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news from da lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Sun Jun 26, 2005 11:20 pm

Study: Chickadee chirps complex code

Friday, June 24, 2005; Posted: 10:55 a.m. EDT (14:55 GMT)

While the chirp of the chickadee can be charming to humans it also can serve as a warning for other chickadees.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Those cheery-sounding chirps coming from the tree in the back yard are carrying more than a joyful message -- they are conveying surprisingly complex information about lurking predators, biologists reported on Thursday.

Tiny chickadees, known for their scolding calls, communicate details about nearby predators, biology PhD student Chris Templeton of the University of Washington found.

For instance, the final, or "D" note in a call can be repeated for emphasis, Templeton said.

"If you ever go out and are hearing a chickadee making a really long string of "D" notes on a call -- six or eight or even 10 -- you know there is a really dangerous predator around, maybe the next-door neighbor's cat or an owl or a fox," Templeton said in a telephone interview.

"It is very strongly correlated with predator body size."

And with chickadees, smaller equals more dangerous, Templeton wrote in a report published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"The only predators that can really catch chickadees are the ones closest to them in size," Templeton said.

Captive chickadees reacted strongly when shown a pygmy owl, for instance, but their calls communicated less alarm when they saw a larger raptor.

The social birds often mob a predator to drive it away.

"A great horned owl going after a chickadee would be like a Hummer trying to outmaneuver and catch a Porsche," Templeton said.

The tiny black-capped chickadee, with ranges across much of the United States and Canada, has been studied for more than a century, so why hasn't anyone noticed before now?

"In the chickadee call there are a lot of very subtle variations, most of which we actually can't hear," Templeton said. "They change a lot of features in the call that you can see in a sonogram."

There are overtones in the "D" notes of the characteristic "chicka-dee-dee" call that helped name the little songbirds, relatives of tits.

The calls, rapid-fire to a human ear, also contain subtle spacing and timing of notes that the birds can vary, Templeton said.

"The one thing that we can hear is the number of "dee" notes at the end of a call," he said.

"It looks like the more dangerous a predator the chickadee encounters, the more dee notes it has."

When recordings were played back to chickadees, they showed "mobbing" behavior appropriate to the predator that the recorded bird had been seeing, Templeton said.

The research joins a growing body of studies that suggest birds use complex communications and tools. Studies have shown that birds dream, rehearse their songs and have regional dialects.

"I guess the take-home message is this is probably true of many animals. Many animals communicate much more sophisticated information than we realize because we are not in a position to understand their language," Templeton said.

Copyright 2005 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Re: news from da lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Jun 30, 2005 4:47 am

A Fault Runs Through It
Amid a flurry of smaller quakes, geophysicists drill deep in anticipation of the next Big One

Posted Monday, Jun. 27, 2005
California has been doing a lot of shaking of late. In mid-June a sizable quake off its north coast triggered a tsunami warning, a false alarm, fortunately, while far to the south, earthquakes of lesser power knocked stuff off shelves and seriously rattled the composure of those who felt the ground sway beneath them. That's because the earthquakes that concern Californians most are those that haven't happened--at least, not yet--along the state's fault-fractured western edge.

Of all those faults, the most feared is the San Andreas, which slashes its way along the California coast for 750 miles. Many scientists believe that after decades of quietude, the pressure on sections of the San Andreas is reaching the point at which something will have to give. Researchers have been rushing to instrument the fault--"setting out traplines," as Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), puts it--to catch the faintest movements and seismic mutterings.

Nowhere has scientific activity been more intense than near the small town of Parkfield, which sits astride a transitional zone between a segment of the San Andreas that in 1857 produced one of the largest quakes in U.S. history and another segment characterized by snail-like creep and small, quiet microquakes. Here, amid rolling hills and golden pastureland, scientists with a National Science Foundation initiative called EarthScope are building a remarkable underground observatory known as SAFOD, or the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth.

Just last week SAFOD's giant Texas-style drill bored to an inclined depth of 11,000 ft., coming to within 1,000 ft. of the San Andreas. Around July 4, the giant drill's steel teeth should chatter through to the fault itself, reaching the far side of the San Andreas later this summer. At that point, Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback and his colleagues will finish casing the perimeter of their borehole with steel and start packing it with instruments.

The effort seems bound to pay off. Last September, the Parkfield zone gave rise to a magnitude-6 earthquake whose throaty rumblings were recorded by a rich array of seismometers and other instruments, including several nestled inside a mile-deep pilot hole the SAFOD team reamed out just two years earlier. Puzzling to many scientists was the seeming absence of precursory activity, save for subtle signs that strain may have increased ever so slightly the day before.

Do earthquakes have precursors? SAFOD should help answer the question. "This is a new window on the earthquake process," says Stephen Hickman, a senior scientist at the USGS in Menlo Park, Calif. SAFOD could also help settle a number of long-simmering disputes. Although the basic cause of earthquakes on the San Andreas is well understood--the fault marks the major interface between two sections of the earth's crust that are grinding past each other--scientists argue endlessly about the details. Among the most pressing questions are whether the rock in the fault zone is intrinsically strong or weak and whether an increase in fluid pressure helps trigger earthquakes by prying apart the fault. "We have lots of ideas, and finally we're getting a chance to test them," says William Ellsworth, chief scientist for the USGS Earthquake Hazards Team.

SAFOD's subterranean spyglass is aimed at a geophysical sweet spot on the San Andreas that is a miniature earthquake machine. The size of a football field, it rattles with microearthquakes--in this case, earthquakes of magnitude 2--with surprising regularity. Right next door, within a 2-mile radius, are more microquake clusters. In the coming years, Ellsworth anticipates, SAFOD will record fine-grained portraits of thousands of tiny temblors, many not much bigger than magnitude 0. By closely examining those portraits, scientists should be able to tell how closely one event resembles another and whether earthquakes, at least in principle, are predictable.

On this point, Parkfield's seismic history seems suggestive. For more than a century, the area just south of the drill site produced magnitude-6 earthquakes on a roughly 22-year cycle--or so it seemed in the mid-1980s, when a USGS team threw a net of instruments over the area, hoping to catch the next iteration. The last quake occurred in 1966, so scientists figured the next would come around 1988. Instead, the 1966 quake was followed by a 38-year pause. Some speculate that another earthquake, which occurred on a nearby thrust fault in 1983, reset the seismic clock by altering the local stress field.

Now scientists are trying to gauge how last year's Parkfield quake affected the broader San Andreas system. Stress has been off-loaded to the section of the fault directly south of the rupture, and that has at least the potential to set the stage for a larger upheaval. In 1857, for example, a moderate temblor at Parkfield was followed within hours by a major earthquake that started in the vicinity of Cholame, 15 miles away, and ripped south for 225 miles. In some places the ground moved more than 25 ft.

Most geophysicists don't believe sufficient stress has accumulated along this section of the fault to power another 1857-style spasm. That one approached a magnitude of 7.9, making it even stronger than the 1906 quake that devastated San Francisco. Still, experts acknowledge, it's not inconceivable that the next moderately strong shake-up at Parkfield could lead to the unzipping of a longer section of the fault, spawning a quake of, say, magnitude 7. If that happens, SAFOD would provide scientists with more than they bargained for--a near ringside seat at the start of, if not the Big One, something pretty close.


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Re: news from da lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Jun 30, 2005 4:52 am

Seismic activity in country's center sparks debate
After California quakes, attention turns to New Madrid zone
By KC Wildmoon
Thursday, June 23, 2005; Posted: 9:17 a.m. EDT (13:17 GMT)
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Recent earthquake activity in California has prompted fresh speculation about "the big one" -- an enormous quake along California's West Coast.

A few have been large enough to shake the faith of skeptics -- a magnitude 7.2 quake on June 15, followed two days later by a magnitude 6.7, both off the coast near the California-Oregon border.

Doomsayers have warned about the Pacific Coast for years. But only a few have raised concerns about an area with the potential to be more dangerous than California -- the New Madrid seismic zone in the center of the country.

It's a 120-mile-long system of three to five faults stretching from 40 miles northwest of Memphis to southern Illinois, near Cairo.

"The system is capable of producing a quake near 4.0 magnitude every three years," said Gary Patterson, a geologist and information services director for the Center for Earthquake and Research Information in Memphis, Tennessee. "And they'll cause minimal damage."

But New Madrid already has spawned four earthquakes this year of similar size, along with nearly 100 smaller quakes. Patterson said such activity may or may not be the precursor to a much larger quake.

The recent activity is an anomaly, he said.

"It's unusual, and we don't have any reason to believe there is increased risk," Patterson said. "But any time you have this kind of activity in an area that has a 25 [percent] to 40 percent chance of a 6.0 or greater in the next 50 years, it will draw attention."

And the region is ill-prepared for a strong quake, he added.

Under pressure
Scientists know little about how the New Madrid seismic zone works, but in the early 19th century, it was the source of the most violent series of earthquakes known in North American history.

The zone, named for the town of New Madrid, Missouri, is hundreds of miles from a tectonic plate boundary, which Patterson said defies the logic of coastal earthquake science.

"Plate tectonic theory can account for large quakes on the edges of plate boundaries, but plate boundary theory assumes a rigid continental plate," he said. "Madrid is in the middle of a continental plate, not on the boundaries."

Three large quakes happened in the winter of 1811-1812, and strong rumbles hit several times until near the end of the 19th century.

These quakes were felt keenly over more than 2 million square miles -- people in Boston, Massachusetts, felt one or more of the three main quakes, the first of which struck in three shocks on the morning of December 16, 1811.

Two more large shocks struck the area -- on January 23, 1812, and the largest and most devastating of all hit February 7, 1812, destroying the town of New Madrid.

By contrast, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California, was felt over 60,000 square miles.

Patterson said the incredible distance the quakes reached was largely due to the cold, solid rocks "that make this continent float," a different environment from the plate boundaries on the coast.

"On the boundaries, the rock is hot, molten and broken up," he said. The solid rock carries the movement farther from the epicenter.

Earthquake researcher Otto Nuttli estimated 200 moderate to large earthquakes on the New Madrid fault between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812, and about 1,800 earthquakes of slightly lesser strength.

The stronger quakes lifted parts of the land high or dropped them down, and drew the Mississippi's waters in and threw them back far over the river banks. In some areas, the upheaval beneath the surface was so violent that it caused the mighty river to flow backward.

Whole islands in the river -- and entire towns -- disappeared.

The strongest quake in the area since 1895 was a magnitude 5.5 in 1968. New Madrid is "a sleeping giant we don't understand very well," Patterson said.

"But we realize the need to understand is very important," he added. "It's a challenge. If we understand this question, then we've really put in a piece of how the Earth works as a system."

Trouble for Memphis, other cities?
Patterson said he saw no reason for a "high level of concern" at the moment but added that so little is known about New Madrid that it's even more unpredictable than its coastal cousins.

The area isn't prepared for an earthquake of magnitude 6 or higher, specialists said. Damage from such quakes would be significant over a multistate area, Patterson said, with the likelihood of significant infrastructure disruption and damage to population centers and municipalities that would have huge economic impact.

Memphis, and to a slightly lesser degree, St. Louis, Missouri, could be seriously hurt by a strong quake, "especially when you have old infrastructure and a lot of buildings that predate 1940, when unreinforced masonry was a typical style," Patterson said.

"Our building inventory is very vulnerable and has not been shaken significantly," he said. "It's potentially a large disaster even from a magnitude 6."

Ted Ilsley, manager of the plan review section of Shelby County, Tennessee's building code enforcement division, said the building code is adequate for an earthquake the size of the 1811-1812 ones. This code has been in effect since 1989 in the county where Memphis is located.

The county is preparing to adopt an amended version of the International Building Code, a requirement to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The city of Memphis also likely will adopt something similar to Shelby County. Calls to the city's code enforcement division were not returned.

Although strong earthquakes strike the West Coast more frequently, New Madrid is "an active seismic zone," Patterson said, and population centers in the area should be concerned -- not with the frequency -- but with the consequences if one does strike.

"It does not take the big one to do a lot of damage," he said. "The most damaging quake in the United States, in 1994 [the Northridge quake in Southern California], causing $30 billion, some say $40 billion in damage, was a 6.7 in a place that's prepared generally for earthquakes."

There's no doubt that the New Madrid seismic zone has the potential to spawn catastrophic earthquakes. The question, as with most fault areas, is when it will occur.

Whenever it occurs, the quake likely will be felt far from its epicenter. The one in 1968, centered in southeastern Illinois near the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, caused moderate damage, but it was felt across 23 states -- as far as the Carolinas -- and into Canada.

CNN researcher Anne Pifko contributed to this report.


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Re: news from da lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Sun Jul 03, 2005 11:01 pm

Day of the comet
Deep Impact mission hopes to unlock mystery of comets
By Peggy Mihelich

Thursday, June 30, 2005; Posted: 4:07 p.m. EDT (20:07 GMT)
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Six months after it blasted off from Earth, the Deep Impact spacecraft is poised to meet its cosmic fate -- in a hyper-speed smashup with a comet.

In the early morning hours of July 4, NASA scientists will steer a probe about the size of a washing machine directly in the path of a comet about half the size of Manhattan, and watch the two collide.

What comes out of the collision scientists hope will unlock the inner workings of comets.

"There's a certain amount of nervousness at present. ... It's a harsh environment out there and this is not easy," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Objects Program and a co-investigator of the mission.

"We don't really know what to expect, frankly. ... It could be anything from a crater the size of a football stadium to something that's far more modest. Or the spacecraft could simply bury itself into the comet."

Such a complex mission carries its fair share of risks -- like the effects of flying a spacecraft through a wash of dust and ice kicked-off by the comet's tail.

"It could sandblast some of our imaging lenses, we are worried about that a little bit," Yeomans said.

But worries will be put aside in the hopes of a big scientific payoff -- a glimpse beneath the comet's surface.

Icy dirt ball
Comets are the trailblazers of the heavens -- rushing through space from the far reaches of the solar system and back toward the sun in long oval orbits.

They are made of ice, dust and gas left over from when the sun and the planets formed.

Scientists believe comets may hold the keys to the birth of the solar system and perhaps to the birth of life itself.

The target of Deep Impact is Tempel 1, a jet-black, pickle-shaped icy dirt ball traveling at 6.3 miles per second.

Since its launch on January 12, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft has been racing to catch up with Tempel 1 while observing it along its journey through the solar system.

With a cost of $330 million, Deep Impact is the eighth mission in NASA's Discovery Program, which supports low-budget science missions.

Among the program missions -- the Near Shoemaker mission that landed a spacecraft on asteroid Eros; the Mars Pathfinder mission; and the solar wind collection spacecraft Genesis, which crashed into the Earth when its parachutes failed to open on descent.

The Deep Impact spacecraft is composed of two probes mated together -- "flyby" and "impactor."

Flyby is about the size of a small car and will monitor the impact. It carries two cameras -- a high-resolution one, which will be tightly focused on the crater, and a medium-resolution camera, which will take wider views.

The impactor is an 820-pound copper-fortified probe designed to produce maximum wallop when it hits the comet. It also carries a medium-resolution camera that will record the probe's final moments before it collides with the comet.

Because of the spacecraft's distance from Earth -- currently 83 million miles -- communications are delayed, making it impossible for crews on the ground to react in the moments before impact.

"It takes 7 1/2 minutes for a signal to get from Earth to the spacecraft and another 7 1/2 minutes to get back. So, we can't joystick this spacecraft like a video game," Yeomans said.

Which is why scientists designed both probes with self-navigational guidance systems.

"The spacecraft has to be smart enough on its own to observe the comet, determine whether it's headed in the right direction, if not, make its own course correction, and then fire its thrusters to achieve that course correction," Yeomans said.

Independence Day
Staging the fireworks show begins 24 hours before impact, when mission scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will release the impactor from flyby.

Scientists will spend the day steering flyby into position for observing, while aligning impactor for its rendezvous with Tempel 1.

Tempel 1 is traveling through space at about 23,000 mph (37,100 km/h) -- the equivalent of traveling from New York to Los Angeles in less than 6.5 minutes.

At these speeds, impactor has to be in the right place at the right time to intercept the speeding snowball.

"It's a bullet trying to hit a second bullet with the third bullet," Rick Grammier, Deep Impact project manager at JPL, told a press conference in June.

Two hours before impact, scientists will turn the controls over to impactor, which will maneuver itself into the path of the comet.

If all goes well, at 1:52 am ET on July 4, Tempel 1 will run into impactor, busting a hole in the comet and revealing its inner core.

"It will be all over in the blink of an eye," Grammier said.

Until its death, the impactor will record images and gather data while flyby passes 310 miles (500 kilometers) away, observing the impact, the ejected material, and the structure and composition of the comet's interior. Most of the data will be stored on flyby and radioed back to Earth after the encounter.

Mission scientists hope to have the first images on the Deep Impact Web site within 20 minutes of the encounter.

"We get one chance lasting 800 seconds to take all of the key data from impact until we've flown past," said mission science chief Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

It's not just Deep Impact that will be observing. Every space and ground-based telescope large enough to do the job will be watching.

The Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Galex and SWAS space telescopes will all be recording the event. The Rosetta spacecraft, a European probe on its way to another comet will also observe.

On the ground, more than 100 professional astronomers at 60 observatories and a small army of amateur astronomers will also turn their telescopes in Tempel 1's direction.

"We're trying to understand the structure of a comet and also its composition. Once we hit it, we will open up surface areas that are exposed to the sunlight and see new subsurface ices for the first time," Yeomans said.


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news from da lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Mon Jul 04, 2005 1:49 am

Elephant tagging aims to solve mystery
Conservation group tracking pygmy elephants for study

Friday, July 1, 2005; Posted: 11:02 a.m. EDT (15:02 GMT)

Pygmy elephants walk on a road in Malaysia. The endangered elephants are being studied in a landmark project.
IN THE BORNEO FOREST, Malaysia (AP) -- Crouched in the vine-tangled forest of Borneo, where the brightest part of the day seems like dusk, Elis Tambing finally got the elusive animal in his laser sight and fired.

The pink-quilled dart found its mark: the rump of the female pygmy elephant, a unique and endangered animal found only in Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo Island. Two more shots and the gentle giant, nicknamed Taliwas after the forest where she lives, dozed off standing up, tranquilized for half an hour, ready to be electronically tagged.

Thus began, a week ago, a landmark project by WWF, the international conservation group, to track several herds of pygmy elephants for an exhaustive study of a mysterious pachyderm.

The tag, a gray, brick-like device strapped around the elephant's neck, will transmit its whereabouts to a satellite three times a day for 18 months until the battery runs out. It will be replaced as often as necessary over the course of the five-year project. A link on WWF's Web site will give the daily position of each collared elephant.

"It will be like having a window seat into the life of the Borneo elephant," said A. Christy Williams, the coordinator for the program for the organization also known as World Wildlife Fund.

Pygmy elephants were long considered the same as Asian elephants. A myth held that they were remnants of a domesticated herd given as a gift by the British to a Borneo sultan in the 17th century.

They were not considered a conservation priority until a chance DNA analysis by WWF and Columbia University in 2003 revealed them to be a genetically distinct subspecies.

"We still know very little about pygmy elephants. Any new information we get will be landmark evidence," said Williams.

What is known so far is that adult pygmy elephants stand up to 8 feet tall -- a foot or two shorter than mainland Asian elephants; that they are more rotund and have smaller, babyish faces; that their tails are longer, reaching almost to the ground; and that they are less aggressive than their Asian counterparts, almost docile.

What scientists don't know is the size of their turf, breeding cycles, eating habits, family size, their movement patterns or even their population, currently estimated to be 1,500 though Williams believes it could be under 1,000.

"You would have thought that such a big animal would have been studied to death. But no. Nothing," he said.

Williams led the collaring of the first three elephants. A total of six are to be tagged by the end of July. An Associated Press team accompanied the first expedition.

WWF says the project is aimed at protecting the species as its habitat comes under pressure from spreading palm oil plantations, which account for 40 percent of Sabah state's GDP.

Some workers tag an elephant.Pygmy elephants love palm oil fruit and will often invade plantations. "Growing palm oil trees next to a forest is like dangling candy before a child. The elephants can't resist it," said Jan Vertefeuille of WWF-USA who was part of the collaring team.

Earlier this year, a female elephant's head was found floating in a river. Wildlife experts believe the animal was killed by villagers for the meat.

WWF is focusing its project on Danum Valley, a commercial logging forest and one of three areas where the elephants roam. It says the elephants of Danum appear to have adapted to the logging, avoiding areas where trees are being felled.

It hopes its study will gather enough data to persuade the state government not to let palm oil plantations encroach on the valley.

"In Sabah, we are at a point where if you have proper planning you can show how conservation can benefit both humans and animals," said Williams.

But collaring the elephants isn't easy; they melt into the foliage like ghosts, scared off by the slightest sound.

"It is very difficult to catch the elephants," said Tambing, a Sabah Wildlife Department ranger, resting after a four-hour hunt that led to the darting of Taliwas in leech-infested knee-deep swamp.

"You need to be very fit to trek though that," he said, pulling out blood-engorged leeches from his arm, neck and armpits. "And you need to be very, very quiet when you approach the elephants."

Collars are routinely fitted on animals including Asian and African elephants for conservation studies and are not known to cause discomfort.

As Taliwas recovered from the tranquilizer, she shook her head, uttered a deep growl and walked off into the forest, seemingly unbothered by her high-tech necklace.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Jul 07, 2005 1:51 am

Mystery of Arizona's Meteor Crater Solved
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 09 March, 2005
1:00 p.m. ET

The space rock that carved Meteor Crater in Arizona hit the planet much more slowly than astronomers once figured, but still 10 times faster than a rifle bullet.

The new analysis, announced today, explains why there's a lot less melted rock in the crater than expected. The mystery has dogged researchers for years.

The big hole in the ground -- 570 feet deep and 4,100 feet (1.25 kilometers) across -- was blown into existence 50,000 years ago by an asteroid roughly 130 feet (40 meters) wide.

Previous calculations had the rock slamming into the ground at no less than 34,000 mph (15 km/sec), based in part on the expected speeds of large meteors in relation to Earth. Such an impact ought to have generated more melted rock in and around the crater than what's been found.

A new computer model, reported in the March 10 issue of the journal Nature, shows the incoming object would have slowed considerably during its plunge through the atmosphere, part of it breaking into a pancake-shaped cloud of iron fragments prior to impact.

About half the original 300,000-ton bulk remained intact, smacking the planet at about 26,800 mph (12 km/sec), said the study's lead researcher, Jay Melosh of the University of Arizona.

Meteor Crater, a popular tourist destination, was the first scar on Earth confirmed to have been gouged by a rocky visitor from beyond.

"It's probably the most studied impact crater on Earth," Melosh said. "We were astonished to discover something entirely unexpected about how it formed."

The modeling is based in part on investigations decades ago by Daniel Barringer, whose name is officially associated with the crater. Barringer and others found chunks of the iron space rock weighing from a pound up to 1,000 pounds in a 6-mile-diameter circle around the crater. The new work also draws from an improved understanding of how Earth's atmosphere cushions extraterrestrial blows.

In 1908, a good-sized asteroid -- more stony in nature -- exploded above the surface of Siberia, flatting hundreds of miles of forest but leaving almost no extraterrestrial trace. During the satellite era, scientists have monitored car-sized space rocks routinely exploding in the air.

"Earth's atmosphere is an effective but selective screen that prevents smaller meteoroids from hitting Earth's surface," Melosh explained.

The effect of screaming through the air, even for an iron-heavy meteorite like the one that struck Arizona, is a lot like hitting a wall, Melosh said. And many space rocks are already cracked before they arrive, scientists believe.

"Even though iron is very strong, the meteorite had probably been cracked from collisions in space," Melosh said. "The weakened pieces began to come apart and shower down from about 8.5 miles (14 kilometers) high. And as they came apart, atmospheric drag slowed them down, increasing the forces that crushed them so that they crumbled and slowed more."

The results evolved out of a project in which Melosh and colleagues developed a "Catastrophe Calculator" that predicts the effects of asteroids of varying size and composition striking any given location on the planet.

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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Mon Jul 25, 2005 6:34 pm

Genetic flaw leaves felines without sweet tooth

Monday, July 25, 2005; Posted: 12:55 p.m. EDT (16:55 GMT)

Researchers found a dysfunctional feline gene that probably prevents cats from tasting sweets.
SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- Cats are notoriously finicky eaters, as millions of pet owners can attest.

Now, there's a scientific theory explaining, at least in part, why cats have such snobby eating habits: genetics.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and their collaborators said Sunday they found a dysfunctional feline gene that probably prevents cats from tasting sweets, a sensation nearly every other mammal on the planet experiences to varying degrees.

Researchers took saliva and blood samples from six cats, including a tiger and a cheetah and found each had a useless gene that other mammals use to create a "sweet receptor" on their tongues. The gene in question does not produce one of the two vital proteins needed to form the receptors.

"Because cats can't taste sweets, they're cranky," joked Joseph Brand, Monell's associate director and an author of the paper being published Sunday in the inaugural issue of the Public Library of Science's journal Genetics.

The Public Library of Science aims to make such research freely available online and was launched out of frustration with rising subscription costs of prestigious research print journals, some of which cost more than $11,000 (euro9,060) a year.

Instead of charging a subscription fee, the nonprofit organization charges authors $1,500 (euro1,235) per paper submitted.

Brand said the "pseudogene" in cats is probably a big reason why they are carnivores that get by on a high-protein, "Atkin's-like" diet.

"Its sense of taste has driven it to become a meat eater," Brand said. "Losing their sweet receptor has probably changed their dietary habits."

Brand said the paper is a culmination of a lingering question that nagged at him since he visited the Philadelphia Zoo with a colleague 25 years ago to watch the feeding habits of big cats.

All mammals have receptor cells on their tongues that send taste signals to the brain to process. The receptor cells are clustered together as taste buds. Each human taste bud is comprised of 50 to 100 receptor cells representing the five major taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami, the taste of the food additive MSG and fermented soy products, among other foods.

Most mammals' sweet receptors are created by two proteins, one of which cats are missing.

The study was paid for, in part, by the research arm of the pet food giant Mars Inc., which is looking to make better-tasting cat food. The company has the rights of first refusal to commercialize the discovery published Sunday, Brand said.

Brand said the discovery could help veterinarians treat ill cats.

"Everyone knows that cats are finicky," said Brand, who owns two cats. "And one big issue is how to make food palatable enough for a sick cat to eat."

The research team also received funding from the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Science Foundation. Brand declined to say how much the project cost.

The nonprofit Monell center studies the senses of smell and taste and has produced a number of scientific breakthroughs, including a study to be published this year showing that gay men sense body odor differently than straight men.

Researchers said that beyond improving the taste of cat food, the study will help scientists better understand food-related diseases such as diabetes in humans -- and how diet influences evolution.

"This may have implications for all sorts of medical conditions," said Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Hirsch, who was not affiliated with the study, said that the study suggests obesity and related diseases such as diabetes are caused by more than simply overindulging a sweet tooth.

"Even in the absence of the taste for sweets, cats still get heavy," Hirsch said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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News from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Aug 18, 2005 1:53 am

Lions and elephants on the Great Plains?
Scientists suggest relocating African species to North America

Wednesday, August 17, 2005; Posted: 1:35 p.m. EDT (17:35 GMT)

The proposal's supporters say it could help save some species from extinction in Africa.
DENVER, Colorado (AP) -- If a group of prominent ecologists have their way, lions and elephants could someday be roaming the Great Plains of North America.

The idea of transplanting African wildlife to this continent is being greeted with gasps and groans from other scientists and conservationists who recall previous efforts to relocate foreign species halfway around the world, often with disastrous results.

But the proposal's supporters say it could help save some species from extinction in Africa, where protection is spotty and habitats are vanishing. They say the relocated animals could also restore the biodiversity in North America to a condition closer to what it was before humans overran the landscape more than 10,000 years ago.

Most modern African species never lived on the American prairie, the scientists acknowledge. But some of their biological cousins like mastodons, camels and saber-toothed cats, roamed for more than 1 million years alongside antelope and herds of bison until Ice Age glaciers retreated and humans started arriving.

The rapid extinction of dozens of large mammal species in North America -- perhaps due to a combination of climate change and overhunting -- triggered a landslide of changes to the environmental landscape. Relocating large animals to vast ecological parks and private reserves would begin to repair the damage, proponents say, while offering new ecotourism opportunities to a withering region.

The scientists' plan appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. It is attracting interest from some influential circles, including CNN founder Ted Turner, America's largest private landowner. He owns huge ranches in several states to support his commercial bison operation and personal conservation initiatives.

But the plan is also generating criticism on both sides of the conservation debate.

"It is not restoration to introduce animals that were never here," said University of Washington anthropologist Donald K. Grayson. "Why introduce Old World camels and lions when there are North American species that could benefit from the same kind of effort?"

Others wonder whether people would support African lions making a home on the range, given the opposition to the reintroduction of native wolves in the rural West.

"Just when you think the world has gotten as weird as it can get, something like this comes along," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

"I wonder how many calves or lambs it would take to feed a family of lions for a month?" Pilcher mused. "We sort of know what it takes for wolves, but something tells me we would be in a whole new ball game."

Some wildlife conservationists said the idea would further damage the prospects of both threatened species and Africa's hopes for sustainable economic development.

"Such relocations would affect future tourism opportunities for Africa," said Elizabeth Wamba, the East Africa spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya. "The welfare of the animals would have been reduced by transporting and exposing them to different eco-climatic conditions."

Critics also point to calamitous relocations of foreign species in Australia. Rabbits brought from Europe swarmed across parts of the Outback, and noxious cane toads brought from South America to control bugs in sugar cane fields killed native wildlife.

The authors of the new plan say they are not discouraged.

"We are not saying this is going to be easy," said Cornell University ecologist Josh Donlan, the lead author of the proposal. "There are huge and substantial risks and obstacles."

The plan grew from a retreat at Turner's New Mexico ranch -- a 155,000-acre property in the foothills of the Gila Mountains that contains a mix of ecosystems ranging from desert grasslands to pine forests.

Ecologists are using the ranch to experiment with reintroducing the Bolson tortoise to the region. These 100-pound burrowers were once found across the Southwest, but now survive only in a corner of northern Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert.

The scientists' discussion expanded to consider long-extinct Pleistocene species that have modern counterparts elsewhere in the world.

For example, a larger American cheetah once stalked pronghorn on these lands, with both species evolving special features that enabled them to accelerate to 60 mph. Today, pronghorns rarely are chased, except by the occasional pickup truck.

In Africa, modern cheetahs are being exterminated as vermin, with fewer than 2,000 remaining in some countries. Relocation could help both species retain important traits, the plan's proponents say.

Other living species that are counterparts to Pleistocene-era animals in North America include wild horses and asses, Bactrian camels, elephants and lions.

Donlan concedes that lions would be a tough sell to Americans.

"Lions eat people," he said. "There has to be a pretty serious attitude shift on how you view predators."

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Re: News from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Aug 18, 2005 1:57 am

Cures for humans in crocodile blood?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005; Posted: 10:27 a.m. EDT (14:27 GMT)
The crocodile has an immune system which attaches to bacteria and tears it apart and it explodes. It's like putting a gun to the head of the bacteria and pulling the trigger.

SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- Scientists in Australia's tropical north are collecting blood from crocodiles in the hope of developing a powerful antibiotic for humans, after tests showed that the reptile's immune system kills the HIV virus.

The crocodile's immune system is much more powerful than that of humans, preventing life-threatening infections after savage territorial fights which often leave the animals with gaping wounds and missing limbs.

"They tear limbs off each other and despite the fact that they live in this environment with all these microbes, they heal up very rapidly and normally almost always without infection," said U.S. scientist Mark Merchant, who has been taking crocodile blood samples in the Northern Territory.

Initial studies of the crocodile immune system in 1998 found that several proteins (antibodies) in the reptile's blood killed bacteria that were resistant to penicillin, such as Staphylococcus aureus or golden staph, Australian scientist Adam Britton told Reuters on Tuesday. It was also a more powerful killer of the HIV virus than the human immune system.

"If you take a test tube of HIV and add crocodile serum it will have a greater effect than human serum. It can kill a much greater number of HIV viral organisms," Britton said from Darwin's Crocodylus Park, a tourism park and research centre.

Britton said the crocodile immune system worked differently from the human system by directly attacking bacteria immediately an infection occurred in the body.

"The crocodile has an immune system which attaches to bacteria and tears it apart and it explodes. It's like putting a gun to the head of the bacteria and pulling the trigger," he said.

For the past 10 days Britton and Merchant have been carefully collecting blood from wild and captive crocodiles, both saltwater and freshwater species. After capturing a crocodile and strapping its powerful jaws closed the scientists extract blood from a large vein behind the head.

"It's called a sinus, right behind the head, and it's very easy just to put a needle in the back of the neck and hit this sinus and then you can take a large volume of blood very simply," said Britton.

The scientists hope to collect enough crocodile blood to isolate the powerful antibodies and eventually develop an antibiotic for use by humans.

"We may be able to have antibiotics that you take orally, potentially also antibiotics that you could run topically on wounds, say diabetic ulcer wounds; burn patients often have their skin infected and things like that," said Merchant.

However, the crocodile's immune system may be too powerful for humans and may need to be synthesised for human consumption.

"There is a lot of work to be done. It may take years before we can get to the stage where we have something to market," said Britton.

Copyright 2005 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Sep 29, 2005 3:37 am

Scientists photograph giant squid

Wednesday, September 28, 2005; Posted: 9:27 a.m. EDT (13:27 GMT)

The 8-meter long Architeuthis attacks prey hung by a rope.
Scientists photograph for the first time in the wild a 26-foot long squid. (2:08)
TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- Japanese scientists have photographed for the first time in the wild a live giant squid, one of the most mysterious creatures of the deep sea.

The team, led by Tsunemi Kubodera from the National Science Museum in Tokyo, tracked the 8-meter (25-foot) long Architeuthis as it attacked prey at 900 meters deep off the coast of Japan's Bonin islands.

"We believe this is the first time a grown giant squid has been captured on camera in its natural habitat," said Kyoichi Mori, a marine researcher who co-authored a piece on the finding in the Royal Society Journal, a leading British biological publication.

The camera was operated by remote control during research at the end of October 2004, Mori told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Mori said the squid, which was purplish red like smaller squid, attacked its quarry aggressively, calling into question the image of the animal as lethargic and slow moving.

"Contrary to belief that the giant squid is relatively inactive, the squid we captured on film actively used its enormous tentacles to go after prey," Mori said.

"It went after some bait that we had on the end of the camera and became stuck, and left behind a tentacle six meters long, " Mori said.

Kubodera, also reached by the AP, said researchers ran DNA tests on the tentacle and found it matched those of other giant squids found around Japan.

`'But other sightings were of smaller, or very injured squids washed toward the shore -- or of parts of a giant squid," Kubodera said. "This is the first time a full-grown, healthy squid has been sighted in its natural environment in deep water."

Giant squids have long attracted human fascination and were written about and mythologized by the ancient Greeks.

Scientific interest in the animals has surged in recent years as more specimens have been caught in commercial fishing nets.

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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Dec 28, 2005 1:11 am

Prof Honored for Solving Old Math Problem Tue Dec 27, 1:34 PM ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia is being recognized for solving a math problem that had stumped his peers for more than 40 years.

The achievement has landed Steven Hofmann an invitation to speak next spring at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid, Spain.

"It is like a baseball player being picked for the all-star team," Hofmann said of the invitation to the event, which is held every four years.

Hofmann became curious about the problem as an undergraduate when a professor introduced him to it.

The professor was unable to solve the problem. Hofmann, 47, would have more success when the problem began to take over his life in 1996. Until he solved it in 2000, it was the last thing he thought about before he went to bed and the first thing he thought about when he woke. He spent two to eight hours each day on the problem, working periodically with several colleagues.

"I could be out for a bike ride, and I would be thinking about it," Hofmann told The Kansas City Star. "Sometimes I would be doing something, get an idea and have to stop ... and write it down."

The problem, known as Kato's Conjecture, applies to the theory of waves moving through different media, such as seismic waves traveling through different types of rock. It bears the name of Tosio Kato, a now-deceased mathematician at the University of California-Berkeley, who posed the problem in research papers first written in 1953 and again in 1961.

Part of the problem, called the one-dimensional version, was solved about 20 years ago. Though it was a breakthrough, work remained. Hofmann solved the problem in all its dimensions in a 120-word paper that he wrote with several colleagues — Pascal Auscher, Michael Lacey, John Lewis, Alan McIntosh and Philippe Tchamitchian.

"Philosophically, the reason research in math matters is that by pursuing math ideas that are deep and interesting for their own sake, you will get real-world applications in the future," Hofmann said.

"It is like making investments."

Theodore Slaman, chairman of the Department of Mathematics at the University of California-Berkeley, said solving a problem as old as Kato's Conjecture "is like finding the Holy Grail."

"Once you have solved it, people believe you have an understanding of an entirely new area. The longer a problem has been around, the more cachet associated with solving it."


Information from: The Kansas City Star,


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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Thu Jan 05, 2006 2:20 am

Elephants' hair tells story
GPS tracking technology could help endangered species

Tuesday, January 3, 2006; Posted: 5:58 p.m. EST (22:58 GMT)

Scientists can track the needs and roaming habits of elephants by analyzing hairs from their tails.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lewis had gourmet taste: Whenever the dry season browned grass in his Kenyan sanctuary, he'd abandon the other elephants and race 25 miles to the mountains -- to raid farmers' corn fields under cover of night.

A foot-long hair plucked from his tail, and GPS technology, tell the story.

It's a new way to track elephants' dietary needs and roaming habits that scientists hope ultimately could help the endangered species survive, information key to minimizing conflicts between pachyderms and people.

Indeed, Lewis' roaming cost him his life. Shortly after the research ended, he was found shot to death, presumably by a farmer tired of the crop-raiding.

"Part of the problem with the elephant is, we need to know how much space they really need," explained geochemist Thure Cerling of the University of Utah, who led the research reported Monday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Why do they need a particular space? Could we manage the parks to make them work better for them?"

Shrinking living space, as more people move into lands they once freely foraged, and poaching for ivory threaten elephant populations worldwide. But populations vary widely by country. South Africa, Namibia and Botwswana, for example, have booming herds. In contrast, Kenya and certain other African countries are struggling to increase decimated elephant populations.

Because elephants are so large and eat so much, a key question for conservationists is how to designate officially protected areas suitable enough to their needs that they won't roam toward encroaching human settlements.

"Elephants need to find food and water, but also to avoid danger, seek safety and to make social contact with other elephants," explained Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the Save the Elephants Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. "Understanding elephant motivation defines their needs, and understanding these can help secure a future for the species."

Enter the hair study.

Hair is "like a tape recorder," Cerling said, harboring for long periods traces of dietary chemicals.

He gathered hair from the tails of 35 elephants in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve to analyze for long-lasting forms, called "stable isotopes," of carbon and nitrogen that would appear when an elephant ate mostly grass, trees or some other plant. He matched that testing to Save the Elephants' tracking, using Global Positioning System technology, of elephant movements.

Among the first seven elephants tested, 40-year-old Lewis was the wild guy. During the rainy season, he stayed in Samburu with his fellow pachyderms and ate the plentiful grass.

When the dry season hit and the grass died, the other pachyderms started munching bushes and trees. But Lewis bolted for Mount Kenya's thick Imenti Forest -- he could make the 25-mile trek in just 15 hours, an elephant phenomenon called streaking. There, he'd munch bushes or trees by day and raid for corn by night.

Tracking elephant movements suggests the intelligent mammals do know where their protected habitats end, but some still risk human contact to find higher quality food, said Douglas-Hamilton, whose earlier research helped lead to the 1989 international ivory ban.

Bulls in particular are prone to such forays, because the better diet can help their quest for a mate.

More hair sampling, now under way, should help scientists determine how much of certain plants elephants need in their diet, and exactly when they start foraging for them, he said.

That data should help conservationists' not only better plan elephant sanctuaries, but help local communities find ways to minimize crop damage when bulls like Lewis decide to roam.

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Sat Jan 07, 2006 1:19 am

Mars rovers keep exploring Red Planet
Twin robots mark second anniversary

Monday, January 2, 2006; Posted: 3:23 p.m. EST (20:23 GMT)

Opportunity's mission to Meridiani Planum: find geologic evidence that water once flowed on Mars.
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- The warranty expired long ago on NASA's twin robots motoring around Mars.

In two years, they have traveled a total of seven miles. Not impressed? Try keeping your car running in a climate where the average temperature is well below zero and where dust devils can reach 100 mph.

These two golf cart-sized vehicles were only expected to last three months.

"These rovers are living on borrowed time. We're so past warranty on them," says Steven Squyres of Cornell University, the Mars mission's principal researcher. "You try to push them hard every day because we're living day to day."

The rover Spirit landed on Mars on January 3, 2004, and Opportunity followed on January 24. Since then, they've set all sorts of records and succeeded in the mission's main assignment: finding geologic evidence that water once flowed on Mars.

Part of the reason for their long survival is pure luck. Their lives were extended several times by dust devils that blew away dust that covered their solar panels, restoring their ability to generate electricity.

Like most Earth-bound vehicles, these identical robots have their own personalities.

The overachieving Opportunity dazzled scientists from the start. It eclipsed its twin by making the mission's first profound discovery -- evidence of water at or near the surface eons ago that could have implications for life.

The rock-climbing Spirit went down in the history books by becoming the first robot to scale an extraterrestrial hill.

Last summer, it completed a daredevil climb to the summit of Husband Hill -- as tall as the Statue of Liberty -- despite fears that it might not survive the weather.

The rovers haven't been all get-up and go -- technical hiccups have at times limited their activity, even from the start. At one point, Spirit had a balky front wheel, but engineers overcame the problem by driving it in reverse.

Last spring, Opportunity got stuck hub-deep in sand while trying to crest a foot-high dune, and was freed after weeks of effort by the Earth-bound engineers.

Signs of aging
The six-wheeled travelers, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, also are showing signs of aging. In November, a motor on Opportunity's robotic arm stalled and the arm failed to extend while it was surveying a rock outcrop. The engineers fixed that problem after two weeks.

This mission is the first time any probe has extensively rolled across Mars, whose rocky landscape is a dangerous place for man-made objects to settle and roam.

There have been four previous Mars landings that succeeded. Of those, NASA's stationary Viking 1 lander operated the longest, from 1976 to 1982. NASA's Sojourner was the first rover, but it stayed close to its Pathfinder lander.

Spirit and Opportunity parachuted to opposite ends of Mars. Spirit landed in Gusev Crater, a 90-mile-wide depression south of the Martian equator.

Opportunity followed three weeks later, touching down on Meridiani Planum on the other side of the planet.

In two years, Spirit has traveled over three miles and beamed back 70,000 images including self-portraits and panoramas of the rust-colored planet's surface. Opportunity has driven over four miles and transmitted more than 58,000 images.

Three times NASA has extended the rovers' mission, spending an extra $84 million on top of the $820 million original price tag.

While both rovers have discovered clues of ancient water, they also have found evidence of a violent past that might have prevented some life forms from emerging.

Piecing together a definitive history of Mars is far from over, scientists say, as the rovers head to their next destinations to explore more rocks and minerals.

Spirit recently descended Husband Hill and is driving toward a basin that holds geologic promise.

Opportunity is rolling to an enormous depression known as Victoria Crater that is thought to hold more clues about the planet's past.

"Rock layers are the barcode of Mars history," said John Grotzinger, a science team member from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Every time we encounter new layers, it's another piece of the puzzle."

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Jan 10, 2006 6:50 am

Western U.S. to get comet capsule light show

Monday, January 9, 2006; Posted: 4:25 p.m. EST (21:25 GMT)

-- The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard a Delta II rocket.

-- The probe collected dust and carbon-based samples during its encounter with Comet Wild 2 on January 2004, after nearly four years of space travel.

-- Stardust is bringing back samples of interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming into our solar system.

-- The capsule will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and parachute to the ground in the Utah Test and Training Range, landing on January 15, 2006, at 5:12 a.m. ET.

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- When a NASA capsule hauling comet and interstellar dust plummets through the Earth's atmosphere this weekend, residents in large sweeps of the West will witness a cosmic spectacle.

During the Stardust capsule's blazing re-entry at 1:57 a.m. PST Sunday, it will travel at 29,000 mph, making it the fastest man-made object to return to Earth.

The 100-pound cargo will arc over Northern California toward Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, a remote Army base southwest of Salt Lake City.

Residents in parts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah should see the Stardust capsule as it streaks across the pre-dawn sky. Prime viewing will be along Nevada's Interstate 80 where residents can view the capsule's front.

The capsule's glow is expected to shine as bright as Venus for 90 seconds. It will appear brightest over Carlin, a small mining city in northeast Nevada.

The capsule will likely appear as a bright pink dot to the naked eye. In certain places, those with telescopes may see the capsule pass in front of the moon, appearing as a tiny dot trailed by a dark wave of hot air and debris from its heat shield.

During the capsule's descent, a team of scientists aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft will track it and measure its brightness.

Part of their mission: Determine how well the capsule's heat shield performed during the plunge. The capsule's heat shield is among several protective material being considered by NASA for its new crew exploration vehicle, which is intended to replace the space shuttle.

After landing, the capsule will be shipped to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where scientists will pry it open and study the microscopic cometary and interstellar samples inside for clues to how the solar system formed.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Jan 18, 2006 3:52 pm

Stardust canister in 'pristine' condition
NASA shipping comet dust to Houston

Monday, January 16, 2006; Posted: 8:47 p.m. EST (01:47 GMT)

Mission personnel remove the canister containing comet dust, from the Stardust capsule.

DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah (AP) -- The space capsule that returned to Earth with the first dust ever fetched from a comet survived its blazing dive through Earth's atmosphere in almost perfect condition, a technician said Monday.

After a seven-year journey, the NASA space capsule landed safely Sunday at Dugway Proving Ground with tiny particles that scientists hope will yield clues to how the solar system formed.

The capsule's high-temperature plunge from space lit up parts of the Western sky. (Watch: Capsule lands in Utah -- 2:43)

The cosmic samples were gathered as the Stardust spacecraft swooped past a comet known as Wild 2 in 2004.

The spacecraft, which was launched in 1999, used a tennis racket-sized collector mitt to snatch the dust particles.

Technicians wearing protective masks and suits spent Monday morning at Dugway preparing the Stardust capsule and its sealed sample canister for a flight to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday.

The capsule had only had a small chip on its protective heat shield after bouncing three times in soft mud at the Dugway salt flats, said Joe Vellinga of Lockheed Martin, which built the capsule.

The capsule's inner canister, holding the precious cosmic dust samples, was in excellent shape, he said.

"Everything is very clean. It looks very pristine," Vellinga said.

At the Johnson Space Center, scientists will unlock the sample canister. After a preliminary examination, they hope to ship the particles to laboratories all over the world for study to analyze their composition.

"This (landing) is not the finish line. This is just the intermediate pit stop," said project manager Tom Duxbury of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which managed the $212 million mission.

The canister is believed to hold about a million tiny comet and interstellar dust particles. They are thought to be pristine leftovers from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Some samples could be even older than the sun.

"Inside this thing is our treasure," said principal mission scientist Don Brownlee of the University of Washington.

Stardust's successful return was welcome news for the space agency, which suffered a setback in 2004 when its Genesis space probe carrying solar wind atoms crashed into the same Utah salt flats and cracked open after its parachutes failed to deploy.

After the Genesis mishap, engineers rechecked Stardust's systems. Duxbury said its return went "like clockwork." The first parachute unfurled at 100,000 feet, followed by a larger chute that guided the capsule to a 10-mph landing.

The Stardust mother ship remains in orbit around the sun and NASA is considering sending it to another comet or asteroid to take photos. There won't be another chance for a sample return, however, because the craft carried only one capsule.

Stardust and Genesis were the first robotic retrievals of extraterrestrial material since the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 in 1976, which brought back lunar rocks and soil.

Six months ago, NASA sent the Deep Impact probe into the path of another comet. The probe's high-speed collision with comet Tempel 1 set off a celestial fireworks display and bared the comet's primordial interior. (Full story)

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