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New Autonomous Spacecraft Docks at Space Station

The European Space Agency's new unmanned cargo vehicle successfully docked at the International Space Station today. Called the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the 17 metric ton spacecraft made contact with the orbiting space platform at 14:45 GMT on an experimental mission to prove its technical prowess and deliver much-needed supplies. It also marked the entrance of the European nations into the ISS flight club.

According to an announcement from ESA, the automated approach began 39 kilometers behind the ISS and lasted 4 hours, in which the closing of the two was halted repeatedly to check bearings. ESA said the Jules Verne autonomously computed its own position through relative GPS and, at close range, used videometers pointed at laser retro-reflectors on the ISS to determine its distance and orientation relative to its target.

At docking, the ATV was traveling at 7 centimeters per second relative to the velocity of the ISS, within a positional tolerance of less than 10 cm to an aft coupling on the Russian space agency's Zvezda module. The mating vehicles were orbiting Earth at 28000 km/h some 340 km above the Eastern Mediterranean at the time.

Computers onboard the Jules Verne controlled the entire procedure, while specialists at the French Space agency's ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France, observed. The new spacecraft had been programmed to withdraw to a previous position of safety in the event that a malfunction occurred during the approach. Today, no fail-safe measures were needed, as the ATV performed its maneuvers flawlessly.

ESA said the Jules Verne will now become part of the space station for the next four months. The crew of Expedition 16 aboard the ISS will now focus on unloading the weightless 3.4 metric tons of supplies (including equipment, goods, water, fuel, and oxygen) from the ATV, according to a statement on NASA's ISS site.

The director of NASA said he applauded today's achievement.

"I am incredibly proud of and pleased for our European partners with this demonstration of a successful automated docking of the ATV cargo vehicle with the ISS," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said today in a press release.

"Only Russia has previously achieved a successful automated docking in space," he noted. "This accomplishment showcases yet again the progress which has been made by the international partnership in bringing this incredible program to fruition. Together with the arrival of the Columbus Module at the ISS earlier this year, the success of the ATV marks the arrival of Europe as a full-fledged space power."

"The ATV is so much more than a simple delivery truck, it is an intelligent and versatile spaceship which has just demonstrated its extraordinary skills," said Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration. "It is the largest and most complex spacecraft ever developed in Europe and the second in size of all the vehicle's visiting the station, after NASA's space shuttle. With Columbus and the ATV, we have entered the major league of the ISS."

As part of its mission, the Jules Verne will fire its rockets later this month in a propulsion procedure designed to boost the orbital altitude of the space station, which decays slowly over time due to thermospheric drag. Subsequently, it will be filled with station waste. Then it will be de-orbited for destruction on reentry over the Pacific in August.

The Jules Verne is the first of as many as seven ATVs to be built by ESA for space station flights.

Within its cargo bay, it carries a nineteenth-century illustrated copy of the French science-fiction writer's novel From the Earth to the Moon.

[Editor's Note: Please see our prior entry "Endeavour Returns Safely; Jules Verne Approaches Space Station" for more on the Jules Verne ATV.]

Solar energy or growing trees: which is really better for the environment?

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What a dilemma for environmentalists: trees, or solar energy? Both are good for the environment. Both are beloved by the environmental community. Both fight global warming.

But sometimes, you just canâ''t have both. Thatâ''s what happened in Sunnyvale, Calif. From 1997 to 1999, Richard Treanor and Carolyn Bissett planted eight redwood trees at the edge of their property. In 2001, neighbor Mark Vargas, installed a 10 kw solar system on his roof and trellis, to power his home and charge his electric car.

The solar system worked just fine. And the trees grew, as trees, especially redwoods, tend to do. And the trees started to cast shade on Vargasâ''s solar panels.

Vargas asked the neighbors to trim the trees back from as much as 12 meters to 4.5 meters. Treanor and Bissett (who drive a Prius) said no. In December, after several years of mediation and, one has to assume, decidedly chilly neighborly relations, solar prevailed; a Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge found Treanor and Bissett in violation of the 1978 Solar Shade Control Act that prevents people from planting trees or shrubs that shade an existing solar system on a neighboring property. Last week, the wood chips flew and at least one of the trees got trimmed back; Treanor and Bissett took pictures and hope the so-called â''poodle cutâ'' will be dramatic enough to satisfy the judge.

In response, California State Sen. Joe Simitian introduced a bill protecting trees planted before solar panels were installed, even if the trees grow and later shade the panels. Sort of a first-come, first-serve solution.

But nowhere in the heavy media coverage of this neighborhood squabble have I read any analysis of the real question. That is, which option is better for the environment, letting the trees grow, or letting the sun hit the solar panels unobstructed.

I took this question to H Scott Matthews, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University: considering global warming, is the carbon dioxide absorbed by the growing trees more or less than the greenhouse gases that would be created in generating replacement energy? And, while air conditioning isnâ''t a big concern in California, in many places you would also have to consider the impact of shade on air conditioning use, that is, does losing the trees mean the homeowner has to crank up his air conditioning in the summer?

Matthews did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation for me. In Northern California, an average household consumes 7 MWh of electricity per year; from the grid, that could represent 3 tons of carbon dioxide. Letâ''s say a solar installation only reduces a householdâ''s consumption of electricity by half, thatâ''s 1.5 tons. Matthews couldnâ''t find numbers on redwood trees (which grow like weeds), but figures Douglas Firs are in the ballpark. An acre of Douglas Firs sequesters about 5 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Douglas Firs are planted at a density of about 400 per acre, so, if Iâ''m doing the math right, Treanor and Bissettâ''s eight trees soak up about 0.1 ton of carbon dioxide a year. So, says Matthews, solar panels win; and, he says, â''Iâ''m not a fan of solar PV technology.â'' (He didnâ''t factor in air conditioning; the difference was big enough to make that it particularly relevant.)

Matthews also pointed out that the trees cut down in Sunnyvale means the carbon sequestered there will be released through decomposition or burning. â''Better build some more solar panels fast!â''

This issue is not likely to go away. This month northern California 4-H club members are madly planting redwood trees to do their part to counteract global warming. Meanwhile, the state of California has earmarked $3.2 billion to subsidize homeowners looking to install solar cells, with a goal of putting solar on a million rooftops.

Photo: Joseph Tringali/iStockphoto

Nano Projector that fits in your pocket

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Israeli-based Explay has developed the worldâ''s smallest image projector that can be carried in your pocket as you dash off to give your next presentation.

While I am sure this is very exciting for those who donâ''t like to depend on the A/V team at their next conference, or like to make their friends and family endure large images of the photos taken on their mobile phone camera, itâ''s not clear that there is any nanotechnology in the phone, other than the name â''Nano Projectorâ''.

Information on the technology of the projector can be found here, and while a hybrid laser diode and LED light source have been employed in a patented configuration, there is no mention about the LED being enabled by nanoparticles or any other nanotechnology.

But it is quite small and can generate an image about 20 times larger than the projector itself.

NASA Begins Intense Study of Arctic Environment

The U.S. space agency yesterday announced a comprehensive program to study the atmosphere of the Arctic. Called the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS), the campaign will start this week by sending a squadron of research aircraft into the skies near Fairbanks, Alaska, to measure the conditions of the air above the polar circle.

Notwithstanding the date they chose to make the announcement, the ARCTAS effort promises to be a serious attempt to monitor changes in the region brought on by air pollution. They even used the words climate warming to describe the dramatic effects taking place in this pristine part of the planet, notably the rapid melting of sections of the ice cap that have been so much in the news lately. Clearly, this is no April Fools' stunt.

From its airborne laboratories, NASA researchers will patrol part of the Arctic for the next three weeks to record levels of aerosols, greenhouse gases, and solar radiation in order to compare these to previous surface-based measurements of the past. The announcement stated that the agency is particularly interested in how the condition known as "arctic haze" arises. This haze forms in the region in spring, caused likely by atmospheric interaction between sunlight and chemicals during the winter from drifting pollutants from lower latitudes.

"It's important that we go to the Arctic to understand the atmospheric contribution to warming in a place that's rapidly changing," noted Jim Crawford, the manager of the Tropospheric Chemistry Program at NASA. "We are in a position to provide the most complete characterization to date for a region that is seldom observed but critical to understanding climate change."

The NASA statement added that the new airborne findings will be combined with ongoing studies being undertaken by a number of satellites in orbit above the North Pole, such as the U.S.'s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO).

"NASA has invested a lot of resources in satellites that can be of value for diagnosing effects of climate change,â'' said Daniel Jacob, an ARCTAS project scientist at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "Satellites orbit over poles with good coverage and good opportunity, but you really need to have aircraft observations supporting those to make good interpretations of what satellites are telling you."

This month's atmospheric study will be followed by a similar effort this summer to be based in Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada, where flights will focus on measurements of emissions from forest fires. The agency said it believes understanding the impact from naturally occurring phenomena such as ground fires is just as important to investigating low-atmosphere conditions as manmade ones when it comes to predicting the future of the Arctic's climate.

Tag lets trackers follow travels of great white shark

pr290t.jpgWhen the Monterey Bay Aquarium released its latest great white shark into the wild in February, researchers attached an electronic tracking tag, hoping to add to their current limited understanding of shark behavior. A few weeks ago, the tracking tag sent back the answer to one mysteryâ''where do sharks go for Spring Break? The answer, recorded on March 21st: Cabo San Lucas, joining hordes of other vacationers from northern California.

This is the third young shark that was accidentally caught by fisherman, transferred to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and kept on exhibit for months, until it got too big for the tank or started munching on its tankmates. Since the first shark release in 2004, tagging technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated. That first shark carried a tag that recorded time and location, water temperature, and depth, popped loose in 30 days, and sent the data to a satellite. The second carried a similar self-releasing tag, but that one recorded data for three months.

This latest shark is towing a five-month pop-up archival tag scheduled to release on July 2, along with a second tag called a SPOT, for Smart Position Transmitting Tag. The SPOT Tag sends data like speed and water temperature to a satellite whenever the sharkâ''s dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water; position is calculated from the Doppler shift in the transmission signal. When the shark dives, a salt-water switch turns off the transmitter to save power.

Thanks to this second tag, researchers are able to follow the sharkâ''s movements in near-real time; in the previous releases, they had to wait until the tag released at the end of its programmed recording period and floated up to the surface of the ocean. For up-to-date information on the sharkâ''s journey, see the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) web site and follow the link to â''juvenile white sharkâ''.

Both the pop-up tag and the SPOT tag come from Wildlife Computers, the Redmond, Wash., firm founded by Roger Hill, profiled in IEEE Spectrumâ''s February 2008 special report on Dream Jobs.

Engineering the Fruit Fly Rave

Janelia Farmâ''the Howard Hughes Medical Instituteâ''s Bell Labs for neurobiologyâ''needs engineers.

Their mission is to reverse engineer the human brain. They're starting with the fruit fly brain, which they say is less complex than the human brain, but still similar enough to be meaningful. Their funding for this endeavor, from HHMI, is $599 million a year.

The building opened its doors in late 2006 and frankly, it's amazing. Its three brand-new, glittery glass-and-metal stories are built into the side of a hill. Glass and blond wood â''podsâ'' give every scientist a view of distant Sugarloaf mountain and the rolling Virginia hills. Even the labs have glass walls facing the postmodern winding hallways, which in turn also have glass walls facing the exterior. That makes the whole building transparent. One of the researchers told me that during a thunderstorm you can watch the lighting branch over the entire sky.

The cafeteria, which turns into a bar at night, is open for lunch between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm, and they close up shop right at the witching hour. The point of this is to encourage cross-pollination among the different kinds of scientists at Janeliaâ''the place is crawling with neurobiologists, chemists, computer scientists, physicists, and behavioral biologists, all of whom are there to play their part in reverse engineering the brain. Gerry Rubin, Janeliaâ''s director, told me he wanted to remove all possible obstacles from collaboration. At one of the eight-seater round tables, I heard a young Portuguese physicist rhapsodizing about her dream of biologically remote-controlling a fruit fly by turning on and off specific neurons. Next to her, another scientist on sabbatical from Columbia University discussed the finer points of microscopy. The lunch room was as loud as a high school cafeteria.

I spent some time with Janelia Fellow Michael Reiser, who is studying how fruit flies negotiate complex visual surroundings in order to fly without crashing into things. He does this by tethering the insects into whatâ''s essentially a fruit fly raveâ''an arena with flashing wall-to-ceiling LEDsâ''and figures out which areas of their tiny brains start tripping out.

Note: Reiser does not actually play hypnotic dance techno for his fruitflies. That was just me, losing my mind.

Wanted: Engineers

In March, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a non-profit medical research organization in Maryland, launched a national competition to select up to 70 early career scientists for a pretty enviable prizeâ''if you win, you get a six-year appointment that includes full salary and research support (HHMI is putting over $300 million into the program) while you retain your affiliation with your home institution.

HHMI is seeking the usual suspectsâ''scientists specializing in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research and areas of chemistry. But whatâ''s new here is that theyâ''re also actively courting physicists, computer scientists and engineers.

They're looking for researchers who have been running their own labs for two to six years, and now want to establish independent research programs.

The condensed criteria are as follows (the long version is here in PDF format).

You have:

* a doctoral degree.

* a tenured or tenure-track position as assistant professor or higher; if at an institution that doesnâ''t do tenure track, an equivalent appointment.

* at least 2 but no more than 6 years of experience. That means your first faculty position as assistant professor started no earlier than June 1, 2002 and no later than Sept. 1, 2006.

* only one other early career award

Dates

The actual application deadline is June 10, 2008, BUT to be considered, you must indicate your intention to submit an application by April 30, 2008. HHMI expects to make its selections by February 2009. (And if youâ''re not quite at the point of being able to make this move, don't worryâ''HHMI is planning a second competition in 2011 to select 70 more scientists.)

Detailed information about the competitionâ''including the list of eligible institutions and access to the secure application site are at the HHMI web site.

PSA: This is not an April Fool's joke. It would be a really lame one.

Bush to Science: "Let's Be Friends"

In today's issue of Science Online, David Grimm reports that U.S. President George W. Bush has undergone a "dramatic shift in his attitude toward science."

"Critics have accused my Administration of ignoring scientific advice and even of twisting science to suit its own political agenda," Bush said at a speech today at the National Center for Biochemical Medicine here. "Today, I say to those in the scientific community: 'Let's be friends.' "

The news only got better from there. The president offered a $10 billion boost to the National Institutes of Health, earmarked funds for a "second war on cancer," and vowed to relax his stem cell policy. Grimm reports that the reconciliation led California representative Henry Waxman, a longtime Bush critic, to declare, "Now I can finally retire."

Read the full article at Science Online.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Space Elevator, and Nanotechnology

With the recent passing of the acclaimed science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke (the last interview before his death can be found here), I thought I would take a look at what was happening in the field of the Space Elevator, which Clarke helped inspire.

About five years ago, the space elevator was one of those applications for nanotechnology that people trotted out with a wink to say, â''It could even make this possible.â''

In one of the more recent reviews of what is happening with the Space Elevatorâ''s development, Nanowerk ran a piece back in August based on a Wall Street Journal article, and it appears that the idea has not been abandoned.

According to Brad Edwards, a former Los Alamos National Lab physicist, who is quoted in the piece and has become one of the lead theorists of the space elevator, a working elevator could be built.

Edwards suggests that a 31,000-mile-long ribbon would be anchored to an oil-rig off the west coast of Mexico and launched into space in a rocket that would carry two spools of the ribbon and anchor it at an orbit of 22,000 miles.

However, just recently the New Scientist has run an article based on new research from the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Republic that suggests that 31,000-mile-long ribbon may be more susceptible to environmental forces than previously anticipated.

In the animation below provided in the New Scientist article, you get a sense that you may need a bigger weight at the end of the tether to keep it from wobbling.

Energy Department Awards Grants to Solar America Cities

The head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Friday that the federal government has awarded $2.4 million to 12 cities that are leaders in using solar energy.

At the New Frontiers in Energy Summit 2008 in Denver, DOE Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced grants of $200 000 to the dozen selected cities that best exemplified a commitment and comprehensive approach to the deployment of solar technologies and the development of sustainable solar infrastructures, in order to make electricity from solar photovoltaics cost-competitive with conventional electricity by 2015.

These so-called Solar America Cities will also receive funds from private resources that should boost the overall benefits of the program to some $12 million this year, the DOE said in a press release on Friday.

"These Solar America Cities aim to jumpstart integration of solar power and encourage other cities across the nation to follow suit," Bodman stated. "The innovative programs already underway in each city will help us raise the bar of whatâ''s possible and will help cities and towns across America harness the tremendous potential of the sun."

Bodman said the 12 new Solar America Cities are: Denver, Houston, Knoxville (Tenn.), Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Antonio (Tex.), San Jose (Calif.), Santa Rosa (Calif.), and Seattle.

The DOE said it will also provide hands-on assistance from technical experts to help cities integrate solar technologies into energy planning, zoning and facilities; streamline local regulations and practices that affect solar adoption by residents and businesses; present solar financing options; and promote solar technology among residents and local businesses through outreach, curriculum development, and incentive programs.

The 2008 Solar America Cities join 13 others from last year, which received $5.4 million from the DOE initiative. Those metropolises consisted of Ann Arbor (Mich.), Austin (Tex.), Berkeley (Calif.), Boston, Madison (Wis.), New Orleans, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland (Ore.), Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tucson (Az.).

All 25 are expected to adopt a variety of approaches to build up their solar infrastructures and deploy cutting-edge technologies that include solar water heating, photovoltaics, and large-scale solar thermal technology, according to the DOE.

[Editor's Note: Please see our feature "Solar-Cell Squabble", in the current issue, for an update on low-cost organic photovoltaic technology.]

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