Friday, April 30, 2010

Japan launching solar sail craft

On May 18, Japan will attempt the first test of a solar sail-propelled spacecraft beyond Earth orbit. The Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun (Ikaros) will unfurl a kite-shaped sail 14 meters in diameter. One scientist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), referring to the use of a "sail," called it a "space yacht."
COMMENT: While sailing using the pressure of sunlight offers limited power and acceleration, and has limited use beyond the neighborhood of Mars orbit, it could be valuable for probes and possibly, with much larger sails, spacecraft making bulk shipments of commodities like food and water.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ice found on asteroid

Scientists have found something unexpected on an asteroid named 24 Themis. Only 140km or so in diameter, it naturally has minimal gravity. No one expected it to be covered (or even one-third covered) by water ice. This has important implications for future space exploration (especially since the President has mentioned a mission to an asteroid as a future human spaceflight goal).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Old police report on Loch Ness

The just-released 1933 report (it's been referenced before, but the whole document is now out) might be the first official mention of the "Loch Ness Monster" - a creature whose existence, according to the local chief constable, "seems beyond doubt." In response, the Scottish Office did discuss stationing observers at the loch, but that's as far as it went.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

X-37 is in orbit

The Air Force's unmanned mini-shuttle, the X-37B, is in orbit.
The craft is deployed to conduct a number of experiments (specifics are classified) and then return to Earth. The idea is to test advances in constructing a reusable spacecraft (remember, the Space Shuttle is 1970s) and pave the way for larger, more capable spaceplanes. The Air Force is adamant that claims they are "weaponizing space" with the unarmed experimental system are completely off base.

Wild new species from Borneo

Borneo is definitely a hot spot for new species. Adam Tomasek, director of the Word Wife Fund for Nature (WWF)'s Heart of Borneo project, says, "We have been finding on average three new species a month and about 123 over the last three years, with at least 600 new species found in the last 15 years."
Among the newest are a stick insect 36 cm long, a 2.5cm slug that pierces its love interest with hormone-filled darts of calcium carbonate, and Barbourula kalimantanensis, a 7-5cm frog which has no lungs and breathers only through its skin.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Space history revealed: Mach 22 reconnaissance plane

Dwayne Day has published another scoop, this one on a partially declassified effort called ISINGLASS from the late 1960s that would have replaced the SR-71 with a spaceplane seven times as fast. The idea came out of the CIA, the Air Force never cottoned to it, and it died, though only after McDonnell Douglas had put significant work into it.
Would it have flown as designed? Seems unlikely - they were asking for a gosh-awful amount of energy from something that could not be much larger than the X-15 (and thus couldn't have much onboard fuel to play with.) But those guys in the 60s, man, they thought BIG.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Climate change, raw data, funding, and access

Interesting kerfuffle going on here, sparked by an amateur researcher and climate change skeptic's demand for the raw data (in this case, records of tree ring measurements) used by a British university professor to publish a paper on global warming.
The academic response is essentially "We did the work to gather this data: we should decide how and to whom it's released."
As much as I agree with the emotional response by a professor and his colleagues who did a lot of hard fieldwork to gather information, and more hard work to analyze it, it's hard for me to grasp the notion that research funded by taxpayers should be kept away from taxpayers, either based on an intellectual property argument or a belief that said taxpayers lack the training to interpret the data and may publish misleading results. I keep coming back to the simple fact that taxpayers funded the work, paying the salaries of the people gathering data.
I agree data should be kept private for a reasonable period to give the prof involved the chance to publish first on it. But I can't agree with keeping it locked away after that.
The official at the UK Information Commissioner's Office who ruled on this request under the UK's Freedom of Information law sounds like he thought the same way - also, that he was annoyed the university had gone to great lengths, including outright lying about how hard it would be to assemble the data, in order to keep it secret.
Sure, untrained members of the public may trumpet all kinds of misleading results - but, for all the public knows, the professor could be doing the same thing, only no one will ever know it if the data's kept secret. Even if the professor considers the requester a crank - and even if he has good reason to so consider the requester - the policy argument doesn't change.
Unless there's a national security reason to classify data, the general policy should be that, once the research has been published, the people who paid for the raw data have a right to see it.

UPDATE 4/48/2010: Wow, I set off a firestorm on the National Association of Science Writers list. Some of the points made were that funding is often commingled so that it's hard to say what's publicly funded and what isn't, that someone has to pay for and organize the effort of getting the data into a form that can be passed on, and that (and I reject this last one) the public is paying for the report, not the data (to me, the latter is part of the former.)

A new look at Mars

Check out these stunning images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, featuring eight areas selected by the public.

Ants that hop? Yep, Some Do

Jerdon's jumping ant, from India, can jump 12-18 inches. Australia's jack jumper ant, hops onto larger prey to deliver a lethal dose of venom. The trap-jaw ant uses its mandibles (seriously) to flip itself into the air fast enough to hit prey with a force equal to 300 times the ant's body mass.
There are thousands of species of ants known any many more thousands unknown. They include some very remarkable creatures.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Update: the Census of Marine Life

Some two thousand scientists worldwide are collaborating on the Census of Marine Life. They have discovered some 5,000 species and know they are nowhere near done. While most press has gone to the new fish, octopuses, etc., progress is being made at the "lower" levels, too. The thousands or millions of species of tiny animals lurking in the seafloor take great effort to find and classify, but they are important components of the ecosystem, so the Census wants them all.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Image of a spectacular fireball

This meteorite, which lit up the skies over several states, is a cool scientific phenomenon - and a reminder that the universe can snuff us all...this was a meter-wide body. A kilometer-sized one would ruin our whole day.

T. rex? Yes, that's name for new leech species

It's Tyrannobdella rex - a really repulsive new species from Peru with outsized teeth. How long till the giant version appears in a SyFy Channel movie?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Update: President Obama on space

COMMENT: OK, President Obama gave "the NASA speech." And since President Obama is nothing if not a skilled orator, as a speech it was fine.
There were no real surprises, most of the the details having been put out yesterday. Still, there were some interesting things said and some interesting things not said.
The result was kind of a mixed bag, in this space enthusiast's opinion.
The most notable thing the President did NOT say: he never actually committed to continuing the NASA astronaut corps. He talked about putting more astronauts in space but didn't say who they would work for.
One odd thing he did say was, "Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit." He is referring in part to use of a new heavy-lift rocket, but he didn't say who the astronauts would be or what the "systems" would be. He said developing Orion as a rescue vehicle would maintain a technology base for future spacecraft, and there's some, albeit limited, truth in that. His rationale of making us independent of other nations for rescue capability, though, is hardly a compelling rationale for doing anything, let alone spending billions to build exactly ONE capsule. No one made any issue of Soyuz capsules as the emergency return systems from the ISS. The issue was having our people restricted to using Soyuz capsules to get up there in the first place. And how exactly is the Orion rescue vehicle going to get UP to the station? Wait a decade for the new heavy-lift rocket? He didn't say. (And the timetable given for that program - taking until 2015 just to select a design for the rocket - leaves me speechless. That would seem far too long to maintain a viable option of restarting Shuttle tank production and using a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter.)
Finally, I think the President leaned too much on the Augustine Panel as an authority for canceling Project Constellation. That panel did not say Project Constellation was not feasible. They said it wasn't feasible on the current budget: that it would need an extra $3B a year. I never liked the Ares I booster and am not sad to see it die, but there was no mention of man-rating another booster rocket in its place, which could have been used to continue a revamped Constellation program.
The President did give a "shout out," in the current vernacular, to SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, which will have the unintended effect of putting a lot of government/public/media pressure on SpaceX to make it work the first time. SpaceX's strength is that it, unlike other startups and unlike many government space programs, it progresses in a rational way that tries for success every time but accepts and learns from failures.
The President committed to a $6B increase over the next five years for NASA, which is not bad under the circumstances, and continued commitment to commercial launch providers, which is not in itself any bad thing. He did not, as some expected, commit to any more Shuttle flights, so we will see the end of the Shuttle before the end of this year.
As I said, a mixed bag. I have often argued that space flight is much bigger than just NASA, and NASA is much more than just its human spaceflight program. The increases for robotic missions are welcome. Any move to let the astronaut corps die, though, is never going to get past Congress.
Now Congress has its say. And that is going to be one bruising fight.

REMINDER: As always, but even more so, if that makes any sense: this is solely the personal opinion of the author as a science writer/private citizen/historian.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Second "grolar" hybrid bear kill reported

What may be second "pizzly" or "grolar" hybrid bear was killed by an Inuit hunter on Victoria Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Canadian wildlife authorities are investigating the bear, which has a polar bear-like head but also shows brown bear features.

NASA awaits Presidential leadership

COMMENT: I almost never get political in this blog. The point of it is to pass along interesting science and technology news. But doggone it, Mr. President, NASA people are looking to you for leadership.
First the proposed FY11 budget effectively killed human spaceflight by NASA. As much as I disagree with the substance, Mr. Obama is the President and has a right to propose a new policy. Next came the promise to host a Space Summit on 4/15. Very good idea. Somehow, the Presidential portion has evaporated into a quick stop for a speech - rank and file workers not invited - and then the President moves on to a political fundraiser without meeting with the people most affected by the NASA changes.
I don't even know what to say about the other recent change, which seems to have been thrown out rather hastily amid criticism from Neil Armstrong and other NASA veterans. Spending billions of dollars to finish a limited-capability version of the Orion capsule solely so it can serve as an ISS lifeboat is hard to understand as part of any larger strategy.
That speech better be a doozy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MicroSpace News: New programs in NASA's budget

From the FY11 budget materials for NASA Ames Research Center:

Exploration Scouts: New Program Office as part of Exploration’s Precursor Robotic Missions effort to manage approximately $20 million in FY 2011 and $400 million over five years allocated to scout locations for eventual human visits with a focus on small, competed robotic missions.
 Small Satellite Subsystem Technology: New Program Office to manage $6 million in FY 2011 and $126 million over five years in research and development in this important technology area.
 Edison Small Satellite Demonstrations: New Program Office to manage $10 million in FY 2011 and $90 million over five years to demonstrate key small satellite capabilities.

The first idea on this list, not that anyone will remember, was presented in a 2006 paper and a followup Space News op-ed by Kris Winkler and myself. We did not originate the notion, but it's nice to see NASA has come around to thinking the same way we did. (Or maybe that's scary. I'm not sure.) Credit for getting it in the budget goes, I suspect, to Ames Director Pete Worden, an ardent proponent of small spacecraft.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New species? Giant mouse lemur

A "giant mouse lemur" is not exactly a giant, not at 300 grams, but it's all relative. It's big for a mouse lemur. WWF zoologists Louise Jasper and Charlie Gardner (who are, BTW, engaged to each other - it's always good when work and love go hand in hand) were on a night walk along a creek in Madagascar when they spotted an animal that was different in size, color, and behavior from the common mouse lemur. Its status as a separate species still requires confirmation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Research may shock women: Men have feelings too.

We can even be empathetic, kind, and nurturing. Really.

Big turtle with super-heavy armor found

Sixty million years ago, Columbia was home to the world's biggest-ever snake, Titanoboa. The presence of this monster may have sparked a defensive arms race among prey species, which produced Cerrejonemys wayuunaiki - a turtle whose meter-long shell had the thickness of a phone book.

COMMENT: Well, here's hoping the shell protected it. Carrying all that armor and being, well, a turtle to begin with, it sure couldn't have run from predators.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Tiny animals can live without oxygen

We knew some single-celled organisms could live without oxygen. But multi-celled animals? Some tiny creatures of the phylum Loricifera have "learned" to live in anaerobic (oxygen-free) mud on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. They manage without mitochondria, the organelles universally found in the cells of other animals which use oxygen to produce energy. Scientists who didn't know this was possible are now excited about looking in other environments for similar animals, while others ponder the implications for life on oxygen-free worlds.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

New monitor lizard (big and colorful!) discovered

A monitor lizard measuring some two meters (over 6 feet), Varanus bitatawa, is the newest addition to the world's known fauna. The lizard, believed critically endangered, is a peaceful fruit-eater that inhabits a river valley on the Philippine island of Luzon. The discovery of such a large, colorful beast (mainly dark blue mottled with yellow-green spots) in an area heavily populated and largely deforested came as a shock to herpetologists.

COMMENT: This has an implication for cryptozoology as well as for herpetology. I'm the first to agree that some cryptozoologists go beyond logic in arguing the continents are seemingly crawling with big unknown species. But can we PLEASE have an end to the equally illogical objection that all the sizable animals of the world have been discovered? They haven't.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Visualizing an explosion of amphibians

This is a really cool site. The map of most interest shows the distribution of new amphibians found from 2004 through 2007.

Get this: "Since 1985...well over 2,000 new species have been discovered, which represents a 50% increase in total recognized species." The most popular countries for new amphibians: Brazil, with 68, followed by Papua New Guinea with 46, followed by Sri Lanka with 45.

A note from another source: Herpetologist Chris Raxworthy has reported he has over a hundred new frogs from Madagascar awaiting description. So we're a long way from a full catalog.

THANKS TO Dale Drinnon for pointing me to this site.

Record number of women in space

When the shuttle Discovery goes up today, there will be more women in space - four - than at any single time in history. NASA Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier called this a "credit to the system. ... I just think of it as a talented group of people going to do their job in space."
COMMENT: I salute all the ladies (and the men) pushing the frontier...this attitude is an improvement from the days when Dan Goldin and Bill Clinton reportedly discussed an all-female Shuttle crew as a political showpiece.

UPDATE: Discovery is in orbit, and all is looking good.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Findings in Physics - the universe gets weirder

Can you twist light beams into a pretzel? Measure the effects of "spooky action at a distance" on the motions of widely separated but "entangled" particles? Use a levitated magnetic ring to pull the world closer to fusion energy? Catch up on the seven latest finds in physics in this article.

New human ancestor reported

OK, the press is calling it a "missing link" - you knew they would. But it sounds like a pretty big deal in understanding human evolution. The fossil in question is a nearly complete primate skeleton - an extremely rare thing to find to begin with - two million years old. The South African find, which includes parts of other individuals' skeletons as well, is a treasure trove of fossils of a species that fit between the australopithecines and Homo habilis, the first known species in the genus Homo. This seems to be a leak by the Daily Telegraph. Formal announcement is reportedly coming this week.

Friday, April 02, 2010

And here's the biggest bug in the world

OK, an isopod is not technically a bug. So this thing that came up from over 2,500 meters down is not an insect or a spider. It's a stunning specimen of Bathynomus giganteus, a relative to the common woodlouse or pill bug on land. Add this nearly meter-long creature to the list of things I definitely don't want for a pet.

New species keep coming

This cute orange toad from Brazil (it's hard to think of a toad as cute, but this one is) is the latest in a parade of new amphibian species.

New creatures from the seamounts

An 18-month expedition to seamounts hidden under the seas near Madagascar has brought in a treasure trove of new species. The biggest new species nabbed was the "deal fish," two meters long, but there may be hundreds more new species among the expedition's 7,000 specimens. Most are invertebrates, including one poetically named the "snot flower."

New U.K. Space Agency launches

Britain is back in the space business, or, at least, better organized for it. Space has been a fragmented function, but on 4/1 the new UK Space Agency opened for business. Also opened: the new International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) at Harwell. Britain has been busy in space for a long time - back to the days when the British Interplanetary Society was studying lunar landings in the early 1950s - but there's a new focus.
Lord Drayson, Science and Innovation Minister (a job we should have in the American cabinet, too) commented: "The action we’re taking today shows that we’re really serious about space. The UK Space Agency will give the sector the muscle it needs to fulfil its ambition. Britain’s space industry has defied the recession. It can grow to £40bn a year and create 100,000 jobs in 20 years. The Government’s commitments on space will help the sector go from strength to strength."
Good going, chaps!