Sept. 10, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Tracking the Net campaign: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry received a huge bump in Web traffic because of his convention, even though that didn't translate into a big boost in the polls. So how did President Bush, who benefited from a huge post-convention bounce, do on the Web? Not quite so well, based on figures released by Nielsen//NetRatings this week.

"Looking at the at-home numbers, you definitely had more of a bump to the John Kerry sites during the Democratic convention than you did for Bush-Cheney during the Republican convention," said Charles Buchwalter, vice president of client analytics for Nielsen//NetRatings. "You had pretty much a level at-work access to Bush-Cheney, really for the last month or so."

The audience of unique users roughly doubled for Kerry for the week of the Democratic convention, hitting 616,000 at home and 1.01 million at work. For the Bush campaign site, Web traffic rose from 292,000 to 438,000 for at-home Internet use, but dropped from 484,000 to 394,000 for at-work use. During the Democratic convention, even the Bush-Cheney Web site saw an upward bump, while Kerry's traffic sagged during the GOP convention.

Why was there less spark to the Web figures for last week's political extravaganza? "There are so many moving parts here," Buchwalter said, and he was reluctant to point to just one.

One factor might be that by this time, Internet users are more familiar with the candidates and their online presence, so there's less need to seek out the predictable spin from the campaigns' official Web sites. Another might be that the week before Labor Day represents the depths of the summer doldrums — which would depress Internet traffic in general.

"The other thing you don't know is, what were the e-mail campaigns? What were the ad campaigns?" Buchwalter said. The presidential campaigns push users to their Web sites through ad buys, online as well as on the air, and it may well be that they have only begun to fight over online mindshare.

"Are people who are going to political sites online influential people? I think there is a growing sense that advertisers feel that may be the case," he said, "which is why more ads are showing up online."

Even though the August bump wasn't as big as July's, Buchwalter believes the political Web traffic demonstrates that online campaigning is a force to reckon with. The next step could well be the targeting of political Web ads to particular sites, following the model set for TV advertising. Just as Bush leans toward "Law & Order" and Kerry runs ads on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," perhaps Democrat Blue ads will pop up on The Onion, while you'll see GOP Red banners on NASCAR.com.

"You're probably going to see some very targeted advertising campaigns for both parties," Buchwalter said.

How does online political traffic relate to the real-world campaign? Check out July's report on the post-convention Web bounce, then let me know what you think.

Sept. 10, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Space race update: The past couple of days have brought plenty of interesting developments in the race to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize — and other facets of the worldwide effort to foster private spaceflight:

  • The Romanian ARCA team has tested its scaled-down demonstration rocket, according to Ansari X Prize Space Race News.
  • Space Transport Corp., the Washington state-based team whose rocket made such a big splash last month, is planning engine tests this weekend and scouting out alternate launch sites that won't run afoul of environmental rules , in advance of a planned Rubicon 2 test later this month. The Canadian da Vinci Project is planning a balloon test this weekend as well.
  • An item on Slashdot should give a boost to the X Prize Foundation's effort to recruit volunteers for ground duty during the upcoming launch attempts by the California-based SpaceShipOne team and the da Vinci Project.
  • Congressional types are working out the procedural matters surrounding legislation that eventually could allow passengers to buy suborbital space rides, according to Clark Lindsey's RLV News. But there's still precious little time left to get congressional approval for HR 3752 — so private-spaceflight fans should contact their lawmakers, particularly if those lawmakers happen to sit on the Senate Commerce Committee.

There are already rumblings about what will come after the X Prize. How about putting up tens of millions of dollars for private orbital flight, or for the development of a private space module? Or is that putting the cart before the horse? As always, feel free to send in suggestions for the X+1 Prize.

Sept. 10, 2004 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Infinite Secrets'
Fortean Times: Jesus of the East
NASA: Secrets of a salty survivor
BBC: Shakespearean text lives online

Sept. 9, 2004 | 4:40 p.m. ET
Mystery in a Cat's Eye: The Hubble Space Telescope's latest stunner makes the Cat's Eye Nebula look like a beautiful frozen marble in space. But the planetary nebula, formed by the long-ago explosion of a sunlike star 3,000 light-years away, is literally a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

The enigma, easily seen in today's picture from the Advanced Camera for Surveys, is the concentric series of rings surrounding the central star at the bull's eye. The rings are actually the edges of spherical dust bubbles tucked within each other. Each shell contains as much mass as all the planets in our solar system combined, the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute says in its description of the image.

Image: Cat's Eye Nebula
NASA / ESA / HEIC / STScI
The Cat's Eye Nebula, also known as NGC 6543, is captured in a new Hubble picture.

In April's issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, Romano Corradi of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes and his colleagues reported that such shells should be found around most planetary nebulas. But how did those shells come about?

Is the central star puffing out a wave of dust every 1,500 years or so? Or are they the result of some sort of wave action in the outflowing material, like ripples on a shoreline or the rings around Saturn? "It will take further observations and more theoretical studies to decide between these and other possible explanations," the institute says. The enigma continues.

Meanwhile, the inner swirl of glowing gas that gives the Cat's Nebula its gleam is a mystery as well. The inner shell is thought to have started forming 1,000 years ago and is growing perceptibly, as you can see by comparing the current view with an earlier Hubble image captured in 1994. Astronomers still don't know exactly what is driving this dramatic change.

For other perspectives on the Cat's Eye, check out these views from the Nordic Optical Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory — and, of course, our slideshow on Dazzling Deaths as seen by Hubble.

Sept. 9, 2004 | 4:40 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
National Geographic: Earth's magnetic field fading
Scotsman.com: Explore the 'Da Vinci Code' chapel
Wired.com: Ancient technology for cleaner air
The Guardian: Robot beetle seeks out land mines

Sept. 8, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Mapping a Martian sea: Orbital imagery hints at the coastline of an ancient sea that once covered the region of the Red Planet where the Opportunity rover landed, a researcher reports in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

If Brian Hynek's analysis is correct, the body of water in Meridiani Planum could have had a surface area exceeding 127,000 square miles (330,000 square kilometers), which would make it larger than the Great Lakes combined, or comparable to Europe's Baltic Sea.

Hynek, a researcher at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, reached his conclusions by looking at thermal imagery from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter as well as high-resolution pictures from Mars Global Surveyor. The Opportunity rover also provided an assist , by sending back data showing that the bedrock outcrops surrounding its landing site could have been created only through the interaction of rock and water.

Hynek's analysis indicates that such outcrops extend outward for many miles north, east and west of the hematite-rich area where Opportunity landed. And if those outcrops are indeed the result of sea deposition, the water must have been deep enough to build up a layer of sediments measuring about a third of a mile (500 meters), he said.

"For this to occur, the ancient global climate of Mars must have been different from its present climate and have lasted for an extended period," Hynek wrote in the Nature paper.

Such a scenario could boost the odds of finding fossilized traces of life on Mars. In any case, planetary scientists are deeply interested in learning more about the history of water on the Red Planet, in Meridiani Planum and elsewhere.

"It is important to understand how extensive these water-rich environments were, and how long they persisted, because life required at least some degree of environmental stability in order to begin and to evolve," said David Des Marais, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center who has been in touch with Hynek about the research.

Image: Orbital imagery
Nature / NASA / LASP
In this mosaic of orbital imagery, the brown shaded area represents the hematite-rich region where Opportunity landed. The red lines indicate the likely extent of the ancient body of water that surrounded the landing site.
Hynek told me that he began his work independently from the science team for the Mars Exploration Rovers, but that Opportunity's findings provided a huge boost for his hypothesis.

"When the MER science team announced these outcrops, that immediately had big implications for what I was doing," he said.

Hynek received a data-processing assist from Nathaniel Putzig, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and from LASP research associate Michael Mellon. For a deeper look at the research, check out the university's news release or Astrobiology Magazine's report.

Sept. 8, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
X Prize test on hold: A small-scale test of the balloon that would serve as the aerial launch pad for the da Vinci Project / GoldenPalace.com bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize has been delayed due to unfavorable weather, team leader Brian Feeney told me today.

"We're replanning it for this weekend," he said. In the interim, members of the team that was to do the testing at an undisclosed location in the United States have gone back to their day jobs.

In the past couple of weeks, questions have been raised about whether the da Vinci team could get the required insurance and clearance from the Canadian government for their Oct. 2 launch, but Feeney indicated that the process is proceeding very favorably — and that the arrangements would be nailed down in a week or two. "We're plugging away," he said.

Sept. 8, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Robo-car vs. robo-car: Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team plans to field not just one, but two autonomous vehicles in the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 a year from now. The Red Team's Sandstorm, a converted military Humvee that was the leader of the pack in this year's robotic road race , will be returning. But Carnegie Mellon announced today that a civilian Hummer H1, donated by AM General and nicknamed "H1ghlander," will be outfitted for the Grand Challenge as well.

H1ghlander starts out with a host of features Sandstorm didn't have, including traction control, automated braking, electronic engine control and locking differentials. Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Red Whittaker, leader of the Red Team, says H1ghlander will embody a "high-risk, high-payoff strategy" — but that doesn't mean Sandstorm is obsolete.

"We won't add much to Sandstorm," Whittaker is quoted as saying. "Sandstorm was arguably the best of its breed, and there is much to say for going with solid, proven performance that can be tuned and tested for reliability. As the saying goes, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.'"

Sept. 8, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Defense Tech: Satellite pics going dark?
The New Atlantis: The path not taken
BBC: Noah's Ark plan from top moon man
New Scientist: Dear diary, you make me sick

Sept. 7, 2004 | 10:50 p.m. ET
Galactic fireworks: New stars are flaring to life within a crash of cosmic proportions, as seen in the latest infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The colorful view of the colliding Antennae galaxies is part of a special all-Spitzer issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement.

Image: Antennae galaxies
NASA / Caltech / CfA
This infrared image of the Antennae galaxy collision highlights star-forming regions in red.
The Antennae galaxies, about 60 million light-years away in the constellation Corvus, are merging together in an intricate curlicue of dark dust and bright stars. The scene has been seen many times before, most notably by Spitzer's sister space observatories, Hubble and Chandra. But Spitzer's infrared eyes are particularly well-suited to probing within the dust to see young stars hidden within. In this false-color image, the stars show up as bright red splotches.

"We theorized that there were stars forming at that site, but we weren't sure to what degree," Zhong Wang, lead author of the Antennae paper and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in the Spitzer announcement accompanying the image. "Now we see that the majority of star-forming activity in both galaxies occurs in the overlap regions where the two meet."

That area serves as a cosmic crucible, slamming clouds of gas together to form the hot young stars. Astronomers believe something similar may well happen to our own Milky Way galaxy billions of years from now, when it crashes into the Andromeda Galaxy.

"This more complete picture of star formation in the Antennae will help us better understand the evolution of colliding galaxies, and the eventual fate of our own, said Giovanni Fazio, a co-author of the paper and a colleague at the Center for Astrophysics.

For more on Spitzer and its snapshots, you can always check out our slideshow as well as our archived report on the telescope's first images . Try searching for our past updates on Spitzer as well.

Sept. 7, 2004 | 10:50 p.m. ET
Space race update: The leader of the da Vinci Project rocket team is hoping that a scaled-down test of his balloon-based launch system will set the stage for a full-fledged attempt to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize less than a month from now.

But as of this afternoon, team leader Brian Feeney still hadn't heard in Toronto whether the test was done. He explained that unfavorable weather forced a postponement on Saturday, and his testing team hadn't yet provided an update from the site, which is in a remote, hard-to-contact area.

Feeney voiced confidence that the balloon would be able to handle the Wild Fire rocket during the full-scale X Prize flight. "We stressed the balloon on the ground to double the load that we would anticipate for flight, and it worked out fine," he told me.

Other tests are continuing, and Feeney is sticking by his plan to launch the GoldenPalace.com / da Vinci attempt from Saskatchewan on Oct. 2. "It remains our date," he said. Clark Lindsey's RLV News notes that Feeney's team has an updated PDF fact sheet on its Web site. For updates on the private space race, you can also count on Ansari X Prize Space Race News.

Sept. 7, 2004 | 10:50 p.m. ET
Virtual newsstand on the World Wide Web:
Science News: Ocean envy
Nature: Clone claim causes journal to ax paper
Scientific American: The patent clerk's legacy
Discover Magazine: Dinosaurs on the block

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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