August 02, 2012

Curious Yet?

I like Stephen Colbert. I like space. I like that Stephen Colbert likes space. The other night he had NASA's former Chief Scientist and current Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, on the show to talk about the upcoming landing of the Mars Science Laboratory. I must inform you that I am highly biased in this matter. Absolutely everything about this mission is friggin' awesome. First, it's the size of a small car. I've gone on road trips in a small car. Granted, life support for me involved the window and a seatbelt, but still. Curiosity* is massive, and doesn't require life support! In space this machine is little more than an inert lump of metal. It actually has to land (safely) on the surface before it can do anything useful. Curiosity will accomplish the transition from space to surface by experiencing seven minutes of sheer, unadulterated terror.

Mars, while smaller than the Earth, does have a significant gravitational field. It would take a lot of fuel to land a behemoth like Curiosity using rockets. Plus, rockets kick up a lot of dust. Just ask anyone who landed on the moon. One might imagine that because of the increased gravity, Mars would have a significant atmosphere. Unfortunately, no. Mars does have an atmosphere, but it is far more tenuous than our own. This means that, while you still have to deal with aerodynamic forces, those forces are not enough to slow the projectile down to anything resembling a rational speed. Any parachute used would have to be huge in order to grab enough air, and strong, because the inertia of a one ton supersonic projectile is massive. To counter these problems and land the craft on the surface, JPL has devised a three step process. First is heat shield aerobraking. This will slow the craft down from interplanetary speeds to the speed of a hypersonic jet. Then, still faster than sound, a parachute will be deployed. The parachute will slow the machine down from a thousand miles an hour to a few hundred miles an hour. Having done it's duty, the parachute is abandoned in favor of a rocket assembly known as the sky crane. This contraption will take Curiosity down to hover seven and a half meters above the surface of Mars. Finally, the rover will be lowered down from the rocket platform to the surface using a winch and cable system. As soon as landing is confirmed, explosive bolts will sever the connection to the skycrane rocket system, which will fly off.** Curiosity will finally be able to wake up and begin it's mission.

The big one is Curiosity. Duh.

Colbert does really well at pacing his interviews. For some it's fast paced sarcastic barbs. For others he slows down and engages in banter and exploratory questions. He seems genuinely excited by science, and space in particular. Whenever he has a science or space guest on, his jocularity feels sincere. This time was no different, but there was a bit of awkwardness when the guest tried to make (I can only assume) a distinction. Dr. Grunsfeld said that he doesn't think that Curiosity will discover anything in the first two years it's on the surface. He said the thing will work fine, it will trundle around and grind up rocks and analayze soil just like it was designed to do. This seemed to be setting up his main point, which seemed to be that Curiosity was just a data collector. The discoveries will come from the people who drive the rover around. Discoveries will be made by the scientists involved with the project. It is people that choose what tasks Curiosity will carry out, and it is them that will analyze the data sent back. The rover is just a tool. It is the people who are working every day that are the true explorers. They are the ones who will make the discoveries, and it is they who deserve the praise for making those discoveries.

I may have used a really liberal definition of the term 'interpret' towards the end there, but I think that's what he was trying to say. He sort of stumbled a bit making the transition from talking about Curiosity to the people who built and run the rover. Happily, Colbert jumped in with a quick summary point that allowed Grunsfeld to make his point simply by agreeing. Regardless, I'm pretty psyched about this. Curiosity will create a huge leap forward in our understanding of the red planet. It will have a Mastcam for large, panoramic shots. It will have a microscope camera for analyzing samples. It will come equipped with multiple spectroscopes, including laser and x-ray induced spectroscopy. Curiosity also comes with a radiation detector, which will help determine viability for human missions. The rover will have an environmental testing station, measuring such things as temperature, wind speed, and air pressure, and a way to test for water ice at or near the surface, plus some other stuff that I didn't dive into. I guess instead of of life support, they loaded this thing down with pure science.

Furthermore, I think that there is a wider, more connected community of space enthusiasts this time around. Back in 1997 the internet wasn't much of a thing, and it certainly didn't offer quite the same social networking capabilities as it does now. Neither did we have the technology to do live webcasts or Youtube or much of anything with video. Now is different. Any one with a camera and some time can create an awesome video. By 2003 we had a lot more capability to connect and create content about our favorite topics, but it was still a far cry from what we have now. To be sure, each rover impacted our society in their own way. For sojourner it was tiny and cute, for Spirit and Opportunity it was a sense of loneliness and epic travel. For both missions it was thousands of amazing pictures. But none of them have had the opportunity to engage the public in the ways that this new mission will.

First off, NASA will be streaming coverage of the event through their website, and their UStream channel. Second, the always capable people over on Google+, including Pamela Gay, Phil Plait, and Fraser Cain will be holding a massive four hour long event. They will no doubt have their own commentary and content prepared, as well as being on hand to answer any questions any one may have. They might have a NASA feed, just because that seems like the sort of awesomeness they are capable of, but if they don't have the feed from NASA, well then I guess I'll just have to open two tabs for the full immersive experience of this Martian landing. And apparently, Maki of fame has created a stream of the NASA feed for the World Science Festival. There's also (I only learned through researching this post) a huge space sciences center in Victoria, Australia. They are called, appropriately enough, the Victorian Space Science Education Centre. They also have a Ustream channel, but what exactly they'll have on it I don't know for sure. But they will be the first to receive communications from Curiosity once it's on the surface, using NASA's Deep Space Tracking Network center in Tinbidbilla. So ok, maybe more than just two tads. Also, Tinbidbilla?If you can't wait until Sunday, you could always check out the video above. Or these two, done by Star Trek stars William Shatner and Wil Wheaton! But what if you want to watch this historic moment, live, outdoors, with thousands of random strangers in the middle of the night? Canada seems to be throwing a lot of parties during the landing, and the good folks over at Yuri's Night have a massive list of the various parties taking place across the globe. If you're in the New York, New York area you should head to Times Square, where they'll be broadcasting the event on their Big Screen TV!

For one brief moment, science will replace advertising
I am hereby making an official prediction*** Not only is the buildup to the landing remarkably large, the audience hungry for this event is larger and more diverse then before. There is going to be a lot of people tuning in that night, and it won't be just Americans. I predict that there will be an overwhelming response to the landing of the Curiosity rover, both nationally and internationally. I would hope that the servers at NASA will be able to handle the load. Hopefully they learned their lesson after that whole Dragon catching incident. But if the feed does go down, then that will go to show how many people are excited by this sort of event. And that will send a huge message to our elected officials - People Like Space. There already exists a massive undercurrent of space enthusiasm. There has been a growing interest in space since the Hubble went into service. First it was NASA nerds who kept up to date, with an occasional picture or feature in the science section of the newspaper. Then people fell in love with Sojourner. We mourned the loss of astronauts, and praised the accomplishments of two new rovers. And now, in less than a week, we will once again watch as we deploy a new tool of understanding into the universe. I predict that the huge, international response to Curiosity will provide a strong argument in favor of supporting our national space agency and the growing private space market.

Did I mention the laser capable of frying rock from 7 meters? It's a good thing that the machine most likely to achieve sentience and go on a murderous rampage is on another planet.

While researching this post I came across a number of resources which I did not use directly, but which were of great help in gathering together all the various links I needed.

*How often do you hear the term Shuttle Transport System? Other than technical writing or stuffy bloggers (ahem) it's always, the shuttle.

**Into oblivion, apparently. All that's planned for, and all that is in any of the presentations, is the thing rocketing off to the side a few hundred meters. It's as though a thing disappears from NASA's universe once it is no longer a part of the mission.

***See the first footnote. Also, note to self: Figure out better system re:footnotes
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August 01, 2012

Of Two Minds

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal inadvertently lead me to a bit of depressing news. Well, technically it was SMBC Theater, not the comic. But any way.

This video mentions state constitutions that ban atheist congress members. This seemed moderately ludicrous. My own atheism is complicated, and it's rare to meet someone who doesn't instantly start making assumptions about why I'm an atheist, but I'm hardly one to say that atheists are under attack or facing the same kind of discrimination other minorities are treated to. There is a certain amount of resistance to atheists, sure. But it's mostly annoying assumptions about your (lack of) beliefs.

Which is why I found the idea of multiple states banning atheists in their government so weird. I decided to check it out. Good ol' Wikipedia giving me little more than a link to the relevant state constitutions. This meant I had to peruse the contents myself.

So here they are, a countdown of sorts of the states that outlaw atheism:

South Carolina: Article 27, Section 4 states: "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this constitution."

Arkansas:  Article 2, Section 26 states: "No religious test shall ever be required of any person as a qualification to vote or hold office; nor shall any person be rendered incompetent to be a witness on account of his[sic] religious belief; but nothing herein shall be construed to dispense with oaths or affirmations."

While Article 19, Section 1 states: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court."

Mississippi: Article 3, Section 18 states: "No religious test as a qualification for office shall be required; and no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect or mode of  worship; but the free enjoyment of all religious sentiments and the different modes of worship shall be held sacred. The rights hereby secured shall not be construed to justify acts of licentiousness injurious to morals or dangerous to the peace and safety of the state, or to exclude the Holy Bible from use in any public school of  this state. "

While Article 14, Section 265 states: "No person who denies the existence of a supreme being shall hold any office in this state."

Tennessee: Article 1, Section 4 states: "That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this state, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state."

While Article 9, Section 2 states: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

The following two are the strangest of the bunch. The first one up there, South Carolina, never made it unconstitutional to have a test of religious faith for their civil leadership. Technically they never contravened their own constitution. The bill of rights for  Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee all contained language that specifically outlawed having a test of religious faith. Each of these states also had, buried in the misc. section at the end of their constitution, a statute that said you had to have some form of belief in a supernatural power in order to be eligible for public office. They have each clearly made a portion of their own constitution unconstitutional. It's almost zen.

But these two really take the cake. First up,

Texas: Article 1, Section 4 - "RELIGIOUS TESTS.  No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

In other words, you don’t have to pass a religious test to attain public office, so long as you have a religion.

Maryland: Article 36 - "That as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him, all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore, no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate, on account of his religious persuasion, or profession, or for his religious practice, unless, under the color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others in their natural, civil or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent, or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry; nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come.

Nothing shall prohibit or require the making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place.

Nothing in this article shall constitute an establishment of religion"

And Article 37 - "That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."

Texas, and especially Maryland, have managed to hold two completely contradictory ideas at once - That no religious test be required to hold office, and that you must be religious to hold office. This seems totally nonsensical to me. At least South Carolina isn't contradictory, even if they're flat out bigoted. But I can't comprehend Texas and Maryland. Maybe because I haven't attained full buddha yet. Here we have these two states who managed, in one statement, to hold that religion is of no importance, and that it is of utmost importance. Maryland has achieved full zen.

Good job, assholes.