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David Darling's Newsletter #31


August 5, 2005


1. Meanderings
2. Shuttle Diplomacy
3. The Mystery of Iapetus
4. In the News

1. Meanderings

Summer greetings — or winter ones, if you're in the southern hemisphere — to you all. I hope this newsletter finds you and yours in fine fettle. Jill and I are enjoying our new life here in Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, not least because of the nearness of our family, including our daughter and her husband, granddaughter, and our son, who's presently staying with us, in between his travels.

Regular visitors to my website will have noticed a lot of changes taking place over the past few weeks. With my latest manuscript, all about Gravity, having been given the nod of approval by my editor at Wiley I've been freed up to spend more time on other things. The entire site has undergone a facelift, including a new, (hopefully) user-friendlier page format and color scheme. Also, I've been busily adding new pages and updating old ones. A number of people have written in with various suggestions as to how I could improve and extend the site further — RSS feeds (which are becoming very popular on news sites), a forum, e-mail news, and so on. All these are on my "to do" list and will be put in place as time allows. If you haven't explored "The Worlds of David Darling" recently, let me invite you to check out:

the front page, with all the latest news,

the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight

and the Encyclopedia of Alternative and Sustainable Living

Drop me a line if you have any suggestions for new topics. Send in a contribution and, if it makes it onto the site, it'll be fully credited and a link provided to any appropriate website.

On the book front, as I mentioned, the Gravity manuscript was given the thumbs up by my publisher, John Wiley & Sons, and so will now go into the production process (starting with copy editing). And more good news: Teleportation: the Impossible Leap, already available around the world in English, is to be translated into Japanese and Korean following the sale of foreign rights to publishers in those countries. Foreign translations always intrigue me. They make me wonder how close the translations are to the original, especially when metaphors and English colloquialisms are involved. And I wonder, too, what would happen if, say, the Japanese edition were translated back into English (by a different translator). Would it still resemble the original? (I bet not!) How many times would you have to translate back and forth in this way before the original was changed beyond recognition? Probably in all kinds of hilarious ways — it's like the old game of Chinese (or, in this case, Japanese) whispers.

2. Shuttle Diplomacy

As I write this, the Space Shuttle Discovery is still in orbit, docked to the International Space Station — the first flight of the Shuttle following the terrible loss of Columbia a couple of years ago. Yesterday (Aug. 4), astronaut Stephen Robinson made an unprecedented, out-of-sight spacewalk to the belly of Discovery, with the help of the space station's 58-foot robotic arm, to extricate a couple of bits of filler material that had been sticking out between some of the thermal tiles. It's a measure of how concerned and cautious Shuttle management is these days, in the wake of Columbia's loss when a suitcase-sized chunk of insulation from the External Tank punched a hole in the wing, which led to the Orbiter's destruction on reentry. One more disaster like that and the Shuttle program is finished.

Actually, it may be finished anyway. With a hundred or so camera's trained on this launch, every bit of flotsam and jetsam that came loose during takeoff was spotted and recorded — and there was an alarming amount of it about, despite many months of trying to rectify the problems that doomed Columbia. A piece of flying debris from the External Tank, not much smaller than that which hit Columbia, smashed into Discovery's underside close to the front landing gear doors. It could have gone anywhere. Other chunks of insulating foam narrowly missed the Orbiter. Even before Discovery had dropped anchor at the ISS, NASA had grounded the Shuttle fleet again on the basis of a continuing unacceptable risk.

So, what next? NASA has put a huge amount of effort since 2003 into making the Shuttle as safe as it can be. It's hard to see what else it can do in a period of months that will make much difference; otherwise, it would presumably already have done it. There are no quick fixes and no ways to make the Shuttle system much more reliable than it is now. What's becoming clear is that both the Shuttle and the ISS are reaching the end of their lives — staggeringly brilliant pieces of engineering, awesome testimonies to human courage and endeavor, but ultimately flawed, massively (inexusably so) expensive and somewhat purposeless monuments of lingering Cold War aspirations.

Some of you are big supporters of manned space exploration, I'm sure. I am myself — when the time's right. I think it will come through commercial investment, such as an expansion of SpaceShipOne-like projects to fare-paying passengers, orbiting hotels/conference centers, and so forth (whether that's the best way or not). It will be market-driven from now on. But the hundreds of billions that have already been poured into the Shuttle/ISS programs could have been so much more usefully spent on robotic space exploration and, far more importantly, tackling problems here on Earth. It's mind-bogglingly difficult and expensive to get people into orbit for a few days or weeks at a time — we're fragile beings with lavish life-support needs — mostly to do stuff that can now be done automatically by machines. What useful new science has come from the ISS? Compared with the discoveries of Hubble (which could have been launched by an unmanned rocket), Voyager, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, for example, almost none. Nor is the ISS a stepping stone for manned exploration of the Solar System. In fact, beyond the usual presidential bluster about a human mission to Mars and a permanent lunar base, there are serious concerns at the moment about the practicality of long-haul crewed spaceflight. A new study by the US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the crew of a 2.7-year roundtrip to Mars (allowing a stay of one year on the planet) would be exposed to such a high dose of cosmic radiation that there'd be a 1-in-10 chance for a man and a 1-in-6 chance for a woman of subsequently developing a lethal cancer directly because of it. Read this New Scientist article for a sobering assessment. I'm sure we'll eventually find a way around this problem (clever shielding, medical/genetic approaches, etc) and learn to live in space and colonize other planets. But I'd really like to see us look after our own world a bit more responsibly first.

3. The Mystery of Iapetus

There's something very strange about Saturn's moon Iapetus. Arthur C. Clarke knew that decades ago when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke wanted somewhere in the Solar System that had an artificial feel to it -- something that looked as if it had been built rather than come about naturally. Leafing through information about the various moons, Iapetus jumped out at him as a very weird place indeed. Why? Because one side of it is seven times brighter than the other! Here's how Clarke describes it in his novel:

"One hemisphere of the satellite, which, like its companions, turned the same face always toward Saturn, was extremely dark, and showed very little surface detail. In complete contrast, the other was dominated by a brilliant white oval, about four hundred miles long and two hundred wide. At the moment, only part of this striking formation was in daylight, but the reason for Iapetusís extraordinary variations in brilliance was now quite obvious..."

A brief history of 2001: It came about because the legendary film-maker Stanley Kubrick wanted to do a visionary, artistically stunning science fiction movie that went beyond the usual alien-monster theme of previous efforts. He approached Clarke and they decided to use as a starting point Clarke's 1948 short story "The Sentinel" about an extraterrestrial listening post that had been set up on the Moon. Clarke then wrote the novel 2001 on which the film would be based.

The climax of the book comes with the arrival of the spacecraft Discovery (another Discovery!) at the alien stargate located on . . . Iapetus, the third largest moon of Saturn. Except in the film, the stargate has moved! Iapetus is never mentioned in the screen version, nor is Saturn, for the simple reason that Saturn's rings proved too difficult to depict realistically (in those days before computer-generated graphics). So Kubrick put the stargate in orbit around Jupiter instead.

What a pity that shift in location was, because Iapetus has proved to be an even bigger mystery than we knew it to be in the late 'sixties when 2001 first hit the screens. Voyager 2 gave us our first close-up views of the strange moon in 1981. But these tantalizing glimpses were nothing compared to the awesome spectacle revealed just recently by Cassini, which is in orbit around Saturn making regular flybys of the various Saturnian satellites. Not only is Iapetus much, much brighter on one side than the other — the difference between bright snow and dull charcoal — but it has an almost unbelievably colossal ridge running at least partway round its equator. Iapetus looks for all the world like an enormous celestial walnut! (See the photo on my Iapetus page).

The monstrous ridge runs for at least 1300 kilometers (about 810 miles), which is pretty much the same as Iapetus's diameter — and it may extend even further (we can't tell until more pictures are taken). And in places it rises to a height of 13 kilometers (8 miles or so), making it much higher than Mount Everest and one of the tallest known features on any world.

There are some other oddball things about Iapetus, too. It's in an unusual orbit — much more steeply inclined (at almost 15 degrees) to Saturn's equatorial plane and much further out (about three and a half million kilometers) than any of the other planet's large moons — as if it didn't belong there. And it isn't anywhere near being round, as you'd expect a body of its size to be: the two halves separated by the ridge don't match up in curvature.

Hmmm. One mighty mystery is enough for most worlds, but Iapetus has four of them. You have to be a big believer in coincidences to think that there could be so many oddities by chance. Much more likely, it would seem, that they're somehow related. The question is, how?

Some wonderful theories have been concocted to explain the mysteries of Iapetus, including a few that suggest it may really be, as Clarke fictionally suggested, somehow artificial! The fact is, we don't yet know what happened to Iapetus in the past to make it look and move the way it does today. We need more data, which will come hopefully from a future flyby by Cassini, although we'll have to wait until 2007 for this to happen. Meanwhile, astronomers have been putting together ideas that might account for the curious features and orbit of the "lost" moon of Clarke's 2001. One possibility is a collision, long ago, between Iapetus and some other object, which threw Iapetus onto a new, more tilted orbit and partially melted the moon in the process. The ridge could have come about through tectonic processes as the disturbed moon cooled and shrank after its trauma, or as a result of debris cast into a ring around Saturn and subsequently swept up as Iapetus repeatedly passed through the ring plane on its orbital peregrinations. The appearance of the ridge today exactly along the equator is easily accounted for since the moon, as it spun around on its axis, would naturally settle over time into the minimum energy state, in which its bulge is equatorially placed. The hemispherical differences in brightness can also be accounted for by the sweeping-up of debris — the leading face of the moon accreting material from the ring of a very different hue from the coating present on the other half. While perhaps not precise in all its details, some such cataclysmic event almost certainly explains what we see on Iapetus at present. Comments and criticisms welcome, as always!

4. In the News

Did you know that ...

Hurricane Ivan produced the tallest wave on record - more than 90 feet

Eternal planes may soon be watching over us

California beaches have the world's pickiest females (of the crustacean variety, that is)

Some of the Earth's earliest atmosphere has been found trapped in Moon soil

And, oh yes, scientists have just discovered a tenth planet

Also, let me recommend these web pages by friends and family to you:

A terrific blog covering cosmological, philosophical and theological themes (by an old schoolchum and science buff who, to my surprise, is now an Orthodox priest)

Poetry by Anna Kancheva (primary translator for the US Ambassador in Sofia, who has written several poems about my books and work -- her exuberance shines through in every word)

and http://www.diseno-art.com/encyclopedia/things_to_do/things_to_do.html. Exotic destinations and activities (courtesy of my imaginative son!)

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling