Saturday, October 31, 2009

Future engineers too good in pumpkin contest

My day job employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, sponsors a contest for student engineers called the Pumpkin Launch. This year, one team did too well. Their cannon shot a pumpkin the length of a football field and through the stadium scoreboard.
COMMENT: You have to be careful turning smart young people loose on anything.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bears love honey, right? Umm, no.

Wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers has spent years socializing with a family of black bears. Among his findings: they have no special affinity for honey. And they'd pass up a pile of roots and berries to break open an ant hill.

Chasing sasquatch

The intrepid souls of Sasquatch Watch of Virginia are out hunting for their target beast in the Allegheny Mountain within the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia. Good luck, chaps.
COMMENT: If sasquatch exists at all, it's hard to believe it has a wide distribution. I suppose it's not impossible that, IF there's a large primate hanging out in the Pacific Northwest, there are isolated pockets of animals elsewhere as relics from a past when the species was more numerous. I do not think these fellows are going to find what they're seeking, but I applaud amateurs with the conviction to go out and actually look, rather than just theorize.

Ares I-X is a go

With 725 assorted sensors attached, NASA's Area I-X text vehicle flew very well today. It's a long road to an operational vehicle - only the first stage of the rocket was live on this suborbital test. However long it takes to get to an operational Ares (assuming the booster is not scrapped, and I still lean toward thinking it should be), this is a valuable learning experience. Congratulations to NASA, ATK, and the rest of the team involved.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Unicorn fly" was a mini-monster

Back in the Jurassic, there were plenty of "monsters" roaming the Earth. One of the weirdest, though, was no dinosaur. It was a tiny fly - a fly with a horn on its head and three eyes at the tip of the horn. Zoologist George Poinar, Jr. said of the newly discovered insect Cascoplecia insolitis, "No other insect ever discovered has a horn like that, and there's no animal at all with a horn that has eyes on top."
COMMENT: Would make a great science fiction monster...

Tiger conservation is cause for worry

When I wrote my first book, Rumors of Existence, in 1995, I quoted a tiger conservationist as saying, "The end of the tiger is in sight, possibly within ten years." It hasn't been quite that bad, but the latest meeting of the world's tiger conservationists reports from Nepal that things are not much better. There are only an estimated 6,000 tigers in the wild. None of the extant subspecies is in sustainable shape, and the Sumatran subspecies is on the brink of following its Javan relative to extinction.

Ares booster test slips due to winds

NASA's Ares I-X, the first launch to use significant hardware from the Ares I booster intended to lift the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, slipped from its 0800 EST launch time due to high winds at the Cape, but is still expected to go today.
Some of those who think the Ares is a costly step in the wrong direction see no point in the test. The Augustine Commission report out last week didn't really clarify the road ahead for human spaceflight boosters. I'm not a fan of the Ares I myself. But my view is that we built the hardware, and you always learn a lot, good and bad, by flying new rocket technology. So let 'er rip.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How abominable is the snowman?

Where did a silly-sounding term like "abominable snowman" come from, and how did it stick to our friend the yeti? As Loren Coleman explains in Cryptomundo, it appears to be a mistranslation of a Sherpa term for the presumed beast, metch kangmi, made by explorer Henry Newman way back in 1921. (The first word of that term is also rendered, more accurately, as meh-teh or meh-to. The whole term can be translated as "filthy snowman," which is actually not too far off.)
Confused yet? Not surprisingly, cryptozoologists who think there's a serious possibility the yeti exists find the colorfullly mistranlated term (one of a host of local names for the beast, such as by the way) to be, well, abominable in itself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Musings on Gould's Wonderful Life

Stephen J. Gould argued in his book Wonderful Life that if you "replayed the tape" of evolution a million times, you would likely never hit on the combination of events which produced humans. Now Gould was a smart guy, no doubt smarter than me (and much more educated and focused), but I think there are a couple of important points to make.
One is that, the more unlikely we are, the more likely it appears that Someone had a hand in our emergence. After all, this is the only planet we know of suitable for higher life forms, and here we are - that's a 100% success rate, albeit one based on our still-limited data set. (Science has confirmed only a few hundred exoplanets, none in the habitable zone. When we know about 10,000 planets, things may look different.)
The other point is that I think Gould took too lightly the fact that that intelligence is always an advantage in evolutionary competition. (Not an unmitigated advantage - intelligence requires support for a large brain, with all the requirements that imposes - but an advantage nonetheless.) In a harsh enviornment like Mars, things may well stop at the microbe level (I won't be surprised if we eventually confirm such life on Mars), but Earth is a big, diverse place, and intelligence has a chance to come into play.
I suspect that, even if no one was influencing evolution, if it ran long enough on a planet of diverse environments like ours, you would eventually produce - every time - a species with an intellectual level sufficient to make the breakthrough to consciousness and an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life. I think the evolutionary game is intended to produce such species - and, even if it's not intended, it will anyway.
So, Gould's admitted brilliance notwithstanding, I think there is something else going on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rediscovered: The case of the missing crow

The bird of the day is Indonesia's Banggai Crow, also known as Corvus unicolor - the name denoting its solid blackness. The bird was known by two specimens described in 1900, and that was it until 2007. It's rare and considered critically endangered, but endangered beats extinct any day.

Ida not a "missing link"

Scientists hate the inaccuracy of calling anything a "missing link," but they don't mind the publicity involved. Remember Ida, the cat-sized primate ancestor christened with that title, with so much fanfare, last year? Well, Ida's not our ancestor. Not unless the reader happens to be a lemur.


Biggest web-spinning spider discovered

And we mean big. Newly described from from dead specimens found in Africa, some fro the field and some from a museum, the new species of golden orb-weaver named Nephila komaci is almost 4cm in body length and 10-12cm in leg span. The big specimens are females: the males are about five times smaller. Good luck, guys.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lemurs, Range, and Reporting

It was recently discovered that the greater bamboo lemur, missing and feared extinct for over 100 years before a sighting in 1972, has a much greater range than we thought. The authors of the blog Cryptomundo post that bit of good news here and take a jab at the venerable Agence France-Presse (AFP) for running the story with a picture of the wrong species.

DARPA unveils blob robot

The idea gang at DARPA, with help from the Roomba creators at iRobot, have unveiled a proof of concept robot that appears to have no structure. The blob-like ChemBot can inflate or deflate parts of its body to change shape, passing through cracks or climbing over or squeezing through bad terrain, building rubble, etc, in ways a more conventional robot could not. It's likely years away from an operational descendant, but this is the kind of stuff DARPA is supposed to do - advance the state of the art and see what happens.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A shot LCROSS the Moon's bow

OK, that's a heck of a contrived headline, but the point is that we have more information coming in from the LCROSS lunar probe collision. There was indeed a plume, just not one bright enough to match the PR NASA had created and encouraged about the project. Scientists are very excited about the results, which should enable them to confirm the presence or absence of water with a few more weeks of analysis.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cryptic Cougars in Pennsylvania

The last official cougar kill in Pennsylvania? 1874. The last reported sighting? Well, they're coming in all the time. Are they real? I tend to think they are.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Coleman's museum makes its move

This site offers a print version and a video news report on the movement of Loren Coleman's crypto collection to the new home of the International Cryptozoology Museum. As Coleman points out in the report, whether one values cryptozoology or not, it can be a "gateway science" that gets kids interested in the natural world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Predatory pterosaur grabbed in-flight meals

Darwinopterus modularis, a flying reptile from China, appears to have been adapted to grab smaller pterosaurs, the earliest gliding mammals, and feathered reptiles (the ones on their way to being birds) while in flight. The creature had a long tail for balance and quick maneuvering, a flexible neck, sharp teeth, and a skeleton that indicates it would have been a hapless hunter on the ground. The species is dated to the Jurassic, 160MYA.

Earth and Moon as seen from Mars

This hauntingly beautiful image was captured from a spacecraft 142 million kilometrs from the Earth-Moon system.

NASA lends a hand for reusable launchers

The toughest problem in all of the space launch field is developing a practical, affordable, reliable Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) capable of putting payloads into orbit. It seems obvious that a reusable ship would be better than expendable ones (we don't junk airliners after each flight), but making that notion work in practice has been terribly difficult. NASA, the Air Force, other nations' space agencies, and commercial firms have all tried different approaches since the partly-reusable Shuttle was built. The result so far: billions of dollars spent, with no RLV. Now NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory have joined to develop a "technology road map" to build on the emerging (slowly emerging) suborbital RLV industry toward an orbital craft.
COMMENT: Something like this has been done before, but technology continues to advance since the first spate of RLV proposals in the 1980s, and the suborbital ships now nearing test flight are pushing it further. Let's hope this new partnership really takes the idea somewhere.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No HSK, but lots of data from lunar collision

The HSK (Horrendous Space Kablooie) is a term I borrowed from Calvin and Hobbes for a major celestial collision. (Calvin suggested it as a much better name for the Big Bang, and he was right.) In this case, the double collision event involving NASA's LCROSS probe and the Centaur upper stage didn't produce the huge visible debris plume NASA expected (and, from a PR point of view, hoped for). But it did produce a mass of data, which will take a couple of weeks to reduce, on the composition of the soil at the bottom of the target crater in the south polar region of the Moon, hopefully including the signature of water ice.

Not UFO, but weather effect wows Moscow

I thought it would be fun to post the tabloid-story version of this sighting over Moscow. It looks like something orchestrated to advertise a science fiction film, but neither networks nor alien visitors are at fault. It's a rare and striking cloud pattern, apparently involving colliding weather fronts and just the right solar angle to create the image of a giant ring over the Russian capitol.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fly me to the moon... WHAM!

From NASA:

"The LCROSS Centaur and Spacecraft impacted the moon at approximately 4:30 a.m. PDT. Scientists are reviewing the initial data and will report what they know at a Post Impact News Conference at 7:00 a.m. PDT / 10:00 a.m. EDT on NASA TV."

This is an interesting experiment. Under lunar conditions, the plume of debris from the impacts could soar 10km high, offering an unparallelled opportunity to analyze its composition.

COMMENT: I don't expect they will find water ice in sufficient quantities to support a lunar base for humans, but any water will be a major discovery.

Then for comic relief, we have conspiracy theorists who claim we are testing a new kind of bomb. Guys... wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to test a bomb on Earth rather than spend thousands of dollars per kg to haul it to the Moon?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Meet Ardi - a common ancestor?

The tired and inaccurate phrase "missing link between humans and apes" has been discarded by scientists, mainly because evolution is much messier than that - it's more of a branching bush than a nice straight-climbing family tree. Still, Ardipithecus ramidus, a 1.2-meter, 50-kg primate estimated to have roamed Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago, appears to have been important to both modern groups. Mindful of the need to tell a story in presenting complex science, researchers have assembled the most complete skeleton, a female, and put her front and center of this important discovery. They call her "Ardi."

Nobel for mastery of light

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics went to three men who developed breakthrough technology we now take as routine: American Drs. Willard Boyle and George Smith for inventing the charge-coupled device (a.k.a. "camera on a chip)," used in everything from digital cameras to space telescopes, and Dr. Charles Kao, who worked in the UK and Hong Kong, for critical contributions to the development of fiber optics.

THANKS TO Linda Dodson for flagging me when this article came out.

MicroSpace News: Academy's next satellite ready

US Air Force Academy cadets are finishing up the integration of their latest student satellite, a space weather microsat dubbed Falcoln 5. Several instruments on the satellite will characterize the flow of charged particles around the bird, providing important information for all satellite designers as a result of the $11M mission. Launch is scheduled as a secondary payload on a Minotaur IV booster in mid-2010.

Cosmic wonders never cease

The Spitzer space telescope has found a new and very different ring around Saturn: a diffuse halo tilted 27 degrees from the planet's known ring system. The particles in the new ring orbit in the opposite direction from those in all other Saturnian rings. Planetary scientists will be working on this one for a long time.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Biggest dino footprints ever

Sauropod dinosaur footprints found recently in France are two meters across. Let me say that again: TWO METERS. Is this a sauropod or the animal from Cloverfield? One meter is big for a sauropod track. Half a meter is respectable for an elephant. The article does not say whether the species of dinosaur has been identified, but the old derivation of the word "dinosaur" from "thunder lizard" (as in making the ground thunder when they walked) seems appropriate in this case.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Our MESSENGER to Mercury

Dr. Jeff Goldstein passes along his latest updates on a mission of special interest to him, the MESSENGER probe of Mercury. MESSENGER snapped some great images on its third flyby of the Toasted Planet. The gravitational assist from that flyby will enable the probe to go into orbit on March 11, 2008.

American, Russian space administrators meet

A very interesting image, almost more so for the background than for the men in the foreground.

"NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Left, and Head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov turn to pose for a photograph at Mission Control Center Moscow in Korolev, Russia shortly after the successful docking of the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) marking the start of Expedition 21 with Flight Engineer Jeffrey N. Williams, Expedition 21 Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev, and Spaceflight Participant Guy Laliberté, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. Lalibreté will return to Earth with the Expedition 20 crew on Oct. 11, 2009."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Tequila to Diamonds? Ig Nobel Awards are out

Why don't pregnant women topple over? Will a full or empty beer bottle do more damage to your skull in a bar fight? Can you make diamonds out of, yes, tequila? Those questions were answered by the researchers who garnered the 2009 Ig Nobel Awards, given for work "that can not or should not be repeated."

New shark has sex on its brain

Women always say men have sex (or a specific organ) "on the brain." The newly described Eastern Pacific black ghostshark (Hydrolagus melanophasma) does, to a degree. While the genitals (claspers) are in the usual position underneath the shark, an organ that looks like a spiked club on the forehead appears to stimulate and help hold on to the female of the species. I suppose there's nothing to add (beyond pondering the taste of female ghostsharks) but that we have one more example of the infinite possibilities that pop up over the huge timescales of evolution.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Reply from Orang-pendek expedition leader

Adam Davies, leader of the orang-pendek expedition, posted a response on Cryptomundo to the various questions he received in that forum. Read the whole text by following the title link. Here I'll just quote his response to my question about identity:

" Matt Billie asked a very good question as to whether it could have been a Lars Gibbon. I am used to seeing Gibbons in the jungle, and Sahar is a really experienced guide. I am certain he would not mistake an Orang-Pendek for a Gibbon, and his astonished reaction compounds that view. The physical descriptions by both eyewitnesses do not match Gibbon. "

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Weather on planet is... rocky?

COROT-7b is the first rocky (as opposed to gaseous) exoplanet discovered. Five times the mass of Earth, it is locked with the same face always toward its (very close) star. That side maintains a constant temperature over 2,000 degrees Centigrade. The result? The atmosphere is full of what might be called "vaporized stone" and a weather front might cause it to "rain" aggregations of that stone - in other worlds, rocks developing the way hailstones do on Earth and falling from the sky.