Thursday, February 28, 2008

Orbital wins contract for innovative DARPA satellites

Orbital Sciences Corp has won a contract from DARPA for the F6 program. (F6 is one of the more torturous DoD acronyms, standing (really) for Future Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft united by Information eXchange.)
The intent of the demonstration program is to build wirelessly connected small satellites which together will do the work of a single large satellite. Something like this was tried a few years ago by the Air Force Research Laboratory with its TechSat-21 system, but that program overreached on new technology and was killed due amid descoping, schedule slips, and rising costs. Hopefully F6 will have a better ending. Orbital has a good track record for delivering on innovative small spacecraft, and I wish them luck.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A seagoing titan from the past

A prehistoric reptile known as a pliosaur has been reconstructed from fossils found in Norway. The animal represents a new species - one about five meters longer than any previously known pliosaur. Everything about the animal is impressive. One flipper alone is three meters long, the teeth were the size of cucumbers, and the mouth, judging from the three-meter lower jaw, could have engulfed a modern rhinoceros.

South Africa to cull elephants

In a highly controversial move, South Africa announced it would permit some tightly regulated killing of elephants, which have become too numerous for the land available to them.
In a sense, the country is the victim of a great success. A century ago, barely 200 elephants were left in South Africa. Now there are 18,000 elephants in a land where the human population has grown enormously. Some wildlife groups remain strongly opposed to any killing, arguing it would open the door to return to the days when elephants were killed indiscriminately.
COMMNET: I hate the thought of animals this intelligent being killed without the direst need. Still, it's not clear what other options South Africa has. Practically speaking, they can't relocate large numbers of people to create more game preserves, and too many elephants in the available space can wreck the habitat for many other species. It points up once again how there are no easy answers to conservation policy questions.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

New danger for the world's rarest cat

The least-known, most recently classified, and most endangered cat species in the world are, arguably, all the same creature - the Iriomote wildcat. Unknown to science until 1967, it inhabits one small and remote island of Japan. (There have been some taxonomic disputes resulting at least three suggested names, although Prionailurus iriomotensis seems to be the winner.)
Known locally as the "mountain cat," the housecat-sized feline is so successful in keeping to itself that there are lifelong residents of the island who doubt its existence. Nevertheless, a scientific survey, done over ten years ago, put the population on Iriomote at about 100. Now, experts fear, there are significantly fewer. About three cats a year are killed crossing the island's only major road, despite the building of wildlife underpasses and extraordinary efforts to warn drivers. The animal's habitat is increasingly encroached upon by tourists and residents, and feral domestic cats are known to pass diseases on to their wild relatives. The Japanese government has done much to protect the enigmatic cat, but it may not be enough.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A kill in the Pacific

In this article, crewmembers from the USS Lake Erie describe the SM-3 missile attack that knocked out the malfunctioning recon satellite U.S. 193. While the strike was controversial, it's also quite a display of technical prowess, using as it did an interceptor designed to hit incoming missiles, not satellites. As Captain Randall Hendrickson described the results, "The radar scope went wild. At that point, there was a lot of debris, a lot of pieces and, at that point, we thought we had a pretty good impact. Then that was confirmed by the aircraft that were airborne, the radars ashore and some other sensors that it was pretty much obliterated. Over the next three to four hours, a lot of it was burning up as it was coming down, which was the whole point of it."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A python invasion?

The Burmese python can grow to 7m in length and is more than a match for any animal it's likely to meet in the United States. Why does that matter? Because the species is already breeding in south Florida, and the climate is congenial to its spread across the Southeast and even to Texas. Scientists are worried mainly about the impact on native species.

Jet flight fueled by - nuts?

I've known a couple of pilots I thought were nuts, but I've never seen a plane run on them. Virgin Atlantic has flown the first commercial flight in a biofuel-powered jet. One tank on the London-to-Amsterdam test flight (no passengers aboard) held a biofuel mixture of coconut and babassu oil. The flight was uneventful.
COMMENT: I'm not sure whether this is a useful experiment or a good PR stunt on Richard Branson's part. Biofuel advocates often fail to tackle the hard questions about what kind of infrastructure is needed to grow, process, and ship useful quantities of said fuel, and Branson said nothing about it in connection with this flight.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Last days of a great mission

The Ulysses "solar polar" probe, which gave scientists their first look at the sun and solar system from "above" and "below" the plane of the ecliptic, is on its last legs. Launched in 1990 on a planned five-year mission, the probe kept sending data for 17 years. The joint NASA-ESA mission team reports the 6-billion-mile journey will end in a few weeks.

New lemurs join the lists

Madagascar is one of the world's zoological treasure houses, an altogether fascinating museum of natural history. One of its prize exhibits is the lemur family, a group known to exist nowhere else. Now three new species have been identified. All belong to the palm-sized tribe known as the mouse lemurs. The new species Microcebus mittermeieri, Microcebus simmonsi, and Microcebus jollyae are all named for scientists or conservationists. There were once thought to be only two species of mouse lemurs, but researchers like Mireya Mayor, who co-authored the paper announcing the new species, think there might be as many as 16.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The New Moon Race

The Google Lunar X-Prize race, with a grand prize of $20 million, is underway. The X Prize Foundation received 516 requests for information and has now announced the first 10 teams to have paid the $10,000 entrance fee and completed the required paperwork. One hopes to launch its privately developed robotic lander as soon as 2009.

Wolves off the Endangered List

In a good news story about conservation, the gray wolf population of the northern Rocky Mountains in the U.S. has gone from nearly zero to about 1,500 over the last 13 years. This population is now being delisted from the federal Endangered Species List. Cheering the move are state governments which want more freedom to kill livestock predators, while environmental groups insist the action is premature and will lead to a repeat of the widespread killing that put the wolves on the list in the first place.

It's a Hit

The U.S. Navy displayed a capability no one was sure it had: using a modified SM-3 intended for missile interception to knock the malfunctioning spysat U.S. 193 into countless small pieces. Unlike the fragments produced by the controversial Chinese ASAT test, these are low enough to ensure they reenter and burn up, as some have already done. The 453 kg of hydrazine on board has vaporized, and DoD is patting itself on the back for a job well done - while continuing to emphasize this was a one-time event and the U.S. was not deploying antisatellite weapons.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The grandaddy of all frogs

From Madagascar comes a startling fossil find - what may be the largest frog that ever lived. With an armored skull, a body the size of a bowling ball, and an overall length of 40cm, the animal dwarfs all other known frogs, living or extinct. The amphibian named Beelzebufo ampinga - the "devil frog" - lived 65 to 70 million years ago during the Cretaceous. It weighed about twice as much as the largest living species, the Goliath frog. Another oddity (as if a giant armored frog wasn't odd enough) is that this creature's closest relatives today live in South America, not on Madagascar or in neighboring Africa. Paleontologists are still trying to puzzle that one out.

Self-propelled oceanic robot uses no fuel

From the Department of Really Cool Techie Stuff comes this undersea probe which derives all its power from the temperature difference between water of different depths. Scientists say the robotic explorer will keep going for perhaps another six months without any form of external power or recharging.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Democratic Hopefuls discuss space policy

Senators Clinton and Obama were interviewed by the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle. Senator Clinton spoke for a "robust" human spaceflight policy, though without being explicit about goals, while Senator Obama was much less inclined to fund human spaceflight and indeed did not endorse it even in for the kind of limited (LEO only) program in operation today.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Targeting a satellite

The errant spysat U.S. 193 is going to be targeted by Navy SM-3 missiles designed for antimissile work in an effort to break it into thousands of small pieces (all of which should quickly reenter) and vaporize a tank of frozen hydrazine on board. This will mark the first time since 1978 the US has fired a missile at a satellite. That event was a test of an airlaunched ASAT missile which was never deployed: this is an attempt to remove the danger from an unintended reentry. The U.S. emphasizes this is a jury-rigged effort and does not mark the deployment of a new ASAT capability. "It should be understood by all, at home and abroad, that this is an exceptional circumstance and should not be perceived as the standard U.S. policy for dealing with errant satellites," is how House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton put it.

Two new sharks from Australia

Reminding us that not all new species are small, two new species of wobbegongs, also known as carpet sharks, have been identified from Australian waters. The floral banded wobbegong and the dwarf spotted raise the total of known wobbegong species around Australia to eight.

Robert Jastrow - R.I.P.

Dr. Robert Jastrow, the physicist who made space science understandable to a generation of Americans and went on from NASA to help found the George C. Marshall Institute for public policy, has died at 82. We say a sad farewell to a man whose life was very well lived.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A mini-pterosaur from China

Researchers exploring the fossil beds in the Chinese province of Liaoning in China have announced the discovery of one of the smallest flying reptiles known to science. Nemicolopterus crypticus ("hidden flying forest dweller") was the size of a sparrow and is also notable for curved toes indicating an arboreal (limb-gripping) lifestyle.

The Columbus has landed

The European-built Columbus laboratory module is installed as part of the International Space Station after a spacewalk by American astronauts Rex Walheim and Stanley Love lasting eight and a half hours.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

NASA and the Ares-1, Round 23

There are three controversies I cover on this blog that apparently will never go away - the validation of the ivory-billed woodpecker's survival, the taxonomic status of the Flores Island "hobbits," and the wisdom of NASA in choosing the Ares I launch vehicle for the Orion program. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently blamed sour grapes on the part of Lockheed Martin (LM), maker of the Atlas V, for the criticism of the Ares.
I sympathize with Griffin, who has one of the toughest jobs in the Federal government. But that's no reason to charge LM with fomenting a launch vehicle insurrection without evidence. And there are plenty of people who have no special love for LM but also don't like the Ares I. (I'm one, if it matters to anybody.) Keith Cowing on has put up some of Griffin's own statements from a few years ago indicating the off-the-shelf Atlas and Delta rockets looked like good candidates for carrying manned vehicles.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Plug your cell phone into your knee? Sort of.

A team of researchers from three universities has built a prototype device worn like a light knee brace, which harnesses the motion of the legs to produce enough electricty to power a cell phone for 10 minutes for each minute of walking.
COMMENT: I love stories like this that remind us all just how powerful the human ability to imagine and invent can be.

Atlantis is off

The shuttle Atlantis, with seven astronauts and the Columbus laboratory module for the ISS on board, is on orbit after a flawless liftoff. The multinational crew will swap out a French astronaut for America's Daniel Tani, who will return from the station after four months on orbit.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Scientists create transparent fish

That's the kind of headline that might make a reader think scientists have way too much time on their hands. This specially bred zebrafish, though, has an important role in cancer research. Scientists can watch tumors grow in an adult vertebrate for the first time ever.

NASA's New Probes

Despite its tight budget, NASA is thinking big about the universe. Robotic probes in the planning stages will orbit one of the large moons of Jupiter or Saturn, dive into the corona of the Sun, and explore the mystery of physics known as dark energy. The missions now on the drawing boards will launch by 2017.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

NASA budget for 2009 is more bad news

Inflation is running around 4%, but NASA's increase in the President's budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2009 rises only 1.8% to $17.6B. There is more money for Earth science missions, but, in a zero-sum game, that's not really new money, just shuffling between categories.
To NASA advocates, the good news is that this budget submission, the last of Presideat Bush's term, is likely to be ignored in practice. The bad news is that there's no guarantee what Congress produces instead will be any better. Despite Democratic control of the Senate, Democratic Senators have failed to get a $1B plus-up to reimburse NASA for the costs of Hurrican Katrina, and funds to replenish the post-Columbia recovery costs that sapped the agency's budget have never made the cut. Add to that that earmark reform shows no signs of being more than a campaign slogan, and.... well, in space no one can hear you scream.

A striking new monkey

The title of "newest known mammal" is a moniker no species keeps for very long. The giant elephant shrew had it only a matter of days before Australian scientists announced a new ukari, a large species of monkey, from the remote Pantepui region of Brazil. The new species, found after years of study sparked by local citizens' descriptions of a monkey different from the known ukaris, was christened Cacajao ayresii. Discoverer Jean-Phillipe Boubli of Aukland University said, "Finding a relatively large monkey as a new species these days is pretty cool. It shows how little we really know about the biodiversity of the Amazon."

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Countdown for Atlantis

After a series of technical delays, the shuttle Atlantis will launch February 7 to the International Space Station. Atlantis is carrying the Columbus science module to add to the ISS.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Science funding in the U.S.

Andrew Stern writes that scientists are less than pleased with their support from the U.S. government.
Basic research depends heavily on the government, as corporations tend to funnel their cash toward applied research likely to pay off soon in the marketplace. The America Competes Act, which set a goal of doubling science funding, has been a casualty of other needs and the chronic budget conflicts between the White House and Capitol Hill. One of the most significant unfunded projects was the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), whose promised $160M contribution from the US didn't materialize.
COMMENT: It's a given (although some politicos imply otherwise) that there will never be enough money to do everything that seems worth doing to all of the countless constituencies in a democratic nation. Some good things won't get funded. But the consequences of neglecting basic research are, I think, lost on a government that is increasingly coming to resemble corporations - looking for near-term results. (The blame falls on both branches of government involved - things aren't going to change magically, or even quickly, no matter who wins this year's elections.)
The only answer is to resolve to continue a long, hard slog as scientists, sciences writers, and other informed citizens make their case through every available means of persuasion.

Hail, Columbia

NASA held its annual memorial for the Columbia's seven astronauts, lost five years ago. Again, it's on occasion where I can't think of much to say, but it should never be overlooked. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin offered this vow: "Americans don't quit and we won't quit. We'll never quit."

The world's newest mammal

An elephant shrew is every bit as strange-looking a mammal as the name implies. The new species Rhynchocyon udzungwensis was first spotted in Tanzania in 2005. It weighs about 0.7kg and is over half a meter long from its tail tip to its very distinctive nose. It's the largest of the known elephant shrews, which are, in fact, more closely related to elephants than shrews.

The Navy's New Rail Gun

The U.S. Navy has test-fired a weapon straight out of science fiction: the electromagnetic rail gun. The gun is a prototype for a proposed operational weapon, still years away, which could fire a projectile at Mach 7 and hit a target 370km away.