Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Great NASA Mars Tease?

A curious little story popped up on a number of geek-oriented websites a few days ago, just as all good 'Murricans were preparing to stuff ourselves with turkey.

During an interview with NPR - National Public Radio, our boutique nod to noncommercial broadcasting - John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover science team, let drop an interesting little hint. An instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) had showed results 'earthshaking' results.

SAM contains chemical sensors, and part of its job is looking for, well, signs of organic chemistry. Said Grotzinger, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Which, apparently, is all we are going to get, at least for now. The story at io9 says only that we will have to wait a few weeks for actual, checked-out results. The version at CNET says that the official findings will be released during the American Geophysical Union conference, December 3-7, here in San Francisco. (Earthshaking?)

The usual provisos apply. NASA has been known to jump the gun in the past. The Curiosity mission itself already had one false alarm, when methane was detected. Methane on Earth is largely biogenic. (The largest single source is said to be cattle farts.) Alas, the methane in question may well have been bovine, since it evidently went to Mars along with the rover itself.

Also, one news outlet that conspicuously did not carry the story was Sky & Telescope. Aimed at informed laypeople, it is my usual go-to site for allegedly Awesome Cosmic News. The given facts about Grotzinger's NPR interview are not in doubt. Whether it means what everyone thinks it could mean another matter.

Which is why I am, for now, describing the whole thing as a tease. Dropping a hint just before a national holiday, on a radio show with a small if upscale audience, is just the sort of thing you do when you think you might have dynamite, but don't want to put your neck too far out in case it doesn't pan out.

Chances are that it will come to nothing, such as instrumental error. Or that it will come to something important, in a scientific sense ... but not Life On Mars.

And even if there is, it might be colonists from Earth who got there aboard spacecraft. Just like a 1950s story, except microbes instead of people. The mission profile is a lot easier, and we probably haven't scrubbed all those probes quite as thoroughly as we might have.

Or, on the other hand ... perhaps we just hit the jackpot.


Update: "Big Oops!"

Well, at least according to Slate, it turns out that this whole story was - wait for it - a misunderstanding. According to NASA

What Grotzinger was actually trying to convey is that Curiosity’s data over her entire two-year mission will further our knowledge of Mars more than ever before, making it a historical mission.

The Slate piece goes on to say that the findings to be reported at the American Geophysical Union meeting are merely 'interesting,' not earth-shaking.

From a strictly San Francisco perspective, this is arguably good news.

Needless to say, the temptation to be conspiratorial about all this is irresistable. (I called it a tease, after all!) But it is probably another case where one should not attribute to malice that which is explainable by stupidity.

Not stupidity, exactly, but over-eagerness. Anyone who doesn't think it would be Awesome to find evidence of life on Mars has no business reporting on the Curiosity mission, much less being part of it. It would be the least of surprises if a boilerplate comment about How Cool This Mission Is took on a life of its own.

Having said that, something still could very well turn up. And how cool would that be?

The teasing image, of Titian's Mars, Venus, and Love, seems to come from an art reproduction website.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Space Election? (in lieu of 'Rix Pix 2012')

President Obama  

Since I first went online I have had a custom of writing up my forecasts for US election results as 'Rix Pix' - first as an email to friends, then as forum messages, finally as blog posts here.

Several of my predictions here were so risibly bad as to make the point of why it is much better to predict the distant future, or at least the midfuture: I won't be around to be embarrassed. When it comes to election forecasts, it is much better to predict the past. But you already know the outcome, so I won't belabor it. (Obama won.)

On the other hand, I have read claims that Kim Stanley Robinson's hard SF novel Forty Signs of Rain features a superstorm called Sandy. But I haven't read the book, and Google offers no clear yea or nay. Can anyone here confirm or refute the story?

In any case, not until after the election did I find out that the outcome might turn out to be specifically relevant to space travel. Apparently Obama's re-election was welcome news at NASA, which will now push ahead with plans for human missions to translunar space and ultimately Mars.

Some of the usual provisos are in order. To say the least, space was not a first-tier issue in the campaign. It was not even a 20th-tier issue. I voted for Obama for purely terrestrial reasons, and I have no reason to think that he is particularly clueful about space. Very few politicians / statespersons are, and truth to be told it is not currently very big in the job description. Maybe in 2312 things will be different, but not now.

But as I have suggested here before, space fits into a broader policy context. And according to the Slate piece linked above,
Mitt Romney had spoken plainly about his plans to re-evaluate the purpose of government-sponsored space missions, thereby leaving agency officials uncertain that their ambitious plans would remain feasible under a Republican-controlled executive branch.
I did not trouble to look up whatever boilerplate the Romney campaign had about space exploration, any more than I looked up the Obama campaign boilerplate. I am certainly not going to do so now. But it is not hard to read between those lines, in terms of the current-era Republican Party. If you make 'small government' an all but religious doctrine, there is not a lot of room there for ambitious things like exploring the Solar System, in person or robotically.

Libertarian militarists would no doubt make an exception for military space operations. But for reasons somewhat exhaustively beaten to death on this blog, Realistic [TM] military space operations are, for now and a long time to come, confined to Earth orbital space. Sorry, no Space Force missions to Saturn.

Space exploration is a large, costly, and difficult enterprise, without short-term profit. It is not one that private enterprise is likely to undertake, or should be expected to undertake. But it is the sort of enterprise that governments can and do undertake. We have, after all, visited every major planet in our system.

And for what it is worth, private enterprise has always been involved. Our rockets are built by contractors, not by government arsenals. No deep principle is involved here, so far as I am concerned, but the approach seems to work. SpaceX is new, while Boeing goes back to barnstorming days. Their operating environment is far from an ideal free market (what, in the real world, isn't?), but some sort of competition keeps them on their toes. Anyway, space rocketry doesn't allow very much room for error.

But all that said, space exploration remains a public enterprise, and almost certainly will primarily remains so into and through the midfuture. The distinctly libertarian-leaning space community may find this an inconvenient fact, but do not expect it to change.

And that concludes my soapbox sermon for this cycle. We will return to your regularly scheduled blog shortly.

On a much more somber note, but relevant to topics discussed on this blog, it has now been 94 years since the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

The image of President Obama was unimaginatively snagged from Flickr.