Friday, August 3, 2007
$ 750 thousand to $1 million dollars. I’ve seen both figures quoted. Crazy Quote: 'I do not think it is at all probable that aeronautics will ever come into play as a serious modification of transport and communication.' H.G. Wells (early science fiction author), 1902.
airstrip on the Cape Canaveral Air Force station, used as an auxiliary landing field during the early space program, was originally called the Skid Strip. How did the name Skid Strip originate?
It was constructed at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the early 1950's as a landing site for pilotless jet-powered Snark and Navaho winged cruise missiles some of which made remotely controlled landings by sliding (skidding) in on the runway (They had skids as landing gear.)
On the planet,
The surface of Mars is more interesting than most planets. Like Mercury, Venus and Earth, Mars is mostly rock and metal. Mountains and craters scar the rugged terrain. The dust, an iron oxide, gives the planet its reddish cast. A thin atmosphere and an elliptical orbit combine to create temperature fluctuations ranging from minus 207 degrees Fahrenheit to a comfortable 80 degrees Fahrenheit on summer days (if you are at the equator). Researchers have recently monitored huge storms swirling on Mars (like this one). The storms are very similar to hurricanes on Earth.
Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos.
Is there water?
Mars was most likely warm and wet about 3.7 billion years ago. But as the planet cooled, the water froze. Remnants exist as ice caps at the poles (as shown here). A recent image of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope shows evidence of water-bearing minerals in large amounts, and scientists say the deposits may provide clues to the planet's water-rich background.
Is there life on Mars?
It has not yet been proven that there is life on Mars. A NASA announcement in 1996 about microscopic life found in a meteorite has failed to convince skeptics, and the search continues.
Mars data (averages): Diameter: 4,217 milesTime to rotate: 24 hours, 37 minutesOrbit: 687 Earth days
Compared to Earth:Mass: 11% of Earth's Diameter: 53% of Earth'sDistance from sun: 1.5 times as far
MARS: ROMAN GOD OF WAR
The apparent odd motion of Mars as seen from Earth stumped scientists for centuries, finally leading in the early 1600's to the notion that planets orbited the sun in an elliptical pattern. Percival Lowell, an amateur astronomer who studied Mars into the early 1900s, thought he saw canals that must have been dug by inhabitants. Upon closer examination with modern telescopes and planetary probes, they turned out to be optical illusions.
In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an Americanized version of a 40-year-old British novel by H.G. Wells -- The War of the Worlds. The radio drama was perceived by many as a real newscast about a Martian invasion near Princeton, New Jersey.
The Moon The Sun
This is the second "Phoenix" at the SETI Institute; the first was Project Phoenix which arose after the demise of NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992. HRMS had been designed to conduct a broad survey and a targeted star search for evidence of sentient life (aka, signals from technological civilizations) in the Milky Way Galaxy. The SETI Institute picked up the pieces from HRMS, and with private philanthropy, funded a decade of targeted star SETI research using major radio telescopes world-wide under the banner of Project Phoenix.
Today, NASA's Phoenix Mission is seeking evidence for microbial life on the nearby planet Mars, SETI Institute is involved in this search, as well.
Dr. John Marshall is a research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center (CSC) of the SETI Institute with a particular interest; he studies dust. Don't think of him as the "dustman," rather, he's a geologist who works at the microscopic scale. He studies dust to understand how water and wind have altered the surface of the tiny bits of rock to learn about the geological history of materials here on Earth, and soon, on Mars. Marshall is a co-investigator on NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission, which is first scheduled to launch August 3. Phoenix is a "Scout" mission led by PI Peter Smith at the University of Arizona. Like other CSC scientists, Marshall frequently collaborates with scientists and engineers at universities and NASA centers to conduct research onboard NASA space missions.
The Phoenix lander will set down in icy soils near the permanent north polar ice cap of Mars and explore the history of the water in the ice while monitoring polar climate. Phoenix is NASA's first exploration of a potential modern habitat on Mars (in search of carbon-bearing compounds) since the 1970s when NASA's two Viking missions landed on Mars. The science payload for Phoenix includes instruments built for the 2001 lander and improved versions of others flown on the lost Mars Polar Lander in 1999. In particular, Dr. Marshall will be analyzing the images from the microscope that is part of MECA, the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer which will look at dust in surface samples.
Dr. Marshall received his training as a geologist at University College London in England, but has spent his professional career in the United States. Marshall's specialty is sedimentology, and specifically the study of clastic particles - these are the sand and dust grains that comprise volcanic eruptions, dust storms, sand dunes, river sediments, beach sand, and so forth. These are grains of dust the size of particles of flour-a few microns in diameter-to the sand grains that you find at the seaside. For three decades, Marshall has investigated the material from two perspectives -their appearance under the microscope, and their electrostatic behavior. With the Phoenix Mission, he's taking his microscope to Mars, seeking evidence of water and life near the polar ice cap.
What can we learn from dust? If you ask Marshall, the answer is "plenty." Tiny grains of dust and sand record their history as microscopic textures on their surfaces. The effect of water in creating these surface textures can be detected. The Phoenix mission will provide the first microscope images from Mars - soil particles will be scooped up by a robotic arm, and examined to determine if liquid water has played a role in the physical and chemical evolution of materials at the landing site. Elucidating the role of liquid water on Mars using microscopic clues can provide valuable information about ancient climates on Mars, and the potential for life to have evolved there. Dr. Marshall is the lead scientist for geological interpretation of the size, shape, and textural characteristics of soil particles examined by the Phoenix mission microscope.
Marshall works on planetary protection as well: when we send a spacecraft to Mars, how can we keep from forward-contaminating the site with materials that actually originate from Earth? The Phoenix Mission will be looking for evidence of water and life on Mars, and Marshall and the other scientists on the team do not wish to discover Earth-derived materials instead of Martian materials. Later this year, Marshall and Dr. Rocco Mancinelli, a CSC microbiologist, will run a simulation at NASA Ames Research Center of the Phoenix landing using a one-half scale model from University of Michigan to test how materials might be abraded from the Phoenix spacecraft during landing and deposited on nearby Martian soils. If carbon-compounds are discovered on Mars, the team wants to be sure that they are Martian.
Among his varied projects, he's also studied dust devils on Earth and Mars, and the significant problems caused by dust clinging (actually sticking) to the astronaut's space suits. During the Apollo days, moon walkers became coated with lunar dust that clung tenaciously to their suits, boots and helmets, penetrated the space suit joints, and was tracked back into the landers. In preparing for the return to the Moon, and human travel to Mars, this remains a significant challenge: how can astronauts and equipment be protected from the clinging and penetrating dust? It's a work in progress.
Recently, I asked Marshall about his career as a research scientist and how he'd taken this pathway that is now leading to Mars. He said, "While space is a great place to extend my research on the nature of particles and their interactions, I'm fundamentally motivated to understand the basic nature of particulate materials. I'm a scientist, and when all is said and done, I'd like to be distinguished as the guy who did fundamental work on clastics, here on Earth and elsewhere, including Mars. My scientific discoveries are most important to me. Rather than being thought of as a Mars scientist who did something with samples of Martian soil, I'd like to be respected for my research into particulate materials. For me, space is simply a good place to do excellent science, and that's what motivates me."
With more than three decades of specialized research, Marshall looks forward to reading the stories written in Martian dust in the near future when the microscopic images are transmitted to Earth from the Phoenix lander. With Marshall, we'll all learn more about water on Mars, and perhaps about life on that small red world
On July 1st a bright dust cloud spilled out of Hellas Basin, a giant impact crater on Mars' southern hemisphere. The cloud quickly spread and by the Fourth of July was 1100 miles wide--about one-fourth the diameter of Mars itself.
Above: These pictures of Mars spanning July 2nd through 6th were captured by Donald Parker of Coral Gables, FL, using a 16-inch telescope. The stubby black arrows indicate the growing cloud. More images: July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th.
"The cloud can be seen now through a telescope as small as 6 inches," says Donald Parker, executive director of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO). "Its core is quite bright."
Sign up for EXPRESS SCIENCE NEWS delivery Parker has been tracking the cloud through his own 16-inch telescope. "A red filter helps," he notes. "Even a piece of red or orange gelatin held between the eye and ocular will improve the visibility of the dust."
Two years ago, a similar cloud from Hellas Basin grew until it circled the entire planet. Features on Mars long familiar to amateur astronomers--the dark volcanic terrain of Syrtis Major, for example--were hidden for months. "The planet looked like an orange billiard ball," recalls Parker.
Will it happen again?
"No one knows," says astronomer James Bell of Cornell University who studied the dust storm of 2001 using the Hubble telescope. "We don't yet understand the mechanism that causes regional clouds to self-assemble into giant dust storms."
Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, two NASA spacecraft circling Mars, have seen many "regional storms" like the cloud near Hellas Basin now. They persist for a few days or weeks, then dissipate. Rarely do they become a planet-wide event.
"Only 10 global or planet-encircling dust storms have been reported since 1877," notes Parker.
Left: An orange billiard ball: a world-wide dust storm on Mars in 2001 blurred the planet's normally sharp features. [more]
All dust storms on Mars, no matter what size, are powered by sunshine. Solar heating warms the martian atmosphere and causes the air to move, lifting dust off the ground.
Because the martian atmosphere is thin--about 1% as dense as Earth's at sea level--only the smallest dust grains hang in the air. "Airborne dust on Mars is about as fine as cigarette smoke," says Bell. These fine grains reflect 20% to 25% of the sunlight that hits them; that's why the clouds look bright. (For comparison, the reflectivity of typical martian terrain is 10% to 15%.)
Sunlight on Mars is about to become unusually intense. The planet goes around the sun in a 9%-elliptical orbit with one end 40 million km closer to the sun than the other. Mars reaches perihelion--its closest approach to the sun--on August 30th. During the weeks around perihelion, sunlight striking Mars will be 20% more intense than the annual average.
"This means the season for dust storms is just beginning," says Bell.
Above: Mars lies in the constellation Aquarius, which is best seen this month during the hours before local sunrise. Northern-hemisphere sky watchers should look south; southern-hemisphere sky watchers should look northeast to find the bright red planet.
A total of four spacecraft from NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan are en route to Mars now. They include three landers and two orbiters. Will dust storms cause problems for those missions?
Probably not. NASA spacecraft have encountered Mars dust before. The Viking landers of 1976, for instance, weathered two big dust storms without being damaged. As far as researchers were concerned, it was a good opportunity to study such storms from the inside--something Mars colonists may do again one day for themselves. Viking data will give them a head start.
Five years earlier, in 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft reached Mars during the biggest dust storm ever recorded. The planet was completely obscured; not even the polar caps were visible. Mission controllers simply waited a few weeks for the storm to subside. Then they carried on with Mariner 9's mission: to photograph the entire surface of the planet. It was a complete success.
As 2003 unfolds, Earth and Mars are drawing together for their closest approach in some 60,000 years on August 27th. Already in July Mars is a pleasing sight. Step outside before dawn anytime this month. Mars will be there in the southern sky, a remarkably bright red star. (If you live in the southern hemisphere, look northeast instead.)
Right: John Nemy and Carol Legate took this recent picture of bright Mars and a meteor above their campsite on Blackcomb Mountain, Whistler, British Columbia.
Even a small telescope will reveal the planet's orange disk and its icy south polar cap. And if "seeing is good" you might catch a glimpse of some dust clouds. Swirling, surging, merging with others ... building the next global dust storm? "They're fun to watch," says Parker. Now is a great time to see for yourself.
Diebold Election Systems Inc. voting machines are not secure enough to guarantee a trustworthy election, and an attacker with access to a single machine could disrupt or change the outcome of an election using viruses, according to a review of Diebold's source code.
"The software contains serious design flaws that have led directly to specific vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit to affect election outcomes," read the University of California at Berkeley report, commissioned by the California Secretary of State as part of a two-month "top-to-bottom" review of electronic voting systems certified for use in California.
The assessment of Diebold's source code revealed an attacker needs only limited access to compromise an election.
"An attack could plausibly be accomplished by a single skilled individual with temporary access to a single voting machine. The damage could be extensive -- malicious code could spread to every voting machine in polling places and to county election servers," it said.
The report, titled "Source Code Review of the Diebold Voting System," was apparently released Thursday, just one day before California Secretary of State Debra Bowen is to decide which machines are certified for use in California's 2008 presidential primary elections.
The source-code review identified four main weaknesses in Diebold's software, including: vulnerabilities that allow an attacker to install malware on the machines, a failure to guarantee the secrecy of ballots, a lack of controls to prevent election workers from tampering with ballots and results, and susceptibility to viruses that could allow attackers to an influence an election.
"A virus could allow an attacker who only had access to a few machines or memory cards, or possibly to only one, to spread malicious software to most, if not all, of a county's voting machines," the report said. "Thus, large-scale election fraud in the Diebold system does not necessarily require physical access to a large number of voting machines."
The report warned that a paper trail of votes cast is not sufficient to guarantee the integrity of an election using the machines. "Malicious code might be able to subtly influence close elections, and it could disrupt elections by causing widespread equipment failure on election day," it said.
The source-code review went on to warn that commercial antivirus scanners do not offer adequate protection for the voting machines. "They are not designed to detect virally propagating malicious code that targets voting equipment and voting software," it said.
In conclusion, the report said Diebold's voting machines had not been designed with security as a priority. "For this reason, the safest way to repair the Diebold system is to reengineer it so that it is secure by design," it said.
The Diebold source-code review and several other documents, including a review of source code used in other voting systems, had earlier been withheld from release by the Secretary of State, even as other reports related to the review of voting machines were released on July 27.
An explanation posted on the Secretary of State's Web site on July 27 noted the source-code review and other reports had been submitted on time. "Their reports will be posted as soon as the Secretary of State ensures the reports do not inadvertently disclose security-sensitive information," the Web site said.
The delayed release of the source-code review meant that David Wagner, an associate professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley and an author of the report, was not able to present his findings at a public hearing held on July 30 to discuss the results of the voting system review
It's not exactly a vote of confidence for Florida's optical scan voting machines, the ones that helped to replace those punch-card ballots with their notorious hanging chads. A government-ordered study finds the optical scan machines are still flawed, despite efforts to fix them. What's more, the machines are subject to potential tampering by poll workers. Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning has asked Diebold Elections Systems to address the problems by August 17th. He's expressing confidence the company will do so before next year's primary election. A company spokesman says the deadline will be met. Currently, 15 of Florida's 67 counties use paperless touch-screen voting machines, while the rest use optical scan machines. Touch-screen machines are being scrapped because of a newly signed state law that requires a verifiable paper trail for all voting machines.
MIT has launched a new graduate program in microbiology, integrating departments and disciplines from around the Institute. More than 50 faculty members from 10 MIT departments and divisions will participate in the program.
Alan Grossman, professor of biology and director of the new program, said he came up with the idea after realizing how many departments use microbes in their research at MIT.
Texas Instruments BA II Plus Professional Calculator"There's a push in many departments to do more life sciences research. Electrical engineering and computer science, physics, civil engineering have in the last several years had a very strong microbiology component," Grossman said. "It seemed like a really great opportunity to bring together people doing microbiology research from a range of different points of view.
"What's novel about the program is its breadth and interdisciplinary nature, and the expectation that students will have access to cell and molecular biologists, people who study pathogenesis and infectious disease, immunologists, environmental microbiologists, oceanographers, chemical engineers, computational biologists, evolutionary biologists, synthetic biologists," he said. "It's the integration of all of that that is really going to be the strength of the program.
Grossman said he hopes the program will attract students who are interested in all aspects of microbiology, as well as chemistry, physics, engineering, or computation. Once enrolled in the microbiology program, students will spend their first year taking courses and doing laboratory rotations before choosing a lab for their graduate research. Participating departments include the Departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Physics and Materials Science and Engineering.
The Committee on Graduate Programs approved the new program in May 2007.
The program will begin accepting applications for admission for the fall 2008 semester. Faculty serving as members of the Microbiology Graduate Committee are Grossman, who chairs the committee, Cathy Drennan of chemistry, Michael Laub of biology, Martin Polz of civil and environmental engineering, Leona Samson of biological engineering, David Schauer of biological engineering, Graham Walker of biology, Eric Alm of civil and environmental engineering, Kristala Jones Prather of chemical engineering, and JoAnne Stubbe of chemistry.
For more information about the program, visit microbiology.mit.edu or contact the program administrator, Bonnie Lee Whang, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some fun facts about microbes:
- There are approximately 10 times the number of microbial cells in an adult body than there are human cells.
- The number of different microbial genes in the human gut is estimated to be more than 100 times the number of genes in the human genome.
- For those of us who like wine, yogurt, cheese, in many cases we have bacteria to thank. And of course yeasts are used to produce many food products too (including those essentials, bread and beer).
- Microbial metabolism caTexas Instruments BA II Plus Professional Calculatorn be very useful for cleaning up waste materials in the environment, such as degrading toluene or benzene to carbon dioxide, or converting soluble forms of uranium to insoluble and immobile mineral phases. Microbial respiration of iron oxides can even protect steel from corrosion.
- Based on a number published in Whitman et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "Prokaryotes: The Unseen Majority" that claims the total number of microbes on the planet is approximately 5 x 10^30, you can calculate that if you lined up all the microbes on the planet end to end in a chain, it would stretch to the sun and back 200 x 10^12 times.
We've known for some time that Google has research and development resources dedicated to mobile phone technology, but the question has always been: will Google strike out on its own, or will it embrace partners in its quest to tackle the mobile world? Will it make its own phone, or just a set of applications and recommendations?
Citing "people familiar with the plMobileans," the Wall Street Journal has a write-up today exploring the rumors of Google's mobile ambitions. Google is believed to have spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" on its mobile phone project and has courted Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and others as possible partners for carrying a Google-designed phone. According to anonymous sources, Google has multiple phone prototypes and envisions a day in which mobile phones will be ad-supported thanks to services such as those Google provides.
As you would expect, Google is not ready to become a cellular provider just yet. Even if the company succeeds at the 700MHz spectrum auction, it will be a long time before it can compete with the likes of Verizon or AT&T as a carrier. Infrastructure can't be built overnight.
Instead, Google's approach is two-pronged, in that the company is working on its own devices, but is also working on a set of technical specifications and applications to be shared by multiple mobile devices. Google will allow manufacturers to use their prototype designs or make their own. Google's chief interest, clearly, is getting its applications on phones. Mobile device versions of Google Maps, Google Talk, and even Gmail are already popular, and the company is working on a web browser as well.
Of course, as we have reported previously, mobile ad platforms make the wireless carriers nervous, especially when they are built around search services that are ultimately poised to eat the carriers' lunch. If you're a Verizon or a T-Mobile, you have the option of running your own search engines, which would allow you to keep a bigger chunk of the revenues generated from advertisers. Of course, if users sidestep your services for something offered by Google, then you'll ultimately lose out.
However, ad revenue sharing is not the only issue. Third-party search results can't be manipulated by wireless carriers to promote their own offerings by privileging them in searches and other search-based services. The wireless industry thrives on monetizing what many would consider typical behavior on any IP network, and handing over the keys to Google makes them understandably nervous about their own futures. They might also be a bit bitter when Google turns around and uses its own services to cross-promote its other offerings, which it can do for free.
For now, interest among carriers appears to be mild, but of course, no one is talking on the record, and Google is still deep in R&D. Stay tuned.
Google investing heavily in cell phones -
After pulling in billions of dollars from online advertising, the search giant is looking to mobile phone ads, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Google, the Internet search giant that's pulled in billions of dollars in online advertising, is looking to break into the market for mobile phone ads, according to one report Thursday.
Advertising on cell phones is a fast-growing market, and Google (down $2.58 to $510.36, Charts, Fortune 500) has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to capture a chunk of it, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed sources.
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Google is entering the fight for your wireless service and could change how you access the Internet. CNN's Josh Levs reports.
Following the launch of the wildly popular Apple (up $1.25 to $136.25, Charts, Fortune 500) iPhone, Google phones are still in development, and won't be available to consumers until next year at the earliest.
Google's mobile phone plan could offer features, such as its search engine and maps on certain phones.
While Google's powerhouse brand could drive customers to wireless carriers like AT&T (Charts), Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile (Charts), the carriers are reluctant to give up control of the mobile advertising market. Last year, worldwide spending on cell phone ads was about $1.5 billion, research firm eMarketer told the Journal, but should reach $14 billion by 2011.
Mountain View, California-based Google is certain about its plans to develop software and services for cell phones, however.
Young children become chatterboxes within months of barely being able to speak a few words. Now one scientist thinks he knows why.
Children do not need any specialised learning to suddenly improve their vocabularies, says language psychologist Bob McMurray at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, US. Instead, tI SPY Treasure Hunt (Win & Mac)heir behaviour can be described by a simple mathematical rule of thumb.
Parents of small children will be familiar with the so-called "word spurt", the slightly disconcerting stage of a child's life when they go from hardly talking to suddenly uttering hundreds of new words, sometimes after hearing them only once.
At 18 months, for instance, the average child can say 50 words, but by age two, they have learned up to 350 words; just half a year later, that has doubled to 600.
Scientists have proposed various theories to explain the phenomenon. For instance, perhaps learning a few basic words helps a child learn others. The theory of "naming insight", for instance, suggests that at around 18 months children suddenly realise that each object has a specific name.
Another theory, called "fast mapping", suggests that children quickly understand that groups of objects are related, and therefore they learn unfamiliar words describing objects within familiar groups more quickly.
According to McMurray, however, there is a much simpler explanation. The acceleration in a child's learning will inevitably happen due to the way most languages are structured.
All languages, he says, contain a distribution of words, where most are of medium difficultly to learn, while fewer are either very easy, or very difficult. And children always learn a number of words in parallel. He factored these parameters into a computational model, which then simulates how long it takes to learn 10,000 new words.
On each simulation the model produced the same characteristic acceleration in learning. Essentially learning one new word makes learning another new word even easier. This allows a child to move through words of medium difficulty more quickly. "Acceleration is an unavoidable by-product of variation in difficulty," he says.
"Mathematically this may be true," says speech expert Lisa Gershkoff-Stowe at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, US. But she cautions that it isn't the first time a researcher has tried to explain the spurt with a computational model, and that McMurray's idea "doesn't get to the heart of why kids learn faster."
The model also doesn't explain why older people learning a second language don't show a similar acceleration in their learning
Invention: Coffee beer
A drink somewhere between coffee and beer could soon be on the menu. Nestec, part of the Nestlé empire in Switzerland, has filed patents in every major market round the world on a "fermented coffee beverage" that pours and foams like beer, but smells of strong coffee and packs a concentrated caffeine kick.
The beverage is made in a similar way to beer, but fine-tuned temperature control stops the formation of ethyl alcohol. So the new drink could go down well with people who want a long tall pick-me-up while driving.
Nestlé admits it was tricky to preserve the characteristic coffee smell in the production process. Coffee beans are roasted normally, and the chemicals containing the natural aroma collected in a cryogenic condenser, before being converted into coffee oil. The remains of the roast are then ground to powder, mixed with yeast and sucrose, and fermented for 4 hours at just below 22°C. At this temperature the yeast can still metabolise but does not generate alcohol.
The aroma oil is then mixed in with the liquid and nitrogen is injected to make it foam. Adding a touch of extra sugar also helps trap the aroma until the drink is poured, Nestlé claim..