September 30, 2008

Keeping them honest: How bad was Ike?

Posted: 01:56 PM ET

CNN Meteorology Intern Andrew Maloof crunched the numbers on what was predicted for Hurricane Ike's storm surge, and what really happened.

Searchers recovered three more bodies from the wreckage of Hurricane Ike yesterday, bringing the storm's death toll to 67. That awful toll, and the images of lost homes and changed lives all happened from a storm that fell short of predictions.

Homes on the Bolivar Peninsula before Ike.

Homes on the Bolivar Peninsula before Ike.

The public advisories and discussions of the forecast storm surge from Hurricane Ike were off by 5-10 feet, and yet destruction reigned over Galveston Island, Bolivar Peninsula and other coastal communities.

The same area after Ike.  (USGS Photos)

The same area after Ike. (USGS Photos)

100 AM CDT FRI SEP 12 2008

(National Hurricane Center, Miami, FL)

The National Hurricane Center predicted huge storm surges that, for most areas on the coast, didn't happen. Had those dire predictions been true, the chemical and oil refineries along Galveston Bay could have taken a much larger hit.

These are the actual recorded surge heights:

STORM SURGE Max Heights in FEET (Tidal Surges Will Vary .5’-2’)
Galveston State Pleasure Pier.. 11.19’
Rollover Pass.................. 11.06’
Eagle Point.................... 10.75’
Port of Galveston Pier 21...... 10.25’

–Harris County
Manchester..................... 11.74’
Morgans Point.................. 7.76’
Battleship Texas State Park.... 6.11’

Sabine Pass.................... 12.54’
Texas Point.................... 11.79’
Port Arthur.................... 11.25’
Rainbow Bridge................. 9.29’

When the word hurricane pops up on the news, the first thing people start to ponder is how big it will get. The category, known as the Saffir-Simpson Scale, is based on wind. It can range from Category 1 (74 to 95 MPH) to Category 5 (over 155 MPH). What many do not realize is the fact that wind is not the true killer, but only an accomplice to the most deadly aspect of a hurricane, the storm surge. According to the National Weather Service, “Storm surge is simply water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the hurricane storm tide, which can increase the mean water level 15 feet or more.” So, when meteorologists tell the public that the category of a storm is increasing from say 3 to 4, they is also implying that the storm surge will increase.

Before/After aerial photos of Ike's damage can be viewed here

Coastal communities on Bolivar Peninsula as you look at “after” pictures, anyone staying in the homes that are now completely gone would have been swept into Galveston Bay by the storm surge, a trauma that would have not been survivable.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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September 29, 2008

Hubble servicing mission delayed

Posted: 12:43 PM ET

7PM UPDATE:  NASA just held a teleconference for reporters to discuss the Hubble mission delay.  The basic facts we gave you earlier in the day still hold up.  The part that has failed is called the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter.  There is a replacement part housed at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where Hubble operations are based.  The Hubble team will be putting that part through a series of tests to make sure it is operational and ready to fly, and they say they are confident it will pass.   If all goes as planned, Atlantis could be ready to fly by mid-February.

The Hubble Space Telescope. Source: NASA

In the mean time, the Space Shuttle Program will be making forward plans over the next couple of weeks.  Most likely, they will decide to remove the Hubble payload from Atlantis and eventually roll that shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.  Endeavour would then move to launch pad 39A and could be ready to launch as soon as November 14.

4PM UPDATE:    NASA has confirmed the launch will be delayed.   A new launch date has not been announced, but it will likely slip to January or February 2009.

Regarding the malfunctioning computer on the telescope: for an unknown reason, the principal channel on the on-board scientific data download system stopped working over the weekend.  Efforts to troubleshoot the problem have failed.  Later this week, telescope operators will try to activate a redundant downlink channel.  That "B-side" channel has never been switched on in orbit - it was last activated during ground tests in the late 1980's or early 1990.  Even it it works, the computer system will be left without redundancy.  Scientists and engineers will need time to study the problem, and determine whether that system can be replaced during the upcoming mission.  It would also take time for engineers to configure replacement hardware for flight, and for astronauts to train for a removal and replacement task.

Sources tell CNN the space shuttle Atlantis mission to conduct the fifth and final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope will very likely  be delayed until early next year.

An additional technical problem has cropped up with the telescope's on-board scientific data downlink computer. Scientists and engineers will need time to study the problem, and determine whether additional repair tasks will be added to the mission.

Atlantis has been targeted for launch October 14. The next shuttle mission in the queue is a shuttle Endeavour mission to the International Space Station. It is currently targeted for launch on November 16.

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

Filed under: Hubble Space Telescope • NASA • Space

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Right whales: On the move, on the rebound?

Posted: 09:00 AM ET

For the 29th year in a row, scientists from the New England Aquarium have spent the summer observing North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Still critically endangered and still mysterious, there's some cautious optimism from researchers that the 300-350 animals left may be making a comeback.

Placards like these warn ship captains to watch for slow-moving right whales. Scientists say shipping companies are getting the message off the coast of eastern Canada. Courtesy Dr. Moira Brown

"Between the recent protection measures, and the fact that right whales doubled in reproductive output in the past seven years, there is room for hope and optimism," said Dr. Moira Brown, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts.

"In the latter part of my career, maybe I will be able to monitor the recovery of this species. For me to see that would be my wildest dream," said Brown.

The protection measures Brown talked about include a voluntary measure that took effect June 1, involving the Roseway Basin, a 1,000-square-nautical-mile region south of Barrington, Nova Scotia. It is a primary feeding and socializing ground for right whales. The International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates shipping activities, adopted Canada's proposal that the Roseway Bay be designated an "Area to Be Avoided," or ATBA.

Basically, ships 300 tons and larger make a slight alteration to their route to steer clear of the 70 ton mammals, during the six months (June to December) that the whales spend in those cold northern waters.

Scientists at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia have monitored ship compliance with this voluntary measure, and according to Brown it is about 70%.

Brown said she's found a desire by many shipping companies to increase their awareness of these slow moving animals, and says average citizens have also played a part.

"I think public awareness in eastern Canada has been huge," said Brown.

The whales are also doing their part to preserve their species. The New England Aquarium team believes at least 25 calves were born this year, surviving their critical first 8 months.

"And they're looking healthy," said Brown.

Right whales are just beginning their annual 1000+ mile migration from Canadian/New England waters to their calving grounds off the Georgia/Florida border. Whale moms somehow figured out that their newborn calves have a much greater chance of survival if they are born in those warm southern waters. Most calves are born in December, January, and February.

For the 20th summer, Aquarium researchers have also gathered genetic samples from as many right whales as possible.

"We are developing genetic profiles and a life history database to add to the photo identifications we have kept for years," said Brown.

Scientists hope to learn more about the level of genetic variation in this small population, and find out more about how robust the marine mammals are. Brown estimates that 75% of the population has been biopsied.

But the whales are by no means out of the woods.

There is still no final action on a U.S. proposal to help avoid ship strikes on right whales. In August, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) filed its final environmental impact statement on the rule, which has been languishing in the Office of Management and Budget for more than a year.

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans

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September 27, 2008

Stardust Memories

Posted: 10:12 AM ET

NASA's Stardust sample return capsule is set to go on display next week at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington – giving the public their first chance to see the only man-made object to ever travel beyond the moon into the solar system and then return to Earth.



The Stardust sample return capsule returning to Earth. Source: NASA

The goal of the Stardust mission was to return particles of dust from a comet to Earth.  Comets are icy debris left over from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and scientists were itching for a sample to study.  Comets pass by Earth regularly on long, elliptical orbits of the sun, so it would not be that difficult to send a spacecraft on an intercept course.  But getting a sample back...well, that was the challenge.  And engineers came up with an audacious plan.

After launching in 1999, the spacecraft looped through the solar system on a long rendezvous course with comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vild-2).  In January 2004, Stardust  passed through its tail, just 150 miles from its nucleus, and extended a tennis-racket shaped collector filled with a substance called aerogel.  Aerogel is an extremely light, soft, porous material that was used as a capture media for the tiny dust grains from the comet.

Once the sample was safely on board, Stardust turned for home.  On January 15, 2006, the spacecraft shot past Earth and jettisoned the sample return capsule with pinpoint accuracy.  It hit the atmosphere going nearly 29 thousand miles per hour,  rocketed across the sky over the Northern Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and finally parachuted to landing on the empty salt flats of the Utah Test and Training Range.

Check out this SUPER COOL MOVIE of the re-entry shot from a NASA DC8 Aircraft.

Final odometer reading for the sample return capsule:  three billion miles.

Mission scientists say the samples have been a bonanza.  They had expected to find a lot of material in the comet's tail that originally formed around other stars (hence the name Stardust), but this has turned out to be only a minor component.    What they have found is a mixture of crystalline minerals that they believe were formed at different times in the history of the solar system and at  temperature extremes.  Some of the icy components come from the extreme edges of the solar system  where comets spend most of their time.  But other material was apparently formed deep in the super-hot inner regions of the primordial solar system and was then ejected out beyond the orbit of Neptune.   They have detected particles of a material called Inti (named after the Incan sun god)  that is thought to be the earliest solid material formed in the solar system.

While the sample return capsule will now be showcased in the Smithsonian, the Stardust mother ship is still in space and recently got a new assignment.  The mission is called Stardust-NExT and will revisit comet 9P/Tempel 1, which was the focus of NASA's Deep Impact Mission back in 2005.  That comet has since rounded the Sun, and the goal of Stardust-NExT will be to see how the close approach to our fiery star has altered it.

Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: NASA • Space

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September 26, 2008

China takes its first steps in space

Posted: 03:07 PM ET

China's third manned spaceship has successfully entered orbit on a three-day mission, which will include China’s first spacewalk and the release of a small monitoring satellite.

Secrecy surrounded which of the three taikonauts would take China’s first step into space until Friday. However, authorities did release a photo of Zhai Zhigang, the Shenzhou VII mission's commander, putting on the “Feitian” spacesuit tailored for the spacewalk.

Getty Images

The spacewalk is expected to last about 30 minutes early Saturday morning U.S. time. The spacewalker's assignment is to retrieve a solid lubricant sample attached to the spaceship surface. The spacewalk will also be a rehearsal for China's future plans to build a space station.

After the spacewalk, an 88-pound (40-kilogram) satellite will be released to accompany the orbiting spaceship. Equipped with a CCD (charge-coupled device) 3D camera, the satellite will make a visual record of the voyage, transmitting the pictures to the ground control room.

When the re-entry module heads back to Earth, the satellite and an orbital module will continue to circle the planet. There is speculation that the satellite’s may be able to “attack and capture” other satellites. That ability does not appear in any of its official descriptions. Lu Jinrong, the engineer general at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, denied the speculation firmly. “The satellite will serve as a medium only,” he said.

The Shenzou VII sports a few advances not seen in the previous five decades of manned space flight, including advanced designs in spacesuits, and even the spacecraft's toilet. The “Feitian” (Fly to the sky) suit is touted as being more flexible than Russian spacesuits.

It's the latest in a year full of triumphs and tragedies for the Chinese people: Record winter snowstorms, a massive earthquake in Sichuan in May, the Olympics, the scandal over tainted infant formula, and now a trip to space that's part of a national target to put a taikonaut on the moon by the year 2020.

China has said there are no plans for additional manned missions in the near future. The first manned flight took place in 2003.

Chong Wu, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: China • Space

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September 25, 2008

The end of music CDs?

Posted: 11:42 AM ET

How I remember those days of vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs. Yes, I said CDs. Their days could be numbered as a new music format is about to burst onto the scene. Slot Music, a micro SD card that is about the size of a fingernail, has been developed by SanDisk. Each SD card will hold an album’s worth of music, album cover art, liner notes, and will have extra space for personal files and photos. All songs will be free of copy protection as well.

A slot music memory chip is about the size of a postage stamp.  (From Sandisk)

A slot music memory chip is smaller than the size of a postage stamp. (From Sandisk)

So far four music companies - Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI –are on board as they hope to add another revenue stream to their bottom line. CD sales dropped 19 percent last year.

Best Buy and Wal-Mart are just two of the big retailers that will carry Slot Music. The new format is expected to be out before the holiday shopping season. Twenty-nine different albums ranging from Usher, Weezer, Akon, and even Elvis will be available at launch.

Micro SD cards can be played in many cell phones and MP3 players. Each album will come with a USB device so you can access the album on your computer. All we need now is a Micro SD player for our cars.

Is this the end for CDs or will Slot Music become just a short fad?

Christopher Piatt CNN Science and Tech

Filed under: consumer tech

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September 24, 2008

Southeast US still running dry

Posted: 09:25 AM ET

While we're watching the election, the hurricanes, Wall Street hitting an iceberg, and a worsening gasoline shortage here in the Southeast, this part of the country is still in crisis over another precious resource: Water.

A cove and docks on Georgia's Lake Lanier, 2003

A cove and docks on Georgia's Lake Lanier, 2003

Though it's been largely out of the news the Southeast drought continues. In fact, 35.1% of the southeastern region is in moderate drought or worse. Now to be fair, at this time last year that number was 76.7%. Plus, when talking extreme drought, only 6.9% of the region is classified as extreme, whereas that percentage was an incredible 41.7% last September.

So where is all the water if the acreage of drought is down? Many areas of the Southeast are now in what is called a hydrological drought. That is a technical term for Phase Two. In Phase One (agricultural drought), crops, grasses and other shallow rooted plants get stressed by the lack of available moisture for growth. Your grass turns brown, but the lakes are still relatively full. Now all droughts start as a deficiency of precipitation, but this Phase Two issue now affects rivers and reservoirs. Your grass is brown and your boat is aground. Some areas are in Phase Two-B….dead grass…empty lake and dry well.

Dry, weed-choked, and the docks are now dry-docks.  (Photos Wendy Green)

The same cove last month: Dry, weed-choked, and the docks are now dry-docks. (Photos Wendy Green)

And this is a multi-year drought…in Atlanta, last year brought a rainfall deficit of 18.2” and now 2008 is another 8.0” down compared to normal.

What is a little more telling is available drinking water for the cities in the area. The water supply for a major part of metro Atlanta is Lake Lanier. Currently, Lake Lanier is 16.4 feet below summer full pool. Last year it was 11.5 feet low at this time, yet the major media was all over it. Drought in 2008 seems to be “Old” news even though the reality of long term drought makes this year much more extreme.

I talked to Assistant Professor Georgina DeWeese, Ph.D. in Biogeography and Physical Geography at the University of West Georgia. She said, “People need to realize that water is a resource and not an unlimited one. Drought is going to be here a while. Get used to it and start saving water.”

So the grass is dead and you can’t launch your boat, but what about those that depend on the rain to make their livelihoods? Some farmers have lost two years of income and culled their herds….plant nurseries have filed for bankruptcy…lake front houses have no lake… but, what if Atlanta runs out of water? Can you say mass migration? How long do you think you could live without any water coming out of your tap? A week? A month? Maybe.

So not to be a fatalist…people must stop WASTING water. Can you believe in Cobb County, Georgia a person can’t power wash their house, but they CAN hire someone to do it. From the county’s website….”Pressure washing can only be performed by a licensed professional.” What? They are still using water!

Chad Myers CNN Meteorologist

Filed under: environment • meteorology • Weather

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September 23, 2008

After last week, $8 billion for a broken collider doesn't sound like so much.....

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

The Large Hadron Collider won't be unlocking some of the mysteries of the Universe for a while. It's broken. LHC's operators says they'll need at least two months to warm the collider up from its near-absolute-zero temperatures and fix a portion of it.  (Update:  CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said late today (9/23) that the collider will not be ready to re-start until spring 2009).

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France.   (CERN Photo)

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. (CERN Photo)

It's been called the biggest science project ever: $8 billion in funds and years in research, some of it from the US Department of Energy. The potential payoff? Unlocking some of the deepest-held secrets of physics, like how matter comes together.

After a week in which we committed, or considered committing, as much as a trillion dollars toward cleaning up the financial industry's mess (most of it from U.S. taxpayers), we're looking back at the wide range of opinions that this blog's readers rolled out about the project. There were four basic groups:

1) Folks who wanted to turn the collider into a religious (or anti-religious) statement. I'm not going there, and I regret that so many commentors took a science blog in that direction.

2) Those who feared that the collider would create a black hole, then suck us all into it. The depth of scientific due diligence on the project says that this is an impossibility.

3) Many who were genuinely stoked about the potential for discovery here. I'm with you.

and 4)  Those who thought that $8 billion is too much to spend on something like this.

It's this last group that I want to address:  sure, there are lots of things we could spend $8 billion on now - like feeding several billion of our fellow citizens and beginning to help them out of poverty. Or maybe one-tenth of the money the Feds dumped into bailing out AIG last week. But let's put the collider money into perspective. Here are a few other things we buy with that kind of money:

- A little over four years of domestic sales of Doritos.
- Approximately two-thirds of the annual gambling revenues in the state of Nevada.
- About three days of US oil imports.
- About a month's worth of US cigarette sales.
- About ten months' worth of US lung cancer treatment costs. (A worthy effort to be sure, but one that wouldn't be nearly as costly if it weren't for the cigarette numbers above.)

What's my point? The collider's broken. It may or may not come close to the goals and dreams its many scientists aspired to reach. But the only gamble here is with money, and this is one that's well worth taking.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: economy • Large Hadron Collider • Physics

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September 22, 2008

A new Endeavour for Opportunity

Posted: 05:17 PM ET

The Mars rover Opportunity has a new destination – it's turning its wheels southeast and heading for a massive crater called "Endeavour."

The small crater in the upper left corner is Victoria. Opportunity is located nearby. The rover will be heading southeast toward the massive Endeavour Crater. This image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey Spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

Opportunity departed Victoria Crater late last month after spending about two years rolling around the rim and studying rock formations just inside.

Endeavour is nearly 14 miles wide and 1000 feet deep, many times larger than Victoria, and features a far thicker stack of exposed layered rocks than those studied to date. Opportunity will have to traverse about seven miles across the Martian plain to reach it, doubling the total distance the rover has put on its odometer since landing back in 2004.

Mission managers admit the trip is going to be a long haul, and the aging rover may never get there.   But if it does, the scientific pay-off, not to mention the pictures, should be spectacular.

-Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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September 19, 2008

Concrete Solutions

Posted: 12:13 PM ET

Hard, flat, tough, solid. These are all words that you could use to describe concrete. But green? That’s not usually an adjective many people would apply to cement – unless, of course, they knocked over a can of emerald paint on their driveway… But here’s a rundown of some new environmentally friendly products that are paving the way to greener, well, pavement.

Workers lay Filtercrete (left) and Flexi-Pave (right) instead of regular concrete. Source: CNN/KBI

Recently used to green Chicago’s alleys (watch story here), Filtercrete is one of a few products that help improve normal pavement by making it porous. It is filled with tiny holes that allow water and air to flow between the surface and the soil. This reduces the runoff to local waterways, while increasing water input to local underground aquifers. Because water is less likely to be trapped in the porous concrete, there is a reduction in cracks caused by water freezing to ice. Filtercrete’s holes also harbor bacteria that break down contaminants like oil and grease, so water is cleaned as it passes into the ground.

Flexi-Pave: KB Industries’ flagship product Flexi-Pave adds one more green aspect to porous pavement. Used for ‘low-speed’ surfaces like sidewalks, trails, and parking lots, Flexi-Pave is made primarily of recycled tires. Considering they are used at a rate of one per person per year, there are a lot of worn-out rubber tires out there that could be diverted from landfills and recycled into pavement.

Because it’s made of rubber, Filterpave can expand with any freezing water that happens to be caught in the product’s pores, further reducing the chance of cracking. Also, the product can be outfitted with subsurface heated water pipes to help melt snow lying on the pavement’s surface. “[It] causes any snow to immediately turn to water and pass through the product,” says Chief Operating Officer Trey Wylie, “[Clients] have eliminated snow removal costs and no longer have to apply chemicals throughout the winter.”

Air-Purifying Concrete: It’s still in the research stage, but scientists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands are developing a form of concrete that could help clear nitrogen oxides from the air. Nitrogen oxides are those chemicals that cause problems like smog and acid rain, but this new concrete will contain a chemical – titanium dioxide – that converts nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrate salts.

The salts are rinsed off the surface and into drainage systems when it rains, and the concrete should continue to perform over time. “[Titanium dioxide] is a catalyst, so it is enabling the reaction, but not participating, not consumed, so it never wears out,” says researcher Jos Brouwers. He adds that the air-purifying concrete could potentially be combined with porous concrete products like those mentioned above or even used in decorative facades of buildings. Results on how effectively the concrete performs in field tests are expected in 2009.

So what do you think of these products? Where can green pavement go from here?

Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Cars • environment • Materials • recycling • Tires

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