NASA Misses Its Own Historic Moment

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1:30 a.m. PDT.   I’m sitting in my living room watching NASA-TV in the middle of the night to see the space shuttle Atlantis’ final landing, and with it, the end of the STS program. But the most important factor in Atlantis last touchdown is it also signals the end of the United States’ manned spaced program. 

I have a few opinions to express over this turn of events.

On a practical note, I’m wondering why NASA decided to end this historic flight in darkness, when the vast majority of Americans are still in bed (leaving only a handful of hardcore flight watchers willing to sacrifice sleep to say we were there). It gives one pause to ponder why NASA decided it was better to sneak Atlantis back down earth under cover of the pre-dawn gloom rather than plan a final landing with a huge celebration to tout the value and successes of putting humans into space?  It is my studied opinion NASA has, once again, been its own worst enemy with regard to publicizing its accomplishments.

My other thought sitting here is having the full awareness that we as a country have ceded our predominance in human flight, a fact that the Russians, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and European space agencies can only consider an enormous gift to their programs. They will undoubedtly continue to accelerate their efforts to exploit the infinite and rich discoveries that await those first humans who have the vision and courage to push past the bonds of low earth orbit. 

It deeply grieves me to know in my lifetime, I witnessed both the beginning and the end of my country’s foray into that great human endeavor to explore above the sky and beyond the finite limits of our oceaned world. 

But my grief is tinged with frustration, because it didn’t have to end this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be ending at all!

Updated: Rosetta Still Speaks–Not From Egypt’s Eternal Sands but in a Voice “Thro’ Vast Immensity can Pierce”

It's Just One Boring Day After Another. Photo Courtesy Zazzle.com, UK

I don’t know about you, but my life most weeks is pretty routine.  Even though I work in a setting where no two days are the same, in some respects (I never know which patients I’ll be seeing or what their issues will be) my schedule is predictable, Monday through Friday, with a night of being on-call every other week (One thing is certain, here.  If you get called in the night, it’s never good!  Chaplains don’t get called for the happy stuff at night—that’s just a given.  And with our large service area and being a Trauma II hospital, it’s a rare night I don’t get called).

With that in mind, I look to other sources to provide the unique, the unexpected, the stunning, the beautiful, the historic.  What takes my breath away? Beauty where there should only be the drab.  Inspiration from the simplest of the simple where there should only be plainness.  And historic perspectives never glimpsed by the human eye.

Lagerfeld (TM) Rose Blossom. Photo: David Waggoner

We’ve gotten used to the magnitude of the beauty of the galaxy from photos by the Hubble Space Telescope, or the Twin Keck’s on Mauna Kea’s lofty peak, or composites made possible by the digitization of multiple pictures of the same object taken in various light spectra by different space and earth-based observatories.  The robotic

Cassini Huygens Titan Montage. Photo: NASA/JPL/ESA

probe expeditions to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, such as Galileo and Cassini, respectively, not to mention the earlier Voyagers, have so completely revised our understanding of those miniature solar systems that astronomy textbooks written even five years ago are hopelessly out of date.  In a century Mars has gone from a planet believed to have a struggling civilization, to a dusty, dead, rocky world with no potential, back to a world of potential and interesting; the search for life in space has zeroed in on it as prime suspect #1.  The discovery and confirmation of water ice, just inches below

Mars 27Aug03 at Opposition by HST. Photo: HST/NASA

its surface is reigniting the global interest to send a human crew to investigate, even though the political and economic chaos rippling around the makes the realization of that dream tenuous at best.  Saturn’s moon Titan has now been to be discovered to be so earthlike, although its rains, and rivers and oceans are of methane that astronomers are stunned and rewriting what a planet is and what an active environment can be every few months.  I could go on and on.

Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE, Disc. 1799 in Egypt. Photo: British Museum, London

The picture below fits into the category of “Historic Views Never Seen Before by Human Eyes”.  The photographer is the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Space Probe launched in 2004 whose ultimate destination is the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is scheduled to reach in 2014.  Like a miniature Casinni-Huygens, Rosetta will launch a probe, the Philae Lander to the surface of the comet and gather data to be radioed back to Earth.  So it has a way to go, but is on track to make its target date.  Rosetta’s trajectory is a gravity-assisted boost cycle, circling the Sun and planetary flybys to increase its speed and set it up for its ultimate goal.

Along the way, Rosetta has encountered several asteroids, the most recent being 21 Lutetia.  This is the last asteroidal encounter before the probe is put into deep space hibernation as it flies toward the comet.

Rosetta Spacecraft Probe. Image Courtesy: ESA

Just released is one of those stunning photos, historic in that no human eye has ever seen 21 Lutetia other than as a dim dot of light, but in the distance is the grand dame of the Solar System, Saturn.  The black of space punctuated by a small asteroid—a piece of the earliest solar system—in the foreground and in the distance—massive Saturn, millions of miles distant but still unmistakable with its signature rings.  The asteroid photo, taken from a distance of  22,300 miles, shows it is approximately 81 miles on its long axis.  Such stark beauty of the very small and the massive opposite in their juxtaposition against the eternal night of deep space takes my breath away!

21 Lutetia Asteroid from 36,000 km by Rosetta with Saturn in Background. Photo: ESA

I end with these prescient verses written nearly 300 years ago by a man who could only imagine in the most rudimentary fashion the reality of deep space, but ended up describing it with a beauty in word, expressing an amazingly close reality of what we know today:

Of man, what see we but his station here,

From which to reason, or to which refer?

Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,

Observe how system into system runs,

What other planets circle other suns,

What vary’d being peoples every star,

May tell why heav’n has made us as we are.

by Alexander Pope, OF THE NATURE AND STATE OF MAN WITH RESPECT TO THE UNIVERSE, from The Essay on  Man, Epistle 1. 1732

21-Lutetia Close Up: An Update

The European Space Agency has released another image of 21-Lutetia taken by Rosetta at a distance (astronomically speaking) of only 1965 miles.  That’s approximately the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Indianapolis, non-stop.  Or, if you live East of the Mississippi, from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona.

Asteroid 21 Lutetia from 1965 miles (3162 km) by Rosetta Spacecraft. Image: ESA

From Astronomy.com:

The July 10 flyby was a spectacular success with Rosetta performing faultlessly. Closest approach took place at a distance of 1,965 miles (3,162 kilometers).

The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 81 miles (130 km).

The pictures come from Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) instrument, which combines a wide-angle and a narrow-angle camera. At closest approach, details down to a scale of 200 feet (60 meters) can be seen over the entire surface of Lutetia.

In Memoriam: Phoenix Lander, Discoverer of Water on Mars

Phoenix Mars Lander. Artist's Conception. Image: LibraryTechie.com

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The Tool that Made History:

The Robotic Arm (RA) is 2.35 meters (just under 8 ft) long with an elbow joint in the middle, allowing the arm to trench about 0.5m (1.6ft) below the martian surface, deep enough to where scientists believe the water-ice soil interface lies. At the end of the RA is a scoop for digging and acquiring loose soil. On the bottom side of scoop is a scraping blade for scraping hard icy soil and protruding from the backside of the scoop is a circular rasp used for acquiring icy-soil samples by pulverizing the icy soil and ejecting it into the back of the scoop for delivery to TEGA. Citation: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/science_ra.php:

Phoenix Mars Lander Robotic Arm. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Trenches with Proof of Water Ice:

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Phoenix Lander Images--Proof of Disappearing Water Ice. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Mission’s End: Mars Has Given Up its Most Precious Secret…To Date:

The JPL Press Release, 24 May 2010: PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. A new image transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

“The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime,” said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix’s science activities will continue for some time to come.”

Last week, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander. No transmission from the lander was detected. Phoenix also did not communicate during 150 flights in three earlier listening campaigns this year.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Photo from Orbit Confirming Irreparable Damage to the Lander. Photo: JPL/NASA

Earth-based research continues on discoveries Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern site where it landed May 25, 2008. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. However, the slim possibility Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

An image of Phoenix taken this month by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. “The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground.”

Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Trench Shovel Photo From Phoenix Onboard Camera. Photo: JPL/NASA

“We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil — that’s where the action is.”

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix. More recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

“Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.”

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Phoenix Mars Lander Mission Patch. Image: UAriz/CSA/JPL/NASA

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We now wait with some impatience for the next mission to cross the great void that separates us from this sister world in hope that from an era of warmer eons, liquid water, and powered by the dynamo of the Sun’s solar engine, that the potential for life was realized.  Well done to the thousands whose individual efforts crafted this small but amazing space-faring robot, flung from our own watered world to descend onto Ares’ dry and dusty surface, scraping its frozen crust to reveal the most precious element of life as we know it: plain old frozen water.

Μπράβο πουλί του πάγου και φωτιάς

A Tale of Two Planets

"No one would have believed..." Photo: JPL/NASA

 

A Tale of Two Stories

My dear readers might expect the opening lines of a post bearing the title with such an obvious play on the most-published original English story in the world to follow the path of Dickens’ immortal words.  In this case, however, I ask your indulgence to open with the words of another world-famous piece of literature, known for its dramatic presentation, but far fewer have ever read its introductory sentence:   

NO one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

These words written in 1898 by the equally immortal English author, H.G. Wells, open his universally known War of the Worlds. I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that like many, if not most contemporary Americans, I know Wells’ story through its radio and cinematic productions, but have never read the book.  I had to look up a copy of the text on-line, because unlike Dickens’ opening salvo in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, Wells opens his   

War of the Worlds, 1st Edition, 1898. Image: Public Domain

 

at a much more subtle and cerebral level, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…”  Watched by whom?  Martians: perhaps the first modern depiction of alien life prescient of the field of astrobiology.  Amazingly, many would have believed it; millions did.  Mars was the planet of fanciful speculation, with good reason.  But I will return to that later.  Nevertheless, the universe was still a relatively small and cozy place.  Science, as we know it today, was a toddler awkwardly running to and fro, counting and building things.   

Yet a revolution was brewing, pushed by industry through the 1700s and 1800s, astonishing breakthroughs on how to build things big, how to make an inconceivable jump from the strength and power of humans and beasts to the harnessing of natural elements into machines with the power of a thousand beasts and ten thousand laborers.  That however was prelude, for another force was being created and directed, a force that would not only create power but carry information.   

Though this revolution grew, another vortex formed like a gathering tropical storm, from an unexpected province, not over the consequences of the growing industries that were rapidly building on each step of the toddling sciences, but from the increasing rotation of the storm creating winds and havoc–its target–the very ground and the life that lived upon it:  Geology.  Biology.  Evolution.  The age of the earth.  The origin of life.  Bones, now stone, dug from the ground.  Ocean shells on mountain peaks.  That confluence of the science of the human mind and the science of the divine mind created a cyclone that like the Great Red spot on far distant Jupiter’s gaseous oceanic atmosphere, has now raged for over a century and a half.   

As the turmoil over the origin of the world and life raged across the world, something much more quiet and solitary was happening after dark.  For 300 years, since a Dutch oculist placed two pieces of curved glass into a tube and realized it could magnify the image at a distance, and soon after an upstart Italian mathematics professor pointed it at the sky, a select group of men, (almost always supported by women, from a sister who was devoted to her brother’s work, to a room filled with highly educated astronomers, but denied access to the telescopes even as these instruments were growing in sophistication), began counting what they saw in the sky.  What they saw amazed them.  Very slowly it began to dawn upon them that these views of the heavens were going to change the universe in ways so profound that the debate over evolution or divine creation would pale almost to insignificance.  Now, if they could just figure out why.   

War of the Worlds Title Page, 1st Edition, 1898. Photo: Public Domain

 

In the three decades that followed Wells’ words, Science matured at staggering rate, accomplishing more in those thirty years than perhaps had been achieved in the previous thirty centuries.  It is difficult to describe in words the sheer magnitude of the transformation of reality itself.  The universe was not small, it was huge beyond comprehension.  It was not young but old, so old that nothing in the cherished scriptures of three of the world’s greatest religions gave the slightest hint of that age.  And that included an ancient age of the very Earth itself.   

That was only the beginning of the stunning revelations.  As the discoveries of science accelerated through the Twentieth Century, Edwin Hubble in 1929 proved the Milky Way galaxy was but one island universe among, not thousands, but billions, and they were not suspended motionless in the cosmic void, but were moving, and moving at speeds unimaginable previously to any human in history.  Away from each other. Which led to only one other even more stunning conclusion: There had been a beginning.  But what that beginning looked like was so close to being beyond human comprehension that nearly a century later, millions of people still cannot bring themselves to accept it.   

It would make no difference though to those who stepped into the staggering reality of the universe.  Within that one stupendous century powered flight was invented and human technology leapfrogged from aircraft barely able to climb into the air, to a machine of such great power and thrust, that humans broke the gravitational bonds of Earth.  A scant 40 years after Hubble discovered the true nature of the universe, two humans would step upon the surface of Earth’s moon.   

By the end of the 20th Century, these two stories, one by Dickens and the other by H.G. Wells still command the literary attention of the world.  At the same time, the two stories of reality, one guided by a devotion to a divinely inspired word, and the other guided by an inspired effort of humans to describe in words what they observed still have not found a way to comfortable accommodate each other, although growing numbers are searching for that integrative spark of the fusion of the two.  It is among these seekers that the tale of two planets becomes a revelatory event, a new genesis, indisputable in its truth and its impact.   

A Tale of Two Planets

Earth and Mars to Scale. Photo: JPL/NASA

 

When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, the photos above did not, could not, exist.  What Wells had at his disposal were maps such as this drawing by the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877:   

Mars Map by Schiaparelli, 1877. One of the first attempts to map the Martian surface. Originally published in "Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (German encyclopaedia), 1888." Photo: Public Domain

 

A century later, through the combined efforts of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites orbiting the Red Planet, using sophisticated imaging equipment, the true topography of Mars has been revealed:   

Mars Composite Topography Map of the Surface. Photo: JPL/NASA/ESA

 

The story, however, is a tale of two planets.  In similar fashion, Earth-orbiting satellites have also mapped the topography of our own blue planet:   

Earth Composite Topographic Map. Image: GFSC/NASA

 

One of the most interesting facts about Mars and Earth is that Mars has almost the same amount of land area as Earth.  The difference is that Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the planet.  Land accounts for 148.94 million square kilometers  on Earth.  Mars has 144.80 square kilometers of land.  Where, then is the water?  That’s a question that has been relentlessly pursued since, well, Schiaparelli labeled surface details on his map “canale”, which was inaccurately translated into English as “canals” rather than “channels.”  Earth-based telescopes could see that the north and south poles of the planet had what appeared to be ice-caps, which grew and shrunk with the seasons (which are about twice as long as Earth’s due to Mar’s orbit being about 80 million km on average farther from the Sun).  But was it enough to have once given Mars vital oceans?  Those hopes were dashed (though prematurely) when in 1964 NASA’s Mariner 4, the first space probe to make it to Mars sent back pictures of a dry, dead, world.  Still, the prospect of a once wetter Mars remained tantalizing.  Over the course of the next half century as more robotic missions were flung toward this enigmatic world, the possibility of water, in great quantities continued to lurk just under the surface.   

The breakthrough finally came in the first decade of the 21st Century, as ever-increasingly sophisticated space probes, some in orbit, some as landers, photographed, radar-probed, scratched the soil, traversed the surface testing thousands of samples of rock and soil.  The chemical hints of water were everywhere, but the proof seemingly nowhere.  Schiaparelli’s channels were there, as were volcanoes of a height that stunned planetary scientists.  Mars bears the scar of the largest canyon known in the solar system, Valles Marineris, as wide as the continental United States, deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon on a scale so massive as to make the great rift in the Earth look like a scratch by comparison.  Ice on the poles was confirmed, too, although the amount of carbon dioxide ice “dry ice” mixed with the water is substantial.  Still, the volume of water seemed too small, even accounting for evaporation and sublimation (liquid turning from ice to gas without going through a fluid state).   

Mars: Valles Marineris with U.S. Map Overlaid. Photo: NASA

 

In 2008, JPL/NASA/University of Arizona in partnership with multiple countries and international companies successfully landed Phoenix at 68.2° North.  Although it was not designed to traverse the martian surface like the wildly successful rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, it had a shovel to scrape through the soil.  On July 31, 2008, in a trench dug no deeper than a child might dig in the sand on a beach, images from Phoenix proved, once and for all that Mars had water:   

Evaporating Ice on Mars, Phoenix Lander, 31 July 2008. Photo: JPL/NASA/Univ of Arizona

 

Ice exposed in the trench on Sol 20 (the designation of a day on Mars), had evaporated/sublimated away on Sol 24.  What if the Red Planet had once been the second Blue Planet?   

Mars with Oceans Current Topography. Image: MOLA & NASA/JPL/MSSS

 

And all this brings us to this photo of an unassuming-looking rock.  Looks, however can be deceiving, for this rock is a meteorite, and it is from all places, Mars.   

ALH84001,0. A Meteorite from Mars. Discovered: Antarctica, 1984, Wt: 1930.9g, Photo: JSC/NASA.

 

Although meteorites confirmed from Mars are extremely rare (only 12 have been verified), the most astonishing possibility as slices of three of these extraterrestrial rocks were subjected to electron microscopy, structures were present that appeared remarkably like microfossils found in earth rocks.   

Possible Fossilized Nanofossil from ALH84001. Photo: NASA

 

And this one from the Nakhla, Egypt Martian meteorite:   

Complex biomorphs appear on another Nakhla chip shown in this scanning electron microscope (SEM) frame. This image contains three basic forms: Broad smooth knife-shaped features, elongated features with rounded endcaps and transverse compartments or dividers, and donut shaped small features, each about 1 micrometer in diameter. One possibility is the donut-shaped features are derived from the compartments present in the elongated features (Wikipedia):   

Mars Meteorite, Nakhla Egypt, Possible Nanolife Markings. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

And, finally, this electron microscope image also from the Nakhla Martian meteorite of a possible nanofossil:   

Martian Meteorite Nakhla, Possible Nanolife Fossil Image. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

Does it not seem oddly paradoxical to recollect H.G. Wells’ opening sentence when he wrote,   

…perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

We, the humans of Earth are examining the rocks of Mars, scrutinsing them for “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water,” even if that drop of water existed billions of years ago.  We know we have found Mars’ water.  Now, are these structures the remnants of life when Mars was the second blue planet?  If that turns out to be the case, the indisputable fact that life existed on both planets, the tale of two planets will require not a new chapter, but whole new book.  For those who cling to the accounts of the Divine Word as given to a one and only act of creation, from which Homo sapiens sapiens is the capstone of the cosmic plan, they will have to grapple, as never before–regardless of the tirades of the past 150 years–with the realization that the Creator they worship is more clever and speaks with words never heard by human ears, not only on our planetary sibling, but throughout a Universe too large to comprehend, but begging us to do so, nonetheless!   

First Photo of Earth Taken from Mars' Surface by Spirit Rover. Photo: NASA

 

This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover’s navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover’s panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see.   

The inset shows a combination of four panoramic camera images zoomed in on Earth. The arrow points to Earth. Earth was too faint to be detected in images taken with the panoramic camera’s color filters. Source: NASA.   

Little did H.G. Wells ever imagine that the first Martian to look at Earth would be through robotic eyes sent from Earth.   

   

2010–The Year We Learn That Life Beyond Earth Exists?

Dr. David S. McKay, Astrobiologist. Photo: NASA

There’s a buzz out there amongst astrobiologists that before this year is out, Dr. David McKay and his research team are going to announce that they have definitively identified fossilized organisms in meteorites from Mars that have been collected on earth.

Martian microorganisms.  Martians.  Real Martians.  That bubble of perception that life exists only here on Earth will have been burst.

The next step, of course, will be to design Mars missions to determine if any of those organisms have survived Mars’ harsh and extreme history in an environment in which only extremophiles (as we now know flourish on Earth) could survive.

That those first missions will be robotic is certain.  The opportunity that a human will ever reach down and pick up a rock from the surface of Mars that potentially carries evidence of life living or fossilized in this century, at least under the sponsorship of NASA, appears increasingly doubtful in the current political and geo-centric environment.

Although we may be witness to the extinction of the hominid drive to discover the undiscovered, life confirmed beyond the delicate bubble of rock, water and air from which we were formed, literally changes the very quantumization of life itself.  It is a change that cannot be undone. From the present into the future, what it means to be living, what it means to be human will be different.  For life, as we’ve always known it, no longer requires Earth.

Martian Metorite NAKHLA 2058. Possible Fossilized Life. Microscopy Photo: NASA

There is more, however.  All technical considerations aside, if and when this announcement comes, the theological implications, as well as our geo-centric Christology, will no longer be the topic of idle speculation but confront us with a reality that demands a response to the world.

Since 1543, when Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the

Folio Pages Showing the Copernicus' Heliocentric Model. De Revolutionbus, 1543. Photo Courtesy fotosearch.com

Celestial Spheres), we have been attempting to unify our Christology with our Cosmology.  The results have been, in my opinion, at best, mixed.

Parable of the Sower, from the Plenarium or the Evangelical Book of the Year, 1516. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Pitts Theology Library, Emory Univ.

The announcement of alien life, even microbial, requires a new conversation with a new set of rules.  It shall be a heady time, indeed.  Ours is the generation that broke the shackles of gravity and set off across the Solar System.  If, too, we are to be ones who confirm that life’s seed has been sown across the expanse of space like the Sower in one of Jesus’ parables, we have much work to do.

Here are three links:

http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2010/01/11/2169791.aspx

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/47114/proof-life-mars-come-year.html

Looking into the stars that seed the night will never be the same. Ever.

Landing the Health Care Reform Bill: It Feels Like Apollo 11 Redux

The voyage of the legislation to create a Health Care Reform Bill has all the

Sen. Harry Reid Launches Health Care Reform in U.S. Senate. Photo credit: C-Span

emotional elements of landing Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969.  Health Care reform has been a long, complex mission with an uncertain outcome.  Is it an overstatement to say that landing on the Moon and returning to Earth was an easier and safer endeavor than getting the Health Care Reform Bills passed, conferenced and onto the President’s desk for signature?

At this moment, it seems almost to be the case.

When Neil Armstrong took manual control of the lunar lander to find a safe spot to set down, a thousand different things could have gone wrong.  In fact, alarms were going off in the cockpit.

As the Eagle’s landing radar acquired the surface, several computer error alarms appeared. The first was a code 1202 alarm and even with their extensive training Armstrong or Aldrin were not aware of what this code meant. However, they promptly received word from CAPCOM in Houston that the alarms were not a concern. The 1202 and 1201 alarms were caused by a processing overflow in the lunar module computer. As described by Buzz Aldrin in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, the overflow condition was caused by his own counter-checklist choice of leaving the docking radar on during the landing process. Aldrin stated that he did so with the objective of facilitating re-docking with the CM should an abort become necessary, not realizing that it would cause the overflow condition.  Source: Wikipedia

Eagle Lunar Lander just seconds after separation, Apollo 11, July 1969, Photo: NASA

It’s one thing to read about it.  As we close this 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Landing, it really is much more satisfying to watch it.  This video is one continuous shot of approximately the final 10 minutes of the descent and landing, viewed from the right window of the LEM.  The audio is quite good, as well.  Watching it still stirs in me that sense of excitement I felt as a 16 year old kid glued to the TV set with my family.

[For a similar, but NASA produced video, click HERE.  This is the final approach, and included is an inset window that tracks the Lander’s progress crater by crater.  It provides a sense of perspective for the approach.]

Regarding the impending passage of the Senate bill and then the conference process, if you tend more toward the pessimistic side, you probably agree with Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic:

If your standard for comparison is your ideal health care reform, then of course this will be disappointing. Like every bill that’s moved through Congress, this one would leave millions uninsured even after full implementation–and leave millions with coverage facing substantial, although generally not crippling, financial burdens. It would introduce some reforms to the delivery system and, according to the official cost estimates, generate budget surpluses over time. But it’s not going to radically turn American health care into a paragon of cost efficiency.

If you tend more to the optimistic side, you probably agree with Paul Krugman of The New York Times:

Let me say that I get especially, um, annoyed at people who say that the plan isn’t really covering the uninsured, it’s just forcing them to buy insurance. That’s missing not just the community rating aspect, but even more important, it’s missing the subsidies. And we’re talking about big stuff: between Medicaid expansion and further support for families above the poverty line, we’re looking at around $200 billion a year a decade from now. Yes, a fraction of that will go to insurance industry profits. But the great bulk will go to making health care affordable.

So how anyone can call a plan to spend $200 billion a year on Americans in need a defeat for progressives is a mystery.

I wish there were a public option in there; I wish there were broader access to the exchanges; I wish the subsidies were even bigger. There’s lots of work to be done, work that may eventually culminate in a true, not simulated, single payer system. But even in this form, we’re looking at something that will make America a more just, more secure nation.

If you are a Republican or Tea Party Advocate, you are most likely hoping and praying the Health Care Reform bill will suffer the fate of the Soviet Luna 15 Lunar Lander Probe that was launched three days before Apollo 11:

Luna 15, launched only three days before the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, was the third Soviet attempt to recover and bring lunar soil back to Earth. The spacecraft was capable of studying circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, and the chemical composition of lunar rocks… After completing 86 communications sessions and 52 orbits of the Moon at various inclinations and altitudes it began its descent. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin had already set foot on the Moon when Luna 15 fired its main retrorocket engine to initiate descent to the surface at 15:47 UT on 21 July 1969. Unfortunately, transmissions ceased only 4 minutes after deorbit at a calculated altitude of 3 kilometers. The spacecraft impacted the lunar surface on July 21, 1969. The spacecraft had probably crashed onto the side of a mountain.   Source: Wikipedia.

Launched 3 days before Apollo 11, the USSR's unmanned Luna 15 crashed onto the Moon's surface just hours after the Eagle had safely landed with Armstrong & Aldrin on board.

I’ll give House Minority Leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) the final word…

Photo courtesy Politico.com & BlueStateDigital.com

No, I think I’ll give this Tea Party protester the final word.  Just like the rest of us loyal and patriotic Amurricans, life without spell-check is worse than…oh, wait, he spelled the word right.  In high school he clearly decided to protest which sections of Mrs. Dewey’s English classes were not patriotic enough, because he was getting this way-too-liberal education paid for through public taxation.  And those unacceptable sections happened to include homonyms and writing complete sentences.  I think his pointy hat needs to be cone not a tri-corner.

A Tea Party Protester: The Epitome of the Well-Educated American. Photo: ImageShack

Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

Part 1

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start I to which I was alluding.

Flores sapiens next to Homo sapiens. Photo Credit: National Geographic & Nature/ Peter Brown

Sometime around six thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and the Cro Magnon (Arcahic Homo sapiens) were long extinct; one hominid now possessed all that was known to exist (the earliest dating for Homo florsiensis is currently 18K years). It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that gets harder and harder to read.  So, I’ll suggest six thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

I need to, at this point, dispel one very important, misconception.   That is the

Turkana Boy: Homo erectus, 1.5 mil. yrs. Field Museum, Chicago. Replica. Your ancestor? Yes. Your intellectual equal? Nope.

fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out, or even your cousin Zeke.  All right, maybe not cousin Zeke, but that is only because he hasn’t put down the game controller or said a single word since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 113 came out.  He may be more cyborg than human after all this time.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Geese flying over the surf. Oregon Coast, Sept '07

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was a day in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing, or the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, too, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

Lunar Elipse, Feb. 27, 2007. Photo credit: Astronomy.com

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that is secondary to our discussion, as well.

Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Photo credit: Mauna Kea Observatory

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

What was the sky?

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance

Total Solar Eclipse with Diamond Ring Effect

of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine without the twinkle of all others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Five planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - gather over the ancient Stonehenge monument in England. *Image Copyright*: Philip Perkins

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and cycles.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and cycles.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them was another thing altogether.

To explain the sky, both day and night, these individuals drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of the Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels, even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.