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Apollo 11 Moon LanderIt was 40 years ago today that man landed on the Moon.  We did it.  We wanted to get there before the Russians and put all the energy and enthusiasm into getting a man on the moon first our priority.  I remember that day, watching TV and holding my breath as the craft began its decent.  It was a momentous event.  One that would make the history books.

Ernest Lilley, Sr. Editor for TechRevu.com, also remembers that exciting day and he’s written a prose poem commemorating his memories called “Moonfall“.

Google is celebrating this occasion with the release of an update to Google Earth allowing us to take our own trip to the Moon. You can download Google Moon for free here.

To learn more about Google Moon, take a look at this video:

Now if only NASA can get itself to get fired up about exploring space with the same dedication and attention to getting the job done as it did when we decided to go to the moon. I vote for men living on Mars. It’s the most likely planet to support human life and it’s about time we started thinking about getting some of our eggs out of this very fragile basket.

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Space Station Eye-PodEveryone likes a view from their windows. Some of us get a view of brick walls and others have lovely views of hillsides, mountains, rivers, or ocean waves. Those intrepid space explorers often talk about gathering round tiny viewports trying to get a glimpse of Earth or other space features. Now in the new space station, there will be a room with a view.

Designed to be an observation area for overseeing outside work, there will be instrumentation so that they can also operate arms and other equipment from the viewing area. But best of all it will be a place where the astronauts can go to just enjoy the scenery, relax, and contemplate their place in the universe.

Hopefully, this means that more observatory research can be done. Astronauts would be able to report back what things look like for them when areas having severe weather conditions on Earth swing by. They can also take measurements and do other research.

Now that I know they have a view, I really, really, wish I could go up and take a look. I bet this big blue marble looks really lonely when you look out at it. All the photos and images I’ve seen taken by NASA and the astronauts most likely can’t do justice to the view any more than all those holiday photos of our last vacation can really give the feel of being there yourself.

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Liquid water on Mars on the lander legs Today an article in National Geographic News reports that liquid water was recently seen on Mars. Phoenix, which landed near Mars’ north pole, has taken several photos of itself and a recent series of photos seem to show water droplets on the lander’s legs that are clumping together and running downward. If it’s not water, it’s a pretty good approximation, and definitely looks like a liquid of some sort. Scientists report:

This substance is probably saline mud that splashed up as the craft landed, study leader and Phoenix co-investigator Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan told National Geographic News. Salt in the mud then absorbed water vapor from the atmosphere, forming the watery drops, Renno said. The water can stay liquid even in the frigid Martian arctic because it contains a high amount of perchlorates, a salt “with properties like the antifreeze used to melt snow here in Michigan,” said Renno, who will present the work next month at the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Finding liquid water under these conditions carries possible implications for Mars’s habitability, the scientists say.

Personally, I feel like I do at Christmas — all excited and expectant and jittery with glee. Imagine the possibilities. This is exciting news. It’s great news because water, even if it’s mud-salt water, is critical for supporting life. However, it also means that unless life can manage the huge amounts of salt in the liquid — well, it’s unlikely. But it does raise the chances that a human expedition to the planet for research purposes might be able to survive (after all technology could probably deal with extracting the water for use.). Meanwhile, these pictures are just amazing.

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A reconstruction of a Neanderthal at the Neanderthalmuseum in Mettmann, western Germany.An article reports that scientists have mapped a first draft of the Neanderthal genome.

Highlights of the article:

Researchers used DNA fragments extracted from three Croatian fossils to map out more than 60 percent of the entire Neanderthal genome by sequencing three billion bases of DNA.

The analysis showed it is highly unlikely that much interbreeding occurred as there was “very little, if any” Neanderthal contribution to the human gene pool, said lead researcher Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute.

But it also revealed that our Neanderthal cousins may have been closer to us than we thought: they share a gene which plays a key function in speech and language.

I notice that no matter what they find out about Neanderthals, that it is continually stressed that Homo Sapiens are somehow much much better. I’ll grant that we’re different. I’ll even grant that our genetic makeup is different enough that there may have been little interbreeding. But that only means that they differ from us, not that we’re better, or they’re less because of it.
After all, it’s believed that we shared a common ancestor about 300,000 years ago. And, lets face it, genetically we’re not really all that different.

Look at the picture. If we put a tanned modern man next to him in the same clothing and with the same spear — would they really be that much difference between them other than the forehead?

We, as a species, are reaching out to the stars hoping to meet other sentient species out there. But what would we do if we had a first contact with another species? I don’t think we’d do very well, personally. Here on earth every time we find that a species meets our criteria for sentience, we change the criteria rather than admit that the species just might be intelligent. If we met aliens and they didn’t look like us would we just figure they were the intelligent species equivalent of a bird in a mining cave and ignore it, or try to kill it? I don’t know.

Watching my species over the last few decades, I have my doubts about our ability to logically think, find solutions to problems without resorting to violence, or even to act together for the good of our planet rather than the bottom line of a corporate spreadsheet. So, my opinion of our ability to actually make first contact and to correctly assess the intent or intelligence of the alien species — is not very high at the moment.

However, I’m excited by the new information that geneticists are making in finding our how our and other species genomes are put together and how they work.

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DNA & RNA Instructional PosterThe quote above was made by Carl Sagan. That quote has become even more meaningful recently with the release of a new research study by Zita Martins, Oliver Botta, Marilyn L. Fogel, Mark A. Sephton, Daniel P. Glavin, Jonathan S. Watson, Jason P. Dworkin, Alan W. Schwartz and Pascale Ehrenfreund. The title of the paper is “Extraterrestrial nucleobases in the Murchison meteorite.” Basically, they found uracil and xanthine in a meteorite. These are raw materials for making RNA and DNA that make up us and every living thing on earth.

In their abstract, they say:

Carbon-rich meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, contain many biologically relevant organic molecules and delivered prebiotic material to the young Earth. We present compound-specific carbon isotope data indicating that measured purine and pyrimidine compounds are indigenous components of the Murchison meteorite. Carbon isotope ratios for uracil and xanthine of ?13C = + 44.5‰ and + 37.7‰, respectively, indicate a non-terrestrial origin for these compounds. These new results demonstrate that organic compounds, which are components of the genetic code in modern biochemistry, were already present in the early solar system and may have played a key role in life’s origin.

I was really excited to hear about this finding and would have loved to read the paper, but alas you have to pay to read it. I really wish more scientists would publish their research under Creative Commons licenses so that more of us interested nonprofessionals could read up on these things. Maybe if more of the results of scientific studies were readily available there would be less fear of science as a sort of mumbo-jumbo voodoo thing to be feared. Oops, that rant is for some other time.

What’s really interesting is that these DNA-RNA precursor materials were found on a meteorite. So, did life evolve totally independently on Earth? Did it have help from a few saturated meteorites crashing into our bubbling cauldron of a cooling planet? Is life a random combination of chemicals that could happen anywhere and so are found just about everywhere including space traveling bits of debris?

Whatever the answers to these question, and I’m sure it will take a lot more research and thinking to come up with answers rather than more questions, it means that we, all of us, are made of star stuff. When we look up to the stars and the milky way and the constellations, we now know that we are part of the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe. We are not alone; we are part of the starry heavens.

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Virgin Galactic SpaceShip III’m unabashedly pro-space research and exploration. I think it’s going to be the only way to save this planet. Many people think, or at least tell me, that all we ever got from NASA and the space program is Tang. Don’t kid yourselves, people. We got lots of advances in technology and medicine — things that we might have eventually developed but not as fast as with the impetus of the space program. Companies don’t tend to spend their own money innovating unless there is an identifiable way of getting that money back, and the space program was that initial market that made it all worth while for dozens of goods and technologies we now take for granted.

The problem now is that the United States doesn’t have a space program anymore. Okay, I can hear you saying, “what are you Klondiking about? We’ve got NASA.” Well, you’re right the US still has NASA but we’re not doing anything new or exciting — we’re doing the same old, same old — and holding the line with the status quo. Astronauts are using their personal weight limits to bring up the technology they need to do some jobs because the space rated equipment is old, big, clunky and often barely up to the job. I don’t believe we would have lost as many probes if we’d been upgrading the technology rather than using the older stuff. But, hey that’s just my opinion as an outsider looking into a program I see going nowhere fast. And while I thought the Shuttle was definitely a “horse designed by a committee”, what do we have to look forward to as its replacement? A multi-stage, expendable rocket, with a return capsule that splashes down. We just lost 40 years of innovation. Of course NASA has a 100% record on new spacecraft following onto the shuttle. They’ve canceled 100% of them. So, forgive me if NASA just doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies anymore.

What I do see and what I think is happening is that private enterprise is going to be pushing us forward into space because they can see the need, the impetus for new technology and growth. Case in point — the photo with this entry — Virgin Galactic has just unveiled its plans for SpaceShip Two. It’s innovators like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others that will take Terrans into space. Of course, the private sector is not without risk. But at least when they’re risking their own money, getting the job done right becomes a higher priority than when the government is taking all the financial risks.

With all the space debris and asteroids coming so close to impacting Earth over the last few years that we’ve been aware of, well, we’ve had some pretty close calls. If we don’t get off this planet someday we just might find ourselves beginning all over again — and that’s only if we’re lucky. If we’re not lucky some other species may become top of the heap for the next go round. There’s evidence enough that Earth has been hit and hit hard at some points in our past — so we needs to get some of our eggs out of this basket (or so the cliché goes).

I’m very excited by these corporate visionaries in the United States and other countries. I just think we could get to some new frontiers sooner with some amazing technology and leaps in science along the way if we once again had a space program with a plan and some vision for the future. Guess, I’ll go wish upon a star.

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