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Science notes / Astronomy, paleontology

NASA launches Web tool to explore solar system

Want to explore the solar system and follow NASA space missions in real time?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is giving the public the chance to do just that through a new Internet-based tool called Eyes on the Solar System. The space agency said the tool combines video-game technology and NASA data to create an environment for users to ride along with agency spacecraft as they explore the cosmos.

"You are now free to move about the solar system," Blaine Baggett, a manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., said in a statement. "See what NASA's spacecraft see -- and where they are right now -- all without leaving your computer."

By using a keyboard and a mouse, online users can zip through space and explore anything that catches their interest. For example, NASA in August launched a probe called Juno that will explore Jupiter. Users can follow Juno, literally peering over its shoulder to get a bird's-eye view of what it sees.

The technology also allows users to switch their point of view from far away to close up to right on board spacecraft, and also to switch from 2-D or 3-D modes. By putting on 3-D glasses, users can see flat images transform into multidimensional illustrations.

The new tool can be downloaded at http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/eyes.

-- Los Angeles Times

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Feathers found in amber offer look at early birds

A trove of ancient feathers primitive and complex is providing scientists with an unprecedented snapshot of what some dinosaurs and birds looked like during the Cretaceous period.

An account published online in the journal Science describes a host of feathers and feather-like filaments found in western Canada. The structures were ensconced in 70-million-year-old amber.

Taken together, the feathers and filaments point to the diversity of this prehistoric plumed menagerie, said study co-author Alexander Wolfe, a paleoecologist at the University of Alberta in Canada.

"The simplest feathers are of greatest interest because these protofeathers have been inferred to be the evolutionary precedent to evolved feathers," Wolfe said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Scientists have posited that feathers developed first as single, hair-like protrusions meant for insulation, then began to grow in clumps, and then as increasingly complex structures. At some point, they were probably used for other purposes (such as attracting mates), and later for flight.

Some feathers even had coiled barbules, like those on modern birds, which allow the animals to transport water to the nest to cool their incubating eggs.

-- Los Angeles Times