A New Dawn Arising

As far back through antiquity as Aristotle it was theorized that the physical world in which we live is made up of atoms. And though the ancients’ mastery of deductive reasoning led them to great leaps of enlightenment, it was not enough to accurately describe reality. “Close, but no cigar,” as they say. Complete atomic theories forged in the fires of rigorous scientific examination would have to wait more than two millennia.

The modern scientific method is, in simplest terms, a three-step process: observe; theorize; and test. It’s proven to be a very successful way of discovering nature’s secrets, but the process is far from finished when theories have passed this stage. They must withstand rigorous scientific debate and challenges, in which peers from throughout the discipline examine every aspect of the experiment from the data to the underlying mathematics and finally to the conclusions. Not until it has survived this intense scrutiny can we embrace a theory and allow it to be taken as a law.

Albert Einstein, whose theories of the macroscopic world have revolutionized our understanding of time and gravity and Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, had some of the most heated debates in scientific history over their theories. Challenges – even angry and passionate – among piers in science form a necessary fixture in its discourse and one that we relax at our own peril.

Today the peer review process serves us well as an absolutely essential part of science. Because our understanding of the universe is built in layers, with one set of laws building upon earlier ones iteratively, imagine the consequences of discovering that something we’ve taken as a fundamental law is flawed, or worse, false. Such an event would be catastrophic, so the importance of remaining diligent with peer review cannot be over stated.

Yet as strong as this process tends to be, there are those rare times when it breaks down. After all, it is a human endeavor, and humans are fallible, so when a breakdown does occur, the wise man pauses to understand why and how. He endeavors to prevent it from ever happening again.

We see just such a break down occurring in recent history following the Apollo lunar flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s when samples of rocks were returned from the moon and examined by scores of scientists. When the lunar dust settled and the papers had all been published, the scientific world proclaimed that the moon was more arid than the driest desert on earth.

That’s the way things stood for four decades: a kind of lunar science dark ages in which notions of returning to the moon, of building upon those gains so hard won at the expense of much national treasure and three astronaut’s lives, would be bluntly dismissed. Aside from the fact that the political goals behind the missions – sadly, their biggest driver – had been achieved, it simply made no scientific sense to return. Mankind was beginning to cast an eye around the solar system for a place where he could explore and perhaps settle. Any serious consideration of where next to go would necessarily have to include the concept of ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization. It’s what early pioneers called living off the land, and the idea behind it is simple. Exploration must be carried out with attention to its costs, which are kept at a minimum when consumables and materiel can be found and used at your destination. Each pound carried with the expedition costs money, so the less you take with you, the smaller the cost and the more exploration can be accomplished and made sustainable. With water being one of the most important and costly resources of any expedition, and with the lunar surface having been found utterly devoid of it, the moon was unceremoniously written off. Our nearest neighbor in space, what many call the eighth content, was now considered a dead end.

Just as the dark ages on Earth were followed by the Renaissance, the lunar dark age has given way to a enlightenment. 2009 saw new, robotic missions sent to the moon. They carried state-of-the-art instruments and beamed down to Earth volumes of new data to be examined by a fresh eyes. Within months, those science teams were sending out an electrifying discoveries that would send shock waves across the world. Water! Water had been discovered trapped in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South pole! More analysis revealed that the entire moon is covered in a thin veneer of water deposited by the solar wind, making it a renewable source.

The really big shocker was yet to come. A Brown University freshman! by the name of Thomas Weinreich published a paper in a May, 2011 edition of the journal Science in which he announced the results of a study he had recently conducted on 40-year-old rock samples from the moon. And his findings? Water! It had been there all along.

Only five years before, Alberto Saal, a professor at Brown, and some collaborators had applied to NASA to look for water in Apollo rocks. Colleagues laughed at his obvious naiveté.

How is it that so many brilliant minds could have concluded with such certainty for so long that the moon was utterly arid? Two words: Group Think. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Group Think is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.” This is precisely the reason behind our long-lived ignorance of water on the moon. Those early assertions that no water existed in lunar rock samples should have been challenged and would have had it not been for the very the arrogance that Dr. Saal encountered. It was Group Think that effectively shut down the peer-review process for decades.

As a new dawn arises on lunar science and we again look towards the moon as our next home away from Earth and source of natural resources and new opportunities, it’s important that we weigh and consider the aftermath of a certain pitfall in the human psyche. What it cost us was 40 years and an entire generation of would-be astronauts and pioneers left orphaned when Apollo was ended. We cannot allow this to happen again, so it behooves us to scan our horizons – and those hidden places right under our noses – for signs that scientific consent is being manufactured. Can you think of any? Perhaps a theory on how the Earth traps and releases energy? Could there be a theory out there in which it is proclaimed that the time for debate has passed on a science that is “settled”?

Think about it.

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Help NASA Find It’s Wayward Nanosat

I report on opportunities for the public to get involved with space exploration whenever I find them, and here’s the most recent.

If you’re a ham radio operator, you’ll be interested to know that NASA is asking for your help. This past November when the agency launched its Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite or FASTSAT, the NanoSail-D solar sail microsat stowed inside failed to deploy upon reaching orbit and was thought a loss until yesterday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when a “spontaneous” ejection was detected.

Unfortunately, no confirmation has yet been received that NanoSail-D is active, and this is where you come in. NASA reports that the beacon signal can be found at 437.270 MHz. They ask anyone detecting a signal at that frequency to report the findings to the NanoSail-D dashboard at http://nanosaild.engr.scu.edu/dashboard.htm.

Artists rendering of NanoSat-D with its solar sail fully deployed. Courtesy NASA.

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Former Senator Schmitt Cites Strong Constitutional Justification for Selected Federally Funded Research

The Founders understood the importance of science and technology in the long-term future of the United States. Without science and engineering advancement, in the face of advancement by others, America could not compete with our ideological and economic challengers. Imagine our world if, before America, Nazi Germany had atomic weapons or the former Soviet Union had nuclear submarines or reached the Moon.

The Founders demonstrated their understanding of the critical role of individual creativity in American progress by specifically delegating constitutional power to Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). The economic and personal incentives for Americans to invent and publish have grown from this remarkable clairvoyance.

The Founders did not intend for the “Science and useful Arts” Clause alone to give broad constitutional justification for federal funding of scientific and technology research. Clearly, the Founders only meant for this Clause to apply to the research activities by individuals. Federal protection of intellectual property by copyright and patent law flows from this constitutional power.

Scientific and technological advancement funded by the Federal Government has a strong constitutional foundation in the Preamble’s mandated promotion of the “common Defence and general Welfare.” Specifically, the Congress has enumerated powers in this regard in Article I, Section 8. Implementation of those powers logically requires federal involvement in science and engineering research, as follows:

* Clause 5 – fixing of “the Standard of Weights and Measures.”
* Clause 6 – detection and prevention “of counterfeiting.”
* Clause 7 – establishment and implied improvement of “post Roads” and, by logical extension, more modern means of delivering communications.
* Clause 8 – evaluation of “Discoveries” in “Science and the useful Arts” for the purpose of “securing…exclusive rights” for “Inventors.”
* Clause 12 and 13 – “support” of “Armies” and maintenance of “a Navy” and, by logical extension, future forces necessary to the “common Defence.”
* Clause 15 and 16 – support of the “Militia” and their use to “repel Invasions.”

Clause 18 of Section 8 further gives Congress the power “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” It should be noted by the added underlines that this Clause limits Congress to only the execution of the Government’s constitutionally enumerated powers.

Relative particularly to national security, clear Article I constitutional support therefore exists for federal sponsorship, directly or indirectly, of science and technology research that applies to the following:

* Weapons of all kinds that can effectively support the armed forces.
* Natural, agricultural, and other resources required for national security.
* Military logistics technologies and transportation systems, including national highways, waterways, rail systems, and aeronautics and space systems.
* Nationally critical energy systems and the basic sciences that underlie such systems.
* Potential future military technologies such as space and missile defense, external threat sensing, cyber attack, and so forth.
* National border protection and enforcement.
* Medical research applicable to the maintenance of a healthy population from which soldiers are drawn as required and to the treatment of wounded soldiers and veterans.
* Climate and weather as they impact the above.

Under Article II, the Executive also has enumerated powers that require support from science and engineering research but which require budgetary concurrence by the Congress and, of course, congressional approval of necessary levels of supporting taxation and debt. Article II, Section 2, Presidential powers include:

* Clause 1 – acting as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy…and of the Militia…when called into the actual Service of the United States…”
* Clause 2 – negotiating and making “Treaties” on which the Congress must provide “advice and consent.”

Also under Clause 2 of Article II, Section 2, Presidents have the power to appoint “…by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate…all other Officers of the United States…whose Appointments…shall be established by Law…” Any appointments with significant executive powers not submitted to the Senate for conformation, such as President Obama’s “czars” are clearly unconstitutional.

Although the Congress, under Article I, Section 8, Clause 18, can legislate both responsibilities and constraints on the execution of the President’s Article II power of Appointments, Article I limits Congress to its own enumerated powers. Constraining Congress even further, the Founders did not provide in Clause 18 for Congress to go beyond enumerated powers in defining the specific responsibilities of Presidential Appointments. Science and technology research necessary to support the authorized functions of Departments and Agencies, therefore, must adhere to the limits of the enumerated powers of Congress; that is, it would be unconstitutional for Presidential appointees to be given budgetary authority to undertake activities that Article I does not state as being within the power of Congress to authorize or fund.

How, then, can “Appointments” in the Executive be given clear authority to carry out their constitutional responsibilities? First of all, through the Oath of Office, the President gains significant latitude in directing some such officers to assist him to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This constitutional discretion expands further in the Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, designation of the President as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into actual Service of the United States…” Departments such as Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the Intelligence Agencies, can be managed directly by the President, but only within the bounds of the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional Amendments. In this, the President only needs Congressional concurrence on overall budgets.

Budget concurrence creates critical balance of power limitations on the President as Commander in Chief but cannot, constitutionally, be used to prevent Presidents or the Congress from providing for the “common Defence” in any significant way. Both entities share this mandated function. For not carrying out that mandate, Presidents can be impeached and Members of Congress can be removed in their next election cycle.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, further expands Presidential Executive power by stating “he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective offices…” This language indicates that the Founders expected Presidents to exercise significant control over the activities of all Executive Departments and, by extension, future Agencies that might be created by law.

The fact that the Constitution does not define the functions of any Executive Department, outside those implicit in enumerated powers, indicates an intent that this definition would be left to the interplay between the Congress and the Office of the President. The need for the Executive to deal with national defense and matters of state, treasury, commerce, law enforcement, and postal service derives from Articles I and II. The Founders, on the other hand, intentionally created what they hoped would be a balancing tension between the Executive and the Congress through Presidential executive power being moderated by Congress’ power over the purse and specifically limited legislative powers.

The President, with funding concurrence by the Congress, therefore has significant discretion in assigning science and technology research duties to federal Departments and Agencies so long as Congress can constitutionally fund their implementation. Development of weapons and intelligence gathering systems and systems that support the armed forces overall are obvious examples of the exercise of this constitutional discretion. Persuasive constitutional arguments also can be made for federal support of science and technology research in medicine, agriculture, energy, and natural resources based on the specific applicability to national security of research projects in these arenas. An increasingly healthy population and the obvious need for indigenous supplies of food, energy, and raw materials provide adequate justification for most of the research activities of related federal Departments. These arguments find strong support in history and in consideration of possible future national security threats and the need for improved and more diverse means of meeting those threats.

The Constitution, on the other hand, does not empower the Congress to provide funding for, nor can the President direct, research that does not have specific applicability to powers enumerated in Articles I or II. This fact calls into question the constitutionality of research on societal, economic, cultural, demographic, and educational issues that have no direct relationship to national security and that could be carried out through privately funded institutions, associations, cooperative State initiatives, and businesses rather than by government. The 10th Amendment provides for decisions on the conduct of such soft research to the people or the States.

Constitutional rationale for “big” science and technology projects that have costs, time commitments, and national security implications and lie beyond those addressable by the private sector alone lies in their tangible contributions to the implementation of the Article I powers of the Congress and the Article II powers of the President. Since the nation’s founding, federally supported or managed big science and engineering efforts have contributed to national defense or to treaty enforcement. Notably, such projects include canals, locks, dams, and levees beginning in the early 1800s; agricultural research through Land Grant academic institutions created in 1860s and 1890s; the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1860s; construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of the 20th Century; aeronautical research that began early in the 1910s; continuously upgraded defense and reconnaissance systems since the 1940s; the Manhattan Project of the 1940s; development of a Nuclear Navy and related power systems, communication satellites, and the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s; and the Apollo Moon-landing Program of the 1960s.

Even though strong constitutional support exists for significant federal funding of science and engineering research, such support becomes fuzzy relative to big and small, pure science projects exploring the edges of our understanding of nature. Although difficult to quantify, their constitutional rationale lies primarily in the stimulation of educational initiatives that train the scientists and engineers that ultimately serve more direct constitutional functions, particularly national security.

Unfortunately, the once bright future for both federally and privately funded science and technology research has dimmed in the United States. Mismanagement of federal projects is endemic. A federal attack on private academic and research institutions has commenced through unconstitutional regulatory interference. Further, unless the next Congress and the next President contain and reduce the national debt and the cost and reach of both entitlements and unnecessary regulations, remaining taxpayers will have little money left to fund future research no matter how important and constitutional.

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Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and Apollo Astronaut. He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence.

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Citizen Science Projects A New Trend

August 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: General Space Topic 

A new trend has begun to emerged around what is being termed “citizen science” projects in which the general public is invited to participate in serious and ongoing scientific studies within various areas of astronomy. We reported last month (see Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN) on one such project called Zooniverse. It was started in July, 2007 by the Citizen Science Alliance and now proclaims nearly 313,000 participants. Within the Zooniverse visitors are presented with a suite of projects that allow the average person to track solar storms, help astronomers figure out how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape using Hubble images, and in the latest project, Moon Zoo, you can help lunar scientists explore the surface of Earth’s moon by identifying features like craters and lava tubes you find in new images being transmitted from spacecraft now in orbit. But other programs are coming to light that give the science enthusiast an ever widening selection of studies from which to choose.

Two years earlier in 2005, a program called Einstein@Home was launched as a joint effort of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, otherwise known as the Albert Einstein Institute. If you like the idea of participating in serious astrophysics but are less enthusiastic about the hands-on aspect, this program is for you. It works by setting up your personal computer as one in a large series of nodes, which collectively have some serious computing power. It’s called distributed computing, and it makes use of your computer’s idle time to scan through data collected from various astronomical observatories like that from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to search for gravitational waves originally predicted by Albert Einstein, which could indicate the presence of exotic types of stars like pulsars and spinning neutron stars. And the program is turning up discoveries. On August 12, 2010 Science Express reported, “Three citizen scientists – a German and an American couple – have discovered a new radio pulsar hidden in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory. This is the first deep-space discovery by Einstein@Home, which uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries.” The press release goes on to say that, “The citizens credited with the discovery are Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa and Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, Germany. Their computers, along with 500,000 others from around the world, analyze data for Einstein@Home (on average, donors contribute about two computers each).” A new day has dawned in the fundamental sciences when average folks can play such a pivotal role in new discoveries. And Eistein@Home is by no means the only distributed computing project available. According to VolunteeratHome.com there are also projects in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and math.

Another tool has become available to the amateur, and it makes possible new discoveries in Earth sciences right from home, but this time it comes from an unlikely source. On July 22, the journal Science reported the discovery of the Kamil crater in Egypt. What makes the discovery so special is that it was made using Google Earth! Hot on the heels of the first came a second discovery on August 10 and  reported by Wired Science that a crater 6 miles wide was found in the Bayuda desert in Sudan. Now a tool freely available to everyone is being used to locate as yet unknown meteorite impact sites on Earth in what’s being called the new age of “armchair crater hunting.”

Zooniverse, Einstein@Home and other programs are tapping into a powerful resource that has previously gone unnoticed: the populace. Regular folks. And why not? We are a renewable source of energy and enthusiasm. What’s more, we can contribute substantially to the greater body of human knowledge when mechanisms are devised through which we can participate in research.

But what’s next? The way I see it, the public may have a role to play in upcoming robotic exploration of the moon. Though NASA flounders for the moment, seeking direction and purpose, the private sector is moving full steam ahead with the fabrication of machines for roving, digging, sampling and exploring the lunar surface. And these machines, because of the moon’s close proximity to earth, can and will be controlled from command centers on Earth. In the next few years, we may well see instances of the public invited to climb into a virtual presence system and drive a lunar rover across the moon in much the same way that remote operators control robotic submarines and unmanned aerial vehicles. And should the call come, you can bet that yours truly will be signing up.

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Lunar Scientists Need You

July 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: General Space Topic 

Have you ever daydreamed of exploring space? Ever found yourself wandering off on an imaginary expedition of discovery across some vast, alien landscape? Of course, the regular guy and gal could never hope to make such a journey in person. That’s really only Hollywood stuff. Right? Wrong. In fact, you now have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts and be the next human to look across the moonscape and discover some of its many secrets as part of a serious and ongoing scientific program.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched on June 18, 2009, and since it arrived in orbit around the moon has been taking the highest resolution images of its surface in existence. Data is coming in from the spacecraft at such a phenomenal rate that scientists have difficulty sifting through it all, so they’ve asked for the help of folks just like you to help them identify high-value targets for further scientific study. And for this citizen science project they’ve set up a website where you can go to take part. After viewing videos and other help that will show you how to recognize features, you’ll peruse through images of the moon’s surface few others — if any — have seen, even among planetary scientists. In the process of becoming a lunar researcher, you will learn more about the surface or our nearest neighbor in space than you ever have before and perhaps discover something as yet unknown. It’s a voyage of discovery seldom available to those outside astrophysics.

Go to MoonZoo.org and register. From there, you’ll have tools at your disposal that allow you to mark interesting features like the more recent craters that have excavated light-colored material in an ejecta blanket all around the impact site. They call these fresh white craters, and the science team will count the number that you identify so they can calculate the current impact rate. The information you provide with help them to assess the risk to earth of asteroid strikes.

Fresh white craters are the youngest of the impacts, spreading their ejecta blankets hundreds of kilometers in some cases. Image courtesy NASA.

You may also discover elongated pits. These are areas where a subsurface lava tube has collapsed in on itself. Another, similar feature called a “skylight” has been discovered recently in which only a section of a lava tube’s ceiling has collapsed to reveal a cavernous expanse within. These features have scientists and lunar base planners alike excited. Such areas could serve humans as a natural shelter from the radiation environment. They may also be sources of water, trapping it in frozen form in their permanently dark recesses. In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), more popularly known as the concept of “living off the land,” is an important strategy for maintaining a permanent human presence on the moon. If we can obtain shelter from natural features and extract from them some of the resources and consumables we need, the cost of the venture is dramatically reduced. I becomes obtainable within our lifetimes. It becomes attainable by you!

Elongated pits are areas where subsurface lava tubes have collapsed. Image courtesy NASA.

Spacefaring nations have been launching probes and landers to the surface of the moon for decades. You may also run across the technology they left behind. When you find these pieces of space mission hardware, the positions that you mark will be used to build up a database that can be made available to the worldwide science community and used as positional landmarks for lunar cartographic mapping.

Apollo 17 Landing Site. Note the dark tracks of the lunar rover extending left and right. Image courtesy NASA

These and other features — many of which could only be described as just plain weird — are yours to discover. You’ll have a great deal of fun and adventure, and you can share what you find through the built-in Moon Zoo blog. And perhaps you’ll discover something that no one else has ever seen. If you have the heart of an explorer, this site is definitely for you.

Moon Zoo belongs to a larger community of citizen science projects called the Zooniverse. There you’ll also find Galaxy Zoo Hubble where you can help astronomers figure out how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape using Hubble images. There’s Solar Stormwatch where you can help spot explosions on the Sun and track them across space to Earth. Then there’s Galaxy Zoo Mergers and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae. But if you’re interested in helping build a knowledge base of our moon, and in so doing help usher in the age of lunar settlement, Moon Zoo is your best bet.

So log on and plug in to a universe of discovery. You can make a difference, and you’ll satisfy that innate urge to explore that we all have. And maybe, just maybe, the day when you can board a rocket bound for a moon base to see the sights in person will get even closer.

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