Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Inconvenient Truth: A Mixed Bag

Having finally gotten around to seeing Al Gore's global warming film, I came away thinking it is being overpraised.
This being a film, the science had to be simplified due to time constraints. That's always true. But Gore simplifies by ignoring important points. To him, all recent warming of the Earth is human-caused. No time is spent on the important issue of how much of the measured warming can definitely be ascribed to human actions and how much is normal long-term change expected for a planet in an interglacial warm period.
The visual effects are mostly effective, even if some (like the drowning of Manhattan) illustrate "worst case" scenarios that Gore presents as likely, if not certain. Gore blames Hurricane Katrina on human-caused warming, which is hardly established fact, and, in a litany of side effects of warming, he includes the emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis. (Huh?)
While Gore mainly points the finger at the U.S., he does a good job of making it clear the situation is global by spending some time on the contribution to greenhouse gases made by China's rapid population and economic expansion.
At one point, Gore throws out a very important statement that needs support. He says that if we "do the right thing" (changing energy technologies, ending greenhouse gas emissions) we will "create new wealth and jobs." That may be true, but it requires explanation, especially when not a word is said about the costs (hundreds of billions of dollars, on a global scale) involved in changing over from fossil to renewable energy.
As a movie, the film meanders. Detours on Gore's personal life and political experiences make the viewer suspect this is a bit of a campaign commercial as well as an environmental film. There are bits that don't make sense (the weird Simpson-ish animation near the beginning, for example) and could have been replaced with more scientific information.
Overall, Gore set out to make a point here, and he generally does it well. He's become more relaxed and engaging than he was as a candidate, although my 10-year-old (who watched with me for a school assignment) still compared him to a "really boring teacher." Still, there is too much oversimplification and overstatement involved in driving the point home. Gore leaves himself open to criticism, some of it accurate, that could have been avoided if the film spent more time on the science of the core subject and less on everything from Gore family farm to non-warming-related extinctions.
So see the film, but don't take it as the whole story of a complex subject.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Defense Technology - Top 20 Stories

The editors of review their 20 most popular posts of the year. These concern high-technology efforts with military applications, but many of the solutions being developed have broader implications. Everything from super-sized airships to miniature sensor networks is covered, along with some highly speculative stuff that may or may not really be coming out of the Pentagon and its labs.

THANKS to Robyn Kane for pointing me to this item.

A mini-Lost World

Scientists analyzing a specimen of amber some 220 million years old have found well-preserved fungi and algae, along with bacteria and other microbes. This find, from Italy, is unusual to begin with, as it's one of the oldest organism-preserving amber specimens ever found. What is most surprising, though, is that the microbes look very much like modern counterparts. Lead investigator Alexander Schmidt of Berlin's Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, reports finding very few or no differences between modern and Triassic specimens. Schmidt concludes, "Although there were big changes in the composition of forests from the Triassic to recent … their microhabitats probably changed little, even during extinction events."

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Polar Bears v. Global Warming, Part 2

As mentioned in an earlier post, loss of sea ice off the northern coasts of Canada and Alaska is likely to have serious consequences for Ursus maritimus, the polar bear. In a move which surprised many conservationists who had criticized the Bush Administration for downplaying global warming, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has proposed putting the polar bear on the Endangered Species List as a "Threatened" species. It normally takes a year or so for a species to go from a proposal to a formal place on the ESL.

RIP: President Gerald R. Ford

As the nation pauses to remember the late President, who died this week at 93, it is worth remembering that he was a member of the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration which, in 1958, helped draft the Space Act that created NASA. While the brevity of Ford's term and the economic conditions at the time meant he made no major changes in the space program, he always supported space exploration. American space achievements during his time as President included the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the landing of two Viking spacecraft on Mars, and the opening of the National Air and Space Museum.

COMMENT: I met Ford once, as he accepted an invitation to address our Air Force ROTC dinner when I was in college in 1977. He seemed genuine, straightforward, friendly, and relaxed: truly a man who, in Kipling's phrase, "can walk with kings / nor lose the common touch."

S&T Leadership Quotes for 2006

The AIP has collected quotations on science and technology from America's political leadership for 2006. They are not, on the whole, terribly consistent or inspiring.

"I have to say, this is probably the most depressing hearing I've sat through." - Rep. Gordon discussing proposed FY 2007 NASA science budget

"The American people, the taxpayers, expect more from basic science research than new knowledge alone." - Energy Secretary Bodman

"Some people attack Members of Congress for having Potomac fever. I think some Members of this House have Mars fever. The fact is, if we are going to make a choice about where to put the best money, right now, I think a far better bet is law enforcement." - Rep. Obey

"These agencies, which are not exactly on the tip of the tongue of most Americans, are keystones of our Nation's economic future." - Rep. Boehlert on NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

National Geographic's Top 10

National Geographic has published a list of their Top Ten News stories for 2006.
To me, it's a very strange amalgamation of the serious and the offbeat.
Stories selected include include the demotion of Pluto from planetary status and the discovery of an Iron Age murder victim who used hair gel (seriously). There are two entries concerning the Judas gospel (in my opinion, an overhyped story of a text which seems no more authentic than many other post-Pauline writings). Then there are new species discoveries in Indonesia, the death of Steve Irwin, and some more oddities like an oversized rabbit terrorizing gardens in the UK.
Frankly, this is pretty disappointing. The magazine's website does not explain the criteria behind the selections, but a source with the prestige and authority of the National Geographic should be explaining to people what the ten most important stories were and why.

Monday, December 25, 2006

New Birds: Christmas Gift for Science

Wishing everyone a merry christmas, with the melodic sound of these three new species from Nepal trilling in the background.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Discovery is home

After 13 days in space, the shuttle Discovery returned successfully and safely to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mission STS-116 continued construction of the International Space Station, took up a new station crewmember, supplies, and equipment, and launched three small satellite missions (see earlier posts). The next shuttle mission, STS-117, should go up in March 2007.

Do you like your calamari fresh?

Japanese researchers have filmed the capture of a live giant squid (genus Architeuthis) for the first time. This specimen, over 7 meters long, was a female, caught using a smaller squid on a baited hook. The animal was dead by the time it was hoisted to the deck, but this video gives viewers a look at what an adult (albeit a relatively small one) of this famous yet mysterious species looks like when battling at the surface.

The Year in Space Science

Aviation Week has posted a roundup of the achievements being made in space science by robotic probes and the people behind them as 2006 draws to a close. New explorations of Mars, Venus, and other bodies are teaching us more than even the mission designers expected. From water ice fields and craggy rock features beneath the surface of Mars to geologic processes on Titan, the discoveries just keep coming.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Europe's New Sauropod was a Giant

The giant herbivious dinosaurs, the sauropods, were known until now only from the Western Hemipshere and Africa. Now Spanish paleontologists have unveiled the fossils of Turiasaurus riodevensis - not just the first European sauropod, but a colossal beast even by dinosaur standards. At 125 feet long and 40 to 48 tons, Turiasaurus is the largest animal known to have walked the continent of Europe, and one of the largest dinosaurs known.

UPDATE: Dr. Darren Naish comments, correctly, that this is not by any means the first sauropod from Europe. I relied on the story saying it was without checking any other sources, so that error is my fault. Naish knows whereof he speaks: his own sauropod discovery came to light in 2004. See:

Naish's own blog on the sauropod dubbed "Angloposeidon" from the Isle of Wight, along with other matters paleontological and zoological, can be found here:

Side note: the story has not yet been corrected, so at least I beat them to posting the correction. I sent the author an email documenting the error.

Thanks, Darren.

Discovery Wraps Up Successful Mission

The space shuttle Discovery is on track for a landing Friday afternoon, though weather has created some doubt about which landing site will be used. The vehicle carries two tons of surplus equipment and gear being returned from the International Space Station (ISS), along with one astronaut who was swapped out from the ISS crew. Astronauts on the Shuttle delivered and emplaced a new ISS structural element, the P5 truss, stowed a no-longer-needed solar array, and rewired the entire ISS electrical system to a more capable, permanent configuration. The ISS support mission required an eight-day stay at the orbital outpost and four EVAs. The Shuttle has deployed two of its three microsatellite payloads (see earlier post) and will deploy the last one today. That one is the Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment (ANDE), a Naval Research Laboratory experiment using two spherical microsats to measure the density and composition of the residual atmosphere found at orbital altitudes.

Following the GeneSat-1 Mission

Here is a unique resource for following a microspacecraft mission. This "dashboard," provided by engineers at Santa Clara University (partners with NASA Ames on this mission), allows viewers to check the spacecraft parameters and orbit at any time. As of this morning, everything was nominal. The experimental bacteria on board, a harmless strain of E. coli, are growing nicely and already providing data.

A Year of Fabulous Fossils

Neatly collected here by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman are ten of the most amazing fossil discoveries of the year. They range from Mongolia's little Volaticotherium antiquus, which set the date for gliding flight by mammals back an astonishing 70 million years and required creation of a new order, to the "Demon duck of doom" from Australia and the continuing studies of the most controversial fossil find in decades, the "hobbits" of Flores. Then there was the elephant-sized camel from Syria and the new species of giant carnivorous marsupial, not to mention a very large South American monkey and two new hominid discoveries from Africa. All that in one year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More news on microspacecraft

It's a big week for small spacecraft.

First, NASA's 3-kg GeneSat-1 is on orbit and looking perfect as it begins its mission of studying the growth of bacteria in microgravity.
Today, the Space Shuttle will begin deploying a series of microspacecraft for three missions. The Shuttle has not been used much recently as a satellite launcher, since the cargo capacity is usually taken up by equipment for the International Space Station. Microsatellites, though, can take advantage of the small amount of leftover capacity on ISS missions.
The first satellite to be deployed is the smallest. The Microelectromechanical System-Based PICOSAT Inspector (MEPSI), smaller than a coffee can, will demonstrate its ability to maneuver in space and inspect larger vehicles. Next out will be the Radar Fence Transponder (RAFT), built by midshipmen at the US Naval Academy to test space surveillance and communications protocols. The final microsatellite mission, the atmospheric neutral density experiment (ANDE), is a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) project using two satellites.

COMMENT: Microspacecraft are not the answer for everything we want to do in space. They cannot, for example, handle high-resolution imaging or bulk communications traffic. However, tight budgets for space hardware and high launch costs, combined with steady advances in miniaturizing space technology, guarantee them a bright future.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Biological Bonanza from Borneo

The World Wildlife Fund reports that scientists exploring the wilds of Borneo have discovered 52 new species in the past year. Stuart Chapman, the International Coordinator of the WWF's Heart of Borneo Programme, says, "The more we look the more we find. These discoveries reaffirm Borneo’s position as one of the most important centres of biodiversity in the world.” The new finds include 30 species of fish, two tree frogs, and three trees. One of the new fish, less than a centimetre long, qualifies as the second-smallest known vertebrate. Other examples include a tree frog with brilliant green eyes and a catfish with protruding teeth and an adhesive patch on its underside allowing it to stick to rocks. The "new 52" are added to the 361 new species of animals and plants found on the island since 1996.

THANKS to Dr. Cherie McCollough, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, for pointing me to this item.

News from NASA

On Earth, an item from the San Jose business journal (see title link) reports NASA has partnered with one of the great innovators of the 21st century, Google, to work on problems including improved human-computer interfaces and the handling of massive amounts of data. This kind of public-private partnership is critical in an age where NASA is struggling just to maintain its cut of six-tenths of one percent of the Federal budget. It's interesting to note this new approach came out of NASA's Ames Research Center, where Director Simon "Pete" Worden is instituting a host of novel efforts, including increased development of microspacecraft. One of those microspacecraft is the tiny GeneSat-1, which is now doing well on orbit after a Sunday launch.

NASAWatch suggests this collaboration may go still further...

Meanwhile, in space, the shuttle Discovery will undock from the International Space Station today after a complex mission involving four spacewalks and the rewiring of the ISS' power system. Keep up with the mission at:

Thanks to Kris Winkler for the first item in this post.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Ivory-bill: The search continues

More than a year after the dramatic announcement in April 2005 of the rediscovery of the "extinct" ivory-billed woodpecker, the story and the search go on. Since that stunning announcement, some experts have questioned the data used to claim the bird survived in Arkansas, while others reported evidence for a second population in Florida. This item from the AP recounts one of the latest Arkansas sighting reports. Connie Bruce of Cornell University's ornithology laboratory told a reporter, "We get thousands of sightings ... and we're pleased that the public is interested and actively involved and that they do call us and advise us of these sightings.... We all want to locate this bird."

For full information on the continuing story, see the Nature Conservancy/Big Woods Conservation Partnership site at:

A Big Step for Small Space Missions

At 0700 EST today, a Minotaur rocket lifted off from Wallops Island, VA, carrying two experimental satellites. This flight is interesting for several reasons.
First, the Minotaur is based on a converted Minuteman ICBM, which makes it the most economical operational launcher now available in the U.S. (SpaceX's Falcon 1 will be less than half the price, at $6.9M, but has yet to fly successfully.) The total mission cost was given at $60M, including the booster, both satellites, and $621,000 for range costs.
Second, this launch marks a return to orbital missions for Wallops. NASA fired Scout orbital boosters from this location for many years, but it's been two decades now since Wallops was used for anything larger than suborbital (sounding) rockets.
Third, the payloads are milestones in the use of small spacecraft. The larger is the Air Force's sensing and communications experiment, TacSat-2. Riding along is NASA's GeneSat-1, a three-kilogram microsat carrying bacteria whose development will be studied in orbit.
Finally, there is the commercial aspect of the launch. The launch pad used was leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Congratulations to all the people and agencies who made this historic flight a success.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Stunning Fossil from New Zealand

A long-held belief among paleontologists and mammalogists is that New Zealand never had indigenous mammals. The lack of mammalian competition was one factor in the diversity of bird life that developed on New Zealand, including the spectacular giant moas. Until now, there were no mammalian fossils to refute the idea. Now the remains of a mouse-sized creature, estimated at 16 million years old, have turned up. Tim Worthy, co-leader of the expedition that made the discovery, reported, "This amazing find suggests that other mammals are waiting to be found there, and that New Zealand belonged to the birds only in more recent times."

Cryptozoology Books of 2006

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has posted on the always-interesting Cryptomundo blog a list of the top books on cryptozoology published in 2006. My Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House, 2006) rated an honorable mention, and a full review of my book is pending. Other winners this year on Loren's list included anthopologist Jeff Meldrum's Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science: Chad Arment's The Historical Bigfoot: and Joe Nickell's Lake Monster Mysteries.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Global Warming cools upper atmosphere

That headline is not a misprint. A scientific team led by Dr. Stan Solomon of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado reports that an odd side effect of global warming caused by greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere is that the thermosphere, the envelope of very thin air starting at about 100 kilometers, will be cooled. The reason is that CO2 molecules collide with air molecules often in the lower atmosphere, producing heat, but are unlikely to collide with any in the thermosphere, so any heat they carry is dissipated into space.
Orbiting objects like the International Space Station will benefit from this reduction, since a cooler thermosphere is less dense and thus causes less drag. (Thermospheric drag is predicted to drop about three percent by 2017.)
Unfortunately, low-orbiting space junk and debris benefits the same way, meaning it will be a hazard to space travelers longer than expected. The other long-term effects of this cooling of the thermosphere are unknown at this time.

Yangtze River dolphin feared extinct

Scientists in China report an extended expedition in search of the baiji, or white dolphin, a nearly blind river-dwelling cetacean, yielded no sightings. August Pfluger, co-leader of the international effort, says they may have missed a few dolphins, but not enough to constitute a viable population. He adds, ""We have to accept the fact that the Baiji is functionally extinct. We lost the race."

COMMENT: If the baiji is going extinct, it will be the first cetacean driven out of existence by humans (in its case, by pollution and heavy boat traffic) in recorded times. Human activity has cost the planet at least two other marine mammals, the Japanese sea lion and (most scientists agree) the Caribbean monk seal. Two other small cetaceans, the vaquita and China's finless porpoise, another river-dweller, are on the edge. Will we act? There is hope, I think. It's hard to get most people excited about an insect or a toad going extinct, but dolphins and seals and their kin are kin to us. People notice them. And we would certainly notice their absence.

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
- William Beebe, 1906.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sea Monster from the Antarctic past

The skeleton of a baby plesiosaur, 70 million years old, has been recovered from an island off Antarctica. One of the best skeletons ever found of its species (which could measure over 9 meters as an adult) was recovered by researchers working under freezing, extremely windy conditions and supported by the National Science Foundation. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology's Museum of Geology, whose curator, James E. Martin, led the expedition, is putting the skeleton on display this week.

THANKS for this item to Dr. Cherie McCollough.

Turtles: Ageless yet Endangered

Turtles don't just live a long time (perhaps 250 years for some species), but scientists now understand they barely age at all. What they don't understand is why.
According to Dr. Christopher Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History, the organs of a century-old turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of a teenage specimen. He says, “Turtles don’t really die of old age."
Part of the reason is that turtles - somehow - can turn their heart off when it's not needed. The Smithsonian's Dr. George Zug (a delightful fellow who I interviewed on cryptozoology back in 1988) told writer Natalie Angier, “Their heart isn’t necessarily stimulated by nerves, and it doesn’t need to beat constantly. They can turn it on and off essentially at will.”
The turtle's only problem is us. Of the 250-odd species, perhaps half are in some level of difficulty. Some, like the giant leatherback of the seas, may be headed for extinction. It's important to save the turtles of the world: not just for their own sakes, but for what they might be able to teach us.
THANKS for this article to Kris Winkler.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Latest Shuttle Flight Looking Good

After a night launch that worried some safety officials, the shuttle Discovery is safely in orbit and appears to be damage-free. The STS-116 mission should dock with the International Space Station (ISS) about 1700 EST on Moday the 11th. The shuttle will deliver a new structural element, designated the P5 truss, and change out one crewmember on the station.

New Worlds of Marine Life

The report from the sixth year of the global Census of Marine Life effort includes some startling discoveries. Highlights include the shrimp Neoglyphea neocaledonica, found in the Coral Sea and nicknamed the "Jurassic shrimp" by scientists who knew it only as a fossil dated to 50 million years ago. Another was the marine crab covered in hairlike filaments, so strange it required creation of a new family, Kiwaidae. Expeditions trawled up new species from an unexplored environment 1,600 feet below the Antarctic ice shelf and a thermal vent three miles below the Sargasso Sea. A new rock lobster, weighing four pounds, popped up off Madagascar, and the Nazare Canyon off Portugal yielded a single-celled, shelled animal, of incredible size (0.4 inches in diameter).
As researcher Ron O'Dor put it: "We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new."

Polar Bears v. Global Warming

While there's still debate on how much human activity is contributing to global warming, the effects of the warming itself are starting to show up in studies of individual species. The latest report on this concerns the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea region of Alaska's northern coast.
Two years of study by Eric Regehr of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicate that warming has reduced the sea ice in Canada's Hudson Bay area (which is to the east of the Beaufort Sea coast but at a similar latitude), and contributed to a 22% decline in polar bear numbers. Polar bears spend much of their lives on the sea ice along the coast, hunting seals. A decline in the ice cover shrinks the polar bears' range, increasing the competition for the small number of seals frequenting an area. If the ice melts entirely, the bears are forced onto shore, where they are sometimes driven to invade garbage dumps and come in close contact with humans. Younger bears are likely to lose out in this more competitive and dangerous environment, and if fewer young animals survive, the population inevitably drops.
While it's not clear yet whether the population in Alaska has not shown the same effects, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take action to protect the Alaskan population.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Predator fish team up

In the first known example of interspecies-cooperative hunting in fish, the moray eel and the grouper have learned (if "learned" is the right word) to work together in the Red Sea. When a stoutly built grouper, a daytime hunter, chases prey into a crevice too small for pursuit, the grouper looks for the nearest moray. The moray, which is normally resting in a crevice of its own waiting for nightfall, is lured out by the grouper's act of shaking its head. The grouper then leaders the moray to the prey. The two predators do not apparently share the meal - sometimes the grouper gets it, sometimes the moray does, but for the grouper, this at least provides a chance at prey that would otherwise escape. The complexity of this behavior (How does the grouper "know" the moray will cooperate? Why does the moray respond to the head shaking?) is puzzling and downright amazing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Water on Mars

NASA has reported that images from the Mars Global Surveryor, taken in 2004 and 2005, show that water flowed onto the surface of Mars on at least two occasions within the last seven years. While liquid water would quickly freeze or evaporate, it apparently carried new sediment downhill in craters in the Terra Sirenum and Centauri Montes regions of the planet, leaving very distinct traces of its eruption onto the surface.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Space Exploration Conference Coverage

NASAWatch covers the AIAA Space Exploration Conference from Houston: THE place for space leaders and enthusiasts to be this week (OK, if they're not in Florida for the Shuttle launch).

Monday, December 04, 2006

NASA's New Plan: Moon Base in 2024

At the Space Exploration Conference in Houston, NASA unveiled the plans for it next major goal: an inhabited, permanent base on the Moon by 2024. The base may be at the north or south pole and will be supported by the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) now in development.

COMMENT: In a way, this is what Apollo should have been. If we were going to put in the money and accept the risk to land humans on the Moon, we should have aimed for a permanent base, where science, resource extraction, and other activities could be carried out. NASA did not lack for ambition in those days, but found it impossible to get the funding required. Now the big question is whether we will commit the money to get this new vision turned into hardware. NASA today takes about 0.7% of the federal budget. Executing the new Vision for Space Exploration will require a steady increase, but not a large one, to 1% or a bit more. It's not small potatoes, but it's not beyond our reach.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Next Voyage to the ISS

The space shuttle Discovery, slated to launch on December 7, has a big task ahead of it. Large sections of the International Space Station (ISS) will be powered down while the electrical system is reconfigured to a more powerful, more permanent setup. Discovery will also deliver a new addition to the station, release three satellites, and swap out an ISS crew member.

COMMENT: As impressive as this mission is, it would be more impressive if the ISS partners, particularly the U.S., had funded the work planned and required to maintain a crew larger than two people. With only two astronauts normally on board, and key science sections like the centrifuge module stranded on Earth, we are risking a vehicle and a brave and talented crew to support a space station that is not getting very much done in terms of science and exploration. And we're doing it on a schedule-driven night launch of the Shuttle, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended not be done since it limits the effectiveness of optical cameras looking for launch damage.
I agree with the idea that a permanent human presence in space is at least symbolically important, and the experience gained in assembling the station will be useful for future endeavors. As to the risk, there will always be risk in space travel, and we have to accept that if we want to further out from Earth. All that said, the objectives should be more important than to support a minimal station that makes the news only when there's a commercial stunt like launching a golf ball.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Calculator of the Ancients

One of the oddest artifacts ever found, the Antikythera Mechanism, has been subjected to a reconstuction that shows just how amazing the original device was. Found off Greece in 1901 and dating back perhaps 2,100 years, this assemblage of precisely crafted gear wheels was more sophistiaced than anything that would appear for a millennium. The bronze construction was a calculator that could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It could track the movements of the sun and moon and locate them within the zodiac, and could even predict lunar and solar eclipses.

COMMENT: These new findings leave us with more questions than answers. What brilliant individual or group designed and built the Mechanism? (It's been speculated the mathematician and atronomer Hipparchos had something to do with it, but no one really knows.) Were other devices also made? (At the least, any invention so complex must have had prototypes.) Why did the know-how embodied in the Mechanism disappear completely, without leaving even a mention of its existence among the records of the time? One need not be an "ancient astronaut" kook to shake one's head in amazement.

Bomb-Sniffing Bees

We are used to bomb squads that go "woof." Now they may go "bzzzzz."

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have trained honeybees to stick out their proboscis when they smell explosives. The effort is called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project. Operational use is some way off, but, if the bees prove sensitive and reliable enough, the advantages of cheap, tiny bees over large, ground-walking dogs or complex sensing machines are obvious.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dunkleosteus: The Ultimate Predator

There is a new study out concerning my favorite fossil species, the Devonian-era Dunkleosteus terrelli. Scientists at the Field Museum looked at fossils to build a computer model and analyze the animal's bite. Their conclusion: Dunkleosteus, armed with "biting plates" of bone rather than true teeth, was as scary as it looked. The force exerted by the animal's gaping jaws when they closed was estimated at 11,000 lbs (5,000kg), with the force at the tip of a plate being over seven times that.
Researcher Mark Westneat put it this way: "It kind of blows sharks out of the water as far as bite force goes. A huge great white shark is probably only capable of biting at about half that bite force."
Dunkleosteus, nearly the size of a killer whale, went extinct over 300 million years ago, at the end of the Devonian.

Cue very scary music...

The Brain of the Whale

Patrick Hof and Estel Van der Gucht of the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York report the brains of humpback whales include spindle neurons, an "advanced" type of brain cell previously known only from the higher primates and the dolphins. Spindle neurons, believed to be used in cognition, may play a role in some signature behaviors including the unique "singing" of the male humpback.
Hof and Van der Gucht wrote, "In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage. It is thus likely that some of these abilities are related to comparable histologic complexity in brain organization in cetaceans and in hominids."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Genetics: More Complicated than we thought

An international team of scientists has published a paper containing potentially revolutionary findings about the human genome.
Genes were classically believed to come in pairs, with rare exceptions called "copy-number variants," but the new research shows that having an unusual copy number - one, three, or more examples of a gene rather than two - is much more common and important than believed.
Shorn of the scientific jargon, the discovery means a couple of things. One is that the human genome is more complex and variable than thought, potentially making it harder to point to one gene as the cause of a problem or defect. Conversely, we now know to look for variations that we used to think were not present or at best unimportant.
James Lupski of Baylor University added, "I believe this paper will change forever the field of human genetics."

The Science of Sleight-of-Hand

We've always known that a great deal of what magicians do involves misdirecting the audience's attention. Now we know why it works.

Gustav Kuhn of the University of Durham in England has videotaped the magician and the audience while the former appears to make a ball disappear in midair. While audience members insist they were following the ball all the time, the video shows almost all glanced at the magician's eyes for a cue about which direction to look. As Kuhn put it, "Even though people claimed they were looking at the ball, what you find is that they spend a lot of time looking at the face. While their eye movements weren't fooled by where the ball was, their perception was. It reveals how important social cues are in influencing perception."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Three new primates named

The world's smallest primates, all residents of Madagascar, are the mouse lemurs of the genus Microcebus. German researchers have identified three previously unclassified members of this ever-expanding group. The new chipmunk-sized, nocturnal critters (Microcebus bongolavensis, Microcebus danfossi, Microcebus lokobensis) join a genus which has expanded considerably over the last decade as scientists race against deforestation and other threats to study Madagascarene fauna. A researcher from the German Primate Center in Gattingen explains that the mouse lemur species, which look very similar and need a lot of work to differentiate, appear to have been split up primarily by river barriers on the world's fourth-largest island.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Support for Fusion Reactor project

Thirty nations, including the United States, have signed a pact committing them to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will be built in Cadarache, France. The project's cost is estimated at up to $10.8 billion U.S. Also signed on are the European Union, Japan, India, South Korea, China, and Russia: most of the world's major technological powers. Commercial fusion power is variously estimated at 20-50 years off: ITER is intended to be the proof-of-concept reactor.

COMMENT: Over the long term, it is hard to imagine a reasonable alternative to fusion. It is much more difficult and expensive to develop than was once hoped, but for large-scale power generation with minimal environmental impact, it's the planet's best hope, and we'd best get going on it.

Raiders of the Lost Duck

Conservationists from The Peregrine Fund Madagascar Project have rediscovered the Madagascar Pochard, a duck not seen since 1991 and classified as "possibly extinct." The site was a remote lake in the northern wilds of the island mini-continent.
Stuart Butchart,Global Species Programme Coordinator, BirdLife International, said,
“Spectacular rediscoveries like this are extremely rare, but they provide a glimmer of hope for the 14 other bird species classified as Possibly Extinct.”

COMMENT: Madagascar was the site of another spectacular rediscovery, that of the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, which was found by a conservationist from the Peregine Fund after decades in presumed extinction.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The AIr Force's New Space Vehicle

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DARPA are working on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, intended to carry new equipment, experiments, components, and satellites into orbit for testing, then return then to Earth. The X-37B may be thought of as a quarter-scale version of the space shuttle, minus the astronauts. The Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office is responsible for the program to acquire, test, and demonstrate the OTV. A first launch in 2008 is hoped for.

COMMENT: Building a reusable demonstrator of this type makes a lot of sense: not just to have the capability to test and retest equipment in space, but to see if the OTV itself is a workable concept. If it suceeds (or even if it fails in flight) it will contribute a great deal to the design and construction of future reusable spacecraft. However, similar programs have been started by the military and/or NASA many times since the 1950s and have never been funded to completion. So I wish them the best of luck. The environment of space may be harsh, but it's nothing compared to the ones encountered at the Office of Management and Budget and on Capitol Hill.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Decoding the Neanderthal genome

This blog post gives a nice capsule review of the recent papers in Nature and Science decoding the Neanderthal genome. Author John Timmer explains the methods and the difficulties of this work in language us non-geneticists can understand. On the most interesting question - whether modern humans still carry Neanderthal genes - one of these two studies suggested (although not definitvely) that we do, while the other found no evidence. These papers represent a quantum leap in understanding our heavy-browed prehistoric cousin, but we are a long was from knowing everything.

A Cryptic Carcass

Paleobiologist Darren Naish, one of the most thoughtful of scientifically-trained cryptozoologists, here takes a detailed look at one of the semi-holy grails for those who believe in large unidentified animals still prowl the seas.
Naish agrees the eyewitness evidence for some sort of elongated large marine animal is impressive, but he can't accept one of the most-discussed pieces of physical evidence, the Naden Harbor, British Columbia, carcass of 1937. Naish wonders if this 3-4 meter, very slender, odd-looking thing did, as the contemporary reports had it, come from the gullet of a sperm whale. Ed Bousfield and Paul LeBLond published a controversial paper naming this the type specimen of a marine reptile, Cadborosaurus willsi. Naish agrees he does not know what this thing was (the specimen was lost, and only photographs remain), but is quite sure that Bousfield and LeBlond entered into far too much speculation given the limited amount of data one can be sure of from the photographs.
COMMENT: While the whole topic is often buried in the silly-season term "sea serpent," there really is a suprisingly good body of sightings that remain unexplained. The gold standard, as Naish notes, is the 1905 sighting by two well-qualified British naturalists on the yacht Valhalla, who carefully observed and sketched an animal that still cannot be reasonably assigned to any known species. More details are available in (of course) my book Shadows of Existence, among other sources.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First Launch for Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the secretive space-tourism company founded by Jeff Bezos of, has carried out its first test launch. No information has been released about the rocket-powered test craft, except that it was a short suborbital flight, lasting under a minute and not exceeding two kilometers in altitude. No other information has come out of the launch site in western Texas or the company's Seattle HQ.

A Window onto ancient Rome

A beautifully preserved Roman cargo vessel, loaded with amphorae (sealed clay jars), is now yielding up its treasures, six years after it was discovered. The ship apparently sank in a storm of the southeastern coast of Spain about 2,000 years ago. The vessel was 100 feet long and carried 400 tons of cargo. This included lead, copper, and hundreds of amphorae, some containing fish sauce, a prized condiment in ancient Rome. Archaeologist Javier Neto told a reporter, "For archaeologists, a sunken ship is a historic document that tells us about ancient history and how its economy worked. This ship will contribute a lot."
COMMENT: The dimensions above make the ship considerably larger than the Santa Maria, the largest vessel in Christopher Columbus' little fleet sailing over fourteen centuries later.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Killer Whales: A dramatic look

In this stunning video posted on National Geographic News, two killer whales, or orcas, halfway beach themselves in pursuit of sea lion pups on the shore of Argentina. Once the two orcas (who are known to be brothers) have filled up their stomachs, they grab another pup and use it in what humans would call a sadistic game, tossing it back and forth to each other - in one case, batting it into the air with a mighty tail. Amazingly, the pup is not killed in this game. Even more amazingly, one whale takes the pup back to shore and releases it. Cetologists are puzzled, to say the least, at this behavior... just one more reminder of how hard it is to understand what goes on in the brain of another species.

Farewell, Mars Global Surveyor?

Mars Global Surveyor was launched ten years ago, and has been sending back data on the Red Planet ever since. Now NASA's mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have lost contact with the probe. A variety of things, from a power problem to a meteorite strike, could be to blame. The original mission, scheduled for one Martian year, has been extended many times, the MGS has mapped the entire planet, studied possible landing sites, and added greatly to our knowledge of the planet's past and the possibility of remaining water sources. The MGS may yet be revived, but, even if not, it's an example of how superbly a spacecraft can be designed, engineered, and operated to greatly exceed expectations. FOr those interested in costs, the mission cost $150M to build, $65M to launch, and costs about $7.5M a year to operate. Planetary scientists consider that one of the great bargains of the Space Age.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What's ahead for NASA?

Shelby Spires of the Huntsville (AL) Times writes that big changes are not likely to affect space programs, including NASA, in the wake of the U.S. midterm elections that brought the Democratic party to power in both houses of Congress. (Keep in mind it takes over a year to make a real change in the U.S. budget: the FY 2007 budget is set and the 2008 requests are well along). One thing experts agree on is that a Democratic Congress is more likely to fund space science, particularly Earth-focused environmental science.
COMMENT: Given that this Congress is unlikely to fund major NASA budget increases, the emphasis on science programs is likely to mean a slowdown in human spaceflight programs as money in 2008 and 2009 is shifted to science.

New Parrot Down Under

After ten years of fieldwork, wildlife cinematographer John Young has discovered a possible new species, the blue-fronted fig parrot, in the forests of southern Queensland, Australia. It's not certain yet whether this diminutive bird is a full species or a distinctive subspecies of the known double-eyed fig parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma, but Young's discovery is important in any case: important enough that the Queensland government is keeping the location a secret while further expeditions are made. (The name "double-eyed" apparently derives from the brightly colored cheek patches (red for males, yellow for females) on this largely green-feathered bird, although they really don't look like eyes at all.)

New Phylum is Very Old

Xenoturbella is a 12-mm wormlike creature that would not seem very important, and no one thought much about it when it was first dredged from the Baltic Sea some 50 years ago. A new study, though, shows it is a very interesting beastie indeed. The critter is so different from everything else it belongs in its own phylum. There are only 30-some phyla in the animal kingdom (the exact number is disputed). Xenoturbella is literally brainless, and shows features indicating it has retained characteristics of the original missing link - the presumed common ancestor of all chordates, including humans. One researcher explained, "It is a basal organism, which by chance preserved the basal characteristics present in our common ancestor. This shows that our common ancestor doesn't have a brain but rather a diffuse neural system in the animal's surface."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wind energy gaining steam (so to speak)

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimates that, if wind energy is pursued "aggressively," it could account for 20% of US electricity demand by 2020. Factors slowing the expansion of wind energy include questions raised by environmentalists concerned with the number of birds killed by the turbine blades. A new report by the Department of Defense also raises concerns that tall windmills in some locations could degrade the capabilities of air-defense and air traffic control radars. So far, radar-related concerns have resulted in delays of some energy projects, but no cancellations. AWEA Executive Director Randall Swisher says, "Decades of experience tell us that wind and radar can coexist. The American wind energy industry will continue to work collaboratively with government and others."

One Dolphin, four flippers?

Japanese scientists are studying a captured dolphin with a unique anomaly - it has four flippers. The animal has a second, small pair where hind legs might be expected in a land mammal. Seiji Osumi of the Institute of Cetacean Research said, "I believe the fins may be remains from the time when dolphins' ancient ancestors lived on land ... this is an unprecedented discovery." Vestigial hind legs or unformed protrusions have, in very rare cases, been found on other cetaceans, but this is the first case of well-formed, functional flippers.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bigfoot and academia

Idaho State University anthropologist Jeff Meldrum is one of the leading scientific experts on the alleged unclassified ape of North America, the sasquatch. Unfortunately, that does not make him very popular with the rest of the faculty. Dr. Meldrum, a tenured professor, is considered an embarrassment by some of his colleagues. Thirty of them signed a letter objecting to his hosting a sasquatch symposium on campus. Fortunately, John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences, is more tolerant, saying, "He's a bona fide scientist. I think he helps this university. He provides a form of open discussion and dissenting viewpoints that may not be popular with the scientific community, but that's what academics all about."

COMMENT: I'm with Kijinski. Yes, the odds are against there being an undiscovered primate wandering the Northwest. However, the scientific method demands freedom of inquiry, including inquiry into subjects that are considered "fringe."

NASA approves Hubble repair mission

NASA has approved a Shuttle mission to extend the life of the Hubble telescope. The action was widely applauded in the space science community, which has not had much to cheer about from NASA lately. The mission would launch in 2008 to allow astronauts to add seven years of life to Hubble by upgrading guidance and control components. They would also attempt to repair one instrument and replace two others, greatly improving the telescope's capabilities. However, NASA, having directed all possible funding into the Shuttle missions supporting the International Space Station, the planned retirement of the Shuttle in 2010, and the demands of the new Vision for Space Exploration, does not know where the estimated $900M budget for the mission will come from.

World fish stocks trending sharply downward

A new study indicates that global stocks of fish and other edible marine life, with the ecosystems they support, are headed for a cliff by 2050. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said, "I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are - beyond anything we suspected." He and his colleagues, who spent four years collating results of experiments and other studies worldwide, report that 29% of commercially valuable marine species have already "crashed" - that is, the populations are down an estimated 90 % or more - and the rest are following quickly. Overfishing in the main culprit, but coastal development and other ecological degradation is blamed as well.

COMMENT: This is not like global warming, where the observed changes leave some doubt about the overall trend and the human role in it. This is a crisis that essentially is impossible to dispute. While some nations, notably the US, believe they are maintaining proper controls keeping harvesting by their own fishing fleets to sustainable levels, the global picture is a very bleak one. This situation requires coordinated global action NOW.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New Species from the Pacific

A protected marine area northwest of Hawaii has yielded a bonanza of new and rare species of marine animal. A three-week expedition in the French Frigate Shoals area netted over a thousand species of invertebrates. Examples include a sea star (starfish) colored bright purple and measuring a foot (30cm) across the arms and "a hermit crab that dons a sea anemone and sports shiny golden claws."
There is still much work to be done to determine how many of these are new, but one zoologist with the team said, "There were lots of organisms that people were saying, 'Wow! What's that?'"

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Elephant awareness?

An Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo showed the ability to recognize herself in a mirror. This behavior, indicating at least a basic level of self-awareness, has been seen only in humans and chimps until now. (Results on dolphins are suggestive but not definite.) Some animals ignore mirrors, while others assume the image is another individual. Interestingly, only one of the three elephants clearly understood the test, touching her trunk to her face where the mirror showed a marking.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Another nation resumes whaling

Iceland, citing its centuries-old whaling tradition, has announced it will issue permits for taking a total of 39 fin and minke whales. Iceland stopped commercial whaling when an international moratorium was agreed on in 1989. While the minke whale is relatively abundant, probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands (it has benefited greatly from past hunting that decimated the numbers of larger baleen whales), the "finner" is still listed as an endangered species by the IUCN.

COMMENT: The north Atlantic minke and fin stocks could, from a hard-nosed numerical point of view, survive a limited annual cull without significant harm. HOWEVER, in the bigger picture, this is a very bad idea. First, it further legitimizes whale hunting, encouraging more nations to resume the practice, inevitably leading to larger kills and environmental impacts. Second, the more widespread whaling is, the more it provides cover for the taking of protected species. Numerous samples of humpback, blue, and other rare species have been found in markets selling meat from Japan's "scientific" harvest of minke whales. (How good can their scientists be if they can't tell a humpback from a minke? One sample was even shown to come from a blue/fin hybrid. Try mistaking that for a minke sometime).

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Bionic Dolphin

That's what Thomas "Doc" Rowe calls his invention, but it's more like a sports car for the oceans. Rowe is currently working with regulators on how to license his prototype, which can carry passengers on the surface at 55 miles per hour or dive underneath the waves and manuever like a marine mammal. Projected consumer cost for this ultimate toy: $350,000.

Science and Ghosts

It's Halloween....

We all know someone who has experienced a seemingly ghostly event. Maybe we've experienced one ourselves. But is there any way to prove whether there's a ghost in the room?
Skeptic Benjamin Radford has no doubts: the answer is no. Radford looks at TV "ghost hunters" and complains that, despite their habit of carrying instrumentation like electromagnetic field detectors, they never really find a ghost. Anything anomalous, like a cold spot, is considered to be evidence a ghost is present, but all that's left at the end is a collection of anomalies.. nothing consistent, nothing repeatable, nothing definite.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is Mars getting boring?

Read The Onion's version fo the adventures of the rover Opportunity and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fun with Rockets

Alan Boyle writes, "What do you get when you cross a circus with a space shot? That breed of alien hybrid would probably look very much like the Wirefly X Prize Cup, gearing up at the Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico." The events underway range from flight tests of lunar lander technology to demonstrations of what is pretty likely to be the world's only rocket-powered truck.

Honeybees - Past and Present

News (or buzz) came out almost simultaneously of two discoveries involving that indispensable insect, the honeybee.
First, the genetic blueprint of the honeybee was published. Only three other insects have had their genomes sequenced so far. Among the surprises: two genetically distinct European bee populations are more closely related to African bees than to each other.
Second, a tiny (3mm) amber-preserved specimen 100 million years old was identified as the earliest known bee. Melittosphex burmensis came from a mine in Burma's Hukawng Valley. The ancient insect showed features supporting the idea that bees were then in the process of descending from a wasp ancestor.

Thanks (as usual) to Kris for this item.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Interview with an Explorer

Robert Ballard, whose teams discovered the first known hydrothermal vent ecosystem in 1977 and the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985, is busily working on new robotic technology to open the deep to routine study through "telepresence." He's helping to outfit a new exploration vessel, the Okeanos Explorer, with a next-generation system of remotely operated vehicles dubbed Hercules.
When asked what mysteries of the ocean he would like to solve next, Ballard told an interviewer, "I have no idea. When you make a true discovery, like the hydrothermal vents, we didn't know they were there, we tripped over them. What ocean exploration does and will do is trip over stuff. I can tell you that statistically there has to be stuff there because we've only looked at a small percentage of the ocean floor, and look what we've discovered. There's got to be countless more discoveries to be made."

A Great White on display

A great white shark - perhaps the hardest creature to keep alive in captivity - is wowing the crowd at the Outer Bay Exhibit, a million-gallon tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium designed with great whites in mind. The inhabitant is a male, about a year old and about 5 feet 8 inches long. It's not what people normally think of when they picture a great white - we all have the maneating monster from Jaws planted in our minds - but people are flocking to see the animal just the same. "We're not trying to display a large 18-foot animal," curator Jon Hoech told USA Today. "We believe starting small gives us our best chances."

"Lucy" fossil to be exhibited in the U.S.

One of the pivotal finds in the study of human evolution - the 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a female hominid known as "Lucy" - will be joining other items showcasing Ethiopia's heritage in an 11-city tour of the United States. The exhibit will open in Houston next September.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Life finds a way

Two miles beneath the surface of the Earth, in a South African gold mine, scientists have discovered a bacterial ecosystem that needs no connection, not even indirectly, to the Sun. Sulfur and hydrogen, of geological origin, are the only nutrients required. Other "chemoautotrophic" ecosystems, like those at deep-sea vents, still use, at least in part, some nutrients that can be traced to the photosynthetic world. One of the discoverers, Douglas Rumble, observed, "It is possible that communities like this can sustain themselves indefinitely, given enough input from geological processes. Time will tell how many more we might find in Earth's crust, but it is especially exciting to ponder whether they exist elsewhere in the solar system."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cyprus mouse not as unique as claimed

Every article I've seen on the new species of mouse from Cyprus (see earlier post) includes the discoverers' statement that this is the first new mammal described from Europe in over a century. Paleobiologist Darren Naish wondered if that was true. It turns out to be way off. Naish counts no fewer than 29 new species of moles, voles, mice, bats, and other odds and ends described from the world's most densely populated continent in that time frame. It's a good reminder that just because a qualified scientist says something is true, and presumably believes it's true, does not guarantee he or she has done the homework before putting out the claim.

Thanks to Darren Naish

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Dog-Sized Buffalo?

Such a buffalo (part of the Asian buffalo family, not related to the American bison) once lived in the Philippines. On the island of Cebu, the buffalo formed an isolated population whose members shrank in size by about two-thirds over time, resulting in an animal shorter than the largest domestic dogs and weighing about 350 lbs. The bones of the only known example were found fifty years ago in a phosphate mine by engineer Michael Armas, who kept them without thinking much of them until he showed them to specialists in 1995. Estimated at ten to twenty thousand years old, the remains are now the basis for a formally described species, Bubalus cebuensis. The buffalo is an important example of "island dwarfism," a phenomenon in which island populations develop smaller size compared to their counterparts in mainland environments. (In an amusing example of the vagaries of evolution, the feet of B. cebuensis did not shrink as much as the rest of the animal, so it has disproportionately large feet.)
The concept of island dwarfism has been most famously debated in the case of the proposed hominid species, Homo floresiensis, the "hobbit" from the Indonesian island of Flores.

Still Roving the Red Planet

This article includes an awesome photograph: an image taken by one spacecraft (the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) of another space voyager (the rover Opportunity) at the edge of the Victoria Crater on Mars. Opportunity has so far traveled 9.4 kilometers on our most intriguing planetary neighbor.

COMMENT: I will always remember one great cartoon published during the Mars Pathfinder mission... it showed the little Sojourner rover crossing the Martian sands, leaving human footprints.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

New National Space Policy unveiled

For the first time since 1996, the basic statement of American space policy has been updated. The new policy approved by President Bush reinforces the view, expressed in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, that resources in space are not subject to commercial or governmental appropriation. It states in slightly stronger terms than the 1996 policy the US intent to maintain freedom of action in space for uses such as reconnaissance satellites. Most importantly, from a scientific point of view, the old policy said NASA should study human expansion to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The new policy, in line with the Vision for Space Exploration the President announced in 2004, makes it clear the nation's intent is to carry out such exploration, not just study it.

Europe's first new mammal in a century

Scientists used to think the little gray mouse roaming the island of Cyprus was just a house mouse brought by human settlers nine or ten thousand years ago. As it turns out, they were very wrong. Mus cypriacus , the first new species of mammal described from Europe in 100 years, shows an affinity to fossils dated well before the human colonization. It is, in fact, the only pre-human rodent still living on Cyprus. The term "living fossil" is overused, but, to mammologists, the mouse is a window to the long-ago development of the region's mammalian fauna.

Thanks once again to Kris Winkler, who could put me out of a job if she started her own blog :)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A stunning view of Saturn

This NASA image from the Cassini probe shows the ringed planet with a "string of pearls" formation, seemingly circling the entire atmosphere. The pearls are clearings in one layer of Saturn's cloud cover. Scientists are still a long way from understanding this phenomenon.

COMMENT: While I try to take a scientific view of the world, I can't work out why evolution alone would equip us with the capacity to look on a sight like this and feel, not just curiosity or scientific interest, but awe, wonder, and beauty. There is something in the human spirit that evolutionary biology alone has not yet explained. I don't think it ever will.

Whether outwardly or inwardly, whether in space or time, the farther we penetrate the unknown, the vaster and more marvelous it becomes.

— Charles A. Lindbergh

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another colorful feathered friend

From Columbia comes word of a snazzy-looking new species, the bright yellow and red-crowned Yariguies brush-finch. Add this to the discovery from India (see earlier post) and it's been a good month for ornithologists. The new brush-finch dwells in the cloud forests on the eastern side of the Andes.

A "camelephant" from ancient Syria?

Researchers have unearthed 100,000-year-old remains of a camel the size of an elephant from the central region of Syria. According to Jean-Marie Le Tensorer of the University of Basel, "The camel's shoulders stood three meters high and it was around four meters tall; as big as a giraffe or an elephant. Nobody knew that such a species had existed."
The find is important in another way, too. "It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago," Le Tensorer added.
It's not yet clear whether the camels were hunted by early humans, although the two species did coexist. The human remains found at the site are puzzling in themselves: it's not clear whether they belong to modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) or H. s. neanderthalensis, and further study is underway.

Thanks to the ever-vigilant Kris Winkler for pointing me to this article.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Irwin's Turtle Discovery Endangered

The Sydney Morning Herald reports, "A rare turtle named after the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin could be under threat of extinction if a dam planned for construction in its habitat goes ahead. Elseya irwini is named as a species at risk in a Queensland Government environmental impact report."
The first person to catch a specimen of E. irwini was Steve Irwin's father, Bob, in 1990. Steve could not identify the animal, so he took pictures and sent them to turtle expert John Cann. "I saw the photos and jumped on the telephone because I knew it was a new species," Cann said. "I think if someone discovers something they should have a reward for it. It's a good legacy for Steve."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Time for the Ig Nobel Prizes

The Ig Nobels are given each year for scientific (or kind of scientific) research that "cannot or should not be repeated." The prizes have been handed out at a Harvard University ceremony every year since 1991. Some people have traveled from other nations to accept their Igs, which are handed out by real Nobel laureates. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) 2006 Igs include an award for figuring out why we hate the noise of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Another went to Harry Stapleton for inventing the Mosquito "teenager repellent" device, which emits annoying noise at a frequency teens can hear but most adults can't. Then there was Dr. Ivan Schwab, who figured out why woodpeckers don't get headaches. This is no doubt of great interest to the Bayer Aspirin people, whose sales to woodpeckers have been far short of projections. There are times science could definitely use a dose of humor, and the Annals of Improbable Research, which hands out the Ig Nobels, definitely does its part.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Collision in Space

Around the Earth orbit thousands of pieces of debris, from dead satellites to screws, bolts, and paint flakes. Despite being spread out over the vast expanse of near-Earth space, this junkyard poses a threat to every spacecraft. On its last mission, the Space Shuttle Atlantis was hit by a tiny piece of debris that left a hole about a tenth of an inch (2.5mm) in the right payload bay door radiator. This impact posed no threat to the Shuttle and crew, but illustrates one more hazard that must be accounted for in our plans for the final frontier.

Monsters from the Ancient Seas

Norwegian scientists are describing new species from a huge cache of marine reptile fossils. The fossil "graveyard," dating back 150 million years, was found on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. Fishlike icthyosaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs, and short-necked pliosaurs once roamed the area. One pliosaur skeleton has been nicknamed "The Monster." The Monster's skull is almost three meters long, and still sports teeth the size of bananas. One scientist exclaimed, "What's amazing here is that it looks like we have a complete skeleton. No other complete pliosaur skeletons are known anywhere in the world."

Meanwhile, Canadian researchers found a new species of ichthyosaur in a unique place - under a ping-pong table. At the University of Alberta, researchers renovating their lab space moved an old ping-pong table and looked into the boxes they found underneath. There, untouched since someone had stashed them in 1971, were the 100-million-year-old remains of a new species of icthyosaur. Michael Caldwell, who co-authored the paper naming the new species, said, "I did my undergraduate work here and I was studying specimens right on top of this table."

THANKS TO: Kris Winkler for noticing the first article, and to Angela (I know her only by her MySpace name) for the second.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Solving the Monarch Mystery

How do monarch butterflies find their way thousands of miles to places they have never seen?
Dr. Orley Taylor of the University of Kansas has enlisted a small army of butterfly hunters - many of them children - in solving this conundrum. Dr. Taylor's Monarch Project is tagging thousands of butterflies in an effort to trace their migration patterns. The monarchs are not like salmon, who return to the stream where they were born: these colorful orange insects make a multi-generational trip across Mexico, the United States, and Canada. At the end, they somehow manage to locate roosts in Mexico where their great-grandparents originated. Do they use light? Magnetic fields? Scent? Scientists are divided. All we know for sure is, as Ian Malcolm liked to say in Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way."

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

George Schaller: Conservation and Cryptozoology

In this interview with a leading Indian newspaper, The Hindu, Dr. George Schaller has a lot to say. Schaller, one of the world's best-known conservationists and a biologist of great accomplishment, makes, as one would expect, a passionate plea for conservation of species like the tiger and lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What may be surprising is his view of a very controversial topic, cryptozoology.
Schaller has played a role in describing several new or extremely rare species of mammals. He thinks the yeti and sasquatch are, while seemingly doubtful, still worthy of study. "There are so many human-like creatures in different places. But after all these years there is not a single bone, a single hair. There is no physical evidence other than tracks. There is one film, taken in 1960, and it has been played endlessly for years analyzed, but they can't say it is fake. A hard-eyed look is absolutely essential." [Editor's note: Either Schaller misremembered, or a typo crept into the story, since the film he is referring to is from 1967.]
"I'm not one to say that something does not exist. Look at the Himalayan area. ...People said that the Javan Rhino was extinct. We started talking to local people and one of them said that a rhino was killed recently. He brought out a horn that was selling for a very high price. Local people know a lot, you have to ask the right questions."

Web journals vs. Peer Review

There's a revolution coming in science. Will it be good or bad?

The first Web-based "open peer-review" journals are appearing. Traditionally, a paper is scrutinized (sometimes savaged) by qualified reviewers before it appears in a print journal or its online counterpart. But the Public Library of Science is launching its first open peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE, which will appear on the Web and then be subject to review from anyone who puts forth the effort. Will it lead to a flowering of new and innovative ideas? Or will the result be a flood of shoddy work unleashed on the public? Opinions differ, but the idea of open web journals can't be stuffed back in a box. It's going to happen - for good or ill.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Still Roving Mars

Twenty-one months into its impressively long mission, the NASA rover Opportunity has reached its newest target. Victoria Crater is an impressive half-mile-wide hole in the Martian surface, but what excites scientists are the walls showing layers of exposed rock. The mission's Principal Investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell, describes the crater as "a geologist's dream come true...Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago. We especially want to learn whether the wet era that we found recorded in the rocks closer to the landing site extended farther back in time. The way to find that out is to go deeper, and Victoria may let us do that."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Grizzly bears survive in Colorado?

The grizzly, Ursus arctos horribilis, was officially extirpated from the state of Colorado in the 1950s. A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the Colorado-Wyoming Academy of Science arguing that sighting reports indicated a few bears were hanging on in the southwestern quarter of the state, though I didn't think a viable population was indicated. Now a sighting by hunters near Independence Pass, concerning a female with two cubs, has been considered credible enough by the Division of Wildlife that a helicopter was sent to conduct a search. SO far, no supporting evidence has been collected, but the story could have major implications for other "extinct" or unconfirmed animals. If it turns out we missed 800-lb predators in Colorado, what else might be out there... ?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Florida Ivory-bill Paper

Following up on the Auburn University researchers' report of Florida ivory-bills:

You can download the paper presenting the evidence from the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, at:

(Thanks to Chad Arment for locating the paper)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ivory-bills in Florida?

Auburn University researchers believe they have sighted the world's most elusive woodpecker in the Panhandle region of Florida. The Auburn researchers say their data, including 14 sighting reports and many recordings of woodpecker calls and double-rap tree drumming sounds, is actually better than the evidence from Arkansas that caused such a flap (no pun intended) last year. Very very exciting, it proves to be true... they do not have any photographs or videotapes, however. While some ornithologists are cautious, team leader Geoff Hill is certain. "I am one hundred percent positive that I saw an ivory-bill," he said.

Monday, September 25, 2006

For Saturn, a new ring

As a reminder that there's more going on in solar system exploration than the rovers on Mars, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is making important discoveries around the distant, majestic world of Saturn. When the planet recently passed in front of the sun (from the spacecraft's perspective), Cassini's camera spotted a hitherto unknown ring. The new ring intersects the orbits of two moons, Janus and Epimetheus.

Amazing undersea image collection

OK, "amazing" is an overused word. But nothing else works in this case. The winning entries from the BP Kongsberg Underwater Image Competition 2006 cover marine fauna, environments, and technology in a way that words can't express.

Friday, September 22, 2006

NATURE's science newsblog

In the "always worth reading" department is this newsblog from the editos of the prestigious science journal NATURE. This week, it coveres everything from super-cheap space launch ideas to why socialites need more sleep.

Final Final Verdict: No Face on Mars

New Scientist reports that European space scientists have new images of the Cydonia region of Mars, including the so-called "Face," from the Mars Express spacecraft. The result is - surprise - just like NASA found in earlier missions, the mystery object is merely a hill. Will this quiet the conspiracy buffs? Not a chance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Child 3M Years Old

Scientists today released information on what may be the fossil find of the decade: the skeleton of a 3-year-old female from Africa who lived, it is estimated, 3.3 million years ago. The child is an amazingly complete specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, the ancient hominin most famously known from the fossil named "Lucy." Will Harcourt-Smith of the American Museum of Natural History said, "It's a pretty unbelievable discovery... It's sensational." Scientists have spend five painstaking years freeing remains from the sandstone that encased them, and have years of additional work still to go. The fossil may settle many questions, including whether this species retained some of its ancestors' tree-climbing adaptations.

Teleportation, of a sort

German physicists report they have, for the first time anywhere, "teleported" the combined quantum state of two photons. Quantum teleportation does not transfer matter, but it does transfer information, in this case the quantum state of a particle's properties, such as polarization. In theory, this can be the basis of instant transference of almost infinite amounts of data.
COMMENT: It will be a long time before that theory pays off, but your grandchildren may think nothing of holding interactive video conferences and sending massive files back and forth with no time lag between their Martian colony and their Earthbound teacher.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

52 new species from Indonesian seas

Two surveys of the seas around the Bird's Head peninsula at the western end of New Guinea by scientists from Conservation International have revealed 52 new species of animals. Twenty-four, including two 1.2-meter epaulette sharks, were fish. The head of this enterprise was Mark Erdmann, famous for the episode in which he and his wife discovered the world's second known species of coelacanth. Other fish include new "flasher" wrasse, unusual species in which the males go through sudden color changes and maintain "harems" of females. Invertebrates catalogued included new species of corals and shrimp. Erdmann is arguing for increased protection of this area, which is biologically rich and diverse but threatened by illegal fishing methods including the use of dynamite.

A Towering Tree

The tallest living thing on Earth has gone undiscovered until now. At an undisclosed location in northern California, two amateur naturalists identified a redwood tree which, according to laser height-finding instruementaion, is 378.1 feet tall. The tree has been named Hyperion. Scientists plan to confirm the record the old-fashioned way: a brave and talented climber will ascend to the top of this natural skyscraper and drop a tape measure.

Oldest writing in the New World

The Olmecs built a mighty civilization in Mesoamerica while the Aztecs and Mayas were not even a gleam in the eyes of their gods. Now a stone from the Mexican state of Veracruz is giving us an idea how sophisticated these people were. Discovered in 1999 by two Mexican archaeologists, this block of serpentine, about the size of two thick encyclopedia volumes, contains the oldest known writing from the Western Hemisphere. The stone is over 3,000 years old, some 400 years older than any previous New World writing examples. The inscription on the stone includes 26 distinct symbols, although it's not clear yet what the unknown Olmec scribe meant to communicate.
American archaeologist Stephen Houston commented, "This reveals the Olmecs, in many ways the first civilization in a vast part of the ancient Americas, were literate, which we did not know for sure before, and hints that they were capable of the same large-scale organization assisted by writing like you saw in early Mesopotamia or Egypt."

How do you Classify a Kouprey?

The folks at provide a good summary of a new controversy in the mammal world.
One of the poster animals of cryptozoology is the Southeast Asian wild ox called the kouprey(Bos sauveli). It was described only in 1937, and no larger land mammal has been found since. (We'll set aside for the moment the debate over whether the African elephant is actually two species.) The kouprey has been on the edge of extinction almost since it was found, and there have occasionally been fears it was gone altogether, save for some hybrid animals that included domestic cattle blood.
Now three biologists have claimed that genetic analysis shows the kouprey was never anything but a hybrid between the banteng (Bos javanicus) and the zebu (Bos taurus indicus). Two French scientists immediately responded that, while "pure" koupreys may be hard to find, they do (or did) exist. The whole episode, which is far from resolved, is a reminder that taxonomy, even when it concerns creatures we know as well as we do our fellow mammals, is still not an exact science.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Success in Space

As the STS-115 shuttle mission winds down, the crew of the shuttle Atlantis and their counterparts on the International Space Station (ISS) have a lot to be proud of. After several long and strenuous spacewalks, the visitors from Earth will leave the ISS with much more power and capability than it had a week ago. Congratulations to all.

COMMENT: The ISS was expensive, and sometimes poorly managed: it will never produce the level of science return originally hoped for. That said, it gives us experience in two areas that will be very important in the future. One is long-duration human spaceflight. The other is the construction of large assemblies in space, something impossible to replicate precisely on Earth. Both will be critical to our aspirations to go beyond this planet - first with machines, as we do today, but someday with human explorers.

The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire. - Buzz Aldrin

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Neanderthals' Last Stand

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from Neanderthal hearths in a cave on Gibraltar has documented what may be the last Neanderthal settlement to exist anywhere. Known as Gorham's Cave, the site revealed what are known as Mousterian stone tools, from the final era of the Neanderthals. Seven years of work by a team led by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum produced "raw" (uncalibrated) radiocarbon dates ranging from 23,000 to 33,000 years B.P. It remains to be seen whether other scientists accept or repeat these findings, but for now, it lends credence to the idea that Neanderthals lingered here and perhaps at other southern European sites after modern humans had come to dominate the continent.

Xena, We Hardly Knew Ye

The solar system inhabitant that started the whole "what is a planet" debate has an official name. Dubbed 2003 UB313 but widely known by its nickname Xena, this body is now named Eris, after the Greek goddess of chaos and strife. The new name was announced by the International Astronomical Union, which also approved naming Eris' moon (known until now as Gabrielle) Dysnomia. Dysnomia was Eris' daughter and was another famed troublemaker in Greek mythology. Eris joins Pluto and the former asteroid Ceres in the new category of "dwarf planets."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

India's First New Bird in Half-Century

And it's a colorful new species, too.

The man who found India's newest bird is an astronomer and amateur birder named Ramana Athreya, a member of Mumbai's Natural History Society. The new species, Liocichla sp., comes from the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It sports a bright yellow patch around the eyes, a a black cap, and yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wings.
(Thanks to Darren Naish for a correction on this post.)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Atlantis makes orbit

After two weeks of frustrating delays, the space shuttle Atlantis, Mission ST-115, is in orbit. There was no evidence of significant foam shedding from the external tank, and no problems with the power unit and fuel sensor that forced the launch to slip. The six crewemembers have an ambitious shcedule ahead of them, as they make major additions to the International SPace Station (ISS). Good luck to Commander Brent W. Jett Jr., Pilot Christopher J. Ferguson and Mission Specialists Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, Joseph R. Tanner, Daniel C. Burbank and Steven G. MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Most dinosaurs are still undiscovered

A statistical analysis based on rates of discovery indicates that 71 percent of all dinosaur genera have yet to be discovered. The estimate by Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania and Steve Wang of Swarthmore College means, as Dodson says, "It's a safe bet that a child born today could expect a very fruitful career in dinosaur paleontology."

Monday, September 04, 2006

The "Crocodile Hunter" dies at 44

Steve Irwin, the Australian-born wildlife enthusiast known worldwide as The Crocodile Hunter, has died. In a freak incident, he was diving on the Great Barrier reef and passed just above a stingray, which thrust its barb up into into his chest. Most stingray events involve wounds in the feet or lower legs and are likely to be survivable, but Irwin died before he could be taken to a hospital.
COMMENT: Irwin was not a scientist, but he was a tremendously successful popularizer of science. Some scientists dismissed him as a showman who added no new knowledge and exploited animals, but science needs its showmen. Irwin showed millions of people how complex and interesting animals from crocodiles to snakes and spiders really were. He also made good use of his fame in the cause of conservation. Farewell, Steve. We'll miss you.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A "Smart" crash on the Moon

The European SMART-1 spacecraft completed its mission to study the Moon and was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface. Unique images are available here on the website of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

LockMart wins Orion

A team led by Lockheed Martin has been selected by NASA to design, develop, and test the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), now named Orion. LM was selected over a team headed by Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

COMMENT: It will no doubt trouble a lot of people that LM's last spaceship development project for NASA, the X-33, was an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, Boeing botched its highest-profile space project, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), so badly the Pentagon took it away and gave it to LM. Northrop Grumman's flagship space program is the NPOESS environemntal satellite system, which has been a mess as well. So there was no opportunity to select a large American spacecraft builder with a pristine record of recent success. (LM's team includes Orbital Sciences, a smaller company that does have an almost spotless record for the last decade. Maybe it'll rub off. An innovative entry, T-space, which included the SpaceShipOne builders, quit the competition early, saying it was scared off by the sheer magnitude of the NASA bureaucracy and the mass of reports and documentation required to deal with it.)

Of the companies that built human spaceflight vehicles for the US, none exists anymore.
The record goes like this:
1970s: Space Shuttle: Rockwell International (sold to Boeing)
1960s: Apollo: North American (merged into Rockwell and hence to Boeing)
1960s: Gemini: McDonnell (merged into Boeing)
1960s: Mercury: McDonnell

Let's hope LM gets it right. This is NASA's big bet for decades to come. I wish the agency and the company all possible success.

Conservation Heroes: Shep and Scarface

One of the great success stories in animal conservation is the costly, difficult, and ultimately successful effort to rescue the black-footed ferret, not just from endangered status, but from what was generally considered extinction. This article tells a good story of that effort and pays tribute to two unlikely heroes: Shep, the Wyoming ranch dog who dragged home a black-footed ferret on September 25, 1981: and Scarface, the last wild ferret to be captured, who may have personlly saved the species by fathering the first two litters born in captivity.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Shuttling back and forth

The space shuttle Atlantis, which was in the process of being rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building as protection from Tropical Storm Ernesto, has reversed course and is on its way back to the pad. As it's no simple thing to turn around and re-prepare a Shuttle on the pad, presumably NASA has decided the weather danger is minimal. This would be very good news for the agency, because the Shuttle's launch windows are so tight and so crowded with other considerations like Soyuz launches that it would be easy for a delay to cascade into next year.

Fingers crossed....

Friday, August 25, 2006

Plutonians not taking demotion well

NASAWatch has posted an email announcement making the rounds at JPL. It seems the High Coucil of Plutonian States is not pleased that the inhabitants of the "third rock from the sun" have demoted their world.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto Demoted

The IAU has made up its mind. Instead of adding planets to the solar system (see earlier post) it will subtract one. Pluto, ruled out of planetary status by its overlapping orbit with Neptune, will join a class called "dwarf planets."

COMMENT: Alas, nine-planet system, we knew you well. Think of the textbook corrections alone that need to be done. Still, it was long past time that someone had officially defined what a planet is.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Hobbit Wars

The latest round has been fired in the hottest scientific debate of the 21st century (so far, anyway): whether a distinct species of human lived on the Indonesian island of Flores. The only full skeleton and skull found so far, dubbed LB1, represents "a developmentally abnormal individual, being microcephalic," according to Dr. Robert Eckhardt of Penn State.

COMMENT: Expect another round of rebuttals, based in part on indications that fragmentary skeletons of other individuals show similar adult size. I still think the "pro-species" side has the best of it, but the technical nature of the debate has surpassed my ability as an interested amateur to keep up with it all. This is not likely to be settled until (and unless) more adult skulls emerge from the site.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Oldest Animal on Earth

This item updates a fascinating story I mentioned in my new book Shadows of Existence. It was always presumed the great whales lived to be quite old for mammals, maybe 60 or 70 years, but 200+? The question was raised when bowhead whales were killed legally by aboriginal people of the Arctic and found to have stone harpoon points, out of use for over a century, embedded in them. Analysis of amino acid ratios in the preserved eyes of some of these whales indicate, according to Jeffrey Bada of Scripps Institute, that "About 5 percent of the population is over a hundred years old and in some cases 160 to 180 years old." One male may have been over 200. Bada said we don't know if bowheads are unique or if studies of other whale species may indicate similar longevity.

When Sturgeon Attack

Boaters on Florida's Suwannee River are facing an unusual danger: jumping sturgeon. The Gulf sturgeon, which can be two and a half meters long, has an odd habit of jumping clear out of the water for unclear reasons. In the last year, five collisions have occurred when sturgeon opted to jump just as a boat or personal watercraft was passing. One knocked a man unconscious: another smashed the windshield of a boat. State biologists blame it on coincidence, aided by the increase in humans using the waterway and a growing sturgeon population.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More from Conference on Small Satellites

On Day 3 of the 20th annual conference, papers were presented on a variety of technologies, not all strictly related to small satellites, and on university satellites programs. The university group is very impressive: science projects have come a long way from dissecting frogs. University of Central Florida, for example, is equipping a microsat with a new kind of telescoping gravity-gradient boom which will stabilize the satellite precisely enough to allow for imaging.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain rejected the idea of basing "small" on mass alone and outlined what he called a "light satellite" approach, based on flexibility of requirements, constrained cost, and acceptance of risk, which will sometimes, though not always, lead to a smaller spacecraft. He cited ESA's SMART-1 lunar probe as an example.
Overall, this year's conference included a greater variety of papers than ever, everything from broad examinations of what a small satellite is good for to extremely technical topics like a thermal control switch design and even a DARPA-funded project to allow accurate navigation anywhere in the solar system by using X-ray pulsars as reference points. Launch and launch opportunities remained a central concern, and in some cases a very sore point for experimenters who had depended for decades on Space Shuttle "GAS Can" opportunities. The "smallsat community" showed it was a vibrant, growing assembly of entrepreneurs, professors, students, large corporations, governments, and even international associations.
Happy 20th Birthday!