Thursday, April 26, 2007

NASA's new science mission

A small satellite called AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere) went into space today on a Pegasus booster. The spacecraft will look at the highest and strangest clouds known to science - the mysterious noctilucent clouds, glowing nighttime phenomena which drift at altitudes of 50 miles. The booster carried Virginia Tech logos in memory of the people killed in the mass shooting at the university last week.

Hawking finds freedom in zero-G

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist disabled physically by ALS, experienced weightlessness today on Zero Gravity Corporation's modified Boeing 727. The aircraft was scheduled to make six zero-g-simulation parabolas, but Hawking didn't want to stop, and eight were performed. Hawking pronounced the experience "amazing" and is looking forward to a trip on a private suborbital rocketplane in the near future. An anxious medical staff on board found the ride gave Hawking no problems at all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Tree-Sized Fungus

A 20-foot tall mystery organism more than 350 million years old has been identified - as a "humongous fungus." Really.

An Earthlike world (or close, at least)

European astronomers report finding the most Earth-like "exoplanet" so far. The planet has a radius only 50% larger than the Earth and is in the habitable zone of its star, the red dwarf Gliese 581, with temperatures allowing liquid water. It may, in Star Trek terms, be the first Class M planet known to lie outside our solar system.

Monday, April 23, 2007

New flock of microsatellites in orbit

A Dnepr rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has put the latest flock of small spacecraft in orbit. They include the three-body MAST tether experiment and Boeing's CubeSat TestBed 1 (CSTB1) spacecraft. The aerospace giant is operating one of the world's smallest satellites, a bit of a departure for a firm specializing in gigantic GEO communications satellites. The 1-kg satellite is a product of Boeing's new Engineering Development Center in Huntington Beach, CA. Scott MacGillivray, manager of Boeing Nano-Satellite Programs, says, "These satellites can quickly and inexpensively test miniature, low-power components and subsystems to help reduce the power requirements and weight of larger satellites."

Simonyi Completes Space Flight

Space tourist Charles Simonyi, the latest astronaut from the world's largest technological power (Microsoft) has returned safe and happy to Earth. He told reporters, "Seeing the Earth from space, so beautiful, majestic and calm, has filled me with great optimism. I think it is written into our DNA to explore. Space exploration is so important to humanity, that to have been able to participate in it, even in a very small way, was such a privilege."

New contender for "ugliest fish"

This anglerfish collected off Australia appears to be a new species and perhaps a new genus. Its appearance has even scientists put off: "It's a striking-looking fish,: said Rob Harcourt, of the Sydney Harbour Institute of Marine Studies. "Hideously ugly would be a fair description." A few inches long, the new critter is grayish brown and well disguised as a bit of the ocean floor.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Yuri's Night celebrates space exploration

Every April 13, astronauts, space enthusiasts, and space agencies celebrate Yuri's Night, commemorating Yuri Gagarin's flight into space on that date in 1961. This site gathers a load of information on the flight and the celebrations.

High Tech v. Human Error

The report is in on the loss of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which died in November 2006. To summarize: "Oops."
An oversight in writing procedures for the spacecraft led to its misalignment relative to the Sun and the loss of power to the solar panels. The craft expired when its backup batteries were gone.
On the plus side, the orbiter, launched in 1996, lasted four times as long as expected. NASA managers class the mission as a resounding success no matter how it ended.

The Stuff of Life - Re-created

Did early Earth have all the chemical elements and molecules needed to "build" life under the right conditions? Or were some vital ingredients added by comets and/or meteors? Scientists have long been split on this one.
A new experiment gives a strong, though not conclusive, indication that Earth could indeed have been the crucible of life without cosmic help. A simulated lighting storm in a re-created primordial atmosphere - an experiment first performed in 1953, but now informed by a much better idea of what the planet was like in those days - produced a "soup" of amino acids necessary for life. Chemist Jeffrey Bada, whose team at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography performed the experiment, says, "Maybe we're over-optimistic, but I think this is a paradigm shift."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Dinosaur soft tissue recovered, analyzed

It seems incredible. Unfossilized soft tissue has no business surviving in any form in a fossilized dinosaur. But there it is: not blood cells with intact DNA (sorry, Michael Crichton fans) but collagen from deep within a T. rex femur. Two studies of the proteins making up the collagen report the material is definitely from the dinosaur, not modern contamination as some initially suspected. Moreover, its composition has important similarities to collagen in modern birds, lending the strongest support yet to the birds-to-dinos school of thought.

Rarest of owls seen in the wild

Peru's long-whiskered owlet, unknown to science until 1976, has been spotted alive in the wild for the first time. The tiny owl, which sports bright orange eyes surrounded by wild-looking feathers, may have a population in the low hundreds and, thanks to habitat destruction, may be highly endangered despite its elusiveness.

Thanks to Bobbie Short for circulating this item

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

First report of "cave chimps"

It's common to call our ancestors "cave men," although it was true only in the limited areas where suitable caves were available. Now cave-living behavior has been documented for the first time in another ape species. Savannah chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) have been recorded in Senegal using natural caves to escape the sun during the hottest part of the day. Credit for the find goes to a team led by primatologist Jill Pruetz from Iowa State University. According to, paleoanthropologist Adrienne Zihlman explained the significance this way: "These chimpanzees are dealing with conditions most chimpanzees don't have to deal with. They are giving a little window to some of the problems that have to be solved if you want to survive in the savannah, and are confronting the kinds of problems that our early human ancestors had to face."

The latest ISS tourist arrives

American software billionaire Charles Simonyi has arrived safely on the International Space Station (ISS). He arrived via Soyuz with the two cosmonauts who make up the crew designated Expedition 15. Simonyi will stay on board during an 11-day series of activities while the crews change over. His blog at will be sharing his impressions with the world.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A fish to remember

An Alaskan fishing boat has hauled in a rare and striking catch. The shortraker rockfish (Sebastes borealis) caught in the Bering Sea is a giant of its species, nearly 110 cm long and weighing over 27kg. Most interesting, though, is what NOAA scientists found when they counted the layers of bone in its otolith (ear bone). The chunky, deep-dwelling orange fish was, they announced, between 90 and 115 years old.
Thanks to Heather Kellas for pointing me to this item.

Faith, Reason, and Science

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the Human Genome Project. That makes him a prominent and respected scientist by anyone's definition. In this op-ed, he explains why all science has taught him does nothing to diminish his belief in God, setting himself against scientists like Richard Dawson who argue that faith and science/reason cannot be reconciled. Collins argues that a case for God can be made on purely rational grounds, and writes, "Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true... But why couldn't this be God's plan for creation?"
COMMENT: I posted this because I basically hold the same views, but Collins states them much better than I could. Science cannot be squared with a literal reading of Genesis, and conflicts with many non-Christian faiths as well. If you set aside aside literalism, though, and allow for the use of allegory and metaphor in religious texts, then it's possible to find, as Collins did, "harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith."

NASA Administrator: The Next 50 Years

In this well-written opinion piece, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sets forth the rationale for expanding the human presence in space. He outlines what he argues is a "logical, incremental, stable, sustainable plan that can be executed with realistically attainable budgets" and adds, "We really can celebrate the 100th anniversary of Sputnik with the 20th anniversary of the first human landing on Mars." With perhaps a tip of the hat to Star Trek, he concludes, " It is up to us to make it so."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It's not over: Elephant poaching rises again

Despite the international ban on traffic in ivory, elephant poaching has not ended. After several years of a relative lull, it's on the rise, aided by the increasing development of Africa and the building of roads into what used to be hard-to-access areas. Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Jeff Blake and colleagues have just published a study showing "Unmanaged roads are highways of death for elephants." Blake's team surveyed thousands of miles of African roads and found at least 27 carcasses attributable to poachers, none more than 28 miles from a road. The forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) is particularly hard hit.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Antisatellite weapons - real, rumored, and false

This item on MSNBC is stirring up a lot of comment. My comment: it doesn't deserve the attention.
First, this post needs an extra disclaimer: I have never worked with any intelligence program and have no information other than what's publicly available and my own insights from 15 years of research and writing, as a private citizen, on the capabilities of small spacecraft.
Now, the article. It has two parts. The first concerns questions raised by Democratic Senators about some kind of orbital intelligence-related spacecraft program that reportedly is far over budget. There's no actual information about what the system is, just the inevitable (and if you follow U.S. military space programs, speculation in the press really is inevitable) about whether it's a weapon system, which the U.S. has explicitly said it is not developing.
The second part concerns an alleged satellite called Prowler, launched in 1990, capable of flying from LEO up to GEO and "stealing" signals from other spacecraft close-up. The "expert" who describes this program is unnamed, but there's no reason to think there's truth here. The Air Force has only recently flown its XSS-10 and XSS-11 microspacecraft, which have far less capability than what someone claims we flew 17 years ago. The supposed Prowler also would have needed to fire a large orbit transfer stage, which is a difficult event to hide. You don't just pop up from 300 miles to 22,300.
So all we really know is that some kind of intel program is being attacked for being overbudget. That may be newsworthy in itself, but the rest doesn't merit the hype.

Pyramid wars

Coming on the heels of a French engineer's claim that he's solved the problem of how the Great Pyramid was constructed (a problem most archaeologists already considered solved), there's an interesting article from the Jerusalem Post on how what should be a question of science has become a point of contention with religious and political implications.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Cold Fusion: not quite dead?

The 1989 "discovery" of cold fusion provided one of the major scientific controversies of the 20th century, ending with an almost universal rejection of the claimed phenomenon when other scientists could not replicate the results of authors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons and suggested the excess heat they measured did not have a nuclear origin. According to a release from the American Chemical Society, a just-completed symposium hosted several papers on different approaches to "low-energy nuclear reactions." Fleischmann presented a paper offering new results. The topic remains, oddly, of more interest to chemists than to physicists, judging by the featured papers.