Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not a good year for yeti

Yeti evidence? Not yeti.

The yeti, wherever it is, must feel a bit put upon.  First a finger long supposed to be a yeti artifact was finally tested and found to be human. Then officials of a region of Russia called Ingushtetia announced the capture of a female Yeti, providing plenty of details on the capture, what the beast was eating, and so forth. That one seemed too good to be true, and it was. Depending on which subsequent statement one believes, it was either a mistranslation (unlikely, given all the details) or a publicity stunt. 
COMMENT: There may yet be an unknown primate hiding in high forested valleys of the Himalayan region, but it's no closer to being proven than it was 60 years ago when Westerners started taking the subject seriously.  I still think about the late primatologist John Napier's comment that he would dismiss the whole topic except that footprints found by Shipton and Ward in 1951 still bothered him. Those prints are still unexplained, but we have nothing better since than less-distinct prints and some very brief sightings.  I hope the yeti is out there, but it may be no more real than the jackalope... Another possibility, of course, is that it's the preserved memory of a real species that was walways rare and is now extinct. But we have no proof for that either.

Bad year for elephants

In the 1990s, elephant poaching was cut to a manageable level by a 1989 ban on ivory sales and strong national and international efforts, and rhinos got a break as well.  In 2011, though, elephants had their worst year since that ban was enacted. The tusks of some 2,500 elephants were seized by customs and wildlife officers, and no one known how much smuggled ivory got through.  One African park is losing 50 elephants a month, and South Africa reported a record 443 rhinos were killed in that country.  Even when ivory is seized, the poachers and the ringleaders are almost never caught. Middlemen, like corrupt customs officers who sign false papers, are caught more often, but are easily replaced in poor nations - both in Africa where the shipments originate, and in Asia where almost all the illegal stuff is being shipped. 
COMMENT: Too sad for words. To everyone: please DO NOT buy anything ivory unless it has a valid paper trail showing it's from mammoths or another legal source. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Yeti" hand is human

Well, darn. The most famous known-but-untested relic in cryptozoology, revered as a yeti's hand in the monastaery at Pangboche,  was the hand of a human being after all. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Yeti finger DNA tested

The famed Pangboche hand - or a finger of it - has been subjected to new DNA testing. Results due out today!

Trail of the Javan tiger

Missing 35 years, does it still live?

It was 1976 when the last Javan tiger was seen. It was 1994 when the subspecies was declared extinct.  After years without a clue, droppings and pawprints have prompted one more look with trail cameras. Could the cat still be out there?

Top new species of 2011

The discoveries continued on land, sea, and air

What new animals turned up in 2011? As always, it's been quite a haul. A ferret-badger from Vietnam, two new seabirds, a new rail, a dolphin, a hundreds of others. The Holy Grail of species discovery, a really large new land animal, remained elusive, although a claim was put in to split the African elephant to make the forest variety its own species, and we had plenty of everything else. 

December 23 was Coelacanth Discovery Day

"Living fossil" found in 1938

Loren Coleman pointed out an anniversary I'd overlooked - that of the 1938 discover of the coelacanth. This fish, supposedly extinct for 60 million years, taught us a lot about evolution and survival.  It also taught us that a long gap in the fossil record is not proof of extinction, something cryptozoologists have been pointing out ever since.

"Lake Monsters" surface again

New video purported to be "Champ"

The idea of monsters in lakes goes back, probably, to the beginnings of humankind, when there really were scary animals everywhere, at least on land and sea. Reports of odd lakedwelling creatures come from all over the world, in lakes large and small. Zoologists have been increasingly skeptical, not only because of the lack of hard evidence but because some monster lakes are too small to support colonies of large animals. This new video fro mLake Champlain, while suggested by one video analyst to show animate objects, is being mainly dismissed on Cryptomundo as a boat wake. I tend to think "wake," too - long narrow lakes produce a lot of odd phenomena when wakes "echo" off the shorelines.

Memo to Russia: Space Launch is Still Hard

Soyuz Failure

Space launch is not routine yet - at least, not as routine as it needs to be. While the U.S. has gone through boom and bust cycles of launch success, we generally think of Russian launch based on Soyuz rockets dating back to Sergei Korolev as a bus line, almost always succeeding on schedule.  But last week's failure of a Soyuz 2-1b, a variant with six successful launches on its record, was the third complete failure in the last 13 months (there were also two partial failures, where the upper stages failed to put the payload in the right orbit).  NASA must be pretty nervous about the whole "depend on Russia to launch our astronauts" plan.  It's a reminder that truly routine access to space needs a major investment to become a long-term reality.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The search for other Earths

NASA discovers two Earthlike planets

This may - just may - go down in future textbooks as a turning point in human history.  From NASA:

"NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.  The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is a bit larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra."

Rockey planets of roughly Earth-Mars-Venus size.  Now we know they exist.  Discovering similar planets in habitable zones is a foregone conclusion. Discovering life? In my opinion, it's just a matter of time. 


Afraid of science?

Decrying the modern trends

Attend a party, and you'll find someone detoxifying or decrying chemicals or railing against technology.  Funny, the author says, how all kinds of stuff trendy people hate are increasing health and lifespan. His main point is that people no longer understand science, or want to. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries of the year - and next year

Discover's picks for best solved and unsolved mysteries

Ben Radford offers his selection of mysteries. Among those he considers solved are a widely circulated UFO video from Jerusalem (hoax), and a boy with magnetic powers (same).  Reaching back to the 1700s, he endorses an idea the famed Beast of Gevaudan never existed - that it was just "normal" wolf attacks. Not buying that one. I mean, we HAVE the mount of a hyena shot in the French countryside. Mysteries he considers worth investigating in 2012 include the faster-than-light neutrino claims from Europe and the further study of possible Earthlike planets.  He's right that both are intriguing, but, Ben, use a little imagination... the orang pendek should merit a mention, at least.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Phobos-Grunt meets conspiracy theorists

US accused of zapping probe

The Russian record on Mars probes is pretty embarassing for a nation that otherwise has so many space accomplishments. With the loss of the Phobos-Grunt probe, a Russian official has reached for an explanation sure to delight conspiracy theorists in the US. The HAARP research device  has been blamed for everything else, so why not accuse it of zapping a Mars probe? (The energy levels are far, far, too low, but never mind... :)  )

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Branson Bullish on Space

Foresees robust tourist market and smallsat launch

Richard Branson is nothing if not bold.  He insists the space tourism industry will be big and profitable, even as he notes that acocuntants would have found his initial questions about its viability insane. He also says his system will be a cheap smallsat launcher, something microspace advocates have been pursuing or dreaming of... well, forever.  His plan for submersibles taking scientists to the greatest depths of the ocean are equally brach and equally fascinating. (OK, ALMOST equally fascinating.)
Go Branson!

Friday, December 16, 2011

New access to space on a big scale

Can billionaires solve the launch problem?
You can't say Paul Allen and Elon Musk think small.  A six-engined launch airplane derived from two 747s, plus a modified Falcon 9 medium-lift booster, is what the new Stratolaunch venture is planning on with help from legendary high-tech aircrat designer Burt Rutan.  The partners think the advantages of airlaunch plus the ability to capture a broad spectrum of military, NASA, and commercial business will result in a high-volume, low-cost business.
COMMENT. I admire their willingness to take the big risk and hope this comes off.  I am concenred about the sheer complexity of the thing.  Will it work reliably, and, if it does, will it really capture enough market to keep the costs down?  Will it be able to underprice ground launches of the Falcon series boosters? I wish Stratolaunch every success.

Harpooning a comet

NASA building gadget to fire into comets

This actually came up in a mission a couple of decades ago, the Comet Rendezvous - Asteroid Flyby (CRAF), which was canceled for budgetary reasons. Now Goddard Space Flight Center (GFSC) engineers envision a probe with several harpoons with varying propulsive charges for sampling molecules inside these still-puzzling roving bodies.  Very cool - hope it works!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dinosaurs - more amazing than ever

BBC Wildlife and the Decade of the Dinosaur

You like dinosaurs? Well, palentologists have 'em. In fact, they have a dizzying arrary of new dinosaurs and other reptilian relatives found over the last 10 years. 
Start in 2000 with hte first definite feathered dino specimen, from China. Progress through the 2002 find of the pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, with its stunning 12-meter wingspan. Follow with Gigantoraptor, 8 meters tall. Then in 2007 we have the discovery that the predator Sinosaurus, of movie fame, weighed 20 tons, 2-3 times what T-rex did. From the first fish-eating dinosaur in Australia to the first possible venomous dino to the mind-boggling pliosaur originally nicknamed Predator X, the past ten years taught us one thing: We don't know all about dinos.  Not yet. Indeed, we may hardly know them at all. 

Private space missions are go

NASA approves ISS trip

The first private mission to the International Space Station, postponed in the wake of NASA's budget problems and the uncertainty of keeping the ISS running using Russian vehicles, is back on.
The Dragon capsule from SpaceX will make an unmanned mission to the station - a big step forward for private space in general, and a big step for SpaceX toward getting its capsule "human-rated." As SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell put it: “SpaceX is excited to be the first commercial company in history to berth with the International Space Station. This mission will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight. We appreciate NASA’s continued support and their partnership in this process.”
Bon voyage!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Missing a few moon rocks

NASA hunts for samples
NASA's Inspector General reports the agency, which has thousands of lunar, meteorite, and (a VERY few) cometary specimens. When it loans them out, though, they don't always come back on time - or at all.  NASA promises that, after hundreds of small but irreplaceable samples vanished since 1970, it will tighten its procedures.

Best cryptozoology books of 2011

What's worth reading in cvryptozoology?
Loren Coleman has provided his always-fascinating annual list.  He did not try to narrow it to a top 10, but the #1 is Richard Coniff's fascinating The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.  (I'll post my own review of this one soon. Coniff chronicles the adventures and the philosophy behind the historical and continuing search for new species, along with a discussion on how taxonomy is way, way more complicated than we realized. 
The other books listed span a variety of topics, from regional collections of "monster" tales to books based on personal experience (including Tracking Bigfoot, by my friend Lori Simmons), two new tomes on Loch Ness, and two books by skeptics, Nickell and Radford.  It's going to take me some time to get through all these, as my reading of late has all been on missile technology for my "real job." If you want to get me something for Christmas, you know where to look!

My apologies

I've had to say this way too many times in the past, but, if you will bear with me, I know the blog has been very hit-and miss the last couple of weeks. Three solid days of jury duty plus business travel plus illness in the family just kind of swamped me, while a lot of important stuff has been happening in zoology, space exploration, and more. I'll try to catch you up, and I hope this is the last time I'll have to make this post!