Sunday, July 31, 2011

‪Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion Touch Screen‬‏ - YouTube

For the first 50 years of computing, the input and output of a computer have been to different places. Mobile computing and the touch screen are quickly changing things though and the changes extend to the aircraft industry.

At the 59th Annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Rockwell Collins has unveiled the first touch-control primary flight displays (PFD) for business jets and turboprop aircraft, which will be available on future applications of the company's Pro Line Fusion avionics system.

The icon-based, touch-controlled interface is designed to make the cockpit more user friendly and keep the pilot's eyes focused up and forward instead of down at the center console.

A tap of the display brings up a context-sensitive menu that lets pilots change things such as the speed, altitude and heading of the aircraft with just a couple of taps.

Through the icon-based graphical user interface, the pilot can also manage aircraft systems, complete checklists, and review the flightplan on a scrollable map, all without taking their eyes off the PFD.

Through gesture controls, pilots can also redirect the aircraft to a graphically displayed waypoint or destination with a swipe of a finger instead of entering information on a console-mounted keypad.

Other gestures control panning and zoom features, while a physical keyboard is retained for alphanumeric input rather than an onscreen virtual keyboard that was decided would cover up too much important information.

With a couple of taps, the screen layout can also be split into two, three or four windows and the elements of the individual windows customized by dragging and dropping icons to provide a wealth of relevant flight information at a glance.

Rockwell Collins says the user-friendly, icon-based graphical user interface also cuts the learning curve for pilots transitioning to a new aircraft type.

"These displays demonstrate our focus on empowering pilots with natural head-up, eyes-forward interfaces," said Colin Mahoney, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Rockwell Collins.

"Touch-controlled, icon-based controls on the main displays help keep pilots' attention focused up and forward for safer and more efficient flying."

Rockwell Collins expects to receive certification for the touchscreen interface in 2013, after which it is slated to appear in cockpits featuring its Pro Line Fusion avionics suite.

Amateur Astronomer Discovers Blue-Raspberry-Shaped Planetary Nebula

Combing through the night sky and looking for possible planetary nebulae is tough, tedious work.

NASA actually works with several amateur astronomy groups to examine the findings from its Kepler space observatory, so sometimes, the big discoveries are made by amateurs--including this one, the newest known planetary nebula, named Kronberger 61.

This image, provided by the Gemini Observatory, shows the "ionised shell of expelled gas," colored blue due to the double-ionisation of the oxygen.

If you look closely, you can see the star at the center of the system--it's the bright bluish dot near the centre of the blue-raspberry-like shell.

The Kepler mission's goal is to find Earth-like planets, so the discovery of a new planetary nebula opens up the possibility for some exciting new discoveries.

It'll take a lot more examination to find out if there are any "Goldlocks planets," close enough but not too close to a star to foster the kind of life we have on Earth, but the discovery certainly opens the door for that kind of study.

The star was discovered by, and named for, an amateur Austrian astronomer named Matthias Kronberger, who works with a group of other amateurs known as Deep Sky Hunters.

Antarctica rising as ice caps melt

ANTARCTICA is rising like a cheese soufflé: slowly but surely. 

Lost ice due to climate change and left-over momentum from the end of the last big ice age mean the buoyant continent is heaven-bound.

Donald Argus of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and colleagues used 15 years of GPS data to show that parts of the Ellsworth mountains in west Antarctica are rising by around 5 millimetres a year (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011gl048025). 

Elsewhere on the continent, the rise is slower.

A faster rise has been seen in Greenland, which is thought to be popping up by 4 centimetres a year.

Ongoing climate change could be partly to blame: Antarctica is losing about 200 gigatonnes of ice per year, and for Greenland the figure is 300 gigatonnes. Earth's continents sit on viscous magma, so the effect of this loss is like taking a load off a dense foam mattress.

But there is another possible contributor. "The Earth has a very long memory," says Argus. As a result, "there is also a viscous response to ice loss from around 5000 to 10,000 years ago going on".

Despite this effect, the known ice loss at both poles suggests that embedded in the local rises is a signal of current climate change - researchers just have to tease it out.

Friday, July 29, 2011

NASA MARS: Rock Layers in Gale Crater

This oblique view of the lower mound in Gale Crater shows layers of rock that preserve a record of environments on Mars.

Here, orbiting instruments have detected signatures of both clay minerals and sulfate salts, with more clay minerals apparent in the foreground of this image and fewer in higher layers.

This change in mineralogy may reflect a change in the ancient environment in Gale Crater.

Mars scientists have several important hypotheses about how these minerals may reflect changes in the amount of water on the surface of Mars.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will use its full suite of instruments to study these minerals to provide insights into these ancient Martian environments.

These rocks are also a prime target in the search for organic molecules since these past environments may have been habitable -- able to support microbial life.

Scientists will study how organic molecules, if present, vary with mineralogical variations in the layers to understand how they formed and what influences their preservation.

The smaller hills in this view may provide clues to the modern water cycle on Mars. They contain sulfate salts that have water in them, and as temperatures warm into summer, some of that water may be released to the atmosphere. As temperatures cool, they may absorb water from the atmosphere.

The Mars Science Laboratory team will investigate how water is exchanged between these minerals and the atmosphere, helping us understand Mars' modern climate. The hills are particularly useful for this investigation because different parts of the hills are exposed to different amounts of sunlight and thus to different temperatures.

Curiosity will be able to compare the water in these contrasting areas as part of its investigations.

This three-dimensional perspective view was created using visible-light imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.

Three-dimensional information was derived by stereo analysis of image pairs. The vertical dimension is not exaggerated. Color information is derived from color imaging of portions of the scene by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera.

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is being prepared for launch on Nov. 25, 2011. In a prime mission lasting one Martian year -- nearly two Earth years -- after landing, researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Safer cancer treatments: Case Studies

A new piece of medical technology unveiled by NPL will help improve the success rates of radiotherapy cancer treatments.

The new clinical electron linear accelerator (linac), a £1.5 million government-funded investment, will help ensure patients are treated with accurate doses of radiation.

Radiotherapy is used to treat cancer by using ionising radiation such as high-energy X-rays or electron beams to destroy cancer cells.

Every hospital needs to ensure that its radiotherapy equipment is stable and accurate because delivering correct radiation doses is critical.

If the dose is too low, the cancer may continue to grow. If they are too high, the patient may be endangered by healthy tissue being damaged.

NPL's new clinical linac’s ability to provide highly stable beams and accurate doses will enable calibrations with smaller uncertainties.

The new technology allows it to calibrate the full range of beam qualities currently in therapeutic use in the UK in a very short period of time. This will allow hospitals to deliver more accurate and effective radiation doses to cancer patients.

The new facility helps the UK respond to a recent report from the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group which states that the UK has a huge gap between the number of people treated with radiotherapy and optimal treatment levels.

For further information, please contact James Manning

Find out more about NPL's research in Ionising Radiation

NASA Dawn Mission: Dark Side of Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 23, 2011.

It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers) away from the giant asteroid Vesta.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mobile app diagnoses malaria from a single drop of blood

The virtual ink had barely dried on our story about the Skin Scan app for diagnosing melanoma when we received word of another, equally compelling mobile diagnostic tool.

Focusing this time on the millions of people at risk from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, Lifelens is a project that has created a smartphone app to diagnose the insidious, mosquito-borne disease.

More than one million people die each year from Malaria, and roughly 85 percent of them are children under the age of 5, the Lifelens project notes. The most prevalent diagnostic tool, meanwhile, is the rapid diagnostic test (RDT), which is known to be associated with a 60 percent incidence rate of false positive results.

That, in turn, results in the treatment of many people who don’t actually have Malaria, driving up the costs of anti-Malaria treatment significantly. The Lifelens project, on the other hand, aims to make the process both cheaper and more accurate by analyzing blood digitally instead.

Specifically, once blood is stained to reveal the Malaria parasites, the project’s smartphone app can analyze a magnified image of a drop of blood captured via simple finger prick, including counting the various types of cells it includes. Malarial parasites are among those it can identify, making false results much less likely.

Once analysis is complete, data is uploaded to the Web, where it can be mapped for a high-level view of where Malaria outbreaks are occurring.

The video below demonstrates Lifelens in action:

NASA: ORION (OMPCV) Integration

Preparations are underway to begin integration of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Launch Abort System (foreground) with the Crew Module (background) for acoustical testing.

The tests will be conducted in the Reverberant Acoustics Laboratory at the Lockheed Martin Waterton facility near Denver, Colorado.

The Orion stack will be exposed to a series of acoustic tests of increasing decibels that simulate the sound pressure levels that the vehicle will encounter during launch.

Image Credit: NASA

Southampton engineers fly the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft

Engineers at the University of Southampton have designed and flown the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft, which could revolutionise the economics of aircraft design.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches.

It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using ‘snap fit’ techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.

The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2-metres wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode is almost silent. The aircraft is also equipped with a miniature autopilot developed by Dr Matt Bennett, one of the members of the team.

Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques. This technology allows a highly-tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days.

Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.

This project has been led by Professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University’s Computational Engineering and Design Research group.

Professor Scanlon says: “The flexibility of the laser sintering process allows the design team to re-visit historical techniques and ideas that would have been prohibitively expensive using conventional manufacturing. One of these ideas involves the use of a Geodetic structure.

This type of structure was initially developed by Barnes Wallis and famously used on the Vickers Wellington bomber which first flew in 1936. This form of structure is very stiff and lightweight, but very complex.

If it was manufactured conventionally it would require a large number of individually tailored parts that would have to be bonded or fastened at great expense.”

Professor Keane adds: “Another design benefit that laser sintering provides is the use of an elliptical wing planform. Aerodynamicists have, for decades, known that elliptical wings offer drag benefits.

The Spitfire wing was recognised as an extremely efficient design but it was notoriously difficult and expensive to manufacture. Again laser sintering removes the manufacturing constraint associated with shape complexity and in the SULSA aircraft there is no cost penalty in using an elliptical shape.”

SULSA is part of the EPSRC-funded DECODE project, which is employing the use of leading edge manufacturing techniques, such as laser sintering, to demonstrate their use in the design of UAVs.

Daily drug restores sight to hereditary blind

A hereditary form of blindness has been delayed or reversed for the first time by a daily drug treatment. The drug is the first to benefit people with a disease of their mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells.

There had been no way to halt the rapid onset of blindness in people with the most common mitochondrial disease, called Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. It strikes men in their twenties, leading to total blindness within three to six months of the first symptoms appearing.

But after receiving a drug called idebenone for six months, some people whose sight had begun to deteriorate reported drastic improvements in their vision that continued after the trial ended.

In the trial, 55 people received idebenone and 30 were given a placebo. After six months, 11 people who received idebenone could read an extra two lines on a standard vision chart – and nine people who could not read any letters at the outset could by the end.

"This is not a cure, but it's a significant effect," says team leader Patrick Chinnery of Newcastle University in the UK.

Successful treatment

It is also the first time that an inherited mitochondrial disease has been successfully treated. "This trial tells us there's hope for this and other mitochondrial diseases," says Chinnery.

The drug didn't work for everyone. The beneficiaries were those who, at the outset, had better vision in one eye than the other. Chinnery thinks this disparity means the disease is only just beginning to progress, and so is more treatable.

The disease strikes retinal ganglion cells that connect the light-sensitive cells of the retina to the brain via the optic nerve. Damage results from failure of mitochondrial enzymes to deliver electrons efficiently through the chain of reactions that generate energy. Idebenone is thought to deputise for these defective enzymes.

Chinnery says there were no serious side effects to the drug, and suggests that if carriers of the mutations can be identified through genetic testing, it might be possible to prevent blindness by giving the drug before symptoms develop.

He adds that it may be possible to use idebenone to treat other mitochondrial diseases. One possible candidate is Melas syndrome, a disorder resulting from defects in the ability of mitochondrial enzymes to clear lactic acid "waste" from cells, leading to brain swelling, heart and muscle weakness and a variety of other symptoms.

"It's a great first step, and the suggestion that some patients benefit justifies further trials," says Robin Ali of University College London, who is head of an ongoing gene therapy study in 12 people with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a non-mitochondrial congenital form of childhood blindness.

Roscosmos: ISS to be de-orbited and sunk in Pacific after 2020

The International Space Station (ISS) will be de-orbited and sunk in the Pacific Ocean after 2020 like its Russian predecessor Mir, Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) Deputy Head Vitaly Davydov said on Wednesday.

"We will be forced to sink the ISS. We cannot leave it in orbit as it is a very complicated and a heavy object. There must be no space waste from it," Davydov said in an interview posted on the Roscosmos website.

"We have agreed with our partners that the ISS would function roughly until 2020," he said adding the station's life was initially estimated at 15 years.

The ISS has been functioning for 13 years now after receiving numerous international space expeditions.

Asked whether a new space station will be built, Davydov said "there are several possibilities."

The Mir space station was in operation from 1983 to 1998 before being sunk in the Pacific Ocean in a "spacecraft cemetery" not far from Christmas Island in 2000.

The agreement to construct the ISS was signed January 29, 1998 in Washington by representatives from Canada, members of the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, Russia and the United States.

NASA Wise NEOWISE: Earth Trojan asteroid

This artist's concept provided by NASA illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid, discovered by NEOWISE, the asteroid-hunting portion of NASA's WISE mission.

The asteroid is shown in grey and its extreme orbit is shown in green. Earth's orbit around the sun is indicated by blue dots.

The objects are not drawn to scale. The asteroid's orbit is well defined and for at least the next 100 years, it will not come closer to Earth than 15 million miles (24 million kilometres).

Picture: AP/NASA - Paul Wiegert

NGC 6188 and NGC 6164 Nebulae

Fantastic shapes lurk in clouds of glowing hydrogen gas in NGC 6188.

The emission nebula is found near the edge of a large molecular cloud, unseen at visible wavelengths, in the southern constellation Ara, about 4,000 light-years away.

Massive, young stars of the embedded Ara OB1 association were formed in that region only a few million years ago, sculpting the dark shapes and powering the nebular glow with stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation.

The recent star formation itself was likely triggered by winds and supernova explosions, from previous generations of massive stars, that swept up and compressed the molecular gas.

Joining NGC 6188 on this cosmic canvas is rare emission nebula NGC 6164, also created by one of the region's massive O-type stars.

Similar in appearance to many planetary nebulae, NGC 6164's striking, symmetric gaseous shroud and faint halo surround its bright central star at the upper right.

The field of view spans about two full Moons, corresponding to 70 light years at the estimated distance of NGC 6188.

ESA ERS-2: Lowering of ERS-2 orbit continues

Like its predecessor ERS-1 (launched in July 1991 by Ariane 4), the ERS-2 satellite (launched on 21 April 1995 also by Ariane 4) monitored the ground day and night under all weather conditions thanks to its powerful sharp-eyed, cloud-piercing radars. ERS-2 also carried an instrument to help monitor the ozone layer.

Credits: ESA

The orbit of ESA’s retired ERS-2 observation satellite is being lowered to reduce the risk of collision with other satellites or space debris.

The goal is to leave it well below most operating polar satellites by the end of August.

The first in a series of thruster firings, each lasting about 300 seconds, was commanded by the mission control team at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Germany on 6 July to lower the orbit of the Agency’s veteran satellite.

The burns have since lowered the satellite from its initial 785 km-high orbit to about 700 km.

Engineers are closely monitoring the manoeuvres via ESA’s ground station in Kourou, French Guiana, and the Malindi station in Kenya.

“We achieved our first 700 km target altitude on 27 July,” said Frank Diekmann, the ERS-2 operations manager.

“Between now and the end of August, ERS-2 will be brought down to about 570 km, where the risk of collision with other satellites or space debris is drastically reduced.”

The last phase, called ‘passivation’, will begin late in August or early September. During this phase, a number of long burns will deplete remaining fuel and, finally, the batteries will be disconnected and the transmitters switched off.

Reentry of the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere is projected to occur within 25 years. Continued tracking will allow prediction of the reentry time and path.

Caltech Researchers Create the First Artificial Neural Network Out of DNA

Artificial intelligence has been the inspiration for countless books and movies, as well as the aspiration of countless scientists and engineers.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have now taken a major step toward creating artificial intelligence-not in a robot or a silicon chip, but in a test tube.

The researchers are the first to have made an artificial neural network out of DNA, creating a circuit of interacting molecules that can recall memories based on incomplete patterns, just as a brain can.

"The brain is incredible," says Lulu Qian, a Caltech senior postdoctoral scholar in bioengineering and lead author on the paper describing this work, published in the July 21 issue of the journal Nature.

"It allows us to recognize patterns of events, form memories, make decisions, and take actions. So we asked, instead of having a physically connected network of neural cells, can a soup of interacting molecules exhibit brainlike behavior?"

The answer, as the researchers show, is yes.

Consisting of four artificial neurons made from 112 distinct DNA strands, the researchers' neural network plays a mind-reading game in which it tries to identify a mystery scientist.

The researchers "trained" the neural network to "know" four scientists, whose identities are each represented by a specific, unique set of answers to four yes-or-no questions, such as whether the scientist was British.

After thinking of a scientist, a human player provides an incomplete subset of answers that partially identifies the scientist. The player then conveys those clues to the network by dropping DNA strands that correspond to those answers into the test tube.

Communicating via fluorescent signals, the network then identifies which scientist the player has in mind. Or, the network can "say" that it has insufficient information to pick just one of the scientists in its memory or that the clues contradict what it has remembered. The researchers played this game with the network using 27 different ways of answering the questions (out of 81 total combinations), and it responded correctly each time.

This DNA-based neural network demonstrates the ability to take an incomplete pattern and figure out what it might represent-one of the brain's unique features.

"What we are good at is recognizing things," says coauthor Jehoshua "Shuki" Bruck, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering. "We can recognize things based on looking only at a subset of features." The DNA neural network does just that, albeit in a rudimentary way.

Biochemical systems with artificial intelligence-or at least some basic, decision-making capabilities-could have powerful applications in medicine, chemistry, and biological research, the researchers say.

In the future, such systems could operate within cells, helping to answer fundamental biological questions or diagnose a disease. Biochemical processes that can intelligently respond to the presence of other molecules could allow engineers to produce increasingly complex chemicals or build new kinds of structures, molecule by molecule.

NASA SDO: Spots Extra Energy in the Sun's Corona

These jets, known as spicules, were captured in an SDO image on April 25, 2010.

Combined with the energy from ripples in the magnetic field, they may contain enough energy to power the solar wind that streams from the sun toward Earth at 1.5 million miles per hour. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

Like giant strands of seaweed some 32,000 miles high, material shooting up from the sun sways back and forth with the atmosphere. In the ocean, it's moving water that pulls the seaweed along for a ride; in the sun's corona, magnetic field ripples called Alfvén waves cause the swaying.

For years these waves were too difficult to detect directly, but NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is now able to track the movements of this solar "seaweed" and measure how much energy is carried by the Alfvén waves.

The research shows that the waves carry more energy than previously thought, and possibly enough to drive two solar phenomena whose causes remain points of debate: the intense heating of the corona to some 20 times hotter than the sun's surface and solar winds that blast up to 1.5 million miles per hour.

"SDO has amazing resolution so you can actually see individual waves," says Scott McIntosh at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "Now we can see that instead of these waves having about 1000th the energy needed as we previously thought, it has the equivalent of about 1100W light bulb for every 11 square feet of the sun's surface, which is enough to heat the sun's atmosphere and drive the solar wind."

McIntosh published his research in a Nature article appearing on July 28. Alfvén waves, he says, are actually fairly simple. They are waves that travel up and down a magnetic field line much the way a wave travels up and down a plucked string. The material surrounding the sun -- electrified gas called plasma – moves in concert with magnetic fields. SDO can see this material in motion and so can track the Alfvén waves.

ESO VST Image: The heavyweight of the Leo Triplet

This picture of M66 is a composite of images obtained through the following filters: 814W (near infrared), 555W (green) and H-alpha (showing the glowing of the hydrogen gas). 

They have been combined so to represent the real colours of the galaxy.

Photo by NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)

The VST is the newest addition to ESO's Paranal Observatory. It is a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre telescope, which is equipped with a giant 268-megapixel camera, OmegaCAM.

As the name indicates, the VST is dedicated to surveying the skies in visible light, and it is the largest telescope in the world designed exclusively for this purpose. This large view of the Leo Triplet demonstrates the excellent quality of images produced by the VST and its camera.

The Leo Triplet is a magnificent group of interacting galaxies about 35 million light-years from Earth. All three of them are spirals like our own Milky Way galaxy, even though this may not be immediately obvious in this image because their discs are tilted at different angles to our line of sight.

NGC 3628, at the left of the frame, is seen edge-on, with thick dust lanes along the plane of the galaxy. The Messier objects M 65 (upper right) and M 66 (lower right), on the other hand, are inclined enough to make their spiral arms visible.

Large telescopes can normally study only one of these galaxies at a time (see for example see potw1026a and eso0338c, but the VST field of view - twice as broad as the full Moon - is wide enough to frame all three members of the group in a single picture. The VST also brings to light large numbers of fainter and more distant galaxies, seen as smudges in the background of this image.

In the foreground of the new image many point-like stars of varied brightness, lying in our own galaxy, can also be seen. One of the science goals of the VST is to search for much fainter objects in the Milky Way, such as brown dwarf stars, planets, neutron stars and black holes.

These are thought to permeate the halo of our galaxy but are often too dim to be detected directly even by large telescopes. The VST will look for subtle events, produced by a phenomenon called microlensing, to detect these very elusive objects indirectly and study the galactic halo.

Through these studies, the VST is expected to further our understanding of dark matter, which is thought to be the largest constituent of the galactic halo. Clues on the nature of this substance, as well as on the nature of dark energy, are also expected to be found through the VST's surveys of the distant Universe.

The telescope will discover distant galaxy clusters and high-redshift quasars that will help astronomers understand the early Universe and find answers to long-standing questions in cosmology.

Very much closer to home, this image also contains the tracks of several asteroids within the Solar System that have moved across the images during the exposures.

These show up as short coloured lines and at least ten can be seen in this picture. As Leo is a zodiacal constellation, lying in the plane of the Solar System, the number of asteroids is particularly high.

This image is a composite created by combining exposures taken through three different filters. Light that passed through a near-infrared filter was coloured red, light in the red part of the spectrum is coloured green, and green light is coloured magenta.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Archaeopteryx knocked off its perch as first bird

FOR 150 years Archaeopteryx has been iconic as the earliest bird. 

The fossil sports feathered wings but a dinosaur's teeth and tail. Now the discovery of a feathered dinosaur in China has prompted a reassessment that has left Archaeopteryx squarely in dinosaur territory.

The diminutive new fossil, Xiaotingia zhengi, recently acquired by the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature from a fossil dealer, was excavated from 160-million-year-old rocks in Liaoning province (see the fossil here). 

It shares several key anatomical features with Archaeopteryx, including a "killing claw" on its second toe, and long and robust arms that probably allowed it to glide.

However, a team led by Xing Xu at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing deemed it sufficiently distinct from birds to be classified as a theropod dinosaur known as a deinonychosaur - and because of the similarities with Archaeopteryx, Xu's team concluded that the "first bird" is a deinonychosaur too (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature10288).

"We used to think Archaeopteryx was so different from other dinosaurs that it was ancestral to birds, but recent discoveries show that this is no longer the case," says Xu. "Our main conclusion is that Archaeopteryx is no longer a bird."

Other palaeontologists give Xu's findings a cautious welcome. "I am not surprised," says Gareth Dyke of University College Dublin in Ireland. "Flight may have evolved many times among small bodied theropod dinosaurs."

If Xu's analysis holds up it will create quite a headache for taxonomists as Archaeopteryx is used to define the base of the birds. 

One solution would be to include deinonychosaurs in the birds, says Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California.

Trojan asteroid: Earth stalker found in eternal twilight

AN ASTEROID 300 metres in diameter is stalking the Earth. 

Hiding in the pre-dawn twilight, it has marched in lockstep with our planet for years, all but invisible to our telescopes.

The rock is Earth's first confirmed Trojan, which can orbit the sun in either of two gravitational wells along the same orbital path as our planet. 

From the sun's point of view, these wells lie 60 degrees ahead of and behind the Earth, at Lagrange points where gravitational forces between the sun and the Earth balance out.

Trojans are common - Jupiter alone boasts about 5000, and Neptune and Mars each have their own smaller collections. But finding Earth's has proven difficult, because the Lagrange points lie towards the sun in the sky. 

Astronomers must look for the objects just before the sun rises or after it sets, and until now the glare of this sunlight has obscured the feeble light reflected from any rocks that might be hiding there.

Now Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, and colleagues have used a heat sensor to see past the gloaming. Using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite, they identified a 300-metre-wide Trojan now dubbed 2010 TK7.

The rock is leading the Earth, and based on the team's calculations it is expected to be stable in an elliptical orbit around its Lagrange point for at least the next 10,000 years, drifting at between 20 million and 300 million kilometres from us (Nature, DOI: 10.138/nature/10233).

Like most Trojans, says Connors, the story of where 2010 TK7 came from, and what it is made of, is an utter mystery.

It could be an errant, captured asteroid, or perhaps a "genesis rock" - a long-sought relic from the birth of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. 

If so, it may be identical to the rocks that came together to form the Earth, which means that studying its composition would tell us what the chemistry of our planet was like in the earliest stages of its existence.

NASA ESA ISS: New uses wanted for Space Station

For more than a decade, the International Space Station has been a busy orbiting research lab but it could soon take on a new role as a testbed for ambitious missions deeper into space.

Future ventures could include Mars missions, lunar habitats or travelling to an asteroid – all needing new technologies and techniques that could be tested on the Station.

Following yesterday's meeting of the orbital outpost's Multilateral Coordination Board, member agencies expect to begin identifying specific technology initiatives based on sample exploration missions.

The Board meets periodically to coordinate Station activities, with senior representatives from ESA, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, Russia's Roscosmos and Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The meeting also discussed standardising space systems, including the revised International Docking Systems Standard, as well as the Board's effort to gather information on how successfully the Station has been used, the results of which will be published in September.

Electric sense in dolphins: cetaceans with a seventh sense

One extra sense isn't quite enough for Guiana dolphins. In addition to echolocation, they can sense the electric fields of their prey – the first time this has been seen in true mammals.

Wolf Hanke at the University of Rostock in Germany and colleagues were intrigued by thermal images showing intense physiological activity in the pits on the upper jaw of the dolphins, Sotalia guianensis

Fish, some amphibians and primitive egg-laying mammals such as the duck-billed platypus use similar pits to pick up electric fields generated by nearby animals.

By examining the structures in a dead dolphin, and training a live one to respond to an electric field comparable to that generated by a fish, the team showed that dolphins also have electro-sensory perception.

"Electroreception is good for sensing prey over short distances, where echolocation isn't so effective," says Hanke. Other species of dolphin, and even whales, may be similarly gifted, he says.

"Most people don't realise that whales also feed on the floor of the ocean, so it is possible that they also use electrosensing."

Hanke points out that the electro-sensory organs are derived from whiskers in ancestral animals. These mechanoreceptor organs, like the hair cells in the human ear, mechanically transmit the stimulus of touch or sound waves. 

The adaptation in Guiana dolphins is fairly new, Hanke says, and he suspects that "it is relatively easy to evolve, to change mechanoreceptor organs into electroreceptors".

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1127

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Boeing and BAE develop laser weapon

Both Boeing and BAE Systems have been working on laser weapon systems for use at sea for a number of years and now the two companies have teamed up to develop the Mk 38 Mod 2 Tactical Laser System for the U.S. Navy.

The system combines both kinetic and directed energy weapons capability by coupling a solid-state high-energy laser weapon module with the Mk 38 Machine Gun System that is already in use on many U.S. Navy vessels.

The Mk 38 Mod 2 is a remotely operated machine gun whose main weapon is the widely used M242 Bushmaster 25-mm Chain Gun - a proven NATO standard auto cannon with 2.5 km (1.5 mile) range and selectable rates of fire.

Boeing says the addition of the laser weapon module will provide high-precision accuracy against surface and air targets such as small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It will also provide the ability to deliver different levels of laser energy, depending on the target and mission objectives.

"The Mk 38 Mod 2 system is revolutionary because it combines kinetic and directed energy weapons capability," said Michael Rinn, Boeing Directed Energy Systems (DES) division vice president..

"Our approach is an affordable solution for the customer, because this system can be integrated seamlessly into existing shipboard command interfaces."

Boeing and BAE Systems say they have been working together to develop a Tactical Laser System that can be integrated with existing Navy gun mounts for two years.

But the companies have only just signed a teaming agreement to develop the Mk 38 Mod 2 Tactical Laser System for the U.S. Navy following BAE being awarded an initial US$2.8 million contract in March 2011 to demonstrate such a system.

SpaceX: First private spacecraft set to dock with ISS

NASA and SpaceX have "technically" agreed the California-based firm's first date with the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on 30 November then rendezvous and dock with the ISS on 7 December, nearly one year after its first test flight.

The original plan was to rendezvous and dock on separate attempts, but following the successful test flight SpaceX asked NASA to combine the two missions.

"We technically have agreed with SpaceX that we want to combine those flights," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

"We are doing all the planning to go ahead and have those missions combined, but we haven't given them formal approval yet" he says.

Though the shuttle is permanently grounded the ISS still needs regular resupply.

Many see private space flight as the way forward, but even if the Dragon mission is successful US astronauts will still be reliant on lifts from the Russian Soyuz craft until the private vehicle is human-rated by NASA.

SpaceX doesn't expect this to be a problem though, as earlier this year it claimed that "astronauts flying on Dragon will be considerably safer" than those on the shuttle.

TED: A robot that flies like a bird

Plenty of robots can fly -- but none can fly like a real bird. That is, until Markus Fischer and his team at Festo built SmartBird, a large, lightweight robot, modeled on a seagull, that flies by flapping its wings. A soaring demo fresh from TEDGlobal 2011.

ESA: Enceladus rains water onto Saturn - images

At least four distinct plumes of water ice spew out from the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Light reflected off Saturn is illuminating the moon while the sun, almost directly behind Enceladus, is backlighting the plumes.

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing side of Enceladus (504 kilometers across). North is up.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 25, 2009.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 617,000 kilometers from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 174 degrees. Image scale is 4 kilometers per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

ESA ESO VLTelescope: Nebula LHA 120-N 44

The nebula LHA 120-N 44 surrounding the star cluster NGC 1929 is seen in this image taken with ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

Lying within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way, this region of star formation features a colossal superbubble of material expanding outwards due to the influence of the cluster of young stars at its heart that sculpts the interstellar landscape and drives forward the nebula’s evolution.


The Whale Shark

A diver swims in front of the mouth of a massive whale shark as it feeds on plankton in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Whale sharks, the planet's largest fish, are actually vegetarian.

Picture: Mauricio Handler/

ESA SMOS: Horn of Africa drought visible from space

The animation, derived from SMOS satellite data, shows soil moisture in the Horn of Africa from April to mid-July 2011.

The orange and yellow colouring depicts little to no moisture, while green and blue depict higher levels of soil moisture.


ESA: Horn of Africa drought seen from space - images

Discoverers of graphene bring graphene-based electronics a step closer

The researchers who unveiled graphene in 2004 and who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material" have led new research that reveals more about the electronic properties of the wonder material.

The team says their findings promise to accelerate research looking at ways to build graphene-based devices such as touch-screens, ultrafast transistors and photodetectors, and will potentially open up countless more electronic opportunities.

Discoverers of graphene bring graphene-based electronics a step closer - Image 1 of 1

WALL-E toy gets gift of robotic life

Disney went into robotic toys market with a remote-controlled WALL-E robot back in 2008 but Canadian-based robotics enthusiast DJ Sures was apparently not satisfied with the level of realism of the toy so he came with his own, customised version of WALL-E.

Utilising The U-Command Wall-E plastic toy, he modified it with EZ-B Robot controller hardware, voice recognition and a movement-tracking camera - but no trash compactor.The custom-built robot is voice-activated, sometimes even answering with his own robotic speech.

Apart from the EZ-B Bluetooth Robot controller, he used five servos (modified for the tracks and standard for the arms and neck), AA battery pack, as well as a joystick, just in case WALL-E "needs help getting out of trouble."

DJ Sures embedded a 2.4GHz wireless camera to the WALL-E's eye, which thanks to a horizontal neck servo and vertical head servo allows WALL-E to track motion, colors or human faces horizontally and vertically.

For example, the robot can track the movement of his "favorite" red ball when asked and sighs when it's taken away from him - he'll also bust a move when asked to dance but doesn't seem to have mastered the robot yet.

To program Wall-E's actions, DJ Sures utilized EZ-Builder software which comes bundled with the EZ-B Bluetooth Robot Controller hardware. The software has a visual interface and is tailored for non-programmers allowing them to design a custom set of sounds, or any actions for a DIY robot utilizing the EZ-B controller.

It's not the first robot in DJ Sures' portfolio, having already built several, including some early versions of modded WALL-Es, a Dalek and Doctor Who's robotic K9. Maybe he'll start working on an EVE robot to keep WALL-E company next, although the hovering might be difficult to accomplish.

You can check out what the modded WALL-E is capable of in the video below:

WALL-E toy gets gift of robotic life

Planetary Nebula Discovered By Amateur Astronomer

Gemini Observatory image of Kronberger 61 showing the ionized shell of expelled gas resembling a soccer ball.

The light of the nebula here is primarily due to emission from twice-ionized oxygen, and its central star can be seen as the slightly bluer star very close to the center of the nebula.

The field of view is 2.2 x 3.4 arcminutes with north up (rotated 22 degrees west of north). Image processing by Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage.

A colour composite image, it consists of two narrow-band images ([O III] and hydrogen alpha with three, 500-second integrations each) obtained with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i.

Below the bright star at left is a barred spiral galaxy in the distant background, careful inspection will reveal several additional distant galaxies in the image.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Unique volcanic complex discovered on Moon’s far side

NASA/GSFC/ASU/WUSTL, processing by B. Jolliff

Map of the abundance of the element thorium on the Moon made with data from the Lunar Prospector, a space mission launched in 1998, shows that most of this radioactive element is concentrated in a region on the Moon's near side (left).

But there is also a small hot spot called the Compton-Belkovich Thorium Anomaly (labeled C-B in the map) on the side of the Moon that faces away from Earth.

Analysis of new images of a curious “hot spot” on the far side of the Moon reveal it to be a small volcanic province created by the upwelling of silicic magma. The unusual location of the province and the surprising composition of the lava that formed it offer tantalizing clues to the Moon’s thermal history.

The hot spot is a concentration of a radioactive element thorium sitting between the very large and ancient impact craters Compton and Belkovich that was first detected by Lunar Prospector’s gamma-ray spectrometer in 1998.

The Compton-Belkovich Thorium Anomaly, as it is called, appears as a bull's-eye when the spectrometer data are projected onto a map, with the highest thorium concentration at its center.

Recent observations, made with the powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) optical cameras, have allowed scientists to distinguish volcanic features in terrain at the center of the bull's-eye.

High-resolution three-dimensional models of the terrain and information from the LRO Diviner instrument have revealed geological features diagnostic not just of volcanism but also of much rarer silicic volcanism.

The volcanic province’s very existence will force scientists to modify ideas about the Moon’s volcanic history, says Bradley Jolliff, PhD, research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the team that analyzed the LRO images.

“To find evidence of this unusual composition located where it is, and appearing to be relatively recent volcanic activity is a fundamentally new result and will make us think again about the Moon’s thermal and volcanic evolution,” he says.

The work is described in the July 24 advance online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Read more at Washington University St Louis

Closing In On The Famous Pioneer Anomaly

"The recovery of Doppler and telemetry data and the entire effort in thermal analysis would not have happened without the Planetary Society," said Turyshev. "The members provided the money we needed to get started and demonstrated to NASA that the public was definitely interested in solving the mystery. Their interest and strong support made possible our work to solve the Pioneer Anomaly."

Scientists working with recovered data from the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions are closing in on a solution to the famous Pioneer Anomaly. Their just-published results show that the mysterious effect on the two spacecraft is not constant over time, probably indicating that no outside force is acting on the Pioneers, but rather, something inside the spacecraft is to blame.

Slava Turyshev and a team of researchers are publishing an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters their analysis of radio transmission data from the spacecraft. (The article is available on-line.) Their work strengthens the case that the source of the anomaly lies in the spacecraft themselves, not in any mysterious outside force acting on them. The most likely cause is heat generated by spacecraft systems, producing a recoil force.

The Pioneer Anomaly was defined as "anomalous acceleration in the direction of the Sun" or, as seen from Earth, the spacecraft appeared to be slowing down. It was first detected in 1980 by John D. Anderson of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory through his analysis of the Doppler shift in the radio signal from the Pioneers 10 and 11 on their way out of the solar system, after becoming the first spacecraft to fly by Jupiter and Saturn.

Since its discovery, suggested solutions to the Pioneer Anomaly have ranged from such things as the gravity of as-yet undetected bodies in the solar system, dark matter or dark energy, the cosmic expansion, to some sort of New Physics, such as modifications to the theory of gravity. For over 20 years, scientists around the world have been seeking an explanation.

Caltech-Led Astronomers Discover the Largest and Most Distant Reservoir of Water

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapour.

Gas and dust likely form a torus around the black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below.

X-rays emerge from the centre, while dust throughout the torus emits infrared radiation. While this figure shows the quasar's torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The origin of malaria: The hunt continues

The greater spot-nosed monkey, Cercopithecus nictitans. (Credit: © Jean-Louis Albert, CIRMF, Gabon)

The agent of malaria has been found in the greater spot-nosed monkey, also known as putty-nosed monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans), a small African primate derived from a line different to that of humans, gorillas and chimpanzees.
This discovery challenges current thinking on the origin of the parasite and introduces a key element in the fight against malaria: knowing how it has adapted to the human species will make it possible to target its weaknesses.
This work stems from research carried out by CNRS researchers in association with other organizations and is published on the 4 July 2011 in the journal PNAS.

Malaria, also known as paludism, is one of the greatest global scourges. This pathology, which causes a million human deaths each year, is especially rampant in Africa. The question of whether the primary infection originated from rodents or birds has long remained unanswered. Also found in gorillas, it was thought that the parasite was specific to hominids.

By working on the subject, a team of CNRS researchers headed by Franck Prugnolle and François Renaud of the Laboratoire MIVEGEC(1)(CNRS/IRD/Université Montpellier, jointly with the Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville in Gabon, and in collaboration with other organizations, has demonstrated the presence of Plasmodium falciparum, the agent of malaria, in the greater spot-nosed monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans), a small African monkey derived from a line different to that of humans. The origin of the parasite probably predates the origins of the African hominids line.

The presence of Plasmodium falciparum in this Old World Monkey opens the way to the analysis of the genome of the parasite found in this species. Comparing its sequence with that (already known) of falciparum in humans will enable researchers to discover the molecular signatures of the human parasite and to find out how it has adapted to humans. Knowing the weaknesses of the parasite will be a major asset in combating malaria.

Novel and potent natural antioxidant occurring in tomato plants.

Tomato plants. Researchers have identified a novel and potent natural antioxidant occurring in tomato plants. It is a phenolic substance that is synthesised by the tomato plant when it is subjected to biotic stress. (Credit: © Stanisaw Tokarski / Fotolia)
A team of researchers from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMCP) -a joint centre of the Universitat Politècnica de València and CSIC, the Spanish National Research Council- have identified a novel and potent natural antioxidant occurring in tomato plants.

It is a phenolic substance that is synthesised by the tomato plant when it is subjected to biotic stress. Until now, it was completely unknown.

The UPV and CSIC have registered the national and international patents of the new antioxidant and the laboratory procedures used to isolate and synthesise it chemically.

The finding was recently published in the journal Environmental and Experimental Botany.
IBMCP researchers point out that the antioxidant power of the new compound is much higher -14 times higher, to be precise- than, for example, that of resveratrol, a well-known antioxidant, found in red wine, which can delay cellular aging. In addition, it is 4.5 times more potent than vitamin E and 10 times more potent than vitamin C.

This substance could have multiple applications. For example, in the food industry it could be used as a preservative in food for human consumption and in animal fodder, because of its action as a retarder of lipid oxidation.

This powerful antioxidant would prevent changes such as fats and oils becoming rancid, which strongly diminishes food quality. It could also be used as a supplement in certain products after careful processing.

It should also be noted that antioxidants have beneficial health properties, such as helping to prevent coronary heart disease and cancer; therefore, the compound could have major applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

Gardening in the Brain: Cells Called Microglia Prune the Connections Between Neurons

Microglia (green) in a mouse brain. The nuclei of all cells in the brain are labelled blue. (Credit: EMBL/R. Paolicelli)

Gardeners know that some trees require regular pruning: some of their branches have to be cut so that others can grow stronger.

The same is true of the developing brain: cells called microglia prune the connections between neurons, shaping how the brain is wired, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Monterotondo, Italy, discovered. Published online in Science, the findings could one day help understand neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

"We're very excited, because our data shows microglia are critical to get the connectivity right in the brain," says Cornelius Gross, who led the work: "they 'eat up' synapses to make space for the most effective contacts between neurons to grow strong."

Microglia are related to the white blood cells that engulf pathogens and cellular debris, and scientists knew already that microglia perform that same clean-up task when the brain is injured, 'swallowing up' dead and dying neurons.

Looking at the developing mouse brain under the microscope, Gross and colleagues found proteins from synapses -- the connections between neurons -- inside microglia, indicating that microglia are able to engulf synapses too.

To probe further, the scientists introduced a mutation that reduced the number of microglia in the developing mouse brain.

"What we saw was similar to what others have seen in at least some cases of autism in humans: many more connections between neurons," Gross says. "So we should be aware that changes in how microglia work might be a major factor in neurodevelopmental disorders that have altered brain wiring."

The microglia-limiting mutation the EMBL scientists used has only temporary effects, so eventually the number of microglia increases and the mouse brain establishes the right connections.

However, this happens later in development than it normally would, and Gross and colleagues would now like to find out if that delay has long-term consequences.

Does it affect the behaviour of the mice behaviour, for example? At the same time, Gross and colleagues plan to investigate what microglia do in the healthy adult brain, where their role is essentially unknown.

Researchers identify seventh and eighth bases of DNA

For decades, scientists have known that DNA consists of four basic units -- adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. Those four bases have been taught in science textbooks and have formed the basis of the growing knowledge regarding how genes code for life. Yet in recent history, scientists have expanded that list from four to six.

Now, with a finding published online in the July 21, 2011, issue of the journal Science, researchers from the UNC School of Medicine have discovered the seventh and eighth bases of DNA.

These last two bases -- called 5-formylcytosine and 5 carboxylcytosine -- are actually versions of cytosine that have been modified by Tet proteins, molecular entities thought to play a role in DNA demethylation and stem cell reprogramming.

Thus, the discovery could advance stem cell research by giving a glimpse into the DNA changes -- such as the removal of chemical groups through demethylation -- that could reprogram adult cells to make them act like stem cells.

"Before we can grasp the magnitude of this discovery, we have to figure out the function of these new bases," said senior study author Yi Zhang, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UNC and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Because these bases represent an intermediate state in the demethylation process, they could be important for cell fate reprogramming and cancer, both of which involve DNA demethylation."

Much is known about the "fifth base," 5-methylcytosine, which arises when a chemical tag or methyl group is tacked onto a cytosine. This methylation is associated with gene silencing, as it causes the DNA's double helix to fold even tighter upon itself.

Last year, Zhang's group reported that Tet proteins can convert 5 methylC (the fifth base) to 5 hydroxymethylC (the sixth base) in the first of a four step reaction leading back to bare-boned cytosine. But try as they might, the researchers could not continue the reaction on to the seventh and eighth bases, called 5 formylC and 5 carboxyC.

The problem, they eventually found, was not that Tet wasn't taking that second and third step, it was that their experimental assay wasn't sensitive enough to detect it. Once they realized the limitations of the assay, they redesigned it and were in fact able to detect the two newest bases of DNA. The researchers then examined embryonic stem cells as well as mouse organs and found that both bases can be detected in genomic DNA.

The finding could have important implications for stem cell research, as it could provide researchers with new tools to erase previous methylation patterns to reprogram adult cells.

It could also inform cancer research, as it could give scientists the opportunity to reactivate tumor suppressor genes that had been silenced by DNA methylation.

A Glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson

A technician at work in the Atlas control room. 'Bumps' in the data hint at presence of Higgs boson. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists may have caught their first glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson, which is thought to give mass to the basic building blocks of nature.

Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics lab near Geneva, announced the findings at a conference on Friday.

The world's most powerful atom smasher hunts for signs of new physics by slamming subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light in an 18-mile round tunnel beneath the French-Swiss border.

Speaking at the meeting, teams working on two of the collider's huge detectors, Atlas and CMS, independently reported unusual bumps in their data that could be the first hints of the particle.

Physicists stressed that it was too early to know whether the signals were due to the missing particle.

Bumps that look like new discoveries can be caused by statistical fluctuations in data, flaws in computer models and other glitches, they said.

"We cannot say anything today, but clearly it's intriguing," Fabiola Gianotti, spokeswoman for the 3,000-strong Atlas team, said. She said the picture would become clearer as the groups gathered more data and combined results in the next few months. The view was shared by Guido Tonelli, spokesman for the CMS group, said more data was needed to understand whether the bumps were due to "statistical fluctuations or possible hints of a signal".

The long-sought particle was first postulated in 1964 by Peter Higgs, a physicist at Edinburgh University, in a theory that described how fundamental particles gained mass from an invisible field that pervaded the cosmos.

The field has been compared to a snowfield that clings to particles and slows them down to different extents. Light particles pass through the field swiftly as if they have skis on, while heavy particles trudge through as though walking barefoot.

The boson was nicknamed the "God particle" in 1993 by the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman. The monicker is detested by Higgs. "I find it embarrassing because, though I'm not a believer myself, I think it is the kind of misuse of terminology which I think might offend some people," he said.

Friday, July 22, 2011

NASA Shuttle Atlantis crew waves good-bye to the ship

The space shuttle Atlantis crew waves good-bye to the ship July 21, 2011 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida after it landed several hours earlier, ending its 13-day mission and final flight for the space shuttle program.

Photo courtesy AFP.

Clearly visible is the scrotched underside of Shuttle Atlantis which endured tremendous heat generated by re0entry and protected the crew as it rode the wave of plasma back to Earth.

We can only imagine the smell of scotched metal and ceramics that fills the air around the shuttle craft and leaves a lasting memory of another safe landing in the hearts and minds of the crew and the ground staff.

NASA Shuttle: The End of an Era of Achievement and Awe

Workers measured and marked in bright red the letters "MLG" at the spot where space shuttle Atlantis' main landing gear came to rest after the vehicle's final return from space.

Securing the space shuttle fleet's place in history on the STS-135 mission, Atlantis safely and successfully rounded out NASA's Space Shuttle Program on the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Main gear touchdown was at 5:57:00 a.m. EDT, followed by nose gear touchdown at 5:57:20 a.m., and wheelstop at 5:57:54 a.m. On the 37th shuttle mission to the International Space Station, STS-135 delivered more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, equipment and supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module that will sustain station operations for the next year.

STS-135 was the 33rd and final flight for Atlantis, which has spent 307 days in space, orbited Earth 4,848 times and traveled 125,935,769 miles.

Image Credit: NASA/Kyle Herring

CFHT News: Elliptical galaxies much younger than previously thought

The standard model for elliptical galaxies formation is challenged by a new result uncovered by an international team of astronomers from the Atlas3D collaboration.

Team members from CNRS, CEA, CFHT (Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope), and the Observatoire de Lyon published in the scientific journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society the first results from their study on two elliptical galaxies exhibiting features characteristic of a fairly recent merging, suggesting they are five times younger than commonly thought.

The common belief on the mass assembly history of massive elliptical galaxies based on their stellar population leads to an age between 7 and 10 billion years old. A different story is shaping up based on ultra-deep images of two galaxies observed with the MegaCam camera mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT, CNRC/CNRS/University of Hawaii).

Astronomers from CNRS, CEA, CFHT, and the Observatoire de Lyon, all members of the Atlas3D international collaboration, established that the formation of the two studied elliptical galaxies (NGC 680 & NGC 5557) originated from a merger of two giant spiral galaxies that took place only 1 to 3 billions years ago.

Such age estimate is based on the presence of ultra faint filaments in the distant outskirts of the galaxies. These features called tidal streams in the astronomers parlance are typical residuals from a galaxy merger.

They are known not to survive in this shape and brightness for more than a few billion years, hence the new age estimate of the resulting elliptical galaxies. These structures were detected for the first time thanks to a very-deep imaging technique boosting the capabilities of CFHT's wide-field optical imager MegaCam.

The Atlas3D team conducts a systematic survey of more than one hundred nearby elliptical galaxies. If the current result based on the first two galaxies is confirmed on the larger sample, i.e. faint extended features are frequently detected, the standard model for elliptical galaxies formation should be revisited.

Shuttle Atlantis Carried Adult Stem Cells Into Space

On its 135th and final flight in NASA's shuttle program, the shuttle Atlantis carried the stem cells of six adults to the International Space Station. Alberto Sant Antonio, MD, a Weston, Florida general surgeon, was selected to obtain the tissue samples from the six adults.

NASA is hopeful the Human adult stem cell experiments will lead to the reversal of the rapid aging process that zero gravity has on astronauts.

"The stem cell research being conducted now will benefit all of us in the future," said Dr. Sant Antonio. "I am confident that NASA's stem cell experiments will help astronauts stay younger and healthier in space, and this will eventually apply to people here on earth.

Dr. Sant Antonio has for the past two years submitted specimens for NASA's evaluation. Not until the final shuttle mission did the adult stem cells end up in space. "NASA came through in a huge way," said Dr. Sant Antonio. "Astronauts age much more quickly because of harmful gamma rays that bombard their bodies. Injecting future astronauts may slow the aging process in space. This is a critical step in space exploration. This is history in the making."

Read More: Atlantis Carries Adult Stem Cells Into Space

NASA - Station Crew Views Shuttle Atlantis Final Landing

This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station.

Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background.

Image Credit: NASA

Dawn Spacecraft Beams Back New Photo

NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 18, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometers) away from the protoplanet Vesta. The smallest detail visible is about 1.2 miles (2.0 km). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
Dawn took this image during its current orbit of Vesta, traveling from the day side to the night side.

The large structure near the south pole that showed up so prominently in previous images is visible in the center of the illuminated surface.

Compared to other images, this one shows more of the surface beneath the spacecraft in the shadow of night.
Vesta turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes.

Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, 2011, and will spend a year orbiting the body.

After that, the next stop on its itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

NASA Shuttle Atlantis: Last Flight and landing

Thus was history made: Space Shuttle Atlantis left the International Space Station on Tuesday and made its last return to Earth today.

The Shuttle era is now over and the door is open to the next generation of space vehicles.

After an additional day to accommodate the cargo movements to and from the Raffaello transport module, the STS-135 mission lasted 12 days 18 hours 27 minutes.

The main wheels of Atlantis touched the runway at 11:56:58 CEST (09:56:58 GMT) today in Florida.

Atlantis with Raffaello MPLM

Atlantis with Raffaello MPLM
Along with four astronauts, the spaceplane brought back a precious load of biomedical samples.

The Shuttle’s retirement leaves Russia’s smaller Soyuz craft as the only way to make return trips to the Station. The capacity for bringing down items is now very limited.

Atlantis also returned with 2.5 tonnes of waste, hardware no longer needed and a faulty ammonia pump for investigation.

Atlantis will now join the decommissioned vehicles of the Shuttle fleet, to be handed over to US museums.

In this case, the trip will be a short one: Atlantis will be a major attraction at the Kennedy Space Center’s nearby visitor complex.

'The All-American Meal' aboard the ISS

'The All-American Meal' aboard the ISS
"This was the last flight of this fantastic vehicle, which was able to carry more than 20 tonnes to space and back," said Thomas Reiter, ESA’s Director for Human Spaceflight and Operations and one of the 24 European astronauts to have flown on a Shuttle.

"This is sad, but also we’re looking into the future about the new things that will happen.

"We will continue to operate the Station for the upcoming years, when we have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsules for human transportation, but also the new transportation systems will soon come to the market."