Wednesday, 24 November 2010

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Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Zoom in on Top 8 Ultra-High-Resolution Science Panoramas

Posted: 23 Nov 2010 12:25 PM PST

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The ability to capture extremely detailed panoramic views made up of hundreds of perfectly stitched individual photos is tremendously useful for scientists studying everything from rock outcrops to birds to microscopic organisms.

The creators of the GigaPan robot, which can automatically create zoomable gigapixel-scale images, announced eight winners of a science photography contest Nov. 11 at the Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging for Science.

"Having access to such high-resolution images changes scientists' relationships to images and the information they contain," said Carnegie Mellon University robotics scientist Illah Nourbaksh, one of GigaPan's inventors and an organizer of conference.

Created in 2006 by Carnegie Mellon and NASA, the GigaPan robotic camera mount can shoot hundreds of perfectly aligned images using almost any digital camera. After the photographer uploads the photos to a computer, photo-stitching software seamlessly merges them into a single, highly zoomable image.

Since 2007, Nourbaksh and others have trained 120 scientists to use the system. "There are 8,000 GigaPans out there just by scientists, and that's growing every day as more of them use it," Nourbaksh said.

From microbes on a barnacle to a landscape coated with penguins, explore the winning scientist-photographer entries, plus a sneak preview of zoomable, gigapixel-size, time-lapse videos.


Petroglyph Cliff

The Eagle's Nest cliff face near Jubbah in northern Saudi Arabia is covered with ancient petroglyphs.

The Saudi government is extremely protective of the site, Nourbaksh said, but allowed renowned photographer Richard T. Bryant to capture the scene in a 3.3-gigabyte, 1.11-gigapixel panorama made of 176 individual photos.

"The prince of Saudi Arabia agreed to let him in and photograph the rock etchings. Now any scientist can look at this site in extreme detail," Nourbaksh said.

Credit: GigaPan/Richard T. Bryant

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Via: National Geographic

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Antiretroviral Drugs May Prevent HIV Infections

Posted: 23 Nov 2010 10:27 AM PST

HIV-negative gay and bisexual men can lower their likelihood of acquiring the AIDS virus by taking an antiretroviral drug mix, concludes a study in which healthy men received either the medication or a placebo. The finding, published online November 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that a preventive strategy might limit HIV spread, scientists say.

"These results represent a major advance in HIV-prevention research," says physician Kevin Fenton of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "For the first time, we have evidence that a daily pill used to treat HIV is partially effective for preventing HIV among gay and bisexual men at high risk of infection." Fenton cautions, however, that the results don't warrant abandoning other proven prevention techniques.

Physician Robert Grant of the University of California, San Francisco and an international team of researchers recruited 2,499 men who have sex with men. Participants lived in the United States, Peru, Ecuador, South Africa, Brazil and Thailand. Half were randomly assigned to get a placebo and half got a similar-looking pill that contained two antiretroviral drugs, emtricitabine and tenofovir.

During a follow-up period that averaged slightly more than one year, 100 of the men became infected with HIV — 64 who took the placebo and 36 who got the drugs. Men assigned to the real drugs and who took them more than 90 percent of the time had the highest rate of protection, the data show.


In trials offering preventive drugs, there is always a risk that some participants' behavior will become more risky because they assume they are protected, says Connie Celum, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who wasn't involved in the new study. This can be offset by intense counseling and providing health care services, she says. "It helps to tell them they may be on a placebo."

High-risk behaviors actually decreased in both groups after enrollment, the authors note, possibly because participation included free condoms, counseling, regular HIV testing and treatment for other sexually transmitted diseases.

In the fight against HIV, Celum says, "we are enthusiastic about a role for preexposure prophylaxis." She is currently testing the strategy in a trial in East African heterosexual couples in which one spouse is HIV-positive but not the other. The HIV-negative spouses are being randomly assigned to get medication or a placebo, she says, along with counseling and other services, which appear to be indispensable. "No single strategy will have overwhelming efficacy," Celum predicts.

Image: California Department of Toxic Substances Control

Exclusive: NASA’s Plan to Save Astrophysics From Space Telescope’s Budget Overruns

Posted: 23 Nov 2010 08:55 AM PST

The $1.5 billion in cost overruns needed to complete the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope had NASA astrophysicists fearing for the future of other projects. But it appears NASA won't suck funds from other astrophysics research to pay for the telescope.

"They're not going to ravage the astrophysics budget," said Alan Boss, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and chair of the NASA advisory council astrophysics subcommittee, told "That is wonderful news."

The James Webb Space Telescope, named for the NASA administrator who oversaw the Apollo missions, will be the largest telescope ever launched into space. With a 21-foot-wide mirror (three times the diameter of Hubble's), it promises to peer back to the birth of the first stars and galaxies, and will lay the foundation for much of the next generation of astrophysics research.

"It's the cornerstone of all the rest of astrophysics in the next decade," said Debra Elmegreen, an astronomer at Vassar College and the president of the American Astronomical Society.

But an independent review panel charged with investigating budget overruns released a report Nov. 10 announcing that, in the best-case scenario, the telescope will cost $1.5 billion more than its current $5 billion price tag. Even with the extra funds, the telescope's launch date will slip from June 2014 to Sept. 2015.

The telescope will need an extra $250 million per year in 2011 and 2012 in order to make that 2015 launch date, the report said. If those funds are not available, the launch date will be pushed back, and the price tag will balloon further.


The new price tag imperiled other projects in NASA's Astrophysics Science Division, which until this month had managed JWST.

Historically, when NASA projects exceeded their budgets, the first place to look for extra funds was within the bloated project's home division.

"That was the context in which I was thinking, 'Oh my god, this is Hurricane Katrina for astrophysics,'" Boss said.

The Astrophysics Division is expected to receive about $1.1 billion a year from 2011 to 2015, and pays for all the astronomy satellites currently in operation, including Hubble, plus all the researchers who analyze the data those satellites collect.

Particularly at risk were major projects suggested in the 2010 astronomy decadal survey, a community-wide effort to identify priorities for the next 10 years of research, which announced its intentions in an Aug. 13 report. The report's top priorities, like the $1.6 billion WFIRST satellite that is designed to look for dark energy, may need to be delayed, cut back or canceled.

The next place to look would be the other science divisions, which manage Earth science, heliophysics and planetary science, and then elsewhere in the space agency.

But according to Boss, an (unnamed) official at NASA headquarters assured him the Astrophysics Division is safe. The agency has already moved administration of JWST from the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, into its own division at NASA headquarters.

"It essentially raises a firewall between JWST and what's left of the astrophysics division," Boss said. "I don't think anything is going to come out of astrophysics, at least nothing major that anyone is willing to talk about. That's very hopeful sounding."

The new division will be headed by Richard Howard, NASA's deputy chief technologist, NASA announced Nov. 10. Howard's first order of business will be creating a new budget for JWST by Feb. 2011.

Boss says it sounds like the other science divisions shouldn't be too worried, either.

"It does sound like JWST is going to have to solve its own problems within its own budget," he said.

Where the money will actually come from is still unclear. If the NASA science divisions remain untouched, the James Webb team will probably need to ask Congress for more money, which, in the current financial climate, it is unlikely to receive.

Alternatively, the telescope could limp along on its current $400 million per-year budget. Trying to finish the telescope using only the current budget will mean the launch would be pushed even further back, which will mean more budget increases.

"They'll have to spend more, and the launch will be delayed, as usual," Boss said. "The total cost will go up. But at least they won't have to add any more money per year to it."

The other option is to cancel James Webb entirely, says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and a former associate administrator in charge of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

"If you kill the project, guaranteed, people across the country will learn that they'd better not put the agency in such a position," he said. "I think it's an option for serious consideration. It doesn't slaughter the innocent to reward the guilty, and it opens up a lot of new funding for astrophysics projects in this decade."

Although others in the astronomical community are frustrated with the cost overruns, an overgrown JWST that leeches funds from the rest of astronomy is better than no JWST at all.

"Canceling it would be disastrous for astronomy," said Elmegreen, who served on the decadal survey committee. The entire astronomy program for the next decade was designed with James Webb in mind, she pointed out. Several planned survey telescopes, including WFIRST and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, were designed to work in conjunction with the JWST.

"The bottom of our program drops out without Webb," she said. "I think it's worse to abandon it at this point."

At a staff meeting at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said the agency has no plans to cancel the telescope.

"My personal feeling, it is incredibly important, not just to the astrophysics community, but to the world, that we make JWST successful," he said. "So while everything's on the table, you know, the cancellation of JWST is not something that's sitting in my head."

"We will very likely have to find the money inside NASA, but that has not been determined yet," he added. "We haven't asked anybody for additional money."

There is precedent for sequestering space telescopes that run over budget into a new NASA division: The same exact thing happened with Hubble.

"Nobody now doubts the value of Hubble," said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is responsible for the research done with Hubble and ultimately with JWST.

Hubble only has between five and seven years left, Mountain pointed out. If JWST isn't ready to replace it, the blow to astronomy could go beyond just lost data. It could cost us the next generation of astronomers.

"James Webb is the next Hubble for a whole generation of astronomers and people. Hubble is their parents' telescope," Mountain said. "You can imagine a kid saying, 'Where's my Hubble?' James Webb is supposed to be that."

Nothing will be certain until the next national budget is released in February.

"The agency just doesn't have a good set of choices on this," Stern said. "There are bad choices, and worse choices. Which ones are worse depend on where you sit."

Image: NASA

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