Friday, May 29, 2009

Is NASA Losing Its Edge Again?

That's the complaint of one Hubble scientist.
David Leckrone, the senior project scientist for the Hubble, said NASA's new strategy for the post-space-shuttle era does not include servicing scientific instruments in space, and he fears that vast amounts of accumulated knowledge and technical expertise will quickly vanish.

"It just makes me want to cry to think that this is the end of it," Leckrone said at a news conference earlier this week. "There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we're about to hand off and carry it forward."

He raises some good points. Fixing Hubble is good not only from a science standpoint, but also a public relations standpoint as well. Missions to repair Hubble get people's attention about the space program and make them have positive thoughts about the program. If he's right that NASA is losing the ability to repair things like the Hubble, then the program is losing something far more important than the knowledge of how to do this: They're going to lose popular support for the agency as a whole, which means that those shortsighted politicians who seek to curry favor with the idiots out there will be able to gut NASA in coming years.

Does Obama's Nominee to Head NASA Have "the Right Stuff"?

President Obama has nominated retired astronaut Charles Bolden to be the new director of NASA. Looking at his biography on Wikipedia, he clearly has a similar "pedigree" to the original Mercury astronauts, who were more than enthusiastic about heading into space. So it looks promising.

However, Obama's proposed budget for NASA is only about $19 billion. This is absolutely not enough money, if the agency is going to do more than just "mark time." GM has burned through that much cash this year, and its a mere pittance compared to what the government has handed out to the banking industry. If NASA is going to be the kind of inspiring agency which Obama has said he wants it to be, and if we are going to aggressively expand into space, then NASA needs to have its budget increased. Ideally, they'd be handed an annual budget around $100 billion or so, but that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

Still, if Bolden does have "the Right Stuff," and Obama meant what he said when he campaigned on making NASA an inspirational agency again, we'll see an increase in NASA's budget shortly. Raising NASA's budget to $25 billion would be a good start in showing that Obama is serious on space. Let's hope that Bolden is willing to fight for it, if Obama doesn't propose it on his own.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climate Models Are Wrong. Again.

A recent MIT study says:
a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees. This can be compared to a median projected increase in the 2003 study of just 2.4 degrees. The difference is caused by several factors rather than any single big change. Among these are improved economic modeling and newer economic data showing less chance of low emissions than had been projected in the earlier scenarios. Other changes include accounting for the past masking of underlying warming by the cooling induced by 20th century volcanoes, and for emissions of soot, which can add to the warming effect. In addition, measurements of deep ocean temperature rises, which enable estimates of how fast heat and carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere and transferred to the ocean depths, imply lower transfer rates than previously estimated.

It goes on to say:
And the odds indicated by this modeling may actually understate the problem, because the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Including that feedback "is just going to make it worse," Prinn says.
In short, the scientists admit that they have underestimated how bad global warming is going to get, and that their best estimate to date, has a high probability of also underestimating the rise in temperatures.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed the discussion on global warming. Consistently, and without fail, scientists have found that previous estimates have always been overly optimistic. It should be further noted that simply cutting the level of greenhouse gas emissions is not going to be enough to reverse the changes. For that to occur, radical carbon negative policies are going to have to be introduced, of which there has been little to no discussion, so far as I am aware.

For those of us on Earth, this means that we can expect more aggressive efforts to try and limit the level of greenhouse gas emissions. It also has implications for the terraforming of Mars as well. Given that the warming effects of CO2 appear to be stronger than previously believed, it seems reasonable to conclude that the estimates of the amount of time needed to begin the warming of Mars are equally wrong.

While some might argue that we shouldn't begin tampering with the Martian atmosphere until we better understand our own, "playing" with the Martian atmosphere now gives us a controlled environment in which we can better understand how CO2 affects planetary conditions, with fewer variables to try and account for.