Thursday, December 6, 2007

Launch Postponed

12/17/2007 - 9:28 AM - UPDATE: In order to give their staff some time off over the holidays, NASA has pushed the shuttle's launch date back again, this time to January 10. If they dalay much longer, the launch of Atlantis could impact the timeline for 2008's remaining shuttle launches. NASA has a pretty limited lifespan for these shuttles, which are supposed to be retired by 2010, so any delay in launching missions this year could have serious repercussions.

12/10/2007 - 8:11 AM - UPDATE: Still unable to find and correct the fuel sensor glitch, NASA has decided to postpone the launch until January 2, 2008. Doing so will hopefully give their people time to figure out why the sensors are failing (or replace them with a different set that will hopefully work better).

12/08/2007 10:26 AM - UPDATE: NASA has added a further delay, but odds are looking pretty good for a launch tomorrow. These sensors are a four-piece backup system, and when they fueled the shuttle on Thursday only two of the four registered. NASA's rules call for at least three to be functioning in order to launch, but they may relax that rule. They are also planning to shorten their launch window from the normal five minutes to just one minute to conserve a little extra fuel. The reason is that the sensors in question are designed to shut off the engines after fuel gets pretty low, and this way if they fail to shut off there will be a little bit more fuel left at the end of the burn.

12/07/2007 8:09 AM - UPDATE: It's not going to be today, either. NASA is going to spend a little time trying to figure out how to fix the wiring to the sensors. If they can't come up with a solution quickly, they may just launch tomorrow, anyway. These sensors are redundant systems, so not having them won't impact the launch unless the primary systems fail.

So the weather was perfect, but the shuttle wasn't. Two of four low-level fuel sensors on the Atlantis' external fuel tank malfunctioned, prompting a delay of at least 24 hours. Hopefully they'll get things fixed and launch the shuttle tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shuttle Launch Tomorrow

So you probably know by now, but Atlantis is due to launch tomorrow at 4:31 pm EST (3:31 pm here in the Midwest) carrying the European Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station. The weather looks good, so barring any unforseen complications, the next step in space-borne science should be getting underway pretty soon.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grade Chimp?

Researchers from Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute created a working memory task that involved displaying a series of numbers on the screen for a fraction of a second then covering them with boxes. The subjects (chimps and university students) were tasked to touch the white squares in the correct numerical order.

What they discovered was that the nine university students performed progressively worse as the time the numbers were visible decreased from 0.6 seconds to 0.21 seconds, as they had expected. The explanation is that humans cannot scan the screen fast enough to see and mentally record all of the numbers.

One of the two chimps in the study, Ai, demonstrated the same results. The other chimp, seven-year-old Ayumu, however, demonstrated no decreased ability as the time interval shrank. In other words, Ayumu actually performed better on this task than any of the students. The students' performance was on par with Ai, the older chimp.

Is it possible that the average, young university student has roughly the same cognitive abilities as a middle-aged chimp, and that younger chimps have better cognitive abilities than younger people? Sure, anything is possible. But it's not likely. Rather, the researchers believe that chimps in general (or at least Ayumu specifically) have much stronger eidetic memory (more commonly referred to as photographic memory) than the average human.

It should also be pointed out that the sample size of this study was limited to nine students and two chimpanzees. That's a pretty small sample for any real scientific study. However, this could open the door to new areas of cognitive research.