March 28, 2008

Showtime for "Jules Verne"

Posted: 01:15 PM ET

If all goes as planned, the new European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will dock with the International Space Station next week. It's a task that has flight controllers at NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian Space Agency hugely excited, and nervous. Up until now, the only vehicles to dock with the ISS have been the space shuttle and the Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecrafts. All of them have long and mostly reliable track records in orbit.

Source: ESA

As the guys in Monty Python would say, "now for something completely different."

Christened "Jules Verne," this ATV is the first of five that will resupply the International Space Station at a rate of one every year and a half or so. It launched to space on March 8, but has been essentially parked in orbit for the duration of the space shuttle Endeavour's assembly mission to the ISS.

Before ESA gives the final "go" for docking, flight controllers will put the spacecraft through a series of tests to make sure all the onboard systems are working properly. A malfunction close to the station could spell disaster.

On Monday, flight controllers will practice maneuvering the spacecraft within 36 feet of the station, to work out any kinks before executing the actual docking on Thursday. The main objective is to test the close range sensors and the guidance and navigation systems. The station crew will also call for an "abort" to make sure they can successfully call off a docking in the event something goes wrong. Closest approach should happen about 12:45pm ET.

If all checks out as planned, the docking will happen at 10:40am ET on Thursday. "Jules Verne" will latch onto the Russian Zvezda Service Module, where it will remain for about six months. After it is unloaded, it will be repacked with trash and eventually directed on a "death dive" into the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

When I mentioned that last fact in a previous blog entry, we got a tidal wave of outraged comments about the waste and inefficiency of discarding the hardware in such a manner. For the record, currently there are two ways to "take out the trash" on the ISS. The Russian Progress resupply vehicles are used in the way described above. Additionally, some "trash" is returned to Earth by the space shuttle. Much of what they take the trouble to bring back is broken equipment that they want to either refurbish for future use, or take apart to figure out why it broke and how to modify the design to make it more durable in the future.

If you want to watch the "Jules Verne" demo day/docking day events, check out NASA TV.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology


Filed under: European Space Agency • International Space Station • NASA • Space

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March 27, 2008

Enter the Lynx

Posted: 04:07 PM ET

Prospects for blasting off on a suborbital "vacation" to space got a bit brighter this week when XCOR Aerospace debuted designs for the "Lynx."

Source: XCOR Aerospace

The two seat space plane is designed to carry a paying tourist just past the edge of space - where you would be able to see the stars against the blackness of space and the "blue marble" of the Earth below. About the size of a private airplane, the Lynx would fly to an altitude of about 200,000 feet. The "tourist" could expect to experience about 90 seconds of weightlessness, though he or she would remain strapped into the passenger seat the whole time.

XCOR plan to begin flights in 2010, and tickets will run about $100,000 dollars.

If all goes as planned, the Lynx will go head to head for passengers with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which is being designed and built by aviation guru and Ansari X Prize winner Burt Rutan. That space plane is designed to carry up to six people, and is supposed to start test flights this year. That ticket will set you back about $200,000, but during those precious few seconds of microgravity you would get to unstrap and float around in the back.

Entrepreneurs have been touting space tourism as the "next big thing" for some time now, estimating the market to be in the half-billion dollar range. And while a $100,000 or $200,000 thousand dollar ticket is hopelessly out of the ballpark for the masses, it could be workable for a sizable number of rich folks who view it as a "once-in-a-lifetime" trip - comparable to climbing Mt. Everest.

So far the Lynx is still on the drawing board. We'll keep you posted on the progress.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Space • Space Tourism

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Shuttle landing impressions...

Posted: 10:40 AM ET

Sixteen days ago the Space Shuttle Endeavour blasted off from Kennedy Space Center into the night sky. Its return Wednesday also came under the cover of darkness.

Source: NASA

The shuttle's first opportunity to land at KSC was slated for just before sunset, but the weather didn't cooperate. NASA mission managers called off the attempt because of concerns over clouds in the area.

The next chance to land was after dark and still at risk of being too cloudy. Shuttle Astronauts train for night landings, but they can be more difficult. Before Wednesday only 21 had been done in the shuttle program's history.

We waited in the press center for the latest from NASA's weather experts. Meanwhile over our heads an astronaut flew the shuttle flight path in a special aircraft designed to simulate the shuttle's reactions in the weather conditions. In Houston NASA mission control poured over the latest weather readings. If they "waved off" the shuttle on this landing attempt the orbits wouldn't line up for another chance to land at KSC until the next day.

After what clearly were serious discussions, and a conversation with Endeavour Commander Dom Gorie, NASA managers made the final call. They asked the shuttle flight crew to fire the engines slowing the orbiter to begin its decent.

As the shuttle worked its way down over the Yucatan peninsula, we stood at the CNN live location and watched its path on a monitor. The first sign of the shuttle entering the area were two loud bangs in quick succession. The noises sounded a bit like fireworks but were actually the nose and tail of the shuttle crossing the sound barrier. We kept our eyes glued on the night sky but from our vantage point the only sight of the shuttle visible was on our TV monitors.

As we watched the live feeds a bright orange flame pulsed from the top of Endeavor near its tail. The bright flame looked alarming – but was actually nothing to be concerned about. The fire is part of the exhaust from the shuttle's auxiliary power unit. It actually shows up on every flight, but is much more apparent when it's dark out.

Thursday the Shuttle astronauts will head back to the landing strip to catch a plane home to Houston. That flight is scheduled for the afternoon – not in the black of night.


-CNN Producer Aaron Cooper at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida


Filed under: NASA • Space

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Carbonated water, with essence of natural gas...

Posted: 08:45 AM ET

That's what Cassini spacecraft scientists had to say about what's in those cold water geysers shooting off from the pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus (that's pronounced "in-SELL-uh-dus").

Jet Blue. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini team was stunned to discover the geysers two years ago when the probe made its first flyby of the tiny moon. Then on March 12th, they got another chance to point their science instruments at the billowing plume during another close approach, passing just 120 miles from the surface. This time the optical cameras took a back seat to a suite of spectrographs designed to "taste and smell" what chemicals are present.

The team has just announced the initial science findings. It turns out the jets are mostly water vapor, with some ice crystals mixed in. Also present are methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and an abundance of both simple and complex organic chemicals.

Another instrument on board measured the temperatures at the fissures where the geysers erupt from the surface. Turns out it gets up to a hot and balmy -130 degrees Fahrenheit there. OK, that's pretty cold. But it is significantly warmer than the -300 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures elsewhere on that moon. The researchers say some sort of heat source deep within the planet must be at work, and that underground pockets of liquid water very likely exist - maybe even relatively close to the surface.

So what does it all mean? The moon has water, organic compounds, and a heat source...and that makes it a prime hunting ground for astrobiologists (scientists who look for signs of extraterrestrial life). They don't know at this point if that underground liquid water exists, and they certainly don't know if any sort of microbial life form may be living there. But you can bet they're excited about it!

Cassini will flyby Enceladus again in August.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • Enceladus • NASA • Saturn • Space

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March 25, 2008

Get Your Game On – 03.25.08

Posted: 04:12 PM ET

"Guitar Hero" hits a sour note with Gibson

The Gibson Guitar Corp. has filed a series of lawsuits aimed at pulling the plug on the wildly popular "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" video game franchises.

According to court papers filed in federal district court in Nashville, TN, Gibson has set their sights on several retailers, including Wal-Mart, claiming that by selling "Guitar Hero," the stores have violated a virtual reality patent the guitar maker holds.

Gibson is also claiming the same patent has been violated by Harmonix, MTV Networks and Electronic Arts in their development of "Rock Band." Harmonix also created some of the original "Guitar Hero" games for Activision, Inc. before being sold to MTV.

According to court papers, Gibson's patent describes a device that lets a user "simulate participation in a concert by playing a musical instrument."

Both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" allows players to perform songs using a string-less, plastic guitar that plugs into a game console.

What's interesting is that Activision, Inc. which produces the "Guitar Hero" franchise, has not been sued directly. In fact, Activision recently filed a law-suit of their own back in January claiming it is not violating Gibson's patent.

To make matters even more confusing, at least two official licensed controllers for "Guitar Hero" are modeled after popular Gibson guitar models: The SG (made popular by such artists as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and AC/DC's Angus Young) and the Les Paul (which is featured on the cover of the current edition of "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock")

Meanwhile, the band plays on...

Watch more here

And as the lawyers play their games in court, here are couple of this week's notable new releases...

Dark Sector (D3 Publisher)

From the co-producer of the original "Unreal" franchise comes "Dark Sector." This eagerly anticipated action thriller puts players in control of an incredible array of super-powers that you'll have to master in order to survive a Black-Ops mission gone wrong. "Dark Sector's" developers are excited about the game's proprietary engine that drives the games fast-paced play and stunning graphics. Having seen it on both the PS3 and Xbox 360, it's worth the hype. (Rated M for Mature; 360, PS3)

Command and Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath (EA)

Not so much a self-contained game and more of an expansion pack for the immensely popular "Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars" game for the PC, fans of the series will be excited to discover more than 13 different missions steeped in the C&C universe. Some variations on the game-play formulas will also keep older engaged by switching things up in this deep real-time strategy platform. More importantly, it offers hard-core players a glimpse at what's to come later this summer when "Kane's Wrath" makes its Xbox 360 debut. (Rated T for Teen; PC)

- Matt West, CNN Entertainment Producer

Filed under: video games

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Spirit lives! Budget cuts won't stop this rover in its tracks

Posted: 01:02 PM ET

Budget woes won't force NASA to shut down one of two Mars rovers operating on the red planet, an agency spokesman told CNN Tuesday, a day after one of the program's team leaders said an ordered budget cut could end the rover Spirit's tour of duty.

Spirit Self-Portrait. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Mars Exploration Rover program principal investigator Steve Squyres told CNN Monday that the program had received a directive to cut $4 million out of it's 2008 budget, and that would mean his team would have no choice but to shut down one of the rovers.

But now NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs says that directive is being withdrawn.

"A letter was sent directing reductions in several areas of the Mars exploration program. However, this letter was not coordinated with the Office of Administrator and is in the process of being rescinded. Administrator Michael Griffin has unequivocally stated that no rover will be shut down."

Squyres had said cutting 20 percent of the program's $20 million budget would likely force mission managers to put the "Spirit" rover into hibernation mode.

The cut's purpose was to offset cost overruns with the Mars Science Laboratory, a rover set to launch next year, NASA headquarters spokesman Dwayne Brown said Monday.

NASA spent $800 million to build and launch Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, to Mars. They landed about 3 weeks apart in January 2004, on opposite sides of the planet. Both were designed for 90-day missions but remain in operation more than four years later.

These robotic geologists have examined Martian rocks and soil, looking for tell-tale signs of water. They have provided detailed photographs of the planet's barren surface and large amounts of data on the it's make-up.

Opportunity hit pay dirt when it found evidence that a salty sea once stood in the area that is now called Meridiani Planum. Spirit has roamed miles from its landing site and climbed high into the Columbia Hills inside an area called the Gusev Crater.

Squyres indicated a budget reduction of size initially ordered would require job cuts in the staff of about 300 scientists that operate the rovers and analyze the findings. Those staff cuts, in turn, would mean science operations for one of the rovers would have to be suspended, and Spirit would have been the likely candidate because it is currently riding out the Martian winter in a parked position.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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Salt shakes up the search for life on Mars

Posted: 10:33 AM ET

The latest clue to finding life on Mars may have lot in common with the salt on your dining room table.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has discovered evidence of salt deposits in 200 spots on the Red Planet, indicating that water was abundant in those places. Given the close connection between water and life on earth, these salt sites could be prime locations for proof of possible Martian life.

This false-color image shows a deposit of chloride (salt) minerals in blue in the southern highlands of Mars. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University/University of Hawaii

Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System snapped thousands of pictures in a range of wavelengths that helped scientists see evidence for salt. Only sites in the planet’s southern highlands, the most ancient rocks on Mars, appeared to contain chloride, a component of many kinds of salt.

The salt deposits formed about 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago, at a time when Mars may have had sporadic spouts of a wetter and warmer climate than the conditions observed there today, which are cold and arid.

Images revealed many of the salt deposits in basins with channels leading into them, which is “consistent with water flowing in over a long time,” said Philip Christensen, principal investigator for the camera at Arizona State University, in a NASA statement.

The salt probably didn’t come from a global ocean, as the sites of the deposits are disconnected, said team leader Mikki Osterloo at the University of Hawaii in the statement. But groundwater coming up to the surface in low spots could have generated the chloride sites, he said.

Scientists trying to track down proof of life on Mars have largely followed clues of sulfates, which could result from the evaporation of water, and clays, which suggest weathering by water. Chloride now joins the mix of leads to follow for scientists seeking close encounters with remnants of past Martian life forms.

The researchers published their findings in a recent issue of Science, just days before the shake-up about a possible $4 million budget cut from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover program.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

Filed under: Astrobiology • NASA • Space

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March 24, 2008

Mars rover reprieve?

Posted: 08:00 PM ET

Just hours after we reported that NASA budget cuts would lead to the shut down of the Mars rover "Spirit," we received this from NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs:

"There is a process that has to be followed for any mission to be canceled and the cancellation of the Mars Exploration Rovers is not under consideration. There is an ongoing budget review within the agency's Mars exploration program. However, shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option."

And this from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin:

"NASA will not shut down one of the Mars rovers."

But when I called rover principal investigator Steve Squyres back, he said he hadn't heard anything additional from anyone at NASA, and wonders whether the directive to cut $4 million out of his budget still stands. He says it is a question of simple math...if he has to cut $4 million, then he has to shut down a rover. It's that simple.

So questions remain.

I'll update the blog if I get more clarification.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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Budget woes at NASA to impact Mars Rovers

Posted: 05:56 PM ET

NASA officials have directed the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program to cut $4 million dollars from its $approximately 20 million dollar budget this year, and principal investigator Steve Squyres tells CNN that will likely mean science operations will have to be suspended for Spirit. The rover would be put in hibernation mode, and if all goes well it could be reactivated in the future in the event funding is restored.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

NASA Headquarters spokesman Dwayne Brown confirmed the budget directive has been issued. He said the reason behind the cut is to offset cost overruns with the Mars Science Laboratory, a follow-on rover set to launch next year.

NASA spent $800 million to build and launch Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, to Mars. They landed about 3 weeks apart in January 2004, on opposite sides of the planet from each other. Both were designed for 90 day missions, but are still operating more than four years later. Designed to be robotic geologists, the two rovers have examined Martian rocks and soil, looking for tell-tell signs of water. Opportunity hit “pay dirt” when it found evidence that salty sea once stood on in the area that is now called Meridiani Planum. Spirit has roamed miles from its landing site and climbed high into the "Columbia" hills inside an area called the Gusev Crater.

Squyres says the money will mean job cuts in the staff of about 300 scientists that operate the rovers and analyze the science findings. Those staff reductions likely will mean that they have to suspend science operations for one of the rovers, and Spirit is the likely candidate because it is currently riding out the Martian winter in a parked position.

Squyres says he and his team will put together and issue a plan to NASA officials before they do anything, so it is unclear exactly unclear when Spirit's science operations will be shut down. But he says he has been told to expect a $8 million budget cut in fiscal year 2009 funding.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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Zoos Count Calories for Animals

Posted: 11:23 AM ET

Animals may not model swimsuits, but they still need to avoid becoming overweight. Zoos are getting savvier about nutrition for their captive wild animals, coming up with more ways to curb obesity and related problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago puts gorillas like these on a diet system like Weight Watchers, staff nutritionist Jennifer Watts told CNN affiliate WLS. Each food item has a specific point value attached, and animals have limits for how many points they can accumulate. A gorilla gets two points for a cube of sugary fruit juice, while a polar bear gets one point for each of its beloved granola bars.

Zoo Atlanta doesn't use an official point system, but strives to provide a low-calorie, healthy diet for its animals too. This zoo has moved away from fruit juices for primates – now their orangutans and gorillas get Crystal Light. It may have less sugar, but they like the low-calorie alternative just as much, the zoo's senior veterinarian Dr. Maria Crane said in an interview for this blog.

Zoo animals have a particular risk for becoming overweight because they do not have to forage or hunt for food the way they would in the wild, Crane said. To encourage the animals to move about, zoo staffers put food in the enclosed habitats such that the animals have to go forage for it.

"As we use food for enrichment also, it not only contributes to physical needs of animal but also psychological needs," she said.

The same principles for people who are maintaining good body condition go for animals, such as "balance consumption with activity," she said.

The field of zoo nutrition is evolving, and zoos are receiving more information about what animals eat in the wild.

When plants and fruits from an animal's native habitat aren't available, Zoo Atlanta tries to provide substitutes that are as similar as possible.

"You don't find fruit juice stands in the wild," she said.

-Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

Filed under: Animals • Zoos

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