Friday, December 29, 2006

Mars just not exciting

Just about anyone with a TV set watched the first Apollo moon landing, but by Apollo 16 the public were growing tired of the spectacle and it has even been said that the Networks received complaints that reruns of I Love Lucy were been pre-empted to make way for live pictures from the moon. Now in a new survey of American youth, NASA faces the glum prospect that even before it has begun the return to the moon and plans to put a man on Mars, the younger generation feels apathy toward the missions.

The problem is more acute than you might think, since teens and twenty-somethings are the ones who in later years will be digging deep for the tax dollars to pay for these programs, especially projects that may stretch for decades at a time. NASA therefore faces a serious challenge here on earth to enthuse a new generation with the spirit of exploration. Unfortunately we’ve not had an orator of Kennedy’s standing for many years – the way Bush junior has talked about the space program has made it seem about as exiting as a tax audit, so the prospects do not seem good.

A recent workshop attended by some 80 NASA personal involved in public relations focused on the Internet as a particularly strong way of getting out the message. NASA has of course already enjoyed some success with online projects. Its Mars mission websites have received very strong levels of traffic; the Pathfinder web site received 40 million hits in a single day when the first images were beamed back of the plucky little rover on the Martian surface. Equally, when it was announced that signs of life had been detected in a Martian meteorite, President Clinton felt it important enough to comment and the story made headlines across the planet. Unfortunately these were both very much flashes in the pan. One has to wonder, even if a flying saucer touched down on the Whitehouse lawn, if in this age of soundbites and rolling news, the story would be more than a seven day wonder. The real challenge is not getting people excited, because clearly there is a latent interest for big space stories, but maintaining the commitment of the public over the dull stretches of time between the news-worthy moments. For instance, how many people give any thought to the present space program – how many even know that there is a permanent presence in space aboard the International Space Station? Were it to spring a leak and they all died horribly in orbit, it would make news, but the daily grind of routine aboard the station is hardly of interest to CNN.

NASA talks of recruiting movie stars to promote their activities, but then mentions Patrick Stewart and David Duchovny as potential partners. Well sorry David, but you are hardly a man in the public eye since the demise of The X Files, and equally, you’re both predominantly associated with science fiction. You’re simply going to be preaching to the converted. Better to ship Renee Zellweger up to the station for a week long stay. There has been some serious sounding talk of Madonna making the trip, but the Russian Duma voted the proposal down. That was actually a great shame and rather short sighted. If as reported Madonna really is keen to make the trip, then NASA might want to consider putting some pressure on their Russian partners, or flying the material girl themselves aboard a shuttle. Sure, it’s all horribly contrived and serious scientists would be horrified at the waste of time and effort, but imagine the publicity.

Something else that really needs addressing is the underlying reasons for going into space. There is a lot of talk about manufacturing in space and developing new technology that can be applied to consumer and industrial products, but such innovations have been slow in coming. Perhaps the biggest push should be made to show the Moon and Mars as potential lifeboats for the human race. Stephen Hawking made just such a case earlier in the year, and again we got that brief spike of interest, but who remembers it now? NASA could even push the high frontier metaphor. America is a country of immigrants, so what better way to promote space than as a new frontier to be conquered. I don’t look forward to the first MacDonalds on Mars, but it’s a price worth paying for the survival of the human race.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Belgium gets a fright

In a program acknowledged to have been influenced by the Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds, a fake news program in Belgium saw 30,000 concerned viewers jam switchboards. But this was no alien invasion, rather it was a salient demonstration of just how easy it is to tap into local concerns and bypass the normal common sense of viewers. Belgium is a country roughly divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south, and recent tensions between the two groups have led to constitutional amendments granting some formal recognition and autonomy to the regions. On Wednesday the 15th of December, viewers tuning into Belgium State Television were astounded to be told that the Flemish parliament had voted for Flanders' secession from the Kingdom of Belgium. The broadcast utilised real news reporters and fake outside broadcasts of jubilant crowds, and even prominent politicians took part. Such was the concern of viewers that the stations website was crashed under the strain. Television journalist Philippe Dutilleul had planned the program for two years, and has received mixed reactions to the broadcast. Flemish nationalists naturally applauded the resulting upset, but the president of Wallonia has called the TV event an "unacceptable" breach of journalistic ethics. Jean-Paul Philippot, the chief administrator of Belgian state television was called in to the responsible ministry to explain himself and receive a roasting. Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is that despite the vast range of alternative news sources available to viewers (other channels and the Internet), many still apparently took the broadcast at face value, and were genuinely concerned. It makes you wonder what would happen if a big broadcaster did something similar with terrorism. Time magazine has a detailed piece further explaining the tensions that exist between the two regions.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Google Mars to get upgrade

Google has already had running for some time a limited Martian version of their hugely popular Google Maps for Earth, allowing users to look at various features on the Martian surface and to pinpoint the locations of landers. In an agreement announced today with NASA, Google is to enhance this service significantly, allowing in due course for users to view high-resolution 3-D maps of Mars (and the Moon.) The collaboration is a growing one, with Google funding a NASA research center in Silicon Valley and using their search and indexing technology to unify and make easily accessible the vast amount of data held by NASA. Other aspects of the deal will allow real-time tracking of the International Space Station and the space shuttle from home PCs. Read more at BBC news.

Martians have invaded already say scientists

In a controversial paper by a Russian-American team of researchers, it is has been claimed that incredibly hardy microbes with an extreme resistance to high levels of radiation may have evolved on Mars. The argument goes that at no time in the Earths history has there been an evolutionary need for such extreme resistance, which is rated at several thousand times the lethal doze for a human being. It has already been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that some meteorites found on Earth had originated on Mars (they were themselves likely blasted from the Martian surface during cataclysmic meteor impacts) and given that the evidence for water on Mars keeps coming on thick and fast, it is not a great leap to imagine some of these super bugs surviving the trip to Earth. Deinococcus radiodurans is one such microbe, and in honour of its toughness, has been nicknamed "Conan the bacterium" by microbiologists. But not all scientists agree with the theory, with a counter argument raised that the radiation hardiness is simply a side effect of the microbes developing a resistance to dehydration. The BBC News site has more on this story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

War Of The Worlds comic may be revived

Back in 1996, writer Randy Zimmerman worked on a comic book mini series called The Haven And The Hellweed, which took a hard look at the realities of a modern day Earth under attack by Martians, and just how harrowing and difficult any kind of resistance would have to be. The story was continued in an intriguing sequel called The Memphis Front, but this was cancelled after only 2 issues when the publisher ran into trouble. Yet despite the long hiatus, Randy has not given up on his cherished story and while nothing has yet been formalised, there is a possibility that the first series may be reprinted, and the Memphis Front finally finished. Speaking to this website, Randy had this to say. “I've always wanted to at least finish The Memphis Front because is IS such a great, tight, story. At present I haven't worked on it in over a year, but issues 3&4 are pencilled and scripted (#3 needs to have the inks finished, while 4 needs to be lettered and inked), and #5 is plotted (or course- it's the climax of the story), but hasn't been touched since I finished typing the plot many moons ago. The WOTW stories are still very close to my heart and I do consider it to be some of my very best writing to date. There were also more stories planned - the next arc I would have done would have covered Detroit (it would cover a wider span of time as we followed the same character living in Detroit for almost the whole duration of the war), and I had another writer that was supposed to cover the invasion of Chicago (which would have taken place before Memphis), but he never took it past the plotting stage.”

There have been several other attempts to expand on The War Of The Worlds by speculating on the impact of a second invasion, most famously in the 1970’s Killraven series. Just this year, Boom Studios unleashed their Second Wave series, but neither this nor Killraven came quite as close as did The Haven And The Hellweed to capitalising on the full storytelling potential of the idea, so there is definitely cause for guarded optimism that Randy might get to at least finish The Memphis Front. Who knows, perhaps we might even get to see those Detroit and Chicago stories. It’s a franchise that could run and run. The London Front, anyone?

Martians could invade Earth

A leading British scientist has warned that plans to bring back material from Mars could imperil the Earth should people come into contact with Martian microbes. Dr John Murray, a scientist connected with Europe’s Mars Express mission reportedly believes that life is to be found on Mars, but he thinks it likely that it will be discovered in a dormant state, frozen in ancient Martian ice deposits. Murray has been leading a team at the Open University in the city of Milton Keynes who have been examining fractured features on the Martian surface that are akin to ice formations on Earth. If this is the case, it may indicate the existence of a submerged sea, 800 to 900 kilometres in size and with an average depth of 45 meters. Since the sea will date back to a much earlier era in Martian history, any primitive life that may have existed will be frozen in time. Murray is proposing a two-stage mission to validate his hypothesis, the first a probe to smash into the ice and blast out a crater, the second to land and revive any slumbering microbes. But Murray is cautious about the prospect of bringing anything living back from Mars. H.G. Wells imagined Martian invaders dying of common earthly diseases, Ray Bradbury sent colonists to Mars who infected and wiped out a Martian civilisation, but to bring Martian microbes to Earth may well prove equally cataclysmic, should one of them prove to be a virulent pathogen to which we have no natural immunity.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

There she blows! Water on Mars

In what may prove one of the most important scientific announcements in history, NASA has reported strong evidence that free flowing water has been spotted on Mars. The pictures that seem to clinch one of the longest running debates in space science have come from the now defunct orbiting Mars Global Surveyor, which recently ceased communicating with Earth. An image snapped in December 2001 of the Terra Sirenum region when compared with another taken in April 2005 seems to show a clear fresh deposit of material that has the distinctive look of water action. Close examination of the pictures even shows that the water (if indeed it was) has flowed around obstacles. Similar evidence is also seen in images snapped of the Centauri Montes region. The volume of water is likely to be small, in the region says NASA's Michael Meyer of five to ten swimming pools and the water would literally boil as it erupted from the ground. "You've heard of the smoking gun" says Meyer, "well this is the spurting gun." Of course, the pregnant implication of this discovery is that where there is water, there is quite likely life. To view the amazing pictures, visit the Mars Global Surveyor website.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More landers spotted on Mars

Further extraordinary images have arrived from Mars that show not only the presently operating Spirit rover (Opportunity was photographed several months ago) but the Viking landers as well. Shot from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the image of the Viking 1 lander also shows the discarded spacecraft shell lying some 260 meters from the lander and most amazingly, what may well be its parachute. It is planned to use the MRO to photograph other past landers in the coming months, some successful, some not. Next in line is likely to be the plucky little Mars Pathfinder, which paved the way for the highly successful Spirit and Opportunity, and of course it almost goes without saying that efforts will be made to find the resting place of the ill-fated UK mission, Beagle 2. Other lost probes that will be searched for are Nasa's Mars Polar Lander, and the Soviet craft Mars 2, Mars 3 and Mars 6. You can view the latest pictures here.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Superb new images from Mars

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is well into the science phase of its mission, using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)camera to return images of unprecedented detail, down to as close as 1 meter resolutions. Aside from the wealth of scientific information to be returned, a recent image has spotted the impact point of the Opportunity rover, with the remains of the heatshield and parachute also spotted nearby. Over the next couple of weeks, the camera will be looking for "all the easy-to-find hardware on Mars," says Professor Alfred S. McEwen of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. That includes NASA's rover Spirit, the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers, and Mars Pathfinder. You can see the Opportunity image here or see all images here. The team intends to release new images every Wednesday.

War Of The Worlds song

Sorry, but that headline is a bit of a misnomer. This is not a song about Martian invaders (wouldn't that would be fun) but a mellow little number about a relationship going to the dogs. Written and sung by the bizarrely named "Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly" (a name apparently cribbed from a computer magazine headline), the person lurking behind the name (which has a little bit of a science fiction flavour itself) is 20 year old Sam Duckworth, another of the new breed of musicians who have forged a presence online with the likes of Myspace. His first album 'The Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager' is making ripples with music critics, and while I certainly don't count myself as one, so can't judge one way or another as to the musical qualities of the song, his War Of The Worlds song is to my untrained ear a pleasant enough listen. Of course I'm slightly biased by that song title. Decide for yourself by listening at the Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly website.

Rosetta probe prepares for Mars flyby

Mission controllers for the European comet interception mission Rosetta are preparing the probe for a gravity assist flyby of Mars this February. The 3 ton probe is scheduled to meet comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, but requires 4 gravity assists along the way, sling-shotting around planets to gain speed. Rosetta has already completed one such manoeuvre around the Earth in 2005. The flyby will not however just be providing a push in the right direction from Mars. The probes instruments are being warmed up in preparation, and it will use its imaging system and imaging spectrometers to gather data about the surface and atmosphere of Mars and its chemical composition. It will also collect data about the atmosphere's interaction with the solar wind and the Martian radiation environment. Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars, will also be imaged. For a full report, go to the ESA webpage.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Scena Theatre stages War Of The Worlds

The Washington based Scene Theatre is to stage their own version of The War Of The Worlds radio broadcast this December. The play will be using the original script by Howard Koch, with the action primarily seen from the perspective of the actors in the studio, but listener reactions will also be inserted into the story, overlapping with the events in the studio. The story begins with the actors milling about in the studio preparing their lines, and will including authentic moments such as the actor playing the role of an unnamed secretary of the interior imitating the distinctive tones of President Roosevelt. This was a devious way in which Welles sidestepped the censor, who had insisted that the originally scripted role of the President would have to be removed.

Reviews are invited from anyone who attends this play. More details about the Scene Theatre at their website.

Dates: December 2 through January 14, Thurday – Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 3pm

PWYC previews: Saturday, December 2 at 7:30pm and Sunday, December 3 at 3pm

Venue: DC Arts Center (DCAC), 2438 18th Street NW,Washington DC (note: venue different from that of recent Scena Theatre productions).

Ticket prices: $25 - $32 ($5 discount to students and seniors)

Box office: Click here to buy tickets online or call 703-683-2824

Artistic Team: Robert McNamara (Director), AJ Guban (Set Design), Marianne Meadows (Lighting Design), David Crandall (Sound Design), Zoe Cowan (Costume Design), Melissa Narvaez (Properties Design)

Cast: with: Joe Baker, Dan Brick, Kathryn Cocroft, Kim Curtis, John Geoffrian, Elizabeth Jernigan, Michael McDonnell, Ellie Nicole, Karen Novack, Sasha Olinick, Lee Ordeman, John Tweel, Alex Zasatavovich

A photo from rehearsals can be found here.