Saturday, November 26, 2005

Readying the Space Shuttle

In a news conference held Tuesday, Nov. 22, Shuttle External Tank (ET) program manager John Chapman, manager of the external tank program, described finding nine tiny cracks, seven of them invisible at the surface, in the foam of an ET undergoing inspection. The hairline cracks occurred close to the area where foam separated on ascent during the shuttle Discovery's STS-114 Return to Flight mission last July.

It is, frankly, difficult to imagine a foam-covered structure the size of the ET going through construction, processing, mating, and filling without ever developing such micro-cracks. As Chapman cautioned, "We're still trying to figure out what this means." Right now, though, everyone at NASA is concerned with trying to get the tanks mated to their Shuttles in the most pristine condition possible. STS-121, the next mission, is planned right now for May 2006.

Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale took pains to point out the next mission will be driven by the ET work and not by a schedule.

In this writer's personal opinion, though, NASA's leaders have to prove they really mean that. Looking at the postings on, rumblings about inordinate schedule pressure have never entirely ceased. At this point, my unsolicited advice is, "To hell with the schedule." Another fatal accident means the end of the U.S. human spaceflight program, maybe for decades. If the Shuttle is going to fly again, everything else must take second priority to flying safely.

Truimph in Space

The Japanese Hayabusa probe became the first craft ever to take samples from a celestial body other than the Moon. The probe touched down on the asteroid Itokawa and and lifted off successfully.
The probe is not in the clear yet for its return to Earth. Controllers of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) put the craft into "safe" mode maintaining a distance of about 5 km from the asteroid while they studied an anomaly that may be propellant gas leaking from one of its thrusters. The probe is 288 million km from Earth and hopefully will return in 2007.
Congratulations are due to the Hayabusa team, along with everyone's best wishes for a safe return for humanity's latest effort to reach beyond this world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

2,000+ New Species from One Survey

A team from the University of San Carlos in the Philippines reports that study of a single area - the seafloor around the island of Panglao in the Philippine province of Bohol - has turned up an estimated 150–250 new species of Crustacea and 1,500–2,500 new species of molluscs. The University reports that,
"The survey has inventoried around 1,200 species of decapod Crustacea and up to 6,000 species of molluscs in the study area of about 15,000 hectares. While the mollusc result was anticipated, the crustacean result came as a total surprise to the researchers. In comparison, the Mediterranean Sea has an area of 300 million hectares and only 340 species of decapods and 2,024 species of molluscs."
Again and again, we are being reminded that we have only begun the task of inventorying the animal species of planet Earth.
As a Psalmist wrote long ago: "So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts."

In addition to the summary at the link above, more details can be found at

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Electronic Warfare - By Fish!

According to a new item in Science News, the modern combat tactic of jamming a rival's sensors is not so modern. Fish do it! The 15-cm brown ghost knifefish (Apteronotus leptorhynchus), which uses an electric field for detection and communication, can change the frequency of its field to jam that of a nearly rival. Simply amazing.

Amateur Makes Pivotal Find

The day of the amateurs - whether they are naturalists, fossil-hunters, or astronomers - is far from over. We think of science as a big-ticket, professional enterprise these days, but it's a big planet and a bigger universe... there will never be enough professionals to cover everything that's out there for us to learn. Witness the story of Texas fossil-hunter Van Turner, who found a peice of backbone that was eventually classified as Dallasaurus turneri, the earliest known mosasaur and an important clue to the evolution of marine reptiles.

Congratulations, Mr. Turner!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A really big ape

A new study indicates the largest known ape of all time, Gigantopithecus blackii, lived well into the time when humans inhabited its Asian home. Indeed, this 550-kg King Kong may have died out only 100,000 years ago.
Aside from the implications for primatology and paleontology, this also created a buzz in cryptozoology. Gigantopithecus (there are at least two species in the genus, with G. blackii being the largest) is the only primate of which we have fossil evidence that could account, based on size alone, for those yeti and sasquatch reports which describe apes up to 8 feet tall or more.
G. blackii is normally depicted as a gorilla-like animal which was normally a quadruped. Its sheer size is the main reason for assuming this. We have only teeth and jawbones, so there's a lot of room for speculation.
The connection with sasquatch seems a reach. Why would an animal of subtropical Asia (it's best known from China and Vietnam) make the journey across the Bering Strait land bridge in sufficient numbers to establish a North American population? This area was not always snow and ice, but it was hardly enticing foraging territory for a plant-eating ape. If sasquatch exists (I doubt it, but I hope I'm wrong) I suspect the ancestor is a somewhat smaller, more adaptable , omnivorous ape whose fossils we have not found yet.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Controversy on Flores Man

Anthropologists are sharply divided over the validity of Homo floresiensis, despite recent finds that extend the presence of these meter-tall humans of Indonesia, indicating a population that persisted from 95,000 years BP to as recent as 12,000 years. Some, like Robert Eckhardt of the Penn State University, consider the remains found so far indicate nothing more than a group of people prone to genetic defects including subnormal stature and microcephaly. In my admittedly amateur opinion, this is not a logical position. It's one thing to find a single skeleton and dismiss it as a "freak." In this case, we have material (admittedly incomplete) indicating this race survived for more than 80,000 years. A population subject to universal or very frequent microcephaly and other defects is simply not going to survive and reproduce for very long. While skeptics legitimately wonder if a being with such a small brain could produce the stone tools and other artifacts found in association with Flores, the evidence so far is that they could - because they did.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Important Report on National S&T

The National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy has produced a very clear and urgent report,
Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future .
It identifies two key challenges coupled to science and engineering: creating high-quality jobs and providing clean, reliable energy.
Recommendations: improve math and science education: expand basic research: make US more attractive to high tech students, engineers, etc.: and provide incentives for innovation.

Comment: Like most clear and urgent reports, this one will probably be ignored. Reports only matter when the President and Congress turn them into legislatiopn and budget inputs. This reprot is bold and forward-looking. Therefore, I'm not expecting much action.