Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

How to Send Your Face to Space

Posted: 07 Jun 2010 01:57 PM PDT

NASA wants to put your face in space. No, really: Just in time for the last two space shuttle flights, NASA is offering to fly pictures of anyone who uploads a head shot on their Face in Space website to the International Space Station.

Face in Space follows a long tradition of spacecraft carrying personal touches out of Earth's gravity well. Since 1997, shuttle missions have carried elementary school students' signatures as part of an outreach project called Student Signatures in Space. The Cassini spacecraft brought a disk of signatures into orbit around Saturn. The Phoenix Mars Lander took DVD to Mars' north pole. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took a microchip to the moon. And the exoplanet-hunting Kepler telescope took a DVD full of names and messages to ET into orbit.

The Voyager I spacecraft's cargo was even more intimate: It carried a phonograph record containing recordings of a kiss, a mother's first words to her child and Carl Sagan's wife Ann Druyan's brainwaves, among other Earthly sounds.

But this is the first time the public has been invited to send their portrait into orbit. As long as you're older than 13, all you have to do is upload a photo (or, if you're camera shy, just enter your name) and choose which of the last two Space Shuttle missions you'd like to fly on. STS-133 will launch the Space Shuttle Discovery on September 16, and STS-134 will launch Endeavour in November. After the Shuttle returns, you can print out a "flight certificate" signed by the mission commander. (You can also follow the STS-134 commander on Twitter @ShuttleCDRKelly.)

In the meantime, check out this other bit of NASA promo hilarity: Space Your Face, where an animated astronaut with whatever picture you want in its helmet boogies on the moon or Mars. Educational? Iffy. Entertaining? Oh yes.

Image: NASA

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Male Spiders Are All Bark, Female Spiders Fight to Kill

Posted: 07 Jun 2010 01:57 PM PDT

While the males of a jumping spider species merely threaten and posture instead of actually fighting each other, fights among females are often fatal.

Scientists have termed their willingness to fight to the death, the "desperado effect," and they think it's rather neatly explained by the natural history of the species, Phidippus clarus.

Nomadic males regularly encounter one another in the quest for receptive mates, but the females tend to stick close to a nest, which they need to survive their molting maturation process and to lay their eggs. When they encounter another female, the researchers argue, they have to win the fight or their ability to reproduce will be compromised.

"The bottom line is when you look at the fights between males, they are highly ritualized and the spiders rarely get injured," said behavioral ecologist Carlos Botero of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina. "If you look at females, they have few signals, are very intense, and almost every single fight, one of them dies or gets severely injured."

Most spider-fighting research has examined the behavior of males competing for mates. The new work, published in the journal of Behavioral Ecology June 4, is one of a small set of studies that has started to look at female fighting behavior.

"When you look at most animal systems, the males are the ones doing the ritualized displays," said biologist Eileen Hebets of the University of Nebraska. "Males are the ones with the extravagant ornaments."

And, to a certain extent, it makes scientific sense to focus on the males' behavior. While the results in the specific Phidippus clarus case may hold, it's unclear how far they can be generalized. Hebets said that in many spider systems, the females don't really fight very often. If you take two females and put them into a laboratory setting, it may create an entirely unnatural encounter with little biological significance.

"If you put two predators in a small enough space, they are certainly going to attack each other," Hebets said.

She thought the most interesting part of the paper was the suggestion that a hormone responsible for the spider's molting and growing to their adult bodies may also make the females more aggressive the closer they get to their transformation.

"There is work that shows a correlation between hormone levels and cannibalism in spiders," Hebets said. "So that link is known to be there, and it is also involved in molting."

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Ancient Beehives Yield 3,000-Year-Old Bees

Posted: 07 Jun 2010 12:19 PM PDT

Honeybee remains found in a 3,000-year-old apiary have given archaeologists a one-of-a-kind window into the beekeeping practices of the ancient world.

"Beekeeping is known only from a few Egyptian sources, from a few tombs and paintings. No actual hives have been found," said Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Amihai Mazar.

The hives were uncovered in 2007 at an excavation in Tel Rehov, Israel, home to the flourishing Bronze and Iron Age city of Rehov. Mazar and his team found more than 100 hives, capable of housing an 1.5 million bees and producing half a ton of honey.

In a paper published June 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers analyzed bees preserved in honeycomb that was charred, but not completely burnt by fire that likely destroyed the rest of the apiary.

Unfortunately for would-be makers of ancient honey, heat damaged the bees' DNA, making it impossible to revive their genes in modern bees. But the researchers were at least able to identify them as Apis mellifera anatoliaca, a subspecies found only in what is now Turkey. It's possible that A. m. anatoliaca's range has changed, but more likely that Rehov's beekeepers traded for them.

Local bees are notoriously difficult to handle. During the 20th century, when beekeepers tried to establish a modern industry in Tel Rehov, they ended up importing A. m. anatoliaca — a literally sweet example of history repeating itself.

Image: Top, micrographs of a drone head and larva; bottom, micrographs of a workers' head and thoracic flight muscles./PNAS.

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Citation: "Industrial apiculture in the Jordan valley during Biblical times with Anatolian honey bees," by Guy Bloch, Tiago Francoy, Ido Wachtel, Nava Panitz-Cohen, Stefan Fuchs, and Amihai Mazar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 23, June 8, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

Before the Mississippi: Ancient Rivers Flowed West

Posted: 07 Jun 2010 10:25 AM PDT

Like vacationers taking a pit stop on a long road trip, zircon mineral grains from the northern Appalachians may have stopped off in Michigan before ending up on the Colorado Plateau, a new study suggests. The finding, reported in the June Geology, is a major boost to the notion that a continent-spanning, Amazon-like river system once carried sediments west across North America.

sciencenewsA large proportion of the zircons found in Jurassic-era sandstones throughout a Texas-sized portion of the Colorado Plateau originated in the Appalachians (SN: 8/30/03, p. 131), previous analyses have shown. Those erosion-resistant mineral grains were carried westward by an immense river, deposited on floodplains and then stirred back up innumerable times before ending up in massive dune fields that later solidified into western sandstones, says William R. Dickinson, a geologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The new find by Dickinson and his colleagues is the first to identify any of the Appalachian zircons' rest stops on their long journey west. Rocks of the proper age are rare in the Midwest and the northern Great Plains, where the river presumably ran. Those rocks either eroded away long ago or are covered by thick layers of soil and glacial debris scraped south from Canada during recent ice ages, says Dickinson. The only easily accessible outcrops of such rocks in central North America are in central Michigan, where quarries reach deep enough to expose mid-Jurassic sandstone.

In their attempt to trace the transcontinental river system, the researchers took a 20-kilogram hunk of Michigan sandstone from one of those quarries and then extracted and analyzed its zircons. About 40 percent of zircons in the sample were between 905 million and 1.3 billion years old, and about 10 percent were between 285 and 510 million years old. Most if not all of these zircons probably eroded from the northern Appalachians, the researchers suggest. The overall age distribution of zircons from the Michigan sample is strikingly similar to those found in the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau, a hint that all of the zircons eroded from the same sources.

"It's not as good as a barcode, but the match is really quite good," says Scott D. Samson, a geochemist at Syracuse University in New York who was not involved with the work.

The new study notes one prominent difference between the Michigan and Colorado Plateau sandstones: While the western samples contain abundant zircons ranging between 510 and 725 million years old, zircons of that age range are completely missing from the Michigan sample.

Most likely, the researchers note, zircons of that age originated in the southern Appalachians, and tributaries draining that area would have fed into the large river that carried material west to the Colorado Plateau but not as far north as Michigan.

To garner more evidence for a Jurassic-era, continent-crossing river, researchers could scour ancient sandstones for other erosion-resistant minerals such as monazite, Samson says. Bits of that mineral are rarer than zircons but have a distinct chemical signature that could help researchers pin down their origins, he notes.

Image: National Park Service

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Caught on Tape: Cricket Sex

Posted: 04 Jun 2010 11:57 AM PDT

Thanks to a kind of science reality show, evolutionary biologists are getting a reality check. The day-to-day lives of field crickets, captured on 250,000 hours of surveillance footage, are providing a glimpse into how well studies in the lab match up with life in the wild.

sciencenewsMuch of indoor science proved applicable outdoors, but there were surprises, including a more complicated view of how the number of mates relates to the number of offspring, according to the first report on the project, appearing in the June 4 Science.

Biologists have long studied crickets in labs to test ideas about mate choice and other aspects of evolution. To take those questions into the wild, researchers deployed 64 security cameras with motion detectors and infrared sensitivity to monitor flightless field crickets (species Gryllus campestris) day and night in a meadow in northern Spain for the 2006 breeding season. Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz of the University of Exeter's campus in Penryn, England, watched every hour of the take. He managed by viewing video from multiple cameras at the same time and speeding through stretches where nothing relevant happened.

One of the surprises, says study coauthor Tom Tregenza , also at Penryn, was that dominant males, which routinely trounce other males in fights, have relatively modest love lives. Lab studies had shown that females prefer a dominant scent to the whiff of routine losers, and also that dominant males can monopolize females by chasing off rivals. Despite such advantages, the dominant males in the meadow had only about half the number of mates during the breeding season that the routine losers did.

Yet in a further twist, the dominant males apparently compensated for their relatively low number of mating partners and ended up with plentiful surviving offspring. "Just having a lot of mates isn't the whole story," Tregenza says.

Researchers also found that males that sang more ended up with more offspring, as expected from lab work, but that relationship held only for smaller males. Large male crickets in the meadow attracted females about equally well regardless of how much the males sang.

Even with all the singing and flirting and fighting, reproduction proved an iffy business. Among 77 females in the meadow, more than 40 left no surviving offspring. Fewer than 10 managed to leave even one.

Just looking at the beginning of the process, plenty of crickets of both sexes failed to mate even once (on camera at least). "For a male, perhaps understandable, but what did these females do wrong?" muses Hanna Kokko, currently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, who was not involved in the study.

One prediction that did prove true in the meadow was the fundamental expectation that males typically vary more than females in the number of offspring they produce. The cricket study provides the first confirmation of this principle in wild invertebrates, Tregenza says.

Animal behaviorist Ann V. Hedrick of the University of California, Davis, who studies a different cricket species, says that the video project "has provided us with extremely valuable information that really hasn't been possible to collect before."

Crickets, fruit flies and other small, easy-to-wrangle invertebrates tend to dominate lab studies of sexual and natural selection. In contrast, bigger animals such as deer and meerkats are the most common subjects of long-term field studies. But "you can't have a lab full of red deer," Tregenza says. The new study attempts to bring together the two research traditions.

"Crickets live more interesting lives than meerkats," Tregenza says, and he would love an invertebrate answer to the actual science reality show Meerkat Manor. There might be something about the eye of the beholder, he admits, but "Meerkats, watch out!"

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Fossil Antelope Teeth Hold Clues to Europe’s Missing Apes

Posted: 03 Jun 2010 12:12 PM PDT

Wear patterns on ancient antelope teeth have allowed researchers to reconstruct Europe's environment 8 million years ago, when the continent's great apes vanished.

One of those ape species could have given rise to the human lineage, making the circumstances of their disappearance especially interesting.

"Some kind of homogeneity happened around that time," said anthropologist Gildas Merceron of France's University Claude Bernard Lyon, co-author of a study published June 2 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "We suspect a uniform environment may be linked to the decrease in great ape biodiversity."

That apes lived in Europe seems strange today, but the continent 20 million years was warm and wet, well-suited for primates that left Africa after shrinking seas exposed a land bridge between the continents. Within a few million years, Europe hosted more than 100 species of primates, and at least 10 species of great apes.

Climate change ended that geological age. The southern icecap grew, and the Antarctic circumpolar current formed. The Asian monsoon cycle started and Europe cooled. Merceron's study gives local detail to that big picture.

The researchers analyzed hundreds of deer and antelope teeth found at sites in Germany, Hungary and Greece and dated them to the reign of Europe's primates and to their extinction. Wear patterns told them what sort of vegetation had prevailed. In Western and Central Europe, ruminants switched from browsing bushes and trees to grazing grasses. In Eastern Europe, the opposite happened, as grazers started to browse.

This slide into woodland homogeneity likely left the apes unable to find food, and perhaps exposed them to predators, suspects Merceron's team. But some researchers think Europe's apes didn't necessarily go extinct. Some may have returned to Africa, and followed an evolutionary course ending in the modern great apes, including Homo sapiens.

"For every aspect that makes us human, there is a time and set of conditions that explains that," said Rutgers University anthropologist Rob Scott, who was not involved in the study. "This will help explain the sort of conditions that are relevant to the earliest hominids."

The back-into-Africa hypothesis is controversial, and contradicts the standard narrative of an all-Africa origin for the human lineage. However, there's a gap in Africa's great ape fossil record between 14 and 7 million years ago. The Eurasian fossil record is rich at that time.

Among the candidates for an ancestor of humans and other modern great apes are Rudapithecus hungaricus, Anoiapithecus brevirostris and Ouranopithecus macedoniensis. Especially in the face, each has features hinting at those found in known human ancestors. The last of these apes to survive was Ouranopithecus, which lived in Greece and was well-suited to eating nuts and tubers. According to Scott, it's possible that Ouranopithecus had started to come down from the trees, developing methods of locomotion that eventually turned into bipedalism. "I'd be terribly surprised if they were totally arboreal," he said.

All this is speculation, but even if Eurasian apes didn't give rise to humanity, the study embodies an approach that can be applied to African apes, said Scott.

"The field is progressing from the discovery of new taxa, new names to put in our charts, to having enough information to construct larger hypotheses and scenarios," Scott said. "We want to know, why are we human?"

Image: Artist's rendering and fossil fragments of Anoiapithecus brevirostris./Institute of Catalan Paleontology, Autonous University of Barcelona.

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Citation: "Ruminant diets and the Miocene extinction of European great apes." By Gildas Merceron, Thomas M. Kaiser, Dimitris S. Kostopoulos and Ellen Schulz. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, June 2, 2010.

Fractal Haze Could Solve Weak-Sun Mystery for Early Earth

Posted: 03 Jun 2010 11:00 AM PDT

A thick haze of organic material let the early Earth soak up the sun's warmth without absorbing harmful ultraviolet rays, according to a new study.

The model offers a new twist on an old puzzle: Although the sun was so dim billions of years ago that the Earth should have been a ball of ice, the young planet had liquid oceans capable of supporting life.

"Given these recent papers, we can probably say the early faint sun problem is not one of the problems anymore in solving the origin of life," said astrophysicist Christopher Chyba of Princeton University, who was not involved in the new work.

The sun should have been up to 30 percent less bright 3.8 billion to 2.5 billion years ago, according to studies of the lifecycles of sun-like stars. If the Earth's atmosphere had the same composition then as it does now, it would have frozen over completely, like Jupiter's moon Europa. But geological records show the Earth was at least as warm and wet then as it is today.

Scientists have struggled with this "faint young sun paradox" since 1972, when astronomers Carl Sagan and George Mullen suggested that an atmosphere containing a small amount of ammonia, a powerful greenhouse gas, could have warmed the Earth enough to keep the oceans liquid. But a later study showed that ultraviolet radiation from the sun would destroy the ammonia in the atmosphere and cancel out its warming effects.

Sagan countered in 1996 that the early atmosphere would have produced a thick cloud of organic haze, much like the orange cloud that enshrouds Saturn's moon Titan. This haze would have blocked ultraviolet light but let in visible light, letting the Earth tan without getting burnt.

But early models assumed the haze particles were spheres, and that when individual particles collided, they globbed together to make bigger spheres. These spheres blocked visible light as well as ultraviolet light, and left the Earth's surface even colder.

"It basically led us to a dead end where we couldn't have a warm early Earth," said Eric Wolf, a graduate student in atmospheric sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the first author of the new study in Science June 4.

Wolf and coauthor Brian Toon realized that assuming the haze particles were spherical was too simple. Instead of combining to make bigger spheres, tiny haze particles no more than 100 nanometers across could form long chains, like strings of pearls. These chains would link up and branch off each other in a complicated fractal geometry, similar to the structure of clouds.

These strands of haze would form fluffy, airy structures that would let in visible light while blocking ultraviolet light, Wolf said.

"If you take into account the shape factor," he said, "it turns out that the haze would be quite a strong ultraviolet shield while being relatively transparent in the visible. Visible light can reach through the haze and reach the surface."

Without the destructive ultraviolet light, ammonia could build up under the haze and warm the Earth efficiently, Wolf said. Only a few parts per million of ammonia would be enough to offset the faint young sun.

But if early organisms could have looked up, they wouldn't have seen a clear blue sky. The sky would be dim and rust-colored, like Titan's.

"We're really dealing with this completely alien world on the early Earth," Wolf said.

Wolf's study comes shortly after an April 1 paper in Nature that proposed another solution to the faint young sun paradox: The early Earth was darker, and therefore absorbed more heat. Both explanations could be right, Chyba said.

"It seems likely that the answer is going to be a composite explanation," he said. "You cobble together a number of factors and you solve the paradox that way."

The next step should be looking at ancient rocks to determine what the early Earth's atmosphere was really made of, Chyba added. "That's going to be really hard, because those rocks are really worked over. But that's probably where the field is heading now."

Image: Haze on Titan./NASA/Cassini

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Gulf Oil Spill Could Spread to Atlantic Coast

Posted: 03 Jun 2010 10:34 AM PDT

Oil from BP's Gulf of Mexico spill could reach the Atlantic coast in the coming months, according to a new computer simulation.

The model indicates that oil at the surface is likely to be picked up by a fast-moving stream of water in the Gulf known as the Loop Current, which feeds into the Gulf Stream current that carries water northward along the Atlantic coastline.

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil reach Florida?'" Synte Peacock, who worked on the model at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said in a press release today. "Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."

It is impossible to accurately predict precisely what will happen to the oil because it will depend on the ever-changing Loop Current and regional weather patterns. But the model, which is based on typical wind and current patterns for the area, can provide a range of possibilities.

Six different scenarios — one is shown in the video above — were run through the computer simulation. In all of them, the oil eventually gets entrained into the Gulf Stream and reaches the Atlantic coast, traveling north at speeds up to 100 miles a day as far north as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, before heading east into the open ocean. The main differences between the scenarios are in the timing of the oil's movement.

"We have been asked if and when remnants of the spill could reach the European coastlines," team member Martin Visbeck of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University in Germany said in the press release. "Our assumption is that the enormous lateral mixing in the ocean together with the biological disintegration of the oil should reduce the pollution to levels below harmful concentrations. But we would like to have this backed up by numbers from some of the best ocean models."

The NCAR-led simulation was performed on supercomputers based at the New Mexico Computer Applications Center and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The scientists caution that the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed and published, is not a forecast and is based on movement of a virtual dye that doesn't resemble oil in some ways. The study also doesn't take into account factors such as chemical breakdown and degradation of the oil or whether the oil will remain as a slick on the surface, coagulate or mix into the subsurface.

The team is working on extending the model further into the future.

Read more background on the study at the New York Times' Dot Earth blog, in the full press release, and at the DOE.

All six modeling scenarios can be found here.

Video: The animation is based on a computer model simulation, using a virtual dye, that assumes weather and current conditions similar to those that occur in a typical year. It is one of a set of six scenarios released today that simulate possible pathways the oil might take under a variety of oceanic conditions. Each of the six scenarios shows the same overall movement of oil through the Gulf to the Atlantic and up the East Coast. However, the timing and fine-scale details differ, depending on the details of the ocean currents in the Gulf. (Visualization by Tim Scheitlin and Rick Brownrigg, NCAR; based on model simulations.)

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Hot! Thermal Video of Hawaiian Volcano Is Amazing

Posted: 03 Jun 2010 03:00 AM PDT

This incredible view of a vent in the Halemaumau Crater within the Kilauea volcanic caldera on the Island of Hawaii was captured by a U.S. Geological Survey thermal video camera June 1.

Sped up by four times, the video reveals activity in the 450 foot-wide vent that is usually obscured by accompanying gas fumes. The cracks in the lava pond at the beginning of the video — when the lava is at a high stand in the vent — are just visible in the photo below.

As the clip continues, more cracks form in the cooled crust of lava on top of the pond and pieces begin to break off and move around. As the activity increases, lava can be seen splattering, releasing hot fumes that look like flames in the thermal view.

Hawaii's volcanoes are the result of a heated plume rising from deep in the Earth's molten mantle and breaking through the oceanic crust. As the Pacific plate moves slowly northwest, older volcanoes go dormant as they inch away from the plume, and new volcanic islands are formed. Kilauea is the youngest volcano, slowly taking the torch away from neighboring Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth.

Video, image: USGS

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U.S. Climate Satellite Capabilities in Jeopardy

Posted: 02 Jun 2010 04:32 PM PDT

The United States is in danger of losing its ability to monitor key climate variables from satellites, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The country's Earth-observing satellite program has been underfunded for a decade, and the impact of the lack of funds is finally hitting home. The GAO report found that capabilities originally slated for two new Earth-monitoring programs, NPOESS and GOES-R, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense have been cut and adequate plans to replace them do not exist.

Meanwhile, up until six months ago, NASA had 15 functional Earth-sensing satellites. Two of them went down in the past year, and of the remaining 13, 12 are past their design lifetimes. Only seven may be functional by 2016, said Waleed Abdalati, a longtime NASA satellite scientist now teaching at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Taken together, American scientists will soon find themselves without the ability to monitor changes to key Earth systems at a time when such measurements could help determine the paths of the world's energy and transportation systems.

"Can you imagine if we've passed the apex of our Earth-observing capability right at a time when we realize that, 'Hey, we need to understand what's going on'?" said Abdalati. "We're talking about less than half the capability in the coming five years than we've had in the previous five years."

While President Obama's 2011 budget has gone partway to restoring money for Earth observations, a decade of neglect has left the nation's agencies — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the US Geological Survey — without the resources they need to do the job.

Despite this, the agencies put together a consortium to come up with a coordinated strategy for Earth observations, the United States Group on Earth Observations. The group readied a report on the state of the nation's Earth-observation capabilities, but it's been stuck in review for the past year.

The GAO's very first recommendation is that this report be released to the public.

"We've been told that it proposes continuing observations in 15 to 20 areas. We've been told that it doesn't involve costs and schedules," said GAO auditor David Powner, lead author of the GAO report. "We think that what's really important is that we need to get these initial findings and reports. Everyone is telling us that there are good things to build off of in there."

The National Academy of Sciences also created a survey of satellite capability, which highlighted 15 important missions. The group of scientists called for increasing NASA's $1.4 billion Earth-science budget by $500 million. Without that cash infusion, American Earth-observation capabilities will decline.

"The extraordinary U.S. foundation of global observations is at great risk," the report concludes. "Between 2006 and the end of the decade, the number of operating missions will decrease dramatically, and the number of operating sensors and instruments on NASA spacecraft, most of which are well past their nominal lifetimes, will decrease by some 40 percent."

Obama's current budget plans have the NASA Earth-science budget reaching $1.65 billion by 2014, but the damage to the base of the country's capabilities during the Bush years continue to hurt current operations.

"It's no secret that Earth science did suffer at NASA and perhaps at NOAA under the Bush administration," Abdalati said. "Now, there are certainly efforts to reclaim that capability."

But American scientists are now playing from behind trying to replace or patch up the infrastructure that lets us understand what's going on with our planet. There are structural problems, too. Climate observation missions have very particular requirements, said climate scientist Inez Fung of the University of California at Berkeley.

"If you want to do climate change, you need a uniform set of data so that you can compare changes through time," Fung said. "It's a really tough problem."

That means researchers need continuity in the data they receive from satellites, which requires long-term planning and long-term planning requires consistent funding.

"Long-term planning for the federal government is really difficult," Powner said. "There are some good folks within NOAA, NASA and DOD who are very concerned about the long-term outlook. But it's tough to compete, especially when there is a downturn and smaller budgets. It's always that near-term focus."

And so the United States may lose its ability to understand what's happening on and to the planet.

"The agencies will not be able to provide key environmental data that are important for sustaining climate and space weather measurements," the GAO report concludes.

For Abdalati, the ability to observe Earth from space is fundamental to U.S. interests.

"If we just step back as a society and ask, 'How important is it that we understand how and why our Earth is changing?' Regardless of where you fall on man-made influences to climate change, we can all agree that there is a need to figure out what's going on and what's coming."

Images: 1) True-color image of Earth centered over North America captured by the MODISTerra satellite. The image is a composite of eight days of global coverage to remove cloud cover and sun-glint effects, gathered during the last week in March 2000./NASA. 2) Data collected by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite of cloud properties over the western Pacific Ocean off Russia's Kamchatka peninsula on August 10, 2001. Panel (a) True color composite of one MODIS granule showing marine stratocumulus clouds with ship tracks as well as upper-level ice clouds. Panels (b) and (d) Cloud optical thickness and effective radius derived from all cloudy pixels, where a separate color bar is used to denote clouds processed as ice and water clouds. Panel (c) Cloud-top pressure for all clouds in the image./ NASA.

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.