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

Asteroid YU55 will come closer to Earth than we are to the moon
Get psyched, people of Earth: There's an asteroid headed our way.

On Tuesday, the asteroid known as YU55 will come closer to our planet than any other asteroid has come since 1976.

Of course, when it comes to outer space, "close" is a relative word. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena say YU55 will come within 201,700 miles of Earth and no closer. That's nearer than we are to the moon, but far enough away to eliminate the possibility of a collision.

"We know exactly where it is going to be, and we don't have any chance of impact for the following hundred years," Marina Brozovic, a scientist and member of the JPL Goldstone radar team, told The Times. Her team plans to track the asteroid beginning Friday.

"It is just a great scientific opportunity. It is really, really exciting."

Asteroids are basically space rocks -- debris created when the solar system was formed. YU55 is a moderate-size asteroid -- about 1,300 feet wide, or about the width of four football fields stretched end to end. Radar images taken in 2010 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico revealed that it appears to be spherical in shape and rotates in about 18 hours.

That same year, an optical telescope revealed the rock to be a C-class asteroid, meaning it's probably darker than charcoal and contains a lot of carbon.

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, said 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," Brozovic said. 

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 in an interview with The Times. "It's not very often that something this good gets this close."

ALSO:

15-foot python devours 76-pound deer: Is that normal?

Congressional legislation aimed at protecting circus animals

Imperial woodpecker -- largest that ever lived -- caught on film

-- Deborah Netburn

Image: A radar image of asteroid YU55 was generated from data compiled in April 2010 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Credit: NASA /Cornell University / Arecibo Observatory


After freak snowstorm, East Coast prepares for ... balmy weather?

Flip_flop_weather
Talk about flip-flopping.

Only days after a freak pre-winter storm blanketed the Northeast in snow, Accuweather.com is predicting a serious — and well deserved — warm-up for the eastern half of the country.

Beginning Sunday and continuing through Wednesday, temperatures could climb into the 80s in the South and into the 60s and 70s in the Midwest and Northeast, according to the weather-forecasting service.

In a news release, AccuWeather.com describes the abrupt change in temperature as a "weather pattern flip," attributing the temperature fluctuation to a northward bulge in the jet stream combined with an increase in high pressure at the surface.

In an interview with The Times, meteorologist Brian Edwards explained that high pressure at the surface means you have sinking air -- "and that spells a lot of sunshine and clear conditions," he said.

There is a chance this warm spell could be thwarted by low clouds originating in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as local breezes coming off large bodies of water. But otherwise, those on the East Coast and even into the Midwest can put away their snow boots for a few days and pull out the jean jackets to enjoy some of what will most likely be the last warmish weather of the year.

(Those of us in Southern California will just keep our mouths shut.)

And just to recap what folks in the Northeast have been through already: The unusual late-October storm dumped as much as 32 inches of snow onto some parts of New England. The storm was particularly damaging because the heavy, wet snow fell on trees that had not yet lost all their leaves, causing branches to break off and thousands of power lines to go down.

At the peak of the outage, 2.4 million people in the region were without power. School was canceled and airports were closed. Authorities have blamed the storm for 25 deaths at last count.

Also, the storm forced the cancellation of Halloween trick-or-treating in some areas.

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New Jersey residents say safest city is ... New York

--Deborah Netburn

Image: Jim Nisula of Doylestown, Pa., shovels snow and ice Sunday after a rare pre-winter snowstorm plowed through the area. Credit: William Thomas Cain /Getty Images


Wednesday is 11022011, a very rare eight-digit palindrome day

Palindrome_day

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Happy Palindrome Day, everyone!

You probably woke up knowing it was Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011, but to Aziz Inan (pictured above), a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Portland, today's date looks more like this: 11022011.

That makes it a very rare, eight-digit palindrome day.

Just how rare is an eight-digit palindrome day? In an interview with The Times, Inan, who has taken on the discovery of palindrome dates as a sort of hobby, explained that there will only be 12 eight-digit palindrome days this entire century.

In addition to the automatic awesomeness of a date being a palindrome,  Inan points out that Wednesday's date is extra special because it is 1001 x 11 x 1001, or the product of a mathematical expression in which both sides are almost mirror images of one another.

In an email to the Los Angeles Times, he wrote: "I know both 11-1-11 (which can also be interpreted as 1-11-11) and 11-11-11 dates to occur this month are very interesting dates as well since they won't repeat again until the next century, but 11022011 won't happen again in ALL four-digit years!!"

Inan has found all kinds of crazy number patterns in Wednesday's date. If you're so inclined, you can read more about it in an article he wrote for The Beacon, the student newspaper of the University of Portland. One thing he didn't write about was how he intends to celebrate such an important date.

"In one of my classes, I asked my students to make palindrome triangle paper hats and decorate them with Wednesday's date," he said. "And then I'm going to have a photographer come and take a picture of me with all my students, and hopefully we will have a photograph that has some type of symmetry."

"This is so much fun," Inan added. "Engineering can get pretty boring because you talk about equations, but when I say, 'Do you know today is a special date?' it gets a lot of attention. It helps me change the subject for a few minutes and bring the students back from their dream or their hibernating."

So, get out the paper hats, and enjoy 11022011!

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: Professor Aziz Inan created this palindrome image (with his face in the center) in honor of 11022011, a very rare eight-digit palindrome date. Credit: Courtesy of Aziz Inan.

[For the Record, 11:37 a.m., Nov. 2: An earlier version of this story had Inan's last name misspelled.]


15-foot python devours 76-pound deer: Is that normal?

Python
Graphic, yet riveting, images of a Burmese python in the Florida Everglades with a white-tailed deer still visible in its stomach have been circulating on the Internet. And when we say graphic, we mean graphic.

In the most disturbing picturethe state officials who killed the python have slit the snake open to reveal the 76-pound deer, coated in the snake's digestive juices. A similarly graphic image was taken in 2005 — also in the Everglades — of a decomposing python that apparently died when it tried to eat an alligator, bursting itself. Both animals were dead in the photographs.

All this got us wondering, just what the heck is going on with these pythons in the Everglades?

To find out, we got Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, on the phone. As it turns out, Mazzotti doubles as a python hunter.

Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

What is the story with those crazy pictures of a python that ate a deer, and that other one of the python that tried to eat an alligator? Is that normal in the Everglades?

I think it is fair to say there is nothing normal about Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. Let's just start with that.

But is what we witnessed a common event? No. That snake that ate the white-tailed deer was 15 feet and 150 pounds. We have found large snakes before, but the vast percentage of snakes we find are less than 8 feet. So finding a snake that large is very unusual.

That is the second time we have found evidence of a white-tailed deer in a snake's stomach. Last time we found hooves of a fawn that had not been digested.

How did Burmese pythons get into the Everglades in the first place?

This particular subspecies is — as its name suggests — from Burma and Southeast Asia. Burmese pythons have been imported very heavily by the pet trade. Now, how they were released in Florida is a matter of some debate: whether it was individuals releasing unwanted pets in the park, or whether they escaped from a pet facility during Hurricane Andrew.

Either way, the origins of the animals are from the pet trade.

So when did they get established there and how many do you think there are?

In the early part of the millennium -- around 2002, 2003, 2004 -- that's when there was clear evidence they were established because hatchlings were found. But it is probable they were established before that.

I'm not going to give you a population estimate because we can't. But since we started removing pythons, we've pulled 1,750 pythons from the Everglades and we probably didn't catch even 10% of them.

Does the python population in the Everglades pose a danger to humans?

I thought Scott Hardin of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission put it best. He said something like, "I won't tell you there's zero danger, but the likelihood that anyone is going to encounter a Burmese python, where the animal will do to a person what it did to the deer, that is not going to happen."

I'm more worried about what happens if someone in a Ford pickup hits a python going 80 miles an hour on a highway.

You say you've killed pythons. How does a person go about doing that?

Very carefully. We employ a number of techniques, but the single most common way is we go driving the roads at night when they are most active and then we chase them down and jump them and try to capture them before they bite.

Another thing we do is outfit male pythons with radio transmitters and then they do what boys are wont to do — they find girl pythons. That's how we locate breeding females.

ALSO:

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Imperial woodpecker -- largest that ever lived -- caught on film

New York man, 80, swallowed by sinkhole outside his front door

--Deborah Netburn

Image: A 15-foot-long Burmese python was captured and killed in the Everglades National Park in Florida. The animal, one of the largest ever found in South Florida, had a 76-pound deer in its stomach. Credit: Associated Press / South Florida Water Management District


Lego Man artist revealed -- probably

Lego_manHours after an 8-foot-tall Lego Man statue mysteriously washed up on the shores of Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota last week, Internet detectives were busy trying to identify the artist behind the curious ... event.

Although the Lego Man appeared out of the blue, he did provide some clues as to his origins. The name "Ego Leonard" was inscribed on the back of his shirt, and a quick Google search revealed that Ego Leonard had a website, which appeared to be written in Dutch with some English translation.

Conclusion? A Dutch artist was behind the statue.

The next question, of course — which one?

Tim Yeager, editor and founder of Sarasota Visual Art, an online publication that covers the art scene in Sarasota, thinks he knows the answer. In an article published on his site last week, he points the finger at the Dutch guerrilla artist Leon Keer.

"I don’t have anything specifically from Keer that says, 'OK, it's me,' but it's all but confirmed," Yeager said in an interview with The Times.

Yeager began his online detective work just hours after Ego Leonard was discovered. "I was like, 'Stuff like this doesn't happen in Sarasota,'" he said. "I knew it had to be a promo thing. It's too different."

Yeager lays out his case clearly in a blog post called "Origin of Ego, the Artist behind the Lego Man."

Not long after the Lego Man was discovered, Yeager quickly determined that the URL for Ego Leonard's website is registered under Keer's personal email address. He also discovered that Leon Keer is friends with Ego Leonard on Facebook. Leon Keer is Dutch. And the artist happens to be in Sarasota this week participating in the city's annual chalk festival.

Oh, and perhaps the most conclusive evidence? The sketch that Keer and his team of fellow Dutch artists submitted to the art festival was a take on the Terracotta Army discovered in the Shaanxi province of China, except that the soldiers look like Lego Men.

Keer himself is evasive about his relationship with Ego Leonard. He has described Ego Leonard as a friend; and a member of his art team was seen wearing a Free Ego Leonard T-shirt. But when a reporter from the Herald Tribune headed down to the street festival where Keer was laying out a grid for his 30x40 3D piece, the artist dismissed his question about whether he was the guy behind the Lego Man.

“It's more beautiful,” he said, “if it's like telling the story of Ego Leonard.”

Perhaps.

In any case, the story of Ego Leonard is currently on pause. The statue is in the custody of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, where officials say he is being treated just like other any other found property.

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8-foot-tall Lego Man washes up on Florida beach

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--Deborah Netburn

Photo: Internet detectives believe they have found the artist behind the mysterious Lego Man. Credit: Sarasota County Sheriff's Office


Passenger rights group blames airport for stranding JetBlue planes

  Jetblue

Who's to blame for Saturday's stranding of about 700 JetBlue passengers on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn.?

According to FlyersRights.org, a consumer group for airline passengers, the answer is not the airline but rather the airport.

In a statement Monday, the group's founder and executive director, Kate Hanni, said, "We believe that, had there been a mandate for the airport to have a plan, they would have been more aggressive about their situational awareness and getting folks off of those planes."

Later she said, "Time after time, airports faced with other-than-normal situations fail to respond, and the air-traveling public pays for it."

JetBlue passengers on six planes were stuck at Bradley International Airport after a snowstorm on the East Coast forced about 23 flights to be diverted to the airport.

Andrew Carter, a sports reporter who happened to be on one of the stranded JetBlue planes, reported the unpleasant details via cellphone to the South Florida Sun Sentinel: Food and water were scarce. The bathrooms were clogged and disgusting. And every 45 minutes or so, the power would go off, freaking out distressed passengers even more.

Media reports said some passengers were stuck on the tarmac for seven hours before they were finally allowed to get off, although neither JetBlue, American Airlines (which also had a plane sitting on the tarmac) nor Bradley International Airport would confirm that.

In her statement, Hanni suggested that U.S. airports look to the European Union for ideas on contingency plans. She said European Union airports often had buses to help remove stranded passengers.

In a statement to The Times, a spokesperson for Bradley International Airport said: "Bradley attempted to accommodate approximately 1,000 to 1,500 passengers who were stranded here Saturday night into Sunday with cots, blankets, food and water. The airport remained open throughout the storm.  We have no further comment at this time, pending further investigation."

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-- Deborah Netburn

Photo: JetBlue planes in 2003. Credit: Stephen Chernin /Getty Images


Imperial woodpecker -- largest that ever lived -- caught on film

The footage is old and the camera work is shaky. But as soon as ornithologist Martjan Lammertink saw the 85-second, 16-mm film, he knew he'd found it: the only photographic evidence of the Imperial woodpecker — the largest woodpecker that ever lived.

Some have called the 2-foot-tall bird "majestic." Others have described it as "near-mythical." But the guy who shot the film — dentist and amateur ornithologist William Rhein — said it was more like "a great big turkey flying in front of me."

"You can even see his toupee there," he says in a voiceover of some of the footage.

Rhein took the film in 1956 from the back of a mule while camping in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Durango, Mexico. The footage might never have come to light if Lammertink hadn't come across a reference to the film in a letter Rhein wrote to a fellow ornithologist. Lammertink was determined to track down Rhein and this invaluable footage.

In 1997, after years of trying, he finally did. And it was just in the nick of time. Rhein died in 1999.

Despite the poor quality of the film, Lammertink was able to identify the bird as an adult female imperial woodpecker. The footage shows the bird foraging, hitching up trees and then flying away — the white feathers on its wingtips clearly visible.

Now, in the terrific article "Return to Durango," published recently on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, Tim Gallagher documents both how Lammertink initially found the footage and his journey back to the site where it was taken.

In 2010, Gallagher and Lammertink set out on an expedition in conjunction with members of the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste to try to find the film site and, ideally, evidence that the Imperial woodpecker might still be alive.

There is no happy ending here. Although some of the people with whom the research team spoke said there had been sightings of the bird through the early '90s, the scientists ultimately concluded that the imperial woodpecker became extinct in the '50s.

"One man told us the grim story of a forester in the early 1950s who had encouraged the local people to kill imperial woodpeckers because he believed they were destroying valuable timber," Gallagher writes. "He even supplied the villagers with poison to smear on the birds’ foraging trees. It’s easy to imagine these poisoned trees attracting imperial woodpeckers from miles around — even from the remote and barely accessible mesas we were exploring — and killing them."

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-- Deborah Netburn


Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes boy -- if he thinks he's a girl

Montoya
What does it take for an anatomical boy to be enough of a girl to join the Girl Scouts?

The question came up recently when 7-year-old Bobby Montoya -- a long-haired, Bratz-loving, biological boy -- asked his mother to sign him up for a Girl Scout troop near his Colorado home.

The troop leader said no. So Bobby's mom, Felisha Archuleta, went to the media -- telling a local television station that her son has loved "girl stuff" since he was 2, and that the troop leader's decision to reject him had left him devastated.

"I said, 'What's the big deal?' and she says, 'It doesn't matter how he looks, he has boy parts; he can't be a Girl Scout,' "Archuleta told Colorado's Channel 9 News.

But in fact, Girl Scouts of Colorado does allow people with boy parts to join its troops, as long as the child is truly transgendered -- meaning the child identifies as a girl, and the family identifies the child as a girl.

"We feel it is important to include all girls, so when a family says, 'This is my daughter and she wants to be a Girl Scout,' we are not going to question that," Rachelle Trujillo, vice president of communications for Girl Scouts of Colorado told The Times.

"The troop leader in this case was confused because the mom was confused," Trujillo said. "She did not say, 'This is my daughter.' She said, 'This is my son and he wants to be in Girl Scouts,' and we don't accept boys in Girl Scouts."

Trujillo said the Girl Scouts of Colorado has only started encountering transgendered children asking to join Girl Scouts in the last three or four years. Since then, she said, her office hears about one or two such cases a year.

"It's still a very small population," she said. Girl Scouts of Colorado has more than 30,000 girls.

As of Friday morning, Trujillo said the troop leader was still waiting to hear back from Archuleta about whether she wants to sign Bobby up.

"If she does want Bobby to join, they need to make a decision, that as a family, that we are going to entirely have her live her life as a girl," Trujillo said. "If they do so, we are happy to have her as a member."

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--Deborah Netburn

Image: Seven-year-old Bobby Montoya plays with a favorite toy while mother Felisha Archuleta looks on in this still from a video by Colorado's Channel 9 News.


Why Bernie and Ruth Madoff are back in the news

Madoffs
Convicted financier Bernie Madoff and his wife, Ruth Madoff, are suddenly back at the top of the news cycle. This time, it's not because of what they've done, but rather what they're saying.

In an interview with Barbara Walters — not caught on camera or photographed because of prison rules — Bernie Madoff said he's happier in prison than he was on the outside, according to a report on ABC News.

He was sentencedin 2009 to 150 years in prison for an enormous Ponzi scheme estimated to have cost investors at least $13 billion in losses. 

"I feel safer here than outside," Madoff told Walters. "Days go by. I have people to talk to and no decisions to make.... I know that I will die in prison. I lived the last 20 years of my life in fear. Now I have no fear -- nothing to think about because I'm no longer in control of my own life."

He said he's tormented by what he has done to his family — his older son committed suicide, his wife has cut off communication with him — but his thoughts toward his former clients seem more nuanced.

"I understand why clients hate me," he said. "The gravy train is over. I can live with that."

"The average person thinks I robbed widows and orphans," he added. "I made wealthy people wealthier."

As for Ruth Madoff, earlier this week "60 Minutes" let it be known that she told reporter Morley Safer that she and her husband had attempted suicide soon after the magnitude of Bernie Madoff's crimes became clear.

In a teaser clip on the "60 Minutes" website, a wan-looking Ruth tells Safer about the attempt.

"I don't know whose idea it was, but we decided to kill ourselves because it was so horrendous what was happening. We had terrible phone calls, hate mail, just beyond anything -- and I said I can't, I just can't go on anymore," she says in the video. "That's when I packed up some things to send to my sons and my grandchildren. I mailed them Christmas Eve, that added to the depression. I took pills and woke up the next day. It was very impulsive and I'm glad we woke up."

Almost three years after Madoff's Ponzi scheme was revealed, it might be easy to forget amid the personal drama just how angry the public was at the time.

Here's a reminder, from an L.A. Times article about the victims -- many of whom lost their life savings:

"I just want him to rot in jail for the rest of his life," said Richard Shapiro, 55, of Hidden Hills, a commercial real estate investor who was watching the news on television. "He's a thief and he's ruined people's lives."

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Ruth Madoff chooses son over husband, Bernie

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Cannon pulled from pirate Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge

--Deborah Netburn

Left photo: Bernie Madoff leaves federal court in New York in 2009. Credit: Stuart Ramson / Associated Press. Right image: Ruth Madoff is shown in a video of her conversation with "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer. Credit: "60 Minutes."


Cannon pulled from pirate Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge

Blackbeard
Pirate freaks, rejoice: After spending 300 years beneath the sea, a 13th cannon was pulled from the wreckage of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, on Wednesday.

Whether the cannon contains a cannonball has yet to be determined. Four of the previous 12 cannons were  still loaded when hauled out of the Atlantic.

"We were all so excited," Claire Aubel, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Maritime Museums, told The Times. She was there Wednesday morning when the crust-covered cannon was pulled dripping out of the water a couple of miles south of Ft. Macon in North Carolina. "The last people to see this thing were pirates," she said.

Fay Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, told The Times that, when the cannon rose from the water, a cheer went out from the crowd of about 200 that had gathered.

"It was fantastic," she said.

The cannon is about 8 feet long and weighs about 2 tons. Sarah Watkins-Kinney, the director of the Queen Anne's Revenge conservation lab, told The Times that although it resembles the other 12 cannons previously pulled from the site, each has its own peculiarities.

Also, there's the adventure of figuring out what might be caught up in the concretion, a cement-like substance that coats the cannon.

"It's got a bunch of things stuck on the outside, so it will be interesting to see what it is," she said.

In the past, researchers have found bits of rope, gun flints and other pieces of ship life on the cannons pulled from the site.

The Queen Anne's Revenge started its life as La Concorde, a French slave ship that Blackbeard and his band captured and made the flagship of their small fleet in 1717. The ship sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1718.

Blackbeard did not go down with his ship, but he was killed six months later in a bloody battle on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Legend has it, that after being beheaded, Blackbeard went to sea and swam around his ship nine times.

"But that's folklore, not fact," Watkins-Kinney said.

ALSO:

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: One of Blackbeard's cannons is hoisted out of the sea  Wednesday morning. Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.


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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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