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The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished. Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's Rockets in Space, Nature, March 14, 193


We can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos

IN 1997, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. No one knows why this should be: until that point, everyone assumed the universe's expansion would be slowing down after the big bang. The best explanation we have – that some mysterious thing called “dark energy” is causing the accelerated expansion – is no explanation at all because we have no idea what this dark energy actually is.

We can say the same about “dark matter”. If you take our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin. The best response from physicists is to suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see, and that the gravity of this stuff is holding everything together. Just as they called the mysterious accelerating stuff dark energy, they call this mysterious gravitating stuff dark matter. We’ve been searching for dark matter for decades now, but we still have no idea what it might be.

That may be because dark energy and dark matter, which together seem to make up 96 per cent of the universe’s contents, might be a cosmic mirage. We may find out that the dark energy vanishes in a puff of logic when we rid our mathematics of certain assumptions – such as the assumption that the universe is the same in every direction. Dark matter might be a result of us not quite understanding how gravity works. The issue is still wide open.

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Location:Denver, CO

#1 - Posted: 11/08/2008 01:51

Original thinking here, I like.   So far, all we know about physics is from scientific experiments conducted within the gravity well of Sol.   Also, it may well be that Sol's heliosphere is shielding us from forces/energies that we haven't even dreamed of.   Spending our limited, and diminishing, research budgets on baby steps like a moon base or looking for microbes on Mars are the types of "WOW" missions thought up by laymen, which are actually not very technologically challenging, thus will have few spinoff benefits and will eventually lead to calls of "folly".   We now have a space station, so what?   A moon base, so what?

We are a stubborn species.  Once we believe something is possible and worth doing, it gets done.   Unmanned missions which were designed to conduct experiments, position telescopes covering the spectrum, and return data from far outside our heliosphere would provide a host of problems to solve, true challenges, the solutions to which could possibly provide new technologies which would revitalize the world economy.  There would almost certainly be payoffs just from the "doing" of it, even if we learned nothing new scientifically once the instruments were in place out there.

However, just possibly, we might find that we've been looking at the universe with blinders on.

As a plus, we'd have developed the ability to place instruments far enough away to actually use the gravitational lensing of Sol as (possibly)  the largest telescope ever conceived.   Possibly, I say.   My point is that we need actual challenges if our space program is to eventually pay for itself.   We went to the moon forty years ago, and NASA wants to use a lot of "proven Apollo technology" to do it again.   Boring...a money pit...been-there-done-that...


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Location:South East, USA

#2 - Posted: 12/08/2008 00:32


      The only "so what" I can give you is that the general populace is too easily amused, distracted, herded, and whatever else you want to add, to push government agencies to do something with the budget they squeeze out of us besides wasting it on already-done projects. They rewrap old gifts in new boxes and tell us they are something different from those of the past. It keeps them in the money and in control, and us behind the 8-ball. I am all for moving forward. Good post.

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