It is 1:45 in the morning in Ivalo, Finland, 300 km north of the Arctic Circle and ten days past the solstice; I've lost track of the sun as the northern horizon is obscured by trees and clouds but I've grown to accept that it's just never going to get dark. The south of Finland was shockingly green. We flew in over lightly undulating fields a brilliant shade of green. Not jade, or emerald, or malachite; the best analogy from my experience would be pond scum. Not the most appealing of associations but perhaps I'm talking about the expensive pond scum you buy from Tricker's for your ornamental pond. The land is largely flat -- we had to get a hundred klicks north of Rovaniemi before seeing anything like a hill -- and the borders of the lakes are more fractally arbitrary than a permanently rounded edge. I suspect that much of what we overflew was spongey. Bright green, full of lakes, infested with biting insects: I think I now understand why the Finns liked Minnesota so much. Up here there's a little more orange mixed into the green, a little more heathery. And the flora feels like the Sierra Nevadas without being all that far above sea level.

My attitude changed from "Oooh, Lapland! I sure do hope we see some reindeer" to "Get out of the god-damned road, you god-damned speedbumps" in about thirty minutes. They're everywhere. Down near Rovaniemi they're tagged and molting, but up here where it's on the whole chillier, they're less motley, and seem to be roaming free in herds of eight to fourteen. I have yet to see any dead along the side of the road, but I suspect that's due to some stereotypical fastidiousness I have just invented from whole air and imputed to the Finns without cause than to any shyness on the part of the reindeer.
Tonight was the first reasonably clear night Cleveland's had in a week, so I took a look at the heretofore hyped comet C/2001 Q4 (NEAT). There was far too much ambient light for me to ever get a naked-eye view, but I did locate it with binoculars. It's just a tiny little dim blotch -- not even third magnitude, I'd guess, and if it has any tail at all, it's unrecognizable through Cleveland's light pollution. (To be fair, though haze wasn't visible, I wasn't seeing a whole lot of stars through even the binoculars.) Disappointed with the view, I hauled out the light-bucket, my 5-inch Newtonian. It took me at least fifteen minutes to get the telescope pointed at the right object, but it was clear that I had found the comet when I did -- it was very distinctly an indistinct smudge, about three times the apparent diameter of Jupiter.

Perhaps there are better views where people have access to appreciable darkness, but my experience with the comet was underwhelming (yeah, yeah, [ profile] cactuswatcher). Still, I'm glad I spent the time establishing that I wouldn't have regretted not spending the time. I ended the session with a quick peek at Jupiter and two of its moons -- an old favorite, easily found.
Comets are coming!!

Hyakatuke and Hale-Bopp, back in the mid-nineties, provided me with some of my favorite sky viewing, so I'm guardedly hopeful about these two. Astronomy Magazine predicted that one might get up to 0.6 magnitude and the other 1.1, so I'm a little disappointed to see that Sky & Telescope suggests that LINEAR will max out at 2 and NEAT at 2.5. Well, I'm good on a clear but light-polluted Cleveland night to about magnitude 4.0, so here's hoping!
Let it not be said that though I do not wish to see space science slighted, I oppose manned exploration of space. To that end, I should mention that Google is hiring.
In my years of reading through the blogosphere, my proudest moment has to be the one in which Jim Henley quoted me. He hasn't done so recently, but last night he might as well have:
[Steven] Weinberg makes a plausible-sounding case that the Mars program, vaporware or not, is already cutting into NASA's science budget. He misses the obvious conspiracy theory for some reason. Which scientific research will suffer most heavily? Experimental cosmology. Which scientific research in NASA's purview would most naturally discommode the Christian fundamentalists in the President's base? Hey, I don't need two separate answers to dispose of both of these questions!
As I understand they say in the blogosphere, indeed.
No pretty pictures with this one. From The New York Times:
Can the Heavens Wait?

About two-and-a-half miles above the Pacific, the world's biggest observatory complex dominates the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Among other instruments at this site are the Kecks, the largest optical telescopes in the world; each possesses a mirror that is more than 30 feet wide. Mauna Kea is without question one of the nation's leading scientific research facilities.

One can therefore imagine the outcry that would follow if the University of Hawaii, which manages Mauna Kea, announced one day that the telescopes would be demolished because of budgetary constraints. It's expensive to maintain all that fancy equipment under the stars, the university might say; what's more, other programs require increased financing.

Ridiculous? In the case of Mauna Kea, the answer is, thankfully, yes. But virtually the same thing is happening to another, even more valuable observatory: the Hubble Space Telescope, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently sentenced to a slow death.

Launched in 1990, the Hubble is surely the most important instrument in modern astronomy. Because it orbits outside the Earth's atmosphere, it sees things ground-based observatories can't. In the telescope's photographs, for example, the earliest galaxies can be seen careering at the edge of space-time like candy-colored pinwheels. These and other pictures have turned the Hubble into our national time machine — a device capable of peering back to epochs that far predate the formation of the Earth.

In fact, the pictures the Hubble has given us rank in importance with Apollo's canonical Earthrise over the Moon. And the telescope has done all this for a reasonable price: it consumes only 2 percent of NASA's annual operating budget.

Nevertheless, just days after President George W. Bush directed NASA to focus on missions to the Moon and Mars, the agency said it would drop plans to send the space shuttle on one of its periodic Hubble servicing missions — even though more than $200 million worth of new instruments for the telescope had already been built. The decision spells an early demise for the observatory, which will now most likely stop functioning by about 2007. In the past, shuttle missions have rejuvenated the Hubble — creating, in effect, a new telescope every time. With consistent servicing, it could operate for decades more.

NASA said that its Hubble decision was based on safety, not budgetary concerns. The agency was following the recommendations of the Columbia accident investigation commission, which suggested that future shuttle missions go to the International Space Station. That way, if the shuttle sustains damage — broken tiles, for instance — its crew can take refuge in the station. Because the Hubble is on a different orbit from the space station, a crew aboard a wounded shuttle would have nowhere to go.

This week, however, under pressure from Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, NASA said it would ask Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., head of the Columbia commission, to examine whether it is safe for astronauts to visit the Hubble. Let's hope Admiral Gehman recommends to NASA that it reverse its decision. After all, there is good reason to do so. NASA has three remaining shuttles. Two could be prepared simultaneously — one to visit the Hubble and the other to be ready to go in the event that spare parts or a rescue is needed in space. If the second shuttle isn't used, it will be all set for its next flight.

NASA's deeper, less advertised worry is probably its budget. With many new objectives, the agency needs to trim as much fat as possible, and a Hubble repair mission costs about $500 million. But the Hubble long ago proved it was worth every cent. In recent years, it has generated more positive press for NASA than the astronaut program. It's also the source of important science. In 2002, more than 3,500 published scientific papers grew out of Hubble observations.

More to the point, scrapping the Hubble could be as expensive as saving it. Without servicing by the shuttle, it will inevitably fall to Earth, and NASA can't allow a 24,000-pound telescope to land just anywhere. So the agency will have to design and build a robotic rocket that would attach itself to the Hubble and bring it safely down in the ocean.

And here lies the fiscal absurdity: the price of that rocket is estimated by NASA at $300 million — and given that the Hubble wasn't designed for automated docking, new technology would have to be developed, perhaps pushing the cost even higher. Add to this the $200 million in new gizmos already built for the Hubble and you get a woeful picture. By not spending $500 million to service the telescope (and add many more years to its life), we will probably have to spend the same amount to bring the telescope crashing down. (A servicing mission could attach rockets for eventual controlled re-entry far more easily and cheaply than a robotic mission.)

In fairness to NASA, the agency is in a bind. It has been directed to write a new chapter in human space exploration. But it has also been asked to undertake this mission on the cheap. Although it might sound reasonable to prod the agency to find a less valuable program to cut, under these circumstances that won't be so easy.

Thankfully, there's a way to save the Hubble. The solution is similar to one that might have been devised had the University of Hawaii gone off its rocker and decided to dynamite Mauna Kea. The answer is a Congressional grant. In this case, Congress should give the Hubble two more shuttle missions and another decade or more of discoveries. A billion dollars isn't peanuts, but it would be of incalculable value in our quest to understand the universe and our place within it.
As they say in blogosphere circles, indeed. I would like to add that understanding "the universe and our place within it" is a pursuit the Bush administration has consistently opposed.
Because nothing is so indicative of my well-being as the speed with which I do the crossword, my no-longer-mysterious numbers have been shifted to the "Current Mood" field.

Actually, I don't think that "4:34" quite fully conveys how pissed off I am about this. I haven't yet seen anything about it on my blogstroll -- I keep checking the c's, figuring that if CalPundit, Charles Murtaugh, Chris Mooney, and Crooked Timber don't have it, it's not getting much play. Allow me to rectify that.
NASA Cancels Trip to Supply Hubble, Sealing Early Doom

Published: January 17, 2004

Savor those cosmic postcards while you can . . .  )



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