Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Snow falling on Mars

The Mars Phoenix Lander has detected snow falling in the atmosphere above it. The precipitation melts before it hits the ground, but that may not be true everywhere on the planet.
Scientists are keeping the MPL very busy these days, trying to cram in as much sampling, assaying, and other work as possible before the short days coming in November and the long polar night in December rob the craft's solar panels and freeze the instruments in an ordeal the lander is not expected to survive.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Wow, my first-ever all-caps headline.
Falcon 1, Flight 4, is in orbit. A 165-kg instrumented dummy payload was placed in orbit by the two-stage booster. A relieved CEO Elon Musk reported, "Fourth time's a charm." Three previous flights had fallen short.
COMMENT: Congratulations to Elon, Gwynne, and the rest of the Space-X crew. We don't know yet where this will go, but the so-far-small company has big plans for NASA contracts, larger boosters like the Falcon 9, and human spaceflight with its Dragon craft. Here's a wish for continued success.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

More problems with the Ares program

The Ares-1 booster program recently completed Preliminary Design Review, or PDR. An internal communications log obtained by NASAWatch, though, shows this hardly went smoothly. Granted, every large program will produce contrary opinions - you will never get 100% of your people on board saying you made the right decisions. But the stuff on this log (the leak of which understandably infuriated NASA), is incredible.
Among the claims made are that NASA officials and engineers were still debating requirements at a design review, that element design reviews (called RIDs) were not complete, making it impossible to make a fully informed decision on how the complete system would perform, and that very important things like the oscillation damping issue were left out of the review. One participant wrote, "Organizing the review teams by WBS (work Breakdown Structure) prevented any team from obtaining a system level overview of what was going on. The result was a completely stovepiped review."
Then there is this item, which may be unfounded but which is astonishing to see in an official exchange of views: "I don't care who at NASA the RID coordinator is/was sleeping with personal abuse of team members is wrong!" and "Nothing was done (about the problem of the RIDs) due to the sexual relationship between the RID coordinator and a Sr. NASA manager."

COMMENT: All I can add to this is, "God help us all."


Chinese astronaut completes EVA

Congratulations to Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigan. On what was only his nation's third human space flight, he became the first Chinese to "walk in space." He was outside the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft for 18 minutes, during which he released a nanosatellite and waved a small Chinese flag to a national audience watching in his homeland.

Attack of the Giant Goose

Picture a seabird, a bit like a long-winged, short-necked goose. Now picture it with wings five meters across. Now picture it with teeth.
A fossil skull recently found on the the Isle of Sheppey off the English coast tells us that, 50 million years ago, this winged wonder did patrol the coastal seas from above. The bird, placed in the extinct genus Dasornis, had what one paleontologist called, "sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak." These "pseudo-teeth" are believed to have re-evolved after the birds as a whole lost their teeth through natural selection. This feature may have made it easier for birds like Dasonis emuinus to grip fish they skimmed from the ocean.

COMMENT: Every answer from prehistory raises a new question. If these "teeth" were good for gripping fish, why didn't modern seabirds (those who live on fish, anyway) retain them? If they were not much of an advantage, why did they emerge at all?

"We open doors,,,which lead to more doors." - Agent Scully on the purpose of the X-Files

Scientific reference:Gerald Mayr, “A skull of the giant bony-toothed bird Dasornis (Aves: Pelagornithidae) from the Lower Eocene of the Isle of Sheppey,” Palaeontology, Vol. 51, Part 5, 2008, pp. 1107–1116.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shenzhou 7 in orbit

The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft, carrying a crew of three, is safely in orbit, according to Chinese authorities. THe mission will last at least four days and it to include the first spacewalk by a Chinese. The spacewalk, or EVA, may come as early as Friday. Russia, in a gesture no doubt meant to include a little dig at the United States, has made much of how its experts helped the Chinese prepare for this milestone. The Chinese, as one might expect, have not been mentioning it. In a humorous aside, the official news agency Xinhua published a conversations with the astronauts in orbit - before they had even blasted off.
A former Chinese space official, Zhang Qingwei, said, "We intend to send astronauts to the moon and ultimately to build a lunar outpost." That's very ambitious, and expensive, but who knows? The recent Olympics showcased China's determination to do huge projects that make a splash on the world scene.

Was this the "sea serpent?"

Dr. Darren Naish, in his invaluable blog Tetrapod Zoology, today discussed an item I'd been quite unaware of. In 1751, a London physician, Dr. James Parsons, published an article ("A dissertation upon the Class of the Phocae Marinae," Philosophical Transactions 47, 109-122) naming a new species - a long-necked seal. Parsons said that he had the type specimen of this animal, a juvenile about 2.3m long. He published an illustration showing a long-necked specimen along with two ordinary seals (not very accurately drawn) as comparisons.
What was this alleged specimen, and what happened to it? A long-necked seal is a familiar topic in cryptozoology, often put forth as an answer to "sea serpent" sightings. Did Parsons actually have his hands on something very important? No one knows, and we may never know.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My MonsterQuest debut

Not bad. History Channel (or just History, as they now style themselves) has just run the "Giant Bear Attack" episode of MonsterQuest. It had the expected breathless reports and descriptions of bear attacks, but they kept the science in there. We were all a bit disappointed that MacFarlane's bear from 1864 was proclaimed "definitely just a brown bear" by a modern expert, and the detour into a New Jersey town overrun with black bears seemed unnecessary, but overall, a good job. They took out more of my interviews than they left in (normal practice, of course, with TV), but I thought most of my good points made it in.

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's MonsterQuest time!

Wednesday, September 24, at 9PM EST, History channel's MonsterQuest will air the following program:

MonsterQuest : Giant Bear Attack
Airs on Wednesday September 24 09:00 PM

Are big bears are getting more assertive and aggressive? In prehistoric times, giant bears weighed up to a ton and stalked early man. Listen as witnesses describe horrific bear attacks and take a look at unusual bear remains. The team journeys from Alaska to New Jersey to learn about bear activity and if hybridization or the next step in bear evolution could produce another crop of giant bears?

I was interviewed for this program and had a chance to talk about bear evolution, rumors and reports of mystery bears, and the place bears hold in the human imagination. I have not had a sneak peek and am not sure how much of my commentary will be in the final program, but I will be watching to find out!

I hope you join me.

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has a thread set up with an article on one of the other participants:

See you Wednesday!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

MicrospaceNews: Webinar from Stanford SSDL

Bob Twiggs of Stanford's Space and Systems Development Laboratory sent me an invite to sign up for a Webinar course. AA247, "Innovation for Aerospace and Space Exploration," looks like an interesting experience. I probably will not be able to schedule it, but I wanted to pass on the opportunity to learn from the creators of the CubeSat and other innovative space technology.
Thank, Bob

Class Instructor- Prof. Bob Twiggs
Tel. 408-230-4728
Class Assistant- Eddie Truong-Cao - ctetc007@stanford.edu

Rocket companies in a snit

United Space Alliance (USA) and ATK have been in a legal snit lately, loudly accusing each other of a range of misbehavior including contract violations, employee-poaching, and, for all I know, illegal parking. Now it's taken a serious turn: USA (prime contractor at Kennedy Space Center) last week told employees to stop working on supporting the Ares-1 rocket program (prime contractor: ATK) effective September 22. A one-week truce called by the two companies on September 19 postponed the work stoppage threstened for the 22nd but does not leave much time to work out their differences. The losers in any continued brawl: NASA and the Constellation program. I wonder what Mike Griffin is taking for headaches these days...

Cat search in Australia, too

The Eastern cougar (a.k.a. panther, mountain lion, etc.) of the U.S. may be presumed extinct, but Australia has an even more mysterious feline problem: the repeated appearance of a cougar-like predator on a continent which never had a true native cat of any kind.
Nathan Rees, now premier of New South Wales (which includes the city of Sydney), once dismissed "panther" sightings as "an urban myth." He's not so certain any more. Amidst a continuing series of sighting reports, he opined, "It is easy for all of us to dismiss these things ... but if we're actually wrong then there is an altogether different set of scenarios." One amateur researcher has compiled a database of 600 people in the region around Sydney who think they have seen such a predator.
COMMENT: This is not a new problem. Decades of sightings of either tawny or black panther-sized animals, backed up by dead and injured livestock and pawprints, indicate that, despite lack of official confirmation, there is something going on here. How an alien big cat got established in Australia is unclear, although there are uncormfirmed reports of American military units in WWII bringing them as mascots.
This seems to be a different problem from the "Queensland tiger-cat," another set of reports that indicate Australia just might still house a population of a presumed-extinct catlike marsupial predator.

Eastern Panthers - the "Ghost Cats"

To the residents of Blackstone, VA, panthers are an accepted part of the landscape - scary enough to keep people indoors at night. To state wildlife officials, it's another case of people mistaking other animals for a surviving population of the elusive Puma concolor. A US FIsh and Wildlife study of all Eastern panther reports is in progress, but the citizens of Blackstone don't have any doubts.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The great killer frog from hell

The temnospondyls are an extinct group of amphibians related to modern frogs and salamanders. About 240 million years ago, the biggest and nastiest of the group swam in the freshwater bodies of what is now the Antarctic continent. The newly described species Kryostega collinsoni, was five meters long and looked like a crocodile, with truly impressive teeth in a flattened skull.
I hope someone writes a book about this beast. In technical, scientific terms, it's just so darn cool...

NASA and the Presidential candidates

Space policy has not been much of an issue in the Presidential race, but the candidates and their advisers have staked out some positions. This item from the Orlando Sentinel notes there will be an actual debate between advisers. Unfortunately, the sponsoring organization will not open it to the media or the public.

COMMENTS: Sure, the Aerospace Industries Association is a private organization and does not have to open its meetings. But why not stream it to the Web in the interests of creating a better informed public?
I did smile when I saw who was debating: Senate staffer Floyd DesChamps for McCain and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver for Obama. I smiled because, at the last AAS National Conference in Houston (November 2007), I was there when Garver was introduced for a luncheon talk on space policy and instead gave an embarrassingly overt pitch for her candidate: Hilary Clinton. Hmm... Clinton was the right candidate for space, and now Obama is?
BTW, Garver also spoke for Obama in a debate in August before the Mars Society, where former astronaut Walt Cunningham argued for McCain. The difference? The Mars Society made the debate open to the public.

ALSO: The candidates, or their advisers (it's not clear from this Web site) did answer a question on space policy along with 13 other science topics for a wonderful organization, Science Debate 2008, which has worked to see that scientific and technological issues are addressed in this year's campaigns. See answer #11 at:

AS ALWAYS: Comments represent solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen.

100+ species of sharks and rays named

That's not a typo. An exhaustive review using the latest DNA analysis has resulted in the identification of over 100 new species. Some are "new new:" most are identifications of species improperly lumped together or otherwise reclassified. Most were known to exist by 1994, but are only now getting their taxonomic due. One example is the Northern River Shark, a freshwater shark about 2m long from Australia. There are only 3-6 known species (not counting the new one) of river sharks in the world.
COMMENT: This is an important demonstration of the power of DNA analysis, even if it's still true that there is no universally accepted definition of how much variance in DNA is needed to separate full species. This new information is not only of scientific interest. It's vital to conservationists to know how many species are out there and where they are. Finally, this is a spectacular reminder of how much we still have to learn about the animal kingdom.

Nature's Wonders: An upside-down rainbow

Freak atmospheric conditions can create an inverted rainbow, technically called a circumzenithal arc. It occurs when a layer of ice crystals at high altitude refracts the sunlight causing a "normal" rainbow. This beautiful example recently appeared in the UK.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Some fish glow red

Icthyologists know that countless fish have lights of one kind or another, and some fluoresce all over in green or blue. A fish that glows red all over, though, is a new phenomenon. It's not that the species Enneapterygius pusillus was undiscovered, but no one knew, until a chance observation in the wild, that it could light its body up like a neon sign. Researchers began to look at other fish through goggles or filters allowing them to see red light deep underwater (where red light does not penetrate) and found many other examples of fish whose bodies, or selected areas, glow red. To put it another way, the red glow from the fish is always visible, but humans that deep normally can't see it and so didn't know this phenomenon was taking place. Now discoverer Nico Michiels can announce, "red fluorescence is widespread among marine fish."

MicrospaceNews: Air Force funding new nanosat programs

The USAF's Office of Scientific Research is awarding grants for nanosatellite projects. Up to $110K may be awarded for projects meeting OSR's objective to:

"promote and sustain university research and education focused on small satellites (nanosats) and related technologies. The primary outcome of individual projects funded under this program is the design, fabrication and functional testing of a nanosat. Secondary objectives are to foster research in enabling technologies for nanosats and the design of experiments that can be performed by nanosats in orbit. In a related activity, AIAA will sponsor a competition to select a small number of nanosats to be prepared for space launch and operation. AFRL/RV will work actively with program participants to promote space-worthy design and fabrication and to prepare selected nanosats for launch."

Look up this opportunity under AFOSR-BAA-2008-6. The application deadline is 31 October.

COMMENT: Great move on OSR's part. Anything that increases the opportunities for hands-on learning with satellites is good. They may be surprised by the variety and quality of the research content that is offered, University shops are very inventive in the microspace area.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The strange prehistory of Madagascar

Madagascar, sometimes called "the eighth continent," is filled with bizarre and unique mammals. When David Krause of Stony Brook University went there looking for early mammalian fossils, he expected a rich body of results. What he found instead were surprisingly scanty mammalian remains, but a horde of dinosaurs and crocodilians. Not a single fossil traceable to an ancestral lemur, for example, turned up. The mammals, unique as they are, seem to be relatively recent imports. Their ancestors must have traveled to the island after the Cretaceous, when it was already an island, and established an ecosystem that survived and prospered, developing many new forms, through its isolation.

How whales learned to swim

The earliest members of the cetacean lineage were not "born with flukes" - they walked in the shallows. But how did they evolve their locomotion from normal mammalian walking into the unique vertical undulation of modern whales? A new study of an important transitional form offers part of the answer. The four-meter Georgiacetus, which lived around 40MYA, had large hips and hind legs. It apparently wiggled its feet like paddles to swim. The pelvis was not attached to the spine, and the animal could not swim the way, say, a dog does. Instead, it moved the rear of its body by muscle power to increase the kicking effect of its large feet.
COMMENT: Natural selection works in very, very strange ways, as it can be compared to a huge lab full of scientists running tests with millions of variations, large and small. Every one in a while, one of those variations turned out to be a big step forward - no matter how strange it may have looked.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why did dinosaurs win the evolutionary race?

It's silly to think of dinosaurs as evolutionary failures. They dominated the planet for over 100 million years. But why did they take over in the first place? Mammals were not around to compete, but the crurotarsan archosaurs, a group including the ancestors of crocodilians, were doing quite well at the dawn of the Mesozoic. The two competed until the late Triassic extinction event, when the dinosaurs survived very well but the crurotarsans all but vanished. Why? University of Bristol researchers Steve Brusatte and Mike Benton suggest it was simple dumb luck.

New boss at SDL

One of America's highly innovative and successful space companies welcomed a new Director this week. Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory hired a USU alum, Dr. David Lemon, to replace the retiring Mike Pavich. I've worked with SDL before and consider them a great outfit. the SDL has, by its own count, "designed, fabricated and operated nearly 500 payloads, including shuttle experiments, small satellites and satellite-based sensor systems." SDL puts on the annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, the premier gathering of its type in the world. Lemon, a physicist, comes home after a career spanning three decades at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Congratulations and good luck to you, sir.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A postcard from the MESSENGER probe

OK, not from the probe itself. But this is the first time I ever got an old-fashioned postcard announcement telling me when a probe will do a flyby of a planet. The folks at Johns Hopkins University's' Applied Physics Laboratory sent me one to tell me there's a MESSENGER flyby of Mercury on October 6 and providing the link in the title of this post. Since they decided to have an important exploration event on my fortysomethingeth birthday, I am happy to pass on the word.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The science of preserving art

Dr. Tom Learner is one of 25 scientists employed at the Getty Conservation Institute. His job: to preserve works of art, anything from ancient marble sculptures to modern art that uses some weird materials. This article explores his field, which combines "artists who like science" and "scientists who like art" and includes ethical as well as technical dimensions. Should old art be restored to the artist's original vision, or should it be "frozen" in its current state? Should modern art based on short-lived materials like sausage casing and bread be preserved if it takes great effort? The Sistine Chapel ceiling was restored with such fidelity to Michaelangelo's surprisingly bright and colorful paint job that some conservators complained the aesthetic - the majesty, if you will - of a ceiling scarred by centuries of smoke and other contaminants was lost.
Learner says of his job, ""I’m in this fantastic position now where I’m able to use my chemistry degree--which I almost gave up to pursue art--but now I can use it with a purpose and an application in a field I find fascinating."

Animal survives in space

A relatively complex animal, only 1.5mm long but nonetheless an antropod sporting six legs, is able to survive unprotected in the harshest known environment - outer space.
Scientists knew tardigrades, often called "water bears," were hardy little creatures, able to survive complete dehydration by going into an unusual dormant state. But no one quite understands how some tardigrades deliberately exposed to the space environment by ESA researchers pulled through and were even happy to breed on returning to Earth after being faced with the unfiltered UV radiation of the sun as well as temperature extremes and vacuum.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Fun Reading: The Prehistoric Fiction Page

Here's a great page collecting science fiction which shows, in one way or another, the world of prehistoric humans and their relatives. The author goes back to the earliest fiction, from the 1800s, about Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, and their ilk (did you know the first use of the term "caveman" dates to 1865)? This page includes links to many nonfiction sites on various aspects of Stone Age life and scientific news from the last few years along with the links and discussions of short stories and novels.

Will the shuttle live on?

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning whether the Space Shuttle will fly on past its planned 2010 retirement date, either for one or two specific missions to add hardware to the ISS or as a stopgap to cover a gap fueled by two problems: the challenge of using Russian hardware for ISS access in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia and the slippage in Project Constellation's troubled Ares I/Orion combination (managers and contractors deny the program is "troubled," but it's hard to find anyone on the outside who believes it). NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has weighed in with a firm vote in favor of keeping the 2010 date, although he expresses great concern about maintaining access to the ISS given the problem with Russia. Griffian actually complains in the statement (actually a leaked email from August 18) that he was not allowed to develop a rational policy keeping the Shuttle flying until Orion was operational, but given the budget circumstances prevailing now, NASA no longer has much choice. (He has a point: voices in Congress in favor of changing course now and keeping the shuttle a few more years don't seem to be interested in the major budget increase that would require.) After November, it's very unlikely Griffin's opinion will matter, but it's the official word for now.


Probe makes almost-perfect asteroid visit

How often do tourists see an exotic foreign locale, set up for the perfect photograph, and curse as their camera malfunctions? It certainly happens (as some witnesses have claimed it does when they think they have a good shot of the Loch Ness monster or sasquatch). ESA's Rosette probe made its first close flyby of an asteroid (known as the Steins asteroid) and, while useful images and other data were gathered, mission managers no doubt let fly with a few multilingual expletives when the high-resolution camera failed at closest approach - only to resume working shortly afterwards. In 2014, the probe will release a lander which will descend to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

China's ready to head for orbit again

China's third human spaceflight mission, Shenzhou VII, is set for launch later this month. The flight will feature the first EVA or "spacewalk" by a "yuhangyuan" (the popular term "taikonaut" has never made it into official CHiense usage). Three men will be on board.
COMMENT: China is effectively telescoping the history of previous human spaceflight programs: first flight, followed by first ulti-person flight, followed by first EVA flight. Their program shows what can be done given the body of knowledge and technology available as a starting point (and, of course, plenty of money).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The taxing subject of taxonomy

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) is still trying to work out the challenges of taxonomy amidst a continuing explosion of new species (about 13,000 a year, most being tropical insects), the urgency of cataloging all species in the face of increasing extinction rates, and the age-old debate between "lumpers" and "splitters." As biologist E. O. Wilson put it, "In dealing with the living world, we are mostly flying blind. Trying to diagnose the health of an ecosystem -- a lake or a forest -- to save or stabilise it is like a doctor treating a patient while only knowing ten percent of the organs." Gathered in Switzerland for the 250th anniversary of the birth of scientific taxonomy's founding father, Carl Linnaeus, scientists discussed new internet-based initiatives to share and spread information.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

MicrospaceNews: NSF selects CubeSat for science mission

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a winner in its Cubesat competition. Out of 29 proposals for using the 1kg microsats for research, the NSF picked the "CubeSat-based Ground-to-Space Bistatic Radar Experiment-Radio Aurora Explorer," proposed by Hasan Bahcivan of SRI International and the U. of Michigan's James Cutler. The NSF plans a 5- to 10-year Cube-sat-based research program with a competition each year for new proposals. The earliest possible launch date for the CGSBRERA (If I have that right) is the end of 2009.
COMMENT: This is another welcome sign that the scientific utility of microspacecraft is receiving growing attention. We cannot, and might never, be able to do all science with microspace approaches, but they promise to allow more science at lower cost and enable missions which otherwise couldn't be afforded at all.

Monday, September 01, 2008

MicrospaceNews: RapidEye fleet is in space

The five small satellites constituting the RapidEye remote sensing fleet (see earlier post) are in orbit. The launch on a converted ballistic missile, the Dneper, RapidEye does not use the polar orbit favored by remote sensing birds. Instead, it's in a high inclination which ensures coverage of the Earth from 75 degreed N to 75 S. The five satellites, orbiting at 630km, will allow daily coverage of any point in that zone. Each satellite weighs about 150kg.

Buy your own planet?

A couple have folks have sent me this interesting link, about a legal argument that claiming, settling, buying, and selling property on other worlds is not illegal for private corporations and individuals. Two authors with the Space Settlement Institute have published on this in the Journal of Air Law and Commerce. I don't accept the argument - under international law, private citizens and corporations are agents of the government under which they live, not totally independent entities, and thus private interests, like governments, are forbidden under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) to make land claims. My mentor on these sorts of things, Dr. Joanne Gabrynowicz of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law, has always argued private action in space is severely constrained by the OST. (There's a slight ambiguity, since land needed for a scientific base is OK and is effectively claimed if you build on it, but that's not relevant.) Still, I would love my own Martian ranch.

Thanks, Kris Winkler and Dave Brett Wasser.