Friday, July 31, 2009

Soviet-era glider designed for Venus

Really. Space geeks (like me, only with engineering degrees) come up with all sorts of stuff.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

New bald (yes, bald) songbird from Asia

Laos' bare-faced bulbul is the first bald songbird to be discovered in mainland Asia. Pycnonotus hualon is also the first Asian bulbul to be found in a century.

COMMENT: Peter Clyne of the Wildlife Conservation Society made an odd comment. He said, "To find a new bird species is very rare these days. It's not like we're finding new species of birds every year." Actually, Peter, we are adding new species every year: granted, it's just a few, but we are.

Biochemicals from dinosaur bone

What are actual chemical traces of protein fragments, or peptides, doing in a fossilized T. rex bone? That question led some paleontologists to reject a 2007 study claiming to have found surviving molecules of biochemicals. A reexamination, though, showed that the first report was correct. We do have traces of hemoglobin and collagen from an animal 68 million years old.
COMMENT: Any T. rex news is automatically cool.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Animals mix up ocean waters

Could all those animals in our planet's gigantic seas - from tiny plankton and krill to mighty (but relatively rare) whales - play a major role in how the waters themselves mix and move? It used to be no one thought so, but researchers studying jellies (a.k.a. jellyfish) report that we've apparently missed something important here. One said, "There are enough of these animals in the ocean that, on the whole, the global power input from this process is as much as a trillion watts of energy — comparable to that of wind forcing and tidal forcing."
COMMENT: Nature and its processes consistently prove to be more subtle and complex than we think - and that's important to keep in mind when we are making decisions on everything from pollution control to climate change.

New state of matter?

Scientific breakthroughs don't get much more intriguing than a claim of a whole new state of matter. Consider these statements from professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics: "What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before. Transparent aluminum is just the start." His "transparent aluminum" is transparent to extreme UV, not visible light the way it is in Star Trek, but it gives a clue as to just how odd the stuff Wark and his colleagues obtained by knocking electrons out of normal metal atoms with a high-power laser appears to be.

Monday, July 27, 2009

WhiteKnightTwo wows the crowds

Burt Rutan's latest creation made a dazzling public debut. One more step on the road to private space flight.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

NY Times article on discovery of new species

The paper reports: "Since the last summary of the world’s mammals was published in 2005, tallying the roughly 5,400 mammalian species then known... an astounding 400 or so new species have been added to the list."

COMMENT: Not a surprise to those of us who follow this topic, but it will be to most people. As I have said so many times, there is much yet to be known about the zoological world.

First record of a Spotted deer with no spots

From the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in India's Sungam hills comes this item from an Indian newspaper. The spotted deer or cheetal is a common species, but it has always been, as the name describes, reddish with shite spots. Wildlife officials have confirmed the existence of a solid black cheetal. As far as those officials know, this is the first known instance of melanism in this species. (It's not, as the journalist described it, a "new species," although there is speculation it is a hybrid: still, it is interesting to see this phenomenon in a species where it has heretofore not been reported.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Who "discovered" a species?

Loren Coleman posted on Cryptomundo a comment from Jerome F. Hamlin, creator of, asking whether it is correct to say that museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer "discovered" the coelacanth in 1938, given that it was known to Comoros islanders for centuries. My thought:

“Discovered” as meaning “specimen obtained and made known to organized science” makes sense. It is simply, in biology/zoology, the meaning of the word. That the animal was locally known is true but didn’t have any scientific impact until Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the species by finding the type specimen. After that, this local knowledge became valuable, giving scientists information on the animal’s habitat and helping in the search for further specimens.

There is undoubtedly, back in the history of the Comoros or Indonesia, some fisherman who pulled in the very first coelacanth ever noticed by humans. His society would have rightly called him the discoverer. Modern science just as rightly calls Courtenay-Latimer the discoverer. If we adopted a new word for “obtained or reported the first example brought to scientific attention,” and perhaps we should, then the term “discoverer” would indeed apply only that ancient fisherman. (”Described” is too narrow for what we are talking about, since the discoverer and describer are very often different people.)

From the new NASA Administrator

Administrator Charles. F. Bolden:

"Today, we have to choose. Either we can invest in building on our hard-earned world technological leadership or we can abandon this commitment, ceding it to other nations who are working diligently to push the frontiers of space... If we choose to lead, we must build on our investment in the International Space Station, accelerate development of our next generation launch systems to enable expansion of human exploration, enhance NASA's capability to study Earth's environment, lead space science to new achievements, continue cutting-edge aeronautics research, support the innovation of American entrepreneurs, and inspire a rising generation of boys and girls to seek careers in science, technology, engineering and math."

COMMENT. Good words, but the President who appointed Bolden has already chosen to slowly strangle this vision to death. Unless we come up with new approaches to space, the NASA budget - projected as flat from here on out after a one-year bump in FY10 - will doom us to a limited robotic program and LEO-only human spaceflight. Here's hoping Bolden can persuade the President and Congress otherwise.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Enter the dragon

OK, it's not a big dragon, certainly not in comparison to its near relative the Komodo. But Varanus lirungensis, the new species from the Talaud Islands of Indonesia, was a surprise to herpetologists. Its discoverer, AndrĂ© Koch (who was on the islands to study another species), said the find “illustrates the high diversity of monitor lizards in Indonesia."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Amateur makes Jupiter-sized discovery

I love stories about how amateurs still make vital contributions to science, despite the perception that science is all about big organizations and big projects now. When a large object - a comet or asteroid - hit Jupiter last week, it was Australian computer programmer Anthony Wesley, 44, who found the "scar" or impact zone in the Jovian atmosphere using the 14.5-inch reflecting telescope in his backyard. NASA has since confirmed the discovery - a timely one, since such impact zones last only a few days. Glenn Orton of NASA JPL said, "We are extremely lucky to be seeing Jupiter at exactly the right time, the right hour, the right side of Jupiter to witness the event. We couldn't have planned it better." So here's a cheer for Tony Wesley.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A salute to Apollo 11

"The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." -- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

"We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." -- John F. Kennedy

Apollo 11 plaque:
JULY 1969, A.D.
(Signatures: Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin, Nixon)

"To think that twelve guys went there and we've figured it out-that's crazy." -Apollo 16 Commander John Young

"We leave as we came and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind" - Apollo 17's Gene Cernan

"So if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put a man on the moon?" - Robert Zubrin, 2004

"There can be no thought of finishing, for 'aiming at the stars,' both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning." - Robert Goddard, 1932 letter to H.G. Wells

And from the three astronauts:

Many say exploration is part of our destiny, but it’s actually our duty to future generations and their quest to ensure the survival of the human species.
— Buzz Aldrin

The regret on our side is, they used to say years ago, we are reading about you in science class. Now they say, we are reading about you in history class.
— Neil Armstrong

It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it’s an imperative.
— Michael Collins

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is NASA too expensive?

This bears repeating. The government will spend $4 trillion this year. Less than one half of one percent will go to an agency that expands our knowledge, improves our lives, monitors our environment, and helps us look beyond our current troubles and see our future as a species. Oh, and provides high-tech jobs and countless other benefits.

Paradoxically, the visibility of NASA's Mars rovers, space shuttles, etc., leads the American people to think a large portion of the national budget goes to the agency. NASA also has to deal with idiot remarks by people like Katie Couric, who said in 2006, "I can’t help but wonder what all the money could do for people right here on planet Earth." Katie, where exactly do you think it's being spent? Are the rovers carrying away cash to pay off Martian contractors?
Think about your idol, Walter Cronkite. Walter understood what we were doing and why it was worth it.

Space exploration is much more than just NASA, and I'm certainly not holding NASA up as a perfect agency. But think about it. One half of one percent. It's not enough. Given all the missions the agency is tasked with, it's not even close.

Honoring Walter Cronkite

Kudos to NASA Ames Administrator Pete Worden for looking seriously into how to arrange for the new lunar crater to be formed by the impact of the LCROSS probe to be named after space enthusiast Walter Cronkite.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Images of Apollo sites from lunar orbit

Here are the first LRO photographs of Apollo landing sites. The one of Apollo 14 is especially clear, showing the descent stage of the Antares lunar module, the instruments and work sites, and even the footpaths left by the astronauts. Upcoming images are expected to show even more detail. Think about what you are seeing: the ghosts of human presence on another world.
This comes as one DC rumor says we may slip the Project Constellation lunar return to 2028 - eight years, making for a budget-driven slip as long as the time between JFK's speech and the landing of Apollo 11. What is is about the simple phrase "NASA gets one-half of one percent of the national budget" that people cannot understand?
Finally, farewell to Walter Cronkite, who reported with accuracy and passion on the voyages to the moon. It's been suggested we name a crater near an Apollo site for Walter. We should.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hunting the giant earthworm

It's not nearly as popular (or as good-looking) as the ivory-billed woodpecker, but another rare species is the object of a serious hunt. The giant Palouse earthworm of the northwestern U.S. has not been caught since a specimen was nabbed in 2005. It's the only specimen in any collection anywhere. The animal can reportedly grow to three feet long and smells like - lilies? That's what they say. (Who would want to get close enough to smell it?) The government has been asked to list the species as endangered, but says not enough is known about it. The worm has it's allies, and they are using chemical, shock devices, and old-fashioned shovels to try to determine just where the critter exists, and in what numbers.

Thanks to my dad, Don Bille, for pointing me to this story.

One small step... restored

NASA has posted on its website retored and digitized images from the original TV-camera recordings of key parts of the first moonwalk... including, of course, Neil Armstrong's momentous step onto the lunar surface. Watch... and feel the wonder again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The still-elusive ivory-bill

The Cornell University ornithologists who have spent years hunting the ivory-billed woodpecker seem about to throw in the towel. Since the bird's rediscovery in Arkansas, they can't find it there or anywhere else. The latest search is finishing up in a sighting hotspot in south Florida.
Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, said, "The lab will continue to be a hub for information, reports and scholarship about the ivory-billed woodpecker, including through an online database where members of the public can report sightings. But unless new evidence surfaces, it's probably safe to say that we're not going to put forward any more comprehensive, systematic searches like we've been doing for the last five years in Arkansas and with the mobile team."

COMMENT. It's discouraging. I think the original rediscovery was valid. And I don't think the bird is extinct. But it's very, very close. The bird videotaped in Arkansas might be the last one ever confirmed.

Three cheers for SpaceX

"Hawthorne, CA – July 15, 2009 – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announces the successful launch of Falcon 1 Flight 5 launch vehicle and the precision placement of Malaysia's RazakSAT into Earth orbit.

“This marks another successful launch by the SpaceX team,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “We are pleased to announce that Malaysia's RazakSAT, aboard Falcon 1, has achieved the intended orbit.”

Falcon 1, a two-stage, liquid oxygen/rocket-grade kerosene vehicle designed and manufactured by SpaceX, lifted off Monday, July 13, at 8:35 pm (PDT). Lift off occurred from the Reagan Test Site (RTS) on Omelek Island at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii."

COMMENT: A major step forward for privately developed space systems. Good job, y'all.

NASA, we have liftoff

After five postponements due to weather, the space shuttle Endeavour had a successful launch on its mission to the ISS. The launch came one day before the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch from the same pad.
COMMENT: The Shuttle and the ISS are good achievements, but I want the feeling I had watching Apollo 11 soar up and past us (my dad had borrowed a small plane from his employer, Piper Aircraft, to take my bothers and I up from Vero Beach to the Cape.). It was the feeling of witnessing, and somehow being part of, a great adventure.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gaggle of squid ashore in California

Dozens of Humboldt squid, a meter or more long, washed up together on a beach in La Jolla, CA. As happens in some cases of beached whales, the animals seemed disoriented and were washed back up after kindly bystanders had hauled them off the sand into the ocean. It's been speculated a 4.0 earthquake just offshore disoriented the squid, although scientists said the two phenomena were not necessarily linked.
COMMENT: I suppose some owners of beach-side restaurants saw this as the ultimate convenience. You have to love it when the calamari delivers itself.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Loren Coleman

My best wishes to Loren Coleman, one of the preeminent North American cryptozoologists and a guy who has done invaluable service for science whether you think that any of the major "cryptids" are likely to be real or not. Loren has tens of thousands of artifacts (ranging from animal skeletons to a life-size pterodactyl from the defunct TV show FreakyLinks), books, articles, and other items in his International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, ME. This is an irreplaceable trove of information on animals known, unknown, and alleged, and Loren barely keeps it going with his own income plus donations. Without the Museum, this collection would be hopelessly dispersed, if not lost altogether.
Loren and I have differences on some subjects, such as whether the evidence for unknown North American primates is compelling (he thinks so, I'm not convinced), but the Museum is the ONLY cause for which I regularly ask readers of this blog to make contributions. I hope you'll celebrate Loren's birthday by looking into it.

VASIMR: Space propulsion advances

Several years ago, at JSC on a consulting assignment to help NASA prioritize funding for future systems, I watched a test-firing of the plasma ignition system for an interesting, if far from mature, superhigh-efficiency propulsion technology called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Now being tested in Houston by the Ad Astra Rocket Company, founded by former astronaut and VASIMR inventor Franklin Chang-Diaz, the system has advanced to the point of test-firing an engine "to spaceflight levels." This version used 30kw of power: a flight test engine to be tried at the ISS in 2012 or later will use 200kw. Power levels in the hundreds of megawatts, for which the only practical near-term option is a nuclear fission reactor, would be needed for the ultimate goal: an engine that could send a spaceship to Mars in 39 days.

NASA abort system test (cool video)

NASA successfully flight-tested the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS) from its Wallops Island facility. This is a step toward an abort system for operational Orion/Ares launches. As NASA puts it, "While the Orion launch abort system has a single solid launch abort motor in a tower positioned above the Orion Crew Module, the MLAS concept for an operational vehicle would have four or more solid rocket motors attached inside a bullet-shaped composite fairing." The launch system pieced together for this test is an interesting gadget in itself, with "drag plates" and eight fins used to bring the stresses on the abort system closer to those of an operational launcher.

Urban wildlife report: bear in my downtown

A bear wandered - somehow - into downtown Colorado Springs yesterday. As wildlife officers played hide and seek, the 200-lb bruin sought refuge in the parking garage under my company's office building. I was picturing our boss looking through the employee manual. "Bad invoices... bomb threats...nope, nothing about bears." The animal was safely tranquilized and hauled away to some less peopled part of Colorado.

Dramatic photo - lighting and the Shuttle

A bolt strikes the lighting arrestor mast at Pad 39A as the shuttle is readied for this evening's launch. NASA still hopes to go around 7PM EST.

UPDATE: NASA slipped the launch until Sunday to check everything out and make certain there was no damage to electrical systems on the space vehicle or in its ground support systems.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

New genus of salamander from the U.S.

A tiny, colorful, lungless salamander described from the Appalachian highlands of the southeastern United States is so unusual its discoverers had to create a new genus to put it in. Urspelerpes brucei is only 25mm long, brightly colord in an off-yellow, with dark stripes adorning the males only. The last new genus of salamander from the U.S. was discovered in 1961, nearly a half-century ago. Professor Carlos Camp said, "The salamander fauna of the US, particularly of the southern Appalachians, has been intensively studied for well over a century, so the discovery of such a distinct form was completely unsuspected."

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Latest new monkey from Brazil

The Brazilian rainforest has produced a barrel of new monkeys over the last decade (yeah, it's an overworked line). The latest is a colorful little creature called Mura's saddlebacked tamarin. It's about a half-meter long, most of which is tail. Fabio Rohe of the WCS said, "This newly described monkey shows that even today there are major wildlife discoveries to be made."
Amen to that.

Crocodile resembling armadillo found

Cool fossil species: Armadillosuchus arrudai.
This 2-meter, 120-kg reptile roamed Brazil 90 million years ago. It lived in a dry, hot area (a surprise for any crocodile) and it had bony plates on the back and neck. These made it look a bit like a somewhat flattened giant armadillo (albeit with a fearsome skull full of teeth), or maybe a predatory version of the armored ankylosaurs it shared the Cretaceous period with. It's a major addition to what we know about those ancient survivors, the crocodilians.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A cheaper way to do heavy lift?

This story from the Orlando Sentinel reports on (and includes a link to) a new NASA study of a heavy-lift launch idea that has been around for a while. The concept is to use Space Shuttle solid boosters with the Shuttle external tank, with a cargo pod mounted on the side where the Shuttle orbiter goes now. While the rocket would lift less than the proposed Constellation program heavy-lift Ares V, it is feasible and appears affordable.
COMMENT: While the Ares V likewise appears feasible, it only makes sense if we continue with the Ares I human spaceflight booster, which would validate most of the hardware. And Ares I is in trouble.

See this NASAWatch/SpaceRef recap for the conflicting information about Ares and Constellation costs. Have aspirin handy.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Fiction Review - Meg: Hell's Aquarium

Meg: Hell's Aquarium, by Steve Alten. 2009.
This is long for a review by me, but Alten is the most successful writer of cryptozoological-themed fiction, and I like analyzing his novels and thinking about what works and what doesn't.
I have to start by saying that, as a science writer, I find Alten's submerged (as in under the known seafloor) ancient sea habitat is not easy to believe in. I do give the author credit for offering a foreword that goes into the geology and palentology of his scenario. I have other problems with the science, and I was harsh about this in reviewing of the first two Meg novels. I won't rehash the details, though: It's the author's setting, it's now a given, and what the reader wants is to see is how well he uses it.
As prose, this book seemed a step back from Alten's The Loch, which I thought a very good novel. Hell's Aquarium uses a breathless style with lots of dashes and exclamation points in the narrative. You get used to it, but Alten's work in his Loch Ness novel showed he didn't need that sort of gimmick, and I'm not sure why he uses it here. There are a few editing mistakes: a sunken WWII cruiser used quite cleverly in the plot is referred to once as a "destroyer," and a character who competes in triathlons quotes a finishing time appropriate to the marathon portion only.
Most of the characters in Hell's Aquarium are three-dimensional: Alten has improved on this from book to book. The basic plot involving humans works well enough, and the villians' motives are believable.
Alten's strength, as always, is fast-moving action, and there are some real page-turner moments. Alten has a knack for incorporating popular culture, and I loved the Internet contest that resulted in naming two captive Megalodons Mary-Kate and Ashley. A final thing I liked was the ending, not necessarily for its plausibility, but for springing genuine surprises about who lives, who is traumatized, and who dies.
Alten likes to pile on the creatures and maximize their sizes in his work. This is ok: it's fiction, and if Peter Benchley can use a 100-foot squid, Alten can use a 122-foot Liopleurodon. (I liked his 25-foot evolved form of the vampire squid Vampyroteuthis infernalis - that would be scary as hell in real life.) It's not clear how creatures from eras over 200 million years apart could have ended up in this habitat, although I'll buy anything that brings my favorite predator Dunkleosteus on stage. Alten takes pains to emphasize there's a complete food web in the "aquarium," although, like Peter Jackson's take on Skull Island, it still seems too slanted toward megapredators. All the big Mesozoic reptiles are here (evolved gills and all), along with a squadron of sharks and even a monster turtle. This makes for an exciting series of beast-on-beast conflicts as the humans mainly try to avoid becoming snacks. Alten has some good moments of description concerning the creatures and their dark, cold, deep habitat. I'll wager Alten read Richard Ellis' nonfiction Aquagenesis as part of his research: a very similar list of large predators shows up in both books.
As a cryptozoological researcher, I kept thinking of Bernard Heuvelmans' dissection of sea-serpent reports into as many as nine species. (I allow for one and possibly two.) Alten's beasts could cover all those categories and then some. It would have been fun to see Alten throw in a prominent cryptozoologist to react to the fact that, while cryptozoology has been chasing a new shark here and a giant eel there, there's been a horde of spectacular creatures unguessed-at. Maybe in the next book.
The level of cooperation and intelligence shown by some of Alten's sharks goes beyond what we know of real sharks, although the Megs, at least, have had 60 million years to evolve this way, so mark that as a permissible liberty taken by a writer of fiction. At the end, two escaped Megs are setting themselves up as new apex predators of their own patch of the coastal Pacific, violently displacing the orcas which have been used to ruling unchallenged. I'll be curious to see whether Alten follows that up in another sequel. There's some interesting science he could go into, if he so chooses, about what would happen in an event like that.
I thought the third Meg novel was a little better written than this fourth one. I thought The Loch was better still, and it puzzles me that Alten has slipped back from the quality (in this reader's opinion, of course) of his best novel.
Overall, Hell's Aquarium is what it's supposed to be, which is fun. It's like going to a Transformers film. You may wonder about some of the the science and the implausible escapes, but you came to see the robots in action. You pick up an Alten novel to see the creatures in action. Hell's Aquarium gives you what you pay for.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A very blonde black bear

A good shot of a very blonde black bear, by wildlife photographer Steve Kozlowski - who was startled by the animal coming right up to his tent.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Dinos down under

Australian paleontologists have announced the finding of three large new dinosaur species, a significant addition to the prehistoric fauna of a continent whose past is still an evolving story. Paleontologist John Long, said, "It not only presents us with two new amazing long-necked giants of the ancient Australian continent, but also announces our first really big predator." All came from a dig at Winton, in Queensland. In addition to the two large sauropods (one relatively stocky, the other taller and longer-necked) we have Australovenator, nicknamed Banjo, a predator built for speed and equipped with strong arms and three fearsome claws on each hand. They are dated at 98 million years old, which puts them in the Cretaceous.
COMMENT: New dinosaurs, especially sauropods and nasty predators, are always just plain cool to read about. I thought so when I was 8, and I still do.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Endangered species: not good news

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that over 800 species of animals and plants have gone extinct in the past 500 years. The number now threatened? We don't know exactly, as we don't know all the species on the planet (not by a long shot), but the IUCN estimate based on known species is just shy of 17,000.