Dec. 3, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
50 years of tracking Santa: The North American Aerospace Defense Command, better-known as NORAD, watches out for potentially hostile bogeys flying into U.S.-Canadian airspace. But even before it was called "NORAD," the command has annually carried out a happier chore: keeping track of a jolly old elf named Santa and passing along Christmas Eve updates on his progress.

This year marks the 50th holiday season for NORAD's Santa-tracking system. The tradition began back in 1955, when a newspaper misprint in Colorado Springs ended up routing children's calls intended for Santa to the operations hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor. The radar operators decided to help the kids out by tracking Santa's course, and the rest is history.

For most of the time since then, the operation relied on telephone hot lines (this year it's 1-877-HI-NORAD, starting at 5 a.m. ET Christmas Eve). But in 1997, NORAD and its private-sector helpers set up the NORAD Santa Web site. In the past seven years, the site has added lots of toys and goodies, including streaming Santa-cam video from Analytical Graphics, traditional Christmas music from military bands and slightly less traditional tunes from "honorary Santa-tracker" Ringo Starr.

Last year, the NORAD Santa operation handled a whopping 577 million Web hits during the three-day Christmas rush, plus 60,000 e-mails and 49,000 phone calls — a far heavier load than the crush that brought the Santa system to its knees back in 1997. The Web site offers plenty of information for parents facing questions from their precocious children, but some of Santa's technology throws even NORAD's brainiacs for a loop. For example, NORAD admits it hasn't been able to figure out just how Santa gets down the chimney.

For the straight scoop about Santa Claus, you can't do much better than Roger Highfield's book about yuletide science, "Can Reindeer Fly?" This excerpt on FirstScience discusses the incredible masses and velocities St. Nick has to deal with — and wonders whether the NORAD exercise is "merely a publicity stunt engineered by defense scientists to draw attention away from the vast range of scientific and technological achievements pioneered by Santa."

This sounds like a job for "The Xmas Files."

Dec. 3, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Shepherd moon at work: For years, astronomers have surmised that small "shepherd moons" help keep Saturn's rings in line by cleaning up stray bits of ice and dust. Now the Cassini spacecraft has caught a shepherd moon in the act.

Image: Prometheus and F ring
NASA / JPL / SSI
This Saturnian snapshot shows the tiny moon Prometheus linked to the F ring's series of ringlets by a faint stream of ice and dust.
A picture sent back by the Saturn probe shows the moon Prometheus linked by a faint strand of material to the wobbly edge of the planet's F ring. Scientists haven't fully figured out how Prometheus is interacting with the ring, but they believe that Prometheus' feeble gravitational pull is enough to draw some of the outlying bits away from the ring.

Cassini is nearing the next major milestone of its $3.3 billion mission: the release of its piggyback Huygens probe on Christmas Day. Assuming all goes well, Huygens will travel toward the mysterious moon Titan and descend through its atmosphere on Jan. 14. Check NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web site for updates.

Dec. 3, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Fox Trot: Christmas card 'for smart people'
Economist: A new puzzle for Christmas
Archaeology: Mummies and bones as TV stars
Reflex: The game of the day (according to GeekPress)

Dec. 2, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Lost in (congressional) space: So what's been happening to the private-spaceflight legislation that was so quickly resurrected in the House in the closing days of the lame-duck session last month, then laid at the doors of the Senate for final passage?

The answer is, not much. And no news is bad news for the bill's backers.

The bill, H.R. 5382, is currently sitting in a legislative limbo, pending next week's extra-lame-duck session on intelligence reform . There's still a chance that the spaceflight bill could be taken up at that point — after all, reports of the legislation's demise have been greatly exaggerated not just once or twice , but three times in the past.

However, at this stage in the congressional game, it takes just one senator's opposition to bottle up the bill, and if the Senate adjourns without giving its approval, the backers would have to start from square one next year. That could conceivably delay the start of commercial space passenger service — which Virgin Galactic and other ventures are targeting for 2007.

The word from some quarters on Capitol Hill is that the House bill was caught up in a cross-chamber dispute with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is pressing the House to move forward with boxing-reform legislation. In his Space Politics Web log, Jeff Foust cites a Space News report to the effect that McCain lifted his hold on the spaceflight bill, and that another hold was then placed from the Democratic side of the aisle.

The procedure of placing holds is cloaked in Senate tradition, so it's not surprising that there are conflicting reports about the bill's precise status. Nor is it surprising that some Senate Democrats would have second thoughts about the content of the bill, given the concerns that were raised by House Democrats during floor debate.

The bill would limit the Federal Aviation Administration's role in regulating crew and passenger safety for eight years, and that didn't sit well with Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His concerns sparked questions in Senate Democratic circles.

Right now, it looks as if the legislation will fade away after next week's brief session and have to be revived next year. But to quote that well-known political commentator, Yogi Berra, it ain't over till it's over.

Dec. 2, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
More updates from the new space race:
Wired: After the X Prize
EDN.com: Burt Rutan offers down-to-Earth advice
Da Vinci Project: All systems go for balloon launch pad
CollectSpace: SpaceShip-flown rocket to be auctioned

Dec. 1, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Galaxies galore: Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists say they have spotted what they believe is one of the youngest galaxies ever seen, a mere toddler that may be as young as ... 500 million years old.

To Earthlings, that sounds pretty ancient: At about that time, multicellular life was just getting started on the planet. But as galaxies go, the dwarf irregular galaxy known as I Zwicky 18 is a latecomer to the cosmic party. Our own Milky Way is thought to be about 12 billion years old, and that's considered the typical age for galaxies.

Image: I Zwicky 18
NASA / ESA / Univ. of Va. / Kiev Main Astro. Univ.
The dwarf irregular galaxy known as I Zwicky 18 is visible in the lower left area of this image. Astronomers believe the galaxy is only 500 million years old. In comparison, our Milky Way galaxy is thought to be 12 billion years old, a typical galactic age.
Trinh Thuan of the University of Virginia and Yuri Izotov of the Kiev Observatory report their findings about the late-blooming galaxy in Wednesday's issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

I Zwicky 18, which is 45 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, has the somewhat unformed starburst shape that most astronomers associate with young galaxies, but Hubble's detailed observations played a key role in nailing down the age. The Advanced Camera for Surveys conducted a census of the galaxy's stars during 25 telescope orbits, and an analysis of the starlight led researchers to conclude that the galaxy went through its initial wave of starburst 500 million years ago.

"This is extraordinary because one would expect young galaxies to be forming only around the first billion years or so after the Big Bang, not some 13 billion years later," Izotov said in the Space Telescope Science Institute's report on the research. "And young galaxies were expected to be very distant, at the edge of the observable universe, but not in the local universe."

Before that first starburst, I Zwicky 18 apparently spent billions of years in an embryonic state as a cold gas cloud of primeval hydrogen and helium. Thuan said Hubble's survey revealed a "nearly pristine" abundance of hydrogen and helium — and a mere sprinkling of heavier elements. That lends further support to the researchers' age estimate, because it takes repeated cycles of stellar booms and busts to create the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other heavier elements that are seen in mature galaxies.

The galaxy could provide the best, and perhaps the only, opportunity to study the building blocks of the early universe at close range.  Astronomers believe young dwarf galaxies merge over time to create larger galaxies such as the Milky Way, "like tributaries merging into large rivers," the institute said.

"These building-block dwarf galaxies are too faint and too small to be studied without the most sensitive instruments even in the local universe, let alone in the far reaches of the cosmos," Thuan said.

Image: Blinking Galaxy
European Southern Observatory
This view from the Very Large Telescope shows a composite color-coded image of the spiral galaxy NGC 6118, also known as the Blinking Galaxy.
Another sensitive instrument, the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, is contributing its own stunning images to the galactic gallery today. Two sets of pictures focus on NGC 6118, also known as the Blinking Galaxy, and NGC 7424, a spiral galaxy that was discovered in the 1830s by astronomer John Herschel during his Cape of Good Hope observations.

The difficult-to-spot Blinking Galaxy, about 80 million light-years away in the constellation Serpens, is so named because it appeared to flicker in and out of existence when viewed through telescopes with a particular orientation. In the newly released image, the view is enhanced, thanks to the light-collecting power of the Very Large Telescope. Star-forming regions show up as bluish knots, and a bright spot due north of the galaxy's center is Supernova 2004 DK, a stellar blast that was first reported in August.

Image: NGC 7424
European Southern Observatory
NGC 7424 is seen head-on in this image from the Very Large Telescope, which is in Chile's Atacama Desert.
NGC 7424, which is 40 million light-years away in the constellation Grus, is also a tough galaxy for most telescopes to pick up. But the Very Large Telescope reveals NGC 6118 in all its face-on glory. The galaxy is similar in size to our own Milky Way, measuring about 100,000 light-years across.

Like the Blinking Galaxy, NGC 7424 contains a recent supernova — 2001 IG, which was spotted four years ago. By now, however, the supernova's afterglow has almost faded away.

For more on the galaxies and the supernovas, consult the European Southern Observatory's news release. And for more stunning views of the universe, check out our Space Gallery .

Dec. 1, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Expedition to a desert Mars: The Mars Society has begun a new series of simulated Red Planet expeditions at its Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, following up on past rounds of research. "Expedition Alpha" moved in to the space-outfitted habitat this week and is already sending back dispatches. Over the next two weeks, the nine crew members will test tools and techniques that could be used someday during a human mission to Mars — then make way for Expedition Beta.

Dec. 1, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science and technology:
The Independent: 'Hobbit' fossils locked up
Defense Tech: Armed drones rolling to Iraq
LiveScience: The new mystery of water
New Scientist: China's blog revolution

Nov. 30, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Fighting over the pharaoh: Who was the Egyptian pharaoh mentioned in Exodus? Might there have been more than one pharaoh?

Monday's item on the mysterious case of Amun-her Khepeshef, the firstborn son of Ramses II, stirred up a flurry of debate from Cosmic Log correspondents. The response definitely proves that some people take their biblical scholarship at least as seriously as researcher Kent Weeks takes his Egyptology.

Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback:

Anonymous: "I think you unfairly suggest that most theologians believe Ramses to be the pharoah of the exodus. This is simply not true. Most conservative scholars hold to Amenhotep. That is not discussed in your article. It seems to me that you are unfairly using your media to manipulate people into doubting God's Word. True scholarship presents both sides of a debate, fairly and accurately. You have failed to do this. Your article does not measure up to the scholarly work you would suggest it to be. In fact it comes closer to a genre called propaganda. Shame on you."

Wayne Medlin, Denver: "This is typical of the ongoing efforts of the intelligentsia to discredit the biblical account, no matter what the circumstance. Why is there no speculation that this may be someone else, a nephew, a different son, whatever? The Bible clearly indicates the person who died was a boy, not a 50 year-old general."

Dan Walker, Ph.D., M.Div., St. Louis: "This is the type of pseudo-science garbage that makes people laugh. The only point of this show and your article is to cast doubt on the historical records of the Old Testament. According to the written documents of the Old Testament, the pharaoh's firstborn was not killed in battle and was certainly killed while much younger, while in the pharaoh's household. Therefore, the discovery of a bashed-in skull sheds no light whatsoever on this question. One of the rules of the scientific method is to place greater weight on solid evidence and not give credence to bizarre speculations."

Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "This is undeniable proof for the accuracy of the Bible. In your article, Alan, you put that the Bible says 'merely' that he was smitten. This word probably gives the wrong impression to people not familiar with that English. According to Dictionary.com (a secular dictionary) the word 'smite' has two main definitions:

• To inflict a heavy blow on, with or as if with the hand, a tool, or a weapon.
• To drive or strike (a weapon, for example) forcefully onto or into something else.

"'Merely' seems like an inappropriate and misleading word, given that 'Weeks noted that the skull's deep fracture is evidence of a violent, fatal wound — most likely delivered by a mace, the preferred weapon of war in Ramses' time.'

"It seems to me the angel of death could have delivered a blow like that with a heavenly weapon easily and quickly. It is very unlikely a coincidence that the Bible was 100 percent accurate in this case."

Rozanne E. Folk, Nashville, Tenn.: "I have been in love with history, archaeology and geology since I was a child. It prompted my B.A., pursuit of an M.A. and a lifelong devotion to exploring Earth. Weeks is just nothing short of amazing. And this was too much fun to read. I anticipate his Discovery Channel broadcast with great joy and can't wait to read his monograph. I would also like to thank him for his work to protect the tombs. Of course, as an historian, I would not ever be able to turn down the opportunity to immerse myself on site. I envy him his work, but he has certainly deserved every victory."

The Exodus connection adds an extra spark to the Discovery Channel's documentary on Weeks' research, but it's probably the weakest link in the evidentiary chain. Weeks is on much firmer ground when he links the remains to the historical Amun-her Khepeshef rather than the biblical pharaoh's firstborn.

That's not to say that Ramses II isn't a candidate for the role of the pharaoh in Exodus. In fact, many biblical scholars argue that there were two pharaohs: the "Pharaoh of Oppression," who was in power during Moses' youth, and the "Pharaoh of the Exodus," who clashed with the grown-up Moses. Some say that Ramses II was the Pharaoh of Oppression, and that his son and successor Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Others suggest Ramses II was the Exodus pharaoh, and his father Seti I was the Pharaoh of Oppression. Still others say Ramses II combined both roles.

There are more candidates for the Exodus role, including Amenhotep II, as mentioned by my anonymous critic. In this scenario, Amenhotep's father, Thutmose III, would be the Pharaoh of Oppression. This rundown of Exodus theories mentions Ahmose and Akhenaten, and dark-horse candidates include Pepi II and Merenre Antyemsaf II as well as Ramses I and Horemheb.

And then there are those scholars who argue that much of the saga of the Exodus was a literary creation. (Heaven forbid!)

Nov. 30, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
National Geographic: The search for other Earths
Science @ NASA: The moon eclipses Jupiter
Wired.com: Science geek gifts for all
The Guardian: Scientific things to do before you die

Nov. 29, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Is this Pharaoh's firstborn? When artists transformed the measurements of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian skull into a reconstructed face, they came up with a pointed nose and chin more suited for a caricature than the son of a pharaoh.

Image: Sketch and skull
Discovery Channel
A sketch showing the head of the suspected firstborn son of Pharaoh Ramses II is laid over a color picture of a skull found in the KV5 royal tomb. The sketch was done by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson based on the cranial measurements of the skull.
But believe it or not, the look is in line with the norm for the family of Ramses II, one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs. The cranial measurements, along with other forensic clues from the royal tomb where the skull was found, have led famed Egyptologist Kent Weeks to conclude the face is that of Amun-her Khepeshef, who many historians believe is the "firstborn son of Pharaoh" cited in the Book of Exodus.

Weeks and his colleagues make their case in "Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?" The TV documentary premieres Sunday on the Discovery Channel.

The facial reconstruction is just the latest piece in a historical puzzle, strengthening the case that Ramses II's one-time heir apparent has indeed been found among the mummies entombed in the Valley of the Kings, within a huge funerary complex known as KV5.

"It doesn't prove anything 100 percent ... but it does strongly suggest that there is a familial relationship here," Weeks told MSNBC.com.

Weeks has worked within the KV5 complex since the 1980s as part of the Theban Mapping Project, and in 1995 his team made the breakthrough discovery that the underground dig contained scores of burial rooms. Inside, archaeologists found inscriptions and scenes documenting the lives of Ramses and his many sons, as well as canopic jars labeled as containing the organs of Amun-her Khepeshef.

Later, an assemblage of bones was found, adding to the mystery.

"We found remains of four different people, all of them male, all of them in the same pit, in a chamber near the entrance to the tomb," Weeks recalled.

One of the skeletons was positioned in a princely pose near the entryway, and its skull appeared to be bashed in. Combined with inscriptions referring to Amun-her Khepeshef, the setting led Weeks and his colleagues to suspect they had found Rameses' firstborn son and perhaps three of his brothers.

The next step was to compare the detailed measurements of the fractured skull with similar measurements taken from the mummies of Ramses II; his father, Seti I; another of Ramses' sons, Merneptah; and a royal personage who may have been Ramses I, the grandfather of Ramses II.

Image: Amun-her Khepeshef reconstruction
Discovery Channel
This artistic reconstruction, based on cranial measurements taken from an ancient Egyptian skull, shows a side view of Amun-her Khepeshef's head.
Using techniques similar to those employed by crime-scene investigators, forensic anthropologists found "strong anatomical similarities" between the known members of Ramses' family and the mysterious remains, Weeks said. Some were obvious — for example, the long, thin face with the pointed chin. Other factors, such as the set of the teeth or the shape of particular bones, were "more for the specialists to look at," he said.

The facial reconstruction lent further scientific support — and a gee-whiz twist suitable for television — to Weeks' hypothesis about the pharaoh's firstborn son. But this wasn't just any pharaoh's firstborn: Some biblical scholars claim that Ramses II was the real-life villain of the Exodus story, whose firstborn son was killed by the 10th and final plague sent down by the God of Israel.

Could the skull shed light on the historical truth of the biblical story? The Exodus story says merely that God smote the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, as well as the firstborn calves of their cattle. Weeks lays out a less miraculous, but no less deadly, scenario for Amun-her Khepeshef's untimely death.

Like the biblical firstborn, Amun-her Khepeshef did not survive his father. He died in his 40s or early 50s, after participating in a number of Ramses' military campaigns as an army general and an overseer of the chariotry.

Turning to the evidence from the KV5 complex, Weeks noted that the skull's deep fracture is evidence of a violent, fatal wound — most likely delivered by a mace, the preferred weapon of war in Ramses' time.

"It's entirely possible that his wife hit him over the head, or he got out of control at a bar, but I think that the battlefield scenario makes more sense, given the fact that Amun-her Khepeshef was closely affiliated with the military," Weeks said. "This individual probably was killed on the battlefield and then brought back to Luxor for burial in the Valley of the Kings. All of these things again suggest that it very well could be Amun-her Khepeshef, or certainly one of the principal sons of the pharaoh."

Image: Ramses II's 3-D reconstruction
Discovery Channel
This 3-D rendering of Ramses II's head is based on cranial measurements taken from his mummy.
Could genetic analysis nail down that identification beyond doubt? Not at present, Weeks said. Experts have found that the DNA within mummified remains is too damaged to be of use for tracing familial relationships.

"I think we've gone about as far as we can go at this point … until the entire DNA testing process has been more greatly refined," he said.

Weeks and his colleagues intend to publish a scientific monograph on the case of Amun-her Khepeshef and the mysterious skull sometime in the next year.

Meanwhile, the work continues, and not just at the KV5 complex: Weeks and his team are currently working with Egypt's antiquities council on a site management plan for the entire Valley of the Kings, aimed at accommodating the roughly 7,000 tourists who visit each day. The project, including construction of a new interpretive center, is supported by $2.5 million in aid from the Japanese government.

"It's important we do this very quickly, because the pressures on the tombs are intense. They're simply not designed to have 6,000 or 7,000 people in them, never mind 15,000 to 20,000 people a day," he said. "If we don’t act quickly, the damage that I'm afraid could be caused is going to be irrevocable."

Nov. 29, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Other destinations on the scientific Web:
PhysOrg: Ornithopter prepares for test flight
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Under all that ice, maybe oil
Discover Magazine: Can contact sports lower intelligence?
Scientific American: Top sci-tech gifts for 2004

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.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments