A giant snakelike magnetic filament stretches out along the southeastern limb of the sun.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured what appears to be a giant snake slithering along the sun's southeastern limb. The feature is actually a magnetic loop of dense gas suspended over the solar surface.
The snaky filament, which was first noticed last week by NASA's STEREO-B spacecraft stationed over the sun's eastern horizon, showed signs of instability and had the potential for an impressive eruption, according to SpaceWeather.com. You've got to see SpaceWeather's time-lapse animated image of the flare-up.
An eruption of a solar flare and magnetic filament in August sent two waves of electrically charged particles towards Earth and caused a spectacular display of the northern lights. Will this filament, which is more than 435,000 miles long, or almost twice the distance from the Earth to the moon, have a similar effect? Stay tuned to SpaceWeather.com for pictures and updates.
Update for 7 p.m. ET: As a commenter has noted below, the eruption has taken place. SpaceWeather.com says "the eruption does not appear to be geoeffective," which means there should be no impact on Earth. Phew!
Ten European countries agree to develop an electricity grid to deliver wind power generated in the North Sea across Europe.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Ten European countries have signed an agreement to generate electricity from the waters of the North Sea and deliver it across the continent. Such a supergrid would boost the development of offshore wind farms in a notoriously rough and stormy region -- a resource that advocates say is "enormous."
"It even surpasses the energy equivalent of petrol reserves in the Middle East," according to a statement from the Belgian government announcing last Friday's signing.
The deal may provide the European Union with smoother sailing toward its ambitious goals of opening up electricity markets for cross-border competition and achieving a 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions, Colin Macilwain pointed out in Nature News.
But first, engineers working on the estimated nearly $30 billion project must overcome technical challenges -- such as exactly how they'll ship electricity through undersea cables for hundreds of miles.
Traditional transmission grids operate on alternating current (AC), but a subsea grid would use direct current (DC), due to losses that occur when the aluminum or copper conductor is buried.
"In effect, the cable and surrounding earth form a capacitor, draining power from the AC lines, and rendering them useless over long distances," writes Macilwain. "So a subsea grid has to be DC -- posing a challenge for electrical engineers who lack the technological tools they have developed for AC power."
Another problem is that circuit breakers don't exist for high-voltage DC. One potential solution is a high-voltage DC converter being developed by Dragan Jovcic at the University of Aberdeen.
In addition to technical hurdles, the North Sea supergrid project must wrangle with political and regulatory issues. Some European nations, including Germany, are throwing more of their weight behind the Desertec project, which aims to bring solar and wind power generated in the Sahara to Europe.
Take a look at these stories for more about offshore wind power projects:
This picture may look like a delicate ocean coral ... or a microscopic view of a stained tissue sample ... or a visualization of someone's psychedelic dream. But it's actually an image of Russia's Lena River delta, captured in the year 2000 by the Landsat 7 satellite. The colors don't reflect what you would actually see if you were looking down from Landsat's 438-mile-high orbit; rather, they represent different types of surface composition, ranging from vegetation-covered terrain to bare ground and bodies of water. This online tutorial explains the seemingly crazy color scheme.
The Lena River is about 2,800 miles (4,400 kilometers) long, making it one of the largest rivers in the world. The Lena Delta Reserve is the most extensive protected wilderness area in Russia, providing an important refuge and breeding grounds for many species of Siberian wildlife.
This picture of the Lena Delta is the fifth treat in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Every day from now until Christmas, a fresh image of Earth as seen from space will be posted to Cosmic Log and Photoblog. But you don't have to wait until tomorrow to sample some more Landsat goodness: Go ahead and feast your eyes on this year's "Earth as Art" slideshow.
Here are more space images, from our own Advent calendar as well as others on the Web:
This half-meter-resolution satellite image features the Burj Khalifa building, located along the Sheikh Zayed Road in the heart of downtown Dubai. The skyscraper stands 2,717 feet (828 meters) high and is the tallest human-made structure in the world. The image was taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite from an altitude of 423 miles on Feb. 9, 2010, as it moved from north to south over the United Arab Emirates at a speed of 4 miles per second.
The tallest building in the world casts a long shadow on downtown Dubai, as seen in this picture from the GeoEye-1 satellite. But this is no Tower of Babel: Its 2,717-foot height comes nowhere close to reaching the satellite's 423-mile-high orbit. The $1.5 billion Burj Khalifa building made its Dubai debut in January, and recently served as the setting for scenes filmed with Tom Cruise for the upcoming movie "Mission: Impossible 4." Check out our story about the building's opening for additional background and visual perspectives.
It's particularly apt that Burj Khalifa figures in the fourth "Mission: Impossible" movie, because GeoEye's view serves as the visual treat behind Door No. 4 in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Check back with Cosmic Log or Photoblog every day until Christmas for another view of Earth from space.
Here are some links to help you catch up with the calendar entries so far, and dig into additional treats from the holiday season's other space-themed Web calendars:
Technicians check the photomultiplier tubes that ring an underground cylindrical stainless steel tank known as the Super-Kamiokande detector. The detector is on watch for faint glimmers of radiation from exotic particles zipping through the earth.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Can one particle explain both dark matter and the mysterious origins of matter and antimatter? Some physicists think so. They're calling the as-yet-only-theoretical object the "X particle."
Physicists from Canada's TRIUMF particle-physics facility, the University of British Columbia and Brookhaven National Laboratory laid out their ideas on the X particle in a paper published last month by Physical Review Letters -- and since then, the ideas have been picked up by PhysicsWorld magazine as well as Discovery News. (You can read a full draft of the paper on the arxiv.org website.)
The concept addresses two of the deep mysteries in modern physics:
Dark matter: Observations of distant galaxies and galaxy clusters suggest that the matter we can see accounts for about a fifth of their gravitational mass. The other four-fifths is thought to exist in the form of exotic matter than can be detected only by its gravitational effect. So what is that stuff?
Matter vs. antimatter: Theory dictates that equal amounts of matter and antimatter must have existed at the beginning of the universe -- and yet, we see lots of matter and virtually no antimatter in the universe today. What happened to the antimatter, and why did matter win out?
The physicists suggest that X particles and anti-X particles -- each with about 1,000 times as much mass as a proton -- existed in the early universe. Such particles would show a "yin-yang" pattern of decay. Theoretically, the X particles would decay into detectable neutrons, or a pair of hidden particles called Y and Φ (the Greek letter phi). The anti-X particles would decay into antineutrons, or pairs of anti-Y and anti-Φ particles. But the X's would be more likely to decay into neutrons, while the anti-X's would be more likely to produce hidden anti-Y's and anti-Φ's.
"When almost all particles with an available antiparticle annihilated one another in the early universe, these discrepancies left a chunk of visible matter and a heavier chunk of dark antimatter to form the cosmos," PhysicsWorld's Kate McAlpine wrote.
The researchers suggest that the existence of the anti-Y and anti-Φ particles could be confirmed by their interactions with protons. Such interactions "could be on the boundary of detectability" at facilities such as the Super-Kamiokande underground particle detector in Japan, said UBC's Kris Sigurdson.
This is by no means the only hypothesis that's been offered to explain the nature of dark matter and the roots of the matter-antimatter balance. One of the main experiments at Europe's Large Hadron Collider, LHCb, is designed to study the decay of B-mesons and anti-B-mesons to see if additional data can help unravel the antimatter mystery. The LHC may also identify exotic particles (neutralinos, maybe?) that account for the dark matter.
I asked SLAC particle physicist Helen Quinn, co-author of the book "The Mystery of the Missing Antimatter," to take a quick look at the X particle concept. "It's very speculative," she told me, "and this is one of the things that particle physicists do all the time."
For now, the X factor is merely one of several hypotheses that might or might not explain one or both of the great mysteries. The truth is out there, and one day physicists will figure out which hypothesis serves as the best explanation for dark matter and/or antimatter. In the meantime, Quinn told me, "there's an awful lot of space out there in which to build models."
"Time will tell," she said.
That's a saying that could be applied to lots of the things that come up in physics -- or life in general.
The MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3-D printer shapes extruded plastic into objects designed on a computer — even a white rabbit.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The MakerBot Thing-o-Matic 3-D printer kit is a versatile if pricey holiday present for the geek who wants to make everything. And that's probably why it was voted this year's top Science Geek Gift.
For the past few years, people have been predicting that 3-D printers could become the next big home appliance once their cost drops below $1,000. The gizmos "print" three-dimensional objects by building up layers of plastic to match a computerized design. The resulting printed products could be prototypes for commercial products, made-to-order artwork or household items, replacement parts for other devices you have at home ... even custom-made action figures for gamers and collectors.
These 3-D printers aren't just high-priced playthings: A venture known as "Made in Space" is proposing the use of 3-D printers on the International Space Station to produce the parts that astronauts might need for orbital repairs. Meanwhile, the folks behind Fre3dom are working on ways to use 3-D printers in developing countries to produce the goods needed in local villages.
MakerBot calls its offering "a little factory that sits on your desktop." Just feed in the designs for what you want to create, and let the machine make it for you from extruded plastic. This MakerBot video shows how two women turned their cute egg design into a set of salt-and-pepper shakers.
The $1,220 price tag for the Thing-O-Matic kit might be a bit steep for my gift list, but the fact that we're getting close to that $1,000 price point suggests it won't be all that long before 3-D printers hit the big time.
The Thing-O-Matic was rated as the top Science Geek Gift by 44 percent of the more than 1,800 readers who helped judge this year's Science Geek Gift competition. And for that, the person who suggested the gift, A. Ritchie, will be getting a holiday goodie bag that contains a signed copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," as well as a couple of 3-D picture books and a Hubble coffee-table volume.
We'll also throw in a couple of toy Tribbles (as a tribute to the fuzzy creatures featured in "Star Trek"), as well as a set of Buckyballs, little magnetic spheres that can be pulled and shaped in ways to gladden the heart of any geek. This YouTube video shows how the "desktoy" works. If you're inclined to order a set, enter "MSNBC" as a promo code on the Buckyballs website for a 15 percent discount (valid through Dec. 15).
The River Nile lights up the night in a photographic view captured from the International Space Station, sailing in orbit about 220 miles above. You can also see lights ringing the Red Sea, as well as Israel's lights along the Mediterranean coast toward upper right. I love the airglow effect visible at the edge of Earth's disc.
This picture, taken Oct. 28, was one of a series highlighted by my colleague John Brecher last month, but I can't resist coming back to it as today's treat for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Maybe that's because we're in the midst of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Or maybe it's because of today's story about the geology behind the ancient "Gift of the Nile" floods. This glittering view from space can be seen as a gift of the Nile for the 21st century.
Come back every day leading up to Christmas for another Advent calendar view of Earth from space. You can see the entire series of pictures, as well as other space-themed Advent calendars, by clicking on the links below:
Eastern California's Mono Lake is where scientists conducted experiments aimed at determining whether a particular kind of salt-loving microbe could consume arsenic rather than phosphorus to keep life's machinery going. The results suggested that life is more adaptable than we thought -- and that's good news for astrobiologists looking for places where life could exist beyond Earth. Even though the microbe is totally terrestrial, Mono Lake is an alien-looking place, as my colleague Robert Hood pointed out in an earlier posting. Mono Lake also has an unusual chemistry: It ranks as one of the most arsenic-rich bodies of water on Earth (although the lake's fans emphasize that the water isn't as toxic as you might think.) It's also more than twice as salty as the ocean. The lake, which has no outlet, is thought to have existed for at least 760,000 years and possibly much longer.
This image of Mono Lake was captured in 1999 by NASA's Landsat 7 satellite, and it serves as the second offering in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Come back every day from now until Christmas for another image of Earth as seen from space. By the time Advent is over, we'll have all 25 images stacked up right here.
You can also check out these other Advent calendars with space themes:
Researchers found that a high-mercury diet had an effect on the mating behavior of white ibises confined in a net-covered aviary at the University of Florida. They said the degree of homosexual pairing increased along with the birds' mercury exposure.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
A years-long study at the University of Florida suggests that mercury pollution can alter the hormones of white ibises to make males more likely to mate with other males.
"We knew that mercury can disrupt hormones -- what is most disturbing about this study is the low levels of mercury at which we saw effects on hormones and mating behavior," Peter Frederick, a wildlife ecology and conservation professor who led the study, said in a news release this week. "This suggests that wildlife may be commonly affected."
Frederick and his co-author, Nilmini Jayasena, were hasty to warn against drawing any inferences about the roots of human homosexuality. They didn't set up the experiment to find out what makes birds gay -- rather, they were trying to figure out why ibises in the Everglades went through a stretch of poor breeding in the early 1990s, followed by a baby boom in the late 1990s.
Scientists knew that improvements in the birds' watery habitat was one factor behind the increased breeding, but they suspected that mercury concentrations played a role as well. During the downswing in breeding, low-level mercury contamination made its way increasingly into the Everglades via municipal and medical waste incineration -- but that waste became more regulated at about the same time as the start of the baby boom.
To find out if there was a connection between mercury contamination and a low birth rate, the university set up a 13,000-square foot net-covered aviary in 2005. They brought in 160 ibises, and divided the birds into four groups with equal numbers of males and females. Each group was fed a different diet -- low, medium or high mercury, or no mercury at all. The highest level of mercury was no higher than what the birds would have consumed if they had been in the wild during the early 1990s.
In 2006, about 55 percent of the high-mercury-diet males were nesting with other males. Frederick said the degree of male-male pairing was proportional to the degree of mercury in the diet. That played a role in breeding differences, as well: In comparison with the control group, high-mercury males were less likely to be approached by females during courtship. All of the mercury-consuming males were less prone to perform the ritual head bows and bobs that are part of the ibises' mating ritual.
Frederick and Jayasena, who was Frederick's doctoral student and is now based at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, reported that the high-mercury-diet females produced 35 percent fewer fledglings than the females in the control group.
The study lasted for three breeding seasons. After the experiment, the birds were put on a cleansing, mercury-free diet for several months and then released back into the wild.
Does all this mean homosexuality is linked to mercury pollution? For the ibises, maybe. For humans, almost certainly not. Frederick pointed out that there have been a number of long-term studies on the effects of mercury on humans, and none of those studies has noted a change in sexual behavior. Speaking more generally, the researchers noted that sexual preference is a much more complex phenomenon for humans than it is for birds.
In a report on Nature's website, a German expert on animal physiology cautioned that the results might not even be applicable to other bird species. Heinz Köhler of the University of Tübingen told Nature that this might be something that's just between ibises. "Their behavior may be less fragile and more robust to methylmercury," he said.
NASA's secret is finally out: Researchers say they've forced microbes from a gnarly California lake to become arsenic-gobbling aliens. It may not be as thrilling as discovering life on Titan, but the claim is so radical that some chemists aren't yet ready to believe it.
If the claim holds up, it would lend weight to the idea that life as we know it isn't the only way life could develop. Organisms with truly alien biochemistry could conceivably arise on a faraway exoplanet, or on the Saturnian moon Titan, or even here on Earth.
"Our findings are a reminder that life as we know it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine," Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an astrobiology researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a statement from Arizona State University announcing the results. Wolfe-Simon is the lead author of a paper reporting the findings, which was published online today by the journal Science.
Four years ago, while studying at ASU, Wolfe-Simon proposed that some organisms in extreme environments might be adapted to use arsenic in place of phosphorus. Phosphorus is one of the elements essential to life's chemistry -- in addition to carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Arsenic, which is just below phosphorus on the periodic table, is poisonous precisely because it can take phosphorus' place in biomolecules.
"It gets in there and sort of gums up the works of our biochemical machinery," ASU's Ariel Anbar, a co-author of the Science paper, explained.
In search of arsenophiles Wolfe-Simon theorized that some organisms could have evolved in ancient times to make use of arsenic-based compounds known as arsenates, in place of the phosphates used by virtually all the organisms we know today. Such arsenophiles might even persist in environments with elevated levels of arsenic -- environments such as the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, or Mono Lake in California.
It turns out that that eerie-looking tourist destination, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, contains arsenic as well as the usual phosphorus. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues designed an experiment to take a particular type of salt-loving bacteria called GFAJ-1 from Mono Lake's mud sediments, wean it off phosphorus, and see if it could switch its diet to arsenic.
David Mcnew / Getty Images file
Limestone formations rise from California's salty, arsenic-laden Mono Lake. Researchers say they coaxed bacteria taken from the lake to use arsenic in place of phosphorus - and suggest that alien life forms could use a similar arsenic-based biochemistry.
In the paper published today, the researchers report that some of the bacteria could survive on arsenic and incorporate it into their cellular biochemistry. Instead of the usual phosphate-rich DNA, they observed arsenate-rich DNA. Heightened levels of arsenic also showed up in the cell's proteins and fats. The scientists used mass spectroscopy, radioactive labeling and X-ray fluorescence to confirm that the arsenic was really being used in the biomolecules rather than merely contaminating the cells.
If that could happen in the laboratory, why couldn't it happen naturally? ASU astrobiologist Paul Davies, another one of the paper's co-authors, has long held that "weird life" -- based on chemical building blocks unlike our own -- could exist right under our noses on Earth, or in extraterrestrial environments.
"This organism has dual capability," Davies said in today's announcement. "It can grow with either phosphorus or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly 'alien' life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin. However, GFAJ-1 may be a pointer to even weirder organisms. The holy grail would be a microbe that contained no phosphorus at all."
Davies said GFAJ-1 was "surely the tip of a big iceberg" -- and Wolfe-Simon agreed.
"If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" she asked. "Now is the time to find out."
Some bet that it's wrong Some scientists said they were impressed by the measures that Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues took to verify their findings. "The organization of the experiments presents convincing and exhaustive results," Milva Pepi, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Siena, was quoted as saying in a Science news report.
But Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, told me he was unconvinced. He was invited to Washington today to lay out the skeptical view during a much-hyped news conference at NASA Headquarters. "I'm the guy they bring in to throw the wet blanket over all the enthusiasm," he joked.
He was impressed by the finding that bacteria could get by with so little phosphorus and so much arsenic, but he questioned the conclusion that the arsenic was truly taking the place of phosphorus. Benner explained that chemists have long been familiar with the properties of arsenate compounds. "We know, for example, that they fall apart in water quickly," he said. "Those structures are not going to survive in water."
Felisa Wolfe-Simon takes samples from a sediment core she pulled up from the remote shores of 10 Mile Beach at California's Mono Lake. She uses these samples as starters for cultures to select for microbes that can survive and flourish with high arsenic and no added phosphorus.
In their paper, Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues say that the GFAJ-1 bacteria can apparently cope with that instability, perhaps because of intracellular mechanisms that keep water out. Benner, however, said that other scientists would have to first confirm that the arsenic is really being taken up the way the paper describes, and then figure out how the process squares with what's already known about biochemistry.
"If this result is true, we've got to go back and rewrite a lot of chemistry," Benner said.
Benner is willing to put his money where his mouth is: "I've wagered Felisa $100 that that's not arseno-DNA," he told me.
That being said, Benner acknowledged that arsenic could conceivably play a role in sustaining truly alien life. "If I'm going to go to Mars, where the temperature is lower, and water is scarcer, and arsenate esters are more stable, this is something I might look for," he observed.
Hype vs. reality The paper published today could be regarded as the latest chapter in a discussion that's been going on for years among astrobiologists. Wolfe-Simon, Davies and Anbar telegraphed their hypothesis almost two years ago in a paper titled "Did Nature Also Choose Arsenic?" In another paper, Wolfe-Simon speculated that arsenic-based life could exist on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. And in June, a different group of researchers reported results hinting at the possibility of an alternate biochemistry on Titan, one of Saturn's moons.
So when NASA announced that Wolfe-Simon and other astrobiologists were gathering in Washington today to discuss results that could "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," speculation ran rampant. Some journalists, including yours truly, could deduce what the news conference was about and read the study in advance -- but only on the condition that nothing referencing the research would be published until Science lifted its embargo. Othersfiguredout that the revelations had to do with arsenic and Mono Lake, even without getting an advance peek at the paper.
Still others took wild guesses about the subject of the news conference. Had NASA detected arsenic on Titan? Was there evidence of extraterrestrial biology at work?
"Some of the coverage has been almost comically erroneous," Ginger Pinholster, director of public programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told Space.com. The AAAS is the publisher of the journal Science, and Pinholster is in charge of the operation that distributes the journal's papers in advance.
Here's a video about the research that was done up by the AAAS:
The whole idea behind the embargo system is that journalists have a chance to digest publications, ask questions and put the research in perspective before they publish their articles. The system isn't perfect -- as NASA and Science found out in August when embargoed research about a bizarre planetary system was outed on Twitter an hour before the scheduled release. And some make the argument that the system is too elitist for the Internet age.
I'm in favor of embargoes -- in part because it helps avoid precisely the kind of hype that was engendered by NASA's public announcement about the news conference. In fact, I'd argue that such announcements should be governed by the same embargo, to head off the cycle of hype and disappointment that some of you may be going through this week. There's also the advantage that you can almost immediately check the original research paper if you so choose.
The scientific search for evidence of life beyond Earth isn't as fast-paced as a science-fiction plotline -- and maybe that part of the story is as important as the news about arsenic in the old lake. But what do you think? Are you disappointed? Intrigued? Bugged by the hype, or bugged by the current system for publishing scientific research? Feel free to chime in with your comments below.
Update for 5:35 p.m. ET: This afternoon's NASA news conference served to lay out the case for (and against) arsenic-based life, and one of the high points came when Wolfe-Simon and Benner sparred over how much arsenic might have been incorporated into the bacteria's biological machinery. Here are other highlights:
Wolfe-Simon gave a tour de force explanation of her results, including a jazzy computer-generated video showing arsenic atoms replacing phosphorus atoms in a DNA chain. We're offering the video just above. Give it a click.
Benner brought a couple of lengths of heavy chain links to represent molecular chains, as well as a twisted-up ring of aluminum foil to represent the arsenic. The message underlying the props was that arsenic compounds would be too weak to bind molecular chains together for a long time before breaking.
Pamela Conrad, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who specializes in Martian astrobiology, said the Science result was "delightful because it makes me have to expand my notion of what environmental constitutents might enable habitability." If high levels of arsenic as well as organic molecules were found by future Mars probes -- for example, NASA's Curiosity rover, which is due for launch next year -- "you could begin to put a picture together about what the environmental chemistry might portend," Conrad said.
The biggest OMG moment came when Mary Voytek, head of NASA's Astrobiology Program, referred to a classic "Star Trek" episode in which the Enterprise crew confronted a seemingly menacing creature called a Horta. "This is, in our mind, the equivalent of finding that Horta, which was silicon-based life, substituting carbon -- which is what we think all life forms are made of -- with silicon. Now we're talking about an organism that we think ... is replacing phosphorus with arsenic," she said. "This is a huge deal."
In addition to Wolfe-Simon, Davies and Anbar, authors include Jodi Switzer Blum, Thomas R. Kulp, Gwyneth W. Gordon, Shelley E. Hoeft, Jennifer Pett-Ridge, John F. Stoltz, Samuel M. Webb, Peter K. Weber and Ronald S. Oremland. The study was funded in part by NASA's Astrobiology Program. Wolfe-Simon, Anbar, Davies and Oremland are members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute "Follow the Elements" team at Arizona State University.
Astrobiology researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon works with samples at California's Mono Lake.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Wouldn't you know it? As soon as this item was published, Science lifted its embargo on the research. For posterity's sake, here's what I wrote. The NASA news conference is still on for 2 p.m. ET:
After days of speculation about an as-yet-unspecified development in the "search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," NASA does the big reveal at 2 p.m. ET today -- and you can watch it unfold in real time via streaming video and Twitter.
I'll just note that one of the people in charge of keeping the secret, Ginger Pinholster of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has observed that some of the reports out there are "comically erroneous." It's a safe bet that the research being published in the journal Science is not about the discovery of extraterrestrial life itself. Not even Pinholster could keep that secret under wraps.
It's also a safe bet that the research has to do with biochemistry that involves arsenic, which is toxic to life as we know it. That's because one of the featured speakers at the NASA news conference is Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a research at the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent years studying organisms in California's arsenic-rich Mono Lake. Numerous reports have said her research relates to "life as we don't know it." The big question is just how far down that road Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues have gone.
After the 2 p.m. announcement, there will surely be a debate over how the announcement and the pre-announcement were handled. There might even be a wider-angle debate over how the scientific process handles cosmic questions, such as "Is there life beyond Earth?" Heck, the debate has already begun: Check out Curtis Brainard's excellent roundup for The Observatory at Columbia Journalism Review.
Brainard, by the way, says that the revelation is "an interesting piece of research, but certainly not one that is bound to make the front page, or perhaps any page." I'm not quite that jaded about the Science study, but we'll see how it plays in the next few hours. In the meantime, here's a background reading list:
Players of the online puzzle game Phylo will help researchers understand the origin of genetic disease.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Video games might make some of us fat and depressed, but Canadian researchers are hoping gamers will find an online puzzle challenge addictive enough to help them figure out the origins of genetic diseases.
The game, called Phylo, works by helping researchers identify sections of DNA that are similar across species and contribute to traits such as blue eyes -- or medical conditions such as heart disease. By pinpointing these regions, scientists hope to trace the source of certain genetic diseases.
It turns out that humans are much better than computers at recognizing these types of patterns. Lead researcher Jerome Waldispuhl and his colleagues at McGill University built Phylo to capitalize on that fact.
They aren't the first scientists to harness idle people and their pattern-recognition prowess to achieve research goals. There's the University of Washington's protein folding game Foldit, for example. There's also Galaxy Zoo, which tasks users to classify galaxies according to shape. (A spin-off called Moon Zoo focuses on lunar craters.)
In Phylo, gamers are tasked to align rows of colored blocks that represent the four letters of the genetic code (A, C, G, T) from two organisms. Perfect alignment is usually not possible. Instead, gamers are given a time limit to come up with the best match. That pairing will likely include mismatches and gaps -- which serve as the source of potential genetic mutations.
"We're hoping that people will enjoy playing the game and that many participants will sign up," Waldispuhl said in a news release. "This is an opportunity for people to use their free time to contribute in an extremely important way to medical research."
To help the game spread, the team plans to integrate it with Facebook ... and steal attention from the popular game FarmVille.
More than a hundred mobile-phone-style cameras are packed onto a metallic sphere to allow this camera to see everything around it. Computer algorithms calculate the distance to objects to create 3-D images.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Bzzz ... bzzz ... bzzz ...
Wait! Before you swat that annoying fly, consider this: Its eyes inspired the invention of a camera with a 360-degree view on the world and the ability to reproduce images in 3-D.
The applications are seemingly limitless, ranging from enhanced robot navigation and surveillance to 3-D movies and immersive realities for video gamers, according to co-inventor Pierre Vandergheynst, an electrical engineer at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
"Imagine a sporting event where you will be able to watch the event as being one of the players. You would be able to walk on the soccer field, you would be able to stand where the goalkeeper is," he said.. "Imagine being at a concert and decide to see the concert from the audience and then suddenly walk on stage and get closer to the guitarist or the pianist. This would be possible with such devices."
Vandergheynst said the technology overcomes two main problems of traditional cameras: the fact that they observe only a fraction of the scene in a specific direction and the camera's traditional lack of depth. He goes into detail in this video news release:
Taking a cue from the common housefly's eyes, which are composed of thousands of spherical photoreceptors, Vandergheynst and colleague Yusuf Leblebici packed more than 100 cameras similar to those used in mobile phones onto an orange-sized metallic sphere. The result is a camera that sees information located all around it. At the same time, special algorithms calculate the distance to the objects it sees, enabling the creation of an accurate 3D reconstruction.
This contrasts with traditional 3-D images, which generally start with 2-D images made with two lenses that are then overlaid to generate a 3-D effect when seen with special glasses. Newer technology is making 3-D imagery possible with single-lens, point-and-shoot cameras such as the Sony WX5 and TX9.
But the 360-degree camera that sees in 3-D "is likely to change the entire field of image acquisition, with a huge range of potential applications," Leblebici predicted in a news release.
And for that we have that fly … bzzz, bzzz … to thank.
A technician installs a heat shield tile on a space shuttle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Such tiles are now being made available to schools and universities for a shipping and handling fee.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
NASA is offering 7,000 space shuttle tiles for the sweet price of $23.40. There are a couple of catches, though: You have to be a school or a university to buy one. Also, it's first come, first served, starting today -- so this deal may not last long.
"WASHINGTON -- As the Space Shuttle Program nears retirement, NASA is looking for ways to preserve the program's history and inspire the next generation of space explorers, scientists and engineers. Beginning Wednesday, NASA is offering 7,000 shuttle heat shield tiles to schools and universities that want to share technology and a piece of space history with their students.
"The lightweight tiles protect the shuttles from extreme temperatures when the orbiters re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Schools can request a tile at: http://gsaxcess.gov/NASAWel.htm
"Click on the tile icon to log on to the request page. A login ID and password may be obtained by registering on the link provided. A Department of Education statistics tracking number (NCES for schools or IPEDS for universities) is needed to register. Hyperlinks are available to these sites to find a specific institution's tracking number. The requests will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Only one tile will be given per institution.
"Because the tiles are government property, a transfer protocol is observed. Recipients will be responsible for a shipping and handling fee of $23.40, which is payable to the shipping company through a secure website. For more information about artifacts also available to museums and libraries, visit: http://gsaxcess.gov/htm/nasa/userguide/NASA_SSPA_Pamphlet.pdf
Sounds like the perfect holiday gift for your school's classroom...
Update for 8:50 p.m. ET: NASA spokeswoman Ann Marie Trotta told me that there should be plenty of tiles to go around. About 100 tiles were snapped up on the first day of availability, she said. "Seven thousand is going to take a while," she said. But she does expect that all the tiles will be given away eventually.
During our chat, it came out that these tiles have been stockpiled as replacements -- but have gone unused. With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA judged that its tile stockpile is larger than necessary, and that it could afford to part with these 7,000 ceramic-fiber tiles. If Trotta can dig up any more details, I'll pass them along.
The shuttles themselves will be given away as well, but the shipping and handling charge is a bit higher: $28.8 million. Several museums have put in their bids for a used shuttle. However, at last report, even the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is having a hard time coming up with the money.