Friday, November 30, 2007

In the footprints of the Yeti

An American TV crew has reported footprints near Mount Everest which, they say, resemble Yeti tracks. The legendary anthropoid of the high mountains apparently left prints by the Manju River at a relatively low (and thus livable) altitude of 2,850m. The producers from the show Destination Truth released pictures of a cast showing a "pristine" print about 30cm long and, from what I can make out from the image, very widely splayed toes.

COMMENT: I hope they found something, but we can't conclude much from what's been released. How do you say "this looks like a Yeti track" when there's no such thing as an authenticated Yeti track to compare it to? I presume they are referring to Exhibit A in anyone's case for the Yeti, the tracks photographed at a much higher altitude by Eric Shipton and Michael Ward in 1952. However, the cast displayed does NOT look much like the Shipton prints. What ever left that print had a foot which was very broad (about 20cm) for its 32-cm length but was broad along its length except for the heel. That is, those photos did not show a relatively narrow print which became much wider at the toes. So I'm not booking any flights to Nepal just yet.

Skeptic on Psychic Crime Solving

As Benjamin Radford writes in this article, journalists tend to banner the use of psychics in criminal cases without following up to see if the psychics did any good. Radford details a case where 30 psychics joined in the search for two missing women. Not only did they fail to help, but every clue they gave was wrong, and police wasted a lot of time chasing them down. Sloppy journalism like this, Radford points out, is what allows psychics (both the sincere and the publicity-seekers) to trumpet their rare "hits" and ignore their far more numerous "misses."
COMMENT: There is, as yet, no validated scientific theory that would permit any sort of ESP. I don't discount it entirely: I have two experiences with what's called "crisis telepathy" that I don't think I'll ever explain to my satisfation. This matter of psychics claiming to solve crimes is serious, though, if a psychic tip sends police in the wrong direction. If there are a hundred wrong tips from pyschics and one that turns out right, even if it's only general (e.g., "the body is near the river"), journalists tend to focus on the interesting story of the hit rather than explore the misses. Psychics were all over the Washignton sniper case without providing anything of use (of course, that was also true of the psychologists and profilers, all of whom gave the "while male loner" profile in a crime committed by two African-Americans).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Unveiling the prehistoric food chain

Paleobiologist Jurgen Kriwet at the Humboldt University of Berlin has unveiled an amazing fossil showing two steps in the food chain. Unearthed in Germany, the fossil is of a shark which has swallowed two young amphibians, about 20-25 cm long, called temnospondyls. In turn, one of the amphibians had a small bony fish in its stomach. This minidrama, which occurred over 250 million years ago, is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that no other shark, extinct or living, has been documented to eat amphibians.

Your Robot is Ready

OK, not quite ready. But the latest advances in robotic "helpers" for humans, coming out of Japan, are pretty startling.

Space and the Republicans

Space finally made it into a Republican Presidential debate, although only two candidates (one of them highly unlikely to win) addressed it. Governor Mike Huckabee endorsed, in general, the current Vision, while Rep. Tom Tancredo said the exploration (meaning human exploration) of Mars was unaffordable.
Earlier, Senator McCain had endorsed President Bush's initiative, and Governnor Romney and Mayor Giuliani did so a bit more cautiously.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nature, Nurture, and Genius

A new study offers an interesting view of what we call "genius," emphasizing that it's often narrowly focused (chess grandmasters who can remember and analyze countless moves scored no better than average at memorizing strings of numbers) and must be developed with hard work. I think the study's authors played down the genetic influence a bit too much, but it's fascinating reading.

ANGELS microsatellite program advances

Press release from Orbital Sciences:

"Orbital Awarded $29.5 Million Contract For ANGELS Satellite Program By Air Force Research Laboratory
– Orbital Sciences Corporation ...announced it has been selected by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., for a $29.5 million contract to support the execution of the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space satellite program. The ANGELS program supports the continued initiatives of AFRL’s Space Vehicle Directorate to develop innovative nanosatellite technologies capable of independently providing localized space situational awareness.

COMMENT: The program has morphed from a very innovative idea (tiny nanosatellites flying "escort" for large, expensive spacecraft) to a slightly less challenging, though still valuable one, with 50-70kg satellites providing space situational awareness (SSA). According to AFRL, the original idea was simply too difficult with current technology. OTHER COMMENT: This is not, and has never been, a weapons program. I throw this comment in a lot when reporting on military microsatellite development because the Center for Defense Information, a private group that gets quoted in the press a lot, routinely paints all such efforts as being efforts by the US to "weaponize space."

Space Battlelab deactivated

USAF press release from Schriever AFB, Colorado:
"The Air Force Space Battlelab here stood down in an inactivation earlier this month by Space Innovation and Development Center Col. Robert Wright. Colonel Wright and 595th Space Group Commander Col. Stephen Latchford retired the Space Battlelab's guidon before an audience that included all the previous Space Battlelab commanders.
The inactivation completed Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley's direction to inactivate all Air Force battlelabs, Colonel Wright said. The Battlelab's mission was to directly support combat operations through innovative and revolutionary applications of space systems. Its goal was to turn around projects at low cost within 18 months." The SDIC will continue some projects along these lines.

COMMENT: I have worked with the Space Battlelab (which, despite the name, did not develop weapons) and was very impressed with this small, dedicated group which had a number of successes in the low-cost application of space technology. The SBL will be missed.
(Oddly, the press release archived here by SpaceRef is credited to US Space Command, which (due to a decision I continue to believe is unwise, not that the Pentagon cares what I think), no longer exists.)

Next Step in Commercial Access to space

With over $200M in NASA funding made available for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) to the ISS by the disqualification of contract holder Rocketplane Kistler, Lockheed Martin, ATK, and PlanetSpace have submitted a bid. SpaceX, which holds the other COTS contract, has also applied for the new money to speed up its own booster/spacecraft development program.

More Bug Naming News

Meanwhile, a butterfly discovered in a Florida museum's collection had its naming rights auctioned off to fund an entomology research program. The grandchildren of Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller paid $40,800 to name the insect Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae.
COMMENT: While the concept of selling species names is still a bit controversial, it's always seemed to me a win-win situation, in which market forces are harnessed to fund scientific research. Given estimates of 10-30 million animal species yet to be named (the overwhelming majority being tropical insects) it's not like opportunities to honor scientists and other worthies will be crowded out by patrons willing to pay for a name.

The Springtail and the Senator

At the dedication of the new Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the facility's Congressional patron, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, was honored in an unusual way. Earnest Bernard, the chair of Discover Life in America, which is coordinating the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), announced a newly found insect species from the park had been named the Lamar Alexander springtail, or Cosberella lamaralexanderi. Not only did Alexander secure funding for the center, but the new bug has a checkered color pattern somewhat resembling Alexander's political trademark, the plaid shirts he wore when campaigning. Alexander was appreciative, saying: "It is a pretty cute bug."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giant Sea Scorpion discovered

British and German scientists have unearthed the claw of a sea scorpion an astonishing 2.5 meters long. Jaekelopterus Rhenaniae is the largest of the known Eurypterids, aquatic or amphibian creatures which are the ancestors of modern scorpions, and, some scientists think, of all the arachnids.

Obama Talks Space - Sort of

Senator Barak Obama has become the second Democratic candidate for President to say something important on future space policy, but he did it indirectly, as an aside to his education plan. To pay for an $18B/year increase in Federal aid to education, one of his solutions is to delay NASA's Constellation program for five years.

COMMENT: It's not at all clear how much money you could free up this way, and NASA supporters are naturally deeply cynical about the idea that any major cuts would eventually be restored. It's easy to say "we'll delay a program five years," but it's extremely difficult to do it without causing significant and permanent damage. You have to find a level of spending which will maintain the critical workforce and minimize the "brain drain" over those years, while also maintaining the physical infrastructure and keeping enough work going to ensure the contractors and NASA centers are capable of completing the program eventually. I'm not arguing NASA is sacred or that Constellation must be executed as it stands today. I do, however, think that this plan will be a disaster for human spaceflight. We will see a mass exodus of top engineers, managers, and scientists into related fields like private spaceflight and aviation, and the experienced astronauts who would have been first to fly the Orion CEV will likely be gone, too.

Dating: Not just for humans

How do animals impress prospective mates? In many ways, some of them kind of amusing (the way the bower bird builds a relatively huge structure and never uses it for anything after he's gotten a lady to swoon over it), and some downright bizarre.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Update on NASA's future

Updating the post on Lori Garver's speech (below):

Space News reports that it's very unlikely the $1B add-on will survive the House-Senate conference committee, adding considerable uncertainty to an already cloudy picture. Add to that: days after Garver's speech, NASA indicated that avoiding the "brain drain" would take another $2B the agency is highly unlikely to get.
COMMENT: I'm often less than complimentary about recent decisions from NASA management, but Mike Griffin and company are in an impossible position. Congress and the Administration want the agency to pursue a slate of missions that is flat-out impossible with the current funding level, made worse by Congressional earmarks and the political impossibility of closing any of NASA's ten centers. Limping along under these conditions makes it probable the desperate agency will try to cut corners anywhere it can - raising the odds of failed programs and, potentially, disasters. It's easy for me to say, but I can't see a solution without Griffin telling the Administration and Congress, "We can't do this. Either let us close centers, or give us enough money, or fire me, but do something."

The Origins of Rome

In Roman legend, the city was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled in a cave by a friendly she-wolf. Archaeologists are unlikely to vindicate this tale, but they do think they've found what Romans in the days of Augustus believed to be the location of this cave. A vaulted sanctuary, buried 17m inside the Palatine hill, was decorated with colored marble and sea shells to mark it as the Lupercale (named for the Latin term for a she-wolf, lupa). There is at yet no direct access to the partly filled-in site, which has been explored with laser scanners and endoscopes while a debate continues on how to safely open up a passage into the fragile vault in a hill riddled with centuries of buildings and passages.

Stem Cells: A Way Out of the Debate?

As neatly summarized in this article by MSNBC's Alan Boyle, two groups of researchers have developed ways to genetically modify adult cells to create new cells identical to embryonic stem cells. Neither method is ready for large-scale application, but they offer the promise of further exploring the theraputic possibilities of such cells without the oral and ethical questions surrounding the use of stem cells from human embryos.
COMMENT: Whatever one's stance on the use of human embryonic stem cells (personally, it makes me very queasy), this is good news. Hopefully this progress will attract funding to determine the large-scale applicability of these methods. When there's a non-controversial way to pursue research, it only makes sense to pursue it that way. My other thought is that the media may well be overblowing the whole subject: no useful product derivered from embryonic stem cells has yet emerged from several years of research. The potential, though, is still there, and this news may indicate a workable route to pursuing further research.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A New Hurdle for the Ares Rocket

During a system definition review (SDR) which finished up in October, NASA and contractor engineers found a potentially serious vibration/oscillation problem with the five-segment solid-fuel "stick" Ares I booster design intended to loft the Orion CEV.

A NASA spokeperson said, in response to a question from NASAWatch:
"Thrust oscillation or resonant burning is a characteristic of all solid rocket motors. It is caused by vortex shedding inside the solid rocket motor, similar to the wake that follows a fast-moving boat. When the vortex shedding coincides with the acoustic modes of the motor combustion chamber, pressure oscillations generate longitudinal forces that may affect the loads experienced by the Ares I during the last phase of first-stage flight. NASA is assessing the analyses in more detail, looking for any potential impacts to the integrated stack and ways to mitigate those impacts. Results are due in spring 2008. It is a normal part of the development process to identify, mitigate and track challenges such as this."
NASA confirmed this meant a delay of six months in the Critical Design Review (CDR) but denies a rumor that this means a slip of over a year in the first human flight, currently scheduled for March 2015. According to NASA, there's enough flexibility in the development schedule to solve the new problem without long-term impact.

COMMENT: All large rockets, being elongated structures through which tremendous and complex stresses are acting, do have challenges of this type at some point in the design phase. Going all the way back to 1958, the spinning upperstage package on the Jupiter-C/Juno I had to vary its rotation rate to avoid a "coupling" of vibrations as the first stage burned fuel and thus changed its own characteristics.
That said, no large rocket has ever been this elongated: the Ares/Orion stack will have a ratio of height to diameter of 18:1.
NASA made an early decision for a Shuttle SRB-dervived booster for Orion over alternatives like man-rating a Delta or Atlas EELV to simplify the whole Constellation program, keeping the cost down and getting the program moving sooner. To me (insert my usual "I'm not an engineer" disclaimer here), the idea that this was a "safe, simple, soon" solution, as manufacturer ATK described it, is increasingly hard to argue for. The current Ares design is no more a "simple" modified SRB than the Vanguard booster was the "modified Viking sounding rocket" the Navy used to sell its program in 1955. (Insert usual "If that's not familiar, read my book" comment here.)
I understood the initial basis for proposing the Ares family, but that logic may not be valid any more. Some human spaceflight experts have always been leery of a solid-fuel booster, which cannot be turned off, despite the addition of an Apollo-type escape tower. If I were the NASA Administrator, I'd continue with the Ares program but invite the EELV makers to provide a new round of proposals for a backup booster option.

(Insert one more comment, emphasizing even more than usual that this is a personal opinion and not related to any company or organization I'm affiliated with.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Really Wayward Whale

I try to keep up with "lost cetacean" incidents, mainly because it puzzles me how intelligent animals with great sensory capabilities get so screwed up. This last one was really a wanderer - a minke whale that turned up stranded on a sandbar over 1,500 km up the Amazon in Brazil. At least report, the 6-meter animal was still alive despite being partially exposed to the air and sun, and officials were trying to determine if the creature could be freed and sent off in the right direction.

A Strange new Sauropod

On Tetrapod Zoology, a superb blog maintained by my acquaintance, paleogeologist Darren Naish, is a new entry describing

"Xenoposeidon proneneukos Taylor & Naish, 2007, an enigmatic and morphologically bizarre Lower Cretaceous neosauropod from the Wealden Supergroup rocks of East Sussex, described in the new issue of Palaeontology (Taylor & Naish 2007).

The new species is based on a single vertebra, about 20 cm long and 30 cm high, found in the Natural History Museum of London after roughly 115 years of being overlooked in storage. Paleontological enthusiast Mike Taylor brought it to Dr. Naish's attention, and the two co-authored the description. Without getting bogged down in the details, the bone shows at least three characteristics unknown in any other sauropod species from any location, indicating it belonged to its own family with a unique ancestry.

Congratulations, Darren!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A View of NASA's Future (Lori Garver speech)

I was in attendance earlier this week when Lori Garver, space policy advisor to Senator Hilary Clinton's Presidential campaign, was a lunchtime speaker for the American Astronautical Society's National Conference.
Garver’s talk was mainly an effusive pitch for her candidate, but there was more to it than that.
She restated Clinton’s policy and also reported the limited information she’d found on space statements by other candidates.
Here is her assessment of the two leading Democrats and three of the Republicans:
Senator Clinton: Promised increased support of aeronautics, Earth science, and robotic exploration, accelerating the development of Ares/Orion to avoid a “brain drain” when the Shuttle retired in 2010, and continuing to pursue human exploration, including lunar and eventually Martian ventures (NOTE: she did not specifically commit to NASA's current timetable for when humans should be on the Moon).
Senator Barak Obama: NASA is inspiring, but the agency should “do fewer things better” and must operate in light of a strict budget environment.
Governor Romney: Has not formed a policy yet, but said he’s seen no reason so far to change President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)
Senator McCain: strongly in support of the VSE, including sending humans to Mars
Mayor Giuliani: Strongly supports an “aggressive space exploration” program.

Q and A

Q: I was able to ask a followup about what Senator Clinton’s policy meant for NASA’s topline.
A: Senator Clinton cosponsored the Senate-passed bill to add a $1B supplemental to NASA’s budget to make up for Katrina costs. Garver was asked by one of the Senator’s aides to make an estimate on what was needed to support Clinton’s NASA policy. She reported that adding the current $1B proposal to NASA’s budget and making that increased figure the new bottom line for smaller annual increases should do it. Garver said the current budget for exploration was “robust” and didn’t need a hike to carry out the new policy, but the other areas did need new money. She said her estimate was accepted by the campaign.

Q: What qualities do we need in the next NASA Administrator?
(NOTE: Garver has been mentioned as a strong possibility if Clinton is elected.)
A: The thing our recent administrators have not been able to do is better engage with, and be responsive to, the public, and that will be a key attribute to look for. Garver mentioned that, like many in the space community, she held up James Webb of the 1960s as the ideal Administrator.

A Mesozoic Vacuum Cleaner

A new dinosaur discovery from Africa, 10m long with a body mass approximating that of an elephant, shows a dentition unlike any other land creature of its time. With ten rows of tiny teeth, fast-growing and quickly worn out and replaced, in its flat mouth, Nigersaurus taqueti was a highly efficient browser - the "cow of the Mesozoic."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Flying High in Orbit

The Houston Chronicle runs an editorial applauding the recent record-setting spacewalk by Scott Parazynski by noting the mission set a new mark on the "wow factor" meter. It's hard to think of a better word than "wow."

To Clone or Not to Clone?

The United Nations University has released a new report recommending a global policy on human cloning. In the document, "Is Human Reproductive Cloning Inevitable: Future Options for UN Governance," the answer is NO, although perhaps with some narrowly defined medical or "theraputic" exceptions. The authors wrote that, among other aspects of this complex issue, "It is clear that any debate on human dignity needs to separate the various elements of the debate in order to consider whether opposition to cloning stems from concern for human dignity or respect for divine dignity.” The whole report defies thorough summary in this space, but it recommends an international agreement to ban most human cloning.
COMMENT: This seems a fairly sensible approach, but frankly, I doubt anything is going to stop human cloning from happening sometime in the next decade. That's not to say it's a good thing. It sounds naive or fuzzy or something to say that there are cases where we shouldn't take a scientific step, even if the reasons are good, but that's what I think in this case. THere are things humanity should stay away from, not just because of eithical or religious qualms but because we have no idea what the long-term effects on human society will be.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Flight Began

How did flying get started? Did the earliest reptiles to take wing develop their abilities by hopping from the ground, or by jumping between trees? A new paper in Current Biology argues it was the former. Studying the toes of modern birds, early birds, and feathered ground-dwelling reptiles, the authors report that the toes of all types were similar, and did not match those of tree-dwelling reptiles. Accordingly, they argue. flight evolved from running and jumping on the ground, where winglike, feathered forelimbs might have aided in balance and directional control.

Thanks to Kris Winkler, my good friend and indefatigable volunteer researcher, for this item.

Norman Mailer has died

Norman Mailer, one of America's most colorful and talented writers, has died at 84.
Space afictionados will remember Mailer as the author of "Of a Fire On the Moon," certainly the most unique chronicle of Apollo 11. In this example of his "non-fiction fiction" style, mixing in a lot of his personal life and philosophy, Mailer showed a somewhat grudging admiration for a feat he thought was marred by the bland conformity of the agency and the voyagers carrying it out. He felt this conformity, even in post-Woodstock 1969, was a stifling force holding back all society - and yet, it produced Apollo.
In the book, he wrote: "The astronauts were the core of some magnetic human force called Americanism, Protestantism, or WASPitude... They were the knights of the Silent Majority, the WASP emerging from human history in order to take us to the stars."
He told an interviewer in 1973 about watching an Apollo launch: "It was a thunderingly beautiful experience -- voluptuous, sexual, dangerous, and expensive as hell."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

VERY Big News from the world of whales

Loren Coleman has collected some very important news and links in one handy spot on the blog Cryptomundo.
First, there is a link to cetologist Robert Pitman's paper from 2006 on the first definite sighting of a live example of the enigmatic Shepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi).
Then there's a link to Pitman's Journal of Mammology paper on a new dwarf species of killer whale from the Antarctic.
Finally, a star-studded cetological team, with Merel L. Dalebout as lead author and a roster of co-authors including two more of the top experts on the mesoplodonts (beaked whales), William F. Perrin and James G. Mead, has determined that DNA taken from stranded whales in the Palmyra Atoll Wildlife Refuge and the Tabiteuea Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati indicate there's a yet-unidentified species in that little-known group.
I covered Pitman's studies of the fault lines between what was once thought to be a single species of killer whale (a.k.a. orca) in the Antarctic and the thoughts of Dalebout and others about yet-unidentified beaked whales in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence (Hancock House). Now, though, we have formal publication of more concrete conclusions in these areas. Thanks again to Loren for putting this together.

Chinese probe orbits Moon

In another first for China's space program, the Chang'e 1 spacecraft, launched October 24, has successfully entrered orbit around the Moon. It now enters a 12-month mission of studying our natural satellite. Pei Zhaoyu of the China National Space Administration reported, "All of the subsystems of the Chang'e 1 are in normal operation so far," and added, "The project is a comprehensive demonstration of China's economic, scientific and technological power."

Some observers have noted the timing is interesting, since Japan's first lunar probe entered its own orbit just a month ago. Given the long lead times for such missions, though, it's doubtful that timing is more than coincidence.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Book of the Month: "Red Moon Rising"

This chronicle of the Sputnik era is one of several new histories which have come out this year, and it's a good one. Michael Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (2007: Times Books) stands out for a couple of reasons, including solid writing and an in-depth presentation of the Soviet side of events. He adds a good grasp of technical detail. As the co-author of another book on this subject, The First Space Race, I can speak with some authority when I say this is a valuable contribution. If anything gave me pause, it's his inclusion of the quote "Goldstone has the bird" in his acocunt of the Explorer I launch: we demonstrated that must have been based on incorrect memories, as no Goldstone tracking station yet existed. However, a few quibbles like that don't detract much from a book I recommend.

Florida's Weird Fauna

I grew up in Florida, so I noted with special interest the new book by Michael Newton titled, Florida's Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State (2007: University Press of Florida). Florida is teeming with released or escaped exotic creatures (there was a monkey colony south of where I grew up in Vero Beach) and has its own "mystery animals" like sea monsters and the Skunk Ape.

It's official: the Giant Peccary

The formal publication of Marc van Roosmalen's paper naming the giant peccary (Pecari maximus) marks the latest in a series of mammal discoveries in the Amazin region by the prolific (sometimes controversial) zoologist and conservationist. The giant species has almost twice the mass of the previously established species in Brazil. An interesting note is that it was apparently discussed in a book by an American rubber-tapper named John Yungjohann, who described this species accurately as part of the fauna he encountered while working in the region from 1906 to 1919.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Triumph in Orbit

Scott Parazynski, supported by a cast of astronuts on the shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station (ISS) plus experts on the ground, pulled off one of the most difficult feats in the history of human spaceflight. In a complex seven-hour spacewalk, Parazynski anchored an extension boom on the ISS' robot arm, snipped tangled wires, and attached braces improvised on the space station to repair a 33.5-meter-long solar wing that was damaged last Tuesday. Parazynski, a doctor specializing in emergency medicine before he became an astronaut, surely never cured a more important patient. NASA can now proceed with the next launch in December, using the shuttle Atlantis, to continue the station's assembly.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Scott Parazynski's Challenge in Space

This Saturday or Sunday, U.S. astronaut Scott Parazynski will make one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous spacewalks in history. Parazynski will try to fix the ripped solar wing on the International Space Station. The plan requires travel almost from one end of the station to the other, a repair procedure which were just developed and can't be rehearsed, and the need to work next to an electrically charged panel that cannot be turned off. Astronauts on the ISS have already fashioned a brace from aluminum strips to take stress off the panel's damaged hinge.