Real zombies found in nature
Fungus grows out of the head of an ant.
November 30th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Real zombies found in nature

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Zombies are everywhere, from hit TV shows like "The Walking Dead" to films like the upcoming "Warm Bodies." We seem fascinated by these ghastly creatures who are infected with an unknown disease that compels them to gurgle or groan and lust after brains.

These zombies are, of course, fictional. But the idea that a parasite can infect and control animals is real. There are several examples in nature where parasites manipulate host behavior to further their own reproductive goals. It's fascinating to think about how, when one organism invades another, the host can lose power over its own movements and behaviors.

David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology at Pennsylvania State University, studies real-life zombie scenarios among ants.

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Filed under: On Earth
Mapping a forest fire in infinitesimal detail
November 29th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Mapping a forest fire in infinitesimal detail

Details of the High Park fire site in northern Colorado – down to the last standing trees and bushes – will become available to environmental rehabilitators in early 2013.

It promises to be the most extensive study of a large forest fire site ever done in the United States providing data for local officials to target their restoration projects to areas most in need.

The High Park forest fire burned over 130 square miles of mostly remote woodland along with over 250 homes this past summer. It's an area so large that until now, it would have been almost impossible to gather data for the whole burn scar.

Late this summer after the fire was out, scientists documented the region from the sky in hopes of targeting the areas most in need of restoration to avoid continuing post-fire problems like erosion, mudslides and contaminated water supplies.

"It's unique," said Schimel, a principal investigator at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). "We've never had this kind of detailed information before."

The scientists flew over the burn site in August with among other instruments high-resolution camera shooting through the bottom of a Twin Otter plane to take detailed images of the entire fire zone and a LiDAR, a remote sensor that can measures distance by using light, providing scientists with a 3-D representation.

"It is just amazing technology." said Schimel.
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Filed under: On Earth • Severe Weather
Climate change in the news
November 28th, 2012
01:33 PM ET

Climate change in the news

By Zaina Adamu, CNN

Whispers about global warming got louder in 2012 after a string of unforgiving natural disasters and rising global temperatures. Here’s a look at some recent stories regarding climate change.

2012 drought: just the beginning?

More anxiety surrounding climate change arose with the release of the “Iowa Climate Statement (PDF),” announced in Des Moines this week. It predicts that Iowa’s harsh drought season was a precursor of what is to come for the top grain-producing state.

The statement, signed by 138 scientists and 27 Iowa colleges and universities, suggests that if there is little rain this winter and spring, “it would become a multiyear drought that would be serious,” according to Jerry Schoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.

But fret not, the scientists added: The drought should – and possibly will – prompt innovation in renewable energy, which would limit the number of greenhouse gases, regulating temperatures.

CIA closes its environment wing

The Central Intelligence Agency will permanently close the doors of its Center on Climate Change and National Security unit, formed in 2009 to examine the relationship between global warming and security measures.

The short-lived branch drew criticism in its grass-roots stage, particularly from Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who said in a statement that he “offered an amendment on the Senate floor to eliminate the center because it was unnecessary, wasteful and totally out of place.”

CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz told the New York Times that the agency will continue to observe intelligence challenges that may arise, but not in an individualized office.

Fracking a ‘no-go’ for NY in 2012

Remember “fracking”? It was an often-used term during the 2008 presidential race. The controversial drilling process, also known as hydrofracking, entails injecting large quantities of chemicals and other fluids into the Earth’s surface in order to crack rocks surrounding oil wells, allowing for more gas resources.

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed that the state will miss its deadline on fracking regulations because of environment and health concerns surrounding the drilling.

“It has potential economic benefits if the state goes forward with fracking,” Cuomo said. “But we want to make sure that it’s safe.”

Rising CO2 levels

A report released by the World Meteorological Organization revealed that carbon dioxide emissions increased to 390.9 parts per million (ppm), up 30% since 1990.

“What it shows isn’t surprising, but it obviously has very important implications for the future well-being of the planet,” said Richard Allan of the Department of Meteorology at the UK's University of Reading.

Carbon dioxide is the No. 1 greenhouse gas emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Kyoto Protocol resumes week-long conference

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among 37 industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will convene for its annual weeklong conference Monday to discuss new ways of combating climate change.

The protocol was signed in 1997 and is scheduled to end in 2012.

Extending the protocol will be discussed, but if a compromise is not reached, there may not be another international environment-related pact until 2020.

Lemmings extinct because of Ice Age warmth

New research shows that rapid climate change led to the extinction of lemmings, small rodents that inhabited the Arctic during the last Ice Age.

Their presence came in waves during the Late Pleistocene, 11,700 to 126,000 years ago. Experts believe they died out and then reappeared on several occasions in the span of 114,300 years.

The findings go against some suspicions suggesting that humans play a key factor in global warming.

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Filed under: News • On Earth • Severe Weather
Space news: Black hole snacks and Mars colonies
This is an artist's concept of NASA's NuSTAR spacecraft, which can study radiation from snacking black holes.
November 27th, 2012
02:56 PM ET

Space news: Black hole snacks and Mars colonies

Massive black hole gets a snack

A new NASA spacecraft captured an image of a giant black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy having a snack. And by "snack," we mean matter that happened to fall close enough to it to be sucked in by the black hole's tremendous gravitational pull.

"NuSTAR picked up X-rays emitted by matter being heated up to about 100 million degrees Celsius," said NASA in a statement. This high-energy radiation is what NuSTAR, an orbiting observatory, picked up.

“We got lucky and captured an outburst from the black hole during our first observing campaign,” Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology, said in a NASA statement.

This observation is important because scientists want to know why the black hole in the center of the Milky Way is relatively quiet; we don't know that it eats a whole lot. Other black holes eat up a lot more matter. It's possible that our black hole is eating primarily asteroids, and small space rocks, but more research is needed to make firm conclusions.

SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk plans to colonize Mars

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of private space flight company SpaceX, wants to set up a Mars colony, Scientific American reports.

Musk’s vision is to take thousands of people on a trip to Mars, aboard a reusable rocket powered by liquid oxygen and methane. This would be an opportunity for people to build transparent domes so that Earth crops could grow on the Red Planet. The colonists would bring equipment to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen while in space.

At a ticket price of $500,000, the Mars Settlement Program would consist of up to 80,000 people starting with a group of 10 people or less per trip to explore the Red Planet.

Musk hopes to transport more people and less equipment in the future if the Mars Colony is successful.

A year long space station mission is set for 2015

NASA and Roscosmos have appointed veteran astronaut Scott Kelly and veteran cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko to undertake a year-long mission aboard the international space station in 2015. This marks the longest stay in space ever for an American, CNN reports.

“The one-year increment will expand the bounds of how we live and work in space,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations said in a statement.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
November 26th, 2012
03:23 PM ET

Proposed nuclear reactor could power future space flights

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN

For potential power sources on space flights beyond the horizon, scientists are looking back to the future.

A team of NASA and Department of Energy researchers has shown that a reliable nuclear reactor based on technology that's been around for decades could be used in spaceships, according to a news release from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where some of the researchers are based.

The news release says the team used "heat pipe technology," which was invented at Los Alamos in 1963, and uses a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine, producing 24 watts of electricity.

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Famous firsts in space
November 26th, 2012
11:14 AM ET

NASA: Longest space mission for U.S. astronaut set for 2015

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Capt. Scott Kelly, a veteran astronaut, will set the record for the longest single space mission for an American, NASA announced Monday. Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will embark on a one-year mission to the International Space Station in 2015.

The duo will help scientists explore the effects of living in space on the human body, NASA said. They will provide information regarding health and crew performance and help with determining and validating risk-reduction measures. All of this can help contribute to planning for missions to other celestial worlds, such as an asteroid or Mars.

Kelly is the brother of former space shuttle Cmdr. Mark Kelly, who is married to former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords survived a shooting near Tuscon in 2011 and stepped down from public office in January 2012.

Only four humans have logged a continuous year or more in space on a single mission, and all of those missions involved the Russian Mir space station, said NASA spokesman Joshua Buck. The current record is held by Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days in space between January 1994 and March 1995.

Kelly and Kornienko will depart in spring 2015 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, traveling aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

A native of Orange, New Jersey, Kelly has already experienced more than 180 days in space. On a 1999 space shuttle mission, he was a pilot; in 2007, he was a commander on STS-118. Kelly was a flight engineer in 2010 on International Space Station Expedition 25 and commander of Expedition 26 in 2011.

Kelly is a U.S. Navy captain with degrees from the State University of New York Maritime College and the University of Tennessee.

Kornienko hails from Russia's Syzran, Kuibyshev, region and has worked in the space industry since 1986. On the International Space Station, Kornienko was a flight engineer on the Expedition 23/24 crews in 2010. He has spent a cumulative 176 days in space.

"The one-year increment will expand the bounds of how we live and work in space and will increase our knowledge regarding the effects of microgravity on humans as we prepare for future missions beyond low-Earth orbit," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

Jim Ribble interviewed Kelly for CNN Radio while the astronaut was aboard the International Space Station in 2010. Check out their conversation here:

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A few theories about what Curiosity found
November 22nd, 2012
07:00 AM ET

A few theories about what Curiosity found

In response to media reports that a big announcement about Mars could be coming soon, hundreds of comments came in about what that news could be.

The Curiosity rover has been exploring Mars since August 6. The mission costs $2.5 billion and it's the most advanced vehicle humans have ever sent to the Red Planet. Scientists may have found something interesting by analyzing soil through the rover's SAM instrument suite, but they aren't ready to say so yet.

Here's a sampling of what you think Curiosity may have found:

Booty
Curiosity must have found a cat. And then promptly killed it.

JBen
SPOCK?

clinky
Jimmy Hoffa, of course. Finally.

Phaedrus
A Twinkie?

nrt
Amelia Earhart

Jim
They finally found marvin the martian

Spaqcely
Chlorophyl.

Bo
More like BORE-ophyl

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
Will NASA release Earth- ... er, Mars-shaking news?
November 21st, 2012
11:17 AM ET

Will NASA release Earth- ... er, Mars-shaking news?

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

A big "OMG" moment for space enthusiasts may be coming!

We were certainly excited to read on NPR's website that the Curiosity rover may have discovered something "really interesting." John Grotzinger, principal investigator for the Curiosity rover mission, revealed to NPR that "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

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Photos: Mars rover Curiosity
November 20th, 2012
04:55 PM ET

Overheard: Time to send an astronaut to Mars?

By Claire Colbert, CNN

Our readers were certainly intrigued by initial measurements from the Mars rover Curiosity recently, which indicated that radiation levels on Mars are not lethal to humans. More research needs to be done to determine exactly how much radiation exposure a visit to Mars would entail, however.

Curiosity has been on Mars since August 6. For several weeks it had been parked at a place called Rocknest, but on November 16 the rover started driving again, NASA said. Currently it's on its way to a location called Point Lake.

As we continue to chart its activities here at CNN Light Years, it seems that every new discovery that the rover makes rekindles the debate about the importance, or lack thereof, of NASA.

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Filed under: In Space • Overheard on CNN.com
Double Prominence Eruptions
November 20th, 2012
10:51 AM ET

Double Prominence Eruptions

"The Sun erupted with two prominence eruptions, one after the other over a four-hour period on Nov. 16, 2012. The action was captured in the 304 Angstrom wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. It seems possible that the disruption to the Sun’s magnetic field might have triggered the second event since they were in relatively close proximity to each other. The expanding particle clouds heading into space do not appear to be Earth-directed."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
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