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Mars rover steers toward active sand dunes

The dark band near the top of this Nov. 18 image from Curiosity's navigation camera is part of the Bagnold Dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

by Stephen Clark
The dark band near the top of this Nov. 18 image from Curiosity’s navigation camera is part of the Bagnold Dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover’s next destination is a moving mound of wind-blown dark sand blanketing the base of Mount Sharp, the focal point of the Mars mission’s research, scientists said this week.

It will take a few days to reach the dunes, and rover drivers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory must be careful to avoid guiding Curiosity too far into the dune field and getting stuck.

A similar predicament ended the mission of the Spirit rover, Curiosity’s predecessor on the red planet, when it drove into a much smaller sand trap in 2009. Engineers were never able to free the rover from the sand pit, and the craft’s solar panels were pointed in the wrong direction to collect energy from the sun as it fell low on the horizon in the Martian winter.

Curiosity will not have the same pitfall as Spirit because it relies on a nuclear power source, but an entangled rover would threaten the future of the mission, which is in its fourth year.

Curiosity will be the first rover to explore an active Martian sand dune up close. The rover is heading for a stretch of sand dunes called the “Bagnold Dunes” named for Ralph Bagnold, a British military engineer who pioneered research into how winds transport sand grains in the early 20th century.

One of the dunes is as tall as a two-story building and as broad as a football field, according to a NASA press release.

Images from a sharp-eyed camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show the dunes are moving up to 1 metre (3 feet) per year, scientists said.

As of Monday, Curiosity was about 200 metres (660 feet) from the dune it is heading to first. The rover has completed further drives this week.

“The Bagnold Dunes are tantalizingly close, and this week is mostly focused on driving to the dunes. 

On Sol 1167 (overnight Tuesday, U.S. time), Curiosity drove 39 metres (128 feet), and the dunes are starting to look pretty big,” wrote Lauren Edgar, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a member of the Curiosity science team, in a blog post Wednesday.

Once Curiosity reaches the dunes, scientists plan to use the rover’s robot arm to scoop a sample of sand for delivery to the craft’s internal laboratory instruments. The rover will also use a wheel to dig into the dune to reveal its interior, according to NASA.

Curiosity is slowly trekking up the foothills of Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high peak inside Gale Crater, a basin excavated by an asteroid or comet impact.

This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, created using multiple images taken Sept. 25, shows a dark sand dune in the middle distance. The rover’s examination of dunes on the way toward higher layers of Mount Sharp will be the first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The dune campaign is a natural extension of Curiosity’s primary focus of studying ancient geological processes that shaped rocks and made the red planet habitable billions of years ago, scientists said.

“We’ve planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago,” said Bethany Ehlmann, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology and JPL.

The water flows and volcanism that carved giant channels and built towering mountains on Mars in ancient times are no more. Winds are now the most significant cause of Martian erosion, scientists said.

Wind measurements to prepare for the dune campaign have already begun. Geologists hope to learn how much of a role wind played in forming ancient sedimentary rocks like sandstone compared to the effects of water in transporting sediments.

“We will use Curiosity to learn whether the wind is actually sorting the minerals in the dunes by how the wind transports particles of different grain size,” Ehlmann said in a NASA press release.

Researchers believe dunes on Mars behave differently than they do on Earth. The surface pressure on Mars is about six-tenths of one percent the pressure on Earth, with Martian gravity three times weaker than Earth’s.

“These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth,” said Nathan Bridges from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, who leads dune campaign planning with Ehlmann. 

“The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don’t know why. 

We have models based on the lower air pressure. It takes a higher wind speed to get a particle moving. But now we’ll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations.”

Jeff Gordon comes up short in final drive of his career

Brant James, USA TODAY Sports 
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were smiles and there were tears, but there was no storybook ending for Jeff Gordon.

The 44-year-old will retire after 797 races, 93 wins and four championships. An incredible first-ballot Hall of Fame career. But there will be no fifth championship as a send-off into the next phase of his career as a broadcaster and more frequent attendee of kids’ birthday parties and soccer games.

That last page proved too fantastical to come true even in what has been a storybook finish to his career on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In finishing sixth, Gordon did not leave a champion but he left with grace.

"I’m a little disappointed; I’ll be honest," Gordon said when the race ended. "When the sun went down, we were missing a little something … just didn’t have something. ... It’s a happy, happy, good day. I wanted to win but we’re still going to celebrate.”

He knew when it was time to go, knew even a few years ago but continued to race and thrived under the urging of friends and family and his team owner Rick Hendrick. In displaying a self-awareness rare in ultra-successful athletes, he left on his own terms, and awash in respect and praise from fans and peers who surrounded his No. 24 Chevrolet before the race.

This was no John Elway ending, winning a championship and an MVP award in his final game, as the Denver Broncos quarterback did in winning Super Bowl XXXIII. But this was no Derek Jeter slow fade, not in any way.

Jeff Gordon took a final walk down the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway ahead of his last race. USA TODAY Sports

Gordon qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup on points after not earning a win in the 26-race regular season, but advanced through two rounds to force he and Hendrick to dare believe this sort of ending was possible. For those who have been close to Gordon as he rose from California-via-Indiana sprint car dervish to template for modern drivers – NASCAR, IndyCar, the lot - this dash for a final title may have been no surprise. But for the cynical outside world, where fairytale endings are quashed, this should not have happened.

It seemed more destined to happen when Gordon won for the ninth time at Martinsville Speedway in the first race of the third round of this Chase, benefitting from Matt Kenseth’s punt of race-leading Joey Logano to earn an automatic berth in the one-off final here.

But on Sunday, reality. And in this case, not a bad reality, despite the initial disappointment.

Jeff Gordon didn’t give his fans one more championship. But he gave them one more memory, and an exit worthy of his career.

Jennifer Aniston Was Replaced on Friends and Nobody Noticed Until Now

Jennifer Aniston was replaced by a stand-in during one scene on an episode of the beloved sitcom Credit: Warner Bros. Television

Eagle eyes! Jennifer Aniston was replaced by a stand-in on an episode of Friends, and it wasn’t until recently that a particular fan noticed.
Jordan D’Amico took to the website RecentlyHeard to document his stealthy observation. He explained that during a marathon viewing, he noticed that Aniston — who played Rachel Green — was replaced during one scene in the Season 9 episode entitled “The One With the Mugging.”

“Only a few minutes into the episode, an enthusiastic Rachel rushes into Monica’s apartment to tell Joey that he got an audition with the famous and fictional actor, Leonard Hayes, played by Jeff Goldblum,” D’Amico wrote. “The three friends admit to admiring the actor. Joey (played by Matthew LeBlanc) goes to sit back down. It’s at this point that… BAM!”

Lo and behold, the Emmy-winning actress, 46, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a stand-in with much darker hair and who was wearing a different colored shirt, was standing and smiling next to Joey, where Rachel was supposed to be.

This isn’t the first time a fan has noticed an error on the beloved sitcom. In another episode, Courteney Cox’s stand-in was also accidentally left in.

Friends aired on NBC from September 1994 to May 2004, spanning 10 seasons. In addition to Cox, LeBlanc, and Aniston, the show also starred Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, and Matthew Perry.

Tell Us: Did you notice the stand-in on the episode?

Billionaire's Supersonic Jet Advances With Factory Plans, Airbus

Aerion, the supersonic-jet maker backed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, plans to choose a manufacturing site during the first half of next year as it targets delivering the first faster-than-sound business aircraft in 2023.

The timeline unveiled Monday fleshes out how Aerion and partner Airbus Group SE intend to build a civilian plane capable of trans-sonic travel, a niche left vacant since the retirement of the Concorde in 2003. The team has made preliminary designs for a carbon-fiber wing structure, fuselage, landing gear and a fuel system, among other components.

“We see clear and achievable technical solutions to the design of a supersonic jet, and a realistic road map for helping Aerion proceed toward construction and flight,” Airbus Senior Vice President Ken McKenzie said in a statement.

Airbus will provide major components and Aerion will do the final assembly, the companies said in the statement released at the National Business Aviation Association trade show in Las Vegas. For the production site, Aerion needs a 100-acre (40-hectare) area near a U.S. airport with a runway at least 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) long, The plan is to break ground on the factory in 2018.

Aerion is targeting the first flight of the AS2 for 2021. The project began in 2002 and was put on hold by the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The collaboration with Airbus announced last year increases Aerion’s chances of building a private jet that can break the sound barrier. The AS2 is intended to fly efficiently at lower speeds over land because of flight restrictions related to sonic booms. Over oceans, the aircraft can accelerate to Mach 1.5, which is 1.5 times the speed of sound or about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) per hour at sea level.
Inside the jet
Inside the jet
Source: Aerion Corp.
While military jets have had supersonic capabilities for decades, the economics are daunting for civilian operations. High ticket prices helped do in the Concorde after 27 years of service, which slurped twice as much fuel as a Boeing Co. jumbo jet while carrying only one-fourth as many passengers.

In the years since Air France and British Airways parked their Concordes, would-be supersonic jet developers have turned to business aircraft in hopes of putting newer technology in a smaller airframe to attract wealthy buyers and globe-trotting chief executive officers.

Aerion has begun to choose suppliers and plans to pick an engine maker during the first half of next year, CEO Doug Nichols said in the statement. The cabin will be developed by Inairvation, a venture between Lufthansa Technik AG and F. List GmbH.

“We will proceed with an engine that allows us to meet our performance goals with the minimum changes required,” Nichols said. “Solutions are in sight with today’s engine technology.”

Court ruling gives Sandusky back his $4,900-a-month Penn State pension

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The state must restore the $4,900-a-month pension of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky that was taken away three years ago when he was sentenced to decades in prison on child molestation convictions, a court ordered Friday. 

A Commonwealth Court panel ruled unanimously that the State Employees' Retirement Board wrongly concluded Sandusky was a Penn State employee when he committed the crimes that were the basis for the pension forfeiture. 

"The board conflated the requirements that Mr. Sandusky engage in `work relating to' PSU and that he engage in that work `for' PSU," wrote Judge Dan Pellegrini. "Mr. Sandusky's performance of services that benefited PSU does not render him a PSU employee." 

Sandusky, 71, collected a $148,000 lump sum payment upon retirement in 1999 and began receiving monthly payments of $4,900. 

The board stopped those payments in October 2012 on the day he was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 children. A jury found him guilty of 45 counts for offenses that ranged from grooming and fondling to violent sexual attacks. Some of the encounters happened inside university facilities. 

The basis for the pension board's decision was a provision in the state Pension Forfeiture Act that applies to "crimes related to public office or public employment," and he was convicted of indecent assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. 

The judges said the board's characterization of Sandusky as a Penn State employee at the time those offenses occurred was erroneous because he did not maintain an employer-employee relationship with the university after 1999. 

The judges ordered the board to pay back interest and reinstated the pension retroactively, granting him about three years of makeup payments. 

Sandusky attorney Richard A. Beran said the board had taken from the Sanduskys what was rightfully theirs. 

"Perhaps a majority lacked the courage to apply the law as stated," Beran said. He called the December 2014 decision "certainly one that probably pleased the public in light of the current state of the Pennsylvania pension system, but under the law it was very clear he was entitled to it and his wife is entitled to the pension if Jerry predeceases her." 

Beran said he expected the retirement system to pursue an appeal to the state Supreme Court, but State Employees' Retirement System spokesman Jay Pagni said he could not speculate on what action might be taken. 

"We just received the order today," Pagni said. "We are reviewing it and we will present that analysis to the board." He was unsure how much Sandusky would receive in back payments and interest. 

Sandusky, housed at Greene State Prison, is pursuing an appeal of his conviction. Although Penn State employees are not state workers, university employees are allowed to participate in the state government pension system.

Ex-Raiders DE Anthony Smith found guilty of murdering three men

image by Mike Powell
Former Raiders defensive end Anthony Wayne Smith was found guilty Thursday of murdering three men, including two whose faces appeared to have been branded with a hot iron.
A Los Angeles County jury convicted the 48-year-old Smith of three counts of murder in the shooting of two brothers in 1999 and the stabbing of another man in 2001.

The jury found that all three had been kidnapped and tortured, It deadlocked on a fourth murder charge.

Smith, who retired from the NFL in 1998, could faces life in prison without the possibility of parole at his Dec. 21 sentencing.

Smith's attorney, Michael Evans, said his client maintains his innocence and will appeal the convictions.

Evidence at the trial included two identifications by witnesses, zip ties found on one of the victim's hands that came from the same production batch as ties in Smith's possession, and rope found on one body that was similar to rope also in Smith's possession, according to Deputy District Attorney Tom Trainor, who prosecuted the case

Also compelling, Trainor said, were books about killing techniques found in Smith's possession. The titles included "Kill Without Joy!" "Professional Killers: An Inside Look," and "The Outlaw's Bible."
No murder weapons were recovered, no DNA evidence was presented, and prosecutors didn't address possible motives at trial.

Defense attorney Evans said the evidence connecting Smith to the killings was insufficient and parts of the investigation were improper.

Evans said he didn't understand why the jury found Smith guilty and that he was disappointed that jurors declined to explain their reasoning afterward. The judge in the case declined to compel the jurors to explain their verdicts, Evans said.

"My client's facing life without the possibility of parole here, and I think he deserves at least the benefit of that knowledge," Evans said.

In 2012, Smith was awaiting retrial on a murder charge in the 2008 death of Maurilio Ponce when he was charged with three additional cold-case killings.

They include the 1999 killing of Kevin and Ricky Nettles. The brothers were found shot to death and their bodies dumped about eight miles apart after they were kidnapped from a Los Angeles car wash. Both had U-shaped branding burns on their cheeks, and Ricky Nettles also had numerous burns across his abdomen and feet, according to evidence presented at trial.

Smith also was convicted the June 2001 killing of Dennis Henderson, who was kidnapped in Los Angeles with another man by several gunmen. The other man was released, but Henderson was found stabbed to death in a rental car, his body covered in more than 40 non-fatal stab wounds inflicted before his throat was slashed, according to evidence presented at trial.

The jury deadlocked in the killing of Ponce, a friend of Smith. Prosecutors had argued that Smith lured Ponce to an Antelope Valley desert highway where the mechanic was beaten, stomped and shot over a business deal gone wrong.

Smith was drafted as a pass rusher 11th overall by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990. He amassed 57 1/2 sacks and 190 tackles before retiring in 1998, after the team returned to Oakland.

Fred Thompson, with larger-than-life persona, dies at 73

Fred Thomson, the former U.S. senator from Tennessee, Republican presidential candidate and “Law and Order” actor, died Sunday after a recurrence of lymphoma. He was 73.

Thompson’s family announced the news in a statement, which was published in The Tennessean.

“It is with a heavy heart and a deep sense of grief that we share the passing of our brother, husband, father, and grandfather who died peacefully in Nashville surrounded by his family,” the statement said.

It continued: "Fred once said that the experiences he had growing up in small-town Tennessee formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life.  Fred stood on principle and common sense, and had a deep love for and connection with the people across Tennessee whom he had the privilege to serve in the United States Senate.  He enjoyed a hearty laugh, a strong handshake, a good cigar, and a healthy dose of humility.  Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home."

"Fred believed that the greatness of our nation was defined by the hard work, faith, and honesty of its people.  He had an enduring belief in the exceptionalism of our country, and that America could provide the opportunity for any boy or girl, in any corner of our country, to succeed in life. "

Thompson, born in 1942, served in the senate from December 1994 to January 2003.

Following his time in the senate, Thompson played District Attorney Arthur Branch on Law & Order for five seasons, leaving the show to run for president.

Thought to be a contender during the early stages of the 2008 Republican presidential primary cycle, Thompson drew little support in many of the early states and he took a big hit when the former Southern senator failed to win South Carolina. He eventually dropped out in late January.

After leaving the race, he campaigned extensively for presidential nominee John McCain, and briefly sought support to become chairman of the Republican National Committee before quitting after a few months.

"Fred Thompson lived life to the very fullest," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. in a statement. "The first in his family  to go to college, Fred would go on to become Watergate lawyer, Senate colleague, presidential candidate, radio personality, and icon of silver and small screen alike who didn't just take on criminals as an actor but as a real-life prosecutor too."

Thompson's rise to the Senate was atypical. He had never before held public office, but he overwhelmingly won a 1994 special election for Al Gore's old Senate seat after connecting with voters. In 1996 he easily won a six-year term.

The son of a car salesman, Thompson was born in Sheffield, Ala., and grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where he was a star athlete. He was 17 when he married Sarah Lindsey. The couple, who divorced in 1985, lived in public housing for a year as newlyweds.

Thompson graduated from Memphis State University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. To pay for school, he worked at a bicycle plant, post office and motel.

Thompson went on to become a lawyer in Nashville. In 1969, he became an assistant U.S. attorney, then volunteered in 1972 to work on the re-election campaign of former Republican Sen. Howard Baker. A year later, Baker selected Thompson to be chief minority counsel on the committee investigating the Watergate scandal.

Afterward, Thompson returned to Tennessee and represented Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board who was fired in 1977 after exposing a pardon-selling scheme. Ragghianti won reinstatement and her case was made into a 1985 movie titled "Marie," based on the 1983 book "Marie: A True Story," by Peter Maas. The producers asked Thompson to play himself, which launched his acting career.

"Fred Thompson served the people of Tennessee and America with great honor and distinction," said Sen. Bob Corker, R Tenn. in a statement Sunday night. "From the courtroom to Capitol Hill to Hollywood, his larger than life personality was infectious and had a way of making all of those around him strive to be better."

Thompson once called the Senate a "remarkable place" but, like Hollywood, said there was "frustration connected with it." He said he was disappointed the Governmental Affairs Committee didn't get more time in 1997 to investigate the fund-raising practices of the 1996 presidential election.

Some thought his high-profile role as chairman of the hearings could launch a presidential bid. That did not materialize in 2000 after the hearings were dismissed as political theater.

"They ran me for a while and then they took me out of the race, and all the time I was kind of a bystander," Thompson said in 2002 about speculation over his presidential prospects two years earlier.

Just before leaving the Senate, Thompson told the Associated Press that too much time was spent on meaningless matters and partisan bickering.

"On important stuff, where the interests are really dug in on both sides, it's extremely difficult to get anything done," he said at the time.

In June 2002, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, a political and media specialist.

After retiring from politics, Thompson hosted a conservative radio talk show between 2009 and 2011 
and became a TV advertising pitchman for American Advisers Group, a reverse mortgage financial company.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.