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Scientists plan $1.5bn laser strong enough ‘to tear the fabric of space

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A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

The major scientific project will follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and will answer questions about the universe.

The laser will be capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it will be similar to the light the earth receives from the sun but focused on a speck smaller than a pin prick.

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

Scientists say it will be so powerful they will be able to boil the very fabric of space and create a vacuum.

A vacuum fizzles with mysterious particles that come in and out of existence but the phenomenon happens so fast that no-one has ever actually been able to prove it.

It is hoped the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would allow scientists to prove the particles are real by pulling the vacuum fabric apart.

Scientists even believe it might help them to prove whether other dimensions actually exist.

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment.

Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire, said the laser would be the most powerful on earth.

‘At this kind of intensity we start to get into unexplored territory as it is an area of physics that we have never been before,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph.

The ELI ultra-high field laser, which will be completed by the end of the decade, will cost £1bn and the UK is among a number of European countries in the running to house it.

The European Commission has already authorised plans for three more lasers which will become prototypes for the ultra-high field laser.

Scientists hope the laser will also allow them to see how particles inside an atom behave and it is hoped it might be able to explain the mystery of why the universe contains more matter than previously detected by revealing what dark matter really is.

HOW IT WILL WORK

  • The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototype lasers.
  • It will produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production but in less than a trillionth a second.
  • The energy needed to power the laser will be stored up beforehand and then used to produce a beams several feet wide which will then be combined and eventually focused down onto a tiny spot.
  • The intensity of the beam is so powerful and will produce such extreme conditions, that do not even exist in the center of the sun.

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams - each more powerful than the prototypes

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototypes.

Via DailyMail

Pilotless Boeing aircraft raises prospect manned dogfights 65000ft

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The maiden flight of a revolutionary drone aircraft that can stay in the air for four days at 65,000 feet is just days away.

The Phantom Eye, made by Boeing’s secretive Phantom Works division, is powered by hydrogen and is designed to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance missions while remaining at high altitude. It will produce only water as a by-product.

Its inaugural flight will take place at Edwards Air Force Base in California and is expected to last between four and eight hours.

Phantom Eye: The technology behind it means pilotless dog-fights have come a step closer

Phantom Eye: The technology behind it means pilotless dog-fights have come a step closer

Boeing also is developing a larger unmanned plane that will stay aloft for more than 10 days and ‘Phantom Ray,’ a fighter-sized UAV that will be a test bed for more advanced technologies, which made its inaugural flight in April.

The drone technologies being developed by Phantom Works mean the day when dog fights take place between unmanned aircraft is getting much closer.

‘Phantom Eye is the first of its kind and could open up a whole new market in collecting data and communications,’ Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said.

‘It is a perfect example of turning an idea into a reality. It defines our rapid prototyping efforts and will demonstrate the art-of-the-possible when it comes to persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

‘The capabilities inherent in Phantom Eye’s design will offer game-changing opportunities for our military, civil and commercial customers.’

An artist's impression of the high-altitude spy plane

An artist’s impression of the high-altitude spy plane.

‘It’s exciting to be part of such a unique aircraft,’ said Drew Mallow, Phantom Eye program manager for Boeing.

‘The hydrogen propulsion system will be the key to Phantom Eye’s success. It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it’s also a “green” aircraft.’

Phantom Eye is powered by two 2.3-litre, four-cylinder engines that provide 150 horsepower each. It has a 150-foot wingspan, will cruise at approximately 150 knots and can carry up to a 450-pound payload.

 

Via DailyMail

The floating city that could become the future of life at sea

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  • Yacht island comes with 11 accommodation decks and four helipads
  • Designed to move on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep it stable

It looks like something straight out of a James Bond film – but a British firm believes this floating building could be the future of life at sea.

With 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads, its own dock, several swimming pools and as much space as a cruise liner, it’s not so much a boat as a city.

Although it certainly does not fit the mould of a yacht, the design, called ‘Project Utopia’, was unveiled to stunned onlookers at the glitzy Monaco Yacht Show.

Fantasy island: As this artist's impression shows, Project Utopia is more like a floating city than a boat

Fantasy island: As this artist’s impression shows, Project Utopia is more like a floating city than a boat.

Designer BMT Nigel Gee, of Southampton, Hants, has not yet put a figure on how much the floating island might cost to create or what sort of customer would want to buy it.

The boat is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole yacht island stable, even in the extreme seas.

Able to move ‘at slow speeds’, it stretches 65m above the sea’s surface, providing visitors to the 13th floor observation deck with panoramic views.

Just below, the top deck of the main accommodation and service spaces – which could house shops, bars and restaurants – would be covered by a retractable canopy.

Yacht Design Director James Roy believes it challenges preconceptions of traditional naval architecture.

All at sea: Project Utopia is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole island stable

All at sea: Project Utopia is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole island stable.

He said: ‘Visions of the future are often constrained by familiarity with the present or a reflection on the past.

‘Much is made in today’s design community of starting with a blank sheet of paper yet many, if not all yacht concepts revert back to the traditional form.

‘Because of the perception that a yacht should be a form of transport it becomes an immediate design constraint.

‘Utopia is not an object to travel in, it is a place to be, an island established for anyone who has the vision to create such a place.’

A design for life: A graphic showing the schematics of the yacht island, which comes with with 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads and several swimming pools

A design for life: A graphic showing the schematics of the yacht island, which comes with with 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads and several swimming pools.

In the middle, a large column plunges down into the water, acting as a mooring system and housing a wet dock providing access from the sea.

James said the design, which has been created in partnership with Yacht Island Design, represents how the firm, which works on yachts, commercial and naval craft, uses state-of-the-art technology to bring innovation to the industry.

From fiction to reality: Project Utopia looks remarkably like Stromberg's lair in Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me

From fiction to reality: Project Utopia looks remarkably like Stromberg’s lair in Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

He added: ‘Pioneering design ideas such as Utopia are exactly the types of projects that our team excel in.

‘Our forward-thinking approach and unrivalled state-of-the-art engineering experience allows us to work closely with designers, stylists and shipyards, and bring these ideas to life.’

 

Via DailyMail

‘Mind-reading device’ recreates what we see in our heads

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Mind reading could become a reality after scientists unveiled a device which translates what we are seeing in our heads onto a screen.

By monitoring the brain activity of people while they watched Hollywood movie trailers, researchers were able to recreate a moving picture similar to the real footage being played.

While the technology is not yet capable of reading our thoughts, it could eventually lead to ways of translating our dreams and memories onto screen.

If it is refined enough the method could even be used to explore the minds of stroke patients, experts said.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, used MRI scanners to monitor the blood flow in people’s brains as they watched films including Madagascar 2, Pink Panther 2 and Star Trek unfold on a screen.

After analysing how the brain’s visual centre responded to on-screen movements, the scientists created a computer program which could accurately guess what the person was looking at.

When the researchers watched a second set of clips, this time Hollywood film trailers, the programme was able to produce an approximate version of what they were watching.

It did this by scanning a library of random YouTube videos, pulling out the most similar clips to what it guessed the person was watching, and blending them together.

Because the program’s video library contains just 18 million seconds of footage – a relatively small amount – it is highly unlikely that any clip will be very similar to the real footage.

To combat this problem, the program averages together the 100 shots from the video library that it thinks are the best match.

The result is a blurry but continuous video in which the movements of the shapes on screen reflect the action in the genuine Hollywood trailer.

Prof Jack Gallant, one of the study’s authors, said: “We’re trying to reconstruct the movie that was seen by searching through a large library of completely different, random movies.

“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”

The averaging process makes the resulting video blurry, but the researchers said boosting the size of the programme’s video library could improve the quality of the reconstruction.

The study, published in the Current Biology journal, is believed to be the first experiment to successfully interpret brain signals as they respond to moving images.

The current technology can only process film clips that people have already viewed, but the breakthrough could lead to programmes which can reproduce dreams and memories because our natural visual experience is similar to watching a film.

We are still decades from a machine which can read people’s thoughts and intentions, but the technology could eventually be used to read the minds of stroke and coma patients, and to allow cerebral palsy or paralysis sufferers to guide computers with their minds, researchers said.

 

Watch video here

 

Via Telegraph

Written by Nokgiir

September 26, 2011 at 2:04 am

The mystery creature that nobody can identify

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If this cute little chap looks a wee bit confused, it’s no wonder.

His big wide eyes stare out at the world around him – which in turn is staring back at him.

Because nobody has seen a creature quite like this one before.

Who am I? The unidentifed animal sitting in his cage after being handed in to Wenling Zoo, in China

Who am I? The unidentifed animal sitting in his cage after being handed in to Wenling Zoo, in China.

With a nose that looks more like a rodent’s but long, pointy paws and white fur dappled with brown and orange, he is quite unique.

And zookeepers at Wenling, in eastern China, who were handed the animal by an anonymous man, have been unable to work out exactly what species he belongs to.

They think they are looking at some strange type of monkey – but other students of nature might recognise the characteristics of a bush baby.

As he sits in his cage, the creature therefore awaits an uncertain fate.

And the zookeepers sit and monitor his development and hopes he grows up into something slightly more recognisable.

Where did I come from? The rodent-like creature was handed in anonymously

Where did I come from? The rodent-like creature was handed in anonymously.

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 26, 2011 at 1:47 am

Incredible time-lapse video from the International Space Station

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It took Phileas Fogg 80 days to circumnavigate the world but, thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now possible to do it in just a minute.

This whirlwind video tour of the planet is a compilation of time-lapse images shot from the International Space Station (ISS).

James Drake spliced together the images from the ISS, which travels at about 220 miles above the surface, to create the one-minute footage which he posted online – and it has become an internet sensation.

Science teacher Mr Drake used some 600 free-to-access images on the website The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, and knitted them together so everyone can enjoy the amazing view of North and South America.

The Earth is shown at night - and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere - a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere

The Earth is shown at night – and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere – a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere.

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video.

The film, which was uploaded on September 15 and has attracted almost 50,000 hits on YouTube, starts over the Pacific Ocean and then moves over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica.

Some cities and landmarks can be spied, and they include, in chronological order, Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, various large conurbations in Texas, New Mexico, Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Further around lightning can be seen in the Pacific Ocean, before other countries included in the video are Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon.

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth.

Some 600 images were used to make the one-minute video

In addition, the Earth’s ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy can be made out in the fascinating footage.

The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, where Mr Drake downloaded the pictures from, has been storing over a million images from space, beginning with the Mercury missions in the early 1960s.

The website’s blurb reads: ‘Our database tracks the locations, supporting data, and digital images for these photographs.

‘We process images coming down from the International Space Station on a daily basis and add them to the 1,118,120 views of the Earth already made accessible on our website.’

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts.

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew.

The ISS, a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit, follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and MIR space stations, as the 11th space station launched into orbit by humanity.

It serves as a research laboratory that has microgravity environment in which crews conduct experiments in many fields including biology, human biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology.

The station has a unique environment for the testing of the spacecraft systems that will be required for missions to the Moon and Mars.

The station is expected to remain in operation until at least 2020, and potentially to 2028, when some Russian modules will be separated to form the OPSEK space station.

And the European Space Agency estimate that the cost of the station will be €100 billion over 30 years.

On November 2 last year the ISS marked its 10th anniversary of continuous human occupation, and it was launched almost 11 years ago, on October 31, 2000.

At the time of the anniversary, the station’s odometer read more than 1.5 billion statute miles (the equivalent of eight round trips to the Sun), over the course of 57,361 orbits around the Earth.

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean.

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth's surface

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth’s surface.

The 29th expedition crew settled in to their new home for the next couple of months last week, with Mike Fossum commanding and being aided by Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov.

They will be up there, travelling about 17,000mph – meaning it takes about 91 minutes to orbit the Earth – until mid-November.

The Expedition 29 crew which will continue to support research into the effects of microgravity on the human body, biology, physics and materials.

The trio took over from Expedition 28 last week, and Commander Andrey Borisenko and Flight Engineers Alexander Samokutyaev and Ron Garan – who had spent 164 days in space – landed their Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft in Kazakhstan a few seconds before midnight on Friday.

The space station and its large solar arrays is the size equivalent of an American football field – including the end zones – and weighs 861,804 pounds (390,908 kilograms), not including visiting vehicles.

The complex now has more liveable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation.

ISS IN NUMBERS

1.5bn: The number of statute miles the ISS managed in a decade (November 2, 2010)

57,361: Orbits around the Earth managed in the same time period

136: Number of launches to the ISS – up to September 2011 – since the launch of the first module, Zarya on November 1998

161: Total number of space walks performed from the ISS – over 1,015 hours

861,804: Pounds it weighs (390,908 kilograms)

2.3m: Number of lines of computer code used

17,239.2: Average speed – in miles per hour

91 minutes: Time it takes to orbit the Earth

€100bn: The estimated cost of the station over a 30-year period, by ESA

 

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 3:29 am

Gene that lights up under green light could help find cure for HIV

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Glowing kittens with resistance to disease have been created by scientists searching for a cure for Aids.

The domestic cats had their DNA modified with a gene that fights off an HIV-like virus and a second one – from a fluorescent jellyfish – that makes their bodies shine green under ultraviolet light.

The purpose of the study was to show how a natural protein that prevents macaque monkeys developing Aids can do the same in cats.

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Way to glow: The eerie looking feline that has been genetically modified with DNA from a fluorescent jellyfish protein

Way to glow: The eerie looking feline that has been genetically modified with DNA from a fluorescent jellyfish protein

Hard to hide: The kitten's fur, claws and whiskers emit an eerie green glow

Hard to hide: The kitten’s fur, claws and whiskers emit an eerie green glow

The two genes are linked and the jellyfish gene is used to track the other one for the protein.

Shining a UV light on the cats produced an eerie green glow, confirming that the protein was being made in their tissues and that the technique had worked.

The genetically modified cats’ creators say the research will speed up the search for vaccines and treatments against HIV, the Aids virus that has claimed more than 30million lives around the world.

With HIV-like viruses also wreaking havoc among felines, from domestic moggies to big cats, the research could improve animal health.

In future, people could buy pets that are resistant to numerous diseases, removing the need for frequent and expensive trips to the vet for vaccination.

Novelty glow-in-the-dark breeds are also a possibility.

Test subject: Under normal lighting the cat's ability to glow remains a secret

Test subject: Under normal lighting the cat’s ability to glow remains a secret

But critics say the technique takes a high toll on animal welfare and that scientists should be reducing the number of animals they experiment on.

The researchers, from the respected Mayo Clinic in the U.S., used harmless viruses to transfer genes into eggs removed from pet cats during routine spaying.

One gene makes a fluorescent protein, the other produces a protein that fights off feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, the cat version of HIV. The eggs were then fertilised through IVF and implanted in surrogate mothers.

Sharp thinking: The cat's paws glow too. Scientists say that cats are the best subjects for this kind of research

Sharp thinking: The cat’s paws glow too. Scientists say that cats are the best subjects for this kind of research

Twenty-two attempts led to the birth of five kittens – three of which survived, the journal Nature Methods reports.

Two were healthy but one suffered medical problems, although the researchers do not believe they were linked to the genetic manipulation.

The anti-viral gene was also present and cells taken from the kittens were able to resist infection with FIV better than those from normal cats.

Two of the cats went on to have kittens of their own, all of which carried the new genes.

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 3:12 am

‘Lost’ rainbow toad rediscovered

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Conservationists report that the Sambas Stream toad, one of their top 10 “lost” amphibian species, has been rediscovered in Malaysian Borneo 87 years after it was last sighted.

The find was made by scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak who spent months looking for the toad in the remote Gunung Penrissen mountains of Western Sarawak, a natural boundary between Malaysia’s Sarawak State and Indonesia’s Kalimantan Barat Province on the island of Borneo. (Just writing those names makes me feel like Indiana Jones.)

Conservation International reports that the initial search was fruitless — so the expedition team, led by Indraneil Das, moved up to higher elevations and resumed the hunt. Eventually there came a night when one of Das’ graduate students, Pui Yong Min, spotted a small toad sitting 6 feet (2 meters) up a tree.

Das could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Indraneil Das

This picture of an adult female explains why it’s called a Bornean Rainbow Toad. The amphibian measures about 2 inches (51 millimeters) in size.

“Thrilling discoveries like this beautiful toad, and the critical importance of amphibians to healthy ecosystems, are what fuel us to keep searching for lost species,” Das said in a news release from Conservation International.  “They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering, which is why targeted protection and conservation is so important. Amphibians are indicators of environmental health, with direct implications for human health. Their benefits to people should not be underestimated.”

That’s the whole idea behind the “Search for Lost Frogs” campaign, which was launched a year ago by Conservation International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s SSC Amphibian Specialist Group. The groups drew up a “Ten Most Wanted” list in hopes of inspiring researchers to intensify the search for amphibians that have not been seen for decades.

The Sambas Stream toad is also known as the Bornean rainbow toad, with the scientific name Ansonia latidisca. The long-legged, multicolored toad was described by European explorers in the 1920s, and was last seen in 1924. Das’ team identified three individuals — an adult female, an adult male and a juvenile, ranging in size from roughly an inch to 2 inches (30 to 51 millimeters).

Each of the toads was found in a different mature tree, in a region of the Penrissen range that’s outside Sarawak’s system of protected areas. The precise location is being kept secret in hopes of keeping pet collectors from going after the rainbow toads.

The toads are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and Conservation International said they may be eligible for protection under Sarawak’s wildlife ordinances.

Conservation International’s Robin Moore, an expert on amphibians, said he was amazed to hear of the discovery.

“When I saw an email with the subject ‘Ansonia latidisca found’ pop into my in-box, I could barely believe my eyes,” he said in the CI announcement. “Attached was an image — proof in the form of the first-ever photograph of the colorful and gangly tree-dwelling toad. The species was transformed in my mind from a black-and-white illustration to a living, colorful creature.”

Moore said he considered it a privilege to be among the first to see the pictures of the toad.

“It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis,” he said. “Amphibians are at the forefront of this tragedy, so I hope that these unique species serve as flagships for conservation, inspiring pride and hope by Malaysians and people everywhere.”

The rainbow frog is the second of the “Ten Most Wanted” amphibians to be rediscovered. The first was the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad (Atelopus balios), a species native to Ecuador that is critically endangered.

Two down, eight to go … the search continues.

 

Via MSNBC

Is the space effort dying or evolving?

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Pessimists are bemoaning the end of U.S. human spaceflight, but optimists see the next few years as a transition to a new paradigm that will energize commercial ventures and get astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Nixon administration. Which way do you see it?

There seems to be plenty of gloom to go around as the space shuttle program nears its end. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and other commissions sizing up the space effort, had this to say via Twitter: “Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards through time.”

One of the astronauts on the first space shuttle flight in 1981, Bob Crippen, told me that he was disappointed that the shuttle program’s end would leave NASA “without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves.” And he questioned whether NASA had the right vision for future exploration. “I personally favored going to the moon,” he said.

The frustration flared up today during a House committee hearing with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness, or sole target. “We have waited for answers that have not come,” Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. “We have run out of patience. … I would like to point out today that the committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate.”

Bolden, a retired Marine general, took the hostile fire. “You have the right guy here to criticize,” he said. “I am the leader of America’s space program.”

He laid out the main points of the post-shuttle plan:

  • Rely on the Russians and other partners for resupply of the International Space Station, at least until U.S. companies can finish work on the space vehicles they’re developing with NASA’s backing. The first commercial cargo craft could be flying to the station by the end of this year, and U.S.-made “space taxis” could be taking on astronauts by 2015.
  • Continue work on the Orion crew vehicle, which should be capable of carrying four astronauts on more ambitious trips beyond Earth orbit. Orion had been canceled as part of the Constellation back-to-the-moon program, after $5 billion had been spent on the program, but it was essentially resurrected as NASA’s “multipurpose crew vehicle,” or MPCV.
  • Build a new Space Launch System, or SLS, which will be based on shuttle-era and Apollo-era rocket technology. The design for the SLS has not yet been announced, which is why members of Congress are so frustrated. Bolden said it could take until the end of summer or even longer to get the SLS plan through its financial review. Congress passed a law calling for the MPCV spaceship and the SLS rocket to be ready by 2016, but Bolden said the 2017-2020 time frame was more realistic.
  • NASA is aiming to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s. Other stopovers, ranging from the moon to gravitational balance points in outer space, may be added along the way.

“We are not abandoning human spaceflight,” Bolden said. “American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success.”

So there is an evolving plan for the future … just as there was an evolving plan for the space shuttle system in the early to mid-1970s when the Apollo program came to an end. Under the best-case scenario, that plan will lead to actual flights within four to six years, which is less time than it took between the last Saturn 5 and the first shuttle launch. But there are lots of questions surrounding the post-shuttle plan:

  • How much money will NASA get? A draft report from the House Appropriations Committee calls for trimming the space agency’s budget by roughly 10 percent. (For details, check Space Policy OnlineParabolic Arc and Space News.) NASA officials as well as commercial spaceship developers say that budget reductions will slow down the transition to post-shuttle spaceflight even more.
  • Will the commercial sector succeed? Right now, NASA is committed to paying the Russians $56 million for each seat on a station-bound Soyuz craft, and the price is due to go up in 2014. Commercial providers such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and the Boeing Co. say that they can beat that price, but that they need NASA’s money to help cover development costs. Shuttle program veterans say the commercial providers still have to prove that their craft will be safe and reliable.
  • Will the commercial space taxis for low Earth orbit and the Orion MPCV/SLS system for going beyond Earth orbit complement each other the way NASA hopes? Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ deputy manager for the Orion program, told me that the two-track system served as an insurance policy for the post-shuttle space effort. “There’s a little bit of competitive pressure,” he acknowledged. “If the commercial guys run into any problem or delay for any reason, then we could back them up. And similarly, if we don’t meet our milestones, the commercial guys could evolve into our niche.”

After 30 years of grand successes, tragic failures and unfulfilled promises, the era of the space shuttle is ending. We may not yet know exactly what kind of American spaceship will be the next to fly. And because of that, thousands of people will be laid off by NASA and its contractors in the weeks ahead. But we’re not witnessing the death of the American space program. At least that’s the way Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of SpaceX, sees it.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything,” he told me. “What we’re really facing is quite the opposite. I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past.”

Now why would he say that? Over the next few days, we’ll be presenting a series of Q&A interviews with Musk and other folks involved in shaping the post-shuttle era. What they’ve told me runs counter to the gloom-and-doom talk, but you might well have a different opinion. Feel free to weigh in with your comments.

 

Alan Boyle

Japan’s citizen scientists map radiation, DIY-style

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With the Japanese government only providing spotty information about the radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in the early days after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group of tech-minded citizen scientists set out to fill in the “black holes” in the knowledge base.

They did so by crafting their own Geiger counters and handing them out to volunteers in the disaster area to measure the fallout. Months later, they have assembled thousands of radiation readings plotted on maps that they hope will one day be an invaluable resource for researchers studying the impact of the meltdown at the crippled nuclear complex.

Volunteer Toshikatsu Watanabe, left, and Safecast’s Kalin Kozhuharov take radiation measurements in Koriyama, Japan.

The volunteer network of scientists, tech enthusiasts and residents of Japan collectively known as Safecast (an amalgam of “safety” and “broadcast”) sprang to life in the weeks after the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, cutting off power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and knocking out its backup generators. That shut down the plant’s cooling system, triggering meltdowns or partial meltdowns in three of the plant’s four reactors, followed by explosions that released radioactive substances into the air and allowed contaminated water to leak into the ocean.

“For the scientific community, this is a huge chance to further understand what this all means,” said Pieter Franken, co-founder of Safecast and a senior researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, which is collaborating on the project. “Chernobyl was 25 years ago and delivered lots of information. But we’re now in the Internet age, and we have a huge opportunity to do a much better job in measuring it and tracking it.”

Residents in the surrounding areas were understandably alarmed, but in the early days after the disaster, information from the government came in bits and pieces, and was difficult to find.

Franken and Sean Bonner, a Los Angeles-based technology buff involved in numerous online citizen-involved projects, saw an opportunity to use technology to augment the government’s reports and to make the information widely available.

The pair found Uncorked Studios, a Portland, Ore., website development firm, which wanted to map the radiation numbers from all sources “to try to get a better picture of things on a larger scale,” Bonner said.

‘Unknowns’
The initial effort resulted in a map that revealed the dearth of information available: “We realized that there were some massive holes and that the data that was being published was not that specific,” said Bonner. “There would be one reading for an entire city. But we wouldn’t know exactly where in the city that reading was taken.”

With so many “unknowns,” the group decided to buy as many Geiger counters as possible and distribute them to people in the map’s “black holes,” Bonner said. But that wasn’t feasible because the supply of the radiation-measuring devices was limited, he  said.

So Safecast turned to a source they knew well: Hackerspaces, a loose confederation of high-tech tinkerers around the globe.

The TokyoHackerSpace had already drafted a to-do list in the disaster’s aftermath that included radiation monitoring. But with Safecast’s encouragement, the group stepped up its efforts. Members soon figured out how to build basic Geiger counters with Geiger tubes (which measure radiation) purchased through an initial fundraising campaign and modified so they could be attached to vehicles and upload data to the Internet, Christopher Wang, a specialist in sensor networks also known by his hacker nickname of “Akiba,” wrote in an email to msnbc.com.

After meeting Safecast, the hackers decided the best use of the jury-rigged devices would be to drive around taking measurements, allowing one “Geiger counter to cover a huge amount of range,” Wang wrote.

“We put together a custom circuit board that would mount on the outside of a car and had GPS (for timestamp and location data), an input for the Geiger counter, an SD card slot (for data logging), and wireless communication (to send the data inside the car and let the driver know if they are in an area with high radiation),” he said.

Other hackerspaces around the world — such as CRASH space in Los Angeles — soon enlisted in the effort and before long Safecast had the resources to launch an ambitious measuring and mapping effort.

Components of the jury-rigged Geiger counters.

While signing up volunteers, Safecast also developed a training regimen so the recruits would be able to take reliable readings with the instruments and send the data to the group.

Having average citizens involved was crucial, Franken said.

“We want to bring the radiation levels to people’s doorstep, so people can see around their house what is happening,” he said.

Safecast took its first reading on April 16. Today, it has about 50 regular volunteers who collect data from their homes or while driving, build devices or assist in other ways. Those using vehicles equipped with Geiger counters cover an area that Franken estimates to be about 620 miles long by 185 miles wide. To date, they’ve collected 251,000 data points from their drives and fixed reporting stations, and have received about 60,000 more from other sources, including people with their own Geiger counters.

Safecast publishes the data on its website and publishes it to a number of other places so the information can be used by the greatest number of people, Bonner said. It also aggregates radiation data from a number of sources, including the Japanese government.

A Safecast map shows radiation readings from northeastern Japan.

The color-coded maps that Safecast has published don’t always agree with the government’s readings. But Franken said the effort isn’t intended to suggest that the government’s information is bad. The government currently has available a website with the readings of environmental radioactivity level by prefecture.

“We really don’t want to say that the government is wrong,” he said. “And, in fact, in many cases we find that the measurements are fairly much in sync where they are comparable — we have just much more data points and locations measured.”

For example, Safecast’s mapping has revealed some radiation hotspots far from the plant, while other areas closer to it show lower levels. This is due to local weather conditions and air flow, meaning distribution of radioactive materials is not just a matter of proximity, Franken said.

“It’s not so predictable and it really pays to go and map the whole area, and literally find areas that are higher or lower as we go,” he said, noting that in some cases radiation levels can vary by street and even within a home.

“It’s kind of a heavy task because it requires a certain amount of guts to go and do it,” he said of the volunteers, noting he had recently trained a woman and her 12-year-old son in Fukushima City how to measure radiation.

Anxiety
But knowing what the levels are has helped ease some of the anxiety over the radiation exposure, Franken said.

“The measurements may or may not affect people’s decisions but in many cases we see that it more or less gives a sense of confidence that this is what it is and, ‘yeah, I’m going to stay and this is probably going to be manageable,’ or ‘no, I really don’t want to take the risk for my family, I’m going to avoid this.’”

One of the volunteers helping in the effort is Brett Waterman, a 46-year-old Australian who runs an English-language after-school program for children nearly 30 miles from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. He has been surveying the radiation levels using a Geiger counter mounted on his car.

“There are many people who have decided that the lack of information implied that there was too much risk so they just decided to leave,” he said.

But through his work, he has learned that the radiation levels were low in the area.

“We can’t see it, but if we map it out, like we are doing street by street, we can sort of start to see it in a sense. We can get a picture of what this radiation stuff is,” he said.

His 13-year-old son is a “significant motivator” for him to take the readings. He noted that though residents don’t yet know what the long-term effects of the radiation will be, the information will be key in the future.

“In 10 years or 20 years’ time, you can’t go back to three months after the event and then find out what the data was like. But if we record it now, and then we continue to record it over the months and years to come, then from a scientific and a community point of view there is a database that can be referenced.”

Some researchers and government agencies welcome Safecast’s endeavor. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said the efforts were “necessary and helpful,” though he added two “cautionary notes.”

“The first is that the data are only useful, if it is clear (1) how the measurements were performed and (2) exactly where the measurements are performed,” he wrote in an email to msnbc.com. “In general, it is very easy to get erroneous measurements; consistency in following a specific protocol and lots of practice are necessary to do this right. … However, I will say that the data looks consistent since there are repeated measurements and they are spatially correlated. The second problem is that interpretation of the data is hard. Thus, the use of a color code is questionable.”

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment on the project.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was not in a position to comment on the initiative, but public affairs officer Scott Burnell noted in an email: “Speaking very generally, significant training and specialized equipment is required to provide the most accurate surveying and analysis of radioactive materials in the environment.”

Franken said Safecast encouraged dialogue with critics and supporters: “We feel that it is good to have an independent measurement available to people … I think just having more is probably better,” he said.

And Bonner said the initiative has the potential to eventually extend far beyond Japan.

“What all of this did sort of brought to light the fact that this data doesn’t exist in the quantities that it should and is not as readily available as would be helpful,” he said. “So while Japan is the focus at the moment, you know, longer term we sort of are shifting to a global outlook. There is a lot more ground to cover once everything in Japan is wrapped up.”

 

Via MSNBC/Miranda Leitsinger