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Update August 2017


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Update August 26, 2017

Scientists on research vessel spot rare whale in Bering Sea

In this Aug. 6, 2017 photo provided by NOAA Fisheries a North Pacific right whale swims in the Bering Sea west of Bristol Bay. (NOAA Fisheries via AP)

Dan Joling

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) - Federal researchers studying critically endangered North Pacific right whales sometimes go years without finding their subjects. Over the weekend they got lucky.

A research vessel in the Bering Sea photographed two of the animals Sunday and obtained a biopsy sample from one, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.

NOAA Fisheries research biologist Jessica Crance was on board the Yushin Maru 2, when the whales were spotted. The ship is part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research program, a collaborative effort headed by the International Whaling Commission. Using an acoustic recorder, and between sounds of killer whales and walrus, Crance picked up faint calls of a right whale east of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The sounds came from an estimated 10 to 32 miles (16 to 51 kilometers) away and the ship headed west, she said in a blog entry. After four and a half hours, despite the presence of minke and humpback whales, and only a few calls from the right whales, the rare animals were spotted.

The two right whales are part of the eastern stock that number just 30 to 50 whales, said Phillip Clapham, head of the cetacean program at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

A French whaling ship recorded the first kill in 1835 and reported seeing “millions” of others. That claim was exaggerated but it drew hundreds of other whalers to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, Clapham said.

Within 14 years, Clapham said, the overharvest of the slow, buoyant animals sent many whalers through the Bering Strait to hunt bowhead whales instead.

A modest comeback of right whales in the 20th Century was derailed when Soviet whalers in the 1960s ignored critically low numbers and illegally killed eastern stock right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, Clapham said.

The right whale sampled Sunday had been seen eight times before, Clapham said. The last time was a decade ago.

A biopsy sample, he said, can positively identify the animal, reveal its gender, indicate whether it’s pregnant and reveal information on diet and reproductive hormones.

Studying North Pacific right whales is complicated by the expense of reaching their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Critical data remains unknown, including their winter habits and many of their preferred summer feeding areas for copepods, a tiny crustacean plankton.

“We don’t know what habitats continue to be important to the species,” Clapham said.

The biggest threats to the animals are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes, Clapham said.


Update August 19, 2017

SpaceX chief says 1st launch of big new rocket will be risky

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the first launch of its big new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, is risky and stands “a real good chance” of failure. (AP Photo/Refugio Ruiz, File)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - SpaceX’s chief said the first launch of its big new rocket is risky and stands “a real good chance” of failure.

Founder Elon Musk told a space station research conference that he wants to set realistic expectations for the flight later this year from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon Heavy will have three boosters instead of one, and 27 engines instead of nine, all of which must ignite simultaneously. No one will be aboard the initial flights. When it comes time to add people, Musk said, “No question, whoever’s on the first flight, brave.”

SpaceX plans to fly two paying customers to the moon late next year, using a Falcon Heavy.

While the moon may not be in Musk’s personal travel plans, he said in response to a question that he’d like to ride one of his smaller Falcon rockets to the International Space Station in maybe three or four years. SpaceX plans to start ferrying NASA astronauts to the orbiting outpost, using Falcon 9 rockets and enhanced Dragon capsules, by the middle of next year. SpaceX now uses the Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the space station.

“All right, we’ll put you on the manifest,” said NASA’s space station program manager Kirk Shireman.

Speaking for over an hour at the Washington conference, Musk encouraged people to go to Cape Canaveral for the Falcon Heavy launch. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” he promised, getting a big laugh.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” he said. “Major pucker factor, really, is like the only way to describe it.”

Building the Falcon Heavy has proven harder than SpaceX envisioned, according to Musk. But it will be capable of lifting more than double the amount of payload into orbit than the current Falcon 9, and also hoisting a SpaceX Dragon capsule into a loop around the moon.

As for Mars, Musk said he favored friendly competition for getting astronauts to the red planet. NASA for years has supported an international effort. Musk said it would be better to have at least two or three-country coalitions striving to get there first and making the most progress.

He praised the model used by NASA in the commercial crew program, in which both SpaceX and Boeing are developing capsules for flying space station astronauts. Americans have not launched from home soil since the last shuttle flight in 2011, instead forced to use Russian rockets. The crew Dragons will parachute into the ocean just like the cargo Dragons; land landings were scrapped because of the work needed to make everything safe.

Musk said he’s updated his long-term plan for colonizing Mars to make it more economically feasible. The vehicles will be smaller, although still big. He promised to share his evolving ideas at a September conference in Australia.

“Going to Mars is not for the faint of heart,” Musk stressed. “It’s risky, dangerous, uncomfortable and you might die. Now do you want to go? For a lot of people, the answer is going to be hell no, and for some, it’s going to be hell yes.”

Online:

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com/


10-year-old boy trips over 1.2M-year-old fossil in desert

Jude Sparks with the dinosaur fossil. (Credit: Peter Houde)

Las Cruces, N.M. (AP) - A boy’s misstep on a family hike in New Mexico has given the world a prehistoric wonder.

Ten-year-old Jude Sparks was on a desert hike in Las Cruces in November when he tripped over what turned out to be the fossilized tusk of a 1.2 million-year-old elephant-like creature, called a stegomastodon.

The family contacted New Mexico State University professor Peter Houde, and he and a team from the university spent a week digging up the skull in May after getting permission from the landowner.

Houde estimates the entire skull weighs about a ton.

He expects the university to put the skull on exhibit after it’s studied and reconstructed, which could take years.


Update August 12, 2017

Physicists find new particle with a double dose of charm

This image provided by CERN shows an artist’s conception of a new subatomic particle. The particle is the first of its kind to have two heavy quarks, both a type called “charm.” (CERN via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Scientists have found an extra charming new subatomic particle that they hope will help further explain a key force that binds matter together.

Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe announced Thursday the fleeting discovery of a long theorized but never-before-seen type of baryon.

Baryons are subatomic particles made up of quarks. Protons and neutrons are the most common baryons. Quarks are even smaller particles that come in six types, two common types that are light and four heavier types.

The high-speed collisions at the world’s biggest atom smasher created for a fraction of a second a baryon particle called Xi cc, said Oxford physicist Guy Wilkinson, who is part of the experiment.

The particle has two heavy quarks - both of a type that are called “charm”- and a light one. In the natural world, baryons have at most one heavy quark.

It may have been brief, but in particle physics it lived for “an appreciably long time,” he said.

The two heavy quarks are in a dance that’s just like the interaction of a star system with two suns and the third lighter quark circles the dancing pair, Wilkinson said.

“People have looked for it for a long time,” Wilkinson said. He said this opens up a whole new “family” of baryons for physicists to find and study.

“It gives us a very unique and interesting laboratory to give us an interesting new angle on the behavior of the strong interaction (between particles), which is one of the key forces in nature,” Wilkinson said.

Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist at the Fermilab near Chicago, who wasn’t part of the discovery team, praised the discovery and said “it gives us a lot to think about.”

The team has submitted a paper to the journal Physical Review Letters.

The Large Hadron Collider, located in a 27-kilometer (16.8-mile) tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border, was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs boson. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN.


Update August 5, 2017

Apollo 11 bag laced with moon dust sells for $1.8 million

The Apollo 11 Contingency Lunar Sample Return Bag used by astronaut Neil Armstrong sold for $1.8 million at an auction on Thursday following a galactic court battle. The lunar dust plus some tiny rocks that Armstrong also collected are zipped up in a small bag. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

New York (AP) - A bag containing traces of moon dust sold for $1.8 million at an auction on Thursday following a galactic court battle.

The collection bag, used by astronaut Neil Armstrong during the first manned mission to the moon in 1969, was sold at a Sotheby’s auction of items related to space voyages. The buyer declined to be identified. The pre-sale estimate was $2 million to $4 million.

The artifact from the Apollo 11 mission had been misidentified and sold at an online government auction, and NASA had fought to get it back. But in December a federal judge ruled that it legally belonged to a Chicago-area woman who bought it in 2015 for $995.

Sotheby’s declined to identify the seller. However, details of the 2015 purchase were made public during the court case.

Investigators unknowingly hit the moon mother lode in 2003 while searching the garage of a man later convicted of stealing and selling museum artifacts, including some that were on loan from NASA.

The 12-by-8-inch (30-by-20-centimeter) bag was misidentified and sold at an online government auction.

Nancy Carlson, of Inverness, Illinois, got an ordinary-looking bag made of white Beta cloth and polyester with rubberized nylon and a brass zipper.

Carlson, a collector, knew the bag had been used in a space flight, but she didn’t know which one. She sent it to NASA for testing, and the government agency, discovering its importance, fought to keep it.

The artifact “belongs to the American people,” NASA said then.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten, in Wichita, Kansas, said that while it shouldn’t have gone up for auction he didn’t have the authority to reverse the sale. He ordered the government to return it.

The judge said the importance and desirability of the bag stemmed solely from the efforts of NASA employees whose “amazing technical achievements, skill and courage in landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely have not been replicated in the almost half a century since the Apollo 11 landing.”

When it comes to moon landings, Thursday’s auction is far from the final frontier.

A group called For All Moonkind Inc. mentioned the moon bag this week while campaigning for “measures to preserve and protect the six Apollo lunar landing sites.” It plans to take up the issue this month at the Starship Congress 2017 in California.

Also getting out-of-this-world interest at the auction was the Flown Apollo 13 Flight Plan, with handwritten notations by all three crew members. It sold to an online bidder for $275,000, well above its pre-sale estimate high of $40,000.


What to drive on Mars? Rover to be displayed at DC museum

(NASA)

Washington (AP) - The type of vehicle that could explore the surface of Mars is going on display in Washington.

The National Air and Space Museum is featuring the Mars rover concept vehicle on Friday and Saturday. Friday is the museum’s annual “Mars Day!” celebration.

The museum says the rover weighs 5,500 pounds (2495 kilograms) and is nearly 11 feet (3 meters) tall. It was commissioned by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida as a traveling exhibit to inspire the public about space exploration and interplanetary travel.

The Washington Post reports the rover can separate in the middle, with the front end working as a scout vehicle and the rear end working as a laboratory. It runs on an electric motor fueled by solar panels and battery power.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Scientists on research vessel spot rare whale in Bering Sea


SpaceX chief says 1st launch of big new rocket will be risky

10-year-old boy trips over 1.2M-year-old fossil in desert


Physicists find new particle with a double dose of charm


Apollo 11 bag laced with moon dust sells for $1.8 million

What to drive on Mars? Rover to be displayed at DC museum

 



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