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Cosmic Log: We've moved

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Andromeda Galaxy sparkles in new infrared view. Plus: New spaceship ahead? ... Fire your sasers ... Egyptologists strike gold.

June 6, 2006 |
We've moved: Our extreme Web makeover is complete, and one of the side effects of the operation is that Cosmic Log's address has changed to — or, more succinctly,

For this incarnation of the blog, 6-6-6 really is a kind of doomsday. There'll be no more items posted to this address. But over at the new address, the party is just getting started.

In addition to a glitzier graphic look, you'll find an improved system for user comments and a much better system for RSS syndication. If you're not familiar with RSS, check out this mini-guide, then head on over to the new address and add the Cosmic Log feed to your online routine.

For the time being, we'll continue to send e-mail alerts for new postings — but as we improve and debug the syndication offerings, we should be able to shift to a more automated alert system.

Please let us know what you think of the new, improved blog — for example, by posting a comment to the "Extreme Makeover" item. You can also send your feedback to the same old e-mail address.

June 5, 2006 |
The galaxy next door: The Andromeda Galaxy — the nearest spiral to our own — is all dressed up in reddish, dusty swirls in a new infrared portrait from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The picture, which has plenty of scientific as well as aesthetic value, is just one of the visual delights coming out of this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Infrared light serves as a thermal signature for the dust being heated up by the galaxy's young stars — a signature that doesn't come through nearly so well in visible light. As detailed in today's image advisory from Spitzer's science team, the infrared readings were used to produce new estimates of the number of stars in the galaxy.

The readings confirm that Andromeda, 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation of the same name, puts our own Milky Way galaxy to shame in the star department: Andromeda has roughly 1 trillion stars, compared with the Milky Way's 400 billion stars.

"This is the first time the stellar population of Andromeda has been determined using the galaxy's infrared brightness," Pauline Barmby of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in today's advisory. "It's reassuring to know our numbers are in agreement with previous estimates of the mass of the stars based on the stars' motion."

Spitzer's view is actually built up from about 3,000 individual picture frames, stitched together in a mosaic that also takes in a companion galaxy above Andromeda's disk (NGC 205) and another below (M32). In the color-coded image, blue represents the infrared light from older stars, and red represents the glow from dust made up of molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. In space, the substance is often associated with dense clouds of new stars; on Earth, PAHs are associated with barbecue pits and car exhaust.

George Helou, deputy director of the Spitzer Space Science Center at the California Institute of technology, marveled at the detailed tracings of star-forming material. "The challenge is to understand what shapes the distribution of this gas and dust, and what modulates the star formation at different locations," he said.

The data behind the image were gathered in January and August 2005, and the results were released today at the American Astronomical Society's spring meeting in Calgary, Alberta. The twice-yearly AAS gathering is a chance for astronomers from around the world to share their results — some of which have been held back for the occasion, and some of which may not be quite ready for prime time (or, more accurately, publication in a peer-reviewed journal).

In addition to the heavyweight studies on extrasolar planets and supernovae, you can always find some eye-pleasers among the presentations (always with a serious scientific point, of course). Here are a couple of links to other stunning images on the Web:

  • Massive galaxy clusters were used as "cosmic telescopes" to spot gravitationally lensed images of infant galaxies born in the first billion years after the beginning of the universe.
  • The Gemini South Telescope captured two stunning pictures of nebulae created by stars blowing themselves apart at the end of their lives.
  • Meanwhile, the Gemini North Telescope looked deep into the heart of the Andromeda galaxy to map a crowded star field as well as the dusty nucleus.

Stay tuned for more from the AAS meeting in the next day or two. And if you're curious about how the Spitzer Space Telescope and infrared astronomy fit into the grander scheme of things, check out our backgrounders on the Spitzer mission and the electromagnetic spectrum.

June 5, 2006 |
Science News: Quantum-dot leap
Defense Tech: DARPA's secret space slingshot?
Aviation Week: Russian plans robotic lunar mission
CollectSpace: Touch the future of space exploration
UCS: 'Science Idol' to lampoon science policy (via Slashdot)

June 2, 2006 |
New spaceship in the works? Virginia-based Space Adventures, the only travel company to send tourists to the international space station, announced this week that it is acquiring a spaceship-building company called Space Launch Corp. — and it looks as if the move represents a small step toward yet another giant leap into the commercial spaceflight business.

That's the impression you'd get from talking to Eric Anderson, Space Adventure's chief executive officer. In a conversation on Thursday, Anderson was characteristically mum about how exactly Space Launch will figure in his company's business strategy. "When the time is right, we'll announce what the new business plan for Space Launch is going to be," he told me.

But he noted with pride that the 7-year-old California-based company has already done $25 million worth of work for the U.S. military on projects such as the RASCAL orbital launch system. That low-cost system would have been somewhat similar to Orbital System's Pegasus rocket, with a reusable aircraft carrying an expendable rocket up to high altitude for air launch into orbit.

Space Launch fleshed out a design for the system, but the Pentagon decided not to go on to the next phase. Now Space Adventures will be benefiting from that know-how instead.

"They are a strategic asset," Anderson said, "in that we feel much of the technology that they developed is both useful and applicable to commercial human spaceflight projects."

Anderson declined to discuss the terms of the transaction, other than to say that Space Launch will be a wholly owned subsidiary of privately held Space Adventures, with Jacob Lopata staying on as chief executive officer. In a news release, Lopata said he was looking forward to joining Space Adventures "to develop the technologies and business structures required to open the space frontier to all."

Anderson also declined to say whether Space Launch would be developing a suborbital or orbital craft for Space Adventures' use, but he acknowledged that "we clearly have plans to develop space tourism capabilities."

Space Adventures is already working with other companies to have a suborbital spaceship built in Russia, known as the Explorer, and to have spaceports built in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Just last week, a Russian news report indicated that the Explorer might not get off the ground until 2009 — somewhat later than initially expected.

Anderson pooh-poohed that report. "Don't believe everything read in Russia," he told me. "I kind of chuckled when I saw that."

He also said the Explorer project and the Space Launch acquisition "have nothing to do with each other." Anderson noted that, because of U.S. export requirements, it might make sense to have access to foreign-built rocket ships as well as domestic ones.

But he emphasized that Space Adventures itself would stay focused on the business of travel arrangements rather than spaceship development. "There are groupings of companies that may have related ownership and even related names, but there is a wall between their businesses," he explained.

That stance may be important as the suborbital spaceflight market develops, because Space Adventures has forged deals with a variety of other spaceship builders to broker seats on future flights. Hypothetically, it might be awkward if Spaceship Company X came to see Space Adventures as a rival as well as a customer.

In other Space Adventures news:

  • Anderson acknowledged that although the financing is in place for spaceport development in the United Arab Emirates, the Spaceport Singapore project is still not fully funded. However, he said, "the project is going very well, and I think it will be funded in a number of months."
  • The company announced today that Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto, a client who is due to fly to the international space station in September, successfully completed a round of Black Sea survival training.

June 2, 2006 |
Fire your sasers: They may have started out as a plot device for the villain in a James Bond movie, but today, lasers are a totally old-hat technology. They've made their way into humdrum light pointers, supermarket scanners and DVD players. Sasers, on the other hand, are just coming onto the high-tech scene. So what's a saser?

Sasers — that is, "sound amplification by stimulated emission of radiation" — are the acoustic analogs of lasers, according to today's Physics News Update from the American Institute of Physics. Just as lasers build up a potent burst of light energy through coherent amplification, sasers amplify ultrasound waves by reflecting the sound back and forth between acoustic mirriors.

In today's issue of Physical Review Letters, a British-Ukrainian team led by the University of Nottingham's Anthony Kent describes a new method for amplifying the ultrasound by using stacks of thin layers of semiconductors as the mirrors. Physics News Update says the researchers claim their saser is the first to reach the terahertz frequency range while using a modest electrical power input.

"Terahertz coherent sound is itself a relatively new field of research," the Update reports. "Essentially ultrasound with wavelengths measured in nanometers, THz acoustical devices might be used in modulating light waves in optoelectronic devices."

This schematic illustrates how a saser device might work, and in this archived report, Hokkaido University's Oliver Wright discusses how terahertz ultrasound could be used to probe nanoscale structures.

Although these devices are more likely to turn up in next-generation circuitry rather than the next James Bond spy sequel, the concept has a rich science-fiction legacy. "Sasers" were used as hand-held weapons or sonic amplifiers in David Brin's Uplift saga, and this report on fringe science traces the fictional antecedents of the saser back to the "weirding devices" in Frank Herbert's "Dune" novels.

Are there other science-fact or science-fiction angles to the saser story? Feel free to leave a comment or write me an e-mail note.

June 2, 2006 |
National Geographic: 'Space Race: The Untold Story''Nova' on PBS: 'Kaboom!'AMSAT: When will SuitSat burn up? Ancient calendar unearthed in Peru

June 1, 2006 |
Egyptologists strike gold: Lots of little mysteries keep adding to the big mystery surrounding the ancient Egyptian chamber known as KV-63. Was the chamber — where seven coffins and 28 jars were tucked away more than 3,000 years ago — meant to be a royal tomb, a hiding place, a supply room for used mummification materials, or all of the above?

The latest little mystery has to do with a 17-inch-long (42-centimeter-long) coffin. The wooden mini-coffin, which is covered with pink-tinged gold, is about the right size for an infant. But it's empty, with no inscription on it. So what purpose was it meant to serve?

golden coffin left side top 1

"It's probably not for an infant, but more likely it might be for a funerary figurine. Unfortunately there was nothing in it, so we can only make guesses as to what it might be," the leader of the KV-63 dig, Otto Schaden of the University of Memphis, told me via telephone from Egypt today.

The mini-coffin was found just last week, stuffed inside a somewhat bigger coffin along with a bunch of ancient pillows, and has become the focus of the publicity buildup for Sunday's Discovery Channel documentary about Schaden's work, titled "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed."

The TV show traces the saga of KV-63 up to virtually the present day, but the saga hasn't quite come to its climax. After months of work, Schaden and his team are just now getting to the most intriguing of the chamber's seven coffins: a full-size, sealed coffin at the very back of the room, plus another infant-sized coffin lying nearby.

"We're not sure what we'll find in the other one," Schaden said. "It could be possibly a child, but it could also be a funerary figure, or it could be empty."

That mini-coffin may be taken out of the chamber next week for further study. Schaden said the team plans to X-ray both the infant's coffin and the larger sealed coffin, to get a sense of the contents before taking on the delicate job of opening the lids. Also, 16 of the 28 jars found in the chamber have yet to be opened.

Schaden by no means expects to find treasures on a par with those discovered about 45 feet (15 meters) away in Tutankhamen's tomb. But he does hope to find connections to the age of Tutankhamun and his father, the heretic pharaoh Akhnaten. The style of the carvings and some of the inscriptions found at the KV-63 site already point to the 18th Dynasty, when Akhnaten and Tut ruled.

"We know where the final acts were performed in this tomb, or roughly when, but we'd like to know specifically," he said. "We'd like to know if we can nail it down to a specific reign and maybe even a date. We still have a lot of things to examine in which such information could be sitting there waiting for us."

The show suggests that the chamber might have served as a repository or even a dumping ground during the tumultuous times of the 18th Dynasty. The trouble began when monotheistic-minded Akhnaten removed references to old gods to make room for his deity, Aten.

"What you had was Akhnaten imposing a rather radically new idea on Egypt, and for a civilization that relied so heavily on past traditions, to suddenly have a pharaoh come by and say the god you've been worshipping for hundreds of years has to go — this must have really scared a lot of people," Schaden said.

After Akhnaten left the scene, Tutankhamun and his military advisers led Egypt back to the old gods and the old ways. "I'm sure that in the process, there were a lot of individuals who, at one time or another, on one side of the situation or the other, may have gotten into deep trouble," Schaden said.

Were the coffins and the jars in KV-63 stashed away by ancient notables who found themselves in deep trouble? Schaden sees this as a potential scenario, but he's not ready to commit himself yet.

"My theory is, don't guess," he told me. "Wait until you know, or are reasonably sure. ... We still have most of the questions unanswered."

June 1, 2006 |
Address change: This old log is getting a new look and a new address, and you can see the results starting today by clicking over to Don't worry: Over the next few days, we'll streamline the process so that you can use the shorter and sweeter URLs, such as or, or just click from the Tech/Science section. I'll be replicating items here as well as at the new place for a little while. But if you're linking directly to ... you're definitely going to want to change that link.

June 1, 2006 |
Science @ NASA: Droids on the space Is the search for aliens a religion?
Popular Science: Is it raining aliens?
Wired: The scientific community's free radical

May 31, 2006 |
Footprints on Mars! Do Martians wear size-11 shoes? Or do we have evidence that the Mars rover missions are merely a hoax — an "X-Files" conspiracy as far-reaching as the fake trip to Mars portrayed in the movie "Capricorn One"?

One of the pictures in our latest "Month in Space" roundup led some readers to ask those kinds of questions. Toward the left edge of the 10th image in the set, you can make out a waffle-shoe kind of pattern in the sands of Meridiani Planum.

"I would like to know if anyone at MSNBC can explain why there is a footprint in the photo called 'Ripples on the Road' on the slide show?" one reader asked. "The caption states that the picture is from NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars. Last I checked, humans haven't been to Mars yet."

Some folks even thought that we were in on the conspiracy:

K.W.: "Maybe it's just me, but I think you guys are full of [expletive]. I can distinctly make out on the left-hand side of this photo a shoeprint ... a size 11 maybe. This photo was staged, as the Mars Rover runs on tracks and does not walk (in shoes, for that matter). You see, the mark does not indicate a continuous run as a wheeled or tracked vehicle would leave behind. Who do you think you're foolin' with this [expletive]?"

A closer look at the picture, such as the shot we've included here or the larger-resolution version from NASA, shows more clearly that the "footprint" is indeed the track of a rover wheel going over the rugged Martian terrain. The track doesn't appear continuous because it goes over bedrock, and because the rover's turns, stops and starts spoil the smooth impressions of the wheel tracks. The shades of Martian soil can also vary between light and dark — a phenomenon that geologists are still puzzling over.

You can see the footprint effect more clearly in this "stretched-color" photo of Opportunity's trail toward Victoria Crater. Crank the view up to full resolution for an even sharper view.

The footprints thus take their place among the alien-looking but not really alien features that have shown up in pictures sent back from the rovers, including bunny ears, rover rotini and blueberries.

Whenever we publish a new "Month in Space" slide show, we get plenty of messages from folks asking how they can save copies of the images. This e-mail from Peru is typical:

"My name is Jorge Anchante, I'm writing from Peru. I've seen your NBC picture stories and I like a lot the picture about Cleveland Volcano, taken from space, and I'd wish you send me this photo, it's excellent."

It may be a little inconvenient for us to send photos to the many thousands of people who click through the slide shows each month, but this list of links to source imagery may be helpful:

The image titled "Dark Launch" can be found by going to the Corbis Web site and searching for "CALIPSO."

May 31, 2006 |
Bigelow’s big move: In the past, Bigelow Aerospace has been relatively hush-hush about its plans to test an inflatable space module that could someday be used as an orbital hotel. But in "Dispatches From the Final Frontier," Michael Belfiore provides lots of new details about Bigelow's plans for next month's test launch and beyond. And Bigelow's reworked Web site lays out the specifics for flying mementos in zero-G for less than $300, starting with its second test flight. The company even promises to post videos or photos that just might show your item floating inside the module — proving that you got what you paid for.

May 31, 2006 |
Technology Review: Outward Bound for robots
The Guardian: Top scientist gives up on creationists
Christian Science Monitor: Evolution seen in a yogurt cup
BBC: 'The Simpsons' as philosophy

May 30, 2006 |
Setback for seismic sleuths: Can we ever predict earthquakes? Seismic researchers are spending millions of dollars to get just a few seconds of advance warning of a major earthquake, and the catastrophic shock that hit Java over the weekend illustrates how much could be at stake.

With that background, Russia's launch of the Compass 2 satellite on Saturday promised to open up an avenue of research toward honest-to-goodness earthquake prediction, even though plenty of experts suspect it may be a dead end. The satellite was supposed to observe changes in Earth's magnetic field and determine whether those changes could serve as precursors of seismic events.

Researchers from NASA as well as Russia and China are debating whether such a seismo-magnetic connection exists. Unfortunately, it doesn't look as if Compass 2 will provide any evidence to settle the debate one way or the other. Russian mission controllers say they haven't been able to switch on the satellite's scientific equipment, and there are mounting reports that the loss is irretrievable.

In a classic example of swords being beaten into plowshares for space science, Compass 2 was launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, atop an intercontinental ballistic missile that was designed for delivering nuclear weapons.

By all accounts, the satellite was put into its proper orbit and was in contact with ground controllers — but something went wrong with the spacecraft's orientation or onboard equipment, preventing the start of science operations. Russia's Interfax news service as well as Itar-Tass passed along reports of the malfunction. The newspaper Kommersant quoted experts as saying Compass 2 would probably never be used for seismic studies (Russian-language report).

On the Hearsat mailing list, a gathering place for satellite radio trackers, veteran listener Bob Christy says he's had indications that Compass 2's science team "considers the situation irretrievable, as far as the science goes, and possibly the satellite itself." The satellite's predecessor, Compass 1, suffered a similar fate back in 2001.

Compass 2 is by no means the first submarine-launched space shot to go wrong. NBC News space analyst James Oberg minced no words in his e-mailed comments:

"This whole project, sub missile and all, is a desperate gambit by a bankrupt missile factory that lost all Russian military contracts a decade ago and has been hemorrhaging its aging workforce ever since — it's called the Makeyev Bureau. They sold Lou Friedman his 'cut-rate' Cosmos 1 launch, and destroyed it — they sold launches to one of my favorite innovative space transportation gimmicks, ESA's 'Demonstrator' inflatable entry vehicle, and lost mission after mission from booster and payload processing errors. These guys are terminal losers."

Even if Compass 2 is lost, research into the seismo-magnetic connection will continue, based on data already gathered by France's Demeter satellite as well as readings that might be made by a future Chinese satellite.

May 30, 2006 |
Invisibility unmasked: Last week's report on the quest for invisibility sparked some pretty intriguing comments, including numerous claims that the military has already developed real-life invisibility cloaks. It sounds a little too much like "The X-Files" to me — but hey, sometimes the truth really is out there. A couple of readers also noted additional limitations on invisibility technology. Read on for a selection of the e-mail feedback:

David Reid, Denver: "Wouldn't a person inside an invisibility cloak be 'blind'? If light is bent around their eyes (so their eyes are invisible along with their body) then they wouldn't be able to see. At least that's my theory on it."John Boyle (no relation): "I think you left out one more catch: No part of an invisible object, including the eyes, absorbs light.  So if you're covered by an invisibility sheath of some sort, you'll be just as blind as everyone else.  Although that only applies to the wavelength you block, so you could use infrared goggles or something."

You're both right on target. A total invisibility shield might be good for hiding objects you don't want found, but not so good for hiding observers who want to look out of the cloak. It's important to remember that, realistically, the shield would be invisible only to specific wavelengths. Therefore, you could have a ship or underwater monitoring station that was "cloaked" from radar soundings but still able to see out (and be seen) in other wavelengths.

Robert Cutshaw: "Several weeks ago, contained an article regarding a company, Advanced American Enterprise, that claims it has invented a cloaking device. I don't know if you have already seen this article and dismissed it, but thought that you might find it interesting.  This is a link to another article regarding the same device and other technologies developed for military use. ... While digital technology makes it very easy to create fake photographic evidence, Advanced American Enterprise also claims it has a video available that shows the device in action. So far I have been unable to locate a copy of that video on the Internet.  So at this point the jury is still out on this particular device."David B. Buffalo: "Thirty years ago (yep, when I was at Georgia Tech), I knew two Air Force ROTC students who had been doing research in what was then the Electrical Engineering Department. One claimed, and I had no reason to doubt this guy (because he was no B.S. artist and he was incredibly intelligent), that the Department of Defense had developed four different refractive/reflective cloaking devices late in 1974. If someone in academia like Mr. Pendry [one of the researchers behind the latest studies] is just now discussing such ideas, I truly believe it is a smoke screen or he is just lost in the laboratory working on projects no one cares about."I have to believe that American and Russian scientists (who quite frankly have had superior optical research projects on the books when compared to the U.S.) have long since developed cloaking technologies and are probably deploying them now. The stealth bomber technology of the last decade was pretty much finished in the middle 1970s, and one Australian engineering outfit had already figured out how to defeat it within a couple of years of our deployment. One of the things that worries engineers currently with regard to 'Star Wars' anti-missile technology is that Chinese or Russian scientists have already begun testing radar and other kinds of cloaking that would make it impossible to knock down missiles or satellites, in ways similar to how thermal decoys are used to fool heat-seeking missile technology in anti-aircraft defenses."If we are not much farther along with cloaking technology than what Mr. Pendry is describing, then I am truly worried about American defense capabilities. Given the last few presidential administrations’ penchants for giving away technological advantages to our enemies, your most recent article really gives me the chills. I don’t listen to Art Bell either. I just know that in the past, we have had technological breakthroughs that did not emerge into the public domain for decades. If what Mr. Pendry is describing is the best the West has, we are in trouble deep."

May 30, 2006 |
Extreme makeover: Don't be surprised if Cosmic Log takes on a new look over the next few days — and a new Web address as well. The ID number for this old place may change, but even if you get lost, you can always find your way back to the log by typing in

May 30, 2006 |
Science News: A gripping tale of nanotubes
N.Y. Times: Katrina was like four storms in one
National Geographic: To hell and back in PeruNature: Mini-fridge exploits molecular motion

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