Blast it Wedge, We’re Not Getting a Death Star

Well, it’s official. The Obama Administration has said no to a petition asking the US government to build a Death Star. On the “We the People” petition site, if a petition gets 25,000 people to sign, the Obama administration has promised to reply. There have been some really crazy petitions put forth – one person wanted to be named emperor, another wanted a statue built – but there have been some creative and meaningful petitions as well. Then there’s the petition to “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.” Creative… yes. Meaningful? Probably not, but it certainly got a lot of attention.

And Paul Shawcross, the Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who replied to this petition, did right by Star Wars and sci-fi fans, and in an imaginative and inspiring way.

Titled “This isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For,” Shawcross’s response said the real reasons we won’t get a Death Star is because:
1. The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
2. The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
3. Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

He outlined how we already have a space station, a laser-wielding robot on Mars, and are discovering hundreds of new planets orbiting other stars.

“We are living in the future! Enjoy it,” Shawcross wrote. “Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field…. If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

There’s still time to sign the petition for looking into building a working version of the Starship Enterprise; right not that petition has just over 6,000 signatures.

Late addition:

Via StarWars.com comes the news that evil Empire has posted a response to the White House’s decision not to build a Death Star:

IMPERIAL CENTER, CORUSCANT – The overwhelming military superiority of the Galactic Empire has been confirmed once again by the recent announcement by the President of the United States that his nation would not attempt to build a Death Star, despite the bellicose demands of the people of his tiny, aggressive planet. “It is doubtless that such a technological terror in the hands of so primitive a world would be used to upset the peace and sanctity of the citizens of the Galactic Empire,” said Governor Wilhuff Tarkin of the Outer Rim Territories. “Such destructive power can only be wielded to protect and defend by so enlightened a leader as Emperor Palpatine.”
Representatives on behalf of the nation-state leader from the unimaginatively named planet refused to acknowledge the obvious cowardice of their choice, preferring instead to attribute the decision to fiscal responsibility. “The costs of construction they cited were ridiculously overestimated, though I suppose we must keep in mind that this miniscule planet does not have our massive means of production,” added Admiral Conan Motti of the Imperial Starfleet.

Emissaries of the Emperor also caution any seditious elements within the Galactic Senate not to believe Earth’s exaggerated claims of there being a weakness in the Death Star design. “Any attacks made upon such a station – should one ever be built – would be a useless gesture,” added Motti.

This article was updated on January 15, 2013.

SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On

 

In 1985, famed astronomer, author and TV host Carl Sagan invited Jill Tarter to dinner at his house near Cornell University. Tarter, heavily involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, gladly accepted the chance to speak with Sagan, a member of SETI’s board of trustees.

Seated with Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, Tarter learned that Sagan had a fiction book on the go.

“Annie said, ‘You may recognize someone in the book, but I think you’ll like her,'” Tarter recalled in an interview with Universe Today.

Suspecting the character was based on herself, Tarter’s response to Druyan was: “‘Just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cones so much.’ It was something I was teased about.”

Female, in a male-dominated field

It was 15 years ago this month that the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s book of the same title, expanded to a run in international theatres after a successful summer in North America. The movie explores the implication of aliens making contact with Earth, but does it from more of a scientific perspective than most films.

While Contact, the movie did not talk about the pi sequences or advanced mathematical discussions in Contact, the book, it did bring concepts such as prime numbers, interference with radio telescopes, and the religion vs. science debate to theatres in 1997.

Tarter, who has just retired as the long-time director of the SETI Institute, said she was stunned by the parallels between her own life and that of Ellie Arroway, the character based on her in Contact. Both lost parents at an early age. Both also had to make their way in a field aggressively dominated by males.

Tarter recalls a meeting with fellow female scientists of her generation some years ago.

“A huge percentage of us had been, in high school, either cheerleaders or drum majorettes. This is so counterintuitive, right? Because we’re the nerds, we’re the brainy ones … (it was because) we were all competitors, and there weren’t any (female) sports to compete at. These sports were open, and we competed, and we generally won.”

Working on set

Tarter cautions the parallels did not totally match. The hopes and aspirations of Ellie in the book, and also the movie, were products of Sagan’s imagination. But the producers and actors of the film did want to get a close sense of what it was like to work with SETI.

After Jodie Foster was cast as Ellie, there were multiple phone calls between the actress and Tarter to discuss SETI.

“From her point of view, she was clear she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy. She was interested, in a personal way, about what the scientists were like,” Tarter said.

When the crew was filming at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Tarter flew there to observe the work, meet with Foster and also show the actress around. Tarter recalls bringing Foster up in a cabin that had a perfect view of the telescope, some 500 feet above the dish.

Microphones and walkie-talkies

Filming was an interesting process for Tarter, as well. There were the microphones, and the tools the crew used to check continuity. Most amusingly for Tarter, she observed Foster (reported height 5 feet, 2 inches) needing to stand on a box for most of the close-up shots with actor Matthew McConaughey (reported as 6 feet tall).

Two errors still irk Tarter today. There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said.

The other large mistake is a scene where Ellie gets a potential signal from space, while working at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array set of radio telescopes in New Mexico.

“She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

But overall, Tarter said the movie did a great job at portraying the feel of SETI. And Foster appreciated Tarter’s help. “She would write me handwritten thank-you notes, which was a kind of manner that most people have lost. A great courtesy.”

Hollywood outreach

Tarter walked the red carpet at the movie premiere and spent most of her time watching the film in tears of happiness. That euphoria evaporated when she saw the SETI Institute was not credited at the end of the film. When she talked to one of the film producers, she said she was informed that lawyers usually draft agreements specifying the length of time the credit appears, and the compensation received for doing so.

“We don’t have a lawyer at the SETI Institute,” she said. “When I write a paper, I acknowledge my collaborators. We got that wrong, so we never got any credit. We might have gotten even more recognition.”

But the professional connection with Foster still remains. Foster happily responded to a request from Tarter to do voice-overs for a video clip used for a SETI high school curriculum for integrated science. She also narrated a show, Life: A Cosmic Story, for the California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium.

Tarter is now shifting into full-time outreach for SETI, saying the budgetary problems that shut down the organization’s Allen Telescope Array for several months last year were a warning call.

One of the organization’s newest initiatives is SETILive.org, which crowdsources analysis of signals from the Kepler Field. SETI solicits the public to take some time looking at the signal patterns, one at a time, in search of extraterrestrial communications.

“SETI is too important to allow it to fail,” Tarter said, adding her focus is finding substantial, stable funding from “that individual or institution that is capable of taking a long view.”

Captain Kirk’s Future Small-Town Beginnings

Captain Kirk's birthplace

In Riverside, Iowa — population less than 1,000 in the last census — getting your hands on future space history requires an adventurous spirit.

Visitors to the town must keep their eyes peeled on the main road for a subtle banner pointing in between two buildings. Wedged in the backyard is a special stone marking what townspeople say is the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.

Commemorating the famed Star Trek captain’s beginnings dates back to 1985, when the town was looking for a theme for its annual festival. Now dubbed Trekfest, the festival draws legions of Trekkies to the small town every year during the last weekend of June. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once wrote a book saying Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa, and the Riverside City Council unanimously passed a motion proclaiming itself to be the future birthplace of Kirk.

The marker for Kirk’s birthplace, according to Trekfest, had the blessing of Roddenberry, and William Shatner himself visited Riverside in 2004.

Past performers at Trekfest include Five Year Mission, a band that aims to write one song based on each of the original Star Trek episodes. (Two albums are finished so far). The town is also home to “The Voyage Home” gift shop and a moveable mini starship, which was on tour during Universe Today‘s visit last week.

Lead image by Elizabeth Howell.

Elizabeth Howell (M.Sc. Space Studies ’12) is a contributing editor for SpaceRef and award-winning space freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in publications such as SPACE.com, Air & Space Smithsonian, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.,  CTV and the Ottawa Business Journal.

Report: UFO Sightings Coincide with Popular Sci-Fi Films, TV

The British Ministry of Defense released 4,000 pages of documents detailing hundreds of UFO sightings between 1981 and 1996. A summary of the documents by UFO expert David Clarke comes as no surprise to scientists and skeptics: many of the sightings coincide with the release of popular sci-fi movies or television shows.

609 UFO sightings in 1996, compared with 117 in 1995 correspond with the rise in popularity of the “X Files” television show and the release of the alien blockbuster film “Independence Day.” “Obviously, films and TV programs raise public awareness of UFOs and it’s fascinating to see how that appears to lead more people to report what they see to the authorities,” Clarke said.

The documents released include sightings reported by police officers and fighter pilots as well as young children, the Daily Mail reported Monday. 90% of the sightings could be explained by mundane objects such as bright stars and planets, meteors, artificial satellites and airship advertising.

The other 10% were listed as “unexplained,” mainly because of insufficient information.

For an excellent overview of what really happened in one of the most famous UFO stories of all, the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico alien spaceship crash, listen to Brian Dunning’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on the subject.

Source: Reuters, UPI