Friday, September 30, 2011

At the Starship Symposium

Wow. Long discussions on the physics of interstellar propulsion, by fission, fusion, and countless other methods. More to the point of this meeting, we also have the other sciences, the arts, politics, etc. NASA Ames Director Pete Worden spoke on how this is a nexus of history - space-related research has revolutionized physics, and epochal discoveries in the biosciences are close. Aerial Waldman introduced her website, a directory of ways for citizens to get directly involved in planet hunting, galaxy-hunting, and other space ventures. I went to two sessions on propulsion physics, and Dr. Mae Jemison's panel on the educational and cultural aspects of a spacefaring civilization. More details to come!

The IgNobel Prizes are out!

The IgNobel Peace Prize went to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas, got the peace prize for "demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored truck."

Well, was he wrong?

Other prizes went to a Japanese inventor whose fire alarm uses scent (wasabi) instead of smell, a study of why beetles mate, and a paper on how to procrastinate (even if the author never finished it. Rim Shot.) Do we need to understand the science of why tortoises yawn?

Oh well, it's all progress.

The Starship Symposium

Well, here I am at the DARPA/NASA 100-Year Starship Symposium. I'm in a nice hotel and I'm surrounded by hundreds of the best minds on the planet Earth. Sometimes in life you really do get a good day. I don't give a talk until Sunday, so I can just soak up the information.
Will be posting some of the good stuff.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

China's next great leap in space

China, the third nation in the world to launch its own astronauts on its own rockets, is ready for the next step. Within the week, China will launch a test module for rendezvous and docking experiments designed to lead, by 2020, for a permanent orbiting laboratory. (There have been off-and-on discussions about China as a partner on the International Space Station, but current limits on NASA-Chinese ventures, imposed by Congress, effectively rule it out.) The 8.5 ton module is named Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace 1).” WIRED magazine here speculates it could be part of a much larger program including military objectives.
COMMENT: The author quotes the Union of Concerned Scientists as saying this is just a jobs program with no military implications, which is pretty funny considering the UCS thinks practically every U.S. mission has a dark military purpose behind it, and any time WE do rendezvous and docking experiments it's to improve our capability to attack other satellites. There is an inevitable overlap between almost any civilian and military space projects, and it remains to be seen just how much of the Chinese program is scientific and how much effort is devoted to "other purposes." But wearing my space geek hat, I would say this is an important milestone in said exploration, and I wish the Chinese all success.
Also, can we borrow some Chinese inspiration in the area of naming space vehicles. These are symbols of our world's greatness, or at least our potential greatness. China has the Heavenly Palace. We have the space station, space shuttle, and space launch system. Surely we can do better.

NOTE: All posts are, as usual, except sometimes even more emphatically, so, the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hail the black-footed ferret

A creature declared extinct twice deserves its won Web page, and Nat Geo has given it one. The little "outlaw" of the prairies was rediscovered for the second time 30 years ago and is increasingly repopulating the wild thanks to captive breeding and "ferret basic training" activities designed to fit young ferrets for a life in the wild. (Or they could just watch Animal Planet.) Anyway, major conservation success stories demand to be celebrated, and this is definitely one of them!

The Fried Egg Nebula

That's what astronomers have tagged this example, which shows a gigantic star at the center of two expanding shells of debris as it goes through the stages of stellar death. The star, 13,000 light years away, is a rare "yellow hypergiant" 20,000 times the mass of our sun.

Watch in wonder....

COMMENT: Surely they could have come up with a cooler nickname, like the "Target Nebula" or the "Robin Hood Nebula." Of course, the image came from an instrument called the Very Large Telescope. Seriously. We need to ship an emergency supply of cool names to Europe.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SpaceX is up to something even cooler

I love those folks at SpaceX - always something cooking. Now they've applied for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit to fly the Grasshopper, an experimental reusable launch vehicle (RLV). The application says this gadget "consists of a Falcon 9 first stage tank, a single Merlin-1D engine, four steel landing legs and a support structure, plus other pressurization tanks attached to the support structure." Thunderbirds are GO!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Throwing the baby sea serpent out with the seawater

A story often repeated by those delving into sea serpents that that Captain William Hagelund in 1968 briefly caught, then release, a "baby Cadborosaurus" the sea serpent reported to haunt the coastal waters of Canada and the US Paficic Northwest). Hagelund sketched and released the creature. Now Dr. Darren Naish has published a paper with a likely identity: the seaman was not a hoaxer, nor a sea serpent pioneer. He was followed by an odd-looking creature, the Bay pipefish. Naish writes: "Pipefishes are not all that familiar and are rarely encountered. They also do weird stuff that most people would find unexpected: they can produce a neck-like region by bending and raising the anterior part of the body ....and can even raise the head above the water surface, for example."
COMMENT: I think he's likely nailed it. I never knew what to make of the "baby" stories (there is one other a bit like Hagelund's) and wrote them off as, if not false, then unprovable without a definite creature to compare them to.
BTW, there are lots of good links in Naish's blog post to other examinations of marine carcasses and other evidence. Cryptozoologists whould all give it a read.

Who's got the UARS?

OK, I was straining for a witty headline this time. But it appears an item I reposted the other day was false - we do not, in fact, have good reports of UARS debris landing in Canada, only a hoax by a guy with a Twitter account. He calls it a "social experiment." All kinds of news organizations picked it up without question. So it proves again the fragility of information in the Information Age. (There may still be debris in Canada, as it was within the possible impact zone, but there's little doubt most of it lies under the trackless Pacific. So a sigh of relief is heard from NASA HQ).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: Fishing fun with Jeremy Wade

River Monsters
by Jeremy Wade
Da Capo Press, 2011
The host of River Monsters here unspools his adventures with rod and reel. Wade is clearly a master at the craft of fishing, but he makes it clear here that sometimes he's benefited from dumb luck. He has caught (and, when practical, released) the largest freshwater fishes on every inhabited continent. Along the way, he has plenty of harrowing adventures, in the water and out. Wade explains some points of fish biology (for example, adapting to fresh v. salt water) and conservation concisely and clearly. He also has some tidbits for the cryptozoologist. Remember, Wade is the guy who filed an "impossible animal:" a river dolphin with a weird sawtooth back, which turned out to be a wildly unlikely survivor of being hacked with a machete by a fisherman. He investigates Lake Iliamna (finding some data I did not, although the reverse is also true) and comes to the same conclusion I did, that it's an undocumented population of white sturgeon. This book is gripping fun from beginning to end.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

UARS satellite vs. Earth: Earth 1, Satellite 0

Falling satellites may be big objects, but eventually they slam into an object missions of times larger, and a graceful orbital path becomes a tumble, then a fiery splat. Or splash. NASA's UARS, including an estimated 26 parts/pieces capable of surviving its disintegration on reentry, hit last night, mainly in the Pacific Ocean, but producing some reports of debris on the ground in Canada. No injuries or property damage have been reported.
NASA was originally uncertain of the impact points. NASA spokesman Stephen Cole said, “It could have fallen into the Pacific. It could have continued a little further into Canada. But we don’t have confirmation of that.” The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, plus some phone calls from Canada, eventually shed more light on the satellite's fate.

Step forward for space cooperation

This is a step forward on a subkject I have long been urging needs more attention. No one nation can afford to do everything it wants to in space.

From NASA:
Global Exploration Roadmap was developed by the ISECG and is the culmination of work by 12 space agencies, including NASA, over the past year to advance coordinated space exploration.

The roadmap begins with the International Space Station and expands human presence throughout the solar system, leading ultimately to human missions to explore the surface of Mars. The first iteration of the roadmap flows from this strategy and identifies two potential pathways: "Asteroid Next" and "Moon Next." Each pathway represents a mission scenario over a 25-year period, describing a logical sequence of robotic and human missions. Both pathways were deemed practical approaches addressing common high-level exploration goals developed by the participating agencies — serving to inform individual agency decisions related to exploration preparatory activities.

The following space agencies participated in developing the GER (in alphabetical order): ASI (Italy), CNES (France), CSA (Canada), DLR (Germany), ESA (European Space Agency), ISRO (India), JAXA (Japan), (KARI (Republic of Korea), NASA (United States of America), NSAU (Ukraine), Roscosmos (Russia), UKSA (United Kingdom).

Hear, hear!

Skepticism and cryptozoology

From a recent Facebook chat with Ben Radford:
I've noodled at this problem before. One the one hand, I find it ridiculous that there exists some conspiracy to cover up cryptid animals. But I must say there are things that bug me about what might be called "the skeptical community." I see skepticism properly directed against the claims of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) skeptics, but very rarely even the most shaky or exaggerated claims of AGW supporters. I am annoyed every time I see cryptozoology - properly, the name of a hard science pursing hard evidence of real animals - lumped in "the paranormal" with fields that do not or cannot produce any such evidence. It is true that many people pursuing cryptozoology pursue unscientific methods and make wild claims, but that no more invalidates the science than crank physicists invalidate physics. (I don;t reject a priori all the phenomena claimed under "the pararmormal" - the universe is very big and very weird - but it's just not accurate to lump in cryptozoology as if it used the same methodology.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Breaking the lightspeed limit?

One thing physicists have agreed on for a long time is that nothing can exceed the speed of light, 292,700 km per second. But researchers in Europe say - very cautiously - that Einstein seems to be wrong. Experimenters at CERN appear to have shown that a beam of neutrinos traveled faster than light. To say this got everyone's attention is an understatement. Is this possible, and, if so, why did no one see it before? The CERN scientists are asking colleagues in other facilities to duplicate the experiment. They only announced it after painstaking checking of their instrumentation.
COMMENT: Wow. My first reaction would be the experiment has to be flawed. But these folks have gone about things the right way, looking for problems and then asking others to try and duplicate their results. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bonked by a satellite? Probably not

So the UARS satellite will reenter Friday. The potential debris zone was announced, unhelpfully as "from Newfoundland to Argentine." Now, your personal chance of getting killed by it are about 1 in 21 trillion. (No one has ever been killed by space debris. Accounts of people killed by natural debris (meteorites) are disputed, although it's probably happened.) This event does highlight the need for better rules about end-of-life/disposal mechanisms on all spacecraft. We have put thousands of tons of stuff in orbit and don't have a good handle on how to clear it out or deorbit it safely, although schemes ranging from deployable cone-shaped Mylar(TM) drag-inducers to microsatellites that will hunt down large spacecraft and use their own thrusters to steer them into the atmosphere or up into disposal orbits have been proposed.

Farewell, Tevatron

The Tevatron, America's mopst powerful "atom smasher" and the world's most powerful proton-antiproton collider, will shut down at the end of this month. Obsolete? No. Unaffordable? Sadly, that seems to be the thinking.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A new sparrow?

"God sees the little sparrow fall..." does He see them appear, too? Researchers in Norway are arguing a recent but distinct species, the Italian sparrow, has emerged from the mingling of the common house sparrow and the Spanish sparrow. The Italian sparrow shares habitat with the Spanish but doesn't breed with it and has enough differences in its DNA to differentiate it from either parent species. As this article points out, what constitutes a species remains fuzzy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NASA takes next step on private crew transport

NASA has launched a 2-year, $1.61B contract, to be split among yet-unnamed companies, to provide private transport of astronauts to the International Space Station. With the Shuttle retired and everything dependent on Russian crew transport, NASA's commercial spaceflight development director said, "Right now, we have a single-string failure for a $100-billion national lab. Every year we do not have a commercial crew capability, the station is at risk." SpaceX's Dragon will make the first unmanned visit to the ISS by a private reusable spacecraft later this year.

Raptors just keep getting nastier

Take this one, for example. This newly described 2-meter-long dinosaur, Talos sampsoni, has the characteristic hooked talons of its kind, but the middle toe really looks oversized, and damage to it shows the animal had put it to use in combat. This "switchblade" claw was held off the ground when walking. The species was discovered in southern Utah by a scientist looking for fossil turtles. Most related species have been described based on fossils from Asia, and the author of the study on this one says, "Finding a decent specimen of this type of dinosaur in North America is like a lighting strike. It's a random event of thrilling proportions."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.
by Juliet Eilperin
Pantheon, 2011

Nature books with a lot of first-hand reporting in them can get chatty, preachy, or precious. Juliet Eilperin has avoided these traps in her engrossing exploration of the relationship between humanity and sharks. She recounts her visits with shark callers, shark hunters, sharkfin soup makers, and many others, weaving them into a book that's both a natural history and a meditation on the changing ways humans think of, and alter, the natural world. This is not a book that goes into great detail about the history of sharks and the hundreds of species. Instead, Eilperin presents her facts judiciously, walking the fine line between too much and too little detail to serve her narrative. I thought I was well read on sharks (the books of Richard Ellis are a highly recommended starting point), but I learned a lot here, especially about the challenges of shark conservation and a closely related topic, the sharkfin soup trade. It is dismaying how unnecessary and wasteful this really is: the fact that sticks in my head is that only a rod of fin cartilage goes into the soup, meaning the amount of shark in a bowl of sharkfin soup can practically be measured in molecules. Eilperin romanticizes sharks a bit, but forgivably so. She hits hard on the fact that taking the apex predators out of any ecosystem has long-lasting, broad, and maybe irreversible effects. As a writer specializing in following the discovery of new species, I would have liked a little more information on how frequently this happens with sharks and how. That's a quibble, though. This is an excellent book that should, as the author clearly intends, add momentum to recent efforts to better understand and protect these ancient predators.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Planet orbits two suns.

"The planet's called Tatooine." - Luke Skywalker, in the Star Wars novelization. OK, it isn't but it might as well be. For a long time, scientists were not sure whether you could have a stable planetary system around a double star. Thanks to the Kepler telescope, we know you can. Kepler-16b, about the diameter of Saturn, exists 200 light years away. SInce most of the stars we've observed are in binary systems, this greatly increases the possible number of planetary systems.
COMMENT: The universe is more diverse, weirder, and more exotic than we used to know or even theorize - and that is proved all over again seemingly every year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are differing dolphin species "talking?"

Bottlenose and Guyana dolphins are different species with very different calls (among other things, bottlenoses use a lower frequency). When they mingle off the Costa Rican coast, though, each changes its "language" to something intermediate. Are they trying to mimic each other, or are they trying to find a common "tongue"? Researchers don't know yet.

NASA's Giant Booster: To boldly go..somewhere

The SLS has been unveiled, and the design is a monster of a booster. Its announced mission: to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit. Where to? Well, the President likes discussing an asteroid mission, and the moon and Mars are being discussed, but NASA can't be said to have published anything that really looks like a plan. I wish the SLS people all the best - given the constant political interference NASA is suffering, they will need diplomatic skills and luck in addition to engineering abilities to get this baby to the pad.

New dolphin species discovered!

Dolphins living off Melbourne, Australia, had been thought to be members of a common species, the bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus). Recently, though, researchers decided to take a closer look at the population. Differences in their skulls (measured in museum specimens) reinforced DNA evidence that these dolphins were a species unto themselves. Welcome Tursiops australis (known from an Aboriginal term as the Burrunan dolphin). There are only about 150 members of this species known to science, and they inhabit a very small area compared to most cetaceans. According to Kate Charlton-Robb of Monash University, "This is an incredibly fascinating discovery as there have only been three new dolphin species formally described and recognised since the late 1800s. What makes this even more exciting is this dolphin species has been living right under our noses."
COMMENT: Discovery is very often right under our noses...a lot of the stories in this blog have begun with someone having a thought like, "That creature looks a bit off..."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mystery from a war zone - the Kanahar cougar

Two war correspondents have reported how American troops in Afghanistan are watching, or being watch, by large felids the Americans have collectively nicknamed the "Kanahar cougar." To U.S. troops, they look like American pumas (cougars), although spots or stripes are sometimes reported. The correspondents and the troops they cover are debating whether these are merely exaggerated reports of caracals (max weight 18kg), hyenas wandering to the northern edge of their range, or something quite different. Interestingly, Afghan troops profess to be unfamiliar with any true big cat in their country except the very rare snow leopard and think the Americans are seeing things. The only video available to date shows caracals, but troops claim to be seeing cats more in the 50kg range. Hmmm....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New monkey discovered!

A new species is always a big deal to science, a new mammal an even bigger deal, and a new primate rates a full-blown celebration. A beautiful all-white monkey just turned up in the Sri Lankan rain forest. Researchers have confirmed it is not a case of occasional albino specimens but a new color morph of the southern purple faced leaf langur. It has been found in several locations, thanks to information given to scientists by treacle tappers. DNA testing is underway to determine its presumed identity as a new subspecies (a bit of a fuzzy distinction, as there is no real agreement on DNA differences and subspecies) and pin down its range for conservation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Space Show blog on my appearance

This hits the highlights of what we discussed. Thanks, David!

9/11 remembrance on Mars

I didn't know this until now... pieces of metal from the World Trade Center wen into the Mars rovers, the noe-deceased Spirit and the still-exploring Opportunity, as cover pieces, painted with American flags. See a photo at the title link.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blog had an off week

Sorry this wasn't a very well kept blog this week. I was ambushed by severals weeks' worth of other stuff all in one week. Tomorrow, back to science!

And as for NASA's Space Launch System

The internal budget/schedule briefing has leaked. And none of it looks good. Personal opinion? If SpaceX's Falcon Heavy performs, SLS will be canceled.

What will happen to the Webb telescope?

The James Webb space telescope is unquestionably a worthy project that will produce great scientific return. But at what cost? Overrun after overrun, schedule slip after schedule slip, has some people, even scientists, thinking of the $8.7B telescope as "the program that ate NASA" as other missions are cut to keep it going. Is it too big, with too much investment sunk in, to allow it to fail? Plus, I'm thinking about those intricate components that will have been in storage for more than a decade by the time it's launched. A mess. How would I rule if I were the President? I'd probably try to finish the job, but I'd hate myself and NASA for having to put up with this.

Science and 9/11

Good article on why the "truthers," sincere though they may be, are wrong on every claim about the physics involved in demolition claims concerning 9/11. Remember also that any complex event, especially one that has never happened before, will produce oddities, both material and in human perceptions. Believe the science. Honor the heroes based on the real events.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Type specimens: Do we need a whole sasquatch?

The short answer is No, we don't. But we need something.

The 1991 Bulo Burti shrike description reads,

"A new species of bush-shrike is described on the basis of the only known individual. The bird was captured in a disturbed Acacia thicket near the town of Bulo Burti by the Shabeelle River in central Somalia. Believed to represent a species near extinction, the bird was kept alive, studied in captivity and then released. The type material comprises moulted feathers, blood samples and DNA extracted from feather quills."

(Dr. Darren Naish (title link) separate-species identity was challenged in 2008 on the grounds the DNA was a match to a previously described species. Even if this is accepted, though, it does not invalidate the mechanism of the description: the initial controversy over that seems to have faded away in favor of acceptance.)

In establishing something as controversial as a new giant primate, I suspect that, in practice, there must be a well-documented chain of custody of the type material, and it must be available for examination by any qualified outside authority. In theory, any DNA is fine, but a morphologial sample, even a fingertip or scrap of skin, would help a lot.

This brings us back to the central problem of this crypto-primate business. Most individual cases (orang-pendek, yeti, etc.) find at least some claim to plausibility in a proferred explanation of why the animal has avoided ending up in a cage or on a wall mount. Even sasquatch, as outlandish as an undescribed giant primate on the North American continent may be, is not impossible, as Pyle argued quite well. But despite that and the fact there are unquestionably undiscovered mammals out there, we have this problem that a dozen or more reported populations (we'll sidestep the question of who is a separate species from whom) of very large mammals have ALL escaped description, when the Vu Quang ox 20 years ago was the last 100kg+ land mammal described. (That assumes the OTHER long-horned Vietnamese bovid, the much-debated linh duong is not valid, although I don't think that's settled.) These primates all seem possible individually, but the lack of a type specimen of ANY of them seems to verge on the impossible.
I think the orang-pendek of Sumatra and neighboring lands is very close to acceptance, but it may be the least outlandish of cypto-primate claims: it seems very close to the existing gibbons.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Ancient rhino was a living snowplow

From Tibet comes a new fossil species - a woolly rhino with a huge, flat, paddle-like horn that could have been used to clear snow off vegetation to allow grazing in the winter. (It's hard to think of any other use for it, really.) The animal was about the size of a modern rhino and lived 3.7 million years ago (MYA). See the title link for a really cool (ha ha) illustration of what this beast looked like.

Electric motor small as a molecule

In fact, it IS a molecule. Tufts University researchers have built a working electric motor out of a single molecule 1 nanometer in diameter. The previous record for smallest electric motor: 200 nanometers. Scientists say this could be used in devices that could, for example, work inside a tiny blood vessel.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Martha, the last passenger pigeon

Smithsonian magazine this month features Marta, a passenger pigeon who died in 1914, having lived alone at the Cincinnati Zoo despite a standing reward of $1,000, back when that was real money, for anyone who could bring in a live male. This article says the last wild sighting was in 1900: there are a few later ones mentioned in zoological or cryptozoological literature, but there's no doubt the species is now extinct. I've seen Martha, and there is kind of a pall of sadness surrounding her exhibit. People stop talking when they get close.
Audubon once saw a flock pass over his head that he estimated contained a billion individuals. A billion. At least a quarter of all birds in the U.S. at one time were passenger pigeons. If we can exterminate abundance like that, we can exterminate anything. Food for thought.