Sept. 3, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Alien encounters: Are the extraterrestrials trying to tell us something? Looking back over the past week's news, we had a flurry of E.T. hype over a radio blip from the Arecibo Observatory, new research into the best way to contact E.T., preliminary research hinting at the presence of extraterrestrial bacteria within a meteorite, newly found Neptune-sized planets — and even a new analysis of "Flying Triangle" reports.

Perhaps the "X-Files" conspirators are preparing us for something big. Or perhaps it's just a coincidental convergence for the end of summer.

How big a deal was the blip publicized this week? In a widely distributed e-mail to colleagues, SETI @ home's project scientist, Dan Werthimer, said it rated no more than a zero on the Rio scale for assessing potential extraterrestrial signals.

"I wish we had something in our data to get excited about," Werthimer observed.

In his column for Space.com, SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak notes that if there really is a substantial development in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a lot of scientists will quickly get in on the action. "You will find information about it on their Web sites, and in multiple media outlets," Shostak says. If even a false alarm spreads like wildfire on the Internet, brace yourself for a communications conflagration when first contact is truly made.

Here are some of your comments on the E.T. news roundup:

Guy Newell, Niles, Mich.: "If it turns out that there really are extraterrestrial microfossils in a meteorite that has spent the last 140 million years in space and could not possibly have come from Earth (let's say, ejected during a meteor impact) then that would be more than a surprise. I would consider that right up there with the discovery of fire. Certainly the most important discovery of my lifetime. Unless cold fusion turns out to be real." (Note to Guy: Keep reading.)

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "That every nook and cranny of the universe where conditions are not lethal may be teaming with microbial life is something I can accept as plausible. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I would feel more comfortible with claims of extraterrestrial microfossils if we could also find living extraterrestrial microorganisms. After all, these supposed cyanobacteria must have once been alive ... so where are all the living colonies of microorganisms? Why do our meteorites contain only fossils? Were life as ubiquitous as this supposed fossil evidence suggests, given evolution's tendency to find solutions to environmental problems over time, these meteorites should be dripping with life. Mars and even Earth's moon should be absolutely sticky with life. As for what these scientists are seeing, my 3-year-old also sees dragons and rabbits and sailboats in the shapes of clouds. Viva la pareidolia..."

M. Sprunck: "With all of the recent extrasolar planet identifications within the tens of thousands of light-years range, what is limiting our existing technology from photographing any of these planets? The Hubble and other telescopes are capable of photographing objects more than 10 billion light-years distant, so why haven't we seen pictures or these much closer extrasolar planets? Is it that these planets are so close (relatively) to their host stars that makes them indiscernible?"

That's definitely part of the reason, M. This is why scientists are working on nulling interferometers to cancel out the glare of the host star. Also, the planets may well be obscured by the disk of dust and ice that are thought to swirl around parent stars. Astronomers hope that future space-based interferometers such as NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder may finally provide glimpses of extrasolar planets — and even analyze their atmospheres for signs of life.

Sept. 3, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Feedback Friday: Cosmic Log readers also responded to the latest twists in the controversy over e-voting , as well as the recent reconstruction of a nearly 3,000-year-old mummy's face:

Paul D. Lane: "I must strongly disagree with the concept of a paper copy of an e-vote. Basically, a paper copy, unless it is deposited in a ballot box in the manner of a regular paper ballot, would be useless in a recount.  This should be obvious. Just because a paper copy of an e-vote is printed, there is no assurance that the same exact information is being recorded by the e-vote system. Thus a paper copy is just a feel-good activity. What is required is a transaction-driven audit trail.

"In practice, as a transaction is being entered, the values of the entry are recorded on a separate media (preferably encrypted).  This audit trail is a separate function from the actual voting process.  When properly protected it could be legally employed in a recount.

"With over 50 years in IT, having designed, developed and implemented innumerable financial systems, I am always amazed that the transaction audit trail method, as a by-product of the voting transaction ... step by step ... is seldom addressed as the safeguard for e-voting systems. I would estimate the cost of including a transaction audit trail would be less than $100 per machine for a high-capacity digital tape drive and tape cartridge, plus less than 100 lines of program code. I am not sure, but strongly feel that all ATMs have such a capability, as banks would insist upon it to protect themselves from fraud or misuse of an ATM."

For the latest developments, click on over to "How We Vote," our special report on voting technology.

Michael Pääbo, Pääbo Consulting Group AB, Linkoping, Sweden: "I just received and read the article about the Italian mummy reconstruction project. We did similar work last year to reconstruct Sweden's first prime minister, Birger Jarl (died 1266), for a national TV4 series that tells the story of the start of the Swedish nation. The series was called 'Arns Rike.' Some information and images can be found on our Web site. Now to the good news: The National Board for Forensic Medicine in Sweden became interested in this, and we are starting a new research project here at PCG together with them. ..."

Sept. 3, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
IEEE Spectrum: Cold fusion back from the dead
'Nova' on PBS: 'Why the Towers Fell'
BBC: Tours open up science treasures
Star-Bulletin: Turkey nixes Noah's Ark expedition

Sept. 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Put your name on a spaceship: More than 300 people have paid $10 to get their digitized name put on the rockets that will vie for the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight. And you still have a few days to add your own.

Proceeds from the "Send Your Name into Space" promotion will go to the St. Louis Science Center and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. The New Mexico museum will be taking credit card orders via its toll-free number, 1-866-310-0318, through Friday, and the St. Louis center is providing a Web-based donation system that can sign people up through Tuesday.

The names will be put into a data file, then stored digitally on a CD that will be included inside the "gold box" that every X Prize contestant is required to fly during an eligible launch attempt. The gold box also contains monitoring equipment for verifying that the spaceship actually reaches the required altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles).

If a registered team's pilot reaches that height twice in two weeks' time with the required amount of payload aboard, the team would be awarded the $10 million check — plus the X Prize trophy — during a ceremony at the St. Louis Science Center, said Gretchen Jaspering, the center's vice president of marketing.

The Ansari X Prize is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize for trans-Atlantic flight, which was won by Charles Lindbergh back in 1927.

"We thought, wouldn't it be great if you could be able to say now that my name flew on the same flight that Lindbergh flew," Jaspering said.

Supporters of the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation will also have their names flown as a benefit covered by their $20 membership fee, said the foundation's executive director, Gregg Maryniak.

All the name-submitters will get a certificate from the foundation recognizing their status, Jaspering said.

"I bought them for all my brothers, and they're getting them for Christmas," she said. Jaspering said the name count had passed the 300 mark, but plenty more are expected over the Labor Day weekend. Not only is the St. Louis center home to the X Prize trophy exhibit, but it's also playing host to the traveling "Space" exhibit through Nov. 28.

Sept. 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Back to the Space CHASE: This month will be big for private spaceflight, not only because of the X Prize countdown, but also because next week offers a brief window for finishing work on legislation that could open the way for paying customers to take suborbital space rides.

Negotiations over the nuts and bolts of the bill yielded fruit on the last day before Congress' summer recess, in the form of a Senate version titled the "Space CHASE Act." When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after Labor Day, they'll have precious little time to give their final stamps of approval.

By mid-October, the X Prize could be won, and lawmakers could be in full campaign mode.

"If the legislation has not been passed by then ... even the most wildly successful prize flights will likely be a tragedy masquerading as a triumph," space consultant Charles Lurio, a persistent advocate for the legislation, said in an e-mail alert. Thus, Lurio and others who want to see the Space CHASE become a commercial reality will likely be pressing members of Congress to seal the deal, sooner rather than later.

Sept. 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Signals from the SETI frontier: Dan Werthimer, the project scientist for SETI @ home, sent an e-mail from his temporary post at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, in response to Wednesday's item about the debate over an intriguing radio signal.

Werthimer agreed with other SETI specialists who said the initial reports exaggerated the importance of the candidate signal: "There's nothing new or exciting about our candidate list, posted on the SETI @ home Web page about a year ago," he wrote. "We don't have anything on the list we are jumping up and down about."

Sept. 2, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Wired: Let a thousand reactors bloom
Nature: Inflatable spaceship set for test flight
The Guardian: Walking back to Genesis
National Geographic: Who were the first walkers?

Sept. 1, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Space signal stirs speculation: An intriguing blip on SETI @ home's screen has set some scientists to wonder whether it could represent a message from an extraterrestrial civilization — the sort of signal that the software is designed to look for. But in the wake of a New Scientist article about the "mysterious signals," SETI @ home's director is lowering expectations.

"That’s actually not a news item," project director David Anderson said today. "There's no more news with this particular signal than there was six months ago."

The reports focus on a sky location that SETI @ home has designated SHGb02+14a in the constellation Aries. The pattern of radio transmissions — and the fact that the transmissions were in a part of the spectrum favored by alien-hunters — was promising enough that the spot was put on a list of targets for further observation and analysis. Those "Stellar Candidates" were checked and rechecked, to see whether the additional observations boosted the signals' score on SETI @ home's scale.

"We found that the scores of almost everything went down, and the score of one of the signals went up," Anderson said. That signal was SHGb02+14a.

"But that doesn’t actually mean that that’s an E.T. signal," Anderson added. "First of all, statistically, from the assumption that we're looking at white noise, you'd expect one of the scores to go up. Secondly, the parameters of that signal that did go up pretty much rule out the possibility of it being an E.T. signal."

The signal exhibited a rapid shift in frequency — behavior that is indeed a mystery. But the shifting signal is more likely explainable as a ground-based glitch, an anomalous satellite transmission or a natural space phenomenon. There's a "very low probability" that the signal would fit the profile for an intentional transmission from E.T., Anderson said.

Anderson said he downplayed the signal in his interview with the New Scientist's reporter earlier this week. "If she got the idea that that was a promising signal, she got the wrong impression," he said.

So what happens to SHGb02+14a? Is the signal still a candidate?

"When we do our next reobservation, we probably will look at that place again, just because it has one of the higher scores," Anderson said. "But other ones we have would have to be considered more promising."

For more on the search for alien signals, check out today's news from the journal Nature, our interactive tour of the Arecibo Observatory and my audio explanation of what SETI @ home is looking for.

After playing down the status of the candidate signal, Anderson played up the status of SETI @ home's new processing platform, known as BOINC. He said that the European CERN laboratory kicked off the beta phase of its LHC @ home project today. The project is enlisting Internet users to run design simulations for the Large Hadron Collider, CERN's next-generation particle accelerator, which is due to begin operations in 2006.

The requirements for processing the collider's data are still too intense for personal computers, even with BOINC's distributed-computing system. But LHC @ home will help CERN figure out how the precise arrangement of the collider's magnets would affect the stability of the subatomic particles' path as they zoom around the 17-mile-long (27-kilometer-long) ring tunnel.

"They’re basically kicking the tires of the technology," Anderson said. CERN is aiming for a full-scale public launch of the project around Sept. 29, the lab's golden anniversary.

Sept. 1, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Frontiers on the World Wide Web:
NASA selects contractors for exploration vision
Times Union: A sleeping giant under Afghan sands
Economics of 'Gilligan's Island' (via GeekPress)
Scotsman: Why an orgasm really is all in the mind

Aug. 31, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Space racer fights back: The leader of the GoldenPalace.com / da Vinci Project team in the $10 million race to space insists that his October bid for the Ansari X Prize is on track, despite some discouraging words about insurance and government approvals.

Only last week, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix quoted a professor as saying the city in Saskatchewan could be in trouble if da Vinci's WildFire rocket went astray. Today, the Star-Phoenix notes that the da Vinci Project still needs to purchase a huge insurance policy and get Transport Canada's final approval for the scheduled Oct. 2 launch. That article follows up on an earlier report on Wired.com.

Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney was quoted in both reports as saying the requirements would be met — but he was miffed that the reports left what he saw as the wrong impression about how solid his launch schedule was.

"The damage has already been done, and I'm not going to comment any further" on the specific news reports, Feeney told me.

Rocket round upHowever, he did say that the future milestones on the way to launch have been mapped out day by day. "We have a whole cadre of things happening continuously," he said. "As they happen, I'll comment on them, but not beforehand. ... We're in the process of putting the insurance into place, and we know exactly where we stand with Transport Canada, and what requirements are remaining with them."

Feeney's next red-letter day is Saturday, when his team is due to put its balloon-based launch pad through a scaled stress test, over an undisclosed location in the United States. The balloon would bring a 400-pound (180-kilogram) weight to an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) to check whether a larger balloon would hold up to the stress of the actual 5,500-pound (2,500-kilogram) spaceship.

"The stress per unit of area [for the balloon] is equivalent," Feeney said.

Feeney said he was "quite looking forward" to the stress test, and was optimistic that the launch would go off as scheduled from high above Saskatchewan — in roughly the same time frame as the rival SpaceShipOne team's scheduled launches, down south in Mojave, Calif.

Aug. 31, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Pyramid power: The Great Sphinx isn't the only great mystery on Egypt's Giza Plateau. In a new book, "The Chamber of Cheops," amateur French archaeologists contend that they have used radar readings to locate a previously undetected corridor within the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Could this passageway lead to a secret chamber containing 4,500-year-old riches and/or remains? Or might it simply indicate that the pyramid's architects made several false starts during the monument's construction?

It seems likely these riddles will remain unanswered, at least for a while longer. So far, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has nixed further tests, and the French pair's theories could get a harsh reception when it is put in front of the International Congress of Egyptologists next week.

Aug. 31, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Date with a hurricane: The Center for Severe Weather Research says two of its Doppler radar-equipped trucks are heading for the Florida coast to track Hurricane Frances up close and personal. The Colorado-based center's lead scientist, Josh Wurman, is flying to Florida on Wednesday to check out potential sites for the mobile research stations. In the meantime, you can check out this archived report on hurricane forecasting, and stay tuned for updates on the storm's progress .

Aug. 31, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Putting nature on the pill
Discovery.com: Did meteorites bring life to Earth?
USA Today: Technology unwraps new views of mummies
UCF: Toy soldiers used in research on Iraq tactics

Aug. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Life from space? Astrobiologists are examining what could be evidence of extraterrestrial microfossils inside a meteorite that fell to France 140 years ago.

The Orgueil meteorite, a type of space rock known as a carbonaceous chondrite, has long sparked questions about potential traces of life from space, as noted in David Darling's Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight. But those simmering questions were brought to a boil this month when NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover shared his research team's preliminary findings at SPIE's International Symposium on Optical Science and Technology.

Photomicrographs of Orgueil samples, now posted on the Cosmic Ancestry Web site, showed what appeared to be fossilized traces of cyanobacteria within the soft rock. Biologists have come to believe that life might have gotten its start in Earth's oceans in the form of cyanobacteria — but to find such traces in a rock that apparently spent millions of years in space rather than in water came as a surprise.

Any scientist's first thought would be that the biological structures were the result of earthly contamination, but Hoover said the structures' composition argues strongly against that. "The organic matter ... contains isotopes that absolutely could not be from terrestrial contamination," he said.

Hoover was reluctant to discuss the findings in depth, because he's still preparing a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed publication. But Brig Klyce, trustee of the Astrobiology Research Trust and webmaster for Cosmic Ancestry, came away from the Denver meeting impressed.

"I think this is the real deal," Klyce said.

He said he had to beg Hoover for permission to post a couple of the photographs. Far more stunning photos were shown at the meeting but are being held back for peer review, Klyce said. Hoover agreed that the best could well be yet to come.

"We're seeing things that are unbelievably detailed in content and morphology," Hoover said.

Both Klyce and Hoover are well familiar with past claims of extraterrestrial microfossils — with the case of the Martian meteorite ALH 84001 serving as the most widely publicized example. The debate over ALH 84001 was inconclusive, and that may be why Hoover said he is being particularly careful about "gathering input for the purposes of testing and challenge."

"It's going to take a bit more time before all the pieces are put together for the manuscript I want to submit," Hoover said.

Aug. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Rating the Olympic forecasters: The U.S. Olympic team will be glad to know that it outperformed economic expectations this year. In advance of the Games, the dismal scientists figured that the United States would collect less than 100 medals at the Athens Games — and perhaps as few as 70, according to the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

But by the time the Games came to a close, the total U.S. medal count came to 103 . That's not quite as many as some sports journalists had projected, but the tally certainly fulfills the U.S. Olympic Committee's promise of a 100-medal-plus showing.

Dartmouth economist Andrew Bernard and his colleague from the University of California at Berkeley, Meghan Busse, might still merit a prize in the Olympic prediction competition: Their total-medal projection of 93 for the United States was within 10 percent of the final count, and they came even closer on the gold-medal projection: They predicted 37 gold for Team USA. The actual figure was 35.

Aug. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Another record for the books: Guinness World Records has recognized NASA's unmanned X-43A hypersonic plane as the world's fastest air-breathing airplane, by virtue of its 11-second, Mach 6.83 flight in March. In its announcement of the recognition, NASA notes that that record of nearly 5,000 mph may well be broken by the time Guinness is able to publish it in the 2006 edition: The next X-43A flight test, planned for October, may boost its speed to Mach 10, or 7,200 mph.

Aug. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Virtual newsstand on the World Wide Web:
Popular Science: The far-out future of the automobile
Science News: A better distorted view of the world
Sky & Telescope: A new comet shines
Scientific American: Are dark-matter particles really big?

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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