Saturday, December 01, 2012

Captain's Log: The Wrong Planet


It turns out that the big news on Mars is...never mind.

It's being billed as a "misunderstanding" by the NPR report that started it all. The scientist involved wasn't really teasing even a possible imminent announcement of life on Mars.  After a few stories suggested it might not be so, NASA more or less officially confirmed that the Curiosity rover had not--repeat, not--found any organic compounds on Mars so far.  (It also hasn't yet explored the most likely places.)

However, what Curiosity has not found, the Messenger spacecraft has (sort of)---on Mercury.  At least scientists believe so, on the basis of some long-distance data and highly educated inferences.  On the planet closest to the sun, they found evidence of a lot of water near the poles, and of "organic material."  That's not exactly the same as organic compounds or life, and they theorize it isn't indigenous--both water and organic matter probably arrived through comet impacts, as (it is now believed) they did to the Earth.

Update to the Mars story (12/2/12): Officially now, NASA scientists said today (in the words of the LA Times story) that Curiosity picked up "intriguing signs" of organic compounds on Mars, but they can't be sure. The story is headlined "Mars rover may have picked up signs of organic compounds." So it turns out the NPR story wasn't completely a "misunderstanding"--just that the initial indications didn't turn out to be definitive enough.  That the soil analysis worked, the scientists said, is in itself historic.  Curiosity will keep looking, but no results are expected for...some time. 

Meanwhile, astronomers looking outside the solar system--about 100 light years away--have identified a rogue planet: a planet that is not orbitting a star.  That's the artist's rendition of it above.  Free-floating planets have been theorized recently, but this is the best and closet actual candidate.  Some scientists believe however that they are not rare--there may be as many rogue planets as stars.

Other scientists are reconsidering what makes life likely on other planets--in such a way as to add substantially to the potential number of such planets in the galaxy.

In the ongoing interface of Star Trek and reality, there's this story suggesting that one of the big barriers to warp drive has at least theoretically been broken--and that NASA is working on testing the theory.  The idea is based on the 1994 theory of warping space around a starship (which in the illustration looks very much like the Enterprise), using a vocabulary familiar to viewers of The Next Generation and subsequent series.  The problem was the vast amount of energy necessary.  Now a scientist has figured out the math to reduce that energy load significantly--enough to make warp drive feasible. 

Of course this is warp that a Trek novel or two has tried to describe accurately, but which Star Trek on screen never really did.  Warp drive was depicted as just a super-fast way to travel, rather than a way to warp space around a starship.  But that way, you wouldn't get that whoosh, or the rainbow trail. 

Perhaps in the nearer term, the SpaceX pioneer with the Star Trek alien name, Elon Musk, is describing in some detail his plans for the colonization of Mars, and the spacecraft necessary to begin it--soon.

As for the phenomenon of Star Trek, it' still alive and it's still Star Trek GR.  When Ezra Klein, self-proclaimed economic and political numbers geek, filled-in for a regular MSNBC host, on two successive evenings he showed clips from TNG, DS9 and Voyager.  Once just to have Worf laugh and say "impossible," but the second time to illustrate the number of times that the number "47" was often repeated in those Trek series (instigated by Trek writer Joe Menosky).  That number became legendary in the 2012 political campaign as 47%--first in the notorious Mitt Romney hidden camera video, and (on the day Klein referenced it) as the percentage of the popular vote that Romney wound up winning in the presidential election.  It was Obama 51% to Romney 47%.

Finally, there's this blog post in which someone watching an episode of The Original Series Star Trek with his children freaks out over what he basically misunderstands in the classic episode "The Enemy Within."  Despite suggesting the perils of watching episodes out of order (and not realizing the prior relationship of Captain Kirk and Yeoman Rand), what caught my interest was that there was this guy who in 2012 was watching TOS with his kids.  And I was pointed to this post by a post on another blog, by a very respected political scientist, who noted a different episode that he had recently watched with his youngest child.  Further evidence that Star Trek GR is alive and well as an intergenerational entertainment and educational experience.

And a late-breaking story: One of the iconic moments in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is when Chekov has finally located the "nuclear wessel" and reports to Kirk: "And keptin--it is the Enterprise."  The nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, and this week it was officially decommissioned in Norfolk.  Here's a story about it and its place in the line of U.S. Navy vessels--sorry, wessels--called Enterprise.  This Enterprise, maybe surprisingly, isn't going to be turned into a museum but simply scrapped.  However (this story promises) another Enterprise is on the way.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Lots of great Star Trek news. So long Enterprise. Hello new Enterprise!