April 16, 2005 | 2:45 a.m. ET
Hubble takes a holiday: Fifteenth anniversaries are generally marked with gifts of fine crystal, and that seems particularly fitting for the 15th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's launch on April 24.

The scientists and engineers at the Hubble European Space Agency Information Center are planning to celebrate Hubble's crystal-clear images in a big way this year, with the release of a commemorative 83-minute DVD and book. Events are being planned throughout Europe to mark "Hubble Day," and New Scientist magazine is gearing up for a promotion aimed at distributing 40,000 copies of the Hubble DVD.

Hubble fans in America will be able to pick up the DVD as well as the soundtrack CD album beginning in May, according to the European center.

HubbleSite.org is already showing a 15th-anniversary video retrospective narrated by Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute (Real video required). Check out our own gallery of Hubble's greatest hits , and stay tuned for more great images from the most famous of NASA's "Great Observatories."

April 16, 2005 | 2:45 a.m. ET
Global genetic family: For decades, author Pearl Duncan has been tracing her African-American roots through linguistic analysis and genetic testing — an effort that we highlighted three years ago as part of our special report on "Genetic Genealogy." This week, in response to reports about the new Genographic Project that aims to document how humans spread across our planet, Duncan provided an e-mail update on her quest. Here's an excerpt from the message:

"... My father's DNA reveals mutations for microsatellites (genetic sequences on short stretches of chromosomes)  for very small indigenous groups of people that now have less than 500 people remaining in Africa.

"Simultaneously, the results of my maternal DNA (done by Roots for Real using a Cambridge University database of the world's indigenous people) showed the L3 mutation, which means that as an African-American, I am descended from the group of humans who about 40,000 to 60,000 years ago migrated 'out of and back into Africa.'  This group of humans ... is the founder of all other groups that developed out of Africa, and populated the world.

"And there were many other surprises in my ancestral DNA.  So in addition to tracing my African ancestors to the Stone Age, I am now also researching my maternal ancestral DNA that matches a branch of biblical people. The human migration in-and-out of Africa, beginning 60,000 years ago, was so extensive and so continuous, geneticists were shocked to find two of my maternal DNA matches for a branch of people on the human biblical family tree — the branch which connects Abraham to Joseph, Mary and Jesus in biblical times, 6,000 to 2,000 years ago.  How did mothers from my Central and West African branch get on this tree?

"The way I see it, our ancestors with the L3 mutation, these ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, evolved and grew into the other groups that populated the world.  They evolved from the era of humans' Stone Age, cave-dwelling times, to our Garden of Eden farming times, to our modern times.

"Since December 2000, I have been speaking at colleges about what I learned about the human family tree from tracing my family's DNA.  Students, faculty and community people who believe in creationism, not evolution, step up to the microphone and ask some very interesting questions.  I tell them the scientific and religious stories are similar, but the timelines are different."

Duncan is still distilling her insights into a book tentatively titled "DNA Dawns for Heartbeat Heroes."

April 16, 2005 | 2 a.m. ET
Postcard from Idaho: The sun was just setting on a flat horizon Friday as we pulled into Twin Falls, Idaho, at the end of a long drive through Utah's Wasatch Mountains. We should be back in Seattle this weekend, and I'll be back in the office on Monday.

April 16, 2005 | 2 a.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

'Nova ScienceNow' on PBS: Stem cells, T. rex and more
The Economist: Third-world medicine
Wired.com: Fantastic spastic elastic plastic
Discovery.com: Titanic's heroes, villains identified

April 14, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Saving Apollo 13: Thirty-five years ago, Houston had a big problem — a crippling explosion aboard the Apollo 13 service module that threatened to doom the mission's three moon-bound astronauts.

You don't have to be over 35 to know how the story turned out: As documented in books and movies such as the Oscar-winning "Apollo 13," commander James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise made it safely back to Earth, thanks in no small part to engineers who figured out how to make vital parts out of duct tape, cardboard and such, and more importantly how to coax just enough power out of the craft to keep critical systems up and running.

The tale is told this week in IEEE Spectrum, from the perspective of those flight controllers and engineers. The rescue team will also be getting an extra long-overdue dose of recognition next Tuesday at Space Center Houston, when GlobalSpec presents its first Great Moments in Engineering award to the employees of NASA's Crew Systems Division of 1970.

Just in time for the 35th anniversary, Lovell presented Chicago's Adler Planetarium with his own collection of space memorabilia — including artifacts from Apollo 13. Meanwhile, the command module that Lovell and his crewmates rode to safety holds a place of prominence at the Kansas Cosmosphere — which is currently having to deal with its own big problems . Eight years ago, MSNBC's Larry Dailey and I got a rare look inside the Apollo 13 module, and the 360-degree view is included among the "landing sites" in our Space transporter.

April 14, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Postcard from Utah: The weather is cool and sunny here in Logan, on the campus of Utah State University. If you're looking for mountains and Mars-style mesas, Utah is the place — and in fact, a couple of hundred miles south of here, NASA is conducting an experiment to see how robots and humans can work together to explore alien environments. Home base for the "Mobile Agents Project" is the Mars Desert Research Station, set up by the Mars Society near Hanksville, Utah. Check out the Mars Society's MDRS Web site for updates on the simulated Mars mission.

April 14, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Quick stops on the scientific Web:

BBC: Champion endurance horse cloned
Institute of Physics: Optical computer made from frozen light
Christian Science Monitor: Pulling the plug on science?
The Guardian: What a way to go

April 13, 2005 | 3:50 p.m. ET
New fame for old astronauts: Three veterans of the space shuttle era — Gordon Fullerton, Joseph Allen and Bruce McCandless — will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on April 30, joining 57 others on the honor roll.

A score of astronauts will be on hand during the ceremonies at the Hall of Fame, which is part of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

Although it's been 15 years since any of the inductees flew into space, they're hardly over the hill. In fact, Fullerton still works for NASA as the chief research pilot at Dryden Flight Research Center. He received word of the honor with the aw-shucks attitude you usually associate with the Right Stuff.

"It sounds fine," he told the L.A. Daily News. "I'm not sure why I was picked out of the names of guys who have flown more than me."

Allen is chairman of the board for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education as well as principal at the Argotyche investment firm. McCandless, meanwhile, has built upon a foundation of family honor and was recently in the news for lending support to the idea of servicing the Hubble Space Telescope — an idea that is currently in ascendance .

Any gathering of astronauts tends to stir interest in autographs and other space collectibles, so it might be worth watching the CollectSpace Web site for updates on that front.

April 12, 2005 | 1:17 p.m. ET
Space marketplace expands: When will we see the effects of the new wave of outer-space entrepreneurship? Two deals signed this week, both involving rocket company XCOR Aerospace, look promising.

The bigger deal is a $7 million, multiyear contract for XCOR to develop a cryogenic composite liquid-oxygen fuel tank for NASA's new space exploration program. The tank could serve as a structural component as well as a container for the supercooled oxygen — but creating lightweight composites to serve such purposes is a tricky problem. Lockheed Martin's earlier effort to develop a new-generation NASA space plane, known as the X-33, foundered after the rupture of a cryogenic composite liquid-hydrogen tank during testing.

XCOR, which is based just down the street from SpaceShipOne's hangar in Mojave, Calif., will receive $1 million for NASA during the first year of the fixed-price contract, with the aim of developing a demonstration tank.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for NASA and for XCOR," the company's president, Jeff Greason, said in a news release. "NASA is reaching out to small businesses and this contract is an excellent example. Both private industry and the government will benefit from this project, as well as future users of space vehicles."

NASA's exploration program could well yield further contracts for the new wave of space companies. But you'll know that the new industry players are really making waves when they make deals among themselves aimed at developing new, nongovernmental space services.

The second deal, between Beyond-Earth Enterprises and XCOR, could be an indicator of the shape of things to come.

Beyond-Earth plans to buy standardized rocket components from XCOR for small-payload launch vehicles, designed for purposes such as suborbital flight testing or research.

"This is the first step toward making space accessible for commercial ventures," Joe Latrell, Beyond-Earth's chief executive officer, said in the Colorado company's news release. "We want to be instrumental in creating standardized production components. When an airline company or package delivery service needs a new vehicle, they don’t build it, they buy it from a company who specializes in airplane or truck production."

How big could the new wave get? Today's postings on Clark Lindsey's RLV News chronicle the "news storm" in the private space industry. And stay tuned for more: Late this month, entrepreneurs will be taking measure of the tide at the Space Access '05 conference in Phoenix.

April 12, 2005 | 1:17 p.m. ET
Postcard from Denver: Who'd have thought it? Spring snow is covering the lawns here on the suburban fringes of the Mile High City. It's lucky for us that we didn't encounter snow on the highways during our three-day drive from Seattle for a family visit. By the time we head back out toward Utah on Wednesday, much of this snow might be melted — and with luck, the storm-stranded crowds will have melted away from Denver International Airport as well.

April 12, 2005 | 1:17 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

Universe Today: How to detect alien space stations
NASA: Students triumph in Great Moonbuggy Race
Purdue: 'Three-peat' in Rube Goldberg Machine Contest
Science News: Genetic code of many colors
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Extreme textiles come of age

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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