Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again

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Credit: fashion-kid.net

Today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on U.S. human exploration goals and commercial space competitiveness takes testimony from six white, male, human-exploration advocates, including three ex-astronauts.

I do not anticipate hearing a diversity of views from this line-up. Welcome to the Republican-controlled 114th Congress. (Update, Feb. 26: Marcia Smith provides a good summary of the hearing.)

Meanwhile, pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers are lining up to promote a space colonization (they call it “settlement,” I call it “colonization”) agenda on Capitol Hill.

I was inclined to ignore their recent noise-making. Then I decided to add another chapter to my ongoing critique of this antiquated ideology.

A “pioneering space declaration” coming out of last week’s invitation-only “pioneering space national summit” claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” (I think they must mean “should be,” and I disagree.)

The National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), two of the organizations behind last week’s summit, announced yesterday that they and several other groups have created an Alliance for Space Development (ASD). Among ASD’s proclaimed objectives for this year is “incorporation of space development and settlement into the NASA Space Act.”

Members of this alliance include the Tea Party in Space , whose mission is “to educate and engage the American people and their elected representatives in applying the core principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets to the rapid and permanent expansion of American civilization into the space frontier, focusing on strategies for privatization, deregulation, and appropriate technology development partnerships between government institutions and the private sector.”

NSS’s “vision” is “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”

The Space Frontier Foundation claims its “purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.”

And now more advocacy groups (or should I say Web sites?) are popping up to promote the same agenda. The rhetoric is so familiar (and still disturbing)….

An outfit called the EarthLight Foundation – which offers no information on who or what constitutes the group – has a “vision,” too: “To carry the light of life to places now dark, the seeds of life to places now dead, and the eyes, hands, and minds of humanity to places yet unseen, untouched, and unknown.” Projects of this foundation include an “Endowment for Tomorrow,” an “Up! Space Celebration,” and a “New Worlds Institute.” No information is provided on the first two, um, things.

The New Worlds Institute, which claims to be dedicated to “a future of unlimited possibility and abundance created by the human imagination, powered by the resources of space and made real using principles of democratic free enterprise,” says it plans a New Worlds Conference “about the future, hope and the infinite possibilities offered by an infinite frontier…. In 2045 this world will no longer be the only world we call home.” No information is provided on who or what constitutes this institute.

As I’ve said before,* “Examining the history of space flight advocacy reveals an ideology of space flight that draws deeply on a durable American cultural narrative – a national mythology – of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits. This ideology rests on a number of assumptions, or beliefs, about the role of the United States in the global community, American national character, and the ‘right’ form of political economy.”

The advocacy groups discussed in this post are promoting an outdated ideology as a foundation for national space policy. As a citizen, taxpayer, and policy analyst, I protest. Advocates for space settlement and other forms of exploiting extraterrestrial resources are overwhelmingly white and male. We females constitute 51 percent of the world’s population, and a majority of people on Earth are not “white.” We’ve had no national or international dialogue on goals and objectives for space exploration that could benefit all of humanity (I don’t care what the advocates say, asteroid mining would benefit mining companies, not humanity). Any “dialogues” that the pro-space community may point to have been organized by space advocates.

For decades, U.S. public opinion polling has shown that while a majority of respondents have supported having a space program, a majority has not supported spending more money on it. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Initiative on Science and Society for the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked (U.S.) respondents “to consider whether the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is essential or not essential given the relative costs of manned vs. robotic space exploration”: 59 percent agreed that astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program. I must note, however, that this result says nothing about these respondents’ views on colonizing the solar system.

*Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007.

NEO news round-up

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Credit: howtowebinar.com

With an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) now organized, the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and its Action Team on NEOs (Action Team-14, or AT-14) has deemed its work completed.

AT-14 was established by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2001. In a report on its fifty second session February 2-13 in Vienna, the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) says AT-14 is now dissolved. IAWN and SMPAG – a group established to work on plans for asteroid impact mitigation (a.k.a. planetary defense) missions – will now report directly to the STSC. Both groups were formed under the auspices of the U.N. but operate independently of it. AT-14 recommended that both groups seek permanent observer status with COPUOS.

(As a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program, I have been involved in some IAWN activities.)

In a resolution adopted December 5, the U.N. General Assembly noted “the importance of information-sharing in discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing potentially hazardous near-Earth objects to ensure that all countries, in particular developing countries with limited capacity in predicting and mitigating a near-Earth object impact, are aware of potential threats, emphasizes the need for capacity-building for effective emergency response and disaster management in the event of a near-Earth object impact, and recalls in that regard the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session. The General Assembly also “note[d] with satisfaction that progress on establishing an international asteroid warning network and a space mission planning advisory group to implement the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat would be reported to the Subcommittee at its fifty-second session.”

Meanwhile, following its 12th meeting last month, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) stressed – as it did in findings from its 11th meeting last summer – the need for a dedicated space-based NEO survey. “A space-based near-Earth object (NEO) survey telescope would be a foundational asset that would most efficiently achieve the goals of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative in the shortest amount of time. Construction and implementation of such an asset should be supported by all three of NASA’s major space exploration directorates and not just by the limited resources of the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) program within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Cross directorate support for a space-based asteroid survey is fully consistent with the Asteroid Initiative already established as an agency-wide goal.” SBAG also reiterated concerns “about the limited benefits of ARM [NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission] for advancing asteroid science or furthering planetary defense strategies, and that limits in the current knowledge of near-Earth asteroids contribute to schedule and cost risks.”

NASA had originally planned to announce its selection of option A or option B for the ARM in December. That decision was put on hold, and no one seems to know when it will be announced.

In an op-ed posted by Aviation Week today, space policy analyst Marcia Smith raises some questions about the ARM mission. “ARM is two good ideas kluged together into one bewildering idea that NASA itself seems unable to explain effectively.” Smith notes that one aspect of the ARM “that piques a lot of interest is the idea that ARM will lead to technologies to defend Earth from threatening asteroids (“planetary defense”).  Although that gets a lot of attention, it actually is not an expected outcome of ARM…. NASA needs an Asteroid Deflection Technology Development program, not ARM.”

On a more upbeat note, SBAG notes that this year will be “a banner year for small bodies science,” with missions to explore the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto and comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. “The attention [these missions] will attract gives the small body science community a spectacular opportunity to communicate the value of our work,” SBAG notes in findings from its January meeting. “[W]e must all make an extra effort this year to engage with the public over these exciting missions.”

(Science magazine (December 14) declared the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landing of a probe on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko the top science “breakthrough” or 2014.)

While the NEO community is essentially in agreement that a dedicated space-based NEO survey telescope would be a valuable asset, no one yet has the funding to develop such a mission. The B612 Foundation is attempting to raise private funding for such a telescope – its project is called Sentinel – but apparently has been unsuccessful thus far. The last Sentinel project status update posted on B612’s web site is dated September 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposal to build a Discovery-class NEO survey telescope called NEOCAM (NEO Camera) was not selected for funding the first time around. JPL resubmitted the NEOCAM proposal in response to NASA’s next Discovery call for proposals, and it’s currently under review. (Discovery missions must cost less than $425 million and take no more than three years to develop from mission start to launch.) In April 2013, an infrared sensor being developed for the NEOCAM mission passed a critical design test.

In a paper to be published in the Astronomical Journal (Mainzer et al. 2015 in press), NEOCAM principal investigator Amy Mainzer and her team report on simulations they conducted “to predict the performance of a new space-based telescopic survey operating at thermal infrared wavelengths that seeks to discover and characterize a large fraction of the potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid (NEA) population” – that is, NEOCAM. The team considered two potential architectures for the survey: a telescope located at the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, and one in a Venus-trailing orbit. Their results “indicate that the Earth-Sun L1 and Venus-trailing surveys achieve similar levels of integral completeness for potentially hazardous asteroids larger than 140 m; placing the telescope in an interior orbit does not yield an improvement in discovery rates.” They report that the L1 survey “slightly outperforms the Venus-trailing survey for PHAs in this [larger than 140 meters] size range.”

“Unlike ground-based surveys, space telescopes at either L1 or Venus-trailing orbits can spend much of their time surveying the region of sky that is in the daytime sky for ground-based observers. Therefore, the ability to perform ‘self follow up’ is essential because ground-based observers cannot be relied upon regularly for the short-term follow up required to determine orbits securely,” they note.

Mainzer et al claim their results “demonstrate that the cost, complexity, and risk associated with sending a survey telescope to a Venus-trailing orbit is unwarranted. While neither survey [architecture] is capable of fulfilling the 2005 Congressional mandate to NASA to find 90% of all near-Earth objects larger than 140 m in diameter by 2020, an advanced space-based survey can make significant progress quickly.”

Finally, as spring approaches (what a nice thought!), we’ll be hearing more about International Asteroid Awareness Day – a.k.a. Asteroid Day. (You can read more about Asteroid Day in one of my earlier posts.) Many of my colleagues in the NEO community are skeptical of one particular “call to action” in a declaration for which Asteroid Day sponsors are seeking signatures – “a rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.” They say it’s a nice idea, but likely impossible to achieve for a number of reasons.

Stay tuned….

John Podesta and UFOs – again…

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Credit: @ETsAndUFOs, twitter.com

On February 13, John Podesta – a senior advisor to presidents Clinton and Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, a D.C. think tank – tweeted:

John Podesta 

‪@Podesta44

  1. Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the ‪#disclosure of the UFO files. ‪#thetruthisstilloutthere cc: ‪@NYTimesDowd

A few media outlets, major and minor, have reported on this tweet – see, for example, an item in the Washington Post.

Podesta reportedly is about to run a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Podesta’s UFO tweet was retweeted 2,075 times as of today. (Podesta also uses @JohnPodesta on Twitter – no mention of UFOs there….) That is, it hasn’t gone viral.

Meanwhile, at MoveOn.org, a petition has been posted to solicit support for UFO “disclosure”:

“It’s been 45 years since Congress held a hearing on extraterrestrial phenomena. The evidence is now massive. Hold new hearings. #Disclosure

On November 5, 2014 538 video copies of the full record of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure (CHD) were shipped to all members of the United States Congress. Shortly after these 10-DVD sets are received, PRG’s [Paradigm Research Group’s] registered lobbyist, Stephen Bassett, will renew direct engagement of the U. S. Congress for the first time since 2000 seeking new congressional hearings on extraterrestrial related phenomena. http://paradigmresearchgroup.org, http://youtu.be/WZBN_9NMhUA.”

As of today, the petition has 145 signatures and is shooting for 200.

In 1988, John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta formed a lobbying company, known over time as Podesta Associates and PodestaMattoon. Since 2007, it’s been known as the Podesta Group (and headed by Tony Podesta). John Podesta is not currently listed as “talent” on the Podesta Group’s web site. According to Wikipedia, the Podesta Group “has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.”

I wrote about one of John Podesta’s earlier UFO disclosure efforts in my dissertation (“Sex! Aliens! Harvard? Rhetorical boundary-work in the media, published 2005). Here’s the story.

But first, a few words about “UFOlogy.”

All “ologys” are social constructions. Not all are legitimate. One strategy that UFOlogists have employed to establish credibility for UFOs as a legitimate research subject and themselves as legitimate researchers is to rhetorically construct UFOs as phenomena in the natural world, thus locating them inside the boundaries of legitimate science. Another strategy has been to locate the UFO phenomenon outside the boundaries of conventional science, where the authority of conventional science does not apply.

Now the story….

A project undertaken by cable television’s Sci Fi Channel (now known as Sy Fy), framed as an effort to construct scientific authority for UFOlogy, appeared to me to be a media campaign that served the purpose of promoting TV programming. In 2001-2002, Sci Fi initiated a series of activities that Sci Fi officials said were intended to convince government officials to take UFOs seriously. These activities were part of a publicity campaign for “Taken,” a Sci Fi mini-series about alien abduction broadcast in 2002.

Elements of the campaign included a series of online “chats” with UFO “experts”; the commissioning (and publicizing) of a Roper public opinion poll on UFOs; a symposium in Washington, DC, on “interstellar travel and unidentified aerial phenomena”; a symposium in New York on “the reality of the abduction phenomenon”; and a National Press Club briefing in Washington on the formation of a Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFI). The CFI – founded by self-described “investigative journalist” Leslie Kean, who continues to write about UFOs for the Huffington Post – was a Sci Fi-sponsored project of PodestaMattoon, which orchestrated the network’s UFO campaign. My friend Leonard David, reporting for space.com, described Sci Fi’s campaign as “seeking the truth through savvy marketing.”

Sci Fi’s Washington symposium took place on the campus of George Washington University. I attended this event to observe the rhetoric of UFOlogy in action. The university’s vice president for academic affairs said GWU and Sci Fi had a common interest in promoting interdisciplinary scientific research and “dispassionate discussions” about controversial subjects. The panel of seven experts assembled for this UFOlogy symposium included five Ph.Ds, among them physicists Michio Kaku (a science popularizer and ubiquitous media talking head), Stanford University professor Peter Sturrock and UFOlogist/venture capitalist Jacques Vallee. Given the importance of labeling in constructing authority, I should note that while I am referring to this event as a UFOlogy symposium, Sci Fi did not use this term in publicizing the event, and speakers at the event avoided use of the term “UFO,” employing the alternative term “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (UAP). Credentials, expertise and authority were emphasized in speaker introductions, biographies and presentations.

In 2003, the Associated Press reported on a Sci Fi Channel-backed lawsuit to make NASA divulge records of “a UFO that reportedly crash landed and was recovered by government workers” in 1965. “The cable network announced in June,” the story reported, “that it was backing the effort to research the Kecksburg incident in promoting a documentary, ‘Out of the Blue,’ which examined various UFO reports…. Sci Fi…officials said they’re looking for an explanation of what occurred. They’re also looking for viewers. A November 2002 documentary on the suspected 1947 UFO crash in Roswell…was the highest-rated special in the network’s 11-year history…seen by nearly 2.4 million people.”

Back to 2015. My advice to you, dear readers, is to question authority. How many of these “experts” have constructed their authority by using the media to frame themselves as “experts”? Just because John Podesta has worked in the White House over two administrations, does it mean he has inside information on government knowledge of UFOs? And as far as “the truth” goes, most of the “truth” that’s out there is claims dressed up as “facts.” IMHO.

Consider your sources.

What’s going on with NASA’s asteroid mission?

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NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, including an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and an Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC), remains shrouded in fog – at least from some perspectives. (An expanded NASA near-Earth object observation program also plays a role in this initiative. I work as a consultant to this program. Hence, my interest.)

Whether it’s due to an in-the-works update of NASA’s web site or other reasons, information on nasa.gov about the ARM and the AGC is woefully out of date. NASA’s fact sheets about the two projects are dated 2013.

The most up-to-date information on NASA’s Asteroid Initiative web page are a set of papers about various aspects of the initiative, authored by representatives of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and external collaborators presented at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress in October.

For all the details these recent papers provide, they do not offer answers to the questions being raised about the initiative, particularly the ARM. How much will the ARM cost? What is included in the cost, and what is not? What exactly is the ARM intended to achieve?

A meeting took place at NASA headquarters in December to select which mission design option the Agency would pursue: the ARM “robotic mission reference mission” (bag the asteroid), a.k.a. Option A; or the ARM robotic mission alternate approach (pick a rock off an asteroid), a.k.a. Option B. (The mission descriptions I’m providing links to are dated December 2013.)

NASA scheduled a media teleconference to announce the selection. What NASA ended up announcing was that it had no announcement.  NASA has yet to announce a “downselect” or a date for an announcement.

At a meeting in Phoenix last week, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group raised questions about ARM – without many satisfactory answers. NASA’s NEO observation program chief, Lindley Johnson, delivered an Asteroid Redirect Mission update” to the group. (NASA ARM Program Director Michele Gates, though not present at the SBAG meeting, was named as co-presenter on Johnson’s slides.) In his update, Johnson described the three “segments” of ARM:

  • Identify: use ground- and space-based assets to detect and characterize potential target asteroids.
  • Redirect: demonstrate solar electric propulsion technology to redirect an asteroid to cislunar space.
  • Explore: A human mission to an asteroid, launched by the Space Launch System/Orion system, to rendezvous with, study and return samples from the redirected asteroid.

(The current objectives of ARM, plus ARM accomplishments since SBAG’s July meeting, are detailed in this SBAG presentation. Some SBAG members did not see much progress made from July to January.)

This week, the NASA Advisory Council, meeting at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, devoted some discussion to ARM. To differing degrees and for various reasons, some NAC members have issues with ARM. For example, Tom Young apparently thinks ARM is a bad idea. Scott Hubbard is concerned that ARM might detract from more than contribute to getting “humans to Mars” (H2M).

Today, NAC Chair Steve Squyres raised the point that the ARM is “national policy.” He asked whether the NAC should forward any finding or recommendation to the NASA Administrator that would be “against policy.” NAC member Hubbard was tasked with drafting a finding and recommendation for the council’s consideration.

After quite a bit of quibbling about wording, the NAC finally agreed on what they would send to the Administrator, based on Scott Hubbard’s draft:

“Finding [tabled, see below]: The Council does not believe that the redirection of an asteroid or part of an asteroid to cislunar space contributes significantly to the national objective of sending humans to Mars. We believe the cost and utilization of important but limited human exploration expertise for asteroid redirection is not justified by the expected low contribution to the humans-to-Mars endeavor.

Recommendation: The ARM mission has two objectives that are important direct contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid, as we suspect, breaks the cost cap and the project must be descoped.

Major reasons for proposing the recommendation: The specific ARM objective of capturing part or all of a small asteroid contributes little to the long-term goal of H2M, contributes only peripherally to planetary defense, and may add a great deal of cost, resulting in exceeding suggested $1.25B cost cap.

Consequences of not implementing the recommendation: There is a risk that meeting a full set of requirements that includes capturing an asteroid will cause the ARM cost cap to be exceeded, resulting in either a) the cancellation of the entire project, including the very important H2M objectives, or b) the budgetary “goalposts” moving and budget overruns that will threaten other programs.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was present at the NAC meeting during part of the discussion of this recommendation. One NAC member asked him, “Is this [$1.25 billion] an official cost cap?” Bolden replied, “We don’t have an official cost cap…. That is the figure we have drawn out from the team so they wouldn’t go hog-wild…. I think this is a paradigm shift.”

The NAC decided to table the finding, for now. “It’s so important,” Squyres said, “that we do this right and accurately represent a consensus view.” Even though it appears that a majority of members support this finding, while one or two do not, we need to make “a real attempt” to achieve unanimity. Member Tom Young said disagreement seems to be about facts, not words…. The council tentatively plans a Feb. 23 virtual meeting to take up the finding again. The NAC’s next meeting is in April.

At last week’s SBAG meeting, NASA’s Johnson responded to the following finding from SBAG’s July 2014 meeting:

“The Need for a Near-Earth Object Survey. The NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Section 321, cited as the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” directs that “the Administrator shall plan, develop, and implement a Near-Earth Object Survey program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter in order to assess the threat of such near-Earth objects to the Earth. It shall be the goal of the Survey program to achieve 90 percent completion of its near- Earth object catalogue (based on statistically predicted populations of near-Earth objects) within 15 years after the date of enactment of this Act.” The stated goal of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge is “to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” which is well aligned with the congressional direction to identify potentially hazardous objects. However, no plan has been defined or resourced to achieve the congressional goal by 2020. A dedicated space-based survey telescope would achieve this goal in the shortest period of time. SBAG reiterates that a space-based NEO survey telescope would be a foundational asset, significantly advancing NASA’s human exploration, science, and planetary defense objectives.”

Johnson said the 2005 act’s 2020 goal is the NASA NEO observation program’s current objective. However, this objective can’t be met by 2020 with current resources. While NEO program funding has gone up from $4.5 million in FY 2011 $40 mm in 2014, it’s still not sufficient to scale up the NEO search and discovery rate.

As to the need for a space-based NEO survey telescope, the entire NEO community appears to be in agreement. However, Johnson noted, at $40 million a year, NASA’s NEO program budget is inadequate to fund a mission.

SBAG chair Nancy Chabot commented that a space-based NEO survey telescope should be a top priority for NASA, not just the NEO program or the Planetary Science Division (PSD). Chabot said to PSD director Jim Green that his division is burdened with a task that the small-bodies community thinks should be an “agency-wide” priority. Green responded that he did not yet know what will be in NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request.

Another finding from SBAG’s July 2014 meeting was that “the B612 Foundation has been unable to meet scheduled milestones under its Space Act Agreement with NASA for the Sentinel mission. SBAG is concerned that reliance on this initiative has delayed NASA’s ability to move forward on a NEO survey telescope that is competed and optimally designed to address NASA strategic objectives across planetary defense, human exploration, and science.”

LJ responded at SBAG’s January meeting that, “to date NASA has found that reliance on the private sector for a space-based NEO survey has not advanced our progress toward the goals of the (2005 NASA authorization) act. This approach is being re-examined as part of the strategic planning (process) for the NEOOP in 2015.”

Johnson reported that known NEOs now total more than 12,000. The NEO discovery rate is up since 2013, primarily due to the PANSTARRS-1 prototype ground-based NEO survey telescope increasing PANSTARRS survey time from 15 to 100 percent.

For fiscal year 2015, NASA’s NEO program is supporting five search projects (22 percent of budget), five radar projects (12 percent), three data analysis projects (5 percent), 13 characterization projects (8 percent), 12 follow-up projects, five technology development projects, three “studies,” five mitigation studies, and three program support projects.

Thus far, Johnson noted, NASA’s NEO program has not been funded according to what the program needs to achieve assigned goals but according to “what we can afford.”

Stay tuned for the White House budget request for NASA in fiscal year 2016, due out the first week of February.

Awareness or PR? “Asteroid Day”

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Tomorrow, December 3, “Scientists, Nobel Laureates, Technologists & Artists [Will] Announce Asteroid Awareness Day,” according to a press release distributed November 26, via Business Wire, by the Aquarius Group. “Leading experts in astronomy, cosmology, physics and entertainment will hold a simultaneous press conference in London and San Francisco on December 3rd to announce Asteroid Day – a global day of awareness to educate the world about asteroids: what they are, how frequently they impact Earth and how we can protect our planet and humanity from potential disasters…. ”

“Also to be released at the press conference will be a 100x Asteroid Declaration, signed by noted scientists, business leaders, educators and entertainers. The declaration calls for the rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).” So says the press release. Experts scheduled to speak at this media event are: in London, Lord Martin Rees, the U.K.’s Astronomer Royal; and Brian May, “Astrophysicist, Musician & Lead Guitarist for Queen”; and in San Francisco, Ed Lu, Rusty Schweickart, and Tom Jones. The latter three men are ex-astronauts.

Lu and Schweickart are co-founders of the B612 Foundation. Lu is currently CEO of the organization, and Schweickart is chairman emeritus of its board of directors. Brian May, Tom Jones and Lord Martin Rees are “strategic advisors” to the B612 Foundation. B612 is engaged in an ongoing fund-raising campaign for its Sentinel space-based near-Earth object survey telescope project. The most recent Sentinel project status update posted on B612’s Web site is dated September 2013.

Diane Murphy, media contact for the December 3 “Asteroid Day” media event and (according to her press release) president of the Aquarius Group, is listed as “VP Public Relations” for the B612 Foundation on its Web site. According to the Aquarius Group’s Facebook page, “The purpose of the Aquarius Group is to embrace capitalism as a vehicle to enable all of humanity to achieve basic abundance, peace, liberty, and environmental sustainability.” The Aquarius Group’s web site, www.theaquariusgroup.com, is “getting a makeover, be back soon!” (UPDATE, January 7, 2015: Diane Murphy has informed me that she does not “own aquariusgroup.com and don’t know who does…. I am president of Aquarius Group LLC and my website is Murphypublicrelations.com.”) The web site asteroidday.org apparently will not go live until December 3.

Back to the press release: “Asteroid Day will be held on June 30, 2015 with events around the world hosted by individuals and organizations, at schools, museums, community and science centers, via film and entertainment.” Since its inception, B612 has specialized in splashy media events, hook-ups with the entertainment industry, and private parties for donors (and, presumably, rich prospective donors). These “special events” include film screenings, science briefings, and opportunities to gawk at ex-astronauts and other Famous People. To an East Coaster like me, it all seems very “California.”

Speaking of which, I’ve stumbled across a little bit of “California” out in the Atlantic Ocean – with a connection to B612, even! It’s the Starmus International Festival – “an astronomy related festival…on the island of Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain). The first Starmus festival took place in 2011. The second was this past September. Among the experts on the program for this year’s festival was – Brian May! A music concert was provided by – Brian May!

Apparently Garik Israelian, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and director of Starmus, planned these festivals in collaboration with the Canary Islands Government and Tenerife´s local government. Starmus sponsors include a number of businesses in the tourism industry.

Question: Why the Canary Islands? (Besides the fact that it’s a cushy place to take a holiday?) Answer: Brian May! According to the Starmus web site, “The Canary Islands’ position as an important astronomical location is reinforced further by Brian May’s relationship with the region, which dates back to the seventies. May wrote his thesis on the reflection of light from interplanetary dust in the solar system in the Teide Observatory on Tenerife, which he shelved while a little-known band called Queen became popular, until completing it in 2007 with the support of Starmus Director, Garik Israelian.”

Oh.

Just FYI, the program for the September 2014 Starmus Festival featured exactly one non-white-male “expert.”

Another feature of this year’s Starmus was “the first private screening” of a science-fiction film, “51 Degrees,” about a world-ending asteroid impact with Earth. (Jeeze, not again.) Guess who wrote the sound track for this film? Brian May!

Rumor has it that “51 Degrees” director Grigorij Richters is interested in “Asteroid Day”….

The registration fee for this year’s Starmus Festival was 300 Euro, not including “optional” events such as the “Teide Starmus Party” (100 Euro), conference banquet (100 Euro), an excursion to Teide Observatories (100 Euro), and an excursion to La Palma Observatories (300 Euro). Home base for Starmus was the Ritz-Carlton, Abama in Tenerife. Room rates for Starmus were 150 to 164 Euro a night. Using cheaptickets.com, I searched for flights from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport to Tenerife, leaving on a Saturday, Dec. 6, and returning on the following Sunday, Dec. 14. Cheapest roundtrip fare: $1500. Sooo…I’d guesstimate that it would cost $3000-$4000 for me to go to this conference.

I should mention that Kalmbach Publishing’s Astronomy magazine is the “exclusive media partner” of Starmus. Astronomy editor Dave Eicher was on the program for this year’s festival.

According to the Canary Islands Statistics Institute, 3.4 million tourists visited Grand Canary Island alone in 2013, with tourist spending there totaling $3.7 billion for the year.

The Starmus Festival appears to be a larger-scale version of the sort of public/private events thrown by B612. These sorts of events are yet another reminder of how the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. They are inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s people, many of whom, I’d venture to guess, are just as interested in science as the next (rich) guy. Aspen Institute and TED conferences are of the same ilk. Registration for the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival is $2000-$3000 per person. Yes, TED puts its talks online for free, but it costs a bundle to get into a conference and hobnob with the trend-setters. TedActive conferences coming up in March cost $4,250 to attend (and one must “apply” before one must pay…what’s that about?). (Don’t get me started on the TEDification of culture. That’s a subject for a future post.)

As to “Asteroid Day,” it’s all about promotion, IMHO. B612 wants to drum up donations. A director wants to promote his film. Ex-astronauts want to reinforce their cultural authority as Experts on Everything – an authority that the media play a huge role in constructing and maintaining. That’s all for now from this culture critic.

Very interesting: a map of small asteroid impacts with the atmosphere

unnamed

Credit: NASA

Small near-Earth asteroids, around a meter in size, hit our atmosphere and disintegrate around every other week. We now know this because “U.S. sensors” can, and do, detect and measure the energy released by these detonations. As this NASA Web story reports, an unidentified source (you figure it out…) has given the agency 20 years worth of data collected by (ahem) “U.S. government sensors” on “bolide impact events.” These data will be (but aren’t quite yet) available to the scientific community for research. What’s a bolide, and what are bolide impact events? See this NASA Web page for information. Also see this story by Leonard David about the “fireball” site, which he said went up March 1, 2013. Back to the “newly released data.” These twenty years worth of observations show that small asteroid impacts with Earth’s atmosphere are “frequent and random.” A map of these small impact events shows the frequency of, and energy released by, impacts detected from 1994 through 2013. “Over this 20-year interval,” NASA says, “U.S. Government assets recorded at least 556 bolide events of various energies.” The sizes of the dots are indicative of the amount of “optical radiated energy” released, measured in billions of Joules (GJ).   Orange dots represent daytime events, and blue dots represent nighttime events. As NASA notes, the largest asteroid impact with the atmosphere during this 20-year interval was the so-called Chelyabinsk event, in which a 20-meter object exploded over Russia on February 15, 2013, releasing the energy equivalent of 440,000 – 500,000 tons of TNT. This is a really interesting story, in my biased opinion (I work as a consultant to NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program). The map is a particularly striking visual depiction of what’s going on over our heads all the time – largely though not completely without consequences, as the blast wave generated by the Chelyabinsk event shattered glass and damaged buildings over a wide area. The map shows that because these impacts are randomly distributed, about three quarters of them occur over oceans and about half occur during daylight hours. I’d guess that many of these events had few to zero “naked eye” human observers. As NASA’s story notes, “Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona, is evidence of the impact with Earth’s surface of a 50-meter asteroid about 50,000 years ago.” I visited Meteor Crater in 2013 – quite impressive (see below).

 LB @ Meteor Crater.3.13

Credit: LA Lewis

I’ll be interested to see what other insights NEO scientists may glean from this rich database. Thanks to “unidentified source” for repurposing these data.

Fireballs, meteors, asteroids, oh my!

Leonid_Meteor2

A sighting during a Leonid meteor shower. Credit: http://www.sciencebuzz.org

A meteor disintegrating in the atmosphere over Texas this past Saturday generated national media coverage and prompted calls to NASA. See CNN’s Nov. 9 report for a quick version of this “fireball” story.

So what is a fireball, anyway? It’s a meteor disintegrating in the atmosphere and making a very visible show of it. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near Earth Object Program Office offers information on fireballs, also known as bolides. The NEO Program Office also explains the difference between asteroids, meteors, meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites:

“In space, a large rocky body in orbit about the Sun is referred to as an asteroid or minor planet whereas much smaller particles in orbit about the Sun are referred to as meteoroids. Once a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor (i.e., shooting star). If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands upon the Earth’s surface, it is then called a meteorite. Cometary debris is the source of most small meteoroid particles. Many comets generate meteoroid streams when their icy cometary nuclei pass near the Sun and release the dust particles that were once embedded in the cometary ices. These meteoroid particles then follow in the wake of the parent comet. Collisions between asteroids in space create smaller asteroidal fragments and these fragments are the sources of most meteorites that have struck the Earth’s surface.”

It seems that people are seeing meteors and fireballs all the time these days….

My explanation for this development is that 1) since the Chelyabinsk event of February 2013 – the spectacular disintegration of a small asteroid in the atmosphere – people are more aware of the phenomena, and 2) due to the ubiquity of smartphones and other handheld imaging and communication devices – not to mention dashcams, which yielded an impressive real-time record of the Chelyabinsk event – information about events such as fireball sightings spreads around the globe in near-real time.

If you’re wondering whether Earth is being bombarded by objects from space these days, the answer is yes. If you’re wondering whether the current situation is unusual, the answer is no. (Stay tuned for more information on the frequency and distribution of bolide impacts with the atmosphere…coming soon….) If you’re wondering whether Earth is at risk of being smacked by an asteroid or comet big enough to cause serious damage, the answer is no, not at the moment, not as far as anybody knows.

So, back to this weekend’s “fireball” event – who you gonna call when you see something you think is a fireball? NASA seems a logical choice, and, indeed, Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, took media calls about the Texas fireball and actually had some data on the event. However, the Meteoroid Environment Office is “responsible for meteoroid environments pertaining to spacecraft engineering and operations,” not – as far as I can tell – explicitly for monitoring fireball sightings 24/7. The objective of this particular NASA office “is to understand the flux and the associated risk of meteoroids impacting spacecraft traveling in and beyond Earth’s orbit.”

Then there’s NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program and its program office at JPL (see above). The NEOO program is tasked with finding, tracking, and characterizing NEOs. Again, as far as I can tell, this program is not explicitly tasked with monitoring fireball events 24/7.

Outside NASA, the American Meteor Society, founded in 1911, is a pro-am astronomy group whose members “observe, monitor, collect data on, study, and report on meteors, meteor showers, fireballs, and related meteoric phenomena.” If you want to see where fireballs have been sighted lately, see this group’s website, which offers lots of other information as well.

(Clearly the Internet and social media have dramatically improved professional and amateur astronomers’ ability to share information on these phenomena. Thank you, Mr. President, for taking a step today toward preserving “net neutrality.”)

You can also check out the International Meteor Organization (IMO), “founded in 1988…in response to an ever growing need for international cooperation of meteor amateur work. The IMO has a “fireball” page as well.

If you see what you think is a fireball, you can report it to the AMS or the IMO. See their websites.

Here’s a final thought for the day. I’ve theorized that more people are seeing meteors and fireballs because they are more knowledgeable about the phenomena than they were just a few years ago and because they have the means to record them. It also seems that news-media reports of UFO sightings are mighty scarce these days. Yes, MUFON lives on, and UFOlogy gets plenty of play on infotainment TV channels such as the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Science Channel (all owned by the multibillion-dollar media mega-corporation Discovery Communications), the History Channel, and Sy Fy. But the mainstream news media don’t seem to be reporting on UFO sightings these days. Could there be a correlation between a better understanding of natural phenomena and fewer claims of alien spaceship visits to Earth?

Discuss.

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