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4 Ways to Fly Like A Bird

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Ever since early man could walk upright, we've dreamed of flying. And you can bet homo erectus wasn't imagining a cramped middle-seat next to a fussy baby on a 747; the personal-flight freedom of birds has always been the goal, however distant. Daredevils among you will be happy to learn that in recent years, humans have been drawing ever closer to achieving it -- by a variety of methods, some crazier than others -- and here are our faves.

1. The Wingsuit

Batman jokes aside, the wingsuit is pretty darn cool, and probably approximates personal flight more accurately than any of our other examples. It's also scary as all get-out: to make it work, you've got to jump off of something really high, like a cliff or an airplane. The jumper wears a special suit with fabric sewn between the arms and the body and between the legs to create an airfoil shape, not unlike that of a flying squirrel. Once adequate air speed relative to the jumper is created -- this happens more or less instantly when skydiving, but takes a little longer if BASE jumping -- air speed is converted to lift.

This is where the magic happens: the jumper's body essentially becomes a wing, and rather than falling toward the ground at around 120 mph, a good portion of that vertical momentum is converted into horizontal momentum; wingsuiters often travel 2.5 feet forward for every 1 foot down (that's called the "glide ratio,") slowing their descent to between 60-90 mph, and quieting the wind rush around them to a degree that they can hold casual conversations with one another while traveling in formation. Here's a video.

Unlike birds, however, most wingsuiters don't try to land on their feet -- you need special, expensive landing strips for that sort of thing -- they wear parachutes, deployed once they're within a few thousand feet of the ground.

2. Human-powered helicopter

Humans have been trying to power their own helicopters since at least the 50s, and seriously attempting it since 1980, when the Sikorsky Prize was introduced. To claim the prize, one has to develop and fly a human-powered helicopter at an altitude of at least 10 feet for at least 60 seconds, and though many have tried, no one's come close yet. The current record is held by a group of Japanese university students, whose HPH Yuri I flew for 19.46 seconds in 1994 at a barely-measurable altitude of 2 centimeters. Somewhat more impressive was the Da Vinci III, which got all of eight inches off the ground, though for only 7 seconds, in 1989. Here's a photo of their feat, and their contraption:
da-vinci.jpg

As you can probably tell, it's pedal-powered, and features very light construction in its body and its enormous wings. The challenge all these pioneers have faced is creating an HPH with a super-efficient power-to-weight ratio; they must create a lot of lift but not much drag, since drag consumes power. (Sounds like an exhausting pedal.)

3. The Personal Jet Wing

jet man.jpgThis is distinct from the jet back or rocket belt, which as Miss C pointed out in a blog earlier today, are fairly impractical methods of flight that use a great deal of fuel and don't allow for more than 30-60 seconds in the air. The only personal jet wing we know of was developed and built by a Swiss daredevil named Yves Rossy, and is essentially a winged modification of the jet pack designed for use during skydiving. The carbon wings unfold from Rossy's pack when he jumps, and with a hand throttle he controls the wings and four small jet engines connected to it. A former Swiss Air Force fighter pilot, Rossy in 2006 became the first person to fly horizontally for more than six minutes with just a pair of wings strapped to his back. Check out this video of one of his flights:

4. The Backpack Helicopter

pentecost_strapon.jpgMilitary contractors in the US, Britain and the Soviet Union have been trying to develop a backpack helicopter since the 1940s, with mixed results. The first breakthrough of any note was the US military's Hoppycopter in 1945, which didn't actually fly -- it hopped, hence the name. (Hoppycopter pictured at right.) The project eventually faded away, but recently there's been a resurgence of interest in the personal copter. The most successful (and accessible) one we've heard about is Japan's GEN H-4, which has a seat, landing gear, and supposedly requires only two hours' training to use. Here are some specs, courtesy Newlaunches, and a video:

Unlike traditional helicopters it has 2 sets of coaxial, contra-rotating rotors (KA-52 Hokum for all you military buffs) which eliminates the need of a tail rotor for balancing. The rotors have a length of only 4 meters (118 inches) so no parking problems too. It is powered by 4 lightweight 125 cc 2 cylinder engines which use standard gasoline. The GEN H-4 can fly to a maximum altitude of 1000 meters at a top speed of 90 km/hr (59 mph) for up to 30 minutes.

This one's definitely on my Christmas list.

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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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