Tuesday, November 30, 2010

X-37B spaceplane finishing up mission?

The Air Force isn't saying exactly what the X-37B unmanned spaceplane has been up to, but it's losing altitude and being guided back toward Earth for a landing between December 3 and December 6. The Air Force has pronounced itself very pleased with the project, which has kept the spaceplane in orbit since April 22 and made significant changes of orbit. A second X-37B is under construction for a launch in 2011.
COMMENT: It will be interesting to see if the AF and Boeing have mastered the art of unmanned Shuttle-type reentry and runway landing.

Arsenic and Old Life?

NASA plans a press conference to highlight a new paper on "weird life" and the possibilities arsenic-based life exists on other worlds. And maybe, just maybe, on Earth, although we wouldn't know since nobody's ever looked for it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Well, I'll be - a two-trunked elephant

Seriously. Show in Africa in 2004, this critter would up, where else, in a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum. Reportedly the trunks are both functional, so it's like you or I having two noses. As Karl Shuker said, it can not only make a trunk call, but can reverse the charges.....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quantum physics: even stranger than you think

Physicists are still trying to figure out "spooky action at a distance," in which particles seem to "know" what other particles are doing, whether an electromagnetic field exists even if it's totally shielded off from the particle, or whether the second slit in a double-slit experiment is open. A new theory is that there is not an inexplicable connection between the particles, but that time is running backwards as well as forwards. Confused? If you're not confused, you don't understand the situation. But there are practical as well as purely scientific applications of figuring it out.

If we find the right planet, how do we get there?

Scientists think they have found at least one exoplanet in what's called the "Goldilocks zone" - not too hot, not too cold, in other words at least plausibly tolerant to Earthlike life. This brief but interesting article brings up the problem of how we get there. Conventional rocket? 380,000 years. One possible solution, discussed here by Dana Andrews, might cut it to 40 years.
COMMENT: I worked on a NASA study once that looked at this. There are several ideas for near-lightspeed travel, but they require massive investments of time and money. Still, we should keep looking at them to lay the foundation future generations will build on.

What is the orang-pendek?

Danish zoologist Lars Thomas has been studying hairs collected last year when Sumatra's enigmatic primate, which looks a bit like a short, slight man covered in reddish hair, was last seen. According to Karl Shuker, his report is that the DNA collected was very close to human, but the hair structure was apelike. This is not quite as contradictory as it seems. Shuker points to the strikingly marked "king" cheetah, which is a normal cheetah by DNA but has hairs structured like those of an unrelated species, the leopard. Possible identities for the orang-pendek include an unknown population of orangutans well out of their known range (this would require considerable observer error in the sighting reports, but such human error is hardly unknown), an ape related to the siamang/gibbon line, or some early offshoot from the human line, perhaps related to the Flores "hobbits."
COMMENT: My question was whether the mixed result could indicate it was ape hair accidentally contaminated by humans, but Shuker reports Thomas doesn't think that could have happened. The orang-pendek is very respectable as cryptozoological animals go, with experts keeping an open mind and good witnesses like British conservationist Debbie Martyr describing it in the field. What this result means is that we have not solved the mystery yet.
UPDATE: Lars Thomas has responded that the DNA came from the inside of the sample hairs, where contamination was not possible.

Christmas in orbit for Discovery?

The next launch window for sending the shuttle Discovery to the ISS opens December 17, but it's not clear whether the spacecraft would be ready that date. A mission over Christmas is one possibility, but it's turning out to be harder than expected to find the cause of cracks in the intertank structure on the shuttle's External Tank. Fixing the cracks (not difficult) is no good if they might recur and you don't know why. According to NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier,"We would have liked to have found a most probable cause by now. This is turning out to be a little more complicated from an analysis standpoint....We'll let the data drive where we're heading."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Save the Tiger

At a meeting in St. Peterburg, Russia, actor Leonardo DiCaprio met with President Putin and donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund to protect tiger habit and support anti-poaching activities. Earlier this year, he spearheaded a $20M fund drive. Putin has taken on a personal (if showy) commitment to the tiger, going out himself to tranquilize one for a research program. The Siberian (or Amur) tiger is the only tiger subspecies whose wild population is increasing, although it is far from out of danger.
COMMENT: I sometimes get annoyed when celebrities are ostentatious about their giving, although the publicity they can bring to a cause is also a good thing. So I'll applaud Leonard on this one. The cause needs all the help it can get. Despite heroic actions of wildlife officials and rangers, the wild tiger population is in free-fall, down to about three thousand animals in all the subspecies put together. (Maybe species: some mammologist maintain the Sumatran is a distinct species, although it can mate with other types.) Tiger habitat has to be conserved and patrolled, and people living on its edges need economic support so they are not forced into poaching. That takes money.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ISS passing in front of the Moon

The photographs coming out of the space program still inspire wonder. Or they should.

Scientists amazed at cometary "snowstorm"

The EPOXI spacecraft's close pass by comet Hartley 2 made jaws drop at NASA. Jets of carbon dioxide spewing from the ends of the comet's nucleus envelop it in a continuous envelope of frozen particles, some up to basketball sized. One investigator compared it to seeing a comet in a snowglobe. Indeed, there are two phenomena going on, as EPOXI deputy principal Jessica Sunshine (am I sexist to say that's a wonderful name for a scientist exploring the universe?) explained: "The carbon dioxide jets blast out water ice from specific locations in the rough areas resulting in a cloud of ice and snow. Underneath the smooth middle area, water ice turns into water vapor that flows through the porous material, with the result that close to the comet in this area we see a lot of water vapor."
COMMENT: The more we explore, the more there is to wonder at. I understand other needs, but I cannot understand the argument that spending one half of one percent of our national budget on probing the universe isn't worth it.

The Great Monkey Escape

Some 80 monkeys inhabit an enclosed patch of forest on the grounds of Kyoto University's primate research Center. Faced with an electric fence more than 5 meters high, one group of monkeys pulled off an escape by using springy tree beanches to catapult themselves over it! However, the monkeys didn't know where to go once outside: they hung around, and researchers armed with peanuts were able to lure them back in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tasmanian tiger video? Hmmm, probably not

This 2009 video form Australia is making the rounds, attached to the interesting question of whether it might be a surviving thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger). When I saw it, I wrote: "Interesting, clearly not a dog from the tail, possibly a big fox," although the color seemed a little light for a fox (it was taken from too great a distance to see if there were any stripes). Expert opinion is tending toward a fox, but it's raised the question of whether the world's largest modern marsupial predator might still be alive. My read: thylacines absolutely persisted after the official extinction date of 1936, but how long? I think, based on sightings, a few hung on in Tasmania into the 1980s, maybe the 1990s. It is not impossible some survive today, either on Tasmania or from an unrecorded introduction to the Australian mainland, but I can't work up any real hope.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A tiny bat may not be there anymore

Discovery of a new mammal species is always a big deal. That's true even for this tiny bat from Ecuador, which weighs a mere 3.5 grams. The problem: it was found as a tagged specimen in the collection of the Río Palenque Scientific Center (RPSC), and no one knows if live ones still exist anywhere.

Wild photos: croc grabs elephant

This wildlife encounter was one never before recorded on film. A crocodile (who you might say had eyes bigger than his stomach) grabbed an adult elephant by the trunk. The elephant reared back, pulling the croc into the air and then onto the bank. The elephant shook off the reptile, and everyone split the scene.

A glowing deep-sea squid

A new species of squid, 70 cm long and studded with light-producing organs, has turned up in the southern Indian Ocean. A six-week IUCN-sponsored expedition to the region trapped or observed some 70 species of squid, or one-fifth of the known species, which is really something. It's also thought there are more new species among the expedition's haul.

Three new amphibians hop into view

From western Columbia come the newest amphibians known to science. An effort to find possible extinct frogs and toads, launched by Conservation International, instead turned up the new species. Currently awaiting formal description are a new type of "rocket frog" (I don't know the origin of the term, member of a group where the parents carry newly hatched tadpoles to water on their backs: a beaked toad only 2cm long, which lays eggs on the forest floor which develop directly into mini-toads; and toad with striking red eyes. Herpetologists haven't figured out the last one's genus yet: it may require erection of a new one.

Will NASA make Commercial Crew impossible?

NASA supports (or has been told to support) the idea of letting commercial vehicles carry crew members to the ISS. Not surprisingly, there are different levels of support for this radical idea within the agency.
NASA, very properly, wants to impose standards for "man-rated" launch vehicles, much as the FAA certifies airliners. This is not new for NASA: it did the same thing for the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan II boosters in the 60s when rockets developed outside NASA were adapted to carry astronauts. Former Shuttle program head Wayne Hale, though, thinks NASA's new proposed standards are so burdensome no one may be able to meet them. Hale writes:
"The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements. Most disappointing, on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed, in whole or in part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document." The questions raised by Hale and the commenters on his blog is whether NASA is setting the bar so high that its standard cannot be met.
COMMENT: It's hard to decide whether this apparent overregulation hides malicious intent or just reflects an abundance of caution in an agency where all the people who have done this job before have retired. Either way, NASA needs to, and presumably will, take comments from industry and may do some modifying to get the job done without making the job impossible

Monday, November 15, 2010

T. rex: Does my tail look fat?

It's been some years now that paleontologists have been volleying back and forth the idea that Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest (ok, there are a couple other dino-predators in the same size range), meanest-looking carnivore ever to stomp the earth, was primarily a scavenger. Among the points cited are the small forelimbs and analyses indicating it wasn't fast enough to chase prey.
One researcher at the University of Alberta says this latter point isn't correct. He looked at the tail structure of T. rex vs. modern analogues like the komodo dragon and concluded the dino's tail was much more muscular than people had been assuming. The muscles at the base of the tail is a clue to how much muscle there was in the thighs, and together they can give us an idea how fast the animal moved. The answer: fast enough to run prey down, and faster than needed for a scavenger.
COMMENT: All predators will scavenge whenever the opportunity arises, but I never liked the arguments that T. rex did so almost exclusively. The animal is just over-equipped, ridiculously big and well-armed, for the job.

New lizard species: available for lunch and dinner

Discoveries of new species are made in many ways: in the field, among hunters' trophies, in museums. Charles Darwin once shot a bird and ate most of it before it dawned on him he didn't recognize its species. A weasel once dropped a new South American rodent at Dr. Louise Emmons' feet. Kathryn Fuller of the World Wildlife Fund once discovered a new species of any when it walked out of a potted plant on her desk and asked visiting entomologist E.O. Wilson to take a look. The latest fluke discovery comes from a Vietnamese restaurant, where a lizard that was well known locally but unknown to science was being served up as a blue plate special.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The science of Godzilla

I've mentioned this before, but it's too much fun not to return to. Dr. Darren Naish has updated his exploration, abetted by two other paleontologists, of the scientific problems with the greatest of the giant monsters. One of the fun points is that, while the American film Godzilla looks much more reasonable as a real animal, the titanic (impossible, really) demands of gravity on any such beast make the Japanese type, with his tree-trunk legs, at least a little more practical. The American version does win a point for eschewing the atomic bad breath.
COMMENT: This stuff is endlessly fascinating to me, even if we know none of the giant creatures would work. If Godzilla is impractical, we can certainly forget about the spindly yet even bigger Cloverfield monster. Peter Jackson's King Kong looked marvelous, as Jackson took a gorilla and meticulously scaled him up by a factor of 4 (some sources say 4.4) but Kong, too, would suffer from impossible weight-bearing demands on his skeleton, among other things.
But in the end, who cares? Just enjoy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology
Dr. Darren Naish
CFZ Book,s 2010

Dr. Darren Naish, a British paleontologist, runs THE most fascinating blog on the Internet, Tetrapod Zoology. Naish is an expert on dinosaurs (having described a new British sauropod and written a book called The Great Dinosaur Discoveries) but his curiosity embraces everything: what happens when an animal dies while grasping a perch, what's so cool about the amphibians called slow-worms, and why the largest pterosaurs probably did not snap up prey while skimming the ocean and instead spent most of their time walking around like giant storks. There isn't space here to list even a fraction of the topics presented, but Naish's collection of zoology, cryptozoology, and paleontology never failed to hold my attention. He has strong opinions on matters of scientific controversy, and defends them vigorously. When it comes to cryptozoology, Naish is skeptical in the best sense of the word: he well aware there are important undiscovered animals out there, and he is is open-minded but insists on scientific standards of evidence. (Naish contributed important material on mystery whales to my book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006.)
The lay reader of Tetrapod Zoology may occasionally stumble over a dense tangle of technical language, but won't be dissuaded: there's just too much information here to stop reading. If you are interested in the animal-related sciences, this is a unique collection you will have to own.

GEMINI, a cool science magazine from Norway

One of the perks of being in the National Association of Science Writers is that publishers will sometimes send you stuff. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology is sending an enjoyable popular science magazine, GEMINI. You may not think of Norway as a hotbed for scientific and technical advances, but a lot of interesting research is going on. The latest issue had articles on understanding pain, geothermal energy, genetic differences between humans and chimps, and an imaging system that lets a mechanized weed-killing machine squirt herbicide directly on weeds instead of spraying a whole cornfield. Not surprisingly for Norway, there's also a lot of marine science in every issue. The writing is clear and the illustrations great. My thanks to the publishers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo

Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo
by Dr. Karl Shuker, with Forewords by Bob Rickard and David Sutton
CFZ Press, 2010. 390pp.

Dr. Karl Shuker's latest book is a compilation of his regular columns in Fortean Times magazine, with some updates and "bonus features" thrown in. I've had it for a week and have read it twice through.
Hundreds of entries in this fascinating book cover everything from surviving thylacines to new lizards to alleged pterodactyl-type creatures. But the animals themselves are not the whole of the book. Shuker's interests in folklore, culture, and art lead him down many interesting pathways. He looks at everything from an unknown bird shown in a Gauguin painting to the mix of exotic feathers, fakes, and the occasional palm frond that have been passed off as feathers from the wings of angels.
Some items that could be updated have not been: the weird horizontal-tailed fish from California was a mystery I solved a long time ago by talking to a state fishery biologist who identified it as a bizarrely mutated channel catfish.
I would be more skeptical than Karl at times. I would have great trouble being open-minded about the man who saw a sauropod dinosaur step across a fence - in New Mexico! Shuker, ever even-handed, posts it without editorializing and asks readers for further information.
Shuker shows the complexity involved in tracking down, or even defining, animals mentioned in local reports: Indonesia's orang bati is variously reported to be a bat, a flying human(!) and a small, primitive semihuman tribe.
Karl's collection, like all good cryptobooks, leaves us with some solutions and some more mysteries. We now know a famous sketch of a lake monster in Russia was just support for a tall tale. We wonder what became of animals once presumed to exist, such as Washington's eagle, a giant bird shot and described by Audubon himself but hardly reported since.
Shuker provides references with each entry and an index (a bit sparse) at the end. The book sometimes leaves you wanting more, but it will not disappoint you. It's very well worth your money.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shuttle Discovery: Oh, (*&%#Y

Well, it's not just a crack in the insulation of the shuttle Discovery. There are two cracks in the aluminum underneath. NASA hasn't put out a decision as of this moment, but they have never fixed damage of this type on the pad, so we're all going home for a while. The cracks are in the intertank section of the aerodynamic outer skin, where they can't damage the tanks, but this is going to slip the launch way past the latest hoped-for date of early December.
COMMENT: The Shuttle system, remarkably for a new space system, did not greatly overrun its R&D budget when it was under development. The problem is that our space leaders back in the 70s traded off R&D costs for operational costs and reliability by not developing the planned fully reusable two-stage system. Despite the great things achieved by the Shuttle, its astronauts, and its support crew, there is still a melancholy knowledge that the craft could have, and should have, been safer and cheaper to operate.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Burt Rutan comes in for a landing

As a new factory opens to produce his SpaceShipTwo design for Sir Richard Branson and his suborbital space tourism venture, legendary designer Burt Rutan is planning his retirement next April. Rutan is 67, and the Experimental Aircraft Association intends to honor him with a gathering of Rutan-designed aircraft at the equally legendary Oshkosh fly in. The EAA Museum is gathering planes including "VariViggen and VariEze prototypes, the Amsoil racer, Grizzly, Voyager fuselage mock-up, Solitaire, Williams V Jet II, and the SpaceShipOne feathering mock-up." Rutan practically gave birth to the homebuilt "kitplane" industry and put the first manned suborbital vehicle since the X-15 into space as a private venture.
Clear skies, Burt.

New Species all over

A new wasp from Los Angeles (title link) reminds us that discoveries are everywhere waiting to be made.

Then we have "the Bigfoot of ants," rediscovered after 60 years. It was found when a biology graduate student who specializes in ants spotted two on a rock near his apartment.

I once before mentioned Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli), which, this New Scientist piece claims, is the first carnivore described in 24 years. I'm not sure that's right, I seem to remember some Vietnamese weasel, but I'll have to look that up...

An oversized extinct penguin, five feet tall and gray and reddish-brown (casual wear?) was found after 36 million years. Where? In the Peruvian desert. If it came to the waters for its health, it was misinformed.

And a weird googly-eyed fish pulled out of Great Slave Lake (Canada's second-largest lake) turns out to be not a new species, as first guessed, but one in a new habitat.
http://nnsl.com/northern-news-services/ stories/papers/oct1_10cs.html

Monday, November 08, 2010

Slaver ants attack strong, not weak colonies

If you're an ant and your anthill wants some new slaves, you attack the weakest colony you can find, right? Weirdly, no. German researchers found that one slave-making species they studied picked difficult targets, even thought these would inevitable result in more casualties among the attackers. Why? For Protomognathus americanus, which has small colonies of its own to begin with, it appears that losing scouts probing a lot of possible targets is a serious matter. Making fewer raids on nests with more pupae to steal is actually the lower-risk tactic for the colony as a whole.
COMMENT: It would be interesting to look into how this compares to the historical tactics of human slavers: Arab and African slavers would attack whole villages to get captives, either for their own use or to sell to Europeans and Americans. Did they pick bigger targets, like the ants?

LHC creates "mini-Big Bang"

Well, the world didn't end.
By smashing together lead ions, far larger and heavier than the protons used so far, the Large Hadron Collider created a miniature (WAY, WAY miniature) version of the Big Bang (the creation event, not the wonderful TV show). Temperatures were described as "a million times hotter than the center of the sun" (or around ten trillion degrees C: and, no, "trillion" is not a misprint). It's one more big step on the way to understanding the most basic questions about the makeup and origin of the universe. Well done, folks.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

And ALSO from Colorado....

I blogged on the fossil finds in Colorado but somehow missed this one, so a tip of the Stetson to Loren Coleman for posting it on Cryptomundo - with a side reference to me :)
The dug which has produced bison, mammoth, and mastodon bones has also produced the first Colorado fossil of Jefferson's ground sloth. I'll quote Loren's excellent write up here:
"The species was the subject of the first and second scientific articles on fossils ever published in the United States. The generic name Megalonyx was proposed by future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1797, based on fossil specimens of what later came to be called Megalonyx jeffersonii that he had received from western Virginia."
So, as someone pointed out, we have pretty much the whole cast of the Ice Age movies on hand.

Friday, November 05, 2010

From Colorado, a herd of ancient elephants

Here in Colorado, paleontologists are salivating over the ski slopes - but not for skiing. A dig in the Snowmass area to uncover bones chanced upon during a construction project has already yielded a Columbian mammoth, three mastodons, and bone from an ancient bison. Representatives from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have been marveling over this trove. A spokesman said, "We'll be here until the snow drives us out."

Meanwhile, near the town of Morrison, there's another find - tracks of a baby sauropod. In 1877, this area was home to the discovery of the famous Apatosaurs, formerly known as Brontosaurus. Famous paleontologist Robert T. Bakker said, "The latest discovery by the Morrison Natural History Museum is a tribute to Director Matt Mossbrucker and his crew of sharp-eyed volunteers. Never before has science given us such an intimate glimpse of baby brontosaurs - a window into Jurassic Family Values."


Shuttle launch news: ouch

A leak of hydrogen gas and a seven-inch crack on the foam insulation over the External Tank (ET) will slide the space shuttle Discovery's last flight to the end of the month. Interestingly, it won't take that long to repair things, but certain days are unsuitable for the launch because the sun angle means the shuttle would be overheated in its orbit connected to the ISS.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

AWWWWW time: New baby panda

The only thing cuter than a panda (I said cute, not cuddly): these specialized bears have occasionally inflicted major injuries on keepers) is a baby panda. Zoo Atlanta has the only such baby born in the U.S. this year. Yes, we dote too much on this single species, but there are under 2,000 pandas left, so every baby has scientific importance as well as bringing in huge audiences. The baby won't be on display until spring, but the title article has a link to a "Panda Cam" to give everyone a cuteness fix.

Snuggling close to a comet

NASA's EPOXI spacecraft (relaly, that's the name), will pass within 700km of a comet today. CNN reports that "Live coverage beginning at 9:30 a.m. ET from mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be broadcast on NASA Television's Media Channel." NASA hopes for imagery that will be cool as well as informative.

What's the election mean for NASA?

Well, NASA's purpose is to explore the unknown, so here we go again. There's a general presumption that GOP leadership is more favorable to space spending than the Democrats, but it's not always true: for the last few decades, NASA's budget has been essentially stagnant. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) was very good at getting money for NASA, but he's out of Congress and on trial for something or other, and Rep John Boehner, who will be the new Speaker of the House, is focused on cutting deficits more than anything else. Some of the new Republican leaders have criticized President Obama's overhaul of the agency's missions, especially in human spaceflight, but returning NASA to a Constellation-type program takes money, and even the $19B authorized for the agency may not be what is actually appropriated, whenever Congress gets around to the months-overdue appropriations legislation. Hang on tight, space-lovers.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Wow - photo of a spotted lioness

This African lioness has retained the spors all cubs bear. Some lions bear faint spotting all their lives, but this has to be the most pronounced example ever recorded.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Cool new robot follows life underwater

It's hard to study marine phenomena because the ocean is not only big but constantly in motion. The new Tethys robot is a leap forward, a machine that can follow phenomena like algal blooms for months, sending back data all the while. Jim Bellingham, chief technologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) says the highly efficient new design can go "from Monterey to Hawaii on a single charge."

Climate science: words of a skeptic

There is close to a consensus among climate scientists that man-made global warming is real. But there remain dissenters, which advocates constantly attack for being corporate tools. But Dr. Judith Curry is one who insists scientific doubt is legitimate. She says, "Yes, there's a lot of crankology out there. But not all of it is. If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent because we have just been too encumbered by groupthink." She doesn't think enough work is going into refining climate models and thinks historical trends are being drawn despite scant data for periods decades or centuries ago.

COMMENT: I'm no climate scientist, and I suspect some degree of warming is indeed happening. But I don't think we've got either the causes or the right responses down as completely as some people think, and I can't accept that legitimate doubt is impossible.

Robonaut 2 readies for work in space

The shuttle Discovery, now slated for a Wednesday launch, will carry the first humanoid (from the waist up, anyway) robot in space: Ronbonaut 2, known of course as R2. Its gold visor shields four visible light cameras and one infrared camera (actually located in the mouth), providing stereoscopic vision and depth perception. Its padded five-finger hands will handle tools as an astronaut would. Engineers will experiment to see how well R2 can handle tasks on the outside of the ISS. Followons are expected to drastically cut the need for spacewalks, or EVAs, which are costly and hazardous.

COMMENT: R2 cost $2.5 million, which really isn't at all bad for the leap in technology it represents. Robots will have other uses, both on Earth and in space, so the money is well worth it.