Lightweight, portable wearable robot holds promise for paralyzed patients

Published May 09, 2013

Associated Press

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    May 6, 2013: Michael Gore, center, who is paralyzed from a spinal injury, walks with the use of the Indego wearable robot under the supervision of physical therapist Clare Hartigan during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. (ap)

CHICAGO –  When Michael Gore stands, it’s a triumph of science and engineering. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, yet he rises from his wheelchair to his full 6-foot-2-inches and walks across the room with help from a lightweight wearable robot.

The technology has many nicknames. Besides “wearable robot,” the inventions also are called “electronic legs” or “powered exoskeletons.” This version, called Indego, is among several competing products being used and tested in U.S. rehab hospitals that hold promise not only for people such as Gore with spinal injuries, but also those recovering from strokes or afflicted with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

Still at least a year away from the market, the 27-pound Indego is the lightest of the powered exoskeletons. It snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack. The goal is for the user to be able to carry it on a wheelchair, put it together, strap it on and walk independently. None of the products, including the Indego, are yet approved by federal regulators for personal use, meaning they must be used under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Gore, 42, of Whiteville, N.C., demonstrated the device this week at the American Spinal Injury Association meeting in Chicago, successfully negotiating a noisy, crowded hallway of medical professionals and people with spinal injuries in wheelchairs.

When he leans forward, the device takes a first step. When he tilts from side to side, it walks. When Gore wants to stop, he leans back and the robotic leg braces come to a halt. Gore uses forearm crutches for balance. A battery in the hip piece powers the motors in the robotic legs.

“Being able to speak with you eye-to-eye is just a big emotional boost,” Gore said to a reporter. “Being able to walk up to you and say hello is not a big thing until you cannot do it.”

The devices won’t replace wheelchairs, which are faster. None of the devices are speedy enough, for example, for a paralyzed person to walk across a street before the light changes, said Arun Jayaraman of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who is testing a number of similar devices.

“None of them have fall prevention technology,” Jayaraman said. “If the person falls, they can hurt themselves badly. If you fall down, how do you get off a robot that is strapped into you?” They need to be even lighter and have longer-lasting batteries, he said.

Still, Jayaraman said, the devices might help prevent pressure sores from sitting too long in a wheelchair, improve heart health, develop muscle strength, lift depression and ultimately bring down medical costs by keeping healthier patients out of the hospital.

Companies in Israel, New Zealand and California make competing devices, and all the products are becoming less bulky as they are refined. The Indego was invented at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and tested at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. It’s now licensed to Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin Corp., which makes precision engineered products like aircraft wheels and brakes.

Like many other research participants in clinical studies, Gore receives a stipend for his participation from Vanderbilt University.

It’s unclear exactly how much the devices will cost if they become available for personal use. Some technology news media reports have said $50,000 to $75,000. Indego’s makers want to bring the cost below that, said co-inventor Ryan Farris of Parker Hannifin. Experts say it will take years of research to prove health benefits before Medicare and private insurance companies would consider covering the expense.

Paul Tobin, president of the nonprofit advocacy group United Spinal, said wearable robots present an exciting opportunity but that patients should keep their expectations realistic.

“It’s going to be critical that people have a thorough medical evaluation before trying something like this, especially if they’ve been injured for some time,” Tobin said. “It won’t be appropriate for everyone. For some people, it will be a godsend.”

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Researchers find possible traces of continent off coast of Brazil

Published May 08, 2013

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    A Geological Service of Brazi member standing next to rocks digged out from the deep-sea during dredging works, 1,500 km from the shore of Rio de Janeiro. According to the CPRM director, Roberto Ventura Santos, the rocks would be part of the former continent submerged when the Atlantic Ocean rose up from the separation of now Africa and South America. (AFP Photo/CPRM/HO)

A research team says they have found an area off the coast of Brazil that may have contained parts of the original continent Pangaea, which existed before the Americas, Africa and other land masses drifted apart.

“When these samples came aboard the ship, the first surprise was, ‘what are these rocks doing here?’” said Dr. Roberto Ventura, the director of geology and mineral resources at the Brazilian Geological Survey. “We did petrographic, geochemical (and) geological studies of this material.”

A team of Brazilian and Japanese researchers made the discoveries during a month-long expedition above the Rio Grande Elevation, which is a rise on the ocean floor around 930 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Reuters reports.

Using a three-person submarine making dives as deep as 21, 000 feet, the team found granite and minerals like iron and cobalt.

The materials found differ from the rest of the surrounding seabed, leading researchers to hypothesize that the area was once an island.

Click for more from Reuters.

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Revolutionary design takes the wheel for a loop

Published May 08, 2013

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The wheel is being taken for a loop.

A British industrial designer has come up with a revolutionary alternative to the traditional spoked bicycle wheel that uses flexible curved springs to support the rim and providing a cushioning effect.

Constructed from carbon composite strips developed in conjunction with an archery bow manufacturer, the springs of the so-called Loopwheels have been engineered to provide the same lateral stiffness as standard spoke wheels while also acting as an in-wheel suspension system.

The first examples of the technology are designed around the 20-inch wheels commonly used on fold-up bicycles. The inventor, Sam Pearce, says he targeted this segment because this type of bike typically isn’t available with a frame-mounted suspension, but a 26-inch version is also in the works.

Pearce tells that the wheels have been tested over 10,000 miles without requiring any balancing or adjustments along the way. Although he’s currently focused on bicycle applications, he says the design has been legally protected for any wheeled device and that he sees motorcycle and automobile applications as exciting prospects down the road.

Several companies have been working on “airless tires” that replace the air filled carcass with a rim suspended by a flexible matrix, like the recently unveiled Polaris ATV Non-Pneumatic Tire, but they are typically fitted to a conventional hub and spoke wheel.

The Loopwheels project has been fully funded through a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its £40,000 ($62,000) goal and production is set to begin soon. The price for a set of two, complete with a three-speed gear and hub brake in the rear, is £490 ($760), and is available for purchase outside of the U.K. They’ve been optimized to work with the Dahon Mu folding bicycle, but Pearce says they are compatible with other bikes that provide enough clearance and use a similar hub size.

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‘Ring of fire’ solar eclipse this week: what you need to know

By Geoff Gaherty

Published May 08, 2013

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    The first solar eclipse of 2013 occurs at the Moon’s descending node in eastern Ares. An annular eclipse will be visible from Australia, eastern Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Gilbert Islands. (Eclipse predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC)

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    The annular eclipse of the sun by the moon, as it will appear from Cooktown, Queensland, Australia on the morning of May 10, 2013 at 8:49 a.m. local time. (Starry Night software)

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    Geoff Horner snapped this photo of the May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse from Utah’s Zion National Park. It was taken with a Nikon D90, using a 300mm lens with 11-stop ND filter. (Geoff Horner/Geoff Horner PhotoArt)

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    The moon blots out the sun in an annular solar eclipse as seen from the base camp of Mt. Fuji in Japan on May 20, 2012 in this still from a webcast by Panasonic Eclipse Live from Fujiyama by Solar Power, which broadcast the event live online. (Panasonic Eclipse Live from Fujiyama by Solar Power)

On Thursday and Friday, skywatchers in parts of Australia and the Pacific region will be treated to a spectacular “ring of fire” solar eclipse, in which the moon blots out all of the sun except for its outer edge.

Here’s what you need to know about this stunning skywatching event, which is also known as an annular solar eclipse.

What is an annular eclipse?

The orbit of the Earth around the sun is an ellipse, not a circle. This means that sometimes Earth is closer to the sun than at others. The same goes for the moon’s orbit around Earth, which is also elliptical rather than circular. [See Spectacular Photos of a ‘Ring of Fire’ Solar Eclipse]

We are fortunate to live in a time when the sun and the moon are very close to the same apparent size in our sky. This is an illusion of perspective: The moon is small (2,159 miles wide) and close by (238,855 miles away) while the sun is large (865,278 miles wide) and far away (92,955,808 miles).

Notice that the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon in diameter. It is also about 389 times farther away. This explains why the two appear to be almost the same size in the sky. But “almost” is not exact, which explains why there are different kinds of solar eclipses — partial and total.

Distances in the sky are measured in angles, 360 degrees making up a full circle. Both the sun and the moon appear to be just slightly more than half a degree in diameter.

Degrees are divided into 60 arcminutes. The exact size of the sun varies from 33 arcminutes when it is closest to the Earth on Jan. 2 to 31 arcminutes when it is farthest from the Earth on July 5. On May 10, it will be 32 arc minutes in diameter.

Over the course of a month, the moon’ size also varies. On April 27, it was at its closest to Earth and appeared to be 33 arcminutes in diameter. If an eclipse had occurred on that day, the moon would have covered the sun completely, and we would have had a total eclipse.

On May 10, the moon will appear to be 30 arcminutes in diameter, since it is only a few days away from its farthest retreat from Earth, which occurs on May 13. A 30-arcminute moon doesn’t quite cover a 32-arcminute sun, so the sun peeks out as a ring all around the moon. “Annular” is Latin for “ring,” so the resulting event is called an annular eclipse. [How to Safely Observe the Sun (Infographic)]

Astronomers tend not to get as excited about an annular eclipse as they do about a total eclipse. Because the moon doesn’t cover the sun completely, you don’t see the prominences and outer solar atmosphere, which are the most exciting parts of a total eclipse.

Thus I was quite surprised by the annular eclipse I observed from Toronto exactly 19 years ago, on May 10, 1994. Having observed a total eclipse in the past, I wasn’t expecting much from this annular eclipse, yet I found it to be a very powerful emotional experience.

Even though 5 percent of the sun was still peeking around the moon, it had the same ominous feel as a total eclipse, much more so than the several partial eclipses I’ve witnessed. Seeing the “ring of fire” around the moon is far more impressive than seeing only part of the sun covered.

Where to see it
Unfortunately, very few people will get to see this annular eclipse, as its path travels over some of the most remote and unpopulated parts of the Earth.

The eclipse begins at sunrise over the wilderness of Western Australia. It then sweeps over the similarly empty Northern Territory and continues across northern Queensland, far to the north of the city of Cairns, where many people witnessed last year’s total eclipse.

Only a few roads intersect the eclipse path. This path crosses the Coral Sea and touches the eastern end of Papua New Guinea, then crosses through the middle of the Solomon Islands. From there, the path neatly avoids just about every island in the south Pacific except for Tarawa and Fanning Islands, both part of the Republic of Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands.

Although few people will see the complete annular eclipse, a much larger number will see it as a partial eclipse. This includes all of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Hawaiian Islands, much of Indonesia, the Philippines and New Zealand.

Unfortunately the partial eclipse just misses being visible in North America, except just at sunset at the southern tip of Baja California. In Honolulu, maximum eclipse will be at 3:48 p.m. on May 9, when 32 percent of the sun will be hidden by the moon.

But anyone with a computer and an Internet connection will be able to catch a glimpse of the annular eclipse thanks to the online Slooh Space Camera. Slooh will air a webcast featuring expert commentary and views of the eclipse on Thursday starting at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT). You can watch the broadcast live on

How to observe it
For most people who may see this eclipse, it will be a partial eclipse. This is the most dangerous kind of eclipse, because people will be tempted to take quick glimpses of it without proper protection. DON’T DO IT! Looking directly at the sun is always dangerous and can cause permanent damage to your eyes.

There are two safe ways to view a solar eclipse. The first is with an approved solar filter. These can be purchased from telescope stores. The only safe equivalent is a #14 welder’s glass. This is denser than the widely available #12, and it usually can only be found in dealers specializing in welding supplies.

The other safe viewing method is to use a large cardboard box to make a pinhole camera. Make a pinhole in one end of the box to act as the lens, and a large hole in the bottom of the box to stick your head through to view the image of the sun.

Natural pinhole cameras often are formed by gaps in window blinds or the spaces between leaves of trees. So don’t look at the sun — put your back to it and look instead at the ground in front of you.

This article was provided to by Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu. Original article at

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X-47B: the Navy’s UFO-like stealth drone passes a milestone


The U.S. Navy conducted the first fly-in arrested landing of the X-47B, a tailless, strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft designed to take off from and land on moving aircraft carriers at sea. Here’s a brief look at the latest in the growing drone army.


May 6, 2013: The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator completed its first shore-based fly-in arrested landing on May 4 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The landing begins the final phase of testing prior to carrier-based trials planned for later this month.Source: Northrop Grumman

Nov. 29, 2012: In preparation for the first catapult launch of the U.S. Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft, a flight deck director — aka “yellow shirt” — and a deck operator using Northrop Grumman’s wireless, handheld Control Display Unit guide the aircraft into position on a shore-based catapult at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. Read more

Source: Northrop Grumman Corp

The availability of two X-47B unmanned aircraft enables the UCAS-D program to conduct a faster and more productive flight test program.Source: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Developed by Northrop Grumman, the X-47B is a tailless, strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft designed to take off from and land on moving aircraft carriers at sea. Read more

Source: Northrop Grumman

The X-47B demonstrator’s first flight in cruise configuration provided an important measure of its maturity and readiness to begin the next phase of flight testing.Source: Northrop Grumman Corp.


An early version of the X-47B, seen in 2010 on the runway in Palmdale, Calif.Source: Northrop Grumman Corp.

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‘Monster’ carcass washes ashore in New Zealand

By Benjamin Radford

Nature’s Mysteries

Published May 07, 2013

Discovery News

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    New Zealand beachgoers were stumped by what they thought was a prehistoric creature that washed ashore recently. (YouTube)

A mysterious carcass washed ashore in New Zealand last week, fueling speculation about sea monsters and dinosaurs. The rotting animal was discovered by a group on four-wheel vehicles speeding along the beach in Bay of Plenty.

According to a story in New Zealand’s Sun Live newspaper, “beachgoers were stumped when they came across what they thought was a prehistoric creature on the shore … stretching about 9 meters [30 feet] in length with large teeth and rudimentary flippers.”

Video of the fearsome-looking animal was soon posted to YouTube, asking the public for help in figuring out what it was.

PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real and Imagined

A marine biologist soon identified the remains as a killer whale, in part because of its distinctive flipper. The mystery was solved, but it’s not the first time an animal’s carcass has been mistaken for a monster. In fact, New Zealand is one of the most common places in the world — along with Newfoundland, Canada and Florida — for such “sea monsters” to appear.

The Science of Sea Monsters
Over the past centuries mysterious masses of marine flesh have occasionally washed ashore on beaches around the world. Dubbed “blobsters” (or simply “blobs”) these large carcasses are so badly decomposed there’s not enough material to make a definitive identification. To many people, the huge creatures — looking unlike any known animal — may seem like strong evidence for sea monsters or even existing dinosaurs.

In 1896, giant waves tossed a massive fleshy corpse on a beach at St. Augustine, Fla. The rubbery, 6-foot-high blob was examined by a local naturalist, who decided it was likely from a giant octopus far larger than any known type. Many other such blobs have been found, including the horror-film inspired “Chilean blob” (found in July 2003), a few “Bermuda blobs,” and another in Newfoundland in 2001.

NEWS: Ancient ‘Loch Ness Monster’ Suffered Arthritis

Controversy and mystery surrounded the creatures for decades. In 2004, a team of biologists led by Sidney Pierce examined all available blobster materials using electron microscopes, and applied biochemical, molecular and DNA analysis. The conclusion: The strange specimens were actually various species of great whales.

Though the identities of these mysterious monster carcasses are now known, marine mystery lovers need not fret. The oceans have not been fully explored, and it’s certain that the sea has not revealed all its secrets.

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RAF Museum to raise Nazi bomber from 1940 Blitz out of English Channel


Published May 07, 2013

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    Side-scan sonar imaging provides a haunting look at the Nazi bomber, which the RAF museum plans to salvage in late May. (Port of London Authority/RAF museum)

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    A sonar image reveals the body of the Dornier, half buried beneath the sands of the English Channel. (Port of London Authority/RAF museum)

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A British museum has begun the process of lifting the only Nazi bomber to survive the World War II Blitz on London out of its shallow grave — under 60 feet of water and shifting sands under the English Channel.

In the fall of 1940, the southeast coast of England was under heavy attack by the German Luftwaffe, as Hitler sent wave after wave of bombers to the country in his efforts to blast the country out of World War II.

In August, early in a campaign that would come to be known as “the Blitz,” a formation of German Dornier Do-17 bombers was intercepted and one was shot down. It landed on Goodwin Sands, a large sandbank off the coast of Kent County, the last bit of rolling English countryside before Britain gives way to the straits of Dover, 20 or so miles of cold sea, and ultimately France.


‘It’s hugely important to British national history.’

– Peter Dye, director general of London’s RAF Museum


The aircraft touched down relatively safely, but as it sank to the sea floor it flipped upside-down. And there it stayed, buried by the English Channel, the sandbar, the tides and the decades. Until now.

“When you find these fascinating, important objects, they’re in challenging places: the Greenland ice caps, the Egyptian deserts — or in this case, the English Channel,” explained Peter Dye, director general of London’s RAF Museum, which is spearheading a program to pull the plane from the sea.

Sidescan sonar images taken in 2008 revealed the silhouette of the craft, Dye told, as the shifting sands exposed the perfectly preserved plane for the first time.

The Dornier’s very existence is remarkable, he said; all of the hundreds of fighters that England shot down were smelted during the war and reused, ironically turned into British aircraft to continue the battle against the Germans.

“We’ve got a Spitfire and a Hurricane and a German Messerschmidt,” Dye said. “All the other aircraft were sent to smelters and recycled, ironically enough into our aircraft.”

“You might say it’s environmentally sound,” he added wryly.

But now that it’s exposed, now that the sand has shifted, every winter storm will degrade the plane, while sport divers and curious history buffs will unintentionally damage it merely by swimming by.

“The process of destruction begins with discovery,” Dye told So the RAF Museum, in conjunction with the Port of London Authority, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and Imperial College London are in the process of retrieving the plane. But that’s a challenge in itself.

The Dornier Do-17 has a 60-foot wingspan and stretches about 50 feet; it’s constructed of several aluminum sections. The plane is relatively light, but chloride in the ocean as well as the life teaming there have worked on it over the 70 years since it last saw sunlight.

The RAF Museum is currently on site assembling a special lift to raise the plane from the sea floor, a process that will take a few hours at most, likely during the last week of May.

The wing section will then be removed from the body, promptly sprayed with chemicals and gels to preserve it, and driven a few hours down the highway — likely the first time a Nazi craft has navigated England’s roads in half a century.

The preservation process involves a months — or even years-long — lemon-juice shower, an odd solution devised by the Imperial College’s Department of Material Science that strips away the Channel’s chemicals and prevents exposure to oxygen.

By washing away the chloride with citric acid, the surface is effectively protected and a barrier to further corrosion built, Dye explained. The process is lengthy, and the entire proceeding will cost roughly half a million pounds (around $750,000). But the uniqueness of the find makes it truly worthwhile, he told

“We feel that this is a unique survivor, the only German bomber from the Blitz that’s left. And it’s hugely important to British national history,” he said.

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5 climbers killed after volcano spews rock and ash in the Philippines

Published May 07, 2013

Associated Press

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    May 7, 2013: A mushroom of volcanic ash shoots up to the sky as Mayon volcano, one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, spewed huge rocks and ash after daybreak. (AP)

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    FILE: A column of ash shoots up to the sky in another mild eruption of the cloud-covered Mayon volcano as viewed from Legazpi city. (AP)

One of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes rumbled to life Tuesday, spewing room-sized rocks toward nearly 30 surprised climbers, killing five and injuring others that had to be fetched with rescue helicopters and rope.

The climbers and their Filipino guides had spent the night camping in two groups before setting out at daybreak for the crater of Mayon volcano when the sudden explosion of rocks, ash and plumes of smokes jolted the picturesque mountain, guide Kenneth Jesalva told ABS-CBN TV network by cellphone.

He said rocks “as big as a living room” came raining down, killing and injuring members of his group, some of whom were in critical condition. Jesalva said he rushed back to the base camp at 3,000 feet to call for help.

Among the dead were three Germans and their Filipino guide, said Albay provincial Gov. Joey Salceda. He said everyone on the mountain had been accounted for at midday, except for a foreigner who was presumed dead.

Eight people were injured, and Salceda said the others were in the process of being brought down the mountain. Ash clouds have cleared over the volcano, which was quiet later in the morning.

“The injured are all foreigners … They cannot walk. If you can imagine, the boulders there are as big as cars. Some of them slid and rolled down. We will rappel the rescue team, and we will rappel them up again,” he said from Legazpi, the provincial capital at the foothill of the mountain.

An Austrian mountaineer and two Spaniards were rescued with small bruises, he said.

Tuesday’s eruption was normal for the restive Mayon, said Renato Solidum, the head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

The 8,070-foot mountain about 212 miles southeast of Manila has erupted about 40 times during the last 400 years.

In 2010, thousands of residents moved to temporary shelters when the volcano ejected ash up to 5 miles from the crater.

Solidum said no alert was raised after the latest eruption and no evacuation was being planned.

Climbers are not allowed when an alert is up, and the recent calm may have encouraged this week’s trek. However, Solidum said that even with no alert raised, the immediate zone around the volcano is supposed to be a no-go area because of the risk of a sudden eruption.

Salceda said he would enforce a ban on climbers.

Despite the risks, Mayon and its near-perfect cone is a favorite spot for volcano watchers. Most enjoy the occasional nighttime spectacle of the rim lit by flowing lava, viewing from the safety of hotels in Legazpi.

The volcano has a trail to the crater that is walkable though it’s steep and strewn with rocks and debris from past eruptions.

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Bugged by the billions: East Coast about to see power of big numbers in coming cicada


Published May 06, 2013

Associated Press

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    Periodical cicadas, like these, remain underground for years before emerging into the sunlight, where they spend weeks callingfor mates, mating and laying eggs for the next generation. (National Pest Management Association/Tom Myers)

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    A cicada, big, noisy bugs that climb out of the earth about every decade and a half. (Kathy F. Atkinson/University of Delaware)

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    A box of preserved cicadas, including emerging insects and molted exoskeletons, in storage at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Camp Springs, Md. on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. A brood of cicadas are expected to emerge this spring in the Washington area. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (The Associated Press)

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    Gary Hevel, a research collaborator with the Dept. of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History, holds up a preserved cicadas, a brood of which are expected to emerge this spring in the Washington area, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Camp Springs, Md. on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (The Associated Press)

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    Gary Hevel, a research collaborator with the Dept. of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History, opens a case of preserved cicadas, a brood of which are expected to emerge this spring in the Washington area, from storage at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Camp Springs, Md. on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON –  Any day now, billions of cicadas with bulging red eyes will crawl out of the earth after 17 years underground and overrun the East Coast. They will arrive in such numbers that people from North Carolina to Connecticut will be outnumbered roughly 600-to-1. Maybe more.

But ominous as that sounds – along with scientists’ horror-movie name for the infestation, Brood II – they’re harmless. These insects won’t hurt you or other animals. At worst, they might damage a few saplings or young shrubs. Mostly they will blanket certain pockets of the region, though lots of people won’t ever see them.

“It’s not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people,” says May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist.

They’re looking for just one thing: sex. And they’ve been waiting quite a long time.


‘There will be some places where it’s wall-to-wall cicadas.’

– University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp


Since 1996, this group of 1-inch bugs, in wingless nymph form, has been a few feet underground, sucking on tree roots and biding their time. They will emerge only when the ground temperature reaches precisely 64 degrees. After a few weeks up in the trees, they will die and their offspring will go underground, not to return until 2030.

“It’s just an amazing accomplishment,” Berenbaum says. “How can anyone not be impressed?”

And they will make a big racket, too. The noise all the male cicadas make when they sing for sex can drown out your own thoughts, and maybe even rival a rock concert. In 2004, Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, measured cicadas at 94 decibels, saying it was so loud “you don’t hear planes flying overhead.”

There are ordinary cicadas that come out every year around the world, but these are different. They’re called magicicadas – as in magic – and are red-eyed. And these magicicadas are seen only in the eastern half of the United States, nowhere else in the world.

There are 15 U.S. broods that emerge every 13 or 17 years, so that nearly every year, some place is overrun. Last year it was a small area, mostly around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Next year, two places get hit: Iowa into Illinois and Missouri; and Louisiana and Mississippi. And it’s possible to live in these locations and actually never see them.

This year’s invasion, Brood II, is one of the bigger ones. Several experts say that they really don’t have a handle on how many cicadas are lurking underground but that 30 billion seems like a good estimate. At the Smithsonian Institution, researcher Gary Hevel thinks it may be more like 1 trillion.

Even if it’s merely 30 billion, if they were lined up head to tail, they’d reach the moon and back.

“There will be some places where it’s wall-to-wall cicadas,” says University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp.

Strength in numbers is the key to cicada survival: There are so many of them that the birds can’t possibly eat them all, and those that are left over are free to multiply, Raupp says.

But why only every 13 or 17 years? Some scientists think they come out in these odd cycles so that predators can’t match the timing and be waiting for them in huge numbers. Another theory is that the unusual cycles ensure that different broods don’t compete with each other much.

And there’s the mystery of just how these bugs know it’s been 17 years and time to come out, not 15 or 16 years.

“These guys have evolved several mathematically clever tricks,” Raupp says. “These guys are geniuses with little tiny brains.”

Past cicada invasions have seen as many as 1.5 million bugs per acre. Of course, most places along the East Coast won’t be so swamped, and some places, especially in cities, may see zero, says Chris Simon of the University of Connecticut. For example, Staten Island gets this brood of cicadas, but the rest of New York City and Long Island don’t, she says. The cicadas also live beneath the metro areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Scientists and ordinary people with a bug fetish travel to see them. Thomas Jefferson once wrote about an invasion of this very brood at Monticello, his home in Virginia.

While they stay underground, the bugs aren’t asleep. They go through different growth stages and molt four times before ever getting to the surface. They are some of the world’s longest-lived insects. They drink up a low-protein tree fluid called xylum, which isn’t essential to the tree. Then they go aboveground, where they molt, leaving behind a crusty brown shell, and grow a half-inch bigger.

The timing of when they first come out depends purely on ground temperature. That means early May for southern areas and late May or even June for northern areas.

The males come out first – think of it as getting to the singles bar early, Raupp says. They come out first as nymphs, which are essentially wingless and silent juveniles, climb on to tree branches and molt one last time, becoming adult winged cicadas. They perch on tree branches and sing, individually or in a chorus. Then when a female comes close, the males change their song, they do a dance and mate, he explained.

The males keep mating (“That’s what puts the `cad’ in `cicada,'” Raupp jokes) and eventually the female lays 600 or so eggs on the tip of a branch. The offspring then dive-bomb out of the trees, bounce off the ground and eventually burrow into the earth, he says.

“It’s a treacherous, precarious life,” Raupp says. “But somehow they make it work.”

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Sun unleashes spectacular solar eruption

By Tariq Malik

Published May 06, 2013

  • solar-flare-may-3-2013

    A burst of solar material leaps off the left side of the sun in what’s known as a prominence eruption. This image combines three images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured on May 3, 2013, at 1:45 pm EDT. (NASA/SDO/AIA)

  • sun-mid-level-flare

    NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an M5.7-class flare on May 3, 2013, at 1:30 p.m. EDT. This image shows light in the 131-angstrom wavelength, a wavelength of light that can show material at the very hot temperatures of a (NASA/SDO/AIA)

An intense solar storm erupted from the sun on Friday in a dazzling space weather display captured by a NASA spacecraft.

The solar flare erupted from the edge the sun, with NASA’s powerful Solar Dynamics Observatory snapping photos of the sun storm. The flare peaked at 1:32 p.m. EDT (1732 GMT), registering as a relatively medium-strength M5.7-class event.

Friday’s solar storm was the second major space weather event in three days, but was not aimed at Earth. According to astronomer Phil Plait, who chronicled the flare on his Bad Astronomy blog, the solar storm launched super-hot solar plasma about 120,000 miles above the surface of the sun before it faded from view.

The sun fired off a May Day solar eruption on Wednesday, May 1, from the same region, which is currently at the very leftmost edge (or limb) of the sun as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The active region will be rotating to face Earth soon, mission scientists said.

“Increased number of flares are quite common at the moment, as the sun’s normal 11-year activity cycle is ramping up toward solar maximum, which is expected in late 2013,” NASA officials said in a statement.

The strongest solar flare of the year occurred on April 11 and registered as an M6.5-class sun storm, still a mid-level event. Scientists classify solar flares based on their intensity. M-class solar flares are medium-strength events that are the weakest type of storm that can still have an impact on Earth. When aimed directly at Earth, they can super-charge the planet’s aurora displays.

The strongest type of solar flare are X-class sun storms. When aimed directly at Earth, X-class solar flares can pose a threat to spacecraft and astronauts in space. They can also interfere with communications and GPS navigation signals, and cause radio blackouts.

A radio short-lived radio blackout was caused by the Friday solar flare, but subsided quickly, NASA officials said.

The sun’s current solar weather cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24. The Solar Dynamics Observatory is one of several spacecraft constantly monitoring the sun to track its solar weather events.

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