Saturday, March 31, 2007

Debating what ancestors looked like

This article from gives a good example of the techniques, theories, and controversies surrounding the reconstruction of the faces of human ancestors (or at least early relations) from fossils. The question at hand concerns a Kenyan skull, 1.9 million years old, which startled anthropologists when it was found in 1972. The skull, KNM-ER 1470, received the name Homo rudolfensis. Its owner was originally was thought to have a modern-looking flat face (it would be the earliest appearance of such a face, by far, in the fossil record), but some scientists now argue it appeared more apelike.

What NASA sees ahead

This graphic shows what NASA calls an "integrated snapshot of Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Progress, ATV, HTV, COTS (RpK and SpaceX), Ares 1, and Orion flights between 2007 and 2015." NASA is, of course, keeping its fingers crossed that this revised and stretched-out program is going to be funded, or if more cuts will push the Ares and Orion additional years "to the right," as they say in the Federal government. NASA Adminsitrator Mike Griffin recently lamented that NASA does not have the presumption of continuance we accord to other Federal agencies. "We don't debate if we will have a Navy," he said. "But every year we always seem to debate if we will have a space program."

Space tether experiment now April 17

New Scientist reports the M.A.S.T. tether experiment should now be launched April 17. When the one-kilometer tether is deployed, ground observers should be able to spot the three-spacecraft system with binoculars or possibly the naked eye.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Lull after the Dinosaurs

It was generally believed in paleontology that, once the dinosaurs vanished, the mammals blossomed quickly into new niches and new species, some of which gave rise to the mammals of today. A new study, though, shows that didn't happen. Instead, the new mammals were generally evolutionary dead ends. The little critters that were the original mammalian ancestors soldiered on for 10-15 million years before branching into the mammalian family trees that survive to the present day.

Space News: Tether and Orbital Express

The launch of a new tether experiment via a Russian Dnepr launch vehicle has been delayed, and it's not clear what the new date is. Presumably the Russians want to be certain the booster is 100 percent, as the last Dnepr launch failed.

Meanwhile, Boeing has a page tracking the Orbital Express robotic rendezvous-and-docking mission (see title link). One half of the mission, the Ball Aerospace-built NextSat spacecraft, is performing nominally, while the other half, the Boeing-made ASTRO spacecraft, has encountered a series of anomalies since its launch on March 8 and is not yet ready to separate from the "stack" and get into the operational phase of the mission.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Space tether experiment coming

An experiment to be launched tomorrow (March 27) on a Denpr rocket will carry out a new test of tethers in space. Three microsatellites will deploy - two at the ends of a 1 km tether, with the third in the middle using a traction mechanism to "crawl" along the tether. Past tether experiments have had mixed results. The concept may be important for future space structures, for maneuvering without propellant, and for the generation of electrical power from the interaction between a tether and the Earth's magnetic field.

Catching up with private space ventures

This excellent entry from Alan Boyle's always-worthwhile Cosmic Log catches up with news from the rocketplane entrepreneurs and Bigelow Aerospace, which apparently has a new deal with Rocketplane Kistler for support of its orbital hotel concept. There is also new information on the SpaceX Falcon 1 test earlier this month. It's now clear the first stage bumped into the back of the second after separation, although it's less certain whether that had an effect on the second stage guidance problem that halted the flight well short of orbit.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Good news for the American crocodile

The American crocodile has become a conservation success story. The continent's largest reptile (well, maybe the largest - there's an old record of an alligator allegedly reaching 19 feet, 2 inches) has been reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened."
COMMENT: An impressive 12-foot specimen was once captured near a construction area I was working on next to the Indian River at Vero Beach, FL. The reptile was kept alive in a covered pool pending a proper return to the wild. The animal got away and was never found again, earning it the name "Houdini." At that point, in 1976, there were as few as 300 of these animals in Florida. There are now an estimated 2,000.

France Opens UFO Files

The French space agency, CNES, has opened up its files on what may be the world's longest-running official government investigation of UFOs. The agency is in the process of releasing and posting on the Web some 100,000 documents used by the Group for Study and Information on Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena.
COMMENT: I've always believed that the small percentage of UFO reports which resist easy explanation might well conceal some important natural electrical, atmospheric, and/or plasma phenomena that were being overlooked due to the ridicule factor. The numbers the French researchers posted, though, are startling: only 9 percent of reports are considered definitely explained, with another 33 percent likely explained. Even the most ardent American UFOlogists assume 90-percent-plus of reports can be traced to to mundane causes. I've not yet read what kind of sorting system the French researchers used, and it may well be the just-quoted numbers apply only to a puzzling minority of reports and not to the entire body of initial data. Still, there will no doubt be a lot in here for students of the bizarre - and just maybe for serious scientific minds as well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

News From SpaceX!

The first rocket produced by SpaceX, Elon Musk's privately funded company intended to cut the cost of access to orbit in half, has had a partially successful launch. The Falcon booster lifted off from its Kwajalein Atoll pad and soared into the sky about 9 PM EDT. Unfortunately, a problem with the second stage meant the rocket fell short of achieving orbit, but Musk and his intrepid crew of believers felt they'd taken a major step forward nonetheless. "We successfully reached space and really retired almost all the risk associated with the rocket, so I feel very good about where things are," he said.

NASA News: from bad to incredibly bad

NASA, burdened with far more missions and demands than its $17B budget can support, has proposed cutting out its leading-edge technology development center - the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). To save a mere $4M a year, the agency will end research into topics as diverse (and, in the long term, vital) as improved spacesuits and exotic propulsion technologies. Meanwhile, future missions in the Lunar Robotic Precursor Program will go over the side, along with the innovative "Red Planet" venture capital fund program.

COMMENT: Yes, the NASA Administrator reports to the President and must do his best with the budget he's given. I know this is easy for me to say, since my job isn't on the line, but Administrator Mike Griffin must be forthright and public about the fact NASA flat-out cannot accomplish its missions with anything like the budget it has today. The train wreck has arrived.

Danger for the "Dancing Deer"

In 1951, scientists gave up the Manipur brow-antlered deer or sangai (Cervus eldi eldi) as extinct. Fortunately, they were wrong. A small herd of the animals hung on in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur in one of the world's most unusual habitats. Some 100 deer live on a huge floating island of silt and vegetation in Loktak lake. They have developed an unusual, bobbing gait due to the spongy and insubstantial nature of the surface they walk on. The "dancing deer," as they are often called, are in trouble again, though. Changes in the lake's water level due to a hydropower station have led to the slow disintegration of the world's most unusual game preserve. The sangai can survive on dry land, and probably will. But an amazing story of survival will nonetheless come to an end.
Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Harvest of new genes from the ocean

An expedition devoted to uncovering the genetic matter contained in tiny marine organisms is reporting quite a haul. A two-year global voyage effort in search of bacteria and viruses has proven marine microbial life is much richer than anyone suspected. The results will be studied for many more years, and will lead to a much greater understanding of the oceanic food web.

Thanks to Dr. Cherie McCollough for this item.

Another take on the Martian cave report....

A unique observation by the always-spot-on Klye Morris comic strip.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Deadly New Species

Late in 2005, an Australian herpetologist, Dr Mark Hutchinson, caught an odd-looking snake snake crossing a dirt road in the central desert of Western Australia. The meter-long animal turned out to be a new species of the highly venomous taipan. Biologist Richard Shine commented, "My initial reaction is that this is really exciting. Taipans are such an icon of Australia. To discover that there's an entirely new taipan, more than a hundred years after the last one, really gives us an idea of what might be out there. It does seem remarkable that such large animals of general interest are quite poorly known." He added, "Maybe that reflects how few people are interested in going out to catch large snakes on hot days."

Caves on Mars?

Scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas reported that images from NASA's Odyssey spacecraft show what may appear to be seven cave openings on the flanks of the Arsia Mons volcano. The entrances range in width from 100 to 250 meters. and the caves are somewhere over 70m in depth (in only one case can the floor actually be seen.) The caves offer possible shelter for any Martian life forms and could conceivably be of use to human colonists.

This is a big week on the Red Planet, including as it does the reported discovery of a massive underground "sea" of frozen water ice:

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Some doubts about the Gore version of global warming

The New York Times, which may safely be called a pro-environmentalist and generally pro-Democratic paper, has published a good article by the excellent science writer William J. Broad on the scientific reaction to Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. Broad writes that, despite agreement by a majority of relevantly-degreed scientists that Gore's central point is correct, criticisms about the film's use of oversimplification and overstatement are creating a mini-backlash. The fear is that easily challenged missteps (like depicting a 20-foot rise in sea levels when US experts predict 23 inches) make it easy for opponents to dismiss the film and thus its topic.

Now Maine gets a big cat search

Officials in Maine are joining their counterparts in Pennsylvania (see earlier post) in a new examination of evidence for local presence of the Eastern cougar. The textbooks say Felis concolor cougar went extinct many decades ago, but very few big cats can read, and a major discovery may be in the offing.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Big Cat Species!

GENEVA (Reuters) - Scientists have identified a leopard found on the South-East Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra as a new species of great cat, the global nature protection body WWF reported on Thursday.
....Genetic and skin tests on the creature, now dubbed the Bornean clouded leopard, or Neofelis diardi, have shown that it is almost as different from clouded leopards found on the Asian mainland as lions are from tigers, the Swiss-based WWF said.... SEE LINK FOR REST OF STORY

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The hunting of the squid

Two scientific teams have joined forces to find out just how the biggest predator in the sea, the sperm whale, finds it fast-moving squid prey. One team, led by William Gilly at Stanford University, was tagging the two-meter jumbo squid (Dosidicus gigas, not to be confused with the much larger giant squid Architeuthis dux), squid, while Randall Davis's team from Texas A&M University was tagging sperm whales. Now the joint team can "watch" as the animals, which normally congregate at different depths, cross paths and become steps in the same food chain.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Does the Japanese wolf survive?

Loren Coleman and company at Cryptomundo have collected some new data on an intriguing mystery: when did the Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) go extinct - if at all?
The subcompact canid is usually listed as extinct as of 1905. However, a photograph has been published showing a specimen killed in 1910. This specimen, though, was later destroyed in a fire, leaving the mounted 1905 specimen (now in the British Museum) as the species' last representative.
COMMENT: As I described in Shadows of Existence (Hancock House, 2006), it's not at all certain the species was extinct before World War One or even World War Two. There's a slim chance it survives even today.

Orbital Express in Orbit

The U.S. Air Force’s Space Technology Program 1 (STP-1) mission has launched on an Atlas 5 booster from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The main payload is the $300M Orbital Express, a two-satellite system designed to test automated rendezvous and docking techniques. Also on board are four military microsatellites, including the US Air Force Academy's FalconSat-3.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

NASA cuts loose troubled astronaut

Shuttle astronaut Lisa Nowak, the first astronaut ever charged with a felony (attempted kidnapping, among other crimes), has been terminated by NASA. Technically, Nowak, as a naval officer, has not been fired, but simply has been returned to the Navy for any further action. NASA hopes to move quickly beyond the Nowak distraction to let administrators refocus on other problems at the critically underfunded space program, but media fascination and the involvement of another astronaut (Bill Oefelein, the alleged object of an obsession on Nowak's part) unfortunately guarantees this black eye for the agency will take a long time to heal.

Animal regenerates from one cell

Experiments in Israel with the sea squirt Botrylloides leachi have shown the animal can regenerate its entire body even if all that's left of it is a single blood cell. This ability was known in some less complex invertebrates, such as worms, but scientists were surprised the relatively complex sea squirt could do the same. This ability is still beyond the reach of even the simplest vertebrates, but further studies may reveal how regeneration abilities diminished as vertebrates evolved.

Bird rediscovered after 129 years

A slightly built, long-beaked little bird not seen since 1867 has been rediscovered in Thailand. Birdlife International announced that the large-billed reed-warbler was rediscovered at a wastewater treatment plant in Thailand. The species Acrocephalus orinus had previously been known only from a single specimen found in India. It has short wings and was not thought to migrate.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What's New out of Africa

"ex Africa semper aliquid novi"
(there is always something new out of Africa)
- Pliny the Elder (23AD - 79AD)

This very old saying is still true in Tanzania's Eastern Arc Mountains, where a patchy collection of forested land equaling roughly a thousand square miles is keeping scientists very busy. In addition to a very distinctive new monkey, the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji, described in 2005), new species of frogs and reptiles have been identified, part of a conservation hot spot with one of the world's highest densities of endangered and endemic species. Neil Burgess of the WWF says, “This is a really important place. Biologists who go there just keep finding more and more species.”

Friday, March 02, 2007

Invented before its time

A blast from the techno-past - this very cool blog page offers examples of inventions that were ahead of their time. Some made it into everyday use, but most didn't. Still, did you know someone patented a radio carried inside a cane, connected to a pair of headphones, in 1933? OK, it was not quite a Walkman, because the user had to stop and plant the end of the cane in the ground, but it's fascinating anyway. Also in 1933 came the ancestor of the modern "shared application" conferencing business: a "cathode-ray pen" with which you could write in one city and have the letters instantly displayed on a screen in another location far away. In 1934 emerged the rubber boot with air-filled soles for comfort. Many more such examples are offered in the blog Modern Mechanix.

Revisiting the Eastern Cougar

Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe announced the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has begun a new review, the first since 1982, on the status of the endangered and possibly extinct eastern cougar. The animal was placed on the endangered species list in 1974, 99 years after the last verified killing in Pennsylvania and a year when many game experts believed Puma concolor cougar was already extinct everywhere.
The news that FWS will re-examine the situation gladdens the hearts of researchers whose private networks have shared information on hundreds of Eastern cougar (or puma, panther, etc.) sightings for decades and unsuccessfully attempted to convince state game managers the cat was not extinct. A handful of verified events have led officials in Vermont and Rhode Island to conclude the occasional cougar is living in the wild, but there's continued debate about whether these animals represent escaped or released exotic pets as opposed to a true surviving population.
COMMENT: I've always thought it likely there probably are a couple of pockets, one in Tennessee and one further north, where a few animals just barely hung on out of sight of man. There may have been mixing between wild and domestically-raised cougars, which will ensure things stay confused for a long time. The population of deer, the Eastern cougar's favorite prey, has exploded throughout the East and especially in Pennsylvania, which is likely to lead to increased cougar numbers.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Hawking ready for zero-G flight

Quadriplegic physicist Stephen Hawking will take the first step toward his dream of traveling to space on April 26, when he rides a modified Boeing 727 used to simulate weightlessness for astronauts and adventurers. The plane is operated in cooperation with NASA by Zero Gravity Corp. Jay Buckey, M.D., a former astronaut, told an MSNBC interviewer the experience would have a"good side and a bad side" for Hawking. "Being weightless like that doesn't require you to have that much strength in your limbs, so in that sense it would be freeing," he said. Hawking will need to be closely monitored, though, to watch the stress on his cardiovascular system and avoid injuries when transitioning from weightlessness back to normal gravity.