Friday, August 31, 2007

A striking black cat

The "black panther" is a cougar variant often reported but never caught. When a woman in Florida reported one in her back yard, though, wildlife officials found something almost as unusual - a black bobcat. The 20-pound animal was safely captured alive. Researchers at the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary told that media less than a dozen such cats are on record, and all from the same South Florida region. The cat is not just black, but a striking, perfect obsidian. The Busch staff will take samples for DNA studies and then return the cat to the wild.
COMMENT: Researchers are to be commended for their desire to return to the wild an animal that would be a very big draw if put on exhibit.

A Wrinkle in TIme Travel?

Time travel of any sort is a long way off, if it can be done at all. Still, it's intriguing to read that theoretical physicist Amos Ori at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology thinks he's found a way to do it that just might, eventually, be practical. To vastly oversimplify: If space-time could be curved into a donut-shaped hole by extremely strong gravity fields, one could create a situation where time becomes a closed loop, and you can travel back in it. It will be generations before humanity masters such ability to manipulate gravity, and there's no way to be sure we ever will. This concept does explain why, if time travel is possible, we have yet to meet a tourist from the future. The theorized machine will not let you travel back into the time before the machine was created.

"Spiderman was here"

OK, not really. But this communal spider web found in Texas, stretching for 200 yards, is pretty amazing nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Golden Frog

In the "cool new species" department, scientists in Columbia have identified a striking new species of frog, mostly golden-yellow in color. The "golden frog of Supata,"only about 2 cm long, is a member of the group called "poison dart frogs" - easily the most colorful amphibians on Earth.

NASA Notes

In a report which will not get nearly as much media play as the "drunk astronauts" business, NASA has been unable to substantiate any reports of astronauts being alcohol-impaired at flight time. As the new review points out, a lot of people would have to look the other way, given the extensive time spent with crew and support personnel before every launch.

Meanwhile, Boeing defeated ATK for the right to build the Ares 1 upper stage, the last of the major structural elements of the new lunar booster/spacecraft combination to be put on contract.

Monday, August 27, 2007

AAS Conference upcoming

The National Conference of the American Astronautical Society, slated for November 13-14 in Houston, might be called the exclamation point closing out a busy year of meetings and other activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Space Age.

I'll be on the panel for the opening session as we look at what NASA can learn from its history so far and what might lie ahead.

Did we miss Martian life?

It's the latest round in a long controversy. A hotly debated theory has been published suggesting the 1976 Viking landers might have found microbes on Mars - but we missed them because they were just too different from Earth varieties.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Startling New Ape Fossil

As the proponents of sasquatch and other alleged living unknown primates often point out, the fossil record of the known apes, such as chimps and gorillas, is a very incomplete one. Nine teeth (one canine, eight molars) from Ethiopia's Afar region may fill an important gap - while upsetting the whole view of ape evolution considerably. The teeth indicate a gorilla-like ape lived in Africa some ten million years ago, before (according to current theories) the common ancestor of all African apes inhabited the continent. The implications are considerable and are sure to set off a more intense search for other ancestral ape remains.
COMMENT: There have always been some people in the cryptozoological world who argue discoveries which upset widely held theories are suppressed to protect people's academic reputations. The publication of this paradigm-shattering find should help to disprove that.

A Void in the Cosmos

University of Minnesota astronomers have discovered a bizarre new structure in the universe - a "hole," a huge region devoid of stars, planets, and, apparently, even dark matter. From an Earth perspective, the hole, nearly a billion light-years across, lies in the constellation Eridanus. One astronomer summed up this complete puzzle by saying, "What we've found is not normal."

Some tweaks to the Shuttle

NASA has ordered replacement of cracked adhesive beneath the insulation foam on the space shuttle external tanks (ETs) being readied for use, trying to eliminate the foam loss which resulted in damaged tiles on the shuttle Endeavour. The work is not expected to delay the launch of the next shuttle due to launch, Atlantis, currently slated to head for the ISS on October 23.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Haul of New Species

National Geographic News offers a look at new and little-known species, many of them quite strange, brought up from a recent exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. An international team of 31 scientists, assembled by the Norway-based MAR-ECO project and the Census of Marine Life program, spent five weeks combing the ridge with the latest in technological assistance.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Endeavour's triumph in pictures

The shuttle Endeavour put worries about tiles to rest with a perfect touchdown in Florida yesterday, coming home a day early to beat a threat from Hurricane Dean (which now looks unlikely).
NASA has put together a collection of striking photographs from the STS-118 mission. It remains to be seen whether the damage to Endeavour's tiles will force any postponement of the next mission.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Footprints on the sands of time

The oldest oldest human footprint ever found has been reported from Siwa, Egypt. Made in mud which then hardened into rock, the print was announced as a major discovery by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. He said: "This could go back about two million years. It could be the most important discovery in Egypt."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Endeavour coming home

The space shuttle Endeavour has undocked from the ISS and is headed home a day early to avoid the possible effects an evacuation of the Johnson Space Center could have if Hurricane Dean comes ashore in Texas. Mission Control can operate from other facilities if need be, but NASA opted to keep things simple. Endeavour will come back Tuesday, with all eyes on that damaged tile section.

Some good prehistoric fun

OK, the blog Prehistoric Pulp is hardly a paleontology lesson. But it is a lot of fun. Go here to read and talk about depictions of the prehistoric in every medium from films to comic books. Revisit the Lost World!
Thanks to Loren Coleman for pointing out this site.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Crows rival monkeys in learning tool use

A fascinating experiment has found that one species of crow can not only use tools to get food out of a hole too deep for their beaks, but can figure out a more complex problem: using a short stick, the only tool within reach, to get another stick which is long enough to get the food. Russell Gray of the University of Auckland in New Zealand reports, "It was surprising to find that these 'bird-brained' creatures performed at the same levels as the best performances by great apes on such a difficult problem." Three of seven crows grasped the solution immediately, without any trial-and-error: all seven learned it within 25 tries, a better record than posted by capuchin monkeys in a 2003 experiment.
Calling someone a "Bird brain" just may become a compliment....

The Future of Space Science

Date Released: Thursday, August 16, 2007
Source: National Academy of Sciences
WASHINGTON - Next month, the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Research Council will kick off a yearlong series of public lectures and colloquia in cities across the country and abroad. "FORGING THE FUTURE OF SPACE SCIENCE - THE NEXT 50 YEARS" will celebrate the spectacular achievements of space and earth science, examine new discoveries in both fields, and look ahead at what the next 50 years may bring. The series includes several "regional events" in locations across the country...

Comment: this is timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which led to countless accomplishments by scientists around the world in addition to sparking the development of the first satellites. See the link for the locations and content of each event.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No repairs to Shuttle

NASA engineers have decided the shuttle Endeavour need no repairs to its heat-absorbing tiles. The three-inch gouge, while causing a great deal of concern, has been deemed not to be a threat to the shuttle's safe return. Contributing to the analysis was the fact the repair itself, while it's been practiced on Earth, carries some risk - an astronaut could bump into the tiles and cause more damage during the close work required.
COMMENT: A great deal of thought went into this, and some of the media coverage was horrible, either sensationalizing the risk or bashing NASA with no effort at balanced coverage. All that said, there is no way to know with 100% certainty if this call was right until the end of the mission. All fingers will be crossed until then.

Updates from Orbit

NASA is nearing a decision on whether to send astronauts underneath the shuttle Endeavour to patch the spacecraft's heat-shielding tiles before attempting reentry. Meanwhile, in an unusual incident, a spacewalk on Wednesday was cut short after one astronaut noticed a small puncture in his glove. The damage only affected the top two layers of the five-layer glove, but Rick Mastracchio was told to cut his six-hour EVA short. He and colleague Clay Anderson were able by that point to finish their major tasks on the ISS, so there was no significant effect on the mission.

WIldlife Mystery: Walruses found headless

Alaska Natives are the only people allowed to kill walruses under the law, and they are required to make full use of the carcasses, not just take the ivory tusks. This summer, though, someone appears to be killing on an unusual scale and taking only the heads, presumably for the value of the ivory. One one 40-mile stretch of shoreline, officials have found 79 walruses, all minus their heads. All had been shot. Alaskan agencies and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service are searching for the poachers, who can be punished severely under Federal law.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shuttle damage update

NASA is still considering its options for repairing the gouge in the tiles of the shuttle Endeavour. The gouge, it's been confirmed, goes all the way through the tile, and the underlying felt covering the aluminum skin is exposed. NASA engineers are testing similar tiles in an arcject facility to simulate reentry and debating whether to use one of two remaining spacewalks to conduct an unprecedented repair job.

Inside the Mars Phoenix Lander

Are you wondering just what is packed into the just-launched Mars Phoenix lander? This very cool site has a fully illustrated breakdown of what instruments are on board and what each is meant to accomplish.

A zoological mystery - what is this pelt?

Dr, Darren Naish asks readers to identify a densely spotted carnivore pelt that does not seem to fit any member of the feline tribe, nor the spotted hyena. It's currently in Britain, but its age and provenance are uncertain.
Just for fun, Naish throws in a photo of a set of horns whose original owner also has yet to be identified.
Yes, there ARE many mysteries left in the natural world.

Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal skull?

Most anthropologists agree Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons never interacted except at spear point. This 33,000-year-old skull from Romania indicates that just might be wrong.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tiny cooperative spacecraft project

DARPA is taking a serious look at mitigating the threat from ASAT weapons by putting some functions on 4.5-kg satellites called Tiny Independent Coordinated Spacecraft or TICS (TICS). These would be launched on need from a fighter plane by boosters not much larger than current air-launched missiles.

COMMENT: While modern advances in miniature computers and communications
technology make this practical, the basic rocket-from-a-fighter-jet can trace its origin to Project Pilot, or "NOTSNIK," the semi-official satellite program created by Navy
physicists and engineers in 1958. Their five-stage, 1,000-lb launch vehicle tried to orbit a 1-kg satellite and may actually have succeeded once, though the orbit was short-lived. This was not the model for Pegasus, whose designer was unaware of the project until I mentioned it to him once at the Conference on Small Satellites, but AFRL did try a couple of years ago to revive the idea, on two tracks, one working with DARPA on an impractically complex and expensive
launch aircraft (that's been killed), and then one using an F-15 or F-22 launch vehicle carrier. AFRL officers were likewise surprised that someone had actually done this and that some documentation survived (though not much), and I sent them what I had compiled. So I like to think I (and the oft-overlooked value of knowing history) made some contributions here.
The program is discussed in my book The First Space Race (Texas A&M
University Press, 2004)

NASA concerned about gouge in Shuttle tiles

The space shuttle Endeavor's mission has gone well so far, but NASA engineers are concerned about a divot three inches square in the silica tiles providing the spacecraft's main defense against the heat of re-entry. Likely caused by ice (although possibly by foam insulation) on liftoff, the damage will be carefully examined and measured by a camera and a laser tool on the Shuttle's robot arm extension. (The robot arm operator, by the way, is Barbara Morgan, originally the backup "Teacher in Space," who went through the rigors of becoming a fully qualified astronaut while she waited for her chance to fly.) If the gouge is determined to pose a threat, the crew will be directed to perform an EVA and use one of three types of on-board repair kits to fix it before reentry.

COMMENT: The tile system has never caused an accident, but it is unacceptably fragile and enormously labor-intensive to maintain. It's an outgrowth of the desire to keep development costs for the Shuttle down (which was successful) by trading off maintainability and reusability during the spacecraft's operational life. Of several options for the heat shield, the tiles were the cheapest to develop but the most expensive to maintain. All indications are the same short-sighted approach is afflicting the Crew Exploration Vehicle program.

UPDATE 8/12/2007: NASA has confirmed the damage is from a piece of foam, estimated as grapefruit-sized, that came off a strut on the External Tank (ET). Further study is still underway to determine whether the gash is deep enough to require repair. See:

Mesolithic settlement in the English Channel

From roughly 10,000 to 8,000 years B.P. the English Channel was a river valley, not an arm of the Atlantic. Off the Isle of Wight, archaeologists are excavating the first settlement discovered in that valley. Hearths, flints, and other Mesolithic objects are being mapped and/or recovered from the bottom under 11 meters of water, where silt has preserved perishable materials like wood. The Channel was inundated when glaciers melted from the last Ice Age, and the occupants of this and other settlements were forced to higher ground.

What the heck is gravity? has posted a good article on one of the great mysteries of physics. What is gravity? It's considered one of the four forces in the Standard Model of physics, but it's the one that refuses to "play nice" and fit into models. The Einsteinian universe accounts for gravity on large scales (like the gravity of planets, asteroids, or human beings), but breaks down on the subatomic scale. Some physicists look for particles called gravitons. Others search for gravity waves. None really understand the force that binds the universe together (as Yoda would say).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

End of a Species: The Yangtze River dolphin

The Yangtze river dolphin, or baji (Lipotes vexillifer), until now listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, has been declared extinct. Early in 2006, the population was listed at 17. By the end of that year, researchers from the Zoological Society of London cruising the heavily trafficked, polluted river that was its only habitat were unable to find any evidence that even a single individual survived. In September, the IUCN will change its status with the next update of the Red List to to “critically endangered (possibly extinct)”. The last confirmed sighting was in 2002, the same year the only captive specimen died.
It is barely possible that a few individuals linger in tributaries of the Yangtze, but there is no chance they constitute a viable population.
It appears that humanity has driven a documented cetacean species to extinction for the first time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Endeavour is Go!

The shuttle Endeavour had a perfect liftoff at 1836 EST, heading for the International Space Station on a vital construction mission. Mission commander Scott Kelly told controllers, ""We'll see you in a couple of weeks and thanks for loaning us your space shuttle."

Four mammals out of Africa

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered six new species, including four mammals, in a three-month trip to the forests west of Lake Tanganyika in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the intrepid scientists, Andrew Plumptre, commented on the haul of a bat, a rodent, two shrews and two frogs by saying, "If we can find six new species in such a short period it makes you wonder what else is out there," ."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Watch a Launch as never before

Wednesday evening, the space shuttle Endeavor will launch at 1836 EST. Thanks to a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft, Windows users will be able to view it in a 3D environment that lets people examine the launch from all angles. It should be spectacular.

Old Life from melting ice?

As glaciers around the world are melting back, what are they releasing? Old microbes and even older DNA fragments, as it turns out.
Ice 100,000 to 8,000,000 years old was cut from Antarctic glaciers and carefully melted under sterile conditions. The result: healthy, fast-multiplying microbes, expecially from the younger samples. Scientists found there was a "half-life" of about 1.1 million years for DNA of frozen microbes: about half of it disappears in that time. So some samples showed, not viable animals, but fragments, which themselves could have unknown impacts if released into the aquasphere.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Your own Flying Saucer

In the "really cool stuff" department, a California company called Moller International is selling flaying saucers for $90,000. What your money actually buys you is a one-person craft able to fly at an altitude of 10 feet (3m), lifted by eight rotary engines that create enough downforce to make the craft fly with a 250-pound (114 kg) payload. The M200G can actually fly higher than that, but an onboard computer keeps it low enough so the driver does not, under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations, require a pilot's license. Moller believes the craft will be popular with landowners who want to inspect property where ground vehicles or hovercraft are impractical.

Science v. Poaching in Malaysia

This very interesting article from the New Straits Times (Malaysia) describes how work is afoot to set up the country's first laboratory able to identify animals by DNA in an accredited system whose results will be accepted by courts. Malaysian conservation officials explain that, while their country's rich wildlife is under threat from both local and commercial poaching, they've lost cases because prosecutors could not definitively establish the identity of a confiscated animal part. The lab will also give the nation's scientists a new tool for differentiating animal populations, including identifying new species, and for studying wildlife diseases.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Ads in Space

Bigelow Aerospace, the firm which has raised a surprising amount of capital to pursue its goal of orbital hotels, has come up with a new idea: images, including advertisements, projected on the outside of its inflatable test modules while in orbit. The company's site shows some examples.

COMMENT: I applaud this company, as always, for its willingness to embark on a risky venture that, if successful, will help open up human space travel. I can't help but feel a little bemused by this new tweak, though. Who, exactly, is going to see the ads? UFO pilots?

The conversation on the bridge of a flying saucer might go like this:
"Look, Bleemborg. The earthlings have come up with another idea for the rest of the galaxy to laugh at."
"It is funny, Zorgfrog, but right now I do feel a craving for a vacuum-cold Pepsi."
"I hope these people don't exterminate themselves by nuclear war or global warming. They are much too entertaining to lose."
"Well, let's go ahead and dorfeltape this scene. The network executives back home are always happy to get a new segment for their hit show, 'Funniest Earth Videos.'"
"I still like the time we punk'd their Mars Rover with those ice cubes. Their news reports were hilarious."

Off for Mars

The largest, most sophisticated lander ever sent toward the Red Planet is off to a good start. The Mars Phoenix mission had a perfect liftoff this morning, courtesy of a Delta II booster rocket and the crews at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Landing in the Martian Arctic is set for late May 2008.

New Species from the Philippines

Conservation International scientists report a trove of species including a shrew (new mammals are always of interest) and a strikingly beautiful white and gold orchid.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Space: The Quest Goes On

In this article for WIRED, Michael Belfiore explains why, as bad as it was, the accident that claimed the lives of three men working on a private spaceship for Virgin Galactic is unlikely to derail the serious efforts being made to develop suborbital and orbital space travel on a paying basis.