Friday, December 28, 2018

Bring back Steller's Sea Cow?

"De-extinction" is talked about a lot these days, with the woolly mammoth being a favorite candidate.  This 2014 article in the scientific blog SeaMonster just caught my attention.  Could we do it with Steller's sea cow?
This history of the incredible animal named Hydrodamalis gigas is a short one as far as science is concerned. In 1741, naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was shipwrecked on Bering Island.  This is one of the Komandorski Islands,  between Kamchatka and the Aleutians.  There he and his companions met the sea cow.  It was a huge plant-eating mammal, up to 10m long, with a bilobed tail like a whale's and a placid disposition that made it easy to approach or harpoon.  The rough-skinned creatures were also loyal, gathering around an injured animal.  That instinct, while admirable, did little to promote their survival.  
After Steller's crew finally returned to civilization, sealers and other voyagers began stopping off in the sea cow's haunts to slaughter the inoffensive mammals for their meat.   By 1768, the species had apparently been hunted to extinction.
There have been a few reported sightings since then.  Native hunters reported killing them as late as 1780.  Early Russian colonizers of Bering Island reported sighting sea cows in the 1830s.  Fifty years later, the explorer Nordenskiold returned from the region with a sea cow skeleton of unknown age and a tale of a live sighting from 1854.  In 1910, fishermen in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr reported a sea cow stranded on the beach, but the report was never investigated. 
Can we bring it back? The article does not actually say anything about it.  There is some non-fossil skeletal material that can be checked for DNA. One of the lesser surviving cousins, the dugong or the West Indian manatee, would have to serve as surrogates,  My answer would be that we couldn't do it now, but in ten years or so,  we might.  Should we? It would not be tampering with nature, but restoring a species humans wiped out.  Questions about breeding such animals in captivity and re-establishing an ocean population are many, with money being a big one.  But it's food for thought.

Some other sources:
Dietz, Tim.  1992.  The Call of the Siren. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Haley, Delphine.  1978.  "The Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History, November.
Mackal, Roy.  1980.  Searching for Hidden Animals.  New York: Doubleday. 
Stejneger, Leonhard.  1936.  Georg Wilhelm Steller.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

More Biological Discoveries

The International Institute for Species Exploration offers this list of the most interesting finds of 2018.

Protist (Ancoracysta Twista)
Atlantic Forest Tree (Dinizia Jueirana-Facao)
Amphipod (Epimeria Quasimodo)
Baffling Beetle (Nymphister Kronaueri)
Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo Tapanuliensis)
Swire's Snailfish (Pseudoliparis Swirei)
Heterotrophic Flower (Sciaphila Sugimotoi)
Volcanic Bacterium (Thiolava Veneris)
Marsupial Lion (Wakaleo Schouteni)
Cave Beetle (Xuedytes Bellus)
The "Best Name" Award goes to the Baffling Beetle, witch is exactly the size and shape of an ant's abdomen and rides on the real abdomen for transportation.  The new protist made the list because no one knows where it's from (it was found in an aquarium) and it was very hard to classify, having survived from some point way back in the one-celled evolution business.  The new orangutan was a reclassification, being both distinct and very rare (maybe 800 survive). new species of the extinct marsupial lion was another cool discovery (I'm not entirely convinced this lineage has gone extinct: reports of the mysterious yarri keep cropping up...) .  And the tree? Well, it's huge (40m tall) but overlooked in part because there are only about 25 of this Brazilian species in existence.

A whole lotta Nature is still out there... 

Some "amazing" Biological Discoveries of 2018

A leading paleozoologist, Dr. Darren Naish, always has an interesting take on new discoveries.  His old Tet Zoo blog, hosted for years by Scientific American, was discontinued, so he has a new website at with new stories.  
For 2018, he spotlighted three discoveries of interest. One was a large new salamander from the American southeast: one of those cases where lots of people knew it was there but no one had taken a thorough look at it and distinguished it as a species. He has a piece on known and new prehistoric creatures discovered in amber, including, believe it or not, birds.  A new bird, the Rote leaf warbler, is one of three new passerine species described in 2018 and stands out because of a long, curved bill unlike any other bird in its genus. Neanderthal art (we think of Cro-Magnons as the first artists, but they were not) rounds it out. Thanks, Darrren! 

Monday, December 17, 2018

No, we didn't "let" the USSR launch the first satellite

The idea crops up every now and then that the USSR's launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, before any American satellite flew, because the U.S. slowed down its program to assure a Russian "win" that would establish the principle of freedom of space for future U.S. intelligence satellites. Now, in 1958 there were military and CIA people already working to develop the exciting potential of satellite spies.  And once we started launching them, the Russian got nowhere with protests about overflying their territory because they'd already set the precedent. 

This article in National Review is the most recent example of the thinking that we slowed things down, noting that the Army was ordered to ensure its Jupiter-C reentry vehicle tests did not lead to any "accidental" satellites. (When the Navy's Vanguard suffered a failure in December 1957, the Army got the go-ahead to launch what became Explorer 1 on 31 January 1958.)   
The article does not, however, cite hard information, and my letter to the author reads as follows:

Concerning your recent article on the space race being "fixed," I can't help noting you did not cite any document or any participant in those decisions.  You will not find them.
Erika Maurer and I looked at this extensively for our 2004 book The First Space Race. While the "fix" idea has been around before - even NASA Historian Dr. Roger Launius floated it at one point, although being careful to say it was speculation, not fact - It doesn't fit the known events. We talked to Ernst Stulinger from the von Braun team, every surviving Vanguard official, include the Technical Director, the chief engineer of Explorer, General Medaris' aide, etc. and asked everyone about this idea. 
The "do not launch" order for the Jupiter-C test flight was given because Project Vanguard was THE official US project to launch the first satellite, announced publicly as such by the President himself, and DoD wanted nothing to upstage it.  (We asked Army historians to help locate the original teletype or letter that gave Medaris those instructions: they could not find it, but it could have been a telephoned or couriered order. Medaris in his memoir confirmed he did receive the order but didn't say how.)      
Vanguard ended up late, launching our second satellite, but that was a matter of persistent technical and cost overrun problems.  The issues of overflight were being talked about, and the spy satellite efforts had begun, but there is just no evidence of a related slowdown in U.S. satellite launches. Everyone from Ike on down had simply assumed the U.S. would be first - there was some "the Russians are backward" thinking there.  After the Sputnik 1 launch, Ike called his military R&D chief, Donald Quarles, on the carpet and read him the proverbial riot act for not warning him the Soviets might launch first.    If Ike or someone under him had been slowing the program down (Quarles would have known) this meeting makes no sense.  What IS true is that Quarles pointed out the Russians had unintentionally done the American spy satellite program a good turn by establishing freedom of space.  
It was a chaotic time, and it's not surprising that people interpret events differently.  But this item we can be sure about.
(I'll send you a copy of the book if you like.)

Matt Bille 

Prepare for Smallsat Conference 2019!

My favorite space conference, and the one I've presented to more than any other, is coming up.  Abstracts are due February 1st.  This has become a wildly popular conference, with 3,000 people attending all or part of it.  It's the premier conference in the world for smallsats and microsats. 
Small Satellite ProductionDRIVING A REVOLUTIONAugust 3-8, 2019 | 33rd Annual Conference on Small SatellitesCall For Papers
During the 33rd AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, we will explore the technical issues, development considerations, and new opportunities that result from an ever-growing trend toward missions using tens, hundreds, or even thousands of small satellites to achieve revolutionary effects.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A milestone for private space flight

The Virgin Galactic spaceplane, a SpaceShipTwo model named Unity, designed for carrying tourists on suborbital flights, had it fastest and highest flight yet, reaching an altitude of 82 km (271,268 feet).    Congratulations! 

Here's a good video clip.
It's pretty awesome to think about this. A private company, with no government support, built a spaceplane that goes higher and faster than any such craft built by any government in the world, with the sole exception of the X-15, of the 1960s, which was also air-launched.  (NASA did put four experiments on board.) The SpaceShipTwo craft carried a crew of two pilots and a mannequin representing a passenger.

Now, was it "in space?" Depends on your definition.  There is no international agreement setting the boundary between air and space.  The US Air Force has always used 50 miles above sea level as the basis for awarding astronaut wings.  The FAA picked up that definition: astronaut wings are on the way for the pilots.  Most authorities on spaceflight point to the von Karman line, 100km (62 miles) as the boundary. 

For Virgin Galactic, which has 600 people signed up to fly at a quarter of a million dollars each, they made it. 

The press release stated, in part: "The historic achievement has been recognised by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who announced today that early next year they will present pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony in Washington DC. CJ, as a four-time Space Shuttle pilot, will become the only person to have been awarded NASA and FAA wings."

Oh, and the passengers could theoretically toast with champagne. The French (who else?) have designed and tested a champagne bottle under spaceflight conditions.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Dolmens: Discoveries and Riddles

Dolmens, the ancient stone tombs and/or ritual constructions, continue to interest me. Readers will remember I wrote The Dolmen, a very well reviewed horror tale whose lesson is, "If you're going to illegally import and entire dolmen, direct and all, you'd better sift through the dirt."
We keep finding new dolmens and new things about them. They were built over thousands of years, from England to Korea and south into the Middle East.    The basic dolmen, usually three vertical stone slabs with a capstone, had many variations, some much more elaborate.  Why are they found over such a range? Probably the same reason pyramids are: if you want to raise something that will last, pyramids and dolmens are two types that don't require much in the way of construction techniques.  (The best-known Egyptian pyramids show a very sophisticated system of design and construction, but there are cruder pyramids all over the world, many built of nothing but tramped-down earth.) Similarly, all you need to build a dolmen is four stone slabs and a HUGE amount of manpower.  
A dolmen reported last year from Galilee is decorated with rock art, a very unusual find: there is none like it anywhere in the Middle East.  The structure, with an interior chamber measuring about 6 square meters. is dated to approximately 4,000 years BP.  It is one of some 400 in a field near Kibbutz Shamir, but it's the largest, the most elaborate (surrounded by a boulder heap about 20m across and four smaller dolmens) and we have only fragments of knowledge about the people who built it. Israeli archaeologist Gonen Sharon notes the field of dolmens means, "a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project.” Some stones weigh 50 tons.  
A cryptic message from the Bronze Age, only now being deciphered.  Is it any wonder I made one the center of a novel?