Archive for September, 2010

Congress Finally Passed a NASA Plan. So What's in It?

By Andrew Moseman | September 30, 2010 4:51 pm

FirstShuttleLaunchFinally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.

Money

The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.

Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.

Space Shuttle

The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.

With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts

Painting a Picture of a Prehistoric Penguin Via Fossilized Feathers

By Eliza Strickland | September 30, 2010 3:13 pm

penguin-feathersFrom Ed Yong:

All modern penguins wear a suit of black feathers, but prehistoric members of the group didn’t go for the dinner jacket look. A newly discovered penguin, known as Inkayacu, was dressed in grey and reddish-brown hues.

It is neither the oldest nor the largest penguin fossil, it doesn’t hail from a new part of the world, and it provides few clues about the group’s evolution. However, it does have one stand-out feature that probably secured its unveiling in the pages of Science – its feathers.

Read about Inkayacu‘s magnificently preserved fossil feathers and what they tell us about this prehistoric bird at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Ed also has the artists’ renderings of what this powerful penguin may have looked like.

Related Content:
80beats: What Color Were Feathered Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Birds?
80beats: Emperor Penguins May Be Marching to Extinction by 2100
80beats: Researchers Use Feather “Fingerprints” to Track Penguins
Discoblog: The Mystery of the Macaroni Penguin and the Bad Egg
Discoblog: To Track Penguins, Scientists Use High-Tech Satellite Images of…Droppings

Image: Science / AAAS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Russian Company Plans to Open Orbital Space Hotel in 2016

By Jennifer Welsh | September 30, 2010 1:13 pm

spacehotelRussian company Orbital Technologies has announced its plans to build a commercial space station (to be named the commercial space station, if you can believe that), which would also serve as a “space-hotel” for visiting tourists. The company claims the venture will launch in 2016.

“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of Orbital Technologies. [Los Angeles Times]

The station will be able to host up to seven passengers in its homey capsule, free of extraneous scientific instruments and pesky astronauts and cosmonauts. It will be built by RSC Energia, the same company that builds the Soyuz passenger capsules and the Progress cargo ships used by the Russian space agency. It will follow the same orbit as the International Space Station, and will be able to dock with shuttles from around the world.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Texting-While-Driving Bans Increase Crashes, Study Says; Rumpus Erupts

By Andrew Moseman | September 30, 2010 12:35 pm

TextingDrivingStates enact laws against texting while driving, hoping to reduce accidents. In the time after those laws go into effect, the number of accidents in those states doesn’t decline. So are the laws a bad idea?

The question arises from a report out this week by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a division of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The study looked at accident rates in Minnesota, California, Washington, and Louisiana before and after those states enacted their texting-while-driving bans. The authors found no reduction in the number of crashes, and actually saw increases in three states. (They also compared those states to others in their regions without bans to ensure that the numbers they’d found weren’t part of a larger trend.)

So what gives? For the IIHS, this is proof that texting laws aren’t doing any good, and might even be doing harm.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

How Excited Should We Be About the New "Goldilocks" Exoplanet?

By Andrew Moseman | September 30, 2010 10:03 am

gliese581From Phil Plait:

Astronomers have announced the discovery of a planet with about three times the Earth’s mass orbiting the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581. That in itself is cool news; a planet like that is very hard to detect.

But the amazing thing is that the planet’s distance from the star puts it in the Goldilocks Zone: the region where liquid water could exist on its surface!

Gliese 581 is about 20 light years away, and astronomers think the planet in the habitable zone is one of at least six in that star system. The new exoplanet orbits much closer to its star than Earth orbits the sun, but its star is a red dwarf, so it needs to be closer to stay warm enough to support liquid water.

But just how like the Earth is this new world? And what does it mean for the prevalence of ‘Goldilocks” planets out there? To find out, read the rest of the post at Bad Astronomy. And check out the scientists’ paper about Gliese 581 (pdf).

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Possible earthlike planet found in the Goldilocks zone of a nearby star!
80beats: Astronomers Find 2 Giant Exoplanets Locked in an Endless Dance
80beats: Kepler’s Early Results Suggest Earth-Like Planets Are Dime-a-Dozen
80beats: Temperate, Jupiter-Sized World Resembles the Planets of Our Solar System

Image: ESO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Long-Lost Letters From DNA Pioneers Reveal Conflicts and Tensions

By Jennifer Welsh | September 30, 2010 10:02 am

DNAAlmost 50 years after they won the Nobel Prize for defining the structure of DNA, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick are in the news again.

Nine boxes of “lost” correspondence (from the days before email!) between two competing groups of researchers have been unearthed. The letters, between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of King’s College and Watson and Crick at Cambridge University, provide insight into the researchers’ mindsets while they were making these historic, game-changing discoveries.

“The [letters] give us much more flavor and examples illuminating the characters and the relations between them,” said study researcher Alexander Gann, editorial director at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. “They’re consistent with what we already believed, but they add important details.” [MSNBC.com]

Gann and Jan Witkowski published a commentary on the new material in the September 30 issue of Nature. The letters highlight the different mentalities between the two groups as they approached the project: an attitude of spirited excitement on the side of the Cambridge clan, and an air of anxiety from Wilkins.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

The Peculiar Case of a Postdoc Sabotaging His Colleague's Cell Cultures

By Andrew Moseman | September 29, 2010 5:19 pm

SecurityCameraNobody wants to win more than lab rats—grad students and postdocs thanklessly toiling away at experiments into the night, trying to make a name for themselves. And when a lot of people want something badly, some of them cheat.

A spectacularly gratuitous case came out in Nature this week: that of former University of Michigan postdoc Vipul Bhrigu. After being caught on hidden camera using ethanol to poison the cell cultures of grad student Heather Ames, Bhrigu was sentenced for malicious destruction of personal property. Most people take that particular misdemeanor rap for vandalizing a car. Bhrigu vandalized months of research.

Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by “internal pressure” and had hoped to slow down Ames’s work. Speaking earlier this month, he was contrite. “It was a complete lack of moral judgement on my part,” he said. [Nature]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Water Woes: The Southwest's Supply Dwindles; China's Behemoth Plumbing Project Goes On

By Andrew Moseman | September 29, 2010 2:22 pm

Lake_mead_july_2009Worrying about water (and fighting over it, and creatively diverting it) is a way of life in the arid American West. However, according to reports out this week, the ever-precarious water level is nearing a breaking point where the states of the West might have to put emergency plans into place.

Lake Mead, the giant reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas Nevada, is fast approaching its all-time low level of 1,083 feet set more than half a century ago. Should the level dip below 1,075, things will get serious.

That will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced. This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected. [The New York Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Sodium Spurs a Tadpole to Regenerate Its Tail

By Andrew Moseman | September 29, 2010 11:59 am

TadpoleTailIf a young tadpole loses its tail, no problem—it can grow a new one. Biologist Michael Levin and his team experimented with this amphibian talent, and they say they found the signal that triggers the regeneration: sodium. If scientists can find the trigger in tadpoles, perhaps someday they could find triggers for other species. Maybe even humans.

By using drugs to prompt a flood of sodium ions into injured nerve cells, biologists from Tufts University were able to regenerate severed tadpole tails — complex appendages containing spinal cord, muscle and other tissue. [LiveScience]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

After 9 Years Retirement, Lab Chimps May Return to Medical Testing

By Jennifer Welsh | September 29, 2010 10:39 am

chimpThe governor of New Mexico wants a say in the future of 168 chimpanzees, and has pulled scientists, government officials, and even Jane Goodall into the debate.

The chimps in question are currently living (and have been for the last ten years) in a research reserve in the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico. They were all previously used as lab animals, where they are used to test and study HIV and Hepatitis C, life-threatening human diseases which don’t grow in any other animals.

The chimps were removed from laboratory testing after being taken from the Coulston Foundation, a research facility that was found to be abusing and neglecting its primate residents. The Alamogordo reserve was given the ten-year contract to house and care for the animals in 2001.

Harold Watson, who heads the chimpanzee research program for the National Center for Research Resources, said that with the end of the contract, it only makes sense to use the chimps for their original purpose. [The New York Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
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