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    Deciphering Buran, The Soviet Space Shuttle

    There are countless magazine articles and websites that pit the American Space Shuttle against the little-known Soviet version, and declare a winner…usually the Soviets. This is NOT that kind of story. I understand that deep-seated national rivalries make it difficult to refrain from choosing sides in any kind of Soviet/American comparison. However a cage match between these two shuttles makes no sense in the first place, as I’ll explain. Furthermore, such comparisons only serve to fuel the emotions of commenters who substitute objective engineering analysis with overzealous and misplaced patriotism.

    Buran enjoyed a single unmanned flight in 1988. Economic meltdown and the fall of the USSR were death knells for the Buran program. (photo source unknown)

    The American Shuttle was a very mature system with well over 100 flights to its credit. During the program’s four decades of development and operation, the design continually evolved to include both enhancements and concessions. There is no question that the Shuttle failed to achieve several goals set forth in its charter (namely low-cost). At the same time, it accomplished feats that were unimagined at the start of the program, like staying in service for more than 30 years…oh, and that whole International Space Station.

    The Soviet shuttle was a ship that showed tremendous promise, yet it was not even completed when it flew its single (unmanned) test mission in 1988. That the Soviet shuttle program never advanced beyond its first flight is a result of the USSR’s political and economic turmoil of the time…not any shortcoming of their design. If the program had evolved into a long-term operation as planned, there is no doubt that it would have endured an evolutionary cycle much like the US Shuttle. Only then would we know how the Soviet design lived up to its billing. And only then would a “shuttle versus shuttle” comparison of abilities and accomplishments be valid and fruitful. Alternately, I want to illustrate some of the fundamental similarities and differences between these rival spaceships and attempt to understand why the Soviet shuttle appeared as it did.

    Kepler Finds First Earth-Sized Exoplanet in Habitable Zone

    Over the last ten years, astronomers have discovered hundreds of exoplanets using a handful of techniques, but until now, most of those planets are either outside the habitable zone or are much larger than earth--think gas giants. A newly discovered planet, Kepler-186f, is the first planet in the habitable zone, the orbits around a star where formation of liquid water is possbile, of a comparable size to Earth.

    We don't know much about the planet, but Kepler-186f is about 500 light years away, it's about 10% bigger than earth by volume, and it orbits its M-dwarf star every 130 days.

    How to Ship a T. Rex Across the Country

    From National Geographic: "The Nation's T. rex, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C. To prepare the dinosaur fossils for the journey, a team of experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the Rockies packed and cataloged the hundreds of bones to ensure their safe arrival." Now that's one FedEx tracking number I'd like to have.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Linda Gormezano, Polar Bear Poop Tracker

    Understanding the changing dietary habits of polar bears is the key to seeing how climate change and shrinking polar ice is affecting their lifestyles. And the best way to know what’s happening with their diet? Look at their poop, of course! Linda Gormezano, an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has trained her dog Quinoa to help her find the best samples left by bears as they cross the frozen Canadian tundra. Gormezano chatted with us about why poop is such a useful scientific specimen and what it’s like to spend months living in a camp in the heart of polar bear country.

    A grouping of adult male polar bears along the coast of western Hudson Bay in summer (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

    What’s ecology and how does it apply to polar bear research?

    Ecology is the interaction between animals and the environment. What we’re studying is how polar bears behave on land with respect to available food -- what they eat and where they eat it. What I’m particularly interested in is how they hunt other animals and how the calories they gain from consuming them are going to affect their annual energy budget as their access to ice becomes more limited.

    We collect scat and hair samples non-invasively. After consuming food on the ice or on land some bears leave scat. Also some bears rest right along the coast, bedding down in sand and grass where they leave hairs behind, while others head further inland and leave hair in dens.

    Linda Gormezano and her dog, Quinoa. (photo credit: AMNH)

    What, exactly, is an energy budget?

    Nobody really knows how often polar bears in western Hudson Bay capture seals, but they get a certain amount of energy from consuming seals they hunt out on the ice and that energy allows them to survive on land for 4-5 months each year. If the ice melting earlier each year causes polar bears to have less time to hunt seal pups in spring, they may be taking in fewer calories over the course of the year.

    What we want to know is, now that they’re eating more of certain types of foods on land, what kind of energetic benefits might polar bears be experiencing? Up until now many have thought what they were eating on land wasn’t really helping them at all. To evaluate this, we are examining the energetic costs and benefits of capturing and consuming those foods as well as how often the behavior occurs. Only then can we determine whether these foods could help alleviate nutritional deficits that polar bears may come ashore with.

    Inside the Operations of the Cryonics Institute

    "We Will Live Again looks inside the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute. The documentary short film follows Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation." The Cryonics Institute is one of only a handful of facilities in the world that offer cryonics services, in an industry estimated to have over 250 deceased humans currently cyropreserved. Wired explored those facilities in 2012. Cryonics is just one field of research being conducted by those to who hope to evade death; The Immortalists is a new documentary that follows the research of two scientists in search of a way to reverse aging.

    In Brief: ISS to Test NASA's Hydroponics Pod

    SpaceX's third contracted cargo run was supposed to launch on Monday--a Dragon capsule ferrying 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station. But a helium leak in the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has delayed that launch until the end of this week. Among the tools, equipment, and food supplies being sent to the ISS are a new batch of experiments to join the over 100 already being conducted at any time on board the station. One notable new experiment is Veggie, NASA's prototype of an expandable plant chamber to grow lettuce seedlings in space. These plants will be grown on "pillows" in the device, which expands to 12x15-inches, the largest plant growth chamber yet sent to space. Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits. Space gardening could be a legitimate pastime for astronauts.

    How Scientists Visualize Sound with a Photography Trick

    You can actually see sound waves as they travel through the air thanks to a clever photographic trick. NPR's Adam Cole, who runs the the Skunkbear science Tumblr, produced this video explaining how scientists use a technique called Schlieren Flow Visualization--the combining of two mirrors, a barrier, and a high-speed camera--to visualize the effect of sound waves through space. It's the same technique used to visualize other "invisible" processes, like the turbulence around an airplane wing or rising heat from a hot surface.

    In Brief: Gender Responses to Virtual Reality Simulations

    While the internet has a laugh over the White Guys Wearing Oculus Rifts Tumblr, there's some genuine discussion about the potential differences in the way that biological factors may affect a person's experience of virtual reality. To put it bluntly, there's the possibility that women may not be as responsive to current virtual reality tech as men. Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research and Assistant Professor at New York University, recently shared the results of a 2000 study she conducted about the how individuals respond to the 2D cues that virtual reality systems use to simulate 3D space. Boyd, who had poor experience with her university's CAVE system, found that biological men were more likely to prioritize one type of VR cue--motion parallax--than women, who were more susceptible to shape-from-shading as a spatial cue. VR tech relies heavily on motion parallax, which could broadly explain why Boyd other female research subjects were getting disoriented more easily in her tests. The results aren't by any means conclusive about gender differences in VR use, but Boyd's point is that more research should be conducted by companies like Oculus so that they can take these factors into consideration.

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    10 Surprising Ingredients Found In Common Foods

    The industrial food process has made eating a little more complicated than it used to be. All kinds of unusual products are used to thicken, flavor and preserve some of our favorite edibles. Today, we’ll spotlight ten ingredients that you might not know you’re eating.

    What Astronauts Do When There’s Nothing to Do

    Whether it’s stoplights, your doctor’s office, or a popular restaurant on Saturday night, waiting is an inescapable aspect of modern life. For many of us, the pain of waiting is rarely much worse than being behind some indecisive couple at the Redbox kiosk. But even that trivial torment can be eased with time-killing apps on your phone. Now imagine that you have a few hours to kill before fulfilling your life’s greatest ambition, with practically nothing to do, all while firmly strapped to a fully reclined seat atop a few million pounds of highly explosive fuel…and no smartphone to check Twitter. That was the situation that many Space Shuttle astronauts found themselves in. That stoplight doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

    Much has been written about the experience of riding a spaceship to orbit…but what about the wait to get started? (photo credit NASA)

    When astronauts arrived at the launch pad via the gleaming Astrovan motor home, there was much more to do than just pile into the shuttle and light the engines. There could have been up to seven astronauts on any given flight, and just strapping them into their seats took nearly an hour. Then the entry hatch had to be closed, sealed, and pressure checked…along with a laundry list of other vital tasks. When all was said and done, an astronaut could find themselves in that seat for as long as five hours before liftoff. I don’t even want to sit in my La-Z-Boy for that long, much less be shackled with a five-point harness to a rigid seat that was designed for lightness above all else.

    While physical comfort (or lack thereof) is one element of sitting on the launch pad, the mental aspect of processing the pending, and rather dramatic events must have been equally unsettling. Whether their primary emotion was excitement, fear, or something else entirely, I don’t see how anyone could dismiss the fact that launching into space is a very big deal. The last few hours of the countdown were likely among the least frenetic periods since the crew had begun training for the flight months--or years--earlier. The ways in which astronauts coped with this forced inactivity while perched at the edge of such a rare and dynamic human experience are surely as varied as the people themselves.

    In Brief: My Love Affair with Modern Planetariums

    I've got cosmology on the mind this week. Not only has Fox's new Cosmos show debuted (it's pretty good!), but there was of course the big announcement on Monday of astrophysicists' confirmation of cosmic inflation theory. Erin did a lovely job explaining the concept in layman's terms, and you should listen to this episode of San Francisco public radio's Forum program with local astronomers and physics professors discussing the details of the report.

    Stories like those do a great job communicating heady science concepts to non-scientists, but I'm not sure how effective they are in inspiring more interest in astronomy and cosmology. That's why I'm such a big fan of modern-day digital planetariums, like the Morrison Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I wrote about it for Maximum PC (PDF) when it first opened in 2009, and we've followed up with stories about the technologies that turn these domed rooms into universe simulators. You can even run that software at home. The current show at the Morrison Planetarium is Dark Universe, an exploration of the Big Bang and Dark Matter, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's a collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium at the ANHM, so you can watch it in New York as well. It's a fantastic space show that's also pretty audacious--it visualizes concepts that we not only can't see, but that astronomers are still figuring out for themselves.

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    Tested Explains: What The Heck is Inflation Theory?

    If you were conscious on Monday you probably heard there was big news out of the physics community. So big, in fact, that there’s already talk of Nobel prizes and jokes about Einstein patting himself on the back for being proven right...again. Let’s be honest though, big physics news is always kind of hard to understand. There’s always GeV’s and B-modes and jargon and, well, math. So, in the event that you’d actually like to understand what the heck everybody is talking about right now I called up my favorite theoretical physicist, CalTech’s Sean Carroll, to help explain the theory of inflation for those of us that don’t do physics. Here it is, in the simplest possible terms.

    Image credit: California Academy of Sciences

    The universe is the same everywhere we look. No matter where we point our telescopes out into the 14 billion light years of space in all directions, we see the same density of stuff. Same amount of matter and number of galaxies. Same gravitational field. The universe is even basically the same temperature everywhere.

    The theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence.

    It’s awfully smooth, flat, and uniform -- and there’s gotta be a reason why. Inflation theory explains. Simply put, the theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence. In other words, everything, everywhere existed all at once and it happened faster than the speed of light.

    That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Well, it sounds simple. Until you try to prove that it’s true. Since we can’t go back in time to watch the creation of the universe (whomp whomp), the best way to know that theory is right is to look for leftovers of its aftermath. So scientists have been trying to spot evidence that the rapid inflation of the universe messed with gravity.

    Teaching Calculus to 5-Year Olds

    Right now, there's a controversy about the way we teach math in the United States. I haven't read enough on the topic yet to have an opinion, but it seems to be centered around the new ways used to teach basic math to children that are part of the Common Core initiative. To me, the crux of the arguments seems to do with whether we should teach kids concepts and reasoning instead of the more traditional rote memorization. On that front, this article from The Atlantic posits that very young children are more than capable of understanding the basics of complex mathematical concepts, like calculus and algebra, that we typically wouldn't teach until much later in their education.

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    How Researchers Want To Help Humanity Live Forever

    The final enemy, as the saying goes, is death. No matter how many diseases and disasters human progress conquers, there’s still that tombstone at the end of the road. But for how much longer? Some scientists are working on ways to extend our lifespan, and today we’ll examine some of their more promising (or least the weirder) ideas.

    NASA's Project Morpheus' Sixth Free Flight

    NASA's Project Morpheus is a prototype autonomous lander designed for vertical takeoff and landing, developed as a testbed for future spacecraft that will help NASA deliver cargo and payloads to support future crewed missions to the Moon and even asteroids. From NASA: "the 6th free flight of the Bravo vehicle flew to 467 feet (142m), altitude and then traversed 637 feet (194m) in 36 seconds, including diverting course mid-flight, before landing in the hazard field 56 feet (17m) from its original target (simulating hazard avoidance). Initial data indicates a nominal flight meeting all test objectives. The vehicle flew its pre-planned trajectory flawlessly." I love the simulated Moon surface that's the target area for the lander.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Ruddy Mell, Fire Starter (for Science)

    If you want to understand how fire works, then you have to burn stuff. That’s where Ruddy Mell comes in. He’s a research combustion engineer and physicist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab. Mell’s job is to work with teams of fire experts to create controlled burns, collect all the data they can, and then build physics-based models that can predict what could happen when seriously dangerous fires burn out of control. Mell talked with us about why our current wildfire models are so insufficient and how they go about trying to control the world’s most unpredictable element out in the field.

    Why do we need to study wildfires?

    At least three reasons. Two of them are kind of combined. They have to do with fires in the wildland and urban interface, where wildland vegetation is adjacent to where people live and fire causes damage to homes and roads and power lines and cell towers -- anything that people have built that causes enough damage that the consequences need to be addressed.

    The other problem is smoke. That’s a significant problem. Even if it doesn’t burn buildings the smoke is a problem if people are downwind. The health effect has been shown to cause increased hospital visits for respiratory problems. In some parts of the country, the southeast in particular where there are a lot of old people that are retired, it can be a big problem.

    Also in the southeast US the vegetation tends to grow back very quickly, so they have to deal with this smoke issue because the vegetation is there to burn. One of the ways they deal with fires there is to do fuel treatments, where fuel is vegetation. They’ll burn it periodically just to keep it down so it will be easier to contain if there’s a wildfire. They’re limited in doing prescribed fires because of all the people around. They want to do this to keep it safe, but it’s hard to do.

    So the wildland fire problem is a fire problem, a vegetation problem, and smoke problem. To address the problem you have to think about all that. When modelling comes in, you need models for fire and better models for smoke.

    The purpose of these research burns is to provide data sets for model testing and validation and development. The best example of a model that’s used by people everyday are weather models. Imagine the world if we couldn’t look up the forecast. You can’t use experiments alone to help with weather predictions. Suppose you go out and measure temperature and wind at some site, there’s no guarantee it will be like that a year from now. You need models to help predict out into the future.

    Women Are Taking Back Beer

    Men and beer have gone together for ages. Beer is crafted by men in factories owned by men, sold to men, and consumed by men.

    But women love beer, too. They make up one-quarter of U.S. beer consumption by volume, according to the Beverage Media Group. And the number of women who love beer is slowly growing. The craft brewing industry has allowed them to find new brands and flavors. According to a consumer survey called the Alcoholic Beverage DemandTracker, the percent of women who name beer as their favorite beverage grew from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013. That stat may seem low, but it’s kind of remarkable considering that beer is only ever marketed to men.

    And women love brewing too. For a long time, the only way they’ve been able to show it is through small-batch home brewing in their kitchens. Women who have wanted to turn their craft into a career say they’ve had their male counterparts literally laugh in their faces. In the last ten years or so, however, a few female pioneers have pushed their way onto brewery floors to prove that making beer is anything but men’s work.

    The idea that beer is a man’s domain would have been ludicrous to anyone alive more than 250 years ago.

    The movement of women into the industry has happened incredibly slowly. A male-dominated industry is generally considered to be one that has 25 percent or fewer women. While other men-centric businesses have started accepting women over the years (even mining, for example, was 13 percent women in the U.S. in 2011), the brewing industry doesn’t even bother to track how many women it employs. The generally accepted estimate is that less than 1 percent of all brewers in the U.S. are female. Whitney Burnside, who became the first female head brewer at Pelican Brewery in Oregon in January, says that when it came to her entering the industry, “there was a lot of resistance. I felt like I had to work extra hard to show them that I could do it. I never felt like it was acceptable. Now, even being the head brewer here, I still get the looks and the weird responses.”

    It hasn’t always been this way. The idea that beer is a man’s domain would have been ludicrous to anyone alive more than 250 years ago. Before beer was taken over by industry, men had little time or care for crafting brew — they were too busy hunting or farming to waste their hours cooking. After all, making beer isn’t all that different from making dinner. Until the modern-era, women dominated everything that went on in the kitchen.

    The Space Shuttle’s Controversial Launch Abort Plan

    Just about every aspect of spaceflight harbors dangers that are both obvious and concealed. Yet, it is launch and landing that create the most white knuckles and bated breaths. These concerns are well-founded. Getting into orbit requires harnessing unfathomable quantities of volatile energy with laser beam precision. Coming home necessitates somehow dissipating a similar volume of energy within comparably narrow margins of error. As risky as those two endeavors may seem, one NASA plan for the Space Shuttle combined launch and landing into a single 25-minute ride with presumed risks that far exceeded the sum of its parts: the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort.

    The first space shuttle mission was briefly considered as an intentional RTLS test flight. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

    As the name implies, RTLS was a plan to land a malfunctioning Space Shuttle on the runway at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the shadow of the launch pad that it recently departed. It sounds easy, right? Surely, it’s just like going back home to make sure you turned off the oven. In actuality, there is much more to it than that. Throughout the Shuttle program’s 30-plus years, there was continuous debate over the validity of the RTLS scenario. Skeptics claimed that the RTLS checklist was nothing more than busywork to distract the astronauts as they rode out an irreversible doom. Even the man who commanded the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1), astronaut John Young, expressed that “RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful.”

    The good news is that the shuttle’s retirement has made the RTLS argument merely an academic one. Of the 135 Space Shuttle launches, only one (STS-51F on 7/29/85) experienced an abort-inducing failure during ascent. In the case of 51F, they safely made a lower-than-planned orbit and carried out the mission. All of the other flights cleanly avoided the dubious honor of settling the RTLS bet.

    The Chemistry Behind Sriracha's Appeal

    Why do our taste buds crave the flavor of rooster sauce? Reactions--a YouTube channel produced by the American Chemical Society--breaks down the chemical ingredients of the popular condiment to explain how it affects our brains. Perfect timing to celebrate the ending of the great Sriracha crisis of late 2013, after the California Department of Public Health halted shipments of Sriracha from its Southern California factory for 30 days. But did you know that there are plenty of rooster sauce alternatives in supermarkets? That's one taste test we'd love to do.