Saturday, October 03, 2009

Random Linkage 03/10/09

Dawn Journal: Good performance means a longer stay at Vesta!
'Dawn is celebrating the second anniversary of leaving its home planet by engaging in the same function it has performed most of its time in space: with the utmost patience, it is using its ion propulsion system to gradually modify its orbit around the Sun.'

MESSENGER Gains Critical Gravity Assist for Mercury Orbital Observations
‘MESSENGER successfully flew by Mercury yesterday, gaining a critical gravity assist that will enable it to enter orbit about Mercury in 2011 and capturing images of five percent of the planet never before seen. With more than 90 percent of the planet’s surface already imaged, MESSENGER’s science team had drafted an ambitious observation campaign designed to tease out additional details from features uncovered during the first two flybys. But an unexpected signal loss prior to closest approach hampered those plans.’
(Nice images, despite the glitch.)

Cosmic Rays Hit 50-Year High. Galactic cosmic rays have just hit a Space Age high, new data from a NASA spacecraft indicates.
'"In 2009, cosmic ray intensities have increased 19 percent beyond anything we've seen in the past 50 years," said Richard Mewaldt of Caltech. "The increase is significant, and it could mean we need to re-think how much radiation shielding astronauts take with them on deep-space missions."'

Increase in sea levels due to global warming could lead to 'ghost states'
'Global warming could create "ghost states" with governments in exile ruling over scattered citizens and land that has been abandoned to rising seas, an expert said yesterday.'

Clues To Reversing Aging Of Human Muscle Discovered

'A study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has identified critical biochemical pathways linked to the aging of human muscle. By manipulating these pathways, the researchers were able to turn back the clock on old human muscle, restoring its ability to repair and rebuild itself.'

Swedish parents win right to name sprog 'Q'

'The parents of a Jämtland boy have emerged triumphant from the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court, aka Regeringsrätten, and may henceforth legally refer to the sprog as "Q".'

Friday, October 02, 2009

More Martian Ramblings

Soon after posting a short note on Paul Davies's proposal about getting to Mars cheaply by staging one-way missions, I ran into my friend Oliver Morton, who pointed me towards a post on his Mainly Martian blog that with takes apart Davies's claims in meticulous detail. Oliver is a Mars-head from way back - his book, Mapping Mars, is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of observation and exploration of the red planet - and his demolition job is pretty comprehensive. Cutting out a return vehicle wouldn't lower the cost of the mission by as much as Davies suggests; if the one-way trip isn't a suicide mission, the Mars explorers will have to set up a permanent base camp under extreme and arduous conditions, and will need continuous resupply from Earth for the forseeable future; the 'lifeboat' argument for space colonisation elides the uncomfortable fact that most people will be left behind. And so on.

All in all, it's a bracing dose of realism. If there is a cheap way of going to Mars, a one-way trip isn't the way to do it. (Still, as an irresponsible SF writer, I feel there's plenty of fictional traction in the scenario. I've already dabbled in it, as the background story of one of the secondary characters in The Secret of Life; now I'm wondering what would happen if, say, there was a privately funded one-way mission to Mars that had to rely on viewers' ratings to keep its astronauts resupplied: a Robinson-Crusoe-On-Mars reality show. Or suppose a one-way mission made a go of it with the help of a substantial resupply programme, and fifty years later their descendants were faced with the bill...).

I do take issue, though, with Oliver's last point:
Human Mars exploration is indeed a fine goal, and it is quite possible that fairly early on there will be some who elect to stay. But the only real argument for doing it sooner or rather than later is the selfish one of wanting to see/participate in it personally. I can appreciate that, but I don't think it's a compelling policy point. There are a lot of other big exciting projects to inspire us -- a new energy infrastructure for the world, the millennium development goals, in pure science the development of telescopes for characterising the atmospheres and possible biospheres of exoplanets.
Yes, going to Mars as soon as possible for personal reasons isn't a compelling reason (even if you are a zillionaire who can fund the entire caper). And yes, there are plenty of other ways to spend the money. But I'm not convinced that funding of expensive space missions diverts essential resources from more pressing problems here on Earth. It's a straw man argument that's been around since the Apollo missions, and there's no evidence that cash cut from NASA funds goes to humanitarian aid or other scientific projects instead; either it goes elsewhere in the overloaded federal budget, or it simply isn't spent. And it isn't as if all that money is blasted into orbit, never to return. Most of it stays right here. It's spent on research and development, on construction of infrastructure, and on the salaries of the thousands of men and women who are involved in supporting manned missions in every kind of way. And if manned missions are cut out of the NASA programme, then all that expertise is lost, and so is the momentum.

The International Space Station is due to be decomissioned in a few years; if it is, that will put an end to the need for manned missions to low Earth orbit. And although there's talk about going to the Moon, we've already been there, and the main rationale for returning is that it would be a staging post or training ground for the Big Leap Outwards. Given that funds are limited, why not start planning and working towards that Big Leap now, with missions to Near Earth asteroids, a round trip around Venus, and maybe a mission to Phobos, rather than a diversion to the Moon? The romantic in me would like to think that kind of thing might be possible in my life time, at least . . .

Xposted to Pyr-o-mania

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Three, Chapter Five

Sri Hong-Owen was walking a transect of the rim forest early one morning, collecting hand crabs for a population survey, when Euclides Peixoto called her out of the blue. He told her that there’d been a little trouble she should know about, back on Earth, and read out a brief official announcement about a successful action against a nest of criminals in Antarctica who had been in flagrant breach of the new regulations controlling scientific research. Survivors had been arrested and transported to Tierra del Fuego; their laboratories had been destroyed.

‘I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but there it is,’ Euclides said, not sounding sorry at all.

‘Alder. Is he one of the survivors?’


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Another Commercial Break

Gardens of the Sun is amongst the deluge of books published on this Super Thursday. So why not head out to your favourite bookshop, go straight past the piles of stuff by TV personalities towards the quiet calm of the SF section, and do the right thing? Readers in the US might like to know, if they don't already, that The Quiet War is available for download to their Kindles.

I'll be posting the last extract from Gardens of the Sun tomorrow: a long chapter that will bring us to the end of the third section, and the midway of the book.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The World Turns

I'm currently rewatching The Sopranos. Frank Sinatra's version of this lovely bittersweet Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson song plays over a montage at the opening of the first episode of the second season. But this is just as good. They knew a thing or two about life, those old guys. Durante puts all of his into this.

Bit of a place marker. Busy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Three, Chapter Four

April, the Foyn Coast of Graham Land, the Antarctic Peninsula. Winter beginning, the days dying back. The sun nearing the end of its short, low arc across the eastern horizon of the Weddel Sea, falling behind the Brazilian frigate, formerly the Admiral João Nachtergaele, now named for the murdered green saint Oscar Finnegan Ramos. The bristling superstructure of the frigate silhouetted against the bloody flare of the sunset as it sleeked in towards the coast, navigating by radar and GPS, cutting through brash ice and shouldering aside small table bergs.

(Ihe last post in this series, a long chapter that will take us to the midpoint of the novel, will go up on Friday, the day after the UK publication date.)
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