SciTechBlog
June 30, 2008

Spy Bugs: The next generation of surveillance?

Posted: 02:18 PM ET

  

The technology has been around for years to control animals' movements by implanting electrodes into their brains. The concept is tried and true on things from rats to sharks. At one point it was proven that rats could be used to help on search and rescue missions by adding a backpack camera to the equation. Larger animals can handle heavier equipment, but if placed in a sensitive situation, they could be easily detected. The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for a solution.DARPA    HIMEMS Program Logo shows the fly that may someday be on your wall

DARPA is continuing to harness natural animal motor skills in combination with artificial control systems, but is now looking into using smaller test subjects. The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) project is how DARPA plans to achieve this. The premise is to take a small, ordinary organism and transform it into a robot of sorts. By using insects, DARPA hopes to be able to hold greater control over a final destination, while at the same time utilizing the insects' natural fluid movements. The trick will be making control mechanisms and other equipment small and light enough for the insects to be able to handle them. The ability to guide the insects to a location with precision could allow them to accomplish tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. DARPA says on its web site that insects could be outfitted with sensors capable of transmitting information about air quality, or even devices to transmit sound. The insects could get close enough to a target to relay data otherwise unavailable.  The proverbial "fly on the wall" might actually turn out to be a fly on the wall.

            Researchers have come up with a way to implant tiny controlling devices into a moth during its early developmental stages. The moth then matures around the implants, becoming one with the devices. With the implants in place, researchers can then begin the controlled movement process. Techniques to control movement could include direct muscle stimulation or neural stimulation that would tell the insect which muscles to move. GPS and ultrasonic signals are some of the technologies being investigated to guide insects to their destinations.

            HI-MEMS is a long way off from being ready to throw the robo-insects into mainstream use. Technology issues, costs, and environmental hazards have to be sorted out before the insects will be ready to go out in the field. Until then, spy bugs may be a thing of the future, but the technology coming out of the project is in the now.

 Katie Glaeser, CNN

Filed under: robotics • science


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June 27, 2008

Shark Bait!

Posted: 03:18 PM ET

I remember the moment I fell in love with marine animals. I was ten years old, visiting Sea World in San Diego with my family, when I saw two scuba divers swimming in a tank of dolphins. That’s all it took.

Waving to aquarium visitors through the glass at the Ocean Voyager exhibit.

Fast forward twelve years. A degree in marine biology and a few marine science internships later, I’m still that same 10 year-old redhead who gets giddy every time I see a scuba diver in an aquarium.

So imagine my excitement last week when I found out that I was going to scuba dive in the world’s largest aquarium with the world’s largest sharks.

Everyone jokes that they are going to throw their interns to the sharks, but the CNN Science and Technology producers weren’t kidding.

Turns out the Georgia Aquarium had offered me a once in a lifetime chance to swim with whale sharks, rays, and the thousands of other fish in their football field sized Ocean Voyager tank. It’s all part of their new Swim With Gentle Giants program that lets the public scuba dive with these majestic animals one half hour at a time.

I couldn’t pull on my wetsuit on fast enough. Before I climbed down the ladder into the 6.3 million gallon tank, people kept asking me if I was scared of what I was about to do.

Truth was, I was more nervous that I wasn’t going to remember how to scuba dive than to look blacktip reef sharks in the eye.

A summer of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans taught me that most sharks are the not frightening animals as the movie Jaws would lead us to believe. No need to insert the movie’s theme song here…

Sharks have very slow metabolisms so they don’t need to eat often. Like baleen whales, whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning they would be more interested in plankton than me. I wasn’t even frightened of the other sharks in the tank. Thanks to a hardworking aquarium team, they are fed regularly enough to keep their stomachs happy and most of them don’t find the taste of humans appealing anyway.

One of the Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks swims gently by divers.

So there I was, swimming through schools of French grunts, kneeling next to cownose rays, and coming face to face with giant grouper. All the while, the white underbellies of the four juvenile whale sharks slid silently by above our heads. It was only after the hammerhead shark came within one foot of me that I remembered I was trespassing on their turf. But they didn’t seem to mind.

Millions of people visit the Georgia Aquarium each year, and, like me, this will the closest they will ever come to whale sharks in their lives. And that’s exactly what the aquarium wants.

These four whale sharks are ambassadors for their species. Gently swimming through their giant aquarium habitat everyday, they are not only educating the public on the beauty of their species but also the threats to their population. Like most shark species, whale shark populations in the wild are a fraction of their historic levels.

So the next time you get nervous about swimming in the ocean because you think sharks may be roaming in the deep blue water, remember they are treasures of nature not monsters of the deep.

And if you have trouble getting over your fear of sharks, memorize this fact I read in a GA Aquarium pamphlet after my dive: ‘According to a National Geographic article on shark conservation, New Yorkers bite more people each year than sharks do.’

Happy swimming everyone.

(Note to my producers: you can throw me to these sharks any day).

For more information on the Ocean Voyager exhibit and the Swim With Gentle Giants program, please visit Georgia Aquarium website at http://www.georgiaaquarium.org.

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • Oceans • Sharks


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Gates of hell/Gates of heaven

Posted: 02:38 PM ET

Okay, here's a quick little muse on the official end of Bill Gates's Microsoft career.

Getty Images/AFP

Nearly ten years ago, an entertaining book called "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" chronicled the widespread perception that the founder of Microsoft was the very embodiment of villainy - a real-life Doctor Evil, or Snidely Whiplash, on the verge of eradicating any trace of competition in the home computing world.  The EC and the US Justice Department were after him, legal Ahabs chasing the Great White Whale of Redmond, Washington.  Gates forced other hardware manufacturers to swallow his bundled software whole.   He built a fatuously unneccessary mansion.  He was decidedly dour and condescending in his rare, tightly-controlled public appearances.  And maybe worst of all:  This billionaire, this ruthless tycoon, this fabulously successful Evil Genius looked just like the guy who used to get beaten up in your high school gym class.

Today, Gates takes a big step toward one of the greatest image reversals in history since Ebenezer Scrooge turned jolly.  While he'll retain his Microsoft chairmanship, Gates is embarking on a "reordering" of life's priorities that will have him focusing on the staggeringly large charitable effort he started several years ago with his wife, Melinda.   Their charity dwarfs that of previous tycoons like the Fords and Rockefellers, tackling tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases that kill millions in the developing world.  Dollar-for-dollar, it's easily the biggest philanthropic effort in human history.

So, the question remains:   Did Gates have a Charles Dickens-like life-changing revelation?  Or is he consumed with changing his place in history?   Or was it, as Gates himself has said, a "scolding" from our old CNN boss, Ted Turner, that the "super-lucky" should give much of their money back.  Answer:   Who cares?   Hats off to him.

So, I'm no longer one of those out to "get" Bill Gates.   I even forgive him for the Vista Operating System.  I'll take a few extra "error" messages, and resist getting mad at a guy who's saving tens of thousands of lives– with much more good, desperately-needed work likely to follow.

Peter Dykstra   Executive Producer  CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Internet


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June 26, 2008

UAVs could dominate hostile, friendly skies

Posted: 04:47 PM ET

The highly trained military aviator moves the stick right and rolls in on a target— an Al Queda training complex in Iraq somewhere near the Syrian border.

Source: Getty Images. UAVs, like the Predator, have already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pilot selects Hellfire missiles, pulls the trigger, and blasts the installation into oblivion. He then pulls up, sets course for home, slides back in his rolling chair and takes a sip of coffee. He is sitting in a dark room almost 6,000 miles away from his aircraft.

Step aside Maverick and Goose. This past March, the United States Air Force announced it will be seeking an increased budget for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, from $334 million in 2008 to $540 million next year—a 60 percent increase.

If military decision-makers have their way, the heyday of aerial dogfighting performed by hot shot pilots will be a thing of the past. UAVs already play an integral role in the country’s current conflicts, having already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given these surprising statistics, many military pilots fear that their jobs may be in jeopardy. It’s borderline science-fiction to think that a pilot, who has trained for hundreds of hours, could be replaced by an autonomous flying machine.

A close friend of mine, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, is convinced that he’ll be among the last generation of military pilots that will actually fly an aircraft from the inside.

But are military strategists letting their enthusiasm for unmanned vehicles run wild? Some want to begin to employ autonomous robots capable of making their own kill decisions—a scary prospect for industry experts.

In friendly skies over the United States, non-military pilots are concerned about UAVs, too. During my first flying lesson, my instructor taught me the simple skills required for dodging mid-air collisions: “see and avoid” he called it.

But as UAVs take on more roles in law enforcement, border patrol, aerial surveying, and other peacetime missions, how well will they see, avoid, and communicate with other aircraft in the nation’s already busy airspace? That’s still to be determined.

The Frederick, Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a lobbying group for pilots of general aviation airplanes, advocates that any UAV integration into the national airspace system must be conducted without any harm to the current civilian airspace user.

As a pilot myself, sharing airspace with remote-control flying machines gives me the heebie jeebies. Still, the FAA has not outlined a definitive plan on how to deal with manned and unmanned aircraft sharing the same piece of sky.

Will the future of aviation remain human after all?

– Pete Muntean, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: Aviation • robotics • science


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Gallons per mile?

Posted: 02:40 PM ET

It may sound backwards, but that is how two Duke professors suggest we gauge fuel economy.

MPG to GPM Conversion Chart

Richard Larrick and Jack Soll of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business say the phrase ‘miles per gallon' misleads consumers.

The premise of their study, published recently in the journal Science, is that you save more gas by switching from a 10 to a 15 MPG car than by trading in your 25 MPG ride for, say, a 50 MPG Prius.

If you're scratching your head, consider the following equation:

Driving a 10 MPG SUV for 100 miles requires 10 gallons of gas, while one that gets 15 MPG will burn 6.7 gallons of gas on the same trip. So the jump from 10 to 15 MPG is a savings of 3.3 gallons of gas.

On the other hand, the 25 and 50 MPG cars burn 4 and 2 gallons, respectively, on a 100-mile drive. That is a savings of only 2 gallons compared with the SUV driver's 3.3 gallons. You see?

So when it comes to saving money, Larrick and Soll say it's less about buying the most fuel-efficient car, and more about removing the most inefficient vehicles from the road. They recommend fuel efficiency be displayed as ‘gallons per 100 miles' (GPM) instead of the traditional MPG.

That way, instead of aiming for a car with the highest MPG, consumers would be striving for the lowest GPM rating.

The point is to help consumers easily understand the amount of gasoline they will save when they trade in a car.

It's simple math. To calculate gallons per 100 miles, simply divide 100 miles by the vehicle's MPG rating. However, this calculation is not one consumers seem to do when considering a new car.

For example, Larrick and Soll asked participants in their study to decide whether replacing 15 MPG vehicles with 19 MPG ones was better or worse than exchanging 34 MPG vehicles for those with 44 MPG ratings.

Groups given the vehicles fuel efficiencies in MPG chose the wrong answer of 34 to 44 MPG 75% of the time. On the other hand, people given fuel efficiency choices in GPM made the wrong decision only 36% of the time.

So yes, it's still true that driving vehicles with the highest fuel efficiency possible is still best for the environment, but as gas prices rise will consumers be making their trade decisions for Mother Nature or their wallets? If it's the latter, they may need GPM instead of MPG to make the best choice.

Test your MPG understanding at: http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news/mpg/mpg.html

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Cars • economy • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Uncategorized


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That's not roadkill, it's research!

Posted: 01:02 PM ET

A few weeks ago, I saw what I thought was a familiar sight 'round these parts: A possum, with its long tail and newly flattened carcass, by the side of the road. As I passed by, I noticed that the "possum" had big ears and was wearing a suit of armor.An Armadillo\'s last stand, Georgia Highway 212, near Atlanta

It was Armadillo roadkill, in an area where armadilloes aren't supposed to live (DeKalb County, just east of Atlanta). The third one I've seen in recent years. Its U.S. habitat was once confined to Texas, but the nine-banded armadillo has been marching its curious little self northward, slowed only by cold weather and the occasional set of steel-belted radials. Since armadillos are shy, solitary, and mostly nocturnal, they can move into an area with little chance of detection - except by their frequent appearance as roadkill.

But my anecdotal research doesn't hold a candle to Dr. Splatt (real name, Brewster Bartlett). A middle school science teacher in New Hampshire, Dr. Splatt's Roadkill Monitoring Project collects data from a network of schoolkids, who email regular reports of flattened fauna. We did a story on Dr. Splatt several years ago; I checked in with him recently, and he said the project is alive and well, though they're in the midst of some computer switch overs and haven't updated their website recently. He's got data, through 2007, in spreadsheet form that chronicles the demise of hundreds of possums, raccoons, birds, skunks, frogs, and more rarely, coyotes, porcupines, and moose. (Note that moose road-kill is a two-way street: hit an 800-pound animal whose center of gravity is four feet off the ground, and there's a good chance the moose will come through the windshield and kill you right back).

And deer are even more deadly. In recent years, about 140 people are killed annually in the U.S. in car-deer collisions, with a billion-plus price tag in collision insurance claims. The frequent sight of deer by the side of the road - whether feeding or decomposing - isn't a coincidence. Wildlife biologists say that deer gravitate toward "edge habitat" - the area where open space meets the forest. That's a pretty good description of most rural roadsides.

Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Animals


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June 24, 2008

George Carlin, Standup Scientist

Posted: 05:17 PM ET

He was one of the funniest humans ever.  I rode in on the bus today listening to a compilation of his monologues, and several times, I busted out laughing in a way that's generally considered unseemly on public transportation.

So my flimsy excuse for paying tribute to George Carlin on a Science blog is to assemble a few of his observations.   He was full of wisdom, and at his best while pointing out that most of us are full of something else entirely.  Since his death was reported on Monday, CNN has played a clip of Carlin taking an unnamed CNN weatherman to task for using a phrase like "rain event."  It got me to thinking about some of his other observations on science and tech stuff.  Feel free to add your own, but as is often the challenge with George Carlin, keep it clean!

On Energy:

"Electricity is really just organized lightning."

On Human Intelligence:

"Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that."

On Intelligent life in the universe:

"If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little. "

On Meteorology:

"Weather forecast for tonight: dark."

On Invention:

"When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I'm sure it made the work seem that much more urgent. "

On Aviation:

"If the "black box" flight recorder is never damaged during a plane crash, why isn't the whole airplane made out of that stuff?"

On Nature:

"I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so f***in' heroic."

"It isn’t fair: the caterpillar does all the work, and the butterfly gets all the glory. "

and

"If a turtle doesn't have a shell, is he homeless or naked?"

On Electronics:

"Why do you press harder on a remote-control when you know the battery is dead?"

On Military Technology:

"The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized


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You can be bigger than Sanjaya!

Posted: 11:35 AM ET

What do the Numa Numa guy and Perez Hilton and Kos and the Obama Girl have that you don't? Why can't you be an Internet sensation, too? There's no reason why you can't, says a guy who's ridden the web to his own level of fame, though perhaps not quite yet fame on the scale of, say the Chocolate Rain guy.

You can be like Scott!

Scott Steinberg, publisher of the tech web site DigitalTrends.com, says there are lots of ways anyone can achieve fast fame on the web without spending a lot, if any, money. He's done it by writing a book, "Get Rich Playing Games." Steinberg says, "If you publish a book on anything, suddenly you're an expert." And his work led to interviews on CNN and lots of other media outlets. Yet he says the book cost peanuts to produce, thanks to online print-on-demand.

Steinberg says print-on-demand services like Lulu, iuniverse, Wordclay, AuthorHouse, and BookSurge let would-be authors publish a book for as little as eight dollars up front. And he says that for as little as a few hundred dollars you can have a hardback or paperback copy with professional illustrations, an ISBN number and distribution to Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com.

But you don't have to write a tome to get noticed. You could come up with an iconic symbol or a new catchphrase, and have it put on bumper stickers, t-shirts, or mugs, for all the world to see (and buy). Steinberg says, "Anything that you've seen in a store you can produce for pennies using your own custom designs." Who knows, you might create the smiley face for the 21st century!

Maybe you have a catchy slogan, photo, or piece of art. Steinberg recommends checking out sites like Zazzle, CafePress, PrintMojo, and Spreadshirt . Such sites can plaster your idea on any number of keepsakes or accessories, from beer steins to thongs. And they'll sell your creations for you, managing inventory and Paypal. Steinberg says, "You worry about the spotlight, let them handle the details."

Maybe you don't care about selling anything - maybe you want your FACE famous, a la "Leave Britney alone!" guy. (I think he's a guy.) Steinberg says all you need is a $20-$40 web cam or a $100-$200 camcorder, and a Mac or PC. Then, Steinberg says, "All you need is time and energy and something interesting to talk about." You can upload your thoughts not only to YouTube, but to Viddler, which Steinberg says accepts longer videos than YouTube, or Metacafe, in which users vote for the best content and push it to the front page.

You don't actually need to shoot video and edit it. You could start your own live streaming video channel, and interact via chat rooms with your viewers, on sites like justin.tv. I just spent five minutes there watching a guy beat a boss in Zelda as he narrated and responded to often inane chat room chatter. (That's five minutes of my life I'll never get back.) There's also Ustream.tv, Stickam.com, and BlogTV.com, where I lost a couple of minutes watching a kid named Adam lip synching and emoting to Bohemian Rhapsody. He didn't stop even when his phone started ringing.

Of course, there's also blogging. You don't have to create your own blog from scratch - Steinberg says there are myriad sites like LiveJournal, Blogger, and WordPress (which, of course, you're reading now) that will host your blog. One WordPress blog - stuffwhitepeoplelike, was launched in January and already has led to a book deal with Random House - "The Definitive Guide to Stuff White People Like" comes out next month. SciTechBlog is still waiting for its book deal.

In planning your way to web fame, Steinberg says you need to be original and singular – avoid what everyone else is doing. Find a topic no one else is tackling (or at least not tackling well) and keep your message clear and consistent. Your readers or viewers need to be able to understand what you're saying almost immediately.

Then, let your personality come through. The celebrity gossip blog PerezHilton.com is dripping with personality. Steinberg says the site gets nearly nine million page views a day and the creator now has his own VH1 TV series and gets paid to go to clubs.

Finally, Steinberg says you need to promote yourself. Start a page on social networking sites Facebook and/or Myspace. (You can also start your own personalized social network with Ning, CrowdVine, and KickApps.) Talk yourself up in newsgroups and Internet forums. Send out press releases. But be careful not to cross the line between promotion and obnoxiousness. As a journalist, I get releases from folks who cross that line regularly!

Steinberg says you shouldn't seek fame via the Internet in order to get rich overnight. Do it because what you think matters just as much as what a celebrity thinks.

Steinberg's tips for fast fame must have some validity - I'm blogging about him, right?

Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Internet


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June 23, 2008

With a little BITT of luck

Posted: 11:57 AM ET

A noisy, 450 pound scared mother. A terrified three- year old, possibly in pain, not only separated from mom but now surrounded by 30 strange creatures.

But wait. This one has a happy ending.

Veterinarian Dr. Juli Goldstein (with visor) examines the young dolphin, as rescue supervisor Steve McCulloch holds up the belt that was stuck around its neck. Photo: E. Murdoch, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

After nearly 14 hours of trying, a team of scientists, veterinarians and rescue staff from Florida's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute successfully removed a car fan belt stuck around the neck of a young dolphin calf late Thursday.

The entangled male calf was first spotted June 6. From that initial sighting, Steve McCulloch, program manager for the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at the Institute in Fort Pierce, started the complicated logistics of gathering boats, people, equipment, and, oh yeah, finding this poor critter again when its range covers 40% of Florida's east coast.

The rescue team found the mom and baby in the midst of about 80 other dolphins Thursday afternoon.

McCulloch said some deft boat maneuvering by Captain Larry Fulford managed to separate the mom, named BITT, and her son, known as c1BITT (BITT's first calf) from the others in the group. They were in about four feet of water in the Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne.

The rescue team had to act fast.

"Young dolphins, especially young males, can show very high stress," said McCulloch. He said they can even die from "capture shock."

First, the marine mammal experts released Mama BITT from the net.

"She was showing some definite un-Flipper-like behavior," said McCulloch.

But like a good mother she waited just a few yards away, trading encouraging whistles with her son. McCulloch cut off the hard rubber automotive belt. Veterinarian Dr. Juli Goldstein did a quick physical exam, and gathered some tissue for a DNA sample. She also put a tag on the youngster's dorsal fin so he would be easier to spot once he was freed.

"It's just a feeling of exhilaration, the entire team was just jubilant. It was a huge relief that everything had gone safely and nobody got hurt," said McCulloch.

The efforts of the team from Florida Atlantic University saved this animal from a slow, agonizing death. Like human babies, young dolphins play with whatever they can put in their mouths. Usually it's mangrove roots or tree branches. But if a fan belt or a hunk of plastic or trash is floating around them, they'll play with that, too.

"What we do to the environment is reflected in these animals. We need to be careful," said McCulloch.

So the next time you think about littering… think about whose baby you might be putting in danger.

Marsha Walton, CNN science and technology producer

Filed under: Animals • environment


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June 20, 2008

Phoenix straight up – on the rocks

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Scientists who focus their time on the Red Planet cheerfully call themselves "Martians".  Well, it turns out these "Martians" know their turf well – and  have hit some pay dirt in the Arctic region of the Fourth Rock from the Sun. Mars Odyssey spotted the telltale signs of water ice beneath the surface from orbit a few years ago. It was that finding that helped the Martians choose a landing site for Phoenix.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/SSV

And from the moment they touched down, they saw the tantalizing signs that the ice was there – just a few inches beneath the rusty regolith. The dozen pulsed rocket thrusters cleared off a spot that was clearly white. Could it be ice? No way to dig right beneath Phoenix – but the once the arm and shovel got to work making some shallow trenches, it didn't take long to find that white subsurface once again.

But was it the cool find Principal Investigator Peter Smith and his team at the University of Arizona had hoped for? Or was it something else?

But then something telling happened. Some dice-sized white crumbs disappeared from one of the trenches over the course of a few days. What could or would disappear like that?

You guessed it. Water ice. It doesn't melt there (way too cold for that), but it does sublimate (go straight from solid to gas) in the wispy atmosphere of Mars.

So now the team just has to grab some of those "dice" before they sublimate – and toss them into the oven on Phoenix' deck – and see what is inside. Could there be some organic material frozen inside? If so, that would be a big piece of evidence that there was (or maybe even is) life on Mars. I guess it all comes down to a roll of the "dice".

– Miles O'Brien/CNN Space Correspondent

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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