Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Cryptozoology stories of 2008

Loren Coleman has posted a Top 10 list of cryptozoology news stories for 2008. Painfully, but not surprisingly, the top story was a target of popular ridicule - the Bigfoot hoax by Tom Biscardi and those two strange primates from Georgia, people who were brazen enough to call a press conference where they had to produce their alleged sasquatch corpse - and, of course, did nothing of the sort.

Ranking #6 on the list was the Colorado Springs "lion" sighting. I had a little hand in that, being quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazatte, and it is still a bit of a mystery. While it's possible someone mistook a big Chow or similar dog for a lion, and the cellphone camera pics don't rule this out, no one ever found either a lion or a large and valuable dog, and no animal possibly involved was ever reported missing.

By the way, I almost never say anything like this, but Loren's Cryptozoology Museum, a home for countless artifacts from sasquatch casts to movie props plus 40,000 books, is in deep financial trouble, mainly due to our friends at the IRS. There simply is nothing in the world like this collection, and I hope readers will go to, check out the story, and write the Museum a check.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NASA report on Columbia crew is out

NASA's Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team has published its report, available at:
The report on lessons learned from Columbia states that the crew was incapacitated almost immediately from decompression, without even time to lower their helmet visors. As NASA PAO describes the report, "The team's final report includes 30 recommendations to improve spacecraft design and crew safety. The recommendations cover a broad range of subjects from crew training, procedures, restraints and individual safety equipment to spacecraft design methods and recommendations regarding future accident investigations."

COMMENT: One recommendation (already put into effect) is that Shuttle crews be trained to activate personal breathing systems and close visors at the first sign of a problem. I'm missing something here. Why are crews not required to be in fully pressurized suits, visors down and sealed, with an independent air supply, during every reentry?


It was pointed out to me that the report says:

"The launch and entry suit was added in response to the Challenger accident, rather than as a part of the original vehicle design. The ACES was the successor to that suit. The suit protects the crew in many scenarios; however, there are several areas where integration difficulties diminish the capability of the suit to protect the crew. Integration issues include: the crew cannot keep their visors down throughout entry because doing so results in high oxygen concentrations in the cabin; gloves can inhibit the performance of nominal tasks; and the cabin stow/deorbit preparation timeframe is so busy that sometimes crew members do not have enough time to complete suit-related steps prior to atmospheric entry."

Granted, the engineering changes for a mod like this will not be attempted now, with the shuttle scheduled for retirement, but the oxygen level problem could be fixed by a tweak to environmental control system (making it, essentially, run slightly less efficiently during the last hour of flight), the timeline adjusted a few minutes to permit the additional suit-related steps, and, as to the gloves, the gloves of the ACES suit, like all pilot/astronaut pressure suits, are specifically designed to permit use of the control stick and other critical controls while fully pressurized. The crew's actions would be less efficient, but not prohibited.

I know the folks who did this report and the CAIB and Challenger ones are infinitely more qualified than I am, but I'm still missing the logic here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I posted this comment on NASAWatch, and Shuttle Program Director Wayne Hale took the time to respond and note that my suggested setup is not possible with the environmental control system built into the Shuttle, but will be possible with Orion. Thanks, Wayne.

An end run around the Ares launcher?

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has provided documents to the Obama transition team showing the Atlas or Delta EELV rockets can replace the controversial NASA choice, the Area I, in launching the Orion capsule.
COMMENT: A ULA official who shall remain nameless told me last year that NASA had been very forceful in telling the company the decision-making was over with and ULA (which currently gets some of its business from NASA, though most of its revenue comes from DoD) had better not even think about studying this issue, much less advocating on it.

New NASA report on Columbia due out

NASA is scheduled to release a new report on the Columbia disaster at noon EST today. It's not clear what the new information is, but this report says it includes more detail about the pre-breakup phase and biomedical information on the astronauts. I'm not sure whether that will be scientifically useful, or just grounds for a new round of sensational reporting about the death of the crew.

Monday, December 29, 2008

New gorilla population named one of top discoveries

This article in names the Top 5 Incredible Scientific Discoveries of 2008. The eclectic list includes:

- Determining the rate of ice melting in the Arctic
- Filming the movement of a single electron
- Identifying new links between birds and dinosaurs
- Determining how many items human memory can consider simultaneously (three or four)
- and, of greatest interest to zoology (and cryptozoology), the identification of a huge new population of gorillas - up to 125,000 of them - in Rwanda.

This last item still boggles my mind. More than a hundred thousand gorillas. It's not only great news for the species, but it trashes the notion that there cannot be any large animals still be hiding from the eyes of science.

I was surprised not to find confirmation of huge amounts of water ice on Mars here - it belongs among any list of major discoveries.

Finding new species the hard way

This local feature on LSU ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty, who recently discovered a new species of blind fish on Madagascar, highlights the challenges of traveling to the world's remote locations, such as meeting some of the world's nastiest pathogens, in pursuit of science.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

NASA's course: Neil Armstrong's View

Neil Armstrong had a letter in the Wall Street Journal for 27 Dec 08 in which he voiced optimism for the future of NASA. I can't link to the individual letter, only to the page, and can't reprint it for copyright reasons, so I will have to offer a digest of it.

His message to the incoming national leadership can be summarized as "You're not engineers: make the policy decisions and let the NASA folks work out the right path." He thought the transition team members "are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena." He felt the agency, despite the constraints of finance, had the needed talent to succeed, and had developed a workable path to the Moon and Mars that should not be interfered with.

COMMENT: Armstrong's basic point - that political leaders should not try to be the engineers - is a good one, and I hope his letter will have some impact there. It would have been nice, given public pronouncements from Armstrong are guaranteed a wide readership, if he'd added that flat or declining NASA budgets would not permit the the engineers to pursue any path but the cheapest one (which invariably carries a high degree of risk). I've stated my personal opinion before - I hope President Obama will push for the significant increases for NASA that Candidate Obama promised, but I am highly skeptical that he will.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Protesting CNN science cuts

The National Association of Science Writers, to which I belong, joined three other science journalism organizations in an unprecedented protest to CNN concerning the cable titan's intent to cut its science unit entirely. I suppose this could be seen as self-serving, but taking science journalism at an important news network out of the hands of people like Miles O'Brien and putting it in the hands of people who also do cute stories about kittens is a disgusting abdication of responsibility (notice CNN didn't cut its entertainment "news" people).

Big celebrities, bad science

Science editor Steve Connor of the UK Independent takes big names to task for dumb science statements in 2008. Politicians get chided for making connections between vaccines and autism (Obama and McCain both made unsupported statements) or for not understanding the value of some kinds of research (Sarah Palin). Hollywood types and celebrity diet gurus get served as well, as Connor complains about statements claiming the body can be "detoxified" by diets or (thank you, Demi Moore) "highly trained medical leeches." (Who gets to train the leeches?) Finally, no such article would be complete without a mention of Tom Cruise and psychiatry.
COMMENT: Comment would be superfluous.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Strangest Science of 2008

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log asks visitors to vote for the strangest science stories of 2008. Contenders include:
- The discovery of a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash
- The bizarre Bigfoot costume hoax
- A Japanese scientist who taught beluga whales to make different vocal sounds for different objects
- The induction of near-death experiences in the laboratory (actually, I remember undergoing one in a chemistry professor's lecture hall)
- The translation of a Greek joke book written 1,600 years ago, which includes (really) a version of Monty Python's "Dead parrot" sketch and puns that still work in English.
- My vote probably goes to the creation of transparent fish... which have actual uses in cancer research, but could lead to a new Monty Python sketch with a pet shop owner and a customer arguing whether there are actually fish in a tank or not.

A Christmas gift for endangered rhinos

One of the most endangered large mammals in the world is Rhinoceros sondaicus, the Javan rhinoceros. Ujung Kulon National Park in West Java, Indonesia, holds about 60 of the animals, and only three calves had been documented over the last three years. Now conservationists are happy to report they have made a mistake. A new survey turned up four more calves, indicating not only slightly greater numbers overall but much more energetic breeding activity than had been suspected. Coming on top of the 2006 discovery that the species still existed, at least in tiny numbers, in Vietnam as well, the species - while still on the critical list - has at least a slightly better chance of survival than seemed the case a few years back.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

1906 Bulletin by USGS on Lake Iliamna

One of my favorite mysteries in cryptozoology concerns the alleged giant fish of Alaska's Lake Iliamna. An illustration of how useful Google Book Search can be to historical research is this bulletin from 1906. (The original spelling and punctuation is preserved in this excerpt.)

Bulletin By Geological Survey (U.S.): "Iliamna lake, largest in Alaska, a few feet above sea level, about 60 miles long and from 15 to 25 miles wide between Bristol bay and Cook Inlet. Named Shelekof by the Russians as early as 1802 but now universally known by its native name Iliamna, locally pronounced Lamna. According to Martin, Iliamna is 'said to be the name of a mythical great blackfish supposed to inhabit this lake which bites holes in the bidarkas of bad natives.' A Russian map of 1802 calls this Shelekof while Clark lake, supposed to to have been discovered in 1891, is shown and called Ilima lake."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas present from NASA to SpaceX and Orbital

NASA's pre-Christmas press release:

"NASA has awarded two contracts -- one to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and one to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. -- for commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. At the time of award, NASA has ordered eight flights valued at about $1.9 billion from Orbital and 12 flights valued at about $1.6 billion from SpaceX.
These fixed-price indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts will begin Jan. 1, 2009, and are effective through Dec. 31, 2016. The contracts each call for the delivery of a minimum of 20 metric tons of upmass cargo to the space station."

COMMENT. Private space companies have been agitating for years for NASA to get serious about the goal, going back to the Reagan administration, of handing off some serious spaceflight responsibility to private enterprise. I've been one voice (okay, a very minor one) urging that the idea deserved a tryout on a meaningful scale. Well, now it's reality, and we will learn whether the firms involved can really provide delivery, on schedule and on budget, to a customer in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) (which, just to make it more fun, resides at a most inconvenient inclination, thanks to that move-the-space-station decision which will be argued over forever). So hearty congratulations to Orbital and to SpaceX. Now let's see if you can put your launch mass where your mouth is.

December 24, 1968: Earthrise

One of the most famous photographs ever taken is 40 years old. William Anders of Apollo 8 took the iconic "Earthrise" photograph as the spacecraft orbited the Moon. Apollo 8 was not in the original Apollo program, but was an idea born in the effort to get everything on track - and show real progress - as the program recovered from the Apollo I fire. Apollo 8 was a brilliant success. It reminds us how much we as a species can do when we put our intellects to a great task.

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with, Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth." - Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, after the crew completed a Christmas Eve reading from the book of Genesis

"From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It wasn't a miracle: we just decided to go."
- Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell, after the Apollo 11 landing in 1969

Amateur finds golden hoard

BMW engineer Nadine Ross had taken a vacation from her native England to volunteer for a month at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. In the last week of her stay, after helping find some pottery and glass of mild interest, she probed under a large rock in a parking area. She came up with nearly 300 beautifully preserved golden coins from the 7th century A.D.
The dig's Israeli supervisor told the press, "This is one of the largest and most impressive coin hoards ever discovered in Jerusalem - certainly the largest and most important of its period." The coins show the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who was believed in his era to have restored the True Cross of Christ to its native city after it had been carried away by Persian attackers.
COMMENT: I never tire of stories of dedicated amateurs who make important advances for science, whether the story involves a presumed-extinct frog, an ancient tomb, or a new asteroid. The recent focus on science as something done by large teams from well-funded institutions (think the Large Hadron Collider or the Mars rovers) can obscure the fact that science is people - professional and amateur.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New species -and new forest - found

A British scientist using Google Earth to study conservation projects was surprised to see a forest that was new to him. Indeed, no scientist, apparently, had ever been aware of the 7,000-hectare patch of green on a spot known as Mount Mabu. While the forest was known to local people, word if it had never reached the ears of science.
According to this article, "In just three weeks, scientists led by a team from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew found hundreds of different plant species, birds, butterflies, monkeys and a new species of giant snake."
(Hmm.... A giant snake? The article goes on to say this is a new species of Gaboon viper, a nastily poisonous but not gigantic reptile. )
Jonathan Timberlake, who led the Kew expedition, believes this is not the only such preserve waiting for someone to notice it.
"We cannot say we have discovered all the biodiversity areas in the world, there are still ones to discover and it helps to find new species to make people realise what is out there," he said.
COMMENT: A new species is one thing, but a new forest? It's a good reminder of how much we still have to learn about this planet, and of how helpful the new tools of the digital age can be.

MicroSpace News: Little thrusters can mean a lot

Progress in further miniaturizing spacecraft and increasing the capabilities of very small spacecraft require a host of technological advances. An example of such an advance is this new microthruster propulsion concept, which comes from an international team of university-based engineers. Instead of having separate heating elements and needing to pump liquid propellants over them to get ignition, electrical energy is fed directly into the monopropellant, saving weight and complexity. As Ming-Hsun Wu of the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan put it, "This is the first time that electrolysis has been used as an ignition mechanism for a microscale liquid monopropellant microthruster and the results turned out to be pretty exciting."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chasing New Species

This entertaining article hops around the globe to highlight news of new, rediscovered, and mystery species.

Latest on the "Hobbit" - New Species theory reinforced

The latest round of research on the "Liang Bua hominins (Homo floresiensis)," known worldwide as the "hobbits" of Flores island, published by Karen L. Baaba and Kieran P. McNulty in the Journal of Human Evolution, reinforces the view that these people constituted a separate species, and were not the result of dwarfism or microcephaly in an insular population of modern humans. A study of cranial size and shape across a variety of primates, living and extinct, indicates "LB1 [the only cranial specimen from Floes - MB] best fits predictions for a small specimen of fossil Homo but not the for a small modern human."
COMMENT: This business will not be resolved until we have more cranial specimens from Flores, but I've always felt the separate species advocates had the best of the argument.

MicroSpace News: Congratulatiosn to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX

From the press release:

"HAWTHORNE, Calif., Dec 17, 2008 -- Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has announced the appointment of Gwynne Shotwell as President, effective immediately. In her new position, Shotwell will be part of the Office of the Chairman and CEO and report to Elon Musk, CEO and CTO. As President, she will focus on the operational activities of SpaceX, including sales, marketing, manufacturing, launch operations, legal, government relations and finance."

COMMENT: I've known Gwynne for several years. She was at Microcosm and Aerospace before SpaceX. The lady is scary smart. Congratulations, and good luck with a new year of Falcon 1 launches, not to mention development of the Dragon and Falcon 9.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why do beaked whales have tusks?

Male beaked whales of most species have prominent teeth, or small tusks, which are visible even when the mouth is closed. (In one weird species, they actually curve in enough to restrict how far the mouth can open). Why do they exist? They are not used for feeding and don't have any other critical use, though some males scar each other with them. Some cetologists now speculate they evolved distinctive placement and form, varying between species, because that helped females distinguish between species that are often so externally similar that even experts need have trouble telling them apart.
COMMENT: Why tusks as a differentiator? Why not color, or dorsal fin shape, or something else more obvious? And do they really differentiate visually anyway? This article captures some of the debate on this. It also gives me an opportunity to mention two of the cetologists quoted here, Drs. Robert Pitman and Merel Dalebout, and give them a nod of recognition (not that they need it) because they were happy to answer questions from some science writer they probably never heard of while I was writing Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (2006).

Of Gen Y and PowerPoint

This is an interesting thread on NASAWatch because it touches on a couple of topics. One is the generation gap between workers, how different generations really are, and how an organization gets the best out of a multigenerational work force. There are links to a PowerPoint (sorry, I don't know how to make the little trademark symbol with this blog software) presentation and a rather bare-bones report on how NASA is approaching this. The second, which Keith Cowing brings up based on the first, is why everything seems to be in PowerPoint and whether engineers are learning how to communicate in depth in written documents these days.

COMMENT: I work for an international consulting firm where a PowerPoint "deck" is THE standard format for reports: products written out in Word or similar programs basically don't exist. I've learned to work well with this format, but I'll never like it. PowerPoint, to me, is a great gadget for presentations: it's not very good for depth and detail, unless you have hundreds of slides. "PowerPoint Engineering" was criticized by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board: if complex technical questions must be reduced to bullet points, context and depth are inevitably lost, and minority or dissenting views are usually part of what gets left out. Future historians are going to be hard put to reconstruct what our generation of humans did and thought from corporate and government archives. For that matter, I often can't reconstruct what people did five years ago. Indeed, I talk to authors who can't reconstruct their own work. That's why I keep a lot of hard copy as well as electronic records from every study effort of mine. I hope that habit spreads.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Retire or extend the Shuttle?

It's not an easy call either way. Mike Griffin has always been afraid (with good reason) that money to extend the Shuttle's life past 2010 would mean cuts to the Constellation program. This news item states that a NASA report to be released today "projects that extending the program until 2015 would cost up to an additional $13 billion and could increase the chances of accidents with astronauts aboard." President-elect Obama's team has asked about a range of options, from extending the Shuttle to scrapping it on schedule and accelerating Constellation to killing the Shuttle AND cutting the scope of Constellation by scrapping the Ares booster program.
COMMENT: The last is, I think, the most likely outcome. While I never liked the Ares I and would be in favor of man-rating a Delta or Atlas launch vehicle instead, I think what will happen is that the whole Constellation program is going to be starved and stretched out while the Shuttle is retired anyway. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm quite sure that I'm not.

President Bush on Creation and Evolution

It might be said that an outgoing President's views don't matter much, but this is an exception, since George W. Bush has been for a long time one of the most prominently Christian figures in public office. In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" program, Bush pronounced himself a believer in the importance of the Bible, but "not a literalist." He explained concerning creation and evolution, " "I think you can have both. I think evolution can — you're getting me way out of my lane here. I'm just a simple president. But it's, I think that God created the earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."

A poll on this story indicates the readers of the site are generally in strong disagreement with the President (whom I am, in general, in agreement with, though I would not have used his phrasing). Of 5,800 self-selected respondents, 89 percent felt creation was "just a primitive story."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A thousand new species from SE Asia

This blog has covered some new species from Southeast Asia, including a 30-cm spider and a startling pink millipede, but just how many species have been discovered in the valley of the Mekong river, which flows through much of that region? The WWF added them all up and found there have been over a thousand in the last decade. Think about that. This astonishing number tells us that, despite all the environmental harm we've caused, a great deal of the natural world is still out there waiting to be explored and classified. The link above includes photos of some examples, like the brilliant green viper Trimeresurus gumprechti (one of 22 new snakes), the Laotian rock rat, and a tree frog, Chiromantis samkosensis, which is colorful not just on the outside, but on the inside, thanks to its turquoise bones and green blood (!)
Oh, and the viper was spotted crawling through the rafters of a restaurant. Seriously. That ought to count some points off a Michelin Guide rating.

Cryptozoologist of the Year named

Loren Coleman gives the honor to Dr. Andrea Marshall, who discovered a huge and striking new species that had been (sometimes, anyway) in plain sight. No one before her had made much of a study of the manta populations off the coast of Africa. When Marshall looked at them thoroughly, she discovered they included two species, one coastal (this was the known species) and a larger, deeper-water denizen which could be distinguished by its more triangular fins, its lifestyle (migratory), and its sheer size (up to eight meters across and weighing up to two metric tons). Marshall did something important to all of science: looking at something no one else had examined and finding what no one else had noticed.
I nominated Debbie Martyr as runner-up for her rediscovery of the Sumatran muntjac and her continuing progress in solving the mystery of the orang-pendek - the likeliest, in my view, of all the cryptid primates to prove a new species.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MicroSpace News: Bring on SwampSAT

I covered earlier in this column the welcome release of NSF grants for microsatellite technology projects. The University of Florida has used NSF funding to create the Advanced Space Technologies Research and Engineering Center at the UF College of Engineering. Their first flight hardware is a $100K, 1-kg microsat designed to tackle the problem of precision attitude control of a vehicle with very little room for a conventional attitude control system. The university is not spilling all the details of their idea in the press (even in the College of Engineering's own press), but SwampSAT will be ready for launch in 2009 to test a possible solution.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dwarf crocodile is three species

In the latest example of applying DNA to taxonomy, a team from the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History was looking into the distinctiveness of populations of the African dwarf crocodile, which had been split off on morphological grounds into separate subspecies. Looking at dwarf croc DNA samples from all over the African continent, researchers discovered that, not only were the two subspecies more properly described as full species in the genus Osteolaemus, but there was a third species no one had distinguished. The scientists sequenced over 4,000 more base pairs of DNA (both mitochondrial and nuclear) from more than 80 individuals to work it all out.

Under Lake Ontario, an archaeological mystery

A hundred and fifty meters beneath the surface of Lake Ontario rests a newly discovered mystery. A 19th-century schooner, 17 meters long, rests upright on the bottom in surprisingly good condition. No one consulted so far, though, has been able to shed any light on the vessel's name or its origin. Video from an ROV indicates many of the ship's fittings were removed before it sank, perhaps indicating it was in the middle of a conversion for some other role when disaster struck. The vessel is distinctive because of its use of a daggerboard, a wooden extension to the keel which could be raised or lowered. There's no record of any daggerboard ship on the lake, from any time period.
COMMENT: As we explore the Earth's wild places and the universe around us, this find reminds us that we always have more to learn from exploring our own history as well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Day Science Stood Still?

Alan Boyle's ever-entertaining Cosmic Log looks at the new movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I haven't been anticipating this film. The 1950s original, a beautiful little two-character drama, is classic: this one looks like another CGI spectacular with lots of explosions and tiresome eco-preaching. However, Boyle notes, the creators did endeavor to get some of the science right, and actress Jennifer Connelly in particular tried to make her astrobiologist character believable. So maybe I'll see it after all. At least on DVD.

UPDATE: The first reviews are in. DVD is looking like the good option.

One small step toward fusion

Creating electricity by fusion reactors, while devilishly difficult, is viewed by some experts as the only long-term answer to providing sustainable "green" power to the Earth in sufficient quantity to run cities and industries. No one has yet built a fusion reactor producing more energy than it consumes. Within the most common design being pursued, a superheated plasma must be kept away from all contact with the sides of donut-shaped chamber - without creating energy-sapping turbulence within the plasma, and without using an enormous amount of power. Now two MIT scientists have demonstrated a potential solution using radio waves. The problem? It works, but they don't know how. Without understanding the theory involved, they can't prove that the method will scale up for use in commercial reactors.
COMMENT: Commercial fusion remains probably a couple of decades off, but every advance like this brings it a little closer. If President-elect Obama is serious about long-term energy independence, fusion research needs a boost. The initial costs are high and the rewards are years away, but the logical case for investing here is very strong.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How mammoth can a mammoth get?

This entertaining article by Loren Coleman introduces us to the Songua River Mammoth(Mammuthus sungari), a NE Asian species that appears to have been the largest proboscidean ever to walk the Earth. At 5.2m high and 9.1m long (tail tip to trunk tip), it weighed some 10 tons or more and must have been awe-inspiring to a hunter armed only with a spear. It still loses out for the title of "Largest Land Mammal Ever" to Paraceratherium (a.k.a. Baluchitherium or Indricotherium), which roamed some of the same territory, but it doesn't lose out by by much.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Space: The Commercial Frontier

Several companies are preparing to tap what they see as a promising market in suborbital rides to space. Blue Origin is the quietest of these, building a vehicle with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' investment money and spending almost nothing on tooting its own horn before it has an actual working spaceship. (Good for them). The company is, though, reaching out to offer suborbital microgravity rides for scientific projects. Blue Origin has invited contact from scientific and student organizations seeking space on projected Research and Education Missions (REM), which will be flown in addition to the passenger missions. Leonard David, whose excellent article collects what we know about this very private firm's plans, reports that REMs might be available as early as 2011.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Name your own bat

Many name-the-species sales have involved creatures 99% of the population doesn't care about, but Purdue University has jumped on board by offering the right to name seven new species of bats. The university hopes this will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for research and conservation. For those with chiroptophobia, there are also two South American turtles up for grabs.

MicroSpace News: More on ORS satellite

Goodrich will be building the next (and first officially operational) satellite using the Operationally Responsive Space moniker for DoD. ORS Sat-1 will, in the not-very-helpful terminology offered by Goodrich's Tom Bergeron, "...provide valuable operational capability to commanders in the field and will utilize capabilities proven on Goodrich's portfolio of ISR solutions."

COMMENT: It will be interesting to see if this satellite earns the name ORS, or whether, in transitioning from R&D pathfinders to "operational" satellites, this becomes a more typical stretched-out, cost challenged, budget threatened program.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Big slip for Mars Polar Lander

NASA's flagship mission to Mars, the Mars Polar Lander, won't be fully tested and ready by the planned October 2009 launch date. That pushes it to the next window of opportunity, when Earth and Mars are in the optimal alignment for a mission. That comes in 2011. The slip will add further costs to a mission beset by a series of overruns and descopings.

Dinosaurs at the poles

How did dinosaurs, traditionally thought of as tropical or subtropical creatures, survive near the poles? After all, it was chilly up there (and down there) even in the Mesozoic. The annual mean temperature at the poles was about 41 F or 5 C - balmy compared to modern climates, but too cold for for what we used to think were basically cold-blooded animals.
One idea was that dinos living near the poles made long seasonal migrations, as many modern birds do. Fossil evidence, though, as well as a comparison to modern polar land animals, indicates that many species did not migrate, or at least did not migrate as far as we thought. As Phil Bell of the University of Alberta explains, "Many types of dinosaurs were surviving in polar latitudes at the time, and getting along quite fine. They were not physically able to remove themselves from the environment for a variety of reasons and had to adapt to the cold, dark winters just as the rest of us mammals do today." Bell and co-author Eric Snively have shown us all, once again, that we have a lot to learn about our favorite fossil creatures.

Friday, December 05, 2008

British Columbia's sasquatch hunters

This very skeptical but not unaffectionate portrait of sasquatch hunters in Canada's western province includes some good give-and-take between the believers and skeptics.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What if birds or reptiles had produced the human-level brains?

This is about the most interesting thread on any blog I've seen lately (Darren Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology is always interesting, but this entry is really really interesting). What if mammals had not produced the top intelligent species on the planet (us)? What if mammalian evolution had gone wrong, or dinosaur evolution had more time to work with? Naish tracks this idea through its original concept (a bipedal dinosaur evolved from a brainy species called Troodon) through his own "avisapiens" and some concepts by other researchers on brainy descendants of known dinos or birds. Someone ought to collect all these and do a book on them.

Giant pterosaur discovered - in museum

A pterosaur with one of the coolest scientific names ever - Lacusovagus magnificens, "magnificent lake wanderer," has been described from a fossil found in Brazil but overlooked for years in a German museum. The species had a wingspan of five meters and is the largest known member of a clan of tootless flying reptiles called chaoyangopterids. It doesn't match up to the greatest of the flying reptiles - the mind-boggling Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a span up to 12 meters by some estimates, and the similar-sized or perhaps even larger Hatzegopteryx thambema - but it's a major find nontheless. And, like I said, it's just plain cool.

Oldest-ever insect imprint found

A very clear imprint of a dragonfly-like insect, found on a rocky outcrop by a Tufts University geology student in Massachusetts, has been dated to approxmately 312 million years. It may be the oldest such imprint knwon to science.
Discoverer Richard Knecht explains, "It's not a dragonfly but picture a dragonfly-like body. We're looking at something related, maybe a mayfly. They have the same body plan." Tufts paleontologist Jake Brenner adds, "It's unusual to see a flying insect make such a deep impression in this muddy sediment. We don't have many good body fossils from this time period with these early flying insects. The level of detail is really unseen in continental deposits."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cougar killed in Louisiana

Again, officially, there are no cougar populations east of the Mississippi, except for the Florida variety. At this rate, though, officials sure are keeping busy doing necropsies on bodies of cats that don't exist.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Journal of Air and Space Law now online

A release from my old friend Joanne Gabrynowicz at the U. of Mississippi School of Law indicates the Journal of Air and Space Law will be available online via university and law libraries with the proper account.

32 years of the world's most important writings on space law have just become more easily accessible. Today, volumes 1 through 31 of the Journal of Space Law, spanning from 1973-2005, was added to the HeinOnline Library.
The Journal had a number of on-line companies from which to choose. It chose HeinOnline, first and foremost, because its contents are more widely available to libraries around the world. Its subscription rates make Hein Online contents more accessible to libraries with modest budgets. Over the years, we have received comments from lawyers and students alike saying they could often access a HeinOnline account when they could not access some of Hein's larger, more expensive, competitors. Now, like the University of Mississippi School of Law Library, any library with a Hein subscription can make the Journal accessible.
After speaking to a number of law librarians, the Journal also learned that many of them prefer the Hein format that provides an image of each original page, in its original full-page format. This preserves the original page as an historical and legal record and also facilitates more accurate citations.
The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law is now engaged in a project that will create a searchable, cumulative index for all of the volumes, back to 1973. When completed, the index will be available on the Center's website. In the meantime, searching on HeinOnline can be done by title or author name, as well as full-text searching of the collection or select periodicals.