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Alex "Sandy" AntunesRSS Feed of this column.

Read more about the strange modern world of a day laborer in astronomy, plus extra space science-y goodness.... Read More »

I'm sitting at "Beyond the Decade: The Future of International Astronomy", a conference today at the National Academies.  The conference is small (53 people so far) but rich in material, providing a crunchy look at where astronomy is heading.
Just why do we have a space station, anyway? That's a question of relevance, because it turns out we might not have one after 2015. The International Space Science Station (ISS) is a football-field sized structure able to support six people 220 miles above us. It is a symbol of international cooperation, a marvel of technology, a new site for tourism and, to some, a project to be terminated in 2015.

What we've gotten from it? Some intangibles, some useful stuff.

  • advancing our space capability

  • increasing our limits on how long people can live in orbit

  • keeping nuclear scientists from going rogue after the breakup of the Soviet Union

  • research that benefits Earth

Ever play games in school?  Ever have the teacher suggest you play games?  Heck, ever had your entire middle and high school curricula be designed around games?   In a news piece titled "New York Launches Public School Curriculum on Playing Games", reporter Jeremy Hsu writes:
Here's an experiment.  Prepare for 3 days of hiking.  Pack light-- sleeping bag, tarp, knife, matches.  Bring protein bars and rice for food.  And then pick up 3 gallons (11 liters) of water and start walking.  What's the heaviest part of your gear?  Of course it's the water.

If we're going to get anywhere in this solar system, we need to go where there is water.  Everything else can be dehydrated, miniaturized, made more portable.  You can even make oxygen from water, just by adding some electricity (such as from solar power).  But water-- which also makes up most of our body-- is the one item we so desperately need, but can't mimic.
I'm torn.  There's two ways I would make a new smash video game, "Astronomy Hero".

In the first, you are doing night observing runs, trying to accumulate enough light from each target while evading clouds.  Different targets appear at different times of night, and you have to balance whether to finish a given target (accumulate enough photons) or switch to something that just appeared in hopes that you can do better there.  Targets of different brightness or dimness require different 'stare' times that you're focusing on them, so you're constantly trying to maximize total on-target time while making sure the more valuable targets get done.

For most of its life, Olin College of Engineering in scenic Needham, Massachusettes was free.  All students received a 100% scholarship.  In a sad reflection of the times, though, this has now changed.  Writes their Dean:

There has been an important change in our scholarship policy. Olin was founded on the premise that financial considerations should not stand in the way of an excellent engineering education. That has not changed. Olin is committed to providing a merit scholarship to every student we accept. However, due to the ongoing economic downturn, Olin must reduce its full-tuition scholarship by 50 percent beginning in the 2010-11 academic year.