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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

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

Immune System Trained to Kill Cancer

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A year ago, when chemotherapy stopped working against his leukemia, William Ludwig signed up to be the first patient treated in a bold experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Ludwig, then 65, a retired corrections officer from Bridgeton, N.J., felt his life draining away and thought he had nothing to lose.

Doctors removed a billion of his T-cells — a type of white blood cell that fights viruses andtumors — and gave them new genes that would program the cells to attack his cancer. Then the altered cells were dripped back into Mr. Ludwig’s veins.

At first, nothing happened. But after 10 days, hell broke loose in his hospital room. He began shaking with chills. His temperature shot up. Hisblood pressure shot down. He became so ill that doctors moved him into intensive care and warned that he might die. His family gathered at the hospital, fearing the worst.

A few weeks later, the fevers were gone. And so was the leukemia.

There was no trace of it anywhere — no leukemic cells in his blood or bone marrow, no more bulging lymph nodes on his CT scan. His doctors calculated that the treatment had killed off two pounds of cancer cells.

A year later, Mr. Ludwig is still in complete remission. Before, there were days when he could barely get out of bed; now, he plays golf and does yard work.

“I have my life back,” he said.

Mr. Ludwig’s doctors have not claimed that he is cured — it is too soon to tell — nor have they declared victory over leukemia on the basis of this experiment, which involved only three patients. The research, they say, has far to go; the treatment is still experimental, not available outside of studies.

But scientists say the treatment that helped Mr. Ludwig, described recently in The New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine, may signify a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer. And not just for leukemia patients: other cancers may also be vulnerable to this novel approach — which employs a disabled form of H.I.V.-1, the virus that causes AIDS, to carry cancer-fighting genes into the patients’ T-cells. In essence, the team is using gene therapy to accomplish something that researchers have hoped to do for decades: train a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.

Two other patients have undergone the experimental treatment. One had a partial remission: his disease lessened but did not go away completely. Another had a complete remission. All three had had advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia and had run out of chemotherapy options. Usually, the only hope for a remission in such cases is a bone-marrow transplant, but these patients were not candidates for it.

Dr. Carl June, who led the research and directs translational medicine in the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the results stunned even him and his colleagues, Dr. David L. Porter, Bruce Levine and Michael Kalos. They had hoped to see some benefit but had not dared dream of complete, prolonged remissions. Indeed, when Mr. Ludwig began running fevers, the doctors did not realize at first that it was a sign that his T-cells were engaged in a furious battle with his cancer.

Other experts in the field said the results were a major advance.

“It’s great work,” said Dr. Walter J. Urba of the Providence Cancer Center and Earle A. Chiles Research Institute in Portland, Ore. He called the patients’ recoveries remarkable, exciting and significant. “I feel very positive about this new technology. Conceptually, it’s very, very big.”

Dr. Urba said he thought the approach would ultimately be used against other types of cancer as well as leukemia and lymphoma. But he cautioned, “For patients today, we’re not there yet.” And he added the usual scientific caveat: To be considered valid, the results must be repeated in more patients, and by other research teams.

Dr. June called the techniques “a harvest of the information from the molecular biology revolution over the past two decades.”

Hitting a Genetic Jackpot

To make T-cells search out and destroy cancer, researchers must equip them to do several tasks: recognize the cancer, attack it, multiply, and live on inside the patient. A number of research groups have been trying to do this, but the T-cells they engineered could not accomplish all the tasks. As a result, the cells’ ability to fight tumors has generally been temporary.

The University of Pennsylvania team seems to have hit all the targets at once. Inside the patients, the T-cells modified by the researchers multiplied to 1,000 to 10,000 times the number infused, wiped out the cancer and then gradually diminished, leaving a population of “memory” cells that can quickly proliferate again if needed.

The researchers said they were not sure which parts of their strategy made it work — special cell-culturing techniques, the use of H.I.V.-1 to carry new genes into the T-cells, or the particular pieces of DNA that they selected to reprogram the T-cells.

The concept of doctoring T-cells genetically was first developed in the 1980s by Dr. Zelig Eshhar at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. It involves adding gene sequences from different sources to enable the T-cells to produce what researchers call chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs — protein complexes that transform the cells into, in Dr. June’s words, “serial killers.”

 

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Nasa satellite UARS nearing Earth ‘could land anywhere’

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Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite

A five ton, 20-year-old satellite has fallen out of orbit and is expected to crash somewhere on Earth on or around 24 September, according to Nasa.

Nasa says the risk to life from the UARS – Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite – is just 1 in 3,200.

It could land anywhere between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator – most of the populated world.

However, most of the satellite will break or burn up before reaching Earth.

Scientists have identified 26 separate pieces that could survive the fall through the earth’s atmosphere, and debris could rain across an area 400-500km (250-310 miles) wide.

Nasa said scientists would only be able to make more accurate predictions about where the satellite might land two hours before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Falling space debris

Rocket propellant tank (Nasa)
  • Hardware re-enters at shallow angles (<1 degree)
  • Some 50 items weighing >1 tonne re-enter a year
  • Major break-up occurs about 80km altitude
  • 10-40% of dry mass on orbit will survive
  • Debris spreads over long, thin “footprints”
  • It can be a hazard to people and property

Re-entry

The 1 in 3,200 risk to public safety is higher than the 1 in 10,000 limit that Nasa aims for.

However, Nasa told reporters that nobody had ever been hurt by objects re-entering from space.

Members of the public are not allowed to keep pieces of the satellite that may fall to Earth, or sell them on eBay, as they remain the property of the US government.

The UARS was launched in 1991 by the Discovery space shuttle, and was decommissioned in 2005.

The latest satellite re-entry is much smaller than Skylab, a satellite that re-entered the earth’s atmosphere in 1979.

It was some 15 times heavier than the UARS, and when it crashed in Western Australia the US government had to pay clean-up costs to the Australian government.

Sputnik 2 crashed on Earth in 1958, travelling from over New York to the Amazon in 10 minutes. It was viewed by many people and left a trail of brightly coloured sparks behind it.

Via BBC

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 2:48 am

‘Super-Earth’ Found in Habitable Zone

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The Milky Way abounds with low-mass planets, including small, rocky ones such as Earth. That’s the main conclusion of a team of European astronomers, based on their latest haul of extrasolar planets. The new discoveries—55 new planets, including 19 “super-Earths”—were presented here today at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference by team leader Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “We find that 40% of all Sun-like stars are accompanied by at least one planet smaller than Saturn,” he says. The number of Earth-like planets is expected to be even higher.

The new planets were found with HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), an extremely sensitive instrument used to analyze starlight, mounted on the 3.6-meter telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at Cerro La Silla in northern Chile. HARPS detects the minute periodic wobbles of stars, caused by the gravity of orbiting planets. So far, HARPS has discovered 155 exoplanets, including two-thirds of all planets less massive than Neptune.

Of the 19 newly found super-Earths (exoplanets between a few and 10 times the mass of Earth), the most intriguing is HD 85512b, which weighs in at only 3.6 Earth masses. Its orbit lies in the habitable zone of its parent star, which means temperatures are just right for liquid water to exist on its surface, says Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “We’re entering an incredibly exciting period in history.”

Meanwhile, scientists disagree about which technique offers the best chances of finding the first true “Earth analog”—an Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of its Sun-like star. (H85512b is too massive, and it’s star is too cool.) Mayor says HARPS might find this Holy Grail of exoplanet research within 5 years or so, after new upgrades to increase the instrument’s sensitivity. But planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, disagrees. NASA’s Kepler space telescope is “by far the best,” he says. “We will find them if they’re there, probably within the next 2 or 3 years.”

At the meeting, Kepler co-investigator Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center announced that the number of exoplanet candidates from the Kepler mission has increased by some 50% since last February, to 1781. Most are less than three times the size of the Earth. Kepler, launched in March 2009, finds planets by measuring the slight periodic dimming of their parent stars, when they happen to pass between the star and Earth.

No matter who finds the first Earth analog, the HARPS planets offer better prospects for detailed follow-up observations, Mayor says, because HARPS focuses on relatively nearby stars, while almost all Kepler stars are much farther away. For instance, ESO astronomer Markus Kissler-Patig predicts that the future 39.2-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) should be able to directly image HD 85512b. Analyzing the starlight it reflects will provide important information about the planet’s atmospheric composition. “The E-ELT will be able to probe for biomarkers,” Kissler-Patig says, referring to chemicals thought to indicate the presence of life.

While ESO is planning more-sensitive planet-hunting instruments for its existing Very Large Telescope and for the future E-ELT, Kepler is facing an uncertain future. “Kepler’s goal of finding true Earth analogs can only be reached by extending the mission duration” past its planned operational lifetime of 3.5 years, Batalha says. In February 2012, NASA will decide on a possible mission extension. Marcy is optimistic. Kepler is so incredibly successful, he says, that it seems unlikely NASA will terminate the mission next year. “I’m sure NASA is wiser than that.”

 

Via ScienceNow

U.S. military drones that are so small they even look like insects

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They look like children’s toys that are left discarded in wardrobes around the world.

But these innocent-looking devices are actually some of the most sophisticated drones on the planet.

The U.S. Air Force is developing the miniature spy craft with the goal of making them so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military's goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military’s goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Some even have moving wings that military chiefs hope will look so convincing that people won’t pay them any attention.

The Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are being developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The base’s Air Force Research Laboratory mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

The engineers, led by Dr Gregory Parker, are using a variety of small helicopters and drones in the lab to develop the programs and software.

Testing takes place in a controlled indoor environment, during which data is gathered to analyse for further development.

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

You'll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone

You’ll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone.

The trials are the latest research into tiny drones funded by the U.S. military.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent years developing a whole host of cyborg critters, in the hopes of creating the ultimate ‘fly on the wall’.

Two years ago, researchers revealed that they had created cyborg beetles that can be guided wirelessly via a laptop.

Using implants, they worked out how to control a beetle’s take-off, flight and landing by stimulating the brain to work the wings.

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment.

They controlled turns through stimulating the basilar muscles on one side or the other to make the wings on that side flap harder.

The embedded system uses nerve and muscle stimulators, a microbattery and a microcontroller with transceiver.

They were implanted in the beetles when they were at the pupal stage.

Three types of large beetles from Cameroon were used in the experiments at the University of California in Berkeley. The smallest was 2cm long, while the largest was 20cm.

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab.

Via DailyMail

Southern lights are sweeter in space

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NASA

The greenish glow of an auroral display sweeps around Earth’s south polar region in this photo, captured from a vantage point on the International Space Station. The shuttle Atlantis and its robotic arm, as well as one of the station’s solar arrays, loom up in the foreground.

The pilot for NASA’s last space shuttle flight, Doug Hurley, says one of the highlights of Atlantis’ trip to the International Space Station was seeing an “incredible” display of southern lights — and after seeing these pictures, I’d have to agree with him.

This photo from the space station shows the greenish auroral glow sweeping around the south pole, following the edge of the atmosphere. Atlantis is in the foreground with its robotic arm extended into the center of the frame, and one of the station’s gold-colored solar arrays juts in the right edge. You can even see the stars hanging in the night sky.

Another picture provides a more detailed view of the shimmering lights, with Atlantis’ inspection boom poking through the frame.

NASA

Thursday night’s southern lights shimmer in a picture taken from the International Space Station, with Atlantis’ inspection boom angling through the picture.

The southern lights, like the northern lights, are sparked when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field. For more amazing views of Atlantis’ auroras, check out NASA’s photo gallery for the shuttle mission, as well as Space.com’s report about the pictures.

 

– Alan Boyle.

SpaceX chief sets his sights on Mars

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stands alongside rocket models at the National Press Club as he announces plans to build the Falcon Heavy rocket. Observers say the heavy-lift launch system could send an 11-ton payload to Mars.

Don’t expect to hear any nostalgia about the soon-to-end space shuttle era from Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of Space Exploration Technologies. Musk isn’t prone to look to the past, but rather to the future — to a “new era of spaceflight” that eventually leads to Mars.

SpaceX may be on the Red Planet sooner than you think: When I talked with him in advance of the shuttle Atlantis’ last liftoff, the 40-year-old engineer-entrepreneur told me the company’s Dragon capsule could take on a robotic mission to Mars as early as 2016. And he’s already said it’d be theoretically possible to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years —  bettering NASA’s target timeframe of the mid-2030s.

You can’t always take Musk’s timelines at face value. This is rocket science, after all, and Musk himself acknowledges that his company’s projects don’t always finish on time. But if he commits himself to a task, he tends to see it through. “It may take more time than I expected, but I’ll always come through,” he told me a year ago.

Since that interview, a lot of things have come through for SpaceX. The company has conducted successful tests of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Before the end of the year, another test flight is expected to send a Dragon craft all the way to the space station for the first time. If that test is successful, SpaceX can start launching cargo to the International Space Station under the terms of a $1.6 billion NASA contract.

The company is also in line to receive $75 million more from NASA to start turning the Dragon into a crew-worthy space taxi for astronauts by 2015 or so. And just today, the company broke ground on a California launch pad that could be used by the next-generation Falcon Heavy rocket starting in 2013.

Once the Dragon and the Falcon Heavy are in service, the main pieces would be in place for a Mars mission, Musk said.

“One of the ideas we’re talking to NASA about is … using Dragon as a science delivery platform for Mars and a few other locations,” he told me. “This would be possibly be several tons of payload — actually, a single Dragon mission could land with more payload than has been delivered to Mars cumulatively in history.”

SpaceX is working with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California on an interplanetary mission concept that could theoretically be put into effect for a launch “five or six years from now,” Musk said.

By that time, astronauts will once again be riding on U.S.-made spaceships to the space station, including the Dragon — that is, if the current schedules hold true. But there’s a lot of doubt surrounding those schedules. As you’d expect, the end of the space shuttle program and the shape of spaceships to come were major themes in my conversation with Musk. Here’s an edited version of the Q&A on those subjects:

Cosmic Log: A lot of people are saying that when the space shuttle stops flying, that might be the end of the American space program. The idea is that commercial spaceflight providers are not going to be able to do the job, and there won’t be sustainable interest in building the beyond-Earth-orbit rocket that NASA has on the drawing board. What’s your response to the claim that this is really the end?

Elon Musk: It flies in the face of the facts. Six months ago, we had the second launch of the Falcon 9 and the first launch of the Dragon. The Dragon orbited Earth twice, it performed orbital maneuvers, it made a precision re-entry under the control of thrusters, and it landed within a mile of our target. We brought the Dragon back, and it was actually in good enough condition that we could fly it again if we wanted to.

So as far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything. 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.

The space shuttle was designed in the ’70s, and it really didn’t improve after almost 40 years. They’ve upgraded the electronics here and there, but that’s about it. That’s incredibly static when you consider how other fields of technology have improved.

Now, with the public-private partnership that NASA has established with SpaceX, and the efforts made by other companies, we’re actually going to see dramatic improvements in spaceflight technology for the first time since the ’60s. The Dragon is taking technology to a whole new level beyond the shuttle.

The shuttle is fairly constrained because it’s a winged vehicle with a landing gear. It can’t land anywhere except Earth, and even on Earth, it can land only on certain runways. It doesn’t have any ability to go beyond Earth orbit. But because the Dragon has a propulsion-based landing system and a much more capable heatshield than the shuttle’s, it can land anywhere in the solar system with a solid surface — as long as you can throw it there. The Falcon Heavy can throw it pretty much anywhere in the solar system.

Q: The Dragon certainly looks different from the shuttle, and some people might get the impression that it’s a step backward, back to the days of Apollo.

A: I’ve heard that. But I hope we can make it clear that this is actually a big step forward from the shuttle. It can do all sorts of things that the shuttle can’t do. People look at something like wings and say, yeah, that’s how a spaceship should look. But let’s say you had a boat, and you put wheels on it and drove it down the road. It’d look pretty silly, right? Well, why do you have wings in a vacuum?

Q: One of the issues that always comes up when discussing commercial involvement in NASA spaceflight is the safety issue. A lot of the critics of your program have focused on that concern as the sticking point. NASA certainly devotes a lot of attention to safety assurance, and some say that’s why it’s so expensive to put humans into space. Any attempt to cut corners on that would make the whole enterprise look questionable. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, first of all, I suspect that the people saying that wouldn’t have a problem flying on Southwest Airlines or driving a car or taking other types of transport that are not government-operated. The government does have a role in safety oversight, and anything we do for NASA goes through an extremely rigorous safety and liability examination. But I think what actually needs to happen is a dramatic improvement in safety. The current state of affairs with the shuttle is not acceptable at all. The shuttle’s accident rate is not OK. Who would get on an airplane if you had a 1.5 percent chance of dying?

Q: Do you see any sign that NASA has different standards for oversight of commercial operations and for the shuttle program? After all, there’s a whole army of engineers dealing with shuttle operations and processing.

A: I do think there are different standards. For us, the standards are higher. The shuttle, for example, has no escape system. We would not launch [astronauts on] our vehicle without an escape system, nor would NASA want us to. Also, with our vehicle, there’s far less to go wrong on any given flight. With the shuttle, if anything serious goes wrong with this extremely complex vehicle, it’s curtains. There’s no escape. If the shuttle’s level of reliability was acceptable, we could fly astronauts this year.

Q: Do you think NASA has the right vision for spaceflight? The idea is that space station resupply in low Earth orbit would be left to commercial ventures, freeing NASA up to develop the heavy-lift Space Launch System for exploration beyond Earth orbit. Some people have wondered whether the Space Launch System is really going to be necessary.

A: Personally, my view is that space transport overall should be much more of a private-public partnership, and that applies to heavy lift as well. The best use of NASA’s resources is to focus on the unique scientific instruments and payloads that are truly one-off items. That’s actually how it works right now for Earth-observing and space science missions. They launch the spacecraft primarily on United Launch Alliance rockets, a Delta or an Atlas. If it’s a probe to Mars, or to the asteroid belt, or it’s a weather satellite, it’ll go up on a United Launch Alliance rocket. Obviously, in the future, they’ll go up on our vehicles as well. I think that works pretty well, and I think it makes sense to extend that model to all sizes of rockets.

Q: So it sounds as if you see a role for SpaceX in exploration beyond Earth orbit. Do you see any scenario where a mission to the moon or Mars could be completely private-sector?

A: It’s not out of the question. I do think missions like that are ideally handled as public-private partnerships. There are questions about how you’d pay for the missions. But the absolute goal of SpaceX is to develop the technologies to make life multiplanetary, which means being able to transport huge volumes of people and cargo to Mars. So we’ll do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.

 

Via MSNBC

‘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