Virginia Tech shootings: Student paper covers it from the inside

As the story of the Virginia Tech shootings continue to unfold, the reporters of the Collegiate Times have been front and center.

The newspaper's website crashed throughout the day due to intense interest, but through its Twitter feed @CollegiateTimes, the newspaper's Facebook page and reporters' own Twitter feeds, Collegiate Times staffers have kept its rapidly expanding audience up to date on all the twists and turns of the breaking news story — sometimes tweeting as often as once a minute.

And the Twittersphere is listening. The Collegiate Times twitter feed grew from having fewer than 2,000 followers to more than 20,500 (and counting) in just a few hours.

PHOTOS: Virginia Tech shooting

The Collegiate Times is believed to have been the first to break the news that someone had been killed on the campus, and major news sources like USA Today pointed their own Twitter followers to the Collegiate Times Twitter feed.

The reporting on @CollegiateTimes offers a feel of what it's like to be there at the school in the midst of a shooting. Readers can turn to the Twitter feeds of Kelsey Starr, @Kjostarr, a news writer for the Collegiate Times who described being locked in a room next to the performing arts center with three other students and a TV stand for a barricade. "Honestly, never been this scared," she wrote.

Nick Cafferky, @NickCaffCT, who works as the editor of the football section of Collegiate Times, tweeted eyewitness accounts of watching police take a stretcher away without anyone on it, and watching a police officer running with massive gun.

"I really want to go across the street and report on this…frustrating watching from window and believing rumors on #Twitter," he added.

Cafferky also promised to live Tweet a Virginia Tech media briefing.

There were a few missteps in the flurry of @CollegiateTimes' Tweets. At one point, according to the Twitter feed, they posted incorrect information on a lockdown, and mistakenly tweeted a photo from the April 2007 massacre as it if were an image taken Thursday. @CollegiateTimes immediately announced the mistakes, apologized and got back to the business of providing timely updates.


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11-11-11 meaning: A special once-a-century repunit palindrome day


Happy 11-11-11, everyone!

No matter how much thought you've given the numerical significance of Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 (11-11-11), we suggest that Aziz Inan, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Portland, has thought about it more than you have.

Inan has turned the consideration of palindrome dates into a sort of hobby, and earlier this month proved himself a master of detecting numerical patterns when he dazzled us with facts about Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 -- a very rare 8 digit palindrome date (11022011).

And now he's back with some interesting revelations about 11-11-11.

PHOTOS: Eleven 11s: Just in time for 11-11-11

In an email missive, Inan explains that 11-11-11 is a once-in-a-century repunit palindrome day. If you've never heard of the word "repunit" (our word-processing program had not), it means a number such as 11, 111, or 1111 that contains only the digit 1. "The term stands for repeated unit and was coined in 1966 by Albert H. Beiler," writes Inan.

Furthermore, he explains that 111111 equals the product of two palindrome numbers written as 111111=111 x 1001.

He points out that, this year, the month of November has been rich with palindrome days including 1-1-11 (another repunit day), 11-2-11, 11-3-11, 11-4-11, 11-5-11, 11-6-11, 11-7-11, 11-8-11, 11-9-11 and coming soon -- 11-22-11.

"Among them, 112211 is interesting because it equals 101 x 11 x 101, a palindrome expression!" he writes.

Although you may have already surmised that after this Friday, the next time 11-11-11 will occur is 100 years from now in 2111, you have perhaps not considered -- as Inan has -- that,  "interestingly enough, in 2111, 11-11-11 and eight-digit palindrome day 11-12-2111 will be two concurrent palindrome days!"

And now for the final note: Inan reports that Nov. 11 is also his mother's birthday. She will be turning 83. And 8 + 3 = 11.

Coincidence? Well ... probably.

Happy 11-11-11!


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NASA: New Mars rover will look for the ingredients of life

If you think that people who believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life are kooks, you probably haven't talked to a NASA space scientist in a while.

At a news conference on Thursday, Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars program for NASA, said that when the agency's newest Mars rover blasts off for the red planet on Nov. 25, one of its charges will be to discover if the planet contains (or contained) the ingredients of life.

"This mission will bridge the gap scientifically from our understanding of the planet being warmer and wetter than we probably believed, to not seeking life itself, but seeking signs of life," he said.

He reiterated: "This is not a life-seeking mission."

Think about the mission this way: If NASA were going to Mars looking for signs of pancakes instead of signs of life, on this trip it would be looking for flour and eggs, not pancake crumbs -- and definitely not pancakes.

In an interview with The Times, Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, said the rover will be looking for organic molecules and isotopic signatures that might indicate that life did exist at one time on Mars.

"If this step pans out, if we do find organic compounds and we think that the rocks look likely to preserve evidence of life, then we will know better what to send next," she said. "It is kind of an intermediate step."

Asfor the rover itself -- called Curiosity -- it's 6-feet-tall, weighs roughly 2,000 pounds, and is the most complex machine to be placed on another planet, according to McCuistion.

The rover has high-definition cameras, a laser eye, and a weather station to help scientists monitor the environment. It also has the ability to sample rocks and soils, and a drill that will allow it to capture material from inside rocks.

"This is a Mars scientist dream machine," said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory deputy project scientist, at the news event.

But the rover won't be landing on the planet for a while. Curiosity is scheduled to leave Earth on Nov. 25 (the day after Thanksgiving), but it won't be landing on Mars until August 2012.

During the news conference, Vasavada was asked how likely he thought it was that Curiosity would find evidence of life on Mars.

"That would be in the realm of speculation," he said, "but the reason we are excited about Mars is that when we look into the distant past, there is evidence of rivers flowing and lakes and we are trying to find out if they are habitable environments."

"Of the hundreds of places we could have landed, we've chosen the best place to find habitable environment," he added. "Now we'll see if we find one."


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Image: This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm. Credit: NASA

Tweeting a couple's fight in a Burger King: Is it ethical?

Earlier this week, a young couple had a loud and messy argument in a Burger King somewhere in New England. For the people who witnessed it, the fight was embarrassing, uncomfortable and impossible to ignore. The couple reportedly made no effort to keep it private.

But some might argue that Andy Boyle, a newsroom developer for the Boston Globe, tread on ethically questionable ground when, instead of scarfing down his French fries and Whopper and fleeing the restaurant as quickly as possible, he decided instead to tweet the entire argument to his 3,000 followers -- with pictures and video.

Here's a sampling:

"I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn't write this any better."

"These kids must be 21, tops. His main complaint? She doesn't clean the dishes when his mom asks her to."

"She is sobbing quite loud. He gets up and walks out. She stays. We all feel quite awkward. Do we console her? No one does anything."

By the next tweet, the guy is back in the restaurant and Boyle continues to relate the details of the couple's argument. The wife says she thinks it's unfair that her husband gets to play video games while his mom tells her to do dishes.  The husband says he just wants the woman to be a better wife.

"The restaurant does not believe him," tweets Boyle.

Boyle is a good writer, and his tweets are funny and relatable, but did he cross a line when instead of merely sharing the uncomfortable experience of watching an anonymous couple engaged in a fight, he included video clips and potentially identifying photographs of the two people involved?

It's possible Boyle is wondering the same thing. In a recent view of his tweets from the restaurant, the photos are no longer available.

Boyle did not respond to a request for comment from The Times, but Anupam Chander, a professor of law at UC Davis, said that, legally at least, Boyle did nothing wrong.

"In general, if something is happening in a public place, you can film it and take pictures of it and make it available to the world," Chander said in an interview with The Times. "The freedom of speech in the United States is very broad."

But Chander, who specializes in Internet law, acknowledged that this freedom of speech might have a downside for someone who makes a scene in public.

"It does seem unfair to this young couple, who may not have been able to control themselves in this emotional moment but certainly didn't think they were risking the scrutiny of the world," he said. "All of us have done something in public that is embarrassing, but we wouldn't want our public breakups or public errors to be exposed to the world or memorialized forever in cyberspace."


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Photo: The Burger King crowns. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

First movie of asteroid YU55 released by NASA


A steady stream of information about asteroid 2005 YU55 continued to flow from NASA on Tuesday, leading up to the moment  when the asteroid was closest to Earth, at 3:48 p.m. PST.

The latest piece of imagery to come from the space agency is a mini-movie of the asteroid (above) made up of six images taken Monday via a radar telescope. The images were captured when the asteroid was still about 860,000 miles from Earth.

The resolution is 4 meters per pixel and the movie is looped five times. Each image reportedly took 20 minutes of data collection from the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.

Although the images appear pixelated, NASA astronomers are excited about the amount of detail they reveal.

"By animating a sequence of radar images, we can see more surface detail than is visible otherwise," radar astronomer Lance Benner said in a statement. He's the principal investigator for the 2005 YU55 observations, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.  "The animation reveals a number of puzzling structures on the surface that we don't yet understand. To date, we've seen less than one-half of the surface, so we expect more surprises."

Scientists at NASA say the asteroid is turning at a speed of one full rotation per 18 hours.

You can watch live video of the asteroid at or via the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, in cooperation with the Astronomical League and the Planetary Society.

Unless you're a very serious astronomer -- amateur or otherwise -- watching the asteroid via computer is a better way to go than trying to find it in the night sky. The asteroid will be visible only with a 6- to 8-inch (or bigger) telescope, and it won't be easy to find.

Stephen Edberg, an astronomer at JPL, told The Times that in order to see the asteroid, you would need a good telescope -- and a good sky map.

"That would be an absolute requirement," he said.  "You are not going to spot this without something like that."


Watch the approach of asteroid YU55 live on the Web

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Asteroid YU55 is coming, will swing nearer to Earth than the moon

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Video: Scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory created this six-frame movie of asteroid YU55. It was generated from data obtained by NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar on Nov. 7. At the time, the space rock was approximately 860,000 miles from Earth.


Watch the approach of asteroid YU55 live on the Web

Grade A super geeks, set your watches. NASA says that at precisely 3:28 p.m. Pacific (6:28 p.m. Eastern), asteroid YU55 will be as close to planet Earth as it's going to get during this particular pass-by. 

But, if you can't get to a dark place by that time, don't fear -- you can watch the asteroid's approach live via, which is capturing the asteroid's approach via telescopes on the Canary Islands.

Long live the Internet!

The approach of the asteroid is definitely something to be celebrated, not feared.

Scientists say there is absolutely no chance of a collision between our planet and the asteroid, which is about a quarter of a mile in diameter, or roughly the size of an aircraft carrier. Although YU55 is the largest asteroid to come this close to Earth since 1976, it will still come only within about 200,000 miles of the planet. That makes it closer to us than the moon, but not close enough to have an effect on the atmosphere or the tides.

In fact, it's not even close enough to see with the naked eye. Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky & Telescope, explained that YU55 will be 11th magnitude at best on Tuesday night, which means it will be 100 times dimmer than what you could see with the naked eye in a perfectly dark, wilderness sky.

In order to see YU55, you would need a 6- to 8-inch telescope, as well as experience in reading and using a detailed sky chart.

NASA will continue to release images of the asteroid as they are taken, and in the meantime, here's a cool fact about asteroids courtesy of Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at JPL who studies near-Earth objects.

"Asteroids may literally pave the way to building future structures in space," he says in a statement on JPL's website.

"Examination of meteorites suggests that the average near-Earth asteroid has a higher concentration of precious metals, such as platinum, than the richest known ore on Earth. These raw materials may also be more accessible, since some asteroids are easier to reach and return from than the moon. Comets may be about 30 percent water ice, which could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen -- the most efficient form of rocket fuel."


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Asteroid YU55 headed toward Earth: First images are released

Asteroid YU55 coming, will swing nearer to Earth than the moon

-- Deborah Netburn

Photo: This radar image of asteroid YU55 was obtained Nov. 7 at 11:45 a.m. Pacific (2:45 p.m. Eastern), when the space rock was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers, from Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Asteroid YU55 headed toward Earth: First images released

 Asteroid_againAn asteroid about the size of an aircraft carrier was hurtling toward us Monday night, following an orbit that will take it within 201,700 miles of Earth, as measured from the center of the planet.

As has been much reported, that's closer to us than the moon is.

Scientists at NASA have been tracking the asteroid, named YU55, on a daily basis since Friday. On Monday, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific, they took the above picture of the asteroid using a 70-meter radio telescope.

The photo, shot from NASA's Deep Space Network in Goldstone, Calif., might be a little more exciting if it were a bit less pixelated. But we can forgive the fuzziness -- after all, the asteroid was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, from Earth when the image was taken.

Scientists will continue to take more photos of the space rock as it approaches Earth.

Despite being relatively large and coming relatively close to the Earth, the asteroid will still not be visible to the naked eye.

Part of the reason YU55 is so interesting to the scientific community is because similar asteroids played a major role in our planet's past -- and they have the potential to play a major role in the future of humankind.

Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, told The Times that asteroids colliding with Earth in the extremely distant past may have been responsible for bringing the water and carbon material that has made life on the planet possible.

And in the future, scientists say, these asteroids may serve as watering holes and fueling stations for interplanetary travel.

"We may one day be able to mine asteroids, and if we start colonizing the solar system, they will be our fueling stations," scientist Marina Brozovic said in an interview. She's a member of the JPL Goldstone radar team tracking the asteroid.

You won't be able to see YU55 without a telescope, but be on the lookout for pictures of what scientists will be seeing.

"It's really quite an opportunity," Yeomans said. "It's not very often that something this good gets this close."

-- Deborah Netburn


White House on aliens: No contact yet, but we're looking

Asteroid YU55 coming, will swing nearer to Earth than the moon

Asteroid YU55 to swing close by Earth on Tuesday. Can we see it?

Image: This radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 was obtained on Nov. 7, 2011, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific (2:45 p.m. Eastern), when the space rock was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers, from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

White House on aliens: No contact yet, but we're looking


The Obama administration's position on the existence of aliens, and whether the people of Earth have had contact with them, can be summed up this way:  "Searching for ET, but no evidence yet."

That's the title of the official White House response to an online petition signed by 12,078 people that asks the government to acknowledge an "extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race."

"Hundreds of military and government agency witnesses have come forward with testimony confirming this extraterrestrial presence," the writers of the petition contend. "Opinion polls now indicate more than 50% of the American people believe there is an extraterrestrial presence and more than 80% believe the government is not telling the truth about this phenomenon. The people have a right to know. The people can handle the truth."

The response to the petition was written by Phil Larson, who works on space policy and communications at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In a 417-word essay, he explains that the U.S. government currently has no credible evidence that life exists beyond our planet -- or that any member of the human race has been contacted by an extraterrestrial.

But that doesn't mean the administration thinks there is no possibility that alien life exists.

In fact, quite the contrary: "Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mind-set at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life," writes Larson.

He says the U.S. government is actively involved in the search for life beyond our planet.

He cites three examples of the search:

-- NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which is looking for Earth-like planets primarily in the Milky Way galaxy.

-- The Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, which will look for the chemical building blocks of life on the Red Planet.

-- And SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, which was originally started with help from NASA but is now run through private funds.

So, ETs take note: If you want to phone Earth, the Obama administration is listening.


Asteroid YU55 to swing close by Earth on Tuesday. Can we see it?

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Image: The Obama administration contends that there is no credible evidence that aliens walk among us. Tell that to Gertie. Credit: Universal Pictures

Asteroid YU55 to swing close by Earth on Tuesday. Can we see it?

Asteroid YU55 is about to swing by Earth, coming closer to our planet than the moon. It will make its closest approach at exactly 6:28 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday.

The event marks the first time that something this big has come this close to Earth since 1976, and the scientists who have been tracking it on a daily basis since Friday are giddy with anticipation.

"It is just a great scientific opportunity. It is really, really exciting," Marina Brozovic, a scientist and member of the JPL Goldstone radar team, told The Times.

Brozovic will be using a powerful radar telescope to figure out the exact topography of the asteroid, and get a better read on its size and composition, but what about the rest of us? Can we get in on the asteroid action?

The answer is ... kind of, but not really.

"If you aren't already a pretty serious amateur astronomer, this is not the time or the place to start," said Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine.

In an interview with The Times, MacRobert explained that despite the asteroid being fairly large (roughly a quarter- mile in diameter), and fairly close, it will still be 11th magnitude at best on Tuesday night, which means it will be 100 times dimmer than what you could see with the naked eye in a perfectly dark, wilderness sky.

In order to see YU55, you would need a 6- to 8- inch telescope, as well as experience in reading and using a detailed sky chart.

Further, the moon will be fairly bright, and the light will get in your way.

If you did know what you were doing, however, you'd find that the asteroid would look like a faint star among lots of other stars. And, as you watch it from one second to the next, you would see it gradually creeping across the sky in real time.

"Most asteroids don't do that," said MacRobert. "They stay put and you have to look away for a few minutes in order to notice any movement. But this one is close enough that you can see it move."


Massive new iceberg forming -- right now -- in Antarctica

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Image: Scientists will use giant instruments like this one from the Deep Space Network, managed by JPL for NASA, to track asteroid YU55. But will anyone else get to see it? Credit: Agence France-Presse / NASA



Massive new iceberg forming -- right now -- in Antarctica



A new iceberg is forming in western Antarctica -- set to break off from the Pine Island Glacier -- and it's a big one. When the massive chunk of ice is finally fully separated from its even more massive parent chunk of ice, it will measure about 308 square miles, scientists say, about the same size as New York City.

The formation of an iceberg is called "calving," and while it's a semi-regular event -- and likely not related to global warming -- it's still pretty cool. After all, icebergs this big calve off only about once every 10 years.

So what would it be like to see an iceberg up close in the process of calving? In an interview with The Times, Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said it would be noisy and dramatic.

"When icebergs calve off, it's actually quite a loud noise," she said. "It would definitely be something you would hear — like a loud cracking sound — and visually it would be interesting too because there would be different pieces calving off at the same time and some of them would end up turning upside down and sideways."

She added that it would be fun to see only if one were watching a significant distance from the crack.

"If you were standing in the midst of it, you would be in a great deal of danger," she said.

The people at NASA are especially excited about this iceberg because they happened to catch it in the midst of its calving.

In mid-October, a team of scientists flew to the Pine Island Glacier as part of a project called Operation IceBridge, which NASA describes as "the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown." The scientists were planning to take regularly scheduled measurements of the ice shelf in western Antarctica, when they happened to notice a giant crack in the ice.

"A lot of times when you’re in science, you don’t get a chance to catch the big stories as they happen because you’re not there at the right place at the right time," John Sonntag, instrument team lead for Operation IceBridge, said in a statement. The operation is based at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But this time we were."

The crack, which formed between the end of September and early October, is fairly dramatic. It's 18 miles long, with shoulders about 820 feet apart at the rift's widest. The crack is about 260 feet wide along most of its length.

In the video above, Sonntag explains that the process of an iceberg calving is a discrete event, and it takes place over just a few weeks. "We just happened to be here at the right window of time to capture it," he says.


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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