Sunday, July 31, 2011

Higgs To Be Confirmed, Or Not

A headline in Christian Science Monitor confidently states:

The God Particle Existence To Be Confirmed by 2012

This refers to the elusive Higgs Boson, whose existence is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. The term "God Particle" was coined by physicist Leon Lederman in the 1990's while seeking funding for the Superconducting Supercollider. When that project was cancelled by the Clinton administration, it was a huge setback for US science. Physicists had to find work in other fields, like cosmology.

Since SSC was cancelled, the Large Hadron Collider has been built in Europe. Though the headline predicts a discovery, so far LHC has found no Higgs. The phase space it could inhabit has grown smaller. By 2012 LHC may have found no Higgs at all.

In big ticket projects, there is a great danger of overconfidence. Scientists must justify their funding by predicting what they will discover. Gravity Probe B was designed to find evidence of relativistic frame dragging. Though the data proved difficult to separate fr noise, Grav Probe 's operators concluded that they had confirmed relativity. There is great pressure to skew the results toward a preselected discovery.

Since the SSC was cancelled, many physicists moved into studies of the Universe. In the late 1990's they claimed discovery of a repulsive "dark energy" causing the universe to accelerate. Following the habits of Physics, they developed a "standard model" for cosmology. Results of other experiments, such as WMAP, were interpreted as confirming the model. As in the Higgs search, there is great danger of overconfidence. Future experiments may confirm that "standard models" are wrong.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Near Earth Object Discovered

The Lunar Science Forum at NASA Ames finished this week. According to press releases, the new plan is for humans to reach an Near Earth Object by 2025. However the technology needed, such as heavy lift boosters and a crew capsule, is struggling for funding. The challenges of taking a crew millions of miles from Earth are daunting. Studies have found that the NEO's we can reach by 2025 are mostly small, with diameters of 20-40 meters. The public may not be excited about spending billions to reach such small objects. Researchers can point to little science on an NEO that can not be accomplished with unmanned spacecraft. Some doubt if there is a goal at all.

Fortunately NASA has discovered this Near Earth Object only 384,400 kilometers away. It is large enough to support multiple missions. It is known to contain water and other resources that astronauts could exploit. The possible benefits to science would be enormous, from geology to astronomy. As one example, a radio telescope on the far side of this object would be shielded from the electromagnetic noise of Earth. Possibly after looking at more distant NEO's, the US will consider going here first.

As readers of this blog know, the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment (LLRE) has found evidence that light is slowing down as we speak. A simple expression GM=tc^3 predicts that this object 384,400 kilometers away will appear to recede an additional 0.935 cm/yr. Data from LLRE, when compared with other experiments, verifies the prediction more precisley that Mercury's precession. Science has so far overlooked the evidence, even though it stares us in the face each night.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lunar Science Forum

42 years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon! Today I'm at NASA Ames in California for the Lunar Science Forum and other meetings. The main question, as it has been for decades, is when will humans return to the Moon?


Friday, July 15, 2011

Vesta Day

Today July 15 the DAWN spacecraft is scheduled to rendezvous with asteroid Vesta. We already have samples of Vesta thanks to the Camel Donga meteorite. In 2015 DAWN will encounter Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt and a minor planet in it's own right. Ceres is known to contain water, by some estimates as much fresh water as Earth. Many discoveries can come from these new worlds.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Webb Tightens

An appropriations bill currently going through the US Congress would end all funding for the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST was originally intended to cost just 1 billion, but the price tag has risen to at least 6.5 billion dollars. The launch date has slipped to 2018 or later. Though JWST is new technology with inherent risks, some in Congress are getting tired of the cost.

This blog has tried to chronicle the sad state of NASA's astrophysics program. A Joint "Dark Energy" Mission was muscled to the front of the funding line, pushing aside promising projects like an X-Ray observatory. JDEM was also originally estimated to cost about 1 billion, though no one knows the real price. Along the way a Terrestrial Planet Finder mission was also left to wither. JDEM was then delayed to at least 2025 by the mounting costs of JWST. If the flagship mission is cancelled, astrophysics will be left with nothing.

All is not lost for Physics. JWST funding could be restored to the bill. Newton and Einstein made their advances without large labs or spacecraft. All a physicist needs to figure out that GM=tc^3 is a pencil and paper. The evidence is plain to see. Tangled Webb or not, scientific discovery marches quietly on.


Monday, July 04, 2011

XCOR Makes Fireworks

Happy Independence Day in the US!

Last weekend was the Apollo-Con science fiction convention in Houston (photo below). One surprise guest was friend, NASA astronaut and Sci Fi fan Stanley Love. He was dressed as a Space traveller too! Near the end of the Shuttle program, Stan gave a fascinating presentation on orbital flight. I couldn't enter the masquerade this year, for I was performing at a play (THE 6TH TRUMPET) in Houston Saturday night. July 1-4 the Westercon regional Sci Fi convention was in San Jose, California. Also last week in San Jose was a galaxy forum from the International Lunar Observatory Association. Among the presentations, we heard from a representative of Virgin Galactic.

At Westercon we were visited by a representative of XCOR Aerospace. They may beat Virgin to the punch with their Lynx spacecraft. Like the original promise of the Shuttle, Lynx can be quickly serviced and turned around on the ground. Leaving out a carrier vehicle makes testing and operations much simpler. Lynx will launch from a runway at Mojave Spaceport, easily passing the Von Karman limit of Earth's atmosphere. With astronaut pilots like Rick Searfoss at the controls, a passenger's view will be just like that of a Shuttle pilot. The Shuttle era is ending, but soon we will have multiple opportunities to reach Space.
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