Friday, November 7, 2014

Harpooning the 'Rubber Duck' Comet; Public Safety — and Space Aliens

If all goes well, a robot spaceship will harpoon a comet next week.

Meanwhile, science and daily routine go on in the International Space Station, nobody was hurt when an Antares cargo carrier exploded, and someone's done a survey about faith and space aliens.
  1. Harpooning Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
  2. Science, the International Space Station, and All That
  3. Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares Launch Failure
  4. Faith, Philosophy, and Space Aliens

Operation — Rubber Duck?!

Some comets and asteroids are shaped like potatoes. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks like two potatoes and a bit of corn stalk: or a rubber duck.

There isn't anything particularly Egyptian about the comet. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft got its name because mission planners hope that they'll learn more about the early Solar system: like the Rosetta Stone helped Egyptologists decipher Ancient Egypt's hieroglyphs.

"Rosetta" is also a much cooler name than "Rubber Duck." My opinion. So is "Phlae," our name for Philak, an island which was occasionally Ancient Egypt's southern border.

Two Dozen Centuries, Two Dams

Egyptians started building temples at Philak during the Thirtieth Dynasty of Egypt, about two dozen centuries back.

The land changed hands several times since then. A Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, decided that what Egypt needed was dam on the Nile. That was about a thousand years ago. The Caliph called in an expert, Ibn al-Haytham: Alhazen, to Westerners like me.

Ibn al-Haytham took a good look at the Caliph's plans, and decided that a dam was impractical with current technology. Ibn al-Haytham prudently didn't tell the Caliph, and pretended that he had become insane. Ibn al-Haytham, not the Caliph.

That kept Ibn al-Haytham alive, and under house arrest, until the Caliph died: giving Ibn al-Haytham time to write كتاب المناظر (Kitāb al-Manāẓir‎). In my part of the world, we call it De Aspectibus, Perspectiva, or Book of Optics: and that's another topic.

Time passed, and a little over a century back the British held Egypt. They had tech that Ibn al-Haytham didn't, and started building the Aswan Low Dam. That project gave Egypt some much-needed water, but not enough for early-20th-century needs.

Egypt was back in Egyptian hands in the 20th century's second half. Construction began on another dam, the "Aswan High Dam," around 1960. The good news was that the dam did what it was designed to do.

Happily, folks from around the world helped relocate some high-value bits of Egypt's past, before they were submerged.

Ramses II, Abu Simbel, and a Puzzle for the 53rd Century

(From Engineering and Technology Magazine, used w/o permission.)
("Moving the figures guarding the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel"
(Nick Smith, Engineering and Technology Magazine))

About 3,270 years ago, Ramses II had very impressive temples built at a spot we call Abu Simbel. In 1968, folks moved the temples about 65 meters higher, to a spot 200 meters back.

Ramses II wanted folks to think of him as a god: which isn't a good idea. I'll get back to that.

I'm quite sure that UNESCO designated Abu Simbel as a World Heritage Site because it's a remarkably impressive and well-preserved structure from one the Ancient world's major civilizations: not in an effort to revive pharaoh-worship.

That idea got me thinking, though. The Aswan dams might still be in use, 3,270 years from now. But it's not beyond belief that they might fall into disrepair before the year 5284 rolls around.

If that happens, and some records get lost over the course of three millennia — archeologists could have a mystery on their hands: temples six and a half millennia old, sitting under a reinforced concrete dome that's about half as old.

Some might correctly deduce that folks in our era thought the temples were worth saving from flood waters: because they're monuments to a defunct civilization.

Others — there could be heated debates over whether and how Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted into the early years of the Information Age.

1. Harpooning Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

(From ESA/Rosetta, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Site "J", now called "Agilkia", is on the head of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko")
(BBC News))
"Rosetta comet mission: Landing site named 'Agilkia' "
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 4, 2014)

"The landing site on a comet to be targeted by Europe's Philae robot on 12 November has been named "Agilkia" following a public competition.

"It continues the Egyptian theme for the mission - being an island in the Nile.

"Philae will be ejected towards Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by its carrier spacecraft, Rosetta, on the morning of 12 November.

"If successful, it will be a historic first - no probe has ever soft-landed on one of these icy bodies before.

"Controllers at the European Space Agency's operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, hope to get a positive signal from the robot at just after 1600 GMT (1700 CET).

"Until now, the chosen landing zone on the 'head' of duck-shaped 67P has been known simply as 'J' - a reference to its position on a list of possible destinations in the landing site selection process...."
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is shaped a bit like a rubber duck: not the feathered variety. Scientists aren't sure why it looks like two lumps connected by a thick pillar.

Maybe it started out as two comets that collided — slowly enough for them to merge into a contact binary.

Or maybe the comet got pulled apart by tides, during a near-miss with a massive object: or we're seeing the result of ice boiling off into space.

The comet isn't particularly large: 3.5 by 4 kilometers, 2.2 by 2.5 miles. It's surface gravity is probably about one ten-thousandth of what we're used to here on Earth.

Someone 'standing' on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko would "weigh" about a quarter of an ounce. The person's mass would be the same — that's how much pressure would be holding the individual onto the comet's surface.

Negligible surface gravity is why the Philae lander will use harpoons and drills to pull itself to the surface: and not bounce off.

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: 4,500,000,000 years in cold storage

The lander and orbiter will work together to scan the interior of  67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, showing us what the comet's interior looks like.

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has spent quite a few decades, at least, inside Jupiter's orbit: so the surface has boiled and refrozen many times. Even so, the Rosetta mission is another opportunity to study stuff that's spent most of the last 4,500,000,000 years in cold storage. It's another opportunity to learn about the Solar system's early days. (October 24, 2014)

2. Science, the International Space Station, and All That

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
("NASA installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 on a truss segment on the International Space Station in May 2011."
"Weekly Recap From the Expedition Lead Scientist"
Vic Cooley, Lead Increment Scientist, Expedition 41/42; NASA (October 30, 2014)

"NASA astronaut Barry 'Butch' Wilmore completed a wake radiator photography survey in the Mini-Research Module 2 on the International Space Station in support of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) investigation. NASA's AMS-02 study looks for evidence of anti-matter along with very high-energy radiation coming from distant stars that could harm crew members traveling to Mars. Stars, planets and the molecules that make them are only about 5 percent of the total mass in the universe — the rest is either dark matter or dark energy, but no one has ever seen this material or been able to study it....

"...NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman completed the final operations for the Commercial Protein Crystal Growth-High-density protein crystal growth Modified investigation (CPCG-HM) before sending it back to Earth on the SpaceX-4 Dragon capsule Oct. 25. This project expands an ongoing study into the proteins that move signals or molecules to and from a cell's interior or help cells identify each other for immune responses. In microgravity, proteins form a crystalline structure, which is easier to study, but in some cases, is too fragile to form under the forces of Earth's gravity. The crystals are grown in space and returned to Earth for X-ray analysis. Pure crystals that yield information about the protein's structure will open the way for a coherent, structure-based design of a broader range of medicines for treating diseases and disorders...."
Experiments involving protein crystals grown in orbiting laboratories goes back at least 22 years, to the International Microgravity Laboratory carried by a Space Shuttle.

We still don't have a 'universal vaccine,' but research takes time.

For example, Leeuwenhoek saw microorganisms in his microscope in the 1670s, Agostino Bassi linked Leuwenhoek's 'worms' with disease in the early 1800s, and scientists worked the bugs out of the germ theory of disease later in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, folks like James Gillray had been warning the public that vaccination made itty-bitty cows burst from one's body.

I've enjoyed movies like The Andromeda Strain and The Omega Man.

But I've wondered how those movies, and others like "The Revenge of Frankenstein" and "Parts: The Clonus Horror, have encouraged a degree of diffidence about science and technology. And that's another topic. (February 14, 2014; February 12, 2014; April 8, 2012)

"We Do Not Know Yet"

"...'The new AMS results show unambiguously that a new source of positrons is active in the galaxy,' says Paolo Zuccon, an assistant professor of physics at MIT. 'We do not know yet if these positrons are coming from dark matter collisions, or from astrophysical sources such as pulsars. But measurements are underway by AMS that may discriminate between the two hypotheses.'..."
(Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office)
I like assistant professor Paolo Zuccon's attitude. Particularly the last word in this phrase: "We do not know yet...."

It wasn't until the 1930s that scientists suggested that oddities in large-scale features might be caused by dark matter, stuff that has mass, but barely interacts with energy or matter apart from its gravity.

Neutrinos are a known form of dark matter: these elusive little particles interact with normal matter through gravity and the weak force: and that's it.

Some 'current' books I read in high school called galaxies "island universes," I abandoned plans for a Geology/Geography minor because that department didn't 'believe in' continental drift, and the number of known planets circling other stars passed 1,000 a year ago.

I like living in an era when humanity's knowledge of the universe is growing: fast. Not everyone feels that way. (October 10, 2014; July 15, 2014; April 18, 2014)

More about ISS-related research:

3. Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares Launch Failure

(From NASA/Terry Zaperach, via NASA, used w/o permission.)
("An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28."
"NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Completes Initial Assessment after Orbital Launch Mishap"
NASA press release (October 29, 2014)

"The Wallops Incident Response Team completed today an initial assessment of Wallops Island, Virginia, following the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff at 6:22 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Oct. 28, from Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia....

"...The initial assessment is a cursory look; it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event. A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage.

"At Pad 0A the initial assessment showed damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods, as well as debris around the pad....

"...Following the initial assessment, the response team will open the area of Wallops Island, north of the island flagpole opposite of the launch pad location, to allow the U.S. Navy to return back to work.

"Anyone who finds debris or damage to their property in the vicinity of the launch mishap is cautioned to stay away from it and call the Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295."
News coverage of VSS Enterprise, N339SS, crash last Friday pushed the Wallops Island accident into the background. That's understandable, since in the co-pilot died when Virgin Galactic's experimental vehicle broke apart: and SpaceShipTwo is designed for space tourism.

Nobody was hurt when an Antares cargo carrier exploded, happily, and the launch facility wasn't badly damaged.

The last paragraph in that NASA press release may have already inspired conspiracy theories. I've enjoyed some stories where the 'Spunky Girl Reporter' (yes, that phrase is real), Cynical Detective, or whoever, discovers that space programs are run by shipwrecked space aliens.

Actually, that might make a good story. TV Tropes' So You Want To: Write A Conspiracy Theory has tips on how to weave a tale of mystery and intrigue: and that's another topic. Topics.

Getting back to the real world, calling the Incident Response Team makes good sense for anyone finding pieces of a crashed spaceship.

The Antares first stage fuel is kerosene and liquid oxygen: comparatively innocuous materials. The rocket's upper stages use more exotic propellants, like nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine. Stuff like that is generally best left to folks wearing hazmat suits.

Purplish Flames

(From BBC News video, used w/o permission.)
("The rocket explosion in Virginia was caught live on BBC World News"
(BBC News))
"Unmanned US rocket Antares explodes during launch"
BBC News (October 29, 2014)

"An unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station has exploded shortly after its launch from the US state of Virginia.

"Antares, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, combusted seconds after leaving the seaside launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility.

"The rocket was due to carry nearly 5,000lb (2,200kgs) of supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

"It included equipment for astronauts to conduct tests on blood flow to the human brain and to analyse meteors.

"There was also equipment for experiments to examine the growth of pea shoots in orbit and how the body's immune system reacts to space travel.

"More than 1,300lb (600kg) of food was on board, including pre-packaged meals and freeze-dried crab cakes...."
The purplish fire lighting up part of the last frame in that set may help explain why folks at Wallops Flight Facility let the conflagration burn itself out. Sometimes it's safer to let a fire burn itself out. As I recall, that's how last year's oil/grain train wreck in North Dakota was handled.

Most of the cargo carried by Cygnus CRS Orb-3 wasn't crab cakes. I'm also pretty sure that most of the 1,560.3 pounds of food wasn't crab cakes. Interestingly, the cargo manifest included 15.4 pounds of flight procedure books. Books: not flash drives, optical disks, or some other less-bulky media.

Planet Labs' Flock-1d nanosatellites, Planetary Resources' Arkyd 3, plus quite a few student and private satellites, were lost when the Antares launch vehicle exploded. The good news is that folks on the ISS have enough supplies to keep going until the next cargo run: and nobody on the ground got hurt.

Repairs, Investigation, and Public Safety

"...'We will not fly until we understand the root cause,' said Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president of Orbital Sciences, adding the top priority now was repairing the launch pad as 'quickly and safely as possible'.

"Mr Culbertson told the BBC the mission's range safety officer had initiated a command to destroy the rocket, after a major, yet-unidentified failure occurred 15 seconds into the flight.

" 'Whenever a rocket either goes off course or appears to not be functioning properly, in the interest of public safety they'll destroy the rocket itself with an explosive charge,' he said...." (BBC News)
Wallops Island has been a launch site since 1945. It's not a densely-populated area, by east coast standards, but Norfolk, Virginia, is about a hundred miles to the south-southwest: and Washington, D.C., is a bit farther way, to the west.

Awareness of "public safety" may be a bit more acute there, than in the more remote launch facilities.

4. Faith, Philosophy, and Space Aliens

"Would Finding Alien Life Change Religious Philosophies?"
Megan Gannon, (October 10, 2014)

" The discovery of extraterrestrial beings — be they slimy microbes or little green men — would dramatically change the way we humans view our place in the universe. But would it shatter religion? Well, that depends on what you believe.

"In his new book 'Religions and Extraterrestrial Life' (Springer 2014), David Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, takes a close look at how different faiths would handle the revelation that we're not alone. Some of his findings might surprise you...."
The data behind David Weintraub's finding didn't surprise me so much: although I was relieved to see how many Americans apparently know what we do not know. I'll get back to that.

First, a quick look at philosophy, religion, and all that. Philosophy and religion mean very roughly the same thing, but not quite:
  • Philosophy
    1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline
    2. Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods
    3. A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry: the philosophy of Hume
    4. The critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs
    5. The disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology
    6. The discipline comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology
    7. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory...
    8. A system of values by which one lives...
  • Religion
      1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe
      2. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship
    1. The life or condition of a person in a religious order
    2. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader
    3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion
Philosophy, "the critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs," doesn't necessarily recognize the supernatural: and I suppose someone could believe in and reverence a supernatural power, without thinking about what that belief means.

But although I've run into folks who seem convinced that philosophy is anti-Christian, and others who assert that Christianity is against thinking, "Christian philosophy" is not an oxymoron.

I'm a Christian, a Catholic, so although I pay attention to Christian philosophy, I worship our Lord. Our beliefs are summarized in the Apostles Creed, with a bit more detail in the Nicene Creed. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section Two: The Profession of the Christian Faith)

More about philosophy, Catholic style:

Assumptions and Knowledge

"...Weintraub found that some religions are more accommodating to the idea of E.T. than others. Those with an Earth-centric spiritual point of view are the most likely to be made uncomfortable by questions about the discovery of aliens. Certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, for example, are of the opinion that God's sole intent was to create people here on Earth. Some believe that if God created life anywhere else, it would say that in Genesis, Weintraub said.

"But some Christians who interpret the Bible quite literally might actually have an easier time incorporating the existence of aliens into their spiritual cosmology...."
(Megan Gannon,
Americans who were polled said they "believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life:"
  • Overall — 37%
    • Atheists — 55%
    • Muslims — 44%
    • Jews — 37%
    • Hindus — 36%
    • Christians — 32%
Interestingly, 21% of the 5,886 Americans polled said they "didn't believe in" extraterrestrial life: while a reassuring 42% said they weren't sure.

'Not sure' is the answer I'd have given. I think the odds are very good that there's life elsewhere in the universe. But as of this week — we still haven't found conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life.

We have found DNA components, and what may or may not be unusually tiny microfossils in meteorites: but no unequivocal indication that there's life elsewhere. (February 21, 2014; October 18, 2013)

As for "believing in" extraterrestrial life: that's not the verb I'd use. I "believe in" the possibility that life exists elsewhere, but I won't insist that there must or must not be life on other worlds.

I hope there is, though. We could learn a great deal by comparing extraterrestrial organisms to home-grown varieties.

The jackpot would be meeting people whose ancestors developed on another world.

Fear and Hope

"...Of course, aliens have figured into the beliefs of small cults and fringe religious groups. In a famous example, 39 members of the so-called Heaven's Gate group committed suicide believing they would leave their earthly bodies and reach an alien spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Weintraub didn't look at these groups (nor did he analyze Scientology), but he said it's likely that future religions would spring up and seize on the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

" 'There are a lot of so-called UFO religions, and I'm sure that if we discovered that there really was life beyond Earth, there would be lots more of these kinds of things,' Weintraub said. 'There undoubtedly would be people who would find this as an opportunity or an excuse to call attention to themselves for whatever reason and there would be new religions.'..."
(Megan Gannon,
Heaven's Gate wasn't the first group to self-destruct, and probably won't be the last. (February 25, 2014)

I think Weintraub is spot-on, about the usual suspects using contact with space aliens "as an opportunity or an excuse to call attention to themselves...."

Let's imagine that a spaceship from the stars arrives next week.

My guess is that no matter how cute and cuddly the space aliens looked, some folks here would assume the worst.

Others would, I think, assume that the space aliens were benevolent missionaries: sent to save humanity from ourselves.

Still others would start collecting donations for new 'non-profit' groups with names like "Earth Defense League" and "Seekers of Celestial Enlightenment."

Faced with real, live, space aliens — some folks might be shocked out of their 'narrow-minded' beliefs, decide that science was right, and kill themselves. If that scenario seems familiar, you watch the some of the same shows I do. (January 29, 2012)

Reentering reality, some of the world's 7,000,000,000-plus people kill themselves each year. Some of that sad number are Catholics. But that doesn't mean that being suicidal is part of what makes us Catholic.

Briefly: despair isn't an option, suicide is wrong, but we must not lose hope for the salvation of folks who kill themselves. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2091, 2280-2283)

"...It's a Mighty Sobering Thought"

"Thar's only two possibilities: Thar is life out there in the universe which is smarter than we are, or we're the most intelligent life in the universe. Either way, it's a mighty sobering thought."
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly's Pogo; via Wikiquote)
If we meet people whose civilization is a few million years older than ours, I think there's a very real danger that some of us will get overly-excited and start worshiping our neighbors. That'd be a very bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

If we meet people who are still working the bugs out of technologies like flint knapping, we'll have face a different ethical challenge. Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" dramatizes one possible scenario.

Either way, if we do find life and people on other worlds: we'll have a great deal to learn.

I'm pretty sure that some Catholics would be scared silly of our new neighbors: and decide that God wants us to kill aliens; or that it's a plot by big burger; or something else irrational. Emotions and reason don't play well together. (Another War-on-Terror Blog, December 23, 2008)

And I'm pretty sure that we'd need a revised Catechism: which will also upset some of us. Catechism, 360, for example, works fine today: because Acts 17:26 applies literally and metaphorically to all people we know of who are creatures made of matter of spirit. (Catechism, 362)

When geneticists started backtracking humanity's family history, they discovered that we're all descended from one woman, who lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

"Mitochondrial Eve" isn't 'proof' that disciples of Ussher are right, though. Other women lived in her day: she's the start of a direct unbroken female line to any woman living today.

From what we've learned so far, our first parents lived much further back. I've been over this before: Adam and Eve weren't German; Earth isn't flat; the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; and poetry isn't science.

Speculation and Mr. Chuckles

If we do share this universe with other people: folks like Mr. Chuckles there may be the most reassuringly 'human' in appearance of the lot.

Again, I hope we have neighbors. For one thing, we'd have opportunities to learn which parts of "human nature" we share with all people: and which are uniquely "human," resulting from our being this particular sort of 'clay.'

On a theological note, I could speculate either that we're the only folks who broke our original deal with God — or — that the rebellion outlined in Catechism, 391-395, affected everybody.

More speculation, and a story:
I won't insist that we must be the only creatures made of matter and spirit: or that humanity is just one of myriad forms made "in the image of God." Either way, it wouldn't make much difference if I did: God's God, I'm not.

I think the Brother Guy Consolmagno, a research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, is right:
"...Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don't think you'd even have the right to call them aliens."
(Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? "Brother Astronomer," Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))
More of my take on science, technology, and being human:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.