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    A Kashmiri mechanic repairs electric generators used during power outages in Srinagar, India on Wednesday. (AP)

    NEW DELHI (AP) - Factories and workshops across India were up and running Wednesday after major electrical grid collapses caused the world's two worst power blackouts.

    An estimated 620 million people lost state-provided electricity when India's northern, eastern and northeastern grids failed Tuesday afternoon. It followed Monday's failure of the northern grid, which left 370 million people powerless.

    Electricity workers struggled throughout the day Tuesday to return power to the 20 affected states, restoring most of the system within hours of the failure. India's new Power Minister Veerappa Moily told reporters that by Wednesday morning power had been fully restored across the country.

    Moily, who took over the top power ministry position Tuesday, said an investigation had begun and he did not want to point fingers or speculate about the cause.

    Other officials said the blackout might have been the result of states drawing too much power from the grid. Some analysts dismissed that explanation, saying if that was the cause, such collapses would happen all the time.

    The top elected official from Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, denied that excess power drawn by his state had put the northern grid under stress.

    "Uttar Pradesh has no role in the grid failure. My state is not drawing more electricity than its allotted quota," Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav told reporters.

    Moily warned states to stick to a disciplined withdrawal of power. "If they overdraw, this is the result. They can see for themselves. The entire grid will go black."

    The Confederation of Indian Industry said the two outages cost business hundreds of millions of dollars, though they did not affect the financial center of Mumbai and the global outsourcing powerhouses of Bangalore and Hyderabad in the south.

    Like many, the group demanded the widespread reform of India's power sector, which has been unable to keep up with the soaring demand for electricity as the economy has expanded and Indians grow more affluent and energy hungry.

    The power minister cautioned that the power crisis has no quick solution, saying the government was looking at immediate and longer-term measures to address power scarcity.

    Part of the problem is that India relies on coal for more than half its power generation and the coal supply is controlled by a state near-monopoly that is widely considered a shambles.

    A recent survey showed nearly all the coal-fueled plants had less than seven days of coal stock, a critical level, and many of the country's power plants were running below capacity, according to Samiran Chakraborty, head of research at Standard Chartered, a financial services company. Government bureaucracy has made it difficult to bring more plants online.

    In addition, vast amounts of power bleeds out of India's antiquated distribution system or is pirated through unauthorized wiring. Farmers, with a guarantee of free electricity that is driving many state electric boards to bankruptcy, have no incentive to conserve energy.

    The power deficit was worsened this year by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation, spurred farmers to use pumps to irrigate their fields long after the rains would normally have come, and kept temperatures higher, keeping air conditioners and fans running longer.

    The government faced criticism for promoting Sushil Kumar Shinde from power minister to home minister in the middle of the day Tuesday, even as the outages continued. The promotion had been planned as part of a Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

    The Times of India newspaper said moving Shinde "is like changing the captain of the Titanic when it's reeling after hitting a giant iceberg."

    Shinde, whatever his blame for the outage might be, at least would have more experience to deal with the fallout than a brand new minister, the paper said in a front-page editorial.

    Both Indian outages were the world's largest by far. The next closest was a 2005 blackout that affected 100 million people in Indonesia.

     

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    Crop circles in a wheat field owned by Greg and Cindy Geib near Wilbur, Wash. (AP Photo/The Wilbur Register, Courtney Ruiz)

    SEATTLE (AP) - Mysterious crop circles have appeared in an eastern Washington wheat field - not far from the nation's largest hydropower producer - but area farmers preparing for the summer's harvest find the distraction more amusing than alarming.

    "You can't do anything other than laugh about it," said Cindy Geib, who owns the field along with her husband, Greg. "You just kind of roll with the theory it's aliens and you're special because aliens chose your spot."

    Friends called the Geibs on July 24 when the pattern of flattened wheat was spotted off Highway 174, about five miles north of the town of Wilbur. The field is about 10 miles south of the Grand Coulee dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation says is the largest hydropower producer in the United States.

    The circles resemble a four-leaf clover and remind Cindy Geib of Mickey Mouse ears. The design knocked down about an acre of their wheat. Some of it could be salvaged by combines when the harvest starts in a week or two, she said, but some will be lost.

    "Of course, we don't have alien insurance," she said.

    Crop circles have been a worldwide phenomenon for decades, and this is not the first one in Lincoln County. Similar circular patterns were left in crops in the Wilbur area in 2010 and in 2008 or 2009, Geib said.

    Lynne Brougher, public affairs officer for the Grand Coulee dam, hadn't heard about the latest crop circles but said the previous one was no cause for alarm.

    "It seemed to be highly unusual," Brougher said. "As I recall from a couple of years ago, there was no good explanation of how they got there."

    Still, she added, "it wasn't a concern."

    The latest crop circle was first reported Tuesday by Spokane station KHQ-TV (http://is.gd/57FTpy ). There were no signs that anyone walked into the field.

    "We're trying to figure out how they got out there without breaking any of the wheat. It's hard to walk through the crunchy wheat and not knock it down," Geib said. "At the same time, it's hard to think it's aliens. It's a bizarre thing to wrap your brain around."

    Geib's daughter-in-law, Kelly Geib of Wilbur, says the crop circle has given the family something to ponder and chuckle about.

    "The kids all like to say the aliens have come, and we're happy to indulge them," she said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Weather balloon or UFO?

     

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    Facebook: Daniel Botelho

    The Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, may look like a creature from outer space, but the gentle giants actually reside in the Pacific. This summer, Mola molas have been spotted in higher-than-average numbers off the coast of California, but one fish has been getting all the attention lately.

    According to GrindTV, photojournalist Daniel Botelho snapped this shot in July 2010 while searching for blue whales. Botelho stumbled upon the pic again last week and put it up on his Facebook page. The social network went wild for the fish, and a week later the photo has over 2,000 shares and 3,000 likes.

    Although sunfish don't appear incredibly aerodynamic, they're surprisingly quick and difficult to photograph. The photographer pictured next to the fish in the photo helps show off the creature's stunning size: Sunfish can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds.

    Considering its unique look, one can hardly be surprised the fish has garnered a few fans.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Blue Whales Put on a Rare Show

     

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    MIAMI (AP) - Forecasters say a tropical depression has formed off the Windward Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and storm watches have been issued for the islands of Barbados, Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia among other places.

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wednesday afternoon that maximum sustained winds are at 35 mph (55 kph) and the storm is moving to the west-northwest at 18 mph (29 kph).

    Forecasters say the storm is expected to strengthen and be near the Windward Islands on Friday. It could become a tropical storm later Wednesday or Thursday.

    Storm watches also are out for the Grenadines, St. Vincent and Guadeloupe.

     

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    Aug. 1, 2012

    This "fire rainbow," or iridescent cloud, was captured in a photo taken Tuesday over South Florida. (Ken Rotberg/WPTV)

    So-called "fire rainbows" are neither on fire nor are they rainbows, but they sure are stunning.

    They are technically known as iridescent clouds, a relatively rare phenomenon caused by clouds of water droplets of nearly uniform size, according to a release by NASA. These clouds diffract, or bend, light in a similar manner, which separates out light into different wavelengths, or colors.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: Weirdo Weather: 7 Rare Weather Events

    That makes them similar to rainbow-colored glories, which are also formed by diffraction, and also produce an oscillating pattern of colors ranging from blue to green to red to purple and back to blue again.

    Although iridescent clouds have rainbow-like colors, the way light is scattered to produce them is slightly different. Rainbows are formed by refraction and reflection. When light is refracted, it is bent by passing through mediums of different densities, such as water or a prism. Reflected light bounces off a surface at an angle equal to the angle it hit the surface at. Diffraction, though, involves light waves being scattered into a ring-like pattern.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: Video: Double Rainbow, Now With Lightning!

    As with other iridescent objects, like peacock feathers, the color changes depending upon one's position relative to the sun and the object.

    Iridescence usually occurs in newly formed clouds. That appears to be the case here as well. According to the Weather Channel, these are pileus clouds caused by a fast-growing thunderstorm that shoved air into the upper atmosphere through a layer of moisture. This created a fog-like cloud that looks like a glowing dome atop the thunderstorm.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: Quadruple Rainbow Photographed for First Time

    Iridescent clouds are not to be confused with circumhorizontal arcs, which form bands of color parallel to the horizon.

    The phenomenon was captured in a photo taken on Tuesday (July 31) in the clouds over South Florida.

    Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


    RELATED ON SKYE: Breathtaking Rainbows from Around the World

     

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    Aug. 1, 2012

    Tornado damage in Henryville, Ind., after a tornado swept through the small community on March 2, 2012. There have been fewer tornadoes this year than most. (Michael Raphael/FEMA)

    There were only 24 tornadoes throughout the United States last month, according to preliminary data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by far the fewest for a July since records began in the 1950s. This shatters the record low of 42 tornadoes set in July 1960.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: Storm Chasing Scientists

    Why so few twisters? "The one-word answer is drought," said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and science writer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Fewer rainstorms means fewer chances for tornadoes, which form only in thunderstorms. "If you don't have thunderstorms, you can't get a tornado," Henson told OurAmazingPlanet.

    Record drought has gripped much of the country, with nearly two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states in some stage of drought. Part of the reason for the drought - and hence the lack of tornado-producing storms - is the presence of a high-pressure "heat dome" over much of the country.

    The year started out differently, with unusually high tornado activity. In March, for example, there were 151 tornadoes, well above average, Henson said. These deadly storms made up the first billion-dollar disaster of the year.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: The Top 5 Deadliest Tornado Years in U.S. History

    But tornadoes grew scarcer as drought started to take hold in mid- to late April. From May through July, there were 231 tornadoes, the fewest in this span since high-quality record-keeping began in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.


    NOAA

    In many years, a large percentage of tornadoes occur on a handful of days when conditions are right, such as strong upper-level winds and unstable air near the ground. This year was no different, with 153 twisters - a third of the year's current total - occurring on just three days: Feb. 29, March 2 and April 14. [Infographic: Tornado! How, When & Where Twisters Form]

    A significantly greater number of tornadoes can be recorded now than in decades past due to the increased number of storm chasers and the ease of sharing photos or video of twisters, which makes this July's record all the more impressive. Researchers have created "inflation-adjusted" stats that reflect how many tornadoes likely occurred in years past.

    Related on Our Amazing Planet: The Tornado Damage Scale In Images

    After 2012, the most tornado-starved Julys were in 2002, 2006 and 2007, according to the adjusted data. The Julys of 2002, 2006 and 2012 also were among the nation's warmest months in the last century, Henson said. When a summer month is unusually hot, the polar jet stream generally has been pushed well to the north by domes of high pressure. That leaves less upper-level energy to fuel tornado-creating thunderstorms. Non-tornadic storms (which rely less on wind shear and more on heat and moisture) may still pop up, assuming drought hasn't taken hold, Henson said.

    With the jet stream pushed to the north, Canada had more tornadoes than the United States last month, which is very unusual, Henson said.

    Reach Douglas Main at dmain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


    RELATED ON SKYE: Dramatic Photos of America's Drought

     

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    The current path of the tropical depression. (NOAA)

    MIAMI (AP) - Forecasters say a tropical depression is speeding toward a chain of small, popular vacation islands in the Caribbean Sea.

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Thursday the system formed in the Atlantic Ocean and is headed west toward the Caribbean. Tropical storm watches are in effect for the islands of Barbados, Dominica and St. Lucia.

    The depression's maximum sustained winds are at 35 mph (55 kph) and the storm is moving to the west at 21 mph (34 kph).

    Forecasters say the storm is expected to strengthen. Its general track takes it toward Jamaica, though forecasters warn that the path of a tropical system can be unpredictable.
    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    The widespread drought has greatly affected corn crops across the nation. (AP)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - Nearly 220 counties in a dozen drought-stricken states were added Wednesday to the U.S. government's list of natural disaster areas as the nation's agriculture chief unveiled new help for frustrated, cash-strapped farmers and ranchers grappling with extreme dryness and heat.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's addition of the 218 counties means that more than half of all U.S. counties - 1,584 in 32 states - have been designated primary disaster areas this growing season, the vast majority of them mired in a drought that's considered the worst in decades.

    Counties in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming were included in Wednesday's announcement. The USDA uses the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor to help decide which counties to deem disaster areas, which makes farmers and ranchers eligible for federal aid, including low-interest emergency loans.

    To help ease the burden on the nation's farms, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday opened up 3.8 million acres of conservation land for ranchers to use for haying and grazing. Under that conservation program, farmers have been paid to take land out of production to ward against erosion and create wildlife habitat.

    "The assistance announced today will help U.S. livestock producers dealing with climbing feed prices, critical shortages of hay and deteriorating pasturelands," Vilsack said.

    Vilsack also said crop insurers have agreed to provide farmers facing cash-flow issues a penalty-free, 30-day grace period on premiums in 2012.

    As of this week, nearly half of the nation's corn crop was rated poor to very poor, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. About 37 percent of the U.S. soybeans were lumped into that category, while nearly three-quarters of U.S. cattle acreage is in drought-affected areas, the survey showed.

    The potential financial fallout in the nation's midsection appears to be intensifying. The latest weekly Mid-America Business Conditions Index, released Wednesday, showed that the ongoing drought and global economic turmoil is hurting business in nine Midwest and Plains states, boosting worries about the prospect of another recession, according to the report.

    Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the index, said the drought will hurt farm income while the strengthening dollar hinders exports, meaning two of the most important positive factors in the region's economy are being undermined.

    The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.


    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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    A security camera captured the moment a man in Taipei, Taiwan, was swallowed by a huge sinkhole that suddenly opened up. The unidentified man reportedly died in the fall.

    The island has been hit hard by recently downgraded Typhoon Saola. The storm has dropped as much as five feet of rain, causing widespread flooding and leaving five people dead.

     

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    People in the U.S. are most interested in sex during the early summer, as well as in December and January, according to a new study.

    Researchers analyzed the keywords that people in the U.S. used in Google searches over four years, and found that every year, searches for keywords related to finding dates, prostitutes and pornography showed distinct peaks during June and July, and again during the winter.

    "Wherever we looked within these three different areas - whether it was searches for 'eHarmony,' or for 'brothel' - there was this exact same pattern," said study researcher Patrick Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The timing of the peaks was remarkably consistent from year to year, he said.

    Exactly why these two peaks in sexual interest occur isn't completely clear, Markey said, but the findings suggest they are linked to a general increase in the amount of time that people spend being around other people.

    Previous studies of birth records have also suggested these peaks in sexual activity, especially in December, and researchers have speculated that one reason for this is a natural tendency toward giving birth in the late summer or early fall.

    "But if that was the only reason, there'd be no reason to watch porn or find a prostitute," Markey said. "It's more like, something about being around more people, or being around people more often, that makes us more interested in sexual activity," he said. The summer time tends to bring a flurry of social activities, and December can bring holiday gatherings and shopping crowds.

    Yearly variations in sperm quality and hormonal fluctuations have also been proposed as explanations, according to the study.

    Along with studies of birth records, research into STD diagnosis rates and abortion rates have suggested that sexual activity peaks during these two times of year. But most of these reports have looked at things that happen after people have sex. The new study added to what was known, the researchers said, by looking at behaviors that tend to occur in advance of sexual activity.

    The researchers analyzed the keywords used in Google searches in the U.S. between January 2006 and March 2011. They looked at searches that included certain keywords related to mate-seeking behaviors (such as "eHarmony" and "Match.com"), prostitution (such as "call girl" and "escort") and pornography (such as "porn" and "boobs"). As a control, they also looked at the number of searches for neutral keywords, such as "dog" and "windshield."

    For each keyword, they used an online tool that shows the percentage increase in searches relative to the normal amount.

    They found that searches for prostitution-related keywords increased by 2.78 percent, and mate-seeking searches increased by 5.67 percent above average during January and July. Searches for pornography increased 4.28 percent above average during December and June, according to the study.

    "Those somewhat small percentages represent a huge number of searches," Markey said, when you consider the millions of searches that are performed every day.

    The researchers noted that in analyzing their data, they had to throw out one particular outlier: searches related to prostitution showed "a dramatic 35 percent increase" in March 2008, they said. "Such an increase likely occurred because, on March 10, 2008, the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal began, which ultimately led to his resignation as governor of New York," they wrote.

    The study was published online July 19 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    Pass it on: Interest in sex peaks in the U.S. in early summer and early winter, a new study shows.

    FollowMyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

    11 Interesting Effects of Oxytocin
    7 Facts Women (And Men) Should Know About the Vagina
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    EPISODE ONE / 4 from Kustom Footwear on Vimeo.

    Indonesia's Mentawai Islands are legendary among surfers. Prime wave-riding season runs from May to September, and five lucky surfers are there to see who can pull the biggest, meanest, most whacked-out air. The winner will take home $50,000. Kustom Footwear just published the first of four webisodes featuring surfers Albee Layer, John John Florence, Chippa Wilson, Ryan Callinan and Matt Meloa. Other videos will go up in the coming weeks, and viewers will help decide who gets the big prize.

     

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    Aug. 2, 2012 (Updated 9:09 p.m. ET)

    NOAA

    MIAMI (AP) - Forecasters say Tropical Storm Ernesto is churning toward a string of islands in the Caribbean Sea and expected to pass near Barbados during the night.

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Thurdsay at 8 p.m. EDT that the storm was centered about 205 miles (330 kilometers) east of Barbados and headed west at about about 22 mph (35 kph). Tropical storm warnings are in effect for the islands of Barbados, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Martinique, Guadeloupe and the Grenadines.

    The storm has maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph). Its general track takes it toward Jamaica and could affect Cuba.

    Hurricane center meteorologist David Zelinsky says the storm is strengthening and could become a hurricane, but it's too soon to tell.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Aug. 3, 2012

    A sunset during an aerosol-ejecting Colorado wildfire in June 2012. (Brian Emory)

    By: Wynne Parry

    Nearly half of the tiny droplets and particles suspended high in the atmosphere over North America comes from other continents, an examination of satellite data reveals.

    "That is a big number: half. I wasn't expecting anything like that," study researcher Lorraine Remer of the University of Maryland says in a video released in conjunction with the new study on aerosols.

    Specifically, the research team found that 70.5 million tons (64 teragrams) of foreign aerosols - which include naturally occurring dust as well as pollution - arrive over North America every year. Meanwhile, people and natural processes in North America produce 76.1 million tons (69 teragrams) of aerosols on their own, or 52 percent of the total.

    There is another surprise as well: The research team, led by Hongbin Yu of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, found that most of the aerosols are naturally occurring dust, not man-made pollution such as sulfates produced by the combustion of fossil fuel.

    In fact, 88 percent of the foreign aerosols is dust carried across the Pacific Ocean. The remainder, according to the researchers, is either Saharan dust that traveled across the Atlantic Ocean or man-made aerosols, mostly from Asia but some from Europe. [Earth Quiz: Mysteries of the Blue Marble]

    If you are a resident of North America, it's unlikely you are breathing much of this stuff, because it arrives high in the atmosphere, not low over the ground.

    As dust travels east across the Pacific, the lowest-flying particles fall out. As a result, the elevated levels of dust show up between 1.2 and 3.7 miles (2 to 6 kilometers) above the water by the time the dust has reached the northeastern Pacific, the team writes in the Aug. 3 issue of the journal Science.

    This means North Americans still have control over the air they breathe, Remer says.

    "As it turns out, we should still keep focused on our own pollution in order to keep our air healthy, because the particles that come from other places come high," she says in the video released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science.

    Aerosols, particularly pollutants, have a cooling effect by blocking the sun's energy. The researchers write that imported aerosols are likely to have additional effects on North American climate, or instance, by altering cloud formation and precipitation.

    Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

    Top 10 Craziest Solutions to Global Warming
    The World's Weirdest Weather
    Image Gallery: Curious Clouds

    Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

     

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    The path and winds of Tropical Storm Ernesto at 9:20 a.m. ET. (NOAA)

    MIAMI (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto has passed over or near the island of St. Lucia and is moving into the eastern Caribbean sea.

    Ernesto's maximum sustained winds Friday are near 45 mph (75 kph) with some strengthening forecast over the next two days.

    A tropical storm warning is in effect for Dominica, St. Lucia and Martinique and Guadeloupe.

    The storm is centered about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west-southwest of St. Lucia and 25 miles (45 kilometers) west-northwest of St. Vincent. Ernesto is moving west near 24 mph (39 kph).

    Ernesto's current forecast track shows it possibly becoming a hurricane next week as it heads toward the Gulf of Mexico.


    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Updated Friday, Aug. 3, 8:21 p.m. ET


    ROSEAU, Dominica (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto is dumping heavy rain across the eastern Caribbean as it heads west toward Jamaica and Mexico.

    Dominica closed its international airport for a second day on Friday, while St. Lucia ordered businesses to close for half the day. A ferry that travels to Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia also has temporarily suspended service.

    No damage or flooding has been reported on islands affected by the storm. Gusts of up to 63 mph (101 kph) were reported in some areas.

    The National Hurricane Center said Ernesto was located about 210 miles (335 kilometers) west of St. Lucia by late afternoon with top sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph).

    It is moving at 21 mph (33 kph) and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane by Monday.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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  • 08/03/12--08:40: 12 Stunning Photos of Mars
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    Aug. 3, 2012


    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    By Alicia Change

    PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - Fascinated by NASA's latest Mars mission and planning to tune in?

    Well, good luck understanding the space agency's everyday lingo, which resembles a sort of Martian alphabet soup.

    In the highly specialized world of spacecraft engineering, there are many moving parts and pieces - not to mention processes. Names and descriptions are often reduced to acronyms and abbreviations, which are faster to string together in a sentence but can end up sounding downright alien.

    So if you want to know if MSL will nail the EDL and what it can do on different sols, you have to learn the language.

    Even speakers acknowledge the jargon is sometimes jarring.

    "It's kind of our own slang," explained Michael Watkins, mission manager of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars project set to land on Sunday night. "It's a shorthand way to talk about these very complicated systems."

    He added: "Even folks from other missions have no idea what we're talking about."

    There's no getting around the reality that NASA scientists and engineers are an acronym-phile bunch.

    Let's start with the rover's name. In the halls of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it's called MSL - short for Mars Science Laboratory. Spacecraft typically have technical names before being rechristened by the public through naming contests sponsored by NASA.

    For example: the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 were known as MER-A and MER-B for the longest time (MER is shorthand for Mars Exploration Rover.)

    MSL did not become Curiosity until 2009 when a sixth-grader from Kansas proposed the nickname. Still, there are some hard-cores who continue to use the scientific moniker.

    Curiosity is loaded with the most sophisticated instruments to study Mars' environment - with convoluted names to match. "Mastcam" refers to the pair of 2-megapixel color cameras on the rover's "head." ''SAM" - short for Sample Analysis at Mars - is the mobile chemistry lab designed to sniff for carbon compounds. "ChemCam" stands for Chemistry and Camera, otherwise known as the rock-zapping laser. And "RAD"? That's the radiation detector.

    Before Curiosity can start science experiments, it must first survive an intense EDL - entry, descent and landing - or as NASA has come to call it: Seven minutes of terror.

    Signals are received through the DSN, or Deep Space Network, a worldwide network of antenna dishes that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft. Nominal means A-OK. Not so for anomaly (translation: Houston, we have a problem.)

    The dizzying naming system even extends to time. It takes Earth 24 hours to spin on its axis - the definition of a day. Mars spins more slowly than Earth - taking 24 hours and 39 minutes. To distinguish between Earth and Mars time, a Martian day is called a sol, Latin for "sun." Yesterday on Mars is yestersol.

    Newcomers often find there's a steep curve to master the technical language.

    "It takes some time to pick it up," said Ken Farley, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who is participating on his first space mission.

    Luckily, Farley said new shorthand words are added to the mission's internal website.

    Before Spirit and Opportunity launched, cultural psychologists worked with scientists to come up with a better way to communicate. The rules of Mars-speak put in place back then still lives on today.

    JPL scientist Deborah Bass, who worked on that mission, said it's important to talk with precision. But she said it's also essential not to alienate fans.

    "We're so jazzed about what we do," Bass said. "We can forget that not everybody has the same fundamental background as we do."

    Nowhere will extraterrestrial vocabulary fly faster than in the JPL mission control room on landing day. If you find it hard to keep up, just look for the cheers - or tears.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 12 Stunning Photos of Mars

     

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    Saturday, Aug. 4, 10:36 a.m. ET

    ROSEAU, Dominica (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto blew across open waters Saturday on a projected path that would skirt Jamaica and hit Mexico after dumping heavy rain on islands in the eastern Caribbean.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto was expected to roll south of Jamaica as a hurricane Sunday afternoon. The forecast would carry it into the coastal resorts of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday.

    On Friday, Dominica closed its international airport for a second day, while St. Lucia ordered businesses to close for half the day as Ernesto swept through the area. A ferry that travels to Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia also temporarily suspended service.

    No damage or flooding was reported on islands affected by the storm.

    The hurricane center said Ernesto had maximum sustained winds of about 60 mph (95 kph) early Saturday. It was about 305 miles (490 kilometers) south-southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was moving westward at 18 mph (30 kph).

    Meanwhile, a new tropical storm, Florence, formed further out in the Atlantic. It had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph) and was about 330 miles (530 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands. The National Hurricane Center said it was not expected to reach hurricane force as it marches generally westward.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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