CCNet 146/2002 -  18 December 2002

"If mankind is to explore the solar system and beyond on a realistic
budget some lateral thinking is urgently needed. The first step is to
abandon sending people into space. Once astronauts are left out of
the equation, the cost-effectiveness goes up enormously. Though
unmanned probes lack the glamour associated with space spectaculars like the
Apollo moon landings, they offer the best hope for studying the planets
and, perhaps one day, the stars."
--Paul Davies

    Paul Davies <>


    New Scientist, 17 December 2002

    Baltimore Sun, 16 December 2002

    Mario D Melita <>

    Govert Schilling <>

    Patrick Michel <>

    National Review, 17 December 2002


>From Paul Davies <>

Dear Benny,

On reading Corole Rutland's article EXPLORING SPACE WILL REQUIRE NEW ROBOTS
(CCNet, 17 Dec 2002), I wondered whether your readers might be interested in
an article I wrote in the same vein in 1999 for the anniversary of the first
moon landing. It was published in The Australian.

With best wishes,

Paul Davies


The Future of Space Exploration

When Neil Armstrong took that first small step for man in July 1969, it
appeared to many that mankind stood poised on the brink of a magnificent new
era. The dream that human beings would one day spread beyond planet Earth,
and venture deep into space, seemed on the point of being fulfilled. Landing
on the moon demonstrated that manned space flight was possible. The next
stop would be Mars. Before long even the stars would be within our reach.

Naturally Hollywood had already prepared the way. Stan Kubrick's epic movie
2001: A Space Odyssey helped foster the impression that massive orbiting
space stations and lunar colonies were just around the corner, while
interplanetary travel was but a few decades away. The long-running saga Star
Trek cast Captain Kirk and his crew in the role of latter-day pioneers
opening up the galaxy in the manner of the American West.

Thirty years on the grandiose vision of mankind going boldly to the final
frontier somewhere beyond the Milky Way seems ludicrously wide of the mark.
The euphoria that has accompanied NASA's modest success in sending two small
unmanned craft to Mars illustrates starkly just how limited our space-faring
achievements have been to date. We aren't going to colonise the moon by
2001, or even by 2020.

This attenuated progress hasn't discouraged the dreamers, however. Arthur C.
Clarke was author of the original 2001 story and has been the acclaimed guru
of space exploration for a generation. Convinced that mankind's destiny lies
among the stars, Clarke recently described how a planet like Mars could be
artificially adapted - terraformed, to use the jargon - to permit human
habitation. Meanwhile, American aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin has just
published a bold plan, dubbed Mars Direct, to establish a permanent human
presence on the red planet within a decade.

These musings are fun, but they don't square with reality. The popular
conception of intrepid astronauts hopping from planet to planet as routinely
as we now fly from city to city is a pipe-dream.

Over-riding all other obstacles to manned space flight is the tyranny of
distance. Space is hugely, unimaginably vast. To put the moon landings in
perspective it is helpful to think in terms of the speed of light, a dizzy
one billion km per hour. Light takes about a second to traverse the distance
to the moon, and some minutes to reach Mars. The solar system is a few light
hours across.

Contrast this with interstellar distances. The nearest star, in the
constellation of Centaurus, is over four light years away. Our galaxy, the
Milky Way, is more than 100,000 light years across. Other galaxies are
millions or even billions of light years away.

Distance as such is no problem if you have unlimited time. Our existing
rockets could deliver a payload to nearby stars after a journey of ten
thousand years, but recruiting astronauts would be a problem.

The obvious solution is to go faster. Unfortunately speed costs money. To
double the speed means expending four times the energy. Actually this
understates the problem because conventional rockets have to accelerate the
residual fuel as well the payload. Fuel requirements soon escalate to the
point of absurdity. The familiar science fiction scenario of a rocket ship
blasting off from the nearest spaceport and heading for the stars on a tank
of high-octane gas is totally ridiculous.

Space travel pundits have long acknowledged this fundamental limitation, and
many alternative ways to traverse the universe have been suggested.
Proposals vary from enormous nuclear reactors, through antimatter drives, to
vast sails that harness the tiny pressure of sunlight. Most of these schemes
are too fanciful to be taken seriously.

Certainly there are ways to improve on simple rocketry, the most practical
being the so-called gravitational assist method. A craft launched from Earth
on a carefully chosen trajectory can be boosted by the motion of the
planets. It is a technique already used by NASA to cut launch costs. That is
why the Galileo spacecraft was sent to Jupiter via Venus.

Although the gravitational assistance of the big planets like Jupiter and
Saturn can propel a spacecraft right out of the solar system, the maximum
speed that is theoretically attainable is 100 km per second. Fast though
this may seem, it would still take ten thousand years to reach the nearest

Most enthusiasts pin their hopes of interstellar travel on some unspecified
"warp drive", yet to be discovered. But even here one runs up against an
insuperable obstacle. According to Einstein's theory of relativity, the
speed of light is the fastest speed in the universe. No spacecraft can break
the light barrier, however powerful its motors may be.

There is a large amount of experimental evidence to support this prediction.
Physicists routinely accelerate subatomic particles to very near the speed
of light, and have confirmed that it is indeed a fundamental limit. If you
try to make particles of matter go faster, they simply get heavier instead.
The largest accelerator machines can propel protons with such force that,
had Einstein been wrong, they would easily reach ten times the speed of
light. But they consistently fail to break through the light barrier.
Scientists are agreed that this is not just a technological problem that may
be overcome one day, but a basic law of nature that can never be violated.

The existence of an absolute speed limit demolishes a cherished myth of many
science fiction writers - the galactic empire. In the early days of the
British Empire, it took at most a few months to send back news or dispatch
soldiers to a far-flung outpost. It would take tens of thousands of years
simply to signal a colony on the other side of the galaxy.

A crafty method for evading this restriction was proposed by the late
American astronomer Carl Sagan in his novel Contact, now the subject of a
major feature film starring Jodie Foster.

Sagan's idea makes full use of the theory of relativity. Besides imposing a
speed limit, Einstein's theory also predicts that space is curved or warped
by gravity. Mostly this distortion of space is very slight. The sun's
spacewarp, for example, bends passing starbeams by less than a thousandth of
a degree. A black hole, on the other hand, curves space ferociously. Its
gravitational field is so strong that it traps light completely.

If space can be bent back on itself far enough, it can reconnect to form
what is known as a wormhole, an old idea among physicists dating back to the
fifties. A wormhole resembles a black hole, except in one crucial respect.
Fall into a black hole and you are on a one-way journey to nowhere. A
wormhole, on the other hand, might form a tunnel connecting two
widely-separated locations, creating a shortcut. Just as drilling a hole
through the Earth would cut the distance from Sydney to London, so a
wormhole in space might put us within reach of the galactic centre. In
Contact, Sagan's hero plunges through just such a wormhole and crosses the
galaxy in minutes.

Amusingly, this fictional scenario triggered a spate of research papers by
theoretical physicists, eager to check whether it could really be done. Kip
Thorne and his co-workers at the California Institute of Technology have
investigated mathematically whether stable wormholes in space comply with
the equations of relativity.

Remarkably the basic idea holds up to scrutiny. However, it is hardly a
practical proposition. In Contact, the wormhole is accessed from Earth with
a machine that looks like a giant kitchen mixer. But that was just a
fictional fudge. In reality, one would first need to capture a body of many
solar masses and then configure its gravitational field appropriately, using
matter with exotic properties never yet observed. The challenge of actually
entering and transiting such a wormhole, even if one existed, has scarcely
been considered.

Back in the real world, the options are much more limited. The endless
problems afflicting the Mir space station show just how hard it is for
humans to live and work efficiently in space. Scientifically, the immense
effort involved in manning and equipping  the space station brings few
benefits. The Mir cosmonauts just go round and round, only a few hundred
kilometres above our heads, and accomplish little of value. A project like
Mir may be successful as a political gesture, but it is a very inefficient
means of exploring the cosmos.

The best hope for manned flight in near space probably comes from the
attempt to commercialise it. A British company just started selling seats
for brief 'space lobs' in five years time. Millionaires may even be prepared
to pay for a few days in an orbiting hotel. And in the unlikely event that
some money-spinning industrial process could be done only in space, big
business might foot the bill.

The bulk of the space program, however, will inevitably remain funded out of
the public purse. NASA and its European counterpart ESA are desperate to
trim costs. The Shuttle, which soaks up the lion's share of the US budget,
may be successful as a sky truck, but it is designed for low Earth orbit,
not deep space missions. If mankind is to explore the solar system and
beyond on a realistic budget some lateral thinking is urgently needed.

The first step is to abandon sending people into space. Once astronauts are
left out of the equation, the cost-effectiveness goes up enormously. Though
unmanned probes lack the glamour associated with space spectaculars like the
Apollo moon landings, they offer the best hope for studying the planets and,
perhaps one day, the stars.

The success of Pathfinder, and its little rover vehicle Sojourner, proves
that the planets can be explored remotely. NASA must now devote more effort
to improving the performance and extending the reach of its unmanned probes.

There is enormous potential for developing smaller, faster and cheaper
payloads. Sensor technology is progressing by leaps and bounds, with
emphasis on micro-miniaturisation. Robotics is moving beyond the
entertainment phase into the seriously useful. Electronics and computer
technology is fast approaching the stage where a small space probe can
accommodate a supercomputer.

The vast information processing power of supercomputers will open up a much
wider range of possible extraterrestrial activities. No longer will a probe
simply be plonked on the surface of a planet, or put into orbit, and
laboriously instructed on a move-by-move basis from Earth. Decisions that
must now be referred back to engineers and project scientists at mission
control will in future be taken on the spot, using artificial intelligence.

The burgeoning use of neural nets in place of traditional digital
programming techniques promises to revolutionise the development of
intelligent machines. Neural nets can be trained like humans, learning from
experience and avoiding future mistakes. They will prove ideal for smart
rover vehicles, which could be trained on Earth and released on Mars or the
moon, left largely to their own devices.

The trend towards smaller and smarter space probes looks set to parallel the
history of computers and similar electronic devices. Thirty years ago a
modest number-cruncher filled a large room, requiring a huge power supply
and elaborate cooling procedures to sustain it. Today the same computing
power is achieved in a pocket-sized pack run by a battery.

In the electronics industry, shrinking size also brought shrinking costs and
mass-production. The space probes of the future could be turned out in their
thousands for the price of a car apiece, and be no larger than a football.

Smaller, lighter probes bring a benefit in terms of speed and launch
economy. State of the art rockets could launch them to the planets by the
score. Even if half failed to achieve their objectives, plenty more would be
available. In space exploration, small is beautiful.

Two scientific developments offer hope of spectacular advances in
miniaturisation. The first is nanotechnology. A few weeks ago, American
scientists released pictures of a guitar one twentieth the width of a human
hair. Physicists can now trap and manipulate individual atoms. IBM engineers
have succeeded in imprinting their company's initials, atom by atom, on a
crystalline surface less than a millionth of a centimetre across.

At present, creating micro-machines is still largely a gimmick, but advances
are so rapid that we will soon have sensors and processors too small to be
seen by the naked eye monitoring our environment and even inhabiting our

With such technology, there is no reason why certain types of space probe
couldn't become very small indeed. Designers at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory in the United States are currently working on an artificial
satellite that is as small as a coin. Modest launch vehicles could flood the
solar system with devices of this size. Rather than settling for one or two
large and expensive spacecraft stranded on a couple of planets, we could
instead have a vast network of micro-probes milling around the solar system
like fireflies, exchanging information via a celestial internet.

The other field that is forging ahead is genetic engineering. Already
researchers are creating artificial organisms adapted for harsh conditions
on Earth. They could soon be making new organisms for use on other planets
or even in outer space. Bacteria are known that can survive unprotected in
the hazardous conditions of space.

It may be possible to engineer larger organisms with space capability too.
Imagine a genetically-engineered spider that could crawl over an asteroid or
planet and collect selected particles of rock instead of flies. Or a
butterfly complete with microsensors fluttering in the thin martian

Author George Dyson takes a futuristic look at biotechnology in a
provocative new book entitled Darwin Among the Machines. He sees
genetically-engineered insects as the next stage of DNA technology. "Insects
might be reinvented from the top down by miniaturization of machines, but we
are more likely to reinvent them from the bottom up, by recombinant
entomology," he writes.

George Dyson's father, Freeman Dyson, is a physicist at the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, and a longstanding advocate of the
small-and-smart approach to space probes. At a lecture in Adelaide in 1986
he announced his concept of the Astrochicken - a one-kilogram spacecraft
about the same size as a chicken 'and equally smart'. Both father and son
forsee, within the next two decades, the merging of nanotechnology and
genetic engineering, to create hybrid entities, part organic, part machine.

This idea is not as fanciful as it may seem. Last June, Federal Science
Minister Peter McGauran unveiled a new biosensor designed by Bruce Cornell
of the Cooperative Research Centre for Molecular Engineering and Technology
in Sydney. The device is just over a millionth of a metre in size and is so
sensitive it is reportedly capable of detecting a single sugar lump
dissolved in Sydney Harbour.

Significantly, the new sensor is fabricated by grafting gold electrodes onto
an organic cell membrane. But this is just the beginning. Microbiologists
have discovered that living cells contain pumps, levers, shears, valves,
pipes and chains, all too small to be seen without a microscope, and all
capable of being adapted for artificial use.

Twenty years ago I suggested in a flight of fancy that an advanced alien
civilisation might be able to manufacture hybrid machine-organisms that
could grow from seeds sent to a suitable host planet. They would develop
"eyes", "ears" and other sensors, and even sprout a radio antenna to send
back the data, using local resources and energy supplies. Little did I
suspect that human science would soon fix its sights on such technology.

With lilliputian machines and powerful data processing, the way lies open to
alternative launch technologies. A pea-sized probe could withstand enormous
acceleration without being pulverised. H.G. Wells, writing before the age of
rockets, sent his men to the moon using a giant gun. In practice, the
impulse would prove lethal to astronauts, but micro-probes could readily be
delivered into space that way.

Proposals have been made for electromagnetic guns and accelerator machines
to propel objects from the Earth at relatively low cost. Amazingly, this
idea predates the space age. In 1947, Clarke, then still a student in
London, wrote the first of many prophetic books. Called Prelude to Space, it
outlines a method for catapaulting an atomic rocket into orbit by
accelerating it along a rail track to 800 km per hour. Clarke suggested
constructing the electromagnetic accelerator in the Australian desert.

Under the impetus of the Star Wars research program, several variants of
Clarke's imaginative idea have been mooted in recent years. All of them seek
to avoid the basic shortcoming of rocket technology - the need to lift most
of the fuel with the payload. But to achieve really high speeds, the launch
system has to be located in space already, or on the moon, to avoid air
friction. An orbiting electromagnetic launcher could be a cheap way of
sending small probes to the planets quickly and in large numbers.

Even with these exciting developments, reaching the stars won't be easy.
Nevertheless, the possibility that mankind will one day be able to send tiny
probes zooming across the galaxy at half the speed of light is not too
far-fetched. Indeed, NASA has just embarked on a feasibility study for an
interstellar probe.

Given that the thrust of technology is towards the smaller and lighter, is
there any future at all for manned deep-space missions, with their demand
for bulky life support-systems and fail-safe back-up? Possibly. Going to
Mars remains a feasible goal, though the $540 billion US dollar price tag
that attached to President George Bush's Mars' initiative is clearly

If mankind is ever to set foot on the red planet, NASA will need to adopt
the sort of ingenious strategy advocated by Zubrin, who wants to send ahead
an unmanned vehicle with an empty tank, and manufacture the fuel for the
return journey on the martian surface. Mars has both water and carbon
dioxide, which can be slowly turned in methane, a good rocket propellant. By
avoiding the need to send the fuel from Earth, launch costs plummet.

Zubrin has estimated that efficiency savings of this sort could bring the
total cost of the mission down to around $20 billion - about the same as
building and operating the planned international space station for a few
years. It is also, incidentally, less than ten times the sum lost in one
year by the State Bank of South Australia.

A manned expedition to Mars would undoubtedly bring some scientific
benefits, but its main purpose would be cultural. As a human adventure it
would be without equal - an uplifting, unifying project suitable for the new
millenium. But a stairway to the stars it is not.

Copyright 1999-2002, Paul Davies


>From, 17 December 2002

By Robert Roy Britt

A controversial finding last year of microbes high in Earth's atmosphere and
thought to have come from space gained another scientist's support this

The organisms, collected by a balloon mission to the stratosphere in January
2001, were first studied by Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University,
co-proponent with the late Sir Fred Hoyle of the modern theory of
panspermia. The theory states that the Earth was seeded in the past, and is
still being seeded, with microorganisms from comets.

The experiment gathered microbes as high as 25 miles (41 kilometers). The
quantity suggested a ton of them rain down on Earth daily. The critters
looked a lot like terrestrial microbes, however, and other scientists have
suggested they probably were from Earth and that the experiment was

Now Milton Wainwright of Sheffield University's Department of Molecular
Biology and Biotechnology claims to have isolated a fungus and two bacteria
from one of the samples. The results are published in this month's issue of
the microbiology journal FEMS Letters. Once again, the organisms are very
similar to known terrestrial varieties. There are, however, "notable
differences in their detailed properties, possibly pointing to a different
origin," according to a press release.

Other scientists point out that previously unknown strains of bacteria are
routinely discovered on Earth.

"Contamination is always a possibility in such studies, but the 'internal
logic' of the findings points strongly to the organisms being isolated in
space," Wainwright said. "Of course the results would have been more readily
accepted and lauded by critics had we isolated novel organisms, or ones with
NASA written on them!"


Panspermia adherents predict the continuing input onto the Earth of fresh
organisms that would have untold effects on evolution and might even seed
illness. The theory supposes a certain hardiness inherent in
space-travelling bacteria.

An announcement yesterday of the revival of 2,800-year-old bacteria found
buried in Antarctic ice certainly attests to the extreme capabilities of
small things. Yet few mainstream scientists have signed on to panspermia.
Most leading researchers do acknowledge that life probably could travel
between planets, however, embedded inside rocks kicked up by asteroid or
comet collisions.

No proof exists that life has traveled between planets, though. And no one
has formally ruled out panspermia in its purest form, either.

Copyright 2002,


>From New Scientist, 17 December 2002
Hollow hydrocarbon bubbles a few microns in diameter have been discovered in
a meteorite that crashed into a frozen lake in Canada in 2000.

The simple organic structures could have provided a sheltered environment
for the development of the first primitive organisms, suggests Michael
Zolensky, at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

He used an electron microscope to discover the globules, which are a few
microns in diameter. "These are ready-made homes," he told New Scientist.
"It shows that structures that could protect early life were present on
asteroids billions of years ago."

It is the first time that such bubbles have been found on a meteorite, but
laboratory experiments designed to simulate conditions in space have
produced similar structures.

"Some ideas for the evolution of life require a kind of membrane to hold
together all the chemicals that you want a cell to use," says Iain Gilmour,
of the UK's Open University. "If you have some sort of globular structure,
you've got the start of a potential cell structure."

Other researchers have suggested that tiny cavities in minerals could have
provided the containers from which the first cellular life emerged.

Quick freeze

The meteorite, a carbonaceous chondrite, was recovered from the frozen
waters of Tagish Lake in the Yukon Territory in January 2000, just a week
after it landed. The extreme cold of the lake and the speed at which it was
recovered prevented the contamination that spoils many meteorites found on

The circumstances under which the cavities could aid the development of life
remain unclear. But Zolensky notes meteorites of this general type have been
crashing into Earth throughout its history.

They would have provided the early planet with these hydrocarbon globules at
the same time as water, carbon and organic molecules were being bought to
Earth on comets and meteorites, he says, and at the same time the first
terrestrial life was developing.

Much previous research into potential extraterrestrial triggers for life on
Earth has focused on meteorites that landed in Murchison, Southern Australia
in 1969. These contained amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and
life, and showed for the first time that the molecules could exist elsewhere
in the Solar System.

Gilmour says: "It means you've got the stuff you need to make proteins in
one extra-terrestrial sample and the stuff needed to hold them together in
another." Zolensky's research is published in the International Journal of
Will Knight
Copyright 2002, New Scientist


>From Baltimore Sun, 16 December 2002

METEOR CRATER, Ariz. -- About 50,000 years ago, a fireball streaked across
the sky at 11 miles per second and crashed into the desert here, triggering
a blast 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that devastated

The meteorite was 150 feet wide and weighed 300,000 tons. In less than 10
seconds, it sent 175 million tons of material flying miles in all
directions. The blast killed all the animal life -- mastodons, mammoths,
giant ground sloths and bison -- within several miles. It created a crater 2
1/2 miles in circumference, 750 feet deep and 4,100 feet wide.

Today, scientists consider this gigantic hole, known as the Barringer
Meteorite Crater, to be the world's youngest (sic) and best-preserved impact

About 300,000 visitors view the crater annually. It's located on privately
owned land in northern Arizona's high desert, about 35 miles east of
Flagstaff and 20 miles west of Winslow.

A dark gray meteorite about 3 feet long and weighing a whopping 1,400 pounds
is on display in the crater's museum. This chunk of dense metal -- 92
percent iron, 7 percent nickel and 1 percent trace metal -- was found in
Diablo Canyon, about 2 miles from the crater. It is believed to have broken
off from the larger meteorite before it hit the ground and exploded.

Clifford Mark, a tour guide, urges visitors to rub the meteorite for good

"Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, and if you touch this
metallic meteorite, your chances of getting hit by one are cut in half,"
Mark explains in jest.

Actually, the odds of a person getting hit by a chunk of celestial matter
are about 1 in 10 billion. But it has happened. In 1954, Hewlett Hodges was
lying on the sofa of her home in Sylacauga, Ala., when a meteorite crashed
through the roof. The hot rock bounced off a table and grazed her leg. She
was lucky. In 1650, an Italian monk was killed by a piece of a meteorite,
according to legend.

Standing on the crater's 150-foot-tall rim, Mark points to a piece of
wreckage that has been on the crater's floor since the late 1960s. He tells
a story that suggests that the world has more to fear from people flying
small planes than rocks falling from outer space.

"Two guys in a single-engine Cessna decided to fly into the crater to get a
closer look," he explains. "But when they got in, they couldn't get out.
There's a layer of wind spins over the crater like an invisible force field.
Two and a half hours later, they ran out of gas and tried to land, but the
plane cartwheeled and crashed. They were lucky, they lived."

Today, earth and rock have settled in the crater and decreased its depth to
about 570 feet -- deep enough to swallow the Washington Monument in the
nation's capital. Mark says that if the crater was turned into a makeshift
stadium, 20 football games could be played on its floor simultaneously
before an audience of 2 million spectators seated on its sloping sides.

"We're talking about the world's biggest Super Bowl party," he says.

The crater is named after Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia lawyer and
mining engineer. Barringer, a member of Princeton University's Class of 1879
and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, abandoned his
law practice to pursue a career in mining. After attending the Colorado
School of Mines, he headed to Arizona and struck it rich with a silver mine.

In 1902, Barringer became fascinated with the crater. Many scientists
believed it had been formed by a volcanic steam explosion beneath the earth.
But Barringer was convinced that an extraterrestrial body formed the hole
and beneath it lay $500 million worth of high-grade nickel-iron.

After discovering that the land belonged to the federal government,
Barringer obtained a patent that gave him the mining rights. From 1903 until
shortly before his death in 1929, Barringer squandered a small fortune
mining the site. He gave up after a respected astronomer concluded that the
meteorite had vaporized on impact. A short while later, Barringer suffered a
fatal heart attack.

While Barringer's quest for personal wealth was a dismal failure, his
contribution to science was significant. In 1905, he published a paper
stating that the crater had been formed by an object from outer space,
possibly a small asteroid. He based his idea on meteorite fragments he found
in finely powdered sand. Eventually, geologists came to accept his idea that
rocks can fall from the sky and create gigantic craters.

In the late 1950s, Gene Shoemaker, a planetary scientist specializing in
meteor impacts, made a major discovery on the floor of the Barringer Crater.
He found a mineral called coesite, which is created only by the high
pressure and heat of impact. Scientists have used his findings to identify
other craters around the world.

Shoemaker, along with his wife, Carolyn, and another researcher, David Levy,
identified the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that crashed into Jupiter in 1994.
Shoemaker died in a car crash five years ago while searching for craters in

An estimated 25,000 meteorites hit the Earth annually, and most cause little
or no damage. The shooting stars that flash across the nighttime sky are
pin-size dust specks burning in the atmosphere.

Craters are formed by very large objects that are not slowed downed or
cushioned as they hurtle through the Earth's atmosphere. Worldwide, there
are at least 170 impact craters, and the Barringer Meteorite Crater is far
from the largest.

In 1991, a huge crater called Chicxulub was discovered on the Yucatan
Peninsula. This hole is about 110 miles wide, and it is believed to be about
65 million years old, hitting about the time when the dinosaurs died off. It
is believed that the explosion kicked up a dust cloud that blocked out
sunlight, causing the Earth's temperature to drop.

The theory linking the extinction of the dinosaurs to an explosion caused by
a body from outer space is about 20 years old. It is the brainchild of Luis
W. Alvarez and his son, Walter Alvarez. But their theory is being challenged
by new scientific research suggesting that the Earth might have been hit by
a swarm of smaller objects instead of a single large one.

Scientists have discovered 1,000 to 1,500 near-Earth asteroids that are less
than a mile in diameter, as well as many smaller ones. It is likely that one
day, one will be on a collision course with Earth, but that potential
catastrophe is likely to happen tens, hundreds or thousands of years from
now, they say.

But during the summer, an asteroid the size of a football field missed the
Earth by a mere 75,000 miles and was not detected until three days after it
passed. In March, a 165-foot- wide chunk of rock passed within 288,000 miles
of Earth.

A collision with either object would have caused a blast equal to millions
of tons of TNT.

Copyright 2002 The Baltimore Sun.



>From Mario D Melita <>

Dear Benny:
The problem of the existence of a trans-Plutonian planet has been taken by
the media lately. I would like to discuss my views about it.

Our work was published in Icarus, 160, 1, 32-43.

Our goal has been to determine if the apparent 'edge' of the Kuiper Belt is
actually a gap cleared by an inner-planet-sized object.

A summary of our results follows.

We study the effects of a massive body on a disk of massless particles,
which are meant to represent the Kuiper Belt. Our results indicate that:

1. A gap 'consistent' with the observations can be created over the age of
the Solar System. The mass of the object should be of the order of that of
Mars. Its semimajor axis about 60 AU and eccentricity of \sim 0.1.  

2.The inclination distribution is better reassembled when the object is in a
moderately inclined orbit (10-20 deg).            

3. The Plutino population must be assumed to be more numerous than at
present. The perturbation on the rather 'fragile' orbits in the 2:3
mean-motion-resonance with Neptune can be considerable, and some 70% should
be assumed to be lost.

In a sense this is a preliminary result. The 'consistency' with the
observations is not such. We only compare the end-state of our simulation
with the observed distribution. A re-assessment of this hypothesis is in
progress, where we estimate selection effects.

In an a-e plot, the end-state of our simulations look like bell-shaped cloud
about the position of the planetoid. Hence, there is a leftover of objects
with perihelion beyond 40AU, at large semimajor axes and moderate
eccentricities which are observable but are not seen. We also describe a
scenario, in which the object is transported from the Uranus-Neptune region,
which would widen the gap. In any way, the disk should reassume after a
certain distance if we are observing a gap and not an edge. I also believe
that from the observed features of the Kuiper Belt some other constraints
can be drawn about the existence of 'Planet X'.

Regarding detectability. I believe that there is a chance that it has
escaped the optical surveys if it is in a fairly inclined orbit and far from
the node. IRAF may have missed it if its albedo is not too high or it is in
the galactic plane.

Since the discovery of 1992 QB1 the Kuiper Belt has been full of surprises.
We do not know yet if this is another of them.          

Finally, it should be noticed that we are discussing about an object which
is quite smaller and more distant than those required by the 'Planet X
theories' about the residual of the ephemerides of Uranus, which, anyhow,
are not believed to be necessary any longer.

Regards, Mario

Mario D. Melita
Astronomy Unit
Queen Mary
University of London
Mile End Road
London E1 4NS
TEL 0044 (0)20 7882 3181
Fax 0044 (0)20 8983 3522


>From Govert Schilling <>

The fantasy books of J.R.R. Tolkien are more popular than ever, thanks to
the impressive movie trilogy by Peter Jackson. 'The Lord of the Rings' has
also recently been voted the greatest book of the twentieth century by a
British poll conducted by Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain.
Indeed, some scholars argue that the Tolkien books on the history of
Middle-Earth (including 'The Silmarillion' and 'The Hobbit') are comparable
to classical myths in every sense. They may well become an inseparable part
of human culture.

In my opinion, it would be most fitting that characters from the Tolkien
books are immortalized in the sky. With names from traditional myths and
legends almost running out, astronomers may want to turn to the impressively
large cast of characters of Middle-Earth in search for names for new solar
system bodies or features. A couple of months ago, I proposed this idea to
Brian Marsden of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and he
responded: "Actually, your proposal has a lot of merit, [...] perhaps for
some of the TNOs. We need in particular a set of names for the
scattered-disk objects, for these were not covered in the original IAU
scheme of "creation gods" for the cubewanos and "underworld gods" for the
plutinos." According to Marsden, he has mentioned the suggestion in the
appropriate IAU Committee on Small Body Nomenclature, but apparently, it has
not been accepted so far.

If any other readers of this list agree that it would be a great idea to
name the scattered-disk objects after Tolkien characters, I would urge them
to send an email expressing support to this proposal to the committee
chairman (Pam Kilmartin, or to the
secretary (Brian Marsden,

Govert Schilling, Utrecht, the Netherlands
freelance astronomy writer


>From Patrick Michel <>

MEETING: Sixth Workshop on Catastophic Disruption in the Solar System.
PLACE:  Cannes, France
DATES:  June 9-11, 2003.
DEDICATION:  Dr. Paolo Farinella

Kevin Housen, Patrick Michel, and Akiko Nakamura.

Patrick Michel will take care of local arrangements and gourmet feasting and
will be the conference administrator.

The workshop will take place in the heart of the legendar French Riviera in
Cannes with its unequalled bay, traditions, and surrounded by small typical
villages. The Croisette Beach Hotel in which the meeting will take place is
located only a short step from the beaches of La Croisette, and a few
minutes by walk from the old town with its typical architecture, restaurants
and local people. 

A web site devoted to the workshop may be found at:

In addition to emailed announcements, additional information (links, PDF
forms, etc.) will be placed on this site and we encourage participants to
check this site for updates.

The Hotel itself has 50 rooms blocked for us, all with the modern confort of
a four-star Hotel (maximum number of stars in France): soundproofed with
air-conditionning, colour cable TV and
filter power outlet for computer equipment (for further information, visit
the Croisette Beach home page:

To make their room reservation, participants are required to fill the form
at the end of this announcement and fax it DIRECTLY TO the Hotel (note: the
Hotel is closed until December 27th 2002, so the form should be faxed
preferentially after this date BUT BEFORE March 17th 2003); the dealines and
cancellation penalties are well indicated and participants can also contact
the Hotel by phone if any other details or requirements are still needed. An
application form including other needed information (title of potential talk
etc ..) is also situated at the end of this announcement and must be filled
and sent by email to

The format of the meeting, in keeping with the workshop spirit, will allow
ample time for discussion. The Scientific Program  includes invited reviews
on the main topics and each session will be orgnized starting by an invited
review and followed by talks on the same topics with as much time as
necessary for discussions. The main topics and Invited Reviewers (IR) are:
I   Confrontation laboratory experiments - observations - models

I-A   Impacts in Strength Regime

I-A-1 Impact Experiments (laboratory and in-the-field)  IR: A. NAKAMURA
I-A-2 Models of Impact Experiments (numerical and analytical
      explanations/examinations)  IR: E. ASPHAUG

I-B   Beyond the Strength Regime

I-B-1 Constraints from observations

I-B-1-a Asteroid Families IR: A. CELLINO
I-B-1-b Asteroid Observations (rotation, satellites, ...)
        IR: A.W. HARRIS

I-B-2 Numerical models

I-B-2-a Numerical Models (hydrocodes) and simulation of small body
        collisions  IR: P. MICHEL
I-B-2-b BIG Collisions (Earth-Moon, Pluto/Charon, etc.)  IR: R. CANUP

II    Material Properties, Physical Structure

II-1  Porosity/Highly Compressible Materials IRs: K. HOLSAPPLE/K. HOUSEN
II-2  Meteoritical Evidence/Constraints for Impacts/Disruption IR:
II-3  Geological Properties of Asteroids from Spacecraft Observations
      IR: to be determined
II-4  Rubble Piles and Monoliths  IR: D.C. RICHARDSON

III   Collisonal Evolution Models

III-1 Collisional Evolution Models/Size Distributions IR: F. MARZARI
III-2 Catastrophic disruption threshold and internal structure IR: W. BENZ
III-3 Disruption/Splitting of Comets (tentative IR: P. WEISSMAN)

We anticipate the registration fees to be around 150 Euros at most, but the
final amount depends on how much additional support we can obtain. The
amount and payment will be asked later. The Workshop will start by a welcome
buffet on the beach on Sunday June 8th in the evening and
it will include a evening banquet on Tuesday June 10th in Mougins (one of
the small villages surrounding Cannes). Every Lunch during the workshop will
also consist in buffets (hot and cold) on the beach, including vegetarian
plates. These social events are free for the participants.

Finally, the Proceedings of this workshop will be published in the Journal
Icarus (to be confirmed). 

We will let you know other details in the next annoucements. Given the
limited number of rooms, we encourage people willing to participate to
reserve their Hotel room as fast as possible by sending the form below by
fax to the Hotel, and we thank you in advance for sending back also as soon
as possible the application form placed after the room reservation form by
email to

Patrick Michel          Dan Durda Donald R. Davis


>From National Review, 17 December 2002

By John G. West Jr.
After months of debate, the Ohio State Board of Education unanimously
adopted science standards on Dec. 10 that require Ohio students to know "how
scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of
evolutionary theory."

Ohio thus becomes the first state to mandate that students learn not only
scientific evidence that supports Darwin's theory but also scientific
evidence critical of it. While the new science standards do not compel
Ohio's school districts to offer a specific curriculum, Ohio students will
need to know about scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory in order to pass
graduation tests required for a high-school diploma.

Ohio is not the only place where public officials are broadening the
curriculum to include scientific criticisms of evolution. In September the
Cobb County School District in Georgia, one of the largest suburban school
districts in the nation, adopted a policy encouraging teachers to discuss
"disputed views" about evolution as part of a "balanced education." And last
year, Congress in the conference report to the landmark No Child Left Behind
Act urged schools to inform students of "the full range of scientific views"
when covering controversial scientific topics "such as biological

After years of being marginalized, critics of Darwin's theory seem to be
gaining ground. What is going on? And why now?

Two developments have been paramount.

First, there has been growing public recognition of the shoddy way evolution
is actually taught in many schools. Thanks to the book Icons of Evolution by
biologist Jonathan Wells, more people know about how biology textbooks
perpetuate discredited "icons" of evolution that many biologists no longer
accept as good science. Embryo drawings purporting to prove Darwin's theory
of common ancestry continue to appear in many textbooks despite the
embarrassing fact that they have been exposed as fakes originally concocted
by 19th-century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. Textbooks likewise continue
to showcase microevolution in peppered moths as evidence for Darwin's
mechanism of natural selection even though the underlying research is now
questioned by many biologists.

When not offering students bogus science, the textbooks ignore real and
often heated scientific disagreements over evolutionary theory. Few students
ever learn, for example, about vigorous debates generated by the Cambrian
Explosion, a huge burst in the complexity of living things more than 500
million years ago that seems to outstrip the known capacity of natural
selection to produce biological change.

Teachers who do inform students about some of Darwinism's unresolved
problems often face persecution by what can only be termed the Darwinian
thought police. In Washington state, a well-respected biology teacher who
wanted to tell students about scientific debates over things like Haeckel's
embryos and the peppered moth was ultimately driven from his school district
by local Darwinists.

Science is supposed to prize open minds and critical thinking. Yet the
theory of evolution is typically presented today completely uncritically, as
a dogma to be accepted rather than as a theory to be explored and
questioned. Is it any wonder that policymakers and the public are growing
skeptical of such a one-sided approach?

A second development fueling recent gains by Darwin's critics has been the
demise of an old stereotype.

For years, Darwinists successfully shut down any public discussion of
Darwinian evolution by stigmatizing every critic of Darwin as a Biblical
literalist intent on injecting Genesis into biology class. While Darwinists
still try that tactic, their charge is becoming increasingly implausible,
even ludicrous. Far from being uneducated Bible-thumpers, the new critics of
evolution hold doctorates in biology, biochemistry, mathematics and related
disciplines from secular universities, and many of them teach or do research
at American universities. They are scientists like Lehigh University
biochemist Michael Behe, University of Idaho microbiologist Scott Minnich,
and Baylor University philosopher and mathematician William Dembski.

The ranks of these academic critics of Darwin are growing. During the past
year, more than 150 scientists - including faculty and researchers at such
institutions as Yale, Princeton, MIT, and the Smithsonian - adopted a
statement expressing skepticism of neo-Darwinism's central claim that
"random mutation and natural selection account for the complexity of life."

Deprived of the stock response that all critics of Darwin must be stupid
fundamentalists, some of Darwin's public defenders have taken a page from
the playbook of power politics: If you can't dismiss your opponents,
demonize them.

In Ohio critics of Darwinism were compared to the Taliban, and Ohioans were
warned that the effort to allow students to learn about scientific
criticisms of Darwin was part of a vast conspiracy to impose nothing less
than a theocracy. Happily for good science education (and free inquiry), the
Ohio Board of Education saw through such overheated rhetoric. So did 52 Ohio
scientists (many on the faculties of Ohio universities) who publicly urged
the Ohio Board to require students to learn about scientific criticisms of
Darwin's theory.

The renewed debate over how to teach evolution is not likely to stop with

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, every state must enact statewide science
assessments within five years. As other states prepare to fulfill this new
federal mandate, one of the looming questions will be what students should
learn about evolution. Will they learn only the scientific evidence that
favors the theory, or will they be exposed to its scientific criticisms as

Ohio has set a standard other states would do well to follow.

- John West is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and
chair of the department of political science at Seattle Pacific University.

Copyright 2002, National Review

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