Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jeff Bezos' private spaceship founder Jeff Bezos is moving ahead with his plans for a private space travel company. His new firm, the very secretive Blue Origins, is leasing more space near Seattle for headquarters and workshops. The company already bought a ranch in west Texas for rocket tests. Blue Origin's initial vehicle will be a three-person suborbital carrier, with orbital vehicles and, in the far term, space colonies to follow. He has at least one serious competitor, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise, which has leased land for a spaceport in New Mexico.

Comment: There are other companies exploring this field, too, and several others have started but already collapsed. The difference here is that these are people who have very large bankrolls and don't need to hunt for - and then please - outside investors. That makes a big difference in how quickly one can develop technology and get a complex effort underway. Good luck to both.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Ecology of Skull Island

The new film King Kong does a more realistic job of portraying a giant gorilla than its Hollywood predecessors. In this enjoyable article, Stefan Lovgren uses the film to explore island ecology. Kong's home of Skull Island, alas, would be a bad place to look for anything like Kong himself. The island is too small and too full of large predators to work as an ecosystem. The same point was made about the island in Jurassic Park, which didn't have nearly the land area required to support multiple species of giants. Islands in general do not house large predators at all.

Comment: The Komodo dragon seems an interesting exception to this rule. Alas, there have been too many bad movies about oversize lizards to leave room for a good movie on the subject.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

SCIENCE magazine's Breakthroughs of the Year

Science magazine has named its top 10 breakthroughs of 2005. First place went to a series of projects which increased our knowledge of evolution, including the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome and the ways in which a species can split into two or more species. Other breakthroughs included planetary probe successes, most notably the Huyghens lander's mission to Titan, along with genetic research, a new understanding of neutron stars, etc. The magazine also named the "breakdown of the year," the budget-driven collapse of the leading U.S. programs in particle physics.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The "Bone Eating Snot Flower"

You can't make this stuff up....
Off the coast of Sweden, scientists have discovered a seafloor-dwelling worm they have christened the bone-eating snot-flower. That's the actual translation of its specific name, Osedax mucofloris. The critters "burrow into whale bones, leaving mucus-covered plumes poking out." The plumes look a bit like flower, albeit a disgusting one. The new animal belongs to a group also called zombie worms. Most of its relations live in the Pacific, and the discovery in the North Sea was a surprise.

Thanks to my colleague at Booz Allen Hamilton, Heather Gruver, for pointing this one out to me.

One Big Cat

What may be the world's largest feral cat was recently shot in Australia. The solid black animal was so large that one zoologist who saw the single photograph published suggested it was a leopard. DNA analysis showed it was a feral domestic cat, but the tail alone was 65 cm long, and the weight has been estimated at 25kg or more. It may have been a freak, or it may be proof that, given a situation with plenty of prey and limited competition, the domestic cat can evolve into a giant variant, perhaps a new subspecies. There are other sightings of large black cats in Australia, with a few photographs and videos to back them up.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Giant New Aquarium

The new $200M Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta holds more than 8 million gallons of water in uniquely designed "walk-through" tanks, housing over 100,000 fish (including two whale sharks, the first kept in North America) and five beluga whales.

Comment: There is always controversy about keeping large creatures in aquaria. My thought is that, while keeping creatures like belugas and whale sharks should be restricted to the largest, best-equipped facilities, there's no real substitute for exposing people to the diversity and majesty of the marine life we need to protect. Videos just don't have the same impact.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

World's Coolest Robot

It's not C-3PO, but it's getting close. The latest version of Honda's humanoid robot, ASIMO, which can not only walk but jog, will get its first test in a workplace next year. ASIMO will staff the front desk at a Honda office, greeting visitors, showing them to a conference room, and brining coffee, among other tasks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

News on species at rish

A study sponsored by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), the study identifies 794 species approaching extinction. The AZE recommended safeguarding 595 sensitive habitat sites, of which only about a third are protected today.

One of those species is the ivory-billed woodpecker, recently rediscovered in the U.S. An article from Reuters ( documents how a seemingly unlikely ally, the hunting community, has helped to save the ivory-bill through habitat conservation.

Comment: Note the common thread; conservation of habitat. Restoring habitat, once it's been developed for other uses, is almost impossible. Habitat protection should be the number one priority in allocating resources for conservation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Looking ahead: NASA's 2007 budget

NASA administrator Griffin has released his guidance on NASA's budget planning. Essentially, the science and education programs will be held flat while the agency tries to safely phase out the Shuttle, finish a workable International Space Station configuration, and fund the transition to the planned Crew Exploration Vehicle and the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration.

Comment: Those who would like to see robust science and education programs while still keeping the VSE development on track really have only one option: fight for more funding. NASA is shedding employees (contract and civil service), asking for proposals for contracting out delivery of cargo to the space station to private industry, and otherwise pushing for all the economies Congress will let them get away with (I say that because there's no chance Congress will let he agency get away with closing any of its field centers, even though they were established when NASA was much larger.) A higher "topline" is the only real option, and that means NASA and its supporters (myself included) must do a better job of making the case for more NASA funding within a constrained Federal budget.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Mention of My Papers

The Arms Control Wonk site, in an article on a defense satellite programs called ANGELS, saw fit to mention two of my past papers on what might be done with small spaceraft in the escort and inspection role. I have not worked for ANSER since 2001, but the citation is otherwise accurate. It's nice to be thought significant.

The cite:

Matt Bille and Deborah A. Bille, Enforcing the OST—The Inspection Question AIAA-2000-5155, AIAA Space 2000 Conference and Exposition, Long Beach, CA, Sept. 19-21, 2000.
Matt Bille, Robyn Kane, Martin Oetting (ANSER) and Donna Dickey (AFRL), A Microsatellite Space Guard Force, 13th Annual AIAA/USU Small Satellite Conference, 1999.

Borneo Discovery - or rediscovery?

The photographing of an unknown carnivore on Borneo gave rise to speculation an entirely new species had been discovered. That's still possible, but it's also possible the find concerns the rediscovery of an animal presumed extinct. Cameron Leuthy, a colleague of mine at Booz Allen Hamilton, gets credit for pointing me to a site on Hose's palm civet (Diplogale hosei), a carnivore native to Borneo but not seen for 40 years and feared extinct. It looks like a promising match.

Asteroid Probe Fails to Gather Samples

Well, darn. Japan's daring robotic mission to gather surface material samples from an asteroid and return with them to Earth apparently did not work after all. After initially saying the Hayabusa probe "most probably" succeeded in gathering samples from the asteroid Itokawa , the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency now believes the sample collector "bullet" did not fire when the probe was in position. A mission like this is a terribly difficult endeavor, and failures must be expected. Fortunately, other scientific data gathering, plus the experience and the lessons learned, makes this a worthwhile endeavor even with the disappointment of the missed sampling effort.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New Carnivore from Borneo

New mammals discovered in the field are rare, sizable mammals rarer, and new carnivores rarer still. WWF scientists in Borneo have hit the trifecta with photos of a carnivore whose type is still undetermined. The dark red animal with a long, bushy tail may be a vivverid, but it's snout is obscured by a leaf in the key photograph, making certain identification difficult. THe animal is slightly larger than a domestic cat. Yet another reminder of how much we still have to learn about the species of our own class.

Hydrothermal Vents are Global Phenomenon

Scientists have announced the finding of new hydrothermal vents, gushing superheated water and minerals into the sea. What's significant is that, until now, only the Pacific "Ring of Fire" zone and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge were thought to posess such vents. Now we know they are global - a discovery which will shed more light on Earth's past and, most certainly, lead to the finding of yet more unknown species of animals to add to the hundreds of species described from the vents we already know of.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Trojan Shark

A $115,000 imitation shark has been developed in the hopes a researcher concealed inside will be able to study great white sharks up close. The 14-foot "Trojan Shark" emits no bubbles and has skin roughed up and scarred to not only look but feel like a real shark.

Comment: It's a worthy effort, and I wish the researcher (the grandson of Jacques Cousteau) luck. But it's hard to imagine that sharks, with their incredible sensor suites, will not notice some differences. It will be interesting to see how close they let the robotic shark get.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Coverage of Earth's Exploration of Mars

Here's a good site on Mars for a broad audience, archiving all the recent NBC/MSNBC stories on the Martian rovers and the results and reports that have flowed from the resulting data. The more we learn about Mars, the more mysterious and intriguing it becomes. Here's hoping we have the vision to fund a long-term exploration program - robotic and, eventually, human - to gain full knowledge of Earth's most famous celestial neighbor. Could some life have survived there? Yes. Could life have arisen there? We don't know. Could there still be life there? It's a slim chance, but it's not impossible.....

When Sir Arthur C. Clarke was asked what event in the 20th century he
would never have predicted, he said, "That we would have gone to the
Moon and then stopped."

A Fitting Tribute

The ashes of Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper will be sent into space in the next commercial "burial" mission, along with those of Star Trek actor James Doohan. The space community will get to say a final farewell to two men of great influence: one real space pioneer and one science fiction pioneer who inspired some of today's engineers in their student days. The Space Services Inc. payload will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 1 booster should occur in early 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Godspeed.