UPDATED* – NPR, C/Net – A Mars example of small news handled right and light; and one on fission space power that’s not so hot

The last few days have seen two contrasting jobs of handling smallish space news. The topics are very different. One carries a teasing hint that big news is coming. The other is a bait-and-switch job that ought to have gotten more careful thought before pushing the 'publish' button.

   First off, from an old hand in writing and broadcasting science…

   This is handled rather well. It is not breathless, even though he gets a quote that makes the story. He was hanging in the office of a perhaps unguarded chief scientist for the Curiosity Rover, the plutonium-powered exo-SUV that has been trundling its package of cameras, sensors, and analysis labs across the Martian dirt for nearly four months. His source was poring over the data marching across his screen. The quote: "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good." Well you know what's wrong with that quote, in my nitpicking mind, is that he should have said "these data" even though that usage battle has been lost. But other than that remark the guy clammed up.

   Some reporters might go all Daily Mail on us at that point, proclaiming that NASA is sitting on epochal news. But Palca manages to both tease, and keep expectations from overwhelming that fact that, publicly, NASA has not said a thing yet. If the history book is a ten-volume tome on everything Mars then it might be a minor trace organic molecule with teeny errors bars that has been detected. But if it's the ten-page summary to be sold some day at the Nat'l Air and Space Museum, maybe it's something really lively, like a bit of what could only be the hormone of an alien microbe or maybe, uh, DNA that really does have arsenic incorporated in it. Palca even gets some historic context to explain why, huge news or not, researchers often sit on their good stuff until it's properly digested and reviewed – and talks with a man slightly burned by hasty (in retrospect) publication 15 years ago of signs of organic material and even fossils in a Martian meteorite.

  I can see how Palca could get no further detail on the suggestions from raw data. But did Joe ask, "OK, no details, but when you say historic, what exactly do you mean? Stockholm? A poster in the back room at next year's AGU meeting. What??" One hopes it is huge news. This rover, the best rover yet on Mars, has not gotten nearly the attention the littler Spirit and Curiosity got in their early going, nor what tiny Sojourner got when in 1997 it crawled about in an area about the size of football field.

   His coy story got some followup in other outlets that is not all as witty, nor as cautious, as NPR:

  • Guardian (UK) Stuart Clark: Whatever the Curiosity rover has found, it's not evidence of life on Mars ; This is not a bad job, and seeks to damp down wild-eyed reporting at some other outlets, to wit (next bullet)
  • Daily Express (UK) Charlotte Meredith: Life on Mars? NASA's Curiosity Rover Discovers 'One For The History Books' ; In which the lede is "NASA are set to reveal what could by the most significant scientific discovery in modern times…" and oh my what an imagination this reporter has. Does she even believe that it could be such?
  • Wired – Adam Mann: Curiosity Rover's Secret Historic Breakthrough? Speculation Centers on Organic Molecules ; Mann reports that NASA will have more to say next week during the AGU meeting in SF. And I'll miss it! Have to be outta town, one of the only times in 30+ years I'll not be at this news-fest for hungry science reporters.
  • Space.com – Mike Wall: Mars Mystery: Has Curiosity Rover Made Big Discovery? He closes with a strong note: a source tells us that announcing that one has a secret but won't tell for a while, the caution can backfire: "…people start thinking all kinds of crazy things."
  • CNN – Elizabeth Landau: Will NASA release Earth-..er, Mars-shaking news? ; The lede: "A big "OMG" moment for space enthusiasts may be coming!" Or not. And anyway, it will in fact shake the Earth more than Mars, a place where nobody and nothing will care.
  • Space.com – Leonard David: Scientists Speculate on Top-Secret Mars Rover Discovery: Another one that says AGU is the place to be – or to which to log on to the press room if and when further detail on this emerges in SF. The story also has one of the top guys in Mars science assuring us that "This is going to be a disappointment."

*UPDATES (Nov 28)

Second Off:

or, while we're on solar system news…

  • C/Net – Tom Hornyak: DOE, NASA testing fission reactor for spaceflight ; The lede asks "Why don't we have warp drive yet?" and, a few sentences later says a Los Alamos Nat'l Lab team has demonstrated "a nuclear reactor that could power spaceflight. It's nowhere near as powerful as NASA's conceptual antimatter engine…" etc etc. But relax. It's not what you think.

 Many years ago (starting in the late 50s) the US government seriously studied and then test-fired nuclear rocket engines. Nothing flew; they were bolted to the ground and most of them fired their exhaust straight up. But they promised a power and endurance far beyond mere chemical rockets. The propellant – hydrogen was the first choice – passed through the core of a full-on reactor, picking up scads of heat from the chain-reacting U or Pu and squirting out the back with phenomenal velocity. Here's a decent write-up.

   Hornyak's story eventually gets around to explaining that the reactor the feds are now testing is not a rocket. It is a small electric generator. Such a thing could, one supposes, provide lots of juice for an ion rocket but it's not the same as an atomic rocket that could take humongous things to Jupiter in almost no time. And it's certainly not the old Project Orion with its strange notion to toss thermonuclear explosives out the aft end of a giant spaceship with a pusher plate to turn their blasts into a jerky but rapid ride into the beyond. Orion's fusion power dwarfed that of the equally stillborn fission rockets. Books have been written about it including a fine one by George Dyson.

  The C/Net piece does not even mention the rich history of proposed, real nuclear powered-spaceships. It just evokes some science fiction rockets and then reveals to those who read carefully that he's talking about far-less exotic hardware. The topic is more mundane – little more than a big uranium-stuffed battery that comes with a long manual on radiation safety. The story also fails to say (except via a linked and very interesting video handout from LANL) that NASA is thinking of making the fissioning nuclear mini-reactor for space electricity mainly because supplies of plutonium-238, which standard radiothermal thermal generators use for power in outer solar system missions , may soon run short.

–  Charlie Petit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *