Saturday, April 30, 2011

History Files: Lost City of the Maya

Nothing is as romantic as the idea of the lost city. Sometimes this staple of film and authors like Burroughs and Haggard actually comes true, though without the native kings and princesses. A hundred buildings and a pyramid have been found so far in the jungle covering Holtun ("Head of Stone"), a Mayan citadel that has adventurous archeologists reaching for their fedoras.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Posts might get erratic

For the next three days, I'm at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference: A truly great experience!

When the world's coolest job goes away

Several articles out this week on the NASA astronauts wondering what's ahead, as they potentially face several years of ISS-only missions, where they will be carried up by Russian rockets. As astronaut Stan Love puts it: "For me, the sense of disappointment is that launching people into space becomes something we used to do."
COMMENT: NASA had this problem before the Shuttle, as some astros left the program or worked their way into unrelated jobs, and the corps lost a lot of experience that way. NASA needs to do everything it can to keep its astronauts together and sharp. THat includes not only ISS missions, but maybe some cooperative ventures with the private-spaceship companies as well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Census of Marine Life - and Beyond!

I've written about the Census before, but this article by the always-excellent Nicholas Wade in the NYT introduces us to the little-known founder of this monumentally successful effort to catalog marine species around the world (finding some 6,000 new ones). Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation created the Census of Marine Life program in 2000. The program grew to an effort involving 540 ships and costing $650M. And one of the most interesting things we learned is that this mammoth feat of global cooperation didn't complete the job: as Census scientists found new species everywhere they looked, the vast sections of the deep they haven't sampled yet undoubtedly hold many more. Hats off to Mr. Ausubel, a true hero of science and conservation.
Another of his projects is bringing together descriptions of every known species from every environment around the world. Visit the Encyclopedia of Life:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Conservation: Condor Success Story

Amid all the bad news from the animal world, let's remember what humans CAN do when they put the effort into it. The California condor may be the ugliest bird in the world, but it's beautiful to conservationists. From a low of 27 birds, its numbers have climbed to nearly 400 - a population higher than at any time in at least the last 70 years.

Update on NASA funding for spaceships

The key statement on CCDev 2 funding, from NASA's Phil McAlister: "Within the U.S. industrial base, there is considerable launch vehicle development expertise and experience, as many companies have successfully developed new launch vehicles over the last few decades. In contrast, no U.S. company has successfully developed a crew-carrying spacecraft in over 30 years."
COMMENT: Makes sense to me. We have rockets: Delta, Atlas, and Falcon (which hopefully will force the others down in price). We don't have a proven human-carrying spacecraft once we retire the Shuttle. If the private sector can do it faster and cheaper than the Orion-derived capsule NASA is still working on, then fine. (If the Lockheed Martin/NASA capsule program goes well, then we're "more fine" - we have options.)

Turning a deaf ear to the universe

The Kepler telescope has identified 1,235 possible planets in the habitable zone around other stars. So the logical next step is to turn our radiotelescopes on those solar systems and listen for electronic signs of civilization. Too bad we just turned off our most powerful tool, the Allen Telescope Array, for lack of a few million dollars per year. Operating funds came from the National Science Foundation and the state of California, both of which have cut back this year so severely that the array, half funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, has been shut down.
COMMENT: A day of scientific infamy. It's understood that there is never enough money for every worthy use, and we pay our leaders to choose between competing priorities. But surely we could pull a few million from somewhere (tobacco farmer subsidies, perhaps?) to keep our ear open to the universe.

New species keep dropping in

I like to chronicle, from time to time, the fact that zoological discoveries come in all sizes, and they never stop. For example, one man, Norman Platnick, a curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History, discovered 10 new American species from a tiny group called goblin spiders in 2010. Goblin spiders can make silk, but they eschew webs in favor of actively hunting small insects and eating them on the spot. For all you know, you may have stepped on a new species unawares on your way to work this morning.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Taking shots at commercial space

Item 1: Jay Barbree, who's been reporting on the space program since it was created, is not happy about how NASA carved up its awards for commercial flights to the ISS. He complains that Boeing was the only experienced company getting an award: SpaceX and especially two startups, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, are unproven. NASA ignored real experience, he said (as in, ATK and Orbital Sciences).
Item 2: Russia, an ISS partner, is not happy with the whole commercial thing. Its officials say private ships can't dock at the ISS until they meet yet-to-be-defined standards. This is, of course, the same Russia getting $60M per seat to launch astronauts to ISS on the world's only functional post-Space Shuttle human-rated vehicle.
COMMENT: Barbree is right in the narrow sense that NASA didn't direct all its funding to traditional aerospace partners. But aren't those the same companies that went through so much trouble, so many cost overruns, so many problems with Ares-I and several junked X-vehicles and EELV (a reliable launcher with stupendous price increases)? Shouldn't NASA be in the business of backing some promising newcomers rather than preserving an ossified oligopoly? As to Russia...follow the money.
Every new industry and new company has hurdles to overcome. Here's hoping the new guys can do it.
REMINDER: As always, only more so: All comments represent solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen.

History Files: What's in YOUR attic?

The Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world printed 500 years ago. While several hundred copies are known to exist, the book is treasured as one of the milestones in the printing of illuminated manuscripts. Known copies are housed in museums and private collections. A complete copy in near-perfect condition has gone for a million dollars at auction.
So when a Utah man who's had an old German-language book in his attic for generations handed a local book dealer a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, jaws dropped. The man thought the book might be worth something and was donating it for a local auction. The copy is falling apart and has only about a third of its pages, so the estimated monetary worth is "only" $50,000. But it's the classic story that's appealing here. What else is in the nation's attics?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: the ultimate Space Shuttle book

Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System The First 100 Missions
Dennis R. Jenkins - published by the author, 2001

What Jenkins has done here is phenomenal. Certainly no other book on the Shuttle compares to it, and I don't think any other space vehicle, not even Apollo, is the subject of a one-volume reference so complete and authoritative.

In addition to exhaustive descriptions and diagrams of the Shuttle's technology, Jenkins puts the subject in context. Reusable spaceplane ideas go back to before World War II. The most brilliant minds in aerospace engineering have tried to make them practical, but either technology or cost defeated all the pre-Shuttle efforts. The author goes through the history of suborbital X-planes, the never-built efforts like Dyna-Soar, and the 1960s beginnings of the modern Shuttle program. The dozens of designs explored before the somewhat compromised final configuration was picked are all here. Everything from tile design to orbiter names is explained as we approach Flight 1, on page 268 of the 513-page text. The actual mission coverage is fairly compressed to allow for comprehensive coverage of the Shuttle's technology. Possible Shuttle upgrades and follow-ons - still relevant, as NASA's current concept for a Space Launch System is a Shuttle-based design - are covered, along with the Challenger accident and the most nnotable achievements of Shuttle astronauts. (The book's publication predates the Columbia tragedy: I bought my copy the day after the accident to help me follow the investigation.)
As someone with experience researching space technology and operations, I am, as I told Dennis once, simply in awe of the work that went into this. If you want gossipy astronaut bios or minute-by-minute descriptions of missions, this is not your book: but if you want to know how one of the great achievements in space technology was developed, this is THE book.

Easter miracle - the God Particle?

For physicists, the perfect Easter gift would be a new look at the underpinnings of the cosmos - meaning the confirmation that the Higgs boson, or "God particle," whose theoretical existence underlies much of modern cosmological theory, actually exists. There is a rumor going around the world at Internet-warp speed that physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have actually detected the Higgs, but are keeping it quiet while they ensure the observation can be replicated.
The note's title is:
"Observation of a γγ resonance at a mass in the vicinity of 115 GeV/c2 at ATLAS and its Higgs interpretation"
Here is where the original note (or alleged note) about the apparent find was posted:
For people who think physicists are boring, there's a heck of a lively exchange here.

COMMENT: I'm not about to try to explain what I don't even understand, as this all gets very technical. But I wanted to post it here because of the interesting implications for the way science works. Should an internal note posted anonymously to a blog be passed on? Are scientists who work with public funding entitled to sit on potentially important data while they do further research?

Friday, April 22, 2011

My all-time favorite quote for Earth Day

"On Spaceship Earth there are no passengers; everybody is a member of the crew. We have moved into an age in which everybody's activities affect everybody else."
--Marshall McLuhan

COMMENT: There are geniuses, radicals, wise folks, and misguided folks on both sides of most big policy debates about how best to maintain the planet. But everybody does matter. Think for a minute about a billion people recycling vs. that same billion people not receycling, and you'll see what I mean.

For whales, Boston's the right place

The bad news is that the Atlantic right whale is highly endangered. The good news is that it's congregating off Boston in record numbers (a record for the post-whaling age, anyway), attracting scientists and spectators. Off the shore near Provincetown and Truro are as many as 200 whales - half the species population. It must be a magnificent sight in person. When I whale-watched off California, the grays and humpbacks were playing camera-shy - they never got close enough to show up as more than a small hump.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A night of space history

I had a very interesting night last night, when the Rocky Mountain chapter of AIAA hosted Larry Korb, a metallurgist who had worked for the late, great North American Aviation on the X-15, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. Larry made a presentation on his Top 25 people, from Greek mathematicians to Sergei Korolev and Wernher von Braun, who he thought had been instrumental in a series of breakthroughs that led eventually to lunar flight.
He also talked about his own experiences investigating the Apollo 1 (originally "Apollo 204") fire. Larry reported that a piece of instrumentation had been removed for calibration and the plug not capped, leaving an "open" live plug in the capsule that contributed to starting the fire. According to him, North American engineers had been so opposed to NASA's demand for a high-pressure pure oxygen atmosphere that they made NASA put it in a written specification if they insisted on it.
In one of the few things I've ever heard in the negative about legendary space designer Max Faget, he remembered Faget being the one who required an inward-opening hatch on Apollo so it could not be accidentally "blown" in space. That design also made it impossible to open the hatch quickly even without a fire.
Food for thought.
Much appreciation, Mr. Korb.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Article on orang-pendek as new species

Adam Davies has published an article making the case for the orang-pendek of Sumatra and neighboring regions as a new species of primate. It's well-written and compelling, though he stops short of offering a scientific binomial (explaining that, if he did so, too much discussion would be on the name vs. the evidence.) So the species has not been formally described. The footprint, eyewitness, and hair evidence is good, though the hair is confusing: the DNA says "human" but the structure says "orang-utan." Davies and the scientist who examined the hair insist there is no evidence of contamination.
(While the following case does not involve a primate, there is a precedent for the hair of one mammalian species looking like it belongs to another. For some reason, the occasional mutant known as the king cheetah has hair structured like that of a leopard instead of normal cheetah hair.)
COMMENT: I think this is one of the cases where cryptozoologists are right and a "cryptid" wil turn out to be an important new species. Well-known tiger conservationist Debbie Martyr has seen the animal, and no less an authority than Dr. John MacKinnon of the WWF saw bipedal primate tracks he could not identify.
But we're not there yet on scientific recognition, and the impact of this article will be limited because most anthropologists and primatologists are going to automatically dismiss an article that appears in a magazine with articles of mediums and homeopathy. EdgeScience, published by the Society for Scientific Exploration, is a notch above most "paranormal" magazines in the credibility department, but the orang-pendek needs to be treated in a mainstream science magazine to have the impact Davies wants - protection of the species and its habitat.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Real life X-Files? FBI didn't care

In TV lore, J. Edgar Hoover opened the first X-Files case. In real life, according to newly released documents, a memo to Hoover reported that the FBI had done numerous UFO investigations, but UFO files were being trashed because, whatever might be happening, it was simply not an FBI matter. Hooever apparently made no objection, and the practice continued. One document that did survive follows up on the famous Roswell crash of 1947 with a notation the crashed "flying disk" turned out to be a weather-type balloon with a radar reflector attached.
COMMENT: Oh well, it IS rather hard to believe aliens sophisticated enough to visit the Earth have been poking around like idiots, doing senseless medical exams and crashing all over the place. That doesn't mean we have explained every strange thing seen in the skies. One of these days, I still think we're going to confirm a very strange natural phenomenon.

Meet your ancestor (?)

It's long been believed that members of the genus Australopithecus evolved into the genus Homo. Everyone in anthropology, it seems, has a different opinion on how and when. A unique australopithecine with some human traits but extra-long arms, a South African species named Australopithecus sediba, may have split off about two million years ago and set out on a path that led to us.
Or not. The creature's uniqueness as a species seems well agreed on, but was it on the "critical" path to humans, or just an interesting side branch? The search to find - and properly classify - the countless links in the evolutionary chain goes on.

A death spiral for science writing?

On the National Association of Science Writers list, there's a lot of concern about whether things will ever improve for writers who take pride in their craft but are being drowned in a wave of people willing to write for nothing or next to nothing, and editors (mostly online) who will accept out-and-out crud as "content." I tied to find a reason for optimism. I couldn't.

I wrote:

I have limited experience compared to many on this list, but my impression is, there is no fix. Doctors and engineers can specify or negotiate rates because there are barriers to entry in those professions. There's no barrier to claiming you're a writer and sending crud for free to the internet. There is a barrier (experience and effort) to being a top-notch writer with a high reputation, and there is a market for that: Scientific American is not going to start trolling the internet for free content. But the vast majority of "content providers" won't pay for quality and we have no way to make them. That's ugly, unfair, and it sucks (not just for writers, but for the readers who get used to reading crud and thinking that's normal.) But writers, even thousands of writers, boycotting the content farms will have almost no economic impact. Quality writers who want meaningful fees are going to be competing for a smaller market, and I can't picture any combination of realistic circumstances that will change that. It means, bottom line, that more good writers will fail to make a living at it. All any of us can do is do our best in a changing world.

Russia Claims it Named Patty the Sasquatch

An interesting article on the blog Cryptomundo reports that "Patty," the subject of the Patterson-Gimlin film and thus the most famous of sasquatches (real or fake) was allegedly named by Russian researchers. Russian cryptozoologist Igor Burtsev has claimed a Russian coined the term based on Patterson's last name. This led to a discussion on the sometimes humorous topic of nations claiming credit for everything. Loren Coleman asked me to weigh in from a space history perspective, and I wrote:

As a space historian, I run into this a lot. I always appreciated Gene Roddenberry’s joke in making Ensign Chekov an over-the-top partisan – the Russians had done everything first, better, or both.
Every nation likes to boast of its accomplishments, and some nations are more determined than others. Space is a field where many “firsts” really did belong to Russians, so of course it was heavily played up in the Cold War days.
There was a moon race, but the Soviet effort was crippled by the death of brilliant organizer/engineer Sergei Korolev. When Apollo succeeded, the Soviets gave it up and claimed they had never been focused on the moon, which most Americans accepted until hardware like the Soviet lunar lander began turning up in the post-USSR period.

The Soviets since early days trumpeted examples of science and technology achievements. The father of space flight, Tsiolkovsky, was a little-known mathematics teacher until the new government realized he was a true pioneer, promoted his reputation and his books, and gave him a comfortable pension. When they could not find a true Soviet first in some area, they tended to exaggerate or fabricate one. I own an English-language version of a Russian aeronautics textbook that credits the first manned aircraft to a Soviet naval officer – the Wright brothers do not even get a mention.
Sometimes this mindset led to disastrous embraces of Russian ideas that actually were no good, with Lysenko being the standout example.
I have no idea about the Patty claim – certainly I never heard it before now. But it’s a reminder that history is a fragile thing, even when events are still within living memory. Universally agreed-on narratives are rare. We fallible humans must do our best.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Big step for private space

WASHINGTON -- NASA has awarded four Space Act Agreements in the second round of the agency's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2) effort. Each company will receive between $22 million and $92.3 million to advance commercial crew space transportation system concepts and mature the design and development of elements of their systems, such as launch vehicles and spacecraft.

The selectees for CCDev2 awards are:
-- Blue Origin, Kent, Wash., $22 million
-- Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colo., $80 million
-- Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Hawthorne, Calif., $75 million
-- The Boeing Company, Houston, $92.3 million

COMMENT: It makes sense, if the private guys can prove their abilities, for NASA to hand off the regular (space flight is never "routine") task of Earth-to-LEO transportation. But NASA, then should be DOING something besides designing a heavy rocket with no payloads. Not their fault. Congress' fault. Eighty percent of the exploration budget is earmarks - written so as to avoid the technical definition of "earmark." Sad.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Space Shuttles: Messing with Texas

Space shuttles are going to museums in Los Angeles, Florida, New York, and of course the National Air and Space Museum.
Houston, home of Johnson Space Center, was shut out.
Apparently Houston didn't mount a strong lobbying effort, but they shouldn't have had to. Did New York have to lobby for the 9/11 Memorial? No, because that's where the history happened. NYC and LA have less connection to the Shuttle than does Lafayette, Indiana, to say nothing of Dayton, Ohio - or Houston.
Texas congresspeople are up in arms, of course. NASA probably should not route a shuttle through Houston on its way to New York, or there may be a cordon of Congressional supporters, Texas Rangers, and linemen from both the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys all forming a perimeter to make sure it never leaves. (To paraphrase the Incredible Hulk, "Don't make Texas angry. You wouldn't like Texas when it's angry.")

I doubt NASA's decision will change. But I sure hope it does.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rapid Assessment Program - 20 years of discovery

For 20 years, Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) teams have scoured endangered "hot spots" around the world to document rare species and discover new ones. Eighty surveys have yielded some 1,300 new species. A photo presentation at this site introduces some of them. There's the walking shark, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko (really), the "Yoda" bat, the chinchilla tree rat, and the emperor scorpion, just for starters.

The work of these teams is often arduous and rarely safe. In 1993, ornithologists Ted Parker and Al Gentry died when their plane crashed in Ecuador. In 1999, ichthyologist Fonchi Chang and boatman Reynaldo Sandoval were killed in a river accident in Peru.

The entire planet owes a debt to these intrepid scientists and support staff. Thanks to them, we have a much better idea of the species we share the world with and how to preserve the most endangered among them.

Quantum teleportation achieved! (for information)

Quantum teleportation of information - taking advantage of the "entanglement" phenomenon to destroy information in one place while simultaneously creating it in a location that could be across town or across the galaxy - has been pursued for years. Now a "complex set" of information has been transferred by Japanese and Australian researchers. The setup required for such teleportation now is an impossibly complex-looking device, but so were the first computers, This is a big step toward quantum computers and communications devices - still years off, but definitely possible.

History Files: Claims of relics still arise

There used to be a huge market in Europe and the Middle East for relics allegedly associated with Jesus Christ. Pieces of the "true cross" probably added up to a cross the size of a redwood tree. (While not directly related, it's an interesting note that Dr. Karl Shuker, a cryptozoologist, has traced venerated feathers from "angels' wings" to early specimens of birds of paradise, whose feathers seemed exotic indeed to Europeans. This in turn reminds me of the divine joke played in Holly Hunter's series "Saving Grace," where Grace plucks a feather from the wings of her angel, Earl, and takes it to a lab only to learn it's become a common pigeon feather.)

Anyway, to get back on topic...

The Catholic Church in the last century has been careful to distance itself from all but a fraction of relic claims. The Church even permitted removal of samples from the Shroud of Turin to carbon-date it.
Still, claims of new relics - at one point, even the burial box, or ossuary, of Jesus - still appear. The latest is a claim made in a film that two iron nails found in the tomb of Caiphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus, were buried with him because they came from the cross of Jesus.
While such iron nails were used in crucifixions, the claim is shaky. Israeli authorities say this particular tomb's link to Caiphas has never been proven. Even if it was his tomb, why exactly would nails from Jesus' crucifixion have been placed in it? To celebrate his role in the event or to mock it? And if Jesus' followers had retrieved the nails somehow, would they not have kept them instead of letting them be buried?

As A Christian, I believe that something unique and amazing occurred after this troublesome traveling preacher was executed. But clear thinking requires us to be very cautious about claims of relics.

FOLLOWUP - An interesting article in a Catholic periodical says that the normal idea of tons of "True Cross" wood isn't true: all the claimed relics we know of would, if somehow glued back together, make a piece smaller than the crossbeam Jesus carried. (The uprights for crosses were maintained "on-site" in a standing position - condemned men carried only the crossbeam.) The Church does say that many claimed relics of the cross are fake, but those maintained in churches in Rome and Jerusalem are most likely authentic.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

30 years ago - the landing of Columbia

Thirty years ago today, I and three college friends camped out on the dry lake bed at Edwards AFB to watch the first space shuttle landing. It was startlingly cold on the high desert at night, and freezing was an experience rapidly replaced by broiling the next morning. (I kept a sweatshirt on despite the heat to prevent sunburn.) Anyway, thousands of people were there the next morning, the first time the lake bed had been opened so widely to visitors. We saw a glistening speck in the distance that slowly resolved into a delta-wing craft with a single vertical fin, then took the full shape of the shuttle Columbia. "What a way to come to California!" astronaut John Young exulted. Columbia came in for a smooth touchdown as everyone cheered. I still have a commemorative Pepsi can from that event. (A bumper sticker for sale read, "Russia eat your heart out!")

It's truly weird to think there will soon be no more shuttle landings. Weirder to think there is no replacement for it. I'm not opposed to the idea of handing Earth-to-LEO transport to the private sector, and I think that will work out. But for most of my life, it's been the shuttle.

The Shuttle was a complex, delicate, cantankerous, and sometimes deadly beast. But it did things no other spacecraft in history has, or could have, accomplished.

The old bird will soon be gone, and dammit, I'm going to miss her.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The big anniversaries in space

There are two space anniversaries that stand out above all others: the first flight in space and the first walk on the moon. Tomorrow, April 12, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that flight, along with the 30th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch.
Dmitry Kondratyev, currently commanding the International Space Station: "Fifty years is a short period of time in history, but look at that leap from a small spacecraft to the huge International Space Station. We hope that during the next 50 years, another leap that is not less than has been done, will be done."

Saturday, April 09, 2011

View the "aliens" of our planet

Scientists are still sorting data and images from the massive Census of Marine Life effort. I never get tired of galleries like this one, that introduce some creatures one would not imagine to be sharing the same planet with us. What does a Venus fly trap anemone look like? Well, the name could hardly be more descriptive. How strange can a mid-Atlantic jelly (or jellyfish) look? Kind of like an art-deco glass chandelier. Why does the deep-sea dragonfish have teeth on its tongue, making it look like one of the beasts from the Alien movies? Explore....

Branson turns his attention to the ocean depths

He built an airline. He's financing a suborbital spaceship designed by Burt Rutan. He appeared in a Superman movie. So where does Richard Branson find another frontier to conquer?
Hear him explain it: "What if I were to tell you about a planet inhabited by ‘intelligent’ beings that had, in the 21st century, physically explored zero percent of its deepest points and mapped only three percent of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70 percent of that planet's surface was made up of water?"
Branson's one-man Virgin Oceanic submarine will be able to penetrate the depths of the seas, even the Mariana Trench, where the weight of seven miles of water would crush any of the world's large nuclear subs. Later this year, Chis Welsh will "fly" the winged sub to that depth. Branson himself will do some of the future dives.

Well, you can't accuse the man of thinking small.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Speaking of VASIMR

Looks like the VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) VF-200 will get tested aboard the ISS. This prototype is a long way from powering a trip to Mrs, but it could one day provide a major boost in getting us to far-distant space objects several times faster than chemical rockets.

Does NASA do its coolest stuff on the side?

Some years ago, I saw a first-step proof of concept setup for the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) multi-mode plasma rocket engine at Johnson Space Center. It was basically a side project with minimal official backing, in part because JSC doesn't normally do propulsion. But that's where this concept started.
JSC doesn't normally do planetary landers, either, but engineers have cobbled together this cool-looking test vehicle for a future Moon lander. From the comments, this seems like another project that came out of the minds of dedicated space geeks and was just sort of tolerated by Center management. NASAWatch's Keith Cowing has been complaining for days not that something this interesting was ignored by JSC PAO. He may have a point.

"Chemtrails?" Nope. just contrails

There's a movement among those who are even more distrustful of our government than most of us to delare said government is engaged in some kind of nefarious experiment with aircraft spraying chemical or biological agents seen in the air as "chemtrails." What "chemtrails" people forget, though (aside from the fact that this would have to be one of those huge conpiracies where no one ever talks) is that ordinary contrails can take a wide variety of appearances, including some that are quite weird at first glance. Winds aloft (or lack of them), ice crystals in the atmosphere, and other factors can make a contrail linger long after you'd expect it to dissipate and look anything but normal. Here's just a sample.

Physics is weirder than we thought

Another day, another atom smashed - wait, what the heck is that?
The boffins as the Tevetron in Batavi, IL, are used to smashing a proton and and antiproton together and seeing what comes out. They have a pretty goof idea of what to expect. Or they thought they did. Sometimes they are getting a spray of lightweight particles no one recognizes. The result has to be duplicated by other physicists, but the presence of an unidentified type no one expected (and no, it's not the long-sought Higgs boson) has scientists using words like "breakthrough" and "revolutionary." In short, they may have to rewrite the books about what matter does at the subatomic level, which has all kinds of implications.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

50 years of humanity in space

It's long past time I gave a nod in this blog to Jim Oberg, writer, historian, NASA veteran, and general finder-of-things. As the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight approaches, Oberg has collected a number of his pieces about the flight and the era that surrounded it. This includes Oberg's dashing of some myths and false claims that have grown up around the event, such as that Gagarin was really #2. (Some years ago, I got an email from someone making a documentary about a supposed pre-Gagarin cosmonaut. When I replied by pointing out it was impossible, because every one of the R-7 boosters made through 1961 had been accounted for, he send me a reply full of praise for his "award-winning" documentary team and several f-words directed at my stupidity. I think that is the same documentary Jim eviscerates here.

Anyway, mark your calendars, April 12, 1961 - 50 years of humans in space!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

History Files: Earliest Christian writings discovered?

Sealed books of lead pages bound by lead rings, dating back, apparently, to just after the time of Christ. It woulds like something from an Indiana Jones movie, but such artifacts have surfaced in Israel. They have not been translated, but at least one authority says they may date from soon (decades or mere years) after the Crucifixion, and symbols placing Jesus in the context of the Messiah indicate Christian, rather than conventional Jewish, vies of the books' creator. So this might be the earliest Christian record outside of the Gospels. This may be huge.

Island species diversity

I'm on a roll lately looking at journals, so here's another item of interest. It's no surprise that habitat diversity tends to increase species diversity, but can yo uqnatify that, and what does a graph of the relationship look like? The fice authors of this article take a shot at working that out. With island species, diversity usually increases and never decreases with habitat diversity, but the relationship isn't linear. It's more of a hump-shaped line on the graph.

Before there were species

Very interesting article about the problem of naturalists in the days before Linnaeus (and the Internet). How would an Englishman, for example, discuss a particular animal by correspondence with a Russian when there was no scientifically precise way to make sure they were talking about the same animal? Well, they told each other to go to encyclopedias that existed in both countries and look up a reference (folio X, page Y). According to the author here, this fostered the practice of actually sending specimens back and forth and accounted for a good deal of progress before the Father of Taxonomy got everyone organized.

Gorilla groups: monkeying around?

There are two species of gorillas, mountain and lowland, and they seem to have diverged around 80,000 years ago. The lowlanders split into fairly well defined subspecies, eastern and western. However, these authors report there is a "zone of introgression between eastern gorillas and migrants from the west," meaning that they are hybridizing. The point, without getting too deep into taxonomic waters that I'm really not qualified to wade into, is that gene flow works in all sorts of directions, and gorillas turn out to be a very complex group. It's a good lesson when puzzling out relationships of any creatures.

How to build a space station

USA Today provides this excellent Flash timeline graphic, showing the addition of each module, truss, and solar panel as the greatest-ever construction project in space has grown over the years. The International Space Station may have been troubled by politics, cost overruns, and technical glitches, but it is vital that our species learn how to build off-planet, and the only way to learn the lessons needed for the future is to actually build a complex habitat like this.

THANKS TO Paul Kolodziejski for sending me this.

Recommended: A Seal's Life

I'd never watched this 2007 documentary before, but it was clearly a painstaking effort to document everything about a remarkable creature, the Northern elephant seal. Dr. Sylvia Earle, sounding like the science teacher you always wish you had, does the narration. The videography is simply beautiful, and there are facts of interest for everyone: I'd read about the species but never knew how it had survived almost certain extinction. A tour of a kelp forest is one of the interesting byways taken in following the seal's migration.

Mr. Coleman's Museum

The Boston Globe article reprinted here, with some great photographs, features a sympathetic interview with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman and a tour of his Cryptozoology Museum. This is a place I absolutely will visit one day, although my current corporate life has sent me no closer than Virgina. It'll work out.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Meet the orcas - live

On Orca live, you can follow some of the Earth's most majestic mammals. It's part of the Nature Network, Dr. Paul Spong's brainchild of putting remote cameras and microphones/hydrophones in locations frequented by whales, bears, and other wildlife. Listen to the orcas live, watch them at Hanson's Island and the famous rubbing beach, and learn more about their world without intrusion. You'll love it.
THANKS TO Karen Copeland for steering me to this site.