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  • 12/30/11--08:00: Northrop Grumman X-47
  • Northrop Grumman X-47 Courtesy Northrop Grumman
    Fully autonomous drone refuels and lands with no human intervention

    Today's "robot planes" are pilotless, not autonomous; a joystick-equipped human on the ground still does the flying. Northrop Grumman's X-47B will be the first aircraft to handle all maneuvers, including aerial refuelings and aircraft-carrier landings, with no human assistance. The tailless, fighter-sized jet, which flew for the first time in February, makes decisions using 3.4 million lines of onboard code, which the company refined using 10,000 hours of simulated flight time. The X-47B is scheduled to demonstrate takeoffs and landings from an aircraft-carrier deck by 2013.

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    A celebration of a beautiful fruit Now is the time of year when pomegranates are at their sweetest and juiciest. This video celebrates the season in one of our favorite ways: by tossing a pomegranate into our Vitamix blender and filming the vegetarian carnage in ultra-slow motion with the Phantom supercamera.

    Before you cringe, rest assured: the fruit sacrificed here was a terrible runty juiceless specimen.

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    Medicinal Shellfish A large protein in limpet hemolymph contains epitopes, which trigger an immune response in humans. Hal Beral/Corbis
    The incredible Mr. Limpet

    The giant keyhole limpet's hemolymph carries a protein that is the essential component of a new cancer vaccine. Keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH) carries oxygen in limpet blood. It is an unusually large protein-near virus size-and contains many epitopes, which trigger our body to produce antibodies. When doctors inject KLH into the human bloodstream, it provokes a powerful immune response. If markers for a certain cancer are attached to KLH, the immune system can be stimulated to attack them. Unlike some synthetic alternatives, KLH is nontoxic. Researchers use the protein in cancer vaccines to "break tolerance," says Frank Oakes, the CEO of Stellar Biotechnologies, which grows limpets in a business park for aquaculture next to the Pacific Ocean in Port Hueneme, California. "Your body tolerates the cancer cell because the body believes it is a part of you," he says.

    Breaking tolerance can also be used to treat addiction. Down the coast from Stellar's lot, in La Jolla, scientists at Scripps Research Institute used KLH to make a vaccine that cuts out the euphoric effects of a heroin high. In their experiment, researchers gave addicted rats a cocktail of heroin-like molecules attached to KLH. Like the cancer vaccine, the protein provoked an immune response to suppress the high. Later, given the option to self-administer heroin, most rats stopped using the drug. Human trials are under way for a similar KLH-based vaccine to treat addiction to nicotine and cocaine.

    KLH is too big and complicated to synthesize, so giant keyhole limpets still offer the best, most stable supply of the protein. Before extraction, Stellar employees move the limpets to tanks indoors. Researchers use a syringe to extract the limpet's blood and then isolate KLH using a centrifuge. It takes about 16 weeks before the mollusk has fully recuperated and is ready for its next extraction. Limpets can also be harvested in the wild, but they die during the extraction process. There aren't enough limpets in the sea to keep up this method.

    More than a dozen vaccines that use KLH are in clinical trials, and a treatment for bladder cancer is now approved for use in Europe and Asia. Stellar currently has the capacity to make between one and two kilograms of KLH a year. But if a KLH cancer vaccine is FDA-approved, Oakes says it "will increase demand by orders of magnitude."

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    Strong Hold B.A.S.H. is the only sledge to thread the handle through the head. Typical sledges rely on friction to hold the two together. Claire Benoist
    Can anything break a steel-reinforced sledge?

    Sledgehammers are the monsters of demolition. They can deliver enough force to pound boulders into dust, but strangely, it doesn't take much to break them in two. When workers miss their target and whack the hammer's handle on debris, called overstriking, the hammerhead can snap off, becoming a dangerous projectile. Wilton guarantees its Bad Ass Sledge Hammers (B.A.S.H.) against breaks, and will cut a $1,000 check to anyone who can destroy one. Depending on the model, up to six steel rods run the length of the handle and affix to a plate inside the head, holding the two parts together. When the hammerhead strikes, the rubber handle disperses the force evenly among the rods, a design that also absorbs vibration.


    Knowing that the B.A.S.H. was likely to withstand regular abuse-hours of pounding on concrete and snapping steel joints-I focused on striking its most vulnerable spot: the upper handle. I repeatedly overstruck the hammer on a one-inch-thick steel rod suspended between two-by-fours. After that, I overstruck on a four-inch-square fencepost that I was driving into the ground.


    After maybe 1,000 whacks, the B.A.S.H. held strong. In fact, the test was a bit demoralizing-my back felt more worn than the hammer looked. It barely seemed used. The handle flexed gently on impact but never showed any sign of fracture. And the B.A.S.H. is one of the most comfortable sledges I've ever swung; the handle absorbs so much vibration that overstriking felt more like hammering a nail than clobbering steel.

    Swinging Weight: 2.5-20 pounds
    Handle Length: 12-36 inches
    Price: $38-$160

    The Two-Faced Crowbar

    With its new FuBar, Stanley multiplies the demolition capability of a normal crowbar, replacing what would be a blunt handle with a heavy-duty slicer. On top, the chiseled end of the 14-inch steel-and-carbon bar is thick enough to break holes in drywall. On the bottom, it's ground down to a fine edge that can slice through material with a couple of hammer taps to the bar. Stanley FuBar Demolition Bar $20

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    Color by Numbers David Forbes's TV vest contains 14,400 green, red, and blue LEDs that together make 4,667 pixels. Steven Meckler
    This 160-by-120 pixel TV will get you stopped at the airport

    David Forbes was on his way home to Tucson, Arizona, after a family trip last summer when a policeman stopped him in the Detroit airport. The officer said he had received 50 panicked phone calls since Forbes had entered the building, and now his entire family had been marked for extra screening. The delay was inconvenient, but it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Forbes had 160 circuit boards and enough electronics to start a data center strapped to his body. What the authorities didn't realize, though, was that all the equipment wasn't dangerous-it was actually a wearable TV set.

    Forbes, an electrical engineer, built his first video coat in 2009 after getting his hands on a collection of surplus LED displays. He transformed them into what he calls "the world's worst television," an all-red screen that weighed 50 pounds. He wanted to make a better, lighter version, and thanks to a side business selling homemade wristwatches, he had the spare cash. He laid an old overcoat out on a table, measured its dimensions, and guessed that he could fit it with enough LEDs to create a sharp 160-by-120-pixel display. Next he sorted through his gadget box and found a few flexible circuit boards. The flexibility was ideal for a wearable screen, but he wanted to have more pixels, so he built a prototype of a long, thin board with 30 rows of four LEDs each and shipped it to a circuit-board manufacturer to make 175 more.

    Forbes also built an additional circuit board to scale down the analog video signal from his iPod, and three other circuit boards that translate the signals into instructions for the LEDs and deliver power from two lithium-polymer batteries. He put the batteries into his pants pockets, and hot-glued the control boards to the shoulders and the flexible display boards to the front and back of the coat. A little Velcro down the middle replaced the buttons on the coat. The finished version weighed only eight pounds.

    At the airport, Forbes convinced airport security that he wasn't a threat by offering to show them The Simpsons on the coat. Since then, he has cut the coat into two less-cumbersome vests. Although they're relatively comfortable and they work well, they haven't replaced his family TV. "I'm not using them daily," he says, "but they get taken out now and then if I'm in the mood for a little attention from strangers."

    How It Works

    Time: 6 months
    Cost: $20,000


    Forbes's iPod plugs into a circuit board on the vest's left shoulder. The board includes a digitizing chip-a type used in security video systems that allows the feeds from four cameras to fit on one monitor-that he repurposed to scale iPod video down to a resolution consistent with his display. Additional processing converts the iPod data into signals for the LEDs, which travel along Ethernet-like cables to four separate boards, one on each shoulder and hip. From there, the signals move through ribbon cables to the three miniature chips on each of the flexible circuit boards located on the chest and back. The chips turn the LEDs on and off 360 times a second to create the illusion of changing color and brightness.


    Heavy batteries would make the coat hard to wear, so Forbes found an R/C hobby shop in Washington that sold lightweight, inexpensive lithium-polymer batteries. One battery fit in each pocket, which gave the coat roughly an hour of run-time. The smaller vests last up to 90 minutes.


    Forbes initially thought about rigging small speakers to the shoulders of the coat, but he realized that they wouldn't be powerful enough to let him show off his invention at Burning Man, the annual festival in the Nevada desert. So he wired the coat to another one of his inventions, a boom box for bicycles that he built from a six-inch-diameter drain pipe and a pair of outdoor marine speakers.

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    Garage Rocketeers Todd Baxter

    in 2012, two large, well-funded companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, will begin making regular journeys to suborbital and orbital space, commencing the post-NASA era of commercial space travel. But those companies will not be alone in their efforts. In 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration changed its regulations to allow amateur rocketeers to launch their craft as high as 93 miles, and now, as composite materials and electronic tracking systems become increasingly affordable, small companies and even garage inventors are taking flight.

    Last June, Danish engineers at a micro aerospace nonprofit called Copenhagen Suborbitals launched a 1,440-pound rocket from a platform in the Baltic Sea to a height of more than two miles, all on a budget of just $100,000. By design, the rocket fell far short of the Earth-space boundary, but the engineers will attempt a more ambitious launch this summer. If all goes well, their rockets will reach an altitude of 35 miles. Eventually, the capsule could carry a human passenger to space.

    Also in 2012, several teams will compete for the Carmack 100kft Micro Prize, established last year by John Carmack, one of the creators of the computer game Doom. The first to launch a rocket to an altitude above 100,000 feet (19 miles, or just into the stratosphere) will win $10,000. In September, Derek Deville, a Florida engineer, sent a 320-pound rocket to a height of 121,000 feet in just 92 seconds, but the rocket failed to record required GPS data, so Deville didn't take the prize. Another team, in New Zealand, launched its own garage rocket in December, and two more groups claim to have rockets ready for flight. By January, the prize may already be claimed, and the do-it-yourself space program will have liftoff.


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    GRAIL At the Moon NASA

    Happy New Year! NASA may not launch any people into space in 2012, but a successful robotic mission just as the new year dawned sets the stage for the space agency's near-term future. The twin Grail probes arrived at the moon on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, and are preparing to study our only natural satellite's past.

    The moon probes will spend a couple months adjusting and lining up with each other before starting their main mission in March. The Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes are designed to map the moon's lumpy gravitational field, which is stronger over the maria (facing Earth) than in the highlands (on the dark side).

    Learning about the moon's gravity field will tell scientists a lot about its interior, and possibly whether it did in fact swallow a smaller sibling sometime in its past.

    The washing-machine-sized Grail-A and Grail-B will orbit the moon in tandem, measuring tiny changes in the distance between them that will result from gravitational fluctuations. Sloshing fuel could introduce some error into those ultra-fine measurements, so the probes took a super circuitous route to the moon after their September launch, ensuring they burned as much fuel as possible before arrival.

    After several weeks of instrument checks and calibrations, the probes will start their three-month observation period. During this time, they'll also snap images of the lunar surface using a camera controlled by schoolchildren. You can follow the mission here.


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    Orangutan iPad An orangutan named Mahal plays with an iPad at the Milwaukee Zoo. Orangutan Outreach

    Orangutans living in captivity will soon start using iPads for primate play-dates, using Skype or FaceTime to interact with their brethren in other zoos, according to zookeepers. The great apes have been playing with iPads for about six months at the Milwaukee County Zoo, and they've been such a hit that other zoos plan to introduce them, too.

    The "Apps for Apes" program started after a zookeeper commented online about getting some iPads for her gorilla charges. Someone donated a used iPad, and it turned out the gorillas didn't care for it. But the orangutans loved it, as the LA Times says.

    The apes don't typically get to hold the pricey tablets, because they're strong enough to break them in half, zookeepers said. Instead, a keeper will hold the iPads up to a primate cage and let the apes interact with them. The orangutans have been playing with apps like Doodle Buddy by sticking their fingers through their cages' mesh. One orangutan, 31-year-old MJ, is apparently a huge fan of David Attenborough nature programs, the BBC reports.

    A group called Orangutan Outreach, which is involved in the Apps for Apes effort, is waiting for the iPad 3 to come out so the original iPad will become obsolete and cheaper for zoos to obtain. The Houston Zoo has one iPad but hasn't introduced it to the orangutans yet, while Zoo Atlanta, the Toronto Zoo and the Phoenix Zoo are waiting to get iPads. When they do, zookeepers across the institutions plan to set up play-dates when the apes can chat via Skype or FaceTime.

    Seeing the primates with iPads has an effect on zoo visitors, according to Richard Zimmerman, who directs Orangutan Outreach: "They have this recognition that these are amazing, cognitive, curious creatures," he told the Times.

    Dolphins have been using iPads since their debut, so it's really about time our primate cousins adopted the technology.

    [via Extreme Tech]

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    The Mayan Calendar If you squint, you can clearly see the part where it says the world will end in 2012. That's right, keep squinting . . . Smithsonian via Wikimedia

    As the calendar turns over to a new year, a couple of researchers over at Johns Hopkins University are rethinking the way we tick off the days during our annual trip around the sun. The duo has devised a new yearly calendar in which each 12-month period is identical to the one before--meaning if your birthday is on a Monday one year, it's on a Monday every year--until the end of time.

    The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar--named for Richard Conn Henry and Steve H. Hanke at JHU, the researchers behind the reformed calendar--isn't just a realignment of the way we count days, but a simplification of the overall economic rhythm of the world. All the time and effort spent adjusting calendars and schedules every year to accommodate shifting days of the week could be saved, they argue. The man hours and money saved by a uniform year would be tremendous.

    The calendar consists of the same12 months as the current Gregorian year, but the months have been adjusted subtly to make each quarter exactly 91 days long--two 30-day months and one 31-day month. That means September, June, March, and December would become the long months, while February would gain a couple of days.

    Speaking of February, leap years would be dropped from the calendar completely. To make up for the remainder days (each Earth year is 365.2422 days long, and that remainder must be accounted for to keep the seasons from wandering out of sync with the months), Hanke and Henry propose adding a week to the end of December every five or six years to bring everything back into alignment.

    In doing so, they wouldn't disturb the carefully curated order that keeps days of the seven-day week aligned with the same dates each year. That's key, they say, because most attempts to reform the calendar have failed because of objections to breaking up the seven-day week (it doesn't matter what Sabbath you celebrate, you still have to keep it holy--therefore, you need that traditional seven-day week).

    For all of its perceived benefits the Hanke-Henry calendar still doesn't explain why the NCAA Football Championship always falls on a Monday night, but nobody's perfect. There's a lot more about the concept calendar here, including a proposed timetable for its adoption (the proposed date is Jan. 1, 2017) and an argument for switching to a universal clock that dispenses with time zones, daylight savings, and the like.

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    Quasicrystals Within this chunk of mineral unearthed in Russia's Koryak mountains are crystalline structures that likely originated in space and were delivered to Earth via meteorite, a new study claims. Paul Steinhardt, Princeton University
    Rare crystals found in Russia were likely deposited there by meteorites

    First they were thought to be impossible on Earth, then when they were grown in the lab they were thought to be so novel that they earned their discoverer a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Now, it turns out the quasicrystals--unusually structured crystals that break several rules of crystalline symmetry and exhibit strange physical properties--unearthed in Russia's Koryak mountains a couple of years ago are probably from outer space.

    Quasicrystals were first introduced to the chemical conversation by Israeli researcher Daniel Schechtman back in the 1980s, and they immediately were met with a good deal of skepticism by researchers who thought such structures impossible. Schechtman won that round, eventually receiving the Nobel for his efforts. But up until two years ago, quasicrystals were still thought to be impossible in nature--up to that point they had only been created under laboratory conditions.

    Then in 2009 a team of Italian researchers found quasicrystals in mineral samples found in the mountains of eastern Russia. This mineral provided proof that quasicrystals could form naturally, but exactly how they formed remained a mystery.

    Now, with tests on the quasicrystals completed, researchers are saying that the evidence suggests these crystals are not of Earthly origin, but rather were deposited in Russia via meteorite. Firstly, mass spectrometry shows a pattern of oxygen isotopes in the quasicrystal that is unlike that in any mineral known to originate on Earth (but it did resemble a pattern found in a certain type of meteorite). It also contained the tell-tale signs of a high-pressure past in certain silicas that only form under extreme conditions, like those inside the Earth's mantle or in a high-speed impact like the kind that occurs when meteors slam into a planetary body.


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    Jumping Microglider EPFL

    For animals and animal-inspired machines, launching into flight takes lots of energy. Some animals have evolved to achieve air not by accelerating and lifting off, but by jumping and then using their wings or flaps of skin to glide - like sugar gliders, for instance, or grasshoppers. Now a new Swiss robot can do this, too.

    Behold the jumpglider, a hybrid jumping and gliding robot with two types of wing designs. It can base-jump off a building or another high surface, like this other Swiss glider, and then keep jumping once it has glided to a stop. It's modeled after locusts and by the wing-walking abilities of bats.

    In the first video, a locust-inspired glider hops down a staircase, gliding to a gentle crash landing every few steps before jumping off again.

    But it would be better to have folding wings that can be safely stowed in pre-gliding mode, like locusts and other summertime grasshoppers do. So Mirko Kovac and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne built another one:

    It can jump a height of up to 76 centimeters at a take-off angle of 75 degrees.

    Finally, engineering students modeled another version after bats, which tuck away their wings to roost and unfurl them quickly when taking off. Watch as one of the researchers throws the bat-bot into the air, allowing it to spread its pretty mylar wings. A wheel not unlike a fishing reel is attached to the robot's underbelly, controlling the lines running throughout the wings.

    The jumpglider project was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Biomimetics (ROBIO) last month in Phuket, Thailand, where it won an engineering award.

    [IEEE Spectrum]

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    Telepresence is cool, but it's currently not very versatile and--at least if you're going the commercial telepresence robot route--pretty expensive. For a princely sum, you can remotely putter around a faraway office or home and communicate with people there via a computer terminal. Outside of that, the technology has yet to break down any serious walls. That is, until software engineer Taylor Veltrop devised a way to brush his cat remotely via a robotic avatar, spearheading what could be the biggest revolution in cat-grooming technology since that kitty brush that you wear like a glove.

    In all seriousness, what Veltrop pulls off in this video is pretty amazing in that he doesn't just create telepresence, but actually achieves tele-grooming. In other words, he translates his own bodily movements into action with his robotic avatar, and he does so with little more than some Wiimotes, a Nao research robot, a head-mounted display (HMD), and a Kinect--stuff that can be had off the shelf at relatively low cost.

    In Veltrop's setup, the HMD provides him with the robot's viewpoint and also controls the Nao's head and neck--whichever way the operator turns his head, the robot moves in kind. Wiimotes are used to control each hand, while the rest of the robot's bodily movements are generated by cues picked up by the Kinect. So when Veltrop walks forward on a treadmill, the robot begins walking forward. If he turns sideways the robot rotates itself in place.

    This is the kind of avatar-based telepresence that's way cooler than simply piloting a bot around with your keyboard controls, and the kind of thing that could one day enable everything from remotely controlled robo-hospitals to robots that let users actually perform tasks at the office or lab--or on the battlefield even--from home (or vice versa).

    But before we can have all that, we have to groom the kitty. Enjoy.


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    NoseClamp Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

    To strain out the nasty stuff we breathe in. It's like an air filter in your house, says Justin Turner, an otolaryngologist (short, sort of, for otorhinolaryngologist, Greek for ear (oto), nose (rhino), and throat (laryng)) at Stanford University. Nose hairs trap dirt, viruses, bacteria and toxins until we blow them out, sneeze, or swallow.

    Denser nose hair can be an advantage. Scientists at Hacettepe University School of Medicine in Turkey found that patients with sparse nose hairs were nearly three times as likely to suffer from asthma as those with more-hirsute nostrils.

    Nose hair is just the first line of defense, though. Cilia, very small hairlike strands in our nose, constantly wave back and forth. (They keep waving even after we die, but at a steadily decreasing rate, so forensic scientists use them to determine time of death.) Cilia sweep dusty and potentially dangerous molecules toward our throat, where they collect in a glob of mucus that we either cough up or swallow. If we swallow it, stomach acids will destroy most of the harmful material.

    Plucking nose hairs isn't recommended. "Pulling the fibers can cause a bad infection," says Robert Pincus, an otolaryngologist at the New York Sinus Center. "Your nose is not a sterile place."

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    Mae Jemison Wikipedia/NASA

    A project to pave the way for humanity's journey to the stars will be helmed by a former astronaut, Mae Jemison, already a pioneer in her own right. She will lead DARPA's 100-Year Starship project, the BBC says, citing DARPA documents.

    Jemison, the first black woman in space, was one of scores of people to submit proposals for DARPA's ambitious project. It doesn't seek to build an actual starship per se but rather a program that can last 100 years, and might one day result in one. As DARPA told us last summer, it's more of a thought experiment than a construction project. The idea itself sparked some other pretty audacious proposals, including one by J. Craig Venter to send human genomes toward the stars and reconstruct them upon arrival.

    Jemison apparently won a contract for her proposal titled "An Inclusive Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth & Beyond," BBC said. Her organization, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, is already a partner on the project with a non-profit called Icarus Interstellar and a group called the Foundation for Enterprise Development.

    The details of her proposal are still unavailable, but it was apparently selected after a conference in Orlando last fall that launched a formal government request-for-proposals. The contract, worth $500,000, is designed to seed some type of entity that will take over the next 100 years' worth of project planning. It's also unclear yet whether this would be a non-profit or for-profit venture.

    Jemison, who is also a physician and engineer, left NASA in 1993 after a six-year stint in which she served as science mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first black woman to fly in space. Since leaving the space agency, she has been involved in education and outreach efforts and technology development. Rounding out her resume, Jemison also served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia, is a professionally trained dancer, and speaks Russian, Swahili and Japanese along with English.

    A die-hard "Star Trek" fan - Jemison has said she drew inspiration from Lt. Uhura - she appeared in a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode in 1993, the first real astronaut to make a cameo in the show. Sounds like the perfect resume to helm something called the 100-Year Starship.


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    Wolf Spider Wikimedia Commons
    After watching them on TV

    Researchers at the University of Cincinnati performed an experiment on a type of the widespread and unnerving wolf spider that shows that these invertebrates may be much more complex than we give them credit for. The spiders were capable of observing, remembering, and mimicking mating dances, just like cast members on Jersey Shore.

    The spiders, Linnaean name Schizocosa ocreata, were placed in an enclosed environment with multiple tiny spider-sized screens. Those screens showed videos of other males of that species performing their mating dance, which consists mostly of leg tapping (much like my own). Interestingly, the spiders were able to see which techniques were successful, and managed to remember and mimic them, behavior which has only previously been seen in animals thought to be more complex, like mammals, birds, and fish.

    Invertebrates have never been known to have this kind of abilities to learn, remember, and imitate behaviors, so the study is definitely breaking some ground. Check out video of the spider's dance moves below.

    [via Wired]

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    The X-37B, Pre-Flight USAF

    Here at PopSci we don't like to spread rumors. And that's how I generally like to start off a post wherein I intend to propagate some kind of hearsay rooted mostly in speculation. Hearsay like this: America's X-37B spaceplane, the shuttle-like unmanned robotic orbiter that the Air Force put into orbit for the second time back in March, is probably (possibly) spying on China's Tiangong-1 space station.

    At least, that's what we heard. Specifically, that's what the Web is hearing today via Spaceflight magazine, which is reporting that the X-37B currently circling the globe is in an orbit that closely mimics that of China's experimental space station. And given the fact that many in the space community--including the U.S. Air Force, owners of the X-37B--are somewhat wary of China's space ambitions, who are we to say that Spaceflight mag is wrong?

    First, the facts. We know that Tiangong-1--which was launched back in September and is slated to host a manned crew sometime later this year--is in an orbit with an inclination of 42.78 degrees at an altitude of roughly 186 miles. And we know--not from the Pentagon but from a group of vigilant amateur space trackers--that the X-37B is orbiting at about the same altitude and at an inclination of 42.79 degrees. Not only is that orbit strange for a military recon satellite--they usually have polar orbits that offer better access to the entire globe--but it would periodically bring the two orbiters very close together.

    Of course, the leap that's being made--that the reason X-37B and Tiangong are on such similar paths is because the former is spying on the latter--is speculation entirely. The 30-foot X-37B has a cargo bay roughly akin to the interior space of a van, and there's no telling what kind of sensors or other equipment might be stowed in there. And though China has been somewhat forthcoming about Tiangong-1's mission, we can't really be sure about that either. Putting them on the same orbital path is practically a recipe for rampant speculation.

    Tiangong-1 is small precursor space station China is developing as a technology testbed for the 66-ton space station it hopes to have underway by 2020 (the People's Republic recently docked a Shenzou spacecraft with Tiangong-1, showing the world just how far its on-orbit capabilities have come). But given the fact that China draws no real distinction between its civilian, science-oriented space endeavors and its military space ambitions (in fact, it was a military officer who offered the congratulatory speech to Tiangong's mission handlers after the docking), the rest of the world has reason to be wary of what's going on aboard Tiangong-1.

    So is the Air Force's X-37B up there shadowing a Chinese space station, keeping an eye out for any shady, militaristic activities? We have no idea. That's just what we heard.


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    The Phobos-Grunt That Wasn't A Roscosmos rendering of Phobos-Grunt approaching Mars and its moon Phobos. Roscosmos
    The doomed Russian spacecraft is expected to re-enter next Sunday

    When the German ROSATsatellite fell from the sky back in October--right on the heels of NASA's UARS satellite, which came crashing down in September--we were told that we wouldn't have to worry about any more falling satellites for awhile. Then, Russia launched Phobos-Grunt, and suddenly your carefree days of not worrying about high-speed orbital debris speeding through the atmosphere and slamming into random places across the planet were over. The doomed Russian Mars probe is coming down, probably next Sunday.

    Phobos-Grunt, as you may recall, was launched into Earth orbit in November, from which point it was supposed to fire its auxiliary engines and set a course for Mars. That never happened, and the orbit of the crippled spacecraft has been decaying ever since as Russian mission handlers have scrambled in vain to save it. With hope of recovery gone, Russian space authorities have now named January 15th as the likely re-entry date for Phobos-Grunt.

    As with UARS and ROSAT, much of Phobos-Grunt will burn up in the atmosphere. And like its recent predecessors, some of it will not. Twenty to 30 pieces of Phobos-Grunt will likely survive re-entry and actually reach the surface. That could happen virtually anywhere between 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south latitude.

    That's a lot of territory. But take heart: much of it is water, and during the last two re-entry events no one was hurt, or even close to being hurt. Your chances of meeting your demise as Phobos-Grunt meets its demise are extremely slim.


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    The Popular Science Invention Awards John B. Carnett

    Do you have an invention you KNOW will someday change the world? Have you been toiling for years in your basement, building prototype after prototype to PROVE that your idea works? If so, tell us about it! Enter the sixth annual PopSci Invention Awards. We're looking for game-changing products that come from the passionate drive of independent inventors (rather than those born in the R&D labs of universities and corporations). PopSci editors will pick 10 inventions that best represent the spirit of homegrown ingenuity and solve real-world problems in a practical and innovative way. And we'll show them to our seven million readers in our June 2012 issue. Click here to check out last year's amazing winners.

    Submit details on your invention to Here are a few guidelines:

    • Inventions must be physical objects-no processes or concepts.
    • There must be a working prototype or something else that demonstrates that the invention actually works.
    • Inventions must be the work of independent inventors or small teams; outside funding is fine, but inventions created wholly out of universities or other R&D labs will not be considered.
    • Inventions that are intended to become commercial products in the future are acceptable, but they must not already be available for sale.
    • Inventions must be something new, not just an incremental improvement on an existing thing.
    • Popular Science will not publish an entry online or in print without notifying the inventor first, but we will seek third-party verification of the technology and significance of the invention. All intellectual-property protection is the responsibility of the entrant.
    • All entries must be received by February 24, 2012.

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    Scientists have produced the world's first chimeric monkeys, developed from stem cells harvested from separate embryos. They contain genetic material from as many as six genomes. The infant rhesus monkeys are totally healthy and could hold great promise for future stem cell research in primates, researchers say. They also carry an interesting and controversial message for future stem cell research: Those cultured stem cell lines in labs throughout this country, such a crucial scientific tool and such a cultural flashpoint, may not be as potent as the ones inside embryos.

    The monkeys, named Roku, Hex and Chimero, were born at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University. They're the result of mashups made from separate rhesus monkey embryos. Researchers took very early stem cells, called totipotent stem cells, from separate developing embryos and basically glued them together, implanting the mixed embryos into surrogate mother monkeys. The cells - from totally different sources - didn't fuse, but worked together in harmony, forming fully fledged, normal, healthy animals. Watch them do baby monkey things in the video below.

    The key here was the scientists' use of totipotent cells, so named for their ability to differentiate into the totality of possible cells in an animal. A totipotent cell can give rise to a whole animal. Pluripotent stem cells, the type most frequently used in stem cell research, can differentiate into any cell in the body, but can't become a whole animal, and can't make other embryonic tissues like a placenta. Totipotent stem cells are only derived from the very earliest stages of a zygote, mere days after fertilization. In humans, totipotent cells differentiate into pluripotent cells after four days.

    Chimeras are nothing new to science - chimeric mice are created all the time to form knockout models with deleted gene sequences. Nobody would ever create a chimeric human, but chimeric mice and other animal models can be used to study diseases and regenerative medicine.

    Scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov tried to reproduce the mouse method in monkeys, implanting cultured embryonic cells into existing monkey embryos, but it didn't work. It turns out primate embryos prevent cultured embryonic stem cells from becoming integrated the way they do in mice. This is a surprising and important finding, and Mitalipov said scientists need to study why it's the case.

    Dividing Cells in an Early Embryo:  © OHSU/Mitalipov Lab
    "We need to study not just cultured embryonic stem cells but also stem cells in embryos," he said in a statement. "It's too soon to close the chapter on these cells."

    This has implications for ongoing stem cell research. This research suggests that existing embryonic stem cell lines, some of which are two decades old, might not be as potent as the stem cells found inside new embryos. These are used as standards for comparison with induced pluripotent stem cells, a type of adult cell (often derived from skin cells) that can be forced to become a stem cell. But if they aren't implantable in primates, and primates require totipotent zygotic cells, well, this raises some interesting questions.

    "If we want to move stem cell therapies from the lab to clinics and from the mouse to humans, we need to understand what these primate cells can and can't do," Mitalipov said. "We need to study them in humans, including human embryos."

    The study appears in the early online edition of the journal Cell.

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    Devastation Wrought by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami U.S. Navy via Wikimedia

    You have to hand it to the Japanese; Last March's Tohoku earthquake and associated tsunami wasn't the first natural (or unnatural, for that matter) disaster to befall the island nation, but as just as before the country isn't simply rebuilding. Instead, it's rethinking and improving upon what was there before. The latest example: Japan's agriculture ministry is building a fully robotic experimental farm on a swath of farmland inundated by the tsunami.

    After salt is removed from the soil of the 600 acre plot, the agriculture ministry's plan calls for unmanned tractors to work fields lit by LEDs that will keep insects at bay in lieu of pesticides. The robotic tractors will till, plant, and tend to rice, soybeans, wheat, and various fruits and vegetables that will then also be harvested by their robotic overseers.

    The robo-farm, planned for a space in Miyagi prefecture roughly 200 miles north of Tokyo, is part of an effort to find smarter ways to reclaim Japan's farmland--some 60,000 acres of which was fouled by the tsunami--and find more efficient ways to make use of the country's limited agricultural space.

    Getting more out of each square foot of agricultural real estate isn't just a Japanese imperative, of course. As the global population increases, increasing the per-acre yield of agricultural space is becoming more and more crucial. Leave it to tech-savvy Japan to understand fundamentally that technology is the way forward in farming.

    As such, the "Dream Project," as the robo-farm initiative is known, will be built by partners like Panasonic, Hitachi, Fujitsu, NEC, and Sharp--technology companies most of us would probably wouldn't associate with agriculture. But perhaps we should start thinking that way. The Japanese certainly are.


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