Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How Much to Name a Monkey?

The answer is $650,000. That's what online casino GoldenPalace.com spent to attach its name to Callicebus aureipalatii ("golden palace" in Latin). As Stephen Strauss explains in this column, though, the business of selling naming rights to fund research has not been as simple and straightforward as scientists hoped. How, after all, do you decide what it's worth to name a genus of ants? ($25,000 is the current price tag). As Susan Swan of Canada's Museum of Nature puts it, "Everybody loves the idea, it is just the logistics of making it happen just hasn't panned out."

Back to the Red Planet

This Friday is the opening day of a three-week launch window which hopefully will send NASA's newest and most sophisticated Martian probe, the Mars Phoenix Lander, on its way. Ten months later, the 350-kg lander will settle on a spot in the Martian arctic and spend three months digging into and analyzing the soil. Soil will be sampled to a depth of half a meter and tested in a sophisticated miniature lab for the two Holy Grails of planetary exploration, water and organic material. During and after the primary mission, a weather stations supplied by the Canadian Space Agency will make the most detailed, long-term measurements yet on the Martian environment.

The Newest X-Plane

The X-48B Blended Wing Body research craft has taken flight at Edwards Air Force Base. The Boeing/NASA project, a three-jet-engine, remotely controlled "flying wing" craft, weighing 225 kilograms and with a wingspan over 6 meters, is pioneering new technologies which could produce quieter, more fuel-efficient airplanes.

COMMENT: It's good to see an X-plane flying after the string of cancellations (X-33, 34, 38, etc.) over the last decade.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Following up the week in space

The independent panel that made headlines with reports of astronauts drinking before flying also cautioned that its aim was to determine how well the process of clearing astronauts for flight was working - not whether specific incidents, as reported to the panel, had actually occurred. NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said the panel did not provide specifics and NASA had to investigate further. She added, "Alcohol use in regard to spacecraft or aircraft -- and anybody's that's impaired -- is not going to be tolerated by this agency." So we have a while to go before NASA investigates the claim that one impaired astronaut went up on a Soyuz capsule, while another was cleared to board a Shuttle flight but was sent home when the flight was delayed for unrelated reasons.

The transcript from the NASA press conference shows the distance between the actual findings so far and the dramatic headlines (like "Three-Martini Launch"):

Meanwhile, Burt Rutan's cutting-edge space technology firm, Scaled Compsites, LLC (whose server appears to be down this morning) has released this statement on its first-ever fatal accident, which occurred on Thursday the 26th:

Scaled Composites, LLC is deeply saddened to report the loss of three of our colleagues. Eric Blackwell, 38, Glen May, 45, and Todd Ivens, 33, were killed by an explosion that occurred during a routine cold-flow test of the oxidizer system we’re developing for SpaceShipTwo. Three other Scaled employees were seriously injured and are hospitalized.
We are doing our best to take care of the families of the deceased as well as the injured and their families, and we hope you will join us in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.
As you may imagine, the Scaled family is devastated by this event. As we grieve together, we are also beginning to gather up all of the information to determine what caused this accident. We are committed to learn all we can from this tragedy and move ahead.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Sad, Stunning Week for NASA

Short of the International Space Station making a sudden unplanned reentry and landing on Washington, this week couldn't possibly get worse for NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. That might be the only thought that's keeping him sane right now.

Some of this is just bad timing, with a computer sabotage report coming on the heels of the post-Lisa-Nowack astronaut medical policy evaluation and a GAO report on NASA's problems keeping track of inventory, but none of it is excusable.

Taking the GAO report first, it is fair to ask how NASA's competence at keeping track of office equipment compares to other agencies. I suspect some would love to have NASA's loss rate, which someone writing to NASAWatch estimated at about 1/4 of 1 percent of inventory. I suppose I have to give bonus points for imagination to the guy who reported his NASA-owned laptop had been shipped to the ISS and dumped overboard to burn up in the atmosphere.

The report that a subcontractor deliberately cut wires on three computers destined for the ISS is bizarre. We'll have to wait and see what kind of explanation investigators come up with. (The computers in question are Boeing-built External Wireless Instrumentation System Network Control Units (EWIS NCU)). The subcontractor has not been named (individually or by company).

The real bombshell, NASA's reporting that alcohol-impaired astronauts were allowed to fly on two occasions, is just stunning. OK, people in any tight-knit group tend to cover for each other a little. But if - IF - NASA actually let impaired people board a spacecraft, heads should roll from top to bottom of the agency. (I should add that the report said they were allowed to "fly" but it did not specify what the astronauts were flying on - the incidents could have involved Shuttle flights, but also might have been Soyuz capsules or T-38 training aircraft. "Scuttlebutt" is that these two incidents did not concern the Shuttle, but we'll have to wait for official elaboration - if it comes - on that point.)

In addition to the two "flying impaired" incidents, though, NASA is reporting there were other cases when astronauts violated the 12-hour rule (no alcohol within 12 hours before a flight of any kind) but were not described as being impaired. Regardless of impairment, any violation of the 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule will get a military or commercial pilot grounded and otherwise seriously punished.

No astronauts, dates, or flights have yet been officially named in any of these cases, and it's not certain they will be. Whatever the details, the headlines have already done the damage. This kind of blot on NASA's record will take years to overcome.

Other items on the front page of Keith Cowing's invaluable NASAWatch site as of 7/26/07 include an employee embezzling $150K from NASA, more squabbles about the agency's budget, and, from outside NASA, a report of three people killed in a rocket test explosion at Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA.

Memo to Keith: Maybe it's a day to drape the site in black. It's a bad day for all of us who believe in space exploration and think of NASA as one of the key actors in carrying out the best aspirations of the human race.

In sadness,
Matt Bille

The Squid Invasion

The Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, is an aggressive, voracious, and downright nasty predator which can grow up to two meters long and weigh 50 kg. While many marine species are declining, the the Humboldt squid is growing in numbers and pushing north into the coastal waters of California, consuming commercially valuable fish such as hake and anchovies. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents how these squid were known only from equatorial waters until 1997, when they started appearing off California. Now they are showing up in increasing numbers, with still-unclear consequences for prey species, human fishermen, and competitors like sharks and sea lions.

Aerospace Projects Review - a unique resource

Despite my being a 40-year air and space buff, Scott Lowther's unique electronic publication, Aerospace Projects Review, has exposed me to countless projects I never knew existed. Scott's specialty is finding blueprints, illustrations, and descriptions of air and space vehicles that never made it to operational status. Whether it's manned V-2s, competing designs for vertical-takeoff fighter planes, atomic-powered bombers, or whatever, hundreds of projects from the fertile minds of aerospace engineers over the past 70 years or so are documented in Scott's invaluable resource.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Northrop Grumman buys Scaled Composites

The innovative company that built SpaceShipOne has agreed to be taken over by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp. N-G will increase its stake in Burt Rutan's firm Scaled Composites LLC from 40 percent to 100 percent.

Comment: Everyone involved says nothing will change at Scaled Composites, and it will remain under Rutan's leadership and stay a responsive, innovative firm despite being part of a huge conglomerate. The track record of maintaining the small company's unique advantages after changes like this, however, is not good. You could even argue it is nonexistent. Let's hope Scaled beats the odds.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter: What Fantasy Teaches About Science

I've finished the last Harry Potter novel and found it good. While I can nitpick the writing and a couple of plot holes (how did the Sword of Griffindor get from the grasping hands of a goblin back into the Sorting Hat?), it's a well-done close to a masterful work of imagination.
One of the things that makes J.K. Rowling's novels work is that they describe a universe with its own rules - its own physics, if you will. People can develop new spells and invent new magical gadgets, such as Dumbledore's deluminator, but they can't break some essential rules such as magic's inability to bring back the dead. The capabilities and limitations of magic in Book 7 are the same as in Book 1. The same can be said of J.R.R. Tolkein's magnificent Rings saga.
Compare that to George Lucas' Star Wars saga. Originally, Lucas set a rip-roaring adventure tale in a space world that looked lived in and was basically consistent under its own rules (allowance of hyper-light travel, etc.) By the second trilogy, though, the rules kept shifting. The Force, an innate capability that "binds the universe together" and could be developed by practice, suddenly became a function of genetics (a person's midichlorian count). The laws of space physics, which had been the physics of our universe with a few settled exceptions, suddenly went out the window - literally - as spaceships pulled up alongside each other and blasted with advanced versions of 20th century cannon - though with recoil having no effect on the motion of the spaceships.
The point? Our universe, and the science that describes it, operates by a set of physical laws that can't be broken (they can be suspended if you believe that God sometimes takes a direct hand in human affairs, but that's beside the point of this discussion). We don't know all the nuances of these laws, and, as we understand them better, we may create radical new technologies (e.g., sending information via the "spooky" entanglement phenomenon, or, more distantly, making use of wormholes for travel in some form). But the laws are consistent in the real world. We can accept variations or even entirely new physics in fantasy books and films, but those variations work when they are part of a consistent author-created universe. Establishing rules and then abandoning them is highly unsatisfying for the reader/viewer (and, George Lucas, beneath your considerable talent to rely on).


Friday, July 20, 2007

Apollo 11

Apollo 11 touched down on July 20, 1969. I was a 9-year-old kid, living an hour's drive south of the Cape, fascinated by all things space-related. My father worked for Piper Aircraft then and had his private license. He'd rented a plane so we could go up and watch the launch from the air. Despite the need to keep the required distance (10 miles, I think), it was impressive. The night of the first moonwalk, I mainly remember struggling to stay awake. I think I missed the actual "One small step for man..." moment.

My wife was a young girl vacationing with her parents in West Germany. What she most remembered was how ecstatic the Germans were that the Americans were first on the Moon. Americans' money was no good: if people found out you were from the USA, they lined up to buy you dinners and drinks.

Apollo was much more than one country's triumph, though. John Stewart wrote a song about how, no matter where we were, no matter what our circumstances, "Still we stopped to watch it, yeah / on a July afternoon / watched a man named Armstrong / walk upon the Moon."

There were a lot of reasons behind that voyage, from science to the Cold War. It's often believed Apollo had an unlimited budget and sailed through Congress every year. Not true. There was a lot of debate over whether to spend what we were spending to put a handful of men on the moon.

Almost no one, though, would have guessed back then that we were going to let a half-century pass (as seems likely) before the first post-Apollo human voyage. The moonwalkers are old men now. They may all have passed on by the time we plant new footprints in the lunar dust.
Arthur C. Clarke was once asked what event of the 20th Century he would never have predicted. He said, "That we would have gone to the moon and stopped."

If we are to go again - and I think we should - we need to do it right, with a long-term plan and a long-term commitment to explore and utilize Earth's nearest neighbor as part of a grander vision.

To the countless thousands of men and women who made Apollo possible: we salute you all.

Ad astra,
Matt Bille

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Leap in Space Suit design

Space suits are devilishly difficult things to design and engineer. They must protect the user from a multitude of hazards while still allowing movement. They are, in fact, miniature spaceships. Hence the bulky EVA suits of today that, in Earth gravity, weigh more than the astronauts and exhaust the wearer after a few hours.
A radical redesign from professor Dava Newman and her colleagues at MIT uses recent advances in fabrics to create a suit nicknamed the "Spiderman suit." She calls it the BioSuit. Instead of creating a pressurized container the shape of a human, her suit uses fabrics that mold tightly but flexibly to the shape and movement of the user. An operational suit that will be much more comfortable and lighter than current models is in sight (assuming funding) in about ten years.
COMMENT: As Keith Cowing at NASAWatch points out, this promising breakthrough was made using funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts - an organization which was just killed for budgetary reasons.

Overnight Evolution

A year ago, the proportion of Blue Moon butterflies (Hypolimnas bolina) on the Samoan islands of Upolu and Savaii which are male dropped to approximately one percent, thanks to a parasitic bacteria which infected females and selectively killed male embryos. This put the species on the edge of extinction. A mere ten generations of butterflies, over less than a year's time, developed an immunity in male embryos, based on a "suppressor gene," that let them develop even when the parasite was present. This resulted in males reaching almost normal proportions (40 percent of the population).
NOTE: This is a more complex process that it may seem, and it's not clear from the media accounts I've read whether the suppressor gene was already present (but rare or unexpressed) in some butterflies or whether there was an actual change at the genetic level. Either way, it's a striking example of natural selection in action.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Attenborough's echinda rediscovered

Researchers exploring the Cyclops Mountains of Papua (the western half of the island of New Guinea) have reported finding burrows, tracks, and other signs indicating the continued existence of an egg-laying mammal not seen since 1961. In fact, the animal had been collected exactly once, and is represented by a single specimen in a Netherlands museum. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London will return to Papua next year in hopes of photographing Zaglossus attenboroughi in the wild.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Materials science leaping ahead

This collection of advances from LiveScience.com focuses on the development of the first "self-healing" materials by scientists at the University of Illinois. Stick a knife in the new polymer-based material, withdraw it, and microchannels carry new molecules of the epoxy-resin substrate to fill in the space. Linked articles explore shape-shifting polymers and the advances being made by studying how tiny creatures like spiders make their way over difficult surfaces.

Endangered Endangered Species Program

According to today's Boston Globe, the success of seeing the bald eagle soar off the U.S. government's endangered species list has obscured a bigger problem in the agency charged with protection and recovery of such species. Listing of new species, except those forced onto the list by litigation, has all but stopped in the last six years amid a 15% budget cut, and the acting assistant director of endangered species for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bruce Arroyo, agreed with the paper's estimate that 30 percent of the jobs in the program, including the director's post, are vacant.
COMMENT: Comparing Administrations by the number of species they list (58 in Bush II, 231 in Bush 1), is oversimplifying the subject, since each species' case is different, but there's no question that lack of personnel and funding is hampering efforts to protect species already on the list. One organization I belong to, Republicans for Environmental Protection, has pressured GOP lawmakers, with some success, to reclaim for the party the conservation heritage of Teddy Roosevelt.
Visit www.repamerica.org is you are interested.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Water on a Distant World

NASA's Spitzer space telescope, examining a distant planet belonging to a strange class called "Hot Jupiters," has found the spectral signature of water vapor.
Water, in this case, does not mean life. HD 189733b, 63 light years from Earth, has a surface temperature estimated at 1,000 degrees Kelvin. It completes an orbit around its star every two days. Still, this is the best evidence yet for H2O on an exoplanet.

Genocide in pre-Columbian America?

Scientists are examining seven skeletons—five adults, one child, and an infant—discovered two years ago in a canyon in New Mexico. Ascribed to the small and little-known Gallina culture, the skeletons have something besides heritage in common. All show the marks of violent deaths - axe blows, broken bones, shattered skulls. The skeletons presumably were left there before the complete disappearance of the Gallina sometime around AD 1275. American archaeologist Tony Largaespada told an interviewer that almost all the Gallina people ever found were murdered. "[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time." It's one more mystery from ancient America.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New mammoth called "best preserved"

Ten thousand years ago, a six-month old female mammoth died on what is now the Yamal peninsula of Siberia. The mammoth calf was found by a reindeer herder as the ice and dirt covering it eroded away. Scientists were thrilled to see the animal was so well preserved its trunk and even its eyes are intact. It's being sent to Japan for expert examination. In the photograph accompanying this BBC article, the little pachyderm looks so "normal" one would not be surprised to see it get up and walk. (If it could, it would stand about 1.3 meters tall.) There is a possibility, however slight, that the new discovery might have DNA so well preserved it could contribute to a far-out idea some specialists think could actually happen: a cloning experiment that would lead to a living mammoth, or at least a half-mammoth.

Educator-Astronaut Ready for Space

Barbara Morgan may have waited longer to fly than any other astronaut. Chosen to be the backup to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe in 1985, she watched as McAuliffe and the "teachernaut" program died in the Challenger disaster. Morgan returned to teaching elementary school, only to come back to NASA in 1998 and qualify as a mission specialist for the Shuttle program. On 7 August 2007, she and six other crewmembers will launch on the shuttle Endeavor to service and expand the International Space Station. Morgan will operate the shuttle's robotic arm to support astronauts on EVA working on the station. She will also work in several educational projects.
COMMENT: "Dedication" and "determination" are overused words... but they are very well justified in reference to Barbara Morgan. Godspeed to Barbara and her crew.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Death of NIAC

I mentioned in the last post that NASA takes a lot of criticism. It certainly deserves some for shutting down the highly productive NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which funded cutting-edge technology projects of the sort we will need to make possible such endeavors as a human voyage to Mars. It's certainly true the agency's tasks exceed its budget, and some things have to be sacrificed, but the most forward-looking institution in a forward-looking agency is quite possibly the worst candidate one could choose to axe to save a few million dollars.

New lives for old spacecraft

NASA has approved new missions for two space probes which are still functioning well after completing their primary tasks in the harshest of environments. Deep Impact, which launched an impactor into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, will not head for another comet and then turn its instruments on stars known to have planets. Stardust, which sent a canister containing interstellar and cometary dust samples back to Earth, will now go on for another look at the post-impact Tempel 1.
COMMENT: NASA, as an agency, takes a lot of criticism, some of it deserved (and some of it from me, not that they probably notice), but this is a good example of the human ingenuity which still exists there, unabated since the glory days of Apollo.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Welcome the "Octosquid"

From the deep waters off Hawaii comes this unique specimen - a 30-cm cephalopod nicknamed the "octosquid," as it has a generally squid-like shape overall but an octopus-like head and eight tentacles. It is apparently a new species although it may fall within a known genus, Mastigoteuthis.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Dodo Named "Fred"

Continuing what seems to be Extinct Animal News Week, we have new word on the the most famous of extinct creature, the dodo. This chubby, flightless pigeon is no doubt truly extinct, but scientists have their hands on what no one had ever seen or seriously expected to see - a well-preserved skeleton that will let them analyze the bird's DNA. Since its discoverer (a local man named Fred, immortalized in the nickname given to the specimen) found the skeleton in a cave on the island of Mauritius, scientists have been, in the words of paleontologist Julian Hume of Britain's Natural History Museum, "skipping down the street."

The Thylacine's Extinction - When or If?

The modern world's only known large marsupial predator, the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), was declared extinct in 1986. That was 50 years after the last officially confirmed specimen died in a zoo.
Some searchers kept looking for the animal, notably Dr. Eric Guiler, who found some scat in the late 1950s and early 1960s that he thought belonged to a tiger. Those samples, which could not be positively identified with the techniques then in use, will now get a proper DNA analysis by
zoologist Jeremy Austin and his colleagues at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA. (The late Dr. Guiler, for the record, thought Thylacinus cynocephalus had lived 50-60 years past its official demise, but today is truly extinct.) Finding thylacine DNA in the scats won't prove the animal is still alive, but will prove it lasted later than we thought and may vindicate at least some of the post-1936 witnesses who insisted they had seen the species in the wild.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Argentina's winged wonder

Some six million years ago, the mountains and pampas of what is now Argentina were shaded by the wings of the largest flying bird ever discovered, the condor-like Argentavis magnificens. Now researchers led by Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University have analyzed its capabilities, feeding measurements into a computer program to simulate the great bird's flight, and concluded this 70-kg bird with a wingspan over six meters was probably as large as any flying bird could get. It was so large that, while an excellent glider, it could not take off from level ground. If it came down to the flatlands for prey, it probably needed to find a slight downslope into a headwind just to get airborne. While some researchers believe the bird was a scavenger, Chatterjee and his colleagues believe its skull and beak (over half a meter long!) were better suited for a hunter-killer lifestyle.
(Comment: This is one of those species we humans should be truly sad that we never got to observe in person. We don't know when it became extinct, but it was presumably long before the first humans appeared in that region. As to its lifestyle, almost all predators will scavenge when the opportunity presents itself. We recently discovered that even the ocean's apex predator, the orca, will scavenge. It seems reasonable that A. magnificens would take whatever it could find, living or dead. )

From Vietnam, Good News on Rare Monkey

Vietnam's gray-shanked duoc (Pygathrix cinerea), was classified only in 1977 and thought to be exceedingly rare. Now a team from WWF and Conservation International has reported that, while still rare, this member of the monkey tribe is in better shape than we thought. Only one population of over a hundred individuals had ever been seen, but the newly-discovered population in central Vietnam numbers about 180.

COMMENT: While some cryptozoologists go overboard in claiming the world literally teems with large unknown species, discoveries like this and the massive herds of elephants and other wildlife recently reported from the Sudan remind us we most assuredly do NOT know every corner of the natural world.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Step Toward Space Hotels

The Genesis II inflatable test module, second in a series designed to lead to privately-owned, orbiting hotels, is in space and doing well following a June 29 launch on a Russian Dnepr rocket. Bigelow Aerospace reported the 4.5-m module had successfully deployed, with its solar cells providing power and its internal atmosphere withing breathable limits. Bigelow is thinking big, planning to have a space station/hotel in operation by 2015 at a total program cost of $500M.

The Bald Eagle Flies High

American conservation authorities have gone ahead with their plans (see earlier post) to take the bald eagle off the Endangered Species List. This is not just a conservation success, but an emotional lift to everyone concerned with the environment. A nation that could not save its national symbol might as well give up on saving anything else.

In the "interesting footnote" department, John James Audubon consistently held that the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was distinct from a larger, solid brown bird found along the shores of the eastern U.S., which he formally named Falco washintonii. He credited his type specimen (now lost, alas) with a wingspan of 3.1 meters. The "Bird of Washington" or "Washington's Eagle" was most likely an abnormally large bald eagle in the juvenile stage (before the white head feathers appear), but we will probably never be sure.