This Essay Breaks the Law: Michael Crichton pleads for patent reform

Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments in LabCorp versus Metabolite, an interesting case that visits the patent controversy in the United States. Are test result correlations patentable? Michael Crichton provides his opinion.

Digg Description:

“It means that if a real estate agent lists a house for sale, he can be sued because an existing patent for selling houses includes item No. 7, ‘List the house.’ It means nobody can write a dinosaur story because my patent includes 257 items covering all aspects of behavior, like item No. 13, ‘Dinosaurs attack humans and other dinosaurs.'”

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Orbit Obtained: MRO Makes it to Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) performed a flawless engine burn today in a successful bid to enter orbit around Mars. The event, known as Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI), is a risky one for robotic visitors to the Red Planet. Now that MRO is safely in orbit, the spacecraft will soon begin several months of aerobraking to reshape the orbit into a circle approximately 300 km above the martian surface. The primary science phase of the mission will begin in the fall after aerobraking has been completed.

At the University of Arizona, an audience of students, the public, reporters, and other guests watched live NASA TV coverage of the event. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is one of the instruments on board MRO and is operated by a team at the University of Arizona. HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen and operations team members were on hand for presentations, narration of the television coverage, and answers to audience questions. [Disclosure: Richard Leis is a HiRISE operations team member.]

The risks of any orbital insertion include missing the target altogether or coming in too closely. During MRO MOI, all predicted events occurred on schedule, including the loss of signal from the spacecraft while it passed behind Mars. Reacquisition of the signal from MRO occurred at around 3:15 pm Mountain Standard time, and a few minutes later flight operations at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA confirmed that the spacecraft was in the correct initial orbit around Mars. The audience and HiRISE team applauded and cheered the successful conclusion of each major event.

MRO launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA on August 12, 2005. During its 7 month cruise to Mars, instruments on board were turned on and tested in preparation for future science gathering. HiRISE, for example, snapped high resolution images of the moon and stellar clusters. These images are now being used by the operations team to calibration the instrument and develop imaging processing software and procedures.

MRO will remain in its current orbit for about two weeks prior to the start of aerobraking. During that two weeks, some of the operations teams for the various instruments will again turn on their instruments. HiRISE will take nine images of Mars and once again the operations team will use these images for further calibration and testing.

Aerobraking occurs when MRO dips down into the martian atmosphere to create friction that helps slow down the spacecraft and lower its orbit. The process will take from five to seven months depending on the condition of the martian atmosphere on any given day.

After aerobraking, MRO will into a transition orbit during which time the instrument teams will complete their preparations for the primary science phase of the mission. Know as PSP, this phase of the mission will last for two years while scientific data is gathered.

The HiRISE camera is the largest such device ever sent outside the Earth’s orbit. The camera will capture high resolution images of the martian surface, up to 20,000 by 60,000 pixels in size. These images are so huge that they will not fit full size on a regular computer monitor. Only a display array of 20 by 60 monitors would have enough pixels available to show one full-sized HiRISE image. Because of this, recent compression and delivery technology known as JPEG2000 is being used to allow the scientific community and the public to browse through these images over the internet.

At its best setting, HiRISE will be able to see objects roughly one meter (approximately one yard) in size. Meanwhile, two other cameras will take lower resolution images but provide more coverage of the planet. Together, these cameras should reveal a different Mars than shown by previous orbiters, simply because so much more detail and wider coverage will become available than ever before. In fact, so much data will be obtained during the course of the mission that it will dwarf what many previous missions have obtained, combined.

MRO is also equipped with a sounding radar called SHARAD (Shallow Radar) which will return the highest resolution data of the martian subsurface. In recent years, previous spacecraft have detected the presence of water deposits beneath the surface of Mars. SHARAD will attempt to better quantify the amount of water present and in what form – ice or liquid – it exists.

Scientists hope to learn where the water believed to have existed on early Mars went, in what form it exists today, and if water might still flow on the surface (as appears to be the case with gullies discovered by previous spacecraft.) They also hope to learn more about the martian atmosphere and surface history. The information obtained could help determine whether or not Mars has ever been hospitable to life and which locations are best to search for fossil or current lifeforms.

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From Giotto to Stardust – 20 Years of Comet Exploration

The modern robotic investigation of comets began with a spacecraft from the European Space Agency (ESA) named Giotto. Giotto captured in 1986 the first close-up images of a cometary nucleus and a wealth of other data. ESA is marking the 20th anniversary of Giotto’s successful flyby of Comet Halley on the eve of a NASA press conference regarding science results from the Stardust mission. Twenty years after Giotto, our knowledge about comets, those cold remnants of our solar system’s formation, is undergoing a revolution.

By 1986, six spacecraft were ready for an unprecedented scientific investigation of Comet Halley as it returned to the inner solar system. Due to budget cuts, NASA’s ambitious plans to study Comet Halley were reduced to long distance observations using the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft (renamed Interplanetary Comet Explorer (ICE)) already in operations. Meanwhile, after flying by Venus, the Russian Space Research Institute (IKI) spacecrafts VEGA-1 and VEGA-2 were directed toward Comet Halley. Japan’s Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science, which in 2003 became part of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), used their existing SAKIGAKE (MS-T5) spacecraft for long distance observations and launched SUISEI (PLANET-A), a spacecraft specifically built to study Comet Halley. ESA’s Giotto spacecraft rounded out “Halley Armada.”

Named after the painter of “Adoration of the Magi” which includes a representation of a comet widely believed to be based on Comet Halley, Giotti flew closer to the comet than any of the other spacecraft. The dramatic images and other data returned revealed that Halley was not a round and icy “snow ball” as expected but instead an irregular and dark “dirt ball.” Jets of ice and gas volatiles erupted from the sun-heated surface of the nucleus, creating the bright and extensive coma and tail visible from the Earth.

This first close-up look at a comet revolutionized our understanding of the objects. Since then, several other robotic missions have provided even more highly detailed images and data. Tomorrow, scientists will hold a press conference to report the first science results from their analysis of the first pristine cometary material returned to Earth for extensive analysis. What we learn from the Stardust mission will no doubt radically advance our knowledge.

In twenty years, from the first close-up images of a comet to the first cometary material returned for study, we have learned more about the formation of our solar system and perhaps even the history of life on Earth than in all the thousands of years of comet observation that preceded the Space Age. From Giotto to Stardust in the blink of an eye.

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Potential Liquid Water on Enceladus

Cassini-Huygens mission scientists discovered last year that plumes of ice erupt from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, but the mechanism for the this process has not been fully explained. Now a review of competing theories and available data implicates the more unlikely source: pressurized liquid water pools or an ocean near the moon’s surface. How water can be liquid on an apparently frozen body in the cold of the distant solar system is just the latest mystery regarding Enceladus.

Several research papers regarding recent findings about Enceladus are available in the March 10, 2006 issue of Science. In a Research Article entitled “Cassini Observes the Active South Pole of Enceladus”, Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA and other mission scientists suggest that “water vapor probably venting from subsurface reservoirs of liquid water” provides the source for the majestic surface plumes discovered last year. In turn, these plumes may continually replenish Saturn’s E-ring.

Enceladus become just the fourth object in the solar system suspected of containing liquid water reservoirs because of tantalizing new evidence. Only Earth is known for certain to have liquid water on and below its surface. Evidence for liquid water aquifers on Mars and an ocean deep beneath the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa have already led to excitement within the scientific community over the past decade. Now that Enceladus has been added to list, the mystery of processes that lead to liquid water only deepens.

If pools or oceans of liquid water exist on Enceladus, where do they come from? A heating source is required to raise the temperature to above 273 degrees Kelvin (0 degrees Celsius.) Mission scientists suspect flexing of the moon caused by its orbit around Saturn or a gravitational tug-of-war between Titan and Saturn, along with radioactive decay within the moon’s interior lead to heating that locally heats crustal water ice. Under pressure, this liquid water eventually escapes to the surface as geysers near the moon’s south pole.

The region near Enceladus’ south pole is striking for its so-called Tiger Stripes, enormous gashes across the surface that a significantly more warm than the surrounding terrain. The lack of craters and the apparent youth of ice in the area all suggest recent resurfacing. The discovery of the ice plumes confirmed this observation.

Mission scientists will continue to sift through the data returned by Cassini to investigate Enceladus. Cassini is currently scheduled to return for a close flyby of Enceladus on Wednesday, March 12, 2008 after a mission focus on Titan over the next two years has concluded.

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HiRISE Presentation

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is scheduled for Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) on Friday, March 10, 2009. Confirmation of success should arrive around 3:15 pm MST. Below is a link to a presentation I gave one of my classes today about the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board MRO, the highest resolution camera every sent on a planetary science mission. [Disclosure: Richard Leis is a HiRISE operations team member.] All of the spacecraft primary science mission cameras are shut down and will not be turned on until after orbital capture, but I have also included a link to a webpage that updates every 5 minutes a simulation of how Mars would look if you were riding along on MRO. Mars is getting close!

The Transhumanist Responsibility

With transhumanism under fire in Missouri, I recently discussed the issue with family members. I wrote a couple things that summarize the difference between the beliefs of transhumanists and their critics:

“[M]y only respect and support is for life, sentient or not, physically immortal or not, technologically enhanced or not. I have rarely been patriotic and if this means I need to move from the United States to another country that supports basic human rights – including the right to choose technology as I see fit to modify or enhance my body – then I will do so happily.

“The right to choose technology also includes the right not to choose technology. Therefore, the responsibility of transhumanists is far greater than critics of transhumanists can every claim: in seeking modification and enhancement, transhumanists must fully support and protect those who do not seek modification and enhancement. ”

The debate over transhumanism already rages, despite the lack of awareness in the general public. As advanced technologies of human modification and enhancement become available in the next few years and the topic begins to show up in popular discussion, the debate over their use and accessiblity will inevitably turn violent. I hope that transhumanists understand their responsibility now, and can somehow prepare for the day when so many turn against them. Any response must remain true to the tenants of transhumanism, or all transhumanist efforts will have been in vain.

Web 2.0 Test

I have not jumped into Web 2.0 all that much. For all my talk about cybernudism, I wonder what expressing your opinion and sharing your entire life story in cyberspace really accomplishes. It is expression with no end point, which very well may be just fine and healthy.

Until I can gather my thoughts on this subject, here are pictures of me, making use of a new Web 2.0 platform called BubbleShare. The features are interesting, the interface pleasant and simple, and the AJAX clean. Here goes: (Update August 11, 2007: I deleted the images on BubbleShare a few months ago.)