Category: Science

US spy plane lands after 22 months in space


Click to enlargeCC/U.S. Air Force

The US military has landed its robotic space plane, ending a classified 22-month mission that marked the third in Earth orbit for the experimental programme widely believed to be related to spying.

The X-37B touched down at Vandenberg air force base in California on Friday, bringing to a close the third and longest mission the vehicle has undertaken since its maiden voyage in 2010.

The spacecraft conducted unspecified experiments for 674 days while in orbit. The US air force said the orbiter, built by Boeing, performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”, although details of the missions are secret.

In a written release announcing the craft’s return, the air force only said it had been conducting “on-orbit experiments”…

US officials have previously denied the project had anything to do with creating a “space weapon” that could knock down other satellites.

But, our government, our military ain’t about to tell ordinary citizens a damned thing. We just get to pick up the tab.

Thanks, Mike

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Importance of tiny creatures in grassland ecology

A newly published study reveals the importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

When asked to describe a forest or a meadow, most people would probably begin with the plants, the species diversity, or the color of the foliage. They probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the animals living in the soil.

But a new Yale-led study shows the critical importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

During a 3-year study, researchers found that removing these small animals from the soil of a replicated Scottish sheep meadow altered the plant species that grew in the ecosystem, reduced overall productivity, and produced plants that were less responsive to common agricultural management, such as fertilization.

The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land…

“We know these soil animals are important controls on processes which cause nutrients and carbon to cycle in ecosystems, but there was little evidence that human-induced loss of these animals has effects at the level of the whole ecosystem, on services such as agricultural yield,” said Mark Bradford…lead author of the study…

“Yet that’s exactly what we found.”

RTFA for the details of approach, method, discovery. The Yale School of Forestry has been around a couple thousand years – it feels like, sometimes. They never stop pressing for more and better understanding of the environment.

Thanks, Mike

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

NOAA’s newest highest-resolution weather forecast


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This image, made with NOAA’s newest weather model, shows ground temperature readings at a 2 mile resolution. Each pixel is shaded according to the temperature, ranging from 113 degrees F (the brightest yellow) to freezing (white).

This colorful map of ground temperature shows the tapestry of American weather on September 30. Undeniably beautiful, it owes its rich color gradient to a powerful new scientific tool for modeling the weather for incredibly small chunks of both time and space.

After five years of work, NOAA unveiled the new model, called High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR), on September 30. Like its predecessor, HRRR will update every hour. But, HRRR fine tunes the forecast every 15 minutes by constantly digesting radar reports, so that the hourly update is as accurate as possible. Each forecast starts with a 3-D radar snapshot of the atmosphere that it modifies with data from NOAA’s vast network of weather stations, balloons, and satellites…

The graphic below shows the same weather system in HRRR (right) and its predecessor (left). In the old model, the front appears to be one, big, splotchy storm. HRRR shows that the front is actually a patchy group of storm cells, a picture that is much closer to reality.

resolution comparison

I am a weather geek in an extended family of weather geeks. Pretty much everyone including my wife has been a pilot one time or another – but me. We compare weather apps on our assorted cpus. And I can’t wait till one is available with this resolution.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Antibiotics stewardship reduces rate of hospital readmission for children

Among 176 children treated for nonchronic complex care issues and without underlying medical conditions, none were readmitted within 30 days if the physician accepted the recommendation of the pharmacist-physician antibiotics stewardship team, reported Jason Newland, MD, of Children’s Mercy Hospital-Kansas City in Missouri, and colleagues.

In comparison, among the 88 children whose doctors rejected the recommendations, 3.4% required readmission, they said at the annual IDWeek conference.

Newland noted that the difference was statistically significant

The pattern was similar among children who had chronic complex care issues. Of the 149 children whose doctors accepted the recommendations regarding use of antibiotics, there was no 30-day readmission. However, among the children whose doctors said No to the recommendations, the readmission rate was 2.6%, Newland said.

“We are only talking about two or three new admissions,” he acknowledged, “but there was none” in the groups where the recommendations were explained and were accepted by the doctors.

Pranita Tamma, MD, who moderated the IDWeek press briefing where the study results were presented, told MedPage Today that “antimicrobial stewardship programs generally consist of a physician and a pharmacist who oversee, guide, and educate clinicians in their institutions about the appropriate use of antibiotics. The goal of every stewardship program in the U.S. is to ensure that every patient who requires an antibiotic receives the right drug, the right dose, by the right route, and for the right duration of time.”

Dr. Pranita Tamma noted for the press briefing – “Ultimately, we believe that this improves the care of children while decreasing the unintended consequences of antibiotic overuse, including allergic reactions, severe diarrheal illnesses, hearing loss, kidney and liver damage, and, of course, antibiotic resistance.”

Hear, hear.

Wait for unintended consequences — Scientists to test lab-grown penises

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Penises grown in laboratories could soon be tested on men by scientists developing technology to help people with congenital abnormalities, or who have undergone surgery for aggressive cancer or suffered traumatic injury.

Yes, there will more categories.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine…are assessing engineered penises for safety, function and durability. They hope to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and to move to human testing within five years.

Professor Anthony Atala…oversaw the team’s successful engineering of penises for rabbits in 2008. “The rabbit studies were very encouraging,” he said, “but to get approval for humans we need all the safety and quality assurance data, we need to show that the materials aren’t toxic, and we have to spell out the manufacturing process, step by step.”

The penises would be grown using a patient’s own cells to avoid the high risk of immunological rejection after organ transplantation from another individual…

“Our target is to get the organs into patients with injuries or congenital abnormalities,” said Atala…

Aside from a guaranteed underground Black Market – you know religious nutballs in and out of government will go ballistic over this. Plus, you can look forward to the first reality TV show on the human trials.

Fighting wildfires with science

Fire modeling tools rely on information from the National Weather Service, detailed maps of fuel layers in forests and other factors. They estimate how fast the fire will burn and how it will spread in relation to vegetation, trees, homes and other properties.

For Joe Hudson and Byron Bonney, the WFDSS program calculated the Johnson Bar fire’s potential spread within a 26,000-acre planning area where firefighter actions could slow or stop the fire. The modeled fire behavior informed them on the potential effects on threatened values: homes along the Selway and in nearby Lowell, a rustic lookout, the historic Tahoe Trail, habitat for fish, and timber and replanted forests.

“Once the fire has escaped initial direct attack, the goal is to protect the values at risk and contain the fire,” said Hudson.

Hudson called in the Incident Management Team, an interagency group that manages large fires. The IMT set up camp Aug. 8 at the Kooskia airport, 20 miles west of the fire.

Winds were pushing the fire north. Winds were gusting 35 mph on the ridges, triggering an Aug. 12 flare that doubled the size of the fire in one day. People living in the 30 homes along the Selway already had been evacuated.

The IMT kept the fire from spreading and establishing itself on the other side of the river. The WFDSS analysis was helping guide their decisions.

With the fire spreading down the slopes of the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater River, the managers decided to perform burnouts using the rivers as barriers.

It worked. Welcome rains helped tame the fire. Firefighters were able to establish containment lines.

There are a few sections to this article – each valuable. It all leads up to fire science, divining the factors affecting heat, fuel and oxygen – the determinants of a fire.

Read the article. Especially if you live in the Moiuntain West.

TechKnow on Aljazeera America had a good segment on these studies a week or so ago. Here are the producer’s notes. Haven’t a video of the segment, yet – only a promo for the show.

Thanks, Mike

Worried about electromagnetic pollution? Should you be reading this on your iPad?

Hundreds of EMF-blocking garments and devices are marketed to reduce a person’s exposure to radiation, but the science says not to fret.

When Ameer Rosic went to jail for the last time six years ago, the stars aligned…He spent his time behind bars searching for answers about the type of person he wanted to be and what he wanted to do with his life.

When he got out, Rosic was obsessed with health, and he began working with businesspeople and entrepreneurs on a holistic approach…But for some of his clients, optimal health still seemed just out of reach, and Rosic concluded that the reason was because of their ongoing exposure to electromagnetic radiation from their cell phones, laptops, nearby cell towers, and so forth. So…he decided to launch a clothing company to reduce a person’s exposure.

Riparo, which in November will launch an Indiegogo campaign for its EMF-blocking briefs to “protect your balls” from what some like to call EMF “pollution,” joins an already established market of apparel aimed at minimizing how much radiation penetrates our bodies. This includes every type of garment imaginable, from shirts and underwear to hats and pregnancy bellybands.

The vast majority of scientists across many fields around the world say we don’t need to worry about what amounts to very small radiation exposure from our electronics. The World Health Organization, which launched an initiative to look into the topic in 1997 and has reviewed more than 25,000 studies, has concluded that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

But considering long-term exposure is still being studied, is it better to invest in radiation-blocking clothing to “play it safe,” as Rosic says, or is this just a bunch of hocus pocus marketed to the most gullible among us…?

The answer depends, of course, on whom you ask…and I would ask – or read studies from – someone with qualified experience and study.

In fact, the most common explanation for the symptoms some describe, such as headaches, anxiety, and insomnia, is that it is the stress people feel about EMF exposure that causes the ill effects. In one instance, a number of people claimed that a new cell tower in their neighborhood was adversely affecting their health — before it had even been turned on.

Lots more fact and study in the article. A worthwhile read. Like anything with a realistic scientific bent, cautions are automatically included. The fact remains that regardless of how confident you can be about answers to a question there are advances in measurement and experimentation every day and it’s always worth revisiting a question. Up to the point of absurdity.

I live next to one of those communities where neighbors sue each other over wifi networks they are certain are giving them bad dreams. A community where in fact the city was sued for a cell tower that caused inestimable harm – even though it hadn’t yet been turned on.

To my mind, an outsized portion of the “problem” rests with a culture that rarely reads beyond headlines or listens to more than talking heads. Folks don’t even get to the place where they should be asking for qualifications.

America is a Christian nation — Really?

Christian nation, har!
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I’m so sick of the Christian Right not understanding that being a Christian nation and a nation that is majority Christian are two different things. From Paws and Claws, a newsletter by Ursarodinia

Couldn’t agree more. I was raised in a mostly Christian family. Folks studied other religions as part of understanding the whole world. Some stayed Christian – in mainstream churches. A few, like me, moved on to materialist philosophy and science, atheists.

No one wandered off into the rejection of knowledge and science, history and progress, so characteristic of American Christian fundamentalists.

The only way you get to be “smarter” than folks from the 14th Century is to study and learn what brought humanity out of the Dark Ages and into modernity.

Dosing your kids with antibiotics, early and often, linked to childhood obesity

Children exposed repeatedly to antibiotics in their first 2 years of life were more likely to be obese later in childhood…

Children with four or more courses of antibiotics were 11% more likely than others to become obese, according to Charles Bailey, MD, PhD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and colleagues.

But the effect was restricted to broad-spectrum drugs, suggesting that narrower antibiotic selection might modify the risk, Bailey and colleagues reported online in JAMA Pediatrics.

Because obesity is multifactorial, the authors argued, cutting its prevalence means “identifying and managing multiple risk factors whose individual effects may be small but modifiable.”

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine identified several such factors, including the mother’s pre-pregnancy body mass index, physical activity, and sleep duration. But one “emerging factor,” Bailey and colleagues noted, was the role played by microbial populations in the intestine, which can be affected by antibiotics…

They looked at recorded antibiotic prescriptions in the first 2 years of life and used Cox proportional hazards models to look for associations with obesity in the following 3 years…

Some 69% of the children in the cohort had at least one exposure to antibiotics before 24 months, with an average of 2.3 episodes per child, the investigators found…

Children who were given antibiotics were similar at the time of exposure in terms of weight-for-length to children who did not get the drugs.

But cumulative exposure to antibiotics was associated with later obesity…The effect was greater for broad-spectrum antibiotics…

Getting broad-spectrum drugs early was also associated with obesity, Bailey and colleagues found.

I don’t care what the rationale may be. Whether parents unreasonably demand antibiotics – and doctors cave in. Just like “social promotion” in some school systems for children with failing grades. Or whether your family GP is getting spiffs from some pharmaceutical corporation detailer.

The appropriate response to studies like this is to halt overmedication. Further studies are always needed to confirm or counter; but, meanwhile, let’s try to err on the side of healthier kids, eh?