Category Archives: Science

Graffiti in Space – Kilroy Was Here

Kilroy was hereWhen I was a very young child, I remember getting in trouble once when I took an ice pick and carved my name into the steering wheel of a new van my parents had just purchased. It wasn’t an easy task – especially the rounded letters, like an ‘a’. But I persevered, and was successful.

When I think back to it, I’m not really certain why I did it. The van was quite a new addition to our family – it was large, and well, just nifty. And it was ours now. I was never prone to carving my name on things, or doing any of those “i am here” things. Perhaps I just needed to claim the loved machine – to somehow link us together by inscribing my name on it, like tattooing the name of your loved one on your flesh.

As we begin venturing further into space, not only through our large governmental missions and even the occational well-funded private sector endeavor, we must not forget what has lifted us to such pursuits – what has propelled us beyond the gravitational forces that bind us here together in state.

And that is our imaginations. The wanderings and longings within the poetry of the mind and heart that cause us to dream beyond what we encounter in our daily lives – the uncertain yet powerful forces within that compel us to invision and move toward better landscapes, unexplored territories and limitless possibilities.

The Cassini Probe, its bizarre path through our solar system, and its arrival at one of our most exotic local planets, represents to many the continued and measurable manifestation of our collective dreams and curiosities that extends beyond our incidental lives, moving out into the far greater vastness of all possibilities – the unknown – where what we hold as true may be challenged, and what we feel must be impossible, is instead discovered to be utterly commonplace.

For millennia, all humanity has known and lived beneath the sun and moon and stars. And when we did not know, we imagined and invented. How is it that we have lifted ourselves up from the earth, travelling through a still and lifeless void, to touch down upon and set foot upon that great, silvery globe of the evening light – that icon of the mystic power in the unknown?

The race to the moon was much more than political maneouverings. Just as the understanding and ability to unleash the energies of the atom were much more than desperate races to achieve dominance. In our selfish undertakings, compelled out of necessity or control, sometimes we stumble upon things that are so much larger, or reveal such immense depths beyond our current understanding, that we become transformed, both individually and collectively, in ways we cannot predict or even hope to control.

It is an irony, don’t you think, that we creatures who affix such importance to order and control continually seek out that which oftentimes shatters this order at its very foundations, and sends us reeling out of control. Is this simply the love of roller coasters? Or is it more like a plant, growing toward the sun, bending and twining itself around and through the obstacles along its path to achieve closeness to the source – though the source is millions of miles away?

The Cassini probe contains a small disk within it, contained in a small aluminum box, mounted on a pedestal. This disk contains the written signatures of over 600,000 people on earth. These people have etched their name onto this craft which now circles around our great ringed planet. I couldn’t really say why these people want their names etched into this machine we’ve hurled out into the universe, but I think that I may well understand.

Giovanni CassiniGiovanni Cassini looked out to Saturn about 300 years ago and discovered a gap within the rings. He also discovered a few moons. But Giovanni never could bring himself to believe that Earth was not the center of the universe, rejecting the maddening Copernican model that said the Earth revolved around the sun.

Nor could he bring himself to believe Newton’s theories of universal gravitation, in which all objects in the universe exhibit gravitational forces upon each other.

But that’s ok. I still think he would be quite thrilled, and more than a little overwhelmed, to learn that his name is on the exploritory vessel we’ve sent to visit, and fly amongst his rings and moons.

Cassini-Huygens Probe Arrives at Saturn Tomorrow

Cassini-Huygens Probe - SaturnWell, it looks like the long seven year journey across the tiny sea of our local space is nearing its milestone end for the Cassini Probe tomorrow. At around 19:36 PST the probe will begin firing its braking thrusters for 96 minutes – and it will be about a hour and a half later before we’ll know if the maneuver was successful.

If all is successful, the probe will decelerate by 1,400 MPH to continue its 47 plannened orbits of Saturn over the next 4 years. The Huygens Probe is schedule to be released from Cassini on Christmas Eve of 2004 to begin its three week journey to Titan, where it will land. It’s already passed thorough Saturn’s unusual magnetic field, feeling and describing its shape to us.

Cassini Orbital Insertion

The probe, as it carries on through its insertion maneuver will pass behind (from the Earth’s perspective) various ring grouping of Saturn, each ring with its own composition and liklihood for radio interference. So I imagine it will be particularly stressful for the scientists responsible for the craft, not to mention the managers of the programs responsible for their own careers and funding.

This mission is particularly nifty because the US is working with the European Space Agency who have contributed the Huygens portion of the mission. Cassini will release the Huygens probe at a velocity of twelve inches per second, and spinning it at seven revolutions per minute. Five days later, Cassini will turn to watch the sleeping Huygens as he coasts toward Titan during the next few days.

Titan has an atmosphere that extends about 600 miles into space, and Huygens will awaken 10 minutes before encountering its outermost reaches. Huygens will only be alive for a maximum of three hours, spending two and a half of them learning all it can about Titan as it descends, snapping over 1,000 photos, ever-slowing, eventually with the help of parachutes, to land on Titan’s surface, where it is only expected to live another three minutes. Even if Huygens lives past another thirty minutes, Cassini will turn its attention away from Huygens and back to Earth, telling us what Huygens discovered.

Recently our President, Mr. Bush, announced a new focus upon space exploration, particularly returning people to the moon, and landing people on Mars. I’m not certain this new focus is not a political tactic to divert our attention from more pressing things at home or not – particularly some very inhumane and mean-sprited things his administration are engaged in. But regardless of political concerns, the scientific benefits that result will be wonderful.

Cassini Mission Diagram

Time, Occurances and Probabilities

No Time!I’ve been spending a little time imagining events, when they happen, and their relation to time. It seems to occupy me when I play solitaire on my cell phone whilst sitting on the toilet.

I deal the cards. In doing so, the event of the card distributions occurs. Barring a few choices I then have on moving the cards around – the outcome of the game is determined at the initial card distribution.

I finish my game, and I’ve either won or lost.

Now, I decide to begin a new game, and I am readying to hit the Deal Cards button. My question is, were I to wait to hit the button until after I’ve wiped my ass, would the distribution of cards be the same as if I were to hit the Deal Cards button before doing so? (assuming truly “random” programmatics built into the mechanical game)

I thought the answer might be a simple one, relying on mere esoteric equations in probability mathematics. But on my cursory examination of such things, it is not so apparent. In fact, it led me back to philosophy, and the arcane notions of destiny and pre-determination – or chaos. And if mathematics were to meet the physics of practical observation, does my role of choosing or not choosing to hit the button at any given time even effect an outcome?

If not, there seems to be a bit of hopelessness. If so, then what forces influence such tides?

Mathematics alone does not seem sufficient. It can just reveal the liklihood of a particular event occuring, and can even go so far as to determine the liklihood distributed over time. But it doesn’t much deal with the actuality of the event occuring.

To resolve this with physics would require observing not only an event in the future (or the past, from which no information has been transmitted), but also would require observing two or more events simultaneously – i.e., you would have to know the state of the cards both now and the state of the cards in the future – and know them both simultaneously in order to make the determination.

I know that lots of physicists don’t like this sort of thing, and one good explanation they have is to say that the “wave” representing how the cards exist (in a compound sense, which is even murkier), exists throughout all space-time, and will collapse into a specific state when an interaction occurs. That our notion of past and future and now just don’t really exist.

But then, is it all predetermined – our consciousness moving along it’s tiny and pinpoint little “peephole” along the compound waves comprised of particle waves, like a rollercoaster locked tightly to rigid tracks of a multitude of causalities that exist, statically, throughout all space-time, and rooted to the Big Bang?

Or is it perhaps our little negentropic selves, realizing more and more the growing entropy, who need so desperately to encase ourselves in a safe, hardened and immutable shelter?

I’ll have to consider it some more, and hope that my leg doesn’t fall asleep while doing so.

But, given the choice… between superluminal communication and eternally static waves, I think I would choose superluminal communication. That might explain a good many of my problems, actually.

Superluminal Communication

SpaceShipOne

Well, we’ve gone and done it. The private sector is beginning to move into space at last. Yesterday’s successful flight of SpaceShipOne up to around 62 miles above the Earth, and into weightless conditions, marks the turning point for many things for us all.

The wild pioneer who piloted the vessel during this first is Michael Melvill, who may certainly earn himself a place in history as the first man not associated with a government agency to leave the planet (as far as we know, I suppose).

However, the journey is certainly not yet for us all, having been backed financially mostly by Paul Allen, the local Seattle Microsoft-made billionaire, whose interest in the fun, and oftentimes stranger aspects of life have both benefited and frustrated many of us.

Paul brought us The Experience Music Project – a museum of rock music paraphenalia – and the strangest looking building I have ever seen. It has no form, really – the shape being chaotic, both in geometry and color. Now he’s built the world’s first Science Fiction Museum. He also turned the completely wild and insane, but deeply loved, or deeply hated, listener-supported and listener-driven Seattle radio station, KCMU, run by the students of the University of Washington, into KEXP – a well-funded, massively upgraded, yet still listener-funded (who knows why?) station playing music from now designated playlists, but still very alternative (by comparison to utterly corporate backed sound), by DJ’s that seem to stay around forever and never push the envelopes. No longer volunteers. KEXP(experience) is still owned by the University of Washington, but no students have much involvement. Mostly, it’s world-renowned for its internet-based multimedia delivery and archival capabilities now.

Oh yeah – he also purchased the Seattle Seahawks so they would not be taken away down to Los Angeles, and they now have a big nice new stadium Seahawks Stadium – or rather, just recently, Qwest Stadium, right next to Safeco Field, which, if I’m remembering right, the voters voted down twice.

Paul actually does do quite a lot of nice things, and I truly believe his heart is in the right place – it’s just that other people get involved who really want money and things to make them feel good about themselves. And the man contributed a huge amount to the SETI project – where I’ve just contributed CPU cycles. Then again, there’s the Allen Telescope Array…

So yes, the common man has made it into space! But he’s still getting there with a little help from some pretty uncommon people. But no, indeed, it is not the government.

It’s interesting to see Bush’s desire to force NASA into delegating off all of its stuff to private sector industry – coincidentally today, a presidental panel reached the conclusion that NASA should look to private industry “to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA.”

So yes, the common man. Making it into space. The Everyman rising up, in the great whir of our machinary.

Mike Melvill and SpaceShipOne Seahawk Stadium Experience Music Project KEXP Radio Allen Telescope Array at SETI