From the April 2006 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: If you were in charge

April 2007: Sending in your coolest mega-project is the same one that makes every astro-nerd drool.
By | Published: April 1, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Bob Berman
Humans naturally wonder: What do we do next? And by “we” I don’t mean the “we” who watch TV lying down because it’s too much trouble to sit up. I mean the “we” who discovered penicillin, built the pyramids, and invented trash bag twist-ties. The brilliant “we.” The “we” who launched GPS, rather than the “we” who cranked the Titanic’s engines to full speed in seawater the temperature of a Slurpee.

Are you “we?” Absolutely. Aren’t you full of ideas how to spend astronomy dollars if Congress bewilderingly put you in charge? First, naturally, you’d appoint your friends as advisors, and then teleconference with them on a new 1080p high-definition screen installed in your office overlooking the space shuttle’s launch pad.

Sending in your coolest mega-project is probably the same one that makes every astro-nerd drool. You know you want a new super-sized space telescope, with cheese. Except, cross that off the wish-menu, it’s already a done deal. The James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2013.

This colossus, while we’re thinking grandly, ought to be joined by a new mega-giant Earth-based telescope. Give it a mirror large enough to put your house and a swimming pool on. Well, hmm, that’s pretty much in the works with the European Extremely Large Telescope in Chile.

Message to mom for your next birthday: You also want access to an observatory, live, in real time, from your home computer, where you can choose where the scope points, and the full-color images flood your screen. Bingo, done. SLOOH already offers that service. They operate an automated observatory in the Canary Islands. You can control it at your desk in your underwear. (Full disclosure: I do web casts for SLOOH, but not always in my underwear.)

From local astronomy to off-planet, then. Let’s orbit Jupiter and take high-res pictures. Oops, already did that. Okay, Saturn then. Shazaam, Cassini is there, still doing its thing. How about visiting Pluto? Already en route. Mars? No need to ask. Missions launch every 2 years.

Earth: Let’s investigate things that head our way or endanger us. We could send out a pair of spacecraft to watch the Sun in 3-D, like giant binoculars, so we can duck as we see coronal mass ejections coming straight at us like in an IMAX 3-D movie. Very cool, but already built. How about spacecraft that map the cosmic microwave background, measure star distances, see the cosmos in hidden wavelengths, visit comets? Check, check, check, and check.

Have we done it all? Can we stop spending all those taxpayer play-dollars?

Sending in your coolest mega-project is probably the same one that makes every astro-nerd drool.
A member of the “we” crowd would say, “No way!” We’ve still got to send robots to Europa to drill through that moon’s floating ice and see what may be swimming in its oceans. Europa is what we astro-geeks want more than anything else right now. Betcha we even find life there. NASA, JPL, Caltech, Carnegie, and the other space groups keep doing the things we ourselves would do. The right things. “We,” the big “WE,” we’ve got it together. We’re cool. So, now, during this month, let’s switch gears and see what happens when logic doesn’t prevail.

Happy scientists at Russia’s Pavlov Institute have been practically drooling with excitement over their outer-space animal-rights project. At a recent press conference, the researchers illustrated their progress since 1957, when their country orbited a dog. That single event sparked the pro-mammal riots in South America.

April will see a test of the new rules, when Japan launches an experimental spacecraft containing two dozen scallops and a schnauzer. The primary biology research is aimed at studying the animals’ reaction to being vaporized, a necessary first step in assessing the practicality of human landings on stars.

“Fools’ efforts to disprove the lack of false negatives have failed,” says project spokesperson Nona Neinyet, in an interview published in the research journal Rat Week. Others disagreed. In particular, Wildlife International spokesanimal Lisa LaChat urged space funding for reptiles and other under-represented species. Ms. LaChat, speaking for “the entire carbon-based community,” also demanded that Congress declare April “Virus Month.”

Day. Night. The Earth keeps turning as the controversial launch date approaches.

According to a study by the World Organization Of Furriers (WOOF), sending schnauzers into the Sun “is probably harmless.” WOOF also called the plaque attached to the new spacecraft “critically important.” But others wondered whether aliens could decipher the plaque’s message, because it requires linking the first word of each paragraph. The first word of each paragraph! On this very page! That’s the only way to learn the secret space message.