Sex! Brains! Mystery! The Weirdies have ’em all

Image: Brain cap
University of Washington graduate student Jose Ceballos wears an EEG cap that records brain activity and sends a response to a second participant over the Internet. (UW photo)

When the calendar turns, it’s time to reflect on the biggest sensations of the past year: Time’s Person of the Year, AP’s Top News Story, Hollywood’s Oscar picks — and, of course, the Weirdies.

The Weirdies?

Since 2008, my annual Weird Science Awards have thrown a spotlight on the weirdest tales from the lab and from the field, ranging from glow-in-the-dark clones to lab-grown rabbit penises and an ancient Chinese marijuana stash.

This year’s lineup includes a couple of projects from the University of Washington, which provides a nice Seattle angle for GeekWire’s first running of the Weirdies. Without further ado, here’s the top 10:

Get the full list on GeekWire.


Stamps celebrate Pluto, planets and ‘Star Trek’

Image: Pluto stamps
The U.S. Postal Service’s souvenir sheet of four stamps contains two new stamps appearing twice. The first stamp shows an artist’s rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and the second shows the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken near closest approach. (Credit: Antonio Alcala / USPS)

For the first time since 1991, Pluto and the solar system’s eight bigger planets are getting their own postage stamps – thanks to a U.S. Postal Service cosmopalooza that also spotlights Earth’s moon and “Star Trek.”

The Pluto stamp pays tribute to NASA’s New Horizons mission, and updates 1991’s speculative view of the dwarf planet. Back then, the legend on the 29-cent stamp read “Pluto – Not Yet Explored.” This time, the four-stamp sheet carries the label “Pluto – Explored!”

The stamps follow through on a petition that was filed by New Horizons’ fans more than three years ago – long before the piano-sized probe flew past Pluto on July 14.

Get the full story on GeekWire.



Billionaire space club pits Musk vs. Bezos et al.

Image: Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin's New Shepard craft
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (in hat and sunglasses) pops open a bottle of champagne after Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket landing in November. (Credit: Blue Origin)

When Jeff Bezos welcomed SpaceX to the rocket landing “club” last week, it set off a round of twittering over whether Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX were really in the same league. What kind of club was Bezos talking about?

The club that Bezos had in mind was precisely defined: It consists of ventures that can launch a rocket booster from the ground into space, and then bring that booster back intact for a vertical landing.

Blue Origin was the first to become a member, during a November test flight of its suborbital New Shepard spaceship in Texas. SpaceX followed in December, with the successful landing of its Falcon 9’s first-stage booster after the launch of 11 Orbcomm telecommunication satellites.

Lots of folks have pointed out how much more difficult it is to bring back a booster after an orbital launch, as opposed to New Shepard’s up-and-down suborbital trip. The Falcon 9 stage is more than 10 times as powerful and rose twice as high as New Shepard. The implications are greater, as well: Musk says total rocket reusability could lower the cost of delivering satellites and other payloads to orbit by a factor of 100, and eventually open the way for building a city on Mars.

Based on Bezos’ narrow definition of the club, Blue Origin may have been the first member, but this month SpaceX took the lead.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


The Year in Aerospace, from drones to dwarfs

Image: Pluto
The heart-shaped area that’s prominent in this New Horizons picture of Pluto is known as Tombaugh Regio. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

New Horizons is the name of the Pluto mission that reached its climax in 2015, but the name also provides an apt two-word description for the year’s big news in aviation and space exploration.

You could argue that New Horizons’ revelations about the dwarf planet – including never-before-seen, up-close pictures of ice mountains (and perhaps volcanoes), nitrogen glaciers, weird plains and a bright heart – rate as the year’s biggest story in the cosmos.

Check out the top stories of 2015 and 2016 on GeekWire.


How will Elon Musk get colonists to Mars?

Image: Mars Colonial Transporter
An animation shows a lander separating from the rest of the Mars Colonial Transporter. Later concepts suggest that the entire MCT would land as a unit. (Credit: Michel Lamontagne / ESA via YouTube)

In the wake of SpaceX’s successful rocket landing, some of the company’s most ardent fans are guessing at the shape of the biggest thing to come: the Mars Colonial Transporter.

The MCT is a crucial piece in SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s grand plan to send tens of thousands of colonists to the Red Planet, potentially starting in the next decade or two. Such a venture would mark a giant leap toward establishing a second cosmic home for humanity. Musk believes that’s a must if we’re to guard against extinction due to pandemics, asteroid strikes or other planet-wide catastrophes.

Early this year, Musk promised to unveil his architecture for Mars colonization by the end of 2015 – but in a recent GQ interview, he said the big reveal was more likely to come in early 2016. “Before we announce it, I want to make sure that we’re not gonna make really big changes to it,” he said.

Despite Musk’s reticence, space geeks have been chewing over the elements of a potential plan for years, based on the hints that have been dropped to date.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Scientists: Oso landslide was no anomaly

Image: Landslide site
UW graduate student Sean LaHusen points to buried debris at a landslide site on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. (Credit: Alison Duvall / UW)

A newly published analysis of the geological record for the area around the site of 2014’s Oso landslide shows that the slopes have been collapsing every 140 years or so on average. That’s significantly more frequent than previously estimated.

Based on laser elevation measurements and radiocarbon dating of woody debris around the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, researchers from the University of Washington found that a collapse five times as big as the Oso event, known as the Rowan landslide, took place sometime between 300 and 694 years ago.

The researchers’ study, published online by the journal Geology on Tuesday, came up with an average collapse rate of once per 500 years for the area around Oso, Wash., over the course of thousands of years. Over the past 2,000 years, the average rate has been about 140 years, the scientists said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Robo-reindeer bring holiday cheer and fear

Image: Robot reindeer
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots star in a hilariously terrifying Christmas video clip.

Santa Claus is coming to town, pulled by robot reindeer. But is that a promise, or a threat?

To celebrate the holidays, Boston Dynamics put out a video that brings a Futurama nightmare to life. The 28-second clip shows the company’s four-legged Spot bots fronting a sleigh as it trundles over a snow-free lawn. But instead of a death-dealing Robot Santa Claus, a smiling Ms. Claus is holding the reins.

“Happy holidays, from Boston Dynamics!” she says with a wave.

There’s a deliciously dark side to this slice of holiday cheer: First of all, Boston Dynamics (which was purchased by Google a couple of years ago) is working on Spot and other bio-inspired robots for use on future battlefields.

Then there’s the fact that seeing robots that move like dogs, or cheetahs, or humansis eerie at best … and Terminator-level scary at worst. Putting antlers on the darn things definitely does not help.

Get the full story and video on GeekWire.


See Ceres as you’ve never seen it before

Image: Ceres
This Dec. 10 image of Ceres shows the area around a crater chain called Gerber Catena,. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was flying about 240 miles above Ceres when the picture was taken. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA).

Earlier this month we started seeing some of the closest views yet of Pluto, and now it’s time for close-ups from a closer dwarf planet: Ceres.

NASA’s Dawn orbiter has begun delivering pictures of the solar system’s biggest asteroid and smallest known dwarf planet as seen from its closest vantage point, just 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface. That’s roughly how high the International Space Station flies above Earth.

One of the more intriguing views released today shows the area around a crater chain called Gerber Catena. Get out your red-blue glasses, and you can easily spot a trough running through a 3-D view of the terrain.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


SpaceX’s rocket landing caught on video

Image: SpaceX rocket landing
paceX’s Falcon 9 rocket descends to a touchdown at Landing Zone 1. (Credit: SpaceX)

A day after the first-ever fully successful landing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, space fans around the world are geeking out over the pictures. And it’s not just geeks.

Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, said the Florida landing “clearly placed the exclamation mark on 2015, by closing out another successful year for the Eastern Range in historic fashion.”

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket was launched on Monday night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, successfully sending 11 communication satellites into orbit for Orbcomm.

That would have been significant enough, coming nearly six months after a Falcon launch failure forced SpaceX to hold up on its space missions. But the first-stage booster’s return to a converted missile range, now dubbed Landing Zone 1, marked the first time that a rocket returned safely to ground after launching an orbital mission.

The Blue Origin space venture demonstrated a similar rocket return during asuborbital test mission last month, but SpaceX’s feat carries even bigger implications for lowering the cost of access to orbit. Bottom line? The pace of the commercial space race is heating up – so enjoy the show on SpaceX’s Flickr site and YouTube channel,

Check out the pictures and video on GeekWire.


Leak holds up NASA’s InSight launch to Mars

Image: InSight
An artist’s conception shows the InSight lander on the surface of Mars. The SEIS instrument is the light-colored dome at lower left. (Credit: NASA)

NASA says it’s putting off next year’s scheduled launch of its InSight lander mission to Mars until at least 2018, due to a persistent leak in the spacecraft’s main seismic-sensing instrument.

Mission managers had been working for months to track down a series of small leaks in the vacuum seal for the instrument, known as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS. The instrument was being built and tested for NASA under the direction of France’s space agency, the Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES.

Up until Monday, managers had high hopes they could fix all the leaks in time for next March’s liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But the results from a low-temperature vacuum test at a facility near Paris were so discouraging that they scratched the launch off the schedule.

“It’s a very close decision,” Marc Pircher, director of CNES’ Toulouse Space Center, told reporters during a teleconference.

Get the full story on GeekWire.