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Cosmic Log: April 22-30, 2006

The six-wheeled, 6.5-ton robotic combat vehicle called Crusher can negotiate ditches and 4-foot ledges to get from waypoint to waypoint.
The six-wheeled, 6.5-ton robotic combat vehicle called Crusher can negotiate ditches and 4-foot ledges to get from waypoint to waypoint.Cmu / CMU

April 28, 2006 |
Battlebots charge ahead: A six-wheeled, 6.5-ton robotic combat vehicle called Crusher received a Hollywood-style rollout — and put in a demolition-derby performance — at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh today.

The Pentagon has already spent $35 million on the project, aimed at developing heavy-duty vehicles for reconnaissance and combat operations. Crusher represents a significant technological advance on Carnegie Mellon's previous entrant in the heavy-duty robot class, nicknamed Spinner. It can even be equipped with guns, as Noah Shachtman reports on Defense Tech.

But don't expect fleets of robotic battle wagons to make soldiers obsolete anytime soon. "I just don't see that, and it's not at all what the program is working on," John Bares, director of the robotics engineering center, told me. "I see much more what's coming is that we're adding intelligence to vehicles to help our soldiers do a better job, so they're safer and more protected. I think 'Terminator' is a ways out."

At today's rollout ceremony, two Crusher prototypes made their entrance amid music, video and flashing lights — and one of them proceeded over to the center's obstacle course, rolling over wrecked cars and other obstacles, Bares said. Crusher also demonstrated a tight U-turn maneuver inside a garage.

Now the vehicles go on to two years of testing with the U.S. Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The heavy-duty vehicles should eventually take their place toward the top end of a spectrum that also includes PackBots, Dragon Runners, Gladiators and perhaps TerraMax behemoths, plus Predators, Global Hawks, ScanEagles, UCAVs and other warbots of the air.

The growing diversity of battlebots illustrates that there's no "one-robot-fits-all" situation, particularly for the military.

Carnegie Mellon's Sandstorm and H1ghlander robotic vehicles made a big splash last October during the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge. DARPA happens to be funding Crusher's development as well — and Crusher's navigation system, based on GPS-savvy databases as well as real-time readings from cameras and laser rangefinders, is reminiscent of the systems used on the Grand Challenge robo-cars. But Crusher is designed by different researchers for different purposes, Bares said.

The Grand Challenge vehicles are designed to travel quickly along a well-defined route, defined by GPS waypoints every 100 yards or less. In contrast, Crusher has to find its own way from point A to a point B that might be more than half a mile (1 kilometer) away, wandering over off-road terrain.

"We move much slower, we make many more blind-alley mistakes, so it's just a whole different problem. ... The robot's challenge is just to figure out how to get there," Bares said.

Bares said the Crusher project was more "researchy," aimed at pioneering technologies that might be applied six to 10 years down the road. He said Crusher might serve its first combat duty as a scout, traveling stealthily to spy on battlefront targets, wait for orders and take action as necessary.

That's where Crusher's hybrid diesel-electric system comes in handy: The vehicle can carry as much as 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) of payload and armor, at speeds of up to 26 mph (40 kilometers per hour) for a distance of 2 to 10 miles (3.2 to 16 kilometers) ... on silent battery power.

"Obviously, being able to creep up on somebody, or creep away from somebody, would be advantageous" for a robotic scout on the front lines, Bares observed.

The bottom line? Bares hopes that vehicles like Crusher will make combat somewhat less indiscriminate, doing for ground warfare what smart bombs have done for the air war. "They will increasingly save lives," he said, " on both sides."

April 28, 2006 |
Pyramid problems: Is the tale of the Bosnian pyramid too good to be true? Last week, The Associated Press reported evidence that a 2,120-foot-high hill in central Bosnia-Herzegovina might actually be a buried step pyramid. This week, Archaeology magazine questioned the scientific soundness of the operation and its leader, amateur archaeologist Semir Osmanagic. Archaeology quotes experts who say there's little more to the project than "sensationalism and grandstanding," and worry that it may be damaging legitimate artifacts from medieval, Roman and Illyrian times.

There's certainly a good deal of kookiness surrounding the story. Osmanagic, for example, links his pyramid theories to Atlantis and the Maya, while an online petition aimed at stopping Osmanagic's dig refers darkly to U.S.-orchestrated conspiracy theories. Stay tuned for further twists in the tale, and feel free to send in your comments after you read Archaeology magazine's report.

April 28, 2006 |
The surveillance frontier: Blending real-time video and visualization software produces a potent brew, as detailed in this week's report on the University of Southern California's Geospatial Decision Making program, or GeoDec. Along with the story we included a video demonstration, focused on the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. After publication, USC researcher Kelvin Chung wrote in with further details about the video — plus a link to still more cool video:

"The Washington, D.C., video was actually done in the AVE System (Augment Virtual Environments System) before the GeoDec name ever happened. This was done by the graphics group under Professor Ulrich Neumann, with the D.C. model from the vision group under Professor Ramakant Nevatia only. Your observation is correct. The visualization part of the GeoDec system / AVE System is used for video surveillance. See"

Chung also mentioned that the U.S. military is testing video surveillance software in Iraq:

"Sarnoff Corp. did have a similar system for video surveillance called Video Flashlight (sold to L3 Corp last year). This system was deployed to Iraq through Raytheon late last year. But it is still in the experimental stage."

April 28, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
BBC: Insect eye inspires future vision
Defense Tech: Can cruise missiles do recon?
RLV/Space Transport News: The view from 100 kilometersPopular Science: How to pilot a warp drive

April 27, 2006 |
Off-season ghost stories: October is usually prime time for things that go bump in the night, but last week's ghostbusting visit to a "haunted" whaling ship moored at Mystic Seaport scared up a gaggle of spooky stories from Cosmic Log correspondents.

In our admittedly unscientific Live Vote, half of the more than 9,500 respondents said they believed in ghosts. Another 30 percent said didn't believe in ghosts per se, but nevertheless thought there was something about paranormal phenomena worth looking into.

The visiting ghostbusters from Rhode Island said they picked up enough readings on the ship to warrant a full-fledged expedition in June. One instrument called a "Trifield meter" whined like a mosquito in the area where hauntings were reported. "When this makes a hit, there's only one thing it can possibly be — it would have to be a ghost," the group's founder, Andrew Laird, told The Hartford Courant.

Some skepticism is in order, of course: For a Halloween posting back in 2002, pseudoscience debunker Ray Hyman told me not to put too much stock in fancy-schmancy ghost-detecting instruments:

"If you take any set of equipment and you let it run, you’re going to get glitches here and there. This happens every day. And if you take your fancy instruments and put them in a haunted house, it will give you something. But that’s not science, that’s a fishing expedition. Quirks happen every day."

Even though these quirks may not be scientific, they sure are fun to hear about. Here's a selection of the responses from the mailbag, including a couple of reality checks:

Bernd: “I do not know if ghosts exist, have not seen any, though sometimes I believe to feel something is there. But I believe in paranormal activities. I still remember in the first half of the 1970s, in my in-law's kitchen in New York state, we sat together during my wife's birthday, and I had this strange strong urgency thinking about my grandmother. Actually, at exactly the same time, my grandmother was dying in Germany with my mother at her side.“Another strange thing happened to me, in 1969, I believe. One night on the way back from Rochester, N.Y., to Wellsville, N.Y., a two-hour drive, after midnight I killed a deer with my car. I was at about the highest spot in the county, someone told me later. Two weeks later, again on the way back from Rochester to Wellsville, after midnight my car caught fire at the identical place, plus or minus 100 feet, where I had killed that deer earlier. It might have been physics, because I had installed an ampere meter that burned off some wiring. After a half hour’s work in blowing snow, I was able to continue driving. And was that deer watching?”David: “… Someone once said something to the effect that it isn't places that are haunted, only people. On the same note, I believe it was Bertrand Russell who said that ‘some things have to be believed to be seen.’ The day apparitions make themselves apparent to me, I will caddy for the nearest Ghostbusters team.”Chris: “When an authority as conservative as the Roman Catholic Church gives an affirmative to the existence of ethereal bodies, their followers do not hesitate to pray to their ... saints. Call them saints, and you can pray to them, have holidays in their names and allow them to intercede for your needs. Call them ghosts, and you are ridiculed or faced with disbelievers. Yes, I believe.”D.D.: “Twaddle, pure twaddle, a violation of the laws of physics, conservation of energy. Please, I live in the 21st century, not the 12th.”Agnes: “I do believe in ghosts. … I have to. I have lived with one for 20 years. Some things can be coincidence but sometimes are not easy to explain away. I have had some very strange things happen that I have no logical explanation for.”Dallas: “I believe in ghosts because I saw one. I was 6 years old, and lived with my family in a house that was almost 100 years old. My cousins and I were playing hide-and-seek. I ran into the house and started up the stairs. The staircase had a turn built in it, and as I made the turn, I looked up at the top floor, and there she was. It was a woman with long hair, pretty, light beige long dress, and smiling at me. I thought it was just a person, till I noticed her feet were about a foot off the floor. That house is gone now, and I am 58 years old, but I will never forget the experience.”Barbra: "I saw a little girl float down the hall at an duplex that we lived in. I followed her, and she disappeared at the back door.  There was no way she could have gotten behind me. I did not keep a light on at night then, but I have ever since.  I know that they are out there, but I refuse to see them."Alex Cautoras, Crescent City, Calif.: “I'm 84 years old. In those 84 years I have had three experiences, that I have no explanation for. First, I was on a hunting trip, west of Redding, California. We were camped back in the woods. There were three of us sleeping in the tent. I awoke during the night and could see the shadows of the trees against the tent, as if it was a full moon. I went back to sleep, and when I woke up, there was someone standing in the entrance to the tent. At first I thought it was my brother, so I sat up. I looked next to me, and my brother was still sleeping. I picked up my flashlight, and at that time the person in the opening turned around, and smiled at me, and I got the feeling that everything was all right."It was a young lady, I would say in her late teens. She had a space between her two upper front teeth, and was a brunette. It really shook me up, and I shined the flashlight on her, and she just seemed to float through the side of the tent."Well, I don't believe in this stuff, so I said to myself, 'I was just dreaming.' But I knew I was awake through the whole thing. At breakfast that morning, I debated whether I should tell the gang about it. Well, I did, and they all agreed I was dreaming — although I knew I wasn't."Hunting that day, we ended up at a lookout on top of this mountain. There was a lady tending it, and we asked permission to go up there, She said OK. While we were up there, I pointed out this mountain where we had camped, and asked her what its name was. She gave me the name, and I said it sounded familiar. She said there was a lot of news about it, because of a plane that went down over there last winter with a father and daughter. They both survived the crash. The father tried to walk out in the snow, but never made it. The daughter stayed in the plane, left a journal, and after several days died."Well, I never followed it up, but that face and those teeth are etched in my mind, and if I saw a picture of the girl, and it was what I saw — what a change of thinking I would have! I also have had two experiences that involved my first wife of 40 years."Ann Barker, Hershey, Pa.: “In a recent conversation about ghosts, one friend said: ‘Well, I don't believe! There is no such thing!’ l calmly looked at her and said: 'It really doesn't matter if you do or don't believe ... they exist!'"I lived with a cantankerous ghost for 30 years. She was a pain in the neck but loved my youngest child. We endured loud, crashing noises, various objects being moved, the TV being turned on, the radio (big favorite!) playing at all hours of the day and night. No, an alarm had not been set. She often terrorized my two daughters in the middle of the night. It was sporadic but consistent. I was generally her focus. My oldest child did not believe until he came home (after an ambulance run, and yes, he was sober!) and there she was, in all her apparition glory, standing in the middle of his closet! It was 2 a.m. and he woke me and said: 'OK, Mom, I'm now a believer!'"She never appeared to my husband or to me, but she did appear to all of my children. After bringing in a medium, we were told she was a whaler's wife. He was lost at sea and her only son, a teenager, died of a disease common to their day. This explained her love of my son, Robert. She hated any change to the house and reacted strongly, making her presence known!"You will probably receive many letters like this one, and I hope you enjoy reading all of them. I have to say this, in closing, people love to hear about ghosts. They may never admit they 'believe,' but they still want to hear all about it. ..."

April 27, 2006 |
‘Idol’ scorecard: The DialIdol busy-signal analyzer made a reputable showing this week in the "American Idol" sweepstakes, correctly predicting that singers Kellie Pickler and Paris Bennett would rate in the bottom two. The prediction wasn't perfect: DialIdol showed Paris at the very bottom, but it was Kellie who was eliminated. Also, DialIdol's analysis had Taylor Hicks as the top vote-getter, while "Idol" producers said that he rated no higher than third. But that's what margins of sampling error are all about. If you're wondering why you're reading about reality-TV standings here, follow this link and work your way through the online thread.

April 27, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
The Guardian: Pollutants are changing the sex of clams
Wired: Your thoughts are your password
National Geographic: 'Neogeography' blends blogs with mapsSt. Louis Post-Dispatch: Temple of the Fox found in Peru

April 26, 2006 |
A masked ball for galaxies: The latest picture from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope looks more like a jeweled party mask than a cosmic smash-up. But the feathery swirls and the strings of beads have scientific significance as well as artistic appeal.

What the color-coded, infrared image actually shows is a fender-bender of galactic proportions. Two galaxies in the constellation Canis Major, designated NGC 2207 and IC 2163, are clashing together 140 million light-years away from Earth. The greenish "eyes" are the galactic cores, and the reddish "feathers" of the mask are the galaxy's star-filled spiral arms.

As the galaxies twirl around each other, like partners at a masked ball, the gravitational pressures squeeze gas and dust into new clusters of stars — the clumpy "beads on a string" seen within the spiral arms. Spitzer's infrared imager is well-suited to probe within the surrounding dust to detect the beads within. In visible-light pictures, such as a 1999 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, the beads are completely hidden from view.

"This is the most elaborate case of beading we've seen in galaxies," Vassar College astronomer Debra Elmegreen, the lead author of a paper on the observations, is quoted as saying in today's image advisory. "They are evenly spaced and sized along the arms of both galaxies."

There's one particularly bright bead on the left side of the mask — so bright it accounts for 5 percent of the total infrared emissions coming from both galaxies, the scientists say. Elmegreen's team thinks the stars in this dense, dusty cluster might have merged to become a black hole.

"To form a black hole that's outside the disk of the galaxy is a real surprise, if in fact that's what it is," said one of the research team's co-authors, Kartik Sheth of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.

Sheth told me that astronomers can figure out the density of the material involved in this galactic gravitational gavotte based on the spacing of the beadlike clusters in Spitzer's image.

"As the gas particles collide with each other, there's some characteristic scale on which material tends to coagulate. ... It's not chaotic at all," he said. "You can imagine the spacing of the beads as some kind of wave going through the material."

By comparing the Spitzer observations with computerized models of galaxies, astronomers can get a better sense of the dynamics for the galactic interaction, Sheth said. "We also want to try to figure out what these galaxies will eventually evolve into," he told me.

He expects the "dance" to last about 500 million years. "They will go past each other a few times, and when they come together they will probably form an elliptical galaxy," he predicted.

The research appears in the May 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. In addition to Sheth and Debra Elmegreen, the authors include Kartik Sheth of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Bruce Elmegreene of IBM Watson Research Center, Michele Kaufman of Ohio State University, Curt Struck of Iowa State University, Magnus Thomasson of Sweden's Onsala Space Observatory and Elias Brinks of the University of Hertfordshire.

Check out the Spitzer Web site and our own Spitzer slide show for more glittering pictures from the space telescope — and while you're at it, don't miss our freshly published "Month in Space" slide show. The galactic mask is a shoo-in for the next roundup.

April 26, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
Nature: Making clouds in the lab
The Register: Blackstar ... the conspiracy that never was?Los Alamos: Space-based supercomputer in design
Popular Science: John Koza has built an invention machine

April 25, 2006 |
Broken-hearted comet: An incoming comet is going to pieces right in front of our eyes — or at least in front of the giant eye of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

In today's advisory, the ESO says that Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 has crumbled into close to 40 fragments, and even more fragmentation is likely by the time the iceballs stream past Earth in the May 11-14 time frame.

Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (a.k.a. SW-3) will make the closest cometary encounter in more than 20 years — but the nearest approach will still be about 6 million miles (10 million kilometers) away, thus posing zero threat to Earth. I'll have more on that angle later.

Comet SW-3 has been in decline for more than a decade: It circles the sun in an elongated, 5.4-year-long orbit that takes it from around Jupiter's orbit to inside Earth's orbit. During a 1995 pass-by, the ESO's observers saw a dramatic brightening in the comet and later discovered that it had broken into three pieces, known as Fragments A, B and C. Two more fragments were spotted later.

The next time around, in 2001, only Fragments B, C and E could be seen. Last month, Comet SW-3 came into view once more. At first, astronomers spotted seven cometary bits — but in less than two months, they have witnessed split after split. Some of the fragments are "most probably very small, boulder-sized objects with irregular and short-lived activity," the ESO said.

Scientists surmise that the repeated splits are caused by solar heating that opens up cracks in SW-3's icy nucleus. Those cracks expose fresh material to the sun, releasing more gas and dust into space. Eventually, the cracks widen so much that the pieces break away.

"Sometimes, when the fragments break off, they flare up temporarily, but it usually doesn't last very long," said Don Yeomans, the head of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Some skywatchers are hoping that SW-3 will be visible to the naked eye during the May 11-14 close approach, but Yeomans told me the comet crumblings aren't likely to get that bright.

"The C fragment is predicted to get down to [magnitude] 6ish, which is technically naked eye — but that's for a stellar object, not a diffuse object like a comet," he said. "The average backyard astronomer is not going to see this with the naked eye."

However, under peak conditions, fragments of the comet are likely to be visible through a small telescope or binoculars — and who knows? You might even see one of those flare-ups, which would be an astronomical treat.

At least one observer sees a threat rather than a treat, however: On the Web site of the Exopolitics Institute, Eric Julien warns that May 25 will be a "Day of Destiny," when a truck-sized space object ("most probably from the comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann 3") will strike Earth, creating a cataclysm.

Julien's warning is interlaced with references to dreams, crop circles, ESP and extraterrestrials — so hardly anybody is taking it seriously. Yeomans brushes it off on two counts: First of all, the closest significant fragments will still be about 25 times farther away than the moon. What's more, any truck-sized space object would burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. "Anything below 30 meters [100 feet in diameter] wouldn't cause any damage," Yeomans told me.

For further commentary on the Day of Destiny, check out the Bad Astronomy Web site as well as the LiveScience blog. Meanwhile, for more on the real-world comet and how to track it, check out this viewing guide.

April 25, 2006 |
More wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Scientific American: The first few microseconds
New Scientist: Gibberish accepted as scientific paperN.Y. Times (reg. req.): Analyze these
The Onion: Speaking out about the hydrogen economy

April 24, 2006 |
Hubble's sweet sixteen: The team behind the Hubble Space Telescope has served up a blazing birthday candle to mark the 16th anniversary of the orbiting observatory's launch: a high-resolution mosaic of the starburst galaxy Messier 82, also known as the "Cigar Galaxy."

The bright blue disk, located 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, is spawning stars at a pace 10 times faster than the rate for our own Milky Way galaxy. All those young stars generate a "superwind" of hot gas that sparks still more starbirth — and creates an exhaust of glowing hydrogen that shows up as a reddish blaze in this wide-angle portrait.

This kind of blaze can't last forever: As detailed in today's 16th-birthday image advisory, the orgy of starburst will eventually use up the raw material required to create stars, probably in a few tens of millions of years. Then the galaxy will settle down — just like an overactive teenager moving into a more sedate adulthood.

So what about Hubble? The $2 billion telescope was launched exactly 16 years ago today aboard the shuttle Discovery. In human years, that would make Hubble an adolescent, but in telescope years, it's considered past its prime.

Hubble was originally designed for an operating life of 15 years. Although its lifetime has been extended to 2010, mission managers don't expect the telescope's gyroscope guidance system and batteries to last that long without one more servicing visit by a shuttle crew.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said he'll discuss the shape of such a mission after the shuttle program is fully back on track, and that means Hubble's future is in limbo for at least a few more months. If NASA doesn't put together another shuttle servicing mission, it will have to figure out a way to deorbit Hubble safely — just as another "great observatory," the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, was deorbited six years ago.

The next generation is already coming up: The Chandra X-Ray Observatory took a look at the Cigar Galaxy in 2000, and Hubble's infrared-seeing sister, the Spitzer Space Telescope, recently provided its own perspective on the "exploding Cigar." Another infrared-optimized observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is being prepared for launch as Hubble's official heir in 2013.

To celebrate Hubble's bittersweet 16th birthday, check out all the goodies at the Space Telescope Science Institute's portal Web site as well as the videos and extras at Hubble's European home page. We have our own slide show of Hubble highlights, of course, and as a birthday present to yourself, you might want to sign up for Hubble alerts via the "Inbox Astronomy" service.

April 24, 2006 |
Turn to the dark side: This week is also being celebrated as National Dark Sky Week — a time for turning down the outdoor lights and letting the night sky's glories shine through. In most urban areas, "light pollution" has blotted out all but the brightest stars, and dark-sky advocates are trying to use advances in lighting technology to cut down on the glare. To find the best places for stargazing, try out the DarkSky online mapping tool, or check with your local astronomy club.

April 24, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the World Wide Web:
Science News: To leap, or not to leap
Technology Review: Better than hybrids Scientists debunk astrology
Discover Magazine: Flu spread follows finances

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