Thursday, October 30, 2014

Comet Gazing, Up Close

When I was a little boy, I marveled at the hazy photos of Mars taken from the new 200-inch Hale telescope at Mount Palomar in California, an observatory that retained its pre-eminence until well into my adulthood.  (Construction of larger telescopes waited until a rash of them were built in the 1990s and 2000s, other than a Soviet model built in 1976, at 236 inches, which was unavailable to the West during the Cold War.) 

Mars, state of the art, 1952 (Fröschlin)
Astronomical observations have been supplemented by spacecraft in the interim, from satellites such as Hubble to space probes such as Voyager and rovers such as Opportunity and Curiosity.  In my lifetime, then, the gold standard of extraterrestrial observation went from those cloudy photos of Mars, distorted by the atmospheric conditions of Earth, which led people to speculate about whether canals actually existed on the Red Planet or whether they were an illusion, to an ability to examine a pebble on the Martian surface.  A giant leap indeed. 

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, upon approach by Rosetta

The same can now be said of exploration of comets.  Space probes have recently allowed us to see a few comets for the first time, looking upon surfaces that have been masked by distance and glowing comas, but the most fascinating photos have just arrived.

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched on 2 March 2004 by the European Space Agency, with the mission to track, acquire and investigate the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, discovered by Soviet astronomers in 1969.  Rosetta took a meandering journey about the inner solar system, taking advantage of the gravitational sling-shot effect of pass-bys of Earth and Mars, and examined several asteroids enroute to its rendezvous with 67P/C-G on 6 August.  It has since closed to an orbit within 29 km of the comet revealing an irregular shaped body, 2.8 miles (4.5 km) at its longest.  The photos of the last several days are spell-binding, for example:


The next major accomplishment will occur on 12 November with the detachment of the Philae lander, which will attach itself to the comet some seven hours later, another historical first.

And as for other comets, on 19 October the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed close by to the surface of Mars.  University Today has an article describing the event, and avail yourself of the video that shows the rendition of the appearance of the comet from the Martian surface.  If you ever wanted to be a Martian, that would be the best occasion.  I look forward to see if the Mars Rover or the like was able to obtain photos of the spectacle.

(H/T: daily timewaster)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

White House Computer System Hacked By Russians

Last week, a confidential source within the White House disclosed to Scott Johnson of Power Line that the network within the Executive Office of the President had been down at that point “for close to a week” and that a security breach was suspected.  Staff were told to keep quiet about the situation while the correction was worked out.  At that point, “no information has been forthcoming, either to those inside the EOP or to the public.”

Johnson immediately sent an inquiry to the White House press office, including a deadline for an answer, as the office told him to do.  After the deadline passed with no response, he ascertained that the office had indeed received his request.  Several more attempts were made, also with no response, other than his request had been forwarded to the appropriate “spokespeople”. 

This falls into the realm of a Really Big Deal.  If there were no problem, one would logically expect that the press office would quickly confirm so, but instead its silence has only accentuated the problem. 

Johnson’s Power Line colleague John Hinderaker has also raised the question about why the White House press corps of Professional Journalists™ had been oddly uncurious, other than to speculate that with the upcoming elections, wherein the electoral chickens are expected to come home to roost (to quote Obama’s longtime pastor and mentor) on the ash heap of quite a few Democrat politicians, the mainstream press is circling the proverbial wagons around the Obama administration which has already been buried with an unceasing avalanche of evidence of its incompetence.  [That constitutes my entry into the Metaphor Prize of the Week Award.] 

But in an effort to forestall the greater story, the administration has released the news that an “outage” has affected “some EOP users”, so says Reuters.  Hinderaker appropriately points out that the key word is “some”, which could fall somewhere between the National Security Staff and the Office of the First Lady.  Are there a few targets, or many?

A follow-on release allowed that “there were no indications at this time that classified networks had been affected.”  Note that “at this time” can fall into the same category of dissembling as “some”.

Then, a second source steps up – the Washington Post – and discloses that the outage was in fact caused by hackers, “thought to be working for the Russian government”.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the story tosses in this tidbit halfway through the article:
US officials were alerted to the breach by an ally, sources said.
So, it’s not bad enough that the White House security system is breached – we also weren’t capable of detecting it on our own.  What has historically been the most vaunted electronic intelligence gathering system in the world had to be told by some other country’s intelligence service.  I expect that some will be relieved that at least we weren’t tapping someone’s phone.

If we are to learn anything of substance about this story, it will have to wait until well after the election, or even after Obama finally leaves office.  But there is enough confirmation that the Russian government (not just Russians, but the government) has successfully tapped into the computer system of the White House.  We just don’t know quite yet what that degree of success constitutes.

“Reset.”  Indeed.
Update:  I notice that now John Hinderaker has also picked up on the "alerted by an ally" angle.