Space & Planetary Science: August 2006 Archives

Diary of a planet's demise, Nature (subscription)

"I am just disgusted by the way the IAU, which is meant to represent the best in science, handled this matter," says Alan Stern ... "We do not classify objects in astronomy by what they are near," he says. "We classify them by their properties."

Editor's note: NASA Watch has learned that the words attributed to Mark Sykes in this article are not accurate and that a correction by Nature has been requested. However Nature may have misquoted him, Sykes tells NASA Watch "I think the IAU definition is fundamentally flawed. I think a better definition can be easily obtained, getting a community consensus will require a thoughtful process that is far more inclusive and open than the IAU process was."

Space Science Cut Update

The Sorry State of Science Politics in NASA, Planetary Society

"The resignation this month of three noted leaders in space science from the NASA Advisory Council is a disaster.... now the NASA Administrator says he does not want the considered advice of scientists about space science and exploration -- he wants it only about the decisions already made for the new exploration program focused entirely on the Moon and NASA's already decided architecture for it."

SMD Management Update

Reader note: "There was a listing in the Washington Post today (Section F, pg. 6) for the SES jobs of Director & Deputy Director, Planetary Science Division in SMD at NASA Hq ..."

  • New Faces at SMD?, earlier post
  • Upcoming NAS Reports

    "The following reports are tentatively scheduled for release during September. However, release dates of National Academies reports depend on successful completion of the review process and publishing schedules."

    Inside Pluto's Demotion

    Pluto vote 'hijacked' in revolt, BBC

    "On Thursday, experts approved a definition of a planet that demoted Pluto to a lesser category of object. But the lead scientist on Nasa's robotic mission to Pluto has lambasted the ruling, calling it "embarrassing". And the chair of the committee set up to oversee agreement on a definition implied that the vote had effectively been "hijacked"."

    Editor's note: The IAU claims to have 8,857 members worldwide. But when it comes to making important decisions - such as deciding what a planet is (or is not) only a very small fraction of that membership was allowed to participate. Only 428 members (less than 5% of IAU's global membership) were allowed to vote. You had to be in the meeting room in Prague yesterday in order to be eligible to vote. The remaining 95% of the IAU's membership had no say in this decision. According to individuals familiar with the vote on planet definition, the vote in Prague was more or less split on the Pluto issue. A backlash is reportedly brewing among the ISU membership. Stay tuned.

    Reader note: According to my spies in Prague, your account is incorrect. The vote on resolution 5A, which defines a planet and demotes Pluto, was about 400 to 20. The vote on resolution 6B, which would have defined Pluto-like objects to be formally called 'plutonian objects', went down by a close vote of 183 to 186.

    Planetary Silliness

  • Xena Awarded "Dwarf Planet" Status, IAU Rules; Solar System Now Has Eight "Classical" Planets
  • Honey, I Shrunk the Solar System
  • What's in a Name? Explore ALL Worlds, says The Planetary Society -- Planet or Not -- Pluto is Waiting for Us
  • JHU: Astronomers Mixed Reactions to Pluto's "Demotion"
  • IAU 2006 General Assembly: Result of the IAU Resolution votes
  • Editor's note: While it is important to have some precision when it comes to scientific terminology, there was a certain silliness to this whole process. It is almost as if the words were more important than the objects they described. Oh well.

    I can't wait for the IAU to re-look at the definition of the term "planet" when it comes to other solar systems. How will they handle the large bodies that orbit brown dwarfs? What about planet-sized bodies (already observed) that don't orbit a star? What about planets stuck orbiting inside an expanding red giant giant? What about bodies that orbit multiple stars? What about planet-sized objects which have formed in a young solar system - but are still sweeping up debris in the neighborhood?

    Reader note: Hi Keith: Several of the objects you describe have already been defined by the IAU's Working Group on Extrasolar Planets, which I chair. Please see: http://www.dtm.ciw.edu/boss/iauindex.html Our working definition of a planet was approved at the last IAU General Assembly, in Sydney in 2003. - Alan Boss

    Reader note: Dear Keith: It might be useful to remind everyone that while scientific societies are democracies (ideally, at least), science itself hews solely to the authority of Nature. - Sincerely, Bill McKinnon, Member of both the IAU (though not in Prague) and the DPS Committee

    Editor's note: It is interesting to see how astronomers considering a much more expansive collection of objects (more than a hundred) viewed the definition of what a "planet" is as opposed to the group who confined themselves to the more parochial task of describing the worlds in our single, local solar system - one where local politics must be taken into account!

    I got to thinking. If Pluto, Ceres, etc. are "dwarf planets" - this is in comparison to what? Earth? Jupiter? I haven't done the math but I would think that a comparison between Ceres and Earth would not be all that different in terms of relative size between Earth and Jupiter - both of which are "planets". Why is this size disparity OK in one direction - but not another? Looking at the extrasolar planets discovered thus far (albeit the largest are the easiest ones to find) many are much larger than Jupiter. Wouldn't that make Earth a "dwarf planet" too when compared to the range of objects that we call "planets" thus far?

    We already routinely refer to "terrestrial" planets and "gas giants".... no one has every really baselined those terms - yet I do not see IAU types getting upset when the terms are used.

    And yet this definition of "planet" vs that of "moon" is also silly when you somehow denigrate large worlds like Titan, Triton, and Ganymede etc. as being just "moons" when they are larger than a classical "planet" (Mercury) while other "moons" can be a rock just a few kilometers across. Its is time for the keepers of terminology to describe reality as it actually is - not as they would like it to be so as to make grant proposal writing easier.

    SOFIA Yanked From ARC

    Editor's note: Yesterday the PMC decided to take SOFIA away from ARC and give it to DFRC. Mary Cleave got her way once again. Mike Griffin was not at the PMC (he was at KSC).

    Union of Plutonic States Contests Earthlings' Demotion of its Status. No Retaliation Planned, But Planned Aid May Be Delayed

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - FRIGEON, August 24, 2006/Plutonic News via Deep Space Net/ -- /The High Council of the Union of Plutonic States notes with the greatest disappointment that the inhabitants of the third rock from the Sun, otherwise known as Earth, have unilaterally declared that Pluto is no longer a planet.

    21 August 2006 Email from Mike Griffin to NASA Advisory Council Members

    "More broadly, there has been a view, which in my opinion has been both too widely and too long held, that NASA is somehow responsible to a variety of external constituencies, a list of which is far too long to reproduce here, even if I could remember them all! In fact, the Agency is responsible to the President and to the Congress, in practice through our Congressional oversight committees. It operates within and subject to the dictates of Presidential policy and, most importantly, the appropriations and authorization legislation voted by Congress. We strive very, very hard to meet all of these requirements; this is not an easy task. ... There are many, many other groups who enjoy giving, or who believe themselves to be empowered to give, advice to NASA."

    Editor's note: In addition to his blatant lack of interest in science - and education, there is a troubling, dismissive - and elitist - arrogance in Griffin's words as he describes who he feels NASA is "responsible" to i.e. who tells him what to do. He clearly seems to miss the point that, as part of the federal government, NASA is responsible to 300 million citizens - not just a handful of people who work in marble office buildings in Washington D.C.

    Mike, all citizens are "empowered to give advice" as to how you are running their space agency. Its in the Constitution. Its about time you got used to this. We pay your salary. You work for us.

    NAC Resignation Update

    NASA Chief Blasts Advisors, ScienceNow

    "[Wes] Huntress says Griffin told him that his advice exceeded the council's charge. "This is a different NAC. Our advice was simply not required nor desired," Huntress told Science. The current council, he adds, "has no understanding or patience for the science community process." Kennel, who had been named chair of the NAC's science committee, was unavailable for comment, but Norine Noonan, a former NAC member and dean of math and science at South Carolina's College of Charleston, called Griffin's action "very distressing" for scientists. "If we can't have a robust debate at the NAC level," she says, "then where in the heck is it supposed to happen?"

    The Day We Lost Pluto, Sky & Telescope

    "It's beginning to look as if astronomers will arrive at one of two possible outcomes this week in their much-publicized attempt to agree on a formal definition of the word "planet." Either they will fail to reach a consensus, or they will adopt a definition that is rather different from the one proposed last week and that kicks Pluto out of the planet club."

    NAC Resignation Update

    Science: Lost in Space, Inside Higher Ed

    Two Scientists Are Forced Off NASA Panel in Disagreement Over Research Dollars, Chronicle of Higher Education

    "Mr. Acosta disagreed with that characterization and explained the resignations this way: Mr. Griffin is "looking for advice based on the priorities that NASA has and the parameters that have been set" for the agency's future. Mr. Huntress and Mr. Levy "chose to get outside of the parameters we had." Mr. Acosta added, "If you want a debate about how much money we should be getting, that's outside the control of the administrator."

    New Faces at SMD?

    Editor's note: Are big changes ahead at NASA's Science Mission Directorate? With the recent departure of Carl Pilcher and Andy Dantzler from SMD, mounting concern in Congress and the scientific community about NASA's committment to space science, and the recent resignation of Wes Huntress, Eugene Levy, and Charles Kennel from the NAC Science Subcommittee, something needs to be fixed. SMD AA Mary Cleave's retirement - perhaps as early as November 2006 - has been discussed with some people. With senior SMD personnel departing, and many others at SMD in temporary or acting positions, now would be a good time for Mike Griffin to clear the decks and bring in a new team to get the SMD back on its feet.

    Then again, with Griffin's accelerating evisceration of NASA space science projects ...

    NAC Resignation Update

    NASA advisers resign amid science debate, AP

    "Kennel resigned by choice, but Huntress and Levy were asked to leave by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin."

    Editor's note: When you don't like the advice you are getting, get rid of your advisors.

  • NAC Science Committee Continues to Shrink, earlier post
  • Editor's note: The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee has just lost three of its members. Charles Kennel (Chair), Wes Huntress, and Eugene Levy have resigned. More to follow.

    Editor's update: Word has it that the three committee members who quit were asked to quit because of their insistence that they wanted to give advice to NASA regarding its entire range of science research - not just the subset relating to moon exploration.

    Memo From NASA Advisory Council Chair Schmitt Regarding 3 NAC Resignations

    "As some of you may have heard, there have been recent changes with regards to the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. This week, the NASA Administrator accepted the resignations of three members of the Science Committee of the Council: Wes Huntress, Charlie Kennel, and Gene Levy."

    SMD Personnel Update

    Internal NASA GSFC Memo: Space Science Management Changes

    "I'm pleased to inform you that our own Jim Green, currently head of the Science Proposal Support Office (SPSO), will be detailed to NASA HQ as the Acting Director of the Planetary Science Division of SMD. ... Anne Kinney has agreed to become the acting head of SPSO in Jim's absence."

    Space Science Cut Update

    Don't Abandon Science at NASA, Planetary Society

    "In the July/August 2006 issue of The Planetary Report, Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, stresses that we need to commit to a strong science program at NASA to better know our own planet and its place in the cosmos."

    James Van Allen Has Died

    U.S. Space Pioneer, UI Professor James A. Van Allen Dies, University of Iowa

    "Dr. James A. Van Allen, U.S. space pioneer and Regent Distinguished Professor of Physics in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, died this morning, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006 at the age of 91. Arrangements are pending. Though he retired from active teaching in 1985, he continued to monitor data from Pioneer 10 throughout the spacecraft's 1972-2003 operational lifetime and serve as an interdisciplinary scientist for the Galileo spacecraft, which reached Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995."

    No more protection, editorial, Nature (subscription)

    "It is bad enough that Earth science at NASA has already fallen victim to cuts and cancellations as has, for what its worth, astrobiology. Now an important rhetorical basis for resisting more attrition has been removed, feeding fears that a real understanding of how the climate works is not high on the administration's agenda. Earth sciences are still well represented in NASA's plans, but they have been symbolically set aside to further a vision that looks only outwards, never back."

    NASA threatens to axe science on space station, Nature (subscription)

    "I can't believe that they would discuss this with a straight face," says former NASA employee Keith Cowing, who broke the story on his website, NASA Watch."

    DSN Woes

    Key antenna failure threatens Deep Space Network

    "NASA uses antennas at three sites around the world - in Spain, California and Australia to be able to point at any given direction in space at any time. This Deep Space Network (DSN) is essential for receiving data sent back by all US interplanetary craft, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Now some of that data could be lost because a 70-metre dish near Madrid will be unavailable for the rest of the year following damage to two of the four huge bearings that carry the antennas weight as it turns."


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    This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from August 2006.

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