Science, Space Probes and Cylons

The US$3.3 billion Cassini mission is about to rendezvous with Saturn, but if some had had their way the robot probe would never have left the ground.

Dr Kevin Grazier, a scientist from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California, was in New Zealand briefly and took the opportunity to give a public lecture on the mission at Waikato University. Afterwards he spoke to NZ Skeptic.

NZS: What brings you to New Zealand?

KG: About five years ago, Philip Sharp at Auckland University read a scientific article that I published, and it turns out that we have very similar research interests. He is interested in developing mathematical and computational methods for doing simulations of solar system celestial mechanics. I’m interested in that, but more interested in applying these methods to answer questions into our solar system’s origin and evolution. I’m in New Zealand to collaborate with Philip on a couple of papers on numerical methods, which we will be publishing soon.

NZS: What is your role on the Cassini mission?

KG: I’m investigation scientist for the Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem. There are 12 instruments on Cassini — associated with each is a team of scientists. These scientists provide me with lists of observations they would like Cassini to make. I then have to determine, to the second, when the spacecraft will be in the proper position to make the observations.

NZS: At your talk you mentioned there was a bit of a backlash on the Cassini mission in the early days. Can you expand on that?

KG: Because Cassini has 72.3lb of plutonium oxide on board encased in three RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generators), there was a small but vocal movement which wanted the launch stopped back in 1997. Their claim, which I think Nasa countered quite well, was that if there was a launch accident the plutonium could be dispersed widely. Ironically there are still people who think that somehow Cassini can come back to Earth with its radioactive payload to poison the Earth — sorry, that’s not possible.

NZS: How can you respond to people who think this way?

KG: Well, it seems like every year there is the “Astronomical Catastrophe du Jour”. Let’s go back to 1997 and Comet Hale-Bopp. First it was supposedly on a collision course with Earth. Then, after it passed, it was supposedly on a collision course with the sun, as if that would matter. Astronomers were saying otherwise, but there were folks in the media and folks who wrote books, and folks who made web pages, who were “in the know”, and “knew the real facts that astronomers won’t tell you”. What I tell people in this case is, this is an excellent opportunity for you to calibrate your sources. Here, astronomers are saying one thing, the detractors are saying another. When all this has come and gone, recall who said what, and keep that in mind next time (the next time, in this case, being the planetary alignment on the fifth of May 2000).

NZS: You’ve given public talks about Mars. Do you get asked about the Face?

KG: I talk to school groups fairly regularly, but I talk about the Cydonian face only when asked. Actually that’s not quite true. In my standard Mars talk, I build up to a slide in which I promise them I’m going to show them a photo of the face on Mars they’ve never seen. Then I show a smiley face imposed over a crater on Mars.

Actually, when I talk about Mars I usually have a slide with me showing the 1976 Viking image in which the formation in Cydonia looks like a face, as well as the much higher resolution 1997 Mars Global Surveyor images, in which we clearly see this is a naturally occurring feature.

Some people don’t want to believe that, and say it’s a Nasa cover-up. You just have to accept what’s staring you in the face. You know, my job is completely open, we don’t do anything with the military, everything we do is wide open, and people just can’t accept that. It’s not a conspiracy, we see what we see. We release what we see.

NZS: Are skeptics an endangered species?

KG: Sometimes it seems that way, and it’s astounding when I hear some of the beliefs some of my students hold, coming into the class. Am I a skeptic? Any scientist is a skeptic, or should be.

Coming Soon: The Cassini-Huygens Show

Cassini is the largest and most sophisticated spacecraft ever sent into deep space. It began its seven-year, three billion-kilometre journey in 1997. Speaking at Waikato University in February, Kevin Grazier told the audience 17 nations had contributed to building the spacecraft, and more than 200 scientists worldwide will study its data.

“We’re on course for a July 1 orbit insertion, and the spacecraft’s operating fantastically and sending back information already,” he said.

Riding piggy-back on Cassini is the Huygens probe, which is to detach from Cassini on December 23. It will plunge into the atmosphere of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 31 known moons and the only moon in the solar system with an appreciable atmosphere — which makes it of great interest to scientists.

“Hopefully we’ll get images as it descends through that atmosphere, which we think is very similar to the atmosphere Earth had that gave rise to life. A term often applied to Titan is that it is the early Earth in a deep freeze.”

After watching the Gemini and Apollo launches as a child in Michigan, Dr Grazier decided when he got to college he would take up space. “My educational career was dedicated to getting into where I’m working now — at JPL.”

JPL, whose first director was New Zealand-born William Pickering, began as a laboratory dedicated to jet propulsion, which changed with the launch of Sputniks I and II — “we instantly saw we were behind in this thing called the space race!

“JPL became the Nasa centre building spacecraft for earth orbiting and then planetary exploration — we’ve been sending spacecraft to planets for over 40 years now.”

Dr Grazier has another claim to fame which he shared on the night. A fan of science fiction, he played a Cylon centurion (one of the bad robots) in the Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming trailer. “I approached them about me being a science advisor to the show, and they stuck me in this Cylon outfit!”

It was, he says, an out of this world experience, if somewhat hot and restrictive. He’s just accepted the job of science advisor on the upcoming TV series of Battlestar, so might get a chance to wear the suit again. In the meantime, there’s Cassini to keep an eye on, and landing a probe on an unexplored moon.

For further updates on the Cassini mission, visit the JPL website:

Old Rope and Dodgy Memories

Claire Le Couteur reports from the 2003 Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington.

This year’s conference, held at Victoria University, began with a social gathering followed by a presentation by artist and teacher Bill Taylor, who described his “Time Line” installation, which covered three walls of the lecture theatre.

The carefully measured 4.6km of rope were strung in lengths around the room. Articles such as shells, feathers and animal skulls were attached in their appropriate parts of the time line, which provided a visually impressive indication of the time elapsed since the formation of the Earth, with humanity’s portion accounting for only a tiny section at the very end. Bill has been a Royal Society Teaching Fellow this year, resident at the School of Earth Sciences at Victoria University.

Speakers on Saturday covered a wide range of topics, but the startling results produced by Maryanne Garry’s psychology students in their investigations of human memory formation and fallibility made their presentations a highlight.

It was humbling to note that, when asked to watch a short video segment, around a third of the audience failed to spot a large gorilla walk through a basketball game! Small comfort can be gained by the recognition that this is the typical proportion that fails to do so, a salutary warning against potential smugness….

These presentations complemented other talks on progress on the Christchurch Civic Crèche case, given by Lynley Hood, and another about the pitfalls that Skeptics member Jonathon Harper has faced in preparing a paper on the same case.

Several speakers covered the problem of how science is communicated, including the influence of the internet. Bruce Taylor, from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment made a plea for members to read and make submissions on a discussion paper that is part of a project to examine the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making.

The damp, windy Wellington weather marred the planned visit to the Carter Observatory following dinner at the Skyline Restaurant, making star gazing difficult, but this was compensated for by an illustrated presentation by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society on the origins and structure of Stonehenge. They also outlined their plans to construct a southern hemisphere copy of Stonehenge (Stonehenge-Aotearoa) at a site in the Wairarapa, for astronomical education purposes. They intend to open this to the public for viewing, and have already had some interest expressed from New Zealand-based Druids! The planetarium show on Mars gave a good overview on what sort of ideas people have had about the Red Planet in fact and fiction. Nano-bacteria may not be as romantic as H G Wells’ invaders, but their implications for life in the universe as just as immense.

Australian taxation consultant and skeptic, Richard Lead entertained on Sunday, with his talk on scam artists and snake-oil salesmen. Some of the dodges were well known, such as versions of the Nigerian “bank millions” scam, but the magical “purple plates” were new to most of us. While the Nigerian scam may seem obviously dodgy, it apparently brings in $US200 million annually in earnings to that country, and the Australian version of the Commerce Commission has had strong responses to its bogus ads for “bluebottle farm” investments, with people happy to send money in to such ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes. Richard’s main lesson was to drill into the audience’s collective consciousness, the vital ten-word phrase designed to protect anyone from being taken: “Let’s pretend it’s true. How would the world be different?”

David Rankin, general manager of Health Purchasing for ACC, reassured us that ACC has a firm commitment to identifying effective treatment and funding interventions that work. His session on the commission’s support for evidence-based medicine provided some interesting information on what they are and aren’t prepared to fund, but ended on a possibly disquieting implication that if there isn’t evidence to say a procedure doesn’t work, then it may indeed get the green light. More research is required!

The conference concluded with a panel discussion on consumer rights and protection, involving representatives from the Press Council, Medsafe and the Consumers’ Institute. The 120-strong attendees were armed with flyers on complaints procedures courtesy of a number of organizations and came away with a better understanding of how effective complaints can be made, and what grounds are likely to be ones which work.

Many thanks are due to Conference Convenor, Joanna Wojnar for her sterling work in organising an excellent gathering. We look forward to next year’s conference in Palmerston North.

The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be

For almost half a century, it’s seemed like human destiny to go into Space. When we were kids, everyone wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. The loss of the Columbia space shuttle hasn’t extinguished that dream, but it firmly reminds us that leaving the Earth behind is a very difficult thing to do. If things were just a little bit different – if our species were as big as elephants, or aquatic, or if the Earth’s gravity were much stronger, it may have been impossible. As it is, raising a human being into low Earth orbit, to say nothing of going further, is a hugely expensive proposition. And once up there, the lack of gravity leads to muscle wasting and other physiological problems. Food and air also need to be brought up from the planet below.

Perhaps in the future the problems will be overcome. Science fiction writers envisage space elevators riding smoothly and cheaply to staging posts in geostationary orbit. Perhaps raw materials can be mined from the moon or the asteroids rather than dragged out of Earth’s gravity well. Rotating, wheel-shaped space stations may be able to simulate gravity. We may be able to establish artificial life-supporting ecosystems on these stations. But ultimately, it has to be asked why humans need to be in Space at all. It would be far easier to establish colonies under the sea, but this has not been done, and there are no serious plans to do so. We don’t need the living space. There are no natural resources that are worth the expense of going to fetch them, nothing on which to base an economy, no realistic prospect of trade with Mother Earth.

Space is like Antarctica. Hostile, no place for humans to live on an extended basis, but oh, so fascinating. We go into Space for the same reason we go to Antarctica, to learn more about the world around us, and about ourselves. And that, ultimately, is reason enough.

Arthur C Clarke dreamed of manned communications centres high above the Earth. Though the principle of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit has become a reality, the giant stations of Clarke’s imagination have not, and never will. Clarke, or anyone else in the 1940s, could not have realised how small, reliable and efficient electronic componentry would become. You don’t need people on hand to replace burned-out valves.

More than anything else, this electronics revolution is the reason the manned space programme is struggling. There’s no commercial reason for live humans to be there, and even the scientific rationale is looking shaky. The solar system is already being explored, courtesy of Voyager, Pathfinder and company, and far more efficiently than humans could hope to do; what’s more their advantage will only become more pronounced. And hardly anyone grieves overmuch when a robot crashes and burns in the frozen wastes of Mars.

It’s funny how things work out. Back in the 60s everyone assumed that by now we’d have been to Mars and established permanent bases on the Moon. I guess it just goes to show there’s no such thing as destiny.

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Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:


Marianas Trench:

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:

National Academy of Science:

The Sirius Mystery

ROBERT Temple’s book The Sirius Mystery suggests that astronauts from Sirius visited Earth in ancient times, 5000 years or more ago. These beings were amphibious humanoids, with the lower body fish-tailed. The evidence for this amazing assertion hangs largely on legend and folklore plus one piece of very puzzling astronomical evidence.

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“Face” on Mars a Trick of Nature

There is no “face” on the Red Planet, according to pictures sent back from the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor. The BBC’s science correspondent says the news will dampen down the controversy that has raged since images were transmitted back to Earth in 1976 from the Viking spacecraft.

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THE other day I was doing a spot of painting with the help of a friend. She was telling me about a fancy dress party she’d gone to, and how some friends had dressed up all in green, as aliens.

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