Sunday, November 30, 2008

Video of an "alien" squid

The squid family Magnapinna (housing one genus with four known species, counting one that has been observed but not yet named) is little-known and is often compared to creatures from some other planet. With huge fins and ten identical spindly tentacles dangling from "elbows," these squid certainly look like nothing else on Earth. Here we have a video, provided by Shell Oil, of one of the animals in the Gulf of Mexico. That this family, with individuals known to range up to 7m in overall length, went undiscovered until just ten years ago is a testament to how much we still have to learn about the inhabitants of the oceans.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Success at the ISS

The most recent space shuttle mission is forever going to be known for the lost tool bag. The bag can be spotted from Earth and has its own websites. Really. See as just one example.
That's a shame, because the crew of the Endeavour accomplished a huge amount of work, along with the ISS astronauts, to make the station fit to expand from three crewmembers to six. The ISS now has a repaired solar-wing joint, an advanced water recycling system, its first refrigerator, and a second toilet to go with two new habitation areas. Congratulations to all involved.

Water spouting from a Saturnian moon?

Water is the Holy Grail of space exploration: wherever we find, it, there is at least some possibility of life. As we chase underground deposits on Mars, though, another body is appearntly spouting huge geysers of the precious compund into space. Saturn's strange Enceladus is jetting masses of dust and gas - and, some researchers now argue, liquid water.
COMMENT: Out seemingly familiar solar system is turning out to be like the universe at large - not just stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Rare giant turtle saved from being on menu

In Dong Mo Lake (also known as Ho Hoan Kiem) near Hanoi, Vietnam, dwells a huge freshwater turtle. It was once thought to be a legend. When its exstence was confirmed, some scientists suggested it represented a new species. That turned out not to be so, but close enough: it was a Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (rafetus swinhoei), a member of the most endangered reptile clan on Earth. There may be only four such turtles in the world, and their future is bleak.
It almost got bleaker when recent floods washed the Hanoi turtle out of its lake. Conservationists searched frantically for two weeks until a fisherman announced he had the 70-kg reptile and was effectively holding it for ransom. Nguyen Van Toan claimed he already had a big offer from a restaurant. He was, however, mollified by a reward of about $200 and some new fishing nets. The lonely ruler of the lake is back where he belongs.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The end of the cave bears

Often, when a carnivorous species dies out, one contributor is its specialized diet. That seems to have happened in reverse with Europe's huge cave bear, which was largely vegetarian. Martina Pacher of the University of Vienna and her colleague Anthony J. Stuart of the Natural History Museum, theorize that climate change about 27,800 years B.P. reduced the available vegetation and caused the 1,000-kg bears (Ursus spelaeus) to slide toward extinction, followed by the mammoth and other species. Europe's race of brown bears (Ursus arctos), true omnivores, made it through all right.

NASA, money, and Mars

Keith Cowing has a somewhat dispiriting but important collection of notes and sources here on NASA's chronic inability to project costs adequately and the way the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) seems to be the source to pay for other directorates' sins as well as its own (of which it has many). A possible two-year slip in the Mars Polar Lander mission seems the next likely domino to fall. Cowing puts it more bluntly, calling the cuts and postponements to science missions "the slaughter of the innocents" and noting that "Eventually, you run out of innocents to slaughter." He links to an op-ed by former NASA SMD Associate Administrator Alan Stern arguing that the agency has gotten used to preparing unrealistically low cost estimates to get missions approved with the assumption they'll be bailed out later (which does not always happen). Stern admits to being a culprit at times. It's not a problem unique to NASA - see virtually every report on DoD procurement.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pygmy tarsier rediscovered

A tiny, adorable primate, missing for decades and often considered extinct, has been found by an American expedition to its historic range in Indonesia. Texas A&M University anthropologist Sharon Gursky-Doyen notched a kind of scientific first by becoming the only person ever known to be bitten by the mouse-sized species.

Eastern cougars on the prowl

Officially, no population of cougars, pumas, etc. exists in the Eastern U.S., except for the handful of cats hanging on in Florida. That position, though, is getting harder to defend, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking another look. Two new examples, as posted at the handy news site Cryptomundo:

A cougar in New York, with an unmistakable photo (although it's not clear the photo comes out of the same event as the sightings in the news article quoted):

A cougar killed near the state line between Georgia and Alabama:

It's often hard to be definitive about whether a given cat has spent time in captivity, even when you have the body. It's impossible when all you have is a photo. Either way, I think the evidence keeps mounting that a few cats hung on in the East, probably supplemented by released/escaped captive animals of Western origin, and the explosion of the deer population is helping this scattered part-hybrid, part-native population to slowly rebuild its numbers. That means the reports will keep getting more numerous and more solid until the government scientists start agreeing with the cryptozoologists.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New dolphin from Australia

In another example of how what scientists find is often quite different from what they look for, Dr. Luciana Möller of Australia's Macquarie was trying to unravel the relationships of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from Australian coastal waters. The DNA, though, diverged more than she expected: so much that dolphins from southern Australia should should be considered a new species, even if they look very much like their cousins around Australia and around the world (the bottlenose dolphin gets around).
COMMENT: This is important stuff, but it raises anew the question of what degree of difference, and/or what specific differences, are adequate to prove that populations are separate (non-breeding) species. I asked two scientists of my acquaintance that question, and both Ph.D.'s threw up their hands.

Decoding mammoth DNA

The always-readable Nichols Wade had a good article in the NYT earlier this week on how we've taken one small step toward possible mammoth cloning - and how the debate about whether cloning will ever be practical continues unabated. "A large fraction" of the extinct pachyderm's DNA has been recovered from fragmented specimens using new machines and techniques. One of the men announcing this advance, Penn State University's Stephan C. Schuster, estimates he could recover the entire genome for another $2M and clone a mammoth for $10M.

A new (albeit extinct) penguin species

What Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Otago in New Zealand wanted to do was understand the history of the rare yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes). What she found when analyzing old bones was that some of them didn't come from New Zealand's only known penguin. Instead, they belonged to a species that went extinct in historical times. It seemed the species, now named Megadyptes waitaha, was the dominant form of New Zealand penguin until the Polynesians showed up around the 13th century. The larger M. waitaha was eaten out of existence, and the yellow-eyed penguins settled into their niche.

LIFE photo archives on line / space trampolining

LIFE magazine has teamed up with Google to put into a free online archive thousands of photographs, dated from the 1860s to the present. Not surprisingly, there are some great space photographs in the collection. Here's one from a 1960s experiment I never heard of: an athlete bouncing from a trampoline while wearing a space suit to help understand the way astronauts move in microgravity.

Exploration via rubber duckie

Scientists studying glaciers in Greenland had a problem. Meltwater often ran into channels within or under the glacier, and they didn't know where it came out, an important data point in understanding the effects of increased melting on the Greenland ice cap as a whole. There was no budget for anything like miniature robotic vehicles, which likely would not have survived anyway. The solution? Dump 90 $2 toy rubber ducks into the water. The ducks have vanished into/under the glacier, and Dr. Alberto Behar and his colleagues are waiting for someone to find them. The ducks may travel 30 miles to open water, or they may be stuck or diverted along the way. It's data either way, and this episode is a great example of human ingenuity at work.

UPDATE: As of December 24, no ducks have been recovered. This is disappointing, but they may yet surface, and even if they don't. showing there is no passage under the ice to the bay is still important information.

Spectacular meteor (story w/video)

This celestial visitor lit up hte skies over Western Canada in an awesome display that was fortunately captured on video. The space rock, estimated at up to 10 tons and the size of a desk (iron meteorites are really dense), did not hit the ground intact but shattered into hundreds of pieces at low altitude.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Glaciers on the Red Planet

Planetary scientists report Mars may have more water ice than anyone thought, locked in glaciers buried beneath the surface. The glaciers may have been frozen for 200 million years and may have as much water as the Great Lakes of North America. The find, made using ground-penetrating radar from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, may be a major boost for future human exploration. We've known Mars has ice beneath its soil, but the glaciers offer the possibility of tapping a huge store in one location rather than having to process large amounts of the Martian terrain for thinly spread ice.

Found: The grave of Copernicus

The great astronomer Copernicus accurately located the Sun and Earth in the solar system, but locating his grave has been a challenge. It's known he was buried in a Roman Catholic cathedral in Frombork, Poland, but the grave wasn't marked. Now a Polish archaeologist reports that remains disinterred in 2005 have been matched to Copernicus' portraits and other information, including a DNA from a hair sample that likely belonged to him. The skull has been used to build up a computer-generated portrait (see title link) of what the eminent scientist looked like at the time of his death.
COMMENT: OK, we found him. The article does not say what the plan is, but I hope he will be reburied soon with appropriate honor. I've never liked the idea of relics of the dead being displayed or stored. It's not about the deceased so much as it is about human dignity in general. It's legitimate to do tests, such as X-raying mummies or taking DNA from Kennewick Man, for valid scientific purposes, but the remains should then be re-interred, if at all possible, with respect for the culture the person belonged to.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shuttle success at the ISS

The STS-126 mission to the ISS is off to a very promising start. It's an ambitious mission: 15 days, four EVAs, and several major hardware additions to the space station. After a Friday launch that included a little concern about debris (the Shuttle, fortunately, shows no sign of meaningful damage), the Endeavour is docked at the ISS and has begun transferring everything from a cargo modules to a $250M water recycling system to a better exercise machine. It's all part of getting the ISS ready for a six-person crew rather than the current complement of three.

Why Nessie matters

This article by Brian Morton is unnecessarily harsh on Nessie and her believers, but it it makes an interesting point: what does the famous and elusive inhabitant of the loch mean to Scotland and to all of us? To Morton, "The curious thing about Loch Ness studies is that all the debunking in the world doesn't seem to make a dent on the phenomenon." Nessie represents an ancient past and a modern mystery. He wonders if Scots cling to the legend of the loch because they no longer have any other common identity. It's a question that Americans have asked about sasquatch and Japanese about the Honshu wolf.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

First Extrasolar planets imaged from Earth

One distant star has three planets, another at least one. Not news perhaps, we've detected extrasolar planets before. But now we humans have out first-ever direct visual images of worlds far beyond out own. Two teams - one using the Hubble Space Telescope, the other a pair of telescopes in Hawaii - have given us these historic images.
The Hubble image shows the star Fomalhaut and a planet three times larger than Jupiter. The ground-based image showsthree much larger planets circling a star called HR 8799. (Don't despair if what you seek are "Class M" planets like ours: it's only logical that the first exoplanets we see will be the biggest ones. There may be a host of smaller ones around these same stars, waiting for our tools to grow sharper.)

MicroSpace News: Cubesat Launch Opportunity

Passing on this release for all you CubeSat builders out there:

>The Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) at the University of Toronto Institute
>for Aerospace Studies would like to formally announce a launch opportunity
>in July 2009. This opportunity will be part of the Nanosatellite Launch
>Service 6 (NLS-6). NLS-6 will include one 7 kg spacecraft from SFL.
>Currently there is sufficient mass margin available to accommodate
>additional spacecraft, as follows:
>- Two Single Cubesats
> -- OR --
>- One Triple Cubesat
>We would like to open this launch opportunity and invite all interested
>parties to consider joining us as Launch Partner.
>We expect to finalize the Launch Services Agreement before the end of
>November 2008. We are currently looking at July 1, 2009 as the spacecraft
>delivery date to the launch site.


> Mr. Freddy Pranajaya
> Manager, Advanced Systems Group
> 416-667-7700 or 416-667-7890

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How do you collect whale snot?

If you want to know whether a whale is healthy, it helps to know what bacteria are normally found in said beast. But scientists rarely get to sample healthy whales in the wild. The solution? Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse of the Zoological Society of London and her colleagues have come up with a novel idea. A whale's spout is a bit like a human's blowing his or her nose: the normal bacteria exist in the mucous exhaled along with stale air and whatever else. So they have a small remote-controlled helicopter they guide through the exhalations of whales to catch droplets on Petri dishes.

COMMENT: Human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me. It's what gives me hope for our species.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Farewell to the Phoenix Lander

One of the most successful missions ever to Mars has ended. The Mars Phoenix Lander lasted for five months, two months beyond its scheduled mission life, and returned a plethora of data on Mars, most famously about the presence of water ice just under the surface. The Martian winter diminished the power coming from the MPL's solar panels until the probe ceased to transmit. NASA will keep "listening" in case a lucky sunny spell enables the lander to "phone home," but scientists are more than happy with the data they have so far.
Congratulations to NASA and its contractor team for a great mission.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Census of Marine Life reports more finds

The fourth report from the 10-year Census of Marine Life (which began in 2000) is being published. This episode, like the previous reports, includes a great deal of information on new species and the previously unknown habits of old ones. The Census, including work done before the new project kicked off, has enumerated some 230,000 species of an estimated one million living beneath the seas. Recent findings include the odd habits of great white sharks - going as deep as 300m in frequently repeated excursions whose reason is unclear - new zooplankton, comb jellies, bacterial mats, etc., etc. Also, we've learned that many species of octopus have ancestors in the depths near Antarctica, from which they have radiated northward.

Unique discovery of new gecko

French scientists have discovered a new species of gecko by hatching an unidentified egg brought thousands of kilometers from its birthplace.
The 7.5-cm lizard, dubbed Lepidodactylus buleli, began life as an egg discovered in the Vanuatu archipelago of the south Pacific and emerged from its egg in Paris. It's the first lizard species ever discovered this way.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Is the President-elect a "Geek?"

This WIRED blog puts forth the case our next President is the first "geek dad" to hold the office. Not only is he a fan of technology in general (he has promised to appoint the government's first Chief Technology Officer and raise NASA's budget), but he greeted Leonard Nimoy with a Vulcan salute.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Old Soviet (!) space Christmas card

This card shows Father Christmas in his sleigh behind Sputnik 3, a Soyuz capsule, and a Vostok. Pat Flannery, who posted this link, dates the card to about 1967.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Cloning of frozen mice - are mammoths next?

Cloning of modern mammals is done using intact cells. One of the big obstacles to cloning mammals from remains like frozen mammoth cells is that the cells are never whole. They burst from the freezing of the water inside them.
Japanese scientists, though, have now gotten around that, successfully cloning live mice from cells frozen for 16 years. It's still quite a jump to cloning mammoth cells frozen thousands of years ago (we still need a surrogate mother, presumably an elephant, and it's not clear elephant and mammoth are close enough for this to work), but the idea is edging into the realm of possibility.

New Fungus could make biofuels practical

There has been a lot of attention paid lately to "biofuels," but often without consideration for the economics involved. Gathering, transporting, and converting surplus crops and other plants into diesel fuel can end up costing more, in money and in fuel, than you get out of the process.
A newly discovered fungus offers hope for a practical low-cost, high-efficiency production process.
The fungus Gliocladium roseum, found in a South American rainforest, is the most efficient producer of "waste" (from the fungus's point of view) ever seen in the natural world, and it can use almost any plant matter. Gary Strobel of Montana State University, says, "The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment."
COMMENT: It will be years before a commercially viable process comes out of this, but there are many lessons to be learned, including the importance of conservation (what if this forest had been cleared out?) and the need to continue our exploration of the natural world.

Monday, November 03, 2008

One more Ares note for the week

With the Shuttle nearing retirement and some uncertainty about relying on Russia for U.S. access to space, NASA managers are brainstorming how the Constellation program can be sped up by up to 18 months. The chief idea on the table, according to this article: reduce testing, including up to five flights planned to test the upper stage. The result would be a LEO-capable Orion/Ares stack, with development of lunar-capable Orion versions postponed.

COMMENT: I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what a bad idea this is. Cutting testing to produce a schedule that is STILL longer than the original confident proposals put out by NASA and ATK is, historically, a recipe for failure with a complex system like Ares/Orion.
I know I am oversimplifying here, but the point of Orion was a single flexible craft for multiple missions, and the Ares already had a flight test schedule that was, in light of the work SpaceX needed to get a smaller new rocket to orbit, minimal. In my humble status as just another taxpayer with an opinion, I say: junk this idea. Live with a schedule slip if the alternative is a truncated testing program.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Farewell to explorer Jacques Piccard

Swiss deep sea explorer and inventor Jacques Piccard, one of the only two men ever to descend to the deepest point of the oceans, has died at 86. He and Don Walsh went down almost 11km in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960, and no human has ever repeated that feat.
The son of a father who set balloon altitude records in the 1930s, Piccard raised a son, Bertand, who is carrying on his adventuresome spirit in areas like aviation. Piccard introduced thousands to the underwater environment by developing a tourist-carrying submarine that operated for decades. He made major contributions to ocean conservation and protection.
Piccard's family was honored by Gene Roddenberry when he chose the name for Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the TV program Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was mentioned on the show that Picard's ancestry included famous explorers.

Goodbye to a great man.

The seemingly eternal Ares-1 issues

SInce I covered the objections raised to Ares-1, I should throw in this reference, where NASA managers defense both the concept and the program as progressing well. They make some fair points about how all complex systems encounter challenges and involve differences of opinion between experts. That said, however...
COMMENT: They somehow seem to talk around the fact that original budgetary and schedule projections are not only long exceeded, but continue to to change as the program is replanned and new issues come up. Yes, every rocket has issues and problems, but we're ending up with massive expenditures for a rocket no more capable, and no more specifically suited to human flight, than commercial alternatives that could have been man-rated at a lower cost.

"If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road: and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Name a Species for yourself

Or for anyone or anything else you like. For as little as $650, for example, you can affix the name of your choice permanently and officially to a new species of midge. Funds go partly to the researcher who discovered the species and part to the World Wildlife Fund (a.k.a World Wide Fund for Nature). The organization behind this plan, Name a Species LLC, reserves the right to reject "inappropriate" names.

COMMENT: Not a bad idea at all. There are millions of insects, for example, awaiting discovery and naming, and it's a clever way to fund research and conservation. It can also be used for one-upmanship, as has already happened among scientists: ichthyologist John McCosker wrote that impish colleagues have given the specific name mccoskeri to notably unhandsome species like slime eels.

Latest astonishing Hubble photo

Scientists have nicknamed this celestial wonder the "Perfect 10" image. It does look like a numeral 10, and its beauty defies superlatives. Hubble's WFPC2 camera (thanks to a recent remote repair job from the ground that overcame a major glitch in the space telescope's operations), imaged these two gravitationally interacting galaxies known together as Arp 147.

Latest on the stem cell question

Erin Richards reports on a new technique that can, according to the authors of the referenced paper, reliably transform adult stem cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). One commenter points out that this not only avoids the ethical dilemma of embryonic stem cells but could bypass rejection problems if the cells are used for human repair, since the iPS cells could come from the patient's own body.
COMMENT: I don't claim the expertise to say whether the iPS technique could provide cells capable of doing all the same things embryonic stem cells could do, but it's important to take a long look at any option that provides the benefits without the problems in this minefield of research. It's also important to point out two things that often get misstated in the emotional debate. One is that it's not true the US government forbids or even restricts such research, only that federal money can be used only for work with a limited number of existing cell lines. There are projects all over the US using state or private funds. The second is that this is all still about potential. Years of research in the US and around the world, including large projects backed by government funds in countries like South Korea, have yet to produce a single product or process that has entered human trials.