The International Space Station looms above Earth during the unorthodox Atlantis fly-around on July 19. The moon can be seen above and to the right of the station.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
It's been standard procedure for the space shuttle to make a fly-around and take pictures of the International Space Station just as it's pulling away for the homeward journey. But the procedure was changed for this month's very last visit by the space shuttle Atlantis. After the shuttle backed 600 feet away, pilot Doug Hurley held it in position while the space station rotated 90 degrees to the right. Then Hurley made a half-loop around the station, to give Atlantis' crew members an opportunity to snap pictures of the station from angles never before photographed during a fly-around.
Here are some of the high-resolution pictures. Scores of additional images focus in on details that NASA engineers wanted to check. "The images will be evaluated by experts on the ground to get additional information on the condition of the station's exterior," NASA said.
The International Space Station's solar panels are nearly edge-on in this view. Two Russian Soyuz lifeboats and two Progress cargo ships are docked on the left side.
Earth spreads out nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) below in the background of this unusual view of the International Space Station.
The sun shines brightly on the International Space Station in this parting shot, captured by Atlantis' crew.
Nathanial Burton-Bradford put together this 3-D view of the shuttle Atlantis' launch on July 8. Use red-blue glasses to see the stereo effect.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
NASA's last space shuttle mission and its next Mars mission both look twice as awesome in stereo — and you can look forward to more 3-D goodness to come.
The picture of Atlantis' launch on July 8 comes courtesy of Nathanial Burton-Bradford, a British aficionado of anaglyph imagery. Burton-Bradford's Flickr page offers views of the launch as well as a panorama of the shuttle docked to the International Space Station, plus a space station view of Atlantis' descent last week.
Even though Atlantis' 13-day mission and the 30-year space shuttle program have ended, there are lots of 3-D views yet to come. Several professional stereo camera rigs were set up at the launch site, and Panasonic provided 3-D camcorders for Atlantis' crew to use during their training and spaceflight. The 3-D cameras are to be used aboard the space station going forward.
Vertical Ascent Productions captured the launch as well as the landing in 3-D, for use in a 45-minute special due to air on Aug. 5 as part of inDemand's "In Deep" series. The show was commissioned by Comcast, and other inDemand affiliates will have access to the special as well, Multichannel News reported.
3-D on Mars If film director James Cameron had his way, we'd be looking forward to even more exotic 3-D video next year. At one time, the man behind "Avatar," "Titanic" and other Hollywood blockbusters was working with NASA to put a high-resolution 3-D zoom camera aboard the car-sized Curiosity rover.
Alas, it was not to be: Mission planners determined that the camera couldn't be ready in time for the probe's scheduled launch on Nov. 25. NASA had to go with the fixed focal-length system that was originally planned for the rover.
NASA / JPL-Caltech
This stereo image of NASA's Curiosity rover was taken on May 26 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, about a month before the car-sized rover — also known as the Mars Science Laboratory — was shipped to Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its November launch to the Red Planet.
Even that dual-camera Mastcam system has stereo capability, so we'll still be seeing stereo views. In fact, both cameras are capable of taking high-resolution video at a rate of about 10 frames per second. But because the cameras have different focal lengths, 3-D imagery will not be "a major emphasis of the investigation," according to the camera's manufacturer, Malin Space Science Systems.
You don't have to wait until the Curiosity rover's landing next May to enjoy 3-D views from the Red Planet. Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers that landed on Mars in 2004, have sent back loads of stereo images — and the vistas are likely to get even more dramatic once Opportunity reaches the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is also taking stereo pictures of Mars, from high above. You can click through more than 2,000 3-D images from the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.
As you graze through the nearly 19,000 pictures in HiRISE's catalog, you'll occasionally come across image pages that offer "anaglyph" versions of the scene — and that's a tip-off that 3-D goodness is available.
This picture of the central mound at Gale Crater, the top target for Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission, is a good example:
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Ariz.
This stereo image shows the northeast section of the central mound within Gale Crater on Mars, which appears to include layers of sulfate minerals. Gale Crater's mound rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the floor of the crater and has been selected as the target for NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover mission.
How to see in 3-D By now you're probably wondering where to get the red-blue glasses you need to see the 3-D effect. Inexpensive cardboard spectacles are generally inserted in 3-D books or DVD packages — but for the pictures that you see on this page and on most other websites, you'll want to make sure you have the red-blue (or red-cyan) filters rather than amber-blue or green-magenta filters.
I've been known to give away 3-D glasses that are provided courtesy of Microsoft Research, which includes 3-D imagery in its WorldWide Telescope astronomy software. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the msnbc.com joint venture.) This week, I'm sending out more than 20 free sets of cardboard glasses to readers who asked for them on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. The giveaway glasses are already spoken for, so please click on the "like" button to become part of Cosmic Log's Facebook community and be ready for the next giveaway.
Once you have your glasses, click through these links to sample more 3-D goodies from outer space:
And while you're at it, check out the 2-D images in the latest installment of our "Month in Space Pictures" slideshow. Many of the pictures this month are from Atlantis' mission, but there are lots of other gems to enjoy. Click on these links for larger versions of the images, suitable for printing or turning into wallpaper for your display devices:
The nearly silent propeller-driven plane with a sleek, glider-like design is powered by an onboard battery that has sufficient juice for three hours of flight and a range of about 250 miles. The 220-pound, 26-kilowatt battery is fueled in a solar-charging hangar.
"Our concept is not to bring on the market an aircraft only, it is to bring a system and this system is the aircraft, plus the hangar, plus the energy," Calin Gologan, the chief executive officer of PC Aero, the German-based developer of the electric plane, told me Wednesday.
The company plans to start work next year on an updated version of the plane that incorporates solar panels on the body and the wings of the 440-pound (200-kilogram) aircraft that will extend its range by up to 30 percent when the sun is shining.
The solar cells seen on the plane at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh are non-functional copies, explained Ben Santarris, a spokesman for Oregon-based SolarWorld, which is partnering with PC Aero on the project.
Almost ready for market PC Aero and SolarWorld bill the Elektra One as the "world's first comparatively affordable electric aircraft system." Electric planes have flown in one form or another since the 1970s, though almost all are experimental or demonstration aircraft.
Experimental solar-powered aircraft have also been flown for several years. In 2010, an aircraft called the Solar Impulse completed the first 24-hour flight, a feat that proved the aircraft can collect enough energy from the sun during the day to stay aloft all night.
While impressive, Gologan said the plane represents a vision, a vision that says "the world can live with alternative energy, the energy of the sun." The Elektra One, by contrast, "is reality." That is a practical electrical aircraft for everyday use.
"Our vision is to bring an aircraft with alternative energy, a good range, zero emissions, and low noise and do all of this with low operating costs," Gologan said.
PC Aero plans to begin taking orders for Elektra One aircraft in Europe next year. Sales in the U.S. are dependent on regulatory permits.
A complete system — solar-equipped plane combined with a solar charging hanger, will retail for around $145,000 and have an operating cost of less than $50 an hour.
Electric commuter flights? Gologan hopes to use the lessons learned from Elektra One, as well as from planned leisure-class planes large enough to carry two to six people, as the basis for bringing electric-powered aircraft to commercial aviation.
One realistic goal, perhaps 20 years out, he said, is electric-powered planes large enough to serve as shuttles, such as those that connect small towns with regional hubs. Since the planes are silent, "noise problems with takeoff and landing" are eliminated, he noted.
The biggest hurdle on this path to the future is batteries, Gologan noted as he plugged more funding for research and development in the field.
"They are too heavy," he said. "We need to improve the battery efficiency to go to the airliner step by a factor of 10. And the rate of improvement of the battery is 12 percent a year. So you can calculate how much time it will take."
Scientists have created an artifical neural network out of DNA, creating a circuit of interacting molecules.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Artificial intelligence is no longer the domain of clunky, mechanical robots and computers. It thrives inside a test tube, where scientists have created an artificial neural network made out of DNA — essentially the beginnings of a brain — that was able to ace "plop" quizzes.
The network is a circuit of interacting molecules that can recall memories based on incomplete patterns. It consists of four artificial neurons made from 112 distinct DNA strands and plays a mind-reading game in which it tries to identify a mystery scientist.
The team, led by bioengineer Lulu Qian at the California Institute of Technology, chose to build its network out of DNA molecules because, before brains evolved, molecular interactions inside single-cell organisms showed limited forms of intelligence such as searching for food and avoiding toxins.
"Molecules can act as biochemical circuits that process information and perform computational tasks," Qian explains in a video describing her team's work, which was published in the July 21 issue of Nature.
Because scientists can synthesize DNA strands with whatever base sequence they want, the researchers were able to program the molecules to function like a simple model neuron that fires only when it passes a certain threshold. Linked together, they behave like a network of neurons.
To play the plop quiz game, the neural network was trained to "know" four scientists, whose identities are each represented by a specific, unique set of answers to four yes or no questions, such as whether the scientist was British.
After thinking of a scientist, a human player provides an incomplete subset of answers that partially identifies the scientist. The player then conveys those clues to the network by plopping DNA strands that correspond to those answers into the test tube.
These plopped-in strands interact with the neural network, which fires or not depending on its answer. To see the neurons firing, a fluorescent molecular marker lit up when activated.
In this way, the network communicates via fluorescent signals to identify which scientist the player has in mind or that it has insufficient or contradictory information. The researchers played the game with the network using 27 different ways of answering the questions. It responded correctly each time.
Beyond playing lab games, the technology has applications for the design of new drugs as well as performing chemical and biological research, the scientists say. For example, biochemical networks designed to go inside a body could help identify a disease and deliver targeted drugs.
But that future is distant, Qian says. For one, finding a way to get the network to function inside a living organism presents a whole new set of challenges than operating inside the test tube.
As for creating an artificial human brain with lab-made DNA ... don't worry just yet. The four neuron network took eight hours to identify each mystery scientist. The human brain consists of 100 billion neurons and can make decisions in a split second.
The National Science Foundation is setting up a public-private program to help researchers make the leap into entrepreneurship by putting them through a boot camp for startups.
NSF's Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, aims to offer 100 grants a year at $50,000 each. But the money isn't the main point of the project. The key is to put NSF-funded scientists together with mentors and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into marketable ventures. It sounds like a new role for a federal agency that focuses on research rather than revenue, but the agency's director contends that I-Corps is right in line with NSF's mission.
"The United States has a long history of investing in — and deploying — technological advances derived from a foundation of basic research," Director Subra Suresh said in today's announcement. "And the NSF mission connects advancing the nation's prosperity and welfare with our passionate pursuit of scientific knowledge. I-Corps will help strengthen a national innovation ecosystem that firmly unites industry with scientific discoveries for the benefit of society."
The program is modeled after Stanford University's Lean LaunchPad class, created by startup guru Steve Blank. I-Corps participants will go through a version of the Lean LaunchPad curriculum, aimed at helping them turn high-tech ideas into workable business ventures. On his blog, Blank trumpeted I-Corps as "a big deal" and "a new era for scientists and engineers."
"If this program works, it will change how we connect basic research to the business world. And it will lead to more startups and job creation," he said.
Foundations as well as the federal government will be kicking in support for the program. On its Q&A webpage, NSF says that the agency plans to put $1.25 million into I-Corps projects during the current fiscal year, pending availability of funds. Initial private investments have been secured for fiscal 2011 and 2012. NSF expects to run the program for at least three years.
The $50,000 grants would go to teams of three (a principal investigator, a mentor and a postdoc or student who would serve as an entrepreneurial lead), and run for up to six months. The principal investigator has to have received an NSF award within the past five years.
There are lots of other federal programs aimed at supporting entrepreneurship, including NSF's own Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry, or GOALI. The agency said I-Corps would be a good program for researchers who have already gone through GOALI. I-Corps graduates may go on in turn to seek Small Business Innovation Research grants or other types of funding to turn their business plans into real ventures.
NSF has gotten into trouble lately with Republicans for funding research that they think isn't worth the money, including treadmill-running crustaceans and towel-folding robots. I wonder how lawmakers and the taxpaying public will view a program aimed at making scientists more business-minded. And I also wonder what scientists will think: Is it one giant leap for turning basic research into real-world applications, or one small step away from NSF's core mission? Please feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project
A 3rd-century papyrus fragment contains a snippet of text from a non-canonical Christian gospel.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Scientists are recruiting thousands of armchair archaeologists to help them decipher a "lost" gospel and other fragments of texts from ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Lives project draws upon the same type of people power that drives citizen-science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, Planet Hunters, Foldit and EteRNA. In all these cases, legions of human eyes and brains can do a better job of sifting through massive databases than supercomputers. For this particular project, however, the monster database that needs to be tamed does not consist of sky-survey data or molecular combinations — rather, they're ink letters, scrawled in Greek on centuries-old bits of papyrus.
Oxford University launched Ancient Lives just a couple of days ago, but project leader Chris Lintott told me that more than 400,000 papyrus images have already been served up as of today. "It's been a crazy few days," he said in an email.
Deluge of documents That's the kind of participation Ancient Lives will need in order to cope with the deluge of documents from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. More than a century ago, archaeologists unearthed piles of papyrus pieces in an ancient rubbish dump near an Egyptian city once known as Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo. The manuscripts have been dated to between the 1st and the 6th century, covering a time when Greek and Roman culture was dominant in Egypt.
Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project
This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia ("Ignorance"), from an illustrated edition of Menander's comedy "Perikeiromene," or "The Girl Who Had Her Hair Shorn."
Since its discovery, the treasure trove has yielded up some masterpieces of the age, including the comedies of Menander, the poems of Sappho and the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Thousands of fragments have been cataloged and decoded. The only problem is, there are hundreds of thousands of fragments to go.
"Most of these haven't been read, and they weren't cataloged in what must have been extremely trying conditions in the field," said Lintott, an Oxford physicist and one of the pioneers behind Galaxy Zoo and its Zooniverse spin-offs. "As a result, our professional colleagues have been searching blind for the last century, like trying to do research by randomly selecting books off the Bodleian Library shelves."
University of Minnesota physicist Lucy Fortson, another project leader, said the fragments are completely out of sequence. "It's like if you have thousands of puzzles, take all the pieces and mix them together in one big box. Then you try to put the puzzles together," she said in a news release. "It's an enormous task."
Now the puzzle pieces have been digitized and made available for any Internet user to peruse.
"Until now, only experts could explore this incredible collection," Lintott said in this week's project announcement. "But with so much of the collection unstudied, there's plenty for everyone. We're excited to see what visitors can unearth."
Other leaders of the effort include Oxford's William MacFarlane, the lead developer and designer; James Brusuelas, the team's papyrologist; and Paul Ellis, an imaging specialist who helped digitize the texts. "It's with the digital advancements of our own age that we're able to open up this window into the past, and see a common human experience in that intimate, traditional medium, handwriting," MacFarlane said.
How you can help The beauty part is that you don't even have to know Greek to help out. The online interface asks only that you compare the letters on each fragment with the shapes displayed on a keyboard. Lintott told me that the current plan calls for each fragment to be checked five times or so, to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. Think of it as a variant of the "Captcha" type-in-the-phrase system that's used to block spammers.
Another task involves measuring the dimensions of the fragments, to help scholars figure out which fragments go together. You don't need a ruler: A click-and-drag measuring tool does all the work.
The transcribed fragments will be sent over to experts in ancient manuscripts for review, translation and potential publication. Will Internet users get credit for the work they've done? "Absolutely," Lintott said, "as with all Zooniverse projects, we'll take great care to attribute credit correctly."
Among the items recently picked out of the pile are fragments of a previously unknown apocryphal gospel that describes Jesus casting out demons, a lost play by Euripides titled "Melanippe the Wise" and newfound letters attributed to the philosopher Epicurus.
Who knows what else is waiting to be discovered? If you've ever wanted to put on an Indiana Jones fedora and delve into ancient mysteries, here's your chance. This tutorial shows you how the job is done, and this Zooniverse page is where you sign up to participate.
Update for 5:30 p.m. ET Aug. 1: Over the weekend, Oxford papyrologist James Brusuelas sent an email with further details about the juiciest bits of papyri:
"Gospel: In its current edited state, the gospel has not been overtly connected to any other sources. It remains a hot topic amongst historians of religion and Christianity. One must think about how the wider apocryphal (i.e., not included in the accepted canon of biblical texts) and biblical stories of Jesus relate to and inform the very act of casting out demons. Where does this particular narrative fit in the tradition of Jesus' acts? We have the text, we've identified it. Now it has to be studied and debated (that's why this project can be so cool).
"As for Euripides, we have the gist of the mythological story concerning Melanippe, her rape or seduction at the hands of Poseidon and the subsequent birth of twin sons, whom she tries to hide from her father Aeolus. All we know about the play is that it roughly begins as such:
"The children were hidden in a stable and discovered by a herdsman, who thought they were the unnatural offspring of a cow.
"Aeolus is persuaded to kill the twin as unnatural beings.
"Melanippe steps forward to rationally defend the children as the offspring of an unidentified girl.
"We've learned this from other sources that have quoted and given the background story to the myth, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Aristotle, and Aristophanes.
"This roughly amounts to about 60 lines of the original text; everything pertains to the beginning of the story.
"Why is she wise? Her mother, Hippe, was the daughter of the wise centaur Chiron, the teacher and tutor of such great heroes as Ajax, Achilles, and Jason.
"How does the play unfold? We have no idea. And we don't know what we'll find, but we are waiting to learn how this story turns out."
If life's origin was a purely natural phenomenon, why haven't scientists replicated the experiment? Actually, that's exactly what they're trying to do. The New York Times' Dennis Overbye reports on the effort to produce self-replicating RNA at the Scripps Research Institute. Overbye says RNA is the Robin-like sidekick to the Batman of biochemistry, DNA. But many researchers believe RNA figured in the DNA origin story. So is a sequel in the works?
Students work on a house that fits on a 128 square foot trailer and is completely outfitted for off-grid living with solar panels and a rainwater capture and storage system.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
How much space do you really need to live? No more than 128 square feet – about the same footprint as the trailers lawn care companies use to haul their gear, according to a team of college students and recent alumni keyed into the sustainability movement.
The team is putting the finishing touches on their tiny house which, in fact, was built on a trailer and is completely self-sustainable. It generates all the water and electricity its dweller needs, a first, they say, for this class of miniature housing.
"You can go anywhere you want and do anything," Kaycee Overcash, a recent graduate from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who is the co-project manager for the Tiny House project, explained to me.
A 1120 watt array of solar panels mounted on the roof coupled with a battery bank generates enough electricity to power a small refrigerator, lights, and a laptop, the team says. A rainwater collection system fills up a pillow stored beneath the home, providing 8.4 gallons of water per day, year round.
That water and electricity, though, aren't used to flush the toilet. The house has a composting toilet outfitted with peat moss and a ventilation system that is slotted into the shower, which is actually where the entire bathroom is contained.
"It is a little bigger than a normal toilet because of the area it needs to decompose, but you sit on it like any other toilet," Overcash said. "You take a tray out once a week and it is dirt. You put it in your garden."
The overall goal of the project, she added, is to create a house that has everything you need, but nothing more. Even if people don't downsize to tiny houses, she hopes they'll at least take some ideas from a visit to the Tiny House and implement them at their own homes.
"We want people to understand how to start using their space better, their resources better, and they can do it with any of these technologies," she said.
A key for the project team was the implementation of off-grid technologies, a step that takes the tiny house movement away from reliance on municipal utilities and helps homeowners tune in to their surroundings such as the patterns of the sun, according to co-project manager William Fan.
"Water and electricity have become so cheap that we forget how difficult it is to obtain them," he told me via email. "Internalizing this process forces the user not to live beyond nature's means."
And while there's efficiency in the economies of scale that come with grid-size utilities, going off grid helps foster innovation, he added.
"Off grid systems have the ability to evolve more quickly, as they are smaller systems that don't require nearly as much capital cost and are chosen by families or individuals rather than bureaucratic governments," Fan said.
The International Space Station is photographed from Atlantis during the last shuttle mission.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Now that the space shuttle fleet is out of service, the Russians are in charge when it comes to getting people to the International Space Station and back — so when a Russian space official talks about sinking the station as early as 2020, that may sound ominous to some ears.
In reality, it's not that big a deal: Vitaly Davydov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Space Agency, was simply stating current policy when he told TV interviewers that the station would be in use until 2020 or so, and that it would have to be taken out of orbit when it's obsolete.
The interview from "Good Morning Russia" ("Utro Rossii") caused a stir when a Russian-language transcript turned up on the space agency's website, but don't panic: If anything, the International Space Station will be in operation well after 2020. Russia, NASA and the other partners in the 16-nation venture are looking into extending the station's lifetime to 2028 — that is, if they can verify that its components will still be in working order that far into the future.
By 2028, still more space stations will be in orbit — almost certainly including the space bases currently being planned for launch as early as 2015 by private companies such as Bigelow Aerospace.
A close reading of the transcript shows that Davydov's comments, made during an interview focusing on last week's retirement of the shuttle fleet, are in line with the space station effort's current plans:
Q: Concerning the International Space Station, what's its fate? How long will it exist?
A: For now we've agreed with our partners that the station will be used until around 2020.
Q: And how long was it due to last?
A: Originally, 15 years.
Q: It's already been 13 years.
A: It's been 13 years since 1998, but the station's potential is much greater. I recall that when we flew Mir, we also thought it wouldn't be around all that long, but it was in operation for 15 years. [The first part of Russia's Mir space station was launched in 1986, and the complex was deorbited in 2001.]
Q: And then what happens to the International Space Station?
A: After the station completes its existence, we will be forced to sink it. It cannot be left in orbit, it's too complex, it's too heavy an object. It can leave behind lots of junk.
Q: Then will we build a new one?
A: There are a few alternatives. Of course, it's possible that [another] station wouldn't be created, but that we'd immediately try to turn our attention to the moon, to Mars. ...
Until a couple of years ago, the space station partners were working on the assumption that the 500-ton space station would have to be shut down and taken out of orbit in 2016. At the time, the partners were working out a plan that would put the station down in the Pacific just five or six years after its completion. But then the Obama White House revised NASA's space vision to extend the station's lifetime to at least 2020, providing an orbital testbed for future exploration.
NASA will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station for the next few years, while commercial ventures develop space taxis for NASA's future use. NASA also plans to move ahead with the development of an Orion exploration spaceship and a heavy-lift launch system for going beyond Earth orbit.
In the "Good Morning Russia" interview, Davydov speculated that a future space station could be built as a platform for trips to the moon or Mars. And he noted that Russia, like the United States, was working on a new type of spaceflight system that will have "reusable elements on a level considerably higher than today's."
"We calculate that after 2015 we will also begin to test a qualitatively new ship," Davydov said.
He was asked which country would be the first to come out with a new spaceship for exploration. "Let us compete," Davydov answered.
Update for 2 p.m. ET: Space.com's Leonard David laid out the plan for the International Space Station's eventual disposal in this article last year. Russia's Progress cargo ships would have to be modified in order to push the space station on a course to come down in the Pacific (or give the station an orbital boost in case more time is needed to execute the de-crewing and deorbiting plan). A contingency plan for deorbiting the space station has to be ready well before 2020, just in case a catastrophic event requires the abandonment and safe disposal of the football-field-sized complex.
Txchnologist is running a thoughtful series of reports about the future of spaceflight this week, including an analysis from our own James Oberg, NBC News' space analyst. Check out the selection so far:
A video from the American Chemical Society shows the water-walking robot in action.
By Nidhi Subbaraman
It weighs about as much as about 390 water striders, but this leggy robot can skitter across water just like the real deal.
Scientists built the robot after studying the way real water striders scuttled across the surface of water. Some years ago, a different group of researchers zoomed in on the water strider legs and found that they had leg hairs that trapped air, forming tiny air cushions. Together with the legs' waxiness, this feature makes the water strider legs behave more oars when they hit the surface of the water, keeping the bug afloat.
The design of the tiny robot and its legs is similar. The legs of the robots have air-trapping nanostructures made of copper, giving the 'bot limbs some extra lift in water. Xinbin Zhang, who published a paper describing the walking waterproof wonder in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces, wrote that "the robot stands effortlessly on its slim supporting legs."
The water-walking robot is powered by a motor worn on its "body," which is wired to an external control board. Ten "walking" legs support the robot, and the two other legs are connected to motors on its body. When either one of the two motors was turned off, the robot turned to the left or right.
The current model doesn't quite match the insects in agility, but Zhang and his colleagues write that better skating versions of this waterproof robot could find application as water pollution surveyors and monitors.
An artist's conception shows how the birdlike dinosaur known as Xiaotingia zhengi might have looked.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The newfound fossil of a 155 million-year-old feathered dinosaur has led scientists to claim that Archaeopteryx, the species long held forth as the "oldest bird," is no bird at all.
Chinese researchers made the claim in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, and an outside expert says the study "is likely to rock the paleontological community for years to come." Ohio University paleontologist Lawrence Witmer noted that the latest research, focusing on a fossil species dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi, comes 150 years after the discovery of Archaeopteryx, which marked a milestone in the study of the origin of birds.
"It's fitting that 150 years later, Archaeopteryx is right back at center stage," Witmer told me.
Xiaotingia was found by a collector in China's Liaoning Province, a hotbed for feathered-dino fossils, and sold to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Paleontologists led by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed the fossil's skeletal measurements in detail and fed them into a computer database with measurements from 89 fossilized dinosaur and bird species, including Archaeopteryx.
Without Xiaotingia, the computer analysis put Archaeopteryx on the evolutionary line leading to modern-day birds. But when Xiaotingia was included, Archaeopteryx was placed in a group of birdlike dinosaurs known as deinonychosaurs. The differences had to do with details such as the shape of the wishbone and the skull's snout.
Archaeopteryx was about the size of a modern-day crow, and Xiaotingia was as big as a chicken.
Xu et al., Nature
The fossil skeleton of Xiaotingia zhengi is splayed out in rock.
"If you just looked at Xiaotingia, you'd say, 'Oh, boy, another little feathered dinosaur from China,'" Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who reviewed the study for Nature, told me. "In and of itself, it is not a particularly unusual animal. But the combination of traits, at least in their analysis, pulls Archaeopteryx over to the deinonychosaur side of things."
The researchers acknowledged that their reclassification was "only weakly supported by the available data," but they said this kind of fuzziness was to be expected when the fossils being analyzed are close to the common ancestor of now-extinct dinosaurs and modern birds. "This phenomenon is also seen in some other major transitions, including the origins of major mammalian groups," they wrote.
Witmer agreed: "We're looking at an origin, and consequently it's going to be messy."
The 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx fossil, which was discovered in southern Germany in 1861, was long seen as the oldest evidence of a bird species because the rocky imprint bore traces of feathers. But over the past decade or two, many dinosaur fossils have been found with evidence of feathers — to the extent that some scientists have been able to figure out how the feathers were colored. As a result, some researchers have argued for years that Archaeopteryx should be reclassified.
In the past, creationists have used Archaeopteryx in their arguments against evolutionary theory, contending that birds always existed in their feathered form and did not evolve from dinosaurs. Evolution's critics may try to spin these latest findings to their advantage as well, Witmer said.
"It may well be they're going to suggest that we evolutionists don't know what we're doing," he told me. "In reality, it's just the opposite. It just shows what evolution is all about. A prediction of evolutionary theory is that it should be really hard for us to figure out what's going on in an origin."
Archaeopteryx's dethronement means the title of "oldest bird" could fall to other ancient species, such as Epidexipteryx hui, Jeholornis and Sapeornis, Witmer said. "They're not exactly household names," he noted. "These new characters have been known only for 10 years or less." Archaeopteryx, meanwhile, would be lumped in with Xiaotingia as well as another feathered-dino species called Anchiornis huxleyi.
G. Mayr / Senckenberg
An Archaeopteryx specimen highlights wing and tail feather impressions.
The renewed debate over Archaeopteryx's classification is far from finished. Holtze said he knew some researchers who were inclined to go with a completely different classification scheme, which would put the deinonychosaurs along with Archaeopteryx on the evolutionary line leading to modern-day birds.
The debate could also require a rethinking of how birds arose, and how features such as feathers and flight developed. Holtz said some paleontologists have suggested that Archaeopteryx was not a particularly good flier, and putting it in the deinonychosaur category would make more sense on that score. It may turn out that deinonychosaurs gradually evolved from so-so fliers into feathered but flightless animals. "They would have been nasty predatory analogs to ostriches," Holtz said.
Holtz acknowledged that Archaeopteryx "has been our image of what early birds are like, for the historical reason that it's been known for 150 years as having all these feathers." The fact that the fossil was found just two years after Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" added to its image as an evolutionary icon. A dramatic change in that image might come as another scientific shock to folks who are already being told that there's no such thing as a brontosaur, and that Pluto no longer ranks among the solar system's major planets.
"To which I say, 'Get over it!'" Holtz said. "Science is about changing ideas based on evidence, not about ignoring evidence to conform to our comfortable ideas."
Even if you've never put on a pair of Latex lab gloves or felt the familiar burn of lab goggles leaving pressure prints on your face, you're about to get a sneak peek into grad life, courtesy of a new movie set to hit college screens across the country. One man is bringing Ph.D. students across the world together with a comic strip that takes a good look at grad life through a microscope.
Jorge Cham / PhD Comics
Jorge Cham, the creator of "Piled Higher and Deeper, or, "PhD Comics," is a bona fide geek. He began grad life studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. He started drawing the comics for the college paper, to reveal the real truth about grad life. That's "where the real pain begins," he once told iBioMagazine.
Cham's research was on robotics and movement, and one of his designs created a robot that mimicked the movement of a scurrying cockroach. "Isn't that what grad school feels like? ... Running constantly. With a more intelligent being stamping you down," he joked during a talk at Northern Illinois University.
The comic strip started in 1998 as a humorous take on college life in general, then evolved into a behind-the-scenes look at life as a grad student — in the lab for his characters studying science and engineering, and out of the it, for those studying computer science or the social sciences. Lightly based on students he knew when he first started writing the strip, the characters gradually took on a life of their own. Veterans of the grad life will easily spot familiar themes in the clips, which poke fun at cranky professors, underappreciative undergrads and more.
Jorge Cham / PhD Comics
Cham graduated and went on to take a lecturer's post at Caltech, concentrating on neural prosthetics. But the comics grew in popularity, and Cham started connecting with fans through a series of talks titled "The Power of Procrastination." Now that story is coming to the big screen. Cham recently teamed up with the drama department at Caltech to make "Piled Higher and Deeper," a movie inspired by his PhD Comics mini-franchise.
We caught up with Cham to find out more about his plans for the film.
Cosmic Log: What’s the one message you want grad students and grad students-to-be to take away from this?
Jorge Cham: The movie has a lot of themes from my lectures and my comics. The main message, I guess, is to keep some perspective in grad school, because as isolated as you may feel, the truth is that you are not alone.
Q: Why a PhD Comics film?
A: People have been asking me for a long when there would be a TV show or movie based on the comics, and I just felt it was time that it happened. I generally feel that academics and scientists are not portrayed as real people in popular culture. Usually, shows and movies rely on one-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures. With my comics and the movie, hopefully we show them as real people, with many different personalities, interests and passions.
Q: Has it been fun?
A: It's been incredibly fun. Also, incredibly hard work! Little did I know that making a movie would take over my life.
Q: Were those real, live grad students in the film?
A: Yes! We found an awesome cast that also happens to be Ph.D. students at Caltech (well, one of them is an undergrad). I really felt this was important so that the performances were real and genuine.
Q: You teamed up with the Caltech drama dept for this feature. How did that conversation get started?
A: I just emailed Brian Brophy and that got the ball rolling. It's a one-man theater department.
Q: What was it like, filming on campus?
A: It was great. Caltech has a beautiful and unique campus that has a rich history, and exciting things happening in it. We tried to make the campus itself one of the characters in the movie.
Q: What were you looking for in the auditions, and how did you settle on this cast?
A: Almost everyone we casted had some sort of acting or performance experience, first of all. Mostly, we just looked for people who had a certain aspect of themselves that embodied the characters. We were extremely fortunate to find the cast we did. Did I mention already they are awesome?
Q: Did everything go as planned? Were there any memorable last-minute hiccups along the way?
A: We were really lucky in almost everything. Honestly, I am still amazed we made it this far. It's such a complex operation involving so many people and resources and equipment. Meg Rosenburg, the producer (another Ph.D. student), deserves the lion's share of that credit.
Everyone involved pulling together and working hard also made it happen. There were some hiccups, though: for example, finding out the day of shooting that a jazz festival is taking place right outside the window of the lab we were filming at. Or not having a location for filming a scene until the day before. I definitely lost a lot of weight and sleep in those two months.
Q: What did you want to take from the comics to stuff into the film? Is it a condensed version of the comics? A selection of the best posts ever? A portrait of grad life that captures the PhD Comics essence? Something else?
A: I tried to make it as much like the comics in spirit and tone. You'll see that the movie plays a little bit with realism and comics mixed in, while maintaining some real emotions and feelings. When I was writing it, I went through every single comic I'd ever done and tried to pick out the ones that were most popular and could be pieced together to form a narrative and story arc.
Q: Have you been flooded with emails from grad schools everywhere, baiting you to come show off the film at their campus first? Do you know yet what the plan is for screenings? Who’s first?
A: We did receive over 400 requests for screenings and are slowly sorting through them. I did get a few offers to be the world premiere, so we'll see what happens.
Q: How do you think people in the “real” world view grad students and grad life?
A: I don't think people on the outside really understand what academics or researchers do, and how they go about it. Again, there are a lot of stereotypes out there of what a scientist is supposed to look like or act like, but the truth is that there isn't just one type of personality. You can be a Nobel Prize winner and still have multiple interests in many things.
Q: What are your plans to take this film beyond college campuses? Is this going to be an Internet phenomenon? Or a film festival entry? Are we talkingSundance or YouTube?
A: We'll be submitting to festivals for sure. I think the Internet might have to wait a little bit.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman's latest book, "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," suggests that our brain's wiring dictates most of what we do, rather than any transcendent self. That goes for crime as well ... which leads him to suggest that the criminal mind is merely an outgrowth of a criminally structured brain.
Does that mean murderers or rapists can beat the rap by pleading that they had no choice but to do evil? Far from it. You are still responsible for your deeds, even if much of what you do happens on an unconscious level. But Eagleman argues that a better understanding of neuroscience should change our approach to crime and punishment, and perhaps even governance in general.
The founding fathers may have declared that all men are created equal, but science shows that all brains are not. And in Eagleman's view, we don't control the brain. The brain controls us ... whatever "us" means.
Eagleman is used to seeing things in a different light: His lab job at the Baylor College of Medicine focuses on how vision works, how our senses overlap each other to create the effect known as synesthesia, and how we perceive time. He's written works on a wide range of deep-think subjects, including "Sum," a series of fables about alternate afterlives.
You could also call Eagleman the prophet of possibilianism, a philosophy that advocates taking an open, inquisitive approach toward cosmic possibilities. "I think it's important, because it represents the scientific temperament: active exploration of different hypotheses without pretending we know what the right answer is in advance," he told me.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman talks about the message of "Incognito."
"Incognito" delves into the weird workings of our brain, including lighthearted explanations for visual and perceptual illusions (which are another of Eagleman's interests). But it's Eagleman's heavyweight discussion of neuroscience's social and philosophical implications that has attracted the most attention — and elevates "Incognito" above the usual gee-whiz fare.
That was the focus of my recent telephone interview with the author. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Do people really need to think of themselves and their brains in a different way? Or is this just a case of understanding what’s really going on all the time, and we shouldn’t change our lives because of what we read in "Incognito"?
David Eagleman: Well, I don’t know if people will change their lives, but I think that throughout history, there’s been a goal to know ourselves better, and I feel like in some sense, we are at a point in our history where we can understand ourselves at a much deeper level than we were able to previously, because now we’re looking inside the skull, at this alien totally foreign computational fabric that we call the brain, and it is … us. We can understand ourselves so much better by looking at the operations that are running under the hood, most of which have been inaccessible to us.
Q: Some people talk about the view that we have a "zombie brain," the unconscious part of the brain that takes care of everything that's done when you drive home along a familiar route, for example. A lot of the activity that we undertake day to day really is part of that zombie brain. Does that get us in trouble, to have so much going on in our brain that's below the level of consciousness?
A: I don't think it gets us in trouble so much as that it is the thing that "drives the boat." Almost everything that we think and do, act and believe is generated by these systems under the hood that we don’t have access to — whether it’s lifting a cup of coffee to your lips, or recognizing someone’s face, or falling in love.
"Incognito" delves into the frontiers of neuroscience and implications for society.
I wouldn’t say these systems get us in trouble. Your conscious mind, the part of you that switches on the light when you get up in the morning — that is the smallest bit of what’s happening in the brain. The analogy that I use is that the conscious mind is like a stowaway on a transatlantic steamship who is taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.
Q: One of the themes that comes out in the book is the idea about "who’s really to blame" for bad behavior. If there’s a criminal mind out there, it’s really more the brain’s fault, under the hood, than it is the conscious mind’s fault. What kind of reaction have you been getting to that idea?
A: The whole last half of the book is about what all this means for social policy. I argue that blameworthiness is the wrong question to ask. Brain development is the result of genes, and environment, and their very complicated interaction with one another. The important point is that you don’t choose your genes, and you don’t choose your childhood environment. And so for the kind of brain that you have in the end, it doesn’t really make sense to blame people or credit people, just as you wouldn’t take credit for having color vision or blame for having colorblindness.
The end result is that we have a big variety of brains in our culture. In the book, I say that brains are like fingerprints: They aren’t the same from person to person. So what we have in society is some numbers of people who are breaking laws. The issue really isn’t blameworthiness. It’s not a useful concept. That doesn’t forgive anybody. It doesn’t mean we’ll be putting criminals on the street. What it does mean is that with a biologically compatible system of jurisprudence, we could do customized sentencing, and customized rehabilitation, instead of turning to incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Q: So would someone with a brain that really isn’t suited to society get a break out of this?
A: Nobody "gets a break." A rabid dog doesn’t get a break. It’s not the rabid dog’s fault that it’s rabid, but we don’t give it a break as a result of that. It’s the same thing with crime. But as we get a better understanding of the brain and behavior, that allows us to predicate sentencing on rational factors — for example, the probability of recidivism. Some people are really dangerous, some people are rabid dogs, and some people aren't. Right now we treat all these things equally, but we need to understand what’s different about different brains.
The other thing we should do is understand better what happens in rehabilitation. Lots of people in prison undergo behavioral changes because they have something wrong with their brain. We’ve never even measured that stuff. The main issue that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system. Thirty percent of our incarcerated population has mental illness. This is not only inhumane, but it’s not cost-effective. It’s criminogenic, which means it causes more crime. When you put people in prison, they end up going back to prison, because you’ve broken their social circle and limited their employment opportunities.
Q: Does neuroscience suggest that the solution is to warehouse people who are those "rabid dogs" of society? Are there particular therapies or strategies that are suggested for dealing with bad behavior?
A: Yeah, the idea is that wherever we can bring rehabilitative strategies to the table, we should be doing that. Sometimes you can't — for example, with people who are psychopaths. There is no rehabilitative strategy for psychopathy at the moment, so unfortunately, we just have to warehouse them if they’ve proven themselves to be violent criminals. Right now that’s our last resort. But in cases where we are able to help people, that’s what we should be doing.
Q: We should talk about the fun side of the book as well. You bring up some experiments that illustrate how weird our perceptive capabilities can be. In one experiment, a person started asking someone for directions, and while workers carried a door between the two people, a completely different person took the place of the questioner. And yet the direction-giver resumed giving directions without missing a beat, as if nothing had changed. Are there any mental exercises folks can do at home to discover the weirdness in themselves?
A: Well, all vision is an illusion, for example. It’s a construction in the brain. The brain is ensconced in darkness and silence in the vault of your skull. And yet you think you see light. Inside, internally, it’s all electrical and chemical signals. The book is full of visual illusions that demonstrate this sort of thing.
Q: Are there any other themes you want to emphasize from the book?
A: One of the frameworks that I synthesize in the book that’s really important is the fact that you are not one thing. The only way to understand the brain is as a neural parliament, where you have different political parties battling it out to control your behavior. This can now be measured in the brain with neural imaging. We can see that there are all these competing subpopulations in the brain that are always battling it out. You can call this a "team of rivals," and I think that’s a much more nuanced view of ourselves. You can get a real understanding how it is you can argue with yourself and cajole yourself. When you stop to think about it, you might ask yourself, which "you" is you? It’s all you.
I think this gives us a much more nuanced view of others' behavior as well. We don’t have to fall into this simplistic path of asking, "What are this person’s true colors? Is this person a racist or not a racist?" For better or worse, it’s perfectly possible that there are racist parts of your brain and non-racist parts. You get a much better understanding when you understand that, as Walt Whitman correctly surmised, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
He had the spirit of that exactly right. Freud had a similar idea with the concepts of id, ego and superego. What’s different now is that we can actually measure and understand the processes going on under the hood.
Sawyer Rosenstein hasn't exactly glided through life: At the age of 12, a confrontation with a locker-room bully left him paralyzed and dealt a heavy blow to a promising acting career. But his love of space exploration sustained him through surgery after surgery, and earned him a place on the Talking Space podcast team. It's in that capacity that he attended this month's final space shuttle launch, and his uplifting essay about the experience appears today on the Boing Boing website. "Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon," he writes. It's well worth a read, even if you're less of a space fan and more of a fan of triumph over adversity.
Left: Experimental diamond-like carbon tools after use. Initial test results are at the top, improved coatings are shown at the bottom. Right: A diamond-like carbon coated plowshare for test purposes.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Plowshares coated with the same diamond-like carbon material used to protect computer hard discs could allow farmers to save on fuel costs and improve the quality of their soils, according to German researchers.
Less friction means tractors that pull the plows need less power and fuel to till the soils, allowing farmers to drive lighter, more fuel efficient tractors.
German farmers consume about 2.6 million gallons of fuel a year to work their land but about 50 percent of the energy used when plowing is lost as a result of friction between the plowshare and the soil, according to the research team.
Their goal is to develop durable plows coated with the diamond-like carbon. So far Hoerner's team has reduced friction in half, which translated to a 30 percent reduction in the power the tractors need.
This power savings means farmers can use wider plows, digging up more soil at once and thus save time, or use smaller, lighter tractors, which cause less soil compaction.
"From the environmental point of view, it would be better for the tractors to be smaller," Hoerner, who is also a fruit farmer, noted in a news release about the experimental plowshares.
For example, lighter and smaller tractors mean less soil compaction. The looser the soil, the less power is needed to work it. Looser soils are also more hospitable to worms and other creatures that turn the soils and enrich it with nutrients.
What's more, compacted soils also are less able to absorb water and dry out more quickly.
So, if a slippery plowshare comes with all these potential benefits, why hasn't it been tried until now?
"It was not possible to produce coatings of this outstanding quality before," Hoerner explained to me. "Even now, we have problems with the lifetime" of the coating.
The problem is that the steel commonly used to make plows and other farming equipment deforms easily, thus causing the rigid, diamond-like carbon coating to flake off.
So, the researchers are testing out plowshares made of different materials including glass-fiber-reinforced plastic, tungsten carbide, and steel that has been hardened with nitrogen via a heating process called nitriding.
If the coating sticks to these more durable materials, the researchers note, the lifetime of the plowshares should be extended since the diamond-like carbon can withstand the abuse of being dragged through soil, sand, and rocks.
"We are still in the experimental phase," Hoerner noted. The next project goal is to plow at least 12 miles of ground before the coating fails. "If we achieve that, the wear-free plowshare will be within touching distance," he said.
Researchers have created a transparent battery that can be used to power gadgets such as smartphones and laptops.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Imagine a smartphone that looks like a piece of clear plastic, lighting up to display contacts, a game, the weather, or email from a friend. That future may be upon us thanks to a new, transparent and flexible lithium-ion battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are the type of energy storage devices that power consumer electronics such as smartphones.
Transparent components of gadgets such as touch screens, displays, and optical circuits have been fabricated, but until now, batteries have prevented fully see-through gadgets from entering the marketplace because the materials used to make batteries are not see-through.
"If you look at a battery electrode, it is black, it is not transparent," Yi Cui, a nanomaterials science and engineering researcher at Stanford University, told me today.
Cui, who has used nanoscale manufacturing techniques for other battery breakthroughs, and his colleagues overcame this hurdle by fabricating a battery with visible parts below the resolution of human eyes.
To do this, they spin-coated a silicon substrate with nanoscale-sized, grid-like trenches that were filled with an active electrode material via capillary forces.
"When the line widths of this grid is smaller than the size that your eye can resolve, they will look transparent," Cui said.
The authors add that by aligning multiple batteries together in a series, the overall energy stored can be increased without sacrificing transparency. The battery is also fully flexible, broadening its potential applications.
That futuristic smartphone, Cui said, is possible today. "There is no barrier going forward," he said. "You have a cell phone case that is transparent and then everything inside is transparent including the battery."
The Gemini Observatory's image of Kronberger 61 shows the shell of ionized gas surrounding a dying star.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Professional and amateur astronomers are teaming up to study a cosmic "soccer ball" with a tricky goal in mind: understanding how the death throes of a star are affected by the company it keeps.
The focus of this game is Kronberger 61, a planetary nebula discovered several months ago by Austrian amateur astronomer (and professional physicist) Matthias Kronberger. He belongs to a group called the "Deep Sky Hunters," which combs through imagery from the Digital Sky Survey and other sources looking for celestial objects worthy of further study. The hunters have found about 100 faint planetary nebulae, shells of glowing ionized gas that are thrown off by sunlike stars in the waning years of their lives.
Kronberger 61 is worth noting for aesthetic reasons alone: The image above, captured by the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, highlights the nebula's emissions from twice-ionized oxygen. The dying star can be seen as a point of bluish light close to the center of the ball-shaped nebula.
But this soccer ball, also known as Kn 61, is also notable because of its location. It happens to be within the Kepler planet-hunting probe's field of view, an 105-square-degree area that takes up about as much of the sky as your hand held at arm's length. There's a chance that Kepler could determine whether there are planets or faint companion stars circling Kn 61's main star.
"Kn 61 is among a rather small collection of planetary nebulae that are strategically placed within Kepler's gaze," Orsola De Marco of Australia's Macquarie University said in the Gemini Observatory's news release about the find. "Explaining the puffs left behind when medium-sized stars like our sun expel their last breaths is a source of heated debate among astronomers, especially the part that companions might play. It literally keeps us up at night!"
The Kepler science team has now added Kn 61 to its target list of more than 150,000 stars, and within months, astronomers might be able to determine whether the star has companions, said George Jacoby of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and the Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena). "This was not an object that was known by Kepler to be valuable early on," Jacoby told me.
Jacoby serves as principal investigator for the program to get follow-up observations of Kn 61 with Kepler, and also acts as the liaison with the Deep Sky Hunters.
"Without this close collaboration with amateurs, this discovery would probably not have been made before the end of the Kepler mission," Jacoby said in today's news release. "Professionals, using precious telescope time, aren't as flexible as amateurs who did this using existing data and in their spare time. This was a fantastic pro-am collaboration of discovery."
The Deep Sky Hunters have identified yet another planetary nebula in the Kepler field, and possibly a third prospect. Jacoby said astronomers would be playing an "odds game," hoping that one of the nebulae will reveal something interesting about the effects of companion objects on a dying star's gaseous shell. If the gamble pays off, the scientific payoff could be significant.
De Marco said that planetary nebula present a "profound mystery."
"Some recent theories suggest that planetary nebulae form only in close binary or even planetary systems — on the other hand, the conventional textbook explanation is that most stars, even solo stars like our sun, will meet this fate," she said. "That might just be too simple."
Will this pro-am team hit the goal, or will luck be against them? The project has already produced a beautiful image of a ghostly planetary nebula, and it's sparked some intriguing scientific questions. So the way I see it, they've already scored.
Update for 3 p.m. ET: Jacoby sent along further information about Kronberger 61: The star is located in the constellation Lyra, very close to the western edge of Cygnus. Determining its distance "is a very difficult question, because these kinds of objects (planetary nebulae) have been very resistant to having their distances measured accurately." Jacoby's rough estimate is 13,000 light-years, "but it could be half that or twice that." He says Kronberger discovered the nebula in January, using data from the Digital Sky Survey.
"The star is very likely to have a mass about 60 percent that of the sun," Jacoby wrote in his email. "The age of the star is much harder to estimate, but it is likely between 2 billion and 8 billion years old. The nebula around the star was probably blown off about 15,000 to 30,000 years ago (after accounting for the time delay due to the distance of 13,000 light years, or 28,000 to 43,000 years ago if you include that light travel time)."
Bdelloid rotifers like the one shown in this photomicrograph are thought to be the champions of sexless animals. They've apparently gone without it for 40 million years.
By Nidhi Subbaraman
For the scientists who study sex and its mysterious origins, animal species that skip sex when they spawn were at first puzzling, and then exciting. Now it turns out that many of these supposedly sexless species can swing both ways.
The latest peccadillo involves a type of ant that scientists thought had survived sans sexual reproduction for millions of years — until they discovered that the seemingly abstemious arthropods were covertly copulating.
From an evolutionary point of view, sex is a costly business. Nevertheless, most species mate to multiply. For researchers grappling with the question of why sex exists, asexual species provide a clue, one small nudge in the direction of an answer. "We study how normal things work by studying mutant version of those things," John Logsdon, a biologist at the University of Iowa, told me. "In this case, how they basically get around the rule, because the rule seems to be sex."
That's what makes the ants interesting. When scientists started scooping up Amazonian fungus-growing ants in Mexico, Argentina and other parts of South America, they believed that the all-female colonies of ant clones stayed strictly sex-free. But in a fresh set of samplings in new locations, the same ant species was found propagating sexually with the usual mingling of genomes of both genders.
What seems to have happened, the researchers who found the ants surmise, is that isolated ant colonies lost the ability to reproduce sexually, due to a genetic switch that was turned off over time. Once this change occurred in a colony, there was no going back, Christian Rabeling and his colleagues propose in a paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The ants are the latest addition to a small list of species that have a sometimes sexy, sometimes sexless life. These invertebrates' genomes are a rich source of insights for scientists who are still puzzling over one of nature's most basic mysteries: why sex exists.
Worms do it, snails do it ... or don't In July, scientists studying the sex lives of the nematode C. elegans offered up one reason as to why sex exists. The worm propagates in two ways: Sometimes it mates with another worm, and sometimes it fertilizes itself. Scientists compared the offspring of two worms with the self-fertilized spawn of a single parent, and found that genetically diverse offspring were less likely to be infected by parasites than offspring from a single parent. This aligns well with a big idea called the Red Queen hypothesis, which claims that sex, as a behavior that allowed a mix-and-match of genomes, stuck around to help species win out over co-evolving parasites, Indiana University's Curtis Lively and his colleagues write in the July 8 issue of Science.
Dodging parasites is probably just one chapter of the story. "My suspicion is that we're not going to come up with a universal solution to sex," Maurine Neiman, a biologist at the University of Iowa, told me. She expects the answer is going to be messy and complicated ... just like sex itself.
Maurine Neiman / University of Iowa
New Zealand's Potamopyrgus antipodarum, a freshwater snail.
Neiman treks down to lakes in New Zealand every other summer to harvest a species of freshwater snail, which, like C. elegans, is sometimes asexual and sometimes sexual. For as yet unknown reasons, the snail's fate — to start a sexual or asexual lineage — is decided before the snails are born. Yet some lakes have both kinds of snails living in them. "They set the stage very nicely for comparing sexual and asexual genomes," Neiman told me. "You can compare populations that have lots and lots of sex with those that don't have any at all."
Like the nematodes, the snails have a natural parasite, and Neiman is looking into how the snails' sexual behavior relates to their ability (or lack of ability) to survive being infected. There's another odd secret that is hidden in the snail genome: Those that are built to stay single sometimes have many, many copies of their DNA packed into the same space where most species just have two copies.
Timema tahoe, a stick insect with a sexless past.
Some species stay sexless A few species appear to have stuck with sexlessness, what scientists call "ancient asexuality." Tanya Schwander, a geneticist at the University of Groningen, recently showed that two species of stick insects have stayed asexual for more than 1 million generations.
Schwander and her colleagues wrote about the stick insects in the June 12 issue of Current Biology, and they're continuing to investigate how they managed to do this without going extinct.
While 1 million generations may seem like a long time, the stars of sexlessness are still the bdelloid rotifers — single-celled singletons who appear to have kept sex-free for 40 million years. Their unusual genomes also come riddled with questions, but researchers suspect they're getting closer to the answers.
Whether by coincidence or causation, other extreme survival skills are coded into the rotifer genome — the superbugs can survive being blasted with radiation, and even bounce back to life after being dried out. Scientists such as the University of Iowa's Logsdon reason that the rotifers' exceptional talent for fixing errors in their DNA caused by radiation could explain how they fix unwanted changes that crop up in genomes that don't mix it up every so often.
"It's not a smoking gun, but we smell a connection," Logsdon says. "What the connection is, is still an open question."
Msnbc's Thomas Roberts talks with astronomer Derrick Pitts about the Higgs boson.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The latest results from Europe's Large Hadron Collider have raised hopes among particle physicists that the elusive Higgs boson — also known as the "God Particle" — may be coming to light at last.
Sure, we've heard that before: Rumors about a possible detection at Fermilab's Tevatron, a particle collider near Chicago, have been circulating since last year, and just in the past few months there's been a rise and fall in expectations that the Higgs would turn up in the Tevatron's data.
Now the potential signature of the Higgs boson has turned up in an avalanche of data from both of the Higgs-hunting detectors at the Large Hadron Collider. The signature is not yet clear enough to constitute a discovery, but it suggests that the $10 billion particle collider, arguably the biggest and costliest science experiment on Earth, just might be on the right track.
"We cannot say anything today, but clearly it's intriguing," Fabiola Gianotti, spokeswoman for the science team behind the LHC's ATLAS detector, told The Guardian. Similarly intriguing results were reported by the team for the other detector, the Compact Muon Solenoid or CMS.
The two sets of findings were reported independently on Friday at the Europhysics Conference on High-Energy Physics in Grenoble, France, one of the world's biggest particle-physics forums. The ATLAS and CMS teams have been sorting through billions upon billions of data points from proton collisions at the LHC, looking for the statistical signs that suggest Higgs bosons are being shaken free for tiny fractions of a second.
The newly reported analyses suggest that the type of Higgs boson predicted by Standard Model of particle physics could be turning up around the mass-energy level of 140 billion electron volts, or 140 GeV. That's about the same level reported by one of the Tevatron's research teams.
When it comes to statistical significance, the results are not yet solid enough to constitute a confirmed discovery. But the fact that multiple detectors at two colliders are coming up with similar "bumps" in their data is nevertheless generating excitement.
"No reputable scientist is going to tell you anything more than 'this is very, very interesting and we'll keep an eye on it.' But it is indeed very, very interesting," Fermilab's Donald Lincoln, a member of the CMS collaboration at the LHC as well as the Tevatron's DZero collaboration, told me in an email.
Some are not yet convinced. The University of Padua's Tommaso Dorigo, who is part of the CMS team as well as the Tevatron's CDF team, said he doesn't see "anything compelling" in regards to the Higgs' potential detection. Rather, he sees the results as more significant for identifying energy levels where the Standard Model Higgs almost certainly won't be found. But everyone who's in the know pretty much agrees that it won't be long before physicists can say definitively whether the kind of Higgs particle they've been looking for does or does not exist.
"While I'd hate to predict an exact date, it's pretty clear from the performance seen thus and the expected near future that the Higgs will be found or ruled out on a time scale of months or perhaps a year," said Lincoln, author of the book "The Quantum Frontier."
What's so big about the Higgs? Detecting the Higgs boson would be a big deal: It's the main reason why the Large Hadron Collider was built in the first place.
The LHC circulates protons around a 17-mile-round (27-kilometer-round) underground tunnel on the French-Swiss border to nearly the speed of light, and smashes them together within the giant ATLAS and LHC detectors as well as other special-purpose detectors distributed around the collider ring.
The more exotic products of those collisions almost instantly decay into more common subatomic particles, but by analyzing the distributions, directions and velocities of those particles, physicists can theoretically untangle big mysteries ranging from the origins of the universe to the nature of dark matter and the potential existence of extra dimensions in the cosmos.
The Higgs boson, and its associated field, is one of those big mysteries. Back in the 1960s, British physicist Peter Higgs and others proposed the boson's existence as the answer to a theoretical question about the nature of particle mass.
It's long been known that some particles (such as the quarks and leptons that make up matter) have mass, while others (such as the photon) are massless. But there was no solid explanation for the difference.
Higgs and his colleagues suggested that a type of field — analogous to a magnetic field — affected different particles in different ways, imparting mass to some particles but not to others.
In particle physics, fields are associated with force-carrying particles, which are put in a category of particles known as bosons. The particle associated with the Higgs field came to be known as the Higgs boson. Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman nicknamed it the "God Particle" because it played a central but subtle role in our conception of the cosmos. (Higgs and many other physicists hate the nickname.)
Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln describes the nature of the Higgs boson.
If the Higgs boson is found, and if it behaves in a manner consistent with the Standard Model, that would serve as an exciting validation of our current view of the structure of the cosmos. If the Higgs isn't found, or if it behaves in a non-standard way, that could be even more exciting. Physicists would have to go back to the drawing board and modify their explanation for the workings of the universe.
It's hard to predict how going back to the drawing board might affect the scientific world, or our everyday lives ... but the last time this sort of thing happened was a little more than a century ago, when quantum mechanics and relativity had to be invented to explain phenomena that just seemed weird to 19th-century physicists. These scientific paradigm shifts opened the way to innovations ranging from atom bombs and nuclear power to microwave ovens and lasers. So who knows where post-Standard Model physics might lead?
The details of discovery Here's one more important thing to keep in mind: Discovering the Higgs won't be like discovering a new continent. Lots of numbers have to be crunched, and lots of statistics have to be analyzed to tease out the evidence for a previously undetected particle.
"It's much more like walking toward people in the fog, and waiting for the moment when you recognize the person you're looking for," Lincoln told me. The process that's playing out right now is probably the way discoveries work in 21st-century physics: First there are hints that something interesting might be going on, then more data are deciphered to confirm a discovery, and then physicists finally figure out how that knowledge can be put to use.
With that in mind, here's how Lincoln explains the slight "bump" seen in the newly reported data from the Compact Muon Solenoid:
M. Krammer et al. / CMS / CERN
This chart shows how data from the Large Hadron Collider's Compact Muon Solenoid may suggest the existence (or non-existence) of the Higgs boson at particular mass-energy levels (on the horizontal axis, in terms of giga electron volts, or GeV).
"Take a look at the image above. There are a couple of important things. First, there's a horizontal red line. This is the Standard Model. If the black or blue line goes below the red line, the Standard Model version of the Higgs boson is ruled out for that mass. So, except for some wiggles, the Standard Model Higgs is ruled out from about 150 billion electron volts, or 150 GeV, to 460 or so.
"The thing that is getting people a little excited is the second feature. The dashed black line is how well we expect to do if the Standard Model is right, but the Higgs boson doesn't exist. When the blue and black lines start to drift away from the dashed black line, it means that we expect we can rule out more than we did. For instance, in this case, we expected to be able to rule out from about 125 GeV and up. But since the blue and black lines don't dip below the red lines until 145 or 150 or so, this could mean that we have more events than physicists would expect to see from the Standard Model without the Higgs. So that could mean there are some Higgs events floating around. The difference is biggest around 145 GeV or so.
"Now we get a reality check. The green and yellow bands indicate our uncertainty in our expectations. So we see that the black and blue lines are at the edge of our uncertainty. Further, even in the region we are excluding (near 160 GeV), there is an excess (observed above expectation).
"This means (to me at least, and at this point it's all a matter of judgment) that it could be that the discrepancy reflects an imperfect understanding of the detector and algorithms.
"Still, all of the experiments sees an excess at some level, suggesting that either our theory has been implemented incorrectly or maybe something is going on. No reputable scientist is going to tell you anything more than 'this is very, very interesting and we'll keep an eye on it.' But it is indeed very, very, interesting.
"At the Lepton/Photon conference to be held in a month in Mumbai, the ATLAS and CMS experiments will hopefully combine their results, effectively doubling the amount of beam being used."
Now that you've gotten the hang of reading the data, here's the corresponding chart from the ATLAS detector.
The bracketed areas indicate mass-energy regions where the Standard Model Higgs has been excluded: 155 to 190 GeV and 295 to 450 GeV.
If you look ever so closely at the chart, you'll notice a slight elevation of the black line above the yellow zone of uncertainty at about 140 GeV, the same area where the CMS team detected the potential signature of a Standard Model Higgs boson:
K. Cranmer / NYU / ATLAS / CERN
This plot shows readings from the ATLAS detector that hint at mass-energy levels where the Standard Model Higgs boson might (and cannot) be found. The brackets indicate exclusion zones from roughly 155 to 190 GeV and from 295 to 450 GeV.
The bottom line? Something interesting may be going on in the world of physics, although there's still a chance that results or theories are being misinterpreted. Within the next year or so, we should know whether we're in the midst of a cosmic discovery. Stay tuned ...
Update for 6:05 p.m. ET July 25: The director general of the organization that hosts the LHC — known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN — says he expects the question of the Higgs boson's existence to be solved by the end of 2012. "I would say we can settle the question, the Shakespearean question — 'to be or not to be' — end of next year," Director General Rolf Heuer told reporters at the Grenoble conference.
Correction for 11:10 a.m. ET July 26: I've corrected the name of the ATLAS collaboration's spokeswoman, which I scrambled up as I was writing this item. Mi dispiace!
A Russian Soyuz craft leaves the International Space Station with three crew members in November 2010.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Russian space officials are hailing the end of the space shuttle era as the beginning of the "Soyuz epoch." For at least the next few years, Russian Soyuz craft will serve as the only way to get back and forth from the International Space Station, and NASA will be paying up to $63 million a seat for the ride.
Russian cosmonauts will also make up half of the space station's crews from here on out, even though NASA has paid most of the estimated $100 billion cost of construction.
The Soyuz epoch was heralded on Thursday by the Russian Federal Space Agency in a news release that also paid tribute to the shuttle era. The Russian-language report says that the shuttle fleet's retirement marks a "new stage in the International Space Station program, in which the Russian Soyuz spaceships have no backups."
The Russian space agency said it would be 2016 at the earliest before any other crew-capable spaceships are available for trips to the International Space Station. That's roughly what NASA is saying as well: Its current timetable calls for commercial space taxis such as the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST-100, the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser or Blue Origin's orbital space vehicle to be ready for use sometime in the middle of the decade.
Here's the way the Russians see the road ahead:
"For a 30-year period, the shuttles ensured not only access into space for humans, but also delivery into orbit of the large-scale payloads without which the building of the International Space Station would hardly have been possible. Humanity is indebted to the American ships for their role in the mastery of space.
"But really, why are the comfortable and beautiful 'birds' departing, while the 'old' Russian Soyuz spacecraft, as they are called by foreign media, are remaining?
"The answer is simple: reliability, to say nothing of profitability.
"The term 'old' has nothing in common with the reality. Soyuzes are constantly being modernized. Over the next year, newly modified ships equipped with digital systems will fly. The second Soyuz in the TMA-M series is currently undergoing flight design tests.
"Furthermore, even if there's an alternative to Russia's manned Soyuz spaceships in the next few years, it will take a lot of time to prove that the new ship will provide sufficient safety for human spaceflight.
"In the world of human spaceflight, today marks the beginning of the Soyuz epoch — the epoch of reliability."
NBC News space analyst James Oberg pointed out the announcement in an email. "Didn't take them long to start crowing, did it?" he wrote. "What happens next, I wonder?"
The space station crew composition already reflects an arrangement that ensures the Russians will never be outnumbered in orbit. The agreement for the 16-nation project calls for three crew members on each six-person expedition to come from the Russian space effort, with the other three representing the U.S. On-Orbit Segment, or USOS. That's shorthand for NASA plus the other partners, such as Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency. The current crew for Expedition 28, for example, includes three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese astronaut.
Until the commercial space taxis are ready, astronauts will have to fly to the station and back aboard the Soyuz craft, which are exempt from NASA's human-rating requirements. The current fare comes out to $48 million per seat, but NASA's agreements with the Russians call for that figure to rise to $51 million next year, $55.8 million for 2013-2014, and $62.7 million for 2014-2015.
'Full service' from Russia NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has pointed out repeatedly that the fare includes not only the ride itself, but also the required training at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex. "It's not like a bus ticket or an airplane ticket," The Huntsville Times recently quoted Bolden as saying. "You used to be able to go into a gas station and get full service. ... We get full service from the Russians, old-time full service."
The way it works is that a Soyuz is sent up from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a crew of three. That craft serves as the emergency lifeboat for the crew members until their six-month tour of duty is over and it's time to return to Earth. Then the Soyuz provides the ride home ... well, at least home to the Kazakh steppes and on to Moscow. The crew rotations are staggered by roughly three months, so one three-person Soyuz crew overlaps with another during the course of a 6-month-long expedition. Because the shuttles will no longer fly to the station, the crew count will vary between three and six, far less than the 13 who were on board during peak times in the shuttle era.
It's true that launching a Soyuz is considerably cheaper than launching a shuttle (which came out to $1 billion to $1.5 billion per mission). But the shuttle had much higher payload-carrying capability — up to 25 tons in the cargo bay. In comparison, the cargo capacity is 2.5 tons for Russia's unmanned Progress ship, 6 tons for Japan's HTV cargo carrier, 8 tons for Europe's expendable ATV, and 6 tons for SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule.
When it comes to flying astronauts, NASA is counting on the commercial taxis to outdo the Russians. "We believe we can come in at less than the cost to the Russians," one of the would-be taxi operators, Sierra Nevada's Mark Sirangelo, told me earlier this month. "We think substantially less."
And because the taxis are simpler than the shuttle, NASA expects them to improve on the shuttle fleet's safety record. Will they be better than the Soyuz? Oberg thinks the Soyuzes may be riskier than the Russians let on, but what do you think? Feel free to chime in with your comments below.
The teeny tiny tubes of carbon are a factor of 1,000 more effective at filtering out the aromatic molecules in water soluble drugs, Thilo Hofmann, who heads up the department of environmental geosciences at the University of Vienna, explained to me in an email on Friday.
This trait makes carbon nanotubes ideal for inclusion in "filtration membranes for water treatment … the technique for all major league cities," he said.
Such risks have prompted Hofmann and his colleagues to cautiously probe the potential of carbon nanotubes for water filtration.
A test on the interaction between the tubes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — a class of organic contaminants — reveal a "high potential" for use in treating municipal water supplies, Hofmann said.
Key among the findings, the team notes, is that at concentrations likely to occur in the environment, the tubes removed 13 tested PAHs from contaminated water, allaying concerns that the pollutants would compete with each other and some would not attach to the tubes, rending the technology ineffective.
While more research is needed, Hofmann said these results prompt him to keep pursuing the use of carbon nanotubes for water treatment in large cities. In rural areas, he noted, "there is not the same need to filter out pharmaceuticals."
An artist's conception shows NASA's Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper automobile.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Scientists have decided to point NASA's next Mars rover toward a mountain of layered minerals inside Gale Crater, after a process they compared to picking a favorite flavor of ice cream out of 30 choices. One big reason Gale won out is because it's like Neapolitan ice cream, offering a yummy combination of flavors.
Like the strawberry-vanilla-chocolate ice cream, the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mound inside Gale Crater offers multiple possibilities — intriguing geological sites at different elevations that could document a billion years of Mars' climate history, and perhaps its habitability as well.
"Gale Crater is interesting to explore because it crosses what we think is a major time boundary on Mars that’s recorded in its mineral history," Brown University's John Mustard, a planetary scientist who helped with the early stages of the selection process, said in an emailed comment. "That boundary marks a change from an early wet, hospitable environment that would have been suitable for life to a middle period where conditions may have become more hostile. We believe that at Gale Crater, we have located that boundary where life may have sprung up and where it may have been extinguished."
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the Curiosity rover could shed light on Mars' future as well as its past. "Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet," he said.
This artist's conception shows the Curiosity rover being lowered toward the Martian surface on tethers from a "sky crane" system.
$2.5 billion mission to Mars The Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is a mobile robot as big as a Mini Cooper automobile, bristling with scientific instruments and a camera capable of taking high-definition, full-color video at a rate of more than five frames per second.
The $2.5 billion mission is due for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an Atlas 5 rocket, as early as the day after Thanksgiving, with landing on Mars set for August 2012. The rover is designed to be lowered to the Martian surface by a rocket-powered "sky crane" system that's never been used before for interplanetary probes.
NASA expects Curiosity to operate for a "warranty period" of one full Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years, and to rove for 13 miles (20 kilometers or more). John Grotzinger, Curiosity's mission scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates that it would take about two years for the radioactivity-powered rover to work its way up to the summit of Gale Crater's mountain — and he's already hoping for as much of a decade's worth of extra exploration.
After all, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars were designed to operate for 90 days — but seven and a half years after they landed, Spirit only recently gave up the ghost, and Opportunity is still going strong. "If history is a predictor of the future, we expect to have future life to go," Grotzinger said today at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where the site selection was announced.
The 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater should provide a spectacular backdrop for Curiosity's cinematography. Scientists compared the terrain to the Grand Canyon and Utah's Monument Valley. The mountain inside the crater rises higher than any peak in the 48 contiguous U.S. states, but it has channels that should give Curiosity a chance to make a slow ascent to the top.
"This might be the tallest mountain anywhere in the solar system that we can climb with a rover," Grotzinger said.
How the choice was made The selection process leading to today's announcement started five years ago, when more than 100 scientists sifted through about 30 potential landing sites. Four top candidates were selected in 2008, and earlier this year, that "Final Four" was whittled down to two: Gale Crater as well as Eberswalde Crater, which scientists believe contains the remains of an ancient river delta. (Eberswalde was the favorite of Cosmic Log readers in an unscientific poll we offered last week. Sorry, folks.)
The final recommendation was made by the Curiosity mission's science team and approved by senior NASA officials. Grotzinger said choosing from among the Final Four sites was a matter of taste, like choosing between vanilla and chocolate ice cream. "When you come down to four landing sites, that's basically what it comes down to. ... In the end, we picked the one that felt best," he said.
Orbital imagery shows Gale Crater, with the projected landing zone for Curiosity indicated by a yellow ellipse measuring 20 by 25 kilometers (12.4 by 15.5 miles). A 5-kilometer-high (3-mile-high) mountain can be seen just above the landing zone in this oblique, computer-generated view.
NASA's strategy for past Mars probes has been to "follow the water," on the assumption that areas where liquid water once flowed would be prime places to look for evidence of past habitability. In NASA's announcement, Grotzinger said that was one of the factors that made Gale Crater so attractive.
"It’s a huge crater sitting in a very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs downhill," he said. "In terms of the total vertical profile exposed and the low elevation, Gale offers attractions similar to Mars’ famous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system."
'Great novel' focuses on Martian past The other keys to Gale's appeal are the minerals layered throughout the 3-mile-high mountain inside the crater.
Curiosity will be targeted to land on an alluvial fan that was apparently formed from sediments carried down the mountainside by water. Then the rover will make its way up to higher levels, where orbital observations have spotted the types of clay minerals and sulfates that are typically formed by the interaction of rock and water.
Different types of geological formations are accessible at different elevations, reflecting different epochs in Mars' history. Grotzinger said Curiosity could survey samples from a vertical range extending for hundreds of meters (yards), far more than the roughly 20 meters of vertical range sampled by the Opportunity rover. He compared the vertical variation to chapters in a book, and said Gale Crater promised to be a "great novel."
Planetary scientist John Grotzinger takes you on a guided tour of Gale Crater.
Curiosity's instruments are capable of detecting organic carbon in ground-up rock samples, and Grotzinger said the rover has "a shot at potentially discovering organic compounds." He emphasized that the instruments cannot definitively pick up the presence of life. However, confirming the presence of organic compounds on Mars would represent a significant advance in the decades-long search for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Dawn Sumner, a geologist at the University of California at Davis, said she and her colleagues were looking forward to the adventure. "Geologists like climbing up cliffs," she said at the National Air and Space Museum, "and we get to go to those places with this rover for the first time on Mars."
For the next couple of decades, robots will be the only earthly things climbing up those cliffs, but that may not always be the case. NASA's current vision for space exploration calls for sending astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s, and some believe the job could be done earlier. When, if ever, will humans follow in Curiosity's wheel tracks? What might they find? Feel free to add your comments below.
A three-image composite tracks the International Space Station and the shuttle Atlantis as they move across the sun's disk on July 15.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
They look like alien bugs hopping across the sun, but these specks may represent the very last pictures of a space shuttle in orbit as seen from Earth.
French astrophotographer Thierry Legault, an expert in the technique of tracking spacecraft silhouettes, captured these views of the International Space Station and the shuttle Atlantis during their final rendezvous. Atlantis landed today, bringing the 30-year space shuttle program to an end.
The picture above is a composite, showing three views of the station-shuttle complex as it passed over the sun's disk on July 15. Legault had to travel to just the right location to get the shot. This one was taken from Caen in France. The entire transit took just seven-tenths of a second. Legault has labeled the shuttle and elements of the space station in this higher-resolution view:
Thierry Legault / Astrophoto.fr
The labels on this image point out the position of Atlantis and components of the International Space Station during a July 15 transit.
In an email, Legault told me that he traveled through the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands to capture the silhouettes. One picture, snapped north of Prague and posted to Legault's website, shows the space station and the shuttle side by side, 50 minutes after Atlantis' undocking earlier this week.
Legault produced the piece de resistance today during a stopover near Emden, in northern Germany. It may not look quite as impressive as the others, but it could well be more historic. Legault wrote that the picture was taken "just 21 minutes before the deorbit burn, therefore there are chances that it is the very last image of a space shuttle in orbit."
Here's a composite of four images, taken during the 0.9-second-long transit. The silhouettes of Atlantis are highlighted within white circles:
Thierry Legault / Astrophoto.fr
A four-image composite tracks Atlantis' transit across the sun's disk, just 21 minutes before today's deorbit burn. The white circles highlight Atlantis.
For the telescope and camera buffs out there, Legault says the images were produced using a Takahashi TOA-150 6-inch apochromatic refractor (focal length 3600mm) on an EM-400 mount, with a Baader Herschel wedge. The camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, set for an exposure of 1/8000s, 100 ISO, working in continuous shooting at four frames per second. Transit forecasts were calculated by www.calsky.com.
Merci beaucoup to Thierry for sharing his pictures with us through the years.
After an Internet activist was indicted on Tuesday for bulk-downloading academic papers, an apparent ally has made 18,592 other papers from the same archive available for anyone to download.
Open access rebel Aaron Swartz allegedly used guest networks at MIT for a mass download of 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, an academic database.
Seemingly in solidarity with Swartz, someone called Gregory Maxwell has uploaded to 33 GB of journal articles, also obtained from JSTOR, to peer-to-peer file-sharing hub Pirate Bay, GigaOm is reporting.
Maxwell obtained the articles many years ago, "through rather boring and lawful means," he writes in his Pirate Bay statement. It seems Maxwell's sharing is potentially boring and lawful too: the articles were published before 1923 and are no longer bound by copyright. Maxwell writes:
The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each — for one month's viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you.
(This may or may not be the case for Swartz's trove — nobody knows what was in it, or if it was still bound by copyright law.)
Maxwell and Swartz are among many who are discontent with the current mode of online science publishing. In most instances, neither authors nor peer reviewers are paid for their work, which is filed away by the journal or databases like JSTOR, resulting in what Maxwell calls "some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy."
Back when journals were printed on paper, higher fees made some sense. But in the digital age, the argument goes, such information should be cheap, or even free.
Maxwell first considered posting his stash of documents on a public site like Wikipedia, but such a move would have ticked off publishers. Anonymously posting them didn't seem the way to go either — Maxwell feared the legal system would incorrectly pin that action onto Swartz as well. "This didn't sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to," Maxwell writes.
And so, for the sake of science and mankind, Maxwell made his trove of academic papers public.
The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not paying them. And unlike 'mere' works of entertainment, liberal access to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued survival may even depend on it.
Maxwell told Ars Technica that he is a "hobbyist scientist" and regularly uses scientific papers in his line of work.
JSTOR's response to the Swartz indictment has been muted, and the digital library has distanced itself from the issue. JSTOR published a press release clarifying that it was "the government's decision whether to prosecute [Swartz], not JSTOR's." When JSTOR became aware of Swartz's mass download, they contacted him and secured the documents. They didn't press charges once they had "received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred or distributed."
The charges leveled against the open access crusader are associated with his having hacked into the MIT network, and subsequently shutting down JSTOR access to people on the MIT campus.
Nidhi Subbaraman writes about tech and science at msnbc.com. Find her on Twitterand Google+, and join our conversation on Facebook.
NASA via EPA
The space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on Thursday, July 21. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center.