Goddard Space Flight Center scientists trying to unlock secrets of the universe have had clues to the prehistoric past resting literally beneath their feet.
Dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford this summer discovered on the center's campus the apparent footprint of a nodosaur, a plant-eater that roamed suburban Washington, D.C., about 110 million years ago.
The track, almost 14 inches wide, is near a sidewalk at the Goddard complex in Greenbelt, Maryland, home to 7,000 employees engaged in astrophysics, heliophysics and planetary science.
"It is sheer poetry," Stanford said on Tuesday. "It is because of the juxtaposition that evokes so much interest."
Stanford late last week gave NASA officials a firsthand look at the print, which was hiding in plain sight all these years.
"It's something that if you knew what you were looking for you would have seen," said Alan Binstock, in charge of cultural and archaeological matters at the facility. "That's what's so amazing."
A paleontologist will do a survey to confirm the find, Binstock said, and will help determine what areas on the fenced campus may need further protection.
"I said this is not the only one," Stanford said. "There has to be many here."
Officials are staying mum on the footprint's exact location.
Stanford, who says he has found about 1,000 dinosaur tracks over the years, said he and a Johns Hopkins University expert are convinced it is an authentic find.
The nodosaur, which hails from the Early Cretaceous period, is named for the bony nodes found on its head, shoulders and body edges.
"They were basically an armored tank with relatively short legs," said Stanford. "They had plates reminiscent of what you would see on the crocodile."
The nodosaur, perhaps 15 feet long from snout to tail, left a print of its right rear foot in thick mud.
"You see the back of the foot, what we call a heel, is lifted up," Stanford said. "It was moving as fast as one of these guys could go. I suggest it was running."
Stanford, 74, of College Park, Maryland, moved to the area in 1986, shortly after he retired in Texas from a nonprofit research group.
In 1994, he and his children found the footprint of an Iguanodon dinosaur near the College Park airport.
"I spotted this thing and I called them over," Stanford said. "I asked 'what does it look like?' In one voice, they said, 'It looks like a dinosaur track.'"
Stanford has since worked with professionals and academics. In September 2011, he co-authored a Journal of Paleontology paper on a new nodosaur species.
Stanford often has lunch with his wife, who works at Goddard.
Several years ago, while driving there, he noticed material he thought might be indicative of the Cretaceous period.
In June, after having lunch at Goddard, Stanford returned to an area where he had found the 3-inch track of a theropod.
He came upon the nodosaur track.
Goddard's Binstock gave his own description of the discovery.
"If someone said, 'What's that?' I would have said an elephant that needs a manicure."
News of the discovery has swept the Goddard campus in recent days.
"Everybody's excited about it," Binstock said. "We're all about discovering new things."
Editor's note: We're listening to you. Every day, we spot thought-provoking comments from readers. Here's a look at what readers are saying.
Call Nikola Tesla a "cult hero" if you like, but some of our readers might take issue with you. News that Matthew Inman, the creator of Web cartoon "The Oatmeal," is collaborating with a nonprofit group to create a Tesla museum has commenters singing the futurist inventor's praises. Many say they think he deserves more recognition in the annals of scientific history.
They hashed out the legacies of Tesla and Thomas Edison, sometimes viewed to be at odds.
MDMick: "The article describes him as a 'cult' hero with far-out dreams, but Tesla was an accomplished scientist. He is the one who realized Edison was wrong by insisting on direct current public electricity supplies and it could be done more safely and much cheaper with alternating current. The modern American - and world - electricity grids are ALL based on Tesla's patents and first working systems he developed for Westinghouse. Edison tried to discredit Tesla and the 'Electric Chair' was invented to try to scare people away from AC current electricity. But Tesla was right and Edison wrong and AC prevailed as Tesla's calculations and foresight proved true - and made Westinghouse (now part of Northrup) a big name."
Kevin Schooler: "Edison wasn't wrong about direct current being useful, he was only wrong about the application. Have you ever wondered why so many electronic devices have an AC adapter? That is because they must convert AC to DC in order to run correctly and safely. The only problem is that DC loses potency over distance. I'll never understand the whole revisionist 'Tesla Angelic/Edison Evil' paradigm. The fact is both contributed enormously to modern living, but Edison happened to be a better businessman."
Was Tesla overlooked in favor of Edison? FULL POST
The Mars rover Curiosity is about to take its first test drive. It's kind of like getting a rover learner's permit.
The science team is sending up commands to Curiosity telling the six-wheeled rover to drive forward, turn and back up. Mission manager Mike Watkins says the entire maneuver should take about 30 minutes. Watkins says we will, "definitely see tracks and definitely see it move." In all, Curiosity will move about 10 feet.
This is a major event. Nearly the entire two-year mission hinges of Curiosity's ability to drive to rocks or terrain of interest, gather samples and analyze them. It would be considered a major failure if for some reason Curiosity can't move.
NASA will hold a news conference after the drive to discuss how it went. A successful test drive will set the stage for Curiosity to head out likely by the weekend on its first real traverse of the Martian landscape.
Several other tests have already been successfully completed. Watkins says, "We continue to hit home runs here." The arm with the hammer drill attached has been "stretched" to put in NASA terms. The team also told Curiosity to wiggle its right rear wheel. It did.
So far, throughout all of the testing of Curiosity's system, the science and engineering teams say they've only found one problem. A wind sensor on Curiosity's Mars Weather Station has sustained permanent damage. The science team believes wires on the sensor are broken. The scientists say they may never know what caused the damage.
One possibility is that small rocks hit the circuit board on the wind sensor. The rocks may have been lofted into the air by wash created from the rocket motors during the rover's descent to the planet.
Deputy Project Manager Ashwin Vasavada says, "It degrades our ability to detect wind speeds from certain directions." Vasavada added there are ways to work around it.
John Noble may be best known as scientist Walter Bishop on "Fringe," but his interest in strange scientific stories extends into the real world.
The actor – recently back to work after seeking treatment for a sleeping disorder – delves into these stories on the Science Channel series, "Dark Matters: Twisted but True."
"It's kind of tongue in cheek or Orson Welles-ish," said Noble of the series. "Some of the (stories) are quirky or weird. We're telling stories from all over the place."
Noble's performance on "Fringe" informed his role as host.
"Playing Walter Bishop, I had to read pretty widely to make sense of what he was talking about," he said. "It seemed to segue very easily into this. It's probably the reason I'm hosting it, to be honest with you."
Despite his voracious thirst for knowledge, the show has sometimes presented him with things he was not aware of. "There were things I knew vaguely but hadn't put into place. There are so many curious, wonderful stories."
Now that he has one foot in science fiction and another in fact, how does he think the two relate today?
"It's very difficult for science fiction writers to stay ahead of science fact, because of the rate of change today," he said.
"People are dreaming up ideas, not unlike the times of Jules Verne. Now, sometimes by the time it's been published, something has happened to change the face of science fiction. Science fiction has proved to be a good indicator of where we're going. There is a blending with fantasy, which has sort of taken over. Fantasy is also a very valid and interesting area to explore."
Noble believes that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg for scientific advancement.
Noble spoke of a scientist friend who recently proposed a new theory on black holes. "He was so excited that this was a big breakthrough. This is happening all the time, and these things breed more and more invention. This is probably the most exciting time in science since – there was the Renaissance period, and the Industrial Revolution – I think this is the third, and I think, the most exciting period of science."