Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bob Bigelow, Space Gigalo

Robert Bigelow, millionaire, real estate magnet, hotel mogul, spaceman.

Yep, Mr. Bigelow, founder of the hotel chain, Budget Suites of America, and multi-millionaire has already launched a one-third-scale model of his inflatable space hotel. He’s one of the new visionary space entrepreneurs that include Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson looking to the final frontier to conquer and make oodles of cash. According to a report in the LA Times, he has many obstacles that include launch costs and safety issues. At present the price tag for a space tourist is $20,000,000. If only Visa offered that spending limit on my 0% card, I’d be there. But alas that will have to wait a few more years. Mr. Bigelow imagines that in ten years the price to soar into space will be a mere $9,000,000, still out of range for the average Joe’s salary.

The inflatable hotel is based on a design called TransHab that NASA discarded a few years ago when budget cuts forced them to pare down projects. When the design became available Mr. Bigelow snatched it up and formed a new company called Bigelow Aerospace. They hope to have a full sized model up in orbit in five years with guests arriving in ten. Those are grand dreams. Mr. Bigelow imagines the inflatable hubs to be used as conference centers, sports stadiums, and of course, hotels. While the amenities are sparse, you can’t beat the view.

The inflatable design, around since the 1960s, has advantages over a metal space station like the International Space Station currently in orbit. The main one being that it is much lighter. A downside is that if it pops, you’re dead. The current design has a shell strength of 3-inch thick aluminum. It’s a start.

Like other space entrepreneurs, Mr. Bigelow has been fascinated with exploring the outer limits since he was a child. It seems that a generation of Baby Boomers—fed a steady diet of Twilight Zone and Star Trek on television—are now indulging their childhood dreams of traveling to the stars and they have the funds to do it. Not only that, Mr. Bigelow has founded The National Institute for Discovery Science a center to investigate paranormal events including UFO abductions. He believes in the paranormal experiences that cannot be explained by science.

His clients will not necessarily be the space tourists lining up with millions in disposable income burning a hole in their Brooks Brother’s suit pockets. He envisions small nations without space programs of their own to be his first customers. They will be able to ride a launch and experiment with zero gravity all for less than $10,000,000 per trip. Mr. Bigelow claims that he already has a few countries lining up but he will not disclose their identities, yet.

You can read the LA Times story here.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Puto: Yer OUT!

The IAU has made its decision today, August 24, 2006, and demoted Pluto from planetary status to a dwarf planet. Officially, the solar system has eight planets according to the new definition of a planet. The new definition claims that a planet is "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." Pluto is excluded because of its oblong orbit that brings it within the orbit of Neptune. No longer under consideration are Xena, Charon or a host of other smaller objects. They will become either dwarf planets or Kuiper Belt Objects or the even more general Small Solar System Objects.

The anagram that school children have used for years "My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas," to remember the planets will have to be changed. I propose "My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us NOTHING!"

Walt Disney is turning in his grave knowing that his beloved cartoon dog has become named for a dwarf object not a planet.

More information can be found here and all over the Internet. In a bizarre twist of fate, Pluto has been demoted on my birthday, which will surely overshadow this historic event.


Monday, August 21, 2006

They're doing what???

Public Laughs, Astronomers Debate, Nobody Cares

According to a report on, the debate over the status of Pluto as a planet and the possibility of adding three more planets to our solar system (and potentially more1) is met with emotions ranging from ambivalence to ridicule. The only thing that most people care about is that if Pluto looses planetary status they will not be happy. Are the astronomers listening?

Check out the article on


Friday, August 18, 2006


So Far, So MF Good.

Snakes On A Plane, the movie that has been getting a lot of buzz on the internet and the podcasting community has finally been released to fairly decent reviews given the hype.


Space Opera in Prague

Breaking news from the IAU.

What is going on in Prague?? Soon we’ll be getting reports of pocket protectors being thrown about in anger. This article was first posted on

Pluto May Get Demoted After All

Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer

The effort to define the term "planet" took a fresh twist today as two competing proposals were put forth at a meeting of astronomers in Prague.

In one case, Pluto would be demoted to "dwarf planet" status, which would mean it would not be a real planet at all.

Astronomers are split down the middle on the issue.

Eight planets or hundreds?

On Wednesday, officials with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) proposed a planet definition that would make Pluto's moon Charon a planet. Several astronomers criticized the overall proposal as being vague and the Charon aspect specifically for going too far in essentially recasting too many small round objects as full-fledged planets. Eventually, with new discoveries, there would likely be hundreds.

They also were critical of the proposed term "pluton" to describe Pluto, Charon and other small round objects in the outer solar system that would be planets under the new definition.

Today, a subgroup of the IAU met to discuss the proposal. A straw vote was held in which only about 18 astronomers favored the proposal, according to Alan Boss, a planet-formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Another 20 or so said it should be reworked. And about 50 favored an alternate proposal.

Stay Tuned.


Planets or Plutons

Clarification on the Planet debate?

It seems to be a little confusing with the new definition of what is a planet raging on at the IAU. From what has been presented in the media here is what will happen if the IAU drafts this new definition:

Planets discovered before 1900 will continue to be called "planets."

A new sub-category of planets called "plutons" will be included.

Plutons will include, Pluto, Charon (Pluto’s Moon), Ceres, an asteroid once considered a planet in the 1800s, and object 2003 UB313, alternately called Xena.

In the future scientists will consider other objects to include in this sub category, thereby increasing the number of technical planets in out solar system but not necessarily in the traditional sense.

Another category will be adopted called, small solar system bodies. Tens of thousand of objects currently known will fall into this category.

Why is our moon or other moons around other planets not considered planets themselves if Charon, Pluto’s moon, becomes a planet (or more accurately, a pluton?) Well, the definition of a planet means it has a center of gravity that is not another object. Pluto and Charon are essential a double planet system revolving around each other and then revolving around the sun. The moon’s center of gravity is the earth.

This proposal seems very ambiguous. Is Pluto still a planet or are plutons not planets but a different class of planet? How many planets does our solar system have? 8 or 12?

This information came from a new article posted on Yahoo written by Sophie Pons.

More info as it comes in.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hi! Welcome to the neighborhood...

Images of what will potentially become the new Solar System:

iau0601a: The new Solar System? [artist’s impression]

The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the lower end of the planet scale – what defines the difference between “planets” and “solar system bodies”. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will consist of 12 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and 2003 UB313. The three new proposed planets are Ceres, Charon (Pluto’s companion) and 2003 UB313. There is no change in the planetary status of Pluto.

In this artist’s impression the planets are drawn to scale, but without correct relative distances.

Credit: The International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser

iau0601b: Three new planets? [artist’s impression

The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the lower end of the planet scale – what defines the difference between “planets” and “solar system bodies”. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, three of the bodies in the Solar System will be assigned new status as planets: Ceres, Charon (Pluto’s companion) and 2003 UB313. There is no change in the planetary status of Pluto.

In this artist’s impression the planets are drawn to scale, but without correct relative distances.

Credit: The International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser

Planets Defined...

What follows is a draft of the resolution that the IAU is proposing for the definition of a planet:

Draft Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI: Definition of a Planet

Contemporary observations are changing our understanding of the Solar System, and it is important that our nomenclature for objects reflect our current understanding. This applies, in particular, to the designation "planets". The word "planet" originally described "wanderers" that were known only as moving lights in the sky. Recent discoveries force us to create a new definition, which we can make using currently available scientific information. (Here we are not concerned with the upper boundary between "planet" and "star".)

The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other Solar System bodies be defined in the following way:

(1) A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape1, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.2

(2) We distinguish between the eight classical planets discovered before 1900, which move in nearly circular orbits close to the ecliptic plane, and other planetary objects in orbit around the Sun. All of these other objects are smaller than Mercury. We recognize that Ceres is a planet by the above scientific definition. For historical reasons, one may choose to distinguish Ceres from the classical planets by referring to it as a "dwarf planet."3

(3) We recognize Pluto to be a planet by the above scientific definition, as are one or more recently discovered large Trans-Neptunian Objects. In contrast to the classical planets, these objects typically have highly inclined orbits with large eccentricities and orbital periods in excess of 200 years. We designate this category of planetary objects, of which Pluto is the prototype, as a new class that we call "plutons".

(4) All non-planet objects orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar System Bodies".4

1 This generally applies to objects with mass above 5 x 1020 kg and diameter greater than 800 km. An IAU process will be established to evaluate planet candidates near this boundary.
2 For two or more objects comprising a multiple object system, the primary object is designated a planet if it independently satisfies the conditions above. A secondary object satisfying these conditions is also designated a planet if the system barycentre resides outside the primary. Secondary objects not satisfying these criteria are "satellites". Under this definition, Pluto's companion Charon is a planet, making Pluto-Charon a double planet.
3 If Pallas, Vesta, and/or Hygeia are found to be in hydrostatic equilibrium, they are also planets, and may be referred to as "dwarf planets".
4 This class currently includes most of the Solar System asteroids, near-Earth objects (NEOs), Mars-, Jupiter- and Neptune-Trojan asteroids, most Centaurs, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), and comets. In the new nomenclature the concept "minor planet" is not used.

Members of the Committee

Dr. Andre Brahic is Professor at Universite Denis Diderot (Paris VII) and is Director of the Laboratory Gamma-gravitation of the Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique. He specializes in planetary rings, and has co-discovered the rings and arcs of Neptune. For the French-speaking public, Andre Brahic is one of the best known popularisers of science and astronomy, having authored a number of books.

Dr. Iwan Williams, Queen Mary University of Londo, is an expert on the dynamics and physical properties of Solar System objects. He is the current President of IAU Division III (Planetary Systems Sciences).

Dr. Junichi Watanabe is an Associate Professor and also Director of the Outreach Division of NAOJ. He is a solar system astronomer and highly appreciated in Japan as interpreter and writer of astronomy for the public and students. He has strong connections with amateur astronomers, science editors, school teachers and journalists.

Dr. Richard Binzel is Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT and a specialist in asteroids and outer solar system small bodies, and is also a well known and respected educator and science writer.

Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, Director General of ESO and President-Elect of the IAU, took part in the work of the committee, bringing in the perspective of the IAU Executive as well as that of an astronomer at large.

Dava Sobel is the author of the very successful books "Longitude," "The Planets," and "Galileo's Daughter." She has a solid background in, and knowledge of, the history of science, astronomy in particular.

Dr. Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and History of Science Emeritus at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is an esteemed historian of astronomy with a broad perspective, and a prize-winning educator.

Credit: The International Astronomical Union

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Roll Over Pluto...

Here is a preliminary follow up to the debate over Pluto as a planet. The final word has not been spoken about this but it looks like we may have a total of twelve official planets in our solar system by the time the IAU closes its meeting in Prague. That would be all of the well known nine planets plus Charon, which is Pluto’s moon, 2003 UB313, or as it is temporarily nicknames, Xena, and Ceres, which interestingly was once considered a planet back in the 1800s but was demoted to asteroid sometime later.

The proposal also calls for new classifications of celestial objects. One is “plutons” which are Pluto-like objects that reside in the Kuiper Belt and “small solar system bodies” which were formerly known as “minor planets” which includes asteroids and comets. Neither “small solar system bodies” or “minor planets” seem sexy enough for my taste. I’d prefer something like, “mass challenged objects” or perhaps, “sub-planet thingies.” There is also just plain old “bits and pieces.”

Check out the article here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Pluto be or not Pluto be? That is the question!

In a few days the International Astronomical Union (the international community of scientists who decide on all things cosmic) will meet to decide whether or not Pluto will continue to be classified as a planet. Before we all raise our torches and pitchforks and storm the meeting taking place in Prague, let’s consider the possibilities.

The discovery of 2003 UB313, or Xena as it is known by its discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of technology, calls into question a simple phrase know to school children everywhere. It goes like this: My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. The first letter of ever word in the sentence equates to a planet in our solar system and its order relative to the distance from the sun. Mercury. Venus. Earth. Mars. Jupiter. Saturn. Uranus. Neptune. Pluto.

Traditionally we have been taught that our Solar System encompasses nine planets. There’s also a lot of other stuff out there floating within and beyond our nine planets. Between Mars and Jupiter, for example, is a belt of debris called the Asteroid Belt. Could this belt be a failed rocky planet? Who knows? All I know is that whenever a giant asteroid threatens to destroy all life on Earth, it usually hails from this convention of rocky material.

Beyond the Asteroid Belt are four large gaseous planets. They must be having fun out there because they are fat, happy and having ball. (Pun intended, thank you.) Go past the gigantic party animals and you find a belt of small icy stuff called the Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt consists of billions of floating pieces of prehistoric ice and rock. When I say prehistoric, I don’t mean like during the rein of the dinosaurs, I mean pristine examples of objects that exist in a form almost unchanged since the formation of the Solar System. The Kuiper Belt is said to be responsible for most short period comets, as well. One of those objects is Pluto. In fact, if Pluto were to drift close to the sun it would eject a tail just like a comet and currently solar wind is blowing off a small amount of matter from Pluto every day.

The Kuiper Belt officially extends from past Neptune to 50 AU (Astronomical Units or the distance from the Earth to the Sun.) That’s far and it’s a lot of stuff. When Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 it was a happy accident. While looking for erroneous perturbations in the orbit of Neptune, astronomers searched for a planet that might be “tugging” gravitationally on Neptune. Tombaugh happened to find Pluto but it was later shown that the calculation of Neptune’s mass was in error and there was no such influence.

Side Note: This is the same way Neptune was theorized to exist. The tugging of its gravity on Uranus caused observational discrepancies with the proposed motion. This computation was correct and thus Neptune was found in 1846. Interestingly, Galileo’s drawings of his observations of Jupiter show that he first observed Neptune in the early 1600s, but because the planet was in retrograde (when the Earth overtakes another planet’s orbit as observed from Earth that planet seems to reverse its orbit) he did not notice its motion. Thus he was first to see Neptune but because he did not know he was looking at a planet (he thought it was a star) he was not credited as the first to discover it. This says much for Galileo’s observing and calculating skills. How many of us can go out with a very crude telescope and start observing Jupiter, its moons, and accidentally discover a planet, although light pollution was not a factor back then and he didn’t have The Sopranos to watch on Sunday nights.

It was a coincidence that Pluto just happened to be where Tombaugh thought he should look. After a long process figuring out what to call the new planet, Pluto was finally named for the mythological guardian of Hades. The astronomers thought that Pluto’s minor controversy was over with but the debate on Pluto would show up again seventy-five years later when Brown discovered 2003 UB313 or Xena.

Another Side Note: Which came first, Mickey Mouse’s dog or the ninth planet? In 1930 the planet Pluto was discovered and named and in the same year Disney introduced a new character. The cartoon pet of various characters who eventually became exclusively Mikey Mouses pal was named for the newly discovered planet and, in a roundabout way, for the Roman god of the underworld.

The problem is that Xena is a little larger than Pluto. So what is an astronomer or textbook writer to do? Is Xena the tenth planet? Even though it sounds like an easy question, it is not. Xena was not the first Kuiper Belt Object discovered. Hundreds have been spotted that seem to resemble planets, like Pluto.

The debate goes like this: Is Pluto a planet or just a Kuiper Belt Object we discovered early in the twentieth century before we really knew there was a Kuiper Belt? And what is the official definition of a planet anyway?

Well, that is what this conference is supposed to resolve. Certain characteristics have been bandied about for years such as: A planet must be a certain size (bigger than Pluto) or shape (round). But with those criteria, more objects discovered in recent years can be considered planets too. We run the risk of being overwhelmed with planets or having Pluto face the knife.

In my opinion (not that anyone at the International Astronomical Union will ask) is that, no matter what we decide going forward when we define what is or is not a planet, Pluto should be “grandfathered” into the clause. For one thing, thousands of school children have learned that Pluto is a planet and that our Solar System has nine of them. There is no harm in continuing that into the future.

Pluto was discovered during a golden age of astronomy when we were pushing the limits of what was defined as the universe at large. Einstein reformulated the physical world and Hubble was observing that what you saw out there was not as it seemed, but expanding at an astounding rate. Since 1930 we have discovered many other objects in the sky but none have (until Xena) threatened to unbalance the model of the solar system we all know and love. In fact, everything else has added to the wonder that is our little neighborhood within the Milky Way.

No matter what the outcome, Pluto needs to be preserved. Many of us grew up to become well-adjusted citizens without once worrying whether there are eight, nine or ten planets or if Pluto is officially a planet or a Kuiper Belt Object. It doesn’t make sense to proliferate the planetary model with hundreds of minor planetoids just to keep the logic of Pluto-as-planet in tact. For posterity’s sake, we should just say that Pluto is a planet in the traditional sense; one of nine objects that circle the sun. The nuances can be sorted out in advanced Astronomy classes in college with people who really care, or therapy if it comes to that.

Besides that, if we get rid of the planet Pluto, is Mickey Mouse’s dog the next to go?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Shameless Plug

My podiobook Erosion is a featured book on Podiobooks's blog and podcast. Check it out!