Monday, June 2, 2008

Mars on the brain? Red Planet pioneers to face cosmic mind trip

LONDON, England (CNN) -- If Dr. Robert Zubrin could take a trip to Mars, he would be sure to pack a bread maker in his suitcase. Not just because bread is a pretty reliable expeditionary food, but because the act of cooking, according to Zubrin, seems to help people get along with each other, especially when they are in slightly dire, less than luxurious and more than stressful circumstances.


Red Planet pioneers will face extreme isolation and confinement on a years-long trip to Mars.

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And Zubrin would know, too. He has, after all, led almost a half-dozen mock Mars missions on barren Arctic ice fields and scorching Utah deserts with volunteer teams made up of students, scientists, journalists and anyone else willing to wear fake spacesuits and live in tiny tin-can-like habitation modules for days on end.

The simulated expeditions were made, in part, to research ways to live and work on the Red Planet. But they also revealed something else: what personality types might best be suited to make the 35 million-mile journey and who would be better off watching from Mission Control.

"Some of these crews have worked out very well," said Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a 7,000-member multinational group determined to reach what it calls the New World. "Others were at each other's throats."

While it will probably take at least another 20 years before Zubrin -- or anyone else for that matter -- makes it to the Martian surface, NASA and other space agencies are already drawing up plans for a voyage that will present astronauts not only with physical but also psychological challenges never faced by humans before.

"When you go to Mars, all bets are off," said Dr. Nick Kanas, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied astronaut psychology. "We don't know what is going to happen."

One particularly important task, Kanas explained, will be picking a team of astronauts who can both work and get along with each other on a trip lasting at least two years, spent mostly within the confines of a not-so-big spacecraft sailing through the dark. The European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedial Problems are scheduled to run a joint 520-day mock Mars expedition this year aimed to study the effects of extreme isolation and confinement on 12 volunteers.

The numbers of men and women, their ages and even cultural upbringings must be carefully calculated to try to prevent what could be potentially devastating cosmic quarrels. "You can't just take a walk and get away from somebody," Kanas said.

Nor will astronauts really be able to talk to anyone, either -- at least not on Earth -- mainly because of a 44-minute communication delay between the Blue and Red planets, "which means you can't have a nice chat with your kids," said Kanas. "You are so far away; you really are isolated."

That means Mars-bound astronauts will also have to skip out on the ground-based psychological support sessions that astronauts and cosmonauts working on the international space station routinely have just to make sure microgravity has not gone to their heads (Before Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, experts were afraid weightlessness might cause schizophrenia, explained one doctor).

And they will not be able to receive surprise presents, like special cookies or favorite movies, which are often brought to the space station on supply shuttles when someone starts feeling homesick or maybe a little blue. Thus, decking out the Martian-bound craft with family photographs, special trinkets, books and even plants will be crucial for a mostly monotonous extraterrestrial road trip that will bring a whole new meaning to the "are we there yet?" question.

If someone becomes sick -- either physically or mentally -- the crew has to be ready to cope with that, too.

"If someone gets suicidal, you have to take care of it on board," Kanas said. Mission Control might also have to make some tough calls, like whether to tell an astronaut about a death in his or her family or other tragedies back home.

Yet the big unknown, according to Kanas, does not involve who astronauts will not be able to talk to or what gifts they will not be able to get, but instead what they will not be able to clearly see: planet Earth.

Kanas has even coined a term for the situation: the "Earth out of view" phenomenon.

"Nobody in the history of mankind has ever experienced the Earth as a pale, insignificant blue dot in the sky," he said. "What that might do to a crew member, nobody knows."

But Walter Sipes, a NASA psychologist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said he thinks he knows where to look to start finding answers: history books.

"When early explorers left their home countries on the seas, they didn't see their home countries anymore," Sipes said. "They didn't even have a dot to look at. It was out of sight on the other side of the world. It is not like we are reinventing the wheel. We are just doing the same thing in a different environment that was just as demanding then."

And just as some early explorers made the ultimate sacrifice while searching for unknown lands, space pioneers may also pay a steep price for bravely going where no human has gone before.

"Do you follow the the sea tradition where people are buried at sea?" Sipes asked. "If someone dies, are they buried in space?"

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Scientists find ice on Mars

NASA scientists yesterday said they had found ice on Mars -- a step towards finding evidence of life.

Sharp new images received from their Phoenix lander convinced scientists that the spacecraft's thrusters had uncovered a large patch of ice just below the Martian surface, team members said.

That bodes well for the mission's main goal of digging for ice that can be tested for evidence of organic compounds that are the chemical building blocks of life.

Ice work: The area underneath the Phoenix lander where the descent engine blew away the soil, revealing what scientists believe to be either rock or ice

Washington University scientist Ray Arvidson said the spacecraft's thrusters may have blown away dirt covering the ice when the robot landed one week ago.

Scientists said a detailed image taken under the lander shows one of the craft's three legs sitting on coarse dirt and a large patch of what appears to be ice -- possibly 3 feet (0.9 metres) in diameter -- that apparently had been covered by a thin layer of dirt.

"We were worried that it may be 30-, 40-, 50-centimeters deep, which would be a lot of work. Now we are fairly certain that we can easily get down to the ice table," said Peter Smith, a University of Arizona scientist who is the chief project investigator.

The spacecraft is equipped with a shovel-like robotic arm that will be used to dig into the ground and retrieve samples for testing in the lander's small laboratories.

The robotic arm with a backhoe dug into the surface to retrieve samples leaving a footprint behind

The lander was sent to a spot on Mars' northern regions in hopes of finding frozen water, but just how deep underground it would be found was unknown.

The robot arm is expected to begin its first digging operations after several more days of testing.

Once the arm starts digging, dirt and ice it scoops up will be deposited in several small ovens to be heated. Measuring devices will test the resulting gases.

The University of Arizona in Tucson is leading and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing the three-month scientific mission.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Unusual Light Patch Under Phoenix Lander on Mars
Credit: Phoenix Mission Team, NASA, JPL-Caltech, U. Arizona

Explanation: Is that ice under the Phoenix spacecraft on Mars? Quite possibly. Phoenix, which landed a week ago, was expected to dig under the Martian soil to search for ice, but the lander's braking rockets may already have uncovered some during descent. Pictured above is an image taken last week by the Robotic Arm Camera showing the unusual light-colored substance just in front of Phoenix's landing pad. Over the next few weeks, Phoenix will continue to photograph its surroundings, analyze the composition of this hard light substrate, and dig into the surrounding soil. Were the unusual light substrate indeed Martian ice, it would give Phoenix a convenient pedestal to investigate the history of water on Mars, and to better determine whether the boundary between ice and soil was ever capable of supporting life.

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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 June 2

How Plasma From Superstorms Affects Near-Earth Space

This computer-generated image shows a view of Earth's inner magnetosphere during a superstorm. Credit: (Credit: NASA/Mei-Ching Fok and Thomas E. Moore)

NASA scientists have uncovered new details about how plasma from superstorms interact with Earth’s magnetosphere.

“The surprising result of this model is that the magnetosphere’s main phase pressure is dominated by energetic protons from the plasmasphere, rather than from the solar wind,” says Mei-Ching Fok, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Fok and her team will present their findings on May 29 at the American Geophysical Union conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl.

Violent activity on the sun, such as a solar flare, can produce a monster superstorm that releases plasma into the solar wind. Large flares often result in an ejection of material from the solar corona, called a coronal mass ejection (CME). A CME can spew billions of tons of plasma away from the sun and toward Earth at speeds faster than 1.5 million mph. The plasma affects Earth and the vicinity surrounding Earth dominated by its magnetic field, called the magnetosphere.

As plasma from a superstorm interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, it can trigger spectacular displays of the Northern Lights, called auroras, interfere with communications between satellites and airplanes traveling near the North Pole, and interrupt global positioning systems and our power grid.

Fok and her team used their global ion kinetic model to evaluate contributions to magnetospheric pressure from the solar wind, polar wind, auroral wind, and plasmaspheric wind. Their model, which simulates sources of superstorm plasmas, found that energetic protons from the plasmasphere dominate the magnetosphere’s main phase pressure. Until now, scientists thought energetic protons from the solar wind most affected the magnetosphere.

The inner region of Earth’s magnetosphere contains a low-density mixture of hot and cold plasmas, which include the ring current, the plasmasphere, and the radiation belt.

The plasmasphere is a donut-shaped region of the inner magnetosphere. During space storms, the plasmasphere is squashed and pressurized by the solar wind, forming a long tail called the plasmaspheric plume. The plume particles are picked up and further energized by the solar wind. When they re-enter the magnetosphere, they supply the majority of energetic protons that affect the magnetosphere’s main phase pressure during a superstorm event.

Simulating the sources of superstorm plasmas will help to better understand superstorms and pave the way to predicting their impact on Earth. The details uncovered in the team’s model provide a new piece of the Sun-Earth puzzle.

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Lander's arm touches Martian soil for first time

TUCSON, Ariz. - Scientists overseeing NASA's new Mars spacecraft say the lander's robotic arm has touched soil on the red planet for the first time.

The scientists said Sunday that the arm reached out the day before and left an impression that resembles a footprint.

They say it's the first step in a series of actions that will provide soil and ice for the lander's experiments.

The robotic arm camera also took images of what is believed to be exposed ice under the lander.

The University of Arizona in Tucson is leading the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing it.

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Shuttle Discovery Heads Toward the Space Station

The space shuttle Discovery lifting off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The shuttle Discovery blasted its way into orbit on Saturday through wispy clouds against blue skies on its way to deliver a bus-size laboratory to the International Space Station.

The column of smoke, bright white against the brilliant day, cast a shadow to the east as the shuttle ascended, and the sound waves made the air shudder.

A first look at the video from the ascending craft showed about five pieces of insulating foam falling off the shuttle’s external fuel tank, said William Gerstenmaier, the space agency’s associate administrator for space operations, at a news conference an hour after launching. But he said that none of the shedding was a source of worry, because it all occurred after the time during the ascent when falling foam presents a threat to the delicate heat shielding of the shuttle. Even those pieces that struck the shuttle appeared to bounce off harmlessly, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. “We don’t think that’s a big deal for us,” he said. The shuttle will be closely inspected as it approaches the space station and after docking, he said.

In a business in which delays are standard operating procedure, both the weather and the technical gremlins that often bedevil launching attempts caused no problems.

“It’s a gorgeous day to launch,” said Michael Leinbach, the launching director, giving approval for Discovery’s ride.

Cmdr. Mark E. Kelly of the Navy, who is the shuttle commander, replied, “Stand by for the greatest show on Earth.”

The laboratory, the $1 billion Kibo module, is the largest and the second part of three shuttle payloads that will bring the full Kibo assembly up to the station. It will be the largest “room” on the station, and will eventually include an exposed area, like a back porch, where some experiments will be exposed to the harsh vacuum and temperature extremes of space.

The pilot for the mission, the 123rd in the history of the shuttle program, is Cmdr. Kenneth T. Ham, also of the Navy. Commander Kelly is making his third trip to space; only one other member of the crew, Michael E. Fossum, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, has been to space. He will be on his second mission.

The other crew members are Karen L. Nyberg, Col. Ronald J. Garan Jr. of the Air Force and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The seventh member of the crew, Gregory E. Chamitoff, will be staying aboard the station to begin a six-month rotation there, and will replace Garrett E. Reisman, who has been aboard the station since March.

Discovery’s crew members will be showing up with a last-minute addition to their cargo: replacement parts for a broken toilet aboard the station. The toilet has separate systems for dealing with solid and liquid waste. The unit that stopped working last week was supposed to direct urine flow and separate the liquid from air for storage. Two replacement units that were on board the station have also failed.

Julie Payette, a Canadian astronaut, said that despite the many toilet jokes that had been made in the news media over the past week, “We actually take this extremely seriously. In our book, the hygiene cabinet — the toilet — is perhaps one of the most important systems on any spacecraft.” It should go without saying, Ms. Payette said, that “we’re humans.”

“We generate waste,” she continued. “We need a way to dispose of it.”

But she expressed confidence the Russians would be able to repair the system, because Russian engineering tends to be robust and repairable. “They have really good engineers,” she said.

The mission includes three spacewalks to help install Kibo, perform station maintenance and to test techniques for cleaning a malfunctioning rotary joint that is a critical part of the station’s power supply.

That joint, 10 feet in diameter, rotates one of the station’s enormous solar arrays so that it faces the Sun during each orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration idled the joint last year, when it was found to have been damaged by metal shavings that fouled its inner workings and were being ground in by the operation of the joint.

Mr. Gerstenmaier said at the news conference that the station would probably be able to operate into next year before the problems limited the use of the growing station and the joint would have to be repaired.

At the news conference, Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s administrator, beamed as he talked about a week in which NASA not only launched a shuttle crew but also landed a robotic craft, Phoenix, on Mars. He joked, “It’s so great that not even having to do a press conference — two press conferences in a week — can ruin it.” But, he added: “It is not easy. We could talk until 6 a.m. tomorrow and I wouldn’t touch all the details that would demonstrate how hard it is. And yet these teams make it look easy.”

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It Really Looks Like Ice on Mars

Phoenix scientist Ray Arvidson said there may be ice directly under the Phoenix lander, exposed in the blast zone by the retrorockets used for Phoenix's soft landing. Friday's image showed a small portion of the exposed area that looks brighter and smoother than the surrounding soil. On Saturday, Sol 5 for Phoenix on Mars, a new image shows a greater portion of the area under the lander. Scientists say the abundance of excavated smooth and level surfaces adds evidence to a hypothesis that the underlying material is an ice table covered by a thin blanket of soil. This is just what the Phoenix mission was hoping to find, and how incredible to land directly over your goal.

The bright-looking surface material in the center, where the image is partly overexposed, may not be inherently brighter than the foreground material in shadow. But the scientists are calling this area "Holy Cow." Reportedly (via Emily at the Planetary Society) that's exactly the phrase exclaimed when this image was returned. More pictures of this feature will be imaged using different exposures in an effort to determine if this really is ice.

The other interesting aspect of this image is that the retrorocket nozzles are visible right at the top of the image.

We'll keep you posted when there's more information and data available on the area under the lander.

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Space shuttle carries Japanese lab into orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery blasted off a seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to deliver Japan's huge new research laboratory to the International Space Station.

The start of NASA's 123rd shuttle mission was as smooth as they come, with no technical glitches and no weather issues as the countdown clock ticked down to 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT), the moment when Earth's rotation positioned the shuttle for its most direct path to the orbiting space station.

The shuttle's twin booster rockets roared to life, joining the ship's three hydrogen-burning main engines to catapult the 4.5 million pound (2.04 million kg) ship into the air. The load was especially hefty, with Japan's Kibo lab tipping the scales at more than 16 tons.

"While we all tend to live for today, Kibo will give us hope for tomorrow," said shuttle commander Mark Kelly. "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth."

Kibo, a complex that cost Japan about $2 billion to manufacture, is being installed aboard the space station in three flights. The elaborate complex includes a storage chamber, launched in March, the main lab aboard Discovery and an outdoor porch slated to fly next year.

The main segment is a 37-foot-(11-metre-) by 15 foot (4.6 meter) cylinder that took up much of the shuttle's 50-foot (15-metre) cargo bay.

Japan kept its laboratory intact throughout several space station redesigns, opting for a large complex to make sure there was plenty of room for its own ambitious science program as well as those of the station's other partner nations.

The United States is entitled to half of Kibo's lab space in exchange for building and operating the station and launching the Japanese hardware.

The Kibo complex is as big as a tour bus and eventually will be outfitted with 23 refrigerator-sized racks, 10 of which will be devoted to science investigations.


In addition to fluid physics experiments, biomedical research and other microgravity studies, Japan plans a host of cultural activities aboard Kibo, such as dance, art and sculpture.

"We're interested in creating a new art expression in space," Junichiro Shimizu, an official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said in an interview.

Kibo's installation is the main focus of Discovery's planned 14-day mission. Most of that time will be spent at the space station, which is in need of some maintenance and repair services.

In addition to adding a third research lab, astronauts plan to replace a nitrogen tank that pressurizes the station's cooling system and inspect and clean a metal ring that is part of the station's solar power system.

The ring was contaminated by metal shards and is causing vibrations when it spins a pair of solar wing panels to track the sun for power. NASA is babying the system until repairs can be made to prevent additional damage.

Discovery is also carrying a new pump for the space station's toilet, which needs to be manually flushed several times a day. Until the new commode is installed, the three-member station crew will be free to use the shuttle's toilet, NASA space flight chief Bill Gerstenmaier said.

The Discovery crew, commanded by Mark Kelly, includes lead spacewalker Mike Fossum and five rookies in space: pilot Kenneth Ham, flight engineer Ronald Garan, lead robotic arm operator Karen Nyberg, Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and space station flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff, who will swap places with NASA's Garrett Reisman.

NASA has seven missions planned to complete construction of the $100 billion space station and two resupply flights before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. The agency also plans to fly a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Todd Eastham)

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Ancient Egyptian City Unearthed in Sinai

(CAIRO, Egypt) — Archaeologists exploring an old military road in the Sinai have unearthed 3,000-year-old remains from an ancient fortified city, the largest yet found in Egypt, antiquities authorities announced Wednesday.

Among the discoveries at the site was a relief of King Thutmose II (1516-1504 B.C.), thought to be the first such royal monument discovered in Sinai, said Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. It indicates that Thutmose II may have built a fort near the ancient city, located about two miles northeast of present day Qantara and known historically as Tharu.

A 550-by-275-yard mud brick fort with several 13-foot-high towers dating to King Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.) was unearthed in the same area, he said.

Hawass said early studies suggested the fort had been Egypt's military headquarters from the New Kingdom (1569-1081 B.C.) until the Ptolemaic era, a period of about 1500 years.

The ancient military road, known as "Way of Horus," once connected Egypt to Palestine and is close to present-day Rafah, which borders the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

Archaeologist Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, chief of the excavation team, said the discovery was part of a joint project with the Culture Ministry that started in 1986 to find fortresses along that military road.

Abdel-Maqsoud said the mission also located the first ever New Kingdom temple to be found in northern Sinai, which earlier studies indicated was built on top of an 18th Dynasty fort (1569-1315 B.C.).

A collection of reliefs belonging to King Ramses II and King Seti I (1314-1304 B.C.) were also unearthed with rows of warehouses used by the ancient Egyptian army during the New Kingdom era to store wheat and weapons, he said.

Abdel-Maqsoud said the new discoveries corresponded to the inscriptions of the Way of Horus found on the walls of the Karnak Temple in Luxor which illustrated the features of 11 military fortresses that protected Egypt's eastern borders. Only five of them have been discovered to date.

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Lovers and liars: How many sex partners have you really had?

ANN ARBOR, Mich.�Lovers and public health officials want an answer to the following question: How many opposite-sex partners have you had in your lifetime?

The answer, statisticians say, ought to be the same, on average, for any large group of men and women. But most surveys in the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations find that men report two-to-four times as many sexual partners as do women.

Are men lying to inflate their sexual reputations? Are women lying to downplay their sexual experience?

Psychologist Norman R. Brown believes this "macho and maiden" hypothesis is the wrong explanation. Most men and women don't intentionally misrepresent their sexual histories, he maintains. Instead, his studies show that male-female differences in the methods used to estimate the number of partners one has had is the major reason for the discrepancy.

"Women are more likely to rely on enumeration," said Brown, a visiting research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. "They tend to say, �I just know,' and if you ask them to explain how they know, they say, �Well, there was John, Tom, etc.' This is a strategy that typically leads to underestimation.

"Men are twice as likely to use rough approximation to answer the question. And rough approximation is a strategy known to produce over-estimation."

Brown, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, and colleagues Robert Sinclair of Laurentian University and Sean Moore of the Augustana College, have conducted several studies of this issue. The largest and most recent is a Web-based survey conducted in fall 2005. The researchers polled a Knowledge Networks panel of 2,065 heterosexual, U.S. non-virgins with a median age in their late 40s. The average number of sexual partners the women reported was 8.6. The average number the men reported was 31.9.

"The men in this survey were producing egregiously elevated responses," Brown said.

To try to sort out how much the discrepancy was due to the use of different estimating methods and how much was due to flat-out lying, Brown and colleagues first asked respondents how many sexual partners they had in their lifetimes and how they generated their partner estimates. Later in the survey, they asked them to rate the truthfulness of their answers to that question.

To Brown's surprise, 5 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women indicated they had not been truthful when they answered the sexual-partners question, and an additional 16 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women indicated they provided a response that they knew to be inaccurate. Thus, in total, 21 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women admitted they had lied and/or they had provided an inaccurate partner count.

"They gave an answer and then two minutes later admitted they had lied about the answer," Brown said.

Analyzing the responses of these admitted liars, whom Brown calls "self-incriminators," compared to other respondents who said they were telling the truth, he found that self-incriminators composed more than half of all respondents who said they had had more than 50 lifetime sex partners. More concretely, there were 39 self-incriminators among the 76 men who claimed that they had had more than 50 partners, and there were 11 self-incriminators among the 17 women who indicated the same thing.

Brown also found that self-incriminators were more likely than other respondents to use rough approximation as a method of identifying the number of sex partners and that removing these self-incriminators from the sample significantly reduced the gender discrepancy in reports of sex partners. However, removing the self-incriminators did not eliminate the discrepancy nor did it alter the relationship between gender and strategy use. Brown and his colleagues concluded that "bad-faith" responding is one part of the story and that cognitive factors also play an important role.

Brown and colleagues are now analyzing data from a large-scale telephone survey designed to see if Web-based surveys encourage or support extreme response patterns.

Maybe the high-count, self-incriminators are just "flaming trolls," Brown said. "They could be liars who lie about lying."

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-4416

Related Categories: Health Social Science Social Work

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Developers of New "Superlattice Structure" Lithium Battery Announce Boost in Electric Car Range

Anyone who has followed the electric car industry over the past few decades has heard that, in addition to lackluster and inconsistent interest by gas-addicted Big Auto, the biggest hurdle facing widespread adoption of cleaner cars has been battery technology.

Now that gas prices are at record highs, it isn't surprising that past months would see various announcements of increased innovation and investment in this area.

Now, North Carolina-based Superlattice Power Inc has announced a successful move toward development of a new cathode material, which the company says "will be incorporated to a Lithium Ion Polymer battery that significantly increases operating voltage range and energy density."

Superlattice Power says its new Lithium Ion Polymer battery would allow electric vehicles to be driven over 200 miles, compared to the current 120 to 140 mile range. They are said to be able to operate at a voltage range of 4.3V to 2V.

What is a superlattice? It refers to the crystal structure of the compound, and indicates periodically alternating layers of several substances. In this context the superlattice is a cathode material in which part of the transition metal is substituted by lithium. Ideally it will have a wide voltage range and high capacity, and be non-toxic and disposable. Superlattice Power's work is based on cathode material made from manganese, cobalt, nickel and titanium.

The material has reportedly been synthesized at an industrial scale. Now, Superlattice Power has begun the process of optimizing the parameters suitable for large batteries, which will hopefully be used not only in electric vehicles but also in the field of “Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS)”.

TDG asked Dr. Donald Sadoway, professor of materials chemistry at MIT and one of the world's leading experts on batteries, for his analysis of Superlattice Power's announcement. "It's hard to know what they have here," he says. "The critical feature is the ability of the compound to accept lithium, and to do so reversibly without breakdown of the atomic arrangement (conversion to another crystal structure). If the researchers can stabilize an atomic arrangement that exchanges lithium over many cycles of charging and discharging without loss of energy storage capacity (200 miles driving range), then this represents a major improvement."

Dr. Sadoway adds that the company would need to demonstrate that they can produce the material in large quantities at a cost that is competitive with the cheapest cathode materials currently available.

For his part, Dr. Surajit Sengupta, Director of Battery R&D for Superlattice, says, “Our objective is to create the next generation of Lithium Ion Polymer battery that is environmentally non-toxic, safe, less expensive and more powerful.”

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Inflatable Electric Cars: Surround Your Body in Bliss

Here’s an interesting idea: instead of putting the airbag in the car, put the car in the airbag.

Sure it sounds silly, but XP vehicles, a start-up in California, is doing just that with their upcoming electric car, the Whisper™. Apparently, XP has taken the same sort of airbag technology developed to safely land recent NASA missions on Mars and used it to create an inflatable polymer car frame in which they pack all the essentials for it to actually be considered an automobile.

Not only does XP vehicles state that the Whisper™ will have a range of 2,500 miles using their “hot-swap XPack Multi-Core™ battery/fuel cell powerplant,” they are aiming for a price point of under $5,000. The cars will be sold direct online, initially only offered in Asian markets, and you will be able to configure them with a variety of different colors, decals, stereo systems, iPod mounts, and alarms - none of which will cover up for the fact that you’re driving a balloon.

The car can be shipped to customers in two cardboard boxes and “can be assembled by two people of average education level” in “less than two hours.” What they don’t tell you is that people with Ph.D.’s will be completely unable to figure the damn things out.

As far as safety goes, without an actual product it will be hard to verify the claims, but XP states that the car “will float in an emergency such as a flood or tsunami” and that you could “drive it off a cliff without serious injury.”

Imagine the possibilities for all sorts of discerning demographic groups:

  • Enterprising young bank robbers: Rob the bank, drive away in a Whisper™, then deflate it and pack it up before the authorities can stop laughing.
  • Tire slashing hoodlums: Now you’re not restricted to only slashing tires.
  • Clowns for hire: Drive to your gig in a Whisper™ and turn it into a balloon animal in front of a crowd of adoring 4 year olds.

But really, if the car can go 2,500 miles without having to charge it up and it costs less than $5,000, who cares what it looks like or what havoc it might wreak on your social life? It gets you from point A to point B on one charge, even if those points are Portland, OR, and Mackinac Island. We’ll see if the Whisper™ ever makes it to reality, but if it does I might actually consider buying one.

Gas 2.0 Posts Related to Electric Vehicles:

Image credits: XP Vehicles

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Convert Your Gas Mower to Solar

I hate my lawn. I’ve seriously considered ripping the whole thing out to expand my veggie garden. I hate it for a couple of reasons. First, it requires water, a lot of it, to keep it green. But in California where I haven't seen rain since February, that's not exactly practical...or cheap. And secondly, it requires mowing, which means cranking up my old gas-powered lawn mower, which wracks me with guilt every time I use it. So, for now, I give it neither. It’s a brown mess.

Thanks to Hacknmod tracking down three ways to convert gas lawn mowers to solar and electric, however, I can solve at least the lawn-mower issue. A tidy brown plot is in my future. It also solves another problem – I’m an early bird and can feel the glaring eyes from neighbors’ windows when I crank up my mower at 7 AM on a Sunday. Now, I can mow as soon as the sun comes up for all they care!

Convert your gas mower to a solar electric unit with an electric motor, battery, and solar unit.

Stick a solar panel on your electric mower for free energy.

Or charge your battery with a separate solar unit.

These could make for some fun summer projects! And if you’re the social type, you could even learn how to do this and hold a workshop in your neighborhood or community. Then your neighbors won’t feel the glare of your evil eye when they crank up their loud, gassy mowers.

Of course, if you aren't in to mods or DIY craftiness, then you can check out some pre-built electric mowers or, to please your tech-loving heart, go with a hover mower.

Oh, and don't forget - if you need to change the oil, there's always cow-fat motor oil.

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First Solar-Powered Speedboat

Ever find yourself relaxing by a lake only to have a loud, obnoxiously high-powered boat zoom by, and all the beauty of the lake is dissipated when you think about how much nasty pollution that boat just inserted in the water? Makes you not even want to dip your toes in, let alone eat that freshly-caught fish.

The Dutch have created the Czeers MK1 – the first solar-powered speed boat – which will help bridge a friendship between the love of speed and the love of the environment.

We’ve seen solar-powered boats around here before, but nothing as zippy as this. Reaching speeds of 30 knots and producing far less noise and pollution than its peers, this boat is 33 feet long and is covered in 150 square feet photovoltaic cells.

It’s pricy (a measly $1.1 million), but if you are torn between wanting the wind through your hair and your eco-conscience, then this boat could be worth the extra dough. It is definitely a luxury boat, as the creators added top-of-the-line features like leather interior and touch-screen-based control systems. Okay, so these elements take quite a bit away from the eco-friendliness of it, but still, progress is progress. At least the solar-step has been made to get those conspicuous consumers on board. Now they can start working on better choices for construction materials.

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Industries Allied to Cap Carbon Differ on the Details

The transportation sector makes up a third of carbon emissions in the United States. Ford and ConocoPhillips are among the companies trying to shape plans for federal limits on carbon.

Some of the most powerful corporate leaders in America have been meeting regularly with leading environmental groups in a conference room in downtown Washington for over two years to work on proposals for a national policy to limit carbon emissions.

The discussions have often been tense. Pinned on a wall, a large handmade poster with Rolling Stones lyrics reminds everyone, “You can’t always get what you want.”

What unites these two groups — business executives from Duke Energy, the Ford Motor Company and ConocoPhillips, as well as heads of environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council — is a desire to deal with climate change. They have broken with much of corporate America to declare that it is time for the federal government to act and set mandatory limits on emissions.

What divides them is that dealing with climate change will almost certainly hurt some industries and enrich others. Billions of dollars are at stake. Depending on how the nation decides to tackle the problem, electricity bills in some states could rise 50 percent, and gasoline prices could go up 50 cents a gallon.

“It’s really now a battle over the economics,” said James E. Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, who has long advocated curbing carbon emissions. “The debate is not about the climate problem. Everybody could agree on the principles and still get the economics wrong.”

The Senate is to vote Monday to kick off a weeklong discussion on carbon limits. But the intense debates under way already illustrate just how hard it will be for Congress to satisfy conflicting business interests while coming up with a global-warming plan that works.

Opposition from corporate interests, including oil, gas and power companies, prompted the Bush administration to opt out of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that called on developed countries to limit their emissions.

But the political winds have shifted. All three presidential candidates have said they favor mandatory curbs on emissions, and the Democratic majority in Congress wants a strong climate policy. The Senate debate could help set parameters of future legislation, which many experts expect to see within two years.

Congress is considering a complicated approach that would set a limit, or cap, on emissions that would be reduced each year. It would also create emissions permits that large industrial companies, like oil refineries or power plants, would be required to use.

By putting a value on carbon dioxide, this cap-and-trade system would provide incentives for companies to reduce emissions. Experts say it could turn into one of the biggest markets in the world, estimated to be worth over $200 billion a year.

Thus far, climate policy has been slowly shaped by states like California and Massachusetts, with others following. The resulting patchwork of policies has created uncertainty for companies, some of which have recognized that federal system to limit carbon is ultimately unavoidable.

“If they are not at the table, they will not have a hand in the making of the regulation,” said Robert N. Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University.

That recognition led to the Climate Action Partnership, the Washington group, in which corporate behemoths and environmental groups have been debating climate policy for over two years, sometimes meeting every week, in order to force the issue.

In January 2007, the eclectic group endorsed a bold national policy that called for reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050, an aggressive target that is in line with recommendations from an international panel of scientists. But the group, which now has 33 members, has failed to reach consensus on a variety of issues, including how to allocate carbon permits and whether to include a price cap for carbon credits.

“They helped crystallize the concerns about climate,” said David G. Victor, the director of the energy and sustainable development program at Stanford University and an expert on climate policy who has been closely following the debates. “But the moment the coalition starts to focus on the details, it starts breaking apart. It’s a litmus test for the debate in the country.”

The sharpest battle lines have been drawn over the structure of a cap-and-trade system. This mostly centers on whether carbon allocations — or pollution permits, as some see them — should be granted to companies or auctioned off.

Under one proposal, Congress would give away about half the allowances to businesses like power plants and oil companies, but also to states and farmers, in order to give time for them to adapt to lower-carbon technologies. Over time, it would gradually sell the rest to the highest bidder, raising money for developing alternative energy sources.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent, and John W. Warner, a Republican, passed a crucial vote in a committee last December and will be debated on the Senate floor this week.

Under a similar emissions-trading system in Europe, carbon currently trades at around 26.45 euros a ton, or about $41. At that price, the value of the carbon credits would be about $220 billion in the first year alone.

The debate over who gets carbon credits is particularly intense in the power sector, which creates 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions.

Companies that rely on coal to generate power say that allowances should be free so that customers in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where coal is mostly used, are not disproportionately penalized. Coal accounts for half the nation’s power generation, and executives like Mr. Rogers of Duke say these customers should not have to bear the brunt of a national climate policy.

But not everyone wants to see allowances doled out free, especially among power producers that are less dependent on coal than Duke. Lewis Hay III, chairman of FPL Group, a Florida power company, says carbon emitters should have to pay for their emissions.

“There is just going to be a giant fight over the free allowances,” he said.

Oil companies are also unhappy with the Senate plan. Although the transportation sector represents around 35 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, oil companies and refiners — which fuel that sector — would be granted just 4 percent of total allowances. That would force them to buy carbon credits, which would drive up the price of gasoline and diesel fuels.

At a time of sharply rising prices, oil executives say this is not the best way to reduce carbon emissions. Better, they argue, to raise fuel efficiency requirements directly or set up a low-carbon fuel standard.

The other big fight splitting corporations and environmental groups is whether to set a maximum price on carbon credits.

Many environmental groups oppose this, fearing it might jeopardize the ultimate goal, which is to reduce emissions. They say that if the price is artificially kept too low, companies would have fewer incentives to cut emissions.

But business groups say a ceiling would keep prices from skyrocketing. Some fear that higher energy costs would reduce companies’ ability to compete globally and could drive jobs to countries that do not limit carbon. John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the climate bill amounted to “economic disarmament.”

As the fight escalates, trade groups are planning ad campaigns to make their case against a climate policy. One ad, produced by the United States Chamber of Commerce, shows a man cooking breakfast over candles in a cold, darkened house, then jogging to work on empty highways, asking: “Is it really how Americans want to live?”

Setting a price for carbon will raise energy costs throughout the economy, experts said. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated recently that a cap-and-trade bill could reduce gross domestic product by 0.9 percent to 3.8 percent by 2050.

“The reality is that cutting emissions is going to cost money,” said Peter C. Fusaro, chairman of Global Change Associates, an energy and environmental consulting firm.

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How People Influence Connectivity Among Ecosystems

Ecosystems are constantly exchanging materials through the movement of air in the atmosphere, the flow of water in rivers and the migration of animals across the landscape. People, however, have also established themselves as another major driver of connectivity among ecosystems.

In the June 2008 Special Issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, titled "Continental-scale ecology in an increasingly connected world," ecologists discuss how human influences interact with natural processes to influence connectivity at the continental scale. The authors conclude that networks of large-scale experiments are needed to predict long-term ecological change.

"We know that the world has always been connected via a common atmosphere and the movement of water," says Debra Peters, an author in the issue and a scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). "The world is also becoming highly interconnected through the movement of people and the transport of goods locally to globally. Among ecologists, there is an increasing realization that these connections can have profound influences on the long-term dynamics of ecological systems."

The transport of many types of materials, including gases, minerals and even organisms, can affect natural systems. This movement results in "greenlash," which occurs when environmental changes localized to a small geographic area have far-reaching effects in other areas. For example, a drought in the 1930's caused small-scale farmers to abandon their farms across the U.S. Midwest. The absence of crops intensified local soil erosion, leading to powerful dust storms. Large amounts of wind-swept dust traveled across the continent, causing the infamous Dust Bowl and affecting air quality, public health and patterns of human settlement throughout the country.

Because of increasing globalization, people often inadvertently introduce non-native plants, animals and diseases into new locations. Invasive species and pathogens, such as fire ants from South America and the SARS virus from China, can create large, expensive problems: the U.S. currently spends over $120 billion per year on measures to prevent and eradicate invasive species. Understanding ecosystem connectivity across a range of scales -- from local to regional to continental -- will help scientists predict where invasive species are likely to go next.

The authors agree that field ecology studies should focus on long-term sampling networks that encompass a range of geographical scales. Integrating data from existing and developing networks, such as the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research network (LTER) and NSF's National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), will lead to a level of power for ecological comparison unparalleled by any one experiment.

"To draw conclusions about the consequences of increasing connectivity, we need to provide information about processes that span a vast scale of space and time," says David Schimel, an author in the issue and the chief executive officer of the NEON project. "Our observations will characterize ecological processes from the genomic to the continental and document changes from seconds to decades."

Additionally, the authors suggest that long-term studies should include data from social and behavioral science to allow incorporation of human movement patterns into their scientific models. Ecologists hope that understanding the patterns of connectivity within and among ecosystems will lead to more accurate predictions of future ecological change.

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