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10/13/2004

Beginnings

Last Saturday my wife and I drove to Connecticut to attend a
“baby-naming” ceremony for our 3-month old great grand niece
in the local conservative synagogue. The baby’s mother, our
grand niece, converted from Catholicism to Judaism when she
married. The baby-naming ceremony was part of the usual
Saturday services, which lasted a total of 3 hours and was largely
in Hebrew. We were only present for about half the service and
were amazed that the baby, who is absolutely adorable, behaved
beautifully and did not utter even a whimper throughout the
service.

The baby’s father was helpful during the ceremony, pointing out
the English text on the pages adjacent to the Hebrew text. Part of
the service consisted of reading portions of the book of Genesis
in the Old Testament. I may be wrong but I gather that during
the year, they complete the reading of the Old Testament and,
this being the start of the Jewish New Year, it was time to go
back to the beginning. The rabbi appropriately connected
Genesis with the new life being celebrated in the baby-naming
ceremony. He also talked about reconciling the Biblical account
with today’s scientific knowledge about the genesis of the
universe and of our solar system. (Later, he proved the existence
of God based on the clinching of their divisional title by the Los
Angeles Dodgers. But that’s another story.)

Last month, Genesis was in the news only this time it was
NASA’s Genesis spacecraft and it wasn’t pretty. Genesis was
launched in August 2001 to capture particles of the solar wind
emanating from the Sun. The mission was to bring those
particles back to Earth for analysis of the composition of the
solar wind and hence the Sun. From the results of the analyses,
valuable information would be gathered related to the origin and
evolution of our solar system. Genesis captured these particles
on tiles made from materials such as gold, aluminum, diamond,
sapphire and silicon.

While the Sun is predominantly composed of hydrogen and
helium, it also contains small amounts of other elements, over 60
of them, formed either in the Sun or manufactured in supernovae
that blew up and scattered these elements into space, some
finding their way into the cloud of gas and dust that formed our
solar system. By capturing these elements from the solar wind, it
should be possible to get a clearer picture of our origins.

After three years out in deep space collecting particles, Genesis
returned to Earth on September 8. A capsule was to be released
containing the tiles with the particles attached and a parachute
was to be deployed, allowing retrieval of the capsule in midair
and a gentle return to earth. Instead, you may have seen the film
showing the capsule tumbling and wobbling, no parachute,
crashing into the ground in Utah at around a hundred miles an
hour. For some reason, the explosive charges that were to deploy
the parachute failed to detonate. It seemed as though the mission
was a total disaster.

Surprisingly, a visit to the NASA Web site reveals that scientists
are very optimistic and that prospects for a successful outcome
are “very, very good.” The capsule was recovered and was badly
damaged. However, the number one priority of the mission was
to measure the amounts of different isotopes of oxygen and
nitrogen and the “concentrator” segments that captured these
elements have been recovered. The number two priority was to
look at the particles collected by a gold foil collector and it came
through the crash to Earth undamaged and in excellent condition.
One way of stating the quantity of solar wind particles collected
by the gold foil is to say that there are about a million billion
atoms. This sounds like a lot but let’s not get carried away. The
total material collected by Genesis amounts to no more than the
equivalent of a few grains of sand!

Other tiles, such as the sapphire collectors, are broken but some
are almost whole. I was concerned about contamination. The
capsule and contents were taken first to a temporary clean room
facility at the U. S. Army Proving Ground in Dugway, Utah.
There, the capsule contents were pried apart and prepared for
shipment to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. You can
imagine the painstaking work that has to be done to prevent
contamination of such small samples as the work progresses.
Last week, on October 4, the first samples were delivered to
Houston for distribution to scientists for studies that will take
months and years to complete. Stay tuned.

When I was a young lad listening on the radio to Buck Rogers
and his companions flitting about in space, it was my dream to
travel to the moon. When I watched the first steps on the moon,
it was clear to me that I didn’t come close to having the “right
stuff” to become an astronaut. Then, a few years ago, a guy
named Tito paid the Russians $20 million for a ride to the space
station and I thought hey, that’s pricey but maybe I’d settle for
just a ride into space.

Last week, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne made it for the second
time in five days to an altitude that qualifies as “space”. The
team that accomplished this feat is $10 million richer for their
achievement. With a projected cost of a mere $200,000 for a
flight to the edges of space, it actually becomes affordable for a
dedicated thrill seeker, although he or she might have to
mortgage the house to pay for the flight. However, after
watching the seemingly out of control wobbly flight of the earlier
SpaceShipOne flight, I decided to be satisfied with a vicarious
flight to space via the IMAX movie, filmed by astronauts, that
I’ve seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.

NASA has had its problems with equipment malfunctions over
the years, some of them tragic, others quite costly. However, the
two Martian rovers are cases of equipment functioning well
beyond expectations. Next week, we’ll talk a bit about their
current status, about how complicated it is to look for life on
Mars and how they could be spreading life on that hostile planet.

Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

10/13/2004

Beginnings

Last Saturday my wife and I drove to Connecticut to attend a
“baby-naming” ceremony for our 3-month old great grand niece
in the local conservative synagogue. The baby’s mother, our
grand niece, converted from Catholicism to Judaism when she
married. The baby-naming ceremony was part of the usual
Saturday services, which lasted a total of 3 hours and was largely
in Hebrew. We were only present for about half the service and
were amazed that the baby, who is absolutely adorable, behaved
beautifully and did not utter even a whimper throughout the
service.

The baby’s father was helpful during the ceremony, pointing out
the English text on the pages adjacent to the Hebrew text. Part of
the service consisted of reading portions of the book of Genesis
in the Old Testament. I may be wrong but I gather that during
the year, they complete the reading of the Old Testament and,
this being the start of the Jewish New Year, it was time to go
back to the beginning. The rabbi appropriately connected
Genesis with the new life being celebrated in the baby-naming
ceremony. He also talked about reconciling the Biblical account
with today’s scientific knowledge about the genesis of the
universe and of our solar system. (Later, he proved the existence
of God based on the clinching of their divisional title by the Los
Angeles Dodgers. But that’s another story.)

Last month, Genesis was in the news only this time it was
NASA’s Genesis spacecraft and it wasn’t pretty. Genesis was
launched in August 2001 to capture particles of the solar wind
emanating from the Sun. The mission was to bring those
particles back to Earth for analysis of the composition of the
solar wind and hence the Sun. From the results of the analyses,
valuable information would be gathered related to the origin and
evolution of our solar system. Genesis captured these particles
on tiles made from materials such as gold, aluminum, diamond,
sapphire and silicon.

While the Sun is predominantly composed of hydrogen and
helium, it also contains small amounts of other elements, over 60
of them, formed either in the Sun or manufactured in supernovae
that blew up and scattered these elements into space, some
finding their way into the cloud of gas and dust that formed our
solar system. By capturing these elements from the solar wind, it
should be possible to get a clearer picture of our origins.

After three years out in deep space collecting particles, Genesis
returned to Earth on September 8. A capsule was to be released
containing the tiles with the particles attached and a parachute
was to be deployed, allowing retrieval of the capsule in midair
and a gentle return to earth. Instead, you may have seen the film
showing the capsule tumbling and wobbling, no parachute,
crashing into the ground in Utah at around a hundred miles an
hour. For some reason, the explosive charges that were to deploy
the parachute failed to detonate. It seemed as though the mission
was a total disaster.

Surprisingly, a visit to the NASA Web site reveals that scientists
are very optimistic and that prospects for a successful outcome
are “very, very good.” The capsule was recovered and was badly
damaged. However, the number one priority of the mission was
to measure the amounts of different isotopes of oxygen and
nitrogen and the “concentrator” segments that captured these
elements have been recovered. The number two priority was to
look at the particles collected by a gold foil collector and it came
through the crash to Earth undamaged and in excellent condition.
One way of stating the quantity of solar wind particles collected
by the gold foil is to say that there are about a million billion
atoms. This sounds like a lot but let’s not get carried away. The
total material collected by Genesis amounts to no more than the
equivalent of a few grains of sand!

Other tiles, such as the sapphire collectors, are broken but some
are almost whole. I was concerned about contamination. The
capsule and contents were taken first to a temporary clean room
facility at the U. S. Army Proving Ground in Dugway, Utah.
There, the capsule contents were pried apart and prepared for
shipment to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. You can
imagine the painstaking work that has to be done to prevent
contamination of such small samples as the work progresses.
Last week, on October 4, the first samples were delivered to
Houston for distribution to scientists for studies that will take
months and years to complete. Stay tuned.

When I was a young lad listening on the radio to Buck Rogers
and his companions flitting about in space, it was my dream to
travel to the moon. When I watched the first steps on the moon,
it was clear to me that I didn’t come close to having the “right
stuff” to become an astronaut. Then, a few years ago, a guy
named Tito paid the Russians $20 million for a ride to the space
station and I thought hey, that’s pricey but maybe I’d settle for
just a ride into space.

Last week, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne made it for the second
time in five days to an altitude that qualifies as “space”. The
team that accomplished this feat is $10 million richer for their
achievement. With a projected cost of a mere $200,000 for a
flight to the edges of space, it actually becomes affordable for a
dedicated thrill seeker, although he or she might have to
mortgage the house to pay for the flight. However, after
watching the seemingly out of control wobbly flight of the earlier
SpaceShipOne flight, I decided to be satisfied with a vicarious
flight to space via the IMAX movie, filmed by astronauts, that
I’ve seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.

NASA has had its problems with equipment malfunctions over
the years, some of them tragic, others quite costly. However, the
two Martian rovers are cases of equipment functioning well
beyond expectations. Next week, we’ll talk a bit about their
current status, about how complicated it is to look for life on
Mars and how they could be spreading life on that hostile planet.

Allen F. Bortrum