John Miller / AP
In this file photo, teacher Becky Ogle, standing, holds her laptop computer as she explains how to use an Excel spreadsheet to a freshman class at Empire High School in Vail, Ariz. New multiple choice test questions could reform science education.
Multiple choice tests have long made teachers and students go ick, but a new variety launched today could be a game changer that improves science education in the U.S. by pointing out what students know, and, importantly, their misconceptions.
To get things started, let's look at a few sample questions. Like all multiple choice questions, one of the possible answers is right. Common misconceptions are also included in the choices. (Scroll to the end of the post for the correct answers. More questions and answers are available online.)
2. Which of the following kinds of cells perform basic functions such as making molecules for growth?
3. Why does liquid water take the shape of a cup it is poured into, but solid ice cubes do not?
4. Which of the following is TRUE about the boundaries between earth’s plates?
5. Some organisms, such as a chimpanzee and a human, have many similarities. Others, such as a zebra and a worm, have fewer similarities. What is TRUE about the ancestors of these organisms?
George DeBoer, deputy director of the project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, highlighted that last question – correct answer is D – in a teleconference with reporters today. The question is one of several that get at the idea of common descent of all living organisms.
"The idea is, if you go back far enough, we are all related, all the way back to single cell organisms," he said.
Analysis of the questions clustered around this topic reveal that 65 percent of students know the principle that living organisms can share a common ancestor with other living species and with species that are extinct, "but there was a significant drop off when students were presented with specific cases," he said.
For example, 45 percent of students correctly answered that eagles and owls are related; for dogs and cats it drops to 27 percent; for dogs, cats, fish and birds it drops to 17 percent. Just 9 percent think chimpanzees, humans, zebras, and worms are related.
When the same question about chimpanzees, humans, zebras and worms is phrased in such a way that this is what scientists think – not what the student believes to be correct – as a means to get around the messiness of personal beliefs and scientific fact, the responses were unchanged.
The 600 questions, which are part of the AAAS' Project 2061 science-education reform initiative, are targeted at middle and early high school science students and aligned with national content standards and consistent with state standards — that is, the questions are meant to really get to the meat of what students are expected to know, explained DeBoer.
Using documented misconceptions as answer choices "allows us to find out the alternative ideas students have as well as what they know and do not know," he said in today's briefing with reporters.
The questions were field tested on more than 90,000 students in 814 schools. Overall student performance highlighted some "bright spots" and places where "things look pretty dismal," DeBoer said.
The average number of questions answered correct was 46 percent, he noted. Of course, broken down across individuals, the range is wide. Some students can answer just about anything asked. But a large percentage doesn't know much at all. School location appeared to make a difference.
Since the questions reveal what students don't know and their misconceptions, the project team hopes they will allow teachers to better target their instruction, DeBoer said.
"Students create strange conceptions about the world from their experiences," Anu Malipatil, a school administrator for a network of charger schools in New York and Connecticut, said in a press release. "It becomes more difficult to teach students without actually addressing the misconception first."
To learn more about the program, common misconceptions, check out the AAAS Science Assessment website. Answers to the five questions included at the top of this post are as follows:1. C; 2. C; 3. D; 4. A; 5. D
More stories on science education:
AP Photo / Lee Jin-man
Hotel guests check their mobile phones for earthquake news after they evacuated the building following an aftershock, in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, Friday, April 8, 2011. Japan was rattled by a strong aftershock and tsunami warning Thursday night nearly a month after a devastating earthquake and tsunami flattened the northeastern coast.
The news today that Japan was hit by a magnitude 7.1 aftershock nearly a month after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast coast is grim, but not shocking to experts.
"It is not surprising as part of the aftershock sequence to see a magnitude 7 plus," John Bellini a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey told me today.
Generally, he said, for each lower magnitude you expect to see ten times the preceding magnitude. So, in this case, experts expect to see one magnitude 8 earthquake, up to 10 magnitude 7s, and many, many 6s, 5s, and 4s.
Hundreds of aftershocks
Indeed, hundreds of aftershocks have hit Japan since the March 11 earthquake, but few have been above 7.0. According to the USGS, an aftershock about 30 minutes after the main shock was a 7.9. There has been one other greater than 7.0 aftershock and many smaller ones. An 8 is still possible.
"You can still have it," Bellini said, "but as time goes by it is less and less likely each day and we would expect to see fewer 7s and fewer 6s." In fact, he added, "we've been seeing a lot less aftershocks for the last week than two weeks ago."
John Rundle, an expert on earthquake dynamics at the University of California at Davis, said a large aftershock, especially near a major city such as Tokyo, was among his largest worries when we spoke about earthquake clustering last month.
More to come?
The 7.9 aftershock about 30 minutes after the main shock, which was about 100 kilometers from Tokyo, could have been the 8 he was worried about, he told me today, but he doesn't think the city is in the clear.
"Tokyo has had a lot of seismic activity in the last month," he said. "The thing I worry about is one of those events being significantly larger than the ones they've been having."
New to his list of worries based on probability analysis is the southwestern Japan town of Nagasaki, which he says "has an elevated probability for a magnitude 7 earthquake in the next 12 months or so because it's had two magnitude 7s in 1968 and since the last one it has had about 10 magnitude 6s. So it would be about for a magnitude 7."
More on Japan earthquakes:
The space android called Robonaut 2 was just unpacked from its box last month, but NASA is already thinking up jobs for the darn thing to do, such as replacing parts on the International Space Station and wielding a fire extinguisher. The robotic exercises are among five sets of tests that mission planners have drawn up for next year, aimed at addressing future challenges in spaceflight.
Experts on space station utilization as well as future exploration have been discussing the proposed tests for some time now, said Pete Hasbrook, increment manager for the ISS Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center. A go-ahead for Robonaut's chores and the other space station tasks is likely to come later this month, he said today in Washington at Explore Mars' first International Space Station and Mars Conference.
Robonaut 2 is a 300-pound robotic torso equipped with a camera-equipped head as well as a pair of arms with five-fingered hands. It's designed to take on simple tasks that might otherwise be done by an astronaut, inside or outside the space station. The contraption, developed in partnership with GM, was delivered to the station aboard the shuttle Discovery in February and is due to begin checkouts in May.
Hasbrook and his fellow planners are looking farther ahead, to the station's experimental program between March and September of 2012. During that time frame, they'd like Robonaut 2 to simulate a spacewalking routine that requires the use of a grabber tool and a pistol-grip drill to work on a type of electronics box known as an orbit replaceable unit, or ORU. The robot could also be commanded to pick up a fire extinguisher and spray its contents onto a simulated experiment rack ... as if there were a fire in space.
Those are the kinds of jobs that Robonaut might be asked to do, under human supervision, during an actual spacewalk or a real emergency.
Testing technology ... and psychology
Now that the space station's construction phase is complete, Hasbrook and others are thinking about ways to use the orbital outpost as a test bed for the technologies that will be needed for future space missions. Here are three other experiments that Hasbrook said were under consideration:
The fifth test has more to do with psychology than technology, and it could be at least as interesting as Robonaut's workouts: For seven days, audio and video transmissions between the space station and Mission Control would be delayed by 10 minutes. That arrangement is aimed at simulating the signal gaps that would be encountered during missions to Mars or other far-out destinations.
The 10-minute delay would even apply to the phone calls and video chats that space station astronauts conducted with their loved ones on Earth, Hasbrook told me. That might be frustrating for the astronauts, but the folks at Johnson Space Center are intrigued by the idea, said Trey Brouwer, ISS integration manager in flight operations for the United Space Alliance.
As a safety measure, data transmissions from the space station would not be delayed. Brouwer said the mission planning team still has to develop the detailed flight rules for the experiment. For example, what's the protocol in case a real emergency comes up during the simulation?
More autonomy for humans in space
Brouwer said the experiment would help NASA plan for scenarios in which ground controllers couldn't interact with astronauts in real time due to the immense distances involved. During a mission to Mars, the communications gap would vary depending on the changing distance between Earth and Mars. Theoretically, it could take as little as 3 minutes or as long as 22 minutes for a signal to get from one planet to the other.
Under those conditions, the home-planet headquarters would serve less as "Mission Control" and more as "Mission Support." Astronauts would have to have far more autonomy during a mission. At least that's what researchers have reported in previous studies on Mars mission architecture.
Next year's simulation is likely to be an eye-opener, for the space station astronauts as well as ground controllers.
"It's going to be an interesting exercise because we are so used to 'baby-sitting,'" Brouwer said. "The crews have really relied on us, and we're going to have to step away from that."
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."
Sierra Nevada Corp.
An artist's conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser approaching the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser is one of the projects under consideration for NASA support.
Last updated 11 a.m. ET April 7:
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says that commercial spaceships are an essential part of the space agency’s future, but that the next step in space commercialization depends on Congress.
Bolden touched upon the financial realities facing his agency today during an appearance at the International Space Station and Mars Conference in Washington. The two-day conference is aimed at looking at the long-term prospects for America's space effort, including missions to the Red Planet, but Bolden also touched upon shorter-term issues. For example, what will the space agency do about human spaceflight after this year's retirement of the space shuttle fleet?
For the really short term, NASA will have to rely on the Russians for transporting astronauts back and forth, but Bolden is hoping that commercial U.S. spaceship companies will step in to fill the gap. Not just hoping. He's counting on it.
"NASA cannot do both provisioning to low Earth orbit and exploration," Bolden said. The idea is that commercial companies will take care of the resupply of the space station, while NASA turns to the longer, more difficult job of developing the spaceflight systems for trips beyond Earth orbit. The way Bolden sees it, his agency can't afford to create a fleet of space taxis at the same time it's developing the more capable craft required for the next space frontier.
"There is no magic money," he said.
That's why NASA wants to rent rather than build those space station transports. Two companies, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, are already receiving millions of dollars to build and test spaceships for ferrying cargo into orbit. Now NASA is on the verge of awarding as much as $280 million more for spacecraft capable of launching astronauts, in the second phase of a program known as Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev2.
Last month, industry analysts at FBR Capital listed their favorites for CCDev2 money: Orbital Sciences, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp., with AlliantTechsystems (ATK), Blue Origin, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance also on the short list.
Some observers suggested that the awards would be announced as early as Wednesday, but Bolden kept mum. He suggested that the payout depended on whether Congress approved a spending plan that provided $312 million for the program, which would cover the awards as well as administrative costs.
"If it's less than $312 million, then we've got to go back and look at where we are with CCDev2," Bolden told reporters.
So the CCDev2 contractors may have to wait a bit longer for the final word, particularly if the fiscal stalemate in Congress results in a government shutdown. Bolden issued a preliminary advisory this week, telling agency employees to stand by for further word on which folks would be furloughed.
Although there's been no official word, a prolonged shutdown could complicate preparations for the shuttle Endeavour's upcoming trip to the space station. Space station operations, however, would be little affected, because keeping the multibillion-dollar orbital facility and its residents safe is seen as an essential function.
Update for 11:50 p.m. ET: Space News' Brian Berger reported in a Twitter update that CCDev2 contractors have been "told to be on standby Thurs. afternoon for word from NASA. But don't hold your breath."
Meanwhile, the shutdown showdown continues, but Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told me tonight that a shutdown wouldn't have any immediate impact on the preparations for Endeavour's flight. "Think about it," he said. Gerstenmaier pointed out that the launch was postponed from April 19 to April 29, due to a Russian scheduling conflict. That means there are roughly 10 days of wiggle room in the pre-launch routine. Of course, it all depends on how long the shutdown lasts ... if it happens at all.
Update for 11 a.m. ET April 7: The CCDev2 announcement has been delayed indefinitely, apparently because of the continuing back-and-forth over the federal budget, according to John Elbon, vice president and program manager for commercial crew programs at the Boeing Co.
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman has been giving her flute collection quite a workout in the past few weeks, more than 200 miles above Earth. The International Space Station resident played a St. Patrick's Day concert on NASA TV, and also recorded a session for last month's DMI House music festival in Austin, Texas. For the exclusive DMI video, Coleman threw in a tour of her digs on the space station, which is the size of a five-bedroom house and offers a killer view from the Cupola observation deck. When Coleman flew to the orbital outpost in December, she brought four flutes along with her — including her own instrument as well as one lent to her by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson ("Aqualung!"), plus an Irish flute and a pennywhistle from The Chieftains. Starting today, Coleman will have three more music lovers sharing her orbital home: the two Russians and American who are arriving on a Russian Soyuz spaceship.
Nikola Solic / Reuters
This file photo shows soldiers from the U.S. Army preparing to go on patrol in Afghanistan. Soldiers in the field need up to 7 gallons of water per day.
A new technology to harvest drinkable water from diesel exhaust could help the U.S. military become more nimble and mobile as it engages in conflicts around the world.
Warfare is hot, dirty, and exhausting work that requires a steady stream of water to slake thirst, prepare meals and maintain healthy hygiene — up to nearly 7 gallons a day per person.
Supplying that water to soldiers increases vulnerability to military personnel and limits the tactical use of field troops, according to researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory who are developing the new technology.
Their solution is to use the fuel that the military burns to run its tanks, Humvees, generators and other machines that power field operations. When fuel is combusted, it gets oxidized and produces carbon dioxide and water.
"Theoretically, one gallon of diesel should produce one gallon of water," project leader Melanie Debusk explained to me Wednesday. While all of that water isn't recoverable, the system her team is developing should be able to get back between 65 and 85 percent of it.
"Considering how much fuel the military uses in the field that would be a significant contribution to the water issue," she noted.
For example, a Humvee, which has about a 25-gallon tank, could provide enough water for about three soldiers per tank of fuel burned.
The concept under development is based on the process known as capillary condensation, which contrasts to thermodynamic condensation — that is cooling the air so that water drops out of it.
"With capillary condensation, we've got tiny capillaries in our porous, tubular inorganic membranes," Debusk said, explaining that the system is like a hollow steel tube with porous walls. Water condenses by capillary action in the pores.
This liquid water is constantly drawn off from the outside of the tube, allowing more water to be condensed from the exhaust passing through the center of the tube.
"Based on the rules of capillary condensation, you should be able to condense more water out at a given temperature compared to if you cooled air directly to that temperature and were relying on thermodynamic condensation," Debusk added.
In addition, capturing water vapor in this way leads to approximately a 100-fold reduction in contaminants in the water because "you are condensing it in these tiny pores and you are displacing it continually," she said.
As a result, the contact time between water soluble gases such as nitrogen dioxide and the condensed water is eliminated.
Water shortage solution?
According to the team, this system is an improvement over an earlier technology proposed to convert diesel exhaust to water that was based on thermodynamic condensation, which was heavy, bulky and consumed too much energy to run heat exchangers.
The U.S. military deemed that system "undeployable," according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The lab is pushing for full-scale development of its system within the next few years. The budget required to do so is about $6 million, according Debusk.
If it works at full scale, maybe this is a solution to help cope with looming water shortages? Feel free to weigh in with your comment below.
More stories on water solutions:
Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images Contributor
A man undergoes a radiation test at a screening center in Kiriyama in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.
Radiation experts are painting a sobering picture of the Fukushima nuclear disaster's long-term impact on Japan in a series of reports published today by the journal Nature. At best, the country faces more than a decade of expensive cleanup, including the decommissioning of the reactor complex and the disposal of contaminated debris. At worst, wide areas of land around the complex will have to be abandoned, as they were in Ukraine after Chernobyl.
"On the basis of the Fukushima data so far, it seems likely that in some areas, food restrictions could hold for decades, particularly for wild foodstuffs such as mushrooms, berries and freshwater fish," the University of Portsmouth's Jim Smith, co-editor and lead author of "Chernobyl: Catastrophe and Consequences," wrote in a Nature commentary.
Smith says the levels of radioactive cesium-137, with a radioactive half-life of 30 years, "will determine the long-term impact on the contaminated region and its residents."
"The extent of cesium-137 contamination at Fukushima is not yet clear, but available data indicate very high levels in some areas," he wrote. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency sounded the alarm about high radiation readings in the village of Iitate, 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. The readings ranged as high as 3.7 megabecquerels per square meter. Such readings led the IAEA to suggest an expansion of the current 12-mile-radius (20-kilometer) evacuation zone.
Since then, the reported readings outside the evacuation zone have not been as high. But Smith said that if large areas are contaminated with 0.5 megabecquerels per square meter or more, "evacuation could be for the long term."
One long-term strategy could be to bring in "liquidators" to decontaminate the towns and villages, remove topsoil and resurface roads, "although this approach met with varying success at Chernobyl," Smith wrote.
He said "the long-term response to Fukushima will have to be pragmatic." Radiation exposure limits for the general public might have to be relaxed, for example, going from 1 millisievert per year to 5 to 10 millisieverts per year. Smith noted that millions of people living in areas of high natural radioactivity are exposed to more than 10 millisieverts per year.
"A turning point in my understanding of Chernobyl's impacts came while studying lakes in Belarus during the mid-1990s," Smith wrote. "In an evacuated area, lake fish contained tens of thousands of becquerrels per kilogram. A couple in their early 70s lived near the lake, eating the fish and growing vegetables. They were living off contaminated land, but leading the life they had chosen to lead. This wouldn't by any means be the right choice for everybody, but I am convinced they had made the right decision for them: They were Chernobyl survivors, not victims."
Other reports in Nature's roundup hint at the uncertainties still hanging in the air three and a half weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima crisis:
Are you reassured? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts about the long-term impact of the Fukushima crisis.
More about Japan's nuclear crisis:
Nature is presenting a live Q&A with the University of Portsmouth's Jim Smith and Nature's Geoff Brumfiel at 11 a.m. ET (4 p.m. London time) on Wednesday.
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."
AP / Allauddin Khan
A U.S. Army helicopter takes off carrying wounded soldiers, injured in a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2010.
The ongoing military campaign against Afghan insurgents may get a boost from new computer software designed to zero in on the locations of weapons caches and warlords.
"The idea is to say, look, this is a large area, where do you target your resources," Venkatramanan Subrahmanian, co-director of the Lab for Computational Cultural Dynamics at the University of Maryland, told me today.
The software, called SCARE (Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine), combines data on terrain, road networks, tribal affiliations and past attacks with a computational analysis technique called geospatial abduction to help locate the enemy.
Geospatial abduction is a way to infer unobserved geographic phenomena (such as where explosives are hidden) from a set of known observations and constraints, such as the locations of past attacks and the roads that have been used to move around large caches of bomb-making materials.
SCARE was first used to analyze attacks in Iraq involving IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and predict the locations of IED weapons caches. Subrahmanian's team optimized the second generation of the software for use in Afghanistan.
Applying the technology to Afghanistan presented several new challenges, including the varied terrain, the vast area that had to be covered (360 by 270 miles, or 580 by 430 kilometers), and the influence of multiple tribes.
"There are inter-tribe rivalries, so clearly tribesmen who carry out certain attacks are more likely to want to seek refuge with parties they trust, which happens to be their own tribe," Subrahmanian said. "So we had to understand the geography of the region both in terms of terrain and roads as well as tribal affiliations."
Other constraints on the insurgents include a desire to carry out their attacks near their home bases or weapons caches, but not too close to them.
And since the software is designed to find large weapons caches and high-level insurgent leaders, "We use an assumption to restrict movements of the insurgents to the road," Paulo Shakarian, a US Army Captain and PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Maryland told me.
In an evaluation of the software's effectiveness in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, it pinpointed the insurgents and their weapons to regions of less than 39 square miles (100 square kilometers), that contained an average of 4.8 villages and a density of high-value targets 35 times greater than in the provinces as a whole.
"What that tells a commander of international security forces in Afghanistan is that four or five villages are the places he can zero in on and bring his other assets to bear," said Subrahmanian.
For example, the commander might decide to get aerial imagery of the villages with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
"With a UAV, you have to plan out the route, there is only so much fuel, there is only so much of a camera lens to look at things, so you need to be able to reduce the area you are searching for quite a bit in order to make that platform effective," Shakarian noted.
But while the technology helps pinpoint where the insurgents are likely to be found today, won't they just adapt? No, they probably won't, Subrahmanian said, since they are still forced to operate under the same constraints: terrain, roads and tribal affiliations.
"Even if they read our paper, all they know is that we know they have to operate under certain constraints, which they know we know already," he said. "So we don't see this as giving them any kind of advantage of any sort."
What's more, Shakarian added, the software depends on the data input to the system and that information is closely guarded.
In addition to military applications, the technology, which as cost about $300,000 to develop, is being tested for use in identifying animal hosts for certain viruses that spread disease in Africa, Subrahmanian noted.
"The idea is you see where the outbreak occurs and then try to infer back from that locations of the animals that host the viruses that cause the diseases and presumably the public health organizations could look at those regions and decide what action to take," he said.
A paper on SCARE-S2 has been accepted for publication in the 2011 International Conference on Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence.
More stories on military software:
Brian Basset's comic strip, "Red and Rover," often celebrates the outer-space dreams of the main character and his dog. Dreams meet realities in this tribute to the space shuttle program, penned by Basset for NASA. This artwork, showing the pair running alongside a shuttle during its final landing, isn't the first time the cartoonist and the space agency have worked together. NASA Headquarters hosted a one-man show featuring Basset's strips in 2004, and one of Basset's drawings flew aboard the shuttle Discovery during STS-114's "Return to Flight" mission in 2005. Basset thus continues a cartoon tradition that goes back to the 1960s, when another boy and his dog played a role in America's space effort.
An artist's conception shows the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in flight, with two strap-on boosters.
Last updated at 2:30 p.m. ET:
SpaceX's millionaire founder says his company's "next big thing" will be the most powerful rocket in the world, putting massive payloads into orbit for much less money than its competitors. And maybe to the moon and Mars as well.
The Falcon Heavy rocket has been on the drawing boards for years — but today's announcement by Elon Musk, SpaceX's chief executive officer and chief technology officer, signaled that the concept was on its way from the drawing boards to the launch pad.
Musk told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington that the first Falcon Heavy could be delivered to the launch pad toward the end of next year, with the launch coming during 2013. Musk said the first demonstration would take place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That launch may be conducted at SpaceX's expense, purely as a demonstration, or there may be a payload customer. Musk said launches from SpaceX's Florida complex could begin in late 2013 or 2014
The 227-foot-tall, liquid-fueled heavy-lifter would be capable of putting more than 50 tons into low Earth orbit — which would surpass the Delta 4 Heavy's 25-ton capacity and the yet-to-be-built Atlas 5 Heavy's 32 tons. The space shuttle system, which uses a combination of onboard engines and solid rocket boosters, has a payload capacity of just 25 tons, about half of the Falcon Heavy's anticipated lifting power.
That 50-ton capacity — actually, as much as 117,000 pounds, or 58.5 U.S. tons (53 metric tons) — is a substantial increase over the Falcon Heavy's previously anticipated capability, Musk said. He said that was the result of his recent design work on the rocket.
"This is a rocket of truly huge scale," Musk said. In a news release, SpaceX noted that 117,000 pounds is more than the maximum takeoff weight of a fully loaded Boeing 737-200 with 136 passengers. "In other words, Falcon Heavy can deliver the equivalent of an entire commercial airplane full of passengers, crew luggage and fuel all the way to orbit," SpaceX said.
Back to the moon?
Musk said the Falcon Heavy's capacity would open up new horizons in spaceflight ... or reopen hoped-for horizons that have faded over the decades.
"It's more payload than any vehicle in history apart from the Saturn 5," Musk noted. The now-defunct Saturn 5, which powered NASA's moonshots in the 1960s and 1970s, had about twice the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy — leading Musk to observe that two Falcon Heavy launches could set up a next-generation moon mission. (The Russian Energia rocket also exceeded the Falcon Heavy's projected launch capacity.)
Musk said the Falcon Heavy and SpaceX's Dragon capsule could be combined for a "really cool mission, which would be a lunar flyby." Such an operation would involve sending the spacecraft to make a loop around the moon and come back to Earth.
'Everyday low prices'
The big difference is cost: The price tag for a Falcon Heavy launch is estimated at $80 million to $125 million, compared with up to $187 million for an Atlas 5 and roughly $1 billion for a shuttle mission. The result is that the cost of putting payloads into orbit could approach $1,000 per pound, which has been a mythical price point for access to outer space. "It's not so mythical any more," Musk said.
Musk joked that traditional rocket providers treated the launch contract process "like a rug bazaar, where they'll charge you what they think you can afford." In contrast, he said, SpaceX would offer "everyday low prices."
The Falcon Heavy's first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores modeled on SpaceX's Falcon 9 design. The heavy-lifter would be equipped with plumbing that could move propellant from the side boosters to the center core. "The net effect is that Falcon Heavy achieves performance comparable to a three-stage rocket," SpaceX said.
In the short term, the rocket would be offered as an alternative to the Atlas 5 or the Delta 4 for the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. For now, SpaceX isn't offering the Falcon Heavy as a vehicle for crewed flight, although Musk said the rocket was "designed to meet NASA human rating standards."
"It can launch people if need be, and do so safely," he said.
Eventually, the Falcon Heavy could take on a robotic mission to bring samples back from Mars, Musk said. "The payload to Mars would be about a quarter of the payload to LEO [low Earth orbit]," he noted.
SpaceX's past and future
The announcement of a new rocket project is usually surrounded by uncertainties. For example, will SpaceX be able to hold to its development schedule? How much of a market is there for the rocket, and what market niche will it fill?
Musk, who earned his fortune in the dot-com industry, founded SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) in 2002 as a low-cost competitor to aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. (which offer the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, respectively, through a joint venture called the United Launch Alliance). SpaceX's Falcon 1 didn't register a fully successful orbital launch until the fourth try, and the development schedule for the Falcon 9 rocket had to be repeatedly extended. But the Falcon 9 was successful with its very first launch, and SpaceX's Dragon capsule went into orbit and splashed down without a problem during the second Falcon 9 mission last December.
NASA is providing $278 million to SpaceX for the development of the Falcon 9 and the Dragon as a resupply system for the International Space Station. If SpaceX passes muster, it would be in line for $1.6 billion in NASA resupply contracts through 2016. The Dragon-Falcon 9 launch system also may be used eventually to transport astronauts to and from the station, if SpaceX receives sufficient funding from NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. (NASA may provide details about the next phase of funding in that program as early as Wednesday.)
Looking beyond NASA, SpaceX has piled up more than $2.5 billion in satellite launch contracts, including a half-billion-dollar deal with the Iridium telecom venture.
So what about the Falcon Heavy? During today's news conference, some questioned whether there was enough of a market to justify building a launcher for 50-ton payloads. Musk said the heavy-lifter would have to be launched at least four times a year to cover the overhead for SpaceX's current price schedule. He's clearly counting on getting some of the Air Force's business, in addition to heavy-lift jobs from NASA and private-sector players such as Bigelow Aerospace.
The Falcon Heavy doesn't quite satisfy the requirements that Congress laid out for the heavy-lift rocket it wants NASA to build by 2016 for exploration beyond Earth orbit. The legislation requires a payload capacity of 70 to 100 metric tons. In January, NASA signaled that it couldn't build such a rocket within Congress' budget and timetable. However, the space agency promised to provide a more detailed report after sifting through a sheaf of feasibility studies, including one conducted by SpaceX.
Musk said SpaceX has been looking into the design of a "super heavy" rocket that could put 150 metric tons into low Earth orbit, or send Apollo-scale payloads to the moon or Mars. Such a rocket would be 50 percent more capable than the Saturn 5 and easily satisfy Congress' payload requirements.
"We're exploring with NASA how to do 150-metric-ton orbit capability, but do it rapidly" and at a cost of less than $1,000 per pound of payload, Musk said.
This report has been amended to mention Russia's Energia rocket and remove a reference to Apollo 8 as a parallel for the theoretical Falcon Heavy circumlunar mission.
The whole world is gearing up for the 50th anniversary of humanity's first flight in space, made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
For Russians, the date is observed as Cosmonautics Day, an annual holiday going back to Soviet times. And for the past 10 years, the rest of the world has been celebrating the occasion as "Yuri's Night," which has replaced the Communist Party theme with a dance-party theme.
As of today, the Yuri's Night website has registered 321 parties in 61 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam. (And I still have hope for Zimbabwe.) The event's associate director and director of media relations, Brice Russ, emphasized that the event doesn't focus on Mother Russia or the Cold War.
"We call it Yuri's Night and celebrate Yuri Gagarin's flight, but it's not just a celebration of a single person doing a single thing," he told me. "It's celebrating what Yuri's flight stood for: exploration, adventure, scientific discovery. It's nice to see how far we've come in 50 years, and with Yuri's Night we'll be doing our best to go as far as we can in the next 50 years."
Russ pointed out that there's a strong U.S. angle to the April 12 festivities. "It's not just the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, but it's also the 30th anniversary of the shuttle program," he said.
10 years of Yuri's night
The first Yuri's Night festivities were organized in 2001 by two space enthusiasts named George Whitesides Jr. and Loretta Hidalgo. From the beginning, Whitesides and Hidalgo (who are now married) tailored the event for the next space generation rather than the Apollo era. Rock music, dancing, glamour and glitter are an accepted part of the Yuri's Night scene, but the pocket-protector crowd is welcome as well.
"It's pretty funny seeing space geeks mixing it up with the young and the beautiful," Hidalgo Whitesides said in a news release. "In Los Angeles, we see our share of space-inspired fashion. There are a lot of silver bikinis."
The highlights include:
First night for 'First Orbit'
"First Orbit" deserves special notice: The movie re-creates 1961's one-orbit flight, using exclusive imagery from the International Space Station. Riley worked things out with the European Space Agency to have Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli shoot footage from the station's Cupola observation deck as the station flew along the same orbital path that Gagarin followed 50 years earlier.
Riley told me that the station follows Gagarin's route every couple of days. "The tricky part was that I needed to film at exactly the same time of day that Gagarin flew," he said. That happens only every six weeks or so. Fortunately, Nespoli was able to get most of the imagery during an orbital pass in early January.
The soundtrack blends the original audio from Gagarin's mission with Sheppard's score, plus reports about the flight that aired on Radio Moscow, TASS and the BBC 50 years ago.
Riley said the "First Orbit" project served as a "sort of overture" for a film he's planning to make about the decades-long international drive to explore outer space. "I'd really like to do a film in 30 languages, where everybody talks about their own experience in Earth orbit," he told me.
So what will happen to "First Orbit" when Yuri's Night is over? "It's a bit like a dead lottery ticket," Riley joked. "I suspect no one's going to be interested in the film for a few months after April 12. But I think this film will be like a good Christmas movie. It'll come back every year, around April 12."
What will you be doing for Yuri's Night? Do you remember what it was like 50 years ago, when Gagarin flew? Or 30 years ago, when a space shuttle blasted off for the first time? Or even 10 years ago, when Yuri's Night got its start? Take this opportunity to share your spaceflight memories in a comment below.
More about space history:
North Carolina State University
Researchers found that craniofacial differences between contemporary men and women are less pronounced than they were in the 16th century.
Female faces have gotten larger in Spain over the past four centuries while those of men have stayed essentially the same, according to a new study that suggests differences in the craniofacial features of men and women have become less pronounced.
The finding is based on the comparison of more than 200 skulls dating to 20th- and 16th-century Spain, as well as approximately 50 skulls from 20th-century Portugal using a state-of-the art 3-D shape analysis system.
The distinction between the males and females could be because diet and environmental changes impact males and females differently, and because females are more affected in the face than males, Ann Ross, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University, explained to me today.
"Females are the ones that are changing," she said. "There appears to be a size-related change over time in the Spanish population, and that's probably due to improved nutrition."
The National Museum of Natural History's Douglas Ubelaker, co-author of the study, told me that genetics and gene flow through the population are also factors in the changes the team found. "What we're trying to do is just document that it occurred and give some sense of where it is headed," he said.
The sexual differences among the faces were similar between 20th-century Spanish and Portuguese populations, implying that the standards for identifying sex in Spanish skulls can be applied regionally.
This information, in turn, can be used to help anthropologists studying population change, or even a crime investigator attempting to identify a body based on a partial skeleton.
"Because of the sophisticated databases that can now be built on these samples and others, we are in a much better position to make the right call when the forensics case shows up," said Ubelaker, who is a consultant on such cases.
A paper describing the research will appear in the journal Forensic Science International.
More stories on changing faces:
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).
Dr. James Porter, medical director of robotic surgery at Swedish folds a small paper airplane with the da Vinci surgical robot to demonstrate how this device gives surgeons greater surgical precision and dexterity over existing approaches.
Robots aren't yet taking over the world, but they are allowing doctors to perform operations with super-human precision — and fold and throw paper airplanes like kids in the waiting room.
James Porter, director of Robotic Surgery at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, explains that surgeons control the da Vinci robot from a console fitted with little finger controllers. The finger motions are transmitted via the robot to the patient. Magnified 3-D vision gives the surgeons a clear view of their patient.
The advantages of robot-assisted surgery include smaller incisions than are possible with the human hand. As well, the robot doesn't have any tremors — shaky hands — meaning the movements are more precise and fluid and thus less traumatic to tissues.
According to the hospital, the benefits of robot-assisted surgery include less post-operative pain, a shorter hospital stay, less blood loss, faster recovery time and quicker return to normal daily activities.
The technology is used to perform minimally-invasive urological, gynecological and thoracic surgeries for diseases such as prostate cancer, kidney cancer, uterine cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer, and to assist in complex gynecologic reconstruction surgeries.
More stories on robotic surgery:
Endeavour's crew takes a break during Friday's launch rehearsal at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From left are commander Mark Kelly, pilot Greg Johnson, Michael Fincke, Andrew Feustel, Roberto Vittori and Greg Chamitoff.
Last updated 10:30 a.m. ET April 4:
NASA says the shuttle Endeavour's last scheduled launch will have to be postponed another 10 days to avoid a traffic jam in orbit.
Endeavour's April 19 liftoff will be put off until April 29 at the earliest because the Russians aren't willing to slow down the voyage of a robotic Progress cargo ship to the International Space Station. If both missions had proceeded as planned, the Progress would have shown up while Endeavour was still attached to the space station, which is an operational no-no.
For what it's worth, the delay means that Endeavour is currently due to blast off on the same day as Prince William's royal wedding to Kate Middleton at London's Westminster Abbey. (Sorry, your highness, I'll be attending the launch instead.)
NASA had hoped to persuade the Russians to put their Progress into a "parking orbit" for a few days after its April 27 launch. That would have given Endeavour time to finish its business and fly away from the space station before the cargo ship's automated docking. But the Russians held firm to their timetable for the Progress' arrival, forcing NASA to postpone Endeavour's launch.
Last month, NASASpaceflight.com's Chris Bergin noted that NASA and the Russians were in negotiations over the timing of the two missions. One of the sticking points: The Progress' cargo includes a time-sensitive biological experiment that has to be put in the space station's freezer within days of launch.
At the time, Bergin said it was "unlikely" that NASA would change Endeavour's launch date, but that's precisely what happened. The new launch time is 3:47 p.m. ET on April 29.
Endeavour's STS-134 mission is notable for at least three reasons: First, it would be Endeavour's final flight before it is retired and donated to a museum. Second, the shuttle is due to deliver a $2 billion international physics experiment known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. And third, the mission's commander, Mark Kelly, is the husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who suffered a grave head injury in a shooting three months ago but now seems likely to attend the launch, whenever it is.
Endeavour and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer were originally due to go up into orbit last November as the final space shuttle mission, but NASA shuffled the launch schedule to give engineers more time to retrofit the physics experiment for extra years of service. Further slips pushed the STS-134 launch from February to April.
Last week, Kelly and his crewmates visited NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a launch rehearsal, just in time to see their spaceship pummeled by severe weather. NASA said Endeavour's external fuel tank suffered only "minor foam damage," and the shuttle orbiter itself was not affected. So the storm played no part in NASA's decision to delay the launch.
One more shuttle flight is scheduled after Endeavour's outing. Atlantis is due to take on the 30-year-old shuttle program's last mission in late June. NASA managers reportedly would prefer to delay that station resupply flight for a couple of months — but stretching out the shuttle program any further would require extra money, and it's not clear whether that funding could be made available.
Tip o' the Log to NBC News' Jay Barbree and NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
Science / AAAS
A photomicrograph shows a strain of bacteria called GFAJ-1 that was said to incorporate arsenic into its cellular machinery.
Last updated 2:15 p.m. April 2:
Is there life beyond Earth? Over the past few months, scientists have repeatedly suggested that there could be — but the science behind those suggestions remains frustratingly murky and controversial.
Astrobiology's X-Files were the subject of a talk I gave on Saturday in the Second Life virtual world, at the invitation of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. Here's the vidcast of the talk — which gives you a taste of how Second Life works as well as how the search for extraterrestrial life works.
This talk came exactly four months after researchers shook up the scientific world with claims that they were able to get the cellular machinery of microbes from California's Mono Lake working with arsenic instead of phosphorus. That's an amazing result, because arsenic is supposed to be poisonous to living things. If organisms on Earth could be tweaked in such a dramatic way, perhaps life could arise in other environments that don't seem conducive to life as we know it ... the Saturnian moon Titan, for example.
The implication of the research, published in the journal Science, would be that we might be missing strains of "weird life" that just might exist under our noses. (Perhaps literally under our noses, as a "second Genesis" that has gone undetected.)
The study ran into a lot of skepticism from the start. Some microbiologists and chemists have faulted the research team's laboratory techniques, or the conclusions that the team drew from their data. In response, the research team insisted their science was sound — but also encouraged their detractors to run their own experiments and report the results. Science pledged to publish a follow-up.
That follow-up is still in the works, but commentaries on the "arsenic life" are showing up in peer-reviewed journals such as BioEssays and FEMS Microbiology Letters. These papers have sparked a secondary controversy: Does scientific criticism really count if it's just on the Internet?
The BioEssays paper sees no "fatal flaw" in the original paper, and the paper's authors contend that Internet-only discussions "are not components of the peer-reviewed literature and thus are not placed on record as part of the official scientific discourse." The Microbiology Letters commentary complains about "the magic and nonsense that floods cyberspace."
As you can imagine, that's sparked a lot of counter-criticism from the folks who have been using the blogosphere and Twittersphere as a sounding board for their own review of the research. To get that side of the story, check out the postings from Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia, Zen Faulkes from the University of Texas-Pan American and Michael Eisen from the University of California at Berkeley (who attended an informal seminar given by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the lead author of the arsenic-life study).
R. Hoover / Journal of Cosmology
A field-emission scanning electron micrograph shows one of the filaments that was found in the Ivuna CI1 carbonaceous meteorite. The filament looks similar to those seen in earthly cyanobacteria.
Less than a month ago, NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover published a paper in the online-only Journal of Cosmology, suggesting that a number of meteorites contained microbes that could have come from outer space. Once again, the study created a splash, in large part because of the NASA connection. There was quite a furor over whether or not Hoover was misinterpreting what he was seeing, and some critics pointed out that the research had been submitted to (and rejected by) other, better-known journals before it wound up in the Journal of Cosmology.
The story went big on a Saturday, but by the following Monday, executives at NASA disavowed the research, and the debate quickly died down. The Journal of Cosmology's editors said they were selling off the publication. Hoover, who has had a long and distinguished career as a researcher at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, faced sharp questions about his academic credentials.
Today, Hoover came in for an added dose of indignity: The James Randi Educational Foundation named him one of the year's "five worst promoters of nonsense," alongside anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield, televangelist Peter Popoff, TV doctor Mehmet Oz and the CVS pharmacy chain (for offering homeopathic remedies). The last thing Hoover needs right now is a "Scientist Pigasus Award" from the Amazing Randi.
NASA / LPI
Some scientists have suggested that tiny wormlike structures seen within the Mars meteorite known as ALH84001 may be "nanofossils" of biological origin.
Life on Mars
You could argue that the sharp debate over the prospects of detecting microbial life from beyond Earth began 15 years ago, with Science's 1996 publication of research about "nanofossils" found in a meteorite from Mars. Some might go two decades further back, to the much-debated life-detection experiments that went to Mars aboard the Viking landers.
Even after 15 years, the microfossil debate is still percolating. The researchers behind the original study have been setting out other lines of evidence to argue that they're seeing the fossilized traces of ancient organisms rather than modern-day contamination from Earth, or geological shapes that just happen to look like critters.
Other studies, conducted as part of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, have shown the presence of perchlorate, a chemical that could be associated with particular kinds of exotic life on Earth. Those findings have revived discussions over what Viking found (or failed to find).
Although the debate over past life-on-Mars experiments is continuing, most astrobiologists say it's going to take additional studies on the Red Planet to resolve the controversy. That's the goal of an experiment being proposed by MIT and Harvard researchers, known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genome, or SETG. Right now the researchers are facing one big challenge: They don't yet have a spot on a future Mars probe.
Even if SETG's genome sequencer went to Mars and detected a snippet of DNA or RNA, would that serve as sufficient evidence that life arose on other planets? Or would such a claim end up in the same limbo that surrounds earlier claims for alien life. I suspect that the latter would be the case — but what do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below, and check out Saturday's hourlong presentation.
More controversies in astrobiology:
Check out the "Virtually Speaking Science" podcast from our March 27 show. Co-host Robin Snelson and I chatted with Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski about his efforts to put virtual worlds to work in the service of science. The hourlong show followed up on our Cosmic Log discussion about the scientific applications of Second Life. I'm returning the favor by giving a talk at Djorgovski's Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA
NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer captured this picture of the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming cloud.
The latest picture from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer serves up a grab bag of colorful goodies, including a ruby-red reflection nebula, a twinkling of hot pink baby stars and some real old-timers in deep blue.
All those objects are visible in this view of Rho Ophiuchi (also known as Rho Oph or "Row Off"), a star-forming cloud complex that straddles the constellations Scorpio and Ophiuchus 407 light-years from Earth. It's a popular target for astronomers; in fact, another NASA infrared observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, focused on the same region three years ago.
The different colors represent different wavelengths in the infrared part of the spectrum. The shades of blue and blue-green stand for light emitted directly from stars (3.4 and 4.6 microns), while green and red are used for wavelengths that are mostly emitted by heated dust (12 and 22 microns).
With that in mind, this is what we're looking at:
There's more to come from WISE in the weeks and months ahead, even though the spacecraft went into hibernation in February. The $320 million mission's first public data release is scheduled to take place around the middle of this month. Some have speculated that WISE's data could provide evidence for the existence of a large object on the outskirts of the solar system dubbed "Tyche." But NASA says the data from the first release probably won't be enough to confirm (or rule out) Tyche's existence. In any case, WISE's team members are on the watch for what's likely to be asteroid discoveries galore.
Speaking of asteroids, NASA's Dawn mission is closing in on the asteroid Vesta for an encounter in August. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is already planning for the "Vesta Fiesta," and delving into the question of whether it should be considered an asteroid or a protoplanet. (Why can't it be both? Vesta's big sister, Ceres, is a dwarf planet as well as an asteroid in my book. And when I say "my book," I mean that literally.)
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / PSI
This stereo view, released March 10, represents scientists' best guess for the shape of the protoplanet Vesta.
To whet the appetite for the Vesta Fiesta, NASA recently released a fresh video clip about the mission, plus this tasty 3-D picture of the protoplanet. Put on your red-blue glasses to see the stereoscopic effect. Don't have glasses? I'm sending more than two dozen sets of specs to folks who registered their request on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. (If you missed out this time, check back at the end of the month for the next giveaway.)
If you're looking for an even bigger smorgasbord, take a look at the cosmic buffet we've spread out in our latest installment of Month in Space Pictures. Click on these links for bigger versions of the pictures and further background:
The Virgin Group declares that its founder, Richard Branson, has bought Pluto and is reinstating it as a planet.
Which of these headlines from today are April Fools' jokes? British billionaire buys Pluto, reinstates it as planet ... Quest to find Northwest Passage stymied by imaginary mountains ... One Mercury probe rediscovers another ... Spaceship guru hangs it up, is moving to lake resort ... Arsenic life found in sea monkeys ...
Tales of discovery are tailor-made for scientific foolery, because scientific advances and exploration almost always take place outside the sphere of everyday life.
You can't instantly verify whether gorillas at the Port Lympne Zoo are being issued iPads — but who knows what weird behavior primatologists might be studying? So if The Sun has a big spread about the "Planet of the Apps," there's just enough plausibility to keep you going. (And in fact, zoo is already famous for honest-to-goodness shots of a gorilla that walks like a man, a phenomenon that's the subject of serious study.)
Without further ado, here's a roundup of today's scientific foolery and non-foolery:
Richard Branson buys Pluto, reinstates it as a planet: After setting up what's likely to be the first private-sector space tourism venture, this is a natural for the British billionaire. Here's what Virgin says in its announcement: "As a firm supporter of small businesses, Sir Richard is hoping to hoping to set an example for struggling entrepreneurs facing setbacks by having Pluto reinstated as an official planet, after its declassification by the International Astronomical Union in 1996 [actually, it was 2006]. Already at the forefront of space travel with Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard is having a special deep space vehicle built that will help bulk up Pluto to its required planetary mass." Virgin says the mission is due for launch on April 1, 2012.
The Messenger mission team distributed this April 1 photo of the ancient Mariner 10 probe at Mercury.
Encounter with the ancient Mariner: The team behind NASA's Messenger mission to Mercury released this photo of NASA's Mariner 10 probe, which flew past the planet in 1974 and 1975 but then faded into oblivion ... or did it? Navigation team members speculated that solar neutrinos or outgassing may have caused changes in the ancient Mariner's trajectory. One engineer described the sight as follows: "A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!"
Unicorn at Tower of London? It's raven mad: Britain's Metro reports on mysterious remains discovered by archaeologists.
First-ever poker tournament in space: CardsChat says it's working with Virgin Galactic to get "poker gladiators" onto the International Space Station for a $10 million duel. Next up: Lunar Poker Tour 2012. (True story: Virgin was working on an online game with a space ride as the ultimate payoff, but that project fizzled out.)
Herschel to be refilled with helium: The team behind the Europe's Herschel Space Observatory suggest that the probe could be brought in for docking at the International Space Station for a mission-extending coolant fill-up.
Animal Planet announces TV deal with Bronx Zoo cobra: The latest celebrity gets its own reality-TV show, according to USA Today.
Physicists arrested after supercollider break-in: They really did take a peek at the abandoned Superconducting Super-Collider site in Texas, but Physics Buzz kicks it up a notch with an April 1 arrest report.
ThinkGeek features Arsenic-Based Sea Monkeys as one of its April 1 featured items.
Arsenic-based Sea Monkeys for sale: This offering from ThinkGeek capitalizes on findings claiming that microbes from a California lake could be switched from using phosphorus to using arsenic. ThinkGeek has a whole lineup of April 1 products, including "Star Wars" lightsaber popsicles and De-3D glasses. (Those might help when you're checking out the XK3D online comic.)
In a surprise find, it's Hugs, not Higgs: CERN reports that a 16-year-old student has found the elusive but charming Hugs boson.
Imaginary mountains thwart expedition: Britain's Royal Society has put a series of historical manuscripts online as part of its "Turning the Pages" project — including Edward Sabine's account of an 1818 voyage in search of a Northwest Passage through the waters of the Canadian Arctic. The expedition's commander, John Ross, ordered the ships to turn back because the way was blocked by what he called "Croker's Mountains" — a mountain range that turns out not to have existed. Why did Ross think they were there? Who knows?
Spaceship guru retires, will leave Mojave: The Los Angeles Times reports that Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan, designer of the first private-sector craft to go into outer space (SpaceShipOne) as well as Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship (SpaceShipTwo), is retiring after today and will move from Mojave, Calif., to the resort area of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The story makes it sound as if Rutan, who has been dealing with health problems, will have to pass up the opportunity to fly into space.
COOL EXTRAS ... NO FOOLING:
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto." And if you're listening, Sir Richard ... sign me up for that Pluto-plumping mission.