Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shuttle small payloads program was a big deal

As the Shuttle program comes to an end, it takes an important capability with it that is often overlooked. Over 200 small payloads flew on the Shuttle, stuffed into the nooks and crannnies left vacant by large satellites, ISS equipment, and other main payloads.
A press release from NASA Goddard recaps why these payloads mattered. It was not just science, but the opportunity for new researchers to cut their teeth on space programs.
"Between 1982 and 2003, more than 200 of these projects, including Get-Away Special (GAS) Cannisters, Hitchhikers and Spartans, flew in 108 missions. The program offered an invaluable proving ground for science and technology as well as for a large contingent of young scientists and engineers who came to Goddard in the early 1980s and grew up here working with small payloads. The Shuttle Small Payloads Project became one of NASA's most fertile nurturing grounds as well as one of NASA's most economically and technically successful programs. Many of these investigators rose to positions of authority, shaping the course of NASA science and exploration. In terms of ride-share opportunities, we know what the formula for success is and we're currently working with Marshall space flight center to ensure some funding for small mission capability on NASA's heavy-lift vehicle."

It's not clear what will replace this capability. Actually, nothing. CubeSats carried as secondary payloads are useful, but these programs allowed for human-supervised experiments and deployments, with onboard experiments returned to Earth. The Spartans were deployed, but loose, and later recaptured on the same mission after their free-flying task was done.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Undersea avalanche of new species

"We found new species during nearly every dive and hike as we surveyed the country's reefs, rain forests, and the ocean floor." That's from Terry Gosliner, leader of the 2011 Philippines Biodiversity Expedition. He wasn't overstating anything: the survey on and around the island of Luzon recorded 300 examples of what might be new species. One of the coolest is a new swell shark, an "inflatable" fish that sucks in water to puff itself up if threatened.

The Last Countdown

The date is set. Atlantis will fly the 135th and last mission of the Space Shuttle era on July 8, taking a load of new components, spare parts, and other equipment up to the ISS.
From the NASA press release:
Atlantis' STS-135 mission will deliver the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module filled with supplies and spare parts to sustain space station operations after the shuttles are retired. The mission also will fly the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space - even satellites not designed to be serviced.
COMMENT: The refueling experiment is pretty interesting. Some aspects of on-orbit servicing have been tested, but this will advance the state of the art considerably. It's an old debate whether it's worth developing an operational on-orbit servicing capability. I think it's worth continued testing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tom Hanks on the romance of space

The man who played Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 and produced From the Earth to the Moon is still very much taken with space. He'd go to the Moon in a heartbeat. Hey, Tom - me, too.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Oldest art in N America found in my hometown

I grew up in Vero Beach FL, best known as home of a Disney resort. Science geeks will remember there was a fairly important archaeological site there, where human remains became known as Vero Man were found in 1915. (I found the site in high school - no sign of anything left, but experts have since resumed digging and expanded it).
Anyway, we are now famous for something more important: the carving of a mammoth on bone, found by an amateur collector and estimated to date to 13,000 years BP. Now think about that. Until a few years ago, the dominant - and I mean REALLY dominant, set in stone, no dissent seriously considered - paradigm said humans had crossed the Bering land bridge 10,000 or, at most, 12,000 years ago. The Vero Man remains were dated by some as 11,000-14,000 years, with the latter claim being dismissed for decades but now being reexamined. The paradigm has been crumbling in the last few years as sites dated 12-14,000 years have become accepted. No one seems to be doubting the 13,000-year claim for the carving, so I wonder how old this new Vero find indicates humans in North America are? It's not like people hit Alaska and immediately started a 4,500-mile walk to pick up some Florida orange juice. It took time for people to propagate to the extreme SE of the continent. So when DID they first come across, either by land or be sea? Something to think about as you sip your OJ this morning.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chinese "sea monster" carcass is a whopper

The carcass found entangled in ropes on a Chinese beach is reportedly over 17 meters long and unidentifiable. Unidentifiable carcasses often end up getting identified as basking sharks, which decay in a peculiar fashion that leaves them looking like monsters with long necks and small heads. I can't make any certain identification from this photograph, although it has something of a basking shark carcass look to it. Still, if the measurement is accurate, it is one heck of a big shark. 14-15m is usually considered the basking shark record, although there are claims of 20m and more.

Update: Cryptozoologist Markus Hemmler reports this has been identified as a decomposed baleen whale. Darn.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

History Files: Sleuthing a Nazi Photo album

For sale by an owner in New York is a photo album that is mesmerizing historians. It was assembled by an unknown Nazi photographer (it may contain work by two photographers) who had very close access to Adolf Hitler but also captured haunting images of German campaigns and Russian POWs - many of the latter marked with the Star of David and awaiting a certain death at the hands of the SS. What's fascinating here is not just the album, but the record of historical detective work here, including inputs from the public that decipher specific landmarks, dates and names to get us closer to the photographer's identity - but do not, at this point, reveal it.

Birds as Builders

Even think about bird nests? This author has thought about them a lot. Peter Goodfellow, who wrote the new book Avian Architecture, considers birds to have considerable design and engineering skills, not just clever assembly techniques. Really elaborate nests (or courtship structures, as made and decorated by bower birds), made us ask: how do they do that? How can a bird, without any parental instruction, create a complex structure matched to the surrounding branches, rocks, or other anchoring points? Some birds start with amateurish nests and get better, while others seem to have the whole instruction manual in their heads. I'm definitely looking forward to reading Mr. Goodfellow's researches.

Report from the Oceans: Not Good

Scientists in the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) warned that the state of the oceans is worse than they thought. Factors like overfishing pollution, acidification, and climate change have created expanding dead zones and made conditions right for the sixth great extinction (the other five are in the fossil record).
Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas, is not optimistic. "We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation. And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems."
COMMENT: Alarmist? Maybe, to a degree. Environmental scientists often three the worst case in hopes of provoking action. But there are numerous trends in ocean health, none of the are good, and they all feed on and encourage each other. We need to take a variety of actions, from better fishing regulations to reducing the discharge of all types of pollutants, to make sure we don't end up in that worst case.

Visit to a frozen moon

Saturn's Helene is a strange moon. Covered with ice, marked by huge areas that look like remains of ancient iceflows, and stuck in the same orbit as two other moons (apparently bound gravitationally to "big sister" Dione), it's a world of mystery. Now the Cassini probe has given us our best look yet, and scientists will soon be able to assemble a map of Saturn's "ice queen."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

From Madagascar, a multitude of species

New species just keep coming from the world's fourth-largest island, Madagascar, where life is so diverse one biologist calls this land mass "the eighth continent." Since 199, we have 385 plants, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals. Yup, that makes 615. And scientists are working through a considerable backlog: herpetologist Chris Raxworthy reported a few years ago he had an estimated 100 frog species in hand that he had not gotten the time to describe. Madagascar has plenty of mysteries left. We don't know if we've found all the lemur species (Hint: no), and reports of a larger form of the island's top carnivore, the fossa, and a pygmy hippopotamus (both thought to be long extinct) have drawn serious scientific investigation.

New mice and a species named SpongeBob

I've often pointed out that the description rate for new mammal species is trending up, not down. Some of this is from reclassifications, but a reminder that discoveries are still being made in the field comes from this report of seven new rodents from one Philippine island, Luzon.
Meanwhile, we have a bizarre new mushroom that looks like a sponge:
It is Spongiforma squarepantsii. Yes, a new species has been named for one of the world's most ubiquitous and annoying cartoon characters. If I saw the photograph on the linked site without the description, "sea sponge" would be the first thing that came to mind. A side note is the estimate of how many species in the kingdom Fungi have yet to be named - 95 percent.
There are many approaches to naming new species. UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography held a contest for students to name two new marine worms. Ideas came in from all over the world. Winners? Vrijenhoekia ketea, with the specific name being Latin for "sea monsters” and Podarkeopsis falenothiras, using the Greek word for “whale hunter.” (It was found on a "whale fall," the sunken carcass of a whale.) Congratulations to the winners and to Scripps for a great idea.

Extensive space law website available

The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law is pleased to announce a new, comprehensive website (click on title link). The Center’s blog, Res Communis, and all of its publications including the Journal of Space Law back to 1973 are also accessible through the new site.
Prof. Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, Director
National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Space Law
Res Communis Aerospace Law Blog

COMMENT: Joanne, my old friend and space law mentor from our University of North Dakota days, has been one of the leading scholars pushing the world to define a practical legal regime as we move out into the cosmos. I'm a bit more skeptical than she is sometimes about the practicalities of international cooperation, but there's no denying the need for it. This is a great resource.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Iraq launches satellite, plans monkey

This week, Iraq launched its second satellite, Rassad-1. As it gains experience, the nation will no doubt launch bigger and more sophisticated craft, especially for Earth observation (or spying, either way you want to put it). Iran says its Fajr reconsat will be launched this fall.
The problematical nation intends to push into a new field: launching primates. Iran intends to launch a monkey on a suborbital trajectory this summer. The monkey will reach an altitude of 120km. Tehran says this is a prelude to orbiting a man in 2020.
COMMENT: While other nations understandably worry about what Iran's space program says about its ballistic missile capabilities, what the Iranian program demonstrates is that knowledge of space technology is spreading. Some 50 nations now have space agencies. We are a spacefaring world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Attack of the Giant Owl

This illustration on Dr. Darren Naish's Exotic Zoology blog shows the recently extinct Cuban owl Ornimegalonyx oteroi pouncing on a solenodon. The owl stood more than a meter tall on its long legs. It was originally thought to be flightless, but experts are questioning that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Inside a fish - in ghostly X-ray images

These images of a fish's skeleton, prepared for a new scientific exhibit, are supercool as well as informative. I am reminded of Richard Ellis' superb drawings of marine denizens in his book Deep Atlantic, only seen with the eyes of Superman.

"Sharks with frickin' laser beams!" Close, anyway

Will you settle for a microbe able to generate laser (that is, coherent) light? A modified kidney cell with some extra proteins crammed in can do just that. Researchers hope that, since the green light illuminates the inside of the cell as it projects outward, future doctors can modify a cell to see what's going on inside it, without even having to shine an outside light source on it. And it's just SO cool... (Is this what comic-book hero Green Lantern's cells look like?)

NASA's Dawn closes in on Vesta

This video is built up from still images taken as NASA's Dawn spacecraft closes in on Vesta, its target asteroid. Vesta is big enough to be classed as a "protoplanet" - that is, is almost had enough mass to become the center of a planet. Dawn will do a close inspection of Vesta from orbit and then fly to an even bigger target, Ceres. As NASA puts it, "Dawn's goal is to characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formations. Ceres and Vesta reside in the extensive zone between Mars and Jupiter together with many other smaller bodies, called the asteroid belt. Each has followed a very different evolutionary path constrained by the diversity of processes that operated during the first few million years of solar system evolution."
COMMENT: One translation is that we are visiting the biggest and oldest rocks in the solar system. We think they have a lot to tell us about how the solar system formed, and "we" are almost certainly right on that one. On to Vesta!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Extinct" eastern cougar killed

The Eastern cougar is extinct. That's official. Well, maybe. We still get sighting reports, and now we have a dead cat to explain. The 140-pound animal was killed by an SUV on a highway only 70 miles from New York City.
It may be this animal was an escaped or released captive (one hesitates to say "pet," although that could have been the case). Expert examination can usually identify the signs of a caged animal that has not been exposed to the stresses of life in the wild. I will look forward to further information on this case.
The sighting reports of Eastern cougars, though, will continue in any case. Most of them are misidentifications, but I don't think all of them are. If I had to bet, I'd bet the government experts got this one wrong.

THANKS TO:, who posted this to the Cryptolist email group.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Beast Hunter

I saw two episodes (looking for Cadborosaurus and the Amazon beast called mapinguari) of the new National Geographic cryptozoology series "Beast Hunter." Not bad - certainly better than most programming on the subject. Biologist Pat Spain seems to be under contract to utter the word "scientific" at least 400 times an episode, but he's open-minded and as thorough as the one-hour format allows. (Spain is related to Charles Fort, the famed collector of oddities). He thinks there is a real unknown animal in the Cadborosaurus saga, perhaps something that normally inhabits the deeps and surfaces only occasionally. He meets a scientist at Woods Hole who cites, approvingly Charles Paxton's statistical work estimating some 10-50 large undiscovered animals remain in the ocean. Spain looks at the conventional explanations and is careful to note how eyewitness error, fear, and myth can influence what is reported. Spain also says the bizarre, serpentlike oarfish can grow to 50 feet, and I wonder where he is getting that - 25 seems to be about the longest documented.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Eagles vs. windmills - a dilemna

In California, endangered golden eagles are being swatted out of the sky by green power in the form of windmills. I don't have the answer, but it highlights a theme I try to hit every once in a while: that nothing, even going green, is simple. It's a world of tradeoffs and complex choices, and politicians who pretend otherwise are lying.

Paying for Panthers

The Florida panther is a very rare beast, getting lavish attention from government and private conservation agencies. Ranchers who lose the occasional cow to the stealthy feline are naturally not inclined to share the love. New programs are trying a two-pronged approach to making sure an angry human doesn't take out a panther (illegal though that is.) Modest funding is available to help construct panther-proof pens and to compensate ranchers for losses. Ranchers are skeptical, but it certainly seems worth a try.

A new Top 10 New Species

And the top 10 from 2010 include... (drum roll)...

Walker's dukier - this deer from Weat Africa is the largest mammal species discovered last year. But as I never stop pointing out, there ARE new mammals every year, and not all of them are little rodents...

The rogue mushroon - the first mushroom known to "fruit" underwater.

The Sierra Madre Forest monitor - at 10 kg, this Philippine lizatrd is the largest reptile discovered.

Follow the link for more amazing creatures.

Yet another vista from NASA

A shuttle docked to the ISS has never been photographed from space. Now it has, and the word "majestic" is inadequate for the results. There is a reason we look to the heavens. We are creatures of the universe, and we want to reach out.

Out of Asia?

Most scientists have long believed Homo erectus was our direct ancestor and arose in Africa. There's some doubt now, at least about the location. H. erectus fossils from a dig in western Asia appear to put the species there about 1.8M years ago - about the time it was also present in Africa. It often happens in science that finding a new puzzle piece means, not that you have solved the puzzle, but that you have a bigger puzzle.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Way down deep

Is marine life everywhere? When the bathyscaphe Trieste made it to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, more than 11 kilometers down, in 1960, the pilots reported a flatfish moving over the bottom. Most authorities doubt this: they suggest it was a holothurian (sea cucumber). But it was LIFE.
The Japanese Shinkai 6500 holds the depth record for an untethered craft carrying humans, almost 7km down. About 6.6 km down it spotted a colony of clams, a new record for that species. Later, on a dive to the same depth, it found polychaete worms 20cm long.
Then in 1995 Japan's robotic explorer, Kaiko, went back to the deepest spot in the oceans. Where the Triests had its encounter, Kaiko's lights showed a seas slug, a worm, and a shrimp. The deepest fish documented remains a 15-cm specimen from the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic, almost 9 km down.
What's left to discover down there? Scientists used to think no multicelled animal could live under the pressures in the great ocean trenches. Now they all look forward to finding many more.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Deepest-living multicellular animal found

The only way to name an animal living in hellish conditions down as far as 3.6 km is to invoke the devil, so a new roundworm is Halicephalobus mephisto. The bacteria stating, half-millimeter long worms live in water with less than one percent of the oxygen content of seawater and a temperature of 48C. This pushes the record for animals down more than a kilometer.
COMMENT: The "extremophiles" of Earth just keep pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible. This raises the chances that life could have a adapted to conditions on other planets where we thought no life could be.

Friday, June 03, 2011

More River Monsters!

An article on Jeremy Wade, the biologist whose popular series River Monsters has included creatures ranging from the very scary Goliath tigerfish of Africa to the unknown sturgeon-or-something in Lake Iliamna. The selection of photos here includes the most bizarre creature Wade ever encountered: what appears to be an Amazon pink dolphin with a saw-toothed ridge of fins down its back.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Earth lifeforms heading to Martian moon

In one of the coolest experiments I know of, an American researcher has arranged for ten species of Earth life - seven of single-celled animals and three of the incredibly hardy multilegged beasties called tardigrades (they have survived exposure to empty space) to travel on the Russian Grunt probe, set to leave this December for Phobos. The Earth life will be monitored during a 34-month journey. A similar experiment has flown on the shuttle, and two copies of the experiment module will be maintained on Earth as controls.