Friday, July 31, 2009

Japan astronaut Wore Same Pants For 1 Month

Phew! The Shuttle has safely returned and Japanese astronaut wore the same pants all the time he was away.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata is returning to Earth wearing the same underpants he has worn for a month during his space station visit.

The pants are experimental and designed to be odour-free.

As crew on the shuttle Endeavour headed back to Earth, the Japanese astronaut broke the news to his colleagues about the underwear experiment.

He said: "I wore them for about a month, and my station crew members never complained for about a month, so I think the experiment went fine".

Lost Roman City Found: Ancient Venice

Shown here is part of the infra-red scan of a hidden city, rediscovered not far (7KM) from the calm waters of Venice.

Click on the picture above, and you will see an animated flyover, giving a bird's eye view of the city.

Aerial photos have given a detailed view of the ancient Roman city of Altinum, sometimes described as the ancestor to Venice, thanks to its complex network of canals and rivers.

The ancient foundations of the city have recently been rediscovered near Marco Polo Airport, north of Venice, during excavation work.

The ruins have been examined with a combination of visible and near-infrared photos of the area taken during a drought in 2007, which made many of their features much better defined and more visible.

The picture below is an artistic representation of some of the clearly defined features seen in the infra red imaging. It certainly appears to have been a bustling and prosperous city, which begs the question as to what became of it?

The full study is published in the journal Science but a synopsis can be read in Science Now magazine by
Clicking on the Picture below.

Young Children suffer Tamiflu side-effects

More than half of children taking Tamiflu suffer side-effects, research suggests
More than half of children taking Tamiflu suffer side-effects such as nausea, insomnia and nightmares, researchers have said.

Two studies from experts at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) showed a "high proportion" of British schoolchildren reporting problems after taking the anti-viral drug.

Data was gathered from children at three schools in London and one in the South West who were given Tamiflu earlier this year after classmates became infected.

The researchers behind one study said that, although children may have attributed symptoms that were due to other illnesses to the use of Tamiflu, "this is unlikely to account for all the symptoms experienced".

Their research, published in Eurosurveillance, looked at side-effects reported by 11 and 12-year-old pupils in one school year in a secondary school in South West England. The school was closed for 10 days in response to a pupil being confirmed with swine flu on return from a holiday in Cancun, Mexico.

A total of 248 pupils took part in the study and were given Tamiflu prophylactically. Compliance with prophylaxis was high, with 77% of children taking the full course, the researchers said. But they added: "Fifty-one per cent experienced symptoms such as feeling sick (31.2%), headaches (24.3%) and stomach ache (21.1%).

The researchers said "likely side-effects were common" and the "burden of side-effects needs to be considered" when deciding on giving Tamiflu to children prophylactically. The researchers concluded that a "high proportion of school children may experience side-effects of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) medication".

Memes: Replace Genes as Engine driving Human Evolution

The idea of memes as a cultural analogue of genes has been much maligned, and most biologists still reject it. Yet memetics has much to offer in explaining human nature.

According to meme theory, humans are radically different from all other species because we alone are meme machines.

Human intelligence is not just a bit more or a bit better than other kinds of intelligence, it is something completely different, based on a new evolutionary process and a new kind of information.

The main difference between conventional theories and memetics is this: most biologists assume that culture and language evolved because they helped humans survive and pass on their genes, and that genes retain ultimate control.

Memetics challenges that assumption. Although the capacity for imitation must once have been adaptive for the apes who started it, evolution has no foresight and could not have predicted the consequences of letting loose a new evolutionary process. Nor could it have retained control of memes once they began evolving in their own right.

So memes began to proliferate. What began as an adaptation soon became like a parasite - a new evolving entity that changed the apes and their world forever. Once memes were proliferating, individuals benefited from copying the latest and most successful ones, and then passed on any genes that helped them do so.

Memetic Drive
This "memetic drive" forced their brains to get bigger and bigger, and to become adept at copying the most successful memes, eventually leading to language, art, music, ritual and religion - the successful designs of human culture.

Jellyfish; The Spoons of the Sea

When to the new eyes of thee
All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
To each other linked are,
So that thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling a star...........

(Francis Thompson)

NEXT time you go for a dip in the sea, bear in mind that your deft front crawl is helping to mix up the waters. In fact, marine life may be stirring the oceans and moving nutrients around as much as winds or tides.

According to a theory proposed by Darwin's grandson, Charles Galton Darwin, a body moving through water drags some of the fluid with it.

Darwin's Drift

In "Darwin drift", a high-pressure zone forms at the front of each swimming animal, leaving an area of lower pressure behind, which draws in adjacent water. This results in a net movement of fluid in the direction of the swimmer.

Swarms of Jellyfish

To test the idea, Kakani Katija and John Dabiri at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena went to a lake in the Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean. Diving among swarms of jellyfish, the pair used suspended dyes and a newly designed laser velocimeter to measure the movement of water around the jellyfish. They found that the animals did indeed drag water with them as they swam (Nature, vol 460, p 624).

Mixing Energy

The researchers then estimated the total energy that all ocean swimmers impart on the water. They calculated that it was on a par with the mixing energy imparted by winds or tides. The findings suggest ocean swimmers can move water over long distances and that they could help run the vertical currents that push nutrients around between the sea floor and surface waters.

Red Super Giant Betelgeuse: Constellation Orion the Hunter

Credit: Andrea Dupree (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), Ronald Gilliland (STScI), NASA and ESA
This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that marks the shoulder of the winter constellation Orion the Hunter (diagram at right).

Laser Propulsion: Wild Idea May Finally Shine

New laser propulsion experiments are throwing light on how to build future hypersonic aircraft and beam spacecraft into Earth orbit.

Indeed, a "Lightcraft revolution" could replace today's commercial jet travel. Passengers would be whisked from one side of the planet to the other in less than an hour - just enough time to get those impenetrable bags of peanuts open.

Furthermore, beamed energy propulsion can make flight to orbit easy, instead of tenuous and dangerous.

That's the belief of Leik Myrabo an aerospace engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He's an expert in directed energy applications, aerospace systems, space prime power, and advanced propulsion.

For the past three decades, Myrabo's burning desire has been to create and demonstrate viable concepts for non-chemical propulsion of future flight vehicles through his research and company Lightcraft Technologies, Inc., of Bennington, Vt.

"Typically, a new propulsion technology takes 25 years to the point where you can actually field it. Well, that time is now," Myrabo told

Real hardware...real physics

Japan Astronaut craves Sushi on ISS

Credit: NASA
Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 19/20 flight engineer, is photographed in a sleeping bag attached to the racks in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station in this May 7, 2009 image.

Credit: NASA
A room with a view. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 19/20 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station (ISS) in May 2009.

Credit: NASA
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 20 flight engineer, holds chopsticks near two food containers floating freely in zero gravity inside the Unity node of the International Space Station (ISS).

Mysterious Spot found on Venus

A new, bright spot in the clouds of Venus was found by amateur astronomer Frank Melillo on 19 July (Illustration: Melillo/Maxson/ESA/University of Wisconsin-Madison/ALPO)

(Illustration: Melillo/Maxson/ESA/University of Wisconsin-Madison/ALPO)

A new, bright spot in the clouds of Venus was reported by amateur astronomer Frank Melillo on 19 July

Observations show that the spot had already spread out somewhat by the end of last week, and astronomers are awaiting more recent observations from Venus Express.

The spot is bright at ultraviolet wavelengths, which may argue against a meteoroid impact as a cause. That's because rocky bodies, with the exception of objects very rich in water ice, should cause an impact site to darken at ultraviolet wavelengths as it fills with debris that absorbs such light, says Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Venus Express team.

Powerful eruption?

Another possibility is that a gust of charged particles from the sun could have created the glow by energising a patch of the upper atmosphere. Alternatively, waves in the atmosphere, which trigger turbulence and are thought to carry material up and down, could have concentrated bright material to create the spot.

A volcanic eruption is another suspect. Venus boasts the most volcanoes of any planet in the solar system, and nearly 90% of its surface is covered by basaltic lava flows, although no 'smoking gun' has yet been found for current volcanic activity. But an eruption would have had to be very powerful to punch through a dense layer in Venus's atmosphere to create the spot some 65 to 70 kilometres above the planet's surface.

"It's fair to say something unusual happened on Venus. Unfortunately, we don't know what happened," Limaye

NASA plans manned Spaceflights to Venus

Astronauts could travel to an asteroid inside the Orion crew capsule that NASA is developing for moon missions, according to a previous NASA study (Illustration: NASA/JAXA)

Astronauts could travel to an asteroid inside the Orion crew capsule that NASA is developing for moon missions, according to a previous NASA study (Illustration: NASA/JAXA)

Venus Fly-by
A committee reviewing NASA's goals has outlined a scheme to send astronauts on progressively longer space trips – including dockings with asteroids and flybys of Venus – to prepare for an eventual landing on Mars.

The Moon by 2020

The White House set up the committee, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, to review NASA's plans for human spaceflight, which are currently focused on returning astronauts to the moon by 2020.

It is examining NASA's current plans and exploring alternative destinations and hardware that NASA could pursue.

The Flexible Path

Committee member Edward Crawley of MIT presented a short list of possible destinations for future human missions at a public meeting on Thursday in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He is the head of a subcommittee that is investigating options for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

One of the options the team proposed is called the "flexible path", which Crawley also described as a "deep space" or "in space" option.

It would see astronauts sent on a series of progressively longer missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The first would fly by the moon. Later missions would include rendezvousing with one or more of the many asteroids on orbits that take them close to Earth. Asteroid missions would take several months each.

Later, astronauts could fly by Mars and Venus, and touch down on Mars's 27-kilometre-wide moon Phobos. Each of these missions would take more than a year.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Severe Threat: Clampi Trojan revealed as financial-plundering botnet monster

A close look at the Clampi Trojan, an elusive piece of malware that uses encryption to help hide its nefarious data-stealing deeds, reveals it to be a botnet-controlled monster that can swipe a victim's sensitive data associated with more than 4,500 different sites, according to one researcher.

"We've been able to get through the layers of encryption in Clampi," says Joe Stewart, director of malware research at SecureWorks. "Clampi is collecting data associated with about 4,600 key sites, such as banks and other financial institutions targeted by criminal networks."

But it doesn't stop there.
Clampi is going after utilities, market research firms, online casinos and career sites, in a broad sweep to grab personally identifiable information, such as credentials and account information, that might be of use to criminals for financial gain. Clampi, also known as Ligats, Ilomo or Rscan, is using psexec tools to spread across Microsoft-based networks in a worm-like fashion.

So far, the analysis by SecureWorks has identified 1,400 specific sites in 70 countries out of the 4,600 or so total sites the Clampi Trojan appears programmed to monitor once it has infected a victim's Windows-based machine.

The design
The design of the Clampi Trojan, which was first spotted in 2007, reveals its creator has gone out and methodically figured out a lot about the target sites.

He says the 4,600 number is enormous in comparison to what is usually found in Trojans designed for stealing financial data from victims trying to conduct transactions at online Web sites. Most Trojans of this sort, such as Zeus, normally would have not more than 30 banks as a target.

A Worm
The Clampi Trojan, once it worms its way into a victim's machine, will watch for the victim to try and do anything online associated with any of the 4,600 different sites and then leap into action to steal data, transferring it via an encrypted channel back to command-and-control servers.

According to SecureWorks, Clampi's main way of spreading is through drive-by downloads when a user visits a Web site that has been compromised by attackers.

Trusted Sites
Some of these sites may be trusted as legitimate by Web visitors, but the site has been compromised, often because the Webmaster or network manager security credentials for it have been stolen and the attacker has simply loaded up the malware to enable the Clampi drive-by download.

The Clampi Trojan, believed to have infected hundreds of thousands of machines, basically functions as a botnet under the command-and-control of a botmaster, probably in Eastern Europe or China.

As a botnet, it is sweeping up victim's sensitive personal data and sending it back through a set of command-and-control servers to cybercriminals. Clampi seems to be picking up speed in its spread since July and may be the Trojan used in a cybertheft scam that hit the US earlier this month.

Command and Control
The Clampi command-and-control server is encrypted by 448-bit blowfish encryption, using a randomly generated key that is sent to the control server using 2,048-bit RSA encryption. SecureWorks got through the encryption layer by intercepting the session key in a test system and decrypting the network traffic. This allowed the security firm to examine the list of Web sites targeted by a module that's part of Clampi.

How can you defend yourself against Clampi?
There is no product you can buy to stop this as a zero-day attack, although antivirus software might eventually detect it and stop it later on your machine.

The best recommendation, is to find a way to use a "separate system" to conduct financial transactions, one that is not the same system as you might use to browse the Internet. That would lower the risk of being infected by the Clampi Trojan.

This Blog May Contain Nuts! Allergic Reactions

There is a big difference between eating well and eating healthily.

There is an even bigger difference between a minor intolerance to food and a full blown allergy.

If you do have a real food allergy, then take heart, more and more research is taking place on the subject and an interesting picture is emerging.


Better food labeling is thought to help but it also sometimes confuses and deceives. Independent tests on labeled and unlabeled foods showed an alarming inconsistency between the contents and the information on the label. Dangerously so, in some cases.


This misinformation on labels is often prompted by the fear of litigation. So, the suppliers adopt a 'better safe than sorry' mentality, which is not at all helpful for consumers.

Anaphylaxic Shock

Even if the food industry does find a better way to label foods, there will always be the danger of an accidental exposure to high concentrations of an allergen. "The main risk is from caterers and restaurants," says Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands Anaphylaxis Network.

"In the UK most deaths are from curries, weddings, parties, and not knowing what ingredients are in satay and pesto. Otherwise, it's often down to not knowing that you are allergic in the first place." The first time you discover it can be a shock.

More People are Allergic to Hazelnuts than Peanuts

A Passing Exposure

Some people with a severe food allergy are afraid of even a passing exposure to an allergen, and this has led some to ask for bans of potentially dangerous foods in public areas such as schools, to reduce the risk.

Some American high schools, for example, are now banning food products containing peanuts. In one instance, a school bus was evacuated and then taken out of service to be decontaminated after a single peanut escaped from its wrapper. "People in favour of various bans feel it is just easier to have the food eliminated," says Scott Sicherer, an allergist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Proportionate Response

Others believe that such measures are out of proportion to the real danger. Writing in the medical journal BMJ last year, medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston observed that efforts by US schools to prevent students being exposed to peanuts "represent a gross overreaction to the magnitude of the threat" (BMJ, vol 337, p 1384).

According to Timmermans, parents can sometimes become so worried about the possible threat to their children that they cause the children themselves psychological distress.

Timmermans says his daughter, who is also highly allergic to peanuts, would be able to sit next to someone eating a peanut dish without experiencing a reaction. Although he admits, it would make her very uneasy.

How to test for allergies

There are three main or approved methods to test for an allergic reaction and these should be done under strict medical supervision:

  • The skin-prick test: A drop of a solution containing the suspected allergen is placed on the skin of the subject's forearm, which is then pricked with a needle. A positive reaction is indicated by itchiness and a reddening of the skin, or a white swelling.
  • Blood tests: High levels of allergen-specific antibodies in the blood indicate an allergy.
  • Food challenges: Research teams from the EuroPrevall task force are using a chocolate dessert which can be spiked with an allergen without a noticeable change in flavour. Each team feeds its subjects increasing amounts of the dessert at 20-minute intervals, containing allergen doses ranging from 3 micrograms to 3 grams, until the subject reacts - for example with a skin rash or swelling. The placebo, identical except that it contains no allergen, is administered in the same way but on a different day.

What is a food allergy?

Our immune system is meant to protect the body from invading parasites, bacteria and other foreign substances. Sometimes it overreacts to what should be a perfectly innocuous food or other substance, causing an allergic reaction.

IgE Antibodies
Most people who suffer from a food allergy have immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies that are primed to respond to the allergen involved. In the presence of the allergen, the IgE antibodies activate mast cells around blood vessels and in the skin. Histamine released by these cells causes small blood vessels to dilate, giving rise to the well-known symptoms such as itching and swelling in the mouth, skin rash, itchy or runny nose or diarrhoea.

Severe Shock
The most dangerous result is anaphylaxis, a whole-body reaction which can end in a catastrophic fall in blood pressure combined with breathing difficulties, sometimes resulting in death.

Coeliac Disease
Not all food allergies are mediated by IgE. Perhaps the best known of this other group is coeliac disease, an allergy to proteins present in the gluten of wheat, barley and rye. It is caused by an overreaction by the immune system's T-cells, which damages the lining of the gut. Sufferers endure diarrhoea, loss of weight and potentially malnutrition.

Food Intolerance
True food allergies should not be confused with "food intolerances". Rather than being caused by an overenthusiastic immune system, milk intolerance, for example, results from a lack of the enzyme the body needs to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. Symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain and, once again, diarrhoea.

Building your resistance

While the symptoms of an allergic reaction to foods can be treated, there is no accepted therapy to prevent the reactions in the first place.

There may be hope, for those with a peanut allergy at least. A team from Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, UK, recently exposed four children to a daily dose of peanut flour, starting with just 5 milligrams. This year they reported that by the end of the six-month trial the children were able to tolerate 10 whole peanuts a day (Allergy, vol 64, p 1218).

If you or a friend or family member have a peanut allergy, please do not try this at home. Always consult with your doctor or with a specialist before taking risks with your health.

Alaskan tundra fires rage - Global Warming fears

Alaskan tundra fires rage (Image: MODIS Rapid Response Team / Goddard Space Flight Center / NASA)

Alaskan tundra fires rage. Fueling Global Warming by increasing levels of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere. (Image: MODIS Rapid Response Team / Goddard Space Flight Center / NASA)

The fire that raged north of Alaska's Brooks mountain range in 2007 left a 1000-square-kilometre scorched patch of earth – an area larger than the sum of all known fires on Alaska's North Slope since 1950.

Carbon Dioxide increase

Now scientists studying the ecological impact of the fire report that the blaze dumped 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – about the amount that Barbados puts out in a year. What's more, at next week's meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two teams will warn that as climate change takes hold tundra fires across the Arctic will become more frequent.

Increased Frequency of Fires

Tundra fires only take off once certain thresholds are reached, says Adrian Rocha of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "But projected changes in climate over the next century – increased aridity, thunderstorms, and warming in the Arctic – will increase the likelihood that these thresholds will be crossed and thus result in more larger and frequent fires."

Virgin Galactic takes Abu Dhabi oil money

It is certainly a case of the rich getting richer and a sign of the only way these space tourism companies will ever get off the ground but either way Mr Branson pockets another profit for himself.

Today Virgin Galactic today sold a 32% stake of the company, which is valued at about $900 million, to an Abu Dhabi-based investor raising $280 million to help fund future test-flight program.

Bailed out

Virgin Galactic stated that it expects the capital infusion to fully fund the company to its commencement of commercial operations. The Virgin Group has spent over $100 million on its space flight venture since forming it in 2004.

Aabar Group

With the investment Abu Dhabi's Aabar Group gets exclusive rights to host Virgin space tourist and scientific flights. The group also said it wants to pay an extra $100 million to fund a program to launch small satellites of its own into orbit, and will build spaceport facilities in Abu Dhabi. US regulators and others must approve the deal.

Space Ship One

Virgin Galactic claims it is in the final stages of developing and testing commercial sub-orbital space vehicles based on the prototype SpaceShipOne. The current launch aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, made a splash this week by flying at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Space Ship Two

WhiteKnightTwo will carry the pressurized spacecraft SpaceShipTwo to about 50,000ft, where SpaceShipTwo will release and fire a rocket taking it to about 360,000ft at speeds over Mach 3, Virgin says. SpaceShipTwo then glides back to a runway landing. More than 300 people have paid almost $40 million in ticket deposits to get on the flights, according to London-based Virgin.

Test Flights

SpaceShipTwo will begin test flights before the end of 2009. Both vehicles offer a unique environment for space tourism and a wide range of science research applications as well as a platform for small satellite launch, Virgin stated.

First Private Sector Launch

"We are building a great partnership for the development of the world's first private sector integrated human and payload space launch system," said Patrick McCall, Virgin Group Commercial Director in a statement.

Forbes Comment

According to, this may not be the last big financial splash the space company makes: "The aim over a bit of time is to try to IPO the business," said a spokesman for Virgin Group. He said the procedure would follow a similar template seen at

  • Virgin Blue, the Australian airline floated in 2003;
  • Virgin Mobile UK, floated in 2004;
  • Virgin Mobile USA, floated in 2007.
Sold out
The entire Virgin Group even went public in 1986, but was bought back by Virgin's billionaire owner, Richard Branson. Such a move by Virgin Galactic would be a couple years away at least, observers said but Mr Branson must be wringing his hands with glee at this deal. Looks like he is off the hook again.

China strengthens its grip on Uighur Province

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has made public a list of names and photographs of 15 Uighurs wanted for their roles in rioting which killed almost 200 people in the Muslim region of Xinjiang this month.

The Public Security Bureau of regional capital Urumqi issued a notice urging the first batch of fugitives "not to hope that they would be lucky enough to get away with it," state media reported on Thursday. Ah yes, first take away their 'hope'.

Ethnic Violence
In Xinjiang's worst ethnic violence in decades, local Uighur rioters attacked the majority (immigrant) Han Chinese in Urumqi on July 5 after taking to the streets to protest against attacks on Uighurs workers at a factory in south China in June, which left two Uighurs dead. The Hans in Urumqi sought revenge two days later.

The violence left 197 people dead, mostly Han Chinese, and wounded more than 1,600. About 1,000 people, mostly Uighurs, have been detained in an ensuing Chinese government crackdown.

Legal Prosecutions
The notice said leniency would be shown to those who turned themselves in within 10 days and that the punishment would be reduced for those who informed or made "great contributions."

"Those refusing to surrender will be dealt with severely in accordance with the law," the notice said. The government also offered rewards to the public who report on rioters.

In recent days, 253 more people have been detained after being turned in by "local residents of different ethnic groups," state media said.

The Background
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who are now the majority in the capital, Urumqi.

Beijing does not want to lose its grip on a vast territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, because it has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region.

Indigenous People
Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, make up almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people.

The government has blamed the killings on exiled Uighurs seeking independence, especially Rebiya Kadeer, an activist now living in exile in the United States. Kadeer has denied the accusations.

Kadeer told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that nearly 10,000 Uighurs involved in the riots went missing in one night and called for an international investigation. China has condemned her visit to Tokyo.
Could this be the next Tibet? An invasion by any other name?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cheese - UK Space Mission unsuccessful

It's Cheese Jim but not as we know it!
In a bizarre story that is greatly influenced by Wallace and Gromit, the UK animated figures, a cheesemaker's stunt to launch a wedge of cheddar cheese into space fell flat on its face after the organisers lost contact with its payload just minutes after lift-off.

The West Country Cheesemakers, who organised the 'mission', attached a 300kg chunk of cheese to a weather balloon, which lifted off from Pewsey, Wilts, at 4am on July 28.

The balloon floated up to the 'edge of space' at 18.6 miles (30km) above sea level, where the 1.6m-wide helium balloon was expected to burst.

The cheesemakers were expecting that the record-breaking capsule would then fall gently down to earth on a special parachute. They had even fitted the capsule with a digital camera to take pictures of the cheese in 'outer space'.

Unfortunately, the plans of mice and men sometimes go astray. The on-board GPS satellite system, which was supposed to track the intergalactic dairy product, failed shortly after take-off.

It is still unclear whether the balloon managed to succeed in its bizarre mission but it was a bold step forward for intergalactic cheese trading.

Magical Helmet Shot

NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao captures his reflection in the faceplate of a space suit in this image taken aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Chiao, commander of the tenth mission to the ISS, is in the final days of his mission aboard the orbital outpost.

He and ISS Expedition 10 flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov have lived aboard the space station since October 2004. Later this month, they will relinquish station control to their successors, Expedition 11 commander SergeiKrikalev and flight engineer John Phillips.

Krikalev and Phillips are set to launch into space aboard a Soyuz rocket the evening of Thursday April 14, though it will be April 15 at their Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad during liftoff.

Riding spaceward with the Expedition 11 crew is Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, of the European Space Agency (ESA), who will spend a few days conducting experiments aboard the ISS during the crew exchange.

World's first computer; Like Grandad, older than you thought

antik1.jpg From Swiss Army knives to iPhones, it seems we just love fancy gadgets with as many different functions as possible. And judging from the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, the desire to impress with the latest multipurpose must-have item goes back at least 2000 years.

Clockwork Computer
This mysterious box of tricks was a portable clockwork computer, dating from the first or second century BC. Operated by turning a handle on the side, it modelled the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets through the sky, sported a local calendar, star calendar and Moon-phase display, and could even predict eclipses and track the timing of the Olympic games.

The Origin
One new clue to the origin of the mechanism comes from the Olympiad dial, there are six sets of games named on the dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world but the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.

The Naa Games
The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.

Older than the Romans
Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than at first thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it's unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.

The highlight for most audiences, was this breathtaking new animation (Click on the Picture) of the gearing inside the mechanism. It has been made by Mogi Vicentini, an Italian astronomer and computer scientist, and it brings the device to life brilliantly.

Judge for yourself. It shows that the mechanism would hold its own against the best of today's luxury gadgets.

Gravity defying Robotic Insect

Winged flight, or simply fly-by-wire? (Image: South West News Service / Rex Features)

Winged flight, or simply fly-by-wire? (Image: South West News Service / Rex Features)

CREATING a free-flying robotic insect is the dearest wish of many an engineer because such a machine would have great potential in surveillance and in seeking out trapped people in search-and-rescue situations. But a curious effect might upset their plans.

Last year, a team at Harvard University released a video demonstration of a robotic fly they had developed, showing it flapping its wings and levitating up a pair of guide wires.

Fly by Wires

But Michele Milano of Arizona State University in Tempe wondered whether the wing motion was entirely responsible for giving the robot lift, or whether some other force was involved. "The video showed that the guide wires were vibrating significantly when the wings beat," he told New Scientist.

Lift without Wings

To find out if these vibrations played a role in the fly's upward motion, his team built a vibrating model "insect" with no wings. The balsa-wood contraption consisted of a motor with an off-centre weight on its spindle that produced vibrations, and four metal tubes through which vertical guide wires were threaded (see Diagram). When they set the motor running, the team discovered that the model moved up the wires despite having no wings. They've dubbed it the "flying brick".

Traveling waves

The researchers suspect that the vibrating motor sets off traveling waves in the guide wires, rather like those produced by plucking guitar strings. Each vibration cycle produces a kink in the wires above the model, which forces the model to travel upwards.

Movements of up to 5 centimetres were seen, depending on the wires' tension and the diameters of both the wires and the tubular connectors. The greatest "flight" effect was achieved when the vibration frequency matched the resonant frequency of the wires (IEEE Transactions in Robotics, vol 25, p 426).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paracetamol Causes Acute Liver Damage

PARACETAMOL (acetaminophen) is an effective painkiller but a risky one. It is the leading cause of acute liver damage in the US.

Now there are two ways it could get a whole lot safer. A US Food and Drug Administration panel wants to slash the recommended dosage and now a safer alternative can be made cheaply for the first time.

When used as directed paracetamol is safe, but it doesn't take much more than the recommended dose to cause permanent, possibly fatal, liver damage.

Among over-the-counter drugs, "it probably has the smallest difference between how much it takes to be effective and how much it takes to cause damage", says Sidney Wolfe of the watchdog group Public Citizen in Washington DC.

Because paracetamol is an ingredient of numerous preparations, from cold medicines to prescription narcotics such as Vicodin, it's easy to double-dose by mistake.

Last month the FDA's advisory panel recommended specifying smaller doses of paracetamol and clearer labelling of medications that contain it. More controversially, the panel recommended removing it entirely from prescription narcotics. The FDA usually follows its panel's recommendations.

A more comprehensive solution may be on the horizon, in the form of drugs such as SCP-1, which is made up of a molecule of paracetamol joined to a saccharin molecule. In early tests in people SCP-1 does not seem to produce the same toxic by-products as paracetamol.

Now Mark Trudell and colleagues at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, together with the New Orleans company St Charles Pharmaceuticals, which ran the tests, have reported a way to synthesise SCP-1 cheaply and in large quantities (Organic Process Research and Development, DOI: 10.1021/op900113b).

Baffin Island: Seasonal Ice Melt

In the depths of winter, ice hugs the coastline of Canada’s Baffin Island. Summertime sunlight, however, dramatically melts the ice away from the coastline.

Seasonal sea ice retreat was well underway when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this natural-color (photo-like) image on July 11, 2009.

Clouds often hover over the Arctic during the Northern Hemisphere summer, making cloud-free images such as this one relatively rare.

Although a few wispy clouds appear in the upper right and lower left corners of this image, the delicate swirls of white running along the eastern edge of Baffin Island are sea ice.

Eddies along Baffin Island’s coast have fashioned the ice into interlocking swirls, especially near Cumberland Sound. Farther north, a long band of ice holds fast to the shore east of Barnes Icecap.

Although less inclined to move with the currents, this ice also shows signs of weakening, as its edges splinter, and pieces float away.

The sea ice retreat captured in this image appears typical of seasonal melt. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, however, Arctic sea ice extent has declined sharply, experiencing a series of low summertime extents and poor wintertime recoveries.

Arctic sea ice extent set a record low in September 2007. As of July 22, 2009, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that, in the first half of July 2009, sea ice declined faster than it did in 2008, but not as fast as it did in 2007.

Artificial Intelligence and Genetic Engineering

An Robotic Invasion led by artificially intelligent machines. Consciousness in computer networks.

Hands across the AI Robotics Engineering Laboratory. Reach out to Intelligence in whatever form it may take!

Imagine a smartphone virus so smart that it can start mimicking you or worse, one that answers that pesky phonecall from your annoying friends. The one you always let go to voicemail and if you don't know who that annoying friend is, it's probably YOU!

You might think that such scenarios are laughably futuristic, but some of the world's leading artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are concerned enough about the potential impact of advances in AI that they have been discussing the risks over the past year. Now they have revealed their conclusions.

Until now, research in artificial intelligence has been mainly occupied by myriad basic challenges that have turned out to be very complex, such as teaching machines to distinguish between everyday objects. Human-level artificial intelligence or self-evolving machines were seen as long-term, abstract goals not yet ready for serious consideration.

Now, for the first time, a panel of 25 AI scientists, roboticists, and ethical and legal scholars has been convened to address these issues, under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in Menlo Park, California. It looked at the feasibility and ramifications of seemingly far-fetched ideas, such as the possibility of the internet becoming self-aware.

The panel drew inspiration from the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in California, in which over 140 biologists, physicians, and lawyers considered the possibilities and dangers of the then emerging technology for creating DNA sequences that did not exist in nature.

Delegates at that conference foresaw that genetic engineering would become widespread, even though practical applications – such as growing genetically modified crops – had not yet been developed.

Comets Scarred the Face of Lady Moon

A new study suggests comets gouged out the vast majority of craters on the moon (Image: NASA)

A new study suggests comets gouged out the vast majority of craters on the moon (Image: NASA)

Icy comets and not rocky asteroids, launched a dramatic assault on the Earth and moon around 3.85 billion years ago, a new study of ancient rocks in Greenland suggests. The work suggests much of Earth's water could have been brought to the planet by comets.

"We can see craters on the moon's surface with the naked eye, but nobody actually knew what caused them – was it rocks, was it iron, was it ice?" says Uffe Gråe Jørgensen, an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. "It's exciting to find signs that it was actually ice."

Evidence suggests that the Earth and moon had both formed around 4.5 billion years ago. But almost all the craters on the moon date to a later period, the "Late Heavy Bombardment" 3.8 to 3.9 billion years ago, when around 100 million billion tonnes of rock or ice crashed onto the lunar surface. The Earth would have been pummelled by debris at the same time, although plate tectonics on our restless planet have since erased the scars.

To find out whether asteroids or comets were the main culprits for the bombardment, Jørgensen decided to measure levels of the element iridium in ancient terrestrial rocks. Iridium is rare on the Earth's surface because almost all of it bound to iron and sank into the Earth's core soon after the planet had formed. But iridium is relatively common in comets and meteorites.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Twitter Cyber-Space and Outer Space Cadets

There are a startling number of cyber sites that will provide you with Twitter updates on everything astro-nomical and astro-physical.

Transparent Aluminum: Can we see a use for it?

Transparent Aluminium first 'appeared' in a Star Trek movie, now it has been made for real by the FLASH Lab in Germany. (Image: Everett Collection/Rex Features)

Transparent aluminium, a sci-fi material brought to 20th century Earth by the crew of The Enterprise in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, turns out to exist after all - if you can see in X-rays. X-ray vision has long been the fantasy of small boys and strange men but this is an entirely different, and more legitimate concept.

What's the Recipe?

To create this exotic state of matter, researchers at the FLASH facility in Hamburg, Germany, took a thin piece of aluminium foil and blasted it with an X-ray laser that can generate about 10 million gigawatts of power per square centimetre.

Knock out Electrons

At standard temperature and pressure, solid aluminium is a lattice of ions, with a sea of free electrons in between. The FLASH beam had enough energy to knock an electron out of each ion and set it free, while the photon got absorbed in the process.

No Replacement

Normally in a solid metal, another electron will instantly take the place of the missing one. Flash is so powerful that it can rip an electron out of every atom before others have a chance to replace them. With one electron removed, the remaining electrons around each ion settle into a different configuration, becoming too tightly bound for the laser to remove.

That means the X-ray photons can't be easily absorbed, and they fly straight through the material, making the previously opaque aluminium transparent to X-rays.

Self destructive

This state doesn't last long, though. Within fractions of a nanosecond, the energy pumped into the electrons is delivered to the ions, and the ions fly apart violently. "As soon as you make it, the stuff blows up," says Justin Wark of the University of Oxford.

What does the future hold?

The team hopes to study the properties of this hot, dense matter using new, more powerful lasers such as the Linac Coherent Light Source at Stanford, California. These lasers produce higher-energy X-rays that could probe the structure of the new material and measure its properties – perhaps providing some insight into the heart of Jupiter and the other giant planets.

Keep Watching! we will be seeing more of Transparent Aluminum in the future!

Gorillas on the verge of Extinction!

YOU might have missed it, but in December 2008 - when the world's media were preoccupied with President Barack Obama's election and the global economic recession - the United Nations declared 2009 the Year of the Gorilla.

If you did notice, you could be forgiven for wondering why. Just weeks earlier it was reported that almost half of all primate species are at risk of extinction, so why lavish yet more attention on the one that is seldom out of the spotlight?

Gorilla Numbers Plummeting

The simple answer is because they need it now more than ever. Despite all the film footage, fieldwork and fund-raising, and the efforts of park rangers and conservation NGOs, the number of gorillas continues to plummet. Hunting, logging, mining and disease are taking a terrible toll on the greatest of the great apes, and if things continue as they are, they may be reduced to nothing more than a series of small, highly vulnerable populations within decades.

Iconic Animals

That's not the only reason the UN chose to focus on gorillas. These apes are such iconic animals they can galvanise people into action like few others. Redoubling efforts to protect gorillas and their habitats will benefit other endangered primates, including chimps and bonobos. If those efforts centre on development projects and gorilla tourism, they can also improve the lives of some of the world's poorest people.

Long Term Plan for a Short Term Crisis?

That is the UN's plan. And entirely the wrong one, as far as many gorilla experts are concerned. For all its good intentions, they say, there's no way it can work fast enough to give gorillas any chance of recovery.

For all its good intentions, there is no way the UN's strategy can work fast enough to give gorillas any chance of recovery

"If you try to make saving gorillas a development issue, then you will fail," says Peter Walsh, a leading authority on the abundance and distribution of gorillas. "Any action must focus on protecting the gorillas." Nor is tourism the panacea African governments and potential donors think. "The idea that tourism alone can pay for conservation is a pipe dream," Walsh says. With gorilla numbers falling so fast, it is time to take tough decisions, he argues.

All 4 Species Endangered

The challenge is daunting. Each of the four subspecies of gorilla is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List - three of them critically - and each faces its own unique combination of threats and challenges (see map).

Pluto may be a Planet after all!

How many planets in your solar system? (Image: JPL / NASA)

How many planets in your solar system? (Image: JPL / NASA)

HOW many planets are in the solar system? The official answer is eight - unless you happen to live in Illinois. Earlier this year, defiant Illinois state governors declared that Pluto had been unfairly demoted by the International Astronomical Union, the authority that sets the rules on all matters planetary.

Three years ago, the IAU decided to draw up the first scientific definition of the term planet. After days of stormy arguments at its general assembly in Prague, the delegates voted for a definition that excluded Pluto, downgrading it to the new category of dwarf planet.

The decision caused outrage among many members of the public who had grown up with nine planets, and among some astronomers who pointed out that only 4 per cent of the IAU's 10,000 members took part in the vote. The governors of Illinois saw the decision as a snub to Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, who was born in the state.

Next week the IAU's general assembly will convene for the first time since Pluto was axed from the list of planets. Surprisingly, IAU chief Karel van der Hucht does not expect anyone to challenge the ruling made in Prague, but Pluto fans can take heart: resistance remains strong.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Vanishing Head Illusion

Blind spots are a quirk of the structure of the eye – use yours to "decapitate" psychologist Richard Wiseman

Space Debris Shield: Radar Station Network

Keeping an eye on the increasing amount of space debris is no easy task  (Image: European Space Agency / Rex Features)

(Image: European Space Agency / Rex Features)

Keeping an eye on the increasing amount of space debris is no easy task

A WORLDWIDE network of radar stations could tackle the ever-growing problem of space debris - the remains of old rockets and satellites that pose an increasing threat to spacecraft.

The US government is launching a competition, which will run until the end of 2010, to find the best way of tracking pieces of junk down to the size of a pool ball. Three aerospace companies - Northrop Grumman, Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon - have each been awarded $30 million by US Air Force Space Command to design a "space fence" that will constantly report the motion of all objects 5 centimetres wide and larger in medium and low-Earth orbits.

"It's basically going to be an electronic tripwire," says Rich Davis, Northrop's special projects director in Linthicum, Maryland. "It will give you the orbit angle and time of day that every satellite or piece of debris passes any point you choose." Once you know that, he says, it is easy to calculate potential collision risks.

It will give the orbit angle and time of day that every piece of debris passes any point in space you choose

The fence will be a significant improvement on the US's current system - the Air Force Space Surveillance System - which was built in 1961. This covers space above the continental US and can only resolve and track objects that are at least 50 centimetres across, using VHF signals in the megahertz range. To track smaller objects requires S-band radar, in the gigahertz range.

The contenders will have to work out how best to construct a global network of S-band radars that will allow them to continually feed data to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. JSpOC will in turn make data that is not militarily sensitive publicly available on