Friday, February 27, 2009

Walk like a man (1.5MY ago)

Footprints of Homo ergaster - the oldest human-ancestor footprints known at 1.5 million years old - look remarkably modern. The prints, left in northern Kenya in sedimentary rock, indicate an individual about 175 cm tall. Archaeologist David Braun said, "It was kind of creepy excavating these things to see all of a sudden something that looks so dramatically like something that you yourself could have made 20 minutes earlier."

NASA's next budget is an improvement

Not quite what's needed, considering all the missions heaped on the space agency. But so far, there's some promise. The agency is doing better than I would have expected in the new Administration. There's $1B extra in the stimulus bill, a budget hike to $18.7B for next year, and, so far, the Obama administration has made no changes to the Bush-era Vision for Space Exploration. The new budget will not close the gap (now at least four years) in US human spaceflight capabilities, but, like I said - better than exptected.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Weird new life beneath a Great Lake

Far beneath Lake Huron, one of North America's largest freshwater lakes, mineral-laden water gushing from ancient rock layers is supporting floating purple mats of cyanobacteria. This is the kind of ecosystem seen around hydrothermal vents and other geological anomalies on the seafloor. Finding it here was a stunner, and the implications will take a long time to fully investigate and understand.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Exaggerations in the climate debate help no one

This article in the NY Times highlights a problem with the climate change debate: the tendency on both sides to engage in broader statements than the evidence warrants. Al Gore had to pull a slide blaming everything except meteor showers on global warming after the experts he based it on said he had misrepresented them considerably. Conservative pundit George Will is under fire for a dismissive column that some experts say misstated his evidence. The article notes that President Obama has also overreached the evidence.
COMMENT: It's nice to see a balanced article on this from the NYT, which appeared at times (no pun intended) in the last election campaign to treat anything from the Obama organization as akin to the Sermon on the Mount, only more authoritative. It points up something I've been trying to say along - that climate change is a complicated subject. Reducing it to viewgraphs, while sometimes necessary, is not an excuse to oversimplify, mislead, present footage from The Day After as the real thing (as Gore did), or exaggerate even the worst-case scenarios in the service of getting the message across. This is the climate of the planet Earth we are talking about, not a home thermostat. Sweeping declarations from anyone are suspect.

MIT's plasma thruster gives new meaning to "Bottle Rocket"

MIT's Dr Oleg Batishchev and his colleagues have been working on a simplified version of one promising advanced space propulsion idea, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). While the full-size concept requires a fission reactor for power, the MIT group has been toying with a miniature knockoff for satellite propulsion tasks like station-keeping. To prove just how simple they can make it, they fashioned a working plasma thruster whose components are - really - a glass bottle and a Coke can.
1. The video of this thing being tested is really cool.
2. Why do I keep thinking of Tony Stark in Iron Man building a working "arc reactor" in a cave from scrap materials?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Orbiting Carbon Observatory doesn't orbit

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to reach orbit. The fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle that lifted from Vandenberg AFB early Tuesday morning apparently failed to separate.

COMMENT: This is a surprise, considering this is a well-proven launch vehicle, and it reminds us again that space launch is a complex business. It also reminds us of the shortsighted underfunding of space programs which guarantees no research spacecraft - none - has a backup unit.

Atmopsheric phenomenon tied to UFOs

Sprites are huge flashes of electricity in the upper atmosphere many kilometers above thunderstorm activity. They constitute a phenomenon defined only recently and still not well understood. Tens of kilometers across, they can look like titanic, glowing jellyfish or take on a more ball-like appearance. Geophysicist Colin Price suggests they may be behind some otherwise puzzling UFO reports.

COMMENT: Having read a lot of the UFO literature, I can think of some cases this applies to. Some witnesses could have been too far away to see the storm activity below, but able to see the gigantic sprites. With no frame of reference in the upper atmosphere, a sprite could certainly look like a smaller glowing object closer to the observer. Still, Sprites don't last long and don't move, so they certainly don't fit many other reports that are still in the "unexplained" file.
This does remind me yet again of a theorized phenomenon, suggested by the late Philip Klass and others, that I strongly suspect is real and is behind many UFOs: a larger, longer-lived cousin of ball lighting that can appear without the need for nearby storm activity. It's uncertain just what the mechanism would be, but there's no agreement on the mechanism behind regular ball lighting either.

A monster catch in Thailand

It's not a new species, but it's a heck of a fish story, and this image has to be seen to be appreciated.
British biologist Ian Welch was working with a catch-and-tag fish survey program when he pulled in, on rod and reel, a stingray with a body over two meters long and a tail over three meters. Welch says he would have been pulled out of the boat is a colleague hadn't snagged his belt and hung on. The animal weighed 350 kg. It was successfully tagged and released.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fish's eyes peer out through transparent head

If it were not for the hard evidence of an ROV's video images and the capture of a live specimen, no one would believe this one.
The barreleye (Macropinna microstoma) has a transparent shield over the upper half of its head, like one of those science fiction monsters with a see-through domed skull. The fish was first caught in 1939, but the original specimens were in bad shape after being hauled from their Pacific habitat 600-800 meters down. Only now do we understand how truly weird this thing is. Tubular, light-sensitive eyes with bright green tips can turn in any direction, including upward to look through the fluid-filled "dome."
COMMENT: Can you imagine how an eyewitness report alone would be taken? The diver having the sighting would be rushed to a decompression chamber, if not to a psychiatric hospital.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

MicroSpace News: India's new microsat

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and an affiliated university (IIT Kanpur) are finishing up the newest remote sensing microsatellite. The Jungu satellite, which will gather imagery to support agriculture and disaster predition/relief, relies on indigenous technology and weighs a mere 3kg.

Becoming a cryptozoologist

I get the question a few times a year from students who have read my books: "How do I become a cryptozoologist?" As Loren Coleman explains more thoroughly in this Cryptomundo post, cryptozoology is a sideline to almost all its practitioners. There are no degree courses in this controversial subspecialty. I always respond that a zoology degree is the best preparation - and you can find a paying job with it to keep up an income while you study sasquatch footprint casts or whatever fascinates you.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

We found Atlantis? No? Darn.

Some 960 km off the coast of Africa, a huge grid appeared to mark the seafloor on Google Earth images. There was some immediate buzz about the fabled (almost certainly mythical, but still fascinating) lost city of Atlantis.
Alas, Google explained it was not so. The apparent grid was an artifact of the way we've been studying the seafloor. Contour data taken directly from sonar mapping systems is shown in relatively straight lines - the tracks of the ships that carried the sonar and did the mapping. The spaces between are unmapped areas.
COMMENT: Too bad about Atlantis (which probably arose from a mangled account of the Minoan civilization), but think about it the other way. Think about how much unknown seafloor territory is indicated by these images and how much exploration we have left to do. As Sylvia Earle once put it, we know more about Mars than the deep oceans.

American space weapons? Not anytime soon

In this article, DoD official Pete Hays not only insists the US is not developing space weapons, but points out a hard truth: if the Air Force wanted them, it couldn't pay for them.
COMMENT: Technically, any satellite which might be maneuvered into another can be used as a weapon, as can some ground-based missiles we have now. But Hays' point is an important one. Space-to-space weapons are a complex technology - achievable, certainly, but complex and expensive. The tacair generals would make short work of a proposal to divert money for something we don't have an overwhelming need for.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

An awesome sight in the sky

Verical pillars of light in the night sky are a rare and strikingly beautiful phenomenon. This article, with a photo and diagram, explains how it's caused by light sources refracting or reflecting through low-altitude ice crystals.

Bird thought extinct photographed - then eaten

Wilson's buttonquail, a rounded featherball with black and brown plumage edged in white, is such a rare denizen of the Philippine island of Luzon that it was thgouht to be possibly extinct. It had never been photographed alive - until last month, when a TV crew captured the bird's image just before it was sold for food.

COMMENT: Let's hope that's not the last of its kind. If it is, the moment of a species' extinction will be known with rare and saddening precision.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

R.I.P. Konrad Dannenberg

One of the last of the von Braun rocket scientists has passed on. Konrad Dannenberg was an engineer who played key roles in every U.S. missile and rocket project undertaken by the transplanted German team, then acted as docent, instructor, and chief encourager at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (home of Space Camp) for many years after his retirement. He was 96 years old. One longtime NASA friend said, "The great thing about Konrad is that he never quit thinking and he never quit dreaming. He was truly an ambassador for space."

Ad astra, Konrad.

Extinct species by the bucket

I kind of ripped off LiveScience's headline, but couldn't resist. Paleontologist Steve Sweetman looks for, and finds, new species that other visits to the fossil-heavy Isle of Wight have missed. His methord? Digging out, drying, and sifting through tons of sand for small teeth and bones. That seems mind-numbing to most of us, but Sweetman is encouraged every time he hits a new species of reptile or amphibian - and he has 48 so far.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thousands of species inhabit polar waters

A survey performed as part of the massive Census of Marine Life effort reports thousands of species of fish and (mainly) invertebrates in the waters around the poles. This area was once thought to be a biological desert. It's anything but. Hundreds of new species, yet to be formally described, are included in this haul. Strangely, an estimated 235 species appear at both poles - but nowhere in between. Their presence is spawning (no pun intended) new theories and studies in an effort to understand how such animals migrate over time to colonize new regions.

How do you vacuum a vacuum?

The recent US-Russian satellite collision (which occurred weirdly close to a scary incident in which British and French nuclear subs managed to get into the same tiny patch of ocean) reminded everyone of the space debris problem. NORAD and the USAF are tracking about 19,000 objects of 10cm or larger in orbit now. How do you reduce the hazards, given that natural reentry can taken, depending on the orbit and other factors, months to centuries for each stray satellite, bolt, holding clamp, and piece of shrapnel?
As this NY Times editorial points out, absent an easy answer to that question, the first thing we need to do is stop making more debris. We need more sensors and more computing power to avoid future collisions and better steps to mitigate the release of junk during normal operations.

Oddly, cost analyst Robyn Kane and I published a 1999 paper through the Conference on Small Satellites about the need for a "Space Guard" of small, maneuverable spacecraft which could, among other things, latch on to a dead satellite and deorbit it. The example we used was exactly what just happened: a defunct Russian satellite on a collision course with an American comsat. Alas, no one came up to us at that 1999 meeting with a check and said "Look into this." Maybe someone will look into it now.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for this item.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What's behind "miraculous" cancer recoveries?

This article from Forbes probes the mysteries of seemingly inexplicable recoveries in cancer patients and how doctors focusing on the immune system are trying to understand and duplicate such recoveries.

COMMENT: We've all heard about cases like this. Often we know someone, at least distantly, who's had this happen. My wife, Deb, described a patient when she was an Air Force nurse who went from a healthy young man to a terminal cancer patient and suddenly, shockingly, back to a healthy young man. His oncologist couldn't explain it, and Deb vividly remembered the fellow dancing around the clinic, crying and hugging the nurses. It's a topic we all wonder about sometimes. Do such cures arise from repeatable medical factors? Faith? Plain luck? We all want to know.

THANKS TO Dr. Jennifer Stapleton for this item.

News of the Mountain Lion

This is a terrific news site for keeping up with all things related to Puma concolor. The mountain lion is always of interest because of subjects like the nearly-extinct Florida panther, the maybe-not-extinct Eastern cougar, and the arguments over whether the cat has a black or dark phase.
Thanks to Terry Colvin for pointing out this resource.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th birthday, Darwin

There is no lack of media coverage of Charles Darwin's 200th. I thought the CNN article I linked to here, suggesting ways to celebrate with travel, was an interesting sidelight.
COMMENT: An inevitable component of this celebration is the evolution-creation debate. I've never held the view that Darwin's thoughts and religion are incompatible, merely that the work done on natural selection and evolution indicates the Old Testament account of Creation cannot be read literally. (I speak here only of the Judeo-Christian tradition.) There are many religious thinkers aligned to this view, which is also endorsed by the Vatican. There are aspects of human behavior, including altruism, the tendency toward an innate moral (as opposed to merely practical) code of ethical behavior, the ability and the need to engage in theology, and the ability to appreciate beauty, that seem to me to defy a strictly biological explanation. I'm aware, of course, that strictly biological explanations for all these things have been advanced - I've simply not found them convincing. All that said, Darwin, while he was not the first to ponder natural selection, was the indispensable thinker who turned it from speculation into a well-reasoned scientific approach. Without him, it would have advanced over time, in bits and pieces, but it would not have become the paradigm shift that it was. So Happy 200th.

Remember: Also the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. (It would have been interesting if the two men had met - Lincoln would have been very interested.) Lincoln was not a scientist, but he had an appreciation for engineering and technology. He backed the radical design of the Monitor when his admirals thought it unworkable, and he held a patent on a device to refloat stranded barges.

"The Horrendous Space Kablooie"

That's from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip - it was Calvin's preferred term for the Big Bang. It came to mind last night with the violent collision between an Iridium communications satellite and a nonfunctional Russian comsat. With over 1,500 kg of mass involved, the collision created a massive debris field in the orbit 780 km up. The debris may contaminate orbits hundreds of kilometers above and below this point as well.
COMMENT: This kind of thing was inevitable, sooner or later. It should give new urgency to space debris cleanup concepts and the ability to locate and deborbit nonfuntional satellites.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

408 new mammals in the last 15 years

Yes, you read that right. The authors of a new paper reviewing all the findings since 1993 report that 40% are "large and distinctive." (The others are referred to as "cryptic," meaning, in this case, they looked similar to other species and needed genetic or other tests to differentiate them.) The new species include 23 which are endangered, which is actually surprisingly low. They bring the worldwide mammal count to 5,487.
Coauthor Paul Ehrlich comments, "What this paper really talks about is how little we actually know about our natural capital and how little we know about the services that flow from it."

COMMENT: OK, the really big animals some cryptozoologists look for so ardently still elude us, if indeed they exist. But to suggest that the search for new mammals is unscientific or a waste of time - as George Gaylord Simpson flatly declared in a 1984 paper - is an absurdity in the face of this data.

Relaunch of website

My completely revised and updated website is up. There are sample papers, excerpts from all three of my books, etc., up there. My thanks to the talented web designer Maleesha Speer, who can be contacted from my site.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Shuttle to upgrade ISS delayed

A space shuttle flight which will carry the fourth and final set of solar panels to the ISS, preparing it for an expansion from three crewmembers to six, has been slipped to February 22 to inspect valves controlling gaseous hydrogen flow. The shuttle Discovery will take seven astronauts, including one from Japan, up to install the new equipment.
COMMENT: NASA is doing the right thing, making shuttle safety the appropriate priority. For all the problems with the shuttle, there is no other vehicle in the world that can carry huge structures into orbit in relatively benign conditions. Still, this and other delays point up that the retirement by 2010 is likely to be feasible only if missions are cut, rather than added, to the manifest. NASA and the Administration - if it ever gets around to picking a nASA Administrator - should plan the rest of the manifest by number of missions needed, not schedule, even though this will require either more money or the umpteenth slip in Constellation.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

See-through circuitry

In this week's "This is just really cool" item, scientists at UCLA have developed electronic circuits made of transparent carbon nanotubes. It's possible to imagine a host of things eventually coming out of this. Invisible electronics could make transparent surfaces, like your car windshield, into signboards calling for help. It could make window-mounted solar cells more practical. Or it could make your Coke can able to read your drinking speed (maybe). It's one of those things that's just fun to bat around in your mind.

Friday, February 06, 2009

A snowball fight with a killer whale (seriously)

Marine ecologist Robert L. Pitman has spent years studying the killer whales of the Antarctic. As I recounted in Shadows of Existence, he believes there may be three species, not one. Here he discusses a particular population that has learned to follow an icebreaker for the food it gives access to. He also recounts an incident where he playfully threw a snowball at a whale - and the whale began flipping a chunk of ice into the air with its nose. Fascinating stuff.
Note; The term "killer whale" was popular for a long time, was largely replaced by the less prejudicial "orca," and seems to be slipping back into proper use. (Who decides these things?)

MicroSpace News: Japan boosts microsats to orbit

When Japan's Ibuki climate satellite orbited January 22, it had hitchhikers: no fewer than seven microspacecraft with scientific and demonstration missions:
SDS-1 (Small Demonstration Satellite 1)
SOHLA-1 (Space Oriented Higashiosaka Leading Association)
PRISM (Pico-satellite for Remote-sensing and Innovative Space Missions)
KKS-1 (Kouku-Kosen-Satellite 1)
Kagayaki (SorunSAT)

SpriteSAT is one of my favorite examples of what you can do with smallsats, thanks to its fascinating mission. This a sub-50kg spacecraft was built by university students and faculty to observe a powerful phenomenon we didn't know existed until a few years ago (electrical discharges called "sprites" in the upper atmosphere).
STARS-1 is a tether experiment, with a "mother daughter" pair of spacecraft. Tethers are potentially useful for control, orbit-raising, and power-generating purposes, but tether experiments seem jinxed, with several encountering glitches or (in one case) launch failure. Here's hoping for better luck.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The earliest animals on Earth

Life on Earth is believed to have begun about 1.2 billion years ago, but it took a long time to advance beyond the single-celled stage. The age of the earliest multicelled creatures has hovered somewhere around 530MY, perhaps 575. Rocks in Oman, however, have yielded chemical traces left by animals called demosponges. Demosponges of 635 MYA may have been only a millimeter or two across (their modern descendants can be over a meter high), but they were definitely multicellular creatures. This discovery has a host of implications for the early development of more complex life and the now-questioned picture of what the Earth's oceans were like in the days when mammals were a half-billion years in the future.

The mother of all snakes?

The largest modern snakes top out at around 10 meters, probably closer to 9 (not that there's anything small about that). But a reptile whose remains were dug out of a Columbian coal mine could have swallowed the largest of its modern rivals for breakfast. Titanoboa cerrejonensis was about 13m long and weighted better than 1,100 kg. Some 60 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, this was the top predator in its aquatic environment, constricting crocodilians and anything else that was handy.
Paleontologist Jason Head explained, "It's the biggest snake the world has ever known. The snake's body was so wide that if it were moving down the hall and decided to come into my office to eat me, it would literally have to squeeze through the door."
COMMENT: Wow. This does make one think about the modern reports of giant anacondas and boa constrictors (this snake was related to both) measuring 15m or more. However, the team Head was on estimated the tropics must have been considerably warmer than they are today to make a cold-blooded snake of this size practical from an energy standpoint. I can never resist quoting David Quammen's summary of monster snake lore: "It might all be true but it probably isn't."

Reactions to Iranian launch vary

The reactions are coming in to Iran's becoming the 10th nation in history to launch its own satellite with its own launcher. They, are, predictably, mixed, and focused less on the satellite than on the implications of the successful launch for Iranian missile capabilities. Israel is extremely concerned, most Western nations perturbed, and Iran is trying to reassure everyone this is a research satellite for a program with only domestic civil aims.

COMMENT: Iran actually has done something significant in space history, and there is room to applaud its scientists and engineers while being very concerned about the bigger picture. It escapes no one that this is additional leverage for Iran in the talks over the nuclear program: that is, demonstration of a related capability heightens the need to freeze the nuclear program, maybe inducing other nations to pay a higher price in aid, diplomatic recognition, etc. - if Iran is willing to make such a compromise at all. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

New species don't stop for anything....

...not even for a historic moment like a new nation joining the space powers of the world.

A dozen new frogs from India

A passel of amphibians from Columbia

Oh, and see the title link... Spanish scientists cloned the Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) a variant of the Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica) from a frozen tissue specimen taken from the last living animal (which was found crushed by a tree). The DNA was used in embryos from a domestic goat. The kid thus produced died shortly after birth, but it still marks the first time an extinct animal has been given life via genetic engineering.

MicroSpace News: Iran does it

That was quick.
The Iranian satellite is in an orbit of 545 x 378 km, orbital inclination 55.5 degrees. Iran says the satellite serves the cause of "peace and brotherhood." Iran's neighbors are a little nervous about that part.
Video of the launch:
The Safir launcher is a close cousin (there is much shared technology) to North Korea's Taepodong 2, which failed in its only launch attempt.

Still looking for reliable details on mass and payload.

Monday, February 02, 2009

MicroSpace News: British smallsat launcher plan

SSTL and Virgin Galactic - two firms with expertise and money (especially since SSTL became a subsidiary of EADS Astrium) - have proposed the U.K. get back into the satellite-launching business. England has long lacked its own satellite launcher, having canceled the Black Arrow program in 1971. The new idea would be a microsatellite launcher from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the spaceplane carrier aircraft which, as things stand now, will have a lot of useless downtime between space passenger flights. Numbers being kicked around as objectives include a payload of up to 200kg and a dirt-cheap cost of $1M per flight.
COMMENT: I'll be shocked if they can do it for $1M, but there's nothing irrational about the idea. SSTL having access to its own launcher, flying its payloads on its (and its clients') preferred schedules, is a logical notion. Good luck, lads!

In Sweden, monster hunters run afoul of the law

Sweden's Lake Storsjön is the longtime home of one of Europe's most famous and endearing "monster" tales. Often depicted with huge, comical-looking fins or ears behind its head, the purported sea serpent has been hunted seriously by cryptozoologists and not-too-seriously by those wishing to attract tourists. However, a project funded by local businesses to keep the lake under continual camera surveillance has run afoul of the Jämtland county council, which has banned cameras on the shores of the lake for reasons not exactly clear. The officials say that video surveillance is allowed only if the cameras are under water. The council in 1996 prohibited any form of harm to whatever may or may not be lurking in the lake, which has a tradition of sightings dating to 1635.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

MicroSpace News: First Iranian Satellite soon?

Reza Taqipour, head of Iran's space agency, has announced the Omid (Hope) satellite may be launched as early as March. The satellite is described as a "communications satellite." Presumably, what he's referring to, given the limited payload of Iran's Safir launch vehicles, is a LEO UHF or VHF comsat, likely a microsatellite.

COMMENT: The Iranian program makes some other nations uneasy, given that a small satellite launcher and an IRBM are very close cousins. Still, every nation has the right to develop space vehicles (Iran is not a signatory to the leaky MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime)). Given Iran's resources and determination to be an influential regional power, it would not be surprising if this launch is the first step toward small imaging satellites as well as communications and maybe ELINT birds. Unfortunately, it would also not be surprising if, ten years from now, Iraq has several IRBMs with nuclear warheads, unless the rest of the world devises a much more effective approach to halting Iran's nuclear program.