Friday, March 30, 2007

Do Your Part to Fight Global Warming

I stumbled today on a website,, that offers information and action steps for reducing your personal or family carbon footprint. In addition, the site runs a carbon offset service whereby you can pay (donate) money to to offset your personal or family carbon footprint.

The money donated is used by on offset programs such as helping support alternative energy programs and buying (and retiring) carbon offsets on global and regional trading markets. When you make your contribution to their program, you get a choice of how you want your donation to be spent, including options such as alternative energy, energy efficiency, and re-forestation.

Improving the environment starts with individuals like you and me, and making a donation to is an excellent first step. In addition, Time Magazine has a list of 51 things you can do to personally help in the fight against global warming. I'm going to be highlighting some of the ones I find more interesting over the next week or two, so stay tuned here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

SpaceX Falcon 1 Launched Successfully

Congratulations to Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX on the successful launch of their Falcon 1 rocket late yesterday (or early today GMT). Unfortunately, I lost the video feed and couldn't get it back, so I didn't get to watch the launch. So you'll have to get your launch information from Mr. Musk himself:

The second test launch of Falcon 1 took place today at 6:10 pm California time. The launch was not perfect, but certainly pretty good. Given that the primary objectives were demonstrating responsive launch and gathering test data in advance of our first operational satellite launch later this year, the outcome was great. Operationally responsive (ie fast) launch has become an increasingly important national security objective, so demonstrating rapid loading of propellents and launch in less than an hour, as well as a rapid recycle following the first engine ignition are major accomplishments.

We retired almost all of the significant development risk items, in particular:

  • 1st stage ascent past max dynamic pressure
  • avionics operation in vacuum and under radiation
  • stage separation
  • 2nd stage ignition
  • fairing separation
  • 2nd stage nozzle/chamber at steady state temp in vacuum

Falcon flew far beyond the "edge" of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles. Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station. The second stage didn't achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data. Since it is impossible to ground test the second stage under the same conditions it would see in spaceflight, this anomaly was also something that would have been very hard to determine without a test launch.

All in all, this test has flight proven 95+ percent of the Falcon 1 systems, which bodes really well for our upcoming flights of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, which uses similar hardware. We do not expect any significant delay in the upcoming flights at this point. The Dept of Defense satellite launch is currently scheduled for late Summer and the Malaysian satellite for the Fall.

I'd like to thank DARPA and the Air Force for buying the two test flights and helping us work through a number of challenges over the past year. I'd also like to express my appreciation for the efforts of the Kwajalein Army Range (Reagan Test Site) and we look forward to many more launches in the future.

Finally, thank you to everyone at SpaceX for working so hard to make this a great test. This is a big leap forward for commercial spaceflight!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SpaceX Launch to Re-Attempt Launch Today

EDIT (7:17 PM Central): They apparently fixed whatever went wrong (about 0.4 seconds before launch, if what I overheard was correct), and they are going to re-start the countdown for another attempt after un-fueling and re-fueling the rocket.

EDIT (7:06 PM Central): Another abort, this time at ignition. They actually ignited the rocket, and immediately aborted the launch. At this time, they are attempting to figure out what went wrong, and I suspect we'll know something by tomorrow or the next day.

EDIT: Launch time is now 5:05 PM Pacific time (which is 7:05 PM here in the Midwest).

EDIT: Elon Musk posted this update this morning:

The abort that occurred a few minutes before T-0 was triggered by our ground control software. It commanded a switchover of range telemetry from landline to radio, which took place correctly, however, because of the hardware involved, this transition takes a few hundred milliseconds. Before it had time to complete, our system verification software examined state and aborted.

Our simulations done beforehand all passed, because the simulator did not account for a hardware driven delay in the transition. We considered putting the vehicle into a safe state yesterday and updating the ground control software to make the very minor fix needed, but the safer course of action was to stand down.

Yesterday afternoon and evening (Kwaj time), our launch team updated the software to address the timing issue and verified that there were no similar problems elsewhere. We ran the software through several simulated countdowns and then once again with the rocket and range in the loop.

All systems are now go for launch with T-0 at 4pm California time today (Tues).

Original Post:
So yesterday SpaceX scrubbed their attempted launch of their Falcon 1 rocket. Reportedly, the scrub was due to a range telemetry problem.

No word on a reschedule yet, but when it happens I'll let you know.

Monday, March 19, 2007

SpaceX to Attempt Second Launch Today

SpaceX announced yesterday that all systems are go for their attempt to launch their second Falcon 1 rocket, and that the launch would be at 11:00 GMT (6:00 PM, if you're on Central Time, like I am) today.

The launch will be webcast on their site starting an hour before the slated launch time.

Due to their cautious nature (after their first attempt, last year, sprung a fuel leak and crashed), there is still a very real chance that this launch attempt will also be delayed. I'll post any updates as they become available.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

SpaceX Test Firing Successful

According to the SpaceX website, the company successfully completed its static test firing on Thursday with no engine anomalies found. They did, however, detect an anomaly from the GPS portion of the guidance system fifteen minutes after the static firing. The GPS is not a critical system, however, as it is only a backup to the inertial guidance system.

At this time, the company still expects to launch in the coming week, so keep your eyes open. They will be webcasting the launch when it happens.

They also have two videos of the static firing, one at medium distance and one up close.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A New Way to Do Research from Home

I've blogged on a number of occasions about distributed computing, which allows you to contribute your unused computing power to advance scientific research, because I think that's the single biggest thing most of us can do right now to improve the state of science and technology.

But now you can do even more. The Folding@Home project at Stanford University has new client software for their protein folding simulation that will allow it to run on a Sony PlayStation 3.

According to the Folding@Home website, with about 10,000 PS3s online, the researchers would be able to achieve performance on the petaflop scale. With software from Sony, the PlayStation 3 will now be able to contribute to the Folding@Home project, pushing Folding@Home a major step forward.

Be More

Wired has an article today about the U.S. military's efforts to improve the capabilities of its soldiers. While the article mostly focuses on defense applications, the two main efforts they highlight have applications beyond the military.

One that I found interesting was a device called "the Glove", which is used to help regulate body temperature. Their researchers discovered that muscle fatigue turns out to actually be caused not by the loss of stored sugars, but rather because they overheat. The Glove cools the blood as it circulates, and their tests demonstrate that such a simple act can increase endurance dramatically (one of the researchers demonstrates by doing 600 pull-ups, and the other by doing 1,000 push-ups... on his 60th birthday).

A prototype of the Glove also can be used to warm the blood in frigid conditions, allowing for better regulation of body temperatures in extreme conditions.

The article also highlights research into a method of putting animals (and potentially humans) into stasis for short time periods. In one example, mice were put into stasis in a 5% oxygen environment and drained of 60% of their blood, a situation that should have been instantly fatal. Instead, the mice survived for ten hours or more.

The military's goal for this research, obviously, is to allow soldiers who've been shot to survive long enough for medical care to get to them, especially in an era when smaller units means troops are travelling without medics. But this technology could also be used for treating traumas, and I can foresee a time when all ambulances will be equipped with the necessary gear for putting a patient into a form of stasis until blood can be supplied and their wounds treated. It may even be useful as a viable alternative to anesthesia for surgery.

This sounds like some pretty cool technology, and I can't wait until it's available to the mass market. I'd love to have something like the Glove for when I jog my half marathon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Engineers Create Micro-Factory

Engineers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed and demonstrated a one-square centimeter device they call the "micromanipulator station" that uses agile, human-like fingers that can assemble micromachines made of micron-sized parts.

The device still has a number of problems to overcome, such as adhesion of particles to the "fingers". It is, however, a step in the direction of creating nano-factories that will eventually be able to create machines at the nano-scale.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Exercise Helps Fight Aging-Related Memory Loss

A new study conducted by Columbia University Medical Center has uncovered direct evidence of the link between exercise and better memory.

Most people's memory begins to fade after age 30 due to degradation of an area of the brain known as the dentate gyrus. Exercise, the research shows, increases the flow of blood to this area of the brain, stimulating growth of new cells and allows for better memory retention.

So the next time you have something you need to remember, take a break from cramming and get some exercise... you'll be able to better remember the things you need to know.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Study Shows Stem Cells Useful for Treating Brain Diseases

According to a study reported in Nature Medicine, a test conducted recently on mice by researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research shows that stem cells can be used to treat degenerative brain diseases.

For the study, the scientists implanted human stem cells (both embryonic and fetal) into the brains of mice inflicted with the equivalent of Sandhoff disease (which is similar to Tay-sachs). The stem cells spread through the brain, taking the place of neural cells killed by the disease.

The researchers noted no problems associated with the stem cell treatment. No tumors formed, the mice did not "reject" the foreign cells, and the treatment seemed to reduce inflammation.

The treated mice lived 70 percent longer than untreated mice. The disease eventually came back, but the researchers believe they could keep it at bay by giving booster injections of the stem cells to take over the functions of the mutated natural brain cells.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Low-cost, Home-built Rapic Prototyping Machine?

Rapid prototyping machines--or 3-D printers--use a small nozzle that scans back and forth across a surface, depositing tiny droplets of quick-hardening plastic. After each scan, the nozzle moves up a notch and scans again until it has built up the complete object, layer by layer. With multiple nozzles or a means of swapping supply cartridges, the machine can create objects made of many different materials. An electronic circuit, for example, can be made by combining an organic semiconductor, metallic inks and ceramic insulators.

Price tags for these machines average around $100,000, but you can now build your own for about $2,300 worth of off-the-shelf parts, thanks to the work of a Cornell University engineering professor. The prototype--called Fab@Home--is slower than commercial models and it doesn't have the same fine detail resolution, but for the price it definitely has its uses. Additionally, since the system is home-built from plans available online, you can modify the device to do whatever you want, unlike the commercial products.

You can download the plans to start building your own Fab@Home from this website. The site also includes construction hints, ideas for applications, notes on the history of 3-D printing and discussion groups. People are invited and encouraged to make improvements, and a sort of cult is slowly forming.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Can Colors Impair Performance?

Research reported by the University of Rochester last week indicates that test takers seeing even a glimpse of the color red perform significanctly worse on standardized tests than those who don't see red.

Four experiments demonstrated that the brief perception of red prior to an important test—such as an IQ test or a major exam—actually impaired performance. Two further experiments also established the link between red and avoidance motivation when task choice and psychophysiological measures were applied.

Useful information for those of us who will likely be in school for the rest of our lives (I'm never going to run out of things I want to understand better).

Rosetta@home Branches Out

The Rosetta@home project (which I blogged about in December) has branched out from its original mission of predicting protein structures. David Baker reports in the Rosetta blog that they are working on a way to convert carbon dioxide into simple sugars using enzymes computationally engineered using Rosetta@home.

David writes:
Graduate student Justin Siegal and postdoc Eric Althoff have come up with a very clever new reaction cycle using new enzymes we would collectively engineer that in total carries out the following reaction:

2C02 + 2e- + H20 -> C2O3H2 + O2

the product is a simple sugar that could be used in a variety of ways, and the removal of C02 from the atmosphere would be great for countering global warming. A nice thing about this compared to current ideas of forming inorganic carbonate compounds is that it requires no other inputs. However, it does require electrons, and hence a source of energy. We are currently assessing the energy requirements of this process and comparing them to those of other proposed carbon sequestration mechanisms.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Debating Science: Practical Reasoning and Nanotechnology

This fall, from September 3, 2007, to December 14, 2007, the University of Montana will be offering a web-based course entitled Debating Science: Practical Reasoning and Nanotechnology. If you want a say in the debate about the utility and safety of nanotechnology, this is your chance.

The course instructors are Christopher Preston, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The University of Montana, and Catherine Murphy, the Guy F. Lipscomb Professor of Chemistry at the University of South Carolina.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

PlanetQuest Update

I received an email today from Dr. Laurance Doyle, who (among other things) serves as the President of PlanetQuest. PlanetQuest is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to inspire global participation in the discovery of planets.

Their goal is to launch a distributed computing project using the BOINC platform that I've blogged about here before. Their software--dubbed Collaboratory--will analyze data from telescopes focused on extremely dense star regions, such as the center of the galaxy in Sagittarius in the hopes of finding planets around other stars.

From their website:
Discovering a new delta Scuti star, for example, will help astronomers better understand the stability of stars; a new Cepheid variable star would help astronomers determine how far away stars are. Most exciting of all, you could discover a new planet—a never-before-seen world beyond our solar system! You will be credited for your discovery, and your find will be entered into the PlanetQuest catalog.

Dr. Doyle's email (which came in response to my donating money toward their work on the software) contained some information on the status of their work on the software. The information was long overdue, as they haven't done a very good job of keeping the public up-to-date on their progress (although they have responded to email requests for information). Dr. Doyle writes:

We have the eclipsing binary system classifier running very well, and are now interfacing the circum-binary planet discriminator with the the binary classifier. We'll soon be going straight onto the BOINC platform with this and at that time can release an alpha version of the Collaboratory. The beta should not be far behind with a ready number of testers interested in helping us, and we are shooting for this summer to release the beta test.

Method Developed for Mapping Neural Connections

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have developed a new method for identifying all of the connections to a single neuron in the human brain. Researchers have said they won’t be able to understand the brain until they can put together a map of how billions of neurons are interconnected.

The Salk researchers identified the connections by modifying the deadly rabies virus, turning it into a tool that can cross the synaptic space of a targeted nerve cell just once to identify all the neurons to which it is directly connected.

With luck and given time, neural science researchers will be able to map all of the connections in the human brain, which will lead to a better understanding of how the brain--and hopefully, human thought and sensory perception--works.