Are We Going Back to the Moon?

 Analysis by Robert Lamb

Mon Jun 28, 2010 12:05 PM ET

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Leave a Comment PrintEmailFacebookTwitterDiggYahoo! Buzz..Poor moon. Humans see it in the sky all the time yet haven’t visited in decades. (MPI/Archive Photo/Getty Images)

Between 1969 and 1972, Black Sabbath released four albums and astronauts landed on the moon six times, making it a pretty awesome time to be either a space enthusiast or a metal head. Yet while the Sabbath releases continued on into the mid-90s, missions to the moon abruptly ended.

Nearly 40 years have passed since Apollo 17, our last journey to the moon. Sure, President George W. Bush talked up a return trip, but President Obama’s plans for NASA don’t seem to include jaunts to the Sea of Tranquility.

So are we going back to the moon? You bet we are.

SLIDE SHOW: Five Canceled NASA Missions: The White House may have the Constellation Program on the chopping block, but that’s not the only scrapped NASA mission.

WATCH VIDEO: NASA smashes the LCROSS and spent Centaur rocket into the moon in a search for water on the lunar surface. Mack Trucks and Bicycles

“I see humans absolutely returning to the moon eventually,” says William Pomerantz, senior director of the Google X Prize foundation. “I don’t foresee it happening in the 2010s, but it’s moderately likely in the 2020s.”

Why do we stand to place a good half-century gap between our manned lunar programs? The main reason, according to Moon Society President Peter Kokh, comes down to the technology we have to get there.

“When NASA was given the mandate by Kennedy to win the space race, it was necessary to design a space transportation architecture, which makes no sense at all if you’re going to be going back repeatedly and building up a large space outpost,” Kokh says.

Such a delivery system, according to Kokh, results only in “flags and footprints.” Plus, as Pomerantz adds, they’re a long time coming.

“Governments have shown the capacity to do lunar missions and to do them very well,” says Pomerantz. “But generally speaking, they can do them only once every decade or so. As a consequence, they do these very big, very expensive and extraordinarily capable missions. They’ll take landers or orbiters or rovers that have 20 different sensors on them.”

Although such large-scale efforts will continue to play a role in humanity’s exploration of the moon, smaller missions will play an essential role as well. These missions will entail both smaller payloads and more streamlined parameters, such as carrying out specific experiments or scouting a landing area.

“Sometimes you need a Mack truck, and sometimes you need a bicycle,” Pomerantz says, “and right now the government only has the Mack.”

WIDE ANGLE: NASA Moon Mission Scrapped

WATCH VIDEO: From the center of our solar system to far away galaxies, catch the latest space research in these clips. The Lunar X Prize

So if the classic Apollo missions or the canceled Constellation program constituted a Mack truck to the moon, then where do we turn for the bicycle? This, Pomerantz says, is where Google’s Lunar X prize comes into play.

The competition dangles $30 million in prize money in an attempt to stir privately funded teams to develop the kind of small-scale, economically feasible delivery systems that the space industry needs.

“This technology will come at such a radically different price point that it’s going to open up exploration to an entirely new set of customers,” Pomerantz says. “So it won’t just be the big space agencies anymore. We’ll see the capacity for smaller space agencies and nations-states that don’t have a space agency to get involved.”

This situation also would enable universities and corporations to get in on the lunar action. The Lunar X participants haven’t left the Earth yet, however, and probably won’t for at least a couple of years.

“We announced the prize in September of 2007, and we knew going in, before the economic crisis, that we were beginning a seven-year journey,” Pomerantz says. “It’s likely we’re still looking at that. We’re not going to see an attempt this calendar year, and in all likelihood, we will not see an attempt next calendar year, but 2012 starts to be a possibility, and beyond that the likelihood increases with every passing year.”

Why the Moon?

It’s important to realize that while we haven’t been to the moon in nearly 40 years, it’s still an exceedingly promising target for human exploration.

“There’s not one be-all, end-all, reason to go back,” says Pomerantz. “I think there are five or six of them, and probably the most exciting ones are yet to be discovered.”

The three most prominent reasons for a lunar return, however, boil down to scientific research, energy and continued exploration of the solar system.

“Scientifically, the moon is an enormously interesting place to learn about the early history of our planet and the formation of our solar system,” Pomerantz says. “It is a platform from which we can do absolutely unparalleled astronomy and observation. You’re outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. If you go to the far side of the moon, you’re basically at the only place in the readily accessible universe that’s totally shielded from all the television and other interference that broadcasts out from Earth.”

On the energy front, vast quantities of helium-3 could provide an excellent source of raw materials for humanity’s nuclear fusion future. Solar cells could also harvest solar energy and beam it back down to Earth.

“The main problem is that people are divided between those who just want to do research on the moon and those who really want to see it as the eighth continent,” says Kokh, whose nonprofit is certainly behind the idea of an industrialized moon.

And if humans managed to not only establish permanent bases on the moon, but also harness its energy resources, then the moon becomes a handy stepping-stone to further missions into the outer solar system.

“I know there are many people in the space industry who have their pet destinations and think that we should be going there at the exclusion of all other places,” Pomerantz says, “and the fact is that going to the moon makes going to all those other destinations easier. It’s a place where we can practice and prove out some key elements of any of those other missions.”

Plus, with less gravity, the moon would serve as a far easier launch point for missions, provided we could manufacture the ships on the lunar surface from local iron, aluminum, titanium and magnesium. The presence of lunar water only sweetens the prospect as hydrogen and oxygen are two key components in rocket fuel.

As for those unknowns Pomerantz spoke of, Kokh believes they stand as yet another reason that permanent, manned lunar bases are essential to uncovering the moon’s secrets.

“We’ll learn far more about the moon if we have people working and living there than if we just send exploration parties,” Kokh says. “We haven’t really scratched the surface. We know there are underground voids and lava tubes of enormous size, and these places are pre-shielded and ideal for settlements, industrial parks and warehouses. It would be the safest place in the solar system to archive everything humanity has.”

Battlefield Bad Company 2 – not as good as the first…

Once again we are re-acquainted with Marlow, Sweetwater, Sarge, and my favourite character Hags aka Haggard – don’t call him Gordon. I loved the original Battlefield Bad Company game. This one however has a few bad points to contend with.

1. You no longer have the full maps to explore; instead you are required to travel through narrow corridors on each map – very annoying.
2. There are far to many ‘cut scenes’ in this latest game.
3. As your character (Marlow), you act as sniper, but you cannot go prone, a fault in the first game as well.
4. Unlike the original game, the humorous banter between Hags and Sweets is gone. In this game Haggard has become surly.

On the plus side, turn off all the assists and go through the game on the highest difficulty level. If you are running the sound through a 5.1 system, or better, set it up for a sound level named ‘War Tapes’. This gives you a really enhanced sound compared to ordinary stereo or home cinema.

Here’s hoping that if and when DICE come up with another Battlefield game, they will revert to full maps and bring back the old Haggard and Sweets…

Nowadays, a Hedgehog is a rare sight In English gardens…

I consider myself extremely lucky to see what was a common sight years ago – Hedgehogs feeding in the early evening. For months now, since I installed a very luxurious Bird Feeding Station ( I hate that word in this context), my back garden has become alive with Sparrows, Long-tail Tits, Coal Tits, Chaffinches, Blackbirds, the odd Thrush, Crows, the ubiquitous Robin and the neighbourhood bullies, Starlings. Ring-neck Doves and Pigeon complete the passing panorama. One night a few weeks back as I sat here watching TV, out of the corner of my eye I saw a Hedgehog scout the edge of the lawn in search of worms, snails and other juicy tidbits. So, I decided to put out extra meal-worms to see if he/she (its difficult to tell which is which when there is only one) fancied having an evening meal on me. Now every evening as the sun is getting very low in the West, I am visited by not one but two Hedgehogs who I have christened Mr and Mrs Hedgpig. In the picture above, the one in the background is the male, busy with those meal-worms, while the one in front is the female, believe it or not, snacking on a fish-cake!!

Doctor Who’s ‘Crack in the Universe’ is Real?

Analysis by Nicole Gugliucci

Wed Jun 23, 2010 10:32 PM ET

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The Doctor: “Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”

Those of you who have been following this season of Doctor Who know that a literal crack in the universe has been reappearing with the same shape, causing all kinds of havoc for our favorite time traveler. Wouldn’t it be creepy to see it out there for real?

SLIDE SHOW: Although Dr Who uses a Tardis to zip through time, what are the top 5 methods of time travel in science fiction?

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope delivers an eerie image that made me shudder just a bit! Go ahead, compare the infrared telescope’s image above with a screenshot from the show:

Now, forgive me, as I’m probably a few episodes behind, but I think the Milky Way’s “crack” is far less ominous than the one that the Doctor faces. Despite talk of a “snake” and “beastly stars,” this is a region of creation and formation, not destruction. (Well, not for now.) The dark clouds are dust that enshroud baby stars that will one day shine brightly and, who knows, even harbor planets. (New Earth, anyone?)

ANALYSIS: Is Time Travel Possible?

WATCH VIDEOS: Hubble is always seeing the cosmos in a new light. Browse the next big Hubble scoop in the Discovery News Hubble video playlist.Spitzer detects infrared light, or light that is too low energy or long wavelength for our eyes to see. And yet, this is the light that can make it through the dark, dusty cloud. And it IS dark. The TARDIS just might get lost in there if the Doctor isn’t flying too carefully!

Only the most massive stars can even be detected within the nebula. The bright red star in the middle may grow up to be 20 to 50 times the mass of the Sun. That’s BIG. Such a star is soon (over astronomical timescales) to give of so much radiation and material in the form of stellar winds that the dusty veil will be lifted. So, the crack in our universe seems to be temporary after all.

I’m not saying that a sonic screwdriver couldn’t do it faster! But with a little bit of investigation, something that initially seems scary can really be truly beautiful and fantastic. And isn’t that what we’ve learned on our travels with the Doctor anyway?

Will Humans Be Extinct Within 100 Years?

Analysis by Ian O’Neill

Wed Jun 23, 2010 07:59 PM ET

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Is the clock of doom ticking for mankind? Yes, says an eminent 95-year-old scientist from Australia. Professor Frank Fenner — the same scientist who brought the myxomatosis virus to rabbits to control their numbers in the 1950’s — is acutely aware of the impact of overpopulation and shortage of resources.

Widely regarded as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) finest hour, in 1980 Fenner announced to the World Health Assembly that smallpox had been eradicated.

In an interview with The Australian, the well-respected microbiologist expressed his pessimism for our future. “We’re going to become extinct,” he said. “Whatever we do now is too late.”

After all the hype surrounding the pseudoscience of 2012, I’ve become a bit numb to “yet another” warning of doomsday, but when a scientist of Fenner’s caliber goes on the record to say mankind will die off, it’s hard not to listen.

ANALYSIS: Top 10 Reasons Why the World Won’t End in 2012

WATCH VIDEO: The Earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction. Why do extinctions happen and what can we learn from them?”Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years,” he said. “A lot of other animals will, too. It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.”

Although efforts are under way to mitigate the worst effects of overpopulation and climate change, Fenner believes it is futile, that our fate is sealed.

The world’s population is forecast to balloon to 7 billion next year, putting a terrible strain on food and water supplies. So much so that Fenner predicts “food wars” in the coming decades as nations fight to secure dwindling supplies. Global droughts continue to ravage farmland, intensifying widespread malnutrition and poverty.

Climate change is a big driving factor behind his warning and, in Fenner’s opinion, we’ve passed the point of no return. Although we have the scientific ability to tackle global problems, it’s the lack of political will to do anything before the planet turns into a dust bowl that’s the problem.

WIDE ANGLE: Global Warming, On the Brink

Although these warnings aren’t without merit, I see Fenner’s belief that all of mankind may not exist in a century to be overly pessimistic. It’s not that I doubt the world will be a very different place in 100 years, it’s just that he hasn’t considered the technological factors of what makes humans human.

Granted, we’re not very good at looking after our planet, and we are in a dire predicament, but thinking we’ll be extinct in less than a century is a little over the top. There being a “collapse of civilization” or “rapid population decline” might be a better forecast.

Extinction occurs when every single member of a species dies, so unless a succession of global catastrophes (pandemics, runaway global warming, nuclear wars, collapse of resources, throw in an asteroid impact) happened at the same time, a small number of our descendants should still be able to eek out an existence in sheltered pockets around the planet.

In a paper published in the journal Futures last year, researchers approached the question: Human Extinction: How Could It Happen?

“The human race is unlikely to become extinct without a combination of difficult, severe and catastrophic events,” said Tobin Lopes, of the University of Colorado Denver, in an interview with Discovery News. He added that his team “were very surprised about how difficult it was to come up with plausible scenarios in which the entire human race would become extinct.”

Sure, we could be faced with a “perfect storm” of catastrophes leading to a mass extinction, but I think it will be more likely that we’ll adapt quickly, using technology not necessarily to reverse the damage we have caused, but to support life in a hostile new world.

But this is as speculative as Fenner’s gloomy forecast. I suspect the realities of living on a warming planet with a spiraling population and dwindling resources will remain unknown for some time yet. However, if our continuing abuse of resources continues at this rate unchecked, we can be anything but optimistic about our species’ future.

Badly thought-out plan…

Our new government seems to be making some very curious decisions. With their plan to wipe out the obligatory retirement age of 65, one the one hand, and boost it to age 66 on the other,plus allow the older generation to continue working, where does that leave the young people, in terms of getting into the ‘workforce’? Where are the jobs going to come from for them – thin air?

The banks created the world-wide recession, not the man and woman on the street, and yet the government wants us to be the ones to pay for the country’s monetary black hole.

The one thing that this new coalition government has to remember is that this country had a revolution over a similar monetary fiasco in the 16th century. Granted, that one was brought on by a monarch who thought he was God’s representative in the UK.

But for monarch, substitute Global bankers, big business, greedy investors – these are the people who should be fixing the financial crisis, after all it was ‘tax payers’ money that bailed them out immediately after the recession hit…