October 16, 2008

You will believe a journalist can fly

Posted: 10:49 AM ET

I'd seen the news stories of past zero-gravity flights. I'd watched the instructional video. I'd received personal coaching. I knew exactly what was going to happen when the plane hit that first parabola and made earth gravity go away. Still, my brain was telling me, "This can't really be happening!" when my body floated off the floor of the 727 for the first time.

Reporter Reynolds Wolf and G-Force One

I was producing a story on how Northrop Grumman is chartering a specially-modified jet to take teachers on zero-gravity plane rides. The idea is to have math and science middle-school teachers conduct experiments during a once-in-a-lifetime weightless flight, and have them take that thrilling experience back to their students, inspiring and motivating a new crop of scientists, astronauts, and engineers.

We'll bring you that story in the near future. But while I'm still in the grip of my zero-G hangover, I thought I'd share my personal encounter with weightlessness.

The day started before dawn at a hotel just outside the Atlanta airport. Reporter Reynolds Wolf, cameraman Jonathan Schaer and I met up with 30 teachers and the "floatmasters" (my term, not theirs) who would guide us during the flight. We were provided a breakfast of pastries and fruit. The floatmasters recommended avoiding dairy, protein, and excessive caffeine. They had also recommended not drinking alcohol the night before. (Not a problem for me, but I could see how a more nervous person might want a shot.) All of this, of course, was to avoid turning the flight into a "vomit comet" - the nickname of the parabolic flight jet used for training astronauts.

We were all issued navy blue jump suits with "G-Force One" patches. We watched a training video that repeatedly drilled into us: Don't Jump, Don't Kick, Don't Swim. During weightlessness, jumping will send you into a neck-crunching collision with the plane's padded ceiling. Kicking is likely to connect painfully with a nearby zeronaut, as we were called. And swimming just doesn't move you anywhere in zero G - it just makes you look silly.

We took shuttles to the small private terminal serving the flight and passed through TSA security just like ordinary, gravity-tethered travelers. Then, like the pioneering spacemen of "The Right Stuff," we strode to our craft - a modified 727 dubbed "G-Force One." We entered via what in a conventional plane would be the rear emergency door. The jet had seven rows of seats in the back. The front 2/3 of the plane was an open area, with thickly-padded walls, floor, and ceiling. No windows, except in the emergency exits.

Illustration: Zero Gravity Corporation

Soon, we were off for a half-hour or so ride to airspace over the Atlantic. A 100-mile-long, 10-mile-wide area, 24,000-32,000 feet in altitude, is dedicated to these parabolic flights. Parabolas are essentially arcs. As the plane flies up the arc at a 45-degree angle, passengers feel increased gravity, about 1.8 times that on earth. But when the plane crests and starts down the arc you get reduced, or zero, gravity for about 30 seconds. To acclimate the passengers on our flight to zero G, the first parabola created the 1/3 Earth gravity environment of Mars. The second and third parabolas created the 1/6 gravity of the moon, and the last 12 were the real deal - weightlessness.

The teachers chatted and laughed excitedly on the flight out, even cheering "Wooo!" and "Yeah!" when the plane dipped unexpectedly. Turbulence on a normal flight might make you nervous. But on this day, it seemed to be just a foretaste of the great adventure to come.

As the time for the first parabola neared, we were told to lie down on the floor and stare at a point on the ceiling to avoid disorientation. The increased gravity wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - it was like a heavy weight pressing on my head and chest. Then a floatmaster cried out "Martian One!" to warn us that the first Mars-gravity episode was approaching, and my body started feeling really light. (On Mars, a 150-pound person would weigh only 50 pounds.) Laughter and shouts of amazement filled the plane. People stood up - some bounding up, despite our "Don't Jump" orders. Thank goodness for the padding. Teachers were dancing like out-of-control marionettes. (Journalists, too.) Some folks did one-handed push-ups – easily! Then, all too quickly, the order "Feet down!" rang out and we had to lie flat again.

The next two parabolas, "Lunar One" and "Lunar Two," made us feel 1/6th lighter than on Earth. You could pick your feet up off the floor and float gently down (unless your out-of-control neighbors were falling or flailing into you.) I, of course, was one of those out-of-control neighbors.

Then, weightlessness. The Zero Gravity Corporation brochures liken the experience to a zen-like, exalted state of bliss. But for the teachers (and journalists) on our flight, I think there was too much fun going on for anyone to experience zen. You had absolutely no control. If you got yourself moving in one direction, you couldn't stop until you hit something. Bodies were bouncing off the walls, floor, ceiling, each other. The first few zero-G parabolas were absolutely hilarious - chaotic, but hilarious. Every face had a broad, silly, marveling grin.

Well, nearly every face. By the end of the flight, a few teachers - I counted eight out of the thirty - had returned to their seats, fighting the effects of motion sickness. I didn't see any evidence that the flight had actually become a "vomit comet," but these folks definitely were not feeling well.

Not a lot of science got done in those first few parabolas. Folks (including Reynolds, our correspondent) flew through the air like Superman. Teachers played catch - using each other as the ball. We tried to eat flying M&M's and drink floating globs of water. But during the last several parabolas the educators did complete at least some of their experiments, which tested Newton's Laws of Motion.

Floating photojournalist Jonathan Schaer

Throughout all of this, my photographer, Jonathan, wrestled with his camera, which was mounted inside a steering wheel-like device to help him maintain its stability. Even when we were supposed to be lying prone, Jonathan remained sitting, and sometimes standing, so he could get the best video he could. And he didn't get sick. Neither did my correspondent, Reynolds, who even photographed his unused airsick bag as proof.

When the floatmasters yelled "Feet down!" during the last parabola, I wanted more. But as we were flying back to Earth, I started feeling a bit of malaise. I then figured that maybe the floatmasters knew what they were doing, stopping at 15 parabolas. (NASA's "Vomit Comet" flies 40 or more per flight.) Others may have felt the same way; the teachers were much quieter on the way back, perhaps reflecting on their Superman leaps and successful experiments - or perhaps just waiting for heads to stop spinning and stomachs to settle.

Even today, the day after, I still feel sort of dragged out and a bit fuzzy-brained. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. You could do it, too - for a price. The Zero Gravity Corporation makes regular flights out of Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. They cost five thousand dollars a seat.

So, assuming you have a spare $5,000. . .would you have The Right Stuff to do zero G?

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

Filed under: Aviation • NASA • Space • Space Tourism • teachers • zero gravity

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October 15, 2008

World's 4th-largest lake almost gone

Posted: 11:35 AM ET

The latest satellite image of the Aral Sea shows a disappearing body of water. What was the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake is almost gone due to an engineering project gone wrong, despite a last-ditch effort to save it.

The Aral Sea straddles the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. Its water was mainly supplied by two rivers, the Syr Darya (the Persian word for sea) and the Amu Darya. In 1960, the sea covered 25,600 square miles, about 10 percent larger than Lake Michigan.

An October 2008 NASA image, showing the Aral with about 10 percent of its original water volume.

On the left: A 1987 USGS image of the Aral Sea. On the right: An October 2008 NASA image, showing the Aral with about 10% of its original water volume.

Under a Stalin-era plan, the Aral started to shrink as the former Soviet Union drastically diverted the two feeding rivers for irrigation of cotton and other crops. Today, the lake’s water is about 10 percent of its original volume and its surface area has shrunk by 74 percent, according to a report published in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 2007. And the lake’s salinity has increased tenfold.

In 2001, the Kazakh government initiated a rehabilitation plan for the lake, improving the flood levees and building a dam to divide the smaller northern Aral Sea from its larger and more polluted southern portion. By the time the 6 mile-long Kok-Aral Dam was completed in 2005, the surface areas of the northern Aral grew by 30 percent and the water depth increased by about 20 percent.

Deane McKinney, a professor at the University of Texas who led a water research program in the Aral Sea area five years ago, said: “I suspect that it (the northern Aral) may slightly increase in size over the coming years, but that will depend on the climatic conditions of those years.”

But the latest satellite image still found that the main body of the Aral Sea, the much larger southern portion that mostly sits in Uzbekistan, has been shrinking non-stop.

The Uzbeks have announced no plans to reverse this. According to Professor McKinney, the volume of water necessary to refill the Southern Aral Sea is simply so large that “it would require these countries to relinquish their use of the water for other purposes for decades.”

“This is just not economically viable at the present time,” he added.

The Uzbek government, instead, has announced plans to explore the drained Aral seabed for oil. Whether that will change the welfare of local people is unknown, but the consequences of leaving the Aral Sea to die are obvious.

The interruption of the Aral ecosystem has led to many serious problems. The local fishery collapsed. Respiratory and other diseases began to spread. And increased salt and dust storms have taken their toll on both people and property.

Another potential threat may come from Vozrozhdenie (rebirth), which was once a large island in the center of the Aral Sea. Vozrozhdenie was a Soviet germ-warfare facility during the Cold War. The island is now physically connected to the land, increasing security risks and enabling easier transmission of any possible biological hazards on this island to a larger environment.

–Chong Wu, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: environment

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October 14, 2008

The eye of the storm

Posted: 01:19 PM ET

Check out these new Cassini pictures of the vortex at Saturn's southern pole.

Vortex at Saturn's southern pole. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Inst.

The new images, captured in July, are ten times more detailed than any taken before of this phenomenon. Experts say the vortex is not unlike a hurricane here on Earth...except it rages all the time, and it is anchored to the pole. And it is much larger than any terrestrial storm, about the diameter of the Earth itself, with wind speeds nearing 350 miles per hour.

Like a hurricane, the vortex is awash in convective atmospheric turnover, with warmer gases being pumped up and away from the interior. A detailed image of the eye itself show smaller storms within previous images these just looked like puffy clouds.

Scientists are interested in studying this vortex because it will help them better understand the dynamics of Saturn's atmosphere. It's yet another fascinating target for Cassini as it continues its tour of the Saturn system - the rings, the moons (especially Titan, which is often compared to the primordial Earth, and the geyser moon Enceladus), and these intriguing weather systems.

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

Filed under: Cassini • NASA • Space

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October 13, 2008

Book tracks four decades of energy errors

Posted: 12:42 PM ET

My part of the country is recovering from re-living the gas lines of the 1970s.

Thanks to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, refinery shutdowns brought gas lines back to much of the Southeast U.S. Here in the Atlanta area, most stations were shut down for the past few weeks, and when one got a rare delivery, the tanker truck driver attracted petroleum paparazzis - drivers who follow a delivery truck to its destination. Long story short: Although the gas crisis has eased, it's changed people's behavior, and really gotten inside everyone's head.

Along comes a book that recounts four decades of good intentions and failures in US energy policy. A Declaration of Energy Independence, by former Energy Department official Jay Hakes, is in equal parts a prescription for U.S. energy self-sufficiency, and a pageant of recounting the errors of the past seven Presidential administrations. The book does a good job of staying readable, with Hakes navigating between the dense economics and policy-wonk detail that are a part of our ongoing energy drama. He points out the sins of Republicans and Democrats alike, with each President back to Richard Nixon promising energy independence and then dropping the ball.

Hakes is most charitable to Jimmy Carter, whose earnest and early embrace of conservation and alternative energy was lost in the Reagan Revolution. (Note that Hakes's day job is running the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta). But he also gives a nod to Ronald Reagan, whose early policies won a short-lived drop in US oil imports. The Reagan Era also saw abrupt reversals in alternative and conservation programs spawned under Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

The author also connects the indisputable dots between oil imports and U.S. foreign policy adventures, from support for the Shah of Iran, the Iranian revolution and hostage-taking that helped bring down Carter, and the subsequent support of Saddam Hussein. Back when Iraq and Iran were at war, we were for Saddam before we were against him. Most telling and prophetic is a quote from President Eisenhower, who said half a century ago that "should a crisis arise (in) Mid East oil, we would have to use force."

The back half of the book focuses not on the sins of the past but on the path to the future. Both liberals and conservatives need to get over their reflexive impulses, says Hakes: The left has to stop demonizing corporations that hold many of the keys to solutions, and recognize that the free market just might have a role in fixing this; the right has to stop viewing any effort to challenge fossil fuels as a sinister conspiracy from Al Gore's Secret Mountain Laboratory, and keep an open mind to energy taxes as another path to solution.

Hakes calls for making energy conservation a "patriotic duty" (I think I recall that from many past good intentions), increasing energy storage capacity, and starting over on how we deal with our cars.

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

Filed under: Energy • Fuel

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October 10, 2008

Thursday's Enceladus flyby pictures

Posted: 02:05 PM ET

As previewed in a blog post from several days ago, the Cassini spacecraft executed another in a series of close flybys of Saturn's geyser moon Enceladus on Thursday.

Raw image of Saturn's moon Enceladus taken October 10 by the Cassini spacecraft. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The first images are now available, with more to follow in the coming days.

Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco reports that all went according to plan:  "Yesterday, Cassini executed another daring dive over the south polar region of Enceladus and through its plume of vapor and frost.  And once again, it went spectacularly well.   The imaging team acquired fabulous images, and the instruments designed to collect and measure the constituents of the plume for analysis did what they should."

I'll keep an eye out and post again when the science analysis comes out.  As noted earlier, there is another Enceladus flyby scheduled for October 31.

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

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

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Manpowered car

Posted: 01:07 PM ET

When powering the green car of the future, one man is turning to Fred Flintstone for inspiration. Charles Greenwood is the creator of the HumanCar, an automobile that’s powered by you and me and maybe some of your friends.

The Imangine "Urban" concept design by Stephen Brand for the HumanCar.

Rowing handles produce the electricity the car needs to move it forward. Greenwood says it’s made entirely of recycled plastics and can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour as you row away, but he says there’s also a back-up electric motor in case you get tired of rowing.

“It's just exactly like an engine firing around the four cylinder cycle. In this case, we can see we got one, two, three, four, firing around” Greenwood says as he points to four people rowing the HumanCar.

Greenwood’s son, Chuck, the CEO of the HumanCar design company, says one of the designs, the Imagine_PS Electric-Human Hybrid Car can also be a source of power for your home: “Theoretically, you can operate 100 of these vehicles to create a 100-kilowatt mobile power station.”

The HumanCar costs $15,500 and you can pre-order one for a $99 deposit. They are set to roll out next year on Earth Day.

What do you think? Is a human-powered vehicle a good fuel alternative? Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to just ride a bike?

Paulo Nogueira - Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Cars • environment

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October 9, 2008

Doing the right thing for endangered whales

Posted: 11:45 AM ET

After years of both scientific study and political wrangling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued a regulation designed to protect North Atlantic right whales.

The long debated “Ship Strike Rule” requires large commercial ships (65-plus feet in length) to reduce their speeds to ten knots when traveling through right whale habitat. There are only 300-400 of these whales left in the world, making it among the most endangered marine species.

“The ship strike rule, based on science, is a major addition to NOAA’s arsenal of protections for this endangered species," said Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., NOAA administrator. (Lautenbacher has just announced his resignation from NOAA.)

Along the mid-Atlantic states, speed restrictions will extend 20 nautical miles near major ports. NOAA says 83 percent of right whale sightings are within 20 miles of land.

Right whales are very slow moving, and their migration routes take them across busy shipping lanes along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The shipping restrictions only apply in certain months of the year, when the whales are likely to be present. The mammals spend summers around Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the Bay of Fundy in Canadian waters. They travel south off the coast of Georgia and Florida in the winter months, where females give birth.

Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing and lobster gear are currently the biggest threats to right whales.

The rule is expected to go into effect in early December. NOAA says the rule will be re-examined after five years so scientists can evaluate its effectiveness.

While conservation groups welcome the measure, they wish it had been even stronger.

“While we had hoped a 30-nautical-mile zone would be established around major ports, we are pleased by the U.S. government’s decision today to establish this new whale ship strike regulation,” said Jeffrey Flocken, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Washington office.

IFAW is urging the U.S. government to use on-the-water enforcement and to step up new technologies for right whale protection.

The ship strike rule spent more than a year stranded in the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Vice President, as objections from the shipping industry were considered.

–Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • Politics

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October 8, 2008

To the moon, Alice!

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

Two more teams have signed up for the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
  • Independence-X Aerospace: A Malaysian group lead by Mohd Izmir Yamin.
  • Omega Envoy: A U.S. group led by University of Central Florida students Ruben Nunez, Jason Dunn and Justin Karl.

To win the $20 million grand prize, a team must soft-land its spacecraft on the Moon, rove at least 500 meters, and transmit video, images and data back to Earth (according to a specific set of parameters). All funding must be private. The deadline is December 31, 2012 - after that the grand prize drops to $15 million. If no one wins by December 31, 2014, the competition ends. (Unless they extend it...)

The two new entrants bring to 14 the total number of teams in the competition. The others include:

  • Odyssey Moon: Isle of Man-based team, working on a spacecraft called "MoonOne (M-1)"
  • Astrobotic: U.S. team lead by Carnegie Mellon University robotics guru "Red" Whittaker; the lander will be called "Artemis" and the rover "Red Rover"
  • Team Italia: Italy-based, obviously, spacecraft will be called "AMALIA"
  • Micro-Space: U.S. team
  • FREDNET: A multinational team, taking a 100% open-source approach
  • ARCA: The acronym stands for Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association; spacecraft will be called the European Lunar Explorer, or "ELE"
  • LunaTrex: U.S. team, working on a spacecraft called "Tumbleweed"
  • Chandah: U.S. team, "Chandah" means "Moon" in Sanskrit; spacecraft will be called "Shehrezade"
  • Advaeros: Another Malaysian team; spacecraft will be called "Picard"
  • STELLAR: U.S. team, includes members from Insight Technologies, the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, and North Carolina State University; spacecraft will be called the "Stellar Eagle"
  • JURBAN: U.S. team sponsored by a research group called Juxtopia; spacecraft will be called "JOLHT"
  • And one Mystery Team (teams may remain anonymous until July 20, 2009)

If this all seems too, ahem, "pie-in-the-sky," remember that Burt Rutan (with backing from Microsoft's Paul Allen) won the $10 million dollar Ansari X PRIZE back in 2004 for private suborbital spaceflight. Big feats CAN be accomplished on a relative shoestring. It will be fun to watch and see if one of these groups can win big.

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

Filed under: Google Lunar X PRIZE • Moon • Space

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October 7, 2008

Flybys breaking out all over

Posted: 10:44 AM ET

Here are the first images from the MESSENGER spacecraft's Monday flyby of Mercury.

Image of craters on Mercury taken Oct. 6. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

MESSENGER will fly by the planet once more in September 2009. The spacecraft is scheduled to enter orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011.

In the meantime, the Cassini spacecraft is getting ready to execute two more flybys of Saturn's moon Enceladus (pronounced in-SELL-uh-dus) this month. Enceladus, you may recall, is the moon that is spewing cold geysers of water into space, which suggests to scientists there is liquid water (possibly even an ocean) under its surface.

The first flyby, set for Thursday October 9th, is arguably the more exciting of the two. Cassini will pass just 16 miles over the surface of the moon, directly through the geyser plume. The emphasis on this flyby will be to use the on-board science instruments to learn more about its composition. Data from previous flybys indicate that, in addition to water vapor, water ice, and dust, the plume also contains trace amounts of organic chemicals. The presence of organics has certainly perked up the antennae of the astrobiology community. In only a short period of time this little moon has shot to near the top of the list of promising places to look for extra-terrestrial microbial life.

The second Enceladus flyby of the month is set for Oct. 31. Cassini will fly 122 miles over the surface, and use on-board cameras to photograph surface fractures in the south polar region.

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

Filed under: Astrobiology • Cassini • Enceladus • Mercury • MESSENGER • NASA • Saturn • Space

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October 4, 2008

Soviet shuttle finally gets a home

Posted: 09:13 AM ET

A Soviet space shuttle has finally landed in a museum.  After a long history and a virtual world tour, a Shuttle Buran was put on permanent display to the public on Friday at the "Technik Museum Speyer" near Manheim, Germany.

Photo: Aaron Cooper, CNN

When you first walk into the Buran building you could easily mistake the shuttle for its American counterpart.  It looks almost identical to NASA's fleet, but the museum points out it's not just a Soviet copy.  They explain the similarities saying both design teams were governed by the same laws of physics, had similar goals, and Soviet designers drew on NASA's publicized research but the end products were substantially different.

The Technik Museum already had a large collection (everything from a Boeing 747 mounted high in the air, to a Cold War U boat, fire trucks, typewriters and model trains) but museum director Hermann Layher dreamed of adding a space shuttle.

The U.S. shuttles are still in use, but the Soviet Union's Buran shuttles were mothballed when funding was cut shortly after the collapse of communism.  Only one had ever been launched (unmanned in 1988), but that was destroyed in 2002 when its hangar collapsed.

One of the test models was available.  Buran OK-GLI, like the U.S. Space Shuttle Enterprise, was built to test aerodynamics for landings.  Unlike it's American counterpart the OK-GLI had 4 jet engines attached to its tail so it could take off for its test flights (the Enterprise had to be carried aloft by a Boeing 747.)

The Buran OK-GLI had been displayed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, then was taken to Bahrain to be exhibited, but got mired in a legal battle between its owners and the exhibitors.  The Technik Museum was able to buy it and after a long legal battle brought it to Germany.  It was first shipped by sea, then pushed on barges up the Rhine River to the city of Speyer.

In all the museum spent about 10 million Euros (about 15 million dollars) to buy the shuttle, bring it to Germany, and put it on display in it specially built hangar.  Friday a steady stream of museum visitors, including me, flooded into that hanger to see exactly what a Soviet space shuttle looks like.

–CNN Producer Aaron Cooper in Speyer, Germany


Filed under: Space

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