Property Rights In Space

MoonIf you picked up a hard copy of our Dec. 23 issue you might have spotted a mid-section top six called Private Space that recapped a possible conflict between a piece of legislation passed by U.S. Congress in late November and a 1967 U.N treaty.

The legislation is called The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act. As described in this Washington Post commentary, The SPACE Act is designed to “recognize and promote the rights of U.S. companies to engage in the exploration and extraction of space resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies.”

Critics of the bill were quick to refer to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which bans all claims of national appropriation in space. The treaty, which the U.S. is a signatory to, is based on the guiding principle that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all [humanity].”

That principle is very much in keeping with the core values of the U.N. which generally champions fairness and equality in a global context. It even fits nicely within the counter-culture ethos that was alive in the 1960s.

We live in a different world these days, of course. Global expressions of human well-being are decidedly out of fashion. Instead, neoliberalism is the dominant political philosophy, and we obsess over ways to monetize/commercialize practically everything.

Proponents of The SPACE Act argue that it doesn’t contravene the U.N. treaty. The validity you attach to that argument depends on your enthusiasm for semantic nitpicking. As the Washington Post author notes, the treaty refers to claims of “national appropriation”. Back in the 1960s, because of the costs and level of technology involved, space exploration was largely a state enterprise. Now, private enterprise is much more active in space, and the bill’s backers maintain that because the U.S. isn’t claiming sovereignty over any extraterrestrial body, the bill doesn’t contravene the U.N. treaty.

One analogy that’s made refers to the world’s oceans. Outside of coastal waters, no nation can claim sovereignty over them. Yet when a trawler catches fish in international waters, it has the right of ownership to its catch.

Corporations are creatures of the state, so I’m not so sure that the distinction the U.S. is drawing is necessarily legitimate. And the “ocean” analogy is a little problematic too, as it raises the spectre of the type of free-for-all that we’ve witnessed with giant dragnet trawlers depleting stocks from formerly rich fishing grounds.

This issue is still a little bit in the realm of science fiction. But private corporations such as SpaceX, Planetary Resources and Bigelow Aerospace/Boeing are investing in space research and technology, and various space missions have been undertaken to survey asteroids and comets

One corporation called Moon Express has ambitious plans to locate deposits of ice water and valuable elements such as platinum and helium-3 on the Moon. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be used to make rocket fuel. Because the Moon’s gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth’s, that would cut the cost of space launches significantly, which would heighten the economic viability of missions to Mars and the asteroid belt.

Whether that future will unfold under the parameters of The SPACE Act or The Outer Space Treaty is still to be determined.

Cassini Bids Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Goodbye

Enceladus_craters_and_complex_fractured_terrainsYesterday, the space probe Cassini, which was launched in 1997, and has been studying Saturn and its moons since it arrived at the ringed planet in 2004, conducted one last flyby of the moon Enceladus (pictured).

Previous investigation of the moon by the probe (which is a joint project of NASA and the European and Italian Space Agencies) has revealed the presence of a subsurface ocean which is sandwiched between the moon’s rocky core and ice-crusted surface. In addition, plumes of ice water have been detected shooting into space from the moon’s south pole.

The findings are of interest to scientists for more than just geological reasons. As was discussed in an article on exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life in our Dec. 10 issue, the presence of liquid water in the moon’s interior makes it one of the few candidates in the solar system outside of Earth to possibly harbour life.

As our article notes, liquid water is only one prerequisite. You also need organic compounds (carbon being the key) and an energy source.

Carbon is extremely common in our solar system/galaxy. As for an energy source, on Enceladus that would likely take the form of underground volcanic vents. On Earth, they have been found to support life at great depths on the ocean floor. With a previous flyby of Enceladus in October, Cassini sampled the plumes at the moon’s south pole. Yesterday, it passed within 5000 km of the surface to try to measure the level of heat in the moon’s interior to determine if volcanic-style vents or some other geological heat source might be present.

With the flyby complete, Cassini will now turn its attention to studying Saturn’s rings for the next 20 months. In September 2017, the probe is scheduled to enter Saturn’s atmosphere and cease functioning.

Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Robert J Sawyer, Author Of Hominids

robert-j-sawyer-author-photo-by-bernard-clark-colorThe big announcement came this weekend that over 190 nations had signed on to an agreement in Paris to move their economies in the general direction of away from fossil fuels. It’s being hailed as historic.

All nations signing on to the Paris Agreement, rich or poor, have committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the overall goal being to limit global warming to well below 2° Celsius. Included in the document is even an aspirational target of 1.5°C.

Yay, team. But there’s still no popping of corks around the Dechene household. I’ve yet to get over the betrayal of the Kyoto Accord. And while world leaders were forging this climate deal, their trade ministers and business-development minions continue to toil away at a series of trade deals like the TPP and CETA that may make any international program to curb carbon emissions completely moot

As I said in the comments to another post (on a completely different topic), pessimism is my operating system. And that’s especially true where international climate change treaties are concerned. I see no reason to update to the new optimism OS. It’s barely out of beta.

For now, I’m going to wait and see what the Koch Brothers’ countermove is.

Thing is, I really, REALLY hope the world got it right this time. The alternative — runaway global warming — is just too awful to contemplate.

But contemplate we did. For the current Prairie Dog, we contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what our planet may face if these international deals continue to fail. They had a lot of very sobering things to say on the subject. So much I couldn’t fit everything into the article. So I’m posting longer versions of those interviews here.

This is the third and final interview in the series. It’s with Hugo and Nebula award winning author Robert J Sawyer who’s 23rd novel, Quantum Night, is coming out in March. It’s set largely in Saskatoon, in and around the Canadian Light Source. 


PRAIRIE DOG: What happens to the planet and our society if these climate summits keep failing and we don’t find a way to limit global warming?

ROBERT J SAWYER: My fervent hope is, just like any group of unruly teenagers who have deadlines months in advance for school assignments, they get their homework done at the last possible moment. Of course, there are those who think we’ve passed the last possible moment to contain it to under two degrees. I am hoping that finally all of the time wasting will come to an end.

So I don’t want to be painted as the guy who says, “We’re doomed and here is what it’s like.” 

That said, if we do drop the ball across the globe and we do face two degrees or more celsius of change, it’s going to be a completely different world.

Continue reading “Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Robert J Sawyer, Author Of Hominids

The Science Awakens

If you happened to see our Star Wars themed Dec. 10 issue you might have spotted a science article on the growing number of exoplanets that have been discovered lately through the Kepler Space Telescope and other astronomical tools at our disposal.

While planets apparently abound in our galaxy, we’ve yet to find any evidence of extra-terrestrial life. That was another subject tackled in the article. Among many scientists, the expectation is that life almost certainly exists elsewhere — perhaps even in our own solar system.

If you want to learn more, read the article and/or check out this event that the Saskatchewan Science Centre is holding as part of its Adult Science Night series. It’s got an exoplanets/ET theme as well. It goes Thursday Dec. 17 at 7 p.m., and the cost is $10.

For a bit more background on the Kepler mission, here’s a short video from NASA

Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Nina Munteanu, Author Of Darwin’s Paradox

nina-nov2015To mark the end of the COP21 climate conference in Paris, I contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what might happen to the planet if we can’t reach an international deal on greenhouse gas reductions. The article that came out of those conversations is titled Apocalypse Hot and is in the Dec 10 Prairie Dog.

The writers I spoke with covered more stuff than I could cram into my meagre word allotment. So, I’m publishing longer versions of those interviews here.

This is the second interview in the series. It’s with Nina Munteanu, a limnologist, ecologist and author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction such as The Splintered Universe trilogy and The Last Summoner. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her non-fiction reflection on the meaning of water, Water Is…, is coming out soon.

We spoke for over an hour and I didn’t transcribe the entire conversation. Here are some highlights…


NINA MUNTEANU on what climate change is doing to the water: We are 70per cent water, the planet is 70 per cent water. Water is all around us and we are part of the hydrological cycle whether we think of that way or not.

Climate change is only an aspect of what’s going on with water. We’re talking about over population, the misallocation and misuse of resources including water. The way water is being used, it’s traded on the stock exchange right now. it’s commodified. I had a thing about how many Americans drink bottled water versus whatever else. It’s huge. We’ve commodified water. We grab it from one watershed — there’s the word mining water — they grab it from one water shed and then they bottle it and then they send it off to somewhere else.

Continue reading “Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Nina Munteanu, Author Of Darwin’s Paradox

Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Julie Czerneda, Author Of A Play Of Shadow

Photo by Roger Czerneda Photography
Photo by Roger Czerneda Photography

To mark the end of another global climate summit — the COP21 conference in Paris — I contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what they thought were some plausible scenarios for the planet if we fail to solve our carbon problem. The article that came out of those conversations is titled Apocalypse Hot and appears in the Dec 10 Prairie Dog.

The writers I spoke with covered a lot of ground but I only had space in the paper to use a few short quotes. So, I’m publishing longer versions of the interviews here on Dog Blog.

First up is Julie Czerneda. She is the author of the novel, This Gulf Of Time And Stars. And she is also the author of A Play Of Shadow, which won the Aurora Award for Best Novel shortly after I interviewed her. Czerneda did graduate studies in biology at the University of Saskatchewan and taught biology at the University of Waterloo. 


PRAIRIE DOG: Many climate scientists and science writers who cover global warming argue that the only way we can hope to keep to 2°C of warming — if that’s even possible any more — is through a major, coordinated international effort. And yet the summits we’ve held on global warming have either failed outright or have come to weak conclusions. Many of those same scientists and writers argue that COP21 in Paris is our last chance to get this right. From your position as a science fiction writer, what do you see happening to the planet and our society if we keep failing at these international summits?

JULIE CZERNEDA: The landscape around us will change. We will have no say in that change. We will have different living things. We will have us, I don’t want to dwell on the failure of food crops, but what we grow and what we eat will have to change. There won’t be the vast prairie landscapes, there won’t be the fruit belts and areas that grow rice. Areas will be diminished or flooded. We’ll have to make shifts to deal with food shortages and changing diets. Our kids may not be able to afford the kinds of things we do now which is having lots of cattle. A good steak may be something we can’t afford in the future.

Continue reading “Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Julie Czerneda, Author Of A Play Of Shadow

Saskatchewan Fossil Campaign

Not a fan of the information panel that's stuck in Scotty's mouth I gotta admit. It should be mounted on the crate somewhere
Not a fan of the information panel that’s stuck in Scotty’s mouth I gotta admit. It should be mounted on the crate somewhere

Above is a shot from the exhibit that’s currently on at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum to select a fossil to become an official emblem of the province.

We did a cover story on it in our Nov. 26 issue. It’s a neat idea, and given the world-wide popularity of dinosaurs, has the potential to provide a nice little cool-cachet boost for Saskatchewan.

Of the seven candidates, Scotty the T. rex is the obvious choice. At the time of its discovery in 1991, it was only the 12th T. rex to be unearthed — and it’s a superb fossil specimen too, one of the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton’s ever found.

The T. rex is an iconic dinosaur species, so it’s a NO-BRAINER not to adopt it as our official fossil. Although as we argue in the cover story, the province should really pick two official fossils — one land-based, the other marine-based. Not that we should be fossil hogs, but Kansas has two official fossils, one marine and one airborne. So why shouldn’t we have two too? And if the province wants to adopt a fossil plant, that would be fine by me as well.

You can see the skull of another candidate in the race, a short-necked Plesiosaur named after the town of Herschel near where it was found after the jump. And make sure you get out to the RSM at some point before the contest closes April 25 to see the fossils and cast your vote. Or vote on-line starting April 11. Continue reading “Saskatchewan Fossil Campaign”

Talkin’ ‘Bout Turtles

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Marchand
Photo courtesy of Kelsey Marchand

In the July 23 issue of Prairie Dog we had an article about a research project University of Regina masters science student Kelsey Marchand was conducting to study the western painted turtle population in the area of Wascana Creek and Lake.

At the time of the interview, Marchand and her assistant Alyssa Stulberg had captured and tagged around 50 turtles. Most were just marked with a number for identification, but some were outfitted with small radio transmitters to track their movements, including where they ended up seeking shelter to hibernate over the winter.

It’s a two-year project, so Marchand will be back on the lake and creek next summer. On Thursday, Nov. 12, she’ll be giving a talk on her research at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum at 7 p.m. Admission is by donation, and you can find out more on the RSM website.

The Great Pumpkin

Earth_Eastern_HemisphereWhile many people will be busy getting their costumes together to go trick-or-treating or partying tomorrow, astronomers at observatories around the world, including NASA’s Deep Space Network in Goldstone, CA, will be busy studying an asteroid called TB145 which will pass within 490,000 km of Earth on Saturday.

While hundreds of near-Earth objects have been discovered and their orbits plotted to determine if they might one day pose a threat to Earth, TB145 wasn’t detected until Oct. 10. Egg-shaped, roughly 400 km in diameter, and travelling at 35 km a second, the “Great Pumpkin” as astronomers have dubbed it, would’ve exacted an unimaginable toll on Earth had it been on a collision course.

Fortunately, while the asteroid will pass near us (slightly further than the distance of the Moon, actually) we won’t have to cope with any armageddon scenario — at least, not tomorrow. As for what the future might hold, who’s to say? Over its roughly 4.5 billion year existence, Earth has been impacted countless times by rogue asteroids and comets from space.

Many early impacts were beneficial, delivering water, minerals, and possibly even life, to the planet. But later impacts, most notably at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago which triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs, caused widespread devastation, and the consequences now would be equally dire.

Efforts are underway, such as the Spacewatch program at the University of Arizona, to search for unknown near-Earth objects and track their orbits into the future to determine if they might one day threaten Earth. If you check out this CBC report, you’ll also learn that scientists and engineers are brainstorming different strategies for one day being able to intercept and alter the path of potential planet-killers so they don’t strike Earth.

We’re still decades away from being able to do anything like that. But the more data we can collect on asteroids and comets, the better able we’ll be to develop technologies to counter the threat they pose to our survival.

Election 2015: Conservative’s Goodyear Brings Misinfo To Science Fight

A hi-tech science gizmo at the Experimental Lakes Area.
A hi-tech science gizmo at the Experimental Lakes Area.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody. Hope I’m not intruding on your happy family weekend with this blog post which, I’m sorry to say, will only provide more fuel for you inner rage monkey. But I’ve just been listening to the all-party science debate that CBC’s Quirks and Quarks put on yesterday. And I have to share.

Holy crapping Darwin finch. The Conservatives can’t even stick close to the facts in a discussion of science when they’re talking to actual scientists.

The panel Quirks host Bob McDonald put together included Lynne Quarmby for the Green Party (who is a professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University); Marc Garneau for the Liberal Party (who is a former Canadian astronaut); Megan Leslie for the NDP (who is her party’s environment critic); and, Gary Goodyear for the Conservatives (who has weird ideas about evolution and is also a chiropractor).

It’s actually pretty fascinating to hear how casually Goodyear is able to litter the debate with misinformation. It would take hours to adequately debunk every single Harper-friendly myth he perpetuates over the course of the hour. But as I’m heading out the door soon to gorge myself on turkey in a few minutes and expect to be so doped out by tryptophan later on, I only have time to take on one of Goodyear’s howlers.

Continue reading “Election 2015: Conservative’s Goodyear Brings Misinfo To Science Fight”

Ignite!

IGNITE! 2015 web banner (2) (640x184)Last year, as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations the Saskatchewan Science Centre hosted a science fair to encourage creativity and innovation in the province.

As Paul Dechene learned when speaking with SCC communications person Ryan Holota for an article in late June on the touring exhibition Arctic Voices the fair was a hit. It was so well done, in fact, that it ended up winning an award from the Canadian Association of Science Centres.

The second annual Ignite! fair opens today at the Science Centre. Oct. 7-8, the fair is limited to specially arranged school tours. The fair will be open to the general public on Oct. 9-10. As part of the proceedings, a Lantern Festival is also being planned. It’s being done with the assistance of New Dance Horizons and will happen on Oct. 10.

There’s also a gala IGNITE! fundraiser which includes dinner, entertainment, refreshments and a tour of a new science exhibit called Building Connections. It’s on Oct. 23 at 6 p.m., and tickets are $100.

You can find out more information on the SSC website.

Exciting Goings On On Mars

MarsNo details have been confirmed yet, but NASA is promising a major announcement on Monday at 9:30 a.m. Regina time about a scientific finding that has been made as part of its ongoing exploration of Mars.

Some of the more fervent speculation involves the possibility of the discovery of life, or at least the remains of life, on the Red Planet. But the more far likely scenario is that NASA will announce that it has detected the presence of water which is tied to the observation of dark tendrils on sloped surfaces on the planet during warmer parts of the Martian year.

Geological evidence shows that Mars was once much wetter and warmer than it is now. But if Mars still contains liquid water, it would enhance somewhat the prospect that the planet may harbour life of some sort (most likely microbial), plus also boost the viability of humans one day establishing a permanent base on the planet.

You can find out more information, plus also see images of the tendrils, in this Business Insider Australia report.

Exciting Goings On In The Sky

FullMoon2010
Get ready to get your lunar eclipse on on Sunday

The last one happened in 1982, and the next one won’t be until 2033. And it starts Sunday night at 6:11 p.m. Regina time, with the excitement peaking at 8:47 p.m., and things winding up at 11:22 p.m.

Assuming the sky in our area is clear, the treat that awaits involves the eclipse of a so-called supermoon. In its elliptical orbit around Earth, the moon varies in distance from 362,600 km (perigee) to 405,400 km (apogee). Tonight, the moon will be in a perigee position that will make it appear 14 per cent larger and 30 per cent brighter than normal.

Throw in the lunar eclipse, when the moon will be occulted by Earth’s shadow except for some sunlight which will filter through the atmosphere and give the eclipsed moon a blood red tinge, and it should be a pretty spectacular show.

You can read more about the supermoon eclipse here, and viewing conditions in Regina in particular here.

Weekly Reckoning: Togarishi Edition

weekly-reckoningHave you ever tried shichimi togarishi? It’s a seven-spice blend of Japanese pepper, nori, black sesame seeds and whatever else. I sprinkled a bit on some corn-on-the-cob today, and I have to say, I’ve had worse things in my life. Why don’t you sit down for a while and think about all the things you haven’t tried and may never get around to trying before your heart reaches its allotted number of beats? It can be comforting. If you’re a crazy person.

1. EUROPE YOU SO CRAZY The Communist Party is polling well in Portugal and may end up forming the next government if trends hold. It would be weird to see the European Union’s southern limbs drop off, but there you go.

2. ALL THE ARBITRARY BUT FASCINATING REASONS YOU CAN’T WEAR WHITE AFTER LABOUR DAY But the real reason is that God will come to your house and lick everything in the fridge. Anyway, enjoy!

3. GO HOME SCIENCE YOU’RE DRUNK Some super-dumb scientists produced a cockamamie study that says my cats don’t love me. Well I’ve got enough love for all of us, science.

4. HEY EVERYONE, I JUST DISCOVERED SOME TRUE SUFFERING HERE Never mind refugees, here’s the harrowing tale of a guy who lined up outside a Toys “R” Us for Star Wars toys and came away empty-handed. Well, almost empty-handed – he got some toys, but not the toys he wanted. Not the cool ones. Also, a bunch of kids didn’t get Star Wars toys because grown men lined up outside toy stores to relive their childhoods. Also, refugees.

5. THE EGG COUNCIL CONSPIRACY IS REAL! The American Egg Board launched a campaign to crush food bloggers, a celebrity chef and a Silicon Valley egg-replacement startup. Every part of the last sentence is more ridiculous than every other part.

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Archaeology Field Day

Over the last three months or so we’ve done a couple of articles where we’ve delved into the disciplines of paleontology and zoology. One was an article on dinosaurs that coincided with the release of Jurassic World in early June, while the other was tied to an exhibition on the evolutionary origins of pollination that’s still got a couple of weeks to run at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

With both articles we talked to scientists who are on staff at the RSM and its affiliate facility the T-Rex Discovery Centre in Eastend. On Tuesday, Aug. 18 some of those scientists, plus a few others in areas such as archaeology and biology, will be on hand for this family-friendly event where people can learn more about the work that gets done at the RSM.

The field day runs from 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday, and admission is by donation. You can find out more by visiting the RSM website.

New Horizons

Launched in January 2006, the NASA probe New Horizons received a gravity assist from Jupiter during a flyby in February 2007, and is now just days away from reaching Pluto after a journey of approximately five billion km.

When New Horizons set out, Pluto was still classed as the ninth planet in the solar system. It was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. But compared to the other planets, Pluto was always an odd-ball.

To begin with, it’s tiny (at 2300 km in diameter, it’s two-thirds the size of our moon). Its orbit around the Sun is also wacky. Whereas other planets orbit on a relatively flat plane called the ecliptic, Pluto’s orbit is tilted at a 17 degree angle. Its orbit is also quite eccentric, ranging between 29.6 and 48.8 AU. For part of its orbit, in fact, it’s actually closer to the Sun than Neptune.

Pluto is known to have five satellites — the largest being Charon. But because of its peculiar character, the International Astronomy Union took a second look at the planet in 2006 and decided to reclassify it as a Trans-Neptunian Kuiper Belt Object. Similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the Kuiper Belt is a vast swath of asteroids that exists between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun.

This mission is a fly-by, so New Horizons won’t be able to do an in-depth study of Pluto from orbit. Instead, on July 14 it will pass within 10,000 km of Pluto and 27,000 km of Charon before continuing on its way in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.

One thing scientists are curious about is if Pluto’s tidal interaction with Charon (which is half its size, and only 19,570 km away) generates enough heat to create a subsurface “ocean” on the ice-laden body. Such oceans are rare in the solar system, and they’re seen as sites where primitive life could possibly form.

You can find out more on the mission on the NASA website. And below is a short NASA video that recaps efforts humanity has made over the last 50 years to visit via probes other planets in our solar system.

Insects, Flowers & Food

RoyalSask (Pollination)Last winter, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum set up a temporary exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The exhibit served as a springboard for a broader examination of mass extinctions that have occurred previously in Earth’s distant past, plus also as an opportunity to reflect on the current struggles of many plant and animal species to survive in the face of humanity’s relentless manipulation and destruction of the habitat they need to thrive.

A few weeks ago, the RSM debuted another temporary exhibit focusing on pollination. An article on Insects, Flowers & Food ran in the May 28 issue of Prairie Dog. In it, we spoke with two of the show’s three curators, and talked about pollination in relation to the emergence of gymnosperms and angiosperms 450 million and 150 million years ago, and how the latter’s use of direct insect vectors to spread pollen and reproduce proved more effective than the airborne method gymnosperms had long relied on.

We also spoke about current concerns about the health of pollinator populations, and the vital role they play in the production of food both in a wilderness and agricultural setting.

The exhibit runs throughout the summer, so if you get a chance, check it out.

Trekkies

The Star Trek universe dimmed a bit in February when Leonard Nimoy who played the iconic character Spock, a hybrid human/Vulcan science officer in the original 1960s series, passed away at age 83. That was followed by the death of Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand in the original series) on May 1.

But as Jonathan Frakes’ (Commander William T Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation) recent appearance at FanExpo Regina in late April demonstrated, the dream/fantasy that the series and related movies inspired remains very much alive.

Tonight at the RPL Theatre there’s a free screening at 7 p.m. of the documentary Trekkies that examines the whole Star Trek phenomenon. It’s hosted by actor Denise Crosby who played Security Chief Tasha Yar on ST:NG. Here’s the trailer

Health Canada Ruled In Breach Of Privacy Act

MarihuanaPrivacyAbove is a photo that’s making the rounds of a Facebook page maintained by an advocacy group for Canadians who use marijuana for medical purposes. In 2013, you might recall, Health Canada was in the process of changing regulations related to how people who were licensed to use marijuana for health reasons were able to access their medication.

The biggest change was that after April 1, 2014 licensees would no longer be able to grow their own medication but instead would have to purchase it from a grower licensed by Health Canada. The changeover hasn’t gone as smoothly as patients would have liked and, in fact, licensees under the old regulations are currently in litigation to have the new provisions declared unconstitutional for unjustly infringing on their health and well-being.

While all that was going on, Health Canada sent envelopes to the approximately 40,000 licensees in mid-November 2013 reminding them of their obligation under the new regulations to dispose of all their plants and existing medication by the April 1 deadline. In contrast to the usual steps Health Canada took to protect the privacy of the licensees’ health information (primarily by using unmarked envelopes delivered by courier) Health Canada elected to use the regular postal system and envelopes that clearly identified the recipients as participants in the medical marijuana program.

Health Canada claimed later that it was an administrative oversight. But licensees were understandably upset, both at the breach of their privacy, and the potential threat the letters posed to the safety and security of them and their families by publicly outing them as possessing marijuana. They regarded it as an attempt by Health Canada to intimidate them and cow them into complying with the new regulations.

A privacy complaint and class action lawsuit were subsequently initiated, and as the above image indicates, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has found that the plantiffs’ privacy rights were contravened by Health Canada. A Federal Court challenge is currently underway, and the privacy commissioner’s ruling should be a pretty powerful piece of evidence when the plaintiffs return to court in Vancouver in early May.

Dawn

VestaLaunched in 2007, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is scheduled to arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter on March 6. You can read more about the spacecraft and its mission on the NASA website. But here’s a quick recap.

Following the launch, Dawn used a gravity-assist from Mars to arrive at the asteroid Vesta on July 16, 2011. It studied Vesta from orbit until Sept. 5, 2012 before departing for Ceres. Above is a photo taken by Dawn of Vesta’s south pole that shows the crater Rheasilvia (click to enlarge). Vesta is a spherical body with a diameter of 525 km. The crater, meanwhile, is 460 km wide and 13 km deep. So on an asteroid that small it’s a pretty major feature. Five per cent of all meteorites that have fallen on Earth, in fact, are thought to have originated from the collision that created the crater around a billion years ago.

Vesta is a rocky body, while Ceres, which has a diameter of around 950 km, is believed to have large quantities of ice. Upon arriving at the dwarf planet, Dawn will enter orbit and use its instrument array (a framing camera, visual and infrared spectrometer, and gamma ray and neutron detector) to search for elements such as oxygen, magnesium, aluminum, titanium, iron, potassium, uranium, and water.

Dawn’s already thrown NASA scientists a bit of a curve ball by detecting two puzzling bright spots situated side-by-side in a crater on Ceres. As the probe moves closer to the dwarf planet, it will be able to investigate the spots further and perhaps make other surprising discoveries.

Dawn will study Ceres until its hydrazine fuel supply is exhausted, and it will then become a permanent satellite of the dwarf planet.