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Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.


Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.

In Latin, ashes are called cinis and , similarly, the Latin word for ashy gray or ash-like is cinereous.  English borrowed this word in the 17th century and it has long been used to describe the color which is dark gray tinged with brown shininess.  As with many Latin color names (like fulvous and icterine) the word cinereous is often used in the scientific name of birds which are very prone to be this drab color.

Cinereous Vulture--photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)–photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

However, the concept of color is not quite as simple as it first seems.  Different items produce ocular sensations as a result of the way they reflect or emit light, yet different wavelengths of light are visible to different eyes.  Humans are trichromats.  We have photoreceptor cells capable of seeing blue, green, and red.  Most birds are tetrachromats and can apprehend electromagnetic wavelengths in the ultraviolet spectrum as well.  Many of the dull cinereous birds we witness may glow and sparkle with colors unknown to the human eye and unnamed by the human tongue.

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

 

Goodbye old friend...

The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation.  To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”

We are all the turkey...

However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be.  Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans.  Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini.  Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system.  I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks).  These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.

NASA Spacecraft Dawn firing its ion thrusters with Vesta and Ceres in the Backgound

The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes.  A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.

Artist's Concept of a Scramjet Spaceplane Entering Orbit

I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations.  Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want.  Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility).  I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches.  I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity.  The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off).  But I’m open to other ideas.  We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.

If we call it an orbital railgun, people will be upset. How about "orbital railfriend"?

Yuri Gagarin and his Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule

Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic trip to outer space aboard a Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (in what is now Kazakhstan). Yuri’s call sign was “Кедр” (“Kedr” in Roman letters, which means Siberian Pine). He was in orbit for 108 minutes. Gagarin was chosen for this mission because of mental acuity, physical toughness, and his affability–which elicited the admiration and respect of his fellow cosmonauts. Additionally his tiny size was an asset in the cramped capsule (he was only 5’2”). He was the first human being to enter outer space. Our kind has been spacefaring now for half a century.

This event is celebrated around the world with a (fledgling) holiday known as Yuri’s night. It is a time to reflect on the milestones of space exploration and to drink to all the heroes of the world’s various space programs (especially Gagarin who died in a 1968 training flight). While I might prefer such an international space celebration to mark an American space milestone, there is no need to be churlish.  There is plenty of space to go around, and the tiny grinning Gagarin makes an engaging hero. He lived to fly.  If a fiery death in the sky was the price of such ambition then he was willing to pay up.

Vostok1 Lifting off on April 12th, 1961

The fiftieth anniversary of the first space flight is a worthy cause for celebration, but it also gives us a lot of missing milestones to think about.  Aside from the rickety bucket of bolts which is the International Space Station, we are all still here.  There are no moon bases.  There has been no Mars trip. We have never ventured to Ganymede and we may never go.  We lack energy sources which would allow us to undertake great ventures beyond this world. Although the robots currently exploring the solar system are quietly amassing a vast array of data and some very bright people are busy analyzing it, space exploration does not seem to be a priority right now. Our politicians would rather slather money on entitlement programs instead of funding a more assertive space program.  The bankers and industrialists in charge of private industry seem only fitfully interested in space research and exploration (indeed, they sometimes barely seem interested in anything worthwhile).

I haven't forgotten you Virgin Galactic. You have done well.

I am not demanding humankind establish an interstellar empire (well, actually I am, but I am asking quietly because physics is scary and space is extremely…spacious). There are some hard truths about the physical universe that we are butting up against here. Our failure to move further faster is partly a problem with engineering, technology, and materials.  Who knows though? Somewhere someone might currently be making some breakthrough which will solve all of this.  A glorious space age might be right around the corner, but we need to act.  We need resources to go toward blue sky research and scientific discovery. We need missions and objectives which arouse the finest passions in tomorrow’s explorers and scientists. Other than vague talk of private spaceflights and maybe a Mars mission we don’t have any dazzling targets we are aiming at. Our shuttle program is ending and nothing is replacing it. Our imagination is failing and our celestial dreams are winking out.

I would like the heroic accomplishments in space to lie in the future not merely in the past   Why not join the Planetary Society, or draft a letter to your legislator?  Yuri Gagarin was the first person to leave Earth, if only for a brief time.  More people should venture to space this century rather than less. We all need to take bolder better steps to ensure there is a future for humanity in the skies beyond this world. In half a century we have only just dipped our toes into the heavens.

The Milky Way Galaxy from Earth

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