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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Russia's Lost Space Shuttle Clone

Posted by Alex_Pasternack

On the occasion of this apparently new series of photographs of a mock-up of Russia’s Buran spacecraft – an ambitious unmanned clone of the U.S. Space Shuttle orbiter – we’re dusting off this piece from last spring – when the U.S. finally launched its own unmanned, and secret, shuttle clone.

The launch of an Atlas rocket last April at Cape Canaveral looked like any other satellite launch at NASA. But the payload was anything but ordinary: a secret unmanned space plane called the X-37B. Essentially a mini space shuttle that hung out in orbit for a few months, spending lots of time over Afghanistan, it was billed as a pioneer of unmanned space flight, and perhaps a big step towards space weaponization.

But it’s not the first unmanned space plane. As with a few other space milestones, the Soviet Union beat the US to the punch back in 1988. And the Russians did it with what was essentially a knock-off of the Space Shuttle. As if the embarrassing symbolism weren’t strong enough, there was also the fact of the Buran’s eventual intended purpose: to attack the U.S. from space.

Space Blizzard

Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA’s space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union’s dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.

A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and – the reported reason for its inception – to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.

The shuttle even had its own transport aircraft. The Antonov An-225 was designed specifically to carry the Buran shuttles between landing and launch sites, much like the NASA shuttles and their custom 747 transport. The An-225 remains the longest aircraft in the world.

Lift Off

On November 15, 1988, Buran launched from the Baïkonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard an Energia rocket, and made a successful orbital flight, circling the Earth twice. Because the lift support system had not been fully inspected, the flight was unmanned.

Besides its built-in robotic flight controls, the Buran had other notable differences from the US’s space transportation system:
  • Lacking main rocket engines, the Buran was lighter and offered more room than the shuttle
  • Buran’s launcher, Energia, was designed to carry up to 80 metric tons into orbit on its own
  • Energa was also being designed to carry payloads to the moon without Buran
  • Buran could lift 30 metric tons of payload into orbit, vs. the shuttle’s 25 metric tons
  • Buran’s thermodynamic tiles, protecting it from re-entry burn-up, were thought to be superior to the shuttle’s
Most remarkably, the Buran was able to fly and land itself, a feature that the United States is only now exploring.


While Buran landed intact, the shuttle suffered such significant heat damage during reentry that it was deemed too costly to repair. In 1989, it was projected that Buran would have a second unmanned flight in 1993, with a duration of 15–20 days. But the craft never flew again, and after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian shuttle program was quietly shuttered in 1993.

In addition to the orbiter that flew in space, the Soviets had completed or were building four other orbiting models and six test versions. Some were kept at Baïkonour, while others were placed on exhibition or turned to scraps. One turned up in the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2004, before being purchased by a German museum. One, left outside Moscow’s Tushkino factory, was ripped apart by collectors; another ended up in a parking lot.

When Space Shuttle Columbia burned up during reentry in 2003, casting doubt over the future of NASA’s space shuttle, some speculated that a renovation of a Russian shuttle could become a cheaper replacement. But the idea, described in this video piece waned. (Lessons from the re-entry damage of the Buran have been applied to research into shuttle safety at NASA.)

Thus Buran, perhaps the most expensive and complicated space program in Soviet history, ended up an expensive failure. A renewed space race put significant strain on the USSR’s already fragile economy. Within a year, the empire would crumble. In some ways, the Buran wasn’t just a symbol for the Soviet Union’s collapse, but one of the catalysts for it too.


After the program was canceled, all the Buran shuttles and mock-ups, with one exception, were sold off to become amusement park rides and hot dog stands. The remaining vehicle was kept at the Cosmodrome. In 2002, a catastrophic roof collapse at the plane’s hanger killed eight workers and destroyed the remaining Buran as well as a mock-up of one of its Energia rockets.

Of course for now, Russia may get the last laugh: while officials and lawmakers debate the future of NASA’s manned space program, NASA will be paying upwards of $10 million per ride to the Space Station aboard tiny capsules hitched to older Soyuz rockets.

If things had turned out differently, they might have been flying in space shuttle clones.

See Motherboard’s documentary on the night launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor, learn more about America’s soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle, and check out Russia’s next generation of space plane.

Energia: Buran, h/t to Schneiderism

Apple Plans Service That Lets iPhone Users Pay With Handsets

Apple Plans Service That Lets IPhone Users Pay With Handsets
Apple Inc. plans to introduce services that would let customers use its iPhone to make purchases. Photographer Rupert Hartley/Bloomberg 

Apple Plans Service That Lets IPhone Users Pay With Handsets
Apple Inc. plans to introduce services that would let customers use its iPhone and iPad computer to make purchases, said Richard Doherty , director of consulting firm Envisioneering Group. 
Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg 

Apple Inc. plans to introduce services that would let customers use its iPhone and iPad computer to make purchases, said Richard Doherty, director of consulting firm Envisioneering Group.

The services are based on “Near-Field Communication,” a technology that can beam and receive information at a distance of up to 4 inches, due to be embedded in the next iteration of the iPhone for AT&T Inc. and the iPad 2, Doherty said. Both products are likely to be introduced this year, he said, citing engineers who are working on hardware for the Apple project.

Apple’s service may be able to tap into user information already on file, including credit-card numbers, iTunes gift-card balance and bank data, said Richard Crone, who leads financial industry adviser Crone Consulting LLC in San Carlos, California. That could make it an alternative to programs offered by such companies as Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc. and EBay Inc.’s PayPal, said Taylor Hamilton, an analyst at consultant IBISWorld Inc.

“It would make a lot of sense for Apple to include NFC functionality in its products,” Crone said.
The main goal for Apple would be to get a piece of the $6.2 trillion Americans spend each year on goods and services, Crone said. Today, the company pays credit-card processing fees on every purchase from iTunes. By encouraging consumers to use cheaper methods -- such as tapping their bank accounts directly, which is how many purchases are made via PayPal -- Apple could cut its own costs and those of retailers selling Apple products.

Apple's plans could change, and the new products may be delayed or not come to fruition. Natalie Harrison, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment.

Adding Features to Phones

“NFC is definitely one of the technologies that’s getting a lot of attention, but ultimately the consumer is going to choose,” said Charlotte Hill, a spokeswoman for PayPal, owned by San Jose, California-based EBay. Elvira Swanson, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Visa, said the company is “excited to see NFC mobile devices coming into the market.”

Ed McLaughlin, chief emerging payments officer at MasterCard, said the company is “running the world’s fastest payment network, and that doesn’t need to be re-created.” MasterCard sees NFC “as an opportunity to partner with organizations” and already has run NFC payment trials around the world.

The recently passed Durbin Amendment makes the timing right for a push by Apple, Crone said. The regulation, which will go into effect this summer, may limit debit-card fees paid by retailers and lets them encourage consumers to use one payment method over another.

Competing With Android 

Under Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, who’s handling day-to-day operations as Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs takes medical leave, the iPhone is adding features that will help it compete with phones that use Google Inc.’s Android software. Samsung Electronics Co.’s Nexus S phone, which runs Android, can read information from NFC tags. Nokia Oyj, the world’s largest maker of mobile phones, has pushed NFC adoption for years, though the technology has been slow to take off.
“Apple could be the game-changer,” Doherty said.
Apple, based in Cupertino, California, is considering starting a mobile payment service as early as mid-2011, Doherty said. It would revamp iTunes, a service that lets consumers buy digital movies and music, so it would hold not only users’ credit-card account information but also loyalty credits and points, Doherty said.
Using the service, customers could walk into a store or restaurant and make payments straight from an iPad or iPhone. They could also receive loyalty rewards and credits for purchases, such as when referring a friend, Doherty said.

Targeted Advertising 

Apple also could use NFC to improve how it delivers mobile ads to customers’ handsets and charge higher fees for those ads, Crone said. NFC would let Apple’s iAd advertising network personalize ads to the places where a customer is spending money. That could double or triple the ad rates that Apple charges, Crone said.
Apple has created a prototype of a payment terminal that small businesses, such as hairdressers and mom-and-pop stores, could use to scan NFC-enabled iPhones and iPads, Doherty said. The company is considering heavily subsidizing the terminal, or even giving it away to retailers, to encourage fast, nationwide adoption of NFC technology and rev up sales of NFC-enabled iPhones and iPads, he said.

To help get ready for NFC, Apple last year hired Benjamin Vigier, who worked on the technology at mobile-payment provider MFoundry. It also has applied for a patent on a system that uses NFC to share information between applications running on various Apple devices.

Liberia has Lost 95 Percent of its Elephants to Poachers

by David DeFranza
forest elephant photo
Liberia is home to African forest elephants, like those seen here. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since civil war broke out in Liberia in the 1980s, 19,000 elephants have been killed by poachers. Today, only 1,000 elephants remain, meaning the country has lost 95 percent of its elephants in only a few decades.
Across Africa, elephant populations have dropped precipitously since the end of the 20th century, when it was estimated that elephants numbered between 5 and 10 million. Today, only an estimated 400,000 remain.
Patrick Omondi of the Kenya Wildlife Service commented that:
Though, Liberia opposes trade in ivory, but, the trade is still being illegally practiced in the country. This trade is having negative impact on your resources, therefore, we all need to join efforts to conserve your wildlife resources
Established by free American slaves in the early 1820s, the small country in West Africa is known for its biological diversity. Unfortunately, a series of civil wars—from 1980 to 2003—left much of these rich natural resources unprotected. Timber harvesting—which was used to fund armies in the conflict—went completely unchecked, leading to massive habitat loss and degradation across Liberia.

Currently, Liberia is in the process of reactivating its membership in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—an essential step towards joining the international campaign against poaching.

Memories take hold better during sleep: study

 by Marlowe Hood

  The brain is better during sleep than during wakefulness, a study has shown

The best way to not forget a newly learned poem, card trick or algebra equation may be to take a quick nap, scientists surprised by their own findings reported.

The best way to not forget a newly learned poem, card trick or algebra equation may be to take a quick nap, scientists surprised by their own findings reported Sunday.
In experiments, researchers in Germany showed that the brain is better during sleep than during at resisting attempts to scramble or corrupt a recent .

Their study, published in , provides new insights into the hugely complex process by which we store and retrieve deliberately acquired information -- learning, in short.

Earlier research showed that fresh memories, stored temporarily in a region of the brain called the , do not gel immediately.

It was also known that reactivation of those memories soon after learning plays a crucial role in their transfer to more permanent storage in the brain's "hard drive," the .

During wakefulness, however, this period of reactivation renders the memories more fragile.
Learning a second poem at this juncture, for example, will likely make it harder to commit the first one to deep memory.

Bjorn Rasch of the University of Lubeck in Germany and three colleagues assumed that the same thing happens when we sleep, and designed an experiment to find out if they were right.

Twenty-four volunteers were asked to memorise 15 pairs of cards showing pictures of animals and everyday objects. While performing the exercise, they were exposed to a slightly unpleasant odour.

Forty minutes later, half the subjects who had stayed awake were asked to learn a second, slightly different pattern of cards.

Just before starting, they were again made to smell the same odour, designed to trigger their memory of the first exercise.

The 12 other subjects, meanwhile, did the second exercise after a brief snooze, during which they were exposed to the odour while in a state called slow-wave sleep.

Both groups were then tested on the original task.

Much to the surprise of the researchers, the sleep group performed significantly better, retaining on average 85 percent of the patterns, compared to 60 percent for those who had remained awake.

"Reactivation of memories had completely different effects on the state of wakefulness and sleep," said lead author Susanne Diekelmann, also from the University of Lubeck.

"Based on brain imaging data, we suggest the reason for this unexpected result is that already during the first few minutes of sleep, the transfer from hippocampus to neocortex has been initiated," she said in an email exchange.

After only 40 minutes of shuteye, significant chunks of memory were already "downloaded" and stored where they "could no longer be disrupted by new information that is encoded in the hippocampus," she explained.
Diekelmann said the positive impact of short periods of sleep on memory consolidation could have implications for memory-intensive activities such as language training.

The findings, she said, also point to a strategy for helping victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a debilitating condition caused by extreme experiences.

The reactivation techniques "might prove useful in re-processing and un-learning unwanted memories," she said. "And reactivation of newly learned memories during ensuing could then help consolidate the desired therapeutic effects for the long-term."

Diekelmann cautioned that computers are an imperfect metaphor for the way memories are stored in the brain.

"Human memory is absolutely dynamic. Memories are not statically 'archived' in the neocortex but are subject to constant changes by various influences," she said.

Likewise, the act of remembering does not simply entail "reading" the stored data, she added. "Recall is a reconstructive process in which memories can be changed and distorted."

(c) 2011 AFP

The Net Worth of the U.S. Presidents: From Washington to Obama

By Douglas A. McIntyre, Michael B. Sauter, and Ashley C. Allen

The richest and poorest heads of state in American history

If you were curious about how much President Obama makes, or what Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, or Reagan made, or for that matter what sort of annual salary U.S. presidents have been paid over time, it's all a matter of accessible public record. If you want to understand what our 44 presidents have really been worth, however, the answer is at once less straightforward and, historically, a lot more telling.

1st :: George Washington (1789-1797)

1st :: George Washington (1789-1797)

Estimated net worth: $525 million

His Virginia plantation, "Mount Vernon," consisted of five separate farms on 8,000 acres of prime farmland, run by over 300 slaves. His wife, Martha Washington, inherited significant property from her father. Washington made significantly more than subsequent presidents: his salary was two percent of the total U.S. budget in 1789.
Wikimedia Commons
To figure the comparative net worth of the U.S. presidents, we took into account hard assets such as land, estimated lifetime savings based on work history, inheritance, homes, and money paid for services -- which includes anything from a salary as collector of customs at the Port of New York to membership on a Fortune 500 board. We also took into account royalties on books, along with ownership of companies and yields from family estates.

The resulting values vary widely. George Washington was worth more than half a billion in today's dollars. Several presidents went bankrupt.

Of course, the fortunes of American presidents are vastly dependent on the economy at the times when they lived. For the first 75 years after Washington's election, presidents generally made money on land, crops, and commodity speculation. A president who owned hundreds or thousands of acres could lose most or all of his property after a few years of poor crop yields. Wealthy Americans occasionally lost all of their money through land speculation -- leveraging the value of one piece of land to buy additional property. Since there was no reliable national banking system and almost no liquidity in the value of private companies, land was the asset likely to provide the greatest return on investment, if the property yielded enough to support the costs of operating the farm or plantation.

Because there was no central banking system and no regulatory framework for commodities, markets were subject to panics in ways unknown today.

The panic of 1819 was caused by the deep indebtedness of the federal government and a rapid drop in the price of cotton. The country's immature banking system was forced to foreclose on many farms. And the value of the properties that were foreclosed on was often low, because land without a landowner meant land without a crop yield.

The panic of 1837 caused a depression that lasted six years. It was triggered by a weak wheat crop, a drop in cotton prices, and a speculation-induced leverage bubble in the value of land. These factors caused the U.S. economy to go through a multi-year period of deflation.

As a result of such factors, we see sharp fluctuations in the fortunes of the first 14 presidents.

Beginning with Millard Fillmore in 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era. Most presidents were lawyers who spent years in public service. They rarely amassed large fortunes and their incomes often came almost entirely from their salaries. From Fillmore to Garfield, these presidents were distinctly middle-class. They often retired without the money to support themselves in anywhere near the fashion they were accustomed to while in office. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had almost no net worth at all.

The rise of inherited wealth in the early twentieth century contributed to the fortunes of many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both the elder and younger Bush. Another significant change to the economy was the advent of large, professionally organized corporations. These corporations produced much of the oil, mining, financial, and railroad fortunes amassed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The Kennedys were wealthy because of the financial empire that Joseph Kennedy built. Herbert Hoover made millions as the owner of mining companies.

The 20th century also saw the stigma of making money as a retired president begin to disappear. Calvin Coolidge made a large income from his newspaper column. Gerald Ford, who had almost no money when he was a Congressman, made a small fortune from serving on the boards of large companies. Clinton made millions on his autobiography.

We analyzed presidential finances based on historical sources. Most media evaluations of the net worth of presidents have come up with a very wide range, a spread in which the highest figure was often several times the lowest estimate. Most sources provided no hard figures at all. Largely, we have focused on the analysis of recent chief executives -- because it is much easier to calculate figures in a world where assets and incomes are a matter of public record.

One of the most important conclusions of our analysis is that the presidency has historically neither depended on nor assured wealth. Several U.S. presidents brought huge net worths to the job. Many lost most of their fortunes after leaving office. Some never had much money at all.

Click here to see each Presidents Worth:

Handyscope turns the iPhone into a mobile dermatoscope

fotofinder handyscope Handyscope turns the iPhone into a mobile dermatoscope
Among the ever-growing number of iPhone accessories, we’ve spotted a new one which may pave the way to revolutionize the health care as we know it. It’s called Handyscope and by sticking it on the back of the device, it effectively turns the iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS (auto-focus camera is required) into a digital dermatoscope allowing for mobile skin examination.

The accessory works in conjunction with an app that enables users to take a sample of their skin, which once a photo is taken, can be beamed directly to the physician to get his or her expert opinion.
Sounds weird and promising at the same time. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest replacing a visit to the doctor with something like this, but for occasional checks it seems good enough. The only problem is the price, which at 1,166 EUR ($1,582) plus $11.99 for the app, makes the Handyscope affordable to the select few. If you happen to be in that group, we’re eager to read your thoughts. Comments form is all yours.

Finally, before I let you go, we have a demo video of Handyscope in action to share. Here comes…

handyscope app ($11.99) [iTunes link]
[Via: Engadget]

Verizon iPhone Will Have $30 Unlimited Data Plan

Verizon iPhone 4
Customers planning to buy a Verizon iPhone have reason to celebrate today as the company’s COO, Lowell McAdam, has confirmed that there will indeed be a $30 unlimited data plan available for the device.

McAdam shared the news with the Wall Street Journal ahead of Verizon’s meeting with investors today.
iPhone buyers won’t have much of a choice when it comes to data options, however, as Verizon is also discontinuing its lower tiered 150 MB data plan, which costs subscribers only $15 a month. That option, just introduced last October, will be discontinued at the end of January, and won’t be available at all to new iPhone subscribers.

McAdams told the Journal that the decision to keep the unlimited plan for iPhone subscribers is specifically intended to attract subscribers away from rival AT&T. “I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot,” he said. “Not offering an unlimited plan would put up a barrier for customers who might otherwise switch from AT&T.”

AT&T currently offers two data plan to iPhone subscribers: 200 MB per month costs $15, while $25 will get you 2 GB of usage. AT&T discontinued its $30 unlimited data plan in June 2010 in an attempt to ease its network congestion problems.

Are higher data limits reason enough to convince you to switch to Verizon for iPhone service, if you weren’t convinced already?