Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A bake sale to build a rocket

In Belleville, Missouri, Gary Streeter and his friends plan to lower the cost of access to orbit by building the entire launch vehicle and satellite themselves. "In terms of a group putting together and launching a rocket and getting into orbit, I'd say it's pretty rare, actually," FAA spokesman Hank Price said. Actually, it's never been done, and Streeter admits he needs some new funding sources. Local donations and other methods, including bake sales, aren't getting him off the ground.
COMMENT: OK, Streeter and friends are basically trying to eat an elephant with chopsticks. But I salute them for the effort. And I hope that, somehow, they pull it off.

A haul of new species

An expedition comprising scientists from Conservation International (CI) and Brazilian universities has completed a survey in one of South America's important and endangered biological "hot spots," the Cerrado region of Brazil. The results: 14 new species, including a very small woodpecker to go with eight fish, three reptiles, one amphibian, and one mammal.
COMMENT: These surveys by CI find new species everywhere they go - no exceptions. That's important to keep in mind.

What color is a brown bear?

The title question is not at all simple. The range of coat colors among bears studied in Alaska and the nearby regions is amazing. We have black bears (Ursus americanus) which are brown and brown bears (Ursus arctos) which are black, just for starters. Then there are the blue-gray black bears and the white black bears. There are dark brown bears with striking blond cubs. There's even a black bear running around with a streak of reddish-brown hair running down the middle of its back, like a punker with a Mohawk haircut. The moral of the story: Genes are like cards. A deck will produce a lot of familiar hands, but also some pretty unusual ones.

Thanks to Meredith Fowke for this item.

Anchorage and the three dozen bears

OK, the official metropolitan area of Anchorage, Alaska, is a big place, and not all heavily populated. And everyone knew brown bears wandred through the outskirts. But a new study showing that Anchorage overlapped with the ranges of some three dozen bears was a stunner to state officials.

Anecdote that may be true:
Actual conversation between Anchorage airport tower and pilot of taxiing plane:
TOWER: Bear left at the taxiway.
PILOT: We see him.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A busload of satellites from India

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) put up 10 satellites in a so-far flawless mission launched yesterday. It was the 13th flight of the PSLV, whose main payload was an Indian remote sensing satellite, the 690-kilogram Cartosat-2A. Accompanying the main payload were an 83-kilogram Indian mini-satellite and an international flotilla of eight nanosatellites, with masses from three to 16 kg, provided by institutions in Japan, Canada, and Europe. The 10 satellites add up to a record for a successful launch.

LockMart takes a shot at ORS

Lockheed Martin has announced it's filed a slew of proposals with the USAF's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office at Kirtland AFB, NM, in response to three Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) asking for new ideas. As Lockheed Martin described it, "These include responsive spacecraft bus and payloads technologies; a multi-mission low earth orbit modular space vehicle; and responsive launch, range and system architecture and modeling technologies. Lockheed Martin responded to each of these BAAs with innovation and end-to-end solutions." ORS is expected to award contracts later this year.
Further quoting the press release,
"The need to design, build and deploy responsive space systems that provide timely data to the warfighter is a top priority for our customer," said Phil Bowen, director of Surveillance and Intelligence Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "Our responsive space capabilities combine Lockheed Martin's proven experience and leading edge technologies in providing affordable and responsive solutions and we look forward to collaborating with the ORS office and our industry teammates on this important initiative."
The release says LM has " designed, built, and launched over 150 small satellites, demonstrating its ability to field highly innovative capabilities rapidly at very low cost." Hmm. I don't doubt the number, although to get that many "small satellites" they must be using a definition for "small" along the lines of "anything that didn't require a Titan IV class launcher." The definition of "very low cost" is likewise a bit suspect. LM has not, understandably, shared the details of their ideas yet. There's no question they have some top engineering talent, and hopefully there's some really innovative stuff in that batch.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Suiting up a penguin

Pierre the penguin, kept at the California Academy of Sciences, had been losing his feathers and was reluctant to go in the water. His keepers had a novel idea: fit him with a wetsuit. Even the colors match (at least on the back - he's now the only penguin with a black belly. Maybe he can just say he's wearing a cummerbund with his tuxedo). Things are now going just swimmingly for Pierre. (I'd put in much worse penguin puns if I could think of any.)

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Thawing a Colossal Squid

Want to see an 11-meter colossal squid thawed out and dissected? You can tune in via the Web. Scientists in New Zealand will start thawing Monday to have the rare specimen of Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni ready for a dissection on Wednesday. The animal was caught off Antarctica over a year ago.

NASA Ames has new partner for microspacecraft

This marks another step by NASA Ames to explore the potential of microspacecraft and cooperative multi-spacecraft networks. I'll just reprint the NASA release in full here. There's an obvious synergy with DARPA and the Air Force and their fractionated spacecraft (F6) work I blogged on earlier.

RELEASE : 08-107

NASA Ames Partners With M2MI For Small Satellite Development

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. -- NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and m2mi Corp., Moffett Field, Calif., announced Thursday they are taking a revolutionary step forward in improving telecommunications and networking from space.
Under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, only the third in NASA's history, NASA Ames and m2mi will work together to develop very small satellites, called nanosats, for the commercialization of space.
"NASA wants to work with companies to develop a new economy in space," said NASA Ames Center Director S. Pete Worden. "m2mi has great technology that fits excellently with our goals, while enhancing the commercial use of NASA-developed technologies."
Nanosatellites are small satellites weighing between 11 and 110 pounds. A large number of these satellites, called a constellation, will be placed in low Earth orbit for the new telecommunications and networking system.
"The constellation will provide a robust, global, space-based, high-speed network for communication, data storage and Earth observations," said m2mi Chief Executive Officer Geoff Brown. "Nanosatellites take advantage of the significant technological advances in microelectronics and will be produced using low-cost, mass-production techniques."
Under the agreement, NASA and m2mi will cooperate to develop a fifth generation telecommunications and networking system for Internet protocol-based and related services. The cooperative effort will combine NASA's expertise in nanosensors, wireless networks and nanosatellite technologies with m2mi's unique capabilities in software technology, sensors, global system awareness, adaptive control and commercialization capabilities. Fifth Generation, or 5G, incorporates Voice Over Internet Protocol, video, data, wireless, and an integrated machine-to-machine intelligence layer, or m2mi, for seamless information exchange and use.
"This initiative shows great promise in revolutionizing mobile communications critical in meeting future needs," said Badri Younes, NASA deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation. "This project also will leverage m2mi's capabilities in software expertise to automate global system awareness and provide intelligent adaptive control."

Friday, April 25, 2008

T. rex: a new link to birds

Analysis of proteins in the soft tissues of an amazingly well preserved specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex indicates the animal's closest living relatives are not reptiles, but birds. The evidence comes from a femur discovered in 2003 in the famous Hell Creek Formation in the north-central United States. The analysis was led by John Asara of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, who reports, "We determined that T. rex, in fact, grouped with birds – ostrich and chicken – better than any other organism that we studied. We also show that it groups better with birds than modern reptiles, such as alligators and green anole lizards."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Space policy under the new President

As this article by Rand Simberg lays it out, we now know enough about the space-related thinking of the three remaining major U.S. Presidential candidates to project their impact upon NASA, and especially on NASA's human spaceflight program.
The signs are troubling.

Senator Barack Obama is sounding like a supporter, but in vague terms that don't reassure anyone given his stated plan to delay the Constellation/VSE programs by five years and divert the money to education. His more recent statements indicate he's realized that would result in a "brain drain" and make it much more difficult to ever execute the VSE, but he has yet to address his contradictory plans and spell out specifics.

Senator Hilary Clinton has endorsed a continued robust human spaceflight program and left open at least the possibility of a meaningful budget increase for NASA. She has, however, not mentioned the Moon and Mars as destinations. Her advisor Lori Garver's speech to the AAS last November (which I blogged - see the archives) came closer to endorsing a continuation of the Bush VSE, but the candidate appears to have backed away from that. Pessimists fear we may see a repeat of Clinton 1 - a plus-up for Earth observation work, but a crippling of efforts to extend a human presence beyond LEO.

Senator John McCain has been explicit in endorsing the continuing drive for a human presence on the Moon and eventually Mars. The question in his case is funding. He's not committed to an increase for NASA, and his his plans for a budget freeze for all except military and veterans' programs might mean NASA must hobble along much as it does now, doing its best with assigned missions that are beyond its assigned funding.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movie bear kills trainer

"Rocky," the 320-kg brown (or grizzly) bear (Ursus arctos) which wrestled a human in the Will Farrell film "Semi-Pro," was in a routine training session when he killed his trainer with a single bit to the neck. The bear had no previous record of aggressive behavior, and the training facility had operated without incident since its founding in 1992. As Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) found out in 2003, even the best trained of carnivores still has instincts the most conscientious trainers don't always understand. I've read of a hand-raised cougar which broke away from its handler to attack a stuffed deer (an animal the cougar had never even seen alive) in a diorama at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Authorities have not decided whether Rocky must be put down.

Flores Hobbits had big feet

Big, flat, feet, to be specific, with a short big toe more reminiscent of australopithecines than of other humans. A reconstruction of the almost-complete left foot of the main specimen, LB1, shows the foot was abnormally long (by modern human standards) compared to the creature's height, which would have required a deeper knee bend and resulted in a walk people today would find "funny looking." Researchers from the State University of New York who worked on this analysis thought that a foot so different from that of a modern human was another point for the "separate species" side of this debate.

Soyuz: not a smooth trip

NASA officials admitted to some concern, but played down any threat to the safety of astronauts, after a Soyuz capsule with American, Russian, and South Korean occupants came down over 400 kilometers off target and subjected the occupants to a sustained load over over eight Gs. This is the second time a Soyuz had a similar problem after entering the atmosphere at the wrong attitude courtesy of a problem in separating the service module from the crew capsule. The comments of NASA associate administrator for space operations William H. Gerstenmaier at a news teleconference betray some ambiguity:
"I don't see this as a major problem, but it's clearly something that should not have occurred."
"We may have missed the probable cause" (after the first incident, blamed on a frayed wire)
"I have complete confidence in what the Russians are doing. They were very concerned about this. They treated this with the same diligence as we would in the United States."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Darwin's archives posted to the Internet

For those who want to understand more about what Charles Darwin actually thought and said, this new site contains a treasure trove of material. To quote:

"This site contains Darwin's complete publications, thousands of handwritten manuscripts and the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue ever published: also hundreds of supplementary works: biographies, obituaries, reviews, reference works and more.
Almost all is online only here: such as 1st editions of Voyage of the Beagle, Zoology, Descent of Man, all editions of Origin of Species (1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th & 6th); important manuscripts: Beagle Diary & field notebooks, Journal, transmutation notebooks and Autobiography.
Forthcoming: more editions, translations, introductions & manuscripts."

More microsat notes: UK and China

In last week's edition of Space News, the founder of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., Sir Martin Sweeting, has blessed the sale to EADS Astrium. He says he approved it after Astrium guaranteed SSTL will retain its own identity. I have enormous respect for Sir Martin, and I hope my earlier gloom-and-doom post on this subject proves unfounded.

In another interesting bit, an article translated from the Chinese news service Xinhua says the Shenzhou VII human spaceflight mission, to be launched this October, will include the release of a small satellite. According to Gu Yidong, one of the Shenzou system designers, "Apart from conducting environmental surveys in space and basic scientific experiments, the small satellite can also link-up with the space lab. It can therefore effectively extend the function of the space lab. This is tantamount to extending the premise of the space lab from several hundred meters to dozens of kilometres."
This is pretty intriguing. It implies the smallsat will be able to dock and undock, or move several hundred km away (to test communications and control, perhaps?)

Thanks to Bart Hendrix for passing this item along.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bergman's strange bear

I'm writing today to correct an error in my own books and to note how a mystery about the brown bear (Ursus arctos) has been with us for 72 years now.

In 1936, Swedish zoologist Sten Bergman published in the Journal of Mammology his notes on the bears of Kamchatka. In addition to his observations of living bears, he was shown the skin of a colossal, short-furred, solid black bear. He wrote that local hunters told him the very largest bears always looked like this. He recounted how another scientist had photographed an exceptionally large bear skull from the same region and described a pawprint 25cm across (18cm is a very large bear).

Several writers on the topic, myself included, have said Sten Bergman (not, incidentally, to be confused with Christian Bergmann, author of Bergmann's Rule), proposed the name Ursus piscator, later realigned as Ursus arctos piscator by other authorities, to describe a possible new species or subspecies of these huge, black, short-furred bears.

Looking now at the source material, I find that's not so. Bergman wrote of the possibility these bears were a separate species or subspecies from the brown bear, but he referred in his article only to an already-established scientific name, Ursus piscator (first used in 1865) used for all Kamchatkan brown bears.
Some sources still use U. a. piscator for Kamchatkan brown bears in general, although brown bear taxonomy remains inconsistent. So the lesson there is always to look at original sources (thanks to the two people who wrote me on how to get the 1936 article) and not just repeat another secondary source, even a respected source.

The mystery of Bergman's bear remains unsolved to this day.

Launch vehicles for ORS

In other news from Orbital Sciences, the USAF's Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has ordered three more Minotaur launch vehicles based on surplus ballistic missiles in support of the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office. The $40M contract covers one Minotaur I (based on the Minuteman ICBM) and two Minotaur IVs (based on the larger Peacekeeper ICBM). Payloads are not yet assigned.

C/NOFS is Aloft

The latest U.S. military smallsat, the Communication/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS) satellite, was launched successfully by an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket over the Reagan Test Site in the Kwajalein Atoll. The satellite, with a "wet" launch mass of 395 kg, will study ionospheric changes and help forecast likely outages in communications satellite capabilities. The satellite builder is General Dynamics (of which I spoke a bit too harshly in an earlier post, although I still think the absorption of Spectrum Astro into a megacompany was not a good thing for the smallsat world).

Friday, April 18, 2008

A tale of a hobbit's tooth?

From Australian professor of anthropology Maciej Henneberg comes the most bizarre claim in all the bizarre history of the "hobbit," aka Flores man: that a tooth believed to be 18,000 years old shows evidence of having had a cavity filled, and therefore must be much younger. The claim brought a response from Flores co-discoverer Peter Brown that The Australian describes as, in part, "unprintable." Henneberg is part of a collection of scientists terming themselves the Pathology Group, which has advanced the notion the Flores fossils are from one or more pathological modern humans. He describes some of the attacks by the "pro-species" side as "scratches on a toilet wall." The Flores case provides a window into just how vigorous (and sometimes ungentlemanly) scientifc debate can be. (See the April 2, 2008 item, below, on women in science: this battle is an example of the idea discussed there.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

News of Vietnam's giant turtle

Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi harbors a strange inhabitant for a tiny, polluted body of water - a gigantic turtle. While it's been suggested this is a new species, scientists according to this news item have identified it as one of the world's few living specimens of Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), a species thought extinct in nature.
Well, almost extinct. The wild population outside of this lake is now known to number at least one, since biologist Nguyen Xuan Thuan has photographed a specimen in a lake west of Hanoi. That still makes a total of only four living turtles known from this species, which may measure a meter long and weigh over 140kg. (The remaining two are in zoos in China.) Biologists have now turned their attention to nearby waterways in the hope there are a few more of the huge reptiles lurking and the Swinhoe's turtle might yet be pulled back from the edge of extinction.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Oldest living thing on Earth

The title above is usually given to "Methuselah," a bristlecone pine in California which is 4,500 to 5,000 years old. Swedish researchers, though, have a new entry that blows that record away. A cluster of Norway spruce trees in Sweden, they have announced, was living 8,000 years ago. The trunk of a spruce can last only about 600 years, but these trees, clustered on a mountain slope exposed to harsh weather, have maintained a continuous existence by replacing each trunk with a new one. In the coldest times, the plants grew only about a half-meter tall, but warmer times in recent decades have encouraged them to reach higher - which is why they were eventually noticed.


Start your morning with a beautiful video, courtesy of Japan's lunar orbiter Kaguya, of a full Earthrise over the lunar horizon.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Space programs across the pond

The United Kingdom is not generally thought of as a major space player today, but it's been a constant source of ideas on the subject and has developed a number of programs over the last half-century. Britain is recognized today mostly for Surrey's innovative microsatellites, but orbital launch vehicles, spaceplanes, and other advanced projects have percolated up many times (usually to be canceled for want of funding.) This website gives a good overview of the major programs.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Interview: Director Worden of NASA Ames

Former USAF general Simon "Pete" Worden is enjoying his role as director of NASA Ames, where he pushes hard for innovative spacecraft and innovative ways of operating and financing NASA research. In this interview, he riffs on everything from Yuri Gagarin to Google.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Salute to Yuri

And we have come to another April 12, and it is time to raise the vodka glass for a toast to Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space. Gagarin was selected as one of the first class of 20 cosmonauts chosen under the guidance of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, who called the men his "little eagles." "Little" was true in another sense: the Vostok capsule was even more cramped than its American rival, Mercury, and Gagarin's height of 157 cm came in handy. Gagarin's 108-minute flight on this date in 1961 covered less than one orbit, but he was nonetheless first. Gagarin never returned to space, in part because the USSR would not risk a national hero. It's a little-known fact that cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova once told an audience in Cuba that Gagarin would command a crew on the first lunar flight (with that crew including Tereshkova), but this seems to have been strictly propaganda. Gagarin died in a crash on a training flight in 1968. (The exact cause remains in dispute, and likely always will.) Among the many monuments the Soviets raised to him is one that I can't help but think he would be embarrassed by: a statue of the cosmonaut, looking more like some stylized superhero, placed atop a pillar in Moscow and towering 40 meters above Gagarin Square.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

NASA's lunar robot

It's still an unproven concept, and perhaps a far-out one. But JPL engineers are playing with prototypes of a six-legged robot that could take a 15-ton habitat anywhere on the Moon the VSE missions may require. The robot would normally drive (a more energy-efficient mode) on wheels at the end of the legs. When the terrain was too rough, though, the wheels would be locked and the legs would be unlocked, enabling the ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) to stride on its six-meter-long legs at 5 to 10 kph. The linked article includes some cool videos.

Ames aims for the Moon

From the NASA Ames website comes this release on an innovative, low-cost lunar mission:

"MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. -- NASA is preparing to send a small spacecraft to the moon in 2011 to assess the lunar atmosphere and the nature of dust lofted above the surface.

Called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), the mission will launch before the agency's moon exploration activities accelerate during the next decade. LADEE will gather detailed information about conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust. A thorough understanding of these influences will help researchers understand how future exploration may shape the lunar environment and how the environment may affect future explorers.

"LADEE represents a low-cost approach to science missions, enabling faster science return and more frequent missions," said Ames Director S. Pete Worden. "These measurements will provide scientific insight into the lunar environment, and give our explorers a clearer understanding of what they'll be up against as they set up the first outpost and begin the process of settling the solar system."

LADEE is a cooperative effort with NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The total cost of the spacecraft is expected to be approximately $80 million."

Name a species at Scripps

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has joined the ranks of institutions looking to fund science by allowing patrons to put their names to new species. Current opportunities range from a spiny worm found in kelp forests ($10,000) to a handsome-looking holothurian for $15,000 and on up to a rarer worm found near hydrothermal vents ($50,000). So if you have the money and want to donate to science while naming something permanently and officially after yourself (or someone else - perhaps someone will name a worm or sea slug after a spouse's divorce attorney?) here is the opportunity.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Musings from the National Space Symposium

I had the opportunity yesterday to explore the cavernous exhibit halls of the National Space Symposium held here in Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Space Foundation. My kids look forward to my making this pilgrimage each year, since the NSS has the best "goodies" of any space conference exhibition center I've ever been to. Orbital Sciences' foam rockets are always a big hit: they fly all over my house until they wear out.
Other discoveries and adventures:
- I scored only 8 out of 10 at the Space Florida trivia game, which was embarrassing. Space Florida seems to have a bigger booth and more exhibits every year: the state is certainly trying to advertise itself as a home for space businesses, perhaps in anticipation of Space Shuttle job losses.
- A lady at Orbital Sciences refused to confirm or deny that the company is bidding on the Orbcomm 2 replacement constellation, which is pretty funny considering it's been in the press for a year that they are not. I asked the question intending to follow up to ask why they were not bidding, but that first answer kind of befuddled me.
- It's easier to get fat this year at the conference - more cookie, ice cream, and popcorn stations were being used to lure people to booths.
- The US Air Force Academy had on display their Falconsat-2 spacecraft, the one that was on board the first SpaceX Falcon 1 booster that did not, shall we say, perform nominally. The satellite was pretty much intact, although the bus was so twisted and bent it was clearly beyond re-use. The booth spokesman noted that the satellite's location transponder had at least worked well, although it did not have much of a function, as the satellite crashed to the ground about ten meters from the crate used to ship it to Kwajalein.
- My longtime acquaintance Gwynne Shotwell, VP of SpaceX, reaffirmed they are holding June 10 as a firm launch date for the third Falcon 1 launch, the one with the ORS Jumpstart mission. I mentioned that founder Elon Musk had said once that they'd have to re-evaluate the business if they had three failures, but Gwynne's comrade in the booth said Musk had disavowed that as a notion made under a very different business model. Given SpaceX's government contracts and the progress toward larger boosters, it didn't apply anymore.
- I stopped by one of my favorite organizations, Space Dynamics Lab of Utah, to see how this innovative satellites-and-sensors outfit, which helps run the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, was doing. SDL leader Pat Patterson told me they were doing great, with numerous new contracts and employment at a record 400-plus.

All for now,

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Surrey sale is final

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has been sold for 40-50 million GBP to as EADS-owned space company, Astrium. Thales was reported to also be a suitor, which may account for Astrium paying what's generally agreed to be a robust, if not premium, price. Astrium has promised to keep SSTL's independence and character while giving it the resources to bid on some large contracts it missed out on in the past.
COMMENT: I hope SSTL keeps its character and spirit of innovation intact. As I said in the last post, the track record with such acquisitions is not good. But here's keeping fingers crossed.

Lungless frog discovered

Yes, lungless.
From Borneo comes Barbourula kalimantanensis, which gets its oxygen through its skin. The species had been found 30 years ago, but only one other specimen of this rare amphibian had been collected since then. Neither example was ever dissected. Now more frogs have been found in the wild - just in time to stun the biologists who finally looked inside and realized they had the only lungless anuran (frog or toad) known anywhere in the world.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Aerospace history: Kittinger's Leap

Check out this awesome video of Colonel Joseph Kittinger's 16 August 1960 parachute jump from a balloon on the edge of space. The Air Force test pilot's records for highest parachute jump (from an astonishing 31.3 kilometers) and longest freefall still stand today, although there are a few daredevils trying to develop a practical way to exceed them.
Colonel Kittinger (b. 1928) went on to return to operational flying and was assigned to combat duty during the Vietnam war. He spent 11 months as a POW in North Vietnam. In 1984, he set another record by completing the the first solo Atlantic crossing by balloon.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The case of the orange raccoon

No kidding. A raccoon with no black marks and a coat variously described as orange or blond was recently live-trapped after coming up on the porch of an Indiana family in a rural area near Bloomfield to chow down on leftover cat food.
This case is a reminder that the constant shuffling of the genetic card deck in every species sometimes results in a very strange hand being dealt.
The trapper arranged to have the animal taken it deep into the woods and let go.
Looking at the various local stories on this animal, it appears this occurred in February, and the animal (or a close copy, likely a relative given the rarity of the mutation) was live-trapped again in March by a seventh-grader in Greene County. The youngster's family reported calling the Indianapolis Zoo and being unable to convince anyone they really did have an orange raccoon.
More photos and comments are available at

I'm not clear on just where the animal is now. Does anybody know?

Boeing's hydrogen-powered plane

Boeing has flown the first manned aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It wasn't exactly an airliner, weighing only 800 kg and flying at 100 kph with just the pilot aboard, and indeed Boeing doesn't see a future for the cells in powering large aircraft. The aerospace giant does suggest, however, that "greener" and quieter general aviation fleets may result from further development of this approach. (Their press release didn't mention UAVs, but there's an obvious potential there, especially for military and police users who would appreciate having silent UAVs.)

Cornell University payload competes for Jumpstart

One of the three candidates for the ORS Jumpstart mission this summer is a university-built experiment. Cornell's CUSat is a 44-kg payload comprising two satellites. WHen separated, the satellites will maneuver about 10 meters apart, and one will send three-dimensional images of the other to a control center where a 3D virtual representation of the target will be reconstructed. The objective is to improve the capability of an inspection spacecraft to diagnose or identify a satellite of interest. Other options for Jumpstart include the Air Force Research Laboratory's Plug and Play experimental satellite or SpaceDev's Trailblazer.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Lions in the Tower

Two lion skulls kept in the Tower of London have been identified as belonging to an extinct subspecies, the black-maned Barbary lion. The skulls have an odd provenance. They were dredged out of the silt in the Tower's moat in the 1930s and dated to the thirteenth century. DNA studies confirm they are the two oldest known Barbary skulls. The DNA from these surprisingly well-preserved specimens will be used for comparison studies with several lions thought to contain Barbary blood and now living in South Africa and elsewhere. The idea of breeding the subspecies back into existence is still an uncertain hope, but this discovery gives zoologists a better starting point.

India enters the microsat field

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has developed considerable expertise in launch vehicles and applications satellites. "Our main aim now is to make the satellite systems as compact as possible," Dr S K Sharma of ISRO's Space Applications Centre (SAC) said last fall. He described plans for a new generation of satellites weighing under 100 kg. The first of these is a multispectral imager, TWSAT (Third World Satellite, so called because its imagery is free to developing nations). TWSAT will offer a resolution of about one meter. It's due to launch in late April, with eight Indian and foreign Cubesats riding along. The main payload on the launch is a sophisticated earth-resources bird, Cartosat-2A.

Is Surrey for sale?

The giant European aerospace conglomerate, EADS, is in negotiations to buy Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), which has pioneered microspacecraft technology and applications in many areas, notably remote sensing. For those of us with a special interest in seeing what small spacecraft can do, this is very, very depressing. Anyone remember the American smallsat pioneer, Spectrum Astro? It was absorbed into the mass of General Dynamics without a trace. When is the last time anyone saw a breakthrough microspacecraft out of General Dynamics? The last and only one was the Missile Defense Agency's NFIRE (still performing very well), but that was a program acquired from Spectrum Astro. Anyone read In Search of Excellence? The authors explained how large companies buy small ones saying they will keep their identity while the parent company learns from the innovative qualities of the smaller one. That's what happened with Spectrum Astro. The authors went on to explain that this never, repeat never, actually works. The large company gradually imposes more and more of its rules on the smaller firm, until the latter either ceases to exist or becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the corporate mass.
SSTL may carry on in name. But it will not, I fear, be the hotbed of innovation, the company that took the one-time NASA mantra "faster, better, cheaper" and actually made it happen.
Just my personal opinion.
And I fervently hope it's wrong.

GAO weighs in on Ares, Orion, and Constellation in general

THe Government Accountability Office is less reassuring than NASA. Its report opens with, "There are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA's plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost." One major problem is that NASA is behind the original schedule on defining requirements.

The latest on Ares I

NASA briefed the media (which it has a bad habit, in this particular area, of "forgetting" to do) on the oscillation problems detected in its Ares I booster which might make things very uncomfortable - perhaps even intolerable - for astronauts in the Orion command module. In a nutshell, it's still a problem, but they think it can be solved without impact on the program's current schedule.

Bravo for Jules Verne

The first of ESA's automated one-time-use "space freighters," the Jules Verne, successfully docked with the International Space Station. It's a big success for ESA and a step forward in the unpiloted maneuvering and docking of space vehicles.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ancient feces yield clue to the peopling of the Americas

Another scientific brick has been thrown through the window of the "Clovis people were first" shop. DNA in human feces from a cave in Oregon have been dated to 14,000 years B.P. Dennis Jenkins, a University of Oregon archaeologist, said, "This is the first time we have been able to get dates that are undeniably human, and they are 1,000 years before Clovis." Clovis people were once thought to have arrived about 10,000 years B.P., but that date has slipped backwards two to three thousand years as new discoveries dictated. Still, this puts a group of people, apparently a nomadic one, well down the west coast of North America from the Bering Sea land bridge a long time before Clovis. Something else besides the Clovis migration happened back then, and we are still working out what it was.

A Fusion Future?

In this excellent entry in the always-readable Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle brings us up to date on the state of fusion research and the various avenues being pursued in an effort to create an energy-generating (and controlled, of course) thermonuclear reaction. The biggest effort is the ITER program, involving the U.S. and six other nations in an effort to build a reactor in France to achieve this goal. Commercial power generation, as Boyle notes, is still some decades off.
COMMENT: We are not going to solve all the needs of an industrial world with the localized resources of solar-electric and wind energy. Something has to replace the coal, oil, and nuclear fission power plants to run cities and industries. Fusion is the only option that looks feasible (not guaranteed, and costly to develop, but feasible). It needs continued - and expanded - support.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Unique Blog - Women in Planetary Science

A recent article (3/24/08) in this thought-provoking blog suggests women are underrepresentented in the hard sciences for a reason I've never heard before. It's not discrimination or family issues. It's the expectation that Ph.D.'s will fiercely debate and criticize one another's findings in an often confrontational quest to see what ideas really stand up.

Strange Fish in New Family?

A very strange new anglerfish, about the size of a large apple, has icthyologists buzzing. Unlike any other anglerfish, and unlike almost every other fish, period, it has a flat face with the eyes set facing forward, as humans have. This gives it binocular vision and thus depth perception extremely unusual for the class Osteichthyes (bony fishes). Ted Pietsch of the University of Washington thinks the bizarre creature is not just a new species or even a new genus, but the only known representative of a new family. (That would be the 19th family of anglerfish to be classified.) Like most anglerfish, the orange-pink animal (which has a complex color pattern, very good for reef camouflage) has leglike pectoral fins which provide the ability to crawl when needed. Three divers found the fish while exploring a reef in Indonesia.

Anniversary of TIROS-1 launch

This is the 48th anniversary of the launch of the first weather satellite, TIROS-1. The TIROS program remains an outstanding example of what can be accomplished with a small single-purpose satellite.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A New Shrew

As I've observed before, the title of "world's newest mammal" is constantly changing hands (or paws), belying the general belief that we know all the critters of the world. The new title holder is a small one, a shrew from Sri Lanka dubbed Crocidura hikmiya. The rates at which new species are discovered - even if we look at only the vertebrates - have held steady or risen for the last two decades. (At this point, I will, of course, refer the reader to my 2006 book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House) for further documentation.) The point is that, as we become more aware of the damage we are doing to our planet, new creatures keep popping us to remind us that we don't even know what we're destroying.

Also from Surrey and the BNSC: new student payload competition

Entries have recently closed for a unique contest, in which the British National Space Centre (BNSC) and Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), challenged students age 14 to 18 to design the best space experiment weighing 1kg or less. The winning design team will get a £100,000 budget, and the sponsors will arrange for its launch into orbit.
COMMENT: We need more opportunities like this - a relatively low-cost way to raise excitement about space and related fields among students with real, hands-on work they can see the results of. Actually, we need a LOT more of these. The CubeSat program provides a handy "bus" for a small experiment, and the National Science Foundation program described in my post of 3/4/08 (below) is a great start. Still, there aren't enough sponsored (read: funded) opportunities for students to build and launch space experiments, especially at the high school level. NASA and ESA, are you listening to me? (OK, I'm pretty sure they're not, but I'm still right.)

Science in the MoonLITE

NASA will join the British National Space Centre and small-spacecraft maker Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) in a unique lunar exploration project, dubbed MoonLITE ((Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment). The MoonLITE mission will place a small spacecraft in lunar orbit and fire four 36-kg instrumented projectiles into the lunar surface. Total mass at the time of launch would be 846 kg, 306 kg of that being propellant. The mission would revisit one Apollo site and then extend the survey to areas even less well known, placing one probe (with a water sensor) in a polar area and two on the "dark side." If technical reviews and funding are go, the probe would launch in 2012.

The ghost of ASATs past

The recent U.S. shootdown of a failing reconsat, preceded by the Chinese test of a low-orbit antisatellite (ASAT) weapon, have generated new interest in ASAT programs, past and present. The U.S. has only had one operational ASAT, the direct-ascent nuclear-tipped missiles of Program 437 (operational from 1964-72), but there have been many ideas, concepts, and R&D programs that, for one reason or another, stopped short of operational status.
Dr. Dwayne Day, a well-known military space historian, recently found an overlooked relic of one of these. The Army had a program called Kinetic Energy ASAT (KE-ASAT) which began in 1991 and continued for several years, surviving on Congressional earmarks even after the service decided it had higher priorities. Boeing built three prototypes of this system, which extended a large "flyswatter" to disable enemy satellites without creating a debris field.
What Day describes in the article linked above is a model labeled KE-ASAT which does not resemble the Boeing prototypes. It apparently was built by Lockheed as part of its losing bid for the KE-ASAT program. Its dominant feature is a large nosecone, something very odd to see on a satellite. This may have contained Lockheed's own version of the flyswatter.
COMMENT: I am strictly speculating here, but, unlike the Boeing hardware which extended from one side of the ASAT vehicle, this design with its nosecone housing might have used an "uncoiling" circular device, descended from the 4m-wide "umbrella skeleton" of Lockheed's 1980s Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) used in the Homing Overlay Experiment antimissile tests. The metal skeleton used on the KKV could have had a flexible "skin" added for this version to reduce debris from the collision with the target satellite.