February 2008

Titan’s CloudsClouds on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, have been photographed by the spacecraft Cassini at 60 degrees north latitude.

Titan is 3,193 miles across (5,150 km), which is larger than the planet Mercury by 5.5% and its pole is rotated twenty-six degrees to the right.

Titan is of great interest to scientists due to its thick atmosphere, the only moon known to have one, and for the presence of stable bodies of surface liquid. This twelfth most distant moon of Saturn is described as a satellite with planet-like characteristics. A circular 275 mile (440m) wide impact crater can be seen near the center of the above image.

The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Jan. 20, 2008 using a combination of spectral filters sensitive to wavelengths of polarized infrared light centered at 938 and 746 nanometers. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.3 million kilometers (800,000 miles) from Titan and at a Sun-Titan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 58 degrees.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint project among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft consists of two main elements: the NASA Cassini orbiter, named after the Italian-French astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, and the ESA Huygens probe, named after the Dutch astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens.

The Phoenix Mars mission, launched in August 2007, is designed to answer three questions:

  1. Can the Martian arctic support life?
  2. What is the history of water at the landing site?
  3. How is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics?

To help answer these questions, an eight foot robust robotic arm will dig through the Martian soil to the water ice layer underneath Phoenixand will deliver the soil samples to on board experiments utilizing miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer to provide chemical analysis of trace matter; a chemistry lab-in-a-box will characterize the soil and ice chemistry; and imaging systems including an atomic force microscope will be employed.

The Canadian Space Agency will deliver a meteorological station, marking their first involvement in a mission to Mars. The station will provide data on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed.

The search for one of the necessary building blocks needed to support life includes the hope to find complex organic molecules in the ice-rich soil of the Martian arctic. Phoenix will pave the way for future robotic missions and ultimately, human exploration of the planet.

As of February 27, Phoenix is 87 days from landing on Mars, scheduled for May 25, 2008. The first of NASA’s low cost Scout missions, it will utilize components from two unsuccessful Mars missions; the Mars polar lander and the lander spacecraft built for the Mars Surveyor 2001 program.

During atmosphere entry, the spacecraft will be protected by an air-shield. As the speed of descent drops, it will be jettisoned and a parachute deployed. Descent engines will fire at 1,870 feet (570m) above the surface. Twelve thrusters will provide controlled bursts to gently land the spacecraft near the Martian arctic circle.

The data from the spacecraft will be relayed to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey spacecraft for transmission back to Earth.

Kudos to Senator McCain who repudiated remarks made by conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham today in Cincinnati. Cunningham mentioned Senator Obama’s middle name three times while disparaging him in comments at a McCain rally.

Senator McCain repudiated the remarks and apologized. Senator McCain’s remarks were, “It’s my understanding that before I came in here a person who was on the program before I spoke made some disparaging remarks about my two colleagues in the Senate, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton,” he said. “I have repeatedly stated my respect for Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, that I will treat them with respect. I will call them ‘Senator.’ We will have a respectful debate, as I have said on hundreds of occasions. I regret any comments that may have been made about these two individuals who are honorable Americans.”

“Whatever suggestion that was made that was any way disparaging to the integrity, character, honesty of either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton was wrong,” he said, “I condemn it, and if I have any responsibility, I will take the responsibility, and I apologize for it.”

Senator Obama was given his name in honor of his late father, whose name was also Barack Hussein Obama. Calling out a candidate for policy differences is one thing, but name calling should be beneath these high class candidates. Senator McCain did the right thing in his response which is what we should want all the candidates doing. My belief is that if they show they can do the right thing, then they have ‘The Right Stuff’. Senator McCain does indeed have the right stuff.

For additional detail on the event, see the blog link below:


The Federal Election Commission, charged with policing campaign spending laws and fund raising rules, is impotent during one of the most important primary election seasons in recent history. Having only two sitting members is not enough to take any action to enforce the election laws. Critical issues needing a ruling right now are: (1) Does Sen. McCain have to abide by spending limits on his campaign? (2) How much are lobbyists supposed to disclose regarding their fund-raising activities? and (3) What rules must outside groups abide by who try to influence the outcome of the elections?

What happened? The six-member commission has been lacking a quorum since late December when three commissioners terms expired. A fourth seat on the commission is vacant. There is disagreement between Senate Democrats and the White House over a controversial nominee, Hans von Spakovsky.

Mr. von Spakovsky was nominated two years ago under a recess appointment by President Bush while Congress was out of session. President Bush renominated him and two others. He can’t be confirmed, however, because presidential candidate Barack Obama along with other Senate Democrats are objecting to policies Mr. von Spakovsky promoted while he was at the Justice department. His policies, these Democrats say, harmed minority voters.

Since 60 votes are needed in the Senate for confirmation, no one is getting confirmed. Republican senators say they won’t support Democratic nominees to the commission unless Democrats agree to put Mr. von Spakovsky back on the commission.

Is this the shape of bi-partisanship that everyone agrees is needed in the future? Oh, I see. It is bipartisanship for the future and not for the present.

This hurts Sen. McCain especially due to his campaign running low on funds. He has put in a request to the commission to withdraw from the public financing system whose rules force him to abide to strict spending limits during the nominating process in exchange for $5.8 million funds. Since becoming the presumptive Republican candidate, he has changed his mind about public financing. However, there is not enough members at the Federal Election Commission to rule on his request due to lack of quorum.

One would think the Republican Senators would try to negotiate a bit on this, but then a lot of the Republicans are not very enamored with Sen. McCain as their candidate anyway. Still one has to wonder why President Bush wouldn’t agree to nominate other Republicans to the commission. Why does it have to be Mr. von Spakovsky?

The matchup between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton in the Democratic primary contest will probably be decided March 4th when the Texas and Ohio primaries take place. Depending on the poll, once could call it either way in either state. A few representative polls, such as the ones below, generally indicate that the two states are probably a toss up with perhaps a small edge belonging to Sen. Clinton.

Recent Poll                      Ohio – 161 delegates                                   Texas – 228 delegates                                              

Rasmussen                     Clinton 48%; Obama 40%                          Clinton 47%; Obama 44%

Decision Analyst            Clinton 46%; Obama 54%                          Clinton 43%; Obama 57%

Survey USA                   Clinton 52%; Obama 43%                          Clinton 50%; Obama 45%

ABC/Wash Post            Clinton 50%; Obama 43%                          Clinton 48%; Obama 47%

My unscientific gut belief is that Sen. Clinton will win Ohio and lose Texas in two very close races. To stay in the running, it has been discussed that she needs to win both. If she does, she lives to play another day. If she doesn’t, perhaps she finishes the draft of her farewell speech and bows out in a couple of weeks.

I voted for Sen. Obama in the Illinois primary election. Prior to primary election day, I was undecided. Bill Clinton decided it for me when he resorted to some unfair and untrue attacks against Sen. Obama when stumping for his wife which pushed me to decide that if Sen. Clinton wins, it would likely be politics as usual.

Many people have discussed the need for change, and I agree but I think it is more than just a change of regime people are seeking. I think Sen. Obama may be able to change the process of getting things done in Washington. I’ve said before in a previous blog post that it matters a lot who the winner of the election hires in his cabinet. Sen. Obama may not have all the requisite experience, but I think he is smart and a good judge of character, qualities essential when interviewing people to join your administration. These will be the people responsible for getting the work done.

Another factor confirming my primary vote in my mind is the revelations coming out about Sen. Clinton’s campaign spending. One has to wonder what sort of steward of the government budget she would be when she is spending $100k for party platters and groceries before the Iowa caucuses, $25k for rooms at the luxury Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, $5k at the Four Seasons hotel, and $5 million to top consultants just in the month of January. Mark Penn, Sen. Clinton chief strategist collected $3.8 million in January alone and his firm has billed more than $10 million. To date, Sen. Clinton’s campaign has spent $106 million and is in danger of being out of the race inside of 10 days.

My problem with all this is that she is supposed have a fiduciary responsibility to her donors to spend the money wisely and effectively. I would be very upset to know my donations have been spent so recklessly. Now she is low on funds.

In the February 21st Democratic debate, Sen. Clinton had her best quote, in my view, of her entire campaign when she said the following:

“And, you know, no matter what happens in this contest — and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.”

This was Sen. Clinton at her best. The problem for her is that if Sen. Obama wins, she likely won’t have another chance for eight years when she would be 68. Her time is now and she has a difficult job ahead of her in the next week or so. At least she has participated is some nineteen debates and helped, along with Sen. Obama, and indirectly, President Bush, to greatly raise the interest in the primaries and the election coming up in November. Whatever happens, I think she is owed a lot of thanks, and in accordance with the tone of her quote above, maybe even a hug.

For many more polls, and poll data, see the links below:



A large array of hundreds of telescope modules programmed to detect very low frequency radio waves will be placed on the far side of the moon. Covering an area of approximately two square kilometers, the telescopes will be put into place by robotic vehicles.

The Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology (LARC) is a joint project of NASA and ten scientists from MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science. The goal of the project is to learn about the period of time just after the big bang when stars, star clusters and galaxies formed over a billion year period.

The big advantage in using the dark side of the moon, an area where made-made transmissions from Earth never reach, is avoidance of interference from Earth. Specifically, Earth’s ionosphere that contains electrically charged particles that would interfere with Earth based telescopes will be avoided, and the electromagnetic radiation produced by Earth’s ubiquitous array of radio and television stations will be blocked. Since low frequency emissions have long wavelengths, the telescopes need not be precisely positioned in order to gather the radio waves. Lunar dust, which might normally be a problem, will not be something that would impair the functioning of the telescopes. Data collected would test current theories of formation and evolution of the universe, particularly cosmic inflation. A secondary benefit would be to study coronal mass ejections from the Sun, which from time to time interrupt telecommunications on Earth and can interfere with satellite functionality. Construction would not begin until 2025 and would cost 1 billion dollars or more. NASA is awarding a $500,000 grant to develop a plan for deployment to the MIT team as well as a second team from the Naval Research Laboratory working independently on a similar plan.

Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science, stands behind a prototype of a radio telescope array planned for the far side of the moon.


Jacqueline Hewitt, a researcher with MIT, spoke with Joe Palca on NPR’s Science Friday radio program regarding the project. The audio should be available soon here.

High energy X-rays emanating from a star 100 times more massive than the Sun and producing a million times more light, named Eta Carinae, has been discovered by the European Space Agency space probe Integral.

Integral spacecraftESA spacecraft Integral (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Lab)

Currently the most massive nearby star that can be studied in detail, Eta Carinae is part of the bipolar Homunculus Nebula, which surrounds the star. The nebula was created by a supernova eruption of Eta Carinae whose light first reached Earth in 1843.

Eta Carinae can been seen by the naked eye.

These star types are rare with only a few dozen found in galaxies the size of the Milky Way. Found in the constellation Carina, it is about 7,500 light years away. Violent winds of electrically charge particles bombard each other at thousands of miles per second emitting gamma rays and x-rays. The star is actually a binary system with a second large star orbiting the first.

Integral has provided instruments not previously available for measuring the high energy spectrum x-rays in addition to the gamma rays. The result of a shock wave effect produced when the individual star’s solar winds collide, these stars constantly shed particles off into space. Due to the colliding winds of radiation between these two stars, temperatures get extreme possibly reaching a billion plus degrees Kelvin.

Integral is examining the x-rays emissions of Eta Carinae to understand how stars evolve and create energy. Electrically-charged particles are trapped in the magnetic structure of the shock-wave and collide with low-energy photons, producing the emissions recently discovered by Integral. Astronomers believe this lies at the heart of many diverse phenomena in the universe.

 Diagram showing the position of Eta Carinae (among other objects) in the Carina nebula (NGC 3372).  Photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope.Carina Nebula

Since Earth is relatively close to Eta Carinae at 7,500 light years, the radiation could possibly reach our planet. The gamma rays and x-rays would be absorbed by our upper atmosphere, with possible degradation of the ozone layer. This would be problematic for spacecraft and satellites however. If the Carina system were to supernova, a possibility due to it mass, the light from the explosion would be enough to be prominently seen from Earth.

What is needed for the star to supernova is for it to reach the Eddington limit. This describes the effect when the outward pressure of radiation and the heat of the star created by the amount of its mass is so great as to overcome the effects of gravity. At this point, the star will explode as gravity is incapable of holding everything together.

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