Monday, February 28, 2011

How did life begin? Still debating

This short article by John Horgan for Scientific American is the lead-in to some lively responses. While some are complaining Horgan short-changed all the work done on DNA and RNA in the last two decades, he's right in saying there is still (and probably always will be) debate on exactly what happened billions of years ago. The recent trend is to suggest the simpler RNA gave rise to DNA, but it turns out RNA is unlikely to arise by itself either. We come back to this: life is wonderful.

Chinese doctor dedicates himself to saving new snake

In 1984, doctor Chen Yuanhui treated an old man for snakebite and was curious when the man described the snake. It wasn't one he or anyone else with a scientific background had ever heard of. It was five years before he found someone who had captured a group of what are now called the Mangshan pit viper. Chen devoted his life to studying and protecting the endangered species. He kept seven in his home at one point. The local people, some of whom have a totem apparently based on the large green viper, appreciate him so much they commissioned a statue of the doctor and his "patient."

Thailand group reports 10 new lizards

The environmental preservation group Thailand Nature Explorer presented a varied and colorful group of 10 new lizard species to the public, emphasizing how these finds demonstrated the nation's diversity along with the need for quick protection of new species. The lizards were given what to the Western ear are exotic names in addition to their scientific ones. For example, a well-camouflaged rough-skinned brown species was christened Jing Jok Niew Yao Khlong Nakha (Cnemaspis vandeventeri). This article includes photos of all 10 species.

Annoucning the newest bird species

The bird is Mentocrex beankaensis, a colorful rail from the Beanka Forest of Madagascar. Researchers from the Field Museum collected it during an expedition led by Steve Goodman. Neil Block said the bird wasn't entirely new to locals or researchers, but it was hard to collect a specimen for a formal description. “This bird they’ve known about for decades, but no one has been able to go find it and get a specimen of it. It’s not a common thing at all, and it’s really hard to find.”

Prof reports 15 new fish species in US

They are not all confirmed yet, but I thought this university press release was interesting. One ichthyology professor, Austin Peay State University's Dr. Rebecca Johansen, is reporting that she and her students have gathered evidence of up to 15 new species from the southeastern U.S. Wouldn't you think that was an area where all the vertebrates are known? It's a good reminder that we rarely know the natural world as completely as we think we do.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, British Interplanetary Society

OK, not quite birthday time yet. This article notes that the venerable British Interplanetary Society (BIS) "the oldest space organisation in the world still in its original form," will be 80 years old in 2013. The BIS, whose most famous member was the late Arthur C. Clarke, did many pioneering studies of rocketry, beginning with a 1938 study of what it would take to send three astronauts to the Moon. The 1970's study Project Daedalus laid out, in detailed engineering terms, the requirements to send a mission to Barnard's Star. The BIS continues to link space enthusiasts, scientists, and engineers around the world. Many groundbreaking papers have appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS), published since 1934. Visit them at

Ships from 4 agencies docked at ISS

There is something cool about the shuttle Discovery's current mission to the ISS that I didn't realize: there are now craft from four space agencies docked together. Robotic supply vessels from Japan,Russia, and the European Space Agency (ESA) are docked along with NASA's shuttle. Europe's ATV-2, Johannes Kepler, is there, along with the Kounotori ("White Stork") from Japan and Russia's Progress 41. That's about as International as a Space Station can get.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

DARPA's Robotic Cheetah

If you're a soldier pursuing an enemy, wouldn't you like to be able to tell a fast-running robot to "fetch?" The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) thinks so, too. The Cheetah will have four legs, an articulated head, and a flexible spine. This will be a proof of concept model, not an operational weapon, but think of the advances in robotics we've seen in recent years.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Critters caught up in the naming rights business

THis is always interesting to me, and I'm not even sure why. It's become commonplace to sell naming rights for new species as a way of funding research. The most famous example is the South American monkey Callicebus aureipalatti, whose specific name translates to "golden palace” — a gambling website that bought naming rights for $650,000. I didn't realize the fad included individual critters, though. Ford bought the right to name a zoo gorilla Henry. DreamWorks has deals with Zoo Atlanta and with a zoo in Spain, with the movie studio donating an unknown amount of money in exchange for naming a baby panda at each site Po, after the hero of the animated film Kung Fu Panda.
COMMENT: I don't see the harm in this, if the money is used well. The zoos had better be careful, though. What if Zoo Atlanta advertises itself as the place kids can see the "real Po" and the animal catches some bug and dies? Then you're the zoo that killed Po, and there will be economic repercussions for years. "He killed Po" might be carved on the zookeeper's tombstone.

Department of cool gadgets: PERISCOP

For a long time, marine biologists have used "slurp guns" of various types to suck in marine creatures and bring them back for examination. Keeping a deep-sea critter alive, though, is a tricky process. Changes in pressure are often fatal.
French scientists have created a solution, the Projet d’Enceinte de Remontée Isobare Servant la Capture d’Organismes Profonds ("Enclosure project for isobaric ascent serving to capture deep organisms"). PERISCOP is a suction device with three chambers: one to capture an organism, one to maintain it while the submersible or ROV continues to cruise at depth, and one to maintain water pressure while you bring the organism to the surface and transfer it into a shipboard pressure tank. It's a little more complex than most such devices but it increases the depth from which pressure-sensitive fish and other animals can be safely retrieved (or kidnapped, I suppose, from the fish's point of view.) The prize so far is an eelpout brought up alive and healthy from 2,300m.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

People of the ancient Subarctic

In a trench dug into an ancient settlement site in central Alaska, archaeologists found something startling: the remains of a child, 11,000 years old, which had been cremated after death. The dwelling the child lived in was then abandoned. Was this reverence for the dead? Fear of a spirit? Fear of disease? The dwelling was not a simple nomadic camp, but a pole-supported structure dug about 30cm into the ground. Remains of animals, among other finds, show the site was used for a long time before the child's death.
It's not known what modern Alaska Natives the child is related to, although a tribe living near the lake has christened the child Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin: Upward Sun River Mouth Child
What happened here? There is much we may never know.

Hail Discovery!

STS-133, the last mission of the shuttle Discovery, is in orbit. Discovery has logged 39 space flights, more than any other orbiter.
NASA reported,
"Good to be here," Commander Steve Lindsey radioed soon after the three main engines shut off and the external fuel tank was jettisoned. The official launch time was 4:53:24 p.m. EST."

COMMENT: The Shuttle was hampered by cost restrictions that kept it from being fully reusable, and plagued by two fatal accidents that were the fault of (avoidable) human error. But it was, for all that, a magnificent achievement, a spacecraft with countless uses, and it opened up space (at least, LEO space) to humans on a scale never seen before. It made possible the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station. We're going to miss it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Microspace: Music of the SPHERES

Remember SPHERES, those little free-floating nanosats sent up to the ISS in 2006? The trio of "helper" satellites is still up there, and DARPA has all kinds of cool experimental uses for them. The SPHERES power themselves around in the atmospheres inside the ISS.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The 100-Year Starship study

What would it take to fly a piloted starship at near-light speeds a hundred years from now? NASA and DARPA are engaged in a study to see what technologies might be needed and how far they have to go to be mature enough. NASA Ames' Pete Worden, a guy always ready to think out on the edge, is one of the movers in this effort.
COMMENT: Sure, it's still going to be speculative. And sure, there are countless nearer-term concerns. But someone needs to think about the long term and the interstellar situation we could someday become.

Kepler module climbs toward ISS

These amazing photos show ESA's Johannes Kepler ATV resupply module climbing through the atmosphere toward the station. From the Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, an Ariane 5 launcher boosts the Kepler into orbit.

Navy scores a laser breakthrough

One of the US Navy's priorities for future weapons is the free electron laser (FEL) - your basic "death ray." This article from WIRED report on a breakthrough, running a test model on land at 500,000 volts, which the writer tells us can burn through 20 feet of steel per second. Yes, per second. A lot remains to be done before this is a practical weapon: it's too big, too fragile, too power-hungry to be put on current ships. But the Navy sees this as the future solution for defending ships from cruise missiles, aircraft, even ballistic missiles.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Top 10 Astronomical Discoveries

This isn't a deep-thinking astronomical site, but it's a very nice, brief, well-illustrated list of the ten most amazing discoveries of modern astronomy. They include General relativity, exoplanets, gamma ray bursts, black holes, the age of the universe, the Big Bang theory, redshifting, cosmic microwave background radiation, and those crazy twins, dark energy and dark matter, both of which still have plenty of "what the hell?" aspects to them.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: The Wave by Susan Casey

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey (2010)
Casey, who wrote a great book on white sharks, hee tells two stories. One is of the sailors and scientists probing the mysteries of giant waves. The second is of surfers, mainly the legendary Laird Hamilton and his rivals, as they try to ride larger and larger giants.
The two stories are only fitfully tied together as Casey switches back and forth between them. It would have been very interesting if she could have gotten some of the scientists and the surfers to chat directly, or at least comment on the other group's thoughts more than they do here.
In pursuit of rouge waves, she gathers evidence that the legendary 100-footers do happen, and they happen more often than sailors like to think about. Wave science turns out to be extremely complex and still developing, and Casey presents it well. Some of the instances were new to me, and some were scary just to read about while sitting on dry land. (Digression: Swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw has been asked what's the biggest wave she ever saw, and she writes that sailors don't have time or inclination to measure: they just divide bad weather into "this sucks" and "this REALLY sucks.")
As to the surfers, there are a handful capable of riding 60-foot-plus giants (I usually write in international units, but the 100-foot figure is iconic, so I will stick with English units here.) There is a quest among surfers to ride a hundred-footer, but these usually appear in such severe conditions, or with so little warning, that even surfers who carefully follow weather reports and wave forecasts have only a tiny chance of catching one. However, she believes Hamilton did in fact once ride a wave in excess of a hundred feet. Alas, he did it at a remote Pacific spot where no photos were recorded, and that's what you need to claim a record.
The Wave is an engrossing book whether you like sea stories, surfers, or science: it's a read that will sweep you away.

In search of the 30-foot anaconda

Slides from Slate magazine's article on the quest for a 40-foot anaconda, although the researchers would have accepted a 30-footer. Unfortunately, they found neither, and the claimed photograph of a 120-footer shown here looks like a sandbar to me.
COMMENT: The late Smithsonian herpetologist George Zug accepted a 38-foot claim, although some newer authorities reject this report (the snake was not preserved). (I use English measurements here because of the iconic nature of the 30-foot monster.) It's been argued the prehistoric 43-foot Titanoboa represented an upper bound for snakes, because at some point the nerve impulses travel too slowly to control the complex body movements.

Thanks to Dana Stabenow for first posting this link on Facebook.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Monster" photograph from English lake?

England's Lake Windermere is no Loch Ness, but two people kayaking on an office outing, think they saw a multi-humped monster. The story would end there except for the camera-phone picture you can see on the title link. A group of otters? A phenomenon caused by two wakes crossing? Could be either, but I'll grant them this appears more impressive than most "monster" photographs.

UPDATE: Well, yuck. A car tire turned up near the lake, slashed and stretched out so it could look like rubbery black humps.

Explorer 1 mission re-created with CubeSat

NASA's GLORY mission, to be launched February 23, will carry three CubeSats as hitchhikers. One is Montana State University's Explorer-1[Prime], a mission replicating the experiment carried out by the original Explorer 1 in 1958. The gamma ray detector on board will not be from 1958, but a development item from the Pioneer 10 mission, provided by the late Dr. James Van Allen, who directed the original experiment that found the Van Allen radiation belts. MSU hoped to launch the mission on the 50th anniversary of the original, but even tiny space projects are never as simple to build (and especially to launch) as originally projected.
COMMENT: When I talked to MSU's director for this mission a few years ago, he recounted telling Van Allen that they were going to replicate his 1958 experiment. Van Allen's deadpan response: "Well, I hope you don't prove me wrong."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stardust sees NASA-created crater on comet

Stardust/NEXT flew close by Comet Tempel 1 yesterday (within 200 km) and grabbed some great images and other science data. The big prize, though, was an image of the crater made in the nucleus when NASA's Deep Impact mission blasted into the comet in 2005. The results of that mission indicate the nucleus is more fragile than expected. The crater is still very clear, and squadrons of particles, compared to flak, are still streaming off and gave Stardust/NEXT some chancy moment,s even though the spacecraft was shielded.

The spacecraft is on its second life: it performed its original mission of collecting cometary particles and sending them in a capsule down to Earth, and then it was reprogrammed and sent to Image Tempel 1.

Amazing stuff!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Science education has problems in Russia, too

People (like me) who are concerned about the state of American science education can at least take heart that other nations' educators share their concerns. In Russia, 29 percent of the population believe in human-dinosaur coexistence, 55 percent that radiation is entirely created by humans, and 32 percent (rather mind-blowingly) believe the Sun revolves around the Earth. A spokeswoman for the government polling institute said, said, "I wonder whether our colleagues in other countries would find any different."

Weird new deep-sea lobster found

Dinochelus ausubeli, an inhabitant of the Pacific Ocean off the Philippines, looks bizarre even by lobster standards. It can't be mistaken for any known species, thanks to one claw that has been ridiculously extended into long, snapping "fingers." It looks like a James Bond villain with a weaponized artificial limb. The name of the new genus means "terrible claw."

New photo of rarest rhino

Conservationists are getting very excited by a photograph of a rhino's butt.
They have reason to, There are no more than 200 Sumatran rhinos left, scattered in pockets around Southeast Asia. On Borneo, there are perhaps 30. So the camera-trap photo of a pregnant female has everyone a bit more hopeful. The smallest, hairest, and most primitive-looking of rhinos, the Sumatrans are the world's most endangered large mammal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dating a mystery manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a beautifully illustrated book created by an unknown author at an unknown place and time. Its language is, so far, indecipherable (even many of the letters don't match any known language), and for 99 years since its discovery has defied hobbyists, linguists, and cryptanalysts.
Now we know one thing: its age. University of Arizona scientists usieng radio-carbon dating have placed the parchmnet used in the manuscript in the early 15th century. This was about a century older than previous estimates. Greg Hodgins of the university admits eveything else remains a puzzle. "Who knows what's being written about in this manuscript, but it appears to be dealing with a range of topics that might relate to alchemy. ...Just look at those drawings: Are they botanical? Are they marine organisms? Are they astrological? Nobody knows...It's a great puzzle that no one has cracked, and who doesn't love a puzzle?"

It's a jackal.. nope, a wolf!

Remember the jackal-headed Egyptian god, Anubis? (You should if you took any class on Egypt of watched the original Jonny Quest.) Well, the Egyptian jackal, scientists have discovered, is actually a wolf. The "African wolf," as it has been rechristened, may be a separate species or it may be another of the thirtysomething subspecies of the gray wolf Canis lupus. This was a stunner to zoologists who had never questioned the canid's identity until a DNA study.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is this insect weird enough for you?

Five centimeters long, it's a nonflying cricket, heavily built, with feet that look like snowshoes. This species of the genus Schizodactylus is interesting entomologists, not just because it's strange, but because it shows only small changes from fossil remains newly discovered in Brazil. It's like the animal looked at the whole "evolution" thing and said, "Nah, not for me."

Student finds new species

Ryan Shofner was taking an undergraduate entomology course at Fort Hays State University in Kansas when he collected a bug he hadn't seen before. He and his professor looked into it, and kept looking into it. And now we have the jumping bristletail, a new species.
COMMENT: Students and other amateurs: the scientific world still needs you!

Will the reusable launch vehicle make it this time?

Reusable, or partly reusable, launch vehicles have been a goal of engineers for 50 years. Except for the partly reusable Space Shuttle, dozens of projects in many nations have been started, only to be canceled because the development cost was too high, the technology was too difficult, etc. Sometimes the economics have not looked promising, as market projections failed to materialize.
The US Air Force is going to try again. From a posting on Federal Business Opportunities:
"Brief Program Summary: The Air Force has identified the Reusable Booster System (RBS) concept as a promising approach to meet its future spacelift needs. The RBS consists of an autonomous, reusable, rocket-powered first stage with an expendable upper stage stack."
Will the program make it this time? Let's hope so. The Air Force is reacting to the rising cost of expendable launchers. I've been saying for decades that we have to move past the idea of throwing the whole rocket away.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The biggest bear that ever lived

Modern bears, the largest of the brown bears and polars, may in exceptional individuals reach 500kg. The extinct giant short-faced bear have have reached 1,000kg, although experts have lately been debating how robustly it was built and whether this figure is too high. (A freak polar bear killed over 100 years ago was claimed to push 1,000kg as well.) But what do you do with a bear that weighed 1,600kg and standing 3.4 meters high? It's hard even visualize the thing. It seems like fantasy.
However, the giant short-faced bear's South American relative, which was discovered in 1935 but only now given a proper examination, really was that big. Paleontologist Blaine Schubert said "there's nothing else that even comes close...It just blew my mind how big it was."

How big is the biggest fish?

The world's biggest fish is the whale shark. This harmless filter-feeder has long been known to reach 15 meters and more. Now scientists using laser-aided cameras report some are bigger - nearly 20m.
Note: Michael Bright, in his book There are Giants in the Seas, cited reports of whale sharks up to 75 feet (over 22m!). That would be surprising - and awesome - but it's not impossible.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Really cool (as in subzero) new octopus species

Four new species found in Antarctic waters as fascinating to scientists because their venom works even at subzero temperatures. The octopi drill through mollusk shells with their beaks and then let the poison go to work. Teuthologis Bryan Fry adds, ""We want to see what cool and wonderful new venom components we can find out of these venoms that would be useful in drug development. They have such incredibly accurate activity that there has to be a way to harness that. To tweak it or modify it or just use one little chunk."

Microspace News: New CubeSat missions

I love the CubeSat, the 1kg, 10-cm cube invented at Stanford by Prof. Robert Twiggs that has allowed colleges and high schools as well as labs and government agencies to develop quick, affordable space missions. Now NASA has selected 20 CubeSat missions to get rides as secondary payloads on larger rockets in 2011 and 2012. The diversity is fascinating.
To the Cube!

-- Air Force Research Lab, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio

-- Drexel University, Philadelphia

-- NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. (two CubeSats)

-- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. (two CubeSats)

-- Naval Research Lab, Washington (two CubeSats)

-- Massachusetts Institute of Technology

-- Morehead State University, Morehead, Ky.

-- The Planetary Society, Pasadena, in partnership with NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

-- Space and Missile Defense Command, Huntsville, Ala.

-- St. Louis University, St. Louis, Miss.

-- Thomas Jefferson High School, Alexandria, Va.

-- University of Colorado

-- University of Hawaii

-- University of Louisiana, Lafayette

-- University of New Mexico

-- U.S. Military Academy

-- U.S. Naval Academy

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Interesting new rocket venture

EADS and Alliant Techsystems will take Alliant's Ares-1, add an EADS - Ariane upper stage, and build a new rocket called "Liberty" to try to capture NASA and international business ferry astronauts and cargo to orbit.
COMMENT: I wish them well, but I don't get the business plan. They are behind Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and especially SpaceX in this venture, not to mention Russia. They will need some kind of real cost breakthrough to capture business, and I don't see it in the materials released so far. They set a cost target as $180M and admit they need NASA money up front to finish R&D.

Nitpicking Star Trek planet names

Star Trek planet names are unrealistic. All Trek fans are nitpickers, but I don't think this has been discussed. The planets all have names easily rendered in English, like Toros or Ligan. Human languages unrelated to English (Yup'ik, Vietnamese, Salish, whatever) have sounds difficult to reproduce in English and spellings that are often impossible to render accurately in English. (Vietnam's westernized alphabet can have a half-dozen different accent marks around a single letter.) Galactic Standard seems to have no problem expressing planet names - which always sound the same when spoken by the planet's natives. Earth cultures often do not even use the same word for their homeland as foreigners use. There should be some difficult and varied pronunciations when you get to alien names.

Jules Verne's birthday!

Happy Birthday to the father of science fiction (and the technothriller). Google has a nice tribute in its logo today.
I keep waiting for someone to do a decent movie of ANY of Verne's books. Except for the enjoyable and well-acted Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the 1950s (heck, even the squid still holds up pretty well), there seems to be some bizarre cosmic law dictating it will never happen. The television adaptations of 20,000 leagues have been abominable, and nothing worth watching has ever been done with Verne's other novels. (Caveat: I have not seen the early film version of "Mysterious Island.")

Saturday, February 05, 2011

See "In the Shadow of the Moon"

Best space documentary ever: In the Shadow of the Moon. It perfectly re-creates the wonder, the danger, the tension, and the celebration surrounding the first steps on another world. In an interesting bit at the end, astronauts tell how voyaging to the moon affected them spiritually. Watch it, especially if you are too young to remember just why this was such a big deal.

China's mummy goes missing

Mummies discovered in western China some years back were dated to 4,000 years B.P. They were remarkably preserved, but the stunning thing was that some had Caucasian features. To this day archaeologists debate where these people came from. The most famous of all was a woman, auburn hair still intact, who toured with an exhibit that went to major American museums. Now the "Beauty of Xiaohe" has been pulled back mid-tour by Chinese officials and sent home. The Chinese are not explaining, leaving Americans to speculate that someone decided the politics of Caucasian settlers in ancient China was politically touchy. The exhibition, minus its star, goes on.
COMMENT: There seems no reason for China to be so sensitive about a mysterious but not major detail of its rich history. It's not like anyone was claiming Western influence for ancient Chinese accomplishments in science, technology, and exploration.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Gustave the giant croc still on the loose

Hunters haven't killed him. Soldiers with automatic rifles haven't killed him. Even a bad movie, Primeval, only enhanced his legend. Gustave, the world's biggest and most dangerous Nile crocodile, is still snatching people in Burundi. This article (and an Update article linked on the same site) describe him as a monster, probably 20 feet long and weighing around a ton, and distinguished by bullet scars as well as by size. Half again as long as a normal mature croc, Gustave has been blamed for 300 deaths. Scientists reject this figure, but no one doubts he has a fondness for easily-caught humans. As important as it is to halt his depredations, scientists also hope that he can be taken alive and continue passing on his genes. Herpetologists were stunned that a croc this size still lived in the wild, surviving both legal and illegal hunting, and even people out to kill him speak of him with a kind of respect.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Kepler finds a solar system like ours

Scientists using the Kepler space telescope have found over 1200 likely exoplanets, but the big news concerns a solar system 2,000 miles away: "six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11." Out of the hundreds of exoplanet discoveries made so far, the Kepler-11 find most closely resembles our own solar system: relatively compact, with rocky planets orbiting a small yellow star in a single plane.
Pat Flannery, a contributor to the group, made my favorite remark on this: "Kepler makes it look like a Star Trek universe out there, with planets all over the place."

Klyde Morris on the "Sputnik moment"

I shy away from politics on this blog, but, as a space historian, I was rather annoyed the term "Sputnik moment" was being tossed around with almost no evidence anyone really understood the context of the term. (Note to President and Congresspersons: I'll send you my book if you ask. ) This Klyde Morris comic strip rather neatly (and bitingly) makes the point.

Coolest Shuttle graphic ever

Just in time for the end of the program, has put together the clearest one-web-page graphic I have ever seen explaining the Shuttle program and its technology. I wish it had come out ten years ago and been made into a poster. I would have bought one. But still, here it is, and even veteran Shuttle-watchers will enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cool Fossil Department: Dino named after twin scientists

From the University of Kansas (KU) news service: "Count KU grads and identical twins Celina and Marina Suarez among the coolest people ever after the two had a new species of dinosaur named for them. Geminiraptor suarezarum, "one of the oldest dinosaurs of its type ever identified in North America," will be named for the 29-year-old identical twins and geochemists, who discovered the birdlike raptor's bones in Utah..." Details and photo of the excavation at the title link.

Cool Experiment Department: Paper planes from space

OK, near space. Hundreds of paper planes made by students were released from a balloon 36.5 kilometers up. Sponsor Samsung put an SD card in each plane. Planes have been reported in widely scattered locations, but it will take a while to figure out all the reported landing sights and claim a record for the longest paper plane flight ever. The planes, of waterproof paper, have been reported as far afield as South Africa, the United States, and Russia. Project Space Planes, led by Joel Veitch, built the aircraft and hope some may be found centuries from now - they may function as time capsules as well as messengers.

Correcting my initial post, I swtiched the title link to a batter and more recent article. I oritingally wrote the planes were constructed by German students, but I skimmed the article too quickly. It's still a unique and fascinating experiment.