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Cosmic Log: April 1-7, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: The military X-37 plane lands autonomously after its first free flight but goes off the runway. Plus: "Idol" predictions 2.0 ... More shuttle delays? ... SpaceShot's first stage ... Religious science on thin ice ... Dark matter of a different kind ... Blue Origin update ... Zero-G at KSC ... Science in high-def ... and more.
The X-37 space plane is tucked beneath its White Knight mothership during a test flight this week. At the climax of a similar flight on Friday, the X-37 was released for a drop test and landed autonomously, but ran off the runway.
The X-37 space plane is tucked beneath its White Knight mothership during a test flight this week. At the climax of a similar flight on Friday, the X-37 was released for a drop test and landed autonomously, but ran off the runway.Alan Radecki / MojaveWest Photography

April 7, 2006 |
Space plane flies free: After weeks of delay, the military X-37 space plane went through its first free flight through the skies over California's Mojave Desert today and landed autonomously at Edwards Air Force Base.

That's the good news from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The bad news is that the vehicle experienced an "anomaly" and went off the runway, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker told me. Fortunately, only minor damage was done, she said.

The X-37 was carried up from the Mojave Airport by Scaled Composites' White Knight airplane, the same mothership that bore SpaceShipOne into the sky for its historic private-sector space launches. That's been done several times before. But until today, either unacceptable weather or electronic glitches had stymied the maiden drop test — and the X-37 had to stay hooked to the White Knight.

This time, all systems were go when the White Knight reached its target altitude of 37,000 feet, and the X-37 was set free at last for a three-minute glide to touchdown.

Back in the 1990s, the X-37 was designed as a NASA experimental craft, 27.5 feet (8.4 meters) long with a 15-foot (4.5-meter) wingspan. It was meant to be carried into orbit in the space shuttle's payload bay or atop an expendable rocket, then deployed for independent missions lasting up to 21 days. At the end of each mission, the X-37 would glide back down to an autonomous landing.

NASA dropped the project after deciding that the X-37 was not a good fit for its future exploration plans, but DARPA picked it up in 2004 for its potential military applications. As far back as 2001, NBC News producer Robert Windrem reported that the craft could be adapted to serve as a "space bomber."

Today's drop test was only the first of what surely will be a long series of flights, and the fact that the plane went off track after today's touchdown won't be a mortal blow. After all, SpaceShipOne veered off the runway at the end of its first supersonic flight. (For pictures of that mishap from Mojave photographer Alan Radecki, click here.)

Stuart Witt, manager of the Mojave Airport, was clearly pleased that the X-37 was finally released for free flight after so many false starts. "It's exciting," he told me.

"It's been good to see synergistic tests springboard off previous successes and capitalize on national assets like the White Knight for other uses," Witt said.

Here's the full statement from DARPA's Walker, released at 5 p.m. ET:

"The DARPA-sponsored X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) conducted its first drop test on April 7, 2006.  "White Knight and ALTV took off from Mojave, Calif., airport at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT).  At 7:28 a.m. PDT, White Knight released ALTV within the Edwards AFB test range airspace at an altitude of 37,000 feet.  ALTV touched down on runway 22 at Edwards AFB, Calif., at 7:31 a.m. PDT.  ALTV’s autonomous landing sequence and initial touchdown were flawless and fully according to plan, but ALTV did not stop in the distance expected and rolled off the end of the runway.  ALTV’s steering was nominal for the full length of the runway.  "The cause of the incident is not yet known.  The ALTV flight team continues to assess the situation.  "All flight data has been recovered from ALTV.  There was minor damage to ALTV — the nose landing gear is heavily damaged, but the main landing gear and aircraft appear structurally intact."

April 7, 2006 |
‘H-Prize’ bill introduced: We've talked before about the multimillion-dollar "H-Prize" program to promote a hydrogen-based energy economy, so I just thought I'd mention that Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., introduced his H-Prize legislation on Thursday (H.R. 5143, with 14 co-sponsors). The House Science Committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill April 27.

The bill calls for:

  • Four $1 million prizes to be awarded annually in the categories of hydrogen production, storage, distribution and utilization.
  • One $4 million prize to be awarded every other year for the creation of a working hydrogen-powered prototype vehicle.
  • A maximum $100 million, including $10 million in cash and up to $90 million in matching funds for private capital, to be awarded for changes in hydrogen technologies that meet or exceed objective criteria in production and distribution to the consumer.

The energy secretary would contract with a private foundation or panel that would include experts in the field to establish the detailed criteria for the prizes. A little bell must be ringing over at the X Prize Foundation.

Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Hunt for the Supertwister'WSJ: Two studies answer big questions in evolution
The Economist: Two possible explanations for the bulk of realityMontreal Gazette: Prof denied grant over evolution (via Slashdot)
ESO: Cosmic spider is a good mother

April 6, 2006 |
‘Idol’ predictions 2.0: A couple of weeks ago, an online speed-dial system called DialIdol made a big splash by analyzing busy-signal patterns to predict which contestants were lagging in the ratings-rich "American Idol" phone voting. Although DialIdol's creator, Jim Hellriegel Jr., insisted he wasn't trying to predict winners and losers, the rankings could be seen as an indicator of who's going to be ejected in a given week.

The system sounded pretty ingenious, but its predictive powers failed on March 22 — when DialIdol's designated victim, Elliott Yamin, didn't even end up in the bottom three. The outcome was so different that some folks took me to task for spending so much virtual ink on the topic.

This week, however, DialIdol bounced back with a vengeance, nailing the precise order of the bottom three. Why? It could be mere coincidence ... or it could be because Hellriegel has fine-tuned the formula for his ratings.

As outlined on the DialIdol Web forum, Hellriegel made two changes in the system: First, the busy-signal statistics have been weighted to smooth out periods of high call volumes. Second, the results from each time zone are weighted to reflect population. For example, lots of busy signals when the phone vote is open in Eastern and Central time zones will count for more than busy signals when only Hawaiians are eligible to vote.

The subject may not be scientific, but the way Hellriegel is tinkering with the algorithm is reminiscent of the method used for climate prediction models and political polling: As long as you have a statistically valid sample size, you tweak the model to fit past and present realities, in hopes of predicting the future. Pollster John Zogby once said the process was "80 percent science and 20 percent art."

If you assume that DialIdol's current algorithm has been adequately debugged, then it looks as if Taylor Hicks, the show's "Silver Fox," is emerging as a favorite. But then again, TV critics who have been watching "Idol" for years say it's a "tough show to predict." This week, the software anticipated the surprise. Let's see how DialIdol does as "American Idol" goes into its final weeks.

April 6, 2006 |
Further snags for shuttle? The Orlando Sentinel's Michael Cabbage quotes a senior shuttle official as saying the prospects for launching the shuttle Discovery in July are about "50-50" —due to continuing concerns about the external fuel tank as well as new concerns about "tin whiskers" on old circuitry. If July doesn't work, the next launch window would come in late August or September — a time frame that NASA Watch's Keith Cowing says is being discussed in NASA's hallways.

April 6, 2006 |
SpaceShot’s first stage: About 500 people signed up on the first day to play an online weather-prediction game that offers a ride in space as the grand prize, according to the SpaceShot venture's founder, Sam Dinkin.

That may not sound like that many, considering that there's enough room for 130,000-plus players in the first round. But Dinkin told me that if every player buys an entry once a day, the first suborbital spaceflight ticket would be awarded by the end of this year — and another winner would be crowned just about the time Oklahoma-based Rocketplane's spaceship is ready for testing next year. (SpaceShot has put together a Windows Media animation of a Rocketplane flight.)

The signups have been continuing since Monday's first day of operation. Dinkin declined to say what the growth rate has been, but it sounded as if he'd like to see a lot more players. "I want the word to get out," he said. (For the record, he didn't call me — rather, I called him to follow up on Monday's story.)

Dinkin has been worrying about potential competition from Virgin Galactic Quest, a space-themed online skill game presented by the corporate cousins of SpaceShipTwo's backers. But he was pleased to see that Virgin Galactic's latest newsletter says the game is giving away cash prizes rather than spaceflights.

"I like to flatter myself and think that was in response to me," Dinkin said.

Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web: Anti-stun gun fabric createdDefense Tech: The games NASA plays (thanks, Noah!)
ABC (Australia): 'Our sun is not the sun we thought it was'
The Onion: New religious fiction

April 5, 2006 |
Religious science on thin ice: When oceanographer Doron Nof suggested that Jesus could conceivably have walked on ice rather than water on the Sea of Galilee almost two millennia ago, the idea wasn't exactly met with Christian charity.

In fact, in today's Associated Press report on the research by Nof and his colleagues, the Florida State University professor says the hate e-mail has been coming in at the rate of one message every three minutes — accusing him of blasphemy or just plain stupidity.

This comes despite the fact that Nof's paper, published in the Journal of Paleolimnology, tries to steer clear of judging the veracity of Matthew 14.

Doron Nof, Oceanography Department.
Doron Nof, Oceanography Department.Bill Lax

"With the idea that much of our cultural heritage is based on human observations of nature, we sought a natural process that could perhaps explain the origin of the account that Jesus Christ walked on water," Nof and his colleagues, Columbia University's Ian McKeague and Hebrew University's Nathan Paidor, wrote.

Nof and Paldor took the same approach to an earlier, Old Testament miracle: the parting of the Red Sea. In that case, the researchers proposed that a once-in-a-millennium windstorm could have blown the waters aside and exposed a normally submerged ridge of land.

Other research in this genre includes the origins of the Star of Bethlehem and the possible link between Black Sea outflows and the story of Noah's Ark. In each case, the scientifically speculative explanation doesn't quite fit the biblical story.

Nof and his colleagues acknowledged that "our own Red Sea parting theory does not fit the biblical story in terms of the wind direction, and [the Black Sea flood] explanation does not fit in terms of its limited nonglobal extent."

"Similarly, our present explanation does not exactly address 'walking on water' but rather provides a plausible physical process that has some characteristics similar to those described in the New Testament," they wrote. "Despite these differences and mismatches, we believe that all of those explanations add to our understanding of our own and our ancestors' lives."

If you believe in literal miracles, the researchers' hypothesis doesn't have any impact on your understanding of the Bible at all. But even in that case, it's intriguing to follow the research team's analysis of climate patterns (which indicates that the area around the Sea of Galilee could have been going through a cold spell in Jesus' day) and lake salinity and temperature gradients (which Nof told me appears to make the Sea of Galilee a unique case).

The "walking on ice" hypothesis will rise or fall, depending on further research into the climate record from ancient times as well as closer study of lake phenomena. And that's the miracle of science.

Most of the reader feedback to Cosmic Log turned thumbs-down on the idea of putting scriptural claims through a scientific wringer. Here's a selection of the e-mail:

Heather: "It is time that scientists stop trying to contradict the statements and facts of the Bible and learn to accept it as the Way, the Truth and the Life.  If we were to accept the truths of the Bible and practice them, we would have a better nation. Last week they stated that there is no real effect in the power of prayer for those that are sick. They need to stop saying what they do not know, and stop trying to hinder people from putting their faith in the One true and living God. Our world is a sick world in need of healing — spiritual, physical, emotional, etc.  Our need for God and the principles of the Bible are dire."James: "In response to this type of article, that tries to explain the Bible scientifically, you have to remember the Bible is a book of faith, not scientific evidence. If you believe in Jesus, you have to believe he told the truth, or else none of the Bible would have any credence.(Even the Old Testament prophesied of Jesus, therefore it wouldn't affect just the New Testament alone.) The Bible said he walked on water, not ice. To suggest otherwise is to imply that either Jesus was not truthful, or his disciples (who wrote of the account) were not — in either case making the account a sham or charade. Also, the Bible says the scriptures were written by men of "Divine Inspiration" and were not subject to "Private Interpretation." Does this 'scientist' think God himself was wrong??"Anonymous: "I live in Israel. I find it hard to believe that there was ice on the Kinneret [present-day Sea of Galilee]. Its location below sea level tends to insulate it, and it is usually fairly warm. And the idea of fierce storms on it? Hard to conceptualize. It is not a large body of water like the Great Lakes in the U.S. But this is all beside the point. The Bible is not historically accurate. If you read it, you will find contradictions even within the same book. It has deep meaning for many, of course, but it is not meant to be a history book."Barbara: "OK, so, say there was a patch of ice, that would mean that in the rough sea Jesus managed to stand on a chunk of ice and then effectively 'surfed' to the boat where His disciples were. And then when He told Peter to come to Him, Peter jumped out of the boat and stepped on another piece of ice that happened to float by — and he also, never having the opportunity to stand on something like a surfboard in rough seas, stood on the ice and started to make his way in the opposite direction of the boat going toward Jesus, as Jesus still moved toward Peter and the boat.  Well, the ice chunk must have had a rudder to steer them in the direction they intended to go.  Perhaps a scientist has determined that in a rare moment of time there was ice that formed in this part of the world, but whoever leaped to the idea that Jesus must have walked on ice instead of water has more faith than the faithful who believe what the scripture tells us in the Bible!"  Steve: "So when Peter gets out of the boat, I guess he just wasn't too clever, and missed standing on the ice floe. Then Jesus just sails his ice floe over next to Peter and pulls him up onto his. 'Why did you not aim for the ice floe, oh ye of little faith?' says Jesus (or something like that)."T.L. Baldwin: "...It disturbs me that scientists must have a scientific explanation of the dramatic events of the Bible, as if this explanation should dilute that faith we place in God's hand at work. They do experiments to prove that what happened didn't 'just happen,' i.e., the destruction of the walls of Jericho they explain as an earthquake.  Hello? 'He causes the earth to tremble.'  Or the days of darkness, explained as just the normal cycle of an eclipse — who, not what, causes an eclipse? ..."G.C.T.: "...It says in the Bible that in the end days, there will be an increasing of knowledge. It also speaks of scoffers, and also of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is not a being — it is that which denies the existence of Christ, saying that he was merely a man and did not rise from the grave. This is your science. This is your elitist cultural and educational empire. You can have your atheism, gnosticism, your 'Da Vinci codes' and Judas Gospel. I will stay with Jesus Christ. ..."Roy: "I believe the Bible is certainly a more accurate description of things that happened than are a scientist's claim to know the weather 1,500 to 2,500 years ago. Our weather cannot be accurately forecast for a week from now."Jason: "Obviously Jesus did not walk on water.  For those with doubts, just go out and test this hypothesis.  You will see it's impossible to walk on water, because you will sink every time you try.  You will get soaking wet. Jesus was a good person with a good message for the time he lived in, and he helped revolutionize religion all over the world, but he was not the son of God, because God doesn't exist. Magical beings with superpowers look cool on the big screen, but in the real world they don't exist."Sue: "I think your poll 'What's your view on the accuracy of the Bible?' was misleading. Those of us who believe that every word of the Bible is true and that it was inspired by God also know that some of the Bible is presented as allegorical.  For example, Jesus' parables are clearly stated as parables. They are made-up stories that illustrate a truth.  That's what a parable is. Consequently, a true Bible believer would have difficulty with your No. 1 statement that everything in the Bible is literally true."

If that's your view, you have my special dispensation to select option 1 in our admittedly unscientific Live Vote. This would mean you hold that Jesus actually told the parables, even though those parables were meant as allegories rather than investigative reports about foolish virgins, dishonest stewards, etc.

Out-of-the-ordinary science on the Web:
National Geographic: 'Lazy slob' mole rats are key to colonyBBC: Gold nanoparticles to trap Soft ancient Egyptian pillow analyzedScience Blog: Chaos = Order (via Daily Grail)

April 4, 2006 |
Dark matter of a different kind: It may look like a black hole, or a huge knot of that "dark matter" all those scientists are talking about, but the dark amorphous clouds shown in the latest offering from the Hubble Space Telescope are actually the stuff that stars are made of. Or in this particular case, maybe not.

Nasa / Esa / Stsci

These concentrations of gas and dust are called "Bok globules" — a name that honors Bart Bok, the astronomer who proposed their existence back in the 1940s. He theorized that giant molecular clouds, spreading out hundreds of light-years, could be perturbed in such a way to create dense, dark pockets of material that accumulate still more gas and dust through gravitational attraction.

If the globules become dense enough, the gravitational collapse can spark the birth of stars at the core. But sometimes these cosmic wombs can be barren, and the globules dissipate before they can form stars. Hubble's scientists say this appears to be the case for the globules spotted here in the star-forming nebula NGC 281, a mere 9,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The globule shows up deep black against the pink hydrogen glow of the surrounding nebula. The scene also sparkles with bright young stars, members of the star cluster IC 1590. "The cluster's core, off the image toward the top, is a tight grouping of extremely hot, massive stars with an immense stellar wind," Hubble's scientists report in today's image advisory.

Radiation from the stars energizes the hydrogen gas in NGC 281, and it's that gas that creates the pinkish glow.

This image was assembled from data gathered by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys last October. For more gems from Hubble and other sources, check out our growing collection of space slide shows.

April 4, 2006 |
Blue Origin update: The passenger rocket venture created by founder Jeff Bezos is "right on track" to begin tests at its West Texas launch facility late this year, says a spokesman for Seattle-based Blue Origin.

Construction is proceeding in Texas, near Van Horn — and meanwhile, Blue Origin employees will be moving into a freshly renovated office/research/manufacturing complex in Kent, Wash., "during the next couple of weeks," spokesman Bruce Hicks told me today. The engine test stand set up at the Kent site will soon come into play as well, he said.

Hicks provided the update as a follow-up to last week's report about Blue Origin's construction activities. The venture is traditionally tight-lipped about its activities, and Hicks pretty much told me I shouldn't expect an invitation to the open house, either in Kent or in Van Horn.

He declined to say whether this year's scheduled tests would involve finished vehicles or just the engines. Would there be a later announcement about the start of tests in Texas? "Probably not," he said. Instead, you'll have to listen for the loud noises.

April 4, 2006 |
Zero-G is A-OK for KSC: After a round of test flights, Zero Gravity Corp. has reached a long-term deal with NASA to use Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility for weightlessness airplane flights, more popularly known as "Vomit Comet" rides.

The agreement breaks new ground for the commercialization of a 15,000-foot (4.5-kilometer) runway that won't be needed for space shuttle landings once the flight is retired in 2010 or so. For several months, NASA has been testing the waters with Zero Gravity as well as Virgin Atlantic (which used the faciliity for February's record-setting distance flight).

Founded by X Prize mastermind Peter Diamandis, Zero Gravity offers parabolic airplane rides that give fliers the feeling of Martian gravity, then lunar gravity, then no gravity at all — for a package price of $3,750 plus tax. Zero-G's setup lets the company fly from a variety of venues, but today Diamandis hinted at Kennedy Space Center's special appeal by noting in a news release that it's one of "the most internationally recognized and frequented venues for space travel and education."

NASA's news release says Zero-G can run up to 280 flights a year, and Zero-G's Web site indicates that a Kennedy Space Center flight is planned for June 24 — just about the time things will be ramping up for the next shuttle launch. However, NASA insists that Zero-G's activities will not interfere with any of the space agency's activities.      

Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Living on impulse
The Age: Robo-suit helps quadriplegic scale heights (via Slashdot)
Technology Review: The fountain of health
Wired: Bringing back the brontosaurus

April 3, 2006 |
Science in high-def: "Voyage to the Mystery Moon," the public-TV documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS, recounts the drama surrounding the Cassini spacecraft's seven-year voyage to Saturn and its most mysterious satellite, Titan.

But the most dramatic parts of the "Nova" show have to do with what the probe did after it reached the Saturnian system in 2004. For me, the most enjoyable part was seeing the wide-screen, high-definition pictures of Titan and other moons, as well as Saturn and its rings.

Even the pictures of humble Phoebe, Saturn's outermost moon, pop out of the screen. The show, like the Cassini mission itself, illustrates how much progress has been made in high-resolution imaging since Voyager passed by Saturn in the 1980s.

To see the difference, all you have to do is compare Voyager's best view of Phoebe with Cassini's. "It's like having had Lasik eye surgery," Carolyn Porco of the Colorado-based Space Science Institute, the leader of Cassini's imaging team, told me today. Cassini has a "far, far superior camera," on the equivalent of a "rock-steady" orbital tripod, she said.

Even more amazingly, Cassini's camera filter system has been able to cut through Titan's obscuring haze to spot surface details never seen before. Combined with the Huygens lander's pictures, the imagery has given scientists a much better idea just what mysteries they're dealing with on Titan.

Although Huygens is now cold and dead on Titan's surface, Cassini is far from finished with its high-def mission. "It'll get better as we go along," Porco promised.

Not that taking crowd-pleasing pictures is all that difficult when you're circling Saturn and its rings with a high-resolution camera. "Saturn is the most photogenic planet in the solar system," Porco said.

But during the second half of Cassini's four-year primary mission, Cassini's orbit will shift so that the camera will "look back at Saturn when it's more fully illuminated," she said. That should provide plenty of those full-frontal views for which Saturn is famous.

Still more crowd-pleasers will come when Cassini shifts into a highly inclined orbit, providing a looking-straight-down view of the rings "in all their splendor, like a bull's-eye," Porco said.

The high-resolution views are more than just pretty pictures, of course. For example, Cassini's imagery is documenting subtle changes in Saturn's rings that "might not look so spectacular," but nevertheless reveal the processes that shape the rings over time.

Then there's Enceladus: Over the past year, Cassini's high-resolution camera documented the far-reaching plumes that hinted at liquid water beneath the surface of the icy Saturnian moon. Porco can hardly wait for the next super-close flyby of Enceladus, which should bring Cassini within 220 miles of its surface in 2008.

Even though NASA hasn't yet given the official go-ahead for an extended mission beyond 2008, Porco and the rest of the imaging team are already planning an "Enceladus-rich" campaign as the next episode in Cassini's drama.

"Right now we're just talking about what the first two years of the extended mission will look like," she said.

Check out the imaging team's Web site and NASA's Saturn site for more high-def views from Cassini — and give a look to this story about the mysteries of Enceladus, Titan and more.

Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science News: Uncharted territory
Purdue shreds rivals in Rube Goldberg contest
NSF: Atom-scale device may be used in tiny computers
New Scientist: Bacteria use slime jets to get around

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