Image: Antarctic diatom chain
Dee Breger  /  Drexel University
Drexel University's Dee Breger colorized this scanning electron micrograph of a microplankton sample pulled from the depths of the Antarctic Sea. The photograph won honorable mention in this year's International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Sept. 24, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
A scientific visual feast: Who would have thought that a blood-sucking tick could be so beautiful, or that microscopic critters from Antarctica could look so otherworldly? Such wonders of scientific imagery are in the winner's circle for the 2004 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science.

This year's 11 winners were selected from more than 90 entries in the contest, which recognizes "outstanding achievement in use of graphics media to illustrate research processes and results."

First prize in the photography competition went to the University of Minnesota's Marna Ericson for an image showing a fluorescent view of a deer tick feasting on blood from the ear of a golden hamster.

The top-rated illustration, which shows how water molecules shimmy through a membrane, looks like a riotous work of modern art; it was created by Emad Tajkhorshid and Klaus Schulten from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

You have to look closely at David Fierstein's informational graphic on Mount Etna's eruption to get the full effect of the prize-winning entry. The top entry in the non-interactive media category, by Cynthia Moss and Kaushik Ghose of the University of Maryland at College Park, traces how a bat zeroes in on a praying mantis. Interactive applications by Paul Bigeleisen and Arkitek Studios round out the contest categories.

In their introduction, Science executive editor Monica Bradford and Curt Suplee, the director of the NSF's Office and Legislative Public Affairs, note that the winning entries are more than just pretty pictures. The imagery helps bring difficult-to-understand research to life, and "when that research is depicted vividly and comprehensibly in pictures, everybody benefits," Suplee and Bradford say.

To learn more about the winners, click through Science's online slideshow — and while you're at it, try to visualize next year's contest.

Sept. 24, 2004 | Updated 9 p.m. ET
Snags delay Canadian X Prize bid: The da Vinci Project says its bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize is on hold for the next couple of weeks, due to snags with getting some of the key components for its Wild Fire rocket. The postponement of the scheduled Oct. 2 launch means that Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne team has a clear shot at winning the $10 million in the next couple of weeks.

Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney says the most pressing problem has to do with fabricating the pressure vessel that would go inside the balloon-launched spaceship. "It boils down to a lack of multi-axis filament winders in Canada. ... Everything else is inside the envelope and in hand," he told me.

Observers had long wondered whether the project's balloon-launched system would be ready for the Oct. 2 launch from above Saskatchewan. The rival SpaceShipOne team is planning launches on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4, and if everything works out according to that flight plan, the $10 million would go to SpaceShipOne rather than to the da Vinci / GoldenPalace.com team.

Check out the full story , part of our special report on the new space race.

One last thing: Due to the SpaceShipOne goings-on in Mojave, Calif., I'll be on the road during the coming week — and that means the Log entries won't be as regular as usual. But you can look forward to plenty of on-the-scene reports from the Mojave spaceport.

Sept. 24, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Fark Forum: Pimp my SpaceShipOne ride (via RLV News)
Feast your eyes on whirling wheels (via Improbable Research)
Unwise microwave oven experiments (via GeekPress)
The Economist: A history of sex

Sept. 23, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Edge of the universe: Now that astronomers have gotten an ultra-good look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, they've spotted what they believe are some of the earliest star-forming galaxies. This could be the start of the true "final frontier" for visual observation of the cosmos.

The galaxies show up as faint smudges in the Ultra Deep Field, reddened by extreme Doppler shift. Astronomers believe the light from those galaxies started out when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age, which is estimated at 13.7 billion years.

"For the first time, we at last have real data to address this final frontier — but we need more observations," Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology says in the Space Telescope Science Institute's latest report on the Ultra Deep Field, "We must push even deeper into the universe, unveiling what happened during the initial 5 percent of the remaining distance back to the Big Bang."

Image: Detail from Hubble Ultra Deep Field
NASA / ESA / ASU / STScI / Caltech
The green circles indicate just seven of the 108 faint smudges on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image that may be among the earliest star-forming galaxies ever seen. Younger galaxies show up as multicolored blotches in this detail from the much larger image.

Five different teams of astronomers produced research papers delving into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and presented their results today at a workshop for science writers. Their studies focused on what's known as the cosmic reionization epoch, when a fog enveloping the early universe cleared enough for light to stream through.

The institute says the smudgy galaxies in the image indicate that "the universe started out as a bunch of 'mom and pop' stores, which merged into businesses, and then into giant corporations — the majestic galaxies we see today."

Is there any hope of seeing what happened before those cosmic storefronts were opened? Not much, if you're talking about the Hubble Space Telescope in its current configuration. But the Wide Field Camera 3 being built for a potential Hubble upgrade in the future could delve even more deeply into the final frontier — and the James Webb Space Telescope should be able to see even farther, back to the very first stars and star clusters.

"These still-hypothesized ultra-bright stars formed only 200 million years after the Big Bang. ... They are currently believed to have heated the universe so much back then, that smaller, normal stars had to wait for the hydrogen gas to recool and condense before they could form," the institute says.

Check out the full package from Hubblesite.org. And to follow the universe's time line from the very beginning, click through the "History of the Universe" interactive at PBS' "Nova" Web site.

Sept. 23, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Space race secrets: Now that we're less than a week away from the first scheduled launch aimed at winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize, all sorts of goodies are popping out in the open. Just today, the X Prize Foundation unveiled its nifty Webcast portal for live coverage of next week's SpaceShipOne launch (a.k.a. "X1") as well as archived video clips about several of the X Prize teams. Space Race News, the indispensable guide to X Prize developments, has an interview with foundation benefactor Robert K. Weiss about the Webcast. You should be able to watch launch coverage via MSN Video as well.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's series on the rise of the X Prize digs into some intriguing details, naming the company that is providing the $10 million "hole-in-one" insurance policy (Bermuda-based XL Capital). The report also cites tax documents showing that during 2002, the year the Ansari family became involved in the X Prize, $2.6 million was raised to keep the policy in force and keep the lights on at the foundation.

Sept. 23, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
The Guardian: Science in the Iraqi war zone
Wired.com: E-vote fears soar in swing states
National Geographic: 'CSI' is mixed blessing for crime labs
SpaceRef: Scientists spot a sugar cloud in space

Sept. 22, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
The silly science season: It's time once again to celebrate the not-so-serious side of science — those improbable research projects that make you laugh, then make you think. That's the raison d'être for the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, which will be awarded on Sept. 30 at Harvard University.

For 14 years, the Ig Nobels have recognized off-kilter projects in science and engineering, ranging from "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Over Various Surfaces," to the patenting of the wheel, to the invention of the centrifugal-force birthing machine and the  flamethrower-equipped car alarm system.

The projects may sound completely frivolous, but sometimes there's a serious scientific point behind them. For example, the sheep-dragging experiment was aimed at cutting down on occupational injuries for Australian sheep-shearers. And sometimes there's even a political point, as illustrated by the Ig Nobel awards for former Vice President Dan Quayle and former "dead person" Lal Bihari.

Once you start with this stuff, it's hard to stop — and I suppose that's why Ig Nobel founder Marc Abrahams has followed up on his book "The Ig Nobel Prizes" with a sequel that's soon to be published in Britain, "Why Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans."

This year's Ig Nobel honorees are being kept under wraps until the Sept. 30 ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theater, which you can watch in person or via a webcast. But the advance program provides a hint at what's in store: The theme is "diet," and there'll be a mini-opera on the Atkins Diet as well as a live scientific comparison test of several diets.

The keynote address (which is usually mercilessly brief) will be delivered by Ig Nobel laureate John Trinkaus, who has made a lifelong study of everyday things that have annoyed him.

An informal lecture program on Oct. 2 will feature University of Guelph food scientist Massimo Marcone. He was ignobly honored in 1995 for his research on Kopi Luwak coffee, which gets its expensively earthy flavor by passing through the alimentary canal of the palm civet, a catlike animal in Indonesia.

To get up to speed on the Ig Nobels, check out last year's Cosmic Chat with Abrahams, which includes links to further information on the prizes. You also should check out Abrahams' other projects, which range from the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research to the daily "What's New" Weblog.

Sept. 22, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: Personality predicts politics
New Scientist: Seismic surveys may kill giant squid
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A new space race
Defense Tech: Cut back on water and drink the air

Sept. 21, 2004 | 4:40 p.m. ET
Bluetopia vs. Redtopia: In an election season where so much attention is being devoted to the distant past, wouldn't it be nice to look ahead to a better future? That's the idea behind the "Bluetopia vs. Redtopia" science-fiction contest we're kicking off today.

We invite you to send in your positive sci-fi visions of the future, based on the policies of your favorite candidate. Mark Whittington's look ahead to a lunar landing in 2016, "The Night We Return to the Moon," serves as a great example (sorry, Mark, you'll have to write something new for our contest). You might sketch out a future world where the terrorist problem has been solved, health care has been transformed, stem-cell research has yielded new cures, or new energy technologies have reshaped the global economy.

Obviously, a contest like this could easily get mired in the same muck that is gumming up this year's campaign, so here are a few of the ground rules:

1. Don't go negative: We're stressing the positive here, so don't bother sending in a screed about how bad things are in 2012 because so-and-so won the 2004 election. And you won't win points for writing merely that the evil policy of Candidate X was reversed by Candidate Y.

2. Don't go on too long: Remember that one of your prime objectives is to engage the "electorate," so conciseness will definitely score points. A tale as long as Whittington's (875 words) would be about the maximum we'll accept, and a clever 100-word plot summary will always trump a plodding 875-word short story.

3. Write a provocative scenario: Public policy may be boring, but your entry should not be. If you have a clever science-fiction twist, like an anti-terror technology that radically changes the  playing field for homeland security, work it into your tale. A finely tuned sense of humor always helps, although you have to use it for good, not evil (see Rule No. 1).

4. Write a plausible scenario: It would be tempting to write, say, a story about the USS Enterprise time-warping back to 2005 and beaming Osama bin Laden onto a prison planet. But one of the goals of this exercise is to try to show why a particular policy will reap benefits for future generations. (OK, I admit that being entertaining is at least as important, so maybe Kirk vs. Osama isn't such a bad idea.) Try to keep the science fiction grounded in political realities.

We'll accept your entries at the Cosmic Log e-mail address from now until midnight Oct. 5, four weeks before the presidential election. Then we'll winnow through the entries. During the week of Oct. 18-22, we'll publish the finalists for Redtopia (President Bush) and Bluetopia (John Kerry), as well as a White category for "Ralph Nader or None of the Above." The admittedly unscientific voting will open Oct. 22, with the ballot structured so that you can vote for your favorite among the Red, Blue and White stories.

The highest-rated entries should become evident as the voting proceeds — and when Election Eve rolls around on Nov. 1, we'll declare the top vote-getters in the two most popular categories to be the winners. In other words, it's conceivable that the winners will be Red and White, or Blue and White — although Red vs. Blue would seem to be the most likely outcome. Each of the two winners will receive a $20 gift certificate that they can put toward a "Fahrenheit 9/11" DVD, a copy of "Unfit for Command" — or perhaps something cheerier.

Your entries are subject to the terms and conditions for our Web site, and please don't try any ballot-box hanky-panky — that would definitely spoil the outcome and may result in the prizes being withdrawn.

Sept. 21, 2004 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Rocket traffic jam: After I posted Friday's item on the progress of Space Transport Corp.'s Rubicon 2 rocket, company co-founder Philip Storm said the rocket was more likely to be launched during the weekend of Oct. 2-3 — and indeed, that's what Space Transport reports in an online Word document. If all the schedules hold true, that means the launch could come right in the midst of the Ansari X Prize rocket bids planned by Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne team in California and the GoldenPalace.com / da Vinci Project in Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, Scaled Composites indicates the Discovery Channel is planning to air "Black Sky: The Race for Space," its documentary on SpaceShipOne and designer Burt Rutan, in two parts premiering Oct. 3 and Oct. 7.

Sept. 21, 2004 | 4:40 p.m. ET
Positive value for zero-G: Armadillo Aerospace team leader (and video-game whiz) John Carmack shares his impressions on parabolic free-fall flight in a posting to the aRocket mailing list, liberally quoted in Clark Lindsey's Space Log. Carmack makes an interesting observation about what suborbital space-vehicle operators can learn from the zero-G experience:

"The take-home lesson is that we need to add a lot of cabin volume to our first consumer suborbital spacecraft," he writes. "Adding an extra 63 inches by 12 feet of cabin volume will only cost us about 250 pounds. You won't get much more total zero-G than on the parabolas, but it will be contiguous, and combined with the view, the boost burn, the re-entry acceleration and the exclusivity, I do think it is going to be a ride worth $100K."

By the way, NASA is recruiting student teams for its next round of zero-gravity flights in a freshly converted C-9 transport plane. These research-oriented "Vomit Comet" flights tend to be more gastrically challenging than the Zero Gravity tours — as Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg points out. Deadline for sending in your application is Oct. 20. If you're selected for next spring's round of flights, you get to take a journalist along. Just remember where you got the idea. ...

Sept. 21, 2004 | 4:40 p.m. ET
Scientific hot spots on the World Wide Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Celestial neighborhood looks friendlier
Science News: Extreme impersonations
Space.com: Mars Express yields provocative observations
Scientific American: Fear of pharming

Sept. 20, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
New team in space race: One week before the climactic phase of a $10 million space race begins, one of the teammates behind the odds-on favorite says it is looking into a new venture with the strangest and most natural partner of all: NASA.

Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev and the space agency's Ames Research Center announced a memorandum of understanding that would involve cooperation on a project that NASA calls "new low-cost space launch vehicles to help achieve the goals of the nation’s Vision for Space Exploration" and SpaceDev calls "Dream Chasers."

The experimental rocket vehicle would be launched to space vertically, powered by SpaceDev's hybrid propulsion system, and would land back on Earth horizontally like a glider, SpaceDev said. Even if the project bears fruit, the Dream Chaser would come too late to compete for the  $10 million Ansari X Prize purse, and it wouldn't qualify anyway because of the NASA support. However, it could plausibly reap a richer reward in the form of NASA contracts.

The pairing seems unusual because of SpaceDev's role as a rocket-engine contractor for Scaled Composites, whose SpaceShipOne plane is favored to win the $10 million in the next month. What's more, the X Prize was established to encourage the development of space programs independent of support from NASA or other government agencies.

But SpaceDev's chief executive officer, Jim Benson, told Space.com that the venture fits with his company's ambitions: "We have tried to make it clear that SpaceDev does have plans of our own in terms of human spaceflight, both orbital and suborbital," he said.

Maybe the coupling isn't so odd after all: SpaceDev already has cooperated with NASA and the University of California at Berkeley on the CHIPSat space research project, and even Scaled Composites is hoping to get in on future NASA exploration funding, as a partner in the t/Space consortium. It just goes to show that "coopetition" has its place, even in the new space race.

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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