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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Indian science conquers new frontiers

A national programme launched over six years ago has today yielded a host of MEMS devices such as silicon-based pressure sensors, electronic chemical sensors, piezoelectric actuators, biochips and microsystems for molecular amplification in biology.

There have been other developments in nano science - a branch of science that deals with materials of sizes that are thousand times thinner than human hair. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 2003 showed that flow of fluids through carbon nanotubes generates electric current. That is, these nanotubes act as 'flow sensors'.

This has immediate and interesting application possibilities. You can imagine a coronary pacemaker without battery and powered by the body's own blood or a tiny implant that controls the blood flow of a heart-lung machine or as nanosensors in chemical and biological reactors where fluid flows have to be precisely controlled.

From India govt :
India is one of the top-ranking countries in the field of basic research. Indian Science has come to be regarded as one of the most powerful instruments of growth and development, especially in the emerging scenario and competitive economy. In the wake of the recent developments and the new demands that are being placed on the S&T system, it is necessary for us to embark on some major science projects which have relevance to national needs and which will also be relevant for tomorrow's technology. The Department of Science & Technology plays a pivotal role in promotion of science & technology in the country. The department has wide ranging activities ranging from promoting high end basic research and development of cutting edge technologies on one hand to service the technological requirements of the common man through development of appropriate skills and technologies on the other.

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Daniel Kunkle Math Trek :Cracking the Cube

Daniel Kunkle can solve a Rubik's Cube in 26 moves. Or at least his computer can.

Kunkle, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, has proved that 26 moves are enough to solve any Rubik's Cube, no matter how scrambled. That's one move below the previous record. In the process of cracking the cube, he developed algorithms that can be useful for problems as disparate as scheduling air flights and determining how proteins will fold.

Rubik's Cube has approximately 43 quintillion possible configurations. Even a supercomputer can't search through every possible configuration to find the quickest way to unscramble a given starting arrangement in a reasonable amount of time. So Kunkle and his advisor Gene Cooperman developed some clever mathematical and computational strategies to make the puzzle more manageable.

Kunkle and Cooperman started by applying various mathematical tricks. If each side of the cube is one color, the puzzle is solved regardless of which color is on which side. By considering configurations to be equivalent if they differ only in having two colors interchanged, the computer scientists managed to reduce the number of truly distinct configurations to just over a quintillion.

Next, they looked at a simpler problem: they considered only configurations that could be solved by twisting facelets through half-turns only, with no quarter-turns. Only about 15,000 of the quintillion configurations can be solved in this way. A standard PC can find the shortest way to unscramble each of this relatively small number of configurations in less than a day, simply by searching through all possible moves. The team found that any puzzle in one of those special configurations could be solved in 13 moves or fewer.

Then they figured out how many steps are required to turn any random configuration into one of the 15,000 special configurations. To do this, they first classified the configurations into sets, each containing configurations that can be transformed among themselves using only half-turns. These sets were constructed in such a way that a series of moves that gets from one member of any set to one of the special configurations will also turn any other member of the set into a special configuration. They ended up with 1.4 trillion of these sets, so they now had only 1.4 trillion problems to solve-far fewer than the original 43 quintillion, but still a formidable number.

Now they put a supercomputer on the job and applied clever computational strategies to speed up the search. Because it takes computers a very long time to search for information stored on a hard drive, Kunkle and Cooperman developed ways to store the information in precisely the order the computer would later need it. That way, the computer could read the information off the drive without searching for it.

"These kinds of techniques can be applied to any combinatorial problem that you want to solve," Kunkle says. He points to checkers, chess, scheduling of air flights, and protein folding as examples. A somewhat similar set of computational techniques was recently used to find the best strategies for playing checkers (SN: 7/21/07, p. 36).

After 63 hours of calculation, the supercomputer found that it took no more than 16 steps to turn any random configuration into a special configuration that can be solved using only half-turns. And since those special puzzles can be solved in no more than 13 steps, this approach showed that 29 steps were enough to solve any Rubik's Cube.

But this answer wasn't good enough to set a new record. Last year, Silviu Radu of the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden showed that any Rubik's Cube can be solved in no more than 27 steps. Kunkle and Cooperman realized that to set a new record, they would need to eliminate three steps.

Their existing method had established that all but about 80 million sets of configurations could be solved in 26 steps or fewer. By searching through all possible moves starting from those relatively few configurations, they succeeded in finding a solution for each one that took 26 steps or fewer.

They presented their result July 29 at the International Symposium on Symbolic and Algebraic Computation in Waterloo, Ontario.

Kunkle and Cooperman now hope to knock the maximum number of steps down to 25. They think they can use their brute-force search method on all of the configurations that require 26 steps to find a quicker way to solve them.

Even if they manage this feat, however, it will probably leave room for improvement. Most researchers believe that just 20 steps are enough to solve any Rubik's Cube, but no one has proved it yet.

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Messiness Rules: In high dimensions, disorder packs tightest

Should you find yourself with a 60-dimensional suitcase, the best way to pack it may be the easiest: Throw in everything in a jumble. That's the way to fit the most high-dimensional spheres into a fixed space, new research suggests.

The finding may be useful even to people without extra-dimensional luggage. It may improve the design of mathematical procedures called error-correcting codes used in computers to interpret noisy data.

Some 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler speculated that the best scheme for packing three-dimensional spheres is the way that grocers have always done it. Their orderly, pyramidal packing scheme piles the most oranges into the least space. Yet it took mathematicians until 1998 to prove Kepler right (SN: 8/15/98, p. 103:

But what about higher-dimensional spheres? Although a 5- or 6- or 60-dimensional sphere may sound strange, it's mathematically simple. A sphere in any dimension is the collection of points a fixed distance from a central point.

But in high dimensions, spheres behave oddly. "Anything that can happen will happen if you're in high enough dimensions," notes sphere-packing mathematician Henry Cohn of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash.

MAth logic

As a result of this odd behavior, mathematicians haven't yet found the densest packing scheme for homogeneous groups of high-dimensional spheres. A century ago, they determined a range for the best scheme, but there have been only slight improvements since. Salvatore Torquato and Frank Stillinger, both theoretical physicists at Princeton University, now describe an approach that sharply narrows that range.

The pair suggests that in high dimensions, it's best to pack spheres in patterns that vary from spot to spot, rather than to repeat an arrangement in an orderly way. "People have intuited this might be the case," says Torquato, "but this provides the first evidence backed up by some solid math."

The argument, published in the fall Experimental Mathematics, relies on the assertion that certain disordered packing arrangements exist in very high dimensions. Support for that idea comes from physics rather than math. "The arguments they've got for the conjecture are nothing like a math proof, but they feel compelling," Cohn says.

The physicists bring a new approach to a mathematical problem, which ultimately may be more important than the result, Cohn adds. "Regardless of whether [the finding] is true, it injects exciting ideas into the field," he says.

Furthermore, the results may improve the design of computer equipment. Engineers use high-dimensional sphere packings to generate the error-correcting codes that electronic equipment uses for communication (SN: 10/2/04, p. 219: Torquato says that the new research suggests a much better approach to designing these codes.

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Robocup 2007

Bowdoin College's RoboCup team, the Northern Bites, has won the RoboCup 2007 world championship games held in Atlanta, Georgia.
A team from Bowdoin College, a small, liberal arts college in Maine, has captured the top prize in RoboCup 2007, one of the world's premier robotics competitions

The Northern Bites beat last year's champions, the NUBots, of the University of Newcastle in Australia, 5-1 to become the 2007 world champions in the Four-Legged Robot League. The Bites also beat teams from China, Germany, Japan, and Mexico, as well as the team from Carnegie Mellon University, which has one of the best computer science programs in the world.

The Four-Legged League, in which Sony Aibo robotic dogs play soccer, is one of RoboCup's most exciting and popular competitions. Teams of four robots play soccer on a 3x5 meter field for 10-minute halves. The robots use wireless networking to communicate with each other and the game referee (but not with any other humans; the robots operate autonomously, not by remote control). All teams must use identical hardware (the Aibo) with no modificiations allowed, with the result that winners are determined by the effectiveness of their software.

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The goal of the international RoboCup soccer initiative is to develop a team of humanoid robots that is able win against the official human World Soccer Champion team until 2050. In some sense the RoboCup challenge is the successor of the chess challenge (a computer beating the human World Chess Champion) that was solved in 1997 when Deep Blue won against Garry Kasparow.

Currently, there exist a number of different RoboCup soccer leagues that focus on different aspects of this challenge. The Four-Legged League is one of them. In the league teams consisting of four Sony Aibo robots each play on a field of 6 m x 4 m. The robots operate fully autonomously, i.e. there is no external control, neither by humans nor by computers.

Look back

fdf In the most recent 11th "RoboCuop" tournament, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, attendees witnessed a competition between microscopic robots that competed within the "Nanogram League". The designed micro robots ranged from 100 to 300 micrometers in size, and therefore the match could only be seen through a magnified broadcast shown on large screens at the event. Two of the participating teams in this challenge came from Carnegie Mellon University. One was led by Electrical Engineering and Robotics Professor Gary Fedder and the other by Mettin Sitti, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics. The teams used different techniques to approach the problem and presented robots powered by electrostatic or electromagnetic field actuation. The "Nanogram League" is hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which hopes to show the advantages and the potential of building and applying very small devices in manufacturing, biotechnology and other industries.

At the center of the competition, the 34 participating teams, who arrived at Georgia Tech from all around the world, competed in one of the four leagues: the four-legged AIBO league - 1st place taken by the "Northern Bites" from Bowdoin College, USA, the small and mid-sized robot leagues - 1st places taken by "CMDragons'07" from Carnegie Mellon University and "Brainstormers Tribots" fromUniversity of Osnabruek, Germany, (including the "Nanogram League", in which the winners were "ETH" from Zurich) and the robot rescue league (1st place taken by "INDEPENDENT" - a team from King Mongkut's Institute of Technology in North Bangkok, Thailand). In addition, robots were tested on their performances in various sport simulations, like one in which they faced a goal guarded by a human player, and the task was to score as many soccer goals as possible.

The organizers of the RoboCup expect that innovative technologies will emerge from this competition, and the most outstanding robots built will be used in practice in different fields. One of the focuses of RoboCup is the developing of robots to be used in search and rescue missions. These robots may save lives in cases where humans are unable to enter because of a dangerous environment.

RoboCup is an international research and education initiative. In 1993 the concept of soccer-playing robots was first looked at, and after 2 years of feasibility study the conference and games were announced. In July 1997 the first official games were held in Nagoya, Japan. Since then, the annual games were hosted by different countries around the world including France (1998), Australia (2000), Germany (2006), and others.

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Mars' Sleep Cycle Study May Help Earthlings

By synchronizing people to the Martian day, U.S. researchers are demonstrating the flexibility of the human biological clock.

The study might help further research into sleep woes, said researchers in the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Understanding how our biological clock can be adjusted is a critical step in developing therapy for circadian rhythm sleep disorders, which disturb sleep at night and compromise daytime cognitive functioning," lead author Frank A. J. L. Scheer, associate director of the Medical Chronobiology Program at BWH, said in a prepared statement.

His team was able to synchronized volunteers' biological clocks to the 24.65-hour day of Mars and to the 23.5-hour day often experienced by astronauts in low orbit around the Earth.

The researchers also found that synchronizing with the Martian clock resulted in long-term changes to the circadian period of the volunteers' biological clock. This showed, for the first time, flexibility in the this system in humans, the study authors said.

For this study, seven young men spent 73 days in a controlled environment without any time cues, other than controlled light/dark conditions.

According to the researchers, the findings could prove important in treating circadian rhythm sleep disorders (such as those caused by jet lag and shift work) and in preparing humans for space exploration.

Anyone who has traveled has experienced jet lag-that groggy realization that while your day is beginning in Washington, D.C., the night you just left in San Francisco is hardly over. Jet lag is an inconvenient reminder that the body is set to a 24-hour clock, known by scientists as circadian rhythms, from the Latin circa dies, "about one day." An internal biological clock is fundamental to all living organisms, influencing hormones that play a role in sleep and wakefulness, metabolic rate, and body temperature.

Disruption of circadian rhythms not only affects sleep patterns but also has been found to precipitate mania in people with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness).1 Other types of illnesses also are affected by circadian rhythms; for example, heart attacks occur more frequently in the morning while asthma attacks occur more often at night.2,3

Although biological clocks have been the focus of intensive research over the past four decades, only recently have the tools needed to examine the molecular basis of circadian rhythms become available. Early studies pointed to an area of the brain, the hypothalamus, as the location of the circadian pacemaker in mammals.4 More recent findings show proteins called cryptochromes, located throughout the body, are also involved in detecting changes in light and setting the body's clock.5

Genes that code for the clock protein, PER, glow in the head and other body parts of a fruit fly. Researchers made the clocks glow by engineering transgenic strains of flies in which the same genes that illuminate a jellyfish and a firefly's tail are attached to PER. The gene for luciferase, the enzyme that glows intermittently in fireflies, was expressed along with PER to reveal when the clock protein was being produced. Flies were also molecularly altered to brightly mark the clock sites with Green Fluorescent Protein, which glows constantly in jellyfish. Source: Jeffrey Plautz, Ph.D., Stanford University; Steve Kay, Ph.D., The Scripps Research Institute.6

The first circadian gene was discovered in 1971 in the fruit fly;7 a second circadian gene was detected 13 years later.8,9 Following these discoveries, however, the search for clock genes in other organisms faltered. Not until 1997 was the first circadian gene found in a mammalian model, the mouse.10 This discovery immediately accelerated the search for other clock genes, and findings in higher order animals are yielding a consistent picture of the role and function of circadian rhythms in organisms from bacteria to plants to mammals.11

Today, we know the most about the workings of the biological clock in the fruit fly and a peek inside its mechanisms illustrates the complex elegance of the rhythms of life.12 The fly's clock consists of a core system of four regulatory proteins that interact to give the clock periodicity. The cycle begins when two of these proteins, CLOCK and CYCLE, bind together and increase the production of two other proteins, PER and TIM, the levels of which slowly accumulate over time. When enough PER and TIM are made, they inactivate the CLOCK-CYCLE complex, slowing their own production and signaling the end of the cycle.

Fruit fly clock cycle-Interaction of four regulatory proteins, entrained by light, creates the daily rhythm of the fruit fly's clock. The binding of CYCLE and CLOCK turns on genes that make PER and TIM, which accumulate over several hours until they reach levels that turn off CYCLE and CLOCK. This, in turn, slows down the production of PER and TIM, which begins the cycle all over again. Source: Steve Kay, Ph.D., and Karen Wager-Smith, Ph.D., The Scripps Research Institute.12

Although parts of the puzzle still are missing, discoveries stimulated by this progress are yielding intriguing findings. Proteins such as DBT ("Double-Time") that act to fine tune the mechanism have been identified.13 Recently, variations have been found in the human Clock gene, which may predispose people to be "early birds" or "night owls."14 Other research has linked academic and behavior problems in adolescents to irregular sleep patterns.15

Researchers have found that imposing too early school start times on children requires unrealistic bedtimes to allow adequate time for sleeping.16 Early school start times for adolescents are frequently associated with significant sleep deprivation, which can lead to academic, behavioral, and psychological problems, as well as increased risk for accidents and injuries, especially for teenage drivers. Completing our understanding of biological clockworks will lead to better treatments for diseases affected by circadian rhythm, as well as to methods of coping with disrupted sleep patterns.

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Tame Tornadoes Might Generate Power

Tornadoes are wild, destructive natural phenomena - right? Not necessarily, according to engineer Louis Michaud, who believes that he has found a way to create full-size "tame" tornadoes that could be used to generate electricity.

Michaud has spent forty years studying tornadoes and is convinced that it is possible to create small tornadoes on demand using a "vortex engine," a device he has patented in both the U.S. and Canada. A full scale vortex engine would produce a funnel cloud that would stretch several kilometers into the atmosphere. The artificial tornado would be powered at the base by waste heat (ideally from a power-generating facility).

The waste heat from the plant would be carried to a nearby vortex engine facility by hot water. A small amount of electricity would be used to blow dry air across the hot water pipes. The heated air would rise with a spinning motion, gathering energy as it rises, creating a vortex. As it gathers momentum, it begins to pull air in through the fans, which would now function as turbines that generate electricity (see base plan).

As long as waste heat is supplied at the base, the vortex will keep spinning, and power will be generated.

According to Michaud, a commercial plant between 200 meters and 400 meters in diameter could generate 200 megawatts of power; it would cost about $60 million to construct. However, about $20 million of that cost would be offset because the generating plant would not require a cooling tower.

Michaud's vortex engine has received a fair amount of support from the scientific community. The University of Western Ontario's wind-tunnel laboratory, through a seed investment from OCE's Centre for Energy, is studying the dynamics of a one-meter version of Michaud's vortex engine.

Professor Nilton Renno, of the department of atmospheric, ocean and spaces sciences at the University of Michigan, has spent his career studying tornados and water spouts. He says there's no reason why Michaud's vortex engine wouldn't work.

Michaud has formed a private corporation, AVEtec, to seek for investor funding. Top atmospheric scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and MIT have joined the AVEtec advisory board.

The idea has applications beyond replacement of cooling towers. Vortex engines located in the ocean on the equator could use warm tropical water to provide an endless source of energy.

Besides energy harvesting, vortex engines would propel hot air high into the atmosphere where it could radiate more easily back into space. In other words, they would act like air conditioners to counter global warming.

Science fiction writers Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth write about the unexpected uses of tornado force winds in their 1952 classic The Space Merchants. In the story, savvy marketers try to make life on planet Venus more palatable for settlers by harvesting the strong Venusian winds with Hilsch vortex tubes:

And Development had not developed but found a remarkable little thing called a high-speed Hilsch Tube. Using no power, it could refrigerate the pioneers' homes by using the hot tornadoes of Venus.
(Read more about (Hilsch vortex tubes)

AboutHilsch vortex tubes

Hilsch Vortex Tube
A T-shaped device that admits air under pressure and outputs hot air from side and cold from the other.

The Hilsch Tube is a real device that dates from 1928. A French physics student named George Ranque was experimenting with a pipe that produced a vortex when he noticed warm air coming from one end and cool air from the other. Pressurized air blown into the single "bottom" leg of the "T" encounters a special valve at the junction; if adjusted properly, hot air comes out of the right side upper end at 100 degrees Fahrenheit and cold air comes out the other end at -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, it was not commercially viable at that time and was forgotten. It was picked up again by a German physicist named Rudolph Hilsch, who published a paper on the device.

Today, there are commercial companies that produce real, working Vortex Tubes; they produce cool air without electricity, and without all of the moving parts required by refrigeration equipment
And Development had not developed but found a remarkable little thing called a high-speed Hilsch Tube. Using no power, it could refrigerate the pioneers' homes by using the hot tornadoes of Venus. It was a simple thing that had been lying around since 1943. Nobody until us had any use for it because nobody until us had that kind of wind to play with.
Here's what I really like about the use of the Hilsch Vortex Tube in the story. It shows real flexibility of mind to take something which was of no apparent industrial use at the time (too much work involved in pressurizing the air going in), but would work in the new context of a windy Venus.

Even though the Technovelgy site is about science fiction, not fantasy, this seems to be a case in which Maxwell's demon really exists.

If you are interested in the Hilsch Vortex tube, you might also be fascinated with the Windhexe. Nicknamed the "Tornado in a Can", the Windhexe creates a tornado-force wind within a steel funnel. It can reduce two tons of trash into one ton of sterile powder at a fraction of the energy cost of typical crushers, shredders and dryers. And nobody knows exactly how it works.

Stone Age settlement found in English Channel ,Aztec Offerings Found in Bottom of Mexico Lake

Erosion on the floor of the English Channel is revealing the remains of a busy Stone Age settlement, from a time when Europe and Britain were still linked by land, a team of archaeologists says.

The site, just off the Isle of Wight, dates back 8,000 years, not long before melting glaciers filled in the Channel and likely drove the settlement's last occupants north to higher ground.

"This is the only site of its kind in the United Kingdom," said Garry Momber, director of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology, which led the recent excavations. "It is important because this is the period when modern people were blossoming, just coming out of the end of the Ice Age, living more like we do today in the valleys and lowlands."

Lobsters mucking around the seabed at the site about 10 years ago revealed a cache of Mesolithic flints, prompting further excavations that uncovered two hearths (ancient ovens) dangling precariously from the edge of an underwater cliff.

Burnt wood fragments gouged with cut marks and a layer of wood chippings were found lying under 35 feet of water during the latest dig. Divers brought the material to the surface still embedded in slabs of the sea floor that were carried up in specially-designed boxes, which were then pieced back together and examined and dated in the lab.

We now have unequivocal evidence of human activity at the site," Momber told LiveScience. "There were people here actively making stuff and being quite industrious."

At 8,000-years-old, the settlement is the only underwater Mesolithic site in Britain, though it is probably part of a much larger area of occupation yet to be uncovered, Momber said.

As the climate began to warm up near the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, people were moving into Northern Europe and settling down in the many river valleys left behind by melting glaciers, Momber explained. Many of the valleys, such as the ones now beneath the English Channel, were eventually inundated completely when temperatures returned to normal.

"A good chunk of the material left behind from this cultural period is eventually going to be found underwater," Momber said.

Underwater sites better preserved
Despite the logistical problems of underwater archaeology, the Isle of Wight site and others like it are usually better preserved than their counterparts on land, Momber said.

When the floodwater rose slowly in the English Channel, it deposited layers of silt atop the settlement, encasing it in an oxygen-free environment that preserves even organic materials such as wood and food.

Aztec Offerings Found in Bottom of Mexico Lake

MEXICO CITY - Archaeologists diving into a lake in the crater of a snowcapped volcano found wooden scepters shaped like lightning bolts that match 500-year-old descriptions by Spanish priests and conquerors writing about offerings to the Aztec rain god.

The lightning bolts - along with cones of copal incense and obsidian knives - were found during scuba-diving expeditions in one of the twin lakes of the extinct Nevado de Toluca volcano, at more than 13,800 feet above sea level.

Scientists must still conduct tests to determine the age of the findings, but the writings after the Spanish conquest in 1521 have led them to believe the offerings were left in the frigid lake west of Mexico City more than 500 years ago.

Lightning bolt scepters "were used by Aztec priests when they were doing rites associated with the god Tlaloc," said Johan Reinhard, an anthropologist and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic Society who took part in more dives Thursday at the Lake of the Moon. "We think it is pretty clear that the Aztecs considered this one of the more important places of Tlaloc."

The research, which also involves the volcano's Lake of the Sun, is being led by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski, an archaeology professor at the institute, said Aztec iconography often associates Tlaloc with lightning bolts.

"They were left in the lake to bring rain storms," Iwaniszewski said. Copal incense was burned to form "clouds," and sharp spines from the maguey cactus - which does not grow at that altitude - indicated worshippers brought them there to draw blood from themselves as part of the sacrifice.

Luis Alberto Martos, the institute's director of archaeological studies, said other artifacts found in the clear 32-degree waters of the lake indicate the ritual may have started about 100 B.C. - long before the Aztecas settled in the area in 1325.

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New fossil research challenges old Homo evolution theory

New research of fossils discovered in Africa challenges the old theory on how early humans evolved, according to Thursday's journal Nature.

The research by famed paleontologist Maeve Leakey in Kenya shows our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, calling into question the evolution of our ancestors.

In 2000, Leakey found an old Homo erectus complete skull within walking distance of an upper jaw of the Homo habilis, and both dated from the same general time period. That makes it unlikely that H. erectus evolved from Homo habilis, researchers said.

The old theory was that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became us, Homo sapiens.

Leakey and colleagues reported in Nature that those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years.

This discredits the chief theory of man's early evolution - that one of those species evolved from the other.

The two species lived near each other, but probably didn't interact, each having its own "ecological niche," said Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London. "Homo habilis was likely more vegetarian while Homo erectus ate some meat," he said.

For the past few years there has been growing doubt and debate about whether Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus. Scientists still have different opinions about it.

More Deatail

Surprising research based on two African fossils suggests our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, challenging what had been common thinking on how early humans evolved.

The discovery by Meave Leakey, a member of a famous family of paleontologists, shows that two species of early human ancestors lived at the same time in Kenya. That pokes holes in the chief theory of man's early evolution - that one of those species evolved from the other.

And it further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man.

The old theory is that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became human, Homo sapiens. But Leakey's find suggests those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years. She and her research colleagues report the discovery in a paper published in Thursday's journal Nature.

The paper is based on fossilized bones found in 2000. The complete skull of Homo erectus was found within walking distance of an upper jaw of Homo habilis, and both dated from the same general time period. That makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis, researchers said.

It's the equivalent of finding that your grandmother and great-grandmother were sisters rather than mother-daughter, said study co-author Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London.

The two species lived near each other, but probably didn't interact, each having its own "ecological niche," Spoor said. Homo habilis was likely more vegetarian while Homo erectus ate some meat, he said. Like chimps and apes, "they'd just avoid each other, they don't feel comfortable in each other's company," he said.

There remains some still-undiscovered common ancestor that probably lived 2 million to 3 million years ago, a time that has not left much fossil record, Spoor said.

Overall what it paints for human evolution is a "chaotic kind of looking evolutionary tree rather than this heroic march that you see with the cartoons of an early ancestor evolving into some intermediate and eventually unto us," Spoor said in a phone interview from a field office of the Koobi Fora Research Project in northern Kenya.

That old evolutionary cartoon, while popular with the general public, is just too simple and keeps getting revised, said Bill Kimbel, who praised the latest findings. He is science director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and wasn't part of the Leakey team.

"The more we know, the more complex the story gets," he said. Scientists used to think Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals, he said. But now we know that both species lived during the same time period and that we did not come from Neanderthals.

Now a similar discovery applies further back in time.

Susan Anton, a New York University anthropologist and co-author of the Leakey work, said she expects anti-evolution proponents to seize on the new research, but said it would be a mistake to try to use the new work to show flaws in evolution theory.

"This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution; it is refining some of the specific points," Anton said. "This is a great example of what science does and religion doesn't do. It's a continous self-testing process."

For the past few years there has been growing doubt and debate about whether Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus. One of the major proponents of the more linear, or ladder-like evolution that this evidence weakens, called Leakey's findings important, but he wasn't ready to concede defeat.

Dr. Bernard Wood, a surgeon-turned-professor of human origins at George Washington University, said in an e-mail Wednesday that "this is only a skirmish in the protracted 'war' between the people who like a bushy interpretation and those who like a more ladder-like interpretation of early human evolution."

Leakey's team spent seven years analyzing the fossils before announcing it was time to redraw the family tree - and rethink other ideas about human evolutionary history. That's especially true of most immediate ancestor, Homo erectus.

Because the Homo erectus skull Leakey recovered was much smaller than others, scientists had to first prove that it was erectus and not another species nor a genetic freak. The jaw, probably from an 18- or 19-year-old female, was adult and showed no signs of malformation or genetic mutations, Spoor said. The scientists also know it isn't Homo habilis from several distinct features on the jaw.

That caused researchers to re-examine the 30 other erectus skulls they have and the dozens of partial fossils. They realized that the females of that species are much smaller than the males - something different from modern man, but similar to other animals, said Anton. Scientists hadn't looked carefully enough before to see that there was a distinct difference in males and females.

Difference in size between males and females seem to be related to monogamy, the researchers said. Primates that have same-sized males and females, such as gibbons, tend to be more monogamous. Species that are not monogamous, such as gorillas and baboons, have much bigger males.

This suggests that our ancestor Homo erectus reproduced with multiple partners.

The Homo habilis jaw was dated at 1.44 million years ago. That is the youngest ever found from a species that scientists originally figured died off somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million years ago, Spoor said. It enabled scientists to say that Homo erectus and Homo habilis lived at the same time.

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China ready to launch 1st lunar satellite

China will soon launch its first circumlunar satellite as part of its ambitious moon exploration program enters the stage of implementation, sources with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said here on Friday.

Development of the satellite, called Chang'e I after the legendary Chinese goddess Chang'e who flew to the moon, and the carrier Long March 3A has been completed after numerous tests, said a CNSA official, who declined to be named.

The moon probe satellite is expected to fulfill a string of missions, including collectin

g three-dimensional moon images and exploring lunar features.

More than 10,000 scientists and technicians took three years to develop Chang'e I and its supporting systems, a relatively short time compared with other countries, said Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar program.

The satellite launch will mark the first step of China's three-stage moon expedition called Chang'e project, which will have a landing on the moon and launching a moon rover around 2012. In the third phase, another rover will land on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil and stone samples for scientific research around 2017.

The moon probe project is the third milestone in China's space technology after satellite and manned spacecraft projects.

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Space tourism market faces realities

Galactic Suite's plans depend on the development of a reliable, privately funded system to deliver payloads and people to orbit - and space industry observers say it would take hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work to perfect such a system.

Even if Galactic Suite follows through on its plan, it won't be the only venture aiming to put hotels in orbit: Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace has already launched two inflatable prototypes for a privately built space station, and is planning to send up its first habitable module by 2012. California-based Space Island Group also has been working on a space hotel concept, but that venture has not announced a launch timetable.

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Hotel In Space ,Galactic Suite go into orbit by 2012

BARCELONA, Spain - A venture called Galactic Suite says it wants to open a hotel in space in 2012, but it's not yet clear exactly how much backing is behind the design concept.

Galactic Suite's Barcelona-based architects say guests would pay $4 million each for a three-day stay aboard the orbital equivalent of a three-bedroom boutique hotel.

Before the flight, guests would get eight weeks of intensive training at a space camp on a tropical island, company director Xavier Claramunt told Reuters. Then the tourists would ride an private shuttle into orbit. Hotel guests would see the sun rise 15 times a day and use Velcro suits to crawl around their pod rooms by sticking themselves to the walls like Spiderman

Claramunt said the hotel's joined-up pod structure, which makes it look like a model of molecules, was dictated by the fact that each pod room had to fit inside a rocket to be taken into space.

"It's the bathrooms in zero gravity that are the biggest challenge," says Claramunt. "How to accommodate the more intimate activities of the guests is not easy."

To take a zero-gravity shower, the guests would enter a spa room in which cleansing bubbles of water float around. When they're not admiring the view from their portholes, they will take part in scientific experiments on space travel.

At the end of the stay, the shuttle would bring guests back down to Galactic Suite's spaceport. "There is fear associated with going into space," Claramunt said. "That's why the shuttle rocket will remain fixed to the space hotel for the duration of the guests' stay, so they know they can get home again."

Claramunt, a former aerospace engineer, said the Galactic Suite concept began as a hobby. He told Reuters that a space enthusiast agreed to provide most of the $3 billion needed to build the hotel - but he declined to name the backer.

Galactic Suite's Web site says another supporter of the venture is Florida-based 4Frontiers Corp., a company that cites Mars settlement as its top goal. A representative of that company declined to discuss the project Friday but said the company's co-founder and chief executive officer, Mark Homnick, was on his way back to Florida from Barcelona.

CTAE, a Barcelona-based aerospace center, was also listed as a supporter. Claramunt told Reuters that his venture was in talks with private investors from Japan, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

Claramunt said the market for orbital space travel could be substantial. "We have calculated that there are 40,000 people in the world who could afford to stay at the hotel. Whether they will want to spend money on going into space, we just don't know."

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Galactic Suite," the first hotel in space, will open for business in 2012, its Barcelona-based architects said Friday.

Reservations for Galactic Suite will begin in 2008, company director Xavier Claramunt told journalists.

"Galactic suite will allow clients to travel around the World in 80 minutes," Claramunt said.

It will be made of aluminum and have five modules, he said.

The three boutique rooms will be decorated with mini components because of a lack of room and due to the fact that objects float in space because of the absence of gravity, Claramunt said.

"The greatest challenge will be the bathrooms with zero gravity. Accommodating the clients' intimate activities is not easy. To take a shower in zero gravity, the guests will enter the spa in which water bubbles will float," he added.

Guests will also be able to participate in scientific experiments during their stay in Galactic Suite hotel, 450 kms from Earth.

The space hotel will be the most expensive in the galaxy, costing three million euros (3.99 million U.S. dollars) for a three-day stay, during which guests would see the sun rise 15 times a day, its architects said.

It is estimated that some 40,000 people worldwide will be able to buy a Galactic-Suite ticket which is not as expensive as the 20-million-dollar ticket paid by the first space tourist Dennis Tito, who traveled to space in Soyuz TM-32 on April 28, 2001.

For the moment Galactic Suite has private investors from United Arab Emirates and Japan, local press reported.

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The shuttle astronauts may have to patch it during a spacewalk , Fla. (AP) - NASA discovered a worrisome gouge on Endeavour's belly soon after the shuttle docked with the international space station Friday, possibly caused by ice that broke off the fuel tank a minute after liftoff.

The gouge - about 3 inches square - was spotted in zoom-in photography taken by the space station crew shortly before the linkup.

``What does this mean? I don't know at this point,'' said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. If the gouge is deep enough, the shuttle astronauts may have to patch it during a spacewalk, he said.

On Sunday, the astronauts will inspect the area, using the 100-foot robot arm and extension beam. Lasers on the end of the beam will gauge the exact size and depth of the gouge, Shannon said, and then engineering analyses will determine whether the damage is severe enough to warrant repairs.

The gouge - white against the black tiles on the underside of Endeavour - is several feet from the starboard main landing gear door. It appears to be the result of ice, although engineers are not positive; the damage could have been caused by a piece of foam insulation that came off the external fuel tank.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Shuttle Endeavour docked with the international space station Friday after performing an orbital backflip that permitted a close-up look for any damage from flyaway foam on launch day.

With commander Scott Kelly at the controls, Endeavour pulled up to the space station and neatly parked as the two spacecraft soared above the South Pacific. The shuttle and its crew of seven, including teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, will remain at the outpost for at least a week.

Morgan's entrance into the space station was dramatic, to say the least.

Her shuttle crewmates, all but one of whom floated in ahead of her, resembled paparazzi as they photographed her coming through the hatch. The station residents also captured the moment with cameras. She paused, as the flashes popped, a video camera running in her right hand and sunglasses pushed up on her forehead.

Morgan - who was Christa McAuliffe's backup for Challenger's tragic mission in 1986 - briefly set aside her camera to hug the three space station residents, then took more video of the crowded outpost. She plans to use the video for educational events after the mission.

Earlier, while still 625 feet out, Kelly steered Endeavour through a complete somersault so that the three space station residents could photograph the shuttle's belly. The 210-mile-high backflip - which lasted nine minutes and spanned the entire Atlantic - has been standard procedure ever since the Columbia disaster, providing a rare camera view of the shuttle's often-nicked underside.

Space station astronaut Clay Anderson videotaped Endeavour's backflip, while his two Russian crewmates snapped furiously away on digital cameras equipped with high-powered zoom lenses. Nearly 300 digital pictures were quickly beamed back to Earth.

NASA is especially eager to see these zoom-in pictures because of concern over three pieces of foam insulation from the external fuel tank that may have struck Endeavour during Wednesday's launch. Two are believed to have hit the shuttle's right wing.

Mission managers do not suspect any critical damage, noting the three foam fragments were probably too small and one came off too late in the launch to pose any threat. But they do not want to dismiss the possibility of damage, particularly to the vulnerable wings, which is precisely what happened during Columbia's doomed mission four years ago.

NASA hopes to ascertain whether any damage occurred after scrutinizing Friday's pictures along with data collected during a laser inspection by the shuttle crew on Thursday using a 100-foot robot arm and extension boom, and other imagery.

Endeavour is delivering several new space station parts, most notably a 2-ton square-shaped beam that will be hooked up to the orbiting outpost on Saturday. The astronauts also will install a giant storage platform for spare parts and a new gyroscope that will replace one that is broken.

For the first time, a docked shuttle will draw power from the space station using a new system being tested by Endeavour. If the system works as advertised, NASA will extend Endeavour's flight from 11 days to 14 days, allowing the shuttle to remain docked at the station for a record 10 days.

Of the 10 people aboard the joined spacecraft, Morgan is clearly the attention-getter. The former Idaho elementary schoolteacher backed up McAuliffe during Challenger's short-lived mission and was invited by NASA into the astronaut corps 12 years later. Columbia's catastrophic re-entry in 2003 further delayed her trip into space.

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