Sunday, June 29, 2008

What "Nessie" isn't is an altogether cool site with good information on the endlessly fascinating (and seemingly endless, as we keep finding new species) world of Mesozoic marine reptiles. In the link above, the author cogently explains why, if there is a "monster" in Loch Ness, it's not a plesiosaur.

Space exploration quote for the day

Gary Barnhard, National Space Society:

"We have wasted a generation of engineers on PowerPoint slides."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lions use roads to make giraffe hunting easier

Giraffes, normally fleet-footed creatures for all their size, run much better on the grassy plains than they do on a hard surface. A giraffe forced to run on a paved road slows down, apparently through loss of traction (or perhaps just because it hurts to strike a hoof on asphalt.) As Darren Naish reports, lions in the Kruger and Nairobi National Parks have learned how to use this fact. They force a giraffe onto a road and chase it down there, with a improved probability of success vs chasing a giraffe across the plains.

The little asteroid hunter

Here's another article on one of most intriguing microsatellite projects, Canada's NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite). Bearing a striking resemblance to a digital camera, it's a good reminder of how technological advances are allowing important science to be done by smaller and less costly spacecraft. To be launched in 2010, the 65-kg, $12M spacecraft will perform dual missions: hunting for asteroids and serving as a platform for high Earth Orbit (HEO) space object surveillance. Microsats no longer have to be single-mission or single-purpose, as was often the case with older, bulkier, and less flexible technology.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Martian soil - it's good stuff

The first soil analysis from the Mars Polar Lander is in, and it's encouraging. The Martian surface has the minerals needed to support plants that don't mind alkaline soil. A lot of Earth plants would do fine. One investigator said, "There is nothing about the soil that would preclude life. In fact, it seems very friendly ... there is nothing about it that is toxic."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Falcon 1 launch slips a month

The Falcon 1 launch from Kwajalein with the Jumpstart mission and other payloads (see below) has been set back. The range has informed SpaceX its assets are needed for other launches. "Launch is no sooner than late July to early August," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. "We will use the time to do additional checkouts."
COMMENT: I'm not impressed: the launch has been on the schedule a long time, and indeed is already behind the original schedule for technical reasons. A week before the launch is finally set to go, the range finds it can't support the flight for another month or more? It's puzzling.

Spotting species is an uncertain science

Anecdotal observations are important to scientists trying to determine the range, habitat, and migration habits of a species. But anecdotes can be wrong. Are they too widely accepted? Researchers for the US Forest Service's Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain Research Stations report that being too quick to accept anecdotal evidence resulted in mistakes in the conservation plans for three species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker. They want scintists and agencies to evaluate such data "on a sliding scale."

COMMENT: No one, including cryptozoologists, thinks every eyewitness account should be accepted. These folks are saying we should raise the bar a notch, and that has merit. The risk is that we could miss important data. It always has been, and always will be, on "a sliding scale."

Oldest four-legged animal found

Ventastega curonica is believed to be an evolutionary dead end, but it's an important dead end. It is, as far as paleontologists know, the earliest four-legged animal to emrge on Earth. The fossil remains found in Latvia indicate it looked, as one paleontologist put it, like "a small alligator with a fin." The theory is that this is a creature of the shallows that found advantage in being able to haul itself over sandbars or perhaps even out of the water.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Frogs that carry concealed weapons

Rogue: When they come out... does it hurt?
Wolverine: Every time.

That snippet from the X-Men movie concerns the metal claws Wolverine can extend through his hands on mental command. Now we know some frogs actually do something similar.
A team led by Harvard University biologist David Blackburn was spurred to investigate African frogs after Blackburn was scratched in the field by animals that didn't seem to have anything to scratch with. It had long been known that several species of the family Arthroleptidae sported small bony nodules near the fingertips, but no one had ever investigated these properly. Now we know they are claws that can be extended through the skin, at the cost of a non-trivial injury to the frog.

COMMENT: It's another reminder of how endlessly inventive nature can be. Still, the evolutionary reasons why the frog would have a hidden defense of this type are puzzling. Why not have the claws out all the time and avoid all that trouble, or develop retractable sheaths like cats? We don't know.

MicrospaceNews: ComDev's first contract

On the heels of announcing its intent to develop a full microsatellite capability, the Canadian firm ComDev has its first order. The satellite systems company has a $10M contract for the The Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro-satellite (M3MSat). THis will be a ''technology demonstration mission'' jointly funded by the Canadian Space Agency and the Department of National Defence. The satellite will use ComDev's automatic identification system (AIS) equipment to track ships in Canadian and international waters.

MIcrospaceNews: SSTL's next-generation Earth observer

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) issued a press release on its newest imager:

"SSTL's privately funded UK-DMC-2 has passed its Test Readiness Review (TRR) at its Manufacturing Integration and Test Facilities in Guildford, UK. Scheduled for build completion in September 2008, the new Earth Observation satellite will provide higher performance imaging capabilities to the Disaster Monitoring Constellation which is operated by SSTL's subsidiary DMCii.
UK-DMC-2 will carry an enhanced version of the DMC (Disaster Monitoring Constellation) camera which will provide 600km wide multi-spectral images of the Earth at a ground resolution of 22-metres. This is an advance on the current 32-metre DMC imager, which has been successfully providing imagery in support of deforestation, disaster relief and agricultural monitoring for over five years in the current constellation of five spacecraft."

COMMENT: The Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) has been a major technical success for microsats as well as an outstanding example of international space cooperation. Good luck with the new generation!

Monday, June 23, 2008

NASA scientist James Hansen goes ballistic

You remember Dr. Hansen: a prominent climate specialist who complained loudly (and with some justification) that NASA had blocked release of his work supporting human-driven global warming. Whether you think Hansen is right or wrong, his recent actions threaten his credibility, and maybe they should. A stunning article quotes him as saying oil company executives should be tried for crimes against humanity for downplaying the threat of climate change. He told an interviewer that he intended to tell Congress: “When you are in that kind of position, as the CEO of one the primary players who have been putting out misinformation even via organizations that affect what gets into school textbooks, then I think that's a crime." The Guardian newspaper also reports, “He is also considering personally targeting members of Congress who have a poor track record on climate change in the coming November elections. He will campaign to have several of them unseated.”

COMMENT: Now this is ridiculous. First, how does Hansen propose to differentiate between someone putting out deliberate misinformation and the many people (including some energy company folks, certainly, but also independent scientists) who honestly disagree with the “scientific majority” position on this topic? He would criminalize scientific dissent, and that is a crime against the bedrock of free inquiry and debate on which all science rests. Also, it should be pointed out Hansen’s political intentions are a major, flat-out violation of the Hatch Act outlawing partisan political activity by Federal employees.

Dr. Hansen, you may have gotten yourself in the newspaper, but you have done your cause no favors this time

Microspace News: PreSat and NanoSail-D

While most of the attention concerning the upcoming Falcon 1 mission has focused on the AFRL payload, the launch from Kwajalein includes a NASA payload from Ames Research Center called PreSat. PreSat’s objectives are to demonstrate Ames’ 2nd Generation Modular Triple CubeSat Nanosatellite Platform as well as evaluation the performance of a Generic BioFluidic Sample Management and Handling Subsystem. The spacecraft will be bundled with AFRL’s Operationally Responsive Space payload and the NanoSail-D solar sail experiment. NanoSail-D is intended to deploy the first working solar sail and further a collaborative relationship between the Ames and Marshall centers for future small satellite initiatives. The sail will cover 10 square meters. The payloads will go into a high LEO trajectory of 685 X 330 km at an inclination of 9 degrees. Both NASA spacecraft are “blogging” as “themselves” on

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Exotic cat colonizes Florida?

This intersting post from comes from Dave Pelly in Florida. Pelly has been gathering information to prove that central Florida supports a small population of the jaguarundi(Puma yaguarondi), a cat not known to be established further north or east than the southern regions of Texas and Arizona.

COMMENT: I love these types of mysteries, especially from my old home state. Though much smaller than the cougar (which is now known to be closely related), the fact that black or nearly black jaguarundis exist might account for some "black panther" reports from the American South. Good luck, Dave.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Microspace News: Sir Martin Sweeting wins award

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, founder of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd,, has won the 2008 Sir Arthur Clarke Lifetime Achievement Award. The "Arthurs" are given in the UK for contributions to space flight.
His acceptance comments included:
“It is a great honour to receive this award and especially in the month during which Sir Arthur sadly passed away. As a teenager, I was captivated by Sir Arthur’s books and particularly the film 2001: A space odyssey which inspired me to strive for a career in space.”

COMMENT: Surrey, founded in 1985, has launched 27 small satellites, many of them highly innovative and some real breakthroughs. Go forth, Sir Martin, and conquer new frontiers.

Microspace News: The N-Prize

Here is an interview with Dr. Paul Dear, founder of the N (Nanosatellite)-Prize. The N-Prize will be awarded thus:

"... the N-Prize is a £9,999.99 (sterling) cash prize which can be claimed by any individual, or group, who are able to prove that they have put into orbit a small satellite. The satellite must weigh between 9.99 and 19.99 grams, and must orbit the Earth at least 9 times. This project must be done within a budget of £999.99 (sterling)."
That budget includes launch, and you can't use a donated launch vehicle: someone has to invent a radical nanosat launch system. Conventional rockets, balloon launches, and gun launches are suggested options.

Dear says:
"It’s true that the prize money is ridiculously small for a space competition. Nobody in their right mind is going to enter for the prize money - and people who aren’t in their right mind are my kind of people! If the prize becomes bigger, then we’ll start to see entrants who treat this as a business proposition, and who are willing to invest huge resources to win the prize. I’d rather keep it small, so that we attract enthusiastic nuts who are doing it for the challenge."

Several serious teams have already entered. The N-Prize website is:

COMMENT: OK, so it's impossible, or nearly so. Dear doesn't care: he wants to see just how ingenious space enthusiasts can be. I don't think it's going to be done, but I wish "full speed ahead" to everyone trying it: surely, out of their efforts will come some ideas that can be applied to other projects to reduce size and cost. As Shaw said, all progress depends on the unreasonable among us.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ice on Mars

The white material uncovered by the Phoenix Mars Lander's digging scoop has disappeared over the last four days. Conclusion: "It must be ice," said Dr Peter Smith, the mission's Principal Investigator from the University of Arizona. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice." In two other spots, the lander arm has stopped digging automatically when it hit a hard surface just beneath the dirt.
COMMENT: They're breaking out the champagne at NASA. Evidence that Mars has a permafrost layer just under the soil in the north polar region has huge implications for understanding the climate, the planet's geological history, and its potential to support life. They'll have to use plain old Earth ice cubes for the toast, of course. Martian ice would cost several million dollars per kilogram if it could be delivered.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New bird from China

The latest new bird species comes from a forest near China's border with Vietnam. The Chinese media agency Xinhua has announced the finding of the bird, labled the Nonggang babbler (Stachyris nonggangensis).
The bird is dark brown with a few white and gray markings. It reportedly prefers walking to flying, except when startled.

THANKS to Loren Coleman for drawing my attention to this with his post on

The Yeti's foot

Over at Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology blog, there is a lively discussion of one of the most intriguing pieces of evidence in the cryptozoology files: the Shipton footprint. Taken in the snow on Menlung Glacier in the Himalayas by mountaineers Eric Shipton and Michael Ward in 1951, it remains a puzzle.

Here's what I added to that discussion:

A few points:
First, the photo sometimes published showing a series of tracks is, if I recall correctly, an unrelated image of goat prints. If Shipton and Ward actually took a good shot showing the series of yeti tracks (which they should have, but I've not read of them ever referring to it), it was spoiled or lost.
Second, there does appear to be some melting and refreezing in the heel, but there could not have been much, given that other areas don't show it.
Third, arguably the most eminent scientist ever to write on the topic, John Napier, wrote he might accept a composite of a bare and sandaled human print, but the explanation was not really convincing: he would have dismissed the yeti entirely except this print was "the one item in the whole improbable saga that simply sticks in my throat."

Fourth, and most important: the composite human print theory, in my experience, just does not work. I have tried this at different latitudes, altitudes (ok, only up to 6,000 feet), temperatures, angles to the sun, and textures of snow (wet/heavy, dry, and in between). At the risk (ok, it was more of a certaintly) of my wife saying I was crazy, I've made bare prints in snow and then trodden on them with various types of footwear, and also tried it in the opposite sequence. It just doesn't work. The toes never lengthen and/or separate while remaining crisp-looking. They melt into a blob. There's some variation in shape, time, etc under different conditions, but the end result is still the same: At no time do I get anything resembling the Shipton print.

I'd be curious to know whether anyone else's experimental results have been different.

Matt Bille

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New bird from Columbia

From the SerranĂ­a de los YariguĂ­es mountains in Colombia comes the world's newest bird, a subspecies of the Pale-bellied Tapaculo christened Cytalopus griseicollis gilesi after conservationist Robert Giles. The mostly-gray bird is distinguished from other Pale-bellied Tapaculos by differences in its calls as well as a darker back and longer tail.
COMMENT: OK, it's "only" a subspecies - a category some biologists have almost given up on. But every distinct animal we find, every new addition to the richness of the zoological gene pool, is important. Expeditions to this same area have already yielded a new butterfly species and a strikingly colorful new species of bird, the Yariguies Brush-Finch described in 2006. Keep up the search!

Mars: the search for water

There are two new two dispatches from the scientific front lines of the Martian quest. The first is that the initial sample examined in the Phoenix lander's onboard laboratory showed no water. Mission scientists were quick to point out that was not a surprise, though, because the sample sat for days on the lab's sifter while they tried to shake the clumpy stuff through, and any water would likely have vanished into the dry Martian atmosphere. The second is that scientists are still trying to figure out whether the whitish material exposed by the probe's sample collection scoop is ice or salt. One way this will be analyzed is to take repeated photographs and see whether the amount of material changes over time: salt should remain as is (absent one of those nasty Martian dust devils) while ice sublimates and should reveal itself by shrinkage.

Meanwhile, scientists are getting really cool microscopic images of the soil that did make it into the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) lab. As Scientific American describes it, "The high-resolution images particles of a range of different sizes, from bigger, black, glassy particles thought to have been forged in ancient volcanoes down to finer, more iron-rich grains that may have resulted from the glassy pieces grinding together."

COMMENT: It's pretty awesome to just step back a minute and think about what NASA is doing here. An array of complex instruments was launched into space on powerful rocket booster, traveled years and millions of miles, dropped through the atmosphere of another planet, landed perfectly, and is now operating with no significant problems to serve as the eyes and hands of human science. It's really quite something. We as a species are entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Len Cormier, R.I.P.

A sad farewell tonight to Len Cormier of PanAero LLC. Len, who worked in the launch business for half a century, was best known as a tireless designer and promoter of reusable space vehicles. He didn't get enough backing to finish his contender for the X-Prize, but it did not slow him down: he kept proposing updated concepts to the NRO, to NASA's COTS program, and to anyone else who might support what he felt was a practical road to more affordable and reliable launch.
His latest design was “Space Van 2011”, a two-stage horizontal takeoff and landing craft that he believed could service the ISS and do other orbital missions for a fraction of the cost of a space shuttle or a Soyuz.
COMMENT: I knew Len only by correspondence, but he was a very helpful person to anyone with space interests, and clearly devoted to his dream of moving us one step closer to a spacefaring civilization. The Earth could use more Len Cormiers. Farewell, voyager.

Can microbes solve the energy crunch?

Answer: maybe, at some point, thanks to some cutting-edge genetic engineering. A company called LS9 has demonstrated that an altered bacterium can consume agricultural waste and excrete crude oil. In about a month, the company intends to actually run a vehicle on "bug poop."
COMMENT: It's too early to predict whether this approach will make a significant impact, but it's an example of the human ingenuity which the "we're doomed" school of thought discounts too quickly.

Building blocks found in space rocks

A sceintific team led by Zita Martins of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London reports it has found precursors to DNA and RNA in a meteorite. The molecules involved, uracil and xanthine, were found in a meteorite that landed in Australia in 1969. It does not prove molecules from space were crucial to life on Earth - they may have formed here independently - but it does show how widespread life-related compunds may be in the vast spaces between worlds.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Death of a red giant

NASA's GALEX satellite has provided astronomers with a sight never before witnessed: the blast of ultraviolet light that comes just ahead of a star going spuernova. The phenomenon had been predicted, but couldn't be seen through Earth's atmosphere. A supernove is normally noticed only days or weeks after the light from its collapse reaches Earth. Now scientists can observe the whole cycle, which has much to teach about the composition, life, and death of stars in addition to being simply awesome.

Another step for private space flight

The firm Space Adventures, in partnership with the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation. has arranged for five private citizens to ride up on Soyuz capsules to visit the International Space Station. Now it's taking the next step: ordering a modified Soyuz capsule for a private mission carrying two of its clients. Space Adventures is funding the separate mission to increase its capacity without interfering with regular Soyuz/ISS missions.

COMMENT: OK, this avenue to space is still strictly for people willing to part with a reported $20M and undergo months of cosmonaut training. The backlog of passengers wiling to go to such lengths, though, speaks volumes about the human fascination with space travel.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item

Are Darwinism and Christianity compatible?

Dinesh D'Souza adds to the debate with this interesting blog post, where he points out that Christians going back to Augustine havve assumed the Biblical account of Creation is allegorical. He argues that only two groups read it literally: fundamentalists and the strident atheists like Richard Dawkins who want to paint all Christians as anti-science fundamentalists.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Microspace news: Farewell to CHIPSat

CHIPSat was one of the smallest and cheapest of modern space science missions, having consumed only $14.5 million when it reached orbit in 2003. The Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer satellite was designed to look for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) emissions. It produced significant science on a tiny budget of $100,000 a year. The mission's "parents" at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory have proposed other experiments and would be happy if NASA turned their bird on again, but in today's space budget climate, even $100K is hard to find. CHIPSat was the first satellite to communicate by Internet Protocol (IP) and the first built by the entrepreneurial space firm Space Dev.
COMMENT: CHIPSat showed everyone that you really could do important sicnece missions "on a shoestring" if everyone did their jobs right. Congratulations to the people of SpaceDev, NASA, UCB, and other organizations involved in this pioneering mission.

Welcome home, Discovery

The STS-124 mission is complete and the crew of Discovery is back on the ground. After some concern over a metal clip that floated free from the rudder, NASA engineers gave the shuttle a "Go" to land, which they did Saturday morning after a 14-day mission to the ISS. NASA now turns its attention to the next mission, scheduled for October, and to repairing the flame trench under the shuttle launch pad, where over 5,000 fire-resistant bricks emplaced during the Apollo era were torn loose by Discovery's launch. No delay to the flight schedule is expected.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Woodpecker redicovered after 80 years

The Caatinga woodpecker (Celeus obrieni) has until now been known from a single specimen collected in Brazil 1926. It's a handsome brown-and-tan bird with a white belly and a showy crown of red feathers. Without a second specimen or even a reported sighting of the species in over 80 years, though, extinction was widely presumed. But now we do have a new specimen, discovered in the Tocantins region by Brazilian ornithologist Advaldo do Prado. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International commented, “Caatinga woodpecker and rediscoveries like it provide hope for other South American birds currently missing and feared extinct, some of which haven’t been seen for over 150 years.”

Advertisement sent to the stars

The EISCAT scientific radar station on the Norwegian island of Svalbard has used its array of dish antennas (normally used for studying the upper atmosphere) to send a Doritos advertisement toward Ursa Major.
Scientists involved doubt that any alien intelligence will reconstruct the mpeg file and watch the ad, but they will recognize it's a structured message from an intelligent source.

COMMENT: A treaty governing broadcasts meant to be received by alien intelligences has been proposed, and it's a good idea. While "spillover" of Earth broadcasts into space is inevitable, deliberate attempts at communications should be reviewed by a broad spectrum (no pun intended) of scientists to make certain we are sending the message our species would want to send.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pluto is not a planet, it's a "Plutoid"

If Pluto is not a planet, what is it? What do you call a large body in an elliptical orbit around the Sun that still does not quality for the new International Astronomical Union (IAU) definition of a planet? The IAU has now, in essence, allowed Pluto to save face just a little bit by announcing "plutoid" as the new term for this class of objects IF said objects are beyond the orbit of Neptune.

COMMENT: The IAU's press release really does not make this very clear to the layperson. Some things are just supposed to be what they've always been called. As Stephen J. Gould argued, a brontosaurus should be a brontosaurus even if the rules of nomenclature call for "apatosaurus." And Pluto just should have been given a special exemption for new classifications and labeled a planet simply because the whole world has called it that ever since it was discovered.

From the IAU:

"Plutoids are celestial bodies in orbit around the Sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune that have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (near-spherical) shape, and that have not cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit. The two known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris. It is expected that more plutoids will be named as science progresses and new discoveries are made.

The dwarf planet Ceres is not a plutoid as it is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Current scientific knowledge lends credence to the belief that Ceres is the only object of its kind. Therefore, a separate category of Ceres-like dwarf planets will not be proposed at this time."

The birth of the bow

This story focuses on an interesting analysis (if still somewhat speculative) concerning just how Native Americans developed the bow and arrow. This weapon system evolved in many cultures around the world and had as its predecessor the atlatl, or spear thrower. University of Missouri archaeologists have documented a wide variety of arrow points appearing about 1,500 years ago, which then were "necked down" to a few types. Their conclusion is that, once the concept of the bow had been developed, artisans tried many different types of points, mated with many varieties of shafts (not preserved). With no understanding of the theory involved, Native Americans went through periods of trial and error before finding a good combination of factors including shaft length and thickness, point size and shape, and design of the bow itself. Once the bow was mature, it quickly displaced the atlatl and became the premier weapon for combat as well as hunting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Unicorn deer" observed in Italy

A deer with one horn in the middle of its forehead is living in a nature preserve in Italy. The animal, a roe deer about a year old, lives in a reserve near Florence. Interestingly, the animal's twin (the births were observed by researchers) has the normal complement of horns. On expert commented that, while one-horned deer have been seen before, they are usually simply missing one horn. Seeing one horn in the center indicates a more puzzling genetic oddity.
COMMENT: "Unicorn" cattle and goats have been produced artificially by grafting the horn buds together in the desired spot soon after birth, but it's not clear whether there are any good prior records of wild animals being born with this feature. This case shows such a genetic freak is possible, raising the question of whether animals like this deer could have played a role in the origins of the unicorn myth.

Checking out of the orbiting hotel

While everyone was focusing on the qualities of Martian dirt (see below), the crew of STS-124, the shuttle Discovery, was executing a near-perfect mission to expand the International Space Station with the Japanese Kibo laboratory. The shuttle should land Saturday. Commander Mark Kelly signed off as they left the ISS with, ""We wish them the best with their expedition and we hope we left them a better, more capable space station than when we arrived. Sayonara."
COMMENT: Another reminder that humanity and its machines are slowly, bit by bit, accumulating the experience needed to build bigger structures in much more exotic places far from Earth.

Baking dirt on Mars

NASA seems to have solved that pesky clumped-dirt problem, and the TEGA instrument will soon be incubating Martian soil looking for interesting stuff.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A cetacean success story: humpbacks rebound

Amid the gloomy news from the conservation world comes a welcome nugget worth cheerign about. The humpback whale was a species hard hit by the whaling trade: some 1,400 animals made up the entire Pacific Ocean population in 1966. Forty-one years after a ban on hunting the species was instituted, scientists analyzing the results of an exhautive photographic survey report there are an estimated 20,000 Pacific humpbacks. Jay Barlow of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center said, "While I agree that conservation concerns are not eliminated, this is fundamentally a good-news story. If the world had more examples like this, I think that the people of the world would be more inclined to believe that conservation can make a difference."
COMMENT: Amen to that.

Messing with Martian dirt

The Phoenix Mars Lander is taking it slow while engineers adjust the procedures for depositing soil samples into the "bake and sniff" bins of the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). The soil is considerably clumpier than expected.
COMMENT: The clumpiness is an interesting fact all by itself, since the Vikings and later probes have characterized Martian soil at lower latitudes, and Phoenix designers thought they knew what to expect.

New view of Earth and Moon

NASA's EPOXI spacecraft has sent back a rare and beautiful view of the Earth and the Moon in the same image.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Still sharp at age 115

Neuroscientists are a bit fascinated by a woman who recently died at the age of 115. She was sharp until the end of her life, and her brain showed almost no sign of even incipient Alzheimer's disease. Her case and others suggest that dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging. One researcher said, "Our observations suggest that, in contrast to general belief, the limits of human cognitive function may extend far beyond the range that is currently enjoyed by most individuals."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hunt for ET continues

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has not been in the news for a while, but it hasn't gone away. Some scientists and engineers remains captivated by, and dedicated to, the project despite tiny budgets and the lingering "giggle factor."

A new proposal is to use the Allen Telescope Array, with is hundreds of small advanced dishes, to search the plane of the ecliptic: the plane made by Earth and the Sun. Why? because advanced civilizations in this plane could observe Earth transiting the Sun, and thus are more likely to know there is a planet potentially capable of sustaining life in our solar system. They might, the logic goes, be sending radio signals to see if we on Earth are advanced enough to detect them and reply. Richard Conn Henry of Johns Hopkins, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute, and Steven Kilston of the Henry Foundation Inc. are working out the notion.

COMMENT: Human ingenuity and logic will never lose their place in science. If the universe is too big for a practical search, the three astronomers behind this concept reason, then let's look in the places most likely to be looking for us. Here's wishing you the best of luck, guys.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

New vertebrates described 2008 = 130!

That's not a misprint. 130. Naturalist Nick Sly set himself to reviewing every available source for new vertebrate descriptions. This number is actually low, since Sly excluded splitting of existing taxa and kept strictly to all-new species, plus he lacked full access to a few key journals and may have missed some species.
His breakdown:
Fish - 74 (56.9%)
Amphibian - 20 (15.4%)
Mammal - 6 (4.6%)
Reptile - 29 (22.3 %)
Bird - 1 (0.8%.

Sly goes into detail on each group in his blog. What an amazing piece of research - and what an amazing reminder that we do NOT know all the species on Earth.

Thanks to Loren Coleman for posting this item. (Loren noted there are at least two lemurs and a cloud rat (all covered in earlier posts on my blog if you are curious) that do not appear on Sly's list, so the mammal count, we know, is low.)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Carribean monk seal declared extinct

The National Marine Fisheries Service has announced that five years of searching have failed to yield a live specimen of the Caribbean monk seal. This makes it the first species of seal driven extinct by human predation, although the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are in very bad shape and the Guadelupe and Juan Fernandez fur seals had close brushes with extinction.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What's the white stuff on Mars?

When the Phoenix Mars Lander took its second scoop out of the reddish soil of Mars, it revealed whitish material beneath the surface – tantalizingly similar to the bright patch revealed by the firing of the craft’s landing thrusters. This stuff may be ice, or it may be part of a salt layer formed on top of ice.
COMMENT: Phoenix, like all good scientists, is beginning its exploration by raising new questions. THe world is tuned in for the answers.

Busy day on the ISS

It’s been a great mission so far for STS-124 and the space shuttle Discovery. They’ve made their first spacewalk, attached the huge Japanese Kibo laboratory to greatly increase the volume available for scientific experiments on the station, and delivered the parts for that famous balky toilet. Today (June 4), astronauts are preparing to enter the Kibo module from inside while two others prepare for another EVA tomorrow to hook up equipment and otherwise prepare the lab for its work.
COMMENT: The ingenuity and ability of human space voyagers never ceases to amaze me. I suspect that’s one factor behind the popular fascination with human spaceflight, even as critics question its costs. These are people like us (healthier and smarter, maybe, but generally like us), walking around in the deadliest environment we know and not just doing work but fixing equipment and developing new approaches when something goes wrong.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The best "Lake monster" photo?

In another great contribution from Dr. Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology, he looks at one of the most intensely studied "cryptid" photographs of all time: a single image caught by Sandra Mansi that resembles a long-necked aquatic animal in a place no such animal should be (Lake Champlain). (Actually, such an animal does not exist anywhere, as far as we know, but this picture made a lot of people think hard about that.) Naish agrees with investigator Benjamin Radford the photo probably shows a drifting log, caught at just the right moment and the right angle to make people think, "Plesiosaur? Maybe?" Answer: probably not.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fourth grader names new lizard

When Dr. Aaron Bauer (a former board member of the International Society for Cryptozoology, BTW) discovered a new species of gecko in the South Pacific, he created Project Gecko, encouraging children to submit proposed names. Gemma Farquhar, a fourth grader from New Jersey, won with Bavayia periclitata. Bauer said, “Bavayia periclitata was chosen for its accurate and artistic description. Gemma was able to combine scientific language with creative intellect forming a name that depicts the importance of taking care of the animals that share our world with us." Bavayia periclitata indicates, in Latin, that the animal is "endangered." .

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Mars, exploration, and ice

Only days after its arrival on Mars, the Phoenix lander has beamed back an image that has scientists very excited. Poking its camera underneath the spacecraft to look at the terrain scoured by its descent thrusters, Phoenix imaged an exposed patch of light-colored, smooth material. Ice? Water ice?
Peter Smith of the University of Arizona says, "We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface. The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It's not impossible that it's something else, but our leading interpretation is ice."

COMMENT: NASA's webservers have been flooded with visitors wanting to see the latest images from Mars. Whatever debates may be going on concerning future directions in space exploration, it's clear that Mars continues to fascinate the human imagination. Discoveries like this one are reinforcing the belief that Mars can support, at least partially using in-situ resources, human colonists if we choose to send them. I hereby volunteer. (OK, it's easy to say that, because I know I'd be rejected for age and health by the time we are ready to send anyone. But I'd still go.)

STS-124 gets a sendoff

The STS-124 mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is off and looking good, carrying the $1B Japanese-built Kibo laboratory to expand the International Space Station. On board for use in an eductional demonstration is a "Buzz Lightyear" character doll. In this clever photograph, Buzz's pal Woody waves goodbye during launch.

Space History trivia: Single-stage altitude record?

Nicholas Hill started a thread on asking what the greatest altitude obtained by a single stage suborbital or sounding rocket was. I looked at my old favorites, the Viking and Aerobee and V-2, and found they'd all been left in the dust. I agreed with Allen Thomson's answer of ESA's Maxus series (over 700 km), but Nicholas found we'd all overlooked the British test vehicle Black Knight, which in 1962 hit 795 km.
OK, maybe this is of interest only to space geeks, but I find this kind of historical detective work fascinating... even when I'm not the one who finds the answer.