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Voyager spacecraft going strong at age 33

BALTIMORE, Ohio, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft, approaching the edge of the solar system, are still operating and sending back data 33 years after their launch, scientists say.

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And they are still making news, as researchers announced last month Voyager 1 had outrun the solar wind, the first man-made object to reach the threshold of interstellar space, The Baltimore Sun reported Monday.

It's a performance that impresses even Stamatios "Tom" Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, one of just two remaining principal investigators of the mission's original 11 still on the job 40 years after NASA approved the Voyager missions.

"Needless to say, none of us expected it was going to be operating for so long," Krimigis, 72, said. "We were all praying to get to Neptune [in 1989]. But after that? Who thought we could be with this 33 years [after launch]?"

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Five experiments on each Voyager are still funded and seven of them are still delivering data. Problems do occur, but they can be fixed by radioed instructions -- instructions that take 12 hours to reach the unmanned craft.

"I suspect it's going to outlast me," said Krimigis.


Great Lakes species action urged

DETROIT, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. conservationists say measures meant to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species are moving too slowly and leave the lakes vulnerable to "catastrophe."

Efforts to regulate ballast water from oceangoing ships, considered the largest source of invasive species in the Great Lakes, have stalled, while the Mississippi River system, where invasive Asian carp are firmly entrenched, remains connected to the Great Lakes despite calls to close canals and connecting waterways, The Detroit News reported Monday.

Conservationists say the lack of action is unacceptable and leaves the Great Lakes under threat year after year.

"Maybe another year or two of waiting doesn't seem daunting, but if you get a new invasion of some species like zebra mussels that shows up in six months, then you could have a catastrophe on your hands," Andy Buchsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center said.

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Environmental groups have called for federal laws to require oceangoing ships to meet a discharge standard for ballast water released into the Great Lakes.

A proposal passed in the U.S. House in 2008, but languished in the Senate and no bill was ever enacted.

In the Asian carp battle, a federal judge last month rejected a request be Michigan and five other states to close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system.

Later last month, the White House announced that separating the two water systems would not be part of its strategy to combat the Asian carp in 2011.


'Eyeball' camera that can zoom developed

EVANSTON, Ill., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say they've developed a tiny camera that mimics the human eye with the added bonus of a zoom capability, something the eye cannot do.

Scientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., say the "eyeball camera" has a 3.5x optical zoom, takes sharp images, is inexpensive to make and is only the size of a nickel, a university release reported Monday.

The camera could have many applications, including night-vision surveillance, robotic vision, endoscopic imaging and consumer electronics, researchers say.

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"We were inspired by the human eye, but we wanted to go beyond the human eye," said Yonggang Huang of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "Our goal was to develop something simple that can zoom and capture good images, and we've achieved that."

The tiny camera has the simple lens of the human eye, allowing the device to be small, and the zoom capability of a single-lens reflex camera without the bulk and weight of a complex lens.

The secret to its capabilities is that both the simple lens and the camera's photodetectors are on flexible substrates. A hydraulic system can change the shape of the substrates appropriately, enabling a variable zoom.

Earlier eyeball cameras could not zoom because they had rigid detectors.

For variable zoom, the detector must change shape as the in-focus image changes shape with magnification.

To achieve an in-focus and magnified image as the camera zooms, hydraulics are used to change the curvatures of the lens and detector in a coordinated manner.


Study: Neanderthals' looks not from cold

LONDON, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The broad foreheads and large noses of Neanderthals were not an adaptation to living in the cold of Europe's last ice age as long thought, researchers say.

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Scientists have long attributed these facial differences from modern humans to an adaptation that allowed Neanderthals to live in the freezing conditions, believing our prehistoric human relatives had enlarged sinuses that helped warm the air as they breathed it in, The Daily Telegraph reported.

However, research using scans and X-ray images of Neanderthal skulls has revealed their sinuses were no bigger than modern humans who evolved in more temperate climates, and so had no affect on the size of their facial features.

"The view that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cave men who scraped a living by hunting large mammals on the frozen wastes of the tundra has been around since they were first discovered because they were known to live at a time when Europe was in the grip of the last Glacial Age," Todd Rae, an evolutionary anthropologist at Roehampton University in London, says.

"As a result a lot of their physical traits have been attributed as adaptations that helped them live in the cold, even when it doesn't make any sense."

The finding suggests Neanderthals evolved in much warmer temperatures before moving into Europe and then moved south to avoid the glaciers, he says.

It also "raises other possibilities for what caused Neanderthals to eventually die out," Rae says. "If they were restricted to living in warmer refuges at the height of the last ice age, it is possible their populations became too isolated and small to survive."

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