Saturday, May 30, 2009

Defending cryptozoology

This skeptical page, like so many others, dismisses cryptozoology by lumping it with the claims for ghosts, UFOs, and other "pseudosciences." That's not valid, folks. My comment on the page follows:

The lumping of cryptozoology with other "pseudosciences" is incorrect for a very simple reason: cryptozoology, unlike the study of ghosts, UFOs, etc., deals in testable hypotheses. For example, either there is a large unknown animal in Loch Ness, or there is not. The means to test the hypothesis may not be available (e.g., a definitive sweep using the most modern naval sonar gear and hydrophones may be something no one can afford) but the hypothesis is, nonetheless, logically testable and thus scientific.
There is no arguing with the statement that many people involved in cryptozoological research, mainly amateur enthusiasts, are too quick to conclude an unknown animal is real based on inadequate data. The implication in your article that searching for unknown animals is fruitless, however, is absurd.
New mammal species alone described in scientific literature in the last 15 years number 408, including cetaceans, deer, van Roosmalen's tapir and dwarf manatee, and other creatures of substantial size. This doesn't mean there is a huge ape stalking the Northwest forests, and indeed (in my opinion, at any rate) ecological and other factors indicate it is unlikely that one will be discovered. Yet this does not invalidate cryptozoology as a field of inquiry any more than disproven claims of cold fusion invalidate nuclear physics.
It's proper to demand that, to be accepted, creatures propounded by cryptozoologists must meet the universal scientific standard of a type specimen. In many cases, though, species which have been thus established did not fall into the lap of science. They were found when researchers (both academically qualified and amateur) followed the kind of evidence cryptozoologists collect - historical accounts, footprints, local stories, etc. - until a type specimen was obtained.
You can argue convincingly that many overly enthusiastic cryptozoologists overreach the data in their claims for particular species. You cannot, however, argue that the search for unknown animals - a search being validated by the description or collection of new type specimens every single day - is scientifically void.

Matt Bille
Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House, 2006)

Tunguska: Did the aliens do it?

As Ethan Siegel describes in his blog, the weird story of the year award who claims the famous Tunguska impact, 101 years ago, was caused by self-sacrificing aliens putting thier spaceship in the path of a comet to save the Earth. Really. This was reported as news in some quarters. A good comment on the blog asks if maybe the aliens were the ones about to vaporize us, and they were wiped out by a fortuitous comet....

Primates in space - 50-year anniversary

On 28 May 1959, two monkeys named Able and Baker were strapped into a compatment of a modified Jupiter missile nose cone and launched into space on a suborbital mission lasting 16 minutes. Both survived the flight, although Able died a few days later of an unrelated cause.
The Air Force, years earlier, had tried giving monkeys rides in modified V-2 nosecones, but it didn't work out well. A NASA history says one monkey flight featured a malfunction of the mecahnism for separating the primate's parachute-euipped capsule and resulted in "No ill effects on money until impact of V-2."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MonsterQuest - Killer Jellyfish (really)

Note to the MQ producers - I love you guys, but who makes up the titles over there? Jellies (biologists are downplaying the misleading term "jellyfish") are more of a manace as various factors lead to population explosions. But to credit them with intelligence because soem species do look for prey instead of random drifing is a bit over the top... especially since they have no brain to work with. The show repeated a story of a ship being incapacitated when a multi-ton jellyfish washed onto the bow. It's a fascinaitng tale that's become a cryptozoological staple, but a few Australian press clippings are the only evidence it ever happened. SOmeone should dig into it more thoroughly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Space Station crew doubles

Cool space exploration news, as reported here by NASA:

"The International Space Station crew is awaiting the arrival of three new members that will usher in an era of six-person crews aboard the orbiting laboratory. Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Bob Thirsk launched aboard a Soyuz spacecraft Wednesday morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz is scheduled to dock with the station at 8:36 a.m. Friday, May 29. The trio will join station Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to form the Expedition 20 crew. It will mark the first time all five partner agencies are represented by astronauts on the station at the same time."

COMMENT: Increased international cooperation is the way of the future in human spaceflight for the simple economic reason that such exploration is expensive as hell.

Pink dolphin charms humans

The shipping channel south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, is home to an unusual cetacean, an albino dolphin. The very rare specimen is about 2 1/2 years old, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is keeping tabs on it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Support for NASA leaders pours in

Everyone, it seems, is joining a chrous of approval for the nominations of Charles Bolden as NASA Administrator and Lori Garver as his deputy - the Coalition for Space Exploration, the Space Foundation, Congress, Marvin the Martian, everybody. Ex-administrator Griffin also applauded the choices, but in a speech where he also made the point that NASA, which gets well under 1% of the federal budget, is woefully underfunded considering its many missions despite doing well in the first year of the Obama administration.

Anyone remember the old Mission Impossible assignments agent Phelps used to get?

>whirr, click<
"Good evening, Mr. Bolden. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take over NASA. You must perform too many missions with too little money, calm the fears of a jittery workforce, and prevent Constellation from turning into nothing but a bigger Gemini. Should you fail in the assignment, the Administration will disavow all knowledge of your existence in 2012.
This tape recorder will be defunded in five seconds. Good luck, Mr. Bolden."

Monday, May 25, 2009

MicroSpace News: Canada's microsats go to work

Canadian maritime, police, and military authorities must patrol huge areas of land and sea. In April 2008, the nation orbited the 8-kg Nanosatellite Tracking of Ships demonstration satellite, built by Com Dev and carrying a miniature Automated Identification System (AIS) terminal. The AIS technology will likely be added to Canad'a future RadarSats, and Com Dev is working on a follow on. In 2010, Com Dev's more sophisticated Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSat) will be orbited.
COMMENT: One more example of the utility of a still-overlooked technology, the microsatellite. Micro-birds can't do everything the big satellites can do, not yet, but the technology keeps advancing. They can do missions on their own as well as serving as affordable testbeds for new ideas.

Long-forgotten flight experiment: P-80 with ramjets

I always liked the first American jet fighter, the P-80 / F-80 Shooting Star. It's just a beautiful airplane with clean, simple lines, a product of Kelly Johnson's legendary genius. A link circulated on the Google group rec.aviation.military is a reminder that all kinds of one-off experimental aircraft were created in the 1940s-1960s, and many were poorly documented. This is an F-80 with small ramjets mounted on the wingtips.
See also:

What is the Shunka Warak’in?

Cryptomundo is running the best photographs to date of a really odd canid-like animal mounted and residing in a glass case in Montana. The animal purportedly dates from 1896 (there are conflicting stories about who shot it and who owns it now). Cryptozoologists hunted for this mount for years, based on an old photograph of it, and in 2007 they found it.
So what is it? Reports of intended DNA testing have not led to any published results. It doesn't look like a coyote, nor exactly like a wolf. The hind legs, as mounted, are shorter than the forelegs, giving it a hyena-like appearance. It has a long narrow snout that doesn't look quite right for any canid people have proposed. The length (without tail) is about 48 inches and the shoulder height 26 inches, within range for a gray wolf or various other canidates.
There are a number of stories, from early American settlers as well as from Native Americans, about strange wolflike animals from this region.
There is some room for error. The mount is so old it's undoubtedly changed a little in appearance, and it's not clear how true to life the original mount was. It's even been speculated that the animal is a hoax mount using parts of two animals. Some people have noted the mount, strange as it is, does not look quite as strange as the one in the old photograph, and it might have been remounted or not even be the same animal.
Speculation about a truly exotic origin, such as the long-thought-extinct dire wolf or a brown hyena, seems extreme, but the bottom line is that it's just not clear what this critter is.

See also:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Finally Official: Charles Bolden leads NASA

OK, it's all over. Five months into the Obama administration, NASA has a boss.

Wishing the very best of luck to Charles Bolden, former Marine Corps general, space shuttle commander (he's the second astronaut to hold NASA's top job), and combat pilot. The combat experience might come in handy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

New species - hard to keep track

A report just out tallies all the new species for 2007: 18,516. Over 75% were invertebrates, while 11 percent were plants and 6.7 percent were vertebrates.
The report from the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University also named a "Top 10" new species from 2008 (total numbers for the year are still being tallied.) They include a palm tree that dies when it flowers (it's humbling to think we don't even know how many kinds of trees live on this planet), the world's longest insect, the world's smallest snake (both described earlier in this blog), one fossil species (a fish preserved in the act of giving birth) and extremeophile bacteria surviving in hairspray.
COMMENT: The conceit that we know all the species, or at least all the vertebrate animals, on Earth, takes new hits every year. Still, if a poll was taken, I suspect the average citizen would presume we knew all the vertebrates.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Little Primate, Big Star

The term "missing link" sends shudders through anthropologists. THere cannot be one missing link in any fossil tree - evolution is far too messy and meandering for that. Rather, there are missing puzzle pieces. One was filled in by a primate 47 million years old and the size of a small cat. At a gala unveiling in New York worthy of a newly discovered Picasso, the remarkably preserved skeleton of Darwinius masillae met its public. The animal does not solve the mysteries of primate evolution, but it gives us a breathtakingly good look - down to fingernails and stomach contents - of a creature near the base of the primate family tree.

MicroSpace News: PharmaSat, Tacsat-3 orbit

After some annoying delays for weather and other reasons (par for the course in this business), DoD's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office has its 400kg TacSat-3 imager in orbit. Along for the ride: NASA's tiny PharmaSat and three CubeSats. The 5-kg PharmaSat has a laboratory with 48 containers of yeast cells on board.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Getting to the end of the NASA Administrator search

Looks like the long, hard slog will end today when Charles Bolden meets with President Obama. Bolden is well regarded throughout the space community, although there's not unanimous approval of his (entirely legal but controversial) work for ATK as a lobbyist for the Ares-1 booster. A lot of decisions about the agency's long-term path, especially the human spaceflight program, need to be made almost immediately. Kudos to Chris Scolese for his yeoman work as Acting Administrator. Now to find the path forward.

"Out there - thataway." - Captain James T. Kirk's course direction in Star Trek - The Motion Picture

Exploring the changing seafloor

In the space of five years, the volcanic vent NW Rota-1, near Guam, built up a new cone 40 meters high and 300 across. THe ecosytem around it changed as new vents opened and new life forms colonized the evolving topography. A National Sceince Foundation - funded team has been watching the evolution of the seafloor in fast forward, as it were. They studied new processes, the appearance of species only known from a long distance away (how does a shrimp from the site. "The 'Loihi' shrimp has adapted to grazing the bacterial filaments with tiny claws like garden shears. The second shrimp is a new species--they also graze as juveniles, but as they grow to adult stage, their front claws enlarge and they become predators."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Giant population of giant reptiles confirmed

The leatherback turtle is in dire straits, but not quite as dire as we feared. Scientists studying turtles using the nesting beaches of Gabon have confirmed 15,000 - 41,000 females use them each year (that's pretty imprecise, you may think, for counting animals which may be 2m long and weigh 500kg, but it's not like the turtles cooperate by using only the beaches under watch and hanging around when the aerial surveys were taking place). The WCS' Angela Formia said, "These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of National Parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife." Cool fact: it was only in 1984 that we confirmed leatherbacks were visiting Gabon at all.

Hail Atlantis

Five spacewalks. Several components replaced in Hubble. Five to ten additional years of life for our greatest science instrument. One wonderfully successful mission that reminds us there are still some tasks in space humans can do that even our best machines (and they are impressive) cannot.

How good were those Indian smoke signals?

All the old westerns has smoke signals in them. Now researchers are doing some real-world tests to find out how the Navaho used them to warn of invaders. The Navaho in the Four Corners area may have used them to relay signals long distances.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Houston, we have an Administrator"

Miles O'Brien, who knows his stuff, says it's ex-astronaut Charles Bolden for NASA Administrator. I've never heard anything but praise in the space community for Bolden (a lot of people wanted him when Mike Griffin was picked), so here's hoping it's a good selection.
Some unanswered questions, though:
Why did it take so long? His name has been floated since before President Obama even took office.
How well can even the most skilled Administrator run an agency that seems doomed to underfunding and a LEO-only manned space program? (The party in power gets high marks for including boosts for NASA in the stimulus bill and the FY10 budget, but the Administration's future projections will not - absolutely will not - support a lunar base or an expedition to Mars.)
Will Bolden come in with a bias toward the controversial Ares-I given that he lobbied for it when working for ATK? (The lobbying was entirely legal and ethical, but a lot of people far more qualified than me think NASA should scrap the rocket.)
Stay tuned!

(Insert usual reminder that all posts are solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen)

Cool stuff about Hubble

This article,"Think You Know Hubble? Top 10 Things You Don't Know," by Ki Mae Huessner, has something for everyone in its collection of Hubble facts, I didn't realize Mercury was never far enough from the Sun to be imaged by Hubble, or that the telescope's namesake was originally a lawyer, not an astronomer. As the Atlantis astronauts continue their spectacularly difficult and successful work on the HST, this is a fun review of why the telescope is so remarkable.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New species Niphargus Kirgizi

It's important to throw in a reminder every now and then of the new species of all sizes being discovered. Herewith a Turkish news report on Niphargus kirgizi, an amhipod crustacean discovered inthe northwestern province of Edirne. It's an eyeless, subterranean animal about 2cm long. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but one more piece added to the mosaic of life on Earth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A humanitarian appeal

I keep this blog to science and technology topics, but every once in a while something comes along that must be posted. Cicily Janus, a fellow author here in the Pikes Peak Writers Club, as asked that this be posted everywhere, and Commandment #1 of the writing business (to me, anyway), is "Thou shalt help each other." So please read.

Our dear friend and an exceptionally talented poet, Craig Arnold, has gone missing on the small volcanic island of Kuchino-erabu-shima while on a creative exchange fellowship.
As OF 4/30 the authorities are on the fourth day of searching for Craig, and are Japanese police on the ground are searching. We greatly appreciate the efforts of both the Japanese and American governments in searching for Craig–lots of people are on the ground working to ensure Craig’s safe return. The response from the U.S. government and from the Japanese authorities have been overwhelmingly positive and we are enormously pleased and grateful for their expanded and extended efforts. Our prayers and thanks are with them as they search. With the assistance of the University of Wyoming, a fund has been established to support the search efforts to find Craig. Even the smallest contribution would be of use. If you would like more information about the fund including specific information about what the fund will be used for at various stages, please see the post on the discussion board. The link directly to the fund is here:
Here’s a Facebook group that can also give more information:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

AFRL seeks RLV concepts

The Air Force Research Laboratory is looking for concepts for a resuable launch vehicle using an expendable upper stage on a reusable first stage.
COMMENT: This has been tried several times and always killed for budgetary reasons. I hope there's some real uniformed and DoD authority behind this and it might go somewhere. Will it survive the budget wars? All resuable ideas since the 1950s have failed that test at the subscale demonstrator phase or before. Here's hoping this will break the jinx.

Hubble image "The Eye of God"

This stunning image of nebula Kohoutek 4-55 is beyond comment. Just wonder at it.

Fusion - two roads to one destination?

Everyone agrees nuclear fusion is the most promising energy source out there - IF we can get away from the "promising" part and make it work.
In this article, Michael Schirber gives a good overview of two approaches to confined fusion reactions which will be demonstrated in the next couple of years. One is ignition of fuel pellets by lasers, which should be self-confining and works a little like your car engine, with a series of bursts of energy. The other is magnetic confinement, heating a hydrogen-gas fuel to stupendous temperatures and confining the continual reaction that results with magnetic fields. Both cost billions of dollars to test - no other energy source has as much up-front cost as fusion. But none has as much potential, either.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Go Atlantis!

The Shuttle Atlantis, with a crew of seven under the command of Scott Altman, is off for the last servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. Five spacewalks on the $1N mission are planned.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Make your comments to the Augustine commission

NASAWatch has created a thread for people to say, succinctly, what points they would make if they got to testify to the Augustine commission on the NASA human spaceflight program. No onw knows if this will have any impact, but it's important for people to express thoughts on a site we know is very widely read in NASA and the broader space community.

My comment was:
Dear Mr. Augustine,
Constellation today is morphing from "Apollo on steroids" to "Gemini with with four people." "Go as you can pay" is morphing into "Do what you can with an already-inadequte budget." This can't be allowed to continue.
The VSE goals made sense: for science, for American leadership, and (in the long run) for economics. Changes in the architecture, like the elimination of the marginal Ares I ("Estes on steroids"), must be done as needed. There can't be sacred cows. And we must look for a new level of international and public/private cooperation, creating a global megacommunity for space exploration.
Milestones and intermediate goals can be rescheduled, the order changed, etc. I submit, however, that only the overarching goal of long-term human exploration of the Moon and Mars makes the human spaceflight program worth the doing. Your commission must find a practical route, based on a grand vision but rooted in realism about economics, politics, and technology, to make us a true spacefaring nation again.
Matt Bille
Space writer/historian

SPECIAL EMPHASIS: As often happens, I need to emphasize this is my opinion as a private citizen. nothing more.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Yuck on Yucca Mountain

President Obama's first budget is out. Those supporting science and technology funding will find a lot to cheer about. But (yes, the COMMENT part starts here) the decision to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository with NO alternative in place - or even in sight - is unsupportable. If there is one decision in the whole budget future generations (who will be stuck trying to work the problem all over again, now that decades of study and billions in preparatory work have been wasted) will wish had not been made, it's this one. It doesn't matter whether you think nuclear power is a good or bad idea. The plants exist and the waste is stacked up in marginally secure "temporary" facilities around the country, like it has been for decades. Worse, there's no chance Congress will reverse this and almost no chance another safe method that is politically acceptable will be found soon. We can only hope the consequences are not as bad as they might be.

Re-examining Constellation

White House OSTP press release:
"The Obama Administration today announced the launch of an independent review of planned U.S. human space flight activities with the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space. The review will be conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of experts led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin..."

COMMENT: OK, Constellation needs reexamining, especially given the chronic problems with Ares-1. And Norm Augustine is respected throughout the aerospace community. The trouble is that a re-evaluation based on recent decisions - no Moonbase, only four astronauts on Orion - may well come out with a conclusion that's not "Apollo on steroids," but "Gemini with four people." Is a strictly limited Constellation with only LEO objectives worth doing? I don't know. It's a hideous letdown from what the President said during the campaign, that's for certain.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

200 new frog species from Madagascar

Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, boasts unique wildlife and an amazing degree of biodiversity. One expert commented that he thought they'd identified most of the frogs, at least. Wrong - way wrong. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests between 129 and 221 new species have been identified. This almost doubles the currently known amphibian fauna.
From the Abstract:
"Based on DNA sequences of 2,850 specimens sampled from over 170 localities, our analyses reveal an extreme proportion of amphibian diversity, projecting an almost 2-fold increase in species numbers from the currently described 244 species to a minimum of 373 and up to 465."
COMMENT: This has major implications worldwide - if the count for Madagascar was that far off, what about Southeast Asia? Central America? The indonesian archipelago? Herpetologists may be sorting this out for a long time.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

PharmaSat launch, etc.

Ames director Pete Worden reports via Twitter that the Minotaur launch with PharmaSat was scrubbed for weather and may be scrubbed tomorrow, too.
Today's other launch, a Delta 2 from Vandenberg with a Missile Defense Agency payload, was launched on schedule at 2024GMT and looking good.
COMMENT: I can't remember the last time the US scheduled two orbital launches on the same day. It used to happen in the Sixties, but that's all I remember.

FTL Travel update: A cool new book

This item from WIRED introduces a book more authoritative and up to date than the research I mentioned surveying for NASA. The put the lessons in the book Frontiers of Propulsion Science into a really condensed condensed version: Antimatter warp drive is not going to make it. Traversable wormholes are, eventually, maybe, a possibility. Travel via antigravity and "free energy" are out - there's no evidence either works on even the smallest scale.
Definitely a book I need to read.

New biology news site looks good

This brand-new site collects news in the biological sciences and presents it in a simple, appealing format. The news for 5/4/09 includes research indicating narcolepsy (extreme sleepiness), blamed on many causes, is an autoimmune disease, and an item on how birdsong evolves in isolated individuals but reverts to the the species' "normal" song over several generations. ("Zebra finch 2544-N, you have been assimilated.")

MicroSpace News: Things are go at Wallops Island....

At last word, the launch of a 4-stage Minotaur 1 carrying the Air Force's 400-kg imaging satellite, TacSat-3, NASA's PharmaSat, and three CubeSats, is go for this evening. Fingers crossed. This mission should do important science, an important military mission (near-real-time) imagery to military commanders), and provide another demonstration of the utility of microspacecraft.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Farewell to Eilene Galloway, Space Law Leader

I never met Eilene, but she was, by all accounts, one of the great forces in the shaping of modern space law and policy. Ad Astra, Eilene.

From her obituary:
Eilene Marie Galloway, one of the world’s leading experts in space law and policy, died May 2, 2009 at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 103. She became one of Washington's most influential space experts beginning as a Congressional expert on space in 1957, helped shape the creation of NASA, played a role in establishing the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), and was a founding member of the International Institute of Space Law, among countless other accomplishments. In the May 15, 2006, Congressional Record, in honor of her 100th birthday, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, called Dr. Galloway “an influential force in the development and analysis of domestic and international space law and policy."

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Life: Not-so-long odds?

A very interesting discussion by Dave Deamer on the question of how likely it is that life could arise by chance on a suitable planet (he''s talking Earth, but it applies everywhere).

UFOs and that propulsion thing

The exchange with impassioned author Robert Hastings under my earlier post "UFOs and Nukes: No Truth is Out There" made me think about the whole interstellar problem again.
I was once on a study for NASA where we read the literature and talked to some of the top people on exotic propulsion ideas. As much as I want it to be different, faster than light (FTL) travel for solid matter like a spaceship is centuries off, if it's solvable at all. It may not be. The ideas involving the most powerful systems we can think, of, using antimatter, don't get you anywhere close: as you near lightspeed, the energy requirements approach infinity.
An alien civilization may, of course, well be a thousand years ahead of us, but the laws of physics will still apply. I do think there are civilizations out there, but the extraordinary claim that at least one is visiting us requires extraordinary proof, and the burden of proof is on those aruing that extraordinay claim. No collection of anecdotes and radar anomalies, however sincere and intriguing, gets me to the "spaceship" conclusion. The FTL problem makes it entirely reasonable to demand an actual spaceship.
It seems likely that a sufficiently advanced civilization will be able to send information FTL using entanglement ("spooky action at a distance"), but spaceships? That's a very big unknown.