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Should China Become a Space Station Participant?

A representative of the Chinese government has expressed his country's desire to join the member nations participating in the development of the International Space Station (ISS). According to a report from the Associated Press, China sees its growing space program as a symbol of the scientific progress it has made in recent years and would like to extend its reach in space by peacefully cooperating with other countries on international efforts such as the ISS.

"We hope to take part in activities related to the International Space Station," Li Xueyong, a vice minister of science and technology said at a press conference in Beijing yesterday. "If I am not mistaken, this program has 16 countries currently involved, and we hope to be the 17th partner."

Li made his remarks on the ISS while speaking to the Chinese media about the upcoming launch of the nation's Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter, scheduled for lift-off in late October. A reporter had asked whether China in the future would be more likely to compete or cooperate with the United States in space, the AP reports. Li said China wanted to cooperate but gave no specifics.

A decision to enable China to participate in the ISS program would have to be made by the existing partners. The ISS is a joint project between the space agencies of the U.S. (NASA), Russia (RKA), Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA), and a group of European nations (ESA), with countries such as Brazil (AEB), Italy (ISA), Malaysia (MNSA) cooperating in various contractual capacities [see last week's item "New Crew Arrives at Space Station (With Tourist)" for an example].

The AP report notes that approval from the U.S. would most likely be the major hurdle the preliminary Chinese proposal would have to clear for a deal to join the ISS partnership to be worked out. China's political status may cause the U.S. government some discomfort, but a larger irritant would be the Communist nation's recent anti-satellite missile tests, which blasted an obsolete orbiting satellite into debris back in January, a move harshly criticized by the international space community.

Li's press conference on Tuesday, timed to coincide with the opening of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, may signal a new tack in space policy by the world's largest nation.

"The Chinese government has always pursued a foreign policy of peace and consistently worked for the peaceful use of outer space," Li said at the briefing.

With the rapid progress the Chinese are making in space, it seems inevitable that they will apply to join the ISS program when conditions seem most favorable. For the U.S. and its global partners that will raise a question that may be more fraught with politics than science: Just how international is the International Space Station?

Women are hard to spot in Silicon Valley's executive ranks

While Silicon Valley is jumping again, with the doldrums that followed the dot-bomb already a distant memory, the boom has yet to have any impact on women in the tech industry. According to a study released today by the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis, women are making absolutely no progress up Silicon Valleyâ''s corporate ladder. And thereâ''s been no change in the three years since the first study.

The Davis researchers looked at how women executives fared at 400 of Californiaâ''s largest companies. Those based in Silicon Valley came in last in about all metrics. Only nine percent have even one woman in their executive ranks; only seven percent have even one woman on their corporate boards. Statewide, by industry category, the electronics industry ranked last with 2.9 percent of executives being women, the semiconductor industry was barely a step ahead with 5.3 percent women. One surprise to me, since Iâ''ve always thought the power industry as the most macho of the electrical engineering fields, energy and utilities ranked near the top, with 14.1 percent of executives women.

The corporate ladder isnâ''t unfriendly to women at all electronics companies. Twenty-five percent of Hewlett-Packard's executives and board members are women. Cisco and Palm didnâ''t rank too badly, with 17.4 and 16.7 percent respectively. But at some Silicon Valley companies, the UC researchers couldnâ''t identify one women in the executive or board member ranks. Not one. Apple, Applied Signal, Borland, Cadence, JDS Uniphase, LSI, National Semiconductor, Synaptics, and Zoran, are among the Silicon Valley companies who have turned their executive suites into exclusive menâ''s clubs. Chides the study authors, â''Californiaâ''s largest public companies are missing an opportunity to bring a great diversity of perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints into their boardrooms and executive suites.â'' Itâ''s 2007, guys (and I guess I do mean guys), come on, Silicon Valley can do a lot better.

Watch this space (if you're into electric cars)

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Thereâ''s not much but empty space at this former Chevy dealership on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, but keep an eye on this Stanford University-owned lot. When the much delayed Tesla Roadster finally rolls off of the assembly line, this is where youâ''ll see it parked.

This site, at 300 El Camino Real, will house one of the first Tesla dealerships in the country. Others will open in Southern California, Chicago, New York, and Florida.

Production, first targeted at fall 2007, then December 2007, is now slated to begin in 2008, with only 50 cars due to be produced in the first quarter and a target of 600 for the entire calendar year. The first model of the companyâ''s fully electric car costs $98,000; cheaper models are promised to follow, starting in 2010. Even without actual cars to deliver, the 2008 production is just about sold out. Soon, potential customers will be able to sign up for the 2009 waiting listâ''at a cost of $5000.

For a while, then, this lot wonâ''t be too crowded, but it will have models on display and early adopters coming in to pick up their cars or visit the service center. And it may become a popular hangout; test drives of the long-awaited vehicle are likely to be in high demand. Tesla couldnâ''t have picked a better spot to be noticed by potential customers, itâ''s next to the Stanford Park Hotel, a popular spot for Silicon Valley power breakfasts, and just off Sand Hill Road, the venture capital industryâ''s main street.

Menlo Park Mayor Kelly Fergusson sees the Tesla dealership as the beginning of what she hopes will be a â''green alleyâ'' of environmentally friendly businesses lining El Camino.

Weâ''ll be watching this space to see if she's right.

MIT Study Aims to Understand "Killer" Asteroids

We all know what a large asteroid could do to us on Earth. In order to gauge the magnitude of a possible threat from one of these killers, we need to know its physical properties. Short of sending a spacecraft to study the hazardous object, the best way to come to grips with it will be to analyze its spectral signature. That's the idea behind the recent work of a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Richard P. Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, has been studying the composition of a large asteroid called Apophis that has been making some pretty close passes at our planet and could get even closer in the future. Using spectroscopic analysis, Binzel's team has been able to compare the wavelengths of light coming from Apophis to those of meteorites in the laboratory. His research leads him to believe he has found a match to the threatening asteroid's make up, according to the MIT News Office.

"Basic characterization is the first line of defense," Binzel told attendees at a meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society last week. "We've got to know the enemy."

On 13 April 2029, Apophis (about 270 meters in diameter) will come relatively close to Earth, missing us by about 22000 miles. But when it comes by again in 2036, there is a small possibility that it could be on a collision course, Binzel noted. So his team has been hard at work determining its composition as a test case to serve as a method for studying all future close-calling asteroids, because "you never know when the real one will come along," he said.

"We don't know when the real test will come, but we're ready," Binzel stated.

He could make such a claim because his work seems to have solved the riddle of Apophis. "The composition, I think, is really nailed," he said. Binzel's team found that Apophis is composed of a mineral called type LL chondrite, which is quite rare even among meteorites.

"The beauty of having found a meteorite match for Apophis is that, because we have laboratory measurements for the density and strength of these meteorites, we can infer many of the same properties for the asteroid Apophis itself," Binzel commented.

A catastrophic asteroid strike in the future may be the stuff of scary sci-fi movies, but we know that the threat is all too real. Now, we're developing the scientific tools to come to grips with how we should respond to such a worst-case scenario.

New Crew Arrives at Space Station (With Tourist)

The International Space Station is a crowded house again. Shortly before 11:00 AM EDT, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the space station carrying three passengers: one astronaut, one cosmonaut, and one honored guest. The trio joins the current crew of three onboard the ISS, swelling its occupancy over the next nine days. During that time, the overlapping crews will work on replenishing supplies aboard the orbiting science platform and transferring knowledge of the station's operations; and a privileged fellow traveler will get to have the experience of a lifetime.

The two new crew members, the 16th in their line, are Commander Peggy Whitson (NASA) and Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko (Roskosmos). The special guest is Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia. They join Expedition 15 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roskosmos) and Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov (Roskosmos) and Clay Anderson (NASA), according to a prepared statement from the U.S. space agency.

Shukor is designated officially as a "spaceflight participant" traveling "under contract" with the Russian space agency. An orthopedic surgeon by profession, he is a representative of the Malaysian National Space Agency and the first Malaysian to travel to outer space. While he has been assigned tasks to perform in research on space medicine during his nine-day visit, he will certainly have opportunities to enjoy perks afforded to those who have unofficially been dubbed space tourists.

Whitson and Malenchenko, both previous ISS veterans, will remain on the station for the next six months, accompanied by Anderson, who will remain onboard offering guidance to the new crew until he is replaced next month by a member of the next flight of the Discovery space shuttle.

With a complement of space travelers from around the world coming and going, the ISS is still living up to the word international in its name.

Forward Bias

October 12, 2007

This week's theme: Fantasy bleeds into reality

1. More than Meets the Eye: Some guys built a real Transformer out of a Citroen. Seriously. There's video.

2. Bond. James Bond. Well, Oddjob actually, but who would have thought he'd be hiding in an iPhone? Leave it to the folks at SemiSerious to figure that out.

3. I can't find my Second Life Passport! It's gotta be in my Second Life office. No wait, could it be in that Second Life cardboard box in my Second Life basement? I just hope I don't have to go to the Second Life Embassy and stand in Second Life line for two Second Life hours to get a new one.

4. The "fairly realistic" Flying car is back. Again.

(hat tip: Danger Room.)

Zero Email Friday is catching on

Today, one hundred and fifty engineers, part of an information technology development group at Intel, are, for the second Friday in a row, not emailing each other. They are picking up telephones, they are walking out of their cubicles and talking to colleagues face to face, but they are not emailing within the group. (Their management isnâ''t completely insane, group members are allowed to use email for external communications.)

Intel is not the first company to establish a no-email Friday. PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Alpharetta, Georgia, did it a year ago. The habit turned out to be hard to break; some employees had to put sticky notes on their computers to remind them not to dash out a quick email. But they did it, and soon you could hear chatter in the halls, just like in the pre-email days. Other companies on the no email bandwagon include Veritas Software in Mountain View, Calif. (now part of Symantec) and U.S. Cellular in Chicago.

Seems like small changes; a group here or there, just cutting out their emails to each other. But sometimes small changes lead to big things. After all, Casual Friday was just an experiment once, and now business casual is standard dress. In a world of Blackberries and iPhones, in which email never stops spinning, taking a break from the merry-go-round might be a great thing. Intelâ''s Nathan Zeides says heâ''ll let us know how Zero email Friday is going for him on his blog. Meanwhile, I need to process this morning's email.

Nuclear Power Ready for U.S. Comeback?

Americans may be ready to embrace the nuclear genie again. According to an insightful news analysis by the BBC Online today, as many as 30 applications to build new nuclear reactors in the U.S. are in the works. A generation after the sensational Three Mile Island accident at a nuclear facility in Pennsylvania, many Americans have evolved in their opinions of nuclear power sufficiently that these applications may result in a spate of new fission-based electrical generation plants.

The BBC article notes that concerns about dependence on fossil fuels from overseas suppliers and the impact of their use on the environment are leading many in the U.S. to reconsider the issue of nuclear power, which was hailed a half century ago as the key to a future of limitless energy production.

The article states that the first application to build a new nuclear reactor (actually two) in almost three decades was filed last month for a facility in southern Texas. Four more applications are expected in the next two months and a dozen more are anticipated in the next year, according to statements from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). If granted the first new nuclear operation could go online by 2015.

What's driving the renewed interest in the potential of Mr. Atom? The BBC identifies five key factors:

  • The introduction of a new fast-track combined construction and operation permit, making new reactors easier and cheaper to build;

  • A tax credit, introduced in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 6000 megawatts generated by nuclear plants;

  • Risk insurance adding up to US$2 billion for the first six plants to be built, protecting companies against the cost of delays in construction;

  • Multi-billion-dollar loan guarantees; and

  • A likelihood that the cost of emitting carbon dioxide will rise as the battle against climate change intensifies.

Yet, the sting of nuclear's failures in the past and the very real concerns over its safety in the future have its detractors up in arms again at the federal government's renewed passion for the resource -- especially in the form of lucrative subsidies.

"It is absolutely not a clean energy source," Tyson Slocum, director of energy policy for the public interest group Public Citizen told the BBC. "Does it produce less greenhouse gas emissions than coal or gas? Yes. But it produces waste potentially more problematic not only from the mining aspect but from the high-level radioactive waste that a commercial nuclear reactor is going to produce."

Slocum added, "If you had a program like this for wind and solar, wind and solar would be the biggest energy sources in the next 20 years."

For now, though, the rehabilitation of the nuclear genie is almost complete. We will all now have to witness, once again, whether its promises can ever be matched by its performance.

[Editor's Note: We discussed some of these issues in a blog item over a year ago, "Twenty Years After Chernobyl".]

NASA Reveals New Close-ups of Jupiter

The U.S. space agency yesterday released still images and movies of the biggest planet in the solar system. Coinciding with a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Orlando, Fla., the images from the New Horizons spacecraft represent the most detailed look ever at Jupiter and its moons. The opportunity to use the planet's enormous gravity well as a slingshot to propel New Horizons on a path toward Pluto and the distant objects of our planetary system rewarded scientists with the clearest, most detailed images to date, according to a public statement from NASA.

"The Jupiter encounter was successful beyond our wildest dreams," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. "Not only did it prove our spacecraft and put it on course to reach Pluto in 2015, it was a chance for us to take sophisticated instruments to places in the Jovian system where other spacecraft could not go. It returned important data that adds tremendously to our understanding of the solar system's largest planet and its moons, rings and atmosphere."

Equipped with the latest imaging and sensor technology, New Horizons made more than 700 separate observations of the Jovian system during its fly-by from January through June of this year. These resulted in several new discoveries that researchers will be poring over for years to come. According to NASA, New Horizons delivered evidence of: lightning near the planet's poles, the life cycle of fresh ammonia clouds, boulder-size clumps speeding through the planet's faint rings, the structure inside volcanic eruptions on its moon Io, and the path of charged particles traversing the previously unexplored length of Jupiter's long, magnetic tail.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons is now approximately halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, more than 743 million miles from Earth.

To learn more about the latest data from Jupiter, please visit the New Horizons site on the Web.

The best engineering school in the United States?

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Well, of course thereâ''s MIT and Stanford and Caltech and all the others. But if the criteria is the studentsâ'' learning experienceâ''the type of classes they take, the skills theyâ''re taught, their level of happinessâ''at the top of my list is the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

What? Never heard of Olin?

Olin is a small engineering school in Needham, Mass., just outside Boston. It officially opened just five years ago but its reputation has been growing at a fast pace. I wrote a long article about it (â''The Olin Experimentâ'') in the May 2006 issue of Spectrum and the New York Times Magazine recently ran a nice story on Olin (â''Re-engineering Engineeringâ'') in their special college education issue.

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What makes Olin specialâ''and what puts it at the top of my â''Engineering Schools I Wished I Had Gone Toâ'' listâ''is its â''practice first, theory laterâ'' approach. Olin was designed to make students plunge into hands-on engineering projects on day one. â''Instead of theory-heavy lectures, segregated disciplines, and individual efforts,â'' I wrote in that article, â''Olin champions design exercises, interdisciplinary studies, and teamwork.â''

Experts say a deep reform of engineering education in the United States is long overdue. We need a new type of engineer trained to face todayâ''s challenges, not those of post World War II, when many curricula were created. Could this new engineer be â'¿ the Olin engineer? Thatâ''s what I set out to find out when my editors assigned me the story on Olin.

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My editorâ''s initial idea was to send me â''undercoverâ'' to the school, where I would pass myself off as a student â''to get the full experience.â'' Alright, that didnâ''t go as planned. The school is small (304 freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors compared with, for example, MITâ''s 4000 undergrads), and Iâ''d be unmasked in about 35 seconds.

But in any event, my three trips to the campus, dozens of interviews, and several hours sitting in classes, labs, and at the cafeteria proved a lot of fun. I even spent a night at Olinâ''s dorm (with approval of the school, which ran a criminal background check on me, their policy whenever a non-student is staying in the residence hall).

What I found during my reporting, and what I tried to convey in the article, is that Olin is like no other engineering school Iâ''d ever visited. Pretty much everything about it is unique. The installations are brand new, the faculty is young and motivated, the curriculum innovative. Professors donâ''t have to worry about tenure, students donâ''t have to worry about tuition. The students I met were bright, ambitious, outspoken, and diverse in their interests and personalities. They all want to lead, succeed, excel. They behave almost like MBA students training to be CEOs except theyâ''re dressed in pajamas programming robots. For outsiders, it can be an overwhelming experience to meet a classroom full of Olin engineers.

Theyâ''re â''a pretty happy bunch,â'' as Jessica Townsend, a mechanical engineering professor, told me when I visited. Thatâ''s not to say the students donâ''t work hard. Tons of homework, all-nighters finishing projects, and, yes, lectures on differential equationsâ''as I witnessed myself, the Olin engineer has to go through all that just as in good engineering schools.

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When I wrote my story, Olin was just graduating its first class. One of the challenges I faced was assessing the schoolâ''s level of success. Some experts said the great faculty, students, curriculum, installations wouldnâ''t mean much if the Olin engineer wasnâ''t a good engineer. But how do you find out whether they are good? And whatâ''s a â''good engineerâ'' anyway?

I kind of tried to answer those questions in my article, but again, the schoolâ''s first graduates were just receiving their diplomas. The New York Times Magazine article, by science reporter John Schwartz, brought some additional information on those issues.

First, the article reports that Olin received accreditation last December. Second, the Harvard Macy Institute, a program affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, did a case study of Olin, and the article quotes the studyâ''s author, Constance M. Bowe, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, as saying that, â''The issues that the Olin case portrayed were very relevant for the kind of problems weâ''re trying to encourage people to confrontâ'' in medicine. (The Times doesnâ''t mention it, but I recall there were some other case studies being prepared by other folks at MIT and other placesâ''Iâ''ll check on that and report back.)

Finally, the Times reports that â''Olin has already garnered an impressive amount of attention in the college guides. A Kaplan/Newsweek â''How to Get Into Collegeâ'' guide called Olin one of â''the new Ivies.â'' The Princeton Review says Olin â''may well be the most dynamic undergraduate institution in the country.â'' â'' New ivy, uh? Now thatâ''s a compliment.

But what I liked most in the Times article was the mention that Olin, in addition to creativity, teamwork, and entrepreneurship, is stressing â'¿ courage. Yes, courage. â''I donâ''t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,â'' Richard K. Miller, Olinâ''s president, told Schwartz, â''if youâ''re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.â'' Hereâ''s my favorite part:

That message [to have courage to question things and push back] gets hammered home in the classroom, according to Benjamin Linder, an assistant professor of design and mechanical engineering. His classes have an art-school feel: students, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, shorts or pajama bottoms, are up and down and walking around the room, clustering around their projects and discussing them, cutting blue foam with a hot-wire cutter to make models. Linder told me he pushes his students not to just follow instructions. â''Engineering,â'' he says, â''has traditionally been focused on doing it right, but not on whatâ''s the right thing to do.â'' That means designing products that are environmentally friendly and that respond to the needs of the people using them and not just to what the purchasing department wants. He urges his students to be more than team players. The goal, Linder said with utter earnestness, was to teach fledgling engineers â''how to be bold.â''

That might be it. Something more engineering schools should be teaching students these days. How to be bold.

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