Saturday, May 24, 2008

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 May 23

Jupiter's Three Red Spots
Credit NASA, ESA, M. Wong, I. de Pater (UC Berkeley), et al.

Explanation: For about 300 years Jupiter's banded atmosphere has shown a remarkable feature to telescopic viewers, a large swirling storm system known as The Great Red Spot. In 2006, another red storm system appeared, actually seen to form as smaller whitish oval-shaped storms merged and then developed the curious reddish hue. Now, Jupiter has a third red spot, again produced from a smaller whitish storm. All three are seen in this image made from data recorded on May 9 and 10 with the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The spots extend above the surrounding clouds and their red color may be due to deeper material dredged up by the storms and exposed to ultraviolet light, but the exact chemical process is still unknown. For scale, the Great Red Spot has almost twice the diameter of planet Earth, making both new spots less than one Earth-diameter across. The newest red spot is on the far left (west), along the same band of clouds as the Great Red Spot and is drifting toward it. If the motion continues, the new spot will encounter the much larger storm system in August. Jupiter's recent outbreak of red spots is likely related to large scale climate change as the gas giant planet is getting warmer near the equator.

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Mars Lander Headed for "7 Minutes of Terror" Sunday

After years of planning followed by a ten-month journey, the Mars Phoenix Lander is slated to touch down Sunday near the red planet's north pole. If successful, the probe will be the first lander to reach a Martian pole and the first to actually touch the planet's water ice. (Related gallery: "Phoenix Lander's Search for Mars Water" [August 3, 2007].)

What's more, it could settle the debate over whether Mars was once suitable for life.

As Phoenix closed in on the last miles of its journey, NASA scientists were gearing up for the "seven minutes of terror" that could make or break the U.S. $420-million mission. (Video: animation of the lander's expected turbulent touchdown.)

"Approximately 14 minutes before touchdown, the vehicle separates from its cruise stage," Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said at a recent press conference.

"At this point we lose communication from the vehicle."

Once the craft reaches Mars's atmosphere, the next critical seven minutes make up what's known as the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) phase.

Screaming down at about 12,600 miles (20,270 kilometers) an hour, the craft must open a parachute to slow itself for a three-minute glide to the surface about 70 miles (113 kilometers) below.

The craft's landing sequence then includes steps such as jettisoning its heat shield, extending its legs, and firing its landing thrusters.

"There are 26 pyrotechnic events, and each of those have to work perfectly for this to go as planned," Goldstein said. "Getting EDL communication [at touchdown]—that'll be the three seconds that I am really biting my nails over."

Risen From the Ashes

The tension for this mission seems especially intense, since Phoenix is not the first craft to attempt a landing at a Martian pole.

In 1999 NASA lost communication with the Mars Polar Lander as it entered the atmosphere above the planet's south pole. That lander's fate remains a mystery, but its hardware designs will be given a second chance—Phoenix is based on much of the lost craft's systems.

"We spent 15 years developing the hardware, and I really wanted some return from those," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who first proposed "recycling" technology from the failed 1999 mission.

Engineers have put the so-called heritage hardware through a battery of tests, and NASA scientists say they have fixed all the known issues.

Teams using a variety of data also put serious thought into where exactly to set the lander down.

"Finding a place to land that was scientifically interesting and safe … has been a multiyear process," noted Ray Arvidson, chair of the Phoenix landing site working group at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The site, informally dubbed Green Valley, sits in a region of permafrost on Mars's northern plains that is analogous to northern Canada, the University of Arizona's Smith said.

The relatively shallow valley, which contains some of the highest concentrations of ice outside of the polar cap, is about 700 feet (213 meters) deep and stretches for 40 miles (64 kilometers).

A crater near the valley means that an impact pushed away most large rocks and spread out a soft cushion of fine particles 5 to 10 inches (13 to 25 centimeters) deep on top of the hard icy soil.

But "this is no trip to grandma's for the weekend," warned Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

"Mars has been known to cause trouble, and I'll be worried until I hear the signal a few seconds after landing."

Search for Life

Still, NASA team members said that the scientific payoffs of a polar mission will be well worth the risks.

As opposed to the Mars rovers that have been exploring the red planet's geologic history, Phoenix will be taking samples that should reveal active processes.

Mars's northern ice cap expands and contracts with the seasons, which should allow scientists to analyze how water impacts the planet's soil chemistry.

And "we'll look at the properties of ice frozen into the surface with water vapor in the atmosphere to see if there's a communication there," Smith said.

But the biggest goal will be to look for signatures that Mars might once have been habitable. (Get full coverage of the search for water—and life—on Mars.)

"We're really doing a full geological and chemical experiment on the surface with the idea of finding if this is a habitable zone," Smith added.

The polar region offers the best hope, he said, because just like the refrigerator in a kitchen, polar ice may "preserve organic material and the history of life on this planet."

The consequence, however, is that the craft is not expected to last beyond the stated lifetime of the mission.

Unlike the Mars rovers that have roamed Mars's equatorial zone since 2004, Phoenix is touching down in a region that within months will be too cold and dark for the craft to maintain power supplies.

"Living in Hawaii would be wonderful, but we live north of the Arctic Circle," JPL's Goldstein said.

"In January [at the start of Martian winter] we'll go three to four months without any solar energy. At that point it's extraordinarily unlikely the craft will survive."

Original here

Ghost toddler from ancient Egypt on show as art

A new exhibition sheds light on a family tragedy that took place almost two thousand years ago. Roger Highfield reports.

  • Egyptian mummy exhibit is son of Ramesses II
  • The ghost of an Ancient Egyptian toddler now haunts a London gallery, after scans of his mummy were fashioned into a work of art.

    "Mummy boy 3" exhibition
    "Mummy Boy 3" is on display at Waterhouse & Dodd in the West End of London until June 12.

    Artist Angela Palmer has already turned Carol Vorderman's brain, and even her own, into eerie artistic representations, formed from layers of glass that have been engraved with contours based on scans of their brains.

    Now she has used the same method to bring the remains of the toddler into view and shed new light on a family tragedy that took place almost two thousand years ago in Egypt.

    Her reconstruction of "Mummy Boy 3" is now on display at Waterhouse & Dodd in the West End of London, until June 12.

    She had originally wanted to scan the head of the boy king Tutenkhamum, but was told that request was out of the question.

    However, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford allowed her unprecedented access to the mummy to shed new light on the toddler's death in Roman times.

    "It is an exquisite mummy," says Ms Palmer. Working with Dr Helen Whitehouse of The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2500 images of the little mummy were taken with an CT X ray scanner in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, to create the stacked glass sculpture.

    "As you move around it, the mummy disappears from view, in an ethereal effect," she says.

    As a bonus, the effort has revealed to archaeologists new details of the mummy. The remains were of an 18 month old and it was a boy, as shown by his mummified penis.

    Unusually, he lacked his baby side teeth. His brain had also been removed, in common with standard funerary practices of the day.

    A CT X ray scan of the toodler's mummified body
    A CT scan of the toddler's mummified body

    The scans show that the elaborate bandages that wrap the remains, forming an elaborate lozenge pattern, are typical of the approach used in AD 80-120.

    The presence of gold studs of gilded plaster, bound near his lap, suggest that the little boy was the son of a noble or an official.

    Exhibited alongside the resulting see through sculpture, built up from glass engraved with the scans, are the mummy itself, along with films and photographs taken by the artist of local boys from the village of Hawara, south west of Cairo.

    It was there that the mummy was found in 1888 by the British archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie, while excavating around the royal pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhet III (1818–1770 BC).

    Poignant relics from a 100 acre cemetery there, from toys to tiny shoes and clothes, testify to how around quarter of children at that time did not survive beyond their first year, comments Dr Whitehouse, adding that diseases, insects, malaria and parasitic worms were prevalent until the 20th century.

    The precise cause of death are not clear, though the child had a problem with his right hip, and had an inflamed lung, consistent with pneumonia.

    Original here

    The brains of dead Russian geniuses:

    What makes a man a genius? Russian neuroscientists were pondering this exactly this question in the early 1900s and did exactly what seemed sensible at the time - they collected and dissected the brains of some of the greatest cultural figures in a huge collection called 'The Pantheon of Brains'.

    It's a fascinating story told in a recent article published in the medical journal Brain. Amazingly, the last brain was only added in 1989.

    Rather fittingly, the collection contains the brains of some of the Russia's greatest psychologists and neuroscientists and has many curious aspects to it, such as the mysterious death of its founder. After death, his brain was immediately added to the collection.

    In 1927, Bekhterev came up with a plan to organize ‘The Pantheon of Brains’ in Leningrad in order to collect elite brains. It was a severe irony of fate that precisely when the question about creating the Pantheon had been positively solved, the very initiator of this creation, Bekhterev, suddenly passed away. The circumstances are still questionable.

    On December 17, 1927, the First All-Union Congress of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists was held in Moscow. Bekhterev, along with L. S. Minor and G. I. Rossolimo, was elected as honourable chairmen of the congress. On December 23rd, the last day of the congress, Bekhterev gave a presentation during the afternoon session. In the evening, symptoms of a gastrointestinal disorder started and 24 hs later, Bekhterev died of (as officially stated) acute heart failure. Without any further post-mortem pathoanatomical investigation, his brain was removed, in accordance with his will, and his body was cremated the next day. However, the idea did not fade away.

    In 1928, the neuroanatomical laboratory of Vogt and his Russian colleagues were reorganized into the Moscow Brain Research Institute, where the structured collecting and mapping of the brains of famous Russians started. Bekhterev did not see his plan come to fruition, but his own brain enriched the collection of the Moscow Institute (the weight of his brain was 1720g). The collection acquired the brains of Soviet politicians, famous writers, poets, musicians, etc.

    It is not surprising that these included the brains of prominent Russian neuroscientists, such as neurologist, G.I. Rossolimo (1860–1928) - 1543g; physiologist, I.P. Pavlov (1849–1936) - 1517g; neurologist, M. B. Kroll (1879–1939) - 1520g; psychiatrist, P. B. Gannushkin (1875–1933) - 1495g; psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky (1896–1934). During the Soviet period, the work of the Moscow Brain Research Institute continued behind closed doors.

    The collection was still expanding as recently as 1989, when it acquired the brain of A.D. Sakharov [A. D. Sakharov (1921–89) was an eminent Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. He was an advocate of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975] — 1440g.

    You gotta love the fact that the authors have added exactly how much each person's brain weighed.

    Sadly, the full text isn't available online, although Brain does fully release articles after a set amount of time (a year I think) so it should eventually see the light.

    Link to PubMed entry for article.


    Original here

    Powers of 10

    Teenager's Science Fair Project May Deliver Us From Plastic


    I bought groceries at Trader Joe's the other day. As anyone who has ever shopped there knows, Trader Joe's is full of incredibly attractive, cheap food, which, if you manage to make it through all the plastic packaging it comes in, you can actually eat. Unfortunately, by the time I started cooking I had more or less lost my appetite, since every time I discarded one of those packages I felt like I dropped another circle in hell.

    So I pretty much love Daniel Burd right now. The 16-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, as part of a science fair project, figured out a way to break down the polymers in plastic bags—compounds that can last for over 1,000 years—in about three months. Essentially, Burd hypothesized that since the bags eventually do degrade, it must be possible to isolate and augment the degrading agents.

    Turns out that it's not only possible, it's kind of easy. Burd combined ground polyethylene plastic bags, sodium chloride, dirt from a landfill (which theoretically contains the microorganisms that ultimately degrade the plastic) and a yeast mixture in shakers for four weeks at a consistent temperature of about 86 degrees. At the end of the month, he took a sample of that mixture and combined it with a new one, with the goal of increasing the overall concentration of microbes. After one more repetition, he put fresh plastic bags in his solution for six weeks. In the end, the plastic degraded nearly 20%. A little more filtering to figure out exactly which microbes were the most effective, and he upped the degradation rate to 32%. He concludes, "The process of polyethylene degradation developed in this project can be used on an industrial scale for biodegradation of plastic bags. As a result, this would save the lives of millions of wildlife species and save space in landfills."

    So, will this really work? Has a teenager really found a way to rid us of one of our most persistent environmental problems? Who knows, but judges at the Canada-Wide Science Fair apparently agree that it's worth pursuing. They sent Burd home with $30,000 in awards and scholarships. You can read his final report (all six pages of it) here (.pdf).

    Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Arbel Egger.

    Original here

    The Jurassic Code: Resurrecting the Planet's Extinct Species -Can It Be Done?

    Dingothylacinehead Scientists at the Universities of Melbourne and Texas have successfully resurrected a gene from the extinct Tasmanian Tiger. This certainly isn't Jurassic Park - more like a Jurassic Concession Stand - but it's an incredibly important step forward in the study of animals thought to be lost forever.

    Tasmaniantiger_2 The team implanted a gene known as "Col2a1" (or "Colly" to its friends) into a laboratory mouse embryo. Before you're traumatized by images of fearsome predatory tiny white mice (though that would give my girlfriend a proper reason to be scared of them), the wider scientific community would like to channel Morbo in shouting "Genes do not work that way!". Col2a1 is only involved in the production of chondrocytes, the cells which produce and maintain cartilage in various joints around the body. The mouse didn't even get any super-flexible tiger joints; the only visible difference is one the scientists purposefully engineered, including a marker sequence which turned cells affected by the Col2a1 blue. The result? Some wicked awesome/cool/frightening pictures of blue-streaked mice embryos, and while they're at it a massive advance in our access to extinct animal DNA.

    What's revolutionary is how the DNA fragments the work is based on were dead. Extremely dead, in fact - we're talking "In a museum" dead which is about as dead as you can get. The original samples had been kept in a jar of ethanol for over a century, and considering how DNA breaks down over time even putting Col2a1 together was a massive success. A massive, tiny, fiddly, "super-complicated 3D jigsaw you can only touch with microscopes and chemicals" success. Rather than study the gene in test tubes and chemical baths (in vitro), the team went the extra mile and got it back into a living organism, presumably so they could stand over the incubator and cry "IT'S ALIIIVE!" while lightning crashed dramatically in the background.

    The research is extremely well-timed, with current conservation efforts focusing on salvaging as many species as possible with biotissue cataloguing efforts and seed vaults around the world. While the reconstruction of complete animals is a long way off, if possible at all, this research demonstrates that the basic steps are possible - it's only our time and technology that are lacking. And the latter improves with the former. For now the work can be applied in the study of extinct animals in a slightly more convincing manner than the "staring at the fossils and guessing" which has dominated the field to date. If you can recover a fragment of DNA, you can play the world's most exciting game of "Let's see what this bit does."

    Posted by Luke McKinney.

    Original here

    Six 'uniquely' human traits now found in animals

    To accompany the article So you think humans are unique? we have selected six articles from the New Scientist archive that tell a similar story. We have also asked the researchers involved to update us on their latest findings. Plus, we have rounded up six videos of animals displaying 'human' abilities.

    1. Culture

    Art, theatre, literature, music, religion, architecture and cuisine – these are the things we generally associate with culture. Clearly no other animal has anything approaching this level of cultural sophistication. But culture at its core is simply the sum of a particular group's characteristic ways of living, learned from one another and passed down the generations, and other primate species undoubtedly have practices that are unique to groups, such as a certain way of greeting each other or obtaining food.

    Even more convincing examples of animal cultures are found in cetaceans. Killer whales, for example, fall into two distinct groups, residents and transients. Although both live in the same waters and interbreed, they have very different social structures and lifestyles, distinct ways of communicating, different tastes in food and characteristic hunting techniques – all of which parents teach to offspring.

    Read the original article: Culture shock (24 March 2001)

    Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University writes:

    "Since our 2001 review, people have often considered culture as a potential explanation of the behavioural patterns that have turned up in their studies of whales and dolphins.

    "Our own work has concentrated on the non-vocal forms of sperm-whale culture. The different cultural clans of sperm whales, although in basically the same areas, use these waters very differently, and are affected very differently by El Niño events. They also have different reproductive rates.

    "In sperm whales, and likely other whales and dolphins, culture has the potential to affect population biology, and so issues as diverse as genetic evolution and the impacts of global warming on the species."

    2. Mind reading

    Perhaps the surest sign that an individual has insight into the mind of another is the ability to deceive. To outwit someone you must understand their desires, intentions and motives – exactly the same ability that underpins the "theory of mind". This ability to attribute mental states to others was once thought unique to humans, emerging suddenly around the fifth year of life. But the discovery that babies are capable of deception led experts to conclude that "mind-reading" skills develop gradually, and fuelled debate about whether they might be present in other primates.

    Experiments in the 1990s indicated that great apes and some monkeys do understand deception, but that their understanding of the minds of others is probably implicit rather than explicit as it is in adult humans.

    Read the original article: Liar! Liar! (14 February 1998)

    Marc Hauser, Harvard University, writes:

    "The tamarin work didn't pan out, but there are now several studies that show evidence of theory of mind in primates, including work by Brian Hare, Josep Call, Mike Tomasello, Felix Warneken, Laurie Santos, Justin Wood, and myself on chimps, rhesus monkeys and tamarins. There is nothing quite like a successful Sally-Anne test, but studies point to abilities such as seeing as a form of knowing, reading intentions and goals."

    3. Tool use

    Some chimps use rocks to crack nuts, others fish for termites with blades of grass and a gorilla has been seen gauging the depth of water with the equivalent of a dipstick, but no animal wields tools with quite the alacrity of the New Caledonian crow. To extract tasty insects from crevices, they craft a selection of hooks and long, barbed tapers called stepped-cut tools, made by intricately cutting a pandanus leaf with their beaks. What's more, experiments in the lab suggest that they understand the function of tools and deploy creativity and planning to construct them.

    Nobody is suggesting that toolmaking has common origins in humans and crows, but there is a remarkable similarity in the ways in which their respective brains work. Both are highly lateralised, revealed in the observation that most crows are right-beaked – cutting pandanus leaves using the right side of their beaks. New Caledonian crows may force us to reassess the mental abilities of our first toolmaking ancestors.

    Read the original article: Look, no hands (17 August 2002)

    Gavin Hunt at the University of Aukland, writes:

    "The general aim of our research on New Caledonian crows is to determine how a 'bird brain' can produce such complex tools and tool behaviour. Since the New Scientist article appeared in 2002, our team has focused on continuing to document tool manufacture and use in the wild (New Zealand Journal of Zoology, vol 35 p 115), the development of tool skills in free-living juveniles, the social behaviour and ecology of NC crows on the island of Maré, experimental work investigating NC crows' physical cognition and general intelligence, and neurological work.

    "Some of this work is being undertaken collaboratively with laboratories in Germany (neurology) and New Zealand (genotyping). A very similar study is also being carried out independently at the University of Oxford. This parallel research has produced findings that are both confirmatory and conflicting."

    Alex Kacelnik, University of Oxford, adds:

    "We now know for sure that genetics is involved in the tool-making abilities of new Caledonian crows. We raised nestlings by hand and found that chicks that had never seen anybody handle objects of any kind started to use tools to extract food from crevices at a similar age to those who were exposed to human tutors using tools (Animal Behaviour, vol 72, p 1329). Clearly, observing others is not necessary for the tool use. However chicks exposed to tutoring exhibit a greater intensity of tool-related activity. Not surprisingly, genes and experience show a complex interaction.

    "We have also developed a new technique, consisting of loading tiny video cameras on free-ranging birds, so as to see what they see and document the precise use of tools in nature. We have discovered that they use tools in loose soil, that they use a kind of tool not previously described (grass stems), and that they hunt for vertebrates (lizards). All of this, together with laboratory analysis of their cognitive abilities is forming a richer picture of what the species can do."

    4. Morality

    A classic study in 1964 found that hungry rhesus monkeys would not take food they had been offered if doing so meant that another monkey received an electric shock. The same is true of rats. Does this indicate nascent morality? For decades, we have preferred to find alternative explanations, but recently ethologist Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder has championed the view that humans are not the only moral species. He argues that morality is common in social mammals, and that during play they learn the rights and wrongs of social interaction, the "moral norms that can then be extended to other situations such as sharing food, defending resources, grooming and giving care".

    Read the original article: Virtuous nature (13 July 2002)

    Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, writes:

    "Work published this year showed that animals are able to make social evaluations and these assessments are foundational for moral behaviour in animals other than humans. Francys Subiaul of the George Washington University and his colleagues showed that captive chimpanzees are able to make judgments about the reputation of unfamiliar humans by observing their behaviour - whether they were generous or stingy in giving food to other humans. The ability to make character judgments is just what we would expect to find in a species in which fairness and cooperation are important in interactions among group members (Animal Cognition, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-008-0151-6)."

    5. Emotions

    Emotions allow us to bond with others, regulate our social interactions and make it possible to behave flexibly in different situations. We are not the only animals that need to do these things, so why should we be the only ones with emotions? There are many examples of apparent emotional behaviour in other animals.

    Elephants caring for a crippled herd member seem to show empathy. A funeral ritual performed by magpies suggests grief. Was it spite that led a male baboon called Nick to take revenge on a rival by urinating on her? Divers who freed a humpback whale caught in a crab line describe its reaction as one of gratitude. Then there's the excited dance chimps perform when faced with a waterfall – it looks distinctly awe-inspired. These days, few doubt that animals have emotions, but whether they feel these consciously, as we do, is open to debate.

    Read the original article: Do animals have emotions? (23 May 2007)

    6. Personality

    It's no surprise that animals that live under constant threat from predators are extra-cautious, while those that face fewer risks appear to be more reckless. After all, such successful survival strategies would evolve by natural selection. But the discovery that individuals of the same species, living under the same conditions, vary in their degree of boldness or caution is more remarkable. In humans we would refer to such differences as personality traits.

    From cowardly spiders and reckless salamanders to aggressive songbirds and fearless fish, we are finding that many animals are not as characterless as we might expect. What's more, work with animals has led to the idea that personality traits evolve to help individuals survive in a wider variety of ecological niches, and this is influencing the way psychologists think about human personality.

    Original here

    Vast cracks appear in Arctic ice

    By David Shukman
    Environment correspondent, BBC News


    A Canadian expedition found the new cracks

    Dramatic evidence of the break-up of the Arctic ice-cap has emerged from research during an expedition by the Canadian military.

    Scientists travelling with the troops found major new fractures during an assessment of the state of giant ice shelves in Canada's far north.

    The team found a network of cracks that stretched for more than 10 miles (16km) on Ward Hunt, the area's largest shelf.

    The fate of the vast ice blocks is seen as a key indicator of climate change.

    Satellite image of Ward Hunt Ice Shelf cracks

    One of the expedition's scientists, Derek Mueller of Trent University, Ontario, told me: "I was astonished to see these new cracks.

    "It means the ice shelf is disintegrating, the pieces are pinned together like a jigsaw but could float away," Dr Mueller explained.

    According to another scientist on the expedition, Dr Luke Copland of the University of Ottawa, the new cracks fit into a pattern of change in the Arctic.

    "We're seeing very dramatic changes; from the retreat of the glaciers, to the melting of the sea ice.

    "We had 23% less (sea ice) last year than we've ever had, and what's happening to the ice shelves is part of that picture."

    When ice shelves break apart, they drift offshore into the ocean as "ice islands", transforming the very geography of the coastline.

    Ayles Ice Island (BBC)

    Last year, I was part of a BBC team that joined Dr Mueller and Dr Copland as they carried out the first research on Ayles Ice Island, an iceberg the size of Manhattan.

    It has since split into two, each vast chunk of ice now 400 miles (640km) south of its original position.

    The rapid changes in the Arctic have reignited disputes over territory.

    The Canadian military's expedition was billed as a "sovereignty patrol", the lines of snowmobiles flying Canadian flags in a display of control.

    After the record Arctic melting last year, all eyes are now on what happens to the sea ice this summer.

    Although its maximum extent last winter was slightly greater than the year before, it was still below the long-term average.

    Original here Releases “Green My Ride” FaceBook App: I’m Ranked #8 Worldwide

    The Green My Ride Facebook App, the new green community of crowd-powered product reviews (and other good stuff), just released a new Facebook app that gives you yet another excuse to avoid what you really should be doing.

    Green My Ride has a simple premise: start out as a gas guzzling, flower crushing monster vehicle, and by earning credits through various actions (below), you can earn more efficient cars (up to a solar-powered electric car) to display on your Facebook profile.

    If you need some incentive to blow more time on Facebook (most of us don’t, and I’m not kidding about being number #8 in the world), Huddler is offering a weekly prize to the top scorer: one year’s worth of real renewable energy credits (RECs) from Village Green Energy.

    You can earn credits by doing any of the following:

    • 1 credit for: Each product added to your profile (up to 8), and every friend invited to use Green My Ride.
    • 5 credits for: Each friend you invite that actually signs up.
    • 10 credits for: Each review you write on (check out the site for more)
    • 15 credits for: Creating an account on and linking it to this Facebook account.

    Green My Ride, Facebook App, Huddler AppI’ve already upgraded to a green hybrid after accruing 89 credits.

    So what’s the point?

    Well, if you really need a reason, I think Huddler does a great job of aggregating green products into a simple interface, giving users the opportunity to explore, rank, and review green product options, and see what others have to say about them.

    Just take a look at the number of electric vehicles listed under the transportation section, half of which (I’m embarrassed to say) I’ve never heard of before. Speaking of which, I’ve added most of the cool ones to my profile already…

    Beyond winning a year of RECs, there’s also some simple satisfaction in making a symbolic gesture that, on some level, might be helping to reinforce the ecological consciousness of other Facebook users.

    Or you can just use it as another bragging point with your friends.

    My only question is, who’s going to knock me off Green My Ride’s Top 10 List?

    Check out the Green My Ride Facebook App Here.

    Check out Here.

    Original here

    Study: N. Pacific humpback whale population rises

    HONOLULU (AP) -- Once hunted to the brink of extinction, humpback whales have made a dramatic comeback in the North Pacific Ocean over the past four decades, a new study says.

    The study released Thursday by SPLASH, an international organization of more than 400 whale watchers, estimates there were between 18,000 and 20,000 of the majestic mammals in the North Pacific in 2004-2006.

    Their population had dwindled to less than 1,500 before hunting of humpbacks was banned worldwide in 1966.

    "It's not a complete success, but it's definitely very encouraging in terms of the recovery of the species," said Jeff Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

    The study, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the most comprehensive analysis ever of any large whale population, said David Mattila, science coordinator for the sanctuary.

    At least half of the humpback whales migrate between Alaska and Hawaii, and that population is the healthiest, Mattila said.

    But isolated populations that migrate from Japan and the Philippines to Russia are taking a longer to recover after whaling operations ceased, he said.

    "Whales are long-lived and give birth one at a time .... so if the population gets pushed too low, it may take quite awhile to come back. Maybe that's what's happening in the west," Mattila said.

    The whales are protected under federal laws that include the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

    Their resurgence could spark a debate over whether they should still be considered endangered, said Naomi McIntosh, superintendent for the humpback sanctuary.

    "Those discussions are bound to happen, and we knew that going into the study, we anticipated it," she said. "I think it's too early to make that call."

    The number of collisions between whales and boats has been increasing, probably because the population is larger, Walters said. Whale entanglements in marine debris, fishing gear and aquaculture structures also are a growing concern.

    The whale count was made based on data collected from Hawaii, Mexico, Asia, Central America, Russia, the Aleutians, Canada and the United States' northwest coast.

    The study used a system of photographing whale flukes - the lobes of a whale's tail - in six different feeding and breeding areas around the world, and then matching the pictures with whale flukes photographed in wintering areas.

    © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.

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    U.S. Military Launches Alternative-Fuel Push

    WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- With fuel prices soaring, the U.S. military, the country's largest single consumer of oil, is turning into an alternative-fuels pioneer.

    In March, Air Force Capt. Rick Fournier flew a B-1 stealth bomber code-named Dark 33 across this sprawling proving ground, to confirm for the first time that a plane could break the sound barrier using synthetic jet fuel. A similar formula -- a blend of half-synthetic and half-conventional petroleum -- has been used in some South African commercial airliners for years, but never in a jet going so fast.

    "The hope is that the plane will be blind to the gas," Capt. Fournier said as he gripped the handle controlling the plane's thrusters during the test flight. "But you won't know unless you try."

    With oil's multiyear ascent showing no signs of stopping -- crude futures set another record Tuesday, closing at $129.07 a barrel in New York trading -- energy security has emerged as a major concern for the Pentagon.

    The U.S. military consumes 340,000 barrels of oil a day, or 1.5% of all of the oil used in the country. The Defense Department's overall energy bill was $13.6 billion in 2006, the latest figure available -- almost 25% higher than the year before. The Air Force's bill for jet fuel alone has tripled in the past four years. When the White House submitted its latest budget request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it tacked on a $2 billion surcharge for rising fuel costs.

    Synthetic fuel, which can be made from coal or natural gas, is expensive now, but could cost far less than the current price of oil if it's mass-produced.

    Just as important, the military is increasingly concerned that its dependence on oil represents a strategic threat. U.S. forces in Iraq alone consume 40,000 barrels of oil a day trucked in from neighboring countries, and would be paralyzed without it. Energy-security advocates warn that terrorist attacks on oil refineries or tankers could cripple military operations around the world. "The endgame is to wean the dependence on foreign oil," says Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson.

    Some Pentagon officers have embraced planning around the "peak oil" theory, which holds that the world's oil production is about to plateau due to shrinking resources and limited investment in many of the most oil-rich regions of the Middle East. Earlier this year, they brought Houston investment banker Matthew Simmons to the Pentagon for a presentation on peak oil; he warned that under the theory, "energy security becomes an oxymoron." House Democrats have proposed creating a new Defense Department position to manage the military's overall energy needs.

    [Airman Jesus Abalos preparing to fuel a B-1 bomber on Dyess Air Force Base.]
    Airman Jesus Abalos preparing to fuel a B-1 bomber on Dyess Air Force Base.

    Alternative fuels are part of a broader -- and not so long ago unlikely -- conversion by the military to "green" initiatives. Producing synthetic fuel itself can cause more pollution than conventional fuel if the emissions aren't captured. But Army engineers also are pushing contractors to build armored vehicles with hybrid engines. The Air Force is experimenting with making engine parts out of lighter metals such as titanium to boost fuel efficiency.

    In December, Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas opened one of the largest solar arrays in the U.S., a 140-acre field of 72,000 motorized panels that powers the base and sells energy to nearby communities. The Pentagon is soliciting bids for three similar arrays on other bases. The military even has begun looking into the possibility of building small nuclear-power plants on unused portions of its more remote bases, though it has no firm plans yet.

    The Pentagon is hoping its push for alternative energy will feed civilian applications as well. For synthetic fuel, the Air Force is working with aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing Corp. and the Pratt & Whitney engine unit of United Technologies Corp. North American synthetic-fuel processors including Rentech Inc., Baard Energy and Syntroleum Corp. all operate or hope to build synthetic-fuel refineries to feed the military's growing thirst.

    "Our goal is to drive the development of a market here in the U.S.," says Mr. Anderson.

    Military use of synthetic fuel faces significant obstacles. The energy bill signed into law by President Bush last year included a clause preventing the government from buying the fuel if it emits more pollution than petroleum. Manufacturers have promised to meet that target by recapturing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses produced in refining. Without those efforts, synthetic fuel can emit up to twice as much pollution in refining as conventional petroleum.

    Prices' Impact

    Synthetic-fuel prices also need to fall: Formerly stratospheric, they're still about 50% above the soaring prices for petroleum. That should happen if companies can begin operating commercial-scale refineries, says David Berg, a policy analyst who studied the nascent synthetic-fuel market for the Energy Department in December. He estimated that commercial-scale synthetic-fuel refineries would be able to sell artificial fuel for approximately $55 a barrel, less than half the current cost of conventional crude oil.

    But many in the field say they're unwilling to invest the necessary billions until they can sign long-term contracts with the government. Right now, the Air Force legally can sign deals only for five years. It has asked the White House's Office of Management and Budget to seek congressional approval for the rule change, but the Bush administration has yet to act on the request, Mr. Anderson says.

    "These plants are not likely to get built without government help" such as guaranteed long-term contracts, says Mr. Berg, who recently retired. "And they may not get built even then."

    The problems are particularly acute for the Air Force, which uses about 2.6 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, or 10% of the entire domestic market in aviation fuel. The Air Force's fuel costs neared $6 billion last year, up from $2 billion in 2003, even as its consumption fell by more than 10% over the same period because of energy-savings measures, including a campaign to shut off lights and lower thermostats at bases.

    The Air Force wants to be able to purchase 400 million gallons of synthetic jet fuel a year by 2016, an amount equal to 25% of its total fuel needs for missions in the continental U.S. This year, it expects to buy slightly more than 300,000 gallons.

    [From Coal to Oil]

    The Air Force launched its artificial-fuel initiative in the spring of 2006. Testifying before the Senate that March, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told lawmakers that "we realize our reliance on petroleum-based fuels must be curtailed." The Air Force gave a small team at its Wright-Patterson base near Dayton, Ohio, the mission of finding a synthetic fuel capable of powering all of the service's fighters, bombers and other planes.

    Despite its high-tech connotations, synthetic fuel -- often dubbed "synfuel" for short within the industry -- has been around for decades. The basic technology for transforming coal or natural gas into synthetic fuel was invented by a pair of German researchers, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, in the 1920s. The Nazis later used the Fischer-Tropsch process to mass-produce synthetic diesel fuel. During the apartheid-era embargo against South Africa, scientists there tweaked the technology so it could also produce synthetic jet fuel.

    The Fischer-Tropsch process transforms a synthetic gas derived from coal or other material into liquid gas. The resulting synthetic fuel is different from biofuel, commonly produced from corn, sugar or other plants. Continental Airlines Inc. has announced plans for an experimental flight using biofuel this spring, which would be the first by a U.S. carrier; Virgin Atlantic also has done some testing.

    The Wright-Patterson team oversaw experiments on a wide array of synthetic fuels, but quickly settled on a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel -- known as JP-8 -- and artificial fuel made using the Fischer-Tropsch process. That mixture is used in South Africa, where Johannesburg-based Sasol Ltd. is one of the world's biggest synthetic-fuel producers. Air Force officials decided it was the safest combination.

    B-52 Bomber Test

    In June 2006, the Air Force agreed to buy 100,000 gallons of artificial fuel from U.S.-based Syntroleum to mix with petroleum for testing. The next month, military engineers bolted an engine from a B-52 bomber to a table at Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma and ran it for 50 consecutive hours to see how it would perform on the synthetic blend. Engineers detected no differences from conventional fuel.

    The Air Force began conducting test flights. In September 2006, a B-52 took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California with two of its eight engines burning the synthetic-fuel blend, the first time a military aircraft had flown on artificial fuel. The plane's performance was the same as if it had flown on conventional fuel, and the Air Force decided to push ahead.

    As the Air Force's experimentation increased, so did the involvement of the private sector. Military and civilian aircraft share many parts and are often built by the same companies. The military's Boeing C-17 cargo jet, for instance, uses the same Pratt & Whitney engine as a Boeing 757 passenger plane. Pentagon officials are sharing their research into synthetic fuels with such firms to help civilian companies certify their equipment on the synthetic-fuel blend.

    At the military's direction, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce PLC, Honeywell International Inc. and General Electric Co. have agreed to work together to develop joint specifications for how their engines perform on artificial fuels. Last November, engineers from Pratt & Whitney mounted one of the company's C-17 engines in a high-tech pressure chamber at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee and simulated a variety of altitudes and weather conditions to gauge the engine's performance. The tests were "enormously uneventful," says Alan Epstein, the company's vice president of technology and environment -- an encouraging sign.

    In late 2006, Baard Energy of Vancouver had said it would build the first commercial-scale synthetic-fuel refinery in the U.S., to be completed in 2012. Chief Executive John Baardson says he decided to roll the dice on the $6 billion plant because of the military's interest. "There isn't a market for this right now, so it takes a little bit of faith to get these plants going," he says. "Knowing the military was out there took one huge risk factor out of the decision-making process."

    But other companies haven't followed suit. Syntroleum shut down the plant that produced the fuel used in the B-52 test flight; it had only been designed to produce small samples for experiments. Rentech is building a new refinery in Colorado, but its plant also is meant to only refine minute samples of synthetic fuel.

    "It's a chicken and egg thing: We'll build a larger plant if we can get the money to finance it and find customers willing to buy what it produces," says Rick Penning, Rentech's executive vice president of commercial affairs.

    The pure synthetic fuel Syntroleum sold the Air Force for the B-52 test flight in 2006 cost almost $20 a gallon. Its price since has come down sharply, but the synthetic product used in the B-1 supersonic test in March still cost $4.62 a gallon. It was mixed with petroleum fuel costing $3.04 a gallon, according to government officials.

    Testing Its Planes

    The Air Force plans to finish testing all of its planes on the fuel blend by 2011. Last month, it was time to test artificial fuel on supersonic flights. Air Force officials decided to start with a B-1 bomber, a supersonic plane that has been in service since 1986.

    The test flight was assigned to Capt. Fournier and a two-man crew from the 9th Bomber Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, in Abilene, Texas. The unit's Latin motto, "Mors ab Alto," translates into "Death From Above."

    On a clear day in March, the three men took off for New Mexico with a reporter aboard. When the B-1 crossed into the closed airspace above the White Sands Missile Range, Capt. Fournier yanked back his throttle and sent the plane climbing almost straight up, throwing the bomber's occupants back into their seats. He then pitched into a steep dive. Pens and other small objects hovered around the cabin, weightless, until the plane leveled off again.

    Capt. Fournier fired the plane's afterburners and sent the bomber roaring over the range. A small dial in the cockpit showed that the bomber was flying faster than Mach 1.

    Back at Dyess, the crew packed into a small conference room to analyze the flight with a crew of military and civilian officials, including a pair of engineers from GE, which makes the bomber's engines. Capt. Fournier said the plane handled normally at high speeds and on sharp turns. The only difference he noticed was that the synthetic fuel had a different smell than conventional jet fuel. "So it didn't give you the normal buzz?" one of the engineers joked.

    With the B-1 certified to fly on the synthetic mix, Maj. Donald Rhymer, the deputy director of the Air Force's alternative-fuels certification office, said the Air Force would soon test fighters such as its workhorse F-16.

    "Our biggest litmus test was Capt. Fournier coming out of the B-1 and saying that it was an unremarkable flight," Maj. Rhymer said as the meeting ended. "That's the subjective endorsement we're looking for with all of the planes."

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    Greenhouse gases are turning oceans acidic

    Greenhouse gases are turning the oceans acidic decades earlier than predicted with potentially catastrophic consequences for marine life, scientists have warned.

    The acid in sea water is powerful enough to dissolve the shells of sea creatures, they said. An American team has found evidence that an acidic "tipping point" has been reached on the continental shelf along the west coast of North America.

    The work underlines rising concerns that man-made emissions will affect the world's oceans, through acidification, in a much more direct way than climate change.

    "This is potentially very bad news," said Paul Halloran, of Oxford University, an expert in the field. "The impact on tourism and fisheries may have huge economic consequences."

    A team led by Dr Richard Feely, of the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, reports that waters which a century ago were not corrosive have now become acidic enough to dissolve shells.

    Marine scientists have known for years that water below a certain depth corrodes shells as a result of acid produced by ''rotting" organic matter that floats from the surface to deep waters. But scientists are alarmed to see that the level at which water becomes corrosive is now high enough to be washed up on to the continental shelf - where many vulnerable organisms live.

    Increased acidity may also directly affect the growth and reproduction rates of fish.

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    Honey, I Shrunk the CFLs: Crazy-Small New Bulb from SYLVANIA

    micromini_single_209_274.JPGThe micro mini Twist CFL: Big light, small package
    When it comes to the advent of the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), I am proud to say that I was an early adopter. And while I instantly noticed a reduction in my monthly electric bill, I also noticed that the compact fluorescent was not without its flaws. I found that the early compact fluorescents were often too bulky, preventing their use in certain fixtures; that they took a while to ‘warm up’ to full their full brightness; and that the light they put off could be a little harsh, especially as compared to the warm glow of the Edison-era incandescent light bulb. But times have changed, and the new micro-mini Twist from SYLVANIA is evidence that CFLs don’t need to be big, slow, and bright to be effective.

    The micro-mini’s size is one of its biggest appeals and is what jumped out at me right away. Featuring an ultra-small ¼ inch tube diameter and a compact integral electronic ballast, the 13W micro-mini is the smallest CFL on today’s market. The bulb measures 3.7 inches long or over half an inch shorter than amicromini_contrast_209_274.JPG standard incandescent lamp, a mere 4.4 inches. As you can see by the picture, the Twist is significantly smaller than the other 13W CFL I had in my home-lighting arsenal. The bulbs compact size makes it usable in virtually any lamp fixture, large or small - not a claim that can me bade about all CFLs.

    The Soft White micro-mini compact fluorescent light bulb features a warm color temperature of 3000 Kelvin (K) and it boasts instant-on capabilities. The micro-mini Twist compact fluorescent lamps are available in 13-watt (W), 20W and 23W models. The mini CFL is designed to replace 60, 75 or 100W incandescent lamps and boasts an average rated lamp life of 12,000 hours.

    Finally, I really enjoyed the ‘instant-on’ capabilities of the Twist. I often find that when I go to the bathroom and flip on the light, a CFL won’t reach its full luminescence by the time I am done with my business (thus cutting into valuable crossword puzzle and magazine time). This bulb, however, had no delay and was instantly bright as soon as I flipped the switch.

    The only downside I found to the bulbs were how they were packaged. For a bulb that is claiming to be an energy saver, it seems that printing a picture of a tree on a useless cardboard tab is not exactly the best way to show consumers real concern for saving energy. I hope SYLVANIA will recognize this inconsistency and adjust the packaging accordingly.


    Considering that changing just one 60W incandescent bulb to a 13W CFL will save the average American about $56 dollars over the life of the bulb. And that changing out all thirty-six bulbs (the number in the average American home), will amount to a savings of more than $2,000** over the life of the bulbs, it seems that an investment of $4.99 is a small price to pay for substantial energy savings.

    **Based on 11 years at 10 cents/KwH.

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