The allure of alien life: a preview

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Credit: shirtoid.com

I’ll be giving a talk on “the allure of alien life” at a symposium at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress tomorrow. For more information, go to: http://www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/news/nasa-program-2014.html.

(See the page on this site, “The Allure of Alien Life,” for my paper and my slides.)

Today, the first day of this symposium, we heard a vigorous critique of the anthropocentric/ethnocentric/Western-White-Male-centric thinking that dominates the popular and scholarly discourse about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and speculations about “first contact.”

I guarantee you’ll hear more tomorrow. Tune in. The symposium is being webcast at: https://ac.arc.nasa.gov/loc/

If you miss the live event, the Kluge Center eventually will archive a video recording of the symposium.

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The NASA IG’s NEO report: a corrective

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Credit: careersingovernment.com

NASA’s Office of Inspector General has published its audit of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. The audit found that the program is tasked with doing too much with too little. ABC, CBS, and NBC made news of this finding as follows: “NASA Inspector Blasts Asteroid Protection Program” (ABC) “NASA Inspector General blasts asteroid detection program” (CBS) “NASA’s watchdog office criticizes NASA’s asteroid-hunting program” (NBC) In my humble opinion, these stories (and the others that copied and followed) are a tad misleading. Here’s what the IG’s report says:

  • “Existing NEO program management [is] not commensurate with increased resources and expanded responsibilities.” (p. 9).
  • “NASA has placed overall Program responsibility in a single Program Executive at Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight.” (p. 10)
  • In addition to managing NASA-funded NEO detection, tracking, characterization, and mitigation efforts, “the Program supports the work of NASA initiatives such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and NEO Program personnel provide technical support for a Space Act agreement with the B612 Foundation to assist in the development of a privately funded, space-based infrared telescope. Despite this increased activity, NASA has not changed or improved the NEO Program’s management structure, and the Program has not established a plan to integrate the additional initiatives or track their contributions to attainment of NEO Program goals” (p. iii).

The NEO program’s budget has increased from $4 million in 2010 to $40 million this year. As the IG’s report notes, when the program budget was $20 million it was managed by one civil servant. Now that the program budget is $40 million, it is still managed by one civil servant (the same one). (See above.) I am a consultant to the NEO Observation Program on communication issues. I am not, and cannot be, involved in program management. I am not privy to any inside information on the status of the program. But it seems to me that the central message from the IG is not that the program “lacks structure” but that it lacks the resources needed to organize and operate as a well structured NASA program. That’s my biased five cents worth.

Update: Nicaragua impact: meteorite, or not? JPL weighs in

nicaragua-meteorite

Credit: Nicaraguan Army/Associated Press

On Sunday September 7, Nicaraguan media reported that a meteorite had crashed to Earth near the Managua airport around 11 PM local time Saturday September 6. The impact made a crater 12 meters in diameter and 5.5 meters deep, according to La Nacion (ACAN-EFE). Associated Press and Reuters reported on the event, and those reports were widely distributed via other media channels. 

Media reports quoted a Nicaraguan spokesperson stating that 1) the crater was caused by a metorite impact and 2) the meteorite was a fragment of the asteroid 2014 RC, which NEO observers reported last week would safely fly by Earth on Sunday September 7.

My (knowledgeable) sources say that since the Nicaraguan impact occurred 13 hours before the fly-by of 2014 RC, the object that caused the impact could not have been a fragment of 2014 RC. 

My sources also have not yet determined whether the impact was caused by a meteorite of by something else. Stay tuned for more information from the experts on what caused this impact. 

La Nacion noted in its report that the impact occurred near a military installation, as well as the airport. One media report quoted an eyewitness – actually an ear-witness – who said he was sitting on his porch at the time of the impact and saw nothing but heard the explosion. That seems odd, since the impact occurred at night.

We don’t have the advantage of hundreds of automobile dashboard cameras recording this impact event, as we did with the Chelyabinsk impact of 2013. I haven’t seen any close-ups of the impact crater, which would be helpful to experts interested in determining what created it.

So, again, stay tuned for more definitive reports on what caused this impact. 

UPDATE: SEE http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news185.html – JPL’s NEO Program Office reports, “Reports in the media over the weekend that a small meteorite impacted in Nicaragua have yet to be confirmed. A loud explosion was heard near Managua’s international airport Saturday night, and photos of a 24-meter (80-foot) crater have been circulated. As yet, no eyewitness accounts or imagery have come to light of the fireball flash or debris trail that is typically associated with a meteor of the size required to produce such a crater. Since the explosion in Nicaragua occurred a full 13 hours before the close passage of asteroid 2014 RC, these two events are unrelated.”