America’s Place in Space Research:

Is It Maintainable?

Astronomy is a science that has been changing for thousands of years. Our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago believed we lived in a large bird cage and the gods put a cover over the Earth at night. They thought the stars they saw were the holes in the fabric of the cover. Late in the third century B.C., Aristotle and the Christians put forth the theory that the heavenly bodies rotated around the Earth. Around the beginning of the fifteenth century A.D., Copernicus believed the Earth revolved around the Sun. In this century, scientists have developed theories explaining the creation of the stars and other heavenly bodies. The technology required to continue these studies in the future needs to be developed today, but is America ready to face the challenge?

The old theory on star formation, which has been taught for decades, has lately been found to be flawed. The theory stated that gas atoms in space bump into each other and begin to clump together and rotate, causing a gravitational pull. Gravity pulls more matter into the clump, causing the rotation speed to increase, which increases the gravitational pull. After the mass attains a certain critical mass, the star collapses under its own weight. This collapse causes the pressure to increase, which raises the temperature to a point high enough to start a thermonuclear chain reaction. This chain reaction causes the star to emit energy, from the atoms, in the form of the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum contains the waves from gamma and X-rays, visible light rays, and radio and television rays.

In the feature article for the February, 1996, issue of Discover magazine, "In the Nursery Stars," by Adam Frank, the latest correction to the old theory is explained. Scientists have noticed, by using the Hubble Space Telescope, the emission of streams and clouds of gas from stars forming in stellar dust clouds. The old theory could not explain these emissions; therefore, the theory had to be changed. The new theory still maintains that the gas atoms clump together and spin to cause gravity, but as the speed increases, the star deforms into a disc just as pizza dough does when it is thrown. The speed will increase until the centrifugal force negates the gravitational pull. At this point, the star cannot attract more matter until it sheds some of its mass, which will decrease its speed and allow it to gain more mass.

The problem was, the mass should be shed in all directions perpendicular to the axis of rotation, not along the axis as was observed. This effect seemed as absurd as "a spinning ice skater letting go of his partner and having her shoot straight up in the air." A new understanding was needed to explain this phenomenon. The explanation was supplied by Arieh Konigl. Mr. Konigl is an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. His theory states that the lines of the magnetic field in the forming star run parallel to each other, as well as to the axis of the disc. As the disc rotates, the magnetic field is twisted with the disc into a helical shape, which continues to tighten. Some of the atoms lose electrons as they become heated, causing them to become positively charged ions. The ions are able to follow the magnetic field away from the disc, allowing the disc to take on enough mass to start the thermonuclear reaction to finish creating the star.

Advances such as this are interesting to read about, especially with projects such as the space station being developed at this time. Research in space helps scientists to understand the structure of not only the universe, but also the structure of the atoms in a glass of water or the cells of the human body. Experiments which cannot be conducted on the surface of our planet can easily be done in the weightless environment of space. The problem is, our space program continues to create billions of dollars worth of scrap by rushing through projects. This is what led to the Challenger explosion. NASA was pressured to launch the shuttle, even though they knew there were problems with the o-rings in the booster rockets. The result was the loss of seven lives and billions of dollars worth of equipment. We also spent billions of dollars to put the nearsighted Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. The telescope was almost worthless until the lens was replaced on a later shuttle flight. The Mars Observer was another billion dollar project which malfunctioned and became a complete loss. Shortly before the Observer was to make a crucial course correction, it ceased communicating. No one is sure of where it is now.

If the United States of America is going to stay in the forefront of scientific research in space, NASA will have to demand better quality from its suppliers and employees. The political and economic pressures will also have to be removed from the space program in order to allow them to function properly and safely. If these things are not done, our country will lose its place as a leader in space research.

Send E-Mail

Home | Site Map | Writing | Hobbies | Math and Science

Copyright © 1996 John C. Schwytzer; All Rights Reserved