Archive for August 6th, 2010

Mars Society conference: Thursday

The day started off with a hotel breakfast, as my iPhone was dead and I didn’t yet have the convention restaurant guide. Once I registered (name badge, foil-lined cloth tote bag, recyclable pen, comb-bound program book, “Mars or Bust” button) there was coffee and milling about and I chatted a bit with Geoff Landis and Mary Turzillo before we all filed in for the first plenary session.

Robert Zubrin is an angry man. Or, to put it another way, he’s passionate and committed and enthusiastic about human exploration of mars, and frustrated by the blindness of those who don’t see how important it is or how badly they are going about it. NASA works best, he says, when it is given a strict goal and deadline and must focus all its efforts on that goal; he compared the current NASA funding model to stopping by a series of garage sales to see what’s available and then building a house from whatever you find. Apart from this, the bulk of his talk was an outline of the Mars strategy outlined in The Case For Mars and was not new to me, nor I suspect was it new to most of the attendees, but it got the conference off to a good start.

The second plenary speaker was William Borucki, the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope mission. Kepler is a deliberately unfocused telescope, peering Mr. Magoo-like at the stars as opposed to Hubble’s tight focus. But the area of sky that Hubble can see at any one time is the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length; Kepler can look at over a hundred thousand stars at once, gathering just a little bit of data about each one.

The purpose of this exercise is to find Earth-sized planets orbiting in stars’ “habitable zones” (close enough to the star that water is a liquid, not so close that it’s a gas) by examining the light output of each star over time. If the light shows a small dip at regular intervals, that might be a planet crossing in front of the star’s face. (The exact size and shape of the dip are used to distinguish a planet from a companion star.) Of course, this only works if the stellar system in question is edge-on to us, which is only a small fraction of them, which is why so many stars must be examined.

It takes at least three occurrences of such a dip before you can be fairly sure that you’re seeing a regular pattern; four is better. This means that to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone (which, given a star like the Sun, means the planet’s orbital period is around one Earth year), you’ll need to look for at least several years, and the Kepler telescope is funded for 3.5 years. But in its first 43 days of operation it found over 300 candidate planets, five of which have already been confirmed. Because of the short observation period, the planets discovered so far all have orbital periods of just a few days, which means they orbit very close to their star, which means they are very hot (some are above the melting point of gold). They are also huge — much bigger than Jupiter — which had been thought impossible. Some scientific theories will have to be rewritten, which is rather the point.

The third plenary speaker was SF writer and NASA scientist Geoffrey Landis, who gave an extremely entertaining overview of what the Mars rovers have been up to in the six years since he last appeared at this conference (which has an annoying tendency to conflict with the Worldcon). The basics were familiar to me, but he had lots of cool details I didn’t know. Opportunity, for example, landed smack dab in the middle of a small crater, which was named Eagle Crater to honor this hole-in-one feat. When Spirit landed the geologists cried “It has everything we need in a landing site!” By which they meant rocks. Unlike Earth, Mars has three kinds of clouds (dust, carbon dioxide, and water vapor). “Mars is not the red planet; it is the butterscotch planet.” (The name of the color is actually “adobe-orange.”) Spirit hasn’t been heard from since March but it’s still midwinter, it might wake up as early as September. Opportunity, still going, sees a dark rock sitting atop the sand every mile or so — these are nickel-iron meteorites! Some are 500 pounds or more. And the Curiosity rover (2011) is the first rover that can defend itself; it has a powerful laser designed to drill through rocks.

The morning’s final plenary speaker was Charles Doarn of the University of Cincinnati, talking about Telerobotic Surgery in Extreme Environments. It was an interesting talk, and I live-tweeted it like the others, but it’s getting late so I’m not going to attempt to summarize it.

I had lunch with Geoff and Mary, again at the hotel restaurant, then decided to blow off the afternoon program in favor of getting my iPhone fixed. My main motivator was the scary idea of taking the trip back to Portland without my primary information, entertainment, communication, and navigation device. The drive to the nearest Apple store, in Cincinnati, took about an hour, which is what it might take me at home to go to the most distant Apple store in town (which I have done upon occasion, when the others were sold out of the product I wanted) with traffic. Once there I was met by a bright and knowledgeable fellow within five minutes of my Genius Bar appointment. He confirmed my suspicion that the phone had suffered a hardware failure and that it was still under warranty (with 63 days to spare!) and sent me away with a brand new one, just the same as the old one, at no cost. Missing the afternoon program seems a fair trade-off for restoring the device that acts as my clock, calculator, map, camera, calendar, address book, email client, Twitter client, music player, games machine, blog reader, e-book reader, and… oh yeah, phone!

In the evening we had a reception with cocktails and reasonable amounts of pretty good food, which turned into the Mars Society’s annual “town meeting”. There was more program after that, but I returned to my room to rehearse my Mars Talk, which I will be giving first thing tomorrow morning.

Speaking of which… it’s time for bed. G’night!