clones is now commercializing their cat cloning project. They offered to clone up to six cats per client for a price of U.S. $50,000 each for a limited time. Work continues on the first clone of a domestic canine (in particular, John Sperling’s dead dog Missy).

I will eventually start adding to this site feature stories about science and technology topics that go into much more detail than these brief blurbs. Coming soon will be features on cloning technology, Mercury, NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan, the Technological Singularity, and much, much more. Stay tuned!


The launch of MESSENGER, the first mission to Mercury since 1974, has just been delayed until after June 30, 2004. The planetary gravity-assist flyby schedule has changed because of the delay. MESSENGER will now fly once around the Earth, twice around Venus, and three times around Mercury before entering orbit around Mercury in March 2011 (delayed from 2009).

By the way, the image you see at the top of your screen is of Mercury (not the Moon) taken thirty years ago by Mariner 10. To date there have been no other missions to Mercury. Thanks to NASA/JPL for public access to many of their mission images.

[2008-09-01 Update – Frontier Channel has since been updated with new images of Mercury taken by MESSENGER; the old headers have been removed.]

Spinning Webs and Microstructures

Betterhumans has a story about a new technology for “printing” 3-D devices as small as one that could fit inside a human hair. The abstract for the paper in the journal Nature is available online as is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign report.

Talk about foundation building.the article mentions such technologies could eventually benefit tissue engineering, nanotechnology, microfluidics, and photonics efforts, all of which are likely to be the foundation for unprecedented change in the coming decades.

Nature has already, through evolution, come up with some incredibly powerful technologies inside of organisms. Researchers continue to learn valuable lessons from biology and these insights are helping us to build new tools. The melding of the biological with the technological, I think, is the single most important driver of change in our time.

Mars – Liquid Water on Surface in Distant Past

Eyeing Eagle Crater

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell – “Eyeing ‘Eagle Crater’

How beautiful the view is now…how beautiful it must have been then. NASA announced yesterday evidence from its Opportunity Rover of a salty sea in the distant past. The evidence is quite compelling. Even though the current rovers are not best equipped to look for signs of ancient and current life, scientists admitted that if they were looking for fossils, Eagle Crater would be a great place to start.

Opportunity is expected to move on to a much larger crater that may hold even more data to help determine when the ancient sea existed, how large it was, and how long it lasted. The Mars Exploration Rover Mission site is spectacular, and according to NASA it has received more than 9 billion hits to date since the mission began.

Building a Brand New Home in 24 Hours

Marshall Brain has suggested that in about 30 years we will be at 50% unemployment because of robotics and automation. He specifically predicted robots building our homes and structures in his “Robotic Nation” essay. Now he brings us word of a home-building robot prototype and he suggests that the price of homes might crash following the rapid spread of such technology. The robot is expected to build its first home in 2005.

Marshall Brain is updating his “Robotic Nation Evidence” blog daily because the changes are coming so rapidly. I especially like his take on the current “jobless recovery”. So-called experts toss out words like “productivity” and “automation” but then continue to act like this is all some big mystery. Just listen to the Brain!

Science, Pseudoscience, and My Love of the End of the World

I have a morbid fascination with Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. He interviews guests regarding topics such as ghosts, UFOS, governmental conspiracies, and end-of-the-world scenarios. Tonight his guests were David Booth and Wayne Green. David Booth claims to have had a psychic dream about a global disaster sometime this coming autumn. Tonight was their second appearance, but they were suppose to include information about David Booth’s recent meeting with the last surviving member of the three children who witnessed the Miracles of Fatima in 1917. He was surprisingly reticent to talk about this meeting and finally George Noory demanded that he provide more information or he was going to open calls with his listeners instead. He said if he wanted to rehash their first appearance, he would have just replayed that show.

Most of these shows are bs, full of bad science. However, as a window into human psychology the show is fascinating. I was impressed by Mr. Noory tonight, as he is usually, in my opinion, much too accommodating of his guests. David Booth claims that 97 percent of the world’s population will be wiped out, yet he provided no new information and instead kept referring to his video and book available for purchase. If I’ve only got about six months yet to live, I’m not going to spend my money on his damn video and book. Mr. Noory basically said the same tonight, albeit with more grace.

Still, this show really is full of bs, and I’m sure my sudden fascination will be brief. Periodically, there are legitimate scientists on but they often come across as more boring than their pseudoscientific counterparts. As I’ve mentioned before, true science is often perceived as boring, but it is one sure sign of legitimacy. I wish there was a late night show devoted to real science.

By the way, I love stories about the end of the world. That is why I had more patience with these particular guests than others. I don’t believe what they say but I find the idea fascinating. One of my favorite subgenres of science fiction is disaster fiction, like Greg Bear’s novel “The Forge of God”, and the movies “Independence Day” and “Deep Impact”.

I question my interest in the Technology Singularity because of this. We all believe in things not necessarily because our beliefs are based on facts but because they provide some sort of psychological comfort or release. In commentary and media it is not good to undercut yourself, but in science it is essential to constantly question your motives. Science is about discovering truth, not sating one’s own desires. Of course, I still believe a Technology Singularity is coming, but this assertation demands proof and I will continue to question the validity of the idea right up until it happens.