A tough microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand blasts of radiation, enduring several thousand times the lethal dose for humans. How did these little bugs develop this resistance? A team of Russian scientists has concluded that these extraordinary organisms are actually Martian microbes, here on Earth by way of meteorites. In tests on common bacteria E. coli, the scientists determined that evolution of radiation-resistance would take longer than 3.8 billion years, the time that life has been on Earth. In contrast, the bugs could develop this characteristic on the Red Planet in only a few hundred thousand years. On Mars there are much higher levels of radiation and the planet experiences regular climate swings that would induce dormancy in microbes, allowing them to accumulate sufficient doses of radiation to evolve into radiation-resistant critters.
Plans for GPS-guided bombs to do much of the heavy lifting in a U.S. war on Iraq could be seriously hampered by a $40 device available over the Internet. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, so-called global positioning system “jammers” can interrupt the system’s satellite signal. “At the Paris Air Show in 1999, a Russian company called Aviaconversia demonstrated a 4-watt GPS jammer, weighing about 19 pounds, capable of denying GPS reception for more than 100 miles,” the paper says. “While we do not know the extent of our vulnerability, there is evidence to suggest that GPS jamming can significantly inhibit precision targeting,” says Rep. Joseph Pitts (R., Penn.), co-chairman of Congress’ Electronic Warfare Working Group. So far the only known fix is to boost the GPS signal strength. But without new satellites in place, there’s only so far that approach can go.
It’s a technique Orville and Wilbur (God, I still love those names) Wright used a century ago to keep their early airplane afloat. Now the U.S. Air Force thinks it might have legs — or wings — again. It’s called wing warping. Instead of movable flaps and ailerons to steer and control a plane, warping bends the entire wing to achieve the desired effect. The Air Force has fancied it up a bit and redubbed it “active aeroelastic wing” technology. But the goal of its $41 million investment is, like the Brothers Wright, to produce lighter, more maneuverable planes. >> Related sites
Dual use technology usually starts out with a military use that civilians find a way to commercialize. The U.S. Navy is hoping to turn that equation around with a $5 million program to improve breast cancer detection. As it happens, looking for a cancerous cell in a human breast relies on a lot of the same science as identifying targets in spy satellite photos. And since the Navy believes its current pick-’em-out technology has hit a ceiling, it hopes to develop advances in breast cancer screening that can be applied to spotting Osama bin Laden from space. Wired has a terrific story on this, and notes that real-world applications are already emerging.
Oh well. It looks like ‘N Syncer Lance Bass won’t be making a trip into space after all. After failing to pony up the $20 million needed to participate in a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) after several deadline extensions, the pop star was asked to leave Russia’s cosmonaut training program, according to the Russian Space Agency. The Russians have a cargo container ready to go in Bass’s place. Bass had been training for the trip since July and was scheduled to go up to the space station by rocket on October 28. For a look at what Bass will be missing, visit NASA’s SkyWatch site to find out when the station can be viewed flying over your town.
The odds of getting hit by a meteorite are pretty slim. Say, one in several billion. But a Yorkshire girl looks to have been that lucky loner, and best of all, she wasn’t killed or maimed in the process. As reported by the BBC, 14-year-old Siobhan Cowton was getting into the family car outside her home last Thursday when a stone fell on her foot from the sky. The stone, which was “quite hot, ? looked very unusual, with a bubbled surface and tiny indentations like volcanic lava,” the teen said. She showed it to her dad, who was likewise taken by the heavenly descender. According to Dr. Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, the stone could have come from Mars. After some testing, the Cowtons plan to have the rock mounted in a glass case so Siobhan can keep it for the rest of her life. “After all,” says poppa, “it is not every day you get hit by a meteorite.”
Today a program called Reef Check at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment released the results of a massive, five-year volunteer-run survey of the planet’s coral reefs — what may be the world’s most comprehensive ecological study to date. Unfortunately the study reveals that the reefs around the world are in serious decline, and that the
“>situation is only getting worse. Overfishing has affected 95 percent of the more than 1,107 coral reefs monitored since 1997; at least four species of reef fish, hunted as food or for aquariums, face extinction, according to the study. So how do you monitor the coral reefs, which make up less than .09% of the area of the world’s oceans and are spread around the globe? Volunteers, lots of them. Reef Check scientists taught teams of sea-worthy volunteers — from recreational divers to village fisherman — about reef ecology and scientific monitoring. About 5,000 scientists and volunteers contributed. According to Reef Check’s founder, Gregor Hodgson, of the reefs surveyed, just one, near Madagascar, could be considered pristine. “What we have seen is coral reefs have been damaged more in the last 20 years than they have in the last 1,000,” Hodgson said. “Suddenly, the pressures of overfishing and damaging types of fishing — dynamiting fish and poisoning fish, particularly in Southeast Asia — have taken off.”
This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.
Despite financial setbacks that threatened to keep boyish pop star Lance Bass from his life-long dream of traveling to outer space, Bass continues to train to join a Russian crew heading to the International Space Station in October. The cost of sending Bass into space is said to be about $20 million, and the mission, which Bass has been training for since July, became jeopardized when payments were not made on time. If he makes it there, the 23-year-old Bass would be the youngest person to travel to outer space.
Boeing has joined a small group of technology bigwigs trying to test a theory that would let engineers negate some of the effects of gravity. The American aerospace giant is using the work of controversial Russian scientist Yevgeny Podkletnov, who claims to have developed a device that can shield objects from the Earth’s pull. Other researchers claim Podkletnov’s work is hokum, but considering the cost savings such a device would represent for air travel, Boeing seems intent on getting to the bottom of it all. The Russian says he found that objects above a superconducting ceramic disc rotating over powerful electromagnets lost weight, the BBC reports. “The reduction in gravity was small, about 2 percent, but the implications — for example, in terms of cutting the energy needed for a plane to fly — were immense.”
Stargazers this week may be surprised by the sight of a glowing orange object streaking across the night sky. It?s the International Space Station, which is making bright passes over the U.S. and Canada until mid-August. The ISS — which travels at 17,000 mph and circles the planet 16 times a day — crosses the sky in three to six minutes, and can shine more brightly than any planet or star except our sun and moon. (Its brightness depends on its orientation, your location and the sun.) Right now this impressive sight can be observed by the unaided eye if skies are clear. (A flyby near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night was clearly visible despite city lights.) To find out when the station will fly above your town, orbit over to NASA SkyWatch.
Wired.com carries a gee-whiz tale from the Office of Naval Research on development of an army of drones that would fight the battles of tomorrow. It all sounds very Star Wars — and expensive. But the notion is that human commanders at the top would provide goals that a network of unmanned but highly-networked machines would work to achieve. That could be taking a hill in a combat zone, capturing a known enemy, or helping rescue disaster victims. One wonders who such an army would fight (the Chinese army of 2020? A resurgent Russia?) But maybe this will be one of those ideas that die on the vine in the armed services but find a robust future in the private sector. The original technology, after all, came from drones built to track migrating whales.