Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dunkleosteus - the older it got, the meaner

Our favorite prehistoric fish, Dunkleosteus terrelli, was the apex carnivore of the Devonian.  Up to 9 meters long by some estimates (others make it 6 to 8), it had the ultimate set of choppers: guillotine-like biting plates growing directly from the jawbone.
So what did it eat? While the standard answer is "anything it wanted," new research covered in this article by David Moscato shows that the animal's jaws got heavier and its forward "fangs" sturdier as it got older. That implies a feeding strategy, seen today in the largest non-mammal predator in the world, the great white shark, of switching to bigger, slower prey as it gets older. For the Dunkleosteus, that may have included the largest fish available - other Dunks.  Cannibalism is not definite, though, as the bites found on the armor of Dunks may have come from intraspecific competition for mates (the arthodires pretty much invented modern male-on-female sex).
The Dunk remains one of the most awesome marine predators ever. The largest mosasaurs and megalodons may have been bigger, but they couldn't copy the Dunk's best feeding strategy - opening those jaws and letting the prey faint dead away from sheer terror.

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Dunk figures from (top) Wild Safari and (bottom) Jeff Johnson. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Microsatellites - Revolution in Orbit (Chapter 1)

 I've been an observer and sometime participant in the microsatellite business since 1992, 
when I wrote my first paper on the topic.  The field grows and changes so fast it's very hard to keep up
 with the basic news, let alone all the accomplishments being logged. But where did it begin?
This is an intermittent series poking through some of the information I (and some co-authors like Erika Vadnais) have picked up in many years of looking at this topic, talking to the entrepreneurs and the engineers, and writing.  (Not included is information I/we developed on company time at our employers’ expense: companies get touchy about that.)  However, as authors of The First Space Race (NASA/Texas A&;M, 2004) (which developed out of a microsat history book project called Little Star, which we may actually get back to one of these years) we learned lot on our own time: enough to provide some historical context to a fast-moving industry.  

We'll go back to the earliest days in later installments, but I wanted to focus this time on the decade that is easily forgotten but was absolutely pivotal: the 1990s.
First. what's a microsatellite?  I like the common (but not universal) standard of 100kg or less for a microsatellite and 10 kg or less for a nanosatellite.   Back in the 90s, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) referred to “smallsats” as under 1,000kg or 500kg, either of which is hopelessly antiquated after decades of shrinking electronics and other components.  For a long time it was generally accepted a microsat would be single-string (no redundant components) and single-mission, but relentless miniaturization is slowly moving us away from those norms. 
I’m going to focus in this first segment on military satellites, because truly commercial microsatellites are a relatively recent development.  The pioneering Orbcomm UHF constellation by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) (which also flew the first small booster developed in the U.S. in decades, the air-launched Pegasus) orbited its first satellite, the pioneering Orbcomm-X (or Datacomm-X) in 1991, but Orbcomm for many years had commercial microsats to itself.   
To get back to the topic, the microsat didn't emerge out of nowhere. 
The first satellites, like America's pioneering Explorer I and Vanguard I of 1958, were small because they had to be (and military because no one else had the money and expertise).  Explorer I, America’s first response to the much larger Sputniks, was built into the fourth stage of the Jupiter-C launch vehicle. The satellite portion was only 84 cm long and 15 cm in diameter.  This section was made of 410 stainless steel, its bare sandblasted surface marked with white stripes of aluminum oxide.  Explorer 1 weighed 6.35 kg on its own and 14 kg if the fourth stage of the booster (which remained attached) was counted.

An Explorer 1 model with transparent display version of front section (NASA)

As boosters became more powerful from the early 1960s on, the U.S. military moved to orbiting increasingly larger and more capable payloads. In the decade from 1978 to 1987, for example, only six military microsats were launched.  (Four of these belonged to the Navy’s Transit navigation series, which operated from 1962 through 1996.)  
Beginning in 1987, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) (known for part of its history as ARPA), led a resurgence of interest  which resulted in  military proof-of-concept satellites of the late 80s and early 90s with clunky acronym-ed names like GLOMR, MACSAT, DARPASAT, LOSAT-X, and the MicroSat constellation. The most notable one of the early 1990s was the UHF store-and-forward communications bird called MACSAT, one of which was pressed into operational use in the first Persian Gulf War.  Despite this success, the Navy's proposal for a follow-on constellation, ARCTICSAT, was canceled. For the rest of the decade, the largest U.S. military space service, the USAF, basically laughed out loud at the idea these toys could be useful.  (OK, an organization cannot physically laugh, but the Air Force came as close as possible.)

Two MACSATs stacked for launch (DARPA)

NASA never abandoned microsats completely: the Explorer series moved from its original Army home to  NASA and continues today, and the Particles and Fields Subsatellite (PFS) series put tiny satellites into orbit around the Moon from Apollo missions.  NASA entered a new era in 1995 when MicroLab-1 (later turned over to the contractor, OSC, and redesignated OrbView-1) demonstrated that a microsat could provide environmental data.  The 68-kg satellite mapped thunderstorm activity and created moisture and temperature profiles by measuring the occultation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals received through the atmosphere.
Military communications, as well as commercial telephone, broadcasting, and other applications, was generally provided since the 1960s by large high-capacity satellites in the geostationary belt.  Microsats were not going to add much here, but there’s another way to do commemorations. Low-orbiting satellites can receive comm over a theater and downlink it to a headquarters and vice versa (store-and-forward) or provide continuous “bent-pipe" communications with a constellation of spacecraft to ensure that at least one satellite will always be in contact with the user.  Such smallsat constellations were orbited by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s.  The concept was tested again by DARPA in 1991 when a single launch vehicle orbited seven 23-kg UHF MicroSats, creating a constellation providing continuous voice and data communication within a footprint about 5000 km wide. The entire system, including launch, cost under $20 million (M) in 1998 dollars. 
After Congress denied DARPA requests for $30M in Fiscal Year (FY) 1993 and $24M in FY 1994 requests for related projects, the DARPA "lightsat" program was essentially dead. This was despite the 1994 Air University study Spacecast 2020, which made another point in favor of such satellites.  If a large satellite has a nominal 10-year life and a microsat two years, the microsats  are able to go through five generations of technology improvement for every one generation of the largesat.  This has become more important as time and technology have progressed: every large satellite launched is essentially behind the technology curve thanks to years in preparation.  In 1998, Air Force Chief Scientist Daniel Hastings gave a strong endorsement to "smallsats."  While cautioning that “moving to smaller, distributed satellites is not a panacea for all problems,” he said, “The potential exists for really revolutionary changes in respect to moving to smaller systems.” He had no idea how right he was.
Other countries made experiments in this decade, too, and not only in communications.  One of the most interesting was France's 50-kg CERISE, launched in 1995.  This spacecraft monitored HF emissions to validate technology for a future operational signals intelligence microsat called Clementine (no relation to the U.S. lunar probe of the same name.)
The commercial world didn’t lack for pioneering entrepreneurs, but for quite a while Orbcomm was the only one that got serious traction. One of the pioneering commercial firms, predating Orbital, was AeroAstro, led by visionary/evangelist Rick Fleeter. Fleeter had no patience with approaches that just tried to shrink conventional satellites a little. He once observed that the military “thinks a small satellite is 900 kilograms. We think it’s 9.”  AeroAstro tried to shrink satellites drastically in the late 90s, marketing the 1-kg Bitsy spacecraft bus.  It was advertised as costing under $100,000 (plus payload), being customizable for applications including remote sensing, communications, space science, and technology testing, and taking nine months from ordering to delivery to a launch pad.  The vision, though, as so often happens, was ahead of the market. Useful payloads small enough and using only a few watts of electricity just were not ready yet, except for UHF radios. No Bitsy ever flew.   
One of the reasons microsats were dismissed in the 1990s was their inability to take anything but very low-resolution images.  This was considered a hard limit: the relationship between mirror size and image resolution (equivalent to the pixel size in electronic images) was inviolate. If you wanted a satellite that could spot a car (much less read the proverbial license plate), you needed a mirror diameter measured in meters.   In the 1990s, inventions like “folded optics” and the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) imager began a revolution which would lead eventually to the Planet (formerly Planet Labs) microsatellites in orbit today, in which images with three-meter resolution are taken from a satellite with a once-ridiculous aperture diameter of 10cm.      
Other advances drove miniaturization, including the reduction of computers to single chips and composite-based construction.  FORTE, a 215-kg satellite built by Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and launched in 1997 to watch for the electromagnetic signatures of nuclear tests, flew the first frame made entirely of graphite-epoxy composites.  Compared to an all-aluminum structure, this reduced the weight from 64 to 42 kg.

By the end of the 1990s, the microsatellite revolution, despite halting and sometimes shaky progress, was advancing on a broad front.  Imaging, communications, electronic intelligence, weather, and other proof of concept satellites had established the potential utility of microsats, and the advance of technology – much of it in the consumer electronics industry – was enabling leaps in capability.  The stage was set for the real revolution – one that would be permanent. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shadows of Existence - 10 Years On

I published my last book on zoology and cryptozoology, Shadows of Existence, 10 years ago.  Hancock House, the small publisher in Washington State specializing in zoology, bird lore, and Western history, among other topics, had brought out my 1995 Rumors of Existence and offered a contract for this one, too.

What did I get right and wrong?  Here, in no particular order, are 20 things I thought in 2006 and how they have turned out..  

1. I wrote that I didn't expect any new hard evidence for any of the big stars of crypotozoology - sasquatch, yeti, and Nessie.  I was right. 

2. I had hopes something would emerge from the "sea serpent" data, perhaps an elongated eel. In fact, I was pretty sure of the eel or eel-like fish.  So far, no luck finding it.  

3. I expected many more new species of vertebrates, including mammals. I was right, although I suppose that was kind of general, so I don't get much credit for it.  

4. I held out a little hope for the Caribbean monk seal. That one I've given up on. Ditto Schomburgk's deer. Ditto the Tasmanian tiger: people still report it, but there's nothing new to go on.  

5. I was pretty certain we'd find better evidence of the survival of the Eastern cougar. A swing and a miss, and now the slow infiltration of cats from the West may be obscuring this question. 

6. I was hopeful about the Japanese wolf. I've not given that one up yet, but the case hasn't advanced much. 

7. I dismissed the Minnesota Iceman, a position that I feel is much stronger now that the model has turned up.  

8. I plumped for an unknown population of sturgeon for the "monster" of Lake Iliamna.  I still think that one's on the money.

9. I didn't think any of the famous "lake monsters' would be proven. So far, they haven't.  

10. I was unsure about the identification of the mysterious Mesoplodon Species A as the adult form of the Peruvian beaked whale, but scientists are pretty unanimous on this one.  

11. I argued Wilson's whale likely represented an unknown cetacean, and I still think it does, or did. 

12. I thought at least one of Peter Hocking's big cats from Peru would prove to be a new species. I was, alas, wrong. 

13. I wrote that it was time to bury the giant octopus, and it seems to have been. 

14. I thought one or two more species would come out of Vu Quang. They haven't, but unexplained horns are still unexplained: there is, or was, at least one more species.

15. South Africa's mapinguari intrigued me. It still does - somewhat.

16. Ditto for Sumatra's orang-pendek, which has a stronger case - a very strong case, really. I think we'll find it.

17. I agreed with authorities who thought new beaked whale species were still out there.  They have turned out to be right, and I don't think we've met all the cetaceans quite yet.  

18. I thought a strikingly marked manta that turned up in footage from the TV show Survivor might be linked to the elusive maybe-species called Beebe's manta.  I no longer think so, having learned that manta markings are more varied than I'd realized. 

19. I thought the "Bloop" sound could represent an unknown and very large species of animal. Apparently not. 

20.  I suggested more coelacanth populations would be found. I was right on that one. 

It's not a bad record, really. I was proud of the book, and still am.  It got very good reviews, including an excellent one from Sharon Hill's highly respected Doubtful News blog.  Bill Rebsamen's vibrant illustrations helped bring it to life. Bill went on to create a great creature and a great cover for my cryptozoological horror novel The Dolmen.    

So, I am moving on, with more nonfiction and fiction projects related to the mystery animals of the world. These have taken much longer than I thought, but stay tuned! 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book: A Dena'ina Legacy

A  Dena'ina Legacy: K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky, 1st Edition

 Alaska Native Language Center: 1994

This is a collection of stories, some true, some mythical, and some from that intriguing land between the two.  Kalifornsky was a self-taught scholar born in 1911, and the memories of his people tapped for this compilation dated back to the mid-1800s and, through oral storytelling, much  further back. Each of these tales from Alaska is presented on opposite pages in Dena'ina and in  English. Dena'ina grammar is quite incomprehensible for an English-only reader like myself, but you can pick up a little of the rhythm in the Native-language stories and through the translations. Many stories tell of defining moments in the history of the Dena'ina, from creation thorough the first encounters with white people and up to the present. Most of the stories have a moral point applicable to any culture and time.  Respect for nature and for the spirits of every animal and fish a hunter takes is a recurring theme.  Apparently legendary creatures like the little Mountain People will make readers wonder if there's a historical source and what it might have been.  The Dena'ina are a diminishing people in the modern world, but I hope this collection helps people realize that their heritage of wisdom,history, and humor should not perish.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

IWC Takes Steps for the Whales

A lot of interesting things happened at the International Whaling Commission meeting. Commissioners voted to:
- Tighten the scientific whaling loophole 
 - Pursue creation of a huge South Atlantic whaling sanctuary
 - Research the problem of the abuse of aboriginal whaling quotas. 

Four draft resolutions were debated to follow up on these actions and strengthen the IWC itself. :

The progress made was not as definitive and wide-ranging as proponents hoped (e.g., the scientific loophole was not closed), but it WAS a step forward, 

Monday, November 07, 2016

Off Topic: VOTE

As American elections draw near, may I offer one last thought from one citizen. 
My father in law took the brunt of an enemy shell on Saipan so you could vote. 290,000 men and women died facing Hitler and Tojo so you could vote. Americans have died on their home soil and all over the world so you can vote. I spent four years in a missile silo holding the keys to Armageddon so you could vote. A 19-year old Afghan woman cast the first vote in the first election held in her lifetime because American, NATO, and Afghani troops died to secure the vote. People in rebellions worldwide have fought dictators with stones and bare hands so they could have a government they had a chance to vote on . 
I'm a realist: I know that voting can be tainted, its results minimized, its mandates sometimes ignored or its chosen candidates corrupted. But no one can say in America in 2016 that we do not have clear choices. The impact of your votes - OUR votes - will be historic, the effects worldwide. We're choosing aldermen, state representatives, mayors, senators, congressmen, and a President. We're voting on school bond issues, state constitutional amendments, local ordinances, and the raising and use of public funds. 
There's a lot wrong with America, and we can't fix it all by voting. But we sure as hell cannot fix it WITHOUT voting. Voting this week is taking the next step into our country's future.
Please vote.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Off topic: Wisdom from Harry Chapin

I thought we all could use this.

The late Harry Chapin on life and his grandfather

"My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight, he illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry and he was looking at me and he said, 'Harry, there are two kinds of tired: there's good-tired, and there's bad-tired.'
He said, 'Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. You won. But you won other people's battles, you lived other people's days, other people's agendas, other people's dreams and when it was all over there was very little "you" in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn--you don't settle easy. Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. You lost. But you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy--you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say "take me away."'
He said, 'Harry, all my life I've painted. God, I would've loved to be more successful, but I painted and I painted, and I am good-tired and they can take me away.'
Now, if there is a process in your and my lives in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife and God--I hope there is a God. If He is-- if He does exist He's got a rather weird sense of humor, however. But let's just-- But if there's a process that will allow us to live our days and will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black, implacable wall of death, to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in."