Saturday, May 31, 2008

Placoderms were first live-bearers

I like placoderms in general: in addition to being really cool-looking, the armored fishes are scientifically fascinating and important. A new species from Australia confirms that the placoderms were, in addition to being the first sexually dimporphic vertebrates (OK, we knew that), were the first to bear live young (we DIDN'T know that.) The fossil is so well preserved an embryo attached to an umbilical cord is discernable. Materpiscis attenboroughi, 380 million years old, gets my vote as the fossil find of the year so far.

FIlm Sasquatch, get rich

Bushnell Trail Cameras has promised big money - one million dollars - to the first person who gets a "verifiable photo of Sasquatch" using (of course) a trail camera. There have been rewards before, but Bushnell, a major optics and outdoor gear maker, can deliver - IF its experts (whoever they are) verify the photograph. Full details are yet to be published, but obviously the company hopes for a lot of good publicity, not to mention sales of its trail cameras (the model described at the Cryptomundo post in the above link retails for about $270.)
Trail cameras are increasingly popular in game surveys as the technology improves and the cameras get smaller, more capable, and cheaper while battery life gets longer. They have captured some very rare animals: a recent image of the nearly-extinct Javan rhino was published around the world. There have been some purported trail camera images of Sasquatch before, including the one shown at the top of this link, which didn't impress most cryptozoologists, as it looks more like the tail and rump of a horse.

COMMENT: It seems certain Bushnell is going to get a lot of fuzzy or outright fake submissions. Cryptozoologists who think it likely there is a real Sasquatch out there to be filmed are very interested in learning the details: who is going to verify the photographs and what standards will be applied. This may be problematical. It's arguable that, if you get a photograph of a Sasquatch the only way to "verify" it is to go out to that location and collect the actual Sasquatch. Easier said than done....

Friday, May 30, 2008

Florida Teacher finds New Species

Six years ago, Boynton Beach, FL, high school biology teacher Bud Gillian was swimming when he noticed an odd-looking box jellyfish. Keeping a careful distance, he stayed with the jelly for as long as he could, then headed to shore and began a long program of research and consulting with authorities. In the end, he got what he was after: confirmation he'd seen a previously unrecorded species. Awaiting a formal scientific name when a paper is published later this summer is the Caribbean Banded Box Jelly, a small, highly venomous addition to the known fauna of the Caribbean.

COMMENT: I love stories like this: Interested amateur spots something intriguing, pursues it for however long it takes, and adds new knowledge to science. Congratulations to Mr. Gillian.

Air Force Picks ORS Jumpstart Payload

A SpaceDev, Inc. microsatellite was picked to ride a Falcon booster later next month in the first Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) "Jumpstart" mission, intended to demonstrate rapid test, integration, and launch of a spacecraft. The satellite is intended primarily as a risk reduction payload for the Trailblazer multi-purpose microsat bus, but also carries a suite of experiments.
As SpaceDev reports:

" Jumpstart is a multi-pronged effort set to fly a responsive payload on the SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 003 mission, currently scheduled for a late June 2008 launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The spacecraft was built and assembled on schedule and budget at SpaceDev’s Poway, California facility in less than five months. It has been delivered to the ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico for final testing and integration...This mission demonstrates the first step of responsive launch with an end-to-end call up within seven months of funding availability and within four months following approval to proceed. In addition, Jumpstart demonstrates several key ORS enabling models: rapid call up of a mission to launch; rapid development, integration and checkout of spacecraft; a concept of operations that allows flexibility late in the payload processing flow to determine which mission will fly; efficiencies in processes and procedures to reduce payload integration timelines; and identification and assurance of payload technical readiness."

COMMENT: It's a worthy effort and will be a step forward for ORS if they make it work. There will be some crossed fingers regarding the booster, which did not make it to orbit on its first two attempts. The schedule, while nothing unusual 45 years ago, is very tight in this era of multiple reviews and multi-month launch prep times, so here's hoping the folks at SpaceDev, ORS, AFRL, and SpaceX (the booster maker) can pull it off. Go Jumpstart!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A startling new view of pterosaurs

A scientific paper published by Darren Naish and Mark Witten argues that the largest of the Mesozoic pterosaurs, or "flying reptiles," had a lifestyle that contradicts nearly every book and documentary ever produced on the topic.
Naish and Witten say the normal view of giant pterosaurs like Hatzegopteryx (10-meter wingspan) as creatures which skimmed the water's surface plucking out fish is contradicted by their anatomy. Their necks were stiff, almost rigid, which makes them useless for reaching down into the highly resistant medium of water and grabbing fish while the animal was still flying forward: the neck would break. The authors also didn't think they were well designed for carrion feeding, wading, or other proposed lifestyles. Instead, they spent much time on the ground, walking in the manner of gigantic quadrupedal storks as they plucked prey animals from the ground. The biggest would have stood nearly as tall as giraffes when they stalked the plains like (as an episode of Blackadder once put it) "giant stalking things."
The authors are careful to note the idea is not entirely original with them, but they've developed it in more depth than anyone else. On the Tetrapod Zoology blog, which includes links to the original paper and some articles about it, Darren and others have patiently answered my questions about this seemingly counterintuitive theory, explaining how the animals could still launch quickly into the air, survive reasonable damage to those seemingly vulnerable wing membranes, etc.
I can't say I'm convinced on every point, but the authors have certainly thought this thing through and are sticking by their guns. Read it: agree or disagree, you'll find you never think about pterosaurs the same way again.
Congratulations to the authors for a truly fascinating "out of the box" contribution to one of palentology's long-running debates.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stay tuned for "MonsterQuest"

I was just up in Montreal, taping an interview for the show’s “mystery bears” episode (no, I have no “preview” information on any new findings: they took pains not to discuss the other parts of the show, so as not to color my overview of where I thought the topic stood). I know they looked into the classic questions of ursine cryptozoology: MacFarlane's bear (Canada, 1864), Bergman's bear (Kamchatka, 1920), and other oddities. I tried to emphasize taking a scientific, open-minded look at the mysteries of the natural world, even as I explained why the bear has such a hold on the human imagination. When asked about cryptozoology as a legitimate branch of zoology, I emphasized that cryptozoology, properly done, uses the same methods as traditional zoology - going through museums and libraries, talking to local peoples, etc. - but sets the boundaries of inquiry a little more broadly, risking failure and sometimes ridicule to make sure we were not overlooking important discoveries.
I found the crew from the production company to be very professional, and the questions they asked were intelligent and well-informed, if sometimes speculative. I proposed future episodes on Lake Iliamna and Colorado’s “ghost grizzlies” if they get a third season, and we’ll see if those draw any interest.
My thanks to everyone at CMJ Productions who made this a great experience. I am hoping sales of my books go up this year so I can earn enough to cover the souvenir purchases I made on my first-ever trip to Canada.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Coolest pic from Mars

This dramatic and lucky shot from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captures the Phoenix lander on its way down through the Martian atmosphere by parachute. It's the first image ever of a lander descending on another world.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On Mars!

After "seven minutes of terror," as controllers describe the descent phase when the Phoenix Mars Lander was out of contact, the spacecraft has safely put its mechanical feet down on the soil of Martian arctic. Images are already streaming back, showing a relatively flat, pebble-strewn landing site and the kind of geometric patterns created in of permafrost regions of Earth as ice freezes and thaws. Missions controllers and managers hugged each other, cheered, and pumped their fists when the craft touched down on its three parachutes and its descent thrusters. Now it's the scientists' turn, and they expect a treasure trove of data to help answer questions like how much water ice the Red Planet conceals and, of course, whether it's ever been - or even now could be - the home of indigenous microbial life.

COMMENT: Congratulations to everyone involved. It's a great day to be an Earthman.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

R.I.P. Ernst Stuhlinger

Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one of the members of Wernher von Braun's inner circle and an invaluable resource to myself and Erika Lishock in writing our book The First Space Race, has died. A physicist who collaborated with James Van Allen on the first American satellite, Explorer 1, he helped develop the Jupiter C/Explorer design, especially the guidance system. When Explorer 1 lifted off on January 31, 1958, Stuhlinger had the critical job of studying DOVAP signals and other data to determine when the booster had arced over to the proper angle for him to manually ignite the upper states and put the satellite in orbit. Stuhlinger was with NASA for many years after the agency absorbed the von Braun team from the Army. He was one of the inventors of the ion propulsion concept now being actively used in deep-space exploration.

Farewell to a great contributor to spaceflight.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Schedule note

Friday, May 23:

I was getting really good about doing the blog daily, but it will be spotty for the next few days. I am off to Canada to do an interview on prehistoric bears for a History Channel program. There are things more fun than that, but there are very few of them.
There's a lot going on in the scientific world, from NASA's preparations for Phoenix Mars lander to a vociferous debate over new enhancements and alleged details of the Patterson-Gimlin sasquatch film (see (To me, that film has been analyzed past the point where any new efforts are likely to be valid or useful, if you keep in mind the image was 1.8 mm high on a 16mm frame, but it's the Zapruder film of cryptozoology - people will never stop debating it.)
Just to remind us exploration never stops: a core sample taken 1,600 m below the seafloor off Newfoundland revealed methane-eating microbes living deeper than any life discovered before: not only that, but the sampled organisms were thriving in temperatures up to 100 C.

Back soon!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Yeti and the Bear

If one goes to the website linked above, an archive of the International Bear News is provided. Bringing up the November 2007 issue, page 6 offers an article entitled "The Ninth Bear," about the brown bears of Asia, especially southern Asia. The authors contend the yeti has been shown to be a brown bear, and use "the elusive and symbolic nature of the yeti" to discuss how poorly known these bears are. The authors don't rule out that this area might contain an actual ninth species of bear (in another issue of this publication, it's noted that the critically endangered Gobi Desert population is held by some to be a separate species from Urus arctos.)

Food for thought.

The Real Crystal Skulls

The crystal skull Indiana Jones chases down in his newest movie isn't made up. There are several known skulls carved from quartz crystal, and they are indeed somewhat mysterious. Some are modern forgeries, while others attest to the considerable skill and incredible patience of ancient artisans. None are of extraterrestrial origin, but there are still unanswered questions about how, when, and why they were made.

Flashes from the Moon

How can the impact of a meteor or other cosmic object make an explosion on the Moon without oxygen present? It turns out NASA scientists have had to ask themselves that a lot, and they think they've come up with a solution. Some 100 lunar flashes have been observed over the past two and half years, leading to scientific study of a phenomenon once dismissed as imaginary. Bill Cooke of Marshall Space Flight Center explains that it has to do with the velocities - up to 30,000 mph - with which objects strike the lunar surface (given that there's no atmosphere to slow them down). "At that speed, even a pebble can blast a crater several feet wide. The impact heats up rocks and soil on the lunar surface hot enough to glow like molten lava — hence the flash."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Resources: space-related magazines

In this article, Dwayne Day provides an overview of the major space-related hardcopy publications, from Space News and (my favorite) Quest to Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Spaceflight News) which he describes as the best space magazine in the world - IF you can read Russian.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Why China tested antisatellite weapon

A veteran military space analyst, Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College, thinks China screwed up in their recent ASAT test, and has now realized it. Essentially, the testing program got ahead of the diplomatic thinking, and the nation was surprised at the hostile reaction to its test. "I think they now are now recognizing that the international condemnation due them was actually moderated," she said.
COMMENT: If this article reports her testimony correctly, Johnson-Freeze said this is the outcome of a Chinese program started in response to the sole U.S. ASAT weapon live shot, which came way back during the Reagan Administration. That seems to me to be connecting two events so separated in time and in political/military context that the case for a causal connection is weak to nonexistant.

Johnson-Freese made a good point about the ballyhoo surrounding China's manned space accomplishments - they are important, but not significant enough to put China in a race with the U.S. She said, "Personally I hate to see the U.S. and China's space programs characterized as competitive. They fly two manned space flights over a five-year period and are perceived as beating the U.S. space program. That's just wrong."

SpaceX hopes third time is a charm

The third launch attempt for SpaceX's small Falcon 1 orbital launcher is now set for late June. SpaceX founder Elon Musk disavows a "stupid comment" (his words) he made three years ago, when he said that three failures might be it. He told reporters on May 14, ""I was asked, 'how many failures can you withstand?' I said, 'well, if we had three failures in a row, then I suspect we would not get any customers, and then it wouldn't make sense to continue.' I was partially quoted thereafter saying, 'three failures and we're out.' That's actually not the full statement. The full statement was if our customers abandon us, then we are out." He added, "We are in this for the long term. SpaceX will never give up. I will never give up. Never."
SpaceX has an order book of 12 payloads awaiting launch.
COMMENT: SpaceX has two things other small entrepreneurial launch efforts did not have: solid customer commitments and significant internal funding. I know these folks and understand their technical approach. The failures were disheartening (and I thought not making orbit on the second attempt was surprising), but I think they will make it work.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

God and Science: the latest debate

This article encapsulates the debate at an American Enterprise Institute-sponsored forum that focused around publication of a new collection of essays collecting all points of view. Much of the discussion consists of long-argued points, but a couple of things struck me as worth mentioning. Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer made the interesting argument (a variation on Arthur C. Clarke) that we might not recognize God - that the universe may hold civilizations so advanced that, if we met them, we could not distinguish between the natural and supernatural. Philosopher Mary Midgely drew a distinction between science - a widely accepted way of understanding the physical universe - and scientism, which she describes as the view that science has a universal claim on truth and nothing outside it can exist. Nobel laureate William D. Phillips, a physicist, commented, "From what I know about physics, it's not impossible to imagine a world in which God acts but we never can prove it." Now that's kind of a frustrating thought.... For a copy of the published results, go to

True flying - without a plane

Yves Rossy goes by the nickname "Fusion Man," although "Bird-Man" would be more accurate. He dives from an airplane and ignites four small jets on the wings strapped to his back. The result, demonstrated in dazzling acrobatics high above the Swiss Alps, is the closest any human has gotten to bird-like freedom in the air. It took five years for Rossy to develop the wings and train himself to control them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The VULCAN Mach 4 project

Speaking of DARPA, the agency now wants to get serious about a two-stage (turbojet+high speed system) propulsion option, dubbed Vulcan, which would allow a plan to leave a runways and accelerate to Mach 4, approximately one Mach number above what the storied SR-71 could do.

COMMENT: The USAF has wanted this kind of ability for a long time, and has seriously pursued it off and on (as budgets and changing priorities dictated). It's not as easy as it sounds to jump from a Mach 3 to a Mach 4 engine: every gain in those speed regimes takes hard work. And a propulsion system which can go from runway to Mach 4 is more of challenge, since, as DARPA points out, it's not going to be a single engine - it has to be some sort of two-stage device like the turbo/PDE option mentioned in the announcement. For a single engine, the high-speed end is outside what turbojets and their derivatives can do and the low-speed requirement means it can't be a relatively simple ramjet or a cutting-edge scramjet (which has a lot more development ahead of it and really only makes since for a much higher speed regime). I've known quite experienced USAF people to express the opinion that transatmospheric (long-range, zero to Mach 12 - 18) aircraft should not be too hard to develop, which made me want to quote Engineer Scott: "I can't change the laws of physics!"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

DARPA at 50: Success, Failure, and Promise

THe agency which originated the Internet turns 50 this year. As this article describes, DARPA has had its share of failures and abandoned programs. However, it's one of the few Federal agencies where a reasonable degree of failure is understood to be acceptable. This article chronicles DARPA's pioneering work, from satellite navigation to stealth aircraft, and its less-remembered projects, like the idea of a "mechanical elephant" to transport troops through the jungles of Vietnam. Also covered are idea in development and testing, from autonomous vehicles to synthetic versions of gecko feet that would let soldiers climb walls.

Protecting the Polar Bear

Here is an interesting a CNN column I used as a reference just to point out that I used the term Sci/Tech Blog first (I'm not claiming any infringement, since I never trademarked it, but I just want everyone to know I thought of it first. So there.)
Anyway, CNN's Peter Dykstra ponders the recent decision to list polar bears as a threatened species. There's been a lot of debate on whether this is justified, since it's not firmly documented that the species is declining, and hunting has been limited to a level that doesn't pose a threat. However, fear of the effects of climate change has prompted wildlife organizations and now the U.S. government to insist the bears have to be protected as much as possible.
COMMENT: While I think this is the right call, it does stretch the official definition of a "threatened" species. Whoever the next President is, Senators Obama, Clinton, and McCain all have strong pro-environment stands, and we may see a significant expansion of the government's powers and its activity under the Endangered Species Act.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Watch Mars landing live

The Science Channel (which, darn it, I don't get!) will broadcast live on May 25 from 7-9 PM (ET) [4-6 PM (PT)] to cover the descent of NASA's Mars Phoenix lander. Don't miss it!

Aliens, science, and faith

With all the talk of a "war" between science and religion, it's easy to forget that religious scientists, from the monk Gregor Mendel to the century-old Vatican Observatory, have made important contributions to science.
The Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the current director of the Vatican Observatory, told an interviewer that religion has nothing to fear from science, and vice-versa. He also has no problem with the idea of other intelligences in the cosmos. "How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?" Funes asked. He explained that such a stance puts a limit on God's freedom to create, which in Christian doctrine is, by definition, unlimited.
Funes takes an increasingly common Christian view that the Big Bang happened as described by modern physics, but that it's still true "God is the creator of the universe and that we are not the result of chance."

A terrific read: Extreme Expeditions

Extreme Expeditions: Travel Adventures Stalking the World's Mystery Animals, by Adam Davies,is not your average cryptozoology book.
Davies spends a minimum of time rehashing old evidence and instead tells a rollicking first-person adventure tale. Davies, like the late Scott T. Norman, is one of those supremely dedicated amateurs who spends all available time and money poking around in remote, often supremely uncomfortable locations. He found little at the traditional monster haunts of Lake Tele and Loch Ness, believes he saw a large unknown animal in Lake Seljord, and made a significant contribution to research on one of the most probable animals in the cryptozoo, the bipedal Sumatran primate known as orang-pendek. Davies collected hair and a footprint cast for which some well-qualified "mainstream" scientists had no better explanation than "unknown primate."
The book is a jaunty, sometimes profane tale of colorful but basically sane people making a sincere, sometimes dangerous effort to solve zoological mysteries. Whether they turn out to have found new species is almost beside the point. I look forward to a sequel, if Davies survives his future expeditions long enough to write it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Unique photos: rare whale giving birth

The world's rarest large whale, the Northern right whale Eubalaena glacialis, has been photographed for the first time in the act of giving birth. Actually, Monica Zani of the New England Aquarium got the aerial photos in a lucky encounter in 2005 off the Georgia-Florida coastal area of the Atlantic. The pictures were closely held until Zani and other researchers could prepare and publish academic documentation of what was learned from the enoucnter.
The birth was good news in itself. There may be only 300 of these whales in the Atlantic and another 100 in the Pacific. They've rebounded very slowly from the days of near-extinction caused by whaling. Whalers called them the "right whale" to hunt - they were slow, produced plenty of whale oil along with baleen, and floated when dead. The species remains critically endangered.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New spider gets named for rocker

Jason Bond, a biologist at East Carolina University, named a new trapdoor spider Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi. "With regards to Neil Young, I really enjoy his music and have had a great appreciation of him as an activist for peace and justice."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens: close, but not that close

Neanderthals have been bounced around quite a bit over the modern era of anthropology. Were they our ancestors? Our failed cousins? Or were they just a little divergent, a sister race to the rest of us?
While the current majority opinion is that they were a subspecies of our own species, Homo sapiens, a new study argues for the contrary view that they formed a species in their own right. The paper by Argentinean anthropologists, based on 3D computer modeling used to study long-term changes in hominid skull shapes, suggests that Neanderthals were "chronological variants inside a single biological heritage," a fancy way of saying another species derived from the same Homo habilis root stock. By this model, H. sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago, while Neanderthals arose fairly close to the same time but vanished 28,000 years ago.
It's going to be very interesting to see how the resulting debate comes out.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Climate change: Lesser of evils

I don't cover global warming much because, frankly, I get tired of the dogmatically opposite positions and the venomous rhetoric. But this item points up an important lesson: this business is complicated. Recent studies indicate some actions proposed to repair the Antarctic ozone "hole" would exacerbate global warming, and vice versa.
COMMENT: Memo to Al Gore: I respect your efforts, but put away the simplistic approach of blaming of everything (such as the Myanmar cyclone) on human-caused global warming and start educating people about how this is a very complex field and we have a lot of research to do in pursuit of a complete understanding.

The platypus: even stranger than we thought

It's a creature so strange the first scientists to receive specimens thought it was a work of a taxidermist rather than the Creator. The species' ancestors departed from our own around the time of the very first mammals, ca. 160 MYA. The platypus retained some of the reptilian features of the ancestors that scurried beneath the feet of the dinosaurs. Its genome has now been decoded to reveal a mix of ancient mammal, reptile, and even birdlike genes, along with some unique material developed over the eons. This genetic chop suey results in a host of odd habits, from egg-laying to electric-field sensing to the unique method of lactation: pups suck milk directly from the abdominal skin of the mother.
COMMENT: Nature, as Haldane famously said of the universe, is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Another clue to the first Americans

A scientific team has dated seaweed and other food remains at Chile's Monte Verde archaeological site to more than 14,000 years ago. It's another bullet in the surprisingly resilient corpse (not to editorialize or anything) of the paradigm holding that the first Americans, the pre-Clovis people, didn't set foot on the continent until about 12,000 years ago. A rise in sea levels since that era may have inundated most of the evidence of a people who moved by sea down the west coast of the Americas, leaving the sotry to be pieced together at scattered sites such as Monte Verde, 500 miles south of Santiago.

Changing the VSE calendar

Most of the news concerning the Vision for Space Exploration and its implementation through Project Constellation has concerned technical problems and schedule slips. However, a coalition of American space companies (and a flock of hired lobbyists) is fighting the uphill (or up-Hill) battle to get Congress to add some $2B to NASA's budget over the next few years to accelerate the Constellation program. One major rationale, as voiced by a spokesman for the United Space Alliance: "The less time we are relying on the Russians for human access to space the better it will be for our program and our country." NASA expects to buy at least 16 Soyuz rides beginning in 2009.
COMMENT: There is a limit to how much you can speed up such a complex program, regardless of funding increases. However, I hope this uphill fight gets won: a decent budget would do a lot to prevent further slips, if nothing else, while helping to keep the NASA workforce intact after Space Shuttle retirement.

Orbcomm: the next generation

Orbcomm's constellation of 34 37-kg microsatellites handling data transmissions, such as tracking vehicle locations, is aging out. The company has now picked a contractor for the next generation. Sierra Nevada Corporation, owner of MicroSat Systems, created a team including MicroSat, Boeing Intelligence and Security Systems, and ITT Space Systems to build the new constellation. There will be 18 satellites in the new constellation, with 12 times the data capacity of the groundbreaking original system. The contract is valued at $117M.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

New mission for a microsat

The Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite will have a mass of only 60kg, but this Canadian project will result in "the first space-based asteroid-searching telescope."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Cloud Rat found after 112 years

From Mt. Pulag National Park in the Philippines comes the dramatic rediscovery of a species missing for 112 years. That's actually not a record for the time between finding specimens of an animal - that honor goes to the Bermuda petrel, or cahow, which vanished for three centuries - but the return of the dwarf cloud rat (Carpomys melanurus) is a still a rare good news story for mammologists.
The rediscovery was accomplished by a team led by the Field Museum's Lawrence Heaney. He said, "This beautiful little animal was seen by biologists only once previously — by a British researcher in 1896 who was given several specimens by local people, so he knew almost nothing about the ecology of the species. Since then, the species has been a mystery, in part because there is virtually no forest left on Mt. Data, where it was first found."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Shuttles, tanks, and telescopes

The next Space Shuttle mission is on track for a May 31 launch. (I asked them to speed it up a day so it would celebrate my daughter's 12th birthday, but you know how the government is.) This mission will take the Japanese Kibo lab to the ISS.
After that, the schedule gets fuzzier. The last mission which will service and upgrade the Hubble telescope, set for August 28, will have to be postponed 4-5 weeks due to the need to process two External Tanks for the shuttle and a standby rescue mission, required on this flight because the shuttle can't reach the ISS as a "safe haven" from the Hubble orbit.

COMMENT: There's something here I'm missing. We've been flying shuttles for over a quarter of a century. NASA should know by now how long it takes to do everything and how much "fudge time" needs to be built into schedules. The need for a major postponement because of ET preparation baffles me. Has NASA still not learned the art of realistic scheduling?

Friday, May 02, 2008

New species of dolphin identified

Freshwater dolphins are, on the whole, a rare and interesting group, having abandoned the seas dolphins have adapted to so well in favor of inland waters. Now there's a new one. The Bolivian river dolphin (Inia boliviensis) has been identified as a species of its own, rather than a population of the Amazon pink river dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis). In Bolivia, the Prefecture of the Department of Beni, in the northeastern region of the country, celebrated by declaring the animal "a Natural Heritage."
All rivber dolphins are of concern to conservationists, and the baiji or Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) is likely extinct. Fernando Trujillo of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) warns: "River dolphins are amongst the most endangered of all whale and dolphin species. The pressures on them are immense, as was highlighted by the recent news of the extinction of the baiji in Asia. Urgent action is needed if we are to prevent Amazon River dolphins from suffering the same fate."